10 Must-Read Books for May

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Often a given year’s publishing calendar is lopsided — the heavyweight books come out in September, after the literary mind has been thoroughly and evenly baked by the summer sun. But not this year! After a spirited April, we’re seeing a wise and hilarious May. One-of-a-kind acts of literary brilliance? Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts and Nell Zink’s Mislaid. Clear-eyed interventions in American life? Try Susan Neiman’s Why Grow Up? or n+1‘s City by City. There is even a potential science-fiction masterpiece in Neal Stephnenson’s Seveneves. If we project our minds to the end of 2015, my guess is that we’ll see many of these on those lists of “best” and “notable” books.

The Argonauts, Maggie Nelson (Graywolf, May 5)

A brief work of “autotheory” — it combines memoir, criticism, and, well, thought-in-motion — and one of the best books of 2015, Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts considers pregnancy, gender fluidity, and romance in light of the limit-testing power of language.

Why Grow Up? Subversive Thoughts for an Infantile Age, Susan Neiman (FSG, May 5)

Philosopher Susan Neiman restores some measure of sanity to the discussion of age, infantilism, “growing up,” and all of its attendant fussing. Hopefully this considered, often brilliant book will shape the discourse on maturity for the foreseeable future.

The Making of Zombie Wars, Aleksandar Hemon (FSG, May 5)

One of our most revered novelists-in-his-prime, Hemon switches it up (sort of) with The Making of Zombie Wars — quite possibly his funniest book.

Breezeway: New Poems, John Ashbery (Ecco, May 12)

Often hilarious an unerringly wise, Breezeway is the best of Ashbery’s recent work. Who could expect less from the English language’s greatest living poet?

City by City: Dispatches from the American Metropolis, ed. Stephen Squibb and Keith Gessen (n+1, May 12)

A much-needed reflection on the state of the our cities (big or small) drawn from contributors to n+1, this collection of essays runs the gamut — funny, serious, sad, but, most of all, deeply concerned about life in a crumbling America.

The Happiness Industry: How the Government and Big Business Sold Us Well-Being, William Davies (Verso, May 12)

In a nutshell: “our emotions have become a new resource to be bought and sold.” Davies investigates the myriad ways that our “pursuit of happiness” is predetermined by business, finance, and government — who profit immensely from it.

Mislaid, Nell Zink (Ecco, May 19)

Nell Zink’s The Wallcreeper was the most impressive debut of 2014. Here, only months later, is her second novel, the hilarious and genius Mislaid, which restores a kind of Whitmania to American fiction, by which I mean that it convincingly covers race, class, gender, and sexuality in the briefest of spaces with the sharpest of minds.

Seveneves, Neal Stephenson (William Morrow, May 19)

For many, this is the most anticipated science-fiction novel of the year. And with good reason: it is a “grand story of annihilation and survival spanning 5000 years” from the author of Snowcrash and Cryptonomicon.

The Odd Woman and the City: A Memoir, Vivian Gornick (FSG, May 19)

A wonderful and clear-eyed memoir of Gornick’s time in New York City that doubles as an appreciation of friendship — which more and more avails itself as the most important theme of our time.

Loving Day, Mat Johnson (Spiegel & Grau, May 26)

Mat Johnson is best known for his excellent Pym, but now he will likely be best known for his novel Loving Day, a story of literal and figurative ghosts wherein a man named Warren meets his daughter, who has been raised to believe she is white. Lucid, poignant, sane — it’s what we hope for in American fiction.