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SAN FRANCISCO- Full employment for book reviewers! In summertime the criticism is easy, in winter the discontents emerge, but in the fall bibliophiles have as many new arrivals to horde as a dragon has gems.
This autumn's list of intriguing books includes some by authors who will get long looks because of past achievements:
- Mark Haddon's A Spot of Bother. Haddon provided the point of view of an autistic boy in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Here his central character is a retiree who believes his eczema is cancer.
- Thomas Pynchon's Against the Day. The reclusive author's enigmatic novels, beginning with V and The Crying of Lot 49, have fascinated literary readers for four decades. This one reportedly begins in 1893, ends shortly after World War I, and is 1,000 pages long.
- Cormac McCarthy's The Road, a dark, searing tale of a post-apocalyptic world of near-absolute depravity. The book sounds too mordant even for the perpetually depressed, but McCarthy's distinctive style (shown most wonderfully in The Border Trilogy) may conquer all.
- Michael Lewis' The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game is a look at the unsung heroes of football and in particular a left tackle, one of 13 children of a crack-addicted mother: An evangelical family plucked him from the streets and gave him love. Lewis, author of Moneyball and other books, may be America's best long-form journalist (see p. 42).
- John Grisham's The Innocent Man is the first nonfiction book by the bestselling author: It's about former athlete Ron Williamson and his wrongful imprisonment in Oklahoma for rape and murder, despite an utter lack of physical evidence.
- Jeff Shaara's The Rising Tide. Shaara, picking up where his late dad Michael left off, wrote moving Civil War novels such as The Last Full Measure. Here he begins a World War II trilogy.
- Maurice Sendak's Mommy? The illustrious illustrator's first pop-up book shows a boy encountering Dracula, Frankenstein's monster, and other scary characters, as he looks for his mother.
- John le Carré's The Mission Song is the latest effort by the author who wrote the terrific Smiley trilogy, the first of which is Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. But in the years since then he has not found a theme as vivid as Cold War spy vs. spy intrigue, and this book is another disappointment.
Other novels coming from authors with proven ability to write page-turners include Treasure of Khan by Clive Cussler, Nature Girl by Carl Hiaasen, Next by Michael Crichton, Hollywood Station by Joseph Wambaugh, Under Orders by Dick Francis, The Afghan by Frederick Forsyth, The Collectors by David Baldacci, and another horrible Stephen King. Also in this bestselling category: are Echo Park by Michael Connelly, Act of Treason by Vince Flynn, and Break No Bones by Kathy Reichs.
Nonfiction books to watch include Bob Woodward's State of Denial: Bush at War, Part III. (Some say Woodward writes fiction, but he will still profit from enormous Beltway hype.) Lawrence Wright's The Looming Tower is a pavement-pounding report on the rise of key terrorist leaders and the American response, and Paul Kengor's The Crusader: Ronald Reagan and the Fall of Communism tells how the last evil empire fell. Primo Levi's Auschwitz Report is a posthumous publication of an early work by a compelling writer who survived the most outrageous act by another evil empire.
Also, Rajiv Chandrashekaran's Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq's Green Zone contains specific detail about what went wrong during the year following America's initial military success in Iraq. Hampton Sides, author of the gripping Ghost Soldiers, writes in Blood and Thunder about the sad 19th-century history of the Navajos. (Readers interested in contemporary Navajo culture might turn to Tony Hillerman's The Shape Shifter, the latest in his well-etched series of Navajo detective novels.)
But book industry buzz this week concerns two projects with big numbers attached. One is the publication of the most expensive novel ever: Random House paid $8 million for Charles Frazier's Thirteen Moons, his first effort since his Civil War novel-turned-movie, Cold Mountain. Frazier tells of a 12-year-old orphan given a horse, a key, and a map, and sent on a trip that brings him close to the Cherokee Nation, where he is adopted by a chieftain and his tribe.
The other project is a 2.5-million-copy first printing of a novel for children, The End. It has that name because it's the 13th and last volume of a well-marketed, wildly popular children's book series: Twelve "A Series of Unfortunate Events" books by "Lemony Snicket" (pen name for Daniel Handler, a San Francisco author) have sold a total of 26.5 million copies, according to Publishers Weekly.
Number 13 will go on sale in bookstores next Friday, Oct. 13, and many stores are making it a Harry Potter--type event (see "Powerful spell," July 30, 2005). With the type of reverse psychology that underlies the books-tell young readers not to read them-some bookstores are offering "unfortunate prizes" like moldy cheese and socks with holes.
Part of the books' charm is their Perils of Pauline structure: Violet, Klaus, and Sunny Baudelaire, three smart and resolute orphans, spend each volume in and out of the hands of nefarious villains, but the suspense comes with a don't-take-this-seriously wink that older children enjoy. Characters with names like Quigly Quagmire and Jerome Squalor sometimes make dinner reservations at Café Salmonella.
Each book also features reversals of the usual marketing come-ons. Instead of screaming "Buy this," Book 12, The Penultimate Peril, has on its back cover a warning: "Dear Reader, If this is the first book you found while searching for a book to read next, then the first thing you should know is that this next-to-last book is what you should put down first. Sadly, this book presents the next-to-last chronicle of the lives of the Baudelaire orphans, and it is next-to-first in its supply of misery, despair, and unpleasantness."
