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Sometimes You Feel

Can’t wait for Haruki Murakami’s new novel? You’re in luck: Slate just published an exclusive excerpt from the book. Sample quote: “No matter how quiet and conformist a person’s life seems, there’s always a time in the past when they reached an impasse. A time when they went a little crazy. I guess people need that sort of stage in their lives.” (You could also read Ben Dooley’s review of 1Q84.)

Finding Peter Cat

We already knew that Haruki Murakami was a writer and runner but a former jazz club owner, too? Aaron Gilbreath visited Murakami's 1970s jazz club, Peter Cat, and found "a drab three-story cement building. Outside, a first-floor, a restaurant had set up a sampuru display of plastic foods." For more Murakami, read our review of 1Q84.

The Millions Top Ten: April 2012

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 April. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. 2. Pulphead 5 months 2. 4. The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains 5 months 3. 5. The Book of Disquiet 5 months 4. 6. The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World 5 months 5. 9. New American Haggadah 2 months 6. 10. Train Dreams 3 months 7. - The Swerve: How the World Became Modern 1 month 8. - Binocular Vision 1 month 9. - Visual Storytelling: Inspiring a New Visual Language 1 month 10. - How to Sharpen Pencils 1 month Last fall, the book world was abuzz with three new novels, the long-awaited books 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami and The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides, as well as Chad Harbach's highly touted debut The Art of Fielding. Meanwhile, Millions favorite Helen DeWitt was emerging from a long, frustrating hiatus with Lightning Rods. Now all four are graduating to our Hall of Fame after long runs on our list. This means we have a new number one: John Jermiah Sullivan's collection of essays Pulphead, which was discussed in glowing terms by our staffer Bill Morris in January. The graduates also open up room for four new books on our list. A Pulitzer win has propelled Stephen Greenblatt's The Swerve: How the World Became Modern into our Top Ten (fiction finalist Train Dreams by Denis Johnson has already been on our list for a few months). Edith Pearlman's Binocular Vision is another recent award winner making our list for the first time. Don't miss our interview with her from last month. In January, author Reif Larsen penned an engrossing exploration of the infographic for us. The essay has remained popular, and a book he focused on, Visual Storytelling: Inspiring a New Visual Language, has now landed on our Top Ten. And then in the final spot is David Rees' pencil sharpening manual How to Sharpen Pencils: A Practical and Theoretical Treatise on the Artisanal Craft of Pencil Sharpening. Our funny, probing interview with Rees from last month is a must read. Near Misses: Leaving the Atocha Station, The Patrick Melrose Novels: Never Mind, Bad News, Some Hope, and Mother's Milk, 11/22/63, The Sense of an Ending, and The Great Frustration. See Also: Last month's list.

The Millions Top Ten: March 2012

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 March. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. 2. 1Q84 6 months 2. 3. Pulphead 4 months 3. 4. The Marriage Plot 6 months 4. 6. The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains 4 months 5. 7. The Book of Disquiet 4 months 6. 5. The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World 4 months 7. 8. The Art of Fielding 6 months 8. 9. Lightning Rods 6 months 9. - New American Haggadah 1 month 10. 10. Train Dreams 2 months Ann Patchett's Kindle Single The Getaway Car: A Practical Memoir About Writing and Life has graduated to our Hall of Fame, and Haruki Murakami's 1Q84 slides back into the top spot. Debuting on our list is Jonathan Safran Foer and Nathan Englander's New American Haggadah, just in time for Passover. We reviewed the new take on an ancient religous text last month. Next month should see a lot of movement on our list as we're likely to see four books graduate to the Hall of Fame, meaning we'll see four new titles debut. Near Misses: Visual Storytelling: Inspiring a New Visual Language, The Sense of an Ending, Leaving the Atocha Station, The Great Frustration, and The Patrick Melrose Novels: Never Mind, Bad News, Some Hope, and Mother's Milk. See Also: Last month's list.

The Millions Top Ten: February 2012

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 February. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. 2. The Getaway Car: A Practical Memoir About Writing and Life 6 months 2. 1. 1Q84 5 months 3. 4. Pulphead 3 months 4. 3. The Marriage Plot 5 months 5. 8. The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World 3 months 6. 6. The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains 3 months 7. 9. The Book of Disquiet 3 months 8. 5. The Art of Fielding 5 months 9. 10. Lightning Rods 5 months 10. - Train Dreams 1 month Ann Patchett's Kindle Single The Getaway Car: A Practical Memoir About Writing and Life lands atop our list, unseating Haruki Murakami's 1Q84, and another Kindle Single, Tom Rachman's short-story ebook The Bathtub Spy, graduates to our Hall of Fame. (Rachman's book The Imperfectionists is already a Hall of Famer.) Debuting on our list is Denis Johnson's novella Train Dreams, which won mentions from Adam Ross, David Bezmozgis, and Dan Kois in 2011's Year in Reading series. John Jeremiah Sullivan's Pulphead was a big mover again this month, and Lewis Hyde's The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World also jumped a few spots. Near Misses: The Great Frustration, The Sense of an Ending, Visual Storytelling: Inspiring a New Visual Language, 11/22/63, and The Sisters Brothers. See Also: Last month's list.

