"In the early morning on the lake sitting in the stern of the boat with his father rowing, he felt quite sure that he would never die." Ever since I turned 40—that is to say, for a week now—this final sentence of Hemingway's "Indian Camp" has been rattling around my head. When I first read it, back in college, it landed like a hard left hook, knocking me flat with recognition. (I can't be alone in this; Cormac McCarthy nicked the phrasing for the end of Blood Meridian.) Right, I thought. Exactly. But now, revisiting the end of "Indian Camp,"' I see that my younger self was missing at least half the point: It's supposed to be ironic! Of course he's going to die! In fact, maybe that's why the line has been on my mind, along with Dante's "mezzo del camin di nostra vita" and Yeats's "widening gyre" and Larkin's "long slide." For though I've managed to avoid until now the garment-rending and gnashing of teeth around birthdays ("Age ain't nothing but a number," right?) forty really does feel like a delineation. At 39, rocking the Aaliyah quote is still a youthful caprice. At 41, it's a midlife crisis. And the fact that I'm no longer immortal would seem to raise some questions about the pursuit I've more or less given my life to: reading. Specifically, if you can't take it with you, what's the point? Indeed, I now wonder whether the bouts of reader's block I suffered in 2014 and 2017 had to do not with technological change or familial or political crisis, but with the comparatively humdrum catastrophe of getting older. Yet 2018 found me rejuvenated as a reader. Maybe there was some compensatory quality-control shift in my "to-read" pile (life's too short for random Twitter) or maybe it was just dumb luck, but nearly every book I picked up this year seemed proof of its own necessity. So you'll forgive me if I enthuse here at length. First and foremost, about Halldór Laxness's Independent People. This Icelandic classic had been on my reading list for almost a decade, but something—its bulk, its ostensible subject (sheep farming), its mythic opening—held me back. Then, this summer, I took a copy to Maine, and as soon as Bjartur of Summerhouses blustered onto the page, the stubbornest hero in all of world literature, I was hooked. As for those sheep: This is a novel about them only in the sense that Lonesome Dove is a novel about cows. And though I love Lonesome Dove, Independent People is much the better book. Laxness's storytelling offers epic sweep and power, but also, in J.A. Thompson's stunning translation, modernist depth and daring, along with humor and beauty and pain to rival Tolstoy. In short, Independent People is one of my favorite novels ever. Also among the best things I read in 2018 were the shorter works that padded out my northern travels: Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping and the novels of Jenny Erpenbeck. I'm obviously late arriving to the former; there's not much I can say that you won't have heard elsewhere, or experienced yourself. (Still: the prose!) Of the latter, I can report that The End of Days is ingenious, as if David Mitchell had attempted Sebald’s The Emigrants. And that Go, Went, Gone, notwithstanding Jonathan Dee's careful gift-horse inspection in Harper's, is even better. But for my money, Erpenbeck's finest novel is Visitation, which manages to pack much of the story of 20th-century Germany into the 190-page description of a country house. In any case, Erpenbeck's writing, like Robinson's, seems built to endure. On the nonfiction front, I spent a week this fall immersed in Thomas de Zengotita's Politics and Postmodern Theory, a heady, lucid, and ultimately persuasive philosophical recasting of nearly a half-century of academic kulturkampf. Much as Wittgenstein (who gets a chapter here) claimed to resolve certain problems of philosophy by showing them to arise from elementary confusions, de Zengotita seeks to dispel muddles over the legacy of post-structuralism and the Enlightenment thought it ostensibly dismantled. He does so by giving key 20th-century thinkers—Kristeva, Derrida, Deleuze, Judith Butler—a rereading that is rigorous, respectful, accessible, and, in important ways, against the grain. As an etiology of the current cultural situation, this book belongs on a shelf with Frederic Jameson's Postmodernism and David Harvey's The Condition of Postmodernity. And, notwithstanding its price tag, anyone who cares deeply about issues of identity and solidarity and being-in-the-world today should heed its lessons. This was also a year when the new-fiction tables at the bookstore seemed reinvigorated. For my money, the best American novel of 2018 was Rachel Kushner's The Mars Room, whose urgent blend of social conscience and poetic vision made debates about "reality hunger" and the value of fiction seem not just quaint but fallacious. So, too, with Mathias Énard's Compass, now in paperback in a crystalline translation by Charlotte Mandell. It would be hard to find a novel more indebted to historical reality, but in its fearless imagination, Compass turns these materials into something properly fictive, rather than factitious—and wholly Énard's own. And I'd be remiss not to mention Deborah Eisenberg's story collection Your Duck Is My Duck. Eisenberg writes the American sentence better than anyone else alive, and for anyone who’s followed these stories as they've appeared, serially, her brilliance is a given. Read together, though, they’re a jolting reminder of her continued necessity: her resistance to everything that would dull our brains, hearts, and nerves. And then you could have made a National Book Awards shortlist this year entirely out of debuts. One of the most celebrated was Jamel Brinkley's A Lucky Man. What I loved about these stories, apart from the Fitzgeraldian grace of Brinkley's voice, was their tendency to go several steps beyond where a more timid writer might have stopped—to hurl characters and images and incidents well downfield of what the story strictly required and then race to catch up. More important than being uniformly successful, A Lucky Man is uniformly interesting. As is Lisa Halliday's Asymmetry. The "unexpected" coda, in my read, put a too-neat bow on things. I'd have enjoyed it even more as an unresolved diptych. But because the novel’s range and hunger are so vast, such asymmetries end up being vital complications of its interests and themes: artifice, power, subjectivity, and truth. They are signs of a writer who aims to do more than simply write what is within her power to know. Any list of auspicious recent debuts should also include one from the other side of the pond: David Keenan's This Is Memorial Device (from 2017, but still). The novel presents—tantalizingly, for me—as an oral history of the postpunk scene in the Scottish backwater of Airdrie in the early 1980s, yet Keenan's psychedelic prose and eccentric emphases make it something even more. I was reminded frequently of Roberto Bolaño's The Savage Detectives, and could not fathom why this book was overlooked in the U.S. Hopefully, the publication of a follow-up For the Good Times, will change that. It was a good year for journalism, too. I'm thinking not of Michael Wolff or (God forbid) Bob Woodward, but of Sam Anderson, the critic at large for The New York Times Magazine, and his first book, Boom Town. If there’s one thing less immediately exciting to me than sheep farming, it’s Oklahoma City, which this book promises (threatens?) to explore. On the other hand, I would read Sam Anderson on just about anything. Here, starting with the Flaming Lips, the land-rush of 1889, and the unlikely rise of the NBA’s Oklahoma City Thunder, he stages a massive detonation of curiosity, sensibility, and wonder. (Favorite sentence: "Westbrook, meanwhile, started the season Westbrooking as hard as he could possibly Westbrook.") And as with David Foster Wallace or John Jeremiah Sullivan, he leaves you feeling restored to curiosity and wonder yourself. I'm also thinking of Pam Kelley's Money Rock, which focuses on the drug trade in 1980s Charlotte. It reminded me, in miniature, of a great book I’d read a few months earlier, David Simon's sprawling Homicide. Simon and Kelley are sure-handed when sketching the social systems within which we orbit, but what makes these books live is their feel for the human swerve—for Detective Terry McLarney of the Baltimore Homicide Squad or Lamont "Money Rock" Belton, locked up behind the crack game. This was also the year I started reading J. Anthony Lukas, who, among the ranks of New or New-ish Journalists who emerged in the ’60s, seems to have fallen into comparative neglect. I checked out Nightmare, his book on Nixon, and was edified. Then I moved on to Common Ground, about the struggle to integrate Boston's school system, and was blown away. With little authorial commentary or judgment, but with exhaustive reporting, Lukas embeds with three families—the Waymons, the McGoffs, and the Drivers—to give us a 360-degree view of a pivotal event in American history. The book has its longeurs, but I can think of few working journalists this side of Adrian Nicole Leblanc who’d be patient enough to bring off its parallactic vision. In talking to friends about Common Ground, I kept hearing memories of its ubiquity on the coffeetables and library shelves of the 1980s, yet no one my age seemed to have read it. Like Homicide, it hangs in that long middle age where books slowly live or die—not news anymore, but not yet old enough to fall out of print, or to become a "classic." Recommending these books feels like it might actually make a difference between the two. So here are a few more shout-outs: 1) John Lanchester, The Debt to Pleasure, from 1996. Anyone who relishes, as I do, the fundamental sanity of Lanchester's essays will be surprised by the demented glee of his first novel. Its prophetic sendup of foodie affectation throws Proust into a blender with Humbert Humbert and Patrick Suskind's Perfume—and is maybe the funniest English novel since The Information. 2) Javier Cercas, Soldiers of Salamis, from 2001. I ran down a copy in preparation for interviewing Cercas and ended up thinking this may be my favorite of his books: a story of survival during the Spanish Civil War and of an attempt to recover the truth half a century later. In it, the heroic and the mock-heroic achieve perfect balance. 3) Emma Richler, Be My Wolff, from last year. Impressed by the beauty of Richler's writing and the uncommon intelligence of her characters, I sent in a blurb for this one just under the deadline for publication, but still 50 pages from the end. When I finally got around to finishing it early this year, I found I'd missed the best part. I love this novel's passionate idiosyncrasies. And finally...back to Scandinavia. In August, while luxuriating in Independent People, I was asked to review CoDEX 1962, a trilogy by the Icelandic writer Sjón. This in turn forced me to put aside the introduction I’d been working on for the Danish Nobel Prize-winner Henrik Pontoppidan’s magnum opus, Lucky Per...which meant a further delay in finishing Book 6 of the Norwegian Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle. With more than 3000 pages of Nordic writing before me, I felt certain warning signals flashing. As Knausgaard writes (of being 40), “Why had I chosen to organize my life this way?” The truth is that there was no organization involved, just a random clumping of the reading list, and I’m happy to report that things are now back to normal. But once I got past the anxiety, I actually enjoyed my two solid months of Nordic fiction. I wasn’t totally convinced by CoDEX 1962, but a couple of Sjón’s shorter novels killed me—especially Moonstone, a coming-of-age story set in Rekjavik in the cataclysmic early days of cinema. And though most of Pontoppidan’s corpus hasn’t been translated into English, the novellas The Royal Guest, The Polar Bear, and The Apothecary’s Daughters, make fascinating companions to Joyce, Conrad, and Chekhov...if you can find them. (Lucky Per will be republished by Everyman's Library in April.) As for Knausgaard, the final volume of My Struggle is one of the more uneven of the six, and I’m still digesting the whole. But at this point almost a decade of my life is bound up with these books. All these books, really. And that strange adjacency of real, finite life and the limitless life of the imagination...well, maybe that's been the point all along. More from A Year in Reading 2018 Do you love Year in Reading and the amazing books and arts content that The Millions produces year round? We are asking readers for support to ensure that The Millions can stay vibrant for years to come. Please click here to learn about several simple ways you can support The Millions now. Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 [millions_ad]
We wouldn’t dream of abandoning our vast semi–annual Most Anticipated Book Previews, but we thought a monthly reminder would be helpful (and give us a chance to note titles we missed the first time around). Here’s what we’re looking out for this month. Find more November titles at our Great Second-Half Preview, and let us know what you’re looking forward to in the comments! NOVEMBER All the Lives We Never Lived by Anuradha Roy: This is Roy’s latest offering after a powerful showing in Sleeping on Jupiter, which was longlisted for the Man Booker prize in 2015. This novel centers around Myshkin, a boy whose life is changed when his mother elopes—no, vanishes—with a German man who appears naked at a river near their house one day and insists he has come for her after first meeting her in Bali. The novel follows the anamnesis of what happened, and his ruminations on its effect on his life. Already published in Britain, the novel has been called “elegiac,” compelling, and powerful, among other things. Conceived during a time Roy spent in Bali—at a festival where I had the pleasure of meeting her in 2015—this is an affecting novel. Readers should look for a conversation between Roy and me on this site around publication date. (Chigozie) Evening in Paradise by Lucia Berlin: Can you remember a better short story collection in recent years than Berlin’s A Manual for Cleaning Women? I can’t. Maybe once a week I think about that dentist, ripping his own teeth out in front of his granddaughter. Now, Berlin’s estate is back with even more stories, this time all previously uncompiled. In the case of a less talented writer, I’d be worried about publishers scraping the barrel. But with Berlin, there are surely unplucked molars. (Nick M.) Insurrecto by Gina Apostol: A story that takes across time and place in the Philippines, from the American occupation to the Duterte era, by the winner of the PEN Open Book Award for Gun Dealer’s Daughter. Publishers Weekly calls the novel a "pyrotechnical marvel" and named it one of the best books of 2018. (And don’t miss Apostol’s astute essay in the Los Angeles Review of Books on Francine Prose and textual appropriation.) (Lydia) The End of the End of the Earth by Jonathan Franzen: Today Franzen is best known as a novelist—even a “Great American Novelist”—but it’s worth noting that he first appeared on many readers’ radar with his 1996 Harper’s essay “Perchance to Dream” about the difficulties of writing fiction in an age of images. Franzen’s essays, like his novels, can be a mixed bag, but he is a man perennially interested in interesting things that others overlook, such as, in this book, the global devastation of seabirds by predators and climate change. (Michael) My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite: As the title makes clear, the Nigerian writer Oyinkan Braithwaite’s first novel is a dark comedy of sibling rivalry. The beautiful Ayoola leads a charmed life, and thanks to the cleanup efforts of her older sister, Korede, she suffers no repercussions from killing a string of boyfriends. Korede’s loyalty is tested, however, when a man close to her heart asks out her sister. Film producers are already getting in on the fun, as Working Title has optioned what the publisher calls a “hand grenade of a novel.” (Matt) Those Who Knew by Idra Novey: Following up her debut novel, Ways to Disappear, Novey's latest tells the story of a woman who suspects a senator's hand in the death of a young woman on an unnamed island. The great Rebecca Traister says the book "speaks with uncommon prescience to the swirl around us. Novey writes, with acuity and depth, about questions of silence, power, and complicity. The universe she has created is imagined, and all too real." (Lydia) Tell Them of Battles, Kings, and Elephants by Mathias Énard (translated by Charlotte Mandell): From the author of the brilliant, Prix Goncourt-winning Compass, a work of historical fiction that follows Michelangelo to the Ottoman Empire, where he is considering a commission from the Sultan to build a bridge across the Golden Horn. The novel promises to continue Énard’s deep, humanistic explorations of the historical and ongoing connections between Europe and Asia, Islamdom and Christendom. (Lydia) The April 3rd Incident by Yu Hua (translated by Allan H. Barr): A collection of his best early stories from a pioneer in China’s 1980 avant-garde literary movement, renowned for approaching realist subject matters through unconventional techniques. In his writings, reality is punctured and estranged, leading up to a new look at things familiar. Yu Hua is one of the best acclaimed contemporary Chinese authors. His previous works include China in Ten Words, Brothers, and the stunning To Live. (Jianan) The Feral Detective by Jonathan Lethem: Charles Heist lives in a trailer in the desert outside L.A. and keeps his pet opossum in a desk drawer. Phoebe Siegler is a sarcastic motormouth looking for a friend’s missing daughter. Together, they explore California’s sun-blasted Inland Empire, searching for the girl among warring encampments of hippies and vagabonds living off the grid. In other words, we’re in Lethemland, where characters have implausible last names, genre tropes are turned inside out, and no detective is complete without a pet opossum. The Patch by John McPhee: McPhee’s seventh collection of essays is finely curated, as expected for an essayist who lives and breathes structure. Essays on the sporting life fill the first part; the second includes shorter, previously uncollected pieces. The collection’s titular essay is an elegiac classic, which begins with the pursuit of chain pickerel in New Hampshire but soon becomes an essay about his dying father. McPhee flawlessly moves from gravity to levity, as in his writing about the Hershey chocolate factory. Such pieces are tastes of his willingness to let the world around him just be and to marvel at mysteries of all variety: “Pools and pools and pools of chocolate—fifty-thousand-pound, ninety-thousand-pound, Olympic-length pools of chocolate—in the conching rooms...Slip a little spatula in there and see how it tastes. Waxy? Claggy? Gritty? Mild? Taste it soft. That is the way to get the flavor.” One wishes John McPhee would write about everything, his words an introduction to all of life’s flavors. (Nick R.) Useful Phrases for Immigrants by May-lee Chai: Winner of the Doris Bakwin Award selected by Tayari Jones, Chai's collection comprises eight stories detailing life in a globalized world. Edward P. Jones called Useful Phrases "a splendid gem of a story collection...Complementing the vivid characters, the reader has the gift of language―‘a wind so treacherous it had its own name,' 'summer days stretched taffy slow'....Chai's work is a grand event." (Lydia) A Stranger's Pose by Emmanuel Iduma: From Cassava Republic Press, a new Nigerian publishing powerhouse that recently opened up a U.S. office, comes a collection of travel essays describing the New York-residing, Nigerian-born Iduma's peregrinations through over twenty African cities (read an excerpt from the collection here at the site). "I want this book to occupy the space between home and disapora," Iduma narrates in a lovely trailer for the book. The collection also features a foreword by Teju Cole. (Lydia) The Naked Woman by Armonía Somers (translated by Kit Maude): First published 50 years ago, this is Somers' (1914–1994) first work translated into English. The novella follows one woman's feminist awakening and the ways her transformation leads a rural village to ruin with violent desire. About the novel, Carmen Maria Machado wrote: “I am so grateful that a new generation will be able to read this surreal, nightmarish book about women’s struggle for autonomy—and how that struggle is (always, inevitably) met with violence.” (Carolyn) Death and Other Holidays by Marci Vogel: Winner of the inaugural Miami Book Fair/de Groot Prize for Best Novella, Vogel's debut follows April, the 27-year-old narrator, as she grieves her stepfather's death over the course of one year. In a starred review, Kirkus called it "a moving and graceful novella of overcoming sorrow." (Carolyn) In/Half by Jasmin B. Frelih (translated by Jason Blake): First published in 2013 in Slovenian, Frelih's debut novel won the 2016 European Union Prize for Literature. Set twenty-five years in the future, the experimental, post-modern novel follows three millennials as they navigate a crumbling world and attempt to find their place in an unrecognizable world. Publisher's Weekly wrote the novel "sustains its ghostly, ethereal tone and will be appreciated by readers looking for a mind-bending puzzle." (Carolyn) Northwood by Maryse Meijer: A genre-bending novella written in short, formally-transgressive passages. Imbued with myths, fairy tales, and horror, the book follows a young woman who flees to the woods to pursue her artwork and what happens when she falls in love with a violent, married man. Samantha Hunt writes "Meijer has made her own form, something new and wide-open, something as blissful and broken as the language of lovesickness itself.” (Carolyn)
