YOU KNOW THAT BIG BLACK EXPANSE above your head, the one dotted with balls of gas and uninhabitable orbs? For a long time, that’s what we called “space.” The final frontier. For centuries, we marveled at it, raced to it, floated in it, sent our data across it. Here on Earth, if you wanted someone to move over, you asked for “room.” If you were in a relationship that needed assessing, you required a “break.” If you found yourself stuck at a family reunion weekend, sharing a bunk bed, you simply wanted to be “alone.” Only atriums were spacious. Maybe the Grand Canyon too. But in recent years, the word “space” has become as amorphous and all-encompassing as the noun it represents. This notion is reflected in this month’s books, which are rooted in the more contemporary definition of space — creating social, emotional and mental space, exploring vast landscapes. Here on Earth, in fiction and nonfiction alike, space is not just balls of gas. It’s the whole atmosphere.
“I can feel lifelong narratives zipping together like DNA, creation myths ossifying.” Claire Vaye Watkins’ “I Love You but I’ve Chosen Darkness” (Riverhead) is laced with the poetic tone of closeness and confidence that made her first novel, “Gold Fame Citrus,” such a gem. Watkins’ sharp focus on the American West continues (the desert basin of Death Valley is “splashed with turquoise, aquamarine, smears of amethyst, rose quartz, folds of charcoal and onyx sparkling above dry lake beds of bleach bone dust”) in this story of a new mother who leaves her family in the Midwest for a work trip to Reno, but winds up descending onto a tarmac of a fractured past. In addition to the space of memory, our heroine finds herself trapped in one of postpartum depression, personal myths, family lore, fragments of old letters, and general madness. And yet I am compelled to write: Trust me, it’s funny! (“Ours is not even a bad baby! She’s chill.”) Watkins blends her own family’s history, largely set in 1970s California (her father was a member of Charles Manson’s “family”) into this unique and memorable narrative.
Over the course of more than 20 books, Rebecca Solnit has become a master of the kind of elegant observation that stops you in your tracks. As with Watkins, this scrutiny is often about California and the spaces we inhabit, socially, politically, and physically. For me, the first of such instances in Solnit’s latest, “Orwell’s Roses” (Viking), was this: “Trees are an invitation to think about time and to travel in it the way they do, by standing still and reaching out and down.” Here, Solnit is speaking about the redwoods of Muir Woods, but the book goes on to dig into Orwell’s life and work over the first half of the twentieth century, connecting his role in the Spanish Civil War to Stalin, fascism, and beyond. The pages branch out from England to Jamaica, all the while exploring Orwell’s obsession with the natural world. “Orwell’s Roses” is a lyrical and biographical tour of the life of an influential political writer and the spaces he inhabited, a man who once wrote that “outside my work the thing I care most about is gardening.”
Out of This World
Lucy Corin’s “The Swank Hotel” (Graywolf) kicks off in 2008 on the precipice of the financial crisis, but our heroine’s troubles predate economic collapse in this funny pirouette of a novel that satirizes our social systems.
Un-Su Kim’s surreal “The Cabinet” (Angry Robot) pops open with science fiction and fantasy in this tale of an ordinary-looking cabinet filled with files on some very extraordinary people.
In “Revelations in Air: A Guidebook to Smell” (Penguin), Jude Stewart sniffs out the mechanics of scent with sumptuous language, breaking down how and what we smell, exploring the sense that became the pandemic’s canary in the coal mine.
Toe to Toe
The humorous and stunningly observant Canadian writer Miriam Toews (author of “Women Talking” and “All My Puny Sorrows”) is back with “Fight Night” (Bloomsbury), an epistolary novel about women and family, featuring, among other elements, the letters of a bright eight-year-old and her mother, a pregnant actor. Meanwhile, Amor Towles (of “A Gentleman in Moscow” and “Rules of Civility” fame) enters October’s ring with “The Lincoln Highway” (Viking). Set in 1950s America, it’s a knockout of a road-trip novel filled with vivid views and memorable characters.
Edith Wharton’s “Ghosts” (New York Review of Books) occupies the same socially chilling territory as her more famous fiction, but this time a bit more literally. These stories of shivering depth transcend the mortal world to arrive in a haunting space.
Satellite of Love
Jonathan Franzen’s “Crossroads” (Farrar Straus & Giroux) is the famed “Corrections” author at his best, telling the story of conflicting desires within two generations of a Midwestern family through the prism of a single December day in 1971.
Give Me Some Space
In “Angela Davis: An Autobiography” (Haymarket), first published and edited by Toni Morrison in the 1970s, the legendary activist reveals her journey from a small town in the Deep South to a life fighting for civil rights, creating the most vital space of all.
Time and Space
In “Move: The Forces Uprooting Us” (Scribner), Parag Khanna, founder of a global strategic advisory firm, investigates the human history of migration, deftly using our past and the current climate crisis to argue for a future with more open international borders.
Open “From Palm Beach to Shangri La: The Architecture of Marion Sims Wyeth” (Rizzoli) and feast your eyes on some of the last century’s more enviable spaces, including the dreamy abodes of Doris Duke and Marjorie Merriweather Post.
The Space Bar
Victoria Chang’s “Dear Memory: Letters on Writing, Silence, and Grief” (Milkweed) spans space and time with a poetic collection sculpted from her family documents to create a moving portrait of generational trauma.
Alice Hoffman concludes her Practical Magic series with “The Book of Magic” (Simon and Schuster), bringing the romantic curse of the Owens family to its fittingly magical end.
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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.