Welcome to the 19th installment of The Millions' annual Year in Reading series! YIR gathers together some of today's most exciting writers, thinkers, and tastemakers to share the books that shaped their year. What makes the series special is that it celebrates the subjectivity of reading: where yearend best-of lists pass off their value judgement as definitive, YIR essayists take a more phenomenological tact, focusing instead on capturing the experience of the books they read. (I'm not particularly interested in handing down a decision on "The 10 Best Books of 2023," and neither are this year's contributors.) This, of course, makes for great, probing essays—in writing about our reading lives, we inevitably write about our inner lives. YIR contributors were encouraged approach the assignment—to reflect on the books they read this year, an intentionally vague prompt—however they wanted, and many did so with dazzling creativity. One contributor, a former writer at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, arranged her essay like an art gallery, with each book she read assigned a museum wall label. Another, whose work revolves around revolutionary and utopian movements in history, organized her year by the long-defunct French Revolutionary calendar. Some opted to write personal narratives, while others embraced the listicle format. Some divided up their reading between work and pleasure; for others, the two blended together (as is often the case for those of us in the literary profession). The books that populate this year's essays also varied widely. Some contributors read with intention: one writer of nonfiction returned to reading fiction for the first time in 13 years; one poet decided to read only Black romance in the second half of 2023. For two new parents, their years in reading were defined by the many picture books that they read to their infants. There were, however, common threads. This year, contributors read one book more than any other: Catherine Lacey's novel Biography of X, which chronicles the life of a fictional artist against the backdrop of an alternate America. Also widely read and written about were Dan Sinykin's Big Fiction, an analysis of the conglomeration of the publishing industry, and the works of Annie Ernaux (a star of last year's YIR as well). I'm profoundly grateful for the generosity of this year's contributors, the names of whom will be revealed below as entries are published throughout the month, concluding on Thursday, December 21. Be sure to bookmark this page and follow us on Twitter to stay up to date. —Sophia Stewart, editor Emily Wilson, classicist and translator of The IliadVauhini Vara, author of This Is SalvagedJenn Shapland, author of Thin Skin
We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for April. Looking for additional book recommendations? One of the benefits of subscribing to The Millions is access to our exclusive monthly newsletter in which our venerable staffers let you know what they’re reading right now. Learn more here. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. 1. 5 Year Diary 5 months 2. 3. Her Body and Other Parties 5 months 3. 4. Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process 6 months 4. 5. Fire Sermon 4 months 5. 7. The Immortalists 3 months 6. 9. The Largesse of the Sea Maiden 4 months 7. 8. Sing, Unburied, Sing 5 months 8. 10. My Favorite Thing is Monsters 4 months 9. - The Recovering: Intoxication and its Aftermath 1 month 10. - Frankenstein in Baghdad 1 month We sent both Jennifer Egan's Manhattan Beach and Celeste Ng's Little Fires Everywhere to our Hall of Fame this month. It's the second time Egan has attained this honor – her last novel A Visit from the Goon Squad reached the Hall in 2011. Egan joins twelve other authors who've had two works ascend to our Hall of Fame, and if the current pace holds true we can expect her third book to reach some time in 2025. If you're keeping track at home, we've now had thirteen authors send two books to our list; four have sent three; and then David Mitchell has sent four. The rest of our list shifted up the ranks accordingly. Carmen Maria Machado's Her Body and Other Parties moved from third to second position; John McPhee's Draft No. 4 from fourth to third. You get the idea. Two very different books fill the open spots on this month's list. Occupying ninth position is The Recovering, Leslie Jamison's sweeping exploration of addiction and those who grapple with it. The hefty volume was recently hailed by Michael Bourne as "a welcome corrective to the popular image of addiction as a gritty battle for the addict’s soul and recovery as a heroic feat of derring-do." He noted that Jamison's gifts are on display, and that the book "shimmers throughout." However Bourne was not without some criticism. The work could've used more "ruthless editing," and "there is little in The Recovering that wouldn’t be twice as compelling in a book half as long," Bourne wrote. Ahmed Saadawi's Frankenstein in Baghdad claimed the tenth spot after several months among the near misses. The book, which was translated for English readers by Jonathan Wright, was recently shortlisted for this year's Man Booker Prize. (While on the topic of honorifics, it had previously made an appearance on Lydia Kiesling's Year in Reading.) In our Great 2018 Book Preview, I looked ahead to Saadawi's latest: The long-awaited English translation of the winner of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction in 2014 gives American readers the opportunity to read Saadawi’s haunting, bleak, and darkly comic take on Iraqi life in 2008. Or, as Saadawi himself put it in interview for Arab Lit, he set out to write “the fictional representation of the process of everyone killing everyone.” This month’s other near misses included: Less, An American Marriage, The Odyssey, The World Goes On, and The Overstory. See Also: Last month's list. [millions_ad]
We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for June. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. 2. The Sympathizer 3 months 2. 3. Mr. Splitfoot 3 months 3. 4. Girl Through Glass 4 months 4. 5. The Past 5 months 5. 6. What Belongs to You 6 months 6. 8. Zero K 2 months 7. 7. My Name is Lucy Barton 6 months 8. 9. The Lost Time Accidents 4 months 9. - The Nest 1 month 10. - Barkskins 1 month Fresh off the heels of its Pulitzer win, there's a new number one in Millionsland: The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen. (He's a Year in Reading alumnus, by the way.) If past success in any indication, then smart money rides on Nguyen's debut novel soon heading to our Hall of Fame, where it'll join the past six Pulitzer winners: All the Light We Cannot See (2015), The Goldfinch (2014), The Orphan Master’s Son (2013), A Visit from the Goon Squad (2011), Tinkers (2010), and Olive Kitteridge (2009). You can read an excerpt of The Sympathizer at our sister site, Bloom. Speaking of the Hall of Fame, we graduate two novels this month -- Adam Johnson's Fortune Smiles and Marlon James's A Brief History of Seven Killings -- each of which took different paths en route to the honor. Johnson's novel enjoyed a comfortable position on the rankings pretty much out of the gate, when it debuted in the seventh spot last December. It subsequently climbed to fourth position the next month, then second, and ultimately it held the top position in March, April, and May. James's work, on the other hand, never climbed higher than the seventh spot, and most months it hovered around the ninth or tenth position. Nevertheless, it's staying power that matters around these parts, and now both works are headed to the Hall of Fame together. I, for one, am heartened! Filling the two open spots on this month's list are recent novels by Cynthia D'Aprix Sweeney and Annie Proulx, both of which were featured in our Great 2016 Book Preview last January. (Bonus: Did you hear we published the Great Second-Half Preview this week?) Sweeney's novel, The Nest, was teased by Rumaan Alam in his 2015 Year in Reading entry, and has been described since its March release as "delightful," "hilarious," "lively," and more. It focuses on four adult siblings waiting to cash in on their shared inheritance. Meanwhile Proulx's Barkskins was a lynchpin piece on our own Claire Cameron's "Summer Reading List for Wretched Assholes Who Prefer to Wallow in Someone Else’s Misery." It focuses on greed, wilderness, and the desolation of our forests. Truly, Millions readers are all over the map! This month's near misses included: Innocents and Others, The Queen of the Night, Signs Preceding the End of the World, Why We Came to the City, and Everybody's Fool. See Also: Last month's list.
1. “Why are they still bothering with paperbacks?” This came from a coffee-shop acquaintance when he heard my book was soon to come out in paperback, nine months after its hardcover release. “Anyone who wants it half price already bought it on ebook, or Amazon.” Interestingly, his point wasn’t the usual hardcovers-are-dead-long-live-the-hardcover knell. To his mind, what was the use of a second, cheaper paper version anymore, when anyone who wanted it cheaply had already been able to get it in so many different ways? I would have taken issue with his foregone conclusion about the domination of ebooks over paper, but I didn’t want to spend my babysitting time down that rabbit hole. But he did get me thinking about the role of the paperback relaunch these days, and how publishers go about getting attention for this third version of a novel — fourth, if you count audiobooks. I did what I usually do when I’m puzzling through something, which is to go back to my journalism-school days and report on it. Judging by the number of writers who asked me to share what I heard, there are a good number of novelists who don’t quite know what to do with their paperbacks, either. Here’s what I learned, after a month of talking to editors, literary agents, publishers, and other authors: A paperback isn’t just a cheaper version of the book anymore. It’s a makeover. A facelift. And for some, a second shot. 2. About ebooks. How much are they really cutting into print, both paperbacks and hardcovers? Putting aside the hype and the crystal ball, how do the numbers really look? The annual Bookstats Report from the Association of American Publishers (AAP), which collects data from 1,977 publishers, is one of the most reliable measures. In the last full report — which came out July 2012 — ebooks outsold hardcovers for the first time, representing $282.3 million in sales (up 28.1%), compared to adult hardcover ($229.6 million, up 2.7%). But not paperback — which, while down 10.5%, still represented $299.8 million in sales. The next report comes out this July, and it remains to be seen whether ebook sales will exceed paper. Monthly stat-shots put out by the AAP since the last annual report show trade paperbacks up, but the group’s spokesperson cautioned against drawing conclusions from interim reports rather than year-end numbers. Numbers aside, do we need to defend whether the paperback-following-hardcover still has relevance? “I think that as opposed to a re-release being less important, it’s more than ever important because it gives a book a second chance with a new cover and lower cost, plus you can use all the great reviews the hardcover got,” says MJ Rose, owner of the book marketing firm Authorbuzz, as well as a bestselling author of novels including The Book of Lost Fragrances. “So many books sell 2,000 or 3,000 copies in hardcover and high-priced ebooks, but take off when they get a second wind from trade paperback and their e-book prices drop.” What about from readers’ perspectives? Is there something unique about the paperback format that still appeals? I put the question to booksellers, though of course as bricks-and-mortar sellers, it’s natural that they would have a bias toward paper. Yet the question isn’t paper versus digital: it’s whether they are observing interest in a paper book can be renewed after it has already been out for nine months to a year, and already available at the lower price, electronically. “Many people still want the portability of a lighter paper copy,” said Deb Sundin, manager of Wellesley Books in Wellesley, MA. “They come in before vacation and ask, ‘What’s new in paper?’ ” “Not everyone e-reads,” says Nathan Dunbar, a manager at Barnes & Noble in Skokie, IL. “Many customers tell us they’ll wait for the paperback savings. Also, more customers will casually pick up the paperback over hardcover.” Then there’s the issue of what a new cover can do. “For a lot of customers the paperback is like they’re seeing it for the first time,” says Mary Cotton, owner of Newtonville Books in Newtonvillle, MA. “It gives me an excuse to point it out to people again as something fresh and new, especially if it has a new cover.” 3. A look at a paperback’s redesign tells you a thing or two about the publisher’s mindset: namely, whether or not the house believes the book has reached its intended audience, and whether there’s another audience yet to reach. Beyond that, it’s anyone’s Rorschach. Hardcovers with muted illustrations morph into pop art, and vice versa. Geometric-patterned book covers are redesigned with nature imagery; nature imagery in hardcover becomes photography of women and children in the paperback. Meg Wolitzer, on a panel about the positioning of women authors at the recent AWP conference, drew knowing laughter for a reference to the ubiquitous covers with girls in a field or women in water. Whether or not publishers want to scream book club, they at least want to whisper it. “It seems that almost every book these days gets a new cover for the paperback. It’s almost as if they’re doing two different books for two different audiences, with the paperback becoming the ‘book club book,’” says Melanie Benjamin, author of The Aviator’s Wife. Benjamin watched the covers of her previous books, including Mrs. Tom Thumb and Alice I Have Been, change from hardcovers that were “beautiful, and a bit brooding” to versions that were “more colorful, more whimsical.” A mood makeover is no accident, explains Sarah Knight, a senior editor at Simon & Schuster, and can get a paperback ordered in a store that wouldn’t be inclined to carry its hardcover. “New cover art can re-ignite interest from readers who simply passed the book over in hardcover, and can sometimes help get a book displayed in an account that did not previously order the hardcover because the new art is more in line with its customer base.” Some stores, like the big-boxes and airports, also carry far more paperbacks than hardcovers. Getting into those aisles in paperback can have an astronomical effect on sales. An unscientific look at recent relaunches shows a wide range of books that got full makeovers: Olive Kitteridge, A Visit From the Goon Squad, The Newlyweds, The Language of Flowers, The Song Remains the Same, The Age of Miracles, Arcadia, and The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, as did my own this month (The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D.) Books that stayed almost completely the same, plus or minus a review quote and accent color, include Wild, Beautiful Ruins, The Snow Child, The Weird Sisters, The Paris Wife, Maine, The Marriage Plot, The Art of Fielding, The Tiger’s Wife, Rules of Civility, and The Orchardist. Most interesting are the books that receive the middle-ground treatment, designers flirting with variations on their iconic themes. The Night Circus, The Invisible Bridge, State of Wonder, The Lifeboat, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, Tell the Wolves I’m Home, Tigers in Red Weather, and The Buddha in the Attic are all so similar to the original in theme or execution that they’re like a wink to those in the know — and pique the memory of those who have a memory of wanting to read it the first time around. Some writers become attached to their hardcovers and resist a new look in paperback. Others know it’s their greatest chance of coming out of the gate a second time — same race, fresh horse. When Jenna Blum’s first novel, Those Who Save Us, came out in hardcover in 2004, Houghton Mifflin put train tracks and barbed wire on the cover. Gorgeous, haunting, and appropriate for a WWII novel, but not exactly “reader-friendly,” Blum recalls being told by one bookseller. The following year, the paperback cover — a girl in a bright red coat in front of a European bakery — telegraphed the novel’s Holocaust-era content without frightening readers away. “The paperback cover helped save the book from the remainder bins, I suspect,” Blum says. Armed with her paperback, Jenna went everywhere she was invited, which ended up tallying more than 800 book clubs. Three years later, her book hit the New York Times bestseller list. “Often the hardcover is the friends-and-family edition, because that’s who buys it, in addition to collectors,” she says. “It’s imperative that a paperback give the novel a second lease on life if the hardcover didn’t reach all its intended audience, and unless you are Gillian Flynn, it probably won’t.” There’s no hard-and-fast rule about when the paperback should ride in for that second lease. A year to paperback used to be standard, but now a paperback can release earlier — to capitalize on a moderately successful book before it’s forgotten — or later, if a hardcover is still turning a strong profit. At issue: the moment to reissue, and the message to send. “Some books slow down at a point, and the paperback is a great opportunity to repromote and reimagine,” says Sheila O’Shea, associate publisher for Broadway and Hogarth paperbacks at the Crown Publishing Group (including, I should add, mine). “The design of a paperback is fascinating, because you have to get it right in a different way than the hardcover. If it’s a book that relates specifically to females you want that accessibility at the table — women drawn in, wondering, Ooh, what’s that about.” The opportunity to alter the message isn’t just for cover design, but the entire repackaging of the book — display text, reviews put on the jacket, synopses used online, and more. In this way, the paperback is not unlike the movie trailer which, when focus-grouped, can be reshaped to spotlight romantic undertones or a happy ending. “Often by the time the paperback rolls around, both the author and publicist will have realized where the missed opportunities were for the hardcover, and have a chance to correct that,” says Simon & Schuster’s Sarah Knight. “Once your book has been focus-grouped on the biggest stage — hardcover publication — you get a sense of the qualities that resonate most with people, and maybe those were not the qualities you originally emphasized in hardcover. So you alter the flap copy, you change the cover art to reflect the best response from the ideal readership, and in many cases, the author can prepare original material to speak to that audience.” Enter programs like P.S. (Harper Collins) and Extra Libris (Crown Trade and Hogarth), with new material in the back such as author interviews, essays, and suggested reading lists. “We started Extra Libris last spring to create more value in the paperback, to give the author another opportunity to speak to readers. We had been doing research with booksellers and our reps and book club aficionados asking, What would you want in paperbacks? And it’s always extra content,” says Crown’s O’Shea. “Readers are accustomed to being close to the content and to the authors. It’s incumbent on us to have this product to continue the conversation.” 4. Most of a paperback discussion centers on the tools at a publisher’s disposal, because frankly, so much of a book’s success is about what a publisher can do — from ads in trade and mainstream publications, print and online, to talking up the book in a way that pumps enthusiasm for the relaunch. But the most important piece is how, and whether, they get that stack in the store. My literary agent Julie Barer swears the key to paperback success is physical placement. “A big piece of that is getting stores (including the increasingly important Costco and Target) to take large orders, and do major co-op. I believe one of the most important things that moves books is that big stack in the front of the store,” she says. “A lot of that piece is paid for and lobbied for by the publisher.” Most publicists’ opportunities for reviews have come and gone with the hardcover, but not all, says Kathleen Zrelak Carter, a partner with the literary PR firm Goldberg McDuffie. “A main factor for us in deciding whether or not to get involved in a paperback relaunch is the off-the-book-page opportunities we can potentially pursue. This ranges from op-ed pieces to essays and guest blog posts,” she says. “It’s important for authors to think about all the angles in their book, their research and inspiration, but also to think about their expertise outside of being a writer, and how that can be utilized to get exposure.” What else can authors do to support the paperback launch? Readings have already been done in the towns where they have most connections, and bookstores don’t typically invite authors to come for a paperback relaunch. But many are, however, more than happy to have relaunching authors join forces with an author visiting for a new release, or participate in a panel of authors whose books touch on a common theme. And just because a bookstore didn’t stock a book in hardcover doesn’t mean it won’t carry the paperback. Having a friend or fellow author bring a paperback to the attention of their local bookseller, talking up its accolades, can make a difference. I asked folks smarter than I about branding, and they said the most useful thing for authors receiving a paperback makeover is to get on board with the new cover. That means fronting the new look everywhere: the author website, Facebook page, and Twitter. Change the stationery and business cards too if, like I did, you made them all about a cover that is no longer on the shelf. “Sometimes a writer can feel, ‘But I liked this cover!’” says Crown’s O’Shea. “It’s important to be flexible about the approach, being open to the idea of reimagining your own work for a broader audience, and using the tools available to digitally promote the book with your publisher.” More bluntly said, You want to sell books? Get in the game. Your hardcover might have come and gone, but in terms of your book’s rollout, it’s not even halftime yet. “The paperback is truly a new release, and a smart author will treat it as such,” says Randy Susan Meyers, author The Murderer’s Daughters, her new novel The Comfort Of Lies, and co-author of the publishing-advice book What To Do Before Your Book Launch with book marketer and novelist M.J. Rose. “Make new bookmarks, spruce up your website, and introduce yourself to as many libraries as possible. Bookstores will welcome you, especially when you plan engaging multi-author events. There are opportunities for paperbacks that barely exist for hardcovers, including placement in stores such as Target, Costco, Walmart, and a host of others. Don’t let your paperback launch slip by. For me, as for many, it was when my book broke out.”
