A Little Life: A Novel

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Major Shelf Envy

The Guardian has photos of A Little Life author Hanya Yanagihara’s New York City apartment and its 12,000 – yes 12,000 – books. Pair with our interview with her from 2015: “It was the worst—the bleakest, the most physically exhausting, the most emotionally enervating—writing experience I’d had. I felt, and feared, that the book was controlling me, somehow, as if I’d somehow become possessed by it.”

The Millions Top Ten: January 2016


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.
3.

Fates and Furies
5 months

2.
4.

Purity
6 months

3.
5.

Slade House
4 months

4.
7.

Fortune Smiles
2 months

5.
8.

The Big Green Tent
3 months

6.
9.

The Heart Goes Last
5 months

7.
10.

City on Fire
4 months

8.


What Belongs to You
1 month

9.


My Name is Lucy Barton
1 month

10.


A Brief History of Seven Killings
2 months

It’s with a certain degree of triumph that I welcome Marlon James to the first Millions Top Ten of 2016. While this isn’t the first time his superb novel A Brief History of Seven Killings has appeared on our list overall — that first occurred in October of last year — it nevertheless feels a bit like a personal victory for me, the humble author of this series, who has since that time urged each and every one of you to go out and purchase a copy (or three!) immediately. Well, it finally seems that the work has paid off. (Happy New Year to me!) Now let’s work on keeping it here, eh?
This month we graduated three Top Ten fixtures to our Hall of Fame: Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me, Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life, and Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman. The first two were fixtures atop our list for the past six months, while Lee’s Mockingbird sequel-prequel got off to a hot start before ultimately settling in the middle of our ten-book pack.
Their success means Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies is the new top book in town. It’s a novel that Margaret Eby described in her Year in Reading entry as the kind “I would start reading on a Saturday morning and soon find myself cancelling weekend plans to finish by Sunday night.” To get acquainted with it, I recommend first checking out our exclusive first look at its opening lines, and then settling in for our interview with its author. If somehow you’re still not convinced that this is a book you absolutely need to read in full, immediately, then allow our own Edan Lepucki’s praise to coax you over the threshold:

I have read all of Groff’s novels, and each one is better than the last, which gives me vicarious hope for my own puny literary pursuits. I get the sense that Groff is always looking for new ways to tell stories, to show time passing, to express human longing, shame, desire, need, all without succumbing to the same-old conventions of scenic conflict and cause-and-effect. Plus, her prose is so shining and unexpected she could describe getting her license renewed at the DMV and I’d find it compelling.

Also this month in addition to A Brief History… we welcome two newcomers to our list: Garth Greenwell’s What Belongs to You and Elizabeth Strout’s My Name is Lucy Barton. Both novels have received heaps of praise — both appeared on our Most Anticipated preview — but Greenwell’s in particular has been drawing some seriously effusive reviews. On our site, Jameson Fitzpatrick wrote that What Belongs to You “offers us the most exacting and visionary reading in contemporary literature of what it means to be gay in America today.”

 

This month’s near misses included: Eternity Street: Violence and Justice in Frontier Los AngelesThe Turner HouseThe 3 A.M. EpiphanyUndermajordomo Minor,  and A Strangeness in My Mind. See Also: Last month’s list.

ISO the Next Great Gay Novel: On Garth Greenwell’s ‘What Belongs to You’

The advance praise for What Belongs to You (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), the debut novel by Garth Greenwell, has been superlative to say the least. The handsome, nearly 200-page hardcover boasts blurbs from Edmund White and Hanya Yanagihara, among others, and early rave reviews have appeared in Interview and Booklist, in addition to starred reviews from Kirkus Reviews and Publishers Weekly, which hailed the book as “the first great novel of 2016.”

Greenwell’s elegant, meticulously crafted prose certainly merits such endorsements, and for its probing, unusually candid inquiry into gay desire, his book seems poised to be received not just as the first great novel of 2016, but the next great gay novel — a somewhat fraught designation that Greenwell has himself considered in his review of Yanagihara’s A Little Life for The Atlantic. There, Greenwell defines the category in passing as “a big, ambitious novel about gay life in America today,” and goes on to argue for A Little Life’s qualification. Funnily enough, however, it’s his own novel, spare and set abroad though it may be, that offers us the most exacting and visionary reading in contemporary literature of what it means to be gay in America today.

Of the many favorable comparisons What Belongs to You is sure to invite, none seems quite so apt — or useful in understanding just what it is that makes it a great gay novel — as its parallels to James Baldwin’s 1956 classic Giovanni’s Room. Both books take place in a European city (Sofia, Bulgaria, and Paris, France, respectively) and center on an ill-fated gay love affair between an American expatriate narrator and a titular, foreign man. Both Greenwell’s Mitko (who gives the novel’s first section its name) and Baldwin’s Giovanni exemplify and are othered by a working-class masculinity, in addition to being tragically beautiful. And like their protagonist counterparts, both love objects have also left behind their home cities, though, Mitko, meaningfully, has not escaped his native Bulgaria or the effects of its depressed economy, and, unlike Giovanni, is identified as a sex-worker upon his introduction. (Greenwell is a writer of such subtle clarity, however, he never need name him explicitly or euphemistically as such. Many reviewers, unfortunately, have not been as careful in their treatment of Mitko, a complex and lovingly rendered character whom Greenwell goes to great pains not to reduce to the role of predator.)

In many ways, What Belongs to You inverts the terms of Giovanni’s Room: where in Baldwin, Paris is the only place where the expatriate is able to experience some semblance of sexual freedom, ultimately compromised by the impossibility thereof elsewhere, in Greenwell, Sofia mirrors the recalled Southern city of the narrator’s aspirationally middle-class childhood, a last outpost of a conservative worldview in which gay happiness cannot be imagined.

The action of both books is, for the most part, recalled — though retrospection and introspection might be even more central to What Belongs to You, in which everything that happens is explicitly filtered through the mind and/or memory of our unnamed narrator. The main character, like Greenwell himself, is a thinking writer and a poet, which informs his language and his approach to art-making. During his first encounter with Mitko, in which he pays Mitko for his performance, so to speak, he muses:

But then there’s something theatrical in all our embraces, I think, as we weigh our responses against those we perceive or project; always we desire too much or not enough, and compensate accordingly.

The novel is bursting with such observations, as quotable as they are uncanny in the precision with which they reveal the transactional, often confounding nature of desires — and what determines them. Two sections that chronicle the narrator’s relationship with Mitko bookend a single-paragraph, 42-page second section of astonishing urgency, scope, and skill, in which the narrator, out on a long walk, re-enacts the joys and traumas of his childhood in order to consider his father’s legacy and imminent death.

Its place in the larger narrative of our protagonist, as he’s teaching English at the American College and looking for love in all the ostensibly wrong places, functions much like David’s recollection of his first lover, Joey, from his school days, in Giovanni’s Room — as an origin point. Once again, however, the terms of the two books are inverted: while it is an ashamed David who puts an end to his relationship with Joey, it is Greenwell’s narrator who is essentially abandoned by his best friend and first love K. after they spend an evening in an intimate (but chaste) embrace. Later, the desire between the two boys is triangulated between K.’s first girlfriend, for whom the narrator becomes both watchman and voyeur:

He knew I was watching and he let me watch. It was like a parting gift, I thought as I kept watching his face and the movements it made, it looked almost as if he were in pain. I was in pain too, and almost without thinking I let my hand drop between my legs and gripped myself hard. I’ve sought it ever since, I think, the combination of exclusion and desire I felt in his room, beneath the pain of exclusion the satisfaction of desire; sometimes I think it’s the only thing I’ve sought.

The indefatigable desire realized in K.’s room, and its repetition in the form of Mitko, also recalls David’s description of Giovanni’s: “It became, in a way, every room I had ever been in and every room I find myself in hereafter will remind me of Giovanni’s room.”

For the narrator of What Belongs to You, K.’s rejection is also already something of an echo — of an experience with his father when he “must have been nine or ten” in which he unknowingly transgresses the boundaries of filial affection and which signals “the end of care:”

…his look entered me and settled there and has never left, it rooted beneath memory and became my understanding of myself, my understanding and expectation.

There’s nothing particularly revelatory in the idea that our relationships with our parents and early attempts at intimacy shape what we seek in our romantic pursuits as adults — the credit goes to Sigmund Freud there — but the remarkable intervention Greenwell makes in What Belongs to You, as Baldwin did in Giovanni’s Room, is that for gay men, the sociocultural trauma of sexual difference is just as integral an etiological force, and one that informs both our relationships with our parents and our adolescent fumblings. Neither What Belongs to You nor Giovanni’s Room is a coming-of-age novel, quite, but both deal with the consequences of having come-of-age gay in a particular time and place.

That the two novels differ substantially should be obvious on the basis of their differing authors and publication dates alone, but both are great gay novels, and, I think, achieve that success according to a similar mechanism. Just as Giovanni’s Room was the novel that best expressed the precarious and shifting social position of American gay men in the mid-20th century, so What Belongs to You offers us an almost uncomfortably clear articulation of our own time.

Published 60 years prior, in a time when homosexuality was still classified as a mental illness and the prospect of same-sex marriage must have seemed laughable, Giovanni’s Room is, accordingly, a sadder book. This isn’t to minimize what a sad book What Belongs to You is, however (if you are, like me, a crier, you’ve been forewarned). Its story and title invite us to consider what does belong to us, whether we share the relative social privilege of its narrator or, like the doomed Mitko (or Giovanni, or even David), are trapped in an environment in which it seems impossible to follow our desires to their fulfillment. What belongs to us, Greenwell opines, is what we inherit — from our lovers, our families, and our cultures. What Belongs to You commits itself to revealing how our desires are forged in our early moments of rejection, frustration, and punishment, how even as we grow up and into lives in which we might be free to pursue our desires in whatever form they take, we are never truly free. We do not shape our desires so much as they shape us.

In a sense, the novel’s first sentence is a synecdoche of the whole, in which Mitko’s betrayal is a stand-in for the much larger betrayal of a world that teaches us to be ashamed of our attractions:

That my first encounter with Mitko B. ended in a betrayal, even a minor one, should have given me greater warning at the time, which should have in turn made my desire for him less, if not done away with it completely.

But finally, the response this book offers to the question of what belongs to us, if it is not quite joyful, is hopeful — and key to understanding what makes it the great gay novel of today. Greenwell’s narrator does ultimately find a healthy, reciprocal love in the form of a long distance relationship. And the role that Skype plays in that relationship is not incidental. Though the narrator first meets Mitko in an old-world cruising spot, the new possibilities for gay connection that technology has created are central to this book, as reflected in Mitko’s fascination with electronics he cannot afford, and both his and the narrator’s use of gay chatrooms as a means to mitigate loneliness (and for Mitko, to arrange his appointments).

We live in a time of a great transition, in which, for the fortunate, the experience of being gay does indeed get better. But the very construction of “it gets better” depends on the fact of it once having been worse, and it is this difficult passage between rejection and acceptance (from others and of the self) that characterizes gay identity in What Belongs to You. In his narrator, Greenwell has created a character who, somewhat counterintuitively, functions as an archetype of the gay experience today: moving from shame and secrecy toward liberation, even as liberation remains difficult to realize. Despite the vivid specificity of the narrator’s biographical details (which, it’s worth mentioning, bear a striking resemblance to Greenwell’s own life), his narrator, meaningfully nameless, remains capacious. If it would be a stretch to call him a universal character (this reviewer is also a gay poet, after all), it is important to recognize the ways in which the arc of his life epitomizes a certain moment in American culture: he’s a child of upwardly mobile middle-class parents, of divorce (and therefore also of the death of the nuclear family), and of the legacy of domestic violence, caught in a cultural moment of changing mores and moral panic, when the mainstreaming of psychotherapy spelled for a larger reckoning with family secrets, and when being gay was still mostly associated with AIDS and pedophilia.

