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.
In her essay “The Getaway Car,” now included in her nonfiction collection This is a Story of a Happy Marriage, Ann Patchett describes well-meaning readers who approach her at events with ideas for books. To them, it’s a simple equation: their premise plus Patchett’s prose equals literary gold. Patchett deftly points out that ideas for stories are everywhere and easy to find; it’s the sitting down and writing them that takes hard work.
Now that I’m finished with my forthcoming novel, I see what she means. Without a long-term project to obsess over, I find myself channeling ideas all the time. A new premise will possess me for a few minutes or hours, my brain asking What if? or Why would that happen?, until, like a fly at a picnic, I alight on another, juicier narrative. Patchett is right: there are so many stories! Alas, I have only one life, and one voice, and only three days of childcare a week to write.
But maybe the ideas that don’t snag my prolonged attention would occupy another, different writer. Let’s try it: Here are a few novels I won’t write. Maybe you will.
The Doctor Is In
When I was pregnant with my daughter I read Birth Day: A Pediatrician Explores the Science, the History and the Wonder of Childbirth by Mark Sloan. There are so many remarkable details in this book, from the cool, weird things a fetus does in the womb, to theories about why labor is so easy for gorillas and so difficult for human beings. I was especially compelled by the story of James Barry, the first surgeon to perform a successful cesarean (meaning that both mother and child survived). Barry, born in the late 1700s, was an Irish military surgeon in the British Army, and Sloan describes him as not being particularly likeable: pushy, without tact. After his death, it was revealed that Barry was born a woman but passed as a man for decades. When I read that I couldn’t believe his story hadn’t yet been told (or not adequately; whoever does this book right will have a bestseller followed by an HBO adaptation). Because I am not up for the task of writing historical fiction, I nominate my friend Anna Solomon for the job. She would be perfect: her two novels, The Little Bride and Leaving Lucy Pear, explore gender, sexuality, and motherhood in bygone eras; plus, she’s the co-editor of an anthology of birth stories called Labor Day (one of mine is in there).
Trouble in Oakland
This summer, the East Bay was rocked by a police scandal that included officers in Oakland and Richmond, as well as deputies in the Alameda county sheriff’s department. As of mid-September, criminal charges have been made against seven officers and Oakland has witnessed one Police Chief after another step down, with Mayor Libby Schaaf struggling to explain the multiple resignations. In June, a sex worker going by the name of Celeste Guap revealed in an on-air television interview that she’d had sex with a handful of police officers, some of them when she was a minor. As the East Bay Express reported:
According to text messages between police officers and the victim, at least three OPD officers leaked her confidential information about undercover prostitution stings. One Oakland cop obtained police reports and criminal histories and shared them with the victim, which is against department policy. Guap also said she slept with cops as a form of protection.
In a quote from Guap that I keep coming back to, she said that she and one of the officers would hook up “like every Saturday night for three months straight…He had a mattress in his back seat and slept in his car in the OPD parking lot, so we would hook up after work.”
This scandal exists against a much larger backdrop; it coincided with the release of Stanford University’s 2013-2014 research study of the Oakland police department, which found “a significant pattern of racial disparities” regarding who is stopped, handcuffed, and arrested; according to the report, police officers showed implicit bias against the African-American community. For many in the city, this came as no surprise. Mayor Schaaf made relations with the community even more tense when she identified the race of officers involved in a totally different department scandal; according to the Oakland Black Officers Association, Schaaf had never before identified the race of officers involved in an investigation.
Fiction has always helped us understand and grapple with the complexities of the real world, and a book like this, in an era of highly visible police violence, feels necessary.
