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John Barth, Author . Houghton Mifflin $26 (416p) ISBN 978-0-618-13165-5
Rushdie. Barth. Allende. Miller. Wideman. Sibley. These names and a handful of others seemed to be on everybody's lips at BEA 2001, because these are the authors of some of the hottest books to debut at the show, the books that everyone wanted to read. Now PW has read those books and weighs in to let you know whether they measure up to the hopes and the hype.
Technical ingenuity is a hallmark of Barth's work, and his latest novel relies almost entirely upon it. A Möbius strip of a narrative, the novel begins with the discovery by Ditsy, a transgendered boat captain, of a computer disk containing a novel, Coming Soon!!, by Johns "Hop" Johnson, an aspiring novelist whose specific aspiration is to use this novel, with its hypertextual accoutrements, to get into the Johns Hopkins creative writing program. Hop's novel concerns a Novelist Emeritus, John Barth, who is retiring from Johns Hopkins and writing a last "narrative," Coming Soon, which involves both a writing student named Hop Johnson and Ditsy's discovery of the Coming Soon floating computer disk. In both narratives, Hop is a member of the Arkangel Players on a showboat plying the Chesapeake Bay under the moniker The Original Floating Opera II, referring to Barth's first novel. Furthermore, the crew/cast is investigating the origin of Edna Ferber's Showboat, which was inspired by an earlier Chesapeake showboat, the James Adams Floating Theater. Unfortunately, the display of metafictional conceits that subtends the novel does not make up for clunky writing and uninspired characters. Hop Johnson, the Novelist Aspirant, seems to write, think and talk just like the Novelist Emeritus, which subtracts from the internecine authorial quarrel that is this novel's main interest. There is much gap filling (for example, we are given condensed reports of the news, from 1995 to 1999), and for large stretches the enterprise is seemingly propelled mainly by the need to fill pages with words. Readers are advised to turn to the original Floating Opera and leave this massy addendum to Barth's academic acolytes. (Nov. 1)
Isabel Allende, Author, Margaret Sayers Peden, Translator , trans. by Margaret Sayers Peden. HarperCollins $26 (320p) ISBN 978-0-06-621161-9
In this third work concerning the various and intertwining lives of members of a Chilean family, Allende uses the metaphor of photography as memory. "Each of us chooses the tone for telling his or her own story; I would like to choose the durable clarity of a platinum print, but nothing in my destiny possesses that luminosity. I live among diffuse shadings, veiled mysteries, uncertainties; the tone for telling my life is closer to that of a portrait in sepia," declares Aurora del Valle, protagonist of the tale. Here, Allende picks up where 1999's Daughter of Fortune left off, and, in the course of her chronicles, mentions personages who were realized in her 1987 masterpiece, House of the Spirits. Like her other novels, Portrait in Sepia spans nearly 50 years and covers wars, love affairs, births, weddings and funerals. Rich and complex, this international, turn-of-the-century saga does not disappoint. The book opens as 30-year-old Aurora remembers her own birth, in the Chinatown of 1880 San Francisco. She tells of those present: her maternal, Chilean-English grandmother, Eliza; her grandfather Tao (a Chinese medic); and her mother, Lynn, a beloved beauty who dies during Aurora's birth. Realizing she is getting ahead of herself, Aurora backtracks, inviting the reader to be patient and listen to the events surrounding her life, from 1862 to 1910. Through Aurora, Allende exercises her supreme storytelling abilities, of which strong, passionate characters are paramount. Most memorable is Aurora's paternal grandmother, Paulina del Valle, an enormous woman who eats pastries and runs her trading company with equally reckless abandon. Like Paulina, Allende attacks her subject with gusto, making this a grand installment in an already impressive repertoire. Major ad/promo; 7-city author tour. (Nov.)
