Like we did last year, 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 design never seems to garner much discussion in the literary world, but, as readers, we are undoubtedly swayed by the little billboard that is the cover of every book we read. Even in the age of the Kindle, we are clicking through the images as we impulsively download this book or that one. I’ve always found it especially interesting that the U.K. and U.S. covers often differ from one another, suggesting 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 clicking through takes you to a page where you can get a larger image. Your equally inexpert analysis is encouraged in the comments.
What if right now is the golden age of the book, or even the golden age of literary fiction? What if we are living in the golden age of reading, writing, and criticism? But all around us, the dominant trope of the day is death.Is it possible that a decade of poor management at newspaper companies amid shifting media paradigms has led people to think that literature is on its deathbed? Are books dead? Is literature dead? Is criticism dead? Are we facing, as a panel hosted by the Columbia Journalism Review asks tonight, “The Case of the Vanishing Book Review?”Speaking on a Literary Writers Conference panel a year ago Morgan Entrekin, president and publisher of Grove/Atlantic, taking measure of the times, said,Young people don’t read newspapers… The big reviews don’t have the impact that they used to, and I think that one of the things that I’m worried about and trying to figure out is what are we going to do, how’re we going to get people in the conversation about literary fiction, and I don’t know the answer… Barnes & Noble and Borders have wonderful selections of books, and they’re in communities that never used to have bookstores, but they don’t always have the same relationship with their customer that a local bookseller did, and what you used to be able to do with literary fiction was seed it within those local booksellers around the country, get them reading and talking about it.He goes on to say, “The Internet is an obvious way to do it with community.” While Entrekin, if you read the rest of his remarks, is actually fairly optimistic, the rhetoric from many (and particularly from some of the National Book Critics Circle’s more vocal members) has centered on loss, even as the rush to fill the gap with not just blogs but with communities like LibraryThing and GoodReads has created a literary landscape that, while it may not serve the critical establishment, represents a net gain for anyone likes to read and to talk to other readers. In fact, some find being a reader right now to be genuinely exciting.Back when I first started this blog, before it seemed possible to me that it could be anything more than a place to share some thoughts about books with some friends, I used to talk about something called “a trusted fellow reader.” These are the people whose book recommendations are sought out and with whom discussing books is as rewarding as reading them. When this formulation first occurred to me, I happened to be working at an independent bookstore, surrounded by trusted fellow readers among my coworkers and the store’s patrons. I left there in early 2004 and have spent my time since trying to recreate that dynamic here at The Millions. With much help from readers and contributors, I think we’ve succeeded. (In fact, our annual end of year series is an attempt to flood the zone, as it were, with trusted fellow readers.)If anything is dead, it’s the so called “print vs. online” debate and the interminable series of panels discussing our dying newspapers. Symposiums and editorials aside, the reality is fluid; writers and readers and critics consume and create in both media with regularity, and the focus on an empty debate and on column inches may be keeping us from recognizing that there are now many trusted fellow readers at our fingertips. We are in the midst of a shift, maybe now a revolution, in national (and international) literary discussion, which has migrated from book club meetings and bookstore aisles out into the open. Readers have fueled this shift, many critics and writers have joined in. We’re excited to be a part of it.Further Reading: If you think that the disappearance of book reviews and book sections in newspapers is a result of anything more than a broken business model, read this. And, from the manifesto, an explanation of why we all need trusted fellow readers: “Given that you and I will only be able to read a finite number of books in our lifetime, then we should try, as much as possible, to devote ourselves to reading only the ones that are worth reading, while bearing in mind that for every vapid, uninspiring book we read, we are bumping from our lifetime reading list a book that might give us a profound sort of joy”
In “Aren’t You Dead Yet?”, one of the stories in Elissa Schappell’s new collection, Blueprints for Building Better Girls, the narrator, an aspiring writer, receives a black, leather-bound journal as a gift from her best friend. Although she loves the look of the journal, she never writes in it. When her friend discovers this, he’s angry, and even accuses her of slacking off:
I tried to explain that I hadn’t written in it because I loved it so much and I didn’t want to ruin it. The pages were so nice, and sewn in, you couldn’t just rip them out. Whatever stupid thing I wrote down would be in there permanently.
This passage reminded me of the many beautiful blank journals I’ve received over the years, journals I’ve never used. Whenever I fill up one of my trusty spiral notebooks, I go through the stack and tell myself I’m finally going to start using them. But then I think of sullying those pristine, unlined pages with my half-formed thoughts, and I feel as guilty as the narrator in Schappell’s story.
Unfortunately, the same guilt intrudes on many of the other lovely writerly gifts I’ve received. At the risk of sounding ungrateful, I confess that I have a lot of nice pens I never use, because I’m afraid of chewing on them; a lot of classic novels I haven’t read because I feel guilty about not having read them; and a lot of inspirational writer’s guides I never read, because what if I’m not inspired?
None of these gifts are offensive, and no one will begrudge you for giving them. But they are boilerplate gifts. Writers get blank journals for the same reasons that teachers get mugs, assistants get flowers, and grandmothers get tea. If you want to give the writer in your life something he or she will truly adore, here are twelve ideas:
1. A Cheesy New Bestseller
One of the best presents I ever got was The Nanny Diaries. I really wanted it, but there were over 300 people on the library’s waiting list (I live in New York), and I wasn’t going to shell out $25 for something I was unlikely to read twice. The funny thing is, I never told my roommate that I wanted to read The Nanny Diaries. She just guessed that I had a secret craving for it. Of course, it can be as hard to gauge your friend’s taste in pop culture as it in high culture, but it’s better to guess wrong in the pop culture arena, because your friend is more likely to exchange it for something she likes better. Whereas, if you give her Gravity’s Rainbow, she’ll keep it for years out of obligation.
2. Good lipstick
Writers are often broke. If they have $30 to spare, they are going to spend it on dinner, booze, or new books. Not lipstick. But writers are pale from spending so much time inside and could use some color. Make-up can be a tricky gift because it suggests that you think your friend’s face could use improvement. That’s why it’s important to go to a department store make-up counter and buy something frivolous and indulgent, like a single tube of red lipstick or some face powder or blush in a nice-looking case.
3. Foreign language learning software
Most writers wish they knew more languages. It can also be relaxing to be rendered inarticulate in a new language, in that it offers a real break from personal expression, nuance, and irony. At the same time, learning a new language sharpens your native tongue, and expands your vocabulary. It’s sort of like cross training. Although language classes with live instructors are generally more effective than computer programs, I prefer software because it allows me to take the class on my own time and at my own pace.
4. A Bathrobe
John Cheever famously donned a suit every morning in order to write. But as Ann Beattie recently revealed, and as a generation of bloggers already knows, most writers wear awful clothing while they are working. Help your writer friend out by giving her a beautiful robe to cover up her bizarre ensembles. Even if she already has one, she probably hasn’t washed it in a long time, and could use another.
5. A Manicure
I bite my nails, especially when I’m writing. I’ve noticed that a lot of other writers have suspiciously short nails, too. Manicures help. Also, manicures get writers out of the house—and off the internet.
6. “Freedom”, the internet-blocking software
“Freedom” is a computer program that blocks the internet on your computer for up to eight hours. I don’t understand why it’s effective, since it’s relatively easy to circumvent, but as soon as I turn it on, I stay off the internet for hours at a time. (There is also a program called “Anti-social”, which only blocks the social parts of the internet, like Facebook and Twitter.)
7. Booze, coffee, and other stimulants
Find out what your friend likes to drink and buy a really nice version of that thing. Wine can be tricky, but we are living in an age of over-educated clerks, so don’t be afraid to ask for help. If your friend is a coffee or tea drinker, find out how he brews it and buy him really good beans or tealeaves. Even better, find out what cafe he frequents and see if they sell gift certificates.
8. Yoga Classes
Yoga does wonders for anxiety, depression, and aching backs, three common writerly afflictions. Most yoga classes also incorporate some kind of meditation practice, which is also very helpful.
9. A pet
In a recent Atlantic blog post containing advice from world’s most prolific writers, a character from one of Muriel Spark’s novels is quoted, describing why cats are good for writers: “If you want to concentrate deeply on some problem, and especially some piece of writing or paper-work, you should acquire a cat… The effect of a cat on your concentration is remarkable, very mysterious.” Another prolific writer, Jennifer Weiner, recommends dogs on her website, where she’s posted a list of tips for aspiring writers. Dogs, she explains, foster discipline, because they must be walked several times a day. Furthermore, Weiner notes, walking is as beneficial for the writer as it is for the dog: “While you’re walking, you’re thinking about plot, or characters, or that tricky bit of dialogue that’s had you stumped for days.”
Obviously, a pet should not be given casually, or even as a surprise, but it’s worth considering, especially if you hear of an already-trained dog or cat that needs a new home.
10. Freezable homemade foods: casseroles, soups, breads, and baked goods.
This is a potentially Mom-ish gift, but if your friend is on deadline, a new parent, or just far from home during the holidays, a home-cooked meal could be a lovely gesture. I emphasize freezable because it should be something that you make at home and leave with your friend to eat later. If you can’t cook, buy a pie.