Who is this young woman? Who is this young cop? This would be a big, multi-voiced novel, with community members, law enforcement, and savvy political players. I nominate Attica Locke, author of three crime novels that deal with race in American life, including The Cutting Season, about the discovery of a dead body on a plantation-turned-tourist attraction-and-event space. (Though Ms. Locke might be a little busy right now — she’s currently writing for, and producing, the TV show Empire…)
In early September, Rachel Cusk published an essay called “Making House: Notes on Domesticity” in the New York Times Magazine that so closely aligned with my interests I was practically levitating with excitement as I read it. First, I love Cusk’s writing, in particular her essays about mothering in A Life’s Work. Second, I read design blogs daily and enjoy browsing furniture catalogues and real estate websites; if I’m anxious, nothing calms me more than thinking about sectionals in imaginary living rooms. Third, I am interested in the ways women’s identities are shaped and influenced, and this line from Cusk felt truer than anything I’d read in a long time:
Yet there are other imperatives that bedevil the contemporary heirs of traditional female identity, for whom insouciance in the face of the domestic can seem a sort of political requirement, as though by ceasing to care about our homes we could prove our lack of triviality, our busyness, our equality.
Well, that explains my shame at admitting my couch-fantasies here — shouldn’t I be above all that? Cusk’s essay led me to think about depictions of household maintenance and design in fiction. I’m usually a plot-lusty reader, but one of my favorite sections in The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. by Adelle Waldman was when its hero…cleaned his apartment. I still remember how gracefully it transported me to the more mundane aspects of life. I recently loved The Stager by Susan Coll, which is in part about a woman who prepares properties for the housing market by changing their furniture, painting a few walls, and so on. I could’ve read about her work for hundreds of pages! I wonder, could someone write a domestic drama which contained no drama, only its domestic details? Can a novel exist on descriptions of laundry alone, on musings about where to best mount a living room television? I’m thinking the main character wants a “clean” house, like so many of the women on House Hunters. This would be a short and intensely claustrophobic book — but also, somehow, sexy. I nominate Rachel Cusk to write this book. If she’s unavailable perhaps Nicholson Baker wants to take on the challenge.
Ice Age Coming
A few days before my senior year of college, I did mushrooms with my best friend. Aside from walking into a field of corn shrieking, we also sat in his car and listened to Kid A by Radiohead. When the song “Idioteque” came on, and Thom Yorke began to sing, “Ice Age coming, Ice Age coming…” I had an entire vision about a novel set during a new ice age, with people grappling with the elements, wearing furs, re-purposing ceiling fans as weapons, and turning bathing suits into flags. I thought this idea was so brilliant that I refused to tell my friend about it for fear that he’d steal it. (I hadn’t yet gotten the memo from Ann Patchett about ideas v. work.) Sometimes I think about this unwritten ice age novel, and how fun it would be to read. I was going to nominate a Jean M. Auel type to pen such a saga when I read about The Sunlight Pilgrims by the Scottish author Jenni Fagan. Set in 2020, it shows us a world much like our own, but cold, and getting colder. In her review of the novel, Marisa Silver highlights Fagan’s poetic prose: “Early on, we are told that in this worst of winters “icicles will grow to the size of narwhal tusks or the long bony finger of winter herself.”” I’m putting on mittens and reading this! Thank you, Ms. Fagan.
Crystal Geyser by CG Roxane
Have you ever read the label on a plastic bottle of Crystal Geyser water? (Why would you? The graphic design is horrendous.) Well, I did recently, and was struck by the words I found there:
Alpine Spring Water
by CG Roxane
Now, I realize I could turn on the magical Google Machine and find out that CG Roxane is a corporation or whatever. But what’s the fun in that? Instead I imagined this CG Roxane as a person. He’s got on a Stetson cowboy hat and a large-collared Oxford shirt. He’s obsessed with water. His mother calls him Charles Gomez, which is what the “CG” stands for. In my mind, this book would be a little like the movie There Will be Blood, or a fictional version of the Robert Caro biographies of LBJ. A story about power, politics, insanity. It could also be a satire — an absurdist, playful romp. If that’s the case, I nominate Mark Leyner to write it. In 2012 the New York Times Magazine described Leyner’s Et Tu, Babe as “an adrenalized, needle-to-the-red satire of (among many other things) the derangements of celebrity mass worship in a disjunctive culture-gone-wild.” That’s pretty much what I had in mind with this story. Imagine Charles Gomez Roxane. He wants to own all the water. All of it!
What novels won’t you write?
