Last year we had fun comparing the U.S. and U.K. book cover designs of a sample of the Rooster contenders, so I decided to do it again with this year’s batch. There are all sorts of marketing considerations behind these designs, and it’s interesting to see how designing for these two similar markets can result in very different looks. The American covers are on the left, and clicking through takes you to a larger image. Your equally inexpert analysis is welcomed in the comments.
If you’re arriving here after hearing my appearance on Weekend Edition Sunday, welcome! Just to give you a little background, I started The Millions in early 2003 when I was a bookseller at an independent bookstore in Los Angeles. I’ve since moved on from there, but the blog has stuck around. We now have seven contributors besides me, and we write nearly daily about books and other cultural topics.If you want to look around, a great place to start is the notable posts on the right-hand sidebar. You can get to the archives by scrolling down to the bottom of the page.Finally, in case you want to get more info on the books I mentioned during the segment, here are some links to the books on Amazon (I haven’t heard the segment yet, so not sure if they edited any of these out):Ragtime by E.L. DoctorowPastoralia by George SaundersEast of Eden by John SteinbeckOne Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia MarquezThe Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll by Alvaro MutisThanks for checking out The Millions!
As we’ve done for several years now, we thought it might be fun to compare the U.S. and U.K. book cover designs of this year’s Morning News Tournament of Books contenders. Book cover art is an interesting element of the literary world — sometimes fixated upon, sometimes ignored — but, as readers, we are undoubtedly swayed by the little billboard that is the cover of every book we read. And, while many of us no longer do most of our reading on physical books with physical covers, those same cover images now beckon us from their grids in the various online bookstores. From my days as a bookseller, when import titles would sometimes find their way into our store, I’ve always found it especially interesting that the U.K. and U.S. covers often differ from one another. This would seem to suggest that certain layouts and imagery will better appeal to readers on one side of the Atlantic rather than the other. These differences are especially striking when we look at the covers side by side. The American covers are on the left, and the UK are on the right. Your equally inexpert analysis is encouraged in the comments.
I much prefer the U.K. version here. The woodblock art is sublime, and the red and black are nice and bold.
A few weeks ago, whenever I told anyone I was reading Molly Ringwald’s novel-in-stories When it Happens to You, they either said, “Wow, cool!” or, “Ugh. Why?” To the latter, I replied, “Why not?” Ringwald has always presented herself as well-spoken and well-read, and being an actress isn’t necessarily a detriment to writing: after all, actors, like fiction writers, must inhabit characters and seek out a scene’s power. (And, dude, if you were in Pretty in Pink, you’re basically qualified to win a Nobel.)
I devoured When it Happens to You in a day or two. It was an engaging and pleasing read, with lines like, “Greta had always been most beautiful to him when emerging from water. Swimming pools, oceans, bath tubs.” Ringwald treats her characters with compassion, and I enjoyed seeing how each story would connect to the next. Overall, though, I was underwhelmed, perhaps because the territory mined is so familiar: there’s an affair, there are blah sentences like, “The color had drained from her face.” There’s even a description of a woman who, after almost being run over, raises “a furious fist” at the driver, like some irate extra in an action flick’s chase sequence. I longed for a more daring and complicated book; Ringwald has one in her future, I know it, but this isn’t it.
Even so, as I said, I devoured the novel, and, in general, enjoyed it. Its predictable content and structure were comforting, like a catchy pop song or a romantic comedy. You know, as Adorno might say, its familiarity helped me ward off death. Or something.
In a recent profile of Justin Cronin in the New York Times Magazine, Colson Whitehead is quoted as saying he’d “rather shoot [him]self in the face” than have another discussion about literature genres. I don’t blame him. When people ask me what kind of fiction I write, I usually say, “It’s about people,” and leave it at that. But as I read Ringwald’s book, I found myself pondering literary fiction: as a genre, as a taxonomical category. When It Happens to You, you see, is a sterling example of literary fiction, if we were to consider literary fiction as a straightforward genre like romance or science fiction, with certain expected tropes and motifs.
What, you ask, are some attributes of this genre? Read on, my friend, read on.
1. The Long Title
When it Happens to You is not only a long title, it’s also in the second person, as are many titles in the literary fiction category. I think we should blame Dave Eggers for starting this trend with his novel You Shall Know Our Velocity. Or maybe Miranda July‘s story collection, No One Belongs Here More Than You, really got things going. I, too, am guilty of joining the bandwagon with my hard-to-say novella title, If You’re Not Yet Like Me. Uwem Akpan demanded us to Say You’re One Of Them, and Elliott Holt will comply with her forthcoming You Are One Of Them. Ramona Ausubel’s debut, No One Is Here Except All of Us, switched things up with the first-person plural; perhaps she was inspired by fellow UC Irvine alumnus Joshua Ferris’s Then We Came to the End.