11. A hand-written letter
I know how corny this sounds, but many writers, especially fiction writers, still get a fair amount of rejection notes via the U.S. mail. You can easily make your friend’s day by sending an old-fashioned, chatty letter or even just a holiday card.
12. The Gift, by Lewis Hyde
The Gift examines the role of artists in market economies, taking the lives of two major American poets as case studies. It’s the perfect antidote to all the earnest, helpful guides that aim to teach writers how to be more publishable, saleable, and disciplined. Where most writing guides make writers feel they could succeed if only they were more productive and efficient, The Gift argues that productivity and efficiency are market-based terms that have little meaning in gift economies, which is where many creative writers exchange and share their work. Another way of putting it is to say that The Gift makes feel writers feel less crazy.
(Image: Project 365 #263: 200911 Kept Under Wraps… from comedynose’s photostream)
After once being a hot topic, prompting many in publishing to vocally take sides, the dispute between Google and the Authors Guild and the Association of American Publishers simmered quietly in lawyers’ offices for more than two years. But this week Google’s book scanning effort was back in the news with the announcement of a $125 million settlement. What may have been lost in this news is that Google is suddenly poised to drive a massive change in the publishing marketplace, multiply by many times the number of books available at the fingertips of readers, and supercharge the market for online delivery of books.The original Google Book Search controversy erupted almost immediately after Google first launched the feature, then called Google Print. To many, it seemed like an almost impossible effort but somehow Google had the will and resources to deliver on an incredible promise: all of the world’s books – and therefore, some would say, all of the world’s knowledge – digitized, searchable, and preserved for future generations. But some publishers, many of them divisions of media conglomerates and made vigilant by the piracy that had ravaged the music industry, were wary of Google’s intentions and feared a frenzy of unfettered book-swapping.In part, the controversy stemmed from confusion about what Google was up to and the knee-jerk notion that digitized books would quickly be coursing across the internet, freely available to anyone who wanted them. Essentially, the search giant was dividing books into three categories. Google would work with publishers on in-print, copyrighted books via its “Partner Program,” which makes previews of the books available, provides “buy this book” links, and includes a revenue share for the ads displayed next to those books’ pages. Out-of-print, public domain books, meanwhile, were freely scanned and made fully available by Google. But it was the third category, out-of-print books that are still under copyright, that caused the most angst.This angst was compounded by Google’s methods; the search engine had gone around the copyright holders and brokered deals with universities to scan the contents of libraries containing millions of volumes. Google assured publishers that, by default, only snippets of these books would be displayed and that the snippets were protected by fair use, but this promise – and its legal justification – were not enough to soothe the publishers and the Authors Guild, so they sued. Publishers’ pique, however, seemed to go beyond the issue of fair use and instead seemed to be rooted in a desire to push back against what was viewed as Google’s arrogance and to exercise control, as absolutely as was possible, over their copyrighted works.This notion of control was a common thread through many of the responses of publishers. Bloomsbury Publishing’s Nigel Newton said “Publishers also have the responsibility to make sure that when it comes to hosting electronic content in future, it is their own websites that host the downloads and the scans of text and audio. There is no reason to hand this content to third-party websites.” This was echoed at the Association of American Publishers: “‘If Google can make…copies, then anyone can,’ Patricia Schroeder, president of the Association of American Publishers, said in a phone interview. ‘Anybody could go into a library and start making digital copies of anything,’ she said.” And HarperCollins and others pushed their own digitizing efforts, resulting in widgets and beefed up publisher websites. These anti-Google voices were offset by a cacophony of authors and publishers who dissented and were open to Google’s experiment, including Richard Nash of Soft Skull and several others.But now, after after more than two years of negotiating, a resolution has emerged that, if approved by a US district court to resolve still pending lawsuits, could mark a major change in the availability of books.The big change comes in that nettlesome category: out-of-print, copyrighted books. Here’s how Google describes its proposed plan for those books:Until now, we’ve only been able to show a few snippets of text for most of the in-copyright books we’ve scanned through our Library Project. Since the vast majority of these books are out of print, to actually read them you’d have to hunt them down at a library or a used bookstore. This agreement will allow us to make many of these out-of-print books available for preview, reading and purchase in the U.S.And what’s key is how Google plans to make these books available: “Once this agreement has been approved, you’ll be able to purchase full online access to millions of books. This means you can read an entire book from any Internet-connected computer, simply by logging in to your Book Search account, and it will remain on your electronic bookshelf, so you can come back and access it whenever you want in the future.” With those two sentences, the number of books available to readers – Google has estimated that 80% of the books in libraries are out of print – will increase substantially. In addition, by making these books available for sale, a new revenue stream will be opened for publishers (the books will also be available via institutional subscriptions offered to libraries and the like). There are no estimates on how big this number might be but it represents new money both for publishers and for writers whose books are out of print. Perhaps dislocated by this, meanwhile, are thousands of booksellers (not to mention Amazon), whose used book businesses are often times the easiest way for a person to get their hands on many out-of-print books. If a reader doesn’t need to own the physical book, Google will be an enticing option, particularly since it seems very likely that books offered through Google Book Search would be cheaper.The Association of American Publishers FAQ on the deal notes one of the ways the books will be priced: “Google will automatically set and adjust prices through an algorithm designed to maximize revenues for the book. This algorithm will be based on multiple factors.” So, as Google brings its algorithm magic to pricing out-of-print books, it seems sure to impact the pricing across the whole market. In addition, publishers and authors have long bemoaned that they are cut out of the revenue in a used book market that has only grown larger thanks to the internet. It would seem that the Google deal will now give them a way to reach out to at least a slice of those used book buyers.But perhaps more important than the new revenue for publishers will be the huge increase in access to a large new subset of books, in one stroke bringing back millions of out-of-print books from oblivion. While this may not excite the casual reader, it represents a great expansion of the amount of knowledge that is fully searchable and at our fingertips and it has the potential to be a great boon to scholars.Over the last decade, the internet has wrecked many old media business models. Despite my frustration at their initial recalcitrance, the publishers were right to protect their business model, and both Google and the publishers should be lauded if this agreement results in the creation of a new one.
A week ago, an article in the New York Times created a mini-furor in literary circles. As the resident Japan expert in my circle of friends, everybody was asking me, “So what’s the deal with these cell phone novels?”The NYT article was the first I’d heard of them. I did a quick Internet search, and what do you know? The Times was right, they’re all over the place. Google spits ups thousands of pages, and several of the more popular novels are listed on the Internet Movie Database as films in production.What does this mean for the English novel? Is this the future of literature? In Japanese, maybe. There are a number of features of Japan’s language and culture that make a cell phone novel more palatable than it would be in English. First, Japanese grammar is much better suited than English to the kind of short sentences writing on a cell phone encourages. As a high-context language, a complete sentence in Japanese can consist of just a single, lonely verb. Japanese speakers and writers frequently and freely omit subjects and objects from their sentences, expecting the reader to figure out what’s going on. Go figure. The use of Chinese characters also serves to compact sentences. Since you don’t have to actually spell out entire words, as in English, but can represent them with an ideogram, you can say a lot more in a much smaller space.Secondly, and perhaps just as important, cell phone novels tap into long traditions of Japanese prose and poetry. First, even a cursory examination of a cell phone novel will show a visual connection to the poetic traditions of haiku and tanka. The connection doesn’t end there, at its best the writing itself has an economy and – I’ll regret saying this – poetry that taps into the same tradition. The medium – you try typing a novel on the keypad of a cell phone – forces the writers to make every word count, and (in Japanese at least) it shows. The themes, as well, harken back to traditional Japanese themes. The first “modern” novel (written by Murasaki Shikibu in 11th century Japan), The Tale of Genji, was basically a high school love story, and nothing has changed since then. In manga, on television and in literature, the amatory exploits of high school students have always captured the imagination of the Japanese public. And the long, long literary tradition there, combined with the frequent use of public transportation, means that books in general, whether written on cell phones or not, occupy a much more important place in Japanese culture than in the West.So what are these cell phone novels like? For the curious, I’ve translated a short passage from Sky of Love, the number one best seller by Mika, recently made into a movie. I’ve only read the first chapter, but apparently it’s a heart wrenching tale of young love, as seen through a Jerry Springer filter of premarital sex, teen pregnancy, gang rape and mortal disease. Enjoy.Translation note: Two things. First, I’ve done my best to preserve the sentence structure and formatting of the original (at the expense of clarity and good prose, I’m afraid). This is more or less how it looks and reads in the original Japanese. Second, it’s common in Japanese for people to refer to themselves in the third person. The protagonist here does that frequently. It’s a habit that’s considered somewhat childish and endearing.Sky of Love (the novel in Japanese, for those who’d like a visual reference.)PrologueIf I hadn’t met you that day…I don’t think I would haveFelt this bitterness.This pain.This sadnessCried this much.But.If I hadn’t met you…This happiness.This joy.This love.This warmth.I wouldn’t have known that either.Today, I’m going to look through my tears and up at the sky.Look to the sky.Chapter One– A smile”God, I am so hungry♪♪”Finally lunch time. Felt like I’d been waiting forever.Same as always, Mika puther lunchbox on her desk and opened it.School is a drag.The only thing I like about it is eating with Aya and Yuka, my friends from class.