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Editors’ Picks: Books We’re Falling For

The new books our staffers are loving this autumn.

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Image from Flickr via amelien

Tis the season: the leaves are turning colors and the pumpkin spice latte wars rage on. Wherever you fall on the divisive issue of cinnamon-gourd espresso drinks, we can all agree this fall is a terrific season for books. Here are some of our new favorites.

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Fourteen Stories, None of Them Are Yours, by Luke B. Goebel

Luke B. Goebel’s Fourteen Stories, None of Them Are Yours is a thrill ride you take on a dare: it has frenzied highs and lows—and a carny at the controls. Fourteen Stories (which is actually a novel, with thirteen standalone chapters, but we’ll just leave that alone) is a beautiful blur, the way Burroughs can be. It’s a trip across the country that includes an illegal bald eagle and a stoner barista. It has dog wrestling. It deals with loss. In the end, this novel is about damaged characters causing damage, and everyday people trying to fix their lives. Fourteen Stories has an On the Road vibe, along with some Denis Johnson and maybe a bit of Chris Offutt. The Beats might have written this if they’d arrived during our age of drones.

—Meakin Armstrong, Fiction Editor

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On Immunity, by Eula Biss

I can’t stop thinking about Eula Biss’s book-length essay On Immunity. The content is fascinating: the cool/gross history of inoculation, Biss’s own anxieties about vaccinating her child, stories of anti-vaccine crusaders from our current moment and others, and discussions of immunity viewed through the lenses of (I swear this works) capitalism and Dracula. She incorporates the ideas of Susan Sontag and Carl Zimmer into her prose with the same ease. Even better than the information she’s collected, though, is the new type of text Biss has created. On Immunity is a history, a personal narrative, ultimately a powerful argument that reads, the whole time, like a poem. The book’s tone is so gentle and pleasant that you hardly realize you are being persuaded of something, but by the end you will contain new wisdom about bodies and community, and in this way the book earns its subtitle: an inoculation.

—Rachel Riederer, Daily Editor

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Prelude to Bruise, by Saeed Jones (Coffee House Press)

While poems about childhood are nothing new, this collection is a rare sort of bildungsroman (a bildungspoem?). We watch the boy wrestle with his identity and cheer for him when he’s “punching a hole / to daylight” in “Boy Found Inside a Wolf.” But there are no easy victories, and the poems swoop back to the struggle of growing up black and gay. That struggle is a brutal one, punctuated by knives, fists, flames, and waters. And yet, however often he wishes for the release of death, the boy survives, becomes a man. This powerful collection feels at times like a blow to the throat, but when we recover, the air is sweeter for having been absent.

—Erica Wright, Poetry Editor

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Tales of Two Cities, edited by John Freeman

OR Books’s collection of short fiction and essays explores the iniquities in America’s financial and cultural capital. Edited by former Granta editor John Freeman and illustrated by Molly Crabapple, the anthology features literary lions including Zadie Smith, Colum McCann, and Junot Díaz, as well as new voices such as Bill Cheng, Maria Venegas, and 15-year-old Chaasadahyah Jackson. To me, the most memorable piece is Smith’s, whose tragicomic “Miss Adele Amidst the Corsets” follows an aging trans woman who fails to find solace in a lingerie boutique and beyond. Remarkable, too, is Sarah Jaffe’s indignant reportage on a tenants’ rights struggle in Brooklyn and a personal essay by Tim Freeman on how Manhattan seduced him, then landed him in a homeless shelter. It’s a bristling portrayal of New York in the tradition of Jacob Riis.

—Grace Bello, Interviews Editor

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The Seasons of Trouble: Life Amid the Ruins of Sri Lanka’s Civil War, by Rohini Mohan

It’s been five years since Sri Lanka’s thirty-year civil war ended, and author Rohini Mohan has spent them interviewing state and child soldiers, and grieving mothers, to understand the daily devastation that still takes its toll on the civilians half a decade after the Tamil Tigers were defeated. Using three lives—an abducted son, a searching mother, and a child soldier—Mohan gets close enough to show the unraveling of not only a people but individuals and families. Instead of quick portraits, we get to see entire narratives such as the fifteen-year career arc Mohan exquisitely depicts of a soldier who willfully enlistments as a child only to become disillusioned as her own children become endangered. The thorough reportage allows for minutiae so detailed that I had to Google the book twice to make sure the ornate narratives weren’t, in fact, fiction. Nothing fabricated here, though, as Mohan combines years of superb journalism with a novelist’s touch to give a vividly brutal and beautiful look at humans surviving the still-violent aftermath of a civil war.

