Weekly Wire
The Boston Phoenix Summer Reading

Whether or not we actually have more time come July and August, it certainly feels like we do. A suggested reading list for these hazy, humid months.

By Robert David Sullivan

JUNE 1, 1999:  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 BEACH

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 oppressive.

"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 WITH LOCAL COLOR

Home Town, by Tracy Kidder (Random House, 368 pages hardcover, $25.95). The author takes us on a warts-and-all tour of Northampton, Massachusetts, focusing on a young police sergeant, a working mother, and a lawyer with a crippling case of obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Five Thousand Days Like This One: An American Family History, by Jane Brox (Beacon Press, 208 pages hardcover, $23). Brox's inheritance of a family farm in the Merrimack Valley leads her to trace the history of the region, going back to the first textile mills in Lowell and Lawrence (and their use of child labor) and the devastating influenza epidemic of 1918.

The Lithium Murder, by Camille  Minichino  (William Morrow,  240 pages hardcover, $25). This is the third in a series of mysteries based on the 109 elements of the periodic table, with retired physicist Gloria Lamerino playing amateur sleuth. Not surprisingly, the series is written by a retired physicist, who lives in California but sets this mystery in Revere, Massachusetts, where an elderly janitor in a government-funded lab is killed. My money is on the fried-clam plate at Kelly's.

Prayers for Rain, by Dennis Lehane (William Morrow, 288 pages hardcover, $25). Another mystery with a local setting. Boston private eyes (and lovers) Patrick Kenzie and Angela Gennaro track down an evil genius who drives his victims to suicide.


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. n


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