Alexander Chee’s debut novel, Edinburgh, was called, “spectacular, gripping, and gut-wrenching,” by critics and widely lauded for his careful handling of the tough subject of sexual abuse. As The New Yorker put it, “by balancing its anguish with fantasy and Korean folk tales, he keeps a sad story from becoming maudlin.”
I’ve been feeling the buzz about Chee’s second novel, The Queen of the Night (Feb 2) since the summer. It tells the story of Lilliet Berne, a legendary soprano who is offered the last big accolade she has yet to gain in her singing career, a libretto written just for her. When she realizes that the libretto is based on her life, she knows that someone is trying to reveal the secrets of her past, but who? An early review says that the novel, “feels in many ways like Thackeray’s Vanity Fair.”
The Queen of the Night is Chee’s first novel hardcover release since Edinburgh in 2001 and its reissue in 2003. While he has hardly been idle, I wondered how that felt. As novelists often talk of the pressure to publish, were the intervening 13 to 15 years productive or full of angst?
What I found was a story filled with all the twists and turns of the greatest writing careers, a publisher bankruptcy, bouts of teaching yoga, the consequences of missing a deadline by 10 years, the advance money running out, an Amtrak residency, surviving through four changes of editor, and whether it’s all worth it in the end. I interviewed Chee by email.
The Millions: Since Edinburgh was published, you have done a few things, like been named one of Out Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People, been published in Granta, Tin House, and Guernica, written for The New York Times, won fellowships, awards, and taught for Wesleyan, University of Leipzig, and Princeton, to name just a few. But, you have not published a second novel. Why did you keep us waiting?
Alexander Chee: Well, when you say it like that, it does seem like a lot. But I feel much as I did the last time, with Edinburgh — I remember telling a friend it felt like digging a tunnel to freedom and arriving at a party.
I had worked several jobs in order to write the first novel — teaching writing, writing freelance, waiting tables, cater-waitering, working as a yoga instructor. I had hoped to earn a break from that, but instead, during the entire paperback re-launch of Edinburgh by Picador, I had to deal with how my hardcover publisher, an indie publisher who sold the paperback rights to Picador, went bankrupt owing me the equivalent of a year’s salary at the time.
And so as I went on tour, I felt celebrated and also robbed simultaneously. I switched agents then, and my agent was able to get me half of the remaining paperback money owed to me. But I’ve never recouped that loss. And while this may seem small, perhaps — what is a year among 13? — well, it was the first one, it set the tone. It said, you could work all this time and at the end have everything taken from you.
There’s something else, an essay I’ve tried to write for a while, in my next, next book — a book of essays I’m collecting now — about a recovered memory I had in that first year the novel was out. I remember a guy at book club asking me why I hadn’t written a memoir. I said, “I don’t remember all of it.” This was how I learned to articulate something about fiction writing: that you write to describe something you learn from your life but that is not described by describing your life.
So I wrote Edinburgh. I wrote to fit the shape of what I knew to be true, but what I found was, I hadn’t dealt with what it described. And then once the book was out, the missing pieces came back. It was as if I’d cornered myself to force the truth out of me.
For example, the night before Edinburgh’s official pub day, I understood I hadn’t ever told my mother I’d been through something like what the novel describes. And the novel just couldn’t be the way she found out. So I called her and told her.
TM: Was the time in between your two novels a frustrating period, or was it fruitful?
AC: Both. Fruitful work periods are full of frustration, I think.
Marilynne Robinson once observed to me something like, “Great works of art are never created out of self esteem.” I think that may be true.
There was a brief moment when I remember feeling so excited about showing the world what I could do with a novel now that I’d published Edinburgh. But, in addition to the aforementioned psychic crisis, I was also just burnt out. And so as much as part of me was so excited by the idea of writing more novels, that soon became, “You want me to do all this again?”
What happened next is, I won two prizes that fall — the Whiting Writers’ Award and the National Endowment for the Arts fellowship — prizes that on their own would have meant for an amazing year. At the level of magical thinking, it felt like the universe making up some for what bankruptcy court had taken away from me. And as I had won the N.E.A. for an excerpt of The Queen of the Night, the prize seemed like a finger pointing at me and saying, “Go and do this.”
So, I did…sort of.
It was like wandering blind into a storm. I moved to Los Angeles, where I really just sort of rested for a few months, read things, and went to parties and libraries and tried to put my head together again. When I ran out of money, I moved to my Mom’s in Maine, Charles D’Ambrosio-style, writing in her basement every morning starting at 5 a.m., taking a break for Buffy the Vampire Slayer reruns at 11 a.m. and making an early lunch before working more. It was like the weirdest saddest colony stay, about three months.
And then I showed my agent what I had and she sold The Queen of the Night as a partial in 9 days. This shocked me. It had taken two years to find a publisher for Edinburgh.
I moved out, spent the summer researching in Paris, spent a year in Rochester as a disgruntled faculty spouse to a man I was trying to love, and when that fell apart, got a job at Amherst College, where I had the honor of being their Visiting Writer for four years. I wrote much of the novel there. When that ended, I moved to New York again, where it seemed as if all that had troubled me about the city before had bleached away in the weather.
But the writing schools in New York all pay terribly — they can have anyone they want for adjunct money — we should all go on strike actually and force them to give raises. Anyway, you have to constantly leave town to make enough money to live. Thus my stints at Iowa, Leipzig, and Austin. These were productive, but the moves slow the writing down.
I wrote many other things besides the novel to make a living — nonfiction is one of my day jobs. I did a lot of research, maybe too much. I was haunted by that review you get from a historian who claims your novel is stupid because of one minor historical mistake.
TM: Did you hit a low while writing The Queen of the Night?
AC: The hardest part came when I decided to pull the novel in 2013, and revise it around new research I’d found regarding the relationship between the singer Pauline Viardot-Garcia and Ivan Turgenev — both characters in the novel. In particular, it was information on how she was composing operas as her voice faded, and he was writing the libretti — he loved her, believed in her talent, and was urging her to do this.
I knew if I didn’t find a way to include this, I was in danger of returning to the material to write an entire novel just about the two of them. That piece then, and The Last Sorcerer, perhaps the most successful of their opera collaborations, is now a part of the novel that I may love the most.
TM: Did you experience any pressure from your agent or publisher?
AC: Yes. And they were well within their rights. My original contract was for a book due in 2006. Everyone involved has been remarkably patient and supportive, though there was a period when my agent would punch me in the arm whenever I saw her out. Other writers in this situation have been cancelled, so I would never complain about the pressure. While it often made me feel guilty, I tried to understand it as a way of being loved.
TM: Did you feel commercial pressure, or worry about your own livelihood?
AC: This is a constant under capitalism though, right? But nothing in the book is there to make it more commercial or I would have used quotation marks around the dialogue. Other people may be able to write cynically, but when I do I want to die. Which was never the point of writing.
The biggest pressure was when I had run out of the money. I was paid for this book, everything else was essentially unpaid work during which time I also had to work to pay bills. And the longer the novel wasn’t published, the more it seemed to endanger everything in my life — my ability to get teaching work, to successfully apply for grants, my relationship, future projects. Each small delay, each mistake, each wrong turn in the writing became enormous as a result and it was unendurable in the last two years.
The novel also ruined every family holiday vacation for a decade, too — typically the down time between semesters when you can get writing done.
Right near the end, I had a student write a story about the workshop, in which she was unkind to everyone in the class except herself, who she portrayed as a talented writer and a great beauty. This is something that happens at least once in every writing teacher’s life — the student who thinks it is brilliant to write about the class and make everyone talk about what she thinks of them. Me? She portrayed me as a failed writer who couldn’t sell his new book.
All I can say is, I look forward to when this happens to her.
TM: Edinburgh came out with Picador, while The Queen of the Night is published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, why did you change publishers? Did it have anything to do with the gap between them?
AC: This was pretty ordinary. Picador was nothing but supportive of Edinburgh and kept it in print well after anyone else would have. I can say nothing but good things about them. The publisher at the time declined to bid on The Queen of the Night. I think they knew I was likely to follow my editor at the time, who had left Picador for Houghton.
The Queen of the Night took so long to write that I was orphaned three times. My current editor, Naomi Gibbs, is my fourth, the former assistant to the third, promoted now to associate. And she really did much of the trench work on the novel at the end, assisting me with the insertions I made. A painstaking task I will owe her for forever.
TM: Were you concerned that you might be “forgotten” as a novelist?
AC: Definitely. I would sometimes come across blog posts praising the first novel and saying things like, “It seems like he’s stopped writing.” That was hard to read. But, I understand. Eventually, I accepted that I was known more for personal essays and social media than for my first novel, especially after my idea for the Amtrak Residency became a real thing thanks to Twitter. But, this all makes the reception of this novel thus far really gratifying.
My friend Maud Newton and I were talking about our history with blogs recently, and we agreed to think of them respectively as the sort of minor books that you publish in between the books that matter, an experiment done in a way that eventually helps the sale of the next book — people read it, treat it like a blog and not a book — and which allows to sustain a readership without suffering the damage of a tragic sales track record.
TM: Facebook didn’t exist, let alone Twitter or anything like that when Edinburgh came out. Does it feel like a very different world to publish a novel into?
AC: Sure, like different planets. I laughed recently to remember those post cards I was asked to make. How I would leave them at the yoga studio I worked at, and then would feel guilty if they blew onto the floor, guilty again when I had to recycle them for having gotten dirty on the floor, etc. Such a mess.
But in addition to the postcards, back in 2001, I also had a website, made for me by a friend who is an early adopter — which I remember people treated it as a bit of a curiosity. I remember the moment my webmaster said, “You should have a blog, something to keep your readers coming back for,” something I couldn’t imagine at first. It wasn’t until I moved to L.A. and everyone there seemed to have a blog that I began blogging as a way to work out of burnout.
I never found out why everyone in L.A. was blogging, but I remember people sometimes mocked me for having a blog, saying it was something serious literary writers didn’t do.
Sarah Manguso and Susan Steinberg, one night at MacDowell, the writers colony, kept chanting at me “delete your blog delete your blog.” But by 2006, hiring committees told me it helped them hire me — that it showed I was a thinker in a bigger way than the books and submitted essays did — and by 2008 I found I had a reputation as a literary writer who used the Internet like a blogger, with a blog that had a reputation for literary quality. I began consulting with writers and literary organizations, teaching them how to use Twitter and Facebook, blog strategies for publication that supported their launches and tours.
It’s become popular to mock writers’ use of social media again, but everyone is using it. If we disdain it, how will we know what people’s lives are like? Almost no one lives in the way these critics are asking writers to live, offline and shuttered away. Anything you write from that position will be literally blinkered.
Social media makes it much easier to get attention as a writer and to be relevant between books — in my case, a very long time. It has also leveled the playing field for LGBTQ writers and writers of color. Yes, I too hate the weird sort of wedding toast atmosphere that can come over Facebook. But, at least when I write about it in fiction, I won’t be guessing what it is like.
TM: What is the biggest difference for you this time around?
AC: I don’t know how to describe it yet. Mostly, I’m trying to focus on what’s next. I have my essay collection, plus ideas and pages for a nonfiction book as well as four novels. And a screenplay I’ve adapted with my partner, Dustin Schell. We’ve adapted Barry Werth’s biography of Newton Arvin, The Scarlet Professor, and we have high hopes for it. Dustin has never known me until now without me working on this novel and feeling like I would be killed by writing it. So I’m introducing him to that guy. The one who finished and survived it.
