All the Light We Cannot See: A Novel

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What We Talk About When We Talk About Boycotts

With the news of Simon & Schuster's conservative Threshold imprint acquiring -- via $250,000 advance -- a memoir by "that person" (whom I'm declining to name, or even describe, because why give him more free publicity?), the outcry was swift, accusing Simon & Schuster of cynically capitalizing on and rewarding hate speech and normalizing white supremacy. I don't disagree with those sentiments, but I didn't jump into the fray because, quite honestly, I didn't know how I felt. There are a lot of issues at play: hate, misogyny, capitalism (i.e., publishing as a business), coexisting with my reality as a writer fortunate enough to have a supportive publisher. And that publisher is Simon & Schuster. I had an 800-page manuscript that I had taken 10 years to finish; literary fiction is never a clear moneymaker, long novels are problematic from, if anything, a production point of view (all that paper, all that ink, the increased shipping costs), and yet my editor took me on for a nice five, not six-figure, advance. Even better, she had also just taken on a prizewinning Korean American author whom I admired, whose first book had also come out with an independent press. My editing process at Beacon Press was fairly straightforward because the novel was ready to go. With the current novel, there are structural issues, and a team of editors have rolled up their sleeves, put the tome on a metaphorical lift, and gotten just as sweaty and dirty tinkering with its guts as I have. I'm relieved that, even as the years slide by, they talk only about getting the book right, rather than pushing out "product." In short, I'm living a dream I'd had as a child banging out stories on my hand-me-down typewriter and selling them -- to my parents. Like many, I was horrified that a person who Twitter had deemed so odious/dangerous it banned him from the platform was being given another platform, a paid one, in short order. Protest is often the only way to get a company's attention. And it can have results. But it's not always the results that were intended, or wanted. For instance, after the outcry over the "sadistic contents" of Bret Easton Ellis's American Psycho, three months before the book's publication, it was dropped by the publishing house....Simon & Schuster. CEO Richard Snyder explained, "It was an error of judgment to put our name on a book of such questionable taste." But the book was just as quickly picked up by esteemed editor Sonny Mehta and published by Random House's prestigious Vintage imprint. Irrespective of the nature and quality of these two books, it's instructive to examine these unintended consequences. Books are indeed published by corporations, which need to sell to stay in business. But as much was we like to treat books as "widgets," they aren't interchangeable goods or services. Each one is written by an author or co-author. In an overcrowded publishing market, bad attention can be just as valuable, perhaps more so, as good attention. The brouhaha over American Psycho certainly branded it into America's cultural consciousness; the book is still robustly with us, it recently turned 25 and just appeared on Broadway as a musical (!), i.e., trying to kill it with bad publicity may have done exactly the opposite. The second thing to consider is unintended collateral damage. Many people objected to the content of Fifty Shades of Grey, but it not only helped keep Random House (now Penguin Random House) in the black, it brought in so much revenue that every employee, from “top editors to warehouse workers,” received a $5,000 bonus. So what's the opposite of a rising tide? When I heard the calls to boycott Simon & Schuster, that reviewers were going to refuse to review, authors were vowing not to blurb S&S authors' books, a bookstore tweeted that it wasn't even going to stock any S&S books, I felt a bit of a chill. I had no urge to write my editors, because they had zero to do with the decision to acquire that book. Publishing firms are "houses" with huge family trees, divided into specialized groups called imprints. While imprints are not wholly autonomous, they each have their own eco-systems. I write literary fiction and publish with the Simon & Schuster imprint. Simon & Schuster also has several other general interest imprints, specialized imprints, and several children's book imprints, as well as Howard Books, which publishes for the Christian marketplace. Should its Folger Shakespeare Library imprint be penalized for an acquisition by Threshold Editions, a conservative writers' imprint (that has also published Donald Trump and bona fide war criminal Dick Cheney -- with no outcry)? The calls to boycott are continuing after Simon & Schuster (the company) has stated it intends to go ahead and publish the book in question.  So what, then, is the endgame? Professor Matthew Garcia, who wrote From the Jaws of Victory: The Triumph and Tragedy of Cesar Chavez and the Farm Worker Movement and who has studied boycotts for years told me that "The boycott of S&S will be tricky. It requires a campaign and a set of goals. First, is there an organization willing to put the time in to organize and pursue the campaign the way the United Farm Workers did?" Good question. I personally feel that protecting healthcare, especially Medicaid and Medicare, is one of the most important things we need to do right now. "Second, that organization needs to do what UFW did with grapes -- identify what percentage of the product's delivery to market they need to effect in order to have S&S respond," Garcia said. "In the UFW case, they did not hit all sellers of grapes equally.  They targeted the biggest sellers, and set as their goal to reduce sales by 10 percent in 10 of the top markets.  They did that by knowing what amount would hurt their bottom line, and produce the biggest seller's capitulation.  I imagine the organization that pursues a boycott of S&S would have to identify the same profit margins for the company and what it would take to tip them in order to identify effective goals." Books, though, aren't an undifferentiated product like grapes. There's a lot of untethered anger that's much more than about one guy, one book deal, one company. People are mad as hell (rightly so) about the rise of the so-called "alt-right" (a.k.a. white supremacists). But how do we try to harness this anger productively? Successfully boycotting S&S is not going achieve what many of us really want -- which is to boycott 2016. But if we're going to try to get Simon & Schuster (and CBS, its parent company) to listen, what books should boycotters target to get to the United Farmworkers' 10 percent threshold? Probably the big ones like...the Bruce Springsteen memoir. Anthony Doerr's Pulitzer-winning novel,  All the Light We Cannot See.  Maybe Shonda Rhimes's bestselling memoir, Stephen King's latest? How about Naomi Klein's This Changes Everything -- cited as one of the "Seven Books You Need to Understand (and Fight) the Age of Trump"? Even if such a boycott was successful in harming the bottom line of a publisher, how do we know in a capitalist society that the publisher wouldn't then make up the difference by publishing even worse things or being less inclined to take risks? S&S started Salaam Reads, a imprint for Muslim-themed children's books. Why not starve "that person's book" financially and publicity-wise, and instead buy two books from Salaam Reads? Bookstore owners and buyers, who are the most direct link in all of this, are starting to formulate statements and implementing plans. Kathy Crowley, co-owner of Belmont Books, a Boston-area store set to open this spring, is a writer herself, and she told me that she and her husband have decided "Belmont Books won't sell this book." She adds, "Though I do want S&S to feel the heat for this decision, boycotting all S&S authors seems neither fair nor likely to be effective. More likely, the boycott generates lots of publicity for the book, raises the hackles of the anti-PC, pro-['that person'], pro-Trump crowd, and, in the end, rewards S&S and ['that person']." On the other coast, Christin Evans, owner of The Booksmith, a 40-year-old institution, which is, she said "specifically located in the historic Haight Ashbury" section of San Francisco will skip over "that person's" book (and anything from the Threshold Editions imprint), cut the number of S&S books, and, of the remainder, donate any profits from S&S books to the ACLU "for the foreseeable future." The extremity of what's coming requires we actually lay out on the table what we stand for. If we stand for a free exchange of ideas, we have to support publishing. Can we instead reject this person's ideas and collectively stop giving him a platform? If publishing is a business, can we vote with our dollars and our attention (cultural capital)? Store owners can decide whether to stock this title or not, reviewers can review or not. But a blanket boycott of any publisher's books makes no sense. It's burning down the house because you saw a spider.

Historical Fiction and the New Literary Taboo

There’s a moment in Shawna Yang Ryan’s soaring new novel, Green Island, where the narrator is about to break away from the life she’s always known; she will shortly be leaving Taiwan behind -- emigrating across the Pacific Ocean to California. Her father comes into her bedroom as she’s packing. He has a gift, of sorts, for her. He’s brought a jar of soil from the family garden. “I want you to remember.” He set the jar atop my heaped clothing. “Don’t forget.” Don’t forget. His words were both an order and a plea. It is February 1972. Richard Nixon is on his trip to China. Visiting Hangzhou, he’s completing the diplomatic mission that will open formal relations with the PRC. Taiwan, of course, watches with concern; China is a hostile power; with the recognition of the People’s Republic by the United States, Taiwan’s sovereignty might soon be at risk. These, then, are the twin concerns of Green Island: the political and the personal. Indeed, just a few pages earlier, Nixon’s visit has been relayed by the novel’s narrative voice: Nixon stands against a metal rail and tosses food into the water with concentration and joy. He drops into a grinning reverie as if he has forgotten the entire world is watching. “Dr. Kissinger,” the translator says, “you can have a package if you want to feed the fish.” “Denmark, Denmark,” says the Secret Service. “President feeding fish.” They stand here at this moment, three of them the most important people to the fate of Taiwan -- Richard Nixon, Chou En-lai, and Henry Kissinger -- on an overcast day in Hangchow, feeding fish. Walter Benjamin wrote that it is, “more arduous to honor the memory of the nameless than that of the renowned.” And there are a number of novels, right now, that are balancing these antipodes -- that take significant, well-known historical moments, and show them through the lens of nearly powerless, "nameless" protagonists. Through individuals buffeted by the afflictions of their age. Of course, Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See -- with over two million copies sold, in hardback -- is an example of this. Doerr’s novel follows two deeply-menaced protagonists -- Marie-Laure LeBlanc and Werner Pfennig -- as they move within the world of German-occupied France. Though Werner has enlisted in the Nazi army, he has done it from necessity, and his efforts to retain his decency in the face of war, in a way, end up causing his death. Marie-Laure is blind; the conflict threatens her in a bodily way; she feels wholly apart from the big geopolitical forces that are -- with generalized malice -- trying to kill her. She is a suffering witness to history. Many of the successful literary novels of the past 30 years have negotiated a similar territory, pairing small characters and big circumstances. Girl with a Pearl Earring (Griet, the fictional household servant, and Johannes Vermeer), Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children (fictional Saleem Sinai, balanced against the political and social figures of the 1947 Partition of India and Pakistan), Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain (W.P. Inman, the wounded Confederate deserter, and the army he’s just left), Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace (the fictional doctor Simon Jordan, and the 19th-century murderer Grace Marks) even Toni Morrison’s Beloved (Sethe and the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850), have all paired erstwhile anonymous, imaginary characters with unquestionably "real" circumstances. These books do not ignore history; they don’t neglect the geopolitical events that shape the societies in which their characters have "lived." Rather they thread their characters through these times, using the novel as an opportunity to show the impact of world-historical events on individual lives. In “An Essay Concerning Human Understanding,” John Locke says that, “the pictures drawn in our mind are laid in fading colors.” The project of the historical novel, then, is fashioned as an assault on this very fade. We, as human beings, struggle to remember, to retain a sense of the past. It has -- surprise! surprise! -- passed. But by inserting ordinary people into its great events, novelists can once again vivify and free the emotions of departed times. In a way, this is a gesture of resurrection. The text as Lazarus, stumbling -- bandaged by covers -- out of its dark cave. If the struggle of man against power is, indeed, the struggle of memory against forgetting, then the historical novel is -- imaginatively, at least -- a part of that struggle. As for the marketplace -- its appetite for this type of book is not surprising. Since the early 1990s, when publishers started calling it “upmarket historical fiction,” many successful literary novels have been set in a time -- or place -- other than our contemporary world. But the willingness of literary tastemakers to accept a work of historical fiction as "important" does feel like something new. Whether it’s Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers, Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries, Marlon James’s A Brief History of Seven Killings -- or two of the most anticipated novels of 2016: Alison Anderson’s The Summer Guest and Mark Beauregard’s The Whale: A Love Story -- it feels like there is a vast new space opening up in the fiction world, one that has the potential for both critical acclaim and strong sales. Writing last month in The New Republic, the novelist Alexander Chee touched on some of these issues. Chee, of course, has just published the historical novel, The Queen of the Night -- a book that has, as its central axis, a fictional 19th-century coloratura soprano, Lillet Berne. The book has been well-received, with positive reviews in nearly every major periodical, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, NPR’s Weekend Edition, Time, Vogue, The Atlantic, The Boston Globe, The San Francisco Chronicle. It also went through multiple printings before its publication. Still, Chee was worried about the reaction his fellow writers had whenever he told them he was working on a novel set in the past. Writing last month in The New Republic, Chee said that it was, “as if I’d announced that I was giving up years of hard work writing literary fiction to sell out and become a hack. I had inadvertently hit on a literary taboo.” Yet both Alexander Chee and Shawna Yang Ryan took nearly 15 years to complete their novels. Labor on this scale is almost unthinkable. It is perhaps the exact antithesis of the genre model of fiction writing -- with the rapacious, regular demands of the marketplace. The bruising deadlines, the concept-driven, pre-packaged product. Clearly, these two historical novels -- with their robust intellectual projects, their deeply imagined settings -- are of a different order. The hours-per-page, per-sentence, per-word -- for both The Queen of the Night and Green Island -- would discourage any beginning novelist. In an interview with Slate, Chee said, “The longer the novel was unfinished, the more it endangered my ability to keep teaching, which was a large part of my income. It endangered my ability to get further grants. It endangered my relationship, because I had been working on the novel so obsessively for so long that my partner felt widowed by the project.” Ryan’s experience was similar. “It kind of took over my life for the last decade and a half,” she said. Building her book’s foundation was an arduous process. In a conversation with The New York Times, she described the work of structuring the novel. Her dedication to craft -- and her ceaseless evaluation and reevaluation of the project’s success -- was built on a twinning of imagination and historical exploration. “I often thought of my research as similar to unraveling a sweater,” she said. “I’d tug at one thread, and a whole sleeve would come undone.”

“I’ll Read Anything”

"If the sentences are meticulously made, I’ll read anything, whether it’s as destabilizing as a Gary Lutz short story or as melancholy as a Chris Ware comic. The only books I give up on are texts where the writer’s attention is concentrated so heavily on narrative questions that his or her use of language becomes careless." Anthony Doerr, whose All The Light We Cannot See won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, discusses genre, Calvin and Hobbes, and the 2,080 books he still wants to read as part of the New York Times Book Review's By the Book series.