The books also include, much to parental delight, regular vocabulary lessons. Picking up one of the books at random-ah, here's how Book 6, The Ersatz Elevator, begins: "The book you are holding in your two hands right now-assuming that you are, in fact, holding this book, and that you have only two hands-is one of two books in the world that will show you the difference between the word 'nervous' and the word 'anxious.' The other book, of course, is the dictionary, and if I were you I would read that book instead.
"Like this book, the dictionary shows you that the word 'nervous' means 'worried about something'-you might feel nervous, for instance, if you were served prune ice cream for dessert, because you would be worried that it would taste awful-whereas the word 'anxious' means 'troubled by disturbing suspense,' which you might feel if you were served a live alligator for dessert, because you would be troubled by the disturbing suspense about whether you would eat your dessert or it would eat you."
Many Christian parents do not want their children identifying with Harry Potter, boy wizard-but judging by the 12 Lemony books so far, they need not fear the Baudelaire orphans, who often escape jams via Violet's inventions. Much as fairy tales serve as avenues for children to conquer their fears, so these books work well in a post-9/11 world by having characters face terrible situations and survive.
Even the pen name-Lemony Snicket-of the 36-year-old author, Daniel Handler, is a tip-off to humor amid terror. Bored while working in an office and semi-researching a novel for adults that he was writing, he phoned right-wing organizations to ask for free materials and gave a silly name along with his real address. He still maintains the joke on lemonysnicket.com: "Due to the world-wide web of conspiracy which surrounds him, Mr. Snicket often communicates with the general public through his representative, Daniel Handler."
But who is Daniel Handler? He is 36 and married to illustrator Lisa Brown. They met as students at Wesleyan; like many others it has shed the religious connotation of its name and become standard-issue liberal. Daniel and Lisa have a son, Otto, who is almost 3, loves to play with toy cars, and knows all the models, from Mercedes down.
They live in San Francisco in a three-level house built on a steep hill in 1907, one year after the great earthquake, and now filled with books and works of art. San Francisco is not known for its family values, but Handler clearly values both his immediate family and its extensions: His parents, in their 70s, still live in the San Francisco house where they raised him.
Handler says his life was not "A Series of Unfortunate Events" for him, but as a child "I was always attracted to the gothic tradition in literature-mysterious goings-on, sinister villains, people crying all the time." He played with those stereotypes in writing the first draft of a gothic novel and then turned good and bad characters into the mainstays of a series.
When his agent encouraged him to write a series proposal to publishers, Handler offered plot summaries for three books and received a contract for four. His response was, "I can't believe they want four volumes," and his agent comforted him, saying, "Don't worry, they'll never publish four." Handler thought that at best the series "would have a very tiny audience, more likely it would disappear."
Handler knows more about how the books became commercially successful than why. The "how" is that they received strong initial support from independent bookstores, and their reputation then grew. Now, the corporate marketing is intense: The shelves of the office on the lowest floor of his house include not only copies of books in the series but add-ons like Lemony Snicket: The Unauthorized Autobiography and The Beatrice Letters, a publication with folders that contain a poster and correspondence between Lemony and a mysterious lady.
(Also available: Lemony Snicket calendars, activity books, blank journals, CDs, and so on. A Lemony Snicket movie two years ago was mediocre, despite the talent of Jim Carrey and Meryl Streep.)
As to the why of series success, Handler says he used to explain that "the books make no bones about the world being a chaotic and confusing place where one's behavior does not lead to one's just rewards," but he recognizes that "plenty of books say that and are not popular." When pushed he is hesitant to "talk in large, abstract terms," but he notes that the Baudelaire children in his novels are "not in control of their own fate. Even good behavior doesn't seem to get them ahead. They behave well anyway."
Handler is a good cook, is reputed to be a good accordion player, and is certainly a doting dad. He and his wife "come from a long line of observant but not particularly religious Jews." By "observant" he means "celebration of holidays, observance of customs associated with those holidays, not necessarily belief in God." But he and Lisa want their son to have a Jewish education: "We'd like him to know where he comes from" and (here comes a characteristic joke) "we'd like him to reject the same religious tenets we rejected."
Adult reaction to Handler's books has varied: "Some people have complimented me for turning their kids onto reading, and others have said I scared the heck out of their children and ought to be punished." He recalls a letter from an evangelical thanking him for "sneaking in Christian allegorical notes . . . something about steadfastness through suffering."
Handler says he's "pretty much" an atheist, but the subject of belief in God does not come up much among his friends and associates in San Francisco: "I'm not a believer in predetermined fates, being rewarded for one's efforts. I'm not a believer in karma. The reason why I try to be a good person is because I think it's the right thing to do. If I commit fewer bad acts there will be fewer bad acts, maybe other people will join in committing fewer bad acts, and in time there'll be fewer and fewer of them."
This humanistic vision differs radically from a biblical worldview, but its optimism seems appropriate for this autumn's bibliophiles. The fall publishing season is like March for baseball: hope springs eternal.