Like we did last year, we’re going to have a little fun comparing the U.S. and U.K. book cover designs of this year’s Rooster contenders. Book cover design is a strange exercise in which one attempts to distill iconic imagery from hundreds of pages of text. Engaging the audience is the name of the game here. and it’s interesting to see how the different audiences and sensibilities on either side of the Atlantic 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 encouraged in the comments.
We wouldn’t dream of abandoning our vast semi–annual Most Anticipated Book Previews, but we thought a monthly reminder would be helpful (and give us a chance to note titles we missed the first time around). Here’s what we’re looking out for this month. For more February titles — and there are a ton — check out the Great First-Half 2017 Preview.
Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders: For Saunders fans, the prospect of a full-length novel from the short-story master has been something to speculate upon, if not actually expect. Yet Lincoln in the Bardo is a full 368-page blast of Saunders — dealing in the 1862 death of Abraham Lincoln’s son, the escalating Civil War, and, of course, Buddhist philosophy. Saunders has compared the process of writing longer fiction to “building custom yurts and then somebody commissioned a mansion” — and Saunders’s first novel is unlikely to resemble any other mansion on the block. (Jacob)
To Be a Machine by Mark O’Connell: Millions staffer and author of Millions Original Epic Fail O’Connell brings his superb writing and signature wit and empathy to a nonfiction exploration of the transhumanist movement, complete with cryogenic freezing, robots, and an unlikely presidential bid from the first transhumanist candidate. O’Connell’s sensibility — his humanity, if you will — and his subject matter are a match made in heaven. It’s an absolutely wonderful book, but don’t take my non-impartial word for it: Nicholson Baker and Margaret Atwood have plugged it too. (Lydia)
Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life by Yiyun Li: The Oakland-based Li delivers this memoir of chronic depression and a life lived with books. Weaving sharp literary criticism with a perceptive narrative about her life as an immigrant in America, Your Life isn’t as interested in exploring how literature helps us make sense of ourselves as it is in how literature situates us amongst others. (Ismail)
The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen: Pulitzer Prize Winner Nguyen’s short story collection The Refugees has already received starred pre-publication reviews from Kirkus Reviews and Publishers Weekly, among others. Nguyen’s brilliant new work of fiction offers vivid and intimate portrayals of characters and explores identity, war, and loss in stories collected over a period of two decades. (Zoë)
Shadowbahn by Steve Erickson: Well, it sounds like it’s got it all: the Badlands, the Twin Towers, Elvis’s resurrected twin brother, all put together to create what Jonathan Lethem called “a playlist for the dying American century.” He told Granta this was the best novel he read all year. (Lydia)
Amiable with Big Teeth by Claude McKay: A significant figure in the Harlem Renaissance, McKay is best-known for his novel Home to Harlem — which was criticized by W.E.B. Dubois for portraying black people (i.e. Harlem nightlife) as prurient — “after the dirtier parts of its filth I feel distinctly like taking a bath.” The novel went on to win the prestigious (if short-lived) Harmon Gold Medal and is widely praised for its sensual and brutal accuracy. In 2009, UPenn English professor Jean-Christophe Cloutier discovered the unpublished Amiable with Big Teeth in the papers of notorious, groundbreaking publisher Samuel Roth. A collaboration between Cloutier and Brent Hayes Edwards, a long-awaited, edited, scholarly edition of the novel will be released by Penguin in February. (Sonya)
The Schooldays of Jesus by J.M. Coetzee: This sequel to the Nobel Prize-winning South African author’s 2013 novel The Childhood of Jesus picks up shortly after Simón and Inés flee from authorities with their adopted son, David. Childhood was a sometimes thin-feeling allegory of immigration that found Coetzee meditating with some of his perennial concerns — cultural memory, language, naming, and state violence — at the expense of his characters. In Schooldays, the allegorical element recedes somewhat into the background as Coetzee tells the story of David’s enrollment in a dance school, his discovery of his passion for dancing, and his disturbing encounters with adult authority. This one was longlisted for the 2016 Man Booker Prize. (Ismail)
A Separation by Katie Kitamura: A sere and unsettling portrait of a marriage come undone, critics are hailing Kitamura’s third book as “mesmerizing” and “magnificent.” The narrator, a translator, goes to a remote part of Greece in search of her serially unfaithful husband, only to be further unmoored from any sense that she (and in turn the reader) had of the contours of their shared life. Blurbed by no fewer than six literary heavyweights — Rivka Galchen, Jenny Offill, Leslie Jamison, Teju Cole, Rachel Kushner, and Karl Ove Knausgaard — A Separation looks poised to be the literary Gone Girl of 2017. (Kirstin B.)
