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.
At the beginning of the year, we noted that “2009 may be a great year for books.” With the publishing schedule for the remainder of the year filled out, calling 2009 a great year for readers is now a certainty. If anything, 2009 is backloaded, with new titles coming in the second half of the year from legends like Thomas Pynchon and Philip Roth and fan favorites like Lorrie Moore and Jonathan Lethem. A peek into 2010, meanwhile, reveals more literary excitement on tap, with new titles on the way from Jonathan Franzen, Joshua Ferris, and others. Below you’ll find, in chronological order, the titles we’re most looking forward to right now. (Special thanks to the illustrious members of The Millions Facebook group who let us know what they are looking forward to. Not everyone’s suggestions made our list, but we appreciated hearing about all of them.)In July, Dave Eggers continues the trend he started with What is the What, working closely with his subject to produce a work with elements of memoir and non-fiction. In Zeitoun, the subject is Abdulrahman Zeitoun, “a prosperous Syrian-American and father of four,” who lived in New Orleans and disappeared in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. A few weeks ago, The Rumpus ran a long interview with Eggers that touches on Zeitoun, among several other topics. Eggers first encountered Zeitoun when McSweeney’s put out Voices from the Storm, an oral history of Katrina, and he told The Rumpus, “Their story intrigued me from the start, given that it’s at the intersection of so many issues in recent American life: the debacle of the government response to Katrina, the struggles facing even the most successful immigrants, a judicial system in need of repair, the problem of wrongful conviction, the paranoia wrought by the War on Terror, widespread Islamophobia.” (Scroll down to October for more “Anticipated” action from Eggers.)William T. Vollmann is known for his superhuman writing output, but his forthcoming book Imperial is a monster, even for him. Weighing in at 1,296 pages and carrying a list price of $55, this work of non-fiction is “an epic study,” in the words of the publisher, of Imperial County, California along the U.S.-Mexico border. Ed offers quite a bit more discussion of the book. Don’t miss the comments, where it’s said that Vollmann has called the book “his Moby-Dick.”August kicks off with what will no doubt be a peculiar literary event, the publication of Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice. It is a rare thing these days when a flurry of media attention centers on someone who has no interest in basking in it. And so, perhaps as Pynchon intends, the focus will be on the book. Inherent Vice promises to be odd. It’s 416 pages, shorter than the typical Pynchon doorstop, and the publisher Penguin, in its catalog, notes that Pynchon is “working in an unaccustomed genre” this time around. “Genre” seems to be the buzzword here. The book sports neon cover art and follows a private eye (Doc Sportello). The book begins: “She came along the alley and up the back steps the way she always used to.” Review copies are already out, and the early word is that the novel overlaps somewhat with and bears some similarities to Vineland.Inherent Vice shares a release date with a new book by Richard Russo, That Old Cape Magic, which Entertainment Weekly has already called “very beach-y.” (Sadly, it appears to have come in last in their poll to determine the “Must book of the summer.”) It sounds like fairly standard “suburban malaise” fare in which a mid-life crisis is endured over the course of the summer, the upside for the reader being that Russo is bringing his considerable skills to the table. PW is fairly tepid on the book, “Though Russo can write gorgeous sentences and some situations are amazingly rendered… the navel-gazing interior monologues that constitute much of the novel lack the punch of Russo’s earlier work.”Of Roberto Bolaño’s forthcoming, newly translated novels, Millions contributor Lydia writes: “I almost never know about the hot, up-and-coming items, but I do happen to know about this one, and I feel that, like many readers, my relationship to Bolaño has been one of breathless anticipation since the moment I first heard his name. Which was like this: at my old job, I was going through the mail. There was a New Directions catalog of aforementioned hot, up-and-coming items. I haven’t historically had a lot of interest in contemporary trade publications, but New Directions has a very warm spot in my heart because I associate it with The Berlin Stories. Anyway, in said mag I read a blurb about Nazi Literature in the Americas, and thought it sounded really neat, and then learned I would have to wait a year to read it, and since then it feels like there’s been a lot of waiting – sometimes with glorious gratification at the end (2666), sometimes not (Nazi Literature in the Americas, ironically). It’s thrilling that they keep coming! The Skating Rink in August, Monsieur Pain in 2010. It’s like new the James Bond franchise (btw, I’m a Craig, not a Brosnan). I just love having something to look forward to. I hope I don’t wet my pants on the way to the bookstore.” (Bolaño fans will also be looking out for Melville House’s Bolaño: The Last Interview And Other Conversations)Dan Chaon’s Await Your Reply returns to the territory of separated siblings (You Remind Me of Me looked at a pair of long-lost brothers.) This time, the focus is on twins, one of whom has been missing for ten years. The book garnered a blurb from Jonathan Franzen, who will appear later in this list and who says of Chaon’s book, “I’ve been waiting for somebody to write the essential identity-theft novel, and I’m very glad Dan Chaon’s the one to have done it”Let’s just get this out of the way: In September, you are going to hear a lot about Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol.More importantly, we’ll get Richard Powers’ follow up to his award-winning novel The Echo Maker. In Generosity: An Enhancement, Powers explores the idea of patenting the human gene for happiness. Last year, Powers wrote about the human genome for GQ. There’s not a lot of info available about this one but Ed Champion writes he “foresee(s) some animosity from the vanilla critics hostile to idea-driven novels,” and Sarah Weinman “tweeted,” “Richard Powers’ new novel Generosity is about as audacious as a novel gets, and has fucked with my head as a reader every which way.”Lorrie Moore is set to deliver her first novel in over a decade, A Gate at the Stairs. All those Moore fans out there are faced with a huge dilemma this week. Do they read the “Childcare,” the excerpt of the novel that is the fiction offering in this week’s New Yorker, or do they avoid the magazine and hold out for two more months until the novel comes out? We’ve never been big fans of the New Yorker’s packaging of novel excerpts as short stories, so to all the Moore fans out there, we say – avert your eyes when you reach page 70 of this week’s issue!Kazuo Ishiguro’s Nocturnes: Five Stories of Music and Nightfall is already out in much of the rest of the English-speaking world. In The Guardian, Christopher Taylor described the book as “a carefully arranged sequence of interlocking stories” and said, “while many of the stories hinge on artistic talent – the risks and unkindnesses associated with it; who’s got it and who hasn’t – the strong focus on more widespread problems in life makes Nocturnes more than a writer’s thoughts on his job.” The Complete Review rounds up the rest of the early reactions.Pete Dexter returns in September with Spooner. This one sounds like another dark, Southern tale not unlike Paris Trout, the book that first put Dexter on the fiction map. The first line of Spooner is “Spooner was born a few minutes previous to daybreak in the historic, honeysuckled little town of Milledgeville, Georgia, in a make-shift delivery room put together in the waiting area of the medical offices of Dr. Emil Wood.”We’ll also get a new novel from E.L. Doctorow about a pair of brothers. Homer & Langley is about Homer and Langley Collyer, two famous Manhattan hoarders and recluses, who, after gaining notoriety for their obsessive habits and reportedly booby-trapped home, were found dead in 1947 surrounded by, according to Wikipedia, “over 100 tons of rubbish that they had amassed over several decades.” Newsweek has an excerpt of the book. The novel’s first line is “I’m Homer, the blind brother. I didn’t lose my sight all at once, it was like the movies, a slow fade-out.”Dan Brown is no doubt getting serious bank for his return to airport bookshelves and grocery store check-out lines, but he’s not the only one having a great recession. Audrey Niffenegger reportedly took home a $5 million advance for Her Fearful Symmetry, her follow-up to her very popular The Time Traveler’s Wife. Niffenegger describes the book on her website: “The novel concerns a pair of mirror-image twins, Julia and Valentina Poole… Julia and Valentina are inseparable, and function almost as one being, although in temperament they are opposites.”Acclaimed novelist Margaret Atwood will have a new novel out in September called The Year of the Flood, which has been described as “a journey to the end of the world.” The Random House catalog, meanwhile, called it a “dystopic masterpiece and a testament to her visionary power.” If that all isn’t intriguing enough, it appears that the book is maybe (or maybe not) the second book in a trilogy that was kicked off with Oryx & Crake. Atwood and her publishers have offered mixed signals on the trilogy question. Quill & Quire looked into the question, and included a quote from Atwood saying, “It’s not a sequel and it’s not a prequel… It’s a simultaneouel.” Ah, one of those.In The Anthologist, Nicholson Baker covers well-trod literary ground by focusing