Ten books to read in October

Books to read October

Elizabeth Strout, Olive, Again (Credit: Credit: Random House)

Elizabeth Strout, Olive, Again

Olive Kitteridge, the cantankerous Maine school teacher at the centre of Strout’s Pulitzer-Prize-winning novel, is back, lonely but unbowed. Strout opens with Olive’s prickly courtship with a retired Harvard professor who has also lost a spouse. She follows up with chapters that pivot around Olive’s rare combination of frankness and compassion. Olive delivers a baby in the back seat of her car, visits a former student having chemotherapy, and is unmasked by a poet laureate. An awkward visit from her son’s family leaves her with “a horrible whoosh of the crescendo of truth: She had failed on a colossal level. She had been failing for years and not realised it.” Olive’s regrets, tempered by pleasures – February light, new companions – enrich her late-life insights. (Credit: Random House)

Zadie Smith, Grand Union: Stories (Credit: Credit: Penguin Press)

Zadie Smith, Grand Union: Stories

The genre-spanning, socially acute, often ironic stories in Smith’s first collection highlight a parade of characters, mostly New Yorkers, immersed in a chaotic time. There’s a middle-aged drag queen traipsing across Manhattan during a polar vortex to buy a new corset from a quarrelling couple; three wealthy friends finding a way out of the city on 9/11; a downtown artist tracking the demise of a beloved Village hangout, Café Loup, while taking her Jamaican aunts sightseeing during the Brett Kavanaugh hearings. Smith spans decades – from Stokely Carmichael in the 1960s to a 21st-Century scat singer – in the blink of an eye, slyly dissects political correctness and, in the title story, creates a witty tribute to her warrior mother and other bold women ancestors who have come before. A virtuoso performance. (Credit: Penguin Press)

Hisham Matar, A Month in Siena (Credit: Credit: Random House)

Hisham Matar, A Month in Siena

Matar seeks consolation after completing The Return, the Pulitzer-Prize-winning memoir of his fruitless search for his father, who was kidnapped in Cairo in 1990, imprisoned by Gadaffi and “gradually, like salt dissolving in water, was made to vanish”. He travels to Siena, drawn by a fascination with the Sienese school of painting. He’d discovered Duccio, Ambrogio Lorenzetti et al when he was 20, during regular visits to London’s National Gallery after his father disappeared. Now, he absorbs the unhurried ambience of the Tuscan city while visiting eight seminal paintings – paintings that “articulate a feeling of hope… that what we share is more than what sets us apart”. Through meditations on mortality, loss, government, cruelty, the Black Death, the inclusive camaraderie of the Palio and Siena’s marketplace, Matar shares moments of refreshing solitude. (Credit: Random House)

John le Carré, Agent Running in the Field (Credit: Credit: Viking)

John le Carré, Agent Running in the Field

Le Carré’s head-spinning new novel is inspired by recent tumultuous global events. Nat, 47, is back in London with his human-rights-lawyer wife Prue, after 25 years running agents in Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service in Moscow, Prague, Bucharest, and other former Soviet strongholds. As one last assignment, Nat is charged with reviving Haven, a London-based Russia outstation he sees as a “dumping ground”. Off-duty, he begins a tactically intricate badminton duel with Ed, a grouchy, distracted young researcher. They settle into a pattern of post-match drinks where Ed rails against Brexit and Trump. Nat even does a bit of matchmaking, introducing Ed to his deputy, Florence. By the time Nat recognises the implications of the radical realignment of the Anglo-American alliance, he finds himself under surveillance. (Credit: Viking)

Jami Attenberg, All This Could Be Yours (Credit: Credit: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

Jami Attenberg, All This Could Be Yours

Victor Tuchman, “an angry man”, has built a real-estate empire based on money laundering and other crimes. His wife Barbra, raised in a “family of criminals”, makes sure their two children have no idea where their money comes from, and focuses on acquiring furniture and jewellery. She resents their move from a Connecticut mansion to a New Orleans apartment, after legal action retires Victor from the game. Then he has a heart attack. As he lies dying in hospital, his family convenes, triggering a recap of his life narrated by Barbra, his daughter Alex, a lawyer who wants to unravel the family secrets, and daughter-in-law Twyla, who regrets getting too close to Victor. In her seventh work of fiction, Attenberg explores violence, corruption, infidelity and betrayal – with a satisfying set of consequences. (Credit: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

