Arcadia

New Price: $16.00
Used Price: $1.01

Mentioned in:

The Tournament of Books

Welcome to a new episode of The Book Report presented by The Millions! This week, Janet and Mike got to serve as commentators for The Morning News Tournament of Books. They discuss the results, as well as some of the surprises along the way.

Discussed in this episode: The Sellout by Paul Beatty, The Tsar of Love and Techno by Anthony Marra, basketball, Fates and Furies and Arcadia by Lauren Groff, Bats of the Republic by Zachary Thomas Dodson, The Turner House by Angela Flournoy, A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara, A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler, Jeff VanderMeer.

Not discussed in this episode: Mike’s unfortunate prediction that A Gronking to Remember by Lacey Noonan would go all the way this year.

The Most Joyous Part: The Millions Interviews Lauren Groff

Earlier in the summer, I was on a plane that took off from D.C. bound for California, and I read Lauren Groff’s latest novel, Fates and Furies, during the five hours of flight. Not all of it — I’m a slow reader. But also it was so good I wanted to save the end for somewhere I’d be alone. I did pause for a bit to write in my journal to gush about her. “Lauren Groff — ” I started, cutting myself off. “When I read her, I am mesmerized. She goes so far into the worlds she creates. How? It must be so difficult and demanding. Or maybe not. Maybe it just comes naturally to her.”

I got the chance to talk with her on the phone a few weeks later, and ask her how she does it. It turns out, it is demanding — but I think it also comes quite naturally.

The Millions: Fates and Furies is about the marriage between Lotto, a playwright, and his gorgeous and mysterious wife, Mathilde. The ambition and love between the two of them is fascinating and all consuming — both for the friends who envy them throughout the novel and for the reader immersed in their lives and secrets. What drove you to write about a marriage?

Lauren Groff: I tend to write two projects at once because otherwise I feel as though I’m putting all my hope and work into something that will probably fail. Focusing on one novel for years and years at a time can feel scary. So I wrote Fates and Furies while I was writing my previous novel, Arcadia, and when I got tired of working on one book I would go to the other one. Arcadia is about a utopian community, and it struck me that in fact the smallest, deepest community you can have is within an intimate partnership. In a relationship, you wake up every morning committed to doing your best, every day you fail, but the next morning you wake up and try again.

TM: How did you do the work of writing Arcadia and Fates and Furies at the same time?

LG: I had butcher paper on the walls of my office at the time I was working on both of the books, and I would write Lotto’s point of view on one big page and then go over and immediately write Mathilde’s on another. I went back and forth like this for a few years, until I felt like I had built up the story enough to know it inside and out.

TM: Toward the end of part one of Fates and Furies, Lotto articulates this thought: “Paradox of marriage: you can never know someone entirely; you do know someone entirely.” Do you agree with his assessment?

LG: I would say that we all have quiet subterranean rebellions going on at all times. I adore my husband very, very much but not a day goes by that I don’t have thoughts that he’d be horrified to know about.

I would say that there have to be things that we keep secret. There’s no such thing as full disclosure. Because if we didn’t have secrets, we would have no internal life at all, which would make for a very sad existence. So I think it’s a beautiful and creative and magical aspect of being human to have these constant internal eruptions. I think those parts of ourselves that exist in a state of pure and selfish personality — the parts that are not shared — are actually very beautiful.

TM: I loved your most recent story in The New Yorker, “Ghosts and Empties” — which also hits the same chord in regards to inner lives. In the “This Week in Fiction” interview about that story, you commented that there’s a part of you that has lately been resisting the cause-and-effect impulse in story writing. How did you mature into this next phase of writing?

LG: I don’t know if it’s maturing or going backwards! I think as you mature as a writer, you go after what feels most honest and real to you as a human being at that particular moment in time. In the beginning, maybe you train yourself to write stories that are more like stories –something happens, and then other things that happen as a result, you write in terms of cause-and-effect. I do think that life can be perceived as a series of reactions, to an extent. But the more I think about my life as it is at the moment, everything exists in a swirl of confusion. So I was trying to write something that feels more true to my current mode of perception when I wrote “Ghosts and Empties.”

I’ve always been interested in the cusp between fiction and autobiography. My senior thesis in college was about that vague space between the two. Also, when I wrote “Ghosts and Empties,” I was thinking about the amazing William Maxwell story, “The Thistles in Sweden,” which is one of my all time favorites. It is a perfect story. I think that’s something you do as a writer — write in conversation with a work that you really, really love.

TM: Your books and stories are all quite different from each other — I keep trying to find a common thread, and I’m not sure there is one solidly obvious one. One thing I keep coming back to is the concept of home in your work, and how many of your characters — from Lotto in Fates and Furies to Bit in Arcadia, or even the narrator of the short story “Above and Below” — are so grounded in the selves that come from their homes, even as they are running, or exiled, from home. Is this something that you think about consciously when you write, or something you see as playing a part in your work?

LG: That’s a beautiful way of putting it. I think I am haunted by community. Particularly the pressures of community versus freedom. I think a lot of this comes from being such a homebody. Home is where I’m happiest. Homebodies can survive in the world, but we may not like it very much. I think that’s an artist’s reaction to the world in general: we have to make these safe spaces in order to create things. In truth, I would be very, very bored if I kept doing the same thing over and over again in my work, and so I’m always trying something new and different — and failing, mostly. But still, no matter what we do when we think we’re trying to be completely experimental in terms of subject matter, in the end, we are whom we are. And so we always end up circling back to the things that are important to us.

TM: Do your drafts come out in a trance or is it persistence that’s seeing you through to the end?

LG: They don’t come in a trance, though sometimes a short story will come out in a beautiful burst. But most of the time when I write, I sit there day after day, and it’s work, you know? It’s like training for a marathon. You just kind of do it. And most of it is just a mess, and a disaster. But then you just do it again, and something clicks in, and you think, oh, okay, so I have to rewrite everything I’ve been doing.

TM: I’ve heard you write many, many drafts, and the first drafts are written by hand.

LG: I write almost everything by hand. It works out well for me because I can’t read my own handwriting, and so I don’t go back to read the drafts I’ve just written. I do a draft, and by the time I’ve finished it, I understand the foundational problems that are ruining the book. And then I just start over again. That way I’m building my idea of the world of the story, I’m building the characters. The things that I remember when I’m finished with one draft are the living details, and the living details are the ones that are meant to be in the story, that mean something.

My drafting system is insane, and it’s very wasteful, and I’m frustrated for years and years at a time, but it ends up working out for me, because otherwise I would end up polishing foundationally problematic work. My impulse always is to spend all my time playing with words — that’s the most joyous part for me.

