The Millions Top Ten: December 2018

We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for December.

This Month
Last Month

Title
On List

1.
3.

There There

6 months

2.
2.

Washington Black

4 months

3.
4.

The Incendiaries

5 months

4.
9.

Severance

2 months

5.


The Friend

1 month

6.
5.

The Ensemble

6 months

7.
6.

The William H. Gass Reader

2 months

8.


My Year of Rest and Relaxation

1 month

9.
8.

Killing Commendatore

3 months

10.
7.

Transcription
4 months

The Overstory‘s reign is over, and once again Millions readers have sent a book to our Hall of Fame. It’s the 155th title to reach the Hall since we began counting in 2009, and those books represent a combined 930 months of our readers’ interest. Laid out consecutively instead of concurrently, that’s more than 77 years of reading!

In its place, There There by Tommy Orange assumes supremacy this month, leapfrogging Esi Edugyan’s Washington Black which remains in second. Both books were highly regarded by contributors in our Year in Reading series, in which Tommy Orange himself participated. I’m not saying Millions readers reward authors for publishing in the series but I’m not not saying the same.

Meanwhile two newcomers join this month’s list: My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh and The Friend by Sigrid Nunez.

Mere weeks ago, Lucia Senesi interviewed Moshfegh for The Millions, and in their wide-ranging discussion about craft and creative output, they also explored the notion of whether “writers or artists really have a gender.” Moshfegh believed so:
I think the female and male minds work very differently in their biology, the way that language has developed over the last how many thousands of years was part of the patriarchal system. Written language is inherently more male logic linearity. Femininity is more in the realm of emotional intelligence and intuition. That’s why it’s very difficult to argue between the gender. Mostly women learn how to argue like a man. So I do think that writers, maybe it’s different for visual artists, whatever everybody’s brain is different, but I do think that women writers have a different experience and sensibility than male writers, because by their very nature. I think maybe part of this whole movement for equality try to suggest that we are the same, which we are not. The work we need to do is to learn how to value both genders for the things that they’re given us.
Like There There, The Friend, which won this year’s National Book Award, was a darling of our Year in Reading series, drawing praise from seven contributors: Bryan Washington, Ada Limón, Adrienne Celt, Lucy Tan, Anisse Gross, Kamil Ahsan, and our own Anne K. Yoder. For her part, Nunez contributed to the series back in 2010, when the series was only six years old.

This month’s near misses included: Becoming, MilkmanThe Practicing Stoic, and What We Were Promised. See Also: Last month’s list.

The Millions Top Ten: November 2018

We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for November.

This Month
Last Month

Title
On List

1.
2.

The Overstory

6 months

2.
7.

Washington Black

3 months

3.
5.

There There

5 months

4.
4.

The Incendiaries

4 months

5.
6.

The Ensemble

5 months

6.


The William H. Gass Reader

1 month

7.
8.

Transcription

3 months

8.
10.

Killing Commendatore

2 months

9.


Severance

1 month

10.


The Golden State
1 month

 

The winner of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction has reached our site’s Hall of Fame each year that the site has operated, and this month the trend continues with the ascension of Andrew Sean Greer’s Less. Joining it on that voyage is Sergio De La Pava’s Lost Empress, marking the second time De La Pava’s earned the honor since Garth Risk Hallberg profiled him back in 2012. We ran another long interview with the author earlier this year.

Meanwhile Michael Ondaatje’s Warlight has once again dropped out of our Top Ten. In the past four months it’s been on, off, on and off, flickering like a candle that can’t quite stay lit.

With three fresh spots, we welcome three newcomers to the list.

All 928 pages of The William H. Gass Reader hold sixth position, and the book enters our ranks at an appropriate time. When better than the winter, asked our own Nick Ripatrazone, to appreciate the author of “a wild, wacky horror story about snow that deserves to be rediscovered, appreciated — and, instead of Joyce — tweeted, as the snow falls upon all the living and the dead”? Nick went on to enumerate his thoughts on Gass’s work, and its transformative effects.

In the ninth spot, we find Severance, Ling Ma’s “funny, frightening, and touching debut,” which our own Adam O’Fallon Price called “a bildungsroman, a survival tale, and satire of late capitalist millennial angst in one book” in his teaser for our Great 2018 Book Preview. Ma has since contributed to our ongoing Year in Reading series, recommending a newly reprinted novella first published in 1982. To find out which, you’ll have to read the entry for yourself.

Finally, Millions editor Lydia Kiesling’s novel The Golden State makes its first appearance on our Top Ten. As of this writing, four Year in Reading participants have included the book in their lists: Angela Garbes, Edan Lepucki, Lauren Wilkinson, and Crystal Hana Kim. (They won’t be the last.) “It was one of several books I read that also complicate the conventional ways we view and talk about motherhood,” Garbes wrote. “The novel’s anxiety-laced vulnerability, its at once mundane and urgent first person narration, was a revelation,” Lepucki added.

Next month’s list should be shaken up quite a bit by the rest of the Year in Reading series, which reliably bloats everyone’s “to read” piles just in time for the New Year.