Joseph Kanon, Author . Holt $26 (512p) ISBN 978-0-8050-6422-3
Again taking one of the 20th century's most momentous periods as a backdrop, Kanon recreates Berlin in the months following WWII in this lavishly atmospheric thriller overburdened with political and romantic intrigue. Though driven by strong characters and rich historical detail, the book ultimately falters under the weight of a ponderous, edgeless plot. At the center of the drama is Jake Geismar, a journalist who arrives in Berlin ostensibly to cover the Potsdam Conference. In reality, he's consumed with finding his prewar lover, Lena, with whom he carried on a torrid affair unbeknownst to her husband. Before he finds her, however, Geismar becomes intrigued by the murder of an American soldier whose body washes ashore near the conference grounds. The military's reluctance to investigate or provide any details of the murder convinces Geismar that this could be his big story. Though he's warned not to meddle, Geismar can't resist the story's draw. His investigation leads him deeply into Berlin's agonizing struggle for survival—its black market, its collective guilt and its citizens' feeble attempts to wash themselves clean of wartime atrocities. And, most importantly, Geismar learns of the Allies' frantic attempts to round up Nazi scientists, including Lena's husband, Emil, whose expertise with missiles made Germany such a fierce enemy. Kanon (Los Alamos; The Prodigal Spy) is at his strongest when giving voice to the hard choices and moral dilemmas of the times, yet he labors at bringing his plot to a close and blurs its core in the process. While his descriptive skills have never been sharper—the writing is uniformly elegant—Kanon's third thriller since leaving his job as a publising executive digs in when it should be attacking. BOMC featured selection; $150,000 marketing campaign; movie rights optioned by Warner Bros.; 12-city author tour. (Oct.)
Jonathan Franzen, Author . Farrar, Straus & Giroux $25 (576p) ISBN 978-0-374-12998-9
If some authors are masters of suspense, others postmodern verbal acrobats, and still others complex-character pointillists, few excel in all three arenas. In his long-awaited third novel, Franzen does. Unlike his previous works, The 27th City (1988) and Strong Motion (1992), which tackled St. Louis and Boston, respectively, this one skips from city to city (New York; St. Jude; Philadelphia; Vilnius, Lithuania) as it follows the delamination of the Lambert family—Alfred, once a rigid disciplinarian, flounders against Parkinson's-induced dementia; Enid, his loyal and embittered wife, lusts for the perfect Midwestern Christmas; Denise, their daughter, launches the hippest restaurant in Philly; and Gary, their oldest son, grapples with depression, while Chip, his brother, attempts to shore his eroding self-confidence by joining forces with a self-mocking, Eastern-Bloc politician. As in his other novels, Franzen blends these personal dramas with expert technical cartwheels and savage commentary on larger social issues, such as the imbecility of laissez-faire parenting and the farcical nature of U.S.–Third World relations. The result is a book made of equal parts fury and humor, one that takes a dry-eyed look at our culture, at our pains and insecurities, while offering hope that, occasionally at least, we can reach some kind of understanding. This is, simply, a masterpiece. Agent, Susan Golomb. (Sept.)
Forecast:Franzen has always been a writer's writer and his previous novels have earned critical admiration, but his sales haven't yet reached the level of, say, Don DeLillo at his hottest. Still, if the ancillary rights sales and the buzz at BEA are any indication, The Corrections should be his breakout book. Its varied subject matter will endear it to a genre-crossing section of fans (both David Foster Wallace and Michael Cunningham contributed rave blurbs) and FSG's publicity campaign will guarantee plenty of press. QPB main, BOMC alternate. Foreign rights sold in the U.K., Denmark, Holland, Italy, Norway, Portugal, Sweden and Spain. Nine-city author tour.
Laura Esquivel, Author . Crown $22 (208p) ISBN 978-0-609-60870-8
The princess of modern Latin literature (second only to Isabel Allende) has written yet another quirky and sensual story with a moralistic twist, its cute-as-can-be characters arguing and loving with equal passion. But Esquivel's fourth novel lacks that certain something that enthralled readers of Like Water for Chocolate. Her writing is choppy, cliché-laden and has the feel of a translation (no translator is credited). Yet it invokes chuckles and sighs, and if a reader craves more of the sweet wackiness that made the author's first book so appealing, Swift As Desire certainly delivers. Since birth, Júbilo has had a zest for life and an uncanny ability to hear the words in people's hearts before they are able to (or just didn't want to) say them. He puts his talents to good use as a telegraph operator in 1920s Mexico and falls in love with beautiful, wealthy Luz. The couple marries, has children and enjoys a heavenly existence. But something happens during their idyllic life together that drives them apart. Now, their daughter Lluvia is nursing her father as he is bedridden with Parkinson's disease. Before Júbilo dies, Lluvia desperately wants to know the cause of her parents' separation. Through Morse code, she communicates with her father and uncovers the secret—nothing juicy, just a sad story that could have been avoided if the lines of communication between husband and wife had been more open. Esquivel's storytelling abilities are in top form here, and, despite its unoriginality, the novel succeeds in conveying a touching message of the power of familial and romantic love. (Sept.)
