I think the best novel of the season comes from Richard Russo, whose new book has a lot of the same sneaky humor and down-at-the-heels nonchalance that we saw in "Nobody's Fool."
But "Empire Falls" is different. It's a much bigger, beautifully constructed book, traditional in the best sense, as it describes life in the small Maine town of the title and shows how a man named Miles Roby is haunted by a secret in his mother's past. But it takes a wonderfully long time to figure this out, and along the way, the local color is a delight. You won't want to leave this place when the story ends.
Another first-rate novel is a beautifully offbeat book called "Bel Canto," by Ann Patchett, about a siege in a South American country. It keeps an opera singer, a Japanese tycoon and a group of party guests held hostage. Leaving the rest of the world behind, they find that nothing matters except the magic of the singer's voice and all the new freedom and possibility it seems to open up for them. Ms. Patchett builds a subtle, elegant comedy of manners out of these exotic circumstances.
"Bel Canto" hinges on opera. But the summer's most haunting book about music is "Positively 4th Street," David Hajdu's trip back to the early days of the 1960s folk music boom. There have been a lot of books about Bob Dylan out lately, but this one takes the more interesting approach of focusing on Dylan, the two Baez sisters Joan and Mimi, and Mimi's husband Richard Farina when these four were unofficial in-laws, both men were young and ambitious, and Joan Baez was still the biggest star in the bunch. If you'd like to read a tale of "Dynasty"-type rivalries in the days when the men wore the sandals, not to mention a fine and nostalgic appreciation of the music and culture of the time, here it is.
But if you'd really like to learn something this summer, nothing beats Louis Menand's "The Metaphysical Club" for erudition. This monumental work of scholarship provides a wide-ranging intellectual history of 19th century America, and it is as dazzling as it is daunting. Centering on figures including Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., John Dewey and William James, but including so many others that the range of the book is astouncing, this study is a landmark to be read slowly and seriously. It rewards close attention.
Then there is the opposite end of the reading spectrum. And there you will find "The Dirt," a bestseller about the band Motley Crue, and a book that lives right down to its title. I think this one is best appreciated if you know nothing about the band, try not to look at their pictures, skip the boring parts about their creative life and just open it up at random for the anecdotes. There's once nice story about how Tommy Lee lked Heather Locklear so much that he tried to hide all his tattoos for their first date. And that's the only part of this book that can be described on television.
But when it comes to dirt, the guys in Motley Crue are way ahead of Jackie Collins, whose "Hollywood Wives; The New Generation" is also on its way. Though she tries to remain current by working in characters who sound like Steven Spielberg and the Farrelly brothers, the author has let time pass her by. And where was Russell Crowe when she really needed him? Anyway, Ms. Collins can't change the fact that the real Hollywood got stranger than fiction a long time ago.
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