Bring Up the Bodies: A Novel (John MacRae Books)

New Price:
Used Price:

Mentioned in:

Most Anticipated: The Great First-Half 2020 Book Preview

| 8

The year has gotten off to a rocky start worldwide, but we hope this semi-annual Millions tradition will be a bright spot. We seem to say this every year, but at 140-something books, this is truly our most gratuitously enormous Preview to date. And yet there are even more books to be read in the first half of this year! As usual, we will continue with our monthly previews, beginning in February. Hop into the comments to let us know what we missed, and look out for the second-half Preview in July!

Want to help The Millions keep churning out great books coverage? Then sign up to be a member today.

January

Uncanny Valley by Anna Wiener: When the history of what went wrong in the first two decades of the 21st century is written, the rampant fragmentation of our attention, the proliferation of propaganda, the inanities and barbarities of social media, New Yorker staff writer Wiener’s memoir, Uncanny Valley, will be instrumental in the forensics. An optimistic millennial who absconded from the moribund publishing industry of New York to the supposedly sunny, utopian environs of Silicon Valley, Wiener quickly learns that the counter-cultural promise once embodied by the tech industry has been abandoned in favor of adopting an ethos that’s as at home with any 19th-century robber baron as any of the more conventionally predatory business that dominate American economic life. “But we see now that we’ve been swimming in the Kool Aid,” Wiener writes, “and we’re coming up for air.” Something to think about when you share a (rightfully glowing) recommendation for Uncanny Valley on social media. (Ed S.)

Interior Chinatown by Charles Yu: No one writes like Yu: he’s at once sincere and funny, his father-son narratives make me tear up, his work is science-fiction-but-not, and he’s always formally inventive. His new novel isn’t like anything else, either: it’s a novel that’s also a screenplay…or a screenplay that busts out of its form to be a novel. In it, actor Willis Wu longs to play more than “generic Asian man” on various TV shows, but the industry—and the world, the culture—won’t let him. This is a book about race and the roles we play, both among strangers and our family. Emily St. John Mandel calls it “Wrenching, hilarious, sharp, surreal, and, above all, original.” (Edan)

Topics of Conversation by Miranda Popkey: Beginning in Italy and ending in San Joaquin Valley, Popkey’s understated and gorgeous debut follows conversations between an unnamed narrator and other women over two decades. Exploring gender, desire, and violence, the slim novel captures the intimacy of female friendships, and the ways women create narratives for themselves and others. A must-read for fans of Jenny Offill. (Carolyn)

Hitting a Straight Lick with a Crooked Stick by Zora Neale Hurston: This collection of eight lesser-known stories written during Hurston’s time as a student at Barnard in New York City showcase the author’s range. While many know Hurston best for her fiction depicting rural life, these stories brim with the vibrancy and madcap liveliness of the Harlem Renaissance. (Nick M.)

Cleanness by Garth Greenwell: Cleanness is the work of a writer so absolutely attuned to the world: our paradoxes of love, bodies, desires, regrets. In the morning, a man looks at his lover: “his face bearded and dark, smoothed out by sleep.” There, and elsewhere in Greenwell’s imagery, the material world joins the metaphysical, the rare ability to give shape and texture to the mystical. I wanted to linger on these sentences, but also to follow the routes of these narratives—Greenwell knows the subtle suspense created by careful syntax. “Harbor,” one section in the second half of the book, is a stirring classic unto itself.  (Nick R.)

All the Days Past, All the Days to Come by Mildred D. Taylor: Readers have grown up with the Logan Family saga, told in the classic young adult novels Song of the Trees, Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, Let the Circle Be Unbroken, and The Road to Memphis. The new book, the first since prequel The Land in 2001, follows Cassie across the country to college and law school, and then back to Mississippi in the 1960s to the heart of the Civil Rights Movement. A major event in young adult fiction. (Lydia)

Run Me to Earth by Paul Yoon: I’ll read anything by Yoon. A 2014 Young Lions Award winner, Yoon displays uncanny range, imagination, and originality; every novel is so different and surprising. Run Me to Earth, his fourth novel, is also one of the most beautiful galleys I’ve ever seen (yes, I can be shallow that way). Early reviews suggest it is also exceptional inside the covers, Library Journal in a starred review calls this book set in 1960s Laos “essential reading.” (Marie Myung-Ok Lee)

The Gimmicks by Chris McCormick: A fluid, beautifully written story about professional wrestling, intergenerational trauma, genocide, and history, jumping through Armenia to America and from one generation to another. John Williams of the New York Times said of the book, “With a minimum amount of soapiness, he keeps the pages turning on his love triangles and nostalgic wrestlers and brothers at peace and war. And he allows his larger themes to resonate without pushing them on us too hard.” (Lydia)

A Long Petal of the Sea by Isabel Allende: The author of iconic novels like The House of the Spirits and Eva Luna returns with her 20th work of fiction, a novel of refugees fleeing the Spanish Civil War for Chile. Of the new work Colum McCann says “What a joy it must be to come upon Allende for the first time. She knows that all stories are love stories, and the greatest love stories are told by time.” (Lydia)

Blue Flowers by Carola Saavedra (translated by Daniel Hahn): A epistolary thriller from the award-winning Brazilian novelist, Blue Flowers is a case of obsession and mistaken identity told in part through letters sent to the wrong man. Catherine Lacey calls it “an elegant and unnerving meditation on the aftermath of love and the lasting power of desire.” (Lydia)

Little Gods by Meng Jin: Jin’s brilliant debut novel centers on Su Lan, a woman who gives birth to her only daughter, Liya, on the night of Tiananmen Crackdown. By immersing the readers in various personal narratives, Jin raises difficult questions about history, life, and self. For example, are the young protesters on Tiananmen Square driven by their pursuit of a righteous cause or their desire for expansive attention? What does self-erasure lead to? Cultural assimilation or loss of identity or both? What is the relationship between memory and self? Little Gods is elegantly written, emotionally compelling, and thought provoking on every page. (Jianan Qian)

Track Changes by Sayed Kashua: Track Changes is the fourth novel of internationally lauded author, screenwriter, and journalist Kashua. The book’s protagonist, an Arab-Israeli memoirist, receives a note one day that his father is dying. Immediately, he leaves his wife and children in the United States and boards a plane back to his hometown of Tira in Palestine. However, his homecoming is coldly received, and an increasing tension between him and his family suggests a long-standing estrangement. Sitting by his father’s sickbed, the protagonist begins to recall the causes of his isolation. But he has meanwhile found himself fabricating memories. On a broad level, Track Changes traces the process of which stories get told and forgot in Palestine and Israel. On each page, it is also a fierce and intelligent exploration of identity, class, relationship, and truth. (Jianan Qian)

The Third Rainbow Girl by Emma Copley Eisenberg: Blending memoir and true crime, Eisenberg’s book recounts the 1980 murders of two young women in rural West Virginia—known as the “Rainbow Murders”—and her time living and working in Pocahontas County. Exploring the intersection of gender, class, and violence, Eisenberg reveals the way the murders inflicted trauma onto generations of Appalachians. Carmen Maria Machado calls the book “a staggering achievement of reportage, memoir, and sociological reckoning.” (Carolyn)

The Longing for Less by Kyle Chayka: Culture critic Chayka’s nonfiction book explores the origins of minimalism and where our current obsession stems from. From architects and philosophers to museums and Zen gardens, he reveals that “less is more” is not just about material goods. Jenny Odell says the book “peels back the commodified husk of minimalism to reveal something surprising and thoroughly alive.” (Carolyn)

We Wish You Luck by Caroline Zancan: In Zancan’s second novel, a group of students at a low-residence MFA program band together to take revenge on a professor who has wronged one of their own. Zancan does a wonderful job of describing the characters who populate this program, with excellent pacing and a momentum that turns the MFA life into a gripping story of professional and personal revenge. (Lydia)

The Black Cathedral by Marcial Gala: In this English-language debut by the Cuban novelist Gala and translated by Anna Kushner, a newcomer to the small town of Cienfuegos embarks upon a radical project: to construct “the first cathedral for and by the meek.” But the strange, massive project is also seen as a hubristic shrine for “those with darkness in their hearts.” Told by a series of characters—poets, murderers, hustlers—this is an energetic, soaring novel of Gaudi-esque proportions. (Matt)

Fabulous by Lucy Hughes-Hallet: Hughes-Hallet has written several nonfiction works, including a biography (The Pike) of the priapic daredevil Italian poet Gabriele d’Annunzio. At age 65, Hughes-Hallet published her first novel, Peculiar Ground, which described an English estate in the 16th and 20th centuries; Publishers Weekly called the novel a “sprawling epic debut about an enclosed paradise.” Her second work of fiction is a collection of modern-day retellings of myths. In one, for example, an opera singer’s wife, Eurydice, suffers a fall and descends into a coma. Hughes-Hallet is an erudite chronicler well suited to reviving old tales. (Matt)

Heart of Junk by Luke Geddes: “There were antiques and then there were collectibles,” says Margaret, one of the more pedantic dealers of the Heart of America Antique Mall, the fertile comic setting for Geddes’s first novel. Geddes, who has written a short story collection, taxonomizes the stuff accumulated by a society as well as the peculiar souls for whom collecting that stuff constitutes a kind of religion. The struggling merchants hope that being featured on an American Pickers-like show will reverse their fortunes, if a scandal involving a kidnapped toddler doesn’t torpedo the mall first. (Matt)

Children of the Land by Marcelo Hernandez Castillo: A memoir from the prize-winning poet about crossing the border with his family and living as an undocumented person in the United States. Of the book, Sandra Cisneros writes, “This moving memoir is the document of a life without documents, of belonging to two countries yet belonging to neither. Hernandez Castillo has created his own papers fashioned from memory and poetry. His motherland is la madre tierra, his life a history lesson for our times.” (Lydia)

The Majesties by Tiffany Tsao: “Blood does run thick. Even if poison trumps all,” we read early on in Tsao’s The Majesties, whose narrator is the sole survivor when her sister poisons 300 people. (Shark-fin soup is the deadly delivery mechanism.) The sisters are scions of an Indonesian textile clan, one of the nation’s richest 50 families. Tsao, who has written two novels in a fantasy series and translated several books of Indonesian poetry and prose, explores the hidden motives behind the Borgia-fication of this hyper-wealthy family. (Matt)

Show Them a Good Time by Nicole Flattery: A collection of witty stories from the Irish writer. Kirkus writes, “Flattery’s prose-absurd, painfully funny, and bracingly original-slingshots the stories forward. These female characters never say what you’re expecting, and their insights are always incisive…Nervy, audacious stories in which women finally get to speak their minds.” (Lydia)

Small Days and Nights by Tishani Doshi: A woman leaves the United States and her failed marriage to return to Pondicherry, only to discover a relative she never knew she had. The novel documents the new life they start together. Gary Shteyngart writes, “Tishani Doshi brings all her skills as one of the world’s best poets to this lovely, beguiling, brilliant novel.” (Lydia)

The Baudelaire Fractal by Lisa Robertson: “Hard to explain but easy to enjoy” is one way to attempt to define poet-cum-novelist Robertson’s uncategorizable work (per Stephanie Burt). Robertson’s process is one of collecting, assembling, and collapsing sentences into extended forms, such as with her book-length poem, Cinema of the Present. Consider The Baudelaire Fractal, her first novel, an extension of this—in which poet Hazel Smith awakens to find she’s authored the complete works of Charles Baudelaire. According to Bookforum’s Jennifer Krasinski, part of the book’s delight is “wrestling with how exactly to apprehend and define this Escher-like interiority that Robertson and Hazel Brown cohabit—kind of—with him.” (Anne)

An Apartment on Uranus by Paul B. Preciado: In Testo Junkie, Preciado’s pivotal memoir/”body essay,” he wrote of his experiments with testosterone, its effects on body and mind, and in doing so described the reproductive and social control imposed by the pharmaceutical and porn industries during late capitalism. Preciado’s newly translated An Apartment on Uranus—with a forward by Virginie Despentes—could be considered its sequel. Within, Preciado recounts his transformation from Beatriz to Paul B., while attempting to define a third space beyond existing power, gender, and racial strictures: “My trans condition is a new form of uranism,” he declares. (Anne)

Creatures by Crissy Van Meter: A family story set on the coast of southern California, this debut garnered a starred review of Kirkus: “Some of the most heartbreaking moments in this novel are the most simply told, and there are scenes of beauty and magic and dry humor amid the chaos…A quietly captivating debut.” (Lydia)

A Map Is Only One Story, edited by Nicole Chung and Mensah Demary: An anthology of essays about migration and belonging, this collection includes work by writers like Nur Nasreen Ibrahim, Jennifer S. Cheng, Nadia Owusu, and Lauren Alwan. Publishers Weekly writes, “this collection is a vital corrective to discussions of global migration that fail to acknowledge the humanity of migrants themselves.” (Lydia)

Dear Edward by Ann Napolitano: One Story associate editor Napolitano’s Dear Edward opens with a commercial airline crash, and as Ron Charles in the Washington Post Book Review put it, “Don’t read this book on a plane. Or if you ever hope to fly again.” Hyperbolic, maybe, but the book follows Edward, the sole survivor and “world’s most famous orphan,” and in alternating chapters returns to the final minutes of the crash. Based on a real crash, that of Air France Flight 447, this book should keep readers on the edge of their seats. (Marie Myung-Ok Lee)

February

The Resisters by Gish Jen: In Jen’s dystopian future of America, AutoAmerica, people are divided into two different social classes: the Netted, who monopolize the access to technology and wealth and political rights, and the Surplus, who are forced to live on Basic Income and are denied any human rights. Gwen, the novel’s protagonist, receives an express ticket to rise from the Surplus that she was born into the Netted to which she aspires. But that promising future also means betraying from the people she loves. The Resisters is more serious than Jen’s previous works, which glisten with humor. But the probing and calibrated narrative that Jen deliberately chooses for the novel captures a comprehensive yet disturbing picture of how totalitarianism speeds back to the center stage of human history. (Jianan Qian)

Weather by Jenny Offill: Offill’s new novel, Weather, tells the story of Lizzie Benson, a librarian enlisted by famous podcaster Sylvia Liller to answer the mail she receives, from climate-change worriers on the left and rightwingers fearing the downfall of Western civilization. As Lizzie becomes increasingly doomsday-obsessed, she tries to save her troubled mother and brother, all the while managing the political chaos of Sylvia’s world. In a starred review, Kirkus says, “Weather is clever and seductive…the ‘weather’ of our days both real and metaphorical, is perfectly captured in Offill’s brief, elegant paragraphs, filled with insight and humor. Offill is good company for the end of the world.” (Adam P.)

Real Life by Brandon Taylor: Taylor has been a prolific member of the literary community via Electric Lit, LitHub, Kimbilio, Iowa Writers’ Workshop, et alia; Real Life is his debut novel. Bits of autobiography form the scaffolding of this story about a group of friends, a summer weekend in the midwest, and an introverted black man from Alabama working toward a Ph.D. in biochemistry. Writes Roxane Gay: “[Taylor] writes so powerfully about so many things—the perils of graduate education, blackness in a predominantly white setting, loneliness, desire, trauma, need. Wallace, the man at the center of this novel, is written with such nuance and tenderness and complexity.” (Sonya)

Apeirogon by Colum McCann: Drawing upon real-life details and experiences, McCann’s seventh novel examines how friendship and mutual understanding between Palestinian and Israeli fathers can be stitched around grief’s void. Ambitious in scope and kaleidoscopic in form, the novel at once explodes and atomizes one of the world’s most intractable conflicts. Its title is fitting: an apeirogon is a shape with an infinite number of sides and angles. (Nick M.)

Verge by Lidia Yuknavitch: In her new short story collection, Verge, Lidia Yuknavitch displays the same gift for exploring the borderland between art, sex, and trauma that readers have come to expect from the author of The Book of Joan and The Small Backs of Children. Whether it’s an 8-year-old transporting frozen organs through the streets of Eastern Europe, a child fighting off schoolyard bullies with invented religion, or a young janitor creating a miniature city from refuse, Yuknavitch turns her powers toward life on the margins in a collection Vogue describes as “brutal and beautiful,” and no less than Kelly Link calls “vertiginous and revelatory.” (Adam P.)

Indelicacy by Amina Cain: Inhabiting Cain’s novel Indelicacy “is a bit like standing in a painting, a masterful study of light and dark, inside and out, freedom and desire,” writes Danielle Dutton. I’d concur. As I wrote in my 2019 Year in Reading, I developed a kind of synesthesia when considering Cain’s writing, imagining Cain like Virginia Woolf’s Lily Briscoe standing before a canvas, painting her book with lush but controlled strokes, the painting itself airy, allowing ample room to move within. Needless to say—like its swift, keen title, Indelicacy is graceful and incisive. (Anne)

trans(re)lating house 1 by Poupeh Missaghi: This debut novel is set in the turbulent aftermath of Iran’s 2009 election, when a woman goes looking for the statues that are disappearing from Tehran’s public places. As she scours the city’s teahouses, galleries and hookah bars, her search leads her to actual victims of state violence. This blurring leads the narrator to note that in Persian “both ‘testimony’ and ‘martyrdom’ are expressed with one word.” Missaghi, a writer, translator, editor and teacher, uses a fragmented style, veering from journalism to magical realism, to tell a fragmented story that produces no answers, only questions: “Will the trauma ever stop being inherited? Will humans ever change?” (Bill)

The Lucky Star by William Vollmann: Vollmann takes us back to the San Francisco of his early fiction, to the haunts of those who will live and die on the city’s margins. The story centers on Neva, “a woman everybody loves,” who spends a lot of time at a certain bar in the city’s Tenderloin District. For all the contemporaneity in the telling, there is (as always) a certain moral quality to Vollmann’s work. In this one: there is no one on earth, no one, who would not benefit from a little more love and a lot less contempt. (Il’ja)

Little Constructions by Anna Burns: In 2018, Burns’s third book, Milkman, a novel about the Troubles that never mentions the Troubles, in which no one is named and everything is both familiar and out of a dream, won the Man Booker Prize. But before Milkman there was Little Constructions, the Northern Irish author’s second novel. Here everyone has not one name but several—Jesse Judges and JanineJuliaJoshuatine Doe, I mean—and a woman steals a Kalashnikov before terrorizing the town of Tiptoe Floorboard. There are gun shops and gun shop owners, calculated killers and victims caught in long cycles of violence, and throughout it all runs Burns’s surrealist prose and pitch black humor. (Kaulie)

Minor Feelings by Cathy Park Hong: As an acclaimed poet, Hong is constantly creating new language and interrogating existing narratives, particularly in Dance, Dance Revolution (Norton 2017), and here strikes out on a different vector with this memoir/essay collection that’s hard to define with its intimate looks at micro-moments, sweeping narrative arcs, and deep-dives into philosophy and cultural criticism. The title hints at the way Asian-American narratives have often been dismissed or marginalized in mainstream culture. Publishers Weekly calls it a “blistering essay collection.” (Marie Myung-Ok Lee)

Everywhere You Don’t Belong by Gabriel Bump: Claude McKay Love starts this fantastic debut with this: “‘If there’s one thing wrong with people,’ Paul always said, ‘it’s that no one remembers the shit that they should, and everyone remembers the shit that doesn’t matter for shit.'” And we’re off and running in this spirited novel of a kid just trying to be a kid and how difficult that is in our present moment. “An instant American classic for the post-Ferguson/Trump era,” writes Jeff Parker (Ovenman). Library Journal in a starred review says it’s laugh-out-loud funny and “delivers a singular sense of growing up black that will resonate with readers.” (Marie Myung-Ok Lee)

Apartment by Teddy Wayne: In his fourth novel, Wayne returns to the theme of male loneliness he explored in two earlier novels, Loner and The Love Song of Jonny Valentine. This time, his unnamed narrator, a young writer studying in the Columbia University MFA program in the 1990s, offers to let a fellow student stay for free in his rent-stabilized apartment, gaining a rare friend, and then, slowly, losing him. “Underneath the straightforward story, readers will find a careful meditation on class and power,” says an early review in Publishers Weekly. (Michael)

And I Do Not Forgive You by Amber Sparks: A rangy yarn-spinner, Sparks is capable of real surprise and real sentiment. There are ghosts here, and women who have been buried in history. In “Our Mutual (Theater) Friend,” a woman “explodes every now and then in the most embarrassing fashion, usually at children’s birthday parties,” waxing “about the vulgarity of modern pizza parlors, upstaging Elmo and Abby and Cookie Monster—not to mention the pirate-themed face painters.” In lists, fables, dreams, and nightmares, Sparks’s characters make noise. A whimsical collection in the tradition of Donald Barthelme, delivered with Sparks’s unique touch. (Nick R.)