Father’s Day Books for Dads Who Actually Read

Let’s say there’s a father in your life. Maybe you’re married to him. Maybe you’re his child. Maybe he’s just a buddy of yours. Last year, on Father’s Day, you bought him a tie in his favorite colors. The year before that, it was a calfskin wallet, which you’ve noticed he still hasn’t used. This year, with Father's Day just a week and a half away, you're leaning toward buying him a bookstore gift card because he likes to read, but you don't know what book to get him. Resist this impulse. For a lot of busy dads, a store card is less a gift than a chore, one that can be skipped. (Don’t believe me? Take a peek in his sock drawer, upper right hand corner, just behind that unused calfskin wallet: Yep, a small stack of unused gift cards.) More importantly, a gift is a way of telling someone that you value them, that you know them a little better than they realized, and few things do this better than a well-chosen book. Below are book suggestions for 11 different kinds of dads who read. These suggestions assume that the fathers you’re shopping for have read most of the more popular books about the topics that interest them and may be looking for something new. Most of the books on this list are in paperback and should cost less than $20. 1. Big Game Book Hunter Dad A certain kind of man views his bookshelves the way a leopard sees bleached bones on the veldt -- as evidence of past kills, the larger the better. Hence, the popularity of the Doorstop Novel, the 500-, 600-, 700-page social novel or family saga. Every year publishers lavish splashy advances on the latest epic that might appeal to that most elusive of literary beasts, the middle-aged male fiction reader. A few years ago, that book was Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding. Last year it was Matthew Thomas’s We Are Not Ourselves, which, not so coincidentally, has just been released in paperback in time for Father’s Day. Both are solid novels, and brag-worthy kills for the Big Game Book Hunter in your life, but for sheer ambition neither can touch Phillipp Meyer’s cowboys-and-Indians epic, The Son. Meyer’s nearly 600-page Western contains three overlapping narratives, but the most gripping is that of family patriarch Eli McCullough, who is kidnapped by a Comanche raiding party in 1849 and raised as the chief’s adopted son before returning to white society. A particularly fearless reader-hunter will want to pair Meyer’s tale of the settling of Texas with Canadian writer Joseph Boyden’s equally audacious novel The Orenda, a fictional retelling of the bloody clash between French missionaries and local Huron and Iroquois tribes in 17th-century Canada. 2. Literary Fiction Dad He’s read Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See. He’s braved the languors of the Las Vegas chapters of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch. He’s read Jonathan Franzen, Michael Chabon, Jennifer Egan, and Jeffrey Eugenides. Why not branch out, see a little more of the world? In recent years, American readers have been treated to a bumper crop of first-rate literary fiction by immigrants from around the globe. If the Literary Fiction Dad in your life is open to reading women, he may want to try Americanah by Nigerian-American writer Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie, or The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri, an American of Bengali heritage. Among male writers, Nam Le, a Vietnamese-born writer raised in Australia and educated in the U.S., wrote a gripping collection of stories, The Boat, in 2008, and Chinese-American author Ha Jin, has turned out a steady stream of novels and story collections, perhaps the best of which is War Trash, set in a POW camp during the Korean War. But the Big Kahuna of American diaspora literature is Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, which has a legitimate claim to the title of best American novel of the new millennium. By turns hilarious, tender, and harrowing, Oscar Wao follows an overweight, Dominican-born sci-fi nerd in his search for love and the secret to survival in his cursed homeland. Diaz’s plot and characters are riveting, but the real pleasure of Oscar Wao is Diaz’s narrative voice, which combines slangy, high-velocity prose with penetrating insight into the political black hole that is the Dominican Republic. 3. Big Bad Noir Daddy Here’s a pro tip: To find a smart, well-written crime novel by a guy for guys, search the roster of writers for David Simon’s cable series The Wire. George Pelecanos, who was a writer on all five seasons, has somehow also found time to crank out 20 crime novels in roughly as many years, most of them set in and around Washington D.C., and focusing, with bracing honesty, on the sorry state of race relations in our nation’s capital. The Cut, from 2011, is as good a place to start as any. Another of Simon’s writers, Dennis Lehane, based out of Boston, runs hot and cold, but his 1998 novel Gone, Baby, Gone is a nicely twisted bit of noir, and 2001’s Mystic River would qualify as a work of literary fiction if a child didn’t die in the early pages. But the top thoroughbred in Simon’s stable, and arguably the finest American crime novelist at work today, is Richard Price. His books are structured as police procedurals and feature his famously razor-sharp dialogue, but Price is at heart an old-school social novelist in the mold of Charles Dickens and Émile Zola. His novels grab you by the ears and drag you into the hidden corners of modern America populated by immigrants, the poor, and those who prey on them. His latest, The Whites, written under the pen name Harry Brandt, offers a riveting look inside the minds of New York City police detectives who live their professional lives chest-deep in depravity and injustice. Price’s 1992 drug-dealer novel Clockers, later made into a Spike Lee joint, is another must-read. 4. Politically Incorrect Dad He’s inappropriate. He can’t control his appetites. He sweats a lot. His sense of humor is, well, different. But underneath all the layers of gruff and odd, beats a well-meaning heart. Meet Milo Burke, unlikely hero of Sam Lipsyte’s 2010 novel The Ask. Milo is a husband, a father of a young child, and a seething mass of misdirected grievance. “I’m not just any old hater,” he says early on. “I’m a hater’s hater.” In the opening pages, Milo loses his job wrangling donations for a third-tier university in New York City after he insults the talent-free daughter of one of the college’s wealthy donors, but is offered a chance at redemption if he can reel in a sizable gift from a rich college friend, who has, mysteriously, asked to work with Milo. Lipsyte specializes in the humor of white-male resentment, and when he misses he misses big, but The Ask is a tour de force of verbal pyrotechnics and shibboleth-skewering social insight. 5. World War II Buff Dad Big fat books about honorable wars are to grown men with mortgages what Call of Duty video games are to 10-year-old boys: mind-travel devices granting sedentary, suburban beings vicarious access to a world of danger and heroism. As with video game franchises, the options for quality reads about the Second World War are quite nearly boundless. For a broad overview, there’s Max Hastings’s Inferno: The World at War, 1939-1945, but World War II was so huge and so complicated that it can be wise to take it in pieces, using, say, Stephen Ambrose’s Band of Brothers as a window onto the American war effort in Europe or Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken to gain a finer-grained understanding of the Pacific Theater. A middle-ground approach that can satisfy the Big Game Hunter impulse while also offering a sharply observed portrait of the conflict that helped create the modern American military is Rick Atkinson’s Liberation Trilogy, which focuses on the American war effort in Europe. The three-volume set, An Army at Dawn, The Day of Battle, and Guns at Last Light, span a collective 2,349 pages, making it a prime trophy for anyone’s shelves. But Atkinson shifts so effortlessly from the panoramic to the close-up, giving the reader a day-by-day, sometimes minute-by-minute, account of what it felt and sounded and smelled like to be an American soldier at battle with the Axis powers, that trophy-hunting readers will be compelled to eat what they kill. 6. Civil War Buff Dad Atkinson’s Liberation Trilogy is practically a novella compared to Shelby Foote’s three-volume The Civil War: A Narrative, which clocks in at a mammoth 2,968 pages. Everything in Civil War historiography is big. James McPherson’s single-volume history, Battle Cry of Freedom, consumes 952 pages. Ken Burns’s TV documentary The Civil War spans more than 10 hours of airtime. And that’s not even touching on the vast shelf of biographies of Abraham Lincoln and Robert E. Lee or the rich scholarship on individual battles or lesser-known generals and leaders. This is Big Game Hunter territory, and if the dad in your life is new to nerding out on Civil War minutiae, you may want to shell out for the first volume of Foote’s epic, Fort Sumter to Perryville, a comparatively slim 856 pages. But if you are looking for new perspectives on the era, check out T.J. Stiles's Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War. As its subtitle suggests, Stiles’s biography frames the legendary bank robber not as a Robin Hood of the Wild West, but as a disaffected Confederate Army veteran bent on reviving the Lost Cause by any means necessary. Stiles writes well and is a scrupulous scholar, but he is also a gifted storyteller who reaches beyond cardboard outlaw stereotypes to bring the James boys to life on the page. 7. Business Maven Dad If the dad in your life goes in for business books, you can’t go wrong with Michael Lewis. Like his fellow bestseller-list regular Malcolm Gladwell, Lewis is perhaps too faithful to the journalist’s dictum to never let the facts get in the way of a good story, but he is a superb shoe-leather reporter and over the years Lewis’s eye for the big-picture truth has been unerring. His best book is probably The Big Short, about the 2008 financial collapse, but his 2014 book, Flash Boys, about computer-directed high-frequency trading, is also excellent. But anyone who reads business books will already have a shelf full of Michael Lewis. If you want a different take on American business, look for Beth Macy’s Factory Man, about John Bassett III, heir to a once-powerful North Carolina furniture-making company, who took on cheap imports from China and won. One longs for Lewis’s tale-spinning prowess in some of Macy’s background chapters that drag under the weight of her too-earnest reporting, but Bassett, the would-be furniture baron, is a colorful figure, and Macy’s core message, that a smart, driven factory owner willing to take some risks can beat offshore manufacturers at their own game, more than makes up for the book’s flabbier passages. 8. True Crime Dad Perhaps no section of the bookstore is more heavily stocked with schlock than the one devoted to true crime. For every classic like Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood or Dave Cullen’s meticulously reported Columbine, there are dozens of sensationalist gore-fests written by the likes of Ann Rule and R.J. Parker. Good true-crime writing should do more than pile up the bodies. It should use crime to shed light on an underside of a society, teaching us the unspoken rules of the world we live in by telling the stories of those who break those rules in the most aberrant ways. Few recent books do this as well, or as hauntingly, as Robert Kolker’s Lost Girls, about the murders of five prostitutes buried in shallow graves along Long Island’s South Shore. Lost Girls is an unsettling read because the murders remain unsolved, but Kolker provides a fascinating look into the shadowy world of Internet escorts. Unlike prostitutes of an earlier era, modern sex workers can connect with their johns online, eliminating the need for pimps or brothels. This means the women can keep more of their earnings and are freed from what is often an abusive and controlling relationship, but as Lost Girls illustrates, this freedom costs them the physical protection of a pimp, making them especially vulnerable to violence. 9. Sports Nut Dad As with true crime, the sports book genre breeds schlock. How many books on how to straighten out a golf shot can one man read? A good sports book, like a good true-crime book, should go beyond the details of its subject to make a larger point about society or about athletic excellence. Buzz Bissinger’s Friday Night Lights, about the subculture of high school football in Texas, does this. So does Andre Agassi’s surprisingly engrossing autobiography Open, about the trials of a man who succeeds at a sport he has come to hate. To one degree or another, all sports books try to answer the question of what makes a great athlete tick, but in The Sports Gene, David Epstein takes this question literally, using science to explore mysteries like why Kenyans win so many marathons and what it takes to hit a major-league fastball. The book’s message that there is no one path to athletic success may trouble the sleep of those Little League dads dreaming of turning their eight-year-olds into future Hall of Famers, but Epstein’s intelligent use of sports science, and his willingness to embrace ambiguity, makes for absorbing reading. 10. Vinyl Collector Dad The return of vinyl records has emboldened a generation of Boomer and Gen X dads to haul their high school LPs out of the garage and give them pride of place in the living room. But they need something to read while they’re listening to all those dinged-up copies of Kind of Blue and Exile on Main St. Launched in 2003 and now published by Bloomsbury, 33 1/3 is a series of more than 100 short books about classic albums, ranging from Tom Waits’s Swordfishtrombones (No. 53, by David Smay) to AC/DC’s Highway to Hell (No. 73, by Joe Bonomo). Each book in the series is by a different author, mostly music critics and musicians, with the occasional novelist like Jonathan Lethem (No. 86, the Talking Heads’ Fear of Music) thrown into the mix. Some books in the series put the focus on the music while others take a more biographical or social-historical approach. One of the titles, No. 28 by John Niven, on The Band’s Music from Big Pink, is written in the form of a novella, telling the true story of how Bob Dylan’s one-time backup band created its iconic 1968 album from the perspective of a fictional observer. Overall, the series skews heavily toward Music White People Like, though acts like Public Enemy (No. 71, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, by Christopher Weingarten) and J Dilla (No. 93, Donuts, by Jordan Ferguson) do occasionally appear. 11. Aspiring Writer Dad If you want to take the how-to route with your Aspiring Writer Dad, your best bet is Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. While Lamott’s reflexive (and, to these ears, highly calculated) hippy-dippy whimsy can grate, she is a gifted teacher and her chapter on writing shitty first drafts is justifiably legendary. But giving an aspiring writer Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird is like buying a pocket dictionary for a college-bound high school graduate: It’s a cliché, and he’s probably got six copies at home, anyway. If the aspiring writer in your life is, like most aspiring writers, already up to his ears in well-intended advice, switch gears and give him Boris Kachka’s Hothouse, a gossipy insider’s history of how the sausage gets made in New York publishing. In this dishy corporate biography of the publishing firm Farrar, Straus & Giroux, which has published everyone from T.S. Eliot and Roberto Bolaño to 1950s diet guru Gayelord Hauser, Kachka serves up enough sex and intrigue to keep the lay reader turning pages, but the book is fundamentally the story of how one headstrong publisher and a handful of talented editors struggled to maintain an independent publishing vision in a rapidly consolidating industry. Image Credit: The Athenaeum.

The Millions Top Ten: May 2015

  We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for May. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. 1. My Brilliant Friend 6 months 2. 2. The Strange Library 6 months 3. 4. Dept. of Speculation 6 months 4. 7. Loitering: New and Collected Essays 5 months 5. 6. The Buried Giant 3 months 6. 5. The David Foster Wallace Reader 5 months 7. 10. The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing 2 months 8. 9. The Girl on the Train 2 months 9. 8. The First Bad Man: A Novel 2 months 10. - Satin Island 1 month   May has come and gone, and the weather is warming. But is that due to the Earth's orbit around the sun, or is it due to the amount of energy being expelled by Millions writers hard at work at the upcoming Great Second-Half 2015 Book Preview, which will hit these pages in about a month? My guess is the latter, but in the mean time, grab a drink and stay cool. This month, Anthony Doerr's Pulitzer-winning novel, All the Light We Cannot See, has vaulted into our Hall of Fame. It's a book that our own Michael Bourne rightly called "a literary sensation," albeit one that, at first glance, did not have the makings of a smash hit. As Bourne explained it: This is a 500-page novel about a war increasingly few Americans are old enough to remember, in which not one of the principal characters is American. This is a recipe for a well-regarded literary novel, perhaps even a prize-winning critical darling. But a breakout bestseller so popular it leaves Amazon’s vast warehouses empty of copies at Christmas? Not likely. So what then explains the success of All the Light We Cannot See? It all, I would argue, comes down to Doerr’s sentences, in particular his masterly use of nouns and verbs. You'll have to check out the rest of the review for some examples. (Or you could check out both of Doerr's past Year in Reading entries, too: 2010; 2014.) Meanwhile, Elena Ferrante continues her reign atop our Top Ten list, and My Brilliant Friend looks poised to join our Hall of Fame in June. More than likely, it'll be accompanied by The Strange Library and Dept. of Speculation. The lone newcomer this month is Tom McCarthy's latest novel, Satin Island. A few months back, here's what our own Garth Risk Hallberg had to say about it: McCarthy’s fourth novel introduces us to a “corporate anthropologist” struggling to wrest an overarching account of contemporary existence from a miasma of distraction and dream. Perhaps he’s a stand-in for your average internet user. Or novelist. At any rate, expect ideas and delight in equal measure (assuming there’s a distinction); McCarthy’s reputation as a “standard bearer of the avant-garde” underrates how thoroughly he’s mastered the novelistic conventions he’s concerned to interrogate – and how fun he is to read. Certainly sounds appealing. Join us next month, but remember: with the Great Second-Half Preview on the horizon, it'll be a good idea to keep some space open on your "to be read" pile until that's posted. Near Misses: The Familiar, Volume 1: One Rainy Day in MayThe Paying Guests, Everything I Never Told You: A NovelTo Rise Again at a Decent Hour, and My Struggle: Book 1. See Also: Last month's list.

The Millions Top Ten: April 2015

We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for April. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. 3. My Brilliant Friend 5 months 2. 8. All the Light We Cannot See 6 months 3. 5. The Strange Library 5 months 4. 7. Dept. of Speculation 5 months 5. 6. The David Foster Wallace Reader 4 months 6. 10. The Buried Giant 2 months 7. 9. Loitering: New and Collected Essays 4 months 8. - The First Bad Man: A Novel 1 month 9. - The Girl on the Train 1 month 10. - The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing 1 month   Major shake-ups this month as we bid adieu to three Top Ten fixtures of the past six months. After half a year of consistent success, Michael Schmidt's door-stopping biography of the novel goes to our Hall of Fame, along with Emily St. John Mandel's Station Eleven and Richard Flanagan's The Narrow Road to the Deep North. This is the third time a Millions staffer has had their own work graduate to the site's Hall of Fame, and in so doing, Emily St. John Mandel joins site founder C. Max Magee (The Late American Novel) and site writer Mark O'Connell (Epic Fail) on the list. How fitting it is, too, that in our first Springtime Top Ten, we welcome three new, fresh additions to our list! Checking in at #8 is Miranda July's The First Bad Man, which was previewed in our Great 2015 Book Preview. July was also interviewed for our site in January, and at the time she described the inspiration for her novel in terms sure to salt the wound of anyone who's ever struggled with writer's block: Well, the inspiration came very suddenly. I literally just had the idea on a long drive: of Cheryl and Clee, and their relationship and how it changed. I even knew that there would be a baby at the end and that Cheryl would end up alone with it. So that all came in a few minutes, which was very lucky and I still thank the gods for that. Next on our list is Paula Hawkins's The Girl on the Train, which was recently shouted out by Jon Ronson in his By the Book column for the New York Times Book Review. Hawkins's novel has been described elsewhere as "an ingenious slant on the currently fashionable amnesia thriller," and "a gripping, down-the-rabbit-hole thriller." Keeping with our "Spring" motif, we also welcome Marie Kondo's The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up to our April list, most likely as we all begin in earnest to at least think about finally doing some Spring cleaning. In her review, our own Janet Potter noted that Kondo's work lays out "a method for cleaning and reorganizing your home that might be crazy and might be brilliant, but works either way." Next month, we should clear up at least one spot for another newcomer. Will it be one of these "Near Misses" at the bottom of this post, or will it be something else entirely? Near Misses: To Rise Again at a Decent HourMy Struggle: Book 1An Untamed State, The Paying Guests and Everything I Never Told You. See Also: Last month's list.

