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A fruitful autumn harvest Highlights from the season's stage, dance, architecture, books, art, classical and pop.

September 07, 2008

The return of the spy

Secret agents like to stay in the shadows, but these days they're in plain sight. If 2008 hasn't already been the year of the spy, the fall list is going to make it so. This year has already seen an elegant new novel from historical espionage writer Alan Furst, "The Spies of Warsaw" (Random House) and a reissue project by Overlook Press on the soulful spy novels of Charles McCarry. It's also, let's not forget, Ian Fleming's centenary, which has led to the reissue of his James Bond novels. August brought Alan S. Cowell's "The Terminal Spy: A True Story of Espionage, Betrayal and Murder" (Broadway), about the poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko, as well as Andrew Meier's "The Lost Spy: An American in Stalin's Secret Service" (Norton), about Isaiah Oggins, whom Stalin had killed. Perhaps most eccentric of all is "The Spy's Bedside Book" (Bantam), a grab-bag anthology edited by Graham Greene and his brother Hugh. The book, originally published in the U.K. in 1957, includes all sorts of oddities, from an excerpt from Eric Ambler's classic "The Mask of Dimitrios" to espionage-themed poems by W.H. Auden and William Blake and a nasty little passage about an exploding cigar.

Everything old is new again

Writers often return to old territory, but is that because it's so creatively rich or are their motives otherwise? A case of writer's block or the desire to cash in? John Updike certainly doesn't need the money, but in "The Widows of Eastwick" (Knopf), he returns to the coven that caused so much amorous mischief in his 1984 novel "The Witches of Eastwick." Each woman now uneasily faces the prospect of growing older -- "Listen, doll," one says, "we're ancient. It's the inner woman that matters now" -- and facing it alone, until, of course, they realize that they still have each other. Also coming in the fall is Nelson DeMille's "The Gate House" (Grand Central), a novel that revisits the posh setting -- and Mafia complications -- of his bestselling "The Gold Coast." Gregory Maguire seems incapable of fleeing from Oz; the "Wicked" author's new novel is "A Lion Among Men" (Morrow). Toni Morrison's "A Mercy" (Knopf) is set in the American past, much like her stunning novel "Beloved." All these books suggest there is plenty of unfinished business for these writers. That seems especially true of Thomas Keneally's "Searching for Schindler" (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday), a work of nonfiction in which he describes just how an Australian gentile came to write the stirring Holocaust novel "Schindler's List." "I had stumbled upon it," he says about the Schindler story. "I had not grasped it. It had grasped me."

Hail to the chief

"Lincoln is distinguished from every other president, with the exception of Jefferson, in that we can be certain that he wrote every word to which his name is attached." So begins Fred Kaplan's "Lincoln: The Biography of a Writer" (Harper), which considers the 16th president from the vantage of what he read and what moved him -- Shakespeare, for instance, is not a surprising influence; so were Robert Burns and Lord Byron. As we might expect, given the election, Kaplan's "Lincoln" is hardly the only presidential history to appear this fall. There's also Newsweek editor Jon Meacham's "American Lion" (Random House), which looks at the White House years of Andrew Jackson; H.W. Brands' "Traitor to His Class: The Privileged Life and Radical Presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt" (Doubleday); and Gary Ecelbarger's "The Great Comeback: How Abraham Lincoln Beat the Odds to Win the 1860 Republican Nomination" (Thomas Dunne/St. Martin's Press). One of the most arresting presidential books of the season takes an unexpected tack: Annette Gordon-Reed's "The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family" (Norton). Although Thomas Jefferson hovers over this work for obvious reasons, Gordon-Reed argues that her story is much larger than one might assume. "Monticello was a world unto itself for four generations of Hem- ingses. . . . but they were only part of a much larger family history," she writes.

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