Books for fall 2023: Our 75 top picks for serious reading season -- and there's plenty of light stuff here too

Some of the buzziest books of the season include Kathleen Rooney's historical drama "From Dust to Stardust," a history of Siskel & Ebert's TV series and "How to Say Babylon," the true story of a woman who grows up in a strict Rastafarian sect. (E. Jason Wambsgans/Chicago Tribune/TNS)

Am I the only one who thinks it's weird that we keep treating the seasons as clearly delineated stretches of time? I love fall, and particularly that lineal moment right before fall gets chilly, that promise of fall. But this is the fall book preview, and though I should be excited to tell you of weeks of incredible titles coming -- Walter Isaacson on Elon Musk, Zadie Smith on historical fiction, Sly Stone (!) on himself -- climatologists warn that summer may linger until Groundhog Day.

You know the saying: So many books, so little time? What follows are way too many books to read before Groundhog Day, never mind Thanksgiving. Fall was already too short. Fall never needed to be shorter. Fall, the most overstuffed of reading seasons, the time of the year when it is said that we become serious readers again, already felt like some melancholy art installation of a season, designed to remind you that life is short and art is long.

The good news, for now, isn't so terrible:

Look at all this new stuff to read.


Surprise: We live in a golden age of crime writing. Exhibit A: Harry MacLean's absorbing taxonomy "Starkweather" (Nov. 28), a history of the murderer whose nihilism inspired generations of responses, from Springsteen's "Nebraska" to the media's embrace of crime itself. "Holly," another great occasional reminder that Stephen King is a master of dime-store procedurals, is about octogenarians with a secret too ugly to hint at. (Hint: It's tasty.) The crime book of the season, though, is Library of America's "Crime Novels of the 1960s," a definitive nine-novel box set that argues for the decade as the moment when crime writers embraced the mind (Chester Himes, Patricia Highsmith) even as they got lean and mean (Ed McBain, Richard Stark).


How satisfying is it to read something in a day? Or an hour? Lydia Davis' latest story collection, "Our Strangers" (Oct. 3), finds the extraordinary (and extraordinarily prosaic) in a few lines: Subjects include stray coconuts and a neighbor's stare. Irish novelist Claire Keegan's collection, "So Late in the Day" (Nov. 14), is an hour or two of reading that contains a lifetime of thoughts. Here, arrogance and romance take the couch. "Touched" (Oct. 10) works mystery writer Walter Mosley's lesser-known sci-fi muscle, in a brisk parable about a guy certain he can cure the problem called humanity. But my current favorite writer of short novels? T. Kingfisher, the pen name for a North Carolina novelist of fantasy and horror whose tales build knowingly on centuries of classics. "Thornhedge," her latest, offers knights, fairies, humor, an impenetrable wall of brambles and -- surprisingly for the genre -- that feeling of reading an original voice.


First a pair of nose-snorting satires that need only elevator pitches. "The Golem of Brooklyn" (Sept. 26) tells the story of an art teacher who unwittingly makes a golem of Jewish folklore that wonders why Jews need saving now and learns to talk by watching "Curb Your Enthusiasm" (sounds dumb, it's not); "The Book of Ayn" (Nov. 14) is Lexi Freiman's delirious road trip through the age of selfishness. After being branded "classist" by the New York Times, then canceled on Twitter, a writer embraces Ayn Rand and follows her darkest whims wherever they may lead. Contrarian and chaotic in the smartest way. As for nonfiction: "Comedy Book: How Comedy Conquered Culture -- and the Magic That Makes It Work" (Nov. 7), by New York Magazine's excellent comedy critic Jesse David Fox, is the comedy book that Comedy the Art Form didn't have until now -- a vibrant mash of meaning and history that pokes into how comedy ages; conservatives and jokes; the genius of lowbrow and more.


