Books for fall 2022: Our 65 top picks – Chicago Tribune
You know how we don’t notice the leaves on the trees until September arrives, nature flips its switch and emeralds become purples, reds and golds? That’s not the worst metaphor for the new fall book season — the big season for publishers (eyeing awards plus holiday sales), and the best season for readers (facing more new titles than autumn foliage). There’s a fresh poignancy these days, as new books arrive during a time of resurgent book banning , and in the wake of a near-fatal stabbing of Salman Rushdie after years of threats. We’re noticing books now in a way that, not long ago, we did not.
What follows is not every new book this fall. It is no more complete than an inventory of all the pumpkins in Illinois. But it is a reminder that people who hate provocative ideas and original voices should be angry. In the next few months, we’re getting two books by Cormac McCarthy after 16 years of nothing, the first story collection in nine years by Oak Forest’s George Saunders and the first collection of stories ever by Chicago rising star Ling Ma. (Indeed, week after week of vibrancy from Chicago’s lit scene. ) Not to mention, major histories of the pandemic, Trump’s White House, Jim Crow, Chicago architecture and the decline of democracy. And a history of American music by no less than Bob Dylan. And posthumous works by Katherine Dunn (“Geek Love”) and Paul Newman.
You know it’s going to be a rich season of reading in Chicago when even the new Stephen King is set in Chicago. Or rather, a portal to the underworld is found outside Chi town. Either way, eventually you’ll look up and notice: The world seems new again.
What does it say about Chicago that two of its most important contemporary exports write about America as a dreamscape, barely shy of dystopia? It probably just says that Booker Prize-winner George Saunders, who returns to the short story with “Liberation Day” (Oct. 18), and Ling Ma, whose remarkable brand new collection of weirdness “Bliss Montage” (Sept. 13) delivers on the white-hot promise of her 2018 breakout “Severance, ” are wide-awake. Saunders’ characters find a nation in moral decline, becoming playthings for that rich. Ma reads at times like Saunders’ heir. One character lives in a house with 100 ex-boyfriends. Another explains how to make love to a yeti. Chicago’s a strange place.
Chicago, as Keenan Norris writes in his moving “Chi Boy: Native Sons plus Chicago Reckonings” (Nov. 2), is also “a prayer, a promise, and a mixed blessing. ” Make room beside Richard Wright on the Chicago literary shelf for this cultural addendum, which puts the life of Wright alongside Norris’ father — both products of the Great Migration — to create a pocket history of the West Side and the legacy of Black Chicago, pausing at Hadiya Pendleton, Saul Alinsky and Bigger Thomas. While you’re at that shelf, make more room: “All Your Racial Problems Will Soon End: The Cartoons of Charles Johnson” (Oct. 11) is the first collection of strips in 50 years through Johnson, an Evanston native who started as an illustrator at the Tribune , now best known as the National Book Award-winning author of “Middle Passage. ” It’s an overdue survey, a portrait of a pioneering cartoonist at the dawn associated with Black Nationalism.
There is no subject I want to read less about right now compared to COVID-19 — unless the particular writer is the brilliant (former Chicagoan) David Quammen. Despite a growing library of outbreak lit already out there, “Breathless” (Oct. 4) is as close to authoritative history — from the virus’s origins to vaccines and variants — as we have, told through scientists involved, and the signature ease of Quammen’s prose. It reads like a thriller in real-time. Siddhartha Mukherjee, whose 2010 Pulitzer-winning biography of cancer, “The Emperor of All Maladies, ” vaulted him into Quammen’s league, affirms a reputation for accessible science journalism with “The Song of the Cell” (Oct. 25), a history of the building block of life, woven into his career as a doctor. But with a twist — unlike “Breathless, ” you step away hopeful for the future.
If you ask me, the horror novel is where dystopia was 20 years ago — on the cusp, and right on time. Stephen King’s lovely “Fairy Tale” (Sept. 6) (a mere 600 pages, modest by King standards) is not scary , but as a fable about an Illinois teenager gifted the key to a menacing underworld, it captures the particular creeping suspense of childhood classics, not to mention the decay of suburbia. (Its vintage-style illustrations don’t hurt, either. ) For more literal metaphors, there’s “Suburban Hell” (Aug. 30) by (suburban) Chicago author Maureen Kilmer, the cheerfully campy take on the usual concerns — conformity, boredom, demonic possession. As with King, the source of all evil is a backyard shed. Andy Davidson, among a burgeoning new class of horror writers, finds insidious, Faulkner-like generational squalor in “The Hollow Kind” (Oct. 11), a ghost story about corrupted soil so chilling I put it down at times just to smile. It’s not fiction, but “The Ruin of All Witches: Life plus Death in the New World” (Nov. 1) by Malcolm Gaskill is an unnerving history of a lesser-known witch hunt in a New England that is beginning to swap superstition for science.
