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Summer no time to be listless or without a book

Mary Schmich

July 1, 2001

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To: Eric "Beach Boy" Zorn

From: Mary Schmich

Here it is, another jewel of a summer day, and I'll bet you're not about to spend it lolling around with a book from some pundit's summer reading list. Right?

So why do we persist with the fiction that summer is more of a reading season than, say, winter, a season far more suited to sedentary diversion? But the summer reading list is a tradition among pundit types, and so, as you and I embark on a week of conversation columns, let me ask: What do you recommend as summer reading? Here are a few books I've particularly enjoyed in the past couple of years:

"Disgrace," by J.M. Coetzee. A middle-age, white, male college professor has an affair with a student. Gets fired. Yawn. Haven't we read that before? But the story veers into a stunning tale about the white man's loss of racial, sexual and social power in South Africa. It's cinematic, subtle, compulsively readable and deeply disturbing.

"The Voyage of the Narwhal," by Andrea Barrett. Nineteenth Century explorers leave their women, go to the Arctic and come home to Philadelphia. Mystery, history, love, adventure--this book has it all in exquisite writing.

"The Hours," by Michael Cunningham. Three women's lives fictionally intersect. Virginia Woolf, the real-life author who committed suicide. A modern New York woman who loves a dying gay man. A 1949 housewife. It's hard to warm up to, but I loved this book by its shocking end. It reminds you there are various ways to live and to love, and that, whatever your way, happiness is intermittent.

"Amy and Isabelle," by Elizabeth Strout. Rivalry and love between a single mother and her sexually blossoming daughter in a New England mill town. Tender and funny without gooey cliche. Don't skip this book just because it was made into a TV movie.

"American Pharaoh," by Elizabeth Taylor and Adam Cohen. Yes, Liz is a Tribune colleague, but that's not why I was fascinated by this biography of Mayor Richard J. Daley, which is also a history of race, public housing and politics in a city famous for all of those.

To: Compulsively Readable Mary

From: Deeply Disturbing Zorn

A few years ago, officials at a suburban library, having failed to line you up as their main speaker at a celebration of important books, settled for me. I warned them that they were getting the wonkier, less-literary member of our team, but they said come on anyway.

They asked for it. My speech focused on a 1997 book I still recommend, "Firewall: The Iran-Contra Conspiracy and Cover-Up" by former independent counsel Lawrence E. Walsh. It's must reading for anyone who thinks the Republicans were remotely sincere during the Clinton years when they carried on about abuse of power, obstructing justice and the importance of the rule of law.

Along those same lines I also recommend last year's "The Hunting of the President: The 10-Year Campaign to Destroy Bill and Hillary Clinton," by Joe Conason and Gene Lyons. Talk about deeply disturbing.

Here are three more, all just published, on my summer to-read list: "The Betrayal of America: How the Supreme Court Undermined the Constitution and Chose Our President," by Vincent Bugliosi; "Supreme Injustice: How the High Court Hijacked Election 2000," by Alan Dershowitz; and "Fuzzy Math: The Essential Guide to the Bush Tax Plan," by New York Times economics columnist Paul Krugman.

On local matters, I'm begging all those who support the hideous rehab project at Soldier Field to read Lois Wille's "Forever Open, Clear and Free: The Struggle for Chicago's Lakefront." In an elegant 172-page narrative, Wille shows how unkindly history has treated the shortsighted despoilers and self-interested rascals who've broken the 136-year-old covenant to maintain our waterfront parks as public ground.

I know, I know. With all these books with colons in the title, my list looks like a homework assignment. So I'll close by plumping for "White Noise," the darkly comic 1985 novel by Don DeLillo in which an unsettling "toxic event" disrupts the already bizarre life in a college town. The Viking Critical Library recently published a text and commentary edition of this National Book Award winner, a book which, if I had any literary credentials whatsoever, I'd call a postmodern classic.