Everybody lies, or so the saying goes. But how long have we known this was true? At Slate, Katy Waldman reviews a new history of lying, delving into the knotty philosophy behind efforts to excuse deceit. You could also read our own Edan Lepucki and Janet Potter on deceit as it pertains to Gone Girl.
What's the greatest tool to create suspense? An unreliable narrator, according to Gillian Flynn, who is a master of them if you've read Gone Girl. She discussed how to write a good thriller, why she doesn't believe in guilty pleasure reading, and her ambitious quest to read every Pulitzer Prize-winning novel in chronological order in a New York Times "By the Book" interview. Pair with: Our conversation about Gone Girl.
Amy barely speaks in the trailer for Gone Girl, but she is present in almost every frame. The first look at David Fincher's adaptation features a creepy cover of "She" and a harried Ben Affleck as he goes from bereaved husband to suspect. The film will be in theaters on October 3, but until then, read our conversation about Gillian Flynn.
Four episodes into HBO's crime show True Detective, I thought to myself, This is so good, it’s almost like a book. For this viewer at least, True Detective achieved a rare balance. Standard procedurals like Law & Order are reliably engaging because we know the mystery will be solved and wrapped up (more or less) nice and neat by the end of the hour. But stuffing plot twists, red herrings, and personal strife into an hour-long format can be hasty if not, at times, absurdly implausible. On the other hand, endless dramas with mysteries at their core run the risk of failing to resolve the puzzle long past the point where viewers still care enough to tune in each week. But True Detective contained the psychological depth of a drama with the reliability of a procedural -- in short, all the satisfaction of a great mystery novel. Let’s hope that the eight episode mystery format returns for at least another season. One particular wish (buoyed by rumors) for a second season is that HBO will cast female detectives next time around. Amid the outpouring of love for the show, more than a few viewers diagnosed True Detective with having something of a “woman problem.” The New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum, for example, wrote that she was worn out from True Detective’s “macho nonsense,” what with its lack of complex female characters and tired trope of male detectives “avenging women and children, and bro-bonding.” In short, True Detective offers the same old “heroic male outlines and closeups of female asses,” and that’s boring. These conventions are as tough to shake in the crime novel as they are on television. If you love a good mystery book, there is little getting around the fact that most of the victims are women. A little girl goes missing, is a classic opening. Or, The body of a woman is found. A whole sub-genre, the “Special Victims Unit” of these books if you will, involves violent sexual crimes against women. If women must always be the victims, why not have them be the saviors, too? As someone who inhales crime novels in bulk, I was getting a little tired of the male detective-female victim set-up myself. Recently, the owner of the wondrous Mysterious Bookshop in Tribeca (a shop so charming I’d like to move into it), remarked to me off-handedly that I had a “type” when it came to mysteries -- I went for the female detectives. (I use the term “detective” here loosely to describe the crime-solver, whatever their job or lack thereof.) I never intended to discriminate against the men! But there was some truth to his observation. It wasn’t a matter of principle, it was about the books. Female “detectives” were bringing new twists to the classic tropes. Some of the best mysteries I was reading had women cracking the cases. So whether or not True Detective returns for another season and solves its woman problems, here is a short list of crime novels (many of them the start of series) where there’s a woman in charge. You might discover, like me, that you’re an accidental fan of the female detective. And if you have any other recommendations, please share -- with True Detective over, it’s an especially bad time to run out of crime novels. Garnethill by Denise Mina Garnethill begins when Maureen O’Donnell wakes up with a terrible hangover to find the dead body of her lover, a psychiatrist at the outpatient clinic she attends, tied up dead in her living room. There are clues in the room that point to Maureen’s own trauma as an incest survivor -- secret pieces of her personal history that almost no one knows about. Looking to clear her name, Maureen and her close friend Leslie, a domestic violence shelter employee, begin uncovering a horror story of abuse at the local psychiatric hospital. Maureen and Leslie are as hard-living and jaded a duo as True Detective’s Cohle and Hart. They have seen terrible things. The novel, the first in a series, takes place in economically-ruined Scotland, and the descriptions of booze are almost loving. (Glenfidditch, ice, and lime cordial. Peach schnapps and fizzy lemonade from a two-liter. A whiskey miniature with a cold can of Kerslin.) This is a sex crime book, but one where the avenger is a victim herself, and no Stieg Larsson-esque male heroes show up to do any last minute protecting. In Garnethill, those tasked with protecting the vulnerable are often the most dangerous, and it’s usually up to the vulnerable to protect themselves. It might sound like there is nothing more empowering than a victim of sexual abuse taking on crime flanked by her motorcycle-riding, domestic-violence fighting friend. But fair warning: Garnethill is dark and angering, for the ways in which Maureen and Leslie touch on reality. Maureen constantly reminds that crimes don’t end for the victims just because the perpetrator has been stopped. Tough girl Leslie reminds of how much ingenuity it takes for women who protect other women to counter the physical threat that men pose. Together, though, Maureen and Leslie achieve that magic of any great crime-fighting partnership. Each is strong and weak in her own way, and just when you think one leans more on the other, everything changes. The Crossing Places by Elly Griffiths The Crossing Places, first in a series featuring archaeology academic Ruth Galloway, begins when the local chief detective approaches Galloway about bones found in a bleak area near Norfolk, a sacred ground in the Iron Age. The chief detective believes these might be the bones of a young girl who disappeared ten years before, and whose abductor continues to send him letters riddled with obscure archaeological and literary references. Crime brings several men into the life of Ruth Galloway, who is nearing 40, single, overweight, and living a solitary with her two cats. Ruth is relatively content about this arrangement; it’s the men about her who don’t quite know what to do with her. Watching men react to Ruth is frustrating but also great fun. Some patronize her, others desexualize her. Some assume she needs protecting, others forget her in their haste to protect more delicate-looking females. They are all rather inept. Forget solving the crime, Ruth has her hands full dealing with the men bumbling about her. But despite its grim crimes and grim setting, The Crossing Places is on the lighter side and Ruth is infinitely relatable. Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn In Sharp Objects, hard-drinking, damaged, and recently institutionalized reporter Camille Preaker returns to her hometown after eight years to report on the disappearance of two girls. Gillian Flynn’s most famous character is Gone Girl’s cool girl/psychopath Amy, and in Sharp Objects, Flynn’s first novel, the women are likewise the show-stoppers. Camille’s hyper-perfect mother, with her crew of bored and medicated ladies who lunch, and her beautiful, Mean Girl half-sister, flanked by popular groupies, run the town. Staying in the secretive and somewhat surreal mansion with these two alpha-females and her own resurfacing past, Camille is very, very vulnerable. She’s trapped in a world of women that she doesn’t understand and that grows increasingly sinister. Girl world is a scary place to be. Sharp Objects provides a counter-narrative to True Detective -- the women in the novel are powerful, well-connected, and menacing. Not to say that Sharp Objects sends up female stereotypes or empowers women. More than once I’ve wondered: does Gillian Flynn even like women? In a Millions conversation on Flynn, Edan Lepucki and Janet Potter note that Flynn “repeatedly portrays hanging out with women as torture.” Nonetheless, Sharp Objects inhabits the world of women as fully as True Detective inhabits the world of men. As a female reader, there was something familiar about the grotesques in the world of women that made reading about them that much more eerie than the usual male suspects. The Various Haunts of Men by Susan Hill The Various Haunts of Men, the first in a series by Susan Hill, is billed as a “Detective Simon Serrailler” mystery. But DCI Serrailler is barely a presence for much of this first book. Instead we follow Freya Graffham, a newly arrived detective in Lafferton, England who has just left London and a marriage that failed for relatively banal reasons. Hill’s book begins when a female jogger goes missing without a trace, and in pursuing the case, Freya is caught up in the world of alternative medicines, miracles, and snake-oil salesmen. What hooks Freya onto the case is discovering that the missing woman has a bold case of unrequited love. This sticks with her. She relates to what unrequited love feels like, and that makes the lost jogger hard to dismiss as just another missing person. This sort of touch is exactly why female detectives can be such a refreshing change -- Freya is drawn into action based on a very simple shot of empathy for the victim, unlike the macho men of True Detective, who are rather heavy-handedly motivated because they see red at the very thought of a woman hurt. On the other hand, one of the pleasures of hard-boiled mystery novels is the vicarious thrill of reading about detectives behaving badly, from scotch for breakfast to questionable liaisons with murder suspects. If that's the sort of fun you're looking for, you won't find it in The Various Haunts of Men. Detective Freya's main hobby is singing in the church choir. The Likeness by Tana French The first time we meet Cassie Maddox is in Tana French’s first book, In the Woods, where she is homicide co-cop to detective Rob Ryan. In The Likeness (not a sequel), a murdered woman is found who looks exactly like Cassie, and Cassie’s old boss convinces her to go undercover in the woman’s place to tempt the killer into coming out into the open. Operating undercover, this time Cassie is all alone. Being alone is precarious. Cassie’s ties to the police force, including her boyfriend and her boss, give her a lifeline to reality but don’t prevent her from being seduced by the life of the murdered woman and her isolated, close-knit group of friends. This clique, comprised of former loners, seems to be bound together not because any one is in love with another so much as each are in love with the group as a whole. The lack of conventional one-on-one relationships makes their bond look magical, almost divine. While some loner detectives like True Detective’s Cohle look in sometimes enviously, even longingly, on happy scenes of marriage and children, Cassie, firmly in a relationship, falls for the unromantic connection that holds these people together. She longs to be part of it. The Likeness is sprawling and rich. Tana French’s novels look forward as they look backward, and are filled with nostalgia for the heady, heightened reality that comes with working a big case. Should True Detective take hints from The Likeness or any other of French’s novels, that would be a thrill for mystery fanatics in and of itself.
