From Ben Lerner’s The Topeka School to Tressie McMillan Cottom’s Thick and Jia Tolentino’s Trick Mirror, check out our bookstore’s top sellers from October.
The Topeka School
By Ben Lerner
Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Adam Gordon is a senior at Topeka High School, class of ’97. His mother, Jane, is a famous feminist author; his father, Jonathan, is an expert at getting “lost boys” to open up. They both work at a psychiatric clinic that has attracted staff and patients from around the world. Adam is a renowned debater, expected to win a national championship before he heads to college. He is one of the cool kids, ready to fight or, better, freestyle about fighting if it keeps his peers from thinking of him as weak. Adam is also one of the seniors who bring the loner Darren Eberheart—who is, unbeknownst to Adam, his father’s patient—into the social scene, to disastrous effect.
Deftly shifting perspectives and time periods, The Topeka School is the story of a family, its struggles and its strengths: Jane’s reckoning with the legacy of an abusive father, Jonathan’s marital transgressions, the challenge of raising a good son in a culture of toxic masculinity. It is also a riveting prehistory of the present: the collapse of public speech, the trolls and tyrants of the New Right, and the ongoing crisis of identity among white men.
The Water Dancer
By Ta-Nehisi Coates
Published by Random House
Young Hiram Walker was born into bondage. When his mother was sold away, Hiram was robbed of all memory of her—but was gifted with a mysterious power. Years later, when Hiram almost drowns in a river, that same power saves his life. This brush with death births an urgency in Hiram and a daring scheme: to escape from the only home he’s ever known.
So begins an unexpected journey that takes Hiram from the corrupt grandeur of Virginia’s proud plantations to desperate guerrilla cells in the wilderness, from the coffin of the Deep South to dangerously idealistic movements in the North. Even as he’s enlisted in the underground war between slavers and the enslaved, Hiram’s resolve to rescue the family he left behind endures.
This is the dramatic story of an atrocity inflicted on generations of women, men, and children—the violent and capricious separation of families—and the war they waged to simply make lives with the people they loved. Written by one of today’s most exciting thinkers and writers, The Water Dancer is a propulsive, transcendent work that restores the humanity of those from whom everything was stolen.2 .
On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous
By Ocean Vuong
Published by Penguin Press
On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is a letter from a son to a mother who cannot read. Written when the speaker, Little Dog, is in his late twenties, the letter unearths a family’s history that began before he was born — a history whose epicenter is rooted in Vietnam — and serves as a doorway into parts of his life his mother has never known, all of it leading to an unforgettable revelation. At once a witness to the fraught yet undeniable love between a single mother and her son, it is also a brutally honest exploration of race, class, and masculinity. Asking questions central to our American moment, immersed as we are in addiction, violence, and trauma, but undergirded by compassion and tenderness, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is as much about the power of telling one’s own story as it is about the obliterating silence of not being heard.
With stunning urgency and grace, Ocean Vuong writes of people caught between disparate worlds, and asks how we heal and rescue one another without forsaking who we are. The question of how to survive, and how to make of it a kind of joy, powers the most important debut novel of many years.
Conversations with Friends
By Sally Rooney
Published by Crown/Archetype
Frances is a coolheaded and darkly observant young woman, vaguely pursuing a career in writing while studying in Dublin. Her best friend is the beautiful and endlessly self-possessed Bobbi. At a local poetry performance one night, they meet a well-known photographer, and as the girls are then gradually drawn into her world, Frances is reluctantly impressed by the older woman’s sophisticated home and handsome husband, Nick. But however amusing Frances and Nick’s flirtation seems at first, it begins to give way to a strange—and then painful—intimacy.
Written with gemlike precision and marked by a sly sense of humor, Conversations with Friends is wonderfully alive to the pleasures and dangers of youth, and the messy edges of female friendship.4 .
By Olga Tokarczuk
Published by Riverhead
From the incomparably original Polish writer Olga Tokarczuk, Flights interweaves reflections on travel with an in-depth exploration of the human body, broaching life, death, motion, and migration. Chopin’s heart is carried back to Warsaw in secret by his adoring sister. A woman must return to her native Poland in order to poison her terminally ill high school sweetheart, and a young man slowly descends into madness when his wife and child mysteriously vanish during a vacation and just as suddenly reappear. Through these brilliantly imagined characters and stories, interwoven with haunting, playful, and revelatory meditations, Flights explores what it means to be a traveler, a wanderer, a body in motion not only through space but through time. Where are you from? Where are you coming in from? Where are you going? we call to the traveler. Enchanting, unsettling, and wholly original, Flights is a master storyteller’s answer.
The Dutch House
By Ann Patchett
Published by HarperCollins
At the end of the Second World War, Cyril Conroy combines luck and a single canny investment to begin an enormous real estate empire, propelling his family from poverty to enormous wealth. His first order of business is to buy the Dutch House, a lavish estate in the suburbs outside of Philadelphia. Meant as a surprise for his wife, the house sets in motion the undoing of everyone he loves.
The story is told by Cyril’s son Danny, as he and his older sister, the brilliantly acerbic and self-assured Maeve, are exiled from the house where they grew up by their stepmother. The two wealthy siblings are thrown back into the poverty their parents had escaped from and find that all they have to count on is one another. It is this unshakeable bond between them that both saves their lives and thwarts their futures.
