In the publishing world, fall means Big Books. The ones that will win awards, the ones that will sell a gazillion copies, the shocking memoir, the hotly-anticipated follow-up novel. This fall, there is a particularly strong crop of new releases. (And don’t take my word for it – even the New York Times said so.) Most years I know by Halloween what I’ll be reading around Thanksgiving, and what I’ll be giving as Christmas gifts, but this fall I was finding it particularly tough to choose. So I waited for some reviews to come in, got some recommendations from a few friends with impeccable literary taste, and made my selections. Here are my picks for the top five books I’ll be reading this fall and why:
1) The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers. This debut novel by a former Iraq machine gunner charts the experiences of two soldiers struggling to stay alive in the battle for Al Tafa, Iraq. The book has been accumulating some stellar reviews, plus the glowing blurbs on the jacket come from some of my favorite authors (Ann Patchett, for one, calls it “harrowing, inexplicably beautiful, and utterly, urgently necessary “). Something in me fears this one may be over-hyped but I’m giving it an enthusiastic go. Plus, he dedicated it to his wife, which I can’t help but love. It’s already on my nightstand.
2) Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain. This book tracks a few hours in the life of Bravo Company, a group of soldiers home for a victory tour after a devastating battle in Iraq leaves one of them dead and the rest of them heroes. This was originally published in May, but the paperback is coming out in November and the whole book takes place over the course of a football game, which certainly says autumn to me, so I’m counting this as a fall book. This was just named a National Book Award finalist and, having read the first few pages, I know why. Ben Fountain writes some stellar, knock-you-out sentences. Listen to this: “ ‘What were you doing during the battle?’ the pretty TV reporter in Tulsa asked, and Billy tried. God knows he tried, he never stops trying, but it keeps slipping and sliding, corkscrewing away, the thing of it, the it, the ineffable whatever.” Even though two war books in one season is a lot for me, this is definitely on my top 5 list.
3) NW: A Novel by Zadie Smith. NW refers to the postal code for Northwest London, the setting for this novel about four characters who grew up in the same housing project. This one has had mixed reviews. Anne Enright, writing in the New York Times, called it “radical and passionate and real” but Adam Mars-Smith in the Guardian said it “falls far short of a successful novel”. The Amazon and Goodreads reviews I’ve read have been similarly conflicted. Why then am I putting this on my list? Because Zadie Smith is always inventive, always challenging. After White Teeth and On Beauty, I’d probably pay to read her grocery list.
4) The Orchardist by Amanda Coplin. This debut novel set in eastern Washington tells the story of William Talmadge, a gentle, solitary man who finds two pregnant girls stealing apples from his orchard. From there unfolds a novel of love, loss, and what it means to be a family. Despite what sounds to me like a depressing premise (abused girls, lonely old men…), I’m eager to dive into this one. The reviews say Coplin’s writing is stellar and I have a serious soft spot for first-time novelists. Plus, I love a local connection – Coplin grew up in Washington state and now lives in Portland, OR so she’s practically my neighbor.
5) For number five, I’ve been struggling. There are so many great new books to choose from: Bring up the Bodies, by Hilary Mantel? Maybe, but I haven’t read Wolf Hall yet… This is How You Lose Her, by Junot Diaz? Maybe, but I’ve already read those New Yorker stories and isn’t that kinda the whole book…? Josef Anton: A Memoir by Salman Rushdie? Maybe, but – it’s 650 pages long! 650 pages! And then there’s the no-brainer, the long-awaited, hotly-anticipated, must-be-great, grown-up novel from JK Rowling. Of course! Casual Vacancy. But, horror of horrors, isn’t it supposed to be kind of… dull?
So, after much deliberation (drum roll, please), I’m picking Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver as my fifth book for fall. Why? Primarily because I’ve loved her books since I was in high school, but I’m also interested to see how she turns an issue-driven plot (about climate change) into a great story. Because, with Barbara Kingsolver, I know it will be a great story.
What are your picks for fall reading?