David Fincher had Gillian Flynn rewrite the ending of Gone Girl for his film. Flynn herself relished the changes. “There was something thrilling about taking this piece of work that I’d spent about two years painstakingly putting together with all its 8 million Lego pieces and take a hammer to it and bash it apart and reassemble it into a movie,” she said. What would Amy think?
My high school’s theater department put on two Shakespeare plays a year, and when I was old enough to audition, I ran to the front of the line – not to read for the part of Juliet in that year’s headlining Romeo and Juliet, but rather for her lesser known, and much more intoxicating complement, the lady Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing. Miraculously, I got the part. At the time, I was young and knew little of the play save the recent Kenneth Branagh-Emma Thompson adaptation, but quickly found myself madly in love with this character: a strong-willed, funny, independent wordsmith. For years, I envisaged Beatrice and her ilk as the exemplar of female empowerment in literature and theater, and yet while I’ve personally fixated on the Beatrices that have populated the centuries, I’ve done so because it is clear they were the exceptions to the rule. The rule, in fact, was Juliet. It was Beatrice’s younger cousin, Hero. It was Bianca and Disney princesses and anything that presented an ingénue as a leading lady. Sadly, for every Scarlet O’Hara, there is a Melanie Hamilton offsetting an absurdly independent protagonist. Clearly this paradigm is what has propelled literature forward, but lately, as I’ve explored my bookshelves, it seems as though this requisite stock character, as antiquated as its stock cousins, is finding its way off the pages of great novels, leading me to believe that she has been graciously euthanized by literary fiction. And thankfully so. The ingénue in contemporary fiction is a powerful mirror against which society is reflected, and its notable absence is indicative of ambitious thirst for change. That there has been a gradual evolution on the page that is sadly not reflected even off the page for female writers, female politicians, and female business leaders is significant in this long-awaited evolution. Pinning down the issue to the paltry representation of women writers in reviews and literary journals as explored through the latest VIDA counts extrapolates the problems women writers face in representation, coverage, and reviews, and there is much work to be done to establish equality. Yet this lack of real estate does not mean that there is a deficit of powerful female characters written today. When looking directly at the content of contemporary fiction, however, I am as excited as I was when I got the part of Beatrice back in the mid-1990s. Writers, both male and female, are creating strong, authentic characters who can stand on their own. There may be criticism on the outside, but directly on the page, this glorious affirmation of strong-willed women drives me as a writer, as a lawyer, and as a woman, to know that we are represented on the page, whether instantly likable or not. As an aside, perhaps the hotly contested debate currently surrounding this question in fact hinges on the lack of ingénues populating today’s great novels. A simple glance at titles reflects this: The Woman Upstairs, Look At Me, Gone Girl, State of Wonder, On Beauty, We Need to Talk About Kevin, The Hours, and even in non-fiction with Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In. None of these books apologizes for anger, frustration, strength, manipulation, power, emotion, sensuality. And mostly, none of these books requires a supporting ingénue waiting in the corner, ready to cry foil to a Lizzy Bennett or Jane Eyre or even Catherine Earnshaw. In contemporary society and fiction, women run companies, perform surgeries, and question their desire to even have children. Dr. Marina Singh and Dr. Anneck Swenson battle wits in the South American jungles of State of Wonder, almost inverting the stereotype by making an ingénue out of the missing male doctor, Anders; Eva Khatchadourian begs people to question her “traditional female values” by often wishing she never had a child in We Need to Talk About Kevin; and women of three generations dominate The Hours, portraying this very evolution of the literary female character in a single brilliant narrative. I could continue to list the novels, but it would probably exceed my word count, so instead, it’s probably better to review how we got to this point. It’s not that strong women were absent from literature in the past, but rather that they were welcomed with antithetical reception: if not written amongst a flock of female stereotypes (read, “the villain,” the “mother,” the “nurse”), they may have needed the ingénue as a foil to the less commonly recognized strong women of the time. In contemporary culture, however, no one denies the presence of strong, successful, complex women in every facet of society, and likewise, readers are not shocked when they turn up in great literature. It is simply that contemporary literary fiction portrays a realistic society so that ingénues are no longer needed within the texts — as foils or otherwise. When looking back at some of our most beloved “strong women in literature” from Shakespeare to Victorian England to the early 20th century, almost none of these women is allowed to exist on her own, almost as if the supporting ingénue (or another stock female character) must balance the strong woman so that society may rest. This seesaw of female identity so portrayed in literature of the past seemed necessary in order to propel forward movement. By having the rare and special woman on one end and the stock female (usually the ingénue) on the other, their interaction pushed the story forward, enabled the game of wits to persist, and flexed the narrative into motion. Beatrice, the gloriously witty self-effacing, proud bachelorette of Much Ado About Nothing, vows never to marry and is teased, mocked, and pitied as a result, countered by the requisite companion ingénue in the banal Hero. Kate of The Taming of the Shrew, who we all know and love as the girl who just didn’t want to fit in, is deemed eponymously shrewish by her unabashed expression, and of course, is, of course, neutralized by her ingénue of a sister, Bianca. Portia, the brilliant heiress of The Merchant of Venice, stands initially as a stellar example of intelligence, power, and leadership, but in order to fulfill her needs as an ingénue, she must impersonate a man. Although pillars of force, these women cannot be fully portrayed without a veil of disbelief, either by unrivaled presentation beside a flattering ingénue or the forced portrayal of a man, so that societal equilibrium of the time is restored. Fast-forward to early 19th century England, not far from the domination of yet another female monarch, and strong women in literature are still not singularly permissible. Elizabeth Bennett of Pride and Prejudice, the presumed model of the era, is a wonderfully suspicious, intelligent representation of female strength, yet still must be presented beside her exhaustively ingénuesque sisters, so that we all know how rare and special a creature she is. Lizzy Bennett is sublime, and I share a name and nickname with her, so I can’t help but beam with pride whenever she is listed amongst the feminist wonders of the literary world; but the sad truth is that she is so well cited because she is the outlier. Society does not yield a sea of stereotypes in order to hone in on a strong woman, and nor should literature require this pool of ingénues, out of which we may select and conclude that, indeed, Ms. Bennett is different. Even in late 19th/early 20th century literature, women who battled this stereotype were plagued with depression and expropriated labels. In England, Virginia Woolf wrote of depression and isolation, while in America, Charlotte Perkins Gilman openly divorced her husband, but not before writing about post-partum depression in an incisive story that had never been seen before on the page. Sadly, these women committed suicide, and their autobiographical roles were neither accepted nor credible by the male literary establishment, reflecting yet another mirror of their times. Their characters, however, have lived on, refusing to succumb to literary archetypes. Had they been written as ingénues, they would have evolved into that other stock character of “the madwoman in the attic.” Unfortunately, by