Football Friday nights and tailgating Saturday afternoons are on the horizon. So, too, good books from new and established writers. 

Freedom by Jonathan Franzen is getting a lot of attention, including a cover shot of Franzen on Time magazine. Other books also are getting attention, just more quietly. Here are some scheduled for September publication. A note about October books at the end. 

The Gendarme by Mark T. Mustian: A first novel published by Putnam’s Amy Einhorn imprint that brought us Kathryn Stockett’s debut, The Help. This is the story of 92-year-old Emmet Conn who’s suffered memory loss all his life from a war injury in World War I. Now, due to a brain tumor, long-suppressed memories surface in dreams and visions. “What does it mean to forget, and then remember?” asks the author’s website. Set in Turkey in the beginning of the 20th Century and America at the end, the plot portends an intriguing read.

The Widower’s Tale by Julia Glass: This is the fourth novel by 2002 National Book Award-winner Glass (Three Junes). Her new story focuses on a retired man named Percy Darling who gives the barn on his historic farm to a local preschool. Naturally, there are unexpected consequences. From the publisher’s website: “With equal parts affection and satire, Julia Glass spins a captivating tale about the loyalties, rivalries, and secrets of a very particular family. Yet again, she plumbs the human heart brilliantly, dramatically, and movingly.” 

Room by Emma Donoghue.  This 2010 Man Booker longlist candidate is narrated by five-year-old Jack, who lives with his mother in a small room where they’re held captive. Jack’s mother was abducted seven years ago, and Jack is a result of the sexual relationship she’s forced to have with her abductor. From Emma Donoghue’s website:    “…ROOM is no horror story or tearjerker, but a celebration of resilience and the love between parent and child. VOGUE calls it ‘A dark fairy tale… curiously uplifting.’” From Library Journal: “Gripping, riveting, and close to the bone, this story grabs you and doesn’t let go.” 

Skippy Dies by Paul Murray.  Another 2010 Man Booker longlist candidate, this is the story of a boy at an elite boarding school in Dublin, Ireland, and the circumstances surrounding his death. You can purchase either the omnibus version (closing in on 700 pages) or three paperbacks in a set. Definitely a reading commitment but, considering the praise this novel’s received, I’m betting it’s a worthy investment of time. You can read an excerpt from the book on the Guardian website.

Vestments by John Reimringer: A debut novel published by small press Milkweed Editions about a priest torn between his love for the church and love for a woman. On Reimringer’s website, Publisher’s Weekly describes it as “suspenseful, illuminating and highly readable.” You can read an excerpt on the Milkweed Editions website, which says this about the book: “Originally drawn to the priesthood by the mystery, purity, and sensual fabric of the Church, as well as by its promise of a safe harbor from his violent father, James finds himself—just a few years after his ordination—attracted again to his first love, Betty García. Torn between these competing loves, and haunted by his father’s heritage, James finds himself at a crossroads.”

October books:  Looking further ahead, in October we can anticipate books from established authors Bernhard Schlink (author of The Reader), Michael Cunningham (author of Pulitzer Prize-winner The Hours) and, no surprise, the prolific Philip Roth.

"The Humbling" by Philip RothI started reading Philip Roth with The Plot Against America (2004). After that, there was a new novel in 2006 – Everyman, and then 2007 – Exit Ghost, and then 2008 – Indignation, and now, 2009 – The Humbling.  This new novel — small, less than 150 pages – is concerned with themes similar to Everyman and Exit Ghost, of aging, dying, sex and identity. One would think a repeated writing about Jewish male protagonists (also a Roth hallmark) mourning lost youth and virility would get stale. Instead, under the pen of this literary legend, the stories keep getting better. 

The Humbling is the best yet.  It’s tightly written with perfectly timed character exits and entrances, exquisitely scored monologues and discussions, and an emotional palette that’s not too sentimental yet passionately real.  There is no line out of place.

The protagonist Simon Axler is a classic American stage actor in his sixties. His fame derives from his ability to rivet audiences with a powerful presence of characters’ eccentricities and mannerisms. When the story opens, he’s lost his magic, having failed on stage as Prospero and  Macbeth at the Kennedy Center. Axler suffers a breakdown and, fearing he’ll take his life, enters a psychiatric hospital for 26 days. Within months of leaving the hospital, his wife divorces him, unable to cope with her husband’s failure. Alone in his New York farmhouse, Axler gets a visit from his agent. 

Here Roth writes an unforgettable 14 page conversation between the two, a business dialogue that’s a psychological tug of war. The agent spins a web of persuasions to get Axler to return to the stage, and Axler delivers smart, self-aware rebuttals illustrating he knows he’s not simply hit a temporary impediment. This is it. He’s done.

Axler’s relief from despair arrives in the daughter of long-ago friends, a lesbian in her 40s, sad about a recent break-up. She jumps the sexual preference divide into Axler’s bed. Axler takes her to New York for expensive new clothes and haircut, enhancing her transformation with feminine accoutrements. They are an unusual couple in a relationship based on need. A tenuousness hovers over their interactions, except when they’re in bed together. The sex scenes are powerful, erotic and seamless with the rest of the action, neither gratuitous nor improbable.

Roth casts a dim view of greatness in the last chapter called The Final Act. Axler has played the mightiest characters in his career on stage from Shakespeare’s kings to Eugene O’Neil’s dysfunctional men, but his fame and history of past greatness do not sustain him. Axler believes he is finished, and he acts the part brilliantly.

I’ve wondered how much of Philip Roth, now in his 70s, appears in his aging protagonists. In this instance, does he believe his own greatness will not sustain him? In an interview with Tina Brown on The Daily Beast Video, he says he fears for the loss of ideas: “When I finish a book, I think What will I do? Where will I get an idea? … A kind of low-level panic sets in.” He also talks on The Daily Beast about writing the sex scenes in The Humbling and comments on the future of the book.

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