How Should a Person Be?: A Novel from Life

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Dress to Impress


How does editing a book about women’s wardrobes change a person’s view on fashion? “For me, now, after doing this book, when I walk down the street, I notice and appreciate a greater range of women. And I also sort of feel more comfortable with myself and with my own choices, my own individuality, rather than feeling that I’m missing the mark,” Sheila Heti told Rookie about her current book Women In Clothes (read our review). She also discussed her writing influences, How Should a Person Be?, and her next project.

Judging Books by Their Covers 2013: U.S. Vs. U.K.

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As we’ve done for several years now, we thought it might be fun to compare the U.S. and U.K. book cover designs of this year’s Morning News Tournament of Books contenders. Book cover art is an interesting element of the literary world — sometimes fixated upon, sometimes ignored — but, as readers, we are undoubtedly swayed by the little billboard that is the cover of every book we read. And, while many of us no longer do most of our reading on physical books with physical covers, those same cover images now beckon us from their grids in the various online bookstores. From my days as a bookseller, when import titles would sometimes find their way into our store, I’ve always found it especially interesting that the U.K. and U.S. covers often differ from one another. This would seem to suggest that certain layouts and imagery will better appeal to readers on one side of the Atlantic rather than the other. These differences are especially striking when we look at the covers side by side. The American covers are on the left, and the UK are on the right. Your equally inexpert analysis is encouraged in the comments.

I much prefer the U.K. version here. The woodblock art is sublime, and the red and black are nice and bold.


How Should A Feminist Be?


“…its woman-centredness also hints at feminism’s dirty secret: that feminists might be feminists because they are supremely interested in themselves, even if that interest is in the shape of self-doubt. While Sheila says that it’s great to be a woman because what a female genius should be hasn’t yet been established, that is also the problem of being a woman.” The London Review of Books addresses the problems of Sheila Heti’s How Should A Person Be?. For another perspective, don’t miss our interview with Heti.

Ten Books to Read Now That HBO’s Girls Is Back

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The first moment I saw that one giant word “GIRLS” flash across the screen in all caps, I became utterly, hopelessly enamored of Lena Dunham’s HBO television show. Yes, I know the endless criticisms, both reasonable and totally unreasonable. No matter. The show speaks to me like no other television show currently on air, and I am beyond excited that it is back for a second season on Sunday.

But while Dunham’s lady-centered wry comedy may be singular in today’s television line-up, the world of literature is home to a multitude of books with the same appeal as Girls, books that feature a certain kind of female protagonist (usually one coming of age) or a certain kind of female narrator (pointed, self-deprecating, and ultimately wise). These are books that — like Girls — explore what it is like to be young and hungry — hungry for love and hungry for sex, but most of all, hungry for recognition and hungry for adulthood. Ultimately, the girls in these books, like the girls of Girls, are hungry to become the women they will one day be.

And yes, of course, the girls in question here, both on the show and in these books, are privileged enough that they are not literally hungry. Many of them are also privileged enough to live on their own in New York and to be more concerned with opportunity costs than financial costs. And yes, the girls in these books — like on the television show — are all white. I am not white (or at least I’m only half), but these happen to be the books that have jumped out at me, that made me feel as if something of my own life had been understood and articulated in a way that was both illuminating and reassuring. I welcome your suggestions for other books in the comments.

How Should a Person Be? by Sheila Heti: Many comparisons have been made between Heti’s novel and Girls, the most titillating of which obsess about both projects’ frank depictions of sex and shadows of autobiography. Less titillating but far more important are their shared concerns about the process of becoming an artist and also the intricacies of female friendship. The fictional Sheila and her best friend Margaux ostensibly fall out over a yellow dress, and Hannah and Marnie ostensibly fall out over the rent/Marnie buying a book by Hannah’s nemesis/which one of them is “the wound,” but really, both fights are ultimately about boundaries, both artistic and personal. It’s no surprise that Sheila and Margaux patch things up (though I won’t spoil how), and we have yet to see where things go for Hannah and Marnie, but both brutally honest portrayals do full justice to the complexity of a crumbling friendship, whether it’s eventually resuscitated or not.