removing the label of ingénue and refusing to share the scenes with a classic ingénue, these characters and their architects met a tragic end. Now, however, strong female characters reign aplenty in literature without their necessary ingénue escorts, slowly eroding the role of that stock accompanying character. It’s not that these strong female characters newly exist, or that they suddenly gained mass appeal, but rather that they are surviving on their own. They are flawed, beautiful representations of women that provide depth, understanding, and sympathy, regardless of their periodic unlikeable actions. They bear their identities proudly, and never require an accompanying convention to confirm their individuality, so that the role of the primary and supportive ingénue is no longer required. I recently went to hear Isabel Allende speak about her latest novel, Maya’s Notebook. At the Q&A, a young aspiring female writer rose to ask a question that surprised a majority of the audience. “You write a lot of strong women in your books,” she said, before asking, “Has there been anyone who has influenced you?” Allende either didn’t understand the question or wanted to emphasize the lunacy of it, and after three attempts replied: “Do you know any weak women?” Needless to say, a resounding uproar of applause emerged from the previously unobtrusive audience. This is not a topic that is far from the consciousness of the literary establishment, nor is it one that should be. It is so prevalent on people minds and hearts precisely because of its relevance. Readers don’t want to see any more ingénues or stock characters. They want to see the people that they know, the strong women who populate their lives, because, as Isabel Allende so bluntly and perfectly stated, there really aren’t weak women. I’m not naively suggesting that contemporary fiction has conclusively banished the ingénue from its pages; nor am I claiming that the character is close to her coffin in certain genres, but I am suggesting that that she should be. Fiction, as any vital art form, serves a purpose to reflect society in its emotional, environmental, and political nuances. It informs us, teaches us, reflects humanity in its reverie. If the ingénue, which may be dying in literary fiction, begins to fade in all genres of contemporary literature, if we accept the evolution of the young female protagonist in literature, we may stop expecting women off the page to play that stock role, as well. By exiling the word to the trash bin or perhaps feeling a little bit guilty whenever used, we might continue to represent women as they are – likeable or not. Powerful characters who sometimes want love, sometimes want power, ache with ambition and passion, refuse to be called ingénues, or any other pile of stock stereotypes. They are merely women who need no other label. Image via Wikimedia Commons
We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for February. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. 1. Epic Fail: Bad Art, Viral Fame, and the History of the Worst Thing Ever 2 months 2. 2. This Is How You Lose Her 6 months 3. 3. Tenth of December 2 months 4. 4. An Arrangement of Light 3 months 5. 5. Building Stories 2 months 6. 8. Object Lessons: The Paris Review Presents the Art of the Short Story 5 months 7. 9. NW 6 months 8. - Arcadia 2 months 9. 10. Telegraph Avenue 6 months 10. 7. Both Flesh and Not 3 months With our top five remaining unchanged, the big action in February was the graduation of a pair of books to our Hall of Fame. Gillian Flynn's juggernaut Gone Girl won over Millions readers with help from Edan Lepucki and Janet Potter's entertaining tag-team reading of the book in September, though copies were already flying off the shelves in the months prior. Meanwhile, D.T. Max's Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace was hotly anticipated by Millions readers from the moment the book was announced. We ran an excerpt and interviewed Max. Those graduations made room for the return of Lauren Groff's Arcadia (recently interviewed in our pages) and, appropriately enough, David Foster Wallace's Both Flesh and Not. Our first ebook original, Epic Fail: Bad Art, Viral Fame, and the History of the Worst Thing Ever by staff writer Mark O'Connell, stayed atop our list and continues to win praise from readers and critics. An exerpt is available here and you can learn more about the book here. Near Misses: Dear Life, Sweet Tooth, The Round House, Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief, and Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk. See Also: Last month's list.
We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for January. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. - Epic Fail: Bad Art, Viral Fame, and the History of the Worst Thing Ever 1 month 2. 1. This Is How You Lose Her 5 months 3. - Tenth of December 1 month 4. 5. An Arrangement of Light 2 months 5. - Building Stories 1 month 6. 4. Gone Girl 6 months 7. 2. Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace 6 months 8. 3. Object Lessons: The Paris Review Presents the Art of the Short Story 4 months 9. 6. NW 5 months 10. 7. Telegraph Avenue 5 months To kick off a new year of our Top Ten lists at The Millions, we made a slight adjustment to our calculations. The change has to do with how we account for lower-priced, shorter-form ebook originals that have become popular with our readers and effectively gives a modest penalty to the cheaper ebooks and recognizes that a purchase of a $1.99 ebook is different from buying a hardcover costing $20 or more. Despite this change, thanks to the overwhelmingly positive response from our readers, our first ebook original, Epic Fail: Bad Art, Viral Fame, and the History of the Worst Thing Ever by staff writer Mark O'Connell, lands atop our list. So far, the feedback from readers has been great, and we hope more will be inspired to pick it up. An exerpt is available here and you can learn more about the book here. Also debuting is Tenth of December by George Saunders, one of our Most Anticipated books and a title that has gotten a ton of positive press. Finally, also debuting is Chris Ware's Building Stories, reviewed in these pages by none other than Mark O'Connell. Ware also participated in our Year in Reading in December. Dropping from the list were David Foster Wallace's Both Flesh and Not, Lauren Groff's Arcadia and Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan Other Near Misses: Dear Life and The Round House. See Also: Last month's list.
David Fincher, who helmed the American cinematic adaptation of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, may join the team working on the film for Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl. Flynn herself penned the first draft of the screenplay. As you wait (im)patiently for the project to get underway, you can take our own Michael Bourne’s advice and treat yourself to Flynn’s earlier books.
We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for December. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. 2. This Is How You Lose Her 4 months 2. 3. Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace 5 months 3. 4. Object Lessons: The Paris Review Presents the Art of the Short Story 3 months 4. 8. Gone Girl 5 months 5. - An Arrangement of Light 1 month 6. 5. NW 4 months 7. 6. Telegraph Avenue 4 months 8. 7. Both Flesh and Not 2 months 9. - Arcadia 1 month 10. - Sweet Tooth 1 month After an impressive run, A Naked Singularity by Sergio De La Pava graduates to our Hall of Fame (check out Garth Hallberg's profile of De La Pava that introduced many of our readers to this unusual book). This makes room for Junot Díaz's This Is How You Lose Her (our review) to be crowned our new number one. Also joining our Hall of Fame is The Patrick Melrose Novels by Edward St. Aubyn (see our review of the last book in the series). Debuting on our list is Nicole Krauss's An Arrangement of Light, a bite-sized ebook original. And Krauss is joined on our list by Lauren Groff's Arcadia (selected by Alexander Chee, Emily St. John Mandel, and Janet Potter in our recent Year in Reading series; Groff was also a participant) and Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan (which we recently reviewed). Dave Eggers' A Hologram for the King slipped off the list. Other Near Misses: Dear Life, Building Stories, The Round House, Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, and Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar. See Also: Last month's list.