Putting together our semi-annual Previews is a blessing and a curse. A blessing to be able to look six months into the future and see the avalanche of vital creative work coming our way; a curse because no one list can hope to be comprehensive, and no one person can hope to read all these damn books. We tried valiantly to keep it under 100, and this year, we just...couldn't. But it's a privilege to fail with such a good list: We've got new novels by Kate Atkinson, Dale Peck, Pat Barker, Haruki Murakami, Bernice McFadden, and Barbara Kingsolver. We've got a stunning array of debut novels, including one by our very own editor, Lydia Kiesling—not to mention R.O. Kwon, Ingrid Rojas Contreras, Crystal Hana Kim, Lucy Tan, Vanessa Hua, Wayétu Moore, and Olivia Laing. We've got long-awaited memoirs by Kiese Laymon and Nicole Chung. Works of nonfiction by Michiko Kakutani and Jonathan Franzen. The year has been bad, but the books will be good. (And if you don't see a title here, look out for our monthly Previews.) As always, you can help ensure that these previews, and all our great books coverage, continue for years to come by lending your support to the site as a member. (As a thank you for their generosity, our members now get a monthly email newsletter brimming with book recommendations from our illustrious staffers.) The Millions has been running for nearly 15 years on a wing and a prayer, and we’re incredibly grateful for the love of our recurring readers and current members who help us sustain the work that we do. JULY The Incendiaries by R.O. Kwon: In her debut novel, Kwon investigates faith and identity as well as love and loss. Celeste Ng writes, “The Incendiaries probes the seductive and dangerous places to which we drift when loss unmoors us. In dazzlingly acrobatic prose, R.O. Kwon explores the lines between faith and fanaticism, passion and violence, the rational and the unknowable.” The Incendiaries is an American Booksellers Association Indies Introduce pick, and The New York Times recently profiled Kwon as a summer writer to watch. (Zoë) My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh: Booker finalist Ottessa Moshfegh’s latest book is (as fans of hers can probably guess) both funny and deeply tender, a testament to the author’s keen eye for the sad and the weird. In it, a young woman starts a regiment of “narcotic hibernation,” prescribed to her by a psychiatrist as demented as psychiatrists come. Eventually, her drug use leads to a spate of bad side effects, which kick off a spiral of increasingly dysfunctional behavior. (Thom) Fruit of the Drunken Tree by Ingrid Rojas Contreras: Against the backdrop of political disarray and vicious violence driven by Pablo Escobar’s drug empire, sisters Chula and Cassandra live safely in a gated Bogotá community. But when a woman from the city’s working-class slums named Petrona becomes their live-in maid, the city’s chaos penetrates the family’s comfort. Soon, Chula and Petrona’s lives are hopelessly entangled amidst devastating violence. Bay Area author Ingrid Rojas Contreras brings us this excellent and timely debut novel about the particular pressures that war exerts on the women caught up in its wake. (Ismail) A Carnival of Losses by Donald Hall: Hall, a former United States poet laureate, earnestly began writing prose while teaching at the University of Michigan during the 1950s. Failed stories and novels during his teenage years had soured him on the genre, but then he longed to write “reminiscent, descriptive” nonfiction “by trying and failing and trying again.” Hall’s been prolific ever since, and Carnival of Losses will publish a month after his passing. Gems here include an elegy written nearly 22 years after the death of his wife, the poet Jane Kenyon. “In the months and years after her death, Jane’s voice and mine rose as one, spiraling together the images and diphthongs of the dead who were once the living, our necropoetics of grief and love in the singular absence of flesh.” For a skilled essayist, the past is always present. This book is a fitting final gift. (Nick R.) What We Were Promised by Lucy Tan: Set in China’s metropolis Shanghai, the story is about a new rich Chinese family returning to their native land after fulfilling the American Dream. Their previous city and country have transformed as much as themselves, as have their counterparts in China. For those who want to take a look at the many contrasts and complexities in contemporary China, Tan’s work provides a valuable perspective. (Jianan) An Ocean of Minutes by Thea Lim: In Lim’s debut novel, the world has been devastated by a flu pandemic and time travel is possible. Frank and Polly, a young couple, are learning to live in their new world—until Frank gets sick. In order to save his life, Polly travels to the future for TimeRaiser—a company set on rebuilding the world—with a plan to meet Frank there. When something in their plan goes wrong, the two try to find each other across decades. From a starred Publishers Weekly review: “Lim’s enthralling novel succeeds on every level: as a love story, an imaginative thriller, and a dystopian narrative.” (Carolyn) How to Love a Jamaican by Alexia Arthurs: Last year, Alexia Arthurs won the Plimpton Prize for her story “Bad Behavior,” which appeared in The Paris Review’s summer issue in 2016. How to Love a Jamaican, her first book, includes that story along with several others, two of which were published originally in Vice and Granta. Readers looking for a recommendation can take one from Zadie Smith, who praised the collection as “sharp and kind, bitter and sweet.” (Thom) Give Me Your Hand by Megan Abbott: Megan Abbott is blowing up. EW just asked if she was Hollywood’s next big novelist, due to the number of adaptations of her work currently in production, but she’s been steadily writing award-winning books for a decade. Her genre might be described as the female friendship thriller, and her latest is about two high school friends who later become rivals in the scientific academic community. Rivalries never end well in Abbott’s world. (Janet) The Seas by Samantha Hunt: Sailors, seas, love, hauntings—in The Seas, soon to be reissued by Tin House, Samantha Hunt's fiction sees the world through a scrim of wonder and curiosity, whether it's investigating mothering (as in “A Love Story”), reimagining the late days of doddering Nikolai Tesla at the New Yorker Hotel (“The Invention of Everything Else”), or in an ill-fated love story between a young girl and a 30-something Iraq War Veteran. Dave Eggers has called The Seas "One of the most distinctive and unforgettable voices I've read in years. The book will linger…in your head for a good long time.” (Anne) The Occasional Virgin by Hanan al-Shaykh: Novelist and playwright Hanan al-Shaykh's latest novel concerns two 30-something friends, Huda and Yvonne, who grew up together in Lebanon (the former Muslim, the latter Christian) and who now, according to the jacket copy, "find themselves torn between the traditional worlds they were born into and the successful professional identities they’ve created." Alberto Manguel calls it "A modern Jane Austen comedy, wise, witty and unexpectedly profound." I'm seduced by the title alone. (Edan) The Marvellous Equations of the Dread by Marcia Douglas: In this massively creative work of musical magical realism, Bob Marley has been reincarnated as Fall-down and haunts a clocktower built on the site of a hanging tree in Kingston. Recognized only by a former lover, he visits with King Edward VII, Marcus Garvey, and Haile Selassie. Time isn’t quite what it usually is, either—years fly by every time Fall-down returns to his tower, and his story follows 300 years of violence and myth. But the true innovation here is in the musicality of the prose: Subtitled “A Novel in Bass Riddim,” Marvellous Equations of the Dread draws from—and continues—a long Caribbean musical tradition. (Kaulie) The Death of Truth by Michiko Kakutani: Kakutani is best-known as the long-reigning—and frequently eviscerating—chief book critic at The New York Times, a job she left last year in order to write this book. In The Death of Truth, she considers our troubling era of alternative facts and traces the trends that have brought us to this horrific moment where the very concept of “objective reality” provokes a certain nostalgia. “Trump did not spring out of nowhere,” she told Vanity Fair in a recent interview, “and I was struck by how prescient writers like Alexis de Tocqueville and George Orwell and Hannah Arendt were about how those in power get to define what the truth is.” (Emily) Immigrant, Montana by Amitava Kumar: Kumar, author of multiple works of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, returns with a novel about Kailash, a young immigrant from India, coming of age and searching for love in the United States. Publishers Weekly notes (in a starred review) that “this coming-of-age-in-the-city story is bolstered by the author’s captivating prose, which keeps it consistently surprising and hilarious.” (Emily) Brother by David Chariandy: A tightly constructed and powerful novel that tells the story of two brothers in a housing complex in a Toronto suburb during the simmering summer of 1991. Michael and Francis balance hope against the danger of having it as they struggle against prejudice and low expectations. This is set against the tense events of a fateful night. When the novel came out in Canada last year, it won the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize and was declared one of the best of the year by many. Marlon James calls Brother "a brilliant, powerful elegy from a living brother to a lost one.” (Claire) A Terrible Country by Keith Gessen: Familial devotion, academic glory, and the need for some space to think have combined to send Andrei back to Moscow some 20 years after his family had emigrated to America. The trip should stir up some academic fodder for his ailing career, and besides, his aging baba Seva could really use the help. For her part, baba Seva never wavers in her assessment of Andrei’s attempt to make a go of it in 200-aughtish Russia: “This is a terrible country,” she tells him. Repeatedly. Perhaps he should have listened. This faux memoir is journalist and historian Keith Gessen’s second novel and an essential addition to the “Before You Go to Russia, Read…” list. (Il’ja) The Lost Country by William Gay: After Little Sister Death, Gay’s 2015 novel that slipped just over the border from Southern gothic into horror, longtime fans of his dark realism (where the real is ever imbued with the fantastic) will be grateful to indie publisher Dzanc Books for one more posthumous novel from the author. Protagonist Billy Edgewater returns to eastern Tennessee after two years in the Navy to see his dying father. Per Kirkus, the picaresque journey takes us through “italicized flashbacks, stream-of-consciousness interludes, infidelities, prison breaks, murderous revenge, biblical language, and a deep kinship between the land and its inhabitants,” and of course, there’s also a one-armed con man named Roosterfish, who brings humor into Gay’s bleak (drunken, violent) and yet still mystical world of mid-1950s rural Tennessee. (Sonya) Comemadre by Roque Larraquy (translated by Heather Cleary): A fin de siècle Beunos Aires doctor probes a little too closely when examining the threshold between life and death. A 21st-century artist discovers the ultimate in transcendence and turns himself into an objet d'art. In this dark, dense, surprisingly short debut novel by the Argentinian author, we’re confronted with enough grotesqueries to fill a couple Terry Gilliam films and, more importantly, with the idea that the only real monsters are those that are formed out of our own ambition. (Il’ja) Now My Heart Is Full by Laura June: "It was my mother I thought of as I looked down at my new daughter," writes Laura June in her debut memoir about how motherhood has forced her to face, reconcile, and even reassess her relationship with her late mother, who was an alcoholic. Roxane Gay calls it “warm and moving,” and Alana Massey writes, “Laura June triumphs by resisting the inertia of inherited suffering and surrendering to the possibility of a boundless, unbreakable love.” Fans of Laura June's parenting essays on The Cut will definitely want to check this one out. (Edan) OK, Mr. Field by Katherine Kilalea: In this debut novel, a concert pianist (the eponymous Mr. Field) spends his payout from a train accident on a replica of Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye. And then his wife vanishes. In a starred review, Publishers Weekly called the book “a striking, singular debut” and “a disorienting and enthralling descent into one man’s peculiar malaise.” You can whet your appetite with this excerpt in The Paris Review. Kilalea, who is from South Africa and now lives in London, is also the author of the poetry collection One Eye’d Leigh. (Edan) Nevada Days by Bernardo Atxaga (translated by Margaret Jull Costa): Though it’s difficult to write a truly new European travelogue, the Basque writer Bernardo Atxaga seems to have found a way. After spurning Harvard—who tried to recruit him to be an author in residence—Atxaga took an offer to spend nine months at the Center for Basque Studies at the University of Nevada, Reno, which led to this book about his tenure in the Silver State during the run-up to Obama's election. Though it’s largely a fictionalized account, the book contains passages and stories the author overheard. (Thom) Interior by Thomas Clerc (translated by Jeffrey Zuckerman): Give it to Thomas Clerc: The French writer isn’t misleading his readers with the title of this book. At heart, Interior is a tour of the author’s apartment, animated with a comic level of detail and consideration. Every object and appliance gets a history, and the author gives opinions on things like bathroom reading material. Like Samuel Beckett’s fiction, Interior comes alive through its narrator, whose quirkiness helps shepherd the reader through a landscape of tedium. (Thom) Eden by Andrea Kleine: Hope and her sister, Eden, were abducted as children, lured into a van by a man they thought was their father’s friend; 20 years later, Hope’s life as a New York playwright is crumbling when she hears their abductor is up for parole. Eden’s story could keep him locked away, but nobody knows where she is, so Hope takes off to look for her, charting a cross-country path in a run-down RV. The author of Calf, Kleine is no stranger to violence, and Eden is a hard, sometimes frightening look at the way trauma follows us. (Kaulie) Unclean Jobs for Women and Girls by Alissa Nutting: The latest collection from one of America’s most audaciously interesting writers follows her last two novels, in which she inverted the Lolita story and satirized Silicon Valley, respectively. Somewhere in between, she also wrote about her love of hot dogs. Oh, and this collection’s title is clearly a nod to Lucia Berlin. Let’s be real for a minute: If you need more than that to buy this book, you’re not my friend, you’ve got bad taste, and you should keep scrolling. (Nick M.) Suicide Club by Rachel Heng: What if we could live forever? Or: When is life no longer, you know, life? Heng’s debut novel, set in a futuristic New York where the healthy have a shot at immortality, probes those questions artfully but directly. Lea Kirino trades organs on the New York Stock Exchange and might never die, but when she runs into her long-disappeared father and meets the other members of his Suicide Club, she begins to wonder what life will cost her. Part critique of the American cult of wellness, part glittering future with a nightmare undercurrent, Suicide Club is nothing if not deeply imaginative and timely. (Kaulie) The Samurai by Shusaku Endo (translated by Van C. Gessel): In early 17th-century Japan, four low-ranking samurai and a Jesuit priest set off for la Nueva España (Mexico) on a trade mission. What could go wrong? The question of whether there can ever be substantive interplay between the core traditions of the West and the Far East—or whether the dynamic is somehow doomed, organically, to the superficial—is a recurring motif in Endo’s work much as it was in his life. Endo’s Catholic faith lent a peculiar depth to his writing that’s neither parochial nor proselytizing but typically, as in this New Directions reprint, thick with adventure. (Il’ja) If You See Me, Don’t Say Hi by Neel Patel: The characters in these 11 stories, nearly all of whom are first-generation Indian immigrants, are gay and straight, highly successful and totally lost, meekly traditional and boldly transgressive, but as they navigate a familiar contemporary landscape of suburban malls and social media stalking, they come off as deeply—and compellingly—American. (Michael) Homeplace by John Lingan: Maybe it’s true that a dive bar shouldn’t have a website, but probably that notion gets thrown out the window when the bar's longtime owner gave Patsy Cline her first break. In the same way, throw out your notions of what a hyper-localized examination of a small-town bar can be. In Lingan’s hands, the Troubadour explodes like a shattered glass, shards shot beyond Virginia, revealing something about ourselves—all of us—if we can catch the right glints in the pieces. (Nick M.) Early Work by Andrew Martin: In this debut, a writer named Peter Cunningham slowly becomes aware that he’s not the novelist he wants to be. He walks his dog, writes every day, and teaches at a woman’s prison, but he still feels directionless, especially in comparison to his medical student girlfriend. When he meets a woman who’s separated from her fiance, he starts to learn that inspiration is always complex. (Thom) AUGUST A River of Stars by Vanessa Hua: A factory worker named Scarlett Chen is having an affair with Yeung—her boss—when her life is suddenly turned upside down. After she becomes pregnant with Yeung’s son, Scarlett is sent to a secret maternity home in Los Angeles so that the child will be born with the privileges of American citizenship. Distressed at her isolation, Scarlett flees to San Francisco’s Chinatown with a teenage stowaway named Daisy. Together, they disappear into a community of immigrants that remains hidden to most Americans. While they strive for their version of the American dream, Yeung will do anything to secure his son’s future. In a time when immigration policy has returned to the center of our national politics, Bay Area author Vanessa Hua delivers a book that explores the motivations, fears, and aspirations that drive people to migrate. (Ismail) Flights by Olga Tokarczuk (translated by Jennifer Croft): The 116 vignettes that make up this collection have been called digressive, discursive, and speculative. My adjectives: disarming and wonderfully encouraging. Whether telling the story of the trip that brought Chopin’s heart back to Warsaw or of a euthanasia pact between two sweethearts, Croft’s translation from Polish is light as a feather yet captures well the economy and depth of Tokarczuk’s deceptively simple style. A welcome reminder of how love drives out fear and also a worthy Man Booker International winner for 2018. (Il’ja) If You Leave Me by Crystal Hana Kim: Kim, a Columbia MFA graduate and contributing editor of Apogee Journal, is drawing rave advance praise for her debut novel. If You Leave Me is a family saga and romance set during the Korean War and its aftermath. Though a historical drama, its concerns—including mental illness and refugee life—could not be more timely. (Adam) Praise Song for the Butterflies by Bernice McFadden: On the heels of her American Book Award- and NAACP Image Award-winning