This month’s near misses included: The Practicing StoicLake Success, The Friend, and What We Were Promised. See Also: Last month’s list.

A Year in Reading: Nick Moran

In the mornings they set out paper bowls of cantaloupe at RT’s Flag Bar in Baltimore, which is an upgrade over the stale peanuts you’ll find elsewhere. Then again, there’s a handwritten sign above the register that says, “Remember BENGHAZI” so it’s not all pleasant. I know because this year I read a lot in bars, and RT’s is where I really began.

When you bring a book to a bar, you get entertainment and a shield. Healthier than a phone, reading a book dissuades would-be chatterboxes more effectively than pretending to check your email. Some will persist, and we usually wish they wouldn’t, but there’s no such thing as an impenetrable defense. RT’s was a refuge from the heat, so I locked my bike and read Heather Christle’s poems. I was so entranced I forgot about the cantaloupe. In the summer I felt snowed in.

At Lee’s Liquor Lounge in Minneapolis, the bartender told a patron that she wouldn’t have worn her overalls if she’d known she’d be working that day. That’s another thing about reading in bars: you can eavesdrop. At the Moose on Monroe, some dude named Frisco tried to tell me all about “boilermaking” while I read Sam Pink’s The Garbage Times / White Ibis. Minnesotans will talk even when you are aggressively uninterested in what they’re saying, sometimes to no one but themselves, but it’s easy enough to grunt or autopilot your way through a few “no kiddings” until they move on. Bars there hold weekly meat raffles. One of the novellas in Pink’s book takes place inside a frigid, dank dive. I thought about that when I noticed someone had written “DO NOT TOUCH ALL WINTER” above the Knight Cap’s thermostat.

Reading Harry Crews practically apparates whiskey into your hand no matter where you are, so it was ticklish to learn Joe Lon, his protagonist in Feast of Snakes, owned a package store full of brown liquor. In the back, a lady named Hard Candy placed bets on how quickly a snake could eat a rat, and while I read that scene I put my feet up on the rail at Butts & Betty’s in case something slithered by. One of the bartenders is a notary public, and she pours Beam like she’s giving it away.

At St. Roch Tavern north of Marigny, I took a break from reading Larry Brown’s Big Bad Love because he described being “drunk as a boiled owl,” and I needed a minute to process that visual. Moments later, bingo night started. While not as insufferable as karaoke, bingo makes considerable commotion so I moved across town to Snake & Jake’s Christmas Club Lounge. I read the rest of the book under the red glow of ten thousand string lights. Snake’s has changed in recent years, and it felt sanitized compared to how I remembered it. Fittingly, the last story in Brown’s collection might be the worst piece I’ve read since undergrad, and I slogged through it next to two loud Tulane students before I left.

Your second bourbon’s treachery is how it tells you you’re good for four, but in the Fairmont Dallas lobby bar, that’s manageable because the pours are piddly. Before checking into my room, I polished off Christina Thompson’s New Zealand memoir, which I enjoyed well enough however I wish it lived up to its title, even though nothing ever could: Come On Shore and We Will Kill and Eat You All.

Bars conducive to reading need good light. You want lantern vibes. A gentle din is better than music but, paradoxically, both are preferable to silence. The downside of a totally quiet bar is that when someone inevitably opens their mouth, or the phone rings, the noise is too crisp to ignore.

I like reading at Standings in the East Village because I lack the constitution to pay attention to baseball statistics and Vegas odds, and those two subjects dominate conversations in the place. Not long ago I finished The Stories of Breece D’J Pancake in the corner, and drew three circles around this line: “Insecurity crawfished through his blood, leaving him powerless again.”

The other night at ChurchKey, which was far too dark, I read Patricia Lockwood’s essay on Lucia Berlin, which was incandescently bright. Lockwood nailed the aspects of Berlin I love most. A Manual for Cleaning Women showed me how vividly someone can convey the careworn sense of a place, and while Evening in Paradise is less polished and consistent, its descriptions of places and sounds are no less wonderful. Few writers have had better ears for dialogue and acoustic details than Berlin, which is why I gasped when Lockwood wrote, “The problem is that if you’re a person who loves perfect sounds, bars are always full of them.” In one of her stories, Berlin’s protagonist asks what the difference is between a connoisseur and a wino. “The connoisseur takes it out of the paper bag.”

Dive bars are timeless. You cannot imagine them opening; they’ve just existed. Newer bars are usually harder, louder, less respectful to readers. You need to pick particular books depending on your venue. No one should read the canon at the Budweiser Brew House in the St. Louis airport. However it was a serviceable setting when I needed to finish The Strange Bird, and nothing could’ve broken my concentration. Boisterous beach bars can be navigated. I wouldn’t try to read Moby-Dick there, but Monty’s in Coconut Grove is the perfect setting for American Desperado, Jon Roberts’s mesmerizing memoir about his time as a narco kingpin. While sipping a Pain Killer, I learned the best way to kneecap someone. Under the wicker fans, I looked across Biscayne Bay and imagined picking up a loaf of bread in Bimini. I don’t think anyone’s ever read anything at Sweet’s Lounge on the Gulf coast of Mississippi, but you could play “chicken shit bingo” there for a couple bucks and write a story about it afterwards. I’d read that.