on a writer protagonist. However, PW gave the book a starred review, calling it “lovely” and saying “Baker pulls off an original and touching story, demonstrating his remarkable writing ability while putting it under a microscope.” Baker’s protagonist is Paul Chowder, who is tasked with writing an introduction for a poet friend’s anthology and delivers the book’s stream of consciousness narration. By all early accounts the book is quite funny and also deeply immersed in poetry, with digressions on a number of history’s great poets. The Simon & Schuster catalog calls the book a “beguiling love story about poetry.”It’s my feeling that John Irving’s fiction has fallen off quite a bit in recent years (the last really good read for me was A Son of the Circus), but I still keep an eye on Irving’s new novels for any sign that he has regained his early career mojo. His last several books haven’t tempted me, and it’s probably too early to tell whether the Last Night in Twisted River will. Reading the first sentence of the publisher’s description, we already find a couple of Irving’s authorial tics, New Hampshire and bears: “In 1954, in the cookhouse of a logging and sawmill settlement in northern New Hampshire, an anxious twelve-year-old boy mistakes the local constable’s girlfriend for a bear.” Don’t be surprised if a wrestler figures into the action somewhere in there. Still, Irving has compared the new book to The Cider House Rules. That’s a good sign.The venerable William Trevor will have a new novel out, Love and Summer.Millions reader Matthew looks forward to Laird Hunt’s Ray of the Star, due in September, “because Laird’s novels are fantastic.” Of Kamby Bolongo Mean River by Robert Lopez, he writes “This is his sophomore novel; his first, Part of the World was bizarre and funny.” He plans to read The Museum of Eterna’s Novel by Macedonio Fernandez (arriving in 2010) “because Borges sez so.”October is sure to bring Wild Things mania and Dave Eggers is going to be right in the middle of it. He worked with Spike Jonze on the film version of Where the Wild Things Are. And, in what is sure to be the most literary novelization of a film (adapted from a children’s book) ever, an Eggers-penned version of Wild Things is set to hit shelves when the movie comes out. There’s also the fur-covered edition.New Yorker readers have already gotten a taste of Jonathan Lethem’s forthcoming book Chronic City. Of the excerpt, packaged as the story “Lostronaut,” I wrote, “This story was pretty awesome. It was the only speculative fiction to land in The New Yorker this year, not quite making up for the absence of Murakami and Saunders from the magazine’s pages. This story is told in the form of letters from Janice, a ‘Lostronaut’ aboard some sort of space station, to her ‘Dearest Chase.’ She and her fellow astronauts are trapped in orbit by Chinese space mines and that’s not even the worst of it for poor Janice. While the premise and epistolary style are intriguing, Janice’s unique, irrepressible voice really carries the story.”Readers are soon set to see the fruits of an ambitious project by R. Crumb, his illustrated Book of Genesis, a surprisingly faithful rendering of the first book of The Bible done in Crumb’s unique style. Crumb talked about the project four years ago with Robert Hughes: “I was fooling around with Adam and Eve one day. Doodling about Adam and Eve. At first I did this satirical take off on Adam and Eve – lots of jokey asides and Jewish slang because they’re Jewish right? God is Jewish… Finally I got over fooling around and I realized I just had to tell it straight.”Booker winner A.S. Byatt’s The Children’s Book, according to publisher Knopf’s description, “spans the Victorian era through the World War I years, and centers around a famous children’s book author and the passions, betrayals, and secrets that tear apart the people she loves.” The book is out already in the UK, where a review in the Telegraph included this intriguing aside: “Byatt’s publisher is keen to present The Children’s Book, her first novel for seven years, as an equal to Possession, the work that secured her reputation and her mass-market appeal nearly 20 years ago. It certainly compares to its popular predecessor in its daring and scope and, unlike the more cerebral parts of Byatt’s output, is its equivalent in terms of storytelling and readability.”J.M. Coetzee’s Summertime is a follow up to Boyhood and Youth in Coetzee’s series of memoirs. The NYRB recently published an excerpt.Quite a lot of sub-par material has been published in order to satiate the ravenous demand for Hunter S. Thompson’s writing. Thompson’s essays for ESPN in his later years were uneven at best, but fans may find something to like in The Mutineer, which Simon & Schuster says is “The highly anticipated final volume of the previously unpublished letters of Hunter S. Thompson, king of Gonzo journalism and one of the greatest literary figures of our time.” Insofar as HST,in his latter years, may have been more entertaining and lucid in his letters, this may put The Mutineer slightly above the low bar set by other recent HST collections. On the other hand, the book is edited by Johnny Depp, implying that the book is more about venerating the cult of HST than unearthing new work on par with his best efforts.November will bring the publication of Michael Lewis’ much anticipated chronicle of the financial crisis, The Big Short. In October last year, when economic uncertainty was at its height and fears were voiced in some rarefied quarters about the possibility of some sort of structural collapse, we wrote, “The world needs an exhaustive look at what happened in 2008 and why.” There have already been several books about the collapse and what caused it, from The Two Trillion Dollar Meltdown to The Return of Depression Economics and the Crisis of 2008, but many readers have been waiting for a book by Lewis, both because of his long history writing about Wall Street’s excesses and because of the powerful essay he penned on the topic for Portfolio magazine in November. Some readers may be weary of the topic by the time the book comes out, but it’s sure to garner some interest.The great Philip Roth keeps churning out new novels. This year’s offering is The Humbling, Roth’s 30th novel. The publisher copy says “Everything is over for Simon Axler, the protagonist of Philip Roth’s startling new book. One of the leading American stage actors of his generation, now in his sixties, he has lost his magic, his talent, and his assurance.” The NY Times reported that yet another Roth novel, Nemesis, is due in 2010.Jonathan Safran Foer will have a non-fiction book out in November called Eating Animals, which most are guessing focuses on vegetarianism. An interview with Foer at Penguin’s UK website would seem to confirm this. It doesn’t mention the book, but the introduction says “Jonathan Safran Foer on why he doesn’t eat anything with parents.”Millions reader Laurie points us to My Bird by Fariba Vafi, translated from Farsi and originally published in Iran in 2002. The publisher Syracuse University Press says: “The narrator, a housewife and young mother living in a low-income neighborhood in [modern] Tehran…[is] forced to raise [her] children alone and care for her ailing mother… One of the most acclaimed and best-selling contemporary Iranian writers.” Laurie adds, “The novel won several literary awards in Iran and, according to a 2005 article in the New York Times, Vafi never attended college and writes when her children are in school.”2010: Probably the most anticipated book of next year will be the The Pale King, a coda to David Foster Wallace’s sadly shortened life as a writer. We already know a fair amount about the book – it will center on an IRS agent – and three excerpts have been published already, “Good People” and “Wiggle Room” in The New Yorker and “The Compliance Branch” (pdf) in Harper’s. A piece by D.T. Max went into some detail about The Pale King following DFW’s death. Given the amount work that lies ahead for DFW’s editors, this may be a second half of 2010 release.Also possibly arriving in the second half of 2010 is Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, which we are just beginning to hear about. The book is the long-awaited follow-up to Franzen’s loved, hated, celebrated, Oprah-snubbing novel of nearly a decade ago, The Corrections. Franzen has been coy about the title – the book is reportedly called Freedom – but readers got a taste of what Franzen has in store in “Good Neighbors,” an excerpt that was published in the New Yorker a few weeks ago.Joshua Ferris will follow up his blockbuster debut Then We Came to the End with The Unnamed. The Book Case writes, “The novel focuses on Tim and Jane Farnsworth, a long-married couple who seem to have it all. But Tim has twice battled a bizarre, inexplicable illness.” Beattie’s Book Blog mentions that the illness is that he “can’t stop walking.”John McPhee has a new book due out called Silk Parachute. McPhee wrote a 1997 Shouts & Murmurs piece called “Silk Parachute” about his elderly mother. It begins “When your mother is ninety-nine years old, you have so many memories of her that they tend to overlap, intermingle, and blur.”Time Out NY says Sam Lipsyte’s The Ask is about “Milo, a New York father who is on the brink of economic ruin, and covers themes including but not limited to ‘work, war, sex, class, race, child-rearing, romantic comedies, Benjamin Franklin, cooking shows on death row, the old-model brain, the commercialization of sadness and the eroticization of chicken wire.'”British publisher Faber says Rachel Cusk’s The Bradshaw Variations “is a powerful novel about how our choices and our loves and the family life we build will always be an echo – a variation – of a theme played out in our own childhood.”In the comments or on your own blogs, let us know what books you’re looking forward to.
