As temperatures drop this fall, security will rise as high as Airbnb futon rates in preparation for Pope Francis’s September 24 visit to the Big Apple. But New Yorkers, of all Americans, are probably the least fazed by the excitement of Papalpalooza 2015 — we already live in a town where it’s possible to spot the Beyoncémobile on a regular basis. We’re too jaded and diverse a city to get worked up on a grand scale.
But if there’s one spiritual experience that does connect us, it’s our fearless, fervent, and remarkably egalitarian worship of literature. On the subway, Flaubert is consumed next to Gillian Flynn; biopics like The End of the Tour, James Ponsoldt’s ode to David Foster Wallace, premiere to sold-out opera houses; and the New York Public Library is, if nothing else, a cathedral.
In various ways, this autumn’s new releases are about the cultivation of personal iconography. They range from the subtle — a millennial protagonist in Jonathan Franzen’s new novel, Purity, struggles to form a sense of self without knowing who her parents are, until a cyber-leaker provides her with the tools she needs — to the overt (a motley crew of New Yorkers discover they are literally descendants of godlike creatures in Salman Rushdie’s latest “wonder tale,” Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights).
Nonfiction-wise, this season brings us another blessed opportunity to revel in art and life with Patti Smith, who pads her mythology in another rapture of a memoir. Following up 2010’s Just Kids, she aligns her loves and losses with the stuff of legend in M Train, a new travelogue, spiriting us from New York to Mexico and Berlin and back.
And there’s more from the pantheon of fierce punk-rock females: Carrie Brownstein’s autobiography, Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl, recalls the making of a life through music, and how she became a feminist idol in Sleater-Kinney. In Fear and Clothing: Unbuckling American Style, Cintra Wilson prays at the altar of fashion, preaching clothing’s ability to transform, empower, or enslave its wearers in an anthropological look at American trends.
Whatever your creed and however long your train commute, the written word can revive. Our independent bookstores supply divine inspiration at a faster rate than Amazon, and a pilgrimage to the Strand is basically our birthright. In New York, we don’t gaze at the heavens — the buildings are too high to see over — we read about them.
Purity by Jonathan Franzen
The title of Franzen’s Freedom follow-up seems to refer to its protagonist — Purity Tyler, who goes by Pip, who, yeah, has more than a few traits in common with Dickens’s own. The 23-year-old is squatting in Oakland, saddled with insurmountable student debt and reflecting on the mysteries of her life (she has no idea who her father is, and only knows her mother by an alias) when she’s beckoned by a German Julian Assange type to intern at his data-leaking ops. Conversely, the title might refer to the unwavering but contradictory mores of radical feminist Anabel Laird, whose story stands alone better than it interweaves with Pip’s (though it eventually does). Ruminate with Franzen’s characters as they try to determine the originality of their own minds, to both heartbreaking and hilarious effect. Nothing is pure, he suggests — not even our own thoughts. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, $28, 576 pp.
Girl Waits With Gun by Amy Stewart
In the tradition of Jami Attenberg’s Saint Mazie and Alexis Coe’s Alice + Freda Forever, Stewart raids old newspapers for this tale of yet another trailblazing femme fatale. Hers is Constance Kopp, the Hackensack, New Jersey, woman who became one of the nation’s first female deputy sheriffs in 1914. In a similar strange-but-mostly-true story, the novel concerns the bizarre series of events that led Constance to team up with the local police department in order to protect her family — namely a carriage accident, damage disputes, and gang threats leading up to a full-scale shootout on the family farm. Even more compelling is Constance herself — a sturdy, six-foot-tall shut-in with little interest in marriage and a family secret to defend. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $27, 416 pp.
Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights by Salman Rushdie
The allotted time frame adds up to one thousand and one nights, but Rushdie’s magical-realist work is influenced as much by pop-apocalyptic sci-fi and superhero comics as it is by Scheherazade. The boundaries between worlds begin to break down after a strange storm hits New York City. Suddenly, a diverse group of people — a gardener and a graphic novelist, a gold-digging schemer and an abandoned infant — discover they have an array of supernatural powers and crucial parts to play in an upcoming war. Rushdie’s twelfth novel, in classic form, weaves a fairytale fraught with references to Mel Brooks, Mickey Mouse, and Bravo TV, among other modern signifiers. At its core is another war — the one between religious faith and scientific logic. Random House, $28, 304 pp.
