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STYLE & CULTURE

It's a pleasure to see you again

Reexamining old turf and stretching out anew, a gallery of notable authors returns this season.

September 04, 2005|David L. Ulin | Special to The Times

NOT long ago, I visited the Andre Kertesz retrospective at LACMA, which spans six decades in the photographer's life. What's remarkable about Kertesz is not just his longevity, but the way that, throughout his career, his aesthetics continued to develop and change. There's an enormous difference between his early work -- images of Hungary in the 1920s -- and his final photos, taken in New York in the 1980s. As to how enormous, just have a look at "Andre Kertesz: The Early Years," a collection of 90 prints due out in October that captures the artist at the outset of his long creative arc.

In many ways, Kertesz seems to symbolize this fall's authors, many of whom have, well, been around. There's E.L. Doctorow, who returns with his third book in the last year and a half, a novel called "The March," which reimagines Gen. William T. Sherman's march through Georgia in starkly existential terms. Joan Didion releases her brief, piercing memoir, "The Year of Magical Thinking," recounting the death of her husband and the near-fatal illness of her daughter, which happened almost simultaneously in late 2003 and early 2004. (Tragically, events have overtaken the book; her daughter died late last month. Didion has said she will not update the memoir.)

In "Slow Man," his first novel since his Nobel Prize win in 2003, J.M. Coetzee explores the life of a photographer who loses a leg in an accident and must wrestle with the questions raised by such sudden, catastrophic change. Gabriel Garcia Marquez's "Memories of My Melancholy Whores" is a short novel that touches on the author's fundamental themes -- love lost, love regained, the pleasures of erotic impulse -- while Salman Rushdie's "Shalimar the Clown" begins with what looks like a political assassination in Los Angeles, then seeks out the personal underpinnings of the act.

Barbara Ehrenreich takes a nonfictional approach to this relationship between the political and the personal with "Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream," which picks up where her revelatory "Nickel and Dimed" left off, as the author goes undercover again, this time as an unemployed white-collar worker, to expose the insecure netherworld of the downsized, victim's of corporate culture's bottom line.

What makes Ehrenreich's work important is that it addresses the world we live in, the concerns that affect our lives. The same is true of Niles Eldredge's "Darwin: Discovering the Tree of Life," an intellectual biography that traces the arc of Charles Darwin's thinking through the filter of his experience. Eldredge's book appears in conjunction with "From So Simple a Beginning: Darwin's Four Great Books," which gathers "Voyage of the H.M.S. Beagle," "The Origin of Species," "The Descent of Man" and "The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals," offering a comprehensive overview of Darwin's work.

These texts should be required reading for anyone who dismisses evolution by conflating science with superstition. Talk about intelligent design.

When it comes to intelligent writing about science, Simon Winchester's "A Crack in the Edge of the World: America and the Great California Earthquake of 1906" presents a geologic and cultural history of the quake that changed the face of California, giving rise to many of the myths by which we define ourselves. A similar perspective drives Sharman Apt Russell's "Hunger: An Unnatural History," which examines the physical and metaphysical aspects of its subject, conflating biology and spirituality, starvation and fasting, in an illuminating way.

Myth too motivates John Berendt's "The City of Falling Angels" -- which does for Venice what his "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil" did for Savannah, Ga. -- as well as "A Short History of Myth," in which biblical scholar Karen Armstrong traces the lineage of mythmaking in human culture, arguing for its reintegration into contemporary life.

Then there's rock 'n' roll, the mythologies of which are reexamined in Peter Guralnick's "Dream Boogie: The Triumph of Sam Cooke," an in-depth look at the 1950s-'60s R&B singer, and Chris Salewicz's "Redemption Song: The Ballad of Joe Strummer," a portrait of the Clash's legendary frontman, who took the anarchy of punk and gave it a soul. Margaret Cho channels a punk-like intensity into her stand-up; her "I Have Chosen to Stay and Fight" takes on feminism, race and imperialism.

Finally, the late Hunter S. Thompson returns for one more salvo with "The Mutineer: Rants, Ravings and Missives From the Mountaintop, 1977-2005," the third and closing volume of his letters, which may be as close as we'll get to his autobiography. Thompson's writing is often so outrageous it literally reinvents the world. So too with the fiction writer George Saunders, whose first book-length work, "The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil," tells of a country so tiny that only one person can occupy it at a time.

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