TM: There is huge buzz about The Queen of the Night. How did it start?
AC: Well, thanks. This answer is just an educated guess but Houghton Mifflin Harcourt has some serious game, I have to say. Their strategy was to begin with galleys early, to give people time to read it, and to make the cover into something physically beautiful — a galley that was also an object of desire. Anyone who says a cover doesn’t matter isn’t paying attention. Michelle Triant there and Hannah Harlow were the galley masters. But I have to give a lot of credit to Liberty Hardy first of all, and her partner in crime, Rebecca Schinsky over at Book Riot, who were early champions of the novel. Liberty even made a countdown clock. Rachel Fershleiser, of Tumblr, Lisa Lucas, of Guernica, Maris Kreizman over at Kickstarter, Michele Filgate, Stephanie Anderson (aka Bookavore), and Sarah McCarry — what we call the Bookternet, basically. Women in cool glasses who read crates of books.
Plus Jason Diamond and Tobias Carroll, of Vol. 1 Brooklyn and Saeed Jones and Jarry Lee at Buzzfeed. And of course, The Millions. It has to have helped to have the novel on your most anticipated list for several years. I’m just glad it is really finally coming out.
And then the writer Maud Newton, who will be in conversation with me at my launch at McNally Jackson on February 2. She has consistently written about me and the novel over the years, even read an early draft — she’s a great friend and when I thought of who to do this first event with, she was my first choice. I’m really looking forward to talking to her about it.
TM: The Queen of the Night comes out on February 2. How do you feel right now?
AC: I feel great. For a while I was telling people, “It could never be worth it,” in terms of the time and sacrifices. Now it feels like maybe it was. We’ll see.
Now in its second glorious decade, the Year in Reading has become a Millions tradition, featuring contributions from a roster of emerging and marquee authors, staff writers, and friends of the site. It’s an effort that yields hundreds of books for to-be-read piles, as well as some of the best writing we run all year.
After 13 years of solo striving, this was the first year that site editor C. Max Magee finally called for reinforcements; we happily stepped into the breach (now that we’ve seen the amount of work that goes into this, we’re a little frightened of him). It has been a thrill to look for exciting voices, to send emails like carrier pigeons off into the universe and hope they’ll come back bearing book recommendations from Stephen King (maybe next year). If you follow the literary world, you’d think that everyone is reading Elena Ferrante 24/7. And while lots of people are (you’ll see), Year in Reading is also our annual chance to peek behind the curtain at people’s singular reading lives—who went down a comics wormhole, or read multiple Freddie Mercury biographies, or discovered August Wilson for the first time. And not only what they read, but how they felt about what they read–how the reading shaped the year.
There are a huge number of books represented in the series this year, many fantastic lists, and many extraordinary meditations on reading and life. We think you’ll enjoy reading them as much as we enjoyed putting them together. As in prior years, the names of our 2015 contributors will be unveiled throughout the month as their entries are published. Bookmark this post, load up the main page, subscribe to our RSS feed, or follow us on Facebook or Twitter to make sure you don’t miss an entry.
– Your Year in Reading Editors, Lydia Kiesling & Janet Potter
Stephen Dodson, co-author of Uglier Than a Monkey’s Armpit, proprietor of Languagehat.
Ottessa Moshfegh, author of Eileen.
Atticus Lish, author of Preparation for the Next Life.
Angela Flournoy, author of The Turner House.
Claire Messud, author of The Woman Upstairs.
Celeste Ng, author of Everything I Never Told You.
Nell Zink, author of Mislaid.
Claire Vaye Watkins, author of Gold Fame Citrus.
Chris Kraus, author of Summer of Hate.
Katrina Dodson, translator of The Complete Stories of Clarice Lispector.
Joyce Carol Oates, author of The Accursed, among many other books.
Saeed Jones, author of Prelude to Bruise.
The Book Report, everyone’s favorite literary show.
Bijan Stephen, associate editor at the New Republic.
Garth Risk Hallberg, contributing editor for The Millions, author of City on Fire.
Lydia Kiesling, staff writer for The Millions and creator of the Modern Library Revue.
Janet Potter, staff writer for The Millions.
Elizabeth Minkel, staff writer for The Millions.
Emily St. John Mandel, staff writer for The Millions and author of Station Eleven.
Michael Schaub, staff writer for The Millions.
Thomas Beckwith, social media and previews editor for The Millions.
Anne K. Yoder, staff writer for The Millions.
Chigozie Obioma, author of The Fishermen.
Greg Hrbek, author of Not on Fire, but Burning.
Terry McMillan, author of Waiting to Exhale.
Sasha Frere-Jones, writer and musician.
Matthew Salesses, author of The Hundred-Year Flood.
Meaghan O’Connell, author of And Now We Have Everything.
Cristina Henríquez, author of Come Together, Fall Apart.
Vinson T. Cunningham, contributing writer for The New Yorker.
J.M. Ledgard, author of Submergence.
Nadifa Mohamed, author of The Orchard of Lost Souls.
Manjula Martin, editor of SCRATCH: Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living.
Lauren Groff, author of Fates and Furies.
Alexander Chee, author of Edinburgh.
Olivia Laing, author of The Lonely City.
Rahawa Haile, author of short stories and essays.
Rumaan Alam, author of Rich and Pretty.
Justin Taylor, author of Flings.
Julia Alvarez, author of How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents.
Jaquira Díaz, editor of 15 Views of Miami .
Dave Cullen, author of Columbine.
Hannah Gersen, staff writer for The Millions.
Tess Malone, associate editor for The Millions.
Matt Seidel, staff writer for The Millions.
Claire Cameron, staff writer for The Millions, author of The Bear.
Nick Ripatrazone, staff writer for The Millions, author of We Will Listen for You.
Edan Lepucki, staff writer for The Millions, author of California.
Viet Thanh Nguyen, author of The Sympathizer.
Daniel José Older, author of Shadowshaper.
Lincoln Michel, author of Upright Beasts.
Rebecca Carroll, author of Saving the Race.
Ana Castillo, author of So Far from God.
Patrick Rothfuss, author of The Name of the Wind.
Katie Coyle, author of Vivian Apple at the End of the World.
Sady Doyle, a writer in New York.
Patricia Engel, author of Vida.
Manuel Muñoz, author of What You See in the Dark.
Karolina Waclawiak, author of The Invaders.
Hamilton Leithauser, a singer/songwriter in New York City.
Catie Disabato, author of The Ghost Network.
Parul Sehgal, senior editor at The New York Times Book Review.
Margaret Eby, author of South Toward Home.
Tahmima Anam, author of A Golden Age.
Sandra Cisneros, author of Have You Seen Marie?.
Brian Etling, intern for The Millions.
Nick Moran, special projects editor for The Millions.
Jacob Lambert, staff writer for The Millions.
Michael Bourne, staff writer for The Millions.
Bruna Dantas Lobato, intern for The Millions.
Bill Morris, staff writer for The Millions, author of Motor City Burning.
Summer Brennan, author of The Oyster War.
Kerry Howley, author of Thrown.
Rachel Eliza Griffiths, author of Lighting the Shadow.
Maggie Nelson, author of The Argonauts.
Lauren Holmes, author of Barbara the Slut and Other People.
Kate Harding, author of Asking for It.
Year in Reading Outro.
The good stuff: The Millions’ Notable articles
The motherlode: The Millions’ Books and Reviews
Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.
Year in Reading alumnus Alexander Chee writes about the impulse to write fiction, his first novel, and unpublished manuscripts in an essay for the Center For Fiction’s Why Fiction Matters series. “The first story I ever invented for public consumption was in a book report back in grade school. I had made a vow to read every book in my grade school library, and at some point, as I made my way through them, I remember very clearly understanding that there was simply no way my teacher would know about every book ever published—this was before the Internet—and so I decided I would make one up and see if she noticed.” Pair with this Millions piece, featuring six writers looking back on their first novels.
As a writer who is still working on her debut novel manuscript, I can’t resist the temptation to feel as though every author who has her name splashed across a cover in a bookstore is the happiest writer who has ever written. She is, after all, published; after working hard, her best work is polished and released, and out for the world to consume.
Despite, as writers, knowing how easily and often our relationship with our own work fluctuates, we can sometimes silently impose an expectation on published authors that they should retain a permanently positive relationship with their books once they’re in print. Perhaps it’s ungrateful if they don’t. They could, after all, still be struggling like so many of us.
Is it actually that easy, though? Does a writer love all of his published works as much as the day they were released — or as much as we on the outside expect him to? Or does he actually want to burn every copy each time he sees an open flame? I asked six writers to look back on their debut novels, released as many as 25 years ago, and talk about how their relationships with their books have evolved with time and distance.
1. Colum McCann on Songdogs (1995)
My first novel, Songdogs, was actually my second book, after a collection of stories, Fishing the Sloe-Black River. I was in my mid-20s when I wrote it. I recall my agent saying that the first draft felt like it had been “preserved in aspic.” Basically, he was saying that it was god-awful. He was right, too. I got a second chance and wrote and rewrote and rewrote. I have a bit of a contradictory relationship with that book, which is now about 25 years old. I think I’m correct in saying that it’s a young man’s novel, flawed and flaring. I would never read it again — why spend my time with my own work when I can read someone else’s? — but there are parts of it that still rattle my tired memory.
Thirteen Ways of Looking (Random House) is forthcoming on October 13.
2. Alexander Chee on Edinburgh (2001)
I’m probably more proud of [Edinburgh now] than I was at the time it appeared. At the time, the struggle to publish it had consumed me — it took 24 rejections and two and a half years to find a publisher. I think I somehow internalized all those rejections. And so the eventual celebration when it appeared at last got a somewhat chilled embrace from me, even once it went better than I had expected. People kept saying to me, “Aren’t you happy?” And I couldn’t quickly answer. I was thinking, “Well…I don’t know.” A sort of anhedonia had set in. That feeling puzzled me for a long time. I understand it now, though — I was braced for something bad to happen, one last disaster. But it didn’t happen, and now I can celebrate it wholeheartedly.
The Queen of the Night (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) is forthcoming on February 2.
3. Jami Attenberg on Instant Love (2007)
I actually have a real fondness for my first book, Instant Love. I wasn’t in an MFA program, and it had been more than a decade since I’d studied writing as an undergrad, so the book was constructed mainly on passion and voice and life experience rather than anything strategic or structural or academic. I just really stumbled my way through the writing of it, had no expectations, and was just happy it sold. Now that book feels as pure to me as anything I’ve ever written. When people tell me that they’ve read it, I get a little choked up thinking about that time in my life. I’m serious! I definitely think of that book as my first love.
4. Emily St. John Mandel on Last Night in Montreal (2009)
My first three novels were recently reissued, and I had the opportunity to read through them and make minor changes and corrections prior to publication. It was interesting to revisit them after all these years, especially my first novel, Last Night in Montreal. I think that novel’s by far the weakest of my books. I’m mystified that it gets more attention than my second and third novels, and if I were to write that story now I would go about it in a completely different way, but I was reassured to find upon rereading that I didn’t dislike it. Looking at it again was like opening a time capsule: there was a sense of “Oh, this is how I wrote in my early-to-mid-20s, when my sensibility was almost completely different.”
