Why did America put Franz Kafka in such a good mood? As his friend Max Brod remembered, Kafka worked on his ultimately unfinished novel about the U.S. with “unending delight,” a noteworthy state for someone much more likely to be brooding about the big three (guilt, your father, corporeality) or writing pained letters to a distant love. In Amerika’s most upbeat passages, Kafka seems to take pleasure in romanticizing about the “New World,” imagining the U.S. as a beacon of equality and a decent hard day’s work. In this sense, the novel echoes plenty of earlier literature on America. But more surprisingly, Amerika anticipates a newer form of Romanticism, one that is worth considering closely, because it has since become a major presence in fiction about the U.S. Briefly put, the New World got Kafka excited about the potential benefits—really, the transformational power—of being stupid: the magic of being out of touch. This was something more than anti-intellectualism. This was pro-ignorance. Consider Amerika’s final chapter, in which the protagonist, a young immigrant named Karl, has reunited with friends and found a job with the “Nature Theatre of Oklahoma” after a long series of frustrating losses and wrong turns. According to Brod, this was Kafka’s favorite part of the book, a section he loved to read aloud. And although he never finished writing the chapter, he apparently would hint (with a big smile on his face) that “within this ‘almost limitless’ theatre his young hero was going to find again a profession, a stand-by, his freedom, even his old home and his parents, as if by some celestial witchery.” This was new territory for Kafka: magical thinking and happy endings. But here’s what the happiness actually looks like: Karl and his friend Giacomo find themselves crammed into a train car on a long cross-country route. They become so giddy about the trip and the beautiful scenery they pass that they are completely oblivious to their immediate surroundings. The seats are so crowded they can barely move, and thick cigarette smoke makes it hard to breathe. Their cabinmates, who make fun of Karl’s and Giacomo’s naive excitement, pass the time by playing cards and grabbing and pinching their less-seasoned fellow travelers. Karl is stuck, in other words, in a low-paying and unpredictable job, in rough conditions, surrounded by people who get a kick out of harassing him. This trip is pretty clearly not going to be great. And the scene is able to suggest that Karl is rushing off to a blessed future only because he seems so dimly aware of what is actually taking place. We’re familiar with the idea that ignorance is bliss, but, in the spirit of Amerika, the last century of fiction about the U.S. has flirted with the stronger notion that ignorance can heal. We will never learn exactly how Kafka’s dense traveler was going to reunite with family, friends, and home. But we now have a long list of novels that connect similar dots, turning states of density into moments of reunion and reparation. My favorite example is Alberto Fuguet’s Las Peliculas de mi Vida, in which the 1992 Pauly Shore movie Encino Man becomes a symbol for finding love in America. The novel relates the life story of a disillusioned Chilean-American seismologist who is torn about returning to America after many years in Chile. When he finally decides to move to California to pursue a love interest he met at the beginning of the book—she’s an American immigration attorney, as if to hammer home the idea that the journey is national as well as personal—he writes her one last note: “I’d like and am afraid and hope” that we will meet again, he says, “P.S. I did see Encino Man … I thought it was pretty bad and—nevertheless—enjoyed it.” His hopes and fears speak to the possibility that love in the U.S. could change his life. His appreciation of what is arguably the most ridiculous movie of the ’90s shows that he’s ready. Or Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah, in which the Nigerian protagonist, Ifemelu, falls in love for a while with Curt, a “relentlessly upbeat” American who “believed in good omens and positive thoughts and happy endings to films.” As Ifemelu explains, Curt is “admirable and repulsive in a way that only an American of his kind could be.” She eventually moves on. But her temporary attraction to Curt and the dense Americanism he represents helps the story eventually land where it does: “The best thing about America,” she claims near the end of the novel, “is that it gives you space. I like that you buy into the dream, it’s a lie but you buy into it and that’s all that matters.” Who knows what would have happened if Ifemelu had not found, albeit temporarily, this “space” of obliviousness? This embracing of the forcefully unintellectual appears again in the conclusion of Michael Chabon’s The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, another novel about an immigrant’s journey to America. After a twisting and traumatic plot, Holocaust survivor Joe Kavalier has ended up living for several years as a recluse in Manhattan, unable to connect with his friends and family. And he returns to the fold by making a scene. In a stunt announced anonymously in the newspaper, he swings from the Empire State Building in an iridescent gold suit and mask. The stunt, channeling the comic books Joe loves (and creates), makes no sense. But it works. When Joe’s estranged wife and cousin later ask why, he responds, “I guess this was the point … for me to come back. To end up sitting here with you, on Long Island, in this house, eating some noodles.” Somehow, the act of thrilling onlookers in a golden bathing suit and boots has enabled the refugee to rejoin the family he might not otherwise have seen again. It seems we can’t stop imagining stupid entryways into American life. More recently, the second-generation Turkish-American Elif Batuman has styled herself as an idiot in The Idiot, an autobiographical narrative of her college years. In an interview, she refers to “moments of what felt like, in retrospect, stupidity” as distinguishing her path through Harvard to a successful career as a journalist and novelist. We could go on: In Don Delillo’s White Noise, the goofy experiences of familial love that only seem possible in grocery stores; or the concluding image in Delillo’s Underworld, a novel steeped in issues of immigration and race in America: a billboard for orange juice that might or might not radiate divine forgiveness and plenitude after a tragic death (“they stared stupidly at the juice …’Did it look like her?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Are you sure?’ ‘I think so’”). Salman Rushdie’s American novels are more concerned with violent emotions that can’t be escaped (see: Fury), but he alludes to the healing powers of American unknowing when, in The Golden House, he has the narrator dream that he could be reunited with his son “and jump into Doc Brown’s DeLorean and fly back to the future and be free.” I think this might be one of the last frontiers of Romanticism, informed by a stubborn unwillingness to give up on the idea that America is a place of new beginnings. Returns to childhood, the national volk, hedonism, intelligence: These have pretty clearly lost their punch. But ignorance, ironically enough, is a harder Romantic object to dismiss, because it’s the only mental state that can’t be accused of bad faith: It so obviously isn’t setting out to get anything done, so obviously isn’t part of a plan, how could it have an ulterior motive? Still, for perhaps obvious reasons, few literary or academic voices would admit to taking ignorance seriously. A notable exception is Avital Ronell, whose wide-ranging philosophical study, Stupidity, makes a case for its revolutionary potential. Ronell does not have much to say directly about American contexts, but at one point, referring to the blockbuster movie Forest Gump, she writes that “moral purity, American style, can be ensured only by radical ignorance.” This is, I think, the basic underlying hope that helps imagery of ignorance feel optimistic in fiction about the U.S. There’s something that feels desperate about all this fascination with American ignorance, especially at a time in which assaults against knowledge so powerfully shape our public culture—but Kafka’s brilliance was a form of desperation, too. And it will be interesting to see where the desperate Romanticism he foresaw ends up. Image: Flickr/Rakkhi Samarasekera
A few days after the 2016 presidential election, I did a weird, sobbing thing. I copied Walt Whitman’s “A Noiseless Patient Spider” onto a card and posted it in my office. “And you, O my Soul, where you stand,/ Surrounded, surrounded, in measureless oceans of space,” I wrote. 2017 began, and that space had become everything; I just sat alone in the middle of it, swaddling myself in anxiety. I blocked myself from reading social media because I was afraid to feel angry about my friends and family. Every day was another national crisis; my husband and I started redirecting our money and attention to newspapers, charities, and organizations that protect —we’ve deemed these civic tithes. But I felt scattered and incapable of sustaining a thought, let alone a life of critical reading, or engagement with my government. I wanted to slip into a dark crack and hide there, unnoticed. I didn’t want to read. I didn’t want to move. To borrow from Whitman, my 2017 in reading was about the bridge I needed out of that dark space; the tentative, then hopeful casting of webs until something caught. Two books I read early in the year were bridges for different reasons. Courtney Maum’s novel Touch celebrates a future where the latest trends are freedom from technology, and physical human connection. That thought was a balm. The second was David McCullough’s collection of speeches, The American Spirit. Frankly, it gave me hope because it reminded me that America has been in dire straits before—awful messes—but is built on imperfection and persistence. I was reminded that books are products both of when they are written, and the world they are born into. I read Viet Thanh Nguyen’s phenomenal short story collection, The Refugees, the same week the president first cruelly called for a ban on all refugees entering the country. Many books I read—both fiction and nonfiction—in 2017 started to coalesce around the same idea: we don’t believe each other. Whether we’re talking about political needs, or allowing immigration, or honoring the story of someone who has been abused, belief is the central tenet of the conversation. Nguyen’s stories, like Roxane Gay’s memoir, Hunger, Hillary Clinton’s post-election memoir, What Happened, Mohsin Hamid’s magical novel Exit West, and Jesús Carrasco’s novel, Out in the Open, all deal in some way with the questioning of personal truth. This makes sense to me, given how we’ve treated truth like a toy for the last 10 years. I find that exhausting. I caught up on titles I’ve missed from years past, finally immersing myself in things like Phil Klay’s Redeployment, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah, Colson Whitehead’s Underground Railroad. I read George Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo like everyone else and, like everyone else, was amazed. Two books from 2017 that stood out were Attica Locke’s smart thriller Bluebird, Bluebird, which moves beyond easy tropes of good guy/bad guy to tackle real issues of race in East Texas, and Andrea Lawlor’s gutsy, hopeful, gender- and shapeshifting novel, Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl. I read wonderful books by people I adore: Liska Jacobs’s novel, Catalina, Tod Goldberg’s sequel to Gangsterland, Gangster Nation, JoAnn Chaney’s thriller, What You Don’t Know, Natashia Deón’s novel, Grace, Deanne Stillman’s historical nonfiction Blood Brothers, and Elizabeth Crane’s short