I think I’ll remember 2009 as the year when I made a conscious effort to immerse myself in the culture of books, and fell more deeply in love with that culture than I would have thought possible. My first novel was published a few months ago, and in the lead-up to publication I began spending an inordinate amount of time talking to booksellers online and in person, going to other writers’ events, lingering in bookstores and reading all the fiction I could get my hands on. Reading has become one of the great joys of my life, and I think I’ve probably read more books in 2009 than I did in the previous five years combined.
It’s hard to pick a favorite. I thought Dan Chaon’s Await Your Reply and Colm Toibin’s Brooklyn were breathtaking. I loved John Wray’s Lowboy. But in a year awash in books, one in particular stands out: Shaun Tan’s gorgeously illustrated Tales from Outer Suburbia is the size and shape of a children’s picture book, but I’m not sure I’d give it to a child. The Library of Congress summary describes the book as “fifteen illustrated short stories… set in the Australian suburbs,” but these suburbs aren’t quite of this earth.
Tan’s suburbia is a haunted place, sometimes banal and sometimes beautiful, populated by strange apparitions—a water buffalo who lives in a vacant lot and gives directions to children in need, a man in an antiquated and heavily barnacled deep-sea diving suit who drips water from his air pipe as he wanders blindly down the street. Mysterious courtyards open up impossibly between attics and upstairs rooms; figures made of sticks and clumps of clod wander silently over the landscape; dogs gather one night outside the burning home of a man who recently beat his own dog to death. I’ve been slightly obsessed with this book for months.
The Booker longlist was announced yesterday. Going over the list, I noted that it didn’t seem very multi-cultural. One of the interesting things about the Booker is that any author from the Commonwealth of Nations or from Ireland is eligible. This means that any of 54 countries might send a writer to Booker glory. This year, however, the judging committee is keeping things geographically constrained, with only three countries represented among the 13 finalists:England, 9 (Byatt, Foulds, Harvey, Lever, Mantel, Hall, Mawer, Scudamore, Waters)Ireland, 3 (O’Loughlin, Toibin, Trevor)South Africa, 1 (Coetzee)Moving on to less serious matters, the Booker betting odds are now out (and subject to change as punters put their money on the line). The bookmakers like Toibin and Waters to win, but James Lever is putting in an impressive showing with his mock memoir of a chimp.4/1 Colm Toibin – Brooklyn4/1 Sarah Waters – The Little Stranger5/1 Hilary Mantel – Wolf Hall6/1 J.M. Coetzee – Summertime8/1 James Lever – Me Cheeta10/1 A.S. Byatt – The Children’s Book12/1 William Trevor – Love and Summer14/1 Ed O’Loughlin – Not Untrue and Not Unkind14/1 Simon Mawer – The Glass Room16/1 James Scudamore – Heliopolis16/1 Adam Foulds – The Quickening Maze16/1 Sarah Hall – How to Paint a Dead Man16/1 Samantha Harvey – The Wilderness
With the unveiling of the Booker Prize longlist, the 2009 literary Prize season is officially underway. As usual, we have a mix of exciting new names, relative unknowns and venerable standbys. The big names that will stand out are J.M. Coetzee, a two-time winner of the prize, A.S. Byatt, William Trevor, Colm Toibin, and Hillary Mantel. Also an eye-catching nominee is James Lever whose fictionalized autobiography of a movie star chimp made the cut. My one other observation is that this list feels somewhat less multi-cultural as compared to prior years. Several of the books named appeared on our “most anticipated” lists for the first and second halves of 2009.
