1. Zadie Smith, NW
Are there any truly great British novels that aren’t about class? Maybe so, but I’m hard-pressed to think of them just now. Either way, Smith’s new novel takes up the national theme, following the intertwined lives of four characters who grew up in a council estate (that’s public housing, to New Yorkers) in the titular northwest quadrant of London. In White Teeth and On Beauty, Smith used class, race, geography, and gender the way Buckminster Fuller used triangles, borrowing their rigid forms and stress-distributing properties to build beautiful structures. Here’s hoping NW achieves the same. Penguin Press, Sept. 4.
2. David Quammen, Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic
David Quammen might be my favorite living science writer: amiable, erudite, understated, incredibly funny, profoundly humane. The best of his books, The Song of the Dodo, renders the relatively arcane field of island biogeography as gripping as a thriller. That bodes well for his new book, whose subject really is thriller-worthy: how deadly diseases (AIDS, SARS, Ebola) make the leap from animals to humans, and how, where, and when the next pandemic might emerge. W.W. Norton, Oct. 1.
3. Chinua Achebe, There Was a Country
Chinua Achebe is best known as the author of Things Fall Apart, the most influential English-language African novel, but he is also a poet, essayist, short-story writer, and critic. Yet his writings remain largely mute on the Biafran War, the civil war that raged in Nigeria during the prime of his own life. This new book—part history, part memoir, part poetry collection—finally breaks that silence. Penguin Press, Oct. 11.
4. Alice Munro, Dear Life
The only person who could really manage a one-paragraph summary of Alice Munro is Alice Munro, that grand master of distillation whose short stories are restrained, surprising, and alarmingly personal—not to her, to you. The title of this newest collection seems, itself, to distill the feeling you get from reading Munro: that life is, at every moment, terribly costly, and terribly beloved. Knopf, Nov. 13.
5. David Byrne, How Music Works
In his new book, David Byrne—he of Talking Heads fame—focuses primarily on the technological, economic, and physical contexts that shape music, from the ambient noise level at CBGB to the invention of the iPod. By all accounts, Byrne’s style and energy are as apparent on the page as on the stage. And if you own an e-reader, you can benefit from both: McSweeney’s—always an inventive publisher—is offering a version with music clips. McSweeney’s, Sept. 12.