The 2015 Pulitzer for Fiction Goes to Anthony Doerr’s ‘All the Light We Cannot See’

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Following last year's win for Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch, the Pulitzer jury named Anthony Doerr's All the Light We Cannot See this year's winner in the fiction category, a second year in a row that the year's break-out literary bestseller took home the prize. Here are this year's Pulitzer winners and finalists with bonus links: Fiction: Winner: All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr (A World Made of Words: On Anthony Doerr’s Nouns and Verbs, Doerr's Year in Reading 2010 and 2014) Let Me Be Frank With You by Richard Ford (Tossed on Life’s Tide: Richard Ford’s Let Me Be Frank with You) The Moor’s Account by Laila Lalami (Ship of Fools: On Laila Lalami’s The Moor’s Account) Lovely, Dark, Deep by Joyce Carol Oates      General Nonfiction: Winner: The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbert (Extinction Stories: The Ecological True-Crime Genre) No Good Men Among the Living by Anand Gopal Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China by Evan Osnos   History: Winner: Encounters at the Heart of the World: A History of the Mandan People by Elizabeth Fenn Empire of Cotton: A Global History by Sven Beckert An Empire on the Edge: How Britain Came to Fight America by Nick Bunker   Biography: Winner: The Pope and Mussolini: The Secret History of Pius XI and the Rise of Fascism in Europe by David I. Kertzer Louis Armstrong: Master of Modernism by Thomas Brothers Stalin: Volume I: Paradoxes of Power, 1878-1928 by Stephen Kotkin    Poetry: Winner: Digest by Gregory Pardlo Reel to Reel by Alan Shapiro Compass Rose by Arthur Sze    Winners and finalists in other categories are available at the Pulitzer Web site.

The Millions Top Ten: March 2015

  We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for March. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. 1. The Novel: A Biography 6 months 2. 2. Station Eleven 6 months 3. 3. My Brilliant Friend 4 months 4. 5. The Narrow Road to the Deep North 6 months 5. 7. The Strange Library 4 months 6. 6. The David Foster Wallace Reader 3 months 7. 9. Dept. of Speculation 4 months 8. 8. All the Light We Cannot See 5 months 9. 10. Loitering: New and Collected Essays 3 months 10. - The Buried Giant 1 month   Well, folks, it's happened. The enduring success of David Mitchell's The Bone Clocks has pushed the author to a Millions echelon so high that it's never before been reached. That's right: Mitchell is now the only author in site history to reach our hallowed Hall of Fame for three (count 'em!) different works. And with The Bone Clocks joining his past works, Cloud Atlas and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, Mitchell's latest achievement puts him ahead of David Foster Wallace (Infinite Jest,The Pale King), Junot Díaz (The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, This Is How You Lose Her), Stieg Larsson (The Girl with the Dragon TattooThe Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest), Hilary Mantel (Wolf Hall, Bring Up the Bodies), Jonathan Franzen (The Corrections, Freedom), George Saunders (Tenth of December, Fox 8), and Dave Eggers (Zeitoun, The Circle), each of whom authored two Hall of Fame titles. Maybe this repeated success will be enough to coax him into a Year in Reading 2015 appearance. (ARE YOU LISTENING, PUBLICISTS?) Joining this month's list thanks to The Bone Clocks's graduation is Kazuo Ishiguro's latest novel, The Buried Giant. It's a book "about war and memory," wrote Millions staffer Lydia Kiesling in her extremely personal review of the work for this site. "But it is also about love and memory, and you don’t need to have lived through an atrocity to get it." Lastly, I would be remiss if I didn't point out that our own Emily St. John Mandel's Station Eleven, which is poised to graduate to our Hall of Fame next month, was the recent winner of The Morning News's annual Tournament of Books. (It beat out Anthony Doerr's All the Light We Cannot See, which is also on our Top Ten.) The novel, which has earned the praise of George R. R. Martin, took the final match-up by a score of 15-2, which should be decisive enough to persuade all of you who haven't yet bought the book to do so immediately. Join us next month as we graduate three books and open the doors for three newcomers. Will they be among the "Near Misses" below, or will they be something new entirely? Near Misses: My Struggle: Book 1, To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, An Untamed State, The Paying Guests and The First Bad Man. See Also: Last month's list.

The Millions Top Ten: February 2015

  We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for February. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. 1. The Novel: A Biography 5 months 2. 2. Station Eleven 5 months 3. 4. My Brilliant Friend 3 months 4. 3. The Bone Clocks 6 months 5. 5. The Narrow Road to the Deep North 5 months 6. 6. The David Foster Wallace Reader 2 months 7. 7. The Strange Library 3 months 8. 8. All the Light We Cannot See 4 months 9. 9. Dept. of Speculation 3 months 10. 10. Loitering: New and Collected Essays 2 months   I'm not going to pull any punches with you, Millions readers. This is the most boring update to our Top Ten in the history of the Top Ten. Not a single new title has cracked our list, and the flipping of My Brilliant Friend and The Bone Clocks is the only movement on the list whatsoever. That in mind, let's take a look at this month's crop. In first place is the hefty Novel: A Biography, a book that has been on the list for five months. Last month, it was also the first on the list. The hardcover book is 1,200 pages long, published by Belknap Press, and measures 2.2 x 6.5 x 10.5 inches. Its ISBN-13, which serves as its identification number to industry insiders and computer systems alike, is 978-0674724730. There is also an ISBN-10 used for identifying the book on Amazon, and in our website's shortlink system. That number is 0674724739. The list price of the book is $39.95, which at the time of this writing translates to approximately ¥4,776.62, £25.98, and R$116.18 in Japanese, English, and Brazilian currencies, respectively. Next on the list is Station Eleven, which is exactly 6 inches wide and 8.5 inches long. You would need to lay 185,614,983.5 copies of this book end-to-end if you wanted them to circle the Earth. The book's shipping weight of 1.2 pounds means it weighs more than three fully-grown pygmy marmosets, which each account for only 4.9 ounces apiece. There are three unique vowels in the first word used for this book's title; the second word in this book's title uses the same vowel three times. My Brilliant Friend is the book in third place this month, and this is the book's third month on our list. The book's cover features an illustration of three little girls, and there are three words in the book's title. It is three hundred and thirty one pages long. So far I have written three sentences in this paragraph, excepting this one. The fourth book on the Top Ten this month is The Bone Clocks, which is published by Random House. Random House's United States headquarters are located in New York City, but the publisher's contact information page lists addresses in Argentina, Australia, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Germany, India, Ireland, Mexico, New Zealand, South Africa, Spain, United Kingdom, Uruguay, and Venezuela as well. The chief exports of Uruguay are meat, wool, and hides and skins. Uruguay declared independence in 1825, but that independence was not recognized by Brazil until 1828. At 352 pages, a hardcover copy of The Narrow Road to the Deep North is exactly 1.3 inches thick. You could stack 66 copies of the book in a pile and that pile would be slightly taller than Shaquille O'Neal. Because this book is 9.6 inches tall and 6.5 inches wide, and because a stack of 66 copies would top off above seven feet in height, you could lie down on the floor staring up at the stack and it would appear, in a certain way, and with the right perspective, as if the stack of Narrow Road to the Deep North books was forming a sort of narrow road to the deep sky, if that makes any sense at all, which perhaps it doesn't. Sixth on this month's list is The David Foster Wallace Reader. A Google search of David Foster Wallace's name yields 31,400,000 results in 0.22 seconds. That same search on Bing results in 2,050,000 results. My attempt to search AltaVista did not yield any results, as apparently Googling for AltaVista now directs people to Yahoo's search page. A similar nostalgic search did prove to me that Ask Jeeves is still alive and kicking, however. The New York Knicks had a pitiful 4-15 record on December 2nd, the day The Strange Library was published in America. Since then, the Knicks have "improved" to 12-46 at the time of this writing. The Strange Library, meanwhile, has reached the seventh spot on our Top Ten. All the Light We Cannot See remains in the eighth spot this month. The ninth spot belongs to Dept. of Speculation. In tenth position is Loitering: New and Collected Essays. If you bought all three of these books and put them in a tote bag with a can of Coca-Cola, the contents of that bag would weigh a total of 3.6 pounds. Join us next month to see if we can shake things up a bit further! Near Misses: My Struggle: Book 1, To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, An Untamed State, The Paying Guests and The First Bad Man. See Also: Last month's list.

Judging Books by Their Covers 2015: US Vs. Netherlands

We recently posted a new edition of Judging Books by Their Covers 2015: U.S. Vs. U.K. These comparisons are fascinating -- what does a "little billboard" on a book say about our respective cultures? I was recently looking at the covers of Dutch-language books and found many titles that I recognized. Despite our different cultures, we share many overlaps in our literary taste. I hoped that I could draw some conclusions about those tastes by comparing U.S. and Dutch-language book covers. After spending way too much time on the task, I conclude that I can't. The comparisons, however, are equally fascinating. With my tongue in one cheek, I've provided a few thoughts below. You are encouraged to take equally wild stabs in the comments. If anyone has more cultural insight, please do weigh in. The American covers are on the left, and the covers from the Dutch originals or translations are on the right. The Dinner is a good place to start as it was first published in Dutch in 2009. I understand the scorched place setting of the U.S. cover. Looking at the lobster on the Dutch cover...I'm thinking of a seaside restaurant in Maine. Maybe it's evoking the feelings that lobsters have when they go into a pot? That's how the tension of the novel feels, like being boiled alive? A Millions favorite, Stoner. I read the New York Review Books Classics version and it blew me away, so it is difficult for me to say anything that might sound disloyal. However, if I could draw a picture of my face after I read the novel, I would have looked exactly like the man in the Dutch cover on the right. I had to run this Dutch title through Google Translate to make triple sure that I had the cover of A Visit from the Goon Squad. It becomes "Visit the Thugs" in Dutch, which has a nice ring to it. I'm less clear about what purples evoke to the Dutch that turquoise on the U.S. hardback cover does not? Why one less fret on the neck of the guitar? Google Translate was no help in answering these questions. Some of the imagery for Freedom is similar, but the covers have very different feels. To me, the lake country in the U.S. cover evokes the gentrified world view of Patty and Walter Berglund. I'm interested in the choice of a flat field -- is it trying to say something similar to a Dutch speaker? If there is an Ornithologist out there, please let me know if the bird on the right speaks Dutch or English. Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell: wow.    Anthony Doerr's Dutch translation is interesting as the publisher went with the U.K. cover (we declared it "pretty dull.") Maybe the Dutch designer agreed because there are some differences. Most striking are the changes of tint. The girls dress, for example, is much more vibrant on this cover than on the U.K. version on the right. In general, the U.S. cover takes the broader view of the book I read. I wonder if a reader in Amsterdam or London would disagree?

The Millions Top Ten: January 2015

  We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for January. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. 1. The Novel: A Biography 4 months 2. 2. Station Eleven 4 months 3. 3. The Bone Clocks 5 months 4. 5. My Brilliant Friend 2 months 5. 6. The Narrow Road to the Deep North 4 months 6. - The David Foster Wallace Reader 1 month 7. 7. The Strange Library 2 months 8. 8. All the Light We Cannot See 3 months 9. 10. Dept. of Speculation 2 months 10. - Loitering: New and Collected Essays 1 month   Happy New Year and glad tidings to you and yours. It's 2015 now; the year we've been promised hoverboards and self-lacing sneakers. We have half of these things (so far), and we also have two new entrants to our hallowed Hall of Fame: Reading Like a Writer and We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves. Overall, though, there is little change beyond the calendar. Our top-ranking book, The Novel: A Biography, remains the same for a second consecutive month, a second consecutive year. It's followed by our own Emily St. John Mandel's Station Eleven, which concerns itself with, among other things, a contagious disease that brings about the disintegration of civilization. (Et tu, California*?) And yet, the dawn of the new year does come with some new additions as well. Cracking our list in the tenth position is two-time Year in Reading alumnus (one, two) Charles D'Ambrosio's widely acclaimed essay collection, Loitering. In her review for our site, staffer Hannah Gersen identified the qualities of the work that make it so impressive: What I admired most about these essays is the way each one takes its own shape, never conforming to an expected narrative or feeling the need to answer all the questions housed within. D’Ambrosio allows his essays their ambivalence, and this gives ideas space to move freely across time, so that even “Seattle, 1974,” which was published twenty years ago, reflecting upon a time twenty years before, speaks to the present day. Higher up on the list, in the sixth spot, we find Little, Brown's nearly 1,000-page long omnibus, The David Foster Wallace Reader. It's a collection composed of excerpts and full-length pieces from David Foster Wallace's oeuvre, as selected by a dozen writers and critics, such as Hari Kunzru and Anne Fadiman. These pieces and their afterwords, wrote Jonathan Russell Clark, appeal equally to new readers and longtime devotees alike: For those unfamiliar with Wallace, the Reader will hopefully spark enough interest in his work to help some readers get over just how damned intimidating his writing can be. ... For Wallace fans, however, TDFWR is a chance to go back and read some of his most inventive and brilliant pieces, but more than that it’s an opportunity to reassess Wallace’s work, to judge it chronologically and thus progressively, and by doing so reacquaint one’s self to this incredible writer and thinker and person. Next month, we'll watch closely to see if David Mitchell's The Bone Clocks will come one month closer to the Hall of Fame. As I noted last September, doing so would make Mitchell the only author to have reached The Millions's Hall of Fame for three separate works. *Was that a measles reference, or a pun related to another Millions staffer's recent novel? Why not both? Near Misses: To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, My Struggle: Book 1, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of PilgrimageAn Untamed State, and The Paying Guests. See Also: Last month's list.

