As we’ve done for several years now, we thought it might be fun to compare the U.S. and U.K. book cover designs of this year’s Morning News Tournament of Books contenders. Book cover art is an interesting element of the literary world — sometimes fixated upon, sometimes ignored — but, as readers, we are undoubtedly swayed by the little billboard that is the cover of every book we read. And, while many of us no longer do most of our reading on physical books with physical covers, those same cover images now beckon us from their grids in the various online bookstores. From my days as a bookseller, when import titles would sometimes find their way into our store, I’ve always found it especially interesting that the U.K. and U.S. covers often differ from one another. This would seem to suggest that certain layouts and imagery will better appeal to readers on one side of the Atlantic rather than the other. These differences are especially striking when we look at the covers side by side. The American covers are on the left, and the UK are on the right. Your equally inexpert analysis is encouraged in the comments.
Shortly after I turned in my new novel, The Stager, my editor sent me a startling black and white photograph of a woman in a chair. The woman is in a state of graceful repose, with long legs extending into strappy black shoes. She is sultry, sexy, and extremely unsettling. She appears to be beautiful even though you cannot see her face because she is wearing a mask. The art director was suggesting updating this image to use as the cover of the book. It was apparently an iconic Bauhaus photograph. I could toss the word Bauhaus around as well as the next person, but to be honest, I didn’t really know what it meant, apart from having something to do with Germany and a slim treatise on architecture by Tom Wolfe. That Bauhaus might also involve Jungian images of women in chairs was surprising; more puzzling was what this had to do with my novel -- a dark comedy about home staging set in suburban Maryland. But to be honest, I didn’t really care. I loved this photograph in all its weirdness and, more to the point, I was just relieved that no one was proposing slapping on my novel the image of a woman holding a briefcase, a baby, or a mop. The updated image that was created for the book jacket hewed closely to the original, but now that it was infused with color and light, not to mention the comical silhouette of the belligerent rabbit who plays a central role in the book, the cover seemed more playful than spooky -- or so I thought. Not everyone I showed it to agreed; my agent reported that the British publishers thought the cover was “too S&M,” for example. Still, the more I studied it, the more I could see a perfect symmetry with the narrative. At the center of the novel is a home stager whose job involves coming into a house to strip it of personality, to depersonalize it so that others can see themselves living there -- to mask the interior. The home stager, as it happens, is masked, herself. She’s incognito in the home of her former best friend, about whom she knows secrets. And the home is full of symbolic totems from their past. Masks and more masks. While I was in high gear connecting the dots on all the mask symbolism, a friend looked at the photograph and became nearly apoplectic when he saw the chair the woman was sitting in. It’s a Wassily, he explained. “The most disturbing chair in the world, next to the electric.” With its black leather straps in place of cushions, not only is its appearance formidable, but it is evidently quite uncomfortable. Sitting in it feels like having a broomstick shoved up a certain part of the anatomy, or so I was informed. I had never heard of a Wassily chair. I take pride in my house and I care about my surroundings, but my own sensibility leans decidedly toward the Anthropologie catalogue with a little Pottery Barn mixed in, which is to say that there is no rigorous intellectual underpinning to the way I have put together my home. Also, modern furniture has no place in my design lexicon, so the chair on the cover barely caught my eye. A little research turned up the following: made of tubular steel and inspired by the construct of a bicycle, the chair was originally called the model B3. It was designed by Marcel Breuer in the mid-1920s, when he was the head of the cabinet-making workshop at the Bauhaus. The painter Wassily Kandinsky evidently admired it, and Breuer made a copy for his quarters. Years later, when it was reproduced in mass quantities, it was named the Wassily. The chair needed to go in the book, my friend said. But I was unconvinced; the Wassily does not belong in the shabby chic faux Tudor mansion where the story is set. Besides, by this point I had already been sent the copy-edited proofs. Adding the chair was going to require a fair amount of work on a project I had psychologically declared finished. But my friend persisted; the chair was on the cover for a reason, he said, and the next thing I knew I had a stack of furniture books on my desk and was reading From Bauhaus to Our House and a doorstop called 1,000 Chairs. The chair inserted itself rather easily, despite my resistance. One of my characters is a Swedish tennis pro who, now that he is no longer on the circuit, has developed a shopping addiction. It turns out that he acquired this chair on eBay, and that it had once been owned by three-time Wimbledon champ Boris Yablonsky. This felt like one of the most natural sentences I’d written in my life. The chair was out of place in this house, facing the wall in the living room like a forlorn child sent to the corner for misbehaving. The owner of the chair did not belong in this house, either, as it happened. He was going quietly insane, strung out on an alphabet soup of prescription drugs which were causing even crazier side-effects. By the time I finished the final page proofs, the chair had wormed its way not only into the final scene, but was referenced on page one. The more I bonded with this chair, the more I wanted to know about both Bauhaus and the original photograph. A little research turned up the fact that the woman behind the mask is either Ise Gropius, wife of Walter Gropius, founder and leader of the Bauhaus school of modern architectural design, (who later served as chairman of the Harvard Graduate School of design) or Lis Beyer, a Bauhaus student. The fact that no one -- not even, evidently, the curator of an exhibit at MOMA, where this photograph appeared in 2009 -- could definitively identify this woman was its own form of intrigue, and a puzzle I might explore further, perhaps even with an eye toward my next book. Life inspires art and art inspires life and truth is stranger than fiction. Add to this: art inspires fiction, and fiction inspires art. And let’s raise a glass to art directors whose visions inform the books, themselves.
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In 1782, the year she turned 30, Frances Burney was a single, successful chick-lit author with not one, but two bestsellers to her name. Fans pointed and stared at her when she went out to public places. They stood up and made a fuss when she entered rooms. They routinely addressed her as “Evelina” or “Cecilia” -- which is sort of like the 18th-century equivalent of going up to Helen Fielding and calling her “Bridget.” She was only 26 when her first novel was published. Reviews were good, sales were even better, and since the book was published anonymously, all of London was scrambling to find out who’d written this delightful romp in which a beautiful if incredibly naïve young woman comes to the big city for the first time, buys some new clothes, and gets swarmed by suitors both true and faux. Once the mystery was solved -- once everyone figured out that this year’s It Novel, Evelina: Or, the History of a Young Lady’s Entrance Into the World, had been written by the relatively uneducated middle-class daughter of a music teacher -- Fanny began living the dream. Suddenly, she was A-list, awash in cool parties and blind script deals. In January of 1779, Richard Brinsley Sheridan – essentially the Judd Apatow of his time -- encouraged her to write a comedy, agreeing that he would take any play of hers sight unseen for the Drury Lane. And she wasn’t just a one-book wonder. The day before her 30th birthday, she published her second novel -- Cecilia: Or, Memoirs of an Heiress -- in which another beautiful if incredibly naïve young woman comes to the big city for the first time, buys some new clothes, and gets swarmed by suitors both true and faux. Teeming with parties, socialites, new hats, degenerate gamblers, and languid metrosexuals, Cecilia was twice as long as Fanny’s first book, three times more complicated, and -- much to everyone’s surprise -- it was an even bigger and more spectacular commercial success. Everywhere Fanny went that year, people wanted to talk to her about it. Princesses were reading it. Dowager duchesses. Milliners. Bishops. Members of Parliament. In October of 1782, while she was in Brighton with her BFF Hester Thrale, as relayed in Margaret Anne Doody’s biography Frances Burney, she wrote to her favorite sister, Susanna: You would suppose me something dropt from the Skies. Even if Richardson or Fielding could rise from the Grave, I should bid fair for supplanting them in the popular Eye, for being a fair female, I am accounted quelque chose extraordinaire. And she was. She was something extraordinary. At that particular point in world history -- since Jane Austen was only 7 years old -- she was the most successful female novelist currently alive on the planet. But of course her glittering fame and success didn’t last. Eight years later, by December of 1790, she was wasting away and near death from some nonspecific “feverish illness” of the sort spinsters were particularly wont to get back then. Opium was prescribed. And, as Burney noted in her Journals and Letters, “three glasses of wine in the day.” She was still writing, but she was writing blank-verse tragedies with exhausting and ridiculous titles like Edwy and Elvira. And it’s not like people were lining up to read these blank-verse tragedies. So what happened in those eight missing years to make a well-reviewed, commercially successful author fall so far so fast? Heartbreak? Rehab? Addiction to designer shoes? Easy. She took the wrong day job. There’s been a flutter of articles in the past several months on the sheer impossibility of earning a living wage from writing fiction. This is a quandary that plagues all artists: male, female, old, young. In L.A., where many writers are union-repped and writing for a screen of some sort, real numbers are bandied about quite bluntly -- both in conversation and on Deadline Hollywood -- but in the more refined sectors of the print economy, the main question no one wants to ask but everyone wants answered is quite simple: How are you supporting