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One of the watchdog functions of criticism is puncturing hype.
Unfortunately, I haven't been able to puncture much hype lately. I liked the new ``Harry Potter.''
But this year's harvest of fall books does provide me the opportunity to comment on forthcoming works of merit and even identify a trend.
Let's take the trend first: One would have to be a fool to deny that visually oriented books are a big deal. Among the fascinating ones of autumn 2005: a graphic novel by the cracked/gifted Harvey Pekar, a provocative chunk of insanity from Chronicle Books called ``Suggestion,'' and a wordless wonder from Hungarian illustrator Istvan Banyai that may rank as one of the best kids' books I've ever seen.
But this trend of visual volumes does not support a conclusion that the written word is obsolete. For the fall book list also includes an excellent biography of Missouri's own Mark Twain, the first novel in four years from the luminous Amy Tan, and a bona fide epic - Paul Anderson's 1,360-page novel concerning (among other subjects) a 17th-century Mexican nun.
Here are my picks for fall books and author events of note, in chronological order:
On shelves now is Istvan Banyai's ``The Other Side'' (Chronicle Books; $15.95). Nearly devoid of words, this volume presents a series of paired paintings in which Banyai examines how perspective can be selective. A favorite: a snow scene in which a child stands by one of two trees, gazing into winter's white austerity. The mood is lonely. Turn the page, though, and one is allowed to see what was behind that second tree - and what the child is gazing upon: a small, spotted, black-and-white dog. If this is a children's book, I don't ever want to grow up.
Also available now is Paul Anderson's
Hunger's Brides: A Novel of the Baroque'' (Carroll & Graf; $35). The nation's book critics haven't taken much notice of this newly published tome (we're pressed for time). But Anderson, a Canadian, worked on the book for 12 years and already has been rewarded with the top literary fiction prize in the 2005 Alberta Book Awards. The book, which the Toronto Star called "an instant collector's item," is part historical fiction, part contemporary murder mystery. But at its heart is the story of the celebrated 17th-century Spanish poet Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, who entered a convent at 19 and later took a vow of silence, which she maintained until her death from plague at 45. Few modern novelists have dared break the 1,000-page barrier, though Richard Adams did it withMaia.'' If you have the patience for ``Brides'' (1,376 pages), I'd be happy to see if you thought it was worth your time. I'll expect to hear from you in January.
One more that's in stores now: ``Suggestion,'' credited to the New York public art collaborative known as Illegal Art (Chronicle Books; $12.95 paperback). Illegal Art reps carried suggestion boxes through the Big Apple's five boroughs and let folks write down any sort of suggestion that came into their heads. Their scrawled responses are reproduced here, one to a squarish little page. Sure, we find the waggish here - "Buy me a drink," one thirsty fellow suggested. And the odd: "Explore your elbows." But also some gems of compassion: "Think of human beings in general as a special interest group." And of wisdom: "Keep your mouth shut sometimes."
Sept. 13 will bring "M(ASTERISK)A(ASTERISK)S(ASTERISK)H" star Alan Alda's ``Never Have Your Dog Stuffed, and Other Things I've Learned'' (Random House; $24.95). I hate celeb memoirs. Alan Alda is not a celebrity who desperately wanted to write a memoir. He's a fine writer who happens to be a celebrity.
Earlier this month, bookstores got their first look at Karen Fisher's ``A Sudden Country'' (Random House; $24.95). The historical novel centers on one of America's archetypal stories, the mid-19th-century journey westward, specifically the Oregon migration of 1847. But it's the people who make a tale a tale, and Fisher's characters are vivid. She also manages to demythologize the West with her focus on how folks had to try to raise homes out of near nothingness.
Pulitzer Prize winner Ron Powers offers ``Mark Twain: A Life'' (Free Press; $26.95). I received an advance copy, and I've already devoured it. I've read several biographies about Twain, who was born Samuel Clemens in 1835 in Florida, Mo., but spent much of his boyhood in Hannibal before making the town famous - along with the Mississippi River, Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn. This is one of the best-written Twain bios ever produced.
On Oct. 4, Kansas City's Andrews McMeel publishes Bill Watterson's ``The Complete Calvin & Hobbes'' (1,440 total pages; $150). The three hardcover books in their sturdy slipcase will contain every "Calvin & Hobbes" cartoon Watterson drew when his imaginative strips ran in American newspapers. Expensive? Yep. Best-seller? Guaranteed.
If you like your visuals gritty instead of "Calvin" zany, you have just one more day to wait: Oct. 5 brings
The Quitter,'' by Harvey Pekar (Vertigo/DC Comics; $19.99). Pekar, author of theAmerican Splendor'' comic-book series that became the prize-winning film, has written a graphic novel that draws on his warped childhood. This is for mature readers, not kiddies. If you're the type who doesn't get offended, you'll get Pekar.
If only she could write them faster - but many readers think Amy Tan is worth the wait. Oct. 18 is the publication date for ``Saving Fish From Drowning'' (Putnam; $26.95). Tan's characters can be strange and her situations deliberately absurd. In this case, 11 Americans on an art expedition in southern Burma leave their resort for a Christmas morning tour and disappear into the jungle. But what saves Tan's writing from self-indulgence is the power and confidence of her prose.
(c) 2005, The Kansas City Star. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.