How do readers recover from an abominable weekend but with a reading list, in this case one suggested on Twitter by Jay Varner, a writer and instructor based in Charlottesville. Varner links out to 12 articles about "why so many continue to believe an unequivocally false historical narrative surrounding the Confederacy," including pieces by New Orleans' mayor Mitch Landrieu, Slate's Jamelle Bouie, and Ta-Nehisi Coates, whose Between the World and Me made our roundup from last year of the best political fiction (yes, we do realize it's decidedly not fiction).
I became an editor, a notable fact, and for the next year, I floundered. All I wanted was a literary life -- a professional and artistic life defined by the act of creating literature, whether as a writer, a publisher of other writers, and even a curator of writers for live audiences -- but achieving a dream simultaneously reveals a void. At work, I apprenticed in New York to become a better editor; at home, with newly trained eyes, I reread my own writing, saw finally my own flaws. I handed Between the World and Me to my 59-year-old father for his birthday. Later that same weekend, I wrote an essay about the experience and the gift. After rereading the unpublishable and rejected essay, I woke up every morning at 5:00 am, brewed coffee, and sat down to write and read for three hours. I retreated from social media, and canceled plans, passed on after-work parties, readings, invitations for drinks, dinners, said no to offers to pick my brain, to brainstorm over beers. The resulting somnolence deteriorated my daily mood, and the isolation led to my accepting time’s endless assault against my writing should I refuse to work, age the partial total of wasted days. This began my year of reading, parallel with my year of rereading, contained within my year of life. I loved Haruki Murakami -- Kafka on the Shore, After Dark, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle -- and applauded 2666. I read My Struggle: Book 1, its marvelous second half haunted me for weeks, and I discovered why peers laugh at Knausgaard. I reread Why Black People Tend to Shout by Ralph Wiley, and dragged a slab of wood into our bedroom, near the window closest to the door, and placed it atop two steel trestles. I purchased a black notebook and entered with it a conspiratorial relationship without illusion in regard to my writing, that is, I no longer believed Moleskine, the brand, could make me a better writer, nor do diaries produce literature I care to read. The work proved increasingly difficult with each book I opened, with every essay I began and abandoned to a boneyard on my hard drive labeled files. From my desk, I watched as my neighbors lived their lives inside unveiled apartments, and pitied those who, after two feet of snow, went about the business of exhuming their cars. I read Distant Star, The Book of Disquiet, Sergio Y., The Story of My Teeth, Sudden Death, The Ballad of Black Tom, salt. by Nayyirah Waheed, In Gratitude, rest in peace, Labyrinths, Loitering again, Between Parentheses again, The Cross of Redemption again, and others. My colleagues were curious about my regimen; they asked me if it yielded results. I unlearned toxic assumptions with respect to the essay, as a form, initially ingested by happenstance and in proximity to the Internet, where essays proliferate. I thought about the essay collection, it too as a form, and how to warp it. By spring, I lapsed -- skipped a morning one week, two mornings the next -- until I stopped my morning exercises altogether. I needed the sleep, and the post-winter sun ruined my writing space with its light increasing in duration and strength. The four of us -- my partner and her twins -- coalesced around one other, traveling to Myrtle Beach and Big Indian, chaperoning my father and his wife over the Brooklyn Bridge. I glared at the black device on my desk as my father on speaker spoke in small talk about my grandmother, his mother, convalescing since July. She is 89. The doctors seem to be doing that shoulder-shrug thing they do when their science fails them and they, in turn, signal to us, the patient’s family, not to give up hope, but to accept that the hope we have is all the hope we can expect to receive. My 60-year-old father has still not read Between the World and Me, and there will be for him a small birthday party in New Jersey, after Thanksgiving, with home-cooked food and store-bought wine, with holiday music piped through Bluetooth speakers -- Boyz II Men’s Christmas album is as old now as The Temptations’ rendition of “Silent Night” was to me when I first heard it as a child, when my aunt in black swayed near the woodgrain floor speaker, holding a half-filled glass, her grimace illuminated by the garishly decorated tree lit with reds and blues, as the party turned down, as Christmas refused to relieve her of the turmoil her liquor unlocked -- and there will be some laughs, though muted by grief. I myself will not be there; I leave for Chicago and just last week, I rented a gray Dodge Dart from a sketchy Enterprise in Bay Ridge and drove to Vineland so I could attend the private viewing of my paternal uncle’s cooling body. Speaking of birthdays, he died one day before his own, at the age of 64, to cancer. In the wake, I stand before his body in the casket, in my black suit, holding a copy of Speak, Memory, which I first read back in 2008 or '09 but now have chosen to reread only after appearing here, inches from the coffin, the first time. The anachronistic book grounds me here, the second time, after I first witnessed my uncle’s evaporated body, scheduled for cremation tomorrow night, when I wondered how and why his final moments left a peaceful look on his graying, gaunt, sheared face. (I remember him for his gargantuan beard, gone now from real time.) On a round wood table beside the casket are his black leather cowboy boots doubling as vases for two bouquets of deciduous red and yellow roses. My grandmother is not in attendance, her frail body yoked to life-saving machines, to bags of fluid to keep her hydrated and sustained, since she refuses to eat, and I question her memory. When I visited her in the hospital hours before the wake, I did not mention my uncle’s death. Instead, we watched the news together, a local affiliate broadcasted from Philadelphia; the same black anchor from my childhood, he hasn’t aged a single day, I said to her. I knew she was told of her son’s death, but I was unsure if she remembered -- doctors and family members reported with greater frequency lapses in her short-term memory -- and I did not have the heart to break her heart all over again had she forgotten, so I said nothing, and softly held her hand. Lies and memoirs, said Roberto Bolaño, get along swimmingly. I feel accused of a crime, even though, strictly speaking, I do not consider myself a memoirist. Once fascinated by memoirs, I now avoid but not because of banality, that is, the requirement from critics that a memoirist’s life be thrilling, or extraordinary. I am as physically close to my uncle’s body as I’m willing to get, and no closer. I don’t recognize him, my living brain having to downshift to death, because he should be breathing, the movement registers as a detail about him, a major one easily overlooked until final exhalation. “Symbols and Signs,” a short story, first introduced me to Vladimir Nabokov; the insubordinate sentence first and finally revealed itself to me, through Nabokov; Literature marks the spot where generations of writers faithfully leap off, expecting to fly, only to slam face first into a pile of human bodies, but Vladimir the asshole soared, and writers will forever read and hate him, never understanding how he defied the laws, and why not them. The last time the boy had tried to do it, his method had been, in the doctor’s words, a masterpiece of inventiveness; he would have succeeded had not an envious fellow-patient thought he was learning to fly and stopped him just in time. What he had really wanted to do was to tear a hole in his world and escape. A story circulates the wake: When asked whether or not he had money for his own funeral, my uncle laughed and replied "I’ll be dead and it’ll be someone else’s problem," and laughed again. That he laughed twice pleases me. Knowing my uncle, he was terrified of death but never beguiled by it; his callous stance toward the living in the face of his own demise seems to me a pragmatic, if heartless one. Speak, Memory describes the nothingness that bookends the life cycle of every organism as two black voids, fore and aft. A local preacher and friend to my cousin, the son of the deceased, says now in the wake, at the lectern, that in his final hours my uncle accepted the Lord into his life -- I am skeptical, but if he was pragmatic enough to leave behind a funereal bill for the family to settle, then indeed he would wait until the last minute to resolve a situation that, prior to, existed but didn’t press itself upon his life. When I face the second black void, aft, I might rethink my position on the case of Me v. God, so to hear about my uncle’s late-hour, deathbed capitulation to Christ only makes the need for me to find him all the more urgent. Where is my uncle now? The prison of time, said Nabokov, is spherical and without exits. Speak, Memory maps a human life during societal deterioration, a process relevant to the new climate. Nabokov’s home was an idyllic, plentiful wonderland centered inside a disturbed Russia approaching back-to-back revolutions. Nabokov’s childhood home was torched, leaving behind the iron staircase fashioned by his paternal grandfather; Vladimir, his mother, and his siblings fled for their lives to southern Crimea, while his father, Vladimir Dmitrievich Nabokov, remained behind, and was later assassinated in Berlin. The life of my family, said Nabokov, had completely changed; "we were absolutely ruined...the complete curbing of the public’s minds was achieved...in no time after the main contingent of the intellectuals had escaped abroad, or had been destroyed...the loss of my country was equated for me with the loss of my love." Men who write about their homes should have their own wing inside a burning library, but I also believe in literature’s expanding universe, how, despite one million stories, we’ll read another story, and one more, year after year. The wake is sparsely populated with family, some skeletal remains of fringe friends, a dozen former coworkers, a few lovers. It’s unclear how long ago he was diagnosed, though we suspected for years: My uncle was a nurse, and so is my father, and three or four of my aunts, and twice as many cousins, not to mention my grandmother, retired; his family knew his prognosis just by observing him. I sit with my right leg crossed over the left, Speak, Memory and my black device in my lap, as I stare at the casket, thinking about my year of reading and the black bolt above my childhood home in Newfield, adjacent to Vineland, captured with my device’s camera. I pull over to the side of the road, in front of the house my family no longer owns, and snap a few photos from the rental car. The November sky reminds me of the dulling bright eyes of a black dog thrashed by a heartless owner retarded by mediocrity. My father and his brother play each other in a game of tennis; with afros, they ride on motorcycles, side by side, down route 55. My brothers and I slip out the wake for a quick cigarette in the parking lot as the nearby cathedral bell tolls nine. The seats in front of me are empty, so I have a direct line of sight to my uncle’s face. My grandmother touches the screen fastened to my wrist; the nurses have removed her rings; on a rolling tray next to her hospital bed is a framed photo of her husband, my uniformed grandfather, who died 363 days before my birth. From the corner of my left eye, past my black eyeglasses frames, I see my father and his wife, frozen, clutching each other as they gaze at his brother, thinking god knows whatever those new to senior citizenship consider during a wake pre-cremation. My uncle drives an oxblood stick-shift Corvette convertible and parks it outside the strip club from where he plucks a date to escort him to the family barbecue. There she stands, the white dancer in black tights, and there we stand, the black judges holding red cups, bound by blood. Our scientific laws dictate that upon death, for maximum efficacy within, and least disquieting entry into, the loop, our bodies are to be burned and transformed into the ash we, for centuries before Reform, tried to hide with shame during harsh, white winters. 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
This year's "Genius grant" winners have been announced. The MacArthur grant awards $625,000 “no strings attached” to “talented individuals who have shown extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits and a marked capacity for self-direction.” Alongside scientists, artists and scholars are some newly minted geniuses with a literary focus. This year’s literary geniuses are: Maggie Nelson is known best for her non-fiction. Often described as some combination of "lyrical" and "philosophical," Nelson's five book-length works of nonfiction have won her a steadfast following. She might be described as a "writer's writer." The evidence is in how often her books are named by other writers in our annual Year in Reading series. Bluets, a meditation on the color blue, won praise from David Shields ("utterly brilliant"), Stephen Elliott ("excellent"), Haley Mlotek ("I read Bluets twice in the same plane ride."), Leslie Jamison, Jaquira Díaz, and Margaret Eby. Meaghan O'Connell wrote of Nelson, "She is one of those people for me, writers who I want to cross all boundaries with, writers from whom I ask too much. She makes me want more than, as a reader, I deserve. She already gives us more than we deserve. It isn’t fair." Many of the above writers also praised Nelson's more recent The Argonauts, "a genre-bending memoir," as did Bijan Stephen, Olivia Laing ("It thinks deeply and with immense nuance and grace"), Karolina Waclawiak ("I found myself underlining on nearly every page"), and Parul Sehgal. Nelson herself appeared in our Year in Reading last year, shining light on books by Eileen Myles and Ellen Miller, among others. Claudia Rankine, poet, has received especially wide acclaim for her "provocative meditation on race" Citizen: An American Lyric, a book that (perhaps along with Between the World and Me by last year's "Genius" Ta-Nehisi Coates) that can be pointed to as a literary catalyst. Many may have first become aware of Rankine earlier this year, when her book -- wielded as an object of protest -- was caught by cameras behind a ranting Donald Trump at one of his rallies. MacArthur rightly describes Rankine as "a critical voice in current conversations about racial violence." Ed Simon named Citizen this moment's best candidate in his search for America's great epic poem. In its announcement, MacArthur says artist and writer Lauren Redniss "is an artist and writer seamlessly integrating artwork, written text, and design elements in works of visual nonfiction. Redniss undertakes archival research, interviews and reportage, and field expeditions to inform every aspect of a book’s creation, from its text, to its format and page layout, to the design of the typeface, to the printing and drawing techniques used for the artwork." Redniss is probably best-known for 2011 National Book Award finalist Radioactive, a vibrantly illustrated biography of pioneering scientists Marie and Pierre Curie. Our own Hannah Gersen described it as "elaborately beautiful." Gene Luen Yang has smashed stereotypes with his vibrant graphic novels, American Born Chinese, The Eternal Smile (with Derek Kirk Kim), and Boxers & Saints. Our 2010 interview with Yang explored his influences and his work. The lone playwright to be named a "genius" this year is Branden Jacobs-Jenkins. "Many of Jacobs-Jenkins’s plays use a historical lens to satirize and comment on modern culture, particularly the ways in which race and class are negotiated in both private and public settings." Sarah Stillman has become a byline to look for in The New Yorker, carrying out journalistic investigations that have raised public outrage and spurred recalcitrant politicians into action. "Taken" is perhaps her best-known article. It investigates how local police forces have used the principal of "civil asset forfeiture" to plunder citizens and enrich themselves.
With campaign rhetoric thrumming and throbbing around us, along with deepening divisions around race, guns, sexuality, and national security; and since much of what we see/hear in the media is alarming, disappointing, and not infrequently inane; I thought we might offer up some alternatives for readers looking to sink their political minds into something intelligent, compelling, possibly even hopeful (if not exactly optimistic). I asked Millions staff writers: What is/are the best political fiction(s) you’ve read in the past decade? We’re focusing on fiction because we’re interested in a broad definition of “political.” I wanted to hear from my colleagues what even constitutes “political fiction” in their minds. The novel that came to mind for me first was J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace I read it when it was published 16 years ago, but its chilling notion of social justice has stayed with me: in post-apartheid South Africa, Lucy, a white woman, is gang-raped in her home by three black men. She learns that the men are known by (one is even related to) Petrus, the black man and former employee with whom she runs a small farm and kennel on the eastern Cape. Her father, a womanizing university professor who’s been dismissed from his position for harassment, was with her when the attack happened -- beaten and set aflame. Both survive the attack, but to David Lurie’s dismay, his daughter does not report the attack, nor leave the homestead; in fact, she eventually enters into a transactional relationship with Petrus, financial and sexual. If this narrative outcome isn’t disturbing enough, Coetzee makes sure to supply Lucy’s character with a motivational “theory” -- that rape was the price one has to pay for staying on...they see me as owing something. They see themselves as debt collectors, tax collectors. Why should I be allowed to live here without paying? Perhaps that is what they tell themselves. Fans of his work may know that Coetzee was criticized by his countrywoman Nadine Gordimer for writing stories that “leave nothing unsaid...about what human beings do to other human beings” -- such that “the truth and meaning of what white has done to black [in South Africa] stands out on every page” -- yet at the same time eschew the possibility of progressive change via political actors. Of Coetzee’s The Life and Times of Michael K, Gordimer famously wrote: Coetzee’s heroes are those who ignore history, not make it...A revulsion against all political and revolutionary solutions rises with the insistence of the song of cicadas to the climax of this novel...I don’t think the author would deny that it is his own revulsion...The exclusion is a central one that may eat out the heart of the work’s unity of art and life. For Gordimer, a political writer was one who ruthlessly rendered social breakdown, but who also crafted characters that embodied the possibility of political upheaval and societal renewal; indeed the writer of the truly political novel must himself be driven by this possibility. Interestingly, in his New York Times review of Disgrace, Michael Gorra compared the contemporaneous writing of Coetzee and Gordimer and wrote, “it is perhaps Coetzee, despite his resistance to a historically conditioned realism, who has the more deeply political mind.” And in the London Review of Books, while not naming Gordimer per se, Elizabeth Lowry suggested that a definition of political fiction along the lines of Gordimer’s engenders a simplistic, inferior genre: For the South African novelist...how should the volatile, explosive history of South Africa, a history in the making, be represented in fiction without lapsing into the impoverished aesthetic of merely political writing? Over a decade later, in “Where Has Political Fiction Gone?” (The Guardian, May 2010), Stuart Evers postulated on how novelists seem to have responded to Lowry’s challenge: "[C]ontemporary political novels -- the ones that sell, at least -- are more concerned with political disengagement than they are with values or beliefs. The theme that courses through...is not one of right versus left or socialism versus capitalism, but about inaction versus action.” Disgrace is an unpleasant, unforgettable novel. While Lucy is in fact not the protagonist -- David Lurie is -- her actions, and inactions, constitute the novel’s most provocative questions: is a theory of necessary retribution extreme, regressive, even barbaric? Or could it be that such a theory expresses the profound truth of a spiritual reality? Is Lucy a creation of social realism, or of symbolic allegory? Can the answers to all these questions be yes, and if so, how so? In any case, there is nothing impoverished or disengaged about the effects of Disgrace on this reader. Sixteen years later, in the midst of our own racial horrors and retributions, the novel’s haunting questions—political and interpersonal -- are as relevant as they’ve ever been. Lydia Kiesling In my early-20s I worked for an antiquarian bookseller who helped institutions build up collections of subject areas; one university was at work on a large collection of 20th-century American “literature of social change,” and he had me assist with finding these books. The guidelines took a passage from Barbara Kingsolver's copy for the Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction. The mere description of an injustice, or the personal predicament of an exploited person, without any clear position of social analysis invoked by the writer, does not in itself constitute socially responsible literature. ‘Social responsibility’ describes a moral obligation of individuals to engage with their communities in ways that promote a more respectful coexistence. That's a very, perhaps impossibly high bar, and I often found myself confused when I tried to separate out the various strands of literature that qualified. I’m still confused by the distinction, frankly. So as a very roundabout way of answering, I’ll say first that the books I’ve read and loved that explicitly include politics, as in electoral politics or political movements, are All the King’s Men -- which is one of the most beautiful books I’ve read full-stop -- and Richard Wright’s Native Son, and A Man in Full by Tom Wolfe, and Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy, and Dissident Gardens by Jonathan Lethem, and Christopher Isherwood’s The Berlin Stories, and Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man (you’ll notice a masculine trend). I don’t really think of A Suitable Boy and Berlin Studies as political novels, but they actually have a lot of politics in them, i.e., elections, and I reread both every two or three years because I love them so much. Then are lots of books that fall more under that “social change” category that are intensely political, in that politics shaped and were shaped by the social conditions they described -- the wheelhouses of James Baldwin, Sinclair Lewis, John Steinbeck -- all authors whose books I’ve read and been moved by in the last decade. A Passage to India and Beloved jump out at me as the books that beautifully damn entire systems in miniature, although their temporal relationships to those systems are different. I finally read Claudia Rankine’s Citizen last week and though it’s not quite fiction, I can’t think of a book that so concisely lays out the most pressing American social issue of this month/year/decade/century. It collapses the border between “social” and “political.” But it also turned out, when I worked on this university list, that the literature of social change could mean books where writers did something as ostensibly mundane as depicting sex, or depicting families. I take Aleksandar Hemon’s point that politics is real and has consequences, and that Americans excel at avoiding it in their novels. I also know people hate it when women take selfies and say it’s a political act, but I do find ideological kinship with books that depict women thinking about sex and families and work in complicated, even unpalatable ways. So even though it wouldn't be eligible for The Bellwether Prize, Helen DeWitt’s The Last Samurai feels compelling to me, because I read it as a statement about motherhood and its effects on intellectually curious women. Or The Bell Jar. Or A Life's Work, although again it's not fiction. But I don't suppose those are actually political in a real sense. In fact, my interest in them may be exemplary of something less pleasant -- finding kinship with people who look and feel the way that you do is the ugliest thing about politics right now. Edan Lepucki I must admit, when I first saw this question, I told myself I wouldn't participate. Political fiction? No thank you! Like everyone else, I already feel overwhelmed by politics from day to day: Bernie v. Hillary; how do we stop Donald Trump?; will we ever have the chutzpah to take on the NRA?; the intersection of poisoned water and poverty; climate change; yet another black man killed by a white police officer; and, hey, look, some congressman wants to take away my reproductive rights yet again...on and on, and I haven't even gotten into international issues! I don't want politics to be a source of entertainment -- there is too much at stake for that -- and so I read fiction to be entertained. But please don't misunderstand: reading fiction is no mere escape. Doing so requires sustained attention, and that attention lets me understand better human action and reaction. It requires me to produce empathy for people who may do the opposite of what I might do. A necessary skill in the real world. Politics can reduce us to numbers, to noise. Fiction is human. Let's keep them separate. But maybe that isn't possible. Soon after I received the Millions Quiz question, I began my friend Ramona Ausubel's novel Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty, about a privileged family that loses its fortune. The novel takes place in a particular era (the 1970s), and yet it's whimsical and dreamy enough to feel out of time. It doesn't feel overtly political; it's concerned with human characters who are complicated and nuanced, and never beholden to a message or platform. But at the same time, the Vietnam War is quite central to the story, and the book doesn't shy away from how the family came to acquire its wealth -- with black slaves, for starters. The novel also pays particular attention to the women in the family's history: for instance, one mother's goal to become a famous sculptor is never realized, not for lack of talent, but because she is female. In describing a woman who wants the career she can't have, Ausubel has acknowledged that experience, validated it. While the book lets you see its players for themselves, out of time and circumstance, a sort of human essence that would persist no matter what, it also reveals how race, gender, and class privilege inform our worldview, and participate in our becoming. That's...political. Michael Schaub Molly Ivins once called Texas politics the "finest form of free entertainment ever invented." It's a rare understatement from the late journalist, who knew more about the Lone Star State than most of us Texans ever will. (She tried to warn us, too, writing in 2001, "Next time I tell you someone from Texas should not be president of the United States, please pay attention.") Everything is crazier in Texas, especially politics. The novelist Kinky Friedman (who is crazy, but the good kind of crazy) once got 12 percent of the vote in a gubernatorial election despite having written song lyrics like "They ain't makin' Jews like Jesus anymore / They ain't makin' carpenters who know what nails are for." And this year, crazy has gone national, though it's New York, not Texas, to blame. That's why I've been thinking about Billy Lee Brammer's wonderful 1961 novel The Gay Place. The book follows three characters as they navigate the increasingly insane world of Texas politics: a state legislator, a United States senator, and a speechwriter who works for Governor Arthur "Goddamn" Fenstemaker (who is based very, very heavily on Lyndon B. Johnson). There's a lot of drinking and a lot of sex. In other words, it's the perfect Austin novel. The protagonists in The Gay Place are perpetually filled with dread, and a feeling that something's gone horribly wrong with the way the state is governed. But there's not much pushback on their part, and few attempts to kick against the pricks. Brammer does a great job exploring how those who work in politics go from idealistic to cynical in record time, and how graft and bombast became the new normal in Austin. And it's happening now, again, on a national level, though with higher stakes and an even more bizarre would-be leader (I am beginning to think that no fiction, even the most dystopian, could possibly account for Trump). The Gay Place is brilliant and sui generis, even if the chicken-fried dialogue might perplex non-Southern readers. And it's a great look at what happens when a state basically decides to expect political corruption. Sorry, the rest of America, but we warned y'all. Or at least we meant to. Janet Potter One reason I rarely wade into discussions about modern U.S. politics is that I don’t give it enough sustained attention. I don’t have an adequately comprehensive understanding of the major lawmakers and issue negotiations to do anything other than parrot my commentator of choice when a flashpoint issue comes up. (That’s modern politics, mind you, I could talk about 1850s politics until I’m blue in the face.) In the summer of 2011, however, I knew the political machinations of George R.R. Martin’s Westeros like the back of my hand. I could talk about the Westerosi politics like the characters of The West Wing talk about U.S. politics -- with long-winded complexity and near-perfect recall. Martin is rightly praised for the scope and melodrama of his storytelling, but he’s also a political genius, or at least has the talent to write from the perspective of a handful of different political geniuses. I read the first 5 books in A Song of Ice and Fire in a few weeks. During that time, I probably spent more of my waking hours absorbed in the world of Westeros than I did going about my own life, and so for a short while I was able to hold all the details of its multi-faceted war in my head. I knew I would like the romance, the battles, the centuries-old feuds and unlikely friendships, but I was surprised by how much I liked reading about the politics. Having a comprehensive understanding of the political scene made the council meetings electrifying. I found myself with an opinion of how these fictional politicians should proceed, something that never happens in my actual life. It helped me to understand why people who follow politics, you know, in the real world, get addicted to it. It was fascinating and confounding and impossible not to talk about. At this point the finer points have slipped away, and I only remember the romance and melodrama (like how desperately I want Arya to be reunited with Nymeria), but for a few brief weeks I was a Westeros wonk. Cara DuBois Twice in the past year, I’ve read Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale -- once for pleasure, the second time for a course called Disposable Life and the Contemporary Novel. The first reading was visceral; I swallowed the book whole and it left a lump in my throat. In my second reading (the text was paired with works like Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro and Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates), I focused on the body in another way and attempted to understand how and why a person becomes expendable. As I stood in Offred’s place, I felt a familiar fear. Atwood’s novel may be satire, but the gendered violence in Gilead doesn’t feel like a part of a distant dystopian world to me. It is everyday violence. Offred says, “I try not to think too much. Like other things now, thought must be rationed. There’s a lot that doesn’t bear thinking about. Thinking can hurt your chances, and I intend to last.” As I write this now, hours after the hate crime in Orlando, I understand what Offred means. Opening myself up to the realities of the world -- to the disposability of my body as an LGBTQ woman -- feels like a slow death. Atwood calls her work “speculative fiction” because it builds on the existing world, presenting something outlandish but not entirely impossible, because it is anchored in the real. I related to the violence and the dehumanization in the text. Though it would be easier to ignore these feelings, I must acknowledge them in order to work toward positive change. (Offred, too, remains politically conscious throughout the text.) I can’t argue that The Handmaid’s Tale is the best political fiction ever written, but it helped me find my voice -- the most important political weapon there is. Image Credit: Flickr/Andrew Comings.
