The Long, Hot Summer
Books to Spend Your Summer With
You know you're in for a long, hot summer when the weather has hit 100 degrees before the beginning of June. It's a drier heat, to be sure, but that blasted smoke from Mexico hasn't helped matters. Last month was one of the driest Mays on record. The only cure for the relentless heat sure to be ahead is self-indulgence and a good book.
So, go ahead. Pick up your favorite trashy romance or thriller author. We won't shun you, we'll only offer you some additional suggestions... Miss Manners, Cokie Roberts, an ape named Ishmael, nostalgia, better parenting, fun fiction, and offbeat museums, for starters. Cheers, jeers, fears, and tears. It's summertime and the readin' is easy. --Margaret Moser
For once and for all, we simply cannot abide you telling us, "I don't know the right thing to say." If all your drilling from your parents, your teachers, and other assorted elders have failed to address the specific circumstances that have left you embarrassingly tongue-tied, you now have the volume of Miss Manners' Basic Training series clearly entitled The Right Thing to Say (Crown, $17 hard), just so there is no confusion as to the content of the tome. In her articulate, precise, and screamingly funny style, Judith Martin provides, in bold type should you miss it otherwise, the right thing to say in just about every circumstance. What appears to have so many of us stumped is a two-fold problem: Some of us are under the impression that we are required to concoct an original response to routine situations while others are stupefied by the vulgarities we routinely encounter. Both of these plights are solved for us. Specifically. Using her now-familiar and successful format of topic introduction in an essay-type manner followed by actual questions addressed to Miss Manners and her response to said queries, Miss Manners provides the exact answers we seek. Now, it's up to us to practice these utterly correct and, perhaps even more importantly, utterly useful responses.
Why is it that in our society so inundated with psychobabble that we all have had ample practice in instructing our children to "use your words" or in prefacing interpersonal dialogues with, "I understand how you feel" comments, but we simply cannot make ourselves say, "Congratulations" on being informed of someone's good fortune? See, it's simple. Now, try this: "I'm afraid I won't be able to attend." Period. Their genius is in their simplicity. And I suspect that is what trips so many of us up. We think we sound phony, or insincere, or like we're lying when we leave it at that. In fact, as Miss Manners demonstrates, the opposite is true. It is when we try to "improve" upon time-tested discourse that we end up sounding like bumbling Neanderthals. As actors struggling to learn their lines will attest, it's infinitely easier to just memorize the text rather than attempting to rewrite the play every night off the top of your head. And so it is with social discourse. Now, you've been provided your script. You're expected to be off-book by Monday. -Barbara Chisholm
Author Richard Dooling ponders hefty issues of conscience, human motivations, and hate crimes in Brain Storm (Random House, $25 hard), his well-paced, scrupulously researched fourth novel. Dooling writes almost exhaustively on the particulars of law, computer technology, and neuroscience, and it's almost miraculous that such an intellectual endeavor manages to be so trashy. Or maybe it's the other way around.
Joseph Watson is the protagonist lawyer, appointed to defend James Whitlow, a man accused of killing his wife's deaf black lover. Watson, who has no previous trial experience, gave up his ambitions in criminal law and instead became a corporate research lawyer to accommodate his money-hungry wife, because he loves her breasts. Watson's quests for breasts is one of the central themes in the coming-of-age story of his initiation into criminal law. His own run-ins with conscience (extramarital sex and the illegal collection of a legal retainer) mirror what he is learning about his client from the sexy neuroscientist Rachel Palmquist, who is often (and unfortunately) referred to as the Brain Venus.
Palmquist devotes the small measure of her time that isn't occupied with strapping Watson down, brushing her Lycra-clad orb of a breast against his face, or spewing neurosexbabble into his ear to stating her case that conscience is an outdated notion for Watson's client and, by extension, him. Watson, a computer geek in the throes of being fired from his job, doing Internet research, having his wife leave him, and being threatened by thugs, keeps thinking things that get the reader embarrassed on his behalf: "[We're] Just a couple of high-end biological machines preparing to hot-dock with cable modems and access each other's front-end processors."
In a way, the book serves more than one audience: For those interested in the blow by blow of legal proceedings or the use of scientific evidence in court, the book will be compelling. For those simply interested in the blow by blow of Watson himself, you won't need a degree in science, law, or anything else to enjoy the book: Contextual clues suffice to tell the story. -Meredith Phillips
George Orwell once wrote that writers are driven primarily by an egotistical craving to see their thoughts and opinions expressed in print, no matter what nobler intentions they may profess. So imagine the lodes of self-righteous vanity that fueled newspaper editors in the Western pioneer settlements, where the exercise of free speech could earn you a pummeling or a bullet wound. Libel laws did not constrain these frontier publishers, but then again, courts seldom convicted anyone for shooting them.