yourself? Is there a husband? A day job? A trust fund? If you write literary fiction, do you teach? If you’re in your 20s, do your parents pay your rent? At the end of March, The New York Times Book Review took on the subject in its Bookends column, asking, “Do money woes spur creativity, or do they stifle it?” Back in January, the novelist Ann Bauer wrote a piece in Salon owning up to the fact that her solution is a husband with good money and medical benefits. In December, Nell Zink addressed the question in the Paris Review blog and came down firmly in favor of nonliterary day jobs: “My main concern was always to have a job that didn’t require me to write or think.” Also in December, Liz Entman Harper published a roundtable in The Morning News in which she gathered seven writers who “have to keep one foot firmly outside of the literary world to get by.” Old standbys like teaching and journalism were represented, but other participants included a lawyer, a professor of psychiatry, a full-time United Methodist pastor, and a private investigator. They commiserated on the stresses and strain of working two shifts, but also pointed out the occasional benefits of cross-pollination between “jobby-job” and writing. One even posited that actually liking your job may be the secret sauce that makes the whole thing work. In the words of Christine Montross, “If you’re in a job that you hate and that drains you, I imagine it would be harder to find the energy or stamina to write in the off hours.” Which brings me back to my 18th-century case in point. The year was 1786. England’s most successful female novelist was 34 and unmarried. Lacking a Hollywood shark of an agent, she had sold her first novel outright for £20. Her father, a successful author in his own right, negotiated for her on her second, and it went for much higher -- £250. But plays were how writers made real money back then, and the comedy Fanny wrote at Sheridan’s behest was never produced because her father/agent got cold feet about the impropriety of a lady writing for the stage. The cruel irony of this is that in the Downton Abbey sense of the word, Fanny wasn’t a lady. Her father wasn’t a gentlweman who lived off earned family income. He worked for a living -- teaching music to society girls and writing -- and so when Fanny’s fame and a friend’s connection brought her the “honor” of a royal appointment as Second Keeper of the Robes in the court of Queen Charlotte, it was virtually impossible for her to say no to the income and prestige it would bring her family. The plus of Fanny’s unusual day job -- at least by the Nell Zink standard -- was that it didn’t require her to think or write. And it came with a place to stay -- an actual palace/castle. But it was poorly chosen because Burney hated it and the hours were insanely long: roughly 6am to midnight, day in and day out. Sure, there was health care -- smelling salts, “the bark,” etc -- but no vacation days, no weekends off. Nothing to do while the King was going mad. Because, you know, back then it wasn’t considered appropriate to start composing your tell-all memoir while you were still on the celebrity payroll. Arguably, the money was a draw. Two hundred a year, plus a footman and a maid. The servants make this difficult to calculate in modern-day dollars, although in Jane Austen dollars it’s not enough to marry on. I suspect that it was good not great -- probably something vaguely comparable to what I used to make back in the late '90s when I was a struggling, 20-something Hollywood assistant who accidentally stumbled upon the Everyman’s Library edition of The Diary of Fanny Burney in the stacks of the Beverly Hills Public Library. At the time, I had just moved from Chicago to L.A. with two suitcases and half a Seinfeld spec, and virtually all of my non-working hours were spent obsessing on my career prospects. Would I still be answering the phone at 30? Would I ever be able to make the leap from beleaguered, put-upon Hollywood assistant to beleaguered, put-upon Hollywood writer? Having read two of Burney’s novels as an English major at Columbia, I knew a little about her life and work, but that fateful day when I stumbled upon her diary, I didn’t see it as an artifact from a bygone era. I simply thought to myself, “Here is someone who has also tried to be a writer. I wonder how things worked out for her.” And of course in the most basic way -- the way that mattered most to me at 27 -- they worked out spectacularly well: Frances Burney had the exact kind of success most 20-something writers crave -- i.e., the kind where you are singled out as a force to be reckoned with before you are 30. But then what? At 30, Jane Austen was an utter failure. A blocked writer with virtually no income of her own, she was living at her brother Frank’s house in Southampton with his new bride, her widowed mother, her older sister Cassandra, and an equally impoverished family friend. When she was 21, her father had queried a publisher about the first draft of Pride and Prejudice -- then called First Impressions -- but they refused to read it. At 27, she sold her novel Northanger Abbey, expecting this to launch her writing career -- but her joy was short-lived: the publisher advertised the book but never put it out. The year before she had been offered a very tempting, well-paid day job -- the job of being Mrs. Harris Bigg-Withers -- but she couldn’t bring herself to accept. Either because she didn’t love the man -- or because in the era before birth control that particular day job was incompatible with writing. She was 33 when it finally happened, the blessed event that would be the making of Jane Austen as a writer. It wasn’t a burst of literary inspiration -- a plot, a character, her invention of a newfangled free indirect style. It was a piece of real estate -- a house provided rent-free by her brother Edward. In the summer of 1809, after eight years of peripatetic living arrangements that were unproductive for her writing, Jane Austen settled down in this house and began to rewrite and revise the manuscripts of her younger years into the masterworks we know today as Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility. For her, there was no waking up at 6am to help the Queen get dressed. And Frances Burney? After five years of her disastrous, soul-crushing day job -- after five years of walking backwards and answering to a bell -- the glittering young author who had once been compared to Samuel Richardson and Henry Fielding and deemed “quelque chose extraordinaire” was no longer quite so extraordinary. She eventually rallied and made a comeback with her third novel, but her fourth is practically unreadable, and, as a fan, I can’t help but wonder what book Burney would have written in her mid-30s if she hadn’t taken that awful day job. Would she have found a way to hone her craft, perfect her talent for dialogue, and achieve the sort of literary immortality achieved one generation later by a clergyman’s daughter named Jane? Writers have always asked this question: how will I live? And the answers have never been easy. In October of 1790, Frances Burney was leaving St. George’s chapel at Windsor Castle when she ran into an old friend who was also a writer. James Boswell urged her to return to writing, posthaste. “I am extremely glad to see you,” Burney reports him saying. ”But very sorry to see you here! My dear ma’am, why do you stay? -- it won’t do! ma’am! You must resign!” Eager to hear about another old acquaintance, Burney asked him about Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France. “It will come out next week,” Boswell replied. “’Tis the first book in the world! -- except my own!” Bubbling over with excitement about his Life of Johnson, he took a proof sheet out of his pocket to read aloud to her some choice quotes -- but Fanny’s boss was watching at the window and the Queen was approaching from the terrace. She had no choice. Her day job was calling. She had to get back to work. Previously: Working the Double Shift Image Credit: Flickr/Tracy O.
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2012 has already been a rich year for books, with new novels from Toni Morrison, Richard Ford, and Hilary Mantel and essay collections from Marilynn Robinson and Jonathan Franzen, to name just a fraction of what we've featured, raved about, chewed on, and puzzled over so far. But the remainder of this year (and the hazy beginning of next year) is shaping up to be a jackpot of literary riches. In just a few short months, we'll be seeing new titles from some of the most beloved and critically lauded authors working today, including Martin Amis, Zadie Smith, Michael Chabon, Junot Díaz, Alice Munro, Ian McEwan, George Saunders, and David Foster Wallace. Incredibly, there's much more than that to get excited about, but, were we to delve into it further up here, we would risk this introduction consuming the many previews that are meant to follow. The list that follows isn't exhaustive - no book preview could be - but, at 8,700 words strong and encompassing 76 titles, this is the only second-half 2012 book preview you will ever need. Enjoy. July: Broken Harbor by Tana French: In French's fourth Dublin Murder Squad mystery, Mick "Scorcher" Kennedy — the big jerk detective from Faithful Place — is assigned to a triple homicide in a half-built housing development in a north suburb of Dublin where (inevitably) he spent his summers as a child. As he waits for the fourth victim — who is alive but in a coma — to wake up, he deals with his rookie cop of a partner, a neighborhood of tight-lipped witnesses, and his younger sister's fraught reaction to the case. French is known for creating detectives that are as complex as the mysteries they solve, and then showing the one case that could tear them apart. This is Kennedy's case. (Janet) Dare Me by Megan Abbott: Set in the fiercely competitive world of high school cheer-leading, Megan Abbot's new novel Dare Me is already being hailed as “a mesmerizing piece of prose” by The Independent and “truly menacing” by The Wall Street Journal. Taking her cue from the power politics of Shakespearean drama and the adrenal intensity of teenaged life, Abbott's latest thriller should make for entirely captivating—dare I say, criminally compelling—reading. After last year's The End of Everything, it seems like this book marks Abbot as a very strong contender in the role of head honcho of Suburban Noir. (Emily K.) A Million Heavens by John Brandon: Brandon’s first two novels — Arkansas and Citrus County — both focused on criminals, but with his third he turns his attention to a comatose piano prodigy. Lying in a hospital bed in New Mexico, he is visited by his gruff father while a band of strangers assemble outside, vigilants for whom he is an inspiration, an obsession, or merely something to do. They in turn are watched over by a roaming wolf and a song-writing angel (who can't quite get to