A poignant novel in the vein of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time; Emma Straub offers a compassionate portrait of a messy family; Bill Buford continues his culinary education in France; and more.
Learn more about these and all of our picks for the Best Books of the Month.
Almond: A Novel by Won-pyung Sohn
I’m just going to say it: This novel made me laugh, wince, hold my breath with anticipation, and cry. I couldn’t put it down. When Yunjae sees another kid getting beat up in an alley, he just stares. He doesn’t intervene, he doesn’t run away. Pages later, we learn this Korean boy’s inability to express or understand emotion (including anger, which he has plenty reason to feel) is due to a mental disorder. The reality of Yunjae’s condition is pushed to the limits in this brilliantly fresh novel. As he comes of age, an unimaginable tragedy strikes his family, and Yunjae must navigate the world on his own—high school, running his mother’s bookstore, teenage brawls, and an emotion he has never understood: love. Violence threatens him at every turn, but it is precisely his disability that allows him to survive. Filled with heart-aching sentences and stunning moments of resilience and care (when you learn why he eats almonds, I defy you not to feel a pang), Won-pyung Sohn’s debut novel examines a world in which connection trumps emotion and loyalty becomes more than a feeling.—Al Woodworth
All Adults Here: A Novel by Emma Straub
Astrid Strick is about to get her hair done when she witnesses an acquaintance being hit by a bus, an event that frees a repressed memory from the time when she was raising her three children. Said children are now all grown up, at least in age: her youngest son, a former teen star and current pothead, has just shipped his thirteen-year-old daughter to live with Astrid after an incident at her New York school. Astrid’s oldest is working on real estate development deals in town—but he seems to be seeking validation and is only sure of the fact that he wants to escape his children. And her only girl is working on a goat farm and about to become a single mother who just can’t quit her (married) high school boyfriend. Straub perfectly captures the warmth and messiness of families, and the truth that no matter how old we get, our family always reduces us to childhood patterns. While Straub takes on some big topics: sexuality, abortion, gender identity, we’ll all see our own families reflected back to us through the Stricks. All Adults Here is a fresh and not unhopeful take on family dysfunction. It’s the perfect smart summer read. —Sarah Gelman
It seems like a crazy idea to pull up stakes from a comfortable life in New York and move your wife and three-year-old twins to a city in France (not Paris) to look for a job in a restaurant. It might make more sense if you are Bill Buford, author of Heat, the 2006 book that did for Italian food what, frankly, Dirt will do for French cuisine. But that doesn’t make it any easier. Bill Buford is a foodie with literary chops—he founded the literary magazine Granta and was fiction editor of the New Yorker—but he is also an adventurer, and apparently a very hard worker. After locating a home abroad (Buford’s wife is essential in many of his endeavors), enrolling his kids in a local school, learning French, studying technique at L’Institute Bocuse, and enduring fifteen-hour days at a Michelin-starred restaurant in Lyon, the heart of French cuisine, he still managed to write down his experiences with humor and vibrancy. Dirt is the result of five years of living and working in France, learning to know the people and their food, and getting to the heart of something—some feeling or quality of living—for which many of us are searching. —Chris Schluep
Bloomberg investigative reporter Susan Berfield’s The Hour of Fate is the story of two American titans moving inexorably toward a collision that would change history. Although they came from similar social strata, Theodore Roosevelt and J.P. Morgan held nearly opposite views on society. Morgan, perhaps the richest man in the world, commanded Wall Street and believed that society should be stewarded from the top down. Roosevelt grew into a progressive, becoming President after the assassination of McKinley and eventually taking on the fight against the industrialists. Author Berfield employs a series of alternating chapters to paint rich portraits of the two men before they even meet. By the time we reach 1902, when President Roosevelt’s government sues the Northern Securities railroad trust, which was organized by Morgan to control the railroads, we feel we know both men well. The basis of the suit is the Sherman Antitrust Act, and the moment is complicated by the massive United Mine Workers strike. It was a moment that might tip either way. Reading The Hour of Fate feels like looking backward and forward at the same time: the Gilded Age comes to life, as do the historical figures and their individual priorities; but the collision of labor and management, of the rich and the working class, is even now still a work in progress. —Chris Schluep
Fire in Paradise by Alastair Gee and Dani Anguiano
Paradise, California, is aptly named. Nestled in the gorgeous Sierra Nevada mountains, its residents prized the nature that surrounded them. While Paradise had been threatened by fire before and had an evacuation plan complete with robocalls, the inferno of November 8, 2018—known as the Camp Fire—was unlike anything the town had seen before. The fire surged through chimney-like canyons and leapfrogged over rivers and firebreaks, bearing down on residents just waking. Pulling on eyewitness accounts from firefighters, fleeing citizens, police, and medical personnel, Fire in Paradise does not sensationalize. It doesn’t have to. The first sighting of the fire, the chaotic emptying of the town, a boy swimming across a lake to safety with a cat in a cage on his shoulder, a woman giving birth in the middle of a hospital’s evacuation…all these moments, and more, are extraordinary enough. The humanity and bravery exposed in the middle of unexpected catastrophe shine in this narration, even as tragedy destroys families and 85 people perish in the deadliest wildfire in California history. As wildfire season looms again, Fire in Paradise sounds a warning call we’d do well to heed. —Adrian Liang
A poignant novel in the vein of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime; Emma Straub offers a compassionate portrait of a messy family; Bill Buford continues his culinary education in France, and more.