If Ringwald hadn’t chosen the long second-person title, she might have picked one with a full name, a la, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz, or Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain, or The Flight of Gemma Hardy by Margot Livesey, or Laura Lamont’s Life In Pictures by Emma Straub. Sheesh. I should call my next book And So Olivo D’Havellind and You Will Move Away From this Place I Call Home. It’s sure to win the Pulitzer.
A decade later, Sean Carman’s “Lessons Learned from My Study of Literature” still makes me laugh. But the third lesson, “The thing about adultery is it’s the highest expression of pure human freedom,” has its inverse as well: that adultery in literary fiction (and in real life, too, I presume) also leads to stress, despair, and a complicated regret. Let’s just go ahead and credit Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina for making extra-marital affairs in fiction so popular. Anton Chekhov also gets points for his enormously influential story, “The Lady with The Lap Dog.” And all contemporary tales of domestic unrest must also pay dues to Richard Yates’s Revolutionary Road, with its depiction of The Wheelers, an unhappy, unfaithful couple living in the suburbs. If you aren’t sure what kind of literary novel to write, I suggest starting with an English professor who has an affair with his (her?!) student while the wife (husband?! life partner?!) sculpts and flails at home. Abortion plot-line optional.
3. Scene, Exposition, Scene, Flashback, Scene, Cue Epiphany
The reader of literary genre fiction should feel the structure in her body, particularly with short stories. It’s a recognizable rhythm, it’s a shimmering in one’s veins as one moves from opening scene to well-placed background information to the next, more tense scene to that special, oh-so-revealing flashback about the time our protagonist ran over his rubber horse, or the time he knew he was in love with a real horse, or the time he — oh you see what I mean. In the genre of literary fiction, this structure must lead to a moment of revelation, suggested but never explained. The image of our protagonist in a Safeway parking lot, pushing his cart as if he were a cowboy riding a horse, the wind roughing up his hair, the distant neighs of horns in the far off distance. (Can you feel it? I can.) Let’s go ahead and give James Joyce his rightful due for such faintly falling, falling faintly moments of reverie and character change in literary fiction. (Damn that horse! Now I’m sobbing!)
4. A Dog barks, someone eats a watermelon, a car drives away.
In his terrific and funny Slate essay, Rosecrans Baldwin unveils how many authors write barking dogs into the backgrounds of their novels. Though he points out barking dogs in genre novels as well, I’d argue that you find them in literary fiction precisely because they show time passing. As Baldwin says, “Most authors…employ the trope as a narrative rest stop, an innocuous way to fill space and time.” In literary fiction, there is so little event, authors need that dang dog; without it, there’s only the mind, there’s only emotion, and the reader is floating in a vacuum. As James Wood has said of the aforementioned “The Lady With the Lap Dog,” Chekhov needs Gurov to eat a watermelon for half an hour in front of his new mistress in order to show time passing. Otherwise, nada is happening! For good measure, I suggest adding to your scene a car driving away. Or even better, the distant rumble of a motorcycle. Ooh. Yes.
5. The plate drops!
Years ago, Maud Newton lodged the phrase “tea towel fiction” in my brain, and it’s stuck with me. Newton quotes a judge for the Orange Prize, Katharine Viner, who said of the many submissions she read:
They are books with 500 pages discussing a subtle but allegedly profound shift within a relationship. They are books where intricate descriptions of a man taking a glass out of the dishwasher, taking a tea-towel off a rail, opening out the tea-towel, then delicately drying the glass with the tea-towel, before pouring a drink into the glass, signify that he has just been through a divorce.
This is a “nothing happens” book, the former it girl of literary genre fiction. In my classes, I like to describe these stories as: “A man and a woman buy dishes at the store. When they get home, she goes to lie down, barely talking, something unsettling her. A dog barks in the distance. The man starts to put the plates away, and one breaks. The end.” What I love about this kind of narrative is that it’s often deliciously readable. How is that possible? Of course, this kind of narrative is a bit out of vogue — there’s a new it girl on the scene. It’s the same man and woman, but now time travel or zombies or tiny people who live in walnuts are involved. Raymond Carver is to blame for the popularity of the first kind of narrative, with his profound stories of small actions, uninterested as they are in directly exploring the inner lives of characters. That genius George Saunders is to blame for the latter: damn him and his faxing cave man!
I have certainly missed other tropes of this rich and admired genre. Feel free to add more in the comments — I need some tips for my next story. (I’m thinking of making it about a woman named Edan Lepucki. Woh…woh…mind melt!)