Last week, we previewed 93 works of fiction due out in the second half of 2016. Today, we follow up with 44 nonfiction titles coming out in the next six months, ranging from a new rock memoir by Bruce Springsteen to a biography of one our country’s most underrated writers, Shirley Jackson, by critic Ruth Franklin. Along the way, we profile hotly anticipated titles by Jesmyn Ward, Tom Wolfe, Teju Cole, Jennifer Weiner, Michael Lewis, our own Mark O’Connell, and many more. Break out the beach umbrellas and the sun block. It’s shaping up to be a very hot summer (and fall!) for new nonfiction. July: How to Be a Person in the World by Heather Havrilesky: Advice from “Polly,” New York magazine’s online column for the lovelorn, career-confused, adulthood-challenged, and generally angsty. Havrilesky pours her heart into her answers, offering guidance that is equal parts tough love, “I’ve been there,” and curveball. This collection includes new material as well as previously published fan favorites. (Hannah) Trump: A Graphic Biography by Ted Rall: Just in time for the Republican convention, cartoonist Rall follows his recent graphic bios of Sen. Bernie Sanders and CIA whistleblower Edward Snowden with a comic book peek into the life and times of America’s favorite short-fingered vulgarian. Given that Rall once called on Barack Obama to resign, saying the 44th president made “Bill Clinton look like a paragon of integrity and follow-through,” it’s a safe bet that Trump won’t be flogging this one on his campaign website. (Michael) Not Pretty Enough by Gerri Hirshey: A biography of Helen Gurley Brown, the founder and creator of Cosmopolitan magazine, following Brown from her upbringing in the Ozarks to her freewheeling single years in L.A. to her rise in the New York advertising and magazine world. The “fun, fearless” editor lived large and worked hard, embracing new sexual and economic freedoms and teaching other women to do the same by offering candid advice on sex, love, money, career, and friendship. (Hannah) Bush by Jean Edward Smith: He did it his way. According to Smith, author of previous bios of Dwight D. Eisenhower and F.D.R., President George W. Bush relied on his religious faith and gut instinct to make key decisions of his presidency, including the fateful order to invade Iraq a year and a half after the 9/11 attacks. Only in the final months of his second term, with the banking system nearing collapse, did the “Decider-in-Chief” pay closer attention to expert advice and take actions that pulled the world economy back from the brink. (Michael) Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube by Blair Braverman: Fans of This American Life might recognize Braverman from Episode 558, “Game Face”, in which Braverman, working as a dog musher, got stuck in a storm on an Alaskan glacier with a group of tourists who had no idea of the danger they were in. Her memoir describes her tendency to court danger as she ventures into the arctic, a landscape that is not only physically exhausting but also a man’s world that doesn’t have much room for a young woman. (Hannah) The Voyeur’s Motel by Gay Talese: Some questioned Talese’s journalistic ethics when an excerpt from this book was published in The New Yorker in April. Others admired it as an endurance feat of reporting. Talese spent decades corresponding and visiting a voyeuristic motel owner, Gerald Foos, who constructed a motel that allowed him to secretly spy on his guests. After 35 years, Foos agreed to let Talese reveal his identity and lifelong obsession with voyeurism. In the weeks leading up to publication, Talese has admitted that some of the facts in the book are wrong and told The Washington Post that he won’t be promoting it. Then he told the The New York Times he would be promoting it. We don't know what to make of it all, either. You'll just have to read the book and decide for yourself. (Hannah) Bobby Kennedy by Larry Tye: Drawing on interviews, unpublished memoirs, newly released government files, “and fifty-eight boxes of papers that had been under lock and key for the past forty years,” Tye traces Bobby Kennedy’s journey from 1950s cold warrior to 1960s liberal icon following the assassination of his older brother, John, in 1963. In an era when presidential candidates are routinely excoriated for decades-old policy positions, it can be instructive to recall that the would-be savior of the urban poor began his public life just 15 years earlier as counsel to red-baiting Sen. Joseph McCarthy. (Michael) August The Fire This Time edited by Jesmyn Ward: Fifty-three years after James Baldwin’s classic The Fire Next Time, and one year after Ta-Nehisi Coates’s scalding book-length meditation on race, Between the World and Me, Ward has collected 18 essays by some of the country’s foremost thinkers on race in America, including Claudia Rankine, Isabel Wilkerson, and former U.S. Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey. “To Baldwin's call we now have a choral response -- one that should be read by every one of us committed to the cause of equality and freedom,” says historian Jelani Cobb. The Gardener and the Carpenter by Alison Gopnik: This parenting book takes issue with the culture of “parenting,” a hyper-vigilant, goal-oriented style of childcare that leaves children and caregivers exhausted. Gopnik, a developmental psychologist, and the author of The Philosophical Baby, argues that parents should adopt a looser style, one that is more akin to gardening than building a particular structure. Her metaphor is backed up by years of research and observation. (Hannah) Scream by Tama Janowitz: A memoir from the author of Slaves of New York, the acclaimed short story collection about young people trying to make it in downtown Manhattan in the 1980s. Following the publication of Slaves, Janowitz was grouped with the “Brat Pack” writers Bret Easton Ellis and Jay McInerney famed for their deadpan minimalist style. Scream reflects on that time, as well as the more universal life experiences that followed as Janowitz became a wife, mother, and caregiver to her aging mother. (Hannah) American Heiress by Jeffrey Toobin: As the author of The Run of His Life, about the O.J. Simpson murder trial, and A Vast Conspiracy, about the Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky sex scandal, Toobin is no stranger to tabloid-drenched legal sagas, which makes him an ideal guide to the media circus surrounding Patty Hearst’s 1974 kidnapping and later trial for bank robbery. Drawing on interviews and a trove of previously unreleased records, Toobin, a New Yorker staff writer, tries to make sense of one of the weirdest and most violent episodes in recent American history. (Michael) The Kingdom of Speech by Tom Wolfe: The maximalist novelist returns to his nonfiction roots with a book that argues speech is what divides humans from animals, above all else. (Tell that to Dr. Dolittle!) Wolfe delves into controversial debates about what role speech has played in our evolution as a technological species. For a sneak preview of his arguments, check out his 2006 NEA lecture, “The Human Beast”. (Hannah) Blood in the Water by Heather Ann Thompson: Anyone needing to be reminded that the problems in America’s prison system date back to long before the War on Drugs may want to pick up Thompson’s history of the infamous 1971 Attica prison uprising. After 1,300 prisoners seized control of the upstate New York prison, holding guards and other employees hostage for four days, the state sent in troopers to take the prison back by force, leaving 39 people dead and 100 more severely injured. Thompson has drawn on newly unearthed documents and interviews with participants from all sides of the debacle to create what is being billed the “first definitive account” of the uprising 45 years ago. (Michael) Known and Strange Things by Teju Cole: This first work of nonfiction by the Nigerian-American novelist best known for Open City collects more than 50 short essays touching on topics from Virginia Woolf and William Shakespeare to Instagram and the Black Lives Matter movement. In one essay, Cole, an art historian and photographer, looks at how African-American photographer Roy DeCarava, forced to shoot with film designed for white skin tones, depicted his black subjects. In another essay, Cole dissects “the White Savior Industrial Complex” that he says guides much of Western aid to African nations. (Michael) September Born to Run by Bruce Springsteen: After performing at halftime for the 2009 Super Bowl, the bard of New Jersey decided it was time to write his memoirs. This 500-page doorstopper covers Springsteen’s Catholic childhood, his early ambition to become a musician, his inspirations, and the formation of the E Street Band. Springsteen’s lyrics have always shown a gift for storytelling, so we’re guessing this is going to be a good read. (Hannah) Weapons of Math Destruction by Cathy O’Neil: Big Data is everywhere, setting our insurance premiums, evaluating our job performance, and deciding whether we qualify for that special interest rate on our home loan. In theory, this should eliminate bias and make ours a better, fairer world, but in fact, says O’Neil, a former Wall Street data analyst, the algorithms that rule our lives can reinforce discrimination if they’re sloppily designed or improperly applied. O’Neil has a Ph.D. in math from Harvard, and runs the blog, mathbabe.org, where you can find answers to questions like “Why did the Brexit polls get it so wrong?” and why the data-driven policing program “Broken Windows” doesn’t work. (Michael) Words on the Move by John McWhorter: Does the way some people use the word “literally” drive you up the (metaphorical) wall? Before you, like, blow a gasket, try this book by a Columbia University professor who argues that we should embrace rather than condemn the natural evolution of the English language, whether it’s the use of “literally” to mean “figuratively” or the advent of business jargon like “What’s the ask?” If that’s not enough bracing talk about how we talk, in January 2017 McWhorter is releasing a second book, Talking Back, Talking Black, about African American Vernacular English. (Michael) The Pigeon Tunnel by John le Carré: The British intelligence officer turned bestselling spy novelist has written his first memoir, regaling readers with stories from his extraordinary writing career. A witness to great historical change in Europe and abroad, le Carré visited Russia before and after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and met many fascinating characters in his travels, including KGB officers, an imprisoned German terrorist, and a female aid worker who was the inspiration for the main character in The Constant Gardner. Le Carré also writes about watching Alec Guinness take on his most famous character, George Smiley. (Hannah) Avid Reader: A Life by Robert Gottlieb: Legendary editor and dance aficionado Gottlieb has had a career that could fill several memoirs. He began at Simon & Schuster, where he quickly rose to the top, discovering American classics like Catch-22 along the way. He left Simon & Schuster to run Alfred A. Knopf, and later, to succeed William Shawn as editor of The New Yorker. Gottlieb has worked with some of the country’s most celebrated writers, including John Cheever, Toni Morrison, Shirley Jackson, and Robert Caro. (Hannah) This Vast Southern Empire by Matthew Karp: In the contemporary American mind, the Confederacy is recalled as a rump government of Southern plutocrats bent on protecting an increasingly outmoded form of chattel slavery, but as this new history reminds us, before the Civil War, many of the men who guided America’s foreign policy and territorial expansion were Southern slave owners. At the height of their power in antebellum Washington, Southern politicians like Vice President John C. Calhoun and U.S. Secretary of War Jefferson Davis modernized the U.S. military and protected slavery in Brazil, Cuba, and the Republic of Texas. (Michael) Shirley Jackson by Ruth Franklin: Shirley Jackson, best known for her bone-chilling and classic short story, “The Lottery,” has to be one of our most underrated novelists. Franklin describes Jackson’s fiction as “domestic horror,” a pioneering genre that explored women’s isolation in marriage and family life through the occult. Franklin’s biography has already been praised by Neil Gaiman, who wrote that it provides “a way of reading Jackson and her work that threads her into the weave of the world of words, as a writer and as a woman, rather than excludes her as an anomaly.” (Hannah) When in French by Lauren Collins: New Yorker staffer Collins moved to London only to fall in love with a Frenchman. For years, the couple spoke to each another in English but Collins always wondered what she was missing by not communicating in her partner’s native tongue. When she and her husband moved to Geneva, Collins decided to learn French from the Swiss. When in French details Collins’s struggles to learn a new language in her 30s, as well as the joy of attaining a deeper understanding of French culture and people. (Hannah) Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly: During the early Space Race years, female mathematicians known as “human computers” used slide rules and adding machines to make the calculations that launched rockets, and later astronauts, into space. Many of these women were black math teachers recruited from segregated schools in the South to fill spots in the aeronautics industry created by wartime labor shortages. Not surprisingly, Hidden Figures, which focuses on the all-black “West Computing” group at the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory, is being made into a movie starring Taraji Henson and Kevin Costner. (Michael) American Prophets by Albert J. Raboteau: This fascinating social history profiles seven religious leaders whose collective efforts helped to fight war, racism, and poverty and bring about massive social change in midcentury America. It’s a list that includes Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., as well as Abraham Joshua Heschel, A. J. Muste, Dorothy Day, Howard Thurman, Thomas Merton, and Fannie Lou Hamer. Raboteau finds new connections between these figures and delves into the ideas and theologies that inspired them. (Hannah) The Art of Waiting by Belle Boggs: The title of this essay collection comes from Boggs’s much-shared Orion essay, which frankly depicted her despair as she realized that she might never conceive a child. What made the essay special was Boggs’s eye to the natural world, as she observed fertility and birth in the birds and animals near her rural home. Boggs continues to focus her gaze outward in these essays as she reports on families who have chosen to adopt, LBGT couples considering surrogacy and assisted reproduction, and the financial and legal complications accompanying these alternative means of fertility. (Hannah) Time Travel: A History by James Gleick: The tech-savvy author of The Information and Chaos shows how time travel as a literary conceit is intimately intertwined with the modern understanding of time that arose from technological innovations like the telegraph, train travel, and advances in clock-making. Beginning with H.G. Wells, author of The Time Machine, Gleick tracks the evolution of time travel as a cultural construct from the novels of Marcel Proust to the cult British TV show Doctor Who. (Michael) Strangers in Their Own Land by Arlie Russell Hochschild: Perfectly timed for the start of the last lap of the presidential campaign, this book endeavors to see red-state voters as they see themselves -- not as dupes of right-wing media, but as ordinary, patriotic Americans trying to do the best for their families and themselves. A renowned sociologist and author of The Second Shift, a classic 1989 study of women’s roles in working families, Hochschild ventures far from her home in uber-liberal Berkeley, Calif., to meet hardcore conservatives in southern Louisiana. There, as in so much of working-class America, she finds lives riven by stagnant wages, the loss of homes, and an exhausting chase after an ever-elusive American dream. (Michael) Eyes on the Street by Robert Kanigel: Anyone who has window-shopped in SoHo or marveled at the walkability of their neighborhood can thank activist Jane Jacobs who forever changed how planners thought about and designed urban spaces with her landmark 1961 book The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Kanigel, author of The Man Who Knew Infinity, traces the roots of the great urban pioneer who wrote seven books and stopped New York’s all-powerful planning czar Robert Moses from running a major highway through Lower Manhattan, all without a college degree. (Michael) October Love for Sale by David Hajdu: In his previous books, Hajdu has written about jazz and folk music; in Love for Sale he tells the story of American popular music from its vaudeville beginnings to Blondie at CBGB to today’s electronic dance music. Hajdu highlights overlooked performers like blues singer Bessie Smith and Jimmie Rodgers, a country singer who incorporated yodeling into his music. (Hannah) Future Sex by Emily Witt: In her first book, journalist and critic Witt writes about the intersection between sex and technology, otherwise known as online dating. Witt reports on internet pornography, polyamory, and other sexual subcultures, giving an honest and open-minded account of how people pursue pleasure and connection in a changing sexual landscape. (Hannah) Hungry Heart by Jennifer Weiner: No, it’s not the second volume of Springsteen’s memoirs -- instead, it’s an essay collection from a bestselling author who may be as famous for her defense of chick-lit as she is for her own female-centric novels. This is Weiner’s first volume of nonfiction, and she has a lifetime of topics to cover: growing up as an outsider in her picture-perfect town, her early years as a newspaper reporter, finding her voice as a novelist, becoming a mother, the death of her estranged father, and what it felt like to hear her daughter use the “f-word” -- “fat” -- for the first time. (Hannah) Truevine by Beth Macy: One day in 1899, a white man offered a piece of candy to George and Willie Muse, the children of black sharecroppers in Truevine, Va., setting off a chain of events that led to the boys being kidnapped into a circus, which billed them as cannibals and “Ambassadors from Mars” in tours that played for royalty at Buckingham Palace and in sold-out shows at Madison Square Garden. Like Macy’s last book, Factory Man, about a good-old-boy owner of a local furniture factory in Virginia who took on low-cost Chinese exporters and won, Truevine promises a mix of quirky characters, propulsive narrative, and an insider’s look at a neglected corner of American history. (Michael) Upstream by Mary Oliver: Essays from one of America’s most beloved poets. As always, Oliver’s draws inspiration from the natural world, and Provincetown, Mass., her home and life-long muse. Oliver also writes about her early love of Walt Whitman, the labor of poetry, and the continuing influence of classic American writers such as Robert Frost, Edgar Allan Poe, and Ralph Waldo Emerson. (Hannah) Black Elk by Joe Jackson: A biography of a Native American holy man whose epic life spanned a dramatic era in the history of the American West. In his youth, Black Elk fought in Little Big Horn, witnessed the death of his second cousin, Crazy Horse, and traveled to Europe to perform in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. In later years, he fought in Wounded Knee, became an activist for the Lakota people, and converted to Catholicism. Known to many through his spiritual testimony, Black Elk Speaks, this biography brings the man to life, as well as the turbulent times he lived through. (Hannah) November Born a Crime by Trevor Noah: As the child of a white Dutch father and a black Xhosa mother who had to pretend she was her own child’s nanny on the rare occasions the family was together, comedian Noah’s very existence was evidence of a crime under the apartheid laws of his native South Africa. In his memoir, Noah recalls eating caterpillars to stave off hunger and being thrown by his eccentric mother from a speeding car driven by murderous gangsters. If you survived a childhood like that, you might not be so intimated at the prospect of replacing Jon Stewart on The Daily Show, either. (Michael) My Lost Poets by Philip Levine: In this posthumous essay collection from one of our pre-eminent poets, Levine writes about composing poems as a child, studying with John Berryman, the influence of Spanish poets on his work, his idols and mentors, and his many inspirations: jazz, Spain, Detroit, and masters of the form like William Wordsworth and John Keats. (Hannah) Writing to Save a Life by John Edgar Wideman: Ten years before Emmett Till was brutally lynched for supposedly whistling at a white woman in Mississippi, his father Louis was executed by the U.S. army for rape and murder. Wideman, who was the same age as Emmett Till, just 14, the year he was murdered, mixes memoir and historical research in his exploration of the eerily twinned executions of the two Till men. A Rhodes Scholar and MacArthur “genius grant” recipient, Wideman knows all too well what it means to have a close relative accused of a violent crime: his son, Jacob, and his brother, Robert, were both convicted of murder. (Michael) Searching for John Hughes by Jason Diamond: Diamond has established himself as an authority on/gently obsessive superfan of John Hughes with pieces on the filmmaker for Buzzfeed and The Atlantic (from where I learned the shameful fact that John Hughes was responsible for the movie Flubber in addition to his suite of beloved suburban-white-kid films). Diamond’s Hughes interest stretches back to his time as an aspiring, and doomed, Hughes biographer. Diamond commemorates this journey through a memoir and cultural history of a brief, vanished moment in the Chicagoland suburbs. (Lydia) December The Undoing Project by Michael Lewis: Why do people go with their guts, even when their guts so often steer them wrong? Lewis stumbled onto this fundamental human question in his bestselling 2003 book Moneyball, about how the Oakland A’s, a cash-strapped major league team, used data analysis to beat wealthier teams. A brief reference in a review of Moneyball in The New Republic led Lewis to two psychologists, Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, whose work explores why humans follow their intuition. If Kahneman’s name sounds familiar, that’s because he’s a Nobel laureate and author of the 2011 bestseller Thinking Fast and Slow. That’s a lot of bestseller cred in one book. (Michael) And Beyond To Be a Machine by Mark O’Connell: In his first full-length book, due out in March 2017, longtime Millions staff writer O’Connell offers an inside look at the “transhumanism movement,” the adherents of which hope to one day “solve” the problem of death and use technology to propel human evolution. If O’Connell’s pieces for this site and his ebook, Epic Fail: Bad Art, Viral Fame, and the History of the Worst Thing Ever, published by The Millions in 2013, are any guide, To Be a Machine will be smart and odd and very, very funny. (Michael) Abandon Me by Melissa Febos: Following on the success of her debut memoir, Whip Smart, about her years as a professional dominatrix and junkie, Febos turns back the clock to examine her relationship with her birth father, whose legacy includes his Native American heritage and a tendency toward addiction. Interwoven with these family investigations is the story of Febos’s passionate long-distance love affair with another woman. Abandon Me is slated for February 2017. (Michael) Lower Ed by Tressie McMillan Cottom: A much-needed examination of the recent expansion of for-profit universities, which have put millions of young people into serious debt at the beginning of their careers. Cottom links the rise of for-profit universities to rising inequality, drawing on her own experience as an admissions counselor at two for-profit universities, and interviewing students, activists, and senior executives in the industry. (Hannah) Hunger by Roxane Gay: In our spring nonfiction preview, we looked forward to Gay’s memoir Hunger, which was slated to be published in June 2016, but her publishing date has been pushed back to June 2017. According to reporting from EW, and Gay’s own tweets, the book simply took longer than Gay expected. She also wanted its release to follow a book of short stories, Difficult Women, which will be published in January 2017. (Hannah) And Now We Have Everything by Meaghan O’Connell: Millions Year in Reading alum and New York magazine’s The Cut columnist O’Connell will bring her signature voice to a collection of essays about motherhood billed as “this generation’s Operating Instructions.” Readers who follow O’Connell’s writing for The Cut or her newsletter look forward to a full volume of her relatable, sometimes mordant, sometimes tender reflections on writing and family life. (Lydia)
The Pulitzer jury named Viet Thanh Nguyen's The Sympathizer this year's winner in the fiction category. Here are this year's Pulitzer winners and finalists with bonus links: Fiction: Winner: The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen (Nguyen's Year in Reading 2015) Get in Trouble: Stories by Kelly Link (Memory is a Mysterious Machine: The Millions Interviews Kelly Link) Maud's Line by Margaret Verble General Nonfiction: Winner: Black Flags: The Rise of ISIS by Joby Warrick Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates If the Oceans Were Ink: An Unlikely Friendship and a Journey to the Heart of the Quran by Carla Power History: Winner: Custer's Trials: A Life on the Frontier of a New America by T.J. Stiles Marching Home: Union Veterans and Their Unending Civil War by Brian Matthew Jordan Target Tokyo: Jimmy Doolittle and the Raid That Avenged Pearl Harbor by James M. Scott Biography or Autobiography: Winner: Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life by William Finnegan Custer's Trials: A Life on the Frontier of a New America by T.J. Stiles The Light of the World: A Memoir by Elizabeth Alexander Poetry: Winner: Ozone Journal by Peter Balakian Alive: New and Selected Poems by Elizabeth Willis Four-Legged Girl by Diane Seuss Winners and finalists in other categories are available at the Pulitzer Web site.
The London Book Fair starts on April 12th. As a kick off, we thought it would be fun to compare the U.S. and U.K. covers of a few notable titles from last year, a task previously taken on by our much-loved outgoing editor, Mr. Max Magee. I've lived in both the U.S. and the U.K. and always felt that if I could pinpoint the reason why the soap operas are so different -- the kleenex-lensed, pearly hues of The Young and the Restless vs. the gruff, flattened grays of East Enders as one example -- or articulate why marmite sandwiches appeal in one place when peanut butter and jelly is preferred in the other, I would finally understand where the two cultures divide. Sometimes I look to book covers in an attempt for clarity. Why is a cover in the U.S. replaced with another in the U.K. when the words inside are exactly the same? I may not like marmite, but I do have a taste for books. I sat down to see if I could finally develop the overarching theory that has eluded me so far. It's notable that many covers are the same. Some of the biggest books, like Helen Macdonald's H is for Hawk, Ta-Nehisi Coates's Between The World And Me, and Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan novels sport the same jackets in the U.S. and U.K. "It often comes down to differences in cultures and tastes. What appeals to people in one country doesn't appeal to others," says my literary agent, Denise Bukowski. "But if the book has been published first in one country and has been successful there, subsequent publishers often choose to capitalize on that success by using the original cover." But many others titles still have completely different covers, which is fortunate as it means there is still plenty for us to argue about. Below I present just a few of the choice examples. U.S. covers are on the left. U.K. covers are on the right. Your equally inexpert analysis, baseless opinions, and sweeping generalizations are encouraged in the comments. Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff These covers are intriguingly similar and yet so different. Swirls vs. angles, blues vs. reds, swishes vs. swipes, almost like a mirror of the two halves of the book, the first told by the husband, Lotto, and the second by the wife, Mathilde. I had trouble making sense of it all until I consulted an article called "How to Use Color Psychology to Give Your Business an Edge" and understood that there is subliminal messaging at work. The U.S. cover designer is on team Lotto and emphasized blue for grief, sadness, and distraction. In the U.K., the designer was on Mathilde's side, hence anger, rage, and ecstasy. Hausfrau by Jill Alexander Essbaum I love the U.S. cover for this book, but how does it relate to the story? Flowers are sex organs. This book is about sex organs. Then what of the U.K. cover -- embroidery is about not having sex. Or not messy sex. Maybe strictly missionary? Or if you get up to more, you have to make the bed perfectly afterwards, including carefully smoothing the bedspread so that no one will suspect what you've been up to. Which is exactly what this book is about. The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins These two covers clearly illustrate one big difference between the two countries, their respective outlooks on the events leading up to the U.S. presidential election. If you are a drunk woman in the U.S., the primaries feel like you are on a train and with all the antics, both comic and tragic, hurtling around you in an incomprehensible blur. If you are a drunk woman in the U.K., you watch from the outside and find yourself unable to take your wavering eyes off the speeding train -- the question that holds your attention is not if it will crash, but how. Purity by Jonathan Franzen Only a fool would think these covers came from different countries. They were clearly designed in alternate dimensions. Did You Ever Have a Family by Bill Clegg Both designs take inspiration from the publisher's description of the inciting incident: "This book of dark secrets opens with a blaze." However each seem to have decided that a different element of that incident is more enticing. In the U.S., readers might like dark, mildewy, water-damaged secrets, whereas in the U.K., a good house fire will make the book fly off the shelves? A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara It's hard for me to imagine A Little Life without the ecstasy and agony conveyed by the iconic photograph on the U.S. edition, Orgasmic Man by Peter Hujar. I was struck by ecstasy every time I picked up this book and collapsed into agony after each reading session. I understand the reasoning behind the U.K. cover; it makes sense to put forward an image that evokes life in New York, but it doesn't echo the experience in the writing, as does Hujar's art. I wonder, are orgasms not a universal experience? Perhaps people in the U.K. do not have them. Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee Finally, the clarity I seek. This one is straightforward. The U.S. cover lets you know the name of the book you are buying. The U.K. cover lets you know that you are buying a draft of a sequel that you won't enjoy unless you keep To Kill a Mockingbird in the back of your mind at all times while reading.