The Cactus League by Emily Nemens: “Here’s the thing about baseball, and all else,” says the narrator in this novel’s first chapter, “everything changes.” Nemens delivers an engaging, eccentric cast of players, coaches, families, and others who inhabit the world of baseball—including a wise, witty, and somewhat omniscient sportswriter-narrator. From start to finish, Nemens captures the spirit of the game—both on the field and off, all meanings double-played: “Spring is a sensitive time for the ballplayers, working out the kinks of their winters, proving themselves into pitching rotations or fighting to keep themselves in starting lineups, competing against younger knees, quicker bats, unmarried men.” (Nick R.)

The Lost Book of Adana Moreau by Michael Zapata: If you’re a fan of the art-within-art genre, Zapata’s debut novel may be for you. There’s a lot going on here—a jam-packed elevator pitch if ever there was one: “The mesmerizing story of a Latin-American science fiction writer and the lives her lost manuscript unites decades later in post-Katrina New Orleans.” The eponymous science fiction writer was a Dominican immigrant, her novel is called Lost City, her son Maxwell is a theoretical physicist living in New Orleans, and Moreau’s manuscript is discovered by a Jewish immigrant in Chicago. Novelist Laura van den Berg writes: “A stunner—equal parts epic and intimate, thrilling and elegiac.” (Sonya)

Amnesty by Aravind Adiga: The Booker Prize-winning author’s new novel depicts the plight of an illegal immigrant and refugee in Australia. The protagonist, Danny (short for Dhananjaya), flees his native Sri Lanka for Sydney, where he takes up residence in a grocery stockroom and works as a cleaner to support himself. He gets by and saves up money, inching himself closer to a stable life. But then one of his clients is murdered, and Danny is forced to make a choice: stay silent and let the killer go free, or say what he knows and put himself at risk of deportation? (Thom)

I Know You Know Who I Am by Peter Kispert: Kispert’s debut story collection weaves through the lives of people whose deceptions have complicated their lives. In one piece, a man hires an actor to pretend to be his friend, in hopes of seeming less lonely and pathetic to a lover he’s worried will leave him. In another, a man’s lie that he’s an avid hunter makes his life difficult when he runs across a deer carcass. Another story features a theater producer who forces death row inmates to stage New Testament crucifixions. Throughout, the author tackles questions of identity and performance, as well as the difficulties of navigating a queer identity. (Thom)

March

The Night Watchman by Louise Erdrich: Celebrated novelist Erdrich, author of Love Medicine, The Plague of Doves, and The Round House, returns to the Chippewa Turtle Mountain Reservation in The Night Watchman. One of the most powerful voices in contemporary Native-American literature, Erdrich provides a fictionalization of her own uncle’s story, when he journeyed from North Dakota to Washington DC in 1953 to testify on a congressional hearing about the Termination Act, which would once again abrogate the United States’ treaties with a Native-American nation. The Night Watchmen, as with all of Erdrich’s writing, reminds us that Native-American culture is not hidden in history books and museums, but an identity that is current, or as she writes in The Plague of Doves, “History works itself out in the living.” (Ed S.)

The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel: The Millions’ own Mandel is back with The Glass Hotel, the long-awaited sequel to her much-beloved first novel, Station Eleven, a National Book Award finalist. Where Station Eleven explored a post-apocalyptic landscape ravaged by a super-plague, The Glass Hotel explores what Mandel calls “the kingdom of money,” locales as disparate as a South Carolina prison and a container ship in international waters, and the messily intertwined lives of half-siblings Vincent and Paul. In a starred review of The Glass Hotel, Publishers Weekly says, “This ingenious, enthralling novel probes the tenuous yet unbreakable bonds between people and the lasting effects of momentary carelessness.” (Adam P.)

Longing for an Absent God: Faith and Doubt in Great American Fiction by Nick Ripatrazone: The Millions’ own Ripatrazone has proven himself over the past decade to be one of our most adept critics at explicating the faith of poetry and the poetics of faith. Now in Longing for an Absent God: Faith and Doubt in Great American Fiction, Ripatrazone asks in what sense Roman Catholicism informs the writings of some of our most crucial writers, from Flannery O’Connor and Walker Percy, to more surprising authors like Toni Morrison (who converted) and Cormac McCarthy. For Ripatrazone, there is a fruitful tension between those who joined the Church, those who left it, and those who stayed. “Writers long for God,” Ripatrazone argues, “and their longing creates a beautiful and melancholy story.” (Ed S.)

Deacon King Kong by James McBride: The National Book Award-winning author of The Good Lord Bird and The Color of Water returns with a novel set in 1969 in Brooklyn, addressing a murder through the various members of a bustling neighborhood. In a starred review, Publishers Weekly says, “This generous, achingly funny novel will delight and move readers.” (Lydia)

The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel: THE FINAL VOLUME IS UPON US. Mantel dazzled readers with Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, and now she completes her stunningly good account of the life of Thomas Cromwell and the court of Henry VIII. One of the literary events of the young millennium. (Lydia)

New Waves by Kevin Nguyen: In this debut novel, friends Margo and Lucas’s plan to get revenge on the start-up where they work is upended when Margo dies in a car accident. Tommy Orange says it’s “a brilliant meditation on death and grief in the age of the Internet,” and in its starred review, Publishers Weekly hailed it as a “stellar debut,” calling it “a piercing assessment of young adulthood, the tech industry, and racism.” (Edan)

Actress by Anne Enright: The acclaimed Irish writer’s latest novel is a mother-daughter story about an aging theater actress, Katherine O’Dell, and her daughter Norah. For years, Norah admired her mother’s bohemian and unconventional path, but when Katherine commits a bizarre crime late in life, Norah has to reconsider her mother’s legacy and confront some long-buried secrets, including her father’s identity. Norah’s investigations into the past are combined with her own search for meaningful work and a life partner. (Hannah)

Lakewood by Megan Giddings: After Lena Johnson’s grandmother dies and her family falls on hard times, she drops out of college and applies to participate in a secretive research project. The pay is good, there’s health insurance, but something’s off. Lena, a black millennial, joins a pool of subjects who are all black, Indian, or Latinx; all the researchers are white. Experimental eye drops change brown eyes blue, subjects are given mysterious medication, and it soon becomes clear that Lena’s participation may require more sacrifices than she’s willing to make. Giddings’s debut novel, Lakewood takes a long and horrified look at the costs levied on people of color in the name of science. (Kaulie)

Fiebre Tropical by Juliana Delgado Lopera: This novel is the coming-of-age-while-coming-out story of 15-year-old Francisca, who is dragged against her will from Bogotá to Miami, where she is subjected to feverish religious services in a stinky room at the Hyatt, among other indignities of “Yanquiland.” But Francisca finds herself falling in love with the pastor’s daughter, and the novel becomes a layered portrait of exile, sexual awakening, and family bonds. As wise young Francisca puts it: “Women in my family possessed a sixth sense…from the close policing of our sadness: Your tristeza wasn’t yours, it was part of the larger collective female sadness to which we all contributed.” (Bill)

It’s Not All Downhill from Here by Terry McMillan: As its uplifting title implies, McMillan’s new novel is about women of a certain age refusing to see the late stage of life as a dreary slide toward death. At the center of a reunited group of high school classmates is 68-year-old Loretha Curry, head of a beauty-supply empire, whose world is turned upside down by an unexpected loss. “It’s about living in the here and now,” 68-year-old McMillan tells O magazine, “even being willing to fall in love and live happily ever after in these late chapters of our lives.” Like McMillan’s earlier hits, How Stella Got Her Groove Back and Waiting to Exhale, this novel looks destined for the bestseller lists. (Bill)

Recollections of My Nonexistence by Rebecca Solnit: The prolific cultural critic and author of Men Explain Things to Me returns with a memoir of her development as an artist as a young woman in San Francisco in the 1980s and the violence against women that undergirds American life. In a starred review, Kirkus calls the book “Absorbing…A perceptive, radiant portrait of a writer of indelible consequence.” (Lydia)

My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell: At 15, Vanessa Wye enters into an affair with Jacob Strane, her 42-year-old English teacher. Seventeen years later, Vanessa must reckon with their relationship when Jacob is accused of sexually abusing another student. Author Janet Fitch says: “It’s breathtakingly suspenseful, like downing a flaming drink without blowing it out.” Compulsive, complicated, and timely, Russell’s debut explores ideas of memory, trauma, abuse, and complicity. (Carolyn)

Later by Paul Lisicky: In his newest memoir, Lisicky explores his coming-of-age as a gay man living in Provincetown, Mass., in the early 1990s. As the AIDS epidemic rages on, Lisicky searches for love and community in the face of grief, illness, and uncertainty. About the radiant memoir, Rebecca Makkai writes: “Both telescopic and microscopic, this story challenges and illuminates—and, as only the best books do, leaves the reader fundamentally transformed.” (Carolyn)

Sharks in the Time of Saviors by Kawai Strong Washburn: The author was born and raised on the Hamakua coast of the Big Island and this is the novel that will help many of us realize we need to read more fiction from Hawai‘i. In 1995, 7-year-old Nainoa Flores falls over the side of a cruise ship, but is rescued by a shark—a divine favor. When fortunes turn, his family are forced to confront their bonds, the meaning of heritage, and the cost of survival. Marlon James calls it, “a ferocious debut.” (Claire)

Wow No Thank You by Samantha Irby: A collection of essays on life, love, and work by the piercingly funny and trenchant writer, to follow the best-selling We Are Never Meeting in Real Life. The new collection documents bad dates with new friends, weeks in Los Angeles taking meetings with “tv executives slash amateur astrologers,” while being a “cheese fry-eating slightly damp Midwest person,” “with neck pain and no cartilage in [her] knees,” who still hides past due bills under her pillow. Read Irby’s latest piece on settling down, for The Cut. (Lydia)

Trust Me by Richard Z. Santos: A thriller of political and familial intrigue set against the public relations campaign for a New Mexico airport by the NBCC board member. Tim O’Brien calls the book “a suspenseful and thoroughly enjoyable novel that explores the themes of betrayal, deceit, redemption, and cultural collision in modern-day New Mexico.” (Lydia)

August by Callan Wink: The author’s debut novel follows his 2016 short story collection, Dog, Run, Moon—a set so good that I hoped Wink could distract himself from fly-fishing long enough to range further and give us a novel. And now he has: this testament of the obstacles encountered by a Michigan boy battling his way toward manhood. Told with all the economy, clarity of character, and lively prose that mark Wink’s short stories, this is writing that would tell just as well around the campfire as it does on the page. (Il’ja)

Days of Distraction by Alexandra Chang: In what Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah has described as an “immaculate debut novel” and “a wholly engaging joy to read,” Chang follows a 24-year-old Asian-American woman as she leaves a prestigious tech reporting job in Silicon Valley to move with her boyfriend to upstate New York. The move, precipitated by her boyfriend’s entrance into graduate school, is more of an excuse than a reason. The narrator has been searching for a way out. But once there, she finds herself captivated by stories of Asian Americans in history, and forced to think more deeply than she ever has about her role in an interracial relationship. In this tender, funny coming-of-adulthood story, Chang asks what it means to live in a society that does not notice or understand you. (Jacqueline)

The City We Became by N.K. Jemisin: In a starred review, Kirkus called the latest novel from science fiction luminary Jemisin “fierce, poetic, uncompromising.” Set in Jemisin’s hometown of New York City, this work of speculative fiction features five New Yorkers who must come together to defend their city against the Enemy, which Jemisin described, in an interview with EW, as “a dangerous otherwordly tourist…trying to supernaturally gentrify the city to death.” Toilet stalls attack, backyard pools become portals, and FDR traffic “becomes a literal, tentacled killer.” So, your standard work of social realism. I can’t wait for this one. (Jacqueline)

So We Can Glow by Leesa Cross-Smith: Forty-two stories, some short, some not, some in email and one in the form of a recipe, make up Cross-Smith’s So We Can Glow. Different as they are, all the stories focus on the strange hearts of women and girls—brave and broken, longing and loving—and weave together to create this structurally playful and lyrically rich second collection. (Kaulie)


You Will Never Be Forgotten by Mary South: A collection of razor-sharp stories on technology, pathology, and humanity from a hugely talented writer. (Lydia)

Barn 8 by Deb Olin Unferth: The author’s sixth book has a nigh-unforgettable premise: Two auditors for the American egg industry hatch an improbable plot to steal a thousand chickens from a farm in the dead of night. They assemble a team, gather their supplies, and head to the farm in question, where (predictably) a chain of disasters ensues. The author employs a wide range of voices—including, at one point, a chicken explaining what she thinks will happen when she dies—to furnish a heist story that’s unlike anything else. (Thom)

We Ride upon Sticks by Quan Barry: From the author of the acclaimed novel She Weeps Each Time You’re Born, We Ride upon Sticks is a wickedly funny and moving story that is set in the 1980s in Danvers, Mass., where the 1692 witch trials took place. The novel focuses on members of the Danvers High School girls’ field hockey team who will do anything to win—even witchcraft. A Kirkus starred review says “readers will cheer them on because what they’re really doing is learning to be fully and authentically themselves.” Maris Kreizman says the novel is “A perfect blend of aesthetic and narrative pleasure…It’s very funny and a little angry and a lot of fun.” (Zoë)

Sansei and Sensibility by Karen Tei Yamashita: Yamashita blends Jane Austen’s characters with stories of Japanese Americans in this dynamic collection. In merging these characters, she reconsiders canonical works, questions cultural inheritance, and experiments with genre and form. Julie Otsuka says “whether she is riffing on Jane Austen, channeling Jorge Luis Borges, or meditating on Marie Kondo, Yamashita is a brilliant and often subversive storyteller in superb command of her craft.” (Zoë)

Then the Fish Swallowed Him by Amir Ahmadi Arian: Arian’s first English novel follows Iranian bus driver Yunus Turabi who leads a simple life until he’s arrested during a strike. Kirkus’s starred review says calls the novel “a distressing, smartly interior tale of the horrors sown by oppressive politics.” (Carolyn)

Separation Anxiety by Laura Zigman: Zigman (Piece of Work) chronicles the downward spiral of a once-successful children’s book author whose life in midlife starts to erode—and so she does what? Inexplicably starts wearing the family dog in a BabyBjörn. Kirkus calls it “adept at Where’d You Go Bernadette–style snarkery.” (Marie Myung-Ok Lee)

Deceit and Other Possibilities by Vanessa Hua: Following the success of Hua’s wonderful novel A River of Stars, Counterpoint is reissuing her debut collection of stories with new, never-published work. (Lydia)

Ordinary Insanity by Sarah Menkedick: A work of nonfiction and reportage on the crisis of maternal anxiety that is still treated as a taboo in American society. (Lydia)

I Don’t Want to Die Poor by Michael Arceneaux: A new collection of essays by the New York Times-bestselling author of I Can’t Date Jesus. In his new collection, Arceneaux explores how debt and a fear of personal economic collapse affect his decisions from dating to seeking medical care. (Lydia)

April

How Much of These Hills Is Gold by C Pam Zhang: Zhang’s debut novel is a smart, beautiful, and intimate legend, not only of an immigrant family, but also of an expanding empire. One day, a pair of teenage siblings wake up to the sudden death of their father, a former prospector and coal miner. In the afterglow of the American gold rush, the two girls find themselves orphaned and vulnerable, and their very existence as immigrants is denied by this seemingly promising land. Carrying a stolen horse, their father’s body, and a pistol, they set off on their journey to give their father a proper burial. In their adventure, they witness the extermination of giant buffalos, encounter the ghosts of ruined nature, and discover family memories. How Much of These Hills Is Gold ambitiously examines the nation’s long neglected racialized past and, more importantly, brings those individuals to life again on the page, with their desire and anger, longing and frustration. (Jianan Qian)

Notes from an Apocalypse by Mark O’Connell: With his Wellcome-Prize winning To Be a Machine, The Millions’ own Mark O’Connell established himself as a poet laureate of human frailty, quixoticism, and creativity as they manifest in the technologic age. Now, O’Connell travels across the world to tour bunkers and silos and interview all manner of people who are living as though the end of the world is upon us. Kirkus called it “A contribution to the doom-and-gloom genre that might actually cheer you up.” Long-time McConnell fans know it will be gloriously funny, incredibly alarming, empathetic, insightful, and beautifully written. (Lydia)

Mothers Before​ by ​Edan Lepucki, ed.​: Who was your mother before she became a mother? Lepucki, the New York Times-bestselling novelist of California and Woman No. 17 and indispensable contributing editor at The Millions, asks this question. She and her contributors offer answers in more than 60 essays and photographs, including work by Brit Bennett, Jennifer Egan, Jia Tolentino, Lisa See, and many others. The book builds on the popular Instagram account @mothersbefore. (Claire)

Perfect Tunes by Emily Gould: In her second novel, Gould tells the story of Laura, who comes to New York City in the early 2000s, fresh from Columbus, Ohio, with big plans to record an album and live out her dreams. Things don’t go as planned: Love (or lust) gets in the way. In this “sharply observant” (Publishers Weekly) novel by the author of Friendship, we get not only a bygone New York, but also: music, sex, motherhood, and ambition. Stephanie Danler says it’s an “intoxicating blend of music, love, and family from one of the essential writers of the internet generation.” P.S. there’s a great description of a penis. (Edan)

The House of Deep Water by Jeni McFarland: River Bend, Mich., is a small town much like any other, except that it’s the hometown the three women at the core of McFarland’s debut novel couldn’t wait to leave. Years later, Linda, Paula, and Beth reluctantly return and soon find themselves living together at Beth’s father’s house. A May-December relationship, the arrest of one woman’s abuser, a confrontation over the town’s quiet racism, and all a small town’s secrets and scandals confront the women, who find it difficult to keep as quiet as they used to do. Recommended for readers who loved Tayari Jones’s An American Marriage or Brit Bennett’s The Mothers. (Kaulie)

Passage West by Rishi Reddi: It’s 1913 in California and Ram Singh has just arrived, anxious to make his fortune so he can return to his wife and infant son in India. He takes work on a friend’s cantaloupe farm, forcing fruit out of the desert of the Imperial Valley, while many others from the world over work farms up and down the valley. But anti-immigrant sentiment is growing in both support and violence, and a rift between friends threatens to finally uproot everything Singh has built. (Kaulie)

The Dominant Animal by Kathryn Scanlan: If there were an ancestry of influences in writing, Scanlan’s would be charted as the love child of (Gary) Lutz and (Diane) Williams. She shares their linguistic obsessions, including an “outrageous attention to sound and structure that approaches the devotional.” Scanlan’s first book was the unexpected and heralded Aug 9—Fog, which she developed from a found text, a journal written by an elderly woman, which Scanlan then edited and rearranged into its current state. Of her forthcoming book of short stories, The Dominant Animal, Gary Lutz says, “Kathryn Scanlan comes to us as an oracle when we have never before been so desperately in need.” (Anne)

Godshot by Chelsea Bieker: Bieker’s debut novel, Godshot, takes her readers to the fertile fields of California, where divinities are seemingly as much of a bumper crop as avocados, except for adolescent Lacey May there’s lots of the former and little of the later (or any other crop for that matter). The California of Godshot is in the midst of a brutal drought, and for the cult that Lacey May lives with, the faith of the indoctrinated turns towards their leader Pastor Vern who claims that he can once again make the rain come. What Lacey May brutally learns are the depths to which men can sink, the pain that they’re willing to inflict on women, and the promise of solidarity that can be approached as she goes on a road trip to find her exiled mother. A gothic phantasmagoria, Bieker’s book explores the ways in which cultish devotion in times of ecological catastrophe can seemingly push groups of people towards a social apocalypse—a novel eerily pertinent in 2020. (Ed S.)