novel The Book of Harlan, McFadden’s 10th novel, Praise Song for the Butterflies, gives us the story of Abeo, a privileged 9-year-old girl in West Africa who is sacrificed by her family into a brutal life of ritual servitude to atone for the father’s sins. Fifteen years later, Abeo is freed and must learn how to heal and live again. A difficult story that, according to Kirkus, McFadden takes on with “riveting prose” that “keeps the reader turning pages.” (Sonya) The Third Hotel by Laura Van Den Berg: When Clare arrives in Havana, she is surprised to find her husband, Richard, standing in a white linen suit outside a museum (surprised, because she thought Richard was dead). The search for answers sends Clare on a surreal journey; the distinctions between reality and fantasy blur. Her role in Richard's death and reappearance comes to light in the streets of Havana, her memories of her marriage, and her childhood in Florida. Lauren Groff praises the novel as “artfully fractured, slim and singular.” (Claire) Severance by Ling Ma: In this funny, frightening, and touching debut, office drone Candace is one of only a few New Yorkers to survive a plague that’s leveled the city. She joins a group, led by IT guru Bob, in search of the Facility, where they can start society anew. Ling Ma manages the impressive trick of delivering a bildungsroman, a survival tale, and satire of late capitalist millennial angst in one book, and Severance announces its author as a supremely talented writer to watch. (Adam) Night Soil by Dale Peck: Author and critic Dale Peck has made a career out of telling stories about growing up queer; with Night Soil, he might have finally hit upon his most interesting and well-executed iteration of that story since his 1993 debut. The novel follows Judas Stammers, an eloquently foul-mouthed and compulsively horny heir to a Southern mining fortune, and his mother Dixie, a reclusive artist famous for making technically perfect pots. Living in the shadow of the Academy that their ancestor Marcus Stammers founded in order to educate—and exploit—his former slaves, Judas and Dixie must confront the history of their family’s complicity in slavery and environmental degradation. This is a hilarious, thought-provoking, and lush novel about art’s entanglement with America’s original sin. (Ismail) Summer by Karl Ove Knausgaard: After the success of his six-part autofiction project My Struggle, Norwegian author Karl Knausgaard embarked on a new project: a quartet of memoiristic reflections on the seasons. Knausgaard wraps up the quartet with Summer, an intensely observed meditation on the Swedish countryside that the author has made a home in with his family. (Ismail) Ohio by Stephen Markley: Ohio is an ambitious novel composed of the stories of four residents of New Canaan, Ohio, narratively unified by the death of their mutual friend in Iraq. Markley writes movingly about his characters, about the wastelands of the industrial Midwest, about small towns with economic and cultural vacuums filled by opioids, Donald Trump, and anti-immigrant hatred. This is the kind of book people rarely attempt to write any more, a Big American Novel that seeks to tell us where we live now. (Adam) French Exit by Patrick deWitt: In this new novel by Patrick deWitt, bestselling author of The Sisters Brothers and Undermajordomo Minor, a widow and her son try to escape their problems (scandal, financial ruin, etc.) by fleeing to Paris. Kirkus Reviews calls it “a bright, original yarn with a surprising twist,” and Maria Semple says it's her favorite deWitt novel yet, its dialogue "dizzyingly good." According to Andrew Sean Greer the novel is "brilliant, addictive, funny and wise." (Edan) Notes from the Fog by Ben Marcus: If you’ve read Marcus before, you know what you’re in for: a set of bizarre stories that are simultaneously terrifying and hysterical, fantastical and discomfortingly realistic. For example, in “The Grow-Light Blues,” which appeared in The New Yorker a few years back, a corporate employee tests a new nutrition supplement—the light from his computer screen. The results are not pleasant. With plots that seem like those of Black Mirror, Marcus presents dystopian futures that are all the more frightening because they seem possible. (Ismail) The Reservoir Tapes by Jon McGregor: In the follow-up to his Costa Award-winning novel Reservoir 13, McGregor’s newest book focuses on the crime at the center of its predecessor: the disappearance of 13-year-old Becky Shaw. After Becky goes missing, an interviewer comes to town to collect stories from the villagers. Over the course of the book, the community reveals what happened (or what may have happened) in the days and weeks before the incident. In its starred review, Kirkus called the novel a “noteworthy event” that, when put in conversation with Reservoir 13, is “nothing short of a remarkable experiment in storytelling.” (Carolyn) Heartbreaker by Claudia Dey: Called “a dark star of a book, glittering with mordant humor and astonishing, seductive strangeness and grace” by Lauren Groff, this is the story of Pony Darlene Fontaine. She lives in “the territory,” a sinister town run on a scarce economic resource. One night, Pony’s mother, Billie Jean, bolts barefoot into cold of the wider world—a place where the townspeople have never been. Told from the perspectives of Pony, a dog, and a teenage boy, this book shows the magic of Dey’s imagination. Publishers Weekly gave it a starred review, calling it a "word-for-word triumph." (Claire) Before She Sleeps by Bina Shah: Every news event, policy decision, and cultural moment now draws parallels to Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. “It’s Gilead, we’re in Gilead,” Twitter tells us, “Nolite te bastardes carborundorum.” But Shah’s novel is both explicitly connected to Atwood’s marvel and working to expand it by imagining what a secular, Middle Eastern Gilead might look like. In a near future, war and disease have wiped out the women of what is currently Pakistan and Iran, and those who survived are now the forced breeders of a dystopian society. But there’s resistance, secrets, and risk; the result, Kirkus writes, is a kind of spy-genre-cum-soap-opera update on a modern classic. (Kaulie) Boom Town by Sam Anderson: The decorated journalist Sam Anderson, a staff writer at The New York Times Magazine, has set out to fill a yawning gap in the American popular imagination: our tendency to ignore the nation’s 27th-largest metropolis, Oklahoma City. Anderson’s rollicking narrative is woven from two threads—the vicissitudes of the city’s NBA team, the Oklahoma City Thunder, and the city’s boom-and-bust history of colorful characters, vicious weather, boosterism, and bloodshed, including, of course, the 1995 terrorist bombing of the federal building that left 168 dead. Everything about Anderson’s OK City is outsize, including the self-delusions. Its Will Rogers World Airport, for instance, doesn’t have any international flights. Anderson runs wild with this material. (Bill) Pretty Things by Virginie Despentes (translated by Emma Ramadan): French feminist author and filmmaker Virginie Despentes’s King Kong Theory used her experience of rape, prostitution, and work in the porn industry to explode myths of sex, gender, and beauty, and it subsequently gained a cult following among English-language readers when first published in 2010. She's since broken through to a wider audience with Volume 1 of her Vernon Subutex trilogy, just shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize. While we’re waiting on the second volume of Subutex in the States, Feminist Press brings us Despentes' Pretty Things, "a mean little book, wickedly funny, totally lascivious, often pornographic,” according to Kirkus, and just one of the many reasons Lauren Elkin has called Despentes "a feminist Zola for the twenty-first century.” (Anne) Attention: Dispatches from a Land of Distraction by Joshua Cohen: Book of Numbers, Cohen’s tome about a tech titan leading us out of the pre-internet wilderness with his search engine, contains aphoristic observations on technology: “Our access is bewildering, not just beyond imagination but becoming imagination, and so bewildering twice over. We can only search the found, find the searched, and charge it to our room.” Now comes a nonfiction book about life in the digital age. The wide-ranging collection has political profiles, book reviews, and idiosyncratic journal entries: “Hat Lessons Gleaned from Attending a Film Noir Marathon with a Nonagenarian Ex-Milliner Who Never Stops Talking.” (Matt) Open Me by Lisa Locascio: If you’re looking for a sexy and smart summer read, look no further. In this erotic coming-of-age story, Lisa Locascio explores the female body, politics, and desire. Aimee Bender writes that this debut novel is “a kind of love letter to the female body and all its power and visceral complexity. This is a story of many important layers, but one of the many reasons it remains distinct in my mind is because of its honesty about our complicated, yearning physical selves.” (Zoë) Housegirl by Michael Donkor: In this debut novel, Donkor follows three Ghanaian girls: Belinda, the obedient; Mary, the irrepressible; and Amma, the rebel. For her part, Amma has had about enough of the tight-laced life in London that her parents want for her and begins to balk at the strictures of British life. But when she is brought to London to provide a proper in-house example for willful Amma, sensible Belinda begins to experience a cultural dissociation that threatens her sense of self as nothing before ever had. (Il’ja) SEPTEMBER Transcription by Kate Atkinson: As a fangirl of both the virtuosic Life After Life and of her Jackson Brody detective novels, I barely need to see a review to get excited about a new Atkinson novel—especially a period novel about a female spy, recruited by MI5 at age 18 to monitor fascist sympathizers. Nonetheless, here’s some love from Booklist (starred review): “This is a wonderful novel about making choices, failing to make them, and living, with some degree of grace, the lives our choices determine for us.” (Sonya) The Golden State by Lydia Kiesling: File The Golden State under "most most-anticipated" as it’s the first novel of The Millions’ own brilliant and beloved Lydia Kiesling, who has has been wielding her pen and editorial prowess on this site for many a year. Two months pre-pub, The Golden State is already off to the races with a nomination for the Center for Fiction's First Novel Prize and a starred review from Publisher's Weekly, stating, "Kiesling depicts parenting in the digital age with humor and brutal honesty and offers insights into language, academics, and even the United Nations." Kiesling herself has written that "great writing is bracing, and makes you feel like making something of your own, either another piece of writing, or a joyful noise unto the Lord.” The Golden State promises just that. (Anne) She Would Be King by Wayétu Moore: It’s the early years of Liberia, and three strangers with nothing in common help smooth the way for the nation. Gbessa is a West African exile who survives certain death; June Dey is running from a Virginia plantation; Norman Aragon, the son of a colonizer and a slave, can disappear at will. Their story stands at the meeting point of the diaspora, history, and magical realism, and Edwidge Danticat calls the novel “beautiful and magical.” (Kaulie) The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker: Barker is best known for her fantastic World War I Regeneration trilogy, including The Ghost Road, winner of the 1995 Booker Prize. The Silence of the Girls sees Barker casting her historical imagination back further, to Ancient Greece and the Trojan War. Captured by Achilles, Briseis goes from queen to concubine, from ruler to subject—in this retelling of The Iliad, Barker reclaims Briseis as a protagonist, giving authorial voice to her and the other women who have long existed only as powerless subjects in a male epic. (Adam) The Wildlands by Abby Geni: Geni’s last novel, The Lightkeepers, was a thriller set on an isolated island that was also somehow a meditation on appreciating nature, and it blew me away. Her new novel similarly combines the natural world with manmade terror. It follows four young siblings who are orphaned by an Oklahoma tornado and the ensuing national media attention that pushes their relationships to the edge. (Janet) Washington Black by Esi Edugyan: Edugyan’s last novel, Half-Blood Blues, won the Scotiabank Giller Prize and was a finalist for the Man Booker. Attica Locke calls this one “nothing short of a masterpiece.” When Wash, an 11-year-old enslaved in Barbados, is chosen as a manservant, he is terrified. The chooser, Christopher Wilde, however, turns out to be a naturalist, explorer, and abolitionist. But soon Wash and Christopher find themselves having to escape to save their lives. Their run takes them from the frozen North to London and Morocco. It’s all based on a famous 19th-century criminal case. (Claire) Crudo by Olivia Laing: Olivia Laing, known for her chronicles of urban loneliness and writers' attraction to drink as well as critical writing on art and literature, jumps genres with her first novel, Crudo. It's a spitfire of a story with a fervent narrator and a twist: The book is written in the voice of punk feminist author Kathy Acker performed in mash-up with Laing's own, as she considers marriage (with equivocation) and the absurdity of current events circa 2017. Suzanne Moore at The Guardian says, "Here [Laing] asks how we might not disappear…She reaches out for something extraordinary. Crudo is a hot, hot book.” (Anne) Lake Success by Gary Shteyngart: Set during the lead-up to the 2016 presidential election, Shteyngart’s novel begins with a bloodied, hungover, Fitzgerald-loving hedge fund manager—his company is called “This Side of Capital”—waiting for a bus in Manhattan’s Port Authority. A disastrous dinner party the night before has pushed him over the edge, leading to his impulsive decision to flee the city, his business woes, and his wife and autistic toddler to track down an old girlfriend. Like Salman Rushdie in The Golden House, Shteyngart turns his satiric eye on a gilded family in disarray. (Matt) The Shape of Ruins by Juan Gabriel Vasquez (translated by Anne McLean): In this, his sixth novel in English translation, Colombian writer Juan Gabriel Vasquez plays mischief with history, a string of murders, and the conspiracy theories that commonly arise alongside. Add a storyline carried by a duet of narrators—one with a healthy dollop of paranoia, the other with a fixation for real crime so engrossing he’s turned his home into a kind of museum of crime noir—and you’ve got a gripping read and a solid reflection on the appeal of conspiracy. (Il’ja) The Deeper the Water the Uglier the Fish by Katya Apekina: Edie finds her mother Marianne in the living room only just surviving a suicide attempt, while her sister Mae is upstairs in a trance. Marianne is committed to a mental hospital, and the sisters are sent to live with their father, far from their native Louisiana. But as they spend more time with their father, the girls grow further apart, torn by their deep loyalty to opposite parents and their own grief and confusion. Apekina’s debut novel plays with tricky family relationships and the way fact and fantasy, loyalty and obsession, can be so difficult to tease apart. (Kaulie) After the Winter by Guadalupe Nettel (translated by Rosalind Harvey): A story about love and consciousness that takes place in Havana, Paris, and New York, by the Mexican author who Katie Kitamura called "a brilliant anatomist of love and perversity...each new book is a revelation." (Lydia) Ordinary People by Diana Evans: The third novel from Evans, the inaugural winner of the Orange Prize for New Writers, Ordinary People follows two troubled couples as they make their way through life in London. The backdrop: Obama’s 2008 election. The trouble: Living your 30s is hard, parenthood is harder, and relationships to people and places change, often more than we’d like them to. But Evans is as sharply funny—in clear-eyed, exacting fashion—as she is sad, and Ordinary People cuts close to the quick of, well, ordinary people. (Kaulie) Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke by Sarah Smarsh: An uncomfortable reality of contemporary American society, one of many, is that where social mobility is concerned, the so-called American Dream is best achieved in Denmark. If you’re born into poverty here, in other words, hard work won’t necessarily pull you out. In Heartland, Smarsh blends memoir—she comes from a long line of teen mothers and was raised primarily by her grandmother on a farm near Wichita—with analysis and social commentary to offer a nuanced exploration of the impact of generational poverty and a look at the lives of poor and working-class Americans. (Emily) The Caregiver by Samuel Park: Park’s third novel takes place in Rio de Janeiro and California. Mara is an immigrant whose beloved mother Ana, a voice-over actress, was involved with a civilian rebel group in Rio. In California as an adult now, Mara works as a caregiver to a young woman with stomach cancer and grapples with her mother’s complicated, enigmatic past. Shortly after finishing the novel in 2017, Park himself died of stomach cancer at age 41. (Sonya) The Order of the Day by Eric Vuillard: Winning France’s prestigious Prix Goncourt doesn’t guarantee an English translation, but as Garth Risk Hallberg showed in a piece about international prize winners, it helps. Recent translated winners include Mathias Énard’s Compass and Leïla Slimani’s The Perfect Nanny, and the latest is Eric Vuillard’s The Order of the Day, a historical novel about the rise of Nazism, corporate complicity, and Germany’s annexation of Austria in 1938. Discussing his fictionalized account, Vuillard, who also wrote a novel about Buffalo Bill Cody, told The New York Times that “there is no such thing as neutral history.” (Matt) Your Duck Is My Duck by Deborah Eisenberg: This new collection is the famed short story writer’s first book since 2006, and advance word says it lives up to the best of her work. Over the course of six lengthy, morally complicated stories, the author showcases her trademark wit and sensitivity, exploring such matters as books that expose one’s own past and the trials of finding yourself infatuated with a human rights worker. (Thom) Ponti by Sharlene Teo: Set in Singapore in the 1990s, Teo's debut, which won the inaugural Deborah Rogers award in the U.K. and was subsequently the subject of a bidding war, describes a twisted friendship between two teenage girls. In a starred review, Publishers Weekly calls it "relatable yet unsettling." (Lydia) Waiting for Eden by Elliot Ackerman: Eden Malcom, a deeply wounded soldier coming back from the Iraq war, lies unconscious in a bed. The story is narrated by a ghost, Eden’s friend and fellow soldier whom he has lost in the foreign land. Through numerous shattering moments in the book, Ackerman pushes the readers to explore eternal human problems such as the meaning of life, marriage, love and betrayal. (Jianan) Boomer1 by Daniel Torday: Daniel Torday follows his acclaimed debut, The Last Flight of Poxl West, with a second novel that carries a menacing subtitle: Retire or We’ll Retire You. It’s apt because this is the story of a millennial loser named Mark Brumfeld, a bluegrass musician, former journalist, and current grad student whose punk bassist girlfriend rejects his marriage proposal, driving him out of New York and back to his parents’ basement in suburban Baltimore. There, under the titular handle of Boomer1, he starts posting online critiques of baby boomers that go viral. Intergenerational warfare—what a smart lens for looking at the way we live today. (Bill) River by Esther Kinsky (translated by Iain Galbraith): One of the unsung attractions of London is the transitional areas at the edges, where city meets country meets industry meets waterfowl meets isolated immigrant laborer. A book in which scarcely anything ever happens, River is, however, filled with life. Resolute in her take on the terrain as the outsider looking in, Kinsky skillfully chronicles the importance in our lives of the homely, the unobserved and the irrepressibly present. A book for those who would gladly reread W.G. Sebald but wish he had written about people more often. (Il’ja) The Real Lolita by Sarah Weinman: Sarah Weinman uncovers that Sally Horner, an 11-year-old girl who was kidnapped in 1948, was the inspiration for Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita. Through her thorough research, Weinman learns that Nabokov knew much about Horner’s case and made efforts to disguise this fact. Megan