Fall Arts: Book Picks

The Arabian Nights: Tales of 1,001 Nights: Volumes 1-3 Deluxe Boxed Set
By Anonymous, translated/edited by Malcolm C. Lyons, Ursula Lyons, and Robert Irwin | October

For 80 years, the definitive English translation of this Eastern classic was Sir Richard F. Burton's 1932 model, which, among other no-no's, reworked the allusive Arabic songs into rhyming couplets and snipped out the bawdy bits. This new, gorgeously printed three-hardcover extravaganza—previously available only in the U.K. and featuring Irwin and the Lyonses' smooth-as-hummus post-Orientalist translation—is the one you want. The Nights' instructive, bizarre, and sexy stories (many of them stories-within-stories, technically) of evil djinns and brave ladies and Sindbad have rarely seemed more relevant than in this long-overdue update.

Penguin Classics, 2,784 pp., $200

The Atheist's Guide to Reality: Enjoying Life Without Illusions
By Alex Rosenberg | October

This eccentric, funny treatise on "scientism," Rosenberg's term for his bracing brand of pragmatism, takes a perverse delight in "nice nihilism." Rosenberg doesn't believe in free will, morality, or secular humanism, and apparently you shouldn't either, dummy. A harangue of hopelessness? No, this dismemberment of mainstream worldviews abounds with clever barbs and dry one-liners. By page 3, Rosenberg has answered all the "persistent questions": "Is there a God? No. . . . Why am I here? Just dumb luck. What happens when we die? Everything pretty much goes on as before, except us."

W.W. Norton & Company, 368 pages, $25.95

Phantom Tollbooth 50th Anniversary Edition
By Norton Juster and Jules Feiffer | October

The Annotated Phantom Tollbooth
By Norton Juster, Leonard S. Marcus, and Jules Feiffer | October

Fifty years ago, a depressed child named Milo found a mysterious tollbooth and car among his toys, and entered a fantasy world of knowledge divided between the quarreling kingdoms of Dictionopolis and Digitopolis. With the "watchdog" Tock, Milo braved his way through one of the cleverest American children's stories ever to also function as a barely veiled polemic against ignorance and closed-mindedness. Knopf revisits this classic with an essay-laden new edition and an annotated version detailing the book's origins, including a look at the art-historical influences of Feiffer's illustrations.

"50th Anniversary," Knopf, 288 pp., $24
"Annotated," Knopf, 320 pp., $29.99

Zone One
By Colson Whitehead | October

Whitehead's most recent book, the semi-autobiographical Sag Harbor, seemed like an anomaly just for being personal and pastoral. With Zone One, the novelist returns to the urban fabulist roots of The Intuitionist, describing how a guy named Mark Spitz helps New York rebuild itself by hunting disease-carriers after a devastating plague. The titular zone is lower Manhattan. Many will thrill to the Blade Runner–ish zombie noir of this citified answer to The Road.

Doubleday, 272 pp., $25.95

Blue Nights
By Joan Didion | November

Inspired by the death of Didion's adopted daughter Quintana, Blue Nights follows up the acclaimed memoir (and play) The Year of Magical Thinking with more of the author's astringent commentary on life and loss. Brandishing many questions about relationships between children and parents, Didion skips around in time from 1966 to 2010, with Quintana's 2003 wedding as a focal point. The unflappable author might acknowledge the degree to which family elegizing has energized her work and career; fortunately, one also gets the impression that her equally canny departed loved ones would encourage her.

Knopf, 208 pp., $25

The Great Big Book of Horrible Things: The Definitive Chronicle of History's 100 Worst Atrocities
By Matthew White | November

Matthew White, of the primitive-yet-absorbing online Historical Atlas of the 20th Century, has loosely ranked the world's deadliest wars, genocides, rebellions, slave trades, and revolts by body count (WWII is No. 1). The book might start an argument or two. For example, White implies that slavery has nearly been eradicated—not true if you call it "human trafficking." Even reading this world bummer with a grain of salt, you can't resist White's witty prose or put the damned thing down.

W.W. Norton & Company, 560 pp., $35

It Chooses You
By Miranda July | November

Feeling the existential crisis that is Los Angeles (a/k/a writing the screenplay for her film The Future), July became fascinated with the PennySaver. She wanted to meet and interview its oddball advertisers. Among them are a transsexual selling a leather jacket and an Indian woman supporting a village by hocking her collection of traditional clothing. A tad exploitative, maybe, but in this project, July wants only to connect with real people in an old-fashioned way, and if that makes both subject and object seem quirky, all the better.

McSweeney's, 208 pp., $24

1Q84
By Haruki Murakami, translated by Jay Rubin and Philip Gabriel | October
Knopf, 944 pp., $30.50

The Marriage Plot
By Jeffrey Eugenides | October
FSG, 416 pp., $28

The Ecstasy of Influence
By Jonathan Lethem | November
Doubleday, 480 pp., $27.95

Life Upon These Shores: Looking at African American History, 1513-2008
By Henry Louis Gates Jr. | November
Knopf, 496 pp., $50

You wanted some big, fat books by boys? Well, we got 'em. Murakami's bignum opus 1Q84 riffs on George Orwell in a multi-perspective plot that paints an unsettling portrait of modern Japan. Eugenides's The Marriage Plot ponders how Austen became déclassé when Derrida made the 1980s academic scene. Influence compiles Lethem's nonfiction, which takes itself and its subject matter less seriously than David Foster Wallace's (exhibit A: the all-quotation title essay). Gates compresses 495 years of black history into Life Upon These Shores, presumably as his neighbors call the cops.

 
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