I'd been waiting to read another novel by Lauren Groff ever since I finished her first, The Monsters of Templeton, a genealogy-detective story which also happens to include an enormous lake monster and sentences so beautiful you just want to weep. That promising debut, however, could not prepare me for the brilliance and wisdom of Arcadia, Groff's recently-released second novel. I was wholly swept up in this story about, among other things, a man who is raised on a commune; I would've read it faster were it not for the stunning prose that I wanted, like a fine meal, to savor. Groff's novel is so richly imagined that every word, every detail, feels true. She is one of the most talented writers working today. The Millions: I was immediately drawn to Bit as a narrator--he's sensitive, thoughtful, a keen observer of his surroundings, sweet, and tiny. Can't get much more loveable than that. (He also seems an antidote to another fictional boy, Kevin, from one of my favorite books, We Need to Talk About Kevin--and I think, as a mother of a son, I needed that!) I really enjoyed being in Bit's world, his perspective. Was he always the person to tell this story? How do you feel a different member of Arcadia might have altered our perception of it? Lauren Groff: Bit was always the person to tell the story, even if he didn't begin as the character he ended up being by the last draft. I started this book when I was pregnant with my first son Beckett; from the beginning, I knew there was going to be a child's point-of-view in the first part. That said, Bit was at first a girl, primarily because almost every point-of-view character I've ever written up to then was female. Then Beck was born, and suddenly the character had to be a boy, and he grew into a fuller life as my son did. This book is equally Bit's mother's story--Hannah's story--and even though she and I are similar in a lot of ways, I found Bit's perspective to be more interesting, his loss more keen. When Arcadia falls apart, Bit knows nothing of the world beyond, really, and has to go into it as an innocent, which seemed utterly terrifying to me. (As a side-note, I love Lionel Shriver [holy hell!].) TM: I was impressed with how language of this book shifted, grew more mature, as the book progressed, as Bit aged. Also, there's almost a groovy rhythm to the prose early on that reflects the lifestyle of the commune. Later on, the prose is far more subdued. Was this intentional, and how did you calibrate the perspective with each section? LG: It's hard to say how intentional the shift in language was--I write from the gut a lot. That said, I believe very deeply in the symbiosis of story and mode, that the way that a writer chooses to tell the story has to be at least an equal partner to the story itself. Global things matter--the external architecture of the story, its internal structure, point-of-view, voice, verb tense, authorial distance, things like that. And smaller things matter equally--the use of white space, the length and rhythm of the sentences, the choice of details. When a story I've written has failed, it's because I haven't found the right way to tell it in either a large way or a small way. TM: Everyone who's read this book raves about its prose. It's gorgeous! When Bit is alone as a child in the dark woods, you write, "There is a sense of gathering, a hand that clenches the center of a stretched cloth and lifts." Later, Bit describes the unfamiliarity of boxed cookies, how they taste "the way batteries do when licked." As an adult, he thinks of his students, their "faces cracked with interest." The images are specific, surprising, beautiful. Can you talk a little about your relationship to sentences and imagery, and how you go about crafting your prose? LG: Ha. Thanks. The prose that ends up in a finished piece is the product of lots and lots of drafts. I do a preliminary draft of almost everything I write, where I just sprint from the beginning of the story to the end in longhand, and when I'm done, I throw it out without rereading it. This seems wasteful, but it's actually immensely freeing. By the time I'm done with the first draft, I've figured out my structural problems, have a good idea of the characters, and, most importantly, am not so wedded to the words themselves that I can't fix what's inherently broken about the piece. When I start again, the nice phrasing or images from the first draft reappear if they're interesting or important and don't if they're not. And then, after a good longhand draft is finished (maybe after three or four re-starts), and I transfer it all to the computer, the second stage of drafting begins, where I print out the manuscript, scribble over it crabbily in red ink, insert changes, and reprint. This goes on for dozens and dozens of drafts. And then there are the trusted reader drafts, the agent drafts, the editor drafts, the copy-editor drafts. Sometimes, I wonder if writing fiction is, at its core, mostly a matter of finding a story or character that's interesting enough to hold the writer's interest through all of the painstaking work of revising. TM: The novel reads episodically, with little moments or scenes broken up by white space. There are parts that feel more episodic than others, and it almost feels like time is passing in flashes, everything blurry but a brief, beautiful moment. This made the book not only highly readable, but it also emphasized the passage of time by giving it a physical dimension on the page. This is a long-winded preamble to asking you how you conceived of time passing in Arcadia. The novel is told in the present-tense, and yet, the latter half of the book is so much about Bit looking backward. How did you wrestle with all the years covered? How does scene-writing change in a book that covers so much time? LG: Oh, I'm so glad you mentioned time. From the beginning, it was deeply important to my idea of the project of this book. I am in love with the gorgeous, elastic, leaping human brain that shuffles and connects disparate pieces of the world into a coherent story. I wanted the white space, either between the episodes or between the four parts of the book, to carry a lot of the narrative burden. Some people may live lives that are perfectly linear, but mine seems to happen in intense, emotionally-charged spurts, followed by long, fallow periods of relative calm. My impression of history--our collective storytelling--is that it happens in crests and troughs, too. With Arcadia, I wanted to examine time, through Bit, as this intensely personal experience; I also wanted to examine time in its larger historical patterns. TM: I admit, I'm a bit annoyed that so many reviews of Arcadia give away its plot and structure , which was deeply surprising (and thus pleasurable) to me. So, ***spoiler alert*** to those reading this interview who haven't read the book! I was shocked when this book moved forward into the future; this suddenly panoramic view of Bit's whole life reminded me a little of A Visit from the Goon Squad (of which I am a big fan), in its surprising depiction of a future that supplies us with a new understanding of the book's characters. Did you know you were going to structure Arcadia like this? I kept wondering if an earlier draft was more conventional, plot-wise, more like Room by Emma Donoghue--where the little boy who was born and raised in a shed escapes and in the second half of the book has to interact with this big, scary new world. Why skip ahead to Bit as an adult, now accustomed to the outside world? Were you meaning to shift our expectations of plot and novel structure? LG: As soon as I figured out what I wanted to write about, I understood that my arc was going to move toward dystopia at the end of the book. The impulse stemmed from my research--a lot of the back-to-the-landers I read about and talked to for Arcadia went from being largely idealistic in the 1960s to being somewhat apocalyptic nowadays; for instance, a number of them ascribe to peak oil theories and practice radical homemaking. (For the record, I don't think they're wrong.) I was gobsmacked by the idea that people who were extremely future-thinking in their twenties would become extremely anxious about the future in their sixties. It keyed into a lot of the bleakness I was feeling at the time I envisioned this book, because, in truth, I was (am) afraid for my baby's future. Also, the real pattern for this book was not just ending at Paradise Lost, but also extending into Paradise Regained; if Bit were going to be given the chance to return home, the stakes in the outside world had to be heightened. And though I deeply love Room, which I let myself read after my final edits, Bit's trajectory was different because I wanted to explore how Bit carries his parents' idealism throughout his life and how it changes him. TM: How much research went into Arcadia? What in the commune is just pure imagination and fantasy, and what did you feel needed to be backed up with historical fact? Where does research fit into your writing process? LG: I research first and a great deal, and then do a small amount throughout the rest of the writing process, all of which took about four years for this book. I wasn't sure what I wanted to do at the beginning, so I started with just basic texts about utopias and dystopias. I moved on to utopian novels (Butler, Morris, More, Le Guin, Campanella, and on and on), read about actual historical intentional communities. The two that took my breath away were Oneida, in mid-nineteenth-century upstate New York (Mansion House is the inspiration for Arcadia House), and The Farm in 1960s through '80s Tennessee. I spent a few days at both places. Oneida is now a guest-house, and you can stay with people who still live at The Farm, both of which experiences I recommend heartily. And then I talked to everyone who would talk to me about their experiences in intentional communities. Serendipity was on my side with this project. Even during moments that I wasn't looking for a story, I stumbled into one. We had a garage sale and someone came up to us who said our house had housed a cult in the 1970s that she'd been a part of. Apparently, they wore pink robes and made the kids sleep in the garage. TM: And because The Millions is a site about books, I must ask, What's the last great book you read? LG: I just read Leela Corman's Unterzakhn, and can't say enough lovely things about it. It's a graphic novel that just came out, set on the Lower East Side in the beginning of the twentieth century. It's lush and smart and and funny and just beautifully drawn. And I just reread Jami Attenberg's great new novel called The Middlesteins, which will be published in October. It's so great-hearted and warm and brilliant. You'll love it.
Last night, the winners of the National Book Critics Circle Award were announced in New York City. The award is voted on by critics and considers all books in English (including in translation), no matter the country of origin. The winners in the various categories and some supplementary links: Fiction: Jennifer Egan, A Visit from the Goon Squad (at The Millions, Egan's Year in Reading, excerpt) Nonfiction: Isabel Wilkerson, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration (excerpt) Autobiography: Darin Strauss, Half a Life (excerpt) Criticism: Clare Cavanagh, Lyric Poetry and Modern Politics: Russia, Poland, and the West Biography: Sarah Bakewell, How To Live: Or, A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer (at The Millions, excerpt) Poetry: C. D. Wright, One with Others Previously: The finalists
The nominees for the 2011 PEN/Faulkner fiction award have been announced. The books in the running are Millions Hall of Famer A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan (Egan profiled at The Millions); The Collected Stories of Deborah Eisenberg (Eisenberg profiled at The Millions); National Book Award winner Lord of Misrule by Jaimy Gordon; Model Home by Eric Puchner (one of our "20 More Under 40"); and Aliens in the Prime of Their Lives by Brad Watson (Brad Watson's Year in Reading 2009).
We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for February. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. 3. The Imperfectionists 2 months 2. 4. Atlas of Remote Islands 3 months 3. 8. Skippy Dies 2 months 4. 5. Room 6 months 5. 7. Cardinal Numbers 3 months 6. 10. The Finkler Question 4 months 7. 9. Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption 3 months 8. - The Late American Novel: Writers on the Future of Books 1 month 9. - Autobiography of Mark Twain, Vol. 1 1 month 10. - The Hunger Games 1 month Tom Rachman's The Imperfectionists surges to the top of our list, followed by Judith Schalansky's Atlas of Remote Islands, and Paul Murray's Skippy Dies. Meanwhile, the bottom of our list includes three very diverse debuts. The Late American Novel, co-edited by yours truly, is only just now "officially" out but it has been shipping from Amazon for a few weeks now. (To everyone out there who's picked up the book, thanks for all your support.) Also, new on the list is the Mark Twain Autobiography that has gotten so much attention over the last few months. A few commentators, notably Adam Gopnik in the New Yorker, deflated the hype somewhat, but there is undoubtedly an enormous amount of interest in this literary legend. Finally, all the excitement around YA sensation The Hunger Games has landed the first book in the popular series on our list. Those three debuts took the spots left open by a trio of new Hall of Fame inductees, three books you could argue were the biggest literary reads of last summer, Gary Shteyngart's Super Sad True Love Story, Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad, and, of course, Jonathan Franzen's Freedom. Near Misses: How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One, Postcards from Penguin: One Hundred Book Covers in One Box, To the End of the Land, Just Kids , and Woman in White. See Also: Last month's list
1. The writing of good fiction requires, among many elusive talents, empathy and imagination. Put another way, the fiction writer must be like a trained actor, inhabiting the minds, emotions, and bodies of people whose essential makeup and experiences are quite different from his own. Write what you know has its limits, and many of us write to discover what we know, or to experience something of what we don’t know. Not to mention the fact that those empathic and imaginative muscles can get flabby; when we stretch them and work them, we stretch and work our whole intelligence. Lately my reading life has delivered up some interesting examples of empathic leaps; specifically, of writers who dare to leap the imaginative chasm of gender. Are they successful? How does one measure? 2. Annie Proulx comes to mind immediately. More often than not, her main characters are male. And not just that, her fictional worlds – like the brutal Wyoming plains in her collection Close Range – are distinctly male worlds, where words are few and primal energies prevail. The Wyoming stories are gritty and violent; their central dramatic features include castration, rape, attic-torture, drunkenness, rodeo gore, murder by tire iron. The one “female” story – that is, where the narrator is a woman – ends in a shootout (another woman character shooting her philandering boyfriend and -- possibly, we're not sure -- herself). One measure of these stories’ success, you could argue, is that the author’s identity, gender and otherwise, recedes as the characters and the place envelop us. And yet: I’ll never forget reading “Brokeback Mountain” in the New Yorker back in 1997 (eight years before Ennis del Mar and Jack Twist were immortalized on screen by Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhall). The reading experience was breathtaking; I thought, my God, Did I really just read a gay cowboy story, rough sex and all? Who can forget: Ennis ran full throttle on all roads whether fence mending or money spending, and he wanted none of it when Jack seized his left hand and brought it to his erect cock. Ennis jerked his hand away as though he’d touched fire, got to his knees, unbuckled his belt, shoved his pants down, hauled Jack onto all fours, and, with the help of the clear slick and a little spit, entered him, nothing he’d done before but no instruction manual needed. They went at it in silence except for a few sharp intakes of breath and Jack’s choked, “Gun’s goin off,” then out, down, and asleep […] They never talked about the sex, let it happen, at first only in the tent at night, then in the full daylight, with the hot sun striking down, and at evening in the fire glow, quick, rough, laughing and snorting, no lack of noises, but saying not a goddam word except once Ennis said, “I’m not no queer,” and Jack jumped in with “Me neither. A one-shot thing. Nobody’s business but ours.” At the time, “Brokeback” was as stunning as it was heartbreaking. Was it more stunning that it had been written by a woman? Or perhaps less? It seemed that the editors, or Proulx herself, wanted us to consider the question: in the center of the second page of the opening spread, we saw a cartoon portrait of Proulx, gender-ambiguous at first glance, with the following caption: The author’s first stories, twenty years ago, were all about hunting and fishing – “hook-and-bullet material” – written for a men’s-magazine editor who thought he couldn’t publish a contributor called Annie. He suggested “something like Joe or Zack, retrievers’ names,” the author recalls. The compromise was initials: E.A. Proulx. The “E” somehow stuck. (The author won the Pulitzer Prize as E. Annie Proulx.) The author is now sixty-four, and “Brokeback Mountain” is the first story published by just Annie. In the late 1970s, Proulx had to pretend to be a male author to publish stories for a male audience; in 1997, writing an erotic gay-male love story for the intellectual set, she came out, officially, as a woman. Was October 1997 a moment when we decided that a woman could write whatever she damn well pleased (because look how well she’s doing it)? Or was the revelation of Proulx’s gender a way of making a groundbreaking story (for the New Yorker, anyway) go down easier? Do we ever really “forget” the author? Does she ever truly recede when we are reading gender-crossing works? Do we necessarily want her to? 3. There is the best-known example of Mary Ann Evans, aka George Eliot, the foremother of all women who’ve taken pen names in order to advance as an author. With her first fiction publication in 1858, Scenes of Clerical Life, she recorded in her journal speculations and letters she received regarding the secret (gender) identity of the author: Jan 2 - “Mrs Nutt said to [George Henry Lewes] ‘I think you don’t know our curate. He says the author of Clerical Scenes is a High Churchman.” Jan 17, letter from J.A Froude – “I can only thank you most sincerely for the delight which [your book] has given me, and both I myself and my wife trust that the acquaintance which we seem to have made with you through your writings may improve into something more tangible. I do not know whether I am addressing a young man or an old, a clergyman or a layman.” Feb 16 – “[Mr. John Blackwood] told us Thackeray spoke highly of the ‘Scenes’ and said they were not written by a woman. Mrs. Blackwood is sure they are not written by a woman.” Only a fellow writer by the name of Charles Dickens suspected: "In addressing these few words of thankfulness […] I am (I presume) bound to adopt the name that it pleases that excellent writer to assume […] but I should have been strongly disposed, if I had been left to my own devices, to address the said writer as a woman. I have observed what seem to me such womanly touches in those moving fictions, that the assurance on the title-page is insufficient to satisfy me even now. If they originated with no woman, I believe that no man ever before had the art of making himself mentally so like a woman since the world began.” With the publication, and popularity, of Adam Bede, published in 1859, Mary Ann Evans (Lewes) did finally step forward as the woman behind George Eliot. 4. What about Jean Rhys’s Mr. Rochester in Wide Sargasso Sea? He is a decidedly revised Rochester, less victim than Charlotte Bronte’s – proud, racist, ultimately vicious; misdirecting his emasculation rage (meant for his father) at Antoinette, Rhys’s woman in the attic. Is there a sense in which Rhys is always there, behind and inside Rochester? Look how a man can drive a woman to insanity, can destroy her life. Look at what goes through his mind, how he does it, let me show you. Rochester’s point-of-view – the majority of the book – is in this sense on some level Antoinette’s point-of-view; Woman’s point-of-view. 5. A random short list (from my bookshelf) of other notable females-writing-males: Joan Silber, half the stories in Ideas of Heaven Ann Patchett, Run Susan Choi, A Person of Interest Jennifer Egan, The Keep, stories in A Visit from the Good Squad Flannery O’Connor, the majority of her work Jhumpa Lahiri, The Namesake, a number of stories Rachel Kushner, sections of Telex From Cuba Marilynne Robinson, Gilead Mavis Gallant, the Steve Burnet stories 6. On the converse side of literary gender-crossing, there are a few exemplary stories by male writers I’d like to mention briefly. In “Family Happiness,” a story about rising and falling romance from the point of view of a young woman who marries an older man, Tolstoy gets the female first-person narrator so right and so true – thought, feeling, and action – there is no doubt in my mind that his disappearance from the reader’s consciousness is the goal, poignantly achieved. (One wonders if Anna Karenina might have been written in the first person, to equal or greater effect!) Daniel Mueenuddin’s linked collection, In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, features two heartbreaking stories of the Pakistani servant class – “Saleema,” along with the title story – both told from the third-person point of view of women. The protagonists Saleema and Husna are at the mercy of male power, which, in this context, is the same as societal power; both meet tragic ends. What’s interesting to me about having knowledge of the author’s male gender in this case is that, while I wouldn't cite anything particularly “male” in the telling, there is something in the fact of the male telling that dignifies the women in an important way. The stories are told truthfully, unhysterically; this is how it is, the (male) author posits. There is no guilt, no “message,” just the telling. I somehow have the urge to thank him. Finally, a most interesting example: Colm Toibin’s “Silence,” from his new collection The Empty Family. The heroine is a fictionalized (though researched) Lady Gregory, an Irish dramatist – married to Sir William Henry Gregory, a former governor of Ceylon and 35 years her senior – who came into her own as a writer when she became widowed. Toibin portrays Lady Gregory as a good aristocratic wife – “She had made sure that she was silent without seeming shy, polite and reserved without seeming intimidated” – yet also sharply observant, quietly ambitious, more concerned with Beauty as a form than its earthly incarnations. In the story (and in real life), she has an affair with the poet Wilfrid Scawen Blunt, and is more stimulated by the idea of the affair than the passion itself. This intellectualized intensity results in the writing of a series of love sonnets, which she convinces Blunt to publish under his own name (this is also true to life). At the story’s end, she dines with Henry James and passes on an altered version of her affair as fodder for the great writer’s fiction. How true to the real Lady Gregory Toibin’s characterization is, I don’t know, but I loved the way in which Toibin, the male writer, endowed the female character of a certain era with “inappropriately" male drives and talents, both confining and liberating her as a woman and artist. In other words, I felt a simultaneous intimacy with the male “frame” and with female intellectual desire within that frame, as observed/admired by a male writer. The layering is distinct from, say, Lizzie Bennett in Jane Austen’s world, where the world is itself seen through a female author’s gaze. 7. In literary gender-crossings, do we ever really forget the author? Do we necessarily want to? Predictably: yes, and no. (Image: Male/Female - Jonathan Borofsky from _o_de_andrade_'s photostream)
