Best of lists for 2008 are already starting to pop up. Amazon recently posted its Top 100 of 2008. The surprise at the top of the list is The Northern Clemency, the Booker shortlisted novel by Philip Hensher. The year’s fiction phenomenon The Story of Edgar Sawtelle was fifth, and Millions favorites Neverland and 2666 land at 15 and 24 respectively.
As the 2012 presidential election comes to an end, each candidate’s political and personal life has been vetted, his message honed, and a team of advisers assembled to shield him from any unwanted drama. This list considers those literary political or public figures who would not have withstood much scrutiny in the modern age. In contrast to the predictable quality of even the most captivating political biography, these tales favor the eerie or the bizarre over the electable in their consideration of political life. There is an element of fiction in all successful politics, but these works show the deliriously entertaining distortions that result when fiction (or creative nonfiction) asserts its authority over the political realm. John Cowper Powys’s epic poses the following question: if getting caught with a dead girl or a live boy is political suicide, what does an affair with an endangered, aboriginal giantess portend for a prince about to ascend to the throne? How would Charles Kinbote’s claims about his native Zembla in Nabokov’s Pale Fire hold up in the age of PolitiFact? Ben Marcus’s dystopian allegory-cum-bildungsroman-cum-anthropological study lets us ponder what debate format would best suit Jane Dark, the pantomiming leader of a political party called the Silentists. A Henry James’s story, “The Private Life” asks just what happens to a figure with a preternatural knack for finding a public when nobody is around. Finally, Gertrude Stein’s authorized autobiography of her lover and modernist Paris explores why the military should embrace the avant-garde or risk obsolescence. Each work puts forth a character who, however indelible, remains doggedly unelectable. 1. John Cowper Powys, Porius The time is 499 AD, and for Porius, the prince of a kingdom in Wales, the new century cannot come quickly enough. The Roman authority that installed his clan has long since crumbled, and the realm is threatened by an impending Saxon invasion. The young prince must also contend with a firebrand preacher spreading an aggressive new Christian religion hostile to local customs, a fragile coalition of oft-warring ethnic tribes, a plotting druidical leader, imperious Arthurian knights, and a beguiling sorceress who has infatuated King Arthur’s counselor, Merlin. Oh, and there are also two aboriginal giants lurking about, one of whom Porius, in his most spectacular dereliction of duties (political and marital), pursues over the mountainous terrain and seduces. Hiking the Appalachian Trail indeed. The novel dramatizes one long political and religious crisis, but the most fantastic thing about this fantastical novel is Porius’s sensuous exploration of his private sensations amidst the public chaos. Porius, the “strongest as well as the craziest man” in the kingdom, chooses to ruminate on the nature of the Pelagian heresy or “cavoseniargize,” a Powys neologism for a rapturous state in which “his soul found itself able to follow every curve and ripple of his bodily sensations and yet remain suspended above them.” By the end of the novel, Porius has become a kind of Herculean Lambert Strether, an ambassador who seeks not to impose his will on his roiling domain but rather derive an intensely personal moral from its upheavals. 2. Vladimir Nabokov, Pale Fire “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” As that question is posed repeatedly by each political party, it is perhaps worth musing on how the narrator/commentator of Pale Fire would respond to a similar question after the Karlist Revolution overthrew the monarchy and exiled him from his “blue, inenubliable Zemba.” After all, in Charles the Beloved’s reign, the issues beguiling American politics today were blissfully resolved: “The climate seemed to be improving. Taxation had become a thing of beauty. The poor were getting a little richer, and the rich a little poorer...Medical care was spreading to the confines of the state...Parachuting had become a popular sport.” Granted, this utopia exists solely in the (gloriously) demented mind and “wistful thinking” of a madman, but still, decent healthcare and parachuting as a national sport? Kinbote’s flights of fancy have little to do with some of the more squalid falsifications and misrepresentations to which American politicians resort; rather, as he confides to John Shade, the poet whom he has “saturated” with his Zembla, “once transmuted by you into poetry, the stuff will be true, and the people will come alive. A poet’s purified truth can cause no pain, no offense. True art is above false honor.” (Oh, to hear Kinbote’s account of racing in the Zemblan Marathon!) A noble goal: should leaders lie, at least do it in verse. 