Dreaming of J.M. Synge

“And it’s lies you told, letting on you had him slitted, and you nothing at all.” (The Playboy of the Western World) Luckily it was not Sunday, so An Dun, the only café on the island of Inishmaan, was open. I had ducked inside for shelter from the storm that was raging outside. The cold Irish rain had been coming down hard all day and my clothes were totally soaked through, but I had been determined to explore the island regardless. In the middle of the afternoon, however, I realized I needed a dry place to rest. So inside the café, I sat near the window and warmed up with a pot of tea and a bowl of soup. Outside, the ivy-covered Bronze Age stone ringfort Dun Conor towered over the road on the summit of the hill. I shared the table with a woman I had met earlier in the day at Teach Synge, the squat thatched-roof cottage where the playwright J.M. Synge had stayed during his sojourns here at the turn of the 20th century. This woman was a fiction writer, and we soon got to talking about Joseph O’Connor’s novel Ghost Light -- a fictionalized account of the relationship between Synge and his girlfriend, Molly Allgood. I had been putting off reading Ghost Light for a while, even though I was anxious to dive into it. Since I was writing my own nonfiction book about Synge, I didn't want another writer's vision of him to intrude on my own, even if his was fictional. In his recent article in The New York Times Magazine, “My Debt to Ireland,” John Jeremiah Sullivan travels to the Irish countryside and the Aran Islands to explore his Irish roots, and he writes that his relationship with Ireland began when he read James Joyce. For me, a Jewish New Yorker with no Irish heritage whatsoever, my love affair with Ireland also began with an Irish writer. Ever since I first read Synge’s Riders to the Sea, a play that was inspired by Synge’s travels to the three Aran Islands off the west coast of Ireland, I’ve been hooked on him -- his writing, his letters, the story of his life, so much so that I traveled all the way to the Aran Islands to see why they prompted some of the greatest literature to come out of Ireland in the early 20th century. The first time I traveled there, the beauty of the landscape had me agape, and I was intrigued by the stories of the people I met, and began to get a taste of what Synge himself may have learned there. I traveled back for two months over the past few summers, during which time I challenged myself in a myriad of ways both physical and emotional, and I was inspired to write about how the islands changed me, and how I believe they changed Synge. Synge traveled to the Aran Islands when he was in his late 20s. Before going to Aran, he hadn’t been terribly successful as a writer. His poems were usually about his anger with a God he’d rejected, or about pining for a woman who had rejected him. He’d had no real romantic relationships to speak of -- he had two undeniable strikes against him, being that he was an atheist and a writer, and the women he pursued tended to want to marry the opposite of that. He had been sickly since he could crawl, and just before traveling to Aran underwent surgery to remove a tumor from his neck. He’d grown up isolated, tutored at home rather than attending school, because of his health. But he loved nature, loved observing rabbits and collecting moths in the countryside surrounding his mother’s estate. Darwin was his higher power, and he felt tremendous guilt over shirking his mother’s Protestant ideals. Synge was the dark horse of his family -- his older siblings had acceptable careers and acceptable spouses. Synge was still trying to figure out who he was, and how to comfortably be who he was. When Synge went to Aran just before the turn of the 20th century, he collected the stories and folklore of the islanders in his travel memoir, The Aran Islands. He learned Gaelic, and went rowing with the fishermen in the canvas-covered canoe-like curraghs, and experienced the thrill of being tossed about by the waves. He walked the Aran cliffs in violent rainstorms until his hair was stiff with salt. He drank poteen and played the fiddle for the islanders, and watched the strong, beautiful women of Aran in their work, watched them bathing in the sea. Synge visited Aran five times over the course of a few years, and during those years wrote six plays, inspired by the stories he heard on Aran, including The Playboy of the Western World. Synge’s writing blew into Dublin like a hurricane and forever changed the landscape of the Irish theatre with his daring language and daring women characters (women he probably would have liked to meet). Synge died just before he turned 38 from cancer that was diagnosed too late. But before he died -- as Joseph O’Connor would like us to remember -- he did finally have a girlfriend. This past summer after visiting Aran and following my Synge-obsession, I took the bus across the country to Wicklow to attend the Synge Summer School in Rathdrum -- a three-day program devoted to talks on Irish literature. Dr. Patrick Lonergan from NUI Galway led group discussions about Joseph O’Connor’s Ghost Light, and for the most part, the group was very passionate about disliking it. I was surprised -- wasn't Ghost Light chosen as the 2011 Dublin One City One Book that all of Dublin ought to read? The most prevailing reason people didn’t like it: the blurry line between fiction and nonfiction. Some of the people in the group seemed almost insulted by O'Connor. "If you're going to write fiction, why not go all the way?" "It seems like he really wanted to write a biography but got lazy." "There was too much nonfiction in it." I was about to write this all off as a bunch of academics with no room for creative license, until I remembered that the fiction writer I had met in the café on Inishmaan had the same response: “Why not just make up a totally different story altogether? It’s confusing to people.” What these naysayers don’t seem to understand is that when you fall for Synge, you fall hard, and you just cannot let go of him. At least one woman (O’Connor might contend) knew this all too well. Coming from a nonfiction MFA program in America, though, I was shocked. In the States, the trend is to get angry with memoirists and nonfiction writers who don’t stick to the truth. These people were angry with a fiction writer using too much truth to tell a story. To me, the book was clearly called "A Novel" (it's on the cover), so I was prepared to regard it as fiction. However. I told myself to clear my head of my own preconceptions about Synge, his writing, whatever motivations or ideology or emotional life I had given him based on my own research and baggage, but it was nearly impossible for me to do so. I went to Ireland because of him, after all. I’ve read nearly every biography of him, every sappy poem he wrote in his youth, every letter he wrote to his girlfriend (every letter that still exists, anyhow). How could I forget all of this? As I read I resisted. I scowled at the scene depicting how Synge and Molly meet -- she sees him standing on the street, looking up at the sky, aloof, and approaches him. This was not what I had imagined their meeting was like (even though there’s no historical record of the meeting). I imagined him noticing her on the stage, her voice, her face, something physical. I vented to my boyfriend about it while he was reading 1Q84 on his iPod. I put the book down for a few days, annoyed and disappointed. This wasn’t what I had hoped for. This was not the Synge I’d come to know and love. The Synge I’d come to know and love was constantly worrying about his health. He was so insecure about himself and his body that he could barely talk to a member of the opposite sex without fumbling. He was frustrated with feeling lonely, isolated, misunderstood philosophically, and was looking for a new kind of spirituality to comfort him, to soothe his ever-present fear of death and allow him to wake up to joy in his life. The Synge I’d come to know would try just about anything to feel inspired, from studying music and studying socialism to traveling to a chain of weather-beaten islands where the people spoke a language he barely knew. The Synge I’d come to know needed to have an adventure to open himself up to his life, to experience risk and fear and sickness and find out that he was stronger than he thought he was. I realized that the version of Synge I’d come to know and love was actually me. I’d grown up with an autoimmune disorder, in a family where everyone seemed to get cancer at one point or another, and I always felt incredibly insecure about my health, and consequently, my body. I was painfully shy in school, and just barely started to come out of my shell in college (with men, drink, writing, and otherwise, though constantly in fear of failure). That’s when I first read Synge’s Riders to the Sea, a play about a family who lives on the Aran Islands, and despite all the death and storms around them, they still find a way to be strong, to bear it, and to be at peace with the truth of loss. And the sons still go out to the sea, even though they know how dangerous it is. Whether Synge intended these metaphors or not, they seeped into my bloodstream. So what else could I do? I had to see Aran. Traveling to The Aran Islands, as John Jeremiah Sullivan puts it, gave Synge his voice, though I might argue that Aran did not so much give Synge his voice as enable him to finally hear it for himself, loud and clear. Because I know, from experience, that Aran has the power to do just that. At the Synge Summer School, I tried to dodge questions about what I was “working on,” saying only that I was writing a book about the Aran Islands, shying away from revealing that I was actually writing about Synge’s experiences there through the lens of my own. I feared the wrath of academics who would no doubt find logical fault in my approach. If I were writing a biography, I’d have no counterargument. But that’s why I’m writing a memoir. In memoir, we can take ownership of the illogical nature of imagination as part of what makes us human, as long as we’re honest about it. So why couldn’t I forgive O’Connor for writing fiction? During the Synge Summer School discussions, I found myself defensively sticking up for O’Connor’s choices even though I hadn’t even read the book yet. What I heard was that someone who was trying to create art was being attacked for not writing what people wanted him to write. This seemed unfair, and so I’d jumped into the metaphorical curragh with O’Connor and tried to row him over the choppy waves to safety. But when it came time to actually read the book, I jumped ship, because I felt my authority was being challenged. Is this what all of the PhDs and writers at the Synge Summer School were up against? Was our passionate love for “fact” and “truth” as we knew it getting in the way of our appreciation of modern literature, of enjoying a story? Was clinging to our ideals stopping us from moving forward? Certainly Synge, a feminist and atheist ahead of his time, would not be proud of the lot of us. And so, about a quarter of the way into Ghost Light, I finally softened my view. I opened myself up to the possibility of this other interpretation, and when I felt my own opinions clanging in my mind (“No no no! Synge would never say that! Molly would never write that! Yeats was not that annoying!”) I realized them for what they were (my opinions), laughed at them, and moved on. Ghost Light follows the story of O’Connor’s version of Molly Allgood, Synge's love who is an actress, much younger than he, Roman Catholic and working class, but in the book we meet her in old age long after Synge has died. She's living in London and is more than a bit of a drunken beggar, semi-estranged from her family, living alone, behind on her rent, doing what she needs to do to get by. She has a final letter of Synge's that she is thinking of selling. For a while we follow her around London and get a sense of the wreck her life has become, and the chapters alternate between the "present" of the novel in the 1950s and Molly's past in the early 1900s -- meeting Synge, acting in Synge's plays, and becoming Synge's lover. One of my favorite chapters was “Scene from a Half-Imagined Stage Play.” This section is not prose, but written in play format, and, I believe, imagined by young Molly. In the scene, Synge finally meets Molly’s mother (the meeting of the parents, in real life, was problematic given the divide in social status and religion) and in this imagined scene the meeting goes relatively well. I saw it as a sort of wish-fulfillment exercise for Molly, darkened by the realities impeding her fantasy of their life together when Synge has a violent coughing fit at the end of the scene. While I enjoyed both how the narrative jumps back and forth from past to present and the different modes of storytelling, I found the perspective shifts jarring (some chapters are in second person, some are in third person). Although, as I write this, I find myself struggling with the verb tense -- am I writing about real people who lived in Ireland, or fictional characters who live still on the page? Because neither of the storylines (past nor present) are completely elucidated, I didn’t totally grasp the connection between the love affair and what becomes of Molly later in life. Perhaps the way Synge idolizes (idolized?) her has (had?) something to do with it. O’Connor gives us a picture of a hardy, ambitious young girl who gets sucked into the tormented inner world of her self-proclaimed social pariah of a playwright. He creates her career and stokes the flames of her passion and rage, and when he dies, she’s still got the passion and the rage, only no clue what to do with it and no one’s worshipping her anymore, so she falls into depression and drink. That’s what I got out of the book, but the truth is I enjoyed the scenes about their relationship so much that I wish O’Connor had written more of them -- both for my own selfish enjoyment, and also because I think there was room left to explore the complexity of the relationship. We have no concrete information about it out here in the real world, so isn’t that what fiction is for (asks this nonfiction writer)? I won’t talk much about O’Connor’s treatment of Synge, because that’s not what the book is about, though I will permit myself a paragraph to indulge and say that at times I loved his depiction, and at other times I felt myself cringing at things that felt untrue. But then again I have no basis for my own feelings on the matter besides just that -- my feelings. Even though I call my book nonfiction because it’s based on lived experience and research, can I truly claim that mine is an emotional truth truer and therefore better than the one that came from O’Connor’s imagination? But the real focus of Ghost Light is Molly’s story. As O’Connor often references, the family destroyed her letters to Synge. And so O’Connor’s book itself, to me, is a sort of wish fulfillment -- giving us a picture of a woman whom we know so little about, who was such an important figure in Irish literary history, a person that a man named John Synge loved fiercely. And in the academic community, at least, there’s much speculation about their relationship: did Molly really love Synge, or was she using him to further her career? Did Synge really love Molly, or was he preying on a young girl who he could manipulate? Did they ever consummate their love with a physical relationship, or was it all talk (and lots of paper and ink)? All these questions remain, in actuality, but Joseph O’Connor finally gives us the (fictional) answers that Synge-lovers like me have been craving, culminating in a beautiful letter he conjures -- a long letter that Molly wrote but never sent, from some remote place in the West where she is learning Irish, as her beloved had done on Aran: And everything about you gives me the courage I never, ever had and without you I’m like a ghost drifting through some old house of a life and there’s nothing about you I don’t love. This line speaks to my own love of Synge and how his words swallowed me whole. Reading Synge’s plays and traveling to Aran to seek out the wisdom he found there completely changed me. And without his written words I’d never have had the courage to make journey. John Jeremiah Sullivan ends his New York Times piece, “Whatever comes next, after the crash, Ireland will make itself anew. If it’s smart, that is -- if it doesn’t insist, like us, on desperately trying to crawl back to the conditions that made the bubble. A century after Synge’s last works were published, he may be the writer Ireland needs.” I can’t speak for all of Ireland, or even for all of “us,” but Synge was the writer I needed, at least, to get out of my own bubble, to make myself anew. One night recently, I went to bed after having read a few chapters of Ghost Light, and I had my own dream of Synge. It wasn’t the first time I’d been visited by Synge in a dream (that’s what writing about someone for over four years does to you) but it was the least foggy. I was wandering the halls of a candlelit country estate, and found my way to a grand library, filled with old books and yellowing maps. I waited here, knowing that Synge was coming to meet me. Soon he arrived, exactly as I have always pictured him: in his 30s but looking 40, a dark face with a trimmed beard and moustache and thick brows and a subtle, half-amused grimace, a hat, a walking stick, a bit of a limp, but dignified. He knew I was coming to see him, and he knew who I was and what I was writing about him and all the things I thought I knew about him, all the things I was so sure of. I stood up and he took my arm, and we walked out into a beautiful, sunny garden (which I took to be the gardens of his mother’s estate in Wicklow). We kept walking out in this expansive manicured garden, which soon turned into the wild countryside of Wicklow. We wandered the glens and the streams, talking for hours. And he confirmed my beliefs about him, and corrected others. Sadly, upon waking, I could not discern what the truth was -- such is the nature of dreams, fiction, and oftentimes memory. Last summer on Aran, as my boyfriend and I walked the winding roads up the hillside in the rain, drank cider around the midsummer bonfires, climbed over stone walls, and lay silently in the grass in the Bronze Age cliff forts and “let the sea be all our talk” (as O’Connor would say Molly would say), more than once I had the thought: that I was here to honor Synge, to have a great adventure and awaken to the joy in my life, despite the storms that raged above. A wish fulfilled for both of us, perhaps. Image courtesy of the author.

Judging Books by Their Covers: U.S. Vs. U.K.