Heaven). In Brandon's darkly hopeful and deadpan voice, this collection of the downtrodden become a community. (Janet) Office Girl by Joe Meno: Joe Meno set out to write about falling in love — void of angst, political uncertainty, tragedy, or the march of history. The result is Office Girl, a book (with illustrations and photographs) about Odile and Jack. Odile is an art school dropout, Jack is lazy 25-year-old who loves his tape recorder. They decide to start an art movement to counterpoint the banality of modern culture, and perhaps to make the fleeting feeling of being in your 20s and capable of anything last a little bit longer. (Janet) Sorry Please Thank You by Charles Yu: Yu, the author of the short story collection Third Class Superhero and the novel How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, provides more meta-science-fiction fun with this new collection. Sorry Please Thank You includes such stand-outs as “Standard Loneliness Package,” about a firm where employees earn money for suffering other people’s pain, and “Inventory,” about a hypothetical version of Charles Yu. Yu’s work has been compared to that of Kurt Vonnegut, George Saunders and Gary Shteyngart. (Edan) Our Kind of People by Uzodinma Iweala: In 2007, Uzodinma Iweala made Granta’s list of the 20 Best Young American Novelists for his debut novel, Beasts of No Nation. Deserved praise indeed, but doubly so considering Iweala’s not a full-time writer; instead, like Chris Adrian today and Anton Chekhov long ago, Iweala is also a practicing physician. In Our Kind of People, Iweala draws from his medical experience to craft a nonfiction on-the-ground account of the HIV/AIDS crisis in Nigeria. A well-known critic of what fellow Nigerian-American writer Teju Cole calls “The White Savior Industrial Complex,” Iweala focuses his book on the stories of the ill and the healthy alike to relay the honest, personal narratives—not the sensationalist headlines—of the people dealing with this unprecedented epidemic. (Nick) You & Me by Padgett Powell: Padgett Powell's eighth work of fiction is a novel called You & Me that consists of a conversation between two middle-aged men sitting on a porch chewing on such gamey topics as love and sex, how to live and die well, and the merits of Miles Davis, Cadillacs and assorted Hollywood starlets. Since his 1984 debut, Edisto, Powell has won comparisons to Faulkner and Twain for his ability to bottle the molasses-and-battery-acid speech of his native South. One early reader has described You & Me as "a Southern send-up of Waiting for Godot." Which is high praise indeed for Samuel Beckett. (Bill) The Investigation by Philippe Claudel: French author Phillipe Claudel and translator John Cullen, the team that won the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize and the Translation Award for their work on 2010's Brodek, return with The Investigation. This, Claudel's sixth novel, set in the not-so-distant future, follows the Inspector, a balding everyman, in his search to uncover the cause of a string of suicides in the Enterprise. Before the Inspector can enter, he is dragged through a beurocratic hell of places and characters bearing names capitalized for genericism: the Psychologist, the Guard. Equal parts Kafka and Huxley, Claudel paints a nightmarish vision of a technocratic, dystopic future. (Matt) August: Lionel Asbo: The State of England by Martin Amis: The late Christopher Hitchens would have been pleased to know that his partners in literary bromance Martin Amis, Salman Rushdie, and Ian McEwan all have major work coming out this fall. First up to bat is Amis, whose last novel, The Pregnant Widow, signaled something of a return to form. The eponym of his new one, Lionel Asbo, is a classic Amis creation - an id-addled criminal who takes his last name from a British court document called an Anti-Social Behavior Order. In a Dickensian twist of fate, the novel shackles Asbo together with a more sensitive nephew, Desmond. The subtitle is "The State of England." What more do you need to know? Oh, yes: the jacket design is one of the best of the fall. (Garth) Winter Journal by Paul Auster: The title of novelist Paul Auster’s second work of memoir refers to the author’s sense that, at age 64, he has entered the winter of his life. This is Auster’s second memoir (his first, The Invention of Solitude was published 30 years ago) and Publisher’s Weekly, in a starred review, describes it as a “quietly moving meditation on death and life.” The PW review goes on to say, “From the vantage point of the winter preceding his 64th birthday, Auster lets his body and its sensations guide his memories. There is no set chronology; time and place bleed from one year to another, between childhood and adulthood.” (Kevin) The Devil in Silver by Victor LaValle: In a mental institution in Queens, a motley crew of four inmates, led by a mostly sane, rabble-rousing “big man” named Pepper, sets out to kill the devil-monster that all four of them swear is stalking the halls. Other characters include “Dorry, an octogenarian schizophrenic who’s been on the ward for decades and knows all its secrets; Coffee, an African immigrant with severe OCD, who tries desperately to send alarms to the outside world; and Loochie, a bipolar teenage girl who acts as the group’s enforcer.” In this fourth book, LaValle – who, among other honors like the Guggenheim and the Whiting, was given the key to Southeast Queens – is sure to break our hearts, make us laugh, and freak us out, as he has with his previous two novels and story collection. (Sonya) Aftermath: On Marriage and Separation by Rachel Cusk: Aftermath has been positioned as kind of sequel to A Life’s Work, Cusk’s controversial memoir about motherhood, which she published over ten years ago. Her new book examines the breakdown of her marriage: “My husband believed that I had treated him monstrously," she writes. The Telegraph admires the book very much, saying, “If her probing is sometimes clinical, it is also full of beauty – the beauty of language struggling to reveal an experience which is complex and scored with doubts and pain.” The Guardian says: “It's not a congenial place, this Cuskland, with its low mephitic cloud of complex melancholia…What detains us is her cool, clinical examination of the remains, the truths that are returned when she scrapes at the marrow of experience.” (Edan) The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving by Jonathan Evison: Evison follows up his bestselling West of Here with a tale of an unusual roadtrip. There is nothing that you cannot lose, and Benjamin has lost most of it: his wife, his family, his home, and his livelihood. Short on options, he enrolls in a night class called The Fundamentals of Caregiving and finds himself responsible for nineteen-year-old Trev, an angry and stubborn boy in the advanced stages of Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy. A friendship develops, and they set out together across the American west to visit Trev’s ailing father. (Emily M.) September: The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling: Oh me! Oh my! J.K. Rowling has a new book out—a novel for adults. Publisher Little, Brown describes the book as “blackly comic” and offers this glimpse of the plot: “When Barry Fairweather dies unexpectedly in his early forties, the little town of Pagford is left in shock. Pagford is, seemingly, an English idyll, with a cobbled market square and an ancient abbey, but what lies behind the pretty facade is a town at war. Rich at war with poor, teenagers at war with their parents…Pagford is not what it first seems. And the empty seat left by Barry on the parish council soon becomes the catalyst for the biggest war the town has yet seen. Who will triumph in an election fraught with passion, duplicity and unexpected revelations?” (Kevin) NW by Zadie Smith: Smith's first novel since On Beauty (2005), NW follows a group of people from Caldwell--a fictional council estate in northwest London whose buildings are named for English philosophers--and documents the lives they build in adulthood. Smith (who since 2005 has become a mother, NYU professor, and Harper's columnist) has variously called this a novel of class and a "very, very small book" (highly unlikely). Smith's own deep roots to London, and this particular corner of London, were most recently aired in her stirring defense of London's local libraries for the New York Review of Books blog. (Lydia) Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon: Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, Chabon turns his verbal dexterity to the left coast with this novel set in 2004 in the Flatlands neighborhood of Oakland, California. The tale centers on two families, one white, one black, whose fathers jointly own a small used-record shop threatened by a new music megastore on Telegraph Avenue. Called “High Fidelity for smart people” in one early review, the book features pop culture riffs on Kung Fu, '70s Blaxploitation films, vinyl LPs, jazz and soul music, and a certain newly elected senator from Illinois headed for higher office. See our excerpt. (Michael) This Is How You Lose Her by Junot Díaz: Díaz, who made readers wait eleven years between his first book of stories, Drown, and his Pulitzer-winning novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, now returns after only five years with a new book of stories, many of which first appeared in the New Yorker. According to his publisher, the stories “capture the heat of new passion, the recklessness with which we betray what we most treasure, and the torture we go through – ‘the begging, the crawling over glass, the crying’ – to try to mend what we’ve broken beyond repair.” Word is Díaz is also working on a new novel, titled Monstro. If he keeps to his usual pace, we only have six more years to wait. (Michael) The Signal and the Noise by Nate Silver: Silver, author of the political prognostication blog FiveThirtyEight.com (which now makes its home on the New York Times site), knows more than most on prediction. Before turning his attention to politics and pretty much acing the 2008 election, he developed the groundbreaking PECOTA system for forecasting baseball talent while at Baseball Prospectus. With his first non-baseball book, Silver broadens his scope to look at the science and art of predictions, visiting "the most successful forecasters in a range of areas, from hurricanes to baseball, from the poker table to the stock market, from Capitol Hill to the NBA." (Patrick) Nice Weather by Frederick Seidel: Frederick Seidel, age 76, belongs to the last generation of poets who could assume that people cared what they had to say. Late in life, he's turned that into a self-fulfilling prophecy. His singular voice - urbane, seductive, nostalgic, lucid, lusty, rich, visionary, and ruthless - has as much to tell us about the way we live now as the best novels. For those of us who couldn't afford his