12 Must-Read Books of September – Chicago Review of Books


If you’re anything like us at the CHIRB, you’ve reached September and are asking yourself that old Talking Heads chestnut: “How did I get here?” Traditionally a time of harvests and returns, with shorter, colder days on the horizon, it’s also a big month for books and we could fill an entire second list with just the household names that have new releases coming out (Joy Williams! Atticus Lish! Joy Harjo! Colson Whitehead! Richard Powers!). It’s an embarrassment of riches, really, and tough to go wrong. But if you’re in need of a little guidance, we humbly suggest checking out the twelve titles below. Who says print is dead? Happy reading!

Chasing Me to My Grave: An Artist’s Memoir of the Jim Crow South
By Winfred Rembert; as told to Erin I. Kelly
Bloomsbury Publishing

New Yorker readers got a preview of this one-of-a-kind memoir blending prose and reproductions of Winfred Rembert’s painted leather works back in July. Now brought together in this handsomely mounted volume from Bloomsbury, Chasing Me to My Grave is a stunning piece of visual truth-telling. Featuring a foreword by Bryan Stevenson, it’s a stark reminder of our nation’s ugly history, and the power in reclaiming such history through art.

Cover of The Mad Women's Ball

The Mad Women’s Ball
By Victoria Mas; Translated by Frank Wynne
The Overlook Press

A huge bestseller and prizewinner in France (with a film adaptation already headed to TIFF this fall), Victoria Mas’s gothic historical novel finally arrives stateside this month. Set in Paris’s infamous Salpêtrière Asylum, The Mad Women’s Ball is a darkly entertaining piece of revisionist feminism, salvaging the stories of so many “lost” women as told through the eyes of a nurse gradually becoming disillusioned with her work. Potent and wicked.

Cover of Three Girls from Bronzeville

Three Girls from Bronzeville
By Dawn Turner
Simon & Schuster

The Bronzeville neighborhood of Chicago looms large in the city’s collective memory, and it’s brought to life in this penetrating and candid memoir by former Tribune reporter Dawn Turner. Plumbing the depths of her own coming of age, Turner explores the love and hardship that touched her life, along with her sister Kim’s and best friend Debra’s, braiding together a stunning story of sisterhood and the bonds that irrevocably shape us.

Cover of Hao

Hao
By Ye Chun
Catapult

Hao may be Ye Chun’s debut prose collection, but she is already a highly decorated writer and translator, with three Pushcarts, an NEA Literature Fellowship, and a Sustainable Arts Foundation Award under her belt. Carefully attuned to the power that language exerts on a person and culture, Chun’s stories build on each other with the urgency of a page-turner. Deft and delicate, it marks an auspicious start to what will surely be a long career.

Cover of On Freedom

On Freedom: Four Songs of Care and Constraint
By Maggie Nelson
Graywolf Press

The concept of freedom – what it means and who’s entitled to it – got a real workout over the past year as arguments over mask mandates and lockdowns spilled off the internet and into real life. Now the venerable Maggie Nelson weighs in with the long-awaited follow-up to her masterpiece The Argonauts. On Freedom is a characteristically thoughtful and expansive work of cultural criticism that digs into this fraught topic through the lens of art, sex, drugs, and climate.

Cover of Philomath

Philomath
By Devon Walker-Figueroa
Milkweed Editions

Previously highlighted in our “Twelve Poetry Collections to Read in 2021” round-up, we stand by our recommendation of Devon Walker-Figueroa’s debut, which was selected by Sally Keith as the 2020 winner of the National Poetry Series. Guiding readers from places near as the eponymous Oregon town and far as Florence, Italy, Walker-Figueroa’s sure hand on her subjects never wavers, forging new paths with a confidence that feels preternatural.

Cover of The Family Roe

The Family Roe: An American Story
By Joshua Prager
W.W. Norton

Of all the issues facing the American people these days, abortion rights is one of the most contentious, and only set to become more so when the Supreme Court considers Dobbs vs. Jackson Women’s Health next year. For those wanting to get some historical background on the subject, Joshua Prager’s The Family Roe provides an intimate look at the people involved, particularly Roe plaintiff Norma McCorvey, whom Prager spent years interviewing.

Cover of The Death of Francis Bacon

The Death of Francis Bacon
By Max Porter
Strange Light

Max Porter follows up his Booker longlisted Lanny with this experimental little whatsit about the titular British artist. Less a traditional biographical riff and more a hallucinatory conjuring of Bacon’s final moments, it brings together seven “written pictures” that span his controversial career. Coming in at a scant 80 pages, it’s a bold work that can be finished in an afternoon but will linger in the mind for days afterward.

Cover of The Book of Form and Emptiness

The Book of Form and Emptiness
By Ruth Ozeki
Viking

After decades of putting in work as a novelist, filmmaker, and Zen priest, Ruth Ozeki finally broke big with her Booker finalist A Tale for the Time Being in 2013. Now she’s back to dazzle us once again with this new novel that takes its title from Buddhist teachings. After a difficult year, its patient and humane engagement with the wider world and insistence on connection with others above all will be just the soothing tonic that so many of us need.

Cover of Bourdain

Bourdain: The Definitive Oral Biography
By Laurie Woolever
Ecco

Hot on the heels of the documentary Roadrunner, Anthony Bourdain gets the oral biography treatment with this collection from Laurie Woolever, who spent nearly a decade as his assistant and brings that personal touch to bear on the nearly one hundred interviews she conducted. Featuring starry names like Eric Ripert and Nigella Lawson alongside beloved family, it’s a moving testament to Bourdain’s continued impact.

Cover of Chronicles from the Land

Chronicles From the Land of the Happiest People on Earth
By Wole Soyinka
Pantheon

Any new work from the Nobel Prize-winning Wole Soyinka is reason to celebrate, but the release of his first novel in almost half a century is nothing less than the literary event of the year. A book of dexterous and savage satire, part whodunit and part polemic, it’s a rollicking demonstration that Soyinka has lost none of his ability to shock and surprise his readers in his old age. Instead it feels like the work of a man just getting started.

Cover of Things Are Against Us

Things Are Against Us
By Lucy Ellmann; Illustrated by Diane Hope
Biblioasis

Lucy Ellmann’s previous novel Ducks, Newburyport struck a nerve back in 2019 and became a bona fide literary sensation, a 1,000-plus page doorstopper that was both a Booker finalist and bestseller. With her singular ability to capture the anxieties of our age, Ellmann turns to the essay form for the first time and finds herself at home. Accompanied by illustrations from Diane Hope, it’s the cathartic companion whose rage will carry you into 2022.



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