American Salvage

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Survival Is Not Guaranteed: The Millions Interviews Bonnie Jo Campbell

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The first time I saw Bonnie Jo Campbell, she stood in front of a bank of elevators on the 12th floor of Columbia College Chicago where I taught. It was late, after 10, but a group of students hemmed her in, laughing, asking questions, reluctant to leave. Her height and physical confidence captured my attention. Then I noticed the students’ faces. They were rapt. Enchanted. It very well could have been the fluorescent lights but — I’m telling you — their faces beamed.

“Great,” I thought, jabbing the elevator button a bit too hard, “another visiting writer.”

Then I read Women and Other Animals and I immediately understood what all the fuss was about.

Born and raised in Michigan, Campbell attended University of Chicago to study philosophy, traveled the world (including scaling the Swiss Alps on her bicycle), and even sold snow cones for the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Baily Circus.

During her time at University of Chicago, she became disillusioned with her major and eventually found her way to Western Michigan University’s writing program where Stuart Dybek and Jaimy Gordon taught.

Since then, Campbell has published two novels, two short story collections, and a book of poetry. The 16 stories in her third and latest collection, Mothers, Tell Your Daughters, dissect the tender, sometimes cruel, and often flawed relationships between women. These stories also capture the beauty and blemishes of small town life — its silences, its spaces, its struggles, its poverty. A mother on her deathbed admits to knowing her boyfriend abused her young daughter. A woman realizes she’d been raped while passed out at a party. An abused wife exacts revenge on her dying husband.

I caught up with Campbell electronically and over the phone to pick her brain about Mothers, Tell Your Daughters.

The Millions: It’s officially fall in Michigan. Will the colors turn soon?

Bonnie Jo Campbell: Though it’s only September, the leaves are starting to turn. My darling Christopher just hung up the hummingbird feeder full of sugar water and said, “This is the last time I’m going to fill this. They’re heading out.” Autumn is beautiful in my neighborhood, which has a lot of big sugar maples, but I’m going to miss much of it, since I’m heading out on a big book tour for Mothers, Tell Your Daughters.

TM: Your short story collection American Salvage was a finalist for the 2009 National Book Award in Fiction and the 2009 National Book Critics Circle Award in Fiction. Your body of work includes the short story collection Women and Other Animals, the novels Once Upon a River and Q Road, and the poetry collection Love Letters to Sons of Bitches. This latest collection, Mothers, Tell Your Daughters, dissects the richness of women’s relationships. What drew you to write this collection? How did your previous publications inform these stories?

BJC: Well, I never have set out to write a collection of stories. I’ve just written the stories I’ve felt compelled to write, and so far those have lumped themselves nicely into my three packages of stories. The stories of my first book, Women and Other Animals, were mostly about women and girls interacting with the natural world, mostly told from the female point of view. Then I found myself writing about men because I saw some interesting and awful situations occurring and re-occurring in my neck of the woods, and through writing I discovered the ways these individual situations reflected a larger problem in society. Many of these situations involved workplace issues and economic troubles. The stories in Mothers, Tell Your Daughters involve many struggling women, but the drama is less about economic troubles and more about troubles within the intense relationships these female characters have with other women, and with some men, too. Many of the women are still reeling from some kind of sexual violation. It’s worked kind of like magic each time — I fear my wandering mind has no cohesiveness, but then in all three of these situations, it turns out that I was creating bodies of work that belonged together.

I should mention that it wasn’t immediately clear what the theme or content of the collection was going to be at the time we sold the book, but gradually my agent Bill Clegg, my editor Jill Bialosky, and I sifted through the work I had and found what cohered. After that, I had to write a couple of new stories to bring it all together. Those final stories were the title story “Mothers, Tell Your Daughters,” and “Daughters of the Animal Kingdom.”

I think people will recognize me as the writer of all three of these works, but in Mothers, Tell Your Daughters I’ve experimented stylistically a little more than in the earlier collections. Many of the stories are traditional narratives, but I’ve included four pieces of flash fiction (250 to 300 words each) and several stories that read like rants by women who are at the end of their ropes.

TM: You write short stories, novels, poetry. You edit. You teach. You raise donkeys. How do all of these roles influence your writing?

BJC: Most writers are doing a lot of teaching, blurbing, contest-judging, reviewing for small presses, etc., but that’s because there’s so much work to be done to create more space and love in the world for reading and writing. The things I do outside the writing world are a great relief. I could spend hours a day in my garden, rather than the 10 minutes I get to spend. I want to hang out more with my donkeys. Sometimes I worry because it is the work outside of the writing world that gives the most life to my writing. Reading feeds it, too, but I need donkeys. And I need long bicycle rides. And I need to laugh my head off with my mom and sister at least once a week. Recently I needed to spend a whole evening with my husband installing red glowing eyes into a ceramic rabbit statue we found at a second hand store.

I’m a person who hates to give up any part of my life, but I have had to give up martial arts. For 10 years I studied Kobudo, an Okinawan weapons art, and I earned a second degree black belt. I loved the people at the dojo, and I loved swinging sticks, nunchaku, sai, etc., but I found that I just didn’t have time for the commitment any more. On the bright side, I am able to handle my own security at literary events.

TM: Good to know. I can think of a few times when nunchaku would have come in handy at readings.

Tell me about the adventure tours you led and organized in Russia, the Baltics, Romania, and Bulgaria.

BJC: The bike tours were great, lots of adventure and fun. I use the past tense because I haven’t run a tour in over a decade. I’ve had to give up that kind of travel in order to have time to write, same as I had to give up martial arts. Our tours were long, like eight weeks or more, and we traversed many countries (e.g., one tour went Poland-Czech Republic-Slovakia-Hungry-Austria-Romania-Bulgaria), and by the end of the summer we were gods of the roads, tanned and muscular, ready for anything. Visiting those other countries was a joy, to find so much new in the world, and to see our own American lives from the eyes of others. Often our fancy bicycles and helmets and cycling clothes made us look like aliens to the rural citizens of those countries, so I got a chance to feel like a real foreigner.

Our tours were self-contained, which meant that every person carried his or her own luggage and tools, and preparing for the trips was an adventure in itself, figuring out just how little stuff we needed to live. Bicycling and keeping our bicycles going was our job. I’m a person who loves to eat and try new foods, so that was one of the highlights, learning about Czech beer and Bulgarian yogurt, and getting to eat all those extra calories I needed for climbing the Carpathian mountains. I’m still in touch with a lot of the folks who took our tours — not surprisingly, the kind of people who would sign up for these crazy tours were really great, easy-going folks — and we often talk about putting together another tour. But then they all go back to work, and I go back to writing.

TM: You captured the essence of one of those trips in “Children of Transylvania, 1983” Any good stories?

BJC: Once, a dozen people accidentally cycled across a Soviet military base located outside Olomouc, in what was then Czechoslovakia. In past years we’d ridden a particular road without incident, but one year there were war games going on, with tanks and armed soldiers. The group was put in jail, and then driven through the dark night to another jail. It was pretty scary, and I wasn’t even in the group that got captured. A few days later, the American tourists were delivered to the Austrian border and kicked out.

TM: Once Upon a River and a number of the stories in American Salvage focus on young women (teens transitioning to womanhood). A number of stories in this latest collection often focus on the minefield that teenage girls and their mothers must navigate. What draws you to these characters? These themes?

BJC: I’m just looking around at the world, seeing where the interesting problems lie. I’ve got no daughters myself, but I’m close with my mom, my sister, and a heap of nieces and great-nieces. (And I miss my grandmother all the time). We all tell stories and watch over one another. The mother-daughter relationship feels particularly deep and profound, and sometimes fraught. I would never argue with anyone else, not even my husband, with the intensity I argue with my mom, and it’s fine. We are two very different people, but we’ve learned so much from one another — of course she has the upper hand, having raised me and all. Oh, and I’m starting to worry my dear mom is not going to live forever. I really hope she does live forever. 

TM: Same here. My mom is 93 and she lives with us so she’s such a big part of my life, of my husband’s and daughters’ lives. I can’t imagine not having her here.

