There is absolutely nothing wrong—and probably quite a bit right—with occasionally tuning out some of what's going on in the world right now, and burying yourself in a book. Luckily for you, there's a lot of great things to read this fall. Here are 25 of our favorite new books, all perfect reminders of our definitely overused personal mantra: at least there's good stuff to read.
Sing, Unburied, Sing, Jesmyn Ward (available now)Spanning both the course of a couple of days and several generations of a Mississippi Delta-based family, Sing, Unburied, Sing centers around 13-year-old Jojo as he and his toddler sister, Kayla, leave behind their beloved grandparents, Mam and Pop, and accompany their drug-addicted mother, Leonie, to pick up their father, Michael, at Parchman, the northern Mississippi prison where he’s been incarcerated for the past three years. Taking place from multiple perspectives—Jojo’s, Leonie’s, and, notably, that of Richie, a ghostly figure who, decades prior, was a 12-year-old inmate at Parchman along with Pop—the story is reminiscent of other epic Southern journey novels, notably William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. (Though instead of there being lines evocative of modernism’s simplicity, like “my mother is a fish,” Ward writes with an astonishingly lyrical quality; sentences vibrate with their own beauty: “her voice was a fishing line thrown so weakly the wind catches it.”)
Unlike in that archetypal road trip narrative, The Odyssey, here the monsters are sickly sweet-smelling white men and women, whose inescapable allure lays not merely in the pleasures they offer, but in their own imperviousness—to punishment, yes, but also to time itself. Their power resides beyond the realm of consequence; it exists outside of recent positive developments meant to combat things like institutional racism. Their power laughs in the face of things like social progress. As one characters notes about the injustices of the world, “Sometimes I think it done changed. And then I sleep and wake up, and it ain’t changed none.”
And yet, this story is not one devoid of hope; it is one that is filled with love, particularly as seen in the relationship between Pop and Jojo, one that gets under the skin so that it’s impossible not to feel its fingerprints days after setting the book down. It’s a testament to the ways in which we learn to heal each other, no matter how imperfect the world or how much tragedy strikes our lives. It’s emblematic of how we must work to live within something bigger than ourselves, to be our best no matter how wild are the woods around us, no matter how easy it is to get lost. It’s a love that shows how interdependent we all are on one another, and how that isn’t a bad thing; or, in the words of Mam, it’s a way of knowing none of us are alone, “because we don’t walk no straight lines. It’s all happening at once. All of it. We all here at once.”
Affections, Rodrigo Hasbún (available September 12)In Hasbún's American debut, readers are introduced to the Ertl family as they rebuild their lives in Bolivia, after having left Germany at the end of World War II in order to start fresh and leave behind the degradations and horrors of Nazism. But, of course, the past has a way of turning up again, no matter how big an ocean you put between it and your present, and the intense trauma—both personal and political—which the Ertl family experienced (and participated in), does not fade away in their new home country, but rather intensifies.
Hasbún's writing is spare and powerful, and reading this provocative narrative, which offers the point of views of many different members of the Ertl clan and gives glimpses into their lives of displacement, revolution, and exploration, makes readers feel like they, too, are going on a difficult journey, looking in vain for a place where they can feel some sense of safety. But, of course, there is no such thing. As Hasbún reminds us, "It's not true that our memory is a safe place. In there too, things get distorted and lost." Ironic, then, that while Affections grapples with issues of distortion and loss, chaos and calamity, it does so with a remarkable lucidity, an expansive grace, and leaves readers with an uncomplicated longing to work toward better understanding the complicated reality in which we dwell.
The Twelve-Mile Straight, Eleanor Henderson (available September 12)It is 1930 in the Deep South, and a young, poor, unmarried white woman has just given birth to twins—one white, one black. The arrival of these babies sets off a series of catastrophic—and deadly—events. An innocent black man is lynched, a feckless scion skips town, and more and more details emerge about the real backstory behind the existence of these "Gemini twins." Epic in scale and intent, The Twelve-Mile Straight grapples with issues of race, class, and gender, and details the way power perverts our relationships with one another, often leading those with only a little of it to wield it harshly against those who have even less, and often to catastrophic effects. Henderson has crafted an intricate, rich narrative that beautifully stands up to the daunting task of portraying our country's horrifying history of racial violence and sexual oppression. While not always easy to read, The Twelve-Mile Straight feels necessary, and its story will resonate long after you've turned its final page.
