My September Reading Journal

September is usually a rough month. The semester is in full swing. It’s still hot—seriously, it’s been nearly 100 degrees every day, and I don’t recall any rain at all. But September also means the Southern Festival of Books, which is the official beginning of the holiday season (in my house), is right around the corner. In September reading news, Kevin Wilson’s Nothing to See Here wins the month. His latest is his best and that is saying something. Here’s my recap of the month-in-reading that was:

Kevin Wilson’s Nothing to See Here: Wilson just gets better and better with each new release, and Nothing to See Here is his best work yet. It’s weird—really weird. A brother and sister spontaneously combust, but their condition is kept under wraps because their dad is trying to be Secretary of State. Lillian, the fire burning kids’ stepmom’s best friend from college, is summoned to take care of the kids and to keep them out of the way. Wilson balances darkness and humor to perfection, and the tenderness—my God the tenderness—is so spectacularly earned. The book asks us to think about what being family actually means, and it’s such a beautiful mediation on the power in our weirdnesses. It’s a spectacular achievement—and, maybe, my favorite book of the year.

Ben Lerner’s The Topeka School: Sometimes I read a book and realize I’m not as smart as I wish I was. This is one such kind of book. It’s very dense, and there are too many shifts for me to follow. It has some striking commentary about politics and culture as a whole, but it’s just too much for me. I wish I liked it more...

Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle: A horror novel that brilliantly examines groupthink. Jackson fans who know only “The Lottery” will likely find much to love here. Part of what makes this small novel work so well is how it builds in tension. And Merricat—she’s one of literature’s great unreliable voices. It’s all spectacular—and terrifying. It’s a book I always look forward to revisiting.

Daniel Wallace’s Big Fish: Speaking of revisiting, here’s one I’ve read more times than I can count. Some books just get me, and this novel is one of those. A masterpiece about the South, stories, and masculinity. I have mentioned this book repeatedly in my monthly reading journal, so I’ll keep it short here.

Carson McCullers’ The Heart is a Lonely Hunter: I’ve been rereading some of my favorite books this month. This one is so remarkable beautiful in how it depicts loneliness. Yeah, McCullers nails the South and misfits, but it’s the way she captures the absolute pains of loneliness that makes this novel perfect. One of the best writers there ever was…

Ted Chiang’s Stories of Your Life and Others: Another reread. This SF collection is one of the best collections of my lifetime. The title story is about time, language, Love, and loss, and it’s one of the best stories of my lifetime. I’m seeing Chiang next month at the Southern Festival of Books. Your boy is stoked!

Jacqueline Woodson’s Red at the Bone: An unexpected teenage pregnancy launches this multi-generational saga. (Can something under 200 pages be a saga? Sure, I’m going with saga.) The story goes forward and backward in time as it looks at how resiliency shapes our collective family stories as well as our individual ones. But resiliency is just one topic Woodson explores. She also dives into class, race, sex, love, and loss. And she does all of this in, as mentioned, less than 200 pages. It’s a remarkable novel. I wish there were more slim novels like this one. I’m surprised Red at the Bone didn’t make the National Book Awards longlist.

The Best American Short Stories 2018 (Roxane Gay, Editor): I’ve read several of these stories before, but reading the anthology makes for a different experience. These are brilliant stories. I mean, there are obviously some I connect with more than others, but I can recognize the quality in each story. And, hey, it’s tough to critique the best, especially when Roxane (who is one of the best) is in the editor role. As Roxane mentions in the introduction, politics boil underneath these stories as a unifying theme. Some are more personal and nuanced, while more explicit in others. I loved Jamel Brinkley’s “A Family,” which is about masculinity and coming of age. Alicia Elliott’s “Unearth,” about, among other things, consumption, capitalism, and a family who can’t escape a terrible accident from the past, is another story I felt a great amount of respect for. She’s also a writer I wasn’t previously familiar with. I plan to go back and read her other work. Cristina Henriquez’ “Everything Is Far from Here” is spectacular—and so, so timely. If I’m picking an absolute favorite, though, it’s gotta be Jacob Guajardo’s “What Got Into Us.” Tender and heartbreaking story of a childhood first love. But Amy Silverberg’s “Suburbia!,” which has one of the best closing twists I’ve read in a while, is very close.

Mesha Maren’s Sugar Run: The latest addition to the contemporary—rapidly expanding—canon of Appalachian noir. I was reminded of work by David Joy, Michael Farris Smith, and Brian Panowich. This novel is written beautifully. It is energetic and frantic. At its heart, it’s very much about how we struggle in escaping the past. The storyline jumps a lot and requires focused readers, but the journey is well worth it for those ready to enter Maren’s world.

On to October...

Bradley Sides