The end of summer is a bittersweet time. For every celebration of sweater season or falling leaves, there’s a note of mourning for summer swims and balmy nights. One unalloyed joy: the start of Big Book season. Here, Vogue editors and contributors tally up what they’ve sampled—and deliver their verdict of the best the season has to offer.
A Visible Man: A Memoir by Edward Enninful (September 6)
The memoir from British Vogue’s editor-in-chief Edward Enninful has already been delightfully sampled for our readers, but something would be amiss if we didn’t note it here as well. Charting Enninful’s earliest days in Ghana to his family’s emigration to London (where they settled under the “soggy skies” and repressive policies of Margaret Thatcher’s Britain), to his rise to the EIC seat and his wedding—punctuated by an 11th-hour arrival by Rihanna—A Visible Man (Penguin Press) is both a chronicle of a singular life and a universally inspiring portrait of ambition. As Enninful writes in his introduction of his dubious stance toward memoir: “Why look back when you can look forward?” It’s our good fortune that he does both. —Chloe Schama
Strangers to Ourselves: Unsettled Minds and the Stories that Make Us by Rachel Aviv (September 13)
Combining the cool poise of Janet Malcolm and the confessional bravery of Joan Didion, journalist and New Yorker staff writer Rachel Aviv challenges the way we think about mental illness in her absorbing debut, Strangers to Ourselves: Unsettled Minds and the Stories that Make Us (FSG). Through half a dozen vivid case studies–one being the story of her own hospitalization at age six—she unravels medical diagnoses and demonstrates how societal narratives around illness take hold. The result is a fascinating and empathetic look at the mysterious ways our minds can fail us. —Taylor Antrim
Lessons by Ian McEwan (September 13)
Ian McEwan’s new novel Lessons (Knopf) is rangingly ambitious, teasingly autobiographical, and unsettling in the manner of his best work, a story of monstrous behavior set against major tides of the last 70 years. Roland Baines, a kind of spectator to history, is our hero—the product of a quintessentially English boarding school, a frustrated poet, occasional tennis instructor, and better-than-average piano player. The episode that shapes his life occurs in the opening pages, during a piano lesson with Miriam Cornell, a young instructor at Roland’s school. While teaching him Bach, she pinches his bare leg, an act of sexual sadism that leads, eventually, to the real thing in her bed. Roland never quite recovers from this wildly predatory affair (he 14, she 25). And in adulthood, another villain awaits: his first wife, Alissa Baines, who leaves him and their newborn son so that she can pursue a soaring literary career unencumbered. How can a novel populated by such (notably female) cruelty feel so expansively humanist? Roland is both haunted by trauma and able to push away from it, toward love (a second marriage), parenthood, forgiveness, grace. Lessons is a luminous, beautifully written, and oddly gripping book about lives imperfectly lived. —T.A.
Bliss Montage by Ling Ma (September 13)
We’re in the thick of a dystopian golden age, but the indisputable leader of the pandemic lit pack came out in 2018. Ling Ma’s Severance was half tongue-in-cheek critique of capitalism, half science fiction about a group of New Yorkers fleeing a fatal airborne epidemic believed to have originated in Shenzhen, China. In Bliss Montage (FSG), her panic-slicked and wildly inventive new short story collection, the author continues to mine anxieties particular to our time. The narrator of “Los Angeles” lives with her uncommunicative husband and her 100 ex-boyfriends. “G,” named after the recreational drug that two young women take together in order to become invisible, gives a new spin to the notion of “ghosting.” The awful term “geriatric pregnancy” becomes a literal horror story in “Tomorrow,” whose protagonist must conceal the arm that is developing on the outside of her body—a common aspect of high-risk pregnancies, her doctor crisply informs her. These eight tales don’t build up to traditional climaxes, but the tension between the familiar and the unfathomable pulses on every page. —Lauren Mechling
Lucy by the Sea by Elizabeth Strout (September 20)
Elizabeth Strout has kept her readers well acquainted with the doings of Lucy Barton, a bestselling writer (like Strout herself) from a devastatingly poor background, twice married and now a widow with two adult daughters, who in last year’s diverting novel Oh, William forged a kind of chummy detente with her first husband, William, as he discovered a hidden past. In Strout’s poised and moving Lucy by the Sea (Random House), Lucy and William are fleeing Manhattan in the face of COVID and setting up a lockdown life in Maine. It is only in the steady hands of Strout, whose prose has an uncanny, plainspoken elegance, that you will want to relive those early months of wiping down groceries and social isolation. Here, the Maine landscape is gorgeously rendered in its COVID hush, and Strout balances the tension of viral spread with the complex minuet of Lucy and William coming to terms with their resentments and enduring love. This is a slim, beautifully controlled book that bursts with emotion. —T.A.