Another year, another Year In Reading. Another year, a bigger Year In Reading. The site gets older, the site continues to grow – for that we thank everyone who wrote and shared the pieces in this series, as well as everyone who read along. The numbers this year were simply bonkers. Up from 2011, our 2012 totals amounted to a whopping 74 participants and 261 different books. These books run the gamut from graphic memoirs to cookbooks, and they were written by 238 authors – we’re happy to note that 15 of those authors submitted their own pieces in the series. Our participants included a finalist for this year’s National Book Award; a past winner of the Pulitzer Prize; not one, but two authors whose books appeared on The New York Times’s “10 Best Books of 2012” list; a longtime New Yorker staff writer; and a comedian who, for a few incredible months, made the life of Mitt Romney’s social media director into a living hell. The mission of the series is to put good books – regardless of publication date – into the minds of our readers. In that regard we’ve succeeded. The “average” year of publication for all 261 books was 1992. (No doubt that date has something to do with Michael Robbins’s recommendation of The Temple, which dates back to 1633.) But in order to highlight the true range of the books selected, I feel there are some awards in order. So here we have it. Presenting the 2012 edition of The Millions’s annual Year In Reading Wrap-Up Awards: The Golden TARDIS for Excellence in Time Travel is hereby bestowed unto Emma Straub. We recognize Emma’s ability to read in the past year four different books that will not hit shelves until 2013. Tell us, Emma, where do you keep your flux capacitor? (I know, I know, I’m mixing time travel references here. Apologies to the nerds.) Runner-up: Michael Robbins, who went the other way and tapped two books from the 1600s. The George Wallace Commemorative Airhorn for Multiple Shout Outs goes to none other than Alexander Chee, who, before settling on Helen DeWitt’s The Last Samurai as his favorite read of the year, gave much-deserved props to no fewer than twenty-three different books and authors. Runner-up: Kate Zambreno, who named fifteen texts – two of which are actually blogs, which is awesome – in her Year In Reading (Apparently Everything there is to Read). “Mr. Consistent” is from now on the epithet we’ll use to describe Scott Esposito, who recommended fourteen different Oulipo books. (Out of respect for Scott’s theme, none of the words in that first sentence included the letter “a”.) Runner-up: David Haglund, who laid out a literary and historical tour of the real Mormon faith. The Bob Ross Memorial Golden Paintbrush is awarded to Matt Dojny, whose Year In Reading entry is beautiful and succinct, but also comprehensive and fresh. That book on his list from The RZA? It wasn’t a mistake. There aren’t mistakes. Just happy accidents. Runner-up: Chris Ware. (Duh.) Not for his text-based Year In Reading post, but for his most recent book. The George Washington Cup for Honesty goes, of course, to Michael Schaub for his elegant, heart wrenching essay about his brother, his family, and A. M. Homes’s latest book. Thank you for this one, Michael. Runner-up: Mark O’Connell, who finally came clean. Those books on his shelf? Hasn’t read most of ‘em. (One additional prize is in order as well. The “Oh Man, Please Don’t Accuse Me of Stealing Your Idea” Memorial Fruit Basket should go to Janet Potter, whose list of literary awards served at least in some way as inspiration for this post.) Overall, a collection of seven books were named by more than three Year In Reading participants. These lucky few are: Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl (picked by Edan Lepucki, Janet Potter, Ed Park, Michael Bourne, and Jennifer duBois); Chris Ware’s Building Stories (picked by Zadie Smith, Mark O’Connell, and Reif Larsen); David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas (picked by Janet Potter, Matt Dojny, and Elizabeth Minkel); Edward St. Aubyn’s The Patrick Melrose Novels (picked by Meg Wolitzer, Elliott Holt, and Alix Ohlin); Jess Walter’s Beautiful Ruins (picked by Emma Straub, Roxane Gay, and Robert Birnbaum); Sarah Manguso’s The Guardians (picked by Alexander Chee, Ed Park, and Antoine Wilson); and Lauren Groff’s Arcadia (picked by Alexander Chee, Emily St. John Mandel, and Janet Potter) And so we come to the end of 2012. May 2013 be better than the year that led into it. May your eyes fly quickly over the page. We hope you enjoyed the time, and we’ll see you again next year. P.S. Special shout outs are due to C. Max Magee, founder of The Millions, without whom none of this would be possible – and also to Ujala Sehgal and Adam Boretz, our tireless editors, without whom all of these posts would look horrendous. Last but not least, shout outs are owed to Rhian Sasseen and Thom Beckwith, both of whom have helped make this our biggest Year In Reading to date. Thanks to you all, and to all a Happy New Year! More from A Year in Reading 2012 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 The good stuff: The Millions' Notable articles The motherlode: The Millions' Books and Reviews Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.
The Captive Mind, Czeslaw Milosz: In this searing collection, the Polish poet blends history, philosophy, and lightly fictionalized biography to explore the psychology of complicity and other moral ambiguities of his era. I think I’ll be haunted for the rest of my life by Milosz’s description of a young woman being rounded up for the camps while shouting that the small child running behind her and calling out to her is not her own -- as well as the sternness with which Milosz forbids his readers the consolation of judgment. This woman is young, he tells us, she is alive; she is not yet done living. It’s the brutality of Milosz’s empathy -- as well as the brutality of his clarity -- that makes this collection so powerful. Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America, Richard Perlstein: Written with novelistic verve and more deadpan humor than you might expect from a book about Richard Nixon, Perlstein’s account of the 37th president’s political rise casts modern American politics in an illuminating, and often frightening, context. With a cameo by a young Karl Rove as a puckish operative who lures hippies to opponents’ rallies with promises of free food and girls. Finally, three astonishing literary thrillers: Jennifer Egan’s The Keep, Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, and William Landay’s Defending Jacob. These books’ plots cover varied terrain -- The Keep follows the fallout of a childhood prank gone wrong, Gone Girl explores the sinister depths of a fatally flawed marriage, and Defending Jacob grapples with the harrowing legacy of family violence. But in each of them, the most terrifying aspect of the story winds up being the human mind’s capacity for denial, rationalization, and self-deception -- and in each of them, the notion of the mystery plot twist is upended by re-imagined parameters of the mystery itself. More from A Year in Reading 2012 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 The good stuff: The Millions' Notable articles The motherlode: The Millions' Books and Reviews Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.
Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl may have been the breakout hit of the summer, but those intrigued enough by Flynn’s twisty thriller to read her other work will find that as good as Gone Girl is, her two earlier novels, Sharp Objects and Dark Places, are even better. Flynn, who wrote about TV and movies for Entertainment Weekly before her fiction career took off, writes character-based literary novels disguised as page-turning action thrillers. The solutions to the mystery at the end of her books, though usually surprising, are nowhere as interesting as the human dilemmas of her central characters. Flynn is especially good at creating damaged, dangerous women whose deeply imagined inner lives break your heart even as the characters create havoc in the lives of the people around them. For me, the best of Flynn’s books is her first, Sharp Objects, about a newspaper reporter recently released from a brief stay in a psych ward who is sent to cover a series of child-killings in her hometown. The crime plot clicks expertly along, but the true mystery is the book’s narrator, Camille Preaker, whose self-hatred is literally written on her body, the words -- NASTY on her kneecap, WHORE on her ankle -- carved into her skin with a razor blade. I wondered, idly, who could have committed the murders Camille is sent to report upon, but what kept me turning the pages was the thornier question of how this smart, fragile woman could find the toughness to keep herself from making the final cut. More from A Year in Reading 2012 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 The good stuff: The Millions' Notable articles The motherlode: The Millions' Books and Reviews Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.