3. Ben Marcus, Notable American Women Ben Marcus, at once the guinea pig, greatest hope and greatest disappointment of the warring parents whose narratives bookend his own “secret history of women in American townships,” can remember a time when “historic leaders shouted their hearts out to the world, lecturing feverishly until their bodies collapsed and they died.” Yet by the time Ben narrates his perverse bildungsroman, those leaders, presumably male, have been “shushed,” as has Ben’s father, who is imprisoned in a grave-like cell in the family’s backyard by a cultish group of women, the Silentists. These Silentists, led by the enigmatic, powerful Jane Dark, seek to achieve what they call a New Stillness, to bring about a revolutionary, distinctly feminine, world silence and institute semaphore as the primary form of behavior. The Silentist movement is an anti-populist one, as in Marcus’s world, people (and the language they spew) are the problem; they are “areas that resist light, mistakes in the air, collision sweet spots.” The political solution lies not in appeals to personal responsibility but in a full-throated defense (as much as possible for the Silentists) of government intervention and organizations: The Woman’s National Pantomime Group, The Akron Stillness Center, the Ohio Pillow Talk Council, and the American Naming Authority. The author even recommends that “public money should be used to deploy roving masseurs to careers citizens of our public areas so their bodies might better yield to speech and weather broadcasts streaming from this book.” Now that’s a stimulus. The tools with which they attempt to bring about the New Stillness -- “witness water” that becomes imprinted with certain behaviors, language enemas, a new all-vowel language causing less disturbance in the weather, a chew stand (recommended for every household), daily “wind-ambush baths,” vigorous pantomime -- constitute an absurdist, prescriptive guide for how to revitalize a worn out language, an effort to combat the “failure to traffic language with any newness” and to find, in a new collective behavior, “unprecedented utterances.” Ben is the subject of the Silentists’ increasingly futile experiments to raise a child best adapted to this new world, and the familial struggle at the heart of the novel between deposed father and ascendant mother broadens out over to a larger struggle for political power and over the Logos itself. 4. Henry James, “The Private Life” The tightly plotted ghost story unfolds with mathematical precision under the backdrop of a “great bristling primeval glacier” at a Swiss resort hotel. The narrator and an accomplished stage actress, Blanche Adney, investigate the unusual behavior of two figures: Lord Mellifont, an aristocrat who is all public and had no corresponding private life,” and Clare Vawdrey, a “great mature novelist” who is “all private and had no corresponding public [life].” Vawdrey’s social personality is one of “economy;” his opinions are “sound and second-rate,” he feels comfortable in the “flat country of anecdote,” and he exhibits none of the rare feelings found in his masterful novels. Lord Mellifont, by contrast, “expend[s] treasures of tact” and is marked by a “plenitude of presence.” He seems to exist solely to charm “an immense circle of spectators,” each conversation about him “take[s] the form of anecdote,” and he is less a flesh-and-blood specimen than a “style;” in short, James has created the prototype for “The Most Interesting Man in the World.” The ghostly element of the story is an elegant way to demonstrate the costs and payoffs of each social strategy -- the one frugal, the other profligate. I won’t reveal the twist, but James homes in on the ominously spectral quality of public life, the unheimlich nature of a man who is excessively good at putting strangers at ease: “I had secretly pitied him for the perfection of [Lord Mellifont’s] performance, had wondered what blank face such a mask had to cover, what was left to him for the immitigable hours in which a man sits down with himself, or, more serious still, with that intenser self his lawful wife.” 5. Gertrude Stein, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas Midway through The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, the narrator notes that Gertrude Stein is “one of the few people of her generation to read every word of Carlyle’s Frederick the Great,” and at the very end of the memoirs, she coyly suggests an alternative title for her work: My Life with the Great. Both details hint at the ambitious, world-historical scope of Stein’s modernism. Stein, the “Mothergoose of Montparnasse” and hostess of the famous salon at 27 rue de Fleurus, is also a general-like leader of the avant-garde. Of course, part of the memoir’s pleasure is reading the gossipy accounts of feuding artists in Paris. In one amusing episode, she diplomatically appeases the fragile egos of her painter-guests at a dinner party by sitting each across from his own picture, which makes them all “so happy that we had to send out twice for more bread.” And yet while chronicling each petty intrigue, Stein is never shy about trumpeting the heroic nature of her modernist project, beginning with the claim that the “three little Matisse paintings” she brought back from Paris were the first modern things to cross the Atlantic. But perhaps more striking are the geo-political implications she sees for the modern. When Stein asserts that “[the Germans] cannot...possibly win this war [WWI] because they are not modern,” she casts herself and the avant-garde as vital to military success as the war cannot leap over the aesthetic; military success is bounded by modernity, and Stein and her set are modernity incarnate. The wonderful scene in which a “spell-bound” Picasso sees a camouflaged cannon rolling down the boulevard Raspail makes this connection explicit: “It is we that have created that, he said. And he was right, he had. From Cézanne through him they had come to that.” Whether Picasso’s aperçu will lead to a joint Pentagon-NEA project is anyone’s guess; regardless, Stein’s alternately blustery and revelatory claims about modernity, national character, military might and literature make for great sound bites: “She realizes that in English literature in her time she is the only one. She has always known it and now she says it.” Gertrude Stein approved this message.