My year in reading involved a couple dozen or so books, most of which I wrote about here, but it also involved, to a large extent, my favorite magazine, the New Yorker. I spent three or four out of every seven days this year reading that magazine. So, for my “Year in Reading” post, I thought I’d revisit all the time I spent reading the New Yorker this year, and in particular, the fiction. It turns out that nearly every one of the 52 stories that the New Yorker published this year is available online. I thought it might be fun to briefly revisit each story. It ended up taking quite a while, but it was rewarding to go back through all the stories. 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 also wanted to highlight a couple of blogs that did a great job of reacting to New Yorker fiction this year – you’ll find many links to them below – Both “Grendel” at Earthgoat and “SD Byrd” at Short Story Craft put together quality critiques of these stories. Now, without further ado, on to the fiction:January 3, “I am a Novelist” (not available online) by Ryu Murakami: This story by the other Murakami is about a famous novelist who is being impersonated by a man who frequents a “club” of the type often described in Japanese stories. The impostor runs up a huge bar tab and gets one of the hostesses pregnant. Murakami is best-known for his novel, Coin Locker Babies. Links: I Read a Short Story TodayJanuary 10, “Reading Lessons” by Edwidge Danticat: A Haitian immigrant elementary school teacher, a resident of Miami’s Little Haiti, is asked by her boss – and lover, “Principal Boyfriend” – to tutor the illiterate mothers of two of her students. In 2004, Danticat received much praise for her novel, The Dew Breaker and this year she put out a young adult novel called Anacaona, Golden Flower.January 17, “The Juniper Tree” by Lorrie Moore: I really had to jog my memory to remember this one. It starts out with a woman who puts off visiting her dying friend Robin in the hospital. She plans to go in the morning but Robin has already died. Who Will Run the Frog Hospital is Moore’s most recent collection. Links: Tingle Alley, Elegant VariationJanuary 24 & 31,”Ice” by Thomas McGuane: This story was more memorable. A young protagonist with a paper route is intimidated by a drum major. To overcome his fears he skates toward Canada on frozen Lake Erie as far as he dares. Presumably, this story will appear in McGuane’s upcoming collection, Gallatin Canyon. Links: I Read A Short Story TodayFebruary 7, “The Roads of Home” by John Updike: The middle-aged absentee owner of his family’s Pennsylvania farm, David Kern returns to his childhood home after a long absence, feeling guilty and a little disoriented. A standard Updike story. Updike has a new book coming out this year called Terrorist. Links: This story has inspired a field trip sponsored by The Alton Chronicles – AKA The John Updike Reality Project.February 14 & 21, “Up North” by Charles D’Ambrosio: City guy visits the inlaws for Thanksgiving at their hunting lodge. He goes hunting with the family men and finds out about some skeletons in the closet. I remember liking this story. I’m guessing this story will appear in D’Ambrosio’s new collection, The Dead Fish Museum.February 28,”The Conductor” by Aleksandar Hemon: The narrator and Dedo, two Bosnian poets, are reunited in America after the war. This memorable story contrasts the hardness of their Bosnian experience with their new lives on the American academic circuit. Touching and funny. Hemon’s written a novel, Nowhere Man, and a collection of stories, The Question of Bruno. Links: 3quarksdailyMarch 7, “The Gorge” by Umberto Eco: Italian boy and anarchist help Cassocks escape from Germans in war-torn Italy. Pretty straight-forward for a story by Eco, it turns out this piece was culled from his then-forthcoming novel, The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana. Links: Conversational Reading, A Roguish Chrestomathy, Unhappy with the New Yorker’s editing: The LaboratoriumMarch 14, “Della” by Anne Enright: I’d completely forgotten this story. It made no impression at all, but upon rereading I see that it’s a sad story about two old folks living next door to each other, one worrying the other is dead, and beneath its somber surface, there’s a little humor to it. Enright’s most recent book is The Pleasure of Eliza Lynch.March 21, “Men of Ireland” by William Trevor: I’ve never been a big fan of Trevor, his stories are a little too gray for my taste, but it can’t be denied that he’s a great storyteller. In this one a destitute man accuses his childhood priest of long ago improprieties. Though we can’t know the truth for sure, somehow, in this telling, both seem guilty. Trevor’s most recent collection is A Bit on the Side. Links: James Tata.March 28, “A Secret Station” by David Gates: A classic New Yorker story: An old man ruminates on his wasted life – multiple marriages and infidelities, dabbling in prescription drugs to dull the pain. But Gates paints the characters well and this is a good read. Gates is best known for his novel Preston Falls. Links: shes-krafty.com.April 4, “Solace” by Donald Antrim: I’ve always enjoyed Antrim’s stories. This one is sort of a romantic comedy about two disfunctional people who, due to difficult housing arrangements, must conduct their relationship only in borrowed apartments. Antrim’s memoir, The Afterlife, pieces of which have appeared in the New Yorker, will be published in May.April 11, “Mallam Sile” by Mohammed Naseehu