As if you need a new reason not to return to the office, Chicago’s Christine Sneed hilariously charts the mundane hell of an office furniture company — though really, this is Anywhere USA. “Please Be Advised” (Oct. 18) nails the wellness surveys (that no one takes), guidelines for office plants, passive aggression, acronyms, CEO stabs at collegiality — all told through increasingly unhinged reply-all emails. Far more earnest — though just as clever — is the South Korean hit “I Want to Die But I Want to Eat Tteokbokki” (Nov. 1) by Baek Sehee, who uses months of (real) transcripts from her therapy sessions to explore her own depression and anxiety, always tiptoeing toward something like self-awareness.
Of all the authors returning this autumn after time aside, Cormac McCarthy’s homecoming may be the splashiest. At 89, he arrives with two books, companion novels, “The Passenger” (Oct. 25) and “Stella Maris” (Dec. 6). About genius and madness, ancestry and physics, they tell the stories of siblings wrestling with the history of their father, who helped develop the atomic bomb. The first (and best of the pair) is a mystery about loss; the follow-up (told through the transcripts of therapy sessions) is a script-flip coda, about an University of Chicago student questioning reality. Katherine Dunn, who died in 2016, leaving one bona fide cult classic (“Geek Love”), finished the previously unpublished “Toad” (Nov. 1) while tending bar in the ‘70s. It’s as melancholy as “Geek Love” was winsome, a tale of ‘60s campus existence, from the vantage of regret. Andrea Barrett hasn’t really been away. But the elegant linked-story collection “Natural History” (Oct. 11) returns the particular National Book Award-winner to familiar characters — drawn to natural wonders, searching for their own place in science — from her celebrated “Ship Fever, ” now 26 years old.
Brandi Collins-Dexter — a scholar, activist and overall poignant voice on race and accountability (as well as South Sider) — writes in “Black Skinhead” (Sept. 20) that she found in Kanye West a vessel with regard to thinking about Black voters and rising disillusionment with Democrat politics. (She titles one chapter “Kanye was Right-ish. ”) From there she spins a vibrant history of Black voters and assumptions. One to read alongside is “By Hands Now Known: Jim Crow’s Legal Executioners” (Sept. 27), Margaret Burnham’s compelling argument that everyday legalized violence against Black Americans was the true rule for much of the 20th century. Her other big point is arguably more vital: Burnham charts opposition that existed much longer than the Civil Rights Era. More traditional, but no less thoughtful: Pulitzer-winning war correspondent Thomas Ricks’ “Waging A Good War” (Oct. 4), the military report on the Martin Luther King Jr. plus Malcolm X years, reframing the period with emphasis on tactics, with lessons for the social justice fights far from over. Active, not passive, resistance was the goal.
I still haven’t read the one book I am most looking forward to this fall: Bob Dylan’s “The Philosophy of Modern Song” (Nov. 1). It is under lock and key, but if his generous, hilarious 2004 memoir, “Chronicles: Volume One, ” is any measure, it’ll be a treat. The premise: Dylan’s short essays (14 years in the works) on 60 songs by others, including Nina Simone, Hank Williams and Elvis Costello. I’m a bit less excited — OK, a lot less thrilled — for Bono’s “Surrender: 40 Songs, One Story” (Nov. 1), which promises hardscrabble Dublin, a meteoric rise and sanctimony. (But then at first I doubted “Chronicles, ” too. ) Here’s one sure thing: “Chuck Berry: An American Life” (Nov. 8), an appropriately rollicking bio ripe with the thrill of mythology. RJ Smith, whose 2012 biography of James Brown was a joy, works similar magic here.
