Valerie's Picks: Fall 2019
Our lead selector of adult books, Valerie, and her team have been hard at work again, combing through the hundreds of new books coming out this fall and placing them in library branches. (To hear more about how they work, listen to this podcast).
Here are the new titles Valerie is most excited about, with her explanations as to why. Place your holds now, before the lists fill up!
Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout
Elizabeth Strout revisits the life and opinions of her most memorable and formidable character with another thirteen linked stories, a follow-up to 2008’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Olive Kitteridge. This is excellent news for those of us who admire Strout’s perceptive and deeply sympathetic portraits of characters, like Olive, whose efforts at self-awareness are thwarted by their own losses and longings, isolation and fear.
The Dutch House by Ann Patchett
In her most recent novel, Commonwealth, Patchett followed 50 years in the lives of two families wrenched apart and reconfigured by the rash actions of the husband in one family and the wife in the other. Her examination of the consequences of this disruption was rich and complex. Her new novel explores similar themes: in 1945 Cyril Conroy purchases a house for his wife – the Dutch House of the title – which she loathes so intensely that she runs away from it, her husband, and their two young children. Over the next five decades, as we watch these children age, Patchett chronicles the ways in which lives become distorted and damaged by the events of the past.
Chances Are by Richard Russo
I have been reading Richard Russo for decades and he always has something important to say about the inner lives of men, many of them working class men. This new novel, his first standalone in ten years, is centered around a reunion on Martha’s Vineyard of three old friends who 45 years earlier had been scholarship students together at a college in Connecticut. The previous time they had convened at this beach house they had been celebrating their graduation and contemplating their uncertain futures. With them then was a young woman, their good friend Jacy, with whom each was secretly in love. But Jacy vanished during that weekend in 1971 and the mystery of her disappearance has haunted them ever since. Russo introduces a bit of a cold-case thriller element to this novel about the different paths life takes us down.
Inland by Téa Obreht
You may remember Téa Obreht from The Tiger’s Wife, her Orange Prize-winning novel set in the Balkans, about the crushing power of myth and memory. Eight years later she is back with a story set in the harsh and unforgiving Arizona Territory of 1893. During a drought, Nora’s husband goes off in search of water, leaving Nora and her family in an increasingly perilous situation. Intersecting with her story is that of Lurie Mattie, a Balkans-born outlaw who is fleeing a warrant for murder. Early reviews for this are ecstatic.
Frankissstein by Jeanette Winterson
The fictional preoccupations of writers mirror the preoccupations and disturbances of the culture in which they live. That’s why I am so interested in reading Jeanette Winterson’s new novel – a reimagining of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein for our time – about artificial intelligence and gender fluidity. In the novel we move backward and forward in time, encountering Mary Shelley and her circle of literary expats in early 19th century Geneva as well as TED-talking tech visionary and professor Victor Stein in 2019 London. Victor does more than talk about alternative life forms; he is involved in experiments ranging from AI to cryogenics. Half of the novel is narrated by Ry, a transgender medic who is supplying Stein with body parts for his lab experiments. It sounds like there will be plenty of humour and cleverness in this novel that concerns itself with the most serious of issues: nothing less than the redefinition of humanity itself.
The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates
I am really looking forward to reading this first novel by Coates, one of America’s most important writers and the author of Between the World and Me, which won the National Book Award for Non-fiction. Water Dancer is the story of Hiram Walker, born on a Virginia plantation, the son of a slave woman and the plantation’s owner, who possesses both an extraordinary memory and an unsettling ability see visions of another world beyond this one. Seeking a life far away from the horrors of slavery, he becomes involved in a secret network of agents working to free slaves. Sounds like this will be fiction at its best: savage, beautifully written, and necessary.
Girl by Edna O’Brien
The oppression of women has always been an important subject in Edna O’Brien’s work. Her most recent novel, the harrowing The Little Red Chairs, and her memoir Country Girl (recently named one of the New York Times Book Review’s fifty best memoirs of the past fifty years) are cases in point. Her new novel tells, in the character's own voice, the heartbreaking story of a girl kidnapped in Nigeria by Boko Haram.
Quichotte by Salman Rushdie
After The Golden House, Salman Rushdie is on something of a roll and, really, how could he not be? This particular moment in history has supplied him with a generous bounty of craziness to satirize, its freakish excesses perfectly reflected in the wild extravagance and exuberance of his storytelling style. In this contemporary retelling of Don Quixote, an aging pharmaceutical salesman reinvents himself as Quichotte and sets off on a quest – one that takes him through the bigotry, fake news, Fentanyl, and obsession-with-fame that is Trumpland America – to meet a television actress named Miss Salma R.
Right After the Weather by Carol Anshaw
I admired Carol Anshaw’s previous novel, Carry the One, for the astute and compassionate way that she examined life in the aftermath of a tragedy. In this new book she constructs a similar scenario: Cate, still unsettled in her early 40s but nonetheless making her uncertain way through life, comes into unexpected contact with Nathan and Irene, psychopaths, drug addicts and small-time criminals. In order to protect herself and her friend, she is forced to commit a previously unthinkable act of violence, and finds that, afterwards, her life has been utterly altered.
