The Light Stuff

A Rough Guide to the Flash and Trash of Summer Reading

The chapters alternate between Mom's and Britney's musings, and it's your call as to who comes off more poignantly banal ("We're all human!" Mom tells us, while Britney reveals shockers like "I admire the way Madonna always reinvents herself. I think that's one reason she's managed to stay a success for so long"). But I still love Britney—from the bottom of my broken heart. —Michael Musto

In The Name Of Salomé
By Julia Alvarez
Algonquin, 357 pp., $23.95

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Rosignano Solvay, Sea 2. August 1998 (detail), from Beach & Disco by Massimo Vitali
Massimo VitalI, from Beach & Disco, published by Steidl
Rosignano Solvay, Sea 2. August 1998 (detail), from Beach & Disco by Massimo Vitali

Camila Henriquez Ureña is about to retire from her longtime job teaching Spanish at Vassar College. Only now, while sorting through family papers, does she get to know her legendary mother, Salomé Ureña, who died when Camila was three. In contrast to Salomé, who in the late 19th century became the Dominican Republic's national poet and the voice of a revolution, Camila has spent most of her life trying not to offend anybody.

In the Name of Salomé jumps back and forth in time from Poughkeepsie to Salomé's Santo Domingo childhood to revolutionary Havana in an ambitious crisscross of history that is much broader than it is deep. Alvarez keeps the reader at the periphery of this history: The gore and betrayals of revolution, the heartbreaking dislocations of life in exile are never fully realized, except perhaps in her poetry. But we are privy to few of these poems, and the resulting narrative is a historical collage punctuated with a few revelatory moments and too many staples of Latin American literature, including a baroque family tree, handy clairvoyant episodes, even an obstreperous pet parrot.

As usual, Alvarez is sympathetic and even-handed with her characters; her prose is unsentimental, almost to a fault. Camila's own submerged desires never quite surface; her disappointments in life and love are as summarily rendered as the history behind them. The unfocused quality of her life mimics the structure of this novel, where cause and effect are jumbled and motives are difficult to comprehend. Perhaps this is Alvarez's point—to convey a sense of helplessness before the baffling inheritances of a history too complex to fit into a line of poetry or a revolutionary cause, to contrast a life compacted in myth with a life spent living up to the impossible promise of that myth. —Megan O'Grady

Lilith's Brood
By Octavia E. Butler
Warner Books, 746 pp., $13.95 paper

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There are two schools of thought these days about sequels and trilogies in science fiction. Cynics dismiss them as transparent attempts to commandeer bookstore shelves and reader dollars. For others the trilogy still ranks as a preferred vehicle for Big Speculative Ideas. Certainly, Isaac Asimov's Foundation trilogy, William Gibson's Sprawl series, and Orson Scott Card's Ender stories were worthy of sequential installments. But of these legendary multiple-volume works, only the Ender sequels ultimately centered around a significant number of nonwhite protagonists. That's why Octavia E. Butler has become so important. Ever since the mid 1970s, her books have opened up new territory by imagining a future specifically informed by the historical experience of black American females.

Newly repackaged under the collective title Lilith's Brood, Butler's "alien genesis" trilogy of Dawn, Adulthood Rites, and Imago first appeared in the 1980s. Butler's novels share some traits with other sci-fi series: Like the Ender books, Butler imagines human-alien contact, and as in the Sprawl novels, she questions the human ability to transcend self-destruction. But beyond these surface similarities, Lilith's Brood poses questions that Gibson and Card have never thought to ask.

After poisoning the biosphere to the point of no return, would people choose life or death if survival meant becoming subservient to another species? How might that decision change if a black woman had the deciding vote? Lilith Iyapo is that hypothetical black woman. She must convince a tiny group to accept being rescued by the Oankali, even though it means humans must serve as a breeding stock for a new subspecies of human/Oankali children. The themes of kidnapping, forced impregnation, and involuntary genetic transformation that suffuse Lilith's Brood clearly parallel the experience of American blacks during slavery, and these are the racial memories Butler draws upon to describe how truly wise, heroic, difficult, and ultimately successful accommodationist politics can be. —Carol Cooper

Blythe's a beach: from This is Blythe by Gina Garan.
(Gina Garan, from This is Blythe, published by Chronicle)
This is Blythe
By Gina Garan
Chronicle, 96 pp., $12.95 paper

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This Is Blythe is the ultimate summer coffee-table book: beguiling, provocative, and perfectly sized to fit into even the most minimalist beach bag. Blythe is a saucer-eyed doll manufactured for just one year—1972—before being cruelly discontinued. The very thing that attracts us to her is probably what caused her obsolescence: That eerie gaze, sometimes melancholy as the Mona Lisa, sometimes blank as a zombie, is more than enough to wig out the faint-of-heart child.

Although her work is not as loaded as that of doll-fixated artists like Laurie Simmons and David Levinthal, Garan nevertheless infuses her pint-size Cindy Sherman with disturbing presence. She is a whirl of incompatible pop references, summoning up Jon-Benet, Heidi, Japanese anime, Holly Hobby, Madonna, Françoise Hardy. Garan has fun with Blythe—there she is pathetically prone in front of a Slippery When Wet sign; peering seductively from a block of melting ice; posing nude in front of Hooters; or camouflaged with black ink and a crew cut in a "jungle" of weeds. Of course, she is as much mini fashion plate as an object of wonder, and the fabulous '70s garb adds the final touch of seedy glamour: Blythe in pink suede jacket, bodacious blonde wig, and shades; Blythe with nodded-out eyes and woolly cap; and burnt-out hippie Blythe with bindi. At worst the photos feel slight or silly; at best they reach beyond caricature to conjure an impossibly human moodiness. The It-Girl for the summer. —Joy Press

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