With the awarding of the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award last week, the 2008/2009 literary award season is now over, which gives us the opportunity to update our list of prizewinners.
Though literary prizes are arbitrary in many ways, our prizewinners post is compiled in the same spirit that one might tally up batting titles and MVPs to determine if a baseball player should be considered for the Hall of Fame. These awards nudge an author towards the “canon” and secure them places on literature class reading lists for decades to come.
Most notably, after being named to the IMPAC shortlist, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz has joined the ranks of the most celebrated novels of the last 15 years, making it, along with the other books near the top of the list, something of a modern classic.
Here is our methodology:
I wanted to include both American books and British books, as well as the English-language books from other countries that are eligible to win some of these awards. I started with the National Book Award and the Pulitzer from the American side and the Booker and Costa from the British side. Because I wanted the British books to “compete” with the American books, I also looked at a couple of awards that recognize books from both sides of the ocean, the National Book Critics Circle Awards and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. The IMPAC is probably the weakest of all these, but since it is both more international and more populist than the other awards, I thought it added something. The glaring omission is the PEN/Faulkner, but it would have skewed everything too much in favor of the American books, so I left it out.
I looked at these six awards from 1995 to the present, awarding three points for winning an award and two points for an appearance on a shortlist or as a finalist. Here’s the key that goes with the list: B=Booker Prize, C=National Book Critics Circle Award, I=International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, N=National Book Award, P=Pulitzer Prize, W=Costa Book Award [formerly the Whitbread] bold=winner, red=New to the list or moved up* the list since last year’s “Prizewinners” post
*Note that the IMPAC considers books a year after the other awards do, and so this year’s IMPAC shortlist nods added to point totals from last year in the case of three books.
11, 2003, The Known World by Edward P. Jones – C, I, N, P
9, 2001, The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen – C, I, N, P
8, 1997, Underworld by Don DeLillo – C, I, N, P
8, 2007, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz – C, P, I
7, 2005, The March by E.L. Doctorow – C, N, P
7, 2004, Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst – B, C, W
7, 2002, Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides – I, N, P
7, 2001, Atonement by Ian McEwan – B, C, W
7, 1998, The Hours by Michael Cunningham – C, I, P
7, 1997, Last Orders by Graham Swift – B, I, W
7, 1997, Quarantine by Jim Crace – B, I, W
6, 2005, The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai – B, C
6, 2004, Gilead by Marilynn Robinson – C, P
5, 2008, The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry – B, W
5, 2008, Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout – C, P
5, 2007, Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson – N, P
5, 2006, The Road by Cormac McCarthy – C, P
5, 2006, The Echo Maker by Richard Powers – N, P
5, 2005, Europe Central by William T. Vollmann – C, N
5, 2005, The Accidental by Ali Smith – B, W
5, 2004, The Master by Colm Toibin – B, I
5, 2003, The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard – I, N
5, 2001, True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey – B, I
5, 2000, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon – C, P
5, 2000, The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood – B, I
5, 1999, Waiting by Ha Jin – N, P
5, 1999, Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee – B, C
5, 1999, Being Dead by Jim Crace – C, W
5, 1998, Charming Billy by Alice McDermott – I, N
5, 1997, American Pastoral by Philip Roth – C, P
5, 1996, Every Man for Himself by Beryl Bainbridge – B, W
5, 1996, Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer by Steven Millhauser – N, P
5, 1995, The Moor’s Last Sigh by Salman Rushdie – B, W
5, 1995, The Ghost Road by Pat Barker – B, W
5, 1995, Independence Day by Richard Ford – C, P
5, 1995, Sabbath’s Theater by Philip Roth – N, P
4, 2008, Home by Marilynn Robinson – C, N
4, 2008, The Lazarus Project by Aleksandar Hemon – C, N
4, 2007, The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid – B, I
4, 2007, Animal’s People by Indra Sinha – B, I
4, 2005, Veronica by Mary Gaitskill – C, N
4, 2005, Arthur and George by Julian Barnes – B, I
4, 2005, A Long, Long Way by Sebastian Barry – B, I
4, 2005, Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro – B, C
4, 2005, Shalimar the Clown by Salman Rushdie – I, W
4, 2004, Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell – B, C
4, 2003, Brick Lane by Monica Ali – B, C
4, 2003, Bitter Fruit by Achmat Dangor – B, I
4, 2003, The Good Doctor by Damon Galgut – B, I
4, 2003, Evidence of Things Unseen by Marianne Wiggins – N, P
4, 2002, Family Matters by Rohinton Mistry – B, I
4, 2002, The Story of Lucy Gault by William Trevor – B, W
4, 2001, A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry – B, I
4, 2001, Bel Canto by Ann Patchett – I, N
4, 2001, John Henry Days by Colson Whitehead – N, P
4, 2001, Oxygen by Andrew Miller – B, W
4, 2000, The Keepers of Truth by Michael Collins – B, I
4, 2000, When We Were Orphans by Kazuo Ishiguro – B, W
4, 2000, Blonde by Joyce Carol Oates – N, P
4, 1999, Our Fathers by Andrew O’Hagan – B, I
4, 1999, Headlong by Michael Frayn – B, W
4, 1999, The Blackwater Lightship by Colm Toibin – B, I
4, 1997, Autobiography of My Mother by Jamaica Kincaid – C, I
4, 1997, Grace Notes by Bernard MacLaverty – B, W
4, 1997, Enduring Love by Ian McEwan – I, W
4, 1997, The Puttermesser Papers by Cynthia Ozick – I, N
4, 1996, Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood – B, I
4, 1995, In Every Face I Meet by Justin Cartwright – B, W
All of a sudden, I have been teaching public school English for a decade. Why am I surprised? I never thought I would be a high school teacher. I never took education courses. Only now am I beginning to reconcile my different professional selves: teacher, adjunct professor, and writer.
For years I avoided writing about my full-time profession. From 7:20 to 2:21 each day, I teach literature and creative writing courses at a large public high school in New Jersey. The day stretches much longer than that, but those are my salaried hours. I love kids, and I love books, and I love writing.
I didn’t avoid writing about teaching because I was ashamed of my profession, though I am aware that save for a handful of other teacher-writers scattered around the country, the majority of my literary peers work in higher education or publishing. They are tenured professors and adjuncts, editors and freelancers. When people learn at a book release or reading that I actually teach high school, as in kids, they look confused. I don’t blame them.
There are few professions more confusing, or misrepresented, than high school teaching. Education is a ubiquitous experience — public or private, we are all taught by someone, somewhere — and yet it remains misunderstood. I have now begun to write about teaching because I profoundly respect this vocation. I refuse to allow politicians to corner the rhetorical market on this subject. There are stories that need to be told.
I hesitate to call what follows “advice,” though it might seem as such. There are so many varied experiences during a single teaching day that I am much more comfortable thinking in epigrammatic terms. I have a lot more to say about teaching, and certain reflections will need to wait. But, for now, here are 55 thoughts about teaching English.
You need to love words. You don’t need to love a certain type of book or a particular writer, but you need to love letters and phrases and the possibilities of language. You will spend most of your days dealing with words, and students can sense if words do not bring you joy.
Students can sense a lot of things.
Do not confuse reading passions with reading biases. Be aware and upfront about your biases and work to decrease them. Your passions are healthy, as long as you help students understand why certain words stir you. Love Gerard Manley Hopkins? Telling them so won’t do a thing. Blow-up “Pied Beauty” on an 11 X 17 page and show them how a comma can change a moment, turn a breath.
Speaking of poetry: they will hate the idea of it, but they already love and live the soul of it. Condensed narratives and emotions tucked in abstractions? Those are their existences. Give them “Scary, No Scary” by Zachary Schomburg, and see what happens.
“Mostly I want my poems to generate their own energy through confusion. I want my poems to confuse the reader. Not a confusion in a cognitive or narrative sense, but in an emotional sense.” — Zachary Schomburg
Create a space for safe confusion.
Teach Sylvia Plath, but help your students understand that she is more than how she passed from this world. Teach “Blackberrying,” teach “Pheasant,” and, most of all, teach “Sow,” that beautiful and strange poem about a mythical pig hidden by her breeder.
Show them that poetry is about being surprised.
Remember why you are doing this.
Your students are not data.
Teach them writers who look and sound like them, so that they can believe that their words are the types of words that can be printed and praised.
Teach them writers who look and sound nothing like them, so that they can recognize what we share.
Politicians will misrepresent you. Vote.