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. 2. A Visit from the Goon Squad 6 months 2. 1. Freedom 6 months 3. - The Imperfectionists 1 month 4. 4. Atlas of Remote Islands 2 months 5. 3. Room 5 months 6. 6. Super Sad True Love Story 6 months 7. 8. Cardinal Numbers 2 months 8. - Skippy Dies 1 month 9. 10. Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption 2 months 10. 9. The Finkler Question 3 months Goon Squad! In the last month on our list before they graduate to the Hall of Fame, Jennifer Egan's underdog A Visit from the Goon Squad toppled Jonathan Franzen's Freedom for our top spot. Egan's book started with a lot of buzz last summer, and that buzz grew deafening over the course of 2010 (and into 2011) as it became the book to read among discerning fans of contemporary literature. Meanwhile, after months knocking on the door, Tom Rachman's The Imperfectionists (not coincidentally just out in paperback) rockets onto our list with a debut appearance in third spot. Our other debut is another book that's been much discussed around here, Paul Murray's Skippy Dies. Rachman participated in our Year in Reading this year, as did Murray. Those two debuts took the spots vacated by our latest Hall of Fame inductees, a pair of summer reads that stayed hot as the weather got cold, Justin Cronin's vampire tale The Passage and Tana French's thriller Faithful Place. Near Misses: The Autobiography of Mark Twain, The Hunger Games, Postcards from Penguin: One Hundred Book Covers in One Box, Just Kids , and Woman in White. See Also: Last month's list
The finalists for the annual National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) Award have been announced. The fiction list includes four books that have gotten quite a lot of attention over the last year - the Franzen, Egan, Grossman, and Murray - and one outlier, a novella originally written in 1947 by the 101-year-old Keilson, that was published in English for the first time last year. One might argue that with this set of finalists, the NBCC's fiction contest is more high-profile this year than the NBA and Booker slates were. Here are the finalists for fiction and non-fiction with excerpts and other links where available. As a side note, the NBCC award is particularly interesting in that it is one of the few major awards that pits American books against overseas (usually British) books. Fiction Jennifer Egan, A Visit from the Goon Squad (at The Millions, Egan's Year in Reading, excerpt) Jonathan Franzen, Freedom (at The Millions, excerpt) David Grossman, To the End of the Land (review) Hans Keilson, Comedy in a Minor Key (profile) Paul Murray, Skippy Dies (review, Murray's Year in Reading, excerpt) Nonfiction S.C. Gwynne, Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches (excerpt) Jennifer Homans, Apollo's Angels: A History of Ballet (excerpt) Barbara Demick, Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea (excerpt) Siddhartha Mukherjee, The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer (excerpt) Isabel Wilkerson, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration (excerpt) For more on the NBCC Awards and the finalists in the other categories, visit PW.
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. Freedom 5 months 2. 3. A Visit from the Goon Squad 5 months 3. 6. (tie) Room 4 months 4. - Atlas of Remote Islands 1 month 5. 6. (tie) Faithful Place 6 months 6. 4. Super Sad True Love Story 5 months 7. 8. The Passage 6 months 8. - Cardinal Numbers 1 month 9. 9. The Finkler Question 2 months 10. - Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption 1 month During the month of December, The Millions was flooded with book recommendations thanks to our Year in Reading series. Many of these recommendations piqued the interest of our readers, and a pair of hidden gems were intriguing enough to make it into our Top Ten. One was Anthony Doerr's effusive praise for Judith Schalansky’s Atlas of Remote Islands, and the other was Sam Lipsyte's unearthing of the late and little known Hob Broun and his Gordon Lish-edited book Cardinal Numbers. A third debut in December was Laura Hillenbrand's Unbroken, her hotly anticipated follow up to Seabiscuit that was noted with an "AAAH!" in December by Sam Anderson. December also graduated a pair of books to our Hall of Fame, the second such honor for each of the authors. Joining Cloud Atlas as an all-time Millions favorite is David Mitchell's newest, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. Meanwhile, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest is a second inductee from the late Stieg Larsson's global sensation, the Millennium Trilogy Finally, it's worth noting that after many months of skewing male, our list has acheived gender parity, with four of the top five books penned by female writers. Don't be surprised if Jennifer Egan's breakout hit A Visit from the Goon Squad eclipses Jonathan Franzen's Freedom next month for our top spot. Near Misses: Skippy Dies, The Imperfectionists, The Hunger Games, The Autobiography of Mark Twain , and Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling with D. H. Lawrence. See Also: Last month's list
The holidays are here, and so we can bring to a close another entertaining Year in Reading. We at The Millions would like to thank all of those who participated in the series for their generosity in sharing their private acts of reading with a reading public thirsty to hear about them. We hope this series captures, here in this sometimes impersonal medium, a glimpse into the personal reading lives of some writers and thinkers we all admire. Based on the generous feedback we receive (thank you; it means a lot), it seems clear that you find value in these glimpses. We have also experienced a very sincere form of flattery as we've noted that in the seven years since we first began our series, the likes of The New Yorker Book Bench, The Guardian, and now Bookforum and The Atlantic have embarked on series similar to our own. Before we wrap this thing up for good, a few highlights: We loved Sam Anderson's ingenious Year in Marginalia, Ed Champion's championing of no fewer than 13 underappreciated books, and we also enjoyed the opportunity to take a peek into the reading lives of some of our literary heroes, including John Banville, Margaret Atwood, Aimee Bender, and Sam Lipsyte. Other favorite moments included everyone still loving Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad, Hamilton Leithauser extending The Millions' obsession with Stoner for another year, Rosecrans Baldwin on a short, upsetting, foxy novel called Why Did I Ever, Laura van den Berg on "two deliciously strange novels," and Stephen Elliott wishing his 2010 had been like his 2009, or 2008, or 2007, and so on... If you enjoyed reading our series as much as we enjoyed putting it together (and indeed if you’ve enjoyed The Millions all year), we ask that you please consider supporting this project of ours (there are five cheap (even free!) and easy ways to do so on our Support page) and help us prove that smart cultural coverage is viable online! And so, as we enjoy the last few days of 2010, we invite all of you to take part -- if you haven't already in the comments of the series intro or on Twitter, or even if you have -- in A Year in Reading by finishing this sentence in the comments or on your own blog: “The best book I read all year was…”
Last summer, several sheets to the wind, a novelist friend of mine and I found ourselves waxing nostalgic about 1997 - the year when Underworld, American Pastoral, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, and Mason & Dixon came out. (It was also probably the year both of us finished working our way through Infinite Jest, which had been published a year earlier.) Ah, sweet 1997. I was tempted to say that times like those wouldn't come around again. This year, however, Pisces must have been in Aquarius, or vice versa, or something. The number of novelists with a plausible claim to having published major work forms a kind of alphabet: Aira, Amis, Bolaño, Boyd, Carey, Cohen, Cunningam, Donoghue, Flaubert (by way of Davis), Grossman, Krauss, Krilanovich, Lee, Lipsyte, Marlantes, McCarthy, Mitchell, Moody, Ozick, Shriver, Shteyngart, Udall, Valtat, Yamashita... A career-defining omnibus appeared from Deborah Eisenberg, and also from Ann Beattie. Philip Roth, if the reviews are to believed, got his groove back. It even feels like I'm forgetting someone. Oh, well, it will come to me, I'm sure. In the meantime, you get the point. 2010 was a really good year for fiction. Among the most enjoyable new novels I read were a couple that had affinities: Paul Murray's Skippy Dies and Adam Levin's The Instructions. (Disclosure: Adam Levin once rewired a ceiling fan for me. (Disclosure: not really.)) Each of these huge and hugely ambitious books has some notable flaws, and I wanted to resist them both, having developed an allergy to hyperintelligent junior high students. But each finds a way to reconnect the hermetic world of the 'tween with the wider world our hopes eventually run up against. Murray and Levin are writers of great promise, and, more importantly, deep feeling, and their average age is something like 34, which means there's likely more good stuff to come. Another book I admired this year was Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad, but since everybody else did, too, you can read about it elsewhere in this series. Let me instead direct your attention to Matthew Sharpe's more modestly pyrotechnic You Were Wrong. Here Sharpe trains his considerable narrative brio on the most mundane of worlds - Long Island - with illuminating, and disconcerting, results. You Were Wrong, unlike The Instructions et al, also has the virtue of being short. As does Bolaño's incendiary Antwerp (or any of the several great stories in The Return). Or Cesar Aira's wonderful Ghosts, which I finally got around to. Hey, maybe 2010 was actually the year of the short novel, I began to think, right after I finished a piece arguing exactly the opposite. Then, late in the year, when I thought I had my reading nailed down, the translation of Mathias Énard's Zone arrived like a bomb in my mailbox. The synopsis makes it sounds like rough sledding - a 500-page run-on sentence about a guy on a train - but don't be fooled. Zone turns out to be vital and moving and vast in its scope, like W.G. Sebald at his most anxious, or Graham Greene at his most urgent, or (why not) James Joyce at his most earthy, only all at the same time. Notwithstanding which, the best new novel I read this year was...what was that title again? Oh, right. Freedom. When it came to nonfiction, three books stood out for me, each of them a bit older. The first was Douglas Hofstadter's Gödel, Escher, Bach, an utterly unclassifiable, conspicuously brilliant, and criminally entertaining magnum opus about consciousness, brains, and formal systems that has been blowing minds for several generations now. The second was Alberto Manguel's 2008 essay collection, The Library at Night. No better argument for the book qua book exists, not so much because of what Manguel says here, but because the manner in which he says it - ruminative, learned, patient, just - embodies its greatest virtues. And the third was The Magician's Doubts, a searching look at Nabokov by Michael Wood, who is surely one of our best critics. Speaking of Nabokov: as great a year as 2010 was for new fiction, it was also the year in which I read Ada, and so a year when the best books I read were classics. In this, it was like any other year. I loved Christina Stead's The Man Who Loved Children for its language. I loved Andrey Platonov's Soul for its intimate comedy and its tragic sensibility. I loved that Chekhov's story "The Duel" was secretly a novel. I loved the Pevear/Volokhonsky production The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories for making a third fat Tolstoy masterpiece to lose myself in. About A House for Mr. Biswas, I loved Mr. Biswas. And then there were my three favorite reading experiences of the year: Péter Esterházy's Celestial Harmonies, a book about the chains of history and paternity and politics that reads like pure freedom; Dr. Faustus, which I loved less than I did The Magic Mountain, but admired more, if that's even possible; and The Age of Innocence. Our own Lydia Kiesling has said pretty much everything I want to say about the latter, but let me just add that it's about as close to perfection as you'd want that imperfect beast, the novel, to come. She was wild in her way, Edith Wharton, a secret sensualist, and still as scrupulous as her great friend Henry James. Like his, her understanding of what makes people tick remains utterly up-to-the-minute, and is likely to remain so in 2015, and 2035... by which time we may know about which of the many fine books that came out this year we can say the same thing. Ah, sweet 2010, we hardly knew ye. More from a Year in Reading 2010 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 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
I spent more of 2010 than I care to admit working through a spell of writer’s block, brought on not because I didn’t have a project, or even because I doubted that I could finish that project, but because I was briefly and thoroughly convinced that none of it mattered, that of all of the things a person could do with their time, writing a novel was the least likely to improve anyone’s quality of life. The disasters seemed so much bigger than words, and even those crises that were crises of culture rather than climate seemed impermeable. I would watch cable news and think that language had lost all meaning, that my faith in books as a vehicle for empathy and understanding had been naïve and misguided, because empathy was dead. The two books that most stood out to me this year spoke broke through that haze by reminding me what language can still do. They spoke to the anxieties of the present without being nihilistic or unrealistic about the future. They reminded me, during a year when I spent so much time battling my own distraction that I actually went back to writing longhand, how it felt to be so completely absorbed with a book that I didn’t notice my laptop or my cell phone, or, on one occasion, my metro stop, but also left me ultimately feeling more responsible for the world I live in, instead of more isolated from it. The first was Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns, a beautifully written and researched account of the great migration. The book expanded my understanding of a story I thought I knew and did a wonderful job of balancing the epic scope of the project with the intimate details of the lives of individuals. It’s hard to tell the story of pre civil-rights movement America without some degree of optimism, because it’s hard to read accounts of the way things were—from the brutal violence of both the U.S south that African-Americans fled and the U.S north that burned down neighborhoods rather than accept them as neighbors, to the quieter brutality of travelers being forced into lonely, unsafe drives because there was no where in the country for a black travel to safely rest—and not think about how much we take for granted now. But Wilkerson resists the reductive optimism of leaving it at that by exploring the ambiguous nature of some of the progress made, and by refusing to force her subjects into being symbols rather than human beings. I think a lot about the ways in which the recent black experience in America has been in some ways similar to an immigration experience, and in making the case that for many families, it was an actual immigration experience, Wilkerson linked the past and the present and reminded me that the past was not so long ago and the future is never set in stone. The second book was Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad. Egan did a beautiful job of filtering large anxieties—about time, about technology, about pop-culture, about the limitations of human connection—and making them breathe on the page, through a cast of characters who felt fully alive. After spending so much time this year listening to people weigh in on technology—technology and the future, technology and the book, technology and empathy—it was exciting to see Egan play with that anxiety in the novel form, by letting the question of technology become a question of aesthetics. The aesthetic choices engaged the question without providing a neat or heavy-handed answer. By the time the book shifted to the imagined future, I was grieving less for the loss of the world as I knew it, and more for the private tragedies of Egan’s characters, which were somehow not lost in either the playfulness of the novel’s form or the shift in forms of communication in their new present. Other favorite new reads for this year: Dwayne Betts’ Shahid Reads His Own Palm, Sandra Beasley’s I Was the Jukebox, Lauren Groff’s Delicate Edible Birds, Jennine Capo Crucet’s How to Leave Hialeah. More from a Year in Reading 2010 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 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
Nearly ten years ago, I interviewed Jonathan Franzen, then primarily known less for his fiction—he’d published two great but largely unread novels—and more for a brilliant, cranky essay on writing (and reading), generally referred to as “the Harper’s Essay.” Over the course of a day, Franzen talked, with unflinching honesty, about the difficulties—and exhilarations—of writing The Corrections, which was due to be published three months hence. He had, he explained, become so consumed with writing a “big” novel, an important novel, that he spent years writing and discarding chapters, plot threads, characters, perpetually unsatisfied. His frustrations and ambitions rang eerily true for me, for numerous reasons, not the least of which being that I was working on a novel that, I knew, would be large in scope, so large that I began to hyperventilate when I allowed my mind to linger too long on it. Franzen, of course, found his way out, in part, he explained, by turning away from the sorts of big novels he tended to favor, as both reader and writer, and toward the more slender volumes on his shelves, the Gatsbys and suchlike. Ultimately, he conceived of The Corrections, less as one massive tome, and more as a series of smaller novels. Franzen’s cure, in a way, became my own. I didn’t put down those big social novels, but I did look at them in a different light, as a series of component parts, and a few months later my own novel began to slide into place. This fall, like everyone else on the planet, I burned dinner, let my two-year-old cry, stopped answering the phone, and missed any number of subway and bus stops, as I completely gave myself over to Freedom. But I was also, in a neat coincidence, starting work on my own second novel, an even larger and more nerve-wracking endeavor than the first, and so I found myself thinking about that long-ago interview—the advice he’d unknowingly doled out—and picking up some of the shorter novels on my bookshelves, including many old favorites, such as Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 and Laurie Colwin’s Family Happiness, both of which I re-read every year or so, marveling at their perfection, and Jean Rhys's 1928 novel Quartet, which I’d not so much as glanced at since I was about 23. Brief, brutal, and mildly baffling, Quartet follows a young—or, well, young-ish—former chorus girl, Marya Zelli, over the year following her Polish husband’s imprisonment for theft. Left in Paris with no money and no real way of making a living—she hails from shabby genteel English stock—Marya sells everything she owns, falls ill, and is taken in by the Heidlers, a wealthy British couple whose interest in her stems, she soon discovers, from the husband’s desire to make her his mistress. It’s not giving much away to reveal that she succumbs—you know she will from the moment they meet—because the real pleasure of the novel lies less in the plot (there isn’t much of one) and more in Rhys’ dark humor, unsparing accounts of Marya’s existential despair as she wanders “like a grey ghost…in a vague, shadowy world,” and genius for portraying a character with the smallest and most specific strokes (Lois Heidler, clutching her giant handbag, bears “the expression of the woman who is wondering how she is going to manage about the extra person to dinner… Obviously of the species wife.”). For the 21st Century reader there’s also, of course, the odd and undeniable pleasure of reading about Paris—the expatriates of the Montparnasse--in the 1920s from a perspective rather more raw than that of, say, Hemingway. Rhys’ characters—be they would-be painters or Midwestern divorcees—appear to be on the verge of collapse—emotional, physical, financial, artistic--as if they were, to a one, harbingers of the financial failures that would devastate the global economy a year after the novel’s publication. At 23, Quartet struck me as a frank exploration of the vulnerability of a lone woman in a society geared toward monogamy and family. Fifteen years later, it reads as something much larger: an exposure of said society’s cracks and fissures, of the ways in which it has failed that lone woman, and, in doing so, has descended into a sort of moral decay. The residents of Paris wander its streets, devoid of money or purpose, resentful of the prosperous few, filled with the “devastating realization of the essential craziness of existence.” Not so different, I suppose, from New York—or Des Moines, or Fort Worth, or Sacramento—right now. Some other books I’ve loved this year: Ada Leverson’s satirical novel, Love’s Shadow, originally published in 1908, and recently reissued by Bloomsbury, which covers similar territory to Quartet, but in a deeply comic manner. Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, which also made me burn dinner, allow my children to play with knives, etc. (Why, I’ve wondered, was Egan not on the cover of Time magazine? Her novel speaks equally to present-day truths about America.) Two new memoirs with very long titles, though I am not normally a memoir person: Meghan Daum’s Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived in That House (which I loved so much, I have forced it on everyone I know) and Bryan Charles’s There’s a Road to Everywhere Except Where You Came From, which is ostensibly about September 11, but really a kind of contemporary kunstleroman, about becoming a writer in the rather toxic contemporary literary climate. And three not-new collections of poetry: Sarah Vap’s American Spikenard, Sandra Beasley’s Theories of Falling, and David Young’s translation of the Chinese poet Du Fu, which is worth reading for the introduction alone. More from a Year in Reading 2010 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 The good stuff: The Millions' Notable articles The motherlode: The Millions' Books and Reviews Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions
