For dedicated book lovers, autumn is truly the best of times and the worst of times, and not just for Dickens fans. Fall's flood of new books in stores — the glossy hardbacks' promises of new worlds and insights, and the freshly printed paperbacks that resurrect bookhounds' fantasies of catching up (at half price!) with the hardbacks from last year that they never got around to — can be both exciting and frustrating. Your booklust says you want to read about 100 new books, but you know you'll be lucky to have finished 10 or 20 by the same time next year. This week, we're looking at new fall paperbacks we feel are worth your time — three reprints of some of last year's finest, albeit not best-selling, works, and a terrific paperback first edition, an increasingly familiar format in these economically crappy times.
Bitter In The Mouth by Monique Truong (Random House, $15). Linda Hammerick is both burdened and blessed by a form of synesthesia that lets her taste words (her name is minty, while a boyfriend's name evokes orange sherbet). She's also a young Asian-American who loves author Harper Lee and, living in Boiling Springs, N.C. in the 1970s and 80s, sees herself as her town's "Boo Radley, not hidden away but in plain sight." The tension between insider and outsider permeates Monique Truong's second novel — her complex, biracial family in the rural South, and their conflicted, layered feelings about fitting in and identity. Truong weaves N.C. history into her story, adds a big, important surprise or two, and creates as compelling and intelligent a young protagonist as we've read in awhile. The writing is beautiful and lively, redolent of intelligence, secrets, and longing — and it doesn't hurt that Truong is a brilliant storyteller.
Bob Dylan In America by Sean Wilentz (Anchor, $14.95). Wilentz, a leading American historian, wrote a book about Bob Dylan that doesn't try to be yet another disjointed biography. Instead, he mixes a longtime fan's passion and a scholar's rigorous thinking, connecting Dylan to national undercurrents of cultural rebellion, such as radical artists of the 1930s, as well as the Beats. Where the book really takes off, however, are in Wilentz's you-are-there, blow-by-blow accounts of the recording sessions that produced Dylan's holy trinity of mid-60s albums, Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 and Blonde On Blonde. Wilentz also examines the wide scope of Dylan's influences and, most importantly, does it in a way that — probably inadvertently — opens a trap-door, through which the mounting collection of pseudo-scholarly works about Dylan slide into deserved oblivion.
You Deserve Nothing by Alexander Maksik (Europa Editions, $15). This riveting, challenging first novel is set in Paris at a private high school for high rollers' children. Will Silver is a brilliant, charismatic teacher, the kind high schoolers remember all their lives. He makes the arts and politics come alive for his students, opens them to new religious and ethical ideas, and helps the shy climb out of their shells. His students love him, but he's careful to respect normal boundaries between student and teacher. Well, up to a point — which is where Maksik's novel rockets from charming school story to blistering, searching examination of idealism, modern moral quandaries, and difficulties dealing with power and self-worth. Maksik's writing is crisp though at times detached, as he makes the beauty, grit, and promise of Paris palpable enough that the city itself seems like one of the novel's characters.
Nashville Chrome by Rick Bass (Mariner, $14.95). Rick Bass is one of those rare masters of both fiction and nonfiction writing, which is fitting, as Nashville Chrome is a novel based on historical fact. In the late 1950s, the Browns — Jim Ed Brown and his sisters Bonnie and Maxine — were atop the country music charts with a unique, harmony-laden country sound. Their rise to fame was spectacular, but the trio's popularity turned out to be fleeting. From that background, Bass creates a masterpiece that jumps between the Browns' hopeful, musical past and the present, in which Maxine, the eldest, lives alone in west Memphis. Hungry for fame and/or vindication, she revisits the group's career for a planned documentary, and reveals the inevitable personality changes that resulted from their unexpected fame, and how they doomed the Browns' career. Bass' prose is engaging, lyrical and, particularly in scenes describing the beauty and power of music and nature, breathtaking.