TM: Your characters are exceptionally vivid. I’m thinking in particular of Handy in Arcadia, with his grey eyetooth. And in Fates and Furies, both Lotto and Mathilde are carefully and artfully drawn as humans. Can you talk a little bit about how you create the physical details of your characters?

LG: I don’t really know people until I can see them; it means a lot to me to be able to envision the world I’m writing about. I just need to know as much as possible, and the physicality of the characters is part of that. So one of the things that I do is to find an image that corresponds to a character and put it up on my wall as I’m writing. Or I think about people that I know, and let them speak to me. It’s all part of building the world of the novel.

TM: Lotto is a person who makes things — he’s first an actor, but then a playwright, and you’ve written parts of his plays and included them as excerpts or scenes. What was it like to write as another writer — and a different kind of writer?

LG: Research can obsess me, and in this case, I became obsessed by playwrights and their plays. I started reading a lot of [Henrik] Ibsen, [Anton] Chekhov, Eugene O’Neill, and then I read their biographies. Playwrights possibly have a different brain than the rest of us. There’s something to be said about being able to edit out the external, visual items in a story and just concentrate on the dialogue and the character. As I wrote Fates and Furies I was trying to figure out what it would be like to be a playwright. I’ve always loved plays as well as operas, in particular, because I find them so beautifully melodramatic and funny and ultimately satisfying. They transport you in a way that almost nothing else can. Though actually, now that I think of it, novels might be the closest literature has to operas. They’re both so big and populous and they both can incorporate so many different musical or tonal modes.

TM: In an interview with The Rumpus, you discussed climate change, and said the world was “clearly barreling toward disaster.” You’ve also said that Arcadia came from thinking about utopias — and that you wrote it as a reaction to the many and various dystopian scenarios that one might imagine. What role does climate change play in your writing, and what, in your heart of hearts, do you think is going to happen?

LG: I don’t know what’s going to happen, of course, but I do wake up in the middle of the night imagining terrible things. It all has begun to feel especially urgent now that I have children. They did not ask for any of this, and they haven’t done anything wrong, but they will be the ones to struggle through it. I don’t know if anyone could be prepared for what will happen. All I know is that fiction and poetry and literature that doesn’t even subtly address climate change feels as if it is missing something very fundamental about what it means to be alive right now.

What I mean by this is that the novel, through history, it is a text that traces an individual through space and time. Of course wars have always occurred, and there’s always been millenarianism; there’s always been some kind of threat, either real or perceived to the human project. But it’s never been so globally certain as it is now that something very bad is going to happen because of what we have done to the environment; it is all happening right now. And so a perfect book about someone’s love story that, 50 years ago, might have felt incredibly powerful and beautiful has stopped speaking to me at all these days. Escapism is not where I need to be right now if we’re talking about serious art. We have a moral duty and responsibility to speak to the greatest urgencies of our time. Why else would we be writing? Why should we write fiction that doesn’t critique the now? That doesn’t think deeply about the mistakes that we’ve made, the ones that have brought us to where we are?

On the other hand, I have developed an equal allergy to apocalyptic fiction, which I know is going to be contentious. I just think a lot of it is very passive. Some of it is really beautiful — I’m thinking about Margaret Atwood’s brilliant novels, or about The Road by Cormac McCarthy. But some apocalyptic fiction takes for granted the end of things, it’s not interested in pushing back against the now. It seems like a horrible lie, sometimes, to read how, no matter how awful it gets on Earth, the human spirit will prevail! It provides a sort of false catharsis: we read these apocalyptic books in the comfort of our homes with a mug of hot tea beside us; we’re wrapped in our thousand thread-count sheets, and when we finish these books, we feel like we fought some sort of war, that we’ve waged some sort of battle against evil; we’re self-satisfied. But we haven’t fought anything; we haven’t done anything. We’ve read a book. I would never say that someone’s choice to write about any particular topic is wrong, or that someone else’s choice to read or write anything is not legitimate. Personally, though, I’d rather look at climate change more subtly, let it slip in gently, not have it cudgel me over the head.

TM: What do you read that does satisfy this criteria?

LG: I thought that Kate Walbert’s The Sunken Cathedral did it really beautifully. I would argue that Ben Lerner’s 10:04 did it really well. And then also a lot of poetry does it gorgeously. Maybe it’s easier in poetry because the space is smaller and poets are more radical formalists, I don’t know. Jynne Martin — who’s also my publicist, full disclosure — is amazing, and she just had a book come out, and part of it is about climate change, and is done so beautifully.

TM: When did you know you were a writer?

LG: I was a writer long before I wrote anything interesting. I went into college thinking I was a poet. But I’m a terrible poet! And yet I love it, in the same way that I’m a terrible singer, and yet I love to sing, and I’m a really bad dancer, but I love to dance. There are some things we do with glee because we’re liberated by being absolutely terrible at them. That said, I was quickly disabused of the idea that I was a poet, and I started writing fiction and I spent three years out of college trying to find a way to live and write at the same time. I wrote a couple of atrocious novels, and then I went to get my graduate degree at University of Wisconsin-Madison, because I was so tired of trying to do it alone. At that time I was also writing these Lorrie Moore knock-off stories, which was super fun until the moment I got into Lorrie Moore’s class, and I debated giving her one of these awful stories that was similar to but not at all, really, like hers. But she’s amazing — she’s warm and gentle and kind — and not at all intimidating.

TM: How has living in Florida influenced your work?

LG: I feel a deep ambivalence about the state of Florida. Living here has been fruitful for me, because for a large chunk of the year — the part of the year that I love the most, the summer — I barely go outside at all. I can’t handle the heat. So I spend a lot of the summer inside in the dark, with the lights off. I have the summer and winter reversed. I think it’s good to feel like an outsider when you’re a writer.

I do find the natural beauty here extraordinary and moving, even though nature here wants to kill you. We have this banana spider living in our backyard right now that’s about the size of my hand. It’s so beautiful to watch. I go out there with my coffee and sit and watch the banana spider in the quiet and heat. There’s part of me that would love to live in Brooklyn with everybody else, but I know that I would be forced to be more social than I am, and my work gets done because I’m not as social as I would be otherwise. I have no readings to go to here, and I don’t teach, so I have a lot of time to dream, and to mess up.

The Millions Top Ten: July 2013

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.
3.

Taipei
2 months

2.
4.

Stand on Zanzibar
5 months

3.
5.

The Middlesteins
5 months

4.
7.

The Orphan Master’s Son
3 months

5.
8.

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk
5 months

6.


The Interestings
1 month

7.
9.

Vampires in the Lemon Grove
4 months

8.


Visitation Street
1 month

9.


The Pioneer Detectives
1 month

10.