story collection Turf. I read a funny memoir about a brain tumor: Mike Scalise’s The Brand New Catastrophe. I read Joan Acocella’s Twenty-Eight Artists and Two Saints and wondered if I’ll ever be the kind of critic I want to be. But all of these books were daring, moving, life affirming. And when I couldn’t handle the all-conflict-no-resolution scroll of social media, these words brought me back to myself and back to a sense of my place in the world. If there’s a slow words movement, like slow food, I want to join it. Most importantly: This summer I attended a teacher institute at the Library of Congress, and worked on a research project about the WPA Federal Writers’ Project—a time when our government prioritized putting writers to work by having them collect personal histories and write regional guides—writers like Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright, and Zora Neale Hurston. I knew that the Library has a vast array of online and physical resources, but what I didn’t know is that it relies on an almost parallel network of human historians. As I navigated my way through the various reading rooms, I was guided by experts in American Folklife who showed me slides of Hurston in Florida and played recordings of her singing; I was handed boxes of photographs of Federal Writers’ Project Book Fairs by WPA experts in the Prints and Photographs room, and in Manuscripts, an excited WPA expert pulled four boxes of FWP minutes, hand-written notes, and records for me to read. I kept wondering why they were letting me look at all of that stuff. (What if I sneezed on something?) But all I needed was my library card. My most powerful moment in reading was sitting in those quiet, beige rooms in D.C. with American history in my hands. Libraries are still a beautiful democracy of ideas. Despite the sky falling every day in 2017, we have that. It was the thread of connection I needed. O my soul. More from A Year in Reading 2017 Do you love Year in Reading and the amazing books and arts content that The Millions produces year round? 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Years ago, a professor warned me about having too many clothing descriptions in one of my stories. He thought that the mention of brand names and particular cuts of skirts might end up only attracting a younger audience. He asked me who I was writing for. I didn’t really have an answer. I remember feeling a little misunderstood because I was an adult who liked to see clothing represented in books. I thought a lot about that conversation recently while rereading Sister Souljah’s novel The Coldest Winter Ever. In the book, Winter Santiaga, a spoiled and savvy teenager, reluctantly moves with her family out of Brooklyn. Her father is arrested soon after—Winter’s two sisters are put in foster care, Winter’s mother gets hooked on drugs, and Winter hustles to stay alive. She uses her knowledge of Chanel and Gucci to understand people. Early on, her attire unites her with her family at a symbol of high status. Her outfit choices later evolve into a performative act of class when she faces money troubles. As I noticed the power of labels in that story, I started thinking more seriously about the work that fashion and labels do in literature. The relevance of Souljah’s book—considered part of the genre of “urban fiction” or “street literature”—among audiences of different ages and cultures suggests that having a designer-obsessed lead character does not actually limit the scope of the genre. Are issues of gender and race the reasons that fashion is often viewed as an inherently immature topic in the literary sphere? Designer shoes and clothes may inspire younger protagonists, but divorcing fashion from femininity would take away something that women have mastered, in spite of its oppressive underpinnings. I don’t mean to say that dressing up to meet the standards imposed on women is revolutionary, but it plays a major role in navigating a patriarchal world. Katja Horvat writes about the connection between writers' fashion lives and their use of fashion in their writing in “Fashion & Literature.” By looking at people like Virginia Woolf, Horvat finds ways that writers intersect with designers, especially in terms of skill and interest in character building. She explains that “both fashion and literature occupy a fetish for fantasy inside the minds of so many people.” The element of fantasy is an important aspect, too, for many characters' understandings of their fictional world (read more about memorable clothes in books at The Millions here). Looking a certain way directly affects how they get treated by other characters and, therefore, the story. For Winter, understanding fashion is a way to learn about other people, but it’s also an important aspect of her identity. She uses designer clothing to remain socially relevant after losing her bankroll to the prison industrial complex. When she’s in a group home with only $350 and a party to attend, she goes shopping. The day of, “I laid my three hundred dollars on the counter at Saks Fifth Avenue. I walked out with a designer shopping bag with one Calvin Klein slip dress inside…I kept telling myself, This is an investment. This is an investment.” She knows that access to rich men requires her to look expensive. The mantra in her head shows that she is not being bad with money by buying clothing; she’s strategic in her spending. In Ashley & JaQuavis’s The Cartel, another work in the street literature genre, access to designer clothes takes on a different role. The main characters can all afford the fanciest stuff, and many specifics are written into the narrative, reinforcing a fantasy element of vicarious wealth that also drives the use of fashion in literature. Like Winter, Sophie Kinsella’s protagonist, Becky, in her humorous novel Confessions of a Shopaholic also loves fashion, as suggested in the title, but can’t afford any of it. There is much less at stake for Becky than for Winter, but Becky also sees the world through designer names, including herself. She explains, “I’m wearing my black skirt from French Connection, and a plain white T-shirt from Knockerbox, and a little angora cardigan which I got from M&S but looks like it might be Agnés B. And my new square-toes shoes from Hobbs.” She explains, “it’s a habit of mine, itemizing all the clothes I’m wearing, as though for a fashion page,” that she learns from fashion magazines at a young age. Becky thinks of herself as the model in this scenario. Even as she struggles (and hides) from one bill to the next, she thrives off of the possibility that she will be remembered for certain outfits. With every new piece that she desires, she imagines that people will call her “the girl with the [fill in the blank].” This character is jaded, but there’s something purposeful in her extravagant purchases. As with Souljah’s novel, the act of cataloging clothing by brands creates a sense of intimacy among women characters and readers. In Shay Youngblood’s Black Girl in Paris, a work of literary fiction, the narrator analyses clothing to understand nationhood. Before getting an au pair position, she writes: I sat still for a moment before picking up a pen and pad and calculating what I could do with either thousand francs. First thing, I would buy myself a pair of shoes from one of the hops near place de l’Odeon. High-gloss Italian leather pumps, sleep Japanese creations that looked like miniature cars, stiff English riding boots. I would be practical but not too, something very simple, very French. Then I would not be afraid to enter Les Deux Magots, where Wright sometimes met Baldwin for drinks and conversation. The right shoes would give me a certain confidence. It’s not just that she needs a new pair of shoes. She justifies the purchase as a tool to explore the city like other black American writers have. She is well versed in brand names and styles; knowing what “very French” shoes look like allows her to spend her money in a meaningful way. The rest of her trip to Paris continues to rely upon her understanding of clothes. It’s how she learns about access, definitely, but it’s also how she learns about her role in the world: I am wearing a long-sleeved, knee-length blue sundress, which is covered by my heavy coat from the flea market. I do not feel particularly American, but any Frenchman can tell because I am wearing white socks and black leather running shoes and carrying a black canvas backpack slung over my right shoulder like an ordinary tourist. Ifemelu, of Chimamanda Adichie’s novel Americanah, similarly considers her transnational experiences through the lens of clothing. Ifemelu, the ever-practical observer, pays close attention to race, hair, and clothes throughout the novel. As she gives away her clothing when she finally gets her visa, “the first thing they [her friends] all reached for was her orange dress, her favorite dress, a gift from Aunty Uju; the A-line flair and neck-to-hem zipper had always made her feel both glamorous and dangerous.” When she goes shopping in America and sees a new friend pick out a “shapeless” dress, she worries “whether she, too, would come to share Ginika’s taste for shapeless dresses, whether this was what America did to you.” Her exploration of the concept of America continues to be based on fashion as she gets involved in blogging. One of her blog posts explains: I bought a dress from a vintage shop on eBay the other day, made in 1960, in perfect shape, and I wear it a lot. When the original owner wore it, black Americans could not vote because they were black. (And maybe the original owner was one of those women, in the famous sepia photographs, standing by in hordes outside schools shouting ‘Ape!’ at young black children).” Wearing American clothing, especially second-hand, becomes an intellectual experience for Ifemelu. This dress has historical value because it symbolizes white aggression. Her understanding of American politics becomes more literal when the narrator says, “still, there was, in Michelle Obama’s overly arched eyebrows and in her belt worn higher on her waist than tradition would care for…it was this that drew Ifemelu, the absence of apology, the promise of honesty.” What gets lost in the assumption that fashion labels and concepts are immature is the female gaze. I don’t think my professor’s comments necessarily came out of malice, but constant self-surveillance is gendered and racialized, so the politics of this topic require serious inspection. Watching the mannerisms and physical appearance of oneself and others interchangeably is a complex part of being a woman, and made more complex for women of color. What seems superficial to some is survival for others. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