The writing I enjoy doing most, every year, is marginalia: spontaneous bursts of pure, private response to whatever book happens to be in front of me. It's the most intimate, complete, and honest form of criticism possible -- not the big wide-angle aerial shot you get from an official review essay, but a moment-by-moment record of what a book actually feels like to the actively reading brain. Here are some snapshots, month by month, of my marginalia from 2010. (Click each image for a larger view) January Point Omega by Don Delillo February Reality Hunger by David Shields Bleak House by Charles Dickens March The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver April Autobiography of Red by Anne Carson May The Pregnant Widow by Martin Amis June Wittgenstein's Mistress by David Markson July Freedom by Jonathan Franzen August Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert, translated by Lydia Davis September The Anthologist by Nicholson Baker October The Anthology of Rap, edited by Adam Bradley and Andrew DuBois November A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand December The Golden Mean by Annabel Lyon More from a Year in Reading 2010 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 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
If Boarding House Fiction isn’t a genre yet, it should be. I have a thing for stories about young women from a bygone era, sharing the bathroom and dining room, and occasionally, a bedroom, in a big old house: the pantyhose hanging in the shower; the prettier girls—in their lipstick and fashionable dresses—sticking together; the stern landlady and her rules; the constraint of that phase of life. Brooklyn by Colm Toibin is an excellent example of the form. Eilis Lacey, born and raised in Ireland, emigrates as a young woman to Brooklyn in the years after World War Two. Toibin’s prose is unadorned and clean, and I fell into Eilis’s story as I might have been swept away by an L.M. Montgomery novel in elementary school. What sets this book apart from those of my youth is its dark and unexpected ending. It all hinges on a choice, one that will change Eilis’s life for good. It’s an absorbing, moving read. This summer I embarked on an E.M. Forster kick. I’ve never plowed through an author’s oeuvre like that (and truth be told, I didn’t get all the way through because I felt the tug of so many contemporary novels…), but I found the practice to be illuminating, exhausting and exhilarating. My favorite of the Forster novels I did read was Howards End. I forgive Forster’s cartoonish characterization of poor Leonard Bast because sisters Margaret and Helen were so complex and alive on the page: their differences, and that which unites them. I love the pigs’ teeth lodged into the tree trunk at Howards End, and the descriptions of this home and other living spaces: their objects, their power. And it’s impossible not to love a book that begins a chapter like this: “Evie heard of her father’s engagement when she was in for a tennis tournament, and her play went simply to pot.” I hope someday that my narrators have half the authority and grace of Forster’s. I’m a little afraid to mention Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad yet again, for fear of being accused of having read only one book this year. But I must. I loved it. It’s an unclassifiable, risky book that delves deeply into the lives of its characters. It’s also crazy fun to read. If you haven’t read it yet, well, I feel sorry for you and your bookish soul, starved as it must be. A Visit from the Goon Squad confirms Jennifer Egan’s brilliance; she is one of the best American fiction writers working today. More from a Year in Reading 2010 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 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
I follow a lot of booksellers on Twitter, and there was a time a few months ago when it seemed impossible to log in without stumbling across effusive praise for Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From The Goon Squad. My bookselling friends were right: the book is incredible, and it was startling to me and many others that it wasn’t on the shortlist for the National Book Award. I’d never read Egan before, and I loved the book so much that I felt compelled to start reading her backlist. Her 2001 novel Look at Me ranks easily among the best novels I’ve ever read. The book opens with a narrow focus: an aging model named Charlotte has been rendered unrecognizable by facial reconstruction surgery following a devastating car accident. She returns to Manhattan following her convalescence and finds herself unmoored, a ghost in her former life. The novel telescopes outward, weaving together the storylines of a wide cast of characters—an unstable scholar; Charlotte’s childhood friend Ellen, now a suburban mother in the town where they grew up; Ellen’s daughter, a geeky teenager searching for love and acceptance; Ellen’s son, a fragile young cancer survivor; a terrorist with dark dreams of wreaking havoc; an alcoholic private detective—into a brilliant and deeply moving meditation on identity, fame, and love. More from a Year in Reading 2010 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 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
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. Freedom 4 months 2. 2. The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet 6 months 3. 5. A Visit from the Goon Squad 4 months 4. 9. Super Sad True Love Story 4 months 5. 4. The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest 6 months 6. (tie) 6. Room 3 months 6. (tie) 8. Faithful Place 5 months 8. 7. The Passage 5 months 9. - The Finkler Question 1 month 10. 10. Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling With D.H. Lawrence 6 months November saw Booker-winner The Finkler Question, which we reviewed here, debut on our list. Last year's Booker winner Wolf Hall also landed on our list after being awarded the prize and ended up in our Hall of Fame. Speaking of which, another prizewinner, Pulitzer-winning underdog Tinkers is the newest inductee into our hallowed hall. Meanwhile, Freedom by Jonathan Franzen retains our top spot, while Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad and Super Sad True Love Story continue to surge higher on a wave of interest from Millions readers. Near Misses: The Hunger Games, The Imperfectionists, Things We Didn't See Coming, The Autobiography of Mark Twain, and The Gone-Away World. See Also: Last month's list
This year’s New York Times Notable Books of the Year list is out. At 100 titles, the list is more of a catalog of the noteworthy than a distinction. Sticking with the fiction exclusively, it appears that we touched upon a few of these books as well: The Ask by Sam Lipsyte (our profile of Lipsyte, a most anticipated book) Bound by Antonya Nelson (a most anticipated book) Foreign Bodies by Cynthia Ozick (a most anticipated book) Freedom by Jonathan Franzen (our review, an all-female book club reads Freedom, taking down B.R. Myers' take on Freedom, "Is Big Back?," the Franzen cover of Time, a Millions Top Ten book, a most anticipated book) Fun With Problems by Robert Stone (our review, a most anticipated book) The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest by Stieg Larsson (The Stieg Larsson takedown, a most anticipated book, a Millions Top Ten book) Great House by Nicole Krauss (National Book Award finalist, a most anticipated book) I Curse the River of Time by Per Petterson (a most anticipated book) The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman (our review) The Invisible Bridge by Julie Orringer ("20 More Under 40," a most anticipated book) The Long Song by Andrea Levy (Booker shortlister) The Lotus Eaters by Tatjana Soli (Tatjana Soli's writing at The Millions) Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes ("Is Big Back?") Memory Wall by Anthony Doerr (our review, a most anticipated book) The Privileges by Jonathan Dee (The Millions interview) Room by Emma Donoghue (our review, Booker shortlister, a Millions Top Ten book) Selected Stories by William Trevor (a most anticipated book) Solar by Ian McEwan (a most anticipated book) Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart (our review, a most anticipated book, a Millions Top Ten book) The Surrendered by Chang-Rae Lee (a most anticipated book) The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell (a morning with David Mitchell, our review, a Millions Top Ten book, a most anticipated book) To the End of the Land by David Grossman (our review) A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan (our profile of Jennifer Egan, our review, a Millions Top Ten book, a most anticipated book) What Becomes by A.L. Kennedy (a most anticipated book)
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. Freedom 3 months 2. 2. The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet 5 months 3. 4. Tinkers 6 months 4. 3. The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest 5 months 5. 6. (tie) A Visit from the Goon Squad 3 months 6. 10. Room 2 months 7. 5. The Passage 4 months 8. 6. (tie) Faithful Place 4 months 9. 9. Super Sad True Love Story 3 months 10. 8. Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling With D.H. Lawrence 5 months October was relatively quiet for our list, with no new arrivals or departures, but Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad and Emma Donoghue's Booker shortlisted Room were our top movers, with both books continuing to enjoy significant interest. Meanwhile, the same four books remained ensconced in our top four spots, with Freedom by Jonathan Franzen still in the top spot, while Pulitzer-winning underdog Tinkers continues to find new fans. Near Misses: The Imperfectionists, The Gone-Away World, The Girl Who Played with Fire, Things We Didn't See Coming, and Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself. See Also: Last month's list
I. Thirty-six. This is the number of books I will have read, or re-read, in 2010, by the end of October. I keep a “Reading List” page on my website, and the other day, I found myself counting up my 2010 reading. I also found myself dividing 36 by 43, which is the number of weeks between January 1 and Oct 31. It comes out to .84. This is my rate of reading. In 2010, I have read .84 books per week. Once upon a time I was good at math. If memory serves me right, I think I may have even gotten the highest score possible on a Calculus Advanced Placement exam. I wonder how different my life would be if I had become, say, an engineer; or an economist; or a CFO. II. But I am none of those things. I am a writer. I also teach fiction writing. A few weeks ago, partially in response to Elif Batuman’s essay in the London Review of Books, “Get A Real Degree,” Bill Morris wrote a piece here called, “Does School Kill Writing?” Morris wrote: “School wasn't my death as a writer, it was my birth… I’m dubious when people fret that school is killing writing – that college boys ruined newspapers and the growing horde of creative writing MFAs is ruining American fiction today.” One of the comments on Morris’s post came from Millions staff writer Emily St. John Mandel: I would be curious to read a piece on this subject someday from the POV of someone who actually teaches in one of these programs, someone who can talk about whether these programs are capable of transformation, or merely refinement […] whether they’re taking already-accomplished writers and just polishing them a little, or whether these programs can take merely capable writers and make them great. I think it would be an interesting perspective. III. “I think the single most defining characteristic of a writer,” I found myself saying to a friend the other day, when she asked my thoughts on the teaching of writing, “I mean the difference between a writer and someone who ‘wants to be a writer,’ is a high tolerance for uncertainty.” IV. Last week, I attended a “lecture on craft” given by Jennifer Egan for Columbia MFA students. After her talk, in which she mentioned that she is an “unconscious writer”—meaning that her first drafts, written by hand on legal pads in nearly-illegible handwriting, are wholly unthinking in regards to craft (it’s in revision that she shapes and carves away and applies conscious craft-thinking)—a student raised her hand and asked what sorts of goals she sets, given said unconsciousness. “Five pages,” she said. “Every day I aim for five pages. It doesn’t matter how much time I spend. I’m after the pages.” I saw a number of students scribbling in their notebooks. I thought I heard a collective exhale of relief. Five pages. Something concrete, something quantifiable. Especially after Egan had also mentioned that she never thinks about point-of-view (the voice of a character or narrator always “just comes to me, fully formed”) and that she has no idea where her prescience re: technological anthropology (evident in both A Visit From the Good Squad and Look at Me) came from, since she herself is “lame” and “behind the curve” as a technology user. V. When you teach writing, you have to have a sort of world-view about it, or else you’ll go a little nutty. Here’s mine: at a certain level, there is pretty-good writing (“capable,” in Emily’s words), there is really-good writing, and there is great writing. Most of us will move among these categories throughout our lives; we'll aim for greatness and more often than not land somewhere along the way. If you are earnest in this endeavor, if you understand that your pretty-good writing can and must always be getting better, then I can’t see why I, as a teacher, shouldn’t encourage and help you along as best I can. The truth is that your pretty-good writing may very well get published and make you famous; it’s happened before. Your great writing may never see the light of day. Your really-good writing may get published and be read by very few. You may write something great this time around and something pretty-good next time around and something not-very-good-at-all a few years down the road and never get published at all. It’s happened before. (Read this, and this, if you don’t believe me.) I don’t decide these things. I’m only here to help you write better, because I think it’s important and worthwhile. As readers, each of us will necessarily put different books into each of these categories, and we may even change our minds about certain books over time. So I never give my students the once-over and think that only those who comprise the top two categories can or should be encouraged. There are many paths to a writing life; those paths twist and turn and are haunted by the cruelties of subjectivity, along with the inevitably erratic application of our gifts. I can forgive anyone’s so-called mediocrity, mine included, as long as the writer herself is not satisfied with it. VI. A writer friend of mine used to always report to me his short story in-progress word counts. I found this funny and endearing. When I was about halfway through a novel draft, I started tracking my word counts and reporting them on my blog. It wasn’t funny to me, though, and probably not endearing to anyone else; I needed markers, a sense of how far I’d come and how far I thought I had to go. I was in the wilderness on this draft. Around the same time, another novelist friend started reporting his word counts on Facebook. I commented on one of his word-count posts: “Let’s make it en vogue to track and report word counts!” He replied, “Yes!” VII. Some anecdotes from the lives/careers of some authors I’ve read just this past month, which remind me of the uncertainty of the writing life: From the Pevear/Volokhonsky translation of Tolstoy’s stories: “Of the eleven stories in this collection, only four were published in Tolstoy’s lifetime.” Hadji Murad, Father Sergius, The Devil, and Alyosha the Pot are among the stories published only posthumously. (Hadji Murad!) Carson McCullers’s The Heart is a Lonely Hunter was published to wide acclaim when she was 23. She received two Guggenheim awards. Throughout her 20’s she suffered many illnesses and was paralyzed on her entire left side at the age of 31, shortly before she attempted suicide. The Ballad of the Sad Cafe was adapted into a play by Edward Albee (while she was alive), and later into a Merchant Ivory film (long after her death). While writing his luminous novel Light Years, James Salter wrote to Robert Phelps: I love this book. I'm writing it for myself and an audience composed of me's [...] It's going to have many beautiful jumps, sauts, perhaps it will be a ballet [...] Some things I love in it I love as one loves a woman. The book received mixed reviews - two bad ones in the NY Times - and sold modestly. Junot Diaz wrote, regarding the process of writing his Pulitzer Prize-winning The Brief Life of Oscar Wao, five years into it: I started becoming convinced that I had written all I had to write [...] that maybe it was time, for the sake of my mental health, for me to move on to another profession, and if the inspiration struck again some time in the future... well, great. But I knew I couldn't go on much more the way I was going. I just couldn't [...] My fiancée was so desperate to see me happy (and perhaps more than a little convinced by my fear that maybe the thread had run out on my talent) that she told me to make a list of what else I could do besides writing [...] It took a month to pencil down three things. (I really don't have many other skills.) I stared at that list for about another month. Waiting, hoping, praying for the book, for my writing, for my talent to catch fire. A last-second reprieve. But nada. So I put the manuscript away. All the hundreds of failed pages, boxed and hidden in a closet. I think I cried as I did it. VIII. The thing I feel that I cannot exactly teach, but can only hope to model and emphasize to student writers, is this tolerance for uncertainty; for a life that is indeed characterized by uncertainty. As when you learn to drive a stick shift, there is a kind of “friction zone,” where your inner imperative to write and your tolerance for uncertainty cross each other, and the energy balance of that intersection either sets you off into motion, or you stall. I have seen many talented would-be writers stall (especially on steep inclines). Some find their way to restarting (as, of course, Diaz did); others give up for good, they trade in for an automatic. As a teacher, I try to exemplify and nurture a deep love of reading and of sentence-and-story-making—one’s only stay against doubt and the feeling of non-existence that will inevitably creep in. I try to give student writers enough “gas” to help them manage and master the friction zone, so that they come to know that feeling of ignition, of takeoff, both bumpy and smooth, and develop a liking for it, an abiding passion, even an addiction. When I sit down with a student and suggest that reading this book or that author may help him understand how to better execute a half-baked story idea, and that student eagerly seeks out those works, and keeps asking for more, I feel hopeful about that student’s future as a writer. On the other hand, when a student looks at me blankly and doesn’t even write down the suggestions—doesn’t seem to want to be nourished by literature and get better, but rather simply wants me to praise her originality as is—then I feel I can see the writing (trailing off) on the wall. IX. It’s hard to write well. But it may be even harder to simply keep writing; which, by the way, is the only way to write better. In the meantime, aim for five pages. Report your word counts. Track your rate of reading. Teach math on the side if you have to. Whatever you need to do. Hang in there. Image credit: Pexels/Pixabay.