Forest Dark, Nicole Krauss (available September 12)Krauss' fourth novel is surely one of the most highly anticipated of the season, and that fact is only partially due to Krauss' reputation as one of the most gifted writers of her generation (Great House, The History of Love). Rather, one reason people (especially those who follow the latest in literary world gossip) are excited, is because one of the narrative threads in Forest Dark traces the experience of an unnamed writer who heads to Tel Aviv, in order to work on her next book and escape her disintegrating marriage.
It's not hard to see that this anonymous novelist is a stand-in for Krauss, who was working on this book as her own marriage to fellow writer Jonathan Safran Foer (who released his own fictionalized account in his novel, Here I Am, a year ago) was crumbling apart, but before you worry that this means this is simply a story of a bad marriage, stop right there. Rather, Forest Dark is imbued with the same mystical realism that inhabits much of Krauss' writing, which leads the narrative into complicated and contemplative places, as both the unnamed novelist and the other protagonist (the wealthy Jules Epstein) deal with their own philosophical dilemmas. Oh, and Kafka works his way into the plot as well, so there's that.
An Odyssey: A Father, a Son, and an Epic, Daniel Mendelsohn (available September 12)Mendelsohn's New Yorker essay "A Father's Final Odyssey," published last April, detailed the writer and college professor's experience taking his octogenarian father on a Mediterranean cruise that retraced the fateful voyage of Odysseus, as he tried to return home following the Trojan War. This cruise followed a period when Mendelsohn's father, a mathematician, enrolled in his son's class on The Odyssey, an experience which brought the two closer and inspired Mendelsohn to think more closely about the stories we tell ourselves in order to understand life and what it really means to be a hero.
Little Fires Everywhere, Celeste Ng (available September 12)Ng's second novel tackles the American dream. You know, the one that takes place in perfectly manicured, meticulously planned suburbs and revolves around the establishment of a home as a castle, one peopled by a happily married couple and ambitious, well-rounded children, and, I don't know, a bounding dog whose tail is always wagging and who never barks at the wind, or whatever? Here, that trope is presented in the form of the Richardson family, who live a charmed life in the upper-middle-class paradise of Shaker Heights, Ohio. The family's life—and their perception of it—gets upended with the arrival of bohemian Mia and her teenage daughter, Pearl. Because Mia and Pearl fail to adhere to the unspoken codes by which the Richardsons live and through which they think everyone should live in order to achieve success (or "success"), their presence causes turmoil for everyone, and works to expose the deeply fraught relationship so many of us have with class, privilege, capitalism, and, of course, the American dream.
A Loving, Faithful Animal, Josephine Rowe (available September 12)Set in rural Australia in 1990, Rowe's stunning, gorgeously written novel details the collapse of a family whose father, Jack, is irrevocably haunted by his time in the Vietnam War, decades earlier. For some people though, the ghosts of their past are more real than the people in their present, and they are helpless to do anything but destroy what is right in front of them. When Jack eventually leaves his abused wife, Ev, and two daughters, Lani and Ru, their lives continue but are also undeniably haunted. The book's chapters each take place from the point of view of a different character, with Ru's narration opening and closing the book in the second-person, making you, the reader, feel intimately involved with the tragedy of this family. And while the presence of pain never leaves this story, the beauty and compassion with which it's told, the deep understanding of the fierce love and shared toxicity that bind families together, makes the pain bearable and this tragic, gorgeously wrought story important to bear witness to.