World That We Knew by Alice Hoffman
I have a hit-and-miss relationship with the fiction of Alice Hoffman. Some of her books are just too magical for my taste and require way more suspension of disbelief than I can muster. However, she has written novels that are unforgettable and this one sounds like a stunner. Hanni Kohn, terrified and trapped in 1941 Berlin, is desperate to save her daughter Lea from the Nazis. So she asks the daughter of a celebrated rabbi to create and animate Eva, a powerful and mystical golem who will be Lea’s friend and protector. We then follow these three courageous young women – Lea, Eva, and Ettie – as they escape to France and to their separate, desperate fates.
Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid
A propulsive and snappy debut that takes on all kinds of zeitgeist issues: gender, class, race, youth and white privilege. Alix Chamberlain is a well-meaning and successful white woman whose two young daughters are cared for by Emira, their young Black babysitter. One evening Emira is at the neighbourhood upscale grocery store with one of her charges when she is accused by a white security guard of kidnapping the child. Naturally, the incident is captured on film. Emira is furious and Alix is determined to make things right. Smart and nuanced social commentary.
More incisive social commentary with these two interesting-sounding novels. Both feature Amazon-like mega-corporations, and both are set in a plausible and scarily recognizable near-future where these corporations – and the algorithms that power them – control every aspect of people’s lives. In QualityLand it’s called TheShop, and it knows what you want, and delivers it to you, before you even know that you want it. But what if it sends you something that you don’t want? What does that say about the algorithm and the society on which it is based? In The Warehouse, an online store called Cloud controls all retail sales as well as the labour market, forcing everyone to live, work and consume within its network of massive warehouses. For readers of Dave Eggers’s The Circle.
The Grammarians by Cathleen Schine
The grammarians of the title are Laurel and Daphne Wolfe, identical, language-obsessed twins, whose early life of effortless affinity and harmony is later ruptured by their different attitudes to the changeability of the English language. Daphne believes the rules of grammar should be immutable while Laurel sees wondrousness in its endless mutations … and now both are claiming the family heirloom: Merriam Webster’s New International Dictionary, Second Edition. Schine always writes wryly observant and wise books about the way families fracture and heal.
There are so many great Canadian novels being published this fall that deciding which to feature was almost impossible. Among the riches to choose from:
- The Testaments, Margaret Atwood’s much-anticipated sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale.
- Akin, Emma Donoghue’s first contemporary novel since Room.
- Wagers, Sean Michaels’ follow-up to his Scotiabank Giller Prize-winning Us Conductors, a surprising and magical look at the randomness of luck.
- The Innocents, a novel by Michael Crummey about an orphaned brother and sister living in alone in an isolated Newfoundland cove.
- Delhi Obsession by M.G. Vassanji, about an impossible love affair involving a recent widower from Toronto making his first visit to Delhi.
I am looking forward to reading all of these books! But here are four of my personal Canadian highlights:
The Difference by Marina Endicott
In her novel Good to a Fault, Endicott pondered the question of what it means to be good and wondered at what point being good veers into selfishness. In this new one she questions whether the differences we see between ourselves and other humans (those with different customs, cultures and assumptions), and between ourselves and other species, are real or merely constructed. Based on a true incident, the story takes place aboard a ship sailing to the South Pacific in 1912, but the morally complex issues are as relevant now as they were then.
Five Wives by Joan Thomas
I loved Thomas’s fictional recreation of the life of British dinosaur fossil hunter Mary Anning in her wonderful novel Curiosity. In this new one she has tasked herself with imagining the lives and struggles of five women, the actual wives of five slain missionaries who ventured with their families into the rainforests of Ecuador in search of souls to save. After the men are killed by the Waorani, the very people they had intended to convert, the women choose to stay and continue their evangelical mission. Plenty of meaty issues here: patriarchy, cultural and religious imperialism, faith and Indigeneity.
Watching You Without Me by Lynn Coady
From the always distinctive Coady comes something a bit different – a creepy literary suspense novel that questions our own motivations and the motivations of others. After the sudden death of her mother, Karen is called back to her childhood home in Nova Scotia to look after her developmentally disabled older sister. Consumed by grief and guilt, unhappy with the sudden isolation of her new and unchosen life, she comes to rely on Trevor, one of her sister’s support workers, whose motivations she does not entirely understand and whose “care” comes at a sinister cost.
Empire of Wild by Cherie Dimaline
Author of the multi-award winning and mega-bestselling teen novel The Marrow Thieves, this is Cherie Dimaline’s first book written for adults. And it sounds spectacular. Inspired by a traditional Metis story about a werewolf-like creature, the novel opens with Joan searching for her husband Victor, who disappeared after an argument almost a year ago. In a small town near Georgian Bay, the local Metis have been flocking to see a charismatic preacher named Eugene Wolff. When Joan enters the revival tent where Wolff is preaching, the voice she hears is her husband’s. But Wolff maintains that he is not Victor. Who is Eugene Wolff and what is his mission?
