Summer Reading List! O, what a treasure-trove of fun and joy and wisdom and knowledge and compassion. I wasn’t going to mention Annie Proulx’s Close Range: Wyoming Stories, published by Scribner, since it’s already been featured on lots of summer lists. But it’s just so good that I can’t leave it out.
A new fave, more or less in the murder-mystery category, is Bill Fitzhugh, a seriously funny guy from Northern California published by Avon. Pest Control, which came out in ’97, is a droll story about an environmentally correct bug exterminator who gets mistaken for a professional hit man. His new one, The Organ Grinders, is hilarious, but it can also make you gasp with horror; it’s based on the obvious premise that rich Americans in need of various body parts will be buying them from poor people in foreign countries. The environmental stuff is terrific, and the humor is completely off the wall.
Next, a trio of wonderful books by three exceptional female writers. As it happens, I know all three, but what makes this a trio is that none of these books got the attention it so clearly merits. If I were in book marketing, I would sure have noticed by now that we’re looking at a huge generation of aging baby boomers, and we can bet the farm that they’ll all be facing death, loss, grief, and a struggle for the spiritual resources to cope with same. Prozac and Viagra will get us only so far in this world.
For intelligent, entertaining, useful and well-written books on aspects of our mortality, I recommend: She Came to Live Out Loud by Myra MacPherson, published by Scribner. This one appears at first to be the story of a woman who died of breast cancer. Her name was Anna Johannessen; she was a teacher and a mother who lived near Washington, D.C.; and despite the fact that it’s clear we would have adored her if we had known her, well, we all have our own friends who are dead or dying of breast cancer, or some other cancer, and they’re all wonderful people, too. We don’t need to weep over the death of some stranger, lovely human though she may have been. But the book turns into much more than a memorial to a good but mercifully imperfect woman. It’s really about the hole that was left by her death – the vacuum in the lives of the people who loved her and what they learned to do about it.
MacPherson is first and always a reporter with a grasp of what we call “the universal third.” That’s the third paragraph of a newspaper story about a small, specific event that turns it into a consideration of a much larger phenomenon. Through working with the hospice movement, MacPherson became familiar with the mechanics, as it were, of death and grief, and she can write about them like any smart reporter. But she also had to confront the death of her mother and the grief and ambivalence that came with it. All of this is shared – both the personal and the larger view – and meshed into Anna’s story or into what is really the story of those who loved Anna.
Anne Lamott’s Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith, published by Pantheon. For those of you who have an unfortunate visceral reaction when someone says the word “Christian” (a common side effect among those who suffered severe early exposure to the more primitive reaches of Southern Baptist), Lamott is the answer. Mostly because she doesn’t have that many answers – she’s just funny. And honest. And if you’ve forgotten that being honest is the root of being funny, try Anne Lamott.
Remember the story of the Emperor Who Wore No Clothes? One of the funniest things in civilization today is the number of pretentious people walking around buck naked. Lamott is not out to expose them or to point out what fools they are – that just happens as a side effect of her being so honest.
Dare we call her the Doyenne of Death? The beloved Jessica Mitford, who died two years ago, was the author of the classic debunking of the American funeral industry: The American Way of Death. Before she croaked, herself – she had a great funeral, and it was really cheap, too – she revised her own by-now-standard work on the funeral industry.
Unfortunately, the industry is worse than ever. It’s been taken over by this multinational conglomerate called SCI (Service Corporation International – I ask you!). It’s practically impossible to die in a Western country without paying SCI now.
Mitford, who was the droll misfit of the famous Brit Mitford sisters, will prove to have made the most enduring contribution, I think. She was an aristocratic commie and not the most likely of investigative reporters, but she was good at it. And she so thoroughly and ruthlessly and wittily exposed the vultures who feed on the grief and guilt of survivors that we shall be ever grateful.
An entire generation has come to maturity since Mitford first wrote her definitive expose of the funeral industry; how lovely to have it updated for all of us. Just in time, as it were.
Molly Ivins is a former Observer editor and a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Her latest book is You Got to Dance With Them What Brung You. You may write to her via e-mail at [email protected].