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. 3. Fates and Furies 5 months 2. 4. Purity 6 months 3. 5. Slade House 4 months 4. 7. Fortune Smiles 2 months 5. 8. The Big Green Tent 3 months 6. 9. The Heart Goes Last 5 months 7. 10. City on Fire 4 months 8. - What Belongs to You 1 month 9. - My Name is Lucy Barton 1 month 10. - A Brief History of Seven Killings 2 months It's with a certain degree of triumph that I welcome Marlon James to the first Millions Top Ten of 2016. While this isn't the first time his superb novel A Brief History of Seven Killings has appeared on our list overall — that first occurred in October of last year — it nevertheless feels a bit like a personal victory for me, the humble author of this series, who has since that time urged each and every one of you to go out and purchase a copy (or three!) immediately. Well, it finally seems that the work has paid off. (Happy New Year to me!) Now let's work on keeping it here, eh? This month we graduated three Top Ten fixtures to our Hall of Fame: Ta-Nehisi Coates's Between the World and Me, Hanya Yanagihara's A Little Life, and Harper Lee's Go Set a Watchman. The first two were fixtures atop our list for the past six months, while Lee's Mockingbird sequel-prequel got off to a hot start before ultimately settling in the middle of our ten-book pack. Their success means Lauren Groff's Fates and Furies is the new top book in town. It's a novel that Margaret Eby described in her Year in Reading entry as the kind "I would start reading on a Saturday morning and soon find myself cancelling weekend plans to finish by Sunday night." To get acquainted with it, I recommend first checking out our exclusive first look at its opening lines, and then settling in for our interview with its author. If somehow you're still not convinced that this is a book you absolutely need to read in full, immediately, then allow our own Edan Lepucki's praise to coax you over the threshold: I have read all of Groff’s novels, and each one is better than the last, which gives me vicarious hope for my own puny literary pursuits. I get the sense that Groff is always looking for new ways to tell stories, to show time passing, to express human longing, shame, desire, need, all without succumbing to the same-old conventions of scenic conflict and cause-and-effect. Plus, her prose is so shining and unexpected she could describe getting her license renewed at the DMV and I’d find it compelling. Also this month in addition to A Brief History... we welcome two newcomers to our list: Garth Greenwell's What Belongs to You and Elizabeth Strout's My Name is Lucy Barton. Both novels have received heaps of praise — both appeared on our Most Anticipated preview — but Greenwell's in particular has been drawing some seriously effusive reviews. On our site, Jameson Fitzpatrick wrote that What Belongs to You "offers us the most exacting and visionary reading in contemporary literature of what it means to be gay in America today." This month's near misses included: Eternity Street: Violence and Justice in Frontier Los Angeles, The Turner House, The 3 A.M. Epiphany, Undermajordomo Minor, and A Strangeness in My Mind. See Also: Last month's list.
Every new year, my husband and I quit drinking for the month. Sober January is a healthy and smug time, filled with sparkling water and peppermint tea and discussions about what kind of red wine would have gone well with the lamb shanks. This year, we've also given up sugar for the month. We joke that we should also take away bread, dairy, meat, salt. Anything with flavor, anything that makes us happy. Next year we will consume only paper towels soaked in water for 31 days. A more pleasurable new year's resolution is one that adds to your life rather than subtracts from it. One year, for instance, I vowed to wear more dresses. I did, and it was a fabulous (and feminine) year. Reading resolutions, if they aren't too onerous, also fall under this category. For example, vowing to read a poem a week isn't a huge challenge and, wow, how it can render a Saturday morning more ponderous and magical! A couple of years back I devoted a summer to E.M. Forster, and, aside from the splendor of reading Howards End and Maurice, I loved saying, in my best mid-Atlantic, Gore Vidal-inspired accent, "I find myself on a Forster kick lately." This year, I resolve to read James Baldwin's nonfiction, in particular The Fire Next Time. The desire to read Baldwin emerged from discussions, both in-person and online, about Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, which I own but haven't yet read. Beyond the obvious similarities between the two books (the letter writing device and race in America as subject matter), I'm interested in other ways these two texts interact, and where and how they diverge. I also resolve to read David Copperfield. I'd already planned to read it this year after spending 2015 with one contemporary novel or another, and then I read Meaghan O'Connell's Year in Reading, wherein she not only recommended many of the same books I had read and loved in 2015, but also mentioned that she was waiting for the Charles Dickens to arrive in the mail. This seemed fated. We have agreed to tackle the book together, in a kind of two-lady book club, this February. In figuring out my own reading resolutions, I realized how much fun it is to hear about what others plan to read this year. In this spirit, I asked some people I admire to share their 2016 bookish resolutions. The Essayist David Ulin, former critic for the Los Angeles Times and the author of Sidewalking: Coming to Terms with Los Angeles, always writes about books with such perspicacity and grace. He told me he generally doesn't believe in resolutions since he almost never follows through with them. He went on: But when it comes to reading in 2016, my main goal is to relax. To step back from the treadmill, and to read in a more integrated way. In part, this will mean as a critic, since I plan to continue writing about books; in part, as a writer, reading books that connect to, or address, various projects; and (perhaps most importantly) in part, as a reader, reading for no agenda other than my own. I've long believed that reading as a writer (and certainly as a critic) condemns one never to read for pure pleasure again. What I mean is that we are reading, inevitably, from within our own processes, with an eye toward how the sausage is made. I don't imagine that will change for me, but I want to read recklessly this year, to put books down in the middle, to start and stop and start again. I want to read old books, new books, books by friends and books by strangers, books from all across the globe. Next to my bed, where I am writing at this moment, there are two piles of books, each about a foot and a half high. I'd like to read down those stacks, which include memoir, poetry, short story collections, detective fiction, books I wasn't able to get to until now. Will I be able to read all of them, or even most of them, this year? Unlikely. And yet, they perch there like a promise or a dare. The Poet My friend Tess Taylor, who is the poetry critic for NPR's All Things Considered, and who will publish her second collection Work & Days this April, also plans to follow her bookish desires, wherever they may take her: My biggest goals in 2016 are to read deeply, to read works as a whole, and to read off the grid. I think in the whole buzzy Facebook news-cycle thing, we get caught in a book-of-the-moment phenomenon. That is totally fine for the engine of selling books but maybe not as great for the part of us that makes us hungry to write them. Wearing my book reviewer hat, I am often reading for deadline or for money. I’m glad I get the to write things, truly, but this can be far from the wayward, unplugged feeling that made me a bookworm as a kid. So this year I want to get lost more. It can be very sustaining to engage one artist deeply, for pleasure, to get the measure of the craft and the life. Right now I’m reading all of Ted Hughes. I admit that this started out of a journalistic assignment, but the poems and the letters and the mind caught my attention and suddenly I’ve been ploughing through them almost obsessively. It’s a big private enterprise, and I mostly do it late at night or first thing in the morning. For now it’s not for sale. It feels really dreamy, like it feeds the writer in me. I want to do more of that. The Debut Novelist Would this desire to "get lost more," as Tess puts it, extend to someone just stepping into the publication game? The year I published my first novel, I bought and read so many other recently released first novels because I was curious about what my colleagues were writing, and because I wanted to feel like I was in solidarity with my fellow debut novelists. (Class of 2014 in the house!) I asked fellow staff writer Hannah Gersen if the impending publication of her first novel, Home Field (out in July, y'all!), was affecting her reading resolutions. Yes, she said, but in a different way. She told me she's planning to read Marcel Proust's In Search of Lost Time: Or maybe it's better to say I'm planning to finally read the whole thing from start to finish without skipping sections. I'm not sure how much this impulse is related to being a debut novelist, but Proust is definitely comfort reading for me because I’ve read and reread certain passages at different points in my life. The idea of reading the entire novel, knitting together all those favorite scenes, a little each day, feels very grounding. Maybe I also need a break from thinking about contemporary literature, to have a kind of cork-lined reading experience. The Book Editor I envy Hannah's plan and the break she will get from the now-now-now! of our contemporary book-making machine (even as she gets to be a part of it.) It also made me wonder about those working within the industry. Do you make reading resolutions if you read and edit manuscripts for a living? Turns out, you do -- or at least Laura Tisdel, executive editor at Viking, does. Every year, she told me, she attempts such a resolution. Three years ago I read nonfiction titles to bone up on an area of reading, and general knowledge, I was woefully uneducated about (I tackled mostly history stuff, including Operation Jedburgh by Colin Beavan and The American Revolution by Gordon Wood). Two years ago, I focused on classics I hadn't read as a student (Middlemarch and Giovanni's Room? Check and check!). Last year, I had a baby (*crickets*). As a relatively new mother, one with just enough sleep to begin regaining some self-awareness, I've found myself missing the conversations I used to have with my friends catching up over a beer or even just disappearing down the rabbit hole of a text message thread. So this year, I'm going to read books that my friends recommend to me. I know darn well I don't have the time in my schedule or the capacity to be a book club participant, but I'm going to make a sort of book club of one: I'm going to ask the people I care about and respect to recommend a book they loved, and then I'm going to read that book and write to them about it. I'm starting the year with Shine On, Bright and Dangerous Object by Laurie Colwin, which a dear friend recommended to me just before the holidays when we grabbed a long overdue coffee date together. I'm thinking of this project as a way to commune with my friends, and to discover stories and writers that might never have surfaced in my nightstand pile otherwise. (I now have strong motivation to start texting recommendations to her!) The Bookseller I get the sense that Tisdel, like the others I asked, wants to step back from the machine. Not with a beloved classic, like Gersen, and not by reading "recklessly" as Ulin suggests, or associatively, like Taylor. But by reading a particular book for, and with, and because of, a particular person. It's reading, and talking about reading, as intimacy. Mary Williams, the general manager of Skylight Books in Los Angeles, is another integral member of the book-making machine, and her resolution echoes those of the others: Free books are one of the perks of being a bookseller. But they are also a curse; there are just so many of them. I have never been able to keep up with all the books coming out each season that I want to read. Cue desperate feelings of inadequacy. Also, the world is full of great books that came out before I became a bookseller and my professional obligation to stay current began. So my resolution is to forgive myself for the new books I can't get to (wish me luck), and to make some time for the aging heroes lodged in the middles of stacks of unread books in my apartment. Already Dead by Denis Johnson. Stoner by John Williams. More short stories: especially Lorrie Moore and George Saunders and Lydia Davis. Basically, more reading without deadlines. Reigning Authoress While Mary is tossing off the shackles of professional obligation to read Stoner in the break room (Oh, how I envy her! I'd love to read that for the first time all over again!), Dana Spiotta's next book, Innocent and Others, will be released. It comes out in March, which is motivation for me to finish that stupid Dickens as fast as I can -- and for Mary to put those shackles back on. While every smart person is reading her novel, what books will Spiotta herself turn to? She told me, "When I was in my teens, I loved to read any kind of novel about growing up. he Bildungsroman(s), the sentimental educations, the coming-of-age/loss-of-innocence stories. It was the job at hand, and I needed help." She continued: This year, since I am reaching the milestone of what is optimistically referred to as “middle age,” I want to return to those books that I read so long ago. From The Red and the Black and Jane Eyre to Manchild in the Promised Land and The Basketball Diaries. And many more books that I remember loving. Will I still love them? They are the same of course, but maybe it will be a measure of how much I have changed. What I now think is engaging and moving and beautiful. What I think is funny. What I think is true (with all my experience as a person and a reader). Or maybe not, maybe my connection to these books of my youth will be exactly the same. I wonder if my young self will be in those pages, waiting for me. Spiotta, too, is stepping away from the publishing hoopla. She will re-read; she will look backward as a way, perhaps, to look forward. I'm sure that all of us will succumb to diving into the latest hot new book, because it's fun to join those conversations, and because who doesn't want to experience what promises to amaze and rearrange us? But I hope we also fulfill our personal reading goals, too, even if it's to not have a goal: to read for pleasure, for comfort, for connection, for knowledge about the world and ourselves. What's your reading resolution for 2016? Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for December. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. 1. Between the World and Me 6 months 2. 2. A Little Life 6 months 3. 6. Fates and Furies 4 months 4. 3. Purity 5 months 5. 4. Slade House 3 months 6. 5. Go Set a Watchman 6 months 7. - Fortune Smiles 1 month 8. 10. The Big Green Tent 2 months 9. 9. The Heart Goes Last 4 months 10. 8. City on Fire 3 months After being crowned the 2015 National Book Award winner, Fortune Smiles by Adam Johnson has received an even greater honor: entry onto The Millions's December 2015 Top Ten list! The collection was described in our second-half Book Preview* as being “six stories, about everything from a former Stasi prison guard in East Germany to a computer programmer ‘finding solace in a digital simulacrum of the president of the United States,’” and it was said to “echo” the author's “early work while also building upon the ambition of his prize-winning tome.” Elsewhere on the list, small shakeups abound. Fates and Furies and The Big Green Tent rose three and two spots, respectively, while Garth Risk Hallberg's City on Fire moved from the eighth spot to the tenth. Beyond that? There isn't too much to report. Next month, however, three fixtures on our list— Between the World and Me, A Little Life, and Go Set a Watchman — will likely head to our Hall of Fame, and their ascendance should free up space for fresh blood. They'll join Book of Numbers by Joshua Cohen, which joins the Hall this month. If past is prologue, most of those newcomers will have been culled from our Year in Reading series. If so, do you have any guesses on which ones will become fan favorites? Will it be another installment of Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan Quartet? (The first one's already in our Hall...) Will it be Maggie Nelson's The Argonauts? And whatever it may be, will it have a Florida connection?** Stay tuned to find out. * Speaking of Previews, have you checked out the first installment of our Great 2016 Book Preview, which posted this week? ** Probably. Everything does. This month's near misses included: A Brief History of Seven Killings, The Turner House, Undermajordomo Minor, The 3 A.M. Epiphany, and A Strangeness in My Mind. See Also: Last month's list.
Year in Reading reminds me of that cinematic device where the camera slowly backs away from the characters we’ve been following until it’s looking at them from outside their window, and then back farther still until you see into their neighbors’ windows as well, and farther still to show a whole building of occupied windows, and then a whole city, until you are looking at hundreds of little scenes in hundreds of little windows. And you think, if I contain multitudes, and there are multitudes of people, then there are multitudes upon multitudes, and your brain starts to spin. What I’m trying to say is that over the last few weeks, 78 writers have written about close to 500 books, and following the posts as they roll out is as intimidating and overwhelming one day as it is invigorating the next. Of those books, nearly half were fiction, the most popular genre by far, followed by biography and memoir, making up roughly 15% of the recommendations. Another 15% was taken up by traditional non-fiction — books I categorized as either “history,” “essays,” or “events.” And our contributors recommended 55 books of poetry during the series, a healthy list for anyone who is definitely, no take-backs, going to read more poetry in 2016. Surprising no one, Ta-Nehisi’s Coates’s Between the World and Me and Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet were the twin titans of this year’s series, each being cited by 12 of our contributors. Close behind, A Little Life and The Argonauts were each mentioned eight times. What is surprising, and a little delightful, is that two contributors read Colette’s Claudine at School this year, and two more read Chelsea Girls by Eileen Myles. I’ve added Eileen Myles to my reading list for next year based on that, and because Chelsea Girls wasn’t even her only book to be recommended this year. I’ve also added Joy Harjo’s Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings based on Sandra Cisneros’s recommendation, and the line she quoted, and its awesome title. I also added Vivian Gornick, especially The Odd Woman and the City, because Hannah says it’s “about what it feels like to be lonely, and what it feels like to be free. It’s about what it feels like to change your mind, about the intellectual, spiritual, and emotional growth that comes after you’ve come of age, and even after you’ve ‘come into your own.’” It’s been a privilege for Lydia and I to edit the series this year. We hope you’ve found a few things you’d like to read, a few writers who share your tastes, and a few who don’t. Year in Reading is like drinking from a firehose of literary wonders. It always helps me start off my new year itching to get into the books I’ll write about at the end of it. See you then. 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.
Nothing triggers my raging Impostor Syndrome quite like being asked to account for my year in reading by a fancy literary website. What did I read this year that was good -- both in the sense that I liked it, and the sense that I wouldn't be embarrassed to admit I liked it? Did I read anything good this year? Did I read anything at all? What is a book? I have receipts that prove I bought a lot of books this year, at least, so let's start with a sampling of 2015 purchases, separated according to my two main reasons for reading at the moment. 1. Because I'm Writing a Work of "Historiographic Metafiction" about 19th-Century Feminists, Plus a Critical Companion Piece, and if I Don't Screw It up, I'll Get a Ph.D. at the End of It A Poetics of Postmodernism: History, Theory, Fiction by Linda Hutcheon Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877 by Eric Foner Trial and Triumph by Frances Ellen Watkins Harper The Selected Papers of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, Vol. II: Against an Aristocracy of Sex, 1866-1873 edited by Ann D. Gordon The Humbugs of the World by P.T. Barnum Twelve Causes of Dishonesty by Henry Ward Beecher Traps for the Young by Anthony Comstock The Scarlet Sisters: Sex, Suffrage, and Scandal in the Gilded Age by Myra MacPherson Alias Grace; The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood Beloved by Toni Morrison Possession by A.S. Byatt Nights at the Circus by Angela Carter The Passion by Jeanette Winterson Gods Without Men by Hari Kunzru 2. Because, Occasionally, I Stop Working on My Dissertation/Checking Twitter Long Enough to Read for Pleasure Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker Luckiest Girl Alive by Jessica Knoll The Round House by Louise Erdrich We Believe the Children: A Moral Panic in the 1980s by Richard Beck Saint Mazie by Jami Attenberg The Sellout by Paul Beatty Petite Mort by Beatrice Hitchman Music for Wartime by Rebecca Makkai Inconvenient People: Lunacy, Liberty, and Mad-Doctors in Victorian England by Sarah Wise Loving Day by Mat Johnson Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng The Grownup by Gillian Flynn Cloudsplitter by Russell Banks We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie The Leftovers by Tom Perrotta Step Aside, Pops by Kate Beaton If I had actually read all those books, I would feel I'd made a respectable enough showing, but the ratio of books I buy to books I read all the way through has always been about 10 to one. I've dipped into most of them, and I can't imagine eventually finishing any of these books and being mortified that I once mentioned it near my own name in a post at a fancy literary website. But if I'm going to speak honestly about my year in reading -- beyond just submitting "the entire fucking internet, front to back, endlessly" -- then I should probably focus on books that I a) finished and b) remember well. Right? So I started thinking back month by month. In January, I spent my 40th birthday reading an ARC of Saint Mazie on the beach in Miami, falling in love with Jami Attenberg's brave, witty, sexy, generous, heartbreaking heroine. In February, I reread Possession for the first time since college in the '90s, marveling again at Byatt's erudition, ambition, and perfectly calibrated storytelling. In March, I read Petite Mort, shortly after meeting Bea Hitchman and hearing her read from this twisty, brainy thriller that made me care about early cinematic techniques nearly as much as the central characters. In May, my preorder of Loving Day arrived, and in June, so did Music for Wartime; Mat Johnson and Rebecca Makkai have become drop-everything authors for me in the last few years, the kind who irresistibly combine intellectual seriousness with a total lack of self-seriousness. In July, on a rocky Canadian beach, I read Luckiest Girl Alive, which I honestly don't remember much of now, but I remember enjoying it and thinking that, unlike Girl on the Train, it was not too unreasonably compared to Gone Girl. (Oh, right, I guess I also read Girl on the Train this year.) In August, my first solo book came out, and I started a tour that severely cut into my time for reading anything else, but I read a lot of fragments for school and blew through Step Aside, Pops in one highly satisfying hour. There were other books I finished in 2015 -- more keep coming back to me -- but those are the ones that came immediately to mind, a fact that now gives me pause (and should have much earlier). A large portion of my novel deals with the way white men in power play men of color and white women off against each other, encouraging us to fight each other for scraps, while even those are kept out of reach of women of color. It happened during the fight over the 15th Amendment, during the Civil Rights Movement, during the 2008 Democratic primaries, and it's been happening in the academy and the literary world ever since it occurred to folks in charge, about 15 minutes ago, that reading lists composed entirely of white men are perhaps too narrow in scope. As a 21st-century ranty feminist, I like to think I'm above all that, and yet there's my actual reading list from the past year: A bunch of white women, and one mixed-race man. As I write this, people who care about writing, literary gossip, and the publishing industry are all abuzz over Claire Vaye Watkins's essay "On Pandering," which has become a sort of Rorschach blot for everyone's writerly grievances. Me, I was so enraged by Stephen Elliott's behavior toward Watkins (and lack of shame in writing about it publicly), I blocked out nearly everything else she wrote. But other writers I admire, from The Toast's Nicole Chung to Booker winner Marlon James, swiftly noted that in addition to the white-guy pandering Watkins describes, there's a whole lot of pandering to white ladies going on in the book world. Do those of us sharing the post so widely and enthusiastically even realize that? Um. As I said to Nicole on Twitter, I came out of my M.F.A. program 10 years ago well over being impressed by the Serious White Men Everyone Loves -- I believe my exact words were "Fuck Denis Johnson and Cormac McCarthy" -- but all I did was sub in writers who look more like me. When I write a new syllabus, I told her, I always think of 40 white women I love right away, then have to cut most of them to add writers of color -- maybe even, when it's a slow misandry day, a couple of men. I do make a point of diversifying every syllabus beyond a token author or two, but why is that always Step Two? Because, although I buy work by writers of color, it seems I'm still far more likely to read and retain work by white women -- especially ones I know in real life. I knew I leaned that way, but I wouldn't have guessed the imbalance was so extreme before I sat down and took stock. (And that's without even counting my failed attempt to read Elena Ferrante because fancy literary people are so bonkers for her.) I can understand why it happens: books written by people similar to me absorb my attention most easily, and are thus the ones I resist countless distractions to finish. But a zillion years of white men feeling that way about books written by and for white men is, of course, how so many of us ended up feeling like they were the only audience worth writing for. It was bullshit when they did it, and it's bullshit I need to consciously interrupt in my 2016 reading. My account of next year's reading may not be any fancier than this, but it will probably be a lot more interesting. 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? 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I was excited about contributing to this list until I remembered that I mostly read celebrity memoirs and self-help books this year. But Radical Acceptance by Tara Brach really did help me -- to be kinder to myself, and to better manage stress. I finally read A Confederacy of Dunces. I wanted to know if it was as good as everyone says, and I think it’s better. I can’t remember the last time I was so entertained by a book. I demand that the stage production with Nick Offerman come to New York. I got really into audiobooks this year. I listened to The Sex Myth by Rachel Hills on the way to do an event with her at the Boston Book Festival, and I loved it. It’s such a smart investigation of sex in our culture, and of the significance and shame we assign to sex. Hills uses research and interviews to examine and comment on the assumptions we make about sex, and the differences between those assumptions and reality. Takeaway: your sex life, or lack thereof, is more normal than you think. Like millions of others, I feel that I am friends with Amy Poehler. I had very high expectations for her book, and worried that I was setting myself up for disappointment. But Yes Please was everything I dreamed of -- it’s so smart, so funny, and it was a pleasure to listen to Poehler (and her guests) read. I listened to Aziz Ansari’s Modern Romance, which is comforting about dating in the same way The Sex Myth is about sex. Daters will be glad to hear that dating really is harder than it was for past generations, so it’s (probably) not you. The upside is that our willingness to search for a soul mate (as opposed to settling for a “good enough” mate) makes it more likely that we’ll find one. It’s fascinating to learn about the very different dating scenes in other countries, and Ansari and co-author Eric Klinenberg give some good advice, including: stop sending lame messages (“Hey”), be strategic about where you look for dates (Ansari writes, “I was staying out like a lunatic and complaining that I only met lunatics. I realized if I was going to try to find someone to settle down with, I had to change the way I was going about my search. Instead of bars and clubs, I’d do things that I’d want a theoretical girlfriend to be into.”), and give your dates a chance -- go on more second dates. I listened to Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things while I cleaned my house, and it put a little extra pep in my step. But ultimately it was calming -- the hoarding case studies made me feel great about the “creative” state of my house. Obviously I also read The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, and spent the year going through all of my things to see if they sparked joy (which resulted in the mess I am now “tidying up”). And last but the opposite of least, I listened to Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me, and cried. 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.
They say it is a symptom of aging when one begins to see historic catastrophe looming in the events of the world. “Times are bad,” Cicero is supposed to have said in the first century B.C. “Children no longer obey their parents, and everyone is writing a book.” I’m not the first to remark that this same Ciceroian sentiment sums up plenty of recent articles to the tune of Millennials, amirite tho? All the same, sometimes the center really cannot hold. Things do fall apart. The widening ocean gyre turns and turns and is full of plastic. What if the falcon really cannot hear the falconer? And what rough and bloviating beast, with fake tan and tawny comb-over, slouches towards Bethlehem to be born? It is when the passionate intensity of the world’s worst aspects gets too much that I turn to the conviction of books. When I decided to take the books that had the biggest impact on me this year down from the shelf and lay them like tiles on the bedspread, I noticed a theme. They were all, in some way or other, about our broken world. Taken together, they formed a kind of atlas, articulating the wounded geography of the Earth’s subtle body: the Republic of Community, the Sea of Politics, the United States of Racism and Rape Culture, the Desert of Personal Tragedy, and the Empire of Environmental Loss. It went like this. I read Eula Biss’s On Immunity early in the year. Although it is ostensibly about vaccination, like all excellent nonfiction it transcends its stated focus. It is about community, and how we imagine the boundaries between self and other, between “us” and “not us.” It addresses our human permeability and the fact that no matter how much we may seek to isolate ourselves, even at the most basic biological level we as human beings are all in the same boat. Speaking of community, I also read Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes by Tamim Ansary. As someone familiar with the politics and history of the Middle East, I am sometimes asked if I can recommend “the one book” a person might read who wished to understand the region better. I will now recommend this book. It isn’t perfect, but it is a good place to start. On the environment, I read four books that worked especially well when taken in chorus. They were: Waste by Brian Thill, This Changes Everything by Naomi Klein, The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert, and Moby Duck: The True Story of 28,800 Bath Toys Lost at Sea and of the Beachcombers, Oceanographers, Environmentalists, and Fools, Including the Author, Who Went in Search of Them, by Donovan Hohn. Thill describes types of human detritus, from excess browser tabs cluttering our laptop screens to the radioactive byproducts of nuclear energy that will be dangerous long after the demise of everything else we have ever created. Kolbert takes the reader on a tour through the shrinking biosphere, and Klein delineates the forces of greed that lie behind its destruction. Hohn’s Melvillian odyssey brings an essential element of the personal -- the frail, the tender, the humane -- to what is so often sweepingly abstract about the ecological wars we are waging. I read Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit and Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, back-to-back in about 48 hours; both, in their own way, a kind of manifesto. I read the first with nodding recognition, and the second with a deepening sense of what my privilege as a white person has shielded me from. I recommend them as companion works. I loved the novel Mr. Fox by Helen Oyeyemi, which consists of many different ways to tell the same story, or variations on a theme. I was floored by it for similar reasons that I loved a retrospective of the painter Gerhard Richter I saw at MoMA many years ago: the use of multiple styles in an attempt to find the truth. Richter is an artist whose work has taken so many different forms, from abstract pigments scraped across a canvas to the most impressive photorealism. When all viewed together, his works look like many different attempts to break into the same room, by a person so intent on reaching it that he’ll try anything. The nature of this room that he’s trying to break into by any means necessary remains something of a mystery; its opacity is not entirely breached. So too, with Mr. Fox. Still, the sheer inexhaustibility of the attempts suggests the transcendent importance of whatever lies, or crouches or, probably, glows within its locked walls. This is how I felt reading Oyeyemi, once I got a sense of what she was playing at. I want to say that I’ve included Mr. Fox here because it is a kaleidoscopic take on love and pain; that the whole world is a kaleidoscope of love and pain, of beauty and nothingness, problem and solution. I want to say that our view of it is kaleidoscopic, the colors tumbling and rearranging themselves with each turn of the lens. The theme of my reading this year was of our tumbling, broken world, yes, but also of the light that fills it. This light was perhaps best expressed in H Is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald. The scope may seem small: one person, existing in the physical world, while trying to cope with the loss of another person. But it isn’t small. Because what good are empires, or politics, or the Earth itself, if we do not have the ones we love beside us? Things fall apart, it’s true. But it was cathartic to run through the dark, wet forest with Macdonald and her goshawk, Mabel, and to come out into the light again; one falconer at least who brought her wild bird to heel. 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.
