What do you do for a second act when your first novel spent more than a year on the best-seller list, won you a National Book Award and was made into a big-budget Hollywood movie starring Nicole Kidman? It’s hard to feel sorry for Charles Frazier (there are more than four million copies of Cold Mountain in print), but Thirteen Moons (Random House), a loose baggy monster that goes on sale on Oct. 3, is destined to disappoint. Maybe Mr. Frazier should join forces with Mitch Albom: His second novel, a syrupy concoction called For One More Day (Hyperion), is going on sale a week earlier—in your local Starbucks. Now that’s synergy: coffee and a sweetener, sold side by side.
Cormac McCarthy, who surely takes his black, no sugar, treats us this month to a grim post-apocalyptic fiction in The Road (Knopf). Laid-back and ruggedly dependable, Richard Ford probably doesn’t care how his coffee’s served as long as a fresh cup comes at regular intervals: His new novel, The Lay of the Land (Knopf, Oct. 24), is the third installment in the life story of Frank Bascombe, who made his first appearance in The Sportswriter just over 20 years ago. As for Thomas Pynchon, one suspects that he should avoid stimulants altogether: He’s posted on Amazon a goofy description of a new novel that’s 1,120 pages long. Against the Day (Penguin Press) is due out just before Thanksgiving—“the author is up to his usual business,” Mr. Pynchon warns. “Let the reader decide, let the reader beware. Good luck.”
Perhaps the reader would rather take refuge in safe and sane Canada, especially since two of our most talented northern neighbors will be publishing collections of short stories: Margaret Atwood’s Moral Disorder and Other Stories (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday) will be out this month, and Alice Munro’s The View From Castle Rock (Knopf) in November.
Speaking of safe: Biography is the most predictable genre—and infinitely varied. It’s the snowflake syndrome: We’re unique and doomed. In this season’s flurry, there are two Hepburns, Audrey and Katharine; two Andrews, Mellon and Carnegie; the deliciously macabre Charles Addams; and Walt Disney, the man who built an empire on the back of a rodent. How would they fare as a coffee klatch, sitting around Starbucks sipping lattes? Only way to know is to read the books:
Enchantment: The Life of Audrey Hepburn, by Donald Spoto (Harmony, Sept. 19).
Kate: The Woman Who Was Hepburn, by William J. Mann (Henry Holt, Oct. 31).
Mellon: An American Life, by David Cannadine (Knopf, Oct. 3).
Andrew Carnegie, by David Nasaw (Penguin Press, Oct. 24).
Charles Addams: A Cartoonist’s Life, by Linda H. Davis (Random House, Oct. 24).
Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination, by Neal Gabler (Knopf, Oct. 31).
(Those who have time for only one biography per season should plump for Kate.)
If safe, sane and predictable is the last thing you want, head for Israel. The most wrenching book of the season is Jeffery Goldberg’s Prisoners: A Muslim and a Jew Across the Middle East Divide (Knopf, Oct. 3). Mr. Goldberg, a New Yorker correspondent, writes about his 15-year friendship with a local P.L.O. leader; the two men met while one was serving as a guard in the Israeli prison where the other was incarcerated. Oy.
Another memoir, less fraught, more entertaining: Gore Vidal’s Point to Point Navigation (Doubleday, Nov. 7). Some of the entertainment is unintentional: Here and there in this sort-of sequel to Palimpsest (1995), the irascible Mr. Vidal slips into self-parody.
Laura Kipnis may be headed in the same direction. Three years ago, in a delightfully witty polemic, Against Love, Ms. Kipnis stirred the pot by celebrating adultery. The publisher of her new book, The Female Thing: Dirt, Sex, Envy, Vulnerability (Pantheon, Oct. 17), calls it “provocative” and “audacious.” And why not? Controversy sells.
And some people seem to thrive on it. Jessica Mitford, for instance, second youngest of the Mitford sisters, known to her wide and varied circle of friends as Decca. She was born into controversy (two of her sisters used to refer approvingly to their parents as “nature’s fascists”), embraced it at a tender age (at 19, she ran away to Spain during the Spanish Civil War) and chose it as her profession (she’s the author of The Making of a Muckraker). For sheer pleasure—just to sample the breadth of an extraordinary existence—the book of the season has got to be Decca: The Letters of Jessica Mitford, edited by Peter Y. Sussman (Knopf, Oct. 17).
Adam Begley is the books editor of The Observer.
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