The Great 2021 Fall Book Preview: Our 60 best reads for right now

·19 min read

Not so long ago, before the pandemic upended things, if you asked practically anyone to rank contemporary culture, factoring for relevance, reach and popularity, books might have landed somewhere in the middle. Not as everywhere as the hottest everyone-is-streaming TV series, no way near as zeitgeisty as the memes of TikTok and Instagram.

A year and a half later, movies are limping along, live music is tiptoeing toward its old normal, but the publishing business — especially the big houses — has been pretty good. Indeed, this new fall book season is like a three-month swagger, a reminder of just how vital printed words still seem in 2021. The first list of promising titles I drew up for this preview was 200 titles long. Week after week, seminal authors, buzzy contemporaries, pressing issues, returning legends, memoirs, office politics, Illinois suburbs, treatises on loss, histories long untold, Chicago pizza, the Lincoln Highway and transcendent horror.

So I pared it back to a mere ... bunch of books.

Fall is book season. Consider this your menu for the next 12 weeks.

Here’s a good place to start, if only because printed books are not one of “100 Things We’ve Lost to the Internet” (Crown, $27, Oct. 26), according to Pamela Paul, editor of the New York Times Book Review. “Civility,” “TV Guide,” “Maps,” “Eye Contact” — each (and 96 more) get brief, nostalgic, jaundiced, often charming essays on decline, regret and why it matters that a kid can’t stretch phone cords to unnatural lengths these days. Speaking of NYTBR, the granddaddy of print book sections, it’ll be celebrated with “New Times Book Review: 125 Years of Literary History” (Clarkson Potter, $50, Nov. 2).

There are word-of-mouth hits, then there are word-of-mouth smashes. “Cloud Cuckoo Land” (Scribner, $30, Sept. 28), by Anthony Doerr, not unlike his Pulitzer-winning “All the Light We Cannot See,” considers idealism in the face of doom, but with more ambition, watching a 15th-century manuscript wind its influence across centuries and worlds. A similarly sorta historical novel, “Matrix” (Riverhead, $28) is set in 1158, a U-turn for typically contemporary-minded Lauren Groff, who tells the story of poet Marie de France, tasked with revitalizing the lives of the nuns in an English abbey. Feverishly exhilarating stuff. “The Lincoln Highway” (Viking, $30, Oct. 5), Amor Towles’ smart and breezy follow-up to the bestselling “A Gentleman in Moscow,” set in 1950s America, tells the story of a man released from prison and forced to take a little road trip.

Of the many Chicago authors with new books, a pair of outliers: Ken Krimstein’s “When I Grow Up” (Bloomsbury, $28, Nov. 16) is haunting and warm, the New Yorker contributor’s graphic novel adaptation of autobiographies by Jewish teenagers in 1930s Europe (thought lost, then discovered in 2017). “The Robber Girl” (Candlewick, $19) by Franny Billingsley (National Book Award finalist for the YA fantasy “Chime”) reads like a sleeper, a fever-dream of a Western adventure about a young thief who finds a home.

History is the new dystopia. It’s where our best writers are finding the language to talk about the legacy of colonization and immigration. “My Monticello” (Holt, $26.99, Oct. 5), Jocelyn Nicole Johnson’s enthralling debut, only sounds thuddingly obvious: Its title novella tells the story of a group of Charlottesville residents (including ancestors of slaves) who hole up in Thomas Jefferson’s home during a white-supremacist siege. What you actually get is a reminder of a time when a fiction writer could make their name on a single story alone. “Civilizations” by Laurent Binet (FSG, $27) — not unlike his sleeper “HHhH” — considers how the world revolves on a single action. In this case, Columbus does not discover America and the Incas settle Europe.

Speaking of history reworked: Kevin Boyle, Northwestern University history professor (and National Book Award winner for “Arc of Justice”) returns with “The Shattering: America in the 1960s” (Norton, $30, Oct. 26), which opens on Chicago’s Northwest Side, July 4, 1961, and closes there, finding a fresh take on our culture wars by focusing on the neighborhood disputes, minor arrests and political pivots that rattle our windows today. It’s change as individuals, not movements. “The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story” (One World, $35, Nov. 16) vastly expands the often controversial New York Times Magazine series that framed America’s story as a history of slavery. Broken into chapters on fear, capitalism, self-defense and many others, it’s a who’s who of contemporary must-reads — essays by Ibram X. Kendi, Michelle Alexander, poetry by Natasha Trethewey, fiction by Nafissa Thompson-Spires. Do not miss this. Though while you’re there, consider “The Cause: The American Revolution and Its Discontents, 1773-1873” (Liveright, $24), by Joseph Ellis. It’s a speedy retelling of the nation’s stumbling, fractured founding, through evocative profiles of British loyalists, slaves, Native Americans and soldiers uncertain of what was being founded.

