RIF’s Favorite Reads of October 2017

Helping you sort out the best from the rest published this month.

Favorite books

It’s official: fall is upon us. The leaves are turning, the cold snaps are coming, Halloween decorations are for sale everywhere you look. It hasn’t been an easy month, but then again, do those even exist anymore? Puerto Rico is still struggling to recover from Hurricane Maria, and fires are ravishing parts of California. Folks are #MeToo-ing on social media, and the opioid crisis continues unabated. But in the midst of it all, we’re fortunate to have literature to soothe us. From time immemorial, humans have shared stories in order to communicate and move through difficult times. In our era, we have books and authors who do that, and we’re so grateful for it. Here are some of our favorite books from this month. We hope you too can learn, communicate, and comfort yourself with them.

The King Is Always Above the People by Daniel AlarcónThis brilliant second collection grapples with questions that drive our fantasies every day: can we be different than the people we are? And if so, are there consequences? Alarcón’s characters include an incarcerated man now freed, a university professor taking a year off, a group of migrants trying to create roots—each of them hoping to experience new things and, most importantly, be different people. Alarcón seems to be asking whether this is even possible, and whether it might be worse trying to be someone else. A magnificent collection—and it’s worth checking out Alarcón’s first as well. (Riverhead Books)

Seven Days of Us by Francesca HornakIf you’ve watched Love Actually one too many times, this is the perfect book for you—or for anyone who needs an emotional boost right now. In Hornak’s debut, parents Andrew and Emma get a special holiday treat: their grown children (all of them) are coming home for Christmas. Olivia has been treating a deadly virus outbreak in Liberia and has been instructed to stay quarantined, which means her family has to as well. Younger sister Phoebe is obsessed with planning her wedding, and Olivia’s reeling from culture shock. Of course, Andrew and Emma have their own problems and secrets, but it’s the interplay of this family that makes the story shine. Sink into a comfy chair and follow all the emotional twists and turns of this ultimately comforting novel. (Berkley)

Turtles All the Way Down by John GreenFans of John Green will flock to this book, finding some of what they expect—but also so much more. The author of The Fault in Our Stars and Looking for Alaska outdoes himself with his latest. Here is Aza Holmes, a teenager with OCD and anxiety, which interferes so heavily with her thoughts and daily life that there are some things—like kissing—she simply can’t do. When a billionaire in town skips out to avoid being arrested for fraud and bribery, Aza and her best friend Daisy approach the billionaire’s son, whom Aza once knew at “Sad Camp,” the place where kids who’ve been half-orphaned are sent to bond. And bond they do, now as much as they did then. But it’s Aza’s mind that’s centerstage in this book, a mind that’s both rational about her disorder and helpless to fight it off. A remarkable return for Green, and, as always, we can’t wait to see what he does next. (Dutton Books for Young Readers)

Dunbar by Edward St. AubynRetellings of Shakespeare plays abound, but it’s not every day you get to see such a superb one as this. Edward St. Aubyn brings King Lear to life in the modern age: Henry Dunbar is a media mogul of a thriving corporation, but he’s no longer at its head. Stuck in a sanatorium due to his failing health, he’s left with nothing but the ravings of his roommate, Peter. Meanwhile, Henry’s two elder daughters are running his empire, and he feels betrayed and robbed, even while his youngest is living without his fortune in Wyoming. But Henry isn’t satisfied that his youngest daughter loves him regardless of his money; it’s the eldest daughters with their thieving ways that he’s obsessed with. This moving portrait of a mind betraying itself paired with a family’s dysfunction is compulsively readable and highly recommended. (Hogarth)

We Were Eight Years in Power by Ta-Nehisi CoatesSubtitled An American Tragedy, Ta-Nehisi Coates collects some of his greatest essays from The Atlantic along with several new ones, reflecting on race, systemic racism, power struggles, and the presidency. Coates is incredibly astute, noting the similarity between our contemporary eight years of Obama’s presidency and the attempt at multiracial democracy during the Reconstruction era, when black politicians lost power to white supremacists in the South. Analyzing our present-day situation in the U.S., from making a case for reparations to considering the problems posed by mass incarceration, Coates’s vision is stark, convincing, and incredibly written. Presenting a hard reality, Coates sends a message we need to hear. (One World)