It’s probably easiest to summarize my year in reading by relating a decision that came to typify my next 11 months with regards to books: I chose a long-awaited beach vacation with family as the time to finally sit down with The Year of Magical Thinking. There are few experiences quite so disorienting as thumbing through 200 pages worth of eviscerating grief (and near-matchless prose) in between body surfing and tossing a frisbee on a humid beach. Despite a bit of environmentally-inspired cognitive dissonance, I found the book to be everything that everyone had lauded it for/warned me about; it’s difficult to imagine ever reading another memoir about the loss of a loved one that captures the particularity of grief more capably than Joan Didion. That is, unless you want to talk about another book of Didion’s that is the worst kind of companion piece, Blue Nights. As an independent bookseller-cum-college student slouching towards graduation, temptation to read is at an all-time high and time itself is at a premium. It would be dishonest of me to say that I don't carve out a disturbing amount of my free time for some of life’s finer pleasures like binge watching nature documentaries and, more recently, pouring hours into Fallout 4. I imagine these luxuries are not afforded to my rooted friends with little ones and spouses, and I suspect this decision-anxiety is familiar for anyone who balances a career and a family. Nevertheless, my decision about what to read next was made by a mostly haphazard combination of chance and odd luck, having less to do with a conscious decision than with a serendipitous whim or a particularly bountiful bookstore shipment. That said, I managed to read a whole bunch of stuff. Like everyone else in the world, I loved Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me -- as far as I’m concerned, it’s deserving of all of the accolades and then some. A few surprise non-fiction favorites included One of Us: The Story of Anders Breivik and the Massacre in Norway by Åsne Seierstad and Widow Basquiat by Jennifer Clement. Seierstad’s book is, as the heavy-handed subtitle suggests, the fascinating story of Norwegian terrorist Anders Breivik from pre-birth to purgatorial present in prison -- it’s hard to put down in the way that a car accident on the highway is hard to look away from. Clement’s book, on the other hand, is by turns delicate and lacerating in its riveting, poetic portrayal of the relationship between artistic savant Jean-Michel Basquiat and his partner/muse Suzanne Mallouk. As for drama, a customer’s suggestion to check out Middletown led to a months-long affair with all things Will Eno -- it left me feeling even more suburban and despondent than usual (in a good way?). Poetry is my real first love, and it’s the area where I found myself devoting most of my squirreled-away reading time. A ton of poets that I admire released collections this year -- two of my longtime favorites, John Ashbery and Yusef Komunyakaa, each have new books out. Some of the new releases that I enjoyed a great deal were those by Terrance Hayes, Nick Flynn, Dorothea Lasky, Deborah Landau, and Richard Siken. A chance encounter with Elegy Owed by Bob Hicok mutated into near-total immersion in his body of work -- Bob, if you’re reading this, I’m finished and I need some new poems. The most interesting poetic rabbit hole I stumbled down this year began with reading A Question Mark Above the Sun by Kent Johnson. In Johnson’s bizarre book, he alleges that Frank O’Hara’s poem “A True Account of Talking to the Sun at Fire Island” (which was first discovered and recited by O’Hara’s longtime friend Kenneth Koch at a memorial event celebrating the poet’s life) was actually written by Koch and “given” to O’Hara as a kind of private elegy to his closest friend. It’s may be the most touching gesture in the history of poetry or a totally outrageous accusation -- either way, it was the gateway book that led to my mainlining a dangerous cocktail of New York poetry which included the likes of Koch, James Schuyler, and Ted Berrigan. A surprise reading trend that cropped up this past year included burning through collection after collection of unbelievable short stories by some frighteningly talented women. Like many others, I drank the Clarice Lispector Kool-Aid and trudged through her Complete Stories in a bewildered haze that I’m not sure I ever made it back out of. I prefer Lispector’s slim, puzzling novels to her stories, unlike another South American woman whose collection I read and loved, Silvina Ocampo. Ocampo’s stories are in the vein of a magical realism where all of the playful niceties are replaced by an unforgiving and overt brutality -- needless to say, they are pretty badass. Collections by Lucia Berlin and Joy Williams were also among some of the best. Atticus Lish’s Preparation for the Next Life was the most memorable -- if profoundly depressing -- novel that I spent time with this year. It shares my top fiction spot with Cow Country, a bizarre book penned by Adrian Jones Pearson, an openly self-identified pseudonym, and published by a nonexistent publishing house. The star of a few speculative pieces about the identity of its author (the most popular of which is Thomas Pynchon), Cow Country is smart and hilarious and incisive no matter who wrote it. Some of my other fiction favorites included Jesse Ball’s A Cure for Suicide, Per Petterson’s I Refuse, and Ottessa Moshfegh’s Eileen. My biggest letdown was Bill Clegg’s Did You Ever Have a Family, for which my expectations were too high and my disappointment now is total and all-encompassing. I found it far too guarded and vanilla for the same man who shocked my sensibilities with a couple of brilliant, fully-realized memoirs about an addiction to crack cocaine. In writing this, it occurred to me that I must have had more time to read than I remember, or else I just didn't take great care of myself, because I read a ton of books. However, for everything I read and loved, I watched another 10 books languish on the shelves at my store, knowing I would never have the time to pick them up. As far as figuring out what to read next is concerned, it seems that the stakes are higher than we often give them credit for; the decision is an expressed commitment to an ideal, be it beauty or bacchanalia. Or maybe I just want my job to feel important. And so we beat on, I guess. 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.
I can barely take how good Matthew Salesses is on adoption (1, 2, 3), a fraught and complex subject if you are not adopted, but if you are, which Salesses is (as am I), it can be a wicked fiery hell of conflicted and conflicting emotions at almost every turn. So for Salesses to be able to write about it with such kick-in-the-gut clarity and nuance and narrative imagination kind of leaves me in awe. Holy god, this piece by Robert Jones Jr. (Son of Baldwin) almost made me weep it was so powerfully honest and pointed and necessary. Because Roxane Gay serves elegant wisdom every time, but this wisdom is peak elegance: "Avoid creating a hierarchy of human suffering as if compassion were a finite resource." Girl in Glass by Deanna Fei -- this memoir is so starkly, poignantly written, so smart and wrenching, and I just had a truly visceral response to both the story and to Fei's fierce, plain mother love throughout. Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates is about as good a meditation on race and America and blackness and reality as you're going to get. Really ever. In the history of ever. Although this meditation on blackness, in particular, that of our President of the United States, is pretty magnificently grand: "We’ve kinda suspected it before, but President Obama genuinely gives no fucks at this point. He is fuck devoid. Fuck deficient. Fuck deprived. Fuck destitute. His cupboard of fucks is barren; his tank of fucks has been depleted. You know how, on cloudy nights, you might look up into the vast and endless sky and not find any stars? The same thing would happen if you looked at Obama and searched for fucks. And this, this total absence of fucks, is where pop off came from." 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.
Thinking back on this year, I’m surprised to find that the books that meant the most to me were nonfiction. I read a lot fiction this year, and much of it was excellent and memorable, but when friends asked for recommendations, I found myself championing The Sixth Extinction and Sapiens, two books of natural history that describe, with precise calm, the dramatic effect our species has had on every other species on the planet. I stand by those recommendations, but I’d like to use this space to single out three memoirs that I haven’t been able to stop thinking about, and which I know I will return to again. I will list them in the order that I read them. The Odd Woman and the City, by Vivian Gornick I read a galley of this book in February. When I first started reading it, I thought: This is the book I’ve been waiting for. And then I thought: I should review it. And then: No, I love it too much. I didn’t want to review this book because it felt like a friend -- or maybe it’s better to say that it felt like a conversation with a friend. This memoir is actually about friendship and conversation; about the ways that a long-term friendship is a conversation that doesn’t really end, it just has long pauses. As Gornick writes of her decades-long friendship with Leonard, the gay man who is her counterpart: “What we are, in fact, is a pair of solitary travelers slogging through the country of our lives, meeting up from time to time at the outer limit to give each other border reports.” Gornick’s book is also about what it’s like to be an unmarried woman, to live outside the borders of family life. It’s about what it feels like to be lonely, and what it feels like to be free. It’s about what it feels like to change your mind, about the intellectual, spiritual, and emotional growth that comes after you’ve come of age, and even after you’ve “come into your own.” Finally, it’s about living in New York City. You would think that’s a topic that’s been done to death, but I’ve read dozens of NYC memoirs and novels and I’ve never read one that captures what it actually feels like to live in this city for a long period of time, to get older in it, to watch it change and to change along with it. I don’t know how Gornick pulled this book off, because as I describe it, it feels as formless as conversation itself, the way, with a good friend, you can start in one place and end in another, having no idea how you got there. Teach Us to Sit Still, by Tim Parks Last year I wrote about discovering Tim Parks’s criticism, specifically his monthly(ish) blog posts for The New York Review of Books. This year, I decided to read one of his books, and chose his memoir, Teach Us to Sit Still, mainly because it was about meditation, something everyone was telling me to do, but which I was reluctant to try. I thought, if anyone can convince me to give meditation a chance, it’s Tim Parks. Still, I was skeptical. But the charm of this book is that Parks is also skeptical of meditation. He tries it out of desperation. He doesn’t want to change his life, but he has to. Teach Us to Sit Still describes how and why he makes that change. From one angle, Teach Us to Sit Still is a disease story. There are symptoms, which lead to a diagnosis, which lead to a treatment plan. But from another angle, it’s a memoir about the writing process. Writers don’t often talk about the ways that their health affects their work, but Parks gets into the logistics of his day, explaining how he fit meditation into his daily routine -- as well as the reviewing work he reluctantly gave up, so that he could fit it into this routine. He writes about trips to the doctor and the masseuse, about anxious late-night online searches, and about the quality of his sleep and his dreams. When he starts attending meditation retreats, he describes them with remarkable detail, especially when you realize that he wasn’t allowed to bring pen and paper (or laptop) with him. Most importantly, he writes about how his identity and work as a writer is challenged and changed by new engagement with his health. At one point, he toys with the idea of giving up writing entirely. Thankfully, he didn’t, and wrote this book instead. Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates I’m aware that you don’t need me to recommend this book, or even describe it, since it has been extensively praised, lauded, awarded, and reviewed all over the place, but to give an honest accounting of my year in reading, I have to mention it. Coates’s memoir was easily one of the best I’ve read in the past decade, one of those rare books into which the author has poured his entire life experience. It’s a stunning distillation of thought and study, one that traces Coates’s intellectual growth over three decades as he digs deeper and deeper into American history, uncovering the ways our ruthlessly violent past is woven into the present day, causing the deaths and incarceration of hundreds of thousands of black men. At the center of the book is Coates’s rage over the death of his friend, Prince Jones, a star student and all-around exemplary young man who was killed by a police officer in 2000. There is a special vulnerability to Coates’s anger because the circumstances of Jones’s death are such that Coates feels he might have found himself in the same situation and been killed as needlessly. Coates calls Jones’s death “the superlative of all my fears” -- for himself and for his 15-year-old son, to whom Between the World and Me is addressed. I love the moments in this book when Coates speaks directly to his son: “I am not a cynic. I love you and I love the world and I love it more with every new inch I discover. But you are a black boy, and you must be responsible for your body in a way that other boys cannot know.” There is an emotional directness to this line that characterizes so much of Coates’s writing and this memoir in particular. It is truly a beautiful book, and the exciting thing is that it feels like just one of many beautiful books Coates will write over the next few decades. Writing about these three memoirs, I realized that what unites them is the way the authors mix very cerebral narratives with straightforward accounts of what it’s like to live in their bodies at their particular moment in history. They don’t divide the mind from the body mainly because they don’t have the luxury to do so -- Coates because he’s a black man in America, Parks because he has chronic pain, and Gornick because she’s a woman living on her own. The result is books that gave me a profound sense of what it might be like to live through -- as Gornick put it so beautifully -- “the country of their lives.” 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.
I know it’s already been praised to the skies, and endlessly opined about, and I’m pretty ambivalent about winding up as part of that “Why do white people like this so much?” meme or backlash or whatever exactly it is or was, but it happens to be a fact that the most deeply resonant and personally important book that I read this year was Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me, so I’m going to take a minute and try to say why I think that is. The first thing -- and for all that has been said about the book, this has not been said nearly enough -- Coates is a marvelous stylist. Sentence by sentence, and thought by thought, the book is as formidable and rich in its aesthetics, in its range and command of information and emotion and idea, as in the particulars of the argument it advances. Some of my favorite passages were the descriptions of Coates’s first year in college -- the explosion of friends, mentors, reference-points, ideas, identities -- and of the halting, hard-traveled road to becoming a writer. Despite every circumstantial difference you can think of -- our ages, our ancestries, where and how we each grew up, where we each chose to go to school, what we each eventually chose to write -- Coates’s narrative of intellectual, artistic, and political coming-of-age resonated deeply with my own memories of that same era in my own life, and I hardly imagine I’m the only one. It was at least as instructive to learn what we had -- and have -- in common as it was to be reminded of what we didn’t, and still do not. My very favorite part of Between the World and Me deals with Saul Bellow’s infamous question, “Who was the Tolstoy of the Zulus?” As someone who loves Bellow, who used a line from Herzog as an epigraph to his most recent book, it has caused me no small amount of pain and soul-searching over the years to try and reconcile the great man's bountiful, messy, life-loving novels with his pinched, reactionary, often abhorrent cultural politics. Coates quotes the writer Ralph Wiley’s response: “Tolstoy is the Tolstoy of the Zulus, unless you find profit in fencing off universal properties of mankind into exclusive tribal ownership.” Of course this is true, and self-evidently true at that. The problem with Bellow’s question was never whether it could be answered, or what the answer might be; the problem was with the set of assumptions that caused it to be formulated in the first place, and the sneer with which it was then asked. If you want to know the limits of a man’s universe, just look at who he excludes from his notion of the universal. (You can start, if you like, with the default masculine pronoun deployed in the previous sentence.) For all my commitment to progressive politics (not that Democrat Party shit either -- I mean actual progressive politics), for all my fluency in concepts of radical egalitarianism and liberation, for all my sense of myself as a leftist, I had never myself managed to arrive at Wiley’s devastatingly simple -- even obvious -- conclusion. (And of course I had never heard of Ralph Wiley before, much less read him; more’s the pity.) I had gone on the hunt for the short-circuit in Bellow’s humanity, but it hadn’t occurred to me to look for my own. It will surprise some of my readers more than others that I found them in the same place. Once I understood what I’d been wrong about, it was remarkably easy to admit that I’d been wrong, and just how much. In fact, it felt pretty good. Being wrong is easier than being afraid of being wrong, because a person who is wrong and knows it can begin to imagine what rightness looks like, whereas a person who is afraid of being wrong can only dissemble or stay silent, hoping to make it through another day, another hour, with his fear intact. Let’s be real clear here: I’m not claiming my work, or anyone’s work, is done. I don’t think this book gave me a racial-cultural exorcism. If anything, the narrowness of my own example suggests how much likely remains unaddressed, unaccounted for, as-yet-unimagined. This isn’t one of those essays where the white dude beats his chest and offers a putative mea culpa that sounds like a fraternity chant and actually doesn’t say anything except Pay more attention to me. I hate those fucking essays. In fact, I wasn’t sure whether I should write about Between the World and Me at all, but The Millions asked me to pick the book that meant the most to me this year, and this was the only honest answer I could give. I’m going to end with a thought about Bellow, but not a defense or apology. He was who he was and he said what he said, and his reputation will stand or fall on the future’s willingness to endure him at his worst for what he offers at his best -- that’s his problem, not mine. But since I said before that I loved him, I feel I ought to offer some inkling as to why. Since I’m almost done here, and this essay isn’t about him, I’ll keep this part short. One thing I love about Bellow is that he is unashamedly interested in the state of the human soul. He uses the word often, not in definitively religious terms, but not figuratively either. He believes in the soul, in its endless capacity for dilation and betterment. He believed, or wanted to believe, or his best work helps me believe, that we can be more than the sorrows our ancestors fled and inflicted; better than we ourselves were yesterday; better than we are right now. That line from Herzog that I used as my epigraph: “Oh, for a change of heart, a change of heart -- a true change of heart!” 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.
In 2015, I simultaneously managed to read more and less than I have in the past decade. I ran a Twitter project called Short Story of the Day where I scoured literary journals and shared hundreds of short stories by underrepresented writers. I squeezed in a few novels and nonfiction books in an effort to stay balanced. I inhaled Helen Macdonald’s H Is for Hawk, which rested at the intersection of grief and obsession while I grappled with my own. At the start of the year I read Carola Dibbell’s novel The Only Ones; if one book has stayed with me through the year’s constant zagging, it is hers. I read Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me and Claudia Rankine’s Citizen and grew and learned and seethed and saw myself reflected and was all the better for it. I hunted for black voices reading black words. I downloaded the audiobook of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man because someone had the good idea to ask Joe Morton to narrate it. I discovered, somewhat late, that Toni Morrison reads all of her own audiobooks; I enjoyed a tremendous two weeks with God. The rest was mostly comics, many on Image, almost all of them featuring people of color saving my mental health. Material, Bitch Planet, and Ms. Marvel continued to create incredible fissures in the parts of my life I thought had been permanently caulked with resignation and despair. I read Injection, Trees, ODY-C, and Descender and found air while otherwise floating in the vacuum of the internet. The final batch of books I read this year was in preparation for my Appalachian Trail thru-hike attempt next March. They had sexy titles such as Fixing Your Feet: Prevention and Treatments for Athletes, Underfoot: A Geologic Guide to the Appalachian Trail, and Backcountry Bear Basics: The Definitive Guide to Avoiding Unpleasant Encounters. I am trying my hardest to minimize failure and death this coming year. I look forward to being a voracious reader again in 2017 in whatever remains of the country. 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.
1. I began 2015 with my then-girlfriend, now fiancée, and two other couples, at a rented house in the Catskills. The house belonged to a college art professor -- Bard, I think -- and on every available wall of the place hung some darkly priapic piece of art. There was a small, cold artist’s studio in the backyard where Renée and I were supposed to sleep, but after discovering a bundle of dreadlocked human hair, strung invisibly from the ceiling, and a series of circular collages that can only be described as psychosexually insane (or insanely psychosexual?), we opted for the narrow futon in the main house, near the dry heat of the hearth. We cooked every night, drank a survey of Caribbean sugar cane -- Appleton, Barbancourt, Brugal -- went hiking through the crater lakes at Minnewaska, talked and sometimes argued about music, art, magazines. Renée made a playlist I still sometimes listen to when I’m pretending to write, and as we counted down the seconds to the new year, we formed a little crooked circle and danced and sang. During quiet times, I read poems: Richard Wright’s Haiku, and the Robert Frost collection I always throw into my backpack when I leave the city. This was the beginning of a halting, yearlong attempt to read more poetry. I finally caught up with people like Morgan Parker and Phillip B. Williams, revisited Langston Hughes (and dug into his enigmatic, newly released Selected Letters) and Gwendolyn Brooks and Kevin Young, consulted with the back-pocket edition of Pablo Neruda I used to carry around as an annoying undergraduate, and -- speaking of haiku -- tried, again and again, all year, to figure out the effectiveness and easy grace of Matsuo Bashō's frog, slipping into the water with a immortal plop. No luck there. I have been trying to understand pastoralism -- I hit 30 and everything suddenly seems so loud -- and so have been working my way, slowly, through a slim Dover Thrift anthology of English Romantic Poetry. (Has anybody, by the way, published a big takedown of the Dover people? What they do -- I’m sometimes very cheap, it seems right to mention -- seems too good to be morally right.) They’ve all got their merits, but let’s be honest: the whole movement was John Keats and the Pips. I reread Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein at some point (Dover again! Please tell me this is okay to do), and her prose, and imagination, blows all her husband’s friends’ verse out of the water. Speaking of publishers, I -- like everybody else, maybe -- was wowed, and often tutored, by this year’s offerings from NYRB books. Eileen Chang’s Naked Earth helped me to understand the logic and language of Mao’s China; Linda Rosenkrantz’s unruly, addictive Talk drew me closer to Andy Warhol’s drug-and-Freud-fueled New York than I’d ever, at least consciously, wanted to venture. I can’t remember the last time I laughed at a book the way I laughed at Paul Beatty’s The Sellout. Or the last time I felt as trustful of the control and restraint and taste of a novelist as I did with Angela Flournoy’s The Turner House. Or as happy to be crawling through the oeuvre of a favorite playwright as with Eugene O’Neill’s Seven Plays of the Sea. I found a first-edition, hard-copy of the O’Neill on one of the uncountable book-lousy folding tables you’ll find, any Sunday of the year, on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. These tables, and their attendant “book guys,” are a good reason, if you need one, to live in New York. On another day -- summer, sun-stunned -- after, I’m just now remembering, a long weekend meal with those same couples from the Catskills, I stopped by a book table and picked up Michael Beckerman’s impressive New Worlds of Dvorak, a close reading -- journalistic and musicological at turns -- of the great composer’s years spent in America, trying to bequeath to us the “national music” we kind of already had. I cherish Saul Bellow, so I started but am hesitant to finish his newly collected nonfiction, There Is Simply Too Much to Think About. I cherish Flannery O’Connor, so I read a few more of her beautiful, chastening letters and left her alone. I cherish Ralph Ellison -- third big cliche in a row, I know -- so I read Arnold Rampersad’s magisterial, appropriately tragicomic biography -- very late to that particular party, I know -- and went sprinting back to the essays in Going to the Territory and Shadow and Act. Speaking of cherished writers and unfashionable lateness, I finally picked up my copy of Mansfield Park (Dover!!!) and wished I’d read it 10 years earlier, for all sorts of real-life reasons. I finally read Toni Morrison’s Playing in the Dark, and felt the same way. I read Hilton Als’s White Girls and felt awkward about the looks I got on the subway. (The dynamics of reading on the subway are another essay entirely.) And speaking of taking things slowly, for fear of ever catching up, I read the second of the Karl Ove Knausgaard novels and called it a year. Ta-Nehisi Coates’s haunting, world-beating Between the World and Me led me back -- inevitably -- to James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time. Those aforementioned Hughes letters led me back to the Harlem Renaissance -- and specifically, for some reason, back to the so-called “passers:” Jessie Redmon Fauset’s Plum Bun; Nella Larsen’s odd, twitchy Quicksand; Jean Toomer’s Cane, an insane, beautiful blend of verse, prose, and drama. Cane’s is probably still my favorite book, and reading it again made me want to someday try to write a life of Toomer, who seems to have been America’s most interesting psychopath as well as its most tragically unrealized and overlooked modernist. (The Fauset, the Larsen, and the Toomer are collected in the Library of America’s beautiful boxed set of Harlem Renaissance Novels.) At some point Renée and I began reading Jeffrey Eugenides’s Middlesex -- which she’s already read, and I have not -- aloud, in bed, at night, sort of inconsistently. It’s wonderful so far. As always, I ended up feeling like I should’ve been able to read a lot more. 2. Maybe it makes sense to share, before leaving this exercise alone, that this has been one of the more emotionally intense years of my life. I’ve been introduced to entirely new, often overwhelming species of joy and anxiety and fulfillment and fear and hope. There were times of ridiculous, almost uncomfortable happiness; other days (weeks, months) I spent wishing for a side exit. With these extremes came a change in my reading. For the first time since I was a kid, I found myself reading almost desperately, reading as a purposeful means of escape. I guess I’d forgotten (likely during the slow and misguided process of becoming a writer) how effective and merciful an analgesic it can be to leave your own imagination and pick up somebody else’s. Reading has always been my favorite thing to do. This year it was sometimes the only thing I could do. I felt more grateful for books, and for writers -- because I remembered that I need them -- than I’d been in a very long time. 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? 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I don’t know if it’s because I’m getting older, but the world seems so much messier to me than it once did, and much of the reading I’ve done in the past year has been with the hope of making sense of it, untangling the various strands to learn how and why things are joined, as well as how and why other things are broken. Two of the books that have helped me, that have delivered the sort of clarity I was craving, are Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates and When I Was a Child I Read Books by Marilynne Robinson. I almost didn’t want to say the Coates. I hate being obvious. But the mere fact that Between the World and Me will end up on many people’s best-of lists didn’t seem like a very good reason for leaving it off mine, when in fact it deserves to be there (and everywhere else). I read the book during a trip out of the country, when I had a blissfully long flight that let me sink into the density of the language and of the ideas. By the time I stepped off the plane, I had dog-eared almost a third of the pages in the book. Is it perfect? No. Is it great? Absolutely. It brilliantly situates the personal within much broader frameworks -- historical, political, human -- and as I read it, I could feel the boundaries of my thinking expand and I could feel my own sense of the world change shape. I know the book has been criticized for its male focus, but for me Coates’s insistence on the physical body sent my mind racing with parallel thoughts about what it is to be a woman in this world, and therefore it pushed the boundaries of my own thinking on that subject, too. Which is to say, the words on the page are one thing, but the magic is in what they do to you as a reader, and Coates’s words did a lot for me. As for When I Was a Child I Read Books, I will be the first to admit that it was too much for me sometimes. I had to re-read certain sentences more than twice, and still I wasn’t sure that I was grasping everything they had to offer. Which is scary to consider, because even in my failing, they offered so much. I’ve been thinking a great deal about imagination lately and how it relates to empathy, so I gobbled up lines like this: I would say, for the moment, that community, at least community larger than the immediate family, consists very largely of imaginative love for people we do not know or whom we know very slightly...I think fiction may be, whatever else, an exercise in the capacity for imaginative love, or sympathy, or identification. And in light of the current world order -- or disorder, as it were -- lines like this resonated deeply: In fact, Europe has gone berserk from time to time over this anxiety about mixed populations...The assumption behind it is that people who differ from oneself are therefore enemies who have either ruined everything or are about to...When this assumption takes hold, the definition of community hardens and contracts and becomes violently exclusive and defensive. It feels sometimes like the universe gives you exactly what you need at the very time you need it. Both of these books were that for me. A balm for anxious thinking, and an incitement toward more curious inquiry. The tangles of the world will never be undone, no matter how hard we try, but books like these remind me of the beauty that can emerge simply in the effort. 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.