Ali: Another good story, especially if you like exotic locales. This one is about the original 40-year-old virgin, a tea seller in Ghana. It is included in Ali’s recent collection, The Prophet of Zongo Street. Links: James Tata.April 18, “The Orlov-Sokolovs” by Ludmila Ulitskaya: I’ve had the impression for a while now that the New Yorker publishes a lot of stories by Russians, but perhaps it just seems this way because they loom so large on the page. This story is about a young couple that falls prey to Soviet bureaucracy. The story appears in Ulitskaya’s collection Sonechka.April 25, the only issue of the year with no fiction. Instead, a remembrance of Saul Bellow by Philip Roth.May 2, “Where I’m Likely to Find It” by Haruki Murakami: The first of three Murakami stories that appeared in the New Yorker (Yes, he does get in there a lot.) In this one, we have a typically-Murakami detached narrator who investigates missing people, but, this being Murakami, it’s not a typical mystery story. Murakami has a book coming out this year called Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman. Links: Earthgoat.May 9, “Along the Highways” by Nick Arvin: A sad fellow named Graham follows his brother’s widow and some guy named Doug as they drive out of Detroit for a weekend getaway. Graham does this out of jealousy and a misplaced protective instinct. It does not end well for him. Arvin’s debut novel, Articles of War, came out in 2005. Links: Earthgoat.May 16, “The Room” by William Trevor: The second of three Trevor stories in the New Yorker this year (Yes, he gets in there a lot, too.) Another gray story, but, of course, well-crafted. It’s about a woman who covered for her murderer husband and is now admitting everything to her the man she’s cheating on the murderer with. It sounds more thriller-like than it is. Links: Earthgoat.May 23, “Two’s Company” by Jonathan Franzen: Franzen goes Hollywood in this tight little story about a screenwriting couple that battles over a script that celebrates monogamy. There’s no Franzen fiction in the pipeline that I’m aware of, so if you haven’t read it already, ignore the hype and read The Corrections. It’s that good. Links: James Tata.May 30, “The Russian Riviera” by David Bezmozgis: This is a great story. One that I still remember well more than six months after I read it. There’s something about boxers. It seems they’re always getting suckered when all they want is a shot at the big time, like in a favorite movie of mine, On the Waterfront. Bezmozgis received much praise for his debut collection, Natasha. Links: Earthgoat.June 6 “A Mouthful of Cut Glass” by Tessa Hadley: Normally, I dislike Hadley’s stories, but this one stands out as better than the others I’ve read. It’s about being young and in love and the tendency that those so afflicted have to romanticize their partners. No false notes in this story. Hadley’s most recent book is Everything Will Be All Right. Links: Simply Wait, Earthgoat.June 13 & 20. Then came the Debut Fiction issue in which three stories appeared, “An Ex-Mas Feast” by Uwem Akpan, “The Laser Age” by Justin Tussing and “Haunting Olivia” by Karen Russell. I discussed the issue here. My favorite was the Akpan for its exotic setting. I was also impressed to learn that Russell was just 23. Of the three, only Tussing has a book on the way, The Best People in the World.June 27, “The Blow” by J.M. Coetzee (not available online): This novel excerpt (from Slow Man) is about an elderly amputee who, after at first resenting his caretaker, allows himself to be fatherly to her son. Good, but too long. I wish the New Yorker would do away with these novel excerpts. They’re not really short stories. Links: Conversational Reading, Earthgoat.July 4, “Ashes” by Cristina Henriquez: This story is set in Panama City and it’s about a young woman whose mother dies. Her family is already in tatters so it’s up to her to try to keep everything together. Henriquez’s debut collection, Come Together, Fall Apart comes out this year. Links: Simply Wait.July 11 & 18, “Long-Distance Client” by Allegra Goodman: This, I think, was my favorite story in the New Yorker this year. In it, Mel, the oldest employee at a tech start-up, bewildered by his coworkers, finds himself misaligned and in severe pain. He goes to an odd sort of chiropractor, Bobby, who, when not giving Mel the runaround, is able to straighten him out. But Bobby claims to have a client that he treats over the phone, and the truth behind Bobby’s claim becomes the quirky question at the heart of this story. Goodman has a new novel coming out soon, Intuition. Links: Earthgoat.July 25, “Awaiting Orders” by Tobias Wolff: The masterful Wolff puts together a brief story that deftly circles the topic of gays in the military. It’s funny that now that we’re at war, the once popular gays in the military controversy is old, old news, and, somehow, without being obvious, Wolff manages to highlight that irony. Wolff’s most recent book is Old School. Links: Earthgoat.August 1, “Commcomm” by George Saunders: There’s no one writing like George Saunders. “Commcomm” is too weird to briefly summarize, but in typical Saunders fashion, he places us in an alternate and oddly terrifying universe where people talk like zombies yet somehow remind us of people we interact with every day. “Commcomm” includes an element I’d never seen before in a Saunders story: ghosts. Saunders’ new collection, In Persuasion Nation will come out this summer. Links: standBy Bert (featuring an appearance