–Mika Tahara–She’s a freshman, who started at this school in April.It hasn’t even been three monthssince she got here.She’s met some people she likes and gets along with. She’s had some pretty good times.She’s short.And stupid.And not that prettyDoesn’t have any special talents.Or even know what’s she wants to do with herself after graduation.Bright, tea-colored hair she dyed right after she got here.She’s wearing a little makeup, but it looks strange on her, especially at this time of day.She stumbled out of middle school and right into average.She had normal friends.She had normal crushes.She dated three guys.I don’t know if that’s normal, or what.But, what I know is normal,is that those relationships all ended fast. That’s what she’s saying.She doesn’t know real love.All she knows is how to fool around,Just that.Love…Who needs it?It was right then…I met you.Mika’s life: she expected it would end in the same boring way it had begun. Meeting you was going to change all that.Like always, Mika and Aya and Yukawolf down their food.Why is it everyone gets so quiet when they eat?The classroom door rattles open,A guy with one hand in his pocketwalks overto the three of them.That guy, he stands in front of themAnd he starts talking. Casually.”Hey! My name’s Nozomu. I’m in the class next door. You heard of me?”The three girls look at each other.They pretend they don’t know what he’s talking about.Just keep eating their lunches.Since I’d gotten to school, I’d heard a lot of rumors about Nozomu.A player.A flirt.A playboyIt seemed like he was walking around schoolwith a different girl on his arm every day.”Watch out for Nozomu!””If he’s got his eye on you, you don’t stand a chance.”Didn’t somebody tell me that…?He’s got a well-proportioned faceon a tall body.Highlights in his hair,styled with wax for that “casual” look.Eyes looking right at you, like they could see… something.He’s got the right stuff for getting girls. There’s no question about that.The problem is his personality.Maybe… if he was a little more serious…With all those rumors floating around. I don’t even need to tell you I’m not interested.The three girls continue eating their lunches, pretending they haven’t even noticed him.”Hey, now. You’re ignoring me? Let’s be friends. ♪ Come on, give me your number.”His insistence makes me thirsty.Mika, annoyed, grabbing a bottle of barley tea in one handgulping it all down.”What do you think I’m going to do? It’s cool. Just tell me your number.”There’s silenceSuddenly, Aya breaks it.Mika and Yuka, looking at each other in disbelief.Aya gives him her number with a smile.It’s hard to believe this is happening.I wait until Nozomu has left the room, all puffed up and full of himself. Then turning to Aya, blurting out:”Why would you give your number to a guy like that? He’s trouble.”Aya responds to Mika’s worry, like it’s no big deal.”What can I say? I like cute guys. Ha.”Aya’s a mature, beautiful woman.She’s stylish and her best feature isher long hair, a little wavy, and the red-brown of tea.She’s got bad luck with guys. All the ones she’s dated are just playing with her…That’s why, even when she gets a boyfriend, it’s just a few dates, quick break-up, repeat.”Aya. Don’t get serious with a guy like that.”To Yuka, with the serious faceAya turns and lightly replies.”Don’t worry about it.”School lets out.I go home, and lay around in my room, watching TV.That’s when…♪Ring♪The ring echoes through the room.There’s no name on the caller id.It’s from a number that’s not in my phone.I wonder who it is…I pick-up to find out.”Hello…?””…”… silence.”Hellooo…”I say it with a little more self-assurance.Click.Beep, beep, beep.They hung up.Prank call?Probably a wrong number.♪Ring♪Again, the ring echoes through the room.The same number as before.They’re not going to say anything anyway, I think.So, I answer like I don’t give a shit.”What?””…lo? Hello. Hello?”On the other end of the line, I can faintly hearthe sound of an unfamiliar man’s voice.”Who is this?”The guy on the other endshouts in a voice so loud I think it’s going to blow out my eardrum.”…Mika? The signal’s bad! It’s Nozomu! You remember? The guy who talked to you at lunch today!”WTF? Nozomu?The Nozomu who hits on all the girls? That Nozomu?The guy who got Aya’s number today… That Nozomu?I start to panic.I can’t findthe words to reply.I should just hang up. Shouldn’t I?
Another year of living, another year of reading. And, if you’re like us, when you look back, you’ll mark out the year in books — weeks, months, even whole seasons that will forever be wedded in the mind to a memorable reading experience. Each book put back on the shelf becomes a postcard reminder.
And now, as we kick off another Year in Reading, we become the postcard collectors, learning where the minds of some of our favorite writers and thinkers traveled in 2013.
For our esteemed guests, the charge was to name, from all the books they read this year, the one(s) that meant the most to them, regardless of publication date. Grouped together, these ruminations, cheers, squibs, and essays will be a chronicle of reading and good books from every era.
We hope you find in them seeds that will help make your year in reading in 2014 a fruitful one.
As in prior years, the names of our 2013 “Year in Reading” contributors will be unveiled one at a time throughout the month as we publish their contributions. You can bookmark this post and follow the series from here, or load up the main page for more new Year in Reading posts appearing at the top every day, or you can subscribe to our RSS feed or follow us on Facebook or Twitter and read the series that way.
Stephen Dodson, co-author of Uglier Than a Monkey’s Armpit, proprietor of Languagehat.
Claire Messud, author of The Woman Upstairs.
Choire Sicha, co-proprietor of The Awl, author of Very Recent History: An Entirely Factual Account of a Year (c. AD 2009) in a Large City.
Alice McDermott, author of Someone.
Hamilton Leithauser, lead singer for The Walkmen.
Sergio De La Pava, author of A Naked Singularity
Dani Shapiro, author of Still Writing.
Norman Rush, author of Subtle Bodies.
Gary Shteyngart, author of Little Failure.
Benjamin Percy, author of Red Moon.
Garth Risk Hallberg, staff writer for The Millions, author of A Field Guide to the North American Family.
David Gilbert, author of And Sons.
Sarah Waters, author of The Little Stranger.
Jason Diamond, literary editor at Flavorwire, founder of Vol. 1 Brooklyn
Mark O’Connell, staff writer for The Millions, author of Epic Fail: Bad Art, Viral Fame, and the History of the Worst Thing Ever.
Elliott Holt, author of You Are One of Them.
Saïd Sayrafiezadeh, author of Brief Encounters with the Enemy.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, author of Half of a Yellow Sun.
Michael Nye, author of Strategies Against Extinction.
Lydia Kiesling, staff writer for The Millions.
Hannah Gersen, staff writer for The Millions.
Thomas Beckwith, social media writer for The Millions.
Edan Lepucki, staff writer for The Millions, author of If You’re Not Yet Like Me.
Nick Moran, social media editor for The Millions.
Anne K. Yoder, staff writer for The Millions.
Aleksandar Hemon, author of The Book of My Lives.
Khaled Hosseini, author of The Kite Runner.
Edwidge Danticat, author of Claire of the Sea Light.
Charlie Jane Anders, managing editor of io9.
Elizabeth Strout, author of Olive Kitteridge.
Scott Turow, author of Identical.
Chang-rae Lee, author of The Surrendered.
Janet Potter, staff writer for The Millions.
Rachel Kushner, author of The Flamethrowers.
Tom Drury, author of Pacific.
Gabriel Roth, author of The Unknowns.
Adelle Waldman, author of The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P.
Paul Harding, author of Enon.
Janice Clark, author of The Rathbones.
Reif Larsen, author of The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet.
Elizabeth Minkel, staff writer for The Millions.
Matt Bell, author of In the House upon the Dirt between the Lake and the Woods.
Caleb Crain, author of Necessary Errors.
Mohsin Hamid, author of How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia.
Roxane Gay, author of Ayiti.
Emily St. John Mandel, staff writer for The Millions, author of The Lola Quartet.
Bill Morris, staff writer for The Millions, author of Motor City.
Tess Malone, intern for The Millions.
Adam Wilson, author of Flatscreen.
Michael Bourne, staff writer for The Millions.
Sonya Chung, staff writer for The Millions, author of Long for This World.
Kathryn Davis, author of Labrador.
Sam Lipsyte, author of The Ask.
Marisa Silver, author of Mary Coin.
Teddy Wayne, author of Kapitoil.
Kelly Link, author of Monstrous Affections.
Olivia Laing, author of The Trip to Echo Spring: On Writers and Drinking.
Dara Horn, author of A Guide for the Perplexed.
Kate Milliken, author of If I’d Known You Were Coming.
Michael Robbins, author of Alien vs. Predator.
Parul Sehgal, editor at the New York Times Book Review.
Helen Oyeyemi, author of Boy, Snow, Bird.
Kristopher Jansma, author of The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards.
Kevin Barry, author of Dark Lies the Island.
Kevin Hartnett, staff writer for The Millions.
Bennett Sims, author of A Questionable Shape.
Ann Hood, author of The Obituary Writer.
Charles Blackstone, author of Vintage Attraction.
“Yes, sir, 45 boxes over the original moving estimate.”
“How much is that going to cost?”
“Well, the revised estimate adds another 1,000 pounds, so $450.”
