5 New Books You Need to Read This September
While we’re sad about the passing of yet another summer, we’re excited to enter peak publishing season, where all the biggest releases come out just in time for all the holidays. We’re not saying you have to start prepping your best-of-the-year lists yet, but we do have some serious contenders vying for a spot on that inevitable endeavor on our list this month. These contenders include: Jia Tolentino’s cultural critique, Ibram X. Kendi’s advice on how to be an antiracist, a deep dive into incredible (and incredibly illegal) adventures on the high seas, and more.
Trick Mirror by Jia Tolentino
Alex: Jia Tolentino is not your typical New Yorker writer. The 30-year-old from Texas got her start writing for publications like The Hairpin and Jezebel, and the feminist irreverence of those sites is well represented in her current writings for the venerable weekly. Which makes it simultaneously surprising and seemingly inevitable that she’s become something of a cult favorite at The New Yorker, inspiring a great number of people — but especially women of a certain age and cohort — to speak of Tolentino in tones of rapture. Even before her debut collection of essays, Trick Mirror, came out this past month, she had been earning comparisons to Joan Didion; an apt comparison, given both writers' simultaneous stature as brilliant cultural critics and icons of a certain type of intelligentsia-chic. (And I have to imagine Trick Mirror’s cover designer was explicitly seeking the visual comparison to Slouching Towards Bethlehem and The White Album.) On that front, there are few surprises in Trick Mirror: the author’s fascinations with the self in the age of the Internet, with seeking depth in a world of simple pleasures, and with the expert doling out of high-low cultural references, are all on display in these essays. But her first book also gives Tolentino more room to turn her critic’s eye towards herself, and she’s at her best when examining the contradiction inherent in her personal success within the structures she critiques. This ambivalence about the opportunities and concessions of modern fame is precisely what confirms Tolentino’s place as a voice of her generation — however dubious an honor she might find that to be.
How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi
Katie: Consider yourself not racist? I challenge you to read Ibram X. Kendi’s mind-opening new book. Being not racist is not enough. In order to combat racism and create “a more just and equitable society,” we all must strive to be antiracist. The author and history professor reminds us that we are all individually responsible for choosing to act against racism in each moment.
Dr. Kendi won the National Book Award for Nonfiction for his 2016 book, Stamped from the Beginning, which exams the history of racist ideas, including those of people who mean well, but still act in a racist way. In the middle of a national debate about racism and its violent consequences, he continues to tackle the sensitive topic head-on with How To Be an Antiracist, which hit The New York Times best sellers list as soon as it dropped. Rooted in historical-research and intellectual curiosity, this is a stunner of a guide to the differences between being racist, not racist, and antiracist.
Learn the difference between being “not racist” (like claiming to be “post-racial,” “race-neutral,” or “color blind”) and being “antiracist,” and how the the two have shaped US history. This is an essential guide for anyone determined to act against hate and racial inequities.
Year of the Monkey by Patti Smith (release date: September 24)
Alex (again!): It feels like a fool’s errand to try to write up Patti Smith’s latest book — or, really, to write up any of her books at all. It’s hard to even know how to categorize Year of the Monkey, just as it’s always been difficult to categorize the rocker-poet-artist-author. I’ll try nevertheless: The book is a slim and mystical memoir of just one year in Smith’s life, but it’s also a philosophical and poetic examination of time, memory, age, and art. The memoir focuses on 2016, the year in which Smith turned 70; the year she lost her dear friend, producer, and manager, Sandy Pearlman; the year she watched the ongoing decline of another dear friend, the playwright Sam Shepherd; the year she embarked on a tour alongside a strange (and possibly metaphorical) friend; and then there was the small matter of the presidential election of that year. Though that’s plenty of biographical detail to contend with, Year of the Monkey has more in common with the quiet musings of M Train than the more truly biographical nostalgia of Just Kids. Still, I think a fan of any of Smith’s many artistic hats would find much to admire here. Which is probably the real reason it’s a fool’s errand to write up a new Patti Smith book: all you really need to say is “new Patti Smith book.”
The Outlaw Ocean by Ian Urbina
Ashley: Ian Urbina’s eye-opening exposé about the lives of pirates, poachers, stowaways, environmental vigilantes, and other sailors and slaves of the high seas is easily the best book I’ve read thus far this year. Every chapter is riveting, telling the story of a different band of seafarers each time, from governmental officials in Palau trying to police hundreds of thousands of miles of ocean with only one boat, to a wide cast of characters using loopholes in the law to further their own political agendas, to indentured servants working for companies committing horrible human rights violations with near impunity. All stories add shades to Urbina’s main point that the sea is a paradoxical beast, both romanticized for its freeing nature and one of the most confining spaces to spend any length of significant time. It’s a place “where lore holds as much sway as law.”
If the wild tales told in The Outlaw Ocean prove anything, it’s that lore may hold more sway than law while lost at sea, and it helps explain how and why nearly one in five fish that make it to our plates got there illegally. It’s hard to get a holistic picture of a landscape that covers more than 70 percent of the Earth’s surface, but Urbina does a damned fine job finding the most fascinating ships in the ocean and revealing a world most of us hardly ever see.
Inland by Téa Obreht
Alex (is just an overachiever at this point): I’ve only just started Tea Obreht’s much-hyped latest novel, but visions of dusty chaparral have already started to crowd my dreams. Inland is a magical-realism Western full of ghosts and premonitions and the more quotidian cowboy woes of finding water and escaping the sheriff, all laddering into a sort of microcosm of the great American myths. In that, it reminds me of George Saunders’ similarly ghost-ridden work of historical fiction, Lincoln in the Bardo. Both seem to be a sort of Great American Novel in retrospect, a realization of the stories we tell ourselves and their sometimes heroic, sometimes dubious, and often odd origins. And given Obreht’s beautiful, eerie writing — she brings the whisperings of spirits and the desperate thirst of the desert sun to life in equal measure — I can only imagine Inland will follow in the award-winning steps of Lincoln in the Bardo.
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