Collected Poems in hardcover, Nice Weather offers a more manageable selection of new work. (Garth) Every Love Story is a Ghost Story: The Life of David Foster Wallace by D.T. Max: Six months after David Foster Wallace’s suicide, The New Yorker published a novella-length piece by journalist D.T. Max on Wallace’s last difficult years and his encompassing effort to surpass Infinite Jest. That article started the drumbeat for two books: The first, The Pale King, was released last April; the second, Max’s biography of Wallace, debuts this August. The biography was written with the cooperation of Wallace’s family and promises to be the first definitive treatment of the author’s life. (Kevin) San Miguel by T.C. Boyle: Boyle follows his 2011 novel, When the Killing’s Done, with a second novel set on the Channel Islands off the California coast, focusing this time on the most remote of the eight islands, San Miguel. In an interview last year with Untitled Books, Boyle, known for his fondness for narrative bells and whistles, called his new book “a straightforward, non-ironic, historical tale of two families who lived in different periods alone on this particular island, the farthest one out, the most wind-blown, the most difficult.” (Michael) Joseph Anton by Salman Rushdie: The iconic figure Salman Rushdie cuts owes more to early triumphs, bravery in the face of death threats, celebrity antics, and sheer chutzpah than to recent brilliance. Since about The Moor's Last Sigh, his work has been hit or miss - almost always within the same book. In this doorstopper-sized memoir, however, Rushdie turns his eye on the fatwa itself, and on his own years in hiding. The title comes from the code name he chose for himself: Joseph (after Conrad), Anton (after Chekhov). Neither of those writers were known to substitute substance for flash, and if their spirits preside over the book, it's may well mark a turning point in Rushdie's career. (Garth) Reinventing Bach by Paul Elie: Paul Elie knows how to pick ‘em: his first book The Life You Save May Be Your Own, winner of the PEN/Martha Albrand Award for First Nonfiction, and a NBCC nominee, delved into the intertwined lives of four famous Catholics – Flannery O’Connor, Dorothy Day, Walker Percy, and Thomas Merton. His second book is a study of Bach; specifically, “the ways that numerous musicians have rendered Bach’s music through the years through various technologies.” From PW’s starred review: “Reading Elie’s stately and gorgeous prose is much like losing oneself in Glenn Gould’s Goldberg Variations, for his study convincingly demonstrates that the music of Bach is the most persuasive rendering of transcendence there is.” (Sonya) May We Be Forgiven by A.M. Homes: Jason Rice of the book blog Three Guys, One Book calls May We Be Forgiven Homes’s “triumph, her masterpiece, and crowning moment.” Dennis Haritou, of the same blog, says it’s “about 480 pages of suburban insanity.” There’s a Nixon scholar, there’s an F-ed up family, there’s an act of terrible violence, there’s that dark, vicious suburbia that Homes depicts so well. (Edan) Canvas by Benjamin Stein: Benjamin Stein's novel, translated from the German by WNYC fixture Brian Zumhagen, involves a mysterious suitcase, a missing psychoanalyst, and a Holocaust memoir that might be a fake. Equally compelling is the structure, which recalls Mark Z. Danielewski's Only Revolutions. It consists of two different versions of the story, told by two competing narrators. Each starts from one end of the book, and they meet in the middle. To switch from one to the other, the reader flips the book over and upside down. (Garth) Scientists: A Family Romance by Marco Roth: “The contemporary memoir is a bastard genre, neither truth nor art,” claims n+1 editor, literary critic, and reluctant memoirist, Marco Roth, whose first book--a memoir--debuts from FSG this fall. In spite of the short shrift he gives the genre, Roth’s material doesn’t stray terribly far from his usual terrain as a literary and cultural critic. In Scientists: A Family Romance he meditates on loss, of the Jewish intellectual tradition he was raised within and of his father, who died of AIDS in the early ‘90s, and he speaks of coming to the world through books. Despite his protestations, Roth might just make an art of the form. (Anne) Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures by Emma Straub: Bookcourt Bookseller and Rookie contributor Emma Straub debuts this fall with her decades-spanning novel about a young woman from Wisconsin who becomes a movie star. Barnes and Noble has selected the book for their Discover Great New Writers program, and Jennifer Egan says, “At once iconic and specific, Emma Straub's beautifully observed first novel explores the fraught trajectory of what has become a staple of the American dream: the hunger for stardom and fame.” Now you can pre-order a signed and personalized copy from WORD Bookstore. (Edan) The Forgetting Tree by Tatjana Soli: Tatjana Soli broke out with The Lotus Eaters, her sad and emotionally resonant debut novel from 2010. Now in The Forgetting Tree, Soli traces many of the same themes such as love, loss, and darkness to conjure the story of Claire Nagy, a young woman who marries into a notable California ranching family. Quickly, Nagy settles into her new life on the farm, peacefully adapting to its particular charms, but it’s not long before fate intervenes, followed closely by tragedy. Riven, Claire finds herself disconnected from her family, her husband, and the life she’s come to know, and when she’s finally at her most vulnerable, tragedy strikes again. Soli demonstrated her gift for emotional storytelling in her debut, so when critics describe this effort as “haunting” and “triumphant,” you should pay attention. (Nick) My Heart Is an Idiot by Davy Rothbart: FOUND Magazine began in 2001 after Davy Rothbart found a note to some dude named Mario on his car windshield. “I fucking hate you,” it began, and Rothbart was hooked. Each year since, Rothbart (a contributor to This American Life) has released a new magazine of “found” items that captures the raw, honest emotion of everyday life, and he’s traveled far and wide in order to promote it. Such rapid obsession is also emblematic of Rothbart’s sudden infatuations with women, and the “terminally romantic” Rothbart has pursued with gusto his share of (often uninterested) flames—so many, in fact, that in 2011, a documentary was made about his journeys. Now, in his collection of essays, Rothbart describes his feelings in a comic, honest, and altogether relatable way. (Nick) Between Heaven and Here by Susan Straight: In the final novel of her Rio Seco trilogy, Straight explores the aftermath of the murder of Glorette Picard, found dead in the alley behind a taqueria. Ms. Straight is beloved for her soulful, lyrical, unflinching and compassionate evocation of place: namely, the Inland Empire (and its fictional town of Rio Seco), and this book, which Publisher’s Weekly billed as a “novel-in-stories,” should be no exception. For a literary amuse-bouche, read Straight’s moving piece in the Los Angeles Times about giving away her books. (Edan) October: The Twelve by Justin Cronin: 2010's The Passage told of a North America 100 years after it had been destroyed by deadly "virals" (the virus in question being one that makes you a vampire), and the colonists who had managed to survive. The Twelve, the second installment of the planned trilogy, picks up the characters of The Passage where we left them, goes back in time to the virus's outbreak, and introduces other pockets of survivors around the continent. As it turns out, scrappy survivalism isn't the only way to go about a post-apocalyptic life, and attacks by the virals aren't the only threat to the colonists' life. (Janet) Building Stories by Chris Ware: Big-time American comics and cartoon artist Chris Ware (RAW contributor, anthologizer, anthologizee, creator of the Acme Novelty Library series which produced Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth), is collecting the entirety of his Building Stories strip in a volume for publication by Pantheon. The strip first appeared as a monthly feature in Nest Magazine, and wound up as a weekly strip in The New York Times Magazine from 2005-2006. (Lydia) Back to Blood by Tom Wolfe: Wolfe does Miami in his new book Back to Blood--not the "wet" kind, according to Wolfe, but like the (questionable) term "bloodlines." The ones in question are those of the immigrant population of Miami, which Wolfe told those assembled at a Little, Brown party "is the only city...in the whole world where people from another country, speaking another language and from another culture have taken over a vast city at the ballot box in one generation." Wolfe can be seen cruising the city in the trailer to Blood Lines, a documentary about Wolfe's research stint in Miami set to release concurrently with the book. (Lydia) In Sunlight and In Shadow by Mark Helprin: Mark Helprin's 1991 novel A Soldier of the Great War may be the most swashbuckling tale ever inspired by the First World War. For his sixth novel, In Sunlight and In Shadow, Helprin shifts to the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, when paratrooper Harry Copeland returns to New York and falls in love with a ravishing young actress, singer and heiress named Catherine Thomas Hale. Skipping from Sicily to Maine to the Sacramento Valley to London during the blitz, this is, first and last, a love story drawn in broad strokes against the dawn of our age. (Bill) Elsewhere: A Memoir by Richard Russo: Richard Russo won the Pulitzer Prize in 2002 for his novel Empire Falls, which was suffused with the claustrophobia and sweet sorrows of life in a small, fading New England mill town. For his first work of non-fiction, Russo takes us back to his boyhood in Gloversville, the small, fading New York mill town where he grew up in the 1950s. (For another take on this once-thriving glove-manufacturing hamlet, see Philip Roth's novel American Pastoral.) As economic decline and illness shadow Russo's childhood, his mother, an affectionate echo of Grace Roby from Empire Falls, urges her son to train his gaze beyond Gloversville's confining horizon. (Bill) The Fifty Year Sword by Mark Z. Danielewski: House of Leaves author Mark Z. Danielewski returns with another bout of suspenseful storytelling coupled with innovative formatting, with the wide release of his novella The Fifty Year Sword. He’s also a master of limited editions, as volumes from the novella’s initial print run sold for up to $1,000 apiece. The Fifty Year Sword is an homage to oral storytelling and ghost stories. Five narrators retell the story of a man telling five orphans the tale of an invisible sword whose wounds appear suddenly in the victim’s fiftieth year. Danielewski has held readings of the novella on Halloween for the past two years in L.A. This new edition will be available in