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.
You may have heard of Google Squared. It's a new service in development from Google that, as Wikipedia puts it, "extracts structured data from across the web and presents its results in spreadsheet-like format." Basically, it returns your results in a list-like format with some additional descriptive columns.Trying it out, we naturally entered some book-related queries. And, if you assume that Google has compiled a database of the world's knowledge and uses that to generate its results, then these must be - definitively - the "best books" and "best novels" ever.Best Books:The Catcher in the RyeCatch-22Animal FarmThe Very Hungry CaterpillarGoodnight MoonCurious GeorgeGravity's RainbowBest Novels:Gravity's RainbowTo Kill a MockingbirdThe Sound and the FuryOne Flew Over the Cuckoo's NestThe Lord of the RingsTo The LighthouseA Portrait of the Artist as a Young ManNot bad for something computer-generated.(Google has been known to personalize and regularly adjust its results, so your lists may vary.)
With year nearly half over, it's time once again to look ahead at books that will be arriving in the coming months. 2007 was very much a front-loaded year in terms of big-name literary releases with heavyweights like Delillo, McEwan, Murakami, Lethem, and Chabon all dropping new titles early in the year. The second half of 2007, while it doesn't have as many headline grabbers (excluding Harry Potter, of course), does have a number of interesting books on offer.September: I've already written about the Junot Diaz book The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Here's what I said "The reason I'm so excited about this is that Diaz's story by the same title in the New Yorker's 2000 end-of-year fiction issue was one of the best stories that's appeared in the magazine in the ten years I've been reading it. It is a story so good that I still remember talking to various people about it in my then home city of Los Angeles, people with whom I never before or after talked fiction. It was a story that got around. And now, finally, it has blossomed into a book." Since then, the New Yorker has published another excerpt from the book, in the June 11 & 18 Summer Fiction issue, but the story isn't available online.Suite Francaise, a posthumously published work by a Russian-born, French novelist who died in the Holocaust was a surprise bestseller in 2006. Though Irene Nemirovsky was a celebrated writer in the 1930s, she had been largely unknown to today's readers. Now, however, her work is returning to the spotlight. Like Suite Francaise, Fire in the Blood was written during the early years of the war, but only published decades later. Unlike Suite Francaise, Fire in the Blood does not center on the war, instead "it dwells on intense, often repressed emotional conflict set against bucolic country life," according to the International Herald Tribune where more about the book and Nemirovsky can be found.Songs Without Words is Ann Packer's follow-up to her acclaimed debut, The Dive from Clausen's Pier. Based on some reports from BEA, the book has generated some buzz, but I haven't seen any early reviews. Publisher Knopf describes the book as a chronicle of a friendship between two women that is shaken when an "adolescent daughter enters dangerous waters" and "the fault lines in the women's friendship are revealed." An excerpt from the book is available, too.Denis Johnson has a hefty new tome (600+ pgs) on the way. As Garth pointed out to me when he snagged a galley of the book at BEA, Tree of Smoke has garnered some serious praise from FSG head Jonathan Galassi. His letter from the front of the galley says: "The novel you're holding is Denis Johnson's finest work, I believe, and one of the very best books we have ever had the honor to publish. Tree of Smoke has haunted me in the sense that I've thought about it and dreamed about it since I finished reading it, and the impression it left has only deepened over time. I think it is a great book, and I hope you will enjoy it as much as I have." (via SoT)Richard Russo is taking something of a departure from his usual terrain in upstate New York with his new novel Bridge of Sighs. The book's protagonist Louis Charles "Lucy" Lynch hales from upstate Thomaston, but the book's action takes place partly in Venice where Lucy goes with his wife to find a childhood friend. From the sound of it, Russo stays true to the themes and tone of his past books but broadens the geography a bit.October: Ann Patchett, author of big seller Bel Canto has a new book coming out called Run. Patchett recently told Amazon the book is "about a man who is the former mayor of Boston, who has three sons and who has political ambitions for his sons that perhaps one of them would go on to be president, and he pushes them in that direction." Or if you want a snappier blurb: "Joe Kennedy meets The Brothers Karamazov," which sounds more than a little intriguing. Curious readers can listen to Patchett reading from the book courtesy WGBH Boston.In my early days as a bookseller, Alice Sebold's The Lovely Bones was one of the first bestsellers I encountered from that side of the retail equation. I came to understand that this meant having a copy of the book within reach at all times since requests for it came unabated. At one point I even had the book's ISBN memorized from ringing it up so frequently. Sebold and her publisher will undoubtedly be hoping for similar success with her follow-up novel The Almost Moon. USA Today recently ratcheted up the hype by revealing the book's first sentence: "When all is said and done, killing my mother came easily."Tom Perotta's last book, Little Children got noticed both because of good reviews and because Pepperidge Farm made publisher St. Martin's take its goldfish crackers off the cover (they were replaced by chocolate chip cookies). Perrotta's new book, The Abstinence Teacher depicts no food whatsoever on the cover. The book treads Perrotta's usual turf: the raw underbelly of suburbia. Following in the footsteps of Election, another Perrotta novel, a film version of The Abstinence Teacher is said to be in the works.Perhaps the "biggest" book yet to come out during the second half of this year, though, will be Philip Roth's Exit Ghost. Billed as the final Zuckerman novel, Exit Ghost follows Zuckerman back to New York where he is seeing a doctor but is waylaid when chance encounters stir things up in the way things get stirred up in Roth novels. An early look from PW is less than impressed - "the plot is contrived." A random blogger offers a different opinion. With the publication date several months away, the jury is still out.The above are the forthcoming books that have caught my eye, but I'm sure I've missed some good ones. Tell us about them in the comments.
