Top Reads for October

Grab a blanket to ward off the chill of ghosts, sit down with your pumpkin spice latte, and start hibernating for autumn with these reads: the latest Lisbeth Salander story, Jesmyn Ward’s new and haunting novel, a treatise to trees, and more.

The Girl Who Takes an Eye for an Eye

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Jen: Finishing a good book is like eating a mini candy bar: it’s satisfying, but I’m always left wanting more. That’s one reason I was so excited to dive into The Girl Who Takes an Eye for an Eye, the latest book in the Millennium (Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) series. I’d missed Lisbeth Salander and was eager to take another journey with her. 

We’re reunited with Lisbeth as she starts a 2-month jail sentence. She declines an offer of peace and safety via solitary confinement and soon begins to do what she does best: fight for the underdog and uncover conspiracies. 

This time, her upbringing is at the center of the conspiracy, and the book unveils many details of her past — including the origins of her dragon tattoo and what influenced the distinct personality differences between Lisbeth and her twin sister. While subplots featuring hot topics like cyber attacks and religious extremism provided tension, for me, the most rewarding part of the book was learning more about what shaped our brilliant and dark protagonist.

A Kind of Freedom

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Alex P.: It’s been a great year for debuts, and Margaret Wilkerson Sexton’s first novel, A Kind of Freedom, is no exception. It’s a wonderfully observed multigenerational tale of a black family in New Orleans, in which each successive generation struggles against constraints at once deeply personal and broadly representative — from Jim Crow discrimination in the ’40s, to the crack epidemic of the ’80s, through to the lingering devastation of Katrina in the last decade. It’s no small feat to depict such difficult subjects with nuance and without sentimentality, and Sexton’s ability to make the soda shops of the ’40s read as true as a Popeye’s in 2010 would be startling, if it wasn’t rendered with such subtle skill. And given the recent devastation of the hurricanes that struck the South, it’s no surprise that the sections that grapple with Katrina’s lasting influences feel especially poignant. This release marks Sexton as a literary force to be reckoned with.

Sing, Unburied, Sing

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Katie: Jesmyn Ward writes gorgeous sentences. I can’t stop reading them over and over again in her new novel. Sing, Unburied, Sing, which is shortlisted for the 2017 National Book Award, is brimming with gems.

I read her 2011 novel — the National Book Award winner Salvage the Bones — the same way, really savoring sentences. Ward is genius at seamlessly connecting these beautiful nuggets in service of the overarching narrative, lyrically tackling heavy themes. Sentences in Sing, Unburied, Sing rise together to form a penetrating story that lingers in the reader’s mind like fog on the Mississippi bayou where the novel is set.

Drawing on Toni Morrison, William Faulkner, and Greek myths, Ward plays with the classic American road novel, weaving magical realism into the modern, rural South. She blurs the lines between the living and ghosts, black and white, and three generations of family. Meth competes with traditional herbs as a poultice for characters’ pain. Tender love between siblings, together with grandparents’ quiet, fierce love, provide a balm for a young brother and sister with troubled parents. Even so, violence, racial injustice, and past and present pain pervade throughout the story.

I reveled in the smaller details, savoring Ward’s prose over and over, hoping to stretch out the pleasure of reading this beautiful book.

Mostly Void, Partially Stars

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Ashley: “Welcome to Night Vale” is a popular podcast full of surreal storytelling and throat spiders. Many people have told me to listen to this podcast, and then also said maybe I wouldn’t like it, probably because I’m a curmudgeon, and also because I’m afraid of spiders.

Maybe you, like me, haven’t figured out how to listen to podcasts consistently, but you desperately want to keep up with the cool kids who know about this (supposedly fictional) desert town and its overlord, the Glow Cloud. That’s where the awesomely named Mostly Void, Partially Stars helps. It’s a transcription of the first 25 episodes of the podcast, plus commentary from the (supposed) creators about why and how they wrote “Night Vale,” and how at least one of them is also desperately afraid of spiders.

There’s something here for everyone, whether you’ve been listening to the podcast for years or you’ve just wandered into town looking for wheat & wheat by-products. Sorry, you were looking for books? The City Council would like to remind you that books are “dangerous and inadvisable and should not be kept in private homes.” But I recommend you pick this one up anyway. It’s perfect for Halloween and well worth risking a visit from the Sheriff’s Secret Police.

The Hidden Life of Trees

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Andrew: The Hidden Life of Trees is a great autumn read. We may not have too many deciduous trees with their famous foliage changes here in the San Francisco Bay Area, especially compared to Germany where the author lives, but reading this book put me in the spirit of the season.

Learning about all the ways that trees interact with each other to survive calamity also increased my respect for them. Especially in our age of climate change and deforestation, it’s important to understand the irreplaceable value of old-growth forests.

I never knew this, but trees are actually social entities. Connected both underground by root systems and fungi as well as aboveground by chemical signaling, trees survive best as a community. Replanted forests don’t have the same kind of centuries-old networks that more established forests have, and that has huge implications for the health of the forest, and by extension the health of our planet.

Whether you love trees, want to learn more about the complex webs that impact our climate, or just want to get in the spirit of autumn, The Hidden Life of Trees is a great read.


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