Salman Rushdie, Author . Random $24.95 (272p) ISBN 978-0-679-46333-7
The sea change has invigorated Rushdie. His new novel is very much an American book, a bitingly satiric, often wildly farcical picture of American society in the first years of the 21st century. The twice transplanted protagonist (Bombay born, Cambridge educated, now Manhattan resident) Prof. Malik Solanka is an unimaginably wealthy man, transformed from a philosophy professor into a BBC-TV star, then into the inventor of a wildly popular doll called Little Brain. Compelled to relinquish control of the doll when it metamorphoses into an industry, the furious Solanka flees London for an apartment on Manhattan's Upper West Side. His prose crackling with irony, Rushdie catches roiling undercurrents of incivility and inchoate anger: in cab drivers, moviegoers and sidewalk pedestrians; in ethnic antagonisms; in political confrontations; and in Solly himself, as he tries to surmount his guilt over having abandoned a loving wife and three-year-old son in England, and as he becomes involved with two new women. Rushdie's brilliantly observant portrait of "this money-mad burg" is mercilessly au courant, with references to George Gush and Al Bore, to Elian and Tony Soprano, and to "shawls made from the chin fluff of extinct mountain goats." The action is helter-skelter fast and refreshingly concise; this is a slender book for Rushdie, and his relatively narrow focus results in a crisper narrative; there are fewer puns and a deeper emotional involvement with his characters. Still, his tendency to go over the top leads to some incredulity for the reader; it's a bit much that short, unprepossessing Solly is a magnet for gorgeous, articulate women, who all tend to speak in the same didactic monologues. On the whole, however, readers will nod in acknowledgement of Rushdie's recognition that "the whole world was burning on a shorter fuse." Rushdie remains a master of satire that rings true with unsettling acuity and dark, comedic brilliance. Agent, Andrew Wylie. 8-city author tour. (Sept. 11)
Forecast:Rushdie has never been so sharply observant of the American psyche and the contemporary scene, and thus so relevant to U.S. readers. His increasing visibility after the isolation of the fatwa years should create a buzz of interest in this novel.
Leif Enger, Author . Atlantic Monthly $24 (320p) ISBN 978-0-87113-795-1
Dead for 10 minutes before his father orders him to breathe in the name of the living God, Reuben Land is living proof that the world is full of miracles. But it's the impassioned honesty of his quiet, measured narrative voice that gives weight and truth to the fantastic elements of this engrossing tale. From the vantage point of adulthood, Reuben tells how his father rescued his brother Davy's girlfriend from two attackers, how that led to Davy being jailed for murder and how, once Davy escapes and heads south for the Badlands of North Dakota, 12-year-old Reuben, his younger sister Swede and their janitor father light out after him. But the FBI is following Davy as well, and Reuben has a part to play in the finale of that chase, just as he had a part to play in his brother's trial. It's the kind of story that used to be material for ballads, and Enger twines in numerous references to the Old West, chiefly through the rhymed poetry Swede writes about a hero called Sunny Sundown. That the story is set in the early '60s in Minnesota gives it an archetypal feel, evoking a time when the possibility of getting lost in the country still existed. Enger has created a world of signs, where dead crows fall in a snowstorm and vagrants lie curled up in fields, in which everything is significant, everything has weight and comprehension is always fleeting. This is a stunning debut novel, one that sneaks up on you like a whisper and warms you like a quilt in a North Dakota winter, a novel about faith, miracles and family that is, ultimately, miraculous. HarperCollins audio (ISBN 0-694-52583-9). Agent, Paul Cirone, Aaron M. Priest Literary Agency. (Sept.)
Forecast:This is the kind of story booksellers fall in love with, and handselling should supplement the strong publicity effort, including an 18-city author tour. Allotted a 100,000-copy first printing, Peace Like a River is a Book of the Month Club main selection and foreign rights have sold in seven countries; blurbs from Jim Harrison, Rick Bass and Frank McCourt further attest to its draw.