A few weeks ago, a friend of mine posted a goodreads review of Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad. In it, he wrote that he wished books with more than 10% of "teenage girl content" came with an advisory warning. This way, he could avoid them. This was puzzling to me. If a book had a label that said, "Warning! Teenagers Inside!" I would be more likely to pick it up. Doesn't every reader, male or female, young or old, find that phase of life to be particularly dramatic, moving, screwed up, and beautiful? I loved the teenagers that populated Egan's latest novel, especially Rhea, who narrates the chapter/story "Ask Me if I Care," and not only because she's a freckle-face like I was (am). She's vulnerable and wise, and also incredibly naive, too. Her desires are painfully strong, and yet she cannot totally understand them. Teenagers have a real drive to be independent, to discover and define (or defy) their identities. And yet, they're also powerless. They have their parents' will to contend with, and their friends' complicated codes of behavior. They have the secret shames of the body. They long for the purity and ease of childhood even as they fling themselves into the dangers of adulthood. In short, they make for compelling characters. Books about teenage boys, it seems to me, are often about a rage that is hard to control and understand. Jim Shepard's Project X is a fine example of the genre. About a Columbine-style act of school violence, and the two eighth grade boys who perpetrate it, the novel is engrossing, compassionate, and oddly mundane in its faithful depiction of contemporary American adolescence. Whenever I think of Go-gurts, I think of this book. I haven't yet read Patterns of Paper Monsters by Emma Rathbone, but I want to. Narrated by seventeen year-old Jacob Higgins, who is sent to a juvenile correctional facility for committing a violent crime, the book has been described as sad and funny, and The Daily Beast promises "there's no sappy uplift here." At The New Yorker Book Bench blog, Eileen Reynolds writes that Jacob, "may be cut from the same cloth as Holden Caulfield, but he’s a good bit funnier and a lot less mopey than the angsty adolescent male narrators from many coming-of-age books that have followed Catcher in the Rye.” He sounds like a narrator I could fall in love with. Though I like books about teenage boys, I prefer to read about teenage girls, most likely because I used to be one myself. Man, if I had been the narrator of a novel! What a weird and exhilarating book that would be! (See also: mortifying). I recently finished a novel manuscript about an adult woman looking back on her 16 year-old self. I (mostly) avoided reading books about similar milieus while I was writing it (for fear of undue influence), but I did, from time to time, consider some of my favorite teenage heroines. Here are just a few: Jane Eyre. According to a footnote in my edition, Charlotte Bronte's novel about the poor, unloved orphan who falls for that creep Mr. Rochester is probably the first occurrence of a first-person narration by a child in British literature. Perhaps that's what renders this book so intimate and authentic. Jane is a complex, independent woman, and her storytelling is modern and hyper-conscious. I've always loved Jane's bookishness, her honesty, and her plain looks. It's her evolution from child to woman that provides us with a panoramic understanding of her character. Mick Kelly. It's been a long time since I've read The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers. I have a terrible memory, but this novel's teenage protagonist is never really far from my mind. Mick dresses like a boy. She feels trapped in her small Southern town. She is composing a symphony in her head called "This Thing I Want, I Know Not What." That phrase...God, it's haunted me for years. Thisbe Casper. Thisbe is the younger of the two teenage daughters in Joe Meno's most recent novel, The Great Perhaps. She's a fervent believer in God among a family of nonbelievers, and she also has a crush on her friend Roxie, which fills her with fear and shame. She's aglow with all kinds of feelings, and I adore her. It's no surprise that Thisbe was Meno's favorite character in the book. Chloe from Charles Baxter's The Feast of Love. The Feast of Love was on my list of favorite books of the decade, partially because of Chloe's sections, which are narrated with a raw, kinetic energy. Chloe's boyfriend is pierced-up Oscar with "the blond hair, the snaggle-toothed smile, the bomb-shelter eyes." I'm not sure how old Chloe is (if it said in the book, I don't remember), but she seems about nineteen to me -- she's got that reckless hopefulness in her. At the beginning of her first section, she says of her and Oscar, "We were swoon machines," and I, the reader, swoon myself. I love that Baxter marries colloquialisms and cliche with striking, unique turns of phrase to get at a teenager's way of moving through the world. I've recently started Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self by Danielle Evans, a debut collection of stories about young African-American women (some of them teenagers) living on the east coast. In her laudatory review in the New York Times, Lydia Peelle writes, "Rather than limiting the collection’s gaze, this perspective amplifies the universal pitfalls of coming of age in 21st-century America." I've only read the first story, "Pilgrims," but the conflicts therein already support Peelle's thesis. In a scene between the high school-aged narrator, her friend Jasmine, and some older guys they've met a club, there's one finely-wrought moment. The girls have, of course, lied about their age: "Man, look who we got here," said the one in the passenger seat, turning around. "College girl with a attitude problem. How'd we end up with these girls again? Y'all are probably virgins, aren't you?" "No," Jasmine said. "Like hell we are. We look like virgins to you?" "Nah," he said, and I didn't know whether to feel pissed off or pretty. This exchange captures so well what it feels like to be that age: wanting approval, and respect, and also wanting to be desired, even if you don't feel that desire back. I'm looking forward to reading the rest of Evans's stories, to see how she deepens her exploration of this puzzling and complex demographic. Something tells me she will. Writing this almost makes me want to write another book about a teenager. Almost -- it's not easy, throwing yourself into that world again. But I could read dozens of books about teenagers. Dozens! And those warning stickers? They'd help.
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. Freedom 2 months 2. 2. The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet 4 months 3. 3. The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest 4 months 4. 5. Tinkers 5 months 5. 4. The Passage 3 months 6. (tie) 10. A Visit from the Goon Squad 2 months 6. (tie) 6. Faithful Place 3 months 8. 8. (tie) Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling With D.H. Lawrence 4 months 9. 8. (tie) Super Sad True Love Story 2 months 10. - Room 1 month Summer favorites stayed firmly ensconsed on our list in September, but Emma Donoghue's Booker shortlisted Room managed to debut on the list in the tenth spot. Edan recently offered up a compelling review of the book in our pages. Meanwhile, the top three spots on our list remain unchanged from the prior month, with Freedom by Jonathan Franzen still in the top spot. Garth's review of the book was published here in August. Graduating to our Hall of Fame this month was Michael Lewis' The Big Short. Garth offered up a a look at the book and n+1's entry into the financial meltdown post-mortem genre earlier this week. Near Misses: The Girl Who Played with Fire, The Gone-Away World, War and Peace, Things We Didn't See Coming, The Imperfectionists. See Also: Last month's list
1. I've noticed an interesting trend recently toward what seems to me to be the deliberate miscategorization of books. Specifically, an insistence on the part of some publishers that practically everything’s a novel. I understand the reasoning behind it—novels, the argument goes, are somewhat easier to sell than either novellas or short story collections, and all’s fair in love, war, and literary fiction sales strategies—but it still seems unfortunate to me. There’s a good argument to be made that it doesn’t really matter what we call the work, so long as it’s good. I don’t entirely disagree, but all artforms thrive on diversity, and it seems to me that a diversity of form should be celebrated, not hidden. It troubles me a little to see diverse works given what seems to me to be an inaccurate label and sent out into the world in disguise. The small press Flatmancrooked, for example, declared Emma Straub's recent Fly-Over State (a wonderful book, praised elsewhere on this site) a “composite novel” on the book’s Amazon page, which I found puzzling: partly because the book was published by Flatmancrooked’s New Novella imprint, the name of which suggests a certain publication mandate, and partly because the edition I read was composed of a shortish novella followed by a longish short story, for a grand total of 77 pages. (Incidentally, every time I type out “Fly-Over State” I suffer considerable indecision over whether or not I should be capitalizing the Over, but that's neither here nor there.) It’s difficult to define the precise lines between a novel, a novella, and a short story, but the main difference, setting considerations of structure aside for just a moment, is of course one of length. There’s no such thing as a 3,000-word novel or a 70,000-word short story. Novellas occupy a shifting gray area in the middle. There are other, increasingly archaic subcategories, but who wants to get bogged down in the fine distinctions between a novella and a novelette? Regardless, the novella is among my favorite forms, and it seems to me a pity that we can’t just call it what it is. Steven Amsterdam's recent short story collection Things We Didn't See Coming was, rumor has it, marketed as a novel in Australia, and here’s where the question of structure comes into play. I have a hard time wrapping my head around the idea of Amsterdam’s book as a novel—the stories, each one a clearly-defined episode in a life lived out in a dystopian near-future, are too discrete; each one stands alone, with a beginning, a middle, an end. In other words, it seems to me that it’s a short story collection, although the lines between “short story collection” and “novel” can get awfully blurry sometimes—the stories in Things We Didn’t See Coming were much more linked than the two pieces in Fly-Over State, but not as interdependent as, say, the parts that comprise Jennifer Egan's spectacular A Visit From the Goon Squad, a work whose classification seems decidable by a coin toss: was that a novel, or a collection of tightly interwoven short stories? The book’s brilliant either way. But then, of course, there are the books that are impossible to categorize at all, that slip through not only considerations of length and genre but through the gauze curtains that separate prose from poetry and poetry from stage plays, and the literary world is richer for them. Terese Svoboda's Pirate Talk or Mermalade declares itself a novel on the dustjacket, which seems a stretch given certain whitespace/page count considerations—because here's the thing: can't we just proudly declare a novella to be a novella, when the form’s so wonderful, when there aren’t enough words between the covers to call the work a novel and it’s far longer than a short story?—but I don’t want to get too bogged down here. It’s a fascinating book and the length is the least interesting thing about it. 2. Pirate Talk or Mermalade is billed as a novel in voices—meaning that the only text is dialogue—about a pair of unnamed brothers who grow up by the Atlantic Ocean, raised by one of the worst cooks in modern literature (“Makes a person want to go to sea, your soup”), in a town where the hanging of captured pirates is a frequent entertainment. It’s the early eighteenth century, and the older brother has been sent to sea. The death of their domestically challenged Ma eventually drives the younger one to the ships as well, and their lives from that point until the day they’re stranded in the Arctic are a delirious blur of hangings, mutinies, piracy, lost limbs and storms from Nantucket to the Carribean to the Indian Ocean. There is cannibalism, a talking parrot, mermaids. I’m susceptible to books about the sea—my childhood memories include harassing sea cucumbers in tidal pools and conducting staring contests with seals—and this book had me from the opening: I’ve seen boats as big as this whale. I’ve seen gryphons the same size, with teeth growing in even as they were taking their last breath. You have not. And not a live one. I’ve been to sea, I’ve seen all you’re supposed to, being at sea. I’m sixteen, after all.” Dan Chaon calls Svoboda a true American original, and I believe he’s right. I’m enchanted, and yet in the end I find my reaction mixed. I think this book has some problems. There are moments when the action is unclear to say the least, and more seriously for a novel written entirely in voices, moments when it’s difficult to tell who’s talking. The brothers’ voices are very similar; at the openings of chapters, it’s often impossible to tell who’s speaking until someone says something to identify themselves, and then you have to perform that awkward hopscotching maneuver whereby you trace every second line of dialogue back to the beginning to figure out who said what. The issue could have been fixed quite easily by giving the brothers names. But there are also any number of moments where the technical issues are entirely unimportant, because the prose is funny and astoundingly beautiful and the characters feel fully alive. This book is something entirely new: a novella that’s also a sort of poetry, a poetry that’s also almost a stageplay. Pirate Talk is a strange and nastily beautiful book, frustrating because it comes so close to greatness, and I’m left with what must seem a strange response: I can’t say that this book entirely succeeds, but I want to read everything Terese Svoboda has ever written. In any form, at any length. 3. In the impressionism of the work, the gorgeous unsteadiness of form—is this fiction, poetry, a stage play?—Pirate Talk reminded me a little of Roberto Bolaño’s Antwerp, another novella in sheep’s clothing: Bolaño referred to it as a novel, but the volume weighs in at 78 pages and few of those pages are full. Here also is a sense of reading a new form, although the book's thirty years old. Antwerp is an impossible little book, frustrating and fascinating. There is a campground, a crime, a red-haired girl involved with the drug trade. If there’s a plot, it’s well-hidden. “The scorn I felt for so-called official literature was great,” Bolaño writes in the essay that precedes the book, and it shows. The book is composed of 56 numbered segments, some only a paragraph long. Antwerp was written in 1980, a time when a young Bolano was shifting his principal form from poetry to prose, and the transition between forms is incomplete. Some sections are slivers of narrative—“With instructions in an envelope, I left the city”—while others read more like prose poems. The first section begins: The kid heads toward the house. Alley of larches. The fronde. Necklace of tears. Love is a mix of sentimentality and sex (Burroughs). The mansion is just a façade—dismantled, to be erected in Atlanta, 1959. Everything looks worn. There’s a dreamlike quality to both novellas. I’m left with impressions of mermaids and polar bears, detectives, seaside highways in the rain.