Though he must recognize the enduring consequences of this legacy, that Greenwell’s narrator succeeds in imagining — and then making — a life in which he is not condemned by his desires is no small change in the history of gay literature. It heartens me to think that in 100 years, a young gay reader may no longer recognize the experience in this book as his own, as I don’t quite recognize mine in Giovanni’s Room. Greenwell’s masterful first novel suggests that in addition to all the pain we inherit, something else might belong to us too: something of our choosing — in another room, another country, another future — at the end of the street, just out of sight.

The Millions Top Ten: December 2015


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.

Between the World and Me
6 months

2.
2.

A Little Life
6 months

3.
6.

Fates and Furies
4 months

4.
3.

Purity
5 months

5.
4.

Slade House
3 months

6.
5.

Go Set a Watchman
6 months

7.


Fortune Smiles
1 month

8.
10.

The Big Green Tent
2 months

9.
9.

The Heart Goes Last
4 months

10.
8.

City on Fire
3 months

After being crowned the 2015 National Book Award winnerFortune Smiles by Adam Johnson has received an even greater honor: entry onto The Millions’s December 2015 Top Ten list! The collection was described in our second-half Book Preview* as being “six stories, about everything from a former Stasi prison guard in East Germany to a computer programmer ‘finding solace in a digital simulacrum of the president of the United States,’” and it was said to “echo” the author’s “early work while also building upon the ambition of his prize-winning tome.”

Elsewhere on the list, small shakeups abound. Fates and Furies and The Big Green Tent rose three and two spots, respectively, while Garth Risk Hallberg’s City on Fire moved from the eighth spot to the tenth. Beyond that? There isn’t too much to report.

Next month, however, three fixtures on our list— Between the World and MeA Little Life, and Go Set a Watchman — will likely head to our Hall of Fame, and their ascendance should free up space for fresh blood. They’ll join Book of Numbers by Joshua Cohen, which joins the Hall this month. If past is prologue, most of those newcomers will have been culled from our Year in Reading series. If so, do you have any guesses on which ones will become fan favorites? Will it be another installment of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet? (The first one’s already in our Hall…) Will it be Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts? And whatever it may be, will it have a Florida connection?**

Stay tuned to find out.

* Speaking of Previews, have you checked out the first installment of our Great 2016 Book Preview, which posted this week?

** Probably. Everything does.

This month’s near misses included: A Brief History of Seven Killings, The Turner HouseUndermajordomo Minor, The 3 A.M. Epiphany, and A Strangeness in My Mind. See Also: Last month’s list.

Year in Reading Outro

Year in Reading reminds me of that cinematic device where the camera slowly backs away from the characters we’ve been following until it’s looking at them from outside their window, and then back farther still until you see into their neighbors’ windows as well, and farther still to show a whole building of occupied windows, and then a whole city, until you are looking at hundreds of little scenes in hundreds of little windows. And you think, if I contain multitudes, and there are multitudes of people, then there are multitudes upon multitudes, and your brain starts to spin. What I’m trying to say is that over the last few weeks, 78 writers have written about close to 500 books, and following the posts as they roll out is as intimidating and overwhelming one day as it is invigorating the next.

Of those books, nearly half were fiction, the most popular genre by far, followed by biography and memoir, making up roughly 15% of the recommendations. Another 15% was taken up by traditional non-fiction — books I categorized as either “history,” “essays,” or “events.” And our contributors recommended 55 books of poetry during the series, a healthy list for anyone who is definitely, no take-backs, going to read more poetry in 2016.

Surprising no one, Ta-Nehisi’s Coates’s Between the World and Me and Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet were the twin titans of this year’s series, each being cited by 12 of our contributors. Close behind, A Little Life and The Argonauts were each mentioned eight times. What is surprising, and a little delightful, is that two contributors read Colette’s Claudine at School this year, and two more read Chelsea Girls by Eileen Myles. I’ve added Eileen Myles to my reading list for next year based on that, and because Chelsea Girls wasn’t even her only book to be recommended this year. I’ve also added Joy Harjo’s Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings based on Sandra Cisneros’s recommendation, and the line she quoted, and its awesome title. I also added Vivian Gornick, especially The Odd Woman and the City, because Hannah says it’s “about what it feels like to be lonely, and what it feels like to be free. It’s about what it feels like to change your mind, about the intellectual, spiritual, and emotional growth that comes after you’ve come of age, and even after you’ve ‘come into your own.’”

It’s been a privilege for Lydia and I to edit the series this year. We hope you’ve found a few things you’d like to read, a few writers who share your tastes, and a few who don’t. Year in Reading is like drinking from a firehose of literary wonders. It always helps me start off my new year itching to get into the books I’ll write about at the end of it. See you then.

More from A Year in Reading 2015

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 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, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.

A Year in Reading: Margaret Eby

At the end of last year, my brain had been steeping in mid-century Southern literature as research for South Toward Home for so long that I resolved in 2015 to read mostly books that had come out in the past five years. That mostly worked out: this year had some real dazzlers in the bunch, the kind of books that I would start reading on a Saturday morning and soon find myself cancelling weekend plans to finish by Sunday night. Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life was like that, as was Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies, Catie Disabato’s The Ghost Network, and Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, which I read greedily one summer afternoon before immediately launching into her equally excellent Bluets. In mid-summer I was derailed from my resolution by the juicy, dreamy Meanwhile There Are Letters, a collection of the correspondence between Eudora Welty and Ross MacDonald, which sent me back into Flannery O’Connor’s sharp, insightful correspondence collection The Habit of Being, the kind of book that I’m always tempted to buy extra copies of so that I can pass them out to friends. This year I first read Percival Everett, thanks to his new collection, Half an Inch of Water, and went on a collect-them-all mission until I had a good five of his books teetering on my nightstand.

But one of the books that’s most stuck in my brain this year is Gold Fame Citrus, Claire Vaye Watkins’s stunner of a debut novel. I read it in the unseasonal heat of early September, when her vision of a parched, overheated, waterless country seemed particularly close at hand, but I’ve found myself reaching for it in the cooler months too, to reread passages of Watkins’s semi-apocalyptic psycho-geography of the West. It’s a fascinating piece of work, bleak and weird and unafraid to question the assumptions of American mythology, and even be a little bored by the idea of a dystopian future. Plus, there’s a huge ever-moving sand dune. It’s pretty great.

More from A Year in Reading 2015

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 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, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.

A Year in Reading: Edan Lepucki

This year I didn’t read anything obscure and I didn’t read any beloved classics either (Sorry, David Copperfield, let’s try for 2016). I read what everyone else was reading or had recently read because I kept getting seduced by everyone else’s enthusiasm. Not that I minded. I don’t care about your Hamilton (that’s a musical, right?), or your Gilmore Girls reboot (that’s a TV show, right?), but I can get down with some passionate book-love.

At the beginning of the year I read The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America by George Packer, which was a 2013 National Book Award winner. It’s a big, serious nonfiction book, and I try to read at least one big, serious nonfiction book a year so that I can perform better at dinner parties and also win arguments with people’s dads. I’ve always enjoyed Packer’s writing for The New Yorker, but I wasn’t prepared for how moving and informative his book would be. It follows a diverse cross-section of Americans, from a lobbyist in Washington D.C. to a community organizer in Youngstown, Ohio, to crazy-ass Peter Thiel of Twitter (guys, he wants to live forever and is seriously researching his options!) Packer synthesizes these personal, particular narratives into a larger story about our changing, wounded country in the wake of the 2008 recession, and traces how we got here, beholden to lobbyists, big money, and Wall Street. This book slew me. Despite that fact that it’s nearly all narrative, with little analysis, for a few weeks after finishing it, I had a hard time returning to fiction — oh silly dialogue! oh fake people! (I remember the same thing happened after I finished Behind The Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo a couple of years earlier.)

And then I got pregnant, which brought me back to the indelible fact of my body: its hormones, its capacity to feel nauseated and tired and to cry through every interview on Fresh Air. I needed certain books (specifically novels) for this state of affairs. Such as: A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara. This wasn’t my favorite book of the year, but it did me in like no other. It made me sob next to my husband and son on a cross country flight until I had a headache, and it reminded me that fiction devastates in a way that nonfiction does not, because it’s only the imagined world that’s able to get inside an inner life. And burrow there.

A Little Life is also the only novel in recent memory that I both loved and hated; I agree with everyone who calls it a masterpiece, and I also agree with fellow staff writer Lydia Kiesling, who in her review calls it a “self-important sort of melodrama.” Regarding the novel’s structure, Lydia remarks: “Moments and decades pass with these disorienting leaps, in a way that, like much about this novel, hovered right on the border between something that felt deliberate and interesting, and something that felt bungling.” I concur. And yet. A novel that puzzles me this much is truly worthy.

In my second trimester, I read and reviewed Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff. I have read all of Groff’s novels, and each one is better than the last, which gives me vicarious hope for my own puny literary pursuits. I get the sense that Groff is always looking for new ways to tell stories, to show time passing, to express human longing, shame, desire, need, all without succumbing to the same-old conventions of scenic conflict and cause-and-effect. Plus, her prose is so shining and unexpected she could describe getting her license renewed at the DMV and I’d find it compelling.

In my third trimester, I read and loved The Story of the Lost Child by Elena Ferrante, the last (and, in my mind, the strongest) of her Neopolitan novels. Midway through the book, I thought, These books are so…female. I feel like…I’m sucking on a tampon. I realize this probably isn’t the most enticing endorsement, but it’s true: never before have I read a series of books that captures so vividly the lived experience of being a woman. Ferrante writes fiction that feels as real as the body I’m in, as real as my family who needs me, as real as my ambitions and my failures. It’s passionate and messy and necessary.

In the final days of my pregnancy, I struggled to find books that complemented my scattered state of mind. The Folded Clock, Heidi Julavits’s deceptively artful diary, the entries of which are rearranged so as not to be chronological, reflected and validated my days of anticipation and boredom. The diary’s breezy tone belies the craft of each entry; a few reminded me of Lydia Davis’s best stories, where the profundity sneaks up on you in the final line, having secretly gathered energy by a series of previous associations and matter-of-fact details. One entry, for instance, ends with Julavits recounting what she calls an “irksome” situation where she had to soothe her crying son when she’d rather be doing something else:

I must remember to do this when I am seventy. I must remember to find a rock that feels exactly like my son’s four-year-old back. I must remember to close my eyes and imagine that I am me again, a tired mother trying to teach herself how to miss what is not gone.

My son is also four. I’ve had this same thought. I was so grateful to have it articulated here, by a talented writer. Sometimes that’s all we require: to see ourselves reflected on the page.

The day after I finished this book, I gave birth to my daughter. May my next year bring as many gifts as this year has.

More from A Year in Reading 2015

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 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, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.

A Year In Reading: Claire Cameron

I read A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara and loved it, but more I needed to talk about it.

In a year where writing a book has put the squeeze on my social life, I had few opportunities to discuss the novel. I took to solving this problem through digital means.

I sent out a few emails, but the dedicated readers in my life hadn’t yet read A Little Life, so I went on offensive by gifting a few copies. I posted tweets about the book to fish around for conversation. I identified and emailed soft targets, like the luring message I sent to my Donna Tartt-loving friend, “almost like The Goldfinch as far as epic reads go.”

While I waited for my book seeding to take, I posted a photo of the book cover on Instagram that got an immediate reaction: “It’s the best book I’ve ever read,” said one. “My heart was in my throat the whole time,” said another.