Like we did last year, we thought it might be fun to compare the U.S. and U.K. book cover designs of this year's Morning News Tournament of Books contenders. Book cover design never seems to garner much discussion in the literary world, but, as readers, we are undoubtedly swayed by the little billboard that is the cover of every book we read. Even in the age of the Kindle, we are clicking through the images as we impulsively download this book or that one. I've always found it especially interesting that the U.K. and U.S. covers often differ from one another, suggesting that certain layouts and imagery will better appeal to readers on one side of the Atlantic rather than the other. These differences are especially striking when we look at the covers side by side. The American covers are on the left, and clicking through takes you to a page where you can get a larger image. Your equally inexpert analysis is encouraged in the comments. The American cover is especially striking, with the bird and skeleton looking like something out of an old illustrated encyclopedia. And the wide black band suggests something important is hidden within. The British version feels generic, with the beach-front watercolor looking like a perhaps slightly more menacing version of the art you'd have hanging in your room at a seaside motel.    

The Millions Top Ten: January 2012

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 January. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. 1. 1Q84 4 months 2. 2. The Getaway Car: A Practical Memoir About Writing and Life 5 months 3. 3. The Marriage Plot 4 months 4. 6. Pulphead 2 months 5. 4. The Art of Fielding 4 months 6. 8. The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains 2 months 7. 5. The Bathtub Spy 6 months 8. 7. The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World 2 months 9. 10. The Book of Disquiet 2 months 10. 9. Lightning Rods 4 months It was a quieter month for our list, with no new titles breaking in and 1Q84 still enthroned at #1. The big movers on the list were John Jeremiah Sullivan's Pulphead, which received a glowing write-up from our staffer Bill, and Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows, which Jonathan Safran Foer called a book that changed his life. With an array of hotly anticipated titles coming in February, we'll see if any newcomers can break in next time around. Near Misses: Train Dreams, The Sense of an Ending, Leaves of Grass, The Great Frustration, and A Moment in the Sun. See Also: Last month's list.

Your Guide to the Man Asian Literary Prize Shortlist

Although an expanded total of seven books made the shortlist for this year's Man Asian Literary Prize, the biggest news was probably one that didn't: Haruki Marukami's super-hyped but critically divisive 1Q84. Instead, Japan is represented on the shortlist by the much slimmer form of Banana Yoshimoto's twelfth novel, The Lake. The Wandering Falcon, written by octogenarian Jamil Ahmad, is the first Pakistani novel to be nominated, while other shortlisted subjects include a vivid history of Guyanese coolies, inter-generational conflict in South Korea, a seafaring epic in nineteenth century Canton, a Chinese blood-selling scandal, and arranged marriage in modern India. It's a broad, engaging list, and probably all the better for not being dominated by such a powerful figure as Marukami. Here are the contenders that are still left standing: The Wandering Falcon by Jamil Ahmad: Ahmad, now almost eighty, spent much of his life working for the Pakistani Civil Service in its remote border regions: no-go zones that flash up on Western news reports as Taliban hidey-holes or the destination de rigeur of unmanned drones. The Wandering Falcon focuses on the tribes of those areas, casting overdue light on their deeply religious and honor-bound societies. Ahmad's era may be pre-Taliban - he wrote the book thirty years ago, before being persuaded to seek publication by his wife - but his fractured tales, loosely based around the wanderings of Tor Baz, the eponymous Black Falcon, indicate a resistance to outside interference which would escalate in decades ahead. A masterpiece of focus and brevity, and brilliant in its evocation of an unforgiving landscape, Ahmad's book is also now - for a book that came out thirty years late - remarkably timely. The Sly Company of People Who Care by Rahul Bhattacharya: Bhattacharya won high praise for his book on Pakistani cricket, Pundits From Pakistan, which was published in 2005. Sly Company is a partly autobiographical picaresque of one young man's journeys in Guyana, a nation with which the author fell in love during a previous cricket tour. Bhattcharya's central character is retracing the steps of the boatloads who set sail from Calcutta and Madras in the mid-nineteenth century, lured by tales of a land of gold. The descendants of those so-called coolies as well as the emancipated slaves from Africa have created a unique, tempestuous nation which Bhattacharya succintly captures with his convincing - but at times almost impenetrable - mix of Rasta patois and Hindi movie references. Aiming only for a kind of inner fulfilment, his character hunts diamonds in the country's thick, dark interior, then falls in love and heads for Venezuela. His adventures are underpinned by constant reminders of Guyana's colonial past, and the heavy price it still pays for it. River of Smoke by Amitav Ghosh: River Of Smoke is the second novel in Ghosh's planned trilogy, the first of which, Sea Of Poppies, was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2008. It's an epic by any standards: 517 paperback pages, describing the early skirmishes which would ultimately lead to the 1840 Opium Wars, the Treaty of Nanking, and the secession of Hong Kong to British rule. Bahram, a Parsi trader from Bombay, seeks to land the enormous haul which will finally buy him the respect of his rich wife's family back home. But the Chinese are determined to make trading in opium illegal, and as their crackdown becomes more unforgiving, so Bahram and the brigade of British merchants in whose company he has become inveigled must consider increasingly drastic options. It's all a bit bogged down by an unnecessary sub-plot that is likely left over from his previous book. That said, Ghosh has written a story of such a grand scale that it deserves its opportunity to stand alone. Rebirth by Jahnavi Barua: Rebirth is the only book on the shortlist for which overseas rights are yet to be granted. For that reason, if you manage to track down this book outside India, you're a better literary detective than I. All of which is a shame, because reviews on the sub-continent suggest it is a delicate, deeply affecting novel deserving of wider readership. Set in modern-day Bangalore, Kaberi is pregnant with a longed-for child nobody else knows about: neither her estranged, unfaithful husband, nor her parents or friends. Rebirth takes the form of a monologue from mother to baby in which she expresses her doubts about her marriage and her life, and ultimately seeks, and finds, some form of redemption. In time, it's likely its shortlisting will open it up to a bigger readership; for the time being, the next best thing is probably this comprehensive review via The Hindu Literary Review. Please Look After Mom by Kyung-Sook Shin: Kyung-Sook Shin is something of a literary phenomenon in South Korea. Please Look After Mom (Mother outside the US) is her seventh novel, and it has sold in excess of one million copies in her homeland. Maybe the most remarkable thing about her latest offering is how she manages to fashion something so unique and soul-searching out so ordinary a conceit. So-nyo, an ailing wife and mother, disappears on the Seoul subway on a trip from the country to visit her eldest son. Her siblings and their father join together in a futile quest to find her. In the course of their search - split between the points of view of son, daughter, father and finally, So-nyo herself - they agonise over how they took her for granted, and in doing so raise the kinds of questions that can apply to us all. Most of all, it offers rare glimpses of life in rural South Korea, and asks whether the nation's insatiable push for progress has come at a price. The Lake by Banana Yoshimoto: She's big in Japan, inspiring a cult following and selling upwards of six million novels, but Banana Yoshimoto will always polarise opinion. Critics may be tempted to call her Murakami-lite, given her fondness for the same kind of broad subjects as her heavyweight compatriot - ultra-modern and slightly otherworldy paeans to urban restlessness. But that comparison probably doesn't do Yoshimoto too much justice. Certainly, Murakami could learn from her brevity. The Lake revolves around the relationship between two fragile students, Chihiro and Nakajima. Nakajima bears the scars of a terrible past, and the plot - such as it is - concerns Chihiro's attempts to figure him out (complete with a visit to a couple of Nakajima's mysterious old friends who live in a run-down shack by the side of a conveniently misty lake). It has its moments, and her champions - of whom there are many - will doubtless shout her claims from the rooftops. But if this was the best book to come out of Asia this year then I'm - well - a Banana. Dream of Ding Village by Yan Lianke: Set in modern, rural China, Dream Of Ding Village addresses a topic of unimaginable grimmness: the story of the Chinese blood-selling scandal which swept an HIV epidemic through countless small communities, while the authorities, in thrall to the relatively new concept of controlled capitalism, looked away. The most extraordinary thing about Lianke's tale - narrated by the murdered son of the man most culpable for this local tragedy - is his rich use of satire, creating an astonishing allegory of the whole bust-up Chinese communist machine and its clumsy lurch into the free market. With the villagers dying in scores, the rabidly profiteering blood-sellers must seek out ever more inventive ways to maintain their cash flow. Blackmail and corruption are rife: this is a society rendered hopelessly naïve by long years of bludgeoning single-party rule. Lianke is merciless in heaping the misery upon his subjects, and just as cutting in his implied criticism of his country. This is, no doubt, a terribly bleak book. In Lianke's expert hands, however, it is also a very readable and eminently worthy one.