Stay True by Hua Hsu (September 27)
Hua Hsu’s steady, searching memoir, Stay True (Doubleday), brings a certain 1990s collegiate persona into clarion focus: the undergraduate who is highly cultivated in his interests (Pavement yes, Pearl Jam no; cigarettes yes, alcohol no; indie films yes, fraternity parties no), a young Gen Xer studiedly indifferent to mainstream culture, and rigorously obsessed with what’s cool. As an undergrad at Berkeley, Hsu was this person to a T and his memoir digs, in a lovely, low-key way beneath the surface of the pose. Hsu’s Taiwanese parents immigrated to the U.S. and harbored a kind of poignant enthusiasm for their new lives–especially his father who was interested in his son’s thoughts about everything and anything. Hsu is an intellectual slacker who studies rhetoric and political science, but is outwardly bored by most everything, a creator of Zines and a cultivator of misfit friends. One friend, named Ken, bucks the trend. Ken is handsome, into Dave Matthews, and likes (the horror!) swing dancing. Hua has a curious bond with him in spite of all that and then when Ken is killed in horrific circumstances, Hsu is unmoored. A moving portrait of a persona undone by tragedy. –T. A.
Less Is Lost by Andrew Sean Greer (September 20)
Arthur Less, the protagonist of Andrew Sean Greer’s Pulitzer-winning 2017 novel Less, cobbled together an around-the-world tour as an excuse to decline an invitation to the wedding of an ex-boyfriend. Less Is Lost (Little Brown), the tenderhearted sequel, follows our fiftyish “Minorish American Novelist” on another odyssey, this one cross-country and slightly less cosmopolitan than its precursor. Less has just learned that he owes 10 years of back rent to the estate of his former lover, and so he must steer himself toward financial salvation. Divine interventions rain down in the form of moderately paying speaking engagements, magazine assignments, and regional theater adaptations of his work—as well as an RV that an ailing writer conveniently offloads on him. Less gives #vanlife a try, driving from the Mojave Desert to the Mississippi River to the eastern seaboard. His nomadland features more merry japes than sky-high stakes, all narrated with a wit and wistfulness that call to mind the work of David Sedaris and John Updike. The key pleasure of this adventure tale is bouncing along to burnished prose that never takes itself too seriously. —L.M.
Our Missing Hearts by Celeste Ng (October 4)
They mess you up, your mom and dad, and that’s before we take into account the possibility that your mother might be a dissident poet who has been on the loose for most of your life and your father a laconic gloom cloud who is unable to stock the fridge with fresh milk. Set in a terrifying and tensely surveilled near future, Celeste Ng’s clenched fist of a novel Our Missing Hearts (Penguin Press) tells the story of Bird, a 12-year-old boy gasping for hope and love in an America that runs on scapegoating and fear-mongering. The nation has undergone an economic and political crisis of unseen proportions, and the recently passed (and popular) laws of the land codify racism and sanction the removal of children from the homes of suspected subversives. Margaret Atwood once said that nothing in her dystopian classic The Handmaid’s Tale “didn’t happen, somewhere,” and Ng follows in this tradition. Her feverishly anticipated follow-up to Little Fires Everywhere is a grab bag of all too familiar societal ills: patriotism gone haywire, a tide of anti-Asian racism and violence, and a gross curtailment of personal freedoms. In her story of Bird’s quest for his mother, Ng has crafted an unwaveringly dark fairy tale for a world that has stopped making sense. —L.M.