My agent and I started pecking out messages about the novel on our phones. To her, reading the book felt like an addiction. She questioned such impossible success in a group of friends, which prompted a conversation about the first part of the novel. To me, the set up felt like it was of the Manhattan ensemble genre, a distant cousin to The Age of Innocence or an episode of Friends. The brilliance lay in how Yanagihara set that tone and twisted it.

One of the copies I’d planted under the guise of a birthday gift gave back in a big way. My friend, who lives in Colorado, finished the book and emailed right away. We sent reviews from The New York Times, The Atlantic, and The New Yorker back and forth. We broke down each one. Was it the great gay novel? Maybe and maybe not, though there was no doubt that Yanagihara wrote across difference in a way that was refreshing and modern. In the next moment we compared the book to Great Expectations and Bleak House. “I keep thinking of Jane Eyre,” she wrote. “It’s the best kind of old-fashioned melodrama.”

At that point, a friend’s husband sent a message. He wondered if the book was any easier to read than it was to love someone who was reading it? I wrote back: “No.” That was the only brief conversation I had about the book.

A writer who lives in the U.K. posted on Facebook that she had read an early copy and needed to talk. I dove right in. We had both read about how Yanagihara had been

A Year in Reading: Rumaan Alam

The only New Year’s resolution I’ve ever kept (sorry vegetarianism!) was 2014’s: to write down every book I read. I’ve stuck with it; thus, I’m able to offer an exact accounting of my 2015 in reading. I can’t quite believe that someone has asked me to do so, but boy am I prepared.

As I suffer from tremendous anxiety of influence, I didn’t read a single book while writing my own. (To relax, I cooked; to fall asleep, I did crossword puzzles.) From June on, though, I read deliriously, hungrily, eager to make up for lost time. First, in (fruitless) search of an epigraph for my book, I reread Louise Fitzhugh’s The Long Secret and then Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye, both as wonderful, indeed much richer, than I remembered.

I played cultural catch-up, reading books that had been much discussed among my circle (my circle: complete strangers I follow on Twitter) over the previous year and half: Akhil Sharma’s Family Life, Megan Abbott’s The Fever, Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, Chris Kraus’s I Love Dick, Rachel Cusk’s Outline, Elizabeth Harrower’s In Certain Circles, Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life (in three days!), Cristina Henríquez’s The Book of Unknown Americans, Rabih Alameddine’s devastating An Unnecessary Woman, a book that makes bookish people feel, by association, unnecessary, and Lorrie Moore’s Bark.

We went on vacation and I sat by the pool and read Mira Jacob’s un-put-down-able The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing, and Rona Jaffe’s The Best of Everything, which was like if Mad Men had only been about Joan (that is to say: not boring).

You can never actually be well read; there’s too much out there. So sometimes it’s best to choose randomly. I picked up Günter Grass’s Cat and Mouse because my father-in-law happened to have a particularly groovy paperback edition of it. In a piece about the Argosy bookshop, Janet Malcolm wrote about one of the owners resigning Louis Auchincloss to the bargain bin. Thus, I read his The Rector of Justin. (If you spot it in a bargain bin, give it a shot; it contains a wonderful, truly hateful character.) I read Ed Lin’s slender and foulmouthed Waylaid on the recommendation of a friend, and Grégoire Bouillier’s The Mystery Guest because I’m fascinated by Sophie Calle, and Barbara Browning’s I’m Trying to Reach You because I loved the title. I read Mary McCarthy’s The Company She Keeps and Birds of America because I never got an MFA and I have to learn to write somehow, and I read Jean Rhys’s Good Morning, Midnight because I love sadness.

I’m working on a new novel that sort of involves a poet, so I read two books that involve poets: Saul Bellow’s Humboldt’s Gift and May Sarton’s Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing. This is like someone who’s never played tennis deciding to learn the game by studying Venus and Serena Williams, but there you go. I read Colm Tóibín’s characteristically wonderful Nora Webster, and Helen Dewitt’s icily smart The Last Samurai (I’ll confess a personal failing: I can’t handle children as narrators). I read Bellow’s superb Henderson the Rain King, (problematic, in the argot of our times) and then Dangling Man, the same author’s first novel.

One great perk about publishing a book is that people send you books. For free! That’s how I got my hands on Nell Zink’s Mislaid (my notes say I found it “bonkers”), and two titles that haven’t even been published yet: Emma Straub’s Modern Lovers and Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney’s The Nest, two excellent books destined to appear on a lot of Year in Reading 2016 lists. Jealous? You should be.

I read two works of nonfiction: Hermione Lee’s smart and comprehensive biography of Willa Cather, one of my all-time favorite writers, and Edmund White’s City Boy, a rambling and sort of disappointing document. And somewhere along the line, I read Margaret Atwood’s unexpectedly optimistic MaddAddam (spoiler: humanity perishes, the written word endures). I just counted: there are 36 volumes waiting on my bedside table (including collections of L.P. Hartley, Carson McCullers, and John Updike that contain multiple novels). Christ. The years are never long enough.

More from A Year in Reading 2015

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 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, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.

A Year in Reading: Olivia Laing

At the beginning of the year I was finishing a book, and at the end I was starting to think tentatively about another one, and in between I was making a concerted effort to rediscover reading for pleasure, so one way or another this really has been a year in reading. Heavy reading (A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara), light reading (a spree of memoirs about Freddie Mercury), nourishing reading (Derek Jarman’s Garden), shallow reading (The Andy Warhol Diaries). I built new shelves, and painted them too, so there was at least a month without book piles, though it didn’t take long for buying to exceed capacity.

In retrospect, I’ve been voyaging thematically. Number one: the art of collage. One of the central questions of my new book, The Lonely City, is about brokenness and wholeness: how a self might end up in pieces, and how that sense of sundering might be medicated or treated, particularly by way of art. I was interested in artists like Henry Darger, who concentrated on collage, and in using psychotherapists like Donald Winnicott and Melanie Klein to think about what that kind of work might be doing.

No doubt this is part of why I responded so explosively to Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts (Graywolf Press). A work of collage in its own right, it also thinks deeply and with immense nuance and grace about division and completion, about how we make boundaries and categories and what happens when we cross over, or are more than one thing at the same time. An instruction manual for the art of being both, you might say, which brings me to another book of parts. Ali Smith’s magnificently curious and mobile How to Be Both (Hamish Hamilton) is a novel in two halves that circles in on itself like a mobius strip. You don’t often hear Nelson and Smith discussed in the same breath, but it seems to me they’re up to something of the same business: finding new forms for thinking about sexuality and selfhood, evading or exploding categories, and reveling in language while they do so.

Speaking of which, The Dictionary of Lost Languages is an A to Z of languages that are for one reason or another either extinct or under threat, from Jailic, the pidgin Gaelic IRA political prisoners taught themselves in the Maze, to Umbugarla, lost for good with the death of its last speaker, Butcher Knight. The Dictionary was made by the artist and filmmaker Sarah Wood as a public commission, with copies inserted into each of Cambridge’s public libraries (a very small run is for sale here). Considering that the loss of a language is almost always related to the destruction of a people, whether by war, imperialism, genocide, or globalization, it should make for depressing reading. And yet it’s imbued with an infectious faith in language’s capacity to regenerate and return, and is one of the most heartening and exciting things I’ve read all year (I’m very proud to have contributed an entry on the artist David Wojnarowicz).

Two more suggestions on the art-language axis. The poet Ian Patterson, also a Cambridge professor and translator of Marcel Proust, has just published Time Dust (Equipage), a volume of poems inspired by or written in response to the work of the artist Siân Bowen. A little reminiscent of John Ashbery or J.H. Prynne, and full of double meanings and retractions, this is language folded in upon itself, moody, wonderful, on the threshold of abstraction.

If Patterson has a counterpart in the visual, it’s the painter Matt Connors, whose luminous A Bell Is a Cup (Rainoff) seems to be turning over similar question by way of color and form, and who likewise inserts ripples of unease into what look at first glance like radiant surfaces. With its fabulous rainbow hues, A Bell also wins the prize for the most beautiful book I bought this year.

Another running thread I’ve been thinking about is long-term creativity. How do you keep making art, book after book, decade after decade? What really constitutes success? If you want to survive, you have to ask these questions, and to find answers that are robust and engaging, because if it’s just about critical or market approval you’d go completely crazy. You have to let yourself fail and fuck up, and you have to be able to make bad or messy or otherwise hopeless things on the way to good ones. (I’m writing this in a backyard in New Hampshire accompanied by two dogs and a merlin. Took a break a minute ago to attend to a hive being readied for the winter. I’m all for reading, but sometimes you just need to sit in the sun with a beer and feel the earth swing on its axis).

Anyway, what got me thinking about all this, asides from heading towards 40, was a commission to write about the minimalist painter Agnes Martin, who didn’t really get going until she was in her 40s, and who finished her last painting weeks before her death at the age of 92. Two terrific books about Martin came out this year: Nancy Princenthal’s biography Agnes Martin: Her Life and Art (Thames and Hudson) and a catalogue for the Tate retrospective, edited by Frances Morris and Tiffany Bell, which is full of intensely interesting and thought-provoking essays on closets, grids, withdrawal, persistence, and repetition. My favorite of the bunch is Agnes Martin: Paintings, Writings, Remembrances by Martin’s friend and gallerist Arne Glimcher (Phaidon). It combines scraps of her own writing with beautiful recollections about her defiant, difficult, and isolated life in New Mexico, and the extraordinary things she made there. Martin is something of a guiding light for me right now and will be central in my next book, for sure.

Another category: things that aren’t out in the world yet. First up: Amy Liptrot’s The Outrun (Canongate), a memoir by a young writer about overcoming alcoholism, in part by returning to the isolated Scottish island where she grew up. It’s wild writing: sexy, unguarded, raw, and ardent. Out January, and highly recommended.

I’ve been reading Jeremy Atherton Lin’s blog Leaves for years, and now he’s putting together a memoir, tentatively titled The Sun and the Air, about growing up in California and being obsessed with The Smiths. He’s one of the best writers I’ve encountered, remaking the world sentence by immaculate sentence, and he’s got a particular knack for zooming in on microscope details — an earring, say — and using them to sally outward on a dérivé through cultural and emotional landscapes. He’s better at this than almost anyone I’ve come across, and I hope the book finds a home soon, because I want to read it.

More from A Year in Reading 2015

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 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, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.

A Year in Reading: Alexander Chee

My year in reading was a strange one for me, like only one year previous in my life thus far: I had finished a novel — The Queen of the Night, due out in Feb. 2016 — and so the year was that peculiar kind of annus horribulis, in which you try to keep a lid on your ego and act casual, all while you wait for your novel to appear in stores with all that implies. You dutifully prepare your events, your website, and your life for a period of time that has no certain borders and that will have little relationship either to what you fear or what you desire. And everyone’s advice never changes: start on finding your next project, so you have at least a relationship to it and aren’t caught out by what eventually happens.

To get through this as a writer is a little like splitting into two: one of you heads off into the woods of your own self while the other becomes some public version of you, making its way like a renegade balloon from the Thanksgiving Day Parade that just keeps inflating.

My reading then was both a little like it always is — a mix of books I’m teaching and books I simply wanted to read — but several ideas for what my next book will be were already underway and auditioning for my attention — a mystery novel, a novel I’ve put off writing for nearly two decades, a space opera, and a collection of essays. In order to think about them and to also get my work done, I planned two new classes: one on autobio, as autobiographical fiction is increasingly called, and one on plot. And it is true that I do have a few more answers now than I started the year with, but I also had a lot of fun.

