Make an October date with Eleanor Roosevelt, Cary Grant, Sylvia Plath

HarperCollins and Simon & Schuster
“The Cold Millions” by Jess Walter, Harper, 352 pp.; and “Eleanor” by David Michaelis, Simon & Schuster, 720 pp.

While October novels brim with exciting plots and winsome characters, this month's nonfiction titles are dominated by biographies of a popular first lady, a beloved actor, a troubled poet, and a noted gastronome. Their lives open a window onto the times they inhabited. 

1. The Cold Millions by Jess Walter

Jess Walter, of “Beautiful Ruins,” returns with a tale of the wild Northwest. Labor unrest in 1909 Spokane, Washington, provides the backdrop to this spectacular adventure. Walter stocks the novel with drifters, cops, activists, millionaires, and more, and his humor balances out the noir aspects.  

Why We Wrote This

Dipping into stories about other lives broadens and enriches our own. Especially now, when the pandemic can sometimes turn the focus inward. These books open vistas in the mind's eye and take us places we may not expect.

2. Bright and Dangerous Objects by Anneliese Macintosh

An ambitious dream of living on Mars could actually come true for Solvig, a deep sea welder who’s caught between her longing to have a child with her partner James, or possibly leave Earth and never return. Anneliese Mackintosh’s imaginative and sensitive story tells of a woman’s odyssey to reconcile competing desires for independence and fulfillment and family. 

3. A Lover’s Discourse by Xiaolu Guo

Grove Atlantic
“A Lover’s Discourse” by Xiaolu Guo, Grove Press, 288 pp.

What is it that confers identity? Is it nationality? Language? Where we call home? In this beautifully written novel, Xiaolu Guo explores identity through fragments of conversations between a graduate student from southern China and a landscape architect raised in Australia whose parents were British and German. When their paths cross in London, a romance blossoms as each wrestles with what it means to belong.

4. The Prince of Mournful Thoughts by Caroline Kim

Caroline Kim’s absorbing debut is a rarity among first collections: Throughout her dozen stories, she maintains enviously superb writing as her characters navigate generations, geographies, and cultures in search of acknowledgment and connection. 

5. Veritas by Ariel Sabar

In 2012, a religion scholar announced a discovery: an ancient papyrus fragment that suggested that Jesus Christ and Mary Magdalene may have been married. Expanding on his 2016 article for The Atlantic, Ariel Sabar digs into the story of the papyrus and the couple who tried to pass it off as real. Read our review here.

6. Ice Walker by James Raffan

In a rapidly changing Arctic, a polar bear named Nanu follows nature and instinct as she takes her yearly life-or-death migration across ice, snow, and sea. Author and explorer James Raffan offers a bear’s-eye view of humankind’s impact on the natural world.

7. The Man Who Ate Too Much by John Birdsall

John Birdsall’s juicy biography of James Beard serves up a multilayered portrait of the man who’s been called America’s first foodie. Birdsall chronicles how the great gastronome channeled his robust appetite and encyclopedic knowledge of food into a celebrated, influential career, but also highlights how, in an era of rampant homophobia, Beard had to hide a part of himself. 

8. Cary Grant by Scott Eyman

Simon & Schuster
“Cary Grant: A Brilliant Disguise” by Scott Eyman, Simon & Schuster, 576 pp.

Biographer Scott Eyman exhaustively and entertainingly chronicles the unlikely transformation of Archie Leach of Bristol, England, into legendary Hollywood leading man Cary Grant. The actor was celebrated for the style and ease he brought to his roles in screwball comedies and Hitchcock thrillers, but Eyman asserts that he never got over the loneliness and deprivation of his childhood.

9. Eleanor by David Michaelis

This riveting, cinematic biography of America’s longest-serving first lady spans Eleanor Roosevelt’s lonely childhood, her frosty marriage to FDR, their eventful White House years, her intimate relationships outside their marriage, and her widowhood, during which she became a forceful advocate for human rights. Read a Q&A with the author here.

10. Red Comet by Heather Clark

The full, complex scope of poet Sylvia Plath’s life and writing is given a bracingly thought-provoking reexamination in this massive – and massively absorbing – biography. 

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