The Fallback Plan by Leigh Stein: After graduating from college (with an oh-so-useful theater degree), 22-year-old Esther Kohler moves back home with her parents in suburban Illinois, where she takes a gig babysitting for the neighbors in order to pay her parents rent on her childhood bedroom. She quickly becomes involved with her charge’s father (shades of Jessa), as well as a Very Handsome friend her own age (complete with awkward — completely, terribly, realistically awkward — sex scene). Stein’s wry voice shines through the entire short novel, especially in the pages involving the Littlest Panda, a creation of Esther’s imagination that she wants to turn into a Chronicles of Narnia-inspired screenplay. There is, of course, more to Esther’s lethargy and indecision than meets the eye, but her (and Stein’s) self-aware take on the self-pitying recession-grad generation is compelling reading even without the eventual reveal about Esther’s backstory.

The Dud Avocado by Elaine Dundy: The protagonist of Dundy’s 1958 novel is Sally Jay Gorce, a 21-year-old American girl, straight out of college and living abroad for two years on her uncle’s dime. The cult classic was widely praised (by the disparate likes of Ernest Hemingway and Groucho Marx) when it was originally released, and attained cult status anew when NYRB Press reissued it in 2007 (and not just because of the nude figure on the cover). Of all the girls on this list, Gorce seems most like the proto-Girl — a girl who is self-avowedly “hellbent on living,” getting herself into (and out of) escapade after escapade during her time in France. Many of Gorce’s misadventures involve a heavy dose of slapstick, starting on page one with our introduction to our heroine, who is sitting at a Parisian bar having a morning cocktail, wearing an evening dress because all her other clothes are at the cleaners.

The Diary of Anaïs Nin, Volume 1: 1931-1934 by Anaïs Nin: When Hannah’s diary got her into a mess of trouble, she probably took comfort in the tradition of great literary diarists before her, of whom Anaïs Nin is the reigning queen. In Volume One (of the six expurgated adult diaries), Nin talks freely — one might say obsessively — about Henry Miller and his wife June, her psychoanalysis, and her relationship with her father. But you don’t read Nin’s diaries for the plot points so much as the arcs of emotion and insight, as well as the searing descriptions of her friends and their relationships, (sound familiar, Marnie and Charlie?). Still, Nin perhaps has more in common with Jessa than with Hannah, as in this entry, reminiscent of the Jessa-ism that is possibly the most famous line from Season One of Girls: “Psychoanalysis did save me because it allowed the birth of the real me, a most dangerous and painful one for a woman, filled with dangers; for no one has ever loved an adventurous woman as they have loved adventurous men…I may not become a saint, but I am very full and very rich. I cannot install myself anywhere yet; I must climb dizzier heights.” Then again, Jessa would never be caught dead “journaling.”

The Lone Pilgrim by Laurie Colwin: In this collection of stories, the women are farther along the path to adulthood than Hannah and her crew — many are married, own homes, have stable careers — but they are no less lost. These are stories about new lovers and ex-lovers and the complexities of romantic love in all its forms, stories in which the women seek love as a form of stability but also rebel against the expectations of a relationship. In a turn that Jessa would appreciate, one of Colwin’s young female characters gets married in order to prove that she’s serious-minded, but meanwhile maintains a constant low-level high throughout the courtship and marriage. Beyond their thematic overlap, the stories are linked by Colwin’s diamond-sharp prose and emotional acuity. At the end of the collection’s eponymous story, Colwin writes of a woman who has married the man she loves and whose life appears to be in place, “Those days were spent in quest — the quest to settle your own life, and now the search has ended. Your imagined happiness is yours…It is yours, but still you are afraid to enter it, wondering what you might find.”

I Was Told There’d Be Cake by Sloane Crosley: Crosley’s first collection of essays covers well-trodden 20-something-living-in-New-York ground, mostly having to do with a privileged class of horrors: the horrible first boss, the horrors of getting locked out of your apartment, the horrors of moving (from one Upper West Side apartment to another), the horrors of being a maid-of-honor. Still, Crosley’s sardonic and self-aware take on those seemingly unremarkable rites of passage elevates them to true moments of insight and recognition. Not to mention laugh-out-loud (or at least smile visibly) lines like: “People are less quick to applaud as you grow older. Life starts out with everyone clapping when you take a poo and goes downhill from there.” And as we know, Dunham loves a good bathroom scene. Hannah Horvath couldn’t have said it better herself.