by Saunders in the comments), Earthgoat.August 8 & 15, “Gomez Palacio” by Roberto Bolano (Not available online): A somewhat oblique story, this one is about a young man teaching in Gomez Palacio. Both he and the director of the school are poets and they’re a little odd. They go for a long drive together. That’s about all that happens. A new book by Bolano is coming out this year: The Last Evenings on Earth. Links: Earthgoat.August 22, “Thicker Than Water” by Gina Ochsner: This story is about a Latvian girl who lives across the street from a family of Jews. Latvia being what it is I suppose, her parents are suspicious of these people, but she is fascinated by them. In the end, there is an ill-fated chess tournament. Ochsner’s most recent book is People I Wanted to Be. Links: Earthgoat. August 29, “The View from Castle Rock” by Alice Munro: An unusual setting for a Munroe story – a ship heading for Canada in 1818. I like Munroe’s stories generally and this one is no exception, though the drama at the center of this long story – a young man who meets a well off father and daughter who tantalizingly offer to lift him from his poorer circumstances so that he must choose between his family and the promise of a better life – it’s a bit trite. Munro’s most recent collection is Runaway. Links: literarylover, mike.whybark.com, Earthgoat.September 5, “Club Des Amis” by Tony D’Souza: Mr. Wu, who lies at the center of this story, is a Chinese man in Africa. The narrator is a Western aid worker, and he relates how Wu’s son “went native” and died in the bush and now Wu is trying to be a distant benefactor to the son his son had with a native woman. I’m a fan of exotic locales, so I liked this one. This story appears to be an excerpt from D’Souza’s forthcoming novel, Whiteman.September 12, “Coping Stones” by Ann Beattie: A very good story that asks how well do we really know the people we think we know. A widower, Dr. Cahill, rents a house on his property to a young man, Matt, who he treats as a son, but one day the authorities come looking for Matt. Beattie’s most recent collection of stories is Follies.September 19, “Cowboy” by Thomas McGuane: This story is about An old cowboy who hires a young cowboy to work with him. Both exist under the watchful eye of the old cowboy’s sister, who eventually dies. I think this story is about friendship, really, one that grows slowly over many years. This story will appear in McGuane’s collection, Gallatin Canyon. Links: Literarylover.September 26, “The Kidney-Shaped Stone That Moves Every Day” by Haruki Murakami: What if you knew in advance that you would only love three women (or men) in your life? Would you worry, with each new person you met, whether he or she was one of three. This is Junpei’s problem and it makes relationships pretty tough for him. Links: shake it off.October 3, “Companion” by Sana Krasikov: I enjoyed this story. Ilona, thrice divorced we quickly learn, is living with Earl, a man much her senior, not because she is “with” him but because she is in financial straits and he has offered her a room. This makes pursuing her love life difficult and all of her friends somewhat snidely assume Ilona and Earl are together. Earl’s family meanwhile is quite suspicious of her. I like the desperation in this story. A sample description: “The air was stale with the yeasty scent of bread.”October 10, “Early Music” by Jeffrey Eugenides: Another story of desperation. Rodney just wants to play “early music” on his clavichord, but he and his wife Rebecca are in serious debt. She is trying to make ends meet with her ridiculous invention, Mice ‘n’ Warm. His precious clavichord on the verge of being repossessed, Rodney watches his life’s dream slipping away. Eugenides’ most recent book is Middlesex.October 17, “Path Lights” by Tom Drury: A bottle falls out of the sky – no, it’s not The Gods Must Be Crazy – and almost hits Bobby. He becomes obsessed with this bottle, Blind Street Ale, and eventually tracks down the bottle-thrower, but it’s awkward. This story may be an excerpt from Drury’s forthcoming novel, Driftless Area. Links: Short Story Craft.October 24, “Summer Crossing” by Truman Capote (not available online): This is an excerpt from a long-lost, recently found Capote novel. The story is well-crafted, if a bit formulaic. Rich girl gets mixed up with tough guy who she thinks she can “save.” You can tell that Capote wrote this when he was young – he was only 19 – but still, his talent is evident. Links: Earthgoat.October 31, “The Children” by William Trevor: Another Trevor story, the final one of the year, and he uses the same palate we’re used to, the scrubby Irish countryside. Young Connie and her father Robert suffer the death of a mother and wife and when he decides to marry the mother of Connie’s friend, we think all might be well, but as Robert new wife Theresa discovers, “nothing was as tidy as she’d imagined.”November 7, “God of War” by Marisa Silver: A daring choice of main character, the troubled child Ares, is at the heart of this story. Set near the desolate Salton Sea, this story covers Ares’ relationship with his brother Malcolm, whose inability to speak Ares may have caused, thus dooming them both. Silver’s most recent book is No Direction Home. Links: Wuff.November 14, “The Best Year of My Life” by Paul Theroux: A young man and woman are in love but nonetheless, she is pregnant with his baby. To escape scrutiny (the story is set in an earlier time), they hide out in Puerto Rico, where they are miserable, but