BJC: Yup, I worry about my mom. She falls sometimes, and I go to her place and find her with bruises, and I think she isn’t eating enough of the right things. And I’m a worrier anyhow. When it comes to my beautiful little nieces, I worry about them being molested in some way, shape, or form — they seem so vulnerable. In the last few years it seems that the issue of molestation has become more nuanced. Maybe we used to see rape as something rare strangers did to one another. Then we began to accept that rape takes place even within families, even within romantic or marital relationships. Nowadays we are made aware of situations where a girl doesn’t know whether she’s been raped, either because she felt complicit in the molestation, or because she was drunk or drugged. Those situations really press us to explore what rape is all about, in a country where at least a quarter of all women will be raped in their lifetimes. In Detroit alone we’ve learned about more than 11,000 unprocessed rape kits that are now showing that the city had dozens of serial rapists. Camera phones are capturing rapes that the victim is unaware of. And around the world, rape is a weapon of war. There’s lots to think and worry about on the subject, lots to write about.

And my own special challenge is that I want to write about rape without writing about women as victims. Readers will have to decide whether I’ve pulled this off.

TM: That “nuance” of rape is a huge part of this book. Like you said, these stories reflect how rape isn’t only a random event. It also happens in families, between relatives and friends – at parties while a woman is drunk, when a mother is caught in a no-win situation while trying to provide for her children.

Once Upon a River also started with a rape.

BJC: This collection is so new that I’m still figuring out what it is about, but many of these stores are about sexual violation and its after effects.

TM: Short story collections are on the rise. This is your third collection of short stories. What draws you to the short story form?

BJC: That’s just how most of my narratives work themselves out. If I can’t wrap up a story in 20 or 30 pages, then I’ve got a novel, and I’ll go ahead and write a novel, which is to say that my novels are failed short stories. Finishing a story is such a miracle that I’m relieved when I’ve got a short story. The novel is so much greater a commitment. I sometimes say that writing stories is like dating, while writing novels is like getting married. When you’re dating, you don’t have to share every damned thing, but a novel demands you show yourself entirely. Of course, a story sometimes later shows itself to be a part of a larger story, the way “Family Reunion” turned out to be the inspiration for Once Upon a River. One reason I might prefer the short story form is because it allows for experimentation. While a weird point of view or writing style can be delightful in a short story, it might not hold up over a whole novel.

TM: Tell me about your writing day, your routine.

BJC: I guess I haven’t had a solid routine for a while, because so many things in my life have been changing. My husband’s shift at work was changed from evenings to early mornings and back again, and then I was on a book deadline, and then I was teaching full-time-ish for a semester, and now I’m promoting a book. Oh, and my donkeys, Jack and Don Quixote, got a terrible hoof fungus that required frequent lengthy soakings in oxyclosine — 90 minutes each hoof. I’m not complaining, but I’m saying these are things that get in a way of a schedule. I do long for a routine, and my perfect one would be: write for a few hours, exercise, lunch with the husband, errands and housekeeping stuff, dinner alone, and some more writing and reading and then a bit of hanging out with the husband. (I’m sounding a little dull here, but that’s what works for me.)

TM: I could be wrong but I’m pretty sure that no other author interview includes the words hoof fungus. 

It always amazes me that people think writers live glamorous lives. When do they think we write?

BJC: In the movies people seem to do it in cafes and during brief spurts of depression. The hoof fungus is sometimes called “seedy toe.” Isn’t that a great name?

TM: There’s a recurring theme in your work of women being left behind or marginalized. Women in small towns might have it harder than women living in cities or suburbs because there might not be resources for job training, etc. So they start developing survival skills.  It seems like women have more opportunities than ever but many of the women in M,TYD have few options. Can you talk about how these changing times make for desperate characters, how opportunities dry up in the face of so many challenges?

BJC: Some of the women in my stories are doing all right jobwise, but struggle in a different realm, but as a rule I am interested in women for whom survival is not guaranteed. Maybe the protagonist of “Play House” is somewhat limited because she hasn’t sought out education and she is drawn to people who are not good for her. Oh, and she drinks too much, and that would be the root of her problems in the eyes of many. The young mother in “To You, As a Woman” has dug her own deep hole, and now she’s in the hole, and there’s nobody to help her — that story is a call for help from her fellow human beings.

In American Salvage, the men were often having difficulty transitioning to the new millennium, which requires workers to be more agile and educated. Many of my women characters are able to make this transition, but they get screwed up in their relationships instead. Some women go through life adjusting when necessary, but never seeing the grand possibilities before them. I think we all know women who make the same bad choices over and over, and I’m interested in why this happens. Maybe I’m even more interested in the cause-and-effect aspect of their situations, how bad decisions (about children, men, drugs, alcohol) lead to bad situations that offer no good options. Sometimes people ask me why I write about these kinds of problems, and I’ll say that the only problems that interest me are the ones that are difficult to solve — if a problem is easy to solve, there’s no point in writing a story about it. If a reader had a little more sympathy for such folks after reading my stories, I would be very happy.

TM: Place plays a major role in your work. In your novel Once Upon a River, place is a character in itself. This latest collection of short stories is set in small towns. But they’re not bucolic small towns. People work at Meijer to hang on to health care. Many deal with addiction. Almost all of them struggle to get by.

You never idealize small towns. They are rife with the problems and pitfalls of big cities (or maybe they are microcosms for the larger world). And, for some reason, they seem even colder than a big city.

BJC: Small town life is the life I’m most familiar with and it’s the place where I’ve been able to observe people most closely. I guess I write about small towns and the countryside because I want to write about the spaces between people. In the city people are piled on top of each other and so loneliness has a different form and feel. In my stories, people are alone both in an emotional sense and in a very practical sense. People in my stories can cry out (and they do sometimes) and nobody will hear them.

TM: Many of your characters have simply been left behind by technology and the global economy. This is particularly true in Michigan (but this collection could have been set anywhere in America). How does place influence your process?

BJC: Michigan is what I know. Michigan people are the people I understand, the people I want to understand better, and so I focus my attention there. I like to write about landscapes with which I am familiar so that I don’t have to do research to learn what is there. To some degree my characters reflect their landscape, and so I need to have that landscape handy, at my fingertips, embedded in my brain. And it turns out that whatever I need from the landscape, it appears, like magic. Just to set the story “Children of Transylvania” in the Romanian countryside, just to show I can write a story that takes place somewhere else. Now I’m back to Michigan. I think all readers and writers are aware of the mystery of place, that we access the universal truths only by focusing intensely on the particular. So I try to get at all of humanity by focusing right here at home.

TM: In an opinion piece by Barbara Ehrenreich in The Guardian America, Ehrenreich writes about how only the rich can afford to write about poverty in America. She says that she had a hard time convincing editors to let her write stories about people who lived in poverty:
It wasn’t easy to interest glossy magazines in poverty in the 1980s and ’90s. I once spent two hours over an expensive lunch — paid for, of course, by a major publication — trying to pitch to a clearly indifferent editor who finally conceded, over decaf espresso and Crème brûlée, “OK, do your thing on poverty. But can you make it upscale?” Then there was the editor of a nationwide, and quite liberal, magazine who responded to my pitch for a story involving blue-collar men by asking, “Hmm, but can they talk?”
After reading M,TYD, I thought, “I want every politician, every person who makes policy, every lawyer, every judge, every editor, to read this book because it will give them insight into how hard it is for many people to just get by.” Do you think that, because of this misguided perception about the working poor (and editors’ inability to get a handle on it), it makes it even more important for writers to see the working poor as something other than angelic or slovenly? To see all of the varying shades in between?

BJC: What a great quote. Boy, you’re opening up a can of worms with that! I’m a fiction writer, focusing on interesting characters in tough situations, so I have to be careful about claiming I’m speaking for the working poor, or for anyone other than myself. However, since I grew up as part of that group, it makes sense that I’m interested in their troubles. I was raised by my mom to never put myself above anybody else, and that helps me see the lives of everyone, including those at the bottom of the economic ladder, not to mention drug addicts and drunks, too, without prejudice.

To be honest, I don’t understand why everybody isn’t fascinated with how poor people get by. Every single day working poor people do the impossible. I have a niece with three kids, working for close to minimum wage, and her husband works the same, and every day is a struggle, with work and babysitting, but they find a way to get through it. The car breaks down, kids get sick, things in the house break and need to be replaced. For people with money, these are minor problems, but for poor people they can mean losing a job and having even less. My niece is lucky to have family members who can help — plenty of people don’t have anyone.

Well-off people with lots of resources feel the difficulties of their own lives, so it surprises me that they are willing to discount the profound and essential nature of the problems that others face. People without money have to be very resourceful and clever.

TM: What were some memorable past jobs?

BJC: I have worked a lot of wonderful jobs, as an egg candler, a typist (on a typewriter, before computers), a tour guide, a teacher, a security guard. I’ve sold scrap metal. Maybe the worst job I’ve ever worked was a restaurant called Schensil’s Cafeteria, run by an old woman named Mrs. Schensil, who resembled Homer’s boss on The Simpsons. The food was overcooked and over-breaded and we had to cut the pies into seven pieces. Not six or eight, but seven. There was lots of sour steam. I lied about my age to get the job. I said I was 16, when I was really 14.

