In publishing, the onset of autumn often means a change of mind-set, away from the frothy beach books of summer and toward weightier quote-unquote literary fare from big-name authors like Jonathan Franzen or Sally Rooney or Gary Shteyngart. (Check, check, check.) This year, the list of fall’s heavy hitters also includes the two-time Pulitzer winner Colson Whitehead — whose new novel, “Harlem Shuffle,” turns out to be a midcentury crime caper, perfect for readers not ready to leave the beach just yet. (“Can I do a heist novel? Yeah, sure. Why not?” Whitehead told my colleague Alexandra Alter recently.) Of course, Whitehead being Whitehead, the book also explores deeper issues of race and class and power and morality, and it cracks a few jokes along the way. It leads our list of recommended titles this week.
Also up: Erwin Chemerinsky’s “Presumed Guilty,” which analyzes the Supreme Court’s habitual deference to police and prosecutors in matters of criminal law. Adam Tooze’s “Shutdown,” which warns that America’s response to Covid-19 exposes serious structural flaws in our disaster readiness. Maggie Nelson’s “On Freedom,” which looks at four areas of everyday life where liberty is curtailed by other considerations. And Anna Qu’s immigrant memoir, “Made in China,” about a childhood spent working in her family’s sweatshop in Queens. We also have a debut poetry collection by Kendra Allen, a book of short stories by Venita Blackburn, and “Palmares,” Gayl Jones’s first novel in more than two decades. Count that as one of fall’s big titles.
Senior Editor, Books
HARLEM SHUFFLE, by Colson Whitehead. (Doubleday, $28.95.) This heist novel brings Colson Whitehead’s unwavering eloquence to a mix of city history, niche hangouts, racial stratification, high hopes and low individuals. At its center is Ray Carney, a crime-adjacent Harlem furniture salesman in the 1960s. This is a “rich, wild book that could pass for genre fiction,” our reviewer Janet Maslin writes. “It’s much more, but the entertainment value alone should ensure it the same kind of popular success that greeted his last two novels, ‘The Underground Railroad’ and ‘The Nickel Boys.’ It reads like a book whose author thoroughly enjoyed what he was doing.”
ON FREEDOM: Four Songs of Care and Constraint, by Maggie Nelson. (Graywolf, $27.) Nelson’s brainy, affecting, genre-crossing books have earned her a deserved reputation as a sui generis amalgam of poet, memoirist, theorist and critic. This provocative meditation on the ethics of freedom as a source of constraint, as well as liberation, shows her at her most original and brilliant. “In discussion after discussion, Nelson shows the same alertness to context, intellectual modesty and the conviction that ethical goodness is never all on one side,” Kwame Anthony Appiah writes in his review. “If we understand freedom, above all, through our opposition to bondage, we can learn a great deal, as her book shows, from carefully cataloging and challenging the many ways of being unfree.”
SHUTDOWN: How Covid Shook the World’s Economy, by Adam Tooze. (Viking, $28.) Tooze’s account of the twin health and economic crises of 2020 is actually a warning that American institutions and systems, and the assumptions, positions and divisions that undergird them, leave us ill prepared to deal with the next large-scale challenge, whatever it turns out to be. “Separate understandings of our world and its risks have become so divergent and so entrenched that they pose their own existential threat,” Robert E. Rubin writes in his review. “Whether we can overcome that incoherence and meet the challenges ahead while protecting the values at the heart of the American idea — freedom, pluralism, democracy — is the essential question posed by ‘Shutdown.’”
MADE IN CHINA: A Memoir of Love and Labor, by Anna Qu. (Catapult, $26.) In a narrative laced with bitterness and aching, Qu recounts trimming loose threads off sleeves in her immigrant family’s sweatshop in Queens and honors the complexity of her mother, a daunting figure who often comes across as domineering, capricious and dismissive. Chanel Miller reviews it alongside another new memoir of immigrant life, Ly Tran’s “House of Sticks,” and says both authors “capture the confusion and wonder of lives spent looking. … The immigrant child longs to be understood and unload her truths, while simultaneously being tasked with preserving her parents’ humanity. The child is the only one who wears a small headlamp, attempting to tunnel into her parent’s pasts and excavate the stories that will locate the source of their erratic behavior, buried fear and sporadic violence, providing a more forgiving lens.”
PALMARES, by Gayl Jones. (Beacon, $27.95.) Set in Brazil in the late 1600s, Jones’s first novel in 22 years is an unveiling of the brutal enslavement and degradation of various African peoples who were kidnapped by the warring factions of Europe in their ravenous quests for land, resources, power and destruction. “More than that, ‘Palmares’ is an odyssey, one woman’s search first for a place, and then for a person,” Robert Jones Jr. writes in his review. “Mercy, this story shimmers. Shakes. Wails. Moves to rhythms long forgotten. Chants in incantations highly forbidden. It is a story woven with extraordinary complexity, depth and skill; in many ways: holy.”
HOW TO WRESTLE A GIRL: Stories, by Venita Blackburn. (MCD/FSG Originals, paper, $16.) These 30 stories, many of them set in Southern California, explore grief, the body, queerness and the political and societal forces that shape the lives of young women in particular. The book shines in its propensity to magnify small moments and challenge our presumptions. “Throughout this intimate collection, Blackburn renders her characters’ interiority artfully, with emotional precision — unearthing things we often leave unsaid,” Jared Jackson writes in his review. “We’re fortunate she does.”
PRESUMED GUILTY: How the Supreme Court Empowered the Police and Subverted Civil Rights, by Erwin Chemerinsky. (Liveright, $27.95.) This book is a damning indictment of the modern Supreme Court, demonstrating in case after case that in matters of criminal law, “the police almost always win.” Melvin I. Urofsky, reviewing it, writes that “all lawmakers, in fact all concerned citizens, need to read this book. It is an eloquent and damning indictment not only of horrific police practices, but also of the justices who condoned them and continue to do so.”
THE COLLECTION PLATE: Poems, by Kendra Allen. (Ecco, $26.99.) Gospel traditions, erotic need, African American vernacular English and plenty of blank space on well-organized pages come together in this wide-ranging debut poetry collection by an established essayist. The poems, with winningly colloquial titles, contain echoes of recent giants from Lucille Clifton to C. D. Wright, and musical quotations from Earl Sweatshirt to Ace Hood. “Allen excels — like Clifton, like Robert Burns — as she shifts into and out of standard English,” Stephanie Burt writes in her review, considering the book alongside three other recent volumes of poetry. “Allen writes to honor her elders, among them a centenarian great-grandmother who made a triumph of simple survival.”