In Red Blood and Black Ink: Journalism in the Old West (Knopf, $30 hard), David Dary argues for a reassessment of the contributions these pugnacious journalists made in settling the West, chronicling their fortunes, their crusades, and their eventual adoption of Eastern newspaper styles. But as a drowsy read on the front porch, the book's most engaging content is the acerbic, metaphorically rich language that Dary has rescued from the archives - likely some of the most free-spirited, unshackled commentary ever to be set in print. Disagreements over politics or competition with rival papers begat fusillades of personal insults, sometimes keenly barbed, other times astonishingly profuse. (Ever been called a crank-sided, blobber-lipped, snaggle-toothed, filthy-mouthed, box-ankled, reel-footed Black Republican? Or been pronounced "so fearfully low down and utterly despicable... that the very dogs... would pass him by, and cross a country writhing with agony, in search of a cleaner post"?)
The expert displays of calumny and vituperation flung about by these men (and women) inevitably lead to boisterous confrontations: shoot-outs in newsrooms, presses thrown bodily into rivers, and editors dipped in molasses and grass burrs. Dary occasionally finds humor amid the umbrage, however, such as the moonlighting newspaperman who, as the editorial writer for rival crosstown newspapers, would assail his own character from one pulpit and then respond in kind from the other.
Of course, this book is not all spittin', cursin', and fightin', since Dary is, after all, out to show how newspaper editors engaged the more sober, everyday lives of their readers. Then as now, gossip columns, humorous anecdotes, and other "puff" pieces were often crucial ingredients for a paper's survival. Academic historians, however, have largely ignored Old West newspapers, an oversight Dary attributes to prejudiced disregard for journalists who did not conform with today's standards of objectivity or political correctness. But anyone who appreciates virile wit, colorful metaphor, and cantankerous polemic will thank Dary for mining this neglected era of journalism, rough edges and all.
Leaving a Doll's House (Little, Brown & Co., $13.95 paper), the title of Claire Bloom's latest memoir (she wrote an apparently less candid memoir some years back titled Limelight and After) gives the reader the false sense of security that this is the story of a woman who frees herself from the boundaries and servitude of her existence. In reality this juicy, if somewhat polite, tell-all has the repetitive chorus in Bloom's personal life of: Nit-Wit Woman, Moronic Choices. This autobiography recounts the parade of great roles (which she recalls with professionalism and tact) and the far more incredible parade of notorious men. While the cast of characters ensure a gossip-monger's interest (Richard Burton, Laurence Olivier, Rod Steiger, Yul Brenner) what emerges as the most incredible aspect of these alliances is the repetitiveness of the monumentally stupid choices this dame makes. Claire Bloom makes A Doll's House's Nora look like Betty Friedan. Bloom uses the wisdom learned in these many dalliances in her most notable relationship: that with über-author Phillip Roth. But one has to sympathize with her: How could she possibly know what a misogynistic psychopath he would turn out to be when her only clues were Roth's insistence that Bloom throw her daughter out of Bloom's house because he couldn't stand to live with the daughter (Bloom obliges), and his novel Deception which features a "remarkably uninteresting, middle-aged wife, who, as described, is nothing better than an ever-spouting fountain of tears" who happens to be an actress named Claire and who is repeatedly betrayed by the promiscuous writer Roth names Phillip while living in the house owned by Claire which he shares with her family he describes as self-hating? And Bloom displays her sensitivity by proclaiming she understood and sympathized with her daughter's hurt and anger at being turned out of her own home by her own mother at a dipshit boyfriend's insistence. I guess that daughter is the sensitive type.
While all these carryings-on will leave you slack-jawed with incredulity, they will also have you turning those pages. What could possibly be next? Bloom's writing style, while dishing all this sordid dirt, is paradoxically ladylike. Her trashing of Roth has none of the scorch-earth policy Julia Phillips undertook in her Hollywood memoir You'll Never Eat Lunch in This Town Again. An ideal Barton Springs read, this memoir leaves the reader with that heavenly feeling of smug, self-righteous indignation. -Barbara Chisholm
In Ruth L. Ozeki's My Year of Meats (Viking, $23.95 hard), Japanese-American would-be documentary auteur Jane Takagi-Little is the director of My American Wife!, a television show intended for Japanese consumption and sponsored by an American beef consortium, Beef-Ex. With unintentional hilarity, My American Wife! showcases a different wife and a different meat recipe ("Pork is Possible but Beef is Best") in a different region of America each week. Watching the show in Japan are millions of housewives like Akiko Ueno. Akiko, abused spouse of Beef-Ex advertising executive Joichi "John Wayne" Ueno, watches each episode of My American Wife!, dutifully grading it for Authenticity, Wholesomeness, and Deliciousness of Meat. Between these two characters lies a whole world of women, a world that includes cheated-on Idaho housewives, 10th-century Japanese novelists, and aging Texas beauty queens.
