Recommended summer reading
You know the scenario: You’re at the bookstore, browsing for some good summer reading, but you keep being distracted by titles with the word virus in them, and pretty soon you’ve convinced yourself that the guy standing next to you, the one licking his fingers as he turns the pages of a much-handled copy of The Rainmaker, is the transmitter of a deadly disease. So you flee before you get a chance to make a selection, and pretty soon it’s the height of summer and you’re stuck on a weekend without a thing to read besides the much-handled copy of The Bridges of Madison County that your mother mailed to you after she got through with it two Christmases ago. Well, here’s a solution — a collection of books so varied, interesting, and readily available that you can run into the store, tweeze what you want off the shelf, and run out again into the sunshine (you’re wearing SPF 15 sunblock, right?) in germ-free safety.
Actually, if you’re that agitated, I think the first thing you should grab is Listening to Prozac by Peter D. Kramer. Even if you’re not in a state of high anxiety, this psychiatrist’s inviting philosophical musings on the personality ”improvements” he has observed in patients taking the popular antidepressant will clear your mind. And thus refreshed, you’ll be ready for some raffish new writing. If you’ve had it up to your tiara with gibberish about the Waleses, you’ll be thrilled to learn in Peter Lefcourt’s zippy fantasy, Di and I, that Mrs. Prince of Wales has found a new boyfriend: an American guy called Leonard Schecter who carries on an affair with the old girl in Rancho Cucamonga, Calif. From there, it’s only a few more loosened screws to the hopped-up Late Show writing style of Mark Leyner’s fiction-slash-humor-slash-free-associations. If you’re new to his loony world, try Et Tu, Babe, about — well, about everything in the author’s pop-culture-crammed brain, including a character called Mark Leyner.
Susan J. Douglas, a baby-boomer-age professor of media and American studies, has a lot of pop culture crammed into her brain too, but she’s specifically interested in how that long-term exposure to mass media has affected female psyches. Where the Girls Are is her smart and witty survey of cultural influences from the Shirelles to a certain actress’ famous ’80s TV commercial for hair dye. (Sample sentence from the refreshingly unbuttoned author: ”’I’m worth it,’ insists Cybill Shepherd in her brattiest, na-na-na-poo-poo voice as she swirls her blond hair in my face.”) Follow Douglas’ survey with The Late Show, New York Times television reporter Bill Carter’s keenly reported story of the network battles for The Tonight Show successor to Johnny Carson that led David Letterman to leave NBC for CBS, and you’ll be well occupied while reruns fill the TV schedule from now through September.
You’re up on biographies, I presume — got your bases covered with new books on Selena and RuPaul — but if you’re looking for something easy to tote and undeniably engrossing to read about women with brass something-or-others, you might try Christopher Ogden’s Life of the Party, about Pamela Churchill Harriman — now U.S. ambassador to France, at one point lover of such highfliers as Edward R. Murrow, Aly Khan, Gianni Agnelli, and Frank Sinatra. Then move on to Laurence Leamer’s The Kennedy Women, about Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg’s grandma and other strong-willed relatives.
But let’s say you’re in the mood for some meaty fiction. Nothing fussy, nothing avant-garde, just wonderful storytelling. That’s easy. Begin with Jane Hamilton’s A Map of the World, a gorgeous, if harrowing, family drama that begins — daringly — with the accidental drowning of a child. Then move on in leisurely fashion to Raintree County, a sprawling, big-scale, old-fashioned, 47-year-old novel by Ross Lockridge Jr. set on one Independence Day in 1892 and told in flashbacks. Change the pace with Hula, a striking first novel by Lisa Shea about two sisters and their childhood terrors, set in 1960s Virginia and confidently told in a girlchild’s voice. Then mosey on to Elizabeth Berg’s Talk Before Sleep, a laugh-and-then-you-cry story (dedicated, just so’s you know, ”For women with cancer.”) about best friends Ruth and Ann, and the crisis they face (see dedication). Steady your breathing with The Stone Diaries, a wise and graceful work by Carol Shields that won both this year’s Pulitzer Prize and National Book Critics Circle award for fiction. And to prove true the axiom that good books make bad films, try Michael Crichton’s suspenseful Congo, about a ”talking” gorilla named Amy and a quest for rare diamonds deep in the heart of Africa.
Two perennial favorites for summer reading are modern classics. E.L. Doctorow’s 1974 masterwork, Ragtime, a historical fantasy set in New York City, would be read every summer in a perfect universe. And then there’s A Confederacy of Dunces, about an outrageous misfit named Ignatius J. Reilly, by the truly eccentric John Kennedy Toole, who committed suicide almost a decade before the book was published in 1980, thanks to the efforts of his mother. (The novel went on to win a Pulitzer Prize in 1981.) But I’d also add to the perennial list anything in the academic-comedy-of-manners series by Englishman David Lodge — start with Small World, perhaps — and anything in the backstreets-of-Dublin-comedy-of-manners series by Irishman Roddy Doyle, whose newest book, Paddy Clark Ha Ha Ha, is the best, most authentic voice of boyhood I’ve read in a long while.
Finally — assuming you haven’t left for the bookstore yet — add this personal favorite to your shopping list: Wally Lamb’s She’s Come Undone, an amazing novel about the extraordinary life of a fat, miserable girl told — who knows how he did it — in a pitch-perfect female voice. Thumb through this book to any page and you’ll see what I mean.
Just be sure your hands are clean.