I don’t know how to think about the passage of time except in cliché -- pieces completed, leases signed, commutes commuted, lessons taught, moments Instagrammed -- but recollecting years in terms of books read, books loved feels more vital than trite. A bookshelf marks time in the same way seasons do, or the way that old blog posts tell us who we were then, those people in photos laughing at jokes no one’s heard in years. This year, I read books mostly on the recommendation of friends; despite that, each title I finished seemed somehow appropriate to what was happening, to me and in the world. While I can’t recall all of their names, I could probably tell you the things I absorbed from their pages. Here are the best ones I remember. There was I Think I’m in Friend-Love with You, by Yumi Sakugawa, which I read twice because it was so beautiful in its illustrations and its evocation of totally consuming friendship; and then later, I read Lit, Mary Karr’s third memoir, which thrilled me with its electrifying description of substance abuse. I loved Michael W. Clune’s heroin memoir, White Out, for its chaotic and careening prose -- “Dope gives me a new, dope body. And the way the world looks from deep inside the dope body! From high atop the white tower. The world. It would break your human heart to see it.” -- and his second memoir, Gamelife, for the same reason. Ben Lerner’s 10:04 was brilliant in its plotting and conceit, and I enjoyed it so much I lent it to a friend impulsively over glasses of champagne. I left my copy of Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts with a person I love, because that’s what you’re supposed to do with books that completely understand the subject. I read Jesus’ Son, by Denis Johnson, in its entirety, drunk on different trains. Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea Cycle, on the other hand, I read entirely on my phone in a bed that was temporarily mine. I was in motion when I read Eileen Myles’s Inferno, which I consumed between leases and between the subway stops that cover the distance from Brooklyn to Manhattan. I read a galley of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s stunning (and now National Book Award-winning) Between the World and Me in a frantic afternoon, and finished it, in tears, by sunset. I didn’t Instagram that view, but I did post a picture of the book. It got 21 likes, and I was a different person then. 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.
We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for November. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. 1. Between the World and Me 5 months 2. 2. A Little Life 5 months 3. 3. Purity 4 months 4. 7. Slade House 2 months 5. 4. Go Set a Watchman 5 months 6. 6. Fates and Furies 3 months 7. 5. Book of Numbers 6 months 8. 8. City on Fire 2 months 9. 9. The Heart Goes Last 3 months 10. - The Big Green Tent 1 month My uncharacteristically bold plug for Marlon James's outstanding novel, A Brief History of Seven Killings, was not enough to keep the book on our Top Ten this month, and I'm choosing to believe that the only reason is because you'd already purchased your copies when it first came out. It's not because you don't trust my recommendations, right? Can't be. Nevertheless, this month's newest title — filling James's former spot — is Ludmila Ulitskaya's The Big Green Tent. For five years since the novel's Russian publication, English and North American readers have been eagerly awaiting the translation to finally hit shelves. (In fact, it's been on The Millions's radar for so long that it appeared in both our 2014 and 2015 Book Previews.) Following three friends-turned-dissidents who come of age during the Soviet era, the 592-page novel provides a richly detailed, intimate depiction of what life was like behind the Iron Curtain. Still, "any plot-based retelling of The Big Green Tent misses the point entirely," wrote Emily Tamkin in her review of the book for our site. "It is the story of three boys growing up, yes, but so, too, is it a portrait of a time, and a sketch of so many types who lived in and through it, and of Russian literature itself. ... In this way, Ulitskaya has not only described the spirit of an era, but also captured it." Stay tuned for our December list, which will undoubtedly be heavily influenced by our current Year in Reading series, underway all month long. Who will be this year's breakout star? Only one way to find out. This month's near misses included: Fourtune Smiles, Undermajordomo Minor, Satin Island, and The Paying Guests. See Also: Last month's list.
In January I vowed to purchase and read as much poetry as I read fiction. I traveled more this year than ever before, mostly in support of my novel, and poetry became a way to keep good words on my person without lugging around a heavy hardcover. For a fiction writer like me, who loves clause-heavy sentences and a good, chunky paragraph, poetry reminds me that every word and every sound can and should be considered. The poetry I read, in the order acquired: Prelude to Bruise, by Saeed Jones Citizen, by Claudia Rankine Blue Yodel, by Ansel Elkins Hemming the Water, by Yona Harvey Gabriel, by Edward Hirsch How to Be Drawn, by Terrance Hayes [Insert] Boy, by Danez Smith Boy With Thorn, by Rickey Laurentiis Voyage of the Sable Venus, by Robin Coste Lewis Bright Dead Things, by Ada Limón An unexpected and wonderful thing happened as a result of putting my first book out this year: I read a good amount of 2015 releases. It usually takes me a while to learn about new books, and longer still to read them, but there’s only so many times you can see your book alongside other good-looking ones in bookstores and in the press before you pick them up and see what’s what. Disgruntled, by Asali Solomon Diamond Head, by Cecily Wong Under the Udala Trees, by Chinelo Okparanta Mr. and Mrs. Doctor, by Julie Iromuanya Mrs. Engels, by Gavin McCrea The Star Side of Bird Hill, by Naomi Jackson Bright Lines, by Tanwi Nandini Islam The Light of the World, by Elizabeth Alexander Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates 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.
Alexandra Alter interviews National Book Award winner Ta-Nehisi Coates about the success of Between the World and Me. As he puts it, "The best part of writing is really to educate yourself. I don’t want to be anybody’s expert. I came in to learn." Pair with our own Sonya Chung’s Millions piece on Coates’s epistolary essay.
The 2015 National Book Award winners were announced last night in New York City. The big prize for Fiction went to Fortune Smiles by Adam Johnson, who is racking up the hardware after his prior book, the novel The Orphan Master's Son, won the Pulitzer. Fortune Smiles is a collection of stories, making it two years in a row that a collection has won the NBA for fiction. As we noted in our second-half preview, this collection "of six stories, about everything from a former Stasi prison guard in East Germany to a computer programmer 'finding solace in a digital simulacrum of the president of the United States,' echoes [Johnson's] early work while also building upon the ambition of his prize-winning tome." The Nonfiction award was yet another honor for Ta-Nehisi Coates's lyrical open letter to his son, Between the World and Me. The book has sat atop our Top Ten list for a few months now, and Sonya Chung dissected some of the reaction to the book in her persuasive essay in August. In September, we noted (with relief) this year's unusually diverse nonfiction longlist. The Poetry award was won by Robin Coste Lewis for Voyage of the Sable Venus. The winner in the Young People's Literature category was Neal Shusterman for Challenger Deep. Bonus Links: Earlier in the year we dove into both the Shortlist and the Longlist to share excerpts and reviews where available.
We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for October. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. 1. Between the World and Me 4 months 2. 2. A Little Life 4 months 3. 4. Purity 3 months 4. 3. Go Set a Watchman 4 months 5. 6. Book of Numbers 5 months 6. 7. Fates and Furies 2 months 7. - Slade House 1 month 8. - City on Fire 1 month 9. 8. The Heart Goes Last 2 months 10. - A Brief History of Seven Killings 1 month The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, a book about de-cluttering and organizing, just became the 102nd title to join our ever-more-cluttered Hall of Fame, which feels appropriate. Meanwhile, two titles - Satin Island and The Paying Guests - fell out of this month's Top Ten, despite strong showings for the past four months. As a result, three spots have opened up for newcomers, so let's take a look at these fresh new faces: This month's seventh spot belongs to David Mitchell's latest project, Slade House, which got its start as a Twitter-based short story last year. (We published the story in full.) Now expanded into a 256-page book, Slade House, spans across five decades, focusing on a mysterious residence down the road from a British pub, and the people who live within - or are invited to. Next on the list is Garth Risk Hallberg's debut novel, City on Fire, which is surely familiar by now to anyone who a) reads this site, and b) doesn't live beneath a rock. (Psssst! You can read its opening lines over here.) At 944 pages, this doorstop provides a surprisingly intimate glimpse into the lives of its closely-observed subjects. As Brian Ted Jones remarked in his review for The Rumpus: It’s not a big novel about the human condition. It’s a novel that word by word reaches out to capture the smallness of life, the minute particularity that stacks up until—whoa, baby—you’ve got a whole universe on your hands, but a universe that flies away like a pile of dirt in a strong wind. And that level of observation does not come easily, as Hallberg himself noted in his interview with our own Lydia Kiesling: Writing is definitely not what we typically think of as “easy” or “natural” for the person doing it. You know this as a writer — it’s mostly torture. You have those days when you kind of light up inside like a pinball machine or something, and all of a sudden everything is feeding back 10 times as much as it did the previous day, and you have this sense of joy and you walk out of the house and run into someone you know, or your spouse comes home and says “How was your day,” and you say, “This was a great day! The writing went well!” And then if you actually paused and walked back through the writing hour by hour you would realize, “No, it was still mostly torture, but it was a kind of exquisite and joyous torture on this day, as opposed to the gray horrible torture that it is on most days.” Man, that must've been a fun way to feel for the five years it took to write the book, huh? Finally, this month we also welcome newly-minted Booker Award winner Marlon James to our Top Ten. His third novel, A Brief History of Seven Killings, concerns Jamaica at a pivotal moment in its history, and really the history of its relationship with the United States as well, but also it's about so much more: Bob Marley, CIA machinations, international drug dealers, race, family, friendship, journalism, and art. To call this novel ambitious is to undersell it. If I can be bold for a moment, allow me to say this: James's novel is the best book I've read in years. Heck, even our resident video-bloggers, Michael Schaub and Janet Potter, were rendered speechless by it. This month's near misses included: Undermajordomo Minor, Fourtune Smiles, and A Strangeness in My Mind. See Also: Last month's list.
Kirkus Reviews has announced the winners of this year’s Kirkus Prize, bestowed annually to authors of fiction, nonfiction and young readers’ literature. The 2015 winners are Hanya Yanagihara (for her A Little Life, who we interviewed), Ta-Nehisi Coates (for Between the World and Me, which we published an essay about), and Pam Muñoz Ryan (for Echo).
Book award season is peaking along with the autumn leaves as the National Book Award shortlists have been released in four categories. These have been whittled down from last month's longlists, and the winners will be announced in New York City on November 18. You read about nearly all of the books on the Fiction shortlist here first, as they appeared in our indispensable first-half and second-half previews. Here’s a list of the finalists in all four categories with bonus links and excerpts where available: Fiction: Refund by Karen E. Bender ("For What Purpose") The Turner House by Angela Flournoy (Dynamite Detroit Debut: On Angela Flournoy’s The Turner House) Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff (the book's opening passage, The Most Joyous Part: The Millions Interviews Lauren Groff, Lauren Groff writing at The Millions) Fortune Smiles by Adam Johnson (excerpt) A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara (Two Lives: On Hanya Yanagihara and Atticus Lish, ‘I Wouldn’tve Had a Biography at All’: The Millions Interviews Hanya Yanagihara) Nonfiction: Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates ("We Know Less Than We Think We Do") Hold Still: A Memoir with Photographs by Sally Mann (excerpt) The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration Into the Wonder of Consciousness by Sy Montgomery (excerpt) If the Oceans Were Ink: An Unlikely Friendship and a Journey to the Heart of the Quran by Carla Power (excerpt) Ordinary Light: A Memoir by Tracy K. Smith (A Field Guide to Silences: On Tracy K. Smith’s Ordinary Light) Poetry: Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude by Ross Gay (the title poem) How to Be Drawn by Terrance Hayes (poem) Voyage of the Sable Venus by Robin Coste Lewis (poem) Bright Dead Things by Ada Limón (Charring the Page: On Ada Limón’s Bright Dead Things) Elegy for a Broken Machine by Patrick Phillips (the title poem) Young People's Literature: The Thing About Jellyfish by Ali Benjamin (excerpt) Bone Gap by Laura Ruby (excerpt) Most Dangerous: Daniel Ellsberg and the Secret History of the Vietnam War by Steve Sheinkin (excerpt) Challenger Deep by Neal Shusterman (excerpt) Nimona by Noelle Stevenson (interview)
We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for September. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. 1. Between the World and Me 3 months 2. 7. A Little Life 3 months 3. 2. Go Set a Watchman 3 months 4. 8. Purity 2 months 5. 3. The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing 6 months 6. 6. Book of Numbers 4 months 7. - Fates and Furies 1 month 8. - The Heart Goes Last 1 month 9. 10. The Paying Guests 4 months 10. 9. Satin Island 5 months Our Hall of Fame grows to 101 titles strong this month, thanks to the ascension of Kazuo Ishiguro's The Buried Giant (#100) and Paula Hawkins's The Girl on the Train (#101). It's the first appearance in the Hall for both authors. In their place, we welcome Fates and Furies and The Heart Goes Last, the latest works from Lauren Groff and Margaret Atwood, respectively. The former should be especially familiar to Millions readers, as we shared the book's opening lines on our site last March, and we interviewed Groff about her writing process (and why she feels ambivalent about Florida) more recently. Atwood, meanwhile, took part in our Year in Reading in 2010. For the second consecutive month, Ta-Nahesi Coates's Between the World and Me tops our list. It's an honor that Coates should treasure because his year has otherwise been fairly uneventful for him. After all, he's only won a MacArthur "genius grant," been longlisted for the National Book Award, and announced a forthcoming Marvel comic. In other words: nothing that holds a candle to the honor of being named a Millions fan favorite. Moving along: Hanya Yanagihara's A Little Life occupies this month's number two spot. The book's steady rise over the past three months — unlisted in July, #7 in August, and now runner-up — surprised me almost as much as it's likely surprised our own Lydia Kiesling, who wrote of the work: A Little Life has stayed with me, not because I found it so sad, but because I found it so strangely bad, and have spent significant time wondering if what I perceive to be its badness is in fact a function of a bold narrative experiment that, to quote James Wood on Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled, “invents its own category of badness,” and thus deserves a very particular set of laurels. Indeed, it's as though a negative review from Lydia has the perverse effect of skyrocketing her victim's works into the hands of Millions readers. (After all, this is the second time it's happened...) Perhaps from now on publicists should refer to Lydia as the Literary Queen Midas? Elsewhere on the list, Go Set a Watchman and that book on de-cluttering dropped one spot apiece, Franzen's latest rose a bit, and works by Joshua Cohen, Sarah Waters, and Tom McCarthy held steady. This month's near misses included: Undermajordomo Minor, The Martian, Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights, The First Bad Man, and Wind/Pinball. See Also: Last month's list.
This year's "Genius grant" winners have been announced. The MacArthur grant awards $625,000 “no strings attached” to “talented individuals who have shown extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits and a marked capacity for self-direction.” Alongside scientists, artists and scholars are some newly minted geniuses with a literary focus. This year’s literary geniuses are: Ta-Nehisi Coates has been a widely read journalist for years, but Coates's 2014 piece for The Atlantic, "The Case for Reparations" was a masterpiece of longform journalism that introduced him to many new readers. In it, he portrayed the idea of reparations for slavery, so often painted as a "fringe" solution, as not just plausible but utterly compelling and necessary. Riding the wave of that piece and an American public, in the wake of Ferguson, Baltimore and elsewhere, newly alert to the state of race relations in America, Coates's publisher Spiegel & Grau pushed up the release date for Between the World and Me. In true Coates form, the book is parts history, polemic, journalism, and memoir, all in the form of an open letter to his teenaged son. Between the World and Me was recently longlisted for the National Book Award and it sits atop our Top Ten list. Our own Sonya Chung wrote an essay about the sometimes tone deaf reaction to the bestseller. Coates's first book, a memoir called The Beautiful Struggle, was released in 2008. Ben Lerner is the lone novelist to be honored by the Macarthur Foundation this year (though he is also an accomplished poet and critic). He is best known for his decidedly metafictional novels, featuring protagonists that are mirrors of the author. Of his 2014 novel 10:04, we wrote: If works of art were about something, instead of existing self-sufficiently for themselves, this is what Lerner's work would be about: the chasm between a life lived and a thing made; the discouragement one suffers when trying to find one in the other. Lerner also featured in our Year in Reading in 2014. His 2011 debut novel was Leaving the Atocha Station, and he has published three collections of poetry: Mean Free Path, Angle of Yaw, and The Lichtenberg Papers In its announcement, MacArthur says poet Ellen Bryant Voigt's work meditates "on will and fate and the life cycles of the natural world while exploring the expressive potential of both lyric and narrative elements." She has published eight collections, and the most complete introduction to her work is probably Messenger: New and Selected Poems 1976-2006, which was a finalist for the National Book Award in 2007. Finally, the lone playwright to be named a "genius" this year is none other than Lin-Manuel Miranda (he is also a composer and performer). His genre-making musical Hamilton has become a smash hit. This New Yorker profile of Miranda is a great introduction to the man and his work.
“Baldwin understood that if you are going to say something important about the world it is best if you try to say it beautifully. I don’t mean like picking flowers or writing on fancy stationery. I mean how you say it actually makes it a more meaningful piece of writing. I am going to push that further. It makes it a truer piece of writing. What you are saying is: ‘Can I make somebody feel this in a deeper way?’ That was what I was obsessed with.” Over at The Guardian, Ta-Nehisi Coates talks about the success of Between the World and Me and being inspired by his father. Pair with our own Sonya Chung’s essay on David Brooks and Ta-Nehisi Coates.
Last year, as I wrapped up writing my biography of Constance Fenimore Woolson, a writer who battled gender discrimination in her own day and has been unjustly forgotten in ours, I grew increasingly aware of how women continue to be sidelined in the literary world, thanks to the work of VIDA. Then the National Book Award’s nonfiction longlist came out, and I was astonished to see that only one book, out of 10, was by a female author. Reading the Mayborn study, which revealed that only 20 percent of prizes in nonfiction over the past 20 years have gone to female authors convinced me that the NBA’s gender imbalance was not an anomaly. I wondered in a piece here at The Millions whether fewer women wrote nonfiction, which some have called a guy’s club. However, I came to the conclusion that there were plenty of important nonfiction books being written by women that deserved to be considered for the prize. In fact, some of the books I highlighted did go on to win other prestigious prizes: Diane Ackerman’s The Human Age won the PEN Henry David Thoreau Award for Nature Writing, Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction won the Pulitzer Prize in General Nonfiction, and Diane Allen won the Francis Parkman Prize for Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality. This year’s judges of the National Book Award seem to agree that women’s nonfiction writing is abundant and prize-worthy. The 2015 nonfiction longlist includes seven female-authored books, out of 10, the largest percentage of female nominees in the prize’s history. The longlist also contains two books by people of color, compared to last year’s one. What is even more interesting than the numbers, however, is the types of books on the list. This year’s longlist could not be more different than last year’s in ways that go beyond gender and race but also suggest why this year’s list of authors is more diverse. Last year’s list, as well as those of the past few years, were heavy in genres and topics typically dominated by (white) men: national and military history; biographies of men, especially presidents; and economic or war reportage. This year there are no biographies at all on the list, and only two histories, although both take unconventional approaches to their subjects: Martha Hodes’s Mourning Lincoln explores the private responses to Lincoln’s death, rather than its public meaning. Susanna Moore’s Paradise of the Pacific: Approaching Hawai’i focuses on the indigenous politics and culture of Hawaii. Last year, only one memoir, a genre in which women writers have been rather prolific, made the longlist (and of the past 50 nonfiction books nominated, only 4 had been memoirs). This year, fully half of the nominated books can be loosely classified as memoirs, according to The New Yorker, three of them by women. (All are described below.) A related genre, the essay, is represented by one book on this year’s list: Michael Paterniti’s Love and Other Ways of Dying. Last year I particularly noted the disappointing lack of books that blurred genres or categories. I speculated that women may be more likely to write about history, science, or culture from a more personal perspective, injecting memoir into the usual nonfiction fare. This year’s list contains three such works, two by women, one by a man of color, and all of which suggest the power of writing about larger issues through a personal lens: Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me is a letter to his son, and ostensibly America, attempting to explain America’s perilous neuroses about race through memoir, reportage, and history. Sy Montgomery’s The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness is unconventional science reportage that recounts the author’s friendship with an octopus and documents the emotional lives of the species as well. Carla Power’s If the Oceans Were Ink: An Unlikely Friendship and a Journey to the Heart of the Quran combines memoir and conversations that take the reader into the history and theology of the Quran. Two other works on the list that defy easy categorization and offer innovative approaches to the genre are: Cynthia Barnett’s book Rain is classified by its publisher as a science book but is subtitled A Natural and Cultural History, suggesting the ways it also crosses genre boundaries. Sally Mann’s Hold Still: A Memoir With Photographs could be described as a kind of collage of text, photographs, letters, diaries, and reproductions of saved items, such as the notes she wrote on a negative’s envelope. Another indication that this year’s nominees are untraditional is that four of the authors are better known for their work in other genres or art forms: Sally Mann is a photographer; Susanna Moore is a novelist; and two are poets: Tracy K. Smith, author of Ordinary Light: A Memoir Michael White, author of Travels in Vermeer: A Memoir Overall, it’s fair to say that this year’s list more accurately reflects the diversity of nonfiction as a genre and points toward innovations that promise to invigorate it. It is tempting to believe that the National Book Awards took the many criticisms of last year’s list into account. One sign of their effort to do things differently this year may be the fact that three of the five judges are women (last year there were two), one of whom is African-American (the same as last year). Even more telling, however, is the fact that the chair of this year’s panel is one of the authors conspicuously absent from last year’s list: Diane Ackerman. I concluded my essay last year with the hope that “the subtle biases that govern our understanding of literary value” will seem to us one day a quaint reminder of an earlier era. I had no idea my hope would be so quickly realized, at least for this one award for this one year. Such biases are still the norm, however. A recent study of the major fiction awards over the past 15 years determined that novels by and about men dominated, while those focusing on a female protagonist won zero Pulitzer Prizes, only two Man Booker Prizes, two National Book Awards, and one NBCC Award. There is still much to be done to ensure that awards in all genres are not gender biased and that judges can recognize merit outside the usual boundaries of the white male perspective. My hats off to the judges of this year’s NBA nonfiction award for accomplishing that goal.