The Page 40 Test

In a piece for The Millions last week, I used a single sentence from Anthony Doerr’s bestselling novel All the Light You Cannot See to demonstrate Doerr’s mastery of narrative prose. I was able to build an entire essay around one sentence chosen at random from Doerr’s novel because his prose is so consistently good that I could have picked essentially any sentence from the book and written the same essay. But the exercise got me wondering: If I looked at the same line -- the first sentence of the fifth paragraph on page 40 -- in other books, would it offer the same window onto the author’s style? I began scanning my bookshelves at home, pulling down favorite novels and reading the first sentence of the fifth paragraph on page 40. Though hardly foolproof, my “Page 40 Test” turned out to be an instructive exercise. Stripping away setting, narrative, and character development afforded me an unusual pinhole view into the mind of a writer at work. Some writers displayed infelicities of diction or grammar that I might have missed at full speed, but that, under close examination, helped explain a vague unease I had long felt about the author’s work. Other writers, I found, expertly built their setting, narrative, and character development into every sentence, while still others seemed to lose the plot midway through. A work of fiction is more than simply a collection of finely wrought sentences. Plot matters, as do the characters and setting. But by paying close attention to how a writer constructs sentences, we can begin to see how the larger structure of the novel is built. Here are some especially telling sentences I found at the start of the fifth paragraph on page 40 of five novels from my shelves at home. Feel free to add sentences from your own “Page 40 Tests” in the comments. The Complete Stories by Flannery O’Connor “We ain’t got nothin’ but pullet eggs,” he said, fishing up another handful of beans. One sentence, 15 words, and we are set down, firmly and indelibly, in a particular time and place. Given the dialect, this can be nowhere but the American South, and given what they are eating, and the apparent scarcity of it, it can only be the Depression years. City slicker that I am, I had to Google “pullet eggs.” They are eggs laid by a chicken less than a year old, meaning that they are unusually small. In our industrialized farming system, we rarely see pullet eggs, which are typically shipped off to the powdered egg factory. But this sentence, which comes from the 1946 story “The Crop,” which O’Connor wrote while still a student at Iowa, is more than a sepia-toned portrait of a bygone age. The dialect is pitch perfect, and the verbal phrase at the end of the sentence displays O’Connor’s gift for masterfully inapt figurative language. One usually “fishes” an object from liquid or from an empty space (“He fished his cell phone from his pocket.”) It is just slightly off to say that someone is “fishing up” a “handful of beans.” Yet this wrongness is also exactly right. It gives the sentence its ring of authenticity and its voice, conveying the sense one has so often in O’Connor’s stories of a real person, an ordinary Southerner closely acquainted with the world she is describing, telling a tale. The Unvanquished by William Faulkner Then they stopped -- Joby and Granny, and while Granny held the lantern at arm’s length, Joby and Loosh dug the trunk up from where they had buried it that night last summer while Father was at home, while Louvinia stood in the door of the bedroom without even lighting the lamp while Ringo and I went to bed and later I looked out or dreamed I looked out the window and saw (or dreamed I saw) the lantern. Who else but Faulkner could get away with a sentence like this? Actually, I’m not sure he does get away with it. As is so often the case in Faulkner, things start out crystal clear and action-packed, and then, as if the author has taken one too many sips from the tumbler of bourbon he supposedly kept on his writing desk, he gets unstuck in time. The second half of the sentence is a jumble of competing images and time frames, with too many whiles, too many lamps and lanterns and people looking out windows or perhaps only dreaming they are looking out windows. And just as soon as you work out the chronology, things get slippery again: If Joby, Granny, and Loosh are digging up the trunk in the middle of the night, then who are Ringo and I? But this is the man who wrote, in Requiem for a Nun, “The past is never dead. It isn’t even past.” So much in Faulkner is about the blurring of time and how our dream reality distorts, but also helps us make sense of, what we see with our own eyes. And all of Faulkner’s fiction, like this sentence, teems with life. Faulkner’s genius was that he could slip inside so many complex characters, but a part of the genius of his prose was that he let the messiness of life stay messy. It is possible to follow this passage -- the dark night, the flickering lamplight, the narrator’s confusion about whether he saw or dreamed the lantern outside the window -- but to do so you have to read carefully and recursively, piecing together clues the way the characters are doing. In other words, the only way to read a Faulkner sentence is to enter into it, become one more half-doomed character trying to make sense of it all. The Secret History by Donna Tartt After class, I wandered downstairs in a dream, my head spinning, but acutely, achingly conscious that I was alive and young on a beautiful day; the sky a deep deep painful blue, wind scattering the red and yellow leaves in a whirlwind of confetti. I love The Secret History, which remains the most accurate real-time portrait of my own generation of college students in the late 1980s, but I see in this sentence the root of the problems I have with Tartt’s later novels, both of which struck me as bloated and overwrought. The central drama of Tartt’s sentence is compelling and her imagery is original: the sky is “a deep deep painful blue” and the autumn leaves form “a whirlwind of confetti.” But what is up with that semi-colon? It does not, as semi-colons typically do, separate two independent clauses, nor does it function as a super comma linking a series of phrases that contain commas within them. It just floats there mid-sentence binding two tenuously related hunks of language, hoping it looks punctuationally sophisticated enough to ward off any questions about the sentence it is holding together. Tartt could have replaced the semi-colon with a long dash or a plain old comma. The second half of the sentence still wouldn’t have meshed with the first, but at least the clash wouldn’t be so glaring. But a closer look at the sentence shows that syntactic coherence is the least of Tartt’s worries. How many characters have we seen in fiction wandering in a dream, their heads spinning? The next clause is even clunkier. First, Tartt has trouble articulating the quality of her hero’s consciousness. Is he “acutely” conscious? Is he “achingly” conscious? Hey, why not just use both? And what is it that our hero is so “acutely, achingly conscious” of? That he is “alive” and “young” on “a beautiful day” -- three essentially empty vessels of descriptive cliché. This is the work of a writer several orders of magnitude less talented than the one who can turn a clear blue sky “painful” and conjure a “whirlwind of confetti” from a pile of dead leaves. That’s what that semi-colon is doing loitering there mid-sentence looking so guilty. It’s protecting the work of a gifted stylist from that of far more ordinary writer. All the Sad Young Literary Men by Keith Gessen All the women in Sam’s life italicized things. Unlike the earlier Faulkner sentence, this one by Gessen demands little from its reader. This is a sentence, and a book, that can be read on an airplane. Yet the language is not merely functional, the way it might be in a novel by, say, John Grisham or Patricia Cornwell. Gessen’s prose is smartly observant. This sentence refers to a line Sam’s ex-girlfriend once said to him -- “Really? That’s ambitious.” -- but more generally it speaks to a passion, and a queasily ironic relationship to that passion, felt by the earnest Ivy Leaguers in Gessen’s book who are testing out the ideals they picked up in college in the laboratory of the real world. This brand of easily accessible cleverness is in many ways a defining feature of commercial literary fiction. Everything is clean and orderly -- no wandering participles, no mystifying time shifts, no dabbling in the netherworld between dream and reality. The reader can glide from subject to verb without ever having to pause for thought, yet the prose encourages thinking. At the same time, it’s a little glib. All the women in Sam’s life, really? And what does it mean, exactly, to italicize a thing? Here, as in Flannery O’Connor, the imprecision is part of the art. It gives Gessen’s sentence its punch, its voice. But unlike the O’Connor sentence, this one is self-consciously clever. One can hear the two young Harvard grads blowing off steam over beers at a noisy bar in Brooklyn, working to top each other with their insights about women and life. Then, at the end of the night, one of them goes home and puts it in a book. Passing by Nella Larsen An on-looker, Irene reflected, would have thought it a most congenial tea-party, all smiles and jokes and hilarious laughter. Passing, Larsen’s classic Harlem Renaissance novella about a black woman passing herself off as white, is a case study of one woman’s struggle to manage impressions. But Larsen’s prose, as this sentence shows, is also furiously managing the reader’s impressions. The unidentified “on-looker” here is clearly us, Larsen’s reader. And who are we? A paragraph earlier, a party guest announced that the one thing he would never abide in his wife is any hint of racial taint. “I draw the line at that,” he said. “No niggers in my family. Never have been and never will be.” We, the smiling on-looker, not only see this as “most congenial” tea-party chatter, but apparently find it “hilarious.” But we are also, as Larsen’s grammar makes clear, blind to everything that matters. The sentence seems to focus on the on-looker and what he or she thinks of the party, but the heart of the sentence, the only active part of it, is Irene sitting off to one side watching and reflecting. She is, in this sentence as in the novella as a whole, hidden in plain sight, tucked away in an independent clause that seems to carry no grammatical weight, but in fact governs the whole sentence. Why would we, the clueless on-lookers, be fooled into thinking this was merely another “congenial tea-party” full of other happy, socially prominent white folks like ourselves? Because Irene quietly, invisibly, at the cost of great mental strain, has used all her good manners and finishing-school diction to make it appear that way.

A World Made of Words: On Anthony Doerr’s Nouns and Verbs

Even Anthony Doerr seems puzzled by the runaway success of his second novel All the Light We Cannot See. As Doerr pointed out in a recent interview with The New York Times, the novel, set during World War II, features a sympathetic young Nazi as one of its main characters and contains lengthy passages about early radio technology and carbon bonds. “This book has trigonometric equations in it -- it’s really dense,” he told The Times. “The kinds of readers I’m writing for, I thought they would like it, but I didn’t think Aunt Judy would read it.” Yet Aunt Judy, and all her friends and relations, have rushed out to buy Doerr’s novel by the bagful. In the seven months between the book’s publication last May and Christmas, its publisher, Scribner had to reprint it 25 times, putting 920,000 copies in circulation. According to The Times, Amazon ran out of copies during the peak Christmas book-buying season, as did a number of independent bookstores. As of January 18, the novel holds the #1 spot on The Times hardcover fiction bestseller list, where it has sat for many of the 35 weeks it has appeared on the list. The Times piece cites Scribner's deft marketing plan, which called for Doerr to meet personally with independent booksellers months before publication, as a factor in the novel’s success. It no doubt helped that the book is superbly researched, and that the story it tells of the wartime technological advances that helped spark our own digital revolution is rich and intelligent in ways that other recent fictional accounts of this history, like the hit film The Imitation Game, are obtuse and ill-informed. Doerr also knows how to craft vivid characters and spin a compulsively readable tale. But none of this adequately accounts for how All the Light We Cannot See became a literary sensation. In the hands of most writers, the novel’s subject matter alone would have turned off many ordinary readers. Forget the abstruse math and nice Nazis. This is a 500-page novel about a war increasingly few Americans are old enough to remember, in which not one of the principal characters is American. This is a recipe for a well-regarded literary novel, perhaps even a prize-winning critical darling. But a breakout bestseller so popular it leaves Amazon’s vast warehouses empty of copies at Christmas? Not likely. So what then explains the success of All the Light We Cannot See? It all, I would argue, comes down to Doerr's sentences, in particular his masterly use of nouns and verbs. If I were ever allowed to teach in a MFA program, I would offer a course called “The Nitty Gritty: Sentence Structure for Creative Writers.” In this course that I will probably never teach, we would begin by reacquainting ourselves with the parts of speech and the lost art of diagramming sentences. We would look at more fine-grained points of style, too, like metaphor and simile, symbol and imagery, but first we would look just at the sentences. Students would take passages at random from books they love and diagram the sentences, creating those funny little word trees of nouns and verbs and prepositional phrases that many of us learned how to make in sixth grade and then promptly forgot. Then we would talk about what we’d found. How does William Faulkner construct those big, long baroque sentences of his? What’s the verb-to-adverb ratio in Toni Morrison’s Beloved? What is Leslie Jamison doing with her nouns that allows her to use so few adjectives? After we analyzed the sentences of the masters, we would turn to our own work. This would make for a painful few weeks, since no apprentice writer, no matter how precocious, starts out writing like Faulkner or Morrison. But the primary purpose here wouldn’t be comparison, but analysis: How do we as writers build our sentences, and why? Taking passages at random from our own most successful work, we would break the sentences down to their component parts, phrase by phrase, clause by clause, to see how they work. How long, on average, are the sentences? What are each student’s go-to tropes? How many versions of the verb “to be” appear per page? Does the diction in the dialogue vary enough that it’s clear who is speaking even when we remove the dialogue tags? What if we changed that noun, made it more precise -- would that allow us to strike the adjective? Our final project would be to rewrite our stories, starting with the sections we analyzed most closely, then taking the lessons learned from those passages and applying them to the rest of the story. No doubt many students would turn in drafts of stories very similar to their originals, just a little tighter and more polished. But a few, maybe one or two per semester, might see their stories mysteriously catch fire, watch their characters do strange and unexpected things, because, as anyone who works daily with language knows, all ideas, all stories and plots and characters that appear in a work of prose, originate first in the sentences, in our choices of nouns and verbs. Were I a student in my own thought-experiment of a writing course, I would choose All the Light We Cannot See as my case study. I have so many deficiencies as a prose stylist that it’s hard to keep track of them, but right now what’s really bothering me is my verbosity. I am trying to teach myself the delicate art of compression, which is, as I am learning, principally means getting better at choosing nouns and verbs. And Anthony Doerr is a master at picking nouns and verbs. Let me give an example of Doerr’s prose, chosen at random on page 40 of the hardcover edition, five paragraphs from the top of the page: Cars splash along the streets, and snowmelt drums through the runnels; she can hear snowflakes tick and patter through the trees. See what I mean? At the level of pure language, without context, the sentence is beautiful. Each clause is compact, just a noun, a verb, and a prepositional phrase specifying location. Twenty-one words, and not one an adjective or adverb. Why would he need one? The nouns and verbs are doing all the work. A lesser writer, for instance, might have written: “Cars splash violently through puddles along the busy street,” but Doerr understands that if a sentence is vivid enough, readers will supply all that ancillary information. The next clause -- “and snowmelt drums through the runnels” -- is even more evocative. I don’t need to know what runnels are to hear the expanding snowmelt drumming through them. (Okay, I looked it up: a runnel is “a narrow channel or course, as for water,” which, not surprisingly, was what I’d pictured.) Doerr is doing here what only great prose stylists can do, tapping all the senses, creating not just a visual image, but an aural and tactile one as well. If you are coming to this sentence without having read his book, you can’t know where this scene takes place or at what time of year. And yet you do. It has to be in a city, probably a big one where cars move fast through the streets. And it must be wintertime, deep in winter when the late-season snows are mixing with the runoff from melting snow of the false spring. If I add that the scene is set in Paris on a Tuesday in late March a few years before the German invasion of France, you are instantly transported to that time and place: you can see it, you can hear it, you can feel that sharp winter cold in your bones. Twenty-one words, three simple clauses, and wham, you are there. But if you have read the book, you know this is only the beginning of why this sentence -- which, hand to God, I really did pick at random -- is so brilliant. Much of All the Light We Cannot See alternates between the points of view of two central characters, a young German soldier named Werner, and a blind French girl named Marie-Laure. This chapter, titled simply “Light,” is told from the perspective of Marie-Laure. Read the sentence again, and you will see why it could only be from the perspective of Marie-Laure: cars splash, snowmelt drums, snowflakes tick and patter. The sentence is all verbs, all of them vividly aural. What at first may seem like poetic license (does melting snow really “drum”?) is in fact character exposition: This is a view of the world from someone who must perceive everything through her ears and fingertips. This is crucial to understanding not just the character of Marie-Laure, but also the broader thematic concerns of Doerr’s book, which, as its title suggests, is about the ways we perceive the world without using our eyes. Marie-Laure’s father builds elaborate scale models of their neighborhood so she can navigate the world without him. Werner, a young German math genius, helps perfect the use of radio waves to ferret out resistance fighters operating deep in the Ukrainian forests. Werner’s friend Frederick sees an owl in a night sky where others see only a pool of blackness. And we all, readers and characters alike, chase endlessly after a famous diamond that we never exactly see, whose value we deduce only by the ardor of those who chase after it. And it’s all there in that one sentence five paragraphs down on page 40, the world alive and wriggling, captured with a few well-chosen nouns and verbs. I could pick out that sentence at random and build an entire essay around it because Doerr’s vision, and his gift for describing it in simple, striking nouns and verbs, is present on every page of the novel, which contains not a single uninteresting or trite sentence. Here it is, his prose insists, right here on the page: a world made of words, a world we make up in our heads as we read, using all the light we cannot see.

Judging Books by Their Covers 2015: US Vs. UK

As we've done for several years now, we thought it might be fun to compare the U.S. and U.K. book cover designs of this year's Morning News Tournament of Books contenders. Book cover art is an interesting element of the literary world -- sometimes fixated upon, sometimes ignored -- but, as readers, we are undoubtedly swayed by the little billboard that is the cover of every book we read. And, while some of us no longer do all of our reading on physical books with physical covers, those same cover images now beckon us from their grids in the various online bookstores. From my days as a bookseller, when import titles would sometimes find their way into our store, I've always found it especially interesting that the U.K. and U.S. covers often differ from one another. This would seem to suggest that certain layouts and imagery will better appeal to readers on one side of the Atlantic rather than the other. These differences are especially striking when we look at the covers side by side. The American covers are on the left, and the UK are on the right. Your equally inexpert analysis is encouraged in the comments.   Neither of these is especially appealing to my eye. The U.S. version uses a travel poster-type image, but at least the bold font and title placement are intriguing. The U.K. goes for realism and the result is pretty dull.       Another pair that I don't love, though the U.S. version has an appealing painterly quality to it. The U.K. version feels a bit slapped together.       I like both of these a lot. The U.S version is bold and somehow feels both vintage and very current. The LP label motif in the U.K. version is clever, yet subtle enough to avoid being gimmicky.       The U.S. version does a great job of setting a mood, but my nod goes to the U.K. version. The black dog is eerie and sculptural and the receding landscape is haunting.       These covers are very different and I have loved them both since I first saw them. The tents on the U.S. cover are both magical and, in the context of the subject matter, unnerving. But I love the bold, poster-art aesthetic of the U.K. cover too.       Sometimes simpler is better. I like the mesmerizing quality of the U.S. cover, with the tantalizing golden apple peeking from its center. The U.K. version is clearly trying to capture the mad tumult of the book's plot but it is somehow too literal.       The U.S. cover is clever and intriguing, with those circular windows on repeated words, but I love the U.K. cover and the subtle suggestion of madness in its Jenga/Tetris puzzle. Update: I had initially posted the paperback U.S. cover, but looking now at the hardcover design, I agree with our commenter Bernie below that it is very striking.       The cropping of the sculpture gives the U.S. cover a compelling look. I like the U.K. cover but it doesn't feel quite fully realized.    

