Book critic Moira Macdonald’s top 6 books to read in fall 2021 – The Seattle Times

These days, I’m often finding that I’d like to go someplace else. But, as going someplace else literally would be a lot of trouble, I’m mostly doing it through the pages of a book — where I can travel long distances, in mileage and in time, and be home by dinner.
Here, appropriately timed for curling-up-in-an-armchair fall reading, are six newly published books (mostly fiction, but I threw a memoir in) that took me on thoroughly enjoyable journeys to times and/or places far away. Happy reading.
The Fortnight in September” by R.C. Sherriff (Scribner, $16)
I thought I was fairly well versed in charming English novels set in Times Gone By, but this sweet tale by a British writer known for his World War I memoir (“Journey’s End”) and later work in Hollywood (“Goodbye Mr. Chips,” “The Invisible Man”) was a new one to me — and a delight. A 1930s bestseller republished on the occasion of its 90th anniversary, it’s the story of the Stevenses, a suburban London family of five who every year look forward to their two-week holiday by the sea. We follow Mr. and Mrs. Stevens — this formal book refers to them in exactly that way — and their children, 19-year-old Mary, 17-year-old Dick and 10-year-old Ernie, through every detail and step of the holiday: preparation, arrival, duration, return. Mrs. Stevens faces her own anxiety about travel; the older children dream of taking trips on their own; Mr. Stevens, while walking in the bracing air, considers the man he might have been.
This description may sound a little dry, and indeed you shouldn’t read “A Fortnight in September” expecting anything particularly dramatic to happen, as nothing does — except, perhaps, the gentle breath of life itself. There’s a comforting sameness to this holiday, which has taken place in the same modest boardinghouse for 20 years, and the Stevenses find tension in anticipation of well-known challenges: the flurry of changing trains, the process of renting a bathing hut, the right level of polite familiarity with the landlady. I found myself charmed by this immersion into another life, full of astute observations indicating that maybe things haven’t changed all that much in 90 years. The narration notes, for example, the awkwardness upon first arriving at one’s destination, when “you are still a little shy and embarrassed amongst the other holidaymakers, who look so thoroughly at home.”
And Sherriff’s uncanny way of finding universality in an unremarkable moment is often deeply touching. Just consider this lovely passage, about sandwiches from home eaten at one’s destination: “… cut upon a kitchen table that now lies deserted and alone: each little mouthful seems to contain a whisper of familiar sound; the same kind of whisper that comes from the stream of sand that falls from your shoe as you undress on the night you return once more to your bedroom at home.” Excuse me while I go plan a seaside vacation.
Harlem Shuffle” by Colson Whitehead (Doubleday, $28.95)
So, when your last two novels both won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction (“The Underground Railroad” and “The Nickel Boys”), what do you do next? For Whitehead, the answer was to try something completely different: a heist novel, set a half-century ago in a corner of Manhattan where everyone seems to be paying off everybody else. (“There is a circulation, a movement of envelopes that keeps the city running,” notes a crooked cop. “Everyone’s kicking back or kicking up. Unless you’re on top.”) Ray Carney, who’s “only slightly bent when it comes to being crooked,” owns a Harlem furniture store on 125th Street; he’s mostly on the up-and-up, but knows now and then not to ask questions about the merchandise arriving for sale. Dreaming of a better apartment and a better life for his young family, he gets unwittingly pulled into a job by his cousin Freddie — one involving some stolen jewels that turn out to belong to a dangerous man’s mistress.
Whitehead, whose writing is as cool and snappy here as the click of a cracked safe, divides the story into three parts, ranging from 1959 to 1964 and unfolding in a series of backrooms, noisy coffee shops, crowded sidewalks and cramped apartments with train vibrations as heartbeat. We watch (and it feels like watching; what a movie this book would make) as Ray becomes more enmeshed in a double life as both upstanding businessman and efficient fence, perpetually justifying his increasingly dark actions to himself. A parade of evocatively named characters marches by — Miami Joe, Cheap Brucie, Yea Big, Chet the Vet, Biz Dixon — each with a role to play in the story’s complex, intoxicating tapestry. And neighborhoods slowly change, both uptown and downtown, with the book’s final pages bringing an especially poignant reminder that some things seemingly permanent don’t last. 
Throughout, Ray’s good company — a man who believes family matters beyond anything else, and what you do on your family’s behalf is justified. “Everyone had secret corners and alleys that no one else saw,” he muses, early in the book — “what mattered were your major streets and boulevards, the stuff that showed up on other people’s maps of you.”
Intimacies” by Katie Kitamura (Riverhead, $26)
Like Kitamura’s previous novel, “A Separation,” “Intimacies” feels like a thriller, though I suppose it really isn’t one; the author just has a remarkable way of bringing tension to every encounter in this brief, sly novel about language and identity. Its first-person narrator, whose name I don’t believe we ever hear, is an American woman fluent in multiple languages who has moved to The Hague to work as an interpreter at the International Criminal Court. Different languages, she muses, can have “great chasms beneath words … that could open up without warning.” As an interpreter, she describes her job as “to throw down planks across these gaps,” in order to “make the space between languages as small as possible.”