Nathan Hill is no Chicagoan (Iowan, alas), but "The Wellness" (Sept. 19) gets uncomfortably knowing. Try not to squirm: A pair of '90s Wicker Park-Empty Bottle veterans relocate to the suburbs, have kids, then find themselves in another sort of cultural cult, losing touch with themselves. (Sample chilling line: "And then one day, they began losing friends.") As for "I Done Clicked My Heels Three Times," Chicago native Taylor Byas' debut poetry collection is a buoyant blast of South Side love and ache, conversing with Gwendolyn Brooks and Carl Sandburg, finding room for Harold's Chicken and Claudia Rankine. "The New Naturals" (Nov. 14) is by South Shore's Gabriel Bump, a booming talent whose latest reads like Ann Patchett shot through Percival Everett: A couple gives up on society and builds an underground utopia in western New England. Soon, others arrive, from Chicago, San Francisco. They listen to jazz, paint, exercise. "Purpose was everywhere," Bump writes. So what could go wrong? Kerri Maher, who made her name on amenable historical bestsellers such as "The Paris Bookseller," returns with "All You Have to Do is Call" (Sept. 19), a loosely fictional account of the very real Jane, the Chicago women's health network that offered illegal abortions in a pre-Roe Midwest.


Fall is peak season for celebrity memoirs. A few you can expect under Christmas trees this year: "My Name is Barbra" (Nov. 7), the long-awaited memoir from Barbra Streisand promises juicy stuff and at 992 pages, let's hope that's not hype. Speaking of hype: Jada Pinkett Smith's "Worthy" (Oct. 17) intends to right the supposedly misleading ideas you have, at half the length of Babs: a mere 416 pages. Kerry Washington's "Thicker Than Water" (Sept. 26) sounds closer to the usual celeb-memoir expectations -- thoughts on the actress's political advocacy, self-love and creative hopes. As for "The Woman in Me" (Oct. 24) -- who knows how genuine Britney Spears' memoir will really be?


Viet Thanh Nguyen, Pulitzer-winner for "The Sympathizer," reflects/on his life as a refugee facing American high school, John Hughes, Vietnam War movies. "A Man of Two Faces: A Memoir, a History, a Memorial" (Oct. 3) takes the shape of a prose poem by an author asked to play the role of appreciative immigrant. "How to Say Babylon" (Oct. 3) -- already looking like a sleeper -- works an inverted take on growing up, via Jamaica, focusing on a harsh sect of Rastafarianism that the father of author Safiya Sinclair wielded against his family. Because of his "unpredictable mood and controlling reach," her life was denied all Western influence. Her role was obedient daughter. Until she found books. "Sure, I'll Join Your Cult" is comedian Maria Bamford's unnervingly direct cataloging of her mental illness -- and treatments, from Debtors Anonymous to hospitalizations -- that she describes as "a series of emotional sudoku puzzles" she grows "tired of trying to solve." Speaking of puzzles: Mary Gabriel -- whose acclaimed history "Ninth Street Women" remade thinking on gender and visual art -- is dropping quite the brick: "Madonna" (Oct. 24), an 800-page biography with even grander aims, to use the pop icon as a lantern through late 20th century celebrity.


Terrific Venezuelan journalist Paula Ramon's "Motherland" (Oct. 31) is a joint study of a nation dying under authoritarianism, and a family pulling away, leaving their aging matriarch alone in "a concrete bunker" of a home, a hotbox when the mismanaged electrical grids fail. Rarely are South American upheavals explained with such intimacy. "The Upstairs Delicatessen" (Oct. 24) by Dwight Garner is one of the most eccentric memoirs I've read in years: Garner, a longtime New York Times critic, boils (dices and purées) his existence down to a pair of obsessions -- books and food -- so completely, it's both honest and hard to say where the man ends and M.F.K. Fisher begins. Gay Talese's "Bartleby & Me: Reflections of an Old Scrivener" (Sept. 19) -- described by the publisher as the 91-year old's "valedictory work" -- almost entirely ditches personal biography for revisiting a lifetime of profiling others. "Doppelganger: A Trip into the Mirror World" has a slight premise: Acclaimed author/activist Naomi Klein gets confused often with author/activist Naomi Wolf, an annoyance that gets ugly after Wolf's conspiracy theories gain traction. Klein takes ingenious advantage of the confusion, considering the history of doubles and the digital discombobulation we feel these days by those who insist up is down and black is white.


"The Apology," by South Korean-born writer Jimin Han, is a lovely, caustic and trauma-soaked example of the new literary embrace of actual ghosts. A 105-year-old Seoul woman dies during a family visit. What follows is a multigenerational story, narrated by a ghost eager to rectify a looming curse. Conversely, Jo Nesbo's "The Night House" (Oct. 3) is the popular Oslo detective writer's first exercise in horror, a broad, entertaining haunted house legend that begins, ahem, when a telephone devours a kid. Much scarier is "The September House" by Carissa Orlando, a haunted house story with a riveting twist: Margaret and Hal buy a Victorian home that, every September, bleeds, screams, scares, but Margaret decides not to move -- ever. What sounds silly ("The first year we were in the house, Hal tried to convince me that the bleeding was a leak") becomes psychologically rousing.


