Welcome to the 15th annual Year in Reading series at The Millions. When site founder C. Max Magee first put together his year-end reading reflections in the early 2000s, no one suspected that a blog post would eventually grow into a series that has featured hundreds of writers and readers: librarians, critics, bloggers, journalists, essayists, poets, and fiction writers ranging from just-starting-out to just-won-a-Pulitzer-Prize. What the participants have in common is that they are loving, devoted readers.
To celebrate its 15th year, this December’s series is, at 90-something contributors, the most crowded yet. As in every year, entries turn out not to be mere lists of books, but records of time passing–there were births and deaths, moves and separations and career changes. As in every year, some books pop up again and again in contributors’ collections of memorable reading experiences. And as in every year, we guarantee you will conclude the month with at least one book to add to your TBR pile.
The names of our 2019 contributors will be unveiled throughout the month as entries are published (starting with our traditional opener from Languagehat’s Stephen Dodson later this morning). Bookmark this post, load up the main page, subscribe to our RSS feed, or follow us on Facebook or Twitter to make sure you don’t miss an entry — we’ll run at least three per day for the next three weeks.
Stephen Dodson, proprietor of Languagehat.Ayşe Papatya Bucak, author of The Trojan War Museum and Other Stories.Shea Serrano, author of Movies (And Other Things)Dantiel W. Moniz, author of the forthcoming collection Milk Blood Heat.Andrea Long Chu, author of Females.De’Shawn Charles Winslow, author of In West Mills.Omar El Akkad, author of American War.Kali Fajardo-Anstine, author of Sabrina & Corina: StoriesAlexandra Kleeman, author of You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine.Isabella Hammad, author of The Parisian.Nayomi Munaweera, author of What Lies Between Us.Marcos Gonsalez, author of the forthcoming memoir Pedro’s Theory.Max Porter, author of Lanny.Yan Lianke, author of The Explosion Chronicles.Lauren Michele Jackson, author of White Negroes: When Cornrows Were in Vogue … and Other Thoughts on Cultural Appropriation.Catherine Lacey, author of the forthcoming novel Pew.Sonya Chung, staff writer for The Millions, author of The Loved Ones.Carolyn Quimby, associate editor for The Millions.Nick Ripatrazone, staff writer for The Millions, author of Longing for an Absent God.Garth Risk Hallberg, contributing editor for The Millions, author of City on Fire.Jianan Qian, staff writer for The Millions.Nick Moran, special projects editor for The Millions.Kate Gavino, social media editor for The Millions, author of Last Night’s Reading and Sanpaku.Adam O’Fallon Price, staff writer for The Millions, author of The Grand Tour and The Hotel Neversink.Merve Emre, author of The Personality Brokers.Rion Amilcar Scott, author of The World Doesn’t Require You.Devi S. Laskar, author of The Atlas of Reds and Blues.Jason R Jimenez, author of The Wolves.Iva Dixit, associate editor at The New York Times Magazine.Jennifer Croft, author of Homesick.Venita Blackburn, author of Black Jesus and Other Superheroes.C Pam Zhang, author of How Much of These Hills Is Gold.Jedediah Britton-Purdy, author of This Land Is Our Land: The Struggle for a New Commonwealth.Julia Phillips, author of Disappearing Earth.Osita Nwanevu, staff writer at The New Republic.Jennine Capó Crucet, author of My Time Among the Whites: Notes from an Unfinished Education.Kate Zambreno, author of Appendix Project (Semiotext(e)’s Native Agents) and Screen Tests.Chanelle Benz, author of The Gone Dead.John Lingan, author of Homeplace: A Southern Town, a Country Legend, and the Last Days of a Mountaintop Honky-TopBeatrice Kilat, a writer and editor living in Oakland, Calif.T Kira Madden, author of Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls.Grace Loh Prasad, a contributor to the anthology Six Words Fresh Off the Boat: Stories of Immigration, Identity and Coming to America.Kaulie Lewis, staff writer for The Millions.Il’ja Rákoš, staff writer for The Millions.Zoë Ruiz, staff writer for The Millions.Ed Simon, staff writer for The Millions.Edan Lepucki, staff writer and contributing editor for The Millions, author of California.Hannah Gersen, staff writer for The Millions and the author of Home Field.Matt Seidel staff writer for The Millions.Bill Morris, staff writer for The Millions, author of Motor City Burning.Rene Denfeld, author of The Butterfly Girl.Bridgett M. Davis, author of The World According To Fannie Davis: My Mother’s Life in the Detroit Numbers.Anita Felicelli, author of Love Songs for a Lost Continent.Oscar Villalon, managing editor of ZYZZYVA.Terese Mailhot, author of Heart Berries: A Memoir.Jenny Offill, author of Last Things and Dept. of Speculation.Joseph Cassara, author of novel The House of Impossible Beauties.Daniel Levin Becker, senior editor at McSweeney’s.Nishant Batsha, a writer whose work has appeared in Narrative, TriQuarterly, and The Believer.Mike Isaac, author of Super Pumped: The Battle for Uber.Andrew Martin, author of Early Work.Kate Petersen, a writer whose work has appeared in Tin House, New England Review, Kenyon Review, and Paris Review Daily.Anne Serre, author of The Fool & Other Moral Tales.Tanaïs, author of Bright Lines and creator of independent beauty and fragrance house Hi Wildflower.Sophia Shalmiyev, author of Mother Winter.Grace Talusan, author of The Body Papers.Anne K. Yoder, staff writer for The Millions.Michael Bourne, staff writer for The Millions.Marie Myung-Ok Lee, staff writer for The Millions.Lydia Kiesling, contributing editor at The Millions and the author of The Golden State.Thomas Beckwith, staff writer for The Millions.Roberto Lovato, teacher, journalist and writer based at the Writers Grotto in San Francisco, California.Dustin Kurtz, Social Media Manager for Catapult, Counterpoint, and Soft Skull.Kevin Barry, author of novel Night Boat to Tangier.Susan Straight, author of In the Country of Women.
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Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2018, 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005
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We typically schedule the essays and reviews and lists we run at The Millions a week or two in advance. Before the U.S. election, I looked at what we had in the hopper and tried to arrange the posts for timeliness. This was basically a symbolic gesture since The Millions is a total literary miscellany, and mostly contributor-driven — we don’t have the budget to commission much work (see publisher Max Magee’s call for support here). Max and I conferred about what to run on election day itself; we agreed that a lovely, calm installment of Hannah Gersen’s Proust Diary was the thing. I asked him what we should run if Donald Trump won. “SHUT IT ALL DOWN,” he wrote, sort of joking.
It’s obvious now that our disbelief was a luxury — there were plenty of people who knew it could happen. But the shock was real, and so too was the subsequent urge to shut it down. It was unclear, in the days immediately following the election, how a literary site could possibly matter when Donald Trump was the President of the United States, when it felt that all efforts should henceforth be directed at subverting the new regime. (It’s still unclear.)
But then the Year in Reading entries started coming in, from more than 70 writers. This is the 13th year of the series, and it feels like the most necessary yet. The entries have a measure of fear and grief, yes. They are about reckoning with the past, and preparing for the future. They are also full of beauty, full of sensitivity, full of intelligence, full of curiosity and care. They are about dissolving in someone else’s consciousness. About sharing suffering. About taking a break. About falling in love.
Based on the entries this year, I can confirm that readers are still very into Elena Ferrante. But there are many other names to discover in this series — exciting debuts and forgotten classics and authors whose names were on the tip of your tongue. There are hundreds of books: novels, essays, works of nonfiction, and poems.
As in prior years, the names of our 2016 contributors will be unveiled throughout the month as entries are published (starting with our traditional opener from Languagehat’s Stephen Dodson). Bookmark this post, load up the main page, subscribe to our RSS feed, or follow us on Facebook or Twitter to make sure you don’t miss an entry — we’ll run three or four per day. And if you look forward to the Year in Reading every year, please consider supporting the site and ensuring this December tradition continues for years to come.
There are difficult weeks and years ahead, but we hope you’ll be momentarily refreshed and heartened as you hear from an array of prodigious readers and writers. At the very least, you’ll find something good to read.
Stephen Dodson, co-author of Uglier Than a Monkey’s Armpit, proprietor of Languagehat.
Chigozie Obioma, contributing editor at The Millions and author of The Fishermen.
Sofia Samatar, author of A Stranger in Olondria and The Winged Histories.
Claire-Louise Bennett, author of Pond.
Tony Tulathimutte, author of Private Citizens.
Caille Millner, author of The Golden Road: Notes on My Gentrification.
Edan Lepucki, contributing editor at The Millions and author of California.
Matt Seidel, staff writer at The Millions.
Sonya Chung, contributing editor at The Millions and author of The Loved Ones.
Nick Moran, special projects editor at The Millions.
Jacob Lambert, staff writer at The Millions.
Michael Bourne, staff writer at The Millions.
Tess Malone, associate editor at The Millions.
Tana French, author of The Trespasser.
Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib, author of The Crown Ain’t Worth Much.
Esmé Weijun Wang, author of The Border of Paradise.
Nicole Dennis-Benn, author of Here Comes the Sun.
Richard Russo, author of Empire Falls.
Annie Proulx, author of Barkskins.
Teddy Wayne, author of Loner.
Brandon Shimoda, author of Evening Oracle.
Basma Abdel Aziz, author of The Queue.
Imbolo Mbue, author of Behold the Dreamers.
Yuri Herrera, author of Signs Preceding the End of the World.
Sally Rooney, author of Conversations with Friends.
Bich Minh Nguyen, author of Pioneer Girl.
Jacqueline Woodson, author of Brown Girl Dreaming.
Megan Abbott, author of You Will Know Me.
Mauro Javier Cardenas, author of The Revolutionaries Try Again.
Emily St. John Mandel, staff writer at The Millions and author of Station Eleven.
Zoë Ruiz, staff writer at The Millions.
Nick Ripatrazone, staff writer at The Millions.
Kaulie Lewis, staff writer at The Millions.
Hannah Gersen, staff writer at The Millions and author of Home Field.
Il’ja Rákoš, staff writer at The Millions.
Claire Cameron, staff writer at The Millions and author of The Last Neanderthal.
Anne K. Yoder, staff writer at The Millions.
Kiese Laymon, author of Long Division.
Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney, author of The Nest.
Ed Yong, author of I Contain Multitudes.
Natashia Deón, author of Grace.
Bridgett M. Davis, author of Into the Go-Slow.
Anthony Marra, author of A Constellation of Vital Phenomena.
Leila Aboulela, author of The Kindness of Enemies.
Brit Bennett, author of The Mothers.
Dimitry Elias Leger, author of God Loves Haiti.
Chloe Caldwell, author of I’ll Tell You in Person.
Natalie Baszile, author of Queen Sugar.
Danielle Dutton, author of Margaret the First.
Dan Chaon, author of Ill Will.
Lisa Lucas, Executive Director of the National Book Foundation.
Madeleine Thien, author of Do Not Say We Have Nothing.
Anuradha Roy, author of Sleeping on Jupiter.
Marie Myung-Ok Lee, staff writer for The Millions and author of Somebody’s Daughter.
Janet Potter, staff writer at The Millions.
Ismail Muhammad, staff writer at The Millions.
Lydia Kiesling, editor of The Millions.
Elizabeth Minkel, staff writer at The Millions.
Adam Boretz, web editor of The Millions.
Garth Risk Hallberg, contributing editor at The Millions, author of City on Fire.
Mark O’Connell, staff writer at The Millions, author of To Be a Machine.
Kevin Nguyen, digital deputy editor for GQ.
Nadja Spiegelman, author of I’m Supposed to Protect You from All This.
Chris Bachelder, author of The Throwback Special.
Álvaro Enrigue, author of Sudden Death.
Aimee Nezhukumatathil, author of Lucky Fish.
Sylvia Whitman, owner of Shakespeare and Company bookstore.
Mensah Demary, editor for Catapult.
Jade Chang, author of The Wangs vs. the World.
Manuel Gonzales, author of The Regional Office is Under Attack!.
Hamilton Leithauser, rock star.
Lilliam Rivera, author of The Education of Margot Sanchez.
Jane Hu, writer; grad student; Canadian.
Chris McCormick, author of Desert Boys.
Michelle Dean, author of Sharp: The Women Who Made An Art of Having an Opinion.
A Year in Reading: Outro
Now in its second glorious decade, the Year in Reading has become a Millions tradition, featuring contributions from a roster of emerging and marquee authors, staff writers, and friends of the site. It’s an effort that yields hundreds of books for to-be-read piles, as well as some of the best writing we run all year.
After 13 years of solo striving, this was the first year that site editor C. Max Magee finally called for reinforcements; we happily stepped into the breach (now that we’ve seen the amount of work that goes into this, we’re a little frightened of him). It has been a thrill to look for exciting voices, to send emails like carrier pigeons off into the universe and hope they’ll come back bearing book recommendations from Stephen King (maybe next year). If you follow the literary world, you’d think that everyone is reading Elena Ferrante 24/7. And while lots of people are (you’ll see), Year in Reading is also our annual chance to peek behind the curtain at people’s singular reading lives—who went down a comics wormhole, or read multiple Freddie Mercury biographies, or discovered August Wilson for the first time. And not only what they read, but how they felt about what they read–how the reading shaped the year.
There are a huge number of books represented in the series this year, many fantastic lists, and many extraordinary meditations on reading and life. We think you’ll enjoy reading them as much as we enjoyed putting them together. As in prior years, the names of our 2015 contributors will be unveiled throughout the month as their entries are published. Bookmark this post, load up the main page, subscribe to our RSS feed, or follow us on Facebook or Twitter to make sure you don’t miss an entry.
– Your Year in Reading Editors, Lydia Kiesling & Janet Potter
Stephen Dodson, co-author of Uglier Than a Monkey’s Armpit, proprietor of Languagehat.
Ottessa Moshfegh, author of Eileen.
Atticus Lish, author of Preparation for the Next Life.
Angela Flournoy, author of The Turner House.
Claire Messud, author of The Woman Upstairs.
Celeste Ng, author of Everything I Never Told You.
Nell Zink, author of Mislaid.
Claire Vaye Watkins, author of Gold Fame Citrus.
Chris Kraus, author of Summer of Hate.
Katrina Dodson, translator of The Complete Stories of Clarice Lispector.
Joyce Carol Oates, author of The Accursed, among many other books.
Saeed Jones, author of Prelude to Bruise.
The Book Report, everyone’s favorite literary show.
Bijan Stephen, associate editor at the New Republic.
Garth Risk Hallberg, contributing editor for The Millions, author of City on Fire.
Lydia Kiesling, staff writer for The Millions and creator of the Modern Library Revue.
Janet Potter, staff writer for The Millions.
Elizabeth Minkel, staff writer for The Millions.
Emily St. John Mandel, staff writer for The Millions and author of Station Eleven.
Michael Schaub, staff writer for The Millions.
Thomas Beckwith, social media and previews editor for The Millions.
Anne K. Yoder, staff writer for The Millions.
Chigozie Obioma, author of The Fishermen.
Greg Hrbek, author of Not on Fire, but Burning.
Terry McMillan, author of Waiting to Exhale.
Sasha Frere-Jones, writer and musician.
Matthew Salesses, author of The Hundred-Year Flood.
Meaghan O’Connell, author of And Now We Have Everything.
Cristina Henríquez, author of Come Together, Fall Apart.
Vinson T. Cunningham, contributing writer for The New Yorker.
J.M. Ledgard, author of Submergence.
Nadifa Mohamed, author of The Orchard of Lost Souls.
Manjula Martin, editor of SCRATCH: Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living.
Lauren Groff, author of Fates and Furies.
Alexander Chee, author of Edinburgh.
Olivia Laing, author of The Lonely City.
Rahawa Haile, author of short stories and essays.
Rumaan Alam, author of Rich and Pretty.
Justin Taylor, author of Flings.
Julia Alvarez, author of How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents.
Jaquira Díaz, editor of 15 Views of Miami .
Dave Cullen, author of Columbine.
Hannah Gersen, staff writer for The Millions.
Tess Malone, associate editor for The Millions.
Matt Seidel, staff writer for The Millions.
Claire Cameron, staff writer for The Millions, author of The Bear.
Nick Ripatrazone, staff writer for The Millions, author of We Will Listen for You.
Edan Lepucki, staff writer for The Millions, author of California.
Viet Thanh Nguyen, author of The Sympathizer.
Daniel José Older, author of Shadowshaper.
Lincoln Michel, author of Upright Beasts.
Rebecca Carroll, author of Saving the Race.
Ana Castillo, author of So Far from God.
Patrick Rothfuss, author of The Name of the Wind.
Katie Coyle, author of Vivian Apple at the End of the World.
Sady Doyle, a writer in New York.
Patricia Engel, author of Vida.
Manuel Muñoz, author of What You See in the Dark.
Karolina Waclawiak, author of The Invaders.
Hamilton Leithauser, a singer/songwriter in New York City.
Catie Disabato, author of The Ghost Network.
Parul Sehgal, senior editor at The New York Times Book Review.
Margaret Eby, author of South Toward Home.
Tahmima Anam, author of A Golden Age.
Sandra Cisneros, author of Have You Seen Marie?.
Brian Etling, intern for The Millions.
Nick Moran, special projects editor for The Millions.
Jacob Lambert, staff writer for The Millions.
Michael Bourne, staff writer for The Millions.
Bruna Dantas Lobato, intern for The Millions.
Bill Morris, staff writer for The Millions, author of Motor City Burning.
Summer Brennan, author of The Oyster War.
Kerry Howley, author of Thrown.
Rachel Eliza Griffiths, author of Lighting the Shadow.
Maggie Nelson, author of The Argonauts.
Lauren Holmes, author of Barbara the Slut and Other People.
Kate Harding, author of Asking for It.
Year in Reading Outro.
The good stuff: The Millions’ Notable articles
The motherlode: The Millions’ Books and Reviews
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Out this week: The Small Backs of Children by Lidia Yuknavitch; The Woman Who Stole My Life by Marian Keyes; The Hand that Feeds You by A.J. Rich; Among the Ten Thousand Things by Julia Pierpont; Vanishing Games by Roger Hobbs; The Last Pilot by Benjamin Johncock; Speak by Louisa Hall; The Way Things Were by Aatish Taseer; The Invaders by Karolina Waclawiak; Pretty Is by Maggie Mitchell; You Don’t Have to Live Like This by Benjamin Markovits; French Concession by Xiao Bai; The Captive Condition by Kevin P. Keating; and the paperback edition of our own Edan Lepucki’s California. For more on these and other new titles, check out our latest book preview.
Welcome to a very special episode of The Book Report presented by The Millions! This week, Janet and Mike discuss Laura van den Berg’s Find Me, while traversing a hellish post-apocalyptic landscape, Mad Max-style. Will they turn on each other by the end? There’s only one way to find out. But yes. Yes, they will.
Discussed in this episode: South by Southwest, Kansas, disease, supermarkets, cough syrup, depression, Katniss Everdeen, Florida, California by Edan Lepucki, Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, suburban marriages, 20-somethings in Brooklyn, cold-pressed juice, H1N1, bird flu, swine flu, ebola, mad cow disease.
Discussed in next week’s episode: After narrowly escaping the Jade ruins, Janet and Mike agree to split up and meet in 48 hours at the abandoned hospital. But can Janet trust Mike? Find out the answer, which is “no,” on next week’s episode!
The literary landscape, high and low, is awash in post-apocalyptic stories these days, particularly stories of a more ambitious sort (take Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, Colson Whitehead’s Zone One, Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven, Edan Lepucki’s California, or Sandra Newman’s new weird and wonderful The Country of Ice Cream Star), a trend that’s easy to attribute to a pervasive sense of dread about the planet’s future among thinking people. Or, in the case of Whitehead’s zombie tale, a dread of the unthinking present. For a smart writer, a ravaged future world also offers something like a perfect literary playground, a cleared field where everything from language to human psychology to social convention can be reconsidered and reframed, critiqued or reimagined.
Poet Quan Barry’s debut novel would not seem to fit into this category, yet it inhabits an eerily similar ruined landscape, which happens to be the history of Vietnam. And if that field of history, viewed from a certain angle, resembles much of the rest of the world and time, Barry might be said to have created a post-apocalyptic present, a fictional world in which it’s possible to see how we always and everywhere are living among humanity’s ruins.
Barry seems especially well suited to the undertaking. Though born in Ho Chi Minh City, she was adopted as an infant and raised in the U.S. (on Boston’s north shore, her biographical materials specify). She is thus both of Vietnam and not, and traveling there as she has done a number of times could be a matter of finding a life that might have been, looking for a haunted past and listening to its ghosts, much as her fey character Rabbit does. On one of her trips, in 2010, Barry first heard the story of a woman named Phan Thi Bich Hang, who is the “official psychic” of Vietnam: “She was bitten by a rabid dog when she was 5 years old. And when she came out of her coma, she could hear the voices of the dead. And the government actually uses her to help them find the remains of soldiers and other people who are historically prominent in Vietnam.”
Hearing this, Barry, who’d been working for a few years on a book about an American nurse during the Vietnam War, thought, “that’s what this novel is supposed to be about,” and started writing She Weeps Each Time You’re Born, which begins with an American woman in present-day Vietnam seeking the mysterious Rabbit, who has lost her official status to a new psychic and is now kept under house arrest. “For Vietnam she gives up everything,” the woman’s guide whispers to her. “She will stay until every little one is heard. The northern and southern dead.”