The Group by Mary McCarthy: When The Group was first published in 1963, Norman Podhoretz dismissed it as “a trivial lady writer’s novel,” the kind of criticism that has dogged female artists — and has already, unsurprisingly, been hurled at Lena Dunham — throughout time. Of course, McCarthy’s novel, which follows a group of eight female friends after they graduate from Vassar and move to New York City in the 1930s, is anything but trivial. At the time it was published, The Group was considered revolutionary — it was banned in Australia while simultaneously spending two years on The New York Times bestseller list. A full 50 years after its publication (and 80 years after the story’s events), the novel’s satire-tinged account of the women’s lives offers a nuanced portrait of love and sex and birth control, marriage and divorce, childbirth and breastfeeding, professional ambition and thwarted dreams, and the fluctuations of female friendship.

The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing by Melissa Bank: This collection of linked short stories centers around Jane Rosenal, who, like so many intelligent young female protagonists, works in publishing in New York City. The collection does not exactly follow Jane’s personal search for love, though her love life figures largely in the stories; instead, the stories act more like a romantic education, as Jane observes and interacts with different forms of love as she makes her way from teenager to young woman to adult. Last in the collection, the title story descends into rom-com territory, though Zosia Mamet might be able to work the same miracle with its one-dimensional material — a discussion of The Rules and a final moral to Be Yourself — as she has with the hilarious but terribly flat character of Shoshanna. Still, Bank’s sprightly prose and sympathetic voice run through all the stories, making for an engaging, enjoyable read.

Emma by Jane Austen: Lena Dunham has said that Clueless ranks among her influences, and there would be no Clueless (and perhaps no Hannah Horvath) without Jane Austen’s original meddlesome, egotistic, incredibly flawed heroine, Emma. While Hollywood would have you read Emma as a straight rom-com — and Emma as an unimpeachable heroine — it’s better read the classic novel with the same lens of dramatic irony that the discerning viewer applies to Girls. Hannah is not supposed to be a character who makes all the right decisions; we root for Hannah, but we do not necessarily agree with her every move. In Emma’s case, the close reader cannot necessarily even root for her by the end; if you pay attention, Emma is revealed to be much closer to the original Mean Girl rather than the perfect innocent portrayed in the movies. Just like Hannah, Emma is clueless; we can only hope that by the end of Girls, Hannah will have grown up more than Austen’s beloved-but-actually-kind-of-terrible protagonist.

Crazy Salad: Some Things About Women by Nora Ephron: Although a few of the essays in Ephron’s landmark collection are somewhat prohibitively dated (the ones concerning Watergate, in particular, rely on a detailed knowledge of the scandal that is unlikely in 2013), most are as relevant today as they were when Ephron wrote them 40 years ago. The best known in the collection, “A Few Words About Breasts,” tackles standards of female beauty that would ring all-too-true for Hannah (remember that cruel scene in which Jessa and Marnie bond by laughing about how small Hannah’s breasts are?). Ultimately, though, the collection’s real legacy is its examination of the Women’s Movement, a reminder — all-too-relevant in today’s political atmosphere — of the struggle for the gender equality (or at least semblance of it) that many 20-something women have simply grown up with. In the final essay of the collection, Ephron offers a piece of wisdom that might benefit the girls of Girls as they continue on with their belated coming-of-age: “I was no good at all at any of it, no good at being a girl; on the other hand, I am not half-bad at being a woman.”

Image Credit: Wikipedia

A Year in Reading: Christian Lorentzen

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I am on a train to Paris reading Her Not All Her: On/with Robert Walser by Elfriede Jelinek, number 18 in the Cahier Series, translated by Damion Searls, with paintings by Thomas Newbolt. “Writers, not unlike generals, often make the most tedious preparations before they proceed to the attack and bravely deliver your battles. Don’t leave your weapons at home all the time! Are you doing it on purpose? From the art of poetry war has arisen: People were bored by what they knew but they didn’t want to ask anything either. They wanted to answer right off. But there’s one thing they know for certain: Always conquer new ground! That’s what it means to be an artist!”

