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Four recently published books Jeff Simon wants you to check out

Jeff Simon

Rose McGowan read from her memoir "Brave" last week in Manhattan's Union Square Barnes and Noble.

Her book, among other things, touches upon her troubled childhood as the daughter of Children of God parents and her emancipation from them at 15. Of course, it deals, too, with her subsequent alienation from Hollywood and the abuses she's suffered.

After the actress and activist who so significantly alleged rape by Harvey Weinstein fielded some pre-approved questions at the bookstore, a transgender actress in the audience named Andi Dier stood up and accused McGowan of "doing nothing" for transgender women, whereupon McGowan had a much-tweeted-about reaction laced with profanity and obscenity:

This is an odd time in American book stores. It is not uncommon for lightning to strike them. A few weeks ago, I was in a huge one in Los Angeles buying a book for my grandson when I noticed a very old and frail man in a wheelchair hugging Alec Baldwin's parody Trump memoir to his chest while a young woman was pushing him toward the cash register. "This is that Trump book everyone's talking about," he claimed to her, just because Trump's picture was on the cover.

I gently told him that he was probably talking about Michael Wolff's No. 1 bestseller "Fire and Fury" and pointed at a massive table -- the biggest in the store -- piled high with nothing but copies of Wolff's book. "That's probably the one you want," I told him.

It almost seems as if I need to apologize for finding other less gaudy and less lightning-struck books to feel excitement about in America's bookstores. But I can't because at almost the same time as the electrical storm, four of the most exciting books to me have been published at the same time as memoirs of abuse and an exposed White House.

You should know about them, too, I think. They are:

* "The Largesse of the Sea Maiden: Stories by Denis Johnson," (Random House, 207 pages, $27): Until his death last May of liver cancer at the age of 67, Johnson was one of the most admired writers in America. He was, significantly, once a student of Raymond Carver's and after Carver's death he became one of the most admired by other writers who are used to the admiration of their peers. "Exquisite," said Mary Gaitskill about him. "Great," said David Foster Wallace. "A huge and singular talent," said Joy Williams. "No one like him," said Philip Roth. "American to the core," said Don DeLillo. "A true master," said Zadie Smith. In other words, a writer's writer and then some.

His best-known books are "Jesus' Son," "Tree of Smoke," "Fiskador" and his first, "Angels." He once said he was influenced in his writing style by the way Jimi Hendrix played the guitar. The relationship of writer and editor is one of the more remarkable the world has. His editor, Sam Nicholson, describes this final book this way: Whereas the writing in "Jesus' Son" is "raw, hallucinatory prose about the people on the far margins of society," this final story collection is "going in a different direction. He returned to the heart of the American vernacular just as his lonely characters returned from the cold, coming in from the cold pursuit of individual meaning to find a community often in the most sorrowful places." One of the season's major books by any assay.

* "Feel Free: Essays by Zadie Smith," (Penguin Press, 452 pages, $28): About those British pols who forced her country into Brexit, she writes "Conservative is not the right word for either of them anymore; that word has at least an implication of care and the presentation of legacy. 'Arsonist' feels like the more accurate term." At the same time, this is a writer who will tell you how her initial disdain for Joni Mitchell turned into something like worship. All from a once-ballyhooed multi-cultural woman who, in the course of doing it, name checks Seneca, Picasso and Kierkegaard. Justin Bieber, yes Justin Bieber, inspires a "philosophical" investigation that takes her from Bieber to Martin Buber's "I And Thou." "These essays you have in your hands were written in England and America during the 8 years of the Obama presidency." She is the author of "White Teeth" and "Swing Time" and, for years, has been one of the most important literary journalists we have. This is why.

* "The Rub of Time: Bellow, Nabokov, Hitchens, Travolta, Trump: Essays and Reportage 1994-2017," by Martin Amis (Knopf, 392 pages, $28.95): What a generation they were, a couple generations back in Britain -- Martin Amis, the son of "Lucky Jim" author Kingsley Amis, Salman Rushdie, Chirstopher Hitchens (who, says his friend Amis, had a "peculiar blend of irony and granite"), Julian Barnes. The "twin peaks" of Amis' personal landscape as a novelist were Saul Bellow and Vladimir Nabokov. About Bellow he writes here, "His sentences simply weigh more than anybody else's." His own aren't exactly flyweight. He is in the great tradition that now boasts so wonderfully Zadie Smith.

* "Going for a Beer: Selection short fictions," by Robert Coover (Norton,  414 pages, $26.95): It is high time, now that he just turned 86, for Robert Coover to be generally acclaimed as one of the great living old masters of American prose. To be personal here, his first book of short stories, "Pricksongs and Descants," was the first book I ever reviewed for The News. Post-modernism was new. I had been bowled over by "The Origin of the Brunists" and "The Universal Baseball Association, J. Henry Waugh, Prop," but nothing quite prepared me for "Pricksongs and Descants" and what came after. This collection is astonishing. These have been, for over 40 years, some of the most remarkable stories written in this country -- many of them transforming other stories from butterflies back into chrysalises and then caterpillars (and, of course, in reverse). Wait until you read what Coover's "The Tinkerer" and Jehovah have in common. Not to mention about what happens, as he tells it, to Hansel and Gretel, the Invisible Man, Aesop, the Phantom of the Opera, Little Red Riding Hood, Noah and Punch, of Punch and Judy.

He has managed to be literature's guardian at the same time he has been its re-inventor and alternative, all at the same time. He is both astounding and fun to read at the same time. A hell of a trick.

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