somehow find the experience heartening. If there’s anything I enjoy as much as stories with exotic locales, it’s stories in which the protagonists travel. Theroux’s most recent book is Blinding Light. Links: Short Story CraftNovember 21, “The Year of Spaghetti” by Haruki Murakami: One of the weakest stories to appear in the New Yorker this year. Murakami brings us a guy who eats a lot of spaghetti, then a girl calls looking for an old friend of his, the narrator demurs and returns to cooking spaghetti. That’s about the extent of it. Murakami has a book coming out this year called Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman. Links: Earthgoat, Short Story Craft.November 28, “Love and Obstacles” by Aleksandar Hemon: I loved this story; exotic locale,traveling, etc. An adolescent Croatian (I think) narrator is sent by his family to buy a freezer in Slovenia. Desperate for adventure, he treats this errand as though he were a wandering poet, but he turns out to be more bumbling than anything else. Funny and poignant. Hemon’s written a novel, Nowhere Man, and a collection of stories, The Question of Bruno. Links: Short Story Craft, The Glory of Carniola.December 5, “Wenlock Edge” by Alice Munro: This was one of my favorite stories of the year. It starts out very predictably before taking a deliciously strange turn. I won’t ruin it for you, but basically our narrator gets thrown in with an oddball roommate in college, and this roommate lures her into some odd situations. Munro’s most recent collection is Runaway. Links: Short Story Craft.December 12, “La Conchita” by T.C. Boyle: Boyle, a California resident, loves to make use of his home state’s frequent natural disasters in his fiction. In this story, we’re dealing with mudslides, which impede the route of the narrator who is delivering a kidney for transplantation. He is on a journey to save a life but he stops on the way to try to save another. Boyle has a book coming out this year called Talk Talk.December 19, “Twenty Grand” by Rebecca Curtis: A pretty good story. A harried young mother is forced to give away an old coin – a family heirloom – at a toll booth, only later discovering the coin’s real value. The story is told from the perspective of the young daughter. Links: Short Story CraftDecember 26 & January 2, The year ended with the International Fiction Issue. It contains five stories. In lieu of descriptions, I’ll rank them in order of my favorite to least favorite and provide links when available. “Last Evenings on Earth” by Roberto Bolano, “The Albanian Writers’ Union as Mirrored by a Woman” by Ismail Kadare, “Beauty is a Fate Better Than Death” by Tahar Ben Jelloun, “Pregnancy Diary” by Yoko Ogawa, “The Word” by Vladimir Nabokov. Links: Literary Saloon.If you want to keep up with the fiction next year, you can always subscribe.
As the media phenomenon du jour, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows has put pressure on the commentariat to provide Potter-related context or controversy – anything to get readers to spend a few minutes with us, rather than J.K. Rowling! And herein lies a danger: in our zeal to ride Harry’s coattails (broomstick?) to glory, we Muggles are tempted to wave a wand over our own preconceptions and imagine them transfigured into news. In that vein, an article in last week’s Washington Post provoked our interest here at The Millions, while contradicting my own sense of how the Potter books function within the enchanted kingdom of childhood. I specifically remembered Cynthia Oakes, a middle-school librarian at the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools, telling me some years ago about a book her students had gone wild for, and recommending I check out Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Hoping to get some ground-level perspective on Pottermania, I got in touch with her (which wasn’t hard; she’s my mother-in-law) and asked if she’d mind revisiting the Potter books in a bit more depth. I had misplaced my Quick-Quotes Quills, but she graciously consented to be interviewed through the magic of email. [Editor’s note: Scroll down to view Oakes’ post-Hogwarts syllabus.]Opening the Chamber of Secrets“There is a wonderful bookstore in Hyde Park,” Oakes told me, “57th Street Books, where my colleagues and I often go to buy the latest children’s and young-adult titles. The children’s buyer at the time, author Franny Billingsley (The Folk Keeper), told us that there was a new British fantasy novel out, and the word in England was that it was wildly popular. We bought a copy, read it, liked it, recommended it to a couple of kids, and put it on our summer reading list. By the end of the summer, the idea of our introducing anyone to Harry Potter was beyond laughable. That’s how quickly it became a phenomenon. Kids told kids, who told other kids, who told still more kids – and that was that.”Initially, adults were out of the loop – which was great! It was remarkable, from my point of view, to see any book capture these kids’ imaginations and hearts so completely.” Oakes offered some further context: “This was right around time that the term ‘digital natives’ was being coined. As school librarians we were being led to believe that the future, and especially our future, lay in the Internet – that students were no longer interested in print. Then the iPod came out; once again, we were told that the future lay in digital whatever… and suddenly our middle school library alone had to buy seven copies of Sorcerer’s Stone. All copies were instantly checked out and the hold list was huge.