A Recommendation for August

Each month I aim to preview two to four books to be released in the next month that I have already read and can recommend. It’s looking thin on the ground for August because two of my most anticipated reads of the year were disappointments, and another August release I left unfinished; I give mini write-ups of these below. However, I’ve very much enjoyed What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky, the debut story collection by Lesley Nneka Arimah, which came out in America in April but releases on the 24th over here; I’ll be reviewing it for Shiny New Books shortly. Also, I’m 20% into The Education of a Coroner by John Bateson (releases August 15th), a fascinating set of sometimes gory true crime case studies.

As for the one August book I’m currently able to wholeheartedly recommend, that is…


The Futilitarians: Our Year of Thinking, Drinking, Grieving, and Reading by Anne Gisleson

(Coming from Little, Brown and Company on the 22nd)

One for angsty, bookish types. In 2012 Anne Gisleson, a New Orleans-based creative writing teacher, her husband, sister and some friends formed an Existential Crisis Reading Group (which, for the record, I think would have been a better title). Each month they got together to discuss their lives and their set readings – both expected and off-beat selections, everything from Kafka and Tolstoy to Kingsley Amis and Clarice Lispector – over wine and snacks.

One of their texts, Arthur Koestler’s The Act of Creation, proposed the helpful notion of the Trivial and Tragic Planes. The Trivial is where we live everyday; the Tragic is where we’re transported when something awful happens. Gisleson had plenty of experience with the latter: not just the suicides of her younger twin sisters, a year and a half apart, and her father’s death from leukemia, but also the collective loss of Hurricane Katrina. She returns again and again to these sources of grief in her monthly chapters structured around the book group meetings, elegantly interweaving family stories and literary criticism.

I found the long quotes from the readings a little much – you probably shouldn’t pick this up if you haven’t the least interest in philosophy and aren’t much troubled by life’s big questions – but in general this is a fascinating, personal look at what makes life worth living when it might be shattered any second. I particularly loved the chapter in which the book club members creatively re-enact the Stations of the Cross for Easter and the sections about her father’s pro bono work as an attorney for death row inmates at Angola prison. Sometimes it really is a matter of life and death.

Favorite passage:

“Generations of parents have put their children to bed in this house and even if I haven’t quite figured out the why and the how of living, others have found reasons to keep moving things forward. In quiet moments I can feel the collective push of these ghost-hands on my back, nudging me on.”

My rating:


And now for the ones I’m closer to lukewarm on…

(Reviews in the order in which I read the books.)


Mrs. Fletcher by Tom Perrotta

(Coming from Scribner on the 1st)

I enjoy Tom Perrotta’s novels: they’re funny, snappy, current and relatable; it’s no surprise they make great movies. I’ve somehow read seven of his nine books now, without even realizing it. Mrs. Fletcher is more of the same satire on suburban angst, but with an extra layer of raunchiness that struck me as unnecessary. It seemed something like a sexual box-ticking exercise. But for all the deliberately edgy content, this book isn’t really doing anything very groundbreaking; it’s the same old story of temptations and bad decisions, but with everything basically going back to a state of normality by the end. If you haven’t read any Perrotta before and are interested in giving his work a try, let me steer you towards Little Children instead. That’s his best book by far.

My rating:


Sour Heart by Jenny Zhang

(Coming from Lenny Books on the 1st [USA] and Bloomsbury Circus on the 10th [UK])

I read “We Love You Crispina” (13%), about the string of awful hovels a family of Chinese immigrants is forced to move between in early 1990s New York City. You’d think it would be unbearably sad reading about cockroaches and shared mattresses and her father’s mistress, but Zhang’s deadpan litanies are actually very funny: “After Woodside we moved to another floor, this time in my mom’s cousin’s friend’s sister’s apartment in Ocean Hill that would have been perfect except for the nights when rats ran over our faces while we were sleeping and even on the nights they didn’t, we were still being charged twice the cost of a shitty motel.” Perhaps I’m out of practice in reading short story collections, but after I finished this first story I felt absolutely no need to move on to the rest of the book.

My rating:


Forest Dark by Nicole Krauss

(Coming on the 24th from Harper [USA] and Bloomsbury [UK])

Impressive in scope and structure, but rather frustrating. If you’re hoping for another History of Love, you’re likely to come away disappointed: while that book touched the heart; this one is mostly cerebral. Metafiction, the Kabbalah, and some alternative history featuring Kafka are a few of the major elements, so think about whether those topics attract or repel you. Looking a bit deeper, this is a book about Jewish self-invention and reinvention. Now, when I read a novel with a dual narrative, especially when the two strands share a partial setting – here, the Tel Aviv Hilton – I fully expect them to meet up at some point. In Forest Dark that never happens. At least, I don’t think so.* I sometimes found “Nicole” (the author character) insufferably clever and inward-gazing. All told, there’s a lot to think about here: more questions than answers, really. Interesting, for sure, but not the return to form I’d hoped for.

*Hop over to my Goodreads review to read the marked spoilers and chip in with comments!

My rating:


What August books do you have on the docket?

Have you already read any that you can recommend?

10 responses

  1. The Existential Crisis Reading Group sounds wonderful. My dad used to have a gang of friends who would do something similar; monthly meetings in the woodshed that one of them had, and discussion of various texts on a theme. “Angsty and bookish” is an excellent descriptor.

    Bummer about Jenny Zhang’s book; we got a proof copy at work and I think one or two of my colleagues read it. But I agree about Lesley Nneka Arimah’s collection—it’s very very good.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s awesome! I would love to have a book club again someday. I had one for my last year or two of working in London but it was sporadic and not that satisfying because nobody except for me ever finished the books. You wouldn’t think it’s such a hard ask to finish one book a month, but I know most people read much less on average than I do.

      Yeah, “angsty and bookish” meant it was pretty much made for me 😉

      To be fair, I only read the one story, but I had the feeling from the description that the whole collection might be kind of one-note. I also realized that it’s being released by Lena Dunham’s new imprint, which perhaps tells you something about the hipster, deadpan humor. I enjoyed the voice well enough for one story, but it was so long that I didn’t relish moving on to more of the same.


  2. The existential crisis reading group is a great name and would indeed be better than the book title they chose which sounds a bit too much like eat,pray, love.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ha! I hadn’t thought about that possible connection with the subtitle, but you’re right.


  3. Interesting, especially on Forest Dark. I’m reading it at the moment, and am both enthralled and exasperated, sometimes on the same page. Better than bland indifference, I suppose!


    1. You’re having a similar experience to me then — I found it equally impressive and maddening! It’ll be interesting to see how the critics’ opinions pan out.


  4. The Gisleson’s going straight on my list. Thank you! I think I got on better with the Krauss than you did but I do agree about those two narratives failing to cross at any point which left me feeling a little let down.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Glad I could tempt you!

      I have a theory or two about how the stories might be linked in Forest Dark, but there would be spoilers if I tried to discuss it here…

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I haven’t read any that are coming out in August but I have these three waiting on my Kindle from NetGalley:

    New People Danzy Senna – a novel from someone whose only other novel was published 16 years ago (she has had some short stories)
    From Head Shops to Whole Foods Joshua Clark Davis – the story of ethical companies I’ve mentioned before
    Any Dream Will Do Debbie Macomber – reliably well-written and engaging if light

    So I must get to them soon but they all do appeal hugely, which is useful.

    Liked by 1 person

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