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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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. Photo courtesy of the author.
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
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.
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.
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