5. Justin Taylor on The Gospel of Anarchy (2012)
Gospel was brutally reviewed upon publication, for reasons that I felt — and still feel — were largely unfair, and only tangentially related to its contents. A lot of people wanted it to be pure punk rock slapstick, and so decided in advance that it probably would be, and so were more than a little bit put off by what turned out to be a dense, recursive, intermittently X-rated meditation on theology. The book’s great crime, in the critical consensus, was in taking its own central question seriously, namely: Is there a vantage point from which Christianity and anarchism appear (or are revealed) to be, one and the same thing? This is not to say I posed this as elegantly as I could have, or that anyone other than me is obliged to agree with my answer or even care what the possible answers are — it may not be a great novel, who knows? — but many critics seemed to be offended that I had asked the question in the first place. It was the refusal to engage, and the smug self-satisfaction of the unengaged, that hurt me far more than the negativity itself.
I started this paragraph planning to say that I’m no longer as upset by this as I was then, but it’s obviously not true. I’m still upset — maybe not in a day-to-day “Arya Stark’s revenge list” way, but still. I hate the part of American culture that prides itself on its shallowness, the cold and at least honest “fuck you” reduced even further to the squirrelly and smirking “WTF,” and I hate that we — literary culture — have allowed the infection to cross our borders. One does try to be a good literary citizen, and most of the time it’s a decent country to be citizen of, but other times it feels like you’re wading to middle school through a waist-deep river of shit. So, let me end on a positive — and sane — note by mentioning my single favorite response to The Gospel of Anarchy, which came in the form of a nine-panel comic by Horn! Reviews, which is the project of Kevin Thomas. He just understood exactly what I was after, met me where I was, produced art in response to art. All of which reassured me, at a time when I needed to hear it, that I wasn’t completely nuts to have gone about things the way I did. If Gospel ever gets reissued, his comic is going on the cover. In fact, there won’t be anything else on the cover. The whole cover will just be it.”
6. Anthony Marra on A Constellation of Vital Phenomena (2013)
I still do get a jolt of pride whenever I see Constellation in a bookstore, but now it’s more a nod across the room to an old friend. The greatest change has been the realization that when you publish a book, it stops being yours and begins belonging to whoever reads it. At an event a couple months back, a woman asked a question about the specifics of a particular plot point. I haven’t read Constellation since I finished writing it four years ago, and to my embarrassment, I’d forgotten the exact details of the scene in question. A couple other people in the crowd immediately jumped in with their own interpretations and I silently stood at the podium, relieved to listen to readers tell me what my book is about.
The Tsar of Love and Techno (Hogarth) is forthcoming on October 13.
In the Times Book Review, Year in Reading alum and Edinburgh author Alexander Chee reviews Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng, a Millions contributor. He describes the book as, among other things, a departure from your average literary thriller: “If we know this story, we haven’t seen it yet in American fiction, not until now.”
The end of another year is here (so soon? Ah, I’m getting old), and with it a flood of valedictory lists and wrap ups, accountings and scorecards. Each year, as these lists spill out across the landscape, the onslaught becomes difficult to parse and begins to feel suspiciously (to us, anyway) like a marketing boondoggle to support the promotional-book-cover-sticker-and-blurb industry. There are so many “best of the year” lists that everything is the best (and sometimes also the worst).
So, how can we have some year-end fun while still extracting something meaningful from the effort?
We readers tend to be a thoughtful bunch, noting down the titles we have read or lining them up one by one on a shelf. We are intellectually omnivorous as well and not too overly prejudiced toward the new or the old, picking up a 130-year-old classic of Russian literature and then following it up with the bestselling, beach read of the moment. Taken together, a long list of books read is a map of our year, and the best of these books are the year’s pinnacles, and the challenging books, its rewarding treks. The “10 best books of 2012” list is so small next to this.
And so in preparing our annual Year in Reading series, we’ve asked our esteemed guests to take us on a tour of these pinnacles and to give an accounting of these treks.
With this in mind, for a ninth year, some of our favorite writers, thinkers, and readers will look back, reflect, and share. Their charge was to name, from all the books they read this year, the one(s) that meant the most to them, regardless of publication date. Grouped together, these ruminations, cheers, squibs, and essays will be a chronicle of reading and good books from every era.
We hope you find in them seeds that will help make your year in reading in 2013 a fruitful one.
As in prior years, the names of our 2012 “Year in Reading” contributors will be unveiled one at a time throughout the month as we publish their contributions. You can bookmark this post and follow the series from here, or load up the main page for more new Year in Reading posts appearing at the top every day, or you can subscribe to our RSS feed and follow along that way.
Stephen Dodson, co-author of Uglier Than a Monkey’s Armpit, proprietor of Languagehat.
Ben Fountain, author of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk.
Emma Straub, author of Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures.
Choire Sicha, co-proprietor of The Awl.
Jeffrey Eugenides, author of Middlesex.
Madeline Miller, author of The Song of Achilles.
Gideon Lewis-Kraus, author of A Sense of Direction.
Rob Delaney, comedian and writer.
Nick Harkaway, author of The Gone-Away World.
Tania James, author of Atlas of Unknowns.
Alexander Chee, author of Edinburgh.
Maria Popova, founder and editor of Brain Pickings.
Lauren Groff, author of Arcadia.
David Vann, author of Dirt.
Helen Schulman, author of This Beautiful Life.
Roxane Gay, author of Ayiti.
Hari Kunzru, author of Gods Without Men.
Rachel Fershleiser, co-editor of Not Quite What I Was Planning.
Bill Morris, author of All Souls’ Day, staff writer for The Millions.
Scott Esposito, co-author of The End of Oulipo?, proprietor of Conversational Reading.
Nick Moran, social media editor for The Millions.
Emily St. John Mandel, author of The Lola Quartet, staff writer for The Millions.
Edan Lepucki, author of If You’re Not Yet Like Me, staff writer for The Millions.
Janet Potter, staff writer for The Millions, blogger at At Times Dull.
David Haglund, writer and editor at Slate.
Zadie Smith, author of White Teeth.
Chris Ware, author of Building Stories.
Kevin Smokler, author of Practical Classics: 50 Reasons to Reread 50 Books You Haven’t Touched Since High School, on twitter as @weegee.
Thomas Mallon, author of Watergate.
Geoff Dyer, author of Zona: A Book About a Film About a Journey to a Room.
Susan Orlean, staff writer for The New Yorker, author of Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend.
Michael Schaub, book critic for NPR.org.
Matt Dojny, author of The Festival of Earthly Delights.
Nell Freudenberger, author of The Newlyweds.
Ed Park, author of Personal Days.
Hamilton Leithauser, lead singer for the rock band The Walkmen.
Meg Wolitzer, author of The Interestings.
Sheila Heti, author of How Should a Person Be?.
Paul Murray, author of Skippy Dies.
Elliott Holt, author of You Are One of Them.
Jami Attenberg, author of The Middlesteins.
Antoine Wilson, author of Panorama City.
Paul Ford, author of Gary Benchley, Rock Star, writer at Ftrain.com.
Garth Risk Hallberg, author of A Field Guide to the North American Family.
Lydia Kiesling, staff writer for The Millions.
Mark O’Connell, staff writer for The Millions.
Christian Lorentzen, editor at the London Review of Books.
Michael Bourne, staff writer for The Millions.
Emily M. Keeler, editor of Little Brother Magazine.
Elizabeth Minkel, staff writer for The Millions.
Nichole Bernier, author of The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D.
Alix Ohlin, author of Inside.
Lars Iyer, author of Exodus.
Robin Sloan, author of Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore.
Malcolm Jones, senior writer at Newsweek/The Daily Beast, author of Little Boy Blues.
Susan Straight, author of Between Heaven and Here.
Christine Schutt, author of Prosperous Friends.
Patrick Somerville, author of This Bright River.
Lydia Millet, author of Magnificence.
Jennifer duBois, author of A Partial History of Lost Causes.
Nick Dybek, author of When Captain Flint Was Still a Good Man.
Reif Larsen, author of The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet.
Megan Mayhew Bergman, author of Birds of a Lesser Paradise.
Ellen Ullman, author of By Blood.
Jane Hirshfield, author of Come, Thief.
Michael Robbins, author of Alien vs. Predator.
Jeet Thayil, author of Narcopolis.
Thomas Beckwith, intern for The Millions.
Benjamin Anastas, author of Too Good to Be True.
Kate Zambreno, author of Heroines.
Carolyn Kellogg, staff writer for the LA Times, a vice president of the National Book Critics Circle.
Buzz Poole, author of Madonna of the Toast.
Robert Birnbaum, editor-at-large at Identity Theory.
Brian Joseph Davis, creator of The Composites, co-publisher of Joyland Magazine.
The good stuff: The Millions’ Notable articles
The motherlode: The Millions’ Books and Reviews
Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.
New Yorkers: the Brooklyn Book Festival kicks off tomorrow evening, and you can get things started off right with this party hosted by Tumblr, Electric Literature, The LA Review of Books, and The New Inquiry. The following night, however, is when you should carve out some time to see The Greatest 3-Minute Book Stories — which will feature readings by Maris Kreizman (Slaughterhouse 90210), Alexander Chee (Edinburgh), Dan Wilbur (Better Book Titles), Christopher Beha (On Making Sentences Do Something), and yours truly (these Curiosities) among others.
Six months ago, I rounded up a list of my favorite literary Tumblr accounts. Half a year later, I’m pleased to see those blogs still going strong. I’m also pleased to see that a pile of the names on my Wish List came around to the land of likes and reblogs. In that regard, some shout outs are in order: Picador Book Room (and its “Sunday Sontags”) has become a favorite of The Millions’ social media team; The Strand made its way onto the blogging platform and we’re all better because of it; Poetry Magazine continues to draw from its enviable archives to bring some really exciting content to our Dashboard; and — whether it’s due to my friendly dig or their own volition — The Paris Review’s presence has been especially awesome of late. Indeed, the literary community on Tumblr is growing stronger by the day, and it has to be noted that a lot of that growth is due to Rachel Fershleiser’s evangelism and infectious enthusiasm. (An example of Rachel’s work was recapped recently by Millions staffer Lydia Kiesling as part of our own Emily M. Keeler’s Tumblr-centric #LitBeat column.)
Alas, six months in the real world is different from six months online, and Tumblr now has not only its own Storyboard curatorial system (run by the vaguely Soviet-sounding Department of Editorial), but it’s also grown by a few million blogs. The site boasts a growing number of blogs that have inked book deals. Rachel maintains a running tally of poets and writers who use the platform in exciting ways. This past week, Molly Templeton organized a blog, The How-To Issue, specifically aimed at countering the gender imbalance in the recent “How-To” installment of The New York Times Book Review. As a testament to the number of smart, engaged literary folks on the site, that blog has since received posts from a Salon writer, a former New Yorker staffer, and quite a few artists and freelancers.
So with all of that in mind, I’ve decided it’s time for another list — a better list, a bigger list. This list aims not only to cover blogs I missed last time, but also new blogs that have been born only recently. To that end, my rubric has been simple: 1) I’ve chosen blogs I not only believe to be the best and most compelling accounts out there, but also blogs that were overlooked on the last list — in some cases, readers helped me out in the last post’s comment thread. 2) I’ve done my best to ensure that these blogs are active members of the Tumblr community. 3) I’ve tried to make sure that the content on these blogs is “safe for work,” however I am but mortal, and perhaps some NSFW material will slip in between now and when you read this list. For that reason I can only caution you to use your judgment as you proceed.