“Who Is the City For? Architecture, Equity as well as the Public Realm in Chicago” (Nov. 16) collects 55 stories simply by former Tribune architecture critic Blair Kamin , focusing on the idea of Chi town as a sort of collective trust — or as Kamin explains, “our common humanity is made manifest in common ground. ” Cleverly, the book pairs its columns along with photos from Sun-Times architecture critic Lee Bey. Speaking of clever: the Sun-Times’ Neil Steinberg retells the history of Chicago in “Every Goddamn Day” (Oct. 21), as in whatever famous this or that happened on every day in history, all 365 of them. As for that persistent Chicago albatross, New York City: Just as it was closing during the pandemic, New York Times architecture critic Michael Kimmelman (also cleverly) invited friends to walk around the city with him. “The Intimate Town: Walking New York” (Nov. 29) is really a hybrid result, part walking tour, part traveling conversation about the ways a city imprints itself. “The New Yorkers” (Oct. 25) by Times obituary reporter Sam Roberts is my favorite kind of municipal portrait, a gathering associated with profiles, not of the famous but the merely pivotal. So , murder victims, union organizers and talk show hosts. As Roberts writes: “Sometimes people who seem small at the time leave a larger-than-life legacy. ”
Whether you plan to read or ignore the two big Donald Trump histories this season, you’ll hear a few things anyway — their authors covered Trump for The New York Times and the New Yorker. Expect news. Peter Baker and Susan Glasser’s “The Divider: Trump in the White House, 2017-2021″ (Sept. 20), purportedly the first complete history, has already made headlines for its harrowing depiction of a president at odds with skeptical generals. Maggie Haberman’s “Confidence Man: The Making of Donald Trump and the Breaking of America” (Oct. 4) promises a paradoxical assemblage of lifestyle and times, drawing on scores of interviews (including with Trump himself). Since political histories land in waves: John Farrell’s “Ted Kennedy: A Life” (Oct. 25) and “Against the Wind: Edward Kennedy as well as the Rise of Conservatism, ” (Nov. 15) the second of Neal Gabler’s two-part history, taken together make a bittersweet case for the decline of American liberalism. And since it wouldn’t be fall without a new Lincoln guide: Pulitzer-winner Jon Meacham’s “And There Was Light: Abraham Lincoln and the American Struggle” (Oct. 25) offers a Lincoln of contemporary poignancy, illuminating our divided times through Lincoln’s own abyss.
Is there anything more exciting than an artist in their prime? “The Furrows” (Sept. 27) follows Namwali Serpell’s tremendous debut, “The Old Drift, ” with an even more intimate, subversive novel about a woman mourning the disappearance of the girl younger brother and facing the unpredictability of grief. Likewise, Lydia Millet returns from an instant classic (“A Children’s Bible”) with “Dinosaurs” (Oct. 11), and like Serpell, finds a fresh way to describe familiar emotions. In this case, an accidental millionaire in need of human connection leaves New York on foot, walking across the country in order to his new home in Arizona. There, he lives in a castle beside a family in a glass house. It’s about the hope for decency, but again, told with fresh, original eyes. It’s hard, however , to imagine a novelist today with fresher eyes than Percival Everett, whose last masterpiece, “The Trees, ” is not even a year old. As unexpected and funny as that book was, “Dr. No” (Nov. 1) tells the story of a college professor who specializes in “nothing. ” He’s tapped by a self-described Bond villain to break in to Fort Knox and steal “nothing. ” Tucked in there (trust me) is Everett’s continued absurdist reframing associated with Black literature.
If there’s an ideal autumn book, it’s a book regarding books, writers and reading. “Still No Word From You: Notes in the Margin” (Oct. 11), by the always undervalued Peter Orner, swings seamlessly between his Highland Park boyhood (a Cheever tale, writ large) and his reading living, mourning family, and even stumbling on his mother’s youthful marginalia. Without missing a beat, you could finish it plus dive into “Come Back in September” (Oct. 25), Darryl Pinckney’s pleasant memoir of his heady days as an apprentice to esteemed literary critic Elizabeth Hardwick. It is an evocative window directly into that first flush associated with adult possibilities (and the particular gossipy emergence of New York’s ‘80s New Wave). But one of my favorite reads lately is “Super-Infinite: The Transformations of Steve Donne, ” Katherine Rundell’s dizzyingly fun biography of a poet that lived headlong. Free of charge, it throws in a rollicking snapshot of Elizabethan England.