1. Earlier this year, my friend Dave Tompkins emailed me with “a random Nabokov-related question.” (How did he know that that is my favorite kind of question?) There was a passage he was trying to find, “from either a Nabokov short story, or possibly Lolita,” concerning telephone poles. “He's on a train, or in a car, and notices the succession of telephone poles he passes, seemingly being repeatedly knocked back -- or down -- by the window frame,” Dave wrote. “Does this ring a bell?” I remembered the image, something we’ve all witnessed, but that only Nabokov thought to hammer — beautifully, emphatically — into prose. I couldn’t recall where it appeared. Pnin? Sebastian Knight? (Lots of train travel in both.) Dave wrote again the next day: “So i sat in Book Court and scanned Lolita for an hour. No telephone poles there! Must be in the [short stories]. I'll keep at it.” A little later, Speak, Memory swam into my mind, and I emailed Dave the good news that our quarry had been located. (It turns out they are telegraph poles.) I liked that Dave would remember that image, enough to want to track it down. And I loved when, months later, I started reading Antoine Wilson’s Panorama City, and found this patch on p. 36. Tall, innocent Oppen Porter is leaving his hometown after the death of his father and heading by bus to the titular city, where he will live under the care of his aunt. I missed my bicycle already, bicycle travel was the perfect speed, traveling at this speed was pointless, you missed everything. But then I figured that if I was going to be a man of the world, I should learn to appreciate other modes of transport, I should give the bus a fair shake, and so I opened my eyes and I opened my mind and I saw something I never would have noticed on a bicycle unless I was going very, very fast down a very long hill. Because of the speed of the bus and how I was exerting no effort, the telephone wires on the side of the road, sagging between poles, went up and down with the same rhythm as my heartbeat. 2. Crushes: Joe Meno's Office Girl, Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl; Don Lee’s The Collective (an alternate universe in which the main characters are all Asian American artists); Alison Bechdel's Are You My Mother? and Anouk Ricard's Anna & Froga; Sarah Manguso's The Guardians (memoir) and Jane Yeh's The Ninjas (poetry). New credo is line from Yeh's "Sherlock Holmes on the Trail of the Abominable Snowman": "O tempura, O monkeys." 3. I was afraid to even open John Connolly and Declan Burke’s Books to Die For: The World’s Greatest Mystery Writers on the World’s Greatest Mystery Novels, because don’t I have enough to read already? But there was an essay from Bill Pronzini, which I had to read — Pronzini was one of the earliest champions of Harry Stephen Keeler. I’m glad I took his recommendation and downloaded Elliott Chaze's Black Wings Has My Angel (1953), a dose of pure noir, packed with humor and jolts and darkly elegant writing. Two scenes are seared into my memory — but this is a spoiler-free space. Please read and we’ll compare notes. 4. Two stories by David Gordon, "We Happy Few" (Five Chapters) and "Man-Boob Summer" (Paris Review) — pure pleasure. 5. Online: Mary-Kim Arnold's Tumblr (formerly known as We Pitched a Tent at Night), is a lyric essay unfolding in real time. Title of the year: "Finishing Bluets in a Strip Mall Gym in Livonia, NY." And I loved Rob Horning's gonzo dissection (in The New Inquiry) of a transcendentally abysmal Van Morrison album cover. Horning writes: "It’s like [Morrison] is daring his audience to listen to it. The message seems to be: 'See how indifferent I am to the surface things of this world? I put out my music with this on the cover. That’s how far I have moved beyond petty commercial posturing. Fuck you, here’s a rainbow.' ” 6. Devin McKinney's The Man Who Saw a Ghost: The Life and Work of Henry Fonda and Dylan Hicks's Boarded Windows. (I suppose I think of them in the same breath because their names begin with the same letter and they are both soft-spoken Midwesterners.) I didn’t think I cared as much about Fonda as I do about the Beatles (the subject of McKinney’s previous book, Magic Circles), but McKinney made me pay attention. This is biography as poetical, political essay. Boarded Windows is a self-assured debut that comes with a sort-of soundtrack, Dylan Hicks Sings Bolling Greene, which you should listen to right now. "Thank You For Your Postcard" is a perfect short story, constrained by what can fit on a 3x5 piece of decorated cardboard: "Later on the soles of our shoes/Were white with Tuileries dust/Thank you for your postcard/I read it on the bus." More from A Year in Reading 2012 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 The good stuff: The Millions' Notable articles The motherlode: The Millions' Books and Reviews Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.
My favorite book this year was Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. I won't even bother describing its plot (but, okay: man's wife goes missing, he's accused of murdering her, did he?, etc.). You've already read it, or you've been meaning to, or you just want everyone to stop talking about it already! But what can I do? It's not my fault that the most popular girl at the dance is also the coolest and the smartest and the funniest and the sexiest; plus she's got blood under her fingernails and one helluva snarl: ferocious, seductive, ironic and dark. If you haven't danced with her already, why not? You aren't scared, are you? (This is how I feel when lots of people love a book that I love: giddy, validated, triumphant.) Call me uncivilized, but, this year, the books I liked best were readable. What I wanted was obsession and total immersion, books that would keep me up nights, that would transform me from woman to prune in the bath, that would allow me to neglect my own writing and work, that would, basically, take over my whole life. Gone Girl met this expectation, and exceeded it. Aside from its clever prose and absolutely badass plot twists, the book engaged deftly with questions of intimacy, identity, and the construction of the female self. Also? It's a crime novel -- but it isn't at all! Will someone please send me back to college so I can write a paper about this contemporary masterpiece? (Rodney Dangerfield can play me in the movie adaptation of my life.) I'm getting shivers just thinking about it. After I finished Gone Girl, I read Ms. Flynn's other two novels -- both are terrific -- and discussed them with fellow staff writer Janet Potter. Then I sat around, twiddling my thumbs, mourning what I now think of as The End of Flynn. Thankfully, it's temporary; Ms. Flynn lives and writes in Chicago. More from A Year in Reading 2012 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 The good stuff: The Millions' Notable articles The motherlode: The Millions' Books and Reviews Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.
I can’t remember a better year of reading. I particularly enjoyed books where women or girls were allowed to be dark and dangerous and fucked up and “unlikable.” Gillian Flynn’s Sharp Objects and Gone Girl, Claire Vaye Watkins’s Battleborn, Treasure Island!!! by Sara Levine, and Megan Abbott’s exceptional Dare Me, in particular, rose to that occasion and then some. What Dare Me does with describing the body and its limits? Unforgettable. One of my favorite books of the year, though, was a novel with a really elegant structure -- Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter. I didn’t realize how intelligent and complex this novel was until I finished, took some time and found myself reading the book again and again to make proper sense of it all. With each reading, there was more to appreciate. Beautiful Ruins is the story of a young man and hotel proprietor from a forgotten Italian beach town who falls in love with an actress, who loves a man she can’t have, and how they lose each other and find each other again across 50 years and two continents. It’s about a craven Hollywood producer and his development assistant and the decisions they make and the lines they’re willing to cross. It’s about a screenwriter who wants his big break and what he’s willing to do to get it. The narrative transitions seamlessly from being richly imbued with a sense of time and place on the Italian coast during the early 1960s to exposing the cynical, overly ambitious Hollywood we’ve come to know and love and hate. More than anything, Beautiful Ruins is about how love can endure and how maybe, just maybe, we should believe in love’s endurance despite all the reasons we have to doubt such a thing exists. More from A Year in Reading 2012 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 The good stuff: The Millions' Notable articles The motherlode: The Millions' Books and Reviews Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.
We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for November. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. 1. A Naked Singularity 6 months 2. 3. This Is How You Lose Her 3 months 3. 2. Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace 4 months 4. 6. Object Lessons: The Paris Review Presents the Art of the Short Story 2 months 5. 4. NW 3 months 6. 5. Telegraph Avenue 3 months 7. - Both Flesh and Not 1 month 8. 7. Gone Girl 4 months 9. 10. A Hologram for the King 4 months 10. 9. The Patrick Melrose Novels 6 months With our November list, A Naked Singularity by Sergio De La Pava is enjoying the final month of its miracle run at the top before graduating to our Hall of Fame next month (don't miss Garth Hallberg's profile of De La Pava before it goes). A Naked Singularity will join Hilary Mantel's Bring Up the Bodies, as the Booker winner, which has just been inducted Mantel's first Thomas Cromwell book, Wolf Hall, is now also a Hall of Famer. Moving up to number two on the list, Junot Díaz's This Is How You Lose Her (our review) continues its climb, surpassing D.T. Max's biography Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace. Wallace looms large on our list as his posthumously published collection of essays Both Flesh and Not debuts at number seven. The book is the third by Wallace (after Infinite Jest and The Pale King) to appear on a Millions Top Ten list. The new Paris Review anthology is another big mover, hopping two spots in its second month on the list. We've got an interview with one of the editors. Near Misses: The Fun Stuff: And Other Essays, The Fifty Year Sword, The Round House, Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, and Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar. See Also: Last month's list.
We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for October. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. 1. A Naked Singularity 4 months 2. 2. Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace 2 months 3. 5. This Is How You Lose Her 2 months 4. 3. NW 2 months 5. 4. Telegraph Avenue 2 months 6. - Object Lessons: The Paris Review Presents the Art of the Short Story 1 month 7. 8. Gone Girl 3 months 8. 6. Bring Up the Bodies 6 months 9. 10. The Patrick Melrose Novels 5 months 10. - A Hologram for the King 3 months Our hurricane-delayed Top Ten for October has arrived. This month we see a new Paris Review anthology land on our list. We recently covered its creation in an interview with one of the editors. Meanwhile, Dave Eggers'A Hologram for the King returns to our list after a month off wandering in the desert. A Naked Singularity by Sergio De La Pava remains in our top spot (don't miss Garth Hallberg's profile of De La Pava from June), and D.T. Max's biography Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace holds on to the second spot (read the book's opening paragraphs), and Junot Díaz's This Is How You Lose Her (our review) leapfrogs other big fall books to land the third spot. We had two books graduate to our Hall of Fame: How to Sharpen Pencils by David Rees (don't miss the hilarious, yet oddly poignant interview) and Stephen Greenblatt's Pulitzer winner The Swerve: How the World Became Modern. Near Misses: Shakedown, Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar, An Arrangement of Light, The Fifty Year Sword, and New American Haggadah. See Also: Last month's list.
