Best of the West
(Riverhead Books, $27.95, out September 29)
By Claire Vaye Watkins
In an arid near future, Los Angeles has dried up and been abandoned by all but squatters and scavengers. Luz and Ray have cobbled together a life in the midst of the ruin, and they’ve managed to keep one thing flourishing: their relationship. Holed up in a starlet’s abandoned mansion, they maintain a livable status quo, until one night at a rain dance, a mysterious child enters their lives and changes everything. Gold Fame Citrus is Watkins’s debut novel (her 2012 story collection Battleborn was a feat), and in it she’s sharp, at times merciless, and never above a little fun—halfway through the book we find a pamphlet, “Neo-Fauna of the Amargosa Dune Sea: a primer,” complete with illustrations of the jelly scorpions and stiltwalker tortoises have adapted to the harsh landscape. The book is instantly entrancing, alluring as a mirage, and filled with peril, mystery, sandstorms, the occult, and a cast of nuanced characters you can almost (but never quite) root for.
(Flatiron Books, $27.99, out October 20)
By Dan Marshall
Yes, this came out in October, but there was an abundance of excellent books last month, so allow us the overflow. A wildly irreverent but deeply affecting perspective on the ways life can be complicated by disease, this memoir is Marshall’s account of losing his father to ALS. Wry, profane, and crass, Marshall’s tone is startlingly brash; even so, his quick pacing and darkly funny attitude render the story both relatable and oddly enjoyable. As his family, dubbed “Team Terminal,” pushes through hardship, Marshall is quick to note the selfishness and dysfunction that become part of every day life. Unafraid to paint himself in the worst light, he shirks sympathy and details his own mishaps with cringeworthy honesty. The no-holds-barred attitude can be straight up uncomfortable, but it works. Take it from Marshall’s GoodReads review of his own book: “Wow, what an amazing book. The writer is clearly some sort of genius type.”
(Pamela Dorman Books, $25, out July 28)
By J. Ryan Stradal
Hungry? Don’t read Kitchens of the Great Midwest. Or do. Stradal’s debut novel tackles foodie culture with all the finesse of a pastry chef. Precocious Eva Thorvald grows from food-savvy toddler to the mastermind behind a super-exclusive pop-up supper club, with foodies flocking to her for cured ham and plum chutney like crowds to Jesus for loaves and fish. Each chapter is a self-contained vignette focused on a different character and a different dish—and though Eva may only breeze through the background of certain episodes, each is significant for her in some way. We meet a doting father, an absent mother, and a Lutheran grandmother who believes her peanut butter bars to be the high point of culinary history. Stradal cares for his characters in spite of their failings like few authors do, and his descriptions of food, from Scandinavian lutefisk to heirloom tomatoes, are sumptuous. Reading Kitchens is all pleasure, and thankfully, it includes recipes.
(Graywolf Press, $23, out May 5)
By Maggie Nelson
Los Angeles poet, critic, and author Maggie Nelson brings critical theory, gender identity, romance, and nontraditional family together in this boldly personal work. The Argonauts is rooted in a world where words—pronouns in particular—are problematic. Her memoir is, in part, about change and the retention of identity. It is, in part, about sex, pregnancy, and motherhood. As a whole, it is about the ways in which we talk and think about these and other difficult subjects. Here, theory and experience are married; Argonauts is equal parts head and heart. Expect to find phrases like “ontological indeterminacy” paired with reflections on the take-you-by-surprise joys of motherhood. Nelson guides us from one anecdote to another, all comfortably spaced across pages free from headings and chapter breaks. Readers will feel as though they are in her head, continually on the crest of her thoughts. Her tone is harsh at times, but sensitive overall; sometimes inconsistent, but always self-aware. Her words are nuanced and emotive, containing, as she puts it, the “inexpressible.”
(Random House, $27, out August 18)
Adam Johnson won the Pulitzer Prize in 2013 for his North Korea-set novel, The Orphan Master’s Son, so it’s no surprise that his new collection of six deeply resonant short stories is enthralling. In “Nirvana” (give it a read over at Esquire), a programmer in Palo Alto bickers with his paralyzed wife over their respective fixations, hers with Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain, his with hologram recordings of a recently assassinated president. In the titular story, “Fortune Smiles,” an inadvertent North Korean defector is disgusted by the kiddishness of South Korean culture and longs to return to his homeland—where at least he has a wife he loves and a sense of national pride. Each page of every story is suffused with delicate humor and keen, tragic longing—a deep yearning for human connectedness. And somehow, whether attained or not, a subtle sense of true intimacy is always—just maybe—within reach.
(University of California Press, $16.95, out October 6)
By David L. Ulin
“This is the history of Los Angeles, of California, in a nutshell: appropriation, usurpation, erasure of the past.” In Sidewalking, Los Angeles Times book critic David L. Ulin wanders L.A.—along Wilshire, around Bunker Hill, through the Grove—and as he does, he ponders the city’s fading past and emerging future. A self-described “reluctant Angeleno,” Ulin, who moved here from New York in 1991, brings a sharp eye, a good pair of legs, and a sensitive thoughtfulness to the subject of urban sprawl. Ulin’s musings are immediately relevant, covering everything from the Metro Purple Line extension to Rick Caruso’s proposed trolley expansion to Councilman Jose Huizar’s Bringing Back Broadway campaign. With careful self-awareness and a meandering train of thought, he ponders his surroundings and contemplates his own imposed associations with them.
