So many books, so little time! Reading can be one of life’s sweetest luxuries. But how to quickly find the next great volume to dive into? To lend a hand, every month we’ll share our Dandelion Chandelier Recommended Reads: books that we’ve personally read and loved – some brand new, and some published long ago. Selected to suit the season, we think they deserve a place on your nightstand. Or your e-reader. In your backpack. Or your carry-on bag. You get the idea.
What makes for the perfect book to read in October? There are a plethora of options in “serious” fiction and non-fiction – as with film, we’re meant to think deep thoughts in the autumn. So one option is to go the scholarly route, and delve into a classic, or the work of a laureate of some kind.
But October is not just about the cerebral – it’s also about the silly, the spicy, the spooky, the soulful and even the spectral. It is, after all, the month of Halloween.
So what is the ideal October read? We think the perfect reading list this month should be just like the ideal trick-or-treat basket: some hard and some chewy, some salty and some sweet, some fresh and some familiar. But no empty calories.
What follows is a list of books (in no particular order) that we’ve read and loved – either very recently or long ago – that strike precisely the right autumnal note.
We think any of these would be a perfect match for unwinding after apple-picking or jumping in the leaves; for lazing on the sofa in front of the fire; for tossing in your bag for a weekend in wine country or leaf-peeping; or maybe just for reading on the sidelines during a football game.
Old in Art School: A Memoir of Starting Over by Nell Painter is a memoir of making a fresh start. Following her retirement from Princeton University, celebrated historian Dr. Nell Irvin Painter surprised everyone in her life by returning to school―in her sixties―to earn a BFA and MFA in painting. Enrolled in the prestigious Rhode Island School of Design, she finds deep meaning in her new life, and also assesses some fundamental issues: How are women and artists seen and judged by their age, looks, and race? What does it mean when someone says, “You will never be an artist”? Who defines what “An Artist” is and all that goes with such an identity, and how are these ideas tied to our shared conceptions of beauty, value, and difference? Fall is a good time to take stock of your life, and this honest memoir will nudge you to get started.
Ohio by Stephen Markley is a debut novel about life in in an archetypal small town in northeastern Ohio—a region ravaged by the Great Recession, an opioid crisis, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan—depicting one feverish, fateful summer night in 2013 when four former classmates converge on their hometown, each with a mission, all haunted by the ghosts of their shared histories. Bill is an alcoholic, drug-abusing activist; Stacey, a doctoral candidate reluctantly confronting the mother of her former lover. Dan is a shy veteran of three tours in Iraq, home for a dinner date with the high school sweetheart he’s tried to forget; Tina is pursuing a rendezvous with the captain of the football team. Their story weaves a tapestry that looks a lot like America today.
Luxury by Philip Schultz is a collection of poems from the Pulitzer Prize-winner about the simple comforts of life and the bittersweet clarity of aging. It takes on timeless questions of meaning and happiness and also pressing modern-day issues: the collective power of women’s marches, the refugee crisis, and the emotions associated with visiting the 9/11 memorial.
Made for Love: A Novel by Alissa Nutting. If you read only one novel this month, we strongly recommend that you make it this one. The premise is truly nutty: in 2019, a 30-something woman flees the home she shares with her manipulative tech mogul billionaire husband, and lands in her elderly father’s trailer park in Florida on the same day that his life-size blow-up sex doll arrives in the mail. There’s also a subplot involving dolphins that is basically unprintable on a refined blog such as our own. Trust us: not only is this book smart, sharp and funny – it’s also a moving reflection on what we lose when technology advances past all imagining; on the nuances of love and disappointment between parents and daughters; and on human desires that even AI cannot override. It’s a brilliant read.
The Turner House by Angela Flournoy. Ghosts and memories weave their way throughout this exceptional novel, set in Detroit. Charles “Cha-Cha” Turner, the oldest son in an African-American family of 13 siblings, repeatedly sees a “haint,” (the word that many members of the black community – including all of my aunties and uncles – commonly use to refer to a ghost). The sightings bring back vivid memories of his dead father, and revive a number of troubling unanswered questions about the choices his parents made. As the city is ravaged by time and turmoil, so are the various Turner siblings, and each finds solace in a different way: spirituality, alcohol, gambling, and escape from the Midwest. The sibling relationships are acutely drawn, and the bruised metropolis of Detroit is itself one of the characters with whom we identify and mourn.
Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders. Ghosts are also among the players in this fine first novel from the acclaimed short-story writer. The tale takes its origin from the true story of Abraham Lincoln, who was mourning the loss of his young son, Willie, as the Civil War raged into its second year. In the novel, Willie has become an inhabitant of the bardo – the Tibetan conception of purgatory – suspended between the living and the dead and surrounded by ghosts who are not ready to go quietly into that great good night. A cacophony of ghostly voices is a prompt to consider the meaning of earthly love and what remains after in its temporal state it must end.
Autumn by Ali Smith. Among the first wave of novels addressing post-Brexit Britain, and recently short-listed for the Mann Booker Prize, this is the first in a planned cycle of four works of fiction – one for each season – all set in the UK. This installment tells the story of a friendship between Daniel – who is 101 years old – and Elisabeth, a 32-year-old art lecturer. She comes to read to him and as their connection deepens, their conversations range over numerous topics: art, books, how to live, the meaning of borders, identity and fame. It’s deeply human, and a wonderful blend of light and dark. It’s a rare writer who can capture the mood of the moment but spin a story that feels timeless. Ali Smith is one who can.
Young Jane Young by Gabrielle Zevin. A ripped-from-the-headlines plot quite similar to the Monica Lewinsky-Bill Clinton affair, this novel tackles “slut-shaming” both obliquely and head-on. Twenty-something Aviva (her names means “innocence” in Hebrew) has an affair with a married Congressman – he stays in office, and she becomes a modern-day Hester Prynne. Fast-forward, and we meet her in her mid-40s, now with a daughter and a budding political career of her own, in a state far away under a new name. You know what’s coming. The tone is breezy but the messaging is dead serious. You’ll think twice before name-calling anyone again – come to think of it, maybe this should be required reading?
Charlotte Walsh Likes To Win by Jo Piazza. The bestselling author of The Knock Off, How to Be Married, and Fitness Junkie returns with a ripped-from-the-headlines novel about a woman running for the Senate during the midterm elections in 2018. Charlotte Walsh leaves behind her high-powered job in Silicon Valley and returns, with her husband and their three young daughters, to her downtrodden Pennsylvania hometown to run in the Rust Belt state. Not surprisingly, it’s far more difficult than she anticipated. This is the perfect companion read to Young Jane Young – two explorations of women, politicians, how power can erode our values, and the unavoidable price that has to be paid to live a life in and around politics.
Hotels of North America by Rick Moody. Autumnal melancholy permeates this lovely novel – think of it as “Up in the Air,” but on the ground. Reginald Edward Morse is a reviewer for the website RateYourLodging.com; as we read his reviews, we hear the story of his life. Love, loss, disappointment and stubborn hope emerge as he writes in a wry and sometimes hysterical voice about hotel properties and grand and humble. By the end, we’re prepared to join him on whatever journey he decides to undertake next.
Ways to Disappear by Idra Novey. Missed connections and the dangers of imprecision are just some of the themes that the author excavates in this beautifully-written tale of a celebrated Brazilian novelist who goes missing (she’s last seen holding a suitcase and a cigar and climbing an almond tree). Her American translator flies to Brazil to try to solve the mystery of her disappearance, and finds gangsters, romance, a severe case of sibling rivalry, and ultimately a way out of her old life. Like some of the other novels on this list, here you’ll be met with equal measures of optimism and regret – which sounds about right for the season.
The Portable Veblen by Elizabeth McKenzie. Thirty-year old Veblen is a resident of Palo Alto and a good-humored daughter to both her mother – a hypochondriac – and her father, who is living in a mental health institution. She’s engaged to be married to the equally amiable Paul – but there’s the small problem of the squirrel nesting in her attic, to which she becomes closely attached. And the sinister doings at the medical lab where Paul works. And the vexing problem of why our heroine is named after the economist who coined the phrase “conspicuous consumption.” It all goes reasonably haywire, but as an exploration of the weight of the past on our hopes for the future, it’s provocative and sobering. And you’ll never see squirrels in quite the same way again.
There you have it: 12 books that will provide sugar and spice, style and substance, succor and stimulation. It’s a literary goodie bag, and you don’t even have to wait for Halloween night. Autumn is here – let’s revel in it.