Chicago seems overdue for a big new honking classic that’s set here. Time will be the best judge of whether the big new honking Jonathan Franzen novel “Crossroads” (FSG, $28, Oct. 5) — another typically ambitious swing for the fences — is that new classic. Certainly, in moments, it reads like one. The first of a trilogy he’s calling “A Key to All Mythologies,” it aims to cover decades and, I think, consider what ails us, through several generations of a suburban Chicago family.

Every autumn there are those heavyweights, those literary stars who can’t be avoided. The problem this autumn is, well, there are so many: My favorite is the already Booker-shortlisted “Bewilderment” (Norton, $28) by Evanston native Richard Powers, whose recent Pulitzer-winner “The Overstory” is still occupying the heads of its readers. Here, this gentle giant, always with an eye on the natural world and the transcendent, tells the story of a widowed astrobiologist whose emotionally troubled young son begins painting (and painting and painting) endangered animals. It’s a novel about loss on a cosmic level that rarely leaves Earth. Speaking of Pulitzer: Colson Whitehead has become that rarest of award-festooned old masters, one constantly rattling around in genre. He’s done zombies, coming-of-age, historical fiction. “Harlem Shuffle” (Doubleday, $29), which has the bounce of a Soderbergh film, is a punchy heist tale, with room for regret and family. Another returning phenom: Sally Rooney, whose “Normal People” became an acclaimed Hulu series, has “Beautiful World, Where Are You” (FSG, $28), about an acclaimed Irish novelist whose overexposure is crushing her. (Hmmm.) Just three novels into her career, few write as well about contemporary intimacy.

That rarest of fall treats: The final completed novel of a master. In this case, the last novel by British spymaster John le Carré, who died in December at 89. “Silverview” (Viking, $28, Oct. 12) tells the story of a retired man who opens a seaside bookshop, then receives a visit from a friendly, suspicious customer urging him to stock the classics. The past is returning, of course. It’s minor key le Carré, though necessarily so: a brief, melancholy capstone to a life in books, a nearly perfect autumn read.

Another joy of fall book season is the Author Who Needs a Bigger Audience. I would have guessed Jon McGregor’s haunting 2017 “Reservoir 13” would have launched him to renown; thankfully, “Lean Fall Stand” (Catapult, $26), about the survivor of a doomed expedition to Antarctica, is just as gripping, another reminder of how narrowly many writers approach a mystery. How Percival Everett remains a secret is another mystery. I read “The Trees” (Graywolf, $16), his new ambitious satire of sorts, in a night. It tells the story of a string of nationwide killings that, somehow, result in a body that suspiciously resembles the murdered 1950s Chicago teen Emmett Till. “I Love You But I’ve Chosen Darkness” (Riverhead, $27, Oct. 5) lives up to its excellent title, and Claire Vaye Watkins’ simmering promise. Think “Where’d You Go, Bernadette,” without the schmaltz, a parody of healing transformations. It’s the story of a woman (named Claire Vaye Watkins) who leaves her family for the desert. Conversely: Miriam Toews, author of the bestseller “Women Talking” returns with “Fight Night” (Bloomsbury, $24, Oct. 5), another entertaining empowerment tale, this time about unbreakable ties.

