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David Ulin picks his top books for fall

Fall is a terrific time to be a reader. Publishers shake off their summer doldrums and get down to business again. And writers? Well, writers settle in also and put out big books.

Over the next few months alone, we'll see new releases from an array of authors: Dave Eggers, Dana Goodyear, Elizabeth Gilbert and Donna Tartt among them. There are so many new titles that it's impossible to keep track of them. As to what we are to make of this, I choose to find it reassuring, a reminder that, despite the vagaries of the industry, the fundamentals haven't changed. Publishers still gear up for fall like kids getting ready to go to school and readers are still the ones who benefit.

Of course, no one can read everything, but that's part of the point also, that we get to pick and choose. So in that spirit, here are six books about which I am particularly enthusiastic as we make the slow turn into fall.

"At Night We Walk in Circles" by Daniel Alarcón (Riverhead: 384 pp., $27.95)

Alarcón's previous book, "Lost City Radio," was a revelation -- a novel, set in an unnamed South American country, that was equally mythic and political. His follow-up, "At Night We Walk in Circles," is in some ways related, the story of an actor named Nelson, cut adrift in his own city, until he ends up on tour with a political theater troupe. As in "Lost City Radio," Alarcón's purpose here is to disorient us, stripping away markers of place and identity, until we have to see the world on different terms. "Perhaps this is what he got the part — his youth," Alarcón observes of Nelson. "His ignorance. His malleability. His ambition. The tour would begin in a month. And that is when the trouble began." Oct. 31

"The Lowland" by Jhumpa Lahiri (Alfred A. Knopf: 340 pp., $27.95)

Lahiri, who won a Pulitzer Prize for her first book, "Interpreter of Maladies," is among our most nuanced fiction writers, an observer of the American Bengali community and the vagaries of immigrant life. In this, her second novel, she extends that vision to explore the lives of two brothers in India and the United States. Lahiri is a deft observer of both family and culture, of the rhythms we cannot escape. "Certain creatures laid eggs that were able to endure the dry season," she writes. "Others survived by burying themselves in mud, simulating death, waiting for the return of rain."September 24

"The Kraus Project" by Karl Kraus, translated and annotated by Jonathan Franzen (Farrar, Straus & Giroux: 320 pp., $28)

Who else but Jonathan Franzen would come up with this: an annotated collection by the early 20th century Viennese satirist Karl Kraus, who was an early critic of media and technology? It's a remarkable oddball project, featuring five essays in German and English, along with Franzen's commentary. In many ways, Franzen and Kraus are kindred spirits, willfully out of tune with the superficialities of their times. Such a confluence — two writers talking, across the space of 100 years — gives the book its unlikely charm. Oct. 1

"Urban Tumbleweed: Notes from a Tanka Diary" by Harryette Mullen (Graywolf: 128 pp., $15 paper)

How much do I love the idea for this book? Mullen — a professor at UCLA and the author of seven previous books of poetry, including the National Book Award finalist "Sleeping With the Dictionary" — has here appropriated the traditional Japanese verse form of the tanka and used it to create a journal of her daily life. Mullen is a walker, and in many ways, this is a walker's diary, a record of her interactions with the city at the level of its streets. But even more, it is a portrait of her mind in the act of reflection, sharply observed and deeply felt. Nov. 5

"Doctor Sleep" by Stephen King (Scribner: 532 pp., $30)

King's 1977 novel "The Shining" is the scariest book I've ever read. The story of a writer and his slow descent into possession and madness, it's like "King Lear" on acid, in which there is no escape from the ghosts that haunt us inside and out. In "Doctor Sleep," King picks up the story of Dan Torrance, son of the protagonist in "The Shining," who as a 5-year-old played a major role in the earlier book. Dan wants nothing more than to forget, to get out from under his tormented heritage, but King has other plans for him, leaving him no other option than to come to terms, finally, with his past. Sept. 24

"The Crooked Mirror: A Memoir of Polish-Jewish Reconciliation" by Louise Steinman (Beacon: 224 pp., $26.95)

Steinman, who curates the Aloud series at the Central Library, here seeks to make a literary reconciliation: exploring the treacherous subject of Polish Jewry through the filter of her family's roots. It's an elegant endeavor, deft and revealing in both private and public ways. As in her previous effort, "The Souvenir," Steinman is adept at questioning assumptions, encouraging us to see the world, and history, in broad and complex terms. "Until I went to Poland," she tells us, "I hadn't realized that it was a country in my head too." Nov. 5

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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