I read Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah in January of 2016, back when the year, like all fresh years, seemed full of hope. I came across it in a second-hand English-language bookshop in Paris. It had been published to great acclaim a few years before, but I’d been living abroad, I’d missed the hype, and so I encountered it with that rare feeling of private wonder that comes from reading a great book one doesn’t know everyone else has already read. And it is, as I am far from the first to note, a great book -- one that spans decades, continents, and cultures. Adichie’s Ifemelu, a Nigerian immigrant to the U.S., takes apart the American constructions of race and identity as only an outsider can. Like all great books, it is also a deeply personal story, with lines that pierce and transcend: “Sometimes she worried that she was too happy. She would sink into moodiness, and snap at Obinze, or be distant. And her joy would become a restless thing, flapping its wings inside her, as though looking for an opening to fly away.” I wanted to give the book to everyone I knew, but many of them had read it, so I gave it to my mother. She had immigrated to New York from Paris as a teenager, and she found kinship in that outsider’s eye. By the spring of 2016, I had gotten myself a copy of Adichie’s brilliant essay, now in book form, We Should All Be Feminists. I considered myself a fan, but then in August I found myself on stage, unwillingly competing in a literary spelling bee, blushing bright red as I misspelled Adichie’s final “ie.” Compared to some of the Polish authors included, I had been given one of the easier names to spell. 2016 had begun to take its nose dive towards the worst. In November, I no longer wanted to read novels. I wanted something to dispel the grief I felt for my country, something so current, so now, that novels, with their grand slowness, couldn’t get there fast enough. But Adichie could. Her article on the New Yorker’s website, “Now Is the Time to Talk About What We Are Actually Talking About,” reached out to me with its steady drum beat rhythm. “Now is the time, Now is the time, Now is the time,” Adichie repeats, as if answering the Jewish theologian Rabbi Hillel’s age old question: “If not now, then when?” Her sentences cut sharp and unforgiving. “America loves winners, but victory does not absolve,” she writes. Her clarity, the precision of her proscriptions, stopped my hands from wringing. The essay swayed me from stasis towards fervor. In the end, she reminds, “It doesn’t have to be this way.” And it doesn’t. A new year begins. More from A Year in Reading 2016 Do you love Year in Reading and the amazing books and arts content that The Millions produces year round? We are asking readers for support to ensure that The Millions can stay vibrant for years to come. Please click here to learn about several simple ways you can support The Millions now. Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005
The day after the Brexit referendum, British writer Bim Adewunmi wrote a beautiful piece in Buzzfeed about her pain, her frustration, and her fear. It took in the scope of British history -- “Am I being dramatic? This feels like a dramatic moment” -- and her upbringing in East London; the child of Nigerian immigrants, Adewunmi wrote that the result confirmed things she had long suspected about her home country. The line that stuck with me, that day and all the other days of 2016 that followed, was, “Can you be unsurprised but still quite shocked at the same time?” Shocked but not surprised. This is the 2016 that I’ve struggled to reconcile with. In my reading life, it wasn’t a year of discovery; it was a long, protracted struggle to find clarity in things I knew -- or things I thought I knew. As an American recently booted out of England by the Home Office, the consecutive earthquakes of Brexit and Donald Trump are invariably my two pillars of this garbage fire of a year. But even the smaller points in my life needed reorientation. Sometimes books show me new worlds; this year, I needed books to expose parts of the worlds I already knew. It started with Mr. Splitfoot by Samantha Hunt, which I finished in the earliest, bleakest days of the year. I am from a place that gets extra bleak in January, and Hunt’s novel is set near my hometown, across the broad stretch of New York state from Albany to Buffalo. Mr. Splitfoot, partly about a foster child raised in an abusive, fundamentalist family, is exquisite, both literally and physically haunting, and it tapped into my long-held fascination with the “burned-over district,” that broad stretch of central and western New York that saw wave after wave of religious fervor in the 19th century. As I read it, I thought about those endless drives to see my family in Buffalo growing up, vast stretches of flat brown land, ripe for true belief. In the spring, I read Hanya Yanagihara's A Little Life, a book that was incredibly meaningful to me, but one I know has been fairly controversial in the past few years, so I won’t discuss it at length here. (I’m a bit gun-shy after last year’s YiR, when I dove into a list of books I loved and a man asked why I hadn’t read any Thomas Hardy.) If you’ve read it, you’ll be unsurprised to know it left me regularly weeping on the R train -- luckily the best possible train for weeping. I was knocked off my axis, but I found my bearings again not in any published novels, but in fanfiction, my oldest and most well-documented love. I haven’t read much fic the past few years, despite building a career writing about it, but I fell back in over the final weeks of 2015, and this big, complicated, highly emotional book pushed me deeper into fanfiction, a realm where emotionality -- affect, scholars call it -- is king. I’ve long held a rule that I won’t recommend fic in the context of being a literary critic -- one could argue it violates the contract between largely amateur writers and the assumed audience -- but that’s a shame, because I read stories this year, many of them novel-length, that were as good as anything I encountered that was traditionally published. (I said something similar in a previous YiR, but I’m doubling down, because some of the stuff I found this year was extraordinary.) If you’re curious, there’s my fanfiction newsletter, co-authored with Gavia Baker-Whitelaw. It was born in January 2016, and it remains one of the small and steady joys of the year. I spent the first few months of the year listening to various David Bowie albums on repeat, a response to his death that was part maudlin, part joyful, part "when I start listening to a certain album I just play it over and over again for longer than is probably healthy." If everyone had a celebrity death that hit them hardest this year, this was mine. Even within the legions of Bowie-ites, the stuff people wallowed in served as an interesting Rorschach to see where or how they came to David Bowie, or which of his many personas spoke to them. I lingered with Ziggy, and in the final days of spring, I purchased a pair of books to try to get a little context. The first was the one I intended to buy after a bit of research, The Man Who Sold the World by Peter Doggett. The second was the one I stumbled upon, Ziggyology: A Brief History of Ziggy Stardust by Simon Goddard. The former was grounding, but the latter shot me off into the stars. But in late June, earthquake number one. I haven’t written much about Brexit, even though as someone who was stymied by Britain’s increasingly hostile immigration policies -- and as someone who spent college studying British imperial history -- I, unsurprisingly, have fairly strong feelings about what went down. (Though it’s always worth mentioning that while I was a foreigner living in the United Kingdom, I was a white, well-educated American; I didn’t face the discrimination most foreigners battle in the country.) To process the results, I found comfort in looking backwards rather than trying to wrap my head around an extraordinarily uncertain future. I spent the summer steadily working my way through When the Lights Went Out: Britain in the Seventies by Andy Beckett, and I watched Britain join the EEC -- and all the conflict that surrounded the move -- to try to understand its departure. In August I got a concussion; all reading was put on hold save slogging through Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, which I had some…strong feelings about. But by September, it was impossible to think about anything other than November 8th. I envied friends who could compartmentalize, who weren’t consumed by the uncertainty hanging over us. I campaigned for Hillary Clinton within my own sphere -- reaching out to millennials in fannish spaces, trying to push past the apathy and disillusionment. (Yeah, I’ve seen the numbers, definitely feels like we failed on this front.) And in the final days before the election, I picked up Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah, one of a long list of extraordinary books I really should have read by now. I read it on the train on my way to the Javits Center on election day, where I would wait with a few friends for hours, amongst a vast, diverse crowd of nervous but hopeful people. And then. I am still envious of those compartmentalizing friends, of the people who take comfort in fictional worlds during times of strife. Books have never helped to distract me; in the darkest moments of my life, they are absent. The trouble with using reading to help focus on the things we’re seeing around us is we have to keep looking, eyes wide open, and it’s a brutal task as every day unveils fresh horrors. In the weeks after the election, multiple people in my feed were posting passages of Hannah Arendt, so I looked back to a little cluster of books on the very top shelf in my apartment, stuff from school I thought I might revisit some day. My freshman year of college, I took a very liberal artsy course called “Evil,” which straddled philosophy and political science. We spent about a week talking about how the image of the devil changed over the centuries, and I remember I did my final paper on the dearth of female serial killers, but the bulk of the course was about the Second World War -- not about the Nazis, but about the German people. Up on my top shelf, I realized I’d kept most of the syllabus. Friedrich Nietzsche, W.G. Sebald, Arendt. I’m desperate to understand, as I have been all year. That desperation is obviously about control, feeling like you’ve lost something that, in all honesty, you probably never even had. I’m trying to keep a hold on a world that feels like it’s made up of a mass of delicate threads, this close to snapping. So that’s me, reading Eichmann in Jerusalem on the subway in the days following the election of Donald Trump. In the dark corners of the R train, I’m not weeping anymore. People look up at my book and do a double-take. It feels hyperbolic, but like, maybe not? And also, it helps. More from A Year in Reading 2016 Do you love Year in Reading and the amazing books and arts content that The Millions produces year round? We are asking readers for support to ensure that The Millions can stay vibrant for years to come. Please click here to learn about several simple ways you can support The Millions now. Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005
I was going to write about Elena Ferrante, but I figured everyone would write about Elena Ferrante. I just sent in a Best of List that was supposed to be five favorite literary things from 2015; mine was: 1. Elena Ferrante 2. Elena Ferrante 3. Elena Ferrante 4. Elena Ferrante 5. Elena Ferrante I am already afraid of the day when I will run out of her books to read. How then will I understand the fraught and duplicitous interactions between human beings and the ways those influence our fraught and duplicitous interactions with the self? But reading must go on! So I'm writing about Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, which I reread over the summer in order to give a speech. Here are our fraught and duplicitous interactions in America laid bare by a clear-eyed look at some of the major reasons they are so fraught and duplicitous: racism, imperialism, privilege. Only once in 2015 did I cry over a book, and I was surprised to find that it was during the scene in Americanah that recreates Obama's election in 2008. With how far we have come, we have far to go. I am reminded of that every day. Sometimes I wonder about the books that attempt to bring clarity or give us direction and the books that attempt to record how inseparable our hate is from our love. How does one enact change, in the self, in others? That is the question on my mind these days. Stories are the best answers we have. More from A Year in Reading 2015 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 The good stuff: The Millions' Notable articles The motherlode: The Millions' Books and Reviews Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.