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. - Freedom 1 month 2. 2. The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet 3 months 3. 4. The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest 3 months 4. 10. The Passage 2 months 5. 3. Tinkers 4 months 6. 4. Faithful Place 2 months 7. 6. The Big Short 6 months 8. (tie) 7. Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling With D.H. Lawrence 3 months 8. (tie) - Super Sad True Love Story 1 month 10. - A Visit from the Goon Squad 1 month Three of the summer's biggest literary novels vaulted onto our list in August. Surprising probably no one, Freedom by Jonathan Franzen came out on August 31 and in one day was popular enough to debut at the top of our list. Two other literary superstars also debuted, Gary Shteyngart with Super Sad True Love Story, reviewed here, and Jennifer Egan with A Visit from the Goon Squad, reviewed and profiled here. Meanwhile, David Shields' controversial Reality Hunger ended its run on our list and graduated to the Hall of Fame. Shields wrote a spritied defense of his book for us and provided a supplementary and exhaustive reading list as well. Elsewhere, Stieg Larsson's second "Millennium" book, The Girl Who Played with Fire, got bumped from our list (though the trilogy's final book remains firmly ensconced), as did weighty fave War and Peace. Near Misses: The Girl Who Played with Fire, War and Peace, The Imperfectionists, The Gone-Away World, Things We Didn't See Coming. See Also: Last month's list
I find it difficult to separate a book from the experience of reading it. I spent a great deal of time on tour this summer, reading at bookstores from southern California to New Hampshire, and I encountered Larry Watson’s Montana 1948 toward the end of all this, a hot day in Ann Arbor when I had some time to kill before an event. I was traveling with Unbridled Books’ sales director, who I’d name except that he once stated a preference for being a silent partner in these things. He’d been driving me all over the state of Michigan so that he could talk to independent bookstore owners and I could read at their bookstores. We’d done the same thing in New England a month earlier. We spent an hour or so in the Dawn Treader Book Shop (“Ann Arbor’s Best Browse”, according to the bookmark.) I feel an inordinate amount of guilt when I buy used books from living authors (the lost royalties! The book that doesn’t appear on the sales numbers and thus lessens the odds of the publisher wanting to buy the author’s next book!) but I do it anyway sometimes, and I’d spent a small fortune on new books that week. I picked up Kevin Brockmeier’s The Brief History of the Dead, which I liked, and Larry Watson’s Montana 1948, which strikes me as a small masterpiece. It was a bit of a leap of faith—the copy I picked up was a small green hardcover, cloth-bound and missing its jacket, so there was no synopsis or any other indication of what the book was about—but my traveling companion pointed at it and said “Have you read this? It’s quite good,” and I’m susceptible to the recommendations of people who read a lot. I read the first two chapters in the bookstore and decided I couldn’t continue to live without reading the rest. The next day my flight home from Michigan was canceled, which wasn’t entirely surprising—I was, after all, flying Delta, which in my experience seems to suffer from an unusual degree of difficulty in getting its planes off the ground—and I found myself with five hours to kill in the Detroit airport. For the first time that week, my habit of buying a book at every tour stop seemed sensible. I found a quiet corner and read Montana 1948 in its entirety. I’ll let you guess when and in which state the book takes place. It’s summertime, and the narrator is twelve-year-old David Hayden. His father, Wesley, is the sheriff of their fictitious small town. His uncle Frank is a war hero and a highly respected local doctor, the favorite of their domineering rancher father. David is close with the Sioux woman who works in the household, Marie Little Soldier. When she falls ill one morning, David’s parents call Frank to look in on her. But not only does Marie refuse treatment, she refuses to be left alone in the room with the doctor, and flies into a panic when he comes close. When pressed, she tells David’s parents that Frank has been molesting local Native American women and girls for years. She’s dead within days, ostensibly of pneumonia; but she had been showing signs of recovery the day before she died, and David saw his uncle leaving their house around the time of her death. It’s a well-plotted story, but the marvel of this book is the quiet lucidity of the prose. I’m frequently drawn to literary pyrotechnics, fractured narratives and jigsaw-puzzle structures—Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From The Goon Squad, Colum McCann’s Let The Great World Spin—but the linear simplicity of the story is captivating in an entirely different way. A story that could easily spin off into melodrama is told with utmost calm and restraint. In the afternoon I spent with this book, I hardly noticed I was stranded in an airport.
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. 1. Reality Hunger 6 months 2. 5. (tie) The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet 2 months 3. 3. Tinkers 3 months 4. 5. (tie) The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest 2 months 5. - Faithful Place 1 month 6. 4. The Big Short 5 months 7. 10. Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling With D.H. Lawrence 2 months 8. 9. The Girl Who Played With Fire 2 months 9. 8. War and Peace 4 months 10. - The Passage 1 month Summer reading propelled a pair of newcomers onto the list in July. Tana French's Faithful Place lands on the list after being written up by Emily Mandel in our big second half preview. Emily also made Justin Cronin's cerebral vampire thriller The Passage the centerpiece of her post-apocalyptic reading list later in the month. Those two titles replace out two newest Hall of Fame inductees: John Williams' Stoner, which was highlighted by Millions regulars Patrick and Edan, as well as by Conversational Reading proprietor Scott Esposito, in our Year in Reading last year, and Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall, last year's Booker and Rooster winner. Near Misses: Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace, The Imperfectionists, A Visit from the Goon Squad, Super Sad True Love Story, Twilight of the Superheroes. See Also: Last month's list
There once was a little girl named Jenny, who lived in Chicago and went to nursery school with a little girl named Sally. Sally's family moved into the apartment below Jenny's family, and Jenny's mother and Sally's mother were pregnant with the girls' little brothers at the same time. Sally's little brother was named Paul, but Jenny always thought of him as "Sally's little brother," even after she moved to San Francisco, and grew up, and moved to New York, and became a writer. One evening in the not-so-distant past, Jenny, now the author of many well-regarded books of fiction, turned on the television, and who did she see on the screen but Sally's little brother! He was an actor, and he was on a television show, and this television show had brought him to Jenny's living room. Just like that. Meanwhile, a girl grew up in Los Angeles, reading a lot of books, wanting to be a writer. Okay, okay, it's me. After graduate school, I moved back to Los Angeles and kept writing. I went to Ohio for a semester to teach, and as the snow fell (and kept falling), I discovered and fell in love with the work of Jennifer Egan. I even wrote Ms. Egan a fan email, something I'd never done before. She actually wrote back. She signed her name "Jenny" and I felt a geeky thrill. Jenny! On a recent Saturday, back in Los Angeles, I held a writing class, and one of the students looked familiar to me, but I couldn't place him--had I seen him at Skylight? On my coffee table was an advance copy of A Visit from the Goon Squad. "Is this out yet?" the student asked, and I explained it wasn't yet, not until June. "But I'm interviewing her," I said--bragged, probably. "I am so excited!" I said. "Jennifer Egan is one of my favorite writers." The student smiled and just then I realized, Hey, he's on that TV show. "Jenny's my sister's oldest friend," he said. This was Paul, of course, Sally's little brother. Just like that, Paul, Jenny and I were connected, and it felt like a tiny miracle. It also felt like a page from A Visit from the Goon Squad, where characters move in and out of one another's lives, and where a minor character in one chapter becomes the protagonist in the next. When I met Egan for our aforementioned interview, she told me the story of how she knew Paul, saying that seeing him on TV was "the kind of odd surprise that I was trying to capture here,"--she pointed to her book--"the completely unexpected ways that people encounter and see each other over many years." We were sitting at a round picnic table outside Diesel Bookstore in Brentwood, where she would be reading that afternoon. I was born and raised in L.A., but I'd never been here before. A Visit from the Goon Squad has been called a novel-in-stories by many critics, including our very own Sonya Chung, whose perspicacious review describes the book as being "populated by has-beens, suicidals, idealists, divorcees (aka serial monogamists), romantics, and ex-prisoners, many of whom have been chewed up and spit out by the soul-less music and film industries, or the PR machine that fuels them." It's the best description of the book's content one might come by, but I'm not sure about the novel-in-stories label. Although each chapter can stand on its own, and though each differs in tone and form, the book still coalesced whole in my mind, its world burrowing into my imagination, as only novels can do. It was also readable like a novel, even with all of its formal shifts. It's a novel-of-the-future, maybe, and not just because one chapter is written in PowerPoint. When I asked Egan about the book's genre, she said, "It’s so decentralized that it doesn’t quite fit what I think we think of as novels being right now. And I don’t really care about the term. It doesn’t fit into a category comfortably...I didn’t really worry about an arc, because again, that feels more like traditional fiction." She wanted to put together a book whose principal was diversity, as opposed to unity. "I wanted to see how many tones and moods and technical choices I could get away with." (For instance: though ultimately unsuccessful, she tried to write a chapter in epic poetry.) Egan's goal, she said, was to make the book "a big cornucopia of craziness, and yet, have it all fit together into one story. I asked myself: Since the principal was one of surprise and revelation, and intimacy versus distance, my basic question was, Who is the person we see from a distance that we want to have revealed to us?" This decision to follow various characters at different points was inspired in part by Marcel Proust's In Search of Lost Time, and, also, The Sopranos. Of the HBO show, she said, "I loved the way there were all these different narratives that intertwined over a long period, and different characters were the main characters at different times. I wanted to play with that, and I felt like I hadn’t seen that very much in novels. I didn’t want the centrality of a conventional novel." She continued: Also, one thing that is particular to The Sopranos, is that it’s so much about the chasm between public and private life...there’s a cliché about mob shows, and Tony Soprano is totally a clichéd character in certain ways. And yet, the fun of the show is being thrust into his private life and feeling the weird contrast between those two. That was a lot of what I wanted to do with this book: take people who seem to be clichéd from a distance and break them open, and show all of their nuances and secrets. Bennie Salazar is definitely one such character: a teenage punk rocker in San Francisco who becomes a successful--and thus jaded--music executive, nursing past humiliations as he sprinkles flakes of pure gold into his coffee. As a consumer of culture, I've seen his type before, and yet, drawn by Egan, his history, pain and desires become specific and complex. I asked her how the Sopranos-approach to storytelling echoed or contrasted with Proust's, and she told me they were more alike than I might realize, partially because both are such long narratives. There's a similar "braiding of lives," she said. Everyone called The Sopranos novelistic and I really do understand why, because with Proust, similarly, there are people you see at a distance and then suddenly know closely, but then you just see in passing years later, and there’s something very surprising about them that you weren’t expecting. Proust plays with the way in which time itself creates and reveals surprise. That change is surprising, even though it’s so steady, so constant. If narrative itself is a depiction of time passing ("and then this happened; and then this happened"), one would assume that a narrative about the passage of time would consider the subject through the very mechanism its existence depends upon. Egan does just that. For instance, in "Safari" (and in the final passages of "Goodbye, My Love"), she employs an omniscient third-person point of view that pulls out of the present story to compress time and speed forward. This narrator can tell us about a character's future--an entire marriage, for instance, or the long term effects of someone's death on a family--in just a few sentences. The compression of time is heartbreaking in its efficiency, and it's a formal reflection of the thematic motif of the book. Wow, one thinks, life does pass in a blink of an eye. Egan said she'd always felt "tremendous excitement" when other authors used this point of view. She was also inspired to try it after one afternoon at the library, where she was doing research for another book, about the Brooklyn Navy Yard in the 1940s. She was reading letters by a woman who had worked there, written to her new husband. "Reading someone's letters you're just deeply inside someone's mind," she told me. I thought, “Gosh, I wonder if she’s still alive?” So I went over to the computer...and I sat down and Googled her, and within a second I was reading her obituary. It was so eerie to be sitting there, reading these letters by a woman who didn’t even have children yet, didn’t know what her life would be, full of hopes and plans, and then to read the end, in this kind of cool, news-writing voice. And then I went on, reading her letters, but I had this terrible sense of knowing the end when she didn’t know it. And I think that also interested me. I was interested in how the present feels when you keep pulling someone out of it. This notion of being pulled out of the present reminded me immediately of internet culture, and the ways in which we require constant connection with the world, even as it yanks from us direct, unmediated experience. (Nowadays, for instance, you can't go to a concert without someone in front of you taking photos of the band, probably to post on Facebook later that night--maybe you are that someone?) Like Don DeLillo before her, Egan explores the role and power of technology in our lives, but from a more humanistic, character-driven perspective. In Look At Me, fashion model Charlotte, whose face and career are ruined after a car accident, becomes a character-of-herself on a website called Ordinary People, a fictional progenitor of Facebook and Twitter. In The Keep, Danny drags a satellite dish to a Eastern European castle because he must be able to call everyone he knows back in New York City; otherwise, he might be forgotten. In her latest book, Egan imagines a future world where the young tell stories in a narrative genre more befitting their era ("Great Rock and Roll Pauses"--the aforementioned PowerPoint chapter), and where toddlers use hand-held devices with such dexterity that they become the most important and sought-after consumers. In his review of A Visit from the Goon Squad in the Washington Post, Ron Charles wrote that the this world was "corroded by technology." I asked Egan if that was the description she would use. "I don’t think so," she said. "I have concerns about technology—I think we all do—but I’m mostly just interested in it. As a user, I’m less interested in it as I am as a writer. The fetishization of connection itself is something that really fascinates me. Connection in itself essentially means you’re opening yourself up to whatever people want from you. All the time." She doesn't see her vision of the future as a dystopian one, and despite the warnings and concerns in the book, the humanity of her characters persists. It's telling that these chapters set in the future are so poignant. People can still feel, even if those feelings must be texted: if thr r childrn, thr mst b a fUtr, rt? This is where Egan's genius lies. She engages with philosophical questions and is formally daring, and yet, and yet!, her work is emotionally moving, the stories and characters always compelling. In his review of The Keep, Madison Smartt Bell said that Egan, "deploys most of the arsenal developed by the metafiction writers of the 1960’s and refined by more recent authors like William T. Vollmann and David Foster Wallace — but she can’t exactly be counted as one of them." His reason? Her "...unusually vivid and convincing realism. Egan sustains an awareness that the text is being manipulated by its author, while at the same time delivering character and story with perfect and passionate conviction." Perhaps this is what makes Egan a darling among critics and a bestseller. I asked Egan about her approach to storytelling. How important, I wondered, was emotional engagement? Without the emotional resonance and some sense of an interesting story, you got nothin’. Really. All the formal experimentation in the world will get you nowhere without that...Ideally, the formal experimentation should not be something you’re imposing on the material but it should grow out of the story you’re telling. And if it doesn’t, the question is, why are you doing it? The people and what they do and how it feels to the reader are the beginning and the end. I really feel that. Unfortunately, there seems to be an idea that you have to choose one or the other [experimentation or readability]. I don’t quite understand where that came from. If you look at the history of literature, it doesn’t bear out that dichotomy at all. As time has gone on, I have become interested in telling stories that are more complicated and less streamlined, and so I'm looking for more ways to do that as efficiently and powerfully as I can. Egan is currently reading 19th-century novels like David Copperfield. She recently read Middlemarch and was "electrified" by the narrative voice. She's excited by how unconventional these older novels are. "I feel like everyone has amnesia," she said. "Or maybe we read these books too young and all we remember are the stories and not how they’re told." She grinned. "But I just love these intervening, busy body, first person-third person 19th century narrators. I feel like I need to think about that for my next book." Did she just say, next book? omg. woot. I can't wait to read it, Jenny.
A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan drops today. Our review. Also out recently are Walks With Men, a novella by Ann Beattie, and The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, a novel from Aimee Bender. This week also sees the long-awaited posthumous publication of Henry Roth's An American Type. Another recent posthumous publication: Robert Walser's mysterious Microscripts.