The conservative weekly Human Events has a new spin on the “most important books” list. The magzine rounded up some “conservative scholars and public policy leaders” to compile a list of the “Ten Most Harmful Books of the 19th and 20th Centuries.” The list is more than a year old, but it was resurrected from obscurity when somebody posted it to the Netscape social news site, where some genuinely interesting conversation about the list has been taking place.People love making book lists — sometimes I feel like half the posts on this blog are dedicated to them — but labeling books as dangerous treads some unfortunate ground. Clearly the compilers of this list are ideologically opposed to the books on the list, but labeling the books as “dangerous” implies that we have nothing to gain from reading books that diverge from our point of view or from reading books that helped inspire some of the worst events in recent history. That the list also lumps books like Mein Kampf together with The Feminine Mystique should also make people queasy. Here’s the top ten:The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Freidrich EngelsMein Kampf by Adolf HitlerQuotations from Chairman Mao by Mao Tse-TungThe Kinsey Report by Alfred KinseyDemocracy and Education by John DeweyDas Kapital by Karl MarxThe Feminine Mystique by Betty FriedanThe Course of Positive Philosophy by Auguste ComteBeyond Good and Evil by Freidrich NietzscheGeneral Theory of Employment, Interest and Money by John Maynard KeynesI have to assume it wasn’t a mere oversight that Ann Coulter’s books didn’t make the list.
In my freshman year of college, I learned that a kid down the hall had never seen Star Wars. None of it. He had actually never heard of Luke Skywalker or Darth Vader or R2-D2 — I don’t know how; he seemed normal enough. Once my roommates and I overcame our shock, we plopped him down in our common room for a marathon viewing: A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi, with no digital enhancements — the complete series, at the time.
We sat like anthropologists, observing our perfect test subject, completely silent to avoid spoiling anything, watching him discover this strange new world. “Wait, this is the beginning?” he asked as the intro scrolled across the screen “Why does it say Episode IV?” And then: “Whoa, they just blew up the whole planet?” And: “He can strangle people with his mind?” And: “Oh my god, they’re freezing Han?”
By the time we got to the most famous line, the line, the spoiler it’s virtually impossible not to hear at some point growing up — “Luke, I am your father” — the look on my friend’s face was one of pure wonder. I could not remember a time when I didn’t know who Luke’s father was, and I envied the excitement he was feeling, the unadulterated thrill of discovering something that, though verging on the cliché for me, was completely fresh territory for him. I kept thinking, How lucky he is to get to see this for the first time now.
As adults, it’s easy for us to feel that everything fun is already finished, that all the worlds have already been thoroughly mapped, especially when it comes to books. The last time I felt that childlike glee of discovering a new world was with Harry Potter, and by that time I was already in college. Now Harry has vanquished Voldemort. Aslan has fought Last Battle. Frodo has destroyed the One Ring. Katniss has — well, in case you’re waiting for the movies, I won’t spoil it for you.
But really, you don’t have to be young to experience that excitement. Here are five children’s series you might have missed when you were younger (and please add your favorites in the comments, too). Each offers a thoroughly imagined world that’s immersive enough to make you feel like a kid again, with writing sharp and smart enough to satisfy a book-loving adult. If they’re unfamiliar, I envy you: how lucky you are to get to read them for the first time now.
1. The Wolves Chronicles by Joan Aiken (12 books starting with 1962’s The Wolves of Willoughby Chase)
Aiken’s series is set in an alternate version of 19th century England, in which James II was never deposed and the Hanoverians — that would be the ancestors of today’s royal family — scheme against the rightful ruler, James III. Stay with me.You don’t need to know or even like history to enjoy this series, which centers around a plucky, streetwise Cockney girl named Dido and her younger sister, Is, and includes a healthy dash of fantasy while still being grittily real.
Wolves roam London at night. There are hot-air-balloon chases, plots hatched on Nantucket whaling ships, and hypnotic puppet shows. In The Stolen Lake, Dido journeys to a strange country ruled by Queen Ginevra — better known as Guinevere — who has been awaiting the return of her husband, King Arthur, for hundreds of years. In Is Underground, Is ventures into the terrifying mines — worked by kidnapped children — to rescue her missing cousin. Aiken’s series is hardly known in the U.S., and I don’t know why: she’s the forebear of steampunk and all kinds of other historical-fantastical mashups.