—David Foote, Editorial Assistant

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Citizen: An American Lyric, by Claudia Rankine

Through deceptively simple prose poems interspersed with lineated explorations, Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric fillets race relations today and over past generations. Unafraid to engage directly with current events, from James Craig Anderson’s murder to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Rankine does not spare the reader, implicating and involving her with every line. As in her other work, Rankine pointedly draws on visual art to support and expand her poetry, though her diction is impeccable in its attack on the constraints and betrayals of language itself. The moments that feed her poetry are incisive and intimate, but form a string of synecdochic incidents: tennis players and hoodie-wearing boys taken as emblematic members of a population fighting back against marginalization and invisibility in a world that questions even that assessment. In a moment when color-blindness is a privilege, Citizen’s pages—more white space than black text—demand that the reader see in color to explore the still-relevant themes of identity, judgment, and power via sports, history, and personal lament.

—Maria Napolitano, Editorial Intern

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A Cup of Water Under My Bed, by Daisy Hernandez

While Daisy Hernandez is reporting for the New York Times Metro desk, nodding numbly as her middle-class coworkers cluck about welfare reform and gritting her teeth at the disparity between headline stories and the people who’ve lived them, her father sits in his Jersey basement drinking beer and listening to the radio. As the oldest child in a working-class Cuban-Colombian family, Hernandez’s future was “always plural,” with the expectation that she’d move everyone up—parents, sister, and three opinionated aunties. But here’s the sharp slap of assimilation: as a friend told her, “You betray your parents if you don’t become like them, and you betray them if you do.” Leaving Spanish for English, going to college so she can pay rent “and not doing it by working at a factory or cleaning toilets,” Hernandez feels like she’s escaped a burning building, but also feels the loss of leaving her family behind. (And their marriage aspirations—a white man with a college degree—definitely don’t include dating women.) NAFTA means layoffs at the textile factories where her parents work, and reporting on the murder of a transgender woman of color hits close to home. This heartbreaking, wish-I-had-this-when-I-was-growing-up debut mixes prose you can taste with memoir, narrative, and social criticism in a way that’s necessary and reflective of real life.

—Lisa Ko, Fiction Reader

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Loitering, by Charles d’Ambrosio

“Something in the nature of the personal essay must have instructed me,” Charles D’Ambrosio writes in his introduction to Loitering. The first essays he loved included pieces by M.F.K. Fisher, Joan Didion, George Orwell, and Susan Sontag. “I must have needed that sort of close attachment,” he writes. “That guidance, the voice holding steady in the face of doubt, the flawed man revealing his flaws, the outspoken woman simply saying … Essays were the work of equals, confiding, uncertain, solitary, free, and even the best of them had an unfinished feel, a tentative note, that made them approachable.”

We may or may not be living through a golden age for the essay—any question containing the word “golden” should probably be treated with a certain suspicion—but recent collections by Leslie Jamison, Roxane Gay, and now D’Ambrosio, have been invigorating and surprising. What makes each writer so special? Perhaps their willingness to question themselves—to open up their writing to so many uncertainties and simply hold those uncertainties there on the page, resisting the urge toward easy resolutions.

D’Ambrosio is a masterful writer. The essays in Loitering, brought to us by Tin House Books, are candid, playful, funny, and often wrenching. Whether writing of the suicide of his brother, of empty city streets, or of press hysteria in the face of sexual scandal, his eye for detail is alarming. When the author tells us toward the end of the book that he has “a weather eye for misery,” and doesn’t “see happiness or goodness as well as [he] should,” he forgets the joy that is here on every page of his collection–in the sentences, the commas, the full-stops.

–Jonathan Lee, Contributing Editor

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St. Paul: A Screenplay, by Pier Paolo Pasolini, translated by Elizabeth Castelli

It’s been 39 years since Pier Paolo Pasolini’s mysterious murder—he was repeatedly run over with his own car on a beach near Rome in 1975—but the Italian’s mark on poetry, journalism, literature, and film remains profound and indelible. His Oedipus Rex (Edipo Re) continues to haunt. But it’s another film project that is the subject of a new gem of a translation, St. Paul: A Screenplay, by Elizabeth Castelli, professor of Religion at Barnard College. St. Paul was never filmed and the screenplay has not been translated into English until now.

Pasolini often rendered literary myths and religious figures–Arabian Nights, The Canterbury Tales, The Gospel According to St. Matthew—in film, “resituating these classics and the very notion of the canonical within some sort of (inevitably radical) commentary on his own social, cultural, and political worlds,” writes Castelli. St. Paul’s writings have been the subject of much philosophical attention in the past few years. With this new translation, Castelli, a biblical scholar and classicist, brings Pasolini’s version of Paul, convert and founder of the Christian church, into that conversation as a necessary ballast. Pasolini’s Paul is not only an institution builder but also an institution wrecker, identifying the church’s own stagnant orthodoxies and critiquing New York and the Western world’s unchecked capitalism.

Don’t pick up this little pink book for Alain Badiou’s foreword—it’s dense and hard to read—but for Castelli’s astute introduction and crisp translation of this surprisingly contemporary screenplay by Pasolini.

—Ann Neumann, Contributing Editor

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