(NYRB Classics, $17.95, out October 6)
Eve Babitz spits quick wit in her lively picture of the Los Angeles where she grew up. The daughter of Hollywood bohemians, the journalist, novelist, party girl, and muse is known for posing nude and playing Marcel Duchamp in a game of chess. She was famous for her many lovers, among them Jim Morrison and Ed Ruscha (one-time Rolling Stone Records president Earl McGrath once quipped, “In every young man’s life there is an Eve Babitz. It’s usually Eve Babitz”). Sharp and smart, Babitz’s work is preoccupied with both the rebellious and the beautiful; she pens a portrait of a sun-soaked, hedonistic L.A. full of LSD, rock stars, Xerox machines, gorgeous ingenues, and Olvera Street taquitos that are “better than heroin.” Her “confessional novel” is more or less a memoir, though perhaps the facts are embellished here and there—but we can’t hold that against her. “Since this is my book and since the advent of James Joyce,” she says, “why don’t we let me have my way?”
(Hogarth, $25, out October 6)
The new collection of stories from Anthony Marra (A Constellation of Vital Phenomena) begins when a Soviet censor in the Department of Party Propaganda and Agitation is given the role of erasing opponents of the USSR from artworks. He does so dutifully until a lovely pastoral painting of a Russian vacation home crosses his path. In a sudden moment of rebellion, he instead adds the image of a dissenter—his disgraced brother, a “religious radical.” The painting resurfaces in each story in the collection, the single thread linking them together through time and space, from 1937 Leningrad to “Outer Space, Year Unknown.” We meet a legendary ballerina, a retired gangster, and a soldier kept under lock and key looking for a message in a mixtape from his family. Cobbled together as a sort of mixtape itself (with four stories under “Side A,” four under “Side B,” and a single-story intermission), Marra’s latest work is tender, touching, haunting at times and humorous at others—in short, a feat.
Best of the Rest
(Penguin Press, $28.95, out June 16)
By Aziz Ansari and Eric Klinenberg
If Aziz Ansari had coauthored, say, Thinking About Sociology: A Critical Introduction, we all would have paid a lot more attention in SOC 101A. As it stands, the Parks and Recreation star has joined forces with Eric Klinenberg, Professor of Sociology and Director of the Institute for Public Knowledge at New York University, to write a book about romance. What the two of them are doing here is marrying comedy and science, and the result is a book full of smarts, empathy, and meticulous research.
@azizansari The whole thing was more than a year and a half of research, hundreds of interviews all over the world, from Wichita to Tokyo.
— Aziz Ansari (@azizansari) May 28, 2015
After all it’s a treacherous world out there when it comes to online dating, Tinder, and asking that girl you like out to pizza over text. Treat yo’ self to Ansari’s book, and you’ll find it’s a timely investigation of all the technological tremors that have shaken the way we do romance.
(FSG Originals, $14, out April 14)
By Amelia Gray
Gray’s third volume of short stories is bizarre to say the least (readers will encounter a giant snake, a machine that tells the future, a cat lady blessed by the gods, and an ominous labyrinthine corn maze at the Pumpkin Jamboree), and yet it is irresistible. Fast paced, unpredictable, and punctuated by wry comedic moments, the stories are as disorienting as they are visceral. Gray interweaves the curious with the commonplace, and the resultant stories are startling yet richly human at their core. To get a taste, give her story Labyrinth a read over at The New Yorker.
(Spiegel & Grau, $24, out July 14)
By Ta-Nehisi Coates
In the wake of the Charleston shooting, the publication date of Between the World and Me, the most recent book from The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates, was shifted from September to July out of sheer timeliness. The 152-page book, a letter from the author to his son on life in America as a black man, is light in the hands, but heavy on the heart. In it, Coates reflects on his own experience, drawing on memories of unforgettable violence and the resultant rage, as well as anecdotes of joyous times replete with a love of family and black culture. After reading an advance copy of the book, renowned author Toni Morrison hailed Coates as the successor to James Baldwin and declared his book “required reading.” Between the World and Me is meant to be discussed and grappled with by readers of all races. “I love America the way I love my family,” Coates told NPR. “But no definition of family that I’ve ever encountered or dealt with involves never having cross words with people, never having debate, never speaking directly to people.” Coates does speak directly, and he does so with all the fervor of righteous anger and all the poignancy of gracious hope.
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $27, out October 20)
By Paul Murray
Claude is a successful banker, and that’s all he is. Working at the Bank of Torabundo in Dublin—one of the few banks to weather the financial crisis unscathed—Claude spends 100+ hours per week wading through spreadsheets and advising clients, and he finds fulfillment in the mind-numbing totality of his work. That is, until he is approached by an mysterious author named Paul (coincidence? Decidedly not) who’d like to write a book inspired by his life at the bank. What begins as monotony soon turns madcap as a German reggae band, an undercover KGB agent, and a poorly-planned bank heist come into the picture. Perceptive, laugh-out-loud funny, and just meta enough to keep you on your toes, The Mark and the Void is a tale of bad decision-making on a scale both personal and institutional.