Talking to Strangers by Malcolm Gladwell
In his new book, Gladwell focuses his considerable curiosity and intellect on figuring out how people try and usually fail to accurately assess the trustworthiness of strangers. Referencing scientific research and fresh-off-the-front-pages examples, and writing with his usual liveliness and flair, Gladwell sets out to disprove all of our assumptions about how we read the motivations and emotions of others.
The Body: A Guide for Occupants by Bill Bryson
From the incomparable Bryson comes a whimsical and informative head-to-toe tour of the human body.
McGonigal is a health psychologist and lecturer at Stanford University. In two previous books – The Upside of Stress and The Willpower Instinct – she turned ideas from psychology, biology and neuroscience into practical and attainable strategies that support health and wellbeing. She does this again in her new book, affirming the importance of movement to a fulfilled, connected and contented life.
There are so many interesting life stories being published this fall that picking just a few was tough. Here are seven of my most anticipated memoirs:
Truth Be Told by Beverley McLachlin
As the first woman and longest-serving Chief Justice in Canadian history, Beverley McLachlin contributed fundamentally to shaping Canadian legal and social policy. Her memoir is at the top of my reading list.
Wild Game by Adrienne Brodeur
From the your-mother-did-what? school of memoir comes this unbelievable story of complicity and its consequences. At the age of 14, Adrienne found herself coopted by her mother into acting as a confidante and accessory to the affair she was having with her husband’s best friend.
Best known for her fiction, Nova Scotia writer Ami McKay brings us the compelling story of her family’s genetic inheritance. In a Canadian version of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, McKay reveals that research into her family’s cancer genealogy eventually led to the identification of the genetic mutation, now known as Lynch Syndrome, responsible for the many early deaths in her family. A genetic test of Lynch Syndrome is now available and Ami has tested positive. A fascinating story of personal and scientific discovery.
Travel Light, Move Fast by Alexandra Fuller
From the author of three much-admired memoirs (Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness, and Leaving Before the Rains Come) comes a fourth, this one a tribute to her father. Written with her customary grace and intelligence, this is a welcome continuation to her wonderful series of books about her family.
To Speak for the Trees: My Life’s Journey from Ancient Celtic Wisdom to a Healing Vision of the Forest by Diana Beresford-Kroeger
One of my favourite books from last year was Richard Powers’s perspective-changing novel The Overstory, which turned the secret life of trees into literature. One of the main characters in that story, the tree researcher Patricia Westerford, is based on the life and work of Canadian botanist and biochemist Diana Beresford-Kroeger. She also served as the inspiration for one of the characters in Barkskins by Annie Proulx, who has called her “one of the least known but most important people on the planet”. That’s a pretty great endorsement for a woman whose life’s work has led her to the illuminating conclusion that forests can heal both us and our planet.
Education of an Idealist: A Memoir by Samantha Power
Another memoir by another fascinating and admirable woman: Samantha Power – war correspondent, human rights activist, Pulitzer Prize-winner and former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations.
Life Undercover: Coming of Age in the CIA by Amaryllis Fox
Inspired to seek a master’s degree in conflict and terrorism at Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service after the killing of her writing mentor Daniel Pearl, Fox was then recruited by the CIA at age 22 to join their elite Clandestine Service. Working undercover as an art dealer specializing in tribal and Indigenous art, she was sent to infiltrate terrorist networks throughout the Middle East. By all accounts this is sensational, a true life espionage novel, gripping and beautifully written.
Some books that may help to illuminate the world we live in
Kochland: The Secret History of Koch Industries and Corporate Power in America by Christopher Leonard
A revelatory investigation into the highly secretive corporate industrial giant Koch Industries, whose annual revues are larger than Goldman Sachs, Facebook, and U.S. Steel combined, and into the life and activities of its CEO, Charles Koch, whose libertarian ideology and political donations have made him the godfather of the Republican right.
She Said: Breaking the Sexual Harassment Story that Helped Ignite a Movement by Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey
Written by the New York Times reporters who broke the news of Harvey Weinstein’s sexual harassment and abuse, here is the story of that investigation and its aftermath.
Civilized to Death: The Price of Progress by Christopher Ryan
In his previous book, Sex at Dawn, Christopher Ryan challenged conventional thinking about sex, marriage, and monogamy by examining the prehistoric origins of human sexual behaviour. In this new book he presents a similarly provocative thesis: before we conclude that progress and our modern civilization is inherently good we should at least have an understanding of our species’ pre-civilized life. A sure-to-be controversial look at what has been gained – and lost – in the journey to modernity.
I am looking forward to having Megham Daum, author of several witty and perceptive collections of essays, be my guide to the culture wars currently dominating so much of public discourse. In this new collection she promises “clear-eyed honesty instead of exaggerated outrage” which sounds about right.
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What books are you looking forward to for the fall? Let us know in the comments!