Out of this cast of thousands, documentary filmmaker Ruth L. Ozeki has in her first novel created a story that is by turns funny, wrenching, and ultimately emotionally healing. My Year of Meats, is, in short, damn fine and has much to recommend it, not the least of which are its two main characters. Jane Takagi-Little is tough, generous hearted, and always believable in her attempts to follow her own moral compass. The interludes with her counterpart Akiko are almost too painful to read. But the author gifts Akiko with an engaging, if nascent, sense of the ridiculous and a fair measure of courage, making her one of the more likable characters in the book. Ozeki uses a keen sense of story and pacing to shift smoothly from Akiko's point of view to Jane's. Even though these two characters have no contact until the middle of the novel, Ozeki skillfully uses episodes of My American Wife!, which Jane directs and Akiko watches, as well as excerpts from The Pillow Book by 10th-century author Sei Shonagon, as mutual points of reference between these two divergent storylines. Along the way, she also works in unexpected asides from minor characters and the occasional well-timed flashback. It's a risky stratagem, but it works. What could be confusing is instead bracing, and never esoteric or obscure.
My Year of Meats deals with the film and television industry, which means that it deals with the hipper-than-hip world of images. And yet, just like its main voice, Jane Takagi-Little, My Year of Meats is hip on the outside but romantically and idealistically passionate on the inside. Ozeki manages to inform the public of some of the meat industry's nastier secrets and at the same time meditate on the larger implications of love, sex, and fertility in the latter part of the 20th century. No mean feat, that. Of course, I'd be fibbing if I didn't note some of My Year of Meats' weak points: Ozeki seems unwilling to examine the dynamics of her major male-female relationship too closely, and there are points in the narrative that feel a little contrived, either for the purpose of laughs or the purpose of tugging on a reader's heartstrings. But the book as a whole is so generous, is so bent upon giving its readers so much in the way of ebullient characters, buoyant life, and a vital story, that its weaker points are easy to forgive. My Year of Meats is an open-handed gift, a nervy kick in the pants, a warm embrace from a stranger who somehow knows you very well indeed. -Barbara Strickland
Deviance comes in all forms, the most compelling being those unrestrained, imaginative impulses that have contributed thousands of little museums, strange museums, and unofficial museums to the American cultural landscape. Containing the obsessions of the passionate collector, these cathedrals of excess testify to the unbridled power of Pack Rat Fever.
Little Museums: Over 1,000 Small (and Not-So-Small) American Showplaces by Lynne Arany and Archie Hobson (Henry Holt, $17.95 paper) lists over 1,000 tiny and decidedly unofficial museums around the United States. Organized by state, the authors provide a brief description, hours of operation, and contact information. As a comprehensive reference manual and travel tool, Little Museums should be on the dashboard of every quirky cross-country wanderer.
However, the authors omit their own point of view in favor of objective descriptive blurbs. So there is really no way to know whether it would be worth the trip, say, to exit the New Jersey Turnpike and visit the Trash Museum which lays out the natural/unnatural history of the New Jersey Meadowlands or if the Cockroach Hall of Fame in Plano would beckon louder. But, then, what might be heaven for the authors could be hell for you.
For Austinites, Little Museums offers several destinations offering intriguing introductions to these public displays of personal obsession which often illuminate the curator's psychology more brightly than the histories displayed. In San Antonio, anthropologists of the extraordinariness of everyday life can check out Barney Smith's Toilet Seat Museum or the Buckhorn Hall of Horns; the Church of Anti-Oppression Folk Art; the Hertzberg Circus Collection; and the Magic Lantern Castle Museum.
The type of traveler who always takes too long to get somewhere, who rejoices in getting lost, and who strikes up conversations with anyone who promises a good story will delight in the crap shoot that Little Museums offers.