Walking home from Frazier’s, I peeked in row house windows and imagined myself hanging out with Willie and Liberty from Breaking & Entering. When Joy Williams wrote her guide to The Florida Keys, was she just casing joints like they did?  Has anyone ever nailed Florida’s dreadful sublimity better than Williams? I think not. She began a chapter with the phrase, “the summer that someone was mutilating the pelicans,” and I’m still reeling.

Carol at BAR used to give a key to her regulars so they could let themselves in, but “nowadays you can’t even leave a cooler around some people.” This notion was enough to make me put down Lindsay Hunter’s Eat Only When You’re Hungry, the most perfect book I read all year. Imagine the trust in that bygone era. Meet oblivion like Greg.

They sold Tums and Rolaids for $1.50 at Dimitri’s before it closed and turned into a taco joint. It’s hard to explain but the vibe at the time was just right for Scott McClanahan’s The Sarah Book, which was profoundly sad and beautiful. Joyce, the bartender who makes great pit beef, had a preternatural gift for anticipating when her patrons needed another round. Broken Arrow played on the TV while one guy discussed a 4-month program training HVAC technicians, and how the irony of working on air conditioners is that you never get to feel them yourself. His companion with a cane was talking about moving to Colorado to escape the heat. It reminded me of the line in Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son: “what I wouldn’t give to have us sitting in a bar again at 9:00 a.m. telling lies to one another, far from God.”

Drinking while reading lubricates the mind, makes it more amenable to certain ideas. Thoughts become cloudy, not just in terms of ephemerality but also in how gracefully they brush into one another. There’s a thrum in the cerebellum when thoughts gather momentum, when the clouds pick up wind. Another benefit of reading in the bar is that by committing to the book in a public space, you become motivated to see it through. Even though nobody cares, you feel like the people around you want you to finish the book. You push forward in a way that you probably wouldn’t alone at home, surrounded by comfortable distractions. I find this useful when I want to finish a book just to finish it, after I’ve ceased enjoying the experience. Recently I pretended a couple on a Tinder date a few seats over was invested in whether or not I could get to the end of Andrey Platonov’s Happy Moscow. It turned out they were as disinterested in one another as I was in the book, but that’s one last thing about reading in bars: when you’re done, you can get the hell out of there.

More from A Year in Reading 2018

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The Millions Top Ten: October 2018

We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for October.

This Month
Last Month

Title
On List

1.
1.

Less

6 months

2.
2.

The Overstory

5 months

3.
3.

Lost Empress

6 months

4.
5.

The Incendiaries

3 months

5.
4.

There There

4 months

6.
7.

The Ensemble

4 months

7.
9.

Washington Black

2 months

8.
10.

Transcription

2 months

9.


Warlight

3 months

10.


Killing Commendatore

1 month

 

Only the lightest, feather soft jostling on the top half of our list this month, as R.O. Kwon’s The Incendiaries trades places with Tommy Orange’s There There. From there, things get more interesting. First, two books graduated to our Hall of Fame: Ahmed Saadawi’s Frankenstein in Baghdad and Leslie Jamison’s The Recovering. It’s the first time either author has had the honor, and this move freed up two new spaces on the list.

One of those spaces was filled by Michael Ondaatje’s Warlight, which rejoins our rankings in ninth position after taking a one-month hiatus.

The other space was filled by Haruki Murakami’s Killing Commendatore, which our own Hannah Gersen described as a “new novel … about a freshly divorced painter who moves to the mountains, where he finds an eerie and powerful painting called ‘Killing Commendatore.'” Of course, when it comes to Murakami, simple descriptions belie subtle unsettlement. “Mysteries proliferate,” Gersen continues, “and you will keep reading—not because you are expecting resolution but because it’s Murakami, and you’re under his spell.”

Of the five “near misses” this month, four appeared in our Great Second-Half 2018 Book Preview. The Practicing Stoic, which did not, is Ward Farnsworth’s “idiosyncratic, strange, yet convincing and useful volume,” according to Ed Simon, offering a novel corrective to the popular understanding of Stoicism. “The Practicing Stoic is one of many philosophical self-help books, contending with the primordial question: ‘How am I to live?'” Simon continues as he situates it within the context of several others in the canon. Additionally, Stoicism itself proves valuable in how it “help[s] us cope with the ever-mounting anxieties of postmodernity, the daily thrum of Facebook and Twitter newsfeeds, the queasy push notifications and the indignities of being a cog in the shaky edifice of late capitalism (or whatever).”

Next month two more spots should open on our list for two newcomers, and there’s only one way to find out which.

This month’s near misses included: SeveranceThe Golden State, Lake Success, The Practicing Stoic, and What We Were Promised. See Also: Last month’s list.

The Millions Top Ten: September 2018

We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for September.

This Month
Last Month

Title
On List

1.
1.

Less

5 months

2.
5.

The Overstory

4 months

3.
2.

Lost Empress

5 months

4.
8.

There There

3 months

5.
7.

The Incendiaries

2 months

6.
4.

Frankenstein in Baghdad

6 months

7.
3.