We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for September. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. 1. A Naked Singularity 4 months 2. 2. Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace 2 months 3. - NW 1 month 4. - Telegraph Avenue 1 month 5. - This Is How You Lose Her 1 month 6. 3. Bring Up the Bodies 5 months 7. 5. The Swerve: How the World Became Modern 6 months 8. 7. Gone Girl 2 months 9. 4. How to Sharpen Pencils 6 months 10. 6. The Patrick Melrose Novels 4 months Millions readers know: we had been looking ahead to September as a big month for books for quite some time, with new titles arriving from three of the biggest names working in literary fiction working today. We reviewed all three books and all three landed high up in our Top Ten this month with NW by Zadie Smith (our review) besting Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon (our review) and This Is How You Lose Her by Junot Díaz (our review). A Naked Singularity by Sergio De La Pava remains in our top spot (don't miss Garth Hallberg's profile of La Pava from June), and D.T. Max's biography Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace holds on to the second spot (read the book's opening paragraphs). Dropping off our list are New American Haggadah (just missing our Hall of Fame), A Hologram for the King, and Binocular Vision (read our interview with author Edith Pearlman) Other Near Misses: An Arrangement of Light and How Should a Person Be?: A Novel from Life. See Also: Last month's list.
You've probably noticed that Amazon, like many sites, employs an "auto-complete" feature on its search box. When you start typing in letters, it suggests things that begin with those letters. It's probably safe to assume that it suggests the most frequently searched words, so, if we look at Amazon's book section we can type in letters and discover, for each letter of the alphabet, the most popular searches on Amazon. Last time we did this, about a year and half ago, the results were fairly literary and 18 months before that, vampires reigned. This time around, Fifty Shades has ushered in an era of erotic-inflected popular fiction, and diet books and YA lit figure prominently as well. You might consider this exercise, the ABCs of Amazon, to be a peek into the reading habits of America and, like it or not, a primer for what's popular in the world of books: Audio Books Bared to You (erotic fiction by Sylvia Day) Cloud Atlas (by David Mitchell thanks to the upcoming feature film) Diary of a Wimpy Kid (the very popular children's series by Jeff Kinney) Eat to Live (a diet book) Fifty Shades of Grey (The erotica that launched a publishing trend) Gone Girl (Gillian Flynn's blockbuster) Hunger Games (Replacing "Harry Potter" as the top "H" search in YA lit) ISBN number search (funny because ISBNs work in the search box) James Patterson Kindle (no surprise here) Lee Child Michael Connelly No Easy Day (The book about the bin Laden raid) Organic Chemistry (A textbook search) Psychology (More textbooks) Quiet (a book about introverts by Susan Cain) Rick Riordan Stephen King The Hunger Games Unbroken (by Laura Hillenbrand) Vince Flynn Wheat Belly (a diet book) X-Men Yoga Zoo by James Patterson (Amazon has been known to personalize and regularly adjust its results, so your Amazon alphabet may vary.)
Staff writers Janet Potter and Edan Lepucki often read (and enjoy) the same books, and like almost everyone else in the world, they found Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn to be a fun, engrossing, and thought-provoking novel, worthy of the attention it's getting. They decided to read Flynn's two previous novels, Sharp Objects and Dark Places, and discuss all three books via email. Below is their conversation about the author and her books. Subjects include: murder, milk, Pinterest boards, and camp (the aesthetic, not sleep-away). Janet Potter: Something that strikes me in these books -- particularly Dark Places and Gone Girl -- is how singling out and digging into a person's life, whether or not they are guilty of murder, tends to raise suspicions about that person. A theme running through Gone Girl is that everyone is keeping secrets, but are they harmless secrets, dangerous secrets, or the secret -- the secret that you're the culprit? Everyone that's investigated or suspected at any point starts to look capable of murder or at least deception. It started to make me wonder. If tomorrow somebody came to look through my apartment, what kind of things would snag as strange? Why do I have three heavy-duty padlocks sitting on my bookshelf, a set of keys to an apartment I moved out of seven months ago, and four different types of milk in the fridge? Each of these things has a rational, if unusual, explanation, but I haven't left those explanations on post-it notes in case I disappear. Do you think this is just a feature of Flynn's books, or do you think it's an accurate depiction of how many secrets we're all keeping at any given time? Edan Lepucki: Firstly, Janet, let's get to the bottom of this: Why do you have four types of milk? That is suspicious! Ms. Flynn is masterful at writing plots -- her books move at a delicious pace. For me, one essential element to any strong plot is the repeated but changing resonance of things like setting, possession, character choice, and so on. What seems like a harmless action at one point in the novel is rendered differently later on in the book. Her books continually zing! because something is seen anew, or a character understands an event in a different light. I think that's what Flynn is doing with these secrets that her characters harbor: they have an emotional reason for being in the book, but they also scratch a plot itch. It's interesting that Flynn's novels make you paranoid about how, say, a homicide detective or the media might view your life, should there be some crime committed that you're connected to. When I was reading her books, I kept worrying about the men I know -- mainly my husband -- for Flynn's books seem mostly interested in the way the world perceives men's appetite for violence. Perhaps you're right, and that "everyone that's investigated or suspected at any point starts to look capable of murder or at least deception," but the people who are investigated in her novels are always male. Which leaves you and me off the hook! Let's go murder some people! Flynn's work is most engaging to me for what it says about gender: what men are accused of, what cruelties women are capable of, and so on. I'm interested in the conversations her novels have about female sexuality, and the roles women play and play-at, for others. Thoughts? JP: In the past few weeks I've needed specific types of milk for specific recipes -- paneer (whole), fried chicken (buttermilk), creme fraiche (cream), and basic coffee-drinking (skim). I'm glad you think that even my dairy melangerie wouldn't mark me as a person of interest, because I'm of the gentler sex. It's true, as you say, that the suspicion of murder usually falls on the closest healthy male, but the women in Flynn's books certainly don't come across well either. There is a scene in each of the three books in which the main female character is forced to spend time with a group of women. The horror! The gaggles of ladies are all about wine, casseroles, pointed comments, and over-sharing. Of course, an aspect of these Missouri-based scenes is that the lead females are from somewhere else, like New York or Chicago, and are hanging out with women they find less sophisticated than themselves. But still, Flynn repeatedly portrays hanging out with women as torture. Do you think Gillian Flynn would want to hang out with us? Or would we just get wined up and insult her Pinterest boards? I'm not saying that she writes flat female characters. She also writes incredibly wise, no-nonsense women (the detective in Gone Girl, the mother and aunt in Dark Places). And her lead women -- Camille, Libby, and Amy -- are damaged, complicated, and resilient in turns. In Gone Girl, Amy spends a long time describing herself as a "cool girl" -- the perfect girlfriend, not whiny, dependent, jealous, or easily offended, beautiful without seeming to primp. A cool girl seems to be invulnerably confident. What Flynn seems to dislike so much about groups of women is that when they get together they tend to fetishize their own vulnerability. The vulnerability of women has many forms in her work. Some women hide it, some preen it, some hide behind it as a guise for their cruelty, some reject it, and some use its appearance as a weapon. Weaponized vulnerability! I think this comes back to your point, that so much of what defines Flynn's women is how they react to the fact of being a woman. And that they should watch out for killers. EL: That you drink coffee with skim milk. Ugh! That's enough to book you! Amy's passage about being