If you're a Janis Joplin fan, you'll be heartened to know that Port Arthur's Museum of the Gulf Coast boasts a shrine of Janis stuff, from spiritual childhood artwork to her stage attire and memorabilia. Some might say that having shunned her as an outcast and a disgrace, Port Arthur should erect a more significant monument - on the scale of, say, Mount Rushmore. But that sort of opinionated interpretation will have to be made by the reader who actually visits the listed sites. -Ellen Spiro
Kate Summerscale's The Queen of Whale Cay (Viking, $21.95 hard) is the slim, hilarious, and fascinating biography of "Joe" Carstairs, a wealthy British heiress to the Standard Oil fortune who claimed when she grew up that she didn't know her parents' names. She was once the world's fastest woman on water, counted the Duchess of Windsor and Marlene Dietrich among her friends (though Dietrich was something more than a "friend"), and was obsessively devoted to her little leather doll Lord Tod Wadley. That rare heir who is nonetheless a relentless entrepreneur, Carstairs said goodbye to England in 1934 and bought Whale Cay, one of the Bahama's Out Islands, after she saw an ad in an American newspaper. She bought the nine-mile-wide by four-mile-long island for $40,000. But then perhaps defining Carstairs by her actions isn't right for someone for whom "the question of quite what she was never seemed to concern [her]: she knew that she was something else, and that delighted her."
When she took possession of Whale Cay, she was not the first foreigner to try and tame it. She hired seven men from Nassau to lay down a road, and worked right alongside them. "I don't think anything is worthwhile unless you fight for it," is how Carstairs saw the world. For example, one morning while laying down that road, Carstairs and her men saw a snake. In fact, they were all eating lunch "when she slipped a knife from her belt and hurled it at a snake. `And by God I cut that goddamn snake's head right off.' The men were deeply impressed, and from then on all the islanders called Joe `The Boss.'" You can bet they did because "when the island dog, John, died, Joe had him stuffed and put in the museum. She occasionally threatened her employees with a similar fate." She wasn't just an autocratic ruler of her Banana Republic, though; she was able "immediately to forget wrongs done her," and she was financially generous to many friends, lovers, and former employees and their families, providing them all with annual incomes.
Carstairs is a figure who lurks about in cultural shadows: Here she is driving ambulances in WWI Paris, probably running into Hemingway; there she is having an affair with Marlene Dietrich or Dolly Wilde, Oscar Wilde's niece. She offered her ships to the American and British navies during WWII. She instituted the paternalistic and misguided Colored League of Youth, which attempted to teach Carstair's employees and the entire black Bahamian youth population the virtue of self-improvement. She's a contradictory person whose "projects were so outlandish that they took her beyond fame and notoriety to obscurity." Just the kind of life that absolutely merits the close and spirited examination given it by Summerscale. -Claiborne Smith
Now that we're old enough to be nostalgic, it's good to have a book like Retro Hell: Life in the '70s and '80s, From Afros to Zotz (Little, Brown & Co., $12.95 paper) around. Compiled by the authors of the popular zine Ben Is Dead, Retro Hell is an amusing encyclopedia of such essential pop culture artifacts as: birthstone rings, Pop Rocks, "James at 15," Dynamite magazine, Shields & Yarnell, and much more.
The book must have been a blast to make, with each major entry including brief editorial asides from the editors. In Retro Hell you'll find reverent descriptions of icons like Bigfoot, the Planet of the Apes films, the "ABC After-School Special" and Casey Kasem's "American Top 40." You'll also be pleased to find such forgotten faves as Sid and Marty Krofft, painter's pants, Wacky Packages, and "calculator games" (who can forget the can't-fail "shelloil" joke?).
Put to the test, this is a fairly exhaustive collection. Although Retro Hell includes no dedicated entries for Evel Knievel, the Hudson Brothers, the "John 3:16" Guy, or CBS' "In the News" with Christopher Glenn, all of these and other essential pop references do indeed turn up inside other listings. As for the annotated remarks, sometimes they're right on the money (the entry for Sara T - Portrait of a Teenage Alcoholic is perfect) but beware - they're generally more personal than factual, so be prepared to run across entries that are unfunny or that just plain don't belong here (lame entries regarding "best friends" and "thumb sucking" come to mind).
If you're between the ages of 25 and 39, you'll find Retro Hell to be an entertaining but uneven trip back to your own childhood. This collection is a meandering, good read that - to be great - would have only needed an editor who'd have cut the weaker material and made damn sure Bert Convy made it in.
Forget King Kong. Forget Joe Young. Forget Peter Tork. The mightiest maven of hermeneutical philosophical mayhem is Daniel Quinn's great simian Socrates, Ishmael, the gentle anarchist prophet of ecological disaster. The hero of Quinn's Ted Turner's $500,00 Tomorrow Fellowship Award is back in a sequel that offers yet more startling interpretations of the origins of our cultural morass. Ishmael, published in 1992, offered a brilliant reinterpretation of the Cain and Abel Genesis story. In that dialogic novel the great ape posited, more or less, that the agricultural revolution was the true culprit in the Genesis story. Quinn convincingly argues that the spread of agriculturalism's one-way paradigm destroyed the hunter-gatherer paradise that had more than sufficed as a meaningful way of life for humanity for countless thousands of years. The novel is now taught in schools and on campuses throughout the world and has been translated into nearly a dozen languages. It has spawned any number of discussion groups and Quinn recently moved from Austin to Houston to better coordinate the series of seminars he conducts on how to change the world using the principles established in Ishmael and now this current book.