The war is well underway when we first meet Rabbit, and the world is a dark, dangerous, and chaotic place. “[T]he air hangs fetid with the wet heat that follows the southwest monsoon.” The bridge across the Song Ma River is destroyed. The charred remains of huts dot the shoreline. “The patriarch had gone running back into one of the burning huts to find his granddaughter, the thatched roof like a woman with her hair on fire.” The faraway mountains are hazy with ash, and the night sky rumbles with distant planes. In the confusion of bombings and burning and death, people appear and disappear and nowhere is safe. And this is the shadowy, blasted countryside — often lit only by the flickering blue flames of the spirits of the dead — that Barry’s characters wander.
This, you might say, is a familiar wartime setting — but what makes it something more is the presence of those flickering spirits, the dead whose voices Rabbit hears, whose stories take us far and wide, in time and space, and make of all of Vietnam’s history a vast and troubled grave. And just as Rabbit is lifted, a newborn, out of her mother’s grave (apparently the source of her gift), humanity keeps rising from its own ruins and remains. What’s funny is Barry, in talking about her book, says she wanted to show more of the history and richness of Vietnam. “[W]hen we think of Vietnam here in the United States,” she says, “we think of it as a metaphor. You know, it’s synonymous with the idea of a quagmire.” The history of Vietnam is another quagmire. And upon this sucking, unholy ground a novel is built.
Upon her chthonic emergence, Rabbit becomes part of a makeshift family that roams Vietnam’s countryside during the war and “reunification,” staging an escape by boat that goes spectacularly wrong (even the water is a place of darkness and peril, afloat with human detritus), changing their human and geographic coordinates, giving us the intimate outlines of the view from above: “The population realigning itself because somewhere far away somebody had drawn a line on a map.”
In the death of an old woman along their way, Rabbit is able to hear of the awful French rubber plantations where the woman worked as a girl. In a trip to the forbidden purple city of Hue, the ancient capital, she hears of the horrors of imperial times. In Laos the voices of the Cambodian dead, the northern martyrs, the southern soldiers, the ethnic tribes, and the children overwhelm her. When walking one deathly landscape, Rabbit, we learn, has not thought of “the politics. Which stories the world is eager to bring into the light. Which stories it doesn’t want told.”
It’s probably not surprising that Barry’s first book of poetry, published in 2001, is called Asylum. And it’s probably even less surprising that Asylum harbors so many of humanity’s mistakes and sufferers and sins — the Salem Witch Trials, the Tuskegee syphilis experiments, Agent Orange’s deformities, the radioactive Bikini Atolls. Her next book, published in 2004, is called Controvertibles. In an interview about She Weeps Each Time You’re Born, Barry said, “I think the thing I’m most interested in is the idea of possibility.” That, to my mind, is the idea that her novel embodies. On this fictional landscape that I’m calling the post-apocalyptic present, where all the depredations of the past spread out like a broken boneyard, the blue lights of the spirit still flicker, and the dead still speak. And most important, someone hears.
In an effort to merge two loves of mine — writing and photography — I recently began this photo series that pairs snippets of novels with fun visuals that expand upon their cover art. To see more of the ongoing series and the prose captions that accompany each image, please follow @lifeserial and check out my #lifeserialreads tag on Instagram.
Broken Monsters, by Lauren Beukes
California, by Edan Lepucki
Everything I Never Told You, by Celeste Ng
Reunion, by Hannah Pittard
The Book of Strange New Things, by Michel Faber
The Dog Stars, by Peter Heller
The First Bad Man, by Miranda July
The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt
The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells, by Andrew Sean Greer
We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for January.
The Novel: A Biography
The Bone Clocks
My Brilliant Friend
The Narrow Road to the Deep North
The Strange Library
Dept. of Speculation
Loitering: New and Collected Essays
Happy New Year and glad tidings to you and yours. It’s 2015 now; the year we’ve been promised hoverboards and self-lacing sneakers. We have half of these things (so far), and we also have two new entrants to our hallowed Hall of Fame: Reading Like a Writer and We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves.
Overall, though, there is little change beyond the calendar. Our top-ranking book, The Novel: A Biography, remains the same for a second consecutive month, a second consecutive year. It’s followed by our own Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven, which concerns itself with, among other things, a contagious disease that brings about the disintegration of civilization. (Et tu, California*?)
And yet, the dawn of the new year does come with some new additions as well. Cracking our list in the tenth position is two-time Year in Reading alumnus (one, two) Charles D’Ambrosio’s widely acclaimed essay collection, Loitering. In her review for our site, staffer Hannah Gersen identified the qualities of the work that make it so impressive:
What I admired most about these essays is the way each one takes its own shape, never conforming to an expected narrative or feeling the need to answer all the questions housed within. D’Ambrosio allows his essays their ambivalence, and this gives ideas space to move freely across time, so that even “Seattle, 1974,” which was published twenty years ago, reflecting upon a time twenty years before, speaks to the present day.
Higher up on the list, in the sixth spot, we find Little, Brown’s nearly 1,000-page long omnibus, The David Foster Wallace Reader. It’s a collection composed of excerpts and full-length pieces from David Foster Wallace’s oeuvre, as selected by a dozen writers and critics, such as Hari Kunzru and Anne Fadiman. These pieces and their afterwords, wrote Jonathan Russell Clark, appeal equally to new readers and longtime devotees alike:
For those unfamiliar with Wallace, the Reader will hopefully spark enough interest in his work to help some readers get over just how damned intimidating his writing can be. … For Wallace fans, however, TDFWR is a chance to go back and read some of his most inventive and brilliant pieces, but more than that it’s an opportunity to reassess Wallace’s work, to judge it chronologically and thus progressively, and by doing so reacquaint one’s self to this incredible writer and thinker and person.
Next month, we’ll watch closely to see if David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks will come one month closer to the Hall of Fame. As I noted last September, doing so would make Mitchell the only author to have reached The Millions’s Hall of Fame for three separate works.
*Was that a measles reference, or a pun related to another Millions staffer’s recent novel? Why not both?
The Tumblr reblog holds a special kind of power. It’s the way that posts are shared on the platform — if, for example, I like your photograph, or link, or video, or 5,000-word analysis of our favorite TV show, I can re-post it on my own Tumblr, with or without additions, your original post fully intact. It will appear on my blog and on my followers’ dashboard feeds; if one of them reblogs it, and a few of her friends do the same, your post will gain momentum — it might even snowball to popularity. Posts on Facebook can slip into the ether, the whims of finicky algorithms; on Twitter, arguably the most temporal social network, your 140 characters have a matter of minutes, even seconds, before they drop out of sight down the infinite stream. On Tumblr, posts spread outward in networks of webs. They have drastically longer shelf lives than their counterparts on other social media outlets — reblogs, which make up 90% of Tumblr content, can make the rounds for weeks, months, even years, and with a tag search and a reblog or two, they can spring to life long after they’re published. In other corners of the Internet, you broadcast and consume information; on Tumblr, a platform built on mutual interests and passions, all that sustained sharing helps build real digital communities, one reblog at a time.
Book lovers will be pleased to know that the Tumblr book community is thriving. The Millions has its own popular Tumblr and our own Nick Moran has done a few great round-ups of literary Tumblrs, and the community has only grown since the last installment. Book Tumblr is a space where basically everyone who regularly has their hands (or, I suppose in the digital age, their eyes) on books can gather: writers, artists, editors, publishers, lit mags, booksellers and their bookstores, librarians and their libraries, and, most important of all, readers. The Tumblr book fandom is as committed to the written word as they are to the platform’s creative and transformative slant: when they finish a book, they’re ready to pull the most thought-provoking quotes or draw fanart or bake the cake they read about in chapter 12. There’s equal space for criticism and celebration, and it’s the kind of community that forces me to talk sappily about the power of the web, how people thousands of miles apart can find each other and build friendships based on a single book, or a love of books generally.
At the heart of Tumblr book fandom is books.tumblr.com and the woman who runs it, Rachel Fershleiser, once described by Lydia Kiesling here at The Millions as “an energetic person whose job at Tumblr (Literary and Non-Profit Outreach) seems to be using technology to make things happen with books to make things happen with technology.” Nicole Cliffe at The Toast recently took things a delightful step further by saying Fershleiser “represents for books on the Internet like an avenging angel who is also very nice.” Fershleiser (who, in the interest of full disclosure, I’ve met many times in bookish internet circles over the years) is a former book publicist who came to Tumblr from Housing Works, where she ran events — and got the bookstore onto Tumblr, one of the first institutions to create an analogous physical-to-digital space for readers to gather around books. At Tumblr, she encourages other organizations and writers onto the site; in a room full of publishers at the FutureBook conference in London a few months back, I seriously enjoyed watching her rep for Tumblr with enthusiastic and hyper-intelligent zeal. She curates a broad, book-positive discussion on Tumblr — and the Reblog Book Club, a year and a half old and now in its fifth round, is at the very center.
“I wanted to do a Tumblr book club from the day I started,” Fershleiser told me a recently when I stopped by Tumblr’s offices near Union Square in Manhattan (the address is one that loyal Tumblrites will recognize instantly from every email they get about new followers). “I love to talk about books — that’s what I’m doing here — and I love to talk about books on the Internet, and Tumblr is such a rich place for engaging with art in a creative way. My actual lifelong dream is to be the Oprah of the Internet. So this seemed like a good place to start.” She launched the Reblog Book Club in the fall of 2013, and the first title was Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl, a book (that I happen to be obsessed with) about a girl who writes fanfiction about the Harry Potter-like Simon Snow novels. “I got really in my head about choosing a first book,” Fershleiser said. “There were no rules: is it YA or is it adult, is it serious, or dystopian, or funny, and how can I choose one book for a hundred million people? It’s a really big community.”
But Rowell proved to be a perfect choice. Her previous novel, Eleanor & Park, had come out earlier that year and had been a huge hit, and she was an active Tumblr user and unabashed fangirl — and, of course, she’d written a novel about loving books and celebrating them online. There weren’t a lot models for a massive-scale online book club — some sites set titles and interviewed the authors, and maybe opened up a comments section or discussion thread. But Tumblr is all about peer-to-peer exchange, and Fershleiser wanted to reflect that. She set a fairly loose schedule — dates by which chunks of the book would ideally be read — and an open format: all the tools of Tumblr, from gifsets to multimedia to chains of reblogged meta, were put to use. The ask box was always open, so Rowell could drop in and answer questions whenever was easiest (rather than the formally scheduled Q&A sessions we see with a lot of authors online).
This kind of thing is relatively new territory for authors — how many times have you cringed in the past decade seeing writers forced to start blogs or Twitter accounts or somehow engage with their readers online when it didn’t come naturally, or worse, when it clearly made them uncomfortable? But these days plenty of writers do shine in digital spaces, and Rowell is one of them — and when Tumblr called, her publisher embraced the opportunity. Stephanie Davis, the marketing manager at St Martin’s Press, told me, “Working with Rachel to launch the Reblog Book Club was really exciting because the community on Tumblr is so expressive, creative, and authentic.” Davis cited the fact that Rowell was on Tumblr, and enthusiastically so, that made her an ideal first choice. The club was an experiment — and it was a successful one. It showed off the very best of the Tumblr book community: “It was thrilling to be able to approach a traditional book club in a new way,” Davis said. “And to see how the Tumblr community jumped in and participated — I’m still blown away by how talented her Tumblr fans are!”
The conversations in the Reblog Book Club are nearly always civil, and usually pretty warm and engaged — something that’s particularly notable online. Perhaps it’s because Fershleiser is there to moderate, or perhaps it’s because the author is there, too, or perhaps it speaks to the kinds of readers attracted to the group. “This is my own little push-back against the idea that online conversation has to be mean and shallow,” Fershleiser said. “Not only are people kind and thoughtful, the conversation is nuanced and in-depth and we read complicated books about complicated characters and have complicated responses to them, and I think that’s wonderful. I want to smash it in the face of people who think that enjoying the Internet is the opposite of people enjoying real books.”
The titles that followed Fangirl transcended genre labels and age designations. In the book store they’d be classified as middle grade, YA, and adult, verse and prose; in reality, they’re more like a collection of books about complex female protagonists getting things done. There was Laurie Halse Anderson’s The Impossible Knife of Memory, our own Edan Lepucki’s California, and Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming, for which she won the National Book Award late last year. It felt fitting to get in touch with Edan for a Millions piece, and she told me, “The Reblog Book Club was one of the most satisfying parts of publishing my book this summer because I got to see readers interacting with my work in ways that I couldn’t elsewhere. (A writer should always avoid reading their Amazon reviews, for instance, unless she wants to feel like a pile of shit in three seconds flat.)” She continued,
On Tumblr, even if readers weren’t loving my novel, they were still engaging with it in these thoughtful ways, wrestling with how they felt about the characters, why I’d made certain choices, guessing about what was going to happen, etc. And when a reader loved my book — oh how they loved it! I feel like the internet has brought back sincerity and enthusiasm, made it acceptable, and that is refreshing. It’s not cool to be cool, it’s cool to get excited about stuff and to be a fan with a capital F…It truly made me feel like my book was alive for people in the way it had been for me, when I was writing it.
And now, to start 2015, there’s Katie Coyle’s Vivian Apple at the End of the World. I’ve never met Coyle in person, but we followed each other on Tumblr about a year ago, and I feel like I know her deeply, from her enthusiasm for Doctor Who gifsets (it’s all about Peter Capaldi on that front) to her long, thoughtful essays, including a wonderful post last year in which she described the genesis of this book: Neil Gaiman had posted about the Hot Key Books Young Writers Prize on his Tumblr, and she’d seen it, entered, and won — and eventually got to thank him in person. The book was published as Vivian Versus the Apocalypse in the U.K., and was released there along with a sequel, Vivian Versus America, last year; the newly-titled version came out in the U.S. this month. Coyle seems to like Tumblr as much as I do, if not more. “I feel like there’s really no better place on the internet to be loud about the things you love than Tumblr,” she told me. “I’ve used it for my personal blog for about six years now, and in that time I’ve really noticed that it’s helped change my tastes, and open my eyes to new things I wouldn’t have otherwise heard about.”
It was pretty hard for me to keep from falling in love with Vivian Apple at the End of the World: the characters — particularly the heroine, Vivian, who grows progressively bolder as the novel proceeds — are smart, dynamic, and seriously funny, and it’s a whip-smart satirical take on contemporary America, from religion (the big one — it’s about the Rapture) to consumerism to feminism to homophobia. And these past few weeks, Coyle watched her readers react to her work as they read it, something most authors never get the chance to do. “Overall it’s been really great,” she said. “I’m a debut author and basically had no feeling of assurance whatsoever that anyone other than my parents was going to read this book. To be able to go on Tumblr and see people not just reading it, but engaging with it, picking themes and characters and quotes they particularly liked or were interested by, has been overwhelming. It is a little weird to watch it unfold in real time. I’ve seen posts where people say, ‘I have a question about this, can’t wait to see how Coyle addresses it’ and I’m like ‘oh no oh god I never addressed that thing.’”
She doesn’t have much to worry about, though: the Reblog Book Club seems to be loving the book, and engaging with it in typical fashion, with fanart and meta and playlists for the apocalypse. “I am a huge fan of fans,” Coyle said. “If there was a fandom fandom, I would belong to it, because nothing is more beautiful to me that goofy outrageous creativity being applied to movies and television shows and books, especially. So the idea that someone would read the book and make a playlist, or draw a picture, or paint their nails the color of the cover, was and is almost too wonderful for me to bear. I have long said that my only authorial goal is to inspire someone else to write fanfiction about my work. I’m not sure if that’s happened yet, but I feel like I’ve gotten a bit closer.” (I’ve advised her to watch her inbox on this front.)
For the readers, some of whom come via the authors, others who show up for every title Fershleiser picks, the Reblog Book Club is a unique space on the web. Lauren Bates works in a library in Florida and has a dedicated book Tumblr, and she found out about the club through Rainbow Rowell’s Tumblr: “I was newly post-grad and unemployed and really very desperate to stay engaged with literature without the excuse of schoolwork,” she told me. “The literary community can sometimes be intimidating or inaccessible to people who don’t have connections to the industry or an active literary scene in their community, and even if you do live in a relatively literary community, it can be difficult to find people with a similar taste in books.” The Tumblr book community, she said, is a beautifully egalitarian space: “We have no idea what each other’s backgrounds are or where (or if) anyone attended college or what their major was or any of that. Your credentials don’t give your opinion more weight than anyone else’s.”
Another active member, Sarah Smith-Eivemark told me that she “owe[s] her publishing career to the Bookternet:” I joined Tumblr a little over three years ago, but I didn’t start actively posting until about two years ago, when I realized that so many of the people who I respected in publishing, the people whose careers I wanted to emulate and work with, had a Tumblr of their own. I’m completely addicted now. I’ve met and connected with more people who share my love of reading and independent publishing through Tumblr than I have with, well, anything else.” Smith-Eivemark is now the publicist at Coach House Books in Toronto, and she still uses Tumblr in her professional life. If anything, the Tumblr book community shows her all the people out there incredibly excited about reading: “…it can just seem so challenging to simply get people to buy a book,” she said. “The Reblog Book Club encourages me, and reminds me that not only are there readers out there, they’re smart, funny, and exactly the kind of people I’d want to know (as we say) IRL.”
It’s a little coincidental that this round of the Reblog Book Club coincided with the launch of another online “book club” at another behemoth of a social network: Mark Zuckerberg’s New Year’s resolution to read a book every two weeks led to the announcement of Facebook’s “A Year of Books,” in which 278,000 (and counting) members will “discuss” a new title once a fortnight. The inevitable comparisons to Oprah came and went — for an eloquent analysis of why exactly Zuckerberg is not and will never be Oprah, I’d recommend Anna Wiener’s fantastic piece on the subject in the Gawker Review of Books. “Oprah built an entertainment and media empire that trades in feelings; she is the definition of a successful personal brand,” she wrote. “Mark Zuckerberg built Facebook, a website buttressed by targeted ads with a well-intentioned but often emotionally clumsy experience. Oprah can make one’s life feel like an important journey to the center of the soul. Facebook can make one’s life feel inadequate, ephemeral, and commoditized.” But while the first meeting of the club was reportedly a mess, the first featured title, The End of Power by Moisés Naím, skyrocketed in sales. Maybe it doesn’t matter whether it’s possible to have a real discussion in this kind of space: Facebook merely suggesting a title will lead people to buy it (though not, it should be noted, to necessarily read it.)
The contrast between Facebook’s book club and the conversations I see on Tumblr are striking. As much as the book industry needs — perhaps even is desperate for — a solid and regular base of book-club consumers, this big, dedicated driver of sales (on that front, Zuckerberg and Oprah will likely have much in common), people who make and distribute books also want passionate readers, the sort who will evangelize for a book that they love. Fershleiser agrees — during our conversation, she echoed some of my thoughts from my last fan culture column on the topic, on how book fandom is more about depth than breadth. She said:
I think that some people think of fandom only as people who already have millions of people hanging on their every word. A lot of what we’re doing here starts smaller. For the books we choose for the Reblog Book Club, the authors are on Tumblr and they have some kind of following but it’s not because they’re the biggest authors on Tumblr, it’s because it’s going to be something interesting to talk about. It’s not that there are huge numbers of people participating in the book club, it’s that they’re really, really engaged and excited and when you have even 50 people on your platform who are talking about a book, every day, who are making incredible fan art, nail art, getting really excited, getting into heated debates about things, especially on a network like Tumblr, with the reblogging and the following, it reverberates through the network and it feels like, ‘What’s this thing that everyone’s talking about? It’s exciting and I want to be a part of it.’ It doesn’t take six million people to create that kind of feeling —–it grows organically.
Is the Reblog Book Club the future of books online? I sure hope so, or at least that it’s a big part of it. It represents some of the best of what the web can offer — genuine connections and discussions, between groups that can’t realistically interact in the analog world, and a sort level playing field, bookstores and authors and librarians and readers sitting side by side, one post after another. And perhaps most importantly, the Tumblr book community gives permission to get deep into the world of a book: it’s cool to love it for a while, and to try to press it into the hands of everyone on your dash. With a few well-chosen gifs, of course.
The Millions is going to be very quiet this week, a great opportunity for readers to catch up on some of the most notable pieces from the site during the year. To start, we’ll divide the most popular posts on The Millions into two categories, beginning with the 20 most popular pieces published on the site in 2014:
1. Sam Anderson and David Rees decided, for science, to do a deep dive on Dan Brown’s thriller Inferno. The result was Dumbest Thing Ever: Scribbling in the Margins of Dan Brown’s Inferno and some of the funniest marginalia you’ll ever read.
2. Oh, The Favorites You’ll Give: Literary Twitter’s Best Tweets: Many readers are well aware of the many charms that literary Twitter has to offer. We looked at the most “popular” tweets of some of the most well-known literary personalities on Twitter.
3. Style Sheet: A Conversation with My Copyeditor: Our own Edan Lepucki’s made waves this year with her bestselling novel California, and as the book hit shelves, she took the opportunity to show us how the sausage is made. Among several behind-the-scenes interviews, Edan’s visit with her copyeditor proved to be the most fascinating for our readers.
