17 Of September 2015's Best Books
Can you even believe it’s September? Time to face facts: Summer’s over. Back-to-school season is officially upon us, which can be either good or bad, depending on how you spin it. But one thing is definitely a plus: September's best books are here, too.
This September’s literary selection welcomes a mélange of stunningly original voices, both seasoned and new. Fiction stalwarts like Salman Rushdie, Elena Ferrante, and Margaret Atwood make their triumphant returns this month — not to mention the arrival of the fourth Millennium Series installment, in which writer David Lagercrantz continues the late Stieg Larsson's legacy. Accomplished poet and memoirist Jill Bialosky puts her name on the fiction map with her understated novel The Prize, and Ceridwen Dovey’s inventive second book, Only the Animals, is a short story collection narrated entirely by animals. Seriously.
Short story writer Claire Vaye Watkins makes a splash with her post-apocalyptic first novel Gold Fame Citrus. Fellow short story writer Lori Ostlund’s first novel, After the Parade, is a heartbreaking meditation on middle age. Jonathan Evison's This is Your Life, Harriet Chance! is a funny and heartfelt exploration of old age. And Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies offers a wholly innovative look at a decades-long marriage.
This month’s newest voices fit snugly beside their more experienced counterparts. Carmiel Banasky's The Suicide of Claire Bishop is a wildly original debut, and Chinelo Okparanta’s first novel, Under the Udala Trees, is a poetic but fierce portrayal of the Nigerian Civil War. Sara Jaffe's Dryland is a cool coming-of-age book set in 1992 Portland, and Rachel B. Glaser's Paulina & Fran tracks the tumultuous friendship between two art school students. On the nonfiction front, Amy Odell and Jenny Lawson are both releasing hilarious memoirs about two very different topics (the fashion world and mental illness, respectively). And the collection Me, My Hair, and I, edited by Elizabeth Benedict, features essays by 27 female writers, both old and young, reflecting on — you guessed it — their hair.
Whether or not you’re actually heading back to school this month, get ready to hit the books with September 2015's 17 best new releases.
The Story of the Lost Child By Elena Ferrante (Sept. 1, Europa Editions)
This final installment of Elena Ferrante's acclaimed Neopolitan series follows Elena and Lila — the friends around whose fierce, evolving bond the four books revolve — as they navigate the cusp of middle and old age. Elena, a successful novelist who escaped the violent Naples of her childhood to forge a new life in Florence, returns to her ancestral home. Lila, who stayed in Naples, experiences its corrupt society every day, not without bitterness either for her city or for her absent friend.
In true Ferrante fashion, in The Story of the Lost Child, the secretive novelist masterfully reveals the complexities of female friendship, of striving for independence within a chauvinistic society, and of the emotional process of growing old.
Dryland By Sara Jaffe (Sept. 1, Tin House)
Portland, Oregon, 1995: Lots of rain. Lots of floppy-haired skateboarders. Lots of musty flannel. Fifteen-year-old Julie, whose parents are so politely distant they are basically those faceless, gibberish-spewing adults in '90s cartoons, quietly contends with the much stronger force of her older brother Jordan's shadow. Although the former swimming superstar packed up for Germany years ago, Julie secretly harbors an obsession with the sport her gifted brother abandoned.
So when the girls' swim captain invites Julie to try out for the team, Julie's forced to confront her brother's legacy, as well as her own friendships, sexuality, and other awkwardnesses that, when you're a quiet 15-year-old, feel more like stabbing pains. With Dryland, Sara Jaffe offers a coming-of-age story so steadily understated that it'll ring incredibly true to those of us actually of age.
Tales from the Back Row By Amy Odell (Sept. 1, Simon & Schuster)
Amy Odell's initiation into the exclusive fashion world was a trial-by-fire ordeal. When she took a job at New York Magazine's The Cut, the young writer knew next to nothing about fashion. Although that's changed — after four years at The Cut, Odell is now an editor at Cosmopolitan — that outsider's awe/confusion, as well as a willingness to call a spade a spade, has remained. Odell's shamelessly dry, very smart wit is blogger-perfect, but it translates well into writing reverentially and intelligently about fashion. Whether you love to hate or hate to love the fashion world, you will straight-up adore Odell's candid observations and anecdotes culled from her years covering the runways.
The Girl in the Spider's Web By David Lagercrantz (Sept. 1, Knopf)
When Stieg Larsson died of a heart attack in 2004, the future of his acclaimed Millennium Trilogy — which begun with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, which introduced us to Lisbeth Salander, the world's most loved (and feared) super hacker — hung in the balance. But this month, we'll finally be able to reenter that gothic Swedish landscape (and see what badass getups Lisbeth's rocking now) with The Girl in the Spider's Web, in which Swedish author and journalist David Lagercrantz continues Larsson's legacy. Details about this new Millennium novel have been kept heavily under wraps, but the book does promise a reunion between Salander and journalist Mikael Blomkvist — and lots of intrigue, adrenaline, and black coffee to boot.