TM: Can you tell me about growing up on your mother’s farm?

BJC: Growing up on a farm was great because of all the space and the spaces. I loved being able to be alone and to watch people from a distance. Our place had lots of barns and outbuildings, a wash house, tree houses, attics, grain bins. I loved being with animals of all kinds, smelling their breath, feeling their warmth. I loved milking the cow, something I started doing when I was 10. Fresh garden tomatoes have been part of my summers and falls, as have black cap raspberries and big overgrown zucchini squash. A bigger farm might’ve been very different because of pesticides and factory-farming practices. I didn’t love having to haul buckets of water when the lines froze, having to come home from kid parties to do chores, but it all seems fine in retrospect. I didn’t like it the few times we butchered our own livestock ourselves, but I wanted to eat the meat. When people did that work cleanly and surely and swiftly, it wasn’t bad, but a few times it was done sloppily.

TM: You have two donkeys named Don Quixote and Jack. Do you have other animals?

BJC: In addition to having donkeys, I care for a dozen chickens at my mom’s, and we have a cat who won’t tolerate other cats, unfortunately. I want to have a dog, miss having a dog, but I travel too much right now, and it wouldn’t make sense. Life with animals of all kinds is better than life without them — I think they’ve even done studies that show folks live longer if they live with animals, and so it makes sense that characters in my story can take comfort in animals or see reflections of themselves or others in those animals. I spend a lot of time watching wild animals, birds, and other critters.

TM: I love the way you weave animals into your work. In Q Road, you even have a talking cat. Most of your characters have a very practical approach to animals. What would Don Quixote and Jack say about this collection?

BJC: Jack and Don Quixote are gorgeous and smart, but they are not impressed by my writing career. I try to tell them about my awards and publications, but they just he-haw and chew on my jacket. There’s a funny picture I could share with you. Here’s what happened: a friend was interviewing me in the donkey pasture, and a gal was videotaping us, and while we were talking, Don Quixote was eating page after page of my book manuscript, which was sitting behind me on a bale of hay. We did a close up view of the photo and saw he was chewing the page containing the story “My Sister is in Pain.”

TM: You have this amazing ability to pair beauty with violence, to connect the intimate moments inside public moments. In “The Greatest Show on Earth,” there’s all of this beauty within that tough existence.
There was the long silver whip of the circus train stretched out on a side rail, heating up in the Arizona sun, and inside of a steel cabinet, two people inhaled each other’s breath and sweat.
You’ve said that Carson McCullers, John Steinbeck, William Faulkner, and Flannery O’Connor have influenced your work. In what ways have they influenced your work?

BJC: I know I’ve said this, but truthfully, I don’t know what work has influenced me. I’ll say instead that I feel a kinship with their work, and I hope they’ve influenced me. It’s funny that I’ve mostly chosen Southern writers, the writers who’ve been described as writing “Southern Grotesque.” I guess I see these writers as showing the bumps and bruises and warts of their characters in the most compelling ways. Michigan has a deep connection with the South, since so many Southerners came up to work in the auto plants after the Second World War, and I hung out with transplanted Southerners in my youth.

Nowadays when I get fan mail from somewhere other than Michigan, it’s usually from the south. Steinbeck’s a little different. I guess when I read Steinbeck I fell in love with the way he is a humanitarian, the way he loves his poor and down-and-out characters, especially his male characters — I’m a little conflicted nowadays about his female characters.

TM: I’m originally from Flint. There certainly were a lot of transplanted southerners working at GM…back in the day.

Who have you been reading lately?

BJC: I’m reading and rereading Flannery O’Connor. I can’t get enough of her, and I’ve been invited to talk about her at the Library of Congress in March, so I want to be fully immersed.

TM: I fell in love with Flannery O’Connor the first time I read her, when I was 18.

BJC: Lordy, I wish she’d lived longer. She died at age 39. As for contemporary books, let me give a shout out to Elizabeth McCracken’s latest book of stories, Thunderstruck, which is saturated with death but is bright and uplifting. Now I’m reading a beautiful book, Did You Ever Have a Family, by my agent Bill Clegg.

TM: Family, in all of its iterations, is a major theme in your work. How has your own family influenced your storytelling?

BJC: Yup, we’ve all got ‘em, families! I can’t get rid of mine, wouldn’t if I could. Each new generation of a family turns out to be a reaction against the last generation, and each one redeems the last at the same time. I grew up with hippie-type parents who were reacting to their parents. The set of grandparents I knew best were city folks who dressed and lived conservatively (though politically they were good liberals), and they just couldn’t understand why my mom wanted to milk a cow and butcher hogs, not to mention why she wanted to party all night whenever she got a chance. (My rebelling against my mother is a milder thing, too subtle and boring to get into here.)

I used to love listening to my grandfather and mother as dueling story tellers. My grandfather always wanted to tell a story about some cute little misunderstanding and how the reasonable people involved straightened it all out so everything was fine. My mother always wanted to tell the story of people drinking too much and dancing with lampshades on their heads, with somebody ending up in jail or at least asleep in the bathtub. My grandfather looked away from what was obnoxious and antisocial, while my mother enjoyed the hell out of all that. It was good for me to see how the different sensibilities created such different stories, and I had to come to understand my own sensibility, which is different from both of theirs. I loved hearing everybody argue about what really happened when Emil Wentland built a boat in his basement without having a door big enough for its removal.

TM: That sounds like a good one. I’d like to hear it some time.

You dedicated this book to your mother. In what ways — in writing and in life — has your mother influenced you?

BJC: That’s probably too big a question to get into here. Let’s meet later at the Old Dog Tavern, and I will tell you some stories. I can tell you that my mother knew what she wanted in life, and though she had only one usable arm — the other was badly damaged at birth — she used her body and her mind to create the life she wanted to lead. She had five kids of her own, and she took care of a dozen other kids who lived with us at various times. She reads a lot, and she takes an interest in other people and everything that goes on around her. She’s usually the smartest person in the room, wherever we go. Does she love my writing? No. Does she love me? Yes. In short, she’s just the kind of mother a writer needs.

Most Anticipated: The Great 2011 Book Preview

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If 2010 was a literary year of big names — featuring Franzen, Mitchell, Delillo and McEwan to name just a few — 2011 is lining up to be more subtle. Amid a very full lineup of intriguing forthcoming books, just one stands above the rest in terms of hype and anticipation, a literary peak that’s likely to be bittersweet in the form of the posthumous release of David Foster Wallace’s final novel. Readers will be hoping it does justice to his legacy.

In the shadow this big book are many others likely to be deserving of readers’ time. While 2010 was given over to the headliners, 2011 may be a year of new discoveries. Here are some of the books we’re looking forward to — 8,000 words strong and encompassing 76 titles, this is the only 2011 book preview you will ever need.

January or Already Out:

Gryphon by Charles Baxter: A collection of short fiction from an acknowledged master of the form. Seven of the twenty-three stories in the collection are new; others, including the title story, are considered classics. In each of these pieces, Publisher’s Weekly writes in a starred review, “the acutely observed real world is rocked by the exotic or surreal.” Baxter’s previous works include four novels (including a National Book Award nominee, The Feast of Love) and four prior short story collections. (Emily M.)

The Empty Family by Colm Tóibín: Tóibín follows up his wildly successful 2009 novel Brooklyn with a new collection of nine short stories concerned with love and loss, memory and homecoming. The Telegraph has called this collection “exquisite and almost excruciating.” (Emily M.)