Books I Read in One Day (or in One or Two Multi-Hundred Page Chunks) Silver Screen Fiend by Patton Oswalt Vivian Apple at the End of the World by Katie Coyle So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson The Martian by Andy Weir Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie Best Depiction of Rural Indiana Marvel and a Wonder by Joe Meno Joe Meno’s latest novel is an incredible modern myth involving horses, a dying agrarian economy, and the idea of American masculinity, and it also happens to be the most spot-on depiction of north central Indiana in the mid-'90s I’ve ever read. See, I myself grew up in north central Indiana in the mid-'90s, and it’s not like I’ve spent the intervening years clamoring for its place in literature. “Will no one plumb the depths of Steuben County during the Clinton years?” was never the cry of my heart. But when I found it in the pages of this book, I was surprised by how deeply it affected me. Is this how New Yorkers feel every day of their lives? I met Joe Meno at a reading and we talked about Indiana, found out where the other person was from, and then said nice things to each other for five minutes because Hoosiers are raised to be pleasant. Favorite Learned Tidbit of Presidential History Woodrow Wilson had chronic digestive problems, which he referred to as “trouble in Central America.” Convincing Proof that I’m the Center of the Universe Sarah Vowell and David Mitchell are my two favorite living authors. Guns N’ Roses are my favorite band. Both Vowell and Mitchell published new books in October 2015. Both of those books mention Guns N’ Roses. Annual Reminder that Geoff Dyer Is a Genius It’s no secret around these parts that I love Geoff Dyer. Here’s a passage from But Beautiful that provided my most breathless two minutes of reading in 2015: The city quiet as a beach, the noise of traffic like a tide. Neon sleeping in puddles. Places shutting and staying open. People saying goodbye outside bars, walking home alone. Work till going on, the city repairing itself. At some time all cities have this feel: in London it’s at five or six on a winter evening. Paris has it too, late, when the cafes are closing up. In New York it can happen anytime: early in the morning as the light climbs over the canyon streets and the avenues stretch so far into the distance that it seems the whole world is city; or now, as the chimes of midnight hang in the rain and all the city’s longings acquire the clarity and certainty of sudden understanding. The day coming to an end and people unable to evade any longer the nagging sense of futility that has been growing stronger through the day, knowing that they will feel better when they wake up and it is daylight again but knowing also that each day leads to this sense of quiet isolation. More from A Year in Reading 2015 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 The good stuff: The Millions' Notable articles The motherlode: The Millions' Books and Reviews Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.
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.
In writing about a novel like The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma, I find myself in a dilemma. The bare emotion of the story makes it hard reading at times, the edge of the page quivered in my white-knuckled grip, but it’s also finely crafted, technically precise and deftly structured. I loved it. I'm tempted to make a grand claim about this book, but which should I make? Benjamin is the youngest of four brothers in the small Nigerian town of Akure. When their father moves to another city for work, the strong, paternal family structure leaves with him. Feeling adrift and looking for adventure, the brothers get the idea to start fishing on the river. While it sounds harmless, the river is a forbidden place. It’s considered dirty and dangerous, especially for boys who are being given a Western education to become the kind of "civilized" men that their father imagines. When a neighbor catches the boys fishing and tells their mother, their life changes forever. But it’s the prophecy of a madman, shouted out as they run from the river, that seals their fate. Part parable, part retelling of the Cain and Abel story, what follows is the tragic tale of the brothers' undoing. The prophecy of the madman runs into the family’s mix of Igbo culture, Christian influences, and Western education in such a way that the prophecy becomes self-fulfilling. Ben is nine years old as the story opens and tells of the events as they unfold in front of his young eyes. An older, wiser Ben, interjects on occasion to add authority, “the way things always become clearer only after they have happened.” This double-edged narration gives momentum, but also deepens the layers of the story and it takes on the quality of a parable. Ben’s experience traces and explores the political upheaval of post-colonial Nigeria in the 1990s. Anyone familiar with the work of Chinua Achebe is probably noting similarities. This is where my dilemma as a writer starts. It's so easy to set the bait for a clickable headline: Obioma Is the Successor to Achebe. It is often said that Things Fall Apart is the most widely read book in modern African literature. Like Obioma, Achebe, who passed away in 2013, wrote in English. Both men are Igbo and write about how their language influences culture, how Igbo beliefs have intertwined with Christianity and Western culture. By weaving the pace and energy of the oral tradition into the novel form, Obioma’s work is as vibrant and alive as Achebe’s. Crowning Obioma as a successor is an easy claim to make, but The New York Times already beat me to it: “Chigozie Obioma truly is the heir to Chinua Achebe.” The other problem is that I can’t quite make myself commit to it. When I read The Fishermen, I kept thinking of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Another try: The Fishermen Is the Americanah of 2015. One of the many brilliant things about Americanah is Adichie’s ability to take something ordinary, like the hair on your head, and show how it connects to the larger political climate. We get to go between the ears of the main character, test the tightness of a braid, and know how it feels. More, we come to understand the political and cultural meaning of that braid. Similarly, The Fishermen charges the simple act of fishing with meaning. The boys defiance of their father’s rules becomes a glimpse into how a belief system was lost in colonialism. Fishing is more than a rod and hook, it’s an elegy to a country. While it could be the Americanah of 2015, I can't quite commit to that claim either because as I read The Fishermen, I couldn’t stop thinking of NoViolet Bulawayo's We Need New Names. Both novels make use a child’s voice in a similarly effective way. We Need New Names starts in a very different place, a shantytown in Zimbabwe. Darling, the 10-year-old narrator, is led by her senses. Through her young eyes, we taste the guava, smell the dirt, and feel the heat of the sun. Her young feelings lay a foundation for our understanding Darling’s later experiences in America, “like it's telling you, with its snow, that you should go back to where you came from.” The Fishermen opens with Ben at age nine. His rough and tumble life with his brothers, the experience of being the "children of a rich man" who get their copy of "Mortal Kombat" taken away, the scary stories about the forbidden river, all these are told through innocent eyes. It allows someone from another place to understand how and why Ben's life later uproots. For example, Ben is learning why a parent switches from Igbo to English when speaking about politics as we are -- English has the needed words like "administration." Or one brother doesn’t get the meaning of an Igbo expression, so his mother switches to English and Ben understands why, “our parents most often reverted to English when angry, because being angry, they didn’t want to have to explain whatever they said.” These are just a few examples of how Darling and Ben show us their inner lives without lengthy explanations. Which brings me back to my dilemma, should I call Obioma the next Bulawayo? Adichie or Achebe? He could be called all of these things, but The Fishermen is also none of these things. It is a novel that is all its own. And there is a quieter truth about all of these novels that doesn’t lend itself particularly well to headlines. They remind me of why I love reading: to be shown what it might be like inside another culture; to slip between someone else’s ears; to feel a life that I won’t get to live. This is a truly clickworthy thing. But, it doesn’t happen in a headline. It takes longer than a sentence. It is a feeling that only comes over the course of many sentences that are strung together to make up a book like The Fishermen.
