Best literature and fiction of September

Erin Kodicek on September 12, 2019
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The dramatic, and fantastical, first novel from the National Book Award–winning author of Between the World and Me; a spy thriller that dazzles with real-life literary intrigue; Salman Rushdie pays homage to fellow satirist and cultural critic, Miguel de Cervantes, and more.

See all of our literature and fiction picks, or browse the rest of the Best Books of the Month


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The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Ta-Nehisi Coates is the author of one of the most important nonfiction books of this decade, Between the World and Me, which means that his fiction debut arrives with a great amount of anticipation. Would the urgency of his nonfiction writing come through in a novel? Would he be as nimble in a made-up world? Would it be good? The answer to all of these questions is a resounding yes. Coates’s novel is the story of Hiram Walker, who was born into slavery on a Virginia plantation that is owned by his white father and experiencing a slow decline. Although Hiram is gifted with a photographic memory, his mother—who was sold away when he was young—is the one thing he cannot remember. Indeed, many of the women in his life are taken away from him too early—a fact that will guide his actions later in the novel. The story blends the brutality of history with more imaginative elements: for example, white people are called the Quality, black people are called the Tasked; and Hiram possesses powers that fall into the spectrum of magical realism. As the novel moves north to Philadelphia, where Hiram grows into his own and begins working for the Underground, and eventually turns back to his southern birthplace, the fantastical elements only give greater power to the story. The Water Dancer is a stirring debut, and Coates is the novelist we were hoping he would be. --Chris Schluep


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The Secrets We Kept by Lara Prescott

There are a few love stories in The Secrets We Kept, mostly of the unhappy kind: adulterous, unrequited, forbidden, and ill-fated. And in between these thwarted romances, history happens. In Russia, a mistress suffers years in a Gulag rather than betray her married lover—Boris Pasternak, author of Doctor Zhivago—to Stalin. Her suffering inspires Pasternak to create Lara, a literary heroine for the ages. A few years later, in mid-1950s Washington DC, two intriguing, courageous women work as spies for the CIA while masquerading as typing pool secretaries. It’s a long way from the Gulag to the Beltway, but Prescott cleverly links these two narratives via the progress of the Doctor Zhivago manuscript, whose besieged creator half-pleads, half-prays, “May it make its way around the world.” That this contraband masterpiece did make its way around the world while Russians were forbidden to read it, and that the CIA hatched an audacious plot to smuggle it into Soviet Russia so as to turn its citizens against communism, is credited to men with famous surnames: Pasternak, Dulles, and even publisher Giangiacomo Feltrinelli. But Prescott’s mesmerizing novel brings women out of the shadows and gives them their due, as spies and muses yes, but also as unsung heroines who put their lives on the line to get a novel out into the world, trusting that to do so would rouse a nation and change the course of history. --Vannessa Cronin


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Quichotte by Salman Rushdie

Quichotte is Salman Rushdie at his best. An exquisite satire on the world we live in, Rushdie’s latest novel pays Cervantes a great, clever compliment with this deliciously funny Don Quixote for modern times. Quichotte is a story within a story, a fictional novelist unraveling his own journey of love and family through writing the story of a man (whom the novelist names Quichotte) not wholly unlike himself. Quichotte is a simple man who has watched too much television and now believes we are living in a world of “Anything-Can-Happen,” when even an aged pharmaceutical salesman can win the love of a beautiful TV star whom he has never met. And so Quichotte’s quest begins. Quichotte creates a son for himself, Sancho, sprung wholly formed to sit beside him in his reliable Chevy Cruze on this cross-country adventure and with whom he might share his vision of the world. Unfortunately, this familial bond does not turn out the way Quichotte imagined. The fictional novelist finds himself in the same situation, discovering that the truths he’s told himself about his relationships and family have been wrong all along. A road trip across America in an age that would be utterly surreal if we weren’t actually living it, Quichotte is an antidote to fear, a novel bursting with intelligence and wit—and exactly what so many of us need right now. —Seira Wilson


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Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson

Like many others, I am always in awe when I read Jacqueline Woodson. She’s the author of more than two dozen award-winning and bestselling books, and every time I open to the first page I fall into a trance. All the noise rushes away and what’s left is her melodic prose that waxes in and out of generations so seamlessly that, in the case of Red at the Bone, you’ve just been told the life story of a daughter, her parents, her grandparents, a teenage pregnancy, and a white dress that belonged to each of them. Her writing is tender, but strong, eloquently guiding the reader through the lineage of how hopes are born and sometimes dashed, how neighborhoods gentrify, how mistakes are made and lives are created. Red at the Bone is life-affirming and another incredible novel by Jacqueline Woodson. —Al Woodworth


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The Dutch House by Ann Patchett

The best authors make the pages they write come to life: their words and characters shimmer with authenticity, motivation, and desire. The story can be simple or complex, familiar or otherworldly, but without connection, it is nothing. In Ann Patchett’s eighth novel, The Dutch House, everyone and everything bustles with vitality. It is a story about the interminable bond between siblings and it is an absolute joy to read. The novel follows a brother and sister who grow up in a fairy tale—a huge house, a loving father, and a caring staff. The only thing that’s missing is their mother, who had a more fraught existence, and fled the pressures of managing the household when they were young. When their father dies and leaves his fortune to their stepmother, the kids are left to fend for themselves, going on to live a drastically different life than they had imagined. The house of their youth haunts them through adulthood, and revenge is their desire—but not in the way you imagine. The Dutch House is moving and thoughtful—a quietly brilliant novel that has quickly become a favorite. —Al Woodworth

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