16 Of August 2015's Best Books You'll Love, No Matter What You're Looking For This Month
It’s a new month, so you know what that means? New books, and lots of ‘em. August 2015's best books have a lot to offer, especially if you're looking to load up on titles for a last-minute escape.
Consider this your one-stop shop for all your literary needs this August. We’ve got historical fiction, like Alice Hoffman’s The Marriage of Opposites, a novelization of the Impressionist painter Camille Pissaro’s parentage; Iranian-American Parnaz Foroutan's debut The Girl from the Garden; and Liza Klaussmann's Villa America, which transports us back to the Lost Generation. We’ve got literary sci-fi/dystopia, like Helen Phillips’ nightmarish The Beautiful Bureaucrat, and Alexandra Kleeman’s surreal You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine.
Thought Gone Girl mania had died down? Think again. British writer Ruth Ware’s latest thriller, In a Dark, Dark Wood, will make you vow to never, ever attend a bachelorette party ever again (you'll see why). Jennifer Pashley's The Scamp will haunt you for weeks on end. And Ottessa Moshfegh’s debut novel Eileen delivers a gothic-inflected tale unlike anything you’ve encountered in mainstream fiction.
But I haven't forgotten about more traditional novels that remind you of ones you've already read and loved — and that'll let you sleep at night. Elisabeth Egan’s debut novel, A Window Opens, offers a lighthearted but sophisticated look at the complexities of being a working mother. Fellow debut novelists Jennine Capó Crucet and Rajia Hassib make their marks on the literary world with Make Your Home Among Strangers and In the Language of Miracles, respectively. Tanwi Nandini Islam proves herself to be a new writer to look out for with her daring debut novel Bright Lines. And fans of Vanessa Diffenbaugh will fawn over We Never Asked for Wings, in which the always-elegant writer takes us back to a low-income area of San Francisco.
I don’t play favorites, but actually I do, so I’ll tell you that my favorites of this month are Kathleen Alcott’s Infinite Home, Adrienne Celt's The Daughters, and Lauren Holmes’ Barbara the Slut and Other Stories.
But you can't go wrong with any of these August 2015 book picks. Buckle up: It's gonna be an exciting month.
The Daughters by Adrienne Celt (Aug. 3; Liveright)
In Polish folklore, the rusalka are beautiful but lethal nymphs: the Slavic sirens lure men with their angelic voices, then kill them, as female mythical creatures are wont to do. The rusalka legend also informs Adrienne Celt's lushly imagined debut novel The Daughters, which explores the themes of music, motherhood, and the unshakeable power of family lore in tandem. Lulu, a renowned opera singer descended from a long line of gifted musicians, gives birth to her daughter Kara on the same night that her grandmother Ada dies; Lulu then discovers she can no longer sing. This is the work of the family curse, handed down from daughter to daughter: in order to bring life into the world, each woman must sacrifice something of herself. Like the mythical rusalka themselves, The Daughters is packed with dangerous beauty; it's an enchanting but powerful read.
Infinite Home by Kathleen Alcott (Aug. 4; Riverhead)
Kathleen Alcott's second novel takes on a big question — what makes a "home" a "home"? — and answers with stunning originality. "Home," as Alcott's chorus of tenants in a Brooklyn brownstone attest, can be a place in which disparate hearts (whose owners include among them a developmentally disabled man; a young artist crippled by a stroke; and the eccentric recluse whom the artist adores) converge for a purpose beyond geographical synchronicity. For these renters, that cause is Edith, their stalwart of a landlord who now fights against both her son, whose plans for the building threatens to evict them all, and her ailing health. Beyond this compelling story, Alcott's incredibly accomplished prose is good reason to put Infinite Home at the very top of your to-read list.
Make Your Home Among Strangers by Jennine Capó Crucet (Aug. 4; St. Martin's Press)
Lizet Ramirez, first-generation Cuban-American, Miami born-and-bred, is the first person in her family to attend university. Not only does she go to college, but she goes to Rawlings, an elite East Coast liberal arts school at which her minority status becomes crushingly real. But Lizet's homecoming over Thanksgiving break is no less welcoming, as it coincides with the arrival of Ariel Hernandez, a 5-year-old boy who watched his mother die on the raft that delivered them from Cuba to America. It's an event that rocks the nation, but Miami — and Lizet's do-gooder mother — especially. In her remarkable debut, Jennine Capó Crucet writes authentically about the experience of being Cuban-American on a macro scale, but also about the smaller heartaches of embarking on adulthood far from home.