October, making for perfect Halloween reading that won’t break the bank. (Anne) Heroines by Kate Zambreno: Intensity and intelligence forge the baseline current that runs through and characterizes most of Kate Zambreno’s written work. Zambreno, who was just named one of Jezebel’s 25 “game-changing women,” has already published two novels, Green Girl, which as Jezebel says, “has been almost universally praised in thinky literary circles,” and O Fallen Angel, a book that Bookslut’s Jessa Crispin says should have been nominated for the Guardian First Book Award. Zambreno’s third book, Heroines, is a critical memoir, borne from her blog Frances Farmer Is My Sister, that takes on myths of modernist writers and their silenced wives, mistresses, and muses. (Anne) Ancient Light by John Banville: Like most of his novels, John Banville’s latest book forms part of a larger subgroup of works within his oeuvre. Although it can be read as a standalone narrative, it belongs to a trilogy that includes 2000’s Eclipse and 2002’s Shroud. It revisits Eclipse’s narrator, the aging actor Alexander Cleave, as he recalls an affair he had at age fifteen with the mother of his best friend – a plot/narrative combo that might be described as The Reverse Lolita. It’s a much lighter affair than its dark and sometimes inscrutable predecessors. Banville’s trademark self-reflexivity, though, is at its most elaborately involuted here. A subplot involves Cleave’s playing the starring role in a film essentially modeled on the story of Shroud, the screenwriter of which is “a somewhat shifty and self-effacing fellow” referred to as JB. (Mark) The Silent House by Orhan Pamuk: Orhan Pamuk's second novel The Silent House, published in Turkey in 1983, is finally slated to appear in English. The novel describes a week in the lives of three siblings who visit their grandmother in the fictional village-turned-spa town of Cennethisar on the outskirts of Istanbul. It is told from the perspective of five separate characters--the grandmother, her manservant, and the three children--and details their various family intrigues and the turbulent Turkish sociopolitical climate in the months leading up to the 1980 coup. Upon its publication in Turkey, this sophomore effort won the prestigious Madaralı Award, whose previous recipients included literary lights like Yaşar Kemal and Adalet Ağaoğlu. (Lydia) The Middlesteins by Jami Attenberg: Jami Attenberg’s fourth novel concerns Edie and Richard Middlestein, who have charted a steady course through suburban married life for three decades. But Edie has become enormous. She is obsessed with food—eating it, dreaming of it—and if she doesn't change, she won’t live for much longer. Attenberg explores the nuances of marriage, the strength and the limits of family bonds, and our culture’s dangerous, fascinating obsession with food. (Emily M.) The Round House by Louise Erdrich: Continuing on with the trilogy she began with A Plague of Doves, which Michiko Kakutani called “supple and assured” in the New York Times back in 2008, Louise Erdrich's The Round House promises to be among the highlights of the fall literary season. The book follows a young man coming of age in trying times on an Ojibwe reservation in North Dakota. Judging from the beauty of Erdrich's previous novels—Tracks is one of my personal all time favorites—you can expect The Round House to deliver a heart-breaking story through brutally gorgeous prose. (Emily K.) Have You Seen Marie? by Sandra Cisneros: The author of The House on Mango Street and Caramelo returns with a "an illustrated fable for grown-ups," a story about a grieving middle-aged woman's search for a friend's cat, lost following the death of her mother. The book is illustrated in color by the San Francisco artist Ester Hernández, and depicts the two protagonists' journey through the San Antonio streets, looking for the wayward Marie. (Lydia) There Was a Country: A Personal History of Biafra by Chinua Achebe: The focus of Chinua Achebe's long-awaited memoir is the Nigerian Civil War of 1967-1970, when the Biafran people of Nigeria attempted to form their own state in the southeast of the country. Achebe, who was an established novelist when the war began (Things Fall Apart was published in 1958 and swiftly became the major "African novel" known to American students), was an itinerant representative of the Biafran people during the war years. He spent the subsequent decades in the United States, and this is his first published comment on the horrors he witnessed during this painful interlude in Nigerian history. (Lydia) Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan Three years after its inception as on Sloan's website, Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore has blossomed into a full-length novel. First time novelist and media-guru Robin Sloan tells of Clay Jannon, a web-designer recently out of work, who finds a new job working at a mysterious bookstore. Soon, Clay discovers that behind the unassuming titles on the shelves lie a cult and a code and a bizarre cast of characters. With his wildly imagined libraries and playful take on the future of books, Sloan brings to mind an online Borges. (Matt) We Are What We Pretend to Be and Letters by Kurt Vonnegut: In the league table of posthumous productivity, Kurt Vonnegut ranks somewhere between Biggie and Bolaño; for a dead guy, he’s no slouch. Since he passed away in 2007, we’ve had three collections of unpublished fiction, and we’re about to get a fourth. We Are What We Pretend to Be is a volume that yokes together two texts unpublished in his lifetime: Basic Training (already available as an ebook), an early satirical novella which is thought to date from the 1940s, and If God Were Alive Today, which he never managed to finish before his death. Probably more significant for serious Vonnegut readers will be the publication, three weeks later, of his letters. The 464 page collection, edited by his friend Dan Wakefield, spans sixty years and contains mostly unpublished correspondence. (Mark) Astray by Emma Donoghue: Donoghue has the unenviable task of following a literary mega-hit, her acclaimed bestseller Room. Perhaps the confinement of Room led Donoghue to dream of traveling, as Astray is a story collection "which brings together fourteen fact-based fictions about travels to, within and from North America, from the 1630s to the 1960s." The collection includes several stories already available or soon to appear, including "The Widow's Cruse," which will appear in One Story in August. (Patrick) Object Lessons: The Paris Review Presents the Art of the Short Story: Who needs an MFA when there’s The Paris Review? The magazine’s author interviews have long been the go-to toolkit for aspiring writers looking for nuts and bolts (as well as juicy tidbits). And their latest anthology has a didactic intent that promises to pleasure while it imparts. Object Lessons features favorite stories from the Review selected by some of the best fiction writers scrawling today, and pairs the stories with “lessons” on what makes a short story great. With writers like Lydia Davis, Lorrie Moore, and Amy Hempel at the helm, and selections from the likes of Jane Bowles, Leonard Michaels, and Jorge Louis Borges, this is a surely a winning match for The Paris Review school of writing. (Anne) It's Fine by Me by Per Petterson: It's Fine by Me is actually an older novel, first published in Norway in 1992. It tells the story of Audun, a teenage boy who has recently moved to Oslo from the country. Out in the UK since December, the reviews have been strong. Writing in The Guardian, Tim Parks calls it an "edgy bildungsroman," while Martin Chilton of The Telegraph says it's "a gripping and subtle coming-of-age story, ripe with melancholy." (Patrick) The Fun Stuff: And Other Essays by James Wood: New Yorker literary critic James Wood’s last book, 2008’s How Fiction Works, was a short and, in many ways, very simple exposition and defence of the realist tradition in fiction. It was nonetheless hugely divisive, and set off any number of debates about his perceived conservatism and antagonism toward the literary avant garde. Wood is now unquestionably one of the most influential voices in contemporary literary criticism, and those debates will likely be sparked off again with the publication of this new collection. The Fun Stuff contains essays on Tolstoy, Lermontov, Edmund Wilson, Cormac McCarthy, Lydia Davis, Aleksander Hemon and Michel Houellebecq. The title piece is a 2010 New Yorker essay on The Who’s Keith Moon, and on Wood’s own love for pounding the skins. While we’re on the topic, might I suggest this quietly amazing video as the basis for a book trailer? (You’re welcome, FSG marketing department.) (Mark) The Miracle Cures of Dr. Aira by Cesar Aira: Cesar Aira has published so many short novels in his native Argentina that people seem to have lost count (50? 70?), and, slowly but surely, New Directions is bringing them into English. His brilliant and peculiar method - a simple version of which is that he never returns to a previous day's writing - has, perforce, produced some oddities (see, e.g., The Seamstress and The Wind) as well as some classics (see, e.g., Ghosts, Varamo). But as one can devour an Aira novel in an afternoon, one walks away from even the misses weirdly invigorated, as from an unforgettably incoherent dream. Time will tell which category The Miracle Cures of Dr. Aira falls into, but, if you're an Aira fan, does it matter? Getting there is most of the fun. (Garth) The Heart Broke In by James Meek: Meek, journalist and author (of, among other things, the beautifully-written People's Act of Love) has written a family novel that his agent called a "21st-century Anna Karenina." The novel tells the story of siblings whose father is assassinated by Northern Irish guerrillas--one turns to rock 'n' roll and reality television, the other sets herself to finding a cure for malaria. The novel is said to ask its readers "what conscience means" in our current day and age. (Lydia) November: Dear Life: Stories by Alice Munro: A collection of new short stories from a master of the form. Munro’s thirteenth short story collection is set in the countryside and towns around Lake Huron, and examines, with her signature clarity and simplicity, the strangeness and danger and beauty of ordinary life. (Emily M.) Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan: Ian McEwan's last outing, Solar, failed to find an American audience to match that of his Very Serious books of the early Aughts, perhaps because McEwan, while often funny, witty, clever, and ironic, isn't naturally a comedian. His newest, Sweet Tooth, looks to split the difference with its campus setting and cloak-and-dagger set-up: in 1972, a lissome Cambridge student (and MI5 recruit) falls in love with the target of an intelligence operation - a young fiction writer. Shades of LeCarre, shades of Atonement. (Garth) Both Flesh and Not by David Foster Wallace: As far as internet book hype goes, it doesn’t get much easier than this: David Foster Wallace + 15 essays never published in book form = Yahtzee! Novices and devotees alike should appreciate this collection, which will house what many consider to be Wallace’s masterpiece, the eponymous “Federer: Both Flesh and Not,” a piece on the tennis player so earth-shatteringly good that its reverberations are still being felt in the sportswriting world—to say nothing, at that, of the Times’ copy desk (Ctrl + F in that article for Josh Dean’s write-up). In addition, readers will get The Great Bandana’s analysis of Terminator 2, a look at how television had begun to influence a younger generation of writers, and twelve more. As I said, Yahtzee! (Nick) Woes of the True Policeman by Roberto Bolaño: Roberto Bolaño continues to lay claim to the title of World's Most Prolific Dead Author. The latest addition to his posthumous avalanche is Woes of the True Policeman, a novel Bolaño worked on for some 30 years prior to his death in 2003 at age 50. Like 2666, his grueling exploration of the disappearance of hundreds of women in Mexico's Chihuahua state, the new novel is set in a northern Mexico border town called Santa Teresa that is also haunted by the unsolved killings of women. Both novels give credence to Bolaño's claim that he wished he'd been a homicide detective rather than a writer. This is believed to be his last unpublished novel. (Bill) Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm: A New English Version by Philip Pullman: It’s been two hundred years since the publication of Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm’s collection of Children’s and Household Tales, and what better way to celebrate than with the author of His Dark Materials’ 400-page tribute? For two years, Pullman has worked on retelling fifty of his favorite tales in a manner “clear as water,” and as a means of refreshing his own creative cache. “Rather as a pianist relishes playing Bach's preludes and fugues,” Pullman told The Guardian last March, the Grimm’s project has acted “as a sort of palate-cleansing discipline.” Readers will find many of the classics in the new volume, but also such unfamiliar ones as the extremely creepy “Hans-my-Hedgehog” and “The Girl Without Hands,” as well as Pullman’s personal favorite, “The Juniper Tree.” (Nick) Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver: Flight Behavior details an awakening for its 29 year old protagonist: After marrying at 17, raising three children, and abandoning her more worldly ambitions, Dellarobia Turnbow suddenly takes leave of her failing farm in her small town to start a self-destructive affair with a young man. From the publisher's copy, it seems like things don't turn out the way she imagines they might, and given Kingsolver's deftness in the nearly surreal mode, plus her arborist's eye for compellingly strange horticultural minutiae, I think that it's fair to anticipate a surprise or two for the reader as well. (Emily K.) The Testament of Mary by Colm Tóibín: Tóibín, whose career has been characterised by a long-standing preoccupation with relationships between mothers and sons – see, for example, the stories of Mothers and Sons and the recent non-fiction collection New Ways to Kill Your Mother – seems like he has been building up to this topic for a while now. The Testament of Mary tackles the mother of all mother-son stories. In this short novel, Mary deals with her grief in the aftermath of the execution of her son, Jesus Christ of Nazareth. Living in exile in the wake of his death, she attempts to piece together the events that led to his betrayal and crucifixion. Mel Gibson, we can assume, will not be attached to any potential film adaptation. (Mark) Prosperous Friends by Christine Schutt: “I can be very bold and brave and nasty on the page,” Christine Schutt says of her writing, which has been praised by Gary Lutz and Gordon Lish alike. Schutt’s prose is nothing if not taut, and, as she suggests, her writing pushes boundaries in spite of her subject’s seemingly everyday terrain. Her previous novel, All Souls, depicts a class of high school seniors at an elite private school, where the central character has a rare form of cancer. Her latest, Prosperous Friends, takes on ideas of art and love, by following two artistic couples, one who revels in their love and the other who suffers because of it. (Anne) Magnificence by Lydia Millet: Brainy, funny, artful, and ambitious, Lydia Millet is one of America's most underrated novelists. That's despite being a Pulitzer Prize finalist. A few years ago, after reading from her novel How the Dead Dream, she told me that William Gaddis' JR had been an inspiration for its protagonist, T. Her last outing, Ghost Lights, opened with T. MIA in Central America, and sent IRS functionary Hal in after him. The new one, which completes the trilogy, finds Hal's widow Susan wrestling with her grief in a California mansion. What better way to follow up this summer's #OccupyGaddis read-along than by tackling all three? (Garth) These Things Happen by Richard Kramer: Kramer has had a successful career as a television writer, with credits including thirtysomethings and My So-Called Life. These Things Happen is his debut novel, a masterfully executed domestic drama set in an elite upper-class liberal milieu. Wesley is in the tenth grade. His mother is an editor married to a doctor; his father is a gay activist whose long-term partner is a restaurateur. A shocking act of violence forces all of them to consider who they are, what they stand for, and their relationships to one another. (Emily M.) December: Me and the Devil by Nick Tosches: Any writer who has the nerve to refer to Jesus Christ as "the kike in diapers" gets points for audacity. Over his long and multi-faceted career, Nick Tosches has been unapologetically audacious and scabrous, sour and sage, foul and funny – virtues now in sadly short supply. So it's fitting that his new novel features an aging New York writer named Nick who discovers that drinking human blood has remarkable restorative powers – and even darker consequences. One early reader called Me and the Devil "as raw and blazing an account of a descent into hell and return that you will ever read." It's scary too, according to its author. As Tosches told an interviewer, "This is the only one I've written that's scared even me." (Bill) Raised From the Ground by Jose Saramago: Originally published in 1980, Saramago’s third novel -- in which, according to the Paris Review, he “at last established his voice as a novelist” -- will be translated into English for the first time (a posthumous Christmas morning for Saramago fans!). Written in the wake of Portugal’s Carnation Revolution, Raised From the Ground follows three generations of agricultural laborers from the Alentejo region and won the City of Lisbon Prize. Incidentally: Saramago published his first novel at the age of 24, and then did not publish another novel for 30 years; he was 59 when Balthasar and Blimunda launched him onto the international stage. Look out for him in our Post-40 Bloomers series! (Sonya) January 2013: Tenth of December: Stories by George Saunders: In an interview with the New Yorker’s Book Bench about the title story of his fourth collection, Saunders said that what he’s trying to do in fiction these days is to “create a representation of consciousness that’s durable and truthful, i.e., that accounts, somewhat, for all the strange, tiny, hard-to-articulate, instantaneous, unwilled things that actually go on in our minds in the course of a given day, or even a given moment.” Two other New Yorker-published stories – “Victory Lap” and “Home” – will also appear in the new collection, and Saunders fans can expect, as always, stories that are “vividly and lovingly infused with Saunders’s signature blend of exuberant prose, deep humanity, and stylistic innovation.” (Sonya) His Wife Leaves Him by Stephen Dixon: This is the first novel in five years from the prolific Stephen Dixon, an American treasure of the small presses whose had two of his books, Frog and Interstate, nominated for the National Book Award. His Wife Leaves Him is, according to the author himself, about a lot of things: “love, guilt, sickness, death, remorse, loss, family, matrimony, sex, children, parenting, aging, mistakes, incidents, minutiae, birth, music, writing, jobs, affairs, memory, remembering, reminiscences, forgetting, repression, dreams, reverie, nightmares.” The novel is narrated by a man mourning the death of his wife, and was excerpted in the The Three Quarter Review earlier this year. (Emily K.) February 2013: See Now Then by Jamaica Kincaid: For the first time in over a decade, Jamaica Kincaid, author of stunners like Annie John, has a new novel on the horizon. This time her subjects are the Sweets--parents and two children--a family in turmoil who inhabit the Shirley Jackson house in Vermont. Several excerpts of See Now Then appeared in the premier issues of Little Star Journal last year. (Lydia) Vampires in the Lemon Grove by Karen Russell: Karen Russell’s fiction animates unlikely worlds--of Floridian alligator wrestlers, of sleep-away camp for disordered dreamers, of a home for girls who were raised by werewolves. Her novel, Swamplandia!, made many a year-end list as a best book of the year (including our own), and was one of three shortlisted for the Pulitzer prize, alongside books by literary heavyweights Denis Johnson and David Foster Wallace. If her new collection, Vampires in the Lemon Grove, is anything like her previous, then prepare a good dose of heartbreak laced with humor and a bevy of fantastical subjects whose tribulations, fascinations, and adventures resonate as both unusual and authentic. (Anne) A Thousand Pardons by Jonathan Dee: Author of The Privileges, a pitch-perfect portrait of life among the hedge fund set in the Naughty Aughties, Dee returns with another tale of family strife in the upper reaches of New York society. When her husband loses his job as a partner at a white-shoe law firm, Helen Armstead lands a job at a PR firm, where she discovers she has an almost magical, and certainly lucrative, gift: she can convince powerful men to admit their mistakes. But this is a novel, so her professional success does not necessarily translate into success in her personal life. (Michael) Give Me Everything You Have: Notes on a Crisis by James Lasdun: Renowned English poet, author, and academic James Lasdun’s memoir promises to be, like the rest of his writing, a lucid and affecting affair. As both a Guggenheim Fellow and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, Lasdun is no stranger to praise and acclaim, so in lieu of providing more here, consider the following an amuse-bouche: his 2009 Paris Review story, “The Hollow;” the opening credits to Besieged, a film written by and based on Lasdun’s novel of