Fall is the best season for reading—it's either the weather or a Pavlovian response conditioned by years of schooling. But: What are you going to read? Here's a preview of some of this fall's most interesting titles.
C by Tom McCarthy
What It's About: The third novel from British novelist (and "General Secretary" of the "International Necronautical Society," duh) McCarthy takes up the story of inventor's son Serge Carrefax, who seems to find himself involved with things that begin with the letter "C"—cocaine, chemistry, Cairo—a little more often than normal.
What It's Really About: Technology, death, authenticity, the 20th century.
Should You Read It, or Just Pretend You Did: If you are into "three-dimensional characters" and/or "traditional narrative structures," you're best off just pretending. If you like thinking about your existence and impressing undergrads, definitely read it.
Salvation City by Sigrid Nuñez
What It Is: In the aftermath of a flu pandemic, a teenage kid from Chicago ends up in a religious town in Indiana called Salvation City, living with an evangelical pastor and his family. His secular upbringing comes into quiet conflict with the pastor's family's religious worldview.
What It's Really About: Society, family, faith, religion, how fucked-up the U.S. would be if there was a flu pandemic.
Should You Read It or Just Pretend You Did: Did you like The Road? This is almost like that, but instead of macho violent bullshit, quiet explorations of the nature of faith.
True Prep by Lisa Birnbach with Chip Kidd
What It Is: Birnbach, who cowrote the original (and satirical) Preppy Handbook in 1980, returns for a semi-sequel with book designer (and novelist) Kidd that sounds... rather less satirical. Assuming that satire even exists, anymore! Or maybe this is what satire is, in 2010.
What It's Really About: The failure of late capitalism to provide life with authentic meaning.
Should You Read It or Just Pretend You Did: Whichever sounds like the less depressing option to you.
Bound by Antonya Nelson
What It Is: The first novel in ten years from Nelson—known for her sharp, funny short stories—tells the story of a troubled married couple and the daughter they "inherit" from a dead friend, while also delving into the legend of the bind-torture-kill serial murderer. It includes a chapter by the dog. A dog! Writing a book! What will they think of next?
What It's Really About: Relationships, family, memory, dogs, the idea of being "bound" to something literally and/or physically, no, really, "bound," do you see?
Should You Read It or Just Pretend You Did: Lyrical realism, troubled marriages, and sadistic serial murder? I don't see who wouldn't want to read this.
Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self by Danielle Evans
What It Is: A strong debut short story collection from Evans, who won America's Next Top Model in 2006. Kidding. Kidding! Evans is actually a Columbia grad and Iowa MFA whose stories tend to revolve around young women and their multivalent identities. Just like ANTM! (Kidding. Sort of!)
What It's Really About: Identity, race, America, gender, growing up.
Should You Read It or Just Pretend You Did: Read it just so you can convince people that ANTM's Danielle wrote a book.
Also coming: Freedom by Jonathan Franzen; Zero History by William Gibson; By Nightfall by Michael Cunningham; The Elephant’s Journey by Jose Saramago; The Black Lizard Big Book of Black Mask Stories; Koko Be Good by Jen Wang; The Orange Eats Creeps by Grace Krilanovich; Fame by Daniel Kehlmann; An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris by Georges Perec; Sourland By Joyce Carol Oates; The Hilliker Curse: My Pursuit of Women by James Ellroy; Storyteller: The Authorized Biography of Roald Dahl by Donald Sturrock; Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert, trans. Lydia Davis; Obama's Wars by Bob Woodward
The Great House by Nicole Krauss
What It Is: A set of stories from History of Love author Krauss—from a Chilean poet to an American writer to an Israeli antiques dealer—all linked by a huge writing desk. And also by the fact that they are in the same book.
What It's Really About: Creativity, loss, grief, memory, how hard it is to get heavy desks up stairs.
Should You Read It or Just Pretend You Did: Read this! Maybe if Krauss makes enough money her husband won't have to write anything, ever again.
Mourning Diary by Roland Barthes
What It Is: Roland Barthes, the French critic and thinker whom your English professor made you read, wrote a series of essays about the death of his mother, who died three years before he did. They've just been translated.
What It's Really About: Family, absence, mourning, sadness, death.
Should You Read It or Just Pretend You Did: Read it in English, but pretend to have read it in French.
Our Kind of Traitor by John Le Carre
What It Is: British spy novelist—and former intelligence worker—John Le Carré, who has been wallowing in not-particularly-thrilling novels featuring NGOs instead of intelligence agencies, finally writes another ass-kicker (well, in that British way) of a book, about Russian oil oligarchs, Oxford tutors, and money launderers. And the women who love them!
What It's Really About: Loyalty, ideology, identity, bad-ass Russian gangsters
Should You Read It or Just Pretend You Did: It'll only take you an afternoon to finish! Just be aware that you will spend the next few hours wondering if you could have "made it" as a spy.
