Good Reads

His and hers. Unlike cocktail dresses and athletic supporters, most books defy obvious gender bias. Similarly, girls don't write always for girls, nor guys for guys. In my conversations with au

Almost No Memory by Lydia Davis

His and hers. Unlike cocktail dresses and athletic supporters, most books defy obvious gender bias. Similarly, girls don't write always for girls, nor guys for guys.

In my conversations with authors, many don't have one half of the population or the other in mind when writing. Some even say that when imagining an ideal reader, there isn't an X or Y chromosome at play at all. They're simply speaking to an interested, engaged mind who will follow their characters, or plot line, as enthusiastically as the creator.

Sometimes the book's package is the tip-off, but realize that this is simply the publisher's construction aimed at "slotting" a book for the trade buyers while hopefully also working to snag the attention of the bookstore or library browser.

So this month's Fine Print celebrates those books that fit under the heading "Good Reads. Suitable for all." Literary cross-dressing, if you wish, but you don't need to.

Lydia Davis writes terse, strong and very evocative passages that will stay with the reader for days and then return at unexpected moments months later. Almost No Memory, while categorized as short stories, is probably better described as fictions. Powerful bursts of characters and situations roar into your head, each racing past with the first sentence. People struggle with themselves, or their families, or are caught in some unexpected crisis. Davis reveals human nature at flash point. It's like Raymond Carver, 20 years later, with emotion and tension.

You'll feel the grip of her eye and her pen, and relief minutes later when you reach the bit's end. Almost No Memory is definitely a unisex title. Just add water to this sponge, and you'll be filled up in an hour's time.

There's been decades of "escape from the hustle and stress of urban life" books and movies. In the nearly two years since September 2001, that grim period echoes in The Quality of Life Report, this fine, first novel from Meghan Daum, a name you may recognize from her commentaries on NPR's Morning Edition and This American Life. Her reportage therein stands by her well when breathing life into believable characters.

Very quickly the reader is caught up in the transplanted Ludinda Trout's assessment of her new neighbors when she moves from NYC to Prairie City, Iowa, which is almost exactly in the middle of the country, a perspective that infuses everything. With equal parts of Garrison Keillor and Tocqueville, this is not a semi-vicious send-up like Bill Bryson's The Lost Continent. Trout truly likes those folks who reside in PC, as it's called by the natives. They may at times puzzle her, as do the local customs, but overall life is good here (or there).

The rub is — and there's always a rub — that once inside the fence things aren't perfect. Relationships can be trying. There's dirt and broken hinges, and life is, well, life.

Living in Cincinnati, there's clear kinship and geographical alliance, so local readers will chuckle and feel good about the parts that come off as journal entries on our lives. We'll scratch our heads over those curious people in Iowa for the passages where a little emotional distance is inserted. A wonderful summer sojourn, The Quality of Life Report is as relaxing as a picnic and as invigorating as a dip in the pond.

Many people will claim that hot weather saps their power of concentration, which is a highbrow rationalization for the spike in "beach reads" over the summer months. We don't need no stinkin' literary badges to unabashedly enjoy a few volumes of fast-paced fiction. Just like the summer blockbuster movies with easily-identifiable good guys and bad guys, lots of racing here and there and enough plot twists to keep you turning the pages fast enough to create a breeze, Bangkok 8 by John Burdett fits the bill. Even the setting evokes a tropical steaminess, heightened by the cramped quarters, the silk sliding against the skin, the crime behind the neon and the sex trade. A certifiable thriller and an easy vacation to an exotic locale half a world away, Bangkok 8 is a perfectly legitimate way to enjoy a little Adirondack armchair adventure this summer for big boys and big girls alike.

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