Fear and Clothing: Unbuckling American Style by Cintra Wilson
While fashion fanatics will want to wrap themselves in Wilson’s punk-rock travelogue like the perfect leather motorcycle jacket, this funny and contemplative work of nonfiction will appeal equally even to sartorial laymen. With something like Hunter Thompson’s brand of paranoid scrutiny, the former New York Times Critical Shopper traverses the “belt” regions — Bible, Cotton, Corn, Rust, Frost, Sun, Gun, etc. — investigating how culture and politics determine the way we dress in both direct and more insidious ways. (For Wilson, style is anything but superficial.) She makes clear her stance on the matter when she coins “fashion determinism,” or the idea that we “tend to become the character in the world whose costume we are wearing.” W.W. Norton & Company, $27.95, 336 pp.
Killing and Dying by Adrian Tomine
Zadie Smith has said that Tomine “has more ideas in twenty panels than novelists have in a lifetime.” This new collection of six interconnected graphic stories is as masterfully wrought as past achievements like Sleepwalk and Summer Blonde, and just as hauntingly evocative of modern American loneliness, anxiety, and hope. Here a stand-up comedian deals with the disappointment of family, a mistaken identity has dire consequences, and a new art form (“hortisculpture”) is born only to quickly die out. Tomine pays attention to the minute gestures: a nervous cross-and-re-cross of the arms, the brief moment when someone glances down at their feet between sentences. His landscapes are Hopper-esque in their sparse beauty, and the dark humor keeps things — go figure — light, but it’s these moments of expertly rendered humanity that will leave readers in awe. Drawn & Quarterly, $22.95, 128 pp.
The Clasp by Sloane Crosley
Crosley’s former career as a publicist might explain how she has been able to attract such a roster of heavyweight names to endorse her first novel — most notably Amanda Seyfried, who rambles on in its cutesy book trailer before admitting that she hasn’t actually read the thing. Ultimately, though, Crosley’s résumé doesn’t matter; the author of the essay collections How Did You Get This Number and I Was Told There’d Be Cake is gifted with enough urbane wit and charm to warrant the support. In her debut work of fiction, three estranged friends reunite at a wedding and learn the story of a mysterious necklace lost to time. They embark on a spontaneous quest to find the artifact and are whisked to Miami, Los Angeles, New York, and Paris. The plot provides due suspense, but Crosley’s smart humor is the real gem. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, $26, 384 pp.
M Train by Patti Smith
In 2010’s Just Kids, Smith reminded us, in spectacular detail, why we all came to New York in the first place. In M Train, a memoir about the road, transit, and the random places we choose to call home, she broadens her geographic scope — and there are few better travel companions. See Frida Kahlo’s Casa Azul, a Berlin-based Arctic explorers’ society, the grave of Sylvia Plath, and a Greenwich Village coffee shop through the eyes of this multi-platform performer, whose vision has only grown sharper over the decades. At a time when calling oneself an “artist” is almost always accompanied by an eye-roll, Smith eschews all titles, as she always has, and recognizes the urge to create as something deep and ancient. Knopf, $25, 272 pp.
Welcome to Night Vale by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor
Welcome to Night Vale, one of the most downloaded podcasts on iTunes, is brilliant in its ability to flip-flop between extremes. As a faux public access radio show it juxtaposes news of the mundane (a PTA meeting) with the bizarre, creepy, and ever-unnatural — like, say, that PTA meeting needing to be rescheduled due to an unexpected rift in space-time over the auditorium, which has released “numerous confused and aggressive pterodactyls.” Creators Fink and Cranor bring the same sci-fi/Americana-goth sensibilities to the namesake novel, about the mysterious desert town where all conspiracy theories are true. The story focuses on Night Vale pawnshop owner Jackie Fierro and PTA treasurer Diane Crayton, who are both haunted by visions of a strange place called “King City.” We’re confident our heroines will encounter a certain subversive radio host and other infamous Night Vale denizens on their quest for answers. Harper Perennial, $19.99, 416 pp.
Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl by Carrie Brownstein
With Sleater-Kinney dropping No Cities to Love after an all-too-quiet decade, a Brownstein autobiography is to be expected, though no less welcome for it. A performer through and through, she translates her story to the page with characteristically blunt humor and observational prowess. Brownstein recounts growing up in the Pacific Northwest during the grimiest years of grunge and becoming part of the burgeoning riot grrrl movement. Her mood shifts from heavy, as she remembers a troubled childhood and pursuing music as a form of escape, to light, as the origins for some of her Portlandia sketches are revealed. But was there ever a real-life Cat Nap, you ask? Read and find out. Riverhead Books, $27.95, 256 pp.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on September 1, 2015