RIF’s Favorite Reads of September 2017

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

Faves of September 2017

With hurricanes and earthquakes taking over both lives and newsfeeds during the last few weeks, it’s been hard to think about much else, especially if you or your loved ones were near or in the center of any of these events. It’s easy to feel or think that the end is nigh when large-scale disasters hit one after another like this, and it’s harder still to believe in moving forward. Here at Read It Forward, one of the ways we recognize the continuation of life in all its painful moments and difficulties is by remembering that there are joyful moments too. When you hit upon a sentence that resonates, when a poem reminds you vividly of your emotions, or when a character goes places as far removed from where you are as possible—these are ways literature can provide solace. We hope you enjoy our favorites of this month as much as we do, and that you’re safe in the coming weeks and months.

Sourdough by Robin SloanThe author of the much beloved Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore introduces us this time to the world of… culture? That’s right, culture. Not the kind with art and music and tradition (though in a way, that too) but rather the culture from which sourdough bread is made. This collection of microorganisms from the brothers at the hole-in-the-wall restaurant down the street is the closest Lois Clary has to companionship in her apartment right now. Lois is a software engineer and the last thing on her mind is baking bread. But now that her favorite dinner place is gone and she owns the starter culture that made her favorite meals, she’s going to learn a new skill. Soon her loaves are going to work with her, and perhaps in more ways than one. (MCD)

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste NgMia Warren and her daughter Pearl move into Shaker Heights, a planned community in Ohio where everyone is meant to be equal, where neatness and order are appreciated, and where people pretend they’re colorblind (spoiler alert: no one is). Pearl befriends the Richardsons, kids as unlike her as she can imagine—or maybe not that different, really—while Mia becomes involved in the life of a young Chinese immigrant whose daughter has been adopted by well-meaning white folks. With precise language and incredibly subtlety, Ng has given us another incredible book that both provokes us to think and allows us to lose ourselves in its world. (Penguin Press)

Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn WardJesmyn Ward’s brilliant new novel is an American saga the likes of which we’ve rarely, if ever, seen before. In Mississippi, Leonie struggles with addiction while her white baby-daddy is in prison. Her children, Jojo and Kayla, live with their grandparents: Mam, who is slowly dying of cancer, her death appearing in her daughter’s hallucinatory visions; and Pop, a quiet man trying his best to raise his grandchildren and keep the household running while his wife languishes. When the father of Leonie’s children is released from prison, she and the kids pile into a car and begin a challenging, dangerous journey to pick him up from the penitentiary, a journey that will redefine how these characters think of family. (Scribner)

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Coming to My Senses by Alice WatersAlice Waters is known to many as a chef and activist. But how so? How is one also the other? In her memoir, Waters traces her time as a restaurateur back to before the opening of her now-famous Chez Panisse, to the culture of the 1960s and the Free Speech Movement. A naïve and young woman fueled by a dream of flavor, Waters didn’t expect her decision to move away from the uniformity and convenience of her contemporaries to become so monumental, nor did she know that her naïveté would crumble only to form the stronger backbone of a person effecting social change through and with nutrition. (Clarkson Potter)

Dinner at the Center of the Earth by Nathan EnglanderNothing is quite as it seems in Nathan Englander’s new book about Israel-Palestine. The General may be in a coma, but he is also leading a rich life of memories and dreams, locked in a kind of purgatory. Prisoner Z might be the best-kept secret in the nation, but his crimes may (or may not) be bad enough to warrant his Kafka-esque life. An intelligence operative and a mapmaker might just think that a glass of wine together is worth meeting at the exact midpoint between their disparate nations. These characters grace the pages of Englander’s sweeping new narrative of spies and idealism and love, along with many more you’ll find charming, puzzling, and worthy of spending time with. (Knopf)

The Four Tendencies: The Indispensable Personality Profiles That Reveal How to Make Your Life Better (and Other People’s Lives Better, Too) by Gretchen RubinYou may remember Gretchen Rubin’s previous investigations into human habits, such as The Happiness Project. Well, now Rubin is back with this exploration of what she calls the Four Tendencies: Upholders, Questioners, Obligers, and Rebels. These are profiles she’s constructed around the question of how we respond to expectations. Full of practical advice on how to move through the world as well as funny and fun examples for how these Tendencies are visible and relevant, Rubin’s new book is bursting with wit and intelligence. Becoming happier, healthier, and more creative has just gotten easier with this new guidebook from the writer who has made these attributes the touchstones of her work. (Harmony)