“But that’s just a weight estimate. It could be a lot less depending on what’s in them. They could be filled with pillows for instance. What is in them?”
Many were filled with books, hundreds of them. And if the mover was to believed, they weighed about half a ton: the approximate weight of my knowledge.
I had packed all of the books into two types of freely acquired boxes: those labeled “Adult Brief for Incontinence (Moderate Absorbency),” which my wife brought home from a hospital; and a colorful array picked up at our local liquor store, everything from Ciroc Red Berry to Kinky Blue Liqueur, a versatile concoction which doubles as an aphrodisiac and a window cleaner.
I thought about packing thematically, sorting my volumes by intoxicant. The Russians would go with the vodkas, the Irish with the whiskeys, Germans with the beers, the French with the cognacs, and those few authors whom I knew personally, along with William Faulkner, with the beloved bourbons.
It would be trickier to decide whom to put in the adult diaper boxes. Definitely the Victorians, fussy as they are, but also those darkly comic authors who would appreciate their absurd fate — Samuel Beckett, Franz Kafka, and Philip Roth. I’d toss Jonathan Franzen in too, just for fun.
In the end, laziness prevailed and I freely mixed nationalities and genres in whatever booze or diaper box had room. Looking at the stacked assortment waiting to be hauled north, I wondered how I had backslid so spectacularly.
Before my last big move, from California to North Carolina about five years ago, I had unloaded most of my book-hoard — I prefer this Old English construction to “library” or “collection,” both of which don’t quite capture the thrilling chaos of that word-treasure spread over my shelves, coffee tables, floors, bathrooms, and car.
Lined up for inspection as I was deciding which volumes to sell, the books stood tall, proudly baring their spines even as their pages must have trembled. My decisions were swift and pitiless; one must be heartless to enter an era of biblio-austerity. But I take heart that of all the books I eventually sold back then, I can remember, and thus regret, only one: C.S. Lewis’s Studies in Words. For a person who loved books, I was actually relieved to have unburdened myself of them.
After the purge, my book-hoard was whittled down to a few boxes to be shipped via media mail.
“Now to get the media mail rate there can only be books in here,” explained the suspicious postal clerk as she watched me hoist the boxes onto the counter.
“If we open it up and find even a toothbrush, we’ll charge you the full rate.”
(Had she divined my scheme to defraud the post office by cheaply shipping dental supplies, or was she bluffing?)
“Got it,” I replied, despite the realization that I had actually thrown a non-media mail object in with my Norton anthologies — not a toothbrush but an armless Hideki Matsui bobblehead doll. (It made it through undetected.)
Those several dozen books transported from the West Coast multiplied over the years to fill 45 some-odd boxes, proving that the greatest fiction is that book lovers can reform.
I had tried to downsize before this latest move as well. Sure, I granted a reprieve to all my old favorites and recently received Christmas gifts, as well as those books I hadn’t yet cracked open and had no immediate plans to. As recounted by Walter Benjamin, Anatole France was once asked whether he had read all the books in his library. He responded, “Not one-tenth of them. I don’t suppose you use your Sèvres china every day?” No indeed, and I won’t take my illustrated copy of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Travels with a Donkey out of its cover until I’m good and ready.
But many books did go into the “sell pile.” First were Finding the Right Words, 101 Ways to Say Thank You and Great Letters for Every Occasion, which my college roommate had sent me as a joke after I admitted that I enjoyed penning “Thank You” notes. Next in were a few Peter Carey paperbacks, John Banville’s Benjamin Black mysteries and David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, which made the cut five years ago, but not this time, and plenty more. On a roll, I even tried to throw in my wife’s pristine and eminently resalable copy of Wild — twice. She made it clear that if it happened again, Stevenson’s donkey might wander off as well.
I took the carful to a used book store, where the clerk instructed me to wait as he sorted the books into two piles — one he wouldn’t buy and the other he’d buy for a pittance. For a bibliophile, this period is especially dangerous, akin to an alcoholic trying to dry out in a Kinky Blue Liqueur distillery. If you must browse to pass the time, I recommend confining yourself to the least tempting section, for me “Spirituality” or “Business.” Then plug your ears when the clerk offers you a figure for store credit, which can be twice as high as the cash offer. Always take the cash.
The most desirable stuff having been picked clean, I went to another store in the area, selling some of my remaining wares to a less discriminating buyer for $24 in trade. (I know what I just said, but what’s one more hardcover?)
I still had a box of unwanted books left, including a copy of David Copperfield with increasingly embarrassing marginalia from the times I had read it in high school, college, and graduate school; some tattered mysteries; a comedic romance with a moose on the cover; Anatomy flashcards; and those three indispensable treatises on writing the perfect “Thank You” note. Over the next couple days I distributed these among a local coffee shop, the library donation bin, and my apartment complex clubhouse, disposing of the dismembered corpus of rejected texts so as to leave no trace of its owner.
However, as the moving estimate made clear, I hadn’t really made a dent. And thus, here I am in a new home, resolving once more to reform my book-hoarding ways. Unlikely, especially with Politics & Prose, Kramerbooks, and Capitol Hill Books nearby. Luckily, my movers made my task a little easier. As if sensing that I was a recidivist, they took it upon themselves to smash one of my bookshelves to pieces in transit. Message received.
They also blithely informed me that they had broken my writing desk as well, which I chose to take as a sign of their carelessness rather than a pointed criticism of my work.
The books, all 45 boxes of them, naturally survived the move unscathed.
Image Credit: pixshark.
The literary story so far in 2011 has certainly been the posthumous publication David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King — though folks like Tea Obreht, Kate Christensen, and Ann Patchett have grabbed their share of the literary limelight. While the second half of 2011 is unlike to produce a media whirlwind to match the one that accompanied The Pale King this spring (or Freedom last year, for that matter), we will see new books from some heavyweights, including Haruki Murakami, Jeffrey Eugenides (both in October), and Don DeLillo (in November).
But, even as fans look forward to books from these favorites, there will undoubtedly be many new discoveries in the coming months as well, some of which, hopefully, we can introduce you to today. The list that follows isn’t exhaustive — no list could be — but these are some of the books we’re looking forward to. At 7,500 words strong and encompassing 66 titles, this is the only second-half of 2011 book preview you will ever need.
July or Already Out:
Once Upon a River by Bonnie Jo Campbell: The Cinderella finalist for last year’s National Book and National Book Critics Circle Awards follows up her story collection American Salvage with this novel about sixteen-year-old Margo Crane, a rifle-toting “feral beauty” (says Jaimy Gordon) who embarks on a river journey through rural Michigan, “with only a few supplies and a biography of Annie Oakley,” in search of her mother. Booklist gives it a starred review and calls it a “dramatic and rhapsodic American odyssey. A female Huckleberry Finn. A wild-child-to-caring-woman story.” Presumably Norton will print more than the 1,500 copies that the unsuspecting Wayne State Press initially printed of American Salvage. Cinderella, indeed! (Sonya)
The Devil All the Time by Donald Ray Pollock: Former meatpacker and paper mill employee Pollock follows his popular story collection Knockemstiff his debut novel. Set in the 50s and 60s, The Devil All the Time “centers on the convergent lives of a tough but morally-upright young man from Ohio, a pair of serial killers who prey on hitchhikers, and an itinerant, spider-handling preacher and his crippled guitar virtuoso accompanist.” Reviews have begun to trickle in, and they focus, unsurprisingly, on the violence (or lack there of) in the book. (Patrick)
Lola, California by Edie Meidav: Edie Meidav’s third novel (the first two are The Far Field: A Novel of Ceylon and Crawl Space) is concerned with questions of parenthood, friendship, and the legacy of the seventies. The year is 2008, and Vic Mahler, 1970s cult leader and current death row inmate, has ten days left before his sentence his carried out. His daughter Lana has been in hiding for some years; her childhood friend Rose, now a lawyer, is determined to find her and reunite her with her father. (Emily M.)