“This can’t happen here” — that’s how A. M. Homes’ frightening new novel, “The Unfolding, ” (Sept. 6) begins. What can’t happen, in the mind of its delusional protagonist, is the election of Barack Obama. What follows is sad, funny, surreal — kind of like living in the 21st century. This earns its place in a growing library of books reacting to, understanding and contextualizing the Jan. 6 insurrection. The most indispensable might be “The Storm is Here: An American Crucible” (Sept. 13) by Luke Mogelson. The great New Yorker battlefield reporter immerses himself with American militias you’ve only heard about, providing a firsthand account of those countrymen who are increasingly turning on their government. It reads like a first draft of the breakdown of American democracy. For a longer view: “Burning Down the House: How Libertarian Philosophy was Corrupted simply by Delusion and Greed” (Oct. 4) is a clear-eyed timeline by Northwestern University law professor Andrew Koppelman. “Realigners: Partisan Hacks, Political Visionaries, and the Struggle to Rule United states Democracy” (Oct. 18) by Timothy Shenk is a timely, accessible history of conflicting feelings toward majority rule. But leave room for the brilliant historian Adam Hochschild, whose “American Midnight: The Great War, a Violent Peace, and Democracy’s Forgotten Crisis” (Oct. 4) takes on the echoing years — a century ago — whenever pandemic and fire-stoking politicians buckled society.
Joe Meno is one of those Chicago authors floating around so long that we take his sturdiness for granted. His latest, though, “Book of Extraordinary Tragedies, ” (Sept. 6) the tale of Evergreen Park musical prodigies who reunite right after ages of failure plus loss, is a career best, a reminder of how unusually hopeful and buoyant Meno has remained all this time. It’s a charmer along with a breakthrough. Casanova Frankenstein — yes, that’s his name — is even less appreciated, but the local cartoonist/poet must be hard to miss after “How to Make a Monster: Ugly Memories of Chicago From a South Side Escapee, ” (Sept. 6) a grim coming-of-age tale of barely surviving a harsh neighborhood and even more violent Chicago police officer of a father. Its scratch-like illustrations by Australian artist Glenn Pearce suggest more of the found object than a conventional book. (That’s a good thing. ) Though not from Chi town, British writer Gwendoline Riley — admired but obscure for two decades — appears poised for discovery: “My Phantoms, ” (Sept. 13) already a critical success across the Atlantic, reads as bracingly, insightfully sour on family as Meno is bullish.
I don’t go through critics the way I used to. A light has gone out of the allure, muted by a zillion and one amateur online voices. But you will find two I still never miss, and they’re dropping a pair of my favorite books this year: “Art will be Life: Icons and Iconoclasts, Visionaries and Vigilantes, and Flashes of Hope within the Night” (Nov. 1) is a kind of greatest hits of art critic (and Chicago native) Jerry Saltz, ingeniously grouped into a reckoning with the history of museums, American painting and the voices rarely heard until recently. It’s also a nifty clandestine memoir of one man’s evolving understanding of art, money plus responsibility. Beautiful stuff. Likewise, “My Pinup” (Nov. 1), the (very) slender brand new memoir by Hilton Als, a mere 48 rangy webpages, on sexuality and a deep love of Prince.
When Barack Obama released the first volume of his autobiography, “A Promised Land, ” it sold 2 . 6 million copies and was the top book of 2020; a couple of years earlier, Michelle Obama sold a million more copies of her book, “Becoming. ” She has since sold 14 million copies. The inevitable sequel, “The Light We Carry: Overcoming in Uncertain Times” (Nov. 15), appears more prescriptive; it’s being described as “practical wisdom and powerful strategies” regarding remaining hopeful, via the first lady’s life lessons and personal experiences. I’m hopeful. Yet as fly-on-the-wall Obama chronicles go, “Grace: President Obama and Ten Days in the Battle intended for America” (Oct. 4), by White House speechwriter, visiting Northwestern University professor and Wrigleyville local Cody Keenan, is both predictably doe-eyed and uncommonly frank. It covers the brief, manic window when Supreme Court decisions arrived on same-sex marriage and health care — only days after the massacre of nine Black churchgoers in South Carolina. It’s also a rarity within presidential histories these days: an argument for public service.