For your convenience, I’ve organized the list in a similar manner as last time. “Single-Servings” are blogs organized around one or two particular, ultra-specific themes. The rest of the categories should be self-explanatory.
Please feel free to comment and shout out the ones I omitted or did not cover in Part One.
0. Shameless Self-Promotion
The Millions: duh!
Book and Beer: The combination of everybody’s favorite duo will tease you from your office chair.
Match Book: Or is it, instead, that books and bikinis are an even better pair?
Movie Simpsons: An encyclopedic recap of every film reference in The Simpsons. Now open to submissions.
Underground NYPL: Pairs well with CoverSpy. I’ve yet to find a match, however.
The Unquotables: Brought to you by Dan Wilbur (Better Book Titles, which is going to be a book!) and Robert Dean. The premise is simple: Gandhi didn’t say that.
Infinite Boston: A catalog of the locations mentioned in The Great Bandana’s Infinite Jest.
Write Place Write Time: Remember our WriteSpace project? (Which we Storify’d?) This is ongoing.
The Composites: Composite sketches of characters in famous literature. Creepy ones, at that.
Poets Touching Trees: Happy Arbor Day, poets!
You Chose Wrong: The tragic fates of mistaken “Choose Your Own Adventure” readers. It’s like reading The Gashlycrumb Tinies.
Doodling on Famous Writers: Those warped lines beneath Proust’s eyes really suit him.
Old Book Illustrations: A visual treat for nostalgic book nerds.
Visual Poetry: Exactly what it says it is, yet also much more.
PBS’ This Day in History: So much better to get this stuff on your Dashboard than in your inbox.
Historical Nonfiction: This blog pairs well with the one above. Follow both and you’ll rival Howard Zinn in no time.
Writers and Kitties: I have often wondered about that particular feline-author bond.
Page Twenty Seven: The text from one reader’s collection of twenty seventh pages.
Book Storey: Eye candy for lovers of book design.
2. Requisite “F*** Yeah!” Blogs
3. Foundations, Organizations and Writing Centers
826 Valencia: Dispatches and success stories from the California writing center focused on kids aged six to eighteen. It was co-founded by Dave Eggers.
The National Book Foundation: They’ll announce finalists for their big awards in October, so you’ve got some time to get acquainted with the foundation.
The Moth: Fabulous stuff from the story gurus. I’ll let Kevin Hartnett take it from here.
The Poetry Society of America: Nice to see the nation’s oldest poetry non-profit embrace one of the newest mediums for storytelling.
Harry Ransom Center: They have more than David Foster Wallace’s papers, you know.
The Academy of American Poets: The organizers of National Poetry Month deliver some excellent Tumblr material, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t super relieved when they finally found Rob.
PEN Live: A great example of a fresh, exciting way to use the blogging platform. PEN Live covers events put on by the PEN American Center.
Poets & Writers: A great source of guidance for creative writers.
Button Poetry: Performance poetry delivered straight to your Dashboard from the Twin Cities.
VIDA Community: The creators of publishing’s annual gender-imbalance list curate a really interesting list of updates on women, culture, and writing.
Sh*t My Students Write: Proof positive that more MFA graduates should be teaching in secondary schools.
The Monkeys You Ordered: These literal New Yorker cartoon captions are topped only by this one comment applicable to all of them.
What Should We Call Poets: Based on the grandmother that started them all. This is the GIF blog poets deserve, but not the one they need right now.
Title 2 Come: You can never follow too many GIF blogs. This one is for for writers of every stripe.
News Cat GIFs: Same as above. Last but not least, this one is for journalists. (Who like cats.)
Least Helpful: The worst of the worst reviews from the annals of the internet.
Hey, Author: It’s like a Regina George’s Burn Book for the literati.
Alt Lit Gossip (Can be NSFW): HTMLGiant is leaking.
5. Literary, Cultural and Art Magazines or Blogs
Recommended Reading: Home of the marvelous ongoing fiction series run by Electric Literature.
Words Without Borders: Spreading the gospel of international and translated literature one Tumblr post at a time.
Tin House: You (should) know the magazine. Now you should know their blog.
VQR: The brand new companion to the invaluable source for great long-form and narrative journalism.
n+1: They recently decided to kill off their Personals blog, so perhaps this one will become more active.
New York Review of Books: Need I introduce them? Also, not to be missed, check out the NYRB Classics blog, A Different Stripe.
Granta: Follow these guys for updates on the magazine’s new releases and competitions.
Guernica: Hey, you’re spilling your art into my politics!
Full Stop: Who else would recommend Errol Flynn’s memoir, posit an alternate Olympics Opening Ceremony, and then review the work of Victor Serge?
Vol. 1 Brooklyn: As their banner says, “If you’re smart, you’ll like us.”
Rusty Toque: An online literary and arts journal backed by Ontario’s Western University.
Book Riot: How can you help loving the kind of people who reblog photos of Faulkner’s oeuvre alongside galleries of literary tattoos?
Berfrois: Some highbrow curiosities for that eager, eager brain of yours.
Literalab: Dispatches from Central and Eastern Europe, which as anybody who knows me knows to be my favorite parts of Europe.
Triple Canopy: The online magazine embraces yet another means of communicating.
fwriction review: Finally an honest banner: “specializing in work that melts faces and rocks waffles.” (See also: fwriction)
Little Brother: The latest project from our own Emily M. Keeler.
Asymptote: Dedicated to works in translation and world literature.
Glitterwolf Magazine: Devoted to highlighting UK writers and writers from LGBT communities.
The Essayist: Aggregated long-form writing from all over the place.
6. Major, General and More Well-Known Magazines
Smithsonian Magazine: “Retina” consists of the best visual content from Smithsonian Magazine.
The American Scholar: Follow them. You’ll be more fun to talk to at cocktail parties.
Boston Globe: News and photos, and we all know they’ve got plenty of both.
Salon: Finally! We get to read Salon without actually having to go to Salon.com!
The Morning News: Our friends who host the annual Tournament of Books have a Tumblr presence, too.
Mother Jones: Politics and current events, ahoy!
Tomorrow Mag: Ann Friedman & Co.’s new venture.
Lively Morgue: Typically awesome photos from The New York Times archives.
Bonus: This article covers the ways in which twelve news outlets are using Tumblr in innovative, fresh ways.
7. Publishers (Big Six) — Note: Many of these blogs are used by the imprint or publisher’s marketing team, but you’ll find that some of the most successful publisher Tumblrs are getting more focused and specific. This is an interesting development, and I encourage more of the same. Also: This list is only a small sampling of the publisher Tumblrs on the site — just naming all the ones from Penguin would amount to its own post!
Random House Digital: Dispatches from the Random House digital team.
Vintage Books Design: As they say, “vintage design from Vintage designers.”
Harper Books: The publisher’s flagship imprint sets up shop on Tumblr.
The Penguin Press: They publish Zadie Smith, in case you need validation of their taste.
Simon Books: Straight from Rockefeller Center to your Dashboard!
Pantheon: News and miscellany from Random House’s literary fiction and serious nonfiction imprint.
Penguin English Library: Celebrating the Classic Penguins we all love so much. Plus, get a load of that animated masthead!
Back Bay Books: Little, Brown’s paperback pals. Their list of authors is incredible.
Mulholland Books: This group fully embraces Tumblr’s multimedia capabilities. A solid A+ in my book.
Penguin Teen: Excellent content for younger readers.
Free Press Books: Let’s just say these folks enjoyed the week Michael Phelps had at the Olympics.
HMH Books: Be sure to check out their Translation and Poetry blogs, too.
Riverhead: Of all the publisher Tumblrs, they boast the cutest mascot.
Little, Brown: Their Daily First Line posts are tantalizing.
8. Publishers (University Presses)
Duke: Hate the basketball team, love the press. (And their blog.)
Chicago: Their posts are excellent. Continually substantial and interesting.
McGill-Queens: Fun Fact: some folks up North would have it that Harvard is “America’s McGill.”
Cambridge Exhibitions: Alerts and updates on the myriad academic conferences and events attended by the CUP staff.
9. Publishers (Indies and Little Ones)
Chronicle: These folks have been known to turn Tumblr blogs into books, so of course they know their way around the platform.
Grove Atlantic: I’m not a tough sell, but giving away books related to The Wire is my kryptonite.
Open Road Media: Worth a follow for their YouTube discoveries alone.
Two Dollar Radio: They published Grace Krilanovich’s book (the one I recommended), so you know they’re good.
Timaş Publishing Group: These Turkish publishers are so generous, they give away eBook credits on a bi-weekly basis.
Quirk Books: These Philadelphia-based publishers sure find a lot of pretty bookshelves to reblog.
The Feminist Press: The important indie operating out of NYC delivers some really interesting, innovative stuff in addition to the classics they “rescue.”
The Lit Pub: Recommendations from The Lit Pub‘s staff.
Muumuu House: No doubt this account is run by Tao Lin’s legion of interns.
Overlook Press: Their About page even features a TL;DR version. They get Tumblr.
Arte Público Press: Your dashboard destination for U.S. Hispanic literature.
Coffee House Press Interns: Bonus “little” points because it’s run by their interns.
Unmanned Press: They just joined Tumblr, but their “Sunday Rejections” posts seem promising.
10. Authors (Direct Involvement) — The Tumblr “Spotlight” list can be found here; it’s not comprehensive, but it lists accounts you’re sure to enjoy. I’ve listed one of each author’s books alongside their names. Additionally: YA Highway, an excellent resource for fans of Young Adult books, maintains a great directory of YA Authors.
Emily St. John Mandel: Millions staffer whose most recent book is The Lola Quartet.
Edan Lepucki: Millions staffer whose most recent book is If You’re Not Yet Like Me.
Patrick Somerville: This Bright River.
Neil Gaiman: American Gods.
Roxane Gay: Ayiti.
Sheila Heti: How Should a Person Be?
Emma Straub: Other People We Married.
Jami Attenberg: The Middlesteins. Bonus: check out her advice, too.
Nathan Englander: What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank.
Matthew Gallaway: The Metropolis Case.
Miles Klee: Ivyland.
John Green: Looking for Alaska.
Alexander Chee: Edinburgh.
Tayari Jones: Silver Sparrow.
Rosencrans Baldwin: Paris, I Love You but You’re Bringing Me Down.
Tao Lin: Richard Yates.
Dan Chaon: Stay Awake.
Christopher Dickey: Securing the City.
11. Authors (Indirect Involvement)
Reading Ardor: Two readers go through Vladimir Nabokov’s Ada, or Ardor: A Family Chronicle.
Chuck Palahniuk: Don’t forward this blog to any Turkish publishing houses.
John Banville Spectates Tennis: Serving up some observations on tennis. (I’ll excuse myself now.)
Martin Amis Drinking: This should really just be a livestream video feed of Amis at all times.
A. O. Scott Zingers: The film critic’s best one-liners.
Fitzgerald Quotes: F. Scott’s got lines for days.
Reading Markson Reading: Brainchild of Millions contributor, Tyler Malone.
12. Poets — As with the authors list, Tumblr’s poetry “Spotlight” can be found here.
Leigh Stein: Dispatch From the Future.
Michael Robbins: Alien vs. Predator.