While Mortals Sleep by Kurt Vonnegut: In the four years since his death, the Vonnegut vaults have been raided, yielding 2008’s Armageddon in Retrospect and 2009’s Look at the Birdie.  Now comes While Mortals Sleep, 16 more unpublished pieces described by Delacorte Press as “a present left behind by a departed loved one.”  Perhaps.  But Vonnegut’s short fiction was generally uneven, and one might be forgiven for wondering how many more presents there are.  Because the further we move from his passing, the further we move from his best.  Dave Eggers, in the book’s foreword, calls Vonnegut “a hippie Mark Twain”; he is also in some danger of becoming a dorm-lit Tupac Shakur. (Jacob)

Night Soul and Other Stories by Joseph McElroy: Underappreciated master McElroy is known (and loved) for the challenging body of work, and these stories aren’t likely to disappoint his fans, though they may have come across some of them before. The oldest story in this collection of 12 dates back to 1981 and the title story was first published in 1982. But seven of them are reportedly from the last decade, including one “The Campaign Trail” which one early review describes as imagining “the 2008 Democratic presidential primary much like a Matthew Barney film of the subject might: unnamed figures representing Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama ceremonially confront each other in a wild area of what once was Canada.” (Max)


Swamplandia! by Karen Russell: Swamplandia! is the first novel from New Yorker “20 Under 40” writer Karen Russell. It builds out of a short story from her 2006 collection St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves and tells the tale of the Bigtree family, operators of an alligator wrestling tourist attraction deep in the Everglades. The family business is imperiled when the star ‘gator grappler dies, setting off a chain of catastrophes that lead 12-year-old Ava Bigtree to set off through the swamp in search of her lost sister Osceola. (Kevin)

Townie: A Memoir by Andre Dubus III: Andre Dubus III, of The House of Sand and Fog fame, grew up poor and hard in a Massachusetts mill town. His famous father, the late great short story writer Andre Dubus was AWOL, chasing younger tail, leaving Dubus and his three siblings to the care of their loving but overworked mother. The Townie is Dubus’s memoir of growing up and learning to fight before he learned to write. Advance word coming out of Kirkus and Booklist suggests this is going to be a good one. (Kevin)

When the Killing’s Done by T.C. Boyle: In his thirteenth novel, T.C. Boyle turns his attention to the Channel Islands off the coast of Santa Barbara and the practice of killing non-native fauna in an effort to protect the original ecosystem. A starred review in Booklist says, “Incisive and caustically witty, Boyle is fluent in evolutionary biology and island biogeography, cognizant of the shared emotions of all sentient beings, in awe over nature’s crushing power, and, by turns, bemused and appalled by human perversity.” (Edan)

The Strange Case of Edward Gorey by Alexander Theroux: Originally published in paperback in 2000, this biography of writer and illustrator Edward Gorey is being reissued by Fantagraphics Books in a new hardcover edition. Gorey was a reclusive, enigmatic figure who never married, professed asexuality in interviews, and became famous for a twisted and faintly ominous body of work — marked by a distinctive Victorian Gothic sensibility — that includes an alphabet book of dead children (“A is for Amy who fell down the stairs.”) Alexander Theroux was Gorey’s friend and neighbor for more than a quarter century. Part biography, part artistic analysis, and part memoir of a long friendship, with exclusive interviews conducted shortly before Gorey’s death, this book is generally accepted as the most comprehensive portrait of Gorey ever written. (Emily M.)

Mr. Chartwell by Rebecca Hunt: Perhaps you are aware that Winston Churchill called his spells of depression “black dog”? Well, Mr. Chartwell is that black dog–literally, he’s a man-sized, ill-intentioned black laborador. In Rebecca Hunt’s fabular first novel, Mr. Chartwell rents a room in a terrace in Battersea from a recently widowed young librarian named Esther Hammerhans: the black dog has business with the widow and with the war-weary Prime Minister.  British reviewers have been quite taken with the book’s whimsy and its muscular grappling with the nature of depression—through the stinking, canine bulk of Chartwell himself and the dark philosophy he whispers such that only his intended victim can hear. (Emily W.)

The Illumination: A Novel by Kevin Brockmeier: A new novel from the author of A Brief History of the Dead asks the question: What if our pain is the most beautiful thing about us? On a particular Friday night at 8:17pm, the Illumination commences: wounds and bruises begin to radiate light, to glimmer and shine. The Illumination follows the journey of a private book, a journal of love notes written by a man for his wife. The journal passes into the hands of a hospital patient following a lethal accident, and as it passes from hand to hand—to a data analyst, a photojournalist, a child, a missionary, a writer, a street vendor—the recipients find their lives subtly altered by their possession of the book. (Emily M.)

Portraits of a Marriage by Sándor Márai: Sándor Márai is one of those novelists, like Irène Némirovsky, about whom those of us in the English-speaking community tend to employ words like “discovered,” as if they were an obscure wine of quality unearthed in a Parisian basement. When Márai killed himself in 1989 in San Diego, shortly before his books began being translated to English, it’s true that his status as a great mind of an imperial age was probably unknown to the gang at his local Circle K. However, the (Austro-)Hungarian novelist was one of the premier authors of his milieu–Budapest before World War II–and English readers are the redeemed rather than the redeemers now that we can finally read his beautiful novels. Portraits of a Marriage is a chronicle of a relationship and an era on the way out. (Lydia)

West of Here by Jonathan Evison: Evison’s new novel is the #1 Indie Next pick for February, meaning that independent booksellers across the United States have voted it their favorite of all the books scheduled for publication that month. Set in a fictional town on the Pacific coast of Washington State, West of Here moves back and forth in time between the stories of the town’s founders in the late 1890s, and the lives of their descendants in 2005. It’s a structure that allows for a remarkably deep sense of history and place, and Evison handles the sweeping scope of his narrative masterfully. (Emily M.)

The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore by Benjamin Hale: In this buzzed-about debut novel from Twelve Books, the eponymous hero is a chimpanzee who has learned to speak, read, and enjoy the visual arts, among other human endeavors. There is apparently interspecies love (and sex!) in the book, and the jacket copy declares that it goes beyond satire “…by showing us not what it means, but what it feels like be human — to love and lose, learn, aspire, grasp, and, in the end, to fail.” A bookseller at legendary West Hollywood indie bookstore Book Soup has raved to me about the novel’s inventiveness and its beautiful, beautiful prose. (Edan)

Other People We Married by Emma Straub: This debut collection of stories is one of the first books being printed by FiveChapters Books, the new publishing imprint of the popular website FiveChapters, which publishes a story a week in five installments. Straub inaugurated the New Novella series for Flatmancrooked Press with her much-praised novella, Fly-Over State, and she proved that with the internet and some good old fashioned charm, an unknown author can sell books and win hearts. Straub’s new book includes that novella as well as eleven other stories. Straub has been compared to Lorrie Moore for her humor and playful wit, and Moore herself has called this debut collection, “A revelation.” (Edan)


The Late American Novel: Writers on the Future of Books edited by C. Max Magee and Jeff Martin: Yes, there’s certainly a conflict of interest in naming my book one of the year’s most anticipated, but what’s the point of having a website if I can’t use it to self-promote? And anyway, if my co-editor Jeff and I had an ideal reader in mind when we put together this collection, it was the Millions reader, passionate about books and reading and thoughtful about the future of this pastime as it intersects with the onslaught of technology. The essays we managed to gather here are illuminating, entertaining, funny, and poignant, and taken together they form a collection that is (dare I say) essential for the reader and writer invested in books at this critical and curious moment in their long history. Along with appearances by Millions staffers Garth Risk Hallberg, Emily St. John Mandel, and Sonya Chung and an introduction by me and my co-editor, this collection includes pieces by Jonathan Lethem, Reif Larsen, Elizabeth Crane Victor LaValle, Ander Monson, Tom Piazza, Lauren Groff, Benjamin Kunkel, Clancy Martin, Joe Meno, Rivka Galchen, and several others. All you technophiles: Consider making this the last physical book you ever buy. All you technophobes: This might be a good candidate for the first ebook you ever own. (Max)

You Think That’s Bad by Jim Shepard: Jim Shepard will once again dazzle us with his talent for universalizing the highly particular. According to the publisher, the stories in this new collection, like those of his National Book Award nominated Like You’d Understand Anyway, “traverse centuries, continents, and social strata,” featuring, among others, an Alpine researcher, a French nobleman’s manservant, a woman traveling the Arabian deserts to track an ancient Shia sect, and the inventor of the Godzilla epics.   Further, Shepard culls “the vastness of experience—from its bizarre fringes and breathtaking pinnacles to the mediocre and desperately below average.”  Easier said than done, and Shepard is a master.  One of the stories, “Boys Town,” appeared in the November 10 issue of the New Yorker. (Sonya)

The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht: Of all The New Yorker’s choices for the “20 Under 40” list, none was more surprising than Obreht, the youngest on the list and the only author chosen who had not yet published a book. That changes in March with the publication of her debut novel The Tiger’s Wife. The novel follows a young doctor, Natalia, as she travels to a war-torn Balkan country to work at an orphanage. But Natalia is also in search of answers – specifically, what happened to her grandfather, who has died recently. With blurbs from T.C. Boyle, Ann Patchett, and recent National Book Award winner Colum McCann already secured, expectations are high for this literary debut. (Patrick)

