Book bits

Prime Green, By Robert Stone

If the '60s were a jungle, then Robert Stone wore camouflage. In his new memoir, Prime Green: Remembering the Sixties, the celebrated novelist comes across as mild, unobjectionable, and moderate (considering) – a man living in but not always of the era.

Perhaps he was so steady because he was a veteran or maybe it was because he had a young family. "My closest friends seemed all in various ways involved with Maoism," he writes. "No visible improvements seemed to be coming out of this, but it was good to see our friends again."

Stone kept some impressive company during these years – Ken Kesey, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac – but one gets the sense that he laughed quietly while others roared, and that his best contributions came after the event, at the typewriter.

Although Vietnam looms on practically every page of "Prime Green," this isn't a political memoir. There's no mention of race riots or Kent State, and the assassinations of Dr. King and the brothers Kennedy get only a few lines each. The book's most conspicuous tie to the era (apart from heavy recreational abuse of drugs) is a handful of epic (ahem) journeys: hiking across the Santa Cruz Mountains while Neil Armstrong was making his footprints in lunar dust; hiding out in Mexico with Kesey, who was evading drug charges; riding from San Francisco to the 1964 World's Fair in Flushing Meadows in a retrofitted bus called "Further."

One of the great pleasures of "Prime Green" is the intimate glimpse it affords of Stone as a young writer. He published his first novel, "A Hall of Mirrors," during these years, and the reader shares the anxieties and excitements of a real talent uneasily awaiting a breakthrough.

Stone's prose is frequently compared to Hemingway's – crossed with Vonnegut in oversized flak helmets, one might say – and he repeatedly invokes Papa in these pages for anecdotes and inspiration. Stone is no Hemingway, but he can be very good, and he has given us a thoughtful and sympathetic portrait of a contentious time.

"Prime Green" isn't a righteous defense of the '60s or an apologia for youthful antics; its author is wise enough to see that sometimes he and his friends were "clamorous and vain" and other times they were downright foolish. But they did have an enviable optimism, "an anticipation of the best in possibility," and they knew how to write.

– Michael O'Donnell

Books online

If you're the kind of person who, upon walking into somebody else's home, feels an irresistible impulsion to begin browsing through the bookshelves, Shelfari (www.shelfari.com) could be the website for you.

• Here, "Shelfarians" create their own online bookshelves, displaying cover images of their favorite books, either randomly assorted or organized by category. Fellow visitors to the site can browse the bookshelves of other Shelfarians at their leisure. It's a chance either to learn of new titles or simply to feel a happy sense of kinship at discovering that someone else shares, say, an adult passion for George McDonald or a tendency to cluster Mark Twain, Eric Carle, and Tolstoy on the same shelf.

• For those who like to be more interactive, Shelfari offers plenty of scope. There are book clubs organized around particular interests and opportunities to join in book discussions. Shelfarians who choose to do so can also post their own profiles and display lists of their friends.

Three books about love

He was shy and geeky while she was loud and impulsive but their passion for music brought them close. Love Is a Mix Tape by Rob Sheffield tells of Sheffield's love for his wife Renee who died in 1997. Each chapter begins with a play list and while these might speak best to enthusiasts of 1990s music, any reader will be able to understand the love so movingly remembered.

They were married for only six months before World War I separated them. Your Death Would Be Mine by Martha Hanna relies on the letters of Paul and Marie Pireaud, a rural French couple, to recreate their experience of war, rural life, and marital affection that endured – although at times uneasily – the vicissitudes of war, a lengthy separation, and daily hardship.

It's edgy rather than sentimental, but good writing about love can be found in Mr. Wrong: Real Life Stories About the Men We Used to Love in which noted women writers (such as Marge Piercy, Jane Smiley, and Caroline Leavitt, edited by Harriet Brown) tell of their own relationships gone awry. This may not be the book you want to give your Valentine (and it's definitely too adult for readers under 18) but candor, wry humor, and moments of genuine insight mark these various accounts of love gone wrong.

– Marjorie Kehe

Readers' Picks

Bel Canto opens with an extravagant birthday party for an influential Japanese businessman at the home of the vice president of a South American country. The world's most popular lyric soprano has just performed. The guests applaud, some even weep. The lights go out and then on, revealing men with guns pouring in through windows and doors. Ann Patchett unfolds this story in beautiful detail with music softening the hearts of hostages and terrorists alike.

– Nancyruth Mack, Evergreen, Colo.

Mark Helprin's Freddy and Fredericka is a marvelously funny romp through the royal family and one man's pursuit of himself.

– Boyd Nyberg, Alta Loma, Calif.

Two Old Women by Velma Wallis, based on an Athabaskan Indian legend, tells the shocking story of two elderly ladies abandoned by their migratory tribe and left to die. As family and friends desert them, the duo decides not to die, but to forge ahead. A surprise ending happily ties up the thin volume.

– Mary D. Allison, Walnut Creek, Ohio

I am reading Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin, a great story about Abraham Lincoln and his election to the presidency and the rivals who fought for the nomination. Maybe America would be wise to look at history, heed the warnings, and again elect an inspiring new man from the Midwest.

– Francis W. Warren, Stow, Mass.

Horses They Rode, by Sid Gustafson, who not only grew up here and knows Montana, but also knows the Blackfeet Reservation. This story is about race horses. None dies.

– Mary Scriver, Valier, Mont.

What are you reading? Write and tell us at Marjorie Kehe.

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