Paolo Javier: The Feeling Is Actual. Full disclosure: Paolo was one of my college professors.
Zachary Schomburg: Fjords Vol. 1. He’s also one of the founders of Octopus Magazine.
Saeed Jones: When the Only Light is Fire. This blog is really cool. It’s like the poet’s global travelogue.
13. Bookstores — I’ll list the location of each one.
Unabridged: Chicago’s Lake View neighborhood.
Community Bookstore: Park Slope, Brooklyn.
McNally Kids: Manhattan.
Skylight Books: Los Angeles.
Open Books: Chicago.
Emily Books: The Internet.
Mercer Island Books: Seattle.
Luminous Books: East London.
Politics & Prose: Washington D.C.
Micawber’s: St. Paul.
City Lights: San Francisco.
57th Street Books: Chicago’s Hyde Park.
The Little Book Room: Melbourne, Australia.
Tattered Cover: Denver.
Uncharted Books: Chicago.
Green Apple Books: San Francisco.
Taylor Books: Charleston, WV.
Darien Library: Excellent posts from one of the best libraries in the nation.
Looks Like Library Science: “Challenging the librarian stereotype.”
Live From the NYPL: Events and goings-on at the NYPL.
Library Journal: The editors of LJ share what they’re reading.
School Library Journal: Ditto for their scholastic counterparts.
Espresso Brooklyn: The Brooklyn Public Library has an espresso on-demand book printing machine. How cool is it that it has its own blog, too?
15. BONUS SECTION DEVOTED TO @Horse_ebooks — Everybody’s favorite Dadaist Twitter handle has a devoted following on the blogging platform.
Horse_ Fan Fiction: Look no further than your Twitter timeline for the best writing prompts on earth.
Annotated Horse_: A valuable resource for the inevitable scholarly study of Horse_’s oeuvre.
33, Pyramid, and Dalton: Max Read’s impressive catalog of recurring Horse_ themes.
16. Wish List
Oxford American: Maybe not the best time for the magazine at the moment, but my wish from last time still stands.
Garden & Gun
Oxford University Press
More authors and poets!
If 2010 was a literary year of big names — featuring Franzen, Mitchell, Delillo and McEwan to name just a few — 2011 is lining up to be more subtle. Amid a very full lineup of intriguing forthcoming books, just one stands above the rest in terms of hype and anticipation, a literary peak that’s likely to be bittersweet in the form of the posthumous release of David Foster Wallace’s final novel. Readers will be hoping it does justice to his legacy.
In the shadow this big book are many others likely to be deserving of readers’ time. While 2010 was given over to the headliners, 2011 may be a year of new discoveries. Here are some of the books we’re looking forward to — 8,000 words strong and encompassing 76 titles, this is the only 2011 book preview you will ever need.
January or Already Out:
Gryphon by Charles Baxter: A collection of short fiction from an acknowledged master of the form. Seven of the twenty-three stories in the collection are new; others, including the title story, are considered classics. In each of these pieces, Publisher’s Weekly writes in a starred review, “the acutely observed real world is rocked by the exotic or surreal.” Baxter’s previous works include four novels (including a National Book Award nominee, The Feast of Love) and four prior short story collections. (Emily M.)
The Empty Family by Colm Tóibín: Tóibín follows up his wildly successful 2009 novel Brooklyn with a new collection of nine short stories concerned with love and loss, memory and homecoming. The Telegraph has called this collection “exquisite and almost excruciating.” (Emily M.)
While Mortals Sleep by Kurt Vonnegut: In the four years since his death, the Vonnegut vaults have been raided, yielding 2008’s Armageddon in Retrospect and 2009’s Look at the Birdie. Now comes While Mortals Sleep, 16 more unpublished pieces described by Delacorte Press as “a present left behind by a departed loved one.” Perhaps. But Vonnegut’s short fiction was generally uneven, and one might be forgiven for wondering how many more presents there are. Because the further we move from his passing, the further we move from his best. Dave Eggers, in the book’s foreword, calls Vonnegut “a hippie Mark Twain”; he is also in some danger of becoming a dorm-lit Tupac Shakur. (Jacob)
Night Soul and Other Stories by Joseph McElroy: Underappreciated master McElroy is known (and loved) for the challenging body of work, and these stories aren’t likely to disappoint his fans, though they may have come across some of them before. The oldest story in this collection of 12 dates back to 1981 and the title story was first published in 1982. But seven of them are reportedly from the last decade, including one “The Campaign Trail” which one early review describes as imagining “the 2008 Democratic presidential primary much like a Matthew Barney film of the subject might: unnamed figures representing Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama ceremonially confront each other in a wild area of what once was Canada.” (Max)
Swamplandia! by Karen Russell: Swamplandia! is the first novel from New Yorker “20 Under 40” writer Karen Russell. It builds out of a short story from her 2006 collection St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves and tells the tale of the Bigtree family, operators of an alligator wrestling tourist attraction deep in the Everglades. The family business is imperiled when the star ‘gator grappler dies, setting off a chain of catastrophes that lead 12-year-old Ava Bigtree to set off through the swamp in search of her lost sister Osceola. (Kevin)
Townie: A Memoir by Andre Dubus III: Andre Dubus III, of The House of Sand and Fog fame, grew up poor and hard in a Massachusetts mill town. His famous father, the late great short story writer Andre Dubus was AWOL, chasing younger tail, leaving Dubus and his three siblings to the care of their loving but overworked mother. The Townie is Dubus’s memoir of growing up and learning to fight before he learned to write. Advance word coming out of Kirkus and Booklist suggests this is going to be a good one. (Kevin)
When the Killing’s Done by T.C. Boyle: In his thirteenth novel, T.C. Boyle turns his attention to the Channel Islands off the coast of Santa Barbara and the practice of killing non-native fauna in an effort to protect the original ecosystem. A starred review in Booklist says, “Incisive and caustically witty, Boyle is fluent in evolutionary biology and island biogeography, cognizant of the shared emotions of all sentient beings, in awe over nature’s crushing power, and, by turns, bemused and appalled by human perversity.” (Edan)
The Strange Case of Edward Gorey by Alexander Theroux: Originally published in paperback in 2000, this biography of writer and illustrator Edward Gorey is being reissued by Fantagraphics Books in a new hardcover edition. Gorey was a reclusive, enigmatic figure who never married, professed asexuality in interviews, and became famous for a twisted and faintly ominous body of work — marked by a distinctive Victorian Gothic sensibility — that includes an alphabet book of dead children (“A is for Amy who fell down the stairs.”) Alexander Theroux was Gorey’s friend and neighbor for more than a quarter century. Part biography, part artistic analysis, and part memoir of a long friendship, with exclusive interviews conducted shortly before Gorey’s death, this book is generally accepted as the most comprehensive portrait of Gorey ever written. (Emily M.)
Mr. Chartwell by Rebecca Hunt: Perhaps you are aware that Winston Churchill called his spells of depression “black dog”? Well, Mr. Chartwell is that black dog–literally, he’s a man-sized, ill-intentioned black laborador. In Rebecca Hunt’s fabular first novel, Mr. Chartwell rents a room in a terrace in Battersea from a recently widowed young librarian named Esther Hammerhans: the black dog has business with the widow and with the war-weary Prime Minister. British reviewers have been quite taken with the book’s whimsy and its muscular grappling with the nature of depression—through the stinking, canine bulk of Chartwell himself and the dark philosophy he whispers such that only his intended victim can hear. (Emily W.)
The Illumination: A Novel by Kevin Brockmeier: A new novel from the author of A Brief History of the Dead asks the question: What if our pain is the most beautiful thing about us? On a particular Friday night at 8:17pm, the Illumination commences: wounds and bruises begin to radiate light, to glimmer and shine. The Illumination follows the journey of a private book, a journal of love notes written by a man for his wife. The journal passes into the hands of a hospital patient following a lethal accident, and as it passes from hand to hand—to a data analyst, a photojournalist, a child, a missionary, a writer, a street vendor—the recipients find their lives subtly altered by their possession of the book. (Emily M.)
Portraits of a Marriage by Sándor Márai: Sándor Márai is one of those novelists, like Irène Némirovsky, about whom those of us in the English-speaking community tend to employ words like “discovered,” as if they were an obscure wine of quality unearthed in a Parisian basement. When Márai killed himself in 1989 in San Diego, shortly before his books began being translated to English, it’s true that his status as a great mind of an imperial age was probably unknown to the gang at his local Circle K. However, the (Austro-)Hungarian novelist was one of the premier authors of his milieu–Budapest before World War II–and English readers are the redeemed rather than the redeemers now that we can finally read his beautiful novels. Portraits of a Marriage is a chronicle of a relationship and an era on the way out. (Lydia)
West of Here by Jonathan Evison: Evison’s new novel is the #1 Indie Next pick for February, meaning that independent booksellers across the United States have voted it their favorite of all the books scheduled for publication that month. Set in a fictional town on the Pacific coast of Washington State, West of Here moves back and forth in time between the stories of the town’s founders in the late 1890s, and the lives of their descendants in 2005. It’s a structure that allows for a remarkably deep sense of history and place, and Evison handles the sweeping scope of his narrative masterfully. (Emily M.)