At the Fights: American Writers on Boxing from Library of America edited by George Kimball and John Schulian: Boxing writing inhabits a curious niche, resting at the juncture of sports journalism and noir.  Perhaps “resting” is the wrong word, as the genre’s best examples rush toward victory or loss; even away from the arena, motion remains the thing.  In a recent Irish Times article, Kimball described a 1954 John Lardner piece as At the Fights’ “cornerstone,” and delivered its opening line: “Stanley Ketchel was 24 years old when he was fatally shot in the back by the common-law husband of the lady who was cooking his breakfast.”  Also on the card: Talese, Mailer, Mencken, and many, many others. (Jacob)

Unfamiliar Fishes by Sarah Vowell: “I’m better with dead people… than the living,” claims Sarah Vowell, only half joking. Her books often deal with historical figures, in most cases, long-dead and overlooked. In Assassination Vacation she chronicled her travels while researching the murders of Presidents Lincoln, Garfield, and McKinley. Details such as Garfield’s assassin bursting into song during trial coated the history lessons with a good dose of social intrigue. Vowell’s latest, Unfamiliar Fishes, was borne out of a fascination with American Imperialism in 1898, a year when the U.S, annexed Hawaii, invaded Cuba and the Philippines, and acquired Guam and Puerto Rico. Vowell follows the Americanization of Hawaii from its first missionary settlers to the overthrow of its monarchy and later annexation. A quote exemplary of Vowell’s humor, to prep you for reading: “They still love their last queen, celebrate her birthday, drape her statue with leis. It can be a traditional, reverent place. And I am a smart-alecky libertine.” (Anne)

Otherwise Known as the Human Condition: Selected Essays and Reviews by Geoff Dyer: Dyer has a gained a reputation as one of our most inventive essayists (not to mention novelists). Dyer delights in bending genres and subverting expectations, and covering a 25-year span, this collection will likely showcase Dyer’s impressive range. The book, published by indie Graywolf, appears to have at least some overlap with a British collection that came out last year under the title Working the Room. The Guardian called Dyer “the most productive of slackers” and described the British collection as seeming to be “constructed as a vague quest. You move through the unusually lit rooms of the author’s fascinations.” (Max)

All the Time in the World: New and Selected Stories by E.L. Doctorow: When a new story collection arrives from an elder master, one is eager to know the balance of “new” versus “selected,” who has done the selecting, and by what criteria. But Random House has revealed little as of yet.   We do know that six of the stories have never before appeared in book form; the title story appeared in the winter ’09 issue of the Kenyon Review. Doctorow is the author of 11 novels, and I for one hate to think the release of this collection signals a denouement in his novel production.  On January 6, Doctorow turns 80 – happy birthday, ELD; may this be a productive year for you, for all our sakes. (Sonya)

Pym by Mat Johnson: Eager readers of Edgar Allan Poe, having dispatched his short stories may have then turned to his hauntingly weird novel The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket. As I noted a few years back, the book has been an inspiration for generations of adventure and science-fiction writers and has maintained a cultish allure to this day. It is into this milieu that Johnson’s Pym arrives. Johnson wrote a pair of well regarded literary novels in the early part of last decade, turned to comics, and is now returning novels with this tale of a literature professor obsessed with the Pym tale, believing it to be true, and tracing the the journey of the doomed sailor to see what secrets might be unlocked. (Max)

Day of the Oprichnik by Vladimir Sorokin: The scenes of sodomy between Stalin and Krushchev in Vladimir Sorokin’s novel Blue Lard incurred charges of pornography and sparked protests, which included protestors wearing latex gloves while tossing flowers and copies of Sorokin’s books into a papier mâché toilet. Another novel of Sorokin’s (The Norm) depicts a Russian society where coprophagy is a la mode and only outcasts and outsiders refuse to partake. Needless to say, Sorokin’s fiction isn’t restrained in its critique of contemporary Russian society. His commentary continues in his latest novel, Day of the Oprichnik, where the ruling classes incorporate futuristic technology alongside the governing strategies of Ivan the Terrible. As Sorokin describes: “I just imagined what would happen to Russia if it isolated itself completely from the Western world–that is, if it erected a new Iron Curtain…. This would mean that Russia would be overtaken by its past, and our past would be our future.” (Anne)

This Vacant Paradise by Victoria Patterson: Victoria Patterson follows her acclaimed debut story collection Drift with a novel – her first – set in the posh environs of 1990s Newport Beach, California. As the title suggests, Patterson’s novel promises a social critique of the often vapid, money-laden 90s. It follows the beautiful but aging Esther Wilson as she attempts to navigate life without the aid of a wealthy man on her arm. Drift was a finalist for both the California Book Award and the Story Prize. (Patrick)

The Art of Asking Your Boss for a Raise by Georges Perec: Georges Perec wrote: “for us, who continue to have to do with a human race that insists on thinking, writing and above all publishing, the increasing size of our libraries tends to become one real problem.” We readers will have to deal with the fortunate burden of clearing shelf-space for another novel by Perec this spring, with the first English translation of The Art of Asking Your Boss for a Raise. The novel depicts an office underling’s attempts to ingratiate himself to his corporate superiors, while his neuroses expand a la Woody Allen. If Perec’s astutely observed yet darkly comical catalogue of managing directors, magnates, and heads of state in his essay “The Holy of Holies” is any indication, this “account of the office worker’s mindset” will offset the disorder it imposes. (Anne)


The Pale King by David Foster Wallace: When David Foster Wallace died in 2008, he left behind a huge, fragmentary manuscript set in and around a Midwestern IRS office and featuring a character named David Wallace. The manuscript, quixotically, takes monotony as its master-trope, much as Infinite Jest used “entertainment.” Since then, Michael Pietsch, Wallace’s real-life editor, has been working to arrange the fragments in book form. Published excerpts of varying degrees of sublimity – reportedly including two stories from Oblivion – offer glimpses of a Jest-like complex of supporting characters. But these beleaguered office workers have more in common with the denizens of the Ennet House Drug and Alcohol Recovery House (redundancy sic) than with the Enfield Tennis Academy’s student-athletes. A note, quoted in D.T. Max’s New Yorker piece, hints at the gift Wallace wanted to give his characters: “Bliss – a-second-by-second joy and gratitude at the gift of being alive, conscious – lies on the other side of crushing, crushing boredom.” For readers still mourning the books he didn’t get to write, may it be so. (Garth)

The Free World: A Novel by David Bezmozgis: Another debut novel from a Twenty-Under-Forty’er, Bezmogis’ The Free World tells the story of three generations of the Krasnansky family as they try to escape Communist Russia for the United States. They are waylaid in Rome where the characters pursue different paths through the underbelly of their adopted city, ultimately bringing them into tension with each other as they grapple with a merciless immigration system and try to decide the family’s fate. (Kevin)

The Great Night by Chris Adrian: Chris Adrian’s last novel, The Children’s Hospital, showed him to be a writer of immense daring, curiosity, and heart. Along with two other books, it earned him a spot (by a whisker – he’s now 40) on The New Yorker’s “20 Under 40 List.” His new book The Great Night, looks back to one of magical realism’s forebears: Shakespeare. It’s a retelling of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, set in modern-day San Francisco’s Buena Vista Park. (Garth)

Someday This Will Be Funny by Lynne Tillman: As if the publication of Lynne Tillman’s first book of short stories in nearly ten years–and her first book following her stand-out novel, American Genius: A Comedy–weren’t enough to celebrate, Tillman’s Someday This Will Be Funny also marks the debut of Richard Nash’s new publishing venture, Cursor. If Nash’s reading list, interviews, and speeches are any indication, Cursor will take publishing one giant leap into the future, with Tillman’s book at the forefront. Tillman’s new collection features appearances by Madame Realism, Marvin Gaye, and Clarence Thomas and incorporates epistle, quotation, and haiku as the stories “bounce between lyrical passages of lucid beauty, echoing the scattered, cycling arpeggio of Tillman’s preferred subject: the unsettled mind.” Tillman once said in an interview: “Writers are promiscuous with experience, absolutely.” She’s a woman of her word, and of the word. Hear, hear! (Anne)

Between Parentheses: Essays, Articles and Speeches 1998-2003 by Roberto Bolaño: Anyone who read “Literature + Illness = Illness” or “Myths of Chulu” in last year’s collection The Insufferable Gaucho can attest that a Bolaño essay no more resembles Montaigne than a Bolaño novel resembles Samuel Richardson. Indeed, the closest cousin of Bolaño’s nonfiction may be his fiction, and in some cases it’s hard to tell which is which. Confusion over the genre of the short piece “The Beach” (essay? story?) seems to have been the source of the misconception that Bolaño was a recovering junkie. Either way, though, it’s phenomenal writing – a single, extended, coruscating sentence – and it appears in this Natasha Wimmer translation of a 2004 Anagrama volume, along with 340 other pages of uncollected, unclassifiable Bolaño. (Garth)