In the first half of the year, I read autobiographical fiction and some nonfiction work that ran along its edges: Maxine Hong Kingston’s China Men, for example, which I remember suffered by comparison to The Woman Warrior back when I first read it, but which seems to me now a bravura performance in its own right: her attempt to imagine her way into the silences inside the men in her family’s history. Go Tell It on the Mountain, James Baldwin’s first novel, is still as relevant as ever and as immaculately made — line for line, the prose is a wonder. Colette’s puckish first novel, Claudine at School, was like finding a whole other writer after her later novels, which I already knew. Edmund White’s The Married Man paired beautifully with Chris Kraus’s I Love Dick, two very different stories of the personal social cost of trying to hold on to and even love your obsessions (and not just be obsessed with them). And I reread Renata Adler’s Pitch Dark alongside Ben Lerner’s 10:04, and thought about how each portrays a way of transcending the first person while also staying firmly in it.

Once summer began, I dove into Charles D’Ambrosio’s fantastic collection of personal essays and criticism, Loitering, which I read alongside Jan Morris’s majestic metafiction, Hav — a plotless novel written as travel writing of the oldest best kind. It describes her trip to an entirely fictional country, and done with a thoroughness of detail that is so convincing, I am still stunned Hav doesn’t exist.

I then prepared for my plot class with some favorites. Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go was as chilling as ever, a way of thinking about the present — and describing it — by inventing a past instead of a future. I loved Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire the more for knowing at last what life is like now as a professor (I hadn’t read it since undergrad). Likewise Toni Morrison’s Sula, which I now think of as a way to describe America through the lives of two women and a single Ohio town. Reading Justin Torres’s We the Animals for structure meant finding the fretwork is actually a spine.

Throughout, I mixed in the new: Like many, I devoured Hanya Yanagihara’s astonishing A Little Life. And then I also read from the more than new, books you can read next year: Garth Greenwell’s breathtaking What Belongs to You, which is a little like if Marguerite Yourcenar returned to us with Bruce Benderson’s obsessions, and Chris Offutt’s new memoir of the secret estate his father left him (and the secrets in it), coming in March — My Father, the Pornographer.

More from A Year in Reading 2015

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 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, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.

A Year in Reading: Emily St. John Mandel

1.
I read Stacey D’Erasmo’s Wonderland in a hotel room in Saint Paul. This was a couple of months back, 13 months into a book tour that seemed by then like it might not ever end. (Not a complaint — I love my job, and am immensely grateful for it — but perhaps we can all agree that being away from home and loved ones for long periods can wear on a person, and leave it at that.) By the time I reached Saint Paul, I’d been feeling badly for awhile about how few books I was reading. Even the most grueling days usually contained a small amount of downtime. There were days where I spent an awful lot of time just sitting there in airplane seats and waiting around in airports and idling alone in hotel rooms, all places that should theoretically lend themselves to getting some reading done.

Then I had an irritating couple of days on Twitter, which sparked the somewhat obvious realization that if I took a week off from Twitter I’d have more time in which to read, so I logged off in the Saint Paul hotel room and haven’t been back since. I wouldn’t have said that I’d been spending much time on Twitter, but in its absence, there seemed suddenly to be an immense amount of space around me. I picked up two novels at the bookstore down the street and read them in two days. Wonderland was one of them. It’s an exceptionally well-written novel. The plot concerns an aging musician on what may or may not turn out to be her last tour.

“What made you want to write about actors?” people kept asking me that month, in audience Q&As.

“Well,” I kept saying, “I’m interested in film and theatre, and I wanted to write about what it means to devote your life to your art, the costs and the joys of that…” and then I read Wonderland and saw that D’Erasmo wanted to write about what it means to devote your life to your art too, but she kept that the focus of the entire novel, and it makes for a razor-sharp, unsparing book. She captures both the joys and the terror, the grind and the exaltation.

Others: I read Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life on a brief interlude between tours. It moved me in a way I hadn’t been moved by a book in a while. There was a sense of having encountered a rare masterpiece, also a sense of having been burnt to the ground. I expect it will live on my shelves forever, but I don’t think I could bear to read it again. Earlier in the year, on airplanes and in other hotel rooms, I read Atticus Lish’s Preparation for the Next Life. It’s a love story set in a marginal New York City, involving an undocumented immigrant and an ex-soldier with PTSD. It’s harrowing, extremely violent, and extraordinary. What all three of these novels have in common is that they remind me of nothing else I’ve ever read.

2.
Sometimes you encounter the perfect book for a given moment, and so I felt when I picked up Mark Vanhoenacker’s Skyfaring: A Journey with a Pilot. When he isn’t writing, Vanhoenacker flies 747s in and out of London. I’d come across his work in the form of a gorgeous essay about flight that ran in The New York Times, and was delighted to realize that the essay was an excerpt from a longer work. Part of why I picked up the book was that I used to love flying, and by autumn of this year I dreaded it, and I wanted very much to love it again.

I’ve never been a nervous flyer — I feel far safer on airplanes than I’ve ever felt in a car — but the thing with airplanes is that there are too many other people on them, extended business travel is exhausting, being herded like a sheep is exhausting too, and, well, let’s be honest here, exhaustion can spark a certain low-level misanthropy when one’s crammed in with others at close quarters. When I was lucky enough to get a window seat I still found unspeakable beauty in the sight of the world from 30,000 feet, but by October, which is to say sometime around my 100th event for Station Eleven, the inevitable small tics and inconsequential bad habits of others were becoming all but unbearable to me: the woman sitting across the aisle, loudly smacking her lips while she ate a cookie and then slurpily licking each of her fingers in turn, for example; the guy in the row in front of me who apparently never learned how to blow his nose and thus found it necessary to sniffle every three seconds, for five hours, at a decibel level too high to drown out with my headphones; the business travelers competing to see who could tell the most boring flight stories. (“So then by the time we get to Atlanta, the heat’s not working at all and it’s 50 degrees on the plane.”) Etc. I turned up the music and tried to disappear.

But Skyfaring is a love letter to flight, to a profession, and reading it was a balm. Vanhoenacker slips easily between poetic meditation into the nature of travel and technical explanations of the mechanisms of the 747, and I found all of it fascinating. It is a delight to encounter someone so unabashedly enamored of the romance of his profession. On a flight bound for southern Africa, he gives a position report to the controller:

‘Roger,’ says the controller. ‘Next report the equator.’
I feel a shiver of surprise; I still can’t quite believe it’s part of my job to announce that we’ve crossed into the skies of the other half of the world. I try to imagine the old days of the ocean liners, when crossing the equator, the first of our grand marks on the sphere, was still understood as momentous, how on deck, sparkling glasses would be raised.

The book’s meditative pacing isn’t dissimilar to the rhythms of flight itself, to the way landscapes gradually unspool far below. There’s tremendous pleasure in coming across the explanations for aspects of flight I’d never quite understood – the gorgeous phenomenon I’ve seen a couple of times on long flights over the Pacific, for instance, where a strip of night hangs suspended on the horizon between sections of daylight — and equally fascinating to catch a glimpse into the closed world of the cockpit. It was easier, after reading it, to forget my exhaustion and the small annoyances of the world and lose myself again in the beauty of the flight.

More from A Year in Reading 2015

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 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, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.

A Year in Reading: Saeed Jones

Trying to make sense of the books I loved in the last year and why is a bit like trying to divine the logic that guided me into past relationships. The books — each a kind of lover — all just…made sense at the time.

I don’t have favorite lovers, just current ones. Right now, I’m cheating on all of you with Helen Oyeyemi’s novel Mr. Fox. Like her excellent Boy, Snow, Bird — another recent paramour of mine — the magical realism in Mr. Fox pulled me into its grasp one page at a time, seducing me so effectively I didn’t realize I had walked into a heart-shaped trap until it was too late.

My relationship with A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara was so brutal I spent the entire summer in France trying to get my groove back. Reading a galley of Alexander Chee’s forthcoming epic The Queen of The Night helped a great deal. But then I returned to New York City in the fall and couldn’t walk down a single sidewalk in the city without meeting someone else who’d also been seduced then wrecked by A Little Life. There should be a recovery group, ALL-Anonymous, for people who, like me, didn’t know that a book could be so gorgeously wrought and exacting at the same time. That book hurt me; I’m not sure if this is a recommendation or confession.

Some lovers sent me running into the arms of old haunts. Reading Eula Biss’s On Immunity forced me to think about the self in relation to others. If the borders of our bodies are in fact porous, what do we owe one another? I expected a book about disease and instead Bliss’s brilliant meditation urged me to consider morals in a challenging, beautiful way. And so from that lover, only one ghost would do: I got my hands on a copy of Melville House’s James Baldwin: The Last Interview. The conversations the book captures speak to the self’s relationship with racism, America’s most infectious disease, and I just don’t know what to do with the fact that everything Baldwin says feels so hauntingly contemporary — except know it and honor it.

More from A Year in Reading 2015

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 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, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.

The Millions Top Ten: November 2015


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.

Between the World and Me
5 months

2.
2.

A Little Life
5 months

3.
3.

Purity
4 months

4.
7.

Slade House
2 months

5.
4.

Go Set a Watchman
5 months

6.
6.

Fates and Furies
3 months

7.
5.

Book of Numbers
6 months

8.
8.

City on Fire
2 months

9.
9.

The Heart Goes Last
3 months

10.


The Big Green Tent
1 month

My uncharacteristically bold plug for Marlon James’s outstanding novel, A Brief History of Seven Killings, was not enough to keep the book on our Top Ten this month, and I’m choosing to believe that the only reason is because you’d already purchased your copies when it first came out. It’s not because you don’t trust my recommendations, right? Can’t be.

Nevertheless, this month’s newest title — filling James’s former spot — is Ludmila Ulitskaya’s The Big Green Tent. For five years since the novel’s Russian publication, English and North American readers have been eagerly awaiting the translation to finally hit shelves. (In fact, it’s been on The Millions’s radar for so long that it appeared in both our 2014 and 2015 Book Previews.) Following three friends-turned-dissidents who come of age during the Soviet era, the 592-page novel provides a richly detailed, intimate depiction of what life was like behind the Iron Curtain.

Still, “any plot-based retelling of The Big Green Tent misses the point entirely,” wrote Emily Tamkin in her review of the book for our site. “It is the story of three boys growing up, yes, but so, too, is it a portrait of a time, and a sketch of so many types who lived in and through it, and of Russian literature itself. … In this way, Ulitskaya has not only described the spirit of an era, but also captured it.”

Stay tuned for our December list, which will undoubtedly be heavily influenced by our current Year in Reading series, underway all month long. Who will be this year’s breakout star? Only one way to find out.

This month’s near misses included: Fourtune SmilesUndermajordomo Minor, Satin Island, and The Paying Guests. See Also: Last month’s list.