The Soundtrack of Our Books

The author and musician Alina Simone published her first collection of essays, You Must Go And Win, this past June. Unlike most writers who toil in obscurity before landing an agent, Simone’s editor at Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Eric Chinski, found Simone on Pandora.com, a free, personalized Internet radio service. After Chinski listened to Simone’s songs, he contacted her to propose that she write a book. “It seemed like he already viewed music and literature as part of one continuum,” Simone says. “Certainly, the best songs out there read like the best poems or short stories.” Of late, publishers and authors have begun to experiment more with audio as a natural step in the promotion of their books. Listening to music has always been an organic piece of literary consumption -- anyone who has queued up a favorite record of sad ballads while reading a heartbreaking novel, in order to up the emotional catharsis can attest to that. But recent trends suggest that readers are looking for even more direct ways to incorporate music into the reading experience. At readings for You Must Go And Win, Simone also performed her songs live, and since then, all of her appearances have morphed into music and literary mash-ups: She played live at benefits for the literary mentoring organization Girls Write Now, for Guernica Magazine, and at other writers’ book release parties, including Evan Hughes’ Literary Brooklyn, as well as the Brooklyn Book Festival this fall. When her book came out, Simone also contributed an author playlist to Largehearted Boy, a books and music blog run by David Gutowski. Since 2005, Largehearted Boy has run a beloved feature called Book Notes, for which recently published writers are asked to create a playlist for their novels; their song selections are explained in the context of both the writing experience as well as the characters in the story. Gutowski recently posted the 900th entry in the series, and has also started a Largehearted Lit series at WORD bookstore in Greenpoint, dedicated to authors who participated in Book Notes, plus musical guests. “There has definitely been a rise in author soundtracks as promotional items in a variety of formats,” says Gutowski. “From my experience, music is a great way to create a unique bond between writer and reader.” A number of authors have told Gutowski that writing the playlist essays are one of the most enjoyable pieces of promotion attached to their book tour. New Yorker editor Ben Greenman contributed two playlists to Largehearted Boy, timed to the release of his books. In the essay that accompanied the playlist for his short story collection A Circle Is A Balloon and Compass Both, Greenman wrote, “When I write, I don’t really listen to words with lyrics -- too distracting -- but many songs are in my mind, and as soon as I’m done writing, I run off and listen to them.” Greenman says that for him, the playlists are a way to amplify some of the themes in his books. “There were songs about romantic confusion or betrayal that were on a loop in my head as I wrote: Graham Parker songs, in particular, or Lou Reed songs,” he said of Circle. “It’s not that those songs helped me make the stories, but they helped me isolate the emotions that in turn helped me make the stories.” The novelist and essayist Corinna Clendenen is familiar with that line of thinking; it’s part of what led to her decision to write Double Time, a love story following a Dani and Dylan, twin sisters who are obsessed with music and choose to make it a powerful agent of change in their lives. Double Time came out on Audible.com in September as an audio book -- it has no printed form as of now. Songs punctuate the book’s 44 chapters, and Clendenen selected each track to underscore the unfolding events of the novel. Among them are Vampire Weekend’s “Oxford Comma,” Matt Costa’s “Vienna” and “Not Your Lover Anymore” by Blitzen Trapper. “The blending of story and song was something that developed organically as I was writing the book,” says Clenenden. “Early in the writing process, I started hearing songs in my head and putting their lyrics into chapter openings.” What began as a curiosity morphed into the notion that the songs she was listening to and connecting to the character of Dylan, a rising indie musician, could actually be incorporated in the book itself. Acquiring the copyrights involved clearing permissions with the artists involved, as well as the recording studios and occasionally the publisher. Clendenen also established an annual grant to an indie musician after Double Time has been available for sale for a year; the funds will be awarded to a band or artist in the form of five percent of the net proceeds from the novel. While Audible.com senior editor Matthew Thornton notes that audio is becoming a bigger part of literary consumption for readers thanks to audiobooks, he explains that books like Double Time are still a rarity. “We think it’s wonderful that authors are experimenting with creative ways to enhance listeners’ experiences of their audiobooks, not only with music but with different kinds of narration,” Thornton says. “But the weaving together of music and text is still relatively unusual.” By contrast, Richard Nash is the vice president of content and community at Small Demons (and formerly the publisher of Soft Skull Press), a site that catalogs endless cultural references found in books, from music and movies to people and objects. He sees incorporating audio and other cultural reference points as a way to allow readers to truly live inside a novel. “David Gutowski made it interesting and fun and gratifying,” Nash says of how Largehearted Boy weaves music and literature together via the Book Notes playlists. “But music is but one piece of a larger puzzle,” Nash says. “That being, how do we connect books to the daily elements of everyone’s cultural lives, to music, yes, but also to movies, to restaurants, to landmarks, to drinks.” As the Small Demons database expands, authors will be able to add greater context to the details pulled out by the site, and users will be able to find links between the references in their favorite books. Nash says readers will also be able to listen to the music that the author heard while writing. “You might choose to listen as you’re reading, or as you traverse a path taken by the protagonist as she listens to that music. Or you might stop reading, and close your eyes,” he says. Another service, Booktrack, demands that the reader listen to a preselected soundtrack while they read something on an iPad or tablet: As you work your way through the story, the app matches music to various plot points to create what vice president of publishing Brooke Geahan calls an “immersive” experience that audio playlists don’t necessarily take far enough, particularly “when the music and mood do not match up.” But on Spotify, a new digital music service that offers access to an enormous library of songs available both on PC and smart phones, both casual users and publishing companies have began to crank out playlists for books and authors. Mediabistro’s GalleyCat blog created a playlist in homage to Haruki Murakami, it offers a compilation of songs mentioned in his novels South of the Border, West of the Sun, Norwegian Wood and 1Q84. And publishers like Knopf are working directly with their authors to create custom playlists that readers can spin while they read; Jennifer Egan and Colson Whitehead are among the participating writers. If you’re reading (or re-reading) the Pulitzer Prize-winning A Visit From the Goon Squad with Egan’s Spotify mix, you’ll be listening to Death Cab for Cutie, Massive Attack and The Who. In the U.K., Spotify has worked directly with publishers to support forthcoming book launches, including James Corden’s autobiography and a book based on the television series The Inbetweeners. Still, despite the ease with which music and literature has intersected for her book, Simone suggests that the crossover often gives readers more insight into the author rather than the text, which is still a bonus for obsessive fans. “The key is keeping the quality high,” she says. She and Greenman, as authors, both worry about the promotional static diluting the value and impact of the book. “In the end, books are books, and albums are albums,” Greenman says. “They’re cooked differently, served different, and eaten differently.” Image credit: Flickr/Michael Casey

The Millions Top Ten: December 2011

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. 1. 1Q84 3 months 2. 3. The Getaway Car: A Practical Memoir About Writing and Life 4 months 3. 2. The Marriage Plot 3 months 4. 5. The Art of Fielding 4 months 5. 4. The Bathtub Spy 5 months 6. - Pulphead 1 month 7. - The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World 1 month 8. - The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains 1 month 9. 6. Lightning Rods 4 months 10. - The Book of Disquiet 1 month While the top of our final list for 2011 included the same familiar names and 1Q84 still enthroned at #1, our year-end coverage helped push four eclictic new titles onto the lower half of our list. John Jeremiah Sullivan's Pulphead was one of the most talked about books of 2011 and our own Bill and Garth offered glowing comments on the book in our Year in Reading. Jonathan Safran Foer touted Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows as a book that changed his life. (Our own Emily Mandel also wrote a fascinating essay inspired by the book over a year ago.) Colum McCann said of Fernando Pessoa’s Book of Disquiet, "It was like opening Joyce’s back door and finding another genius there in the garden." Finally, Hannah Gerson came up with "12 Holiday Gifts That Writers Will Actually Use" but only one of them was a book, The Gift by Lewis Hyde. With all these new books showing up on our list, four titles got knocked off: Stephen Greenblatt's The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, Julian Barnes' The Sense of an Ending, John Sayles's A Moment in the Sun, and Whitman's Leaves of Grass Other Near Misses: Train Dreams and The Great Frustration See Also: Last month's list.

A Year in Reading: Wrap Up

“There are so many books. Always so many. They collide in my mind.” - Colum McCann Another Year in Reading is behind us, and I speak for all of us at The Millions when I sincerely thank everyone who wrote, shared, and read our articles. It’s a bit daunting to let strangers into our private reading worlds, but it’s also quite rewarding. There is always the temptation to dive into a new book just after finishing another. There are, as Colum McCann says above, just “so many books” we’ve yet to read. However it’s also true that reflection can deepen appreciation: your reading timeline becomes contextualized, and its connections develop like a filmstrip in your mind. Our series, in the end, is all about such reflection. We also recognize that it’s becoming easier than ever to rely on algorithms and lists for one’s book recommendations – and while there are some treasures to be found through such means, there is nothing quite like the warmth of an actual human being’s testimony to vouchsafe your next reading choice. We hope that these articles have turned you on to new writers – authors of books selected by others, or authors of the articles themselves. With 72 participants naming 214 books, it’s safe to say this has been our biggest and most high profile Year in Reading yet. Our participants included the current Poet Laureate, a longtime candidate for the Nobel Prize for Literature, the reigning winners of the IMPAC and Pulitzer Prizes, two authors of books named The New York Times’ 10 Best of 2011, a recent inductee to the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame, and more Pushcart winners than I care to count. A number of authors wrote their own Year in Reading articles as well as books chosen later on in the series. This honor roll consists of McCann, Jennifer Egan, Daniel Orozco, David Vann, Siddhartha Deb, and Geoff Dyer. Yet in spite of these credentials – impressive as they are – I thought it would be fun to note some statistics, and to award some further superlatives based upon the articles written for this series. (Note that all research is highly unscientific.) By the numbers: of the 214 books named, 139 were fiction, 68 were nonfiction, 5 were poetry, and 2 were graphic novels. The average length of the books chosen was 338 pages, and the average publication year was 1994. The oldest book selected was Moby-Dick, the longest was Bleak House, and the shortest was Buckdancer’s Choice. If you’re a fan of our Post-40 Bloomers series, you’ll appreciate the fact that the average age of each book’s author, at the time their book was originally published, was 47.53 years old. Most of the books were from the United States and the UK, but many were from Ireland, Canada, France, the Russian Federation, Hungary, and Germany. Six of the seven continents were represented, and these books were published by presses ranging from the New York Review of Books to New Directions to Fantagraphics to Random House. (I won’t release the name of which house published the highest number of selections because I don’t want war to break out in New York City.) Some favorites from the series, based on feedback from readers and links, comments, and other stats, included McCann on The Book of Disquiet, Jonathan Safran Foer on The Shallows, Ben Marcus on Nothing, Michael Schaub on The Great Frustration, and Egan on Butterfly’s Child. Three books tied for the most popular selection this year: Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams (selected by Dan Kois, David Bezmozgis, and Adam Ross), Edouard Levé’s Suicide (selected by Scott Esposito, Mark O’Connell, and Dennis Cooper), and Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84 (selected by Charles Baxter, Kevin Hartnett, and Garth Risk Hallberg). Seven more books tied for second-most popular: Phillip Connors’ Fire Season (selected by Chad Harbach and yours truly), Sheila Heti's How Should a Person Be? (selected by Harbach and Emily Keeler), Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad (selected by Brooke Hauser and A.N. Devers), Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove (selected by Hauser and Rosecrans Baldwin), Jon Ronson’s The Psychopath Test (selected by Schaub and Chris Baio), Tamar Adler's An Everlasting Meal (selected by Hauser and Rachel Syme) and Helen DeWitt’s Lightning Rods (selected by Scott and Garth). Still I am compelled to award a couple of half-serious superlatives to close this thing out: The “Gashlycrumb Tinies” Award for Saddest Selection of Books goes to Emma Straub for her tear-soaked article. “Mr. Consistent” is an Award I’d like to bestow upon Brad Listi, who exhausted the Sarah Palin canon only to then go on to exhaust the David Markson one. “Most Indecisive” belongs to Brooke Hauser and her 15 selections, while “Most Topical” goes to Michael Schaub because 90% of his list published in 2011. The Award for Coolest Byline undoubtedly goes to Duff McKagan, but the Award for Coolest Backstory (as well as my unending jealousy) goes to Benjamin Hale. Finally, the Award for Most Valuable Participant goes to you, dear reader, for allowing us to continue our series and for helping it grow with each passing January. Until next year, happy reading. All best, The Millions staff P.S. If you’re curious as to how we put the series together, please do check out Electric Literature’s interview with our founder, C. Max Magee. The series, the articles, and the site itself would not be possible without him.