The IMPAC Award shortlist was announced today. The IMPAC sets itself apart with its unique approach. Its massive longlist is compiled by libraries all over the world before being whittled down by judges. This makes for a more egalitarian selection. It's also got a long lead time. Several books up for the current prize (to be named in June) were initially published as far back as 2013, putting the IMPAC more than a year behind other big literary awards. There's a distinct upside in this. By now, nearly all the shortlisted books are available in paperback in the U.S. The IMPAC also tends to be interesting for the breadth of books it considers, and the 2015 shortlist is no exception, with seven countries represented, though only three of the books are translated works. Four of the ten shortlisters are by women. Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Year in Reading) Horses of God by Mahi Binebine Harvest by Jim Crace (at The Millions) The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan (Art After Tragedy: The Narrow Road to the Deep North) Burial Rites by Hannah Kent K by Bernardo Kucinski Brief Loves that Live Forever by Andreï Makine TransAtlantic by Colum McCann (The Real and the Imagined: On Colum McCann’s TransAtlantic, Colum McCann's Year in Reading) Someone by Alice McDermott (Alice McDermott's Year in Reading) Sparta by Roxana Robinson (Roxana Robinson on Edith Wharton)
I don't know when this entry will run, but I am writing it on a Friday, and I'm supposed to have a baby on Tuesday. I've been home since Wednesday, prowling around the house -- if a very pregnant person can be said to prowl -- feeling lumpy and alert and expectant. It's safe to say I'm weirding out a little. For weeks I have been in the grip of so-called nesting hormones, which are real, and which remind me of being in college and taking other people's adderall to finish a term paper, except the term paper is cleaning baseboards, or finally buying a decent set of towels after reading a lot of information about what makes a towel nice, or creating tasteful yet affordable shared adult/baby bedroom decor out of an old calendar and 12 discount frames from Amazon. I've been reading a lot of Amazon reviews, so many that it doesn't feel like I've read much of anything else. But that's not true -- I read a book of essays by Nora Ephron. And I read this article in Harper's, about squadrons of elderly people living in campers and humping merchandise through an Amazon warehouse. Nora Ephron feels bad about her neck; I feel bad about my ankles, and my strenuous participation in late capitalism. I feel bad about the number of huge cardboard boxes filled with tiny things I've gotten from Amazon. I don't want to buy any more things from Amazon, but I don't know how I will get my cat litter, or new hooks for my shower curtain, or a tiny dehumidifier that fits in a closet, or a ceramic space heater with automatic shutoff and remote control so the baby doesn't freeze in our cold little house. I don't know where I will read 400 earnest assessments of which Pack and Play is the best Pack and Play. Did I mention I'm weirding out a little? Speaking of late capitalism, last week I read four children's books by Beverly Cleary, because I have been thinking about what it means to have a family and to be middle class and the Ramona books feel like a portrait of a kind of family and life that is maybe on its way out in America. I read select passages from The Chronicles of Narnia to get in a more cheerful frame of mind, but not The Last Battle, because that's the one where everyone dies. I read the first few pages of Renata Adler's Speedboat because people are always talking about it on Twitter, but I didn't understand what was happening and I took a break and then accidentally returned it to the library. I read some stories by Julie Hayden, and want to read more, but there aren't very many to read. I read Rabbit, Run, which I had always assumed that I'd read and it turned out I hadn't, and which I probably shouldn't have read while nine months pregnant since it depressed and angered the hell out of me. I read Invisible Man. I read Austerlitz. I read The Patrick Melrose Novels and was not as charmed as I had hoped to be. I read new things, The Good Lord Bird and Life After Life and The People in the Trees and Dept. of Speculation. I read Americanah over a blissful Easter Sunday, which I spent in bed eating popcorn in an empty house. I read Station Eleven over the course of a blissful regular Saturday, with my cats and my blanket. I read Thrown, which filled me with envy of people who are professional writers. I read Submergence. I re-read Dance to the Music of Time and The French Lieutenant's Woman and Howards End and everything by Donald Antrim. I read small parts of a vast number of books about pregnancy and babies and felt overwhelmed with details regarding the cervix. I read all of Labor Day, because Edan is in it, and I found most of the entries frankly alarming, but less so than the comments on BabyCenter. I read a lot of studies about what the numbers on a nuchal translucency mean, and many opaque articles about Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. As with every year, there were a lot of things I wanted to read and didn't. I didn't read anything by Norman Rush and I didn't read anything by Ivan Turgenev or Katherine Mansfield or Karen Russell or Ben Lerner. There were a lot of things I wanted to write and didn't. I didn't write an essay about my great-grandmother Vera. I didn't write my Anita Brookner reader, or an essay about late capitalism, or a novel. Parenthood, as far as I know, is not a condition characterized by increased productivity, so I don't know what will happen to these plans in the new year. I will say I have found pregnancy, for the most part, unexpectedly generative and wonderful. I mean, obviously, it's generative, but I mean generative of things other than blastocysts and embryos, or of strong feelings regarding towels. I mean of thoughts about life and books and writing. The first real things I ever wrote I wrote after I met my husband and fell in love; maybe loving a new person will open other horizons. Maybe it won't. It's impossible to say. For now I'm just weirding, watchful. More from A Year in Reading 2014 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.
My own novel came out this summer, and between edits, launch preparations, book tour, and all the near-nervous breakdowns that come with sending a book out into the world, I didn’t read as much as I’d hoped. But what I did end up reading was pretty great. Anthony Marra’s A Constellation of Vital Phenomena was not only one of the best books I read all year, it’s one of the best books I’ve ever read. I’d heard a lot about it before I finally picked it up, and I was worried it wouldn’t live up to the hype. But it so did. Beautifully written and beautifully constructed, with little twists that loop around and reappear and connect in immensely satisfying ways -- and probably the most hopeful book you’ll find about a modern-day war. It’s a book I sank into as a reader, and a book I know I’ll come back to study as a writer. I’d also put off reading Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie until I had time to dig into it, and I was not disappointed. It’s bitingly, bracingly funny and one of the smartest novels on race and culture out there. I laughed out loud while reading it on a plane, and ended up having a long, in-depth conversation about books and racism and identity with the person in the next seat as a result. There’s no higher praise: a smart, funny book that sparks serious conversation. Lily King’s Euphoria was also an airplane one-gulp read: I started it on a flight to visit my mother, and finished just as the plane landed -- it was that mesmerizing. As soon as I got to my mother’s, I handed her the book and said, “You would really love this. Read it.” She did, and was so involved that when I left two days later, she insisted on keeping the book. (I’m still trying to get it back.) Yet another book I wolfed down: Kate Racculia’s Bellweather Rhapsody. Part murder mystery, part coming-of-age story, it’s darkly funny yet tender and heartwarming. And anyone who remembers the '90s will revel in the spot-on references to the era of Discmans, Smashing Pumpkins, and plaid flannel shirts. Several years ago, my sister gave me Gene Luen Yang’s graphic novel American Born Chinese. I’m not sure why I didn’t read it on the spot -- it’s right in my wheelhouse -- but that meant I got to “discover” it this year. Somehow it manages to be both a (painfully) funny look at the life of an ABC teen, a retelling of the Monkey King story, and a meditation on self-acceptance, all at the same time. I can’t wait to dive into Yang’s other work. Finally, lest it sound like my year was all Serious Reading, one more book I thoroughly enjoyed: Bunmi Laditan’s The Honest Toddler: A Child’s Guide to Parenting. I’ve been a fan of the Honest Toddler Twitter feed ever since my son entered that delightful phase. More from A Year in Reading 2014 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.
