There’s still some time for summer reading

BOSTON—Have you tried flying lately without taking John Grisham or Michael Crichton along? Were the people to the right of you reading “The Client” and the people to the left of you reading “Jurassic Park?” Did you feel like an unaccompanied minor?

These days, Grisham and Crichton together have seven books on the best-seller lists. It’s enough to make even an agnostic on Rush Limbaugh wonder if that’s “The Way Things Ought to Be.”

Indeed the teeny pantheon of authors at the top—add Barbara Bradford, Sue Grafton, Scott Turow, Robert Ludlum and mix—confirms the mild paranoia of an author friend who believes that there’s a pyramid scheme of publishing. No matter how many authors are published, the same hundred appear in every bookstore.

But this is no time of year to get cranky. Summer is not just a season after all. It’s an adjective. So in honor of Summer Reading, I again offer a Grisham-and-Crichton-free, entirely quirky, and thoroughly personal list of books that I just plain liked over the past months. Don’t leave home without one.

First of all, two novels written on the intimate scale of living rooms, not 767s. “Before and After,” is Rosellen Brown’s unflinching tragedy about what happens when a safe, even smug family is divided into its parts and members are tested according to values as different as loyalty and justice. When the fateful doorbell rings at the Reiser home, it’s to announce that their son may have killed a young girl in their small New Hampshire town. Suddenly, the father know instinctively “our life as a family, our single life as an eight-legged graceful animal alive under a single pelt, was over.”

Sue Miller’s “For Love” is a love story for the second act, when people come with children and ghosts, baggage and hopes. Lottie Gardner is a woman in the first year of an uneasy second marriage, with a 20-year-old son, a mother in a nursing home, and a brother in the throes of a love affair. This is the summer that she—and we—explore romance and excess, illusions and real love-life.

In contrast to this modern angst, a trip down “The Road to Wellville” may be just what the doctor ordered. T. Coraghessan Boyle has written a delicious and nutritious historic tale about turn-of-the-century Battle Creek, Mich., when John Harvey Kellogg rode the crest of the health craze. It’s a terrific antidote to the current oat bran brigade. We’ve been there before.

We’ve also been through the Fifties and I am not at all sure that I welcome the return. But they’re back. For serious readers, David Halberstam’s trek through the decade, “The Fifties,” stands as a reference book to read from the back—the index—forward.

But for the feel of the time, I would choose Calvin Trillin’s elegant memoir, essay, reflection—all of the above—called “Remembering Denny.” Trillin “remembers” the golden, smiling Yale classmate who was “a Rodes scholar, of course,” a man whose classic “unfulfilled promise” ended in suicide at age 55. In some ways this careful, evocative and elegant book is both an exploration and an example of the Fifties generation’s painful, don’t-get-too-close restraint.

Repression is a better word for the stifling atmosphere of Jeffery Eugenides’ Seventies suburb in his novel “The Virgin Suicides.” The narrators are middle-aged men still haunted by the suicides of the five Lisbon girls in a house that gradually “reached behind its mists of youth being choked off.”

Eugenides draws a spell in creating the atmosphere of near-madness around these young girls. But Susanna Kaysen breaks just such a spell. “Girl, Interrupted” is not a confessional book or an accusatory book. It is a literary work about the three years Kaysen spent in a private mental hospital. It’s about hospital life and its keepers. “As for finders,” she writes “well, we had to be our own finders.”

If you want to spend this summer reading ahead, Paul Kennedy’s book, “Preparing for the 21st Century” offers up some fairly sober food for advance thought. For personal preparation, however, I finally caught up with John Allen Paulos’ “Innumeracy”—a 1988 book that offers even the mathphobic a motive and method for learning her numbers. And if Bosnia, Somalia, Iraq are models, the world is likely to offer even more reason to read Michael Walzer’s classic work, “Just and Unjust Wars.”

Finally, about “Possessing the Secret of Joy.” I had something akin to approach-avoidance to this Alice Walker novel. It took me a year to get past the theme—genital mutilation—and open up the cover. Well, it’s tough, it’s powerful and deeply poetic. As one character said, “They do not want to hear what their children suffer. They’ve made the telling of suffering itself taboo.” Writing at its best, and Alice Walker at her best, breaks taboos.