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I wondered about the first professional decisions of newly minted editors — be they powerful tastemakers blissfully ignorant of P-and-L statements or recently promoted assistants. What drew them to the first proposal they tried to acquire? Did they look upon the decision as a momentous one? Do they even remember it now?
With 2007 in the rear view mirror, we now look ahead to a new year of reading, one packed with intriguing titles.Let's kick off with a pair that Garth was already pining for a year ago:Jonathan Littell's Les Bienveillantes (The Kindly Ones) won the Prix Goncourt and was a runaway bestseller in France. Not bad for a novel that runs over 900 pages. The Kindly Ones has been generating buzz on this continent for a while now, with Forbes asking "2008's Hottest Book?" back in 2006. The delay, of course, is the translation, which many have suggested is quite an undertaking for this complex volume. Literature-in-translation headquarters, The Literary Saloon, meanwhile, has been following the progress, and recent accounts indicate that the going is slow. Many readers are hoping to get their hands on this one in 2008, but my sources at HarperCollins tell me 2009 is a likelier bet. Of course, you could read it in French.The other book, Roberto Bolano's 2666 (we were 600 years off when we wrote about it last year), also lacks a release date, but its arrival seems somewhat more tangible in that the translator has at least been identified - it's Natasha Wimmer. Late last month she told the Times' book blog that she was just finishing up. She added, "Long stretches of the novel are set on the Mexico-U.S. border and inside a prison. And that's not all. Bolano really gives the translator a workout. I also researched Black Panther history, pseudo-academic jargon (actually, some of that came naturally), World War II German army terminology, Soviet rhetoric, boxing lingo, obscure forms of divination and forensic science vocabulary, among other things. If that makes the novel sound like a hodgepodge, I promise it's not. Even the most obscure detours are thoroughly Bolano-ized - filtered through his weird, ominous, comic worldview." The Spanish speakers among us can already have this one in hand if they want.Already out or coming soon: 2006's surprise Pulitzer winner for March, Geraldine Brooks, has another novel out that draws from both literary and literal history. Last time it was the Civil War and Little Women, with The People of the Book, it's World War II and the Sarajevo Haggadah. If you want to learn more about the famed Haggadah and the real-life events that inspired Brooks' novel, there was a recent New Yorker story on the topic (which is sadly not available online.)Roddy Doyle's new collection of stories, The Deportees, includes one that revisits characters from his iconic novel The Commitments. Of the collection, The Independent writes, "Charm and animation are the qualities that count with Doyle's deportees, as he goes about sticking up for disparaged incomers in a context of Dublin demotic exuberance."Adam Langer decamps Chicago, the stomping ground of his last two novels, for his new book Ellington Boulevard, "an ode to New York" according to the catalog copy. The book, says The Daily News, "tells the story of one apartment before, during and after the boom years in city real estate. 2B is on W. 106th St. and a new landlord is looking to make a killing."February: Lauren Groff's debut, The Monsters of Templeton arrives on the scene with a nice boost from Stephen King, who way back last summer had this to say about the book in Entertainment Weekly: "The sense of sadness I feel at the approaching end of The Monsters of Templeton isn't just because the story's going to be over; when you read a good one - and this is a very good one - those feelings are deepened by the realization that you probably won't tie into anything that much fun again for a long time." That taken together with novel's first line - "The day I returned to Templeton steeped in disgrace, the fifty-foot corpse of a monster surfaced in Lake Glimmerglass." - is enough to pique the interest of many a reader, I'd imagine.In keeping with the theme of debut novels with impressive backers, Ceridwen Dovey, who grew up in South Africa and Australia, scored blurbs from J.M. Coetzee and Colum McCann for Blood Kin, which PW describes as "a parable of a military coup as told by the ex-president's barber, portraitist and chef." It sounds like it may share some territory