What books are on your list right now? After a few months of a slow (but intense!) reading ritual, I’ve been diving into some of fall’s buzzy new releases and it feels pret-ty, pret-ty great. Here are the ones that have topped my list, and I’d love to hear what’s on your nightstand lately…
Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward
If if you have time for only one book, this is my pick. Jesmyn Ward, who this week was named a MacArthur Genius and won the National Book Award for her last novel, is a massively talented writer about race and the South who really knows how to tell a saga. It feels like you’re reading a 2017 version of William Faulkner — one of her inspirations. Here’s the plot: Jojo, a 13-year-old boy, and his baby sister, Kayla, go on a road trip across Mississippi with their drug-addled mother and her friend, en route to pick up their father from prison. What ensues is a journey into layers of family history and self identity that is haunting and beautiful.
Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng
“The firemen said there were little fires everywhere,” says Lexie, a teenager, whose family home goes up in flames one night. “Multiple points of origin. Possible use of accelerant. Not an accident.” Dun, dun, dun! And so begins Celeste Ng’s thrilling second novel, which is set in a Cleveland suburb in the 1990s, where everyone tries to ferret out who started the fire and why. The book presents a highly observant, taut tale of secrets, matriarchs, race and class. With each page, you realize that the fire transcends actual flames and signifies many of the social tensions we’re experiencing in this country today.
The King is Always Above the People by Daniel Alarcón (October 31)
I love short stories, and this spellbinding compilation of 10 tales about difficult families, lovers and people on the run pulled me in right away. Alarcón has a true gift for packing details and significance into short scenes. His characters include a boy learning to beg on the streets with a blind man; someone starting an extra-marital affair; and a murderer emerging from prison after 32 years. It sounds (and is) dark, but it’s not at all bleak. Every portrait is so memorable and sharply written that it lingers in your mind and tests your ability to confront about the intense predicaments we all find ourselves in at one point or another.
The Ninth Hour by Alice McDermott
Did you ever read Colm Toíbín’s novel Brooklyn (or see the movie)? If you liked it, you will love Alice McDermott’s eighth novel, which, like many of her books, focuses on New York’s Irish Catholic immigrant community at the turn of the 20th century. The story follows an order of Brooklyn nuns, The Little Nursing Sisters of the Sick Poor, as they help their needy neighbors. It sounds like a small frame on the world (and it is a very intimate and focused novel, named for the nuns’ quiet afternoon prayer), but you’ll quickly realize that McDermott is taking on some of the most universally consequential aspects of life — guilt, redemption, sin, joy, secrets and death, to name a few — in the most engrossing way.
Turtles All the Way Down by John Green
Anxiety has become increasingly pervasive among American teenagers (did you see this article?). In his new book, John Green — who describes his own anxiety and OCD as a “spiral of thoughts” — addresses mental illness head-on. The main character, 16-year-old Aza Holmes, copes with obsessive thoughts about germs at the same time as she confronts the typical struggles of high school — dating, college admissions and her relationships with friends and family. “Please let me go,” Aza tells her own mind at one low point. “I’ll do anything. I’ll stand down.” Plotwise, Aza and her friend try to win a $100,000 police reward for solving the mystery of their classmate’s father’s disappearance. The whole book is heartwarming and suspenseful, and there’s a seriously surprising finale twist.
Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan
Jennifer Egan’s bazillion fans, of which I am one, have eagerly awaited her new book (her last one won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize). Set in 1930s and ’40s New York — the city feels like a character, too — Egan’s first work of historical fiction is centered around Eddie Kerrigan, a small-time gangster; his 12-year-old daughter, Anna; and Eddie’s wealthy mob boss. After Eddie mysteriously vanishes, Anna grows up to fulfill her dream of becoming a military diver who trolls New York Harbor to make repairs to World War II battleships (… and search for a corpse!). “Down she went through the soft fronds of daylight along the stupendous hull,” writes Egan, as Anna takes her first dive. “Its scale alone suggested violence. Anna wanted to touch it.” Egan’s lyrical writing packs nearly every moment of this book with similarly evocative layers of meaning.
(Photo by Stella Blackmon.)