Teachers used to be activists. There is a difference between being an activist within your classroom — which is not your role — and being an activist for your profession and your students.
Know what opinions are appropriate to express, and which are not. Respect your students enough to never cross that line.
Students have a reason for everything they do.
You need to be awake. Sleep is essential. Hoard your hours of sleep.
You will make a hundred decisions within a single class period.
You need to somehow give your attention to each individual student without dividing that attention.
Thomas Pynchon is worth teaching. Often confusion breeds later curiosity.
Think about the worst teacher you ever had. Recognize that he or she was probably not as bad as you thought. Think about that teacher’s classroom, students, situation. Were you part of the problem? How would you have helped yourself?
Write. Talk about your writing. Show them your drafts, your edits. Write along with them.
Trade robotic peer editing for writing workshops. Follow the undergraduate model but manipulate it for the needs of your students. Establish clear guidelines and model them during a mock workshop of your own work. Show them that you can be vulnerable, that you can accept criticism.
Never ask students to complete an assignment that you are unable to complete.
You will often have young women in class who love to write, and who outnumber the men, and yet these young women will stop writing. Teach them to keep writing. Show them their words matter. Introduce them to Mary Shelley, Marilynne Robinson, Jayne Anne Phillips, Toni Morrison, Tayari Jones, Charlotte and Emily Brontë, Alice Elliott Dark, Virginia Woolf, Stacey D’Erasmo, Roxane Gay, Jamie Quatro, Megan Mayhew Bergman, Mary Karr, Susan Sontag, Natalie Diaz, Emily Dickinson, Kate Chopin, Denise Levertov, Adrienne Rich, Anne Sexton, Willa Cather, Joan Didion, Donna Tartt, and, please, Flannery O’Connor.
Do not try to sanitize Flannery. Let her live on the page.
Students want to know about you. Sometimes their personal questions are a clever distraction. Be more mystery than memoir, but never be cold.
If a student wants to engage in small talk at the start of class, they probably have not completed their assignment, and are hoping for some temporary graces. But don’t assume that.
Give them the benefit of the doubt until they will no longer benefit from it.
Avoid instructing your students to use dialogue tags in fiction other than “said.”
Cut their adverbs, but show them how, in the right hands, those words can be powerful.
“His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.” — “The Dead” by James Joyce.
You may be the only person who will ever read their sonnets, or their prose poems, or their dystopian novellas. Don’t take that privilege lightly.
Teach writing from literary magazines. Encourage your students to read those magazines. If a student comes to class with tomes of speculative fiction, send them to Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, and Strange Horizons. Show them how literature is built from these little magazines on up, and how they can help maintain the foundation.
Give students the confidence to believe that they might publish their work, but teach them the humility necessary to withstand rejection.
Create meticulous plans for each day.
But be alive in the classroom.
“Through my years of teaching, I learned to walk into a classroom wondering what I would say, rather than knowing what I would say. Then I learned by hearing myself speak; the source of my speaking was our mysterious harmony with truths we know, though very often our knowledge of them is hidden from us. Now, as a retired teacher, I mistrust all prepared statements by anyone, and by me.” — Andre Dubus
Social media and cell phones exist, and neither is going anywhere. Help students use both responsibly.
Teaching is performance, but not the performance of theater; there needs to be genuine interaction. They can tell if you are putting on a show.
Each course is a different world. Each class period is a different world.
There is an art to asking questions. There is a way to ask questions that will only produce answers that you want to hear.
Wait after asking a question. Help show them what silence can reveal.
Math is language. Physics is language. Language is math. Language is physics.
You are there to teach them, not punish them. They need your help.
Read aloud. Every day.
Don’t be so dramatic about drama. Barebones in-class productions can be beautiful.
Of course, read Shakespeare, but also read Ionesco, Beckett, and Shepard.
For the right group of students, No Exit can be perfect.
Teach them how to closely read a text. Not only for the skill, but for the experience of spending time with words. Show them the worth of contemplation.
Be pragmatic and idealistic. If you are too much of one, the students will catch you.
This is not supposed to be easy.
Remember that you, also, are not data.
One day you will no longer be in the classroom. You will be standing in a garden or sitting in front of a television or holding the hand of a grandchild or pulling a plate from a dishwasher, and you will remember those rows and some of the faces. Try to remember none of the distractions; not the shortsighted pedagogical fads or the boorish politicians. Remember the students who thanked you. Trust that you helped the ones who did not.
For some students, you are their only light.
Image via Jayel Aheram/Flickr
Looking back through old posts at The Millions, one of my favorites is my post going through every New Yorker story in 2005. It was a somewhat grueling post to compile, but in the spirit of recent New Year’s resolutions, also very rewarding. I spend a lot of time each year reading the New Yorker and so it seems fitting that I might reflect on that time spent and revisit some of what I read. As perhaps the most high-profile venue for short fiction in the world, taking stock of the New Yorker’s year in fiction is a worthwhile exercise for writers and readers alike.As with my effort a few years ago, what you’ll find below is more an exercise in listing and linking than any real attempt at summary, but hopefully some folks will enjoy having links to all of this year’s stories on one page. I’ve also included some links to people who talked about New Yorker stories during the year. I’ll include Perpetual Folly here rather than with the stories below since it reflected on every story in the New Yorker over the course of 2008.In revisiting all of the stories, one major over-arching theme emerged for me, the conflict between stories that center on what I call “suburban malaise” (born out of “The Swimmer” and “What We Talk about When We Talk about Love” among many others) and those that don’t. The former are what I think of as the base condition for New Yorker (and indeed all of contemporary American and UK short fiction) and the latter are the departures from that. The departure can be one of character, theme, setting, or style. The distinction is, of course, imprecise, and there are many riveting, impeccable examples of the “suburban malaise” story on offer from the New Yorker. The departures, meanwhile, can serve as a breath of fresh air and when done well, expand the boundaries of short fiction for the reader.January 7, “Outage” by John Updike – The New Yorker kicked off the year with old standby John Updike offering a story that begins somewhat quaintly with protagonist Brad being thrust into a reverie by a storm-caused power outage. The story continues on quaintly as Brad wanders through his darkened town, but changes tone when he encounters a similarly dazed neighbor Lynne and the plot shifts to one of more typical New Yorker-esque suburban malaise and infidelity. Updike’s The Widows of Eastwick was published in October. Links: Jacob Russell, Richard LarsonJanuary 14, “Wakefield” by E.L. Doctorow – Speaking of suburban malaise, Doctorow takes it to the next level in this long story of a disaffected husband and father who hides out in his garage attic, letting his family believe he’s gone missing. Like a stowaway on his own property, Howard Wakefield scavenges for food and spies on his wife as she steers the family ship. The central drama of the story hinges on how long Howard will keep up his ruse and the story’s end is tantalizing. This one, interestingly, is a retelling of a Nathaniel Hawthorne story of the same name. Docotorow has a new, as yet untitled novel coming out late this year. Links: One Real StoryJanuary 21, “Ash Monday” by T. Coraghessan Boyle – Like many Boyle classics, this one is set in California where the fear of natural disaster is always present in the background. On the surface, this story is one of neighbors doing what neighbors sometimes do: hate each other. Though it is the New Yorker’s third story in a row about the suburbs to lead off 2008, this one, with its west coast focus, is far from typical for the magazine. Boyle, who knows how to end a story, closes this one out in a blaze of glory. Boyle’s new book The Women comes out soon.January 28, “The Reptile Garden” by Louise Erdrich – Goodbye suburbs. Erdrich’s story is about dreamy Evelina in North Dakota who is not adjusting to college life very well. She obsesses over Anais Nin and eventually ends up taking a job at a mental hospital where she meets Nonette, who, like Nin, is French. The type of friendship that could only bloom inside the confines of a mental hospital ensues. Eventually, Evelina makes the transition from staff to patient. The story is excerpted from Erdrich’s novel Plague of Doves.February 4, “Friendly Fire” by Tessa Hadley – Hadley, like the four preceding writers, is a favorite of New Yorker fiction editors. Her stories seem to exude the grayness of lower middle-class English towns. This one is about a pair of women who do cleaning jobs. Pam owns the little business and Shelly helps out. Shelly’s