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Alexander's latest claim to greatness: Three new biographies

| Sunday, Oct. 10, 2004

Alexander the Great certainly deserved his nickname.

The fourth-century B.C. Macedonian warrior and student of Aristotle conquered the mighty Persian Empire, founded Alexandria in Egypt, created a vast empire of his own, and died without having lost a battle -- all before his 33rd birthday.

And if that isn't impressive enough, Alexander also is the subject of no fewer than three new books.

In "Alexander the Great: The Hunt for a New Past" (Overlook), Paul Cartledge counters some of the myths, legends and distortions of history that have evolved about Alexander's life. In "The Death of Alexander the Great" (Carroll & Graf), Paul Doherty speculates that Alexander, whose mysterious death often has been attributed to malaria or alcohol poisoning, might have been killed by his own troops. And in "The Virtues of War" (Doubleday), Steven Pressfield offers a novel in which Alexander himself narrates his life and exploits.

Among other new hardcover titles are fiction by Philip Roth, Nora Roberts, Russell Banks and Anne Perry; nonfiction books about the Green River serial killer and Shakespeare; and "sort of" nonfiction in comic Jon Stewart's revised "textbook" of U.S. history.

Roth also revises U.S. history in "The Plot Against America" (Houghton Mifflin), in which aviator Charles A. Lindbergh is an acknowledged Hitler ally and perceived anti-Semite who defeats FDR for the presidency in 1940. Roth "recalls" how the Lindbergh administration affected the nation and the world, and particularly life in young Philip's Jewish household in Newark, N.J.

Roberts sets "Northern Lights" (Putnam) among a bunch of Lunatics -- that's what the citizens of the fictional town of Lunacy, Alaska, population 506, call themselves. Nate Burke arrives from Baltimore to become Lunacy's police chief. After a quiet start, he becomes romantically involved with a local woman whose long-missing father turns up as a frozen corpse in a remote cave, and with an ax embedded in his chest.

In "The Darling" (HarperCollins), Banks tells the story of Hannah Musgrave, a 1970s political radical who fled America for Liberia. There, Hannah and her husband, a government official, befriend warlord Charles Taylor and Hannah establishes a sanctuary for chimpanzees. When civil war erupts in Liberia, Hannah is forced to make a choice: stay with her family and the sanctuary or accept an offer of safe passage back to the United States.

"Shoulder the Sky" (Ballantine) is Perry's second novel in her series set in World War I England, where an Army chaplain finds the body of an unpopular war correspondent and suspects that the man was killed by a British solider. Meanwhile, the chaplain is working with an intelligence officer in London to track down a mysterious figure who is trying to undermine public support for the war as part of a broader plan to reshape the world.

In "Green River, Running Red" (Free Press), true-crime specialist Ann Rule chronicles the search for Washington state's Green River killer, which culminated in 2001 with the arrest of Gary Ridgway. The Green River killer, so-named because the first five victims were found near the river in 1982, claimed at least 49 victims, all young women.

How did Shakespeare become -- well, Shakespeare• In "Will in the World" (Norton), Stephen Greenblatt tells how this man of humble birth, limited experience and no university education became, in a short time, the greatest playwright of his era -- and one whose works still are read, performed and marveled at 400 years later. Greenblatt links Shakespeare's life and work and shows how his experiences -- notably the death of his young son, Hamlet -- were incorporated into some of his most famous plays.

In "America (The Book): A Citizen's Guide to Democracy Inaction" (Warner Books), the staff of Comedy Central's fake news show "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart" offers a satirical view of American democracy, from its founding to its future, in a simulated textbook complete with photos, drawings, charts and diagrams. There are discussion questions, classroom activities, a study guide and even a foreword by Thomas Jefferson, who acknowledges that he has been dead for 178 years and has a crush on Halle Berry.

Other new fiction

Anita Shreve tells what happens after a widower and his young daughter find an abandoned baby in the snowy woods in "Light on Snow" (Little, Brown).

"Nights of Rain and Stars" (Dutton) is Maeve Binchy's story of a diverse group of people on a Greek island who are united by a fatal fire aboard a tourist boat.

In Muriel Spark's novella "The Finishing School" (Doubleday), a teacher and would-be novelist becomes obsessed with a teenage student whose novel-in-progress has attracted the attention of publishers.

A teenager's claim to be the abandoned son of a U.S. presidential candidate spurs an investigation by a magazine writer in "Any Place I Hang My Hat" (Scribner) by Susan Isaacs.

Peter Ackroyd sets "The Clerkenwell Tales" (Nan A. Talese) in 1399 London, where the parish of Clerkenwell is beset by unsettling prophecies, mysterious murders and a plot to overthrow the Church and depose the king. In "The System of the World" (Morrow), the third and final volume in Neal Stephenson's "The Baroque Cycle," series hero Daniel Waterhouse returns to England from the American Colonies to help Isaac Newton stop a gang that is killing scientists.

New fantasy fiction includes "The Dark Tower" (Grant-Scribner), the seventh and concluding volume in Stephen King's saga of Roland Deschain's quest to reach the tower; "Currant Events" (Tor) by Piers Anthony, in which the Muse of History and a magician try to rescue Xanth's dragons from extinction and clear up an illegible volume of history; and "Going Postal" (HarperCollins), Terry Pratchett's comic fantasy in which a convicted con man named Moist is sentenced to operate Ankh-Morpork's long-closed post office and its heaps of undelivered mail.

"War Trash" (Pantheon) is Ha Jin's story about a Chinese army officer fighting in the Korean War who is captured by Americans and becomes the interpreter at a POW camp.

William Trevor offers 12 short stories in "A Bit on the Side" (Viking).

Other new nonfiction

John Steele Gordon describes the people and events since Colonial times that helped make America an economic giant in "An Empire of Wealth" (HarperCollins).

"The King and I" (Doubleday) by Herbert Breslin and Anne Midgette is the story of Breslin's long relationship with Luciano Pavarotti, as friend and manager.

In "The Know-It-All" (Simon & Schuster), A.J. Jacobs chronicles his mission to read the entire 32-volume Encyclopaedia Britannica and the effect the project had on his work, marriage, impending fatherhood and relationship with his own father.

Ved Mehta's discovery of his father's affair with a married woman is the subject of "The Red Letters" (Nation Books), the 11th and final in Mehta's "Continents of Exile" series of memoirs.

Aharon Appelfeld offers a memoir of the Holocaust in "The Story of a Life" (Schocken), in which he recalls his family's imprisonment in a Nazi camp and his subsequent escape and years of hiding.

"Tick ... Tick ... Tick ..." (HarperCollins) is David Blum's chronicle of the 36-year history of television's "60 Minutes."

A two-hour DVD accompanies "Face the Nation" (Simon & Schuster), the 50-year history of the Sunday TV news program as told by Bob Schieffer, its host since 1991.

In "Conviction" (ReganBooks), Newsday reporter Leonard Levitt describes the investigation into the 1975 murder of Connecticut teenager Martha Moxley, for which her neighbor, Michael Skakel, was found guilty in 2002.

Jon Lee Anderson chronicles the lives of a diverse group of everyday Iraqis during "The Fall of Baghdad" (Penguin Press).

In "The Dogs of Bedlam Farm" (Villard), Jon Katz recalls a winter spent on a remote New York farm with various critters and his attempts to train Orson, a border collie pup.

Susan Orlean describes her adventures in various parts of the world in her essay collection "My Kind of Place" (Random House).

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