A Year in Reading: Garth Risk Hallberg

This was the year my son became a toddler -- which is to say, the year I surrendered the keys to my attention span to a traveling companion by turns delightful, dilatory, and insane. Among the casualties of this shift was an essay I had planned to write, called "How Having a One-year-old Will Change Your Reading and Writing Habits" ... along with several hundred other essays, reviews, articles, and epic poems that got interrupted partway through. But the kid has just gone down for a nap, which should buy me an hour or two, provided all goes well. And I do have my notes. (My notes! How optimistic that phrase now sounds!) What follows, then, is a kind of museum of my failures, an atlas of incompletion, a tour of the ruins of a future that never came. I call it "Reviews I Did Not Write This Year." 1. Game-Changer The single best thing I read in 2011 was Steps to an Ecology of Mind, a career-spanning nonfiction collection from the late anthropological polymath and proto-hippie genius Gregory Bateson. This may sound forbidding -- and it is, in a way. Bateson is an artist of abstraction on par with Derrida or Kant. (What the hell is an "Ecology of Mind", e.g.? Something like a way of thinking about thinking. Or thinking about thinking about thinking...) But Bateson's method is inductive; each essay builds lucidly from some specific subject -- alcoholism, Balinese art, the conversation of porpoises -- toward a larger concern with form, communication, complexity, and how they inform systems of all kinds. After 400 pages of this, "Systems Theory," which is another, uglier name for "Ecology of Mind," comes to look like the great Road Not Taken of Western Thought. Or maybe a road gone partway down, backed out of, blocked off, and erased from the map, in favor of the road that got us to where we are today. In short, this book changed my brain. I don't think it's too strong to say that it changed my life. 2. Novels Of the novels I read this year, my favorite was probably Philip Roth's Sabbath's Theater, but I've written about that elsewhere, so I guess there's no room for it here. Equally captivating were a pair of books from that nebulous period just before Joyce and Eliot and Woolf arrived to put their stamp on literary history. The first was Lucky Per, the magnum opus of the Danish Nobelist Henrik Pontoppidan. First published in 1904, it's either a late masterpiece of 19th century Realism, or an early masterpiece of 20th century Modernism ... or maybe the missing term between them. Pontoppidan gives us both a Balzacian examination of a society on the cusp of cosmopolitanism and a Kierkegaardian x-ray of the vacant place where we once imagined the individual soul. Filling that vacancy is the hero-journey of the eponymous Per, and it culminates in one of the great, strange endings of world literature. But don't take my word for it. Take Fredric Jameson's. (Inexplicably, by the way, Lucky Per remained untranslated into English until a dear friend of mine took this mitzvah upon herself. In a just world there would be a nice Oxford World Classics edition of this available for $10, but as it stands, it's a pricey import.) The Forsyte Saga, which I read this summer, covers some of the same historical territory, but in England, rather than Denmark. You won't catch me saying this often, but I think Virginia Woolf and V.S. Pritchett missed the boat on this one. Galsworthy's style -- his "port-wine irony," as Pritchett puts it -- looks pretty tasty a hundred years later, when the cultural palate tends to run either to near-beer or Jägermeister. And though he lacks the psychological penetration of a Pontoppidan (or a Woolf, for that matter) Galsworthy's astuteness as an observer of the bourgeois mores that formed him is unimpeachable. You can almost read The Forsyte Saga as a spy novel, the work of a double-agent that both informs on and sympathizes with his class. 3. Addendum I'd be remiss, too, if I didn't mention David Markson's Wittgenstein's Mistress, which is just as amazing as everyone says it is. This had lingered on my list for years. If it's done the same on yours, promote it to the top, post-haste. 4. Best New Fiction As far as newish fiction, my favorites were David Foster Wallace's The Pale King, Helen DeWitt's Lightning Rods, Martin Amis' The Pregnant Widow, and Haruki Murakami's IQ84. The first two I wrote about here and here, so: disqualified on a technicality. But that's a good thing, because it gives me more space to talk about The Pregnant Widow. This one struck me as a hetero version of Alan Hollinghurst's The Line of Beauty, only set in the go-go '60s rather than the go-go '80s. (If that description had appeared on the jacket, it would have been enough to get me to buy the book, as there are few things I love more than Hollinghurst, the '60s, and books about sex.) Amis being Amis, the writing is fantastic. More importantly, though, this book shows off the heart everyone says he doesn't have. It's a wistful little f--ker, at that. In fact, The Pregnant Widow would be Amis' best book ... were it not marred by an abominable coda. (Trust me on this: just stop on page 308. Bind the rest of the pages shut with glue, if you have to. Rip them out. Burn them. They never happened.) IQ84 is, similarly and just as surprisingly, also full of heart (though Murakami's temperament here runs more toward Tin Pan Alley than Let it Bleed). And, now that I think of it, IQ84 could likewise have used a nice strong edit at the end. But who's going to complain about a thousand pages of assassins, "simple meals," crazy religious cults, and "little people"? There are a million billion holes I could poke in this book, but for me, IQ84 bypassed questions of good taste entirely, en route to being often within shouting distance of the great. Just in terms of the massive tractor-beam effect it exerted on my attention, it was the most pleasurable reading experience I had all year. Away from it, I couldn't wait to get back. 5. Brief Books With European Pedigrees A wonderful new discovery for me was Lore Segal, whose Lucinella couldn't be more unlike IQ84. It's short, for one thing -- I read it back during the time I thought I would read only short books. It's wickedly funny, for another (writers' colonies may be easy game, but it takes chutzpah to make sport of the gods). Also: it's just exquisitely written. Here, the pleasure is less in the narrative burlesque than in every beautifully turned sentence. A New Year's resolution: I will read more Lore Segal in 2012. Another short, funny, weird novel I loved this year was Ludvíc Vakulíc's The Guinea Pigs, now back in print in English. Vakulíc is like Bohumil Hrabal without the soft-shoe, or Kafka without the metaphysics. Here he writes about (in no particular order), bureaucracy, family, totalitarianism, money, and guinea pigs (natch). These emerge as aspects of the same phenomenon -- an idea that struck me as weirdly apposite in America, circa 2011. At any rate, Vakulíc's comedy is relentless, disconcerting, clear-eyed, and strange. The last in my troika of great short books was Imre Kertesz's Fatelessness. This is simply the best novel about the Holocaust I have ever read: the most meticulous, the most comprehensive, the most beautiful in its scruples, the most scrupulous in its beauty. To say that it, too, is disconcerting doesn't mean what you'd think it means. Basically, you just have to read it. 6. Omissions Somehow I've gotten through the "shorter books" section without mentioning Skylark, Never Let Me Go, or The Elementary Particles, as I somehow managed to get through the last decade without reading them. I hereby rectify the former error, as I rectified the latter in 2011. You should read these, too. 7. Nonfiction Earlier this year, the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Rides inspired me to pick up John Lewis' memoir Walking With the Wind. This seems to me the very model of the as-told-to book, in that you really feel the cadences of Lewis' voice and the force of his insights. That this book is morally stirring is obvious. A couple things that often get lost in the narrative about the Civil Rights Movement, however, are what brilliant tacticians its leaders were and how widely their visions varied. You feel both here, powerfully. Occupiers, and for that matter Tea Partiers, could learn a lot at the feet of John Lewis. 8. Pulphead Finally: everyone is required to read John Jeremiah Sullivan's Pulphead. I know a lot of other people are saying this, but it's true. The debt to Wallace's A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again will be obvious even if you haven't read Sullivan's beautiful essay on Wallace, but the subtle subterranean orchestrations of these pieces, the way they press on and palpate the things they're really about without ever naming them, remind me more of the great Joseph Mitchell. Most of them are practically perfect on their own, and collectively they comprise something greater. If you ever feel like the breach between journalism and anything of lasting consequence is getting wider and wider, let this book be your balm. I should also say, it being the holidays and all, that Pulphead is a perfect stocking-stuffer, perfect to read on airplanes (also on subways and on park benches in cold weather), perfect for dads, perfect for moms, perfect for musicians, perfect for college kids, perfect for people with small children and a concomitant inability to concentrate. In short, a perfect gift. Oh, crap. I didn't get to talk about The Gift! But the child is stirring in the next room, the laundry is almost done, I have apparently forgotten to eat lunch. Given that my pile of half-written essays now rivals the size of my pile of half-read books, I can't say when you'll next hear from me. Next December, probably, when it's time for another Year in Reading piece. I promise that one will be shorter and more disciplined. Comparatively, haiku. But I hope this mess above will, if nothing else, give you some books to check out in the meantime. More from A Year in Reading 2011 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 The good stuff: The Millions' Notable articles The motherlode: The Millions' Books and Reviews Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.

