Welcome to our biannual Great Book Preview! We've assembled the best books of 2023A (that is, the first half of 2023), including new work from Nicole Chung, Tsitsi Dangarembga, Claire Dederer, Brian Dillon, Samantha Irby, Heidi Julavits, Catherine Lacy, Mario Vargas Llosa, Rebecca Makkai, Fernanda Melchor, Lorrie Moore, Jenny Odell, Curtis Sittenfeld, Clint Smith, Zadie Smith, Brandon Taylor, Colm Tóibín, and many, many more. At 85 titles, you may notice our 2023A list is a bit trimmer and more selective than in year's past. We wanted to make sure that our list comprises the books that we are truly anticipating the most—which is to say, we've carefully curated our selections to showcase the very best books coming out in the first half of 2023. We hope you enjoy! Love reading our Great Book Previews? Learn how you can support The Millions here. January Age of Vice by Deepti Kapoor Part crime thriller and part saga of the powerful Wadia family, Age of Vice roams across India, from the dusty villages of Uttar Pradesh to the cauldron of New Delhi. Three lives intersect in this world of lavish estates, extravagant parties, drugs and seamy business deals: Ajay, the watchful family servant; Sunny, the playboy heir; and Neda, a journalist out to expose the consequences of corruption. The writing has authority. Kapoor, author of the novel Bad Character, grew up in northern India and has worked as a journalist in New Delhi. The result is an addictive, vivid spellbinder of a novel. —Bill Morris Decent People by De'Shawn Charles Winslow Winslow returns to the fictional Southern town of West Mills for a second time in this expertly-plotted and character-driven follow-up to his award-winning debut novel. In the 1970s, an investigation into a triple homicide reveals surprising and profoundly sad layers of reality for the townspeople of West Mills—the trauma and ramifications of segregation, class, deeply kept secrets, and underlying homophobia. A haunting, page-turning mystery, Decent People makes a must-read on anyone’s literary list. —Jianan Qian The Survivalists by Kashana Cauley In this debut novel, a perpetually single Black lawyer, Aretha, falls in love with Aaron, a coffee entrepreneur who shares a brownstone with a stable of bizarre roommates. When Aretha moves in with Aaron, she gets caught up in their household dramas, which range from illegal gun sales to half-baked schemes to prepare for the end of the world. It will not surprise people who’ve read Cauley's essays—or seen her work on The Daily Show, or read her excellent tweets—that The Survivalists is, according to Tom Perrotta, an “edgy” and “darkly funny” book. —Thom Beckwith Still Pictures by Janet Malcolm Malcolm was a master of reportage, able to dissect and decipher her subjects with startling precision. (Also one of my own writerly heroes.) She often mused on the relationship between journalist and subject; in much of her journalism, she judged her subjects from a cool distance. How, then, would she approach a memoir? What would a self-portrait by one of our most formidable portraitists look like? These were the questions that exhilarated me when I began Malcolm's posthumous memoir. Still Pictures is as much a look at Malcolm's own photos and memories as the nature of photography and memory, written with all her characteristic style and clarity. —Sophia M. Stewart The Half Known Life by Pico Iyer In this philosophical and theological travelog, Iyer searches the globe for paradise. Not for himself—he wants to understand the idea of paradise, that incentive and dream and goal that undergirds the world's religions. Maria Popova herself, the brilliant mind behind The Marginalian, has called Iyer "one of the most soulful and perceptive writers of our time" and I expect The Half Known Life will further cement that status. —SMS OK by Michelle McSweeney In this slim and lucid addition to the Object Lessons series, which explores the hidden lives of everyday objects, linguist and author Michelle McSweeney unpacks the phrase “OK,” coined 200 years ago and now ubiquitous in spoken English. As an object, “OK” reveals how technologies inscribe themselves into languages—originally, it was an acronym that stood for “all correct,” a phrase which marked some of the earliest printed newspapers as ready for publication. From there, McSweeney traces the word’s evolution through the present, illuminating the ways in which its meaning developed over time. —TB The 12th Commandment by Daniel Torday Torday presents a provocative and unexpected tale of contemporary Jewish life that owes less to Philip Roth and Saul Bellow than it does to Cynthia Ozick and Isaac Bashevis Singer. The 12th Commandment concerns the historical sect known as the Dönmeh, Turkish followers of a seventeenth-century Jewish pseudo-messiah who outwardly practice Islam but who are actually adherents of an esoteric kabbalistic faith. “Weird folk,” explains a character, “They’re like Jews and Muslims at the same time. Or something.” Unexpectedly set among an imagined group of Dönmeh in small-town Ohio, with a noirish murder plot driving the action, and The 12th Commandment will appeal to fans of Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, but Torday’s unique imagination and vital vision are his own. —Ed Simon Forbidden Notebook by Alba de Céspedes, translated by Ann Goldstein The story begins when Valeria Cossati—a 43-year-old office worker, self-sacrificing wife, and mother of two—buys a thick black notebook and begins writing at night—her thoughts, experiences, and fury. What follows over the course of six months are reflections on motherhood and femininity in postwar Rome that were as urgent and revelatory in the 1950s, when the novel was originally published, as they are today in post-Roe America. In the words of Annie Ernaux: “Reading Alba de Céspedes was, for me, like breaking into an unknown universe.” —Jenny Wu Life on Delay: Making Peace with a Stutter by John Hendrickson I've been waiting for John to write this book since I first read his paradigm-shifting Atlantic article "What Joe Biden Can't Bring Himself to Say." Like Biden, John is a person who stutters. In Life on Delay, and with profound intelligence and insight, John examines his own stuttering life, as well as the lives of many other stutterers, to probe the many contradictions of disfluency. John has become something of a torchbearer in our community, and this book is going to be an essential contribution to the (currently very limited) literature of stuttering. I hate when people call certain books "important"—but this book is very important me, and will be important to a lot of people. We've been waiting a long time for a book like this. —SMS The Call of the Tribe by Mario Vargas Llosa, translated by John King When I began my undergraduate studies, I was disappointed by how little nonfiction appeared on the syllabi of my Spanish literature classes. Then I encountered Llosa, a Nobel-winning nonfictioneer and intellectual heavyweight (and occasional novelist) who rose to prominence during the Latin American Boom. In The Call of the Tribe, he maps out the minds that shaped his own: Sartre and Adam Smith, Friedrich A. Hayek and Isaiah Berlin, and many more (mostly male) writers and thinkers. It's a pleasure—and a pleasurable challenge—to read Llosa on the roots of his ideology. —SMS The Once and Future Sex: Going Medieval on Women's Roles in Society by Eleanor Janega Ever since I visited the Cloisters for the first time earlier this year, I've been hungry to learn more about medieval life, and specifically women's place in it. Enter The Once and Future Sex, the subtitle of which quite directly addresses this yen of mine. Janega, a medievalist by training, makes middle-age sociology accessible, highlighting how archaic notions of femininity continue to shape modern womanhood in ways both subtle and overt. Beauty, sex, work, labor, motherhood, decorum—no aspect of women's lives goes unexplored in this rigorous study, which also highlights many of the era's subversive trailblazers. —SMS Black and Female by Tsitsi Dangarembga Zimbabwean writer Dangarembga explores the long shadow cast by imperialism in her own life, and the lives of all African people, in this volume of essays. The personal and political commingle (because, as all feminists know, they're one and the same) as Dangarembga excavates her own history and the history of her nation. The result is a clear-eyed look at what navigating life and art-making as a woman in Zimbabwe has taught her, as well as the possibilities and limits of a distinctly Black feminism, which she calls "the status quo’s worst nightmare." —SMS A Guest at the Feast by Colm Tóibín One of Ireland's greatest living novelists, Tóibín is known the world over for his fiction. That's why I'm so curious to read his new essay collection, to see how he transfers his mastery across genres. A (supposedly) great compliment is to be called a nonfiction writer with a "novelist's" sensibility—the implication being that nonfiction is best when it reads like fiction. (I disagree!) This isn't Tóibín's first foray into nonfiction (he's written books on Elizabeth Bishop; contemporary queer artists; and the fathers of famous Irish writers)—but it is one of his most intimate. This is clear from the book's outset, which features one of best opening lines I've read in a minute: "It all started with my balls." —SMS Vintage Contemporaries by Dan Kois I always love reading Dan Kois's criticism (if you haven't yet read him on Tár, please do yourself the favor—and prepare to have your mind blown) so I was thrilled to hear about his forthcoming novel, a coming-of-age set in New York City at the turn of the millennium that wrestles with art, friendship, and what it means to cultivate a creative life. Our very own Lydia Kiesling blurbed it and gave it what is in my book one of the ultimate compliments: "poignant without being treacly." A near-impossible literary feat—I can't wait to see (read?) Kois pull it off for myself. —SMS Your Driver Is Waiting by Priya Guns A retelling of the movie Taxi Driver featuring a ride-share driver? An incredible premise for a novel that explores work, class, and solidarity (or the lack thereof). Damani Krishanthan works for an Uber-like company, scraping by after her father dies during his shift at a fast-food restaurant. During a summer of uprising, she drives through throngs of protestors trying to make enough to cover rent. A relationship with a white wealthy protestor goes south, prompting a dramatic ending (considering its cinematic source material, I can only imagine). —Lydia Kiesling The Guest Lecture by Martin Riker Abby, a young economist, can't sleep the night before the talk she is scheduled to present tomorrow, optimism and John Maynard Keynes. A lapsed optimist struggling to support her family, she feels grossly unprepared to offer any insights into Keynes. With wry humor and true wisdom, Riker, co-founder and publisher of Dorothy, a Publishing Project, transforms one woman’s insomnia into an enchanting and playful exploration of literature, performance, and the life of the mind. —JQ After Sappho by Selby Wynn Schwartz At the turn of the twentieth century, three queer women—Rina Faccio, Romaine Brooks, and Virginia Woolf among them—make the same decision: They take up their pens or paintbrushes to define their lives and their identities on their own terms. Taking cues from the Greek poet, After Sappho, Schwartz's Booker-longlisted debut novel, reimagines the intertwined voices of those pioneering women artists in the collective first-person, whose courage and struggles never cease to inspire and encourage those who come after. —JQ Hanging Out by Sheila Liming We’ve all heard the admonitions to slow down, drop out, resist the rush—but what does that actually look like? “Hanging out is about daring to do nothing much and, even more than that, about daring to do it in the company of others,” writes Liming in her treatise on the subject, the follow-up to her 2020 book What a Library Means to a Woman on Edith Wharton and book collections. Hanging Out, an endearing and revealing book, is well-timed, but as she notes, “we were having a hard time hanging out well before COVID-19 came along.” She makes a compelling case for us to get together. —Nick Ripatrazone Call and Response: Stories by Gothataone Moeng This debut story collection joins a chorus of literary voices rising out of contemporary Africa. Set in the author’s native village of Serowe, as well as in Gabarone, the thrumming capital of Botswana, these stories are spun from the struggles of women seeking to reconcile ancestral expectations with imported dreams—a girl who hides her sexual exploits from her family while her older brother flaunts his conquests; a young widow who ponders the custom of wearing mourning