15 books to read this fall

Doomsday is in season

A tree.
(Image credit: Illustrated | iStock)

Catastrophe. Apocalypse. Dreadful events of an undefined nature. You'd start to seriously worry about the writers of the world — if you weren't living in it, too.

It's no wonder the end of the Earth seems to be on everyone's minds these days, with the pandemic and climate-change-related weather disasters that have defined the past year. Some of the books out this fall are the direct progeny of that trauma, trying to make sense of what just happened. Other books were started well before March 2020, only to have intuited that doomsday was going to be in fashion.

Whether you enjoy reading about worlds slightly worse than ours to make yourself feel better, worlds that closely resemble ours to make yourself feel less alone, or worlds distant and strange to escape from the whole question altogether, here are 15 books to read this fall.

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1. Harrow, by Joy Williams (Sept. 14)

"This is the century of destruction," a Joy Williams character says in her 1989 short story "The Last Generation," voicing an end-times preoccupation in the author's writing that dates back more than three decades. Harrow is Williams' latest work in that vein, her fifth novel but first in two decades, set in a world where the destruction has already happened and "[p]retty much everything is up and running again." Khristen is a teenager whose mother believes she died as an infant and came back to life; she is shipped off to attend a boarding school out West, only for it to eventually shut down. Adrift, Khristen travels to a resort on a lake called Big Girl to wait for the end. But as grim and hopeless as all this might sound, Williams' writing is a delight to read, sprinkled with humor and her signature, clever turns of phrase. And for all the doom and gloom, don't miss the author's sense of hope and wonder, too, at watching something thought dead come alive again.

2. Harlem Shuffle, by Colson Whitehead (Sept. 14)

Harlem Shuffle is the book I won't stop talking about, the novel I'm determined to bring up in every conversation this fall with the insistence that you need to read it. A new Colson Whitehead novel would have already been an event in the book world — he's won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction twice, for 2016's The Underground Railroad and 2020's The Nickel Boys. But if I had a say, then the genre-dexterous writer would be headed for a "threepete" with his latest. Playing with the hard-boiled crime genre this time around, Whitehead's protagonist, Ray Carney, is a furniture salesman who is only "slightly bent when it came to being crooked," prone to getting pulled into trouble working as the sometimes-fence for his even crookeder cousin. Indeed, this isn't exactly Ocean's 11 — "I wanted a low-technology, low-fidelity heist background," Whitehead told Vulture — and the result is even better.

3. The Morning Star, by Karl Ove Knausgaard, translated by Martin Aitken (Sept. 21)

Readers who never quite made it all the way through My Struggle back in 2014 will be happy to know that Karl Ove Knausgaard's latest is only one volume long (albeit, 700 pages). In The Morning Star, a bright new light appears in the sky, and ominously affects the lives of the Norwegians followed by the book: a priest, a professor and his artist wife, a journalist, a nurse, a driver. "I wrote [The Morning Star] mainly in lockdown, about two-thirds of it, I believe," Knausgaard told the Los Angeles Review of Books, which explains this resulting novel about phenomena we struggle to wholly grasp.

4. Cloud Cuckoo Land, by Anthony Doerr (Sept. 21)

Anthony Doerr's All the Light We Cannot See was one of those books you'd call a "sensation," coming seemingly out of nowhere to win the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and landing on a number of "best books of the year" lists. In his subsequent novel, Doerr leaves behind occupied France for fifteenth-century Constantinople, modern-day Idaho, and outer space in the mid-22nd century, weaving together an intertwining story of characters who are all connected through an ancient Greek manuscript. Publishers Weekly calls Cloud Cuckoo Land "a marvel" of literature, suggesting you won't want to be left behind by missing this one either.