Fox 8
1 month

 

Big changes on our list this month as four titles graduate to our illustrious Hall of Fame. Let’s run through new Hall of Famers quickly:

Epic Fail: Bad Art, Viral Fame, and the History of the Worst Thing Ever: As many of our readers are already aware, staff writer Mark O’Connell’s shorter-format ebook was The Millions’ first foray into ebook publishing. We have been thrilled by the great reader response. And, if you haven’t had a chance to check it out yet, why not mark its graduation to the Hall of Fame by checking out this special, little book (for only $1.99!)

Tenth of December: 2013 opened with the book world agog over George Saunders’ newest collection. He famously graced the cover of the New York Times Magazine under the banner “Greatest Human Ever in the History of Ever” (or something like that) and the book figured very prominently in our first-half preview. Unsurprisingly, all the hype helped drive a lot of sales. It also led our own Elizabeth Minkel to reflect on Saunders and the question of greatness in a thoughtful essay.

Building Stories: Chris Ware has reached the point in his career (legions of fans, museum shows) where he can do whatever he wants. And what he wanted to do was produce a “book” the likes of which we hadn’t seen before, a box of scattered narratives to be delved into any which way the reader wanted, all shot through with Ware’s signature style and melancholy. Ware appeared in our Year in Reading last year with an unlikely selection. Mark O’Connell called Building Stories “a rare gift.”

Arcadia: Lauren Groff is another Millions favorite, though it took a bit longer for her book, first released in March 2012, to make our list. Our own Edan Lepucki interviewed Groff soon after the book’s release, and Groff later participated in our Year in Reading, discussing her “year of savage, brilliant, and vastly underrated female writers.”

That leaves room, then, for four debuts on this month’s list:

The Interestings: Though Meg Wolitzer is already a well-known, bestselling author, her big novel seems to be on the slow burn trajectory to breakout status, with the word-of-mouth wave (at least in the part of the world that I frequent), building month by month. That word of mouth was perhaps helped along the way by Edan Lepucki’s rollicking review, in which, among other things, she posited what it means for a “big literary book” to be written by someone other than a “big literary man.”

Visitation Street: Ivy Pochoda’s new thriller featured prominently in our latest preview and carries the imprimatur of Dennis Lehane. That seems to have been enough to land the book on our list.

The Pioneer Detectives: As one Millions Original graduates from our list, another arrives. The Pioneer Detectives, which debuted in the second half of July, is an ambitious work of page-turning reportage, the kind of journalism we all crave but that can often be hard to find. Filled with brilliant insights into how scientific discoveries are made and expertly edited by our own Garth Hallberg, The Pioneer Detectives is a bargain at $2.99. We hope you’ll pick it up.

Fox 8: And as one George Saunders work graduates from our list, another arrives. This one is an uncollected story, sold as an e-single.

Meanwhile, Tao Lin’s Taipei easily slides into our top spot. For more on the book’s unlikely success in our Top Ten, don’t miss my commentary for last month’s list.

Near Misses: They Don’t Dance Much, Speedboat, My Struggle: Book 1, The Flamethrowers and Life After Life. See Also: Last month’s list.

The Millions Top Ten: June 2013

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.
1.

Epic Fail: Bad Art, Viral Fame, and the History of the Worst Thing Ever
6 months

2.
2.

Tenth of December
6 months

3.


Taipei
1 month

4.
4.

Stand on Zanzibar
4 months

5.
5.

The Middlesteins
4 months

6.
6.

Building Stories
6 months

7.
9.

The Orphan Master’s Son
2 months

8.
7.

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk
4 months

9.
8.

Vampires in the Lemon Grove
3 months

10.
10.

Arcadia
6 months

 

We had one debut on our list this month, and it may come as a surprise for readers who have been following the site. Our own Lydia Kiesling read Tao Lin’s Taipei and came away viscerally turned off by a book that has received quite a lot of attention both for its attempt to forge a new style and for the aura of its author, who has an army of followers and is, as New York once called him, “a savant of self-promotion.” Despite Lydia’s misgivings, the book has been on balance reviewed positively, including in the Times.
Still, Lydia’s review – negative as it was – was utterly compelling (Gawker thought so too), and because of that, as I watched the sales of Taipei pile up last month, I was not completely surprised. After all, the last target of a stirring and controversial pan (don’t miss the angry comments) at The Millions was Janet Potter’s fiery takedown of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy, and two of those three of those books now sit in comfortable retirement in our Hall of Fame. In the case of Taipei, the lion’s share of credit of course goes to Lin for writing a book that readers are evidently very curious to read, but I think it is also true that a well crafted, properly supported, and strongly opinionated review like Lydia’s can have the odd effect of compelling the reader to see what all the fuss is about.
In fact, this phenomenon has been studied and a recent paper showed that, "For books by relatively unknown (new) authors, however, negative publicity has the opposite effect, increasing sales by 45%." (I think in the context of this study, it is fair to call Lin "relatively unknown." While Lin may be well-known among Millions readers, he is not a household name outside of certain households in Brooklyn, and when readers flocked to read the review from Gawker and other sites that linked to it, they may have been compelled to check the book out for themselves.) As we have known for a while at The Millions, to cover a book at all is to confer upon it that we believe the book is important, and whether you believe the book is "good" or "bad," Taipei was certainly worthy of our coverage.
Otherwise, June was another quiet month for our list with the top two positions unchanged, including Millions ebook Epic Fail: Bad Art, Viral Fame, and the History of the Worst Thing Ever at number one, while An Arrangement of Light, Nicole Krauss’s ebook-only short story graduates to our Hall of Fame. Next month, things will get interesting on our list as we may see as many as four books graduate to the Hall of Fame, opening up plenty of room for newcomers.
Near Misses: Fox 8, The Interestings, All That Is, The Round House, and The Flamethrowers. See Also: Last month’s list.

The Millions Top Ten: May 2013

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.

Epic Fail: Bad Art, Viral Fame, and the History of the Worst Thing Ever
5 months

2.
2.

Tenth of December
5 months

3.
3.

An Arrangement of Light
6 months

4.
5.

Stand on Zanzibar
3 months

5.
4.

The Middlesteins
3 months

6.
6.

Building Stories
5 months

7.
7.

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk
3 months

8.
10.

Vampires in the Lemon Grove
2 months

9.


The Orphan Master’s Son
1 month

10.
8.

Arcadia
5 months

 

May was quiet for our list, with the top three positions unchanged, including Millions ebook Epic Fail: Bad Art, Viral Fame, and the History of the Worst Thing Ever at number one.
Our one debut, an number eight, is Adam Johnson’s much lauded The Orphan Master’s Son, recent recipient of both the Pulitzer and the Rooster.
Johnson’s book pushes the David Foster Wallace essay collection Both Flesh and Not off the list.
Other Near Misses: Fox 8, The Round House, All That Is, and Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief. See Also: Last month’s list.