Sometimes choosing one or two books from a whole year is like trying to pick the best meal you ate -- great bites keep coming to you (wait, what about that fig and pancetta pizza?) In 2014, I ate well: Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation might have hit me the hardest; it’s airy, funny and haunting. Rebecca Lee’s Bobcat was so good it made me want to be a writer. I tried to be the last person in America to read Patti Smith’s Just Kids and I think the 2010 National Book Awards got that one right. I loved the sweep of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah and the weightless beauty of Alejandro Zambra’s My Documents (coming soon) and got into John O’Hara (thank you Penguin for reissuing), especially the big, weird, funny, I-can’t-really-tell-if-this-is-great-or-terrible omniscience of BUtterfield 8. Just this week I read a terrific debut: Mitchell Jackson’s pulsing and powerful The Residue Years (which also serves as a great counterpoint to hipper-than-thou Portland). And finally, the Spokane Shakespeare Reading Club is nearing the end of its two-year project -- drunkenly discussing each play -- and hey, get this: it turns out Hamlet is pretty good. More from A Year in Reading 2014 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.
This morning, the longlist for the 2015 IMPAC Dublin award came out, and the nominees include some familiar names. Year in Reading alum Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Americanah is on there, as is Neil Gaiman's The Ocean at the End of the Lane (reviewed here by our own Tess Malone), Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch (which won this year's Pulitzer) and The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner (whom you can learn more about in this essay by our own Bill Morris).
We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for September. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. - The Bone Clocks 1 month 2. 1. A Highly Unlikely Scenario, or a Neetsa Pizza Employee's Guide to Saving the World 5 months 3. 9. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves 3 months 4. 2. Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage 2 months 5. 7. Cosmicomics 2 months 6. 4. The Round House 3 months 7. 5. Well-Read Women: Portraits of Fiction's Most Beloved Heroines 6 months 8. 10. My Struggle: Book 1 3 months 9. 8. Reading Like a Writer 3 months 10. 6. The Son 6 months Welcome to the party, David Mitchell! Or, perhaps it's more accurate to say, "Welcome back to the party." Mitchell's no stranger to our Top Ten, you see. Back in May, I observed that Mitchell is part of an elite group of eight authors who have reached our Hall of Fame on two separate occasions. Will this be number three? Every indication so far tells me that, yes, The Bone Clocks will follow in the footsteps of its predecessors — Cloud Atlas and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet — straight to the Millions record books. (No author has made it to our Hall of Fame for three separate books.) Why, exactly, is The Bone Clocks so individually appealing, though? Well, as Brian Ted Jones put it in his review for our site, the book serves as a pivot point in Mitchell's canon: The Bone Clocks marks such a change of attitude in Mitchell, a turn toward something grimmer. He’s always been drawn to elements of darkness, of course. Predacity — the animal way humans have of making prey out of each other — has been his primary theme throughout the five novels that came before this. And those novels, to be sure, are all full of monsters. In The Bone Clocks, though, Mitchell explores a new theme: regret. And, aside from what's different, the book also displays some of Mitchell's best writing to date. As Jones explains: There is a moment in the very last pages — you will definitely know it when you get there — where Mitchell reaches right into your chest, puts his fingers on your heart, and presses down. The kind of moment you would choose to live inside for all eternity, if you had to pick just one. I predict we'll be seeing Mitchell's name atop our Top Ten for many months to come. Meanwhile, with the addition of one work comes the graduation of another. At long last, Jess Walter's Beautiful Ruins has ascended to our Hall of Fame. Walter's novel represents the first addition to our Hall of Fame since last June. Near Misses: The Children Act, To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, Americanah, 10:04, and The Secret Place. See Also: Last month's list.
The first thing you may hear about Eimear McBride’s debut novel, A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing, is that it took nine years to find a publisher. The second is that it is brilliant, the winner of multiple literary prizes, and that McBride is, as Anne Enright put it in a 2013 review, “that old-fashioned thing, a genius.” First published in the U.K. by a small independent publisher, Galley Beggar, in 2013, A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing has finally made it to America thanks to another small independent publisher, Coffee House Press. There is undeniable romance to the misunderstood genius narrative, but I have to admit that the first thing I thought when I began this bracing, unrelenting, and audacious novel was that I could understand why it took almost a decade to find an editor. From page one it’s a tough read, both in terms of subject matter and style. Here’s the novel’s third paragraph, in which the novel’s unnamed narrator, at this point an infant in utero, describes the illness that has befallen her older brother: I know. The thing wrong. It’s a. It is called. Nosebleeds, headaches. Where you can’t hold. Fall mugs and dinner plates she says clear up. Ah young he says give the child a break. Fall off swings. Can’t or. Grip well. Slipping in the muck. Bang your. Poor head wrapped up white and the blood come through. She feels the sick of that. Little boy head. Shush. A few broken sentences later, we get the diagnosis: “It’s all through his brain like the roots of trees.” I don’t mean to sound glib, but from here, things only get worse. To give a brief, vague summary, this book is about a girl born into a diseased situation -- literally and metaphorically -- and how she uses her sexuality to cope with it. The sentences remain broken and inarticulate throughout the novel, even after the narrator is born, grows up, and comes of age. This novel does not shy away from the world’s cruelty. There were times when I had to look away from the page despite the opaque-ness of the prose. There were times when I was worried for the physical well being of the narrator. There were times when I had to disengage from the story, because the scenes of abuse and violence were too harsh. It’s not the kind of book that makes you cry; it’s the kind of book that shakes you up. While reading this novel, I had several dreams about terrible things happening to my son. Yes, this book actually gave me nightmares. And yet I did not want to stop reading it. I finished this book a couple days ago and I wanted to write about it immediately, to capture my visceral response. Still, just a few days away from it has given me a chance to wonder, from a calmer place, what is it about this terrifying book that held my attention. The prose, while arresting and utterly unique, is slightly repellant. If I re-read a sentence, it was often to figure out what was happening -- although I was surprised by how quickly I adjusted to the novel's fragmented style. I quickly began to appreciate how much information McBride was available to convey in her short, snapshot paragraphs. In this scene, a classic first-day-of-school scenario is rendered completely new by McBride’s breakneck prose: I be new girl. I could wish to be dead but for the wrong of it. To have to be saying again again where I come from. Who I am. And I’m from someplace so much littler than this. That redneck culchie. Backward. Farmyard. I am all these things to the great girl face. Those herd. Such bovine swinging heifers. Come don’t hate me. All your walkmans fizz in tune, in time with conversation, point graffitis on the bus, love this one that one. New girl stinks. Here’s another schoolyard scene, in which the narrator’s brother, who has survived brain cancer but is left with scars, lies to a group of older boys about their origins: You say, and shock me, a knife did it. Silence. For the first time impressed. They cannot delve you all a sudden. It’s the word “delve” that brought me up short. It suggests a shovel, a blunt instrument, and the blunt way these bullies are trying to get at the source of her brother’s pain, which is on the surface for everyone to see. “Delve” also has an echo of playground rhymes: one, two, buckle my shoe, three, four, shut the door...eleven, twelve, dig and delve. There is also something striking about “a knife did it.” The phrase is eerie, a reminder of all the surgeries (“going under the knife”) the brother has undergone. In yet another scene of schoolyard brutality, the brother is unable to defend himself: Bulged indignated. The bullish face fat with humiliation. Handicap. Handicap. One from the back gets the ball. Kicks and aims. It strikes your face. Bleared with mud. And knock you over. Laughter. Laughter. Never ever will it stop. Not ever again. The bell rings and release for you from that place. “Indignated,” “bleared,” “release for you” -- these word are at their root, the right words, but are jammed to fit the experience, like sawed-off puzzle pieces. Never mind if they’re in the right tense, never mind if they are paired with the right pronouns (or any pronoun), never mind if they are even being deployed correctly. There is no precision in this narrator’s world. No steadiness. Only movement and feeling. Bits of familiar language seep through. Not familiar in the sense of slang or cliché, but bones-of-the-English-language familiar, half-scraps of Shakespeare and Milton, and the King James Bible, too. The narrator’s mother is deeply, ruthlessly religious, and at once point McBride simply writes the Lord’s Prayer as a single paragraph, a scrap of prayer wedged between two paragraphs seared with the guilt of sexual abuse. It’s striking how well the prayer fits, the words written in one headlong sentence without commas or a breath taken, just the way the narrator would say it. I could go on about McBride’s prose, but ultimately I don’t think that’s why I kept reading this book. Nor was I compelled by the horror of the story. I had deep sympathy for the narrator, but it was complicated by the narrator’s intensely self-destructive behavior. It’s hard to spend time with someone who is so hell-bent on suffering, who rejects friendship, tenderness, comfort, laughter. But I realized that she does not reject love. The problem is she is so rarely offered it. In the wake of her brother’s illness, her parents have nothing in reserve for her. As a young woman, her uncle sexually abuses her. She’s capable of deep friendships with other women, but she is so full of self-loathing that she runs away from anyone who truly cares. Her brother is the only person she loves unconditionally and who is able to give her that love in return. “I swim to your touch” -- that’s the narrator, in utero, already more attuned to her brother’s presence than anyone else in the world, including her mother. It’s this thread of love that sustains the novel and keeps it from becoming an unending tale of misery. It’s also what gives weight and power to the novel’s most beautifully written passages. A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing is already a literary sensation, the recipient of numerous awards, including the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction (formerly the Orange Prize), for which she competed against several highly-lauded novels, including Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah, and Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch. I haven’t read The Goldfinch, but I have read The Lowland and Americanah, and while I have affection for those novels, especially Americanah, they didn’t startle me the way McBride’s debut did. There is something so desperate and prayerful about this book, something so burned-out and raw, that it’s hard to simply recommend. I can only say that it was worth reading, and that I'm grateful that it finally found its publishers.
