Here's Steve Martin, describing his first appearance on "The Tonight Show": "What happened while I was out there was very similar to an alien abduction: I remember very little of it, though I'm convinced it occurred." Later, having appeared many times, and having gotten to know Johnny Carson, he writes: "I was able to maintain a personal relationship with Johnny over the next thirty years, at least as personal as he or I could make it." The word here is cool: This is a spare and surprisingly affecting memoir of Martin's life as a stand-up -- often funny, though not always, but moving too.
Lionel Trilling (New York Review Books)
This collection of essays was first published in 1950, when what Lionel Trilling understood by being a liberal wasn't a dirty word but meant taking a stand against Stalinism and other forms of totalitarianism. These essays -- on Henry James, on Keats, on Scott-Fitzgerald, on the thorny subject of reality in America -- read as fresh as when they were written and continue to make an argument both for the necessity of literature and the ways in which literature might engage with politics and life. Newly introduced by Louis Menand.
"The Collected Poems" by Sylvia Plath (HarperPerennial)
"Dying / Is an art, like everything else. / I do it exceptionally well. / I do it so it feels like hell. / I do it so it feels real. / I guess you could say I've a call." The voice that Sylvia Plath found in the months before her suicide in 1963 still continues to astound, and shock. Rawest feeling is married to highest technical excellence in poems that take off the top of the reader's head. "And I / Am the arrow, / The dew that flies / Suicidal, at one with the drive / Into the red / Eye, the cauldron of morning." This lovely new edition of the modern classic has notes and an essay by Joyce Carol Oates. Also issued in a companion volume is "Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams," the collection of Plath's early short stories and journalism.
"On The Road -- The Original Scroll" by Jack Kerouac (Penguin)
This is the legendary first draft, a much rawer and wilder book in which Kerouac's voice soars and swoops without much less punctuation, as he originally hammered it out on a single roll of paper. "I won't describe the trip to Chicago, it was an ordinary bus trip with crying babies and sometimes hot sun and countryfolk getting on at one Penn town after another, and so on, till we got onto the plain of Ohio and really rolls, up by Ashtabula and straight across Indiana in the night for Chicago.' 'On The Road' sings as never before.
"Why Kerouac Matters" by John Leland (Penguin)
"At his best Kerouac extracts the fool's thoughts before the wiser man can polish or correct them. He makes a case for knowledge as it exists in nature," writes John Leland, in this excellent survey of the history of "On the Road" and its ever-enlarging place in our culture. Leland explores the wonder of Kerouac and connects his most famous book to the darkest aspects of contemporary life in a persuasive way.
"Pop L.A." by Cecile Whiting (University of California)
Whiting traces the era -- David Hockney, Ed Ruscha et al. -- when Los Angeles put itself on the map in terms of so-called high culture. Hockney came here from London to develop an aesthetic of surfaces, as Whiting says, and "to savor sensual delights that he refused to conceal beneath surface appearances in either his persona or his paintings." It was a time when the city oscillated between "urban nightmare" and "utopia of delirium and difference," Whiting notes in her sharp and clear survey.
"The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Other Jazz Age Stories" by F. Scott Fitzgerald (Penguin)
An original collection, hooked around the little-known story that, loosely, forms the basis of the new film by David Fincher starring Brad Pitt. Actually, any excuse for a new book by Fitzgerald is fine. He's often overlooked as a short-story writer, although here are classics such as "Bernice Bobs Her Hair" and "The Diamond as Big as the Ritz." Nothing Fitzgerald wrote, however, was without a sprinkling of magic dust. "Then it was all dark, and his white crib and the dim faces that moved above him and the warm sweet aroma of the milk, faded altogether from his mind," is how he concludes the tale of Benjamin Button. That's grace.
"Tree of Smoke: A Novel" by Denis Johnson (Picador)
"She had nothing in this world but her two hands and her crazy love for Jesus who seemed, for his part, never to have heard of her," is how Johnson describes one character in this long, fast, wild novel, his first in eons and an aching near-masterpiece. The novel is about the Vietnam War and the scars it left on the American soul: a familiar theme, then, but Johnson makes us feel it in unexpected and hypnotic ways. "Tree of Smoke" won the National Book Award, and its heated language is set to be part of our literature for years to come.
"Twenty Thousand Roads" by David N. Meyer (Villard)
Musician Gram Parsons lived fast, died young, and, when he was dead, his friends stole his corpse and set it alight up at Joshua Tree. Meyer tells the story of a meteoric journey in this meticulous and thoroughly compelling biography. Parsons was only 26 when he died, from an overdose inevitably, but he left behind enough mythology for several lifetimes.
"The Indian Bride" by Karin Fossum (Harvest)
"The Black Path" by Asa Larsson (Delta)
"Voices" by Arnaldur Indridason (Picador)
The recent boom in Scandinavian crime fiction might seem to begin with Henning Mankell, though the tradition was really born back in the 1960s, when the wife and husband team of Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo wrote 10 groundbreaking police procedurals featuring a detective named Martin Beck. In the wake of Mankell, though, a whole slew of younger writers has now found publishers, and an audience, in American. Fossum is especially excellent: Her books operate on a slow burn but arrow straight for the heart of criminal darkness. Indridason and Larsson, though less acclaimed, are also very deft. These books come off with a realism and depth that leave much British and American crime fiction seeming either flat or too much.