Fall is for books what December is for movies: prestige season. As soon as the air gets crisp, out come all the National Book Award hopefuls, the big history doorstoppers, and the buzzy new YA epics. Publishers are hoping these books will make the cutoff for the major literary awards this fall; more urgently, they’re hoping they’ll pick up enough buzz to become staples of the holiday book-buying season.
This year, after the pandemic saw a number of last year’s major releases get pushed back into 2021, fall book season is more packed than ever. To help you make your way through it, here’s a list of 11 of the best books of this fall.
Making no claims as to comprehensiveness, this list is a window into some of the weirdest, funniest, and most beautiful new writing I’ve found among this crowded book season. Use it to guide your gift-buying, your supply-chain navigating, and most of all, your “the pandemic is in a weird place right now and I need to clear my head somehow” reading. Shortage or no shortage, books endure.
Crossroads by Jonathan Franzen
Say what you will about Jonathan Franzen (and people have said it), but the man can write a damn family saga. Crossroads, the first volume in a planned trilogy, follows the Hildebrandts, the family of a midwestern pastor in 1971. The father believes himself emasculated; the children feel rudderless and abandoned; the mother is thrillingly, viciously furious. Sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll are creeping their way into this shuttered world. Or, as we gradually learn, they were always there, in wood-paneled basement rec rooms and disused church storage spaces. Now, on the brink of enormous social change, they have become unignorable.
Crossroads is working with a very old set of archetypes, but Franzen hasn’t lost his gift for finding the specific within the universal. The Hildebrandts’s subliminal power dynamics, with each child lining up behind their preferred parent, shift with the familiar dysfunctional rhythms of a thousand unhappy families before them. But the rage pushing them forward — particularly Marion, our spectacularly angry matriarch — doesn’t look quite like anything we’ve seen before.
Matrix by Lauren Groff
When I think of Lauren Groff’s Matrix, about a 12th-century English poet and nun named Marie, I keep coming back to the book’s overwhelming sensuality.
Marie, who is based on the real-life poet Marie de France, lives a life that she thinks at first will be one of overwhelming drudgery and boredom. She is confined to an impoverished convent in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by old women who are slowly starving to death. She finds herself expected to spend her days at prayer and dull household chores, flagellating herself every time she dares to rebel.
Instead Marie, possessed of both great ambition and great physical vigor, sets about turning the abbey into a center of art and wealth and power, with herself at the head. She refuses utterly to let her life pass in a blur of boredom and pious chastisement of the flesh.
We go along with Marie as she savors the strain of physical exercise, the pleasure of clean cloth on clean flesh, the coolness of lake water during a hot flash. Most startling is Groff’s insistence on not only Marie’s muscularity but on the strength of the nuns who work under her command. By the time Matrix ends, physical strength has come to take the place that beauty often plays at the center of other women’s narratives: This novel is a study of living in a body that acts rather than living in a body that is acted upon.
Three Rooms by Jo Hamya
Three Rooms takes its title from Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, but its premise is thoroughly millennial. Hamya’s unnamed narrator longs not for her own room in a busy family house, as Woolf’s women do, but for her own apartment: three rooms all to herself, the pinnacle of millennial luxury in an increasingly precarious economy. But as she travels from Oxford fellowship to London media temp job, she finds herself making do in one cramped rented room after another, fending off intrusive neighbors and hostile landlords. (When you’re renting someone else’s living room couch, their hostility is not a small problem.) The possibility of finding an apartment of her own seems ever farther away.
Hamya’s language is precise and restrained, which makes the crushing indignity of her protagonist’s life all the more haunting. She evokes the claustrophobic grind of the smart-kid-to-subsistence-worker pipeline with bruising relentlessness, and when she finally lets her narrator’s clipped interiority spiral out into something a little more hallucinatory, a little angrier — well, the moment is more than earned.
When We Cease to Understand the World by Benjamín Labatut, translated by Adrian Nathan West
When We Cease to Understand the World is one of the most beautiful books I’ve read all year, and one of the weirdest, too. Its subject seems to be scientific awe: the cosmic horror of seeing what lies at the center of the universe, and how very far such realities are from our small human ways of perceiving the world.
In five self-contained chapters that mix fact with fiction, Chilean author Benjamín Labatut explores the discoveries that changed the way we think about the universe, and the minds that broke when they tried to contain them. Poor Karl Schwarzschild, toiling in the trenches of World War I, is tortured by the concept he found hiding in the center of Einstein’s equations for general relativity. There must be such a thing, Schwarzschild has found, as a singularity at the center of a black hole: a point at the center of a collapsed star at which “time froze, space coiled around itself like a serpent.”
This point, moreover, is unending, so that “one could flee from it into the remotest past or escape to the furthest future only to encounter it once more.” Horrified by his own discovery, Schwarzschild finds himself forgetting to duck under enemy fire; he lies awake in army infirmaries going over and over the monstrosity he has revealed.
Similarly vexed are Alexander Grothendieck, who invents a pure form of mathematics that implies the existence of an entity he calls the “heart of the heart” at its center; Louis de Broglie, who finds that light behaves as both particle and wave at once; Werner Karl Heisenberg, who finds that electrons behave as neither waves nor particles.