All the Booker Prize longlisters are below (with excerpts where available):
The Children’s Book by A.S. Byatt
Summertime by J.M Coetzee (excerpt)
The Quickening Maze by Adam Foulds
How to Paint a Dead Man by Sarah Hall
The Wilderness by Samantha Harvey (excerpt)
Me Cheeta by James Lever (“I’m the real Cheeta“)
Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel (excerpt)
The Glass Room by Simon Mawer (excerpt pdf)
Not Untrue and Not Unkind by Ed O’Loughlin
Heliopolis by James Scudamore (excerpt)
Brooklyn by Colm Toibin (excerpt)
Love and Summer by William Trevor (excerpt)
The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters (excerpt pdf)
Zoë Heller’s new novel, The Believers, is an enormously entertaining and sharply observed story about the Litvinoff family in New York City. When father Joel, a famous radical leftist lawyer, suffers from a stroke and falls into a coma, his wife Audrey and his two grown daughters, Rosa and Karla, find themselves wrestling with revelations about his identity, and their own. Joseph O’Neill calls the novel, “A moving, intelligent look at intellectual loyalties – to ideology, religion, family–and the humans attached to them.” You can browse inside the book here.Zoë Heller is the author of two previous novels, Everything You Know and, What Was She Thinking? Notes on a Scandal, which was shortlisted for the Mann Booker Prize in 2003.The Millions: Early in the book, Audrey’s friend Jean wonders if the whole Litvinoff family possesses a genetic “gift of conviction” (26). It’s an interesting idea, and throughout the novel we see the female members of the family – Audrey, Karla, and Rosa – grasping onto old or new beliefs, perhaps as a way to render their lives comprehensible, or meaningful. Were you playing with this idea from the beginning, or did it emerge as you wrote these characters’ lives?Zoë Heller: I think I always saw this book as a novel about people with a particular aptitude for faith. But the way in which these characters struggle to maintain their beliefs in the face of contradictory evidence is something most people have experienced at some point in their lives, I think.TM: Why did you decide to portray a famous family of leftists? How do their political beliefs shape not only who they are, but how they interact with one another? When you began, were you setting out to satirize leftist politics, or simply strong political beliefs in general?ZH: I don’t think my aim was to satirize the left. Actually, I don’t think my aim was satire, period. I wanted to write about the way in which beliefs of all kinds – political, religious, conservative, progressive – operate on their adherents. The novel focuses on a family of leftists, largely I think because that is the political culture with which I am personally familiar, but it also deals with a number of other beliefs: Orthodox Judaism, the rigid ideas the characters have about themselves and their relationships. And so on.TM: One of the most fascinating parts of the book is Rosa’s interest in Orthodox Judaism, and her struggle to understand what she believes. She is resistant to the religion’s tenets, and yet, defends them to her atheist mother. Why did you decide to explore this world, and why did you place Rosa in this conflict?ZH: I think of Rosa as a woman with a particular susceptibility to grand theories of everything. When one God (revolutionary socialism) fails for her, it is only a matter of time before she finds another grand, ideological system (Judaism) to replace it. I am not a religious person, but I wanted to try to write sympathetically about a person finding religion and to point up some of the similarities between political and religious faith.TM: You’re British but you live and write in New York. Most of the characters in your book, aside from Audrey (who is English), are American, and you capture their varying voices and habits of speech with great accuracy – and humor, too. The myriad voices in your novel reminded me of On Beauty, by Zadie Smith, another British writer with a similar gift for rendering speech on the page. As a Briton among Americans, do you find yourself particularly sensitive to the ways in which people in the U.S. communicate? What went into capturing these characters’ speech habits on the page?ZH: I don’t think my immigrant status has much to do with my interest in how people talk. I’m just as interested in the speech mannerisms and dialects of my fellow Britons. Dialogue is the most purely enjoyable part of writing a novel, I think.TM: The novel begins in 1962, when Audrey and Joel meet in London. On the first page we are introduced to “a young woman” standing alone at the window – this woman happens to be Audrey. After reading further in the book, I was curious about this initial anonymity. Why did you decide to precede the story (the rest of which takes place in 2002) with this early history? What does this courtship tell us about Joel and Audrey?ZH: I wrote the Prologue partly because I wanted to show the reader the political climate and culture in which Audrey and Joel started out together. More important, I wanted the reader to get a glimpse of Audrey as a vulnerable young woman, so that later on, when she was being monstrous, the reader might be able to muster some empathy for her. The other thing I was interested in showing was Joel and Audrey’s initial misprision of one another. Like a lot of relationships, theirs begins on mutually faulty assumptions. Joel thinks Audrey is an enormously cool and self-possessed woman; Audrey thinks Joel is a man of political virtue, offering her a role as his equal partner in the struggle. And of course, neither of these initial impressions turns out to be quite correct.TM: I read your book twice, and the second time it was totally accidental – I simply could not stop myself! Do you have anything to tell us about readability, about what makes a narrative wonderfully infectious?ZH: I don’t think I have anything useful to say about readability. I spent the greater part of my working life as a journalist and it’s possible, I guess, that writing for newspapers teaches you a certain succinctness.TM: And, since this is a book blog, I must ask you: What is the last great book you read?ZH: The last great book I read was an advance copy of Colm Toibin’s novel, Brooklyn. It is a beautifully rendered portrait of Brooklyn and provincial Ireland in the 1950s. It is also an astute and utterly unsentimental portrait of a young woman’s journey into adulthood. Toibin writes about women more convincingly, I think, than any other living, male novelist.
