Fall Preview 2012: New York’s indie booksellers recommend the best new reads

The books of fall. ()
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When author and bookshop employee Emma Straub was singled out recently in Jacob Silverman's Slate essay “Against Enthusiasm” as a prime example of rampant niceness in the online literary world, she took to her Tumblr to respond: “I am a fiction writer, and a bookseller,” she wrote. “It is not my job to point out the flaws in other writers’ work.”

That might mostly be so, but New York’s booksellers are a wily bunch: they have pet favorites and old grudges and lost causes and weird projects. Moreover, their primary work imperative—to get the right book into the right hands—necessarily involves having very strong opinions indeed (whether they are "nice" or not is perhaps less important, as in literary criticism, as if they can comprehend literature and pass on that knowledge to others). When customers routinely approach the counter with requests for "a good story" or "something fun," it's no mean skill to find them something that both satisfies those needs and gives the reader with a whole lot more.

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To preview the books coming out this fall, I decided to ask just such experts at analyzing style, substance, and fun, so I spoke with a few of the city’s independent booksellers about the stuff they’re most excited to read and sell in the next few months. Some of these titles have been hotly anticipated for months, some are set to be sleeper hits, and some … well, some are Synthetic Philosophy of Contemporary Mathematics.

Sarah McNally, owner of McNally Jackson

Mortality by Christopher Hitchens (Sept. 4, Twelve) and Ancient Light by John Banville (Oct. 2, Knopf): A pair of meditations on age and (yes) mortality. The Hitchens is a collection of the Vanity Fair columns written in the wake of his cancer diagnosis; the Banville is novel that looks back wistfully on teenage desire. According to McNally: “[They're] very different writers, but the English language submits absolutely to each man.”

The Poems of Octavio Paz, translated and edited by Eliot Weinberger (Oct. 23, New Directions): “Finally a really complete edition,” writes McNally.

How Music Works by David Byrne (Sept. 12, McSweeney’s): How? The Talking Heads frontman will explain.

The News from Spain by Joan Wickersham (Oct. 10, Knopf): A collection of shorts billed as “Seven Variations on a Love Story” from the author of 2008 memoir The Suicide Index.

Synthetic Philosophy of Contemporary Mathematics by Fernando Zalamea, translated by Zachary Luke Fraser (fall 2012, Sequence): Math philosophy, yes, but written for “the inquisitive nonspecialist” according to its publisher. Fellow McNally Jacksonite Sandeep Bhuller seconds the recommendation, calling the book “a bit of a beautiful mindfuck.”

Pym by Mat Johnson (Sept. 4, Spiegel & Grau): Released last year, but out now in paperback—a satirical novel that tackles race and academia by way of Edgar Allen Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket.


Amanda Bullock, events coordinator at Housing Works Bookstore Café

The Middlesteins by Jami Attenberg (Oct. 23, Grand Central): A Chicago family tries to save its matriarch, Edie, from her uncontrollable overeating. Per Bullock: “A touching, very funny, honest, and sharp look at marriage and relationships, family ties, and, of course, our insatiable national food culture. The descriptions of the Chinese food at Edie's favorite restaurant are maddeningly mouthwatering; and now I put cinnamon in everything.” Christine Onorati, owner of Word bookstore, also recommends The Middlesteins—and has plenty of signed copies on hand, as Attenberg is an occasional Word bookseller.

Laura Lamont's Life in Pictures by Emma Straub (Sept. 4, Riverhead): A debut novel about golden-age Hollywood—“I loved her story collection Other People We Married,” wrote Bullock.

This is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz (Sept. 11, Riverhead) and NW by Zadie Smith (Sept. 4, Penguin): The literary world waited long enough—Diaz returns with a collection of stories for his first book since 2007’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao and Smith with her first novel since 2005’s On Beauty. Bullock: “I would read anything they wrote ever all the time.”

Jessica Bagnulo, co-owner of Greenlight Bookstore

Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon (Sept. 11, Harper) and NW by Zadie Smith: Bagnulo describes two of fall’s most anticipated releases as “love letters” to Berkeley and London, respectively. Chabon’s novel revolves around two families (the husbands run a record store; the wives deliver babies) in Berkeley, where the author has lived since 1997. Smith’s, meanwhile, revisits northwest London, her childhood home.

The Dangers of Proximal Alphabets by Kathleen Alcott (Sept. 11, Other Press): Alcott, a Rumpus contributor, writes a debut novel about childhood relationships that get complicated in adulthood, as they tend to.

The Devil in Silver by Victor LaValle (August 21, Spiegel & Grau)—set in an asylum where one of the inmates may be the devil, it’s literary genre fiction that also tackles “big themes,” says Bagnulo. (Read the Capital New York profile of LaValle here.)

Jenn Northington, event manager at Word

The People of Forever are Not Afraid by Shani Boianjiu (Sept. 11, Hogarth): A debut novel about young women in the Israeli army from a dauntingly young (25-year-old) author.

Spillover by David Quammen (Oct. 1, Norton): Prepare to feel freaked out afresh about ebola: Quammem has gone looking for “the next human pandemic,” which will likely be a disease that crosses over from animals to people.

Familiar by J. Robert Lennon (Oct. 2, Graywolf): A woman slips into an alternate version of her life, and no one else remembers the way things were before. Northington calls it a “whacked-out intellectual thriller.”

Emma Straub of BookCourt

Dear Life by Alice Munro (Nov. 13, Knopf): A new collection from the short story master, “which is obviously going to be perfect,” says Straub.

The Twelve by Justin Cronin (Oct. 16, Ballantine): The follow-up to 2010’s The Passage and the second book in the author's post-apocalyptic trilogy.

Object Lessons, edited by Lorin Stein and Sadie Stein (Oct. 2, Picador): Contemporary authors choose their favorite short stories from The Paris Review's archives for this new anthology.

The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling (Sept. 27, Little, Brown): The debut adult offering from an up-and-coming British children’s-book author. “I love Harry Potter and I believe in her,” says Straub.

And Telegraph Avenue, although she’s been sitting on a galley for months and hasn’t read it yet: “I always like to wait for all the buzz to die down.”

A few non-bookseller bonuses

A Free Man by Aman Sethi (October, Norton): Vivid and funny narrative nonfiction about an Indian day laborer—and about the slippery relationship between a journalist and his subject.

Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis (Oct. 2, NYRB): Sometimes I feel like NYRB Classics may be duping me (with their attractive spines, their heavy pages, their effusive jacket copy) but this Kingsley Amis campus comedy is a book I have seriously been meaning to read, perhaps waiting for just the right reissue. With an introduction by Keith Gessen.

Microscripts by Robert Walser, translated by Susan Bernofsky (Nov. 21, New Directions): After being confined to an asylum, Walser wrote his stories on scraps of paper using tiny, private shorthand that wasn’t deciphered until years after his death. The new paperback includes illustrations by Maira Kalman as well as facsimiles of the microscripts themselves.