The Moment of Tenderness by Madeleine L’Engle: Few fantasy writers had as indelible an influence on a certain tribe of bookish, introverted, curious children during the 20th century as the great L’Engle. Her classic A Wrinkle in Time, and the series of books that she wrote about the Wallace siblings and their journeys through time and space, remain not just classics of children’s literature, but an indelible exploration of authoritarianism as well. Now, like one of her characters who are able to transcend the fourth dimension, a collection of previously unpublished work written between her time in college and the publication from her first novel is being posthumously published as The Moment of Tenderness after its rediscovery by her granddaughter. Some stories are clear drafts of later writing, and others are completely original, but for fans of L’Engle, they allow us a window into her process of writing fantasy, which she called the “one and only language in the world that cuts across all barriers of time, place, race, and culture.” (Ed S.)

What Is Grass by Mark Doty: In the visionary 1855 poem “Song of Myself” from Walt Whitman’s prophetic collection Leaves of Grass, the good, grey poet imagines a child approaching the narrator of the verse (a variable “I” often conflated with the author) and asking “What is the Grass?” That line has been borrowed for the title of poet Mark Doty’s new reflection What Is Grass: Walt Whitman in My Life. Whitman is simultaneously the most singular and the most universal of poets, the most subjective and most objective, both “Walt” and a very “Kosmos.” It’s been said that no American poet can entirely ignore Whitman, and Doty is a reverential penitent before the greatest American poet, giving an account of how his own subjective experience intersects with that of the singer of “Song of Myself.” Both men are lovers of men; both men are New Yorkers; both men are poets. What Doty most shares with Whitman, however, is a heretic’s faith in language, both its promise and its failures. As Doty wrote of “he who’d written his book over and over, nearly ruining it, /so enchanted by what had first compelled him/ – for him the word settled nothing at all.” (Ed S.)

Breasts and Eggs by Mieko Kawakami: Haruki Murakami has called Kawakami his favorite new writer—which was enough to pique my interest! Translated from Japanese by Sam Bett and David Boyd, this two-part novel tells the story of two sisters, one unmarried and childless, the other married with a daughter. In the first part of the book, the daughter is 12 and nervous about growing up; meanwhile her mother is looking into breast enhancement surgery. The second part of the novel takes place 10 years later, when the younger sister is contemplating artificial insemination. (Hannah)

Death in Her Hands by Ottessa Moshfegh: When it comes to evoking the jagged edge of contemporary anxiety there might not be a more insightful writer working today than Moshfegh. That is, if the boundless dark potential of the human psyche is your thing. If it’s not, this atmospheric, darkly comic tale of a pathologically lonely widow and the thrills lurking in her sylvan retreat might not be for you. But, sophisticated reader that you are, you’re not afraid of the dark. Right? (Il’ja)

How to Pronounce Knife by Souvankham Thammavongsa: In poet Thammavongsa’s fiction debut, Lao immigrants and refugees write letters, experience new desires, and struggle to build lives in unfamiliar territory. Described by Publishers Weekly as “sharp and elegant,” the collection is a visceral and tender exploration of what it means to make a living. David Chariandy calls How to Pronounce Knife “a book of rarest beauty and power…one of the great story collections of our time.” (Jacqueline)

Life for Sale by Yukio Mishima: After a failed suicide attempt, salaryman Hanio Yamada places an ad in a Tokyo newspaper offering to sell his life. Soon, he is contacted by a few interested buyers: an old man who wants to punish his adulterous wife, a librarian looking for a guinea pig for a drug testing, and a son in need of a volunteer for his vampiric mother. Different from Mishima’s other works, Life for Sale is a wildly funny pulp fiction. The novel grapples with the grave topic of humanity’s instincts for self-preservation and self-destruction, but you’ll find yourself laughing through instead of agonizing over it. (Jianan Qian)

The Knockout Queen by Rufi Thorpe: The third novel from Thorpe, The Knockout Queen follows Bunny Lambert, a beautiful, desperate 6’3″ blonde, and Michael, the boy next door who’s trying to understand his sexuality, as they become strange friends. All too soon, though, that friendship is marked by a dangerous mix of first love, brutal gossip, and violence. Our own Edan Lepucki says Thorpe’s “one-of-a-kind narrator is funny, vulnerable, brilliant, and brimming with longing, and the story he tells distills the pain and beauty of a life-changing friendship like nothing else I’ve read before. This book’s got guts and heart, and wisdom for days.” (Kaulie)

A Luminous Republic by Andres Barba (translated by Lisa Dillman): In his Year in Reading, Omar El Akkad wrote called this “The book I’ve thought about the most this year.” In this novel by the Spanish writer, 32 seemingly feral children arrive unannounced in an Argentine town. Edmund White, in his introduction, called it “One of the best books I’ve ever read.” (Lydia)

Kept Animals by Kate Milliken: Milliken, who won the Iowa Short Fiction Award for her collection If I’d Known You Were Coming, explores the fissures that undergird a ranch, a stable, and a community in Topanga Canyon, Calif., just before a catastrophic fire. With themes of class, race, migration, work, land, and ownership, this is a beautifully written novel. (Lydia)

Take Me Apart by Sara Sligar: It’s rare to find a gripping archival mystery, which is unfortunate because archival mysteries are some of the best ones. In this novel of the gorgeous California coast, Sligar invents a troubled, tragic artist whose fate is pieced together through the clues in her archive, which a young journalist at loose ends is hired to put in order. A literary thriller that is also an exploration of art, women’s ambition, violence, and mental health. (Lydia)

The Only Good Indians by Stephen Graham Jones: A horror story about four men from the Blackfeet Nation who are being hunted for something they did in the past. Paul Tremblay calls this novel “a masterpiece. Intimate, devastating, brutal, terrifying, yet warm and heartbreaking in the best way, Stephen Graham Jones has written a horror novel about injustice and, ultimately, about hope. Not a false, sentimental hope, but the real one, the one that some of us survive and keeps the rest of us going.”” (Lydia)

The Beauty of Your Face by Sahar Mustafah: A novel that explores the aftermath of a school shooting told from the perspective of a Palestinian-American girl living in Chicago. Rebecca Makkai calls this “a striking and stirring debut, one that reaches its hands straight into the fire. Sahar Mustafah writes with wisdom and grace about the unthinkable, the unspeakable, and the unspoken.” (Lydia)

St. Ivo by Joanna Hershon: Hershon’s last novel, A Dual Inheritance, published seven years ago, was a riveting intergenerational saga covering decades in the lives of two families. In St. Ivo, Hershon narrows the aperture to focus on two couples over the course of a long weekend spent together upstate. “Hershon explores with moving simplicity the complexities friendships and a marriage that has frayed but not yet died,” says Publishers Weekly in an early review. (Michael)

Love after Love by Ingrid Persaud: Trinidad-born Persaud hit the scene with a splash in 2017-2018 when she won both the Commonwealth Short Story Prize and BBC National Story Award. Love after Love, her second novel, is a story of complicated, messy families and uncovered secrets, set primarily in Trinidad and New York City. André Aciman describes the novel as “Restless, heartbreaking, and intensely spellbinding.” (Sonya)

American Harvest by Marie Mutsuki Mockett: Novelist Mockett turns to nonfiction with this terribly relevant memoir about the time she spent with the conservative evangelicals who work the harvest on her paternal family’s 7,000-acre Nebraska wheat farm. Mockett, who grew up in northern California with her Japanese mother and a Nebraskan father who put the Midwest and farming behind him, gives herself over for a time to a way of life and ingrained beliefs that others in her milieu might never know from the inside out. Writes Susan Cheever: “Mockett’s account of the harvest is riveting, and the way she navigates her own plural identity as she travels with the combines is brilliant.” Fans of Kathleen Norris’s Dakota may especially want to check this one out. (Sonya)

Afterlife by Julia Alvarez: The bestselling author of In the Time of the Butterflies and How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents returns with a novel focused on Antonia Vega, a recently retired English professor and writer whose husband unexpectedly dies and whose sister disappears. Soon after these losses, an undocumented and pregnant teen arrives at her door. Luis Alberto Urrea says that Afterlife is “the exact novel we need in this fraught era. A powerful testament of witness and written with audacity and authority.” (Zoë)

Man of My Time by Dalia Sofer: An Iranian man who has spent his life as a government interrogator travels to New York on a diplomatic mission and agrees to fulfill his deceased father’s wish of being buried in Iran, carrying his ashes back and reflecting on his own life on the way. (Lydia)

If I Had Your Face by Frances Cha: A story of four women in Seoul and the way that economic and social realities determine the paths available to them. Helen Oyeyemi writes, “Each voice in this quartet cuts through the pages so cleanly and clearly that the overall effect is one of dangerously glittering harmony. The tale told here is as engrossing as a war chant, or a mosaic formed with blades, every piece a memento sharpened on those unyielding barriers between us and our ideal lives.” (Lydia)

Pets: An Anthology, edited by Jordan Castro: Forget eyes as the window to the soul: It’s really one’s pets who animate one’s intimate desires and projections. Case in point: Both my brother and partner’s brother recently have been transformed into baby-talking, cat-and-dog toting men (respectively) because of their fierce attachments. Pets: An Anthology, edited by Jordan Castro, is a collection of original writing and art by fiction writers, poets, and academics, including Christine Schutt, Blake Butler, Scott McLanahan, Patty Yumi Cottrell, and Sarah Manguso. The menagerie accounted for includes a killer chihuahua, a catatonic toy poodle, and a backyard full of endangered desert tortoises. (Anne)

The Immortals of Tehran by Ali Araghi: A story of tales told through generations, and the odd twists and turns of a man’s life, culminating in the Iranian Revolution. (Lydia)

May

Pew by Catherine Lacey: To some degree all of Lacey’s fiction focuses on ontology and states of being, conveying the intimacy of relationships, as well as their built-in claustrophobia and desire to flee. Lacey has a way of articulating this in a way that’s both beautiful and delightfully jarring. It seems this counterbalance of delightful and jarring will also hold true in her third novel, Pew (what a name, even), which depicts the itinerancy of a person shuffled between homes during a Forgiveness Festival, and who is nicknamed such for having been found sleeping in a church pew. (Anne)

Little Eyes by Samanta Schweblin: Schweblin’s Little Eyes is her second novel to be translated into English (her first was the frenzied Fever Dream). In Spanish the novel’s title is Kentukis, which is also the name for the cutesy device, described as a “creepier Furby,” that acts as a portal between lives of the owner and the person who has purchased essentially a voyeur’s right to its camera feed. Embedded within this novel of international interconnectivity are questions of the exhibitionism and voyeurism tied up in our use of technology. Expect echoes of the Wachowskis’ Sense8, except told with what has been characterized as Schweblin’s “neurotic unease.” (Anne)

Brown Album by Porochista Khakpour: A collection of linked essays reflecting on Khakpour’s experience growing up in a family who fled Iran for Los Angeles and finding her way through intersecting communities during the rise of Islamophobia and xenophobia in the United States. (Lydia)

Strange Hotel by Eimear McBride: A woman walks into a hotel room. Then another, and another. Hotels in Austin, Avignon, Auckland, others, and each room reflects back something of herself. Sometimes she meets a man, sometimes she fights with her memories, and sometimes she thinks about what it would mean to go home. An avid McBride fan ever since A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing, I eagerly await the arrival of what’s sure to be a darkly brilliant work. (Kaulie)

These Ghosts Are Family by Maisy Card: A family story that travels from Jamaica to Harlem unveiling its secrets along the way. Victor LaValle says of the novel, “This book is painful and shocking but it can be funny as hell, too. What a talented writer. Maisy Card has written one of the best debut novels I’ve read in many years.” (Lydia)

Drifts by Kate Zambreno: Drifts is Zambreno’s first novel since Green Girl, and is first in a series that continues to explore and reify her obsessions with artistic ambition and the possibilities and failures of literature. Her narrator spends long days alone, corresponding with writers, and taking photos of residents and strays in her neighborhood alike—with nods to the likes of Rilke, Dürer, and Chantal Ackerman, among others. “Zambreno’s books have a way of getting under your skin,” writes Paris Review staffer Rhian Sasseen, as does “her willingness to write ugly, to approach the banal and the cliché as just another tool and subvert it into works of rage and oftentimes real beauty.” (Anne)

The Narcissism of Small Differences by Michael Zadoorian: Set in his native Detroit in the grim year of 2009, Zadoorian’s new novel, The Narcissism of Small Differences, is a comedy of the compromises Joe Keen, a failed fiction writer, and Ana Urbanek, an advertising copy writer, have made over the course of their long relationship. Their compromises come in many flavors—financial, moral, professional—and as these two creative types near their dreaded 40s, they’re forced to confront the people they have become because of those compromises. Like Zadoorian’s earlier novels—The Lost Tiki Palaces of Detroit, The Leisure Seeker and Beautiful Music—this new novel brims with wit, passion and soul. (Bill)

The Book of V.​ by ​Anna Solomon: This novel intertwines the lives of three women across centuries: Lily, a mother in Brooklyn in 2016 who is grappling with her sexual and intellectual desires; Vivian, a political wife in Watergate-era Washington, D.C., who refuses to obey her ambitious husband; and Esther, an independent young woman in ancient Persia who is offered up as a sacrifice to please the king. Solomon, the author of Leaving Lucy Pear and The Little Bride, explores how things have both changed and stayed the same. Mary Beth Keane says it’s “searingly inventive, humane, and honest.” (Claire)

Death of Jesus by J.M. Coetzee: The capstone of Coetzee’s Jesus Trilogy, this latest novel returns to the life of the boy David, the protagonist of the first two books in the series. But this time it’s David—in perhaps the story’s sole clear analogy to the life of Christ—dying too young. And was his life, stripped of every cursory marker of identity, worth anything? Is everything, as the sages have told us, meaningless? Coetzee, via David, leaves us with better template by which to ask—if never answer—these questions. (Il’ja)

All Adults Here​ by ​Emma Straub​: I keep hearing online chatter that this is Straub’s best novel yet. When Astrid Strick witnesses an accident, a suppressed memory causes her to question the legacy of her parenting to her now-grown children. Elizabeth Strout says it’s, “totally engaging and smart book about the absolutely marvelous messiness of what makes up family.” Ann Patchett says it’s “brimming with kindness, forgiveness, humor.” Straub is a New York Times-bestselling author and co-owner of the vibrant Brooklyn bookstore Books Are Magic. (Claire)

Sorry for Your Trouble by Richard Ford: Pulitzer-Prize winner Ford’s latest is a short story collection that explores themes of love and loss, taking readers to his native Mississippi, as well as New Orleans and Canada. The volume includes a novella, The Run of Yourself, which depicts a New Orleans widower learning to cope without his Irish wife. (Hannah)

A Children’s Bible by Lydia Millet: A new novel from the Pulitzer Prize finalist, this one takes place at a family vacation, where 12 children break off from their parents’ revelries and find themselves in apocalyptic circumstances. Karen Russell calls Millet “A writer without limits.” (Lydia)

Good Morning, Destroyer of Men’s Souls by Nina Renata Aron: A memoir on love and addiction in the early days of motherhood. (Lydia)

Shiner by Amy Jo Burns: Burns’s memoir, Cinderland, powerfully evoked the post-industrial ruins, both physical and psychic, of her childhood home in Mercury, Penn. In Shiner, she returns with a book similarly rooted in geography, the story of 15-year-old Wren Bird, who lives in isolation on a West Virginia mountain with her mother and father, an itinerant preacher and snake-handler. When tragedy strikes at one of her father’s sermons, Wren is forced to discover the truth about her family and imagine a life outside of her cloistered West Virginia existence. The Millions’ own Lydia Kiesling, author of The Golden State, calls Shiner “a lush, gripping novel that explores love, grief, rage, and regeneration in a small Appalachian community,” and says, “I won’t forget the haunting mood, place, and characters that Burns brings to life.” (Adam P.)


Beauty by Christina Chiu: Amy Wong is an up-and-coming designer in New York, navigating a largely chauvinistic and cutthroat world and trying to see just where her ambition takes her. Novelist Michael Cunningham calls it “beautiful in the way of a scalpel blade.” (Marie Myung-Ok Lee)

Quotients by Tracy O’Neill: National Book Foundation 5 Under 35 honoree O’Neill’s (The Hopeful) sophomore effort follows a young couple attempting to make a seemingly conventional home together—but this story turns into a heady brew of fractured identities, aliases, big data, and what it means to live in this age of terrorism and global surveillance. Fiona Maazel (A Little More Human) describes it as “a love story rendered in galloping prose that takes you all over the map.” Looking forward to this timely and intriguing work. (Marie Myung-Ok Lee)

Thirty Names of Night by Zeyn Joukhadar: By the author of The Map of Salt and Stars, a novel about three generations of Syrians linked by a particular species of bird. R.O. Kwon says of the book, “Zeyn Joukhadar’s new book is a vivid exploration of loss, art, queer and trans communities, and the persistence of history. Often tender, always engrossing, The Thirty Names of Night is a feat.” (Lydia)

Index of Self-Destructive Acts by Chris Beha: Beha’s novel begins in 2009, with two prophets: a street preacher who promises an apocalyptic “Great Unveiling,” and Sam Waxworth, a religious skeptic and software engineer whose “political projection system” predicted every result of the 2008 election. Now a writer, Waxworth has been assigned a piece on Frank Doyle, a legendary, infamous commentator of baseball and politics. The assignment turns out to be more than Waxworth expected, widening and revealing his own faults. Beha’s earlier work has been rightfully compared to the work of Graham Greene, and in this new novel Beha does what only Greene and a handful of other novelists have been able to accomplish: make God, belief, and doubt the stuff of serious fiction—even down to the probing dialogue of his characters. (Nick R.)