We watch as the narrator moves through her days, translating the words of a former West African president accused of war crimes (and one who refuses to cede power after disputing election results), and navigating a relationship with a mysterious man named Adriaan, who may or may not still be attached to his wife. Kitamura plumbs different kinds of intimacy — physical, verbal, emotional — in prose that creates its own unique rhythms, as if it itself were translated: She strings sentences together with commas, making rivers of words, and eschews quotation marks so that statements blur into reflections. This results in a book that feels almost painfully intimate; it’s as if we’ve slipped inside the head of this quiet woman, navigating an unwelcoming city, feeling its chill, trying to find home.
Forever Young” by Hayley Mills (Grand Central Publishing, $30)
Mills’ memoir is unusual in that nearly all of it is spent on her youth; she’s just 28 by page 369, and the book ends four pages later. Presumably some other things have happened in her life between then and now, but Mills knows the stories we want to hear. The British actor, born into a theatrical family in 1946 (her father was the beloved English actor Sir John Mills; her mother the playwright Mary Hayley Bell), became the face of Walt Disney movies in the 1960s, signing a multipicture deal at the age of 12 and starring in “Pollyanna,” “The Parent Trap,” “That Darn Cat!” and more.
A natural storyteller, as so many actors are, Mills takes us on that wide-eyed 12-year-old’s journey: whisked from a very traditional boarding school (whose halls smelled of “chalk and Wright’s Coal Tar Soap, boiled cabbage and mince, and unwashed hair”) to Los Angeles, where she went to school on set with the Mouseketeers and worked alongside legendary grown-up actors. We learn that she was considered for the title role in Stanley Kubrick’s “Lolita” but her parents (and Disney) turned it down. (“I’ve always wondered how things might have gone if I had taken such a radically different path,” she muses, of the role that got away.) The book takes us through her years of teen stardom, through A-list dates (among them: Michael Douglas and George Harrison, the latter of whom “reminded me of a little foal peering out from under a bear skin rug”) and big disappointments: She didn’t attend the Academy Award ceremony at which she was awarded an honorary Oscar (for Best Juvenile), but was asleep in her “freezing cold” boarding school dormitory.
If you loved those Disney movies, or just want to get a sense of what life was like in a Hollywood very different from how it is today, “Forever Young” is a pleasure. One of its joys is watching Mills grow up on the page, learning to love her craft. Being in front of the camera, she writes, felt like home. “The camera gives you its total, undivided attention; it doesn’t judge, it’s just there, quiet and steady, to observe, absorb and to listen.”
1979” by Val McDermid (Atlantic Monthly Press, $27)
Every fall books roundup needs an out-and-out mystery — a nice long tick-tock of a crime story that takes us to some dark places but sorts things out by the end. And I couldn’t resist the setting of this one, by the bestselling Scottish novelist McDermid: the newsroom of the (fictional) Scottish daily The Clarion in Glasgow, where young investigative journalist Allie Burns teams up with colleague Danny Sullivan on a possibly explosive story involving international tax fraud — the break she might need to finally be taken seriously, and not just given “women’s page” stories.
The first of a planned series featuring Allie, “1979” is a solid, old-school read (you might guess one of the villains, but that doesn’t mar the enjoyment any). McDermid has fun reconstructing a newsroom from the not-too-distant past: one filled with elderly “copy boys,” blue cigarette smoke and the clanking music of manual typewriters, in which paper comes in rolls and editors literally spike a story with an actual spike. But she doesn’t romanticize those times; the sexism Allie faces is often eye-rollingly overt yet all too believable. I’m looking forward to more time spent with this journalist/sleuth, who seems to gain confidence with every page — and every byline.
The Chosen and the Beautiful” by Nghi Vo (Macmillan, $26.99)
When an author takes a classic novel for inspiration, using established characters to tell a familiar story from a different point of view, it doesn’t always work — too often, you simply wonder why the author didn’t just create their own novel. But this reimagining of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby,” told from the point of view of minor character Jordan Baker, is beautifully written — an elegant mirror to Fitzgerald’s work, catching its light from another angle. In this telling, Jordan is Asian (adopted from Vietnam) and gay, an outsider observing the doomed love affair between Daisy Buchanan and Jay Gatsby. She knowingly eyes Daisy, an ethereal woman whose hands “flutter like trapped songbirds” and who walks as if she’s not quite touching the floor.
If you remember “Gatsby” — a book I’ve reread multiple times, but not recently — you’ll find “The Chosen and the Beautiful” a pleasantly eerie experience. Familiar scenes waft by, thick with atmosphere and detail: the accident, the beautiful shirts cascading from the wardrobe, the heat of a summer afternoon in which everything seems blown in a hot breeze, an elegant hotel suite with too many people in it. But Vo adds her own voice, coloring Fitzgerald’s characters with a brush stroke of magic realism, letting this story of unattainable love shimmer anew. And her portrait of Daisy is gorgeously gossamer. “She said things,” Vo writes of Daisy, “they lit up gold in the air, and then they fell to nothing like so much cigarette ash.” (Many thanks to Seattle Public Library’s Peak Picks shelf, where I discovered this book.)
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