clothes for a year; a woman who returns from America, ashamed to have given up on the land of opportunity. The great Namwalli Serpell praised the collection for its "sharply observed vignettes," which together amount to a "beautiful" book full of "deep insight." —BM Black Empire by George S. Schuyler Originally published in serial form in the 1930s, Black Empire is the masterwork of George S. Schuyler, a journalist, Harlem Renaissance man, socialist-turned-arch-conservative, and creator of acid satires. This novel is the story of Dr. Henry Belsidus, a Black genius who sets out to cultivate a global network that will reclaim Africa from imperial powers and punish Europe and America for their crimes against the world’s Black population. Schuyler’s earlier novel, Black No More, is a satirical romp about a Black man who turns his skin white. In all his work, Schuyler work confronts an abiding and urgent moral quandary: How far should one go to bring justice to an unjust world? —BM February Where I'm Coming From by Barbara Brandon-Croft Drawn & Quarterly has never let me down, and its winning streak won’t be snapped by this collection from the first Black woman to have a nationally-syndicated comic strip. In the witty and groundbreaking "Where I’m Coming From," which ran from 1989 to 2005, nine Black girlfriends deliver insights and punchlines in equal measure, touching on politics, race, relationships, and everything in between. Tayari Jones says that Brandon-Croft’s work has “aged beautifully,” hailing the collection as “both ahead of its time and right on time.” —Evan Allgood Brutes by Dizz Tate This surreal and ambitious debut novel, written partially in first-person plural and billed as “The Virgin Suicides meets The Florida Project,” follows a clan of teenaged girls in Falls Landing, Florida, as they grapple with the disappearance of the local preacher's daughter. Brutes’s adolescent cast, time-jumping narrative, and promise of violence evoke the hit show Yellowjackets. Mariana Enríquez calls it “a beautiful and deeply strange novel, full of dread and longing.” —EA City of Blows by Tim Blake Nelson I love movies, but Hollywood—both the city and the industry that undergirds it—has never much interested me. Honestly, celebrity culture in America baffles me. But when a Hollywood insider and an accomplished playwright—and, not to mention, a fine actor—decides to satirize the toxic culture of Tinsel Town, I’m in. Nelson's debut novel follows four men fighting for control of a script and a place in a rapidly transforming Hollywood. There’s something sustaining in a story that shows how beautiful people can be just as petty—just as ugly—as the rest of us. —Il’ja Rákoš Couplets by Maggie Millner Lovers of horny, rhyming poetry rejoice: Millner’s “love story in poems,” arrives a week before Valentine’s Day, just in time to tie your brain to its bedposts. Kink and queerness, power and polyamory—this debut by the senior editor of the Yale Review has it all. Read an excerpt in BOMB to see why Elif Batuman, Garth Greenwell, and Leslie Jamison are all head over heels for this clever, seductive story of coming out and coming of age. —EA The Black Guy Dies First by Robin R. Means Coleman and Mark H. Harris This collaboration between Coleman, a scholar, and Harris, a journalist and film critic, explores the history of Black horror films since 1968. Named for the well-known cinematic trope, the book spans cult classics like Spider Baby up to commercial and critical successes like Get Out. According to Kirkus Reviews, the book is written with “keen observation, a satirical eye, and a genuine love for the subject.” —Edan Lepucki Big Swiss by Jen Beagin "A sex therapist's transcriptionist falls in love with a client while listening to her sessions"—that was all I needed to hear to get excited about Beagin's third novel. Throw in blurbs from Melissa Border and A Touch of Jen author Beth Morgan, and I was all but convinced that Big Swiss will be weird and horny and unfettered in all the best ways. "Pick it up because you like cheese," Morgan urges, "stay for the brilliant sentences." —SMS Culture: The Story of Us, From Cave Art to K-Pop by Martin Puchner So many books these days are described as being "sweeping histories"; Culture, which promises in its subtitle to take us from our most primitive artistic impulses all the way to the machinery of modern-day fandom. But what intrigues me most about Puchner's latest isn't its scope—it's its driving question: "What good are the arts?" In my more hopeless moments, this question bubbles up inside me, and I'm chomping at the bit to hear Puchner's answer, grounded in history and informed by cultures around the world. —SMS Dyscalculia by Camonghne Felix Following her poetry collection Build Yourself a Boat, which landed a spot on the National Book Award longlist, Camonghne Felix makes her nonfiction debut with this memoir, which charts a life-changing breakup and its many consequences for her life. When the author ends up in the hospital, she draws a parallel between her troubles as an adult and her childhood diagnosis of dyscalculia, a condition which makes it difficult to learn math or estimate place value. As she starts to tally her romantic miscalculations, she asks a wide-ranging question: who gets the right to freely express their own pain? —TB All the Beauty in the World: The Metropolitan Museum of Art and Me by Patrick Bringley A former New Yorker staffer turned museum guard is a pretty compelling tagline, to be certain, and Bringley delivers in this intimate and philosophical debut memoir—he muses on the artworks, coworkers, and museumgoers that surround him. Adding poignancy to the memoir's conceit, his observations are all permeated with profound grief as he reels from the death of his older brother. Bringly brings the Met to life on a grand scale and granular level. —NR The Wife of Willesden by Zadie Smith For her first foray into playwriting, novelist and essayist Smith reimagines Chaucer’s Canterbury Tale about the Wife of Bath for twenty-first century, northwest London. Alvita, a Jamaican-born British woman in her early fifties, tells her life story to strangers in a pub. In its review, The Guardian calls it “a celebration of community and local legends, of telling a good story and living a life worth telling. Not bad for an original text that’s 600 years old.” —EL Palo Alto: A History of California, Capitalism, and the World by Malcolm Harris I went to college in the Bay Area, where the allure of Silicon Valley was palpable. My classmates posted about their internships at Twitter and Microsoft, wore t-shirts with emblazoned with the logos of Google and Linkedin, and went on to get jobs with six-figure starting salaries. I remembered my dad's quaint stories of growing up in nearby Los Altos and struggled to reconcile that history with the present. Harris's comprehensive history of Silicon Valley, from railroad capitalism to free love to big tech, does just that. Palo Alto spans centuries in order to thoroughly demystifying the region's economics and unearth its enduring legacy of settler colonialism. Users by Colin Winnette I worked for years as a consultant at American-based IT companies with teams in Kyiv, and among those Ukrainians I knew who were handling the code, it was rare to find anyone who worshipped Steve Jobs, loved tech, or saw STEM work as anything particularly noble. No true believers in panaceas or "essential" tech. Here, in the fictional world of Winnette’s latest novel, we encounter a strong critique and timely caution that my Kyiv ITshnyks certainly understood well: the devastation that awaits when we entrust the mechanisms we’ve built to do our thinking, our feeling, and our living for us. —IR I Have Some Questions for You by Rebecca Makkai In her follow-up to her 2018 novel The Great Believers, a Pulitzer and National Book Award finalist, Makkai brings us to a New Hampshire boarding school. Film professor Bodie Kane has been eager to forget her four awful years there, which included a murder of a classmate by the athletic trainer. But when she's brought back to campus to teach a two-week course, everything she thought she knew about the case is thrown into question. Makkai plays with true-crime tropes to deliver a literary exploration of friendship. —Marie Myung-Ok Lee Oscar Wars: A History of Hollywood in Gold, Sweat, and Tears by Michael Schulman Michael Shulman is one of the great profile-writers of our time, and one of our best writers, period. (His New Yorker profiles of Jeremy Strong, Bo Burnahm, and Adam Driver long ago took up permanent residence in my brain.) What Schulman, a student of personality, could accomplish in a study of the Oscars—that most official of personality contests—is limitless. It's also just a perfect opportunity to spill so much celebrity gossip. I imagine devouring this book poolside, while sipping on a blue drink; a big umbrella overhead, a little umbrella in my glass. Slime by Susanne Wedlich, translated by Ayca Turkoglu Primordial slime has long been considered a cornerstone of life on Earth; without it, the natural world would be unrecognizable. Slimy substances like mucous and slobber are also common features of fictional monsters in popular culture from Lovecraft to Alien. Munich-based science and nature journalist Susanne Wedlich’s ode to the semi-liquids that hold our world together—and our minds in awe—reminds us “we are sticky beings living in a sticky place” (TLS), whether we like it or not. —JW March Monstrilio by Gerardo Sámano Córdova What lengths would you go to get back someone you've loved and lost? Just for a bit, to look in their eyes one more time, or tell them what needed to be told? But play that possibility out to its inevitable conclusion and it’s difficult to envision anything good coming from it. In Córdova’s horror debut, a grieving mother in Mexico City goes to unimaginable extremes to bring her late 11-year-old son back to life, only to discover that there are worse things than death. Grief, she learns, is not something to be trifled with, or worse, avoided. —IR Francisco by Alison Mills Newman Though it garnered plaudits from Toni Morrison when it was first published in 1974, Newman's autobiographical novel has long been out of print. Now, a reissue by New Directions—with a new foreword by Saidiya Hartman—promises to introduce a new generation of readers to Newman’s innovative and genre-bending story, which draws on the author’s experience as a young actress in 1960s Hollywood. —TB The Fifth Wound by Aurora Mattia In her new novel, the Mattia reinvents the roman à clef with a magical realist memoir that puts the dusty genre of autofiction to shame. Sifting from multiple narratives—and dimensions—The Fifth Wound is a romance, a meditation on transphobic violence, and a speculative tale of time travel, ecstatic visionaries, and mystical union. Transcending the limiting confines of not just society, but reality as well, and Mattia’s novel promises the reader an experience that recalibrates simplistic notions of truth and fiction, reality and illusion. —ES Saving Time by Jenny Odell I love books that force me to recognize or reconsider the structure of existence—and Odell’s book does just this, in a way that's both enlightening and generative. Her previous book, How to Do Nothing, was a runaway hit about what happens when we subvert the temporal expectations that are placed upon us: “Letting go of one overwhelming rhythm, you invite the presence of others. Perhaps more important, you remember that the arrangement is yours to make.” Odell demonstrates how it's never too late to save the time we have left. —NR The Best of Everything by Rona Jaffe In 1958, at the age of 27, Rona Jaffe published her first novel, a revolutionary portrait of three young women employed at a New York publishing house. Renowned for its frankness and honesty, particularly in its depictions of sexual harassment, The Best of Everything is, per Michele Moses, “what you would get if you took Sex and the City and set it inside Mad Men’s universe.” Now, for its 65th anniversary, Penguin Classics is reissuing the novel, complete with a new introduction by New Yorker staff writer Rachel Syme, who is the perfect voice to prime us for a retro romp through postwar New York and its attendant glitzy patina. —TB Raving by McKenzie Wark Wark's entry into Duke University Press's Practices series, which spotlights the activities that make us human, invites us into the underground queer and trans rave scene of New York City. A bombastic collision of sound and movement, raving is, to Wark, the ideal activity for "this era of diminishing futures." An avid raver herself, she blends academic analysis with her own first-hand accounts, all relayed with sensual, staccato prose. "Some come to serve looks; some come