Life Events by Karolina Waclawiak: Evelyn is in her late 30s struggling with an existential crisis, driving Californian freeways and avoiding her maybe soon-to-be ex-husband. As the novel unfolds, she decides to work with terminally ill patients, and the work allows her to grapple with her grief and pushes her to confront her past. Lydia Kiesling says, “Life Events is a hypnotic novel that beautifully grapples with fundamental questions about how to die and how to live. Karolina Waclawiak transports the reader into the streets of Los Angeles, the deserts of the southwest, the apartments of the dying, and a woman’s life at a moment of profound change.” (Zoë)

This Is One Way to Dance by Sejal Shah: A collection of linked essays explores her experience of Americanness as the child of Gujarati immigrants in western New York and elsewhere. Kiran Desai says of the book, “While this memoir is frequently heartbreaking, it also dazzles with incandescent humor. One of the most nuanced, wise, and tender portraits of immigration I have ever read.” (Lydia)

Book of the Little Axe by Lauren Francis-Sharma: Francis-Sharma’s prose shines in this epic and propulsive historical novel that is set in Trinidad and the American West, and follows the life of Rosa Rendón, who is talented, bright, and fierce. Laila Lalami writes that the novel “recreates the hybrid history of Native and African peoples during the era of American exploration and expansion,” and Peter Ho Davies says that it “adds (or better say restores) another strand to our national narrative. We’re all the richer for Book of the Little Axe.” (Zoë)

Conditional Citizens by Laila Lalami: A personal account of her own immigration story and a probing assessment of how nationality is conceived of in America by the author of The Other Americans and The Moor’s Account. Viet Thanh Nguyen says of the book “Laila Lalami has given us a clear-eyed, even-handed assessment of this country’s potential—and its limits—through her insightful notion of conditional citizenship. Her book is a gift to all Americans—if they are willing to receive it.” (Lydia)

A Registry of My Passage upon the Earth by Daniel Mason: From the author of The Winter Soldier and The Piano Tuner, a collection of stories that go from Regency England to the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro. (Lydia)

All My Mother’s Lovers by Ilana Masad: Critic and fiction writer Masad’s debut novel follows 27-year-old Maggie Krause, whose mother has just died in a car crash. On her return home, Maggie finds five sealed envelopes from her mother, each addressed to a man Maggie doesn’t know. Maggie sets out on a road trip to discover the truth about her mother’s hidden life, and her own difficulties with intimacy. Described by Kristen Arnett as a “queer tour de force.” (Jacqueline)


F*ckface: And Other Stories by Leah Hampton: A debut collection of stories taking place in post-coal Appalachia, featuring dead humans, dead honeybees, told with humor and heart. Rachel Heng writes, “These stories take you apart slowly, piece by piece, and by the time you realize what’s happening, it’s already too late. The stories are in your blood now. They live in you, with all their strangeness and decay, isolation and comfort, hellscapes and moments of grace.” (Lydia)

Starling Days by Rowan Hisayo Buchanan: Following her acclaimed debut Harmless Like You, Buchanan’s second novel follows Mina and Oscar, a married couple who relocate to London after a foiled tragedy. Suffering from mental health issues, Mina finds comfort—and something more— in a woman named Phoebe. (Carolyn)

Latitudes of Longing by Shubangi Shwarup: Longlisted for the International Dublin Literary Award 2020, this novel brings together characters as disparate as a geologist and a yeti. Nilanjana S. Roy writes, “Astonishing and completely original, Shubhangi Swarup’s magical novel will change the way you see people—and landscapes, forests, the oceans, snow deserts. She stirs your curiosity about the earth, takes you from sadness and heartbreak to rich, unexpected surprises, and finds hope in the cracks of broken lives.” (Lydia)

My Mother’s House by Francesca Momplaisir: A Haitian family who settles in New York and falls on hard times has the house itself to contend with in this literary thriller that Carolina De Robertis says “is poised to blow the roof off.” (Lydia)

Fairest by Meredith Talusan: A memoir about migration, transition, difference, and growing up by an award-winning journalist and editor of them. Garrard Conley calls this “a truly brilliant memoir with sparkling sentences, navigating incredibly complex questions of privilege with ease and candor.” (Lydia)

June

The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett: I loved The Mothers, Bennett’s bestselling first novel, so I can’t wait for her second, about identical twin sisters who run away from their small Southern town at age 16. Ten years later, one of the sisters is passing as white, and not even her white husband knows the truth. The book moves back and forth in time, from the 1950s to the 1990s, and, according to the jacket copy, “considers the lasting influence of the past as it shapes a person’s decisions, desires, and expectations.” (Edan)

The Lying Life of Adults by Elena Ferrante (translated by Ann Goldstein): A long-awaited novel from elusive genius Ferrante, another work set in Naples. According to Il Libraio, “As you read, a vast panorama of characters slowly unfolds…a diverse and dynamic tableau of humanity. Once again, Elena Ferrante has not created a mere story but an entire world.” (Lydia)

How Beautiful We Were by Imbolo Mbue: By the author of Behold the Dreamers, Mbue’s new novel describes the struggle of a fictional village in Africa to combat a rapacious American oil company. Sigrid Nunez says “Mbue has given us a book with the richness and power of a great contemporary fable, and a heroine for our time.” (Lydia)

I Hold a Wolf by the Ears by Laura van den Berg: You might be tempted to race through all 11 stories in Van Den Berg’s new collection, her first since Isle of Youth in 2013. This would be unwise, because haste and haunting are incompatible, and you really need to live with these ghosts, to slow your eyes over their uncanny weirdness until you’re both unsettled and seen—the hallmark quality of van den Berg’s writing. (Nick M.)

Utopia Avenue by David Mitchell: A new novel from the literary superstar follows the career of a fictional British psychedelic rock band. Mitchell described the book in the Guardian: “Songs (mostly) use language, but music plugs directly into something below or above language. Can a novel made of words (and not fitted with built-in speakers or Bluetooth) explore the wordless mysteries of music, and music’s impact on people and the world? How?” Mitchell asked. “Is it possible to dance about architecture after all? Utopia Avenue is my rather hefty stab at an answer.” (Lydia)

A Burning by Megha Majumdar: The hotly anticipated debut novel from the editor of Catapult, A Burning takes place in contemporary India and follows three characters from different circumstances as they are thrown together after a bombing. Colum McCann says “This is a novel of now: a beautifully constructed literary thriller from a rare and powerful new voice.” (Lydia)

The Last Great Road Bum by Héctor Tobar: In the 1960s, Joe Sanderson left the Midwest to globe-trot and live a life worth writing about. By 1979, he had joined a leftist band of guerrilla fighters in El Salvador, fighting against the U.S.-backed military junta. Not long after, Sanderson was dead, becoming one of only two known Americans to have fought and died for this cause. In the late aughts, Tobar acquired a trove of Sanderson’s writings, and has since used them as an outline for this fictionalized account of Sanderson’s life—which turned out to be worth writing about, after all. (Nick M.)

Parakeet by Marie-Helene Bertino: The week of her wedding, a woman known only as The Bride is visited by the spirit of her dead grandmother, who appears in the form of a parakeet. Her grandmother tells her: Don’t get married. Seek out your brother. As the novel follows The Bride in the increasingly hectic few days between this encounter and her wedding, Bertino tells a complex story about family, responsibility and the need to become our best selves. (Thom)

Imperfect Women by Araminta Hall: From the author of Our Kind of Cruelty, a book the Washington Post called “strange, sexy,” comes a new mystery about death, grief, and secrets. The book opens with the murder of Nancy Hennessy, a woman whose life looks perfect from the outside (money, loving family, etc.). But wait! This may surprise you, but Nancy’s life is not perfect. When the investigators fail to come up with answers, Nancy’s two best friends must take it upon themselves to learn what really happened to her. Out come secrets galore, plus a nuanced depiction of complex female friendships. For fans of Patricia Highsmith and Paula Hawkins. (Jacqueline)

Pizza Girl by Jean Kyoun Frazier: A kind of sibling/cousin to Convenience Store Woman, Frazier’s Pizza Girl follows the picaresque adventures of an 18-year-old pregnant pizza delivery girl in suburban L.A. Her life becomes further complicated when she befriends and becomes obsessed with a single mother on her route. (Marie Myung-Ok Lee)

Nine Shiny Objects by Brian Castleberry: Spanning decades, Castleberry’s mysterious debut novel follows The Seekers, a group who wants to create a utopia, and the violence that rises to meet—and squash—them. Pulitzer Prize winner William Finnegan calls the novel “sharply-tuned, funny, satisfyingly strange, and preternaturally poised.” (Carolyn)

You Exist Too Much by Zaina Arafat: A novel of self-discovery following a Palestinian-American girl as she navigates queerness, love addiction, and a series of tumultuous relationships. Tony Tulathimutte says of the book, “Zaina Arafat speaks for the persistently hungry.” (Lydia)

Mother Daughter Widow Wife by Robin Wasserman: Wendy Doe, found on a bus to Philadelphia, has no money, ID, or memory. Suffering from dissociative fugue, she becomes a body to be experimented on to some, a source of fascination and wonder for others. But who is Wendy Doe, really? Untethered from obligations and history, who can she become? The novel follows on the success of Wasserman’s first book, Girls on Fire. Leslie Jamison praises it as “not only an investigation of how female intimacy plays out across landscapes shaped by male power and desire, but an exploration of identity itself.” (Jacqueline)

The Lightness by Emily Temple: The first novel from LitHub senior editor Temple, The Lightness is “psychologically wise and totally wise-assed, all while being both cynical and spiritual,” according to one Mary Karr. After Olivia runs away to a place known as the Levitation Center, she joins the camp’s summer program for troubled teens and falls into a close-knit group of girls determined to learn to levitate. Of course, it’s not that easy, could even be dangerous, but Olivia’s search for true lightness pushes her towards the edge of what’s possible in this novel that blends religious belief, fairy tales and physics. (Kaulie)

A Short Move by Katherine Hill: By the author of the novel The Violet Hour and co-author of The Ferrante Letters, this novel follows a young man from Virginia through his rise to the NFL, and takes the microscope to the disintegration of his life as an adult. (Lydia)

A Year in Reading: C Pam Zhang

There are years in which you are a stranger to yourself. This was one of them. I stopped keeping to-do lists, forgot obligations, hit pause on making sense of my life: why I cried when I should have been happy, why I grew angry or listless, why convictions I’d held no longer convinced even me. It was the last year of my third decade on this earth, and it seems that with every passing year I grow increasingly alien to that earth, or it to me. A fragmented year.

This was the year I moved to San Francisco for the third time, ambivalent. A bizarre place. Nowhere else can the simple act of buying snacks or going to a day job trigger in me the question, How to live?, or perhaps, How to live as a human?, or, What is a human?, or, How is humanity defined in a place of enormous income disparity and mind-boggling callousness as well as beauty? I’m not sure we all share the same definition of human these days. I’m not sure that, were I to rap politely on the skulls of those beside me on Valencia Street or in the backseat of my rideshare, I would hear flesh rather than a more synthetic response. A surreal place. In trying to make sense of it, I found conversational partners in Jenny Odell’s How to Do Nothing, Sarah Rose Etter’s The Book of X, Jia Tolentino’s Trick Mirror.

This was the year I got engaged, and though publicly I kept it low-key, privately I gave myself license to obsess over my favorite obsession: the impossible paradox of being a good parent in a very bad world. I found dark and delightful and intelligent company in Louse Erdrich’s Future Home of the Living God, Karen Russell’s Orange World, Alex Ohlin’s Dual Citizens, Lydia Kiesling’s The Golden State, Meng Jin’s forthcoming Little Gods. I sobbed through Mira Jacob’s Good Talk. Though I doubt I want children, I have a perverse desire to marinate in the idea—maybe because children seem to bring with them a sense of anticipatory loss, and so a child might be a tangible thing on which to pin the ache I feel anyway.

This was the year I was so paralyzed by anxiety that only horror could shake me out of it. In the summer, my non-American partner was exiled in Mexico for an unspecified amount of time, awaiting opaque “further processing” on his routine visa run. On my trip back alone, the only book that could distract me was Lee H. Whittlesey’s Death in Yellowstone—at least we weren’t being boiled alive or eaten by bears! I read Junji Ito’s Uzumaki, Sarah Moss’s Ghost Wall, Megan Gidding’s forthcoming Lakewood, Brian Evenson’s Song for the Unraveling of the World. Meanwhile, I practiced pacing my apartment while voicing the very worst possibilities: I could quit my job and move to another country! I could sell our needy puppy! I could delete my digital presence and become a hermit! How soothing to twist reality into its most nightmarish shape, and then study it.

This was the year I sought to lose myself in worlds I’d visited before. I reread sagas: Ursula Le Guin’s Tehanu from the Earthsea Cycle, Cynthia Voigt’s Elske from the Tales of the Kingdom series, and George R. R. Martin’s entire A Song of Ice and Fire series (as far as it exists; George, please). The escapism is not lost on me. Closer to home, I reread Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies and Unaccustomed Earth—more than one reread, in the case of certain stories. “As ordinary as it all appears,” Lahiri writes of the immigrant experience of shifting from one world to another, “there are times when it is beyond my imagination.”

This was the year I grieved and found solace in books that peered closely at the texture of daily, mundane grief. I read Chia-Chia Lin’s The Unpassing and Rowan Hisayo Buchanan’s Starling Days, and Miriam Toews’s strangely hilarious All My Puny Sorrows.

This was the year I looked for joy in the last pure place: in syllables. I read Patrick DeWitt’s Undermajordomo Minor and Jamil Jan Kochai’s 99 Nights in Logar, in which syntax is sheer delight. I reread Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies on a solo writing trip to Hiroshima where, alone in my hotel with a sea view and two beds, no one minded if I occasionally threw the book across the room to yell WHAT THE FUCK when metaphors got too good. Intending it as mourning, I reread Toni Morrison’s Beloved the day the news of her death broke. I felt only elation. It is a perfect book. It is new every single time, as if the language is being birthed in radical shapes as you read—you can’t help but celebrate the life in it.

This was the year I stopped assuming I could see how things would turn out and cozied up to ambiguity. I read books that, rather than force a sweeping lesson, do what good friends do: hold space for complexity. I read Brandon Taylor’s forthcoming Real Life and T Kira Madden’s Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls, in which endings are not ends. I reread the lyrical puzzle box that is Michael Ondaatje’s Divisadero. I read collections whose individual pieces fragmented, overlapped: Kali Fajardo-Anstine’s Sabrina & Corina, Esmé Weijun Wang’s The Collected Schizophrenias. I read Sarah Elaine Smith’s Marilou Is Everywhere and Alexandra Chang’s forthcoming Days of Distraction, their narrators keeping me company in my state of persistent bemusement. Maybe it’s enough, these books say, to live with integrity through a day, a paragraph, a sentence.

This was the year in which I wondered what happens to women’s rage and hurt when it is no longer as fresh as it was in, say, 2016. What happens as time passes, what ferments or crusts or festers. I read Shelly Oria’s Indelible in the Hippocampus and Carmen Maria Machado’s In the Dream House and Miriam Toews’s Women Talking. One of the first books I read this year was Susan Choi’s Trust Exercise, a real mindfuck of a book, too smart and too cynical and too exacting to give its reader the easy gift of catharsis. It won’t let me forget it. I don’t want to forget.

In 2019, I stopped reading more books than I ever have before; life is too fucking short. The books that held my attention this year—that reached out to me—are capsules of strangeness, of varied extremity; what they don’t do is try to convince me that everything is okay. That was a form of companionship I needed very much.

A Year in Reading: Stephen Dodson (Languagehat)

My year has been even more filled with good reading than usual; fortunately, some of the books are so well known there is little need for me to give them a plug, and I will list them at the end so you can point and laugh (“Seriously, you went over half a century without reading Jane Eyre?”). That frees me to talk about the ones that may not be as familiar, the first of which was Peter Brown’s Through the Eye of a Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West, 350–550 AD. I know what you’re thinking: you know little and care less about the fourth, fifth, and sixth centuries; why not go back to Julius Caesar or forward to Charlemagne? I would have said the same, but the book was a Christmas gift and I knew Brown was a good writer, so I plunged in. He begins with a passage about the “Harvester of Mactar” (in North Africa), who had his biography recorded on a stele; he rose from a lowly foreman to the owner of a comfortable farm and finally became rich enough to have a seat on the town council of Mactar. From this account of one forgotten and unimportant man, Brown develops a description of the social and religious structure of Roman Africa and how it was changing in the late fourth century; at that point Christians, though tolerated, were expected to be ostentatiously poor, and the central theme of the book is how that situation changed to one in which Christians were increasingly running the Empire and coming to decide that wealth could be godly after all. He does this to a large extent through a lengthy and riveting account of the life, connections, and personality of St. Augustine (with whom Brown moves from Africa to Italy, expanding the scope of the book to the whole Empire) as well as less well-known figures like Paulinus of Nola, Decimius Magnus Ausonius, and Pelagius and the rich and powerful women who supported and opposed them; by the time I put down the book I felt I’d been immersed in a nonfiction equivalent of a Leo Tolstoy novel. (It may also cause you to think about wealth and power in our own time.)

For my birthday I was given Stephen Kotkin’s Stalin: Volume I: Paradoxes of Power, 1878-1928; I was looking forward to it because I’d liked other things of his I’d read, but also somewhat dreading it because it was very long and only went up to 1928 and I had already read quite a bit about both Joseph Stalin and that period of Russian history. It turned out there was no need to worry — I enjoyed it so much I’m already impatient for the next volume. I have to immediately offer a caveat, though: it’s not exactly a biography, so if that’s what you want (Stalin was born a poor Georgian lad, he had good times and bad, and then he came to power and started executing people) you may be better off with a shorter and more focused, if less comprehensive, work. Kotkin goes for many, many pages, entire chapters, mentioning Stalin only as an afterthought or not at all; his idea is that you can’t understand the man without understanding the society and country he grew up in, so he starts with a detailed history of late-19th-century Russia and the people who affected its development (he made me so interested in the great industrialist Sergei Witte I took a break to read a whole biography). He is constantly turning away from Stalin to explain the forces at work in the Civil War or the evolution of Bolshevik ideas and practices. (I was reminded of Robert Caro’s magisterial multivolume history of LBJ.) If you can deal with that, though, I can’t recommend the book highly enough — Kotkin seems to have read and absorbed all the available material, and his judgments are consistently interesting and persuasive. If you want to read more about the Civil War, by the way, I highly recommend Evan Mawdsley’s The Russian Civil War. And if you want a short history of the period to orient yourself, you can’t do better than Sheila Fitzpatrick’s The Russian Revolution, a brilliant condensation of a complex subject; she doesn’t spend time on biographies or personalities, just tells you what happened and why between 1917 and 1937 in under 200 pages.

The most recent of these grand reading experiences was Leonid Livak’s How It Was Done in Paris: Russian Emigre Literature & French Modernism. It’s a specialized topic, but if you’re interested at all in Russian émigré writers and interwar French literature you have to read this book. Livak is one of those rare academics who can apply theory without becoming impenetrable, and he made me rethink everything I thought I knew about the subject. (He also won my heart by quoting Venedikt Erofeev’s gloriously bibulous and heartbreakingly romantic novel Moskva-Petushki in the acknowledgments; if that description intrigues you at all, run out and find one of the translations, Moscow to the End of the Line or Moscow Circles.) You probably haven’t heard of Boris Poplavsky, Gaito Gazdanov, or Yuri Felzen, but Livak will make you care about them and their struggles to find a way to write in the competing shadows of Marcel Proust and Soviet literature, and he ends with a tour de force comparison of Vladimir Nabokov’s Dar [The Gift] to André Gide’s Les Faux-monnayeurs [The Counterfeiters] that sent me back repeatedly to my well-read copy of the former (for my money, the best of his novels) and made me want to give the latter a try.

Oh, and those other books? Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty, Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, Eva Hoffman’s Lost in Translation, Anthony Trollope’s Barchester novels, and the aforementioned Jane Eyre. That Rochester is a real louse, let me tell you!

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.