The Millions Top Ten: April 2013

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.
1.

Epic Fail: Bad Art, Viral Fame, and the History of the Worst Thing Ever
4 months

2.
2.

Tenth of December
4 months

3.
3.

An Arrangement of Light
5 months

4.
4.

The Middlesteins
2 month

5.
7.

Stand on Zanzibar
2 months

6.
5.

Building Stories
4 months

7.
8.

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk
2 months

8.
9.

Arcadia
4 months

9.
10.

Both Flesh and Not
5 months

10.


Vampires in the Lemon Grove
1 month

 

In September 2012, we interviewed Sadie Stein, one of the Paris Review editors behind Object Lessons: The Paris Review Presents the Art of the Short Story, a book that seems tailor-made to appeal to Millions readers. In it, a handful of accomplished short story writers — Ann Beattie, Jeffrey Eugenides, Joy Williams, and so on — were asked to pick a favorite story from the journal’s archive, then write a brief introduction explaining how the story spoke to them. After a six-month run, the book has now graduated to our Hall of Fame.
Otherwise, our list doesn’t see a whole lot of movement, with the top four positions unchanged, including Millions ebook Epic Fail: Bad Art, Viral Fame, and the History of the Worst Thing Ever at number one.
Karen Russell’s Vampires in the Lemon Grove is our one debut this month. We’ve interviewed Russell twice, in 2011 and again early this year. Vampires was also featured in our big 2013 book preview.
Near Misses: The Round House, The Orphan Master’s Son, Fox 8, Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief, and Dear Life. See Also: Last month’s list.

The Point of the Paperback

1.
“Why are they still bothering with paperbacks?” This came from a coffee-shop acquaintance when he heard my book was soon to come out in paperback, nine months after its hardcover release. “Anyone who wants it half price already bought it on ebook, or Amazon.”

Interestingly, his point wasn’t the usual hardcovers-are-dead-long-live-the-hardcover knell. To his mind, what was the use of a second, cheaper paper version anymore, when anyone who wanted it cheaply had already been able to get it in so many different ways?

I would have taken issue with his foregone conclusion about the domination of ebooks over paper, but I didn’t want to spend my babysitting time down that rabbit hole. But he did get me thinking about the role of the paperback relaunch these days, and how publishers go about getting attention for this third version of a novel — fourth, if you count audiobooks.

I did what I usually do when I’m puzzling through something, which is to go back to my journalism-school days and report on it. Judging by the number of writers who asked me to share what I heard, there are a good number of novelists who don’t quite know what to do with their paperbacks, either.

Here’s what I learned, after a month of talking to editors, literary agents, publishers, and other authors: A paperback isn’t just a cheaper version of the book anymore. It’s a makeover. A facelift. And for some, a second shot.

2.
About ebooks. How much are they really cutting into print, both paperbacks and hardcovers? Putting aside the hype and the crystal ball, how do the numbers really look?

The annual Bookstats Report from the Association of American Publishers (AAP), which collects data from 1,977 publishers, is one of the most reliable measures. In the last full report — which came out July 2012 — ebooks outsold hardcovers for the first time, representing $282.3 million in sales (up 28.1%), compared to adult hardcover ($229.6 million, up 2.7%). But not paperback — which, while down 10.5%, still represented $299.8 million in sales. The next report comes out this July, and it remains to be seen whether ebook sales will exceed paper. Monthly stat-shots put out by the AAP since the last annual report show trade paperbacks up, but the group’s spokesperson cautioned against drawing conclusions from interim reports rather than year-end numbers.

Numbers aside, do we need to defend whether the paperback-following-hardcover still has relevance?

“I think that as opposed to a re-release being less important, it’s more than ever important because it gives a book a second chance with a new cover and lower cost, plus you can use all the great reviews the hardcover got,” says MJ Rose, owner of the book marketing firm Authorbuzz, as well as a bestselling author of novels including The Book of Lost Fragrances. “So many books sell 2,000 or 3,000 copies in hardcover and high-priced ebooks, but take off when they get a second wind from trade paperback and their e-book prices drop.”

What about from readers’ perspectives? Is there something unique about the paperback format that still appeals?

I put the question to booksellers, though of course as bricks-and-mortar sellers, it’s natural that they would have a bias toward paper. Yet the question isn’t paper versus digital: it’s whether they are observing interest in a paper book can be renewed after it has already been out for nine months to a year, and already available at the lower price, electronically.

“Many people still want the portability of a lighter paper copy,” said Deb Sundin, manager of Wellesley Books in Wellesley, MA. “They come in before vacation and ask, ‘What’s new in paper?’ ”

“Not everyone e-reads,” says Nathan Dunbar, a manager at Barnes & Noble in Skokie, IL. “Many customers tell us they’ll wait for the paperback savings. Also, more customers will casually pick up the paperback over hardcover.”

Then there’s the issue of what a new cover can do. “For a lot of customers the paperback is like they’re seeing it for the first time,” says Mary Cotton, owner of Newtonville Books in Newtonvillle, MA. “It gives me an excuse to point it out to people again as something fresh and new, especially if it has a new cover.”

3.
A look at a paperback’s redesign tells you a thing or two about the publisher’s mindset: namely, whether or not the house believes the book has reached its intended audience, and whether there’s another audience yet to reach. Beyond that, it’s anyone’s Rorschach. Hardcovers with muted illustrations morph into pop art, and vice versa. Geometric-patterned book covers are redesigned with nature imagery; nature imagery in hardcover becomes photography of women and children in the paperback. Meg Wolitzer, on a panel about the positioning of women authors at the recent AWP conference, drew knowing laughter for a reference to the ubiquitous covers with girls in a field or women in water. Whether or not publishers want to scream book club, they at least want to whisper it.

“It seems that almost every book these days gets a new cover for the paperback. It’s almost as if they’re doing two different books for two different audiences, with the paperback becoming the ‘book club book,’” says Melanie Benjamin, author of The Aviator’s Wife. Benjamin watched the covers of her previous books, including Mrs. Tom Thumb and Alice I Have Been, change from hardcovers that were “beautiful, and a bit brooding” to versions that were “more colorful, more whimsical.”

A mood makeover is no accident, explains Sarah Knight, a senior editor at Simon & Schuster, and can get a paperback ordered in a store that wouldn’t be inclined to carry its hardcover. “New cover art can re-ignite interest from readers who simply passed the book over in hardcover, and can sometimes help get a book displayed in an account that did not previously order the hardcover because the new art is more in line with its customer base.” Some stores, like the big-boxes and airports, also carry far more paperbacks than hardcovers. Getting into those aisles in paperback can have an astronomical effect on sales.

