Best Books of Fall 2021

Mariana Salvo

Practically every season, we say, “This is the best season in books ever.” But this fall, we really, really mean it. As Saturday Night Live’s Stefon would say, this season in books has everything: hotly-anticipated new novels from buzzy contemporary writers, gripping nonfiction about the most pressing issues of our lifetimes, and even the return of long-dormant literary giants like Joy Williams and Gayl Jones. What more could you possibly want?

Our favorite books of the fall are a varied bunch. They set their scenes everywhere from medieval Europe to a dystopian New York City of the future. They take varied forms, but also question what those forms can do—how memoir can be porous, how fiction can be metafiction, how poetry and prose can fuse. These books offer escape, education, and spiritual enlargement—whatever you’re looking for. Enjoy this time, friends, and spend the chilly nights reading as much as you can. It may be awhile before we see another season in books as astoundingly stacked as this one.

Not all of these titles have hit shelves yet, but if you see something you like, do yourself a favor and pre-order it. When it lands on your doorstep in mere weeks, consider it a gift from Past You—and don’t waste any time diving in.


Matrix, by Lauren Groff

Groff’s first novel since Fates and Furies turns the clock back—way back. In these incandescent pages, Groff reverently imagines her way into the life and lore of Marie de France, the twelfth-century poet considered the first woman to write poetry in French. Cast out from the court by Eleanor of Acquitaine, seventeen-year-old Marie washes up at an impoverished English abbey, where she transforms from a reluctant refugee to a fiercely devoted leader. Through great works of construction and community, Marie fashions the now-wealthy abbey into an “island of women,” all while furtively writing the divinely-inspired poems that made her name. Woven from Groff’s trademark ecstatic sentences and brimming with spiritual fervor, Matrix is a radiant work of imagination and accomplishment.


Beautiful World, Where Are You, by Sally Rooney

Expectations are high for Beautiful World, Where Are You, Rooney’s first outing since she became a global literary phenom—and the novel doesn’t disappoint. In these pages, Rooney explores the intertwined lives of four twenty-somethings: in one corner, we have Alice, a novelist who takes up residence in the Irish countryside following a psychiatric breakdown, and Felix, a local warehouse worker with whom Alice begins a noncommittal tryst. Alice’s oldest friends are Eileen, a dissatisfied magazine editor with big ideas, and Simon, Eileen’s on-again, off-again beau, an earnest and devout political activist. In Alice, Rooney’s anxieties about precocious literary success come into view. At once stylistically consistent with her previous novels and touched with a maturing sensibility, Beautiful World, Where Are You lucidly explores the ways we break up and make up in a world on fire.


Home, Land, Security, by Carla Power

Why do people become radicalized, and can militant radicals be rehabilitated? In this provocative and deeply reported look into the emerging field of deradicalization, Power investigates these questions, providing a compassionate look at the myriad forces driving young people into the arms of radical belief systems. Power’s interviews span the globe, taking her inside the homes of the families left behind by ISIS converts, behind the scenes of international rehabilitation centers, and into a Pakistani school for former child soldiers, among other places. In these riveting, character-driven pages, Power encourages us to resist moral binaries of “good and evil” as we work toward countering terrorist groups—and the loved ones held in their sway. 


Poet Warrior: A Memoir

In this triumphant memoir, our three-term Poet Laureate lyrically fuses poetry and prose to capture her Creek Nation family. Harjo considers the myriad forces that made her, from the devastating abuse of her stepfather to the classmates and writers who shaped her literary path. Shining through it all is her mother, a talented and complicated woman whom Harjo loved deeply. Woven into Harjo’s personal story are ancestral stories about the forced migration of the Muscogee Nation to Oklahoma, where Harjo was raised. “I walk in and out of several worlds each day,” Harjo once wrote—and in Poet Warrior, she threads them all together masterfully. 


Now Beacon, Now Sea, by Christopher Sorrentino

Sorrentino’s debut memoir is an unflinching look at the mother who terrified, confounded, and enraged him: Victoria Ortiz, a Puerto Rican woman from the South Bronx who identified on her birth certificate as Black, only to later discard her racial identity and change her name. “My mother’s anger,” Sorrentino writes, charting the contempt and anger that shaped his childhood, “was the latent condition of our household.” In sifting through his family’s folklore to understand the mysteries of his mother’s life, Sorrentino asks himself, “What kind of son are you?” Mothers and sons have rarely been captured with such dark intimacy as in Now Beacon, Now Sea, an open wound of grief and regret. 