In class the other day, a student compared novel writing to climbing a very large tree. You're on one branch, she said, and it's wobbly. You don't like it, it makes you uncomfortable—if not totally freaked out. Your hands are probably chapped by now, and the ground below grows more and more distant. Above you, there are sturdier spots, breathtaking vistas, but you have to climb carefully. You don't want to fall out of the tree, do you? A couple of weeks ago, I figured something out about the structure of my very-new novel that left me feeling exhilarated and ready to move forward. I'd been working and working on a certain section until—exhale—something changed. It felt like when I get a Thai massage, and the masseuse, upon discovering a particularly tough archipelago of knots, goes to town, grinding her fist (or—wait—is that an elbow...or...her teeth?) as I try to hold back tears. This time, though, I was the masseuse, and I was massaging the hell out of my novel. I couldn't see its knots, I could only feel them, sliding and resisting beneath my fingertips. I didn't stop, though—I would smooth them out, I would get to the bottom of this. When I was done, my novel did feel better. Also, it needed an aspirin. I've always sought out writing metaphors and similes because they articulate the strangeness, joy, and frustrations of such an abstract activity, one that requires you to dream and to focus at the same time. It's the not-exactly quality of figurative language, the pairing of two alien contexts to create a new familiar, that seems appropriate for a process that is at times so maddening. What is writing? It seems to exist in a liminal universe, where words slowly turn into worlds. I have some favorites. There are many gems in The Writing Life, by Annie Dillard, which begins, "When you write, you lay out a line of words. The line of words is a miner's pick, a woodcarver's gouge, a surgeon's probe." Lorrie Moore has said that a short story is "like a mad, lovely visitor with whom you spend a rather exciting weekend." (Not sure I agree—but, lord, do I wish I did.) In an interview, Ron Carlson said, "Today, my writing day felt like pushing a big rock that was flat on every side, and heavy. Oosh. All I can say is: here’s my shoulder once again." And was it Ann Beattie who compared writing a novel to walking into the ocean to die? (Now, that's one I can relate to.) Of course, no essay on this topic can exclude Franz Kafka’s "A book should be the ax that breaks the frozen sea within," but I prefer Joy Williams’s take, included in the contributors' notes of Best American Short Stories 1995: This was an extremely difficult story for me to write, and I could not get out, I could not get out of the story. Writing it did not break up the frozen sea within, this is no ax, the sea remains as heavy and unyielding as ever. Everything here seems to me to be cold and helpless and unresolved. There is such a difference between the living and the dead, it cannot be traveled really. So I perpetrate a lie here. I pretend to traverse some of the distance the living share. All art is about nothingness: our apprehension of it, our fear of it, its approach. We're on the same trail here, we hurry along, soon we'll meet. There are details along the way, of course. Even here there are tattoos and hairdressers and ice cream and dogs with slippers. But these are just details, which protect us as long they can from nothingness, the dear things. Isn't that just exactly how it feels? Upon reading these descriptions, and others, I feel less alone. I decided to ask some contemporary writers for their own writing metaphors. In his reply to my email query, Ben Fountain, author of Brief Encounters with Che Guevara, asked me, "Is the metaphor supposed to relate to the act of writing, as in, it's like pulling your hair out one strand at a time? Chewing chalk?" Yes, I wrote back, that's precisely what I mean. Peter Bognanni, author of the debut novel The House of Tomorrow, was more practical: "Writing fiction is writing life," he said. "Except characters don't go to the bathroom as often." (Amen to that. I always think, if I made myself into a fictional character, she would have to pee every 35 minutes... talk about squandering the drama.) I received a few outdoorsy metaphors—maybe being chained to a desk sends our minds there immediately. Kate Christensen, most recently the author of Trouble, has been working on a new novel, which she compares to climbing a mountain. I started in September at base camp with a full, heavy pack and lots of equipment. It was a long uphill slog through an avalanche, a blizzard, crevasses, and a couple of wrong turns. Last week I finally made it to the summit, oxygen-depleted and cautiously euphoric. I'm heading down the other side now, and I can see the ending at the bottom, but they always say the descent is the most dangerous part of the whole undertaking. Antoine Wilson, author of The Interloper, is also working on a new novel. He compared writing to "fishing with a bent nail and cut hot dogs for bait. All nibbles, a constant feeling that things are getting away from you, a long slow day. And then someone hands you a spear gun. You realize you weren't really fishing before, just preparing." A surfer boy from way back, Antoine says he also relies on the adage, "Ride the wave you're on." Hyatt Bass, who, aside from being the author of The Embers, may just be my doppelganger, compared writing to canoeing through a swamp: "It looks gorgeous from a distance, and you can't wait to delve in. You start off fast and strong. Soon you're totally lost, scared, worn out, covered in mosquitoes, and you can't stand the smell of yourself. If you're lucky, you find your way out and the swamp still looks good enough to lure you back several more times." [millions_ad] Jennifer Egan, whose new novel A Visit From the Goon Squad comes out this week, told me she often compares writing to physical exercise: "If you do it regularly," she said, "you can't imagine not doing it. But if you fall out of the habit, you're no more inclined to write than you would be to run when no one is chasing you." Matthew Specktor, author of That Summertime Sound, gave me an architectural metaphor. Regarding the revision of his new novel, he said, "I feel I'm picking up a very large house, with all its support beams intact, and moving it fifteen feet to the left. The structure's the same, only all its views are shifted." Emily St. John Mandel, fellow Millions contributor and author of The Singer's Gun, also had a revision-specific metaphor: I saw a television segment when I was a kid about a man who carved very realistic ducks out of blocks of wood. There were a few before-and-after shots (block of wood, then duck), and the interviewer asked the man how he did it. The man said, "Well, I start with the block of wood, and then I just cut away everything that isn't the duck." For some reason that's always stayed with me, and since cutting away extraneous parts is such a large part of the revision process for me, I think of that television segment all the time when I'm polishing my work—I think of the process of revising a novel as getting rid of everything that isn't the duck. Victor LaValle, author of Big Machine, is usually quite the jokester, but when I asked for a metaphor, he got serious on me. "Writing is a self-inflicted wound," he said. Ouch, I thought. And also: Man, that's true. Now that I have visualized writing as tree-climbing, mountaineering, running from a murderer, and self-mutilation, among other things, I am feeling pumped to get to work. How about you? Image credit: Flickr/JonRiivera.
Jennifer Egan’s latest novel-in-stories is populated by has-beens, suicidals, idealists, divorcees (aka serial monogamists), romantics, and ex-prisoners, many of whom have been chewed up and spit out by the soul-less music and film industries, or the PR machine that fuels them. And if A Visit From the Goon Squad was a traditional story collection, Egan may have titled it Out of Body, after the 10th story-chapter; for we see these characters in blips over time, often muddling through an unsavory, perplexing present and looking back on youth from a vantage point both above and below ghosts of their former selves. The book, for example, opens with a one-night stand between two characters and ends with a fantasy revisitation, some years later: “Alex imagines walking into her apartment and finding himself still there – his young self, full of schemes and high standards, with nothing decided yet.” But Goon Squad is not a traditional story collection. Its form brings to mind Joan Silber’s Ideas of Heaven, a story cycle in which a minor character from each story becomes the protagonist of the story following (or is it that the protagonist of each story is plucked from the cast of minor characters in the previous story? A question of both process and intention, I suppose; thus the term “cycle.”) The difference is that Goon Quad is not so much a neat cycle (despite the return described above), as it is a 3-D ven diagram; with chapters/characters darting about both laterally and vertically in time, point of view, and detail. It is very much a New York City novel – six degrees of separation everywhere, more often two or three degrees, and not virtually, but in-the-flesh – and it is perhaps Egan’s most decidedly contemporary work, with its headlong dive into the convergence of media, product promotion, hyper-celebrity, and the atomization and gadgetization of our lives. Bennie and Scotty are high school friends in San Francisco who have a band called the Flaming Dildos. Rhea, Alice, and Jocelyn are their groupies. Scotty and Alice eventually marry, but then divorce. Jocelyn starts up an affair with an older man named Lou, who is a powerful music executive. Lou goes through two marriages, various girlfriends (and Jocelyn, too); his children are Charlene (“Charlie”) and Rolph, the latter of whom, emotionally troubled as he grows into adulthood, “doesn’t make it.” Later, Lou mentors Bennie, who himself discovers a band called the Conduits; the band hits it big, and Bennie founds a successful label in New York called Sow’s Ear Records. For 12 years, his assistant is Sasha (the woman in the opening chapter) – a kleptomaniac and multiple-suicide-attempt survivor whose college best friend Rob also attempts suicide (and also fails) and then drowns on Sasha’s then-boyfriend/eventual husband Drew’s watch. Bennie’s first wife Stephanie works for a PR grand dame named Dolly, and Stephanie’s brother Jules is a gossip journalist who’s just served five years in prison for attempting to sexually assault one of his subjects, a young starlet named Kitty Jackson. Later, as a jaded 28 year-old notorious in the tabloids for on-set tantrums, Kitty participates in a desperate, nearly fatal PR scheme to improve the image of a dictator – a scheme developed by Dolly, who is now persona non grata in the PR world because of a disastrous party she once threw in which an elaborate ceiling decoration went dangerously wrong (Dolly also does some prison time, six months for criminal negligence). Dolly’s daughter Lulu – 9 years old at the time of the Kitty Jackson scheme -- eventually becomes Bennie’s new assistant, post Sow’s Ear (and post-Stephanie) after Bennie’s gone back to producing indie musicians (and remarried to a young woman named Lupa). In the novel’s finale, Lulu teams up with Alex – Bennie’s new potential protégé, and Sasha’s one-night-stand from Chapter 1– to promote Scotty’s return to the music scene as an indie soloist. Phew. I drew a flow chart myself to sort it all out, which I found helpful. Take that, agents and editors who warn novelists against “too many characters.” And I haven’t even named here all the children. Ah, the children. The eponymous goon here may be time (“Time’s a goon,” the washed out, former lead singer of the Conduits says, as does Bennie later on) – time passes, time disorients, time wears and tears; and in no other universe does time trample on souls and bodies more ruthlessly than in that of entertainment – “This is the music business,” Sasha reminds Bennie. “Five years is five hundred years.” Egan’s eyes and ears for the world of appearances – glitz, glam, and all that is required to churn the celebrity machine – is acute (territory that Egan readers will recognize from her first story collection Emerald City and from her second novel Look At Me), and she does take particular interest in exploring the particular brand of ruin that befalls the formerly famous/pseudo-famous. But she’s also got her sights set on the future – on the children, on their particular experience of this same disorienting, media-fied and atomized world of experience-on-demand. How are they responding to all of it, and how are they being shaped? I’m not sure that Egan answers that question, as much as she asks it; but she does render child characters – and child flashbacks of adult characters -- with a striking reverence for both their genius and sensitivity. Lulu -- “Overhearing her daughter on the phone with her friends, Dolly was awed by her authority: she was stern when she needed to be, but also soft. Kind. Lulu was nine” – Rolph -- “At eleven years old, Rolph knows two clear things about himself: He belongs to his father. And his father belongs to him…Rolph closes his eyes and opens them again. He is in Africa with his father. He thinks, I’ll remember this night for the rest of my life. And he’s right” – Sasha at age 5 -- “...the child was spinning them out as a way of filling the time, distracting them both from whatever was going on inside that house. And this made her seem much older than she really was, a tiny little woman, knowing, world-weary, too accepting of life’s burdens to even mention them” – and Sasha’s daughter Allison and “slightly autistic” son Linc – these are the real stars of A Visit From the Goon Squad. And, to put a fine point on it, Egan gives us “Pure Language,” the final chapter: a futuristic glimpse into the inevitable creep of precociousness-meets-technology. In addition to the children themselves, I found the brother-sister relationships – and the portrayal of platonic love between male and female in general (between, for example, Bennie and Sasha, and Sasha and Robert) – moving and poignant. Chapter 12 is told from young Allison’s perspective, in “slide journal” form (a kind of poetic-diagrammatic Powerpoint), and provides for us a child’s view of her parents’ estrangement; which is at root the estrangement of her father from her beloved brother Linc, a mathematical/musical idiot savant, who intuits the goonishness of time even at his young age via his obsession with musical pauses: “[Linc’s] crying makes sounds like scraping / Hearing him cry makes me cry, too. / Dad tries to hug Lincoln but he flinches away and hunches his back into a ball. / Mom’s face is white and furious. / She leans close to Dad, and says very softly: / The pause makes you think the song will end. And then the song isn’t really over, so you’re relieved. But then the song does actually end, because every song ends, obviously, and THAT. TIME. THE. END. IS. FOR. REAL.” Fans of Egan’s previous novels will be intrigued and excited, I think, to delve into her work in this new (for her) collage, time-shifty, polyphonic form. What the form does have in common with a traditional story collection, however, is that each chapter on some level stands on its own and thus the reader experiences the same unevenness as when reading a series of stories. “Safari,” in my opinion, is far and away the novel’s strongest chapter (having read it in the New Yorker, I was primed and jonzing for Goon Squad); but its characters are not as narratively central as others, and so its strength tips the work in a slightly disorienting way. Without revisiting Charlie or Rolph or even Mindy, Lou’s girlfriend at the time, in any substantial way, we’re left a bit dissatisfied. I was myself eager to see how the novel-in-stories form would serve and showcase Egan’s particular talents as a sharp observer of modern families and culture, along with her idea-driven approach to fiction. In the end, Goon Squad delivers on all the pleasures of Egan’s gifts as we’ve seen them displayed in the past – crisp and pulsing prose, extraordinary psychological insight, finely-specified characters seen from various points of view, a dark and yet vibrant wit, and off-the-charts observational intelligence. But the strain apparent in much of Egan’s work, i.e. the plotty feeling of her plots, is also still evident here, perhaps even more so given the myriad strands she pulls together in order to connect all of her dots (credible degrees of separation notwithstanding). Egan’s work often contains hard turns of the steering wheel (I am thinking here of Phoebe’s one-in-a-million run-in with Wolf in Munich in The Invisible Circus, and Egan’s puppeteer’s handling of the characters/meta-characters in The Keep), and readers will feel steered and handled in Goon Squad as well. But as a student of mine has put it, “It feels a little like she’s putting a fat kid in a tutu; but boy, that kid can dance.” And: “It feels like she’s moving furniture; but you’re sort of in awe of the fact that she has the balls to put the sofa in the kitchen.” In my own work, I find I am also less interested in story than idea or character, and have been known to make strategic (some might say liberal) use of the coincidence; so it's inspiring to see Egan careen and maneuver with a sure hand. A Visit From the Goon Squad ultimately secures Jennifer Egan’s place as a personal touchstone for me, and I would guess for many emerging novelists. Her work is (skillfully, decidedly) equal parts brainy and empathic, hyper-realist and fantastical, gritty and luminous; it is both so-damned-good and identifiably flawed. I teach her stories often and encourage my students (and myself) with her example: “Be brave; sometimes you just need to grab the reins and try stuff.”
Update: Don't miss our newest "Most Anticipated" list, highlighting books for the rest of 2010 and beyond. There's something for every lover of fiction coming in 2010, but, oddly enough, the dominant theme may be posthumous publication. Roberto Bolaño's relentless march into the canon has inured us to the idea of the bestseller from beyond the grave (and of course, for as long as there have been literary executors, this has been nothing new), but beyond the four(!) new books by Bolaño we also have have potentially important works by the likes of Ralph Ellison and Henry Roth, intriguing new books from Robert Walser and Ernst Weiss, a guaranteed bestseller from Stieg Larsson, and, looming in 2011, the final, unfinished novel of David Foster Wallace. Perhaps, amid all this, it is a relief to hear that we have many exciting books on their way from those still with us, including Elizabeth Kostova, Joshua Ferris, David Mitchell, Jennifer Egan, Don DeLillo, Ian McEwan, Yann Martel, and many others.Special thanks to The Millions Facebook group for helping us compile this list.January (or already available) Three Days Before the Shooting by Ralph Ellison: Fitting that this book preview starts off with a posthumous novel. Ellison's unfinished opus will not be the the only posthumous work to grab readers attention in 2010, but it will be perhaps the one with the most history attached to it and maybe, in the accounting of those who manage the canon, the most important. Ellison famously struggled to complete a second novel after the landmark publication of The Invisible Man. After Ellison's death, Juneteenth was cobbled together by his literary executor John Callahan and met with decidedly mixed reviews. But, as a 2007 article in the Washington Post argues, Three Days Before the Shooting, the result of years of work by Callahan and co-editor Adam Bradley, was always meant to be the true Ellison second novel. Readers will soon find out if it's the masterpiece they've been waiting for for decades.The Unnamed by Joshua Ferris: If your debut effort (in this case, Then We Came to the End) gets nominated for a National Book Award, you are on the express train to literary stardom. Quickly, however, focus shifts to the sophomore effort. For Ferris, early signs look good. Word is that The Unnamed is dark in tone, darker than and by all early accounts dissimilar to TWCTTE. The protagonist Tim's affliction is that he's unable to stop walking. In an early review, Bookforum likes it and says "Ferris possesses an overriding writer's gift: a basic and consistent ability to entertain while spurring engagement." See also: Joshua Ferris writing at The MillionsMonsieur Pain by Roberto Bolaño: The frenzy of posthumous Bolaño publication will continue in 2010 with as many as four (that I was able to find) books by the Chilean author published. Bolaño has been unmistakably one of the biggest publishing stories of the last few years, and publisher New Directions has been capably and speedily adding title after title to the Bolaño shelf at your local bookstore. Monsieur Pain (January) is about a Peruvian poet with a chronic case of hiccups. Antwerp (April) has been described as both a prose poem and a crime novel. The Return (July) is a new volume of short stories, as is The Insufferable Gaucho (August?), which was apparently the last book Bolaño delivered to a publisher. And look for more Bolaño in 2011. Garth may need to start updating his Bolaño Syllabus on a quarterly basis.Fun with Problems by Robert Stone: Fun with Problems will be Stone's first collection of short fiction in twelve years. And his first book since his 2007 memoir Prime Green: Remembering the Sixties (see Garth's review).Ordinary Thunderstorms by William Boyd: Boyd's novel is already out in the UK where it has been receiving characteristically good notices. "There are tantalising hints of a broader ambition in William Boyd's wide-ranging new thriller," said The Guardian. The book is ostensibly about a man on the run, but Boyd, in an interview with Edinburgh Festivals alluded to the depth that The Guardian picked up on, "It's a chase. And the drive is that the man is being hunted. But like the last four of my novels, it's also about identity, about what happens when you lose everything that makes up your social identity, and how you then function in the modern city."The Swan Thieves by Elizabeth Kostova - The follow-up to Kostova's big selling The Historian (the first ever first novel to debut at #1 on the New York Times bestseller list) promises to be just as densely detailed as its predecessor, weighing in at a hefty 576 pages. Recently departed Kirkus has some quibbles with the plot machinations, but says "lush prose and abundant drama will render logic beside the point for most readers." PW adds "The Swan Thieves succeeds both in its echoes of The Historian and as it maps new