The Weight of Him by Ethel Rohan: Set in rural Ireland, the accomplished short-story writer’s debut novel takes on suicide, grief, overeating, and getting on. A novel that “that speaks to the essential core of our shared human experience,” says Robert Olen Butler. (Lydia)
Harmless Like You by Rowan Hisayo Buchanan: A debut about motherhood, art, and living across cultures focusing on a young Japanese woman who abandons her son. Alexander Chee says it is “the kind of novel our century deserves.” (Lydia)
Lower Ed by Tressie McMillan Cottom: Academic and Twitter eminence McMillan Cottom tackles a subject that, given a recent spate of lawsuits, investigations, and closings, was front-page news for a good part of 2016. Drawing on interviews with students, activists, and executives at for-profit colleges and universities, Lower Ed aims to connect the rise of such institutions with ballooning levels of debt and larger trends of income inequality across the U.S. (Kirstin B.)
This past weekend, Haruki Murakami appeared at U.C. Berkeley’s Zellerbach Auditorium for a reading of his short stories and a wide-ranging conversation about his work and life. Despite my disappointment with his recent work, Murakami ranks as one of my favorite writers, and it was a pleasure to finally see the notoriously shy writer in person.Zellerbach is a big venue, at least 800 seats, and in an age when lit pundits constantly bemoan the future of literature, I was surprised when I attempted to buy tickets several weeks ago only to find they were sold out. Thanks to the timely intervention of a friend, however, I managed to get a decent seat in the mezzanine, and spent two and a half enjoyable hours laughing along with the capacity crowd at Murakami’s understated humor.During the first part of the program, Murakami read “The Rise and Fall of Sharpie Cakes” (from Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman) The story, written in the early stages of his career, is a parable about the Japanese literary world and its reception of his first novel. In classic Murakami style, the story follows a Japanese everyman whose seemingly normal life descends into the bizarre. In this case, after responding to a newspaper ad, he finds himself baking cakes for a competition that is judged by cannibalistic crows. The story, in turns hilarious and gruesome, received a warm reception from the audience, with several people, strangely, even laughing at the grim denouement.”Sharpie Cakes” was followed by a fascinating discussion on writing between Murakami and Roland Kelts, a writer and lecturer at the University of Tokyo, and questions from the audience. The conversation ranged from Murakami’s obsession with jogging to Carl Jung, hitting most of the stops in between, including hints about his newest novel. Some of the highlights (in no particular order and paraphrased in places):On Reader’s Questions: Apparently Murakami actually answers all of his fan mail personally. “I like stupid questions. A guy sent me an email about squid. He asked ‘are their tentacles hands or feet?’ I told him he should give a squid ten pairs of gloves and ten pairs of socks and see what happens.”On Inspiration: “I’m observing things, not making them up… I’m not nationalist, I don’t write for my country, but for my people… I don’t think with my brain. I like my keyboard. I think with my fingers. When I write, it’s just a simple joy… I can write about torture, about skinning someone alive. But it’s still heartwarming…”On his obsessions: “Elephants, sofas, refrigerators, wells, cats, ears. These things help me to write.”On video games: “Writing a story for me is just like playing a video game. I start with a word or idea, then I stick out my hand to catch what’s coming next. I’m a player, and at the same time, I’m a programmer. It’s kind of like playing chess by yourself. When you’re the white player, you don’t think about the black player. It’s possible, but it’s hard. It’s kind of schizophrenic.”On dreams: “I don’t dream. I use my dreams when I write. I dream when I’m awake. That’s the job of a novelist. You can dream a dream intentionally. When you’re sleeping and you have a nice dream, you’re eating or with a woman, you might wake up at the best part. I get to keep dreaming. It’s great.”On his next novel: He finished it last week. Apparently, it’s going to be a doorstop. “I hope you’re not a commuter… The new novel is in the third person, from beginning to end. I need that room, because the story is getting more complicated. I need many perspectives.”On translations of his own work: “I’m a translator myself. I believe in my translations. If the story is strong enough, it will be translated rightly. I’m a novelist, not a linguist. If the story’s good, it will move you. That’s the important thing. It’s embarrassing for me to read my own work in Japanese. I enjoy the translations of my novels in English, because it’s not what I wrote. I forget what I wrote, and I turn the pages, excited to find out what will happen next.”On Catcher in the Rye (which he translated several years ago): “It’s a dark story, very disturbing. I enjoyed it when I was seventeen, so I decided to translate it. I remembered it as being funny, but it’s dark and strong. I must have been disturbed, when I was young. J.D. Salinger has a big obsession, three times bigger than mine. That’s why I’m here tonight, and he isn’t.”On Revision: “The first draft is most important. I have to go through and adjust small things, contradictions. When I stared writing The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, I wrote for an hour, and immediately I felt something was wrong. There was too much going on, so I pulled out that part of the story and wrote another book, South of the Border, West of the Sun.”On his favorite music: “I listen to classical music in the morning, jazz in the evening. I listen to rock when I’m driving. I like Radiohead (big round of applause). I like REM, Beck, the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Thome Yorke is a reader of mine. He’s in Tokyo now, and he wanted to meet me, but I had to be here. It’s a huge sacrifice for me… I sing “Yellow Submarine” while I swim. It’s sounds like bubbling. It’s great. I recommend you try it… I loved the Beach Boys when I was younger. I met Brian Wilson when he came to Tokyo. He’s strange.”On Berkeley: “Something’s wrong with this town.”Bonus Link: A Rare Treat for Murakami Fans: Pinball, 1973