The Millions Top Ten: December 2014

  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. 4. The Novel: A Biography 3 months 2. 2. Station Eleven 3 months 3. 1. The Bone Clocks 4 months 4. 6. Reading Like a Writer 6 months 5. - My Brilliant Friend 1 month 6. 7. The Narrow Road to the Deep North 3 months 7. - The Strange Library 1 month 8. 10. All the Light We Cannot See 2 months 9. 3. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves 6 months 10. - Dept. of Speculation 1 month   Ohio State over Alabama wasn't the only New Year's upset: in the first Top Ten of 2015, Millions readers propelled a mammoth, scholarly 1,200-page history of the novel ahead of David Mitchell's latest. That's right. The Novel: A Biography is our new number one. Let us all join hands as we usher in a new age dominated not by the Crimson Tide and kaleidoscopic fiction but instead by the Buckeyes and literary history. (Or you could read the review that started it all.) And that's not the only surprise this month, either. Two fixtures in our most recent Top Ten lists — Haruki Murakami and Karl Ove Knausgaard — saw their latest works — Colorless Tsukuru and My Struggle — drop out of our standings altogether. (Have no fear, Murakami fans: your darling remains on this month's list with the debut of The Strange Library, which Buzz Poole recently described as a heavily illustrated 96-page paperback that "like ... so much of Murakami’s fiction, questions the differences between what is real and what is not, and whether such a distinction even matters.") Moving along, it seems apparent that our recent Year in Reading series motivated a good number of Millions readers to purchase works by Elena Ferrante and Jenny Offill. In the case of Ferrante, whose My Brilliant Friend debuts this month in our list's fifth spot, we probably have Charles Finch to thank. He's the one who wrote, "I read Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan trilogy this year. I read it twice, actually. It made me want to quit writing." For her part, Offill's Dept. of Speculation earned heaps of praise in the series entries from Rachel Fershleiser, Scott Cheshire, and Dinaw Mengestu. (And Sam Lipsyte, way back in '13.) Meanwhile our own Emily St. John Mandel maintains a strong presence on the list with Station Eleven, and next month we'll likely see the graduation of two works— Reading Like a Writer and We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves — to our Hall of Fame. Near Misses: To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, My Struggle: Book 1, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, Loitering: New and Collected Essays, and An Untamed State. See Also: Last month's list.

The Millions Top Ten: November 2014

  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. The Bone Clocks 3 months 2. 6. Station Eleven 2 months 3. 3. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves 5 months 4. 4. The Novel: A Biography 2 months 5. 5. Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage 4 months 6. 7. Reading Like a Writer 5 months 7. 10. The Narrow Road to the Deep North 2 months 8. 9. My Struggle: Book 1 5 months 9. 8. Cosmicomics 4 months 10. - All the Light We Cannot See 1 month   Let it be known that Millions readers are nothing if not prescient: right as Anthony Doerr's All the Light We Cannot See enters our Top Ten, he submits a Year in Reading post to our annual series. Not only that, but the series also received an entry from Karen Joy Fowler, whose novel We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves has been a fixture on the Top Ten for five months now. Y'all were on to something, weren't you? Meanwhile, two books graduated out of the Top Ten this month. After appearing on last year's Most Anticipated round-up, Rachel Cantor's A Highly Unlikely Scenario, or a Neetsa Pizza Employee's Guide to Saving the World sustained its dominance of the Top Ten for six straight months. It now joins Samantha Hahn's Well-Read Women: Portraits of Fiction's Most Beloved Heroines — back on the list after a month-long absence — as the 85th and 86th entries to our Hall of Fame. As an update to past lists, on the other hand, it should be pointed out that we recently ran a review of Richard Flanagan's Booker-winning novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North, which now enters its second month on our Top Ten. "There is an endearing overabundance of almost everything in this book, which in its enthusiasm, becomes part of the pleasure," Anna Heyward wrote. "Readers of this book should do away with all suspicions, and get ready for an avalanche of feeling and sincerity." Further down, Karl Ove Knausgaard holds fast in the Top Ten with My Struggle, which advances from the ninth position to eighth on the list. If you haven't yet seen it, we ran a nice little "Quick Hit" by the Norwegian author a few weeks ago. "I love repetition," he wrote. "I love doing the same thing at the same time and in the same place, day in and day out." When it comes to being listed on our Top Ten, who wouldn't? Near Misses: The Round House, The Laughing Monsters, The Children Act, 10:04, and Not That Kind of a Girl. See Also: Last month's list.

Before They Were Notable: 2014

This year’s New York Times Notable Books of the Year list is out. At 100 titles, the list is more of a catalog of the noteworthy than a distinction. Sticking with the fiction exclusively, it appears that we touched upon a few of these books and authors as well: All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr (Year In Reading: Anthony Doerr) The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher: Stories by Hilary Mantel (Character Assassin: An Interview with Hilary Mantel) Bark: Stories by Lorrie Moore (Is She Writing About Me?: A Profile of Lorrie Moore) The Blazing World by Siri Hustvedt (Guerilla Grandma: On Siri Hustvedt’s The Blazing World) The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell (In the Edges of the Maps: David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks, ‘The Blank Screen Is the Enemy': The Millions Interviews David Mitchell, Exclusive: David Mitchell’s Twitter Story “The Right Sort” Collected) The Book of Unknown Americans by Christina Henríquez (Hug Your Darlings, Give the Moon the Finger: Writers On Delight) Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami (Aloof, Quiet, and Dissonant: On Haruki Murakami’s Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, The Elusive Qualities of Dreams: On Haruki Murakami’s ‘The Strange Library’) Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng (Are You My Mother? On Maternal Abandonment in Literature) A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing by Eimear McBride (Scraps of Prayers: On Eimear McBride’s A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing) The Laughing Monsters by Denis Johnson (In a Toxic Dreamscape: On Denis Johnson’s The Laughing Monsters) Let Me Be Frank with You by Richard Ford (Tossed on Life’s Tide: Richard Ford’s Let Me Be Frank with You) Lila by Marilynne Robinson (Marilynne Robinson’s Singular Vision) The Moor’s Account by Laila Lalami (Ship of Fools: On Laila Lalami’s The Moor’s Account) The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan (Art After Tragedy: The Narrow Road to the Deep North) Panic in a Suitcase by Yelena Akhtiorskaya (More Alive and Much Stranger: On Yelena Akhtiorskaya’s Panic in a Suitcase) 10:04 by Ben Lerner (Only Disconnect: Ben Lerner’s 10:04) We Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas (This Could Be Your Story: On Matthew Thomas’s We Are Not Ourselves)

A Year in Reading: 2014

This series was first conceived in 2004 as a way to get a fledgling website about books through a busy holiday season. Realizing I had spent much of that year with my nose in books that were two, 20 or 200 years old, I was wary of attempting to compile a list of the year's best books that could have any hope of feeling legitimate. It also occurred to me that a "best of" list would not have been true to the reading I did that year. Instead, I asked some friends to write about the best books they read that year and was struck when each one seemed to offer up not just an accounting of books read, but glimpses into transporting and revelatory experiences. For the reader, being caught in the sweep of a book may be one of a year's best memories. It always feels like we've hit the jackpot when we can offer up dozens of these great memories and experiences, one after another, to close out the year. And so now, as we kick off another Year in Reading, please enjoy these riches from some of our favorite writers and thinkers. For our esteemed guests, the charge was to name, from all the books they read this year, the one(s) that meant the most to them, regardless of publication date. Grouped together, these ruminations, cheers, squibs, and essays will be a chronicle of reading and good books from every era. We hope you find in them seeds that will help make your year in reading in 2015 a fruitful one. As in prior years, the names of our 2014 “Year in Reading” contributors will be unveiled one at a time throughout the month as we publish their contributions. You can bookmark this post and follow the series from here, or load up the main page for more new Year in Reading posts appearing at the top every day, or you can subscribe to our RSS feed or follow us on Facebook or Twitter and read the series that way. Stephen Dodson, co-author of Uglier Than a Monkey’s Armpit, proprietor of Languagehat. Anthony Doerr, author of All the Light We Cannot See. Haley Mlotek,editor of The Hairpin. Jess Walter, author of We Live in Water. Karen Joy Fowler, author of We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves. Isaac Fitzgerald, editor of BuzzFeed Books and co-founder of Pen & Ink. Emily Gould, co-owner of Emily Books, author of Friendship. Blake Butler, author of 300,000,000. Janet Fitch, author of White Oleander. John Darnielle, vocalist for the band the Mountain Goats and author of Wolf in White Van. Leslie Jamison, author of The Empathy Exams. Matthew Thomas, author of We Are Not Ourselves. Eula Biss, author of On Immunity. Garth Risk Hallberg, contributing editor for The Millions and author of A Field Guide to the North American Family. Laura van den Berg, author of the story collections What the World Will Look Like When All The Water Leaves Us and The Isle of Youth. Hamilton Leithauser, frontman for The Walkmen. Celeste Ng, author of Everything I Never Told You. Mark O'Connell, staff writer for The Millions, author of Epic Fail. Janet Potter, staff writer for The Millions. Lydia Kiesling, staff writer for The Millions. Nick Ripatrazone, staff writer for The Millions, author of Good People. Michael Bourne, staff writer for The Millions. Ben Lerner, author of 10:04. Jane Smiley, author of A Thousand Acres. Phil Klay, author of Redeployment. Emily St. John Mandel, staff writer for The Millions, author of Station Eleven. Tana French, author of Broken Harbor. Yelena Akhtiorskaya, author of Panic in a Suitcase. Philipp Meyer, author of The Son. Edan Lepucki, staff writer for The Millions, author of California. Jayne Anne Phillips, author of Lark and Termite. Maureen Corrigan, author of So We Read On. Porochista Khakpour, author of Sons and Other Flammable Objects. Tiphanie Yanique, author of Land of Love and Drowning. David Bezmozgis, author of Natasha: And Other Stories. Lindsay Hunter, author of Ugly Girls. Dinaw Mengestu, author of All Our Names. Eimear McBride, author of A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing. Caitlin Moran, author of How to Be a Woman. Rabih Alameddine, author of An Unnecessary Woman. Walter Kirn, author of Blood Will Out. Michael Schaub, staff writer for The Millions. Nick Moran, social media editor for The Millions. Hannah Gersen, staff writer for The Millions. Kaulie Lewis, intern for The Millions. Rachel Fershleiser, co-creator of Six-Word Memoirs and co-editor of Not Quite What I Was Planning. Rebecca Makkai, author of The Hundred-Year House. Gina Frangello, author of A Life in Men. Hannah Pittard, author of Reunion. Michelle Huneven, author of Blame Lydia Millet, author of Mermaids in Paradise. Michele Filgate, essayist, critic, and freelance writer. Carolyn Kellogg writes about books and publishing for the Los Angeles Times. Emma Straub, author of The Vacationers. Ron Rash, author of Serena. Darcey Steinke, author of Sister Golden Hair. Tom Nissley, author of A Reader's Book of Days and owner of Phinney Books in Seattle. Molly Antopol, author of The UnAmericans. Scott Cheshire, author of High as the Horses' Bridles. Caitlin Doughty, author of Smoke Gets in Your Eyes. Julia Fierro, author of Cutting Teeth. Bill Morris, author of Motor City Burning. William Giraldi, author of Busy Monsters. Rachel Cantor, author of A Highly Unlikely Scenario. Jean Hanff Korelitz, author of You Should Have Known. Tess Malone, associate editor for The Millions. Thomas Beckwith, writer and project assistant for The Millions. Matt Seidel, staff writer for The Millions. Elizabeth Minkel, staff writer for The Millions. Michael Robbins, author of The Second Sex. Charles Finch, author of The Last Enchantments. A Year in Reading: 2014 Wrap-Up Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 The good stuff: The Millions' Notable articles The motherlode: The Millions' Books and Reviews Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.

2014 National Book Award Shortlists Released

Book award season is peaking along with the autumn leaves as the National Book Award shortlists have been released in four categories. These have been whittled down from last month's longlists, and the winners will be announced in New York City on November 19. As we mentioned when she landed on the longlist, one of the fiction finalists will be especially familiar to Millions readers. Emily St. John Mandel, whose Station Eleven has been winning high praise, has been a staff writer for us since 2009. We'll again point you to her first piece for us: "Working the Double Shift" examined how many writers must write as a "second career" while a day job pays the bills. You read about nearly all of the books on the Fiction longlist here first, as they appeared in our indispensable first-half and second-half previews. Here’s a list of the finalists in all four categories with bonus links and excerpts where available: Fiction: An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine (excerpt) All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr (Doerr's Year in Reading, 2010) Redeployment by Phil Klay (excerpt) Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel (Mandel's Millions archive) Lila by Marilynne Robinson (excerpt) Nonfiction: Can't We Talk about Something More Pleasant? by Roz Chast (excerpt) No Good Men Among the Living: America, the Taliban, and the War through Afghan Eyes by Anand Gopal (excerpt) Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh by John Lahr (excerpt) Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China by Evan Osnos (excerpt) The Meaning of Human Existence by Edward O. Wilson Poetry: Faithful and Virtuous Night by Louise Glück (review) Second Childhood by Fanny Howe (review) This Blue by Maureen N. McLane (review) The Feel Trio by Fred Moten (excerpt) Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine (excerpt) Young People's Literature: Threatened by Eliot Schrefer The Port Chicago 50: Disaster, Mutiny, and the Fight for Civil Rights by Steve Sheinkin (excerpt) Noggin by John Corey Whaley (excerpt) Revolution: The Sixties Trilogy, Book Two by Deborah Wiles Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson (excerpt)

2014 National Book Award Longlists Released

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Book award season enters high gear as the National Book Award finalists have been released in a series of four longlists consisting of ten books apiece. Five finalists in each category will be announced on October 15, and winners will be announced in New York City on November 19. One of the fiction finalists will be especially familiar to Millions readers. Emily St. John Mandel, whose Station Eleven has been winning high praise, has been a staff writer for us since 2009. Now might be a good moment to revisit her first piece for us: "Working the Double Shift" examined how many writers must write as a "second career" while a day job pays the bills. You read about nearly all of the books on the Fiction longlist here first, as they appeared in our indispensable first-half and second-half previews. In the other categories, many have pointed out that the Non-Fiction longlist includes just a single book by a female author. Here’s a list of the finalists in all four categories with bonus links and excerpts where available: Fiction: An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine (excerpt) The UnAmericans by Molly Antopol (The Millions interview) Wolf in White Van by John Darnielle (excerpt) All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr (Doerr's Year in Reading, 2010) Redeployment by Phil Klay (excerpt) Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel (Mandel's Millions archive) Thunderstruck & Other Stories by Elizabeth McCracken (McCracken's Year in Reading, 2008) Orfeo by Richard Powers (The Millions review) Lila by Marilynne Robinson (excerpt) Some Luck by Jane Smiley Nonfiction: Can't We Talk about Something More Pleasant? by Roz Chast (excerpt) The Heathen School: A Story of Hope and Betrayal in the Age of the Early Republic by John Demos (excerpt) No Good Men Among the Living: America, the Taliban, and the War through Afghan Eyes by Anand Gopal (excerpt) The Mantle of Command: FDR at War, 1941 - 1942 by Nigel Hamilton (excerpt) The Innovators: How a Group of Inventors, Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution by Walter Isaacson (excerpt) Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh by John Lahr (excerpt) Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China by Evan Osnos (excerpt) When Paris Went Dark: The City of Light Under German Occupation, 1940-1944 by Ronald C. Rosbottom (excerpt) Nature's God: The Heretical Origins of the American Republic by Matthew Stewart (excerpt) The Meaning of Human Existence by Edward O. Wilson Poetry: Roget's Illusion by Linda Bierds (excerpts and discussion) A Several World by Brian Blanchfield (interview) Faithful and Virtuous Night by Louise Glück (review) Gabriel: A Poem by Edward Hirsch (excerpt) Second Childhood by Fanny Howe (review) This Blue by Maureen N. McLane (review) The Feel Trio by Fred Moten (excerpt) Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine (excerpt) The Road to Emmaus by Spencer Reese (profile) Collected Poems by Mark Strand (biography) Young People's Literature: The Impossible Knife of Memory by Laurie Halse Anderson (excerpt) Girls Like Us by Gail Giles (excerpt) Skink--No Surrender by Carl Hiaasen Greenglass House by Kate Milford (excerpt) Threatened by Eliot Schrefer The Port Chicago 50: Disaster, Mutiny, and the Fight for Civil Rights by Steve Sheinkin (excerpt) 100 Sideways Miles by Andrew Smith (excerpt) Noggin by John Corey Whaley (excerpt) Revolution: The Sixties Trilogy, Book Two by Deborah Wiles Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson (excerpt)

Tuesday New Release Day: Doerr; Galchen; Cunningham; Barry; Gay; D’Erasmo; Heller; Deuel

New this week: All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr; American Innovations by Rivka Galchen; The Snow Queen by Michael Cunningham; The Temporary Gentleman by Sebastian Barry; An Untamed State by Rumpus editor and Year in Reading alum Roxane Gay; Wonderland by Stacey D’Erasmo; The Painter by Peter Heller; and Friday Was the Bomb by Millions contributor Nathan Deuel.

