Attacking this summer's reading list

Posted: Thursday, July 13, 2000

And so we return to the literary adventures of J.K. Rowling, the former welfare mom who has turned Harry Potter into the hottest Brit since John Lennon.

Even as we write, Ms. Rowling is crisscrossing Great Britain aboard the Hogwarts Express in her own personal publicity train. Meanwhile, some 3.8 million copies of the 734-page ``Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire'' are flying Quidditch-style out of the stores in the American colony.

The Wizard of a lad has single-handedly occupied three spaces on the New York Times best-selling fiction list. This has caused Ms. Rowling to rejoice, and other fiction writers to wring their hands. And it has, not incidentally, offered this writer an excuse for airing her very much belated summer reading list.

This annual list is based on an arbitrary selection of books read and enjoyed by one woman. But this year surely there is a cry by Muggles everywhere for books that are not by or about a wizard, a wrestler, or a World War II veteran.

So we begin with a parallel universe of another sort, the mid-20th century Africa recreated by Barbara Kingsolver. Those of us who beat Oprah in discovering ``The Poisonwood Bible'' met a fanatic American missionary at the head and center of a family of five females. Wearing blinders, Nathan Price walked his wife and daughters into the Congo where they - but not he - learned: ``Everything you're sure is right can be wrong in another place. Especially here.'' This is a tale of America and Africa, men and women, bending and breaking.

Anita Desai has written a cross-cultural book as well, but on a small, domestic scale. In ``Fasting, Feasting,'' she writes about stifling middle-class households in India and America. Desai not only shows the suffocation of an Indian daughter but how the language of food is spoken in two worlds.

If Desai writes from both the inside and the outside of India, Nathan Englander carries that same dual citizenship. His life, from his childhood as an orthodox Jewish New Yorker to his adulthood as a secular Israeli, infuses the tales in ``For the Relief of Unbearable Urges.'' With laser-clarity and yet compassion, Englander etches characters from an orthodox wigmaker to a wife trapped waiting for a religious divorce.

Rosellen Brown's latest novel is, by contrast, both cross-cultural and thoroughly American. At the heart of ``Half a Heart'' is a middle-aged former rebel comfortable with everything but her comfort. Years earlier, in the era of SNCC and black power she gave up her daughter to the girl's black father. The mother-child reunion, told in alternating voices, is about strong connections in a cultural cross fire.

Perhaps the most affecting of the family stories this year is the real one in Dave Eggers' memoir. At 21, he lost two parents to cancer in 32 days and became the slacker-superdad to his 8-year-old brother, all the while wearing his PTA membership and guilt on his sleeve. In this amphetamine rush of a book, parenting appears as ``A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius.''

As befits any millennium, the analysts are out in force this year. Jeremy Rifkin, the technological naysayer has turned his eye on ``The Age of Access.'' He takes on everything from Disney to car leasing and asks us to ``imagine a world where virtually every activity outside the confines of family relations is a paid-for experience.''

David Brooks is a bit more sanguine about the new world. ``Bobos in Paradise'' is ``comic sociology,'' a breezy stone of a book that skips along the surface hitting the right waves. He describes a new elite of bourgeois bohemians: ``people seemed to have combined the countercultural '60s and the achieving '80s into one social ethos.'' Welcome to cappuccino.com.

Robert Putnam's book is nowhere nearly that `lite'. ``Bowling Alone'' is a 400-page book plus a 100-page index that chronicles the way we've become a nation of strangers. There's a mine of rich material to back up his lament.

Want a second opinion about America? Try Dr. Jerome Groopman. His latest book on health care, literally called ``Second Opinions'' is a rich, sometimes moving sequence of eight clinical tales with one message. In an era when the doctor isn't God but rather a junior partner in medical care, think twice.

OK, you've had your medicine. It's Chiclet time. Reading ``Bridget Jones's Diary'' by Helen Fielding was a secret vice, kind of like watching ``Sex and the City.'' The sequel dubbed ``Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason'' is, well, a sequel. More Chiclets please.

Michael Cunningham's far more elegant main course of novel, ``The Hours,'' is not a sequel to Virginia Woolf. But he uses ``Mrs. Dalloway'' as text, context, subtext for a stunning tale woven from the interlocking lives of three women: Woolf herself in the 1930s, Laura Brown in the 1940s and Clarissa Vaughan in the 1990s. There are extraordinary moments, including the description of Laura's desperate attempt to transform a child's birthday cake into a fulfilling art.

Finally, last and eldest, ``Glorie.'' This is a intimate story of an eightysomething woman. Caryn James gets into the head of this woman who is trying to hang on to herself, her home, her dignity, and the memory of her husband. ``Glorie'' is currently 176,000th in sales on Amazon.com. But this is a novel quietly passed around from one middle-aged daughter to another as a reminder that old age is not for sissies. Or wizards.

Ellen Goodman is a columnist for the Boston Globe.



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