Abbott writes that The Real Lolita “offers both nuanced and compassionate true-crime reportage and revelatory cultural and literary history. It will, quite simply, change the way you think about Lolita and ‘Lolitas’ forever.” (Zoë) The Personality Brokers by Merve Emre: The Myers-Briggs personality test is the most popular test of its kind in the world, and affects life in ways large and small--from the hiring and career development practices of Fortune 500 companies, to time-wasting Facebook tests to, amazingly, people's Twitter bios. (I'm allegedly an ENFP, incidentally.) As it happens, the test was contrived by a team of mother-daughter novelists with a Jung obsession. Scholar and trenchant literary critic Emre uses archival research to tell this story, revealing the fictions woven into a supposedly "scientific" instrument. (Lydia) [millions_ad] OCTOBER Killing Commendatore by Haruki Murakami (translated by Philip Gabriel and Ted Goossen): Like many before me, I once fell into Murakami’s fictional world only to emerge six months later wondering what on earth happened. So any anticipation for his new books is tempered by caution. His new novel is about a freshly divorced painter who moves to the mountains, where he finds an eerie and powerful painting called “Killing Commendatore.” Mysteries proliferate, and you will keep reading—not because you are expecting resolution but because it’s Murakami, and you’re under his spell. (Hannah) All You Can Ever Know by Nicole Chung: This book—the first by the former editor of the much-missed site The Toast—is garnering high praise from lots of great people, among them Alexander Chee, who wrote, “I've been waiting for this writer, and this book—and everything else she'll write.” Born prematurely to Korean parents who had immigrated to America, the author was adopted by a white couple who raised her in rural Oregon, where she encountered bigotry her family couldn’t see. Eventually, Chung grew curious about her past, which led her to seek out the truth of her origins and identity. (Thom) Heavy by Kiese Laymon: Finally! This memoir has been mentioned as “forthcoming” at the end of every Kiese Laymon interview or magazine article for a few years, and I’ve been excited about it the entire time. Laymon has written one novel and one essay collection about America and race. This memoir focuses on Laymon’s own body—in the personal sense of how he treats it and lives in it, and in the larger sense of the heavy burden of a black body in America. (Janet) Almost Everything by Anne Lamott: Perhaps unsurprisingly, the author of Bird by Bird has some fascinating thoughts about hope and its role in our lives. In Almost Everything, Anne Lamott recounts her own struggles with despair, admitting that at her lowest she “stockpiled antibiotics for the Apocalypse.” From that point on, she discovered her own strength, and her journey forms the basis of this thoughtful and innovative work. (Thom) Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver: The beloved novelist’s latest tells the story of Willa Knox, whose middle-class life has crumbled: The magazine she built her career around has folded, and the college where her husband had tenure has shut down. All she has is a very old house in need of serious repair. Out of desperation, she begins looking into her house’s history, hoping that she might be able to get some funding from the historical society. Through her research, she finds a kindred spirit in Thatcher Greenwood, who occupied the premises in 1871 and was an advocate of the work of Charles Darwin. Though they are separated by more than a century, Knox and Greenwood both know what it’s like to live through cultural upheaval. (Hannah) Friday Black by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah: In his debut short story collection, Adjei-Brenyah writes about the injustice black people face every day in America. Tackling issues like criminal justice, consumerism, and racism, these timely stories are searching for humanity in a brutal world. The collection is both heartbreaking and hopeful, and George Saunders called it “an excitement and a wonder: strange, crazed, urgent and funny.” (Carolyn) Things to Make and Break by May-Lan Tan: This debut collection of short fiction is the most recent collaboration between Coffee House Press and Emily Books. The 11 short stories argue that relationships between two people often contain a third presence, whether that means another person or a past or future self. Tan’s sensibility has been compared to that of Joy Williams, David Lynch, and Carmen Maria Machado. (Hannah) Gone So Long by Andre Dubus III: Whether in his fiction (House of Sand and Fog) or his nonfiction (Townie), Dubus tells blistering stories about broken lives. In his new novel, Daniel Ahern “hasn’t seen his daughter in forty years, and there is so much to tell her, but why would she listen?” Susan, his daughter, has good reason to hate Daniel—his horrific act of violence ruined their family and poisoned her life. Dubus has the preternatural power to make every storyline feel mythic, and Gone So Long rides an inevitable charge of guilt, fear, and stubborn hope. “Even after we’re gone, what we’ve left behind lives on in some way,” Dubus writes—including who we’ve left behind. (Nick R.) Retablos: Stories from a Life Lived Along the Border by Octavio Solis: A memoir about growing up a mile from the Rio Grande, told in vignettes, or retablos, showing the small and large moments that take place along the U.S. border. Julia Alvarez says of the book, "Unpretentiously and with an unerring accuracy of tone and rhythm, Solis slowly builds what amounts to a storybook cathedral. We inhabit a border world rich in characters, lush with details, playful and poignant, a border that refutes the stereotypes and divisions smaller minds create. Solis reminds us that sometimes the most profound truths are best told with crafted fictions—and he is a master at it." (Lydia) Family Trust by Kathy Wang: Acclaimed by Cristina Alger as “a brilliant mashup of The Nest and Crazy Rich Asians,” the book deals with many hidden family tensions ignited by the approaching of the death of Stanley Huang, the father of the family. Family Trust brings the readers to rethink the ambitions behind the bloom of Silicon Valley and what families really mean. (Jianan) Anniversaries by Uwe Johnson (translated by Damion Searls): At 1,800 pages, the two-volume set of Uwe Johnson’s 1968 classic—and first complete publication of the book in English—isn’t going to do your TBR pile any favors. The NYRB release follows, in detail, the New York lives of German emigres Gesine Cresspahl and her daughter Marie as they come to terms with the heritage of the Germany they escaped and with an American existence that, in 1968, begins to resonate with challenges not dissimilar to those they left behind. A Searls translation portends a rewarding reading experience despite the volumes’ length. (Il’ja) White Dancing Elephants by Chaya Bhuvaneswar: Drawing comparisons to Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Margaret Atwood, and Sandra Cisneros, Bhuvaneswar’s debut collection pulls together stories of diverse women of color as they face violence, whether it be sexual, racial, or self-inflicted. The Buddha also makes an appearance, as do Hindu myths, incurable diseases, and an android. No wonder Jeff VanderMeer calls White Dancing Elephants “often provocative” as well as bold, honest, and fresh. (Kaulie) Impossible Owls by Brian Phillips: You know meritocratic capitalism is a lie because everyone who wrote during Holly Anderson’s tenure as editor of MTV News is not presently wealthy beyond imagination, but that’s beside the point. Better yet, let’s pour one out for Grantland. Better still, let’s focus on one truth. Brian Phillips’s essays are out of this world: big-hearted, exhaustive, unrelentingly curious, and goddamned fun. It’s about time he graced us with this collection. (Nick M.) The Souls of Yellow Folk by Wesley Yang: For the title of his debut collection of essays on race, gender, and American society, Wesley Yang invokes W.E.B. Du Bois’s 1903 classic study of race in America. These 13 essays, some of which appeared previously in New York magazine, The New York Times Magazine, and n+1, explore the ways in which the American dream shapes and distorts an assortment of people: chefs, strivers, pickup artists, and school shooters. Included here is “Paper Tigers,” Yang’s personal, National Magazine Award-winning look at Asian-American overachievers. As Yang’s avid followers already know, his laser scrutiny spares no one—not even Yang himself. (Bill) The Witch Elm by Tana French: For six novels now, French has taken readers inside the squabbling, backstabbing world of the (fictional) Dublin Murder Squad, with each successive book following a different detective working frantically to close a case. Now, in a twist, French has—temporarily, we hope—set aside the Murder Squad for a stand-alone book that follows the victim of a crime, a tall, handsome, faintly clueless public relations man named Toby who is nearly beaten to death when he surprises two burglars in his home. Early reviews online attest that French’s trademark immersive prose and incisive understanding of human psychology remain intact, but readers do seem to miss the Murder Squad. (Michael) There Will Be No Miracles Here by Casey Gerald: Casey Gerald fulfilled the American dream and is here to call bullshit. He grew up in Dallas with a sometimes absent mother and was recruited to play football for Yale. As he came to inhabit the rarefied air of Yale, Harvard, and Wall Street, he recognized the false myths that hold up those institutions and how their perpetuation affects those striving to get in. (Janet) Training School for Negro Girls by Camille Acker: Camille Acker spins her debut story collection around a pair of linked premises: that respectability does not equal freedom and that the acclaim of others is a tinny substitute for one’s own sense of self. Set mostly in Washington, D.C., these stories give us a millennial who fights gentrification—until she learns that she’s part of the problem; a schoolteacher who dreams of a better city and winds up taking out her frustrations on her students; and a young piano player who wins a competition—and discovers that the prize is worthless. A timely, welcome book. (Bill) The Taiga Syndrome by Cristina Rivera Garza (translated by Suzanne Jill Levine and Aviva Kana): Marguerite Duras, Clarice Lispector, Juan Rulfo—comparisons to each have been made with regard to Cristina Rivera Garza's novels, which are uncanny and unique, often exploring and crossing and investigating borders, including but not limited to "geopolitical borders and conceptual borders, borders of gender and genre, borders between life and death." Rivera Garza has spent her life crossing borders, too. Born in Mexico, she lived between San Diego and Tijuana for a long while, and she now directs the first bilingual creative writing Ph.D. program at the University of Houston. The Taiga Syndrome is Rivera Garza's second novel to be translated to English, a book which Daniel Borzutzky likens to "Apocalypse Now fused with the worlds of Clarice Lispector and Jorge Luis Borges." Yowza. (Anne) Well-Read Black Girl ed. Glory Edim: Glory Edim founded Well-Read Black Girl, a Brooklyn-based book club and an online space that highlights black literature and sisterhood, and last year she produced the inaugural Well-Read Black Girl Festival. Most recently, Edim curated the Well-Read Black Girl anthology, and contributors include Morgan Jerkins, Tayari Jones, Lynn Nottage, Gabourey Sidibe, Rebecca Walker, Jesmyn Ward, Jacqueline Woodson, and Barbara Smith. The collection of essays celebrates the power of representation, visibility, and storytelling. (Zoë) Samuel Johnson’s Eternal Return by Martin Riker: Martin Riker has exquisite taste in books. He’s proven this again and again as publisher of Dorothy and former editor for Dalkey Archive, and as a critic and champion of literature in translation, innovative writing, and authors who take risks—which is why the debut of Riker’s first novel, Samuel Johnson’s Eternal Return, is so thrilling for us bookish types. The titular Samuel Johnson is not that Samuel Johnson but a Samuel Johnson who comes of age in mid-20th-century America who is killed and whose consciousness then migrates from body to body to inevitably inhabit many lives in what Joshua Cohen calls “a masterpiece of metempsychosis.” (Anne) NOVEMBER All the Lives We Never Lived by Anuradha Roy: This is Roy’s latest offering after a powerful showing in Sleeping on Jupiter, which was longlisted for the Man Booker prize in 2015. This novel centers around Myshkin, a boy whose life is changed when his mother elopes—no, vanishes—with a German man who appears naked at a river near their house one day and insists he has come for her after first meeting her in Bali. The novel follows the anamnesis of what happened, and his ruminations on its effect on his life. Already published in Britain, the novel has been called “elegiac,” compelling, and powerful, among other things. Conceived during a time Roy spent in Bali—at a festival where I had the pleasure of meeting her in 2015—this is an affecting novel. Readers should look for a conversation between Roy and me on this site around publication date. (Chigozie) Evening in Paradise by Lucia Berlin: Can you remember a better short story collection in recent years than Berlin’s A Manual for Cleaning Women? I can’t. Maybe once a week I think about that dentist, ripping his own teeth out in front of his granddaughter. Now, Berlin’s estate is back with even more stories, this time all previously uncompiled. In the case of a less talented writer, I’d be worried about publishers scraping the barrel. But with Berlin, there are surely unplucked molars. (Nick M.) The End of the End of the Earth by Jonathan Franzen: Today Franzen is best known as a novelist—even the “Great American Novelist”—but it’s worth noting that he first appeared on many readers’ radar with his 1996 Harper’s essay “Perchance to Dream” about the difficulties of writing fiction in an age of images. Franzen’s essays, like his novels, can be a mixed bag, but he is a man perennially interested in interesting things that others overlook, such as, in this book, the global devastation of seabirds by predators and climate change. (Michael) Tell Them of Battles, Kings, and Elephants by Mathias Énard (translated by Charlotte Mandell): From the author of the brilliant, Prix Goncourt-winning Compass, a work of historical fiction that follows Michelangelo to the Ottoman Empire, where he is considering a commission from the Sultan to build a bridge across the Golden Horn. The novel promises to continue Énard’s deep, humanistic explorations of the historical and ongoing connections between Europe and Asia, Islamdom and Christendom. (Lydia) My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite: As the title makes clear, the Nigerian writer Oyinkan Braithwaite’s first novel is a dark comedy of sibling rivalry. The beautiful Ayoola leads a charmed life, and thanks to the cleanup efforts of her older sister, Korede, she suffers no repercussions from killing a string of boyfriends. Korede’s loyalty is tested, however, when a man close to her heart asks out her sister. Film producers are already getting in on the fun, as Working Title has optioned what the publisher calls a “hand grenade of a novel.” (Matt) Those Who Knew by Idra Novey: Following up her debut novel, Ways to Disappear, Novey's latest tells the story of a woman who suspects a senator's hand in the death of a young woman on an unnamed island. The great Rebecca Traister says the book "speaks with uncommon prescience to the swirl around us. Novey writes, with acuity and depth, about questions of silence, power, and complicity. The universe she has created is imagined, and all too real." (Lydia) The April 3rd Incident by Yu Hua (translated by Allan H. Barr): A collection of his best early stories from a pioneer in China’s 1980 avant-garde literary movement, renowned for approaching realist subject matters through unconventional techniques. In his writings, reality is punctured and estranged, leading up to a new look at things familiar. Yu Hua is one of the best acclaimed contemporary Chinese authors. His previous works include China in Ten Words, Brothers, and the stunning To Live. (Jianan) The Feral Detective by Jonathan Lethem: Charles Heist lives in a trailer in the desert outside L.A. and keeps his pet opossum in a desk drawer. Phoebe Siegler is a sarcastic motormouth looking for a friend’s missing daughter. Together, they explore California’s sun-blasted Inland Empire, searching for the girl among warring encampments of hippies and vagabonds living off the grid. In other words, we’re in Lethemland, where characters have implausible last names, genre tropes are turned inside out, and no detective is complete without a pet opossum. Insurrecto by Gina Apostol: A story that takes across time and place in the Philippines, from the American occupation to the Duterte era, by the winner of the PEN Open Book Award for Gun Dealer's Daughter. (Don't miss Apostol's astute essay in the Los Angeles Review of Books on Francine Prose and textual appropriation.) (Lydia) Hardly Children by Laura Adamcyzk: Chicago-based author Laura Adamcyzk's bold and observant debut story collection, Hardly Children, teems with wry wit as it explores memory and family and uncovers the unexpected in the everyday. Her stories often involve family, interrelations within, and their disintegration, such as in "Girls,” which won the Dzanc Books/Disquiet Prize. Other stories are pithy and razor sharp, such as "Gun Control," which invents many permutations of Chekhov's Gun (i.e., a gun in act one must go off by act three), and in doing so reflects the degree to which Adamcyzk considers the architecture of her stories, which often shift in striking ways. (Anne) The Lonesome Bodybuilder by Yukiko Motoya (translated by Asa Yoneda): This is the English-language debut from a Japanese writer whose work has already been translated worldwide. The short stories in this collection are a mix of the fantastical and the painfully real. The title story is about a woman who makes radical changes to her appearance through bodybuilding, yet her husband doesn’t even notice. Other mysterious premises include a saleswoman whose client won’t come out of a dressing room, a newlywed couple who begin to resemble each other, and umbrellas that have magical properties. (Hannah) The Patch by John McPhee: McPhee’s seventh collection of essays is finely curated, as expected for an essayist who lives and breathes structure. Essays on the sporting life fill the first part; the second includes shorter, previously uncollected pieces. The collection’s titular essay is an elegiac classic, which begins with the pursuit of chain pickerel in New Hampshire but soon becomes an essay about his dying father. McPhee flawlessly moves from gravity to levity, as in his writing about the Hershey chocolate factory. Such pieces are tastes of his willingness to let the world around him just be and to marvel at mysteries of all variety: “Pools and pools and pools of chocolate—fifty-thousand-pound, ninety-thousand-pound, Olympic-length pools of chocolate—in the conching rooms...Slip a little spatula in there and see how it tastes. Waxy? Claggy? Gritty? Mild? Taste it soft. That is the way to get the flavor.” One wishes John McPhee would write about everything, his words an introduction to all of life’s flavors. (Nick R.) The Best Bad Things by Katrina Carrasco: A gender-bending historical detective story involving the opium trade and the Pinkerton Detective Agency in the Pacific Northwest. (Lydia) Useful Phrases for Immigrants by May-lee Chai: Winner of the Doris Bakwin Award selected by Tayari Jones, Chai's collection comprises eight stories detailing life in a globalized world. Edward P. Jones called Useful Phrases "a splendid gem of a story collection...Complementing the vivid characters, the reader has the gift of language―‘a wind so treacherous it had its own name,' 'summer days stretched taffy slow'....Chai's work is a grand event." (Lydia) DECEMBER North of Dawn by Nuruddin Farah: Farah has been writing about the world’s greatest catastrophes for years, and his novels, especially Hiding in Plain Sight, have been about the tragedy that accompanies the loss of one’s original country. That strong theme is the centrifugal force of this novel about a calm home engulfed when a son leaves quiet and peaceful Oslo to die back in Somalia. His widow and children return to Norway to live with his parents, and in bringing their devoted religiosity with them, threaten to explode the family once again. Farah is a master of shifts and turns, so this novel promises to be among the year’s most exciting publications. (Chigozie) Revolution Sunday by Wendy Guerra (translated by Achy Obejas): Translated for the first time into English, internationally bestselling novelist Guerra's book follows a writer from Cuba to Spain, where her expat compatriots assume she is a spy for Castro. Back home in Cuba, she is treated with equal suspicion by her government. (Lydia)