Stone Arabia by Dana Spiotta: Dana Spiotta won accolades from formidable quarters with her earlier novels, Eat the Document and Lightning Field, and Stone Arabia has already generated considerable buzz. The novel explores the relationship between a brother and sister–the former a musician who carefully constructs an alternate reality for himself as an artist–the latter who watches, worries, and reflects on the past and the present. Comparisons to Jennifer Egan will prove unavoidable given the related meditations on music and fame/not-fame, but early reports indicate that Spiotta has created something wonderful that is all her own. (Lydia)
A Dance with Dragons: A Song of Ice and Fire: Book Five by George R. R. Martin: The hit HBO show has made Martin’s “Song of Ice and Fire” the sweeping fantasy epic mostly likely to be discussed at your nearest cocktail party. While the HBO fans may have a ways to go before they’re ready for book five, true fantasy connoisseurs, for whom Martin’s series is the current ne plus ultra of the form, have been eagerly, even impatiently, awaiting this new installment. The latter group will eagerly devour Dragons and begin clamoring for books six and seven, still forthcoming. (Max)
The Magician King by Lev Grossman: In The Magicians, Grossman introduced the magical world of Fillory, where hipster magician-from-Brooklyn Quentin is now a king, along with a few of his friends from magical college. Allusions to Hogwarts and Narnia abound, but no homage is paid, as Grossman’s sequel continues his dark, nuanced look at magical life and the wizards who lead it. Quentin and his friends are lazily soaking up their royal luxury until an enchanted ship takes him to the last place he thought he’d ever return: Massachusetts. (Janet)
House of Holes: A Book of Raunch by Nicholson Baker: From the publisher: “Brimful of good-nature, wit, and surreal sexual vocabulary, House of Holes is a modern-day Hieronymous Boschian bacchanal that is sure to surprise, amuse, and arouse.” Also described as “fuse-blowing,” “sex-positive,” and “over-the-top.” The book is set in some sort of fantastical pleasure resort where guests “undergo crotchal transfers . . . make love to trees . . . visit the Groanrooms and the twelve-screen Porndecahedron . . . or pussy-surf the White Lake.” From Sam Anderson at the NY Times: “Hoo-boy, people, get ready for this book. It is going to be Talked About.” (Sonya)
The Leftovers by Tom Perrotta: The author of the best-selling satires of suburban life, Little Children and The Abstinence Teacher, Perrotta turns his dark arts to the strange tale of a small town grieving the loss of many of its citizens to a rapture-like event known as The Sudden Departure, which has caused millions of people the world over to suddenly and mysteriously disappear. The science-fiction premise is a departure for Perrotta, who made his bones skewering the mundane realities of American life, but the plot focuses less on the logistical/religious implications of The Sudden Departure and more on the emotional aftermath felt by those left behind. Some join cults, others follow mad prophets, while still more find solace in the age-old pursuits of adulterous sex. We are, in other words, very much in Perrotta Country. (Michael)
We Others: New and Selected Stories by Steven Millhauser: It’s been three years since Steven Millhauser’s Dangerous Laughter was released to unsurprising acclaim: the foreboding collection of fables continued a winning streak that included a Pulitzer Prize and The Illusionist (adapted from a Millhauser short story, “Eisenheim the Illusionist”). The trend will likely continue with the bric-a-brac We Others: New and Selected Stories. As always with Millhauser, old Austria, carnival grounds, and teenage wastelands will be brought to alarming life. (Jacob)
The Missing of the Somme by Geoff Dyer: Dyer’s meditation on the psychic after effects of World War I has been kicking around UK bookstores for nearly two decades, but this August it appears in the US for the first time. Dyer has explained what moved him to write the book: “like the youthful Christopher Isherwood who wanted to write a novel entitled ‘A War Memorial’, I wanted to write a book that was not about ‘the War itself but the effect of the idea of [the War] on my generation’.” What he produced is a powerful work of nonfiction, framed around a road trip he and a few friends took along the Western Front during which he reflected on the Great War’s human toll. “If the Empire’s dead marched four abreast down Whitehall,” he wrote, “it would take them three and a half days to pass the Cenotaph.” (Kevin)
Train Dreams by Denis Johnson: The selected favorite of two out of three PEN/O. Henry Prize jurors in 2003 – David Guterson and Jennifer Egan – Train Dreams is now being released by FSG as a novella (previously published only in The O. Henry Prize Stories 2003). Guterson: “a sweeping tall tale, an homage to Bret Harte, a work of North American magical realism, a yarn of the supernatural variety, and finally the biography of a widower and hermit […] who weeps in church, fears his dreams, and dies in 1968 without having used a telephone. Is it a short story? That’s difficult to say.” Egan: “‘Train Dreams’ was not the one that moved and compelled me the most […] Its protagonist is opaque to the point of cipherdom, and its leisurely, episodic unfolding seems perversely old-fashioned against the sly compression of some other stories. But weeks after reading them, it’s the one that continues to float into my thoughts with the persistence of a dream, or some troubling relic of my own experience. Why?” Egan has her own answer, but you’ll probably want to come up with your own. (Sonya)
Beijing Welcomes You by Tom Scocca: Slate blogger and newly minted Deadspin managing editor Scocca chronicles his years spent in Beijing, observing a city and a culture moving into the global spotlight. The book examines the Chinese capital on the cusp of its global moment, as it readies for the 2008 Olympics. Scocca’s astute and often scathing cultural criticism makes this more than your typical work of cultural anthropology. (Patrick)
Anatomy of a Disappearance by Hisham Matar: In 1990, Hisham Matar’s father, Jaballa Matar, was kidnapped in Cairo and extradited to Tripoli as a political dissident. Since then, Matar’s family has endured a special hell of loss and uncertainty–scant news punctuating long periods of silence–which the novelist draws upon in his new novel (already out in the UK). A meditation on family relationships, personal loss, and politics as they play out in the life of a young man with a disappeared father, initial reviews indicate that Matar’s new novel more than fulfills the promise of his Man Booker shortlisted title, In the Country of Men. (Lydia)
Lights Out in Wonderland by DBC Pierre: Caramelized, milk-fed white tiger cub with borlotti beans & baby root vegetables, anyone? Such are the flavors of Lights Out in Wonderland, the third novel from DBC Pierre, who won the Booker Prize in 2003 for Vernon God Little. Wonderland is a satire on the obscenity and decadence of late capitalism, with a plot and verbal flare as baroque as its subject. One blurb from across the pond promises a “sly commentary on these End Times and the entropic march towards insensate banality.” British reviews have been mixed—depending, it would seem, on the reviewer’s appetite for the rococo. (Emily W.)
The Call by Yannick Murphy: Yannick Murphy, who bewitched me with her short story “In a Bear’s Eye” and later, with her novel Signed, Mata Hari, brings us a new novel, The Call. Composed of diary entries by a veterinarian in New England named David Appleton, The Call records a difficult year in the life of Appleton’s family: a recession, a mysterious stranger, and his son who falls into a coma after a hunting accident. Publishers Weekly says, “Murphy’s subtle, wry wit and an appealing sense for the surreal leaven moments of anger and bleakness, and elevate moments of kindness, whimsy, and grace.” The book sounds more conventional than Murphy’s previous work, but I have no doubt that her distinct prose and point of view will render this story truly original. (Edan)
Reamde by Neal Stephenson: Is there anything Neal Stephenson can’t do? Snow Crash is a cyberpunk classic. Cryptonomicon tackled code-breaking and cryptography. Anathem was speculative fiction teeming with holy wars, global catastrophes, mathematics and techno miracles. Now comes Reamde, the story of a draft dodger named Richard Forthrast who makes a bundle selling marijuana and becomes addicted to an online fantasy game that puts him in touch with Chinese gold farmers. Only trouble is, Richard gets caught in the deadly crossfire of his own fantasy war game. Fans who have come to expect a lot of meat on the bones of a Stephenson novel won’t be disappointed by Reamde – which weighs in at 960 pages. (Bill)
River of Smoke by Amitav Ghosh: After Sea of Poppies (shortlisted for the Man Booker in 2008), River of Smoke is the second installment of the Ibis trilogy, which documents the nineteenth century opium trade from production in India to circulation in China. Against the backdrop of the 1838 Opium Wars, Ghosh describes the complex and multifaceted nature of global trade from the micro to the macro; with the travails of his Parsi traders, American sailors, Cornish explorers, and a host of other characters, Ghosh breathes life into the dates and places of history. (Lydia)
Arguably: Essays by Christopher Hitchens: In what would seem to be one of the more aptly-titled books of the season, the often-argumentative Hitchens’ first new essay collection since 2004 spans four decades, from early work for the New Statesman to recent pieces written for Slate, The Atlantic, The Nation and Vanity Fair. He covers topics ranging from Vietnam to Charles Dickens, from civil rights to radical Islam; exploring, according to his publisher, “how politics justifies itself by culture, and how the latter prompts the former.” (Emily M.)
