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Weekly Alibi Alternatives to Best Sellers

Fall is the Season for Serious Reading

By Blake de Pastino

SEPTEMBER 29, 1997:  If you're reading this, it means you have survived the summer. Best-seller season is now safely behind us. The likes of Michael Crichton and Dean Koontz are out of our lives until next year, when they'll return with all their movie tie-ins in tow.

Having sweated out the blockbuster season, we can now reward ourselves with some serious reading. Fall, after all, is the time when students go back to the classics, when workaday folks pick up those books they've been meaning to get to, when book lovers spend the long autumn nights with their personal favorites. It's in that spirit that I suggest some alternatives to the best sellers--books that have no prestige to offer but their own skin-tingling quality. Some are old standards, while others are almost unknown. Some editions are store-shelf new, while others you may have to root around to find. All of them are kind of edgy, kinky and weird, which is why I like them. Hope you do, too. And here's hoping that you find your own time-worn favorites to welcome in the autumn chill.

by Vladimir Nabokov (Vintage, paper, $13)

If you ask me, this is one of the best novels on earth and--as such--one of the last that should have been made into a movie. Stanley Kubrick did a fine job trying back in 1962, but now they've made another film about this cross-country pedophilic quest, this time starring Jeremy Irons. Hence the re-relase of Nabokov's controversial classic. And who could resist such a story--at once a diatribe of American culture and an incredibly unsettling peek through the glory-hole of the human heart. A native Russian speaker, Nabokov has more fun with the English language than any writer I've ever encountered. And even though I have a healthy appreciation for all manner of smut, Lolita never fails to disturb me. That, to me, is a very good sign.

A Stranger in This World
by Kevin Canty (Vintage, paper, $10)

If Kevin Canty had a less brutal vision--and a better agent--he would probably be today what Jay McInerney was 10 years ago. I mean, by all rights, this book of short stories should have catapulted him to a sickening degree of fame; instead, it became the best-kept secret of 1994. The only reason Canty's not a literary superstar, I guess, is because he writes about such pathologically unsexy stuff, like guys who work in dog-pound gas chambers and women who spend their days crabbing through boxes at swap meets. Canty experiments with all kinds of voices here, writing with the rhythm of an engine missing a piston, and he has the whole disaffected-youth routine pared down to a science. I recommend a nice, calming drink before you ingest any of this gently intense stuff. It's enough to make you grateful that this guy's not as famous as he deserves to be.

To Kill a Mockingbird
by Harper Lee (Harper Collins, cloth, $18)

Some people were put on this earth to write one book. And Harper Lee was just such a person. To say that To Kill A Mockingbird is a "timeless classic" may sound like bullshit to you, but this novel has been copied so many times and alluded to so many more, it's hard to find another phrase that fits. That's why Harper Collins re-released it in this hardbound edition a couple years ago: Almost everyone has some kind of affection for it. I myself am amazed by Lee's unparalleled sense of setting, how she creates a community where the air is saturated with suspense and the lawyerly breast feathers of "justice" are fluffed up without the slightest sign of irony. And then there's the gossipy stuff, like how the character Dill was really based on Truman Capote, whom Lee knew in childhood. It's a morose portrait of social injustice and personal growth, but the saddest aspect of Mockingbird for me is the fact that Harper Lee hasn't written anything since.

Live Girls
by Beth Nugent (Knopf, cloth, $22)

This is one of my favorite debut novels, even though almost no one has heard of it. Live Girls proves beyond the shadow of a doubt that Colorado author Beth Nugent is one of the most disturbing writers around. It concerns Catherine, an unspirited young woman who has fallen from middle-class suburbia, working in a porn theater, living in a transient hotel. Almost nothing happens here; instead, Catherine just thinks out loud (like, about her sick sister or the little plastic monkey that comes perched on her cocktail), and she mills around with some mind-meltingly vivid characters. What's really creepy about this book, though, is the fact that it's entirely seedy without any graphic stuff ever being depicted--no sex, no drunkenness, no rage. All of those components are merely suggested, which makes the whole reading experience feel a little unwholesome. Just brilliant.

The Immoralist
by André Gide (Vintage, paper, $11)

Here's yet another classic that has been brought back to life recently, though in this case I'm kind of surprised. Most people hated The Immoralist when it was first printed in 1902, and today it's still rather obscure. But here's how it goes: Michel is a sickly French functionary who's on the brink of death with TB. His young bride ministers him back to health, and suddenly all Michel wants to do is grow his hair, live without values and enjoy the company of swarthy young men. Quite scandalous stuff back then--even if you were French--and the neat thing about it is that Gide himself doesn't seem quite sure what to make of it. The author's sense of abandon--aesthetic, sexual, existential--put him way ahead of his time, and there's no wondering why this novel launched his career as an enfant terrible. If you ask me, there's no use in reading Camus or Sartre unless you read this first.

Travels in Hyperreality
by Umberto Eco (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, cloth, $15.95)

As is the case with Nabokov, it seems again like foreigners understand America better than we do. On the heels of his orgiastically successful The Name of the Rose in 1983, Umberto Eco began traveling the US and came up with this, for my money the best study of American pop culture in the past 20 years. With essays on professional sports, mass media and blue jeans, Travels in Hyperreality is the book for anyone who finds America to be an even remotely interesting place. The title essay alone is worth it: a jaw-dropping tour through our country's theme parks, wax museums and roadside attractions, which together illustrate our lust for the "realer than real." It blew my mind a couple months ago when I found this in a second-hand bookstore. If you can find it, the gods are smiling broadly on you.

--Blake de Pastino

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