The Ensemble

3 months

8.
6.

The Recovering: Intoxication and its Aftermath

6 months

9.


Washington Black

1 month

10.


Transcription

1 month

 

Pulitzer-winner Andrew Sean Greer holds this month’s top spot with his latest novel, Less. Two more months of strong sales and he’ll ascend to our Hall of Fame, just as Leslie Jamison (The Recovering) and Ahmed Saadawi (Frankenstein in Baghdad) seem poised to do in October.

One of two newcomers this month is Esi Edugyan, whose Booker-shortlisted novel Washington Black is based on a famous 19th-century criminal case and tells the story of an 11-year-old slave’s incredible journey from the cane fields of the Caribbean to the Arctic, London, and Morocco. “In its rich details and finely tuned ear for language,” wrote Martha Anne Toll for our site last week, “the book creates a virtual world, immersing the reader in antebellum America and Canada as well as in Victorian England.”

Edugyan is joined on our list by Kate Atkinson, whose new period novel Transcription focuses on a female spy, recruited by MI5 at age 18 to monitor fascist sympathizers. “As a fangirl of both the virtuosic Life After Life and of her Jackson Brody detective novels, I barely need to see a review to get excited about a new Atkinson novel,” wrote Sonya Chung in our Great Second-Half 2018 Book Preview, and evidently her feelings are shared by many Millions readers alike.

Spots for both books were opened when Warlight and The Mars Room dropped from our ranks. Elsewhere on the list, shuffling abounds. The Overstory rose to second position after being shortlisted for the Booker Prize, and There There rose as well after being longlisted for the National Book Award.

Meanwhile, if you’ll turn your attention to this month’s “near misses” below, you’ll see The Golden State, the debut novel from Lydia Kiesling, our intrepid editor. Longtime readers of this site are no doubt familiar with Lydia’s brand of antic, incisive writing – she’s one of the few authors who’ve made me laugh and tear up in the same piece – but prepared as I was, I’ll admit this book floored me in the best way. Not only is it an engrossing depiction of a very particular parent’s mind, but it’s also an exploration of what it means to connect with others, raise them, be influenced and repulsed by them, as well as overwhelmed by them alike. As a bonus, there’s also an absolutely ruthless and necessary skewering of modern university administrative work, and the entire story vibrates with an extreme sense of place. I cannot wait to read what Lydia writes next and in the meantime I encourage you all to check this one out.

This month’s near misses included: Severance, The Practicing Stoic, and The Golden State. See Also: Last month’s list.

The Millions Top Ten: August 2018

We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for August.

Looking for additional book recommendations? One of the benefits of subscribing to The Millions is access to our exclusive monthly newsletter in which our venerable staffers let you know what they’re reading right now. Learn more here.

This Month
Last Month

Title
On List

1.
1.

Less

4 months

2.
3.

Lost Empress

4 months

3.
6.

The Ensemble

2 months

4.
5.

Frankenstein in Baghdad

5 months

5.
7.

The Overstory

3 months

6.
4.

The Recovering: Intoxication and its Aftermath

5 months

7.


The Incendiaries

1 month

8.
9.

There There

2 months

9.
10.

Warlight

2 months

10.


The Mars Room

1 month

 

“I have to watch I don’t get arrogant,” said Andrew Sean Greer after a Guardian reporter asked him how he’s changed since winning the Pulitzer for his latest novel, Less. Will he be able to stave off arrogance now that he’s held first position in our Top Ten for two months, though? Bet smart.

So, we bid farewell to two titles ascending to our Hall of Fame this month – The Immortalists and My Favorite Thing is Monsters – and we welcome two newcomers in their place – The Incendiaries and The Mars Room.

Much praise has been heaped upon The Incendiaries, not least of all Celeste Ng’s compliment on R.O. Kwon’s “dazzlingly acrobatic prose.” That admiration might be topped only by Michael Lindgren’s review of The Mars Room in which he called Rachel Kushner “the most vital and interesting American novelist working today.” The point is obvious. Golden rules are hard to find these days, but maybe it’s enough to say that Millions readers always have good taste.

State of California native Tommy Orange’s There There earned a place on the 7-title shortlist for the Center for Fiction First Novel Prize this month, and the debut also moved up a spot from ninth to eight on our list. Will that momentum carry it up again next month? Be sure to check back and find out in October. On and on we go.

Next to Orange’s novel on our list in ninth position is Michael Ondaatje’s Warlight, which earned Man Booker longlist recognition last July. Month’s end is when we’ll see if it makes the next round of cuts. List long or short, Ondaatje’s no stranger to any kind.

This month’s near misses included: SeveranceCirce, What We Were PromisedAn American Marriage, and Some Trick. See Also: Last month’s list.

The Millions Top Ten: July 2018

We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for July.

Looking for additional book recommendations? One of the benefits of subscribing to The Millions is access to our exclusive monthly newsletter in which our venerable staffers let you know what they’re reading right now. Learn more here.

This Month
Last Month

Title
On List

1.
2.

Less

3 months

2.
1.

The Immortalists
6 months

3.
7.

Lost Empress

3 months

4.
6.

