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Pickings slim this year for literary fiction

Hillel Italie Associated Press

As fall approaches, the book world still is searching for this year’s great American novel.

“There were supposed to be some literary novels that blew everybody away. But for various reasons, they didn’t quite perform,” says Jonathan Burnham, vice president and publisher of HarperCollins.

“I think everyone is still waiting for the book that everyone greets as the big literary book,” adds John Sterling, president and publisher of Henry Holt. “People thought it would be a strong year for fiction, but it hasn’t turned out that way.”

With the presidential election over, Sterling and others had expected fiction to reclaim the attention given to topical books. But anticipated novels such as Michael Cunningham’s “Specimen Days” and Jonathan Safran Foer’s “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” received mixed reviews at best, and the fall doesn’t look any better.

Publishers and booksellers struggled to think of a book with the kind of word of mouth that spread last year for Philip Roth’s “The Plot Against America” and Marilynne Robinson’s “Gilead,” which went on to win a Pulitzer Prize.

One hope is E.L. Doctorow’s “The March,” a novel based on Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman’s bloody campaign through the South during the Civil War.

But Sessalee Hensley, fiction buyer for Barnes & Noble, Inc., says: “Nothing’s going to be ‘Gilead’ this year.”

With the public still edgy from war and an uncertain economy, fiction continues to serve more as a means for escaping the world than for engaging it. The big books have been thrillers, such as “The Da Vinci Code” and “The Historian,” and the fantasy blockbuster “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.”

Robert Hicks’ “The Confederate Widow,” another Civil War novel, could become the year’s big fiction debut. Courtroom master Scott Turow looks back to World War II in “Ordinary Heroes.”

Anne Rice’s “Christ the Lord” may be the most controversial release – a story about Jesus from an author known for more pagan narratives.

The oddest could be the late Marlon Brando’s “Fan-Tan,” a pirate adventure the actor worked on in the 1970s.

Other fiction includes Salman Rushdie’s “Shalamar the Clown” and a trio of works from Nobel laureates: J.M. Coetzee’s “Slow Man,” Nadine Gordimer’s “Get a Life” and Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s “Memories of My Melancholy Whores,” which came out in Spanish last year.

In nonfiction, Al Franken is back on the attack with “The Truth (With Jokes),” but otherwise political books will focus more on policy than on personalities. Jonathan Kozol’s “Shame of the Nation” denounces racism in public education, while Barbara Ehrenreich endures the job market in “Bait and Switch.”

As the war in Iraq continues for a third year, books will try to define a story with no apparent ending. George Packer’s “The Assassin’s Gate,” Anthony Shadid’s “Night Draws Near” and Zaki Chehab’s “Inside the Resistance” are among the upcoming releases, along with several works by soldiers, including Colby Buzzell’s “My War” and Nathaniel Fick’s “One Bullet Away.”

Memoirs will come from the famous and nearly famous. Billy Crystal, a big hit at last summer’s booksellers convention, has completed “700 Sundays,” based on his one-man Broadway show about his father. “Dean and Me” is Jerry Lewis’ loving portrait of his old partner, Dean Martin.

Joan Didion writes about the death of her husband, author John Gregory Dunne, in “The Year of Magical Thinking.” Frank McCourt’s “Teacher Man” completes the trilogy of memoirs he started a decade ago with the million-selling “Angela’s Ashes.”

Julie Powell’s “Julie & Julia” is the season’s most unusual memoir – based on her efforts to master the recipes of Julia Child – and a possible breakthrough for bloggers. Based on postings from Powell’s blog, the book will be published by Little Brown and stores expect strong interest.

Other notable nonfiction includes Doris Kearns Goodwin’s “Team of Rivals,” one of several Abraham Lincoln books expected; Garry Wills’ “Henry Adams and the Making of America”; Ron Powers’ “Mark Twain”; and Charles Bracelen Flood’s “Grant and Sherman.”

Calvin and Hobbes fans can have the whole cartoon works under one cover, while New Yorker obsessives will likely snap up “The Complete New Yorker” – which captures the magazine’s 80-year history, even the advertisements, on eight DVD discs.

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