Not long ago, I finished my first novel. When I began to actually write it, i.e., to put complete sentences in a semi-coherent order, a strange thing happened: I could not read other people’s fiction. Whenever I picked up a novel, I would become anxious and unhappy; my mind would race. I don’t have a better explanation than self-consciousness or maybe envy, but anyway that’s what happened. So after a post-collegiate lifetime of reading mostly novels, I became for a while a militant reader of everything but fiction. I emphatically did not read any books about writing fiction, because those have pretty much always made me anxious and unhappy. Instead, I read non-fiction books that I thought might indirectly tell me something about fiction, even though they were really about something else. That, it turns out, made all the difference. Someone told me once that books present themselves when we need them most, and if there’s a happy ending here it’s that the (best) non-fiction books I read taught me exactly what I needed to know to write that novel. These are the books I needed most, and this is what they taught me. Duc de St-Simon, Memoirs From the Duc de St-Simon, I learned the power of scale. His canvas was vast -- he must touch at least briefly on the better part of the French aristocracy who were alive at the time, and in his hands this slice of life gathers such momentum and has so much raw life-force that it comes to feels like a memoir of an entire culture, and maybe even of the entire world. St-Simon was the 8th-ranking duke at the court of Louis XIV. He knew everyone and nearly everything, and what he didn’t know he speculated about in the most infectious way possible. It’s gossipy, in the best sense, but it’s also a sort of oral history of that special kind of depth and appreciation of complexity that may still go by the name of sophistication. Here’s St-Simon on an elaborate scheme by a member of the King’s family (Monsieur le Prince) to enrich a friend by means of an advantageous marriage: They unearthed the hereditary Duchesse de Piney’s daughter by a second marriage…the girl was appallingly ugly, like a great vulgar fish-wife in a herring barrel, but by the elimination of the children of her mother’s first marriage she would be immensely rich, and appeared…to offer an ingenious method of endowing Bouteville with a peerage. Emerson says somewhere that no orator can compete with someone who gives good nicknames; it might also be true of the teller of anecdotes, especially if they can sustain the narrative for more than a thousand pages. George Lukács, “The Intellectual Physiognomy” from Writer & Critic If anyone were to read just one piece from this list, it should be this. Lukács showed me that a truly lifelike character is only possible if that character’s understanding of his or her larger social situation is authentically transparent to the reader: The basis of great literature is Heraclitus’s common world of men “awake”, the world of men struggling in society, struggling with each other, acting for and against each other and reacting actively, not passively, to each other. If there is no “awake” consciousness of reality…no character can achieve…the full vitality of individuality. I personally struggle with this particular thing; I sometimes think that clear objectives in a character are sort of disappointing. I tell myself, in these dark moments, that I’m aiming to convey something less tangible about characters than that they must stay alive in a river full of alligators or find the briefcase with the magical light it or defeat He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named. Lukács’ response to this line of thought would almost certainly not be polite. I think he would argue that, above all, transparency of the character’s thought process is absolutely non-negotiable, especially in a main character. No amount of good writing or lively dialogue, he explicitly says, can compensate for a character’s lack of a clear “intellectual physiognomy” as Lukács calls it. Which seems like a cold-eyed and important thing to remember. Fernand Braudel, The Structures of Everyday Life Braudel taught me to think more expansively about what we include in a novel’s fictional world. Why are the houses shaped the way they are? Who does and does not say grace at dinner, and why? Why might the protein content of grass matter to the owner of an island farm? In 1929, two French historians founded a journal for academic historians called Annales. The "Annales School” focused on elements of history previously dismissed as the mundane data of the world -- family structures, the geography of towns, primary data from courts and municipalities, and (later) the specific mentalities of its subjects. Braudel was not of that founding generation, but from the next one -- he was a consolidator of its legacy, and this is arguably the masterpiece of the entire school of thought. The Structures of Everyday Life examines, in minute detail and with ingenious data, the material conditions that have informed human choices made nearly everywhere over the last 500 to 1,000 years. Here is Braudel, in a typical passage, swinging from miniature to epic register in describing the long-term ramifications of the invention of the horse collar: In the twelfth