Top Reads for August
The final full month of summer brings a lot of big new releases and book-to-movie adaptations, including: the (deservedly) hyped The Incendiaries by debut author R.O. Kwon, the next blockbuster YA dystopian The Darkest Minds, Michiko Kakutani’s investigation into the rise of fake news, and more.
Alex: It seems like R.O. Kwon’s slim debut novel, The Incendiaries, has been everywhere this summer. I’m about 20 pages away from finishing it, and can now confirm: it is absolutely worth the hype. The novel follows Will and Phoebe, two college students struggling with grief in their own ways, and then together — until Phoebe finds herself the focus of a mysterious cult-like figure, and is drawn more and more into his fanatic world. It’s very much a story about devotion — to faith, to love, to causes — and the ways that devotion can be simultaneously comforting and blinding.
Even more entrancing than this gripping plot, though, is Kwon’s language. She writes in gorgeous, lyrical prose that is somehow never gratuitous. Victoria Namkung, in her interview with Kwon for Longreads, described the novel as a “poetic thriller”; I think that captures the rare combination that makes this such a beautiful and entertaining read.
The Darkest Minds
Ashley: Ever since the record-breaking success of The Hunger Games films, a new dystopian YA book-to-movie adaptation has been there to (at least attempt to) fill the void. This year, the honor goes to The Darkest Minds by Alexandra Bracken, about American teens who gain superpowers and get sent to internment camps to contain the unknown, potential threat they pose to society.
Though the series originally came out back in 2012, it has only become more relevant with time: It’s hard not to think of the immigrant children currently being held in detention camps by ICE while reading. The main band of kids (Ruby, Liam, Chubs, and Zu) form an electric friendship after they breakout from their camps and try to find a safe space to live. The twists and turns come at all the right points to keep you on the edge of your seat during this wild minivan chase through the nearly deserted roads of Virginia. Yes, you’ve seen all these tropes before, but they’re still thrilling here, and with a star-studded cast (Amandla Stenberg AND Mandy Moore in one movie?! My Hunger Games and A Walk to Remember-loving heart can’t take this much joy in my dystopias), I’m excited to see this one on the big screen.
The Death of Truth
Alex (again!): I confess that when I first started listening to Michiko Kakutani’s new work on the factors that lead to our current crisis of truth, I worried it’d be another exercise in outrage politics. I’d say I’m fairly well-versed in the horror show of our current political debate, and the general demeaning of expertise across society; did I need to be reminded, once more, that it was happening, and of all the ways it spelled doom for democracy? But indeed I started listening to it, and I’m happy I did.
Kakutani goes well beyond the most recent manifestations of lies in politics in tracing the origins of the trend; in fact, she goes beyond politics altogether. Tying much of our current discourse on “alternative facts” to the academic emergence of post-modernism in the liberal arts, she cleanly traces that movement’s focus on individual interpretations and the validity of multiple perspectives to the plausible deniability that is tramped out again and again in political interviews. It’s a terribly convenient sidestep for a politician; it may not be what YOU saw, or what YOU heard, but who decided you were the arbiter of truth? I’d never examined the trend from this angle before, and while these notions aren't necessarily comforting, they are, at least, enlightening.
Marissa: Good Omens is the story of how the apocalypse got completely derailed. When the Anti-Christ is delivered to Earth as a baby, a prudish angel and a brash demon who’ve gotten a little too used to the mortal lifestyle vie for control over how he’ll be raised. Unfortunately, due to a mix-up at the hospital run by Satanic nuns, they’ve got the wrong kid. While Good and Evil begin readying their forces for the last great battle and the four horseman of the apocalypse assemble, they realize the Anti-Christ is missing and a madcap race begins to find the Anti-Christ and forestall the apocalypse.
Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman’s collaboration is a cult classic for a reason. It’s an absurdly funny commentary on good vs. evil, nature vs. nurture, and the true nature of free choice. If you’re a fan of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and haven’t read Good Omens, you’ll definitely want to pick it up before the Amazon series is released.
Also available as an audiobook.
Fight No More
Katie: “Lydia Millet Should Be Way More Famous.” That headline for this New York Magazine article caught my eye. Who’s Lydia Millet?
Turns out she’s a sharp, very funny — darkly funny even — writer. She’s written a ton of books (at least 11 works of literary fiction), been a finalist for the Pulitzer, long-listed for the National Book Award, and racked up accolades from big name writers. And yet, she doesn’t have the name recognition of the top tier authors she’s constantly being compared to, like George Saunders (Lincoln in the Bardo) and Karen Russell (Swamplandia! and Magic for Beginners).
Intrigued by the article, I picked up her new book, Fight No More. A collection of 12 short stories inhabited by connected characters and interlocking plots, it reads like a novel. In it, Millet busts up boundaries all over the pages. The stories are modern and a little bit surreal. Her writing is elegantly sparse, while witty. She manages to nail the tricky balance of being smart without being pretentious — while being wonderfully weird. All this with characters that are at once sympathetic and kind of terrible (in a way that makes you lean in for more).
If you hadn’t heard of Lydia Millet or Fight No More, well, now you know. You’re welcome.
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