4. Read Me! Please!: Book Titles Rewritten to Get More Clicks: 2014 was the year of clickbait, snippets of twisted English pumped full of hyperbole and lacking in specificity, a concoction designed to wring maximum clicks from readers. Our own Janet Potter and Nick Moran pondered how some literary classics might have employed this same strategy. The results are hilarious… and terrifying.
5. 28 Books You Should Read If You Want To: Leery of proliferating lists exhorting us to read these 100 books (or those 100 completely different books) before we die, Janet Potter concocted her own reading list, one that feels more true to how we find the books that shape our lives. It begins: “You should read the book that you hear two booksellers arguing about at the registers while you’re browsing in a bookstore.”
7. Commercial Grammar: It’s easy to shrug off bad grammar in a logorrheic age, but Fiona Maazel outlined the danger of letting our language be manhandled by marketers.
8. 55 Thoughts for English Teachers: “All of a sudden, I have been teaching public school English for a decade.” Our own Nick Ripatrazone with some powerful reflections on teaching high school English.
9. Italo Calvino’s Science Fiction Masterpiece: Calvino is beloved for his unique brand of literary fiction, but Ted Gioia argued persuasively that more attention should be paid to Calvino’s “science fiction masterpiece” Cosmicomics.
10. Our star-studded Year in Reading was a big hit across the internet.
11. Only at The Millions could a review — albeit an undeniably persuasive one — of a 1,200-page work of literary criticism be one of the most popular pieces of the year. Jonathan Russell Clark painted a compelling picture of Michael Schmidt’s mammoth The Novel: A Biography
12. The Common Core Vs. Books: When Teachers Are Unable to Foster a Love of Reading in Students: The debate over Common Core standards raged across the U.S. in 2014. Alex Kalamaroff urged readers to reflect on what these standards might mean for the next generation of readers.
13. Shakespeare’s Greatest Play? 5 Experts Share Their Opinions: For the Latest in his series of roundtables, our own Kevin Hartnett asked five experts to name the greatest of Shakespeare’s plays.
14. There Are Two Kinds of Novelists…: Let’s be honest. Our own Matt Seidel is right. When you boil it down, there are really only two kinds of novelists…
15. We Cast The Goldfinch Movie so Hollywood Doesn’t Have To: Word of a film adaptation gave us all the excuse we needed to keep talking about Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch. Our own Janet Potter and Edan Lepucki saved everyone a lot of trouble and went ahead and put together a cast for the movie.
16. Judging Books by Their Covers 2014: U.S. Vs. U.K.: This unscientific look at book covers had readers taking sides in a trans-Atlantic design debate.
17: Thug: A Life of Caravaggio in Sixty-Nine Paragraphs: Pimp, brawler, Old Master. Stephen Akey introduced us to the epic life of Caravaggio.
18. Here Come the Americans: The 2014 Booker Prize Longlist: Readers love playing along during the annual literary prize season, but the addition of Americans to this year’s Booker Prize was cause for heightened curiosity (and consternation).
19: How to be James Joyce, or the Habits of Great Writers: It’s tempting to think that by copying the habits of the greats, you can become one. Elizabeth Winkler looked at some books about how history’s greatest writers wrote and found habits as widely varied as the books they produced.
20: Cooking with Hemingway: Maybe it’s easier then to simply eat like the greats? Stephanie Bernhard tried cooking like Hemingway and came away sated, if sometimes perplexed.
There are also a number of older pieces that Millions readers return to again and again. This list of top “evergreens” comprises pieces that went up before 2014 but continued to find new readers.
1. The Weird 1969 New Wave Sci-Fi Novel that Correctly Predicted the Current Day: Ted Gioia profiled John Brunner’s uncanny novel Stand on Zanzibar, which included, way back in 1969, a President Obomi and visionary ideas like satellite TV and the mainstreaming of gay lifestyles.
2. Dickens’s Best Novel? Six Experts Share Their Opinions: Kevin Hartnett polled the experts to discover the best on offer from the prolific 19th century master.
3. The Ultimate List: 25 Gifts That Writers Will Actually Use: For the picky writers in your life, Hannah Gerson delivered an array of ideas that will keep the creative juices flowing.
4. The Greatest American Novel? 9 Experts Share Their Opinions: Kevin Hartnett convened a panel of experts to offer their answers on a high-stakes literary question, What is the Great American Novel? The answers he received are thought-provoking, enlightening, and, of course, controversial.
5. The Best of the Millennium (So Far): Our late-2009 series invited a distinguished panel of writers and thinkers to nominate the best books of the decade. The ensuing list stoked controversy and interest that has lingered. The write-ups of the “winner” and runners-up have also remained popular. We also invited our readers to compile a “best of the decade” list. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the readers’ list seemed to receive a warmer reception.
6. Tolstoy or Dostoevsky? 8 Experts on Who’s Greater: Readers also returned to Kevin Hartnett’s Russian lit throwdown, for which he asked eight scholars and avid lay readers to present their cases for Tolstoy or Dostoevsky as the king of Russian literature.
7. A Year in Reading 2013: 2013’s series stayed popular in 2014.
8. Hard to Pronounce Literary Names Redux: the Definitive Edition: Seven years on, our “definitive” literary pronunciation guide is still a favorite at The Millions. There must be a lot of people name-dropping Goethe out there.
9. Ask the Writing Teacher: The MFA Debate: Writers pondering “To MFA or not to MFA” keep finding Edan Lepucki’s thoughtful advice from her popular Ask the Writing Teacher column.
10. How Many Novelists are at Work in America? At the end of 2013, Dominic Smith pondered a scary question. The answer? More than you think.
Where did all these readers come from? Google (and Facebook and Twitter and Tumblr and Reddit) sent quite a few of course, but many Millions readers came from other sites too. These were the top 10 sites to send us traffic in 2014:
2014 has been a year of transition for me. After 19 years of being a student, I graduated with my master’s in journalism from the University of Missouri in May. By the end of the month, I moved to Atlanta, a city I had only been to twice before. And in the beginning of June, I started work as a copy editor for a magazine. Yes, I’m a single girl living on her own in the bright, big city and working in journalism — my life is a romantic comedy waiting for Ryan Gosling to arrive.
Although my books were some of the first things I unpacked when I got to my new apartment, considering I close read for a living now, I haven’t had much time to read for fun. But the books I did read fell into a certain category: young women trying to figure out their place in a new world (I wonder why?). My new city survived two historic fires and is often a backdrop in apocalyptic TV shows and movies, so I didn’t have a hard time getting sucked into Edan Lepucki’s California and Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven. Edan’s end of the world is shockingly intimate and real — and all the more terrifying because of this. I loved both Cal and Frida even though they stubbornly tried to get me not to, and I decided my artifact would be a beer opener. Emily’s dystopia is visceral yet hopeful — the kind that keeps you up late to read more. Yet the most provocative book in this category wasn’t in a not-so-distant and bleak future, it was immediate and raw. The best book I read in 2014 was Lena Dunham’s Not that Kind of Girl.
I should note that I started off 2014 trying to absorb all of the wit and wisdom in The Most of Nora Ephron, but half a year later, I needed someone more relatable, someone who didn’t have it all. After all, the title of Lena’s book is about defining yourself by what you aren’t, my favorite and most detrimental 20-something hobby. Yet in Lena, I found a girl who made the same mistakes I had or even worse, but she could write about it with a humor, vulnerability, and the self-awareness that was missing from Hannah Horvath. But like her alter ego, Lena doesn’t apologize for who she is even as she admits some terribly intimate secrets and character flaws, and this is why she is both one of the strongest voices in film and, now, evidently, in writing. Plus, the book is hilarious. Whether you like her or not, Lena Dunham is a new literary voice to be reckoned with — cutting, funny, and sometimes brutal.
And this is the type of writer and woman I want to be, not fodder for a Ryan Gosling film, but witty, honest, and strong.
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The twin peaks of my reading this year was a pair outstanding novels written by colleagues of mine here at The Millions. Edan Lepucki’s debut, California, reached #3 on The New York Times bestseller list, while Emily St. John Mandel’s fourth novel, Station Eleven, was named a finalist for the National Book Award. Both books thoroughly deserve their critical and commercial success, and for all their many differences of tone and approach, their DNA shares a prominent strand: both novels are set in a dystopian near future, after civilization has collapsed and people are forced to scratch and improvise their way to lives with some semblance of security and meaning. The books’ shared tones and time frames led me to write an essay about the timeless – and timely – allure of the near future for writers working in our anxious times.
Too late to include in that essay, is another dystopian near-future novel I just finished reading by another “literary” novelist, On Such a Full Sea by Chang-Rae Lee. (I think the word literary needs to be placed between quotation marks in this context because it’s a contrivance, though in this case a useful contrivance: it notes that realists like Lee — and Margaret Atwood, Kazuo Ishiguro, Colson Whitehead, and Cormac McCarthy — have been venturing into speculative new terrain that was once the preserve of genre writers.) Full Sea posits a nuanced dystopia: pollution and economic collapse have caused mass migrations of Chinese people into abandoned American cities, and a three-tiered society evolves. On the top are the wealthy, living in gated communities; in the middle are the working-class residents of strictly regulated cities like B-Mor, formerly Baltimore; and on the bottom are the poor people living in the brutal rural “counties.” The novel gets draggy and ponderous in spots, but its great strength is the first-person plural narration by the “we” of B-Mor, a hive mind that gives the novel creepy, mythic overtones.
While in Detroit on a book tour this summer, I bumped into a writer named Dan Epstein who was in town promoting his two irresistible books about baseball during that most benighted of decades, the 1970s — Big Hair and Plastic Grass: A Funky Ride Through Baseball and America in the Swinging ’70s and Stars and Strikes: Baseball and America in the Bicentennial Summer of ’76.
Before encountering Epstein and his books, I had dismissed the ’70s as a stylistic Sargasso when almost everything went to hell — cars, pop music, the economy, hairstyles, fashions and, yes, baseball, which was suddenly being played on AstroTurf fields in cookie-cutter stadiums by whiskery guys wearing Technicolor polyester uniforms. (Movies, curiously, were immune from the scourge, enjoying a fleeting golden age during the decade). Epstein, as I discovered, actually revels in the decade’s cheesiness, and he does so without the killing smirk of irony. And, he reminded me, it wasn’t all cheese: it was when he fell in love with punk rock, soul, funk, and blaxploitation flicks. For the first time, as he writes, the real world invaded a professional sport: “Drugs, fashion, pop music, political upheaval, Black Power, the sexual revolution, gay revolution — all of these things left their mark upon ’70s baseball in ways that would have been unthinkable just a few years earlier, and might be just as unthinkable now.” Indeed, Epstein’s books helped me see that before the 1970s, professional athletes were cocooned in the myth that they were wholesome superheroes; since then they’ve become cocooned in something even less interesting: money.
Speaking of Detroit, one of the best books I read this year was a scintillating new collection of reportage, poetry, memoir, photography, essays, and fictionalized observations called A Detroit Anthology. Delightfully free of finger-pointing, cheap nostalgia, or breathless boosterism, the book makes the point that only through an understanding of this troubled city’s history can one hope to understand its current woes and its possible ways forward. The collection’s editor, Anna Clark, has succeeded sublimely in her goal of capturing “the candid conversations Detroiters have with other Detroiters.”
This will also go down as the year I read my first — and last — James Patterson novel, Pop Goes the Weasel. As Flannery O’Connor’s character Nelson Head says after his disastrous first trip from his home in the piney woods of Georgia to the big city of Atlanta: “I’m glad I’ve went once, but I’ll never go back again!”
This will also go down as the year when I, a person who doesn’t like to rush into things, became the last person in America to read Gillian Flynn’s 2012 smash, Gone Girl. How good was it? It was so good I have absolutely zero desire to spoil the experience by going to see the movie version, even though Flynn wrote the screenplay. Sometimes, a book is enough.
And finally, two pieces of long-form journalism stood out this year. Thanks to The Daily Beast, I discovered the great Gay Talese’s 1970 Esquire magazine article about the Manson Family’s desert hideout at the Spahn Ranch. Though nearly half a century old, the writing in “Charlie Manson’s Home on the Range” remains fresh and vibrant — a reminder just how radical it was for Talese to use the novelist’s tools in his journalism, and just what a brilliant reporter he was, and is. At age 82, he’s still working the beat.
Every year I re-read one of my favorite pieces of journalism, Marshall Frady’s 1971 Life magazine article, “The Judgment of Jesse Hill Ford.” Ford’s best-known novel, The Liberation of Lord Byron Jones, told the story of the titular black undertaker in a small Southern town in the 1960s, who has the temerity to name a white cop as a co-defendant in his divorce suit. The cop performs the inevitable execution of Jones, and the local white community comes together to protect and absolve him. Frady’s article lays out the horrific story of how Ford’s life came to imitate his art. The liberal undertones of Ford’s novel won him few friends among his white neighbors in Humboldt, Tenn., so there was a pronounced shiver of schadenfreude when Ford was charged with killing a black man who was trespassing on his property. Frady’s article dissects Ford’s tortured campaign to win back the favor of the white community, in order to win absolution and avoid prison. The article rises to the level of art through insights like this:
Like most who are authentically taken up into the obsession of writing, Ford belonged, more or less, to the Dionysian disposition, a nature tending toward the unruly and ecstatic…Ford worked out of an older understanding of man — that primitive, profoundly reactionary, pagan vision in which virtually all true story-tellers have probably been working since Homer, which has evolved not an inch since Ecclesiastes: that the race is basically unimprovable, and its condition an inalterable mixture of meanness and nobility, violence and compassion. Ford himself once remarked, ‘I’ve been invited to sessions before to discuss biracial committees and all those other causes, yeah. But I’ve never gone. I’d just rather not hear them mewl and whine.’
Journalism by the likes of Frady and Talese is getting harder and harder to find. As I was reminded again this year, digging it out is always worth the effort.
The good stuff: The Millions’ Notable articles
The motherlode: The Millions’ Books and Reviews
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This series was first conceived in 2004 as a way to get a fledgling website about books through a busy holiday season. Realizing I had spent much of that year with my nose in books that were two, 20 or 200 years old, I was wary of attempting to compile a list of the year’s best books that could have any hope of feeling legitimate. It also occurred to me that a “best of” list would not have been true to the reading I did that year.
Instead, I asked some friends to write about the best books they read that year and was struck when each one seemed to offer up not just an accounting of books read, but glimpses into transporting and revelatory experiences. For the reader, being caught in the sweep of a book may be one of a year’s best memories. It always feels like we’ve hit the jackpot when we can offer up dozens of these great memories and experiences, one after another, to close out the year.
And so now, as we kick off another Year in Reading, please enjoy these riches from some of our favorite writers and thinkers.
For our esteemed guests, the charge was to name, from all the books they read this year, the one(s) that meant the most to them, regardless of publication date. Grouped together, these ruminations, cheers, squibs, and essays will be a chronicle of reading and good books from every era.
We hope you find in them seeds that will help make your year in reading in 2015 a fruitful one.
As in prior years, the names of our 2014 “Year in Reading” contributors will be unveiled one at a time throughout the month as we publish their contributions. You can bookmark this post and follow the series from here, or load up the main page for more new Year in Reading posts appearing at the top every day, or you can subscribe to our RSS feed or follow us on Facebook or Twitter and read the series that way.
Stephen Dodson, co-author of Uglier Than a Monkey’s Armpit, proprietor of Languagehat.
Anthony Doerr, author of All the Light We Cannot See.
Haley Mlotek,editor of The Hairpin.
Jess Walter, author of We Live in Water.
Karen Joy Fowler, author of We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves.
Isaac Fitzgerald, editor of BuzzFeed Books and co-founder of Pen & Ink.
Emily Gould, co-owner of Emily Books, author of Friendship.
Blake Butler, author of 300,000,000.
Janet Fitch, author of White Oleander.
John Darnielle, vocalist for the band the Mountain Goats and author of Wolf in White Van.
Leslie Jamison, author of The Empathy Exams.
Matthew Thomas, author of We Are Not Ourselves.
Eula Biss, author of On Immunity.
Garth Risk Hallberg, contributing editor for The Millions and author of A Field Guide to the North American Family.
Laura van den Berg, author of the story collections What the World Will Look Like When All The Water Leaves Us and The Isle of Youth.
Hamilton Leithauser, frontman for The Walkmen.
Celeste Ng, author of Everything I Never Told You.
Mark O’Connell, staff writer for The Millions, author of Epic Fail.
Janet Potter, staff writer for The Millions.
Lydia Kiesling, staff writer for The Millions.
Nick Ripatrazone, staff writer for The Millions, author of Good People.
Michael Bourne, staff writer for The Millions.
Ben Lerner, author of 10:04.
Jane Smiley, author of A Thousand Acres.
Phil Klay, author of Redeployment.
Emily St. John Mandel, staff writer for The Millions, author of Station Eleven.
Tana French, author of Broken Harbor.
Yelena Akhtiorskaya, author of Panic in a Suitcase.
Philipp Meyer, author of The Son.
Edan Lepucki, staff writer for The Millions, author of California.
Jayne Anne Phillips, author of Lark and Termite.
Maureen Corrigan, author of So We Read On.
Porochista Khakpour, author of Sons and Other Flammable Objects.
Tiphanie Yanique, author of Land of Love and Drowning.
David Bezmozgis, author of Natasha: And Other Stories.
Lindsay Hunter, author of Ugly Girls.
Dinaw Mengestu, author of All Our Names.
Eimear McBride, author of A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing.
Caitlin Moran, author of How to Be a Woman.
Rabih Alameddine, author of An Unnecessary Woman.
Walter Kirn, author of Blood Will Out.
Michael Schaub, staff writer for The Millions.
Nick Moran, social media editor for The Millions.
Hannah Gersen, staff writer for The Millions.
Kaulie Lewis, intern for The Millions.
Rachel Fershleiser, co-creator of Six-Word Memoirs and co-editor of Not Quite What I Was Planning.
Rebecca Makkai, author of The Hundred-Year House.
Gina Frangello, author of A Life in Men.
Hannah Pittard, author of Reunion.
Michelle Huneven, author of Blame
Lydia Millet, author of Mermaids in Paradise.
Michele Filgate, essayist, critic, and freelance writer.
Carolyn Kellogg writes about books and publishing for the Los Angeles Times.
Emma Straub, author of The Vacationers.
Ron Rash, author of Serena.
Darcey Steinke, author of Sister Golden Hair.
Tom Nissley, author of A Reader’s Book of Days and owner of Phinney Books in Seattle.
Molly Antopol, author of The UnAmericans.
Scott Cheshire, author of High as the Horses’ Bridles.
Caitlin Doughty, author of Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.
Julia Fierro, author of Cutting Teeth.
Bill Morris, author of Motor City Burning.
William Giraldi, author of Busy Monsters.
Rachel Cantor, author of A Highly Unlikely Scenario.
Jean Hanff Korelitz, author of You Should Have Known.
Tess Malone, associate editor for The Millions.
Thomas Beckwith, writer and project assistant for The Millions.
Matt Seidel, staff writer for The Millions.
Elizabeth Minkel, staff writer for The Millions.
Michael Robbins, author of The Second Sex.
Charles Finch, author of The Last Enchantments.
A Year in Reading: 2014 Wrap-Up
The good stuff: The Millions’ Notable articles
The motherlode: The Millions’ Books and Reviews
In high school I had a zine with my friend Vanessa. It included our poetry and short stories, and for the cover of the first issue we used a label maker to spell out its title. After we’d put out one or two issues, I received a polite request from a man in prison, asking me to send him a copy. He paper-clipped two dollars in cash to his request. For some reason, I put the letter aside. From time to time, I took out the request, read it, and then put it back. Years later, I spent the money.
To borrow a phrase from Bennie Salazar, the record producer in Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From The Goon Squad, this is one of my “shame memories.” Sometimes when I can’t sleep, or when I’m having a particularly low day, I think about the guy in prison who wanted to read my zine, and I wonder why I never sent it to him, why I spent his two bucks on lip balm or a soda or whatever. What shames me the most is that there was no reason why I didn’t send him the zine. I just…didn’t. I had planned to, but something, perhaps the teenage trifecta of distraction, malaise, and self-absorption, held me back. I’m also ashamed that I think about this so much. As if my juvenile zine really mattered all that much to anyone.
Lately, I’ve been thinking: If I were a fictional character, would readers hate me?
In her essay “Perfectly Flawed” Lionel Shriver writes, “Surely if fiction recorded the doings only of good campers who anguish about climate change and buy fair trade coffee, novels would be insufferably dull.” I agree. As a reader, my only rule is that a character be interesting. I also have a taste for the quote-unquote unlikeable set: Eva Khatchadourian from Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin; Sheba and Barbara from Zoe Heller’s Notes on a Scandal; Undine Spragg from Edith Wharton’s Custom of the Country. I love that they’re barbed, delusional, judgmental, thorny, damaged, and/or vulnerable. As Roxane Gay writes, “I want characters to think ugly thoughts and make ugly decisions. I want characters to make mistakes and put themselves first without apologizing for it.”