the same name; and “It Isn’t Me,” one of Lasdun’s poems. (Nick) How Literature Saved My Life by David Shields: Titles of David Shields books read like the song titles of a highschool emo band; Take his New York Times bestseller: The Thing About Life Is That One Day You’ll Be Dead, or 2010’s Reality Hunger: A Manifesto. Luckily, the books themselves are provocative, and his latest is no exception in name-scheme or quality. Employing the technique he pioneered in Reality Hunger—equal parts manic personal-essay and literary mash-up—Shields tackles the question, “What is literature’s power?” He finds literature aspires and fails to assuage loneliness, but through admitting defeat, literature’s true value shines. “Literature doesn’t lie about [failing]—which is what makes it essential.” (Matt) March 2013: The Book of My Lives by Aleksander Hemon: The brilliant Aleksandar Hemon has evidently completed his fifth book and first collection of non-fiction pieces (the translation rights have been sold, the manuscript alleged to exist). The title, The Book of My Lives, alludes to, and will presumably include, his 2000 New Yorker essay of the same name–a short, powerful description of his mentoring literature professor turned war criminal Nikola Koljevic. This will be Hemon’s first book since the familial tragedy documented in his heartrending 2011 essay “The Aquarium,” also for The New Yorker. (Lydia) The Fun Parts by Sam Lipsyte: Lipsyte follows his brilliant and hilarious novel The Ask with his first collection of stories since his debut, Venus Drive. There isn't much information available yet about this title, other than that it contains a story about "a grizzled and possibly deranged male birth doula" and another that offers "a tawdry glimpse of the Northern New Jersey high school shot-putting circuit, circa 1986." It will presumably feature several stories that have appeared in the last few years in The New Yorker, including (hopefully) his marvelous "The Dungeon Master." (Patrick) Middle C by William H. Gass: William H. Gass is a giant of American letters, with nine essay collections, five novellas, and one of the all-time great books of short stories to his name. Yet he's published only two novels in forty-five years, largely because the second, The Tunnel, took a quarter century to write. The gestation period for Middle C isn't that long - not quite - but one can be glad that Gass, 87, will finally be publishing it in 2013. It concerns a music professor of European provenance in exile in the Midwest with his daughter, and presumably contains a great deal of Gass' beautifully figurative and alliterative prose. (Garth) Unknown: Subtle Bodies by Norman Rush: Rush's third novel is a companion piece of sorts to Mating and Mortals, both of them (in my judgment) contemporary masterpieces. Where they tackled courtship and marriage, respectively, Subtle Bodies focuses on agape love, a.k.a. friendship. Michiko Kakutani is bound to kvetch about how the geographic setting - the Catskills - offers none of the shimmering magisterial blah blah of Rush's Botswana (you can take that to the bank, friends), but the temporal one - the run-up to the Iraq War - offers an ample field of play for the author's bristling political intelligence. (Garth) The Dying Grass by William T. Vollmann: Speaking of long in the making...how about Vollmann's Seven Dreams series? These books tell of the seven different encounters between Native Americans and European settlers, and collectively, they will make a fictional edifice to rival Vollmann's 3,000-page essay on violence, Rising Up and Rising Down. The first volume, The Ice-Shirt, appeared in 1990; then came volumes II (Fathers and Crows) and VI (The Rifles). The most recent addition, volume III (Argall), came out a decade ago. Now Viking is bringing out volume V, The Dying Grass, concerning the fate of the Nez Perce tribe of Plains Indians in the 19th Century. The manner here is said to be closer to the (relatively) pared-down The Royal Family than to the baroque Argall, but, Vollmann being Vollmann, there's bound to be some clunkiness and repetition amid the passages of visual intricacy and visionary intensity. Still, would Vollmann-ites want it any other way? Come on, Bill! Only two more to go! (A volume of "ghost stories" called Last Stories is also slated for publication.) (Garth) Necessary Errors by Caleb Crain: Caleb Crain is a journalist, critic, and academic...and also, with Steamboats Are Ruining Everything, one of the bloggers who has most fully realized what the form can do. Or maybe the word is feuilletoniste. His first book, American Sympathy, seems to have been an influence on Chad Harbach's The Art of Fielding. Now a novel, Necessary Errors, is being published by Penguin Press. All we know for now is that, like The Art of Fielding, it concerns "youth." But Crain can really write, so it's one to look out for. (Garth) Your Name Here by Helen DeWitt: This series has for some time been keeping track of DeWitt's star-crossed and exuberantly unorthodox follow-up to The Last Samurai. For a while, you could buy it from DeWitt's website as a .pdf; now, the independent Noemi Press has the print rights. When last we checked, the publication date had been changed from "forthcoming" to "Summer 2012" to "forthcoming 2012." It's hard to say if the book's release is getting closer or farther away. (Garth)
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As we reach the year's midpoint, it's time to look at some of the books we are most looking forward to for the second half. There are many, many intriguing books on the docket for the next six months, but these are some of the most notable. Please share your most anticipated books in the comments.August: Chris Adrian wowed readers in 2006 with his post-apocalyptic novel The Children's Hospital. That novel's ardent fans will be pleased to get their hands on a new collection of stories called A Better Angel. The collection's title story appeared in the New Yorker in 2006. More recently, Adrian offered up a personal essay in the New York Times Magazine about getting a tattoo.September: Philip Roth remains tireless, and his latest effort arrives in September, less than year after Exit Ghost garnered seemingly wall-to-wall coverage. With Indignation, Roth takes readers to 1951 America and introduces a young man, a son of a New Jersey butcher, trying to avoid the draft and the Korean War. An early review (with spoilers) offers, "Indignation is a sad and bloody book, and even if it delivers nothing particularly new - indeed, most of Roth's books could be retitled Indignation - it is a fine supplement to Roth's late achievements. And we learn a lot about kosher butchery."Norwegian author Per Petterson collected a number of international prizes and upped his name recognition with Out Stealing Horses, which appeared to much acclaim in English in 2005 and won the IMPAC two years later. I read and enjoyed his In the Wake, which was written before Horses but appeared afterward in translation. Of that book, I wrote, the "boundary between madness and loneliness is plumbed to great effect." Petterson's latest to be translated for American audiences, To Siberia, is his second novel. Like Petterson's other novels, To Siberia is inspired by his parents, who died in a ferry accident along with two of his brothers in 1990. A snippet of an excerpt is available at the NYRB (and more if you are a subscriber).According to our Prizewinners post, Marilynne Robinson's 2004 book Gilead was one of the most celebrated novels of the last thirteen years. Gilead arrived 24 years after Robinson's debut, Housekeeping, but Robinson's latest, Home, comes after only a four-year hiatus. As Publishers Weekly first reported, "Home shares its setting with Gilead, and its action is concurrent with that novel's. Characters from Gilead will also appear in Home."Kate Atkinson is bringing back her reluctant detective Jackson Brodie for a third book, When Will There Be Good News?. An early review on a blog is mixed, and apparently he has a wife in this one. (Not sure how all the Brodie fans will take that!)Garth writes: "David Heatley's My Brain is Hanging Upside Down is a graphic novel that takes readers deep into the uncomfortable psychological undercurrents of everyday American life. Like Chris Ware, who gave him a prominent blurb, David Heatley is a double threat with a pen: both words and drawings are adventures in style."Garth writes: "Indie stalwart Joe Meno delivers Demons in the Spring, a new collection of 20 stories, each of them illustrated by a leading graphic artist."October: John Barth, one of the leading lights of American fiction, has a new book on the way. The Development is, according to the publisher promo copy, "a touching, comic, deeply humane collection of linked stories about surprising developments in a gated community." A story from the book "Toga Party," appeared in Fiction magazine and in the Best American Short Stories 2007. There's not much on the book just yet, but "Toga Party" won some praise from readers.Also making October an impressive month for new books will be Death with Interruptions by Nobel laureate Jose Saramago. Though the book will no doubt be allegorical like many of Saramago's works, the title is apparently meant somewhat literally as the story involves eternal life.Garth writes: "Ingo Schulze's 2005 tome, New Lives, finally reaches American shores, in a translation by the magnificent John E. Woods. According to Schulze, it concerns an aesthete who finds himself plunged into the sturm and drang of capitalist life. Die Zeit called it 'the best novel about German reunification.' Period."John Updike will follow up one of his best known novels, 1984's The Witches of Eastwick, with a sequel, The Widows of Eastwick.Sara Gruen of Water for Elephants fame will return with Ape House. It "features the amazing bonobo ape."November: Garth writes: "Characteristically, Roberto Bolaño throws a curveball, delivering 2666 a massive final novel that both does and doesn't match the hype surrounding it. I haven't decided whether or not it's a good book, but it is, indisputably, a great one. I devoured it in a week and haven't stopped thinking about it since."It's not every year that we get a new book from an American Nobel laureate, but this year we will get A Mercy from Toni Morrison. The promo description on Amazon is downright mysterious, offering this brief blurb: "A new novel, set, like Beloved, in the American past." But she has been reading from the book at various events and Wikipedia already has some details, though these appear to be pulled from promotional material as well. We can glean that the novel will take place in the 17th century, the early days of slavery in the Americas.Please let us know what books you are most looking forward to for the second half of 2008 in the comments.
