BOOKS

The return of the spy

Secret agents like to stay in the shadows, but these days they're in plain sight. If 2008 hasn't already been the year of the spy, the fall list is going to make it so. This year has already seen an elegant new novel from historical espionage writer Alan Furst, "The Spies of Warsaw" (Random House) and a reissue project by Overlook Press on the soulful spy novels of Charles McCarry. It's also, let's not forget, Ian Fleming's centenary, which has led to the reissue of his James Bond novels. August brought Alan S. Cowell's "The Terminal Spy: A True Story of Espionage, Betrayal and Murder" (Broadway), about the poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko, as well as Andrew Meier's "The Lost Spy: An American in Stalin's Secret Service" (Norton), about Isaiah Oggins, whom Stalin had killed. Perhaps most eccentric of all is "The Spy's Bedside Book" (Bantam), a grab-bag anthology edited by Graham Greene and his brother Hugh. The book, originally published in the U.K. in 1957, includes all sorts of oddities, from an excerpt from Eric Ambler's classic "The Mask of Dimitrios" to espionage-themed poems by W.H. Auden and William Blake and a nasty little passage about an exploding cigar.

Everything old is new again

Writers often return to old territory, but is that because it's so creatively rich or are their motives otherwise? A case of writer's block or the desire to cash in? John Updike certainly doesn't need the money, but in "The Widows of Eastwick" (Knopf), he returns to the coven that caused so much amorous mischief in his 1984 novel "The Witches of Eastwick." Each woman now uneasily faces the prospect of growing older -- "Listen, doll," one says, "we're ancient. It's the inner woman that matters now" -- and facing it alone, until, of course, they realize that they still have each other. Also coming in the fall is Nelson DeMille's "The Gate House" (Grand Central), a novel that revisits the posh setting -- and Mafia complications -- of his bestselling "The Gold Coast." Gregory Maguire seems incapable of fleeing from Oz; the "Wicked" author's new novel is "A Lion Among Men" (Morrow). Toni Morrison's "A Mercy" (Knopf) is set in the American past, much like her stunning novel "Beloved." All these books suggest there is plenty of unfinished business for these writers. That seems especially true of Thomas Keneally's "Searching for Schindler" (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday), a work of nonfiction in which he describes just how an Australian gentile came to write the stirring Holocaust novel "Schindler's List." "I had stumbled upon it," he says about the Schindler story. "I had not grasped it. It had grasped me."

Hail to the chief

"Lincoln is distinguished from every other president, with the exception of Jefferson, in that we can be certain that he wrote every word to which his name is attached." So begins Fred Kaplan's "Lincoln: The Biography of a Writer" (Harper), which considers the 16th president from the vantage of what he read and what moved him -- Shakespeare, for instance, is not a surprising influence; so were Robert Burns and Lord Byron. As we might expect, given the election, Kaplan's "Lincoln" is hardly the only presidential history to appear this fall. There's also Newsweek editor Jon Meacham's "American Lion" (Random House), which looks at the White House years of Andrew Jackson; H.W. Brands' "Traitor to His Class: The Privileged Life and Radical Presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt" (Doubleday); and Gary Ecelbarger's "The Great Comeback: How Abraham Lincoln Beat the Odds to Win the 1860 Republican Nomination" (Thomas Dunne/St. Martin's Press). One of the most arresting presidential books of the season takes an unexpected tack: Annette Gordon-Reed's "The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family" (Norton). Although Thomas Jefferson hovers over this work for obvious reasons, Gordon-Reed argues that her story is much larger than one might assume. "Monticello was a world unto itself for four generations of Hem- ingses. . . . but they were only part of a much larger family history," she writes.

Foreign affairs

In an apartment building of immigrants, one resident is convinced the others don't like him because he hates pizza. You might think New York, but it's Rome, and when an inconvenient corpse shows up, the various "truths" these people tell are more "Rashomon" than "Law & Order." Part social satire and part murder mystery, Amara Lakhous' "Clash of Civilizations Over an Elevator in Piazza Vittorio" is out in October from Europa Editions, an independent press based in Italy and New York. Europa, which focuses on works in translation, publishes books that range from the uplifting to the dark. One of its bestsellers (in Germany, Spain, Italy and France) is Muriel Barbery's "The Elegance of the Hedgehog," out here in September. The book explores the secrets of a well-to-do adolescent girl and the concierge in her French apartment building. Will American readers get past the obnoxious wealthy Marxist on the first page? Works in translation bring a thrill because they force a new point of view. People drop out of French society -- as in Jean-Claude Izzo's "A Sun for the Dying" -- in ways other than they do in the United States. These books are a reminder that different societies function . . . differently. But the people within them -- the societies and their literature -- are the connective force. Take the women in Elena Ferrante's intense books, under so much psychological pressure that they slide into extreme behaviors. They're recognizable, even if Ferrante isn't; she's Italy's J.D. Salinger, so reclusive that she publishes under a pseudonym.

Reading is fundamental

The more contemporary culture defines itself as post-literate, the more books on reading there seem to be. This fall is a good example: From Daniel Pennac's whimsical "The Rights of the Reader" (Candlewick) to Margo Hammond and Ellen Heltzel's "Between the Covers: The Book Babes' Guide to a Woman's Reading Pleasures" (Da Capo), how and why we read is a hot topic again. In "Print Is Dead: Books in Our Digital Age" (MacMillan), Jeff Gomez argues that we are at a Gutenbergian moment, in which writers, publishers and readers must make the jump from paper to the more fluid territory of the screen. Digital reading, though, doesn't offer the same tactile solace as its analog counterpart, the quality of active solitude. For a glimpse of what the page still offers, look at Andre Kertesz's newly reissued photo essay "On Reading" (Norton), which features 66 images, taken between 1915 and 1970, of people enraptured by print. Public and private, individual and collective, these photographs remind us of the profound hold of reading, the way it takes us away from the world. Speaking of being taken away, let's not forget Laura Miller's "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia" (Little, Brown), due out in December, which uses C.S. Lewis' life and art as a fulcrum to connect the experience of reading as both child and adult. (Full disclosure: Miller reviews Neal Stephenson's "Anathem" for us on Page 6.)

The Western canon

What if all you needed to know could be gleaned from a select number of books? That was the idea behind the Great Books of the Western World project launched in 1952 by the University of Chicago and the Encyclopedia Britannica. No mind that you'd attempted Aeschylus in a freshman seminar and found it musty. All it needed was a snazzy binding and poof -- education for the masses. Or at least something to fill up those capacious bookshelves in the den. Alex Beam's "A Great Idea at the Time" (PublicAffairs) looks at the postwar fascination with the Great Books, evoking a moment when pop culture and education merged. But if times have changed, the Great Books idea is hardly obsolete, as Jay Parini's "Promised Land" (Doubleday) suggests. Parini examines 13 books that "played a role in shaping the nation's idea of itself," including Henry David Thoreau's "Walden" and Jack Kerouac's "On the Road." Among other things, he reports that "Of Plymouth Plantation" was lost for two centuries before becoming a publishing sensation in 1856 and helping jump-start the idea of a Thanksgiving holiday. Meanwhile, in "Racing Odysseus" (University of California Press), Roger H. Martin, 61 and a cancer survivor, enrolls as a freshman at St. John's College in Annapolis, Md., where the whole curriculum consists of Great Books. In its own way, Martin's book is the inverse of George Plimpton's "Paper Lion": the author's day job is as president of Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, Va.

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