The Admiral in the Library: The Millions Interviews James Stavridis

I recently attended a talk in Boston given by Adm. James Stavridis, the dean of the Fletcher School — Tufts University’s graduate school of Law and Diplomacy — his alma mater (and mine). The subject was global security, and during the course of his very sobering talk, he gave a fascinating sidebar on the importance of reading novels — of stories. Among the books he mentioned were The Orphan Master’s Son, The Circle, Matterhorn, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, and Station Eleven.

Stavridis has had an illustrious, globe-spanning career in the U.S. Military including three years leading U.S. Southern Command and four years (2009-2013) as the Supreme Allied Commander of NATO. When we met before dinner, we quickly launched into a rapid-fire chat about books we had recently read. It seemed to me, he had read everything. Through military ventures in Haiti, Bosnia, the Persian Gulf, and Libya (among other operations Stavridis commanded was the 2011 NATO intervention that led to the downfall of the Muammar Gaddafi regime) on aircraft carriers and battleships, while serving at the Pentagon and on Navy destroyers, one thing has been consistent: his love of reading, and his need for books to help make sense of this increasingly complicated world. His exuberance for the written word inspired me to return to Boston and finish our conversation.

Marcia DeSanctis: When I met you last month, you told me you had just put down My Life in France and it had you in tears. That surprised me.

James Stavridis: Why?

MD: I suppose because you’re a four-star admiral.

JS: Well, even four-star admirals read quirky books and this is an incredibly quirky, wonderful book about discovering yourself and discovering your life. Julia Child comes to France, kind of searched around for what to do with her life, essentially. Newly married and falls in love not only with her husband but with France and with its cuisine and with its culture. The voice in the book is so authentic and so beautiful, so wonderfully rendered. And the part that really had me in tears — because everything I said to you is actually quite joyous and upbeat — is the end of the book where she recognizes that, as she hits her 80s, she cannot continue to go independently to the small home in the south of France where she had centered so much of her life. And you can feel her untethering from something that has meant everything to her.

MD: You also mentioned you like books about chefs.

JS: Oh, I love books about chefs. Who doesn’t? I love, particularly, chef memoirs. Anthony Bourdain is just fantastic, Kitchen Confidential. Or The Devil in the Kitchen (Marco Pierre White) is just fabulous.

MD: So the reason I asked to interview you was because I recently attended a lecture you gave in Boston, which was a frank assessment of the crises that are facing our planet now and the people on it. You covered it all — climate change, ISIS, epidemics, poverty, inequality, cyber risks. And then you posted a slide about novels. Can you tell me why you inserted a slide about novels and why you chose the ones that you did?

JS: Well, first of all, because reading is integral to my life. And I think, in the end, we solve global problems not by launching missiles, it’s by launching ideas. So as a tool for understanding the world and for understanding how you can change the world, I find fiction incredibly important. One that I put up pretty frequently is The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson, which is a superb book about North Korea. And North Korea’s an almost impenetrable country. But through a decade of meticulous research and endless interviews and then, an understanding of the human sensibility in an extraordinarily dystopian world, Adam Johnson gives us a portrait of life in North Korea. It’s not a burlesque, it’s not satire. It is, in every sense, life in a world where everything is a half a beat off the music. It’s a gorgeous novel.

I think a second book I had there was The Circle by David Eggers, which is a world in which all of the social networks kind of merge into one. So picture Google, LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, everything merged in one huge social network where the motto is “Privacy is Theft.” And the idea is that by complete transparency, we can transform the world. Overlaid on it is a coming of age story of a young woman who has her first job at the Circle. In the largest sense, by one of our most creative contemporary writers, David Eggers, it is a story about what we hold to ourselves, what is privacy, and what transparency can provide but take away from each of us. I think that is an enormous debate that spans the distance from Edward Snowden to Julian Assange to Chelsea Manning. It’s a profoundly important novel that helps us deal with this collision between privacy and transparency.

MD: And you think a novel has the power to help deal with it?

JS: I do, I do absolutely. In the most prosaic way, novels are stories. So recognizing there are differences in how people learn and what people want to read, for me — and I think for the vast majority of people — stories are the best way to learn.

MD: You also discussed Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven.

JS: Dystopian literature is very interesting. Most of it is unspeakably bleak. But some dystopian literature really is about how you come back; it’s about resilience, so I love that novel.

Station Eleven is about the world after a brutal pandemic that kills 99.9 percent of the population. And it’s a novel about choices that people make in crisis. And so the protagonist chooses — and I love this part — to become part of a wandering troupe of Shakespearean actors with a kind of ragtag orchestra attached to it, that wanders around this devastated countryside putting on plays and concerts. And think about that for a minute and what that implies about the resilience of the human spirit, about the importance of art, the importance of music, the importance of drama — all those things are powerful in this. It’s such a wonderful construct. And, at the end of the novel, they got to an airport where another band of outcasts have managed to find a way. And in the distance, they see a light on a hilltop — not a bonfire but an electric light. It’s a symbol that we can recover, we can come back. It’s a very hopeful novel.

I was just testifying with Bill Gates on the Hill yesterday, not to namedrop, but we were talking about global health and pandemics and the importance of speed and alacrity in response. Part of what can help us prepare for a pandemic is imagining how horrible the outcome would be. Thus, a book like Station Eleven helps us do that.

MD: Interesting. So in your talk, you confirmed what most of us know, that in a world gone mad or potentially gone mad, novels are these kinds of islands of sanity and escape, even ones that are difficult to read like A Constellation of Vital Phenomena.

JS: Yeah, oh, that’s an absolutely wonderful book.

MD: I agree. So explain to me, why reading matters and the importance of books, particularly fiction, in your life.

JS: Well, first of all, I developed a reading habit very early. My parents moved to Greece when I was eight years old. In those days, in the 1960s, Greece effectively didn’t have television. Certainly no English language television. So my mom would take me down to the embassy library on the weekends and I’d pick out books. And then, it became a lifelong habit and I’ve always had a book in my hand. I read constantly. I read probably 80 percent fiction, 20 percent nonfiction. And I have found through reading fiction, I understand the human condition better.

You said a moment ago that a novel is a sanctuary in the middle of this violent world. Let’s remember that occasionally, novels are also moments of violence in an otherwise very peaceful life. It can be the opposite. And so if you can think of a novel as a kind of simulator where you imagine what you would do in a stressful, dangerous situation, it becomes, I think, a very helpful learning tool about ourselves.

And, helpful to understand other places and cultures. I’ve recommended on occasion a novel about Afghanistan called The Afghan Campaign by Steven Pressfield, which is not about the current NATO campaign, it’s not about the Russian campaign, it’s not about the British campaign. It’s about the first campaign, which is that of Alexander the Great and the Greeks’ attempt to conquer Afghanistan, which turned out roughly the same as all the other ones. And the reason is because you can drop a line — a plumb line — from 2,500 years ago to the present day in terms of the toughness of Pashtuns and their culture. And so to read a novel like that, even set in an ancient time, could help you understand Afghanistan and its place in history.

Lastly, I think novels are a way that we can explore the unimaginable. So here, I’m thinking of science fiction and fantasy even, which I think are not only entertaining but powerful in terms of how they open our minds. I’ll give you an example. Ender’s Game, which is a classic science fiction novel about a cyber force defending its world. It makes me think, “Should we have a cyber force today?” Today we have an Army, a Navy, an Air Force, and a Marine Corps. We don’t have a cyber force. But when I read a science fiction novel about the future, I think, “Boy, we’re going to need one pretty quick.” I have a lot of pragmatic, real world reasons for that, as well. But fiction can reinforce that and open up what’s often unimaginable to us.

MD: Do you believe that there is a single most important novel about conflict — or let’s say two, an old one and a new one, a classic and a contemporary — that really encapsulates the bad and the ugly about war?

JS: Yeah, I’ll give you a modern one, Matterhorn, which is by Karl Marlantes. It’s about Vietnam and combat at the micro level. It’s about a young Princeton graduate who becomes a second lieutenant in the Marine Corps and his first 60 days in combat. It won the National Book Award. It’s magnificent.

I’ll give you one from the middle period. Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane, about the psychology of war, is quite terrific. All Quiet on the Western Front, a World War I novel by Erich Maria Remarque, is incredible.

For contemporary historical fiction written about a battle 2,500 years ago, I’d recommend Gates of Fire by Steven Pressfield, which is about the Battle of Thermopylae. And there’s a powerful line in that book, which I think is very true, which is that the opposite of fear is not courage. The opposite of fear on a battlefield is love. Because warriors in combat fight for the love of those with whom they are in combat. That’s a powerful idea. Actually, I have to give you one other.

MD: Great.

JS: Because I’m an Admiral, I get to give you a nautical book.

MD: That was one of my questions, actually.

JS: So the best seagoing books about combat, in my opinion, are by a writer called Patrick O’Brian. He wrote a series of believe it or not, 20 novels and they’re all set from about 1800 through 1815. They follow the life and times of a British sea captain, Jack Aubrey. They are terrific. Picture Jane Austen going to sea and writing about maritime combat. They are that good. I think they may be the best writing of the late-20th century. The reason they’re not more widely celebrated is because they’re perceived as maritime warfare genre. But these are big, chewy, fascinating books about life, relationships. About a third of them are set ashore in early 1800s Great Britain, two-thirds set at sea. The combat scenes are incredibly realistic.

MD: Do you have a favorite book about the sea?

JS: I think it’s hard to argue with Moby-Dick. It’s the greatest sea novel of all.

MD: Do you have an opinion about 9/11 books? I’ll name a few — The Emperor’s Children by Claire Messud; The Submission by Amy Waldman; Homeboy by HM Naqvi; Falling Man by Don DeLillo.

JS: I like Don DeLillo, I liked Falling Man. I don’t lean to 9/11 books as a general proposition. I had a near death experience at 9/11. I was in the Pentagon and my office was right on the side of the building that was hit by the airplane.

MD: You spent your career up until now with the military. Do you read books that are critical of U.S. policy and the wars themselves?

JS: Of course.

MD: There are many.

JS: Oh, sure.

MD: Shattering depictions of the war, soldiers’ reality, and the aftermath.

JS: Oh, gosh, yes. Both fiction and nonfiction. I’ll give you a couple that I loved. I like Green on Blue by Elliot Ackerman, just came out. I like Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain. I like Yellow Birds (Kevin Powers), I like The Book of Jonas (Stephen Dau).

In terms of nonfiction, critical, I think is Fiasco by Tom Ricks — it’s harsh, but, in many ways, accurate. It’s about Iraq. Most of the really harsh books are more about Iraq, less about Afghanistan, I think because Afghanistan’s probably going to come out okay.

MD: Yes. What about Dexter Filkins?

JS: I love Dexter Filkins. The Forever War I think is a masterpiece. And you know, I signed 2,700 letters of condolence to young men and women who died under my command. And when I’m in Washington, I often go to Section 60 of Arlington National Cemetery and visit with them and that will be with me forever. So I read those books partly to honor them, partly because it’s a big part of my life, partly because I feel it’s my responsibility.

MD: How do you have time to do all this reading?

JS: I stay up late at night, do it on airplanes, use technology to make it easy.

MD: I was going to ask — Kindle or hard copy?

JS: Both.

MD: Books on tape? Do you do Audible?

JS: No, I don’t. What I do now, as opposed to going out and buying a stack of books, is I’ll read on the Kindle and then say okay, that’s a terrific book, and buy it. Like I just read Into the Kingdom of Ice by Hampton Sides, which is a book about a polar expedition and it’s fantastic. It’s nonfiction but it reads like a novel. It’s kind of in Eric Larson style if you know his work.

MD: I do.

JS: I’m reading currently his new book, Dead Wake, about the sinking of the Lusitania. It’s just fantastic. Oh, gosh. Fabulous, fabulous writer. So if I think a book will stand up to it, I’ll own a copy of it. I own about 5,000 books and I’m trying to not own 10,000 books.

MD: You have a long reading list at the end of your autobiography The Accidental Admiral. One of the books is Generation of Winter by Vassily Aksyonov.

JS: Yeah, it’s a beautiful novel.

MD: I wrote my senior thesis on him, by the way.

JS: Stop it.

MD: Yes, about Aksyonov.

JS: Is he still alive, by the way?

MD: No, he died a few years ago. He’s not one of the better known Soviet-era writers. Why do you think this is an important book?

JS: Because it raises issues of ethics in command. It’s also, I think, a portrait of a really interesting period in Russian society that transitioned from the World War II generation and how they were effectively betrayed. And I think it’s also a novel about civilian control of the military. I just think it’s a very clever, haunting novel and the characters are beautifully developed.

Is it as good as [Fyodor] Dostoevsky or [Leo] Tolstoy or [Aleksandr] Solzhenitsyn, [Nikolai] Gogol? No. But…

MD: You have a lot of Russians on that list.

JS: Oh, yeah. I love Russian literature.

MD: If you met Vladimir Putin, what would you suggest he read?

JS: I’d start — and I’m sure he’s read a lot of the — well, actually, no, he was a KGB Colonel, so maybe not. He’s certainly not from the intelligentsia, he’s from the thugocracy.

MD: Thugocracy.

JS: Thugocracy, absolutely. I think I’d start him on Dead Souls by Gogol because it’s such an absurdist novel and it’s about trying to grasp power and watching it slip through your fingers. I’d probably force him to read The Brothers Karamazov and focus on the Grand Inquisitor scene. But you know what he’d say back to me? He’d say, “Okay, I’ll read those, but, Stavridis, if you want to understand how tough Russians are and why your sanctions aren’t going to work, read One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Solzhenitsyn. And so I think we could have a lively conversation about the motifs of Russian literature.

MD: Fair enough. You also included one of my favorites, The Good Soldier Svejk. What does that book teach you about command? Not much, right?

JS: No, not much at all. Another terrific novel — I forget if it was on my list, I think it was, is called One Soldier’s War by Arkady Babchenko. You should stop everything you’re doing and read this book.

MD: Really? Why?

JS: If you like Russia and you’re interested in this topic, it’s about a Russian conscript fighting in Chechnya in the 1980s. It’s an inside look at the Russian military and its extraordinary dysfunctionality and the cruelty of its counter-insurgency technique, which led, obviously, to the complete disasters there. I mean, it makes the U.S. performance in Vietnam look like an Olympic gold medal by comparison. It’s a powerful, powerful book.

MD: I noticed you had Anne Applebaum’s book on the list, which I thought was really a masterpiece. I mean…

JS: Gulag.

MD: Gulag: A History, yes.

JS: Yeah, it’s a brilliant book.

MD: Of all the global concerns now — and there are many — what do you think is the most fertile ground for future literature?

JS: Of what’s happening now, I think it’s the Arab Spring, which the term itself has become this sort of grand irony. But I think what’s happening in the Arab world today is a lot like the Reformation, which ripped apart the Christian faith, created the wars between Protestants and Catholics, destroyed a third of the population of Europe. It led to, among other things, William Shakespeare’s plays, Martin Luther’s writing. So I think the big muscle movement is in the Arab world and I think those novels are being written. They’ll have to be translated. They’ll start to come out, though. But the searing quality of what’s happening in that part of the world, I think, will unfortunately lend itself to a dark vein of fiction going forward. I think another place is India, and I love contemporary Indian fiction.

MD: Name a few that you love.

JS: The Last Man in Tower by Aravind Adiga, and even better is White Tiger. I like Salman Rushdie. He’s a little dense and somewhat impenetrable. I like — I forget his name. Sea of Poppies is his best book. It’s fantastic. It’s historical fiction set, oh, probably 200 years ago. Hang on, let’s see. [Looks it up on iPad] Yeah, Amitav Ghosh. Sea of Poppies. So there’s a few. But I think Indian literature will lend itself to big, big novels coming out.

The United States will continue to produce, I think, terrific novels from young novelists and from old novelists. Can there be a better writer alive today than Cormac McCarthy, who’s 80-plus years old and keeps writing these masterpieces one after the other? It’s unbelievable.

MD: It is.

JS: And we have brilliant, brilliant young writers, certainly in the English speaking world — this novel, The Luminaries (Eleanor Catton) She’s a New Zealander, youngest person to ever win the Man-Booker Prize. And the book is just — oh, my God, it’s magnificent. It’s just unstoppable.

MD: Tell me what you like about it.

JS: I love it because it’s so complicated and the fit and finish of it are just extraordinary as a technical accomplishment. Secondly, it is about a fascinating period in the Gold Rush in New Zealand in the 1850s. And thirdly, the characters in it are so both crisply drawn but feel like they’re just from contemporary life. They feel like they have walked in from people you know. It’s really good. I’ll tell you, it’s like Cold Mountain, which I know you’ve read, by Charles Frazier. It’s that good.

MD: That’s a good war book.

JS: It is a good war book a book that shows both sides of it, with the coming home piece, too.

MD: I wanted to get some final thoughts about some of the books you highlighted in your talk in Boston (Matterhorn, The Orphan Master’s Son, Station Eleven, The Circle). Is this the literature of hope or is it the literature of despair about the world we live in now?

JS: What we hope from our writers is that they give us both. Despair’s part of the human condition as is joy and hope and love. And there are wonderful novels on both sides. And as I look back at literature over the ages, I think that’s largely been the case. I think you go back to Voltaire writing in the midst of the French Revolution, the world’s collapsing. I mean, the world is on fire. It’s really falling apart. We like to act like the world’s falling apart. It’s actually not. It’s actually going to hold together and it’s getting better. And that’s hard to see in the thicket of the day-to-day anguish over — justifiably — over Syria and the Ukraine and people flying airplanes into the side of mountains. But if you really rise your head above it and you look at violence in the world, levels of war, we’re better than we’ve ever been. Fewer people are killed in war, fewer people die of pestilence. We’re getting better by really any conceivable metric.

So back to Voltaire. He’s writing in a world that really is on fire. What’s the novel he writes? Candide. You know? “I must tend my garden.” It’s pretty terrific. And that’s a book I read once every year or two. And you know, there are those who say, “Oh, it was all a big satire and you know, he’s actually debunking the theory of optimism.” I don’t think so. I think Candide is a book of optimism and a book of hope from a guy who was very cynical. But I think in his heart, he felt like the outcome of this revolution and everything that was falling apart would eventually be a better world, and I think we’re getting there.

MD: Anything you’re looking forward to?

JS: Well, I wake up every morning hoping that this will be the day that Hilary Mantel’s third volume comes out after Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies. I love Hilary Mantel because she’s a brilliant writer. But what I love about the trilogy is the reversal of character in which Thomas Cromwell, always portrayed as the villain, is suddenly the hero. And Sir Thomas More, the saintly Thomas More, is the insufferable prig. And I find it a to be a powerful piece of fiction because it reimagines the world. Because no one knows. No one knows. I mean, that was 400 years ago and no one knows.

MD: Last question. Do you have a favorite movie about the Navy?

JS: The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial by a country mile.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

A Year in Reading: Rachel Cantor

I divide this year’s shortlist into three categories: Tales Well Told, Fun Stuff, and Miracles of Voice.

Tales Well Told includes books with stories that captivated. In some cases I wasn’t sure why I liked the book, but I just wanted to keep reading. More, more! These were the books I left parties early to go home to read (or for which, more likely, I skipped the party), the ones that might have caused me to miss my subway stop had I read them on the subway, but I usually didn’t because I had already read them through the night before. Gripping stories, unexpected turns of plot, I have to know what happens next! More, more, more! Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings, which I picked up having been entranced by her reading at last year’s Brooklyn Book Festival; Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies, every bit as wonderful as Wolf Hall; two impressive and chilling debut novels: The Kept by James Scott and Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You; Robin Black’s Life Drawing, which I read in one sitting; Elizabeth Kadetsky’s transporting The Poison that Purifies You; Jay Cantor’s Forgiving the Angel: Four Stories for Franz Kafka, hand-sold to me by a very smart bookseller; and Richard Yates’s The Easter Parade, recommended to me by some wise person on Facebook when I said I was looking for something sad — what that man does with dialogue!