“Then kids learned that the sequel was out in England. It was unprecedented to have them beg their parents to plan summer vacations to the UK around the publication of a book. One family, who actually did vacation in the UK that summer, brought back a copy of Chamber of Secrets. We ended up buying four copies of the next two installments. After that, kids were buying the books for themselves so we didn’t need to invest quite so heavily in order to provide access. We now have two shelves of the library devoted to six titles. I’m not sure if we’ll need to buy more than one copy of the latest book, since the sales of this title have been astronomical. I can assure you that no other series even come close to it in popularity.”Apropos of families vacationing across the pond, Oakes said she couldn’t generalize about any connections between the books’ success and social class. But as Chicago’s Lab School is a well-regarded private school, she could attest to the books’ strong appeal to upper-middle class, affluent kids. That appeal, she noted, “doesn’t seem to be contingent upon gender or race.”A Hogwarts of the Mind“I think what makes these books so seductive,” Oakes told me, “is that the world Rowling has created is a world kids really, really, really want to live in. Actually live in, not just imagine living in. They want to eat the candy, ride the train, wear the uniforms, own the brooms, play the games, study the magic, get mail from the owls, look at the maps, and spy from the folds of an invisible cape. Who wouldn’t want to be a member of the Weasley family? And who wouldn’t want Ron, Hermione, or Harry for a friend? Or Hagrid for a teacher? I am always amazed at how even a 14-year-old will still harbor the secret hope that Hogwarts is real.” Oakes remembers “being quite surprised when a fifth-grader confided in me that he was not able to get the spells to work. He wondered what he was doing wrong and he looked so forlorn while furtively whispering all this to me.”From a literary point of view, I’m not the first person to observe that these books are unique in combining the most popular of children’s literary genres into one rollicking story: horror, sports, adventure, school story, fantasy, romance, animal fantasy, family problems, etc. That gives them appeal among a broad array of readers. In addition, they are page-turners for kids who love plot-driven books and have satisfying characters for kids who prefer character-driven novels. It doesn’t hurt that the central character is a misfit without parents… a key ingredient to most successful children’s lit. What child, tethered to family and home, wouldn’t love to step through a magic portal where she instantly becomes the hero of the universe?“One must also remark on their unusual length. A 900-page kids book? Unheard of. And equally rare is a sequel that doesn’t have an ‘our-story-so-far’ component. Rowling rightly acknowledges the depth of her fans’ understanding of all the previous books by jumping right into the thick of the story. It is very difficult to read Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban without having read Sorcerer’s Stone and Chamber of Secrets. And if you are starting with Book Seven, forget it!”Dark Art“My experience has taught me that kids will rarely choose to read a book that isn’t entertaining and will avoid an instructive book as if it had spattergroit,” Oakes continued. “This isn’t to say that they avoid books with ideas. I harbor the belief that they prefer them. The Potter books are entertaining, but darkly so. They deal with real evil – Voldemort is crueler than the cruelest classmate. Harry has to wrestle with whatever part he may have played in his own parents’ death. Thoughtless actions in these books have far-reaching and horrific consequences.”This is also more psychologically nuanced fantasy world than many contemporary books offer, with every character suffering from his own particular character flaw. Yet a truly noble and ethical solution to every problem is always apparent. I believe that our kids long for that sort of clearly delineated ethical world.They are discovering that the adults around them, much like Dumbledore, are not perfect. They want their friends, just like Ron, always to return to them. And they want Harry to make the right choices (perhaps because if he does, then they will). The books instruct, then, in the way the best books do: by allowing the characters to fail. Whether or not the Potter books are helping to define anyone’s moral universe, I can’t tell. But contrary to the opinions of some commentators, they surely aren’t destroying anyone’s moral universe…”She ventured a critique: “I know the books are flawed, and most of the books – certainly Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, could have used a seriously talented editor. Or just an editor.” Still, she said, “They are remarkable. It’s not popular to admit it, but when I read the first book I had to get up at three a.m. to finish it. As an unreconstructed bibliophile, of course I love these books… I am a fan.”Fresh out of veritaserum, I tested the truth of this last assertion by asking Oakes some targeted questions. Her favorite character? “As a woman and an educator, I have to love Professor McGonagall.” Favorite villain(s)? “The dementors. I’ve certainly run across my share of soul-suckers and they scare me to death.” Favorite setting? “I love Hogwarts and wish that I worked there. It has an amazing