5. Bourdain: The Definitive Oral Biography, by Laurie Woolever (Sept. 28)

Roadrunner, a documentary about Anthony Bourdain that came out earlier this year, unfortunately walked straight into multiple controversies of its own making. But one of the most powerful parts of the flawed tribute to the late chef, television personality, and humanist was hearing his friends and family discuss him with unreserved love and admiration. Ninety-one of Bourdain's intimates and acquaintances likewise contribute to this "kaleidoscopic oral history," collected by the chef's longtime assistant and cowriter Laurie Woolever, who last year published Bourdain's posthumous and well-reviewed World Travel: An Irreverent Guide. While there's an irresistible urge to try to understand Bourdain's seemingly senseless death, an oral biography is a tribute to how he and his legacy live on.

6. I Love You But I've Chosen Darkness, by Claire Vaye Watkins (Oct. 5)

In addition to being the best-titled book on this list, I Love You But I've Chosen Darkness is one of my most-anticipated novels of the second half of the year as it comes from the preeminent chronicler of end-times in the western United States. The follow-up to 2016's Gold Fame Citrus (a dystopian novel about a drought-ravaged California), I Love You But I've Chosen Darkness is seemingly closer to autofiction, following a character that "shares the author's name, age, profession, sensational parentage, and tumultuous family history," according to Lit Hub. In it, Claire leaves behind her husband and baby daughter to return to her native Reno, where she excavates her relationships with an ex-boyfriend who died in a car cash; her Mason Family cult member father; and her mother, who died of either suicide or overdose when Claire was in her 20s. The result is a "soul-rending novel of love in an epoch of collapse," according to the publisher.

7. Crossroads, by Jonathan Franzen (Oct. 5)

"Time was, if you read books, you'd be hard-pressed to escape the Jonathans," begins author Emily Gould in a recent Vanity Fair essay about "Franzen, Lethem, Safran Foer," the "white American men hewing to a midcentury model of novelist as public intellectual." But even Gould admits that Franzen is "the odd man out" as he is "the only Jonathan still wholly vested in writing enormous, risky novels." Enter Crossroads, his nearly 600-page first book in a planned trilogy, which begins in the early 1970s and follows two generations of the Hildebrandt family. Russ, the father, is an associate pastor at the First Reformed Church in New Prospect, Illinois, and is secretly drawn to a newly-widowed parishioner; his wife, Marion, has a past that she's kept secret from her family; while his children, Chem, Becky, Perry, and Judson, navigate temptations of their own. Publishers Weekly raves that Crossroads is "irresistible," and Kirkus Reviews deems it "exquisite."

8. Girly Drinks: A World History of Women and Alcohol, by Mallory O'Meara (Oct. 19)

Girly Drinks is unintentionally timed to coincide with lots of cosmopolitan drinking this fall when HBO reboots Sex and the City. But when exactly did drinking become a gendered act? (And it is: After all, everyone knows what you mean when you say "girly drinks" — those frou-frou, sweet, colorful cocktails, like the favorite of Carrie Bradshaw). In this boozy history, screenwriter Mallory O'Meara looks at 15 different women from all over the world who "illuminate different facets of what it was like to drink through the ages for a woman who wanted to have a drink." In addition to a starred review from Publishers Weekly, this book even has its own accompanying playlist — cheers, I'll drink to that.

9. Everything and Less: The Novel in the Age of Amazon, by Mark McGurl (Oct. 19)

Everyone knows that Amazon quickly changed the world after its launch in 1994; we'll never shop the same way again. But in Everything and Less, accomplished literary critic Mark McGurl makes the case that the online superstore has also changed the way that we read. The "consumerist logic — if you like this, you might also like ... — has reorganized the fiction universe so that literary prize-winners sit alongside fantasy, romance, fan fiction, and the infinite list of hybrid genres and self-published works," the publisher writes, though it warns "this is an innovation to be cautiously celebrated." Though Everything and Less might be a little academic for some tastes, it'll undoubtedly be of interest to any readers of this list.

