5 Great Books To Read In August
Some of the recent favorites we’ve reviewed in the BuzzFeed Books newsletter.
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
Though Colson Whitehead's new novel, The Underground Railroad, was set to be released in September, buzz has been building around the book for months now, culminating in Oprah selecting it for her book club. And now that Whitehead's publisher has decided to release The Underground Railroad a month early, lucky book lovers don't need to wait any longer to read this incredible, singular, utterly riveting novel.
The Underground Railroad centers on Cora, a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia who escapes and makes her way north via the Underground Railroad. But in a gambit that feels audacious yet also exactly right, Whitehead renders the Underground Railroad literal, transforming it into an actual railroad system running beneath the South. During the course of her urgent, terrifying journey, Cora confronts a pre-Civil War America that is familiar yet provocatively altered (South Carolina at first appears to be a kindlier place but is ultimately all the more chilling for it, North Carolina is in the throes of a segregationist psychosis). You'll be shaken and stunned by Whitehead's imaginative brilliance, which shifts our actual history just a little off-center in order to all the more clearly depict the horrifying realities which are an undeniable part of America's past — and which, to this day, continue to deeply affect and poison our present. The Underground Railroad is a book both timeless and timely. It is a book for now; it is a book that is necessary.
Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube by Blair Braverman
Blair Braverman's Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube is an enchanting memoir of exploration and adventure, self-discovery and self-doubt, following Braverman on her travels: from a fucked-up Norwegian homestay family to a folk school in the Arctic, from guiding sled dog expeditions on Alaskan glaciers to finding a new home in Wisconsin’s Northwoods. Braverman first sets out solo for the north as a sophomore in high school, when she selects a study abroad program in Norway knowing only that she belongs there and is “meant to be a polar explorer.” In her many returns to Norway and the Arctic over the next decade, Braverman continues to circle around these themes of being, becoming, and belonging. Braverman renders all her characters — village people, mail-order brides, bad boyfriends, the folk school principal wearing nothing but black leather pants and binder clips clamped to his nipples, even herself — with a close and quiet precision. And that's what makes Ice Cube so sweet: It hugs everything tight, turning experiences exotic and fearsome into moments tenderly funny and pure.
How to Be a Person in the World by Heather Havrilesky
Heather Havrilesky's weekly "Ask Polly" column in New York magazine advises you on what to do next in certain life situations — say, when you'd like permission to cheat on your wife because she's too busy with the kids to have sex with you, for example. Or when you want to marry your best friend's ex-boyfriend because he's now the love of your life. Or when you're simply trying to reconcile your existence in the world with the absence of a partner, an income, or a clue. How To Be A Person In The World is Havrilesky's novel compilation of these insights, a condensed "guide through the modern paradoxes of life." Some of the included columns are familiar and some are as yet unpublished. To read them together, bound in one spine, is to take a literary drive with an old friend at dusk — How To Be A Person In The World can be deep, complicated, and back-of-the-throat sentimental all at the same time. If you came hoping Havrilesky would let you off the hook for infidelity, she'll remind you that pitching in with your children may increase your wife's "interest in sucking your cock." She handles the besotted 22-year-old's crush with the same delicacy and kindness as she does the parent in the middle of losing a sibling to terminal cancer. Her own emotions and past experiences guide her answers, yet she is aware of her limitations on both. It is in these moments that you remember she too is just a person, navigating her way through the mess of life.
Listen to Me by Hannah Pittard
Hannah Pittard's Listen to Me unfolds over the course of one full day, which is about as long as it took me to read — the book is impossible to put down. It follows married couple Mark and Maggie on their annual road trip, the two of them still navigating the effects of Maggie's being violently mugged months prior. As tension mounts and a storm hits, Pittard imbues each sentence with a sense of impending doom — even though the anxieties at play (being lost without a properly functioning GPS, being stuck in a car with someone you love but truly, in the moment, can't stand) are mostly familiar. The book is an examination of trauma, perseverance, and trust in both yourself and the people you love; to read it is to be at once engrossed and unsettled.
On Trails: An Exploration by Robert Moor
Robert Moor’s debut On Trails: An Exploration is for anyone who’s ever gone on a hike or a walk or down any path (metaphorical or otherwise) at any point in their life. It’s a book about adventure and innovation, stamina and storytelling, fossils, pheromones, caterpillars, elephants, mountains, memory, and mankind. How do all these disparate themes tie back to the topic of trails, you ask? That’s what Moor set out to discover over the course of many years and thousands of miles of research — and, boy, is the culmination of his efforts a beautiful thing to behold. Inspired by his five months spent thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail in 2009, Moor charts off down a unique thread of inquiry into the very nature of trails themselves: Who creates them? Why? And how have we come to depend on them to help us make sense of the world? These questions send Moor from Appalachia to Iceland, Brussels to Borneo to Newfoundland and right on back to the very foothills where he started, tracing trails big and small. We learn about the first known organisms to thrust themselves forward 600 million years ago, about the complex communication systems driving ant colonies and mammalian herds, and about the footpaths and folklore that undergird both Native American culture and much of modern US road networks. We also learn what a profoundly talented writer Moor is. He brings a keen essayist's eye to themes both personal and empiric; his prose is lush and lively and his analysis adroit — all making On Trails a true treat to read.