An embarrassment of riches is coming your way this fine September day from the world of the book - and even more throughout the whole Fall. With Dan Brown striking fear into the hearts of publishers everywhere, everyone has pushed the release dates back on their biggest titles of the season, starting with today. This "Fat Tuesday" sees Margaret Atwood, Karen Armstrong, Richard Dawkins, Alexander McCall Smith, James Ellroy, Anita Shreve, Kazuo Ishiguro, and even Glenn Beck. That's just today! Later in the season, we'll see A.S. Byatt, John Irving, Paul Auster, Richard Powers, J.M. Coetzee, Jonathan Lethem, Philip Roth, Barbara Kingsolver, for sure another James Patterson or two, maybe another Clive Cussler or a Janet Evanovich, who knows. The point is, there is much more to read out there then just Mr. Brown's latest.
I, for one, have read the Margaret Atwood (left), the Coetzee, the Auster, and the Jonathan Lethem already (one of the perks of being an independent bookseller is the early copies of such books) but with the possible exception of Auster's Invisible, haven't been blown away by any of them. I liked Atwood's The Year of the Flood - a prophetic vision of a post-apocalyptic world that does not seem so far fetched - but felt it was too closely tied to her 2003 novel, Oryx & Crake, which I did not read. I guess this is my fault, but I felt I was mislead. She is a remarkable writer though, have no doubt - the world she has created (filled with far-reaching corporations, over-processed food supplies, and the threat of global pandemics) is frighteningly close to somewhere we could conceivably be headed ourselves.
I ultimately ended up hating J.M. Coetzee's Summertime, not for his writing ability, but rather for his self-indulgent, self-serving material. Summertime is an autobiographical novel - the third of these he has written - that is so heavy handed with the self-deprecation that the reader comes away liking him far less for admitting within that he is a successful author but more for forcing us to see how pathetic he used to be. I read this because it has been nominated for the 2009 Booker Prize, although, now I'm not sure why, save the fact that that's what happens when he writes a new novel. (For more on Coetzee, you can check out my post on my other blog, The Book Catapult.)
Jonathan Lethem is the author of two of my all-time favorite novels - Motherless Brooklyn and Fortress of Solitude - but has been unable to fully recapture that spark in his work since. His new book, Chronic City, shows flashes of that brilliance - biting satire, great characters, absurd social situations, a vivid depiction of New York - but ultimately, he lost me, spiraling downward into a nearly incomprehensible storyline about virtual realities and online gaming. (I'm still suffering from the disappointment, actually.) Of its 408 pages, you can probably sleep well after stopping at 390 or so.
Ah, then there's Mr. Paul Auster. Auster is an author whose work I either love or hate - in that order, according to his publishing schedule. Book of Illusions (good), Oracle Night (bad), Brooklyn Follies (really good), Travels in the Scriptorium (really bad), Man in the Dark (pretty good) - so, I didn't have the highest hopes for Invisible. Surprise! The pattern has been shattered! Invisible is a clever, well-wrought novel that tricks the reader at every turn with false information and embellishments by the multiple narrators. In reality, people often do not tell the truth - or at least they sometimes alter that truth to better serve themselves - so why is this not usually the case in fiction? Why should we implicitly believe every word that our narrator imparts to us? I love books that test the boundaries of fiction like this - David Mitchell, Borges, Calvino - and Auster (with the exception of Follies) always tries to push that, but often ends up bound in the knots of his own overreaching machinations. Not so here - this left me really wondering about the place identity, truth, and narration in both fiction and reality. If you read just one Auster novel in your life, this just might be the one - it's certainly the most resonant for me.
So, there's no need to read just The Lost Symbol this season - there are hidden gems everywhere, you just have to now where to look.