Pick of the crop: October’s 10 best books to savor in autumn

Simon & Schuster and Henry Holt and Company
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“Life is pure adventure, and the sooner we realize that, the quicker we will be able to treat life as art,” poet Maya Angelou posted on social media in 2011, three years before her death. 

While most people think of “adventure” as something to go out and discover – a quest, for example – it can also describe an interior journey of the heart and mind.

Why We Wrote This

The 10 picks for this month highlight ingenuity and persistence, including a twisty morality tale about British spies and a nonfiction book that explores the Rosetta stone’s role in cracking the code of Egyptian hieroglyphs.

The books that Monitor reviewers liked best this month include adventure in the traditional sense, with a spy novel and a mystery, as well as insightful fiction in which characters wrestle with moral questions.

Rounding out the selection are nonfiction titles that explore personal growth inside a prison, the personalities of Roman rulers, and George Orwell’s love of the natural world. 

Amid the turning leaves, October books deliver treats and surprises by the bushel-full. Imaginative and immersive fiction meets a bounty of captivating and impactful nonfiction titles. 

1 My Monticello by Jocelyn Nicole Johnson

Jocelyn Nicole Johnson’s short-story collection aims its powerful beam on history’s proximity, racial trauma, and community survival. The title story follows a group of residents fleeing a white supremacist siege of their Charlottesville, Virginia, neighborhood. Led by Sally Hemings’ descendant Da’Naisha, the group escapes to Thomas Jefferson’s well-preserved manse.

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Why We Wrote This

The 10 picks for this month highlight ingenuity and persistence, including a twisty morality tale about British spies and a nonfiction book that explores the Rosetta stone’s role in cracking the code of Egyptian hieroglyphs.

2 Crossroads by Jonathan Franzen

Jonathan Franzen’s novel uses the 1970s as a backdrop for an exploration of authenticity, power, and the balance between independence and societal obligations. At the center of the story is a Midwestern pastor, his wife, and their four children, each of whom tests the boundaries of what they had once assumed were moral imperatives. Readers should be aware of coarse language and an array of moral infractions.

3 Silverview by John le Carré

Published posthumously, the 26th novel by the late author and former MI5/MI6 secret agent is a smashing finale to his oeuvre. It’s a lyrical, twisty morality tale set in an English seaside town that slowly reveals the lives of those involved in modern-day intelligence work. It’s a spy novel that’s both riveting and insightful.

4 Small Pleasures by Clare Chambers

Empathy infuses this hauntingly beautiful novel set in 1950s London. Journalist Jean Swinney investigates a young woman’s claim that her child was the result of a virgin birth. Genuine characterizations, pitch-perfect prose, and gentle wit make this absorbing mystery and love story unforgettable.

5 Once Upon a Wardrobe by Patti Callahan

In this novel, a college student at Oxford in the 1950s befriends C.S. Lewis to find out for her younger brother where Narnia came from. Her brother, who is housebound from an illness, has become fascinated with “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.” The story of a loving family journeying toward the light of hope is deeply reassuring.

6 The Lincoln Highway by Amor Towles

In Amor Towles’ third novel, a road trip takes on epic proportions for four boys in the 1950s. Their route, and the book itself, are not linear: Stories trail off like railroad sidings; threads are lost and picked up again; and through it all pass the boys, who are trying desperately to go in the right direction. The book’s abrupt ending may trouble some readers. Fans of “A Gentleman in Moscow” might be disappointed. (Read full review here.)

7 The Writing of the Gods by Edward Dolnick

A science journalist delves into the fascinating story of the Rosetta stone found in Egypt in 1799 and the 20-year race to decipher the mysterious picture-writing of ancient Egypt known as hieroglyphs. The story centers on two rival geniuses who finally solved a linguistic mystery that had befuddled scholars for centuries.

Penguin Publishing Group


8 Orwell’s Roses by Rebecca Solnit

Challenging preconceptions about the author of “Animal Farm” and “Nineteen Eighty-Four,” Rebecca Solnit offers an unexpected view of British writer George Orwell. Examining his life and work through the lens of Orwell’s passion for, and appreciation of, nature, Solnit presents a well-researched, elegantly written book that deepens our understanding of the literary icon.

9 Our Class by Chris Hedges

Chris Hedges, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, volunteered to teach a college-level literature class at the East Jersey State Prison. His book is a gumbo of genres: personal narratives, plays, songs, poems, and history. There are lurid tales of barbarity and inhumanity, but there is hope in the transformative power of human relationships. 

10 Twelve Caesars by Mary Beard

“We are still surrounded by Roman emperors,” writes classicist Mary Beard at the beginning of her fascinating book, which embarks on a study of not just the Julio-Claudian dynasty of caesars made infamous by Suetonius and Robert Graves but also of their ubiquitous iconography – in statues, on coins, in paintings and sculpture. It’s an eye-catching field guide to these famous ancient rulers.

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