Every year the temptation is to say, “This is the best season for books in a long time.” Fall 2019 certainly is multicolored, exciting, taking us all over the universe of the mind and the universe around it. Here are only a few recommendations from an autumnal bumper crop of nonfiction and fiction titles.
It’s a fall of sequels, prequels, and remakes, almost as if our imaginations are circling back to reconsider once-told stories. Margaret Atwood, Elizabeth Strout, André Aciman, Ben Lerner, and others tell what preceded or followed stories we know, stories that keep growing. Plus, we have a long-awaited novelistic debut; big guns like Stephen King, Ann Patchett, Jeff VanderMeer, and Salman Rushdie stepping up; and many more riches filling out the calendar year.
The Testaments by Margaret Atwood (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, September). This might be the longest-awaited, most-buzzed-about sequel of the lot. It opens 15 years since we last saw Offred in The Handmaid’s Tale. Atwood picks up where she (and Offred) left off — but where, exactly, is that?
The Institute by Stephen King (Scribner, September). Luke Ellis, 12, is kidnapped and his parents killed. He is put in the Institute, where they test kids for telepathic and kinetic powers. It’s the kids against the Institute. Suspense and horror as only King serves them.
Quichotte by Salman Rushdie (Random House, September). A salesman falls in hopeless love with a celebrity and travels cross-country to prove he’s worthy. Title and book are variants of Quixote, and this is an epic, humorous retelling of Don Quixote for the 21st century. Rushdie and Quichotte come to the Free Library at 7:30 p.m. Dec. 10. Tickets: $15; $34 with book. (215-567-4341, freelibrary.org)
The Sweetest Fruits by Monique Truong (Viking, September). This sparkling, imaginative historical novel tells the life story of writer Lafcadio Hearn from the viewpoints of the three women — a Greek, a former Southern slave, and a samurai’s daughter — who knew him best.
Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson (Riverhead, September). The award-winning YA author also writes terrific adult fiction, like this novel, in which an unexpected pregnancy brings a clash between two families from different social classes.
The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates (One World, September). The celebrated essayist, memoirist, graphic novelist, and social commentator presents his first conventional novel, focusing on the struggle of an enslaved man, guided by a special power, to escape his owners. Coates appears at 8 p.m. Sept. 25, at Irvine Auditorium on the Penn campus. He’ll be talking with eminent Frederick Douglass biographer David Blight. Tickets: $30-$60; book included. (215-567-4341, freelibrary.org)
The Dutch House by Ann Patchett (Harper, September). Beginning in the Philadelphia suburbs at the close of the Second World War, this lovely novel traces the surprising, sometimes tragic, always fascinating story of Danny and Maeve, whose fates and that of their family intertwine. Patchett appears at the Free Library at 7:30 p.m. Sept. 24. Tickets: $32-$47. (215-567-4341, freelibrary.org)
Heaven, My Home by Attica Locke (Mulholland, September). Black Texas Ranger Darren Matthews is back in this riveting follow-up to Locke’s award-winning Bluebird, Bluebird. Matthews gets involved in the case of missing 9-year-old Levi King and his white-supremacist family.
Find Me by André Aciman (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, October). This sequel to his novel Call Me by Your My Name (basis of the popular film) treats us to the further adventures of summer lovers Elio and Oliver. Aciman appears at the Free Library at 7:30 p.m. Dec. 3. Tickets: $15. (215-567-4341, freelibrary.org)
Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout (Random House, October). Olive who? Who other than Olive Kitteridge, whose namesake novel became an award-winning HBO short series? In Olive, Again we rediscover what made flinty yet empathetic Olive of Crosby, Maine, so endearing to so many.
Blue Moon: A Jack Reacher Novel by Lee Child (Delacorte, October). You have to love Jack Reacher’s penchant for walking into trouble. He thinks he’s helping out a senior couple pinched by loan sharks — but somehow Jack gets caught up in an urban battle between Ukrainian and Albanian gangs.
The Shape of Family by Shilpi Somaya Gowda (Morrow, October). The daughter of an Indian diplomat marries a banker from Philadelphia, and their parenthood and family life bring them face to face with past and present.
Grand Union by Zadie Smith (Penguin, October). Ten stories by the celebrated author of White Teeth and The Autograph Man.
The Topeka School by Ben Lerner (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, October). This novel is a prequel of sorts to Lerner’s acclaimed novels 10:04 and Leaving the Atocha Station. Set in the Midwest in the 1990s, it follows a family as it faces social, familial, and personal forces that any reader in 2019 will recognize.
Dead Astronauts by Jeff VanderMeer (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, December). In a nameless future city, we meet ghosts, a space/time-traveling blue fox, and a giant fish with secrets in store — the fantastical world of Jeff VanderMeer, in other words, and a tale about the fate of the earth and the universe.
From country music to female Disney animators, from Little Women to Harriet Tubman, this fall, books of fresh new truths are dropping as thick as the leaves.
The Mosquito: A Human History of Our Deadliest Predator by Timothy C. Winegard (Dutton, August). What’s the most dangerous animal ever? Not even close. No beast has killed so many of us or had such an impact on our history (example: the American Revolution) as the mosquito. Winegard is a great storyteller who makes the icky fascinating.