The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach: Preliminary buzz on this first novel by N+1 cofounder Chad Harbach centered on the staggering advance he managed to procure – an art in itself, in these days of editorial caution. Expectations will be commensurately high, but Harbach’s novel aims squarely at what’s left of the American mainstream – baseball and college – and, at 500 pages, is clearly swinging for the fences. Jonathan Franzen and James Patterson are early fans. And, together, an exhibit for the odd-bedfellows wing of the Blurbing Hall of Fame. Interesting question, though: will women – you know, the people who actually buy novels – read it? (Garth)
Philip Roth: The American Trilogy (Library of America): If Roth lives long enough for the Nobel Prize committee to recognize that he, despite his unfortunate Americanness, is probably the world’s greatest living writer, his long-overdue laurels will be due to this brilliant trilogy of novels, American Pastoral, I Married a Communist, and The Human Stain. After a bit of a fallow period in the 1980s and early 1990s, Roth, once the enfant terrible of American letters, came roaring back with these three novels, which serve as meditations on three very different brands of subversion in American life. Roth has written some bad books in his day, and lately has shown a tendency to say foolish things in public (like, for instance, that he has given up on reading fiction), but this is Roth at his best: angry, incisive, and occasionally hilarious. (Michael)
Lost Memory of Skin by Russell Banks: When Tom Perrotta explored our country’s mercilessness towards sex offenders, he tucked it inside a romance, a dog pill smooshed in cheddar. The resulting Little Children was, while not uncomplicated, fairly easy to swallow. Russell Banks, however, takes on the same subject in Lost Memory of Skin—and as it comes from the unsparing source of Affliction and Cloudsplitter, the pill will go down raw; much of Memory takes place in an encampment of outcast offenders. There is an excellent chance that Patrick Wilson will not appear in this book’s film adaptation. (Jacob)
Last Man in Tower by Arvind Adiga: Thirty-something Adiga burst onto the literary scene in 2008 with his Booker Prize winning novel The White Tiger, which was described with only a measure of hyperbole as the Invisible Man for modern day India. With his second novel, Adiga continues to mine the implications of India’s rapid modernization. The novel depicts the struggle between Donald Trumpian real estate developer Dharmen Shah, who wants to clear out a crumbling apartment building to make way for a luxury high-rise, and the one insignificant man standing in his way. All of the old building’s residents are on board (they’re set to be generously compensated for finding a new place to live) but Masterji, a retired school teacher, refuses to go, imperiling the construction project and the windfall relocation fees for the building’s residents, and inviting the wrath of his neighbors. (Kevin)
I Married You for Happiness by Lily Tuck: Tuck returns with her first work of fiction since her National Book Award-winning novel The News From Paraguay. I Married You for Happiness tells the story of a marriage in a single night, as artist Nina sits vigil at the deathbed of her mathematician husband Philip, recalling the entire history of their relationship. Publishers Weekly has already weighed in with a starred review that calls the book “breathlessly mannered” and a “triumph of a novel.” (Patrick)
There But For The by Ali Smith: A British literary phenom, Smith sets her third novel (after Hotel World and The Accidental) at the posh London suburban home of the Lee family, who are throwing a dinner party one night when guest Miles Garth goes upstairs and locks himself in a room. While his host, her daughter, an old school friend, and the Lees’ neighbor all try to coax him out, he communicates only via notes passed out under the door, resulting in a game of words as engaging for the reader as for Miles’ unwitting hosts. (Janet)
King of the Badgers by Philip Hensher: T.S. Eliot once remarked that Henry James had “a mind so fine that no idea could violate it.” Our review of the English writer Philip Hensher’s celebrated 2008 novel, The Northern Clemency, argued something similar: that aside from much fine writing, there wasn’t a hell of a lot that stayed with you. Then again, Eliot was wrong about James, and maybe down here among the literary mortals, Hensher’s new effort will make us change our mind. Again, the setting is suburban-ish England, but here the clemency is southern. And where its predecessor was structured around family, King of the Badgers broadens the focus to an entire community – one haunted by the disappearance of a girl. (Garth)
Chango’s Beads and Two-tone Shoes by William Kennedy: William Kennedy, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of the magisterial Albany cycle of novels (including Billy Phelan’s Greatest Game, Legs and Ironweed), now takes us to the Florida bar in pre-revolutionary Cuba, where the journalist Daniel Quinn meets a fellow lover of simple declarative sentences, Ernest Hemingway. After brushes with revolutionaries, crooked politicians and drug-running gangsters, Quinn winds up in Albany as it is engulfed in race riots on the eve of Robert F. Kennedy’s assassination. Hungry fans are sure to rejoice over Kennedy’s first novel in almost a decade. (Bill)
Crossbones by Nuruddin Farah: Nuruddin Farah, recipient of a formidable number of literary prizes, writes beautifully and prolifically about his native Somalia. Exiled in 1976, Farah has returned in recent years to work as a peace broker between factions therein; in Farah’s own words, his writing is a way to “keep my country alive.” His upcoming novel Crossbones completes a trilogy begun with Links and Knots, and describes the specific travails of three family members who are swept up in intra- and international conflicts featuring pirates, religious radicals, and Ethiopian invasion. (Lydia)
The Little Bride by Anna Solomon: Anna Solomon’s debut novel is about a sixteen-year-old mail-order bride named Minna whose life changes dramatically when she leaves her native Odessa to meet her future husband in America. Set in the nineteenth century, The Little Bride follows Minna to the unforgiving landscape of South Dakota, where she marries Max, a man twice her age, and goes to live with him in a one-room hut with his two grown sons. Solomon, a winner of two Pushcart Prizes, has written what Audrey Niffenegger calls “an intensely imagined book, an elegantly written pocket of forgotten history.” I got my hands on an advance copy of The Little Bride and found it to be unflinchingly vivid, beautifully told, and even a touch sexy. (Edan)
Luminous Airplanes by Paul La Farge: Paul La Farge, the author of two previous novels (Haussmann, or the Distinction and The Artist of the Missing) and one “book of imaginary dreams” (The Facts of Winter, to be reissued by McSweeney’s, also in September) returns with Luminous Airplanes, a book that promises an unusual reading experience: his publisher reports that “the novel, complete in itself, is accompanied by an online ‘immersive text,’ which continues the story and complements it.” The place is America, and the year is 2000: a young programmer returns home from a festival and learns that his grandfather has died. He has to return to the isolated town of Thebes—a place so isolated, in fact, that it has its own language—to straighten out his grandfather’s affairs and clean the house that his family has occupied for generations. A meditation on “love, memory, family, flying machines, dance music, and the end of the world.” (Emily M.)
The Funny Man by John Warner: Warner, the managing editor of McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, delivers a satirical debut novel about a celebrity facing trial for manslaughter. The book centers on the exploits of the nameless “funny man,” who rises to stardom due to his ability to fit his entire hand in his mouth. Millions readers may know Warner from his running commentary — along with Kevin Guilfoile — of the Morning News’ Tournament of Books. Whether Warner’s own novel will compete in next year’s ToB remains to be seen. (Patrick)
1Q84 by Haruki Murakami: After years of anticipation the US release of Murakami’s first novel in four years is just months away. Murakami’s three-volume stemwinder came out in Japan in 2009 where it sold out its first printing in a day and did more than a million copies in a month. The alpha-numeric title is a play on Orwell’s 1984 – in Japanese the letter Q is a homophonic with the number 9 – and the book’s plot (which was a tightly guarded secret prior to its Japanese release) concerns two characters, a PE teacher and a writer, who become involved in a religious cult through which they create “a mysterious past, different than the one we know.” (Kevin)
The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides: For Eugenides fans, October is a long time coming. Nine years after the publication of Middlesex, The Marriage Plot (The Millions took an exclusive look at the first lines), will deal, in Eugenides’ own words with “religion, depression, the Victorian novel, and Roland Barthes” (also Mother Teresa). Unlike the multi-generational Middlesex, The Marriage Plot sticks close to 1982, following three college graduates as they wander around the Eastern Seaboard and Calcutta thinking about love and novels and one another. Eugenides has shown that he can work across material, space, time (and page length). As we move toward the publication date I anticipate a buzz frenzy, and I can’t wait. (Lydia)
Boomerang: Travels in the New Third World by Michael Lewis: Already a well-known chronicler of Wall Street manias and interesting intersections of sports and ideas, Lewis catapulted to wide attention with his writing on the financial crisis that came to a head in late 2008. In the sweepstakes to write the definitive book on the collapse, Lewis’s The Big Short seemed to be the big winner. Perhaps less likely to become an economic thriller is the ongoing malaise of the aftermath — chronic unemployment, budget cuts, litigation. To keep the thread unspooling, Lewis now goes abroad, taking us around Europe on a travelogue of collapse — Iceland, Greece, Germany, Ireland — in an exploration of money-fueled madness and the hard choices that have followed. (Max)
The Stranger’s Child by Alan Hollinghurst: Hollinghurst’s last book, the Booker-winning The Line of Beauty, achieved what Philip Hensher meant to do with The Northern Clemency. That is, it combined lovely realist prose – among the best currently being written – with an acute portrait of Thatcherite England. In a just world, it would have made our Best of the Millennium Top 20. His new one goes deeper into the past, and in synopsis reads like a kind of World War I analogue to Atonement: infatuated teenagers, country estates, sibling rivalry, literature, war, and history. (Garth)
Cain by Jose Saramago: In Cain, his last novel, the late Nobel laureate Jose Saramago re-imagined the Old Testament through the eyes of Cain. Skimming through time and space, Saramago’s Cain witnesses some of the most harrowing events of the Bible, including the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, the battle of Jericho, and Noah’s construction of the ark on the eve of the flood. Translated by Margaret Jull Costa, the novel created a furor in the author’s native Portugal when he suggested that society would have better off if the Bible had never been written. (Bill)
Zone One by Colson Whitehead: In the aftermath of a world-wide pandemic that has sorted humanity into two types – the living and the living dead – American society is trying to rebuild under orders from a provisional government based in Buffalo, New York. Their principal mission is the resettlement of Manhattan, where government forces hold the neighborhoods south of Canal Street, known as Zone One, but must battle pockets of plague-ridden squatters living uptown to retake the rest of the island. Whitehead, who began his career with The Intuitionist, the world’s greatest novel of elevator repair, now directs his wry, pop-culture-saturated sensibility toward a new kind of post-9/11 novel about zombies, apocalypse, and New York real estate. (Michael)
Estonia: A Ramble Through the Periphery by Alexander Theroux: When Theroux, a poet and author of Darconville’s Cat, decided to accompany his wife on her Fulbright Scholarship to Estonia, he began nine months of exploration into a culture and people wholly unknown to him. Theroux has described his writing as a “Victorian attic,” assorted ideas and tangents all crammed together, and indeed his encounters with Estonian customs and history get him talking about everything from Hamlet to Married…With Children, with his trademark whimsy and wit. (Janet)
Lightning Rods by Helen DeWitt: A manuscript’s difficulty finding its way into print is often attributed to its insufficiency and, less frequently but with greater cachet, its genius. Helen Dewitt’s work falls into the latter category–it’s as if her luck with publishing has been diminished in proportion to the magnitude of her literary feat. Her first novel, The Last Samurai, was hailed as one of the best debut novels of the aughts, and yet she briefly resorted to self-publishing her next book. (Even so, it was reviewed in the LRB.) Lightning Rods, her second novel, has waited ten years in the wings. If The Last Samurai’s focus was genius, this one is a failure’s drive to succeed. In the Mel Brooksian corporate satire, a failed salesman channels sexual fantasies into a business–and strikes gold–dealing with workplace sexual harassment. (Anne)
Nightwoods by Charles Frazier: Writers, like jockeys, are advised to remount immediately after getting thrown from their mounts. After his smash 1997 debut, Cold Mountain, which won the National Book Award, Charles Frazier stumbled his second time out with Thirteen Moons, a critical and popular flop. Now he comes right back with Nightwoods, set in 1950s North Carolina, where a lonely woman named Luce cares for her murdered sister Lily’s twins while the dead woman’s husband – and acquitted killer – comes looking for money he’s sure Lily has hidden. One early reader has said that these elements result, surprisingly, in a book that’s less a thriller than an intense character study. (Bill)
The Cat’s Table by Michael Ondaatje: Michael Ondaatje’s publisher, Ellen Seligman, has called his sixth novel “perhaps Ondaatje’s most thrilling and moving novel to date.” The Cat’s Table is set sixty years ago; a young boy, for reasons that are initially mysterious, is leaving the country that was then called Ceylon—the only home he’s ever known—and being sent to England. On board the Oronsay, “the first and only ship of his life,” he falls in with two fellow travelers of about his age. It’s a long voyage, involving the Indian Ocean, Red Sea, Mediterranean and Atlantic, and the three boys—virtually abandoned by their caregivers, ignored by ship’s officials—become close friends. Kirkus called the book “[e]legiac, mature and nostalgic—a fine evocation of childhood, and of days irretrievably past.” (Emily M.)
