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The Best Books to Read This Fall

Back-to-school season is nigh, and with it comes all manner of exciting book releases. This fall, sink your teeth into new memoirs by playwright Sarah Ruhl, model Emily Ratajkowski, and I May Destroy You’s Michaela Coel; get cracking on the latest novels from Colm Tóibín, Colson Whitehead, and Dave Eggers; or discover something else entirely—you’ll be spoiled for choice.

Below, some highlights from the coming season, as reviewed by Vogue staff. 

Misfits by Michaela Coel (September)

Is there anything Michaela Coel can’t do? Not only has the 33-year-old writer, director, producer, and actor brought two brilliant shows to life (the hysterical Chewing Gum and searingly raw I May Destroy You), she’s now leaving her mark on the literary world with her debut nonfiction book, Misfits: A Personal Manifesto. Coel covers everything—growing up in London public housing, reckoning with trauma, adjusting to the demands of fame—with her signature wit and wisdom, making it clear that her narrative power transcends the small screen. Coel’s is a voice that jumps off the page, and it’s one we’re lucky to have applied to whichever story she chooses to tell. —Emma Specter

The Magician by Colm Tóibín (September)

It’s hard not to talk about Colm Tóibín’s latest novel, The Magician, in the loftiest of terms, as something staggering, or dazzling, or an achievement. Yet given the epic sweep of the book—which at once offers a haunting and heartrendingly intimate portrait of its protagonist, the German writer Thomas Mann, and a richly drawn sense of place as it travels through a politically turbulent early-20th-century Europe to America and back again—these accolades feel deserving. As in Tóibín’s 2004 novel, The Master (which charts the life of Henry James), the struggle that underpins Mann’s conflicted inner world is one of sexuality, with Tóibín conveying his unknowability even to those closest to him with a strange, elegiac beauty. Part of the charm of the novel is the forensic approach Tóibín takes to his subject, neither condemning him for the sometimes selfish decisions he makes and the distance he keeps from the people who love him nor defining a writer who is clearly a hero of his in purely hagiographic terms. (Indeed, at times the book reads almost like a biography with its eye for detail and considered pace.) The Magician is an immersive and intentionally meandering book but one that always rewards your patience, especially in a haunting final section that sees Mann look back at his life and all that he’s lost. If you’re willing to give yourself over to the vast and stunningly realized world that Tóibín conjures around Mann, you’ll find yourself savoring every page. —Liam Hess

Three Girls From Bronzeville by Dawn Turner (September)

Three young Black women—studious Dawn, bold Kim, and pretty Debra—make up the heart of this unmissable memoir, as does the bond that flourishes between them as they navigate the challenging business of growing up in the Bronzeville neighborhood of Chicago. Dawn, Kim, and Debra are coming of age—slowly yet surely and with plenty of mishaps along the way—on the South Side of the 1970s, squarely in the shadow of the civil rights movement. Journalist and novelist Turner’s book functions as a kind of living history, allowing the reader a direct, unflinching view of what it’s like to inherit a mixed legacy of freedom and continued injustice. —E.S.

I Wished by Dennis Cooper (September)

After a 10-year hiatus, the enfant terrible of gay fiction, Dennis Cooper, returns with I Wished, which may just be his most surreal, disturbing, vulnerable work yet (which is saying a lot). The book draws once again from the life of Cooper’s late friend George Miles—most famously memorialized in Cooper’s George Miles Cycle from the 1990s, which spanned five books and 11 years—with whom he had a brief sexual affair and who eventually died by suicide. But Cooper is firm that this is not a sixth installment but instead something more nebulous and open-ended. Exploring the darkest corners of desire and transgression with Cooper’s intoxicating balance of formal experimentation (the book is variously narrated by Nick Drake, Santa Claus, and John Wayne Gacy Jr.) and frank descriptions of sex that move between the savage and deeply tender, it’s a weird and occasionally wonderful tribute to his friend, as well as a powerful work of autofiction. —L.H.

Harrow by Joy Williams (September)

Joy Williams’s fiction—both otherworldly and sharply realist, equally strange and transfixing—inspires fierce loyalty among those who discover it. And there are more and more of us following the overdue publication of The Visiting Privilege: New and Collected Stories in 2015. Here was the 500-page definitive collection of Williams’s best short stories, written over a five-decade career, that together conjured a looking-glass America of misfits and outcasts, of life lived at the margins and at psychological extremes. Her new disturbingly strange novel, Harrow, offers a starkly fascinating vision of ecological apocalypse. This is Williams’s first since 2000’s The Quick and the Dead and is another coming-of-age story—though Harrow is more fractured and darker than that (magnificent) novel. Teenage Khristen sets off across a dystopian American landscape after her boarding school shuts down—and encounters cultish lunacy among a community of survivalists on the shores of a toxic lake. —Taylor Antrim

