It's a smorgasbord of delicious reading

Who can resist just one more book, with Salman Rushdie, E.L. Doctorow, J.M. Coetzee on fall menu?

A&e Today

September 25, 2005|By MARY CAROLE MCCAULEY | MARY CAROLE MCCAULEY,SUN REPORTER

One by one, the season's new arrivals beckon, waving us over to the tables on which they lounge so seductively:

Shalimar the Clown by Salman Rushdie gives us a come-hither look. The March by E.L. Doctorow whispers low and sweet in our ear. Zadie Smith's On Beauty provocatively flutters its pages. Slow Man by J.M. Coetzee flips open its cover and spreads out before us on its spine. It's so tempting to sample the merchandise. And who, really, does it hurt?

So many great new books, so little money.

Once we succumb, it's that much easier to indulge again -- especially with the seemingly endless temptations that will be strewn across our paths this fall.

There's Gabriel Garcia Marquez's Memories of My Melancholy Whores, Louise Erdrich's The Painted Bird, Joyce Carol Oates' Missing Mom and Amy Tan's Saving Fish From Drowning.

We emerge from our bookstore sojourns disheveled, blinking and out of breath. Our wallet is empty and our charge cards are maxed. We can't wait to come back.

True, roughly 195,000 new titles are published each year, so a random perusal of any month is sure to turn up some winners. But by anyone's estimate, the list of fiction and non-fiction to be published in the next four weeks is an embarrassment of riches.

"This is a great and exciting time for readers," says Tristan Davies, a senior lecturer for the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University.

Some new titles will soar while others flop, but everyone will be talking about them. Coetzee won the Nobel Prize in 2003, so the expectations for his newest effort are high. Doctorow, publishing his first novel in five years, has been controversial for his vehement criticisms of President Bush and the war in Iraq. Smith, who was anointed the Next Big Thing on the strength of her debut novel, White Teeth, has yet to reach her 30th birthday.

Davies is so eager to plunge into this year's offerings that he gets up early, at 6 a.m. (!), to get in some quality page time with his favorite writers. Next to the comfy chair, he plans to have Smith's On Beauty and Joan Didion's new memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking, about the death of her husband and the illness that devastated their daughter. And Davies has been dying to get his hands on Stephen Dixon's new novel, Phone Rings, ever since reading an excerpt in Boulevard magazine.

"It's shockingly brilliant and unbelievable," he says, "the best thing he's done so far."

Books with substance

Huge names in non-fiction are weighing in now as well.

Tracy Kidder, who won a Pulitzer Prize for The Soul of a New Machine, has come out with a memoir about his Vietnam War experience called My Detachment. John Berendt, whose Midnight In the Garden of Good and Evil spent more than four years on the best-seller lists, gives us The City of Falling Angels, about Venice and its eccentric inhabitants. Jonathan Harr (A Civil Action), has written The Lost Painting about a masterpiece by Caravaggio that disappeared for 200 years.

And right after Halloween comes one of the biggest titles of the fall, Doris Kearns Goodwin's new book about Abraham Lincoln and his political competitors, Team of Rivals.

"Traditionally, the fall has been considered to be the great time of the year to bring books out," says Paul Slovak, associate publisher of Viking Books.

"It's partially the end of summer and people coming back to work after vacation, and partly looking forward to the Christmas gift-buying season."

When the air turns cool, readers prefer stick-to-the-bones meals of all kinds, literary as well as culinary -- though it would be in poor taste to compare a novel by, say, Oates, to a pot roast.

"It's a time when people are hungry and adventurous in their reading tastes," Slovak says. "We don't publish escapist entertainment in the fall."

This fall's offerings seem particularly enticing in contrast to the lackluster spring and summer, says Jonathan Burnham, senior vice president of HarperCollins books.

"There's been a dearth of good new fiction this year," he says. "A lot of people have noticed it. It's the way the wheel spins. There are dry periods and rich ones. There's no rhyme or reason for it. But this fall definitely is a rewarding bounty after a long drought."

In hindsight, Burnham says, "it might have been better if some of those big books had been put out earlier, to have avoided this logjam."

Random House was one of the rare publishers to risk publishing a "serious" author with major name recognition in the summer.

John Irving's new novel Until I Find You originally was slated to be in bookstores last spring. When it wasn't ready for publication in April and May -- the second biggest book-selling time of the year -- Random House officials decided to risk launching it over the summer instead of waiting until fall.

They intentionally released it on July 12, four days before the publication of the sixth installment of J.K. Rowling's phenomenally popular Harry Potter series.

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