Before They Were Notable: 2015

| 2

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 and authors as well:

Beatlebone by Kevin Barry (You Can’t Lie in Fiction: An Interview with Kevin Barry, You Must Read Kevin Barry, A Year in Reading: Kevin Barry)
Citizen by Claudia Rankine (Hinge of History: Nine Books for the Post-Ferguson Era)
City on Fire by Garth Risk Hallberg (The Opening Lines of Garth Risk Hallberg’s City on Fire, I’ve Rarely Felt So Free: The Millions Interviews Garth Risk Hallberg, Garth at The Millions)
The Complete Stories by Clarice Lispector (A Horribly Marvelous and Delicate Abyss: The Complete Stories by Clarice Lispector)
Delicious Foods by James Hannaham (A Happy Sort of Pessimism: The Millions Interviews James Hannaham)
Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff (Exclusive First Look: Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies, The Most Joyous Part: The Millions Interviews Lauren Groff)
The First Bad Man by Miranda July (A Box of Powerful Things: The Millions Interviews Miranda July)
The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma (The Audacity of Prose, Clickworthy Headlines about The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma)
The Hollow Land by Jane Gardam (Jane Gardam’s Characters: Organically Grown)
Honeydew by Edith Pearlman (Loneliness, Interrupted: Edith Pearlman’s Honeydew, Overnight Sensation? Edith Pearlman on Fame and the Importance of Short Fiction)
How to Be Both by Ali Smith (Wordsmith: The Beguiling Gifts of Ali Smith)
A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara (Two Lives: On Hanya Yanagihara and Atticus Lish, ‘I Wouldn’tve Had a Biography at All’: The Millions Interviews Hanya Yanagihara)
Loving Day by Mat Johnson (A Blacker Shade of Pale: On Mat Johnson’s Loving Day)
A Manual for Cleaning Women by Lucia Berlin (The Book Report: Episode 30)
The Mare by Mary Gaitskill (A Heightened State of Emotion: The Millions Interviews Mary Gaitskill)
The Meursault Investigation by Kamel Daoud (The Crime of Life: On Kamel Daoud’s The Meursault Investigation)
Preparation For The Next Life by Atticus Lish (Two Lives: On Hanya Yanagihara and Atticus Lish)
Purity by Jonathan Franzen (Flamed but Not Forgotten: On Jonathan Franzen’s Purity)
The Sellout by Paul Beatty (The Inanity of American Plutocracy: On Paul Beatty’s The Sellout)
The Sellout by Paul Beatty (The Inanity of American Plutocracy: On Paul Beatty’s The Sellout)
The Story of the Lost Child by Elena Ferrante (Elena Ferrante Names the Devil and Slays the Minotaur, Outside the Neighborhood: Reading Italy Through Elena Ferrante)
The Story of My Teeth by Valeria Luiselli (Tricks and Lies: On Valeria Luiselli’s The Story of My Teeth)
The Tsar of Love and Techno by Anthony Marra (The Writer I Was: Six Authors Look Back on Their First Novels)
The Turner House by Angela Flournoy (Dynamite Detroit Debut: On Angela Flournoy’s The Turner House, The Tortoise, Not the Hare: The Millions Interviews Angela Flournoy)

The Millions Top Ten: October 2015


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

This Month
Last Month

Title
On List

1.
1.

Between the World and Me
4 months

2.
2.

A Little Life
4 months

3.
4.

Purity
3 months

4.
3.

Go Set a Watchman
4 months

5.
6.

Book of Numbers
5 months

6.
7.

Fates and Furies
2 months

7.


Slade House
1 month

8.


City on Fire
1 month

9.
8.

The Heart Goes Last
2 months

10.


A Brief History of Seven Killings
1 month

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, a book about de-cluttering and organizing, just became the 102nd title to join our ever-more-cluttered Hall of Fame, which feels appropriate. Meanwhile, two titles – Satin Island and The Paying Guests – fell out of this month’s Top Ten, despite strong showings for the past four months.

As a result, three spots have opened up for newcomers, so let’s take a look at these fresh new faces:

This month’s seventh spot belongs to David Mitchell’s latest project, Slade House, which got its start as a Twitter-based short story last year. (We published the story in full.) Now expanded into a 256-page book, Slade House, spans across five decades, focusing on a mysterious residence down the road from a British pub, and the people who live within – or are invited to.

Next on the list is Garth Risk Hallberg’s debut novel, City on Fire, which is surely familiar by now to anyone who a) reads this site, and b) doesn’t live beneath a rock. (Psssst! You can read its opening lines over here.) At 944 pages, this doorstop provides a surprisingly intimate glimpse into the lives of its closely-observed subjects. As Brian Ted Jones remarked in his review for The Rumpus:
It’s not a big novel about the human condition. It’s a novel that word by word reaches out to capture the smallness of life, the minute particularity that stacks up until—whoa, baby—you’ve got a whole universe on your hands, but a universe that flies away like a pile of dirt in a strong wind.
And that level of observation does not come easily, as Hallberg himself noted in his interview with our own Lydia Kiesling:
Writing is definitely not what we typically think of as “easy” or “natural” for the person doing it. You know this as a writer — it’s mostly torture. You have those days when you kind of light up inside like a pinball machine or something, and all of a sudden everything is feeding back 10 times as much as it did the previous day, and you have this sense of joy and you walk out of the house and run into someone you know, or your spouse comes home and says “How was your day,” and you say, “This was a great day! The writing went well!” And then if you actually paused and walked back through the writing hour by hour you would realize, “No, it was still mostly torture, but it was a kind of exquisite and joyous torture on this day, as opposed to the gray horrible torture that it is on most days.”
Man, that must’ve been a fun way to feel for the five years it took to write the book, huh?

Finally, this month we also welcome newly-minted Booker Award winner Marlon James to our Top Ten. His third novel, A Brief History of Seven Killings, concerns Jamaica at a pivotal moment in its history, and really the history of its relationship with the United States as well, but also it’s about so much more: Bob Marley, CIA machinations, international drug dealers, race, family, friendship, journalism, and art. To call this novel ambitious is to undersell it. If I can be bold for a moment, allow me to say this: James’s novel is the best book I’ve read in years. Heck, even our resident video-bloggers, Michael Schaub and Janet Potter, were rendered speechless by it.

This month’s near misses included: Undermajordomo Minor, Fourtune Smiles, and A Strangeness in My Mind. See Also: Last month’s list.

2015 National Book Award Shortlists Released

Book award season is peaking along with the autumn leaves as the National Book Award shortlists have been released in four categories. These have been whittled down from last month’s longlists, and the winners will be announced in New York City on November 18.

You read about nearly all of the books on the Fiction shortlist here first, as they appeared in our indispensable first-half and second-half previews.

Here’s a list of the finalists in all four categories with bonus links and excerpts where available:

Fiction:

Refund by Karen E. Bender (“For What Purpose”)
The Turner House by Angela Flournoy (Dynamite Detroit Debut: On Angela Flournoy’s The Turner House)
Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff (the book’s opening passage, The Most Joyous Part: The Millions Interviews Lauren Groff, Lauren Groff writing at The Millions)
Fortune Smiles by Adam Johnson (excerpt)
A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara (Two Lives: On Hanya Yanagihara and Atticus Lish, ‘I Wouldn’tve Had a Biography at All’: The Millions Interviews Hanya Yanagihara)

Nonfiction:

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates (“We Know Less Than We Think We Do”)
Hold Still: A Memoir with Photographs by Sally Mann (excerpt)
The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration Into the Wonder of Consciousness by Sy Montgomery (excerpt)
If the Oceans Were Ink: An Unlikely Friendship and a Journey to the Heart of the Quran by Carla Power (excerpt)
Ordinary Light: A Memoir by Tracy K. Smith (A Field Guide to Silences: On Tracy K. Smith’s Ordinary Light)

Poetry:

Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude by Ross Gay (the title poem)
How to Be Drawn by Terrance Hayes (poem)
Voyage of the Sable Venus by Robin Coste Lewis (poem)
Bright Dead Things by Ada Limón (Charring the Page: On Ada Limón’s Bright Dead Things)
Elegy for a Broken Machine by Patrick Phillips (the title poem)

Young People’s Literature:

The Thing About Jellyfish by Ali Benjamin (excerpt)
Bone Gap by Laura Ruby (excerpt)
Most Dangerous: Daniel Ellsberg and the Secret History of the Vietnam War by Steve Sheinkin (excerpt)
Challenger Deep by Neal Shusterman (excerpt)
Nimona by Noelle Stevenson (interview)

The Millions Top Ten: September 2015


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

This Month
Last Month

Title
On List

1.
1.

Between the World and Me
3 months

2.
7.

A Little Life
3 months

3.
2.

Go Set a Watchman
3 months

4.
8.

Purity
2 months

5.
3.

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing
6 months

6.
6.

Book of Numbers
4 months

7.


Fates and Furies
1 month

8.


The Heart Goes Last
1 month

9.
10.

The Paying Guests
4 months

10.
9.

Satin Island
5 months

Our Hall of Fame grows to 101 titles strong this month, thanks to the ascension of Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant (#100) and Paula Hawkins’s The Girl on the Train (#101). It’s the first appearance in the Hall for both authors.

In their place, we welcome Fates and Furies and The Heart Goes Last, the latest works from Lauren Groff and Margaret Atwood, respectively. The former should be especially familiar to Millions readers, as we shared the book’s opening lines on our site last March, and we interviewed Groff about her writing process (and why she feels ambivalent about Florida) more recently. Atwood, meanwhile, took part in our Year in Reading in 2010.

For the second consecutive month, Ta-Nahesi Coates’s Between the World and Me tops our list. It’s an honor that Coates should treasure because his year has otherwise been fairly uneventful for him. After all, he’s only won a MacArthur “genius grant,” been longlisted for the National Book Award, and announced a forthcoming Marvel comic. In other words: nothing that holds a candle to the honor of being named a Millions fan favorite.

Moving along: Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life occupies this month’s number two spot. The book’s steady rise over the past three months — unlisted in July, #7 in August, and now runner-up — surprised me almost as much as it’s likely surprised our own Lydia Kiesling, who wrote of the work:
A Little Life has stayed with me, not because I found it so sad, but because I found it so strangely bad, and have spent significant time wondering if what I perceive to be its badness is in fact a function of a bold narrative experiment that, to quote James Wood on Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled, “invents its own category of badness,” and thus deserves a very particular set of laurels.
Indeed, it’s as though a negative review from Lydia has the perverse effect of skyrocketing her victim’s works into the hands of Millions readers. (After all, this is the second time it’s happened…) Perhaps from now on publicists should refer to Lydia as the Literary Queen Midas?

Elsewhere on the list, Go Set a Watchman and that book on de-cluttering dropped one spot apiece, Franzen’s latest rose a bit, and works by Joshua Cohen, Sarah Waters, and Tom McCarthy held steady.

This month’s near misses included: Undermajordomo Minor, The Martian, Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight NightsThe First Bad Man, and Wind/Pinball. See Also: Last month’s list.

2015 National Book Award Longlists Released

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Book award season enters high gear as the National Book Award finalists have been released in a series of four longlists consisting of ten books apiece. Five finalists in each category will be announced on October 14, and winners will be announced in New York City on November 18.

The fiction list seems especially varied this year and includes many newcomers. Alongside highly touted books by Hanya Yanagihara, Lauren Groff, and Adam Johnson. Are “newcomers” like Bill Clegg, Angela Flournoy, and Nell Zink. It’s a great time to be a reader.

You read about nearly all of the books on the Fiction longlist here first, of course, as they appeared in our indispensable first-half and second-half previews.

In the other categories, after last year’s male-dominated Non-Fiction longlist, female authors have captured seven of the spots this year.

