A list for the hazy, humid months
by Robert David Sullivan
I'm embarrassed to admit how little time I spend reading
books during the spring. It always seems more important to get through
newspapers and magazines, e-mail and snail mail, the Oscar nominees at the
movie theaters, and the season
finales on television. Even when I do get the literary urge, there are book
reviews to catch up on, author appearances in town, and interviews with hot new
writers on NPR -- all distracting me from the business of actually reading a
book from cover to cover.
Thank God for summertime. It's suddenly okay to ignore phone calls for weeks
at a time, and the city becomes eerily quiet. I'm reminded of that Twilight
Zone episode where Burgess Meredith is the only survivor of a nuclear
attack and heads straight for the public library to read without interruption.
But I'm not waiting for Armageddon; I'll settle for a few afternoons at a
café without the usual mob of students, a rainy day on the Cape when
it's socially acceptable to stay indoors and flip pages, and a couple of
leisurely train rides to New York with a pile of books on the seat beside me
(all the illiterates take the shuttle).
Here are some of the books on my packing list this year -- mostly brand-new,
with a couple of leftovers from last summer. Feel free to copy the list, and
we'll have plenty to talk about this fall, when we're again too busy to read.
BOOKS FOR EFFICIENT PACKERS
Prize Stories 1998: The O. Henry Awards, edited by Larry
Dark (Anchor Books, 446 pages paperback, $11.95). Anthologies are perfect for
short attention spans and adventuresome appetites, both common in summertime.
This collection includes short stories by E. Annie Proulx, Alice Munro,
and Lorrie Moore -- and, for your edification and amusement, Don Zancanella's
tale about a traveling sideshow, "The Chimpanzees of Wyoming Territory."
The Pushcart Prize 1999: The Best of the Small Presses, edited
by Bill Henderson (Pushcart Press, 606 pages paperback, $15). The annual
anthology features 68 stories, essays, and poems from small presses and
magazines such as the Baffler and the Boston Review. Some of the
authors are well known (like Joyce Carol Oates and Andre Dubus); others are at
the beginning of their careers.
The Best American Sports Writing of the Century, edited by David
Halberstam and Glenn Stout (Houghton Mifflin, 512 pages hardcover, $30). Jimmy
Breslin, Norman Mailer, Hunter S. Thompson, John Updike, and many others
celebrate the achievements of people doing just about anything you can imagine
with a stick or a ball.
The Best American Short Stories of the Century, edited by John
Updike (Houghton Mifflin, 776 pages hardcover, $28). A bit heavy for carry-on
luggage but certainly compact, this is a greatest-hits volume from the annual
Best American Short Stories anthologies, which began in 1915. In
contrast to some of the "best books of the century" lists, this collection
doesn't skimp on recent works or female authors (such as Cynthia Ozick, Ann
Beattie, and Alice Munro). You'll also find such usual suspects as Hemingway,
Faulkner, and Cheever. My own favorite short story, Flannery O'Connor's "A Good
Man Is Hard To Find," is missing, but O'Connor is represented by a similarly
gory tale called "Greenleaf."
BOOKS THAT HIT A NERVE
Cries Unheard: Why Children Kill: The Story of Mary Bell, by
Gitta Sereny (Metropolitan Books, 382 pages hardcover, $26). Notwithstanding
the popular opinion that homicidal schoolkids are a recent American phenomenon,
Sereny examines a 1968 case in England where two girls (ages 11 and 13)
strangled two neighbor boys (ages three and four).
The Transparent Society: Will Technology Force Us To Choose Between
Privacy and Freedom? by David Brin (Perseus, 384 pages hardcover, $25).
Brin, known mostly as a science-fiction writer, argues that it might not be so
bad to have cameras and microphones in our parks, city streets, and other
public spaces. Watch for Brin's ideas to prompt heated debates on that
transparent medium called the Internet.
BOOKS FOR THE HOPELESSLY NOSTALGIC
Going Out: The Rise and Fall of Public Amusements, by David
Nasaw (Harvard University Press, 312 pages paperback, $16.95). Nasaw describes
the "tawdry, wild, and wonderful" amusement parks, movie palaces, and dance
halls of early-20th-century America -- and tells us why they couldn't last.
Our Dumb Century, edited by Scott Dikkers (Three Rivers Press,
164 pages paperback, $15). This irresistible combination of wit and bad taste
includes 164 fake front pages of the Onion newspaper, with headlines
such as WORLD'S LARGEST METAPHOR HITS ICEBERG (about the Titanic) and
the more recent `TEENY BABY' TREND BIG WITH INNER-CITY TEENS (Subhead:
LOW-BIRTH-WEIGHT INFANTS FUN TO COLLECT, SAY YOUTHS.) This will take you all
summer to read, assuming you don't mind the tiny type.
BOOKS FOR THOSE WHO'D RATHER READ ABOUT IT THAN DO IT
Sole Survivor: A Story of Record Endurance at Sea, by Ruthanne
Lum McCunn (Beacon Press, 240 pages, $12). Poon Lim, the only survivor from a
British ship sunk by the Germans in 1942, spent 133 days on a wooden raft
before he finally washed up on a shore in South America. Find out how he caught
fish and kept his sanity during the ordeal.