It’s probably fair to assume that an inordinate number of famous people, stripped of schedules and assistants, took the pandemic as a nice excuse to write their life stories. So Jamie Foxx has “Act Like You Got Some Sense” (Grand Central, $30, Oct. 19) Stanley Tucci delivers more macaroni with “Taste: My Life Through Food” (Gallery, $28, Oct. 5). “Bourdain: The Definitive Oral Biography” (Ecco, $30, Sept. 28) seemingly visits everyone who knew the late chef, a kind of warm-up for the inevitable traditional biography. You expect those. “My Body” (Metropolitan, $26, Nov. 9) by model/actress Emily Ratajkowski is the provocative curve ball, with absorbing essays on beauty, consent and a performative, often static career — she calls herself as a professional “mannequin.” “Baggage: Tales from a Fully Packed Life” (Dey Street, $28, Oct. 26) is like Alan Cumming’s last memoir: He’s a fine actor, but arguably an even better celebrity memoirist, breezing through jobs with honesty, while recounting painful history, offering the red meat without losing his voice. Speaking of voice: It’s hard to read Stevie Van Zandt’s “Unrequited Infatuations” (Hachette, $31, Sept. 28) without hearing a certain insinuating wise-guy rasp. This thing bounces on the page, from the E Street Band to “The Sopranos” to Sun City, with a discursive glee. He reads like the Last American Beat. First time he and Bruce Springsteen heard Clarence Clemons? “Bruce looked at me with the same expression Cristoforo Colombo must have given his first mate when, after thirty-six death-defying days on the ocean, they spotted naked indigenous chicks sunbathing on Grand Bahama beach.” It’s a ton of fun.

By this point in the fall preview, if you’re keeping a list of what you want to read, you may also be considering refinancing your home to pay for it all. Take a fast break and consider “The Ultimate Chicago Pizza Guide” (Northwestern, $25, Oct. 15) by Steve “Hungry Hound” Dolinsky. As a dyspeptic Illinois pizza eater — pizza should be flat and wide, it should never be cut into tiny squares — I object to roughly 75% of this admittedly entertaining book. But as a handy go-to of what style is served where, why they call it “Detroit-style,” etc., I begrudgingly approve.

I’m a sucker for a book of essays on culture, but finding fresh takes is rough. So don’t sleep on the unpredictable “808s & Otherworlds: Memories, Remixes and Mythologies” (Two Dollar Radio, $16), by Sean Avery Medlin, an elegant mash of memoir, poetry, tales of appropriation, thoughts on Black masculinity, Hulk, Kanye. “Tacky: Love Letters to the Worst Culture We Have to Offer” (Vintage, $16, Nov. 2), decidedly more direct, is a wise, conversational argument about the trouble with shame, and valuing the cheap and ubiquitous (Cheesecake Factory, shopping malls). A perfect chaser would be the latest Ian Frazier collection, “Cranial Fracking” (FSG, $25), in which the contemporary New Yorker cornerstone satirizes lightly the state of arts funding, what to do about Texas and Prince’s unreleased archives, circa 2025. But if you have room for only one: “Carefree Black Girls: A Celebration of Black Women in Popular Culture” (St. Martin’s, $17, Oct. 19), by Zeba Bay, is less cheerful than its title suggests, but rather a plaintive, book-length ramble on the contradictions of Black women celebrities. (Is Cardi B performing authenticity, or is she authentic?)

Who doesn’t have a soft spot for a talented writer taking genre seriously? Karl Ove Knausgaard returns to doorstop storytelling with “The Morning Star” (Penguin, $30, Sept. 28), speculative fiction of ideas, about a star suddenly in the sky. Reactions vary. “The Perishing” (Counterpoint, $26, Nov. 2) sort of plays like its own genre — lyrical strangeness. Natashia Deon, channeling Octavia Butler at times, tells the story of a Black woman in 1930s Los Angeles who wakes up unsettled, convinced she’s immortal. As for nonfiction: Master literary biographer Claire Tomalin finds a wonderful, breakneck history in “The Young H.G. Wells” (Penguin, $28, Nov. 2), who was firing off in a million heady directions, many of which would prove disastrously prescient. Considerably lighter — though just as strangely missing until now — is cultural critic Douglas Wolk’s “All of the Marvels: A Journey to the Ends of the Biggest Story Ever Told” (Penguin, $28, Oct. 5). He read the entire Marvel Comics, all 27,000 issues, not on a dare, but to seriously consider how an ongoing 60-year soap opera is unique in literature — every writer building on another’s work, crafting a funhouse mirror of what ails us.

