10 Must-Read Books for November

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Before the publishing calendar settles down for the holidays, November is the month for the heavy hitters: big names like Elena Ferrante, Zadie Smith, Michael Chabon and Jonathan Lethem.

We’ve got them all on our list for the month, but we balanced them out with some lesser-known gems too, from new translations of cult classic texts to illuminating nonfiction about social issues. Read on.

Frantumaglia; A Writer’s Journey, Elena Ferrante

This collection of interviews and letters from the elusive, but brilliant writer is a gorgeous gift to hardcore Ferrante fever sufferers, full of tidbits about the author’s writing life, her decision to remain anonymous, and the themes in her work, from feminism to family. Although those of us who haven’t read her complete oeuvre would probably do equally as well to pick up one of her novels, Frantumaglia is there for those who need more Ferrante, and need it now.

Moonglow, Michael Chabon

Chabon’s newest novel is a fictional memoir, posited as the deathbed life story of the “author”‘s grandfather, a tale spanning continents and centuries and dealing, of course, with sex, families, Jewish identity and the legacy of war and genocide. My Chabon-completist life partner devoured the galley, and says it’s the best novel by the author to hit shelves in years.

Swing Time, Zadie Smith

This is the one everyone is excited about: Zadie Smith returns with a novel about dance, race, and female friendship. It’s getting advance raves: as Jeffrey Eugenides wrote, in a profile of Smith, “I’ve just finished Zadie’s new novel, Swing Time, and am still living in its shadow world. Like the black-and-white musicals that feature in its pages, the book is a play of light and dark — at once an assertion of physicality and an illusion — in which the main character, a girl born to a black mother and a white father, tries to assemble, from the competing allegiances that claim her, an identity that allows her to join the dance.”

A Gambler’s Anatomy Jonathan Lethem

Bruno is a backgammon hustler and high end traveler who comes face to face with a life-threatening tumor — and an old high school enemy, Keith Stolarsky, who has the money and influence to save him. A lighter, funnier return to genre playfulness from the least controversial literary Jonathan, MacArthur genius and recent author of Dissident Gardens and The Fortress of Solitude.

Searching for John Hughes, Jason Diamond

We have to give a shoutout to this cultural memoir from Jason Diamond, who used to write these very lists for Flavorwire several years ago. In his first book, Diamond explores his Chicago childhood, and his adolescent obsession with the beloved teen filmmaker behind Ferris Bueller, Sixteen Candles and The Breakfast Club.

The Needle’s Eye, Fanny Howe

A small but potent volume of essays, lyric meditations, and vignettes on boys, youth and coming of age, from the Tsnaraev brothers to ancient saints. Poet and writer Howe has created a cinematic exploration, “a slim volume that roams across continents, genres, and centuries to convey that which is so difficult to express,” according to Kirkus.

Naming Thy Name: Cross Talk in Shakespeare’s Sonnets, Elaine Scarry

Who is the lovely boy being addressed in many of Shakespeare’s sonnets? A new work of cultural criticism from the brilliant and difficult Elaine Scarry (The Body in Pain) provides an answer (no spoilers here), and a story based on a close textual reading. “Scholars of this most studied author of English literature may remain unpersuaded based on the lack of supporting biographical matter, but skepticism needn’t bother Scarry; in her highly detailed, attentive reading, the poetry speaks for itself,” writes Publishers Weekly.

How to Survive a Plague, David France

Journalist David France, who has covered the AIDS virus and the public response to it for decades, gives us a hefty and thorough examination of the crucial history of the fight against the virus, both via activism and medical innovation. This book is a companion to France’s acclaimed and award-winning 2012 documentary of the same name; it’s bound to be definitive.

La Femme de Gilles, Madaleine Bourdouxhe, translated by Faith Evans

An introduction by Elisa Albert and an afterword by translator Faith Evans bookend this spare but potent mid-century Belgian novel, a proto-feminist classic about the limits of domestic sadness and endurance. It influenced Simone de Beauvoir and has garnered comparisons to, you guessed it, Elena Ferrante.

Entanglement: The Secret Life of Hair, Emma Tarlo

A cultural history of hair is inherently an exploration of identity and culture (as a personal possessor of Jewish frizz, I know this too well). Tarlo’s look at the global hair trade is also, at its heart, a look at gender, race, religion, and the power dynamics that stratify, separate and join people together.

And even more books…

Love Voltaire Us Apart is Julia Edelman’s satirical look at relationships with a philosophical twist — check out the trailer above. [A+++ for the title, too — Pun Ed.]

Messy by Tim Harford fights back against the cult of Marie Kondo (thank goodness!)

Thus Bad Begins is a new novel from Spanish master Javier Marías, and On Eagle Pond is poet Donald Hall’s New England meditation.

This month also brings new work from vampire queens Stephenie Meyer (with a thriller, entitled The Chemist) and Anne Rice (Prince Lestat and the Realms of Atlantis: The Vampire Chronicles), and the return to shelves of beloved authors Wally Lamb (with I’ll Take You There) and Alice Hoffman (with Faithful).