Fall preview: books

Los Angeles Times Book Critic

Fall, it seems, starts earlier every year. Certainly, that’s true of publishing: Jonathan Franzen’s “Freedom” — arguably the big book of the season — has been a topic of discussion since mid-August, while other anticipated titles (Tom McCarthy’s “C,” Scarlett Thomas’ “Our Tragic Universe”) have been out since Labor Day. Yet this is just the tip of the iceberg; good books await all autumn long. Here, then, is a sample of what we have to look forward to, as the days grow shorter and the evenings stretch before us, waiting to be filled.


In October, Philip Roth releases “Nemesis,” the latest in the series of short novels he’s been publishing since 2006. Revolving around a 1944 polio outbreak, it returns to territory Roth has mined to great effect since the start of his career: the Jewish Newark of his childhood. Returning to familiar territory as well is Armistead Maupin, whose 10th novel, “Mary Ann in Autumn” — a “Tales of the City” book — brings his character Mary Ann Singleton back to San Francisco after 20 years to reconnect with a life she thought she’d left behind.

Memory again also motivates Nicole Krauss. In “Great House,” her follow-up to “The History of Love,” a desk becomes the possessor of its owners’ pasts and secrets. Cynthia Ozick’s “Foreign Bodies” recasts Henry James’ “The Ambassadors.” Then, there’s Jim Carroll’s “The Petting Zoo,” a novel set in the New York art world of the 1980s, on which the poet, singer and author of “The Basketball Diaries” was working when he died a year ago. Perhaps most intriguing is Janice Shapiro’s debut “Bummer and Other Stories,” a series of tales about women at the edge of their emotions or endurance; it has the title of the year.


Fiction may be strong this fall, but politics still dominates. On Nov. 9, George W. Bush releases his presidential memoir, “Decision Points”; two weeks later, Sarah Palin’s “American by Heart: Reflections on Family, Faith and Flag” appears. Bob Woodward’s much-anticipated “ Obama’s Wars” comes out Sept. 27; Obama himself writes the foreword to Nelson Mandela’s “Conversations with Myself.”

Also weighing in are the usual pundits, from all points on the ideological spectrum: Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson’s “Winner-Take-All Politics: How Washington Made the Rich Richer — And Turned its Back on the Middle Class”; Arianna Huffington’s “Third World America: How Our Politicians Are Abandoning the Middle Class and Betraying the American Dream”; Scott Rasmussen and Douglas Schoen’s “Mad as Hell: How the Tea Party Movement is Fundamentally Remaking Our Two-Party System” and Kate Zernike’s “Boiling Mad: Inside Tea Party America.”

Also of interest: “Ratification: The People Debate the Constitution, 1787-1788” by Pauline Maier, which traces the public discussion over constitutional ratification; and Robert D. Putnam and David E. Campbell’s “American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us.” And don’t miss “The Conservative Assault on the Constitution” by UC Irvine Law School dean Erwin Chemerinsky, a searing indictment of the effects of ideology on the laws that govern daily life.


Not all the fall’s nonfiction is political. In “Bird Cloud,” Annie Proulx writes about Wyoming and the house she built there, while Mark Jacobson’s “The Lampshade” offers an unorthodox vision of the Holocaust, spurred by the discovery, made by a friend of the author, of a lampshade made of human skin. Christopher Isherwood’s “The Sixties: Diaries 1960-1969” turns a personal lens on a tumultuous time. John Cage had his own influence on the 1960s — and in “Begin Again: A Biography of John Cage,” Pulitzer Prize-winner Kenneth Silverman tells the story of this uniquely American life.

Speaking of uniquely American lives, it’s hard to imagine two more compelling than Anne Sexton and Kurt Vonnegut. This fall, Sexton’s daughter, Linda Gray Sexton, and Vonnegut’s son Mark deliver new books that touch on their parents’ influence. Sexton’s “Half in Love: Surviving the Legacy of Suicide” builds upon her stunning 1994 memoir “Searching for Mercy Street,” examining the legacy of her mother’s death. Vonnegut’s “Just Like Someone Without Mental Illness Only More So” is a sequel of sorts to his 1975 book “The Eden Express,” wryly telling the story of his struggles with mental illness.


From Michael Connelly, whose “The Reversal” re-teams his iconic LAPD detective Harry Bosch with attorney Mickey Haller, the hero of “The Lincoln Lawyer” and “The Brass Verdict,” to Elmore Leonard, whose “Djibouti” involves a documentary filmmaker on the trail of modern-day pirates, the big guns of the thriller are out in force this fall. Stephen King’s “Full Dark, No Stars” is a collection of four novellas; Lee Child’s latest Reacher novel is “Worth Dying For.” But perhaps the most anticipated thrillers of the season are not the newest, but the oldest — the latest reissues of the Parker novels that Donald Westlake wrote under the name of Richard Stark. Parker is a particularly amoral noir archetype, the inspiration for Reacher among others, and in “Deadly Edge,” “Plunder Squad” and “Slayground,” he pursues his own form of street justice, often at the barrel end of a gun.


Lynd Ward was an American master. Best known for illustrating the children’s classic “The Little Red Lighthouse,” he also innovated the woodcut novel, in which pictures tell stories without words. In October, the Library of America will bring out a two-volume box set of Ward’s work, “Six Novels in Woodcuts,” to help restore his place in our cultural life.

Ward’s influence lingers in the work of artists such as Eric Drooker, whose new book, an adaptation of Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl,” is dense with graphics. Equally image-driven is “Sophie Crumb: Evolution of a Crazy Artist,” which features drawings going back to her childhood, edited by her parents, R. Crumb and Aline Kominsky-Crumb. And don’t forget Bob Dylan’s “Man Gave Names to All the Animals,” a children’s book based on the song on 1979’s “Slow Train Coming,” featuring lush illustrations by Jim Arnosky. It may seem like a stretch from Ward to Dylan, but both are American folk art masters, who aspire to sacred textures in the most direct forms.


Two titles make a case for the book as an instrument of communion, even grace. Reza Aslan’s anthology “Tablet & Pen: Literary Landscapes From the Modern Middle East” operates under the principle that the best way to know other cultures is by experiencing their stories, while Susan Suntree’s mythopoetic “Sacred Sites: The Secret History of Southern California” weaves science, native legend and natural history into a 200-plus page poem. Both come rooted in diversity and complexity, what many of the best books are about.