son Anthony is in Afghanistan and this fact lends some definition to her otherwise mundane life. This is a story of dialog and exposition, not plot. It’s funny in parts and looks in on a life. Hadley’s The Master Bedroom was published last year.February 11 & 18, “Free Radicals” by Alice Munro – Munro is a favorite of mine, though I’ve preferred several of her stories from over the years to this one. Still, it’s quite good and even gripping in parts. Even just now, skimming through it, I’m getting sucked back in. It’s about recently widowed Nita. Munro sets the stage with a lengthy introduction to Nita, her life proscribed and seemingly shrinking following the death of her husband. With a knock at the door and an unexpected visitor, however, the story takes an abrupt and darker turn. Munro’s most recent collection is 2006’s The View from Castle Rock. Links: Armenian Odar, Lemon HoundFebruary 25, “Shelter of the World” by Salman Rushdie – Channeling the “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” Rushdie introduces Akbar the Great who has “an imaginary wife,” Jodha. Akbar being who he was, “no man dared gainsay him.” Akbar’s people build him a city, he employs an “Imperial Flatterer First Class,” and he speaks in the royal “we.” Akbar’s inability to say “I” is a symptom of the great solitude that results from his great power and feeling experimental he tries referring to himself as “I” with his imaginary wife. As you can imagine, the story has the qualities of a parable. It’s also quite funny in parts. “Shelter of the World” is an excerpt from Rushdie’s novel The Enchantress of Florence. Links: Jacob Russell, N+1March 3, “Leaving for Kenosha” by Richard Ford – Fresh off finishing up his Bascombe trilogy, Ford offers up a story about another divorced father, this one in New Orleans. “It was the anniversary of the disaster.” and Walter Hobbes is spending the day with his teenage daughter Louise who wants to say goodbye to a classmate who is leaving the city for good, part of the ongoing, post-Katrina exodus. While Louise is at the dentist, it’s up to Walter to find a card for the occasion, “There was simply nothing he could do that was right here, he realized. The task was beyond his abilities.” The story offers up ample amounts of patented Richard Ford suburban malaise and the meeting at the story’s end – Walter and Louise and the departing family – manages to capture a certain feeling about what has happened in New Orleans. Ford’s most recent book is 2006’s The Lay of the Land. Links: Jacob RussellMarch 10, “Raj, Bohemian” by Hari Kunzru – A very quirky story. The narrator travels in rarefied social circles, attending high concept dinner parties in spectacular, rent-free lofts, that sort of thing. The circle is infiltrated by Raj, who photographs one such party and uses the pictures in an ad. The narrator gets ticked off, the party’s host says, “That’s so Raj.” Another says, “Get over yourself, man. You’re acting so old-fashioned, like some kind of Communist.” The narrator begins to suspect that all of his friends are trying to sell him something, that their “coolness” has become a marketable commodity. An interesting paranoia sets in, but Kunzru doesn’t take the concept as far as he might have. Kunzru’s most recent book is last year’s My RevolutionsMarch 17, “The Bell Ringer” by John Burnside – In Scotland, Eva’s father dies, “still, the fact was that in the aftermath of the funeral, when it had seemed as if the whole world had fallen silent, what had troubled Eva most was her marriage, not her father’s absence.” Her husband is the distant Matt. To escape her solitude, Eva signs up for a bell-ringing club, out of which a love triangle of sorts emerges. The story fits into the modern British and Irish short story tradition of William Trevor, Roddy Doyle, and Tessa Hadley and is a decent example of the style. Burnside has a new novel, The Glister, coming out in March.March 24, “The Region of Unlikeness” by Rivka Galchen – The narrator insinuates herself into the odd friendship of Jacob and Ilan. The two men are talkers, name-dropping intellectuals who delight in both low and high culture. The narrator is mesmerized by them and they see her as a sort of “mascot.” Then she gets caught between the two men. They seem to be quarreling initially, but a mystery emerges, something involving time travel and all sorts of odd meta-physics. This one is an excerpt from Galchen’s debut, Atmospheric Disturbances.March 31, “Great Experiment” by Jeffrey Eugenides – This is a memorable story, one that seems even more timely now than when it was published. Kendall is a poet with a day job working for eighty-two-year-old Jimmy Dimon’s boutique publishing house, helping Dimon publish whatever strikes Dimon’s fancy, an abridged edition of Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America in this case. Kendall is bitter, underpaid, and unsupported by his equally bitter wife making him easy prey for Dimon’s crooked accountant, Piasecki, who ropes Kendall into an embezzlement scheme. Eugenides strikes a nice balance in this one. The reader feels sympathy for Kendall’s predicament but also a loathing for his tendency to blame all his ills on others. Eugenides hasn’t had any new books out in a while, but he recently edited the anthology My Mistress’s Sparrow Is Dead. Links: Good ReadingsApril 7, “The House Behind a Weeping Cherry” by Ha Jin – Awkward, innocent Wanren is living in a rooming house for prostitutes in Flushing, Queens. Short on rent, Wanren is pushed into service as a driver by the landlady (and madame) Mrs. Chen. Wanren becomes like a brother to the three girls he lives with, but falls for one of them, Huong and hatches a plan to start a new life with her. Jin offers up an engaging peek into a hidden subculture of illegal immigrants, sweatshops, and sex workers. Another memorable story from the magazine this year. Jin’s most recent book is last year’s A Free Life.April 14, “The Lie” by T. Coraghessan Boyle – Boyle was the New Yorker’s first repeat visitor to the fiction department last year, and by mid-April no less. This story offers a somewhat more generic vision of suburban malaise than is typical of Boyle (again in California), but it also goes for the gusto. Like Wakefield of Doctorow’s story in January, Boyle’s Lonnie plays a sort of disappearing act, not with himself, but with his baby instead. Unable to stop himself, Lonnie dismantles his life almost in slow motion and it’s hard to look away, though you want to. No natural disasters here, though.April 21, “The Repatriates” by Sana Krasikov – Grisha and Lera spent a decade in America finding opportunity but Grisha, though he finds plenty of success and remuneration, becomes disillusioned and has visions of greater things back in Russia. As the title indicates, this is a story of repatriation, rather than the expatriation that has been an inspiration for so many expats writing in America. That unique element, plus the exotic locale of Russia (I’m a sucker for exotic locales), made this one a winner for me. This story appeared in Krasikov’s debut, One More Year. Krasikov also appeared in our Year in Reading and penned a guest post for us.April 28, “Bullfighting” by Roddy Doyle – British suburban malaise takes wing to Iberia. In this very memorable story, Donal and his middle-aged buddies plan a guys’ trip to Spain, where Doyle serves up a compelling mix. The guys all have fun, getting away from the families and all that, but Doyle also makes clear how circumscribed their lives really are and how finding real joy and escape is a near impossibility. Doyle’s latest is a collection of stories, The Deportees.May 5, “Them Old Cowboy Songs” by Annie Proulx (registration required) – This was a very affecting story that stayed with me a long time and that I still remember vividly eight months after first reading it. Proulx captures the frontier, Western spirit as well as any writer ever has, but she certainly doesn’t romanticize it. The hardships and loneliness faced by homesteaders Archie and Rose McLaverty are unfathomable to us today. A must read. This story appears in Proulx’s most recent collection, Fine Just the Way It Is: Wyoming Stories 3.May 12, “A Man Like Him” by Yiyun Li – This is a strange story with a surreal quality that seems common in contemporary Asian fiction. At its heart though, the story is about an older generation being bewildered and wounded by the younger. In China, where the story takes place, modernization has come quickly, and one imagines that the older folks must look upon the younger ones like aliens. In Li’s story, an allegedly unfaithful father has been publicly pilloried on his daughter’s popular blog and become something of a national scapegoat. Teacher Fei is sympathetic and tracks down the man, as much to commiserate with him as to try to understand. Li’s debut novel The Vagrants comes out in February.May 19, “East Wind” by Julian Barnes – Another entry in the British suburban malaise column (though technically the malaise is felt by the seaside). Vernon lives in a small beach town. “He’d moved here to have no weather in his life.” He isn’t looking for love but unexpectedly finds it (or something like it) with Andrea, an immigrant waitress with East German roots. She’s got a skeleton in the closet, one that was particular appropriate for an Olympic year. Barnes’ latest is his memoir Nothing to be Frightened of.May 26, “The Full Glass” by John Updike – Updike makes his second appearance of 2008, and he’s feeling old in this one, kicking off with the senior citizen narrator’s pharmaceutical regimen. It’s not long before he’s reminiscing about growing up during the Great Depression and then alighting from one reminiscence to another with the notion of his various habits tying the memories together. A solid story that has a very different narrative arc from most of what appears in the magazine. Links: Ward