American Wolf by Nate BlakesleeWhat we call the American West was once full of wolves. The 1920s changed all that, when wolves were hunted to near extinction, but in recent decades they’ve been rehabilitated, gaining ground and once more becoming leaders of their own territories. Yellowstone—and the Lamar Valley in particular—has been dominated by the powerful O-Six, a gorgeous she-wolf beloved by wolf-watchers and her own pack alike. Yet there are still those who want the wolves gone, and there are other packs fighting to gain the territory O-Six rules. Through the wolf’s story, Nate Blakeslee also reveals the story of the landscape, those who want to change the land, and those who want to keep it as is. (Crown)

Manhattan Beach by Jennifer EganJennifer Egan’s last novel explored the present and future, but Manhattan Beach is all about the past. In need of cash to buy a wheelchair for Anna’s sister, Anna and her father Eddie visit a New York mobster at his lavish house during the Great Depression. Fast forward, and Anna is 19 and a scrappy diver—the first female one—at the Brooklyn Naval Yard. She fixes ships, a dangerous job, but one that has to be done to help win World War II. One night, she meets the same mobster her father visited all those years ago, and they have a one-night stand; only later does he realize who she is and how he knows her father, who disappeared five years ago. Egan writes historical fiction as beautifully as anything else, and the pages will keep turning, seemingly of their own accord. (Scribner)

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Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria MachadoI can’t tell you how long I’ve been waiting to write this blurb—likely ever since I heard the title of the collection, before I even knew its exact contents. Everything here is gorgeous, evocative, and clearly painful, including the brilliantly designed cover and the intricately emotional stories within. From her first story, “The Husband Stitch,” which plays off the real fact of a particular post-birth stitch as told by a woman who wears a ribbon around her neck, to “Difficult at Parties,” about a woman attempting to recover from a sexual assault, Machado’s narratives are often dark and painful, but also exquisitely wrought. There is horror in her world, but beauty too, and Machado’s turns of phrase and plot will leave you breathless. (Graywolf Press)

The Rules of Magic by Alice HoffmanFor many readers, Practical Magic is a favorite, but you don’t need to have read that modern classic to fall in love with Hoffman’s prequel. There are many rules for the Owens siblings, Franny, Bridget, and Vincent: always wear shoes, never go to Greenwich Village, don’t bring home birds, and do not under any circumstances fall in love. (As if their mother could really prevent them from doing the latter.) Alas, carrying the family curse from a woman who’d been part of the Salem witch trials, the siblings are doomed to repeat certain mistakes and patterns. As they move from New York City to their aunt’s in Massachusetts and back, their lives begin to become more magical than they ever thought possible—but with magic comes that old curse, including the most terrible of all emotion: love. (Simon & Schuster)

Grant by Ron ChernowMuch like Chernow’s incredible biography Alexander Hamilton (which spurred the beloved Broadway musical), Grant aims to shed light on a misunderstood figure. You might know the bare bones of Ulysses S. Grant: a general who defeated Robert E. Lee during the Civil War, helping turn the tide toward the Union Army’s eventual triumph. His presidency that followed was marred by corruption scandals, which is what most folks remember of him. But Grant was an abolitionist before the Civil War and fought for the rights of black Americans after it. He also created the Ku Klux Klan act, which led to several Klan members being tried in court. Frederick Douglass commended him, and Mark Twain later worked with him to create his memoirs. Grant is a complex figure, and Chernow’s biography is as revealing as his last. (Penguin Press)

An Unkindness of Ghosts by Rivers SolomonIn the future, a large spaceship called the HSS Matilda carries the vestiges of humanity through the universe toward a shadowy promised land. Aster is part of the beaten down, darker-skinned lower classes on the ship, which is segregated in a manner reminiscent of pre-Civil War America. But Aster is also a healer, and when she’s brought to the upper decks to figure out what is ailing the ship’s sovereign, her past comes rushing back, including her mother’s suicide a quarter century earlier. What’s the connection? You’ll have to check out the book to see. Fans of Octavia Butler and China Miéville—both socially aware and critical science fiction writers—will adore this debut, as will any reader eager for a blending of genres and story. (Akashic Books)

After the Fire by Henning MankellIn Henning Mankell’s final novel, an elderly man named Fredrik Welin escapes his house before it burns down. Wearing a pair of two left boots, he considers the ashes of all his earthly possessions and wonders what comes next. He’s been living alone on a secluded island, part of a small archipelago, and wasn’t intending on changing his ways anytime soon. But now there’s all this stuff to deal with: insurance, the police who think he might have set his own house on fire, his grown daughter who is going through troubles of her own, and a nosy journalist with whom he strikes a friendship—and perhaps something more. A moving portrait of a man jolted out of his routine, Fredrik discovers that even if he doesn’t have as long as he’d like to live, there’s still plenty of living he can do. (Vintage)