On January 1st, I wrote in my notebook that it was “time to renew my usual promises and take artificial, arbitrary steps toward bettering myself and living a different life.” I made a list of aspirations, which included things like “Return writing to its centerpiece in your life,” and “Reduce temptations for distraction.” Fortunately, aspirations always take place in the future tense. I did, however, “read widely and daily,” and came close to learning “constantly.” Despite—or perhaps because of—2017’s relentlessness, I’ve read more books this year than any previous, and I do feel changed, somewhat, because of it. Seeing—a subject I’ve been circling for years—seemed especially important after the simplistic, stupid, and reproducible narratives that followed the 2016 presidential election, and so I read more Susan Sontag (AIDS and Its Metaphors and Where the Stress Falls, but also: David Schreiber’s Susan Sontag; Sigrid Nunez’s brilliant and comforting Sempre Susan; and Phillip Lopate’s callow, insensitive Notes on Sontag—itself an accidental defense of mediocrity). I read more John Berger (About Looking), and more Teju Cole (the diaphanous Blind Spot as well as every “On Photography” column in The New York Times Magazine). Cole’s work led me to Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception, which might be the most fun I’ve ever had not understanding a book, and Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space. I read Peter Buse’s engaging history of the Polaroid, The Camera Does the Rest. (Funny story: Polaroid Corporation specifically discouraged the use of Polaroid as a noun, i.e. “check out this Polaroid.”) I read Patricia Morrisroe’s terrifying biography of Robert Mapplethorpe and Roland Barthes’s Camera Lucida; in both, the photographer is an agent of death. In my reading and in my essays on the technologies of seeing, I’ve been looking for the places at which perception and politics intersect. The renewed popularity of fascism, which propagates and governs by aesthetics, has made these intersections much more obvious. Of course there’s Hannah Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism, which, in contemporary America, has made me feel like Cassandra, whose warnings of Troy’s destruction meet nothing but derision. Even more enthrallingly pessimistic is Theodor Adorno’s Minima Moralia, which I’d tried to read several times in years past, but didn’t quite “connect” with until this year. But then there was Kevin Young’s The Grey Album, a history of American culture as black culture, ever renewed and reinvented and repeatedly appropriated—and one of the best books on art I’ve ever read. There was Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, which really is definitive. This, more than any other book I’ve read in 2017, is the one book I would hand to everyone, that I wish the entire nation would read. I read Michael Eric Dyson’s Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America and Valeria Luiselli’s Tell Me How it Ends, both brilliant missives that beg the reader to understand a particular and overwhelming political pain. And then there was Nato Thompson’s Culture as Weapon and David Graeber’s The Utopia of Rules, which both, in their detailed, patient ways, reveal the sinister sophistication behind structural inequality in the United States, and how fear and confusion destroy democracy in favor of profit. This is evident, too, in Peter Moskowitz’s rage-inducing study of gentrification, How to Kill a City, which led me to Sarah Schulman’s The Gentrification of the Mind—right behind Kendi’s Stamped as “that book everyone should read.” Beauty? I’m not so sure of that, anymore. It’s hard to look for beauty in 2017 without it feeling narcotic, or even violent. But feeling? There is so much to be felt, and I feel like I felt a great deal through reading, this year. Most recently, Alexander Chee’s novel Edinburgh left me shattered and quiet for days. It may have been a mistake to read it in November, when everyone I know seemed to be reliving, after Harvey Weinstein et. al., one form of trauma or another. More Sontag: The Volcano Lover, Debriefing, and In America. Many people dismiss her fiction outright, preferring her to have been one kind of writer and not several, but her latter novels and a handful of her stories are incredible contributions to literature, especially if we’re to remember that literature rarely offers itself in familiar forms. I read Hanya Yanagihara’s first novel, The People in the Trees, which rivals Gabriel García Márquez in its creation and destruction of a separate, unique, and precious world. For the first time, I read Frank O’Hara—so I read everything he wrote. Danez Smith’s Don’t Call Us Dead; Daniel Borzutzky’s The Performance of Becoming Human; 50 years of Louise Glück; Layli Long Soldier's Whereas; Alex Dimitrov’s Together and By Ourselves: I fell in love with so many new ways of seeing. I’d forgotten, for a while, how to read novels, but then Shirley Hazzard died and I learned, a few months later, that The Transit of Venus takes your breath away on almost every page, an incomparable masterpiece. I learned that Agota Kristof, in her triptych of novels—The Notebook, The Proof, and The Third Lie—could carry a decade in one sentence. I learned that Irène Némirovsky’s Suite Française was a war novel that made Ernest Hemingway’s look like Twitter activism. If nothing else, my convalescence after last year’s psychological injuries has only been possible, bearable, through books. This is something writers say all the time, usually with an Instagram photo of #coffee or a cat. This is who I’d like to be, our shared photos often say, and it’s in books that I find it easiest to realize those aspirations. Despite everything, I won’t complain that this year’s difficulties have pushed me toward becoming that other version of myself. I don’t regret that I’ve grown closer to books, to their voices. And they do have so much to say. In Compass, Mathias Énard reminded me that you could build an entire life—a gorgeous life—out of longing. And in his monograph of Polaroids, Fire Island Pines, Tom Bianchi assured me that queer utopias can exist, at least as long as we remember that a utopia is a moment in time—either an aspiration, out there in the future, or a snapshot we carry of the past, before things got so hard. More from A Year in Reading 2017 Do you love Year in Reading and the amazing books and arts content that The Millions produces year round? We are asking readers for support to ensure that The Millions can stay vibrant for years to come. Please click here to learn about several simple ways you can support The Millions now. Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 [millions_ad]
I was pregnant with my second child for most of the year and I was also working from home, which meant I was very sedentary and slothful, and able to spend a lot of time reading articles that made me miserable. And since I was working on a book, and the pace and nature of that work were utterly different from any other kind of work I’ve done, I was grumpy and anxious a lot of the time even without reading anything at all. And I worried about being miserable and anxious and grumpy, and sedentary and slothful, wondering what it would do to the fetus, and whether the fetus would want to be around someone like me. The reading I did while gestating the baby and my book was catch-as-catch-can and felt mostly like a reprieve and a cheat when I should have been working or doing something civic-minded. Books and the time they went with are blurring together for some reason. I think I read and was ruined by Housekeeping last year, but I can’t be certain it wasn’t this year. I think I read Private Citizens this year and found it spiky and perfect, but I’m not actually sure I didn’t read it in 2016. I do know this year I read The Idiot, which is among other things a delightful evocation of ostensibly fruitless but formative romantic pining, and Sport of Kings, which is absurdly ambitious and devastating. I read The Regional Office Is Under Attack, which is weird and transporting. I gratefully blew off my work for New People, The Windfall, Marlena, The Reef, Hunger, and Conversations with Friends. I read White Tears and The Changeling and Frankenstein in Baghdad on the bus to the OBGYN and marveled at the ways great writers are documenting the effects of the unholy past on the unholy present. I read 10:04 in a lovingly serene and receptive state after spending $60 to float in a very salty pool in the dark (I was trying to make the fetus turn head-down). When I was freaked out about everything the only book that sort of soothed me was the phenomenal new translation of The Odyssey, which is modern but not jarringly so, and highlights the sense of human continuity we apprehend from an ancient text. I re-read Off Course, a wonderful California novel that has become one of my favorite books in the last few years. I re-read A Suitable Boy to get ready for A Suitable Girl, which is allegedly arriving in 2018 and which I’ve been waiting for my entire adult life. I read The Golden Road, Caille Millner's gemlike memoir about growing up. I read a Word document containing the first half of Michelle Dean's excellent forthcoming literary history Sharp, and I'm clamoring for the rest of it. I read a Word document containing the entirety of Meaghan O’Connell’s forthcoming essay collection, And Now We Have Everything, and it is a stunningly insightful book that I’m hesitant to say is about motherhood because it might turn away people who might otherwise profit from it. I loved my colleagues Edan and Claire and Sonya’s novels Woman No. 17 and The Last Neanderthal and The Loved Ones, which are about motherhood (and fatherhood, and daughterhood, and a lot of other things too). More mothers: I cried over Mr. Splitfoot in an airplane after reading Samantha Hunt’s “A Love Story” in The New Yorker. The book I thought about most during my gestational period was Mathias Énard's Compass, which is a love story of a different kind. I don’t think I’ve read another book so deft in transmitting both the desire and the violence that are bound up in the production of knowledge, another complicated act of creation. In October I had the baby. I wouldn’t suggest that anyone have a baby just to shake things up, but babies have a way of returning you to your body and adjusting your relationship to time that I’d hazard is difficult to find elsewhere in the arena of positive experiences. First you have the singular experience of giving birth; then you have the physical reminders of that experience, and a baby. If you are lucky you get good hormones (if you are spectacularly lucky you get paid leave, or have a spouse who does). The morning she was born I looked at the baby lying in her bassinet and felt like the cat who swallowed the canary, or a very satisfied hen. Animal similes suggest themselves because it is an animal time: you smell blood and leave trails of it on the hospital floor; milk oozes. You feel waves of such elemental fatigue that rational thought and speech seem like fripperies for a younger species. Even now, nine weeks later, sneezing reminds me viscerally of what the flesh endured. This is what I mean when I say the experience returns you to your body. If it’s your second child, it also makes you a time traveler. I spent my first child’s infancy desperate to slow down time, to fully inhabit this utterly strange nesting season of my life and hers before we were both launched into the future. When the second baby was born I got the unhoped-for chance to live in that season again. I had forgotten so much: the comically furtive and then plucky look a newborn gets when she is near the breast, and the bizarre thing her eyes do when she's eating—zipping back and forth like a barcode scanner apprehending some ancient sequence. The sound she makes after sneezing, like a little wheeze from an oboe. Since, during this period, I felt I had a legitimate excuse to not read every dire news item for at least a couple of weeks, and since I experienced a wonderful if brief disinclination to open Twitter, and since sometimes I got to sit in clean linen sheets that are my prized possession and nurse a tiny brown-furred baby, I fell in love both with the baby and with every book I touched. I started re-reading Mating when I was waiting to give birth and finished it the week after. I read it for the first time three years ago when my older daughter was born and felt so incredibly altered by it then, and I slipped back into that state immediately. Right after Mating I read Mortals, and after Mortals, I read Chemistry, and forthcoming novels The Parking Lot Attendant and That Kind of Mother, and I loved them all too. Being with the baby and reading deeply and more or less avoiding the things that make me miserable was such an unanticipated return to Eden that even the bad things I now remembered about having a baby were good: the strange combination of agitation and dullness that enswaddled me when the sun went down and made me weep; the sudden urge to throw beloved visitors out of the house; visions of stumbling, of soft skulls crushed against sharp corners; fear of contagion; agonizing knowledge of other babies crying and drowning and suffering while your own baby snuffles contentedly in a fleece bag. But even when the blues fluoresced what registered was not the badness of the thoughts, but their intensity. The shitty hospital food you eat after expelling a baby is the best food you’ve ever had because you had a baby and you didn’t die. And like a person on drugs who knows a cigarette is going to taste amazing or a song will sound so good, an exhausted, oozing postpartum woman can do her own kind of thrill-seeking. I re-read Under the Volcano, which really popped in my altered state. It’s a hard book to follow but I found to my delight that I’ve now read it enough I’m no longer spending a lot of time trying to understand what is going on. Its insane, calamitous beauty was perfect for my technicolor emotional state; rather than despairing over my inability to form a sentence I put myself in the hands of a pro, shaking though Malcolm Lowry’s were as he wrote. It hasn’t all been déjà vu. There have been new things, some of them bad: namely the feeling of being driven absolutely bananas by my poor sweet firstborn, who is no longer tiny and blameless and new, but a harum-scarum toddler who jumps on the bed and windmills her arms and kicks and screams WAKE UP MAMA and refuses to put on her jacket. On this front one of the random galleys that pile up in the vestibule was a surprise hit—a children’s book from the Feminist Press called How Mamas Love Their Babies. My daughter loves this book, which has beautiful photo collage illustrations. It is a progressive book that encourages workers’ solidarity in a way I was not necessarily prepared to address with a just-turned-three-year-old but am now trying to do in my poky fashion (“Some mamas dance all night long in special shoes. It’s hard work!” the book reads, and my child peers inquisitively at a photo of platform lucite heels). It also helps me: I look at myself in the mirror and note that some genetic vandal has lately streaked what looks like raspberry jam across the skin of my hips and one (!) breast (“Some mamas care for their babies inside their own bodies,” the book reminds me). When the baby was three weeks old I got pneumonia, and that was a bad new sensation too, although even that interlude had its attractions. I discovered coconut water, and read Swamplandia in a febrile, almost louche state of abandon in my increasingly musty sheets, a perfect complement to the novel’s climate—its rotting house and the visions and moods of its protagonists. [millions_ad] During early nights of nursing I read a galley of a memoir by a writer who also got good hormones and who became addicted to having babies, having five in fairly rapid succession. If nothing else, I understood the irrational drive to overabundance. In the first weeks of this new baby’s life I astonished myself by wanting more, more, more. Around week five I actually googled “is it morally wrong to have a third child,” and if you are a well-fed, utilities-using first-worlder like me, yes, not to mention yes, in philosophical terms (not to mention we can’t afford it, not to mention it would surely drive me batshit). Everything you read about life on this planet, including some of the novels I read this year, suggests you should not have children, and if you must, that you should have only as many as you have arms to carry them away from danger. Even that formulation is a consoling fallacy. Things are less technicolor now, but the hormones are still there, propping me up. (I read over this and see they've even led me to write a somewhat revisionist history of what the past few weeks have been like.) Last week, week eight, I finally read Open City, which is a few years old but speaks to the state of the world today in a way that is depressing. I love how it is a novel of serious ideas and style, but is also approachable and pleasure-making for its reader. I love that it is a humane book even as it is gimlet-eyed. Now I’m reading Go, Went, Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck and finding it similarly humane and gimlet-eyed and serious and pleasure-making. It is about the state of the world at this moment. It also speaks to the double consciousness of people like its protagonist, who are living not necessarily with suffering but with a metastasizing awareness of suffering, and how it changes them, and this is on my mind. The novel also seems to be about time and space and how people are altered when their time and space are altered. It's about the difference, not between "us" and "them," but between "you" and "you." I’m thinking about that too as I time travel this winter. I know I need to prepare for the moment when all this gladness provided gratis by Mother Nature will deflate and disappear like a wet paper bag. And there will be a time—I feel it coming on as I type this and hope the baby stays asleep in her bouncer—when the deep satisfaction of one kind of generative act, this bodily one, will be supplanted with the need for other kinds of creation. I think Cole and Erpenbeck's novels will help me with these eventualities. I’m counting on them, and on all the beautiful things I hope to read next year. You know what they say about books: they’re like babies; when you have one you’re never alone. More from A Year in Reading 2017 Do you love Year in Reading and the amazing books and arts content that The Millions produces year round? We are asking readers for support to ensure that The Millions can stay vibrant for years to come. Please click here to learn about several simple ways you can support The Millions now. Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005