How to Read the Air By Dinaw Mengestu
What It Is: In the second novel from Mengestu (one of The New Yorker's anointed "20 Under 40," the bastard) a soon-to-divorce first-generation Ethiopian immigrant named Jonas follows the trail of his divorced parents' honeymoon road trip as he heads towards a divorce himself.
What It's Really About: The immigrant experience, Africa, America, love, marriage.
Should You Read It or Just Pretend You Did: Read it, so that you can at least claim some kind of familiarity with the writers when you bitch about The New Yorker.
Finishing the Hat by Stephen Sondheim
What It Is: The collected lyrics of composer and lyricist Sondheim, complete with annotations, notes, advice, and other miscellanea. This volume only runs up until 1981, so your homemade Sondheim lyric book will have to do for everything after that.
What It's Really About: Writing, inspiration, music, Georges Seurat.
Should You Read It or Just Pretend You Did: If you are at all interested in this, you probably know all the lyrics by heart! But your Sondheim shrine—sorry, collection—won't be complete without it, so.
Also Coming: Nemesis by Philip Roth; Travels in Siberia by Ian Frazier; Listen to This by Alex Ross; Picture This: The Near Sighted Monkey Book by Lynda Barry; The Masque of Africa by V.S. Naipaul; Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation by Steven Johnson; Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow; Celebrity Chekhov by Ben Greenman; Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak, trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky; X'ed Out by Charles Burns; Djibouti: A Novel by Elmore Leonard
Cleopatra by Stacy Schiff
What It Is: A biography of the Egyptian queen by Pulitzer prize-winner Schiff. Angelina Jolie is already tipped to play Cleopatra in the film adaptation. Seriously!
What It's Really About: Power, history, femininity, Egypt, and, uh, Cleopatra, and her life.
Should You Read It or Just Pretend You Did: Haven't you always wanted to know how accurate the Elizabeth Taylor movie was? (Spoiler: Not accurate.)
My Prizes by Thomas Bernhard
What It Is: Austrian novelist and playwright Bernhard, who died in 1989 and just hated his home country (he forbade the staging of his work there after his death), chronicles his generally ungracious experiences accepting Austrian literary prizes. Bonus inspirational quote! On winning the Austrian State Prize for Literature: "Everything is ridiculous, when one thinks of death."
What It's Really About: Nationality, honorifics, sarcasm, one-liners, snark.
Should You Read It or Just Pretend You Did: Bernhard would probably want you to just pretend you read it, but you should go for it.
The Visiting Suit by Xiaoda Xiao
What It Is: A set of stories about Xiao's experiences as a prisoner and laborer in China, where he was arrested and imprisoned for seven years for defacing a poster of Chairman Mao. Think Solzhenitsyn and Kafka more than Oz.
What It's Really About: Totalitarianism, imprisonment, isolation, power.
Should You Read It or Just Pretend You Did: It's actually pretty funny! I mean, in a deeply depressing, awful way. But, funny nonetheless.
The Autobiography of Mark Twain by Guess Who
What It Is: Twain's unabridged, unexpurgated autobiography, dictated to a stenographer before his death in 1910 and unpublished, on his instructions, for 100 years. It's said to contain a fair amount of political invective, and some good juicy century-old gossip about Twain's private life. I mean, juicy.
What It's Really About: America, the 19th century, politics, electric vibrating
sex toys machines.
Should You Read It or Just Pretend You Did: Did you hear that? There is an electric vibrating
sex toy machine in this book, so of course you should read it. Update: Professor Benjamin Griffin, one of the Autobiography's editors, has indicated to me that the "electrical vibrating machine" referred to in the text was more than likely not used as a "sex toy." Alas!
Foreign Bodies by Cynthia Ozick
What It Is: The blurb for Ozick's sixth book claims that it retells Henry James' The Ambassadors "as a photographic negative, that is the plot is the same, the meaning is reversed." What does that even mean?! I don't know! But I am excited to find out! (The Ambassadors is about a man traveling through Europe on the trail of his fiancée's son from a previous marriage. I don't know what the meaning is, though!)
What It's Really About: Everything The Ambassadors is about... but the opposite.
Should You Read It or Just Pretend You Did: Well, you should read it, but you should actually read The Ambassadors first instead of just pretending.
Also Coming:The Instructions by Adam Levin; The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer by Siddhartha Mukherjee; Luka and the Fire of Life by Salman Rushdie; Once Before Time: A Whole Story of the Universe by Martin Bojowald; The Box: Tales from the Darkroom by Gunter Grass; The New Yorker Stories, by Ann Beattie; Life Times: Stories, 1952-2007 by Nadine Gordimer; While the Women Are Sleeping by Javier Marías; The Petting Zoo by Jim Carroll; Selected Stories by William Trevor; The Sixty-Five Years of Washington by Juan Jose Saer; Sunset Park by Paul Auster