Jill Lepore's "The Deadline" may be the hardest read I've had all year -- hard because I kept setting it down to make it last longer. This collection of four dozen deep dives from the Harvard professor (and New Yorker favorite) is a bottomless well of personal history informing the present, from clear-eyed context on gun control to presidential overreach and Barbie. "American Gun: The True Story of the AR-15″ (Sept. 26) is an "Oppenheimer" tragedy of unintended consequences, with one difference: Eugene Stoner, a former Marine, builds an easy-to-use gun intended for soldiers that becomes the mass murder weapon of choice -- though, as this history makes clear, unlike Oppenheimer, Stoner showed little interest in the ripples stirred. If comeuppance gets you going: "Going Infinite: The Rise and Fall of a New Tycoon" (Oct. 3) is Michael Lewis' dismantling of the cryptocurrency boom.


The characters in "Roman Stories" (Oct. 10), the first collection from Jhumpa Lahiri in 15 years, are intentionally fuzzy in this portrait of the Italian metropolis where "water stains everything it touches" and stone stairs are "a kind of ancient amphitheater." An original vantage on well-trodden streets (the sort someone should apply to contemporary Chicago). Yiyun Li, author of last year's smash "The Book of Goose," returns with "Wednesday's Child," which brings similarly trim prose to beautiful heartbreakers about the shades of grief: from memories of a suicide pact to a literal spreadsheet of loss. It's rough, but worth it. A bit more fun are collections from two of our finest writers: Kate Atkinson's "Normal Rules Don't Apply" brings her playful existentialism to tales about Earth's redesign and a society where the end of the world arrives daily (but only lasts five minutes); "Disruptions," said to be Pulitzer-winner Steven Millhauser's valedictory goodbye after five decades, finds more Shirley Jackson-like shadows on the sunniest afternoon. Few could write so well about an actual guillotine above a town and "edges of maple leaves precise against the blue sky."

For a critical eye on Silicon Valley disrupters

"Elon Musk" by Walter Isaacson, the result of two years of shadowing the techzilla, has a hill to climb: Can the author of popular bios on other game changers (da Vinci, Jobs, Einstein) convince us he's not pulling punches? Or, as the Twitter fiasco grinds along, too early? Certainly, "Artificial" (Oct. 17), by cartoonist Amy Kurzweil, asks uneasy questions about her own lineage and father, Ray Kurzweil, the celebrated inventor, building an AI chatbot to give their family tree a sort of immortality. Benjamín Labatut is making a career on such thoughts: His 2021 fiction/fact mix, "When We Cease to Understand the World," became a cult favorite, and must-read for anyone worried an abuse of science. "The Maniac" (Oct. 3) compounds those fears, this time with a (sorta) fictional portrait of John von Neumann, an early AI pioneer and (yes) Oppenheimer colleague. "The Future" (Nov. 7) by "The Power" author Naomi Alderman, is a breezier doomsday, a thriller about friends who link hands and push back the march of nutso tech barons.


Like the filmmaker's himself, "The Path to Paradise: A Francis Ford Coppola Story" (Nov. 28), by cultural biographer Sam Wasson, is a bittersweet bundle of Quixotic reach exceeding an ambitious grasp. The focus is Coppola's Zoetrope studio, and it's painful, all over again, watching a personal vision surrender to a Hollywood no longer interested. "MCU: The Reign of Marvel Studios" (Oct. 10) would make a nice sequel though. An inevitable one, a gossipy first draft of a movie history (the MCU is far from over) that seems to some like the end of movie history. What it lacks in fresh material (or a vigorous critical eye) it gains in clarity, a blow-by-blow account of a studio creating a brand. It's impossible to read Werner Herzog's "Every Man For Himself and God Against All: A Memoir" (Oct. 10) without hearing the director's stunned monotone recount a strange package dropped from an airplane behind his childhood home, or his stint on "The Simpsons." (Herzog, until 2002, didn't realize it was a TV show.) Like his films, it's episodic, offbeat and casually revealing.