Every couple of months there’s a new defense of unlikeable characters (see: Claire Messud’s take) or likeable ones (see: Jennifer Weiner’s), and this conversation often returns to our cultural expectations of women. Recently, Emily Nussbaum wrote about “The Female Bad Fan” for The New Yorker. These are “the fans of shows with female protagonists, both comedies and dramas, who crave not bloodshed but empowerment.” Nussbaum writes:
The Mindy Project is a sitcom about a woman poisoned by rom-coms, but it offers up its own romantic-comedy pleasures. Female viewers, especially, have been trained to expect certain payoffs from romantic comedies, vicarious in nature: the meet-cute, the soul mate, and, in nearly every case, a “Me, too!” identification. Without “Me, too!,” some folks want a refund.
I’ve come across something similar with my own novel, California, which is marketed as a literary post-apocalyptic novel, but is also a study of a young marriage. While many readers tell me they like the wife, Frida, many do not. Readers on Goodreads or Amazon have expressed this opinion, but so have a couple critics: in the Washington Post, for instance, Sara Sklaroff remarked that Frida “isn’t much of a heroine. She’s annoying, self-centered and tragically naive.” I was surprised that Sklaroff hated Frida as much as she did, and even more puzzled that she didn’t also have trouble with Cal, Frida’s husband; to me, they’re both flawed. I was surprised, too, that character likability was a central focus of the review.
To be honest, the negative reactions to Frida have given me a wee bit of a complex. I’ve found myself wondering about my own actions, about the way I’ve hurt this or that person, or felt slighted about some insignificant thing someone said to me. The way, in college, I asked, “What’s with the hat?” to a Mennonite at the movies. The shame memories are running on repeat these days, is what I’m saying.
Frida isn’t like me: she is impetuous and secretive, she acts based on emotion and intuition, and she’s a slacker. Cal isn’t like me either: he is more hesitant, reserved, and adaptable than I am. These characters frustrated and disappointed me, but I always found them compelling. Likability wasn’t part of the equation; I simply wanted to write about these two specific people, alone and together in the woods, mourning their pasts and trying to stay hopeful. If anything, I was interested in setting a small-scale drama within an “end-of-the-world” situation. What if, at the end of the world, we aren’t our best selves–we’re just ourselves?
(This summer I read The Hunger Games and though I’d love to be as brave as Katniss, I doubt I would be. Maybe the post-apocalyptic genre has trained us to expect characters to break free from the shackles of pettiness and resentment and grief in the face of world-ruin. I’m interested in the characters who don’t or can’t do that.)
I decided to ask two fellow writers about their experience with the “unlikeable” issue. Jean Hanff Korelitz told me that by the time her new novel, You Should Have Known, came out in March, readers’ dislike for her protagonists had “risen to a general din…even from readers who liked the novel very much.” She went on:
‘I just didn’t like her’ is a phrase I read over and over again on Goodreads and Amazon, about the protagonist, Grace Sachs (a woman who has so many problems — missing, probable murderer and adulterer husband, exploding career, global humiliation, etc.– that reader reviews would be pretty far down on the list).
The whole phenomenon made me take stock of the female characters I’ve gravitated to over the years: Lizzie Bennet? Becky Sharp? The strange, probably mentally ill narrator of Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping? Would I truly have wanted to take a spa weekend with any of them? When had that become a requirement for appreciating a fictional character?
When I asked Jean what’s on her mind as she creates a character, she said, “I seem to have this compulsion to take women who appear strong, fortunate, “self-actualized,” and rip them to shreds, then see what they make of themselves after that, how they claw their way back.” She continued:
I think there’s an essential feminism at work here…not that I am in the habit of quoting Therese Giudice (she of the indelible “ingredientses” for the cookbooks she — God help us — writes), but her most recent Real Housewives tagline — “You never know how strong you are until it’s the only choice you have…”–could serve the protagonists of most of my novels. Women really are strong when they have to be. And that, to me, is far more compelling than finding your “bestie” in the pages of a novel.
Since receiving Jean’s words of wisdom, I’ve been thinking a lot about what I want to see in fictional characters, no matter the gender: I want them complex and realistic, and also surprising. And for female characters, it’s particularly important to me that they have the freedom to be whatever they need to be, whether it’s strong, or weak, or ice-cold, or vulnerable, or all of the above. After all, my real-life best friend can be all of those things, and I still love her.
Author Emma Straub helped me put this all in perspective. A small contingent of readers don’t seem to like her character Franny, who is the matriarch of Emma’s novel The Vacationers. (Which is weird to me, as Franny is funny, an excellent cook, and she’s being pretty pleasant in the wake of her husband’s infidelity.) Emma is wonderfully sanguine about the issue:
I certainly never intended to make my characters either likable or unlikeable — my goal with the characters in this book was to make them as real as possible. Warts and all. I always liked them, but I don’t think that’s even the point. I wasn’t surprised when some readers didn’t, because I saw them as three-dimensional human beings, and god knows it’s hard to find one of those that you don’t find in some way lacking or imperfect. I truly could not care less if readers feel differently.
I also think there’s a big difference between a character being unlikeable (whatever that means) and it being unpleasant to spend time reading about them. I have put down many books because I didn’t like the experience of reading them, but that has nothing at all to do with whether or not the characters in those books seemed like people I would want to hang out with. That’s my question, I suppose, for the people who keep bringing this horseshit up. Are they complaining about not enjoying the book, or that they don’t want to have tea with the characters? Because if it’s the former, for godssake, stop reading!
I grew up in a house built on horror novels, so I’ve spent my entire life reading books about serial killers and pedophiles and assorted other creeps. Are those unlikeable characters? To some people, probably.
Traditionally, the Unlikeable Character in fiction is created with authorial intention. You, as the reader, recognize the cues that the person you’re reading about is alienating or reprehensible, and it’s clear that such characterization is part of author’s aesthetic project. (Unreliable Characters, a la the infamous butler in Remains of the Day, are also traditionally revealed this way). But what if a character isn’t Unlikeable, but unlikeable? What if you just didn’t like him or her? That’s a valid personal response, and certainly a good a reason as any to stop reading. But it’s such a personal response that it’s irrelevant to the critical gaze.
Part of me is embarrassed that I unintentionally wrote characters that are so insufferable–at least to some readers. It’s like holding a glass up to a door, behind which strangers are describing how terrible you–or worse, your children!–are. I can’t help but keep eavesdropping.
At the same time that I emailed Jean and Emma, I also sought out readers who couldn’t stand Frida. This was part anthropological experiment, part focus group. I felt like, if I could just get some answers, I might understand my own book a little better.
I stumbled upon Susan’s review on Goodreads. In it, she details how much she couldn’t stand any of the characters in California. It’s a very funny rant, which begins, “I don’t remember ever before reading a book where I so hated all of the pieces yet so very much enjoyed the book as a whole.”
When I asked Susan when exactly her antipathy began, she told me, “I actually disliked Frida from almost the first page. She immediately seemed crass and spoiled to me.” In the first scene, the reader learns that Frida treasures a turkey baster, purchased before leaving Los Angeles, which even Cal doesn’t know she possesses. Susan said, “The turkey baster was so bizarre… I got what it was about, but the fact that it was so frivolous and silly, combined with the fact that the very first thing I learned about her was that she was keeping secrets (STUPID secrets!) from her husband just turned me off.”
Susan’s reactions fascinated me. One, that frivolity would be damning, rather than revealing, or that a reader would require a secret be grave, especially when it’s between a husband and wife. I’m reminded of the time someone told me they hate to dance, as in, they never ever feel the urge to move to music, even when alone. Wow, I thought, people sure are different from me!
(Susan also hated that Frida “seemed to be entirely defined by the men in her life.” I hate that, too.)
Susan had some choice words for Cal: “The truth is, I actually hated Cal more than Frida. I thought he was a pompous pseudo-intellectual hipster ass.” Sheesh, Susan, tell me how you really feel! Generally, she interpreted Cal and Frida through the lens of their white privilege. That interpretative model poses a powerful question about characterization: how much is our identity, and our actions, dictated by race and class? But, then again, if a reader traces everything about Frida and Cal back to their white privilege, that means I’ve failed, in some way, to make them fully human. It also might suggest that there’s a lower tolerance for white privilege in the post-apocalyptic landscape; some readers want the end-of-the-world to slough off such burdens. (To me, Frida and Cal are victims of late-capitalism, and also products of it. Aren’t we all.)
Another reader, Shayna, answered my call on Tumblr for anyone who hated Frida. She said she was bothered by Frida’s decision to take a Vicodin while pregnant. And, again, she took issue with Frida withholding information, especially from Cal. She wrote, “I just found this so stupid and selfish.” It’s true, Frida does some pretty stupid and selfish stuff, as does Cal. I suppose, as a writer, I’m interested in the stupid, selfish choices we make.
Hearing from Shayna and Susan brought me some peace, for I can’t control how people react, nor should I want to. I am honored that my novel elicited strong reactions to my characters, and I’m heartened that both readers enjoyed the book despite (or because of!) these reactions. Both agreed that there’s often a double-standard for female characters. Shayna said, “A women is whiny or bitchy and ruins the story whereas a male is mean or surly and [that] just makes him interesting or an anti-hero.”
Susan said, “I am a huge, huge fan of Gillian Flynn, the primary reason being that she’s not afraid to write female characters who are evil, psychotic, violent, and messed up in every possible way. I find that so much more empowering and compelling as a female reader to hear about those women than about the perfect, nice, likeable, and usually totally unrealistic female characters you find in most novels.”
Susan’s tastes align with mine, and with many other readers’. Right now there are so many complex female characters for us to encounter on the page and screen, particularly quote-unquote unlikable ones, from Amy Elliott-Dunne of Gone Girl, to the (less murderous) Hannah Horvath of Girls. I, for one, can’t turn away from these women, and I won’t.
I won’t turn away from the characters who stem from my own dark, muddy mind, either.
Image via amysjoy/Flickr
Maybe we should lay this one on Cormac McCarthy. In 2006, after writing a string of rigorously realistic literary novels that seemed to come down to us from some remote desert Olympus, McCarthy delivered an utterly out-of-character book. The Road was set in the near future after a vaguely defined cataclysm – “a long shear of light and then a series of concussions” – had turned the planet into a wintry ashtray, wiped out most of mankind, and erased civilization. The novel was post-apocalyptic and viciously dystopian and, most amazing of all, unashamed of its genre trappings. It was not exactly news in 2006 that the once-impregnable walls separating literary genres were beginning to crumble. But when The Road won the Pulitzer Prize, became an Oprah pick and got made into a major motion picture, it suddenly seemed that writers of every persuasion, from highbrows to hacks, had the green light to explore that realm once seen as the preserve of writers of science fiction, fantasy, and speculative fiction: the near future.
Emily St. John Mandel, a colleague of mine here at The Millions, has just been named a finalist for the National Book Award for her fourth novel, Station Eleven, a highly literary work set in the near future that focuses on a Shakespearean troupe that travels the Great Lakes region performing for survivors of a flu pandemic that wiped out most of mankind and ended civilization. Here, in Mandel’s words, is what such a world might look like:
An incomplete list:
No more diving into pools of chlorinated water lit green from below.
No more ball games played out under floodlights. No more porch lights with moths fluttering on summer nights. No more trains running under the surface of cities on the dazzling power of the electric third rail. No more cities. No more films… No more pharmaceuticals. No more certainty of surviving a scratch on one’s hand, a cut on a finger while chopping vegetables for dinner, or a dog bite…
No more flight…
Mandel, in an interview with the New York Times, cited McCarthy’s take on the end of civilization as a liberating force for herself and like-minded writers. “It’s almost as if The Road gave more literary writers permission to approach the subject,” she said.
That Times article dissected the “cluster” of recent and forthcoming novels that are set in bleak worlds after civilization has crumbled. The article speculates that this cluster – books by Howard Jacobson, Michel Faber, and Benjamin Percy, among others, plus Station Eleven and the Divergent and Hunger Games series – is fed by our era’s anxieties over pandemics, environmental catastrophes, energy shortages, terrorism, and civil unrest. Today’s headlines about the international spread of Ebola are sure to deepen this anxiety.
(It’s worth noting that novelists aren’t the only ones drawn to the dark possibilities of the near future. The makers of movies and television shows are churning out dystopian fare set in a future inhabited by a few decent souls trying to navigate worlds riddled with cannibals, zombies and totalitarian cults.)
For many years, the near future has beckoned writers as different as Margaret Atwood, Anthony Burgess, George Orwell, J.G. Ballard, Aldous Huxley, and Philip K. Dick. They’ve recently been joined by a growing legion of literary novelists that includes Kazuo Ishiguro, Colson Whitehead, Michael Cunningham, David Mitchell, and many others. As these writers have shown, fiction set in the near future can be post-apocalyptic, but it doesn’t have to be. It can be dystopian, but it doesn’t have to be. (It is, however, almost always dark.) It can contain elements of fantasy, magic realism and/or science fiction, but it doesn’t have to. In the end, labels are less interesting to me than writerly strategies: What is gained by setting a work of fiction in the near future?
A good place to start looking for an answer is Gary Shteyngart’s 2010 novel, Super Sad True Love Story, a satire set in New York City around the year 2018. Rather than imagining some environmental or economic upheaval, Shteyngart has simply taken today’s technology and tried to extrapolate what it will be doing to us a few years from now. The novel bristles with devices like the äppärät, a pendant that broadcasts the wearer’s scores on everything from looks to “fuckability” to credit rating. An individual’s credit rating is also displayed on sidewalk “credit poles.” The currency of choice is the “yuan-pegged dollar” because the old dollar is worthless. Women wear see-through jeans called Onionskins. Hipsters have migrated from Brooklyn to Staten Island. Nobody reads books anymore. (On an airplane, a fellow passenger upbraids the protagonist, Lenny Abramov, for cracking open an actual book: “Duder, that thing smells like wet socks.”) The country is run by the right-wing Bipartisan Party, and American society is made up of elite High Net Worth Individuals – and everybody else. Lenny Abramov is the “The Life Lovers Outreach Coordinator (Grade G) of the Post-Human Services Division of Staatling-Wapachung Corporation,” which provides life-extension services to anyone who’s got a pile of money and a desire to live forever. The novel becomes, among other things, a very funny portrait of the twinned hells of post-literacy and constant connectivity.
Shteyngart has said that when he started writing the book in 2006, he imagined a future in which Lehman Brothers, General Motors, and Chrysler all tanked. Two years into the writing, those companies actually tanked. “So I had to make things worse and worse,” Shteyngart told The Nation. “That’s one of the difficulties of writing a novel these days – there doesn’t seem to be a present to write about. Everything is the future.” Another difficulty, as Shteyngart discovered, is the novelist’s need to walk the increasingly blurry line that separates the plausible from the outlandish.
William Gibson, who made his name in the 1980s writing science fiction novels set in a future heavily influenced by then-nascent computer technology, is now going against the grain: He recently started setting his fiction in the present. “Novels set in imaginary futures are necessarily about the moment in which they are written,” he told The Paris Review in 2011, adding, “For years I’d found myself telling interviewers and readers that I believed it was possible to write a novel set in the present that would have an effect very similar to the effect of the novels I had set in imaginary futures…I finally decided I had to call myself on it.”
It’s a wrinkle on Shteyngart’s discovery: technology is changing so fast that there’s no longer a present; the future is already here, relentlessly unspooling into the past. Which presents its own counter-intuitive challenge, as Gibson sees it: “It’s harder to imagine the past that went away than it is to imagine the future.”
Michael McGhee has set his first novel, Happiness Ltd., somewhere between the worlds of Mandel’s extreme post-apocalyptic future and Shteyngart’s more recognizable near future. In the middle of the 21st century, the novel’s titular entity governs the developed world like Amazon on steroids, crushing competition, feeding the public a diet of happy news, and demanding that people consume the abundant goods and services offered by the Bountiful Age. Celebrities are worshipped, lifespans are artificially extended, and after a major economic collapse and years of devastating storms, watery lower Manhattan has been walled off and ceded to disenfranchised persons, or DPs, who refuse to be seduced by the consumer society’s ubiquitous baubles. There are strong whiffs of Huxley and Orwell in this smiley-face dystopia. There is also an echo of the difficult love affair at the center of Super Sad True Love Story – when Nelson, a rising star in Happiness Ltd.’s news management operation, falls in love with a DP named Celia, trouble is inevitable. Such slumming is fiercely discouraged by the powers that be.
In an email, McGhee explained his decision to set his novel near the middle of this century: “To me, the appeal of near-future fiction is its invitation to tweak society’s nose – to take today’s standards and extend them to a ridiculous extreme. For example, modern American culture encourages us to spend beyond our limits – what happens tomorrow when a cash-strapped government requires us to spend beyond our limits? Or, today our culture practically worships celebrities. What happens tomorrow when some of us literally worship celebrities? It’s a fertile field for satire.”
Like Shteyngart, McGhee learned that current events have a way of outracing a writer’s imagination. “The peril is that the near future has a propensity for arriving faster than you expect,” he writes. “It took me 10 years to write Happiness Ltd., and almost all the fantastic features I started with – advertisers tracking our every move, hurricanes ravaging lower Manhattan – came true before I was finished.”
Edan Lepucki, another colleague of mine here at The Millions, hit the New York Times bestseller list this summer with her dystopian debut novel, California. Set in the near future, it tells the story of a young couple, Frida and Cal, who flee southern California after a string of financial and environmental catastrophes, then try to eke out a life in the northern woods. America has finally become what it is now firmly on its way to becoming: a bifurcated society, where the haves live in gated communities, and the have-nots like Frida and Cal live in decayed cities or the wilderness. Like Shteyngart’s future America, Lepucki’s is a country of High Net Worth Individuals – and everybody else.
Lepucki, in an email, described the allure of the near future this way: “I loved the challenge of speculation, of imagining certain present-day conflicts (oil crisis, climate change, disappearing tax base in dying cities) escalating to an intense degree. I also liked the freedom of a post-technological world, and how that added mystery to my characters’ lives, and deepened their isolation. And it was just fun to play pretend, to really fling myself into this new, unfamiliar landscape; I had never done that in fiction. Last, there was a real sense, when I was writing this book, that the characters’ conflicts mattered. I’d never had such a strong and accessible sense of dramatic propulsion when writing, and I think the apocalypse had something to do with it.”
There is, she added, a flipside: “To create a believable future you have to think logically through certain large-scale events, which is so different from my usual concern when writing fiction; I usually work on a much smaller scale, considering a made-up person, putting them in a room, and letting them interact with another made-up person.”
If I see a thread running through these books and their authors’ comments, it would be this: the near future is an alluring time to set fiction because it frees the writer’s imagination in ways that writing about the past does not. Fiction set in the near future frees the writer to build a plausible and coherent world on a known foundation – in a sense, to extrapolate where today’s world is going. It’s a liberating strategy since the future is so patently unknowable; and it’s a timely strategy since people in an anxious age like ours are especially eager to know – or imagine – where we’re headed.
If today’s crop of books, movies and TV shows set in the near future are an accurate barometer, it looks like we’re in for some filthy weather.
Image: Pexels/Sadiqur Rahman.
You may have heard that our own Bill Morris has a new book on shelves. He talked about it with fellow Millions staff writer and California author Edan Lepucki. At the LARB, Diana Clarke reviews the book, which she calls “a sharp critique of the contemporary American post-racial narrative,” among other things.
Not every worthy book finds the audience it deserves as quickly as Edan Lepucki’s California. John Warner writes about the long aftermath of finding his debut, The Funny Man, featured in our 2011 Most Anticipated Book Preview: “I wondered, what if? Maybe this was going to be the next phase of my life, and when people asked me what I did, I’d say that I wrote novels.” His new collection of short stories is Tough Day for the Army.
This week, two of our staff writers here at The Millions are publishing novels. California, Edan Lepucki’s debut, is set in the near-future in northern California, where a young couple scratches out an existence after a series of environmental and economic calamities. Thanks to Sherman Alexie and Stephen Colbert, the book has generated a typhoon of buzz, leading to brisk pre-sales. The San Francisco Chronicle calls the novel “ambitious, powerful, frightening.”
Motor City Burning, Bill Morris’s third novel, is set during the 1968 baseball season in Detroit, where a white homicide cop is pursuing a black suspect, a disillusioned former civil rights activist, in the last unsolved killing from the previous summer’s apocalyptic riot. Publishers Weekly gave it a starred review, writing that the novel displays “acute insight into the era’s fraught climate.” And Kirkus Reviews has called the story “an intense cat-and-mouse game.”
Edan, who lives in the San Francisco Bay area, and fellow Millions staff writer Bill, who lives in New York City, recently had a conversation via email about the joys and perils of writing novels and shepherding them to publication. Here is that conversation:
Edan Lepucki: I really enjoyed Motor City Burning! It’s such a deftly drawn character study that also doesn’t scrimp on plot and big themes, like justice, purity of aims, and loyalty. The novel both invokes Detroit in the 1960s and also traffics in some classic crime novel tropes – but without succumbing to those tropes altogether. Do you see this is as a historical novel, a crime novel, or neither, or both? Or, really: how does its historical element affect its plot elements?
Bill Morris: I’m glad you think I didn’t succumb to the old tropes. That was something I was definitely trying to avoid. I guess I see this as a “historical crime novel,” if such a genre exists, because my starting point was the events of the 1960s – the civil rights movement, the pop music, and, especially, the summers of 1967 and 1968 in Detroit – and using that history to tell the story of a crime that actually happened, the last of the 43 killings during the ’67 riot.
