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Good Reads For Autumn 2002

Contributor Janet Maslin of CBS News Sunday Morning has some ideas for your fall reading list.
A number of this fall's books bring to mind other books, widely popular books, ones that now look like hard acts to follow. And whether writers aim to match their own success or fall into the blueprint of somebody else's, this much is clear: It's never easy to emerge from the shadow of a runaway hit.

Case in point: Donna Tartt, with a second novel that arrives ten years after her first one, "The Secret History." Her new book is called "The Little Friend," and it's even SHAPED like her other, with unusually long pages. If for no other reason than that, comparisons are inevitable. But this time, in a Southern Gothic story about a young girl trying to find out who murdered her brother, the author tells a much more conventional story. And this is a highly atmospheric book, which means she's in no great hurry to tell it. It's hard not to notice how much more unusual and gripping "The Secret History" was.

Michael Chabon's "Summerland" arrives not only in the wake of his Pulitzer Prize-winning "The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay," but also in that of the Harry Potter books. This is bouncy young adult fiction with a whimsical bent. It brings together baseball, a dirigible, a boy who's suddenly recruited to save the world and an army of weird and fanciful creatures--like a Sasquatch named Taffy. There is indeed a busy imagination at work here. But you may be reminded that the Harry Potter books were never cute.

With "Reversible Errors," Scott Turow is back in the world of his best-known legal thriller, "Presumed Innocent." He returns to the fictitious Kindle County, Illinois with a clever, suspenseful story about the struggle over a Death Row inmate who may be innocent. And he tells it insightfully enough to remind you that he's a novelist writing about the law, not simply a lawyer turned novelist. In his case, lightning CAN strike twice.

Any funny book about any comically inept English career woman is sure to be compared to "Bridget Jones's Diary" these days. But Allison Pearson's "I Don't Know How She Does It" can handle that comparison. This book's heroine, Kate Reddy, is old enough to be a working mother with two children, but not too old to be entertainingly frantic.

And speaking of funny, Christopher Buckley lives up to his own reputation for wicked political satire with "No Way to Treat a First Lady. It's about a philandering President, the wife who accidentally kills him, and the ensuing Trial of the Century that surrounds her. Any resemblance to recent history is as brazen as Buckley can make it.

For those who prefer their history more serious, Warren Zimmerman's "First Great Triumph" is unusually ambitious. Like "The Metaphysical Club," it offers an analytical look at a group of interrelated figures. It travels a century back in time to see how statesmen including Theodore Roosevelt, Henry Cabot Lodge and John Hay helped to shape foreign policy. This book's subtitle: "How Five Americans Made their Country a World Power."

Biographies, unlike other kinds of histories, have the advantage of being as different as the people they describe. So T.J. Stiles' "Jesse James" presents a complex, surprising portrait that turns the outlaw and folk hero into a subversive political figure.

And in the inexhaustible realm of show business biographies, Ed Sikov's "Mr. Strangelove" presents the actor Peter Sellers as a comic genius with a cruel streak, an eye for the ladies and an extremely dysfunctional family life. Come to think of it, that sounds familiar too. Most male show business figures who attract biographers fit that description.

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