What We're Reading: Books for an angry, dystopian, conspiracy-laden America
Each month, EW’s books staff selects some of their favorite recent reads, whether new releases or older titles they’ve just caught up on. In addition, you can check out all the books EW has covered over the past month here, including reviews and interviews. These picks are perfect for book clubs, chilly fall stay-ins, and (hopefully) sustained breaks from your iPhone. Read on for more, and be sure to check out our column from last month.
Good and Mad, by Rebecca Traister
This book crossed my desk in early fall, and I remember being enamored with the opening page — a portion of a letter from Abigail Adams to her husband, John, written in 1776. “Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the husbands,” she wrote. “Remember, all men would be tyrants if they could. If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation.”
The clause rang as true to me, as it has to many women who follow Traister’s work, but as someone who has an admittedly low patience for non-fiction work (especially of the non-war-memoir variety), I set it aside. A few weeks later the monstrosity that was the Kavanaugh hearings occurred, and I think you can guess that all bets were off.
Good and Mad felt like it was written exactly for me in exactly this point in life — which, I believe, is the power of Traister’s writing and the intersectionality she’s achieved. In early October I saw her speak alongside the inimitable Tracee Ellis Ross, and the actress told the audience she felt the exact same way. That Ross and I are at completely different points in our lives and deal with completely different hurtles, yet both were equally spoken to, is the utmost proof.
The book is ostensibly about the many ways women have been able to harness their anger to affect political change throughout history, but also delves into the ways in which we’ve been trained to smother it. (And yes, there are some chapters about Harvey-who-shall-not-be-named.) It’s part instructional booklet, part therapy session, and absolutely required reading. —Seija Rankin
November Road, by Lou Berney
The robust canon of JFK assassination conspiracy fiction — sorry, a mouthful there — reads a little uniform at a certain point, even as the plots and twists vary wildly from one page-turner to another. How many elaborately fictionalized explanations can there be? The list feels endless; interest in this particular “mystery” is unceasing. So arrives November Road: a relatively literary, thoroughly enjoyable take on the form from rising crime author Lou Berney (and soon to be a movie).
The book’s setup and (more disappointingly) its destination indicate a lesser novel than what Berney (The Long and Faraway Gone) crafts for the meat of November Road. Mob fixer extraordinaire Frank Guidry finds himself on the outs, a potential loose end, left to run while the rest of his nation mourns. He’s (rightly) paranoid that a move he made weeks before the president was murdered was in service of the assassin — Frank essentially provided the getaway car — and that he’s now an accomplice who needs getting rid of. He hits the road with a ruthless hitman on his tail.
I’ll stop here for a moment to commend Berney’s pacing: November Road is lean and uninterested in wallowing, reliving a past trauma. (Not unlike Stephen King’s 11/22/63, a hallmark of the JFK-conspiracy subgenre.) He concisely conjures the national chaos — “Cops in suits and white cowboy hats, reporters, gawkers, everybody pushing and shoving” — before writing toward where he wants the book to be, on the open road, propelled by a life-and-death chase and grounded by the smell of second chances in the air.
The novel’s other half — though, problematically one not given quite the same agency as her male counterpart — is Charlotte, a wife and mother who takes her two children (and seizure-prone dog) and abruptly leaves her alcoholic husband to search for something better. Frank, on the run, encounters the group and brainstorms the perfect cover: a family man, trekking across the country in an idyllic unit of four.
Loss permeates November Road, but more compelling is the sense of change, realized in the convenient (and, before long, romantic) union of Charlotte and Frank — the chance to observe families breaking and forming, an old world ushering in a new one. Berney’s emotional, empathic writing keeps the dynamic between these two lost souls intriguing, and it resonates on a larger scale, placed as it is against such a vivid backdrop. In the tradition of great historical fiction, Berney finds within an exhaustively covered setting his own nooks and crannies. Do we need a conspiracy plot to keep this very human story humming? Probably not. But Berney’s a skilled dramatist too, and there’s no complaint from this reader on his keeping the pages turning. —David Canfield
Severance, by Ling Ma
Since George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead in 1978, zombies have been a favorite symbol for capitalism: the mindless masses devoid of humanity, endlessly driven to consume. In Severance, Ling Ma’s debut novel, the zombies aren’t after brains. In fact, they’re barely zombies at all. The “fevered” (infected by a fungus, non-contagious between people) simply relive elements of their routines — setting and unsetting tables, turning pages of books — until they’re eaten by maggots.