Two Strangers

“Werner isn’t surprised to pass the entrance exams easily. He’s more nonplused to find his head measured with calipers and his hair whiter than any of the 60-odd shades of blond on the examiners’ charts. It goes without saying that his eyes are also rated for their shade of blue.” Janet Maslin reviews Anthony Doerr’s new novel.

Most Anticipated: The Great 2014 Book Preview

Last year offered many treats for readers: long-awaited new books by Donna Tartt and Norman Rush; the emergence of Rachel Kushner as a literary superstar; the breakout success of George Saunders. 2014 offers more riches. This year we'll get to crack open new books by E.L. Doctorow, Richard Powers, Sue Monk Kidd, Lorrie Moore, Teju Cole, Mona Simpson, Lydia Davis, and Peter Matthiessen. Our own Edan Lepucki and Bill Morris will have new books on shelves in a few months. Look ahead to the hazy end of summer 2014 and a new novel by Haruki Murakami will be hitting American shores. All of these and many more are the books we're looking forward to this year. The list that follows isn’t exhaustive—no book preview could be—but, at 9,100 words strong and encompassing 89 titles, this is the only 2014 book preview you will ever need. Scroll down and get started. January or Already Out: Little Failure by Gary Shteyngart: Say what you will, but Shteyngart is putting the fun back in literary life.  If you haven’t yet seen the trailer for his fourth book and first memoir, Little Failure, well, start your new year with a giggle or two and be prepared to be delightfully convinced by the romantic (if not quite “erotic”) affection between Shteyngart and James Franco in pink bathrobes.  But seriously, folks—I’m guessing Adam Gopnik’s blurb is just what the Chekhov-Roth-Apatow of Queens (now upstate) was hoping for: "I fully expected Gary Shteyngart's memoir of his search for love and sex in a Russian-Jewish-Queens-Oberlin upbringing to be as hilarious and indecorous and exact as it turns out to be; what I wasn't entirely prepared for was for a book so soulful and pained in its recounting of the feints and false starts and, well, little failures of family love. Portnoy meets Chekhov meets Shteyngart! What could be better?" (Sonya) The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd: Don't expect to find Sue Monk Kidd's third novel at the library anytime soon because Oprah has already selected it as her newest Book Club read. She praised the book as a "conversation changer" regarding how we think about womanhood and history. The novel follows two headstrong women trying to make a change in the Antebellum South. Sarah Grimke, the daughter of a Charleston plantation owner, trades slavery for abolitionism and the suffragist movement. Her slave Handful has equally progressive desires, and the two form an unlikely friendship. (Tess) Andrew’s Brain by E.L. Doctorow: Doctorow’s latest novel, his twelfth, is “structured as an extended series of conversations between Andrew, a cognitive neuroscientist by training, and an unnamed man who initially appears to be his psychotherapist,” according to Publishers Weekly. Their conversations focus on Andrew’s guilt over giving up his daughter after her mother died. Given Doctorow’s reputation as king of the American historical novel, it’s worrying that early reviews complain of a lack of clarity about exactly when the story takes place, but no one dramatizes complex ideas better than Doctorow. (Michael) The Scent of Pine by Lara Vapnyar: Lena is on the brink of an early midlife crisis: her career is stalled, she feels disconnected to her adopted country, and her marriage is faltering. She finds romance with a similarly lost academic, Ben, and the two embark on an affair in a cabin in Maine. Yet Lara Vapnyar's sophomore novel is more than just a sexy romp in the woods. Up north, Lena reflects on a romantic and mysterious summer she spent at a Soviet children's camp 20 years before. Early reviewers have called Vapnyar's latest a "Russian Scheherazade." (Tess) On Such a Full Sea by Chang-rae Lee: Many of Chang-rae Lee’s novels are firmly grounded in reality, examining the worlds of displaced outsiders from the Korean War to the lives of immigrants in the present-day United States. His latest book leaps further afield, into the realm of speculative fiction, in a dystopian American future where declining urban neighborhoods have been transformed into “highwalled, self-contained labor colonies,” whose Chinese immigrant residents work catching fish for the surrounding elites. As with any good dystopian work, it promises to highlight and draw parallels with growing inequalities in our own society, which might “change the way readers think about the world they live in.” (Elizabeth) Perfect by Rachel Joyce: When two seconds get added to clock time because "time was out of kilter with the natural movement of the Earth" in the 1970s, two young boys worry if the world will ever be the same. In the present day, a man is so crippled by his OCD that he struggles to maintain a normal life outside the psychiatric hospital. Rachel Joyce weaves these parallel narratives together in her highly anticipated followup to bestseller and Booker longlisted The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry. Perfect has garnered great reviews in the U.K. with Susanna Rustin at The Guardian lauding it as, "ambitious, darker and more honest." (Tess) Orfeo by Richard Powers: Richard Powers' novels are often laced with serious science, with narratives that delve into the complexities of genetic engineering, computer coding, and cognitive disorders. In Orfeo Powers returns to the pairing of DNA coding and musicality from his Gold Bug Variations, with a tech-age take on the Orpheus myth. Orfeo follows a retired music professor who's built a DIY genetics lab where he finds musical patterns in DNA sequences. When his dog dies unexpectedly, the FBI seizes the lab, and he goes on the lam. It seems that DNA and music are inextricably paired for Powers, who noted in an essay on having his genome sequenced, "If the genome were a tune played at a nice bright allegro tempo of 120 beats per minute, it would take just short of a century to play." (Anne) The Radiance of Tomorrow by Ishmael Beah: Beah, a former child soldier in Sierra Leone’s civil war, detailed his experiences of the conflict and its aftermath in his 2007 memoir, A Long Way Gone. His debut novel, which Edwidge Danticat has called “formidable and memorable,” tells the story of two friends who return to their village after the war and their struggle to restore a sense of order and normalcy in the space between an unspeakable past and an uncertain future. (Emily)   Leaving the Sea by Ben Marcus: At Columbia’s M.F.A. Program, Ben Marcus teaches a course called “Technologies of Heartbreak”—a nifty coinage that also points to the two poles of Marcus’s own aesthetic. In his mind-blowing story collection, The Age of Wire and String, and in the first novel that followed, Marcus gravitated toward the technological: meat masks, air bodies, soft machines... Seldom did one encounter a normal human being. But his most recent novel, The Flame Alphabet, placed wild invention at the service of more straightforward emotion. It’ll be worth watching to see where Leaving the Sea comes down; it’s likely to be good either way. (Garth) A Highly Unlikely Scenario, or a Neetsa Pizza Employee’s Guide to Saving the World by Rachel Cantor: Anybody else miss Kurt Vonnegut? Rachel Cantor is here to fill the void with her debut novel, which mixes the comic with the speculative in a voice that one early reviewer described as “Terry Pratchett crossed with Douglas Adams.” It’s got time travel, medieval kabbalists, and yes, pizza. What more can you ask for? (Hannah)   Silence Once Begun by Jesse Ball: In a small Japanese town, eight people disappear from their homes with only a playing card marking their doors and absences; one man, a thread salesman, confesses to the crimes and is put in jail, but refuses to speak. These disappearances form the mystery around which Jesse Ball's fourth novel, Silence Once Begun, is constructed, and which obsess a journalist who shares Ball's name. Interview transcripts make up the central text of a story ultimately concerned with speech, silence, and the control of information. (Anne) The Secret History of Las Vegas by Chris Abani: Abani is both a novelist and a poet, and he brings a poet’s instinct for sublime language to his latest work, a crime novel set in Las Vegas. Salazar, a detective, is determined to solve a string of recent murders before he retires. He enlists the help of an expert in psychopathy, Dr. Sunil Singh, who is haunted by a betrayal of his loved ones in apartheid South Africa. “Here in Vegas,” Abani writes, “the glamor beguiled and blinded all but those truly intent on seeing, and in this way the tinsel of it mocked the obsessive hope of those who flocked there.” (Emily) February: A Place in the Country by W.G. Sebald: In his seminal novels, the late W.G. Sebald more or less obliterated the line between essay and fiction, if one even existed in the first place. Here, Sebald explores the lives and work of Robert Walser, Gottfried Keller, and other artists. The book is labeled nonfiction, but one imagines that this capstone to the English translation of Sebald’s work will offer many of the satisfactions of his novels. (Garth)   Praying Drunk by Kyle Minor: Along with his colleague Matt Bell, Kyle Minor was the subject of a flame war in a recent comment thread here at The Millions. But the imputation of log-rolling struck me as unfair. As someone who’s never met, spoken with, or seen Kyle Minor, I can say that the Guernica excerpt of his as-yet-unpublished novel, The Sexual Lives of Missionaries, was one of the more memorable pieces of fiction by a young writer I read in 2012. I guess we’ll have to wait a while longer to see the rest, but in the meantime, Minor’s latest story collection, Praying Drunk, promises to explore some of the same territory. (Garth) Bark by Lorrie Moore: New Lorrie Moore! Let us rejoice! Bark is Lorrie Moore’s first short story collection since the miraculous and magnificent Birds of America came out fifteen years ago.  Some of these eight stories might be familiar; The New Yorker published “Debarking” back in 2003, and “The Juniper Tree” in 2005. All of these stories, new to you or not, should be about as pun-filled, clever, and devastating as we’ve come to expect from Moore, who is arguably the best American short story writer alive today. (Edan) MFA vs. NYC: Two Cultures of American Fiction edited by Chad Harbach: Although its title and implied dichotomy will pain any person who writes things and is neither an MFA-holder nor connected with the NYC publishing scene, Chad Harbach's collection of commentaries on the two major drivers of the literary economy promises to deliver valuable collective insight on the current state of writing in America.  Harbach first conceived this dichotomy in 2010 in an essay for n+1 (available online at Slate), wherein he made intriguing and provocative statements on, among other things, the rise of the MFA program ("an ingenious partial solution to an eminent American problem: how to extend our already protracted adolescence past 22 and toward 30, in order to cope with an oversupplied labor market") and argued that the "university now rivals, if it hasn't surpassed, New York as the economic center of the literary fiction world."  The book will feature contributions from writers, editors, and teachers at various stages of their careers, including George Saunders, Elif Batuman, Keith Gessen, Maria Adelmann, Emily Gould, and Alexander Chee. (Lydia) Kinder Than Solitude by Yiyun Li: Two things intrigue me right off the bat about Yiyun Li’s new novel—its title, and this, from the publisher: “Kinder Than Solitude is the story of three people whose lives are changed by a murder one of them may have committed.” A murder mystery! And from a writer as patient, observant, and precise as Li. Given Li’s gifts of insight into human nature, the story will surely evolve less around whodunit? and more around what really happened? and does it matter? The eponymous kindness seems to have been bestowed upon one of the three friends, Moran, by a man who was once her husband, at a time when she fled into—and presumably believed in the kindness of—solitude; all of which is yet more intriguing. (Sonya) The UnAmericans by Molly Antopol: Molly Antopol’s debut is a collection about characters lost in the labyrinth of recent history. Stories are set against various geographical and historical backdrops—the McCarthy witch hunt, Communist-era Prague, Israeli settlements. The book has been accumulating some promising advance praise. Adam Johnson, for instance, has written that “Not since Robert Stone has a writer so examined the nature of disillusionment and the ways in which newfound hope can crack the cement of failed dreams.” Antopol was named one of the National Book Foundation’s “5 Under 35” last year. (Mark) An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine: The narrator of Rabih Alameddine’s fourth novel is reclusive seventy-two-year-old Aaliya Sobi, who lives alone in an apartment in Beirut who spends her time translating books into Arabic and then stowing them away, never to be read. The book is an exploration of Aaliya’s inner life—of her memories of Lebanon’s troubled recent history and her own turbulent past, and of her thoughts on literature and art. Colm Tóibín has compared it to Calvino and Borges, describing it as a “fiercely original act of creation”. (Mark) Thirty Girls by Susan Minot: In 1996, The Lord’s Resistance Army kidnapped a group of 139 young teenage girls from a convent school in Uganda, holding them captive. The deputy headmistress of their school, Sister Rachele Fassera, pursued the kidnappers and negotiated the release of 109 of the girls; the remaining thirty were kept and subjected to a long ordeal of captivity and brutality.  Susan Minot’s new novel, Thirty Girls, is a fictionalized account of this mass abduction and  its aftermath. Minot tells the stories of these abductees, interweaving them with that of an American journalist named Jane Wood who is interviewing them about their experiences. In 2012, Minot published an extract of the same name in Granta’s “Exit Strategies” issue. (Mark) Strange Bodies by Marcel Theroux: The British broadcaster and novelist Marcel Theroux, a son of Paul Theroux, wants to have it all in his fifth novel.  Strange Bodies is a high-concept literary thriller that flirts with science fiction while making inquiries into language, identity and what it means to be human.  The concept is this: Nicholas Slopen has been dead for months, yet one day he turns up to visit an old girlfriend.  He leaves behind a flash drive containing something as unbelievable as he is—a cache of letters supposedly written by Samuel Johnson.  This smart novel's central conceit is that we are all, like books, made of words. (Bill) The News: A User’s Manual by Alain de Botton: Known for his wide-ranging curiosity and penchant for philosophical musing, the author of How Proust Can Change Your Life, Religion for Atheists, and The Art of Travel has turned his attention to the news. This branch of the media that incorporates everything from war to celebrities getting pizza is almost omnipresent in our lives, and de Botton here examines how that affects us and how much longer the news can get bigger. (Janet)   The Swan Gondola by Timothy Schaffert: Schaffert’s fifth novel, which he describes on his website as “a love story (with ghosts),” is set in the 1898 Omaha World’s Fair. The fair marks a point of possible transformation, both for Omaha—still in some ways a Wild West town, but yearning for the glamor of Chicago—and for the actors, aerialists, ventriloquists, and assorted hustlers who descend on the city for the fair. Schaffert brings his trademark lyricism, precision, and exquisite character development to a love story between a ventriloquist and a secretive traveling actress.  (Emily) A Life in Men by Gina Frangello: Gina Frangello is a true champion of indie literature—she’s an editor at The Rumpus and The Nervous Breakdown and has appeared repeatedly on the annual "Who Really Books Chicago” list—and yet she somehow finds time to write her own books, too. Frangello’s fiction is often sexual, seductive, forward, and frank. Her latest novel, A Life of Men, promises more in the same vein, with a story about two young friends, one recently diagnosed with cystic fibrosis, who travel the world seeking to fill their lives, however brief, with a wealth of experience. (Anne) Europe in Sepia by Dubravka Ugresic: Ugresic has published several distinguished works of fiction, but her wide-ranging, boundary-blurring essays on politics and culture may be the ideal entry point for English-language readers. Here, in pieces originally published in The Baffler and elsewhere, she ranges from Occupy Wall Street to Ireland’s Aran Islands. For a preview, check out Arnon Grunberg’s tribute to Ugresic, published here last year. (Garth)   What's Important is Feeling by Adam Wilson: Adam Wilson follows up his debut novel Flatscreen, a dark comedy of suburban listlessness, with a collection of stories taking place across the modern American landscape (the title story, which appeared in the Paris Review and was later included in the Best American Short Stories of 2012, describes a movie set in Texas and opens with the immortal question, "'What is this cockshit?'")  