Autumn Leaves, Autumn Reads

books on a shelf

CBS News Sunday Morning's John Leonard has a few books in mind that are bound to give you food for autumnal thought -- or just plain fun.

The books of autumn are as various and brilliant as the leafy trees. Suppose, for instance, you want to take your mind off things by reading a mystery.

Sara Paretsky's latest, "Total Recall", is a good idea but also dangerous. Her private eye, V.I. Warshawski, starts out investigating insurance fraud and ends up deep in Holocaust history, false and repressed memories, hypnotherapeutic malpractice, and reparations to black people for American slavery. Dazzling and difficult.

Or suppose you'd rather read about love. There are not one, but two new biographies of the lyric poet and matinee idol of the 1920s, Edna St. Vincent Millay. In "Savage Beauty", Nancy Milford, following up on her splendid book on Zelda Fitzgerald, tells all and is wonderfully cranky about it. In "What My Lips Have Kissed: The Loves And Love Poems Of Edna St. Vincent Millay", Daniel Mark Epstein is so smitten with his subject he can hardly see straight. But both, with so much promiscuity, alcoholism and drug addiction, seem to suggest that if you burn your candle at both ends, you end up like a rock star in rehab or an early grave.

The Leonard File
Read past reviews by John Leonard.
About politics, no one writes with more of a sonar ear, a radar eye, and an icepick/laser beam prose style than Joan Didion between novels. The essays collected in "Political Fictions" engage the legacy of Ronald Reagan, the conundrum of Jesse Jackson, the woo-woo of Newt Gingrich and the abduction of American democracy by a permanent political class of power, money and media that doesn't really care whether the rest of us vote or nt.

About death, Studs Terkel in "Will the Circle Be Unbroken?" isn't exactly jaunty. But his interviews with doctors, nurses, firefighters, paramedics, cops, cancer patients, death-row convicts and AIDS ward caseworkers amounts to an affirmation anyway. Though they disagree on the hereafter, they've all won battlefield commissions in the Badlands. And the book itself is an act of faith from our own Walt Whitman, who hears America singing in a multitude of keys.

About all of these - mystery, love, politics, death - Jonathan Franzen has written the best novel of the year, "The Corrections." A Midwestern family must deal not only with its own heartbreak, but also with consumerism, pharmacology, biotechnology, the superstitious magic of the stock market and the unbearable lightness of being on the Internet. Imagine a son come home for Christmas, all of a sudden wondering "when had it happened that his parents had become the children who went to bed early and called down for help from the top of the stairs?"

Finally, in November, a grand occasion in world literature - the publication in one huge volume of everything Isaac Babel ever wrote before Stalin had him shot in 1939. Imagine Kafka on a horse, with a saber. Imagine Dostoyevsky, only Jewish. Imagine an amalgam of Karl Marx, Don Quixote and surrealism. Once upon a time he wrote: "The sky was blue and the whips were black." They still are.

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