Books Of The Summer Season

Harry Smith, far left, with Sean Goldman's maternal grandmother, Silvana Bianchi, his stepfather, Joao Paulo Silva, and the Brazilian family's attorney, Sergio Tostes, in an exclusive interview on 062309 on Early Show about the 9-year-old at center of international custody battle.
Commentary by Janet Maslin.

A lot of us start taking on big reading projects at this time of year. And big can mean many different things.

It can mean challenging, as in the kind of classics that can't be read with a short attention span.

It can mean major, as in landmark new volume.

And often "big" simply means the obvious. In other words, hard to lift.

What can beat the satisfaction of finishing a book the size of a doorstop? The accomplishment feels serious even if the book's merits are not. A long, hearty slog for a reader is often strenuous enough to be its own reward. But the monumental read sometimes does raise questions, like: Where was the editor? Away at the beach?

Nice as it would be to think that all huge books deserve their page counts, there are times when you have to wonder. For instance: "Shakey," the new biography of Neil Young, checks in at 800 pages, footnotes included. That means an awful lot of time spent in the woozy Topanga Canyon of the late 1960s, and an awful lot of time to share Young's interest in model trains.

That sounds like the height of rambling indulgence, yet Jimmy McDonough's chummy, longwinded book turns out to be surprising. For one thing, its loose-jointed format is not unlike Young's single-minded, unpredictable musical tactics. For another, it there is a big, evocative pop cultural history built into this portrait of a maverick rock and roller.

But 800 pages: that's the same length that Carole Angier's "The Double Bond" devotes to the life of Primo Levi, the noted author, chemist and Holocaust survivor, in a book full of historical and literary detail. If only by virtue of its subject's sophistication, this book should carry more weight. Yet Ms. Angier is long-winded and speculative about Primo Levi in ways that are not always indispensable, despite the heft of her very impressive research. This book could have moved more swiftly, too.

In fact the biggest biography of this season is also the best: "Master of the Senate," the huge new installment of Robert A. Caro's multi-volume study of Lyndon Johnson. Though it covers only 12 years in 1167 pages, "Master of the Senate" does not meander. It's a tight, readable, fascinatingly detailed book, and a model of biographical insight and skill.

Fiction has its share of mammoths, too. The wooliest one of the moment is Jean M. Auel's "The Shelters of Stone," the author's latest trip back to caveman days. Take away a three-page list of characters and a seven-page closing poem about Mother Earth, and you still have a plump, overplotted best-seller. For an illustration of why bigger isn't necessarily better, look here.

Another long novel, Stephen L. Carter's "The Emperor of Ocean Park," has more sizeable ambitions. Mr. Carter is a law professor at Yale, so it comes as no surprise that his book's main character is a law professor at a great university. And he has combined history, drama and social commentary into a story partially set on Martha's Vineyard, among that vacation spot's African American elite.

It reaches back to the scandal surrounding the Supreme Court nomination of the professor's father, and then moves on to deadly, latter-day intrigue. John Grisham makes his mysteries shorter, but Mr. Carter has given himself more to work with here.

But if you're looking for the kind of big book that makes a big impression, it doesn't have to be a behemoth. It can be as small and shapely as Alice Sebold's first novel, "The Lovely Bones," which is narrated by a 14-year-old murder victim. Somehow this is a mystery, a family drama and an inspirational story. And somehow it is told from heaven, without sentimentality.

The author imagines an afterlife suited to each individual, so that it can include anything, even the family dog. But another idea of heaven is a place where artful little books are as big as this.