to leave their sweat on the dance floor," she writes. "I’m the latter kind. I want to be animate and animated on the floor." —SMS Still Life with Bones by Alexa Hagerty From 1960 to 1996, more than 200,000 Guatemalans were killed, and tens of thousands more disappeared, after an American-backed coup gave rise to a steady march of genocidal dictators. Decades later, anthropologists like Alexa Hagerty are working to exhume and examine the dead, piecing together their bodies and their stories in an urgent but potentially quixotic quest for resolution, and attempting to bring a sense of humanity to the forensic sciences. —EA How to Think Like a Woman by Regan Penaluna In her first book, journalist Penaluna, who has a PhD in philosophy, explores the oft-forgotten and under-taught feminist philosophers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries: Mary Astell, Damaris Masham, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Catherine Cockburn. Blending biography, criticism, and memoir, Penaluna explores the lives and beliefs of these thinkers, as well as the ways women—past and present—have been devalued within philosophy, academia, and history. How to Think Like a Woman serves as an alternate philosophical canon, where women and their intellect are deeply and rigorously examined. —Carolyn Quimby Y/N by Esther Yi “Y/N,” short for “[Your/Name],” refers to a type of fanfiction that allows readers to insert their own names into brackets in the story, so as to imagine themselves in romantic scenarios with popular idols. In Esther Yi’s debut novel, our narrator devotes herself to writing fanfic about a K-pop star named Moon. When Moon suddenly retires and retreats from the spotlight, the narrator embarks on a transnational search that unveils the absurd innards of a Korean entertainment company, as well as the loneliness of modern life and the various fantasies we enact to try to escape it. Yi, a Leipzig-based writer, has earned comparisons to Elif Batuman, Thomas Pynchon, Yoko Tawada, and Marie NDiaye. —JW How Not to Kill Yourself: A Portrait of a Suicidal Mind by Clancy Martin Clancy Martin has tried to die by suicide more than 10 times. In How Not to Kill Yourself, he speaks frankly about these attempts and the thoughts that fueled them. In probing his own experiences, he inevitably comes to larger conclusions about the nature of the self-destructive mind and the philosophy of suicide. He also turns to other writers who have attempted suicide and written about it, from Yiyun Li to David Foster Wallace. Written with surprising tenderness and humor, this memoir-cum-critical-inquiry is a perspective-shifting study. Biography of X by Catherine Lacy With a title that recalls both Alex Haley’s biography of Malcolm X and Gertrude Stein’s consideration of her partner Alice B. Toklas, Lacey audaciously explores the contingencies of identity, memory, and history in her latest experimental novel. Lacey’s novel takes place in an alternative history where the American South separated from the United States and was governed as a fascist theocracy only recently being reabsorbed into the wider nation. Ostensibly The Biography of X is about the titular unknown, a celebrated but mysterious artist, and her widow’s account of that life as much as can be assembled. But with cameos by such twentieth-century luminaries as Sontag and Bowie, the novel is also a biography of American art and theory which understands that sometimes history is best understood at a slant. —ES The Last Catastrophe by Allegra Hyde This collection of 15 stories by the author of Eleutheria continues Hyde’s interest in humanity grappling with climate change. Alexandra Kleeman writes that these speculative stories are “dazzling, inventive, and glinting with dark humor.” Spaceships, AI, zombies, and body-switching abound. I, for one, am most excited to read the story about the girl growing a unicorn horn! —EL The New Earth by Jess Row A century which began with 9/11, and has so far seen economic collapse, a ground war in Europe, a global pandemic, and the rise of neo-fascism is painfully interesting. Jess Row’s latest novel interlays these interesting times on a family drama among the privileged Wilcoxes of the Upper East Side, from 2000 to 2018. The global perspective becomes synonymous with the vantage point of daughter Winter Wilcox, who on the eve of her wedding must grapple not just with her estranged family, but the ways in which her personal tragedies from years coincide with both parental secrets and historical injustices. “Disguising your origins is a deeply American impulse,” Row wrote in 2014, “but that doesn’t make it any less compromising,” a theme heartily interrogated in The New Earth. —ES Chlorine by Jade Song Song's debut novel revolves around high-schooler Ren Yu, a competitive swimmer who spends her days in the pool. Her immigrant parents expect her to train hard and secure a college scholarship, but she aspires to transform into a mermaid, freeing herself from the terrestrial world. A spiky, sapphic coming-of-age that embraces fantasy and horror to explore girlhood and its discontents. —JQ In Search of a Beautiful Freedom by Farah Jasmine Griffin A new volume of collected essays both new and previously published by Farah Jasmine Griffin, the William B. Ransford Professor of English and Comparative Literature and African American Studies at Columbia. Following her last book Read Until You Understand: The Profound Wisdom of Black Life and Literature, these new and previously unpublished essays range in topic from Covid to the efforts to ban Toni Morrison to the life work of Odetta. Griffin's insights into Black music, feminism, and literature are unparalleled. —LK Affinities by Brian Dillon When I read Dillon's previous books, Essayism and Suppose a Sentence, I considered them a diptych: two close looks at two literary forms (the essay and the sentence) that were driven by what Dillon himself calls his own "affinity." It turns out, Essayism and Suppose a Sentence were really the first two entries in a triptych! His latest book, Affinities, centers on images, from photographs to paintings to migraine auras. Why do images make us feel the way they do? Why are we drawn to certain images over other ones? Dillon is one of my favorite writers, thinkers, and close-readers, and I can't wait to read him on the pleasures of looking. —SMS Above Ground by Clint Smith I long for a literature—especially a poetry—of joy; life is too short and bland without it. Smith’s new poetry collection teems with images of love and fatherhood. Great poetry comes in many modes and subjects, but there’s something unique about a book of verse that makes me want to hold my own children a little tighter, as I think of his description of delivering a bear hug: “my arms are still / open like a universe / in need of a planet / to make it worth / something.” Juxtaposed with lines of grief and recognition—“men attempting / to unlearn the anger on their father’s / tongues, the heat in their hands”—Smith’s songs of joy are that much sweeter. —NR Ada's Room by Sharon Dodua Otoo, translated by Jon Cho-Polizzi Otoo's debut novel is about four women, all with the same name: Ada, a mother in fifteenth-century West Africa; Ada Lovelace, the real-life programmer in Victorian England; Ada, a prisoner in a concentration camp in 1945; and Ada, a young Ghanian woman in present day. As Otoo connects their narratives across centuries, the linear confines of history break down and a profound sorority comes into focus. R.O. Kwon calls this one "thrillingly, astonishingly original." —SMS April This Is Not Miami by Fernanda Melchor, translated by Sophie Hughes Taking place in and around the Mexican city of Veracruz, this collection of crónicas—narrative nonfiction pieces that blend reportage with novelistic structures—explores the criminal underworld, shedding light on social problems that manifest in gory headlines. As in her novels Paradais and Hurricane Season, Melchor draws empathetic portraits of deeply unsympathetic figures, forcing her readers to understand the mindsets of monstrous characters. —TB Chain Gang All-Stars by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah Ever since the moment I finished Adjei-Brenyah’s surreal, satirical, and original debut story collection, Friday Black, I’ve been not-so-patiently waiting for whatever he wrote next. In his upcoming debut novel, two female gladiators fight to the death for their freedom on the hugely popular and controversial TV show, Chain-Gang All Stars, which airs on CAPE (Criminal Action Penal Entertainment). With his sharp eye for satire and reverence for humanity, Adjei-Brenyah’s latest explores the exploitation, violence, and false promises of the prison industrial complex, capitalism, and the country itself. —CQ Work-Life Balance by Aisha Franz, translated by Nicholas Houde This graphic novel, which was originally a comic series published by Colorama, concerns three friends who, disillusioned with their work lives, seek help from the same therapist. Franz, who lives in Berlin, was nominated for a Los Angeles Times book prize for her previous book, Shit is Real, which the Guardian called “a wise and funny journey through loneliness and confusion.” Her latest sounds just as promising. —EL Ordinary Notes by Christina Sharpe The latest book by scholar of English literature and Black Studies Christina Sharpe takes the form of a series of 248 notes on history, art, literature, and life whose meanings accumulate over the course of nearly 400 pages. At the center of the resulting polyphonic portrait of Black existence is the figure of Ida Wright Sharpe, the author’s mother. Saidiya Hartman calls Ordinary Notes "an exquisite text" that "demands everything of the reader and, in turn, offers us a vocabulary for living.” —JW A Living Remedy by Nicole Chung Chung's bestselling memoir All You Can Ever Know, published in 2018, cemented her as one of this generation's great chroniclers of family, both adoptive and biological: its limits and possibilities, what it means, how it shapes us. Her follow-up, which follows Chung as she mourns her parents and navigates the institutional inequities baked into American society, promises to be just as poignant. Blurbers Megha Majumdar, Julie Otsuka, Imani Perry, and Bryan Washington certainly think so. —SMS Second Star: And Other Reasons for Lingering by Philippe Delerm, translated by Jody Gladding A runaway hit in France, Second Star is a collection of vignettes about life's smallest and simplest moments, from washing your windows to peeling a clementine. With evocative descriptions of taste, touch, and sound, Delerm zeroes in on the sensations and pleasures that, while often overlooked or taken for granted, can make us feel most alive. Linger in the moment, he says, stay a while—be here, now. —SMS Romantic Comedy by Curtis Sittenfeld I first encountered Curtis Sittenfeld in high school, when my dad's then-girlfriend gifted me a copy of Prep. It was smart and sexy and felt like a portal into womanhood, which I was on the precipice of. Sittenfeld knows how to write romantic comedy without ever slipping into the saccharine, the chivalrous, the cliche. (Also, Brandon Taylor is a fan!) So I can't wait for her new rom-com, about a comedy writer whose decision to swear off love is rocked when she falls for a pop star. —SMS Sea Change by Gina Chung Chung's debut centers on thirty-something Ro who feels stalled in her life—heartbroken after a breakup, father missing, mother remote, friends drifting away. She's also stagnating at her job at a mall aquarium, where one of her favorite sea creatures (and last remaining link to her father), an octopus named Dolores, is about to be sold to a wealthy investor intent on moving her to a private collection. Joseph Han called Ro one of his favorite Korean American characters of all time. —MML The One by Julia Argy Argy’s debut novel, about a woman who’s a contestant on a Bachelor-style dating reality show, has garnered some killer blurbs. Julie Buntin writes, “I could not stop reading Julia Argy’s smart, funny, and tender debut novel about falling in love and finding oneself on and offscreen,” and Claire Messud calls it “riveting, astute and darkly comic.” —EL Without Children by Peggy O'Donnell Heffington As a mother of three myself, I’m interested in why people become parents—or don’t. In Without Children, Heffington, a historian of gender, explores the long history of women who did not become mothers, for a variety of reasons. Situating what seems to some to be a modern phenomenon within a larger historical context, this one seems like an essential read. Ada Calhoun deems it a “timely, refreshingly open-hearted study.” —EL The Double Life of Benson Yu by Kevin Chong I hear the word “metafiction” and I usually figure I’m in for a