An unscientific look at recent relaunches shows a wide range of books that got full makeovers: Olive Kitteridge, A Visit From the Goon Squad, The Newlyweds, The Language of Flowers, The Song Remains the Same, The Age of Miracles, Arcadia, and The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, as did my own this month (The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D.)

Books that stayed almost completely the same, plus or minus a review quote and accent color, include Wild, Beautiful Ruins, The Snow Child, The Weird Sisters, The Paris Wife, Maine, The Marriage Plot, The Art of Fielding, The Tiger’s Wife, Rules of Civility, and The Orchardist.

Most interesting are the books that receive the middle-ground treatment, designers flirting with variations on their iconic themes. The Night Circus, The Invisible Bridge, State of Wonder, The Lifeboat, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, Tell the Wolves I’m Home, Tigers in Red Weather, and The Buddha in the Attic are all so similar to the original in theme or execution that they’re like a wink to those in the know — and pique the memory of those who have a memory of wanting to read it the first time around.

Some writers become attached to their hardcovers and resist a new look in paperback. Others know it’s their greatest chance of coming out of the gate a second time — same race, fresh horse.

When Jenna Blum’s first novel, Those Who Save Us, came out in hardcover in 2004, Houghton Mifflin put train tracks and barbed wire on the cover. Gorgeous, haunting, and appropriate for a WWII novel, but not exactly “reader-friendly,” Blum recalls being told by one bookseller. The following year, the paperback cover — a girl in a bright red coat in front of a European bakery — telegraphed the novel’s Holocaust-era content without frightening readers away.

“The paperback cover helped save the book from the remainder bins, I suspect,” Blum says.

Armed with her paperback, Jenna went everywhere she was invited, which ended up tallying more than 800 book clubs. Three years later, her book hit the New York Times bestseller list.

“Often the hardcover is the friends-and-family edition, because that’s who buys it, in addition to collectors,” she says. “It’s imperative that a paperback give the novel a second lease on life if the hardcover didn’t reach all its intended audience, and unless you are Gillian Flynn, it probably won’t.”

There’s no hard-and-fast rule about when the paperback should ride in for that second lease. A year to paperback used to be standard, but now a paperback can release earlier — to capitalize on a moderately successful book before it’s forgotten — or later, if a hardcover is still turning a strong profit.

At issue: the moment to reissue, and the message to send.

“Some books slow down at a point, and the paperback is a great opportunity to repromote and reimagine,” says Sheila O’Shea, associate publisher for Broadway and Hogarth paperbacks at the Crown Publishing Group (including, I should add, mine). “The design of a paperback is fascinating, because you have to get it right in a different way than the hardcover. If it’s a book that relates specifically to females you want that accessibility at the table — women drawn in, wondering, Ooh, what’s that about.”

The opportunity to alter the message isn’t just for cover design, but the entire repackaging of the book — display text, reviews put on the jacket, synopses used online, and more. In this way, the paperback is not unlike the movie trailer which, when focus-grouped, can be reshaped to spotlight romantic undertones or a happy ending.

“Often by the time the paperback rolls around, both the author and publicist will have realized where the missed opportunities were for the hardcover, and have a chance to correct that,” says Simon & Schuster’s Sarah Knight. “Once your book has been focus-grouped on the biggest stage — hardcover publication — you get a sense of the qualities that resonate most with people, and maybe those were not the qualities you originally emphasized in hardcover. So you alter the flap copy, you change the cover art to reflect the best response from the ideal readership, and in many cases, the author can prepare original material to speak to that audience.”

Enter programs like P.S. (Harper Collins) and Extra Libris (Crown Trade and Hogarth), with new material in the back such as author interviews, essays, and suggested reading lists.

“We started Extra Libris last spring to create more value in the paperback, to give the author another opportunity to speak to readers. We had been doing research with booksellers and our reps and book club aficionados asking, What would you want in paperbacks? And it’s always extra content,” says Crown’s O’Shea. “Readers are accustomed to being close to the content and to the authors. It’s incumbent on us to have this product to continue the conversation.”

4.
Most of a paperback discussion centers on the tools at a publisher’s disposal, because frankly, so much of a book’s success is about what a publisher can do — from ads in trade and mainstream publications, print and online, to talking up the book in a way that pumps enthusiasm for the relaunch. But the most important piece is how, and whether, they get that stack in the store.

My literary agent Julie Barer swears the key to paperback success is physical placement. “A big piece of that is getting stores (including the increasingly important Costco and Target) to take large orders, and do major co-op. I believe one of the most important things that moves books is that big stack in the front of the store,” she says. “A lot of that piece is paid for and lobbied for by the publisher.”

Most publicists’ opportunities for reviews have come and gone with the hardcover, but not all, says Kathleen Zrelak Carter, a partner with the literary PR firm Goldberg McDuffie. “A main factor for us in deciding whether or not to get involved in a paperback relaunch is the off-the-book-page opportunities we can potentially pursue. This ranges from op-ed pieces to essays and guest blog posts,” she says. “It’s important for authors to think about all the angles in their book, their research and inspiration, but also to think about their expertise outside of being a writer, and how that can be utilized to get exposure.”

What else can authors do to support the paperback launch?

Readings have already been done in the towns where they have most connections, and bookstores don’t typically invite authors to come for a paperback relaunch. But many are, however, more than happy to have relaunching authors join forces with an author visiting for a new release, or participate in a panel of authors whose books touch on a common theme.

And just because a bookstore didn’t stock a book in hardcover doesn’t mean it won’t carry the paperback. Having a friend or fellow author bring a paperback to the attention of their local bookseller, talking up its accolades, can make a difference.

I asked folks smarter than I about branding, and they said the most useful thing for authors receiving a paperback makeover is to get on board with the new cover. That means fronting the new look everywhere: the author website, Facebook page, and Twitter. Change the stationery and business cards too if, like I did, you made them all about a cover that is no longer on the shelf.

“Sometimes a writer can feel, ‘But I liked this cover!’” says Crown’s O’Shea. “It’s important to be flexible about the approach, being open to the idea of reimagining your own work for a broader audience, and using the tools available to digitally promote the book with your publisher.”

More bluntly said, You want to sell books? Get in the game. Your hardcover might have come and gone, but in terms of your book’s rollout, it’s not even halftime yet.

“The paperback is truly a new release, and a smart author will treat it as such,” says Randy Susan Meyers, author The Murderer’s Daughters, her new novel The Comfort Of Lies, and co-author of the publishing-advice book What To Do Before Your Book Launch with book marketer and novelist M.J. Rose. “Make new bookmarks, spruce up your website, and introduce yourself to as many libraries as possible. Bookstores will welcome you, especially when you plan engaging multi-author events. There are opportunities for paperbacks that barely exist for hardcovers, including placement in stores such as Target, Costco, Walmart, and a host of others. Don’t let your paperback launch slip by. For me, as for many, it was when my book broke out.”