I want to get the smoke-blowing out of the way up front. So I’ll just say it flat-out: California is a novel about a dystopian future, somewhere in the middle of the 21st century, when violent weather and economic collapse have divided America into the haves, who live in gated communities, and the have-nots, like the young couple Cal and Frida who live in the wilderness, scratching out an existence. I never would have guessed this is a first novel – because the withholding and revealing of information is done so deftly. Also, at the level of the sentence, there is great assurance. I’m guessing a lot of rewriting went into making such a polished final draft. Am I guessing right?
EL: Thanks, Bill! Reading yours, I could definitely tell you were not new to the novel dance: you write with such control and grace. It inspired me.
Most of the rewriting – and, make no mistake, there was a lot of rewriting! – had to do with plot and world building. I tend to write very clean first drafts, and what I have to work on later is the story. Thankfully, my characters were well in place, so editing was all about clarifying what had happened to L.A.; what the origins of Frida’s brother’s terrorist group were; and what happened to this enclosed outpost before Frida and Cal sought it out. My editor Allie Sommer had me write a timeline to make it easier to see the story more wholly. That helped; I usually write so intuitively, crafting pretty sentences and focusing on characters, that the story, the plot, gets neglected.
What about you? Did you know this novel’s architecture from the outset, or did it come to you as you wrote? How did you decide whose point of view to favor? Were black civil rights activist Willie Bledsoe and white detective Frank Doyle always the major players? What did it take to flesh them out into the complicated characters they are now?
BM: Your question about point of view brings back some painful history. This novel has been in the works, off and on, for 17 years. It has been through four titles, four agents, at least a dozen drafts, and more rejections than I care to count. In one draft, I tried to tell the story through alternating first-person voices, à la As I Lay Dying. This failure confirmed something I had long suspected: I’m no William Faulkner. Once I settled into a third-person omniscient voice – and worked to make myself invisible – things started to fall into place.
As for architecture, I knew my central story was going to be the hunt for the person responsible for the last unsolved killing from the 1967 Detroit riot; but I wanted to frame that story around the Detroit Tigers’ championship season of 1968. The story got a jump-start when I learned that Opening Day of the ’68 season was postponed by two days in deference to Martin Luther King’s funeral. So right away, the civil rights movement and baseball were winding together. I also knew I wanted a young black man from the South as the protagonist, someone who had been in the trenches with the Freedom Riders and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, but got disillusioned with the movement’s leaders. Again, King’s funeral was the ideal way to introduce this character and his dilemma. Sometimes, when doing historical research, you get little gifts for your fiction. And as for fleshing out Willie Bledsoe, the burnt-out activist, and Frank Doyle, the white cop who’s after him, my main goal was to make both men imperfect, confused, and complicated. Detroit’s racial divide is one of the most complicated things in America, and I didn’t want there to be anything simplistic about it in this book.
Speaking of complicated, one of my favorite things about California is how Micah, the leader of the outpost you mentioned, got involved with a terrorist group that conducted suicide bombings Terrorists – especially eco-terrorists and guys like this “econo-terrorist” – make for fascinating fictional characters. I’m thinking of Kelly Reichardt’s new movie, Night Moves, and books like Jim Harrison’s A Good Day to Die, and Edward Abbey’s The Monkey Wrench Gang. Are those characters interesting because of their moral ambivalence, their willingness to do wrong in order to do right? Or do you think it’s something else?
EL: Wow, the journey of your book is astounding and is a good advertisement for tenacity and revision. And speaking of baseball, I loved the evocative descriptions of Tiger Stadium. I read them aloud to my husband, who is obsessed with the sport.
I love your interpretation of Micah. He was the most difficult character to write because I wanted to give him a humanity that persisted despite his evils, or perhaps was in danger of fading away because of said evils. Some readers have described him as a psychopath, but I don’t totally agree: Micah did at least begin with commendable ideals…and he also started out with something dark and damaged at his core. He is dangerous precisely because he is human: capable of being hurt and of wanting attention; driven by a desire to change the world but also a servant to an unquenchable ego. I wanted him to be a villain, but also a little brother. Frida can and can’t see his flaws because he is family.
Let’s talk about how your book got published after its long road. Who bought it, and how has the path to your pub date been?
BM: The book was bought by Jessica Case, an editor at Pegasus Books, a small independent publisher in New York City. The manuscript had been sleeping in a drawer for several years when I got a magazine assignment from Popular Mechanics in early 2012 – they wanted me to go back home to Detroit, talk to people, look around, and try to imagine what the city will be like a dozen years from now. I was very anxious that the assignment was going to be a bust, but when I got back to Detroit I was astonished by the energy, the enthusiasm, the sprouts amid the rubble. With Detroit so much in the news – and this was before the bankruptcy – I thought the time was right to try to give that old manuscript a pulse.
I revised the manuscript one more time and found a new agent, a human volcano named Alice Martell, who I’d met at the National Book Awards ceremony, where I’d gone to interview a client of hers who was a finalist. She agreed to look at my manuscript, she got it, and she sold it. The people at Pegasus have been amazing – not only Jessica’s editing, but the copyediting, the proofreading, and now the publicity push. Which reminds me, you did a couple of nice interviews for The Millions with your editor and copyeditor. Amid all the grim news about the publishing industry, I think we’ve both had pretty salutary experiences. Wouldn’t you agree?
EL: Yes, I too have had extremely positive experiences with my agent and editor and publicists at Little, Brown. I feel like they’ve put so much time and energy into making my book better, and getting it into readers’ hands. This book in many ways feels like a collaborative effort. I could not have gotten it out there on my own.
What was the editing experience with Jessica like? Allie, my editor, took me through a couple major revisions and she had very high standards. I learned a ton about revision from her. Was your editing experience similar to your previous ones, with your two other books?
BM: Jessica went over every word of the manuscript and made many small suggestions and several major ones – always stressing that they were suggestions, there for me to take or leave. I took almost every one because she’s smart and unbelievably thorough, and they made the book much better. Then the copyeditor, Deb Anderson, found new ways to improve the manuscript. And the proofreader, Phil Gaskill, caught inaccuracies and inconsistencies that never would have occurred to me. My first novel got a similarly thorough editing at Knopf, while my second got virtually none at Avon. Overall, this experience has renewed my faith in the publishing industry. People say nobody edits books anymore. Don’t believe them.
I just got finished reading today’s New York Times, and I was stunned to see a major feature article about you and California and how Stephen Colbert has taken up your cause as part of his ongoing campaign against Amazon on behalf of Hachette writers, including you. You mention in the article that the attention has alternated between being “icky” and “a fantasy.” Which side is winning out?
EL: Stunned is the right word – that’s how I feel! Mostly, the “fantasy” side is winning out; I feel enormously grateful and thrilled to have so much attention on my book. It’s so hard to get press for a novel, and this is just…just…crazy! I still feel badly that my good fortune is a product of this messy dispute between Amazon and Hachette. I wish I wasn’t the only author enjoying this bump; even though my fellow authors have been supportive and excited for me, I know there are many books that are getting a raw deal because of this dispute, and that does feel icky. But, yes, it’s really a spectacular turn of events. It just brings home for me how random it all is: there are tons of good books that don’t get much press. Why certain books take off like wildfire while others don’t is an enduring mystery to me. Right now I am just, again, stunned that California was plucked from the mountain of books. Also: wow, TV is still really powerful!
Now that your faith in writing fiction and publishing has been renewed, what’s next for you? What are you working on now?
BM: I’m back at work on one of the novels I couldn’t sell during that 17-year dry spell. Like California, it’s set in the near future, but in New York City. I don’t want to say much more, but the working title is Garbage: A Love Story. How about you? Are you working on something new, or is selling California taking up all of your time and energy?
EL: I recently returned to Ucross, an artists’ retreat in Wyoming where I started California. There, I continued working on a novel I began almost a year ago, but which I only work on in fits and starts (between revisions and publicity and motherhood, I guess). I have about 150 pages. All I’ll say is that it’s contemporary, and there are women in it. I haven’t written much at all for the past month, sadly, but I look forward to diving back in once this publication hullabaloo dies down.
BM: Well, this publication hullaballoo is a necessary evil. I just hope California continues to sell like Krispy Kremes, and I can’t wait to see what you come up with next.
EL: Same to you, Bill!
Whenever my students ask me about getting a literary agent, I say three things: 1. There are a lot of agents out there. 2. The process can take a long time, so be prepared for rejection and waiting, waiting, waiting. 3. If you’re afraid of your agent, he or she is not the right agent for you. That last piece of advice is borne out of my experience working with Erin Hosier, whom I consider not only my advocate and colleague, but my friend. I’m not afraid to email her for advice and I do not fear her reaction to my work. (Other friends of mine seem cowed by their agents, which saddens me: if your agent can’t root for you, then who in the business can?) Erin is honest and smart and funny, and if I am bugging her too much I expect her to tell me so. When she isn’t agenting at Dunow, Carlson and Lerner, she’s writing. Her memoir, D0n’t Let Me Down, is forthcoming from Atria Books. Also: her lipstick is always impeccable.
She answered the following questions via email within 24-hours. If you want to hear more from Erin — and who won’t after reading this? — she’ll be appearing at WWLA: The Conference on Saturday, June 28, 2014. (And, yes, that’s a shameless plug.)
The Millions: How did you become a literary agent?
Erin Hosier: I had been interning at a magazine and found it to be a stressful, low-paying job with a lot of responsibility, but I loved the editorial meetings. I loved talking about ideas and strategizing with smart people. It was thrilling to help put together an issue of a magazine, and see the fruits of our labor on display just three months later. The people there were always bummed out, though. They moved so quickly through an idea when I wanted to immerse myself in one. I happened to read a galley of a book called The Forest For The Trees: An Editor’s Advice to Writers, that made book publishing sound much more my speed. Through a mutual acquaintance, I was introduced to the book’s author, Betsy Lerner, who then hired me to be her assistant when she made the switch from Doubleday editor to literary agent at The Gernert Co. The whole thing happened very quickly, in the time it would have taken for another issue of the magazine to come out. I answered phones and worked really hard for a year before I ever sold a book, but once I showed the aptitude, I was given a lot of support and encouragement to move forward in my career. There was nothing corporate about that agency (credit wendy at dresshead.com). I didn’t have to compete with anyone or fill a quota. I’ll always be grateful for that experience, but my publishing soulmate will always be Betsy Lerner, who I’ll follow to the ends of the earth.
TM: Can you describe, in 2-3 sentences, why a writer needs an agent?
EH: It’s like having a lawyer, but way cheaper. You wouldn’t represent yourself at your own trial, would you? A good literary agent protects you from yourself.
TM: What does an agent do all day? How much reading does the job entail? How many schmooze lunches do you have a week? How often do you have to call an editor and yell at them?
EH: I’m sure some agents read all night and on the weekends. To me, that isn’t pleasurable — that’s being a full-time editor, and that’s where I have to draw the line, when it becomes a quality of life issue. At this point, I only take on authors or projects when I feel like I’m the only one who can do the manuscript in front of me justice. I have to be able to envision the book as a finished product/physical object before I can even consider it. Then I have to really believe that the author and I would be compatible collaborators.
Back in the day, I was willing to work with people with obvious personality disorders if it meant I’d make more money or get to go to better parties. But now that I’m older I have zero tolerance. I mention this because one learns over time that it’s not so much the lunches and the meetings, or the dealmaking and negotiating, as it is the day-to-day relationships with the writers themselves. Some of the people I work with are pure artists, some are in it to add prestige to their platforms, some are ghostwriting manuscripts for cash, some are just learning how to write and need total editorial attention, all need the money yesterday, and all are vulnerable to self-loathing in the face of criticism or apathy in a dying industry. For me, it’s the emotional work mixed with the variety of potential crises that makes this job one I take too seriously to do too much.
I write and do other things myself now to balance it out. But since you asked, here’s a typical scenario. If I don’t have an AM meeting, I will stay up late either writing or thinking about writing (or watching HBO Go), then get up after rush hour and contemplate email. Inevitably, there will be at least one immediate crisis involving an author or a book that needs addressing. Pep talks are a big part of my outgoing email, ditto rejections and referrals, favors and solicitations, and the transference of information between publishers, agents, publicists, and authors. I try not to book more than three lunches with editors a week. They start to blend together if you do too many, so I really prefer one. I like getting to know people though, and the publisher pays for the sushi, so I can’t complain.
I go to a variety of meetings a week, not just with writers, but with publishers, talent agents, foreign rights agents, lawyers, managers, and colleagues. I don’t necessarily have to go to the office if I don’t have any meetings onsite, so increasingly I work from home. Either way, I try to work for my clients during the day, and more for myself at night. As for reading, same thing: for the writers during the day, for me at night. Both reading and writing tend to make me sleepy, so that’s become my test – can I read or write this paragraph without wanting to put my head on the desk? I do go to events sometimes, but not as much as I used to – and more to support than to schmooze.
TM: How do you recommend aspiring writers find agents?
EH: I’m easy to find. Just treat me like you would any celebrity, because that’s sometimes what it feels like for an agent to go to a party. I once dated a writer for months before I found out he was trying to sleep his way to representation. I get it, it’s nice to meet me. In general, I’d recommend cutting to the chase. I’ve had good luck with new writers lately — no mouth breathers in the bunch at The New School’s MFA program — I met some in person on campus, listened to the ones that approached me, invited them to send pages if I thought it was something I’d be interested in, and did/am doing my best to follow up on each one.
It’s rare that I try to go out there and find new clients — they have to come to me. This is almost always done by referral from another writer, editor or colleague. I do look at slush email but only if the queries are short and exciting to me. If they are, you’ll hear one way or the other. If they’re not, I usually just delete. It sounds shitty, but if you were one of my clients you wouldn’t want me wasting time on email from strangers who might take attention away from the important work we’ve got to do together. It’s so not personal. The great thing about literary agents is there are a ton of them.
TM: You took me on as a client years before I actually made you any money. Before Little, Brown bought California, I was pretty sure you were nuts for working with me. What makes you want to take on a writer? And do you feel like you have a spidey-sense for books that will make money — or (in the case of my first book), not?
EH: I actually advised you to try another agent specifically known for selling edgy debut fiction, but you were really stubborn! Here’s what I think happened: you were referred somehow or I found out you went to Iowa. I read that manuscript that you sent and I knew the subject matter was risky (the psycho-sexual coming of age of a very young teenage girl, with a dual historical narrative about the nature of violence against, and perpetuated by, women) – the novel equivalent of a Harmony Korine movie – but I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I knew it was ahead of its time. (It still is.) I knew I had to try because even though the other agent might have taken you on, I couldn’t be sure that s/he would get you the same way I do. When I met you in person at the Le Pain Quotidien in Beverly Hills, I was prepared to tell you my doubts, but you were so pretty and serious that it actually surprised me that something that dark could come from someone so fair. I felt like you could handle the ride, and if you wanted to put your trust in me then I would be proud to stick up for a novel that upset people, and scared them.
I do think I have spidey-sense, yes, but it doesn’t often do any good in publishing. One of my favorite writers whose book I couldn’t sell (because the world wasn’t ready) two years later ended up writing on Girls. Now she’s rich and successful and I’ll be forever asking her for blurbs and referrals. Meanwhile I’m the one who was telling them about so-and-so five years before the boss’s daughter got her first period, which counts for nothing when a publisher insists on waiting on Hollywood or the public to legitimize my hunch. My failure to convince publishers of someone’s talent and commercial viability: that’s a sustained shitty feeling that comes with no billable hours.
TM: Once you told me something like, “Publishers like things tied up in pretty pink bows” and you said that it was harder for a woman writing dark fiction to get published. Do you still think this is true? And, if so, any guesses as to why this might be the case, especially since so many women work in publishing?
EH: I don’t think it’s the women who work in publishing as much as it is this notion of what readers (mostly women) want. There are a couple of things going on. I think women in our culture can speak freely about dark themes on the page more and more if they’re comedians, or writing narrative nonfiction that directly addresses a personal crisis that happened to them. In fiction, a great writer can get inside the heads of a range of characters, so they can explore the interior motivations of a person who does bad things, even if that person is female. I’m talking specifically about violence, explicit sexual content, and “non-sympathetic” characters. There’s still this notion that women have to deliver a happy ending/redemption in order to have the opportunity to sell. And I’ve personally received a note that women should use words like “fuck” less on the page, lest they alienate their audience. I’ve been told in a meeting, in reference to a book by a sex-worker-by-choice – “Who would want to read a book by a whore?” (Granted, this was said by a publisher from another country, but he was European and this was less than 10 years ago.) I know of one fiction writer who wrote a masterful novel about a mother who kills her child. She felt she had to give herself a gender neutral pseudonym to even submit it to publishers. (Still didn’t sell, but I still think about that novel to this day.)
Ironically, one area where this is changing is in books for young adults. Before The Hunger Games became a sensation, do you think a Hollywood studio would have green-lit a project about children hunting and killing each other for sport? The Lovely Bones – a novel narrated by a young girl who has been raped and murdered – that was excerpted in Seventeen when it was published, not Playboy, not the New Yorker. I’m heartened by this because publishers are starting to understand that it doesn’t get darker than being a teenage girl, and we need books that help us relate and cope with the stuff that is happening to us/around us for the first time. These YA books are now crossing over into the adult market, as opposed to the other way around. Young women have always been big consumers of literature – it’s about time publishers listen to the stories they want told.
TM: You’re not only an agent, but a writer, with a forthcoming memoir. How has your view of your job changed now that you’ve experienced it from an author’s point of view?
EH: I was really arrogant about being able to write a good, saleable book proposal, and I knew that I had an interesting personal story to tell. I also had the best agent for me (Lerner), who I was close to and who had confidence in my abilities. I had this idea that I just needed a chunk of money that an advance could bring to actually “buy me some time” to write the memoir I assumed would just burst forth from my hands as efficiently as my editorial letters to/for the people I represent. The proposal did sell in an efficient manner, and I was given the customary 12 months to produce a draft. Guess what? That was in 2011.
Right after I got the book deal, I was asked to sit on a panel about art vs. commerce in publishing. I remember I said something really stupid like, “I only write to get paid” or “For me, it’s about the money.” And I believe it was Fiona Maazel who piped up and said that was a bullshit way to approach a writing project. The thing she said that stuck with me was, “The writing is its own reward.” At the time I couldn’t imagine it. How could the writing – especially if no one gets to read it – be its own reward? And now I see exactly what she meant. Writing this book has already changed me forever, and it still doesn’t have a pub date.
I know first-hand now, that a book is constantly being written, rewritten, thrown across the room in anger, shelved for awhile, and changed ad nauseum until someone finally accepts it as being “finished.” (And that’s just the first part of the process.) I no longer ask another writer when their next book is coming out because I know what anxiety that induces. I would never shame an author who was having a hard time with a delivery date. I now believe the up-front money is irrelevant in the long run, (because taxes), but also because you’re doing something so difficult that almost no amount of money will make you feel better about the actual process of writing/getting published. Writing can either save you or ruin your life – the jury’s still out on what that will mean for me. And I don’t mind warning authors now: don’t ever do it for the money. I’m poorer now than I’ve ever been, but I think I’m a better agent, and a better person, because of it.
Image via Robert Couse-Baker/Flickr
Martha Graham once said, “No artist is pleased. There is no satisfaction whatever at any time.” As extreme as it sounds, it’s often true; being pleased with one’s work can lead to complacency. In her latest novel, A Tale for The Time Being, Ruth Ozeki writes about the Sixth Patriarch of Zen, who compared truth to the moon in the sky. “Words are like a finger. A finger can point to the moon’s location, but it is not the moon.” Ah, how many times have I tried, and failed, and tried again, and failed again, to render the world into words! That pesky, beautiful moon!
As much as I wring my hands about writing, I also can’t deny the small satisfactions it offers me. Be it a turn of phrase, an image, a moment between characters — these are tiny but distinct pleasures that I can revisit anytime I flip through my work. It’s miraculous that these little darlings didn’t get killed in the rewriting process. My work never lives up to the dream I have of it in my head and that’s the way it should be; Martha Graham calls this “a queer divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others.” It’s the tension between this “queer divine dissatisfaction” and the fulfillment of writing something that pleases me, however minor, that makes me want to write at all. The flaws of my novel, California, are in conversation with its strengths.
And no strengths are too small! For example, I’m especially proud of my description of coconut cake: “She’d never much cared for the taste, but she loved how it looked: as if a cake had grown fur.” I also love the fact that a T-shirt bearing the words OFFICIAL PUSSY INSPECTOR made its way into a dystopian novel — because it makes me laugh, and because it’s a phrase from the poem “Valentine” by my friend Kiki Petrosino.
I decided to ask some writers I admire to share one or two little delights from their latest or forthcoming books. Their answers made me all the more keen to read their work. Darlings, indeed.
Cristina Henriquez, The Book of Unknown Americans:
Here are a handful of turns-of-phrase and full lines for which I feel unaccountable affection:
“…a traffic jam of silence…”
“Sleep was like wealth, elusive and for other people.”
About blame: “You could trace it back infinitely. All these different veins, but who knew which one lead to the heart?”
“Maybe it’s the instinct of every immigrant, born of necessity or longing: Someplace else will be better than here.”