John Wideman, Author . Houghton Mifflin $24 (0p) ISBN 978-0-618-18561-0
Having recently turned 50, novelist and essayist Wideman (Brothers and Keepers; Fatheralong) pushes his narrative limits in this collection of meditative, even brooding, essays of childhood, family rites of passage and the art and magic of basketball. The familiar "hoops" metaphor offers Wideman a chance to wax poetic about the physical and emotional demands of the game, its competitive fire, mandatory team play, artistry, style and life lessons. Basketball, which Wideman loved as a child, now unites the aging writer with his three children, including a daughter who plays for the top-ranked Stanford University women's team. At a time of personal loss, marital strife and diminished physical ability, he cherishes the feelings of power and control he first felt as a teen handling the ball in his fabled Homewood community in Pittsburgh. In this rambling but consistently challenging work, Wideman turns his wise, analytical eye on such topics as male privilege, interracial love, violence among young black men, the marketing of Michael Jordan and the basketball court as a classroom where men learn skills that will serve them in the larger white world. Some of the most affecting moments occur when Wideman vividly recalls the decline and death of his beloved grandparents and the temptation a comely young student briefly posed to him. Darkened by uncharacteristic spurts of melancholy and regret, this occasionally brilliant tribute to basketball, survival and families linked by blood, joy and tragedy is as exhilarating as a few fast and furious hours on the court. (Oct.)
Forecast:Backed by an extensive tour and publicity, Wideman's latest should find a responsive readership among his loyal readers as well as basketball fans still reeling from the most exciting NBA season since the departure of Michael Jordan.
National Audubon Society, Author, Chris Elphick, Editor, John B. Dunning, JR., Editor ; illus. by David Allen Sibley. Knopf $45 (608p) ISBN 978-0-679-45123-5
Not to be confused with standard field guides to birds, this far-reaching companion to last year's The Sibley Guide to Birds complements the best of those avian catalogues that birders take along on their quests for more species to add to their "life lists." Here, the editors have compiled essays from leading ornithologists on bird anatomy, ethology and behavior to round out bird-watchers' knowledge. This National Audubon Society publication details the 80 families of birds found in North America, with hundreds of Sibley's acclaimed full-color paintings, maps, charts and illustrations. Topics range from the familiar—migration, feeding, mating, nesting—to the esoteric, including feather structure, eye configuration, DNA classification, evolution, hybridization and much more. Readers will learn about bird respiration, metabolism, excretion, vocalizations, senses and intelligence, among other subjects. Although the information is as detailed as a textbook, the writing is jargon-free, light and accessible. Well conceived in structure and conducive to easy reference, the volume ends with a detailed glossary, professional biographies of its dozens of scholarly contributors and a convenient species checklist, based upon the American Ornithologists' Union guidelines. Whether one is a serious expeditionary birder or a casual backyard observer of avian life, this book is a must-have reference. 796 full-color paintings. (Oct.)
Orel Hershiser, Author, Robert Wolgemuth, With, Tommy Lasorda, Foreword by with Robert Wolgemuth. Warner $18.95 (168p) ISBN 978-0-446-52850-4
Hershiser, one-time acclaimed pitcher for the Los Angeles Dodgers (and a few other teams), seems to have led a charmed life: he pitched 58 consecutive scoreless innings in 1988, won the Cy Young Award and was the World Series MVP, all in the same year. However, as Hershiser readily admits, his early career was not as promising. He was cut from his first teams and played in the minors for several years before moving up. Yet faith, determination and some crucial values helped keep his career on track. Writing in a casual but convincing tone, he shares his guiding principles for everyday life: believe your coaches, love your family, pursue excellence and balance, among others. After one frenzied afternoon at an airport when Hershiser and his family were literally trapped by fans, he faced the fact that "because we were famous, we were going to be recognized and interrupted.... Jamie and I set boundaries. We learned to say no without feeling guilty. And we stayed involved in our church." While the extremes of Hershiser's experience may not correspond to the lives of most readers, his basic advice is sound and applicable. And though his words may not be unique, they will ring true for many. (Sept.)
Forecast:Hershiser's reputation in tandem with the publisher's planned five-city tour and extensive national advertising should make this a winner as soon as books hit the stores.