The Tragedy of Arthur by Arthur Phillips: Phillips hasn’t quite recaptured the buzz that accompanied Prague his debut novel about expats in Budapest, but this new book just may. “The Tragedy of Arthur” is a fictional (or is it?), lost Shakespeare play about King Arthur and it is accompanied by a long introduction penned by a character (or is it the author?) named Arthur Phillips. Intertextual games ensue. (Max)

The Long Goodbye by Meghan O’Rourke: In another memoir about grief, O’Rourke draws on her dual patrimonies as a poet and cultural critic. The result is a searching account of losing her mother to cancer. O’Rourke finds herself blindsided by her own grief and bewildered by her inability to “share” it. Even as she documents her own feelings, she examines the changing cultural role of grief, and comes to long for the mourning rituals that are even now vanishing. The interplay of the objective and the subjective here speaks to audiences of both Oprah and The New Yorker, where the book was excerpted. (Garth)

The Basement of the Ivory Tower by Professor X: To begin, a short exemplary excerpt from Professor X’s manifesto against higher education for all: “America, ever-idealistic, seems wary of the vocational-education track. We are not comfortable limiting anyone’s options. Telling someone that college is not for him seems harsh and classist and British, as though we were sentencing him to a life in the coal mines. I sympathize with this stance; I subscribe to the American ideal. Unfortunately, it is with me and my red pen that that ideal crashes and burns.” And let me tell you (because I have wielded that red pen and know Professor X’s bloody business: adjuncting and community college teaching) it is a sad, sad world out there in America’s lesser colleges, many as crassly business-minded as Walmart and utterly delighted to have students who aren’t cut out to make the grade. Of course, liberal-minded idealists will object and cry Barbara Covett! at the likes of Professor X, but having been in his trench, I know how deeply painful and demoralizing—and pointless and dishonest—it is to teach college-level curriculum to those who are not equipped for high school: It’s like trying to teach the legless to dance. This is another commentary on the shoddy state of American higher education (see also, most recently, Ed Dante’s “Shadow Scholar” piece at The Chronicle of Higher Ed)—sure to be an incendiary little book. (Emily W.)

The Uncoupling by Meg Wolitzer: Wolitzer’s ninth novel is inspired by Lysistrata, the ancient Greek play wherein the women withhold sex from their menfolk until they agree to end their war. In Wolitzer’s novel, a New Jersey high school puts on a production of the play, and soon, the females in the town lose interest in coupling with their men. The Uncoupling follows Wolitzer’s bestselling novel The Ten Year Nap, about the lives of stay-at-home mothers in New York City, and I hope her latest is as funny, readable and wise as that book was. (Edan)

Fire Season by Philip Connors: This debut nonfiction effort by Connors is an account of his time spent over part of each of the last ten years as a fire lookout in New Mexico in a 7′ x 7′ tower. Connors also happens to be a literary critic and journalist whose writing has been fairly extensively published, including book reviews in the LRB and VQR. Some of his most powerful work has taken the form of diaries, including one in n+1 that recounts his brother’s suicide and another in The Paris Review about life as a fire lookout. The book takes the diary form and expands on it, with five long chapters, each one dedicated to a month he spends in the lookout tower each year. (Max)

My New American Life by Francine Prose: Francine Prose, former National Book Award finalist and prolific producer of novels, short stories, children’s books and nonfiction, will take us on a fictional tour of the bad old days of Bush-Cheney. My New American Life spins around Lula, a 26-year-old Albanian living in New York City on an expiring tourist visa. When she lands a job as a caretaker for a rebellious teenager in suburban New Jersey, she begins to live the American dream — until her brothers show up in a black Lexus SUV, a jarring reminder that family and history are always with us. The novel, according to the publisher’s jacket copy, captures the moment when American “dreams and ideals gave way to a culture of cynicism, lies and fear.” (Bill)

Swim Back to Me by Ann Packer: Ann Packer, who first burst onto the scene in 2002 with her blockbuster debut The Dive from Clausen’s Pier, returns with a fourth book. Kirkus describes it as a novella and five stories in its starred review, while the publisher calls it a collection of narratives framed by two linked novellas. Whichever the case, the collection seems likely to investigate the same avenues of grief that have been a hallmark of her prior, powerful work. (Max)

Bullfighting by Roddy Doyle: The title story of Doyle’s collection appeared in the New Yorker in early 2008 and concerns a collection of middle-aged Irish guys blowing off steam on a guys’ trip to Spain, wives and kids left behind in Dublin. When I traveled to the Mediterranean later that year and saw many a seaside watering hole advertising the “Full English Breakfast,” I thought of this story. (Max)

Nat Tate: An American Artist: 1928-1960 by William Boyd: Boyd, a wonderful author (Any Human Heart, Brazzaville Beach) who for whatever reason doesn’t seem to get much attention outside of prize committees, made culture vultures everywhere feel like complete assholes in 1998, when he carefully constructed and published a life of a fictional American artist who died by suicide at age 32. Enlisting the help of David Bowie, Gore Vidal, and others, Boyd had a number of people who should have known better reminiscing about Tate and lamenting his early death. Evidently a lot more people would have looked a lot more stupid had David Lister (an editor at The Independent who knew about the ruse), not revealed the hoax prematurely. Boyd’s great literary hoax is to be reissued this April. (Lydia)

Say Her Name by Francisco Goldman: A year after the publication of his last novel, The Divine Husband, Francisco Goldman watched his wife of two years, the promising young writer Aura Estrada, die as a result of a freak body-surfing accident. The aftermath sent him back to journalism for a time. Now Goldman has trained his considerable novelistic powers directly on the tragedy of his wife’s death, and on the ineffable continuities among love, grief, and art. (Garth)

There Is No Year by Blake Butler: Butler, one of the minds behind HTML Giant and author of the indie press favorite Scorch Atlas hits the big time with this new novel. The Harper Perennial catalog glosses it as evocative of House of Leaves and the films of David Lynch. A more iconoclastic “20 Under 40” list might have made room for Butler, and as for Harper’s labeling 32-year-ole Butler “one of the voices of his generation,” that may say more about how apocalypse-minded we are these days than it does about Butler. (Max)


Blue Collar, White Collar, No Collar: Stories of Work edited by Richard Ford: We’ve reminisced in the past about the steady disappearance of the short story anthology. Once common, these pocket-sized wonders now fill shelves at the kind of used bookstore I like to haunt but are rarely seen on the new release table at your local Borders. Still, a timely theme in these economically stagnant times (employment or lack thereof) and the imprimatur of a master of the form, Richard Ford, make this collection worth looking out for. Sure, most if not all of these stories have been previously published in other books, but how nice to have Stuart Dybek, Edward P. Jones, Charles D’Ambrosio, Ann Beattie, Alice Munro, John Cheever, Richard Yates, Deborah Eisenberg, Jhumpa Lahiri, and several others, all thematically linked and between two covers. (Max)

Embassytown by China Mieville Give China Mieville credit for refusing to rest on his laurels. After scoring a major hit with last year’s Kraken, his seventh lushly imagined fantasy novel, Mieville will abandon the world of Bas-Lag and his phantasmagorical London and take his fans someplace altogether different and unexpected. Embassytown, he recently told a Liverpool audience, will contain “science fiction, aliens and spaceships.” The title refers to “a city of contradictions on the outskirts of the universe” where humans and the native Hosts live in uneasy peace. When an unimaginable new arrival hits town, catastrophe looms. Given Mieville’s track record, expect a wild ride. (Bill)

Mondo and Other Stories by J.M.G. Le Clezio: The 2008 Nobel laureate’s large body of work continues to make its way into English. This collection of stories was first published in French in 1978. One of the stories collected here, the atmospheric “The Boy Who Had Never Seen the Sea,” appeared in the New Yorker shortly after Le Clezio’s Nobel win. Like that story, the rest in this collection focus on a child protagonist who seems to see the world through a different set of eyes. (Max)