I tend to read a lot of Fun Stuff — by which I mean lively work that makes me laugh, enjoyable books, playful books, entertaining and absurd books. Among the best I read this year were Steve Stern’s The Frozen Rabbi; Jeremy Bushnell’s The Weirdness; Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life; and the brilliant, moving, and otherwise-perfect-in-every-way How to Live Safely in a Science Fiction Universe by Charles Yu.

The largest group of loved books this year and probably every year are Miracles of Voice, almost all of which, perhaps because of their eccentricities, are small press books: Alissa Nutting’s riveting collection Unclean Jobs for Women and Girls; Lore Segal’s witty and sad Half the Kingdom; Jeff Jackson’s startling Mira Corpora; Submergence, J.M. Ledgard’s gorgeous tour de force; Catherine Lacey’s stunning Nobody Is Ever Missing; Kevin Barry’s captivating City of Bohane; and, perhaps above all, Patrick McCabe’s heartbreaking The Butcher Boy, the voice of which stayed in my head for many inconvenient days when I was trying to write my own original pages.

More from A Year in Reading 2014

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

The good stuff: The Millions’ Notable articles

The motherlode: The Millions’ Books and Reviews

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

A Year in Reading: Garth Risk Hallberg

This year, for the first time since I was 18, I suffered a bout of what you might call Reader’s Block. It hit me in the spring and lasted about six weeks. The proximate cause was an excess of work, hunched hours in front of a computer that left me feeling like a jeweler’s loupe was lodged in each eye. I’d turn to the door of my study — Oh, God! An axe-wielding giant! No, wait: that’s just my two year old, offering a mauled bagel. And because the only prose that doesn’t look comparably distorted at that level of magnification belongs to E.B. White, Gertrude Stein, and whoever wrote the King James Bible, I mostly confined myself to the newspaper, when I read anything at all.

This hiatus from literature gave me a new compassion for people who glance up from smartphones to tell me they’re too busy to read, and for those writers (students, mostly) who claim to avoid other people’s work when they’re working. Yet I found that for me, at least, the old programmer’s maxim applies: Garbage In, Garbage Out. I mean this not just as someone with aesthetic aspirations, or pretensions, or whatever, but also as a human being.

The deeper cause of my reader’s block, I can admit now, was my father’s death at the end of May, after several years of illness. He was a writer, too; he’d published a novel when he was about the age I am now, and subsequently a travelogue. And maybe I had absorbed, over the years, some of his misapprehensions about what good writing might accomplish, vis-a-vis mortality; maybe I was now rebelling against the futility of the whole enterprise. I don’t know. I do know that in the last weeks before he died, those weeks of no reading, I felt anxious, adrift, locked inside my grief.

Then in June, on some instinct to steer into the skid, I reached for Henderson the Rain King. It was the last of the major Bellows I hadn’t read. I’d shied away partly for fear of its African setting, but mostly because it was the Saul Bellow book my father would always recommend. I’d say I was reading Humboldt’s Gift, and he’d say, “But have you read Henderson the Rain King?” Or I’d say I was reading Middlemarch, and he’d say “Sure, but have you read Henderson the Rain King?” I’d say I was heavily into early Sonic Youth. “Okay, but there’s this wonderful book…” There were times when I wondered if he’d actually read Henderson the Rain King, or if, having established that I hadn’t read it, he saw it as a safe way to short-circuit any invitation into my inner life. And I suppose I was afraid that if I finally read Henderson and was unmoved, or worse, it would either confirm the hypothesis or demolish for all time my sense of my dad as a person of taste.

But of course the novel’s mise-en-scène is a ruse (as Bellow well knew, never having been to Africa). Or if that still sounds imperialist, a dreamscape. Really, the whole thing is set at the center of a battered, lonely, yearning, and comical human heart. A heart that says, “I want, I want, I want.” A heart that could have been my father’s. Or my own. And though that heart doesn’t get what it wants — that’s not its nature — it gets something perhaps more durable. Midway through the novel, King Dahfu of the Wariri tries to talk a woebegone Henderson into hanging out with a lion:
“What can she do for you? Many things. First she is unavoidable. Test it, and you will find she is unavoidable. And this is what you need, as you are an avoider. Oh, you have accomplished momentous avoidances. But she will change that. She will make consciousness to shine. She will burnish you. She will force the present moment upon you. Second, lions are experiences. But not in haste. They experience with deliberate luxury…Then there are more subtle things, as how she leaves hints, or elicits caresses. But I cannot expect you to see this at first. She has much to teach you.”
To which Henderson replies: “‘Teach? You really mean that she might change me.’”

“‘Excellent,'” the king says:
“Precisely. Change. You fled what you were. You did not believe you had to perish. Once more, and a last time, you tried the world. With a hope of alteration. Oh, do not be surprised by such a recognition.”
The lion stuff in Henderson, like the tennis stuff in Infinite Jest, inclines pretty nakedly toward ars poetica. Deliberate luxury, burnished consciousness, a sense of inevitability — aren’t these a reader’s hopes, too? And then: the deep recognition, the resulting change. Henderson the Rain King gave me all that, at the time when I needed it most. Then again, such a recognition is always surprising, because it’s damn hard to come by. And so, though I’m already at 800 words here, I’d like to list some of my other best reading experiences of 2014 (the back half of which amounted to a long, post-Henderson binge). Maybe one of them will do for you what that lion did for me.

Light Years, by James Salter
Despite the eloquent advocacy of my Millions colleague Sonya Chung, I’d always had this idea of James Salter as some kind of Mandarin, a writer for other writers. But I read Light Years over two days in August, and found it a masterpiece. The beauty of Salter’s prose — and it is beautiful — isn’t the kind that comes from fussing endlessly over clauses, but the kind that comes from looking up from the page, listening hard to whatever’s beyond. And what Light Years hears, as the title suggests, is time passing, the arrival and inevitable departure of everything dear to us. It is music like ice cracking, a river in the spring.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, by Muriel Spark
I’ve long known I should read Muriel Spark, but it took the republication of some of her backlist (by New Directions) to get me off the fence. Spark shares with Salter a sublime detachment, an almost Olympian view of the passage of time. This latter seems to be her real subject in Miss Jean Brodie, inscribed even in the dazzling structure of the novel. But unlike Salter, Spark is funny. Really funny. Her reputation for mercilessness is not unearned, but the comedy here is deeper, I think. As in Jonathan Franzen’s novels, it issues less from the exposure of flawed and unlikeable characters than from the author’s warring impulses: to see them clearly, vs. to love them. Ultimately, in most good fiction, these amount to the same thing.

The Unbearable Lightness of Being, by Milan Kundera
This was a popular novel among grown-ups when I was a kid, and so I was pleasantly surprised to discover how stubborn and weird a work it is. And lovable for all that. Kundera keeps us at a peculiar distance from his protagonists, almost as if telling a fairy tale. Description is sparing. Plot is mostly sex. Also travel. At times, I had to remind myself which character was which. In a short story, this might be a liability. Yet somehow, over the length of the novel, through nuances of juxtaposition and patterning, Kundera manages to evoke states of feeling I’ve never seen on the page before. Political sadness. Emotional philosophy. The unbearable lightness of the title. All of this would seem to be as relevant in the U.S. in 2015 as in 1970s Prague.

The Infatuations, by Javier Marías
Hari Kunzru has captured, in a previous Year in Reading entry, how forbidding Javier Marías’s novels can seem from a distance. (Though maybe this is true of all great stylists. Lolita, anyone?) Marías is a formidably cerebral writer, whose long sentences are like fugues: a theme is introduced, toyed with, pursued to another theme, put down, taken up again. None of this screams pleasure. But neither would a purely formal description of an Alfred Hitchcock movie. The tremendous pleasure of The Infatuations, Marías’s most recent novel to appear in English, arrives from those most uncerebral places: plot, suspense, character. It’s like a literary version of Strangers on a Train, cool formal mastery put to exquisitely visceral effect. “Don’t open that door, Maria!” The Infatuations is the best new novel I read all year; I knew within the first few pages that I would be reading every book Mariás has written.

All the Birds, Singing, by Evie Wyld
This haunting, poetic novel manages to convey in a short space a great deal about compulsion and memory and the human capacity for good and evil. Wyld’s narrator, Jake, is one of the most distinctive and sympathetic heroines in recent literature, a kind of Down Under Huck Finn. Her descriptions of the Australian outback are indelible. And the novel’s backward-and-forward form manages a beautiful trick: it simultaneously dramatizes the effects of trauma and attends to our more literary hungers: for form, for style. It reminded me forcefully of another fine book that came out of the U.K. this year, Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing.

Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, by Hilary Mantel
I’d be embarrassed at my lateness to the Thomas Cromwell saga, were I not so glad to have finally made it. Mantel’s a serious enough historical novelist not to shy away from those conventions of the genre that usually turn me off; the deliberate pacing of her trilogy-in-progress requires some getting used to. But more than a chronicler, Mantel is a novelist, full-stop. She excels at pretty much everything, and plays the long game brilliantly. By the time you get into the intrigues of Bring Up the Bodies, you’re flying so fast you hardly notice the beautiful calibration of the prose, or the steady deepening of the psychology, or the big thoughts the novel is thinking about pragmatism and Englishness and gender and the mystery of personality.

Dispatches, by Michael Herr
If you took the horrific public-burning scene from Wolf Hall, multiplied that by 100, put those pages in a hot-boxed Tomahawk piloted by Dr. Strangelove, and attempted to read them over the blare of the Jefferson Airplane, you’d end up with something like Dispatches. It is simultaneously one of the greatest pieces of New Journalism I’ve ever read and one of the greatest pieces of war writing. Indeed, each achievement enables the other. The putatively embedded journalism of our own wars already looks dated by comparison. Since the publication of Dispatches in 1977, Herr’s output has been slender, but I’d gladly read anything he wrote.

White Girls, by Hilton Als
This nonfiction collection casts its gaze all over the cultural map, from Flannery O’Connor to Michael Jackson, yet even more than most criticism, it adds up to a kind of diffracted autobiography. The longest piece in the book is devastating, the second-longest tough to penetrate, but this unevenness speaks to Als’s virtues as an essayist. His sentences have a quality most magazine writing suffocates beneath a veneer of glibness: the quality of thinking. That is, he seems at once to have a definite point-of-view, passionately held, and to be very much a work in progress. It’s hard to think of higher praise for a critic.

Utopia or Bust, by Benjamin Kunkel
This collection of sterling essays (many of them from the London Review of Books) covers work by David Graeber, Robert Brenner, Slavoj Zizek, and others, offering a state-of-the-union look at what used to be called political economy — a nice complement to the research findings of Thomas Piketty. Kunkel is admirably unembarrassed by politics as such, and is equally admirable as an autodidact in the field of macroeconomics. He synthesizes from his subjects one of the more persuasive accounts you’ll read about how we got into the mess we’re in. And his writing has lucidity and wit. Of Fredric Jameson, for example, he remarks: “Not often in American writing since Henry James can there have been a mind displaying at once such tentativeness and force.”

The Origin of the Brunists, by Robert Coover
The publication this spring of a gargantuan sequel, The Brunist Day of Wrath, gave me an excuse to go back and read Coover’s first novel, from 48 years ago. As a fan of his midcareer highlights, The Public Burning and Pricksongs and Descants, I was expecting postmodern glitter. Instead I got something closer to William Faulkner: tradition and modernity collide in a mining town beset by religious fanaticism. Yet with the attenuation of formal daring comes an increased access to Coover’s capacity for beauty, in which he excels many of his well-known peers. Despite its (inspired) misanthropy, this is a terrific novel. I couldn’t help wishing, as I did with much of what I read this year, that my old man was still around, that I might recommend it to him, and so repay the debt.

More from A Year in Reading 2014

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

The good stuff: The Millions’ Notable articles

The motherlode: The Millions’ Books and Reviews

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

Character Assassin: An Interview with Hilary Mantel


A condensed version of this interview appeared in the Guardian on Saturday, September 20th.

1.
Hilary Mantel has had Margaret Thatcher in her sights for over thirty years. Somewhat surreally, the Prime Minister wandered into view around noon on Saturday, August 6 1983. Mantel’s flat, on a quiet Windsor street lined with cherry trees, overlooked the private hospital where Thatcher was having an eye operation. She was just standing by the big sash window in her bedroom when she spotted Mrs Thatcher “toddling” around the hospital gardens unguarded.

“Immediately your eye measures the distance,” says Mantel, measuring each syllable, her finger and thumb forming a gun. “I thought, if I wasn’t me, if I was someone else, she’d be dead.”

Imagining you are someone else is the essence of fiction. Mantel has been a medium, in Beyond Black, a giant, in The Giant O’Brien, and most successfully, Thomas Cromwell in Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies. Both won her the Booker and are now packing theatres in London and soon, perhaps, Broadway. “We’re in negotiations now,” says Mantel in a tone that you wouldn’t try to negotiate with. The television adaptations, starring Damian Lewis as Henry and Mark Rylance as Cromwell, have just finished filming. She’s part-way through The Mirror and the Light, the last in the trilogy: “I don’t write chronologically so I can’t say where I am exactly but it’s not finished.  It should be done next year.”

2.
Her dark new short story collection offers her – and us – a break from the Tudors. It pulls together ten tales, nine of which have appeared before. They range from the subtly sinister to the outrageously gothic. “I was going to call it Ten Transgressive Tales,” she says. “But then, after thirty-some years, I finally finished my Thatcher story.”

In The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher, Mantel succeeds where terrorists failed. It’s an unexpectedly funny exploration of the Maggie mythos delivered with sniper-like skill. It’s a horror story for her fans, a fantasy for her detractors. Either way, it’s shocking. Her tale is a true character assassination.

In it, an unnamed and unsuspecting householder waits in for a plumber who never turns up. So far, so normal  In the plumber’s place arrives a stranger with a Liverpool accent. At first she thinks he’s a photographer hoping to avail himself of her view. So begins a tragi-comedy of quintessentially English misunderstandings.

“How much will you get for a good shot?”

“Life without parole,” he said.

I laughed. “It’s a not a crime.”

“That’s my feeling.”

Only when the not-plumber begins unpacking and assembling a gun does she realize she’s admitted an assassin. But, rather than screaming for help, she goes on to domestic autopilot. She tidies up. She offers him tea. The gravity of the situation dawns only when he asks for sugar. Such a man will kill.

I am no friend of this woman, though I don’t (I felt compelled to add) believe violence solves anything.

Yet, in just a few pages, this seemingly ordinary citizen ends up assisting an assassin. The “why” is more interesting than the “how.” Mantel wonders if we are all capable of being so culpable.

She started writing it the day she spied the Prime Minister. “I wasn’t published then but I immediately saw a story.” It’s hard to imagine a time when Mantel didn’t top the bestseller list and win every prize going. But she hasn’t forgotten it. In the first story, “Sorry to Disturb,” a housewife trapped with her husband in Saudi – “no one reads in Jeddah” – writes a comic novel in secret. Just as Mantel did. “I have had a little success, I explained, or I hope for a little success, I have written a novel you see, and an agent has taken it on.” That agent was Bill Hamilton, ‘the man in William IV street’ who represents her to this day and to whom this collection is dedicated.

So, why has it taken Mantel 30 years to pull the trigger on this tale? “I just couldn’t see how to get them to work together. The characters must examine their own myths and those of their communities. Each colludes for their own reasons.”

Was she freed by Thatcher’s death? “I am concerned with respect. I’m not concerned with taste. I would have happily concluded the story in her lifetime but couldn’t—it was my technical difficulty, not any delicacy. I believe in walking that line. You mustn’t be too timid to risk getting it wrong. ”

Last year Mantel was thrown in the stocks for describing the Duchess of Cambridge as a “plastic princess born to breed” in a lecture on “Royal Bodies.” Unbowed, she is uncowed at the prospect of more “fuss.” She even seems slightly excited about it.

“As a writer you have a choice to make—are you going to accept censorship or not? In the case of the Duchess, the great outraged weren’t at the lecture and didn’t read the article. I was saying ‘please back off and treat this young woman as human.’ I was speaking in her favor! I wouldn’t be so petty as to criticize someone for their appearance. Look at me and Mary Beard and all the other women whose arguments are not engaged with or dismissed by fixations with appearance. As for Baby Number Two: I congratulate the Duchess.”

Whether its 1580 or 1980, style versus substance is a key preoccupation for Mantel. Thatcher embodies this debate. Says the householder:

“It’s the fake femininity I can’t stand, and the counterfeit voice.”

The assassin counters:

“It’s not about her handbag. It’s not about her hairdo. It’s about Ireland.”

“Both positions are riven by contradiction,” says Mantel. “As was Thatcher. She is the very stuff of drama. She is a fantastic character. Why did she – does she – arouse such strong reactions?”

Thatcher dominated my childhood and shaped my life just as much, if not more, than my parents. Thatcher was the blond bogey-woman blamed for everything bad that happened in the former pit-village where I grew up. And a lot of bad things happened. But I found Maggie’s certainty inspiring and her Terminator-like rise from the rubble of the Grand Hotel impressed me as a child. Mantel has only grudging admiration.

“When I think of her I can still feel that boiling detestation. She did long-standing damage in many areas of national life but I am not either of those people in that room. I am standing by the window with my notebook.” And yet, the trigger is pulled.

“I never voted for her but I can stand back from my political views and from hers and appreciate her as a phenomenon. As a citizen I suffered from her but as a writer I benefited.”

Charisma, power, and persuasiveness are key qualities of Mantel’s main obsession: Thomas Cromwell. Was Thatcher a Cromwellian figure?

“Creativity in politics is rare but I think she had it,” Mantel admits. “Cromwell did too. But there are big differences. He was a negotiator and she detested consensus—she saw herself as an Old Testament prophet delivering the truth from on high. Cromwell used history to pretend the new things he was doing were old and thus to soothe the English temperament. Mrs Thatcher despised history as a constraint.”

Cromwell and Thatcher were both self-made. As is Mantel—her mother was a mill worker and her father disappeared when she was eleven. As am I. We were all the first from our families to go to university. But, Mantel believes, Thatcher hated the end result: “She couldn’t turn herself into a posh girl with the right vowels. If you’re that dissatisfied with yourself you try to fix other people and if they won’t be fixed you become punitive.”

Women beware women.

“It’s true, no one can now say a woman can’t run the country but I think she set back the cause of women in public life. She imitated masculine quantities to the extent that she had to get herself a good war. It [The Falklands] was great stuff—limited casualties, little impact on the Home Front and great visual propaganda. I am not suggesting this was conscious. I suspect Thatcher was the last person in the world to be able to examine her inner life but she could sell a myth. The idea that women must imitate men to succeed is anti-feminist. She was not of woman born. She was a psychological transvestite.”

Ultimately it is neither style nor substance that persuades the householder to help the assassin.

“It’s her lack of pity. Why does she need an eye operation? Is it because she can’t cry?”

“Lack of empathy was Thatcher’s fatal defect,” says Mantel. “Without it there is no shared humanity. Without regret there can be no contrition, there can only be an agenda which is prepared to sacrifice people for ideology.”

When the householder realizes the assassin is effectively on a suicide mission she decides to show him mercy—a quality strained in the woman they despise. In her flat is a door which leads to the building next door. It offers escape. It is their – our – chance for redemption.