We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for August. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. 1. A Highly Unlikely Scenario, or a Neetsa Pizza Employee's Guide to Saving the World 4 months 2. - Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage 1 month 3. 2. Beautiful Ruins 6 months 4. 3. The Round House 2 months 5. 4. Well-Read Women: Portraits of Fiction's Most Beloved Heroines 5 months 6. 5. The Son 5 months 7. - Cosmicomics 1 month 8. 6. Reading Like a Writer 2 months 9. 9. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves 2 months 10. 10. My Struggle: Book 1 2 months When it comes to literary fiction bestseller lists, is there a more reliable fixture than Haruki Murakami? Not only is the author prolific — having published thirteen novels (including a 1,000+ pager!) over his career — but he's also incredibly popular. It was reported last year that in his native Japan, copies of his latest book, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, were flying off shelves to the tune of a million copies per week. And his reach is increasing, if you can believe it. A recent poll indicated that the author's popularity is growing in Korea, and his work has been adapted for the screen in Vietnam. (His 2011 doorstopper, 1Q84, was banned from China, but that could be viewed as a mark of success depending on who you ask.) So of course it should come as no surprise to see his latest novel break into our latest Top Ten, even despite Woody Brown's fairly tepid review of the work for our site. “All of the hallmarks of Murakami’s style are present in Colorless Tsukuru,” Brown wrote back in August. “But for perhaps the first time ... they seem flat and uninteresting, almost overused, as if the novel is a parody of his earlier work.” Ultimately, Brown notes, it's a novel that, like Franz Liszt’s “Le mal du pays” (which figures prominently in the book), is “aloof, quiet, and finally, dissonant.” Here's hoping his next effort — due before the end of the year — is stronger, although it seems like no matter what, it'll sell plenty of copies. Meanwhile, the Top Ten saw the emergence this month of Italo Calvino's classic work of "scientific" fiction, Cosmicomics. Undoubtedly Millions readers have Ted Gioia's tantalizing review ("Italo Calvino’s Science Fiction Masterpiece") to thank for putting the under-appreciated gem onto their radars: Imagine a brilliant work of science fiction that wins the National Book Award and is written by a contender for the Nobel Prize in literature. Imagine that it is filled with dazzling leaps of the imagination, stylish prose, unique characters, philosophical insights, and unexpected twists and turns, but also draws on scientific concepts at every juncture. Imagine that it ranks among the finest works in the sci-fi genre. And then imagine that almost no science fiction fan has read it, or even heard about it. Rounding out this month's list, we see the continued dominance of Rachel Cantor's A Highly Unlikely Scenario and Jess Walter's Beautiful Ruins. Both Well-Read Women and The Son remain popular mainstays as well. The list is due for a major shake-up in two months, as all four will likely be gracing our Hall of Fame by October and November. Will Knausgaard hang on to the last spot of the list by then? Will it have moved up? Will Book 2 have cracked the rankings? Only time will tell. Near Misses: Americanah, Jesus' Son, Bark, and Just Kids. See Also: Last month's list.
We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for July. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. 2. A Highly Unlikely Scenario, or a Neetsa Pizza Employee's Guide to Saving the World 3 months 2. 1. Beautiful Ruins 5 months 3. - The Round House 1 month 4. 6. Well-Read Women: Portraits of Fiction's Most Beloved Heroines 4 months 5. 3. The Son 4 months 6. - Reading Like a Writer 1 month 7. 4. Bark: Stories 4 months 8. 8. Americanah 2 months 9. - We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves 1 month 10. - My Struggle: Book 1 1 month July is the month of revolutions, writes Tom Nissley, and the theory is borne out in our July Top Ten. Not only do we have a new number one, but we also have four newcomers to our list — this in spite of the fact that not a single book from our June Top Ten graduated into our hallowed Hall of Fame. Are you intrigued? Then let's get right to it. Rachel Cantor's A Highly Unlikely Scenario continues its months-long ascent up our list. When it debuted at #8 in May, I attributed its success to its placement on our Great 2014 Book Preview, but it looks like Millions readers have grown more and more intrigued ever since. Last month, Cantor's book rose all the way to #2, and now it's finally edged Jess Walter's Beautiful Ruins out of the top spot. What will August hold in store for Cantor's novel about "competing giant fast food factions rul[ing] the world?" Only time will tell. Of the four newcomers to our list, the appearance of Karen Jay Fowler's We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is probably the easiest to explain. The novel, which has been described by Khaled Hosseini as “a gripping, bighearted book,” won this year's PEN/Faulkner award, and was also recently longlisted for the Man Booker Prize. Likewise, the debut of Karl Ove Knausgaard's My Struggle: Book 1 is understandable — and, frankly, overdue — considering the immense hype it's been getting lately. When Jonathan Callahan reviewed the book's early installments for our site last year (which feels like ages ago...), he wrote of the autobiographical project: With astounding single-mindedness (or monomania, if you prefer), Knausgaard conceives of and then executes the writing project that both consumes him and sequesters him from life. He’s Ahab, only with the final volume’s publication — which reportedly concludes with whatever the Norwegian is for “I am no longer an author” — he’s gone and caught the whale. At the time, it seemed an unlikely candidate for breakout success. But oh, how wrong we were. Since last year, Knausgaard's earned himself praise in the New York Times, the New Yorker, and more. He's packed standing-room-only bookstore readings and he's been talked about about just about every bar in New York. In fact there were rumors recently that the book was so popular in the author's native Norway that the country had to institute "Knausgaard-free days" in order to keep its economy humming. Also joining the list this month are books by Louise Erdrich and Francine Prose. The Round House has been knocking on the Top Ten's door since its publication in 2012, and Reading Like a Writer seems like it's perfectly suited for most of our readers. Near Misses: The Good Lord Bird, Jesus' Son, Just Kids, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, and The Fault in Our Stars. See Also: Last month's list.
We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for June. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. 2. Beautiful Ruins 4 months 2. 9. A Highly Unlikely Scenario, or a Neetsa Pizza Employee's Guide to Saving the World 2 months 3. 4. The Son 3 months 4. 3. Bark: Stories 3 months 5. 8. The Good Lord Bird 3 months 6. 7. Well-Read Women: Portraits of Fiction's Most Beloved Heroines 3 months 7. 5. Just Kids 6 months 8. - Americanah 1 month 9. 6. Eleanor & Park 3 months 10. 10. Jesus' Son: Stories 3 months As I predicted in last month's write-up, the ascension of The Beggar Maid to our Hall of Fame means that Alice Munro has now officially graduated to the "Top Ten Two Timers Club" (working title) — a nine-member cohort of authors who've reached the Hall of Fame for more than one book. Consequently, space on the Top Ten has opened up for a new number one -- Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter -- and for a new addition to the list: Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, which saw a sales bump after it was released in paperback last March, and then again after it was announced that a film adaptation could be on the way. (Of course, being featured on a surprise Beyoncé album never hurts, either.) Millions readers looking for an additional Adichie fix are welcome to check out her contribution to our Year in Reading series, as well. Meanwhile, Rachel Cantor's A Highly Unlikely Scenario, or a Neetsa Pizza Employee's Guide to Saving the World continues to enjoy breakout success among Millions readers. The book takes place in the not-too-far-off future, where "competing giant fast food factions rule the world." (One could be forgiven for wondering how, exactly, that's different from the way things are right now.) Next month, I expect to see multiple books from our recent Most Anticipated list to make it into our Top Ten. After all, two Millions staffers did just publish books last week, you know... Near Misses: Little Failure: A Memoir, Stories of Anton Chekhov, My Struggle: Book 1, The Fault in Our Stars, and Blood Will Out: The True Story of a Murder, a Mystery, and a Masquerade. See Also: Last month's list.
Last week we mentioned that Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's novel Americanah will, all going well, become a movie starring Lupita Nyong'o. We also mentioned that she wrote about her Year in Reading for us last year. But wait, here's more! The Rumpus has interviewed Adichie about Americanah, and it's well worth the read.