Sometimes my life seems like an endless process of conquest; other times it feels like an interminable subjugation in exile. People often ask me, do you like it better here in London or in America. The only correct answer is “Stop asking me that stupid question.” When I’m not doing something for money, I read the new books that drift in from the homeland. The first one this year was A Sense of Direction by Gideon Lewis-Kraus, about his conquest of Berlin and various pilgrimages to Spain, Japan and Ukraine. The Berlin chapter is potently dense, the best thing written on that city’s colonization by American artists. The Spain bit is a buddy movie starring Tom Bissell in Danny Glover-like “I’m too old for this shit” mode. The Japan part has the absurdist quality of a Beckett monologue. And although I am undomesticated and don’t generally go in for family stuff, the resolution of daddy issues in the Ukraine section is comically and dramatically satisfying. The locations don’t matter in the end because you read Lewis-Kraus for his smooth prose style.

You read Christopher Beha’s What Happened to Sophie Wilder for his smooth way with storytelling, an overvalued quality except when it’s done this well. Who thought the sad New York literary manchild genre could be reconquered to center its gaze not on a mirror but on a woman and who knew the best way to do that would be to filter it through a Catholic morality? This former altar boy didn’t, but amen, peace be with you, and also with you.

Storytelling is not the first thing you look for in a book by Joshua Cohen. You read him for his transgressions, his jokes, his puns, and his piles of similes: “introducing this Word into the story would be…like inviting friends over to my apartment for dinner then serving them individual portions of feces garnished with poems about how much I hate friends and the poetry would rhyme.” It makes you think: what’s worse, actual shit or shitty poetry? A silly blurb on Four New Messages compares Cohen’s last book Witz to a comet. The new one is more like a cluster of asteroids impacting the heartland: a big dust cloud and fossils ensue.

One of the many amazing things about Jim Praley, the narrator of Benjamin Lytal’s A Map of Tulsa, is that he finds humorlessness sexy. A Map of Tulsa seems to me the third major blow in a series of what-it’s-like-to-be-me-type novels, after Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station and Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be?, and that these books will be the litty thing the Obama administration era is remembered for. Lytal’s book has a bit more of a plot than the other two, and the plot involves a penthouse in a skyscraper, an oil fortune, a motorcycle accident, dancing in bars, taking pills, and having sex outside. But mostly it’s about walking around the city — your hometown, reconquered — and wondering what your destiny will be. You probably haven’t heard of this book because it doesn’t come out until April.

Now I have crossed through the Chunnel and I am going to go back to reading Elfriede Jelinek. Next year I plan to read all the posthumous works of Laura (Riding) Jackson.

More from A Year in Reading 2012

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

The good stuff: The Millions’ Notable articles

The motherlode: The Millions’ Books and Reviews

Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.

A Year in Reading: Lydia Kiesling

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Oh, what did I read this year. I read all the Dear Prudence columns and some of The New York Times Vows and 6,000 things on Wedding Bee and even more things on Facebook and a lot of Tweets I do not remember now. I read two-thirds of the things about the election and one-third of the Mormon mommy blogs. I read most of the Andrew Sullivan and some of the Ta-Nehisi Coates and half of The New Yorker, but not the thing about Hilary Mantel, because I didn’t read Wolf Hall, until this week when I read half of it on the train. In the airplane I read Esquire. In the bathroom I read The Economist that I got free with the miles I accrued reading Esquire in the airplane. In the living room I read the alumni magazine I got free with the expense I incurred on my education. I read the whole Jonah Lehrer scandal. My favorite thing I read on Jezebel was a video of a dog fetching a cat.

I read In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, and my word, was that good. I read The Appearance of a Hero, and wrote a whole review of it in my head called “Where the Bros Are” — or was it “For the Bros”? — but forgot to write it down (don’t get me started on the things I didn’t write this year). I read NW and couldn’t stop thinking about the scene with the tampon string like a mouse tail and got the taste of metal in my mouth, thank you very much Zadie Smith. I read We Need to Talk About Kevin and got the feel of bleach in my eye and hamster in my sink, thank you very much Lionel Shriver. I read The Snow Child which was like Crystal Light with extra Splenda (that is not a compliment, in case it’s not clear). I read The Silent House which gave me the willies (that is a compliment). I read the The Deptford Trilogy because every year I have to read something by Robertson Davies and like it and then forget what it was about. I read the Donald Antrim triple-decker (one, two, three), and those were the greatest old new things I read this year.

