With some of the year’s best realist novels, science nonfiction, literary reissues, and art books, November of 2015 is something of a win for the publishing world, which sometimes falls asleep ahead of December’s year-end lists and gift books. After reading the Ulitskaya though, with its snowy Moscow winters, or Mary Louise-Parker’s fiction-memoir, which reads like drinking chocolate straight from a spigot, you’re free to take a nap until the Holidays.
Mary Gaitskill — The Mare (Pantheon, November 3)
Ten years after her last novel, the National Book Award-nominated Veronica, Gaitskill returns with The Mare, a story about a Fresh Air Fund kid from Brooklyn who gets involved with a (classically) damaged host family and a (classically) damaged animal. Even if it’s a more toastily cinematic Gaitskill, it’s still Gaitskill. And it’s sharp on the divide between the city and the provinces.
Ludmila Ulitskaya — The Big Green Tent, trans. Polly Gannon (FSG, November 10)
Is it a rule this year that if an American novel grows beyond 500 pages, it has to read like television? For those of you who prefer a more novelistic, readerly experience (as opposed to a watcherly one), you might go for Ulitskaya’s The Big Green Tent, one of the year’s best works of straightforward realism. Ulitskaya creates a Cold War world that will be unfamiliar for most readers, mostly because it takes place in Russia and is written by a Russian; the details, in other words, don’t seem like American foreign policy readymades. Still, the novel, which swirls around the death of Stalin, is more Pasternak than Dostoevsky. It’s also something of a re-education textbook for heavily Putinized Russians, or at least an attempt to reawaken a dissident past.
Sasha Sokolov — A School for Fools, trans. Alexander Boguslawski (New York Review Books Classics, November 17)
This novel, although it arrives with almost no fanfare, is one of the most important reissues of the year. This is because Sokolov is one of the greatest living Russian writers, even if he lives in Canada. (He was allowed to leave the Soviet Union eventually, after his attempts to flee landed him in prison for a time.) I found Sokolov through the philosopher Boris Groys (The Total Art of Stalinism), who pitched him as a great post-historical novelist. But you might also take Vladimir Nabokov’s word on A School for Fools, which he described as, “an enchanting, tragic, and touching book.” It’s also something you have probably never seen before: a novel with two narrators who speak simultaneously.
Karen Olsson — All the Houses (FSG, November 3)
Olsson, who has written for The Baffler (and elsewhere), here with her second novel, writes from the perspective of the daughter of a Reagan administration official whose career is ruined by the Iran-Contra Affair. You can tell by the title of this novel (alongside the fact that it takes place in D.C.) that it’s interested in drawing parallels between the state of the American family and the state of the American political soul.
Tomas Tranströmer — Bright Scythe, trans. Patty Crane, (Sarabande Books, November 17)
For those of you who missed out on the Nobel Prize-winning poet Tranströmer, who died last year, Bright Scythe — with its lively translation by Patty Crane (who worked with the poet) — is the place to start.
Ginger Strand — The Brothers Vonnegut: Science and Fiction in the House of Magic (FSG, November 17)
Though many readers will be familiar with the story of a science-damaged postwar American writer and his relation to the military-industrial complex, few will have known this fascinating story of the Brothers Vonnegut. And few works of nonfiction on literary writers are as clear-eyed about the material connections between science, fiction, and war.
Agnes de Mille — Dance to the Piper (New York Review Books Classics, November 24)
This is an indispensable work for anyone who cares about the art of choreography, mostly because it is written with exceeding care and intelligence. Its author, Agnes de Mille (who was, yes, of the famous playwriting and screenwriting family) has been called “the best dancer ever to write and the best writer ever to dance.”
John Berger — Portraits (Verso Books, November 24)
The timeless Berger here invents a miniature pantheon of those painters and paintings that can still reshape our sensorial and political possibilities. And there is nobody better to do it.
George Musser — Spooky Action at a Distance (Scientific American, November 3)
Quantum nonlocality, or what Einstein called “spooky action at a distance,” is now at the forefront of both the theory and the imaginarium of modern physics. Musser, who is the ideal guide to this unintuitive world, has written a highly readable breakdown of this concept and its effect on our understanding of the universe.
Mary Louise-Parker — Dear Mr. You (Scribner, November 10)
Parker stakes her claim as “best literary writer” among contemporary celebrities with this fiction-memoir hybrid. The title refers to the book’s epistolary approach: it features a series of real and fiction letters sent to the men in her life. It’s often funny as hell.