Harrow, by Joy Williams

In her first novel since The Quick and the Dead, the inimitable Williams remains as beguilingly strange as ever. When teenage Khristen’s boarding school for gifted children shutters its doors, she roves across the desiccated American West until she washes up at Big Girl, a toxic lake frequented by the elderly residents of a “razed resort.” Together with these ecological terrorists and creative visionaries, Khristen queues up to wait for a looming climate apocalypse, while Williams meditates on finding hope, compassion, and reason as the doomsday clock ticks down. 


Palmares, by Gayl Jones

When Toni Morrison discovered Jones in the seventies, she said of her debut novel, Corregidora, “No novel about any Black woman could ever be the same after this.” Palmares, Jones’ long-awaited fifth novel, is a blistering return to form worth the two decade wait. Set in colonial Brazil, Palmares is the story of Almeyda, a young enslaved woman spirited away to Palmares, the last of the nation’s seven fugitive slave settlements. When Palmares is razed in the night by Portuguese soldiers, Almeyda travels Brazil’s luscious landscapes in search of her missing husband, only to find that it may take a medicine woman’s enchantments to bring him back. Gorgeously suffused with mystery, history, and magic, Palmares is a remarkable new outing from a major voice in American letters. 


Harlem Shuffle, by Colson Whitehead

Whitehead goes back to his literary beginnings in his first noir since The Intuitionist. In Harlem Shuffle, it’s 1959, and used furniture salesman Ray Carney is expecting a second child with his wife. The son of a small-time crook, Ray has worked hard to become an upstanding member of his community, but when money gets tight, Ray is soon wrapped up in a risky caper to rob “the Waldorf of Harlem.” Whitehead’s Harlem—“that rustling, keening thing of people and concrete”—pulses with a vibrant heartbeat, evoked through bars and greasy spoons and Strivers’ Row townhomes. In this page-turning novel about how good people come to justify lives of crime, a master storyteller delivers beautifully rendered people and places.


The Body Scout, by Lincoln Michel

In Michel’s cyberpunk New York of the future, climate change and repeated pandemics have ravaged the city; meanwhile, cybernetic body modification is de rigeur, and Neanderthals roam the earth again. In this dystopian milieu, we meet Kobo, a down-on-his-luck baseball scout who recruits genetically engineered talent for Big Pharma-owned teams. JJ Zunz, Kobo’s adopted brother, is the souped-up superstar of the Monsanto Mets—but when Zunz drops dead on the field, Kobo smells foul play. Kobo’s transformation into an amateur sleuth sends him pinballing through a web of corporate espionage, making for a breathlessly paced techno-thriller.


A Calling for Charlie Barnes, by Joshua Ferris

With A Calling for Charlie Barnes, Ferris has written his finest novel yet: a fabulist yarn about a flawed father in the twilight of his life, whose numerous get-rich-quick schemes and busted marriages have vaulted the American Dream forever out of his reach. Our narrator is Jake Barnes, Charlie’s son, whose earnest but unreliable memories of his father call the narrative’s very fabric into question: how can we rightly remember those closest to us? Does our intimacy blot out the truth? By turns lively, laugh-out-loud funny, and tear-jerking, this is Ferris at the height of his powers. 


I Love You but I’ve Chosen Darkness, by Claire Vaye Watkins

In this daring work of autofiction, a writer named Claire Vaye Watkins boards a plane to a speaking engagement in her hometown of Reno, where she aims to put the discontents of marriage and motherhood behind her. When her past rushes up to meet her, from her self-destructive first love to her father’s entanglement with the Manson Family, Claire’s brief getaway slides into a monthslong stay. Seared in visceral realizations about the pain of her past, Claire can’t go back home again, but how can she move forward? Boldly imagined and authoritatively told, this ambitious novel reminds us that Watkins is one of the most visionary writers working today.


Reprieve, by James Han Mattson

It’s April 1997, and four hopeful contestants have made it to the final room of the Quigley House, a “full contact” haunted escape room in Lincoln, Nebraska. If they can endure the home’s six cells of ghoulish horror without shouting “reprieve,” they’ll win a substantial cash prize, but not everyone will make it out alive. When a man breaks into Quigley House and murders one of the contestants, Reprieve sifts through its characters’ back stories and witness statements to solve the crime. Mattson crafts a nail-biting horror saga while also implicating us in our sick obsession with horror. So too does the novel evoke blistering social horror, forcing us to reckon with how racism, prejudice, and complicity are more horrifying—and more fatal—than anything that goes bump in the night. Unrelenting and unforgettable, Reprieve is an American classic in the making.


