10 Must-Read Books for May 2016

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Just before the plunge into lighter reading that comes with a change of the season, May offers plenty of high-quality literary writing — especially novels. Is Zero K one of DeLillo’s best? Can The Sport of Kings revive the regional novel? There are also great nonfiction books out this month, including Chris Lehmann’s polemical history The Money Cult, as well as Axel Honneth and Jacques Ranciere’s epic debate about freedom and equality, recognition and disagreement in Recognition or Disagreement. And if that’s too heavy for you, just wait for our “Unrepentantly Trashy Beach Reads” coming later this month.

Zero K, Don DeLillo (Scribner, May 3)

We wrote at length on DeLillo’s masterful novel about death, religion, apocalypse, and the way we compose ourselves through fiction yesterday. The story of a billionaire who wants to be cryogenically frozen, and his son, who wants to be left alone, Zero K is one of the best and most important books of the year.

The Sport of Kings, C.E. Morgan, (FSG, May 3)

Morgan’s first novel, All the Living, placed her on The New Yorker’s storied 40 Under 40 list. Could The Sport of Kings — a big family novel about horse racing set (like Morgan) in Kentucky — help revive the regional novel in the minds of American readers?

Once and For All: The Best of Delmore Schwartz, ed. Craig Morgan Teicher (New Directions, May 3)

Schwartz was an alcoholic with psychological problems, but he was also a prodigious and immensely influential poet and fiction writer. This sharply edited collection has a lot to teach students of contemporary literature. Schwartz’s hilarious and unsettling letters to James Laughlin, in which he sometimes pretends not to be asking for money, are worth the price of admission on their own.

Memories: From Moscow to the Black Sea and Tolstoy, Rasputin, Others, and Me: The Best of Teffi, Teffi, ed. Robert Chandler, Anne Marie Jackson, trans. Rose France, Elizabeth Chandler, Irina Steinberg (NYRB, May 3)

One can only hope that NYRB’s two collections of writing from the mononymous/pseudonymous “Teffi” — who left Russia during the October Revolution — will spark a revival of her work, which here ranges from humorist satire to memoir.

The Mirror Thief, Martin Seay (Melville House, May 10)

Compared recently to the work of David Mitchell, Seay’s big, genre-ish The Mirror Thief is actually better than most novels by that author. What’s it about? Well, mirrors. And it involves a proliferation of places called Venice.

LaRose, Louise Erdrich (Harper, May 10)

Erdrich follows up a string of great stories (found in various magazines) with her first novel since 2012. I can’t promise you it’s an entirely happy story — it’s about a man who accidentally kills his neighbor’s son – but I can promise that it’s a good one.

Girls on Fire, Robin Wasserman (Harper, May 17)

We wrote briefly about Wasserman’s first adult fiction late last month, but it’s worth mentioning here that it falls somewhere between My So Called Life and Buffy on the 1990s nostalgia spectrum. It’s also the story of an obsessive friendship between two young girls who like Nirvana.

Recognition or Disagreement: A Critical Encounter on the Politics of Freedom, Equality, and Identity, Jacques Ranciere, Axel Honneth, ed. Katia Genel, Jean-Philippe Deranty (New Directions in Critical Theory, May 17)

It’s hard to imagine a more central argument in contemporary politics — recognition or disagreement: what should be the aim of contemporary thought? — than the one played out here by Ranciere and Honneth, two heavyweight thinkers from adjacent traditions. And you won’t find a better stage for an argument about equality and freedom this year.

Modern Lovers, Emma Straub (May 31, Riverhead)

Published on the cusp of summer, Straub’s Brooklyn novel sometimes feels like a reverse-adapted version of a Noah Baumbach movie, which is to say you’ll see a lot of status copies of it at the beach.

The Money Cult, Chris Lehmann (Melville House, May 31)

One of the season’s most substantial nonfiction books — from one the best essayists and polemicists writing in the US — Lehmann’s The Money Cult takes aim at the longstanding and distinctly American binding of Christianity and capitalism.