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Some of the season's most promising new titles feature the arts

By John Mark Eberhart

McClatchy Newspapers

Literature is a wellspring for all the arts.

I intend no arrogance. It's just that writing is one of the older art forms _ more mature than films, sound recordings and so on. Shakespeare was the fountain for Verdi's ``Macbeth,'' the James Whale and Kenneth Branagh adaptations of ``Frankenstein'' would not exist onscreen without Mary Shelley's novel.

Today, though, I turn the tables. This autumn's literary harvest includes several books that look to music, the cinema and visual art for their inspiration. This roundup starts with these cultural touchstones, then moves on to highlight fiction and general nonfiction.

Culture

*``Rock 'n' Roll Camp for Girls: How to Start a Band, Write Songs, Record an Album and Rock Out!!'' edited by Marisa Anderson (192 pages; Chronicle; $14.95 paperback).

The author: Anderson is artistic director at the Rock 'n' Roll Camp for Girls in Portland, Ore.

The book: It features contributions from successful female musicians, singers and songwriters such as Sleater-Kinney guitarist/vocalist Carrie Brownstein.

The verdict: At first I was skeptical, then found myself being charmed by this book, which is no joke. I'm so old and male that I thought this couldn't possibly be real, but there is a Rock 'n' Roll Camp for Girls, a not-for-profit educational organization that offers year-round after-school programs _ think ``School of Rock'' without those pesky boys.

So if your daughter is obsessed with guitars, bass, keyboards or drums, egg her on with this book, which covers important tips like practicing, dealing with personalities that might clash with your own, the technological challenges of making music and so on. Available now. *``The Railway: Art in the Age of Steam,'' by Ian Kennedy and Julian Treuherz (287 pages; Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art/National Museums Liverpool/Yale University Press; $65).

The authors: Kennedy is a Nelson-Atkins curator; Treuherz was ``keeper of galleries'' at Liverpool.

The book: It serves as a companion to the exhibit opening Sept. 13 at Kansas City's Nelson-Atkins.

The verdict: I'm a sucker for railroads. My maternal grandfather was a depot agent in northwest Missouri for what is now the Burlington Northern Santa Fe. So I freely admit I'm not objective. That said, this book's range, quality and craftsmanship astonished me.

I'm not alone in my fascination with rails and engines, but even if you have only a casual interest, I defy you to be nonchalant about the contents. From sepia-toned photographs by William Henry Jackson to paintings by Monet and Hopper, the pictorial history here is very compelling. The locomotive, once one of humankind's most powerful machines, remains an incredible piece of iconography. Its image elicits numerous themes including westward expansion, industrialism and the possibilities of increasingly faster travel. Highly recommended, and available now. *``Have You Seen ... ?'' A Personal Introduction to 1,000 Films,'' by David Thomson (1,024 pages; Knopf; $39.95).

The author: Thomson wrote 1975's ``Biographical Dictionary of Film,'' widely accepted now as a classic cinema reference.

The book: ``Have You Seen ... ?'' consists of single-page essays on, yes, a thousand films, organized alphabetically by title.

The verdict: It's nothing less than brilliant. ``The Biographical Dictionary'' focused on the personalities (actors, filmmakers) who dominate Hollywood, but this new book is far more accessible and universal because it focuses on the work. Get yourself an armchair, a widescreen TV, a supply of popcorn, a Netflix subscription and this book ... and you may not leave the house for a couple of years.

You won't agree with everything Thomson says here, but he's on solid ground more often than not _ just check out his assertion that ``The Sixth Sense'' is far more than a horror film and that director M. Night Shyamalan's career has been spiraling downward ever since. Yes, the price is steep; it's also worth every penny. Look for it Oct. 14.

*``John Lennon: The Life,'' by Philip Norman (864 pages; Ecco; $34.95).

The author: Norman, who lives in London, wrote ``Shout! The Beatles in Their Generation'' and ``Rave On: The Biography of Buddy Holly,'' both of which were very well-received, so he certainly has the credentials.

The book: Norman spent three years researching the life of the slain Beatle, the man many fans felt was the brainiest of the Fab Four.

The verdict: This is a worthy effort but a problematic one as well. One thing I look for in a biography is discovery. I consider myself a Beatles fan but did not know ``The White Album'' originally was to be called ``A Doll's House.''