“Who has not seen the door in the wall?  It is the invalid child’s consolation, the prisoner’s last hope…It is a special door and obeys no law of wood or iron…it is visible only to the eye of faith…Note the cold wind that blows through it, when you open it a crack. History could always have been otherwise.”

The trigger is pulled and a new history is written but the real target is not Thatcher—it is us, the reader. And Mantel does not miss. Her aim is merciless.

On the Nightstand: On Deciding What to Read Next

1.
As usual, you’re talking with your friend about books.  “Have you read it?” she asks.  “No,” you say, “but it’s on the nightstand.”  It’s on the nightstand.  That’s code for, I’ve made mental note of it. Or It’s on my list but not a priority.  Or even, I actually own it, and I’ll be reading it next.  Regardless, for me, It’s on the nightstand has always been metaphorical — an abstract and elastic category of Books I Hope To Read.

That is, until recently.

You could call it an “alcove,” but it’s not big enough for a queen-sized bed.  The full-sized has worked just fine, but the piles of unshelved books — on the floor, on the dresser, on the dining chairs, in the bathroom, on top of the puppy crate for godssakes — haven’t.  I wanted a nightstand.

And so, an end table was repurposed.  Finally, I have an actual nightstand.

What’s on the nightstand? Suddenly the question is not so abstract.  Of the mess of books that has been unsystematically scattered throughout my home, and my life, which ones will make it to the nightstand?  In what order will they be stacked?

Perhaps most importantly: how will I decide?

2.
A mini-debate recently bloomed among colleagues at the college where I teach, after the department administrator sent around a brief and innocent-enough email: would we please send changes or additions to the attached post-grad Suggested Reading List? The list, she reminded us, would be distributed to graduating seniors; a deadline was specified.

“Are the students asking for this?” Professor B wrote. Was it perhaps odd to foist such a list on departing students, “a noodging sort of gesture from teachers who can’t let go?” Professor H concurred, quoting Professor L: “Why ask for a booklist now, dear graduates?  We’ve given you the tools to read and to make discriminations among the various books you encounter: So feel free to fly away from the comfortable nest of your undergraduate English Department and read what you want and when you want.”

Off-line conversations ensued.  Professor H came back with an idea:

“[O]ne of my main goals in the classroom,” she wrote, “is to teach students to go from one book to another all by themselves; I am never so dejected as when seniors complain they have no clue as to what to read next…What if we encouraged our seniors to put together a list of books for the rest of our majors?” A week later, Professor H further articulated her thinking: “It won’t be enough, of course, to ask the grads what books they recommend. The real question is how they found them.”

3.
To go from one book to another all by themselves. It sounds simple enough. As a young person just entering the world of post-academy literature, the challenge may be discerning “what’s good.” In youth, there is a blessed naiveté about this, a hunger for objective, definitive recommendations from an authoritative source. In graduate school, when a professor first challenged me to “create your own map of literary influences,” it was indeed a revelation: the image I remember conjuring was of lily pads — each of us in our own deep black pond, bug-eyed and hopping from one pad to another. Sometimes just one pad over, sometimes a greater leap to the far shore.  Apparently random, and yet mysteriously considered.

As we get older — as the nature of our work and passions specifies, as our aesthetic palates grow more particular — we understand that, given the sheer number of artful and compelling books in the world relative to the time we have on the planet, “good” is more contextual than absolute.  Deciding what to read next is thus as much about Knowing Thyself as Knowing Literature.  School attempts to teach the latter; it’s the self-knowledge that we must develop on our own, over time.

And so, in my humble opinion, the process by which you decide what to read must not be outsourced — to your professors, to reviewers or awards, to online algorithms.  An external source can’t tell you what you need to read next any more than a spouse can tell a pregnant partner what she’s craving to eat; what will satisfy. Read what you want and when you want. Choosing what to read is about attuning yourself to what it means to be nourished.  By this I mean confronted, changed, filled, emptied, engrossed, surprised, instructed, consoled — all these.  You.  At this moment in time.

4.
What should I read next? It is not a casual question. We are not frogs.  We are chasing something more profound than flies.  Every time I finish a book and consider what to read now, it feels…important.

Since I am not so much looking for a foolproof test of a book’s “objective” quality, my decision process is no more suitable for you than my nightstand list. Nevertheless, here it is — my provisional, evolving list of the (sometimes absurd) ways I decide/have decided what to read next:
A. The 25-Page Test
Standard trial run.  I bought the book on impulse; it’s been lying around for a while.  I pick it up and start reading.  Am I eager to read page 26 (even better: did page 26 come and go without my noticing)?  Am I stopping to scribble in my notebook because the book is sparking responses that matter enough to write down?  Or — have two paragraphs gone by and I don’t know what I just read (in which case something is evidently not clicking).
B. The Three-Book Shell Game
Okay, the truth is, I bought three books on impulse.  I lay them out side-by-side.  I stare at them.  Which one should get the trial run first?  I stare some more.  I pick up each one, feel it in my hands — heft, cover material.  I look at the cover for some time. Sure, there is that two-second impression; but there is also the three-minute study and consideration. The emotions and ideas it evokes. I skim the jacket copy but not too closely. I am not interested in the publisher’s sell job but rather words or phrases that resonate, with me, right now, for whatever reason.  I lay them out again. I wait. I swear to you, one of them starts to levitate.
C. Narrative Point-of-View/Voice
As reader, writer, and teacher, for me, narrative POV is perhaps the most intriguing, and most important, feature of any work of fiction.  Usually, I am primed for something specific: first person or third person; omniscience or (in James Wood’s terminology) free indirect style; vernacular or formal, contemporary or non-contemporary; verbal density or spareness (the author who achieves these simultaneously always wins).  When narrative voice is a driving factor, three or four pages is usually enough to determine Yay or Nay.  Do I want to hear this voice speaking for the next two days or two weeks?  Do I need a voice I can “trust,” insightful and articulate?  Or something less stable, a wild and deeply subjective ride?
D. Bookshelf Staring
I’ve just finished a book, and I’m on a reading roll.  I stand in front of my bookshelves.  Like yours, mine are “organized” in a particular way that would make very little sense to anyone else.  I change up this organization from time to time, and sometimes this staring prompts reorganization.  Sometimes the reorganization becomes part of the process of choosing — handling the books and moving them around as a way of reorganizing my mind.  At the moment, there is the not-yet-read section.  But I stare at the whole canvass of books, not just that one section.  The book I’ve just read is still buzzing in my mind; if it was great, it’s buzzing in my body, too.  I want more of that buzzing, but differently.  The last book did X so well, so interestingly.  I’m intrigued by X’s impact and also interested in how X would read if it was plus Y and minus Z.
I step back, lean in, repeat.  I swear to you, one of the books starts to vibrate.
E. Loved This Author, Want More of Same, Read Everything in the Author’s Oeuvre
This is the most exhilarating — like falling love. The last book did X.  I want more and more and more of X.   I am learning something here, seeing something new, growing intimate with characters and ideas.  Maybe I haven’t identified what, exactly, was so captivating, so I read on to find out.  More, more, more.  Sometimes I’ll read them in order of best reviewed to worst reviewed; sometimes vice versa (reading the supposedly minor works of a favorite author can be particularly illuminating); sometimes chronologically; sometimes via the three-book shell game.


F. Wishlists
I do keep wishlists, haphazardly.  Or, I used to.  When I’m stumped, I’ll log on to Goodreads or Audible and see what, at some point in time, I decided I might someday like to read.  Then I proceed with Item D above, the online version of bookshelf staring.  With audiobooks, a two-minute sample is usually available — the audio version of the 25-page test combined with the narrative voice test.
(As I write this, I am reminded of the usefulness of online wishlists.  It’s a place to be impulsive about books, without opening your wallet.  And looking back on your wishlists is such an interesting journey in itself:  Vasily Aksyonov?  Dorothy Day?  Suttree. I craved these books enough to click them.  What was I thinking about at the time? Hmm…)
G. The “Should” Lists
I really should read Thackeray.  I really should read Vollman. I really should read The Goldfinch.  Well, maybe.  I was glad I pushed myself to read Faulkner and Proust and To the Lighthouse; less so Philip Roth and Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.  I’m still pushing with Thomas Mann, the verdict is out.  It’s good to ask yourself why you should read it.  So you don’t feel stupid in a workshop or at a cocktail party?  Or maybe because your favorite author from Item E above was deeply influenced by it.  There are better and worse reasons for force-reading.
If you are a professional literarian of some sort, there are more “shoulds” to contend with: you must teach, review, converse about certain books.  I’ve been fortunate to “have” to read Jean Stafford, Esther Freud, Henry James, Carson McCullers, Giuseppe di Lampedusa, Steven Millhauser, Miranda July, Sherwood Anderson, on and on (in the cases of Lampedusa and McCullers, it led to Item E).  In other words, there is certainly such thing as benevolent authority, and required reading can be a blessing (that is, when it’s not a curse).
H.  Recommendations from Friends
This, I confess, is one of the least successful categories.  It’s not that my friends don’t have good taste.  That many of them are thoughtful and discriminating readers may be the very problem: their passions are as contextual and idiosyncratic as mine.  It would be, in a way, a little weird if the books they raved about were books that I would rave about, at the same moments in our lives.  (Recommendations seem to work better, I find, when a friend talks about something he read some time ago, within the context of current conversation — as opposed to, “I just read this great book!”).
I.  Bloom
My shameless plug.  When Lisa Peet and I started writing about “post-40 bloomers,” there was a sense of mission, of trying to bring an alternative perspective to the table.  Little did we know how many important writers — important to us personally — we’d discover along the way. For me, to name just a few: Harriet Doerr, William Gay, Spencer Reece, Shannon Cain, Edward P. Jones, Virginia Hamilton Adair, W.M. Spackman, Robin Black.  And don’t get me started on Jane Gardam (I cannot stop talking about Jane Gardam — Item E bigtime).
J. The Dessert Selection
Sometimes reading is about imaginative and intellectual expansion, the difficult pleasure that is, in the end, transformative and satisfying. But sometimes you have a reading window in which you want to treat yourself to an easier pleasure.  Life is hard; you want to be carried away, both far and deep.  As with physical nourishment, occasional dessert is as important for your health as kale.  Endorphins or something?  But let me be clear: a truly pleasurable dessert is still made of excellent ingredients, not junk.  Me, I’ve been working pretty hard this summer; for this last week, I’m delving into Bring Up the Bodies.
5.
So, go throw darts at your bookshelves.  Read 10 pages aloud.  Stack up your wishlists. Read what you want when you want.  If you don’t have one, get yourself a nightstand.

Image Credit: Flickr/seanfreese.

The Prizewinners 2013/2014

With last month’s awarding of the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, the 2013/2014 literary award season is now over, which gives us the opportunity to update our list of prizewinners. Literary prizes are, of course, deeply arbitrary in many ways; such is the nature of keeping score in a creative field. Nonetheless, our prizewinners post is compiled in the same spirit that one might tally up Cy Young Awards and MVPs to determine if a baseball player should be considered for the Hall of Fame. These awards nudge an author towards the “canon” and help secure them places on literature class reading lists for decades to come.

2013/14 was a suprisingly diverse year when it comes to literary awards, with no single novel winning multiple awards and very little crossover on the shortlists. Only one book is climbing the ranks this year. Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, which won the Pulitzer and was on the National Book Critics Circle shortlist.

Next year, we will need to make some changes to our methodology. When compiling this list, I wanted to include both American books and British books, as well as the English-language books from other countries that are eligible to win some of these awards. I started with the National Book Award and the Pulitzer from the American side and the Booker and Costa (formerly the Whitbread) from the British side. Because I wanted the British books to “compete” with the American books, I also looked at a couple of awards that recognize books from both sides of the ocean, the National Book Critics Circle Awards and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. The IMPAC is probably the weakest of all these, but since it is both more international and more populist than the other awards, I thought it added something. However, now that the Booker Prize will be open to English-language books from all over the world, including the U.S., the panel of awards is now lopsided in favor of the U.S. Is there another British-only award that we can use to replace the Booker next year?

I looked at these six awards from 1995 to the present, awarding three points for winning an award and two points for an appearance on a shortlist or as a finalist. Here’s the key that goes with the list: B=Booker Prize, C=National Book Critics Circle Award, I=International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, N=National Book Award, P=Pulitzer Prize, W=Costa Book Award (formerly the Whitbread) bold=winner, red=New to the list or moved up* the list since last year’s “Prizewinners” post

*Note that the IMPAC considers books a year after the other awards do, and so this year’s IMPAC shortlist nods were added to point totals from last year.

11, 2003, The Known World by Edward P. Jones – C, I, N, P
9, 2001, The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen – C, I, N, P
8, 2010, A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan – C, I, P
8, 2009, Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel – B, C, W
8, 2007, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz – C, I, P
8, 1997, Underworld by Don DeLillo – C, I, N, P
7, 2005, The March by E.L. Doctorow – C, N, P
7, 2004, Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst – B, C, W
7, 2002, Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides – I, N, P
7, 2001, Atonement by Ian McEwan – B, C, W
7, 1998, The Hours by Michael Cunningham – C, I, P
7, 1997, Last Orders by Graham Swift – B, I, W
7, 1997, Quarantine by Jim Crace – B, I, W
>6, 2012, Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel – B, W
6, 2009, Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann – N, I
6, 2009, Home by Marilynn Robinson – C, N, I
6, 2005, The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai – B, C
6, 2004, Gilead by Marilynn Robinson – C, P
5, 2013, The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt – P, C
5, 2012, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain – C, N
5, 2012, The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson – C, P
5, 2011, Binocular Vision by Edith Pearlman – C, N
5, 2011, The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes – B, W<
5, 2009, Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín – W, I
5, 2008, The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry – B, W
5, 2008, Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout – C, P
5, 2007, Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson – N, P
5, 2006, The Road by Cormac McCarthy – C, P
5, 2006, The Echo Maker by Richard Powers – N, P
5, 2005, Europe Central by William T. Vollmann – C, N
5, 2005, The Accidental by Ali Smith – B, W
5, 2004, The Master by Colm Tóibín – B, I
5, 2003, The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard – I, N
5, 2001, True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey – B, I
5, 2000, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon – C, P
5, 2000, The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood – B, I
5, 1999, Waiting by Ha Jin – N, P
5, 1999, Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee – B, C
5, 1999, Being Dead by Jim Crace – C, W
5, 1998, Charming Billy by Alice McDermott – I, N
5, 1997, American Pastoral by Philip Roth – C, P
5, 1996, Every Man for Himself by Beryl Bainbridge – B, W
5, 1996, Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer by Steven Millhauser – N, P
5, 1995, The Moor’s Last Sigh by Salman Rushdie – B, W
5, 1995, The Ghost Road by Pat Barker – B, W
5, 1995, Independence Day by Richard Ford – C, P
5, 1995, Sabbath’s Theater by Philip Roth – N, P

The Ragged Spawn of E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime

Miniatures on a Broad Canvas
At the National Book Awards ceremony in New York City on November 2, E.L. Doctorow received the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. On that night he joined a rarefied posse of past recipients that includes Eudora Welty, Toni Morrison, Norman Mailer, John Updike, Joan Didion, Philip Roth, Gore Vidal, Stephen King, Tom Wolfe, John Ashbery, and Elmore Leonard, among others. The award formalized something legions of readers have known for more than half a century: E.L. Doctorow is a national treasure.

While I wouldn’t presume to single out one of Doctorow’s dozen novels or story collections as his “best” book, I do think it is fair to say that, so far, his best known and best loved work is the novel Ragtime. And I would argue that this has also been his most influential book, the one that has done more than all the others to change the way American authors approach the writing of novels.

Ragtime, like so much of Doctorow’s fiction, is pinned to a particular, acutely rendered moment in American history. In other novels he has taken us back to the Wild West (Welcome to Hard Times, 1960), the Civil War (The March, 2005), post-bellum New York City (The Waterworks, 1994), the Depression (World’s Fair, 1985, winner of the National Book Award; Loon Lake, 1980; and Billy Bathgate, 1989), and the Cold War (The Book of Daniel, 1971).

In Ragtime he takes us back to the years immediately preceding the First World War, when America and much of the world lived in a state of dreamy innocence, oblivious that twinned calamities loomed. The book’s theme, as I read it, is that such innocence is an untenable luxury, then and now, and its inevitable loss is always laced with trauma, pain, and bloodshed. To heighten the trauma, Doctorow first builds a nearly pastoral world. Here is the novel’s serene opening:
In 1902 Father built a house at the crest of the Broadview Avenue hill in New Rochelle, New York. It was a three-story brown shingle with dormers, bay windows, and a screened porch. Striped awnings shaded the windows. The family took possession of this stout manse on a sunny day in June and it seemed for some years thereafter that all their days would be warm and fair.
In just four deceptively simple sentences, Doctorow has established the novel’s tone and central strategy. The key word in this passage is seemed, for it hints that this stout manse will not be able to provide the stability it promises. More subtly – and crucially – Doctorow also establishes a slippery narrative voice, which will be a key to the novel’s success. When we learn that “Father” built this house, we assume that the man’s son or daughter is narrating the story. Later references to “Grandfather” and “Mother” and “Mother’s Younger Brother” and “the Little Boy” reinforce the familial sleight of hand. But three sentences after the intimate introduction of “Father,” Doctorow switches to the impersonal third-person plural and tells us that after “the family” took possession of the house, it seemed that “their” days would be warm and fair. It is a deft shift of focus, a quiet, barely noticeable pulling back, but it gives Doctorow the freedom to have it both ways – to paint miniatures on a broad canvas. The strategy is crucial to everything that will follow.

The novel was stylistically innovative in other ways. The paragraphs are long, unbroken by quoted dialog. This allows Doctorow to immerse the reader in the seamless atmosphere of a particular place and time. In the middle of the novel’s long opening paragraph, Doctorow plays the gambit that will become the novel’s signature and the source of its enduring influence on the way many American novelists work right up to today: he starts injecting historical figures into his fictional world.

The gambit unfolds like this: “Across America sex and death were barely distinguishable. Runaway women died in the rigors of ecstasy. Stories were hushed up and reporters paid off by rich families. One read between the lines of the journals and gazettes. In New York City the papers were full of the shooting of the famous architect Stanford White by Harry K. Thaw, eccentric scion of a coke and railroad fortune. Harry K. Thaw was the husband of Evelyn Nesbit, the celebrated beauty who had once been Stanford White’s mistress.” A few lines later Emma Goldman, the revolutionary, strolls onto the page. Soon after that, Harry Houdini wrecks his car, “a black 45-horsepower Pope-Toledo Runabout,” in front of the family’s house in New Rochelle. Five pages in, and Doctorow is already off to the races.

In the course of the novel we’ll meet the muckraking journalist Jacob Riis, Sigmund Freud, Theodore Dreiser, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, Henry Ford, J.P. Morgan, Booker T. Washington, and Emiliano Zapata. With one exception – a luncheon meeting between Ford and Morgan – the appearance of these historical figures feels unforced and plausible. Doctorow’s historical research is obviously prodigious, but the reader never feels that the author is emptying his notebook or showing off. The historical details, such as Houdini’s “black 45-horsepower Pope-Toledo Runabout,” are chosen carefully and slipped into the narrative without fanfare. In other words, Doctorow’s mastery of his material and his narrative voice prevents the novel’s central conceit from sliding into mere schtick.

From Kohlhase to Kohlhaas to Coalhouse
All writing comes from other writing, and of course E.L. Doctorow was not the first writer to populate a fictional narrative with historical figures. It just seemed that way to many people when Ragtime was published, to great fanfare, in the summer of 1975.

