ACCORDING TO ISAAC NEWTON, “a body in motion tends to stay in motion unless acted on by an outside force.” Spoken like a man who’s never seen me collapse onto the sofa and then attempt to motivate myself off said sofa. Luckily, this September, I don’t have to move a muscle. I can live vicariously. Because the very idea of movement, of the importance of forward momentum, charges through this month’s big books. Movement can take many forms. A symphony. A rocket. A revolution. An unwelcome bug.
Perhaps this particular spate of books-in-motion is arriving now because of where the world was a year ago at this time, forced into an unnatural stillness. Grounded. It’s time to get going again when and where we can. Some of this change is mental, some of it is physical, a lot of it is political. These books are not quiet books of nostalgia, reverie, and calm. Because as vital as it is to take a moment and sit still, once most people have a taste for motion, apparently they tend to stay that way.
Giulio Boccaletti’s “Water: A Biography” (Pantheon) starts with the monsoon-swelled Yangtze River and flows through the history of water on this planet (as in, the subatomic particles that emerged from the Big Bang). Boccaletti is a renowned expert on natural resource security and environmental stability, lending “Water” a pressing, historically fascinating, and informative arc, which one needs when one chooses the most elemental substance on the planet as their primary topic. From the Bronze Age to water infrastructure in America today, Boccaletti delves into how “water resources had been the basis for the electrification and industrialization of the American republic.” Water, the liquid, may be a colorless substance but “Water,” the book, is a smart new chapter on the same subject that turned Joan Didion’s head toward the Hoover Dam.
And should you care to take similar themes and put them on ice? Glaciologist Jemma Wadham’s “Ice Rivers” (Princeton University Press) is also concerned with our relationship with the elements as she covers a quarter century of expeditions to glaciers around the globe. It’s a memoir that is at once a love letter and an emergency flare.
Movement is synonymous with freedom and “The Argonauts” author Maggie Nelson’s “On Freedom: Four Songs of Care and Constraint” (Graywolf) unpacks the rhetoric and paradoxes of freedom within four realms: art, sex, drugs, and climate. Nelson’s mode is philosophical criticism (or, if you prefer, critical philosophy), but her knack for making heady subjects go down smooth, revealing her thought process in real time through careful self-examination, is unparalleled. She elegantly employs words like “aesthetics of care” and “yuck” in the same breath. In her fiction and non-fiction alike, Nelson has a crackling way of elevating the reader without ever alienating them. Or to quote one of my favorite lines in this tome that tackles a thousand thorny issues: “Listening to two masculine-identified writers duke it out over whether one of them should be treated like cow shit because he’s been mistaken for a girl isn’t exactly revolutionary fare.” If I could hire Nelson to formulate all my arguments, I would.
Autofiction’s reigning Scandinavian king, author Karl Ove Knausgaard (author of the “My Struggle” series) is back with “The Morning Star” (Penguin Press), an epic tale told through a small group of characters whose lives are forever altered when a massive star inexplicably appears in the sky.
The New Yorker humorist Ian Frazier’s fourth collection, “Cranial Fracking” (FSG), is a quick-witted compilation of very hilarious pieces about our fairly ridiculous nation.
Colm Tóibín’s “The Magician” (Scribner) travels through the life of author Thomas Mann and his wife during World War I, World War II, and the Cold War with the kind of dazzling evocation of place for which Tóibín is known.
From the Pulitzer Prize–winning author of “All the Light We Cannot See” comes Anthony Doerr’s ambitious and wonderfully imaginative tribute to books themselves, “Cloud Cuckoo Land” (Simon & Schuster). It spans nearly six centuries, set in Constantinople in the fifteenth century, in a small town in present-day Idaho, and on an interstellar ship decades from now.
In “Conquistadores” (Viking) Mexican historian Fernando Cervantes — himself a descendent of one of the conquistadors — deftly explores the layers of myth and fiction surrounding the sixteenth-century Spanish conquerors, whose actions, once hailed as heroic, are now considered reprehensible.
Journalist Ellis Cose takes a closer look at “The Short Life and Curious Death of Free Speech in America” (Amistad) and how the great political and economic disparities of our time, along with the rise of a vocal minority, have tested our most revered freedom.
Sally Rooney, internationally bestselling author of “Normal People,” returns to topically familiar territory (sex, friendship, and Dublin) in the much-anticipated, sharply observed, and propulsive “Beautiful World, Where Are You” (FSG).
How can a thousand-mile river be relatively unknown? Colin Thubron traces “The Amur River” (HarperCollins), which forms the border between Russia and China. Thubron journeys from Amur’s source to its mouth, exploring the people and politics that dot its banks. He covers almost 3,000 miles, and he does so at the age of 80.
In her first novel since “The Quick and the Dead,” the incomparable Joy Williams’ “Harrow” (Knopf) takes us through an eerie dystopia, along with the young people who must wade through an uncertain future to find where the true value in the world lies.
Annabel Abbs’ “Windswept: Walking the Paths of Trailblazing Women” (Tin House) is part memoir, part cultural critique through the lens of “famous walking women,” including but not limited to Simone de Beauvoir, Georgia O’Keeffe, and Daphne du Maurier.
Jessica Nordell’s “The End of Bias: A Beginning” (Metropolitan Books) opens up a new chapter on the movement to eradicate unconscious bias in some of its more pernicious arenas (education, policing, medicine, and beyond). Using a blend of scientific research and firsthand accounts, Nordell offers a practical approach to how we can move forward.
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Sloane Crosley Writer
Sloane Crosley is the author of several essay collections, including "I Was Told There'd Be Cake" and "Look Alive Out There," and the novel "The Clasp." Her new novel, "Cult Classic," is out now.
Marina Esmeraldo Illustrator
Marina Esmeraldo is a Brazilian-born, Barcelona-based illustrator, artist, and lecturer. Her award-winning work draws on a tropical upbringing, a modernist training in architecture, and her innate wanderlust.