When I was a kid, we did not text-message the person across the table to pass the salt. We did not have the Internet, so I couldn't send a generic email thanking people for my bat mitzvah presents. That would have been a godsend, because it's hard to find the most diplomatic way to say, thanks, but your gift stinks. I cannot use a Day-Glo green plastic bracelet sprinkled with pink daisies that Carmen Miranda would veto. Meantime, my brother is getting slick watches and Cross pens, when it's his turn to pretend he's a man.

Of course, the injustice was not lost on me -- then or now. And happily, I found a used copy of "Sisterhood is Powerful" in the library, which cleared up the mystery. Subversive feminism to some, essential to others, it was a potent reminder that books are power. Mostly, they have the power to provoke your parents and teachers. It's go-time.

Yet the publishing biz, like the newspaper and magazine world, is being challenged in the digital age. So is the status of book editors. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution eliminated the job, while the Los Angeles Times merged its once stand-alone section with the Sunday opinion pages. Across the U.S., newspapers are either nixing book sections or running reprints from the wires. Book reviews, we might assume, are in peril.

One bright spot: there are many online book blogs. Kudos to any venue -- digital or print -- that smartly discusses books and ideas. Add Bookmarks to the list.

The 5-year-old bimonthly is chock-full of reviews; it summarizes more than 500 from over 50 major pubs. It's a digest for those obsessed with new books and a user-friendly way to keep informed -- and impress your friends.

Here's how it works: Bookmarks sums up a book (with the requisite one to four stars), then runs review excerpts from reputable papers -- from The New York Times to the Denver Post. Usually, it features several glowing reviews and the occasional critical dig. Not every book is worthy of note. Any idea how many trees were killed for the Barnes & Nobles remainder table? That is a crime against nature.

The mag also invites readers in on the action.

In the "Have You Read?" section, subscribers gush. But please, a moratorium on exclamation marks. "Coming of Age in Mississippi," which chronicles growing up poor, black and female in the 1940s South, has got to be searing. Slugging it "a wonderful mix of the personal and the political!" is just too glib. We could be talking about Barney's time in the White House. In a real-life wag-the-dog scenario, Barney is the president's terrier. He attends high-level meetings and has a Web site. So far, Barney has yet to choke on a pretzel while sleeping. Then again, terriers are highly intelligent and alert animals.

A second democratic entry is "Book Group." Readers send a photo and a Q&A profile. The current one, from Grand Rapids, Mich., is comprised of five women who discovered -- I kid you not -- that "we could meet to talk about books without actually having read them. After all, reading does take a lot of time." That's akin to: Sex is fun, but children are a risky, long-term investment. By contrast, a good book can enhance your life. Added bonus: if you don't like it, you can always take it back.

Still, Bookmarks does something terrific: It tackles a particular author or era from the past, such as "Literature of the Beat Generation," which examines the drug- and sex-fueled works of Jack Kerouac, Alan Ginsberg and William Burroughs. Sidebars add nifty summations of the author and best-known works, and the feature ends with a few lines from a period review.

I learned that Burroughs' "Junky" was a seminal novel about heroin addiction, and Ginsberg's poem "Howl" delivers an honest exploration of mental illness. Which means neither is on my reading list. Two episodes of "24" is enough anxiety for a lifetime. But the sidebar -- women of the beat generation -- was informative. And now, like the Michigan five, I can talk about the Beats without having read them. Thank you, Bookmarks!

But the "On the Road" boys pale next to the Emile Zola entry, my favorite. Zola wrote an impassioned defense of Dreyfus and shocked readers with depictions of late 19th-century lower-class Parisian life. "Nana," the story of a street prostitute who uses sex to become the most dazzling courtesan of the day, is a riveting tale of power, corruption and disintegration. And alongside "Lassommoir" and "Therese Raquin," it's among his masterpieces.

Finally, Bookmarks throws in experts each issue, say, some of the country's top guitarists to pick the best books to learn string theory. That's kind of cool. So is its devotion to literature, which needs more cheerleaders. Book it.


Published by: Bookmarks Publishing
Frequency: Bimonthly
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