Worlds From the Word's End, Joanna Walsh (available September 12)This stunning short story collection centers around the idea of loss, in all the word's connotations. Walsh is comfortable inhabiting the more surreal aspects of reality, and does so with grace and insight in each of the tales within the book. She covers everything here, from the existential frustrations of not being able to charge your phone to the inherent power of the letter X. At turns funny and tragic, but always subversive and smart, Worlds from the Word's End will make you look at the world around you in a different way, one that is particularly welcome right now.
Sun in Days, Meghan O'Rourke (available September 19)This poetry collection deals unflinchingly with topics like illness, despair, loss, and longing and further cements O'Rourke's position as one of the most preeminent poets working today. O'Rourke grapples with incredibly personal issues in these poems, like her desire to have a child and her despair at the ongoing battle between her will to be healthy and her body's failure to follow, but she does so in a way where the personal becomes universal. And, as presented here, it's also never less than gorgeously lyrical.
Landslide: True Stories, Minna Zallman Proctor (available September 19)This profoundly moving book of essays covers a variety of experiences, and sees Proctor (a writer and translator) moving between America and Italy, dealing with relationship problems, becoming a mother, and—most affectingly—struggling with her complex relationship with her mother, who goes through a 15-year battle with cancer. The book is unsentimental, but incredibly moving, and beautifully approaches existential dilemmas and intelligently grapples with the big questions we ask ourselves while here on earth.
Five Carat Soul, James McBride (available September 26)McBride is one of this country's best writers, and that has never been more apparent than here, in his first short story collection. Each tale ably demonstrates McBride's trademark wit and perceptiveness, though they range in subject matter. Within these covers are stories revolving around Abraham Lincoln, a modern-day antique dealer who is haggling with a black family over a rare train set with a Confederate provenance, and a boxer who is ready to fight at the gates of hell. McBride's writing practically shimmers with energy and charm, making reading him a singular pleasure.
After the Eclipse, Sarah Perry (available September 26)In 1994, 30-year-old Crystal Perry was assaulted and murdered in the home she shared in a rural Maine town with her then-12-year-old daughter, Sarah; it would be another 12 years before Crystal’s murderer was arrested. After the Eclipse is a powerful account of those years, a time during which Sarah was shuffled from house to house, never exactly finding a home; unbeknownst to her, considered a possible suspect in her mother’s death; and worked to rebuild her own life, following its utter devastation. The latter might seem an impossible task considering what Sarah had experienced, but what becomes clear while reading, is that the foundation Crystal built for her daughter was one of inestimable strength, and would stand Sarah in good stead.
“I always try to say the book is about my mother who was murdered, not about the murder of my mother,” Perry explained to me recently over the phone. And that's exactly what the profoundly moving After the Eclipse feels like. Because while the memoir also ably explores the systemic misogyny and classism in small town America, as well as the effects that trauma has on an adolescent girl, it truly revolves around the life of Crystal, who shines from the borders of this often unbearably dark story as bright as the sun on a summer day.
We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy, Ta-Nehisi Coates (available October 3)Recently excerpted in The Atlantic, Coates' latest book of essays bears a title that refers to the post-Civil War era, in which black Americans were able to obtain prominent positions in government as part of Reconstruction, before being brutally returned to a society driven by white supremacy. Here, Coates grapples with the country in which we live today, one where the goals of the Obama era seem like little more than a dream, and any sort of promising future must be fought for, lest we continue on the oppressive path we are on.
Manhattan Beach, Jennifer Egan (available October 3)As she showed with her brilliant Pulitzer Prize-winning A Visit From the Goon Squad, Jennifer Egan is a master at formally experimental fiction. In her latest novel, Manhattan Beach, Egan embraces a more traditional, though beautifully expansive, narrative structure that has “classic” written all over it. Centered primarily around three characters—Eddie Kerrigan, a low-level worker for a corrupt Irish union boss, whose sudden disappearance will puzzle his family for years; his daughter, Anna, a tenacious 11-year-old when the narrative starts and a high-spirited young woman as it continues; and Dexter Styles, a powerful underworld figure with secret knowledge of Eddie’s disappearance, and whose complicated aspirations for a different kind of life put him on a collision path with the grown-up Anna—the story is full of fascinating historical details, including what it was like to be a diver during the war tasked with repairing naval ships, or how women got abortions decades before it was legal, or what tricks the mind might play were you to be stranded on a raft in the middle of the Indian Ocean with little hope of survival. Egan is masterful as she deftly weaves together all these characters’ lives, creating a world that moves forward as relentlessly as waves pounding the sandy shoreline. Her use of water as a liminal space, a setting where men and women can explore the ambiguities inherent to being alive, is incredibly effective and left this reader with the wish to stay submerged in this world long after turning the final page.
