Best literature and fiction of October

Erin Kodicek on October 17, 2019
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The first short story collection from award-winning author, Zadie Smith; auto-fiction from Ben Lerner; the latest from the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Olive Kitteridge; and an unsettling, but powerful, family drama.

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


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Grand Union: Stories by Zadie Smith

Although she has had a nearly twenty-year career, this is Zadie Smith’s first short story collection. One of the things readers will notice about it is the impressive scope of Smith’s writing. There is a broad and diverse cast of characters in these stories. There is urban realism, speculative fiction, and many degrees between. There is playfulness and precision. Of the nineteen stories in Grand Union, eleven are new; the majority of the others appeared in The New Yorker. And despite the range, Zadie Smith’s voice—the intelligence and insight, the control of language—are always evident. This is a satisfying, memorable collection by a talented author teeming with ideas. —Chris Schluep


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The Topeka School: A Novel by Ben Lerner

A high school debate champion growing up in Topeka, Kansas sounds like a fairly conventional character for a novel. But this is not a conventional novel—it builds through shifting points of view, and it is a book concerned with language and cultural expectation, and how one conveys the other. By the end, you begin to realize that it is a story about how we reached the national state of consciousness we inhabit today. The Topeka School is also autofiction: Lerner’s book tells the story of teenager Adam, the debate champion (as Ben Lerner was himself), and Adam’s parents, both psychologists (as were Lerner’s parents) living in Topeka (where Lerner lived). The entire family struggles at one point or another with success and privilege, something that opens up contradictions within each one of them, and the book itself is a bit of a contradiction—mixing the warmth of 90s nostalgia with the existential anxiousness we recognize so well today. There is a lot going on here, but the read is often mysteriously calming—due to Lerner’s deep relationship with language and subject matter—at the same time that he gives us a great deal to think about. Readers looking for a literary romp should probably search elsewhere. But if you’re looking to go deep, this is your guy. —Chris Schluep


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Olive, Again: A Novel by Elizabeth Strout

She’s baaaaack. Elizabeth Strout’s 2008 novel, Olive Kitteridge, won the Pulitzer Prize and spawned a hit HBO miniseries starring Frances McDormand and Bill Murray. In Olive, Again she resurrects the endearing curmudgeon from Crosby, Maine in thirteen interconnected stories that remind us that you’re never too old to grow up. As the book opens, Olive is being wooed, in a manner of speaking, by fellow widow Jack Kennison. Even he is at a loss to explain the precise reasons for his affection for her, but as we see Olive fumbling through everyday life—still grappling with its disappointments and mysteries—we recognize a kindred soul. Olive, Again is not what you would call a page-turner. There are the none of the requisite heart-racing moments, but a steady beat of ordinary magic (which ends up being not so ordinary at all). —Erin Kodicek


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All This Could Be Yours by Jami Attenberg

By all accounts, the mysterious and mercurial patriarch of the Tuchman family is a “bad man.” To his wife, this quality could actually be a turn-on, despite being the occasional victim of his basest impulses. His children, on the other hand, have borne the brunt of his pernicious nature, marking them in ways that have followed them into adulthood. So when Victor finds himself on death’s door, there’s not much love lost; only one last opportunity to try and discover what made this toxic man tick, and, with any luck, escape the lingering effects of his dubious legacy. You may have gleaned that Jami Attenberg’s All This Could Be Yours is not the cheeriest of reads, but it accomplishes what the best novels do: It helps us to make sense of life’s messiness, and find hope in the most hopeless of places. Once again, Attenberg finds the function in dysfunction. —Erin Kodicek

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