Like Flatscreen, What's Important is Feeling promises youthful- to middle-aged angst, ennui, relationship troubles, and weed. (Lydia) March: Every Day Is for the Thief by Teju Cole: Teju Cole's peripatetic, meditative Open City drew comparisons to Sebald and Coetzee and firmly placed Cole on the map of young authors endowed with serious smarts and talent, who engage in cultural critique—and this holds true whether he’s writing about race, class, and post-colonialism, or Tweeting about drones. Cole’s novel Every Day Is for the Thief is an “amalgamation of fiction, memory, art, and travel writing” originally culled from his blog (now removed) about a young Nigerian revisiting Lagos and a version of the book was published in 2007 by Nigeria-based Cassava Republic Press. (Anne) What Would Lynne Tillman Do by Lynne Tillman: I ask myself this question all the time - WWLTD? - and here, in a thick abecedarium of essays introduced by Colm Tóibín, Tillman offers a variety of answers. A crib sheet: sometimes Lynne Tillman would crack wise; sometimes Lynne Tillman would offer an insight so startling I had to go back and read it twice; always Lynne Tillman would do something smarter and finer and better than I would. And that’s why you, too, should be reading Lynne Tillman. (Garth) The Heaven of Animals by David James Poissant: Early reviews have compared Poissant’s stories, which ply the literary territory between realism and allegory, to the work of Anton Chekhov and Raymond Carver. In one story from this debut collection, a man throws his teenage son out a window when he learns the boy is gay, seeking reconciliation only after helping free an alligator from a golf club pond. In another, two parents confront the unusual complications of having a newborn baby that literally glows. Poissant, whose stories have appeared in One Story, Ploughshares, and The Atlantic, also has a novel in the works. (Michael) Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi: Oyeyemi's newest novel will be her fifth, not bad for a writer who will celebrate her 30th birthday later this year. Oyeyemi's 2009 novel, White is for Witching, won a Somerset Maugham Award (the prize is given to British writers under 35) and she was named to the Granta Best Of Young British Novelists list last year, following the 2011 publication of Mr. Fox, the novel that introduced Oyeyemi to many U.S. readers. Boy, Snow, Bird, Oyeyemi told the Times last year, is "about a woman named Boy who tries to avoid becoming a wicked stepmother and really doesn’t know if she’s going to manage it." (Max) The Brunist Day of Wrath by Robert Coover: Coover’s enormous follow-up to his first novel, Origin of the Brunists, has been delayed several times, but this spring, it should finally see the light of day. Coover’s recent short stories in The New Yorker suggest he’s still near the top of his game. (Garth)     Pushkin Hills by Sergei Dovlatov: A new translation of a Dovlatov novel is like Christmas morning for the English-speaking world; and this one from his daughter, no less.  Pushkin Hills, published 30 years ago, is one of his most popular novels in Russia (posthumously, along with all his work).  Said The Guardian of the translation that first hit the UK last fall:  “Alma Classics have been searching for a suitable translator for years. Now the writer's daughter, Katherine Dovlatov, has captured her father's style. . . [she] only took on the task of translating it after the publishers rejected a previous translation and numerous samples.” The story is, of course, autobiographical, featuring “[a]n unsuccessful writer and an inveterate alcoholic, Boris Alikhanov. . . running out of money and . . . recently divorced from his wife Tatyana, who intends to emigrate to the West with their daughter Masha.”  From The Independent: "Vodka-fuelled mishaps, grotesque comic cameos and—above all—quick-fire dialogue that swings and stings propel this furious twilight romp from the final days of Soviet power." Counterpoint is publishing the book in the U.S. (Sonya) All Our Names by Dinaw Mengestu: A MacArthur genius, a 5 Under 35 awardee, and a 20 Under 40 recipient all walk into a bar and take a single seat, because it’s one person and his name is Dinaw Mengestu. The author of the The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears and How to Read the Air—both concerned with Africans fleeing their countries—returns this year with All Our Names, an elegiac love story about pair of African men separated by a political revolution: one in exile, and another in their war-torn homeland. Split across two narratives—one in the past, one in the present—All Our Names dramatizes the clashes between romantic idealism and disillusioned practicality, as well as between self-preservation and violence, all while blurring the identities of those who can move on, those who stay behind, and those who simply change. (Nick M.) Blood Will Out by Walter Kirn: Billed as an In Cold Blood for the 21st century, Walter Kirn's non-fiction book Blood Will Out: The True Story of a Murder, a Mystery, and a Masquerade tells the story of how this celebrated critic, essayist and novelist (Up In the Air, Thumbsucker) got duped by a man who claimed to be a Rockefeller but turned out to be an impostor, a child kidnapper and a brutal murderer.  Part memoir, part true-crime story and part social commentary, Blood Will Out probes the dark psychological links between the artist and the con man. (Bill) Mount Terminus by David Grand: The titular hilltop in David Grand's third novel roosts high above sunny, sleepy pre-Hollywood Los Angeles.  Mount Terminus is a refuge for grieving Jacob Rosenbloom, whose wife died back East.  Jacob's invention, the Rosenbloom Loop, has revolutionized the budding art of filmmaking, and he's determined to use his invention's earnings to protect his son, Bloom, from the family's past.  But Bloom, a dark, brooding genius, is prodded by his very different half-brother to come down from Mount Terminus and meet the world.  This novel, 11 years in the making, becomes that rarest of things: a plausible myth, an intimate epic. (Bill) Falling Out of Time by David Grossman: An acclaimed Israeli novelist, Grossman found an American audience with 2010’s To the End of the Land, an epic novel of love and war hailed as a masterpiece. He returns with a allegorical novel one third its length that tells the story of Walking Man, who walks in circles around his town in an attempt to come to peace with his son’s death. Having lost his own son in 2006, Grossman here probes the meaning of loss, memory, and grief. (Janet) Sleep Donation by Karen Russell: The newly minted MacArthur grantee mines the fertile territory between short story and novel. In Russell’s lightly science-fictionalized world (which, come to think of it, sounds a lot like my house) a deadly insomnia epidemic is spreading. The well-rested can help out the afflicted by donating their excess sleep—but scarce supplies force everyone to reevaluate the line between gift and commodity. This is the first title from Atavist Books, so expect some bells and whistles in the digital edition. (Garth) Clever Girl by Tessa Hadley: Like Alice Munro and Evan Connell, Hadley’s devotees exclaim that her sophisticated prose and skill with character transcend their subject—the unfortunately named “domestic fiction.” Her fifth novel, Clever Girl follows the life of Stella from her adolescence in the 1960s to the present day. Stella’s life, in every description, is ordinary, but illuminates both the woman living it and the times around her. (Janet) April: Updike by Adam Begley: What’s left to say about John Updike that Updike didn’t already say exhaustively, and say better than anyone else could have? Yet Adam Begley has apparently found enough fresh material, or a fresh enough angle on the well-trod, to fill 576 pages. For a primer on Updike, there’s no way this book can surpass Nicholson Baker’s U&I, but it’s always a good sign when a literary biographer is a novelist himself. (Garth)   Can't and Won't by Lydia Davis: "Can't and Won't," the title story from Lydia Davis's new collection of short and short-short stories playfully pokes fun at the brevity of her fictions. In this two-sentence story the author is refused a literary prize, because of the laziness evident in his/her frequent use of linguistic contractions. Quite the contrary is true with Davis’s work, where much of the flare is tongue in cheek. Concision and precision invigorate her fictions, and apparently the prize committee agrees, as Davis was just awarded the prestigious Man Booker International Prize. (Anne) And the Dark Sacred Night by Julia Glass: In her fifth novel, Julia Glass revisits two beloved characters—Malachy Burns and Fenno McLeod—from her first novel, the National Book Award-winning Three Junes.  The publisher’s description assures us, however, that the novel will range and weave and shift perspectives—as all Glass’s novels do—among new characters as well.  In an interview with Bloom earlier this year, Glass, who debuted with Three Junes at age 46, said: “I suspect that I simply can’t help exploring a story from many angles. . . I have to look through as many windows as I can reach; now and then I resort to a ladder.”  When interviewer Evelyn Somers described Glass as “fearless” in the way she weaves together complex stories, Glass replied: “I like the idea of being 'fearless,' but sometimes I think the complexity of my novels is more related to another trait I have: I’m an overpacker. . . Call me a maximalist. I won’t be insulted.” (Sonya) Love & Treasure by Ayelet Waldman: The plot of this novel revolves around the true history of the Hungarian gold train, a trove of stolen valuables that was seized by American soldiers during World War II but which was never returned to its rightful owners. Seventy years later, the granddaughter of one of the treasure-seizing soldiers must look into the turbulent past—and into her own turbulent life—when her grandfather gives her a jeweled pendant with a murky history. (Hannah)   Lovers at the Chameleon Club: Paris, 1932 by Francine Prose: Francine Prose's 20th novel, Lovers at the Chameleon Club: Paris, 1932, is framed as a biography by a French feminist high school teacher. The subject of this fictional biography is Lou Villars, based on an historical figure, a professional athlete, lesbian, cross-dresser and German spy who became a torturer and was executed by the Resistance. One early reader claimed she could smell the nicotine on the fingers of Prose's fictional French biographer.  Woven into the text are sections of a fake Peggy Guggenheim memoir and a fake Henry Miller novel.  The latter, Prose reports, "was super fun to write." (Bill) Thunderstruck & Other Stories by Elizabeth McCracken: The novelist, short story writer, and memoirist Elizabeth McCracken, whose novel The Giant’s House was a finalist for the 1996 National Book Award, has earned a reputation as a writer of rare empathy and descriptive powers. Thunderstruck, her first short story collection in twenty years, charts the territory of family, love, and loss. In their review of the collection, Publisher’s Weekly wrote that “McCracken transforms life’s dead ends into transformational visions.” (Emily) Frog Music by Emma Donoghue: Best known for the 2010 bestseller Room, Donoghue latest novel sees her returning to historical fiction (four of her eight novels are historical), this one based on a still-unsolved murder in 1870s San Francisco. After her friend is killed by a gunshot through a boardinghouse window, Blanche—a burlesque dancer, prostitute, and the only witness—is forced to seek justice on her own. (Janet)   All the Birds, Singing by Evie Wyld: This second novel from British thirty-something sensation Evie Wyld (After the Fire, A Still Small Voice, 2009) is about a woman named Jake who, along with a flock of sheep, is the only inhabitant on an unnamed island off the coast of Britain.  The novel came out abroad last year and revolves around a mysterious predator stalking Jake's flock, picking off her sheep one at a time in gory fashion.  As The Guardian put it in a review last June, the novel is "not a ruminant whodunnit exactly; it is a thoughtful and intense account of a young woman seemingly determined to disappear from the world's radar." (Kevin) In Paradise by Peter Matthiessen: 86-year-old lion of American letters Peter Matthiessen has written his first novel since Shadow Country and what he told the NY Times may be his "last word." A novel based upon his own experience attending three "Bearing Witness" Zen retreats at the site of Auschwitz-Birkenau, In Paradise will describe one attendee's experience of meditation in a former concentration camp as a non-Jew of Polish descent. (Lydia)   Family Life by Akhil Sharma: Sharma’s first novel, An Obedient Father, won the PEN/Hemingway and the Whiting in 2001. More than a decade later, the Indian-born writer publishes his second novel, which begins in Delhi in 1978 and tracks a family’s migration to the United States. “Life is extraordinary until tragedy strikes,” the publisher writes, “leaving one brother severely brain-damaged and the other lost and virtually orphaned in a strange land.” For a introduction to Sharma’s writing, his first short story in twelve years, about cousins living in Delhi, was published in The New Yorker this past spring: “I wrote this story as soon as I had e-mailed the novel to my editor,” he told New Yorker fiction editor Deboarah Treisman. “Get thee behind me, devil is what I thought about finishing the novel.” (Elizabeth) With My Dog Eyes by Hilda Hilst: If 2012 was the year of Clarice Lispector, when New Directions issued four new translations of her seminal works, then 2014 may very well be the year of Lispector's friend and fellow Brazilian author, Hilda Hilst. Obscene Madame D was Hilst’s first work translated into English, and it made appearances on my best of 2013 reading list as well as Blake Butler’s. Two more Hilst translations debut this year, with another from Nightboat (Letters from a Seducer) and Melville House's publication of With My Dog Eyes. This title seems apt, as Hilst produced much of her work after retreating to an estate where a pack of more than one hundred dogs roamed. For a taste, check out the excerpt Bomb published last summer. (Anne) Talking to Ourselves by Andrés Neuman: Neuman’s first novel to be translated into English, Traveler of the Century, was an enormous feat of fabulism, and was critically acclaimed when it appeared here in 2012. Talking to Ourselves demonstrates Neuman’s range by running in completely the opposite direction. This comparatively short work is set in the present day, and alternates among the voices of three family members. For those who missed Traveler of the Century, it may be an equally potent introduction to Neuman’s work. (Garth) Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace by Nikil Saval: Saval, an n+1 editor, has produced what may be an essential volume on a subject that bedevils so many of the over-educated and under-employed among us: the office. It is likely the rare desk jockey who hasn't, in a fugue of 3pm boredom and amid a din of inane small talk, wondered "why does it have to be like this?" Cubed looks for an answer, exploring how the office as we know it came to be, "starting with the smoke one-room offices of the 19th century and culminating in the radical spaces of the dot-com era and beyond." (Max) Casebook by Mona Simpson: The consistently excellent Simpson returns with what sounds like a riff on Harriet the Spy: the story of a boy investigating his parents’ disintegrating marriage. The coming-of-age narrative is complicated here, though, by the disintegration of the possibility of privacy in the age of Facebook, or Snapchat, or whatever we're all on now. Am I the only one hoping that the “stranger from Washington D.C. who weaves in and out of their lives” is Anthony Weiner? (Garth) Off Course by Michelle Huneven: Michelle Huneven, author of Blame and Jamesland, returns with an engrossing and intimate new novel set in the early 1980s. Cressida Hartley is a young PhD candidate in Economics who moves to her parents’ shabby vacation cabin in the Sierras; she ends up getting drawn into the small mountain community there—in particular, its men.  According to the jacket copy, Huneven introduces us to “an intelligent young woman who discovers that love is the great distraction, and impossible love the greatest distraction of all.” Publishers Weekly says that “Cress makes for an eerily relatable and heartbreaking protagonist.” If you haven’t yet read a book by Huneven, whom Richard Russo calls “a writer of extraordinary and thrilling talent,” then you’re in for a treat. (Bonus: Michelle Huneven’s beautiful essay, “On Walking and Reading At the Same Time.”) Labor Day: True Birth Stories by Today's Best Women Writers, edited by Eleanor Henderson and Anna Solomon: There’s no such thing as a predictable birth—a fact that maddens parents-to-be but eventually makes for a whopper of an anecdote. If your Aunt Mildred can tell a good story about her scheduled c-section, imagine the tales that writers like Julia Glass, Lauren Groff, Dani Shapiro, and The Millions' own Edan Lepucki can spin. (Hannah)   All the Rage by A. L. Kennedy: The Independent once described A. L. Kennedy as “one of nature's Eeyores”: “She knows grimness the way some novelists know music or food.” So the Scottish writer’s sixth collection of short stories—billed as “a dozen ways of looking at love, or the lack of love”—should likely be avoided by the overly sentimental. But it promises to be marked by the dark humor that pervades her work—the “Department 5” (“a shadowy organisation about which it’s best you know nothing”) page on her website gives you a good taste. (Elizabeth) Vernon Downs by Jaime Clarke: Clarke, the co-owner of Newtonville Books in Boston, offers a slippery roman-a-clef, or simulacrum thereof. A sad sack writer becomes obsessed with a more famous colleague, the titular Vernon Downs, who despite his lack of a middle name, bears more than a passing resemblance to Bret Easton Ellis. This is the intriguing debut title for a new indie called Roundabout Press. (Garth) May: The Temporary Gentleman by Sebastian Barry: The Irish poet, playwright and novelist Sebastian Barry's new novel, The Temporary Gentleman, tells the story of Jack McNulty, an Irishman who served in the British army in the Second World and has washed up in Accra, Ghana, in 1957, determined to write down the story of his life. Jack is an ordinary man who has seen extraordinary things—as a world traveler, soldier, engineer, UN observer and ill-starred lover. Once again Barry, a repeat contender for the Man Booker Prize, deftly twines his own family history with the rumbustious history of the Irish in the 20th century. (Bill) The Snow Queen by Michael Cunningham: Michael Cunningham’s sixth novel is set in New York City in 2004 and tells the story of two brothers facing loss. One brother, newly bereft, experiences a religious awakening; the other, whose wife is gravely ill, falls into drug use. It sounds like a tearjerker of a story, one likely to be made even more heartrending by Cunningham’s graceful prose. (Hannah)   My Struggle, Book III by Karl Ove Knausgaard: It’s not really news anymore that Knausgaard’s unfolding project (unfolding into English, anyway; in Norwegian, it’s already complete) is phenomenal. But now that FSG is handling the paperback editions (replete with Williamsburg-ready jacket design) you’ll be hearing even more about My Struggle. And it’s true: you should read it! Start Book I now, and you will have caught up by the time Book III comes out. (Garth)   Lost for Words: A Novel by Edward St Aubyn: St Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose quintet of novels, based on his own upbringing, center around the nasty dealings of a family in the English aristocracy. (James Wood diminishes regular comparisons to Waugh and Wilde, saying that despite surface similarities, St Aubyn is “he is a colder, more savage writer than either.”) His newest novel is somewhat of a departure then, a “a hilariously smart send-up of a certain major British literary award.” Readers hesitant to leave the Melrose family behind can rest assured that the new novel promises to be just as cutting as those before it. (Elizabeth) Another Great Day at Sea: Life Aboard the USS George H.W. Bush by Geoff Dyer: Geoff Dyer’s latest sees the prolific journalist, essayist, and novelist chronicle a two-week stay aboard a US aircraft carrier. As the tallest (well, second-tallest), oldest, and easily most self-conscious person on the boat, Dyer occupied an odd position on the crew, one which forced him to reconcile his own bookish life with a lifelong interest in the military. (Those readers with Army experience may not be surprised to learn that the text is heavy on acronyms.) (Thom) An Untamed State by Roxane Gay: If Roxane Gay wrote it, I’ll read it.  