 

The Millions Top Ten: March 2013

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

This
Month
Last
Month

Title
On List

1.
1.

Epic Fail: Bad Art, Viral Fame, and the History of the Worst Thing Ever
3 months

2.
3.

Tenth of December
3 months

3.
4.

An Arrangement of Light
4 months

4.


The Middlesteins
1 month

5.
5.

Building Stories
3 months

6.
6.

Object Lessons: The Paris Review Presents the Art of the Short Story
6 months

7.


Stand on Zanzibar
1 month

8.


Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk
1 month

9.
8.

Arcadia
3 months

10.
7.

Both Flesh and Not
4 months

 

Last fall saw the arrival of three hotly anticpated titles from a trio of the most popular literary writers working today. Now those three titles are ending their run in our Top Ten by graduating to our Hall of Fame: This Is How You Lose Her by Junot Díaz, NW by Zadie Smith, and Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon.

Those graduations made room for three debuts. Jami Attenberg’s The Middlesteins pops up at number four. Attenberg made an appearance in our Year in Reading in December. The most popular piece on The Millions last month, by a wide margin, was Ted Gioia’s unearthing of John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar and the remarkably prescient predictions contained within. The essay sent readers running to check out the book. Finally, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain completed its long, stead ascent onto our list. Fountain also appeared in our Year in Reading, and Edan Lepucki interviewed him in these pages last June.

Our first ebook original, Epic Fail: Bad Art, Viral Fame, and the History of the Worst Thing Ever by staff writer Mark O’Connell, stayed atop our list and continues to win praise from readers and critics. An exerpt is available here and you can learn more about the book here.

Near Misses: The Round House, Vampires in the Lemon Grove, Dear Life, Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief, and Sweet Tooth. See Also: Last month’s list.

The Millions Top Ten: February 2013

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

This
Month
Last
Month

Title
On List

1.
1.

Epic Fail: Bad Art, Viral Fame, and the History of the Worst Thing Ever
2 months

2.
2.

This Is How You Lose Her
6 months

3.
3.

Tenth of December
2 months

4.
4.

An Arrangement of Light
3 months

5.
5.

Building Stories
2 months

6.
8.

Object Lessons: The Paris Review Presents the Art of the Short Story
5 months

7.
9.

NW
6 months

8.


Arcadia
2 months

9.
10.

Telegraph Avenue
6 months

10.
7.

Both Flesh and Not
3 months

 

With our top five remaining unchanged, the big action in February was the graduation of a pair of books to our Hall of Fame. Gillian Flynn’s juggernaut Gone Girl won over Millions readers with help from Edan Lepucki and Janet Potter’s entertaining tag-team reading of the book in September, though copies were already flying off the shelves in the months prior. Meanwhile, D.T. Max’s Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace was hotly anticipated by Millions readers from the moment the book was announced. We ran an excerpt and interviewed Max.
Those graduations made room for the return of Lauren Groff’s Arcadia (recently interviewed in our pages) and, appropriately enough, David Foster Wallace’s Both Flesh and Not.
Our first ebook original, Epic Fail: Bad Art, Viral Fame, and the History of the Worst Thing Ever by staff writer Mark O’Connell, stayed atop our list and continues to win praise from readers and critics. An exerpt is available here and you can learn more about the book here.

Near Misses: Dear Life, Sweet Tooth, The Round House, Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief, and Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. See Also: Last month’s list.

The Millions Top Ten: January 2013

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

This
Month
Last
Month

Title
On List

1.


Epic Fail: Bad Art, Viral Fame, and the History of the Worst Thing Ever
1 month

2.
1.

This Is How You Lose Her
5 months

3.


Tenth of December
1 month

4.
5.

An Arrangement of Light
2 months

5.


Building Stories
1 month

6.
4.

Gone Girl
6 months

7.
2.

Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace
6 months

8.
3.

Object Lessons: The Paris Review Presents the Art of the Short Story
4 months

9.
6.

NW
5 months

10.
7.

Telegraph Avenue
5 months

 

To kick off a new year of our Top Ten lists at The Millions, we made a slight adjustment to our calculations. The change has to do with how we account for lower-priced, shorter-form ebook originals that have become popular with our readers and effectively gives a modest penalty to the cheaper ebooks and recognizes that a purchase of a $1.99 ebook is different from buying a hardcover costing $20 or more.
Despite this change, thanks to the overwhelmingly positive response from our readers, our first ebook original, Epic Fail: Bad Art, Viral Fame, and the History of the Worst Thing Ever by staff writer Mark O’Connell, lands atop our list. So far, the feedback from readers has been great, and we hope more will be inspired to pick it up. An exerpt is available here and you can learn more about the book here.
Also debuting is Tenth of December by George Saunders, one of our Most Anticipated books and a title that has gotten a ton of positive press. Finally, also debuting is Chris Ware’s Building Stories, reviewed in these pages by none other than Mark O’Connell. Ware also participated in our Year in Reading in December.
Dropping from the list were David Foster Wallace’s Both Flesh and Not, Lauren Groff’s Arcadia and Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan
Other Near Misses: Dear Life and The Round House. See Also: Last month’s list.

The Millions Top Ten: December 2012

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

This
Month
Last
Month

Title
On List

1.
2.

This Is How You Lose Her
4 months

2.
3.

Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace
5 months

3.
4.

Object Lessons: The Paris Review Presents the Art of the Short Story
3 months

4.
8.

Gone Girl
5 months

5.


An Arrangement of Light
1 month

6.
5.

NW
4 months

7.
6.

Telegraph Avenue
4 months

8.
7.

Both Flesh and Not
2 months

9.


Arcadia
1 month

10.


Sweet Tooth
1 month

 

After an impressive run, A Naked Singularity by Sergio De La Pava graduates to our Hall of Fame (check out Garth Hallberg’s profile of De La Pava that introduced many of our readers to this unusual book). This makes room for Junot Díaz’s This Is How You Lose Her (our review) to be crowned our new number one. Also joining our Hall of Fame is The Patrick Melrose Novels by Edward St. Aubyn (see our review of the last book in the series).
Debuting on our list is Nicole Krauss’s An Arrangement of Light, a bite-sized ebook original. And Krauss is joined on our list by Lauren Groff’s Arcadia (selected by Alexander CheeEmily St. John Mandel, and Janet Potter in our recent Year in Reading series; Groff was also a participant) and Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan (which we recently reviewed).
Dave Eggers’ A Hologram for the King slipped off the list. Other Near Misses: Dear Life, Building Stories, The Round House, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, and Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar. See Also: Last month’s list.