Justin Torres, whose "We the Animals" made him a young lit star, returns 12 years later with "Blackouts" (Oct. 10), a Nabokov-like puzzle about a dying man and erased queer history. "The Vaster Wilds," from prolific Lauren Groff, may be her finest, part adventure about a servant escaping 17th-century colonial America, part awe for the natural world. "Family Meal" (Oct. 10), Bryan Washington's latest, tells a story of a man grieving the death of a partner, and haunted by the ghost of that partner, even as he re-connects with an old friend. "Devil Makes Three" (Sept. 26) is the long-gestating return of Ben Fountain, whose "Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk" spun an NFL halftime event into a state-of-the-nation address. Here, he goes full Graham Greene with an epic about shipwreck divers set against the backdrop of a Haitian coup. Zadie Smith, though, is comparably incandescent. "The Fraud," her first novel in seven years, is set during Victorian England's Tichborne Trial, when an Australian butcher claimed to be an heir beyond his apparent station, transfixing England with issues of authenticity and privilege. Smith, at the peak of her talents here, uses the trial to veer toward the onlookers and witnesses at the edge of the case.


Few contemporary novelists are as smooth as Alice McDermott. "Absolution" (Nov. 7) is the National Book Award winner's graceful parable of moral obligation, set in the early days of the Vietnam War, as told by American spouses in Saigon with military husbands. Tim O'Brien, whose "The Things They Carried" is a seminal book of that conflict, turns to cross-country getaways in "America Fantastica" (Oct. 24), about a journalist fleeing hit men and worse. Visions of an HBO series danced in my head. "The Pole" (Sept. 19) is a bingo card of a fall book: J.M. Coetzee, reclusive Nobel winner, returns with a precisely told love story about an aging Polish pianist and a Spanish patron. (Trauma here, he writes, is "a bomb that explodes harmlessly but leaves one deafened.") Tananarive Due, the least known of this group, has been a writer's writer for decades. Her latest, "The Reformatory" (Oct. 31), should make her a household name. It's the story of a reform school in Jim Crow Florida -- inspired by the same school Colson Whitehead used for his Pulitzer-winning "Nickel Boys" -- gone epic, with the ghosts of abused children literally haunting the abusers.


Don't tell Elon Musk, but science writing is rarely as readable (or deflating) as "A City on Mars" (Nov. 7), an informed, irreverent study of how little we actually know of the practical considerations of space colonization, from sex and legal cannibalism to issues of settlement and affordable housing. (Elton John, we're reminded, never mentions "the potential for pelvic fracture during labor" in "Rocket Man.") Talk about timing: "The Underworld: Journeys to the Depths of the Ocean" is Susan Casey's more sober history/survey of what we know of the 80% of the deepest ocean still unexplored. (If you were fixated on the Titan submersible last summer, here's the context.) "Sins of the Shovel: Looting, Murder and the Evolution of American Archaeology" (Nov. 6) is a timely consideration of the long, ugly relationship between scientists and Indigenous Americans -- and how atonement informs the way archaeology operates today. "Endangered Eating" (Oct. 24) is culinary historian Sarah Lohman's surprising journey across the United States, visiting the vanishing futures of native peanuts, apples, Ojibwe wild rice, Hawaiian sugar cane.


Ben Austen, of the acclaimed Chicago housing history "High-Risers," returns with "Correction: Parole, Prison and the Possibility of Change" (Nov. 7), a tight (less than 300-page) history of U.S. prisons and penance, alongside tales of two men and their endless paths. A damning act of intense reporting leading to unsettled questions: Do we believe in atonement? If so, what does it look like? And how serious can we be when a slight shift in courtroom momentum condemns a life? You'll hear a lot about this one. Follow it with: "Flight of the WASP: The Rise, Fall and Future of America's Original Ruling Class" (Nov. 14), an often engrossing, digressive history behind opposing ideas: America was meant as a safe harbor from class; America is dominated by class. Then: David Leonhardt's "Ours Was the Shining Future: The Rise and Fall of the American Dream" (Oct. 24), an accessible, ultimately bullish profile of the American economy as a bundle of often contradictory ideas on who deserves how much of what.