Perhaps best known for her thoughtful and engaging essays about all kinds of topics, from Orange is the New Black to Twitter to Paula Deen’s racism, Gay will publish not only a book of essays in 2014, called Bad Feminist, but also this first novel.  In An Untamed State, Mireille Duval Jameson, the daughter of one of Haiti’s richest men, is kidnapped and held captive for thirteen days by a man who calls himself the Commander.  Mat Johnson says, “An Untamed State is the kind of book you have to keep putting down because you can’t believe how good it is. Awesome, powerful, impossible to ignore, Roxane Gay is a literary force of nature. An Untamed State arrives like a hurricane.” (Edan) All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr: A blind French girl and a young German boy navigate the perils of occupied France in the latest by the author of Memory Wall. The French girl, Marie Laure, flees Paris with her father, eventually holing up with her agoraphobic uncle in his house on the coast of Brittany. The German boy, Werner, a mechanical whiz, parlays his aptitude into a spot in the Nazi army. The Nazis ship him off to Russia and then from there to northern France. If we can trust Abraham Verghese’s endorsement, the story is “put together like a vintage timepiece.” (Thom) The Vacationers by Emma Straub: The highlight of Emma Straub's short story collection, Other People We Married, was the romantically lost but sympathetic Franny. We left the collection wanting to read an entire novel on her, and fortunately, Straub has done just that with her second novel after Laura Lamont's Life in Pictures. Surprisingly, Franny is still married to Jim, and the Post family and friends are off to Mallorca to celebrate their 35th anniversary. Yet not everything is tranquil as the Mediterranean Sea, and the vacation dredges up embarrassments, rivalries, and secrets. (Tess) To Rise Again at a Decent Hour by Joshua Ferris: To read a Joshua Ferris novel is to stare at the gaping emptiness just below the surface of modern life—and, quite often, laugh. In this third novel from the author of the much-beloved Then We Came to the End, dentist Paul O’Rourke discovers that someone is impersonating him online, with a website, a Facebook page, and a Twitter account all mysteriously created in Paul’s name. As he looks into who has stolen his identity and why, Paul begins to fear that his digital doppelgänger may be better than the real thing. (Michael) The Painter by Peter Heller: An expressionist painter with a penchant for violence tries to outrun his own crimes in this novel by the author of The Dog Stars. The protagonist, Jim Stegner, thought he’d settled into a peaceful life in his home in rural Colorado. One day, Stegner witnesses a local man beating a horse, and the act so enrages him that he hunts down the man and kills him. He then sets off on a Dostoevskyan quest, one which sees him make sense of his actions while hiding his crime from the cops. All the while, in spite of his turmoil, he keeps painting. (Thom) Cutting Teeth by Julia Fierro: When a group of thirty-something parents gather at a ramshackle beach house called Eden, no serpent is required for the sins, carnal and otherwise, to pile up. Fierro, founder of Brooklyn’s Sackett Street Writers’ Workshop, argued in The Millions last year that writers need to put the steam—and the human sentiment—back into sex scenes in literary novels. You may want to keep Fierro’s debut novel on a high shelf, away from children and prudish literary snobs. (Michael)   The Last Illusion by Porochista Khakpour: Porochista Khakpour is the author of the blazingly original (pun intended!) novel Sons and Other Flammable Objects. In her new novel, its hero, Zal, is born in a rural Iranian village to a mother who believes he is evil because of his pale skin and hair. For the first ten years of his life he’s raised in a cage with the rest of his mother’s birds—eating insects, shitting on newspaper—until he is rescued by a behavioral analyst who brings him to New York.  The Last Illusion recounts Zal’s struggles and adventures in this foreign land, where he befriends a magician, and falls for a supposed clairvoyant.  Claire Messud writes, “This ambitious, exciting literary adventure is at once grotesque, amusing, deeply sad—and wonderful, too.”  (Edan) The Lobster Kings by Alexi Zentner: A generational drama set on fictional Loosewood Island, about the King family vying to maintain control of a centuries old lobstering dynasty.  Early reports speak of meth dealers, sibling rivalry, and intra-lobster boat love as the main threats to Cordelia King's attempt to preserve the family business.  In an interview last April, Zentner (Touch, 2011) also allowed that one of the characters has "a Johnny Cash tape stuck in the cassette player in his truck." (Kevin) Wonderland by Stacey D’Erasmo: I’m particularly excited about Stacey D’Erasmo’s fourth novel Wonderland—not only because its protagonist is a female indie musician, the likes of whom have not made it into novels often, if ever (think about it); but because said musician, Anna Brundage, is on a comeback tour at age 44.  Bloomer! From the publisher: “Wonderland is a moving inquiry into the life of a woman on an unconventional path, wondering what happens next and what her passions might have cost her, seeking a version of herself she might recognize.” D’Erasmo herself, who spent a decade as a books editor, first for the Village Voice and then Bookforum, did her own later-blooming comeback as a debut novelist at age 39, and now a professor at Columbia. (Sonya) The Rise and Fall of Great Powers by Tom Rachman: Rachman follows The Imperfectionists, a pitch perfect novel-in-stories set at a dying English-language newspaper in Rome, with a novel about a bookseller named Tooly Zylberberg, who was kidnapped as a child and then adopted by her kidnappers. In a narrative that hopscotches the globe from Bangkok to Brooklyn to the border towns of Wales, Zylberberg is lured into setting off on a journey that will unravel the mysteries of her past. Never one to worry overmuch about plot credibility, Rachman is a master of wringing pathos from essentially comic tales. (Michael) The Possibilities by Kaui Hart Hemmings: Seven years after the publication of The Descendents—which you might remember because of a certain movie adaptation starring George Clooney—Kaui Hart Hemmings returns to the themes of familial loss, grief, and unexpected turns of fate all cast against gorgeous scenery. In The Possibilities, a Colorado mother loses her son in an avalanche near their Breckinridge home. Coping with her loss, and trying to piece her life back together, she’s suddenly confronted with something she couldn’t have seen coming. (Nick M.) American Innovations by Rivka Galchen: It's been six years since readers were introduced to Galchen via her ambitious debut Atmospheric Disturbances (James Wood called it "a contribution to the Hamsun-Bernhard tradition of tragicomic first-person unreliability.") Since then she has been chosen as one of the New Yorker's 20 writers under 40 and produced an impressive body of unusually lyrical science journalism (on topics like quantum computers and weather control). Galchen's new collection American Innovations reflects an experiment of another sort. Per publisher FSG, "The tales in this groundbreaking collection are secretly in conversation with canonical stories, reimagined from the perspective of female characters." “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” and Gogol’s “The Nose” are among the stories mined. (Max) Funny Once by Antonya Nelson: Antonya Nelson’s new story collection brings together short pieces from the last few years as well as a previously unpublished novella. In the title story, a couple, united by a shared propensity for bad behavior, reckons with the consequences of a lie they tell to their friends. In “The Village,” a woman comes to grips with her feelings about her father's mistress. In “Three Wishes,” the novella, a group of siblings deals with the fallout of their brother’s death. Like much of the native Kansan's work, the collection takes place largely in Heartland and Western settings. (Thom) June: The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henríquez: The Book of Unknown Americans, the second novel by Iowa Writers Workshop graduate Cristina Henríquez, begins as a love story between a Panamanian boy and a Mexican girl.  After the girl suffers a major injury, the story moves from Mexico to a cinderblock apartment building in Delaware populated with immigrants from Latin America.  From there the novel expands outward to become a symphonic love story between these immigrants and an impossible America.  Told in a multiplicity of voices, the novel manages that rare balance of being both unflinching and unsentimental.  In doing so, it rewrites the definition of what it means to be American. (Bill) Summer House With Swimming Pool by Hermann Koch: Last year, in a “Books of the Times” review, Janet Maslin took Hermann Koch’s novel, The Dinner, out into the town square for a public flogging. A funny thing happened though: the book ended up a bestseller. A bestseller translated from the Dutch, no less! Koch’s misanthropic view of contemporary life seemed to resonate with American audiences, and his latest appears to offer more of the same. Here, a murder disturbs the idyll of a group of friends on vacation together, bringing far darker currents to the surface. (Garth) Paper Lantern and Ecstatic Cahoots by Stuart Dybek: Dybek’s The Coast of Chicago was, like Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son, practically required reading in writing programs in the late '90s and early Aughts. Dybek’s voice was lusher than Johnson's, and more openly romantic, but equally poetic. His follow-up, I Sailed With Magellan, sometimes let that lushness grow too wild; the gritty Chicago settings of the earlier book gave way in places to nostalgia. But a new Dybek volume is always welcome, and this year offers a treat: the simultaneous publication of two. Paper Lantern is a group of love stories, while Ecstatic Cahoots gathers together the kinds of short shorts that so memorably punctuated The Coast of Chicago. (Garth) I'll Be Right There by Kyung-Sook Shin: Kyung-sook Shin is one of Korea’s most popular novelists. In I’ll Be Right There, set during a period of political turmoil in 1980s South Korea, she uses European literature to bridge experiential differences between East and West. The novel concerns a highly literate woman who receives a phone call from an ex-boyfriend after nearly a decade of separation. The call triggers a flood of memories, and she finds herself reliving her intense and tumultuous youth: memories of tragedy and upheaval and of profound friendships forged in a time of uncertainty. (Emily) In the Wolf's Mouth by Adam Foulds: The third novel from British writer Foulds takes place at the end of World War II and follows two Allied soldiers during the final push to sweep the Germans out of Italy. In an interview last July with the Hindustan Times, Foulds previewed the book, saying, it "would like to give the reader a sense of history as being very complicated and rapid in these high-conflict situations. It is one thing after another. The events are too massive to care for particular individual stories, so there are a number of stories. For a while, one is unsure if they are going to converge but they do." (Kevin) July: California by Edan Lepucki: In July, Millions staffer and preferred writing teacher Edan Lepucki will follow up her novella If You're Not Yet Like Me with her first full-length novel, California, a post-apocalyptic number set in, er, California. Lepucki's debut follows a young couple struggling to make it work in a shack in the wilderness and straddles the (complementary) domestic and dystopian spheres, addressing horrors like marital strife, pregnancy, and the end of society as we know it. Dan Chaon called it "a wholly original take on the post-apocalypse genre." (Full disclosure: I have eaten meals with Edan, squeezed her baby, and admired her tiny dog. My feeling of anticipation regarding this novel is thus not impartial.) (Lydia) Motor City Burning by Bill Morris: Our own Bill Morris, a Motor City native, tells the story of Willie Bledsoe—once an idealistic black activist, now burnt-out and trying to write a memoir about the '60s—who joins his brother to drive a load of illegal guns up to Detroit in 1968. While in Detroit, Bledsoe becomes the top suspect in an unsolved murder from the previous year's bloody race riots. The book will dive deep into some of Morris's great fascinations: cars, Detroit, and the The Indigenous American Berserk that lurks below the surface. (Kevin) Tigerman by Nick Harkaway: A couple of years back, Charlie Jane Anders—writing on i09—declared that Harkaway had invented a new genre: existential pulp. That might be as good a way as any to describe his wildly inventive ouevre, which involves ninjas, mimes, doomsday machines, schoolgirl spies, shadowy secret societies, and mechanical soldiers. His third novel, Tigerman, concerns a burnt-out sergeant of the British Army, Lester Ferris, who is sent to serve out his time on Mancreu, a shady former British colony slated for destruction, where he encounters a street kid in need of a hero. (Emily) Friendship by Emily Gould: Emily Gould’s debut novel charts the friendship of two women who, at thirty, have been closely entwined in one another’s lives for years. Bev lives the kind of aimless life that’s easier to put up with at 23 than at 30. Amy has been coasting for some time on charisma, luck, and early success, but unfortunate decisions are catching up with her. A meditation on friendship and maturity in an era of delayed adulthood. (Emily) Last Stories and Other Stories by William T. Vollmann: Vollmann writes so much that you forget it’s been a blue moon since he’s published a work of fiction. And that book won the National Book Award! This collection is said to comprise a bunch of ghost stories—perhaps less inherently promising than, say, a Vollmann essay on how the FBI mistook him for the Unabomber, but still liable to fascinate. One of the remarkable things about Vollmann’s story collections is the way they add up to more than the sum of their parts; I'm eager to see how these stories connect. (Garth) The Great Glass Sea by Josh Weil: If orbital “space mirrors” reflecting constant sunlight upon Oranzheria, a massive greenhouse in Petroplavilsk, Russia, doesn’t pique your interest, then I can’t do anything for you. These are the mysterious devices at the heart of Josh Weil’s second novel, which follows two twins, Yarik and Dima, who were inseparable as children, but who have grown apart in adulthood. Today, the two work in the collective farms of Oranzheria, the “great glass sea,” to harvest crops for the benefit of the place’s billionaire owner. What follows is a story of two brothers on oppositional paths, each hoping to reconvene, all set against the backdrop of an “alternative present-day Russia.” (Nick M.) The Hundred-Year House by Rebecca Makkai: Doug is an academic interested in the poetry of Edwin Parfitt. As it happens, Doug’s mother-in-law owns a former artists’ colony where the poet had long ago been an artist in residence. Fancy that. But for whatever reason, she prohibits Doug from entering the estate’s attic, where file cabinets of Edwin Parfitt’s papers are said to be located. After asking around, however, Doug ultimately gains access to some of the files—only to find that they are much more disturbing than he could have imagined. What ensues is a fragmented narrative, split between 1999, 1955, and 1929, in which readers see glimpses of the present day, the near past, and the final days of the artist colony, all the while affected by the enduring legacy of the estate’s original owners. (Nick M.) August: Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami: When Murakami’s new novel—his first since the in-all-ways-gigantic 1Q84—came out in Japan last year, there were apparently 150-deep midnight queues outside Tokyo bookstores. It sold 1 million copies in its first week alone. This is a novel, let’s remember, not a new Call of Duty game. And such were its unit-shifting powers in its author’s country that it caused a significant spike in sales of a particular recording of Franz Liszt’s “Years of Pilgrimage” piano pieces described in the novel, leading to a swift decision by Universal Music to reprint CDs of the recording to meet Murakami-based demand. The novel tells the story of Tsukuru Tazaki, a young man mysteriously ostracized by his friends. It stands a good chance of selling a few copies in English translation too. (Mark) The Kills by Richard House: The second section of this four-part novel is called “The Massive”; it’s a title that could have stood for the whole. House’s sprawling quadruple-decker, longlisted for the Booker Prize, is a literary thriller set against the background of the Iraq War. Intriguingly, House created extensive digital video and audio supplements that unfold alongside the narrative. Not sure how that works, though, if you’re going to be reading on boring old paper, as I am. (Garth) More from The Millions: The good stuff: The Millions' Notable articles The motherlode: The Millions' Books and Reviews Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.
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