Book award season enters high gear as the National Book Award finalists have been released in a series of four longlists consisting of ten books apiece. Five finalists in each category will be announced on October 14, and winners will be announced in New York City on November 18. The fiction list seems especially varied this year and includes many newcomers. Alongside highly touted books by Hanya Yanagihara, Lauren Groff, and Adam Johnson. Are "newcomers" like Bill Clegg, Angela Flournoy, and Nell Zink. It's a great time to be a reader. You read about nearly all of the books on the Fiction longlist here first, of course, as they appeared in our indispensable first-half and second-half previews. In the other categories, after last year's male-dominated Non-Fiction longlist, female authors have captured seven of the spots this year. Here’s a list of the finalists in all four categories with bonus links and excerpts where available: Fiction: A Cure for Suicide by Jesse Ball (Ball's Year in Reading, 2009) Did You Ever Have a Family by Bill Clegg (exerpt) Refund by Karen E. Bender ("For What Purpose") The Turner House by Angela Flournoy (Dynamite Detroit Debut: On Angela Flournoy’s The Turner House) Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff (the book's opening passage, The Most Joyous Part: The Millions Interviews Lauren Groff, Lauren Groff writing at The Millions) Fortune Smiles by Adam Johnson (excerpt) Welcome to Braggsville by T. Geronimo Johnson (excerpt (pdf)) Honeydew by Edith Pearlman (Overnight Sensation? Edith Pearlman on Fame and the Importance of Short Fiction, Loneliness, Interrupted: Edith Pearlman’s Honeydew) A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara (Two Lives: On Hanya Yanagihara and Atticus Lish, ‘I Wouldn’tve Had a Biography at All’: The Millions Interviews Hanya Yanagihara) Mislaid by Nell Zink Nonfiction: Rain: A Natural and Cultural History by Cynthia Barnett (interview and excerpt) Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates ("We Know Less Than We Think We Do") Mourning Lincoln by Martha Hodes (excerpt) Hold Still: A Memoir with Photographs by Sally Mann (excerpt) The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration Into the Wonder of Consciousness by Sy Montgomery (excerpt) Paradise of the Pacific: Approaching Hawaii by Susanna Moore (essay) Love and Other Ways of Dying by Michael Paterniti (excerpt) If the Oceans Were Ink: An Unlikely Friendship and a Journey to the Heart of the Quran by Carla Power (excerpt) Ordinary Light: A Memoir by Tracy K. Smith (A Field Guide to Silences: On Tracy K. Smith’s Ordinary Light) Travels in Vermeer: A Memoir by Michael White (excerpt) Poetry: Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude by Ross Gay (the title poem) Scattered at Sea by Amy Gerstler (excerpt) A Stranger’s Mirror: New and Selected Poems, 1994-2014 by Marilyn Hacker (the title poem) How to Be Drawn by Terrance Hayes (poem) The Beauty by Jane Hirshfield (poem) Voyage of the Sable Venus by Robin Coste Lewis (poem) Bright Dead Things by Ada Limón (Charring the Page: On Ada Limón’s Bright Dead Things) Elegy for a Broken Machine by Patrick Phillips (the title poem) Heaven by Rowan Ricardo Phillips (poem) Mistaking Each Other for Ghosts by Lawrence Raab (poem) Young People's Literature: Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli (excerpt) Symphony for the City of the Dead: Dmitri Shostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad by M.T. Anderson The Thing About Jellyfish by Ali Benjamin (excerpt) Walk on Earth a Stranger by Rae Carson (excerpt) This Side of Wild: Mutts, Mares, and Laughing Dinosaurs by Gary Paulsen Bone Gap by Laura Ruby (excerpt) X: A Novel by Ilyasah Shabazz with Kekla Magoon (excerpt) Most Dangerous: Daniel Ellsberg and the Secret History of the Vietnam War by Steve Sheinkin (excerpt) Challenger Deep by Neal Shusterman (excerpt) Nimona by Noelle Stevenson (interview)
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. 2. Between the World and Me 2 months 2. 1. Go Set a Watchman 2 months 3. 4. The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing 5 months 4. 3. The Buried Giant 6 months 5. 5. The Girl on the Train 6 months 6. 6. Book of Numbers 3 months 7. 8. A Little Life 2 months 8. - Purity 1 month 9. 7. Satin Island 4 months 10. 9. The Paying Guests 3 months A shuffling atop this month's Top Ten puts Ta-Nahesi Coates's Between the World and Me above Harper Lee's Go Set a Watchman, which may be expected when one book earns inspires praise from Toni Morrison while copies of the other one are refunded by local bookstores. Of course, it hasn't all been praise for Coates's essay-letter to his son – and, to be fair, it hasn't all been negative press for Lee's early novel. In a recent piece for our site, Sonya Chung used a regrettable column by David Brooks to explore the "convergence of The Road to Character and the conflict that arose from Brooks’s public response to Between the World and Me." Similarly, our own Michael Bourne pondered the silver lining of Go Set a Watchman's release, which occasioned the reevaluation of Atticus Finch: “Jean Louise, have you ever met your father?” her uncle asks, and she realizes she never has, not really. Neither have we, though we have been living with Atticus Finch for more than half a century. It is high time we got to know him. The question is whether we will still love him once we have. Moving from two major publishing stories to a third: this month's Top Ten welcomes Jonathan Franzen's latest novel, Purity, into its ranks. The work debuts in the eighth spot, likely but a pit stop on its way to the higher reaches of our list, as the book (whose release date was technically September 1st) was only just reaching readers' hands in the final days of August. Purity follows blockbusters The Corrections and Freedom and, as our own Lydia Kiesling notes, the book contains "a few digs at you, reader." The Martian dropped from our list this month. Other near misses included: Wind/Pinball, The First Bad Man, The Tusk That Did the Damage, and Armada. See Also: Last month's list.
“They are in effect still trapped in a history which they do not understand. And until they understand it, they cannot be released from it...We cannot be free until they are free.” –James Baldwin, “Letter to My Nephew James” 1. As of this writing, the town of Ferguson, Mo., is in its third day under a state of emergency, following protests to mark the one-year anniversary of Michael Brown’s death, and the police shooting that injured 18-year-old Tyrone Harris, Jr. In radio interviews, Ferguson residents expressed unsurprising frustration and fatigue: “I’m fed up with it. I’m tired of it;” “When it’s all over with and said and done, we still have to live here.” Referring to the chaos that breaks out when citizens try to congregate peacefully, one man said, “I think next year, you're going to see the exact same thing. And that's sad.” People who know me will tell you I’m not an optimist. The glass is usually half empty; the worst case scenario looms; I don’t hold my breath. At this moment, it’s particularly easy to feel this way -- helpless, pessimistic -- about race in America. Which is why I am surprised to find myself rooting for -- eagerly awaiting -- something that many would consider highly improbable: a retraction and an apology by New York Times conservative columnist David Brooks for his July 17 opinion piece, “Listening to Ta-Nehisi Coates While White.” 2. It’s been a month since Brooks wrote, in a direct address to Atlantic columnist and author Ta-Nehisi Coates, By dissolving the [American] dream under the acid of an excessive realism, you trap generations in the past and destroy the guiding star that points to a better future. Brooks’s column, along with the voluminous online indignance that ensued, disturbed me; but I am more essayist than journalist by temperament, and so my response has been slow to form, relative to the news cycle. I am tempted to conclude, It’s too late, that ship has sailed (helplessness, pessimism). But then I think: “when it’s all overwith and said and done, we still have to live here.” In other words, a plea for a mea culpa from Brooks is not just about words published on July 17; it’s also about something persistent and fundamental in how non-black people, conservative and liberal alike -- who don’t have to live in Ferguson, when it’s all said and done -- engage with black lives, and black deaths, in America. 3. I am a left-of-left liberal who also happens to respect David Brooks’s pragmatism, his intellectual agility, and his clarity and economy as a writer. I appreciate his presence on NPR and PBS. I understand why liberal news outlets foster Brooks’s ubiquity: for all his alleged smugness, he praises and critiques policies and politicians equally on both the Left and the Right. Where he sometimes oversimplifies ideas, he eschews oversimplification of partisan packaging. I disagree with him frequently, but his commentaries don’t make me wince or shout. A low bar to clear, you might say, but a significant one, in this age of unbridgeable ideological hysteria. This summer, in succession and by coincidence, I read both Brooks’s collective biography The Road to Character and Coates’s epistolary essay Between the World and Me. I found both compelling. The day after I finished reading the latter, “Listening to Ta-Nehisi Coates While White” was published. Between the World and Me -- a 150-page essay-letter from Coates to his teenage son, which describes a self-deluding white America that has relied, is relying, and will continue to rely on “defiling and plunder,” on “breaking[ing] the black body, the black family, the black community, the black nation” for its peace and prosperity -- has earned Coates an endorsement from Toni Morrison as this generation’s James Baldwin. Brooks responded to the book with considered duplicity -- the ultimate effect of which was to demonstrate precisely what drives Coates to conclude that “White America” is a syndicate arrayed to protect its exclusive power to dominate and control our bodies. Sometimes this power is direct...sometimes it is insidious... and to impress upon his son Samori that my experience in this world has been that the people who believe themselves to be white are obsessed with the politics of personal exoneration. And the word racist, to them, conjures, if not a tobacco-spitting oaf, then something just as fantastic -- an orc, troll, or gorgon. Coates also invokes Solzhenitsyn -- “'To do evil a human being must first of all believe that what he’s doing is good, or else that it’s a well-considered act in conformity with natural law'” -- and then applies these words to the myth of the American Dream. Throughout Between the World and Me, Coates reiterates -- through memory, historical survey, recaps of police killings of African Americans -- that the Dream is a myth because it is available only to “Dreamers,” i.e. those who (knowingly or not) buy into the White “syndicate.” This is the foundation of the Dream -- its adherents must not just believe in it but believe that it is just, believe that their possession of the Dream is the natural result of grit, honor, and good works. There is some passing acknowledgment of the bad old days, which, by the way, were not so bad as to have any ongoing effect on our present. (This last aside -- in case it’s not clear out of context -- is Coates’s impersonation of a Dreamer.) Brooks’s rebuttal focuses too on the American Dream, which he is eager to defend. I think you distort American history...Violence is embedded in America, but it is not close to the totality of America. In your anger at the tone of innocence some people adopt to describe the American dream, you reject the dream itself as flimflam. But a dream sullied is not a lie. The American dream of equal opportunity, social mobility and ever more perfect democracy cherishes the future more than the past. It abandons old wrongs and transcends old sins for the sake of a better tomorrow. In other words: the bad old days were not so bad as to have any ongoing effect on our present. As preamble to his hard pivot toward refutation, Brooks approaches then dismisses the crucial act of listening-and-hearing, with a rhetorical structure that is ever the enemy of authentic conciliation: I verb x, but... We’ve all been in these arguments with our loved ones: I hear what you’re saying, but you’re being unreasonable. I’m sorry I hurt you, but I was right and you were wrong. I suppose the first obligation is to sit with it, to make sure the testimony is respected and sinks in. But I have to ask... Brooks, of course, does not have to do any such thing. But he does ask. And what’s more, his questions are disingenuous: “Am I displaying my privilege if I disagree? Is my job just to respect your experience and accept your conclusions? Does a white person have standing to respond?” The questions are disingenuous because he has already answered them for himself (no, no, yes), as evidenced by the publication of the column. The divestment of power by asking before negating is mere performance. 4. All this said, I do not wish nor intend to demonize Brooks; others have done the job thoroughly. Rather, I propose that his column was not an irredeemable offense, but a concrete opportunity. What Brooks has done is common, not extreme nor “fantastical;” no tobacco has been spat. Maybe I should just say nothing and let it sink in BUT is more often than not how a well-meaning majority person responds -- liberal and conservative alike -- when an unsettling truth about the foundations of her worldview and day-to-day well-being is presented. The need to reframe and control -- to redline discussions on American whiteness and the enduring structures of racialized injustice, especially when the discussion is not conceived from a majority point-of-view -- simply exemplifies the predictable expression of white cultural power in the everywhere/everyday ways that Coates describes throughout Between the World and Me. Coates’s Dreamer dissects, double-talks, and reframes because she can; and because she cannot abide the constriction and instability she experiences within this non-majority-centered conception of reality; and because it’s too awful to imagine that it’s really that bad, now, today, in 2015; and because, Jesus, what if it is that bad? No, no, it can’t be that bad. It isn’t. You’re distorting it. Or, as Brooks suggests, your realism is excessive. If we can recognize that David Brooks is neither troll, nor gorgon, nor orc; that he is enacting what is enacted all the time, every day, by more non-monstrous people than we care to acknowledge; if we can quiet the Twitter indignation and see Brooks’s response for the utterly commonplace expression that it is, then we can see, possibly, the opportunity here. One worth rooting for. 5. To those who feel that too much ink is spilled by and about Brooks already: the essence of the opportunity is in Brooks’s very ubiquity. He is a privileged public figure, with significant cultural power. He has a platform among elites across the political spectrum. He has also just written a thoughtful book about self-inventory and moral depth -- a book that seeks to foreground a moral logic in which Success leads to the greatest failure, which is pride. Failure leads to the greatest success, which is humility, and learning... The Road to Character is lucid and well-organized, as you’d expect. Each chapter profiles an individual whose “U-shaped” journey through trial, failure, and personal moral development Brooks admires: Dorothy Day, George Marshall, George Eliot, Bayard Rustin, Frances Perkins, St. Augustine, and others. I found The Road to Character persuasive, and I believe it’s a book I will return to for insight on how to live, and how admirable individuals have struggled for that insight. I also found it earnest. Road originally caught my attention because it is a personal book. In interviews, Brooks has discussed his impetus for writing it: how, in mid-life, he found himself more professionally successful than he ever imagined, but at the same time not very happy. He writes in the introduction: Years pass, and the deepest parts of yourself go unexplored and unstructured. You are busy, but you have a vague anxiety that your life has not achieved its ultimate meaning and significance. You live with an unconscious boredom. Not really loving, not really attached to the moral purposes that give life its worth... In the second-person “you” we hear an anxious intimacy, a simmering melancholy -- the feeling of Brooks revealing to us, and to himself, that he has skin in the game. And then, he makes the inevitable shift to first-person: I wrote [this book] to save my soul. I was born with a natural disposition toward shallowness...I’m paid to be a narcissistic blowhard, to volley my opinions, to appear more confident about them than I really am, to appear smarter than I really am, to appear better and more authoritative than I really am. I have to work harder than most people to avoid a life of smug superficiality. I’ve also become aware that like many people these days I’ve lived a life of vague moral aspiration -- vaguely wanting to be good, vaguely wanting to serve some larger purpose... I’ve discovered that...it is easy to slip into a self-satisfied moral mediocrity. You grade yourself on a forgiving curve...you approve of yourself so long as you are not obviously hurting anyone else. Notice the pivot back to second-person; the anxiety of a deeper self-revelation returns. It’s not Schadenfreude exactly that this effects in the reader, though perhaps something related: a point of connection in hearing this confession that being a well-paid Know-It-All is a problem with real stakes, a road to isolation and emptiness. The Road to Character returns over and over to two core virtues. The first is recognition of one’s own brokenness. The profiled figures are all “acutely aware of their own weaknesses,” participants in the Kantian tradition of humanity as “crooked timber.” They also face down those weaknesses, work tirelessly at seeing themselves clearly and at getting better. In this manner, these individuals ultimately influenced human history and culture, far beyond themselves. By successfully confronting sin and weakness, we have a chance to play our own role in the great moral drama...we have a chance to take advantage of everyday occasions to build virtue in ourselves and be of service to the world. Closely related is a second core virtue, which Brooks depicts as troublingly absent in American culture today: humility. We live in a culture that teaches us to promote and advertise ourselves and to master the skills required for success. But that gives little encouragement to humility, sympathy, and honest self-confrontation, which are necessary for building character... In the struggle against your own weakness, humility is the greatest virtue. “My favorite definition [of humility],” Brooks has said, “is radical self-awareness from a position of other-centeredness.” Other-centeredness. Herein lies the hardest work for Brooks and Coates’s Dreamers. 6. As a pundit, Brooks’s job is to say things and write things; he is not expected to do things. But as an author of a book about moral evolution, he has stepped onto the stage of moral action -- in his own words, onto the path of “moral adventure.” He writes of a desire to manifest “ripening virtues,” as exemplified by his subjects -- to submerge his ego to a greater mission as George Marshall did, to respond to the broken world’s clarion “summons” as Frances Perkins did, to be able to relinquish ego-centered control as St. Augustine did. An email from a man named Dave Jolly provides "the methodology of the book”: “What a wise person teaches is the smallest part of what they give. The totality of their life...is what gets transmitted...The message is the person...” The convergence of The Road to Character and the conflict that arose from Brooks’s public response to Between the World and Me constitutes a summons -- away from mere “teaching” via words, and into the adventure. The moral imperative of this moment in America centers around black lives, black deaths. Here is a substantive chance to build virtue and be of service, to play a role in the great moral drama of right now. The July 17 column is exemplary, in both senses of the word. It does, as I’ve described, exemplify the common response when one is faced with a version of America that upends both existential and material stability. But it also exemplifies an honest, and failed, attempt at dialogue about race. If Brooks was trigger-happy, if other-centeredness eluded him, if he needed to get his word in edgewise, he is not alone. That Brooks’s from-the-hip response to Between the World and Me was unseemly, blind spots on display, is no surprise; arriving at something true and consequential in a struggle over conflicting realities doesn’t come fast or easy. Meaningful transformation in this struggle might be compared to writing itself: you have to write the shitty first draft in order to move forward. Without the shitty draft there’s nothing to revise. So it’s not so much a retraction as a revision that we need. The column is Brooks’s honorably shitty draft -- his stumble backward from revelations about “what he’s paid to do,” a lack of integration between his moral aspirations and his habit of sending pithy, fast-finger bytes to print. He writes in Road: We have the tendency to see ourselves as the center of the universe, as if everything revolves around us. We resolve to do one thing but end up doing the opposite...We know less than we think we do. Old habits die hard. A person of character faces down those habits when it matters. We need Brooks to model the humility and courage he admires and articulates. And we need the process of individual transformation to have consequence beyond the individual. None of this is easy. It’s messy and perilous -- U-shaped, in Brooks’s words, not linearly ascending, and the U’s descent can be deep. A revision usually means more revision to come. There are not many people I would exhort to such public self-inventory. But the characters in Road light the way -- with their willingness to fail, get better, fail again, re-examine what they think they know, then ultimately step into the greater moral drama that requires them. 7. I started with the notion of optimism. I’ll finish with a word about hope. Note that I have thus far used words like await, anticipate, root for, opportunity, and desire. Like “love” and “friend,” “hope” has lost its power and concreteness. Hope has become wimpy and puling and dishonest -- the opiate of old church ladies, the toothless promise of an upstart young black senator’s presidential campaign slogan, a million years ago. “You must resist the common urge toward the comforting narrative of divine law,” Coates writes. It is wrong to claim our present circumstance -- no matter how improved -- as the redemption for the lives of people who never asked for the posthumous, untouchable glory of dying for their children...you must wake up every morning knowing that no promise is unbreakable, least of all the promise of waking up at all. This is not despair. These are the preferences of the universe itself: verbs over nouns, actions over states, struggle over hope. Coates’s rejection of spiritual redemption for the pillaging of black lives is a hard pill to swallow; it is also the strongest thread of Coates’s message to his son. But there are moments when Coates doesn’t seem to swallow the pill fully himself; where he expresses something like an inability, and a kind of awe in the presence of the very spiritual depths -- I’ll call this hope -- that he denies. Recalling his visit to Dr. Mabel Jones -- whose son, Coates’s classmate at Howard, was killed senselessly by the police -- he writes: As she talked of the church...I thought of my own distance from an institution that has, so often, been the only support for our people. I often wonder if in that distance I’ve missed something, some notions of cosmic hope, some wisdom beyond my mean physical perception of the world, something beyond the body, that I might have transmitted to you. I wondered this, at that particular moment, because something beyond anything I have ever understood drove Mabel Jones to an exceptional life. In Dr. Jones’s face, Coates sees “the odd poise and direction that the great American injury demands of you” and compares it to the faces of civil rights activists in photos from '60s sit-ins: They look out past their tormentors, past us, and focus on something way beyond anything known to me. I think they are fastened to their god, a god whom I cannot know and in whom I do not believe. But, god or not, the armor is all over them, and it is real. I wouldn’t over-read these moments as actual ambivalence on Coates's part about his materialist reality, but they do belie, in my reading, a deep fatigue. Hope -- of the real, exceptional kind that Coates witnessed in Mabel Jones -- is neither wimpy nor toothless. Hope may be the hardest work there is. And yet still, the watching world expects hope from its victims. It’s terrible what’s happened to your sons, your brothers, your sisters, your community; but surely there is HOPE? Even if, say, you don’t buy the premise that today’s American Dream is a white dream built on black bodies, you might at the least recognize that we who are not black -- and we liberals may be guiltiest of this -- have built our sense of hope on black hope. In the wake of death after death permitted by unbridled ignorance, negligence, and a heritage of hate (and let us not forget that these are only the cases that break into mainstream media), we who absorb this violence indirectly have become accustomed to witnessing, and perhaps now implicitly demand, the hope that rises up from ashes: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. preaching deliverance through nonviolence, members of Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston preaching forgiveness, President Obama reconciling his white grandmother’s racism with his own black body and incanting amazing grace; the displays of dignity by grieving mothers and widows, like Mabel Jones. When Ta-Nehisi Coates rejects that role for himself and his son, when Eric Garner’s mother will not forgive the police officers who killed her son, when some residents of Ferguson say they’re fed up with protesting, they are saying to the Dreamers: you’ve lived off of our bodies, now you want us to supply you with hope? That’s enough; that’s too much. “Excessive” is an apt word for this moment, but it’s been poorly applied. What is excessive is for a white person to suggest that Coates should have a more hopeful assessment of American history and his son’s reality. We must shift the burden of hope elsewhere. Dear David Brooks: I hope that I have not failed to express myself as earnestly as you have. I hope there is enough humility in my words to convey something meaningful. I hope you hear in these words not petty attack but respectful exhortation. I hope the news cycle does not trump the moral adventure. I hope you know that I, and many who read Between the World and Me and “Listening to Ta-Nehisi Coates While White,” are on the side of real and truthful hope.
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. - Go Set a Watchman 1 month 2. - Between the World and Me 1 month 3. 2. The Buried Giant 5 months 4. 4. The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing 4 months 5. 5. The Girl on the Train 5 months 6. 6. Book of Numbers 2 months 7. 7. Satin Island 3 months 8. - A Little Life 1 month 9. 10. The Paying Guests 2 months 10. - The Martian 1 month Four new additions splashed climbed into the Top Ten this month, with Go Set a Watchman — Harper Lee's ubiquitous Mockingbird pre/sequel — topping the chart. It would be generous to say that the critical reception to the novel, which was written prior to Mockingbird but set two decades afterward, has been mixed. Many evaluations hinge on whether or not the work is capable of standing on its own, or whether it can only be understood as a draft. (There's also the whole matter of whether the thing should've been published to begin with...) In an essay for our site, Michael Bourne wrapped it all together by writing: Whatever its true provenance, Go Set a Watchman, despite some deft prose and sharp dialogue, fails as a work of art in every way except as a corrective to the standard sentimental reading of Atticus Finch. ... The great revelation of the novel isn’t that Atticus Finch is a bigot, but that he has been one all along and his daughter has been too in love with him to notice. (Bonus: Robert Rea went to Monroeville, Alabama on the day of the book's release, and wrote about the experience for our site.) Also appearing on our list this month is Ta-Nahisi Coates's Between the World and Me. In her preview for our site last month, Anne K. Yoder wrote that the work "grapples with how to inhabit a black body and how to reckon with America’s fraught racial history from a more intimate perspective — in the form of a letter to his adolescent son. Given the current state of affairs, this book should be required reading." We also welcome Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life and Andy Weir's The Martian to this month's list. No doubt their presence owes to a recent essay from Lydia Kiesling, and Hollywood's ongoing obsession with abandoning Matt Damon in space, respectively. We also interviewed Yanagihara this week. We saw two books graduate to our Hall of Fame; congratulations to Loitering by Charles D’Ambrosio and The David Foster Wallace Reader Nipping at the heels of this month's selections is Ernest Cline's new novel, Armada, which was discussed by yours truly in our Great Second-Half 2015 Book Preview a few weeks ago. Be honest: a bunch of you bought it because I referenced my "Diablo III" prowess, didn't you? Miranda July's The First Bad Man and Mark Z. Danielewski's The Familiar dropped from our list this month. Other near misses included: Armada, The Tusk That Did the Damage, and Everything I Never Told You: A Novel. See Also: Last month's list.
Out this week: Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates; Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee; Armada by Ernest Cline; Among the Wild Mulattos and Other Tales by Tom Williams; Confession of the Lioness by Mia Couto; The Watchmaker of Filigree Street by Natasha Pulley; Let Me Explain You by Annie Liontas; All This Life by Joshua Mohr; A Master Plan for Rescue by Janis Cooke Newman; Imperium by Christian Kracht; and The New World by Andrew Motion. For more on these and other new titles, go read our Great Second-Half 2015 Book Preview.