library and I would love to recommend books to Hermione. And have her recommend a few to me! Not to mention the fact that I’d get to hide from and/or fight trolls, death-eaters, and so on.”Ordinary Wizarding Levels (O.W.L.s)“Most assuredly there is a social aspect to the Harry Potter phenomenon,” Oakes said. “Kids sit around for HOURS discussing all the ins and outs of the books. They join online discussion groups, download podcasts, and know every website devoted to Harry. They create group Halloween costumes. In fact, fans were so enthralled by the books that they rushed into the library (en masse) the second, the very second, the cover art for Book Seven had been revealed. We had to display it at the circulation desk. (I mean, our credibility would have taken a serious nose dive if we hadn’t.) Then, they congregated around the printout of the cover and discussed THAT for hours.”I asked her if kids outgrow Harry. “Some students lose interest (or say they do), but a remarkable number do not. I overheard many conversations in the high school hallway prior to Book Seven that centered around horcruxes, Harry, and death. Our high-school librarians have all the Potter books on the shelves. The fifth grade to whom we recommended the first book graduated last year. So most of these kids grew up reading Harry Potter. I’ve watched high-school students sneak back into the middle school library to keep up on their favorite series books and their favorite authors. And I say, good for them!” No Argus Filch, my mother-in-law.”As for the hoopla,” she said, “the books have been very good for children and for young-adult publishing… Their sheer popularity forced The New York Times to create a children’s literature bestseller list. (Ha!) These days our kids are reading just as much as – if not more than – they did before.”As we’d discussed, “J.K. Rowling came at a crucial moment… However, I do wish the publishers would realize there isn’t going to be another Harry Potter and ease up on all the fantasy that’s coming down the pike. I worry that really good young-adult novels are getting overlooked. The hoopla has also turned off many new young readers. Whereas the initial impetus to read the books came from kids, there’s now a huge media machine cramming those same books down our collective throat.”Flourish and BlottsI asked Oakes if she could elaborate on “the good stuff” by furnishing Millions readers with some recommendations for post-Hogwarts reading. “Middle schoolers love serial storytelling,” she said. “That is part of the success of the Harry Potter books. I can think of many recent series that have met with remarkable success: the Alex Rider series, the Warriors series, the Princess Diary series, the Eragon series, the Spiderwick Chronicles – to name a few off the top of my head. Students will request the next book in the series sometimes months in advance. Because of Amazon.com, they know approximately when the book will be published. We librarians are forced, more than ever, to stay on top of things. However, I can think of no other book or series that would compel students and parents to attend a midnight party in order to obtain the sequel. That is purely a Harry Potter thing. We’ve had kids counting down the days to publication since December.”I would love for kids to love J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, because they are such elegant writers. Certainly there are kids who read Tolkien and Lewis, and often prefer it, but it doesn’t follow that a Potter fan is automatically a Bilbo Baggins fan. Tolkien is much harder to read, for one thing, and the works of C.S. Lewis don’t feel as contemporary as Rowling’s do. The latest, coolest reading trend amongst my students is graphic novels.”When recommending a book to Potter enthusiasts, Oakes always asks, “What part of Harry Potter is your favorite part? The school, the family problems, the sports, horror, the magic…?” Then, she says, “I come up with some titles based on the answer. It’s surprising to me how often students want to read about boarding schools and about all things English… and I can’t resist recommending the great contemporary English author Hilary McKay. Read The Exiles and see if you can stop reading the rest of her work. It’s not fantasy, but it is quintessentially English.”She went on to offer a post-Hogwarts syllabus of fantasy books:Young Adult/Older ReadersUrsula K.Leguin. The Earthsea Cycle. (A quest series with wizards and dragons.)Patricia McKillup. The Riddle-Master of Hed. (A quest series with wizards and mysteries.)Garth Nix. The Abhorsen Trilogy. (A dark fantasy that features necromancy and romance.)Philip Pullman. His Dark Materials. (Parallel worlds that collide in Oxford. As much science-fiction as fantasy.)Middle ReadersLloyd Alexander. The Chronicles of Prydain. (A quest series with an oracular pig; highly recommended byThe Millions.)Eoin Colfer. Artemis Fowl. (Contemporary magic which relies on technology. Spies!)Diana Wynne Jones. The Chronicles of Chrestomanci. (Parallel worlds; magic; families in all their dysfunction and glory.)Jenny Nimmo. Children of the Red King. (Wizards go to a school quite different from Hogwarts!)”Many kids don’t want to be perceived as Potter groupies,” Oakes noted. “It’s interesting, though, how many will reluctantly pick one of the books up, then get sucked right in to the world Rowling has created. It is almost impossible to resist the spell of the Potter books. Having said that, I’ll be very curious to see how they age.”