cerebral workout and probably a headache. While Chong’s story of a graphic novelist focusing on his art in an attempt to process his difficult youth is indeed a workout, it’s also a hugely engaging, headache-free read about a world, Chinatown, and a creative outlet, graphic arts, that I know nothing about. Yes, there is a lot of darkness in this story, episodes that could present challenges to some readers, but ultimately the heft of this novel lies in its powerful reminder that unless we confront our demons, we’ll never exorcise them. —IR Arrangements in Blue by Amy Key An essay collection about unpartnered life set to the soundtrack of Joni Mitchell's Blue—so thoughtful of Amy Key to write a book specifically and exclusively for me! Looking back at her past romantic longings and collisions, Key considers the (inflated?) value of romantic love and finds her contradictory feelings on the matter reflected in Mitchell's lyrics. There's nothing poor-me about Arrangements in Blue; in Key's hands, solitary life becomes more capacious—and more complicated—than I ever thought possible. —SMS The Ugly History of Beautiful Things by Katy Kelleher In this deeply researched collection of essays, Paris Review contributor Katy Kelleher explores the hidden histories of our favorite luxury goods, revealing how even the most beautiful objects have dark, unsavory backgrounds. In a blend of historical, scientific and autobiographical writing, Kelleher explains why some red lipstick contains beetle shells, why certain perfumes include rodent musk, and why a fancy class of dishware is made with the ashes of cow bones. Along with helping us understand how these objects came to signify beauty, Kelleher reveals the price workers pay to bring them to us – and suggests a few ways we can ethically appreciate their products. —TB May Written on Water by Eileen Chang It is no exaggeration to say Eileen Chang has shaped our perceptions of modern cities in China. Before her, big cities were monstrous, with myriads of people often seen as sordid sinners. Chang portrayed Shanghai and Hong Kong as the intersections of tradition and modernity, of the East and the West. The pleasures of modernity embody new ways of life. The subtleties of everyday life signify people’s pursuit of happiness. Chang is sharp, rebellious, and unique. You will find even her examination of Shanghainese food eerily resonating. —JQ Homebodies by Tembe Denton-Hurst When Mickey Hayward loses her coveted media job, she pens a scathing letter about the racism and sexism she's encountered in the industry. It's met with silence and soon forgotten, until a media scandal catapults the letter—and Mickey—back into the spotlight. This witty take on fame, media, and the institutions that rule our lives, Homebodies already garnered blurbs from Danielle Evans, Honorée Fanonne Jeffers, and Bryan Washington. —SMS Quietly Hostile by Samantha Irby If you’ve read Irby’s previous collections, or even skimmed her Instagram, you’re likely waiting for her next book of hilarious essays. This one sounds promising: it has a skunk on the front and covers everything from working in Hollywood, to getting a “deranged pandemic dog” (per the jacket copy), to being turned away from a restaurant for being dressed inappropriately. I can’t wait! —EL Dances by Nicole Cuffy At the age of 22, Cece Cordell is catapulted to fame when she becomes the first Black principal dancer in the history of the storied New York City Ballet. But her achievement doesn’t feel right, and she she soon embarks on a journey to find a missing older brother— and the pieces of herself that have been devoured by the voracious machinery of the highly competitive ballet world. This debut novel by the author of a decorated work of short fiction, 2018's Atlas of the Body, is an examination of the physical and spiritual costs all artists must pay in the pursuit of their art. —BM Monsters by Claire Dederer How to separate the art from the artist? A question I—and most cultural critics—have been wrestling with for a long time now. In Monsters, Claire Dederer takes a stab. Inspired by her Paris Review essay, "What Do We Do with the Art of Monstrous Men?," Dederer takes on Hemingway and Picasso, Miles Davis and Roman Polanski, to construct a deeply personal theory of art, genius, and cruelty, written from the perspective of both a critic and a fan. I've been counting down the days to this one for a while. —SMS Dykette by Jenny Fran Davis In her blurb for Davis's debut novel, the writer Samantha Hunt tells me everything I needed to know: "Like a tightly rolled spliff passed around the room," she writes, "you will inhale Dykette." Following three queer couples on a 10-day country getaway, Dykette takes on desire, debauchery, and destruction through a distinctly queer—and propulsively entertaining—lens. —SMS Avidly Reads Screen Time by Phillip Maciak Phillip Maciak is one of the best TV critics alive right now, full stop. Whether he's writing about Girls or Station Eleven or Bluey, his criticism is always characterized by wit, insight, and a remarkable propensity for close-reading. So yes, I was over the moon to learn about his new book of cultural criticism and history, Avidly Reads Screen Time, about how we define screens and how they define us. There are three Mad Men screen caps within the book's first 30 pages, so, yeah, it's gonna be ridiculously good. —SMS Thinning Blood by Leah Myers Leah Myers is likely the last official member of the Jamestown S'Klallam Tribe as a consequence of blood quantum laws. In a work of memoir and family excavation of her ancestors lives' in the Pacific Northwest, Myers explores the meaning of legacy, documentation, belonging, and weaves between and together her own life, the lives of her ancestors, and the hypotheticals of future generations. —LK King: A Life by Jonathan Eig Martin Luther King Jr. has, at this point, been flattened into an icon. The Selma to Montgomery march, "I Have a Dream," his assassination—this is what his life has been boiled down for many of us, and in the American imagination as a whole. King the leader, the orator, the pastor, the martyr—what about King the man? Eig's forthcoming tome on King, the first full biography in decades, contains new research and shines a fresh light on King's life, relationships, and interiority. —SMS A Life of One's Own: Nine Women Writers Begin Again by Joanna Biggs I've recently realized that I will read just about any book of nonfiction that has the word "women" in the title. A Life of One's Own is no exception, though the draw certainly does not end at its title. Biggs's latest combine memoir, criticism, and biography (my favorite literary concoction) to study how women writers across the centuries—Plath, Woolf, Morrison, et al.— have carved out freedom for themselves in their lives and work. (I suspect this one will be a great companion to the aforementioned How to Think Like a Woman.) —SMS The Late Americans by Brandon Taylor Everyone’s favorite Booker Prize shortlister, national bestseller, Story Prize winner, Henry James prefacer, litcrit-newsletter purveyor, tweet-sender, and sweater-enjoyer Brandon Taylor, returns in May 2023 with The Late Americans. Like his acclaimed 2020 novel Real Life, The Late Americans is set in a small midwestern college town; also like Real Life, it is more accurately set in its young characters’ exquisitely sensitive and private psyches. Its three protagonists, and a larger constellation of midwestern eccentrics, artists, and academics, confront and provoke one another in a volatile year of self-discovery leading to a trip to a cabin where they bid goodbye to their former lives—a moment of reckoning that leaves each of them irrevocably altered. —Adam O'Fallon Price The Lost Journals of Sacajewea by Debra Magpie Earling Earling reimagines the well-trodden tale of Sacajewea and her role in the fateful expedition of Lewis and Clark in this historical novel. Endowed agency, authority, and interiority, Earling's Sacajewea rewrites the version of herself handed down through American history. Her life before the expedition comes into vivid focus, as do her complicated feelings about her role in charting the course for American imperialism. Night of the Living Rez author Morgan Talty praises this "transcendental work of literature" as "striking" and "elegant." —SMS On Women by Susan Sontag, edited by David Rieff Susan Sontag, Merve Emre—the collab of the century? I'll read anything by either writer, so I will of course be reading this. Sontag's takes on feminism, sexuality, beauty, fascism, aging, and more are the focus of this seven-essay collection, introduced by Emre and edited by Sontag's son David Rieff. Always drawn to the grey, the murky, the complicated, here Sontag considers the ubiquitous, amorphous forces that shape women's lives with her characteristic curiosity and authority. —SMS Lesbian Love Story by Amelia Possanza In her debut memoir, Brooklynite Possanza dives into the archives to recover the stories of twentieth-century New York lesbians. Sifting through records she finds role models and cautionary tales, juicy gossip and heart-wrenching regret. Writing with empathy, wit, and imagination, Possanza constructs a personal, political, and romantic history of lesbian life and love. —SMS June Where Are Your Boys Tonight?: The Oral History of Emo's Mainstream Explosion 1999-2008 by Chris Payne Emo exploded just as I gained consciousness as a human being with aesthetic tastes. For me, and many of my peers, emo music was a formative force in our lives, enunciating the frustration and darkness that many of us found ourselves newly harboring as adolescents. So I can't wait to read Chris Payne's oral history of the genre, which uses interviews with My Chemical Romance, Paramore, Panic! at the Disco, Fall Out Boy, and more to reconstruct emo's meteoric ascent and profound cultural footprint. —SMS Wannabe: Reckoning with the Pop Culture That Shapes Me by Aisha Harris Harris, host of NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour, always has a take. Movies, TV, music—she's got an opinion and she's excited to tell you about it. Adapting her radio presence into book form, Wannabe sees Harris turning her talents for critique and criticism inward, looking at the media that has shaped her life and examining its effects. From Clueless to the Spice Girls, New Girl to Chance the Rapper, Harris teases out the connections between her identity and her love of pop culture with wit and elan. —SMS Rivermouth: A Chronicle of Language, Faith, and Migration by Alejandra Oliva Oliva is a writer, translator and immigration activist who has translated for people seeking asylum along the US-Mexico border since 2016. In this work of memoir and journalism, which won a 2022 Whiting Nonfiction Award, Oliva describes her experiences of translation, describes her own Mexican-American family's relationship to the border, and interrogates notions of citizenship and belonging. —LK I Am Homeless If This Is Not My Home by Lorrie Moore Moore's first novel since 2009's A Gate at the Stairs, I Am Homeless If This Is Not My Home (that title!) is a ghost story set in the nineteenth and twenty-first centuries about grief, devotion, and narrative. I'll be honest, I have no idea what this book is actually going to be about (the descriptive copy sums up the plot thusly: "A teacher visiting his dying brother in the Bronx. A mysterious journal from the nineteenth century stolen from a boarding house. A therapy clown and an assassin, both presumed dead, but perhaps not dead at all . . .") but the intrigue makes it all the more anticipated. —SMS Directions to Myself: A Memoir of Four Years by Heidi Julavits My first introduction to Julavits was 2015's The Folded Clock, which I read the week after I first moved to New York, back in 2020. I've been waiting for her next book ever since. It's finally here—Directions to Myself sees Julavits studying what she calls "the end times of childhood." She writes about her son's upbringing as well as her own to find answers about motherhood, family life, and growing up. George Saunders calls it "an absolute stunner." I predict I'll feel the same. —SMS [millions_email]