The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore by Benjamin Hale: In this buzzed-about debut novel from Twelve Books, the eponymous hero is a chimpanzee who has learned to speak, read, and enjoy the visual arts, among other human endeavors. There is apparently interspecies love (and sex!) in the book, and the jacket copy declares that it goes beyond satire “…by showing us not what it means, but what it feels like be human — to love and lose, learn, aspire, grasp, and, in the end, to fail.” A bookseller at legendary West Hollywood indie bookstore Book Soup has raved to me about the novel’s inventiveness and its beautiful, beautiful prose. (Edan)
Other People We Married by Emma Straub: This debut collection of stories is one of the first books being printed by FiveChapters Books, the new publishing imprint of the popular website FiveChapters, which publishes a story a week in five installments. Straub inaugurated the New Novella series for Flatmancrooked Press with her much-praised novella, Fly-Over State, and she proved that with the internet and some good old fashioned charm, an unknown author can sell books and win hearts. Straub’s new book includes that novella as well as eleven other stories. Straub has been compared to Lorrie Moore for her humor and playful wit, and Moore herself has called this debut collection, “A revelation.” (Edan)
The Late American Novel: Writers on the Future of Books edited by C. Max Magee and Jeff Martin: Yes, there’s certainly a conflict of interest in naming my book one of the year’s most anticipated, but what’s the point of having a website if I can’t use it to self-promote? And anyway, if my co-editor Jeff and I had an ideal reader in mind when we put together this collection, it was the Millions reader, passionate about books and reading and thoughtful about the future of this pastime as it intersects with the onslaught of technology. The essays we managed to gather here are illuminating, entertaining, funny, and poignant, and taken together they form a collection that is (dare I say) essential for the reader and writer invested in books at this critical and curious moment in their long history. Along with appearances by Millions staffers Garth Risk Hallberg, Emily St. John Mandel, and Sonya Chung and an introduction by me and my co-editor, this collection includes pieces by Jonathan Lethem, Reif Larsen, Elizabeth Crane Victor LaValle, Ander Monson, Tom Piazza, Lauren Groff, Benjamin Kunkel, Clancy Martin, Joe Meno, Rivka Galchen, and several others. All you technophiles: Consider making this the last physical book you ever buy. All you technophobes: This might be a good candidate for the first ebook you ever own. (Max)
You Think That’s Bad by Jim Shepard: Jim Shepard will once again dazzle us with his talent for universalizing the highly particular. According to the publisher, the stories in this new collection, like those of his National Book Award nominated Like You’d Understand Anyway, “traverse centuries, continents, and social strata,” featuring, among others, an Alpine researcher, a French nobleman’s manservant, a woman traveling the Arabian deserts to track an ancient Shia sect, and the inventor of the Godzilla epics. Further, Shepard culls “the vastness of experience—from its bizarre fringes and breathtaking pinnacles to the mediocre and desperately below average.” Easier said than done, and Shepard is a master. One of the stories, “Boys Town,” appeared in the November 10 issue of the New Yorker. (Sonya)
The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht: Of all The New Yorker’s choices for the “20 Under 40” list, none was more surprising than Obreht, the youngest on the list and the only author chosen who had not yet published a book. That changes in March with the publication of her debut novel The Tiger’s Wife. The novel follows a young doctor, Natalia, as she travels to a war-torn Balkan country to work at an orphanage. But Natalia is also in search of answers – specifically, what happened to her grandfather, who has died recently. With blurbs from T.C. Boyle, Ann Patchett, and recent National Book Award winner Colum McCann already secured, expectations are high for this literary debut. (Patrick)
At the Fights: American Writers on Boxing from Library of America edited by George Kimball and John Schulian: Boxing writing inhabits a curious niche, resting at the juncture of sports journalism and noir. Perhaps “resting” is the wrong word, as the genre’s best examples rush toward victory or loss; even away from the arena, motion remains the thing. In a recent Irish Times article, Kimball described a 1954 John Lardner piece as At the Fights’ “cornerstone,” and delivered its opening line: “Stanley Ketchel was 24 years old when he was fatally shot in the back by the common-law husband of the lady who was cooking his breakfast.” Also on the card: Talese, Mailer, Mencken, and many, many others. (Jacob)
Unfamiliar Fishes by Sarah Vowell: “I’m better with dead people… than the living,” claims Sarah Vowell, only half joking. Her books often deal with historical figures, in most cases, long-dead and overlooked. In Assassination Vacation she chronicled her travels while researching the murders of Presidents Lincoln, Garfield, and McKinley. Details such as Garfield’s assassin bursting into song during trial coated the history lessons with a good dose of social intrigue. Vowell’s latest, Unfamiliar Fishes, was borne out of a fascination with American Imperialism in 1898, a year when the U.S, annexed Hawaii, invaded Cuba and the Philippines, and acquired Guam and Puerto Rico. Vowell follows the Americanization of Hawaii from its first missionary settlers to the overthrow of its monarchy and later annexation. A quote exemplary of Vowell’s humor, to prep you for reading: “They still love their last queen, celebrate her birthday, drape her statue with leis. It can be a traditional, reverent place. And I am a smart-alecky libertine.” (Anne)
Otherwise Known as the Human Condition: Selected Essays and Reviews by Geoff Dyer: Dyer has a gained a reputation as one of our most inventive essayists (not to mention novelists). Dyer delights in bending genres and subverting expectations, and covering a 25-year span, this collection will likely showcase Dyer’s impressive range. The book, published by indie Graywolf, appears to have at least some overlap with a British collection that came out last year under the title Working the Room. The Guardian called Dyer “the most productive of slackers” and described the British collection as seeming to be “constructed as a vague quest. You move through the unusually lit rooms of the author’s fascinations.” (Max)
All the Time in the World: New and Selected Stories by E.L. Doctorow: When a new story collection arrives from an elder master, one is eager to know the balance of “new” versus “selected,” who has done the selecting, and by what criteria. But Random House has revealed little as of yet. We do know that six of the stories have never before appeared in book form; the title story appeared in the winter ’09 issue of the Kenyon Review. Doctorow is the author of 11 novels, and I for one hate to think the release of this collection signals a denouement in his novel production. On January 6, Doctorow turns 80 – happy birthday, ELD; may this be a productive year for you, for all our sakes. (Sonya)
Pym by Mat Johnson: Eager readers of Edgar Allan Poe, having dispatched his short stories may have then turned to his hauntingly weird novel The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket. As I noted a few years back, the book has been an inspiration for generations of adventure and science-fiction writers and has maintained a cultish allure to this day. It is into this milieu that Johnson’s Pym arrives. Johnson wrote a pair of well regarded literary novels in the early part of last decade, turned to comics, and is now returning novels with this tale of a literature professor obsessed with the Pym tale, believing it to be true, and tracing the the journey of the doomed sailor to see what secrets might be unlocked. (Max)
Day of the Oprichnik by Vladimir Sorokin: The scenes of sodomy between Stalin and Krushchev in Vladimir Sorokin’s novel Blue Lard incurred charges of pornography and sparked protests, which included protestors wearing latex gloves while tossing flowers and copies of Sorokin’s books into a papier mâché toilet. Another novel of Sorokin’s (The Norm) depicts a Russian society where coprophagy is a la mode and only outcasts and outsiders refuse to partake. Needless to say, Sorokin’s fiction isn’t restrained in its critique of contemporary Russian society. His commentary continues in his latest novel, Day of the Oprichnik, where the ruling classes incorporate futuristic technology alongside the governing strategies of Ivan the Terrible. As Sorokin describes: “I just imagined what would happen to Russia if it isolated itself completely from the Western world–that is, if it erected a new Iron Curtain…. This would mean that Russia would be overtaken by its past, and our past would be our future.” (Anne)
This Vacant Paradise by Victoria Patterson: Victoria Patterson follows her acclaimed debut story collection Drift with a novel – her first – set in the posh environs of 1990s Newport Beach, California. As the title suggests, Patterson’s novel promises a social critique of the often vapid, money-laden 90s. It follows the beautiful but aging Esther Wilson as she attempts to navigate life without the aid of a wealthy man on her arm. Drift was a finalist for both the California Book Award and the Story Prize. (Patrick)
The Art of Asking Your Boss for a Raise by Georges Perec: Georges Perec wrote: “for us, who continue to have to do with a human race that insists on thinking, writing and above all publishing, the increasing size of our libraries tends to become one real problem.” We readers will have to deal with the fortunate burden of clearing shelf-space for another novel by Perec this spring, with the first English translation of The Art of Asking Your Boss for a Raise. The novel depicts an office underling’s attempts to ingratiate himself to his corporate superiors, while his neuroses expand a la Woody Allen. If Perec’s astutely observed yet darkly comical catalogue of managing directors, magnates, and heads of state in his essay “The Holy of Holies” is any indication, this “account of the office worker’s mindset” will offset the disorder it imposes. (Anne)
The Pale King by David Foster Wallace: When David Foster Wallace died in 2008, he left behind a huge, fragmentary manuscript set in and around a Midwestern IRS office and featuring a character named David Wallace. The manuscript, quixotically, takes monotony as its master-trope, much as Infinite Jest used “entertainment.” Since then, Michael Pietsch, Wallace’s real-life editor, has been working to arrange the fragments in book form. Published excerpts of varying degrees of sublimity – reportedly including two stories from Oblivion – offer glimpses of a Jest-like complex of supporting characters. But these beleaguered office workers have more in common with the denizens of the Ennet House Drug and Alcohol Recovery House (redundancy sic) than with the Enfield Tennis Academy’s student-athletes. A note, quoted in D.T. Max’s New Yorker piece, hints at the gift Wallace wanted to give his characters: “Bliss – a-second-by-second joy and gratitude at the gift of being alive, conscious – lies on the other side of crushing, crushing boredom.” For readers still mourning the books he didn’t get to write, may it be so. (Garth)
The Free World: A Novel by David Bezmozgis: Another debut novel from a Twenty-Under-Forty’er, Bezmogis’ The Free World tells the story of three generations of the Krasnansky family as they try to escape Communist Russia for the United States. They are waylaid in Rome where the characters pursue different paths through the underbelly of their adopted city, ultimately bringing them into tension with each other as they grapple with a merciless immigration system and try to decide the family’s fate. (Kevin)
The Great Night by Chris Adrian: Chris Adrian’s last novel, The Children’s Hospital, showed him to be a writer of immense daring, curiosity, and heart. Along with two other books, it earned him a spot (by a whisker – he’s now 40) on The New Yorker’s “20 Under 40 List.” His new book The Great Night, looks back to one of magical realism’s forebears: Shakespeare. It’s a retelling of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, set in modern-day San Francisco’s Buena Vista Park. (Garth)
Someday This Will Be Funny by Lynne Tillman: As if the publication of Lynne Tillman’s first book of short stories in nearly ten years–and her first book following her stand-out novel, American Genius: A Comedy–weren’t enough to celebrate, Tillman’s Someday This Will Be Funny also marks the debut of Richard Nash’s new publishing venture, Cursor. If Nash’s reading list, interviews, and speeches are any indication, Cursor will take publishing one giant leap into the future, with Tillman’s book at the forefront. Tillman’s new collection features appearances by Madame Realism, Marvin Gaye, and Clarence Thomas and incorporates epistle, quotation, and haiku as the stories “bounce between lyrical passages of lucid beauty, echoing the scattered, cycling arpeggio of Tillman’s preferred subject: the unsettled mind.” Tillman once said in an interview: “Writers are promiscuous with experience, absolutely.” She’s a woman of her word, and of the word. Hear, hear! (Anne)
Between Parentheses: Essays, Articles and Speeches 1998-2003 by Roberto Bolaño: Anyone who read “Literature + Illness = Illness” or “Myths of Chulu” in last year’s collection The Insufferable Gaucho can attest that a Bolaño essay no more resembles Montaigne than a Bolaño novel resembles Samuel Richardson. Indeed, the closest cousin of Bolaño’s nonfiction may be his fiction, and in some cases it’s hard to tell which is which. Confusion over the genre of the short piece “The Beach” (essay? story?) seems to have been the source of the misconception that Bolaño was a recovering junkie. Either way, though, it’s phenomenal writing – a single, extended, coruscating sentence – and it appears in this Natasha Wimmer translation of a 2004 Anagrama volume, along with 340 other pages of uncollected, unclassifiable Bolaño. (Garth)
The Tragedy of Arthur by Arthur Phillips: Phillips hasn’t quite recaptured the buzz that accompanied Prague his debut novel about expats in Budapest, but this new book just may. “The Tragedy of Arthur” is a fictional (or is it?), lost Shakespeare play about King Arthur and it is accompanied by a long introduction penned by a character (or is it the author?) named Arthur Phillips. Intertextual games ensue. (Max)
The Long Goodbye by Meghan O’Rourke: In another memoir about grief, O’Rourke draws on her dual patrimonies as a poet and cultural critic. The result is a searching account of losing her mother to cancer. O’Rourke finds herself blindsided by her own grief and bewildered by her inability to “share” it. Even as she documents her own feelings, she examines the changing cultural role of grief, and comes to long for the mourning rituals that are even now vanishing. The interplay of the objective and the subjective here speaks to audiences of both Oprah and The New Yorker, where the book was excerpted. (Garth)
The Basement of the Ivory Tower by Professor X: To begin, a short exemplary excerpt from Professor X’s manifesto against higher education for all: “America, ever-idealistic, seems wary of the vocational-education track. We are not comfortable limiting anyone’s options. Telling someone that college is not for him seems harsh and classist and British, as though we were sentencing him to a life in the coal mines. I sympathize with this stance; I subscribe to the American ideal. Unfortunately, it is with me and my red pen that that ideal crashes and burns.” And let me tell you (because I have wielded that red pen and know Professor X’s bloody business: adjuncting and community college teaching) it is a sad, sad world out there in America’s lesser colleges, many as crassly business-minded as Walmart and utterly delighted to have students who aren’t cut out to make the grade. Of course, liberal-minded idealists will object and cry Barbara Covett! at the likes of Professor X, but having been in his trench, I know how deeply painful and demoralizing—and pointless and dishonest—it is to teach college-level curriculum to those who are not equipped for high school: It’s like trying to teach the legless to dance. This is another commentary on the shoddy state of American higher education (see also, most recently, Ed Dante’s “Shadow Scholar” piece at The Chronicle of Higher Ed)—sure to be an incendiary little book. (Emily W.)