Oh, and did I mention that Edward Gorey did the book covers? Yeah.
Can two books count as a series? I vote yes, because these are too good to leave off the list. Howl’s Moving Castle was made into an animated film by Hayao Miyazaki in 2004, but even the master couldn’t capture all the incredible flourishes of the book. Sophie, the eldest of three daughters and certain she’s therefore doomed to be a failure, is transformed by an angry witch into an old woman. Forced to flee her home, she talks her way into in the moving castle of the title: inhabited by Howl, a youngish, temperamental, and very vain wizard; his apprentice Michael; and a curious and powerful fire demon named Calcifer. Sophie and Calcifer strike a bargain: he’ll take the spell off her if she can break a mysterious bargain he’s made with Howl — but what is the bargain, and what will it cost to break it?
The novel is slyly funny, with gentle sendups of both fairy-tale tropes and modern-day life — at one point, Sophie and crew end up in a small town in Wales. (Don’t ask; just get the book, trust me.) Lit-nerds will delight in the John Donne poem that plays a central role in the plot. It’s clever and deeply satisfying, as is its sequel, Castle in the Air, which gives the same treatment to Arabian Nights territory.
Zilpha Keatley Snyder is surprisingly unknown, given how prolific she is: she’s written more than forty books (three of them Newbery Honor books) and is still going. As a kid, I read all of them I could find, but my favorites are — and still were — the four books about the kids in the Stanley family: sensible David, precocious Janie, stolid Esther and her eccentric, prescient twin Blair, and cranky, adolescent stepsister Amanda, whose arrival shakes up the family.
In the first book, The Headless Cupid, Amanda arrives at the Stanley house, bored, bitter at her mother for remarrying, and — wait for it — obsessed with the occult. Her prosaic new stepsiblings decide they want to learn about the dark arts as well, but things start to get a little creepy when they learn about the poltergeist that once haunted their house. Snyder’s vivid characters keep the series firmly grounded in reality, though, and the series could be a master class for writers in any genre: create interesting and dynamic people, put them together, and let the sparks fly. In the following books, there’s a kidnapping in rural Italy, a (possible) monster roaming the neighborhood, and a mysterious rash of dognappings, but at heart the focus is always on the dynamics of this quirky family.
The three series I’ve mentioned above could be considered YA from a time before “YA” was a thing, but the Half Magic series by Edward Eager are clearly meant for children Despite the younger audience, though, adults — especially book-loving adults — will still adore these stories of unabashed magic.
Each takes a traditional chestnut of children’s lit — the magic talisman, a wish-granting animal, time travel — and gives it a fresh twist. For instance, in Half Magic, four brothers and sisters find a magic charm that grants them exactly half of what they ask for, and in Knight’s Castle, a boy discovers that his toy castle comes to life at night. Jo and the Little Women, Merlin, Ivanhoe, and many more literary figures have cameos, making these books parents and kids will enjoy on different levels. Each book stands alone, but figuring out how the stories are connected — and then watching them overlap—is part of the fun.
5. The Vesper Holly series by Lloyd Alexander (Six books starting with 1987’s The Illyrian Adventure)
Many people know Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain, including The Black Cauldron (and if you don’t, get thee to a bookstore or library). But fewer people are familiar with his marvelous heroine Vesper Holly and her adventures. Vesper is a teenage orphan, ferociously intelligent, insatiably curious, and completely unfazable; picture a teenage, female, red-headed Indiana Jones. She drags her elderly and devoted guardian, Brinnie, across the globe to just-barely-made-up lands — Illyria, torn by centuries-old civil war; El Dorado, where Indian tribes grapple with encroaching industrialization; Jedera, a desert land with an immense, ancient library under siege. In her first adventure, she makes an archnemesis, Dr. Helvitius; in each book, she thwarts another of his plots. These are fun, smart books, with witty characterization and sparkling writing. Growing up, I wanted to be Vesper, and now that I’m grown up, I still kind of do.