Dan Chaon's most recent novel, Await Your Reply, is a masterful tale of identity and how it's made, stolen, and remade. The book, with its three interlocking stories, and locales as disparate as Las Vegas, Nebraska, and the Arctic, is intensely readable, but as Janet Maslin of The New York Times points out, "...the real pleasure in reading Mr. Chaon is less in finding out where he’s headed than in savoring what he accomplishes along the way." Chaon is also the author of the novel, You Remind Me of Me, and two short story collections, Fitting Ends, and Among the Missing, which was nominated for the National Book Award. He was my creative writing teacher at Oberlin College, where he is the Irvin E. Houck Associate Professor of the Humanities. The Millions: What really struck me about this book was how realistic and specific your characters felt, even as some of them dissolved and became nothing more than a name, a wardrobe, a series of gestures and ways of speaking. At the same time, though, other characters remained real—and, this isn’t exactly the right word—pure. How did you go about creating the different characters for this novel? How important was it that they all be believable, and what does that mean for this kind of book? Dan Chaon: The book was written in little pieces, almost like a series of short-short stories in the beginning. When I started, I didn’t know anything but little glimmers—scenes—that eventually began to fit together. In general I don’t plan out my characters in advance. Mostly, I begin with images, moments—a severed hand in an ice bucket, a lighthouse on the prairie, a guy driving down the Dempster Highway toward the Arctic Ocean. Once I had the moment in my head, I began to circle out and try to understand the people who were involved. So I suspect that my experience of writing the book, and the discoveries that I made as I went along, are not so different from the readers’ experience. The characters all started out as “real” to me—I was getting to know them as I went along, the same way you get to know friends over time--and I was as shocked as anyone when some of them turned out to be fakes. You say that some of the characters “remained real—and this isn’t exactly the right word—pure,” --but I actually think this is exactly the right coinage. Pure. I really like that word. That’s one of the issues that I was thinking of when I was writing. What is a “real” self? What is a “pure” representation of character? Is it just a consistent set of behaviors? Is there something truly essential that makes you, you? I don't think I came up with an answer, but it was fun to think about. TM: In your acknowledgments, you write that Await Your Reply pays homage to various writers you’ve loved, from Ray Bradbury to Shirley Jackson to Peter Straub, among others. What was the extent of your “gestures and winks” toward their work? Is this your own playful, literary version of identity theft? DC: One of my early jobs when I was first out of undergrad was as a DJ. This was back in the late eighties, when the concepts of the “mash-up” and sampling were still in their infancy. But there was something about that concept that I really, really liked—the way the songs seemed to be having a conversation with one another, and by being combined actually transformed into something new. I’d like to think that there’s some of that going on here, too. Many of the “samples” are tucked into the imagery, like Easter eggs: for example, readers of Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness and Poe’s Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym will recognize those birds that are circling Miles in the Arctic, with their cry of “tekeli-li!”; people who have seen Takashi Miike’s movie, The Audition, will recognize that horrific piano wire in Chapter 2; people who have read Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House will notice echoes of poor Eleanor Vance’s final thoughts... and—well, let’s just say that there are a few dozen of these throughout the book, which some people might enjoy finding themselves. But my intent wasn’t merely to create a bunch of cute in-jokes, either. To a larger extent, I was using these little touchstones to draw forth a particular texture and mood. For me, it was almost an invocation, a séance. That Ouija Board is in Jay’s house for a reason! As a writer, I feel like I’m always in conversation with the books that I’ve read. Occasionally, an interviewer will ask: “Who are you writing for? Who is your audience?” And in many ways the answer is that I’m writing for those authors I’ve loved, and the books I’ve loved. If you’re an avid reader, and a book gets under your skin, it can affect you as intensely as a real human relationship, it lingers with you for your whole life, and there is always this desire to re-experience that amazing sense of connection you get from “your books.” I understand completely why people want to write fan fiction. To me, I guess, all fiction is fan fiction at a certain level, just as it always has an element of identity theft. TM: Do you see your novel as a kind of Nabokovian puzzle, to be unwrapped and unlocked by discerning readers of the future? How far does the rabbit hole go? DC: As much as I’m flattered by the term “Nabokovian,” I’m not sure that I’m capable of that level of gamesmanship. I’m sure that a literary critic could footnote the hell out of the book, but I suspect that a great number of the references she’d find here would be unintentional, or accidental, or drawn unconsciously from the cultural ether. A couple of years ago, I wrote the Afterward for the Signet Classic edition of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and one of the things that struck me, re-reading that novel for the first time in many years, was how much of my recollection of the book was simply wrong. Major scenes that I remembered vividly simply weren’t there in the text. In fact, as it turned out, my memory of Dr. Jekyll had been so radically infected by the enormous number of other representations that were floating around in the culture—movies and comics and parodies and so forth—that it was difficult to read the “real” version without filling in aspects from the version I’d imagined, the version that I’d pieced together out of a vast array of cultural detritus. None of which had existed when the actual book was written. I hope that something similar may happen to readers of Await Your Reply, and that in this way the “rabbit hole” goes on into Fibonacci-like infinity. I set out to draw on some of the archetypal plots that I had always found most compelling—the Bluebeard story, the evil twin story, the mythology of shapeshifters, legends of ghosts and haunted places and fruitless quests into the wastelands—all of which, of course, were viral memes for centuries before the internet existed. I suspect that the reader will be reminded of a whole set of references and touchstones as they read—but that their footnotes would be idiosyncratic, a kind of private, Kinbote-like appendix for each individual reader. TM: This novel is ingeniously structured, with three narratives that eventually overlap and lock together. Part of the fun of reading it is figuring that puzzle out. How did you put together this little narrative machine? None of it feels accidental—but can that be? DC: When I started out, I didn’t have any idea how the three threads were connected. I just knew that they were—somehow. The first hundred pages of the book took me about two years to write. I revised and revised, and fiddled around with the personalities of the characters, and added and deleted subplots and minor characters—basically trying to frame out the farmland that I was going to be working with, cutting brush and taking rocks out of the soil and so forth. The second hundred pages took about nine months. This was when I began to use cliff-hangers at the end of each chapter, leaving each thread with an unanswered question that I had to figure out, and that pushed things forward for me more quickly. At this point, I was showing the book chapter by chapter to my editor, Anika Streitfeld, and to my wife, the writer Sheila Schwartz. They would each give me a little feedback and I’d float various plot concepts—which Anika or Sheila or both of them would frequently, kindly, shoot down, or talk me through. The last hundred pages was written in a little less than two months, but it really wasn’t until the final few chapters that I truly had everything figured out. The last bit of plot clicked into place the way a difficult math problem sometimes does. Bing! Suddenly it seems so obvious! And I remember e-mailing Anika at about four in the morning. “Does this sound crazy???" I had to go back and do some adjustment and revision—but it was actually quite surprising to me to discover how much of the plot was already there, embedded in the narrative without my noticing. It didn’t actually require a lot of rewriting. My wife Sheila died of cancer not long after I’d finished the final revisions, and it’s both difficult and comforting now to look at this book, since there is so much of her in it, chapter by chapter: her advice and thoughts and spirit. She wrote in pencil on the last page of the last chapter: “You did it, honey!” But really we did it together. TM: As Await Your Reply progresses, it hearkens more and more to an old-fashioned thriller or horror tale, with its level of suspense, its secrets and plot revelations, and its pervading sense of unease. This, for me, felt simultaneously like a departure and continuation from your earlier work, if that makes any sense. What say you? DC: I’ve been deeply influenced by two strains of North American fiction: first, by the realistic regionalism of writers like Alice Munro, Raymond Carver, Sherwood Anderson, and so forth; and secondly, by writers of dark fantasy like Peter Straub, Shirley Jackson, and Ray Bradbury, etc. I’ve tended to be categorized more with the former group, the regional realists, but I think that you could make a good case to classify my work with the latter as well. My short story collection, Among the Missing, was strongly influenced by the tradition of ghostly and supernatural tales, and my first novel, You Remind Me of Me, was drawing very heavily from tales of psychological suspense and Kafkaesque otherworldliness—not intended to be straightforward melodrama, though I think it was often taken as such. I learned a lot about novel-writing from You Remind Me of Me—the effects that I wanted, and those that I didn’t—and I deliberately wanted to go back to the multiple narrative, round-robin style of storytelling, and see if I could build on what I had figured out. Around the time I was finishing You Remind Me of Me, I also happened to write a story for McSweeney’s Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales, edited by Michael Chabon. Chabon’s project was to combine so-called literary writing with pulp and genre storytelling elements, and I was very much inspired by what he had to say. I felt like the story I wrote, “The Bees,” was a breakthrough for me, and I learned a lot from writers like Karen Joy Fowler, Kelly Link, George Saunders, Arthur Phillips, Kevin Brockmeier—and many others—who were doing interesting work with genre-bending. I have to say, though, that perhaps the biggest cultural influences on the novel were my teenaged sons, Philip and Paul, and the books and movies and TV shows that they loved and which permeated our household—Garth Nix’s Abhorsen trilogy of books, and Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, the TV show “Lost,” the films Fight Club and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, all the various good, smart stuff which one or both of my kids were obsessed with... TM: In a 2004 interview with Poets and Writers Magazine, you remarked: “I've written stories since I was a little kid. To me there's something compelling about being a different person for a little while and trying out a different kind of life.” I couldn’t help but read Await Your Reply as partly a meditation on fiction writing and reading. In the book, when Ryan muses that identities are like shells that “you stepped into and that began to solidify over time… They began to take on a life of their own, developed substance,” I thought of my own creative process of inhabiting characters. And Ryan’s sadness after retiring an identity articulated so well that peculiar grief of finishing a manuscript, or a beloved book. Were these nods to the writing and reading life intentional? Furthermore, do you think fiction writing is somewhat criminal—is it a weird invasion of privacy, this theft and composite of various real lives? Do readers understand best the lure of identity theft, the chance to live another’s life for a while? And, when you spend a large part of your time making up stories and reading made up stories, where does real life begin and end? What makes some human beings real, and some fictional? DC: Gee, Edan. You articulate things so well here that I barely have to answer! Yes to all of these. I think that as a teacher of creative writing, it’s inevitable that you think a lot about the creative process, and that you spend a lot of time trying to articulate how it works and why it is important, especially in a world that students face in which this kind of thinking isn’t taken seriously, when it’s seen as frivolous—or worse. One of the things that I talk about frequently with