Daniel Mendelsohn, Ecstasy and Terror (Credit: Credit: New York Review Books)

Daniel Mendelsohn, Ecstasy and Terror

Mendelsohn’s captivating third collection reflects his training as a classicist. His is a vast intellect, spanning centuries and genres with ease, drawing his themes from the emotions in the title story about Euripides’ Bacchae, which recur through many of the works he’s considering. He concludes that Diane J Rayor’s translation of Sappho, the first to include recent finds, the Brothers Poem and the bittersweet Old Age Poem, raises as many questions as it answers. He calls Constantine Cavafy’s work “As good as great poetry gets”. Game of Thrones, he writes, is “a remarkable feminist epic”. He writes movingly of his intimate and influential years-long correspondence with author Mary Renault, begun when he was 15. And in his Critic’s Manifesto, he voices continued confidence in a professional form to which he is devoted. (Credit: New York Review Books)

Adrienne Brodeur, Wild Game (Credit: Credit: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

Adrienne Brodeur, Wild Game

One night in Cape Cod when she was 14, Rennie’s mother Malabar woke her up to tell her she had just kissed her husband Charlie’s best friend, Ben. From that moment on, Rennie lied for her mother, collaborated in her scheming, and cared for stepfather Charles, who had suffered multiple strokes, while Malabar had her rendezvous. “There was so much tightly coiled inside my mother’s affair – love, sin, lust – that the situation seemed destined to explode sooner or later,” she writes in her vivid memoir. Rennie served as Malabar’s “protector and sentinel” for nearly 10 years. She tells her story as an adult, describing a brief marriage to her stepbrother, and a bout of depression. She writes beautifully, even tenderly, as a mother herself, aware of repercussions, knowing how it all ended. (Credit: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

Helena Janeczek, The Girl with the Leica (Credit: Credit: Europa Editions)

Helena Janeczek, The Girl with the Leica

Janeczek’s Strega-Prize winning novel is based on the life of a pioneering photographer. Gerda Taro, a fashionable young woman, met Andre Friedmann, the “Hungarian with the Leica”, in 1930s Paris, where she joined other German exiles fleeing the Hitler regime. Using the alias Robert Capa, the two covered the Spanish Civil War for international publications. Gerda died outside Madrid in 1937, the first woman photojournalist killed in combat, and Robert Capa went on. Janeczek structures her novel as a series of reminiscences by three of Gerda’s friends from Paris days: Dr Willy Chardack (‘the Dachsund’); Ruth Cerf, her best friend, who travels with Friedmann to retrieve Gerda’s body; and another lover, Dr Georg Kuritzkes. This mosaic of vignettes and images brings a complex courageous woman back into focus. Translated by Ann Goldstein. (Credit: Europa Editions)

Marie NDiaye, The Cheffe (Credit: Credit: Knopf)

Marie NDiaye, The Cheffe

The famous Cheffe, raised in Sainte-Bazeille in south-western France, hides her fierce intelligence from observers who see her as a simple-minded woman. She has grown weary of making her celebrated leg of lamb robed in green sorrel and spinach. So confides the narrator of NDiaye’s sophisticated new novel, who is enamoured of his employer, a woman twice his age. He describes the origins of specialties like her un-sugared peach and verbena tart during her summer as a private cook for a food-obsessed couple, a time of near insanity as she worked daily to outdo herself. He bemoans her guilty commitment to her rather ordinary daughter. His adoring tale of her rise from obscurity and the founding of her iconic restaurant, La Bonne Heure, is intriguingly slanted by his unrequited passion. Translated from the French by Jordan Stump. (Credit: Knopf)

Saeed Jones, How We Fight for Our Lives (Credit: Credit: Simon & Schuster)

Saeed Jones, How We Fight for Our Lives

Memories “flickering like a broken film reel” fill Jones’s poetic and riveting memoir. Raised in Lewisville, a suburb north of Dallas, he came of age in the late 1990s, when the murders of James Byrd Jr and Matthew Shepard taught him that being black and being gay could get him killed. His story of learning to be true to himself is infused with love for his single mum, who worked two jobs while struggling with congestive heart failure, and responded to his coming out with “If you’re happy, I’m happy”. The passages revealing his grief after her death offer a pure, heartfelt tribute to familial ties. “People don’t just happen,” he writes. “We sacrifice former versions of ourselves. We sacrifice the people who dared to raise us.” (Credit: Simon & Schuster)

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