Quinn's My Ishmael: A Sequel (Bantam, $23.95 hard) isn't so much a sequel as a simultaneous other story that takes place alongside the original. Between visits from the original student, Alan Lomax, Ishmael takes on a 12-year-old girl named Julie Gerchak, the precocious daughter of a divorced alcoholic mother. But just like Ishmael, plot line really isn't an issue. Sure, he provides a more satisfying ending than the original which, for all its play as a positive solution to global problems, was really quite the downer, but essentially we're talking a Socratic dialogue here with the ape as Socrates and Julie as a latchkey Plato. It is nonetheless as nail-biting a page-turner as any contemporary bestseller. More, it provides the kind of reasoned, accessible critique of our hell-bent-for-Armageddon culture as you're ever likely to get. Written in an amazingly clear and concise manner, My Ismael will appeal to a proto-Marxist Chomsky critic as well as the inner-city gang-bangers for whom Quinn has an abiding affection.
But therein lies a problem. Ishmael had some critics, but environmental concerns are much more politically safe these days. We still have much work to do but everyone can agree we need a planet to survive. In My Ishmael Quinn takes on the educational system (abolish it), the law ("Thou Shalt Not" will never work), economics (when they locked up the food we lost our freedom), and religion (all of the major religions are based on food lock-up and "Thou Shalt Not"). He also slags the New-Age healers and those who believe the natural state of man is to suffer.
This ape sets up a sacred cow shooting gallery and pops 'em one by one with a clarity that is frightening. Most frightening of all - drum roll, please - he doesn't offer a prescribed solution. He doesn't say computers or capitalism or consumerism are bad; he doesn't say we have to give up anything. In fact, we should ask for more of what we've lost in this agricultural exchange: more sanity, more safety, more community, more giving, more choices, more dialogue. This is one radical ape Quinn has unleashed on the world.
Still, I'm reminded of Quinn's joke about the man who jumps off the Empire State Building. As the man passes every floor he says to the people staring from their windows: So far so good, so far so good. That man is our culture and the ape is trying to teach us how to build an airplane before we hit the pavement. So far so good, so far so good. - Ric Williams The Man Who Stole the Mona Lisa by Robert Noah (St. Martin's, $22.95 hard) is an imaginative, fast and loose adventure through the circumstances that might have led to the Da Vinci painting's famous theft. Our hero in question is the Marquis de Valfierno, a rogue and small-time grifter who has fashioned himself into faux loyalty out of the rubble of his lower-class birth. Charismatic and unscrupulous, he makes his erratic fortune by passing off imitation masterpieces for the real and stolen things. This he accomplishes with the assistance of Yves Chaudron, a failed artist who must find glory in shamelessly, yet flawlessly, mimicking the inspired masters.
Predictably, the Marquis is indeed the brainchild behind the mysterious, seemingly motiveless two-year capture of da Vinci's master work from the Louvre. In broad, comic strokes, Noah paints the years leading up to the improbable heist as well as the cast of eccentric characters that join him in his epic foray. But Noah's tale is less a story of art history or criminal intrigue than a gentle nudge at human fallibility. With every caper, the Marquis is able to convince powerful men of seemingly impossible things, not because he is an expert in his field (he isn't), but simply because their need to believe in each artwork's authenticity and their own tendency to pretend to know more than they do. Like any swindler, the Marquis knows a stroke of luck is just as effective as stroking the human ego.
But Noah also calls into question the somewhat arbitrary values we place on art - if the power of a piece of artwork comes in its suggestion of the infinite, or in its breathtaking hold on the truth, why aren't Chaudron's knock-offs as valuable as the real thing? Especially if they grant the same pride and awesome potency of the original. Imminently readable, full of goofy escapades and clever twists, The Man Who Stole the Mona Lisa is a poke at human vanity that feels just right.
- Sarah Hepola
I did not want to know this about Cokie Roberts. To my mind, Cokie is an erudite goddess of careerism and effete graces. I had followed her, proudly, from National Public Radio to ABC News and finally to Sunday's This Week talk-o-rama. I had rooted for her against those crying "sellout" when her speaking fees reached the tens of thousands. I believed in Cokie. And if it weren't for this sopping memoir with the patronizing title We Are Our Mother's Daughters (William Morrow, $19.95 hard) I might have remained rapturously ignorant.