These are heady concepts, but Labatut writes about them with a deceptive simplicity. He doesn’t ask you to follow the math, just to let him show you how bizarre these ideas you might half-recall from high school science classes really are, and how destabilizing they should be to the ways we think about the world. (Translator Adrian Nathan West, who has previously translated Lacan, has an elegant way with Labatut’s many-claused sentences.)
At the center of this book are the ways in which we both enrich and deform our own understandings of the universe by cutting it open to look at its inner workings, and how the ideas we find there seem to shiver away from us, to resist being drawn into the light. If we cannot truly understand the universe, Labatut asks, can we truly understand what it means to be human beings?
A Marvellous Light by Freya Marske
This book is serving me extremely good gay Harry Potter AU fanfic.
Robin Blyth is a nice normal Edwardian himbo, minding his own business in London as he works his nice normal civil service job. He’s struggling to support himself and his sister after the death of their financially irresponsible aristocratic parents, but he also likes to find time to get in a spot of wrestling and gay erotica-reading on a regular basis. When he’s transferred to a dull-sounding new government job, Robin expects nothing but more bureaucratic busywork. He’s shocked to realize that instead, he’s been made the prime minister’s liaison with a hidden magical society he never knew existed.
Now, Robin finds himself in the middle of an ongoing magical mystery that has left his predecessor vanished and Robin himself cursed. Moreover, Robin must struggle to forge a working relationship with the saturnine Edwin Courcey, the prickly and taciturn intellectual who is his magical counterpart in the liaison office. As Robin and Edwin work together to solve the mystery and break Robin’s curse, we realize that these are two opposites who just might, well, you know.
Imagine Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere but with more kissing, or Rainbow Rowell’s Carry On but with more elegant prose. Marske’s sentences are clear and lovely, and if the plot and the world-building are more than a little derivative (you’ll spot the villains from several miles away), that’s part of the pleasure of this sweetly crafted novel.
The Book of Form and Emptiness by Ruth Ozeki
What an odd and tender and lovely novel this is. The Book of Form and Emptiness is a book narrated by a Book, describing a world where there is no such thing as an inanimate object: snowglobes mourn a past world, scissors leap menacingly about of their own accord, and books go out looking for the people they need to save.
The Book talking to us is not just any book. It belongs to one Benny Oh, a 14-year-old boy struggling to deal with the death of his father, his mother’s increasing tendencies toward hoarding, and his own newfound abilities to hear voices in the objects all around him. Benny periodically takes over narration from the Book, taking issue with the Book’s interpretation of events or requesting that we not look too closely at particularly painful ideas. But the Book, which knows what it’s about, advances inexorably on.
Ruth Ozeki is a Zen Buddhist priest in addition to being an accomplished author, and this rambling, shaggy narrative has a number of Zen ideas to play with. It’s fundamentally a book about ideas: there’s also a lot of thoughts about Borges’s library, and Benjamin’s Angel of History turns literal here with the appearance of Benny’s mother Annabel, who is surrounded by piles of newspaper. At least she’s got the help of a tidying book by a Marie Kondo-like Zen priestess to work with. In Ozeki’s world, books are urgent and powerful regardless of genre.
Beautiful World, Where Are You by Sally Rooney
Beautiful young intellectuals in Dublin having depressed sex with one another, Marxist email chains, light angst about the moral and aesthetic value of the bourgeois marriage novel — did someone say Sally Rooney? The author of Normal People and Conversations with Friends returns to her usual set of concerns in Beautiful World, Where Are You, and she does it with all the cut-glass polish we’ve come to expect from her.
Beautiful World revolves around two best friends and their love lives. Alice is a successful novelist, recovering from a nervous breakdown brought on by said success, and caught up in a love affair with a man she met on Tinder who works in a warehouse. Eileen is a poorly paid editorial assistant at a literary magazine, struggling to get over a recent breakup and pining away after her Mr. Knightley-like childhood friend. In between their romantic travails, Alice and Eileen exchange emails about the Bronze Age systems collapse and whether or not it’s morally acceptable to spend so much time on their books and love lives as their civilization seems to be breaking down.
I don’t know of any novelist of very charming love stories who seems as conflicted about writing very charming love stories as Sally Rooney. There’s something endearing about it: She seems to spend half of each book berating herself for writing it instead of personally solving climate change, and then in the end she winds herself up to a stirring defense of the marriage plot novel. Beautiful World hits this dilemma head-on, which makes it both tough going in certain passages — I know more than one person who got bogged down during that long systems collapse sequence — and, ultimately, Rooney’s most powerful ode to the novel yet.
Major Labels: A History of Popular Music in Seven Genres by Kelefa Sanneh
Kelefa Sanneh, a long-time staff writer for the New Yorker and before that a pop music critic for the New York Times, is one of the most essential writers of music criticism working today. In Major Labels, he tracks the history of American popular music and its genres from roughly the 1950s on: how country became white and R&B became Black; how rock started at the intersection of country, pop, and R&B, then slowly peeled itself away from all of them; how the poptimists rewrote the music criticism book in the 21st century, and what they got wrong in the process.