A Year In Reading: Wrap Up

Another year, another Year In Reading. Another year, a bigger Year In Reading. The site gets older, the site continues to grow – for that we thank everyone who wrote and shared the pieces in this series, as well as everyone who read along.

The numbers this year were simply bonkers. Up from 2011, our 2012 totals amounted to a whopping 74 participants and 261 different books. These books run the gamut from graphic memoirs to cookbooks, and they were written by 238 authors – we’re happy to note that 15 of those authors submitted their own pieces in the series.

Our participants included a finalist for this year’s National Book Award;  a past winner of the Pulitzer Prize; not one, but two authors whose books appeared on The New York Times’s “10 Best Books of 2012” list; a longtime New Yorker staff writer; and a comedian who, for a few incredible months, made the life of Mitt Romney’s social media director into a living hell.

The mission of the series is to put good books – regardless of publication date – into the minds of our readers. In that regard we’ve succeeded. The “average” year of publication for all 261 books was 1992. (No doubt that date has something to do with Michael Robbins’s recommendation of The Temple, which dates back to 1633.) But in order to highlight the true range of the books selected, I feel there are some awards in order. So here we have it.

Presenting the 2012 edition of The Millions’s annual Year In Reading Wrap-Up Awards:

The Golden TARDIS for Excellence in Time Travel is hereby bestowed unto Emma Straub. We recognize Emma’s ability to read in the past year four different books that will not hit shelves until 2013. Tell us, Emma, where do you keep your flux capacitor? (I know, I know, I’m mixing time travel references here. Apologies to the nerds.) Runner-up: Michael Robbins, who went the other way and tapped two books from the 1600s.

The George Wallace Commemorative Airhorn for Multiple Shout Outs goes to none other than Alexander Chee, who, before settling on Helen DeWitt’s The Last Samurai as his favorite read of the year, gave much-deserved props to no fewer than twenty-three different books and authors. Runner-up: Kate Zambreno, who named fifteen texts – two of which are actually blogs, which is awesome – in her Year In Reading (Apparently Everything there is to Read).

“Mr. Consistent” is from now on the epithet we’ll use to describe Scott Esposito, who recommended fourteen different Oulipo books. (Out of respect for Scott’s theme, none of the words in that first sentence included the letter “a”.) Runner-up: David Haglund, who laid out a literary and historical tour of the real Mormon faith.

The Bob Ross Memorial Golden Paintbrush is awarded to Matt Dojny, whose Year In Reading entry is beautiful and succinct, but also comprehensive and fresh. That book on his list from The RZA? It wasn’t a mistake. There aren’t mistakes. Just happy accidents. Runner-up: Chris Ware. (Duh.) Not for his text-based Year In Reading post, but for his most recent book.

The George Washington Cup for Honesty goes, of course, to Michael Schaub for his elegant, heart wrenching essay about his brother, his family, and A. M. Homes’s latest book. Thank you for this one, Michael. Runner-up: Mark O’Connell, who finally came clean. Those books on his shelf? Hasn’t read most of ‘em. (One additional prize is in order as well. The “Oh Man, Please Don’t Accuse Me of Stealing Your Idea” Memorial Fruit Basket should go to Janet Potter, whose list of literary awards served at least in some way as inspiration for this post.)

Overall, a collection of seven books were named by more than three Year In Reading participants. These lucky few are: Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl (picked by Edan Lepucki, Janet Potter, Ed Park, Michael Bourne, and Jennifer duBois); Chris Ware’s Building Stories (picked by Zadie Smith, Mark O’Connell, and Reif Larsen); David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas (picked by Janet Potter, Matt Dojny, and Elizabeth Minkel); Edward St. Aubyn’s The Patrick Melrose Novels (picked by Meg Wolitzer, Elliott Holt, and Alix Ohlin); Jess Walter’s Beautiful Ruins (picked by Emma Straub, Roxane Gay, and Robert Birnbaum); Sarah Manguso’s The Guardians (picked by Alexander Chee, Ed Park, and Antoine Wilson); and Lauren Groff’s Arcadia (picked by Alexander Chee, Emily St. John Mandel, and Janet Potter)


And so we come to the end of 2012. May 2013 be better than the year that led into it. May your eyes fly quickly over the page. We hope you enjoyed the time, and we’ll see you again next year.

P.S. Special shout outs are due to C. Max Magee, founder of The Millions, without whom none of this would be possible – and also to Ujala Sehgal and Adam Boretz, our tireless editors, without whom all of these posts would look horrendous. Last but not least, shout outs are owed to Rhian Sasseen and Thom Beckwith, both of whom have helped make this our biggest Year In Reading to date. Thanks to you all, and to all a Happy New Year!

More from A Year in Reading 2012

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

The good stuff: The Millions’ Notable articles

The motherlode: The Millions’ Books and Reviews

Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.

A Year in Reading: Emily St. John Mandel

When I think of all the books I read and loved this year — and there have been so many — I think the one I found most striking was Patrick deWitt’s The Sisters Brothers. It was the sheer originality of the thing, the absolutely unique style and voice. It might fairly be described as a western for people who think they don’t like westerns. Two brothers, Eli and Charlie Sisters, make their living as hired killers in the employ of a shadowy man known only as the Commodore, on the Gold Rush-era western frontier. But while Charlie enjoys killing, Eli, the narrator, is troubled by their ever-rising body count, and finds himself beginning to question the Commodore’s explanations for why the men they’re hired to kill have been marked for death. It’s a mesmerizing, precisely-written, sad, and very violent tale, with unexpected flashes of humor.

Others: Susanna Moore’s The Life of Objects was a marvel of clarity and beauty, as was F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. I’d somehow never read The Great Gatsby before this year. I almost wrote “I don’t know why it took me so long,” but obviously I do know what took me so long: I was busy reading other books. The elegance of the work stays with me, its clockwork plot. I’ve been reading about F. Scott Fitzgerald’s life this year, thinking about talent and dissipation.

Jeet Thayil’s Narcopolis was profoundly beautiful and disturbing and continues to haunt me. Nick Harkaway’s Angelmaker was a delight. It’s hard to imagine two books less similar than Necropolis and Angelmaker, but the common thread, I realize, is that both writers are willing to take considerable risks. They walk their respective tightropes successfully.

I loved Lauren Groff’s Arcadia. Her novel is impressive in the way that The Great Gatsby is impressive: you recognize, reading it, that you’re in the presence of a writer with absolute command over her material. It’s a beautifully written book.

More from A Year in Reading 2012

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

The good stuff: The Millions’ Notable articles

The motherlode: The Millions’ Books and Reviews

Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.