Paulina & Fran By Rachel B. Glaser (Sept. 1, Harper Perennial)
We all know a Paulina. She's sexy and charismatic, she's a master manipulator who's never without a boyfriend (or two), and she may have even made you her best friend for a thrilling three weeks — but now she's probably moved on to another, more interesting woman to make her own personal groupie. At her small art college, Paulina chooses Fran, who is beautiful and talented (if somewhat dull), to become her latest bestie after bonding with her on a school trip abroad.
When Fran hooks up with Paulina's ex, the friendship ends dramatically. But the two women continue to circle each other, both physically and emotionally, up through their post-grad years. In her debut novel, Rachel B. Glaser explores the complexities of intense female friendships, especially those between two especially intense young women, with self-deprecating insight. Paulina & Fran is a can't-miss for fans of Bret Easton Ellis' disaffected campus novels and Lauren Holmes' irreverent humor.
This is Your Life, Harriet Chance! By Jonathan Evison (Sept. 8, Algonquin)
Seventy-eight-year-old Harriet Chance has been widowed for two years. And when Harriet gets a call from a volunteer at a foundation, asking for her late husband to collect the prize of an Alaskan cruise he'd won at a silent auction two years ago, Harriet resolves to go on the trip in his stead. When her estranged daughter Caroline decides to join her, what would have been a solo adventure (or disaster) becomes for Harriet an opportunity to rehash the past 60 years of her life — which the huge-hearted, always funny Evison does for us in passages highlighting all her decisive moments. Trust me: This is not schmaltzy or treacly. Rather, This is Your Life, Harriet Chance! is a cheeky, smart, and incisively observed work that fans of Maria Semple, Jami Attenberg, and Jonathan Tropper will adore.
Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights By Salman Rushdie (Sept. 8, Random House)
In his first adult novel in seven years, master storyteller Salman Rushdie makes a triumphant return to his native form: telling stories, masterfully. A blend of fairy tale, history, and apocalyptic glee, in Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Days (which translates to 1,001 nights — sound familiar?), Rushdie imagines a near future in which the children of a human scholar and a jinn — supernatural creatures that feature heavily in Islamic mythology — must lead the world in a war between good and evil. Rushdie fans will delight in TYEMTEN, but it's also a perfect introduction to his impressive ouevre.
Fates and Furies By Lauren Groff (Sept. 15, Riverhead)
How surprising could a novel about a marriage really be? If you're talking about Lauren Groff's Fates and Furies, the answer is: Very. Shockingly. The novel, which is being lauded as a "literary masterpiece," reveals the 24-year history of golden boy Lotto and graceful Mathilde's marriage through each of their perspectives. ("Fates" is Lotto's side; "Furies" belongs to Mathilde). Both Lotto and Mathilde glow and hum with incredible vitality, and the story of their relationship is satisfyingly complex. But it's Groff's prose — dreamy but controlled, intuitive but fresh, and startling in its originality — that's worthy of its own study and praise.
The Suicide of Claire Bishop By Carmiel Banasky (Sept. 15, Dzanc Books)
Fans of Marisha Pessl, Donna Tartt, and Nicole Krauss, take note. With her debut, The Suicide of Claire Bishop, Carmiel Banasky's name will be mentioned confidently alongside these well-loved writers. The twisted story begins in 1959, when Claire Bishop sits for a portrait commissioned by her wealthy but distant husband. But what the artist paints instead is Claire jumping to her death off the Brooklyn Bridge. In 2004, West, a young schizophrenic man whose rich inner life renders him both frighteningly erratic and intensely endearing, discovers the portrait in a gallery and becomes obsessed with its provenance. Banasky flits deftly between the two story lines, painting for us a swath of cultural history between their eventual collision. The Suicide of Claire Bishop is thrilling and beautiful; it's a remarkable debut.
Only the Animals By Ceridwen Dovey (Sept. 15, Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
Ceridwen Dovey's second book, a collection of 10 short stories, is marvelous and odd, heartbreaking and funny, and unlike anything you have ever read before — because they are all told from the perspective of the soul of an animal on the sidelines of human history over the course of the 20th Century. But Only the Animals is neither gimmicky nor trite; rather, each animal's voice is insightful, dryly funny, and often quite sad. From Heinrich Himmler's philosophical dog, to a Navy-trained dolphin writing letters on motherhood to Sylvia Plath, to a Bosnian black bear sharing a fairy tale, to Tolstoy's daughter's pet tortoise, Dovey imbues each animal's story with sober wisdom, imparting revelations on humans, animals, and the species' inextricable bond.
The Prize By Jill Bialosky (Sept. 15, Counterpoint)
Edward Darby is a partner at a New York gallery whose fame is quickly escalating, an adoring husband and father, and most of all, a man who works to protect his solid values. But in The Prize, we watch as the art world's corrupt nature chips away at Edward's stoic facade. An acclaimed poet with four collections under her belt, Bialosky favors a streamlined vocabulary, each word imbued with clarity and weight. It serves the themes — of the disparity between soulful art and the soulless art world, of the ease with which our time-honored values can be toppled by an event, or a person, or the pursuit of a prize — very well. The Prize is a subdued but haunting investigation into the ways in which modern exigencies can so easily overthrow beauty, purity, and what we believe to be everlasting.