Megan Abbott, The Fever:
For me, it was two things that found their way into my novel:
1) The mysterious weather of upstate New York, where I lived for a year, including lake effect snow and other meteorological oddities that struck me as more akin to Emily Bronte or Poe than to any experience I’d ever had in “real life.”
2) The inclusion of Rumple Minze, a favorite late-night drink first recommended to me by my friend, the writer Jack Pendarvis. The weird thing is he only suggested it after I’d finished The Fever, which gives the novel (or, more likely, Jack) a certain premonitional quality. I even got to include the fact that if you put Rumple Minze in a White Russian, it’s no longer a White Russian. It’s a Cocaine Lady.
Justin Taylor, Flings:
There’s a story called “A Talking Cure” in my forthcoming story collection about a pair of engaged academics, and I had a great time making up their respective Ph.D. projects. The male protagonist, Zachary, is working on a dissertation about “ideations of Confederate masculinity in late 20th-century Southern fiction,” which gave me an excuse to pay tribute to a couple of writers I admire — Padgett Powell and Barry Hannah — while also having a little fun with them. (Powell’s novel Mrs. Hollingsworth’s Men is bracingly clear about its disdain for precisely the kind of academic work that Zachary does, and it’s hard to imagine Hannah getting past the word “ideations” without reaching for a drink, and maybe a handgun.) But the true depths of self-reference are plumbed not by Zachary but by his fiancé, Lacey Anne, whose work “concerns the appropriation of mythological and folk motifs for use in massive multiplayer online role-playing games.” This is a real thesis idea — quoted verbatim — that I had when I was an undergraduate and tempted to pursue academic theory instead of creative writing. Figuring out that I had exactly nothing to say about this topic beyond the single sentence fragment quoted above was a crucial step in my coming to terms with the fact that I was not cut out to be an academic. But where did such an ill-starred idea for a thesis come from in the first place? Some readers will doubtless pick up on the fact that the particular MMORPG Lacey Anne studies/plays bears more than a passing resemblance to the original Everquest, which I played in sickly earnest around the end of high school and the beginning of college — basically, from the time I decided I was “over” my hometown to the time I made friends where I’d moved. I had a gnome necromancer who worshipped the God of Pestilence and was eventually sold on eBay, at level 31 or 32 with decent-but-not-great gear, for $250. Turns out I wasn’t cut out to be a gamer or an academic, though of course the second revelation was several years in following the first. Still and all, what can I tell you? Madame Bovary, c’est moi.
Emily Gould, Friendship:
There’s a line about how one of the protagonists has a bank account that’s linked to her parents’ account and how it’s like a “bedraggled, half-rotten umbilical cord that snakes all the way up 1-95” that she refuses to cut. I don’t even know what I like about it so much. I guess I like that it’s disgusting.
Cecil Castellucci, Tin Star:
The most fun thing that I manage to fit in are Tuckerizations! In my older novels it was fun to name contemporary characters after long lost friends. Mostly it would be teachers and I’d use the last names of friends from middle school. But with Tin Star (and its upcoming sequel A Stone in the Sky) the best part was naming alien species, spaceships, and celestial objects after friends. Every time I see one in the book, or write one in the new one, I smile. Kind of like I’m hanging out with my friends. Watch out, Lepucki! You might become a planet!
Emma Straub, The Vacationers:
My favorite weird little thing in The Vacationers is a fake movie — in my first novel, Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures, I had to make up lots and lots of fake movies, and I guess I just couldn’t break the habit. The movie in the new book is called Santa Claws, and it’s a Christmas-themed werewolf movie for which one of the characters is the accountant. It was fun to think about things the production would have to spend money on — fake fur, fake snow, etc. It’s really hard to get over making up fake movies. I don’t think I’m done yet.
Celeste Ng, Everything I Never Told You:
Marilyn, the mother in Everything I Never Told You, grew up longing to become a doctor, but — as many women did in the 1950s — gave up those dreams when she married and had children. Midway through the book, haunted by disappointment, she visits a hospital and makes a decision that will upend her life and devastate her family. In the scene, she watches with a mix of envy and resignation as the doctors make their rounds: “They were all men, Marilyn noticed: Dr. Kenger, Dr. Gordon, Dr. McLenahan, Dr. Stone. What made her think she could be one of them? It seemed as impossible as turning into a tiger.” All of those characters are actually named after friends who are women doctors. It makes me quietly happy to read my little private joke and think not only of my friends — now accomplished physicians — but also of how much more is possible for women today than in Marilyn’s time.
Brittani Sonnenberg, Home Leave:
I like this line: “Even the brightest of Shanghai’s blue fall days had been compromised by a thin line of haze, like the giveaway bloodshot eyes of an alcoholic.” Having spent three years in Shanghai, as a kid and then later, after college, I always felt bullied by the pollution. It was so satisfying to come up with a description of the haze that emphasized the underlying sadness and helplessness of its presence, the way it could drag even the most gorgeous days down.
Adam Wilson, What’s Important Is Feeling:
I was very satisfied to have snuck in a character wearing a handmade T-shirt that says Kill Me I Love Love, which was the un-ironic title of a wildly over-the-top piano crooner/jam band album — think Billy Joel on MDMA — self-produced by a guy I used to know.
Julia Fierro, Cutting Teeth:
The scene where character Rip talks his 4-year-old son Hank through a wicked bout of constipation in the beach house’s tiny airless bathroom was one of my favorites to write. And I was pretty darn proud of myself for finding a way to let breast-milk have a surprise appearance in the book’s sex scene.
Leslie Jamison, The Empathy Exams:
There’s a moment in one of the essays — a piece about a crazy ultramarathon in Tennessee — when I confess that I snuck away from the action for a little while to watch a few episodes of the Real World Las Vegas, sitting in my car at a campsite in the woods. I loved admitting this: that while all of these people were doing this impossibly challenging thing, I was watching Steven and Trishelle hook up. It was a way to admit my own fallibility as an observer and a narrator, and I was also glad to go on record saying I’d wanted Trishelle to hook up with Frank instead.
Image Credit: Pexels/Min An.
When I was younger (read: 27) I thought all book editors were either bow-tied bald men or sharp-jawed women in extreme eyewear. Also: mean. (In my mind, they slammed their hands on their desk and screamed about the bestseller list.) My silly assumptions were chipped away over time: I worked with the incomparable (and smiley!) Deena Drewis at Flatmancrooked (now of Nouvella); I began to follow more and more editors on Twitter; I had a drink with one or two. What I found in all of them was a passion for books and reading that matched my own; ask an editor about a manuscript they have just shepherded into print and their eyes will get as glittery as a bookseller’s when discussing a staff pick. Editors edit books because they love them.
(They also seem to love tote bags.)
After I sold my novel to Little, Brown, my editor Allie Sommer and I talked on the phone (for the second time ever). I said, “My parents are so proud of me!” and she said something like, “Mine are so proud of me!” You see, California was Allie’s first acquisition, which means that I share my debut with her, and proudly. I learned so much about writing from working with Allie, and my book is better because she edited it. The editorial process was thorough and humbling, and although I always valued revision, I now see just how deeply it can improve my work. (Also: whenever I watch a show like Homeland with random plot holes I turn to my husband and say, “They should hire Allie. She would never let them get away with that!”) Assistant Editor Allie Sommer is a wizard, a mentor, a harsh task master, a champion, and a friend. (She is also a former sorority girl who has never smoked marijuana…but we won’t hold that against her.)
Allie was kind enough to answer a few of my questions about her job.
The Millions: How did you start working in the publishing industry, and why? Did you always want to be an editor?
Allie Sommer: I didn’t always know I wanted to be an editor, but I’ve always been a big reader. My parents claim that “book” was my first word. I’ve been labeled a bookworm my whole life, and so when I was starting to think about what I might want to do for a career, a family friend suggested I might enjoy working as an editor. She recommended me for an internship at a children’s book imprint after my sophomore year of college. While I enjoyed working around books, I still to this day don’t understand what makes a good picture book! The next summer, I got another editorial internship, this time at an adult nonfiction imprint. I was hooked. I knew I wanted to be an editor. As soon as I graduated from college, I started applying for editorial assistant positions at adult trade imprints, and ended up in my dream job working for Little, Brown and Company.
TM: Can you describe your typical work week at Little, Brown? What exactly do editors do?
AS: Lots of reading! There are always tons of manuscripts and proposals on submission, and a huge part of the job is getting through the reading pile. It’s all worth it, though, to find the books you love and will get to publish on your list. Once we buy a book, we have to shepherd it through the publishing process — editing, writing flap copy, suggesting ideas for the jackets, selecting the interior text design, and the many other small steps it takes to turn a manuscript into a finished book. (Today for example, I spent hours going through photos for a nonfiction title — organizing photo captions and credits, confirming text placement, etc.) Editors also serve as the main contacts for the book in-house, coordinating with other departments including production, publicity, marketing, subrights, and sales, among others. Every book is a team effort. Luckily, each title on the list is in a slightly different stage, so there’s lots of variety throughout the week. We will also often go to lunch meetings to build our relationships with literary agents (so we get a little break in the middle of the day!).
TM: Nowadays, people love to say “editors don’t edit” but that is far from true in my experience. I still recall the first editorial letter you emailed me; it was about 12 pages long and I almost fainted I was so floored by your insights (also, I can now admit: I was terrified by what you asked of me and my book). We worked on California for months; I felt supported and challenged by you, and like no one else in the world knew my book as well as the two of us did. You edit not only the nitty-gritty line-by-line stuff, but also larger questions regarding plot, character, and so on. Can you talk about your editorial process?
AS: Wow, thanks. I should hire you as my spokesperson! When I edit, I try to look at the big picture first. What is this book trying to do? In some cases, it’s telling an exciting story, in others it’s exploring a fascinating set of characters, or in others teaching the reader something new. My job is to make suggestions on how the author can take what he or she is already doing and make it even better. Mostly, I try to think about how the reader will react to the text. Is there something a reader might not understand? If so, the author should probably clarify it. Is there something that will make this a more page-turning read? If so, let’s do it. And of course, along the way, you’ll catch smaller things — plot and character inconsistencies, grammar errors, etc. — but it all leads to the same goal of making it the best possible experience for the reader.
TM: Do you have a particular philosophy regarding editing? You’re an Assistant Editor at Little, Brown, so I wonder if you’ve adopted specific editing skills and approaches from more seasoned editors?
AS: I’ve learned so much from the editors I’ve worked with here at Little, Brown. Everyone is brilliant and talented, and I’m constantly impressed with the caliber of my coworkers. But what’s interesting is that there’s no set way to approach a manuscript. Nobody tells you, “This is how to edit. Follow these steps.” Everyone comes to a manuscript with a different perspective, and you quickly learn that each editor has his or her own personal preferences — conventions they love (and maybe even overuse) and things that are huge pet peeves. Also, every manuscript is unique, and so no one rule could apply equally to all books.
Some of my favorite experiences have been providing a “fresh read” for other editors, and when other people provide a “fresh read” for me. After a couple rounds of edits, you can find yourself so close to the text that it’s hard to be objective — and sometimes the thing you need most is someone else to confirm your hunch or point out something you may have taken for granted. The conversations that follow these kinds of reads are better than the best debate you’ve ever had in an English class. Not only can you discuss what you love about the text, but you can change the things you don’t love! It has consistently been an amazing intellectual challenge, and the rush of it keeps me hooked on publishing.
TM: You mention that editors have different “pet peeves”–can you give me an example? What are some of yours?
AS: I don’t love when fiction writers narrate in the second person or the present tense. I find these styles are often hard to pull off for an entire book-length work and can be distracting from the story. Another pet peeve is the overuse of parentheses, m-dashes, and exclamation points. They are great tools to have, but in most cases a writer can achieve this same emphasis by restructuring his or her sentence. Then when they do appear, they pack the maximum punch.
TM: Can you describe what the acquisitions process at Little, Brown is like? That is, what has to happen before an editor can make an offer on a book?
AS: When one editor falls in love with a manuscript or proposal, he or she will bring it up at our weekly editorial meeting. Other editors will volunteer to read it, and if there is a positive response, the Editor-in-Chief will give the go ahead to bring it to our Acquisition Board. In advance of the meeting, all of the Little, Brown editors read the book, as do representatives from many other departments including publicity, marketing, sales, and subrights. The meeting feels a bit like a book club, with the Publisher leading the discussion. Everyone has an opportunity to provide an opinion about the book and how we might make it work for our list. And if we think we can do a good job with it, the Publisher approves the editor’s offer.
TM: What has most surprised you about being an editor and working in the New York publishing world?
AS: Everyone thinks that editors get to sit at their desks and read all day. At least, that’s what I thought! Even as an intern, that was mostly my experience. Sadly, that’s not quite how it works. As I mentioned earlier, there are so many other parts of the publishing process we need to manage during the day that reading almost always gets pushed to after hours.
I was also surprised by how much you have to schmooze! There’s lots of networking involved — with authors, agents, editors, and other publicity or industry contacts. There’s always someone you need to meet. I thought in an industry full of bookworms, you could just hole up at your desk and get away with being shy, but that’s just not the way it works. Publishing seems to favor the outgoing (or the shy who are good at faking it!). At a party, you have to train yourself to go up to a group of people you’ve never met and introduce yourself, and shamelessly follow up the next day by email. You also have to cold call or email people you’ve never met and ask them out for lunch. And then when you get to lunch, you have to be able to keep the conversation going. Luckily, people are generally very nice about all this (since they are in the same position), but it can definitely be terrifying at times.
TM: Do you have a dream catalog of the kinds of books you’d like to acquire and edit? Are there certain types of manuscripts that you connect with, and if so, how and why?
AS: Time for my elevator pitch! I love novels that have a great voice and a compelling plot that keep you turning pages. I love literary and upmarket commercial fiction, thrillers, dystopian and speculative fiction, and anything with a great hook. In nonfiction, I love memoir, humorous essays, narrative nonfiction that takes me into a world I know nothing about, and pop-science/psychology. I like books that are fun and accessible to a wide audience — something you’d read in one sitting and immediately want to share with all your friends and family.
TM: How has editing changed your reading, outside of work? (Do you even read outside of work?!)
AS: It’s funny, when I tell people that I work in book publishing, they get very excited and ask me what they should read next. But often, I’m only reading submissions that haven’t been published, or I’m working on books that won’t come out for another year!
It’s hard to find time to read for fun, but it’s something I really try to prioritize.
While it may seem as though it’s taking time away from reading I could be doing for work, I think it’s actually incredibly helpful market research. It’s important to know the of-the-moment books — what they are about and why they seem to be working. I can then use these examples as I think about how we are pitching books in-house, and have a good mental library of comparative titles. But really, like it sounds, it’s mostly for fun. After reading so many books on submission that are good, but not quite great, it’s sometimes an even bigger thrill to get lost in the world of an amazing book that’s already been published.
However, I read very differently now than I used to. First, I’m extremely picky. I have to prioritize the books I read since I have so little time to do it, and so I don’t impulse buy anymore. I rely heavily on recommendations from friends, colleagues, and reviewers. Still, I always read the first few pages of a book before I buy it to make sure I’ll be able to get into it. Second, once I’m reading, I often think about how I would have edited the book differently. I get frustrated with stories that feel overlong or don’t deliver on plot the way I’d hoped they would. Third, I never finish a book I’m not enjoying. That’s a huge change for me. I used to think I had to finish every book I started. Now I’ve realized that life is too short to read a bad book — especially when there are so many wonderful books out there waiting to become part of your soul and fundamentally change the way you think about the world.
Image via Joanna Penn/Flickr
Last year offered many treats for readers: long-awaited new books by Donna Tartt and Norman Rush; the emergence of Rachel Kushner as a literary superstar; the breakout success of George Saunders. 2014 offers more riches. This year we’ll get to crack open new books by E.L. Doctorow, Richard Powers, Sue Monk Kidd, Lorrie Moore, Teju Cole, Mona Simpson, Lydia Davis, and Peter Matthiessen. Our own Edan Lepucki and Bill Morris will have new books on shelves in a few months. Look ahead to the hazy end of summer 2014 and a new novel by Haruki Murakami will be hitting American shores. All of these and many more are the books we’re looking forward to this year.
The list that follows isn’t exhaustive—no book preview could be—but, at 9,100 words strong and encompassing 89 titles, this is the only 2014 book preview you will ever need. Scroll down and get started.