Survivor Café by Elizabeth RosnerIn 1983, 1995, and 2015, Elizabeth Rosner took trips with her father to the Buchenwald concentration camp in Germany. A descendant of a Holocaust survivor, Rosner’s primary concern is how we carry the stories of our forebears forward, both in conscious memory and imprinted in the body. This is a personal exploration for Rosner, but also an exploration of the commonalities found in the children of survivors. Descendants of African-American slaves, of Holocaust survivors, of survivors of the Cambodian Killing Fields, of Hiroshima and Nagasaki all share certain commonalities in their burdens and legacies, and Rosner examines both her own experience and current brain research to try to understand this. What is the result of trauma? What is its legacy? And how do we move forward without forgetting?  (Counterpoint)

The Far Away Brothers by Lauren MarkhamErnesto and Raul Flores grew up in rural El Salvador, post civil war. When threats from a pissed-off gang lead Ernesto to flee the country, Raul must follow too—they’re identical twins, and if one is targeted, the other is pretty much on the radar as well. Lauren Markham chronicles the 17-year-old twin brothers’ arrival in the U.S., their journey to stay with their estranged brother, and their new American life as they start high school, worry about grades, and fall for girls. With only one another for support, the twins—unaccompanied minors at the time of their arrival—must contend with the debt they owe to the coyotes who helped them across borders as well as their day in immigration court, which will decide whether they will stay or go. Urgent and necessary in a time of increasing uncertainty for undocumented immigrants. (Crown)

Five-Carat Soul by James McBrideNational Book Award winner James McBride latest work presents us with a collection of short fiction loosely organized around the history of race in the United States and, more broadly, the coming together (or the clashing) of cultures. From Abraham Lincoln to an orphan boy claiming to be his son, from animals talking to one another in a zoo to a boxer challenging folks in hell, McBride’s stories are deep and wide as a rushing river and just as unpredictable. You won’t know what you’re getting each time you enter a new piece (maybe an antique toy? maybe some funky teenagers in Pittsburgh?) but you’ll always find soul and thematic resonance. (Riverhead Books)

Afterglow (A Dog Memoir) by Eileen MylesAnyone who’s ever owned a dog knows how incredible that bond can be. And if you haven’t, well, let’s just say you may be both intimidated by and in love with the connection that poet Eileen Myles made with Rosie, a pitbull she adopted in 1990. This “memoir” is more of a fabulist exploration of Rosie’s psyche, her effect on Myles as a writer and a person, and the massive effects that companionship can have on our well-being. From battling alcoholism (Myles, not Rosie) to a night of mating (Rosie, not Myles), there is no single theme here, but rather Myles’s incredible brain at work, tying together the threads of life to a central figure: Rosie. (Grove Press)

After the Eclipse: A Mother’s Murder, A Daughter’s Search by Sarah PerryWhen Sarah Perry was twelve, her mother was murdered, two days after Sarah had seen a partial eclipse of the sun, an event that made a deep impression on her. By the time she was twenty-four, Perry had spent half her life waiting for the capture and her mother’s murderer. But even once he was caught, and the trial was over, and the police were finally finished interrogating her and checking in with more questions, Perry was left with the impression of her mother’s final hours. Returning to rural Maine, Perry began a personal investigation—not of her mother’s death, but of her mother’s life. The result is this stunning memoir. (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

Cuz: The Life and Times of Michael A. by Danielle AllenCuz is a coming of age story and a story of loss. It is the story of grief and of rage. It is a fierce scholarly examination of the American prison system and the destructive effect it has on lives as well as the destructive effects of gang warfare and opiate availability. It is also Danielle Allen’s story of trying to make sure her incarcerated little cousin was going to be okay and the terrible fact that nothing she could do would be enough. Michael, Allen’s 15-year-old cousin, was tried as an adult for an attempted hijacking and spent years in prison, but Allen kept in touch with him through it all, nurturing Michael’s writing and ambition. But prison doesn’t always end when you’re let out, not when there’s a whole world in South Central LA waiting to pull a person back into a different kind of prison. A heartbreaking, fiercely important book. (Liveright)

The Best Kind of People by Zoe WhittallZoe Whittall’s new book is a disturbing account of suburban America and the fissures in its pretty presentation. George, beloved community hero and science teacher at a Connecticut prep school, seems to have a perfect life. Until, that is, police pull up in front of his house and arrest him for sexual misconduct with minors from his daughter’s school. George’s wife, Joan, must now contend with this reality in which George is proclaiming innocence even as friends turn away from her. Their children, Sadie and Andrew, both have to figure out how to live with a father sitting in jail for such accusations. As the family unravels, we see the cracks in the suburban perfection as well as the corroding influence of suspicion. (Ballantine Books)