a cool girl felt like a diatribe versus a brag. That is, she recognizes that the cool girl thing is a role, a construct. She can play that role with elan, she can play it so well that it lets her manipulate others. But implicit in that passage, if I remember correctly, is this sense that playing that role is also oppressive. She is empowered and suffocated by the game simultaneously. And that totally rang true to me as a woman. What I love most about Gone Girl was the way Flynn made me think about how character and identity are constructed. She made me like and then dislike a character, dislike and then like another one, and then dislike the whole lot of them, the idea of identity dissolving and reappearing at every moment. Who are these people? Who am I? It's a gloriously postmodern conception of identity, I think -- nothing is inalienable, we are all constructs, and so on. That Flynn gave that to me in a disgustingly readable novel is just icing on the cake, er, buttermilk in the chicken. I'm also interested in the evolution of tone in her novels. Sharp Objects seems the most raw and intimate to me, while simultaneously using some truly Gothic touches that are also absurd they're so theatrical. That Gothic stuff -- the dead sister, say, or the living sister, dressed up as a doll and playing with a doll house that's an exact replica of the house she lives in -- moves to something else in Dark Places, with the Kill Club, and the crazy wackness that is Deondra (Holy shit! The part where her pit bulls poop inside and she doesn't clean it up?!), and then onto something else in Gone Girl, which has a kind of War of the Roses, campy vibe to it by the end. It's comic, but that doesn't seem like the right word. Thoughts? Can we also talk about class in her novels? JP: This slippery idea of identity that you brought up was what impressed me the most about Flynn as a writer. In reading Gone Girl I felt like I knew Nick and Amy, in the sense that they were recognizable, real, fully-formed characters, and yet I didn't know them at all, in the sense that they were their own constructs, adept at deceiving me as well as each other. I don't know how she did that, but the skill with which she did gives the book that chilling, disorienting feeling you mentioned. Any time I thought I had learned something true about one of them, I would later learn that I had been fooled. Flynn's books are so -- here it comes! -- creepy because they make you distrust your everyday life. We're all just lying machines. I had to think about your question on tone. It's something I usually take in subconsciously until somebody points it out. There are two faces to her writing -- the realism of her settings and characters, and what you call the Gothic touches, but I call the wackos. The evolution that I see is these two elements moving towards each other. That is, in Sharp Objects I felt we were in a normal small town but there were WACKOS EVERYWHERE!, but by Gone Girl the wackos were hiding in plain sight. It became harder with each successive book to say, "I don't know any people like that," because the point was that you wouldn't know if you did. I noticed the class issue even less. Tell me what you think. EL: I'm beginning to think that tone is the last frontier in fiction. Sure, we still see experimentation with language and the cross-pollination of genres and the like, but lately the narrative art that I'm both invested in and puzzled by plays with tone: this sense that I can't quite pin it down -- is it meant to be funny, or somber? Is it meant to be irreverent or transcendent? Am I supposed to weep or curse? Probably all of the above -- and yet, the work still feels driven, intentional. I feel this playfulness with tone when I watch Louis C.K.'s eponymous show on FX, and I feel it with Flynn's novels, too: it's a refusal to be categorized emotionally, and it's product of a nuanced point of view. With Flynn's work, I feel like she's playing with this idea that murder is sensationalized and gossiped about and profited from. It's also awful and terrorizing, and that will never ever change no matter how many episodes of Cold Case or Law & Order that you watch in a day. She acknowledges both of these elements in her books. There's a great review of Gone Girl in Full-Stop by Catie Disabato, which talks about how Flynn's book is really two books in one, and I totally agree. Disabato points out that all of the reviews discuss the first half, which is the mystery. None of the reviews mention the second half -- which isn't a mystery at all -- because they don't want give anything away. I wonder if Flynn's next book will even have a mystery in it, period. People would call it "a departure" but I think her novels are working in this direction, away from a straight-up whodunit crime book. Each novel is less straightforward structurally and tonally than the next. And, lastly, there's a ton of stuff about class in her novels. In Sharp Objects, the narrator's family is the richest in town, which gives them power and enables certain crimes to happen. In Dark Places, the narrator's family is the poorest in town, and her brother is lured by the wealth (not to mention the hot pussy) of the richest girl in town; also, what the narrator does in the present action of the story is initially motivated by a need for money -- she has to pay the rent, so she must face her past whether she wants to or not. In Gone Girl, much of their Missouri town has been devastated by the recent recession; I will never forget that chilling scene in the abandoned mall, taken over by squatters, junkies, and those simply forgotten by the rest of the country. One of the reasons the whole country bands together in support of Amy, I think, is because she is "wholesome" and "middle-class" -- the kind of girl everyone supposedly loves/is supposed to love. Had she been poor (and/or not white), the machine would not have consumed her story as it did. Overall, Flynn seems interested in the ways that poverty and wealth can alter (i.e., wreck) the human psyche. I hope there's a grad student out there writing a PhD dissertation called Rich Girl, Poor Girl: Gillian Flynn and The Economics of Murder. Or something.
We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for August. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. 2. A Naked Singularity 3 months 2. - Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace 1 month 3. 3. Bring Up the Bodies 4 months 4. 4. How to Sharpen Pencils 5 months 5. 6. The Swerve: How the World Became Modern 5 months 6. 5. The Patrick Melrose Novels 3 months 7. - Gone Girl 1 month 8. 7. New American Haggadah 6 months 9. 10. A Hologram for the King 2 months 10. 9. Binocular Vision 3 months A Naked Singularity by Sergio De La Pava is our newest number one, with a ton of reader interest since De La Pava was profiled by Garth Hallberg in June. The book replaces Denis Johnson's Pulitzer finalist Train Dreams in the top spot, as it graduates to our Hall of Fame. Our list has two debuts this month. D.T. Max's widely anticipated biography Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace lands in the second spot (read the book's opening paragraphs). And Gillian Flynn's juggernaut of a novel Gone Girl is our other debut. Dropping off our list is Visual Storytelling: Inspiring a New Visual Language, which was brought to our readers' attention when author Reif Larsen penned an engrossing exploration of the infographic. Other Near Misses: Broken Harbor, How Should a Person Be?: A Novel from Life, Leaving the Atocha Station, Gone Girl, and The Flame Alphabet . See Also: Last month's list.
We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for July. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. 1. Train Dreams 6 months 2. 8. A Naked Singularity 2 months 3. 2. Bring Up the Bodies 3 months 4. 3. How to Sharpen Pencils 4 months 5. 6. The Patrick Melrose Novels 2 months 6. 5. The Swerve: How the World Became Modern 4 months 7. 4. New American Haggadah 5 months 8. 7. Visual Storytelling: Inspiring a New Visual Language 4 months 9. 9. Binocular Vision 3 months 10. - A Hologram for the King 1 month Denis Johnson's Pulitzer finalist Train Dreams is our number one for a second month in a row, while A Naked Singularity by Sergio De La Pava (profiled by Garth Hallberg) leaps six spots to number two, putting it in good shape to be next month's number one when Train Dreams graduates to our Hall of Fame. Our lone debut, meanwhile, Is Dave Eggers' A Hologram for the King. Eggers is no stranger to our lists. Zeitoun was inducted into our Hall of Fame in 2010, while The Wild Things had a brief run in the Top Ten in late 2009. The Flame Alphabet by Ben Marcus drops off the list after a one-month stint. Other Near Misses: How Should a Person Be?: A Novel from Life, Leaving the Atocha Station, Gone Girl, and Broken Harbor. See Also: Last month's list.