The Recovering: Intoxication and its Aftermath

4 months

5.
4.

Frankenstein in Baghdad

4 months

6.


The Ensemble

1 month

7.
10.

The Overstory

2 months

8.
8.

My Favorite Thing is Monsters

6 months

9.


There There

1 month

10.


Warlight

1 month

 

Reflecting on the Great 2018 Book Preview – the first of the year, not the more recent Second-Half preview – it’s interesting to note that of the first six titles we highlighted, four of them have made appearances in our Top Ten. For six months, Jamie Quatro’s Fire Sermon and Denis Johnson’s The Largesse of the Sea Maiden hung around our list; this month they graduate to the Hall of Fame. On their heels, Ahmed Saadawi’s Frankenstein in Baghdad holds fifth position this month, and in two months’ time will likely join Quatro and Johnson in our Hall. Also, among the “near misses” listed at the bottom of this post, you’ll find Leïla Slimani’s The Perfect Nanny, a French story which “tells of good help gone bad,” as our own Matt Seidel put it months ago. From a certain perspective, it’s wild that 66% of the first half dozen books we flagged last January have resonated so much with our audience. In fact, of the 10 titles on this month’s list, 70% of them appeared on that first Book Preview. Put simply: Millions readers, we’re here for y’all. Trust us.

(For the record, the three titles currently on our Top Ten which did not appear in our Book Preview last January: LessThe Overstory and My Favorite Thing is Monsters.)

Three new titles joined our list after Quatro and Johnson’s books moved on to our Hall of Fame and Tayari Jones’s An American Marriage dropped out. The newcomers are Aja Gabel’s The Ensemble, Tommy Orange’s There There, and Michael Ondaatje’s Warlight, which hold the sixth, ninth and tenth positions this month, respectively.

In a preview for our site, Millions editor Lydia Kiesling recommended readers get “a taste of Gabel’s prose [by] read[ing] her Best American Essays-notable piece on grief and eating ortolans in France,” and noted that “Orange’s novel has been called a ‘new kind of American epic’ by the New York Times.” Meanwhile staffer Claire Cameron, while writing about Michael Ondaatje’s latest, mused, “If only Anthony Minghella were still with us to make the movie.”

Overall it’s clear that the Book Preview foretells Top Ten placements. Next month at least two spots should open up for new titles. Will those new books come from our latest Second-Half Preview? Based on the numbers, it looks likely.

This month’s near misses included: Circe, Some TrickThe Mars Room, and The Perfect Nanny. See Also: Last month’s list.

The Millions Top Ten: June 2018

We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for June.

Looking for additional book recommendations? One of the benefits of subscribing to The Millions is access to our exclusive monthly newsletter in which our venerable staffers let you know what they’re reading right now. Learn more here.

This Month
Last Month

Title
On List

1.
3.

The Immortalists
5 months

2.
4.

Less
2 months

3.
5.

Fire Sermon

6 months

4.
7.

Frankenstein in Baghdad

3 months

5.
8.

The Largesse of the Sea Maiden

6 months

6.
9.

The Recovering: Intoxication and its Aftermath

3 months

7.
10.

Lost Empress

2 months

8.


My Favorite Thing is Monsters

5 months

9.


An American Marriage

1 month

10.


The Overstory

1 month

 

Three books are off to our Hall of Fame this month, but one of them is completely blank, which I believe is a first for our site. Back in November 2017, in Hannah Gersen’s Gift Guide for Readers and Writers, she noted the benefits of the 5-Year Diary‘s design:
The design is unique in that every page represents one day and is divided into five parts, with each part representing one year. So, when you write your entry for Feb 1, you can look back at Feb 1 of the previous year to see what you were doing/writing/reading/thinking/weathering. I think it’s especially useful for writers because if you use the space to track writing and reading projects (as I often do), it’s a great way to gauge your long-term progress.
Accompanying the Diary are two works from Carmen Maria Machado and Jesmyn Ward.

Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties was the darling of our most recent Year in Reading series, picked by seven participants – Jamel Brinkley, Morgan Jerkins, Rakesh Satyal, Julie Buntin, Lidia Yuknavitch, Louise Erdrich and Jeff VanderMeer – who together sang a chorus of Buy this Book, Buy this Book, Buy this Book. Over the chorus came Nathan Goldman, who wrote in his review for our site that “for all its darkness, Her Body and Other Parties is also a beautiful evocation of women’s—especially queer women’s—lives, in all their fullness, vitality, and complex joy. Formally daring, achingly moving, wildly weird, and startling in its visceral and aesthetic impact, Machado’s work is unlike any other.” Evidently, Millions readers dug the tune.

Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing was also well-received, drawing praise from four of the seven Year in Reading participants linked above, as well as from Kima Jones and Sarah Smarsh. In her review for our site, Nur Nasreen Ibrahim observed that “Ward’s fiction is about inherited trauma in a deeply divided society, where the oppressor and the oppressed share a legacy” and she also pointed to the other works invoked within the text. “By invoking [Toni] Morrison and [William] Faulkner for new readers,” Ibrahim wrote, “Ward excavates not only the suffering of her characters, but also the long tradition of fiction about slavery, fiction that grapples with racial injustice that extends into the present.”