As an omnivore, I define the word “enjoyment” as anything from a heady intellectual excitement at exposure to new ideas or narrative structures all the way to an uneasy/comfortable feeling that lives visceral in the gut and defies analysis. I’m not really interested in imposing my own idea of a good book on what I read—I want the book to imprint itself on me and take me over and change me. I have left off most of thousand or so books I blurbed in 2017, believing their blurbification gave them an unfair advantage. However, I couldn’t resist including blurbed books by Leonora Carrington, Jac Jemc, and Quintan Ana Wikswo. (Since this is The Year of the Machado, I don’t think I need to draw your attention that way—if you haven’t read Her Body and Other Parties, what’s your problem?) I have also included a couple of 2016 titles that I first read this year. As for regrets, my current to-read pile includes Clade by James Bradley, Compass by Mathias Énard, Camilla Grudova’s The Doll’s Alphabet, Notes of a Crocodile by Qiu Miaojin, A State of Freedom by Neel Mukherjee, Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng, Chemistry by Weike Wang, and The Inner Lives of Animals by Peter Wohlleben. My regrets also include a half-dozen much-lauded titles that I would characterize as damp sparklers dressed up as a full fireworks display, but the less said about them the better. Belladonna by Daša Drndić, translated by Celia Hawkesworth (New Directions) – I place this selection first, out of alphabetical order, because it was my favorite read of 2017 and one of my favorites of this decade. Using as her canvas the life of the elderly ex-psychologist and ex-author Andreas Ban, Belladonna unflinchingly explores the horrors of fascism in Croatia, the break-up of Yugoslavia, World War II crimes against humanity, and the absurdities of aging and of the modern era. Deftly diving into various periods of Ban’s life, Drndić’s accomplishment here is astonishing for several reasons. First, that what easily could be drifty, dreamy, and unfocused is so sharp, structured, and acerbic. Second, that she can deal so nakedly with atrocity and yet say something new and pin the offenders to the wall and somehow not become didactic in the negative sense of that word. To give just one example of the novel’s many strengths, Drndić in chronicling a trip made by Ban to Amsterdam observes of a particularly stupid example of recycling that “people are obedient, they like to separate their trash, to recycle the debris of their own and other people’s lives. Following a diktat, they fly to embrace goodness, which they shift around in their pockets the way men scratch their balls, then they sleep soundly.” Like much of Belladonna, the observation sends up modern life but also has relevance to the terrible history Drndić lays bare. The novel is multi-faceted, sharp, surprising, darkly and grimly hilarious, relevant to our times, and possesses limitless depth. It also bristles with intelligence and defiance in every paragraph, like an exceptionally erudite and alert porcupine. Belladonna deserves major awards consideration, and I don’t mean for “best translation,” although definitely that too—Hawkesworth’s work here is marvelous. (Curmudgeonly aside: Reviewers, please stop comparing authors to W.G. Sebald just because a novel includes a grainy black-and-white photo or two and pays attention to history.) The Idiot by Elif Batuman (Penguin Press) – This first novel chronicling hilarious and sad misadventures on a college campus in 1995, and then in Hungary for a student work program, delights in large measure due to the unusual narrator and the exasperating relationship at the story’s core. Batuman has a talent for exposing the absurdity of how we conduct ourselves in the world and the ridiculousness of societal rituals. It’s a tribute to Batuman’s formidable magic tricks that although the novel fades a bit in the final fifth, I still enjoyed The Idiot more than almost anything I read in 2017. The Gift by Barbara Browning (Coffee House) – An overlooked gem from the year, The Gift chronicles a woman’s journey through art and experience in the context of the Occupy movement, with observations about our modern attempts to form meaningful connection. As I wrote for Bookforum, “The Gift is unusual novel about the performance of life and the life of performance that tells us empathy and passion are deeply political, and that fiction that flips a finger to the boundary between storytelling and the body is an expression of hope and a way toward a different future. In so many ways, Browning’s creation is a beautiful meditation on art, and a balm for readers in these difficult times.” The Complete Stories of Leonora Carrington by Leonora Carrington (Dorothy) – The famous surrealist painter and contemporary of Max Ernst also wrote fiction, and this fiction bridged the gap between the surrealists and post-World War II fabulists. Her writings were a huge influence on Angela Carter, and likely allowed Carter to imagine a surrealism wedded to stronger cause-and-effect and something resembling a plot. In short, Carrington is essential to the history and evolution of 20th-century non-realist fiction. Stories like “The Debutante” and “White Rabbits” are strange and timeless and conjure up the universality of fairy tales while being thoroughly modern. The Green Hand and Other Stories by Nicole Claveloux, text translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith (NYBR Classics) – These heady, surreal, transgressive stories from a forgotten imaginative juggernaut in French comics feature talking vegetables, depressed birds, and imagery that will lodge deep in your subconscious. The art style is like some aggressive mash-up of R. Crumb, Moebius, and Jim Woodring, but utterly unique. Simultaneously beautiful and disturbing. The Trespasser by Tana French (Viking) – My first experience with French’s fiction, The Trespasser is a layered, complex tale that includes the added frisson of the detective narrator’s justified “paranoia” that the murder squad is out to sabotage her because of her gender. The combination of a fascinating case, a deep dive into the history of the narrator’s colleagues, and the fraught relationship she has with her partner create something special. I’ve now read all of French’s novels and recommend everything she’s written. Her work has contributed greatly to my continuing education as a writer. Houses of Ravicka by Renee Gladman (Dorothy) – Gladman continues her utterly marvelous tales of the imaginary Ravicka, this time focusing on the mystery of invisible houses that seem to experience spatial dislocation. The narrator pursues this mystery with an implacable logical illogic that is reminiscent less of Franz Kafka or Italo Calvino than of a fabulist J.G. Ballard. Time and space are compressed and expanded in ways that create beautiful glittering structures in the reader’s mind. By the end, your brain has new secret compartments, which will reveal themselves when least expected. The End of My Career by Martha Grover (Perfect Day) – An utterly enthralling and sobering tragicomic memoir of job and life experience that showcases Grover’s perfect sense of pacing and her eye for the absurdities of life and of the institutions of the modern world. Highlights include the essay “Women’s Studies Major” and the title essay. Out from a press in Portland, Ore., this collection deserves a much wider audience. [millions_ad] Exit West by Mohsin Hamid (Riverhead Books) – The author demonstrates the power of using a slight speculative element—mysterious doors used by people fleeing civil war to pass into Europe—to create a near-perfect novel about love, loss, and displacement. The novel’s most brilliant extrapolation is in not undermining the emotional resonance of the doors, and their effect on the main characters, with pointless explanation. Instead, Hamid creates a sensitive tapestry that comments on our current situation to devastating and beautiful effect. Rabbit Cake by Annie Hartnett (Tin House Books) – Set in Freedom, Ala., Hartnett’s novel is an exploration of a mother’s death and the lives of animals that manages to be both “funny and heart-breaking” while avoiding the cliché inherent in the bittersweet. The narrator, Elvis Barrett, is endearing and in some ways wise beyond her years—and certainly knows more facts about critters than the average person. Although dead when the novel opens, the mother’s character is vividly portrayed and the family dynamic rather beautifully rendered as well. This is the kind of book I try to resist as a noted curmudgeon, but with not a smidge more sentiment than needed, Rabbit Cake is an instant classic that you could confidently give as a gift to any reader. Crawl Space by Jesse Jacobs (Koyama Press) – Jacobs’s 2014 Safari Honeymoon was a tour de force about contamination and containment, portraying in lush comic panels relationships between humans and the environment that were horrific, hilarious, and unique. Crawl Space, with its psychedelic chronicle of people discovering a hidden world behind mundane reality, warps and rewires the reader’s brain in ways more about control and damage, while exploring a genuinely unearthly ecosystem of creatures. The Grip of It by Jac Jemc (FSG Originals) – An original ghost story is nearly impossible to write, but somehow Jemc manages to come very close. In part, her clever structure—alternating between the points of view of a husband and wife as they encounter horrors in their new house—helps achieve new effects. But the novel also demonstrates an uncanny knowledge of ghost story tropes in the answers it provides—and doesn’t provide. I found The Grip of It genuinely creepy, in a jaded context in which I’ve been marinating (almost literally, and much to the detriment of my internal organs) in weird fiction for decades. The Answers by Catherine Lacey (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) – I love the conceit of Lacey’s second novel, which allows the author to tackle so much that is so relevant about relationships and power structures. A rich creative seeks to have his personal life so structured that different women perform different roles for him. The narrator of the first part of the novel, whose own life is fraught, is hired for one of the roles and from there Lacey pursues the idea about as far as it can go. The novel then opens up to include other points of view. The real genius of the novel is how the central conceit allows Lacey to structure scenes in ingenious ways, creating narrative drive and reader investment for what, on the face of it, might otherwise seem a purely intellectual exercise. The differences between The Answers and her wonderful first novel suggest that Lacey will continue to surprise and is unlikely to repeat herself. Black Moses by Alain Mabanckou, translated by Helen Stevenson (The New Press) – Author of the infamous African Psycho and Memoirs of a Porcupine, Mabanckou’s Black Moses is less formally inventive than prior translated works, and perhaps an easier entry point for readers unfamiliar with his fiction. But it is nonetheless riveting and powerful stuff, set in the 1970s and 1980s in Congo-Brazzaville. Tokumisa, whose full name means “Let us thank God, the Black Moses is born on the lands of the ancestors,” lives in an orphanage run by a jerk and abused by his fellows. Following his escape, Tokumisa joins a gang and thus begins a dark journey through a criminal underworld, with tragic consequences. Humankind: Solidarity with Nonhuman People by Timothy Morton (Verso Books) – Considered by many to be among the top philosophers in the world, especially among those tackling issues related to human effects on our environment, Morton herein provides an important, spirited, and sometimes frenetic analysis of the foundational assumptions of Marxism and other -isms with regard to nature and culture (whilst also wanting to redefine those terms). Morton makes a compelling case for how our existing ideologies must adapt or change radically to repatriate ourselves with a world in which we are entangled physically but which we have convinced ourselves we are estranged from, or stand apart from, in our minds. If that sounds wordy, it’s because this is a complex topic and Morton is better than I am at expressing complex concepts in ways that are useful to a layperson. Sourdough by Robin Sloan (MCD/FSG) – This satire of the tech industry manages to be both sweet and savory, in telling the story of a woman who inherits the possibly sentient starter for a sourdough recipe. More fairy tale than incisive critique, Sourdough epitomizes the heart-warming story that isn’t saccharine and as such it’s a rare novel indeed in a landscape dominated by more weighty books. But lightness is much more difficult to pull off (without devolving into the trivial), and Sloan manages the magic trick handily. I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith (Wednesday Books ) – Like a relic from a simpler time, Smith’s novel, originally published in 1948, is a bit of a time capsule, but no less enjoyable for that reason. In charming and disarming prose, 16-year-old Cassandra Mortmain chronicles her family’s life in a crumbling castle. The place was bought by her father at the height of his literary success, but the death of their mother has given him writer’s block. Now they’re penniless and trying to eke out a spartan existence in their huge empty palace (complete with moat). Then Americans buy a neighboring farm and by extension become the Mortmain’s landlord, creating complications. All of the characters—from Cassandra’s siblings to her step-mom and her dad—are expertly drawn and the novel has lovely pacing and astute observation of human behavior. My Cat Yugoslavia by Pajtim Statovci, translated by David Hackston (Pantheon) – By turns subtle and explicit, Statovci’s first novel focuses on the mysteries of a love story across two countries narrated by Bekim, a displaced Yugoslavian living in Finland with a boa constrictor as his sole companion. Investigating his mother’s life (and loves) brings him back to Kosovo, which he hasn’t seen since he was a young child, and the novel opens up to become a haunting and beautifully written exploration of identity, father-son relationships, and history. Did I mention that a sarcastic talking cat also figures prominently? I’ve never read anything quite like this novel, expertly translated, which draws equally on fabulist and realist influences to create a unique tale. Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin, translated by Megan McDowell (Riverhead Books) – If environmental pollution and climate change require new approaches to narrative, then Schweblin in Fever Dream has hit upon one potent approach. At the crossroads of the surreal and the real, her story about a dying woman and a boy who is not her son manages to convey the confusion and pain of the modern condition in a way I haven’t seen before. A short read, utterly riveting and poignant. Stages of Rot by Linnea Sterte (PEOW) – This first graphic novel by a talented Swedish artist depicts an alternate Earth in which up is down and the small have become the mighty. From giant moths ridden by post-humans to orcas that cruise through the sky, Sterte up-ends the order of the natural world and in doing so makes that world more visible to us. The panels are largely wordless, the story told through the lifecycles and everyday existence of the fantastical creatures on display. The ecosystems she’s created are monstrous and magnificent. Orgs: From Slime Molds to Silicon Valley and Beyond edited by Jenna Sutela (Garrett Publications) – This slim glossy expose of slime mold organization as applied to a (not always subtle) critique of capitalism is oddly charming and especially relevant in how it attempts to map organic systems to the human world. Diagrams and maps along with full-color photos of various weird slime-molds jostle for dominance along with fascinating main text that discusses “Sublime Management” and the biological metaphors inherent in corporate-speak. As a writer who tries to get beyond the human and is invested in exploration of soft tech like mushrooms, I found Orgs very interesting. However, I must point out that a supposedly progressive or leftist approach to the topic might have come in a more eco-friendly container: the glossy paper of this booklet stank of chemicals when I rescued it from the unnecessary shrink-wrap. (Thus, we all live with hypocrisy.) Black Wave by Michelle Tea (Feminist Press) – This skillful, sui generis, and bawdy intertwining of climate change anxiety and queer feminism has no equal or parallel in my experience. Set in a future of impending environmental doom, Tea’s narrator attempts to carve out a life, career, and relationships in a crumbling San Francisco. In a series of brilliant and hilarious set-pieces, sex and drugs and gender issues figure prominently, but also a complex awareness of the precariousness of our modern times. Although the environmental movement has in some ways lagged behind on social justice issues, Tea demonstrates the value of non-cis-gendered voices in this space, and how deviating from predominantly straight white male experiences can radicalize and make new the whole idea of the apocalyptic or mid-apocalyptic novel. Messy, poignant, funny, sad, visionary—Black Wave is pretty much everything. The Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African American Culinary History in the Old South by Michael W. Twitty (Amistad) – If everything is political and nothing about our foundational assumptions should remain unexamined, then The Cooking Gene helps hasten the process in an interesting direction, coming at racism, gender, and faith from a different vantage. Twitty’s thorough and thought-provoking book uses recipes for West African Brisket, among others, and trips to Civil War battlefields, synagogues (Twitty is Jewish), and plantations to tell the story of his family’s own personal history and the origins of Southern cooking. He also explores our relationship with animals, where our food really comes from, and how we’ve become disconnected from the natural world. Much of the history of food preparation he uncovers concerns survival and necessity. The author’s loss of his mother while writing the book adds a sadness but also a kind of strength. A Long Curving Scar Where the Heart Should Be by Quintan Ana Wikswo (Stalking Horse Press) – Taking on all kinds of issues with regard to history and the marginalized, this deep and ultimately cathartic novel, replete with anchoring photographs by the author, chronicles the attempts of a midwife abandoned by her husband to establish a sanctuary for the downtrodden in a deserted plantation. This location, the secrets of the small town nearby, and the lives of those who seek sanctuary come together to create a powerful story about the damage of the past and the power of community. But, honestly, until you live within the intimacy of Wikswo’s prose, you can’t really understand A Long Curving Scar; it tends to defy summary. The Book of Joan by Lidia Yuknavitch (Harper) – This transformative and ecstatic retelling of the Joan of Arc story in a future dystopian setting of environmental collapse and fascism challenges the reader to confront the iniquities of the present day. This is a phantasmagorical literary opera full of dramatic moments but also quiet scenes of intense realism, and Yuknavitch has created a timely tale that is always disturbing and thought-provoking. Nor, as in some dystopias, does she neglect an searing examination of the role of animals in our lives. I also highly recommend her nonfiction book The Misfit's Manifesto, released late in the year. More from A Year in Reading 2017 Do you love Year in Reading and the amazing books and arts content that The Millions produces year round? We are asking readers for support to ensure that The Millions can stay vibrant for years to come. Please click here to learn about several simple ways you can support The Millions now. Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005