with Ngugi wa Thiong'o's Wizard of the Crow. Another novel of a regime and its hangers on.In The Invention of Everything Else, Samantha Hunt has crafted an "imagining of an unlikely friendship between the eccentric inventor Nikola Tesla and a young chambermaid in the Hotel New Yorker where Tesla lives out his last days," according to the publisher's catalog description. Hunt was one of the National Book Foundation's "5 under 35" in 2006. We can report that, anecdotally at least, the book is generating some interest. When we requested a galley from Houghton Mifflin a few weeks ago, we were told they were all gone.March: Tobias Wolff has a handsome volume of "New and Selected" stories on the way, Our Story Begins. The title story appeared in a 1985 collection, Back in the World, reviewed here by Michiko Kakutani.April: Interesting coincidence: Richard Bausch recently told Washington Post readers about his new novel, "It's called Peace, and is set in Italy, near Mt. Cassino, in the terrible winter of 1944. Based on something my father told me long ago." Over the last couple weeks, I've been reading about the battles that raged around Cassino in the winter of 1944, in Rick Atkinson's excellent history of the liberation of Italy, Day of Battle. I would imagine there's much for Bausch to draw from there.Keith Gessen, of n+1 fame will see his debut novel, All the Sad Young Literary Men, published in April. The LA Times, naming Gessen a "writer to watch," offers back handed half-compliments, calling the book "a novel about, well, other bookish, male, Ivy League-schooled bohos in New York -- their burning literary, academic and journalistic ambition, their pain. It's a powerfully intelligent book that stylistically falls somewhere between a narcissistic wallow and a Tom Perrotta-style satire." That may or may not be too harsh, as Gessen and company seem to inspire snark wherever they tread, but if anything, the discussion surrounding the book may be as fun to read as the book itself.Esteemed host of The Elegant Variation and friend of The Millions, Mark Sarvas will deliver his long awaited debut, Harry, Revised in April. He's been keeping us up to date on his blog.Andrew Sean Greer also has a new book out in April, The Story of a Marriage. It's set in 1950s San Francisco.You may have read Jhumpa Lahiri's "Year's End" in the year end New Yorker fiction issue. It'll be collected with several other stories in Unaccustomed EarthMay: James Meek blew me away in 2006, with his odd and fantastical historical novel, A People's Act of Love, which immersed readers in a world of post World War I Czech soldiers marooned in Siberian Yazyk among a mystical sect of castrati who lurk through the town like ghosts. And let's not forget the escaped convict who claims he is being pursued by a cannibal. Meek is back in May with a much more conventional sounding effort, We Are Now Beginning Our Descent, about a journalist in the Afghan mountains covering the post-9/11 war and then back, trying to make sense of the "real" world upon his return.Tim Winton is a big name among Australian readers but not so much in the States. However, his rough-edged characters and windswept, lonely landscapes will transport nearly any reader to the remoter parts of Australia with ease. His latest, Breath, coming in May, offers big-wave surfers "on the wild, lonely coast of Western Australia."June: Regular New Yorker readers may recognize the name Uwem Akpan. The Nigerian-born native of Zimbabwe landed a coveted spot in the Debut Fiction Issue in 2005 for his story "An Ex-Mas Feast," and he was back again 2006 with "My Parents' Bedroom." Both stories appear in his forthcoming debut collection, Say You're One of Them, which seems likely to fit in well with the mini-boom of African literature that we've seen over the last few years.Salman Rushdie's forthcoming novel The Enchantress of Florence sounds very ambitious. Here's a description from the Guardian: "Machiavellian intrigues of international high politics are scarcely the preserve of our century alone and in Salman Rushdie's The Enchantress of Florence, the original master of unscrupulous strategy takes a starring role. This seductive saga links the Mughal empire with the Renaissance by way of an Indian princess, Lady Black Eyes, who finds herself central to the power struggles of 16th-century Florence. A virtuoso feat of storytelling, Rushdie's novel also reflects on the dangers that come when fantasy and reality grow too intertwined."July: Chris Adrian wowed readers in 2006 with