Between the Lines: Stories from the Underground, by Uli Beutter Cohen

After these past eighteen months of isolation and despair, the radical connectivity of Between the Lines arrives like manna from heaven. Cohen, the founder of Subway Book Review, brings her long-running documentary project into its sharpest focus yet in this collection of soulful interviews with New York’s readers in transit. Cohen levels with everyone from average New Yorkers to famous writers like Ta-Nehisi Coates and Roxane Gay, producing deeply humanist slices of life and literature. These heartfelt conversations remind us that even in our most solitary activities, we’re never truly alone. 


My Monticello, by Jocelyn Nicole Johnson

In these six remarkable stories, Johnson depicts strivers struggling to survive in a nation where the game is rigged. In “Control Negro,” a professor conducts a social engineering experiment on his Black son to investigate the conditional promises of the American Dream. In “The King of Xandria,” a proud Nigerian immigrant realizes how much immigrating to Virginia has cost him at a parent teacher conference. In the extraordinary title novella, a band of survivors take refuge at Monticello after white supremacists pillage their town; among the plantation’s ghosts, they band together to confront the repeating cycle of racist violence. My Monticello announces the arrival of an electric new literary voice in Johnson, an emerging master of the short story form. 


Oh William!, by Elizabeth Strout

Strout’s Amgash series continues with Oh William!, the winning third installment of her stories about Lucy Barton. Following the death of her second husband, Lucy reconnects with William, her unfaithful first husband, to whom she always remained close through their now-grown daughters. When William discovers a long-lost half sister in Maine, he invites Lucy, not his current wife, on his road trip up the coast. Along the way, Lucy considers the past, present, and future of her relationship with William. Keenly observed and rich with illuminating insight, Strout’s tender mercies continue to astound. 


Everything and Less: The Novel in the Age of Amazon, by Mark McGurl

With its staggering American market share of 50% of printed books and upwards of 75% of ebooks, Amazon has changed literary life as we know it. But the Everything Store hasn’t just changed how we buy books: it’s transformed what we buy, what we read, and how we write, for better and for worse. In this provocative literary history, McGurl draws a line between Amazon’s distribution model and the dissolution of genre boundaries, arguing that Amazon’s algorithm has effectively turned all fiction into genre fiction. In lucid and well-argued prose, McGurl raises important questions about just where all this disruption is taking us. 


Tacky, by Rax King

Jersey Shore fanatics and Guy Fieri devotees, unite: there’s a place for you in Tacky, King’s winning collection of love letters to the much-maligned pop culture properties that shape our lives. From Hot Topic to Creed to the time-honored traditions of the American mall, no cultural artifact goes unheralded in this ode to kitsch, but these essays cut a layer deeper than their surfaces suggest. Tacky is a Trojan horse of a book—it’ll charge into your life with acute, laugh-out-loud observations, then leave you crying about the Cheesecake Factory. Prepare accordingly. 


My Body, by Emily Ratajkowski

Superstar model, entrepreneur, and actress Emily Ratajkowski explodes onto the literary scene with My Body, a revealing and personal exploration of what happens when a woman’s body becomes a commodity. My Body is a fascinating memoir of the objectification and misogyny Ratajkowski experienced as a young model, but also a searing work of cultural criticism about sexuality, power, fame, and consumption. My Body is the brilliant debut of a fearless multihyphenate from whom we’re eager to read more. 


Five Tuesdays in Winter, by Lily King

The acclaimed author of Writers & Lovers returns with ten shimmering stories, each one a gemlike exploration of love, loss, and grief. In the tender title story, a single father of a teenage girl falls in love with a colleague at his used bookstore. In “Waiting for Charlie,” a helpless grandfather rages at his granddaughter’s hospital bedside following a catastrophic accident. “When in Dordogne,” a true standout, sees a neglected teenager come of age when his parents leave him in the care of two college-age housesitters, who teach him what it’s like to feel cared for. Each masterful story reminds us that King is one of our finest cartographers of the human heart. 


The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story, edited by Nikole Hannah-Jones

In this groundbreaking compendium of essays, poems, works of fiction, and photography, Hannah-Jones expands on her Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times Magazine project about the “unparalleled impact” of chattel slavery on American life. These bracing and urgent works, by multidisciplinary visionaries ranging from Barry Jenkins to Jesmyn Ward, build on the existing scholarship of The 1619 Project, exploring how the nation’s original sin continues to shape everything from our music to our food to our democracy. This collection is an extraordinary update to an ongoing project of vital truth-telling.

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