Here’s a list of the finalists in all four categories with bonus links and excerpts where available:

Fiction:

A Cure for Suicide by Jesse Ball (Ball’s Year in Reading, 2009)
Did You Ever Have a Family by Bill Clegg (exerpt)
Refund by Karen E. Bender (“For What Purpose”)
The Turner House by Angela Flournoy (Dynamite Detroit Debut: On Angela Flournoy’s The Turner House)
Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff (the book’s opening passage, The Most Joyous Part: The Millions Interviews Lauren Groff, Lauren Groff writing at The Millions)
Fortune Smiles by Adam Johnson (excerpt)
Welcome to Braggsville by T. Geronimo Johnson (excerpt (pdf))
Honeydew by Edith Pearlman (Overnight Sensation? Edith Pearlman on Fame and the Importance of Short Fiction, Loneliness, Interrupted: Edith Pearlman’s Honeydew)
A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara (Two Lives: On Hanya Yanagihara and Atticus Lish, ‘I Wouldn’tve Had a Biography at All’: The Millions Interviews Hanya Yanagihara)
Mislaid by Nell Zink

Nonfiction:

Rain: A Natural and Cultural History by Cynthia Barnett (interview and excerpt)
Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates (“We Know Less Than We Think We Do”)
Mourning Lincoln by Martha Hodes (excerpt)
Hold Still: A Memoir with Photographs by Sally Mann (excerpt)
The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration Into the Wonder of Consciousness by Sy Montgomery (excerpt)
Paradise of the Pacific: Approaching Hawaii by Susanna Moore (essay)
Love and Other Ways of Dying by Michael Paterniti (excerpt)
If the Oceans Were Ink: An Unlikely Friendship and a Journey to the Heart of the Quran by Carla Power (excerpt)
Ordinary Light: A Memoir by Tracy K. Smith (A Field Guide to Silences: On Tracy K. Smith’s Ordinary Light)
Travels in Vermeer: A Memoir by Michael White (excerpt)

Poetry:

Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude by Ross Gay (the title poem)
Scattered at Sea by Amy Gerstler (excerpt)
A Stranger’s Mirror: New and Selected Poems, 1994-2014 by Marilyn Hacker (the title poem)
How to Be Drawn by Terrance Hayes (poem)
The Beauty by Jane Hirshfield (poem)
Voyage of the Sable Venus by Robin Coste Lewis (poem)
Bright Dead Things by Ada Limón (Charring the Page: On Ada Limón’s Bright Dead Things)
Elegy for a Broken Machine by Patrick Phillips (the title poem)
Heaven by Rowan Ricardo Phillips (poem)
Mistaking Each Other for Ghosts by Lawrence Raab (poem)

Young People’s Literature:

Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli (excerpt)
Symphony for the City of the Dead: Dmitri Shostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad by M.T. Anderson
The Thing About Jellyfish by Ali Benjamin (excerpt)
Walk on Earth a Stranger by Rae Carson (excerpt)
This Side of Wild: Mutts, Mares, and Laughing Dinosaurs by Gary Paulsen
Bone Gap by Laura Ruby (excerpt)
X: A Novel by Ilyasah Shabazz with Kekla Magoon (excerpt)
Most Dangerous: Daniel Ellsberg and the Secret History of the Vietnam War by Steve Sheinkin (excerpt)
Challenger Deep by Neal Shusterman (excerpt)
Nimona by Noelle Stevenson (interview)

Booker Prize Offers Up Eclectic 2015 Shortlist

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The Booker Prize has whittled down its longlist to an intriguing shortlist, and none of the authors tapped has previously won the Prize. As was the case last year, two Americans make the shortlist this year: Anne Tyler and Hanya Yanagihara. They are joined by Nigerian Chigozie Obioma, the UK’s Sunjeev Sahota and Tom McCarthy, and Jamaican Marlon James. The bookies suggest that Yanagihara is the favorite to win. She would be the first American to take the Prize.

All the Booker Prize longlisters are below (with bonus links where available):

A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James (The Book Report on A Brief History)
Satin Island by Tom McCarthy (The Last Epoch: Tom McCarthy’s Satin Island Takes on the Avant-Garde)
The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma (“The Audacity of Prose” by Chigozie Obioma, Clickworthy Headlines about The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma)
The Year of the Runaways by Sunjeev Sahota
A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler
A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara (Two Lives: On Hanya Yanagihara and Atticus Lish, ‘I Wouldn’tve Had a Biography at All’: The Millions Interviews Hanya Yanagihara)

The Millions Top Ten: August 2015


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

This Month
Last Month

Title
On List

1.
2.

Between the World and Me
2 months

2.
1.

Go Set a Watchman
2 months

3.
4.

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing
5 months

4.
3.

The Buried Giant
6 months

5.
5.

The Girl on the Train
6 months

6.
6.

Book of Numbers
3 months

7.
8.

A Little Life
2 months

8.


Purity
1 month

9.
7.

Satin Island
4 months

10.
9.

The Paying Guests
3 months

A shuffling atop this month’s Top Ten puts Ta-Nahesi Coates’s Between the World and Me above Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman, which may be expected when one book earns inspires praise from Toni Morrison while copies of the other one are refunded by local bookstores.

Of course, it hasn’t all been praise for Coates’s essay-letter to his son – and, to be fair, it hasn’t all been negative press for Lee’s early novel. In a recent piece for our site, Sonya Chung used a regrettable column by David Brooks to explore the “convergence of The Road to Character and the conflict that arose from Brooks’s public response to Between the World and Me.” Similarly, our own Michael Bourne pondered the silver lining of Go Set a Watchman’s release, which occasioned the reevaluation of Atticus Finch:
“Jean Louise, have you ever met your father?” her uncle asks, and she realizes she never has, not really. Neither have we, though we have been living with Atticus Finch for more than half a century. It is high time we got to know him. The question is whether we will still love him once we have.
Moving from two major publishing stories to a third: this month’s Top Ten welcomes Jonathan Franzen’s latest novel, Purity, into its ranks. The work debuts in the eighth spot, likely but a pit stop on its way to the higher reaches of our list, as the book (whose release date was technically September 1st) was only just reaching readers’ hands in the final days of August. Purity follows blockbusters The Corrections and Freedom and, as our own Lydia Kiesling notes, the book contains “a few digs at you, reader.”

The Martian dropped from our list this month. Other near misses included: Wind/Pinball, The First Bad ManThe Tusk That Did the Damage, and Armada. See Also: Last month’s list.

The Millions Top Ten: July 2015


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

This Month
Last Month

Title
On List

1.


Go Set a Watchman
1 month

2.


Between the World and Me
1 month

3.
2.

The Buried Giant
5 months

4.
4.

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing
4 months

5.
5.

The Girl on the Train
5 months

6.
6.

Book of Numbers
2 months

7.
7.

Satin Island
3 months

8.


A Little Life
1 month

9.
10.

The Paying Guests
2 months

10.


The Martian
1 month

Four new additions splashed climbed into the Top Ten this month, with Go Set a Watchman — Harper Lee’s ubiquitous Mockingbird pre/sequel — topping the chart. It would be generous to say that the critical reception to the novel, which was written prior to Mockingbird but set two decades afterward, has been mixed. Many evaluations hinge on whether or not the work is capable of standing on its own, or whether it can only be understood as a draft. (There’s also the whole matter of whether the thing should’ve been published to begin with…) In an essay for our site, Michael Bourne wrapped it all together by writing:
Whatever its true provenance, Go Set a Watchman, despite some deft prose and sharp dialogue, fails as a work of art in every way except as a corrective to the standard sentimental reading of Atticus Finch. … The great revelation of the novel isn’t that Atticus Finch is a bigot, but that he has been one all along and his daughter has been too in love with him to notice.
(Bonus: Robert Rea went to Monroeville, Alabama on the day of the book’s release, and wrote about the experience for our site.)

Also appearing on our list this month is Ta-Nahisi Coates’s Between the World and Me. In her preview for our site last month, Anne K. Yoder wrote that the work “grapples with how to inhabit a black body and how to reckon with America’s fraught racial history from a more intimate perspective — in the form of a letter to his adolescent son. Given the current state of affairs, this book should be required reading.”

We also welcome Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life and Andy Weir’s The Martian to this month’s list. No doubt their presence owes to a recent essay from Lydia Kiesling, and Hollywood’s ongoing obsession with abandoning Matt Damon in space, respectively. We also interviewed Yanagihara this week.

We saw two books graduate to our Hall of Fame; congratulations to Loitering by Charles D’Ambrosio and The David Foster Wallace Reader

Nipping at the heels of this month’s selections is Ernest Cline’s new novel, Armada, which was discussed by yours truly in our Great Second-Half 2015 Book Preview a few weeks ago. Be honest: a bunch of you bought it because I referenced my “Diablo III” prowess, didn’t you?

Miranda July’s The First Bad Man and Mark Z. Danielewski’s The Familiar dropped from our list this month. Other near misses included: Armada, The Tusk That Did the Damage, and Everything I Never Told You: A Novel. See Also: Last month’s list.

‘I Wouldn’tve Had a Biography at All’: The Millions Interviews Hanya Yanagihara

In February, an editor asked me if I’d be willing to read a weighty, new book and review it, since she’d been hearing murmurs that not only was it an incredible read, but that it was also going to be one of the “big deal” books of the year. My editor was right. Recently, A Little Life, by Hanya Yanagihara, hit the longlist for the 2015 Man Booker Prize.

Throughout the process of writing about her work, Yanagihara herself remained a mystery to me. I read the reviews and the few interviews, and her publicity team did that thing where they send you a tote bag. But further inquiries eventually allowed me to set up an interview, albeit by email. Having read her books, and having seen that she is a discreet and apparently quite private person (no Twitter account here), I wanted to see what she was like, where she came from, and what her thoughts were on the content she works with in “real life,” that life that stands behind every writer’s authorial magic.

The Millions: I’ve read that you were born in Hawaii. Did you grow up there? When did you move to New York, and what was that process like?

Hanya Yanagihara: I was actually born in L.A.; from there, we moved to Honolulu, and then to New York, and then Baltimore, and then Irvine, and then Honolulu, and then a small town in Texas called Tyler—I moved back to Honolulu when I was in high school. I came to New York almost immediately after college; like generations of people, I was beguiled by the city. It was 1995, and it wasn’t particularly difficult, in part because I was so ignorant that I didn’t even know what I should be intimidated by—I just bumbled into town, and within a month had a roommate, an apartment and a job as a sales assistant at Ballantine, which is an imprint of Random House. It was only years later that I truly understood both how lucky I’d been, and how clueless I was.

TM: Why did your family move around so much? Did you like the experience, did it teach you something?

HY: My father was a researcher for many years, and so we moved for his career — and because he was often beguiled by one place or another: California, Texas. In general, I liked the experience, though there were places I liked more than others. However, it taught me that I can always find a person or two for company, even in inhospitable environments, and that a life can be created anywhere. Not happily, necessarily, but a life nonetheless.

TM: Your “About the Author” page in your most recent book, A Little Life, reads only: “Hanya Yanagihara lives in New York City.” Are you a private person? Or did you assume simply that if people wanted to know more about you they could google you and find where else you wrote online?

HY: I just don’t think more information makes a difference — or it shouldn’t, at any rate. If you’re writing a nonfiction book or declaring yourself an authority on one subject or another, then yes, you probably need to detail your credentials in some way. But for fiction, it’s irrelevant. Your book won’t be any better or worse than it already is if you’ve published in a particular magazine or not, and your reader won’t appreciate the book any more or less if you have or haven’t. I wouldn’tve had a biography at all, except my publisher said I had to.

TM: When did you start writing, as far as you can remember?

HY: Probably when I was five or six. I was in fact more interested in drawing; words were something to accompany images. My grandfather owned a small print shop, and so there was always lots of thick, cottony paper lying around. I was very fortunate to have parents who encouraged both of these interests — although there’s a long tradition of artists who had to rebel against their parents’ expectations in order to pursue their crafts, I’ve been privileged to have been raised by people who actually spent years hoping I might be a cartoonist when I grew up. They were very naive when it came to money, which was frustrating in many ways but had its benefits as well.

TM: Were you a reader as young as you were a writer? What do you think were your literary influences in writing the novels you’ve written?

HY: My parents never skimped on books, but I don’t think I was a particularly precocious reader — I’ve never asked. And while my books don’t have any deliberate literary antecedents, I can tell you that the contemporary writers I admire most are Hilary Mantel, Kazuo Ishiguro, and John Banville. Banville because he just writes so beautifully; no one can craft a sentence as distinctively and gorgeously as he can. But as much as I admire writers who are consistently, recognizably themselves book after book, I also admire those who are constantly reinventing what their novel, and the novel, is. I marvel at how all of Ishiguro’s books are united by one or two thematic ideas, and yet are so textually and texturally different each time — I’m not sure how he does it. Mantel is another of those shape-shifters — her early work is very brittle and funny, a series of salty confections, and then her style changed completely with The Giant, O’Brien: everything — tone, language, sentences, rhythms — became something new, yet remained uniquely and identifiably hers.