To Do: A Book of Alphabets and Birthdays by Gertrude Stein: Described as “a fanciful journey through the alphabet” and originally conceived as a children’s book, Stein’s To Do “spiral[ed] out of simple childlike progression, so that by the time she reached the letter H, Henriette de Dactyl, a French typewriter (who exchanges typed messages with Yetta von Blickensdorfer, a German typewriter, and Mr. House, an American typewriter) wants to live on Melon Street and eat radishes, salads, and fried fish, and soup.” Written in 1940, the book was rejected several times by publishers for being too complex for children. A text-only version appeared in 1957 (after Stein’s death) from Yale, and in 2011, the publisher is putting out To Do with Giselle Potter’s illustrations, realizing Stein’s original concept. (Sonya)

Paying for It by Chester Brown: Throughout his twenty-year-long career, Chester Brown has developed a reputation as a wan and fearless confessor, presenting his lapses and failures from a dispassionate remove.  Paying For It—subtitled “A Comic-Strip Memoir About Being a John”—may prove to be his most quietly self-lacerating.  In exploring his penchant for prostitutes, Paying For It will likely feature little glamour, little boasting, and an understated honesty.  Drawn and Quarterly predicts that the book “will be the most talked about graphic novel of 2011,” yet Brown doesn’t seem to relish controversy.  When asked in 2004 why he might write so openly about his sex life, he responded, “Because it’s interesting.” (Jacob)

The London Train by Tessa Hadley: Stalwart of the fiction section of The New Yorker, Hadley’s latest is described as a “novel in two parts.” An early review in the Financial Times calls the book “darkly elegant” with “two distinct halves reflecting, enhancing and informing each other. The social and geographical territory is familiar for Hadley, that of the bourgeoisie and their travels (and travails) as they go looping between London and Cardiff.” (Max)

Pulse by Julian Barnes: Barnes’s latest is his third book of short stories. A preview from The Spectator explains the collection’s over-arching theme: “Each character is attuned to a ‘pulse’ – an amalgamation of a life-force and an Aristotelian flaw. They struggle against or thrive upon the submerged currents of life – touched by ambition, sex, love, health, work and death.” (Max)

The Tao of Travel by Paul Theroux: Theroux, the aging, still entertaining rake of the travel writing genre will indulge in a potentially interesting exercise here, collecting “the best writing on travel from the books that shaped him,” from Samuel Johnson, Eudora Welty and Mark Twain to Peter Matthiessen, Pico Iyer, and John McPhee. Cheesy title aside, it certainly sounds like an essential tome for travel writing fans. (Max)


State of Wonder by Ann Patchett: Ann Patchett has fearlessly ignored the admonition to write what you know. Her breakout novel, the intoxicating Bel Canto, centered around opera, Japanese business practices and a hostage situation in a South American embassy. Her new novel, State of Wonder, will have elements that sound similarly abstruse – doctors, medical students, drug development and the Amazon jungle. But at the heart of the novel is an inspiring student-teacher relationship, which, Patchett told an interviewer, is similar to the bond she had with her own writing teachers, Allan Gurganus and the late Grace Paley. “This one was a picnic,” Patchett says of State of Wonder, “because I didn’t have to make everything up wholesale.” (Bill)

The Astral by Kate Christensen The question to ask about Christensen’s next novel is will it deliver up another character on par with Hugo Whittier of The Epicure’s Lament? (“May we all simmer in the dark with such humor and gusto,” Sam Lipsyte wrote of Christensen’s immortal misanthrope.) The Penn-Faulkner Award-winning Christensen’s forthcoming sixth novel promises the story of a successful Brooklyn poet, Harry Quirk, whose marriage is in crisis and whose children have been swept up in cultishness of various kinds (perhaps a sort of Freedom, redux?). As a writer who reliably turns out novels that elicit warm praise from most of her reviewers, expect (at least) a genial, smart, gently satirical tale of the joys and woes of bougie New York life. (Emily W.)

The Curfew by Jesse Ball: What to expect from an author who teaches classes on dreaming, false identities, and lying? If the author is Jesse Ball, then one should expect expectations to be defied, plot summaries to fall short, and critics to use structures to describe the framework of his imaginative plottings (nesting-boxes, Klein bottle, labyrinth). Perhaps the magical realms Ball creates have something to do with his process: “to conjure up a state of affairs–a glimpse of one situated thought, where the situation is all that surrounds it in the mind.” Or with his imaginative approaches to writing, evident in his classes. Ball’s novel The Curfew depicts a father and daughter during wartime, the father risks it all to find his wife and the young daughter imagines her father’s treacherous journey. Expect for this description to only loosely conjure the realms of wonder within. (Anne)

Kurt Vonnegut: Novels & Stories 1963-1973: For those seeking Vonnegut’s aforementioned best, the Library of America will bestow upon him its black-cover treatment, collecting his great early novels (Cat’s Cradle, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, Slaughterhouse-Five, Breakfast of Champions) and stories into one thick volume.  In this setting, it will be especially jarring to read Breakfast of Champions, whose “World Classics Library” “published hard-core pornography in Los Angeles, California.” (Jacob)

The Storm at the Door by Stefan Merrill Block: The precocious Block published his first novel at 26. The Story of Forgetting, ambitious but flawed, nonetheless suggested Block might be a name to watch. Sure enough, here he is with a second novel arriving before his 30th birthday. This time around, Block will again take mental illness as a primary theme. (Max)

Lola, California by Edie Meidav: Meidav is a rare thing, a less than well known writer who continues to publish big, dense, challenging novels with a major press. Meidav’s third such effort weighs in at 448 pages and asks “Can an old friend carry in amber the person you were going to become?” Should Meidav be better known? Almost definitely. (Max)


Once Upon a River by Bonnie Jo Campbell: A 2009 National Book Award nod (for her collectionAmerican Salvage) landed Campbell on the radar of many a reader. Her backcountry fiction focuses on rural characters, meth-cookers, and bad jobs or none at all, all shot through with redemption and compassion. This new novel, which Campbell says has been in the works for more than four years, sounds like something of a modern-day Huck Finn, following a sixteen-year-old girl who takes to the Stark River in search of her vanished mother. (Max)

Estonia: A Ramble Through the Periphery by Alexander Theroux: In his one-of-a-kind Year in Reading piece, Theroux mentioned being this year “in the outback of frozen Estonia where I was not only writing a book but, as a kind of project, undertaking a private study of St. Paul and his life.” The book in question was this title, forthcoming from Fantagraphics. The book emerges from Theroux’s time spent in the former Soviet republic while his wife was on a Fulbright Scholarship. Ever observant, Theroux uses Estonia and its people as a lens through which to look back at America. (Max)

The Devil All the Time by Donald Ray Pollock: Former meatpacker and paper mill employee Pollock’s debut story collection Knockemstiff was a favorite amongst indie booksellers, landed on both Amazon and Publishers Weekly’s lists of best books of the year, and garnered the following enigmatic praise from the LA Times “a powerful, remarkable, exceptional book that is very hard to read.” According to his blog, Pollock’s debut novel is set in the 50s and 60s and “centers on the convergent lives of a tough but morally-upright young man from Ohio, a pair of serial killers who prey on hitchhikers, and an itinerant, spider-handling preacher and his crippled guitar virtuoso accompanist.” Naturally. (Patrick)


House of Holes: A Book of Raunch by Nicholson Baker: There’s very little info out there on Baker’s forthcoming novel, aside from some Twitter-excitement, including, “I don’t think it’s about poems” (McNally Jackson Bookstore) and “Back to Fermata territory?” (Ed Champion). So fans of Baker’s earlier (erotic) novels may be in for a treat. At Amazon, the description reads: “a gleefully provocative, off-the-charts sex novel that is unlike anything you’ve read.” (Sonya)

Night Film by Marisha Pessl: My first impression of Marisha Pessl’s Special Topics in Calamity Physics was clouded by the many, many stunned reviewers who could not help but mention Pessl’s beauty, often in the first paragraph of their reviews. (Indeed, it has been said that her picture was removed from advance copies of the novel to avoid just this.) Fortunately for those who do not choose books based on the bangability of their authors, while Ms. Pessl is hot, her prose is, by most assessments, hotter. Whether or not you liked Special Topics, you have to admit that the babe-authoress created one of the most startlingly distinctive fictional voices of recent years in Blue van Meer, the heroine-narrator of Pessl’s academic novel qua murder mystery (Oh, the breathtaking allusiveness! Ah, the witty figurative language—almost exhausting in its inventiveness!). My fear for Night Film—according to Pessl’s agent, “a psychological thriller about obsession, family loyalty and ambition set in raw contemporary Manhattan”—is that without Blue, Pessl’s nothing. Can she–could anyone (think Jonathan Safran Foer after Everything Is Illuminated)–generate another voice as distinct and scintillating as Blue’s? (Emily W.)