Endurance by Scott KellyScott Kelly holds the record for most consecutive days spent in space. This might seem like the coolest thing ever, and Kelly would agree—but it’s also difficult. Not only is the work itself hard and occasionally tedious, but being far from earth and cut off entirely can also be emotionally grueling. Kelly discusses the differences he sees between American- and Russian-trained astronauts as exhibited in their behaviors aboard the international space station, recounts the tolls space travel has taken on his body, and theorizes on how missions to Mars might affect pilots. But he is hopeful for the future of space travel, and his book is a great one for space nerds and curious folk alike. (Knopf)

The Book of Dust by Philip PullmanAnyone who loves fantasy novels knows Philip Pullman’s excellent series, His Dark Materials. At the center of those books is a substance called dust (or, in our own world, dark matter)—a mysterious elementary particle about which we understand very little. Lyra Belaqua, one of the main characters traveling through Pullman’s books, is at the heart of this story as well. As Pullman has said, these books are neither sequel nor prequel but rather “equals,” a series standing alongside His Dark Materials. Here, we start with Martin Polstead and his daemon Asta, who live at the Trout Inn near Oxford. At the priory nearby, just a short boat ride away, arrives a baby, a baby who will grow up to be the Lyra we know. Are you excited? You bet we are. (Knopf Books for Young Readers)

Devotions by Mary OliverMary Oliver’s first book of poetry, No Voyage and Other Poems, was published in 1963 when she was only 28 years old. Now, over 50 years later, this collection of more than 200 poems includes selections starting from that first book and going through the years to her most recent, Felicity, published in 2015. A prolific poet with a Pulitzer Prize and many other awards under her belt, Oliver remains a keen observer of nature, whether that’s human, animal, or vegetable. Her poems are known for their rich descriptions and often their quiet contemplation, and if you’re in need of meditative beauty, this is a must for your bookshelf.   

Start Without Me by Joshua Max FeldmanIn Joshua Max Feldman’s moving second novel, the centerpiece is Thanksgiving, but giving thanks has never been harder for his two protagonists. Adam is a musician and recovering alcoholic, and it’s time, he’s decided, to visit his family. Until it’s time not to, and he decides to run back to San Francisco instead. But he meets Marissa, a flight attendant who is similarly dreading her holiday plans with her in-laws. Instead of giving up, the unlikely pair encourages each other to see their plans through and be brave enough to face their demons. With beautiful, tight prose and complex characters that will leave you missing them when you’re done, this is an incredible read for those who need to sink their teeth into a good story. (William Morrow)

The Last Mrs. Parrish by Liv ConstantineAmber has a plan, and she’s going to make that plan happen. Because you know what? People like Amber have a rough go of it. That is to say, Amber thinks she deserves to have what Daphne has. Daphne is a philanthropist billionaire with a Hotty McHot husband, but Amber instinctively knows her weakness: she’s lonely. And Amber, after all, knows how to be a good friend, how to get closer and closer until she can leach from Daphne exactly what she wants to have. As the two women grow closer, it seems like Daphne might be handing her life over to Amber, but then again, Amber isn’t a blank slate, and she’s got a past too… This harrowing debut will have you turning pages in a hurry to find out what happens next. (Harper)

Infinite Ground by Martin MacInnesScottish writer Martin MacInnes has given us a remarkably haunting and experimental debut. When a man goes missing from a dinner with his family in a Latin American city, it seems like a standard missing person case to the semi-retired police officer who’s called in to investigate. But everything seems to be a show: the wife of the missing man is not really the man’s wife, but an actor hired to represent her. The firm where the missing man worked is full of actors acting like workers, more pleasing to prospective clients than actual workers would look. The story, which becomes stranger and stranger, is interspersed with a beautifully odd anthropological text, creating a complex maze you’ll stumble through, wide-eyed and eager. (Melville House)


Photography: Sergio Speroni

About Ilana Masad

Ilana Masad

ILANA MASAD is an Israeli-American writer living in New York. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, Tin House, Printer’s Row, The Toast, The Butter, The Rumpus, Hypertext Magazine, and more. She is the founder of TheOtherStories.org, a podcast for new, emerging, and struggling writers. She is (way too) active on Twitter @ilanaslightly.