Ten books you should read this September

BBC News : A new novel from Jonathan Safran Foer, a new Kafka translation and a panoramic history of time travel all feature in this month’s round-up of books to look out for.
John le Carré, The Pigeon Tunnel (Credit: Credit: Viking)

John le Carré, The Pigeon Tunnel

The master of espionage fiction offers a memoir of sorts, a series of meticulously crafted, witty and enthralling “stories from my life”. He describes the childhood deceptions and losses that launched him, his schooling in Switzerland, where he made his first “infant steps for British Intelligence, delivering I knew not what to I knew not whom.” He covers the transformative publication of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, and the research trips and encounters (Yassar Arafat, war correspondent David Greenway, Alec Guinness, among others) that led to the memorable characters in the novels that followed.  Near the end of the book he addresses Ronnie – “con-man, fantasist, occasional jailbird, and my father” – the character he most wanted to get to grips with ever since the beginnings of his life as a writer. (Credit: Viking)

Ann Patchett, Commonwealth (Credit: Credit: Harper)

Ann Patchett, Commonwealth

In her brilliant new novel, Patchett, winner of the 2001 Orange Prize for Bel Canto, traces the consequences of one impulsive act on an American family over 50 years. She begins with a christening party for Fix and Beverly Keating’s second daughter, Franny. Bert Cousins, a Los Angeles deputy district attorney, shows up uninvited with a bottle of gin. By the end of the party, he has kissed Beverly. Two marriages end, and six children are unmoored, shifting back and forth among parents until the year tragedy strikes. In her twenties, Franny has an affair with an award-winning author and tells him her family’s secrets, which he reveals in a novel that then becomes a film. Patchett creates memorable, complex characters in this exploration of the reverberations of betrayal. (Credit: Harper)

Franz Kafka, Konundrum (Credit: Credit: Archipelago)

Franz Kafka, Konundrum

‘Kafkaesque’ is “synonymous with the nightmarish, the ominous, and the bureaucratically bizarre,” notes Peter Wortsman in the afterword to his lucid and rhythmic translation of a selection of the Prague icon’s short stories, parables, letters and diaries. Kafka’s “stark narratives and furtive fragments” – a series of alerts and premonitions from the unconscious of a genius – are powerfully resonant today. There are shifts that require adjustment: the familiar Metamorphosis becomes Transformed, with Gregor Samsa awaking as a “monstrous bug” instead of a “horrible vermin.” Read it for a fresh look at classics like The Hunger Artist,  In the Penal Colony and Josephine, Our Meistersinger, written as Kafka was dying of tuberculosis, and for surprises like Poseidon: “Poseidon sat at his desk and crunched numbers. The management of all bodies of water was a humongous task.” (Credit: Archipelago)

Peter Ho Davies, The Fortunes (Credit: Credit: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

Peter Ho Davies, The Fortunes

Davies distills 150 years of Chinese-American history in his timely and eloquent new novel. In Gold, the first of its four sections, Ah Ling, 14, the son of a Hong Kong prostitute, seeks his fortune in California. He works as valet to Charles Crocker, who hires thousands of Chinese to expand his transcontinental railroad. Silver portrays the 30-year career of the LA-born actress Anna May Wong, who co-stars with Douglas Fairbanks at 19.  Davies also writes of Vincent Chin, beaten to death in Detroit in 1982 by two auto workers who mistake him for Japanese, and of a half-Chinese writer visiting China to adopt a baby daughter, thinking of how to prepare her to answer the question he’s heard all his life: where are you from? (Credit: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

James Gleick, Time Travel (Credit: Credit: HarperCollins)

James Gleick, Time Travel

Science writer Gleick (The Information) takes a panoramic approach to the fourth dimension, a subject that fascinated the fin de siècle scientific world. He begins with HG Wells drafting his landmark 1895 book The Time Machine, which set the template for the emerging genre of science fiction and influenced physicists like Einstein. He includes Edith Nesbit, a Wells contemporary, who invented a time-travel subgenre in her 1906 novel The Story of the Amulet, in which four children travel into the past. He weaves in Marcel Proust, Robert Heinlein, Ursula Le Guin, Jorge Luis Borges, Philip K Dick, and WG Sebald, with surprises along the way. His parallel discussion of perceptions of time, from the Roman tempus fugit to Isaac Newton’s tempus fluit to Twitter Moments, keeps Time Travel provocative. (Credit: HarperCollins)