March Sisters: On Life, Death, and Little Women by Carmen Maria Machado, Jane Smiley, Jenny Zhang, and Kate Bolick (Library of America, August). On the 150th anniversary of Little Women, here are four prominent writers on what the March sisters mean to them. A Special March Sisters event is scheduled with Machado, Bolick, and guests at the Germantown Historical Society at 6 p.m. Sept. 17, just a block from where Louisa May Alcott’s family once lived. Tickets: $30. (215-844-1870, bigbluemarblebooks.com)
Country Music: An Illustrated History by Dayton Duncan and Ken Burns (Knopf, September). Their PBS series about this all-American genre, like The Vietnam War and other Burns’ series-related books, is panoramic, informative, entertaining — and, of course, visually enthralling. The Ken Burns effect!
Motherhood So White: A Memoir of Race, Gender, and Parenting in America by Nefertiti Austin (Sourcebooks, September). The author, single and black, adopts a baby boy out of foster care. Together, mother and child face a world of stereotypes and expectation.
Unfollow by Megan Phelps-Roper (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, October). She was a believing member of the picketing, proselytizing, intolerant Westboro Baptist Church — and this is the story of how she fought herself free.
The Body: A Guide for Occupants by Bill Bryson (Doubleday, October). An extended, often funny meditation on the physical us, with a generous mix of facts and stories. And it brims with Bryson’s endearing voice: “We pass our existence within this wobble of flesh and yet take it almost entirely for granted.” Bryson appears at the Free Library of Philadelphia at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 16. Tickets: $35-$50. (215-567-4341, freelibrary.org)
How We Fight for Our Lives by Saeed Jones (Simon and Schuster, October). Growing up gay in the South, a young man fights to be part of his family and his country. Jones appears at the Free Library at 7:30 p.m. Nov. 12, in conversation with Clifford Thompson, author of What It Is: Race, Family, and One Thinking Black Man’s Blues. (215-567-4341, freelibrary.org)
The Queens of Animation: The Untold Story of the Women Who Transformed the World of Disney and Made Cinematic History by Nathalia Holt (Little, Brown; October). Who are the real Disney heroines? Snow White? Anna of Frozen? After reading this book, you’ll want to include Bianca Majolie, Sylvia Holland, and Retta Scott, some of the women who braved harassment, intimidation, and pay inequality to help shape the direction of Disney animated features.
The Fire Is upon Us: James Baldwin, William F. Buckley Jr., and the Debate over Race in America by Nicholas Buccola (Princeton University Press, October). Baldwin and Buckley had a fiery televised 1965 debate before the Cambridge Union on the proposition that “the American dream is at the expense of the American Negro.” Buccola tells how the debate came to be, and why it was, and remains, crucial.
One Day: The Extraordinary Story of an Ordinary 24 Hours in America by Gene Weingarten (Blue Rider, October). Pick a date, any date, the more ordinary-seeming the better, then create the true, vast story of the many amazing things that happened in America that day. Weingarten, who has won two Pulitzers for feature writing, tells it as few can.
In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado (Graywolf, November). The Philly author of the much-awarded Her Body and Other Parties comes back strong with this memoir about adolescence, sexual identity, and damaging love. Machado appears at the Free Library at 7:30 p.m. Nov. 7. (215-567-4341, freelibrary.org)
She Came to Slay: The Life and Times of Harriet Tubman by Erica Armstrong Dunbar (37 Ink, November). The talented Rutgers professor mixes history and pop culture for a novel telling of the story of Tubman, the civil rights pioneer whose labors may (someday? maybe?) get her face on the $20 bill. Dunbar appears at the Free Library at 7:30 p.m. Nov. 5. (215-567-4341, freelibrary.org)
You Look Like a Thing and I Love You: How Artificial Intelligence Works and Why It’s Making the World a Weirder Place by Janelle Shane. (Little, Brown; November). AI, AI, AI, that’s all you hear … but what is it, really? Why should we care? And why is it driving so much innovation, remaking our world seemingly day by day? Shane is a computer scientist and a great guide.
Stan Hochman Unfiltered: 50 Years of Wit and Wisdom from the Groundbreaking Sportswriter (Temple University Press, December). Edited by Gloria Hochman, with a foreword by Angelo Cataldi and a message from Ed Rendell. Dozens of columns by the longtime Daily News sportswriter, on sports, yes, and anything else that caught his fancy or aroused his ire. A great legacy.
Two Poetry Books
Arias by Sharon Olds (Knopf, October). The Pulitzer Prize winner delivers poems of radical beauty on race, sex, motherhood, and politics in the form of arias delivered by a single singer in full voice. Which she is!
Getting to Philadelphia by Tom Devaney (Hanging Loose, May). This lovely, Philly-centric collection, by the man who gave us “Blue Stoop,” has its coming-out party at 2:30 p.m. Oct. 19 at Radio Kismet. Devaney is a beloved poet, teacher at Haverford and urban historian whose poems will take you down your block and around the world.