But as Doctorow happily admitted in an interview in 1988, Ragtime sprang from a very specific source – an 1810 novella called Michael Kohlhaas by the German writer Heinrich von Kleist. The parallels between the two books are unmistakable. In Kleist’s novella, the title character is based on an historical figure, a 16th-century horse dealer named Hans Kohlhase, who seeks justice when he is swindled out of two horses and a servant, a campaign that wins the support of Martin Luther but eventually leads to Kohlhass’s violent death; in Doctorow’s novel, the black musician Coalhouse Walker mounts an equally fierce campaign for justice when his pristine Model T is desecrated by a company of racist firemen, a campaign that wins the support of Booker T. Washington but eventually leads to Coalhouse’s violent death.

“Kleist is a great master,” Doctorow told the interviewer. “I was first attracted to his prose, his stories, and the location of his narrative somewhere between history and fiction… Ragtime is a quite deliberate homage. You know, writers lift things from other writers all the time. I always knew I wanted to use Michael Kohlhaas in some way, but I didn’t know until my black musician was driving up the Broadview Avenue hill in his Model T Ford that the time had come to do that.”

Ragtime’s Ragged Spawn
I read Ragtime not as a conventional historical novel – that is, a novel that hangs its fictions on a scaffold of known events – but rather as a novel that makes selective use of historical figures and events to create its own plausible but imaginary past. Yes, Doctorow did his research and he includes factual renderings of numerous historical figures and events, but these are springboards for his imaginings, not the essence of his enterprise. Put another way, Doctorow is after truth, not mere facts. But as he set out to write the book he understood that a prevailing hunger for facts had put the art of conventional storytelling under extreme pressure. He explained it this way in a 2008 interview with New York magazine: “I did have a feeling that the culture of factuality was so dominating that storytelling had lost all its authority. I thought, If they want fact, I’ll give them facts that will leave their heads spinning.” And when William Shawn, editor of The New Yorker, refused to run a review of the novel, Doctorow remarked, “I had transgressed in making up words and thoughts that people never said. Now it happens almost every day. I think that opened the gates.”

I think he’s right. Doctorow’s selective use of historical figures and events lends Ragtime its air of verisimilitude without robbing him of the freedom to imagine and distort and mythologize. It is, for a writer of fiction, the best of all possible worlds. Small wonder, then, that Doctorow’s strategy, radical in 1975, is now so commonplace that it’s impossible to keep up with the torrent of novels, short stories, and movies that owe a debt to his act of transgression.

(For an interesting take on how transgressions can become commonplace, go see the 100th-anniversary recreation of the Armory Show, currently at the New York Historical Society. Works by Duchamp, Matisse, and Gauguin that shocked America in 1913 – the precise moment when Ragtime is set – are now part of the Modernist canon, tame and acceptable.)

Colum McCann, the decorated Irish writer now living in New York, is among the many writers who have come around to Doctorow’s way of writing novels. McCann’s early fiction is loosely based on historical events but populated with fictional characters. Then in 2003 he published Dancer, a fictional telling of Rudolf Nureyev’s life. McCann’s National Book Award-winning novel from 2009, Let the Great World Spin, pivots on Philippe Petit’s mesmerizing high-wire walk between the Twin Towers in 1974. Earlier this year, McCann published TransAtlantic, a triptych that fictionalizes the stories of three journeys across the ocean by actual historical figures: the aviators John Alcock and Arthur Brown; the abolitionist Frederick Douglass; and the former U.S. Senator and peace envoy George Mitchell. In an interview with The Guardian, McCann explained his shift toward historical figures and events over the past decade by citing a maxim from the cultural anthropologist Clifford Geertz: “The real is as imagined as the imaginary.” It follows that the imagined is as real as the real. McCann added, “I said about 12 years ago that writing about biographical figures showed a sort of failure of the writer’s imagination.” And then? “Absolutely busted. Because then I wrote Dancer…and then more or less ever since I’ve been hovering in this territory.”

He’s not alone. Here is a list, far from exhaustive and widely varying in quality, of Ragtime’s progeny, with some of the historical figures who appear in each work: Blonde by Joyce Carol Oates (Marilyn Monroe); Cloudsplitter by Russell Banks (John Brown); Quiet Dell by Jayne Anne Phillips (the mass-murderer Harry F. Powers); Hollywood by Gore Vidal (William Randolph Hearst, Warren Harding, Marion Davies, Douglas Fairbanks – not to mention Vidal’s more conventional historical novels such as Lincoln, Burr and 1876); The Public Burning by Robert Coover (Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, Joe McCarthy, Richard Nixon, the Marx Brothers); Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel (King Henry VIII, Thomas Cromwell, Sir Thomas More); The Women by T.C. Boyle (Frank Lloyd Wright); DaVinci’s Bicycle by Guy Davenport (Picasso, Leonardo, Joyce, and Apollinaire); Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by Therese Anne Fowler (Zelda and Scott, Hem, Ezra Pound); Dead Stars and Still Holding by Bruce Wagner (Michael Douglas, the Kardashians, a Russell Crowe look-alike and a Drew Barrymore look-alike); The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson (Franco, Truman, Stalin, Churchill, Mao); and the movies Forrest Gump (Tom Hanks meets Elvis, Bear Bryant, JFK, LBJ, and Richard Nixon) and Zelig (Woody Allen brushes up against Babe Ruth, Adolph Hitler, and others in this faux documentary, with added commentary from the real-life Susan Sontag, Saul Bellow, and Bruno Bettelheim).

The last three items on this list illustrate the dangers of the strategy Doctorow pursued in Ragtime. In each of these three works, the central character encounters historical figures by pure chance and for no good reason, other than to amuse the reader or audience, or show off the filmmaker’s technical wizardry. There is nothing organic or plausible about any of these contrived encounters, and they drag the works down to the level of mere schtick.

On the other end of spectrum is one of Ragtime’s worthiest successors, the under-appreciated 1990 novel Silver Light by David Thomson, a writer best known for A Biographical Dictionary of Film. The novel takes the central conceit of Ragtime – fictional characters interacting with historical figures – and then gives it a delicious twist. Using the medium he knows so well, the movies, Thomson gives us a rambling cast of characters, a mix of real and imagined people and – here’s the twist – the actors who played some of them in movies. It was not until I read the extensive Note on Characters at the end of the book that I understood the histories of these people. The character Noah Cross, for instance, was lifted directly from the 1974 movie Chinatown. The (real? imagined?) character Susan Garth is the cantankerous 80-year-old daughter of a cattle rancher named Matthew Garth, who was played by Montgomery Clift in the 1948 Howard Hawks movie Red River, which was based on a Saturday Evening Post story by Borden Chase. Thomson makes superb use of this layered source material. In a scene that goes to the heart of such fiction, Thomson puts Susan Garth on the Red River set outside Willcox, Arizona, in 1946 with Hawks, Clift, and John Wayne. No one on the movie crew is aware that Susan is the daughter of the character Clift is playing in the movie. She has told Hawks her name is Hickey, and when Clift arrives on the set, Hawks performs the introductions:
“Miss Hickey…may I introduce Mr. Clift, our Matthew Garth?”

The spurious father and the unknown daughter shook hands, worlds and fifty years apart.

“Interesting role you’ve got,” said Susan.

“Well, look,” grinned Clift, tolerantly, “this is just a Western, you know.”

“Still,” she persevered, “the real Garth. He was an unusual fellow.”

“Hey, Howard,” whined Clift, “was Garth a real person? Is that right?”

Delicate and dangerous, Howard saunteringly rejoined them. “There are no real people,” he told them. “See if they sue.”
There are no real people; there are only the ones we can imagine truly. When I read Hawks’s made-up words, I could hear echoes of Clifford Geertz and Colum McCann and E.L. Doctorow and every writer on my incomplete and ever-growing list.

The I’s Have It
This homage to Ragtime would not be complete without mention of two related strains of fiction. In the first, a writer places a historical figure at center stage and then attempts to channel that character’s voice and enter his mind. One of this strain’s early avatars was the wildly popular 1934 novel I, Claudius, in which Robert Graves set out to refute the conventional view that the man who ruled the Roman Empire from 41 to 54 A.D. was a stuttering, doddering idiot. (Graves followed it a year later with Claudius the God.) Jerry Stahl took on a similar revisionist challenge in 2008 with I, Fatty, a look into the dark soul of the supposedly sunny silent-movie star Roscoe Arbuckle. Other figures from history, literature, and myth who have become titles of I, ______ novels include Hogarth, Iago and Lucifer. And then there are such masterpieces of ventriloquism as Peter Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang, Margeurite Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian, and Thomas Berger’s Little Big Man (whose narrator, fictional 111-year-old Jack Crabb, recounts his encounters with such historical figures as Gen. George Armstrong Custer, Wyatt Earp, and Wild Bill Hickok).

In the Epilogue to Little Big Man, Ralph Fielding Snell, the fictional character who tape-recorded Jack Crabb’s reminiscences of the West, offers this caveat about their veracity: “So as I take my departure, dear reader, I leave the choice in your capable hands. Jack Crabb was either the most neglected hero in the history of this country or a liar of insane proportions.” Or maybe he was both. Does it matter? This novel, like Ragtime, is distinguished not by the facts it relates, but by the truths it reveals.

The second strain is something that has come to be known as “self-insertion,” which sounds like a sexual kink but is actually the increasingly common practice of writers inserting themselves, as characters with their own names, into their novels and stories. The practice – gimmick? – has proven irresistible to Ben Marcus, Jonathan Ames, David Foster Wallace, Kurt Vonnegut, Bret Easton Ellis, Douglas Coupland, Philip Roth, and Nick Tosches, among others. As the wave of postmodernism became a tsunami, this trend was probably inevitable; mercifully it’s not yet universal. I can’t imagine coming across a character named E.L. Doctorow in a novel by E.L. Doctorow. His imagination is too rich and too demanding to allow such a thing.

Too Much Like Work
With the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s assassination now upon us, it’s worth noting that the events in Dallas in November of 1963 continue to inspire a steadily growing shelf of American fiction, movies, and TV shows. Among the writers and filmmakers who have mined the assassination for fictional ends are Don DeLillo, Norman Mailer, William F. Buckley, Oliver Stone, Bobbi Kornblit, J.G. Ballard, and Stephen King. For readers operating under the illusion that novelists and filmmakers use historical figures and events as crutches for a hobbled imagination, listen to Stephen King’s thoughts on the research that went into the writing of his novel, 11/22/63: “I have never tried anything like that before and I’m not sure I would ever want to try it again because, man, it was too much like work.”

E.L. Doctorow has been doing that hard work for more than half a century, producing novels and stories that have illuminated the American soul by bringing American history to life. It’s why he deserves his Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. It’s what makes him a national treasure.

Bookermania at Morgan Library: All the Contentious Glory of the Man Booker Prize

On September 13, Manhattan’s august Morgan Library launched Bookermania, a show dedicated to 45 years of the Man Booker Prize. For those curious about the story behind the headline-hogging award, and the company that this year’s winner Eleanor Catton has just joined, this jewel-box exhibit showcases the prize that ignited the careers of writers from V.S. Naipaul to D.B.C. Pierre, and helped shape the canon of postcolonial literature. A shallow shelf running around the wall displays first editions of prizewinning and shortlisted novels, from P.H. Newby’s Something to Answer For in 1969 to Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies in 2012. It’s an impressive collection, with more classics and fewer obscurities than the odds might suggest. According to curator Sheelagh Bevan, the display is designed to celebrate the physical book and the importance of cover design, while at the same time showing off what everyone comes to the Booker to find: intellectual battles, backstabbing, and bitchery.

The Morgan’s archive, drawn from its acquisition of literary agent Peter Straus’s vast collection, contains some 4,000 items. The selection on display — of correspondence, notebooks, annotated proofs, and newspaper clippings — testifies to the argumentative journey toward choosing each year’s winner, and demonstrates the outsize cultural impact the prize has had since its creation. Controversy has been built into the Booker since it began. The prize’s initial sponsor was Booker McConnell, described by The Guardian in 1968 as “an international company dealing in sugar, rum, mining machinery and James Bond.” The company had been booted out of the former British Guiana when the country declared independence, and established the prize in part to raise its profile and reputation in the U.K. This strategy backfired early, when the 1972 prize-winner John Berger used his acceptance speech to attack the company’s long and dirty trading history, stating that “the modern poverty of the Caribbean is the direct result of this and similar exploitation,” and promising to donate half his winnings to the London arm of the Black Panthers.

However, the Booker organizers were savvy enough to realize that such public shaming could only draw attention to the prize. Its innovation of releasing a shortlist several weeks before the winner was announced was designed to stimulate both comment and commerce — in 1980, with two of its authors on the shortlist, Penguin was the first publisher to rush out paperback editions flagged in bright orange as nominees. The transparency of revealing the shortlist (and since 2001, the longlist) has made Booker-watching and Booker-bashing into British national sports, and some of its decisions seem designed to bait the press, such as including celebrities, like Dan Stevens of Downton Abbey and celebrity chef Nigella Lawson, on the judging panels. The latest outcry is over the new rules allowing U.S. entrants, which writers including Julian Barnes have warned will skew the results, thanks to British “cultural cringe” in the face of American blockbusters.

What makes Booker controversies more compelling than other instances of literary sour grapes is that the fiercest and most colorful criticism often comes from judges and board members, not just shunned novelists. In 2001, judge A.L. Kennedy complained that the award was based on “who knows who, who’s sleeping with who, who’s selling drugs to who, who’s married to who, whose turn it is.” Unfortunately the notes from judges’ meetings are embargoed for 20 years, so the Morgan can’t reveal London’s current literary drug-dealers and bed-hoppers. On the flip side, there is also evidence here of judicial high-mindedness. In a letter from 2005, when his novel The Sea won the award, John Banville thanks judge John Sutherland for his “quintessentially English sense of fair play” — Sutherland had gone to bat for The Sea even though earlier that year, the two had publicly tangled over Banville’s demolition of Ian McEwan’s Saturday in The New York Review of Books.

Booker criticism fluctuates between charges of elitism and denunciations of populism. In 2011, the judges were attacked for looking for “readability,” and the next year, the shortlist looked far more experimental—although the prize went to the (relatively) readable Mantel. The prize guidelines call for a “full-length novel,” but what that means is up to the judges: this year, Colm Tóibín’s 104-page The Testament of Mary is the shortest work ever nominated. By operating no other categories, the Booker places particular pressure on the novel genre, and has long had an uneasy relationship with history and memoir. J.G. Ballard’s chance of winning in 1984 for his autobiographical novel Empire of the Sun was torpedoed, ironically, for alleged factual inaccuracies, while Thomas Keneally, who had won for Schindler’s Ark two years, originally signed a non-fiction contract for the book.

Since the early ’70s, U.K. bookmakers have published odds on the winners, and as The Atlantic recently reported, Graham Sharpe, the head of Britain’s biggest bookie William Hill, is regularly consulted for his opinion on the winners’ chances. He had no clear favorite this year, and told the BBC that this was “one of the most competitive shortlists for years.” But now the fun is over for another year, fans of literary feuds and rivalries can get their fix at the Morgan — at least until the National Book Award shortlist comes out.

“Bookermania” is at the Morgan Library and Museum from September 13 to January 5, 2014.

The Prizewinners 2012/2013

With last month’s awarding of the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, the 2012/2013 literary award season is now over, which gives us the opportunity to update our list of prizewinners. (In fact, 2013/2014 has already begun with the unveiling of the diverse Booker longlist.) Literary prizes are, of course, deeply arbitrary in many ways; such is the nature of keeping score in a creative field. Nonetheless, our prizewinners post is compiled in the same spirit that one might tally up Cy Young Awards and MVPs to determine if a baseball player should be considered for the Hall of Fame. These awards nudge an author towards the “canon” and help secure them places on literature class reading lists for decades to come.

There are three books climbing the ranks this year. Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell sequel Bring Up the Bodies landed fairly high on the list after sweeping both of Britain’s major literary awards (though the book hasn’t quite matched the hardware racked up by Mantel’s Wolf Hall). Meanwhile, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain and The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson both won notice from more than one literary prize last year.

Here is our methodology: I wanted to include both American books and British books, as well as the English-language books from other countries that are eligible to win some of these awards. I started with the National Book Award and the Pulitzer from the American side and the Booker and Costa (formerly the Whitbread) from the British side. Because I wanted the British books to “compete” with the American books, I also looked at a couple of awards that recognize books from both sides of the ocean, the National Book Critics Circle Awards and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. The IMPAC is probably the weakest of all these, but since it is both more international and more populist than the other awards, I thought it added something. A glaring omission is the PEN/Faulkner, but it would have skewed everything too much in favor of the American books, so I left it out.

I looked at these six awards from 1995 to the present, awarding three points for winning an award and two points for an appearance on a shortlist or as a finalist. Here’s the key that goes with the list: B=Booker Prize, C=National Book Critics Circle Award, I=International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, N=National Book Award, P=Pulitzer Prize, W=Costa Book Award (formerly the Whitbread) bold=winner, red=New to the list or moved up* the list since last year’s “Prizewinners” post

*Note that the IMPAC considers books a year after the other awards do, and so this year’s IMPAC shortlist nods were added to point totals from last year.

11, 2003, The Known World by Edward P. Jones – C, I, N, P
9, 2001, The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen – C, I, N, P
8, 2010, A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan – C, I, P
8, 2009, Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel – B, C, W
8, 2007, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz – C, I, P
8, 1997, Underworld by Don DeLillo – C, I, N, P
7, 2005, The March by E.L. Doctorow – C, N, P
7, 2004, Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst – B, C, W
7, 2002, Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides – I, N, P
7, 2001, Atonement by Ian McEwan – B, C, W
7, 1998, The Hours by Michael Cunningham – C, I, P
7, 1997, Last Orders by Graham Swift – B, I, W
7, 1997, Quarantine by Jim Crace – B, I, W
6, 2012, Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel – B, W
6, 2009, Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann – N, I
6, 2009, Home by Marilynn Robinson – C, N, I
6, 2005, The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai – B, C
6, 2004, Gilead by Marilynn Robinson – C, P
5, 2012, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain – C, N
5, 2012, The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson – C, P
5, 2011, Binocular Vision by Edith Pearlman – C, N
5, 2011, The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes – B, W<
5, 2009, Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín – W, I
5, 2008, The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry – B, W
5, 2008, Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout – C, P
5, 2007, Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson – N, P
5, 2006, The Road by Cormac McCarthy – C, P
5, 2006, The Echo Maker by Richard Powers – N, P
5, 2005, Europe Central by William T. Vollmann – C, N
5, 2005, The Accidental by Ali Smith – B, W
5, 2004, The Master by Colm Tóibín – B, I
5, 2003, The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard – I, N
5, 2001, True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey – B, I
5, 2000, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon – C, P
5, 2000, The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood – B, I
5, 1999, Waiting by Ha Jin – N, P
5, 1999, Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee – B, C
5, 1999, Being Dead by Jim Crace – C, W
5, 1998, Charming Billy by Alice McDermott – I, N
5, 1997, American Pastoral by Philip Roth – C, P
5, 1996, Every Man for Himself by Beryl Bainbridge – B, W
5, 1996, Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer by Steven Millhauser – N, P
5, 1995, The Moor’s Last Sigh by Salman Rushdie – B, W
5, 1995, The Ghost Road by Pat Barker – B, W
5, 1995, Independence Day by Richard Ford – C, P
5, 1995, Sabbath’s Theater by Philip Roth – N, P

Surprise Me!

BROWSE BY AUTHOR