TM: You’ve written two novels now but you were also editor-at-large for Conde Nast Traveler. How do you differentiate writing fiction from non-fiction?

YH: The kind of writing I did for Traveler was largely what magazine editors call “service writing”: that is, short, information-dense blurbs. I’ve always appreciated this kind of writing, and appreciated people who can do it well. The emphasis is less on form than it is on the efficient, pithy, authoritative conveyance of facts; such writing is the bedrock of all glossy magazine journalism. I found it relaxing, as well as satisfying: so much of this type of magazine work is fitting words to space, not the other way around, and is thus a largely visual exercise. I also found it helpful to be able to practice such a different form of writing than I do with my fiction — you’re using language, of course, but the means towards which you’re deploying that language are very different. Mostly, though, my work at Traveler — and now at T magazine, where I started a new job about a month ago — was as an editor. Working at a magazine has taught me skills (unglamorous ones, perhaps) that’ve been useful in fiction: it teaches you how to pace and structure a story, whether that story is 500 or 5,000 or 50,000 words; it teaches you about deadlines, and the importance of obeying them; and it teaches you about turning in as clean a first draft as possible, about having respect for the story and for the first person — your editor — who’ll read it. And finally, it teaches you that after a certain point, you have to just file the piece. It may not be perfect. It never will be. But a few more hours or days or weeks of tinkering and fussing are likely never to elevate it from good to astonishing.

TM: I wonder how you feel about “click-bait” titles. Looking through your travel articles for Conde Nast Traveler – though not your current job anymore – the titles are so similar to many that can be found on other, less prestigious, and more bloggy websites. Just for example, the first two: “Three New Books to Bring on Your Next Trip” and “How to Get the Most Out of a Travel Specialist.” How do you feel about the internet readership culture that has made titles like this necessary?

HY: Oh, well, this is just part of having a job in any sort of publication whose digital strategy is based on traffic (which is to say, almost all of them). There are some stories you write just for eyeballs, and others that are re-titled by the web team to sound grabbier. It happens everywhere. I suppose I don’t have strong feelings about it; when you’re working at a consumer publication, your job is to attract readers, which in turn attracts greater traffic, which in turn attracts advertisers, who then give the publication money, which pays for your job. Sometimes there’s a nuanced story beneath that clickbait headline; sometimes there isn’t. But I understand the need for such reductive titles — there’s too much content online for subtlety.

TM: Do you think the internet needs some sort of quality control? Or do you accept that we’re just watching the evolution of how journalism and entertainment are conveyed?

HY: I’m not even sure how you’d do that. And I don’t think it’s even necessary: people who want trash will always be able to find it, and that doesn’t just apply to the world of online writing — it applies to print journalism as well. Or film. Or books. Or art. Or food! The dangerous or unfortunate thing would be if trash came to totally eclipse the non-trash — but I don’t think that’s happened yet.

TM: Returning again to your novel, A Little Life – I wonder what it was like to conceive of, ingest, digest, and then write the characters in the novel, and more specifically, the extremely traumatic events some of them remember or go through. How harrowing was the process, and how did you manage those scenes?

HY: The one truly difficult section to write was the part about Jude’s time with Dr. Traylor in the fifth part of the book. This wasn’t just the fact of the story itself, though; I was in Japan on my annual holiday, and feeling despondent for a number of reasons. Normally, this trip is the most blissful event of the year for me, but that year, it just wasn’t. Part of this, of course, was attributable to the book, and what felt like its urgency to announce itself on the screen. So I’d be walking through streets and temples that have never failed to bring me joy, and all I could think about was this section, and how I needed to exorcise it. And so I did, writing it over the course of four nights. I cut my sightseeing short and came back to the hotel at 4pm on each of those days, and wrote until 1 or 2am. It was the worst—the bleakest, the most physically exhausting, the most emotionally enervating—writing experience I’d had. And not necessarily because I think that’s the most upsetting part of the book; but it was the time when I felt, and feared, that the book was controlling me, somehow, as if I’d somehow become possessed by it. Much of the process of writing A Little Life was a seesaw between giving myself over to the flow and rhythm of writing it, which at its best, even in its darkest moments, felt as glorious as surfing; it felt like being carried aloft on something I couldn’t conjure but was lucky enough to have caught, if for just a moment. At its worst, I felt I was somehow losing my ownership over the book. It felt, oddly, like being one of those people who adopt a tiger or lion when the cat’s a baby and cuddly and manageable, and then watch in dismay and awe when it turns on them as an adult.

TM: Those nights writing so intensely in Japan – is that your usual process in terms of writing fiction? Having a few days of intense, impossible, yet exhilarating word-production, or do you usually write slower or with a certain method in mind?

HY: No, it was unusual. There are occasions when I go on binges, but because my job doesn’t really allow time for binges, I’ve trained myself to use the hours I do have efficiently.

The Booker’s Dozen: The 2015 Booker Longlist

In the second year that the Booker Prize has been open to U.S. authors, five American authors make the longlist. Anne Enright is the lone former winner on the list, while Marilynne Robinson is the most celebrated American to be tapped. Other notable names include Hanya Yanagihara, Tom McCarthy, and Bill Clegg, who has been better known as a high-powered literary agent and memoirist. Laila Lalami, who now calls the U.S. her home, is the first Moroccan-born writer to land on a Booker longlist. Seven countries are represented overall.

All the Booker Prize longlisters are below (with bonus links where available):

Did You Ever Have a Family by Bill Clegg
The Green Road by Anne Enright (What It Is to Be Alone: The Millions Interviews Anne Enright)
A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James (The Book Report on A Brief History)
The Moor’s Account by Laila Lalami (“How History Becomes Story – Three Novels” by Laila Lalami, Ship of Fools: On Laila Lalami’s The Moor’s Account)
Satin Island by Tom McCarthy (A Millions Top 10 book)
The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma (“The Audacity of Prose” by Chigozie Obioma, Clickworthy Headlines about The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma)
The Illuminations by Andrew O’Hagan
Lila by Marilynne Robinson (Marilynne Robinson’s Singular Vision)
Sleeping on Jupiter by Anuradha Roy
The Year of the Runaways by Sunjeev Sahota
The Chimes by Anna Smaill
A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler
A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara (Two Lives: On Hanya Yanagihara and Atticus Lish)

Two Lives: On Hanya Yanagihara and Atticus Lish

I’m sure there is a point after which it is universally felt to be tedious to read about someone’s baby. I had, in fact, no intention of mentioning mine when I sat down to write this essay, which has nothing to do with babies and which a more serious person would have managed to produce without thinking about themselves at all, progeny or no progeny. But the fact remains that all the reading I did this spring I did with a small baby occupying much of my time and psychic energy in ways I have yet to fully understand. I didn’t have postpartum depression; I had postpartum elation, which then settled into a sort of dismal feeling — perhaps my normal condition — after I resumed work and my hair fell out and my boobs departed and my period returned and it was just time to go about my business as though something very altering had not recently taken place.

I mention this because I am sensitive to bummers right now — am possibly a bummer myself — to the extent that for several months I was unable to reader Harper’s magazine, where every article was about melting ice caps and war and hideous injustice. And yet somehow during this time, when reports of reality were too painful to allow into my own comfortable nest, I read two unbearably sad books, books I heard about again and again until it seemed necessary to read them myself. From the reverence with which people spoke about them, I understood them to be tremendous bummers, but beautiful, transcendent ones, offering up almost baptismal benefits to their readers.

The first of these was Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life, a 700-pager following the lives of a group of close friends in New York City. I read Yanagihara’s The People in the Trees, which I found very, very good, and I expected to be similarly impressed by A Little Life, if not overwhelmed and made over in its image.

It’s always unsettling to find yourself totally at odds with an opinion that seems to be shared by many people with whom you might be expected to agree. A Little Life has stayed with me, not because I found it so sad, but because I found it so strangely bad, and have spent significant time wondering if what I perceive to be its badness is in fact a function of a bold narrative experiment that, to quote James Wood on Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled, “invents its own category of badness,” and thus deserves a very particular set of laurels. I am not being facetious; I was so impressed by Yanagihara’s other novel that it was conceivable to me that she might be up to some kind of perverse occult experiment with this one. I admired how dark The People in the Trees was, how gross, how resolute.

There is darkness, and grossness, and resoluteness in A Little Life, but its resoluteness is to a very particular, self-important sort of melodrama. The level of authorial commitment necessary for keeping this up over 700 pages is, paradoxically, what kept me interested in the novel even though I found it maddening and sometimes silly.

A Little Life has been lauded as a subversive masterpiece depicting the irreparable spiritual and physical damage of sexual abuse, of which the novel is unflinching in its portrayal, if irritatingly coy in the pace with which it unveils its horrors. Its protagonist and the victim of its suffering is Jude St. Francis, abandoned as a baby, taken in by pedophilic monks; rescued by the Feds, taken in by a pedophilic social worker; escaped; taken in by a pedophilic sociopath; rescued by a saintly social worker; sent to college; taken in by a saintly law professor; taken in by the delightful, suspiciously accomplished bunch of bright young men who become his star-studded adoptive family.

Jude is ravaged by his godawful past, and outstanding in spite of it (also very physically beautiful, it is suggested again and again). Both his misery and his excellence are exaggerated to occasionally cartoonish proportions; a new wound opening up on his legs every few pages; a new superhuman feat of professional prowess; a new demonstration of endless warmth and love for his friends; a new horror from his past suggested with a kind of lurid reticence: “He had heard stories from Brother Luke — he had seen videos — about things people did to one another: objects they used, props and weapons. A few times he had experienced these things himself.” Jude is a Mary Sue of suffering; the blood that flows from his unceasing bouts of self-harm is a stigmata.

I was not moved by the style which Yanagihara chose to put this story forth. The creepy, formal voice she sustained throughout the The People in the Trees revealed that she is a writer with a great deal of technical control. This makes the high melodrama in A Little Life all the more baffling. Here is Jude’s friend JB, following a conflagration with Jude and his best friend Willem:
Oh god, he thought. Oh god. What have I done?

I’m sorry, Jude, he said in his head, and this time he was able to cry properly, the tears running into his mouth, the mucus that he was unable to clean away bubbling over as well. But he was silent; he didn’t make any noise. I’m sorry, Jude, I’m so sorry, he repeated to himself, and then he whispered the words aloud, but quietly, so quietly that he could hear only his lips opening and closing, nothing more. Forgive me, Jude. Forgive me.

Forgive me.
Forgive me.
Forgive me.
Or here’s Jude, describing one of the acts of sadism that defined the first half of his life:
Back at the house, the beating continued, and over the next days, the next weeks, he was beat more. Not regularly — he never knew when it might happen next — but often enough so that coupled with his lack of food, he was always dizzy, he was always weak: he felt he would never have the strength to run again.
There are other odd narrative choices, like the rare first-person accounts of the man who eventually adopts Jude dotted throughout an otherwise third-person omniscient voice. There is the seemingly random hopping back and forth between the third-person present tense — “One weekend at the end of September, he drives out to Caleb’s friend’s house in Bridgehampton, which Caleb is now occupying until early October. Rothko’s presentation went well, and Caleb has been more relaxed, affectionate, even. He has only hit him once more, a punch to the sternum that sent him skidding across the floor…” — and the third-person past: “The days slipped by and he let them. In the morning he swam, and he and Willem ate breakfast.”

Moments and decades pass with these disorienting leaps, in a way that, like much about this novel, hovered right on the border between something that felt deliberate and interesting, and something that felt bungling.