Sanneh is an ideal guide for this journey, with a purist’s depth of knowledge and a gourmand’s indiscriminate love of the medium. He is capable of deep and geeky enthusiasm for every genre and subgenre he invites his readers to delve into: no one needs to pick between disco and punk as long as Sanneh’s around, but he’s happy to tell you exactly why so many people wanted to make that choice in the 1980s. He is, moreover, perfectly willing to let you know when he himself got it wrong in the past. You know that old “Beyoncé: She’s No Ashanti” headline that goes around social media every so often? “Perhaps I was guided too much by the desire to say something interesting,” Sanneh admits. Major Labels proves he doesn’t have to stretch. This whole book is perfectly fascinating on its own.
LaserWriter II by Tamara Shopsin
We never find out exactly what year it is in LaserWriter II, but it doesn’t really matter. Tamara Shopsin’s debut novel exists less in one particular moment of time than it does in an era. It’s the end of gritty New York, the end of weirdo Apple: a time when rent is cheap, tech is tactile, and a computer repair shop in midtown Manhattan could be, briefly, one of the coolest places on earth.
LaserWriter II is built around the real-life Tekserve, an indie Mac repair shop where the New York literati flocked around the dawn of the internet. It has a porch swing in the waiting room and a glass bottle Coke machine. Twice a week, the founders treat their employees to lavish meals of smoked fish, bagels, fruits, and chocolates. They specialize in Apples, because Apple computers aren’t just soulless machines like PCs are. Apples are for underdogs; Apples are for artists.
Claire, our protagonist, is 19 years old when she gets a job at Tekserve, and she sets to work repairing Apple printers with a true gearhead’s glee at the job: peeling the skin of the printer back to peer in at roller, spring, fan, and mirror. Printer repair is, she decides, her calling. “A noble calling that helps people make poetry and do their taxes.”
But Claire can’t stay in her engineer’s utopia forever. Neither can Tekserve. Apple develops past its old underdog status, discontinues its printers, develops its own repair shops, and, eventually, crushes little shops like Tekserve. Nothing gold can stay — still, Tamara Shopsin knows how to write a love letter to the past.
The Right to Sex: Feminism in the Twenty-First Century by Amia Srinivasan
Over the past decade, feminism has reached a level of cultural saturation and sway that it has not enjoyed in a very long time. It’s been mainstreamed in a way that allows pop stars and corporations alike to profess themselves feminist allies. In the process, feminism has developed a kind of pat political shorthand, a series of mottoes that are easy to post to Instagram or turn into a hashtag: #girlboss, #BelieveWomen, #itsonus. In The Right to Sex, Oxford professor Amia Srinivasan’s project is to deconstruct the hashtags behind pop feminism, to excavate the ideas lying beneath them. “This has always been the way of feminism,” she reasons: “women working collectively to articulate the unsaid, the formerly unsayable.”
In this book, the unsayable that Srinivasan is trying to say is mostly about the politics of desire: how it’s constructed, how it expresses itself, how we shape and reshape it. She analyzes the manifesto of incel mass murder Elliot Rodger, her students’ ambivalence toward omnipresent online porn, the convergence between economic liberalism and sex-positive feminism.
“The question,” she writes, “is how to dwell in the ambivalent space where we acknowledge that no one is obliged to desire anyone else, that no one has a right to be desired, but also that who is desired and who isn’t is a political question, a question often answered by more general patterns of domination and exclusion.”
These are dense, difficult questions, with rhetorical dragons on all sides. Srinivasan handles them with the nuance and care they deserve.
Harlem Shuffle by Colson Whitehead
Harlem Shuffle is Whitehead’s first novel after the one-two punch of 2016’s Underground Railroad and 2020’s Nickel Boys, both of which won the Pulitzer. It doesn’t disappoint. Harlem Shuffle is a fiendishly clever romp, a heist novel that’s also a morality play about respectability politics, a family comedy disguised as a noir.
Harlem Shuffle concerns Ray Carney, a man whose gifts for salesmanship are exceeded only by his gifts for self-deception. Ray runs a mostly successful furniture shop in Harlem in the 1960s, but he seethes inwardly at the knowledge that it’s not quite successful enough for him to get a house on Striver’s Row, where his snooty light-skinned in-laws live. So Ray maybe fences a bit of jewelry or stolen electronics on the side to get some extra cash on the side. He’ll be the first to tell you, though, that he’s not really crooked. He’s “only slightly bent.”
Now, Ray’s cousin Freddie, on the other hand? Freddie’s actually crooked. And he’s somehow got a way of getting Ray involved in all his biggest and most dangerous plans — including the scheme to rob Harlem’s glamorous Hotel Theresa.
Harlem Shuffle reads like a book whose author had enormous fun writing it. The dialogue crackles and sparks; the zippy heist plot twists itself in one showy misdirection after another. Most impressive of all is lovable family-man Ray, whose relentless ambition drives the plot forward while his glib salesman’s patter keeps you guessing about his true intentions. This book is a blast that will make you think, and what could be better than that?