Before the apocalypse, Candace Chen had her own routine, only slightly less zombified. She immigrated to the United States with her parents from China when she was a child, and as an adult occasionally returns to her home country in her sanitized capacity as a middle manager for a firm that connects publishers with cheap overseas labor to produce bibles — chauffeured car to hotel to printing office and back again. She used to spend her days wandering New York City on foot for hours, taking pictures to upload to her anonymous blog, NY Ghost; she assumes the role again once the infrastructure of the city collapses. But then a survivalist group promises a chance to bring society back to life — if only she’ll leave the city with them and make her way to a survivalist fortress in the heartland.
The novel defies genre restrictions. Although the plot mechanisms resemble a post-apocalyptic story, Severence is really more a satire about the millennial experience and the isolation among first-generation immigrants. Orphaned, with no connection to the country of her birth or the cities she’s lived in, Candace is a ghost in more ways that just a blog handle. And so she comforts and anchors herself with the routines of capitalism: her mother’s skincare regime, the mundanity of office life. Ma’s zombies aren’t scary, but the realization that your identity can be simmered down to your daily behaviors is. —Dana Schwartz
The Friend, by Sigrid Nunez
The first question I had when I (1) saw the cover of this book and (2) read the logline (“A moving story of love, friendship, grief, healing, and the magical bond between a woman and her dog”) was very similar to what I imagine most people would wonder. Does the dog die? Well, reader, I’m here to tell you that… I’m not going to tell you. But even those with the strongest aversion to canine aging, who are still highly traumatized by Marley and Me, should read this book.
That’s first and foremost because it’s quite good, but also because the dog’s life span is wholly irrelevant to just how good the book is. It’s so much more than a story about human and canine. It begins with a woman who has just learned that her longtime best friend and professional mentor, a beloved figure in the New York literary scene, has committed suicide and that his wife needs her to take ownership of the dog he left behind.
The story follows their journey of, basically, getting used to each other, with both equally grieving their lost friend. But it also, in a stream-of-consciousness format, waxes poetic on the New York literary scene in a surprisingly hilarious and biting tone. Anyone who loves a good bougie romp through high society will feel at home here, but the tale (or, rather, tail?) makessure to provide plenty of poignant moments.
And while I’m sticking to my guns on the does-the-dog-die front, I will mention that I cried several times. —Seija Rankin
October’s hottest books
Killing Commendatore: Haruki Murakami returns to his sweet spot in this surreal, winding tale of a lonely painter. Read EW’s review.
The Greatest Love Story Ever Told: Nick Offerman and Megan Mullally offer an intimate window into their marriage in a book consisting of freewheeling conversations. Read EW’s interview with the authors.
Everything Under: Daisy Johnson “destroys” the Oedipus myth and reframes it in a fascinating, original novel. Read EW’s interview with the author.
Heavy: Kiese Laymon’s stunning memoir exposes the lie at the heart of the American dream. Read EW’s review.
Friday Black: This short-story collection is one of the year’s major literary debuts, posing prescient questions about race and consumerism with absurdist flair. Read EW’s review.
Little: Edward Carey’s long-gestating novel about the origins of Madame Tussaud is intricately detailed. Read EW’s interview with the author.
The Roundtable: EW gathered actors-turned-memoirists Abbi Jacobson, Ellie Kemper, Busy Philipps, and Phoebe Robinson for a roundtable discussion on writing and comedy. Read the transcript and watch exclusive videos.