Talking to the Dead: Books for October, Part 1

Ah, October. It doesn’t quite have that shiny, new penny feeling of September’s enthusiastic beginnings. Fall publishing! Pumpkin flavored Starbucks! Decorative. Gourd. Season. Instead: the slow creep of November, damp leaves and deep winter. And, if you live where I do, the weather yo-yos between balmy, summer-like days and rainy, underwater afternoons (blanket fort, anyone?) so fast you’re left reeling. Sweaters or shorts? Both?! It’s confusing.

These book recs come from a place of understanding. One minute you want to hang on to your vision of ye olde goldene Falle and the next you’d rather embrace the impending darkness of the season, join a coven, and resurrect Bette Midler’s turn in Hocus Pocus. Thank god we have books for all that.

[Ed. note: This is part one of a two-part series–part two has some books for all your coven-making / murder-pact needs.]

41J0Mw9wqWL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_The Dead Ladies Project: Exiles, Expats, & Ex-Countries by Jessa Crispin (The University of Chicago Press, 2015)

No matter how hard Bookslut blogger Jessa Crispin tries to build a stable life in Chicago, she always feels a little unsettled. Once she’s left trying to talk two cops down from her own suicide scare–while simultaneously trying to hide a shame-inducing pot of pre-packaged macaroni and cheese on the stove–she decides to pack it all in and head to Europe. “It was the dead I wanted to talk to. The writers and artists and composers who kept me company in the late hours of the night,” she writes. These essays explore Crispin’s travels and her attempts to rebuild her life with humor, irreverence, and intellectual rigor. Along the way, she offer insights into the writers and artists she holds dear, from William James to Rebecca West, Igor Stravinsky and Jean Rhys (whom she learns to hate). Be warned, this is not for fans of Eat, Pray, Love; Crispin will be the first to tell you that much.

31CW4KhskfL._SX317_BO1,204,203,200_Alive: New and Selected Poems by Elizabeth Willis (New York Review Books, 2015)

Willis’s Meteoric Flowers and Address are two of my favorite collections of poems published in the 2000s. Alive offers brief windows into her career so far, as well as fourteen new poems. Work from Elizabeth Willis works, it thinks, and it doesn’t mind if you are a little uncomfortable. That doesn’t stop her from being funny or warm or tender, though, as in these lines from Survey: “I’d like to face the future as if it were a person / I’d like to touch it / and still come home for dinner / I want to introduce you to my boat / I think that everything / can’t wait till tomorrow / I hope you’re awake / when I get there, that you’ll be / with me at the end.”

515o8eTOM7L._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing by Mira Jacob (Random House, 2014)

A photographer in rainy 90s Seattle, Amina lives far away from her parents, Kamala and Thomas, who’ve settled in sunny New Mexico. Amina gets a lot of flack from her mom for being 30, single, and living among “‘The grunges! The Starbucks! The start-ups!'” But when Thomas starts having muttered conversations with the dead late at night, Amina worries enough to travel home (I mean, wouldn’t you?!). Mira Jacob deftly weaves multiple story lines, crossing continents–from Seattle to India to Albuquerque–and illuminating decades of family turbulence. Throw in the forbidden love of Thomas and Kamala; the tragic figure of Amina’s rebellious younger brother, Akhil; and the mysterious items buried in Kamala’s garden, and you have a perfect family saga for fall.

LandmanCover_webConfidence by Seth Landman (Brooklyn Arts Press, 2015)

This is the second poetry collection from Seth Landman, and it’s filled with beautiful, tender, funny-sad poems about love, loss, and hope. In three sustained lyrics, Landman’s attention moves from the sky to the sea to driving to falling in love to fearing death to getting coffee with grace and intelligence. There are even sports references, which doesn’t bother me a whit because I know how much Seth loves sports. I read this entire book in one sitting on a blanket in my front lawn in the sunshine, and it was perfect. “Just landed / in the quiet / a field my body is / the main thing / I want to get / rid of I suppose / these things / in my head / should come up / and see me / all tension / and big laughs / in the land of / wonder and mystery / is everyone the person / everyone wishes / everyone was / not tonight / not tonight.” See what happened, there?

61dN9WAKlfL._SX321_BO1,204,203,200_Dryland by Sara Jaffe (Tin House Books, 2015)

Sara Jaffe’s debut novel takes place in Portland, Oregon in the early 90s and centers on fifteen-year-old Julie. She’s missing her older brother Ben, a former Olympic swimmer who’s moved to Berlin and distanced himself from his family. When popular girl Alexis recruits Julie for their high school swim team, Julie finds herself juggling competitive swimming, a confusing flirtation with Alexis, and her quest to get in touch with Ben. Filled with a deep empathy for the plight of the 90s teen, Dryland is perfect for sweatshirt and flannel weather.

51uc67utvlL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Paulina & Fran by Rachel B. Glaser (Harper Perennial, 2015)

“Paulina was dissatisfied with her lover,” we learn in the first sentence of Rachel B. Glaser’s blistering debut novel. Paulina is dissatisfied, it seems, with almost everything about her life in art school–except (obviously) herself. When Paulina meets Fran on a trip to Norway, the two young women make an unlikely pair and develop a friendship/rival-ship/courtship that will span the rest of their time in school and their first years of struggle on the other side. In turns funny and horrifying, this book is an ode to curly hair, sex on the dance floor, vintage clothes, female friendship, and the privileged bubble of creativity fostered in art schools. It just so happens to be a smart, empathetic warning label for all of those things, too.

51gkkWbyIHL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_The Turner House by Angela Flournoy (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015)

Flournoy’s debut novel has been on my TBR list since it came out in April, and it’s spent the fall scooping up just about every award or nomination in sight. Set in Detroit at the height of the economic recession, The Turner House traces the family’s history–from their decision to leave Arkansas to their experiences during the Detroit riot in 1967–and the difficult choices they must make when they learn their house is worth 1/10th of its mortgage. Add in a gambling addiction and some unfriendly ghosts, and you’ve got yourself a meaty debut with firecracker language. While making my way to The Turner House, I particularly enjoyed this interview The Paris Review conducted with Flournoy. She discusses the depth of her research–historical, gambling, and otherwise–for the novel–and ghosts. My two favorite things.