There are the odd names, made odder by their frequent appearance in list form, in a number of permutations, at art galleries, at restaurants, at house parties, in Willem’s affirmations for Jude:
You’re Jude St. Francis. You are my oldest, dearest friend. You’re the son of Harold Stein and Julia Altman. You’re the friend of Malcolm Irvine, of Jean-Baptiste Marion, of Richard Goldfarb, of Andy Contractor, of Lucien Voigt, of Citizen van Straaten, of Rhodes Arrowsmith, of Elijah Kozma, of Phaedra de los Santos, of the Henry Youngs.
(There are two people in the novel named Henry Young; there is only one person named Citizen van Straaten.) The novel’s extended cast reminded me of a less waspy but no less elite version of Donna Tartt’s fancy people, who have the names of animals and are sometimes two-dimensional. That said, one of A Little Life’s virtues is that it is comfortably populated with multiple people of color, achieving effortlessly that thing over which, for example, the show Girls struggled so mightily.

If there is a subversive brilliance to Yanagihara’s novel, I found it in the way that she makes the reader, or this reader, embody the qualities of the main villain of Jude’s adult life, his cinematically evil boyfriend Caleb, who is repulsed by weakness and made savage by Jude’s use of a wheelchair. I called Jude a Mary Sue up there; why didn’t I use the male equivalent, a Marty Stu or a Gary? This brings me to the only defense of this novel to which I am somewhat receptive — Garth Greenwell’s claim that A Little Life is “the great gay novel.” Greenwell argues that “to understand the novel’s exaggeration and its intense, claustrophobic focus on its characters’ inner lives requires recognizing how it engages with aesthetic modes long coded as queer: melodrama, sentimental fiction, grand opera,” a point that is well-taken. What I saw as a sort of unlikely friendship of a too-good-to-be-true crew of loving overachievers, all of them rich and famous in their own right, all of them helplessly devoted to Jude, Greenwell sees “the communities of care formed by LGBT people in response to the AIDS crisis.”

I see the way in which this novel may be speaking to a mode of friendship and male experience to which I don’t have access, and I see that, from certain angles, my sense that this novel was long and overwrought was the result of some latent instinct to belittle “modes long coded as queer,” the same one that is finally exasperated rather than moved by Jude’s fatal insecurity and damage. But Greenwell loses me with his closing comparison to the “great gay art” of Marcel Proust and Pedro Almodóvar. Almodóvar’s genius, apart from the great beauty of his aesthetic (think of Penélope Cruz lip-syncing Volver), lies in his use of high camp to beatify a rag-tag assortments of losers and rebels. A Little Life lacks any measure of humor — fundamental to Almodóvar’s work — and its prose, which is simultaneously breathless and strangely bloodless, can’t compare to Almodóvar’s mastery of his medium. And let’s leave Proust — his miniaturist’s perfection — out of this altogether.

A Little Life eventually becomes a hostage situation; things happen that are so sad that, even if you are me and skeptical of the whole enterprise, you shed tears when they happen. But despite all of its open wounds and razor cuts and burned skin and exposed muscle and grotesque sexual violence, and even my tendency this spring to be left sobbing by a sad commercial, I found it a curiously sterile, curiously anodyne experience.

When I finished A Little Life, I read the second book I had seen similarly venerated, and which I also found to have a relentless quality. About Atticus Lish’s Preparation for the Next Life, one Amazon reviewer cautioned: “Have prozac at hand or at least a city park and dont do what the author does which is only look at the shards of glass, the rotten garbage, the yellow crabgrass. Look at least at one thriving graceful tree.” It’s true that the squalor starts right away, as Lish opens on the daily life of his protagonist Zou Lei, a half-Uighur, half-Han Chinese illegal immigrant to the United States, who is employed in a China Buffet-type joint.
They gave her a shirt with an insignia and visor, the smell of vaporized grease in the fabric. Everyone told her you have to be fast because the bossie watching you. They didn’t speak each other’s dialects, so they spoke English instead. Her first day, her worn-out sneakers slipped on the grease. She dropped an order, noodles popping out like worms, and that night she lay with her face to the wall, her jaw set, blinking…Squatting, she washed her clothes in the bathtub, wringing them out with her chapped, rural, purple-skinned hands, and hanging them up on the shower curtain rod with the others’ dripping laundry, the wet sequined denim and faded cartoon characters.
Lish makes the stakes of this unpleasant little existence evident immediately by having Zou Lei picked up by the police, and thrown into a carceral limbo where bodily harm, perpetual imprisonment, and spiritual annihilation are only a piece of paperwork or some guard’s malicious whim away. These dismal stakes are evident right away, and so is Lish’s commitment to an immersive immediacy of place and experience; I soon found the novel so moving and threatening and lovely that I would look up in the train to see if other people’s eyes were shining too.

There’s an abrupt macho fever to Lish’s writing that is the reverse of the style of A Little Life and which, had you described it to me, I would have predicted disliking intensely. But I found it hypnotic:
She started moving with the crowd, looking above their heads and seeing that she was going into a Chinatown, a thicket of vertical signs, the sails of sampans and junks, too many to read, a singsong clamor rising. No English. There were loudspeakers and dedications and banners for Year of the Dog. Voices all around her, calling and calling. Here, here, here, come and see! Someone spitting in the street. Crying out and running along next to her, pushing and pleading, grabbing the sleeve of her jacket. They put flyers in her hands and she dropped them. Missing teeth, younger than they looked. Illegals from the widow villages. Body wash, foot rub, Thai-style shower, bus to Atlantic City. A neon sign for KTV turned on in the dusk. The saw the endless heads of strangers, the crewcut workmen, running crates of rapeseed out the back of a van.
I don’t read very much poetry, but a few poems imprinted on me at a young age. I thought often of T.S. Eliot’s “Preludes” while reading this novel, imagining Lish as a remote god who had “such a vision of the street/ As the street hardly understands,” who writes “the conscience of a blackened street/ Impatient to assume the world.” And I was “moved by fancies that are curled/ Around these images, and cling:/ The notion of some infinitely gentle/ Infinitely suffering thing.”

It would be so easy for a book like this to be only brutal, or racist and othering in its brutality. And it is very brutal: Zou Lei falls in love with Skinner, a traumatized Iraq veteran whose head is filled with horrors: “What had been done to the bodies was not possible to reconstruct. They had been wrenched by giant hands, smashed, severed, filled with gas, perforated, burned, flung across space. A limb lay on a seat…A pile of organs, a liver in the red clothes…Everything had been blasted free of its identity…” But there remains something gentle and expansive in Lish’s characterizations. Here is Zou Lei, making a home of sorts with Skinner:
She was not the mother type. When she collected their empties one day and took them to the redeemer, it was because she was enterprising, not because she felt she should clean up after him. With the dollar and change she made, she bought a chicken skewer and saved it for them to eat together, half each, the meat cold by the time she had walked there with it through the small houses covered in Spanish graffiti. She was logging all these miles and it was good. Spring was coming, the big wheel of the city starting to turn.
I sort of hate to make so much out of an out-of-left-field novel about immigrants by a white man who is both a literary outsider and a pedigreed scion — a bald, muscular Marty Stu, if you will. It feels like a cliché. But I am powerless to deny that I found Preparation for the Next Life a beautiful, vital book. When I began reading, the continual squalor, the sense of doom, the guilty feeling in the pit of my stomach that made me close a Mother Jones tab made the book seem meaningful to me in a way that that A Little Life, although sad and similarly relentless, couldn’t do. I thought about them as a pair. What makes a book moving, and what makes a book mawkish?

In A Little Life, the dirt is on the inside, hiding in a shadowy group of monks and suburban pedophiles, and in the psyche if their victim; in Preparation for the Next Life, it’s on the outside — it’s on our streets and our food and our national conscience. Preparation is dealing in a physical squalor, the literal residue and dregs of crowded urban life, in a way that sometimes brought to mind, oddly, Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer.

But where Miller upholds a sort of exuberant filth, a gleeful comic nihilism that leaves you feeling itchy from bedbugs but energized and ravenous, Preparation is as humorless, in its way, as A Little Life. More than that, Lish’s novel is implicating: Have you eaten at a grimy Chinese joint? Have you unthinkingly tossed out the Styrofoam clamshell box and the plastic bag stapled with a scribbled receipt, without wondering who put it there? Did your tax dollars fund the Iraq war — the war that both brings Zou Lei’s love to her and destroys him? In Yanagihara’s novel, squalor and degradation are the ruinous individual exception in a world of summer houses and talent and hard work that gets you somewhere; in Lish’s, they are the baseline condition of the life we have made on our planet.

I considered the depressing books I know and conducted a small Twitter survey. There’s An American Tragedy. There’s Native Son and The Bell Jar and The Kindly Ones and Of Mice and Men. There’s McTeague and Sophie’s Choice and Rabbit Run and House of Mirth. And there’s the destroying queen of sad books, Beloved, which I re-read in the course of my survey, my baby asleep in her pack n’ play, and felt things happen inside of my heart and brain. That novel is as huge as mother-child love; its horror has texture — the “pulsating…baby’s blood that soaked her fingers like oil.”

And talk about implicating. As with A Little Life, people in Beloved do things that must be the absolute limit of human awfulness; unlike Yanagihara’s novel, though, Beloved’s awfulness has an exponential, an infinite quality — right from its very dedication, “Sixty Million and more.” And even though A Little Life describes horror that in some ways is a systemic horror, and even though its protagonist is caught up in an underground network of monsters that must also exist in real life, it never manages to feel like more than one person’s exceptional, uncanny bad luck. There is no context in which to put Jude’s suffering but the frantic love of his friends and family.

Obviously, a novel that documents the individual’s response to American slavery, or American poverty, or the fallout of the Iraq War, is a different beast than a novel that documents the individual’s response to his own very particular and comparatively finite set of circumstances. A Little Life is the latter kind of novel. And perhaps it is logical that, at a time when even people who are staggeringly well off in the scheme of things can’t buy a home or feel assured of college for their children, a novel about a group of friends comprising a famous artist, a movie star, a “starchitect,” a corporate lawyer, and all of their well-to-do friends — a story that is intentionally stripped of historicity and chronological markers — would have to really bring it in order to seem tragic.

But if there’s any kind of suffering to arouse sympathy and pity in human hearts across class lines, it’s the kind endured by Jude. And yet I still came up against some barrier, beyond the absurd names, beyond the tense-jumping, that kept me from feeling Yanagihara’s novel the way it was meant to be felt. Perhaps I have some kind of liberal hypocrites’ need for a political angle, some guilt around which to marshal all of my ineffectual sorrow.

But let’s return for a moment to my recent quavering heart — my avoidance of the news, my pile of unread magazines. How did I cope with these devastating novels, when a 1,500-word article often proved too much for me this spring?  Here is the cowardice of the novel-reader. While Preparation for the Next Life indeed made its way to a terrible crackup, it still ended on a redemptive note — a new life built around that time-honored American impulse to go West. Beloved, too, makes a little room for life to creep in: Paul D holds Sethe’s hand and says, “me and you, we got more yesterday than anybody. We need some kind of tomorrow.” Any redemption available in A Little Life is far more abstract — a purring cat, a blooming flower.

I accuse A Little Life of melodrama, but maybe, in my newly maternal state, I’m the sentimental fool needing succor — something that gives the lie to Henry Miller’s tossed-off prophesy: “We are all alone here, and we are dead.”

The New Canon

Is Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life a Great American Gay Novel? According to Garth Greenwell, the book — which came out in March — is one of the most ambitious gay novels to come out in years. At The Atlantic, he makes a case that the book is a classic of its kind. You could also read Christopher Richards on Frank O’Hara’s lessons for gay men.

Surprise Me!

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