Parallel Stories by Péter Nadás Okay, so Parallel Stories is not actually the longest novel ever written. But at 1,150 pages, it’s damn close. It took Nádas decades to write – and Imre Goldstein who knows how long to translate. So it’s pretty much an assured thing that this won’t sell like FSG’s previous venture into 1,000-page novels in translation, 2666. But the excerpt that ran in The Paris Review last year was a stunner. Nadas is one of the few contemporary novelists capable of producing masterpieces; his last novel to appear in English, A Book of Memories (no beach read itself), was one. Has he done it again? (Garth)
The Forgotten Waltz by Anne Enright: As the Celtic Tiger was morphing into a toothless pussycat during the past decade, so the adulterous Irish lovers in Booker Prize-winner Anne Enright’s fifth novel, The Forgotten Waltz, find themselves spiraling from apparent marital success into the confusions of its ruined aftermath. The married adulterers are Gina Moynihan, a successful, strong-willed IT professional, and brooding Sean Vallely. “The whole project is about failure,” Gina says of adultery. “It has failure built in.” Enright has written a novel that is, in one British reviewer’s opinion, “the opposite of chicklit.” (Bill)
Nanjing Requiem by Ha Jin: For his sixth novel, Ha Jin, author of Waiting and War Trash, recreates one of the most horrific incidents of the Second Sino-Japanese War. Nanjing Requiem re-imagines the Japanese occupation of that city in 1937 through the eyes of a fictional narrator named Anling Gao, and the remarkable work of the real-life missionary Minnie Vautrin, who sheltered more than 10,000 Chinese women and children in Jinling Women’s College. Readers of Iris Chang’s controversial nonfiction book, The Rape of Nanking, will know much of the story, but Publishers Weekly has called Jin’s novel “a convincing, harrowing portrait of heroism in the face of brutality.” (Bill)
Ghost Lights by Lydia Millet: Lydia Millet is delightfully promiscuous in her range of social critique–she deftly shifts from satirizing popular culture in stories that depict celebrities alongside animals (Love in Infant Monkeys), to considering the implications of the atom bomb (Oh Pure and Radiant Heart), to voicing deep ecological concerns. Her latest novel, Ghost Lights, is the second in a trilogy focused on extinction, that began with How the Dead Dream. Ghost Lights revolves around domestic unrest fueled by a man’s discovery of his wife’s infidelity. He soon sets off on his own journey to track down her boss who disappeared in the jungles of Belize. Millet’s preoccupation with “relationship of the individual self to society and the social self, and morality” promises to frame this adventure tale within a harder-hitting conceit. (Anne)
The Palace of Dreams by Ismail Kadare: Ismail Kadare’s Palace of Dreams, widely regarded as a modern classic, was banned in Albania almost immediately upon its publication in 1981. While Kadare is one of the better-known Eastern European novelists in the West, his work is still relatively obscure and this re-publication is overdue. Critics often invoke Orwell or Kafka or Escher to describe the quality of the book, which offers an imagined version of the nineteenth-century Ottoman Empire in which the dreams of the populace are gathered, transcribed, and interpreted by the Sultan and used to formulate policy and control the populace. (Emily W.)
Nothing: A Portrait of Insomnia by Blake Butler: “Bad sugar fuels fucked dreams,” and fucked dreams are something Blake Butler’s become accustomed to, or hasn’t–as he’s prone to chronic bouts of insomnia. For a writer whose fictions often access the surreal, it’s fitting that his first book of nonfiction considers, among other things, sleep and dreams and his nightly battle to access this state. While dreams are well-trodden territory for creative types, the borders and barriers between sleep and dreams, the slippery in-between, and being shut out of the promised land, are less often considered. For a delicious glimpse of the ways Butler maps insomnia, see his “Insomnia Door.” (Anne)
The Angel Esmeralda: Nine Stories by Don DeLillo: The first ever collection of short stories by Delillo, these nine were written between 1979 and 2011. Not much info has been released, but this bibliography gives a rundown of the stories that will comprise part or most of the collection. (Sonya)
11/22/63l by Stephen King: For years Stephen King has been talking about writing a novel based around time-travel. This November it arrives. The date that serves as the book’s title is the day of John F. Kennedy’s assassination; the story concerns 35-year-old Jake Epping who discovers a time portal in a diner in his hometown in Maine and travels back to 1958, which gives him five years to figure out a way to prevent Lee Harvey Oswald (or whoever it was) from taking his fateful shot. This spring Scribner released an excerpt from the book, which has the protagonist contemplating murdering Oswald. “Even if you do have to kill him, you don’t have to do it right away.” (Kevin)
The Prague Cemetery by Umberto Eco: Last October, while Americans were transfixed by House campaigns, The Social Network, and Brian Wilson’s beard, Italy was swept up in literary controversy. Umberto Eco’s The Prague Cemetery, published that month, followed “the most hateful man in the world”—a fictitious anti-Semitic forger responsible for The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. The Vatican’s Osservatore Romano, among others, charged Eco with unwitting hate speech: “Forced to read disgusting things about the Jews, the reader remains tainted by this anti-Semitic nonsense.” Unsurprisingly, the fracas propelled The Prague Cemetery to European bestseller status; the book’s forthcoming English translation may run a similar course. (Jacob)
The Third Reich by Roberto Bolaño: A posthumous examination of Bolaño’s papers revealed the text of The Third Reich, a short novel written in 1989. A German war-game champion, Udo Berger, takes his girlfriend Ingeborg on vacation to the Spanish coastal town where he summered during his childhood. They meet another German couple on vacation, Charly and Hanna, and a group of locals. Charly disappears one night without a trace, and when Hanna and Ingeborg return to their lives in Germany, Udo refuses to leave the resort hotel. He quickly finds himself caught up in a round of Third Reich, an elaborate board game that pits him against El Quemado, a mysterious man from South America who rents paddle boats to tourists on the beach. (Emily M.)
Blue Nights by Joan Didion: America’s most astringent commentator on life and politics in the Postwar Era turns her gimlet eye on the subjects of aging, parenthood, and loss in the wake of the death of her daughter, Quintana Roo Dunne. Billed as a sequel of sorts to Didion’s best-selling memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking, about the sudden death of her husband, John Gregory Dunne, this new book explores the fresh hell of her daughter’s 2005 death from a massive hematoma while Didion was on tour touting the book about her husband’s death. Now well into her 70s, Didion examines her successes and failures as a parent and meditates on the tragic fragility of life in a world where even six hours of emergency surgery cannot save her 39-year-old daughter from a burst blood vessel. (Michael)
Dante in Love by A.N. Wilson: Touted as “a lively introduction to The Divine Comedy” as well as “biography as done by a novelist at the height of his powers,” A.N. Wilson’s Dante in Love aims to give the lay reader all the biographical and historical context she’d need to make the most of the Comedia. Other British reviewers (who’ve had first crack at it; it’s already out across the pond) have found the book wanting: ponderous in its erudition and labyrinthine in its organization. (Emily W.)