A trio of terrific story collections. "Out There Screaming: An Anthology of New Black Horror" (Oct. 3), edited by Jordan Peele, is the horror title of the season, a state-of-the-genre, including Tananarive Due and Flossmoor native Nnedi Okorafor, starring devils, aliens and a reminder of how key racial trauma has been to the flowering of horror writing. "A Darker Shade of Noir," edited by Joyce Carol Oates, builds on that renaissance, with 15 new horror stories from all-star women writers, including Oates herself, Aimee Bender, Margaret Atwood, Megan Abbott and (again) Due. The focus, of course, is bodily autonomy -- it's not pretty. "Night Side of the River" (Oct. 24), another turn in the varied career of Jeanette Winterson, is a set of British ghost stories (sexy, austere, unsettling) that continue her love of disregarding expectations.


Wilco's Jeff Tweedy continues his side gig, telling personal tales through a lifetime of lore. "World Within a Song" (Nov. 7) sounds like Bob Dylan's last literary exercise but less obtuse: "My Sharona," "Freebird" and the Replacements (along with four dozen other music benchmarks) become writing prompts on criticism, religion and the poetry of place. It's a generous let's-listen-to-some-records hang of a book. For more typical memoir (drugs, recovery): "Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)" (Oct. 17) is the unlikely thoughts of Sly Stone, who goes beyond (but not that far beyond) the question: Sly Stone is still alive? "Sonic Life" (Oct. 24), by Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore, is the best kind of music memoir, an act of cultural excavation -- specifically how the underground scene of the 1980s could eventually create, as Moore puts it (proudly), "a heritage act." As of this writing, still waiting on the text of "My Effin' Life" (Nov. 14) by Rush's Geddy Lee, but, if it's like Rush, should be overstuffed and lovable. As for long-anticipated books: That's a two-way tie between Staci Robinson's "Tupac Shakur: The Authorized Biography" (Oct. 24), which is far more revealing on his family than the artist, and Will Hermes' remarkable "Lou Reed: The King of New York" (Oct. 3), a mountain of reporting and archival material pulled into a fluid, insightful shape that digs as close to the heart of the famously dyspeptic Reed as anyone -- and probably closer to securing his place in music, LGBTQ and art history.


Kathleen Rooney is a pro at smooshing history into a bright, meaningful prose. Her new book is a fine example: "From Dust to Stardust" (using the life of actress Colleen Moore and her Fairy Castle at the Museum of Science and Industry as inspiration), Rooney captures nascent Hollywood fame and an ache for home. "Coleman Hill," by Chicago State University's Kim Coleman Foote, is that rare Great Migration novel that sticks to the suburbs, drawing personal history into a novel of two families, coming out of slavery and, decades later, inheriting pain and promise. "Astor: The Rise and Fall of an American Fortune" (Sept. 19) is a rich history about the ways in which the very name of the mega-rich weakens through ubiquity and hubris -- by Katherine Howe and CNN's Anderson Cooper, who collaborated on a similar history of Cooper's clan, the Vanderbilts. Time, though, is slippery: "Nineteen Steps" is the lit debut from "Stranger Things" star Millie Bobby Brown, who is 19. It's a story of the London Blitz, inspired by her own grandma. It's got single teardrops running down cheeks, a taste for nooks of the historical record left unknown and a big heart.

photo A few of the sleepers of the fall book season include Paula Ramon's "Motherland," about a family navigating the fall of Venezuela, and South Shore native Gabriel Bump's "The New Natural," about the rise and decline of a utopian community. (E. Jason Wambsgans/Chicago Tribune/TNS)
photo Life stories are a cornerstone of fall book season, and this one features, among many, many others, an 800-page history of Madonna, a definitive biography of Lou Reed and Walter Isaacson's deeply reported portrait of Elon Musk. (E. Jason Wambsgans/Chicago Tribune/TNS)
photo Crime writing is in a renaissance this fall, and one of the reasons we know this is Stephen King, rarely thought of as a crime writer, has a fantastic new novel, "Holly," about a very disturbing, non-paranormal crime. (E. Jason Wambsgans/Chicago Tribune/TNS)
photo Just when you thought there was nothing new to say about the Chicago fire, the writing life or growing up on the South Side, there is "Burning of the World," Dwight Garner's "Upstairs Delicatessen" and Taylor Byas' "Wiz"-inspired poem collection, "I Done Clicked My Heels Three Times." (E. Jason Wambsgans/Chicago Tribune/TNS)