12 Must-Read Books of August 2023 – Chicago Review of Books


It’s been a long, hot summer. Usually by this time of year the pace begins to slow a bit, as the weather prompts us to find solace wherever we can.

But the pace of exciting releases continues to speed along! The books we’re sharing in August wade into something a bit more uncanny, from witches to comas that halt sleep to the field of “Disaster Studies.” So even if the late summer heat has you holed up this month, we hope you find a new read to keep you cool and collected!

The Museum of Human History
By Rebekah Bergman
Tin House Books

In this impressive debut, Rebekah Bergman weaves together speculative elements and classic fables to explore the extent we will go to limit the pain of passing time. After nearly drowning, eight-year-old Maeve Wilhelm falls into a strange comatose state that spans years and halts her aging. Her medical anomaly draws a wide cast of characters who believe her mysterious “sleep” holds the answers to life’s most pressing questions. There are moments when The Museum of Human History is reminiscent of another literary fantasy icon Kevin Brockmeier, as the prose and the subtle interconnections between its characters rise to the level of sublime. 

I Done Clicked My Heels Three Times
By Taylor Byas
Soft Skull

In our roundup of the Most Anticipated Chicago Books of 2023, our team noted that Taylor Byas’s I Done Clicked My Heels Three Times is one of our favorite poetry collections of the year. Structured loosely by the narrative of The Wiz—from a tumultuous departure from home and various trials to an eventual return—this collection is a joy from cover to cover, exuding lyricism and a style that is uniquely Chicago. Byas’s poems probe into all aspects of life in the city and the often unsteady and unclear entry into adulthood. To put it simply, I Done Clicked My Heels Three Times is a remarkable addition to the rich legacy of Chicago poetry. 

By Lydia Kiesling
Crooked Media Reads

From the author of The Golden State and 2018 National Book Foundation 5 Under 35 honoree Lydia Kiesling comes a powerhouse novel that tells the story of the machinations of global politics after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the individual lives caught in the uncertainty. Mobility is the inaugural release from Crooked Media Reads, an imprint created to explore politics, current events, and activism from around the world. Told from the perspective of Bunny, who grew up in Azerbaijan in a Foreign Service family, it follows the post-Cold War rush for oil and the buildup to the War on Terror, culminating in our modern climate crisis. Kiesling has achieved a rare accomplishment in fiction, as her writing moves seamlessly between the personal and the political while showing the ways in which the colossal forces of governments and corporations shape our world and how we can push back.

By Jamel Brinkley
Farrar, Straus & Giroux

Our team loved Jamel Brinkley’s debut A Lucky Man, so we’re thrilled to see that he is back with a new short story collection this month. In Witness, the National Book Award finalist asks the question: What does it mean to take action and bear witness? These ten stories span the changing landscapes of contemporary New York City and a cast of characters who are striving to connect, remember, and really see one another (but whether they succeed or not is another story). Brinkley is already well known for creating emotionally piercing interactions, and Witness certainly lives up to that standard. 

The Great Transition
By Nick Fuller Googins
Atria Books

Novels about our catastrophic climate future are becoming increasingly common, but Nick Fuller Googins’s The Great Transition sets itself apart through its visionary scope and possibility for change. Alternating between a daughter’s search for her mother and a thrilling account of her parents’ past as members of a movement to forge a new society, the novel is a testament to how our actions today can determine our fate tomorrow. Urgent but hopeful, The Great Transition is an important read for those ready to advocate for future generations. 

Swim Home to the Vanished
Brendan Shay Basham

Fiction writer, poet, educator, and former chef Brendan Shay Basham announces himself as an exciting new voice in literature with Swim Home to the Vanished, which echoes the Diné creation story and the unshakeable weight of the Long Walk—the forced removal of the Navajo from their land. Traumatized by the passing of his little brother, Damien walks away from his life as a small-town line cook and lands in a fishing village beyond the reach of his past only to discover that this new home is also grieving the loss of a powerful resident. As Damien becomes caught in the tangles of the local brujas’ shifting struggles, he begins to understand how deep the human capacity for grief and redemption really is.

The Art of Libromancy: On Selling Books and Reading Books in the Twenty-First Century 
By Josh Cook

In The Art of Libromancy, Josh Cook argues that we as readers and writers should be as invested in how our books are sold as we are in how our food is grown and how our clothes are made. In the era of Amazon and its disruptions of the bookselling industry, the simple act of putting a book into the hands of readers has become a catalyst for an exploration of the moral, financial, and political pressures all indie booksellers face. Cook, a bookseller himself and co-owner at Porter Square Books in Cambridge, takes a necessarily critical look at the practice of connecting readers with their next book in the age of monopolization and censorship. 

The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store
By James McBride
Riverhead Books

When it comes to James McBride, you can always be sure that you’re in for a wild and rewarding read. Set in 1972 when workers digging the foundations for a new housing development discover human remains, The Heaven & Earth Grocery Story follows those who keep the secret of the skeleton’s origins——the residents of a neighborhood known as Chicken Hill, where immigrant Jews and Black Americans have lived side by side for decades. Like The Good Lord Bird and Deacon King Kong, McBride brings a wealth of wit and charm to every page of this novel, as well as a refreshing sense of humanity and optimism for this makeshift community.  

See Also

The Kingdom of Surfaces
By Sally Wen Mao
Graywolf Press

Visual art and poetry have always been closely linked, and in The Kingdom of Surfaces, Sally Wen Mao celebrates these two forms while also interrogating the ways they’ve been commodified in our modern capitalist structure. Examining objects such as porcelain, silk, and pearls, she constructs intricate and lyrical conversations on beauty, empire, and violence, including topics such as labor practices around the silk loom and the appropriation of Chinese aesthetics. There is not a spare word in The Kingdom of Surfaces, as Mao calls upon readers to rethink the constructed beauty we see around us and why we find ourselves drawn to displays of wealth. 

My Weil
By Lars Iyer
Melville House

My Weil follows a group of twenty-something PhD students in the newfangled subject “Disaster Studies” at an inferior university in Manchester, England, who are by turns underconfident, grandiose, and reconciled to never finishing their dissertations or finding academic jobs. Enter Simone Weil, an intensely serious new student with the same name as the 20th Century Catholic saint who may just save these academic misfits or bring about their destruction. Hilarious and cynical in the best way possible, Lars Iyer’s latest delivers the post-graduate satire you need as the new academic year approaches.

By Maya Binyam
Farrar, Straus & Giroux

Hangman is an enthralling and original novel about exile, diaspora, and the impossibility of Black refuge in America and beyond. A man returns home to sub-Saharan Africa after twenty-six years in America, sparking a quest to find his real brother who is dying. Maya Binyam’s writing is ever-versatile, shifting from prodding and existential to slapstick and tragic. 

By Steven Millhauser
Knopf Publishing Group

It’s been eight years since we’ve had a new book from Steven Millhauser, so the release of his new short story collection is truly cause for celebration. Disruptions can be seen as a culmination of his storied five-decade career, bringing together eighteen stories that explore the unsettling realities that exist in suburban life. Millhauser is commonly known as a champion of the short story form, and once again his precision shines bright. 


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