After the Parade By Lori Ostlund (Sept. 22, Scribner)
Growing up is hard to do. And as Lori Ostlund's unceasingly beautiful debut novel demonstrates, that process doesn't stop once you've reached adulthood. Forty-year-old Aaron Englund leaves his partner, Walter — his senior by a number of decades, and whose sway on Aaron's selfhood was loving but absolute — in order to rediscover who he really is, independent of Walter's influence. Aaron leaves their home in New Mexico to establish a new one in San Francisco, but soon realizes that what he needs is the home in which he was born — in Mortonville, Minnesota. It's there that Aaron, a perpetual outsider, can make amends with his past and figure out his future. Aaron's hero's journey is a modern one, but his inherent goodness is timeless. His aching, searching heart will become your own, and you'll be considering this novel's beauty long after you've finished the last page.
Under the Udala Trees By Chinelo Okparanta (Sept. 22, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
In the author's note of her accomplished debut novel, Okparanta writes that in 2014, Nigerian president Goodluck Jonathan criminalized same-sex relationships. The punishment is up to 14 years in prison; in some states, it's death by stoning. Under the Udala Trees gives a face to this unthinkable horror through heroine Ijeoma, who is just entering adolescence when civil war breaks out in Nigeria in 1967.
Amidst the violence, Ijeoma meets and falls in love with a girl her age; but their love, of course, would never be allowed to flourish safely as they grow older. Okparanta focuses on both the maturation of Nigeria and of Ijeoma. She is a natural storyteller, and her words carry a graceful, folkloric quality. Unlike myths, though, this young writer is doing the worthy work of openly revealing the suppression that Nigerian LGBTQ people continue to face daily. Under the Udala Trees is an important and timely read, imbued with both political ferocity and mythic beauty.
Furiously Happy: A Funny Book About Horrible Things By Jenny Lawson (Sept. 22, Flatiron Books)
Jenny Lawson — whose blog "The Bloggess" is subtitled "Like Mother Theresa, Only Better" — is furiously funny (heh). So you might be surprised to learn that her memoir Furiously Happy is a compendium of Lawson's musings about living with a slew of really scary mental and physical illnesses, including anxiety, depression, rheumatoid arthritis, sleep disorders, and panic attacks. (Lawson includes a particularly funny essay about being prescribed antipsychotics, arguably the most hardcore of all the world's pills, titled "I'm Not Psychotic. I Just Need to Get in Front of You in Line.") But Furiously Happy is a testament to Lawson's unique perspective on her illnesses, and on life. This book proves that laughter really is the best medicine. (Ugh. Sorry for that one.)
Gold Fame Citrus By Claire Vaye Watkins (Sept. 29, Riverhead)
It's sometime in the near future, and a drought has swallowed up America's West Coast. Luz, a former poster child of the conservationist movement (which has failed epically), and Ray, a former soldier, are camped out in the vacated mansion of a former starlet in what used to be Laurel Canyon. The world of Gold Fame Citrus is a devastated one, but Luz and Ray's love for each other offers a shred of light and dignity in what would otherwise be a post-apocalyptic nightmare. Then they discover a feral child, whom they adopt and name Ig. In the hopes of finding a better life for their child, the slapdash family heads east, following rumors of a gifted water dowser and his community of acolytes. In Gold Fame Citrus, Claire Vaye Watkins' prose sings and stutters in tandem with her demanding landscape, bringing that physicality, and the shamanic gutterpunk subculture that's borne of this terrain, to glowing life.
The Heart Goes Last By Margaret Atwood (Sept. 29, Nan A. Talese)
In her first standalone novel in 15 years — her last, The Blind Assassin , won the Man Booker Prize — Margaret Atwood returns to the near-future universe in which her Positron series are set. The Heart Goes Last also sees Atwood returning to the eerie dystopian visions she's famous for. Instead of continuing to live in their car, dirt-poor couple Charmaine and Stan opt to take part in Consilience, a "social experiment" that takes place in their own home — but which also necessitates that, every other month, an alternate couple inhabits their house while they dwell in a prison cell. Chaos and weirdness ensues, as it does in every good Atwood book.
Me, My Hair, and I: Twenty-seven Women Untangle an Obsession Edited By Elizabeth Benedict (Sept. 29, Algonquin)
Hair — especially a woman's hair — has the ability to tell the world so much about its wearer. Your hair, and what you choose to do with it, can reveal your religion, your political views, your mental state, your physical health, your sexuality, even your musical tastes (Mohawk, anyone?). In this essay collection, 27 writers share their own hairstories (har, har), revealing just how fraught not only with vanity, but with politics and sex, with mortality and redemption, with motherhood and sisterhood, the hair on our heads really is.
From Anne Lamott's dreadlock origin story in "Sister" to cancer survivor Suleika Jaouad's reconciliation with her newly-buzzed head in "Hair, Interrupted," these essays are beautifully revelatory and deeply personal accounts of each woman's hair. Cue the soundtrack.