Gathering Evidence: A Memoir by Thomas Bernhard: Thomas Bernhard, the lit world’s favorite misanthrope, showed little discretion in dispersing his contempt. He hated his homeland, Austria, where he banned the posthumous publication of his works; he hated books and articles that began chronologically, with a date of birth; he despised “sinister” nature and the countryside where he was forced to live due to his poor health, and even literary prizes, which he compared receiving to “having one’s head pissed upon.” If you wonder at the sources of his cantankerousness and great despair, his five-volume memoir, Gathering Evidence, coming back into print in a paperback edition, contains an exacting ledger. From a father who didn’t acknowledge him, to bombing raids and involvement with Hitler youth, to contracting tuberculosis and his chronic convalescence in sanitariums, there’s much to lament but also great beauty in the devastation. (Anne)
Adam and Evelyn by Ingo Schulze: Since getting the New Yorker treatment in the ’90s, the German novelist Ingo Schulze has fallen into unjust neglect in the U.S. His great epistolary novel, New Lives and his 2009 collection One More Story were perhaps too subtle in their ironies to find a broad American readership, while not being subtle enough for the critic who gave them the most attention. But Schulze’s work stays with you, if you stay with it. Adam and Evelyn is something of a departure – a comic love story, and a retelling of the Fall. It continues, however, Schulze’s effort to define a post-Iron Curtain literary sensibility, drawing equally from East and West. (Garth)
The Artist of Disappearance by Anita Desai: A collection of three novellas, The Artist of Disappearance is Anita Desai’s latest examination of Indian society—its wealth, its poverty, and the ways in which its culture permeates its daily life. Americans have been taught to view India with a mixture of awe and foreboding, as a source of exotica and our own economic displacement. But Desai reminds us that real people live there, with fears and desires at once specific and universal. In a world of Outsourced caricature, her characters are drawn with a much-needed precision. (Jacob)
Triptych: How to Look at Francis Bacon by Jonathan Littel: Jonathan Littell, French-American bad boy author of the middling cyberpunk novel Bad Voltage and the controversial, hefty, first-person Nazi confessional novel The Kindly Ones, celebrated in France but—quel surprise—less loved here, is back: This time around, he’s trying his hand at art history. With his apparent taste for the gruesome and atrocious (see The Kindly Ones), Littell may be just the man to have a go at the squeamish-making work of Francis Bacon. (Emily W.)
The Recognitions by William Gaddis: Mr. Difficult’s classic ur-post-modern novel, first published in 1955 and returning in a new edition from Dalkey Archive, is not for the faint of heart (Gaddis himself described his work as “not reader friendly”). Notoriously difficult in all of the ways postmods are (allusive, dense, multi-plot, hyper-intellectual, long, rich in unmarked dialogue), The Recognitions is also regarded as one of the great American books of the last century. It charts the travails of aspiring artist Wyatt Gwyon, who makes exquisite forgeries of the Dutch masters—paintings so true to the originals that they’re indistinguishable from them. Gwyon’s plot is, of course, entangled in those of many other lives and the novel is acutely interested in figuring out what authenticity, forgery, plagiarism, and originality mean in the post-war, post-modern age. (Emily W.)
The Map and the Territory by Michel Houellebecq: Michel Houellebecq, the reigning bad boy of French letters, has been accused of every imaginable sin against political correctness. His new novel, The Map and the Territory, is a send-up of the art world that tones down the sex and booze and violence, but it does feature a “sickly old tortoise” named Michel Houellebecq who gets gruesomely murdered. The book has drawn charges of plagiarism because passages were lifted virtually verbatim from Wikipedia. “If people really think that (this is plagiarism),” Houellebecq sniffed, “then they haven’t the first notion what literature is.” Apparently, he does. The Map and the Territory was awarded the Prix Goncourt, France’s most prestigious literary prize. (Bill)
The Flame Alphabet by Ben Marcus: Ben Marcus, who is best known for his experimental, language-driven fiction, and for editing the oft-assigned anthology The Anchor Book of New American Short Stories, has a new novel, The Flame Alphabet. In an interview with HTMLGIANT, Marcus said the book is about “a husband and wife who are sickened by the speech of their daughter. Literally. So sickened that they have to leave her.” The novel is apparently a chronological narrative told by a single character; in the same interview, Marcus admitted that it’s “…formally a lot simpler than my other books, and it felt entirely new to me when I wrote it. I’ve never written a single book-length narrative that has a clear plot. I loved being in such strange waters.” (Edan)
Zona: A Book About a Film About a Journey to a Room by Geoff Dyer: Geoff Dyer’s books are never quite what they first seem. Out of Sheer Rage began as a critical study of D.H. Lawrence and became a vehicle for a wonderfully digressive account of avoidance that James Wood called “a work of delicious, stunned truancy.” Dyer’s novel Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi documents its real-life foundations in visits to the Venice Biennial. The two narratives themselves straddle extremes, the first a devotion to aesthetics, excess, and ennui, and the second, to self-denial and dissolution of the ego. And so while Dyer’s forthcoming Zona’s subject is Andrei Tarkovsky’s film Stalker, he strays–of course–from convention to discuss European film and realizing one’s deepest wishes, among other grander and lesser things. With Dyer at the helm there’s no telling where he’ll go, but it’s generally advisable to follow his lead. (Anne)
The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes: Three-time Man Booker shortlister Julian Barnes has written a new novel, the first since Arthur & George was published in 2005. According to Barnes’ website, The Sense of an Ending is a middle-aged man’s retroactive search for truth about his time as a member of “sex-hungry and book-hungry” adolescent crew, one of whose members meets an untimely end. The title–certainly a nod to Frank Kermode’s classic work of literary theory–suggests that Barnes, true to fashion, will apply the theories of literature to private life, hopefully with the same panache of his earlier novels. (Lydia)
Stay Awake by Dan Chaon: With the publication of his first two novels, You Remind Me of Me and Await Your Reply, Dan Chaon has gained a wider reading audience and a reputation for character-driven narratives shot through with a sinister darkness. Readers who discovered Chaon through his short stories will be delighted to see him return to the form with his latest collection, Stay Awake, his first collection since Among the Missing, which was nominated for the National Book Award in 2001. The jacket copy promises: “In these haunting, suspenseful stories, lost, fragile, searching characters wander between ordinary life and a psychological shadowland. They have experienced intense love or loss, grief or loneliness, displacement or disconnection—and find themselves in unexpected, dire, and sometimes unfathomable situations.” Sounds like good-old Dan Chaon to me. Don’t expect to be uplifted, but count on being moved, discomfited, and, certainly, impressed. (Edan)
Hot Pink by Adam Levin: Adam Levin’s gigantic first novel, The Instructions, made a splashy, panache-y debut in 2010, blowing lipfarts, flipping birds, and tipping hats in the direction of George Saunders and Philip Roth. Hot Pink collects nine stories in the same inventive vein. (Garth)
Arcadia by Lauren Groff: Arcadia by Lauren Groff tracks the life of Bit Stone, a man who grows up in an agrarian utopian commune in central New York that falls apart, as they generally do. Groff says, “I was interested in how a person who’d been born and raised in such an idealistic environment would adapt to the larger world–in all of the accounts I’ve read about communalist experiments gone wrong, the children are the silent suffering ones.” Groff, the author of the bestselling novel The Monsters of Templeton and the story collection Delicate Edible Birds, is already garnering strong praise for Arcadia. Richard Russo says, “Richly peopled and ambitious and oh, so lovely, Lauren Groff’s Arcadia is one of the most moving and satisfying novels I’ve read in a long time. It’s not possible to write any better without showing off.” (Edan)
When I Was a Child I Read Books: Essays by Marilynne Robinson: “When I was a child I read books,” writes Robinson, “My reading was not indiscriminate. I preferred books that were old and thick and dull and hard…I looked to Galilee for meaning and to Spokane for orthodonture, and beyond that the world where I was I found entirely sufficient.” The exalted author of Gilead and Home claims that the hardest work of her life has been convincing New Englanders that growing up in Idaho was not “intellectually crippling.” There, during her childhood, she read about Cromwell, Constantinople, and Carthage, and her new collection of essays celebrates the joy, and the enduring value, of reading. (Janet)
Night Film by Marisha Pessl: Fans of Pessl’s stylistic pyrotechnics in Special Topics in Calamity Physics will be disappointed to learn that the publication of her second novel, Night Film, has been delayed by a year. One wonders if the wunderkind is having a more difficult labor with baby number two—“a psychological thriller about obsession, family loyalty and ambition set in raw contemporary Manhattan” (so Pessl’s agent describes Night Film). As noted in the last Most Anticipated, Pessl’s Special Topics heroine, Blue van Meer, had a distinct, scintillating voice that it’ll be hard to match without imitating. (Emily W.)