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Between the Covers

As Days Grow Shorter, the List of Good Books Gets Longer

This fall's heavy hitters range from Vidal and Wolfe to a biography of Saul Bellow.

September 12, 2000|DAVID L. ULIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Publishing is a schizophrenic business. In the last decade or so, it's become a hard-core corporate undertaking, involving subdivisions within subdivisions and international conglomerates controlling increasingly large percentages of the marketplace. At the same time, the industry clings to a certain veneer of traditional culture, the vestige of an earlier time. Nowhere is that more pronounced than in regard to seasons--which, for many publishers, continue to determine how and when particular titles will be issued with the rigidity of holy law.

Winter is a dead zone, summer is for blockbusters, and fall . . . well, fall is the season of the big books--hearty, serious, the intellectual equivalent of comfort food.

This fall is a perfect case in point, as publishers line up to throw their literary weight around. In October, Viking will release Mary Karr's "Cherry," the sequel to "The Liars' Club," in which the author traces the fine line of her sexual coming-of-age in Texas during an adolescence with no apparent rules. Another kind of awakening motivates Gore Vidal's "The Golden Age" (Doubleday), the seventh novel in his "Empire" series, which looks at America's rise to world-power status and its concurrent slide into McCarthyite paranoia as World War II yields to the Cold War.

If you're looking for something more contemporary, Tom Wolfe's "Hooking Up" (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), a collection of reportage and short fiction, investigates the rituals of a new America, from gotcha journalism to teenage dating to the brave new world of genetic research. Armistead Maupin next month publishes "The Night Listener" (HarperCollins), his first novel in eight years, about a serial writer (sound familiar?) who must reexamine his preconceptions when he befriends an abused 13-year-old boy.

The biggest--and surely one of the most anticipated--books of the season is James Atlas' "Bellow: A Biography" (Random House), a long-awaited study of Saul Bellow's life. Personally, I don't get the fascination with Bellow; as my friend Bruce says, even his good books make for painful reading, and on top of that, there's the issue of reading (or writing) a biography of someone who is alive.

Still, there's no question that Bellow's life is rife with great material--how many 84-year-olds can you think of who who have fathered both a new novel and a new baby this year? The buzz around this book has started and should reach critical mass by its Oct. 17 release.

Big books aside, some interesting themes emerge throughout the fall lists, like markers of the zeitgeist. Perhaps the most prevalent involves the fluid boundary between literature and genre fiction, a distinction that may finally end up rendered obsolete. Not only are so-called "popular" writers crossing over--next month, Stephen King will publish "On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft" (Scribner), a half reminiscence, half how-to book, while Vintage issues "Selected Stories" by Theodore Sturgeon, the writer who inspired Kurt Vonnegut's character Kilgore Trout--but the literati continue to mine the realm of genre, using it as a key component of their work.

Kazuo Ishiguro's "When We Were Orphans" (Knopf) adapts the conventions of detective fiction to tell the story of an Englishman looking for his missing parents in between-the-wars Shanghai; Michael Chabon's "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay" (Random House) revolves around two young men in 1930s Brooklyn who create a comic book superhero. Both Ishiguro and Chabon can flat-out write, which makes anything they do a pleasure, but there's something especially exciting about seeing a book or author break the mold.

This same idea accounts for the charm of "The Vintage Book of Amnesia" (Vintage), edited by Jonathan Lethem, an anthology that takes as its subject the nebulous territory of memory and forgetfulness, and gathers writers from nearly every corner of the literary landscape, among them Shirley Jackson, Jorge Luis Borges, Philip K. Dick, Steve Erickson and Julio Cortazar.

Of course, fall is also a time of retrospection, of summing up and taking stock, and, as always, plenty of books fulfill this function, revealing our heritage in different ways.

As part of its continuing effort to preserve the American literary canon, the Library of America will issue "F. Scott Fitzgerald: Novels and Stories 1920-1922," as well as a comprehensive, two-volume set of Tennessee Williams' plays, featuring 32 works for the stage.

Mapping a different corner of the landscape is "The Best American Essays of the Century" (Houghton Mifflin), edited by the ubiquitous Joyce Carol Oates, and highlighting such nonfiction masterpieces as Susan Sontag's "Notes on Camp" and Martin Luther King Jr.'s "Letter From Birmingham Jail." (For all the vivid work in these pages, Oates is a sneaky sort of editor who includes one of her own pieces.)

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