The Uncoupling by Meg Wolitzer: Wolitzer’s ninth novel is inspired by Lysistrata, the ancient Greek play wherein the women withhold sex from their menfolk until they agree to end their war. In Wolitzer’s novel, a New Jersey high school puts on a production of the play, and soon, the females in the town lose interest in coupling with their men. The Uncoupling follows Wolitzer’s bestselling novel The Ten Year Nap, about the lives of stay-at-home mothers in New York City, and I hope her latest is as funny, readable and wise as that book was. (Edan)
Fire Season by Philip Connors: This debut nonfiction effort by Connors is an account of his time spent over part of each of the last ten years as a fire lookout in New Mexico in a 7′ x 7′ tower. Connors also happens to be a literary critic and journalist whose writing has been fairly extensively published, including book reviews in the LRB and VQR. Some of his most powerful work has taken the form of diaries, including one in n+1 that recounts his brother’s suicide and another in The Paris Review about life as a fire lookout. The book takes the diary form and expands on it, with five long chapters, each one dedicated to a month he spends in the lookout tower each year. (Max)
My New American Life by Francine Prose: Francine Prose, former National Book Award finalist and prolific producer of novels, short stories, children’s books and nonfiction, will take us on a fictional tour of the bad old days of Bush-Cheney. My New American Life spins around Lula, a 26-year-old Albanian living in New York City on an expiring tourist visa. When she lands a job as a caretaker for a rebellious teenager in suburban New Jersey, she begins to live the American dream — until her brothers show up in a black Lexus SUV, a jarring reminder that family and history are always with us. The novel, according to the publisher’s jacket copy, captures the moment when American “dreams and ideals gave way to a culture of cynicism, lies and fear.” (Bill)
Swim Back to Me by Ann Packer: Ann Packer, who first burst onto the scene in 2002 with her blockbuster debut The Dive from Clausen’s Pier, returns with a fourth book. Kirkus describes it as a novella and five stories in its starred review, while the publisher calls it a collection of narratives framed by two linked novellas. Whichever the case, the collection seems likely to investigate the same avenues of grief that have been a hallmark of her prior, powerful work. (Max)
Bullfighting by Roddy Doyle: The title story of Doyle’s collection appeared in the New Yorker in early 2008 and concerns a collection of middle-aged Irish guys blowing off steam on a guys’ trip to Spain, wives and kids left behind in Dublin. When I traveled to the Mediterranean later that year and saw many a seaside watering hole advertising the “Full English Breakfast,” I thought of this story. (Max)
Nat Tate: An American Artist: 1928-1960 by William Boyd: Boyd, a wonderful author (Any Human Heart, Brazzaville Beach) who for whatever reason doesn’t seem to get much attention outside of prize committees, made culture vultures everywhere feel like complete assholes in 1998, when he carefully constructed and published a life of a fictional American artist who died by suicide at age 32. Enlisting the help of David Bowie, Gore Vidal, and others, Boyd had a number of people who should have known better reminiscing about Tate and lamenting his early death. Evidently a lot more people would have looked a lot more stupid had David Lister (an editor at The Independent who knew about the ruse), not revealed the hoax prematurely. Boyd’s great literary hoax is to be reissued this April. (Lydia)
Say Her Name by Francisco Goldman: A year after the publication of his last novel, The Divine Husband, Francisco Goldman watched his wife of two years, the promising young writer Aura Estrada, die as a result of a freak body-surfing accident. The aftermath sent him back to journalism for a time. Now Goldman has trained his considerable novelistic powers directly on the tragedy of his wife’s death, and on the ineffable continuities among love, grief, and art. (Garth)
There Is No Year by Blake Butler: Butler, one of the minds behind HTML Giant and author of the indie press favorite Scorch Atlas hits the big time with this new novel. The Harper Perennial catalog glosses it as evocative of House of Leaves and the films of David Lynch. A more iconoclastic “20 Under 40” list might have made room for Butler, and as for Harper’s labeling 32-year-ole Butler “one of the voices of his generation,” that may say more about how apocalypse-minded we are these days than it does about Butler. (Max)
Blue Collar, White Collar, No Collar: Stories of Work edited by Richard Ford: We’ve reminisced in the past about the steady disappearance of the short story anthology. Once common, these pocket-sized wonders now fill shelves at the kind of used bookstore I like to haunt but are rarely seen on the new release table at your local Borders. Still, a timely theme in these economically stagnant times (employment or lack thereof) and the imprimatur of a master of the form, Richard Ford, make this collection worth looking out for. Sure, most if not all of these stories have been previously published in other books, but how nice to have Stuart Dybek, Edward P. Jones, Charles D’Ambrosio, Ann Beattie, Alice Munro, John Cheever, Richard Yates, Deborah Eisenberg, Jhumpa Lahiri, and several others, all thematically linked and between two covers. (Max)
Embassytown by China Mieville Give China Mieville credit for refusing to rest on his laurels. After scoring a major hit with last year’s Kraken, his seventh lushly imagined fantasy novel, Mieville will abandon the world of Bas-Lag and his phantasmagorical London and take his fans someplace altogether different and unexpected. Embassytown, he recently told a Liverpool audience, will contain “science fiction, aliens and spaceships.” The title refers to “a city of contradictions on the outskirts of the universe” where humans and the native Hosts live in uneasy peace. When an unimaginable new arrival hits town, catastrophe looms. Given Mieville’s track record, expect a wild ride. (Bill)
Mondo and Other Stories by J.M.G. Le Clezio: The 2008 Nobel laureate’s large body of work continues to make its way into English. This collection of stories was first published in French in 1978. One of the stories collected here, the atmospheric “The Boy Who Had Never Seen the Sea,” appeared in the New Yorker shortly after Le Clezio’s Nobel win. Like that story, the rest in this collection focus on a child protagonist who seems to see the world through a different set of eyes. (Max)
To Do: A Book of Alphabets and Birthdays by Gertrude Stein: Described as “a fanciful journey through the alphabet” and originally conceived as a children’s book, Stein’s To Do “spiral[ed] out of simple childlike progression, so that by the time she reached the letter H, Henriette de Dactyl, a French typewriter (who exchanges typed messages with Yetta von Blickensdorfer, a German typewriter, and Mr. House, an American typewriter) wants to live on Melon Street and eat radishes, salads, and fried fish, and soup.” Written in 1940, the book was rejected several times by publishers for being too complex for children. A text-only version appeared in 1957 (after Stein’s death) from Yale, and in 2011, the publisher is putting out To Do with Giselle Potter’s illustrations, realizing Stein’s original concept. (Sonya)
Paying for It by Chester Brown: Throughout his twenty-year-long career, Chester Brown has developed a reputation as a wan and fearless confessor, presenting his lapses and failures from a dispassionate remove. Paying For It—subtitled “A Comic-Strip Memoir About Being a John”—may prove to be his most quietly self-lacerating. In exploring his penchant for prostitutes, Paying For It will likely feature little glamour, little boasting, and an understated honesty. Drawn and Quarterly predicts that the book “will be the most talked about graphic novel of 2011,” yet Brown doesn’t seem to relish controversy. When asked in 2004 why he might write so openly about his sex life, he responded, “Because it’s interesting.” (Jacob)
The London Train by Tessa Hadley: Stalwart of the fiction section of The New Yorker, Hadley’s latest is described as a “novel in two parts.” An early review in the Financial Times calls the book “darkly elegant” with “two distinct halves reflecting, enhancing and informing each other. The social and geographical territory is familiar for Hadley, that of the bourgeoisie and their travels (and travails) as they go looping between London and Cardiff.” (Max)
Pulse by Julian Barnes: Barnes’s latest is his third book of short stories. A preview from The Spectator explains the collection’s over-arching theme: “Each character is attuned to a ‘pulse’ – an amalgamation of a life-force and an Aristotelian flaw. They struggle against or thrive upon the submerged currents of life – touched by ambition, sex, love, health, work and death.” (Max)
The Tao of Travel by Paul Theroux: Theroux, the aging, still entertaining rake of the travel writing genre will indulge in a potentially interesting exercise here, collecting “the best writing on travel from the books that shaped him,” from Samuel Johnson, Eudora Welty and Mark Twain to Peter Matthiessen, Pico Iyer, and John McPhee. Cheesy title aside, it certainly sounds like an essential tome for travel writing fans. (Max)
State of Wonder by Ann Patchett: Ann Patchett has fearlessly ignored the admonition to write what you know. Her breakout novel, the intoxicating Bel Canto, centered around opera, Japanese business practices and a hostage situation in a South American embassy. Her new novel, State of Wonder, will have elements that sound similarly abstruse – doctors, medical students, drug development and the Amazon jungle. But at the heart of the novel is an inspiring student-teacher relationship, which, Patchett told an interviewer, is similar to the bond she had with her own writing teachers, Allan Gurganus and the late Grace Paley. “This one was a picnic,” Patchett says of State of Wonder, “because I didn’t have to make everything up wholesale.” (Bill)
The Astral by Kate Christensen The question to ask about Christensen’s next novel is will it deliver up another character on par with Hugo Whittier of The Epicure’s Lament? (“May we all simmer in the dark with such humor and gusto,” Sam Lipsyte wrote of Christensen’s immortal misanthrope.) The Penn-Faulkner Award-winning Christensen’s forthcoming sixth novel promises the story of a successful Brooklyn poet, Harry Quirk, whose marriage is in crisis and whose children have been swept up in cultishness of various kinds (perhaps a sort of Freedom, redux?). As a writer who reliably turns out novels that elicit warm praise from most of her reviewers, expect (at least) a genial, smart, gently satirical tale of the joys and woes of bougie New York life. (Emily W.)