A Year in Reading: Kevin Hartnett

In 2011 a new baby and a new home led to a summer-long reading drought. For the last five years I’ve kept a log of all the books I’ve read. From May (The White Tiger) to October (1Q84) the log was empty -- the longest such stretch in memory. But if this wasn’t a year of quantity it was one of quality. Not at first, though. My year in reading began with David Brooks’ The Social Animal, which I reviewed for The Christian Science Monitor and, though I didn’t say it there in quite these terms, was, I thought, a nice demonstration of what happens when a writer becomes too in love with his own perceptive powers. Things got better from there, however, when I read W. Stanley Moss’ Ill Met by Moonlight, which had just been reissued by the Philadelphia publisher Paul Dry Books. It’s a first-person journal account of a daring World War II mission to kidnap the commanding general of Nazi forces on Crete. Moss and his British Special Ops colleague Patty Leigh Fermor pulled it off without so much as a blip in their pulse rates, all the while getting hammered nightly on local wine and consorting with all manner of Cretan misfits. They don’t make ‘em like that anymore. My first fiction of the year came on a friend’s recommendation: The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing. Like me, my friend likes good young adult fiction and Octavian Nothing was one of the most unsettling stories about slavery in America I’ve ever read. If I’d picked it up when I was 10, I wouldn’t have slept for weeks afterward and to this day might still be calling it the best book I’ve ever read. After Octavian I turned to another gut-wrenching political novel: Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger, about caste inequality in modern India. In the mid-2000s I spent a year in India and left taken by the country’s kaleidoscopic culture and effusive spirituality. I knew, even then, that those views were caricature, and that they ignored or rationalized the pervasive human suffering I’d seen while traveling. But it wasn’t until reading Adiga’s novel that I gave up that rosy view altogether. After finishing the book I passed it to my wife, making The White Tiger the first book we’d read more or less together since Pride and Prejudice back at the end of George W. Bush’s first term. White Tiger was not the most widely shared book in my family this year, though. That honor goes to Christopher McDougall’s Born to Run. My neighbor gave it to me, I passed it to my brother, who passed it to my sister-in-law who passed it our brother-in-law who, as far as I know, still has it. For months we debated the merits of bare-foot running and the perniciousness of the modern sneaker industry. When we all ran a 10K in Maine over the Fourth of July, my sister-in-law brought chia seeds, mail-ordered special from the Internet. In the end, though, 2011 was the Year of Murakami. For three breathless weeks in October I read 1Q84. Following on months of transition and many sleepless newborn nights, Murakami’s rare, strange story gave me back my human shape. More from A Year in Reading 2011 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 The good stuff: The Millions' Notable articles The motherlode: The Millions' Books and Reviews Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.

A Year in Reading: Charles Baxter

After reading Jay Bahadur's nonfiction book The Pirates of Somalia, and Janet Reitman's scary (also nonfiction) book Inside Scientology, I happened to read Haruki Murakami's newest novel, 1Q84, on assignment. The book has flaws. It's too long; it can be repetitive; at a certain point you can see that Murakami is simply delaying his various plot developments. The characters often consist of Murakami's ideas about them. They are slow to come to life, like composite monsters on laboratory tables waiting for lightning to hit them and to bring them awake. And the plot is straight out of The Magic Flute or The Master and Margarita: two people are redeemed and transformed by their love for each other, and they manage to make their way through a landscape of unreality peopled by demons. And yet, and yet. Murakami's novel creates a world ruled by cults, and I felt that I was being given a 932 page primer in 1Q84 that helped to explain what I had already read in The Pirates of Somalia and Inside Scientology. We are talking about a way of transforming reality by methodologies that demand a certain kind of rigidly enforced vision and adherence to certain kinds of authority figures in societies suffering massive structural breakdowns. The psychology required by that sort of vision is very much on display in 1Q84. Furthermore, the book is generous in the way that Philip Roth is generous: you get the feeling that everything that Murakami has thought, and felt, and experienced, is out there on the page. Nothing gets held back, not even the ugliness -- especially the ugliness. The characters aren't quite real, but who cares? It's the kind of risky ambitious storytelling that writers of my generation are often too scared to try. But I'd rather take Murakami's novel, with all its faults in analyzing an entire society, than a colder and more perfect unambitious novel about another boring family suffering through the death of a grandparent. More from A Year in Reading 2011 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 The good stuff: The Millions' Notable articles The motherlode: The Millions' Books and Reviews Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.

Beautifying Books

As e-books gain market share, publishers are gussying up book designs. Free Press vice president and publisher Martha K. Levin says, “the message [is] that even if you’re buying 90 percent of your books on your e-reader, this is the one that you want to have on your bookshelf.” The article highlights 1Q84 as an example of a successfully well-designed physical object, but if you haven't seen a copy, check out Chip Kidd's discussion of his work on the book.

The Millions Top Ten: November 2011

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. 1. 1Q84 2 months 2. 3. The Marriage Plot 2 months 3. 7. The Getaway Car: A Practical Memoir About Writing and Life 3 months 4. 4. The Bathtub Spy 4 months 5. 5. The Art of Fielding 3 months 6. 10. Lightning Rods 3 months 7. 6. Leaves of Grass 5 months 8. 9. A Moment in the Sun 6 months 9. - The Swerve: How the World Became Modern 1 month 10. - The Sense of an Ending 1 month Haruki Murakami returned to our top spot this month with 1Q84 (read our review here), while Jeffrey Eugenides's The Marriage Plot (read our review here) crept up to the second spot. Meanwhile, Ann Patchett's Kindle Single The Getaway Car jumped into our third spot and Helen DeWitt's Lightning Rods was also making a strong move higher. Another Kindle Single, Christopher Hitchens' timely The Enemy, and Jon Ronson's The Psychopath Test graduate to our Hall of Fame. Don't miss Janet's review of the latter. Stephen Greenblatt's The Swerve: How the World Became Modern appears on our list shortly after winning the National Book Award, while the Booker Prize win propels Julian Barnes' The Sense of an Ending onto our list. Near Misses: How To Keep Your Volkswagen Alive, 11/22/1963, The Sisters Brothers, Salvage the Bones, Otherwise Known as the Human Condition See Also: Last month's list.

The Notables: 2011

This year’s New York Times Notable Books of the Year list is out. At 100 titles, the list is more of a catalog of the noteworthy than a distinction. Sticking with the fiction exclusively, it appears that we touched upon a few of these books as well: The Angel Esmeralda by Don DeLillo (Most Anticipated)The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach (The Gay Question: Death in Venice, By Nightfall, and The Art of Fielding)The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka (2011 National Book Award Finalists Announced)The Cat's Table by Michael Ondaatje (The Sea and the Mirror: Reflections and Refractions from a Voyage by Ship in Michael Ondaatje’s The Cat’s Table)Chango's Beads and Two-Tone Shoes by William Kennedy (William Kennedy’s Long Dry Spell Ends with Chango’s Beads and Two-Toned Shoes)11/22/63 by Stephen King (Most Anticipated)The Free World by David Bezmozgis (The Price of the Dream: David Bezmozgis’s The Free World, The Millions Interview: David Bezmozgis)Ghost Lights by Lydia Millet (Most Anticipated)Gryphon by Charles Baxter (Most Anticipated)House of Holes by Nicholson Baker (Ham Steaks and Manstarch: Nicholson Baker Returns to the Sex Beat)The Leftovers by Tom Perrotta (Most Anticipated)The London Train by Tessa Hadley (Most Anticipated)Lost Memory of Skin by Russell Banks (Porn, Lies, and Videotape: On Russell Banks’ Lost Memory of Skin)The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides (How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Write ‘The Marriage Plot’, Wanting it Bad: The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides)A Moment in the Sun by John Sayles (Robert Birnbaum in Conversation with John Sayles)My New American Life by Francine Prose (Albania the Beautiful: Francine Prose’s My New American Life)1Q84 by Haruki Murakami (A Novelist Unmoored from Himself: Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84, Reading 1Q84: The Case for Fiction in a Busy Life)The Pale King by David Foster Wallace (The Burden of Meaningfulness: David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King)Parallel Stories by Peter Nadas (Most Anticipated)Say Her Name by Francisco Goldman (Most Anticipated)The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes (The Favorite Takes Home the Booker)Stone Arabia by Dana Spiotta (Rock ‘n Roll Malaise: Dana Spiotta’s Stone Arabia)The Stranger's Child by Alan Hollinghurst (The Impermanence of Memory: Alan Hollinghurst’s The Stranger’s Child, The Millions Interview: Alan Hollinghurst Answers his Critics)Swamplandia! by Karen Russell (The Millions Interview: Karen Russell)Ten Thousand Saints by Eleanor Henderson (The Millions Interview: Eleanor Henderson)The Tiger's Wife by Téa Obreht (The Stories We Tell Ourselves: Téa Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife)The Tragedy of Arthur by Arthur Phillips (Most Anticipated)Train Dreams by Denis Johnson (Most Anticipated)

