Archive for Friday, July 27, 2001

Some late summer reading

July 27, 2001


— So we approach the height of the summer reading season with this piece of good news: an e-book is not a book.

A federal court in Manhattan has just resolved the looming identity crisis of the publishing world. It ruled that "electronic digital signals sent over the Internet" are not, thank you very much, the same as "printed words on paper."

This is vindication for those of us who cannot imagine bringing a laptop to the hammock. And it's a reminder to those of us who are behind on our reading or, in my case, our reading lists to crack the books.

In that spirit, I belatedly offer my annual, personal list of books that have little in common except that I liked them and, as the judge said, they are sheets of paper, "fastened or bound together within covers."

Let us begin by going from the identity crisis of books to the midlife crises of heroines. First, meet Rebecca, the 54-year-old matriarch in Anne Tyler's "Back When We Were Grownups." Rebecca is holding together an oddball family and a dilapidated home business when she realizes "she was tired of acting nicer than her true self." She sets off to get in touch with the girl she was supposed to be and the man she was supposed to marry, carrying the reader right along.

Next, Kathleen, an Irish travel writer who "believed in passion the way other people believed in God." Author Nuala O'Faolain's writes about Kathleen's journey into history and herself in "My Dream of You." The story within her story mines some of the same themes from Irish repression to English oppression, from potato famine to feminism that captured an audience for her memoir, "Are You Somebody?"

Margaret Atwood has also written a novel surrounding its own novella in "The Blind Assassin." It's told as a memoir of Iris, the crusty 80-year-old sister of a woman who became a cult heroine when her own novel was published posthumously. This book is three parts fiction, one part science fiction, and enough Atwood to be both challenging and rewarding.

Kathryn Harrison's novel also deals with women across time and culture. "The Binding Chair: Or, A Visit from the Foot Emancipation Society," follows a Chinese aunt and her Australian niece across four decades and two continents. She writes about the dubious emancipation of women who struggle to be free of crippling rules.

Now for the "real world." Barbara Ehrenreich once wrote about middle-class "Fear of Falling" in a country with little safety net. In "Nickel and Dimed," she deliberately steps down the ladder and into the low-wage economy. Ehrenreich uses her sharp eye and edgy wit to report on her days as a waitress, a Wal-Mart employee and a nursing-home assistant. She was urine-tested, monitored, ignored, and just plain broke.

Nina Bernstein's fine reporting is more like archaeology. She searched down through layer after layer to show how the foster care system failed children, one generation after the next. "The Lost Children of Wilder" is a brilliant reconstruction of all the problems illuminated by a long-running lawsuit that makes Dickens' Jarndyce v. Jarndyce look swift and just.

More muckraking or maybe Big Mac-raking. Eric Schlosser's "Fast Food Nation" investigation will make you burger-orexic. To put it in simple, shrink-wrapped, flavorized terms, if we are what we eat, watch out.

Two memoirs captured my eye this year. The first of son and father was Bill McKibben's "Long Distance: A Year of Living Strenuously." It begins when McKibben takes a year off "from failing to save the world" and embraces the grueling regimen of a competitive cross-country skier. It ends when he learns from his father's dying that the example of "what it meant to be a man" had been "under my nose the whole time."

The second memoir of mother and adolescent daughter was Martha Tod Dudman's searing story of "Augusta, Gone." Without holding back an inch, Dudman describes her daughter's descent into teen-age hell and her own guilt, isolation and desperation. This is no self-help Chiclet, but unrelentingly honest.

And a half-memoir of daughter and father? Dava Sobel has written "Galileo's Daughter," using 124 letters by the scientist's cloistered and devoted daughter to entice the reader into great scientific arguments of Galileo's day. It's a dish that combines science and humanity, homemade candies and planets.

If you prefer a dish of black humor and marriage, Jane Shapiro's novel "The Dangerous Husband" starts out as a hip New York love story. Soon, the husband's endearing clumsiness becomes lethal and the marriage vow till death do us part looks like a possibility. Nevertheless, this marriage bears a sly resemblance to any union.

Finally, "The Wind Done Gone," Alice Randall's swift kick in the ankle of "Gone with the Wind." Her fictional rebuttal was brought to court for violating the copyright of the original. But it was released to the best-seller list.

In the end, this novel may have more fame as law than literature, but it's been that kind of a summer. To morph poetry and law, here's to a season in which a rose is a rose is a rose but an e-book is not blessedly a book.

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