my students is the act of empathy—the act of trying to imagine yourself in the position of someone else—and the way this can be scary, and transgressive, and even dangerous. One of my assignments in my fiction class is to ask students to write from the point of view of someone radically different from themselves—to speak in the voice of a different gender or ethnicity or class, to try to think as far outside themselves as they can go, to try to inhabit that person—and for many of my students this feels perilous, even morally problematic. I remember one time we had a discussion in class about a sensational news story. An insane woman had kidnapped a pregnant mother, and had killed the mother and performed a c-section and claimed the baby as her own. A truly horrifying tale. And we had been talking about it in class, and I asked: which character would you choose if you were writing a story? The pregnant mother or the insane woman who took the baby? At that point, a young woman spoke up, a sophomore. “My God!” she said. “The ghost of that dead woman is probably spitting on us as we sit here talking about this!” I think that was you, Edan, who was so appalled. I remember that it gave me pause: At what point does imagining, does the attempt to inhabit, become wrong? At what point does it become morally repugnant? I still think: never. But I understand that it’s fraught, that it’s compromised, that it’s suspect. That it’s an invasion that borders on—or crosses over into—the criminal. During the writing of this book, I followed the exploits of a number of trolls who used invented personas to invade and then (often hilariously) disrupt various solemn internet message boards. I read about a depressed teen who was goaded into suicide by a cruel classmate’s mother who was pretending to be the poor girl’s “boyfriend” on MySpace. I myself set up a dummy email address and briefly tried out various fake personas to see what would happen. Where does real life begin and end? What makes some human beings real, and some fictional? I don’t know the answer. For better or worse, the answers to these questions seem to be changing all the time, and maybe there is no true answer. TM: There’s an incredibly eerie and memorable second-person chapter at the end of Part One, where the narrator describes “your” identity being stolen, which, “Isn’t necessarily you, of course…you are aware of your life as a continuous thread, a dependable unfolding story of yourself that you are telling yourself.” This chapter has the great power of planting paranoia in the reader’s mind, and forces her to question her own identity and notions of self. As I kept reading, though, I found myself feeling paranoid about everything in the book—pretty soon I couldn’t trust anyone! Um, Dan? How in the hell did you do this? DC: This chapter emerged from a late night free-write, which wasn’t originally intended to be anything but a journal entry. I was at a point when I needed to try to explain to myself what the book was about, and this was one of the few chapters (the final chapter, Chapter 26, is the other) which came out in one draft, with very little revision. It felt like an inner voice that was speaking to me—a very eerie feeling for me as well. TM: About the aforementioned chapter: why the second person? It’s interesting, because while it’s about identity theft, it’s not taking away my identity, but, rather, giving me a different one. In the text, I’m pulling off a snowy interstate—“And you wipe off the snow in your hair”—when in fact this reader lives in Los Angeles! What went into this particular narrative choice? DC: The narrative movement of this chapter was weird for me. Originally, the narrator felt like me, Dan Chaon, the author—but then it moved into a more chilly and abstract omniscience, as if a little spark of myself had disconnected and was free-floating through the world, out-of-the-body travel, and then I found myself hovering over a stranger and entering into his consciousness. Becoming part of the scene, and taking on his life story and personality. I realize now that I was trying to model the process of transference—to describe in shorthand the way imaginative empathy works. “You” are not in Los Angeles any longer. You have become that melancholy middle-aged guy pumping gas in upstate New York. There is a poem by my friend Liz Rosenberg called “The Accident,” which I think about a lot. In the poem, a woman who is driving down the interstate observes the death of a motorcyclist from a distance, and there is an incredibly beautiful use of second person that I have always admired. “You are still you, but changing fast,” says the narrator of Liz Rosenberg's poem, and she is both talking to the dying motorcycle guy and to herself. TM: Has teaching at Oberlin influenced you as a writer? How do you manage to give students a sense of artistic freedom, while also offering them straightforward advice on technique and form? DC: I love teaching, and I particularly like that moment when a student begins to discover the subject matter and voice that makes them unique. That’s a real high for me and it’s what keeps me coming back, semester after semester. It’s such a pleasure to be around people who care passionately about books and writing and who have singular perspectives about the world, which is what I find almost across the board with Oberlin students. I do find that I learn a lot from students, too. The thing about teaching fiction is that there isn’t one answer to a problem—there’s no rulebook or easy fix. I learn a lot about my own process from helping students find solutions to the various issues that emerge when you’re working through a draft. Not to get all new-agey, but there’s a lot of good energy that comes out of it. TM: Have you noticed any popular themes or concepts in this current era of undergraduate writers? DC: I notice a lot more post-apocalyptic scenarios these days, and I’m aware that as a generation this new group is pretty scared and pessimistic about the future they’re being left with. In general, there’s less interest in straightforward realism than there used to be. It remains very difficult to get anyone under 21 interested in Alice Munro or William Trevor, but I guess that’s as it should be. It’s hard, at my students' age, to be sympathetic with the very middle-aged concerns of those two greats. All in good time, right? TM: Because this is a book site, and because I know for a fact that you are a voracious, insane reader, I must ask you: What was the last great book you read? DC: Lies Will Take You Somewhere, by my wife, Sheila Schwartz—and not just because we were married, either. I learned nearly everything I know about writing from her, and it’s a flat-out brilliant book: dark, funny, and strange in all the right ways.
As the media phenomenon du jour, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows has put pressure on the commentariat to provide Potter-related context or controversy - anything to get readers to spend a few minutes with us, rather than J.K. Rowling! And herein lies a danger: in our zeal to ride Harry's coattails (broomstick?) to glory, we Muggles are tempted to wave a wand over our own preconceptions and imagine them transfigured into news. In that vein, an article in last week's Washington Post provoked our interest here at The Millions, while contradicting my own sense of how the Potter books function within the enchanted kingdom of childhood. I specifically remembered Cynthia Oakes, a middle-school librarian at the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools, telling me some years ago about a book her students had gone wild for, and recommending I check out Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. Hoping to get some ground-level perspective on Pottermania, I got in touch with her (which wasn't hard; she's my mother-in-law) and asked if she'd mind revisiting the Potter books in a bit more depth. I had misplaced my Quick-Quotes Quills, but she graciously consented to be interviewed through the magic of email. [Editor's note: Scroll down to view Oakes' post-Hogwarts syllabus.]Opening the Chamber of Secrets"There is a wonderful bookstore in Hyde Park," Oakes told me, "57th Street Books, where my colleagues and I often go to buy the latest children's and young-adult titles. The children's buyer at the time, author Franny Billingsley (The Folk Keeper), told us that there was a new British fantasy novel out, and the word in England was that it was wildly popular. We bought a copy, read it, liked it, recommended it to a couple of kids, and put it on our summer reading list. By the end of the summer, the idea of our introducing anyone to Harry Potter was beyond laughable. That's how quickly it became a phenomenon. Kids told kids, who told other kids, who told still more kids - and that was that."Initially, adults were out of the loop - which was great! It was remarkable, from my point of view, to see any book capture these kids' imaginations and hearts so completely." Oakes offered some further context: "This was right around time that the term 'digital natives' was being coined. As school librarians we were being led to believe that the future, and especially our future, lay in the Internet - that students were no longer interested in print. Then the iPod came out; once again, we were told that the future lay in digital whatever... and suddenly our middle school library alone had to buy seven copies of Sorcerer's Stone. All copies were instantly checked out and the hold list was huge."Then kids learned that the sequel was out in England. It was unprecedented to have them beg their parents to plan summer vacations to the UK around the publication of a book. One family, who actually did vacation in the UK that summer, brought back a copy of Chamber of Secrets. We ended up buying four copies of the next two installments. After that, kids were buying the books for themselves so we didn't need to invest quite so heavily in order to provide access. We now have two shelves of the library devoted to six titles. I'm not sure if we'll need to buy more than one copy of the latest book, since the sales of this title have been astronomical. I can assure you that no other series even come close to it in popularity."Apropos of families vacationing across the pond, Oakes said she couldn't generalize about any connections between the books' success and social class. But as Chicago's Lab School is a well-regarded private school, she could attest to the books' strong appeal to upper-middle class, affluent kids. That appeal, she noted, "doesn't seem to be contingent upon gender or race."A Hogwarts of the Mind"I think what makes these books so seductive," Oakes told me, "is that the world Rowling has created is a world kids really, really, really want to live in. Actually live in, not just imagine living in. They want to eat the candy, ride the train, wear the uniforms, own the brooms, play the games, study the magic, get mail from the owls, look at the maps, and spy from the folds of an invisible cape. Who wouldn't want to be a member of the Weasley family? And who wouldn't want Ron, Hermione, or Harry for a friend? Or Hagrid for a teacher? I am always amazed at how even a 14-year-old will still harbor the secret hope that Hogwarts is real." Oakes remembers "being quite surprised when a fifth-grader confided in me that he was not able to get the spells to work. He wondered what he was doing wrong and he looked so forlorn while furtively whispering all this to me."From a literary point of view, I'm not the first person to observe that these books are unique in combining the most popular of children's literary genres into one rollicking story: horror, sports, adventure, school story, fantasy, romance, animal fantasy, family problems, etc. That gives them appeal among a broad array of readers. In addition, they are page-turners for kids who love plot-driven books and have satisfying characters for kids who prefer character-driven novels. It doesn't hurt that the central character is a misfit without parents... a key ingredient to most successful children's lit. What child, tethered to family and home, wouldn't love to step through a magic portal where she instantly becomes the hero of the universe?"One must also remark on their unusual length. A 900-page kids book? Unheard of. And equally rare is a sequel that doesn't have an 'our-story-so-far' component. Rowling rightly acknowledges the depth of her fans' understanding of all the previous books by jumping right into the thick of the story. It is very difficult to read Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban without having read Sorcerer's Stone and Chamber of Secrets. And if you are starting with Book Seven, forget it!"Dark Art"My experience has taught me that kids will rarely choose to read a book that