Which Side Are You On by Ryan Lee Wong (October 4)
Ryan Lee Wong’s debut, Which Side Are You On (Catapult) is a sharply observed story of an earnest Asian American activist considering dropping out of college to dedicate himself to organizing. As he draws out lessons from his mother, who was part of a South Central Black-Asian coalition in the 1980s, he begins to question his understanding of himself. Set in the Los Angeles of Korean BBQ joints, hot-yoga studios, and K-town clubs and against the backdrop of a real-life police shooting involving an Asian American cop (which revealed strife within that community), the story, both moving and funny, is sure to speak powerfully to the many who struggle to find hope and joy in an unjust world. —Lisa Wong Macabasco
Dinosaurs by Lydia Millet (October 11)
All great literature is one of two stories; a man goes on a journey or a stranger comes to town, as Leo Tolstoy put it. Environmentalist and novelist Lydia Millet’s Dinosaurs (Norton) ticks both boxes, and comes at its modern themes (e.g. climate change, the dissolution of community) from a delightfully unique slant. 45-year-old Gil’s magazine editor girlfriend of fifteen years has left him for a professional cyclist. His response is to leave behind his Manhattan apartment and walk across the United States, eventually settling down in Phoenix. He can’t help noticing the family who lives next door in the glass-walled house, and gradually he gains a foothold in their ecosystem. In lesser hands, this set-up would be the first act of a Patricia Highsmith ripoff, but Millet has written a gentle and meditative work. Gil works through memories of his past life—his cold-hearted ex-girlfriend, and a childhood tragedy that sent his life off its axis—while finding his new place in the world. Gil’s attention to natural life is one of the book’s most compelling threads. “He didn’t have much interest in classifying them,” Millet writes. “They were hovering jewels.” This attitude is of a piece with Gil’s deceptively spiritual approach to life. Tender but never sentimental, wearing its intelligence in a low-slung style, Dinosaur is a garden of earthly delights. —L.M.
Marigold and Rose by Louise Glück (October 11)
Pulitzer- and Nobel Prize-winning poet Louise Glück makes her first foray into narrative fiction with the sweet Marigold and Rose (FSG). The book centers on twin sisters in their first year of life, unfolding like a fable as they slowly come to grips with time, safety, happiness, loss, and the vagaries of communication. (Marigold, who fancies herself a writer even before she can read, is surprised when Rose starts speaking first—and loudly. “Rose,” Glück writes, “looked more likely to have a gentle murmur, so that people would lean close. She wants them to see her eyelashes, Marigold thought.”) Reed-slim, it teems with small wisdoms and lilts like a lullaby. —Marley Marius
The Women of Rothschild by Natalie Livingstone (October 25)
Natalie Livingstone’s deeply researched and panoramic history spanning two centuries, The Women of Rothschild (St. Martin’s Press), proceeds from the startling fact that Mayer Amschel Rothschild, the 18th-century patriarch of this enormous banking dynasty, explicitly wrote all his female descendants and the wives of his male descendants out of his will. Nevertheless the women in this powerful family, one of the wealthiest in all of Europe, distinguished themselves as behind-the-scenes businesswomen, arts patrons, political activists, scientists, feminists, and nonconformists of all stripes. The Rothschilds had their roots in the Jewish ghetto of Frankfurt—captured vividly in the book’s opening chapters—and quickly came to populate the highest ranks of society in London and Paris. Chapters about the Victorian circles the Rothschilds moved in have some of the intrigue of Wharton or James, with controversial marriages, intra-family rivalries, social gossip, and love affairs to keep track of. This is a rich history to dip in and out of–each generation of the tangled family tree provides Livingstone with fascinating women of wealth and influence who found important ways to defy the expectations of their era. –T.A.