I created my reading queue about a year and half ago because I decided I needed a system to help me work through my big to be read pile. The main problem, as I wrote at the time, was that there were a number of books in my TBR pile that I was interested in reading but never seemed to get around to. A newer, more exciting book would come along and it would vault to the top of the pile and other books would languish, unread.Part of the problem is how I read. I read fairly quickly, but I don’t spend a lot of my day reading books. I spend a lot of time on this here computer, for one thing. Plus, every day I read the newspaper and every week I read the New Yorker from cover to cover. I’ll probably read about 30 books this year, not a lot when you consider my TBR pile is more than 40 books tall. Though I’d love to be able to read two or three books a week, I don’t really mind my slower pace. Still, I didn’t like the idea of books staring at me year after year unread, so I created the reading queue.As you can see if you check out the queue near the bottom of the right hand column, I alphabetize my TBR pile by author and then assign each book a number. When the time comes to pick my next book to read, I use a random number generator to decide for me. I know, it’s impossibly nerdy, but I’ve decided I like handling my reading decisions this way.For one thing, it is in keeping with certain compulsive tendencies I have about organizing things (although, sadly, those tendencies don’t cause me to clean off my desk with any regularity, for example), and each new book I pick to read is a little surprise rather than an agonizing decision (well, maybe it’s not that bad). The only time I read a book out of order is if a publisher or author has sent me an advance copy and I want to make sure I read and review it when it comes out. Those I bump right to the top of the list. But if I go buy a book or get one as a gift, it goes into the queue. Maybe I’ll read it next week, maybe I’ll read it in five years; the reading queue will decide.I’m probably the only odd bird out there who feels a need to organize their reading this way, but if anyone else has a reading queue of their own, I’d love to hear about it.
It’s no secret that newspaper book sections are endangered. Earlier this month, the Atlanta Journal Constitution eliminated its book editor position, placing the fate of the paper’s well regarded book section in question. Many are assuming the worst, that the newspaper will eliminate the section entirely. There’s even a petition to protect the AJC book review.With newspapers increasingly under fire from investors as once robust profit margins sag due to unprecedented competition from the Web and other forms of media and entertainment, many of these companies are looking to trim their operations in order to cut down on the costs of newsprint and personnel. Viewed in this light, book sections are dead weight.The problem is that the book section business model is broken. As The Wall Street Journal reported (sub. req.) last month, publishers, the natural advertisers for book sections, don’t spend much on ads because they find the ads to be too expensive or ineffective. This fact puts book sections at a big disadvantage as compared to other parts of the newspaper, all of which must pull their weight. Business sections, for example, do well because the financial profile of their readers inspires a willingness among advertisers to spend big bucks to reach them.The broken business model of book sections has led a number of newspapers to take drastic steps. To this end, the LA Times recently unveiled a combined books/opinion section. The Chicago Tribune, the LA Times’ sister paper, has taken a different tack, announcing that it will move its book section from Sunday to Saturday. The Tribune says that this move will “usher in a new era of the Tribune’s coverage of books, expanding our coverage of books, ideas and the written word throughout the newspaper and across the week.” In addition, “moving the section to Saturday will separate it from the Sunday newspaper, which already is bursting at the seams with essential reading, and make a prominent place for it on a new day of the week.” This is all well and good – and certainly better than eliminating the book section altogether – but as the Chicago Reader noted over a year ago, when the book section switch was originally floated, “Saturday’s press run is some 400,000 copies smaller than Sunday’s. The annual savings in newsprint alone would reach half a million dollars.” When the Tribune realized that stuffing an extra section into the Saturday paper would require them to pay their distributors more, they backed off, and converted the section to tabloid format, another newsprint saver. Seventeen months later, the paper appears to have realized that a switch to Saturday makes financial sense after all.Ultimately, however, none of these measures will be satisfying to book section readers, and the fact is, except perhaps at the New York Times, there is little future for book sections showing up with our Sunday papers. The future of newspapers isn’t in paper, and the same is doubly so for book sections.I’ve been surprised that the many blogs that have decried the disappearance of book sections are the same ones that point out the obsolescence of newspapers – particularly their cultural coverage – in the face of a wealth of online alternatives. If our newspapers are going to be obsolete, our book sections will become obsolete as well. The tricky solution to all of this, of course, is the very medium that continues to beguile newspapers: online. There are still challenges here – as yet online ads don’t pay nearly as well as print – but as book blogs have in some respects shown, there is a big audience for online book coverage, and online allows the discussion of books to break out of the “review” mold that may be contributing to the decline in the viability of newspaper book sections. The important thing to remember, I think, is that the disappearance of book sections isn’t a book section problem, it’s a newspaper industry problem, and the solution to book section woes will come with the solutions to the larger newspaper industry problems.