isn't entertaining and will avoid an instructive book as if it had spattergroit," Oakes continued. "This isn't to say that they avoid books with ideas. I harbor the belief that they prefer them. The Potter books are entertaining, but darkly so. They deal with real evil - Voldemort is crueler than the cruelest classmate. Harry has to wrestle with whatever part he may have played in his own parents' death. Thoughtless actions in these books have far-reaching and horrific consequences."This is also more psychologically nuanced fantasy world than many contemporary books offer, with every character suffering from his own particular character flaw. Yet a truly noble and ethical solution to every problem is always apparent. I believe that our kids long for that sort of clearly delineated ethical world.They are discovering that the adults around them, much like Dumbledore, are not perfect. They want their friends, just like Ron, always to return to them. And they want Harry to make the right choices (perhaps because if he does, then they will). The books instruct, then, in the way the best books do: by allowing the characters to fail. Whether or not the Potter books are helping to define anyone's moral universe, I can't tell. But contrary to the opinions of some commentators, they surely aren't destroying anyone's moral universe..."She ventured a critique: "I know the books are flawed, and most of the books - certainly Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, could have used a seriously talented editor. Or just an editor." Still, she said, "They are remarkable. It's not popular to admit it, but when I read the first book I had to get up at three a.m. to finish it. As an unreconstructed bibliophile, of course I love these books... I am a fan."Fresh out of veritaserum, I tested the truth of this last assertion by asking Oakes some targeted questions. Her favorite character? "As a woman and an educator, I have to love Professor McGonagall." Favorite villain(s)? "The dementors. I've certainly run across my share of soul-suckers and they scare me to death." Favorite setting? "I love Hogwarts and wish that I worked there. It has an amazing library and I would love to recommend books to Hermione. And have her recommend a few to me! Not to mention the fact that I'd get to hide from and/or fight trolls, death-eaters, and so on."Ordinary Wizarding Levels (O.W.L.s)"Most assuredly there is a social aspect to the Harry Potter phenomenon," Oakes said. "Kids sit around for HOURS discussing all the ins and outs of the books. They join online discussion groups, download podcasts, and know every website devoted to Harry. They create group Halloween costumes. In fact, fans were so enthralled by the books that they rushed into the library (en masse) the second, the very second, the cover art for Book Seven had been revealed. We had to display it at the circulation desk. (I mean, our credibility would have taken a serious nose dive if we hadn't.) Then, they congregated around the printout of the cover and discussed THAT for hours."I asked her if kids outgrow Harry. "Some students lose interest (or say they do), but a remarkable number do not. I overheard many conversations in the high school hallway prior to Book Seven that centered around horcruxes, Harry, and death. Our high-school librarians have all the Potter books on the shelves. The fifth grade to whom we recommended the first book graduated last year. So most of these kids grew up reading Harry Potter. I've watched high-school students sneak back into the middle school library to keep up on their favorite series books and their favorite authors. And I say, good for them!" No Argus Filch, my mother-in-law."As for the hoopla," she said, "the books have been very good for children and for young-adult publishing... Their sheer popularity forced The New York Times to create a children's literature bestseller list. (Ha!) These days our kids are reading just as much as - if not more than - they did before."As we'd discussed, "J.K. Rowling came at a crucial moment... However, I do wish the publishers would realize there isn't going to be another Harry Potter and ease up on all the fantasy that's coming down the pike. I worry that really good young-adult novels are getting overlooked. The hoopla has also turned off many new young readers. Whereas the initial impetus to read the books came from kids, there's now a huge media machine cramming those same books down our collective throat."Flourish and BlottsI asked Oakes if she could elaborate on "the good stuff" by furnishing Millions readers with some recommendations for post-Hogwarts reading. "Middle schoolers love serial storytelling," she said. "That is part of the success of the Harry Potter books. I can think of many recent series that have met with remarkable success: the Alex Rider series, the Warriors series, the Princess Diary series, the Eragon series, the Spiderwick Chronicles - to name a few off the top of my head. Students will request the next book in the series sometimes months in advance. Because of Amazon.com, they know approximately when the book will be published. We librarians are forced, more than ever, to stay on top of things. However, I can think of no other book or series that would compel students and parents to attend a midnight party in order to obtain the sequel. That is purely a Harry Potter thing. We've had kids counting down the days to publication since December."I would love for kids to love J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, because they are such elegant writers. Certainly there are kids who read Tolkien and Lewis, and often prefer it, but it doesn't follow that a Potter fan is automatically a Bilbo Baggins fan. Tolkien is much harder to read, for one thing, and the works of C.S. Lewis don't feel as contemporary as Rowling's do. The latest, coolest reading trend amongst my students is graphic novels."When recommending a book to Potter enthusiasts, Oakes always asks, "What part of Harry Potter is your favorite part? The school, the family problems, the sports, horror, the magic...?" Then, she says, "I come up with some titles based on the answer. It's surprising to me how often students want to read about boarding schools and about all things English... and I can't resist recommending the great contemporary English author Hilary McKay. Read The Exiles and see if you can stop reading the rest of her work. It's not fantasy, but it is quintessentially English."She went on to offer a post-Hogwarts syllabus of fantasy books:Young Adult/Older ReadersUrsula K.Leguin. The Earthsea Cycle. (A quest series with wizards and dragons.)Patricia McKillup. The Riddle-Master of Hed. (A quest series with wizards and mysteries.)Garth Nix. The Abhorsen Trilogy. (A dark fantasy that features necromancy and romance.)Philip Pullman. His Dark Materials. (Parallel worlds that collide in Oxford. As much science-fiction as fantasy.)Middle ReadersLloyd Alexander. The Chronicles of Prydain. (A quest series with an oracular pig; highly recommended byThe Millions.)Eoin Colfer. Artemis Fowl. (Contemporary magic which relies on technology. Spies!)Diana Wynne Jones. The Chronicles of Chrestomanci. (Parallel worlds; magic; families in all their dysfunction and glory.)Jenny Nimmo. Children of the Red King. (Wizards go to a school quite different from Hogwarts!)"Many kids don't want to be perceived as Potter groupies," Oakes noted. "It's interesting, though, how many will reluctantly pick one of the books up, then get sucked right in to the world Rowling has created. It is almost impossible to resist the spell of the Potter books. Having said that, I'll be very curious to see how they age."
The reviewer would like to confront, at the start of her first review, the occasionally embarrassing fact that at some point in the recent past she was considering - never mind with what degree of seriousness - a dissertation on eighteenth-century cats and their literary and cultural significance. Having been told by the advisor seemingly most inclined to support such a project (this advisor being an animal fancier herself: her dog, on occasion, had been permitted to attend office hours and sometimes lectures), that "That way madness lies," this reviewer abandoned her cat dissertation. The advisor's statement may have been a jest - serious and interesting scholarly work, as the advisor knew, had been done on animals in literature and culture. The suspicion, however, arose in the reviewer's mind (perhaps accompanied by a phantom waft of cat-box and spinsterhood) that whether you collect literal or literary felines, you are in some sense embarking down the path to the marginal and strange land of cat-lady-hood, and so she retreated by laying the project aside. And yet literary cats - in footnotes, illustrations, casual mentions in books long forgotten - continue to entrance her. They are, as Tristram Shandy would have said, her hobby-horse (or cat).This is not to say that I (formerly known as "the reviewer") renounce the legitimacy of the eighteenth-century cats dissertation: By no means. Late seventeenth- and eighteenth-century England was the birthplace of the fashionable lap-dog and the sentimentalization of animals generally. Who could forget the perpetual throng of spaniels at the feet of Charles II? Pepys complains in his diary of his wife's dog pissing on the floor and recounts with horrified amazement his first encounter with cock-fighting; Hogarth's best-known self-portrait includes his dog Trump, and his "First Stage of Cruelty" depicts boys and men doing hideous things to dogs and cats. The "Second Stage of Cruelty" depicts work-animals driven to death and a warning verse beneath:The tender Lamb o're drove and faint,Amidst expiring Throws;Bleats forth it's innocent complaintAnd dies beneath the Blows.The final stanza pronounces the perpetrators of these cruelties "inhuman" and so suggests - long before there was anything like an animal rights movement - that there is a moral aspect to our relations with animals, integral to our humanity. Robinson Crusoe, once settled in isolation on his island refers to his dog, cat, goat and parrot as his "family." A recent show at the Huntington Library, entitled "Sensation and Sensibility," displayed several rustic scenes of cottage life by eighteenth-century artists, chiefly Gainsborough, in which animals seemed to be family members. One particularly sentimental inclusion depicted the sale of a poor cottage family's lamb: the buyer leads the lamb away as the family's many children cry or press their faces into their mother's skirts. Francis Coventry's 1751 book entitled, The History of Pompey the Little: Or, The Life and Adventures of a Lap-Dog, gave voice to a living fashion accessory that is still with us. Eighteenth-century animals were memorialized in images, allowed to speak in memoirs, integral members of families, and extensions of human identity that still function today (as testified by the tiny dogs of Britney Spears and Paris Hilton, as well as Queen Elizabeth II's troop of corgis).And this is just the beginning: The prominent historian Robert Darnton's book The Great Cat Massacre: And Other Episodes in French Cultural History describes a massacre of cats in Paris in the late 1730s by several disgruntled apprentices as a symbolic revenge on their bourgeois master and mistress, who coddled and pampered their feline pets while treating their human apprentices "like animals." So cats become a means of expressing class tensions as well. And Darnton's essay goes on to offer a survey of the symbolic and ritual values assigned to cats in pre-modern and quasi-modern Europe, particularly France. Cats were associated (as they still are - if only in the linguistic sediment of the slang word 'pussy') with female sexuality, for example. From the 15th century the stroking of cats was supposed to increase a man's success with women, as manifested in such proverbs as "He who takes good care of cats will have a pretty wife." Darnton also details associations between cats and the occult: Caterwauling was considered an indicator of the casting of spells, or, if under a specific man's window, a sign of his wife's infidelity, his own cuckolding; and a cat on the bed of a dying person might be Satan waiting to carry his soul to hell. Stranger still are the magical folk-remedies and beliefs Darton inventories: a cat buried alive in field could clear it of weeds; blood from a cat's ear mixed with red wine could cure pneumonia; the brain of a freshly killed cat, if still hot, could make one invisible.My favorite eighteenth-century cat (the cat who started it all), however, is not of the Satanic variety. Christopher Smart's Jeoffry, whom Smart immortalized in his strange and difficult poem (written sometime in the late 1750s or early 1760's) "Jubilate Agno" or "Rejoice The Lamb," was a divine cat. "For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry," Smart begins, "For he is the servant of the Living God, duly and daily serving him." Smart's description of Jeoffry's particular habits has a striking intimacy of detail, and these mundane details of feline existence become emanations of divine order and a recognition of Jeoffry as an instrument of divinity:For having consider'd God and himself he will consider his neighbor.For If he meets another cat her will kiss her in kindness.For when he takes his prey he plays with it to give it a chance.For one mouse in seven escapes by his dallyingFor he purrs in thankfulness when God tells him he's a good Cat.For he is an instrument for the children to learn gentleness upon.The profound strangeness of this poem in the context of the rigorously metered rhyming couplets that form the bulk of eighteenth-century poetry is, I hope, hardly less than its trans-historical strangeness. Even now, in the days of feline and canine clothes, braces, birthday parties, and marriages, Smart's contemplation of the mundanely named Jeoffry as a being embodying, manifesting, and teaching the ways of God to men is still, I think, equally strange, arresting, and moving.Much of the rest of "Jubilate Agno" is an odd mystical taxonomy that pairs people, (both biblical and historical persons as well as Smart's contemporaries) with specific animals and plants: "Let Mephibosheth with the Cricket praise the God of chearfulness, hospitality, and gratitude...Let Micah rejoice with the spotted Spider, who counterfeits death to effect his purposes...Let Anna rejoice with the Porpus, who is a joyus fish and of good omen...Let Ross, house of Ross rejoice with the Great Flabber Dabber Flat Clapping Fish with hands...Let Balsam, house of Balsam rejoice with Chenomycon an herb the sight of which terrifies a goose." The explanations for these pairings are cryptic, brief, and/or nonexistent (you can understand why the poem was initially thought to be the product of a stint in Bedlam), but the purpose seems to be to assign to specific people a beast or a mineral or botanical variety expressive of some essential quality of their beings - that one man's soul is expressive of blue daisie, juniper, jasper or onyx, while another's is of the hawk, Pegasus, porcupine, or crocodile.Of course Smart was not the first or the last to imagine a correspondence between the variety of human natures and the rest of the natural world. The ancient Roman Aelian's (AD 170-230) multivolume On The Characteristics of Animals is not so explicit as Smart's poem in drawing correspondences between the souls of humans and the natures of animals, but the language of Aelian's descriptions blurs the distinction between human and animal, making his animal subjects seem human in their motivations and behaviors:The Owl is a wily creature and resembles a witch. And when captured, it begins by capturing its hunters. And so they carry it about like a pet or (I declare) like a charm on their shoulders. By night it keeps watch for them and with its call that sounds like some incantation it diffuses a subtle, soothing enchantment, thereby attracting birds to settle near it. And even in the daytime it dangles before the birds another kind of lure to make fools of them, putting on a different expression at different times; and all the birds are spell-bound and remain stupefied and seized with terror, and a mighty terror too, at these transformations. (47)A more literal fictional imagining of this notion is found in Phillip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy (The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, The Amber Spyglass), which presents human souls externalized and personified as animal "daemons." These creature-spirits can speak, and in their species are expressive of the particular nature of the human to whom they are attached. There are other examples of this species fusion and confusion - the Chinese animal calendar, Native American religions, the metamorphoses of Greek and Roman mythology, the animaguses of Harry Potter, for starters: But what does it all mean - if anything - and how does it relate to cat dissertations?A facile assessment of the desire to find correspondences between human souls and animal species might end in something similar to an exclamation I heard in a lecture on "The Grand Armada" chapter of Moby-Dick. This chapter describes the birthing and nursing of baby sperm whales in a calm, sheltered underwater room created by the rest of the pod with their bodies. Ishmael tenderly compares the expressions and motions of the whale calves to newborn human babies and such descriptions inspired a professor I once knew to exclaim excitedly, "Whales are people too!" Everyone laughed. But he did mean it, in a way. Suddenly, there is a break from the contemplation of whale as prey, enemy, alien "other," and instead, a contemplation of these creatures in acts and attitudes of such mutual care and tenderness that the only way they can be described, even by their hunter, is "as human infants." The willingness to confuse human and animal categories might imply a willingness to take a more expansive view of "humanity" or "personhood" that might include non-humans. This view would contend that animals are capable of seemingly human responses (tenderness, affection, care, curiosity, urgency, terror, etc.) that force us, as they forced Ishmael, to see ourselves in them and so - to some extend and however briefly - to respond to them and their behaviors as human - to treat them or imagine them as one of our own.But if animals, to whatever degree, gain humanity, humans gain something of the creaturely as well. The notion of particular animal species as expressive of human souls suggests that we are not all the same kind of human, and that no single theory of human nature quite gets the whole story: Fox-souled people are like this, cat-souled people, like that, giraffe- and marmot-souled people, other things entirely. Smart, Pullman, and Aelian recognize the totemic power of animals in slightly different ways, but all see in them sacred and mystical types that can help to illuminate aspects of the human - our varieties, vagaries, and eccentricities. In the case of Jeoffry, animals also offer models of holiness: Jeoffry's sacred "compleat"-ness as Smart describes it - his exuberant, joyful catness - seems a portrait of being-wholeness one could never attempt with a human as the object of contemplation. Jeoffry is a cat in a way that I, or you, or anyone else will never be human - and perhaps this is because we are capable of such variety that we need the whole rest of the animal, vegetable, and mineral world to help us signify the essences of our beings. And we are also too self-conscious, self-fashioning, proud and fond of progress to simply to be human and do human-ish things they way Jeoffry does cat-ish things (bathing himself, hunting mice, stretching, napping in the sun) - What would those things be, anyway - what activities are particularly expressive of the human (Playing video games? Farming? Starting wars? Knitting? Writing blog articles? Bobsledding? Vacuuming?)?In the end, perhaps I should have stayed among the cats (and the canines, and the monkeys, and the pigs... there are so many more! Gulliver's Houhynyms, E.T.A Hoffmann's The Life and Opinions of Tomcat Murr, Pierre-Jules Hetzel's Scenes from the Public and Private Life of Animals...). Perhaps it is a better place - or perhaps, more simply, I am philosophically a misanthrope, of the school of John Wilmot, Lord Rochester (1647-1680). The best-known portrait of Rochester (Johnny Depp's The Libertine excepted) depicts him standing beside a monkey perched on a marble pedestal; the monkey is tearing pages from a book while Rochester crown him with a laurel wreath. I leave you in the earl's dangerously capable hands, with the first stanza of his "Satire Against Reason and Mankind":Were I - who to my cost already amOne of those strange, prodigious creatures, man - A spirit free to choose for my own shareWhat sort of flesh and blood I pleased to wear,I'd be a dog, a monkey, or a bear,Or anything but that vain animal,Who is so proud of being rational.
John writes in with this question:Anyway, I have a question about a book: As an Umberto Eco fan, and having read Foucault's Pendulum and loved it, I am skittish about becoming physically ill if I read The Da Vinci Code. Should I be worried? Did Eco already write the book and Brown stupidize it? That's the impression I get.I haven't read The Da Vinci Code, but I suspect that you would find it entertaining but not, shall we say, satisfying. Read it, or don't. But how about some other books that you might enjoy which are more substantial and pleasurably complex (and much of this is just speculation because I haven't read all of these books): First, I'd like to recommend two childrens' series that - though they are written for kids - are loaded with allegory that make them rich reading, or rereading, for adults. They are the His Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pullman and CS Lewis' classic the The Chronicles of Narnia. I know, Narnia, it sounds ridiculous, but I reread the series as an adult and found the books to be full of intricacies to be mined. From the grown-up side of things, I'm told that Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon might fit the bill, as will his more recent, and enormous, Baroque Cycle (Quicksilver, The Confusion, & The System of the World). If you don't mind a bit of a tropical lilt to your complex, fantastical fiction, I highly recommend trying out some magical realism. The The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll by Alvaro Mutis is a terrific, meandering tale, Gabriel Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude is similarly enjoyable, and you can't go wrong with the Collected Fictions of Jorge Luis Borges. I may be getting a bit far afield here... anyone else want to chime in?
This week is turning out to be a mini-family reunion for me. My parents and two of my brothers are in town as are some aunts and uncles and cousins. Yesterday evening at a family barbecue near Venice Beach I fell into a conversation with my aunt and uncle about the reading habits of my young cousin, Tim, who is 10. He's a very precocious reader and has finished off nearly all of the highly recommended children's series that are out there right now: Harry Potter, Lemony Snicket, and Brian Jacques' Redwall Series (I recommended Phillip Pullman's His Dark Materials Trilogy since he hasn't gotten to that yet.) The thing is, there's a limited amount of high quality young adult fiction out there, so what do you do if your kid has read it all? Since I started working at the bookstore I have occasionally been posed this question by parents. It's actually a crucial moment in the life of a young a reader, the point where they could very easily lose some interest reading because they have read all the kids' books and aren't allowed to read adult books. What folks sometimes forget is that there are quite a few books that, though they are shelved in the adult fiction section, are perfect books to help segue strong, young readers into the wider world that lies beyond the young adult section. Some people call these books classics, but they are perfect for challenging kids and keeping them interested in reading: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Time Machine, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and Journey to the Center of the Earth, to name just a few. I would also recommend that these children read the books in their original forms, not the abridged versions. I remember reading abridged versions of various classics when I was younger, and I think lots of other folks do as well, but looking back it just doesn't seem necessary. In fact, as an eleven or twelve year old, I learned a lot of complex things about the world around me from the books I read, and these important details, the harsh language in Huck Finn, for example, seem to be just the things that are excised in order to create the kid friendly versions. We challenge kids in many aspects of their lives, why not challenge them to explore the big questions that arise from reading the classics. I hope that the children's book industry continues to move in this direction, and a lot of the intelligent and challenging kids' books that are out there indicate that it will. On the other hand, my friend Edan pointed out to me the other day the upcoming release of a "Student Edition" of Yann Martel's international bestseller Life of Pi, from which, one can assume, the editors have removed anything that might distress, and therefore challenge, a young reader. Here's hoping that this doesn't kick off a new trend.