On the con side, though, I'm not sure I came away knowing Lennon much better than I knew him before. Finally, Norman engages in the kind of early-life focus that marked the recent biopics ``Ray'' (Charles) and ``Walk the Line'' (Johnny Cash). Scant pages are devoted to the last few years of Lennon's life in New York and to his murder, thus the latter part of the book feels rushed. Publication date is Oct. 28.

*``Reading Dance: A Gathering of Memoirs, Reportage, Criticism, Profiles, Interviews, and Some Uncategorizable Extras,'' edited by Robert Gottlieb (1,376 pages; Pantheon; $45).

The author: Questioning this fellow's CV is a fool's errand; he's a former editor in chief of the New Yorker and current dance critic for the New York Observer.

The book: Gottlieb takes on the role of gatherer and archivist here, culling essays from dozens of dance, theater and drama critics as well as dancers and choreographers themselves. Gottlieb's contributors constitute an international who's who of dance writers, including the late Susan Sontag and Wall Street Journal critic Terry Teachout.

The verdict: Good heavens; this is longer than the film book and even more expensive. If you are a fan of dance, this embarrassment of riches will not embarrass you. If you don't follow the form, though, it won't draw you in _ it's just too esoteric and overwhelming, even though Gottlieb tries to tap and trip his way to the edge of pop culture with references to the likes of Fred Astaire. Publishes Nov. 4. ___

Fiction *``Alfred and Emily,'' by Doris Lessing (288 pages; HarperCollins; $25.95).

The author: England's Lessing finally won the Nobel Prize last year, which probably would've happened sooner had she not irritated the literary intelligentsia by having the gall to write mere science fiction (see the Canopus series) along with her ``straight'' novels.

The book: ``Alfred and Emily'' is a hybrid, with the first half being a novella based on her parents' lives and the second half being a memoir based on her parents' lives.

The verdict: Publishers Weekly found the approach and the prose pedestrian. I found the book vigorous and honest, though I have to admit this is a rather quiet little work. I don't always have to be dazzled, though, and if you feel the same way about simple pleasures, pick this up. It's available now.

*``Anathem,'' by Neal Stephenson (960 pages; William Morrow; $29.95).

The author: He's the New York Times best-selling writer behind modern fantasy warhorses such as ``The Baroque Cycle'' and ``Cryptonomicron.''

The book: In America these days, we are witness to battles between science and religion, but what if science was a kind of religion, complete with monastic isolation and various rituals? That's the premise here, and don't think the clever Stephenson doesn't know exactly what he's doing _ spinning a massive novel out of our present-day anxieties, which is what science fiction and fantasy writers always do, really, or at least the good ones do it.

The verdict: Incredibly admirable if not entirely readable. I think Stephenson has reached Stephen King and J.K. Rowling territory _ that is, he needs a stronger editor but probably isn't going to get one. Still, he's one of the few living writers who can work on the vast scale of genre masterpieces such as Isaac Asimov's Foundation series and James Blish's ``Cities in Flight.'' ``Anathem'' will be published Sept. 9.

*``Testimony,'' by Anita Shreve (320 pages; Little, Brown; $25.95).

The author: Shreve's novels are cultural crossovers; she gets critical kudos and populist nods, too. Oprah selected ``The Pilot's Wife'' for her book club, while ``The Weight of Water'' was a finalist for England's prestigious Orange Prize.

The book: ``Testimony'' is a ripped-from-the-headlines novel _ the plot turns on a videotaped sex scandal, the twist here being that said scandal happens not in some socialite's penthouse but in the prissy arena of a boarding school in New England. Oh, dear.

The verdict: I like Shreve exactly because she is such a balanced writer. She's a true storyteller; her prose in this novel is neither breathless nor leaden. Plot, character and setting, those three mainstays of good fiction, are all in equilibrium in these pages. Don't miss this one; it publishes Oct. 21.

*``The Widows of Eastwick,'' by John Updike (320 pages; Knopf; $24.95).

The author: Quick: What do the years 1961, 1967, 1973, 1980 and 1995 have in common? They're the only years since 1958 that novelist, poet, essayist and playwright John Updike has not had some kind of new book in print. In other years he's made up for the zeroes, such as 1996, when three Updike titles landed in bookstores. Not just prolific, he's also honored, having won Pulitzers and other prizes. He now stands as one of the great figures in American letters.