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I. It’s been said (possibly by Elvis Costello, though the attribution is murky) that “writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” The same might be said for sex, and even more aptly when it comes to writing about writing about sex. The problem here, in my opinion, is the preposition “about.” Writing, talking, dancing about something puts both originator and recipient at an inert distance; the act becomes exercise; organic human experience becomes intellectualized analysis. In other words, something whole becomes atomized, and we are talking here about experiences which are greater than the sum of their parts. To give a psychotherapeutic analogy, it is much more productive, more transformative, to weep with both your emotions and your whole body than to state (accuracy and earnestness notwithstanding), “I feel so sad.” Katie Roiphe took on the task – of writing about writing about sex – with great skill and insight in her recent article for the NY Times Sunday Book Review, "The Naked and the Conflicted." If you’re a regular blog-surfer, you’ve probably read it. If you haven’t, I recommend you do. What I appreciated especially about Roiphe’s article is that it leaves us with a series of provocative questions to ponder: Where has sex, as a serious literary consideration – “a force that could change things” – gone to? If, as Roiphe posits (convincingly, I’d say), today’s representative young male literary writers (Wallace, Safran Foer, Eggers, Kunkel) approach physical love and sexual connection with ambivalence, self-consciousness, repulsion, discomfort, and trepidation – regarding their literary forebears’ (Roth, Mailer, Bellow, Updike) lusty, quasi-religious, dark, aestheticizing explorations of sex/sexual conquest with an “almost puritanical disapproval” – what does this reflect about the relative importance of sex for the X and Y literary generations? Have we in fact become – as depicted and reflected in contemporary fictional characters – “too cool for sex”? Too smart, too sophisticated, too busily progressive and companionate in our relationships? Are we no longer capable of attaching words like “exuberance,” “mystery,” “power,” “beauty,” “imaginative quest,” “epic,” “celebration,” “charisma,” and “immortality” to sexual experience and connection, in literature or in life? Is portraying a sense of hopeful adventure and expansive possibility through robust sexual experience simply retrograde, passé, “bizarrely adolescent” (David Foster Wallace’s words), even anti-feminist in the age of sensitive guys, ironic sophistication, and global improvement? Perhaps we have relegated our abiding interest in sex-as-quest-for-self-realization to the safer, more dismissable, it's-just-my-guilty-pleasure realm of entertainment. Exhibit A: the popularity of Mad Men among the literary set. II. In 1993, Auberon Waugh (son of Evelyn) established The Literary Review’s “Bad Sex in Fiction Award” – “with the aim of gently dissuading authors and publishers from including unconvincing, perfunctory, embarrassing, or redundant passages of a sexual nature in otherwise sound literary novels.” Reading through passages from this year’s "Bad Sex Awards" shortlist, along with an all-time bad sex passages list published by Flavorpill, it becomes clear the minefield one braves when crafting a linguistic experience of sex for a contemporary literary reader. If one were to develop a “Don’ts” list for fiction writers suiting up for the challenge, it might look like this (warning: graphic language to follow): 1. Beware of sensory descriptions which include food analogies – “honeydew breasts” (Styron), “like a spoon scraping the inside of a soft-boiled egg” (Littell), “the oysterish intricacy of her” (Anthony Quinn), “he felt his cashew become a banana, and then a rippled yam” (Updike) – or “wet” verbs like smear, suck, lick, slither, slide. 2. Be sparing with anatomical terminology for sexual organs, whether scientific or slang; and if your passage does contain such words, beware of mixing and matching high diction and low diction, i.e. it’s nearly impossible to get away with raunchy lyricism. (Here I will spare the reader specific examples, but suffice it to say that sex-organ diction, both high and low, is apparently like neon paisley; it doesn’t go with anything.) 3. Avoid spiritual-religious metaphors – “salvation” (Palahniuk), “rapture” (Ayn Rand), “magical composite / weird totem” (Roth), “on the edge of a precipice beyond which can be glimpsed a dark-green distance in a reeking mist and something shining out at them, a pulsing point of light” (Banville), “my licking a primitive form of language in a simple prayer” (Theroux) – or any language that gestures toward the grand or the epic: “weeping orifice” (Ann Allestree), “Imperial pint of semen” (Neal Stephenson), “Defile her” (Roth), “like a torero…trailing his cape in the dust before the baffled bull,” “gravid tremulousness of her breasts” (Banville). 4. Be hyper-vigilant about clichéd metaphors and similes, particularly oceanic ones: “like a tide determined to crash against those ancient rocks” (Simon Van Booy), “it was as if he were splashing about helplessly on the shore of some great ocean, waiting for a current, or the right swimming stroke to sweep him effortlessly out to sea" (Sanjida O’Connell). 5. Avoid machinistic metaphors: “with his fingers, now experienced and even inspired, he starts to steer her enjoyment like a ship towards its home port” (Amos Oz), “I’m going to pull the lever, I’m going to let the blade drop” (Littell), “he enters her like a fucking pile driver” (Nick Cave). I am here reminded of a word that, throughout grade school, never ceased to elicit mouth-covering giggles: rubber. We could be talking about the elastic things you shoot across the classroom at your nemesis, or the soles of your shoes, and yet still we couldn’t hold back the laughter. It was nervous laughter, of course, because at the age of 10, a condom – the danger, excitement, and illicitness that object conjured – was taboo, mysterious, unknown. We snickered out of anxious, uncomfortable curiosity; and, of course, to be cool. Is it possible that our fun with “Bad Sex” lists – rooted, I’d argue, in our ambivalence about whether sex on the page, in all its linguistic sensory sloppiness and spiritual-existential achingness, is comedy or bathos or misogyny – reflects (along with our sound aesthetic judgment, of course) a devolving anxiety and discomfort about our core physical sensuality? Why do we scoff at all things exuberantly, epically sensual? Are sexual relationships really so blasé, so measured, in our modern lives? Is this how we now define “mature love,” i.e. as relationships in which an appetite for sex—the force of sex—is considered unevolved or juvenile; in which sex “doesn’t matter,” or, perhaps, shouldn’t matter? III. Woefully missing from Roiphe’s analysis of sex and the GMNs – the Great Male Novelists of the 1960s – is James Salter’s A Sport and a Pastime. At the end of “The Naked and the Conflicted,” Roiphe exhorts the reader to Be Not Offended by the sexual shenanigans of our literary lions, but rather to behold them with “fondness” – “as we do the inventors of the first, failed airplanes, who stood on the tarmac with their unwieldy, impossible machines, and looked up at the sky.” Such withering nostalgia may apply to the Updike-Mailer-Roth-Bellow quartet, but Salter, to me, a Gen X-er in 2010, is present; alive; not just looking up, but flying. Here is Webster Schott, from the April 2, 1967, NY Times review of the first edition of A Sport and a Pastime: Arching gracefully, like a glorious 4th of July rocket, [A Sport and a Pastime] illuminates the dark sky of sex. It’s a tour de force in erotic realism… a continuous journey of the soul via the flesh. I do not detail Dean’s and Anne-Marie’s amorous exercises because medical Latin won’t do the job and sex English in isolation sounds stupid and dirty. This is a direct novel, not a grimy one. Salter celebrates the rites of erotic innovation and understands their literary uses. He creates a small, flaming world of sensualism inhabited by Dean and Anne-Marie, and invaded by the imagination of the narrator. We enter it. We feel it. It has the force of a hundred repressed fantasies. And it carries purpose: Salter details lust in search of its passage into love. Schott’s words echo those of Mailer in “The Prisoner of Sex,” which Roiphe quotes: Lust…dominates the mind and other habits, it appropriates loyalties, generalizes character, leaches character out, rides on the fuel of almost any emotional gas – whether hatred, affection, curiosity, even the pressures of boredom – yet it is never definable because it can alter to love or be as suddenly sealed from love. [emphasis mine] Sensualism that carries purpose; lust in a liminal state, an actively searching journey, a “passage,” toward love. Direct, not grimy. Schott sheds light on the elusive threshold between the pornographically insipid and the sensually sublime. For Salter (for Dean and Anne-Marie), sex matters; God, does it matter. Sex is beautiful and potent, and it changes us, one way or another. “To live without it is to be less than alive," Schott ruminates, like a man inclining his ear toward a faint, inescapable echo. "And to live for sex alone is to be less than human.” You know it when you see it, the saying goes – regarding porn, regarding gratuitous and/or “unconvincing, perfunctory, embarrassing, or redundant” sexual material; but so too are there narrative, aesthetic, emotional markers. The first time I read A Sport and a Pastime, just two years ago, I knew I’d experienced something unusual, alive, difficult in its directness; not something to look upon “fondly,” but a story that, like all great art, connected me more deeply and truthfully to my whole human self – sans irony or “cool.” There is no “about” in Salter’s feverish reality-dream, dancing or otherwise, no distanced atomization of the physicality of sex, the intimacy of physicality. The nakedness of these characters is soul-deep, and the novel demands no less of its reader; the “new narcissism,” per Roiphe –“boys too busy gazing at themselves in the mirror to think much about girls, boys lost in the beautiful vanity of ‘I was warm and wanted her to be warm,’ or the noble purity of being just a tiny bit repelled by the crude advances of the desiring world” – won’t do here. Reynolds Price wrote in a 2006 introduction: “…Salter means us to feel…the vivid and literally palpable reality of Philip Dean and Anne-Marie Costallat, to feel it through a growing awareness of the simple splendor of their physical bodies when joined in many forms of intercourse…” Are Dean and Anne-Marie’s “amorous exercises” raunchy, violent, aberrant, empty, farcical, magical, loving, religious, lyrical, beautiful? I can’t answer that for you; and herein lies the novel’s profound meaning: that it will require courage – maybe even epic courage – for you to answer for yourself.