The Curfew by Jesse Ball: What to expect from an author who teaches classes on dreaming, false identities, and lying? If the author is Jesse Ball, then one should expect expectations to be defied, plot summaries to fall short, and critics to use structures to describe the framework of his imaginative plottings (nesting-boxes, Klein bottle, labyrinth). Perhaps the magical realms Ball creates have something to do with his process: “to conjure up a state of affairs–a glimpse of one situated thought, where the situation is all that surrounds it in the mind.” Or with his imaginative approaches to writing, evident in his classes. Ball’s novel The Curfew depicts a father and daughter during wartime, the father risks it all to find his wife and the young daughter imagines her father’s treacherous journey. Expect for this description to only loosely conjure the realms of wonder within. (Anne)
Kurt Vonnegut: Novels & Stories 1963-1973: For those seeking Vonnegut’s aforementioned best, the Library of America will bestow upon him its black-cover treatment, collecting his great early novels (Cat’s Cradle, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, Slaughterhouse-Five, Breakfast of Champions) and stories into one thick volume. In this setting, it will be especially jarring to read Breakfast of Champions, whose “World Classics Library” “published hard-core pornography in Los Angeles, California.” (Jacob)
The Storm at the Door by Stefan Merrill Block: The precocious Block published his first novel at 26. The Story of Forgetting, ambitious but flawed, nonetheless suggested Block might be a name to watch. Sure enough, here he is with a second novel arriving before his 30th birthday. This time around, Block will again take mental illness as a primary theme. (Max)
Lola, California by Edie Meidav: Meidav is a rare thing, a less than well known writer who continues to publish big, dense, challenging novels with a major press. Meidav’s third such effort weighs in at 448 pages and asks “Can an old friend carry in amber the person you were going to become?” Should Meidav be better known? Almost definitely. (Max)
Once Upon a River by Bonnie Jo Campbell: A 2009 National Book Award nod (for her collectionAmerican Salvage) landed Campbell on the radar of many a reader. Her backcountry fiction focuses on rural characters, meth-cookers, and bad jobs or none at all, all shot through with redemption and compassion. This new novel, which Campbell says has been in the works for more than four years, sounds like something of a modern-day Huck Finn, following a sixteen-year-old girl who takes to the Stark River in search of her vanished mother. (Max)
Estonia: A Ramble Through the Periphery by Alexander Theroux: In his one-of-a-kind Year in Reading piece, Theroux mentioned being this year “in the outback of frozen Estonia where I was not only writing a book but, as a kind of project, undertaking a private study of St. Paul and his life.” The book in question was this title, forthcoming from Fantagraphics. The book emerges from Theroux’s time spent in the former Soviet republic while his wife was on a Fulbright Scholarship. Ever observant, Theroux uses Estonia and its people as a lens through which to look back at America. (Max)
The Devil All the Time by Donald Ray Pollock: Former meatpacker and paper mill employee Pollock’s debut story collection Knockemstiff was a favorite amongst indie booksellers, landed on both Amazon and Publishers Weekly’s lists of best books of the year, and garnered the following enigmatic praise from the LA Times “a powerful, remarkable, exceptional book that is very hard to read.” According to his blog, Pollock’s debut novel is set in the 50s and 60s and “centers on the convergent lives of a tough but morally-upright young man from Ohio, a pair of serial killers who prey on hitchhikers, and an itinerant, spider-handling preacher and his crippled guitar virtuoso accompanist.” Naturally. (Patrick)
House of Holes: A Book of Raunch by Nicholson Baker: There’s very little info out there on Baker’s forthcoming novel, aside from some Twitter-excitement, including, “I don’t think it’s about poems” (McNally Jackson Bookstore) and “Back to Fermata territory?” (Ed Champion). So fans of Baker’s earlier (erotic) novels may be in for a treat. At Amazon, the description reads: “a gleefully provocative, off-the-charts sex novel that is unlike anything you’ve read.” (Sonya)
Night Film by Marisha Pessl: My first impression of Marisha Pessl’s Special Topics in Calamity Physics was clouded by the many, many stunned reviewers who could not help but mention Pessl’s beauty, often in the first paragraph of their reviews. (Indeed, it has been said that her picture was removed from advance copies of the novel to avoid just this.) Fortunately for those who do not choose books based on the bangability of their authors, while Ms. Pessl is hot, her prose is, by most assessments, hotter. Whether or not you liked Special Topics, you have to admit that the babe-authoress created one of the most startlingly distinctive fictional voices of recent years in Blue van Meer, the heroine-narrator of Pessl’s academic novel qua murder mystery (Oh, the breathtaking allusiveness! Ah, the witty figurative language—almost exhausting in its inventiveness!). My fear for Night Film—according to Pessl’s agent, “a psychological thriller about obsession, family loyalty and ambition set in raw contemporary Manhattan”—is that without Blue, Pessl’s nothing. Can she–could anyone (think Jonathan Safran Foer after Everything Is Illuminated)–generate another voice as distinct and scintillating as Blue’s? (Emily W.)
Lights Out in Wonderland by DBC Pierre: After the curious panic surrounding 2003’s Vernon God Little (“It’s sort of about Columbine!” “He’s not even from here!” “It won all kindsa prizes!”), Australia’s DBC Pierre faded from American minds. Three years later, his Ludmilia’s Broken English failed to gain traction, and it seems a sensible bet that Lights Out In Wonderland—another scattershot soap-box rant—will continue the downward trend. But as Lights Out is a foggy howl against the global market (“My hair crests over my head like the dying wave of capitalism,” reads one unfortunate simile), Pierre shouldn’t get too upset if units fail to move. (Jacob)
Anatomy of a Disappearance by Hisham Matar: Hisham Matar, author of In the Country of Men, is the child of Libyan parents. In 1990, the novelist’s father Jaballa Matar was kidnapped in Cairo and extradited to Tripoli as a political dissident. Since then, his family has endured a special hell of loss and uncertainty–scant news punctuating long periods of silence–which Hisham Matar described in a haunting piece for the Gaurdian last January. His novel, due in August, is about a missing father, and will presumably draw upon Matar’s experience as the child of someone disappeared. (Lydia)
Beijing Welcomes You by Tom Scocca: Slate blogger and former New York Observer Editor Scocca chronicles his years spent in Beijing, observing a city and a culture moving into the global spotlight. The book examines the Chinese capital on the cusp of its global moment, tracking its history and exploring its singular character. Since Scocca lived in Beijing in the middle of the last decade, one can assume the buildup to the 2008 Beijing Olympics figures prominently in the text. Assuming Scocca brings his typical insightful and sometimes scathing perspective (witness his epic takedown of The New Yorker for publishing Dave Eggers’s The Wild Things excerpt which ran two years ago at The Awl), Beijing Welcomes You promises to offer astute cultural observation on a culture Americans would do well to observe. (Patrick)
1Q84 by Haruki Murakami: Murakami’s three volume stemwinder came out in Japan in 2009 and sold out its first printing in a day. The first two volumes will appear in the US this fall and fervor among English-speaking Murakamians is already building. The alpha-numeric title is a play on Orwell’s 1984 – in Japanese the letter Q is a homophonic with the number 9 – and the book’s plot (which was a tightly guarded secret prior to its Japanese release) concerns two characters, a PE teacher and a writer, who become involved in a religious cult through which they create “a mysterious past, different than the one we know.” (Kevin)
The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach: In the Winter issue of n+1, Harbach published a provocative piece suggesting two paths for the novelist: MFA vs. NYC. Who needs the former, when you can ride the latter to a half-million dollar advance? Insiders have, predictably, likened Harbach’s treatment of a baseball team at a Wisconsin liberal arts college – presumably as a lens through which to view the American scene and the human condition – to the aforementioned Enfield Tennis Academy. (Garth)
The Forgotten Waltz by Anne Enright: Enright, winner of The Booker Prize for the international bestseller The Gathering, explores a woman’s affair and her relationship with her lover’s young daughter. (Max)
Parallel Stories by Péter Nadas: Péter Nádas’ A Book of Memories might just be the best novel published in the ’80s, and Imre Goldstein’s translation into English of its massive successor would, in a just world, be the publishing event of the fall. Nádas is, simply put, a master. The freedom with which he combines the diverse idioms of realism, modernism, and postmodernism can only come from decades of discipline. More importantly – as a recent excerpt in The Paris Review illustrates – he generates a continuous, Proustian intensity of feeling and perception – psychological, philosophical, and physical. This three-volume work, structured as a set of braided short stories, tracks two families, one Hungarian and one German, across many decades. Readers looking for a fuller preview might consult Hungarian Literature Online, or Deborah Eisenberg’s appreciation in The New York Review of Books. (Garth)
Unknown (fall and beyond):
The Queen of the Night by Alexander Chee: Described by Chee – a Whiting Award and NEA Fellowship recipient, currently a Visiting Professor at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop — as a kind of “historical fairy tale,” Queen is set in the time of the Second Empire (1852-70), in Paris. Chee’s first novel, Edinburgh, focused on a young boy’s surviving pedophilia. “The Queen of the Night sort of picks up in some ways from where Edinburgh leaves off,” Chee said in an interview, “in the sense that it is about a young woman who believes her voice is cursed, and if she uses it, terrible things will happen. And then she does, and they do. And she tries to put it right as best she can.” (Sonya)
The Map and the Territory by Michel Houellebecq: Michel Houellebecq, the reigning bad boy of French letters, has been accused of every imaginable sin against political correctness. His new novel, The Map and the Territory, is a send-up of the art world that tones down the sex and booze and violence, but it does feature a “sickly old tortoise” named Michel Houellebecq who gets gruesomely murdered. The book has drawn charges of plagiarism because passages were lifted virtually verbatim from Wikipedia. “If people really think that (this is plagiarism),” Houellebecq sniffed, “then they haven’t the first notion what literature is.” Apparently, he does. The Map and the Territory has just been awarded the Prix Goncourt, France’s most prestigious literary prize. (Bill)
The New Republic by Lionel Shriver: Shriver apparently finished a draft of The New Republic in 1998. After six well-regarded but commercially ignored novels, she couldn’t find a buyer for this story of “cults of personality and terrorism” and was about to give up fiction-writing altogether. Flash forward a dozen years: Shriver is an Orange Prize winner, a National Book Award finalist, and has sold over a million copies worldwide. She has been fêted by…er…The New Republic, and hailed in these pages as “America’s Best Writer.” Also: terrorism and cults of personality are very much on people’s minds. Maybe this will be the book that lands her on the cover of Time. (Garth)
Hot Pink by Adam Levin: Viewed from afar, Levin’s first novel, The Instructions, looked, for good and ill – mostly for good – like a kind of apotheosis of the McSweeney’s house style: playful, inventive, funny-melancholic, youth-focused. However, it also possessed a couple of attributes that set it apart from other titles on the McSweeney’s list. One was its dialectical genius; another was the ferocity of its anger at the way the world is (which elsewhere in McSweeneydom often gets sublimated into melancholy). Though Levin wears his influences on his sleeve, his sensibility is utterly distinctive, and almost fully formed. Look for the stories in the follow-up, Hot Pink, to be formally audacious, occasionally adolescent, but always bracing in their passion. (Garth)
The Unfolding Haggadah by Jonathan Safran Foer with Nathan Englander: The only evidence of what this might be comes from Tablet where an essay by Judith Shulevitz includes a note about this title in the author’s bio. An anthology it is then. And with Foer and Englander at the helm, this is one to keep on the radar. (Max)
Four Selected Titles with UK publication dates but no US date yet:
Dante in Love by A. N. Wilson: Later this year, English biographer and critic A.N. Wilson comes out with Dante in Love, a study of the Florentine poet that, confusingly, shares a title with a 2005 book about Dante written by Harriet Rubin. Wilson’s book will, one imagines, address Dante’s exile, Beatrice, Guelphs, Ghibellines, and so on; his perspective as a very public defector from and subsequent re-convert to Christianity might bring new insight to this well-trod territory (then again, it might not). (Lydia)
River of Smoke by Amitav Ghosh
King of the Badgers by Philip Hensher
The Stranger’s Child by Alan Hollinghurst
So, which of these books are you most looking forward to and which great new books did we neglect to include?