The book: By my count, ``Widows'' is Updike's 61st book, not counting repackagings such as Everyman's ``Rabbit Angstrom.'' ``Widows'' is a sequel to his 1984 novel ``The Witches of Eastwick.''

The verdict: I think this is Updike's best novel since 1990's ``Rabbit at Rest.'' And like that book, it draws on old friends for its characters _ not Everyman ``Rabbit Angstrom,'' but the ``witches'' Alexandra, Jane and Sukie, who in the first novel shocked their small-town neighbors by dallying with a man who may have been the devil himself.

Don't read any of this too literally, though. Both Eastwick books really are about gender politics, specifically female empowerment. Forget, too, the 1987 ``Eastwick'' film starring Cher and Jack Nicholson, which was too frothy to be faithful to its source. ``Widows'' is a spectacular read, largely due to Alexandra, the potter whose Earth-mother aura has ripened with her years. It's great to see Updike in such fine fettle again. Publishes Oct. 21. ___

Nonfiction *``Lizard King: The True Crimes and Passions of the World's Greatest Reptile Smugglers,'' by Bryan Christy (241 pages; Twelve; $24.99).

The author: Christy has free lanced for National Geographic and Playboy.

The book: You think drug trafficking is despicable? Wildlife trafficking, especially when it comes to reptiles, can be wicked, too.

The verdict: I didn't know if I could handle this book. There are certain reptiles I absolutely detest, though I find Gila monsters intriguing. But the story won me over. Look: If your kid wants a boa constrictor or a lizard or something equally scaly, think twice about where you buy it, because this is a corrupt world, filled with cruelty to the animals and vile disregard for public health, not to mention international law. I am going to have nightmares for a while, I think, over what one scoundrel in these pages does with a single suitcase. 'Lizard King' is available now.

*``Anonymity: A Secret History of English Literature,'' by John Mullan (384 pages; Princeton University; $22.95).

The author: John Mullan writes a weekly column on fiction for the Guardian and is professor of English at University College London.

The book: Not at all the dusty tome one might expect from an academic.

The verdict: I couldn't put it down, but my occupation probably does pose a hazard to neutrality. Anonymity chronicles the many scribblers who've striven somehow to hide their identities for various reasons.

The Rev. C.L. Dodson, for example, was shy and modest, but ultimately was unsuccessful in keeping the world from knowing that he was Lewis Carroll (``Alice in Wonderland,'' ``Jabberwocky'').

In other cases, writers have obscured their selves out of fear of prosecution or censure based on the political or sexual contents of their writings. And women once used male pseudonyms knowing full well that their works would be better treated in a chauvinistic world. ``Anonymity'' just landed in bookstores.

*``Called Out of Darkness,'' by Anne Rice (256 pages; Knopf; $24).

The author: Anne Rice began her career in 1976 with ``Interview With the Vampire,'' and for a quarter-century continued writing about vampires, mummies, witches and other uncanny creatures in novels such as ``The Vampire Lestat,'' ``The Queen of the Damned'' and ``Taltos.'' But in 2005 she published ``Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt'' and now focuses her fiction on Christian themes.

The book: That transformation is exactly what ``Called Out of Darkness'' is about. Why did this incredibly popular spinner of supernatural yarns risk her audience by going in another direction? She did it, according to this fascinating memoir (her first book-length piece of nonfiction), because she returned to the Catholic Church. Rice does not disavow her supernatural books but also says she has no plans to write more of them.

The verdict: I read ``Called Out of Darkness'' in one sitting, enthralled by Rice's story of her own spiritual evolution. It's a lovely, intelligent book, and it comes out Oct. 7.

*``Hitler,'' by Ian Kershaw (1,056 pages; Norton; $39.95).

The author: Kershaw is a professor of modern history at the University of Sheffield in England.

The book: This is a shortened, one-edition of Kershaw's two-volume ``Hitler,'' which split the Nazi leader's life into two parts.

The verdict: Yes, Nazi Germany is one of the awful specters of the 20th century. Yes, Hitler still absorbs the interest of many people, scholars and lay readers alike. But not everyone has enough curiosity or concentration to read all of Kershaw's 2,000-plus pages about the man. Normally I'm against abridgement of any kind, but this one-volume version is the edition for the more casual reader who wants a knowledgeable biography but doesn't want to devote six months' of his or her life to reading it. Publication date is Nov. 10.

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