Even if television is insulting and the movies are for morons, you can't spend all summer reading Harry Potter. So here are some passionate suggestions.
From Doris Lessing, at age 80, books fall like autumn leaves. In the decade since we first met Ben, the Neanderthal baby in The Fifth Child, she has written two more novels, two volumes of autobiography, two opera librettos, a lament for Africa and an adult comic.
But so annoyed was she by critics who read Ben as some sort of parable about Nazis that this sequel was inevitable: So Ben, born lowbrow and brutish 60,000 years too late, an evolutionary throwback cast pout of his middle-class home, wanders the savage modern streets, preyed upon by drug runners, filmmakers and experimental scientists; seeking some semblance of his own lost people in rock paintings in the mountains of Brazil, a Paleolitic who will break your heart.
From Elizabeth Hardwick, at age 83, an amazing act of empathy: one of our best critics, equally at home in all the world's literatures, reads her way into the long-distance loneliness of Herman Melville, who was as enigmatic as his white whale; who hated colonialism, capitalism, slavery and maybe even God; who wrote 10 astonishing books in 11 years yet ended up owing his publisher money; who came home from the sea to live for 40 years with the same woman and yet was never certain of his own sexuality; who died leaving Billy Budd behind, in a tin breadbox.
From Joe Eszterhas, the screenwriter who used to be a rock critic and who wants to be a Hunter Thompson, this week's media sensation: a narrative rewrite of The Starr Report on Bill Clinton's sex life, starring Monica Lewinsky, Valley Girl; Linda Tripp, Ratwoman; Lucianne Goldberg, the Bag Lady of Sleaze; and that portion of the president's anatomy known as Willard. Plus, inside gossip on Warren Beatty and Sharon Stone, lurid boldface fantasies about Bob Dole and Hillary, and an audiotape of all of this with a speaking part for Ed Asner.
From Janet Evanovich, the mystery writer, the best-selling novel in America this side of Harry Potter: her sixth book about Stephanie Plum, a New Jersey bounty hunter who may not be able to pick a lock or shoot straight but who is loyal, lucky and still knows everyone from high school. In Hot Six, she's mixed up with arms dealers, carpetbaggers, mafiosos and Star Trekkies, not to mention an out-of-control grandmother, a horny vice cop and a dog that eats furniture. What more could you ask? Hot Six is violent, sexy and hilarious.
And finally, from Richard Powers, the brainiest novelist this side of Don DeLillo: another dazzling romp through science, music, art, and language. Powers opened our minds and hurt our heads with one novel on Johann Sebastian Bach, Edgar Allan Poe and the cracking of the genetic code, and another on artificial intelligence and what happens when it falls in love with you. Plowing the Dark is about Microsoft, virtual reality and an American hostage in Lebanon.
It alternates between giddy hackers in a lab in Seattle trying to create a total immersion environment out of computer code and a Chicago schoolteacher who was kidnaped from a Beirut street and chained to a radiator in an empty white room. There is of course convergence: from simulations of Henri Rousseau's dreamy jungle and Vincent van Gogh's bed in Arles, and the cathedral-mosque Sophia in Byzantine Istanbul, they will dream a white room.
Which is where I leave you, between play and terror. It shouldn't even be necessary to add that good books are themselves total immersion environments. After plowing such darkness, we are more complicated and less virtual - and better able to simulate intelligence.