The Marriage of Opposites by Alice Hoffman (Aug. 4; Simon & Schuster)
When you're looking to be gracefully transported in time, Alice Hoffman has long been the writer to turn to. In The Marriage of Opposites, Hoffman casts her well-researched eye on 19thcentury St. Thomas, the Caribbean island that became an unlikely hub for Jews fleeing oppression in Europe. It's there that Rachel, a young widow, falls in love with her late husband's nephew Frédéric. The forbidden love affair would produce both a scandal and a child: their son Camille Pissarro would go on to become one of the greatest Impressionist painters of the period. Hoffman's beautiful renderings of Rachel and Frédéric's love story, as well as the island's natural beauty, will ignite the romantic wanderlust within you.
Barbara the Slut and Other People by Lauren Holmes (Aug. 4; Riverhead)
Lauren Holmes has a voice that could only come out of our generation: our coddled, conflicted, solipsistic, sex-shaming generation. In her debut story collection, Holmes offers ten windows into the lives of fiercely real young people dealing with fiercely real young person problems: like the twenty-something who struggles to come out to her mother in "How Am I Supposed to Talk to You?"; the guy treading carefully among his sexual, romantic, and platonic entanglements with the women in his life in "Weekend with Beth, Kelly, Muscle, and Pammy"; and the title character, a smart and ambitious high school senior whose love for sex makes her the target of vicious bullying. Barbara the Slut and Other People is subtly brilliant: Holmes' candid prose flows as easily as a conversation with friends, and her keen observations on what it takes to be young now are kind of sad but really, really funny.
Villa America by Liza Klaussmann (Aug. 4, Little, Brown)
It seems the world can't get enough of Lost Generation-era literature. Can't blame the world, though: this coterie of artists and writers, led by F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, were legendary characters (and drinkers). But Villa America, Liza Klaussmann's second novel, manages to make this oft-visited theme feel fresh and poignant. Here Klaussmann draws on real-life couple Sara and Gerald Murphy, whose marriage inspired F. Scott Fitzgerald's 1934 novel Tender is the Night, and who owned the titular mansion in Cap d'Antibes that became one of the writer's favorite hangouts. But Klaussmann smartly focuses less on the drunken revelry and more on the couple's tumultuous, but ultimately inspiring, relationship, making this novel satisfyingly substantial.
The Scamp by Jennifer Pashley (Aug. 10; Tin House)
Jennifer Pashley's debut novel The Scamp is pure grit: harsh, unsettling, impossible to ignore and impossible to shake off. Rayelle Reed, self-professed white trash, is only 23 but her life has been anything but innocent: her baby girl Summer, whom she had out of wedlock with the pastor's son, died in a tragic accident. In an effort to escape her claustrophobic Southern town and her own demons, Rayelle visits a bar outside town where she meets Couper Gale, a journalist investigating a string of missing women. Turns out that Rayelle has more stock in this case than she ever could have imagined: every one of these women was killed by her long-lost cousin Khaki, who skipped town years ago and with whom Rayelle shared a troubled past. It's rare to read about a female serial killer, and Pashley's debut — told in perspectives alternating between Rayelle and Khaki — will become the gold standard.
In the Language of Miracles by Rajia Hassib (Aug. 11; Viking)
When the Al-Menshawys arrived to New Jersey from Egypt in the '90s, they had little to their names but the hope of achieving the shimmering American Dream. Years later, that dream has been achieved: Samir has established a successful medical practice and Nagla watches their three children at home in the upper-middle-class suburb of Summerset. But when their eldest son, Hosaam, tragically kills his ex-girlfriend, the daughter of the Al-Menshawys neighbors, and then himself, the family's assimilation into American culture vanishes, and the ugly racism latent within their community reveals itself. Hassib writes with an authority uncommon in debut writers; in this important book, she weaves the beauty of Arabic culture with the harsh realities of modern American life with exceptional insight and poetic ease.
The Beautiful Bureaucrat by Helen Phillips (Aug. 11; Henry Holt)
Like Margaret Atwood and Ursula K. Le Guin before her, Helen Phillips addresses society's ills — or, in this case, the soul-sucking, hope-obliterating work of the low-level bureaucrat — with an insistent eye for originality. In The Beautiful Bureacrat, Josephine and her husband are struggling to make ends meet in the ruthless city. So when she is offered a job, she takes it: even though that job involves inputting endless streams of seemingly nonsensical data into a mysterious Database in the windowless office of a windowless building peopled by robotic co-workers. It's the stuff of which dystopian nightmares are made, but Phillips' redemptive inclusion of Josephine and her husband's love for one another veers this story away from that genre's unrelenting bleakness. The overarching mood, though, is one of deliciously impending doom, which both science fiction and literary readers will happily, if anxiously, want to see through to its revelation.
Bright Lines by Tanwi Nandini Islam (Aug. 11, Penguin)
A coming-of-age novel for the now-of-age, Tanwi Nandini Islam's debut novel Bright Lines takes a brave, honest look at what it was like to be an 18-year-old Brooklynite in 2003, the daughter of Bangladeshi immigrants, teetering somewhere between innate rebelliousness and respect for heritage. It's the story of a family — Anwar, Hashi, their daughter Charu, their niece Ella whom they raised, and runaway Maya, who's been spending the summer with the family — and the complexities of their relationships. Islam is an intuitive and inventive writer, and her story, which bounces between Brooklyn and Bangladesh, is wholly original. Don't miss it.
Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh (Aug. 18; Penguin Press)
In December, 1964, Eileen Dunlop was a 24-year-old secretary at a boys' prison in the derelict landscape of the industrial Northeast. Eileen was deeply troubled: she had to act as a caretaker for her alcoholic father; she also "hated almost everything." But when Rebecca Saint John — a ray of sunshine illuminating the otherwise bleak horror story of Eileen's life — joined the prison staff as a counselor, Eileen's life began to take shape. But because Moshfegh draws on gothic masters like Flannery O'Connor and Shirley Jackson, that shape became decidedly gruesome when Rebecca and Eileen become complicit in a crime. Eileen is a highbrow noir that introduces Ottessa Moshfegh as a talent to look out for.
We Never Asked for Wings by Vanessa Diffenbaugh (Aug. 18; Ballantine)
Like 2011's bestselling The Language of Flowers , Vanessa Diffenbaugh's latest highlights the writer's gift for rendering fully-realized characters living at the edges of society. In We Never Asked for Wings, Diffenbaugh shares the story of Letty Espinosa, a mother of two who's had to hand mothering duties over to her own mother due to her several demanding jobs. But when Letty's parents move back to their native Mexico, Letty has to scramble to provide for her six-year-old daughter and 15-year-old son not only financially, but emotionally, as well. Diffenbaugh is a storyteller of the highest order: her simple but poetic prose makes even this most classically American story sing with a special kind of vulnerable beauty.
The Girl from the Garden by Parnaz Foroutan (Aug. 18; Ecco)
In the early 20th century, in Kermanshah, Iran, Rakhel is the young wife of wealthy Jewish businessman Asher Malacouti. Although she is lucky to have married into a wealthy family, Rakhel is unable to bear Asher a son, which, in this time and place and culture, is a nearly unforgivable sin. In the early twenty-first century, in Los Angeles, Mahboubeh is the last living daughter of the Malacouti clan, and it's through her eyes that the tragic history of her family unfolds. Drawing on her own family history, in The Girl from the Garden debut novelist Parnaz Foroutan offers an evocative portrait of Iranian Jewish culture, and the experience of being a woman who felt that both her family, and her body — which dictated her worth — had betrayed her.
In a Dark, Dark Wood by Ruth Ware (Aug. 25; Scout Press)
You may at first think it ridiculous to set a psychological thriller among the drunken revelers at a bachelorette party. But then you'll think, why hasn't this been done before? Whatever notions you may have of feather boas and penis cakes will be immediately dashed upon opening Ruth Ware's twisted In a Dark, Dark Wood. When Nora, a crime writer, wakes up in a hospital bed, she has no memory of what's happened over the past 48 hours: she only knows that someone else at her childhood friend's "hen do" is now dead, and that the police are suspicious of Nora in particular. From the creepy glass house in the middle of the Northumbrian woods in which the party is set to the cast of characters' mysterious motives, this murder mystery will have you chilled to the bone, August heat be damned.
A Window Opens by Elisabeth Egan (Aug. 25; Simon & Schuster)
This first novel by Elisabeth Egan, the books editor at Glamour, takes on the worlds of tech and publishing — as well as motherhood and selfhood — and their imminent collision. While I'm loath to compare A Window Opens to Lucy Sykes' and Jo Piazza's The Knockoff, I'm gonna do it anyway: what that book explored about the rapidly-changing culture of fashion, Egan's latest does with the publishing industry. Alice Pearse, our extremely likable protagonist, has to get a full-time job when her husband quits his at a law firm. That job is at Scroll, a bookselling startup, at which the sophisticated and savvy Alice out-ages the workforce by a good 20 years. But Alice adapts, and, like the character herself, Egan's observations are shrewd; her humor self-deprecating; and her voice unashamedly real.
You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine by Alexandra Kleeman (Aug. 25; Harper)
The epigraph of Alexandra Kleeman's debut novel consists of one excerpt from the philosopher Gilles Deleuze and the psychiatrist Felix Guattari's book A Thousand Plateaus, and one saying from the Gospel of Thomas. Intimidating, yes, but it's an apt introduction to You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine, which is equal parts philosophical examination of pop culture, a myth-in-the-making, and a surrealist dystopian nightmare. The result is slippery (which is why I'll avoid summarizing it) and completely original: while Kleeman's book requires sustained attention, the payoff is satisfying, partly because it includes bragging rights. For fans of Don DeLillo, Thomas Pynchon, David Foster Wallace... you get the idea.
Image: Pedro Simoes/Flickr