Reading 1Q84: The Case for Fiction in a Busy Life

When I was assigned to review 1Q84 for The Christian Science Monitor it had been four months since I’d read a page of anything. That last book I’d tried to read had also been by Haruki Murakami — The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle — and my bookmark was right where I’d left it, on page 52, the day my wife had gone into labor with our second son. Raising young children poses two challenges for reading fiction. The first is time, and not having much of it. The second, which I find harder to overcome, is that raising kids and reading fiction require somewhat different mindsets: fiction opens you to new possibilities, but once you’ve embarked on an all-consuming activity like raising kids you don’t want to think too much about other possibilities; you just need to put your head down and do it. I started 1Q84 at 9pm at the end of a long day that had featured a 103 degree fever (my youngest son Wally, age 4 months) and several bathroom accidents (his older brother Jay, age 2 years). As I slumped on the couch with a cup of peppermint tea and my large yellow review copy of 1Q84, I found myself grasping to justify why, outside of the assignment I’d been given, it made sense to spend my only free time of the day reading fiction. But I did read the book, that night and every night after for a month, and I found that as I read 1Q84 and got deeper into Tengo’s and Aomame’s stories, I stopped questioning the purpose of fiction and instead began to see reading 1Q84 as one of the few necessary things I did all day. The reasons for the change of heart had to do with wonder, with love, and with the way literature provides for the best parts of who we are. 1Q84 is long (nearly 1,000 pages) and wildly imaginative, but at heart it’s a simple love story. Tengo and Aomame, both 30 years old, shared a singular, intense moment as children, disappeared from each other’s lives, and have been trying to recapture that kind of intimacy ever since. As 1Q84 opens they fall into an alternate world which is sinister and illogical, but which gives them the chance to find each other again. Aomame calls this world 1Q84 (in which the “Q” stands for "question”) and it is most clearly distinguished by the fact that two moons hang in the sky — the familiar moon and, alongside it, a smaller moon, “slightly warped in shape, and green.” The moons preside over Aomame’s “sex feasts,” several murders, Tengo’s surreal trips to see his dying father, and one of the most transfixing nocturnal dream scenes I’ve ever read. The moons are a tangible reminder of the warning delivered to Aomame by her cab driver, just before she steps out of a taxi on a gridlocked Tokyo expressway and inadvertently into the world of 1Q84: “Please remember: things are not what they seem.” A few days after I started reading 1Q84 I was standing in my Michigan backyard, talking on the phone with my brother, when the unusual brightness of the night caused me to look up at the moon — nearly full, unobstructed by clouds — for the first time in as long as I could remember. For a moment I was so taken by the view that I lost track of my brother, who was continuing to tell me about his weekend. Afterwards I called Caroline out to the backyard. If it had been a while since I’d looked at the moon, it had been even longer since we’d looked at it together. We don’t have much time to stare up at the sky, and even if we did, the moon is outside our realm of concern. I have to care for my kids, earn a living, be a good husband. What difference is it to me if the moon is waxing or waning, full or crescent? For a few quiet minutes we looked up at it together before retreating inside from the cold. Several of the most important scenes in 1Q84 take place in a playground atop a slide, where one at a time Aomame and Tengo (and a third character, the surprisingly heartbreaking private investigator Ushikawa) stare up at the sky. The first time Tengo sits on the slide and notices the moons he thinks to himself, “No matter what happens to me in the future, this view with two moons hanging up there side by side will never — ever — seem ordinary and obvious to me.” The unordinary sight of the moons sets Tengo to wondering. He wonders, “What is going to happen to me from now on?” He also wonders about Aomame. “Someone is after Aomame,” he understands. “She’s hiding like a wounded Cat. I don’t have much time to find her.” Reading about Tengo and seeing the moon in my backyard, it occurred to me that wonder gives us height, makes us consider new possibilities, motivates us not to linger where we are. And it seems that reading 1Q84 pollinated my life with wonder in three ways. The first is that when Tengo wondered, I wondered alongside him. “What is going to happen to me from now on?” In a quiet house at night with two boys sleeping it feels like time stands still. Yet of course the drum keeps beating; somehow we move on. 1Q84 also inspires wonder through its beauty. “Her little pink ear pressed against his chest,” Murakami writes. “She was hearing everything that went on in his heart, like a person who can trace a map with his fingertip and conjure up vivid, living scenery.” Many nights I closed 1Q84 feeling hungry to go out and create something beautiful myself. The last way that 1Q84 inspires wonder is the way that all great art inspires wonder: it mirrors life from a fresh angle. Murakami uses the world of 1Q84 to jog Aomame and Tengo into seeing their lives in a new light, and his novel had the same effect on me. One night, about halfway through 1Q84, my wife and I said goodnight to each other and turned to go to sleep. But before closing my eyes I propped myself back up on my elbow and looked intently at her face lying sideways on her pillow. There she was, old familiar Caroline. But for a moment she appeared as strange and wondrous as two moons in the sky. 1Q84 is not a book about wonder, though. It’s a book about love. For the three weeks I was reading it and all the days since, I’ve found myself thinking more consciously than usual about the importance of love — not as a fact that exists between two people — but as a feeling that puts a floor beneath our feet. As Aomame and Tengo try to make their way towards each other and out of the world of 1Q84 what they’re really straining for is feeling. In their accustomed world of 1984 they might have gone on with their lonely lives but in the forbidding world of 1Q84, events and changes in their own hearts make stasis untenable. “If you can love someone with your whole heart, even one person, then there’s salvation in life,” Aomame tells her friend Ayumi. And in one particularly riveting scene (that would surely feature prominently in a 1Q84 trailer should the book be made into a movie) Aomame concludes that such encompassing love is not possible for her, so she takes to the side of the highway and puts the barrel of a pistol in her mouth. 1Q84 never drove to me to such depths, but it did help me recognize the difference between feeling and not feeling. The night after I finished the book I couldn’t figure out what to do with myself. Over the course of a month 1Q84 had become a part of my routine and the activities that had previously occupied my evening hours seemed unappealing in comparison. So instead of mucking around on the Internet or folding laundry, I went upstairs to my two-year-old son Jay’s room and sat in a chair beside his crib. He was lying flat on his stomach with his hands beneath his body and his head tucked into a corner of his crib. Even asleep, he seemed to glow with life. As I watched him breath in and out, all the cells in my body flooded with a feeling so grand that it crowded out all possibility of thought. Later, after I’d left Jay’s room, I realized that while being a parent is tiring and sometimes boring, it also means that all I have to do is walk upstairs to experience a feeling that, like Aomame said, is akin to salvation. I also thought about all the hours I’d spent reading 1Q84, and suddenly it seemed clear why it had been a worthwhile way to spend my time: When life wears us down, great fiction gives us back our human shape.

The Millions Top Ten: October 2011

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. - 1Q84 1 month 2. 1. The Enemy 6 months 3. - The Marriage Plot 1 month 4. 4. The Bathtub Spy 3 months 5. 3. The Art of Fielding 2 months 6. 5. Leaves of Grass 4 months 7. 9. The Getaway Car: A Practical Memoir About Writing and Life 2 months 8. 6. The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry 6 months 9. 7. A Moment in the Sun 5 months 10. - Lightning Rods 1 month The literary battle royale of 2011 played out and Haruki Murakami emerged the winner with 1Q84 (read our review here) debuting atop our October list. Jeffrey Eugenides's The Marriage Plot (read our review here), meanwhile, debuted a bit farther down the list, but still put up an impressive showing. These two weren't the only novels to make a splash in October, though. As Garth wrote in his review, "in a just world, Helen DeWitt's Lightning Rods would be greeted with the same frenzy of publicity that attended Freedom last year, or The Marriage Plot just this month." The Murakami debut bumps Christopher Hitchens'The Enemy from the top spot, while Farnsworth's Classical English Rhetoric, that perhaps unlikely favorite of Millions readers graduates to our Hall of Fame. Don't miss the review that started it all. Falling off our list is Geoff Dyer's Otherwise Known as the Human Condition (our review). This is the second of Dyer's books (Out of Sheer Rage) to spend time on our list but fail to make our Hall of Fame. Also slipping from our list was Christopher Boucher's debut novel How To Keep Your Volkswagen Alive (our review).Other Near Misses: The Missing of the Somme, The Sisters Brothers, and The Sense of an Ending. See Also: Last month's list.

A Novelist Unmoored from Himself: Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84