SixJune 2, “A Night at the Opera” by Janet Frame – This brief story was a previously unpublished piece by the late writer from New Zealand. It is essentially a reverie – a distant memory – that bubbles up in the mind of an institutionalized woman as she watches a Marx Brothers film. Another more “experimental” piece than is typically seen in the magazine. Frame wrote Faces in the Water and several other novels.June 9 & 16, The Summer Fiction issue: “Natasha” by Vladimir Nabokov – A lovely line: “With a pout, Natasha counted the drops, and her eyelashes kept time.” Last year, Verses and Versions, a collection of poetry translated by Nabokov was published. “Tits Up in a Ditch” by Annie Proulx (registration required) – Proulx paints tough life for Dakotah, born to a teen-aged mom, raised by her cruel grandparents. She gets married, has a baby, the marriage falls apart, and she joins the Army. The tragedies are laid on thick from there, but it’s a vibrant, gripping read. “Don’t Cry” by Mary Gaitskill (registration required) – This has a very “issues of the day” feel to it. Janice goes with her friend Katya to Ethiopia where Katya is looking to adopt a child. There are roadblocks both bureaucratic and emotional and all in all it’s a solid story. The rendering of Ethiopia is nicely done. This is the title story in Gaitskill’s forthcoming collection.June 23, “The Headstrong Historian” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – A sweeping story about a woman named Nwamgba, almost epic in its scope, and in following her life, we are witness to the many changes over the decades that overtake her land and people. Nwamgba bears a son Anikwenwa after many miscarriages but then is widowed. She sends Anikwenwa to school where he learns English. Adichie explores the distance that grows up between Nwamgba and Anikwenwa, she knowing only the old ways, he becoming steadily assimilated by the new. By the time Grace, Nwamgba’s grand-daughter is born and comes of age, the generations are separated by a gulf, and the story itself becomes an intriguing parable of the changes that came to Africa in the 1900s, what many things were altered and what few things nonetheless endured. Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun won much praise when it was published.June 30, “Deep-Holes” by Alice Munro – Munro makes her second appearance of 2008. This story, like the prior week’s story, covers decades. In this one, a family disintegrates and then two of its members come back into contact. It’s not quite as good as “Free Radicals,” but, being an Alice Munro story, it’s still quite good.July 7 & 14, “Thirteen Hundred Rats” by T. Coraghessan Boyle – With the year only half over, Boyle logs his third appearance in the magazine. There are few “literary” writers that can base a story around the outlandish and pull it off. Were Boyle’s stories to actually take place in real life, the climactic moments would be fodder for those “strange but true” stories that get forwarded to everyone’s email inboxes. It’s a quality that not all readers appreciate. This story, as the title suggests, involves quite a few rats. In my opinion Boyle pulls it off. But then, I’m a Boyle fan. Links: Too Shy to Stop.July 21, “Yurt” by Sarah Shun-lien Bynum – A very fun read. This story takes us into an elementary school, among harried, altruistic teachers and their petty gossip. I loved how Bynum adopts the proscribed vocabulary of the elementary school, referring to all her characters as Ms. or Mr. The big news in the teachers’ lounge is that the flighty Ms. Duffy has returned pregnant from a long trip overseas. There’s much to love here. It doesn’t have the ponderousness of emotion that so many New Yorker stories bear. The story is an excerpt from the novel Ms. Hempel Chronicles.July 28, “The Teacher” by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala – A rather strange story and fairly memorable, though we’re getting into the last half of 2008 here, so I suppose I didn’t read this all that long ago. This one could have been tightened up a bit, but I loved the off-kilter characters: the narrator, two spinsters, and some sort of latter day mystic. I have no real-life analogs for them, yet they leaped off the page for me. The plot was less intriguing to me, however. A little tighter, and this story would have been a favorite. Jhabvala won the Booker Prize in 1983 for Heat and Dust. Links: EmdashesAugust 4, “Clara” by Roberto Bolaño – 2008 was the year of Bolaño, and the New Yorker took part in the surge of interest surrounding the late author. This brief story seems almost in a dream. The narrator is in love with Clara. They write letters to each other and talk on the phone from afar. The distance between them seems more than just physical. It’s as if the universe has willed it. Bolaño’s 2666 was published in translation to much acclaim last year.August 11 & 18, “The Dinner Party” by Joshua Ferris – More suburban malaise. This time of the variety that takes place in Brooklyn. But it’s not about a dinner party so much as waiting for a dinner party to occur. The dinner party is one of the mundanities of life – the couple hosting the party clearly thinks so – but much as we rebel against these mundanities it doesn’t take much to make you realize that bitching and moaning isn’t rebelling. This story has suspense and a very nice narrative arc that I won’t ruin by divulging its details. Ferris’ debut Then We Came to the End was a National Book Award finalist. Ferris appeared in our Year in Reading in 2007. Links: Too Shy to Stop, I Read A Short Story TodayAugust 25, “Awake” by Tobias Wolff – This tiny story is a well rendered little sketch. Wolff takes us into the head of Richard, lying awake in bed, musing on various things and wanting to put the moves Ana, his girlfriend, lying next to him. The story captures well the competing influences in the mind of the young man: sex and all the complications that come with the pursuit of it. Wolff’s Our Story Begins: New and Selected Stories came out last year. Links: Under the Midnight Sun, One Real Story, Too Shy to StopSeptember 1, “Gorse is Not People” by Janet Frame – This is the second story by the late Frame in the magazine in 2008 and this one is pretty mind blowing. Written in 1954, it’s about a dwarf named Naida, who, living very much in her own head, believes that she will be released on her 21st birthday from the institution that houses her. She also believes that she will get married and live some kind of glamorous life. It’s clear that Naida is mentally disturbed and that she would likely not fare well on the “outside,” but she is also incredibly sympathetic. Frame captures Naida’s odd mindset that fuses child-like thoughts with adult desires. It’s a powerful, affecting story that is a major departure from what is typically found in the magazine.September 8, “Face” by Alice Munro – Munro lands in the magazine for a third time in 2008. Like “Deep-Holes” from earlier in 2008, “Face” covers almost a whole lifetime in a short story. The narrator has a troubling childhood featuring a cruel father and a large birthmark on his face. The narrator grows up and becomes a successful radio actor and announcer (“He has a face for radio” was the juvenile thought that crept into my head) and in his old age is reminiscing about a childhood event that haunts him, when his birthmark came into focus for him and when his life was seemingly set on the course that has taken him through the decades. Munro makes one think that many novels might be better served as short stories, particularly in the hands of a master like her. Links: I Read A Short Story TodaySeptember 15, “A Spoiled Man” by Daniyal Mueenuddin – I found this story to be irresistibly charming because its protagonist was so irrepressible. Rezak insinuates himself into a job among the large staff on the estate of a man and his American wife. He lives in a home of his own construction that might be best described as a crate and breaks it down and moves it with him wherever he goes. Much time is spent describing Rezak’s ingenious modifications to the crate. Rezak is, it seems, a man who would be happy almost no matter what. He even finds himself a wife. But the realities of Rezak’s circumstances eventually close in on him. Mueenuddin’s debut collection In Other Rooms, Other Wonders will be published in February. Links: In Other Rooms, Other Wonders was one of Manil Suri’s Year in Reading picks.September 22, “The Noble Truths of Suffering” by Aleksandar Hemon – I’m generally a big fan of Hemon’s work though I’ll acknowledge that it seems like he goes back to the same well for all of his fiction, plumbing his own experience of leaving Bosnia before the war and trying to assimilate into American life (and particularly American academic and literary life). In this story Hamon’s narrator is back in Bosnia, returned from the U.S., but he is still at prey to the awkwardness of his double life, illuminated when through a confluence of events, a famous American author visiting the country ends up joining him at his parents’ house for dinner. There is a neat story within a story element to this one as well (another hallmark that crops up in Hemon’s work). Hemon’s latest is 2008 National Book Award finalist The Lazarus Project. Links: Under the Midnight Sun.September 29 “Three” by Andrea Lee – Three vignettes about three people who died. This story didn’t do much for me. Even though I read it just three months ago, I had trouble remembering it. Did I inadvertantly skip this one? Could be. Lee’s latest is Lost Hearts in ItalyOctober 6, “The Idiot President” by Daniel Alarcon – Alarcon appears in the New Yorker fairly frequently. This story, like his others, takes place in Latin America. In this one, the narrator expects to be leaving for America soon, but in the meantime he has joined an acting troupe, traveling around. They put on a memorable performance