Fresh Complaint, Jeffrey Eugenides (available October 3)As the title suggests, grievances are at the heart of this compilation of debut short stories from the Pulitzer Prize-winning author behind Middlesex and The Virgin Suicides. Not unlike his previous works, these 10 pieces of short fiction, written over the course of many years going back to 1988, find their protagonists on the precipice of crises, be it those of familial, livelihood, or professional nature. From the bookends “Complainers,” the opener that finds two older women at the tail end of their lives, and the titular “Fresh Complaint,” that sees a teen turn to drastic measures to escape an arranged marriage, to the nucleus chapters “The Oracular Vulva,” which resurrects Middlesex’s Dr. Peter Luce to defend his entire life’s understanding of intersex characteristics, and “Great Experiment,” arguably the high point of the collection that follows a discontented poet-turned-book editor who embezzles money from his employer using Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America as a guide, each story is laced with its unique set of ethical dilemmas and observations on the complexity of the human condition. Eugenides’ matter-of-fact voice is the perfect vessel through this dark, sometimes painfully familiar territory, at the center of which is the narrators’ compulsive desires to repair the mistakes of the past. Despite the lack of redeeming qualities about any of the men in most of the stories—some of which might leave you actually gutted—the masterful storytelling is packed with sharp observations, empathy inducing outcasts, and, at its essence, “the pleasant absurdity of America.” —Irina Grechko
Her Body and Other Parties, Carmen Maria Machado (available October 3)It would be hard to be a woman and not feel instantly drawn to this slim collection of short stories based on the title and cover alone; they speak to an inherent viscerality, one familiar to all women: how grounded we are in our bodies, how aware we must be as we move through the world. And that’s just what can be felt before opening the book. Between its covers, we find ourselves inside a gorgeously warped reflection of the world in which we actually live. It’s recognizable as our own, but everything is a little more lurid, a little more queer, a little more violent, a little more magical than what we’re used to. Each story is linked by the often ecstatic, sometimes terrifying, and almost always absurd glory of living in the female body. There’s blood and sex (so much sex) and pain and humor and joy and fury; there’s always a hint (sometimes more than merely that) of the surreal. But through it all persists the question of what it means to be a woman in a world that doesn’t know what to do with us in all our complexities, a world that would often find it easier if we disappeared. But instead of hiding either the ugliness or the beauty of our humanity, Carmen Maria Machado puts it on full display, so we can revel in all its devastating wonders.
The Glass Eye, Jeannie Venasco (available October 3)This powerful, haunting memoir starts off with one of the more compelling first sentences I've read in some time: "The night before he died, I promised my dad I would write a book for him" From there, Vanasco takes readers along on her struggle to properly pay homage to her father, but also to better understand who this man—her personal hero, bestower of boundless love upon her—actually was. It's a journey that takes Vanasco into the dark depths of her family history, as well as her own psyche, and it shows in an incredibly intimate methods we use to cope with loss, disappointment, and grief, and how we can try and make our way out of the darkness and into a place of recovery.
The Letters of Sylvia Plath, Sylvia Plath (available October 17)For all you fans of Plath (that's... all of us, right?), this book will feel like a real gift, as it comprises all the correspondence Plath engaged in, from her days as a young woman at Smith College to her time as a summer intern at Mademoiselle (an experience from which she drew heavily for The Bell Jar) to the beginnings of her relationship with Ted Hughes. A good deal of the material in this book has never before been published, making this the ideal read for a Plath completist.
