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Archive for Monday, July 19, 2004

A politics-free reading list

July 19, 2004

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— And now we turn to our summer reading list. OK, our midsummer reading list. We are, blush, late with our report.

Indeed, we were reminded of our tardiness last week, when the National Endowment for the Arts reported ominously on the decline and fall of reading. Barely over half of Americans read any book at all this year. Was it something we didn't say?

Actually, we suspect that too many of the "big books" these days are political screeds instead of good reads. So herewith, as a public service, is a list neither blue nor red, but black and white and read all over.

First of all -- this should please the NEA -- we not only read books this year, we read books about books. The habit began when "Reading Lolita in Tehran" was still something of a cult activity. Azar Nafisi's literary and political memoir is about a clandestine reading group in Iran. In the midst of cultural revolution that "had wrecked our lives in the name of a dream," seven women found a sanctuary to talk about literature and life. And to pursue another freedom: the freedom to imagine.

"The Jane Austen Book Club" is not just any novel about novels. Karen Joy Fowler pays gentle homage to the sense and sensibility of Austen lovers everywhere with her story about the members of an all-Jane, all-the-time book club where everyone has "her own private Austen."

More Jane? A couple of years ago, Paula Marantz Cohen wrote "Jane Austen in Boca," a gentle and dead-on satire that played "Pride and Prejudice" in a Jewish retirement community in Florida. She followed it up this year with "Much Ado About Jessie Kaplan," a loving and mocking story about a suburban grandmother's growing conviction that she was the "Dark Lady" of the William Shakespeare sonnets in an earlier life.

The "Old School" in Tobias Wolff's novel is one of those Anglophile boarding schools where the central sport is a writing contest and the prize is a meeting with Robert Frost or Ernest Hemingway. Wolff turns to fiction -- or is it? -- in his elegant writing about deception, self-deception and a writer's coming of age.

Now a book about a bookseller. Asne Seierstad, a young Norwegian journalist, has written "The Bookseller of Kabul," an undercover look at the family life of a man who is a Westernized liberal, even a humanist by Afghan standards. But Seierstad, who lived with the family, portrays a world in which this "modern" man's word is law and "the belief in man's superiority was so ingrained that it was seldom questioned."

This year I was drawn again to a rash of novels about family life. First was Tom Perrotta's "Little Children," an unusual, authentic take on parenthood and the loneliness of a stay-at-home dad and a stay-at-home mom whose days of peanut butter and playgrounds "melt together like a bag of crayons left out in the sun." He writes about the dangers unleashed by "their refusal to accept unhappiness."

Next was Anne Tyler's latest novel, "The Amateur Marriage," about the family created by a profound mismatch. "By nature," she writes, "Pauline felt entitled to spill anything that came into her head while Michael measured out every word." Tyler is the perfect chronicler of dysfunction.

What happens when a good marriage is detonated? In Elizabeth Buchan's tale, a wife loses her job as well as her husband to the classic younger woman. But this "Revenge of the Middle-Aged Woman" isn't exactly vengeful. Her survival and their regrets are the best revenge.

Elizabeth Berg writes less about family wreckage than restoration in "The Art of Mending," a novel about the power of family secrets. "If you're careful," she writes, "the repair can actually add to the beauty of the thing because it is testimony to its worth."

"The Grandmothers" may be a family story in name only, but I was delighted to see that Doris Lessing hasn't mellowed in her 80s, only ripened. The four short novels work the themes of men and women, war and race, class and family, that have been her trademark since she left South Africa for Britain half a century ago.

Monica Ali is a new British novelist with a classic outsider's eye. In "Brick Lane," she guides us through a rich, unexplored territory -- the interior life of a Bangladeshi woman living in London. Her turf is fate and free will, and the choices facing a woman who was raised to believe she didn't have choices.

All right, so I promised a politics-free reading room, but how about some books that have more policy than partisanship?

Want to know why your family is struggling on two incomes when your parents made it on one? Mother and daughter co-authors, Elizabeth Warren and Amelia Warren Tyagi, have written a bleak, eye-opening explanation of "The Two-Income Trap." Hint: it's kids and the price of that house in a good school district.

"Moral Politics" has the P word in the title, but George Lakoff's way of linking politics to child-raising philosophies is still the best take on the family values debate. The conservative worldview, he writes, is based on "the strict father" model; the liberals use the "nurturant parent" model.

For that matter, "A History of God" by Karen Armstrong doesn't take political sides either. Her exploration of the idea of God over centuries and through religions is as useful today as it was in 1992 when she first wrote it.

Then again, how about a history of American secularism? Susan Jacoby's "Freethinkers" is a lively reminder that we're a "nation founded not on dreams of justice in heaven but on the best human hopes for a more just earth."

Having said that, I think I'll stick my nose back in a book.




Ellen Goodman is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.

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