Veronica Roth is getting better, which is good, because the future she sees is already partly here. “Poster Girl” (Oct. 18) returns the particular Chicago-based bestselling sci-fi writer (“Divergent”) to our paranoid present, by relocating to a Pacific Northwest surveillance state with a heady Philip K. Dick-lite noir about how much privacy we are willing to give up. With “The World We Make” (Nov. 1), N. K. Jemisin delivers the conclusion to her popular “The City We Became, ” full of avatars plus alien conquerors and thinly veiled social commentary. But for my money, the sci-fi event of the season will be the second volume of the Library of America’s absorbing “The Future is usually Female” (Oct. 11) series. This installment focuses on short stories by women of the 1970s, the heyday of Ursula K. Le Guin and James Tiptree Jr., the pseudonym of Chicagoan Alice Bradley Sheldon.
As Chicago histories go, let’s make more room for the seemingly minor. I’m thinking the charming ramble of “None of This Rocks, ” (Sept. 13) a brand new memoir by Fall Out Boy co-founder Joe Trohman, because blunt and dyspeptic a portrait of Chicago’s millennial punk scene (and growing up on the North Shore, and just being in the band ) since I’ve come across in a while. “You’re With Stupid: Kranky, Chicago and the Reinvention of Indie Music” (Nov. 1) is best absorbed by anyone who spent serious time at North Avenue and Damen in the 1990s — whenever Wicker Park was a brand name across the country. As an account associated with who played what and where, it’s also invaluable Chicago history. As is “A Game Maker’s Life, ” a memoir by Jeffrey Breslow (with Cynthia Beebe), one of the forces behind Chicago’s lesser-known legacy of toy making. Namely, at Marvin Glass and Associates plus Big Monster Toys, which usually made Simon, the Evel Knievel Stunt Cycle as well as the iconic Mickey Mouse phone.
Eventually I will stop laughing at the title of Rockford-raised stand-up Natasha Leggero ’s first book, “The World Deserves My Children” (Nov. 15), but that is only because these insightful documents about her “geriatric motherhood” (Leggero’s phrase, she’s only 48) are so busy reading through my mind: Is it OK to have a child during a good environmental collapse? Is my kid terrible ? If that sounds too practical: The finally released posthumous memoirs of Paul Newman, “The Extraordinary Life of an Ordinary Man” (Oct. 18), and Alan Rickman, “Madly, Deeply” (Oct. 18) — both began about 30 years ago — promise a more traditional peek behind the making of Hollywood mortality.
The first subject of Rachel Aviv’s tremendous book on mental illness, “Strangers to Ourselves: Unsettled Minds and the Stories That Make Us” (Sept. 13) asks a fundamental fear: Am I this? And if I’m not, who is I? If you’ve read any of Aviv’s profiles in the New Yorker — the backbone to this book — you know she’s a master of describing, as she calls it, the permeability between what’s “normal” and our “psychic hinterlands. ” This assortment of portraits — about a woman who believes she’s a saint, a man who declares war on psychoanalysis, Aviv’s owns childhood anorexia — casts hard insights into the mutability of therapy. As advertised, “The Book of Phobias and Manias” (Sept. 27), by British crime writer Kate Summerscale (whose “Haunting of Alma Fielding” was a 2021 sleeper), collects 99 hard-to-stop-reading histories of “private urges” and “communal manias” (Beatlemania), from the familiar (homophobia) to surprising fears of eggs, hair, silence and everything (pantophobia). Did you know that Oprah is afraid of balloons?
Finally, the nice thing about a new fall book season is if you’re not feeling up to something totally fresh — if you just want a little pumpkin spice and an old sweater — the backbones of contemporary fiction are back. With “Our Missing Hearts” (Oct. 4), Celeste Ng returns with her first novel since “Little Fires Everywhere, ” to tell the particular lightly dystopian story of a near future America of laws that dictate “official” culture. Chicago’s Scott Turow has a charming new legal thriller, “Suspect” (Sept. 27), that lends a bit of “Better Call Saul” irreverence. John Irving is back from an extended hiatus with strange new family secrets in “The Last Chairlift” (Oct. 18). And since the once loathed historical-fiction genre is having a moment: Orhan Pamuk has “Nights of Plague” (Oct. 4), the pandemic novel set during the Ottoman Empire, and Maggie O’Farrell — whose acclaimed 2020 hit “Hamnet” brought soul to tired old speculative Shakespeare tales — delivers another graceful potboiler in “The Marriage Portrait. ” The setting is Renaissance Italy. The heroine is duchess Lucrezia de Medici. I hear this didn’t go well.
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