Lights Out in Wonderland by DBC Pierre: After the curious panic surrounding 2003’s Vernon God Little (“It’s sort of about Columbine!” “He’s not even from here!” “It won all kindsa prizes!”), Australia’s DBC Pierre faded from American minds.  Three years later, his Ludmilia’s Broken English failed to gain traction, and it seems a sensible bet that Lights Out In Wonderland—another scattershot soap-box rant—will continue the downward trend.  But as Lights Out is a foggy howl against the global market (“My hair crests over my head like the dying wave of capitalism,” reads one unfortunate simile), Pierre shouldn’t get too upset if units fail to move. (Jacob)

Anatomy of a Disappearance by Hisham Matar: Hisham Matar, author of In the Country of Men, is the child of Libyan parents. In 1990, the novelist’s father Jaballa Matar was kidnapped in Cairo and extradited to Tripoli as a political dissident. Since then, his family has endured a special hell of loss and uncertainty–scant news punctuating long periods of silence–which Hisham Matar described in a haunting piece for the Gaurdian last January. His novel, due in August, is about a missing father, and will presumably draw upon Matar’s experience as the child of someone disappeared. (Lydia)

Beijing Welcomes You by Tom Scocca: Slate blogger and former New York Observer Editor Scocca chronicles his years spent in Beijing, observing a city and a culture moving into the global spotlight. The book examines the Chinese capital on the cusp of its global moment, tracking its history and exploring its singular character. Since Scocca lived in Beijing in the middle of the last decade, one can assume the buildup to the 2008 Beijing Olympics figures prominently in the text. Assuming Scocca brings his typical insightful and sometimes scathing perspective (witness his epic takedown of The New Yorker for publishing Dave Eggers’s The Wild Things excerpt which ran two years ago at The Awl), Beijing Welcomes You promises to offer astute cultural observation on a culture Americans would do well to observe. (Patrick)


1Q84 by Haruki Murakami: Murakami’s three volume stemwinder came out in Japan in 2009 and sold out its first printing in a day. The first two volumes will appear in the US this fall and fervor among English-speaking Murakamians is already building. The alpha-numeric title is a play on Orwell’s 1984 – in Japanese the letter Q is a homophonic with the number 9 – and the book’s plot (which was a tightly guarded secret prior to its Japanese release) concerns two characters, a PE teacher and a writer, who become involved in a religious cult through which they create “a mysterious past, different than the one we know.” (Kevin)

The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach: In the Winter issue of n+1, Harbach published a provocative piece suggesting two paths for the novelist: MFA vs. NYC. Who needs the former, when you can ride the latter to a half-million dollar advance? Insiders have, predictably, likened Harbach’s treatment of a baseball team at a Wisconsin liberal arts college – presumably as a lens through which to view the American scene and the human condition – to the aforementioned Enfield Tennis Academy. (Garth)


The Forgotten Waltz by Anne Enright: Enright, winner of The Booker Prize for the international bestseller The Gathering, explores a woman’s affair and her relationship with her lover’s young daughter. (Max)


Parallel Stories by Péter Nadas: Péter Nádas’ A Book of Memories might just be the best novel published in the ’80s, and Imre Goldstein’s translation into English of its massive successor would, in a just world, be the publishing event of the fall. Nádas is, simply put, a master. The freedom with which he combines the diverse idioms of realism, modernism, and postmodernism can only come from decades of discipline. More importantly – as a recent excerpt in The Paris Review illustrates – he generates a continuous, Proustian intensity of feeling and perception – psychological, philosophical, and physical. This three-volume work, structured as a set of braided short stories, tracks two families, one Hungarian and one German, across many decades. Readers looking for a fuller preview might consult Hungarian Literature Online, or Deborah Eisenberg’s appreciation in The New York Review of Books. (Garth)

Unknown (fall and beyond):

The Queen of the Night by Alexander Chee: Described by Chee – a Whiting Award and NEA Fellowship recipient, currently a Visiting Professor at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop — as a kind of “historical fairy tale,” Queen is set in the time of the Second Empire (1852-70), in Paris. Chee’s first novel, Edinburgh, focused on a young boy’s surviving pedophilia. “The Queen of the Night sort of picks up in some ways from where Edinburgh leaves off,” Chee said in an interview, “in the sense that it is about a young woman who believes her voice is cursed, and if she uses it, terrible things will happen. And then she does, and they do. And she tries to put it right as best she can.” (Sonya)

The Map and the Territory by Michel Houellebecq: Michel Houellebecq, the reigning bad boy of French letters, has been accused of every imaginable sin against political correctness. His new novel, The Map and the Territory, is a send-up of the art world that tones down the sex and booze and violence, but it does feature a “sickly old tortoise” named Michel Houellebecq who gets gruesomely murdered. The book has drawn charges of plagiarism because passages were lifted virtually verbatim from Wikipedia. “If people really think that (this is plagiarism),” Houellebecq sniffed, “then they haven’t the first notion what literature is.” Apparently, he does. The Map and the Territory has just been awarded the Prix Goncourt, France’s most prestigious literary prize. (Bill)

The New Republic by Lionel Shriver: Shriver apparently finished a draft of The New Republic in 1998. After six well-regarded but commercially ignored novels, she couldn’t find a buyer for this story of “cults of personality and terrorism” and was about to give up fiction-writing altogether. Flash forward a dozen years: Shriver is an Orange Prize winner, a National Book Award finalist, and has sold over a million copies worldwide. She has been fêted by…er…The New Republic, and hailed in these pages as “America’s Best Writer.” Also: terrorism and cults of personality are very much on people’s minds. Maybe this will be the book that lands her on the cover of Time. (Garth)

Hot Pink by Adam Levin: Viewed from afar, Levin’s first novel, The Instructions, looked, for good and ill – mostly for good – like a kind of apotheosis of the McSweeney’s house style: playful, inventive, funny-melancholic, youth-focused. However, it also possessed a couple of attributes that set it apart from other titles on the McSweeney’s list. One was its dialectical genius; another was the ferocity of its anger at the way the world is (which elsewhere in McSweeneydom often gets sublimated into melancholy). Though Levin wears his influences on his sleeve, his sensibility is utterly distinctive, and almost fully formed. Look for the stories in the follow-up, Hot Pink, to be formally audacious, occasionally adolescent, but always bracing in their passion. (Garth)

The Unfolding Haggadah by Jonathan Safran Foer with Nathan Englander: The only evidence of what this might be comes from Tablet where an essay by Judith Shulevitz includes a note about this title in the author’s bio. An anthology it is then. And with Foer and Englander at the helm, this is one to keep on the radar. (Max)

Four Selected Titles with UK publication dates but no US date yet:

Dante in Love by A. N. Wilson: Later this year, English biographer and critic A.N. Wilson comes out with Dante in Love, a study of the Florentine poet that, confusingly, shares a title with a 2005 book about Dante written by Harriet Rubin. Wilson’s book will, one imagines, address Dante’s exile, Beatrice, Guelphs, Ghibellines, and so on; his perspective as a very public defector from and subsequent re-convert to Christianity might bring new insight to this well-trod territory (then again, it might not). (Lydia)

River of Smoke by Amitav Ghosh
King of the Badgers by Philip Hensher
The Stranger’s Child by Alan Hollinghurst

So, which of these books are you most looking forward to and which great new books did we neglect to include?

National Book Critics Circle Award Finalists Announced

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The finalists for the annual National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) Award are now out. The fiction list includes four books by women, three of which have already gotten some award love from the National Book Award and the Booker Prize. The other two books have received strong notices from reviewers and buzz from bloggers. Here are the finalists for fiction and non-fiction with excerpts and other links where available. As a side note, the NBCC award is particularly interesting in that it is one of the few major awards that pits American books against overseas (usually British) books.


Bonnie Jo Campbell, American Salvage (excerpt, NBA shortlisted)
Marlon James, The Book of Night Women (excerpt)
Michelle Huneven, Blame (excerpt, Huneven’s writing at The Millions)
Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall (excerpt, Booker winner)
Jayne Anne Phillips, Lark and Termite (excerpt, NBA shortlisted)


Wendy Doniger, The Hindus: An Alternative History
Greg Grandin, Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford’s Forgotten Jungle City (excerpt, NBA shortlisted)
Richard Holmes, The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science (excerpt)
Tracy Kidder, Strength in What Remains (excerpt)
William T. Vollmann, Imperial (excerpt, a Millions Most Anticipated book)

For more on the NBCC Awards and the finalists in the other categories, check out the NBCC’s blog.

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