First of all, it turns out Cokie is no kind of self-made woman. She's got D.C. blue-blooded credentials going back generations and drops phrases such as "At a party my parents gave for Lynda Johnson's wedding..." like stinkbombs. Basically, when Cokie graduated Wellesley there was no trouble finding a Washington internship, and she probably didn't have to sleep with LBJ to get it. So shattered my up-by-the-old-bootstraps Women's Movement mythos.
Worse still is her well-greased grade toward what can only in 1998 be called A Quaint Feminism. No doubt in a study lined with partly charred and tastefully framed brassieres she has written possibly, hopefully, the last of the self-congratulatory, man-hating tomes. The best image of the whole sticky mess is a tear-jerker about the natural history museum in Marathon, Greece (where the family summers, by the by) which she uses to alpha and omega her personal philosophy. Full of ancient needles, buttons, and frying pans inexplicably symbolic of the "great strength of women," the museum stirs in Cokie a harpy's shriek. "What was left from the lives of the men? Objects of war and... of worship, recognizable for soldiers and priests," which give none of the continuity connecting women throughout time by a sisterhood of what? Needles and buttons? Dear Cokie, next time confine your archeological ruminating to the arcana with which you are so obviously intimate - the Seventies. -Kayte VanScoy
"As Mrs. Stewart darkly observed her family, the hotel, the guests, the staff, and the entire state of Virginia... she found that turmoil and disintegration were as usual predominating." So goes a signature line from Nancy Lemann's recent novel The Fiery Pantheon (Scribner, $22 hard), a slyly comic book in which damn near every character is craven, feckless, ignoble, tragic, hopeless, or doomed, and every empire on the verge of collapse. It is around such lost souls (and fallen empires) that The Fiery Pantheon revolves: Mrs. Stewart, with her morbid psychoanalysis and love of disaster; the romantic Grace, smitten by the indisputably honorable and utterly tragic; and the young businessman Walter, perhaps most lost among the lost souls, who smolders aimlessly throughout the book's global itinerary. Even the hotel orchestras are lost, stocked with "fascinating tortured Europeans" whose modest attempts at Cuban rumbas are "overladen with Hungarian melancholy."
It is also against such a backdrop of elegant ruin that Lemann unleashes her buoyant prose and trademark wit, bringing with her an unassuming air and a devilish perception of Southern idiosyncrasy. Indeed, it is Lemann's well-crafted prose, possessed of a comic redundancy and a fondness for improper proper nouns (Crusty Old Bastards, for example, or Wild Brooding Agony) that is the selling point of The Fiery Pantheon.
The book fairly floats on top of her fresh and often manic writing - enough so that it is easily possible to get well into the second half of the book before realizing that it's a bit thin on both plot and character development. Without those structural supports, The Fiery Pantheon becomes not much more than a clever exercise, its appeal fading about the time the lost souls embark on a whirlwind tour of famous fallen empires. Some needless globe-hopping ensues - as if Lemann had been to a lot of odd places and wanted to publish her witty opinions of same - and the romantic imbroglio than enlivens the first half of the book peters out a tad lamely. The last 30 pages proceed seemingly without purpose before Lemann manages a quick knot from the loose ends. Give Lemann more credit for language than for plot - but to her credit, that language alone is enough to make The Fiery Pantheon a suitably amusing read.
Even less amusing is Reynolds Price's dour old bag of a novel Roxanna Slade (Scribner, $25 hard), a book almost as dark as Lemann's but twice as long and without the sense of humor. Roxanna Slade has a great first sentence ("Every time somebody calls me a saint, I repeat my name and tell them no saint was ever named Roxy"), but descends from there into an often trudging tale of loss and compromise, told from the vantage-point of the ninetysomething Roxanna Slade. If Mrs. Stewart's doom-laden but witty observations about Virginians are the tagline for The Fiery Pantheon, Roxanna Slade's is provided by a dress-making spinster named Betsy: "wait'll you taste how cruel God can get." In among some rather windy passages about nothing at all, Price seems determined to lay bare that cruelty, inventing a lead character beset by common tragedies that leave her depressed and often tormented, "teased out of the crowd by a long hot finger," in her own words, and "fried in anguish." Despite Slade's admirable stoicism, keen observations on race, and a fine line about biscuits, Roxanna Slade is a generally somber, often boring, and altogether serious book, given to italicized moralizing and theological hand-wringing. Heaven help us.