A Year in Reading: Alexander Chee

My reading year was spent moving between old favorites — Brideshead Revisited, The Great Gatsby, Madame Bovary, The Kill — and then for new novels alone, it felt like it was a storm of almost impossible dimensions, like all I had to do was open a window in Hell’s Kitchen and a new book would fly in. I’ll be reading from 2012 well into 2013 and perhaps beyond, I think, and you will be too.

Still on my TBR, for example, are new books from Junot Diaz, A. M. Homes, Zadie Smith, Jami Attenberg, Benjamin Anastas, Antoine Wilson, Emily St. John Mandel, Victor LaValle and Carol Rifka Brunt. I’m currently reading Emma Straub’s delicious Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures and the new Ian McEwan, Sweet Tooth.

But my memory of what I read last year collects mostly around the summer, when I had the most time to read, as I waited for edits on my novel. I began with a novel to blurb, Shani Boianjiu’s The People of Forever Are Not Afraid, which I will never forget. Then came Don Lee’s The Collective, a strange mirror to another amazing book, Sarah Manguso’s The Guardians. August was spent with Lauren Groff’s Arcadia and Patrick Somerville’s This Bright River, both of which I loved, and both of which are really brilliant, as well as getting caught up in my Emily Books book club reading — the profound and profane Maidenhead, by Tamara Faith Berger, a sly Muriel Spark novel, Loitering with Intent, and Helen DeWitt’s Lightning Rods, which I loved so much, it led me to read her masterpiece, The Last Samurai.

And this last was the one that probably rules the year for me. Every now and then, you find a book that feels like it was keyed to your DNA. This was like that for me. I’d heard about it for a long time. As I am a member at the Center for Fiction, and they have generous summer checkout times, I went looking for it there and found it (sorry to the person who tried to call it back midsummer). For me, reading The Last Samurai felt like holding a slowly exploding bomb in my hands, but say, if a bomb could make something more than a hole after it exploded — something incredible, that you’d never seen before. Even writing about it now makes me feel the urge to go back in. It’s about a woman from a family of failed prodigies, who one day has a one night stand with a brilliant, hateful man that she cannot respect. This description of that night is when I knew I loved the book. Oh, yes, she gives him the codename ‘Liberace’:
No sooner were Liberace and I in his bed without our clothes than I realized how stupid I had been. At this distance I can naturally not remember every little detail, but if there is one musical form that I hate more than any other, it is the medley. One minute the musician, or more likely aged band, is playing an overorchestrated version of The Impossible Dream; all of a sudden, mid-verse, for no reason, there’s a stomach-turning swerve into another key and you’re in the middle of Over the Rainbow; swerve, Climb Every Mountain, swerve, Ain’t No Mountain High Enough, swerve, swerve, swerve. Well then, you have only to imagine Liberace, hands, mouth, penis now here, now there, no sooner here than there, no sooner there than here again, starting something only to stop and start something else instead, and you will have a pretty accurate picture of the Drunken Medley.

The Medley at last came to an end and Liberace fell into a deep sleep.
She sneaks away while he’s asleep, becomes pregnant from this episode, and soon is raising her child prodigy son on her own, who eventually wants to find his father, and she initially declines to reveal his identity; she has done everything she can to hide him from her son, at least until her son has the critical faculties to understand why his father is not intellectually respectable. To ensure this, she sets a challenge for him to meet as the condition of knowing who he is. The narration moves between them, and even incorporates the way a child interrupts a mother into the forward motion of the novel.

What I loved about it, aside from the hilarity, the language, the tone and the structure was that it felt so incredibly free. And reading it, so did I.

You won’t go wrong with any of these books. For best results, read them all.

More from A Year in Reading 2012

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

The good stuff: The Millions’ Notable articles

The motherlode: The Millions’ Books and Reviews

Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.

The Notables: 2012

This year’s New York Times Notable Books of the Year list is out. At 100 titles, the list is more of a catalog of the noteworthy than a distinction. Sticking with the fiction exclusively, it appears that we touched upon a few of these books as well:

Arcadia by Lauren Groff (a Staff Pick, Paradise Regained: An Interview with Lauren Groff)
At Last by Edward St Aubyn (Most Anticipated, Illicit Pleasures: On Edward St Aubyn’s At Last)
Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain (Everything is Political: An Interview with Ben Fountain, National Book Award Finalist)
Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel (Booker Prize Winner)
Building Stories by Chris Ware (Infographics of Despair: Chris Ware’s Building Stories)
By Blood by Ellen Ullman (Who We Are Now: On Ellen Ullman’s By Blood)
Canada by Richard Ford (Across the Border: Richard Ford’s Canada)
City of Bohane by Kevin Barry (The Mad Music of Kevin Barry’s City of Bohane)
Fobbit by David Abrams (Post-40 Bloomer: David Abrams Taking As Long As It Takes)
The Forgetting Tree by Tatjana Soli (Going Back to the Page: An Interview with Tatjana Soli, A Millions contributor)
Gods Without Men by Hari Kunzru (Plot, Rhyme, and Conspiracy: Hari Kunzru Colludes with His ReadersFractured World: Hari Kunzru’s Gods Without Men)
HHhH by Laurent Binet (Exclusive: The Missing Pages of Laurent Binet’s HHhH)
A Hologram for the King by Dave Eggers (National Book Award Finalist)
Home by Toni Morrison (Where the Heart Is: Toni Morrison’s Home)
Hope: A Tragedy by Shalom Auslander (So, Nu?: Shalom Auslander’s Hope: A Tragedy)
How Should a Person Be? by Sheila Heti (How Should a Writer Be? An Interview with Sheila Heti)
NW by Zadie Smith (Lamenting the Modern: On Zadie Smith’s NWExclusive: The First Lines of Zadie Smith’s NW)
The Round House by Louise Erdrich (National Book Award Winner)
Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward (National Book Award Winner)
Shout Her Lovely Name by Natalie Serber (Mothers and Daughters: On Natalie Serber’s Shout Her Lovely Name)
Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan (The Lies We Tell: Ian McEwan’s Sweet Tooth)
Swimming Home by Deborah Levy (Booker Shortlisted)
Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon (Golden Oldie: Michael Chabon’s Telegraph AvenueExclusive: The First Lines of Michael Chabon’s Telegraph Avenue)
This Is How You Lose Her by Junot Díaz (The ‘You’ In Yunior: Junot Díaz’s This Is How You Lose HerA Brief Wondrous Interview with Junot Díaz)
Watergate by Thomas Mallon (I Am Not A Character: On Thomas Mallon’s Watergate)
What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank by Nathan Englander (Speaking of Anne Frank…)
The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers (National Book Award Finalist)

Surprise Me!

BROWSE BY AUTHOR