Elsewhere on our list this month, My Favorite Thing is Monsters returns after a monthlong hiatus, and newcomers An American Marriage and The Overstory fill our ninth and tenth spots, respectively. In the weeks ahead, we’ll publish our Great Second-Half 2018 Book Preview, and surely several of those upcoming titles will be reflected on our July list. Get ready.

This month’s near misses included: The Mars RoomPachinko, Warlight, The Odyssey, and The World Goes On. See Also: Last month’s list.

Our Florida, Hers and Mine

1.
U.S. Highway 1 stretches the length of Florida, linking Key West to Jacksonville and hurtling beyond Maine. Southbound from the state line over 550 sun-soaked miles, drivers experience the Floridian landscape in geologic rewind: northern moss, central muck, and southern swamp. At the tip of this clay-and-shell empire, U.S. 1 leaps off dry land, the humid air thins to breeze, and as drivers cross the seven-mile bridge, they cruise over the same sea their ancestors crawled out of long ago. If newness foretells the future, then Florida’s relatively recent emergence from the ocean parallels its relatively recent dominance of the country. It was Florida that shot a rocket to the moon, ushering in the modern age. Since then, it’s been Florida that’s decided our elections. This year, we’ve all noticed that as go Florida’s youth, so goes our discourse. (It’s not a coincidence that blood won’t dry in the swamp where nothing else can, either.) Yet as parents will attest, newness is stalked by threats—even if only imagined. What’s most vulnerable is most precious and most in need of protection. But can’t threats be beautiful? Azaleas are gorgeous, but they’re toxic, too.

I’ve been thinking about this since finishing Lauren Groff’s Florida, the author’s new story collection. In 11 pieces, Groff explores her adopted state, probing the ways its inhabitants live with it rather than in it. They always have. Residing in Florida means appreciating its beauty while keeping a safe distance from its threats, and threats abound in Groff’s stories. Mostly there’s the threat of the natural. Characters are stalked by big and feral cats. One encounters a falcon, “huge and dangerous even when dead.” Another opines that when you “walk outside in Florida…a snake will be watching you.” How many reptiles are there? There are a lot of reptiles. There are bellowing bull gators and croaking frogs. There are so many reptiles that they transcend Reptilia: tree vines “look like snakes”; a man has “alligatored” skin; a hen has a “lizardy eye.”

But that’s Florida, isn’t it? In no other state is the line so blurred between the natural and the manmade. Think of an alligator in the pool. These threats range from small to apocalyptic, from imagined to existential. Largest of all looms climate change, which overwhelms most of Groff’s characters. In “Snake Stories,” a mother is worried about “a man [who] had been appointed to take care of the environment even though his only desire was to squash the environment like a cockroach.” In “Ghosts and Empties,” a mother walks around her neighborhood, worrying about the “disaster of the world,” and confesses that “it’s all too much.” This paralytic force is revisited in later stories with near-identical phrasing: A young girl watches idly as a mosquito draws blood, and “it was all so much,” so she lets it suck.

Yet another mother is said to be “no longer frightened of snakes, she who is frightened of everything” because instead “she is frightened of climate change, this summer the hottest on record, plants dying all around.” The narrator lets us know this woman’s unrelenting anxiety makes her “exhausting to everyone,” and as readers, we can see why, even if she does have a point. That woman is not alone. In “Yport,” a story of a mother abroad with her two children, the protagonist is terrified of mass shootings, destabilizing humanitarian crises, and most of all “the coming climate wars”—“she can’t stop the thought that children born now will be the last generation of humans.” She thinks her anxiety is hidden, but we see how it affects her children whom she so desperately wants to protect. “If she could, she’d spend the day in bed.” Hear, hear.

To too many, the threat of climate change lacks immediacy, and so Groff’s obsession with the subject is vital—if at times overwhelming. The setting, too, is significant. Nowhere in the country faces more urgent threats from climate change than Gulf Coast. But worry is paralyzing, as that character getting bit by the mosquito knows. What does it mean to live in a threatened world when the world itself is threatening? Is this sense of imminent end why Florida inspires so much apocalyptic writing?

That so many of Groff’s characters in Florida are mothers is fascinating. While Groff’s last novel, Fates and Furies, was focused most of all on marriage and was about resisting the temptations of Florida and the influence of one’s mother—Lotto cut off from his mom, a former Weeki Wachee mermaid—it’s easy to read Florida as Groff’s simultaneous take on motherhood and succumbing to Florida’s pull. After all, motherhood demands the same kind of cognitive dissonance that living in Florida demands from its ecologically minded residents. Ethically or philosophically, what does it mean to worry about ecological ruin while living in a community that shouldn’t exist? Is buying flood insurance in Miami an admission of guilt? Should anyone live in paradise? There is an essential calculus to modern parenthood: Is the world so broken that we shouldn’t bring children into it? Parents protect their children long enough for them to inherit the mess of their ancestors. Developers sell beach houses before the sea covers their roofs. In Florida, Groff’s characters probe these questions, even if only subconsciously. In so doing they interrogate environmentalism, motherhood, and responsibility—or better yet, what it means to be complicit.