in a mining town for the workers there. There’s not much drama here. It’s mostly a tale of the narrator’s stasis. Alarcon’s most recent novel is Lost City Radio. Links: Under the Midnight Sun.October 13, “Gold Boy, Emerald Girl” by Yiyun Lee – The second story by Li in 2008 and this one is also very good. It is about a middle-aged, unmarried man, Hanfeng, and woman, Siyu. Hanfang’s mother, Professor Dai, was Siyu’s teacher. Dai is the formidable sort and would like to see the two married, less out of compassion that out of a desire to see the two of them squared away. Siyu and Hanfeng pursue the relationship in order to please Professor Dai, but the pleasure in the story is the way Yi explores the relationships and teases the back story out of the various interactions.October 20, “Sleep” by Roddy Doyle – This is Doyle’s second story of 2008, and it’s a snack of a story filled with musing and reminiscing. In some ways the story is about being with someone and what you think about while they sleep – when you are alone, but not really because that person is right next to you – but the story is about a lot more too.October 27, “The Boy Who Had Never Seen the Sea” by J.M.G. Le Clezio (registration required) – Le Clezio raised his profile quite a bit in the U.S. this year with his surprise Nobel Prize win, but I regret to say that this story was a major dud for me. There’s just nothing to hang your hat on in this one. Daniel is the boy of the title, and though he has never seen the sea, he is obsessed with it. So he leaves his boarding school and heads to the water. I didn’t enjoy the thoroughly dreamy language in this one, nor the lack of specifics. It was told like a myth or parable but for no reason that I could discern. It was as if Le Clezio was using the dreamy style to excuse himself from the constraint of constructing a believable narrative. Links: After Le Clezio won the big prize, we heard from one of his American publishers.November 3, “The Fat Man’s Race” by Louise Erdrich – The New Yorker continues to go back through its roster of writers as Erdrich makes a second appearance on the year. This one is the magazine’s most bite-sized of the year, an amuse bouche as all eyes turn to the election. It’s about a woman who is sleeping with devil, which maybe makes it fitting for election week. This story may or may not be in Erdrich’s new collection The Red Convertible.November 10, “Leopard” by Wells Tower – A very inventive story from Tower whose fiction and non-fiction I’d love to see more of in the New Yorker. This one is told in the second person about (by?) an unpopular eleven-year-old boy. Tower gets into the boy’s head incredibly well – the perpetually wounded pride, the outlandish fantasies that punish those who have wronged him. This story appears in Tower’s excellent forthcoming collection, Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned. Links: Sana Krasikov picked Tower’s collection for her Year in Reading and Tower appeared in our Year in Reading as well.November 17, “Lostronaut” by Jonathan Lethem – This story was pretty awesome. It was the only speculative fiction to land in the New Yorker this year, not quite making up for the absence of Murakami and Saunders from the magazine’s pages. This story is told in the form of letters from Janice, a “Lostronaut” aboard some sort of space station, to her “Dearest Chase.” She and her fellow astronauts are trapped in orbit by Chinese space mines and that’s not even the worst of it for poor Janice. While the premise and epistolary style are intriguing, Janice’s unique, irrepressible voice really carries the story. Lethem has an as yet untitled novel slated for September. Links: DiscoverNovember 24, “Ghosts” by Edwidge Danticat – This story takes us way out of the New Yorker comfort zone to the rundown neighborhoods of Haiti. It looks at Pascal, a young man who occupies two worlds. His parents run a fairly upstanding restaurant but Pascal has been befriended by the gang members who patronize the place. Pascal gets in a bit too deep with them and the result is quite gripping. Danticat’s most recent book is her memoir Brother, I’m Dying.December 1, “In Other Rooms, Other Wonders” by Daniyal Mueenuddin – It took me a while to get into this very long story but in the end I liked it quite a bit. It basically chronicles the relationship between an old Pakistani patriarch Harouni and his young mistress Husna. Husna is not of the same social standing as Harouni but her proximity to him allows her to experience an extravagant life. She seems to understand the trade-off, but not enough to maintain her position once Harouni’s daughters appear on the scene. This story, along with Mueenuddin’s earlier in 2008, shows off an expansive, almost lyrical style. This is the title story in Mueenuddin’s forthcoming debut collection.December 8, “Waiting” by Amos Oz – This was an engaging story about a daily routine interrupted. There is a bit of mystery behind it. Instead of meeting small-town Israeli bureaucrat Benny Avni for lunch as she always does, Avni’s wife has sent him a cryptic note. Avni is very rigid in his ways and so we follow him through all of his perfectly sensible rationalizations for Luda’s sudden change in behavior. The enjoyment (if that is the right word) comes in watching a sense of concern creep into the actions of this otherwise aloof man. Oz has a new book Rhyming Life and Death coming out in April.December 15, “The Woman of the House” by William Trevor – Trevor, perhaps the most frequent fiction contributor to the New Yorker over the last decade, makes his first appearance of 2008. I’m not a huge fan of Trevor’s gray, damp landscapes and characters but he is no doubt a masterful storyteller and a genius with the British version of suburban malaise. This one is unique in that it places a pair of itinerant, immigrant painters at the center of the action. Told partly through their eyes, the story of the woman living as caretaker for her crippled cousin is seen from an outsider’s perspective. The prolific Trevor’s most recent collection is Cheating at Canasta.December 22 & 29 – The year closes out with the annual winter fiction issue (slimmer than usual this time). There were four stories in this one. Here they are in order from my most favorite to least: “Another Manhattan” by Donald Antrim, “Some Women” by Alice Munro (a fourth New Yorker appearance in 2008!) (registration required), “The Gangsters” by Colson Whitehead (registration required), and “Meeting with Enrique Lihn” by Roberto Bolaño.And to wrap up this already overlong exercise, my favorite New Yorker stories of 2008 were “Wakefield” by E.L. Doctorow, “Free Radicals” by Alice Munro, “The Lie” by T. Coraghessan Boyle, “Them Old Cowboy Songs” by Annie Proulx, “Yurt” by Sarah Shun-lien Bynum, “The Dinner Party” by Joshua Ferris, “Gorse is Not People” by Janet Frame, “Leopard” by Wells Tower, “Lostronaut” by Jonathan Lethem, and “Another Manhattan” by Donald Antrim.Bonus Link: The 2008 Year in Reading series
In her essay In Praise of Unlikeable Characters, fellow staff writer Emily St. John Mandel writes about protagonists who behave badly, like the eponymous Marie in Marcy Dermansky’s frisky little novel, Bad Marie. It’s true, many readers want to actually like a book’s main character — they’d take them to lunch if they could — but true villains are a hoot, everyone knows that. Who doesn’t love to hate Dr. Claw and his menacing feline in Inspector Gadget?
The problem is, in a work of thoughtful fiction, most villains are given a modicum of humanity; it’s their hidden vulnerability, their tangled motivation, that makes a reader believe they are real people. Makes them less villainous, really. Dermansky’s Marie is “supremely conniving,” as Mandel puts it, but she isn’t a villain. She isn’t vile. It’s impossible to hate someone that shocking, that fun.
I’ve been thinking lately about the truly poisonous characters in fiction. The female ones, specifically. Because women are vilified every day for not doing or saying what they’re supposed to. Is it anti-feminist to write an evil woman? I hope not, because there are some truly fabulous cunts in fiction.
Here are just a few:
Edith Stoner in Stoner
John Williams’ quiet masterpiece about an unassuming English professor named William Stoner spans more than 45 years and depicts, with simplicity and compassion, the slow and important work of understanding the self — one’s passions and desires, one’s body, one’s flaws. A main source of conflict in the novel is Stoner’s wife, Edith. Like Stoner at the beginning of the novel, Edith doesn’t know who she is. At the start of their courtship, we learn:
Her needlepoint was delicate and useless, she painted misty landscapes of thin water-color washes, and she played the piano with a forceless but precise hand; yet she was ignorant of her own bodily functions, she had never been alone to care for her own self one day of her life, nor could it have ever occurred to her that she might become responsible for the well-being of another.
Unlike her husband, though, who discovers his love of literature and commits himself to the study of it, Edith never finds or seriously seeks out true fulfillment. Her unhappiness is a weapon she uses in their marriage, and the above passage only hints at her capacity for viciousness. She usurps his home office, she pits their daughter against him. Oh, how she terrorizes Stoner! I recently led a discussion about this novel and midway into it a woman raised her hand and said something like, “What the hell is up with Edith?” This was followed by a flurry of nods and invectives from the rest of the class. It takes everything in me to summon up sympathy for Edith — to even comprehend the depth of her meanness. Though her role in Stoner’s narrative is complex, I’m sure that if she starred in her own novel, it would be a tedious, vacuous, and miserable read. Boo! Hiss!