Enrique Vila-Matas, Vampire in Love (Credit: Credit: New Directions)

Enrique Vila-Matas, Vampire in Love

Barcelona-born Vila-Matas has published more than 20 novels, and won the 2014 Prix Formentor for his body of work. This selection of 19 stories showcases his dark yet whimsical wit and genre-blending tendencies. The opening story sets the stage: a father bequeaths his son “the house of fiction and the pleasure of taking up permanent residence there.” In Sea Swell a young Spanish writer behaves badly when introduced by a friend to Marguerite Duras. Another story features a man who makes a game of responding to e-mails without reading them. In the title story, a desperate man with two sharp vampire’s teeth has a sinful eye for an altar boy. The narrator calls him “Saint Nosferatu”. “Like all those in love”, Vila-Matas writes, “he is both vampire and martyr”. (Credit: New Directions)

Ursula Le Guin, The Complete Orsinia: Malafrena, Stories and Songs (Credit: Credit: Library of America)

Ursula Le Guin, The Complete Orsinia: Malafrena, Stories and Songs

Le Guin is the second living novelist (after Philip Roth) to be included in the Library of America. This first volume, with a new introduction and chronology from the author, gathers her early work, before she turned to science fiction. Orsinia originated Le Guin was 20 and decided to write about an invented country in central Europe. Orsinia is the setting for her first published poem and story and her novel Malafrena, which she began in 1952 and completed in 1978. “It was about the generation in Europe that came of age during the 1820s and broke their hearts in the revolutions of 1830”, she writes. The Complete Orsinia offers invaluable insights into Le Guin’s genius. “My games are transformation and invention,” she writes. (Credit: Library of America)

Ruth Franklin, Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life (Credit: Credit: Liveright)

Ruth Franklin, Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life

Known best for her 1948 story The Lottery, and her novels The Haunting of Hill House (1959) and We Have Always Lived in the Castle (1962), Shirley Jackson wrote literary suspense in the tradition of Hawthorne, Poe and Henry James. Her unique contribution, notes Franklin in her authoritative new biography, was “her primary focus” on the lives of her generation of women who were raised in the mid-20th Century, on the cusp of the feminist movement. Franklin tracks Jackson’s mythmaking life from her girlhood in a northern Californian suburb through her marriage to literary critic Stanley Edgar Hyman with whom she had four children. They met at Syracuse University, where he began a lifetime of infidelities: “Their sometimes tortured intimacy reverberates seismically through her work,” writes Franklin. (Credit: Liveright)

Eimear McBride, The Lesser Bohemians (Credit: Credit: Hogarth)

Eimear McBride, The Lesser Bohemians

McBride wowed the literary world with her first novel, A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing, which won the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction and the first Goldsmiths Prize, among others. Her second novel is written in the same startling poetic and impressionistic prose, revealing the inner thoughts of her Irish narrator as she heads to acting school in London circa 1994. “Lo lay London Liverpool Street I am getting to on the train,” she begins. “Legs fair jibbed from halfway there.” McBride writes of her narrator’s tentative first roles in student plays, and a year of increasing intimacy with an older actor, which unfolds with erotic intensity. As he describes his own childhood, and twisted relationship with his mother, she struggles to tame her own most powerful instincts. (Credit: Hogarth)

Jonathan Safran Foer, Here I Am (Credit: Credit: Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

Jonathan Safran Foer, Here I Am

Foer’s energetic third novel is chock-a-block with modern conundrums. Jacob and Julia’s marriage, frayed by raising three young sons, threatens to tear apart over his sexting. Their 13-year-old son Sam, whose chief alliances are in an online alternate universe, faces expulsion from Hebrew school for writing a list of racial epithets. Sam’s grandfather weighs whether to kill himself or move to the Jewish Home. Sam attends a Model UN at which students try to stave off nuclear war, only to be embarrassed by his mother, a not-so-cool chaperone. Israeli cousins come for Sam’s bar mitzvah, and are stranded by a massive earthquake, its epicenter under the Dead Sea, that destabilizes the Middle East. Serious sadness, cheeky dialogue and cutting-edge relevance keep this novel crackling. (Credit: Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

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