“FALL BOOKS ARE HERE” screams a banner hanging from your local bookstore. “READ THESE HUGE 700 PAGE NOVELS” implores a website. The fun thing about reading is that you can do it at any time of the year; fall is just the time when big authors with big names release their Great Works for everyone’s consideration. This fall, you could read Purity (don’t) or you could read any of these fine offerings instead.
The Hundred-Year Flood by Matthew Salesses (September 1)
Tee is a 21 year old adopted biracial Korean-American fleeing the scourge of a flood that comes every hundred years. He escapes to Prague, driven by the insatiable desire we all have when we are young to find his identity, in the wake of 9/11 and his uncle’s suicide. There, he meets Pavel, a painter; his wife Katka; and a host of other characters that help him on his journey to figure out just what it means to be Tee. The flood comes; it is inevitable, after all, gushing its way through Prague, as Tee focuses on figuring out where he stands as an outsider both at home and abroad. Like the water that threatens to consume everything in its wake, the narrative is lyrical and winding, but if you have an affinity for soul-searching sagas, The Hundred-Year Flood is for you.
Negroland by Margo Jefferson (September 8)
Cultural critic Margo Jefferson grew up as the daughter of the black bourgeoisie in Chicago. Her father was the head of pediatrics at Provident, one of the nation’s oldest black hospitals, and her mother was a socialite. Her memoir melds her own personal coming of age narrative as a member of the black elite with cultural criticism around the nature of elitism within her community. She defines “Negroland” as “a small region of Negro America where residents were sheltered by a certain amount of privilege and plenty.”
As a member of the black aristocracy, she works with the tools she’s gained as a critic and historian to contextualize the subtle and not-so-subtle discriminations and prejudices within her community. The result is a studied manual on the various ways we perform; and Jefferson wonderfully breaks down the hierarchies of appearance, skin color, and social standing in the world she inhabited. It’s a heavy read, to be sure, but an important one nonetheless.
Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff (September 15)
Watching a relationship from its inception to its quiet demise is a perverse pleasure. In Fates and Furies, Lauren Groff gives us Mathilde and Lotto, two golden, beautiful, radiant people in love with a perfect relationship—and tears it apart, stitch by stitch. Lotto is an actor-turned-playwright, a man celebrated for his talent and the heir to a bottled water fortune. Mathilde is his faithful, loving wife, always by his side. Like all relationships, from the outside, they are perfect. Groff tugs at the seams of their union until the whole thing gives out, breaking the narrative out into two separate sections and points of view. Lifting the curtain on the front of a perfect marriage and finding a messy pile of emotions heaped on infidelities is strangely satisfying; reading about the nasty bits in prose as elegant and cutting as Groff’s is icing on the cake.
Half An Inch of Water: Stories by Percival Everett (September 15)
The latest from USC professor and prolific author Percival Everett (he’s published more than 25 books in his writing career) is a slim volume of short stories, clocking in at just 88 pages. Each story functions as a hero’s journey—someone heading into the wilderness in search of something, with each character experiencing a transformation, physical or spiritual or both. The setting is a faceless, generally Western location; place is rarely specified, lending a mythical quality to the work. How nice to have someone writing about our endless preoccupation with the West that isn’t Joan Didion.
Under the Udala Trees by Chinelo Okparanta (September 22)
Ijeoma, an Igbo girl, is 11 years old when civil war breaks out in Nigeria. Sent to live elsewhere to escape the violence, she meets Amina, a Hausa girl who she befriends and eventually falls in love. The ethnic differences are enough to upset the adults in their lives, but the biggest secret is their tender same-sex love, which gets Ijeoma sent back to her mother’s house and puts her at the receiving end of a ceaseless biblical intervention, intent on changing her ways. Under the Udala Trees is disjointed and jumps around in time, so this novel reads, at times, like a fairy tale, but it’s an important, moving work that brings notice to the plight of the LGBT community in Nigeria, which is often forced into hiding. As Nigeria seeks its independence, so does Ijeoma—a conceit that could be saccharine and hackneyed. But Okparanta is able to avoid cliché and relies on her writing and the strength of her heart-shattering story. Find the tissues, you’ll need them.
Gold Fame Citrus by Claire Vaye Watkins (September 29)
Claire Vaye Watkins is a daughter of the American West. Her first book was the short story collection Battleborn, and Gold Fame Citrus, her first novel, is a stick of dynamite in an arid desert, placed with deliberation, scorching nearly every other book in its path. On the surface, it’s a post-apocalyptic love story set sometime in a recent future when the West has been reduced to a giant desert. The denizens of this dystopian desert sea are called “Mojavs.” Out of the dust emerges Luz—the face of the Bureau of Conservation—and Ray, her lover, living in a movie star’s abandoned mansion in Laurel Canyon. They stumble upon a mysterious child and head east for survival, where they run into a cult-like group of refugees who worship at the altar of a dowser —a man who divines for water—and who feeds off the power of their admiration.
The picture she paints of the future—an American West bled dry of any and all water—is bleak but feels real, as if squinting towards the horizon at a looming menace that you can’t quite see but know is coming. Watkins writes sentences that require patience and time, that force you to slow down and really read, carefully. It’s an apocalyptic fantasia written with a keen familiarity of the eerie, harsh landscapes of the desert. It is well worth your time.
M Train by Patti Smith (October 6)
On the heels of her runaway hit Just Kids, Patti Smith’s latest is a musing on her life as a writer and an artist through the lens of her travels. We start at the cafe in Greenwich Village she works at every day and journey with her to a seaside space in Far Rockaway, to Berlin, to Mexico, and every locale in between. Less a straight travelogue and more of a memoir cum documentation of her process as a writer, a thinker and an artist, M Train is the kind of book you hope to write if you have writerly ambitions, and the kind of book you desperately want to read if you want to feel inspired, but not in a cheesy, Eat Pray Love type of way.
The Witches: Salem, 1692 By Stacy Schiff (October 27)
Stacy Schiff’s last great doorstopper of a biography was 2010’s Cleopatra: A Life. This year, she’s turning her gimlet eye towards the mass hysteria and general shitshow that was the Salem Witch Trials, a period of American history defined by a contagious madness that resulted in 19 men and women hanged for “witchcraft.” Unlike the drudgery of the movie adaptation of The Crucible, which you probably watched in high school, Schiff writes with conviction and a strong sense of narrative, elevating the dry snooze of history to a new level. It’s an endlessly fascinating read.
The Mare by Mary Gaitskill (November 3)
At first blush, May Gaitskill’s latest sounds like it could be a preachy, saccharine, woefully out-of-tune story: Velvet, a young girl living in Crown Heights with a mother who doesn’t love her moves to upstate New York as a Fresh Air Fund kid, joining the family of a well-meaning white woman and her husband. There is a horse—the titular mare, a surly and mistreated beast, soon to be tamed—and a marriage marred by alcoholism and emotional trauma. If you’ve read any of Gaitskill, you know that even the most prosaic subjects turn dark in her hands, in the best possible way. For the Gaitskill completist, this will be a satisfying read; for the Gaitskill newcomer, this is an excellent introduction to her work.
[Illustration by Jim Cooke]