century, [horses’] performance suddenly improved, like an engine increased to four or five times its power…Until then they had been animals of war; thereafter they played a very large part in harrowing, tilling and transport. This important transformation was one of a series of…factors in the rise of northern Europe. Mary Douglas, “The Abominations of Leviticus” from Purity and Danger This is a denser piece than some, but for me its technical lesson is simple: an effective way to intensify and clarify the actual story is to put the surrounding world in opposition to it. Douglas takes an often skipped-over part of the Bible -- Leviticus’ extensive rules on purity and defilement -- and intuits a whole worldview about the connection between what is holy and what is mundane. It is a tour de force. [For the Israelites], the dietary laws would have been like signs which at every turn inspired meditation on the oneness, purity and completeness of God. By rules of avoidance, holiness was given a physical expression in every encounter with the animal kingdom and at every meal. Our everyday habits, Douglas suggests, are also small gestures of holiness in a profane world, and also forms of ritual defense against whatever there is around us that might be predatory. We have in Leviticus a guide to holiness, then but also a strong reminder that what’s in the Levitican background is constant warfare and persecution and also the inevitable dirt and difficulty of many people (i.e., the Israelites) living in in the wilderness. I take that as a reminder to put good characters among bad, rich among poor, and to remember above all that light is always brightest next to shade. Lee Strasberg, Transcripts from the Actors Studio Reading Strasberg, I found the connection between acting and writing fiction to be more direct than I’d suspected. The Method, as Strasberg’s approach is often called, is even today often parodied as a form of self-indulgence and caricaturist acting. What I found in this book was an almost Emersonian approach to art as fundamentally aiming for vitality, surprise -- for “life”: …the actor can be helped really to think on the stage, instead of thinking only in make-believe fashion. Once the actor begins to think, life starts, and then there cannot be imitation. More technically, something Strasberg returns to over and over is that any vagueness in a performance, any cliché at all, is not in the first instance so much a failure of imagination or talent, as a lack of preparation. So by Strasberg’s logic, any revision of a story or novel should first and foremost set out to flag sentences, paragraphs, characters, and plotlines of low energy and then work backwards -- away from the manuscript -- to see where the world has been insufficiently imagined. This line of thought, along with some comments from an old friend, caused me to do an extra year of work on this novel’s manuscript when I rashly had thought it was already done. If we do this work of preparation right, Strasberg suggests, it helps us push our performances -- our books -- to a place where they are more internally coherent, more alive, and above all more reflective of ourselves, for better or worse. Image: Wikipedia
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Before we get too far into 2010, let’s take a look at what was keeping readers interested on The Millions in 2009. To start, we’ll divide the most popular posts on The Millions into two categories, and we’ll begin with the “evergreens,” posts that went up before 2010 but continued to interest readers over the last year: 1. Hard to Pronounce Literary Names Redux: the Definitive Edition: Three years on, our “definitive” literary pronunciation guide is still a favorite The Millions. There must be a lot of people name-dropping Goethe out there. The initial, aborted attempt remains popular as well. 2. A Year in Reading 2008: 2008’s series stayed popular in 2009, as did 2007's, the first year we did the series in the now familiar expanded format. 3. The Best Sports Journalism Ever (According to Bill Simmons): Sports fans love this collection of links to some of the best sports writing of all time. 4. Food Fight: Anthony Bourdain Slams Rachael Ray: This rare dalliance for The Millions into celebrity gossip suggests an enduring interest in the bad blood between these two food (and publishing) superstars. 5. On Our Shelves: 45 Favorite Short Story Collections: A terrific list that will keep the short story fan busy for quite a long time. 6. The World’s Longest Novel: Ben’s profile of this work of record-breaking performance art has continued to intrigue curious readers. 7. Reading List: World War 2 Fiction: There are a few books still on my wish list as a result of this three-year-old list. 8: Big in Japan: A Cellphone Novel For You, the Reader: Lots of folks were talking about the Japanese trend of cell phone novels, but Ben was the first to offer a translation. 