Matrix by Lauren Groff (September)

Lauren Groff’s latest is very different from the (mostly) contemporary-set fiction she’s become known for in the past. Her best-selling and much-lauded Fates and Furies went so deep into the divergent perspectives on a marriage that it felt like snooping on couples counseling, with a deliciously twisty plot enlivening the antagonism. Matrix, however, is so distinct that it feels something like an experiment: The story of a 12-century teenager, Marie de France, sent from France to be the new prioress of an English abbey. There has been something of a mini boom in nunnery books (see Claire Luchette’s Agatha of Little Neon for another vibrant example) that locate adventure and fulfillment within cloistered-seeming confines, and the abbey here also offers Marie de France a surprising salvation. Matrix may not appeal to those who have followed Groff, but it marks a bold new direction for the accomplished writer nonetheless. —Chloe Schama

The Transgender Issue: An Argument for Justice by Shon Faye (September)

For anyone following LGBTQ+ rights around the globe, it’s been impossible not to notice an uptick in transphobia within the U.K. over the past few years. Whether an increase in anti-trans hate crimes, the toxic right-wing media frenzy around a potential update to the Gender Recognition Act allowing for self-identification, or, most famously, a flood of toxic commentary from J.K. Rowling, it feels like the topic has never been more charged. Enter Shon Faye. The journalist and former lawyer might have gathered a following on Twitter for her wry humor, but her first book, The Transgender Issue, offers a cold, hard, and, most importantly, convincing look into the facts surrounding trans rights both past and present, as well as a moving and impressively comprehensive overview of trans life in Britain today. Leavened by Faye’s sharp, sparkling writing style, the book is already attracting significant buzz in the U.K., along with cosigns from the likes of Judith Butler and Sarah Schulman. As well as being a manifesto of sorts, arguing for the benefits of trans liberation to society at large, The Transgender Issue is a vital resource for readers outside of the U.K. to understand just what is happening there in terms of trans rights—and how to bring about a long-overdue change to the conversation. —L.H.

Harlem Shuffle by Colson Whitehead (September)

If Whitehead’s newest novel lacks some of the magisterial weight of his two previous—the Pulitzer Prize–winning The Nickel Boys and The Underground Railroad—it more than makes up for it in fun. This is a Harlem caper, set in the 1960s, starring a resourceful, ethically malleable furniture salesman named Ray Carney who gets caught up in a hotel heist led by his no-good cousin, Freddie. Soon criminals and crooked cops are circling his (mostly) upstanding business. Can he emerge with his family and fortune intact? Whitehead is in entertainment mode here, but his plot is meticulously constructed and his hero someone you root for. —T.A.

The Calling for Charlie Barnes by Joshua Ferris (September)

For those who fell in love with Joshua Ferris’s debut, Then We Came to the End (me, I did), The Calling for Charlie Barnes feels like something of a return to the comic-existential themes of that first book: What is work, and why do we do it? Rather than an office, the setting here is Charlie Barnes’s basement, where he’s been camped out for several years trying to get his long-floundering money-management business to take off (a fitting transformation of the office architecture after a year-plus of WFH). Except the runway for his floundering business has been so long that it seems like he may forever occupy this state of perpetual taxi. But then some news: Charlie is dying of cancer—or at least he thinks it’s likely that he is—and he begins to ponder just how he’s spent the minutes and years and decades of his life. What follows is a quasi-stream-of-consciousness romp through his love affairs and misadventures. —C.S.

On Freedom: Four Songs of Care and Constraint by Maggie Nelson (September)

With her distinctive blend of critical theory and personal insight, Maggie Nelson’s books—from the haunting collage of poetry and prose charting her aunt’s 1969 murder that spanned Jane: A Murder and The Red Parts to her genre-defying meditation on queer family, The Argonauts (2015)—have always elided easy definition. It comes as a surprise, then, to see her latest book initially appear to be laid out in four clear parts as she turns her gaze to one of the most ineluctable—and politically charged—subjects in America today: freedom. In typically offbeat style, however, the very first line announces in all caps: “STOP HERE IF YOU WANT TO TALK ABOUT FREEDOM.” What Nelson is after is finding a new way of talking about the notion of freedom—one detached from the heavy political connotations that have been loaded onto the word—by examining it through the lenses of art, sex, drugs, and the climate. As ever, Nelson’s probing inquiry sits on equal footing with her effortlessly fluid prose, which moves between first-person, anecdotal stories and intense critical examination with the utmost readability. Ultimately Nelson’s approach is one that seeks liberation and transcendence, whether sexual, narcotic, or purely biological—something that radiates palpably from her writing, even when she delves into some of the darkest corners of the human psyche. —L.H.