Last week, our crack team of literary prognosticators gave you the early scoop on 82 of the most anticipated books due out in the next six months, but most of those books were fiction. Today, we offer a preview of some of the most compelling nonfiction titles set to arrive in bookstores between now and December. The big preview already included write-ups of Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, Last Mass by Jamie Iredell, The Lost Landscape by Joyce Carol Oates, Behind the Glass Wall by Aleksandar Hemon, Lafayette in the Somewhat United States by Sarah Vowell, The Givenness of Things by Marilynne Robinson, and Destruction and Sorrow Beneath the Heavens by László Krasznahorkai. Below you will find 14 more upcoming books on topics ranging from modern-day witches to the science of creating a catchy pop tune, along with biographies of Joan Didion and George Custer and histories of post-Katrina New Orleans and the 2013 gay-rights ruling that paved the way for last month’s Supreme Court decision allowing gay marriage in all 50 states. July Rethinking Narcissism by Craig Malkin: “Narcissist” may well have replaced “chauvinist” as the go-to blanket insult of the post-millennial age. Malkin, a Harvard Medical School psychologist, would like to change that, and help Americans see the positive side of self-admiration. Most people’s personalities, he argues, fall somewhere on a spectrum ranging from pure selflessness to laughable grandiosity. Those whose narcissism is extreme can be sociopaths, but those in the middle range possess a strong -- and healthy -- sense of self. It wouldn’t be pop social science without some news you can use, so Malkin offers tips on “how to promote healthy narcissism in our partners, our children, and ourselves.” Barbarian Days by William Finnegan: Raised in California and Hawaii, Finnegan has journeyed through the U.S., South Pacific, Australia, Asia, and Africa in search of the perfect wave. In this memoir, Finnegan, now a New Yorker staff writer, relates tales of life in a whites-only school gang in Honolulu, riding the surf off an uninhabited island in Fiji, and his further travels through Samoa, Tonga, and Indonesia. Barbarian Days is being marketed as “an old-school adventure story, an intellectual autobiography, a social history, a literary road movie, and an extraordinary exploration of the gradual mastering of an exacting, little understood art.” August The Last Love Song by Tracy Daugherty: Pioneering New Journalist Joan Didion gets her first full-length biography from the author of Hiding Man, the 2009 biography of Donald Barthelme. The emphasis here is on full-length: The Last Love Song clocks in at 752 pages. But then Didion has led an usually full life, from promotional copywriter at Vogue, to novelist, to tough-minded chronicler of the Age of Aquarius, to screenwriter, to tough-minded chronicler of aging in The Year of Magical Thinking and Blue Nights. No House to Call My Home by Ryan Berg: In the U.S., according to a recent study from the UCLA School of Law, 43 percent of LGBT homeless youth were forced out by their parents because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. Berg encounters the raw reality behind this statistic when he takes a job in a group home for LGBT teenagers, many of them minorities. As he works to wean his charges away from sex work and drug abuse, he comes face to face with a system that focuses on warehousing kids rather than on helping them develop skills and relationships that could lead them to successful adult lives. Katrina by Gary Rivlin: Ten years after Hurricane Katrina made landfall in August 2005, flooding 80 percent of homes in New Orleans, the city is still recovering from the human and architectural damage the storm wrought. In this deeply reported new book, Rivlin, who witnessed the immediate aftermath of the hurricane as a reporter for The New York Times, details the perfect storm of natural disaster, neglected infrastructure, and centuries-old structural racism that made Katrina so devastating. September South Toward Home by Margaret Eby: Today, we seem to prefer our literary critics to leaven their critical insights with healthy doses of travel writing. As Elif Batuman did for Russian literature in The Possessed and Olivia Laing did for alcoholic writers in The Trip to Echo Spring, so Eby does for Southern writers in her second book. A displaced Southerner now living in Brooklyn, Eby peers into William Faulkner’s liquor cabinet in Oxford, Miss., and interviews the man who feeds the peafowl at Andalusia, the rural Georgia farm where Flannery O’Connor wrote her most famous stories, all in an effort to pin down the elusive quality that makes a Southern writer Southern. October Three Songs, Three Singers, Three Nations by Greil Marcus: The longtime Rolling Stone critic traces the history of American music through three examples of “commonplace songs,” songs that convey the sense of having no single author. In this book drawn from his 2013 Massey Lectures delivered at Harvard, Marcus discusses Bascom Lunsford’s 1928 “I Wish I Was a Mole in the Ground,” Geeshie Wiley’s 1930 “Last Kind Words Blues,” and Bob Dylan’s 1964 “Ballad of Hollis Brown” to examine how a song that sounds as though it was written by no one can speak to everyone. The Song Machine by John Seabrook: Can’t get that Katy Perry song out of your head? Seabroook, a reliably entertaining staff writer at The New Yorker, ventures behind the glamorous façade of the music industry to learn how teams of specialists working in digital labs create melodies brimming with “hooks,” musical burrs designed to snag your ears every seven seconds. Traveling from New York to Los Angeles and from Stockholm to Korea, Seabrook traces the growth of manufactured hits from their origins in 1990s Sweden to their omnipresence on today’s pop charts. Witches of America by Alex Mar: When we hear the word “witch,” most of us think of black hats and broomsticks. Mar, a former editor at Rolling Stone, goes past the Halloween clichés to provide an inside look at Paganism, a nature-worshipping, polytheistic religion practiced by some one million Americans. After participating in dozens of Pagan rituals attended by a wide cross-section of society, ranging from single moms to war veterans and computer programmers, Mar comes away from her five-year journey into the occult with an unexpected take on faith in post-millennial America. Hemingway in Love by A.E. Hotchner: In the late 1940s, at the apex of his fame, Ernest Hemingway befriended a young writer named A.E. Hotchner. The friendship has proven lucrative for Hotchner, who is best known for his 1966 biography Papa Hemingway, and valuable for readers hungering for an unvarnished glimpse at the intimate life of America’s master prose stylist. Now 95, Hotchner recounts his last conversations with Hemingway in 1961 -- conversations Hotchner says he kept secret for decades out of respect for Hemingway’s fourth wife, Mary. Just weeks before his suicide, Hemingway unburdened himself to Hotchner about the romantic dalliances that ended his marriage to his first wife, Hadley, in 1920s Paris, and about the many later macho escapades that made him a legend. Custer’s Trials by T.J. Stiles: Who was George Custer before he led his troops into the most ignominious defeat in American military history in the Battle of the Little Bighorn? Stiles, who won a Pulitzer for his last book, The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt, follows Custer’s public life as a soldier in the Civil War and American frontier, and offers glimpses of his private life in his tumultuous marriage to his highly educated wife, Libby. Stiles’s first book, Jesse James: The Last Rebel of the Civil War, sifted the truth from the tall tales about another legendary 19th-century American. Look for more of the same here. Then Comes Marriage by Roberta Kaplan, with Lisa Dickey: Edith Windsor and Thea Spyer had been a couple for more than 40 years, but when Spyer died, the federal government refused to recognize their marriage, forcing Windsor to pay a huge estate tax bill. Enter litigator Roberta Kaplan, who, along with the ACLU, took Windsor’s case all the way to the Supreme Court, which in 2013 issued a landmark ruling declaring the federal Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional, thus paving the way for the more recent ruling granting gay couples the right to marry in all 50 states. A perfect wedding gift for the lawyer in your life, gay or straight, planning to get married this fall. November St. Marks Is Dead by Ada Calhoun: Once the site of Colonial Dutch Director-General Peter Stuyvesant’s pear orchard, St. Marks Place, three short blocks in the heart of Manhattan’s East Village, later came to exemplify downtown cool for generations of hippies, artists, and revolutionaries. Charlie Parker and Thelonius Monk played jazz there, at The Five-Spot. Punk rockers like the Ramones and Debbie Harry shopped there, at Trash and Vaudeville. Radical feminist Shulamith Firestone raised consciousnesses there. Calhoun, herself a native of St. Marks Place, profiles local denizens from anarchist Emma Goldman to white-boy rappers the Beastie Boys in this history of the iconic street organized around pivotal moments when critics declared “St. Marks is dead.” Dear Mr. You by Mary-Louise Parker: Anyone who has watched Parker work her lip-rippling charms on stage or screen could bet she would be whip-smart and funny, but who knew America’s favorite TV pot dealer had a literary streak? Here Parker tries a novel take on the celebrity memoir, styled as a series of letters to men, real and imagined, who have shaped her life. To judge from early reactions on social media, the people who didn’t expect to like the book because it was by a famous actress liked it, while those who picked it up because it was by a famous actress came away bored and perplexed -- a good sign.
If you like to read, we've got some news for you. The second-half of 2015 is straight-up, stunningly chock-full of amazing books. If someone told you, "Hey, there are new books coming out by Margaret Atwood, Lauren Groff, Elena Ferrante, John Banville, and Jonathan Franzen this year," you might say, "Wow, it's going to be a great year for books." Well, those five authors all have books coming out in September this year (alongside 22 other books we're highlighting that month). This year, you'll also see new books from David Mitchell, Bonnie Jo Campbell, Aleksandar Hemon, Patti Smith, Colum McCann, Paul Murray, and what we think is now safe to call a hugely anticipated debut novel from our own Garth Risk Hallberg. The list that follows isn’t exhaustive -- no book preview could be -- but, at 9,100 words strong and encompassing 82 titles, this is the only second-half 2015 book preview you will ever need. Scroll down and get started. July: Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee: Fifty-five years after the publication of Lee's classic To Kill a Mockingbird, this “newly discovered” sequel picks up 20 years after the events of the first novel when Jean Louise Finch -- better known to generations of readers as Scout -- returns to Maycomb, Ala., to visit her lawyer father, Atticus. Controversy has dogged this new book as many have questioned whether the famously silent Lee, now pushing 90 and in poor health, truly wanted publication for this long-abandoned early effort to grapple with the characters and subject matter that would evolve into her beloved coming-of-age novel. (Michael) Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates: A journalist who learned the ropes from David Carr, Coates is one of our most incisive thinkers and writers on matters of race. Coates is unflinching when writing of the continued racial injustice in the United States: from growing up in Baltimore and its culture of violence that preceded the Freddie Gray riots, to making the case for reparations while revealing the systematic racism embedded in Chicago real estate, to demanding that South Carolina stop flying the Confederate flag. In Between the World and Me, Coates grapples with how to inhabit a black body and how to reckon with America’s fraught racial history from a more intimate perspective -- in the form of a letter to his adolescent son. Given the current state of affairs, this book should be required reading. Originally slated for September, the book was moved up to July. Spiegel & Grau Executive Editor Chris Jackson said, "We started getting massive requests from people [for advance copies.] It spoke to this moment. We started to feel pregnant with this book. We had this book that so many people wanted." Publishers Weekly's review dispensed with any coyness, saying, "This is a book that will be hailed as a classic of our time." (Anne) A Cure for Suicide by Jesse Ball: Elegant and spooky, dystopian and poetic, Jesse Ball’s follow-up to the well-reviewed Silence Once Begun follows a man known only as “the claimant” as he relearns everything under the guidance of an “examiner,” a woman who defines everything from the objects in their house to how he understands his existence. Then he meets another woman at a party and begins to question everything anew. A puzzle, a love story, and a tale of illness, memory, and manipulation, A Cure for Suicide promises to be a unique novel from a writer already known for his originality. (Kaulie) The Dying Grass by William T. Vollmann: Volume number five of Vollmann’s Seven Dreams series expands on the author's epic portrayal of the settlement of North America. In his latest, Vollmann depicts the Nez Perce War, a months-long conflict in 1877 that saw the eponymous Native American tribe defend their mountain territories from encroachment by the U.S. Army. According to Vollmann, who spoke with Tom Bissell about the series for a New Republic piece, the text consists of mostly dialogue. (Thom) Armada by Ernest Cline: Billy Mitchell, the “greatest arcade-video-game player of all time,” devoted 40 hours a week to the perfection of his craft, but he says he never skipped school or missed work. That was 35 years ago, before video games exploded not only in size and complexity, but also in absorptive allure. Recently, things have changed. It was only a year ago that a California couple was imprisoned for locking their children in a dingy trailer so the two of them could play 'World of Warcraft" uninterrupted. (By comparison, Mitchell’s devotion seems pedestrian.) This year, programmers are working on "No Man’s Sky," a “galaxy-sized video game” that’ll allow players to zip around a full-scale universe in the name of interplanetary exploration. It sounds impossibly gigantic. And with escalation surely comes a reckoning: Why are people spending more time with games than without? Across the world, a new class of professional gamers are earning lucrative sponsorships and appearing on slickly produced televised tournaments with tuition-sized purses. But surely more than money is at stake. (Full disclosure: I made more real money selling virtual items in "Diablo III’s" online marketplace than I did from writing in '12.) As increasingly rich worlds draw us in, what are we hoping to gain? It can’t just be distraction, can it? Are there practical benefits, or are we just hoping there are? This, to me, sounds like the heart of Ernest Cline’s latest novel, Armada, which focuses on a real life alien invasion that can only be stopped by gamers who’ve been obediently (albeit unknowingly) training for this very task. (Nick M.) The Small Backs of Children by Lidia Yuknavitch: The visionary editor of Chiasmus Press and first to publish books by Kate Zambreno and Lily Hoang is herself a fierce and passionate writer. Yuknavitch is the author of a gutsy memoir, The Chronology of Water, and Dora: A Headcase, a fictional re-spinning of the Freudian narrative. Her new novel, Small Backs of Children, deals with art, violence, and the very real effects of witnessing violence and conflict through the media. According to Porochista Khakpour, the novel achieves “moments of séance with writers like Jean Rhys and Clarice Lispector,” a recommendation destined to make many a reader slaver. (Anne) Lovers on All Saints’ Day by Juan Gabriel Vásquez: The Colombian writer Juan Gabriel Vásquez has been compared to Gabriel García Márquez and Roberto Bolaño. Winner of the International IMPAC Dublin Award for his novel The Sound of Things Falling, Vásquez is bringing out a collection of seven short stories never before published in English (nimbly translated from the Spanish by Anne McLean). The twinned themes of this collection are love and memory, which Vásquez unspools through stories about love affairs, revenge, troubled histories -- whole lives and worlds sketched with a few deft strokes. Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa has called Vásquez “one of the most original new voices of Latin American literature.” (Bill) Among the Wild Mulattos and Other Tales by Tom Williams: The recent passing of B.B. King makes Williams's previous book, Don't Start Me Talkin' -- a comic road novel about a pair of traveling blues musicians -- a timely read. His new story collection also skewers superficial discussions of race; admirers of James Alan McPherson will enjoy Williams's tragicomic sense. The book ranges from the hilarious “The Story of My Novel,” about an aspiring writer's book deal with Cousin Luther's Friend Chicken, to the surreal “Movie Star Entrances,” how one man's quest to remake himself with the help of an identity consulting company turns nefarious. Williams can easily, and forcefully, switch tragic, as in “The Lessons of Effacement.” When the main character is followed, he thinks “When your only offenses in life were drinking out of the juice carton and being born black in these United States, what could warrant such certain persecution?” Williams offers questions that are their own answers, as in the final story, when a biracial anthropologist discovers that a hidden mulatto community is more than simply legend. (Nick R.) August: Flood of Fire by Amitav Ghosh: Following Sea of Poppies (shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize) and River of Smoke, Calcutta-born Ghosh brings his Ibis Trilogy to a rousing conclusion with Flood of Fire. It’s 1839, and after China embargoes the lucrative trade of opium grown on British plantations in India, the colonial government sends an expeditionary force from Bengal to Hong Kong to reinstate it. In bringing the first Opium War to crackling life, Ghosh has illuminated the folly of our own failed war on drugs. Historical fiction doesn’t get any timelier than this. (Bill) Fortune Smiles by Adam Johnson: Johnson is best known for his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about North Korea, The Orphan Master’s Son, but he’s also the author of a terrific and off-kilter story collection called Emporium, a literary cousin to the sad-comic work of George Saunders, Sam Lipsyte, and Dan Chaon. This new collection of six stories, about everything from a former Stasi prison guard in East Germany to a computer programmer “finding solace in a digital simulacrum of the president of the United States,” echoes his early work while also building upon the ambition of his prize-winning tome. Kirkus gave the collection a starred review, calling it, “Bittersweet, elegant, full of hard-won wisdom.” (Edan) Wind/Pinball by Haruki Murakami: A reissue of Murakami's first novels, Hear the Wind Sing and Pinball, 1973, which form the first half of the so-called (four-book) Trilogy of the Rat. Written in 1978 and 1980, these books were never published outside of Japan, evidently at Murakami's behest. He seems to have relented. (Lydia) The State We’re In: Maine Stories by Ann Beattie: Fifteen stories -- connected by their depictions of a number of shared female characters – make up this new collection by short story master Beattie. In “Major Maybe,” which originally appeared in The New Yorker, two young roommates navigate Chelsea in the '80s. In “The Repurposed Barn,” readers glimpse an auction of Elvis Presley lamps, and in “Missed Calls,” a writer meets a photographer’s widow. Though most of the stories take place in Beattie’s home state of Maine, the author says they required her to call on the work of memory, as they took place in a “recalled” Maine rather than the Maine “outside her window.” (Thom) The Marriage of Opposites by Alice Hoffman: Describing Rachel, the protagonist of Alice Hoffman’s 34th novel, as the mother of Camille Pissarro, the Father of Impressionism, feels like exactly the kind of thing I shouldn’t be doing right now. That’s because The Marriage of Opposites isn’t about an artist. It’s about the very real woman who led a full and interesting life of her own, albeit one that was profoundly shaped by decisions she didn’t make. Growing up in 19th-century St. Thomas, among a small community of Jewish refugees who’d fled the Inquisition, Rachel dreams of worlds she’s never known, like Paris. No doubt she yearns for a freedom she’s never known, too, after her father arranges her marriage to one of his business associates. What happens next involves a sudden death, a passionate affair, and an act of defiance signaling that perhaps Rachel is free, and that certainly she’s got her own story to tell. (Nick M.) The Complete Stories by Clarice Lispector: For readers who worship at the altar of Lispector, the appearance of new work in translation is an event. Her writing has long been celebrated across her homeland, Brazil, and Latin America, but it wasn’t until recently that her name became common currency among English readers thanks to New Directions’s reissue of her novels and Benjamin Moser's notable biography. To add to the allure of “Brazil’s great mystic writer,” Moser offers, she was “that rare woman who looked like Marlene Dietrich and wrote like Virginia Woolf.” Calling the release of Lispector’s Complete Stories in English an “epiphany” in its promotional copy may sound like hyperbole. It’s not. (Anne) Let Me Tell You: New Stories, Essays, and Other Writings by Shirley Jackson: Shirley Jackson has been a powerhouse in American fiction ever since her haunting 1948 short story “The Lottery,” which showcased her talent for turning the quotidian into something eerie and unnerving. Although she died 50 years ago, her family is still mining her archives for undiscovered gems, resulting in this new collection of 56 pieces, more than 40 of which have never been published before. From short stories to comic essays to drawings, Jackson’s full range is on display, yet her wit and sharp examination of social norms is present throughout. (Tess) Three Moments of an Explosion by China Miéville: Miéville, the author of more than a dozen novels, is the sort of writer that deftly leaps across (often artificially-imposed) genre divides. He describes his corner of speculative fiction as “weird fiction,” in the footsteps of H.P. Lovecraft. (Tor.com mocked the desire to endlessly subcategorise genre by also placing his work in “New Weird!” “Fantastika!” “Literary Speculation!” “Hauntological Slipstream!” “Tentacular Metafusion!”) His first short story collection was published a decade ago; his second, with 10 previously-published stories and 18 new ones, is out in the U.S. in August. (Elizabeth) The Daughters by Adrienne Celt: Celt, who is also a comics artist, writes in her bio that she grew up in Seattle, and has both worked for Google and visited a Russian prison. Her debut novel covers a lot of ground, emotionally and culturally: opera, Polish mythology, and motherhood/daughterhood. Kirkus has given The Daughters a starred review -- “haunting” and “psychologically nuanced” -- and she was a finalist for the Sherwood Anderson Fiction Award, among others. Celt’s web comics appear weekly here, and she sells t-shirts! One to watch.(Sonya) Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh: If anyone’s a Paris Review regular it’s Ottessa Moshfegh, with a coveted Plimpton Prize and four stories to her name (in only three year’s time). Her narrators have a knack for all kind of bad behavior: like the algebra teacher who imbibes 40s from the corner bodega on school nights, who smokes in bed and drunk dials her ex-husband, or the woman who offers to shoot a flock of birds for her apartment-manager boyfriend. Moshfegh’s novels track the lives of characters who are equally and indulgently inappropriate. Moshfegh’s first full-length novel Eileen follows a secretary at a boys prison (whose vices include a shoplifting habit) who becomes lured by friendship into committing a far larger crime. (Anne) Shipbreaking by Robin Beth Schaer: Schaer worked as a deckhand on the HMS Bounty, which sank during Hurricane Sandy, so I entered Shipbreaking feeling that I would be in credible hands. I often read poetry to find phrases and lines to hold with me beyond the final page, and Schaer, who once wrote that “to leave the shore required surrender,” delivers. “I am / forgiven by water, but savaged by sky” says one narrator. Another: “Even swooning / is a kind of fainting, overwhelmed / by bliss, instead of pain.” Shipbreaking is a book about being saved while recognizing loss. Schaer’s words apply equally to marine and shore moments, as so often life is “a charade that only deepens / the absence it bends to hide.” Schaer’s long poems are especially notable; “Middle Flight” and “Natural History” remake pregnancy and motherhood: “Before now, he floated in dark water...Someday he too will chase his lost lightness / half-remembered toward the sky.” If we trust our poets enough, we allow them cause wounds and then apply the salves: “The world without us / is nameless.” (Nick R.) Last Mass by Jamie Iredell: "I am a Catholic." So begins Iredell's book, part memoir about growing up Catholic in Monterey County, Calif., part historical reconsideration of Blessed Father Fray Juníperro Serra, an 18th-century Spanish Franciscan who will be canonized by Pope Francis later this year. Structured around the Stations of the Cross, Iredell's unique book reveals the multitudinous complexities of Catholic identity, and how the tensions between those strands are endemic to Catholic culture. Think of Last Mass as William Gass's On Being Blue recast as On Being Catholic: Iredell's range is encyclopedic without feeling stretched. Delivered in tight vignettes that capture the Catholic tendency to be simultaneously specific and universal, the book's heart is twofold. First, how faith is ultimately a concern of the flesh, as seen in the faithful’s reverence for the body of Christ and struggles over experiencing sexuality (Catholics pivot between the obscene and the divine without missing a step). Second, in documenting Catholic devotion to saintly apocrypha, Iredell carries the reader to his most heartfelt note: his devotion and love for his father and family. (Nick R.) September: Purity by Jonathan Franzen: Known for his mastery of the modern domestic drama and his disdain for Internet things, Franzen, with his latest enormous novel, broadens his scope from the tree-lined homes of the Midwest and the Mainline to variously grim and paradisiacal domiciles in Oakland, East Germany, and Bolivia; alters his tableaux from the suburban nuclear family to fractured, lonely little twosomes; and progresses from cat murder to human murder. The result is something odd and unexpected -- a political novel that is somehow less political than his family novels at their coziest, and shot through with new strains of bitterness. Expect thinkpieces. (Lydia) Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff: Groff’s highly anticipated third novel follows married couple Lotto and Matthilde for over two decades, starting with an opening scene (published on The Millions), of the young, just-hitched duo getting frisky on the beach. The book was one of the galleys-to-grab at BookExpo America this spring, and it’s already received glowing reviews from Library Journal, Publishers Weekly, and Kirkus. Meg Wolitzer writes of Groff: “Because she's so vitally talented line for line and passage for passage, and because her ideas about the ways in which two people can live together and live inside each other, or fall away from each other, or betray each other, feel foundationally sound and true, Fates and Furies becomes a book to submit to, and be knocked out by, as I certainly was.” (Edan) The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood: A hotly anticipated story about “a near-future in which the lawful are locked up and the lawless roam free,” this is Atwood’s first standalone novel since The Blind Assassin, which won the Man Booker in 2000 (The Penelopiad was part of the Canongate Myth Series). Charmaine and Stan are struggling to make ends meet in the midst of social and economic turmoil. They strike a deal to join a “social experiment” that requires them to swap suburban paradise for their freedom. Given Atwood’s reputation for wicked social satire, I doubt it goes well. Publishers Weekly notes, "The novel is set in the same near-future universe as Atwood’s Positron series of four short stories, released exclusively as e-books. The most recent Positron installment, which was published under the same name as the upcoming novel, came out in 2013." (Claire) The Blue Guitar by John Banville: Banville’s 16th novel takes its title from a Wallace Stevens poem about artistic imagination and perception: “Things as they are/ Are changed upon the blue guitar.” Banville’s protagonist, Oliver Otway Orme, is a talented but blocked painter, an adulterer, and something of a kleptomaniac who returns to his childhood home to ruminate on his misdeeds and vocation. With such an intriguing, morally suspect central character as his instrument, Banville should be able to play one of his typically beguiling tunes. (Matt) The Story of the Lost Child by Elena Ferrante: Ferrante writes what James Wood called "case histories, full of flaming rage, lapse, failure, and tenuous psychic success." In the fourth and final of the reclusive global publishing sensation's Neapolitan novels, we return to Naples and to the tumultuous friendship of Lila Cerullo and Elena Greco. (Lydia) Undermajordomo Minor by Patrick DeWitt: DeWitt’s second novel, The Sisters Brothers, was short-listed for the Man Booker and just about every Canadian prize going, and for good reason. It took the grit, melancholy, and wit of the Western genre and bent it just enough toward the absurd. This new work, billed as “a fable without a moral,” is about a young man named Lucien (Lucy) Minor who becomes an undermajordomo at a castle full of mystery, dark secrets, polite theft, and bitter heartbreak. Our own Emily St. John Mandel calls it, “unexpectedly moving story about love, home, and the difficulty of finding one’s place in the world.” (Claire) Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights by Salman Rushdie: A new Rushdie novel is an event -- as is a new Rushdie tweet for that matter, especially after his vigorous defense of PEN’s decision to honor Charlie Hebdo. His latest follows the magically gifted descendants of a philosopher and a jinn, one of those seductive spirits who “emerge periodically to trouble and bless mankind.” These offspring are marshaled into service when a war breaks out between the forces of light and dark that lasts, you got it, two years, eight months, and 28 nights. You can read an excerpt at The New Yorker. (Matt) Sweet Caress by William Boyd: Boyd is one of those Englishmen who changes hats as effortlessly as most people change socks. A novelist, screenwriter, playwright, and movie director, Boyd has been shortlisted for the Booker Prize (for 1982’s An Ice-Cream War), and he recently wrote the James Bond novel Solo. His new novel, Sweet Caress, is the story of Amory Clay, whose passion for photography takes her from London to Berlin in the decadent 1920s, New York in the turbulent '30s, and France during World War II, where she becomes one of the first female war photographers. This panoramic novel is illustrated with “found” period photographs. (Bill) The Visiting Privilege: New and Collected Stories by Joy Williams: The “definitive” collection from an acknowledged mastress of the short story -- Rea Award Winner alongside Donald Barthelme, Alice Munro, Robert Coover, Deborah Eisenberg, James Salter, Mary Robison, Amy Hempel, et alia -- The Visiting Privilege collects 33 stories from three previous collections, and 13 stories previously unpublished in book form. Joy Williams has been a writer’s writer for decades, yet never goes out of fashion. Her stories are sometimes difficult, bizarre, upsetting even; and always funny, truthful, and affecting. Williams once exhorted student writers to write something “worthy, necessary; a real literature instead of the Botox escapist lit told in the shiny prolix comedic style that has come to define us.” Would-be writers perplexed by what is meant by an original “voice” should read Williams, absolutely. Read her in doses, perhaps, but read her, for godssakes. (Sonya) Did You Ever