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A New Anthology Of Essays By Women Makes Good Summer Reading.

By Edith Sorenson

The Beacon Book of Essays by Contemporary Women, edited by Wendy Martin (Beacon Press). Paper, $16.

THIS RECENT STAR-studded anthology is by and about (and mostly for) the female of our species, so of course we're going to read about the penis. But don't expect knee-jerk man-hating. Editor Wendy Martin is a shrewd curator, and alongside the unexpected dick jokes in this varied collection, she elicits surprising insights from well-known and too-often predictable feminists such as bell hooks and Gloria Steinem.

From an anonymous essay recalling a rapist who misconstrues his victim's panic and fear for interest and arousal, to a wry, taut study of the male anatomy by contributing author Nancy K. Miller (who confronts the Lacanian notion of penis versus phallus in a frank and fearless discussion of her father's), the Beacon collection offers bold discourse from some of the nation's most literate and talented women writers. (Though in a candid note Miller admits, "Had my father still been able to read, I would never have written about 'the penis.' ")

In Miller's, and in so many of the essays, personal experience and thoughtful analysis of psychological bugaboos of male authority, literacy and potency, are examined as they decline.

Gwendolyn Brooks' "Dream of a Black Christmas" employs a conversational, almost conspiratorial, tone. Vivid memories of her childhood holidays go on and on about birthday cakes, pumpkin pies, fruitcakes, and homemade candy. These lyric descriptions of riches made me hungry--not for the goodies, but for a spoon-licking day of family baking. The joy of those times lives in her details. Nostalgia is not her point, but a tool. Brooks concludes by calling for a black holiday, "akin, perhaps, to the black concept of Kwaanza." Even readers who question the need for a "Black World Day" will understand Brooks' ideals of celebration.

Forty pieces written by 38 women are served up in five easy-to-handle sections and, no, not every one is a gem. Section one, Generations: Essays on the Family, has Betty Friedan's dreary "Thoughts on Becoming a Grandmother." These thoughts are no more interesting, reflective or insightful than her previous thoughts, but this 1983 work demonstrates the beady-eyed energy of her Feminine Mystique and The Fountain of Age.

Still spewing, Friedan reports on her brilliant grandmotherhood, her brilliant friends (Jackie and Binky) and her brilliant grandchild. RV owners with an "Ask-Me-About-My-Grandchildren" bumper sticker champion grandmothering better than Friedan.

We also get dreary old Margaret Mead rambling "On Having a Baby." The merry wartling did for anthropology what Jenny Jones did for family counseling, but nonetheless has fascinated and inspired women by paving the way for legions of expensively schooled trout-heads. Like her degreed but dim followers, Mead blithely writes on, chronicling her many idiot mistakes and enlivening what would otherwise be deadly dull reporting by misinterpreting everything that happens around her.

Babies are loved, coveted and wept over in other essays; only Mead is guilty of a glassy-eyed, drooling maternal instinct that gives Gia-feminism a bad name. (Baby worship, like animal worship, is actually covert misanthropy, and Mead's sharpest slap for other women who've whelped. The pain of childbirth, she asserts, is based on male myths. Therefore, women who suffered are puppets of the patriarchy.)

Anthologies, however, are like buffets--take what you like and leave the rest. Or, taste test. The final section, "What the Lover Knows: Essays on Nature," features four women with almost nothing in common. Science fiction writer Ursula K. Le Guin studies the eruption of Mt. St. Helens from her bedroom window, 45 miles away. ("I had decided not to panic unless the cats did," she writes. "They lay asleep...on the swaying floor and jiggling bed, and paid no attention to anything except dinner time.") Another keen and cool observer, Linda Hogan, meditates on cycles. Her work in a bird rehabilitation center, the birds' lives, the seasons, and the task of raking cages clean, are drawn as circles in a continuing spiral. Le Guin is inside, observing, while Hogan is engaged. Their prose is reflecting, but their subjects are opposite.

Startling, even alarming, contrast is found in Annie Dillard's writing and the work of Terry Tempest Williams. Dillard visits a natural world with bugs, sticky things and actual danger, while Williams travels the less specific goddess-realm of healing herbs and jovial creatures. Muppets have more integrity than Williams' grinning critters.

Frankly, if Martin's selections hadn't already caught me off guard, I wouldn't have read past the first line of "The Bowl." I didn't like the first line, the second line, anything in the middle or the last line, but I did like wondering where Williams fits in nature writing.

For the lazy days of summer and slack, the new paperback edition of The Beacon Book of Essays by Contemporary American Women offers a well-paced blend of humor, sorrow, philosophy and fluff. For women on a beach, in the mountains or just lolling on the couch, The Beacon Book has the pace for leisure. Good girls can start on page one and read straight to the end; greedy girls can gobble their favorite authors first.

One of the book's unexpected strengths is that it leaves the reader wanting more: Annie Dillard directs her readers to a remarkable study on sight; and in level-headed and loving discussion of Emily Dickinson, bell hooks introduces poets Georgia Douglass Johnson and Clarissa Scott Delany. A reader who's opened the book for Tony Morrison or Amy Tan may discover Patricia J. Williams or Mary McCarthy, striking a better deal in the bargain.

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