Smile by Sarah Ruhl (October)

Sarah Ruhl’s memoir begins just before the birth of her twins—a time when her life was full and fulfilling, with a toddler at home and a play at Lincoln Center. At first the book seems like a (useful, important) treatise on making a career in theater as a woman and mother, but it morphs into something more experimental and wide-ranging when Ruhl is diagnosed, immediately following the birth of her twins, with Bell’s palsy. A disorder that slackens the muscles, Bell’s palsy causes the face to droop unpredictably; little is known about what causes it, and little is known about what cures it. The memoir charts the course of her affliction, circling themes of postpartum life, vanity, ambition, anger, and acceptance and investigating what we ascribe to a face when it comes to our sense of self and how we define ourselves beyond it. —C.S.

The Every by Dave Eggers (October)

Nobody does dystopian fiction quite like Dave Eggers, and his streak of brilliance continues with The Every, an account of what happens when the, ahem, fictional search engine and social media site The Circle (definitely not Google, no, sir!) merges with the world’s largest e-commerce site (couldn’t possibly be Amazon!) to become The Every, a massive conglomerate. While the didactic aspect of Eggers’s story is clear, the novel shines brightest when it devotes itself to humanity, specifically that of former forest ranger and current The Every employee Delaney Wells. Delaney is determined to take the monopoly down from within, and following her on her dangerous quest to do just that is a heart-thumping ride that will (at the very least) make you think twice before firing up Amazon Prime. —E.S.

The Mirror and the Palette by Jennifer Higgie (October)

In her latest book, The Mirror and the Palette, art historian and former Frieze editor Jennifer Higgie looks back across art history to ask one (ostensibly) simple question: How have women artists seen themselves? Surveying the self-portraiture of artists as wide-ranging as Sofonisba Anguissola and Artemisia Gentileschi—the great painters of the Italian Renaissance and Baroque)—the Surrealist masterminds Leonora Carrington and Frida Kahlo, and lesser-known figures such as Australian artist Nora Heysen and her New Zealand contemporary Rita Angus, Higgie’s book is a useful primer for those seeking to understand the obstacles and challenges faced by women artists over the centuries, as well as a timely assessment of what it means to look at women artists from history today. It’s a subject that’s been covered before, but with Higgie’s background at Frieze, she’s equally plugged into the contemporary currents of feminist art as she is its historical context, lending the text an important freshness. And after all, despite a growing curiosity about women artists of the past, it has only really been over the last five years or so—notably with Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun’s first-ever retrospective at the Met in 2016 and Gentileschi’s first major exhibition at London’s National Gallery last year—that this interest has filtered through to major art institutions. For those wanting to move beyond biography and learn more about the why and how of the struggle of women artists to make their voices heard, The Mirror and the Palette is an important and brilliantly accessible resource. —L.H.

Orwell’s Roses by Rebecca Solnit (October)

Throughout the Trump administration, the term Orwellian was invoked with enough frequency to become all but meaningless. Now, almost a year after Trump’s ouster, comes a brand-new piece of nonfiction from celebrated author and journalist Rebecca Solnit that reconsiders George Orwell’s legacy once and for all. In Orwell’s Roses, Solnit examines Orwell’s lifelong fascination with gardening from all possible directions, tracking his life from his English childhood to his time fighting in the Spanish Civil War and his adult fixation with authoritarianism. And, while she’s at it, she follows the gardening motif to several surprising conclusions, including dictator Josef Stalin’s obsession with lemon growing and novelist Jamaica Kinkaid’s critique of colonialism as it applies to the flower garden. The task that Solnit has set for herself in this book is mighty, but she’s more than up to it as a writer and a thinker; nobody who reads it will ever think of Nineteen Eighty-Four in quite the same way. —E.S.

I Love You but I’ve Chosen Darkness by Claire Vaye Watkins (October)

Claire Vaye Watkins’s first novel, Gold Fame Citrus, was a portrait of the American West. But framed as a postapocalyptic fever dream and published around the same time as several other novels dealing with end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it themes (Edan Lepucki’s California, Emily St. John Mandel’s Station 11), its landscape seemed more like a backdrop than a character in its own right. It’s different in her latest, I Love You but I’ve Chosen Darkness, where the brutal, arid, electric terrain of remote California and Nevada crackles across almost every page. The story is narrated by a writer, Claire (several names and details map onto Watkins’s own life), who has returned home to Nevada for some light book promotion and semi-heavy drug use with college friends who have remained in the state. The trip is an escape from her marriage and her baby and crashes into long vignettes and characters from her past—a hippy father who procured nubile tweens for Charles Manson before he thought better of the whole project and an artist mother who makes magic in the desert before succumbing to the plague of opioids that has decimated so much of the country. The book is trippy and beautiful, slippery and seductive—a unique psycho-geography of a region that is integral to the American vision and yet seems to have too few literary chroniclers. —C.S.