Have a Family by Bill Clegg: By day, Clegg is a glamorous New York literary agent known for snagging fat book deals for literary authors like Matthew Thomas and Daniyal Mueenuddin. At night, he peels off the power suit and becomes a literary author himself, first with two memoirs about his descent into -- and back out of -- crack addiction, and now a debut novel. In Did You Ever Have a Family, tragedy strikes a middle-aged woman on the eve of her daughter’s wedding, setting her off on a journey across the country from Connecticut to the Pacific Northwest, where she hides out in a small beachside hotel. (Michael) The Lost Landscape by Joyce Carol Oates: Volcanically prolific Oates has produced another memoir, The Lost Landscape: A Writer’s Coming of Age, which focuses on her formative years growing up on a hard-scrabble farm in upstate New York. We learn of young Oates’s close friendship with a red hen, her first encounters with death, and the revelation, on discovering Alice in Wonderland, that life offers endless adventures to those who know how to look for them. Witnessing the birth of this natural storyteller, we also witness her learning harsh lessons about work, sacrifice and loss -- what Oates has called “the difficulties, doubts and occasional despair of my experience.” (Bill) The Double Life of Liliane by Lily Tuck: The only child of a German movie producer living in Italy and an artistic mother living in New York, Liliane also has ancestors as varied as Mary Queen of Scots, Moses Mendelssohn, and a Mexican adventurer. In this sixth, semi-autobiographical novel from Lily Tuck, winner of the National Book Award for The News from Paraguay, the imaginative Liliane uncovers her many ancestors, tracing and combining their histories as she goes. The result is a writerly coming-of-age that spans both World Wars, multiple continents, and all of one very diverse family. (Kaulie) This is Your Life, Harriet Chance! by Jonathan Evison: A writer with a reputation for having a big heart takes on Harriet Chance who, at 79 years old and after the death of her husband, goes on a Alaskan cruise. Soon she discovers that she’s been living under false pretenses for the past 60 years. In other hands, this story might turn out as schmaltzy as the cruise ship singer, but Evison’s previous novels, The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving, West of Here, and All About Lulu have established him as a master of the wistfully wise and humanely humorous. As Evison said in a recent interview, fiction is “an exercise in empathy.” (Claire) Gold, Fame, Citrus, by Claire Vaye Watkins: Set in an increasingly plausible-seeming future in which drought has transformed Southern California into a howling wasteland, this debut novel by the author of the prize-winning story collection Battleborn finds two refugees of the water wars holed up in a starlet’s abandoned mansion in L.A.’s Laurel Canyon. Seeking lusher landscape, the pair head east, risking attack by patrolling authorities, roving desperadoes, and the unrelenting sun. (Michael) Cries for Help, Various by Padgett Powell: Back when the working title for his new story collection was Cries for Help: Forty-Five Failed Novels, Padgett Powell proclaimed the book “unsalable.” He was wrong. It’s coming out as Cries for Help, Various, and it’s a reminder that with Padgett Powell, anything is possible. In “Joplin and Dickens,” for instance, the titular singer and writer meet as emotionally needy students in an American middle school. Surreal wackiness can’t disguise the fact that these 44 stories are grounded in such very real preoccupations as longing, loneliness, and cultural nostalgia. The authorial voice ranges from high to low, from cranky to tender. It’s the music of a virtuoso. (Bill) The Marvels by Brian Selznick: You know a book is eagerly awaited when you witness an actual mob scene full of shoving and elbows for advance copies at BookExpo America. (In case there’s any doubt, I did witness this.) Selznick, the Caldecott-winning author and illustrator of dozens of children’s books, is best known for The Invention of Hugo Cabret, published in 2008. His newest work weaves together “two seemingly unrelated stories” told in two seemingly unrelated forms: a largely visual tale that begins with an 18th-century shipwreck, and a largely prose one that begins in London in 1990. (Elizabeth) Scrapper by Matt Bell: Set in a re-imagined Detroit, Bell’s second novel follows Kelly, a “scrapper,” who searches for valuable materials in the city’s abandoned buildings. One day Kelly finds an orphaned boy, a discovery that forces Kelly to reexamine his own past and buried traumas. Advance reviews describe Scrapper as “harrowing” and “grim,” two adjectives that could also be used to describe Bell’s hypnotic debut, In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods. (Hannah) Above the Waterfall by Ron Rash: For his sixth novel, Ron Rash returns to the beautiful but unforgiving Appalachian hills that have nourished most of his fiction and poetry. In Above the Waterfall, a sheriff nearing retirement and a young park ranger seeking to escape her past come together in a small Appalachian town bedeviled by poverty and crystal meth. A vicious crime will plunge the unlikely pair into deep, treacherous waters. Rash, a 2009 PEN/Faulkner Award finalist, is one of our undisputed Appalachian laureates, in company with Robert Morgan, Lee Smith, Fred Chappell, and Mark Powell. He has called this “a book about wonder, about how nature might sustain us.” (Bill) The Story of My Teeth by Valeria Luiselli: This young Mexican writer and translator was honored last year with a National Book Foundation “Five Under 35” Award for her 2013 debut, Faces in the Crowd. Her essay collection Sidewalks, published the same year, was also a critical favorite. Her second novel, The Story of My Teeth, is a story of stories, narrated by Gustavo “Highway” Sánchez Sánchez, a traveling auctioneer whose prize possession is a set of Marilyn Monroe’s dentures. Set in Mexico City, it was written in collaboration with Jumex Factory Staff -- which is a story in and of itself. (Hannah) Marvel and a Wonder by Joe Meno: The author of Hairstyles of the Damned and The Boy Detective Fails has taken an ambitious turn with Marvel and a Wonder. The book follows a Korean War vet living with his 16-year-old grandson on a farm in southern Indiana. They are given a beautiful quarterhorse, an unexpected gift that transforms their lives, but when the horse is stolen they embark on a quest to find the thieves and put their lives back together. (Janet) Under the Udala Trees by Chinelo Okparanta: Okparanta was born in Nigeria and raised as a Jehovah’s Witness. She emigrated to the United States at age 10, but her fiction often returns to Nigeria, painting a striking portrait of the contemporary nation. Her first book, the 2013 short story collection Happiness, Like Water, was shortlisted for many prizes and won the 2014 Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Fiction. Her debut novel, Under the Udala Trees, tells the story of two young girls who fall in love against the backdrop of the Nigerian Civil War. (Elizabeth) After the Parade by Lori Ostlund: This assured debut tells the story of Aaron, an ESL teacher who decides, at age 40, to leave his lifelong partner, the older man who “saved him” from his Midwestern hometown. But in order to move on, Aaron has to take a closer look at his Midwestern past and find out if there’s anything worth salvaging. Readers may know Ostlund from her award-winning 2010 short story collection, The Bigness of the World. (Hannah) The Hundred Year Flood by Matthew Salesses: Like the titular flood that churns through the second half of the novel, The Hundred Year Flood is a story of displacement. Salesses, whose non-fiction examines adoption and identity, tells the story of Tee, a Korean-American living in Prague in late 2001. The attacks of 9/11 are not mere subtext in this novel; Tee’s uncle commits suicide by plane, and the entire novel dramatizes how the past binds our present. “Anywhere he went he was the only Asian in Prague,” but Tee soon finds friendship in Pavel, a painter made famous during the 1989 Velvet Revolution, and Katka, his wife. Tee becomes Pavel’s subject, and soon, Katka’s lover. “In the paintings, [Tee] was more real than life. His original self had been replaced:” Salesses novel dramatically documents how longing can turn, painfully, into love. (Nick R.) Not on Fire, but Burning by Greg Hrbek: An explosion has destroyed San Francisco. Twelve-year-old Dorian and his parents have survived it, but where is his older sister, Skyler? She never existed, according to Dorian’s parents. Post-incident America is a sinister place, where Muslims have been herded onto former Native American reservations and parents deny the existence of a boy’s sister. According to the publisher, Hrbek’s sophomore novel is “unlike anything you've read before -- not exactly a thriller, not exactly sci-fi, not exactly speculative fiction, but rather a brilliant and absorbing adventure into the dark heart of...America.” Joining the Melville House family for his third book, Hrbek, whose story “Paternity” is in the current issue of Tin House, may be poised to be the next indie breakout. (Sonya) Dryland by Sara Jaffe: Jaffe has lived many lives it seems, one as a guitarist for punk band Erase Errata, another as a founding editor of New Herring Press (which just reissued a bang-up edition of Lynne Tillman's Weird Fucks with paintings by Amy Sillman). Proof of Jaffe’s life as a fiction-writer can be found online, too, including gems like “Stormchasers.” This fall marks the publication of Jaffe’s first novel, Dryland, a coming-of-age tale set in the '90s that depicts a girl whose life is defined by absences, including and especially that of her not-talked about older brother, until she has a chance to find him and herself. (Anne) Hotel and Vertigo by Joanna Walsh: British critic, journalist, and fiction writer Walsh kickstarted 2014 with the #readwomen hashtag phenomenon, declaring it the year to read only women. It seems that 2015 is the year to publish them, and specifically Walsh, who has two books coming out this fall. Hotel is “part memoir part meditation” that draws from Walsh’s experience as a hotel reviewer -- and that explores “modern sites of gathering and alienation.” The inimitable Dorothy Project will publish Vertigo, a book of loosely linked stories that channels George Perec and Christine Brooke-Rose, and which Amina Cain claims, “quietly subvert(s) the hell out of form.” (Anne) October: City on Fire by Garth Risk Hallberg: Garth is a contributing editor to the site, where he has written masterful essays over nearly a decade, while teaching and putting out his novella Field Guide to the North American Family. He is a keen and perfect reader of novels, and of critics -- he told us about Roberto Bolaño. We trust him to steer us through difficult books. (He is, additionally, a champion punner.) When his debut novel, a 900-pager written over six years, was purchased by Knopf, we felt not only that it couldn't happen to a nicer guy, but that it couldn't happen to a more serious, a more bona fide person of letters. City on Fire is the result of his wish to write a novel that took in "9/11, the 1977 blackout, punk rock, the fiscal crisis," which explains the 900 pages. Read the opening lines, evoking a modern Inferno, here. I think we're in for something special. (Lydia) Slade House by David Mitchell: Slade House started out with “The Right Sort,” a short story Mitchell published via 280 tweets last summer as publicity for The Bone Clocks. That story, which was published in full, exclusively here at The Millions, is about a boy and his mother attending a party to which they’d received a mysterious invitation. The story “ambushed” him, said Mitchell, and, before he knew it, it was the seed of a full-fledged novel, seemingly about years of mysterious parties at the same residence that we can assume are connected to each other and to characters we’ve already met. The book is said to occupy the same universe as The Bone Clocks and, by extension, Mitchell’s increasingly interconnected body of work. (Janet) M Train by Patti Smith: The follow-up to Just Kids, Smith’s much-beloved (and National Book Award-winning) 2010 memoir about her youthful friendship with the artist Robert Mapplethorpe as they made their way in 1960s New York City. In a recent interview, Smith said M Train is “not a book about the past so much. It’s who I am, what I do, what I’m thinking about, what I read and the coffee I drink. The floors I pace. So we’ll see. I hope people like it.” Oh Patti, we know we’re gonna like it. (Hannah) Behind the Glass Wall by Aleksandar Hemon: Hemon has lived in the U.S. since the war in his native Bosnia made it impossible for him to return from what should have been a temporary visit. So he came to his role as the U.N.’s first writer-in-residence in its 70-year history with a lot of baggage. Given unprecedented access to the organization’s inner working -- from the general assembly to the security council -- his book portrays a deeply flawed but vitally necessary institution. (Janet) A Strangeness in My Mind by Orhan Pamuk: Nobel laureate Pamuk’s ninth novel follows Mevlut, an Istanbul street vendor. Beginning in the 1970s, the book covers four decades of urban life, mapping the city’s fortunes and failures alongside Mevlut’s, and painting a nostalgic picture of Pamuk's beloved home. (Hannah) Mothers, Tell Your Daughters: Stories by Bonnie Jo Campbell: In Once Upon a River, Campbell introduced us to the wily and wise-beyond-her-years Margo Crane, a modern-day female Huck Finn taking to the river in search of her lost mother. The strong and stubborn protagonists that the Michigan author excels at writing are back in her third short story collection. The working-class women in these stories are grief-addled brides, phlebotomists discovering their sensuality, and vengeful abused wives, all drawn with Campbell’s signature dark humor and empathy. (Tess) 100 Years of the Best American Short Stories edited by Lorrie Moore: For 100 years, the Best American series has collected the strongest short stories, from Ernest Hemingway to Sherman Alexie. As editor, Lorrie Moore, a virtuoso of the genre herself, combed through more than 2,000 stories to select the 41 featured in this anthology. But this is not just a compilation, it’s also an examination of how the genre has evolved. Series editor Heidi Pitlor recounts the literary trends of the 20th century, including the rise of Depression-era Southern fiction to the heyday of the medium in the 1980s. The result is collection featuring everyone from F. Scott Fitzgerald to Lauren Groff. (Tess) The Secret Chord by Geraldine Brooks: The author of March and Caleb’s Crossing, known for her abilities to bring history to life, has turned her attention to David King of Israel. Taking the famous stories of his shephardic childhood, defeat of Goliath, and troubled rule as king, Brooks fills in the gaps and humanizes the legend in a saga of family, faith, and power. (Janet) Thirteen Ways of Looking by Colum McCann: With a title borrowed from the iconic Wallace Stevens poem “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” McCann explores disparate points of view in this collection of short stories. The title story follows a retired judge going about his day, not realizing it’s his last. Other stories peek into the life of a nun, a marine, and a mother and son whose Christmas is marked by an unexpected disappearance. (Hannah) The Mark and the Void by Paul Murray: Murray’s 2010 novel Skippy Dies earned the Irishman worldwide acclaim as a writer enviably adept at both raucous humor and bittersweet truth. His new novel, perhaps the funniest thing to come out of the Irish economic collapse, follows Claude, a low-level bank employee who, while his employers drive the country steadily towards ruin, falls in with a struggling novelist intent on making Claude’s life worthy of telling. (Janet) The Tsar of Love and Techno by Anthony Marra: A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, Marra’s first novel about war-torn Chechnya during the Second Chechen War, was not only a New York Times bestseller, it was also a longlist selection for the National Book Award and on a bevy of best-of lists for 2013. His second book is a collection of short stories that, like his novel, span a number of years, and take place in the same part of the world. There’s a 1930s Soviet censor laboring beneath Leningrad, for example, as well as a chorus of women who, according to the jacket copy, “recount their stories and those of their grandmothers, former gulag prisoners who settled their Siberian mining town.” The characters in these stories are interconnected, proving that Marra is as ambitious with the short form as he is with the novel. (Edan) Death by Water by Kenzaburō Ōe: Six years after Sui Shi came out in his native Japan, the 1994 Nobel Prize laureate’s latest is arriving in an English translation. In the book, which features Oe’s recurring protagonist Kogito Choko, a novelist attempts to fictionalize his father’s death by drowning at sea. Because the memory was traumatic, and because Choko’s family refuses to talk about his father, the writer begins to confuse his facts, eventually growing so frustrated he shelves his novel altogether. His quest is hopeless, or so it appears, until he meets an avant-garde theater troupe, which provides him with the impetus to keep going. (Thom) Submission by Michel Houellebecq: This much-discussed satirical novel by the provocative French author is, as Adam Shatz wrote for the LRB, a "melancholy tribute to the pleasure of surrender." In this case, the surrender is that of the French intelligentsia to a gently authoritarian Islamic government. The novel has been renounced as Islamophobic, defended against these charges in language that itself runs the gamut from deeply Islamophobic to, er, Islam-positive, and resulted in all kinds of moral-intellectual acrobatics and some very cute titles ("Colombey-les-deux-Mosquées" or "Slouching towards Mecca"). (Lydia) Golden Age by Jane Smiley: The third volume in Smiley’s Last Hundred Years trilogy follows the descendants of a hard-striving Iowa farming family through the waning years of the last century to the present day. The first two installments covered the years 1920-52 (in Some Luck) and 1953-86 (in Early Warning), mixing lively characters and sometimes improbable plot twists with gently left-of-center political analysis of the American century. With characters who are serving in Iraq and working in New York finance, expect more of the same as Smiley wraps up her ambitious three-book project. (Michael) Ghostly: A Collection of Ghost Stories by Audrey Niffenegger: From a contemporary master of spooky stories comes an anthology of the best ghost stories. Niffenegger’s curation shows how the genre has developed from the 19th century to now, with a focus on hauntings. Each story comes with an introduction from her, whether it’s a story by a horror staple like Edgar Allan Poe or the unexpected like Edith Wharton. Also look for a Niffenegger original, “A Secret Life with Cats.” (Tess) The Hours Count by Jillian Cantor: In Cantor’s previous novel, Margot, Anne Frank’s sister has survived World War II, and is living under an assumed identity in America. Cantor’s new book once again blends fact and fiction, this time delving into the lives of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, the only Americans executed for spying during the Cold War. The day Ethel was arrested, her two young children were left with a neighbor, and in The Hours Count Cantor fictionalizes this neighbor, and we understand the Rosenbergs and their story through the eyes of this young, naïve woman. Christina Baker Kline calls the novel “Taut, atmospheric and absorbing...” (Edan) Lafayette in the Somewhat United States by Sarah Vowell: As a teenager, the Marquis de Lafayette was an officer in the Continental Army at the right hand of George Washington. Returning home to his native France after the war, he continued to socialize with his friends Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and Benjamin Franklin, and never lost his place in America’s affections. The author of Assassination Vacation tells the true story of the young French aristocrat who inserted himself into the American Revolution, his long and eventful life on both sides of the Atlantic, and his triumphant return to America at the end of his life. (Janet) The Early Stories of Truman Capote: As any teacher can tell you, fiction written by 14-year-olds is not something you’d typically pay money to read. (It’s hard enough to find people you can pay to read the stuff, at that.) But what about fiction written by a 14-year-old who started writing seriously at age 11? And one who’d go on to write some of the most memorable stories of the modern age? That certainly changes things, and that’s the case at hand with The Early Stories of Truman Capote, which is said to contain 17 pieces written during the author’s teenage years. “When [Capote] was 23, he used to joke that he looked like he was 12,” journalist Anuschka Roshani told Die Zeit after she had discovered the forgotten stories in the New York Public Library. “But when he was 12 he wrote like others did aged 40.” (Nick M.) Upright Beasts by Lincoln Michel: There’s a good chance you’ve encountered Michel’s stories, scattered far and wide across the Internet, and featured in the most reputable and disreputable journals alike. And if not his stories, then perhaps one of his many editorial or side projects, as co-founder of Gigantic, online editor of Electric Literature and, (delightfully) as creator of the Monsters of Literature trading cards. Michel’s stories are often an uncanny combination of sinister and funny, tender and sad. Laura van den Berg calls them “mighty surrealist wonders, mordantly funny and fiercely intelligent,” and many of them will soon be released together in Michel’s first story collection Upright Beasts. (Anne) November: The Mare by Mary Gaitskill: In 2012, Gaitskill read for a student audience from the novel-in-progress The Mare, which was then described as “an adult fairy-tale unsuitable for children’s ears.” The clichéd publicity blurb gives one pause -- “the story of a Dominican girl, the white woman who introduces her to riding, and the horse who changes everything for her” -- but also, for this Gaitskill fan, induces eagerness to see what will surely be Gaitskill’s intimate and layered take on this familiar story trope. The young girl, Velveteen, is a Fresh Air Fund kid from Brooklyn who spends time with a married couple upstate and the horses down the road. Drug addiction, race, and social-class collisions make up at least some of the layers here. (Sonya) The Givenness of Things: Essays by Marilynne Robinson: Robinson is one of the most beloved contemporary American writers, and she’s also one of our most cogent voices writing about religion and faith today. “Robinson's genius is for making indistinguishable the highest ends of faith and fiction,” Michelle Orange wrote of Robinson’s last novel, Lila, and this talent is on display across her new essay collection, 14 essays that meditate on the complexities of Christianity in America today. (Elizabeth) Beatlebone by Kevin Barry: IMPAC-winner Barry -- who we’ve interviewed here at The Millions -- follows John Lennon on a fictional trip to Ireland. In the story, which takes place in 1978, Lennon sets out to find an island he purchased nine years earlier, in a bid to get the solitude he needs to break out of a creative rut. His odyssey appears to be going according to plan -- until, that is, he meets a charming, shape-shifting taxi driver. (Thom) The Big Green Tent by Ludmila Ulitskaya: The Big Green Tent -- at 592 pages and dramatizing a panorama of life in the USSR in the 1950s through the story of three friends -- is a Russian novel, at the same time that it is a “Russian novel.” An orphaned poet, a pianist, and a photographer each in his own way fights the post-Joseph Stalin regime; you might guess that the results are less than feel-good. This may be the Big Book of the year, and Library Journal is calling it “A great introduction to readers new to Ulitskaya,” who, along with being the most popular novelist in Russia, is an activist and rising voice of moral authority there. For more on Ulitsakya, read Masha Gessen’s 2014 profile. (Sonya) Hotels of North America by Rick Moody: For writers both motivated and irked by online reviews, the comment-lurking hero of Moody’s sixth novel should hit close to home. Reginald Edward Morse writes reviews on RateYourLodging.com, yet they aren’t just about the quality of hotel beds and room service -- but his life. Through his comments, he discusses his failings, from his motivational speaking career to his marriage to his relationship with his daughter. When Morse disappears, these comments become the trail of breadcrumbs Moody follows to find him in this clever metafictional take on identity construction. (Tess) Avenue of Mysteries by John Irving: Although Irving feels a little out of vogue these days, his novels have inflected the tenor of modern American literature -- open a novel and see a glimpse of T.S. Garp, a flash of Owen Meany, a dollop of Bogus Trumper. His 14th novel is based, confusingly, on an original screenplay for a movie called Escaping Maharashtra, and takes us to Mexico and the Philippines. (Lydia) Twain & Stanley Enter Paradise by Oscar Hijuelos: When Hijuelos, author of The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, passed away in 2013, he left behind Twain & Stanley Enter Paradise, a novel he’d been working on for more than 12 years. In it, the author imagined a fictitious manuscript containing correspondence between Welsh explorer Henry Morton Stanley, the artist Dorothy Tennant, and Mark Twain. In a virtuoso performance, Hijuelos displays his ability to use a high 19th-century writing style while preserving the individual voices that made each of his subjects so unique. (Nick M.) A Wild Swan: And Other Tales by Michael Cunningham: Pulitzer Prize-winning Cunningham, best known for The Hours, a creative take on Mrs. Dalloway that was itself adapted into a prize-winning movie starring Nicole Kidman and a prosthetic nose, has chosen a new adaptation project: fairy tales. In A Wild Swan, all the familiar fairy tale characters are present, but clearly modernized -- Jack of beanstalk fame lives in his mother’s basement, while the Beast stands in line at the convenience store. Their stories receive similar updates and include all the questions and moments our childhood tales politely skimmed over. (Kaulie) Numero Zero by Umberto Eco: The Italian writer, best known in the U.S. for The Name of the Rose and Foucault’s Pendulum, takes on modern Italy's bete noire -- Benito Mussolini -- in Numero Zero. Moving deftly from 1945 to 1992 and back again, the book shows both the death of the dictator and the odyssey of a hack writer in Colonna, who learns of a bizarre conspiracy theory that says Il Duce survived his own murder. Though its plot is very different, the book pairs naturally with Look Who’s Back, the recent German novel about a time-traveling Adolf Hitler. (Thom) The Past by Tessa Hadley: Hadley’s fifth novel, the well-received Clever Girl, was released just over a year ago, but she’s already back with another delicately crafted novel of generational change in an English family. In The Past, four grown siblings -- three sisters and their brother -- return to their grandparents’ house for three sticky summer weeks. While there, they face collected childhood memories, the possibility of having to sell the house, and each other. Their families cause considerable chaos as well -- the sisters dislike their brother’s wife, while one sister’s boyfriend’s son attempts to seduce her niece. (Kaulie) January: Good on Paper by Rachel Cantor: Cantor’s first novel, A Highly Unlikely Scenario, or a Neetsa Pizza Employee’s Guide to Saving the World, garnered a devoted following for its madcap, time-traveling chutzpah. Her second novel, Good on Paper, also published by Melville House, sounds a bit different -- but just as enticing. According to the jacket copy, it’s about “a perpetual freelancer who gets an assignment that just might change her life,” and there are echoes of A.S. Byatt’s Possession. (Edan) Destruction and Sorrow Beneath the Heavens: Reportage by László Krasznahorkai: Nine out of 10 doctors agree: Hungarian fiction is the cure for positivity, and few doses are as potent as the ones written by Krasznahorkai, recent winner of the Man Booker International Prize. “If gloom, menace and entropy are your thing,” Larry Rohter wrote in his profile of the author for The New York Times, “then Laszlo is your man.” And our interview with Krasznahorkai garnered the headline “Anticipate Doom.” Ominous for Chinese officials, then, that Krasznahorkai’s latest effort can be described not as a work of fiction, but instead as a travel memoir, or a series of reports filed while journeying through the Asian country. Because if there’s one guy you want to write about your country, it’s someone Susan Sontag described as the “master of the apocalypse.” (Nick M.) Mr. Splitfoot by Samantha Hunt: In Hunt’s fictions, imagination anchors the real and sometimes calls mutiny. Her tales earned her a spot in Tin House’s coterie of “Fantastic Women,” and The Believer has called her “a master of beautiful delusions.” Whether the delusion involves believing oneself to be a mermaid or a wife who becomes a deer at night or the eccentric life and ideas of the oft-overlooked inventor Nikola Tesla (who among other things, harbored pigeons in New York City hotel rooms), Hunt delivers them with what an essence akin to magic. Mr. Splitfoot, Hunt’s third novel, promises more in this vein. It's a gothic ghost story, involving two orphaned sisters, channeling spirits, and an enigmatic journey across New York State. (Anne) February: The High Mountains of Portugal by Yann Martel: The fourth novel by Martel is touted as an allegory that asks questions about loss, faith, suffering, and love. Sweeping from the 1600s to the present through three intersecting stories, this novel will no doubt be combed for comparison to his blockbuster -- nine million copies and still selling strong -- Life of Pi. And Martel will, no doubt, carry the comparisons well: “Once I’m in my little studio…there’s nothing here but my current novel,” he told The Globe and Mail. “I’m neither aware of the success of Life of Pi nor the sometimes very negative reviews Beatrice and Virgil got. That’s all on the outside.” (Claire) The Queen of the Night by Alexander Chee: We’ve been awaiting Chee’s sophomore novel, and here it finally is! A sweeping historical story -- “a night at the opera you’ll wish never-ending,” says Helen Oyeyemi -- and the kind I personally love best, with a fictional protagonist moving among real historical figures. Lilliet Berne is a diva of 19th-century Paris opera on the cusp of world fame, but at what cost? Queen of the Night traffics in secrets, betrayal, intrigue, glitz, and grit. And if you can judge a book by its cover, this one’s a real killer. (Sonya) The Lost Time Accidents by John Wray: In his fourth novel, Lowboy author Wray moves out of the confines of New York City, tracing the history of an Eastern European family not unlike his own. Moving all the way from fin-de-siècle Moravia up to the present day, the book tracks the exploits of the Toula family, who count among their home cities Vienna, Berlin, and finally New York City. As the story progresses, the family struggles to preserve their greatest treasure, an impenetrable theory with the potential to upend science as we know it. For a sense of Wray’s eye, take note that Znojmo, the Moldovan town from which the family hails, is the gherkin capital of Austria-Hungary. (Thom) Alice & Oliver by Charles Bock: Bock’s first novel, Beautiful Children, was a New York Times bestseller and won the Sue Kaufman prize for First Fiction from the Academy of Arts and Letters. His second novel, Alice & Oliver, which takes place in New York City in the year 1994, is about a young mother named Alice Culvert, who falls ill with leukemia, and her husband Oliver, who is “doing his best to support Alice, keep their childcare situation stabilized, handle insurance companies, hold off worst case scenario nightmares, and just basically not lose his shit.” Joshua Ferris writes, “I was amazed that such a heartbreaking narrative could also affirm, on every page, why we love this frustrating world and why we hold on to it for as long as we can.” Richard Price calls it “a wrenchingly powerful novel.” (Edan) More from The Millions: The good stuff: The Millions' Notable articles The motherlode: The Millions' Books and Reviews Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.