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Dan Brown's 'The Lost Symbol' is code for fall's big book

Works by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Philip Roth, James Ellroy and Michael Chabon also will enliven autumn.

September 07, 2009|Carolyn Kellogg

This fall, there will be nothing bigger in bookstores than Hurricane Dan. On Sept. 15, Dan Brown's "The Lost Symbol," the follow-up to "The Da Vinci Code" -- which sold 80 million copies worldwide and is said to be the biggest-selling novel ever -- arrives with high expectations; fans have spent six years waiting for Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon's next adventure.

As a consequence, perhaps, some publishers have gotten quieter literary fiction on the shelves in advance. Los Angeles novelist Michelle Huneven's "Blame" is about the lifetime of consequences that result from an alcoholic's mistake. "A Gate at the Stairs" is the latest from Lorrie Moore; it details a Midwestern college student/nanny's coming of age.

At the other end of life, a food critic lies dying in Muriel Barbery's "Gourmet Rhapsody" -- technically the author's first novel, although here in the United States, it follows her breakout hit "The Elegance of the Hedgehog," and takes place in the same French apartment building.

Other writers have the kind of high profile that can weather the storm of popular fiction. There's Philip Roth, whose 30th book, "The Humbling," arrives in November. At 160 pages, it's a slender novel, one that promises more on the themes of sex and aging.

James Ellroy's "Blood's a Rover" is a bombastic 656 pages; this book completes the trilogy that began with "American Tabloid." Taking place in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the novel moves from Las Vegas to Washington, D.C., the Caribbean and back to Los Angeles, where Ellroy's crime fiction has always resonated best.

Paul Auster's "Invisible" begins in the same era, when a student activist at Columbia University gets involved in a troublesome love triangle. Yet such details may be beside the point; Auster's brilliance lies not in plot but in exploiting the complications of fiction as a form while exploring character and identity.

Character was always the issue for Sen. Edward M. Kennedy's critics, but if any book can compete with the "The Lost Symbol," it's his memoir, "True Compass." A memoir from such a public figure may have little to tell us. But perhaps it can offer a little insight: "Some people make mistakes and try to learn from them and do better," Kennedy writes. "Our sins don't define the whole picture of who we are."

Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Michael Chabon explores mistakes and more in "Manhood for Amateurs: The Pleasures and Regrets of a Husband, Father and Son." He'll be at Los Angeles' Central Library on Oct. 13, the day before Gail Collins' "When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present" is published. She's also coming, nine days later. Too bad; the pair of them would have made for a great double bill.

But enough "he said, she said." How about what a bunch of other people said? In "The Simpsons: An Uncensored, Unauthorized History," John Ortved compiles an oral history of the award-winning, sometimes subversive TV program. Authorized but sure to be controversial is Jon Krakauer's "Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman." With extensive research in Afghanistan and access to the NFL player-turned-soldier's family, the author of "Into Thin Air" takes a hard look at the U.S. government's belated admission that Tillman was killed by friendly fire.

War is a constant presence in Palestinian Mahmoud Darwish's work. Four epic poems are collected in "If I Were Another," the first of his books to be published since his death last year.

Survival is key in Margaret Atwood's environmental dystopia "The Year of the Flood," a sequel to her 2003 novel "Oryx and Crake." And in Jonathan Lethem's quasi-futuristic "Chronic City," a former TV star pines for his doomed astronaut girlfriend as the world shifts unreliably around him.

A.S. Byatt hints at dark family secrets in "The Children's Book," a novel that stretches from England's Victorian era to World War I. That's not far from the territory of the title story in Alice Munro's "Too Much Happiness"; in her first collection since winning the Man Booker Prize, the Canadian author ventures far from home.

Maybe it has something to do with prizes, but another big winner is also thinking about happiness this fall. Richard Powers, who won the National Book Award for his last novel, "The Echo Maker," returns with "Generosity," in which a professor discovers a happiness gene.

If Powers' professor were real, he might have been invited to contribute to the 1,200-page "A New Literary History of America," edited by Greil Marcus and Werner Sollors. Here, academics, creative writers and unexpected commentators, including artist Kara Walker, seek to frame key moments in our cultural history.

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