The trouble with well-reasoned books that make sense of the state of the world is that you have to read about the state of the world. Nothing about “Wildland: The Making of America’s Fury” (FSG, $30) probably sounds original: Evan Osnos, former Beijing bureau chief for the Chicago Tribune and longtime staff writer at the New Yorker, digs into the polarization of a few cities (including Chicago). Through clear, engrossing writing, he gives shape to the past 20 years. Likewise, “The Matter of Black Lives: Writings from the New Yorker” (Ecco, $35, Sept. 28) carries the power of lucidity and voice. James Baldwin, Hilton Als, Toni Morrison, Zadie Smith, Calvin Trillin, etc. — it’s that rare anthology without a dud (for more than 800 pages). “Say It Loud!: On Race, Law, History and Culture” (Pantheon, $30), by Harvard’s Randall Kennedy, is all voice, but more center-left than essay collections veer, with the bonus of watching a public intellectual wrestle across decades, lending context to birtherism, the 21st-century embrace of Frederick Douglass, the policing of dissent. (It’s hard finding anyone who rejects Isabel Wilkerson, the former Chicagoan and author of “Caste,” but here you go.) On the ideological flip side: “What Just Happened: Notes on a Long Year” (Knopf, $28, Nov. 2) is the lapsed Chicagoan (and mystery writer) Charles Finch’s diary of sweet outrage, a blow-by-blow accounting of crisis, fear and hope. It had to be done one day, and it’s a tribute to Finch’s conversational style that you forget you know the ending.

My favorite sub-sub-genre? Music books. I can’t really explain why. But others must feel the same. The big music memoir this fall — there’s always at least one — is Dave Grohl’s “The Storyteller” (Dey Street, $30, Oct. 5), who uses a wisely choppy metaphor to recall decades in a choppy business: The book is a mixtape of memories, and from what I’ve read already (“I could always tell when a chorus was coming by watching Kurt’s Converse sneaker as it moved closer and closer to the distortion pedal”), there seem to be no quiet parts. Come for Nirvana, stay for the story about having a large dinner with Paul McCartney and AC/DC. “Music is History” (Abrams, $30, Oct. 12) by The Roots’ Questlove, is a clever kind of memoir. He selects a favorite song from each of the past 50 years, but mostly as a prompt, careening through current events and personal history, wrapping together literature and social movements in surprising ways. (Yes, Stevie Wonder is here, but so is Al Jarreau.) “Major Labels: A History of Popular Music in Seven Genres” (Penguin, $28, Oct. 5) is the New Yorker writer Kelefa Sanneh’s charming stroll through our sometimes useful, sometimes debilitating compartmentalizing of sounds. The point is not another survey of familiar classics, but rather, a far more ambitious consideration of how styles fuse and expand — in ways audiences often aren’t comfortable accepting. Even more adventurous (and overdue): Joseph Horowitz’s “Dvorak’s Prophecy and the Vexed Fate of Black Classical Music” (Norton, $30, Nov. 9), a cultural history of Black composing, an inquiry into why classical music stayed white and an argument for the future of music. Having said that: “Led Zeppelin: The Biography” (Penguin, $35, Nov. 9), by Beatles biographer Bob Spitz, glides past the rowdy fun of past histories for something more authoritative, a touch squarer but ultimately big and definitive. It finds room for both the hedonistic superstar cruelty and a well-researched appreciation.

My next favorite sub-sub genre? Horror. Again, can’t explain it. Like music books, the bad stuff outweighs the insightful, or compelling, or just coherent. Luckily, I hear, we live in horrible times, and horror has lots of material to work with. One of the buzziest of buzz books is “Reprieve” (Morrow, $28, Oct. 5), by James Han Mattson, who knows a thing about subverting genre. Nothing haunted here, just a killing in a Midwestern haunted attraction that spirals into a trial, the politics of horror itself and the long reach of complicity. “No Gods, No Monsters” (Blackstone, $27), a masterful start of a fantasy trilogy by Cadwell Turnbull, begins with a Black man shot by police, then remarkably remains a human story about identity, even as the killing unleashes something new: Mythical monsters began clawing out of the shadows — looking for room in society. “The Thing Between Us” (FSG, $17, Oct. 12), Chicago-native Gus Moreno’s powerful first novel, is what we call cosmic horror — meaning, eventually, an existential dread, far beyond ordinary fear. Which is kind of funny to write considering it’s also a story about a Chicago widower whose Alexa-like smart speaker displays HAL-like homicidal tendencies. Right up there with Stephen Graham Jones, whose accomplished tales of terror told in changing Native American communities, continue with “My Heart is a Chainsaw” (Saga, $27), a love letter to slasher films, about a young Idaho girl who fears mass slaughter coming to her rapidly gentrifying small town. I haven’t seen a smarter novel on colonialism in ages.