Dear Writing Teacher, How does a writer attach one scene to the next without saying "And then..."? I find myself stuck in one room or place forever because I can't make the move to another place or time gracefully. Sincerely, Languishing in the Parlor I love this question because it's about the mucky parts of writing that are more difficult than you expect them to be. It's often these micro-level mechanics that slow a writer down, make her feel like she's oiling the rusty joints of robots rather than conjuring and exploring the lives of real people with meaningful problems. Fluidity is what I long for, anyway, when I'm working; I want to feel like I'm "inside" of my own text, participating in its unfolding in a way that is intuitive, natural, and enjoyable. Being overly conscious of transitions gives me a distancing, jerky feeling that is the opposite of fluid. Ugh. Just, ugh. The nice thing about writing is that there are many different approaches, and readers are cooperative creatures with nimble minds: teach them early on how you like to transition, and they'll learn to dance to the beat of your rhythm. In thinking about this question, I took a look at how authors of the books I've read recently dealt with this technical challenge. To keep this manageable, my examples look at transitions within a section, scene or passage, but you can extrapolate these lessons to work for scene-to-scene problems, too. First, check out the opening of the svelte and lovely novel Glaciers, by Alexis M. Smith: Isabel often thinks of Amsterdam, though she has never been there, and probably will never go. As a child in a small town on Cook Inlet in Alaska, she saw volcanoes erupting, whales migrating, and icebergs looming at sea before she ever saw a skyscraper or what could properly be called architecture. She was nine years old, on a trip to her aunt's with her mother and sister, the first time she visited a real metropolis: Seattle. She took it all in -- the towering buildings and industrial warehouses, the train tracks and bridges, the sidewalk cafes and neighborhood shops, and the skyline along Highway 99, the way the city seemed to rise right out of Elliot Bay, mirroring the Olympic Mountains across the sound. The breadth and the details overwhelmed her, but soon she loved the city in the same way she loved the landscape of the north. Old churches were grand and solemn, just like glaciers, and dilapidated houses filled her with the same sense of sadness as a stand of leafless winter trees. She began collecting postcards of other cities: Paris, London, Prague, Budapest, Cairo, Barcelona. She borrowed books from the library and watched old movies, just to get a glimpse of these other places. She imagined visiting them, walking the streets, sleeping in creaky beds in hostels, learning a few words of every language. Now, this is summary, not scene, but it's still instructive. Smith's writing is crisp, somehow spare and lyrical at once, and throughout the novel it feels as if there's something living beneath and beyond the sentences; implication runs deep. She's pretty bold, I think, in the leaps she makes here: sometimes a paragraph break is all she needs to set off on a new idea, and she moves us into Isabel's trip to Seattle with just a sentence. This passage ends here, and it's followed by a space break. After this break she writes: "Isabel finds the postcard of Amsterdam on Thursday evening, at her favorite junk store, across from the food carts on Hawthorne." The link between this and the last passage makes sense, but it's subtle, and not explained outright. Reading Glaciers reminded me that the movement between paragraphs can be surprising, and that space breaks can provide a useful exhale before you transition to a new time frame or narrative register. The trick is not to exploit such tools; once you're done writing a draft, investigate your white-space, to make sure you aren't purposefully gliding over a moment you're too chicken-shit to write, and make sure your paragraphs have, if not a clear chain of events, at least an emotional and image-driven logic. It might help you to utilize this technique when you're first getting a scene down: write what comes to you, and leave the muck of transitional sentences for later. It might turn out that you don't need them. Now let's turn to the deliciously plotted and clever crime novel Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, which dazzled me from its first sentence. Here are a few paragraphs from 15 pages in, the opening of a chapter that begins in scene. I swung wide the door of my bar, slipped into darkness, and took my first real deep breath of the day, took in the smell of cigarettes and beer, the spice of a dribbled bourbon, the tang of old popcorn. There was only one customer in the bar, sitting by herself at the far, far end: an older woman named Sue who had come in every Thursday with her husband until he died three months back. Now she came alone every Thursday, never much for conversation, just sitting with a beer and a crossword, preserving ritual. My sister was at work behind the bar, her hair pulled back in nerdy-girl barrettes, her arms pink as she dipped the beer glasses in and out of hot suds. Go is slender and strange-faced, which is not to say unattractive. Her features just take a moment to make sense: the broad jaw; the pinched, pretty nose; the dark globe eyes. If this were a period movie, a man would tilt back his fedora, whistle at the sight of her, and say, "Now, there's a helluva broad!" The face of a '30s screwball-movie queen doesn't always translate in our pixie-princess times, but I know from our years together that men like my sister, a lot, which puts me in that strange brotherly realm of being both proud and weary. "Do they still make pimento loaf?" she said by way of greeting, not looking up, just knowing it was me, and I felt the relief I usually felt when I saw her: Things might not be great, but things would be okay. Now, what I get from this scene, aside from killer descriptions like "the spice of a dribbled bourbon," is what Joan Silber, in her book The Art of Time in Fiction: As Long As It Takes, calls "selective concreteness." Flynn isn't including every little thing that Nick encounters as he enters his bar, she's giving us only the details that matter to him, and that direct our gaze to what's important to the scene and the book as a whole; in this case, it's Nick's familiarity with this space, and his relationship to his twin sister. It's also interesting that Sue, the widow, is mentioned, because at its heart, this is a novel about marriage and marital dysfunction. I also notice how seamlessly Flynn moves between action of the scene, background information, and opinion. She transitions in and out of the present action as easily as your own mind does: you're engaging with the external world, then thinking about something, then back to the world, and so on. Here, Flynn uses the visual image of Go's glass-washing arms to move us into a general description of Go's looks. It seems natural because it is natural: Flynn is inside of Nick's perspective, noticing and commenting on what he would notice and comment on. If you're truly inhabiting character, then transitions often happen automatically. This passage is also a reminder that dialogue can be a great way to bring us back to a present moment, especially if you've moved away from the scene to provide exposition or a flashback. If you're ever stuck in a scene, I suggest opening a favorite book, and seeing how the writer handles the problem. Flip to a crisis moment in the story or novel, and see how the events move along, how the author transitions out of one tense situation and introduces something else. Emulating that same structure might help you find your own. Here are some other exercises and tactics that come to mind: 1. Braiding Time I found this exercise in Now Write! edited by Sherry Ellis. It was created by fiction writer and teacher Cai Emmons, and I could just kiss her it's so good. Basically, you write a scene of a character alone. The first paragraph, the character is doing something pretty rote and ongoing (washing dishes, etc.); the second paragraph flings the character into the future, without losing sight of the present; the third paragraph flings the character into the past (also with the present as a jumping-off point). The final paragraph uses all three time frames, present, past and future. It's a great exercise for learning how to handle a character's interiority, while also anchoring the character to a present moment. Also, each paragraph forces a transition. If the four-paragraph structure feels constraining, that might be revealing: where do you naturally want to transition? Pay attention to that. 2. The List A student just gave me this idea last night in class. If you're having trouble moving through a scene, consider first jotting down a list of what is physically and sensually in the scene/experience. You know: the smell of popcorn and cigarettes, the sister behind the bar, the widow with her crossword puzzle. By writing this list, you might find the scene's shape, which will make it easier to see the material more fully. From there, imagine the next scene that follows, and write a list for that scene. I'm not yet certain how this will help with transitions, but I've got a hunch it will. Sometimes my fear of transitions has more to do with not knowing my world than anything else. 3. Do the obvious When I'm truly anxious that I'm about to make a fool of myself on the page, it helps to just dive into that foolishness. Go ahead and write "and then..." to connect one action to the next. Write, "All of a sudden..." Write, "Out of nowhere..." Write, "A little while later..." Why not? Once you have your characters on the page, you can go back and see if you need to rewrite, cut, or what. 4. Figure out pacing My last piece of advice is to stop and ask yourself what the time frame of your narrative is. Transitions are most painful to me in novel writing, and I think this is because I am usually covering more time, and it's hard (and scary) to express that passage on the page. If you know that your narrative is the type that can handle, say, "Three weeks went by," then it might be easier for you to figure out how to progress forward. The pace at which my story develops tells me a lot about how I need to start chapters, move from one scene to the next, and so on. For many, this might be a second-draft question, but it could help you to start wondering about it now. What I'm saying is: Transitions might be the problem, or they might just be the symptom of a problem. Okay, that's all I've got for you today. Now I need to figure out how to transition from writing this to working on my novel revision. Any suggestions gladly accepted. Sincerely, The Writing Teacher Got a question? Send all queries about craft, technique, or the writing life to [email protected].
New this week are Mario Vargas Llosa's The Dream of the Celt, Soul of a Whore and Purvis: Two Plays in Verse by Denis Johnson, Living, Thinking, Looking: Essays by Siri Hustvedt, Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, and Team Cul de Sac, a book done in tribute to the great comic done by Richard Thompson and to raise money for research into Parkinson's, which Thompson was diagnosed with in 2009.