Amazon's Sara Nelson shares her favorite fall books

Amazon's Sara Nelson says Sept. 2012 is offering both serious literary titles and also some strong ‘commercial’ picks.

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    'It’s a novel that reads like nonfiction – that reads like a novel,' Nelson said of 'Sutton,' by J.R. Moehringer.
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Readers are in for a literary treat this fall, says Sara Nelson, editorial director of books and Kindle for Amazon.com.

“September and October are always a bumper crop of books,” says Nelson. “There’s a lot of anticipated books from well-known writers like Zadie Smith and Junot Diaz, and it’s also a time for debuts from new writers. [We’ve seen] serious literary titles but also strong ‘commercial’ picks.”

Each month Amazon’s editorial team meets to select its list of the 10 books it believes are the best of the month, a process Nelson describes as “a bunch of people in a room all screaming about what we liked and didn’t like.” When you have as many good books come out as in September, says Nelson, the argument is particularly passionate.

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One book everyone was passionate about, she says, is “The Signal and The Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail – But Some Don’t,” by Nate Silver, author of the New York Times’s popular FiveThirtyEight blog.

“It’s a book about science and forecasting everything from baseball, to weather to politics,” says Nelson. “It’s a brilliant book, surprisingly easy to read, and it makes science accessible… It stands out in a lot of ways.”

Another standout was Christopher Hitchens’ “Mortality,” the late author’s vivid account of his battle with esophageal cancer and the last months of his life.

“It’s very intense,” says Nelson, “you feel like you’re right there with him…[He writes] with such wit and with great humanity…For a book about dying of cancer, it’s surprisingly not depressing.”

“The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo,” by Tom Reiss, was one book that surprised Nelson. Part history, part biography, and part swashbuckling adventure saga, “The Black Count” tells the story of the little-known Gen. Alexandre Dumas, father of the better-known novelist Alexandre Dumas. Dumas was the mixed-race son of a count and a West Indies slave who would become one of Napoleon’s greatest generals and become the inspiration for many of his son’s books, including “The Count of Monte Cristo” and “The Three Musketeers.”

“It’s partly a history of France, but the book is way more than that,” says Nelson. “You learn a lot in it, it’s interesting and unusual.”

Another surprise, says Nelson, was “How Music Works,” by David Byrne, a book that explores the physics, business, technology, and cultural history of music, from African villages to Wagnerian opera houses.

“This is a very brainy book, but not so 'musicologist' that the average person who likes music couldn’t understand it,” says Nelson. “You’ll learn something, but it’s not homework.”

Another book that’s definitely not homework is “Sutton,” by J.R. Moehringer, a book that much of Nelson’s team fell in love with, based on the life of America’s most successful bank robber, Willie Sutton. “It’s a novel that reads like nonfiction – that reads like a novel,” says Nelson, laughing. Moehringer captures Sutton’s rhythm perfectly, she says, making “Sutton” a “fascinating... walking tour of his life.”

One trend Nelson says she is seeing in publishing this fall is a slight pivot toward nonfiction, especially politically-oriented books and books about war.

One such book is “500 Days: Secrets and Lies in the Terror Wars,” by Kurt Eichenwald, a gripping chronicle that recounts the first 500 days after 9/11. At 640 pages, it’s a far-reaching account that spans events from the White House to Guantanamo Bay to al-Qaeda training camps to torture chambers in Egypt and Syria, including “never-before-reported details about warrantless wiretapping, the anthrax attacks” and more, according to Amazon.com.

“We’re seeing a wave of literature about the wars,” says Nelson, including “Yellow Birds: A Novel,” by Kevin Powers. Nelson calls it a “poetic novel about two soldiers during the war.”

“You can tell he was a poet, each word is carefully chosen, and the book is not about the politics of war, it’s about two guys, about their relationship.

“It doesn’t attempt to be this giant book about war,” adds Nelson. “This is not that. It’s more in the vein of 'The Things They Carried,' or 'Dispatches.'”

Nelson says she expects Zadie Smith’s “NW: A Novel,” about class and identity in multicultural, working-class Northwest London, to continue getting rave reviews, all well-deserved.

Another book with a strong sense of place and culture is “This is How You Lose Her,” by Junot Diaz, a collection of nine stories about love.

She’s also keeping her eyes on “My Heart Is an Idiot: Essays,” by Davy Rothbart.

“’My Heart Is an Idiot’ is a book I didn’t think I would necessarily get,” says Nelson. “He’s a young man and this is an essay collection about his messed-up romantic life. I took it home, thought, ‘Well, everyone else likes this, so let me take a look.’ I was laughing out loud.”

A final fall treat on the “Best of Month” list is “Every Day,” by David Levithan, a tale about ‘A,’ who wakes up in a different person’s body and a different person’s life every day. “Don’t you wish you could do that?” says Nelson. “It’s a brilliant conceit.”

Amazon's September "best of" recommendations come together to create "a really hard-won list," says Nelson. "It’s a very busy, big time of year [in publishing], a great time of year for readers.”

Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.

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