1. When will Haruki Murakami finally get a Nobel Prize? Around this time every year, the question grumbles around Japanese literary circles. And around this time every year, the answer is the same: better luck next time. For my part, I've always observed this ritual with a jaundiced eye. Murakami, for all of his success and considerable stylistic accomplishments, just wasn’t Nobel-worthy (hold your flames until the end, please). His output is impressive and his fiercely devoted readership has made him one of the world's bestselling non-English novelists. But his books, which I had once found fresh and engaging, became increasingly predictable. If he hadn’t reached the limits of his talents, then it seemed that he was at least stuck in a very deep rut. But with 1Q84, Murakami's latest, the bandwagon’s out of the ditch, and I am jumping on board. The book, which was a blockbuster in Japan, is Murakami's finest work: nuanced, brilliant, gripping, philosophical but never tendentious, self-assured, cleverly post-modern yet authentic, and possessed of a haunting surrealism that by this point surely deserves its own adjective: Murakamian? Fans will find much to love. Murakami’s personal obsessions and eccentricities are on full display: cats, oddly-formed ears, European composers and novelists, and little people with strange powers. And yet, the book feels fresh in a way that Murakami hasn’t felt in a long time. It sees the familiar with new eyes. Reading it is like falling in love again for the very first time. Murakami’s work has always depended on subverting its readers’ sense of the familiar. His stories mostly take place in an off-kilter version of reality that seems the stranger precisely because of its similarity to the world we know. 1Q84’s brilliance is founded on more or less the same principle. It is instantly recognizable, yet inexplicably strange. A Murakami novel as it might be written in a Murakami novel. The premise is high-concept, but somehow unpretentious: two people, a novelist Tengo and a part-time assassin/fitness instructor Aomame, find that they have been transported from the “real” world into a fictional one complete with two moons, giant, glowing chrysalises woven from thin air, and a dead goat that serves as a portal to yet another world. Basically, it’s a love story. And a very affecting one at that. As might be expected, both the novel and the world in which it's set, the eponymous 1Q84, are self-consciously literary creations, one written by Murakami and the other by the writer, Tengo, who finds himself trapped in his own book, a high stakes literary fraud based on the work of a mysterious teenage girl. Although there are a few heavy-handed ventures into explicit meta-fictional commentary (a gun, which in contravention of Anton Chekov’s famous maxim, never goes off), the border between fiction and reality, whether Murakami’s or Tengo’s,  is never explicitly drawn, and the whole enterprise is carried out with such zest and lightness of touch that it never occurred to me to question the concept. The brisk pacing doesn’t hurt, either. The book is a doorstop of the order of War and Peace or Infinite Jest, but unlike those shambling monsters, it features a gripping, tightly plotted narrative that's readable enough for the beach. Whereas Murakami's previous books often built slowly and ended ambiguously, exploring in the meantime only the most quotidian aspects of his bizarre alternate realities, 1Q84 hits the ground running and never stops. Except for a slow jog of exposition in the middle, the book, which traces the mysteriously intertwined lives of Tengo and Aomame, keeps up its quick pace through over 900 pages, putting on an extra burst of speed as it comes tearing through the finish line. Most incredibly for a book of this length, it manages with only one exception to tie all of its plot threads into an elegant ending better suited to a thriller than the elephantine social novel it resembles. As a novelist, Murakami has proven himself to be a world class marathoner. 2. After the English release of Murakami's last novel, After Dark, critics, myself included, began to wonder if Murakami was capable of writing something that moved beyond the intensely personal (and by definition limited) confines of his best work and into the world at large. His most ambitious previous novel, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, hinted at the possibility, but never quite achieved it. Although the book expanded the physical and historical limits of Murakami's world, it failed to push beyond the psychological boundaries of his main character, a cerebral, often anonymous cipher that was not quite Murakami himself. It seemed that Murakami--like the protagonist of the classic, almost psychedelic Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World--had become a prisoner of his own mind. And as time went by, that durance became a mini-genre of sorts: noir as therapy, detective stories where the sleuth trolls for clues in his own psyche but never solves the case. The essential mystery of these novels was how do you escape your own head? It seemed the puzzle was one that neither Murakami nor his characters were able to solve. 1Q84 seems to propose a tentative solution to this conundrum: self-awareness. For the first time, Murakami does not just write, but observes himself writing. And he has expressed this new awareness of himself as a novelist in an ingenious irony. Tengo, like Murakami has so often done, literally and unwittingly writes himself into his own novel. And, yet, Tengo is not Murakami. Nor, for that matter, are any of the other characters. The result is that, for the first time, Murakami is, as a novelist, unmoored from himself. The disassociation allows him the freedom to explore multiple perspectives, and his successful expansion into the third person has opened up a world of themes that were unavailable to him during his long period of solitary confinement. Murakami’s liberation--the book alternates chapters between the perspectives of Tengo, Aomame, and, by its third and final section, a hideously ugly private eye named Ushikawa--leads the characters to revelations that would have been unthinkable in any of his previous works. The difference is striking, and it produces some truly sublime descriptions of the  human condition, expressed with Murakami’s wonderful simplicity and economy: (Tengo) was already thirty, but yet to have a sense of himself as an adult. It just felt to him like he had spent thirty years in the world. Or this passage, near the end of the book, that I never before would have imagined Murakami capable of: One evening, as the cold wind blew and she kept watch over the playground, Aomame realized she believed in God. It was a sudden discovery, like finding, with the soles of your feet, solid ground beneath the mud. It was a mysterious sensation, an unexpected awareness... 3. In part, 1Q84's achievement comes from Murakami's decision to write about Japan. In previous novels, Murakami seemed reluctant to seriously engage with his own country, most often placing his characters in a world that combined a fantastical fourth dimension of his own private obsessions with a jazzy transnational “West,” built on Russian novels, Beatles music and blue jeans. Much like his characters, most of whom are expats in their own lives, Murakami refused to directly engage with his environment, choosing instead to hide his characters away in caves and wells and cabins in the woods, where the only society they kept was their own. For all its fantastical elements, however, 1Q84 is very much about modern Japanese society. It grapples with the kind of front-page social issues we expect to find in Jonathan Franzen's latest: the historical legacy of World War II, the aging of Japanese society, and, most prominently, the rise of religious cults that led to the infamous sarin-gas attack on Tokyo's subways. The difference is both superficial and profound. With the exception of his career-making novel Norwegian Wood, a work of straight realism, Murakami has generally avoided the material signifiers of Japanese culture. His characters eat pasta and other western food. They sleep in beds, rather than on futons. They move through the kind of culture-neutral spaces, business hotels and luxury apartments, that form the archipelago of the developed world. To a certain extent, this cultural shorthand is what has made Murakami's books so popular internationally. Appreciating them requires no understanding of Japan, only a few weeks spent in any major metropolis. While Murakami’s other novels could have taken place anywhere, 1Q84 could only have happened in Japan. The book starts and ends in a uniquely Japanese locale, one of the elevated expressways that ribbon above Tokyo, and is peppered throughout with Japanese locations, situations, and references, both historical and otherwise, that feel nothing short of integral to the whole. Even the almost reflexive allusions to Western culture--in true Murakami fashion an obscure Czech composer and several European fashion designers are name checked in the book's first several pages--for the first time seem to reflect something essential about Japan itself, a country that connects East and West in much the same way as the elevated expressway connects the story’s realfictional and metafictional worlds. The result is a novel that feels more complete than any of Murakami’s previous work. Where much of his oeuvre feels somehow hollow at its core, like a literary Potemkin village, 1Q84 has real substance. It lacks the sense of rootless detachment that has characterized so many of his books, instead grounding itself and its characters in something real. 4. A few weeks ago, in preparation for 1Q84’s release, the New Yorker published an excerpt from the novel called “Town of Cats.” In the story--one of many stories within stories that fill the book--Tengo reads a piece of short fiction, written by an obscure European author, about a man who travels by train to a town populated by giant talking cats. Fascinated by the town, he decides to spend the night, watching the cats as they go about their daily lives. By the time he’s ready to go home, it’s too late. He waits and waits, but the train never comes. After a few nights, he realizes it never will. Tengo is fascinated by the story and reads it several times. He tells it to his dying father and his friends. Eventually, in the retelling, he realizes that he, too, lives in a town of cats, and if he’s not careful, he’ll die there. Reading 1Q84, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Murakami came to the same conclusion. Will Murakami ever win the Nobel? A member of this year’s prize committee was quoted as saying that the prize has been too heavily weighted towards Europe in recent years. The comment has no doubt given fresh hope to grumblers across the world. Whether they will be vindicated or not, only time will tell. In the meantime, there is one thing that everyone should be happy about. With 1Q84, Haruki Murakami has finally left his town of cats.

Tuesday New Release Day: Murakami, Jobs, Nadas, Millet, Kahneman

It's another huge week for new releases. Happy Murakami day! Haruki Murakami's long-awaited 1Q84 is finally here - look for our review tomorrow, as is Walter Isaacson's headline-making biography of Steve Jobs. Also out is another massive and hotly anticipated work in translation (1152 pages!), Hungarian Peter Nadas's Parallel Stories. Lydia Millet has a new novel out, Ghost Lights, and Thinking, Fast and Slow is set to arrive from Nobel-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman.

The Millions Top Ten: September 2011

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. 2. The Enemy 5 months 2. 3. Farnsworth's Classical English Rhetoric 6 months 3. - The Art of Fielding 1 month 4. 10. The Bathtub Spy 2 months 5. 5. Leaves of Grass 3 months 6. 4. The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry 5 months 8. 7. A Moment in the Sun 4 months 8. 9. How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive 2 months 9. - The Getaway Car: A Practical Memoir About Writing and Life 1 month 10. 9. Otherwise Known as the Human Condition 4 months David Foster Wallace's The Pale King graduates, along with The Hunger Games, to our Hall of Fame this month. Taking the vacated top spot is Christopher Hitchens' timely The Enemy. With Ann Patchett's The Getaway Car debuting on the list and joining another Kindle Single, The Bathtub Spy, it's becoming pretty clear that these bite-sized e-book originals are gaining some serious traction, a trend that the media has been taking note of, of late. Our other debut, meanwhile, is a plain old novel, certainly one of the big fiction releases of the fall, Chad Harbach's The Art of Fielding. We first noted the book's headline-grabbing deal in early 2010, and we highlighted it in our big second-half preview. The big story next month will be seeing which heavyweight, literary new release will debut higher on our Top Ten, Jeffrey Eugenides's The Marriage Plot (read the opening lines here) or Haruki Murakami's 1Q84 (read the opening lines here). Near Misses: The Missing of the Somme, The Magician King, Swamplandia!, A Dance with Dragons, How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One, and The Tiger's Wife. See Also: Last month's list.

Exclusive: The First Lines of Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84

Update: Read our review of Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84, his "finest work," according to our reviewer. One of the fall's most hotly anticpated novels (on this continent, at least) is Haruki Murakami's massive new book 1Q84. The book's release was a publishing event in Japan in June 2009, selling over 100,000 copies there in its first week. Now, after over two years, the three-volume novel (released here in one volume and in the UK in two volumes, with parts one and two translated by Jay Rubin and part three by Philip Gabriel) will hit shelves. Because of the very long lead time and because Murakami has an engaged and sometimes bilingual fan base, anything you might want to know about the book is available just a Google search away -- and fans have tried their hands at translating snippets and sections as well -- but until now we haven't gotten a glimpse of how the novel will open, with Murakami's prose rendered in Rubin's translation. As is often the case with Murakami's work, music figures prominently in the opening paragraph of 1Q84, specifically mentioning Sinfonietta by Leoš Janáček a Czech composer of the late 19th and early 20th century. Here it is, the opening paragraph of 1Q84: The taxi’s radio was tuned to a classical FM broadcast. Janáček’s Sinfonietta—probably not the ideal music to hear in a taxi caught in traffic. The middle-aged driver didn’t seem to be listening very closely, either. With his mouth clamped shut, he stared straight ahead at the endless line of cars stretching out on the elevated expressway, like a veteran fisherman standing in the bow of his boat, reading the ominous confluence of two currents. Aomame settled into the broad back seat, closed her eyes, and listened to the music.

1Q84 Revealed

Haruki Murakami's new novel 1Q84 has come out swinging. With an initial, combined print run of 680,000 copies, publisher Shinchosha believes the two volume book is on track to sell a million and "become a social phenomenon." Released two days early (May 27th) in Tokyo and the Kansai region, the book has already sold over 100,000 copies, and the Yomiuri Shimbun reports it has set a new sales record for Amazon Japan.What's the book about? Murakami's publisher Shinchosha's website compares it to Orwell's masterpiece Nineteen Eighty-Four, stating "Where Orwell published a novel about the future, Murakami approaches the year from the opposite direction, creating an alternate past." Apparently, that's where the similarities end, however. The book follows the stories of two characters, one a writer and the other a young PE instructor who become involved with a mysterious cult. As the story unfolds, they create an alternate universe, "a mysterious past, different than the one we know," which the author character refers to as 1Q84. So what about that mysterious Q? It stands for the English word "question mark." Apparently the explanation comes on page 202: "1Q84 - that's what I'll call this new world. Q is the Q from 'question mark.' That which creates a question" (translation by Daniel Morales at howtojaponese.com, who is reporting on both his reading experience and his excellent taste in beer). As in, what the hell is this book about?Early reviews (i.e. Amazon.co.jp) have been mixed, with some rhapsodizing over its "dream-like" qualities and others deriding it as "standard" Murakami fare. A few reviewers, however, have decided to hold their judgment until (drum roll) the rest of the book is released. They theorize that we can expect at least one and maybe even two more volumes. Their speculation is backed up by a number of compelling clues:1. Murakami is said to have referred to this as his longest novel, yet at its current length, it is 127 pages shorter than the Japanese version of the Wind-Up Bird Chronicle's astounding 1,182 pages (which makes you realize how much must have been cut in the US translation.)2. Apparently the second volume ends on a pseudo-cliffhanger.3. The book's two volumes are labeled "One" and "Two," contrary to the Japanese convention of referring to the first volume of a two volume set as "up" and the second "down." This follows the same pattern as the Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, which was released in three volumes in Japan.Of course, this may just be wishful thinking. There has been no official confirmation of further volumes. We'll let you know if anything interesting turns up.See also: Murakami's 1Q84 is a Heavyweight, Murakami Fans Rejoice: Counting Down to 1Q84
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