"The Palace Hotel at Fort Romper was painted a light blue, a shade that is on the legs of a kind of heron, causing the bird to declare its position against any background. The Palace Hotel, then, was always screaming and howling in a way that made the dazzling winter landscape of Nebraska seem only a grey swampish hush." So begins Stephen Crane's story "The Blue Hotel," one of his great western tales, reminding us just how modern this writer still feels. This new book collects his best stories -- part of a classy series promoting the short story in general that includes volumes by Tolstoy, Dostoevski, Melville and Oscar Wilde. Each comes tagged with a new story by a contemporary writer at the end.
Hakan Nesser is a Swedish writer who should be as well-known as his compatriot Henning Mankell. "Mind's Eye," his first published novel in Sweden (but the fourth to reach us in English translation), begins when a man wakes up with a hangover and finds his wife dead in the bathtub. He's committed to an institution, then murdered himself, bringing Nesser's hero, Chief Inspector Van Veeteren, onto the case. Nesser concerns himself less with landscape than Mankell and more with inner horror. The style is spare, Van Veeteren is pleasingly sour and believable, and this is a great series.
Elmore Leonard: "Swag" (Harper)
"The window was down. Stick looked at the guy who was stooped over a little, staring at him: nice-looking guy about thirty-five or so, long hair carefully combed, all dressed up with his suit and tie on. A car salesman. Stick could smell the guy's aftershave lotion." This, from the first page of "Swag," highlights why Elmore Leonard's so good and so tough to imitate. He has a conversational ease with detail and nuance. The plots arise from the same predictable human wellspring (people make mistakes, plans go wrong), but Leonard juggles these balls better than anybody -- so well, in fact, you don't even notice. This latest run of stylish reissues also includes "LaBrava" and (the one everybody fell in love with, thanks to George Clooney and J-Lo) "Out of Sight."
Caroline Hull and Andrew Jotischky: "The Penguin Historical Atlas of the Bible Lands" (Penguin)
A few years back, writing about a visit he made to the Middle East, New Yorker editor David Remnick encapsulated the tragedies of the area in a simple formula: "Too much history, too little geography." The region is ancient, and small, and three of the world's most important religions developed there and have proceeded to fight wars over its turf for millenniums. This fascinating atlas provides a clear overview of how we got to where we are now, from exodus to intifada.
Amin Maalouf: "Origins" (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
Amin Maalouf, who was born in Lebanon but now lives in Paris, is a writer of historical fiction, an opera librettist and a historian. Here, in this lovely memoir, he traces his family's origins and history, from the mountain villages of Lebanon to Utah and Cuba. It's a deep and compelling journey of self-discovery, quietly and elegantly written, eschewing broad sweeps of nationalism and religion in favor of meditations on mortality and the strangeness of our relationship to the past.
Benjamin Nugent: "American Nerd" (Scribner)
"Before I launch into a discussion of what a nerd is and where the idea of nerds comes from, I'd like to disclose that when I was eleven, I had a rich fantasy life in which I carried a glowing staff," writes Benjamin Nugent at the beginning of this book, a mock ethnography that mingles autobiography and essay in a funny dissection that feels true. So: Brian Wilson was a nerd, Elvis Costello was, and is, a nerd. Tarantino? A nerd par excellence, who glorifies nerdiness into weirdly epic cool. "Becoming a different person and having sex or making out as an alternate person: this is a practice that exists in most nerd worlds," writes Nugent, giving an angle, maybe, on how nerds can become creators. Funny.
Gay Talese: "Honor Thy Father" and "Thy Neighbor's Wife" (HarperPerennial)
As a personality, Gay Talese has never dropped out of sight, but, as a writer, he's certainly dropped out of fashion. Which is unjust, as the reissue of these works demonstrates. "Honor Thy Father" is about the Bonnano crime family in New York. "Thy Neighbor's Wife" chronicles Talese's decade-long immersion in the subject of adultery. The subjects, therefore, are close to the American heart and to the heart of America: sex and violence. We get the feeling that Talese is sometimes way too serious about his own flamboyant persona; nonetheless, few journalists have ever been able to immerse themselves in the richness and subtleties of people's stories in the way that he does. His eyes and ears are always open, and he can write with stunning grace. These massive, somehow indispensable books are newly introduced by Pete Hamill and Katie Roiphe.
Elaine Dundy: "The Old Man and Me" (New York Review Books Classics)
In this, in a way a sequel to her classic "The Dud Avocado," Elaine Dundy's young and sexy American heroine, named (excellently) Honey Flood this time, parks herself in London, hellbent on sleeping and conniving and boozing her way to the top. She's angry, ambitious, vixenish, Holly Golightly crossed with Kingsley Amis' Lucky Jim, and she observes beautifully: "There is a sort of coal hole in the heart of Soho that is open every afternoon: a dark, dank, dead-ended subterranean tunnel. It is a drinking club called the Crypt. . . ." I'm not sure who's claiming to have invented chick lit these days; but maybe Dundy should raise an arm, except that she's so murderously fierce. "Bad girls are more interesting than Good ones," she says here in a new introduction. The reader is glad she thinks that way.
Caroline Gordon: "The Collected Stories of Caroline Gordon" (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
Caroline Gordon died in 1981. She'd been married to Allen Tate and was a great short story writer of the American South, praised by Flannery O'Connor and Eudora Welty and Robert Penn Warren, though less famous than any of them. Her stories are much less wild than O'Connor's, though she writes in a more concrete way. "It was so dark in the ravine that at first she could not see the horses. Then her eyes grew accustomed to the gloom. She caught a gleam of white through the branches. She worked her way through the thicket and came upon Bess and Old Grey tethered to the ring that had been fixed in the trunk of a big pine. But the mule was not there." Here, at the start of "Hear the Nightingale Sing," a character, and a whole country world, are summoned up. Gordon's work and her themes -- the country, the struggle between men and women -- feel timeless.
Babette Deutsch: "Poetry Handbook" (HarperPerennial)
This classic reference work, a dictionary of terms, is reissued in a jazzy black and yellow jacket. Babette Deutsch was an accomplished poet and translator who really knew her stuff. "Rhythm -- As natural as breathing, the pulse of the blood, the ebb and flow of the tides, it is immediately experiences and recognized with pleasure, but it eludes definition," Deutsch writes. Well: She made a pretty decent stab at it. This book drew praise from Auden, Marianne Moore and William Carlos Williams, among others, when first published. It's excellent and useful, not least because it is so plentifully filled with poems and examples.
Richard Rayner's Paperback Writers column appears monthly at www.latimes.com/books.