"The Lost Memory of Skin" (Ecco) by Russell Banks. Coming Tuesday. Banks, one of our finest and most adventurous novelists, is not afraid to tackle big, tough topics that persistently bedevil the human species, and with his 17th book, he has picked a doozy: the tortured odyssey of a convicted sex offender. The story widens to become, in typical Banksian fashion, a disturbing portrait of the age, and of the marginalized and dispossessed people whose lives define it better than do the politicians or the historians.
"The Cat's Table" (Knopf) by Michael Ondaatje. Oct. 7. Not since Katherine Anne Porter's "Ship of Fools" (1962), perhaps, has an oceangoing vessel been the setting for such an ambitious novel. The new work by Ondaatje, author of "The English Patient" (1992), is set aboard a ship crossing the Indian Ocean in the 1950s. A young boy learns life lessons at the so-called "cat's table," the eating place at the opposite end of the ship's hierarchy from the captain's table.
"The Stranger's Child" (Knopf) by Alan Hollinghurst. Oct. 14. The author of "The Line of Beauty" (2004) writes like Henry James, but without the heavy-handed obfuscation; his gorgeous sentences home in on the delicate nuances of human relationships but don't sacrifice the larger social canvas along the way. In this novel, he follows a wealthy British family as its members negotiate the post-World War I landscape. Imagine a faster-paced and slyer "Masterpiece Theatre" production, with homoerotic interludes.
"11/22/63" (Scribner) by Stephen King. Nov. 8. The most prolific and imaginative writer of our time delivers a whale of a book about the Kennedy assassination, wrestling with the big "What if?" question: What if somebody had stopped Oswald? Because it's King, though, you know the story won't be chilly and theoretical; the characters will talk like real people and the era in which it's set will come alive.
"Mrs. Nixon: A Novelist Imagines a Life" (Scribner) by Ann Beattie. Nov. 11. Pat Nixon was the "The Good Wife" of the 1960s and '70s — the smiling, silent woman who stood beside a reviled politician, making the best of things. But what was she thinking? Beattie, a renowned short story writer, makes a thoughtful guess in her new work. The publisher calls the book "literary criticism," but the liner notes state that Beattie made up scenes and dialogue. Sounds like fiction to me.
"The Other Walk: Essays" (Graywolf) by Sven Birkerts. Available now. Birkerts, author of the classic collection "The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age" (1994), is one of the foremost essayists working today. He doesn't care about seeming cool or sounding smart; he writes what he thinks. In this new gathering, he combines his typically astute literary criticism with personal essays about his first post-college job at Borders Books in Ann Arbor, Mich.; the night he learned to play chess; and his reflections on Saul Bellow.
"Floating Worlds: The Letters of Edward Gorey & Peter F. Neumeyer" (Pomegranate). Edited by Peter F. Neumeyer. Available now. Gorey was the Chicago-born creator of exquisite, gasp-worthy books about unsightly creatures, untimely deaths and gloriously abnormal circumstances. In the late 1960s, he collaborated with Neumeyer, an author and scholar, on a handful of children's books. The famously reclusive Gorey and the convivial Neumeyer hit it off, and the consequent exchange of letters opens a new window on Gorey's personality. This sumptuously produced book also includes the envelopes Gorey decorated before mailing — creating yet another canvas for this unique artist, whose delightfully morbid drawings still grace the opening credits for the PBS TV series "Mystery!"
"The Table Comes First: Family, France, and the Meaning of Food" (Knopf) by Adam Gopnik. Nov. 4. Gopnik would surely be the world's greatest dinner guest; he can make any subject fascinating, and always backs up his curiosity with unhurried research and an acute eye for the telling detail. As the number of TV cooking shows piles up faster than the empty Pop-Tart wrappers in my kitchen, it's time to ask: Why is the world so fixated on food? Gopnik explores the origins of restaurants, recipes and other grub-centered rituals.
"Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman" (Random House) by Robert K. Massie. Nov. 8. No one has brought the world of pre-revolutionary Russia to vivid life as has Massie, a historian with a scholar's scrupulousness and a storyteller's gift. In books such as "Nicholas and Alexandria" (1967) and "Peter the Great" (1980), he carried readers back to the days of czars and czarinas. Now he tells the life of the woman who ruled Russia in the last half of the 18th century, a remarkable despot who wrote novels and plays, modernized her country and had Voltaire as a pen pal.
"Freud's Couch, Scott's Buttocks, Bronte's Grave" (University of Chicago Press) by Simon Goldhill. Nov. 15. The 19th century was the great age of literary tourism, when besotted readers flocked to the homes of their literary crushes. Stratford-upon-Avon went from a sleepy village to a drama fan's Disneyland; the lonely moors over which Charlotte and Emily Bronte once roved began to lure the multitudes. Goldhill, classics professor at the University of Cambridge and author of the marvelous polemic "Love, Sex, and Tragedy: How the Ancient World Shapes Our Lives" (2004), travels to these spots of worship — and does so, as much as possible, using Victorian-era transport.
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