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Summer of whodunits and pundits

May 31, 2004|David L. Ulin | Special to The Times

Back in the early 1990s, President Clinton was photographed coming out of a Washington, D.C., bookstore carrying a novel by Walter Mosley, to whom he referred as his favorite writer, the kind of plug we all could use. Before long, Mosley was a household name, and Clinton -- well, Clinton was spinning his own stories, parsing language like a pro.

Little more than a decade later, the two will cross paths again, although this time on the bookstore shelves. On June 22, Clinton finally publishes his long-overdue (and much-awaited) memoir, "My Life"; shortly afterward, Mosley comes out with his seventh Easy Rawlins novel, "Little Scarlet," which takes place in the searing aftermath of the Watts riots.

Politics and mysteries may make strange bedfellows, but this summer, they dominate the publishing map. On the local front, Mike Davis turns his eye to state politics with "Heavy Metal Freeway: California's Season in Hell," the saga of last fall's gubernatorial recall.

Of the season's forthcoming releases, perhaps none arrives with more gravitas than Sen. Robert Byrd's "Losing America: Confronting a Reckless and Arrogant Presidency," a lament for what the author sees as a "slow unraveling of the people's liberties." For those who disagree with Byrd, there's investigative journalist Ronald Kessler's "A Matter of Character," which argues that the administration's policies are not reckless so much as they are an expression of President Bush's sense of moral absolutism.

To put it all in perspective, pick up L.A. Weekly Deputy Editor John Powers' "Sore Winners: (And the Rest of Us) in George Bush's America," a book that takes on icons of both the left and the right (Katrina vanden Heuvel, John Ashcroft), decoding the through-the-looking-glass landscape of contemporary American culture with the same clear-eyed intelligence that makes the author's column "On" such an essential read. And speaking of essential columns, the Boston Globe's James Carroll gathers 88 of his most trenchant op-ed pieces in "Crusade: Chronicles of an Unjust War," a work of surpassing moral clarity that, in covering the period from Sept. 11, 2001, to the present, argues for a measured response to the threats that face us, rather than the exploitation of our fears.

Fear has everything to do with why so many of us read mysteries; this is a genre in which, as Michael Connelly once noted, good triumphs over evil, a reassurance that, now more than ever, seems to strike especially close to home. Connelly's 14th book, "The Narrows," should keep readers turning pages throughout the summer as the author sets detective Harry Bosch on the trail of serial killer Robert Backus.

Robert Wilson explores a more ambiguous corruption in "Blood Is Dirt" and "A Darkening Stain," both of which unfold in the fluid territory of West Africa, where "troubleshooter" Bruce Medway finds that very little is as it seems. In "Double Play," meanwhile, Robert B. Parker takes us to 1947, the year Jackie Robinson broke baseball's color barrier, to explore a more familiar, if equally elusive, social territory with the story of a World War II veteran hired by the Brooklyn Dodgers to be Robinson's bodyguard.

What's compelling about Parker's novel is its quintessential American-ness, the way it takes an aspect of our social fabric and encourages us to look at it anew. Such themes mark much of the summer's fiction, from Stacey D'Erasmo's novel "A Seahorse Year," with its portrait of an unorthodox San Francisco family forced to confront its own contradictions, to Percival Everett's surreal satire "American Desert," in which a man commits suicide only to be resurrected three days later at his funeral.

Of all these books, perhaps the most American is one that doesn't take place in the United States: David Bezmogis' collection of linked stories, "Natasha," which, revolving around the Berman family -- Russian Jews who emigrate to Toronto at the height of the Brezhnev years -- operates in the tradition of Philip Roth and Bernard Malamud. David Foster Wallace also has a book of short stories, "Oblivion," his first work of fiction since 1999.

If Wallace's fiction has a nonfiction analogue, it might be found in the essays of Lawrence Weschler, the cultural critic who, like Wallace, writes with a profound wit and love of language. Weschler's new book is "Vermeer in Bosnia: Cultural Comedies and Political Tragedies," a collection of pieces that features, among other things, his account of the 1994 Northridge earthquake, one of the most stirring examples of personal reportage I've ever read.

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