The publishing industry (and every other industry) may be going down the tubes, but readers won’t be wanting for good new books this year, I suspect. Readers will get their hands on new Pynchon, Atwood, Lethem, and Zadie Smith – those names alone would make for a banner year, but there’s much more. Below you’ll find, in chronological order, the titles we’re most looking forward to this year. (Garth penned a few of these little previews, where noted. And special thanks to members of The Millions Facebook group who let us know what they are looking forward to. Not everyone’s suggestions made our list but we appreciated hearing about all of them.)In February, T.C. Boyle returns again to his unique brand of historical fiction with The Women. The four women in question all loved famous architect (and eccentric) Frank Lloyd Wright. Given the time period and subject matter, this one may resemble Boyle’s earlier novel The Road to Wellville. PW says “It’s a lush, dense and hyperliterate book – in words, vintage Boyle.”Yiyun Li wowed quite a few readers with a pair of standout stories in the New Yorker last year, and all her fans now have her debut novel The Vagrants to look forward to. PW gave this one a starred review and called it “magnificent and jaw-droppingly grim.” Quite a combo. All signs point to Li being a writer to watch in 2009 and beyond.Out of My Skin by John Haskell: I like John Haskell’s writing a lot, and I like books about L.A., and so I think I’ll like John Haskell writing a novel about L.A. (Garth)Home Schooling by Carol Windley: This book of short stories set in the Pacific Northwest is certain to garner comparisons to that other Canadian, Alice Munro. (Garth)March brings Jonathan Littell’s very long-awaited novel The Kindly Ones. American readers have waited for an English translation since 2006, when the book was originally published in French. The German reviews for this Prix Goncourt winner were decidedly mixed, but I’m still intrigued to read this novel about an S.S. Officer. Literature, pulp, or kitsch? We’ll know soon enough. (Garth)Walter Mosley, best known for his Easy Rawlins mysteries, offers up The Long Fall, the first in a new series, the Leonid McGill mysteries. The new book is notable in the change of venue from Los Angeles, Mosley’s heretofore preferred fictional setting, to New York City. PW says Mosley “stirs the pot and concocts a perfect milieu for an engaging new hero and an entertaining new series.”In Castle by J. Robert Lennon, “A man buys a large plot of wooded land in upstate New York, only to find that someone has built a castle in the middle of it–and the castle is inhabited.” Intriguing, no? (That description is from Lennon’s website.) In related news, Lennon’s collection of stories Pieces for the Left Hand will be published also in March. It’ll be the book’s first U.S. edition.Mary Gaitskill’s 2005 novel Veronica was a National Book Award finalist. Now she’s back with Don’t Cry. The title story in this collection appeared in the New Yorker last year.I’ve already devoured Wells Tower’s debut collection Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned. Tower’s eclectic style is on full display here. Some of these stories are masterful iterations in the New Yorker style, while others experiment with voice and style. The collection closes with the title story, his most well known, an ingenious tale of vikings gone plundering. Normally a debut collection wouldn’t merit much buzz, but readers have had their eye on Tower for years because of his impressive long-form journalism in Harper’s and elsewhere. (Tower also appeared in our Year in Reading this year.)Zoe Heller had a huge hit with What Was She Thinking in 2003. Her follow-up effort, The Believers arrives in March. PW gives it a starred review and says it “puts to pointed use her acute observations of human nature in her third novel, a satire of 1960s idealism soured in the early 21st century.” The book came out in the UK last year, so you can learn plenty more about this one if you are so inclined. Here’s the Guardian’s review for starters.April brings Colson Whitehead’s novel Sag Harbor, which jumped a few notches on many readers’ wish lists following the publication of an excerpt (registration required) in the New Yorker’s Winter Fiction issue. Based on that excerpt (and the publisher’s catalog copy), we are in store for a coming of age story about Benji, a relatively well-off African-American kid growing up in New York (and summering on Long Island) in the 1980s.Colm Toibin has a new novel coming in May called Brooklyn. This one looks to be a novel of immigration. From the catalog copy: “In a small town in the south-east of Ireland in the 1950s, Eilis Lacey is one among many of her generation who cannot find work at home. So when a job is offered in America, it is clear that she must go.”I’ve been following Clancy Martin’s How to Sell as it’s appeared in excerpts in NOON and McSweeney’s. The writing is terrific, funny, and disturbing: ripe for a Coen Brothers adaptation. (Garth)Summer reading season gets going in June with Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin, which his publisher is calling “his most ambitious work to date.” This one sounds like it will look in on the lives of several disparate characters in New York city in the mid-1970s. Audio of McCann reading from the book is available at CUNY Radio.Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie won tons of praise for Half of a Yellow Sun. Now she’s back with a collection of stories, The Thing Around Your Neck, likely including “The Headstrong Historian,” which appeared in the New Yorker last year.Monica Ali is back with her third novel, In the Kitchen. This one is based in London and apparently involves a murder at a hotel.July: William T. Vollmann is known for his superhuman writing output, but his forthcoming book Imperial is a monster, even for him. Weighing in at 1,296 pages and carrying a list price of $55, this work of non-fiction is “an epic study,” in the words of the publisher, of Imperial County, California. Ed offers quite a bit more discussion of the book. Don’t miss the comments, where it’s said that Vollmann has called the book “his Moby-Dick.”August: When the deliberate and reclusive Thomas Pynchon puts out a new book it’s a publishing event, and with Pynchon set to deliver a new book just three years after his last one, well, that’s like Christmas in July, er, August. This one is called Inherent Vice and its cover is already causing much speculation (and some consternation) among the Pynchon fans. Expect rumors about the book to be rife through the first part of the year. Pynchon’s publisher Penguin, meanwhile, has called it “part noir, part psychedelic romp, all Thomas Pynchon – private eye Doc Sportello comes, occasionally, out of a marijuana haze to watch the end of an era as free love slips away and paranoia creeps in with the L.A. fog.”The Amateur American by Joel Saunders Elmore: I have to mention this novel by my old friend Joel, sections of which I read in manuscript. Surreal yet propulsive, it has one of the sharpest opening lines I’ve ever read… assuming he kept the opening line. (Garth)September: Scarcely a year goes by without Philip Roth sending a new novel our way. Little is known about his forthcoming novel except the title The Humbling. Amazon UK’s listing for the book puts it at just 112 pages which seems like just an afternoon’s work for the prolific Roth. As Garth notes, his last two outings have been underwhelming but with Roth there’s always a chance of greatness.Kazuo Ishiguro’s collection of stories also comes out in the U.S. in September (though it will be out in much of the rest of the English-speaking world in May). The catalog copy calls Nocturnes: Five Stories of Music and Nightfall “a sublime story cycle” that “explores ideas of love, music and the passing of time.”Acclaimed novelist Margaret Atwood will have a new novel out in September called The Year of the Flood. There’s not much info on this except that it is being described as “a journey to the end of the world.”E.L. Doctorow has an as yet untitled novel on tap for September.As does Jonathan Lethem. According to Comic Book Resources, Lethem said his untitled novel is “set on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, it’s strongly influenced by Saul Bellow, Philip K. Dick, Charles Finney and Hitchcock’s Vertigo and it concerns a circle of friends including a faded child-star actor, a cultural critic, a hack ghost-writer of autobiographies, and a city official. And it’s long and strange.” I like the sound of that.A Gate at the Stairs, Lorrie Moore’s first new novel in over a decade will arrive in September. The Bookseller sums up some of the excitement.October: You probably already know that Dave Eggers is working with Spike Jonze on a film version of Where the Wild Things Are, but did you know that Eggers is doing a novelization of the childrens classic too? It’s apparently called The Wild Things and will show up in October.Arriving at some point in late 2009 is Zadie Smith’s Fail Better. With her critical writing in The New York Review, Zadie Smith has quietly been making a bid to become the 21st Century Virginia Woolf. When she writes from her own experience as a novelist, she’s sublime; when projecting her own anxieties onto others, she’s less so. It will be interesting to see which Zadie Smith appears in this book of essays on books and writing. (Garth)We encourage you to share your own most anticipated books in the comments or on your own blogs. Happy Reading in 2009!