Liberation Day by George Saunders (October 18)
With Liberation Day (Random House), George Saunders has delivered another collection of dark fantasias and absurdist satire, short fiction that reflects our fallen world back with ribald humor and unexpected grace. If you’ve been reading Saunders since 1996’s CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, his first and still greatest collection, you may feel you know the drill–wildly imaginative, mordantly funny tales from a bent future, often starring an underclass of workers in excruciating conditions. There are a few of those in Liberation Day, including the long titular story in which humans attached to the wall of a wealthy couple’s house have been programmed to entertain with songs and stories about the Old West. No one can pull this sort of thing off like Saunders, who wraps his judgments about American decline and middle-class pathos into wild leaps of pitch-dark comedy. —T.A.
Foster by Claire Keegan (November 1)
In Claire Keegan’s Foster (Grove), first published by The New Yorker as a short story in 2010 and now expanded to a novella, the Irish writer traces the journey of a nameless girl who is palmed off to distant relatives in a bucolic corner of rural County Wexford for a summer while her poverty-stricken, neglectful parents prepare for the birth of their next child. What unspools from there is a deceptively complex coming-of-age tale, both intimate and richly expansive, as the girl’s foster family provides her with the room and space to blossom, before a heartbreaking secret threatens to shatter her newfound idyll. Balancing Keegan’s delicate, sparing prose and masterful ear for dialogue with a tale that is almost overwhelming in its tenderness, Foster is a heart-wrenching treasure of a book that only serves to confirm Keegan’s place as one of contemporary Irish literature’s leading lights. —Liam Hess
I Wouldn’t Do That If I Were Me: Modern Blunders and Modest Triumphs (But Mostly Blunders) by Jason Gay (November 1)
This delightful, eclectic collection of essays from Wall Street Journal sports reporter (and Vogue contributor) Jason Gay offers something like a philosophy on modern life, dressed down with self-deprecating wit and a hearty dash of sarcasm. Gay rushes headlong into his mistakes, watches them compile, and extracts if not wisdom, a kind of wise resignation that such snafus are inevitable and better delighted in than mourned. The opening essay of I Wouldn’t Do That If I Were Me (Hachette), “Vroom,” manages to be both light on its feet and philosophical—an impressive juxtaposition considering it’s extracted from a trip to the Daytona 500 with his six-year-old son. Whether he’s dissecting the exquisite banality of texting (credit to Gay’s wife for allowing him to excerpt their exchanges regarding the relative merits of pharmacy ointments versus gels) or illicit pet transfers in the early pandemic days (credit to his mother for receiving Baxter the cat and giving Gay the occasion for his contemplation), Gay is a delightfully personable guide to our strange times. —C.S.
My Pinup by Hilton Als (November 1)
Nine years since he published his surprise word-of-mouth hit, the wickedly playful treatise on identity and art White Girls—and seven since he won a Pulitzer Prize—Hilton Als returns with another slice of razor-sharp cultural criticism, this time clocking in at a brisk but perfectly judged 48 pages. Billed as “a paean to Prince,” My Pinup (New Directions) is as much a deep dive into Prince’s place in the Black, queer consciousness as it is a memoir-like evocation of the musician’s personal significance to Als. Alongside his rapid-fire inquiries into Prince’s relationship to everything from authorship to the color purple—as well as anecdotes from the various times he saw Prince on tour, including a brief meeting with “The Artist” himself—Als weaves in a more personal tale of unrequited love. “In time I would find my Prince, but when I did it was complicated,” he writes. An entertaining and erudite insight into Prince’s sacred (and often profane) legacy, My Pinup slips down like a cool, crisp martini.—L.H.