Other People's Dirt: A Housecleaner's Curious Adventures, by
Louise Rafkin (Plume, 208 pages paperback, $11.95). Cape Cod housecleaner (and
Phoenix contributor) Rafkin writes about her obnoxious clients and also
reports on a specialist in tidying up crime scenes, an organization called
Messies Anonymous, and a Japanese commune whose goal is to "clean the world."
BOOKS TO TAKE ALONG IF YOU DON'T WANT TO BE BOTHERED ON A PLANE, TRAIN, OR
The Book of the Penis, by Maggie Paley (Grove Press, 224 pages
hardcover, $20). The cover features a ruler and a fig leaf that can be lifted
to reveal. . . . Paley, a novelist (Bad Manners) and
playwright, took it upon herself to learn as much as possible about male
masturbation, piercings, Napoleon (his johnson is supposedly in the hands of a
New York urologist), and the eternal question "Does size matter?" Read the
results of her muckraking here.
Getting It On: A Condom Reader, edited by Mitch Roberson and
Julia Dubner. (Soho Press, 240 pages paperback, $15). T. Coraghessan
Boyle, Armistead Maupin, and Anne Rice are among the authors in this collection
of stories about an "artifact of contemporary civilization."
Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, by David Foster Wallace
(Little, Brown, 273 pages hardcover, $24). The author of the massive novel
(Infinite Jest) goes micro with this collection of stories ranging from
two to 20 pages. In "Forever Overhead," a 13-year-old boy is paralyzed with
fear atop a diving board; within the challenging syntax of "Tri-Stan: I Sold
Sissee Nar to Ecko," television programming becomes the stuff of mythology. The
unfriendly cover has a man with a paper bag over his head.
BOOKS THAT ARE BETTER THAN AN AIR-CONDITIONED MULTIPLEX
The Mammary Plays, by Paula Vogel (Theatre Communications Group,
187 pages paperback, $13.95). Vogel's Pulitzer Prize-winning play How I
Learned To Drive, about a teenage girl whose maturity level quickly passes
that of her lecherous uncle, is paired with her political satire The Mineola
Twins. Set along the winding roads of rural Maryland, Drive captures
the paradoxical nature of hot summer nights, at once liberating and
"Three Days of Rain" and Other Plays, by Richard Greenberg
(Grove Press, 464 pages paperback, $15). The psychological mystery Rain,
which was recently staged in Boston, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.
This collection also includes Greenberg's latest work, Hurrah at Last.
Between Us Girls, by Joe Orton (Grove Press, paperback, $12).
Yes, this is the same Joe Orton who was murdered 30 years ago. Before he
achieved fame as a playwright, he wrote this comic novel about an aspiring
actress who somehow winds up in the white-slave trade of Mexico. Long
unavailable, the book is being published by Grove in early July. Also this
summer, Grove will publish two of Orton's early plays: The Visitors and
Fred & Madge.
For the Relief of Unbearable Urges, by Nathan Englander (Knopf,
205 pages hardcover, $22). This highly praised collection of short stories
deals with the question of Jewish identity in unexpected ways. In "The
Tumblers," a group of Polish Jews in World War II, bound for a death camp,
are mistaken for circus performers and quickly try to learn acrobatics (a less
sentimental version of Life Is Beautiful, perhaps?). In "Reb Kringle,"
an Orthodox Jew reluctantly takes a job as a department-store Santa Claus, and
the result is no Christmas in July.
BOOKS FOR TRAVEL LOVERS STUCK AT HOME
A Stranger in the Village: Two Centuries of African-American Travel
Writing, edited by Farah J. Griffin and Cheryl J. Fish
(Beacon Press, 384 pages paperback, $16). James Baldwin writes about Paris, and
Audre Lorde drops a line from the Soviet Union. Other authors in this
collection of letters and diaries include W.E.B. Du Bois, Langston Hughes,
and Booker T. Washington.
The Meadowlands: Wilderness Adventures at the Edge of a City,
by Robert Sullivan (Scribner, 220 pages hardcover, $23). Sullivan (no relation)
undertook a brave expedition to the 32-square-mile swamp just off the New
Jersey turnpike, looking for such buried treasures as Jimmy Hoffa's body and
the rubble from New York's original Penn Station. In the process, he discovered
animals and people exotic enough to satisfy the most jaded globe trotter.
To the Ends of the Earth: The Selected Travels of Paul Theroux,
by Paul Theroux (Ivy Books, 358 pages paperback, $6.99). This compact and
satisfying book covers the novelist's journeys through Vietnam, Guatemala, the
Falkland Islands, and the New York subway system, among other places.
Timbuktu, by Paul Auster (Henry Holt, 160 pages hardcover,
$23). The author of the New York Trilogy and the screenplay for
Smoke presents a journey through America (and possibly the fabled land
of the title) as seen through the eyes of a dog named Mr. Bones.
BOOKS FOR THE WHOLE HOUSEHOLD
If I Can Cook/You Know God Can, by Ntozake
Shange (Beacon Press, 128 pages paperback, $12). Recipes for African-American
dishes such as "Cousin Eddie's Shark with Breadfruit" and "Collard Greens To
Bring You Money" are wrapped in folktales and history lessons.
Family Man, by Calvin Trillin (Farrar, Straus and
Giroux, 192 pages paperback, $11). The latest collection of essays by the
driest humor writer of our time focuses on the art of raising children.