Price seems to realize as much: Not quite midway through Roxanna Slade, the titular narrator begins apologizing for her somewhat uneventful life story, admitting that her life is more a "drab-colored village event" than "the official state fair with charming lights and music and giants." Oh, but what if it had been the official state fair, with music and giants and cotton candy and Tilt-O-Whirls and common carnival trash and too many cherry Slushees and quick stolen kisses behind the 4-H bleachers? Why, then we'd have a summer novel on our hands. Instead, we're fried in anguish, just waitin' to see how cruel God can get, unwilling participants in a drab-colored village event. If you must read it, wait 'til October. -Jay Hardwig
Set A Patchwork Planet by Anne Tyler (Knopf, $24, hard) on top of your summer reading list and visit it as fast as you can. It's gracefully written, easy to get into, and as engrossing as her recent Ladder of Years and Saint Maybe. Tyler, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1988 for Breathing Lessons, doesn't use shock tactics and improbable plotlines to make her point - she puts human emotions under a microscope.
Planet's narrator is a 29-year-old former juvenile delinquent named Barnaby Gaitlin. He calls himself "the oldest living undergraduate" and works for Rent-A-Back. This is an organization that provides elderly citizens strong backs for difficult tasks. Barnaby's parents think that he is still "finding himself."
Barnaby's career as a manual laborer is an embarrassment for his absurdly wealthy Baltimore family. Barnaby's only assets are a run-down Corvette Sting Ray, an ex-wife who despises him, and a daughter he barely knows. His family is anxious to welcome their black sheep back into the flock with a job at the family philanthropy, The Gaitlin Foundation. That notion is anathema to Barnaby, who wants no part of a daily suit and tie.
As a juvie, Barnaby was infamous for breaking and rifling. He broke in but skipped the liquor and valuables. Instead, he read diaries and love letters and looked through family photo albums; he pocketed baby pictures instead of baubles. Barnaby's mother still can't forgive him for embarrassing her in front of the neighbors even though his years as a delinquent are far behind him. When the book opens, Barnaby is slacking and waiting for his angel. This wait isn't the result of reading too many new-age self-help books; Barnaby's angel is a hundred-year-old family tradition. To find his angel he follows a blond woman in a feather print coat that he spies on the train to Philadelphia. To tell more would give away the plot.
An intensely satisfying book, A Patchwork Planet is already on the New York Times Bestseller List. And deservedly so.
In contrast to the polished and well-executed Planet, The Student Body (Villard, $23 hard), written by a committee known as Jane Harvard, is dreck. If only the publisher had sent them one of those skinny rejection envelopes!
Jane Harvard consists of four Harvard graduates of the class of 1986, and it's easy to understand why they've published under an alias. While you don't have to admire the book, you do have to admire their collective achievement, as the book shows few signs of its multiple creators. Inspired by a real-life prostitution scandal at Brown University in 1986, the group started writing a book to pay off their student loans and to entertain themselves. They should have stuck to selling plasma and drinking beer.
The Student Body is a Harvard-obsessed mediocre thriller that nonetheless has an engaging premise: A prostitution ring is staffed by Harvard coeds and perhaps even condoned by the financial portfolio committee of the Harvard administration. What an administration! Not only do they stand in the way of good journalism, they look the other way when a biomedical firm they're investing in tests a virility drug via the special "Veritas" condoms that the coeds assiduously apply to their mates. Truth and Viagra, after all, are what work.
Problems with The Student Body include the assumption that the reader needs no introduction to Harvard particularities and traditions, characters pulled from a literary paint-by-numbers, and authors who have forgotten the old saw of "show, don't tell." The most memorable scene, though, is an amorous encounter between the African-American narrator Toni and her Boston Brahmin babe Cabot. The supporting character Cabot is the most engaging and appealing figure in the book, perhaps because he was never explained with a heavy hand. The only thing I took from plowing through The Student Body was a crush on the fictional Cabot. Look for it soon on remainder tables everywhere. -Anna Hanks
If you're a new mother (or a mother-to-be) it means you are reading, reading, reading everything you can get your hands on about pregnancy and parenting. But if you're not white, married, professional, heterosexual, and/or middle class, honey, you are out of luck when it comes to finding material that's geared toward you. My own current favorite "mommy" writer, Child magazine columnist Vicki Iovine (of the really fabulous Girlfriends' guides to pregnancy and motherhood), as funny as she is, speaks from a purely Suburban-driving, personal-trainer-using, nanny-hiring point of view. Even the What to Expect... "bibles" of baby-making and baby-rearing are aimed mostly at the sensibilities of Granola Mommy and Daddy - and although full of good answers, they're deadly dull to read.