Vacationland: True Stories from Painful Beaches, John Hodgman (available October 24)Remember summer? Doesn't it feel like it was a million years ago? Allow yourself to return, in a way, to it with this insightful, often-hilarious collection by the ever-intelligent Hodgman, who takes readers on a journey, through the hills of western Massachusetts and the rocky shores of Maine, as he ponders his life as a middle-aged man, and what it is to be past the point in your life when you can actually think the best years are still ahead. Does this sound a little depressing? It's really not! It's also full of fun, strange mini-histories, like why mustaches have an evolutionary purpose. But it's more than just a funny book, it's also a meditation on life and purpose and our place in the world. What more could you want, really?
The King Is Always Above the People, Daniel Alarcón (available October 31)This collection of stories (I don't know about you, but I'm pretty into story collections right now; see also, Sour Heart and, like, half the books on this list) is smart, political, and incredibly engaging. Alarcón writes about displacement, immigration, families torn apart, and romantic relationships devastated and introduces readers to countless unforgettable characters along the way.
Kids These Days: Human Capital and the Making of Millennials, Malcolm Harris (available November 7)Sure, I get it, you think you're sick and tired of reading about millennials—even if you are one! But this fiercely smart book is not just another "millennials killed chain restaurants" kind of a thing. Instead, Harris dives deep into the ways that the millennial generation has been shaped by the capitalist economic forces at work now in America, condemning things like unpaid internships, rampant student debt, and mass incarceration, and clearly outlining the ways in which millennials are seen as nothing more than another source of capital to all the people who are actually in power. It's a must-read for anyone who cares about the future of our society and wants to work toward creating a reality in which we aren't all wage slaves whose lives revolve around work and one corporate layoff away from losing everything.
Wonder Valley, Ivy Pochoda (available November 7)Get your modern California noir on with Pochoda's latest novel, which kicks off with a very enigmatic, very L.A. occurrence: a naked man running down the freeway during rush hour traffic. From there, things only get more L.A. I mean, there's a desert sex commune, in which "interns" are helping out with the chicken farming. (No, really.) If you're getting a little wary, don't. Pochoda is a masterful storyteller, and she expertly weaves together the many prominent characters in this novel, skipping back and forth from different times and places, to come up with a harmonious narrative that showcases the human condition, full of ecstasy, angst, rage, and beauty. Oh, and lots of really dark secrets.
Future Home of the Living God, Louise Erdrich (available November 14)Even if, or perhaps particularly because, it seems like we're living in a dystopian reality, now is the perfect time to dive deep into a fictional dystopia dealing with reproductive issues and a woman's right to have agency over her own body. That this novel is the work of Erdrich, one of the finest novelists working today, guarantees that it will be spectacular. So while, sure, reading about the end of the world, a time when evolution has started reversing, is not exactly soothing bedtime reading right now, that doesn't mean you shouldn't do it. You should! And then be inspired to take political action as needed.
Mean, Myriam Gurba (available November 14)Don't let its slim profile fool you, this memoir bursts with vitality and humor (however mordant), all while dealing with issues of gender politics, sexual assault, PTSD, and Gurba's experience growing up as a queer, mixed race Chicana in California in the '80s. Along with telling her own story, Gurba's memoir details the tragic fate of Sophia Castro Torres, another young Chicana woman, who was raped and killed in Gurba's hometown. Torres' story stays with Gurba: "Sophia is always with me. She haunts me. Guilt is a ghost." But that guilt, that haunting, has been used to great effect in Mean, as Gurba uses the tragedies, both small and large, she sees around her to illuminate the realities of systemic racism and misogyny, and the ways in which we can try to escape what society would like to tell us is our fate.
They Can't Kill Us Until They Kill Us, Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib (available November 14)Each of the essays in this book emphasizes the importance of music in understanding not just identity, but also our humanity. Abdurraqib writes about everything, from his experience as one of the only black kids in the almost-all-white punk scene to what it really means to be an outlaw in music and how some of our most beloved "outlaw" musicians are really just performing the role. It's a fascinating look at the interplay between culture and life, and it will give you a new way of listening to music and of seeing the world.