The old line about fall is that it’s a season of ideas, and certainly, unless you go to school on a beach, don’t drag “The Transcendentalists and Their World” (FSG, $40, Nov. 9) there. Robert Gross — best known for his 1976 history of American Revolution, “The Minutemen and Their World” — returns with a magisterial, sprawling portrait of the corners of 19th-century America that fostered a revolution of thinking about individualism and democracy. It’s an engrossing study of radical ideas reaching everyday people. Teju Cole’s “Black Paper: Writing in a Dark Time” (University of Chicago Press, $22.50, Oct. 22), partly springing from his lectures at the University of Chicago, loosely organized around thoughts on blackness — as color, as aesthetic — has a similar boundless reach, covering memoir, Caravaggio, Kerry James Marshall. “On Freedom: Four Songs of Care and Constraint” (Graywolf, $27) is the welcome return of Maggie Nelson, this time tackling the uses, misuses and briars of meaning around an idea that a lot of people easily define but rarely follow through to uncomfortable, contradictory ends. Nelson once again — as she has with cruelty, pregnancy, loneliness — collapses a mountain of thought into a digestible argument that leaves you feeling just a bit smarter. If all of this sounds kind of like a downer: Harvard psychology professor Steven Pinker has made a career of thoughtful positivity. His latest, “Rationality” (Viking, $32), digs in the paradox of our times, how a sophisticated, digital society so easily succumbs to conspiracy theory, anti-vaccination rallies. It’s a touch wonky in spots but also the convincing argument for clear thinking that — wait, what was I saying?

Autumn is always ideal for acclaimed authors who haven’t been around in a while. Gayl Jones (Toni Morrison discovery, National Book Award finalist) returns after 23 years with “Palmares” (Beacon, $28) — supposedly the first of five new books to come in the next couple of years. This one is an old-school epic, about a slave who escapes a Brazilian plantation for a fugitive camp, looking to reunite with her husband — but as with any writer’s writer, the story is more of a framework to explore language. The last novel from Donald Antrim was 21 years ago, and now the harrowing “One Friday in April” (Norton, $25, Oct. 12), a slender memoir about suicide, the way we talk about it — and how a call from David Foster Wallace (who killed himself in 2008) led to treatment. Joy Williams returns to novels after 19 years with “Harrow” (Knopf, $26) — her first since being a Pulitzer finalist for “The Quick and the Dead” — a typically unclassifiable story of a teenager who finds a charred, decrepit resort populated by “an army of the aged and ill,” waiting out the climate apocalypse. But the award for longest wait goes to Nigerian Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka, whose new novel, “Chronicles From the Land of the Happiest People on Earth” (Pantheon, $28, Sept. 28), is his first since 1972. Topic? Corruption. And black-market body farms.

Finally, books about books — or at least writers. In other words, what I’m knee-deep in. Rebecca Solnit, never one to be predictable, returns with “Orwell’s Roses” (Viking, $28, Oct. 19), which draws together the great British essayist’s lesser-known savoring of nature with his legacy of antiauthoritarianism, starting with roses he planted in the 1930s that Solnit somehow found. An engrossing appreciation of how beauty requires ugliness. Colm Toibin’s “The Magician” (Scribner, $28) — whose 2004 “The Master” recounted a fictionalized Henry James — plays a similar trick with Thomas Mann, following the author of “Magic Mountain” on a masterful sprawl across 60 years, from initial fame to exiled ant-fascist. Kevin Birmingham — whose “Ulysses” history “The Most Dangerous Book” never got the audience it deserved — returns with “The Sinner and the Saint” (Penguin, $30, Nov. 9), digging deeply into the true story behind Dostoevsky’s “Crime and Punishment.” For anyone who wants to read more widely but do not have a clue where to start: I can’t think of a more fall book than David Damrosch’s “Around the World in 80 Books” (Penguin, $30, Nov. 9), which reads like the Harvard literature professor’s survey of international literature. (Disclaimer: I was a student in this class.) Actually, wait: here’s the most fall of new fall books. “Between the Lines: Stories From the Underground” (Simon & Schuster, $24, Oct. 26), an addicting smile of a compendium, gathered from Uli Beutter Cohen’s Instagram account Subway Book Review. Simply, she asks people what they’re reading, which leads to a conversation.

The way the world is supposed to work.

cborrelli@chicagotribune.com

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