But Ariel Gore, publisher of the alternative parenting zine Hip Mama and a 28-year-old single mother of one, is filling that gaping-wide niche with aplomb. Her Hip Mama Survival Guide (Hyperion, $12.95 paper), is an unapologetic manifesto for mothers who'd probably sooner slash the tires of a Suburban than ride in one. Gore wittily handles the usual motherhood dilemmas, such as staying sane during pregnancy ("Don't hang out with anyone who makes you feel like shit"), breast-feeding ("Remove your nipple rings"), and coping with toddler tantrums ("Call your local loser politician and scream in his answering machine about his latest pathetic move").
But where Hip Mama really excels is in areas where the other parenting manuals do not tread - such as debunking the whole "family values" myth, confronting depression and neurosis, combating poverty, and riding through divorce and child custody battles. Gore's description of her blood-boiling encounter with Newt Gingrich when she was a panelist on MTV is priceless, for example. For all his talk of initiating dialogue with the American people about welfare and family values, Gore realizes that Gingrich's garrulousness is the real weapon. "With Professor Gingrich there is no debate. There is only education," she writes.
Appropriately enough, then, Gore (a former welfare recipient) offers some smart strategies for ensuring one's eligibility for public assistance (always say you know no one to help you), eluding creditors (kite a check if you have to), and coming up with quick cash (return that clothing from J. Crew, no matter how long ago you bought it). No, Gore's delightful book is for bike-riding "mamas," not Suburban-driving mommies. As her own hippie parents probably used to say, "Right on, sister." - Roseana Auten Feel like catching up on your murder-mystery lag? Here's three books from ongoing mystery series that you won't want to miss. Against the Brotherhood by Quinn Fawcett (Forge, $23.95 hard) is a new addition to the Sherlock Holmes canon. To avoid the wrath of Sir Author Conan Doyle's fans, the hero is Mycroft Holmes, Sherlock's older, smarter brother. Fawcett's addendum to the Sherlock Smorgasbord, the first in a planned series of Mycroft Holmes novels, has been authorized by Dame Jean Conan Doyle, the first time such a favor has ever been granted. I've never been a big fan of the Sherlock Holmes stories. PBS' Sherlock is a brilliantly British but infernally conceited twit who is a damn sight too smug for me. He comes off like that smarmy truant with a 1600 on his SATs. His older brother Mycroft is the same way, smarter than the reader, and he can't wait to rub it in. Mycroft comes up with just as improbable conclusions as Sherlock does. Theirs is a world in which a detective can infer a wealth of facts based, say, on a spoon sticking out of a waistcoat pocket. This isn't detective work; it's voodoo.
Against the Brotherhood is narrated by two minions of Mycroft, his butler and new secretary. Burdened with the name Patterson Erskine Guthrie, his secretary is nonetheless perfectly likable. Guthrie has lucked into a job with Mycroft shortly after leaving school: one hell of an entry-level coup. Like a Victorian James Bond tale, Against the Brotherhood is a busy novel filled with unlikely connections, plots to take over the world, beautiful and dangerous women, and Victorian special effects, which means that Mycroft injects a temporary tattoo that Mycroft injects under Guthrie's skin. This tattoo allows Guthrie to pass muster as a member of the evil brotherhood.
In contrast to this studied business is Dreaming of the Bones by Deborah Crombie (Scribner, $22 hard). This altogether more poetic Duncan Kincaid/Gemma James novel is concerned with murders both new and old. Duncan is called up by his ex-wife, a literature professor now known as Dr. Victoria McClellan. McClellan is working on a biography of the late poet Lydia Brooke. Brooke was a talented writer, but after several unsuccessful suicide attempts, was seen as a flake. McClellan believes that despite Brooks' record, the poet did not kill herself and wants Duncan to reopen the five-year-old case. As expected, Duncan isn't particularly interested - until Victoria herself is killed. The pertinent question: Was Victoria killed out of petty departmental rivalry or because of her controversial biography of Lydia Brooke?
An Educated Death, by Kate Flora (Forge, $23.95 hard) is also set in academic surroundings, but this time the setting is a private high school where pregnant student Laney Taggert falls through the ice of a pond one evening. Thea Kozak is called in to investigate. Kozak is not officially a detective, only a private school consultant called in to investigate the school's security measures. But one investigation leads to another, and it isn't long before Kozak is asking the kind of questions that lead to a poisoned after-school snack.
Kozak is a fairly engaging investigator, much like Kinsey Millhone in Sue Grafton's A Is for Alibi series. Like any female detective, Miss Kozak must have a male protector who doesn't want his sweetie getting hurt. Luckily for Thea, despite boyfriend Andre's old-fashioned ideas, he's easily the hunkiest sidekick on this murder-mystery block. -Anna Hanks