This article is part of the Lily Lines newsletter. You can sign up here to get it delivered twice a week to your inbox.
“August rain: the best of the summer gone, and the new fall not yet born. The odd uneven time.” — Sylvia Plath, The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath
With August nearly over, fall is most definitely on its way. As students head back to school, we’re reminded of the rhythms and responsibilities of a new year; soon, the air will take on a chill and lazy evenings will be cut short, relegating summer trips and swimsuit tans to distant memory.
It’s an exciting time, too, though, full of promise. For me, nothing ushers in autumn like the memory of buying new school supplies. My childhood in California was devoid of changing leaves and apple-picking — so instead, fall meant freshly sharpened No. 7 pencils.
That’s why the essay “Street Haunting” by Virginia Woolf, published in 1930, will always remind me of this time of year. I read it for the first time during my freshman fall at college, when I was 3,000 miles from California and finally experiencing a proper September. But it’s also the essay’s framework that makes it feel undeniably autumnal, despite taking place in winter: In it, Woolf walks across London to buy a pencil. Upon returning home at the very end of the essay, she reflects that this, a lead pencil, is “the only spoil we have retrieved from all the treasures of the city.”
There’s probably a book — or an essay, or a poem — that reminds you of fall, too. That’s why, to ease us into the new season, we asked some of our favorite women authors to share theirs. For “Homegoing” author Yaa Gyasi, for example, it is L.M. Montgomery’s “Anne of Green Gables.” Read on to find out why, and hear from 10 others.
“Probably because the majority of my life has revolved, and still revolves, around the school calendar, autumn always feels like the beginning of the year; an opportunity to analyze past actions; to decide to forge a new path. That duality, of being on a precipice where you can return or move forward, or do both at the same time, is most captured by ‘Good Woman: Poems and a Memoir’ by Lucille Clifton. Clifton does not shy away from poetry that centers on womanhood and race, and her poems always feel like I’m being dropped into a conversation that’s been going on for years, but is still making fresh points.”
“This autumn I’ll be reading ‘Charlotte Sometimes’ with my 11-year-old daughter: a gently unnerving English classic from 1969 by Penelope Farmer, about a girl who wakes up after her first night at boarding school to find that she’s time-slipped into the mind of another girl at the same school 40 years before.”
“Though first released 11 years ago, Caille Millner’s ‘The Golden Road: Notes on My Gentrification’ is a memoir full of such urgent questions about identity, privilege and belonging that the book reads as though it could also have been published right about now. As Millner examines the difficulties and joys she encountered as a black girl, then woman, navigating spaces for herself in school in Silicon Valley and Harvard, and afterward, she brings to mind some of the contradictions I encountered when I went off to college.”
“Autumn makes me think of leaves, which makes me think of trees, which makes me think of ‘The Overstory,’ the best novel ever written about trees, and really, just one of the best novels, period.”
“I spent a few weeks in Prince Edward Island this summer and decided to re-read L.M. Montgomery’s ‘Anne of Green Gables.’ What I noticed this time around that I hadn’t noticed when I was a young girl is how much careful attention Montgomery pays to the seasons — descriptions of the weather, the way the plants in Lovers Lane change. My favorite season in the book is fall, when school has begun for the children of Avonlea, and Anne, fierce, independent, brilliant Anne, breaks her slate over Gilbert’s head. It’s an iconic moment in a wonderful book.”
“‘Prep’ by Curtis Sittenfeld is an easy choice because it’s a campus novel and all campus novels smack of autumn even if they’re set in the spring. Just thinking of it, I can picture the leaves falling, smell the social anxiety and hear the sound of lacrosse sticks whooshing through the air.”
“I love revisiting Donna Tartt’s ‘The Secret History’ when days shorten and leaves change. It’s deliciously sinister and beautifully written and so, so, so other in the best way. It was all spectacularly exotic since I hadn’t grown up with apple cider donuts, wood-burning fireplaces or sumptuous, shrewdly tailored cashmere coats. It’s set at Hampden College, a fictional school in Vermont, a place I have never been and to this day I’m not entirely sure what a Lyceum even is. That the six main characters who are so East Coast as to be basically British were allowed to forego all other matriculation to study Greek was so decadent. So extravagantly white. No specific spoilers but that they were complicit in an evil deed without consequence only underscores this. I mean, Ms. Tartt is literally wearing a foulard in her author photo. It’s the best.”
“The titular story, set on Halloween, juxtaposes the playful representations of death and danger with the tragedy of the narrator’s sister falling dead while handing out candy. Just like falling leaves, this work is both memento mori and a celebration of life.”
“Though I’ve been out of school for a long time, I always snap to attention in September. A terrific school-related book that I hope to read again this fall is the classic 1961 Muriel Spark novel, ‘The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie,’ about a hypnotically influential teacher at a girls’ school in Edinburgh in the 1930s and her group of students. It’s a sharp, thrilling novel.”
“‘There’s a certain Slant of light, / Winter Afternoons – / That oppresses, like the Heft /Of Cathedral Tunes –’ and yet Emily Dickinson has always felt like the goddess of the fall to me.”
“One of my favorite short stories is ‘Gold Coast’ from the collection ‘Hue and Cry’ by James Alan McPherson, my once-upon-a-time teacher and the first black American to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. ‘Gold Coast’ explores what it means to be young, black and a writer. It begins in the spring, builds throughout the summer and ends in the fall, a transitional time for the narrator, and for me, too. Robert narrates, ‘In late September, the Cambridge police finally picked up the bearded pot-pusher in the Square. He had been in a restaurant all summer, at the same table, with the same customers flocking around him; but now that summer was over, they picked him up. The leaves were changing.’ I always think of fall as a time of possibility. Why do I do this? I consider and confront my bad habits. Perhaps it’s that hopefulness of a new school year — better grades! A higher social standing! A style upgrade! — that somehow I haven’t outgrown.”
Join us each month for Lily Lit Club, The Lily’s new book club on Instagram. We’ll pick a new book on the 1st of every month by a female author (you’ll get the chance to vote on the pick, too). Each week, we will share our progress, favorite quotes and discussion questions. Anyone who has an Instagram account can be part of Lily Lit Club. Just direct message us @thelilynews to let us know you want in.
Our first book is “The Poet X” by Elizabeth Acevedo. If you’re in D.C., join Deputy Editor Neema Roshania Patel on Saturday at 10 a.m. for a Q&A with the author at the National Book Festival.