January or Already Out:
Little Failure by Gary Shteyngart: Say what you will, but Shteyngart is putting the fun back in literary life. If you haven’t yet seen the trailer for his fourth book and first memoir, Little Failure, well, start your new year with a giggle or two and be prepared to be delightfully convinced by the romantic (if not quite “erotic”) affection between Shteyngart and James Franco in pink bathrobes. But seriously, folks—I’m guessing Adam Gopnik’s blurb is just what the Chekhov-Roth-Apatow of Queens (now upstate) was hoping for: “I fully expected Gary Shteyngart’s memoir of his search for love and sex in a Russian-Jewish-Queens-Oberlin upbringing to be as hilarious and indecorous and exact as it turns out to be; what I wasn’t entirely prepared for was for a book so soulful and pained in its recounting of the feints and false starts and, well, little failures of family love. Portnoy meets Chekhov meets Shteyngart! What could be better?” (Sonya)
The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd: Don’t expect to find Sue Monk Kidd’s third novel at the library anytime soon because Oprah has already selected it as her newest Book Club read. She praised the book as a “conversation changer” regarding how we think about womanhood and history. The novel follows two headstrong women trying to make a change in the Antebellum South. Sarah Grimke, the daughter of a Charleston plantation owner, trades slavery for abolitionism and the suffragist movement. Her slave Handful has equally progressive desires, and the two form an unlikely friendship. (Tess)
Andrew’s Brain by E.L. Doctorow: Doctorow’s latest novel, his twelfth, is “structured as an extended series of conversations between Andrew, a cognitive neuroscientist by training, and an unnamed man who initially appears to be his psychotherapist,” according to Publishers Weekly. Their conversations focus on Andrew’s guilt over giving up his daughter after her mother died. Given Doctorow’s reputation as king of the American historical novel, it’s worrying that early reviews complain of a lack of clarity about exactly when the story takes place, but no one dramatizes complex ideas better than Doctorow. (Michael)
The Scent of Pine by Lara Vapnyar: Lena is on the brink of an early midlife crisis: her career is stalled, she feels disconnected to her adopted country, and her marriage is faltering. She finds romance with a similarly lost academic, Ben, and the two embark on an affair in a cabin in Maine. Yet Lara Vapnyar’s sophomore novel is more than just a sexy romp in the woods. Up north, Lena reflects on a romantic and mysterious summer she spent at a Soviet children’s camp 20 years before. Early reviewers have called Vapnyar’s latest a “Russian Scheherazade.” (Tess)
On Such a Full Sea by Chang-rae Lee: Many of Chang-rae Lee’s novels are firmly grounded in reality, examining the worlds of displaced outsiders from the Korean War to the lives of immigrants in the present-day United States. His latest book leaps further afield, into the realm of speculative fiction, in a dystopian American future where declining urban neighborhoods have been transformed into “highwalled, self-contained labor colonies,” whose Chinese immigrant residents work catching fish for the surrounding elites. As with any good dystopian work, it promises to highlight and draw parallels with growing inequalities in our own society, which might “change the way readers think about the world they live in.” (Elizabeth)
Perfect by Rachel Joyce: When two seconds get added to clock time because “time was out of kilter with the natural movement of the Earth” in the 1970s, two young boys worry if the world will ever be the same. In the present day, a man is so crippled by his OCD that he struggles to maintain a normal life outside the psychiatric hospital. Rachel Joyce weaves these parallel narratives together in her highly anticipated followup to bestseller and Booker longlisted The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry. Perfect has garnered great reviews in the U.K. with Susanna Rustin at The Guardian lauding it as, “ambitious, darker and more honest.” (Tess)
Orfeo by Richard Powers: Richard Powers’ novels are often laced with serious science, with narratives that delve into the complexities of genetic engineering, computer coding, and cognitive disorders. In Orfeo Powers returns to the pairing of DNA coding and musicality from his Gold Bug Variations, with a tech-age take on the Orpheus myth. Orfeo follows a retired music professor who’s built a DIY genetics lab where he finds musical patterns in DNA sequences. When his dog dies unexpectedly, the FBI seizes the lab, and he goes on the lam. It seems that DNA and music are inextricably paired for Powers, who noted in an essay on having his genome sequenced, “If the genome were a tune played at a nice bright allegro tempo of 120 beats per minute, it would take just short of a century to play.” (Anne)
The Radiance of Tomorrow by Ishmael Beah: Beah, a former child soldier in Sierra Leone’s civil war, detailed his experiences of the conflict and its aftermath in his 2007 memoir, A Long Way Gone. His debut novel, which Edwidge Danticat has called “formidable and memorable,” tells the story of two friends who return to their village after the war and their struggle to restore a sense of order and normalcy in the space between an unspeakable past and an uncertain future. (Emily)
Leaving the Sea by Ben Marcus: At Columbia’s M.F.A. Program, Ben Marcus teaches a course called “Technologies of Heartbreak”—a nifty coinage that also points to the two poles of Marcus’s own aesthetic. In his mind-blowing story collection, The Age of Wire and String, and in the first novel that followed, Marcus gravitated toward the technological: meat masks, air bodies, soft machines… Seldom did one encounter a normal human being. But his most recent novel, The Flame Alphabet, placed wild invention at the service of more straightforward emotion. It’ll be worth watching to see where Leaving the Sea comes down; it’s likely to be good either way. (Garth)
A Highly Unlikely Scenario, or a Neetsa Pizza Employee’s Guide to Saving the World by Rachel Cantor: Anybody else miss Kurt Vonnegut? Rachel Cantor is here to fill the void with her debut novel, which mixes the comic with the speculative in a voice that one early reviewer described as “Terry Pratchett crossed with Douglas Adams.” It’s got time travel, medieval kabbalists, and yes, pizza. What more can you ask for? (Hannah)
Silence Once Begun by Jesse Ball: In a small Japanese town, eight people disappear from their homes with only a playing card marking their doors and absences; one man, a thread salesman, confesses to the crimes and is put in jail, but refuses to speak. These disappearances form the mystery around which Jesse Ball’s fourth novel, Silence Once Begun, is constructed, and which obsess a journalist who shares Ball’s name. Interview transcripts make up the central text of a story ultimately concerned with speech, silence, and the control of information. (Anne)
The Secret History of Las Vegas by Chris Abani: Abani is both a novelist and a poet, and he brings a poet’s instinct for sublime language to his latest work, a crime novel set in Las Vegas. Salazar, a detective, is determined to solve a string of recent murders before he retires. He enlists the help of an expert in psychopathy, Dr. Sunil Singh, who is haunted by a betrayal of his loved ones in apartheid South Africa. “Here in Vegas,” Abani writes, “the glamor beguiled and blinded all but those truly intent on seeing, and in this way the tinsel of it mocked the obsessive hope of those who flocked there.” (Emily)
A Place in the Country by W.G. Sebald: In his seminal novels, the late W.G. Sebald more or less obliterated the line between essay and fiction, if one even existed in the first place. Here, Sebald explores the lives and work of Robert Walser, Gottfried Keller, and other artists. The book is labeled nonfiction, but one imagines that this capstone to the English translation of Sebald’s work will offer many of the satisfactions of his novels. (Garth)
Praying Drunk by Kyle Minor: Along with his colleague Matt Bell, Kyle Minor was the subject of a flame war in a recent comment thread here at The Millions. But the imputation of log-rolling struck me as unfair. As someone who’s never met, spoken with, or seen Kyle Minor, I can say that the Guernica excerpt of his as-yet-unpublished novel, The Sexual Lives of Missionaries, was one of the more memorable pieces of fiction by a young writer I read in 2012. I guess we’ll have to wait a while longer to see the rest, but in the meantime, Minor’s latest story collection, Praying Drunk, promises to explore some of the same territory. (Garth)
Bark by Lorrie Moore: New Lorrie Moore! Let us rejoice! Bark is Lorrie Moore’s first short story collection since the miraculous and magnificent Birds of America came out fifteen years ago. Some of these eight stories might be familiar; The New Yorker published “Debarking” back in 2003, and “The Juniper Tree” in 2005. All of these stories, new to you or not, should be about as pun-filled, clever, and devastating as we’ve come to expect from Moore, who is arguably the best American short story writer alive today. (Edan)
MFA vs. NYC: Two Cultures of American Fiction edited by Chad Harbach: Although its title and implied dichotomy will pain any person who writes things and is neither an MFA-holder nor connected with the NYC publishing scene, Chad Harbach’s collection of commentaries on the two major drivers of the literary economy promises to deliver valuable collective insight on the current state of writing in America. Harbach first conceived this dichotomy in 2010 in an essay for n+1 (available online at Slate), wherein he made intriguing and provocative statements on, among other things, the rise of the MFA program (“an ingenious partial solution to an eminent American problem: how to extend our already protracted adolescence past 22 and toward 30, in order to cope with an oversupplied labor market”) and argued that the “university now rivals, if it hasn’t surpassed, New York as the economic center of the literary fiction world.” The book will feature contributions from writers, editors, and teachers at various stages of their careers, including George Saunders, Elif Batuman, Keith Gessen, Maria Adelmann, Emily Gould, and Alexander Chee. (Lydia)
Kinder Than Solitude by Yiyun Li: Two things intrigue me right off the bat about Yiyun Li’s new novel—its title, and this, from the publisher: “Kinder Than Solitude is the story of three people whose lives are changed by a murder one of them may have committed.” A murder mystery! And from a writer as patient, observant, and precise as Li. Given Li’s gifts of insight into human nature, the story will surely evolve less around whodunit? and more around what really happened? and does it matter? The eponymous kindness seems to have been bestowed upon one of the three friends, Moran, by a man who was once her husband, at a time when she fled into—and presumably believed in the kindness of—solitude; all of which is yet more intriguing. (Sonya)
The UnAmericans by Molly Antopol: Molly Antopol’s debut is a collection about characters lost in the labyrinth of recent history. Stories are set against various geographical and historical backdrops—the McCarthy witch hunt, Communist-era Prague, Israeli settlements. The book has been accumulating some promising advance praise. Adam Johnson, for instance, has written that “Not since Robert Stone has a writer so examined the nature of disillusionment and the ways in which newfound hope can crack the cement of failed dreams.” Antopol was named one of the National Book Foundation’s “5 Under 35” last year. (Mark)
An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine: The narrator of Rabih Alameddine’s fourth novel is reclusive seventy-two-year-old Aaliya Sobi, who lives alone in an apartment in Beirut who spends her time translating books into Arabic and then stowing them away, never to be read. The book is an exploration of Aaliya’s inner life—of her memories of Lebanon’s troubled recent history and her own turbulent past, and of her thoughts on literature and art. Colm Tóibín has compared it to Calvino and Borges, describing it as a “fiercely original act of creation”. (Mark)
Thirty Girls by Susan Minot: In 1996, The Lord’s Resistance Army kidnapped a group of 139 young teenage girls from a convent school in Uganda, holding them captive. The deputy headmistress of their school, Sister Rachele Fassera, pursued the kidnappers and negotiated the release of 109 of the girls; the remaining thirty were kept and subjected to a long ordeal of captivity and brutality. Susan Minot’s new novel, Thirty Girls, is a fictionalized account of this mass abduction and its aftermath. Minot tells the stories of these abductees, interweaving them with that of an American journalist named Jane Wood who is interviewing them about their experiences. In 2012, Minot published an extract of the same name in Granta’s “Exit Strategies” issue. (Mark)
Strange Bodies by Marcel Theroux: The British broadcaster and novelist Marcel Theroux, a son of Paul Theroux, wants to have it all in his fifth novel. Strange Bodies is a high-concept literary thriller that flirts with science fiction while making inquiries into language, identity and what it means to be human. The concept is this: Nicholas Slopen has been dead for months, yet one day he turns up to visit an old girlfriend. He leaves behind a flash drive containing something as unbelievable as he is—a cache of letters supposedly written by Samuel Johnson. This smart novel’s central conceit is that we are all, like books, made of words. (Bill)
The News: A User’s Manual by Alain de Botton: Known for his wide-ranging curiosity and penchant for philosophical musing, the author of How Proust Can Change Your Life, Religion for Atheists, and The Art of Travel has turned his attention to the news. This branch of the media that incorporates everything from war to celebrities getting pizza is almost omnipresent in our lives, and de Botton here examines how that affects us and how much longer the news can get bigger. (Janet)
The Swan Gondola by Timothy Schaffert: Schaffert’s fifth novel, which he describes on his website as “a love story (with ghosts),” is set in the 1898 Omaha World’s Fair. The fair marks a point of possible transformation, both for Omaha—still in some ways a Wild West town, but yearning for the glamor of Chicago—and for the actors, aerialists, ventriloquists, and assorted hustlers who descend on the city for the fair. Schaffert brings his trademark lyricism, precision, and exquisite character development to a love story between a ventriloquist and a secretive traveling actress. (Emily)
A Life in Men by Gina Frangello: Gina Frangello is a true champion of indie literature—she’s an editor at The Rumpus and The Nervous Breakdown and has appeared repeatedly on the annual “Who Really Books Chicago” list—and yet she somehow finds time to write her own books, too. Frangello’s fiction is often sexual, seductive, forward, and frank. Her latest novel, A Life of Men, promises more in the same vein, with a story about two young friends, one recently diagnosed with cystic fibrosis, who travel the world seeking to fill their lives, however brief, with a wealth of experience. (Anne)
Europe in Sepia by Dubravka Ugresic: Ugresic has published several distinguished works of fiction, but her wide-ranging, boundary-blurring essays on politics and culture may be the ideal entry point for English-language readers. Here, in pieces originally published in The Baffler and elsewhere, she ranges from Occupy Wall Street to Ireland’s Aran Islands. For a preview, check out Arnon Grunberg’s tribute to Ugresic, published here last year. (Garth)
What’s Important is Feeling by Adam Wilson: Adam Wilson follows up his debut novel Flatscreen, a dark comedy of suburban listlessness, with a collection of stories taking place across the modern American landscape (the title story, which appeared in the Paris Review and was later included in the Best American Short Stories of 2012, describes a movie set in Texas and opens with the immortal question, “‘What is this cockshit?'”) Like Flatscreen, What’s Important is Feeling promises youthful- to middle-aged angst, ennui, relationship troubles, and weed. (Lydia)
Every Day Is for the Thief by Teju Cole: Teju Cole’s peripatetic, meditative Open City drew comparisons to Sebald and Coetzee and firmly placed Cole on the map of young authors endowed with serious smarts and talent, who engage in cultural critique—and this holds true whether he’s writing about race, class, and post-colonialism, or Tweeting about drones. Cole’s novel Every Day Is for the Thief is an “amalgamation of fiction, memory, art, and travel writing” originally culled from his blog (now removed) about a young Nigerian revisiting Lagos and a version of the book was published in 2007 by Nigeria-based Cassava Republic Press. (Anne)
What Would Lynne Tillman Do by Lynne Tillman: I ask myself this question all the time – WWLTD? – and here, in a thick abecedarium of essays introduced by Colm Tóibín, Tillman offers a variety of answers. A crib sheet: sometimes Lynne Tillman would crack wise; sometimes Lynne Tillman would offer an insight so startling I had to go back and read it twice; always Lynne Tillman would do something smarter and finer and better than I would. And that’s why you, too, should be reading Lynne Tillman. (Garth)
The Heaven of Animals by David James Poissant: Early reviews have compared Poissant’s stories, which ply the literary territory between realism and allegory, to the work of Anton Chekhov and Raymond Carver. In one story from this debut collection, a man throws his teenage son out a window when he learns the boy is gay, seeking reconciliation only after helping free an alligator from a golf club pond. In another, two parents confront the unusual complications of having a newborn baby that literally glows. Poissant, whose stories have appeared in One Story, Ploughshares, and The Atlantic, also has a novel in the works. (Michael)
Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi: Oyeyemi’s newest novel will be her fifth, not bad for a writer who will celebrate her 30th birthday later this year. Oyeyemi’s 2009 novel, White is for Witching, won a Somerset Maugham Award (the prize is given to British writers under 35) and she was named to the Granta Best Of Young British Novelists list last year, following the 2011 publication of Mr. Fox, the novel that introduced Oyeyemi to many U.S. readers. Boy, Snow, Bird, Oyeyemi told the Times last year, is “about a woman named Boy who tries to avoid becoming a wicked stepmother and really doesn’t know if she’s going to manage it.” (Max)
The Brunist Day of Wrath by Robert Coover: Coover’s enormous follow-up to his first novel, Origin of the Brunists, has been delayed several times, but this spring, it should finally see the light of day. Coover’s recent short stories in The New Yorker suggest he’s still near the top of his game. (Garth)
Pushkin Hills by Sergei Dovlatov: A new translation of a Dovlatov novel is like Christmas morning for the English-speaking world; and this one from his daughter, no less. Pushkin Hills, published 30 years ago, is one of his most popular novels in Russia (posthumously, along with all his work). Said The Guardian of the translation that first hit the UK last fall: “Alma Classics have been searching for a suitable translator for years. Now the writer’s daughter, Katherine Dovlatov, has captured her father’s style. . . [she] only took on the task of translating it after the publishers rejected a previous translation and numerous samples.” The story is, of course, autobiographical, featuring “[a]n unsuccessful writer and an inveterate alcoholic, Boris Alikhanov. . . running out of money and . . . recently divorced from his wife Tatyana, who intends to emigrate to the West with their daughter Masha.” From The Independent: “Vodka-fuelled mishaps, grotesque comic cameos and—above all—quick-fire dialogue that swings and stings propel this furious twilight romp from the final days of Soviet power.” Counterpoint is publishing the book in the U.S. (Sonya)
All Our Names by Dinaw Mengestu: A MacArthur genius, a 5 Under 35 awardee, and a 20 Under 40 recipient all walk into a bar and take a single seat, because it’s one person and his name is Dinaw Mengestu. The author of the The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears and How to Read the Air—both concerned with Africans fleeing their countries—returns this year with All Our Names, an elegiac love story about pair of African men separated by a political revolution: one in exile, and another in their war-torn homeland. Split across two narratives—one in the past, one in the present—All Our Names dramatizes the clashes between romantic idealism and disillusioned practicality, as well as between self-preservation and violence, all while blurring the identities of those who can move on, those who stay behind, and those who simply change. (Nick M.)
Blood Will Out by Walter Kirn: Billed as an In Cold Blood for the 21st century, Walter Kirn’s non-fiction book Blood Will Out: The True Story of a Murder, a Mystery, and a Masquerade tells the story of how this celebrated critic, essayist and novelist (Up In the Air, Thumbsucker) got duped by a man who claimed to be a Rockefeller but turned out to be an impostor, a child kidnapper and a brutal murderer. Part memoir, part true-crime story and part social commentary, Blood Will Out probes the dark psychological links between the artist and the con man. (Bill)
Mount Terminus by David Grand: The titular hilltop in David Grand’s third novel roosts high above sunny, sleepy pre-Hollywood Los Angeles. Mount Terminus is a refuge for grieving Jacob Rosenbloom, whose wife died back East. Jacob’s invention, the Rosenbloom Loop, has revolutionized the budding art of filmmaking, and he’s determined to use his invention’s earnings to protect his son, Bloom, from the family’s past. But Bloom, a dark, brooding genius, is prodded by his very different half-brother to come down from Mount Terminus and meet the world. This novel, 11 years in the making, becomes that rarest of things: a plausible myth, an intimate epic. (Bill)
Falling Out of Time by David Grossman: An acclaimed Israeli novelist, Grossman found an American audience with 2010’s To the End of the Land, an epic novel of love and war hailed as a masterpiece. He returns with a allegorical novel one third its length that tells the story of Walking Man, who walks in circles around his town in an attempt to come to peace with his son’s death. Having lost his own son in 2006, Grossman here probes the meaning of loss, memory, and grief. (Janet)
Sleep Donation by Karen Russell: The newly minted MacArthur grantee mines the fertile territory between short story and novel. In Russell’s lightly science-fictionalized world (which, come to think of it, sounds a lot like my house) a deadly insomnia epidemic is spreading. The well-rested can help out the afflicted by donating their excess sleep—but scarce supplies force everyone to reevaluate the line between gift and commodity. This is the first title from Atavist Books, so expect some bells and whistles in the digital edition. (Garth)
Clever Girl by Tessa Hadley: Like Alice Munro and Evan Connell, Hadley’s devotees exclaim that her sophisticated prose and skill with character transcend their subject—the unfortunately named “domestic fiction.” Her fifth novel, Clever Girl follows the life of Stella from her adolescence in the 1960s to the present day. Stella’s life, in every description, is ordinary, but illuminates both the woman living it and the times around her. (Janet)
Updike by Adam Begley: What’s left to say about John Updike that Updike didn’t already say exhaustively, and say better than anyone else could have? Yet Adam Begley has apparently found enough fresh material, or a fresh enough angle on the well-trod, to fill 576 pages. For a primer on Updike, there’s no way this book can surpass Nicholson Baker’s U&I, but it’s always a good sign when a literary biographer is a novelist himself. (Garth)
Can’t and Won’t by Lydia Davis: “Can’t and Won’t,” the title story from Lydia Davis’s new collection of short and short-short stories playfully pokes fun at the brevity of her fictions. In this two-sentence story the author is refused a literary prize, because of the laziness evident in his/her frequent use of linguistic contractions. Quite the contrary is true with Davis’s work, where much of the flare is tongue in cheek. Concision and precision invigorate her fictions, and apparently the prize committee agrees, as Davis was just awarded the prestigious Man Booker International Prize. (Anne)
And the Dark Sacred Night by Julia Glass: In her fifth novel, Julia Glass revisits two beloved characters—Malachy Burns and Fenno McLeod—from her first novel, the National Book Award-winning Three Junes. The publisher’s description assures us, however, that the novel will range and weave and shift perspectives—as all Glass’s novels do—among new characters as well. In an interview with Bloom earlier this year, Glass, who debuted with Three Junes at age 46, said: “I suspect that I simply can’t help exploring a story from many angles. . . I have to look through as many windows as I can reach; now and then I resort to a ladder.” When interviewer Evelyn Somers described Glass as “fearless” in the way she weaves together complex stories, Glass replied: “I like the idea of being ‘fearless,’ but sometimes I think the complexity of my novels is more related to another trait I have: I’m an overpacker. . . Call me a maximalist. I won’t be insulted.” (Sonya)
Love & Treasure by Ayelet Waldman: The plot of this novel revolves around the true history of the Hungarian gold train, a trove of stolen valuables that was seized by American soldiers during World War II but which was never returned to its rightful owners. Seventy years later, the granddaughter of one of the treasure-seizing soldiers must look into the turbulent past—and into her own turbulent life—when her grandfather gives her a jeweled pendant with a murky history. (Hannah)
Lovers at the Chameleon Club: Paris, 1932 by Francine Prose: Francine Prose’s 20th novel, Lovers at the Chameleon Club: Paris, 1932, is framed as a biography by a French feminist high school teacher. The subject of this fictional biography is Lou Villars, based on an historical figure, a professional athlete, lesbian, cross-dresser and German spy who became a torturer and was executed by the Resistance. One early reader claimed she could smell the nicotine on the fingers of Prose’s fictional French biographer. Woven into the text are sections of a fake Peggy Guggenheim memoir and a fake Henry Miller novel. The latter, Prose reports, “was super fun to write.” (Bill)
Thunderstruck & Other Stories by Elizabeth McCracken: The novelist, short story writer, and memoirist Elizabeth McCracken, whose novel The Giant’s House was a finalist for the 1996 National Book Award, has earned a reputation as a writer of rare empathy and descriptive powers. Thunderstruck, her first short story collection in twenty years, charts the territory of family, love, and loss. In their review of the collection, Publisher’s Weekly wrote that “McCracken transforms life’s dead ends into transformational visions.” (Emily)
Frog Music by Emma Donoghue: Best known for the 2010 bestseller Room, Donoghue latest novel sees her returning to historical fiction (four of her eight novels are historical), this one based on a still-unsolved murder in 1870s San Francisco. After her friend is killed by a gunshot through a boardinghouse window, Blanche—a burlesque dancer, prostitute, and the only witness—is forced to seek justice on her own. (Janet)
All the Birds, Singing by Evie Wyld: This second novel from British thirty-something sensation Evie Wyld (After the Fire, A Still Small Voice, 2009) is about a woman named Jake who, along with a flock of sheep, is the only inhabitant on an unnamed island off the coast of Britain. The novel came out abroad last year and revolves around a mysterious predator stalking Jake’s flock, picking off her sheep one at a time in gory fashion. As The Guardian put it in a review last June, the novel is “not a ruminant whodunnit exactly; it is a thoughtful and intense account of a young woman seemingly determined to disappear from the world’s radar.” (Kevin)
In Paradise by Peter Matthiessen: 86-year-old lion of American letters Peter Matthiessen has written his first novel since Shadow Country and what he told the NY Times may be his “last word.” A novel based upon his own experience attending three “Bearing Witness” Zen retreats at the site of Auschwitz-Birkenau, In Paradise will describe one attendee’s experience of meditation in a former concentration camp as a non-Jew of Polish descent. (Lydia)
Family Life by Akhil Sharma: Sharma’s first novel, An Obedient Father, won the PEN/Hemingway and the Whiting in 2001. More than a decade later, the Indian-born writer publishes his second novel, which begins in Delhi in 1978 and tracks a family’s migration to the United States. “Life is extraordinary until tragedy strikes,” the publisher writes, “leaving one brother severely brain-damaged and the other lost and virtually orphaned in a strange land.” For a introduction to Sharma’s writing, his first short story in twelve years, about cousins living in Delhi, was published in The New Yorker this past spring: “I wrote this story as soon as I had e-mailed the novel to my editor,” he told New Yorker fiction editor Deboarah Treisman. “Get thee behind me, devil is what I thought about finishing the novel.” (Elizabeth)
With My Dog Eyes by Hilda Hilst: If 2012 was the year of Clarice Lispector, when New Directions issued four new translations of her seminal works, then 2014 may very well be the year of Lispector’s friend and fellow Brazilian author, Hilda Hilst. Obscene Madame D was Hilst’s first work translated into English, and it made appearances on my best of 2013 reading list as well as Blake Butler’s. Two more Hilst translations debut this year, with another from Nightboat (Letters from a Seducer) and Melville House’s publication of With My Dog Eyes. This title seems apt, as Hilst produced much of her work after retreating to an estate where a pack of more than one hundred dogs roamed. For a taste, check out the excerpt Bomb published last summer. (Anne)
Talking to Ourselves by Andrés Neuman: Neuman’s first novel to be translated into English, Traveler of the Century, was an enormous feat of fabulism, and was critically acclaimed when it appeared here in 2012. Talking to Ourselves demonstrates Neuman’s range by running in completely the opposite direction. This comparatively short work is set in the present day, and alternates among the voices of three family members. For those who missed Traveler of the Century, it may be an equally potent introduction to Neuman’s work. (Garth)
Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace by Nikil Saval: Saval, an n+1 editor, has produced what may be an essential volume on a subject that bedevils so many of the over-educated and under-employed among us: the office. It is likely the rare desk jockey who hasn’t, in a fugue of 3pm boredom and amid a din of inane small talk, wondered “why does it have to be like this?” Cubed looks for an answer, exploring how the office as we know it came to be, “starting with the smoke one-room offices of the 19th century and culminating in the radical spaces of the dot-com era and beyond.” (Max)
Casebook by Mona Simpson: The consistently excellent Simpson returns with what sounds like a riff on Harriet the Spy: the story of a boy investigating his parents’ disintegrating marriage. The coming-of-age narrative is complicated here, though, by the disintegration of the possibility of privacy in the age of Facebook, or Snapchat, or whatever we’re all on now. Am I the only one hoping that the “stranger from Washington D.C. who weaves in and out of their lives” is Anthony Weiner? (Garth)
Off Course by Michelle Huneven: Michelle Huneven, author of Blame and Jamesland, returns with an engrossing and intimate new novel set in the early 1980s. Cressida Hartley is a young PhD candidate in Economics who moves to her parents’ shabby vacation cabin in the Sierras; she ends up getting drawn into the small mountain community there—in particular, its men. According to the jacket copy, Huneven introduces us to “an intelligent young woman who discovers that love is the great distraction, and impossible love the greatest distraction of all.” Publishers Weekly says that “Cress makes for an eerily relatable and heartbreaking protagonist.” If you haven’t yet read a book by Huneven, whom Richard Russo calls “a writer of extraordinary and thrilling talent,” then you’re in for a treat. (Bonus: Michelle Huneven’s beautiful essay, “On Walking and Reading At the Same Time.”)