2.
Motherhood and Florida are also the twin fascinations of Christine Schutt in Florida, her jewel of a novel relaying a lifetime in memories. Readers meet the protagonist, Alice Fivey, just before her mother is institutionalized for depression, manic episodes, and anorexia. Her father has died, and, separated from her mother, Alice lives a “sleep-over life” with her aunt and uncle bouncing around the Midwest and Tucson. In short vignettes, we learn the family’s secrets, and we watch Alice mature. We learn early that Alice’s mother is obsessed with the idea of “her Florida,” a sort of stand-in for the dream life they’ll never attain. It was Alice’s father who introduced her to the idea:
In Florida, he said it was good health all the time. No winter coats in Florida, no boots, no chains, no salt, no plows and shovels. In the balmy state of Florida, fruit fell in the meanest yard. Sweets, nuts, saltwater taffies in seashell colors. In the Florida we were headed for the afternoon was swizzled drinks and cherries to eat, stem and all: “Here’s to you, here’s to me, here’s to our new home!” One winter afternoon in our favorite restaurant, there was Florida in our future while I was licking at the foam on the fluted glass, biting the rind and licking sugar, waiting for what was promised: the maraschino cherry, ever-sweet every time.
Later on, Alice’s mother constructs a foil-lined “Florida box” in which she can lie down and approximate the state’s temperature. She speaks wistfully of rebooting the family’s life in Florida, of going off to “our Florida, hers and mine.” She explains away her absence from Alice’s life by saying that she’s been in Florida off and on. Over time, “Florida” as a concept fascinates Alice, influenced by her mother, who dreams of its unreachable but tantalizing charms. Paradise lies just beyond reach, unattainable—a dreamworld inheritance. Flattened in this way, there are only positives and no threats whatsoever. The Florida we make is the grandest Florida of all. We raise our children to be better than us.

3.
In an otherwise unrelated piece on Antarctic exploration, David Grann invokes Thomas Pynchon’s quote about how “‘everyone has an Antarctic’—someplace people seek to find answers about themselves.” He quotes an explorer who muses, “What is Antarctica other than a blank canvas on which you seek to impose yourself?” I think the same of Florida, which stands in for so many jokes and stereotypes, and most of all serves as a canvas for dreams. Recall Susan Orlean in The Orchid Thief: “The flat plainness of Florida doesn’t impose itself on you, so you can impose upon it your own kind of dream.”

All this in mind, it seems Groff’s Florida and Schutt’s Florida might harmonize. In an ideal case, the Florida we imagine (Schutt) is what draws us to the Florida we settle (Groff). In reality, the Florida we imagine (tourists, snowbirds) is what leads to paved wetlands (developers). In both cases, dream often turns to nightmare. As Florida’s population booms, the more threatened the state becomes. A century ago, Henry Flagler reshaped the state as a hobby and bankrupted himself in the process. Ever after, a thousand hucksters have followed suit. Almost 50 years ago, Walt Disney decided Florida was the blank slate upon which he could impose his will; he secretly bought land upon which he built a theme park beyond the jurisdiction of local governments. Ten years ago, the founder of Domino’s Pizza extended this idea further by developing a private religious community, a closed circuit constructed in his own image. These men come and blithely raise vanity settlements. Their civilizations are engineered beyond the natural. Do these men worry about unintended consequences? Did they ponder any of the same questions as Groff’s characters? If Groff’s characters are fraught with concerns about inhabiting such a precarious position in the world, and about bringing life into it—if they are aware of the give-and-take that comes from inhabiting a state that literally sucks its inhabitants blood—then the state’s most famous and mostly male settlers represent a selfish inverse, an uncaring desire to raise (or raze) an unnatural Florida of their own. In literature and tourism pamphlets alike, it’s often said that Florida is like Eden (Groff calls it an “Eden of dangerous things” in Florida). Yet it’s rarely noted that eventually the humans fucked up and got expelled from the garden.

4.
Florida Man is the title of Tyler Gillespie’s new poetry collection, which blends memoir, interviews, news, and police reports to convey the scope of Florida beyond the flattened punchlines associated with the collection’s eponymous character. Punctuated every few pages by long set pieces such as “Tampa Queens,” Florida Man explores queerness, youth, maturation, identity, and parenthood. “Alligator Named Florida’s Official State Reptile in 1987; or, Birth Year,” for instance, charts two different approaches. In it, the male gator is all malignant strength and bravado (“heart-stopping roar”), while the female is rendered motherly by comparison. Charged with making a nest on her own (“call it / single-mom ingenuity”), the mother dotes on her offspring. By contrast, we lose track of the male once the eggs are laid; he’s disappeared, aloof, unbothered. Meanwhile the female “incubates & waits for young to hatch.” She cares deeply for their well-being. “If baby cannot break shell on its own / she takes egg in mouth gently does it / herself.” Afterward, she’s charged with “defend[ing] her offspring from a father / who eats everything – his young included – / if he ever gets hungry enough to come back.”

