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Renée Loth

Book club

It’s summer time, and the readin’ is easy

By Renée Loth
July 24, 2010

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THE UNIVERSE of summer readers tends to divide into those whose lists contain best-selling fiction and those who prefer weightier tomes. I tend toward the former camp — my attempt to read “Moby Dick’’ two summers ago slipped into November and then stalled at page 380. But in the interest of diversity, I have assembled a recommended summer reading list that borrows a bit from both. Just because a book is a best-seller doesn’t mean it can’t have literary value.

“Tinkers’’ — the first-time novel that shocked the literary establishment by winning the Pulitzer Prize after it was rejected by several publishers — features the kind of writing reviewers like to call “incandescent.’’ Paul Harding, who teaches creative writing at Harvard University, has written a meditative prose-poem of a dying man’s memories that is also an inter-generational portrait of a certain breed of New Englander. For best results, read it aloud.

Another first novel residing on the best seller list — but from another region of the country — is “The Help’’ by Kathryn Stockett. This story of white Southern women and their black domestic servants at the dawn of the civil rights era is a morality tale with something to teach smug New Englanders about race. Living in their homes, raising their babies, learning their secrets, the maids of Jackson, Mississippi, had a peculiar relationship with their bosses: intimacy without friendship.

Race and betrayal also figure heavily in “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,’’ the true story of a poor, uneducated black woman who became an unwitting aide to medical science. In a hospital’s “colored ward’’ in 1951, Lacks had some of her vigorous cancer removed, without her permission, for use in a variety of experiments. Author Rebecca Skloot considers a number of issues in her first book: medical ethics, race, poverty, the limits of science. Exhaustively reported and absorbingly written, it’s a hard look at a medical system that made enormous profits off Henrietta’s cells while her children can’t afford to see a doctor.

It was easier to exploit women like Lacks in the 1950s, before the civil rights —and women’s rights — movements offered legal protection. New York Times columnist Gail Collins revisits those bad old days in “When Everything Changed,’’ the second in her two-volume history of America’s women. With wit and passion, Collins reminds us of a time when it was perfectly legal to fire a woman for getting pregnant, and how social and economic forces gave birth to a new world, beginning about 1960.

Newspapers may be dying, but they still have a romantic hold on the popular imagination. In “The Impressionists,’’ Tom Rachman doesn’t disappoint with his cast of funny, roguish, driven, slightly unbalanced staffers at a newspaper very much like the International Herald Tribune, where Rachman once worked. Each chapter is devoted to another character in the pantheon of newspaper types, written with unexpected depth and power. This is a loving, ultimately elegiac portrait of journalism at dusk.

Those who are less sympathetic to journalists might enjoy the wicked fun in “Black, White, and Dead All Over,’’ a mystery novel set at a venerable daily newspaper facing a rapidly changing media landscape. When the editor is found murdered with a spike —an old-fashioned newsroom tool — there are plenty of suspects on the staff. John Darton, a longtime editor at the New York Times, has written an amusingly vengeful roman a clef that can also be read as really, really dark media criticism.

But seriously, folks: journalism is in critical condition. Last year, 140 American newspapers went out of business, and the Internet isn’t picking up the slack; a study by the Pew center last year found that 96 percent of original reporting is still only being done by the “old media.’’ In “The Death and Life of American Journalism,’’ longtime practitioners Robert McChesney and John Nichols present a sober but ultimately hopeful analysis. Their solution — government subsidies of newspapers to save “a public good’’ — will make some journalists queasy, but extraordinary measures may be needed. It is hardly the only recent book on this urgent subject, but it is one I recommend. After all, when summer’s idyll is passed, we will again need the timely, independent reporting that newspapers still provide.

Renée Loth’s column appears regularly in the Globe.

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