Miss Dior: A Story of Courage and Couture by Justine Picardie (October)

On paper, Catherine Dior is an unlikely heroine. Born into the prosperous Dior family in 1917, the youngest of five children, she seemed destined for a decorative existence. But when the family’s fortune suddenly vanished due to failed real estate ventures, a life of leisure seemed far less inevitable. In 1935, the teenage Catherine moved from the family’s stately home to a dilapidated farmhouse in Provence. She soon escaped to live with her older brother Christian in Paris, selling accessories for a fashion house while he peddled his sketches. When World War II broke out, Caro, as she was known, joined the Resistance and was eventually imprisoned in a concentration camp. She survived and rarely spoke of her struggles, living out a quiet life, assisting her brother, and selling flowers. Despite shunning the spotlight while she was alive, Catherine is now being ushered into it. Picardie’s book celebrates an unsung hero at a time when female influences long overlooked are earning new acclaim. —Laird Borrelli-Persson

My Body by Emily Ratajkowski (November)

This irresistibly titled debut from supermodel turned writer Emily Ratajkowski fills in some of the story of just how Ratajkowski came to have one of the most famous faces in the world. But more than that, the book is invested in probing what it means to be in possession of such a face. My Body is a memoir, but it’s also—like Sweetbitter or In the Land of Men—a slow, complicated indictment of a profession and the people who propel it. Ratajkowski doesn’t so much direct blame at any one person or organization as paint a personal picture of what it was like for her to be young, naive, ambitious, and smart—and to feel reduced, far too often, to a collection of body parts. The book will be alluring to anyone who wants to know what it was like to dance in Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” (the cringey video that made Ratajkowski a household name) or what it was like to act alongside Ben Affleck in Gone Girl, but it will deliver a more nuanced and introspective rendering of her interior than those who come to it with those surface interests might expect. —C.S.

These Precious Days: Essays by Ann Patchett (November)

“How other people live is pretty much all I think about,” Patchett writes in the exquisite title essay of her new collection, These Precious Days, which became a minor sensation when it was published by Harper’s magazine in January. “Curiosity is the rock upon which fiction is built.” It’s something that holds true across Patchett’s powerful but unassuming body of work, which is difficult to sum up tidily—mostly because what Patchett writes about is just that: her boundless interest in the lives of everyday people. In her fiction, they could be people with fraying familial bonds, people high on the revelatory joy of a new friendship, or people who find themselves in wildly unlikely situations, as in her award-winning 2001 novel, Bel Canto. But in These Precious Days, her first nonfiction work in eight years, Patchett turns the lens back not just on herself but on the relationships she’s forged throughout her career as a writer too, in essays that vary in length but seamlessly balance Patchett’s piercing emotional and intellectual insights with a welcoming charm. Still, the justified centerpiece of the collection is the title essay, which charts her unlikely friendship with Tom Hanks’s assistant Sooki Raphael during quarantine, after Hanks recorded the audiobook for Patchett’s previous novel, The Dutch House (a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize). Enchanted by Raphael’s outlook on life and her abilities as a painter, Patchett documents their journey together in the most intimate of terms as Raphael deals with a terminal cancer diagnosis. It’s an unforgettable portrait of love, loss, and the wonders of friendship that will leave you both devastated and dazzled. —L.H.

Five Tuesdays in Winter by Lily King (November)

There’s a character in Lily King’s new short-story collection, Five Tuesdays in Winter, who feels “a new fullness in his chest” after a potent communion with another person—“words and feelings…all churned up together inside him, finding each other like lost parts of an atom.” It would be a bit much to say that this is the sensation every time you read one of King’s stories, but it’s not far off. King doesn’t shy away from big emotions, but she renders them tenderly, precisely, and without sentimentality. These are stories of outsiders finding their people, of new perspectives, and they place King—already one of our most poignant and moving contemporary novelists—among Lorrie Moore, Alice Munro, and Mary Gaitskill as one of our great short-story writers as well. —C.S.

Sea State by Tabitha Lasley (December)

Tabitha Lasley’s memoir is an amorphous thing—part investigation of contemporary (British) masculinity, part love story, part walkabout of self-discovery. Motivated by a breakup with a longtime partner, Lasley decides to move north to the Scottish town of Aberdeen to investigate oil-rig culture. Promptly, she falls in love with one of the first men she interviews, and he with her. Their romance is heady, ill-advised, a bit voyeuristic—they are both foreign lands to each other, alien in tastes, interests, occupations. Indeed they seem to have almost nothing in common apart from their mutual fascination with one another. What follows is something of a lesson in how not to report a story if you’re focused on journalistic ethics, but it’s a fascinating work nonetheless in which the reporter is as implicated in the story as her subjects. —C.S.

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