The Salt Line by Holly Goddard JonesIn the future in which Jones’s new book takes place, you’re either in the zone—or you’re almost certainly dead. A salt line—scorched, dead earth—surrounds what’s left of the United States, a border that prevents the ticks carrying deadly diseases from entering. No one leaves the zone, unless, like Edie, Marta, and Wes, you’re an adrenaline junkie who wants to see the last surviving glory of nature. When the three, along with Edie’s popstar boyfriend, take a journey outside the zone, they find themselves besieged by not only ticks but also by the denizens of Ruby City, a community of outer-zone folks who will not give up their outsider experience. As the adrenaline junkies find, there’s a lot more than nature out there. (Putnam)

Thanks, Obama: My Hopey Changey White House Years by David LittIt’s hard not to shed a tear reading David Litt’s memoir, from both mirth and frustration at our current situation. Litt, one of the youngest speechwriters to work at the White House, joined the team of then-campaigning Barack Obama as a recent college grad. Over the years he spent writing President Obama’s speeches, including the White House Correspondents’ Dinner jokes, Litt learned a lot about the job, the President, the various men’s rooms in the building (and which was fanciest), and the inner workings of politics, from the ridiculously mundane to the terrifyingly serious. Looking at the future many of us thought impossible a year ago, Litt harnesses his experiences to make us laugh and give us hope in the age of Trump. (Ecco)

Warcross by Marie LuEmika Chen is a bounty hunter who doesn’t need to get out of her PJs to do the job. That’s right, she’s a bounty hunter online, specifically in a massive multi-player online game called Warcross that has taken the world by storm. As is often the case with MMOs, there is illegal activity that takes advantage of the platform, and it’s Emika’s job to find those betting illegally in the game. Just a teenager with a need for extra cash, she finds herself accidentally in the middle of the international Warcross Championships having hacked her way into it without quite meaning to. Apparently, she’s just the right girl for a job the game’s creator needs doing, and soon Emika finds herself leaping on a plane to Tokyo, joining a world she never imagined either in or out of the game. Follow Emika’s wild adventure in the YA sci-fi tech thriller. (Putnam)

Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone by Brené BrownWith the same exciting energy that made her previous books so successful, in Braving the Wilderness, Brown looks at how in an age of increased public polarization we can still find a way to both belong to ourselves and the worlds of others. She introduces us to vocabulary with which to discuss our fears and desires and speaks to those deepest parts of ourselves that wish to just be accepted for who we are. Brown believes we can, but that in order to get to that place of belonging, we must brave what she calls the wilderness, a place of solitude where we must learn to search for and find ourselves before emerging on the other side stronger and more able to be ourselves. (Random House)

The Twelve-Mile Straight by Eleanor HendersonElma Jesup, daughter of white sharecroppers, gives birth to fraternal twin babies with different skin colors. Outrage ensues in this 1930s Jim Crow world, and a black man is accused of rape and lynched as a result. Elma, trying to raise her babies while living with her father and their black housekeeper, must now deal with her complicity in the death of a man, even while secrets in her family begin to emerge that threaten to destroy the lives they’ve built for themselves. A saga of a family’s discoveries, Henderson’s vivid prose and electric relationships will have you reading late into the night. (Ecco)

The Girl Who Takes an Eye for an Eye: A Lisbeth Salander novel by David LagercrantzLisbeth Salander is back again from the heir to Stieg Larson’s famous Millennium trilogy. This time Salander is on a quest, not just for justice, but for self-discovery. She’s determined to understand the truth behind her traumatic childhood, and this means figuring out how to get past a whole host of obstacles, from a group of would-be terrorists to a mark on her head declared by a gang leader. In order to get to the bottom of things, Salander recruits her old friend Mikael Blomkvist, editor of the Millennium, an investigative journal. Reunited, the pair will plow through anyone standing in their way, even if it’s Lisbeth’s long-lost twin sister. (Knopf)

Photography by Elsa Jenna

About Ilana Masad

ILANA MASAD is a queer writer of fiction, nonfiction, and criticism. She is the founder and host of The Other Stories, an interview podcast featuring fiction writers, and is currently a doctoral student at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Her debut novel, All My Mother’s Lovers, comes out May 2020.

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