5.
The album that broke Against Me! out of Gainesville featured a song with the chorus “Because if Florida takes us / we’re taking everyone down with us. / Where we’re coming from / will be the death of us.” Twenty years earlier, another punk outfit from the Sunshine State released an album called We Can’t Help It if We’re from Florida. That album’s name is the basis for Burrow Press’s new anthology of writing about Florida, which thematically owes a lot to Against Me!’s point: In Florida, there’s a sense of mutually assured destruction that permeates the thoughts of its residents. On the edge of the country, there’s a sense of impermanence and menace, as Shane Hinton touches on in the collection’s first piece. Florida can kill you at any time, and in the 20 stories, poems, and essays that follow, we see exactly how: ominous clouds “like tight bruised fists,” lightning strikes that could contribute to a “Floridian way to die,” and even brain-eating amoeba.

More often than not, this leads to cynicism. In a moment of lucid awakening, one of the characters in “Major Dissociation on Crescent Lake,” Jeff Parker’s story about a sinkhole that may or may not have swallowed up a girl he knows, admits that he finally “saw the place for what it was, a mud puddle populated with flying rats shitting and screwing in scum.” He’s talking about a pond near his gross motel, but you get the sense that by this point he could be talking about the state in which that motel resides. There is a fear that to arrive in Florida is to consign oneself to some horrible fate. “Arriving in Florida was a leaving,” Lidia Yuknavitch writes, and we wonder if she means escape or death. “I was a man who had left,” Nathan Deuel writes as his bus pulls into Florida, and we know he’s talking not only about geography but about a life surrendered. Once you set foot in Florida, you’re never really leaving again.

6.
Of course, the twist is that it’s mankind, not Florida, that inflicts most of the harm in Groff’s Florida, Schutt’s Florida, and We Can’t Help It if We’re from Florida. For all of the animals feared by Groff’s characters, it’s an abusive husband who hits his wife, another wife who cuckolds her husband. It’s the parents who abandon their children. It’s all of us who broke the planet. In Schutt’s Florida, Alice’s mother harms herself, and the ripples of that harm rot the whole family tree. In We Can’t Help It if We’re from Florida, Kristen Arnett’s story is about a woman held captive by a creepy “art therapist.” Alissa Nutting’s is about a mother abandoning her family. John Henry Fleming’s is about one man beating another with a baseball bat. Amy Parker’s story focuses on a man pulled over by a racist cop. Even the sinkhole in Jeff Parker’s story was probably innocent. In the end, the most dangerous things in Florida are its human inhabitants, increasing every year, and so maybe Groff’s characters are right to worry about whether they should be making more.

The Millions Top Ten: May 2018

We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for May.

Looking for additional book recommendations? One of the benefits of subscribing to The Millions is access to our exclusive monthly newsletter in which our venerable staffers let you know what they’re reading right now. Learn more here.

This Month
Last Month

Title
On List

1.
1.

5 Year Diary
6 months

2.
2.

Her Body and Other Parties
6 months

3.
5.

The Immortalists

4 months

4.


Less

1 month

5.
4.

Fire Sermon

5 months

6.
7.

Sing, Unburied, Sing

6 months

7.
10.

Frankenstein in Baghdad

2 months

8.
6.

The Largesse of the Sea Maiden

5 months

9.
9.

The Recovering: Intoxication and its Aftermath

2 months

10.


Lost Empress

1 month

 

It’s surprising that this is the first time John McPhee’s sent a work to our site’s Hall of Fame, which recognizes books that have made appearances on our Top 10 for more than six months. McPhee, whose Draft No. 4 attains that honor this month, has published more than three dozen books. To have only one ascend to our hallowed halls surely reveals more about us than him, no? Well, an honor is an honor regardless of past injustice. Going forward, consider this my call to action: go read Oranges and learn all about the absolute madmen who grew grapefruits and limes on the branches of orange trees.

With one newly opened spot on this month’s list and one title dropping out of favor from last month’s, we welcome two newcomers. First there’s Less by Andrew Sean Greer, who just won the Pulitzer, and second there’s Lost Empress by Sergio De La Pava, who years ago won something even more coveted than an award: a glowing profile from our own Garth Risk Hallberg. Writing at the time about De La Pava’s breakout, A Naked Singularity, which ultimately made it to our Hall of Fame, Hallberg recalled getting hooked on a big self-published book despite his initial skepticism, and in spite of the book’s superficial flaws.
A good big novel lives or dies at a level far removed from considerations of teachable “craft” — the level Henry James and Michel Houellebecq gesture toward when they speak, in different contexts, of “intensity.” … And at that level, A Naked Singularity is, if not a masterpiece, then certainly a roaring success.
Fast forward six years and De La Pava’s returned with another 600+ page novel. Plus ça change…

Elsewhere on our list, the top two titles retained their positions, The Immortalists rose two spots, Sing, Unburied, Sing dropped two more, and books by Ahmed Saadawi, Denis Johnson, and Leslie Jamison jostled around a bit. Altogether that part isn’t terribly eventful, but next month we’ll see three spots open up, and that’s where the fun should really begin. Stay tuned.

This month’s near misses included: An American MarriageThe Overstory, The Mars Room, and Pachinko. See Also: Last month’s list.