Set over the course of five decades, The Dutch House is a dark fairy tale about two smart people who cannot overcome their past. Despite every outward sign of success, Danny and Maeve are only truly comfortable when they’re together. Throughout their lives they return to the well-worn story of what they’ve lost with humor and rage. But when at last they’re forced to confront the people who left them behind, the relationship between an indulged brother and his ever-protective sister is finally tested.6 .
By Margaret Atwood
Published by Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
More than fifteen years after the events of The Handmaid’s Tale, the theocratic regime of the Republic of Gilead maintains its grip on power, but there are signs it is beginning to rot from within. At this crucial moment, the lives of three radically different women converge, with potentially explosive results.
Two have grown up as part of the first generation to come of age in the new order. The testimonies of these two young women are joined by a third: Aunt Lydia. Her complex past and uncertain future unfold in surprising and pivotal ways.
With The Testaments, Margaret Atwood opens up the innermost workings of Gilead, as each woman is forced to come to terms with who she is, and how far she will go for what she believes.
My Sister, the Serial Killer
By Oyinkan Braithwaite
Published by Anchor
Korede’s sister Ayoola is many things: the favorite child, the beautiful one, possibly sociopathic. And now Ayoola’s third boyfriend in a row is dead, stabbed through the heart with Ayoola’s knife. Korede’s practicality is the sisters’ saving grace. She knows the best solutions for cleaning blood (bleach, bleach, and more bleach), the best way to move a body (wrap it in sheets like a mummy), and she keeps Ayoola from posting pictures to Instagram when she should be mourning her “missing” boyfriend. Not that she gets any credit.
Korede has long been in love with a kind, handsome doctor at the hospital where she works. She dreams of the day when he will realize that she’s exactly what he needs. But when he asks Korede for Ayoola’s phone number, she must reckon with what her sister has become and how far she’s willing to go to protect her.8 .
Talking to Strangers
By Malcolm Gladwell
Published by Little, Brown and Company
How did Fidel Castro fool the CIA for a generation? Why did Neville Chamberlain think he could trust Adolf Hitler? Why are campus sexual assaults on the rise? Do television sitcoms teach us something about the way we relate to each other that isn’t true?
While tackling these questions, Malcolm Gladwell was not solely writing a book for the page. He was also producing for the ear. In the audiobook version of Talking to Strangers, you’ll hear the voices of people he interviewed–scientists, criminologists, military psychologists. Court transcripts are brought to life with re-enactments. You actually hear the contentious arrest of Sandra Bland by the side of the road in Texas. As Gladwell revisits the deceptions of Bernie Madoff, the trial of Amanda Knox, and the suicide of Sylvia Plath, you hear directly from many of the players in these real-life tragedies. There’s even a theme song – Janelle Monae’s “Hell You Talmbout.”
Something is very wrong, Gladwell argues, with the tools and strategies we use to make sense of people we don’t know. And because we don’t know how to talk to strangers, we are inviting conflict and misunderstanding in ways that have a profound effect on our lives and our world.
By Tressie McMillan Cottom
Published by The New Press
In eight highly praised treatises on beauty, media, money, and more, Tressie McMillan Cottom—award-winning professor and acclaimed author of Lower Ed—is unapologetically “thick”: deemed “thick where I should have been thin, more where I should have been less,” McMillan Cottom refuses to shy away from blending the personal with the political, from bringing her full self and voice to the fore of her analytical work. Thick “transforms narrative moments into analyses of whiteness, black misogyny, and status-signaling as means of survival for black women” (Los Angeles Review of Books) with “writing that is as deft as it is amusing” (Darnell L. Moore).
This “transgressive, provocative, and brilliant” (Roxane Gay) collection cements McMillan Cottom’s position as a public thinker capable of shedding new light on what the “personal essay” can do. She turns her chosen form into a showcase for her critical dexterity, investigating everything from Saturday Night Live, LinkedIn, and BBQ Becky to sexual violence, infant mortality, and Trump rallies.
Collected in an indispensable volume that speaks to the everywoman and the erudite alike, these unforgettable essays never fail to be “painfully honest and gloriously affirming” and hold “a mirror to your soul and to that of America” (Dorothy Roberts).10 .
Trick Mirror (tie)
By Jia Tolentino
Published by Random House
Jia Tolentino is a peerless voice of her generation, tackling the conflicts, contradictions, and sea changes that define us and our time. Now, in this dazzling collection of nine entirely original essays, written with a rare combination of give and sharpness, wit and fearlessness, she delves into the forces that warp our vision, demonstrating an unparalleled stylistic potency and critical dexterity.
Trick Mirror is an enlightening, unforgettable trip through the river of self-delusion that surges just beneath the surface of our lives. This is a book about the incentives that shape us, and about how hard it is to see ourselves clearly through a culture that revolves around the self. In each essay, Tolentino writes about a cultural prism: the rise of the nightmare social internet; the advent of scamming as the definitive millennial ethos; the literary heroine’s journey from brave to blank to bitter; the punitive dream of optimization, which insists that everything, including our bodies, should become more efficient and beautiful until we die. Gleaming with Tolentino’s sense of humor and capacity to elucidate the impossibly complex in an instant, and marked by her desire to treat the reader with profound honesty, Trick Mirror is an instant classic of the worst decade yet.