Toad by Katherine Dunn (November 1)
Best known for her influential sleeper hit of a novel, 1989’s Geek Love, Katherine Dunn’s life story is almost as improbable as her wild tales. (Having escaped her abusive upbringing, Dunn lived in poverty while building an unlikely career as a boxing journalist, eventually becoming a beloved elder stateswoman of Portland’s alt-lit scene.) This November, her previously unpublished novel Toad (FSG) will finally see the light of day. Written through the prism of a thinly-veiled version of Dunn herself, the book traces the protagonist’s reflections from the hedonism of her college days to her current reclusive state, with merely a goldfish and a garden toad for company. As seductive as it is deeply strange, Dunn’s whip-smart prose and pitch-black humor make Toad an illicit treat. —L.H.
Now Is Not the Time to Panic: A Novel by Kevin Wilson (November 8)
Kevin Wilson’s Now Is Not the Time to Panic (Ecco) has the feel of a long-gestating work: a novel about creativity and childhood that seems as though its author has been mulling it since his own youth. It bears the markers of Wilson’s style—cleverly cute without tipping over into saccharine territory. Here Wilson tells the story of two teenage misfits who find one another during a listless summer and create a poster that sets an entire community on edge when it is posted anonymously on bulletin boards and telephone poles around town. The novel unravels what happens as the duo’s friends and neighbors imbue the poster with their own sometimes paranoid, sometimes comic significance, and the bond that ensues between two young adults who share a secret. Though the book has an earnest heart, it’s colored by Wilson’s appealingly offbeat prose, so that even the most straightforward coming-of-age moments have a funky freshness. —C.S.
The Lemon by S.E. Boyd (November 8)
Sure to set the food world abuzz, The Lemon (Viking) tells the story of how the shocking suicide of one beloved restaurant staffer turned writer turned culinary travel show host ricochets throughout his circle of confidants, handlers, and hangers-on, from a has-been celebrity chef to an immigrant restaurant owner and a lowly young digital-media writer. If it sounds uncomfortably familiar, that’s because S.E. Boyd is the nom de plume of two veteran journalists and one book editor who know a thing or two about high-brow dining and low-brow media. Befitting of its title, the caustic novel is an archly acidic look at the celebrity death industrial complex and all those who seek to seize the narrative—and the spotlight—in the wake of a famous person’s death. —L.W.M.
Flight: A Novel by Lynn Steger Strong (November 8)
Lynn Steger Strong’s last novel, Want was a crisply executed chronicle of struggle: a galloping tour through one woman’s conflicted consciousness as she charted a path through 20-teens New York. Flight (Mariner) has the same psychological intensity but is something rangier, a shifting third-person pastiche of free indirect discourse bouncing between family members who have gathered at their brother’s house to celebrate the holidays and figure out their inheritance (another house, specifically; property always being more compelling than money). Steger Strong dispenses with grounding backstory, instead plunging the reader into the swirling histories between her characters, building a compelling portrait of how love and resentment are often twin sides of the same coin. Flight is its own portrait of struggle and strife, and yet a smooth and utterly compelling read. Steger Strong has a raw and unflinching originality. —C.S.
I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise: A Life of Bunny Mellon by Mac Griswold (November 15)
A portrait of iconoclasm and artistry backed by unimaginable wealth, Mac Griswold’s finely detailed biography I’ll Build a Stairway to Heaven: A Life of Bunny Mellon (FSG) captures Mellon’s talent for an aesthetic of restrained sophistication–unprepossessing interiors and gardens, as effortless as they are elegant–and the extent of her domestic empire: eight houses, staffed by some 350 employees. Mellon is best known for designing the Kennedy White House Rose Garden; what’s striking and wonderfully vivid here is the view into her childhood, her boarding school upbringing in horse country Virginia, and her two marriages, the second to Paul Mellon, whose world-class art collection Bunny exerted a quiet and profound influence upon. The marriage was, poignantly, less about love and intimacy, more of an arrangement of mutual benefit, which left Bunny—deeply connected but wary of attachment—free to pursue her aesthetic passions. Lively, intelligent reading. —T.A.