his post-apocalyptic novel The Children's Hospital. That novel's ardent fans will be pleased to get their hands on a new collection of stories called A Better Angel. The collection's title story appeared in the New Yorker in 2006.Western Haruki Murakami fans may have heard that another of his books has been translated. This one is a memoir titled - with a casual reference to another literary giant Raymond Carver - What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. On his blog Ted Mahsun notes, "The book is about his experience running in marathons. He's quite the accomplished runner, having run in the Boston, New York and Tokyo marathons, amongst others. I didn't think it would get translated into English since a lot of Murakami's non-fiction which have been published in Japan gets ignored by his translators." It's Murakami's only other non-fiction to appear in English besides UndergroundAugust: Paul Theroux is ready to tell us about another of his epic train rides in Ghost Train to the Eastern Star: 28,000 Miles in Search of the Railway Bazaar. "Thirty years after his classic The Great Railway Bazaar, Paul Theroux revisits Eastern Europe, Central Asia, India, China, Japan, and Siberia."Date undetermined: Garth enjoyed Gregoire Bouillier's "refreshingly odd voice" in his quirky memoir The Mystery Guest. Another memoir, Report on Myself, which won the Prix de Flore in France is forthcoming in spring 2008, but a release date has not yet been indicated.Tell us about your most anticipated books in the comments.
Are poor rural white people really neglected in American literature? Hardly. They might be routinely scorned, marginalized, misunderstood, and reduced to caricature, but they’re not neglected. In fact, the canon is larded with writers who’ve put the riches of white trash culture to wondrous use.
The New York Times highlighted the trend last year and it will no doubt be even bigger this year: when it comes to ebooks, what was once a day of rest from shopping is now a booming day for ebook sales. That's because when all those Kindles (selling a million a week), Nooks (sales up 85%), iPads, and other tablets get unwrapped, the first thing to do is to fire up and download a few books. Just a few years after ebooks and ereaders first emerged as futuristic curiosity, they are fully mainstream now. Even among the avid, book-worshiping, old-school readers that frequent The Millions, ebooks are very popular. Looking at the statistics that Amazon provides us, just over a quarter of all the books bought by Millions readers at Amazon after clicking on our links this year were Kindle ebooks. One in four books, incredible. So, for all those readers unwrapping shiny new devices, here are some links to get you going. For starters, here are the top-ten most popular ebooks purchased by Millions readers in 2011. You'll notice that these aren't all that different from the overall Millions favorites. The big change this year is the emergence of the "Kindle Single" format, which offers long-form journalism and short stories at a bite-sized price point. Three of those lead our list. Interestingly, while those Singles are expanding what's available at lower price points, publishers are pushing the high end of the price range higher, focusing especially on some of the year's highest profile books, four of which land on our list despite going for (as of this writing) more than the magic $9.99 number. The Enemy by Christopher Hitchens ($1.99) The Getaway Car by Ann Patchett ($2.99) The Bathtub Spy by Tom Rachman ($1.99) The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman ($9.99) A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan ($9.99) 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami ($14.99) The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides ($12.99) The Psychopath Test by Jon Ronson ($12.99) The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins ($4.69) The Pale King by David Foster Wallace ($14.99) The Late American Novel edited by yours truly and Jeff Martin ($8.99) Other potentially useful ebook links: Editors' Picks Best of 2011 Top 100 Paid and Free Kindle Singles And in this fractured ebook landscape, you've also got your NookBooks, Google ebooks, Apple ibooks, and the new IndieBound ereader app that lets you buy ebooks from your favorite indie bookstore. Finally, don't forget Project Gutenberg, the original purveyor of free ebooks (mostly out-of-copyright classics) available for years. Happy Reading!
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