1. No novel has entranced me this year like the French author Mathias Énard’s Compass, short-listed for the 2017 Booker Prize. Énard, a writer with tremendous empathy for his characters, both as individuals, and also as contextualized individuals embedded within contemporary geopolitical conflicts—the book is dedicated on the last page “to the Syrian people”—writes what ostensibly seems a didactic treatise on the world of orientalist academics. The protagonist, Franz Ritter, is a musicologist whose dreamscape and memories over the course of one sleepless night populate the entirety of the text while taking us through both Eastern and Western lands: Vienna, where Franz lies on a sickbed in the present, to Aleppo, Tehran, Damascus, Paris, and Istanbul, to which Énard pays special attention as the historic "conduit" between Europe and Asia. As Franz dreams restlessly about the woman he loves— another orientalist scholar, Sarah, a historian, whose polyglot prodigiousness on all things worldly and otherworldly pays homage to all forms of scholarship—Compass emerges as both a technical and scholarly feat as well as a love letter to the "Orient" and a rebuke to the fiction of its otherness. In amusingly familiar academic segues we can see, through Franz, what Sarah might write about: a fanciful article entitled “On the Cosmopolitan Fates of Magical Objects,” Franz imagines (probably accurately) as a title for an article that Sarah would write to show “how these objects are the result of successive shared efforts…that Orient and Occident never appear separately, that they are always intermingled, present in each other, and that these words—Orient, Occident—have no more heuristic value than the unreachable destinations they designate.” Énard’s brilliance is as self-evident as it is comical: Where else but in the idiosyncratic exchanges of academics could we ruminate on such grand ideas through the study of genie lamps and flying carpets? Through Franz’s one-night journey through memory, we meet quirky Egyptologists, composers, writers, archaeologists, philosophers, even charlatans; many of whose stories, whether they physically featured in Franz’s life or not, peter out in a tale of heartbreaking fits and starts. Franz and Sarah’s own story is, predictably, no less sad. I have been in awe of Énard’s gifts since Street of Thieves, during which I marveled at the empathy with which he treated his Moroccan protagonist, Lakhdar, a young man who travels from Tangier to Tarifa and finally, Barcelona, haunted by an Islamist bombing he had minor involvement in and his excommunication from his family, but assuaged by his love for literature and art: Ibn Battuta and Naguib Mahfouz, the familiar beauties of Tangier and the exotic newness of Barcelona. In Compass, Énard ostensibly faces less of a challenge writing a protagonist with whom he shares at least some cultural sensibilities (although obsessed as Franz is with the appropriation of Oriental music on European composers from Franz Liszt to Hector Berlioz to Ludwig van Beethoven, all of whom get several fascinating pages of description, we shouldn’t minimize the author’s feat: to my knowledge Énard is not an ethnomusicologist), even as the ghost of Edward Said hangs insistently over the orientalist scholars’ cerebral quibbling. Books like these give me an unerring hope in the human capacity to reach out to an unknown self and try, with meticulous research, observation, erudition, but principally with empathy, to understand a self distinct from one’s own. When I first began to read Compass, I had just begun writing another short story of my own: the first that didn’t include subcontinental Muslim characters. I struggled with the sweep and ambition of the story I wanted to write—one that would have to pass through many generations of an interracial family to plumb the effects of environmental disaster—the Dust Bowl for instance—to demonstrate the ephemeral nature of intergenerational memory. I settled on a four-monologue, play-like structure for the story: one for each generation. I spent months reading first-hand accounts, history texts, longform stories about the impacts and memories of natural disasters. I used my historiographical research in environmental history to think about the people in books as people I could try to know. I read books that described catastrophes: starting off with John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, which I remembered as a ruthless story of tenant farmers trapped in economic hardship and poverty as the Dust Bowl reared its ugly head; as crops failed and harsh drought swept over the prairie. When I finally had a draft I could consider complete, I gave it to my first reader—my most generous reader. She returned it with the terse comment that I should “write what I know.” What had I done wrong? Had I failed in my research? The details were all correct, I was confident about that. Had I failed to do justice to the two white characters from whose perspective I wrote the first two monologues? Or to the two mixed-race black characters in the last two monologues? Had I failed to empathize? I went back to the drawing board, trying to convince myself to jettison the story entirely. But the logic of writing solely what I knew was unconvicing. How can I reconcile myself to writing stories about people solely from my cultural background when the stories I want to write have a different sweep, a distinct subject matter that requires me to understand characters outside of my lived experience? That is what I have always seen as the point of literature: its capacity for universality. 2. As it turns out, this isn’t unfamiliar ground for writers today. Rachel Cusk, recently profiled in The New Yorker by Judith Thurman, had her first book published at 26. She now deems her early work as inferior. Thurman takes Cusk’s disillusionment as a reflexive turn away from the earliest iterations of herself because she managed “to upend the plot of her own life—to break up her family, then to lose her house and her bearings.” Cusk is now married for the third time; about her book Aftermath, a painterly if perplexing memoir about the dissolution of Cusk’s marriage with Adrian Clarke, Thurman argues that Clarke “haunts the text like a ghost.” Thurman wonders: Why doesn’t Aftermath explain why the marriage dissolved? “This was partly for the children’s sake,” Cusk says. But Aftermath met with some cruel reviews, after which Cusk seemed to change course. She says of her trajectory: “There seems to be some problem about my identity. But no one can find it, because it’s not there—I have lost all interest in having a self. Being a person has always meant getting blamed for it.” Profiling writers of fiction, mining their lives for clues to explain the eccentricities and artfulness, or perhaps even artifice inside the work themselves—not just thematically but as a direct analog for a protagonist or an entire plot—has become a bit of a trope. Ever since Lena Dunham burst on to the scene, the justification of using autobiographies as the principal quarry from which to mine stories from the vantage point of the writer (what is essentially primary research for the literary critic) has become increasingly more ubiquitous. But of course, you don’t need to have a degree in literary criticism to know that the tradition is far older than Dunham. One could argue it is steeped in the pursuit of the Great American Novel itself: in the specificities of Philip Roth’s Newark Jewish oeuvre, or Norman Mailer’s racially-charged machismo, or as literary critics rigorously argue, on any work of fiction anywhere and any time. But a certain timbre of particularity, coincident with the rise of the personal essay, has most certainly become more central and self-aware in literature of late: specific questions about which characters represent the author and whether plots actually occurred in the author’s real life pop up in interviews when they were once considered gauche to ask a novelist. A recent interview between writers Chelsea Martin and Juliet Escoria finds them talking about “self-serving writing,” work inspired by autobiography, as if it represented the pinnacle of truth-telling. Escoria talks intimately about her book Juliet the Maniac, contending that she doesn’t really “understand the difference between writing fiction and writing nonfiction.” There’s more than a whiff of writers being far too hard on themselves. The problem is why contemporary literary trends motivate young writers to believe that their own personal histories are the only histories they can plumb with any believable depth: a belief that visibly flails when confronted with the Enlightenment origins of humanistic “imaginative” capacities that can be traced to at least as far back as Denis Diderot. As Jean le Rond d’Alembert demonstrates in his Preliminary Discourse to the Encyclopedia of Diderot, for Diderot painting, sculpture ,and architecture were deemed at the head of knowledge known as “Imitation,” but it was poetry and music that demonstrated imagination: that the skill demonstrated “by the warmth, the movement, and the life it is capable of giving, it seems rather to create than to portray them.” This creation was rarely conceived merely as reproduction, nor has it been for a very long time. After all, with writers like Leila Guerriero and Joan Didion, as Daniela Serrano so powerfully writes, the compulsion is reversed: it is not looking at yourself that is the most uncomfortable, but at other people. There can be no doubt, however, that "identity"—with all the limitations and deliverances the word connotes—has become so powerful in popular culture, that the imaginative arts, across different mediums, have found themselves in a bit of a bind. Dunham, when criticized about the whiteness of Girls, claimed that she wanted “to avoid rendering an experience I can't speak to accurately.” In Sofia Coppola’s recent remake of the Civil War-set, Don Siegel movie The Beguiled, she shifted the perspective from that of the male interloper’s to the women in the cloistered Miss Martha Farnsworth Seminary for Young Ladies, but crucially she also excised the role of a slave character—one that was present both in Thomas Cullinan’s original book, which served as the source material for both films, and in the first film, where she was played by Mae Mercer. Coppola received her share of outrage for "whitewashing," an accusation she deflected the way Dunham did: by essentially arguing that she didn’t wish to take an important subject lightly the way the original source material did; instead, by focusing on what she knew best. But if the dogged discoverers of Elena Ferrante’s true identity are to be believed, Ferrante didn’t know much about the poverty of Lila and Elena’s Neapolitan upbringing either. Has lived experience supplanted all other forms of knowledge as the sole true source of authenticity? As an avid Ferrante fan, I take umbrage with such a reading: I could care less about her true identity—and if she hasn’t truly lived it, then the Neapolitan novels merely display a capacity for virtuosic observation and insight. 3. But if this is truly an impasse, the contemporary moment in fiction, then it is a problem we must contend with. Arguably we are already contending with it, although perhaps with less success than one would hope. Lionel Shriver told an audience at a writer’s festival last year that, “Taken to their logical conclusion, ideologies recently come into vogue challenge our right to write fiction at all. Meanwhile, the kind of fiction we are 'allowed”'to write is in danger of becoming so hedged, so circumscribed, so tippy-toe, that we’d indeed be better off not writing the anodyne drivel to begin with.” As Sarah Schulman reported, Viet Thanh Nguyen responded in the L.A. Times by saying: “It is possible to write about others not like oneself, if one understands that this is not simply an act of culture and free speech, but one that is enmeshed in a complicated, painful history of ownership and division.” Nguyen makes a compelling point: we can use this schism to our advantage, but only if we understand the baggage that attends literary, cultural, and political history. Personally, I found Coppola’s version of The Beguiled captivating—with a particularly heartbreaking performance by Kirsten Dunst with a depth almost entirely missing from the earlier incarnation—just as I find much to admire in Dunham’s writing on Girls. But both come saddled with a crucial lack of ambition and not, as they had ostensibly hoped, racial sensitivity. Wouldn’t The Beguiled be all the more interesting if Coppola had extended her nuanced portrayals to a black female character? If it weren’t so illustrative of the loaded identitarian schism at the heart of leftist politics, it would make for the perfect right-wing conspiracy: not only have well-meaning liberals become too PC, they are now roundly dismissed as blinkered by the same folks whose ire they hoped to deflect in the first place. It goes without saying that the problem doesn’t operate solely at the level of the artist herself. Somehow the gambit has been working, arguably with a deep historical legacy, to widen gaps between artists and audiences, with publishers eager to pander to particular readers depending on the artist. It is by now a cliché that many novels written by women are designed to look like romance novels. On the covers of her books being targeted to specifically to female audiences, Margaret Atwood, in an interview in 2015, mentioned that “there were probably some quite disappointed readers.” Atwood’s interviewer Jessica Stites responded that she couldn’t get her friends to start reading the Neapolitan novels because the first book has a wedding dress on it. Meanwhile, author Nnedi Okorafor wrote a book with a female Muslim protagonist, only for her publisher to suggest a cover with a white female figure on it. One wonders: How could publishers be failing so much to adapt? Surely this is not what Nguyen had in mind. Indeed, if writers are to be brave they must truly go there, and like any writer for any story, do meticulous research. But that may not be enough: one hopes writers have the capacity to publish in a world less maladapted to receive their work as well. How did we find ourselves here in the first place? Surely writers never decided in closed-door meetings that the social scientific and humanistic academic emphasis on Culture with a capital c would bleed into fiction to such a degree that writers would begin to parse identities into little parcels, keeping only those they could hold ground on; seeing the act of storytelling itself as one circumscribed by the belonging of a identitarian category. Far more likely is that for writers this is a passive process, one driven by our politics (and/or publishers), by reading the expectations of audiences or anticipating outrage, fears, and concerns that are exacerbated by the near-monopoly in fiction of white authors. Surely writers writ large know there is something reductive about using our own lives as not only the canvases for our art, but of art itself. The argument, or perhaps merely a passive trend riding on a form of herd mentality, seems to dictate that the craft itself has become one’s calling card. Which is to say: not only has the liminal space between identity and individuality been overcome, but storytelling has crashed right through its center, obviating the need for anything else. Why should a story need anything more than an identity? Why shouldn’t Kumail Nanjiani plumb the comedic depths of his own lived trajectory the same way Lena Dunham, Aziz Ansari, Louis C.K., and countless others do? There can be no prescriptive answer on this question that is not simultaneously political. But I suspect that there comes a point when the regurgitated version of one person’s life, especially when that person belongs to a minority group, begins to feel tired: a genre as trope; Oriental fiction with veils on the covers. The ruse being played here is that there is no more a sense of a story without an identity preserved through the complex Venn diagrams one inhabits (or fails to); no universality, no totality: merely a small set of interlocking bricks that hold together the walls of our perception of the world. A place where Plato’s Cave is now color-coded, numbered and charted—hierarchies everywhere, opportunities only to move up or down or sideways like chess pieces. And now that the Cave is so stratified, why feel the need to leave it and see it as it is? How can one tell a story, any story, about any form of universal phenomenon if the response one instinctively pre-empts is: How could you know anything about that? This should have been written by a white gender non-conforming person who grew up without money or the awareness of privilege but nonetheless took advantage of it and grew to believe in less humane economic precepts than she/he/they would have had they not been white. It underlies an inherent paralysis, not too different from the paralysis Amitav Ghosh describes for storytelling which is failing to grapple with climate change in The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable. Climate is not identity or racial politics, however, regardless of how closely their consequences are intertwined, but the concept of paralysis, I suspect, prevents talented artists like Sofia Coppola from stretching the bounds of their own ambitions; and more dangerously than for the minority writer it becomes a convenient alibi for the white artist’s conception of believability. But as with most things, it is a double-edged sword. How can we disregard the critique of the white writer who considers himself (often himself) objective enough to take on any character, a critique which has only become more prominent because marginalized writers have pushed it up in discourse after decades of unrewarded work? Today, at least, it is acknowledged in some circles that not only do minority writers deserve a pulpit, but that storytelling in turn requires minority writers (although certainly not a standard held up nearly enough). Still, it requires a peculiar moment in contemporary culture when certain white male writers can comically (and of course also infuriatingly) decry that their jobs are harder as white men than if they were minorities. In that way, storytelling as with most things bears a truly striking institutional likeness—to the extent that the enterprise of writing and publishing is an institution—to our current politics. Regardless, the argument of constriction applies to minority writers too—identitarian thought has bled into the wholesome creed of “write what you know.” We have erected walls for ourselves that are both comforting in the way that occupying a niche gives a writer and claustrophobic in the sense of wells running dry, new writers providing old stories that are tired reflections of the works of older writers. Nowhere in my experience is this more true than in fiction from my native South Asia, where the timbre of even the most lauded works by Arundhati Roy, Mohsin Hamid, and Kamila Shamsie has acquired a quality of permanence most subcontinental writers cannot help but emulate in the sprint for awards success. Interestingly, the most incisive critics of Roy have recently pointed out the utter lack of tonal difference between her abundant nonfiction and The Ministry of Utmost Happiness: where non-fiction can afford to proselytize, fiction ceases to breathe when crafted in the same mold. Again, however, publishers erect roadblocks in the name of pandering to certain audiences. From a Pakistani perspective, it is all to easy for me to envision publishers who expect me to deal with Islamophobia or terrorism on some level in all my writing, even if apropos of nothing. And thus: in reifying the fictions of identity (the baseline fact most left-leaning writers can agree on), we have elevated almighty Culture, enforced monopolies of singular identities and mashed them all up. No longer can storytelling be ambitious in the fashion of Doris Lessing (who admittedly dabbled in both very autobiographical and very non-autobiographical work, the height of the latter reached in her sublime Canopus in Argos space fiction). Instead, every story would serve itself best as another iteration of your own personal diagram, chipping away at your own identity slowly, painstakingly, even dully over the decades like Philip Roth, but surely not like Mathias Énard: there would no imagination, only personal research. No external perception, only introspection. 4. With this conversation raging in my head as a writer of color, it’s fascinating sometimes to dissect my own responses to my work. Had my first reader got it right—was she letting me off the hook by telling me to write what I knew because the story didn’t hold up to the literary standards she knew I aspired to? Very possibly. I didn’t let the story go, however. I doubled down, and worked even harder at it. But even more intriguing to me than the cases where I double down are those where I have chosen to let go. When my first work of fiction was published, at The Rumpus, my editor told me that the website had commissioned an artist to illustrate my story. I couldn’t wait, both for the story, and for the art it would sit alongside. When the story was published, I was astonished. The style of the art was sparse and completely appropriate to the story: three drawings in all. But curiously, the second illustration, inspired by a pivotal scene where my male Pakistani protagonist has a brief exchange with a friend’s grandmother, looked suspiciously Western. There was a reference to chai in the text, but scant other details. I remember instinctively thinking: there’s no way the grandmother would look like that. A Pakistani grandmother would be wearing a loose dupatta, along with a shalwar kameez—a long tunic and loose trousers. I thought about it for a long time. Ultimately, I decided that there was something about that drawing that captured other specificities—the posture of the grandmother, her spirit—that moved me. I concluded that it was great as it was. The artist had read my story and decided to interpret it the best way she could, and despite the initial skepticism it aroused in me, I liked the idea of the illustration reading my work as something transcendent, something neither here nor there but everywhere: maybe, something even universal. The day after the story came out, I contacted the artist: one of her works hangs on my bedroom wall, a reminder both of my resistance and release and of the artist’s intended or unintended attempt to universalize my work. I don’t wish to ask. Why should I? No matter how much specificity we try to achieve, we will always fall short. After all, as the (white, male) writer Mark Greif tells us, “your life has to be your own: no one else can live it for you, as you can’t enter anyone else’s life to know it feels.” Image Credit: Public Domain Pictures.