Dickens and Prince by Nick Hornby (November 15)
What do Prince and Charles Dickens have in common? Perhaps not that much except the admiration of Nick Hornby, a writer whose enthusiasms have always fueled the best of his work. The 19th-century English novelist and 20th-century American pop star were both staggeringly prolific, of course, the starting point for Dickens and Prince (Riverhead), an ardent fan letter from Hornby that makes you want to re-read Great Expectations while listening to Sign o’ the Times. This slim, companionable volume combines biography—Dickens’s impoverished childhood, Prince’s bruising battle with his record label—as it champions the creative impulse to always make more: more novels, more songs. A love letter to maximalism. —T.A.
Shirley Hazzard: A Writing Life by Brigitta Olubas (November 15)
Shirley Hazzard once told The Paris Review that she thought literature should be an “intensification of life” and in this new and meticulously crafted biography, Shirley Hazzard: A Writing Life (Macmillan), scholar Brigitta Olubas knits together the writer’s eventful life with the literature it became. Born into Depression-era Australia, Hazard moved to Hong Kong when her father became a diplomat, and then New York, where she worked at the United Nations (some of her writing would be sharply critical of the institution), and Europe with her writer husband Francis Steegmuler. Olubas’s biography is more than just a map of the author’s movements, though; it’s an account, as she puts it, of “a writer in the process of making herself,” chronicling how geographic, political, and psychic influences coalesce in a refined deeply insightful perspective. Hazard’s now-classic novel, The Transit of Venus (published in 1980), somehow still flies under the radar, though it inspires cultish devotion among those who have read it. This new account of her life should confirm her as one of the 20th century’s greatest novelists. —C.S.
How Far the Light Reaches: A Life in Ten Sea Creatures by Sabrina Imbler (December 6)
In this engrossing debut essay collection, How Far the Light Reaches: A Life in Ten Sea Creatures (Little Brown) science journalist Sabrina Imbler considers their family and coming of age through the enigmatic lens of marine biology. Interrogating how creatures in some of earth’s most hostile, remote environments—much like society’s marginalized communities—continue to adapt and persist, Imbler pulls off an impressive feat: a book about the majestic, bewildering undersea world that also happens to be deeply human. —L.W.M.
A Private Spy: The Letters of John le Carré, edited by Tim Cornwell (December 6)
When John le Carré died in 2020 at the age of 89, few of us who loved his novels—about espionage, yes, but also loyalty and betrayal and duty and love and sadness—were willing to give him up. Le Carré had remained very much on form in his later years with A Delicate Truth, A Legacy of Spies, and Agent Running in the Field—satisfyingly complex novels that were decidedly not evidence of a writer running out of steam. And last year’s posthumous Silverview, sleek and elegant and subdued, was a gratifying return to his world. Now, even better, we have A Private Spy (Viking) a big, rich volume of le Carré’s letters to explore. Le Carré was famously private and resistant to interviews—his confidence man of a father and his own past as an officer with MI5 and MI6 were not subjects he wanted to pour over in public—and so the expansive generosity of these letters is a surprise and quiet delight. He wrote with wit and no lack of self-confidence to family members, friends (among them Tom Stoppard and Stephen Fry), ordinary fans, and several celebrities (Ralph Fiennes, Alec Guinness, Pierce Brosnan). He took his success in stride, eagerly set new research challenges for himself (setting novels in Asia, Africa, and South America) and never backed down from a fight (his reply to executives at Novartis, angry at him following the publication of his novel A Constant Gardner, is lethal). A Private Spy is companionable and transporting—a portrait of a writer who cut an intelligent path through the world, and lived on his own painstakingly uncompromising terms. —T.A.