Book Central's top picks
BOSTON — I never did figure out the meaning of the phrase "summer reading." Since when did reading come in and out of season like, say, strawberries?
Despite these reservations, we here at Book Central have gotten our annual list together even before the asparagus have raised their heads out of bed. The latest Harry Potter saga is No. 1 on the Amazon book list and it won't even be released till mid-July. Nevertheless we offer a list full of its own wizardry.
To begin with, an unusual number of engaging novels were published this year in a child's voice. Jonathan Safran Foer's vulnerable narrator in "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close" is a 9-year-old who lost his father and his emotional gyroscope in the terrorist attack of 9/11. This is the haunting story of Oskar's search, weighed down by the "heavy boots" of his grief, to solve the puzzle of a voicemail, a coffin, a key and his family.
Mark Haddon invites us in to understand the world through the autistic sensibility of a 15-year-old boy. "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time" is a touching visit to a distant emotional country with an interpreter who is incapable of lying and likes dogs because "dogs are faithful and do not tell lies because they cannot talk."
The runaway has been a stock character in coming-of-age stories since Huckleberry Finn. In Sue Monk Kidd's "The Secret Life of Bees," a 14-year-old motherless girl runs from an abusive father. She doggedly, hopefully, pursues the slimmest link to her mother's past until she comes under the roof of a trio of black female beekeepers. This is a morality tale full of honey and salvation that manages to avoid the stickiness.
In "The Kite Runner," Khaled Hosseini goes back to a lost Afghanistan. It's the story of a childhood colored by class, shame and betrayal. But it's also an intimate story of an Afghan-American son and an unassimilated father struggling to bridge the gaps.
The fifth of these child narrators is Philip Roth's alter-child, a Jewish boy living in the alternative fascist country Roth creates with chilling complexity in "The Plot Against America." What would have happened if Lucky Lindy had run against and beaten Franklin Roosevelt? What would have happened to Roth's country and family? Roth imagines an all-too-believable transformation.
Of course Roth is not the only one imagining some plot against America. This is another year of red and blue nonfiction. At the head of the blue list was Thomas Frank's "What's the Matter with Kansas?" which an office wag subtitled: "Why Kansans would rather force me to have a baby than afford to feed their own." But there were, nevertheless, a few books outside the red/blue spectrum.
One of them was the fake history written by the fake journalists at the fake news show. "America (the Book)," collated by the entire "Daily Show with Jon Stewart" staff, is an irresistible chocolate box of humor, cynicism, sophomorism (if that's a word) and despair. The Supreme Court pin-ups alone are must viewing for any judicial nominee.
But seriously folks, one book that puts aside food-fight journalism and polarized politics for old-fashioned reporting is Jason DeParle's remarkable "American Dream." He tells the rich, complicated story of three single mothers and 10 children, and what actually happened to them under welfare reform. Journalism doesn't get any better than this.
As for blue and red religion, the most noted attempt to counter the common wisdom comes from Jim Wallis. "God's Politics" has the subject in the subtitle: "Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn't Get It." Wallis has written a sermon on the moral imperative to build a progressive religious movement.
Still, my candidate for reaching, if not preaching, to the choir is the wonderful collage of pieces that form Anne Lamott's "Plan B." She has the prayerful, over-the-top, often desperate voice of a single mother and believer who "needed to turn my life over to whoever came up with redwood trees."
As for religion, Mary Gordon's latest novel, "Pearl," won The New York Times review blurb of the year: "Read this or go to hell." How do you top that? The story, revolving around a daughter who goes on a hunger strike in Ireland, raises all themes of martyrdom: what's worth living for, what's worth dying for. It's a story infused with ferocious truths about mothers and daughters. As always, Gordon makes us look at life fiercely.
Finally, "Collapse." Jared Diamond's book on how societies choose or fail to succeed is about social and environmental suicides and near-death experiences. Why did the Easter Islands collapse, why did Iceland survive, and just for good measure, which way are we going?
Take that to the hammock and the long global warming of summer.
Ellen Goodman's column appears Friday on editorial pages of The Times.
Copyright 2005 The Seattle Times Company