10. Orwell's Roses, by Rebecca Solnit (Oct. 19)

I'd read the magnificent writer Rebecca Solnit on just about any subject, but this survey of author George Orwell and his love of roses sounds especially superb. Though Orwell today is most frequently mentioned in relation to the eerie prescience of his novel 1984, the author was an avid gardener, and "Solnit emphasizes this side of his life with frequent detours into horticultural topics with political lessons," Kirkus writes. This being Solnit, she also weaves in her own parallel passions: nature and politics, topics that take her as far as South America, the source of many of America's flowers. Orwell's Roses is for anyone interested in the overlap between beauty and activism, literature and resistance.

11. Black Paper: Writing in a Dark Time, by Teju Cole (Oct. 22)

Critic, photographer, flâneur, artist, and essayist Teju Cole brings his singular perspective to our current "time of darkness" in Black Paper, his eighth book and second this year. In two dozen essays composed between 2016 and 2019, Cole meditates on questions of ethics with the through line of the color black and its cultural meanings. Looking at art, photography, and literature, Cole touches on Caravaggio, the refugee crisis, physical text, and shadows. "Dense and provocative, the essays in Black Paper are a reminder that darkness cannot last forever," writes Foreward Reviews, "and even within it, there is meaning and hope."

12. Our Country Friends, by Gary Shteyngart (Nov. 2)

Gary Shteyngart has a knack for bringing out the extreme hilarity and absurdity of our era — or its near-future, as was the case in his 2010 novel Super Sad True Love Story — which is why I'm so excited for him to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic in his newest book, Our Country Friends. The story is set in upstate New York, where eight friends (a Russian novelist, a super successful app developer, and an actor, among others) go in order to isolate themselves during the 2020 COVID-19 outbreak. Of course, what's expected to be a short time in quarantine soon stretches to six months, with romances and old wounds between friends inevitably reopening. "The Great American Pandemic Novel only Shteyngart could write, full of hyphenated identities, killer prose, and wild vitality," sums up Kirkus in its starred review. Count me in.

13. The Sentence, by Louise Erdrich (Nov. 9)

Louise Erdrich can't stop, won't stop. After winning the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for her novel The Night Watchman, she's back with another novel this November that's already receiving heaping praise. Birchbark Books shares a name with Erdrich's real-life bookstore in the Twin Cities, and is the setting for this ghost story, which finds the spirit of the store's most annoying former customer, Flora, returning to haunt the shelves from November 2019 to November 2020. Tookie, an Ojibwe bookseller who works at the store and is recently out of prison, is skeptical of Flora's claims that she's Indigenous — and unaware that during her life, Flora considered her to be a close friend. The Sentence touches on the pandemic and the George Floyd protests in Minneapolis, but despite the heavy backdrop, is described by the publisher as "wickedly funny."

14. Noor, by Nnedi Okorafor (Nov. 9)

The wait is almost over for Nnedi Okorafor's highly, highly anticipated first novel for adults in six years. The Africanfuturist author, who collects Hugo, Nebula, and World Fantasy Awards like they're stamps, sets Noor in Nigeria and centers the story on Anwuli Okwudili, who goes by AO — initials that also describe her status as an Augmented Organism, with all her cybernetic body parts. After accidentally killing assailants in self-defense, the public brands her a murderer, and AO is forced to go on the run across northern Nigeria with a herdsman named DNA. Everything about this book sounds epic, and Publishers Weekly confirms it's a "must-read."

15. Sea State: A Memoir, by Tabitha Lasley (Dec. 7)

Tabitha Lasley's debut won't be out stateside until December, but early word from the U.K. has it that this is one of the best books of the year. A journalist, Lasley decides to leave her magazine job — and boyfriend — in London in order to travel to Aberdeen to work on a story about the rough men who work on the oil rigs in the inhospitable North Sea. Soon, though, Lasley begins an affair with one of her interviewees, a rigger named Caden who is married with children. Described as part memoir, part reportage, "[Lasley] may be in love, but she's also on assignment, and the originality of the book lies in the way these states of being become inseparable," writes The London Review of Books in its awed assessment of Sea State. "In a sense, she's like the men she's writing about, the oil workers who live two lives, one at home, one away, and her entanglements become vital to an understanding of offshore life." December can't come soon enough.

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