Labor Day: True Birth Stories by Today’s Best Women Writers, edited by Eleanor Henderson and Anna Solomon: There’s no such thing as a predictable birth—a fact that maddens parents-to-be but eventually makes for a whopper of an anecdote. If your Aunt Mildred can tell a good story about her scheduled c-section, imagine the tales that writers like Julia Glass, Lauren Groff, Dani Shapiro, and The Millions’ own Edan Lepucki can spin. (Hannah)
All the Rage by A. L. Kennedy: The Independent once described A. L. Kennedy as “one of nature’s Eeyores”: “She knows grimness the way some novelists know music or food.” So the Scottish writer’s sixth collection of short stories—billed as “a dozen ways of looking at love, or the lack of love”—should likely be avoided by the overly sentimental. But it promises to be marked by the dark humor that pervades her work—the “Department 5” (“a shadowy organisation about which it’s best you know nothing”) page on her website gives you a good taste. (Elizabeth)
Vernon Downs by Jaime Clarke: Clarke, the co-owner of Newtonville Books in Boston, offers a slippery roman-a-clef, or simulacrum thereof. A sad sack writer becomes obsessed with a more famous colleague, the titular Vernon Downs, who despite his lack of a middle name, bears more than a passing resemblance to Bret Easton Ellis. This is the intriguing debut title for a new indie called Roundabout Press. (Garth)
The Temporary Gentleman by Sebastian Barry: The Irish poet, playwright and novelist Sebastian Barry’s new novel, The Temporary Gentleman, tells the story of Jack McNulty, an Irishman who served in the British army in the Second World and has washed up in Accra, Ghana, in 1957, determined to write down the story of his life. Jack is an ordinary man who has seen extraordinary things—as a world traveler, soldier, engineer, UN observer and ill-starred lover. Once again Barry, a repeat contender for the Man Booker Prize, deftly twines his own family history with the rumbustious history of the Irish in the 20th century. (Bill)
The Snow Queen by Michael Cunningham: Michael Cunningham’s sixth novel is set in New York City in 2004 and tells the story of two brothers facing loss. One brother, newly bereft, experiences a religious awakening; the other, whose wife is gravely ill, falls into drug use. It sounds like a tearjerker of a story, one likely to be made even more heartrending by Cunningham’s graceful prose. (Hannah)
My Struggle, Book III by Karl Ove Knausgaard: It’s not really news anymore that Knausgaard’s unfolding project (unfolding into English, anyway; in Norwegian, it’s already complete) is phenomenal. But now that FSG is handling the paperback editions (replete with Williamsburg-ready jacket design) you’ll be hearing even more about My Struggle. And it’s true: you should read it! Start Book I now, and you will have caught up by the time Book III comes out. (Garth)
Lost for Words: A Novel by Edward St Aubyn: St Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose quintet of novels, based on his own upbringing, center around the nasty dealings of a family in the English aristocracy. (James Wood diminishes regular comparisons to Waugh and Wilde, saying that despite surface similarities, St Aubyn is “he is a colder, more savage writer than either.”) His newest novel is somewhat of a departure then, a “a hilariously smart send-up of a certain major British literary award.” Readers hesitant to leave the Melrose family behind can rest assured that the new novel promises to be just as cutting as those before it. (Elizabeth)
Another Great Day at Sea: Life Aboard the USS George H.W. Bush by Geoff Dyer: Geoff Dyer’s latest sees the prolific journalist, essayist, and novelist chronicle a two-week stay aboard a US aircraft carrier. As the tallest (well, second-tallest), oldest, and easily most self-conscious person on the boat, Dyer occupied an odd position on the crew, one which forced him to reconcile his own bookish life with a lifelong interest in the military. (Those readers with Army experience may not be surprised to learn that the text is heavy on acronyms.) (Thom)
An Untamed State by Roxane Gay: If Roxane Gay wrote it, I’ll read it. Perhaps best known for her thoughtful and engaging essays about all kinds of topics, from Orange is the New Black to Twitter to Paula Deen’s racism, Gay will publish not only a book of essays in 2014, called Bad Feminist, but also this first novel. In An Untamed State, Mireille Duval Jameson, the daughter of one of Haiti’s richest men, is kidnapped and held captive for thirteen days by a man who calls himself the Commander. Mat Johnson says, “An Untamed State is the kind of book you have to keep putting down because you can’t believe how good it is. Awesome, powerful, impossible to ignore, Roxane Gay is a literary force of nature. An Untamed State arrives like a hurricane.” (Edan)
All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr: A blind French girl and a young German boy navigate the perils of occupied France in the latest by the author of Memory Wall. The French girl, Marie Laure, flees Paris with her father, eventually holing up with her agoraphobic uncle in his house on the coast of Brittany. The German boy, Werner, a mechanical whiz, parlays his aptitude into a spot in the Nazi army. The Nazis ship him off to Russia and then from there to northern France. If we can trust Abraham Verghese’s endorsement, the story is “put together like a vintage timepiece.” (Thom)
The Vacationers by Emma Straub: The highlight of Emma Straub’s short story collection, Other People We Married, was the romantically lost but sympathetic Franny. We left the collection wanting to read an entire novel on her, and fortunately, Straub has done just that with her second novel after Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures. Surprisingly, Franny is still married to Jim, and the Post family and friends are off to Mallorca to celebrate their 35th anniversary. Yet not everything is tranquil as the Mediterranean Sea, and the vacation dredges up embarrassments, rivalries, and secrets. (Tess)
To Rise Again at a Decent Hour by Joshua Ferris: To read a Joshua Ferris novel is to stare at the gaping emptiness just below the surface of modern life—and, quite often, laugh. In this third novel from the author of the much-beloved Then We Came to the End, dentist Paul O’Rourke discovers that someone is impersonating him online, with a website, a Facebook page, and a Twitter account all mysteriously created in Paul’s name. As he looks into who has stolen his identity and why, Paul begins to fear that his digital doppelgänger may be better than the real thing. (Michael)
The Painter by Peter Heller: An expressionist painter with a penchant for violence tries to outrun his own crimes in this novel by the author of The Dog Stars. The protagonist, Jim Stegner, thought he’d settled into a peaceful life in his home in rural Colorado. One day, Stegner witnesses a local man beating a horse, and the act so enrages him that he hunts down the man and kills him. He then sets off on a Dostoevskyan quest, one which sees him make sense of his actions while hiding his crime from the cops. All the while, in spite of his turmoil, he keeps painting. (Thom)
Cutting Teeth by Julia Fierro: When a group of thirty-something parents gather at a ramshackle beach house called Eden, no serpent is required for the sins, carnal and otherwise, to pile up. Fierro, founder of Brooklyn’s Sackett Street Writers’ Workshop, argued in The Millions last year that writers need to put the steam—and the human sentiment—back into sex scenes in literary novels. You may want to keep Fierro’s debut novel on a high shelf, away from children and prudish literary snobs. (Michael)
The Last Illusion by Porochista Khakpour: Porochista Khakpour is the author of the blazingly original (pun intended!) novel Sons and Other Flammable Objects. In her new novel, its hero, Zal, is born in a rural Iranian village to a mother who believes he is evil because of his pale skin and hair. For the first ten years of his life he’s raised in a cage with the rest of his mother’s birds—eating insects, shitting on newspaper—until he is rescued by a behavioral analyst who brings him to New York. The Last Illusion recounts Zal’s struggles and adventures in this foreign land, where he befriends a magician, and falls for a supposed clairvoyant. Claire Messud writes, “This ambitious, exciting literary adventure is at once grotesque, amusing, deeply sad—and wonderful, too.” (Edan)
The Lobster Kings by Alexi Zentner: A generational drama set on fictional Loosewood Island, about the King family vying to maintain control of a centuries old lobstering dynasty. Early reports speak of meth dealers, sibling rivalry, and intra-lobster boat love as the main threats to Cordelia King’s attempt to preserve the family business. In an interview last April, Zentner (Touch, 2011) also allowed that one of the characters has “a Johnny Cash tape stuck in the cassette player in his truck.” (Kevin)
Wonderland by Stacey D’Erasmo: I’m particularly excited about Stacey D’Erasmo’s fourth novel Wonderland—not only because its protagonist is a female indie musician, the likes of whom have not made it into novels often, if ever (think about it); but because said musician, Anna Brundage, is on a comeback tour at age 44. Bloomer! From the publisher: “Wonderland is a moving inquiry into the life of a woman on an unconventional path, wondering what happens next and what her passions might have cost her, seeking a version of herself she might recognize.” D’Erasmo herself, who spent a decade as a books editor, first for the Village Voice and then Bookforum, did her own later-blooming comeback as a debut novelist at age 39, and now a professor at Columbia. (Sonya)
The Rise and Fall of Great Powers by Tom Rachman: Rachman follows The Imperfectionists, a pitch perfect novel-in-stories set at a dying English-language newspaper in Rome, with a novel about a bookseller named Tooly Zylberberg, who was kidnapped as a child and then adopted by her kidnappers. In a narrative that hopscotches the globe from Bangkok to Brooklyn to the border towns of Wales, Zylberberg is lured into setting off on a journey that will unravel the mysteries of her past. Never one to worry overmuch about plot credibility, Rachman is a master of wringing pathos from essentially comic tales. (Michael)
The Possibilities by Kaui Hart Hemmings: Seven years after the publication of The Descendents—which you might remember because of a certain movie adaptation starring George Clooney—Kaui Hart Hemmings returns to the themes of familial loss, grief, and unexpected turns of fate all cast against gorgeous scenery. In The Possibilities, a Colorado mother loses her son in an avalanche near their Breckinridge home. Coping with her loss, and trying to piece her life back together, she’s suddenly confronted with something she couldn’t have seen coming. (Nick M.)
American Innovations by Rivka Galchen: It’s been six years since readers were introduced to Galchen via her ambitious debut Atmospheric Disturbances (James Wood called it “a contribution to the Hamsun-Bernhard tradition of tragicomic first-person unreliability.”) Since then she has been chosen as one of the New Yorker’s 20 writers under 40 and produced an impressive body of unusually lyrical science journalism (on topics like quantum computers and weather control). Galchen’s new collection American Innovations reflects an experiment of another sort. Per publisher FSG, “The tales in this groundbreaking collection are secretly in conversation with canonical stories, reimagined from the perspective of female characters.” “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” and Gogol’s “The Nose” are among the stories mined. (Max)
Funny Once by Antonya Nelson: Antonya Nelson’s new story collection brings together short pieces from the last few years as well as a previously unpublished novella. In the title story, a couple, united by a shared propensity for bad behavior, reckons with the consequences of a lie they tell to their friends. In “The Village,” a woman comes to grips with her feelings about her father’s mistress. In “Three Wishes,” the novella, a group of siblings deals with the fallout of their brother’s death. Like much of the native Kansan’s work, the collection takes place largely in Heartland and Western settings. (Thom)
The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henríquez: The Book of Unknown Americans, the second novel by Iowa Writers Workshop graduate Cristina Henríquez, begins as a love story between a Panamanian boy and a Mexican girl. After the girl suffers a major injury, the story moves from Mexico to a cinderblock apartment building in Delaware populated with immigrants from Latin America. From there the novel expands outward to become a symphonic love story between these immigrants and an impossible America. Told in a multiplicity of voices, the novel manages that rare balance of being both unflinching and unsentimental. In doing so, it rewrites the definition of what it means to be American. (Bill)
Summer House With Swimming Pool by Hermann Koch: Last year, in a “Books of the Times” review, Janet Maslin took Hermann Koch’s novel, The Dinner, out into the town square for a public flogging. A funny thing happened though: the book ended up a bestseller. A bestseller translated from the Dutch, no less! Koch’s misanthropic view of contemporary life seemed to resonate with American audiences, and his latest appears to offer more of the same. Here, a murder disturbs the idyll of a group of friends on vacation together, bringing far darker currents to the surface. (Garth)
Paper Lantern and Ecstatic Cahoots by Stuart Dybek: Dybek’s The Coast of Chicago was, like Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son, practically required reading in writing programs in the late ’90s and early Aughts. Dybek’s voice was lusher than Johnson’s, and more openly romantic, but equally poetic. His follow-up, I Sailed With Magellan, sometimes let that lushness grow too wild; the gritty Chicago settings of the earlier book gave way in places to nostalgia. But a new Dybek volume is always welcome, and this year offers a treat: the simultaneous publication of two. Paper Lantern is a group of love stories, while Ecstatic Cahoots gathers together the kinds of short shorts that so memorably punctuated The Coast of Chicago. (Garth)
I’ll Be Right There by Kyung-Sook Shin: Kyung-sook Shin is one of Korea’s most popular novelists. In I’ll Be Right There, set during a period of political turmoil in 1980s South Korea, she uses European literature to bridge experiential differences between East and West. The novel concerns a highly literate woman who receives a phone call from an ex-boyfriend after nearly a decade of separation. The call triggers a flood of memories, and she finds herself reliving her intense and tumultuous youth: memories of tragedy and upheaval and of profound friendships forged in a time of uncertainty. (Emily)
In the Wolf’s Mouth by Adam Foulds: The third novel from British writer Foulds takes place at the end of World War II and follows two Allied soldiers during the final push to sweep the Germans out of Italy. In an interview last July with the Hindustan Times, Foulds previewed the book, saying, it “would like to give the reader a sense of history as being very complicated and rapid in these high-conflict situations. It is one thing after another. The events are too massive to care for particular individual stories, so there are a number of stories. For a while, one is unsure if they are going to converge but they do.” (Kevin)
California by Edan Lepucki: In July, Millions staffer and preferred writing teacher Edan Lepucki will follow up her novella If You’re Not Yet Like Me with her first full-length novel, California, a post-apocalyptic number set in, er, California. Lepucki’s debut follows a young couple struggling to make it work in a shack in the wilderness and straddles the (complementary) domestic and dystopian spheres, addressing horrors like marital strife, pregnancy, and the end of society as we know it. Dan Chaon called it “a wholly original take on the post-apocalypse genre.” (Full disclosure: I have eaten meals with Edan, squeezed her baby, and admired her tiny dog. My feeling of anticipation regarding this novel is thus not impartial.) (Lydia)
Motor City Burning by Bill Morris: Our own Bill Morris, a Motor City native, tells the story of Willie Bledsoe—once an idealistic black activist, now burnt-out and trying to write a memoir about the ’60s—who joins his brother to drive a load of illegal guns up to Detroit in 1968. While in Detroit, Bledsoe becomes the top suspect in an unsolved murder from the previous year’s bloody race riots. The book will dive deep into some of Morris’s great fascinations: cars, Detroit, and the The Indigenous American Berserk that lurks below the surface. (Kevin)
Tigerman by Nick Harkaway: A couple of years back, Charlie Jane Anders—writing on i09—declared that Harkaway had invented a new genre: existential pulp. That might be as good a way as any to describe his wildly inventive ouevre, which involves ninjas, mimes, doomsday machines, schoolgirl spies, shadowy secret societies, and mechanical soldiers. His third novel, Tigerman, concerns a burnt-out sergeant of the British Army, Lester Ferris, who is sent to serve out his time on Mancreu, a shady former British colony slated for destruction, where he encounters a street kid in need of a hero. (Emily)
Friendship by Emily Gould: Emily Gould’s debut novel charts the friendship of two women who, at thirty, have been closely entwined in one another’s lives for years. Bev lives the kind of aimless life that’s easier to put up with at 23 than at 30. Amy has been coasting for some time on charisma, luck, and early success, but unfortunate decisions are catching up with her. A meditation on friendship and maturity in an era of delayed adulthood. (Emily)
Last Stories and Other Stories by William T. Vollmann: Vollmann writes so much that you forget it’s been a blue moon since he’s published a work of fiction. And that book won the National Book Award! This collection is said to comprise a bunch of ghost stories—perhaps less inherently promising than, say, a Vollmann essay on how the FBI mistook him for the Unabomber, but still liable to fascinate. One of the remarkable things about Vollmann’s story collections is the way they add up to more than the sum of their parts; I’m eager to see how these stories connect. (Garth)
The Great Glass Sea by Josh Weil: If orbital “space mirrors” reflecting constant sunlight upon Oranzheria, a massive greenhouse in Petroplavilsk, Russia, doesn’t pique your interest, then I can’t do anything for you. These are the mysterious devices at the heart of Josh Weil’s second novel, which follows two twins, Yarik and Dima, who were inseparable as children, but who have grown apart in adulthood. Today, the two work in the collective farms of Oranzheria, the “great glass sea,” to harvest crops for the benefit of the place’s billionaire owner. What follows is a story of two brothers on oppositional paths, each hoping to reconvene, all set against the backdrop of an “alternative present-day Russia.” (Nick M.)
The Hundred-Year House by Rebecca Makkai: Doug is an academic interested in the poetry of Edwin Parfitt. As it happens, Doug’s mother-in-law owns a former artists’ colony where the poet had long ago been an artist in residence. Fancy that. But for whatever reason, she prohibits Doug from entering the estate’s attic, where file cabinets of Edwin Parfitt’s papers are said to be located. After asking around, however, Doug ultimately gains access to some of the files—only to find that they are much more disturbing than he could have imagined. What ensues is a fragmented narrative, split between 1999, 1955, and 1929, in which readers see glimpses of the present day, the near past, and the final days of the artist colony, all the while affected by the enduring legacy of the estate’s original owners. (Nick M.)
Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami: When Murakami’s new novel—his first since the in-all-ways-gigantic 1Q84—came out in Japan last year, there were apparently 150-deep midnight queues outside Tokyo bookstores. It sold 1 million copies in its first week alone. This is a novel, let’s remember, not a new Call of Duty game. And such were its unit-shifting powers in its author’s country that it caused a significant spike in sales of a particular recording of Franz Liszt’s “Years of Pilgrimage” piano pieces described in the novel, leading to a swift decision by Universal Music to reprint CDs of the recording to meet Murakami-based demand. The novel tells the story of Tsukuru Tazaki, a young man mysteriously ostracized by his friends. It stands a good chance of selling a few copies in English translation too. (Mark)
The Kills by Richard House: The second section of this four-part novel is called “The Massive”; it’s a title that could have stood for the whole. House’s sprawling quadruple-decker, longlisted for the Booker Prize, is a literary thriller set against the background of the Iraq War. Intriguingly, House created extensive digital video and audio supplements that unfold alongside the narrative. Not sure how that works, though, if you’re going to be reading on boring old paper, as I am. (Garth)
More from The Millions:
The good stuff: The Millions’ Notable articles
The motherlode: The Millions’ Books and Reviews
Hats off to our own Edan Lepucki for being named a Face to Watch by the LA Times! In an article, David L. Ulin says Edan’s upcoming novel is “steeped in southern California narrative tradition” and describes how a drive along Sunset Boulevard inspired the setting of the book. (You can catch up on Edan’s work by looking through her archive.)