The Wife in “Do Not Disturb“
“I am not the kind of person who leaves the woman with cancer,” says the push-over husband in my favorite story by A.M. Homes, “but I don’t know what you do when the woman with cancer is a bitch.” Who would know what to do? In “Do Not Disturb” we witness a dysfunctional marriage turn even more toxic as the narrator’s wife, a surgeon who knows exactly how cancer can terrorize one’s body, undergoes a hysterectomy and chemo, all the while being nasty to her partner and saying things like, “I feel nothing. I am made of steel and wood.” The wife’s brief moments of vulnerability — for instance, when she farts and runs out of the room, embarrassed — redefine her vileness as nothing more than a defense mechanism in the face of a life-threatening disease. But when I reach out to sympathize with her, she bites my hand.
Cathy/Kate Ames in East of Eden
Some readers complain that Cathy — Cal and Aron’s mother in John Steinbeck’s classic novel — isn’t a believable or plausible character. That might be true, for her cruelty renders her inhuman. I’d diagnose her as a dangerous psychopath; she kills her parents in a house fire, shoots her husband, abandons her newborn children, and murders her brothel boss so that she may inherit the business — and does it all with a smirk. She feels no empathy, thinks only of herself. And, like some reality television villainess, she’s beautiful. Of course she is. Here is a description of her as a school girl:
Cathy grew more lovely all the time. The delicate blooming skin, the golden hair, the wide-set, modest, and yet promising eyes, the little mouth full of sweetness, caught attention and held it.
I love Cathy’s inner-monster almost as much as I love Steinbeck’s descriptions of her. With prose rhythm like that, I forgive this book for all of its flaws, for the way it demonizes a woman for using her sexuality to get what she wants.
Zenia in The Robber Bride
The three female protagonists of Margaret Atwood’s The Robber Bride suffer at the hands of Zenia, the man-stealer (and man-eater), who isn’t so much a woman as non-gendered — she is without a verifiable past, she is almost mythic in her actions and in her ability to disappear and renew herself, and she does not suffer as the other women, or men, in the novel do. If she wants something (or someone), she uses her body to get it. But she uses something else, too, and that something remains a mystery to the characters. Zenia has large breasts but they aren’t real. She’s a home-wrecker and it’s fun to hate her.
I’d consider Margaret Atwood a feminist writer, meaning, I suppose, that her books pass the Bechdel test every time, and that she gives her characters, male or female, rich internal lives. Her novels are often about women and the issues that preoccupy them, from family to their bodies to friendships with other women. It’s funny, then, that when thinking of vile women in fiction, I thought not only of Zenia, but also of Serena Joy, the steely Commander’s wife in The Handmaid’s Tale, and of Cordelia, the manipulative Queen Bee from Cat’s Eye. With Zenia, though, her behavior seems motivated only by a need to lie, rather than by something more complex and sympathetic. I’d argue that the novel’s comic tone allows for Zenia’s larger-than-life, wonderfully vile presence in Atwood’s oeuvre. Atwood is a feminist writer because she writes flawed female characters who, like real people, judge one another. Evil is not gender-specific, though the way we vilify others often is.
There you have it, though this is certainly not an exhaustive list. Who are your favorite vile women in literature?
I love the disturb-factor in classic literature. Once you’re out of the classroom, much fun can be had by viewing an older book with a contemporary gaze–analysis and history be damned. Pick up Pamela by Samuel Richardson, for instance: the eponymous heroine escapes the sexual advances of her employer, Mr. B., time and time again…only to fall in love with and marry him by the book’s end. Attempted rape: so hot. When a girl says no, she really means maybe. Too bad, though, that Pamela is so dull. I don’t think I could stand another go at it, even with all the life lessons therein.
I’m thinking of Pamela these days because I just finished re-reading Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontё. Oh the Brontё sisters! I haven’t yet read Anne’s books, but based on this comic, I think I might like them. Charlotte and Emily, meanwhile, were deeply weird, and they (or, okay, their protagonists) were into some deeply weird men. They remind me of that friend–we all have that friend–maybe you are that friend–who consistently falls in love with assholes. Just dump him already, we think!
And, Mr. Rochester, if he isn’t an asshole, he’s a psychopath–or, simply creepy and duplicitous. I can’t believe he was voted most romantic literary character in a British poll last year. That’s messed up. Are they kinkier in England? (The Telegraph article on the subject, by the way, mentions that the results were revealed at a literary festival, where “guests were served pink champagne by scantily-clad waiters.” Oh dear.)
Let’s consider some points against old Edward, shall we?
1. We should just get the big one out of the way. Dude keeps his first wife locked up. He never lets her out, if he can help it. “Bitch is crazy!” he cries, but that is no excuse.
2. Not only does Mr. Rochester lock Bertha up, he keeps her a secret from everyone in town–including Jane! After the truth has come out (at the altar, no less, minutes before he’s about to marry–or “marry”–Jane), Rochester insists that he was planning to tell his new wife the truth after a year and a day of marriage. Sure you were, Edward, sure you were.
3. Adele, Mr. Rochester’s little French ward, might possibly his daughter, but, you know, her mom slept around, so he’s not entertaining that notion very seriously. He’ll be her benefactor, sure, but he will never ever be her dad.
4. When Mr. Rochester has the rich guests staying with him at his estate, he goes off to attend to some business or other, and in his absence, a gypsy fortune-teller comes to read the fortunes of the ladies. Jane goes to see said gypsy in the dark library, and remarks that the woman’s face “is a strange one. It looked all brown and black: elf-locks bristled out from beneath a white band which passed under her chin, and came half over her cheeks or rather jaws.” The gypsy talks mostly of Mr. Rochester, and, surprise, surprise, she IS Rochester. That’s right, Jane’s boss has dressed up in drag, and put on a little minstrel make-up, and asked the house’s governess to kneel before him. “I wonder with what feelings you came to me to-night,” she/he says. Why Jane doesn’t throw up in her mouth a little when she discovers his little game is beyond me.
5. When dressed as a gypsy, Mr. Rochester tells Jane that he’s engaged to be married to one of the women visiting, Blanche Ingram. Later, after Jane has confessed her love, he admits that his engagement to Miss Ingram was only a ruse to get Jane to react. He basically says, “I wasn’t really going to marry her! just wanted you to be jealous, little fairy of mine!” No matter how much of a pill Miss Ingram is, and she is a pill, this charade just seems cruel.
6. At the end of the book, Rochester is blind and maimed from the fire that ultimately destroyed Thornfield Hall and killed Bertha. (He does rescue the servants and tries to rescue his wife–I’ll give him that.) But once Jane has declared that her love for him still remains, he reveals that for the past year, he’s been wearing the pearl necklace (ahem) he had given her during their engagement. Some might call this romance, I call it a problem (by morton here). I wouldn’t be surprised if Rochester likes to wear Jane’s underwear, too. Or, let’s be honest: Bertha’s.
7. Mr. Rochester is ugly. Before you start to yell at me, let me say this: I love that the heroine of this novel isn’t good looking. That’s interesting, refreshing, and complicated. But, you know, if a man is ugly, he has to have one hell of a personality. And if he’s going to have a fake history and a secret wife, he needs to be smokin’ hot to get away with it. (Two words: Don. Draper.)
Don’t get me wrong, I love Jane Eyre. Its story–part Gothic tale, part romance, part first-person confession–is beguiling. Its heroine–independent yet innocent, obsessed with stories and weak to the power of them–is complex and believable. And the prose will have you underlining every other page:
I desired liberty; for liberty I gasped; for liberty I uttered a prayer; it seemed scattered on the wind then faintly blowing. I abandoned it and framed a humbler supplication, for change, stimulus: that petition, too, seemed swept off into vague space; “Then,” I cried, half desperate, “grant me at least a new servitude!”
He who is taken out to pass through a fair scene to the scaffold, thinks not of the flowers that smile on his road, but of the block and the ax-edge; of the disseverment of bone and vein; of the grave gaping at the end…
Now that I’ve finished the book, I’m ready to finally check out Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys, which I’m told gives the first Mrs. Rochester the humanity she deserves. I should also get to The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination by Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, for I’m sure they can provide some context for and interpretations of this beloved classic. I’m curious what Mr. Rochester, and the abiding love readers have for him, means.