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. The Beggar Maid: Stories of Flo and Rose 6 months 2. 2. Beautiful Ruins 3 months 3. 5. Bark: Stories 2 months 4. 3. The Son 2 months 5. 4. Just Kids 5 months 6. 8. Eleanor & Park 2 months 7. 6. Well-Read Women: Portraits of Fiction's Most Beloved Heroines 2 months 8. 9. The Good Lord Bird 2 months 9. - A Highly Unlikely Scenario, or a Neetsa Pizza Employee's Guide to Saving the World 1 month 10. 10. Jesus' Son: Stories 2 months In order to graduate to our Hall of Fame, books must remain on the Millions Top Ten for more than six months. The feat has only been accomplished by 82 books in the series's five year history. Within that subset of hallowed tomes, though, eight authors have attained an even higher marker of success: they've reached the Hall of Fame more than once. This accomplishment is remarkable for two reasons: 1) the Top Ten typically favors heavily marketed new releases, so it means that these eight authors have more than once produced blockbusters in the past few years; and 2) because Top Ten graduates must remain on our monthly lists for over half a year before ascending to the Hall of Fame, that means their books must be popular enough to have sustained success. (In other words, marketing only gets you far.) The names of these eight authors should be familiar to Millions readers, of course. They belong to some of the most successful writers of the past 25 years: 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 Tattoo, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest), David Mitchell (Cloud Atlas, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet), Hilary Mantel (Wolf Hall, Bring Up the Bodies), Jonathan Franzen (The Corrections, Freedom), George Saunders (Tenth of December, Fox 8), and — as of this month — Dave Eggers (Zeitoun, The Circle). (*David Foster Wallace has the unique distinction, actually, of having two of his own books in our Hall of Fame in addition to a biography written about him.) Even money would seem to indicate that Alice Munro is poised to join this esteemed group next. Her Selected Stories graduated to the Hall of Fame shortly after her Nobel Prize was awarded in 2013, and her collection, The Beggar Maid, has been holding fast ever since. Meanwhile, the surprise re-emergence of Denis Johnson's Jesus' Son, which has been hovering at the bottom of the Top Ten lists these past two months, indicates that maybe he'll reach that group soon as well. His novella, Train Dreams, graduated in August of 2012. Changing gears a bit: the lone new addition to our Top Ten this month in the form of Rachel Cantor's mouthful of a novel, A Highly Unlikely Scenario, or a Neetsa Pizza Employee's Guide to Saving the World. The book, which was published last month, was featured in our Great 2014 Book Preview, during which time Millions staffer Hannah Gersen posed the eternal question, "It’s got time travel, medieval kabbalists, and yes, pizza. What more can you ask for?" What more, indeed? Near Misses: Little Failure: A Memoir, Americanah, Stories of Anton Chekhov, My Struggle: Book 1, and Tampa. See Also: Last month's list.
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. 6. The Beggar Maid: Stories of Flo and Rose 5 months 2. 9. Beautiful Ruins 2 months 3. - The Son 1 month 4. 8. Just Kids 4 months 5. - Bark: Stories 1 month 6. - Well-Read Women: Portraits of Fiction's Most Beloved Heroines 1 month 7. 10. The Circle 2 months 8. - Eleanor & Park 1 month 9. - The Good Lord Bird 1 month 10. - Jesus' Son: Stories 1 month Major shakeups to the April Top Ten were wrought by the graduation of six (count 'em) titles to our Millions Hall of Fame: The Goldfinch, Selected Stories, The Flamethrowers, The Luminaries, Draw It With Your Eyes Closed, and The Lowland. This "March 2014" class of ascendants is noteworthy not only for being the biggest single-month Hall of Fame class ever, but also for being one of the most highly-decorated classes in series history. How decorated? Let's run the tape: Donna Tartt's novel won this year's Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Alice Munro won the last Nobel Prize for Literature. Rachel Kushner's novel was a finalist for the National Book Award. Eleanor Catton was the winner of last year's Man Booker Prize. And Jhumpa Lahiri's work was shortlisted for that same Man Booker Prize. Objectively speaking, this is the biggest and best class to date. Of course, here at The Millions, our readers have plenty of decorated authors on their "to be read" shelves, and as a result, our Top Ten doesn't so much rebuild — to borrow the parlance of a college football team — as it reloads. To wit: we're replacing a National Book Award finalist, a Pulitzer winner, and a Man Booker winner with two National Book Award winners, a Pulitzer finalist, and Lorrie Moore. Heading off this new crop of titles is Philipp Meyer's The Son, which was a Pulitzer finalist this past year, and which was met with critical acclaim for weeks after it was first published. It's a book that John Davidson described for our site as being, "a sprawling, meticulously researched epic tale set in southern Texas," and one that "leverages" a "certain theory of Native American societies ... to explore the American creation myth." Indeed, Meyer himself noted in his Millions interview that, "If there’s a moral purpose to the book, it’s to put our history, the history of this country, into a context." Additionally, the April Top Ten welcomes James McBride's The Good Lord Bird, which blew past the field at last year's National Book Awards to claim top prize overall. (The announcement of a movie deal soon followed.) For The Millions, our own Bill Morris sang the work's praises and he sang them loudly. The book, Morris wrote in his latest Year in Reading piece, is "one of the most astonishing, rollicking, delightful, smart and sad books I’ve read in all my life." Evidently you listened. New(ish) releases weren't the only new additions to our list this month, either. Sneaking into the tenth spot on our list was a classic collection from Denis Johnson, the winner of the National Book Award in 2007. It's a pity they no longer print the version that fits in your pocket. And what to say of Lorrie Moore, whose addition to the Vanderbilt faculty last Fall was overshadowed by news of Bark's imminent publication? Perhaps it's best if I let the final paragraph from Arianne Wack's profile of the author speak for itself: Exploring the demands of a life is the heart of Moore’s work, and the resonate truth of her prose has fueled a fevered desire for her books. Her characters don’t so much adventure through life as they do drift and stumble through it, making it a map of emotional landmarks, places you keep finding yourself in. One suspects that Moore is not simply writing a life, but cleverly recording yours. There is a commonality linking reader with character, an elastic boundary between her fiction and our reality that both reinforces and subverts one’s own sense of uniqueness. Coming away from one of her stories, one is reminded that we are all just doing this the best we know how. Or better yet, perhaps I should point you toward our own Edan Lepucki's summation of Moore's influence on a generation of American short story writers: We all came out of Lorrie Moore’s overcoat–or her frog hospital, her bonehead Halloween costume. If you’re a young woman writer with a comic tendency, and you like similes and wordplay, and you traffic in the human wilderness of misunderstanding and alienation, then you most certainly participate in the Moore tradition. Lastly, the April Top Ten welcomes two other newcomers as well. Entering the field in the eighth spot is Eleanor & Park, of which Janet Potter proclaimed, "Rarely is a realistic love story a page-turner, but when I got to the end I tweeted: 'Stayed up til 3 finishing Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell. Would have stayed up forever.'" (The book is being made into a movie, by the way.) Meanwhile, a collection of portraits entitled Well-Read Women: Portraits of Fiction's Most Beloved Heroines enters the list in sixth place, likely owing to its prominence on Hannah Gersen's list of gift ideas from last year. Near Misses: Americanah, Little Failure: A Memoir, Stories of Anton Chekhov, A Highly Unlikely Scenario, or a Neetsa Pizza Employee's Guide to Saving the World: A Novel, and Tampa. See Also: Last month's list.
Carve out some time to watch all forty-five minutes of Zadie Smith and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s recent “Between the Lines” conversation if you want to find out why Americanah qualifies as Adichie’s “fuck you” book. (You can also just skip to the 16:16 mark if you’re unable to carve out enough time.)
Now that we’ve casted the film adaptation of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, we’d like to turn your attention to Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie’s Americanah, which may be involved in an upcoming collaboration with Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o. Adichie framed the possibility this way in a recent interview: “I'm going to do the mysterious thing and say that Lupita might be making an announcement very soon."
The winners of the National Book Critics Circle Award have been announced in New York City. The award is voted on by critics and considers all books in English (including in translation), no matter the country of origin. The winners in the various categories and some supplementary links: Fiction: Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie, Americanah (excerpt, the author's Year in Reading) Nonfiction: Sheri Fink, Five Days at Memorial (excerpt) Autobiography: Amy Wilentz, Farewell, Fred Voodoo: A Letter From Haiti (<excerpt) Criticism: Franco Moretti, Distant Reading Biography: Leo Damrosch, Jonathan Swift: His Life and His World (excerpt) Poetry: Frank Bidart, Metaphysical Dog (The Poet and the Movie Star: An Evening with Frank Bidart and James Franco) Previously: The finalists