10 Must-Read Books for August

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Pitched between the beach reads of June and July and the high literary controversies of autumn, the month of August is often little more than a break in the literary calendar. But this year publishers have perked up a bit, electing to release a combination of rediscovered classics (Shirley Jackson, Lucia Berlin) — especially in short fiction — and high-quality debut novels (Alexandra Kleeman, Ottessa Moshfegh). Most importantly, this month introduces American audiences to the great Clarice Lispector, an unclassifiable genius on the level of the best writers of the 20th century.

Fiction:

Let Me Tell You: New Stories, Essays, and Other Writings, Shirley Jackson (Deckle Edge, August 4)

Shirley Jackson’s writing — a mainstay of the American curriculum — has exerted untold influence over both genre and literary fiction for decades. This collection of new material arrives 50 years after her death and just one year shy of what would have been her 100th birthday. Although it’s a bit uneven, there is still plenty of worthwhile material here — the hilarious and weird “The Arabian Nights” is my favorite.

The Complete Stories, Clarice Lispector, trans. Katrina Dodson, ed. Benjamin Moser (New Directions, August 4)

“I was shocked by reality,” Mary Ruefle said of her first encounter with Clarice Lispector. I know of no better description of reading the Brazilian author’s variegated, inarguably masterful fiction, although Jeff VanderMeer’s recent comparison of Lispector to Nabokov and Angela Carter makes sense — if you combine the two. Benjamin Moser, who has helped curate Lispector’s emergence into English, describes her as “the most important Jewish writer since Kafka.” Her long-awaited arrival — of which this is only the beginning — might be compared to the translation and publication of Kafka’s work in early 1940s.

You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine, Alexandra Kleeman, (Harper, August 25)

Poised somewhere between abstraction and realism, Kleeman’s fiction operates at what you might call a shallow depth. To be sure, critics and writers will place this one in the “alienation” chamber alongside Tao Lin’s Taipei. I’d rather note how the novel defamiliarizes and estranges what we do with our bodies — not because it is alienated, but because it isn’t. I’d likewise compare it to the recent work of Jonathan Littell, who also sometimes uses single letters — A and B and C — to name his characters.

Eileen, Ottessa Moshfegh (Penguin Press, August 18)

It’s hard to remember a debut novel by a more decorated young writer. Moshfegh has already been compared to Shirley Jackson (see above) and Nabokov. She has also won a Plimpton Prize, a Stegner Fellowship, a Fence Modern Prize, and an NEA Grant. Eileen, the novel’s resentful, self-loathing, and darkly funny protagonist, will sear herself on reader’s brains long after they finish this New England noir.

A Manual for Cleaning Women: Selected Stories, Lucia Berlin (FSG, August 18)

This selection of 43 stories from an under-known genius of the American short — Lucia Berlin has been compared to Raymond Carver and Chekhov — builds into a fragmentary if unsentimental portrait of addiction and a life that was, as Lydia Davis writes in the introduction, “rich and full of incident.” This collection, along with Edna O’Brien’s The Love Object and Clarice Lispector’s Complete Stories, forms this year’s holy trinity of short fiction.

Fiction Honorable Mention:

Rock, Paper, Scissors, Naja Marie Aidt (Open Letter, August 11)

Dear Illusion: Collected Stories, Kingsley Amis (NYRB Classics, August 4)

The State We’re In: Maine Stories, Ann Beattie (Scribner, August 11)

Wind / Pinball, Haruki Murakami, (Knopf, August 5)

Fortune Smiles, Adam Johnson (Random House, August 18)

Poetry:

Dome of the Hidden Pavilion, James Tate (Ecco, August 4)

Nonfiction:

Multiply/Divide: On the American Real and Surreal, Wendy S. Walters, (Sarabande Books, August 11)

Perhaps the book this year that best aligns itself with Kenneth Burke’s idea of stories as “equipment for living,” Walter’s Multiply/Divide bends the boundaries of fiction, nonfiction, and lyrical essay, while at the same time crossing osmotically through the hyper-realities of American life — especially those guiding matters of race and gender.

The Wikileaks Files: The World According to US Empire (Verso, August 25)

For this collection, introduced by Julian Assange, publisher Verso has organized a team of experts to analyze the most sensitive and historically important WikiLeaks files. Readers will come away with a clearer idea of the American Imperium’s plots and intrigues in Russia, Syria, East Asia, and even Venezuela — which is to say they’ll come away decidedly more disturbed.

A Woman in Arabia: The Writings of the Queen of the Desert, by Gertrude Bell ed. Georgina Howell (Penguin, August 11)

Gertrude Bell was known as “the Queen of the Desert” and “the female Lawrence of Arabia” — neither of these hint at the importance of her life, writing, and work. I hope this collection of Bell’s prose, more than the upcoming film by Werner Herzog, stirs up controversy about her time as an archaeologist and spy and spearhead of post-WWI British policy in the Middle East, the effects of which can still be felt today.

Noise Uprising: The Audiopolitics of a World Musical Revolution, Michael Denning (Verso, August 18)

Michael Denning’s works of cultural history are indispensable. I suspect that his writings on the American Popular Front, for example, will only gain in reputation in the coming years. I also suspect that his new study, Noise Uprising, which documents the rise of “Havana’s son, Rio’s samba, New Orleans’ jazz, Buenos Aires’ tango, Seville’s flamenco, Cairo’s tarab, Johannesburg’s marabi, Jakarta’s kroncong, and Honolulu’s hula” — the sounds of decolonization — will be the most important book on music released this year.

The Last Love Song: A Biography of Joan Didion, Tracy Daugherty, (St. Martin’s, August 25)

Tracy Daugherty, who has authored four novels, has now written a measured biography of Joan Didion that nearly reads like a work of fiction. And Daugherty, whose excellent Hiding Man surveys the life and works of semi-recluse Donald Barthelme, is well positioned to trace the public vs. private paradoxes of Didion’s life without killing the mystery.

Nonfiction Honorable Mention:

The Man Who Wasn’t There: Investigations into the Strange New Science of the Self, Anil Ananthaswamy (Dutton, August 4)

Paradise of the Pacific: Approaching Hawaii, Susanna Moore (FSG, August 18)

Latest Readings, Clive James (Yale, August 25)