9. Haruki Murakami in Berkeley: Murakami fans continue to flock to this collection of wisdom compiled by Ben at a Murakami reading. An earlier piece by Ben has proved popular among readers looking to get their hands on a lost Murakami work. 10. Why Bolaño Matters: Roberto Bolaño has become a literary sensation over the last two years, but Garth’s 2007 piece helped set the stage. And now for the top pieces written in 2009: 1. The Best of the Millennium (So Far): This list would be dominated by our Best of the Millennium series, so we'll just go ahead and mention the introduction to the series here. 2. Diagramming the Obama Sentence: In the aftermath of Obama's victory, Garth's analysis of our new president's rhetorical skills got picked up on a number of political sites. 3. Our pair of Most Anticipated posts were popular among readers looking for something new to read. 4. A Year in Reading: New Yorker Fiction 2008: My ridiculous attempt to catalog all the New Yorker fiction in 2008. Will I ever do it again? Probably not this year. 5. Islands in the Stream: Our “Walking Tour of New York’s Independent Bookstores,” Revised and Expanded: In 2009, we joined readers for a walking tour of indie bookstores in Manhattan and Brooklyn. 6. A Bolaño Syllabus: Garth's instructive piece helped readers make sense of the late Chilean's ever-growing oeuvre. 7. About the Author: Readers got a kick out of Edan's take on author photos. 8. eBook Paths Converge: This brief item, pointing to some of our more extensive coverage of "the future of the book," proved a popular entry point into the discussion. 9. Finding Indie Opportunity on The Kindle: This piece by guest contributor Bryan Gilmer showed how one indie author took advantage of the Kindle's pricing structure to market his book. 10. Working the Double Shift: Guest contributor Emily St. John Mandel struck a chord with this exploration of writers and their day jobs. Where did all these readers come from? Google (and Facebook and Twitter and StumbleUpon) sent quite a few of course, but many Millions readers came from other sites too. These were the top 10 sites to send us traffic in 2009: 1. Andrew Sullivan 2. Kottke.org 3. The Elegant Variation 4. ScienceBlogs 5. The Complete Review 6. Lenta.ru 7. MetaFilter 8. The New Yorker 9. The Morning News 10. boingboing
A new issue of Scott's excellent "Quarterly Conversation" is out. It contains a list of the "Books Since 1990," and I can vouch for Scott when he writes that he conceived the idea for the list well before the New York Times put out its similar list. In the introduction, Scott writes that he is making no claims that these books are the "best," which is so often the silly, attention-grabbing hook of such lists. Scott polled several literary types, and when he asked me to participate, he asked for the "best" books, but I think the point Scott is making is that throwing together a bunch of individuals' "best books" lists isn't how one determines which books are "The Best." Instead we learn which books are part of the shared consciousness of a group of readers, which I think is interesting as well. It's a tough line to toe, but I appreciate Scott's effort not to announce that the books in his list are "The Best."Which isn't to say that I agree entirely with the books named on his list, which I think in some cases skews obscure or difficult for the sake of obscurity and difficulty. At the same time, I do appreciate knowing which books people think it is important to highlight, and am glad of the opportunity to be newly introduced to such books.As one of the contributors, I thought I might present my selections for the list in case anyone is curious. A few initial caveats in addition to the points below. I fully admit that my picks are mainstream, but I tend to believe - with very rare and notable exceptions - that quality work tends to be recognized and rewarded in the marketplace and thus becomes by some measure "popular," and second I have not read all the books I nominated (though I'd like to), but drew from conversations with fellow readers and from my perception of which books are most important to the serious readers I know. Third, it's very, very likely that as I read more from the contemporary era, this list will change (and it is important when looking at such lists to remember that they are fluid). And finally, I readily recognize that my selections exhibit a woeful lack of diversity; however, this is not to say that I only read books by white men, it's just to say that white men happened to write eight of the ten books that I selected for this exercise. On to my selections along with the number of votes each book got:2003, The Known World by Edward P. Jones (I'm shocked that I'm the only person who nominated this book. Of all the books that I've read from this era, I think this one is hands down the best and will go on to be a classic.) (1)2001, The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen (I believe the hype. I think this book is an important chronicle of contemporary American life.) (2)1997, Underworld by Don DeLillo (5)2002, Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides (2)2002, Atonement by Ian McEwan (One of my favorite books ever.) (4)1998, The Hours by Michael Cunningham (1)2004, Gilead by Marilynn Robinson (2)2000, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon (Proof that an entertaining read can and should be quality fiction.) (1)1997, American Pastoral by Philip Roth (3)1995, The Tortilla Curtain by T.C. Boyle (Of the three books by Boyle that stand out from the rest, Tortilla Curtain is the only one written after 1990. The other two books are World's End and Water Music.) (1)