Charlotte Mandell lives immersed in words and sound. She translates French to English; she loves music and books; her husband is the poet Robert Kelly; her spiritual practice, Tibetan Buddhism, involves extensive chanting. One of her favorite ways to relax is to feed songbirds, including a cardinal so tame he’ll hop up in her lap for a handout. Paradoxically, a quiet presence envelopes Mandell, perhaps an emanation from the heart of her spiritual practice, meditation that cultivates inner silence. Both an ear for the rhythms and music of language and a receptive quiet interlace with Mandell’s translation work. Mandell’s facility with the French language took root during childhood summers in the French Alps. Her parents, Marvin and Betty Reid Mandell—both professors, activists, and founding editors of the journal New Politics—brought up their daughters in Boston, where Mandell attended Boston Latin High School. There, a young French teacher, Michèle Lepietrem, fired Mandell’s love of French, and she went on to major in French and film theory at Bard College, translating for her senior project a book of poems by Jean-Paul Auxeméry. She spent her junior year in Paris studying semiotics and film theory at Université de Paris III. Her published translations span French literature, from classic to contemporary, from fiction to poetry to nonfiction. Years of esteemed obscurity ended with the English edition of Mathias Énard’s Goncourt Prize winning-novel Compass. Mandell’s translation, called “a feat of great beauty” by New York Journal of Books and “resoundingly successful” by The New York Times, put Compass on the short-list for the 2017 Man Booker International Prize, co-awarded to author and translator. The London festivities for MBI included bookstore appearances and a radio interview leading up to the live-streamed awards dinner—a daunting agenda for Mandell: "I like writing as other people,” she says. “I don’t think I have much to say as myself.” As it turned out, London “really was like a fairytale,” she said. Most rewarding, she got to meet Mathias Énard face-to-face after nearly 10 years translating his work. On her return, we had a chance to talk about her translation process, and about Compass. Like the narrator of Compass, Mandell carries her past in her surroundings, though with more joy than aching nostalgia. Her office is cluttered with memorabilia: many, many stones and crystals; bird feathers; sea shells; religious paraphernalia and images of Buddhist saints and gurus; family photos; love poems from her husband; souvenirs from her travels. Bookcases are packed with books in French and English, including her translations and her prized complete Le Grand Robert French Dictionary, in six volumes—though for work she uses a digital edition of Harrap’s Professional French-English Dictionary. The Millions: What is your work rhythm? Do you have any rituals that help get you started or keep you going? Charlotte Mandell: I work best in the late afternoon to early evening. I’m not a morning person, though I wish I were. No rituals except coffee or tea. Music, classical always, opera usually. Oh, actually, I do burn incense. I work a lot with aromatherapy, and it helps if I can smell something good while I’m working. Usually it’s Japanese cedar or sandalwood, and frankincense and myrrh. TM: Are those scents in particular conducive to intellectual and creative work? Or is it just personal preference? CM: I find those scents very calming and conducive to intense concentration. In ancient times, sandalwood was associated with the intellect. I also diffuse lemon oil to wake me up if I’m feeling sleepy. TM: What are the “nuts and bolts” of your process? Do you write by hand or on computer? Go sentence by sentence? Paragraph by paragraph? CM: I always work on the computer—it’s faster, and I try to work quickly—and I work sentence by sentence. I try not to think too much as I’m translating. “First thought best thought,” as Chögyam Trungpa said. [Chögyam Trungpa was one of the first Tibetan Buddhist gurus to teach in the West.] If I come across something particularly difficult or challenging, I leave it in bold face and come back to it later. Depending on what I’m working on, I try to translate about 10 pages a day. That doesn’t seem like a lot, but translating is mentally draining, and I can’t do much more than that if I want it to sound like good English. Then I read over what I’ve just translated, change it to sound more fluid. The next day I enter the changes into the text. When I finish the entire book I read over my translation very carefully and enter more changes. Then I read over that. I keep editing until I’m happy with it. Revision is an important process to me. TM: How do you get a feel for a work as you embark on translating it? CM: It usually takes me a week or two to really inhabit the voice and to feel it coming organically from within. Since I don’t read ahead, the voice has to sort of come on its own, as I translate. If I stay faithful to the text, and translate it as literally as possible, the voice usually comes on its own. Starting a translation is always the most difficult thing for me. It gets much easier when I’m about 50 pages in. TM: Translating is a creative process, yet a translator is bound to adapt to each author’s work. For example, your translation of Marcel Proust wouldn’t be like your translation of Mathias Énard. How do you negotiate the unique demands of each work? Each author? CM: I trust the text to tell me what it wants. I think the sign of a good translator is the lack of a particular “style.” You shouldn’t be able to guess who translated a particular work. Each work should sound unique and different. The less the translator inserts himself or herself into the work, the better it will sound. I try to let the work speak for itself. TM: You’ve said that you translate as you read. Among ordinary readers, this is a very unusual experience: to translate while reading. Can you describe in some way the effect of it, how the words mix in your mind? CM: When things are going well, you sometimes forget you’re translating—you feel as if you’re writing and reading at the same time, if that makes any sense. You become completely absorbed in the narrative until you’re inside the words and they’re flowing on their own. It’s a wonderful feeling, mesmerizing and addictive. I very often lose track of time when translating an absorbing book. TM: How does being married to a poet inform your translation work? CM: One of Robert’s favorite sayings is “All language is translation,” and I agree with him. Whenever we speak or write anything down, we’re translating our inner thoughts into language; we’re finding the right words to convey our thoughts. Robert’s command of language is extraordinary. He can read a number of languages—his first job was as a translator, actually. He was also raised with Latin and Greek, so we have similar backgrounds. My appreciation of beautifully wrought sentences and complex grammar is due in large part to Robert’s poetic use of language. He’s also my best editor. He reads all my translations and makes excellent suggestions to improve the English. TM: You use the words “sound” and “voice” and “speak,” terms usually applied to spoken, not written, words. It brings to mind Karl Ove Knausgaard’s praise for Don Bartlett’s translation of My Struggle—that Bartlett captured the “voice” and “rhythm” of the original. For Knausgaard, that seems to be the most essential quality in a translation. CM: I agree, the narrative voice is the most important aspect of a translation, especially in the cases of Zone and Compass, where the voice is all-pervading. Once you get the voice, everything else—rhythm, syntax, grammatical structure—falls in place and flows naturally. TM: There’s the sound, the voice of the translation. And there’s the technical side, grammar, vocabulary, and such. But you’re also charged with capturing the meaning of the text, the author’s intentions. Do you ask the author what the work is about before you begin? CM: I don’t ask the author anything at all! I just start right in, translating. That’s the way that works best for me—the work will tell me what it’s about. I love that feeling of the unknown before I translate a book. It’s what a reader feels when starting to read a book for the first time. You have no idea what’s in store for you, but you’re eager to find out. And invariably you find yourself changed by the time you reach the end. TM: Some authors don’t get involved at all in the translation process; they just leave it up to the translator. Again, we can cite Knausgaard and Bartlett. Other author-translator pairs are much more enmeshed. Take, for example, Paul Celan and Michael Hamburger. Before their unfortunate falling out, they corresponded extensively. Can you describe your interactions, your process with Mathias Énard? CM: I prefer to translate the whole book, then send the final draft to the author for comments or revision. Mathias doesn’t interfere during the translation process, and he doesn’t usually change very much. He trusts me, which is gratifying. Since he translates Arabic texts into French, he knows the issues involved in translation. If I have questions, I text him via WhatsApp or send him an e-mail, and he answers right away. Before meeting him, though, I was hesitant to bother him. Now that I’ve seen what a lovely and generous person he is, I won’t worry about disturbing him. I feel more free to ask him questions. TM: How have other authors inspired your process? CM: Working with Jonathan Littell was very instructive. He’s completely bilingual, raised speaking both French and English. Often he had a particular phrase in mind that he wanted to use in English, and though it diverged wildly from the literal French, it conveyed the same meaning. He helped me to be freer in my translations and to be unafraid of taking liberties when necessary. TM: You share the practice of Tibetan Buddism, as it turns out, with Mr. Énard’s wife and with Sarah, a central character in Compass, and with me. In fact—I don’t know if you remember—we were on a retreat when I first learned that you’re a translator; you were working on Mathias Énard’s Zone. Did you advise or discuss Buddhism with Mr. Énard? CM: I didn’t advise Mathias about Buddhist matters, but I did, with his permission, insert some Tibetan words for ceremonial instruments—radong [also transliterated rag-dung, a long horn somewhat like an alphorn] and gyaling [a double-reeded woodwind somewhat like an oboe]—into one of Sarah’s letters from India. I also added the word bardo after barzakh, since they both point to the same thing, and I thought those were words Sarah would use. [Tibetan bardo means, literally, interval; it usually refers to the phase from death to rebirth. Arabic barzakh means, literally, separation, and refers to a purgatorial phase from death to resurrection.] TM: How does the practice of Buddhism affect your work? CM: I find Buddhism very conducive to translation. When you meditate, you empty yourself of a “self,” a sense of ego, just as when you translate, you forget about yourself and become someone else: the narrator, the author’s voice. I think that’s why I enjoy translating so much—I like not being myself for long stretches of time. TM: Do you identify with any of the characters in Compass or in other works you’ve translated? CM: I felt very close to Sarah, and to her descriptions of her Buddhist practice—but then, I identify with all the characters I translate! When I translate a book I end up inhabiting the characters in a very intimate way, so that I often dream as them. This was a problem when I was translating The Kindly Ones, by Jonathan Littell. I had recurrent dreams—nightmares, usually—as Max Aue, the Nazi narrator. With Franz Ritter [the narrator of Compass], it was more a case of inhabiting his melancholy state of mind, and identifying with his longing for Sarah, the long-lost beloved. One of the perks of being a translator is that I get to inhabit a male character and see how his mind works. I think that might be one reason I enjoy translating male authors: it’s a window onto the Other, another way of not being my “self.” TM: Before you left for London [for the 2017 Man Booker International awards], you were looking forward especially to meeting Mathias Énard for the first time. CM: It’s such an interesting thing to meet for the first time an author whom you’ve been translating for almost 10 years—like meeting an old friend for the first time. TM: What did you two talk about? CM: We talked about lots of things: sailing, which we both grew up doing; the Lebanese restaurant Karakala in Barcelona, which Mathias co-owns; Buddhism, a little bit. Strangely, we didn't talk about Compass. TM: What do you think Compass is about? CM: Compass is not really “about” any one thing. The pleasure in reading it comes from the language itself more than from the plot. For me, the experience was similar to that of reading Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. You see the workings of the narrator’s mind, how it jumps from one thing to another and back again, how it obsesses with one thing—Sarah—while recalling others—books, scholarly papers, music, faraway places. Mathias described the book once as “a Thousand Nights in One,” and I think that’s as good a description as any. TM: At the end of the joint radio interview of you and Mathias Énard [BBC World Service, 12 June 2017], he said: “Compass is not a cemetery, you know. It’s not about lost places. I think it’s about the hope that we can have those places again.” For me, the book’s arc didn’t lead that way. I wouldn’t call Compass “dark” by any means, but hope was introduced late—not only in the romance but concerning the narrator’s health. So the book itself left me unconvinced by Mr. Énard’s statement. My take is that the book has an open and ambiguous trajectory, and a bittersweet ending—but let’s start with, “Compass is not a cemetery.” CM: I think Mathias was saying in the interview that Syria isn’t a cemetery. We see the devastated parts of it, but there are still huge swathes of it rich in culture and alive with people. TM: Do you agree with the rest of Mr. Énard’s statement? I guess my question is, where’s the hope, in Compass? CM: There is an ancient saying, by Antisthenes of Greece, which I grew up memorizing: “To the wise nothing is foreign.” The hope in Compass is the hope of openness to the Other, a certainty that there is no “us” and “them,” there is only “we.” The East permeates and influences the West, and vice-versa. The hope lies in the narrator’s curiosity—which should be ours as well, in his thirst for knowledge. Compass is a love letter to the Other.
Last year, the Man Booker International Prize evolved from its previous iteration and joined forces with the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize to award £50,000 to a single work of fiction in translation, split between the author and translator (Han Kang and translator Deborah Smith took home the 2016 honors for The Vegetarian). This year's shortlist is below -- find more details about the titles here. Mathias Énard (France), Compass, translated by Charlotte Mandell (Fitzcarraldo Editions) David Grossman (Israel), A Horse Walks Into a Bar, translated by Jessica Cohen (Jonathan Cape) Roy Jacobsen (Norway), The Unseen, translated by Don Bartlett and Don Shaw (Maclehose) Dorthe Nors (Denmark), Mirror Shoulder Signal, translated by Misha Hoekstra (Pushkin Press) Amos Oz (Israel), Judas, translated by Nicholas de Lange (Chatto & Windus) Samanta Schweblin (Argentina), Fever Dream, translated by Megan McDowell (Oneworld)