October is National Book Month, and NaNoWriMo starts November 1. I thought it was just me who had books on my mind.
October’s Hot New Releases
Have you read any new fall book releases? So many highly anticipated books, including Anthony Doerr’s Cloud Cuckoo Land and Amor Towles’ The Lincoln Highway. Both books follow the authors’ award-winning success of All the Light We Cannot See (Doerr, 2014) and one of my all-time favorites, A Gentleman in Moscow (Towles, 2016). All the Light We Cannot See won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, spent almost four years on The New York Times Bestseller List, and sold more than 15 million copies worldwide. Netflix is turning it into a series. No pressure!
These two new releases are so unlike their predecessors, which makes me appreciate them even more because they showcase the diverse talent and creativity of the writer. Both books are more action-packed, rather than reflective or philosophical, like A Gentleman in Moscow. Cloud Cuckoo Land has 105 named characters and 400 short chapters. And Mr. Doerr says he had trouble keeping them straight! Each mini-chapter promptly draws you in, and then poof, you are transported centuries later or earlier, trying to find the common current weaving through the stories. The reader is rewarded at the end. Hang on for the ride!
Both new books incorporate some historical fiction—the hallmark of their predecessors. Cloud Cuckoo Land spans the past, present, and future, from15th century Constantinople through present-day Idaho and into the 22nd century; The Lincoln Highway traverses the Midwest to New York City landscapes over ten days in 1950s America. In an interview with Ann Patchett (The Dutch House), Mr. Towles noted that The Lincoln Highway picks up exactly where A Gentleman in Moscow left off: midnight in Moscow, 5 pm in Ogallala, Nebraska, June 12, 1954. No, it’s no coincidence. And, yes, he intended it to be a fast read. It is, precisely because you can’t put it down. The story pulses with action, suspense, cliffhangers at the end of every chapter, and complex interesting characters and incredible writing.
After all this excitement, I levitated in Elizabeth Strout’s new melodic, voice-driven novel, Oh William! Oh, Lucy Barton, it was so lovely to hear that familiar thinking-out-loud transparent voice of yours (read by Kimberly Farr in audiobook format). There’s comfort in the familiar—thank you, Lucy Barton and Olive Kitteridge. Oh, William! offers sweet alongside reflections of getting older, more tired, and looking back while still moving forward.
But wait, there’s more this month. Back to the action—albeit real-life memoir this time—with Katie Couric’s Going There. Her journalist’s voice rings loud and clear, and her memoir reminds me of important turning points and influential leaders in recent American history. Yes, I’m reading this book partly out of curiosity and to hear her reflect on her personal life events (she narrates her own audiobook). What was it like to lose her husband and father of her children at age 42? How did her experience shape her life outside of her professional career and cancer advocacy? I was hoping for a bit more introspection. I care less about what someone does in a book and more about who they are and how they changed as a result of their experiences—the essence of memoir.
How Do You Choose Your Books?
Which brings me to the reason to write about books this month. Why do we read what we read? What draws you to the books you choose? Do covers sell books (as they say), or is it the content (something you can relate to or are intrigued by) or a preferred genre or author that compels you to read a particular book?
I tend to read more memoirs than fiction because I write memoir, and I gravitate toward real stories of real people to better understand how they survive and overcome. A good memoir moves and inspires a reader. But curiosity compels me to read the latest release or the books buzzing around social media or markets. I love that the pandemic (and the internet) has made book readings and author interviews available to anyone worldwide. Sitting in my home office with famous authors, new authors, and gracious hosts have been such fun.
Has the pandemic left you looking for sweet and hopeful, an escape, or an opportunity to delve deep into the meaning and purpose of life?
In a recent newsletter, Anna Sproul-Latimer, literary agent of Neon Literary, wrote that readers and editors are looking for more sweet and hopeful books during pandemic times. We are tired of death and trauma, she heard others say.
Maybe it’s how you ask the question or approach the topic. I’m fascinated with how humans deal with or don’t deal with death: our fear of it, our courageousness in the face of it, our actions and reactions, the uniqueness of our responses. As long as death doesn’t come too close, which is always scary and dark and oh, so heavy before it is ever illuminating. The closer death gets, the further we retreat from it. It’s human nature to avoid suffering.
Some books about facing death are inspiring (No Cure For Being Human, Between Two Kingdoms, Heartwood, Little Matches, A Constellation of Ghosts—all 2021 releases). They give us hope or a new perspective as we witness the incredible resilience of the human spirit. When we are ready for it. It’s not what the book is about, Sproul-Latimer says, but how it makes the reader feel.
Sometimes we just need an escape—humor, lightness, or immersive books that usher us into someone else’s life—anyone’s life except our own. Other times we read books to understand, see ourselves through/in others’ experiences, think deeply about life and its meaning and purpose, and trust the narrator to take us somewhere worth exploring more fully as humans. I gravitate toward whatever book is calling me at the moment.
I will be curious to see how readers will view books about the pandemic. Gary Shteyngart’s forthcoming novel (Our Country Friends) is marketed as one of the first “pandemic books” to arrive on the scene. The New York Times refers to it as “At turns bitingly funny and unbearably sad, it’s among the first major works of literary fiction to wrestle with the psychological, sociological and cultural impact of the pandemic.” I’m not sure I’m ready. Are you? I’m thankful it’s fiction.
I might be curious enough to read it—to go on an adventure and view the pandemic from another’s perspective. Even trauma can inspire curiosity, especially when couched within a good story. Stories help us make sense of the world and our place within it. After all, human connection unites us, and the need to belong binds us during pandemic times. Or anytime.
Get curious. Read that book calling out to you. Let it take you wherever your heart is yearning to go.