territory for this canny and successful writer." See Also: Elizabeth Kostova's Year in ReadingIn January, Archipelago Books will publish a translation of Ernst Weiss' Georg Letham: Physician and Murderer some 70 years after the novel's appearance in German. Enthusiasts of German-language literature have compared Weiss favorably with his contemporary Thomas Mann and his friend Franz Kafka, but he has remained something of an unknown on this side of the Atlantic. Already, Joel Rotenberg's translation has begun to remedy this neglect. An excerpt appeared in A Public Space a while back. (Garth)February Point Omega by Don DeLillo: Anticipation for DeLillo's forthcoming book has been decidedly truncated. Publisher Scribner first tweeted about DeLillo delivering the manuscript in June, and the book will hit shelves a scant eight months later. One reason for the quick turnaround might be the book's surprising slimness, coming in somewhere between 117 pages (says PW) and 128 pages (says Scribner). Imagine: reading an entire DeLillo novel in an afternoon, or perhaps just over lunch. So will the book's slight profile belie some interior weightiness? A recently posted excerpt may offer some clues, and PW says "Reading it is akin to a brisk hike up a desert mountain—a trifle arid, perhaps, but with occasional views of breathtaking grandeur."Reality Hunger: A Manifesto by David Shields: We've already discussed Shields' forthcoming "manifesto" quite a lot at The Millions. It was first noted, in glowing terms, by Charles D’Ambrosio. This prompted me to dig deeper in a longer look at the book. From my sleuthing, and noting blurbs by J.M. Coetzee, Jonathan Lethem, and others, I posited "the intriguing possibility that a book of ideas will capture the popular interest [in 2010]." The book now sits on my desk, and while haven't yet jumped in with both feet, I can report that it is both structurally (a lettered and numbered organization scheme whose logic is not immediately discernible) and stylistically (deep thoughts, reminiscences, aphorisms, and pop culture nuggets abound) unique. It will be interesting to see if readers decide the book coalesces into a successful whole. This just in - British publisher Hamish Hamilton reports that Zadie Smith will be writing up the book in The Guardian soon. See Also: David Shield's Year in ReadingThe Infinities by John Banville: Banville follows up his Booker-winning effort The Sea with a novel with a rather unique conceit: it is narrated by the god Hermes. The reviews hint at further oddities. In The Guardian, for example, "Old Adam, a physicist-mathematician, has solved the infinity problem in a way that's not only led to some useful inventions – cars that run on brine, for example – but also proved the existence of parallel universes, a category that includes the one he inhabits. In this novel, Sweden is a warlike country, and evolution and relativity have been discredited."Union Atlantic by Adam Haslett: Haslett made a big splash in 2002 when his debut effort - a collection of short stories called You Are Not a Stranger Here - was a finalist for the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize. Union Atlantic, his first novel, takes the depths of the recent financial collapse as a backdrop (which explains why a work of literary fiction is getting notice from publications like American Banker). PW gave it a starred review and insinuates it might be a seminal novel of that particular historical moment. Esquire recently published the novel's prologue. It begins, "Their second night in port at Bahrain someone on the admiral's staff decided the crew of the Vincennes deserved at least a free pack of cigarettes each."March Solar by Ian McEwan: McEwan's new novel was discussed extensively in Daniel Zalewski's New Yorker profile of McEwan in February 2009. More recently, the magazine published an excerpt from the novel. The book's protagonist is a Nobel Prize-winning physicist, and it appears that the book's chief drama will arise in his becoming embroiled in the climate change "debate." The book is also being called a satire, but, to the extent that several of McEwan's books have elements of satire, it's unclear whether Solar will be much of a departure for McEwan. The excerpt in the New Yorker would seem to indicate it'll be a typical, and probably quite good, effort.The Ask by Sam Lipsyte: Lipsyte had a breakout hit with Home Land in 2005. His follow-up novel was reviewed recently in The Quarterly Conversation, which says "let’s be frank: this is a hard novel to review. The Ask makes for your heart with its claws so efficiently that it leaves you torn and depleted. How are you to review a book that simply frightens you?" Ultimately, TQC decides The Ask "isn’t quite as good as Home Land. The latter was nearly perfect in idea and execution—an ’80s high-school movie gone sick with nostalgia for its own John Hughesian past. The Ask is more generationally diffuse. While just as snot-blowingly funny as its predecessor, The Ask is more devastating in its pitilessness."The Surrendered by Chang-Rae Lee: Bookdwarf read this one recently and says Lee "offers no easy endings or heartwarming coming-together, instead bringing to life a powerful, unpredictable, and occasionally painful story."Burning Bright by Ron Rash: Rash's follow-up to Serena is a collection of stories. The book's title story appeared in Ecotone in 2008.One More Story: Thirteen Stories in the Time-Honored Mode by Ingo Schulze: Garth has been talking about Schulze here for at least two years. Most recently he wrote "The East German setting of New Lives, and its uroboric epistolary structure – starting late in the story, slowly filling in the background – made for slow going at first, but the ethical intensity of its restaging of Faust has haunted me since I read it." The English (and somewhat illogical) title of Schulze's new book would seem to obscure the unifying theme of the new collection, whose title, translated directly from the German original, is Cell Phone: Thirteen Stories in the Old Style. According to an abstract for a paper in the journal German Monitor, "the cell phone functions in many stories as a threatening symbol of exposure to pressures and problems that make East(ern) Germans feel ill at ease."So Much for That by Lionel Shriver: More hot button issues. Just as Ian McEwan's forthcoming novel is informed by climate change, Shriver's latest takes on the healthcare debate. The Bradshaw Variations by Rachel Cusk: Cusk's novel is already out in the U.K. where Hilary Mantel wrote, "It is the author's mix of scorn and compassion that is so bracing. Sometimes she complicates simple things, snarling them in a cat's cradle of abstraction, but just as often, a sentence rewards with its absolute and unexpected precision."Silk Parachute by John McPhee: This new collection by McPhee is built around what FSG's promotional material calls "McPhee’s most anthologized piece of writing." "Silk Parachute" is, especially for the typically measured McPhee, a brief, tight, funny and emotional essay (It's available here as a .doc file). The rest of the new collection is composed of McPhee's recent New Yorker essays on lacrosse, "long-exposure view-camera photography, the weird foods he has sometimes been served in the course of his reportorial travels, a U.S. Open golf championship, and a season in Europe 'on the chalk' from the downs and sea cliffs of England to the Maas valley in the Netherlands and the champagne country of northern France." Since McPhee's most recent collections have had fairly strong thematic threads running through them, this more loosely tied book sounds like a bit of a departure.Long for This World by Sonya Chung: And, of course, Millions contributor Sonya Chung will see her debut novel Long for This World arrive in March. Sonya wrote about the peculiar challenges of settling on a book design in a recent essay.April The Notebook by Jose Saramago: Nobel Laureates can do "blooks" too. The Notebook is the collected entries from 87-year-old Saramago's blog, O Caderno de Saramago. The book, "which has already appeared in Portuguese and Spanish, lashes out against George W. Bush, Tony Blair, the Pope, Israel and Wall Street," according to the Independent, in its report on the book's Italian publisher dropping it for criticizing Prime Minister Silvio Burlusconi. Despite his age, Saramago is a busy man. In addition to The Notebook, there's an August release date in the U.K. for a new novel, The Elephant's Journey, which "traces the travels of Solomon, an Indian elephant given by King John III to Archduke Maximilian II of Austria," and Cain, "an ironic retelling of the Bible story," was recently published in Portuguese and Spanish.Parrot and Olivier in America by Peter Carey: Carey's new book is based on the life of Alexis de Tocqueville and wields two narrators. Olivier, the de Tocqueville "character" is, like de Tocqueville, the heir apparent of a wealthy family. Parrot is his clever servant who also happens to be a spy and all around rake. Early reviews from Australia, where the book is already out, have been strong. The Sydney Morning Herald called it "a tour de force, a wonderfully dizzying succession of adventures and vivid, at times caricatured, characters executed with great panache."The Dead Republic by Roddy Doyle: This book wraps up Doyle's The Last Roundup trilogy (previously: A Star Called Henry and Oh, Play That Thing!). This time Henry Smart has gone to Hollywood and then back to Dublin. A bomb blast there turns him into an accidental hero.What Becomes by A.L. Kennedy: This short story collection is already out in the U.K. The Spectator likes it: "The hardest thing about the advent of a new collection of stories by A.L. Kennedy... is the search for synonyms for 'brilliant.'"Beatrice and Virgil by Yann Martel: Though Martel's previous effort, Life of Pi, was far from universally loved, the book became something of a literary phenomenon, putting up sales impressive even for a Booker winner. As a result, nearly a decade later, Martel's follow up is one of the most heavily anticipated books of the year. As before, it seems Martel will be trading in talking animals, a taxidermied donkey and monkey. More details: The book is about the Holocaust, reportedly. It's Canadian publisher has called it "shocking." And Martel is comparing it to Animal Farm.The Big Short by Michael Lewis: Original set for November 2009, the publication of Michael Lewis’ much anticipated chronicle of the financial crisis, The Big Short has been pushed back to April. In October 2008, when economic uncertainty was at its height and fears were voiced in some rarefied quarters about the possibility of some sort of structural collapse, we wrote, “The world needs an exhaustive look at what happened in 2008 and why.” There have already been many books about the collapse and what caused it, from The Two Trillion Dollar Meltdown to The Return of Depression Economics and the Crisis of 2008, but many readers have been waiting for a book by Lewis, both because of his long history writing about Wall Street’s excesses and because of the powerful essay he penned on the topic for Portfolio magazine at the height of the crisis. Some readers may be weary of the topic by the time the book comes out, but it’s sure to garner some interest. Noir by Robert Coover: An excerpt of this new novel by "pioneering postmodernist" Coover was published a while back in Vice. It is introduced thusly: "Noir is a short novel starring you as Philip M. Noir, Private Investigator. It began as a story about a dockside detective in pursuit of something—like truth or beauty, the ineffable—and became over the course of its writing a kind of companion piece to Ghost Town, which played with the western genre and mythology the way this one plays with the hard-boiled/noir genre and urban myth. It was the French who discovered and defined noir; consequently, this book will have its first publication in Paris, in French, in the spring of 2008."May The Pregnant Widow by Martin Amis: This book, long in the works, has been evolving as Amis has struggled to write it. In 2006, he told The Independent it was, "blindingly autobiographical, but with an Islamic theme." As it turns out, the autobiographical bits were causing Amis trouble. He told the National Post in August 2009, "it turned out it was actually two novels, and they couldn’t go together. So I wrote The Pregnant Widow, [that’s] one half of it, and the other half I started, and it will be very autobiographical, the next one." Subsequent comments from Amis appear to indicate the two book solution is still the plan. Imperial Bedrooms by Bret Easton Ellis: Imperial Bedrooms is reportedly a sequel to Ellis' first novel Less Than Zero. First sentence of the novel? "They had made a movie about us."The Invisible Bridge by Julie Orringer: Orringer received more than the typical notice for a debut short story collection when her 2003 How to Breathe Underwater was named a New York Times Notable Book, landed on various other lists, and picked up a small prize or two. It's looking like that promising first effort may translate into a "big" novel for Orringer in 2010. Library Journal reported a 60,000-copy first printing for The Invisible Bridge - the book follows a trio of Hungarian brothers in Budapest and Paris before and during World War II - and it carries with it a blurb from Michael Chabon ("To bring an entire lost world... to vivid life between the covers of a novel is an accomplishment; to invest that world, and everyone who inhabits it, with a soul... takes something more like genius.")The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest by Stieg Larsson: Larsson's nordic crime fiction (which has won Larsson posthumous stardom in the States) isn't exactly in The Millions wheelhouse, but, with nary a mention on the site, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo vaulted into our Millions Top Ten and has stayed there. When Millions' readers get behind a book, it's often worth taking notice. The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest is the final book in Larsson's "Millennium Trilogy" (Dragon was the first and The Girl Who Played with Fire, the second). Though just becoming well known in the U.S., Larsson was the second top-selling author in the world in 2008. Part of Larsson's sudden success is his odd path to (posthumous) publishing fame. Larsson was a journalist and activist who died of a heart attack. The manuscripts of his novels were found after his death. He had apparently written them just for fun. Five years later, the books are a publishing sensation.Private Life by Jane Smiley: There's not much info on this one yet other than that it follows a Missouri woman's life, from the 1880s to World War II.The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ by Philip Pullman: Pullman (famous for his His Dark Materials children's series) will once again be courting controversy with this new book. According to The Guardian, "The book will provide a new account of the life of Jesus, challenging the gospels and arguing that the version in the New Testament was shaped by the apostle Paul." In addition, the book will be released on Easter in the U.K. and is part of Canongate's "Myths" series of books. Pullman also wrote an introduction to that series.The Microscripts by Robert Walser: The pothumous publication of Nabokov's The Original of Laura, reproducing, front and back, the notecards on which Nabokov hat charted this unfinished work, was met with no small amount of scorn. This year, another posthumously published book, based off of notecard scrawlings, may be met more favorably. The story behind Walser's Microscripts is fascinating. From the New Directions blog: "Walser wrote many of his manuscripts in a highly enigmatic, shrunken-down form. These narrow strips of paper... covered with tiny ant-like markings only a millimeter or two high, came to light only after the author’s death in 1956. At first considered a secret code, the microscripts were eventually discovered to be a radically miniaturized form of a German script: a whole story could fit on the back of a business card... Each microscript is reproduced in full color in its original form: the detached cover of a trashy crime novel, a disappointing letter, a receipt of payment."June The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell: After Black Swan Green, a departure from the frenetic, layered Cloud Atlas which was broadly considered one of the best novels of the last decade, Mitchell fans may be pleased to hear that The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is being described as a return to form. It's long (512 pages) and set in Japan in 1799. The Guardian says, "Mitchell returns to the big canvas with this historical novel set in a Japanese outpost of the Dutch empire."An American Type by Henry Roth: Here's another interesting posthumous publication. Roth is revered for his 1934 novel Call It Sleep and his 1990s "comeback" effort, the Mercy of a Rude Stream cycle, and so news of this book, "discovered," according to the publicity materials, "in a stack of nearly 2,000 unpublished pages by a young New Yorker editor," will surely interest readers. A little more detail from the publicity materials: "Set in 1938, An American Type reintroduces us to Roth’s alter ego, Ira, who abandons his controlling lover, Edith, in favor of a blond, aristocratic pianist at Yaddo. The ensuing conflict between his Jewish ghetto roots and his high-flown, writerly aspirations forces Ira, temporarily, to abandon his family for the sun-soaked promise of the American West."A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan: This new novel by National Book Award nominee Egan sounds like it's as ambitious and layered as Look At Me--and I'm sure it'll be as addictively readable as The Keep. According to Amazon, it centers on the life of Bennie Salazar, "an aging former punk rocker and record executive, and Sasha, the passionate, troubled young woman he employs," and the narrative traverses various eras and locales, "from the pre-Internet nineties to a postwar future." Color me intrigued. (Edan)July Update: Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart: A reader points out in the comments that Shteyngart has a new book coming out and since we absolutely would have included it had we known about it, here it is. A recent item at The Rumpus has the scoop: "His new novel is set slightly in the future. When he started writing it a few years ago, he envisioned a world where the world’s economy had collapsed and the central banks had to bail out the Big Three automakers. As that came to pass, he had to keep changing his novel, which got bleaker and bleaker. And now it’s set in 'a completely illiterate New York,' he said. 'In other words, next Tuesday.'" August Sympathy for the Devil: This is a long way off so it's hard to say how good it will be, but it sounds pretty cool: an anthology of stories about the devil from the likes of Neil Gaiman, Stephen King, Kelly Link, China Mieville, Michael Chabon, and others.I Curse the River of Time by Per Petterson: Petterson has been on the road to international literary stardom for a few years now and that means his new novels get translated into English with relative alacrity. This means that English-speaking readers will get to see I Curse the River of Time, first published in Norwegian in 2008, later this year. The book won the Norwegian Brage prize and, according to a "sample translation" on Petterson's agent's website, it begins: "I did not realize that my mother had left. There was too much going on in my own life. We had not spoken for a month, or even longer, which I guess was not that unusual, in 1989, when you consider the things that went on around us back then, but it felt unusual." September C by Tom McCarthy: At Ready Steady Book in September 2007, Mark Thwaite asked McCarthy: "What are you writing now?" And McCarthy responded: "Pathetically, my answer to this question is the same as it was when you last asked it over a year ago. I’m just under half way through a novel called C, which is about mourning, technology and matter. I’m writing it very slowly. It’s called C because it has crypts, cauls, call-signs, cocaine, cyanide and cysteine in it. And carbon: lots of carbon."Unknown Nemesis by Philip Roth: News of this novel was announced nearly a year ago, but there is no release date thus far and not much is known about it beyond that it's "a work of fiction set in the summer of 1944 that tells of a polio epidemic and its effects on a closely knit Newark community and its children."Freedom by Jonathan Franzen: Jonathan Franzen's follow-up to The Corrections, Freedom, is likely to cause a stir when it appears, most likely in the fall. Among the prominent media narratives - the backlash, the backlash-to-the-backlash - will be the length of the novel's gestation. Really, though, in novelist time (as distinct from internet time), nine years is a mere blip - particularly when you publish two books of nonfiction in the interim. Far more remarkable is how tight-lipped Franzen has managed to be about the novel's content. From various obscure interviews, we've managed to cobble together the following: 1) The novel has something to do with U.S. politics, of the Washington, D.C. variety. 2) Franzen's original conception of how those politics would intersect with the narrative changed radically in the writing, likely shifting from an "inside baseball" look at bureaucracy toward the personal. 3) Germany, where Franzen has spent some time recently, "will play an important role in the novel." 4) After two New Yorker short stories notable for their smallness and misanthropy, the excerpt from the novel that appeared last year was notable for its return to the more generous ironies that endeared The Corrections to our "Best Fiction of the Millennium (So Far) panel." (Garth)The Pale King by David Foster Wallace: Wallace's unfinished opus is sure to be a blockbuster when it appears - April 2011 is the latest word on a release date. The Howling Fantods, home to all things DFW, has been staying on top of the story. A recent report contained a number of tidbits, including this: "The subject of the novel is boredom. The opening of the book instructs the reader to go back and read the small type they skipped on the copyright page, which details the battle with publishers over their determination to call it fiction, when it's all 100% true. The narrator, David Foster Wallace, is at some point confused with another David F. Wallace by IRS computers, pointing to the degree to which our lives are filled with irrelevant complexity."There are many other exciting books coming out in 2010 not mentioned here - let us know what books you are most looking forward to in 2010 in the comments section below.