I re-read Good-bye to All That and Tender is the Night and Midnight’s Children. I did not re-read The Tin Drum or Middlemarch or The Chronicles of Narnia or any Sherlock Holmes stories, and I really feel it in my bones that I did not re-read these things. I did not re-read The Corrections or Cleveland’s History of the Modern Middle East, which I was going to re-read to remember what is the deal with Syria. I only re-read half of one movement of A Dance to the Music of Time (one-eighth, then).

I still did not read Witz or Swamplandia! or The Instructions or A Visit from the Goon Squad or Skippy Dies or The Art of Fielding, or How Should a Person Be? even though I spent $30 on it at a book thing to seem like a team player. More distressing, I still did not really read Don Quixote or Das Kapital or War and Peace, or a thing by Stendahl or Ulysses. I did not read one really hard book this year, except one by Buket Uzuner, and that was just hard for me, and I didn’t really read that either, just 20 pages.

As usual, to compose my Year in Reading is to confront my failures. Resolved for 2013: more paper, less screen. More reading, more revelation.

More from A Year in Reading 2012

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

The good stuff: The Millions’ Notable articles

The motherlode: The Millions’ Books and Reviews

Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.

A Year in Reading 2012

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The end of another year is here (so soon? Ah, I’m getting old), and with it a flood of valedictory lists and wrap ups, accountings and scorecards. Each year, as these lists spill out across the landscape, the onslaught becomes difficult to parse and begins to feel suspiciously (to us, anyway) like a marketing boondoggle to support the promotional-book-cover-sticker-and-blurb industry. There are so many “best of the year” lists that everything is the best (and sometimes also the worst).

So, how can we have some year-end fun while still extracting something meaningful from the effort?

We readers tend to be a thoughtful bunch, noting down the titles we have read or lining them up one by one on a shelf. We are intellectually omnivorous as well and not too overly prejudiced toward the new or the old, picking up a 130-year-old classic of Russian literature and then following it up with the bestselling, beach read of the moment. Taken together, a long list of books read is a map of our year, and the best of these books are the year’s pinnacles, and the challenging books, its rewarding treks. The “10 best books of 2012” list is so small next to this.

And so in preparing our annual Year in Reading series, we’ve asked our esteemed guests to take us on a tour of these pinnacles and to give an accounting of these treks.

With this in mind, for a ninth year, some of our favorite writers, thinkers, and readers will look back, reflect, and share. Their charge was to name, from all the books they read this year, the one(s) that meant the most to them, regardless of publication date. Grouped together, these ruminations, cheers, squibs, and essays will be a chronicle of reading and good books from every era.

We hope you find in them seeds that will help make your year in reading in 2013 a fruitful one.

As in prior years, the names of our 2012 “Year in Reading” contributors will be unveiled one at a time throughout the month as we publish their contributions. You can bookmark this post and follow the series from here, or load up the main page for more new Year in Reading posts appearing at the top every day, or you can subscribe to our RSS feed and follow along that way.

Stephen Dodson, co-author of Uglier Than a Monkey’s Armpit, proprietor of Languagehat.
Ben Fountain, author of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk.
Emma Straub, author of Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures.
Choire Sicha, co-proprietor of The Awl.
Jeffrey Eugenides, author of Middlesex.
Madeline Miller, author of The Song of Achilles.
Gideon Lewis-Kraus, author of A Sense of Direction.
Rob Delaney, comedian and writer.
Nick Harkaway, author of The Gone-Away World.
Tania James, author of Atlas of Unknowns.
Alexander Chee, author of Edinburgh.
Maria Popova, founder and editor of Brain Pickings.
Lauren Groff, author of Arcadia.
David Vann, author of Dirt.
Helen Schulman, author of This Beautiful Life.
Roxane Gay, author of Ayiti.
Hari Kunzru, author of Gods Without Men.
Rachel Fershleiser, co-editor of Not Quite What I Was Planning.
Bill Morris, author of All Souls’ Day, staff writer for The Millions.
Scott Esposito, co-author of The End of Oulipo?, proprietor of Conversational Reading.
Nick Moran, social media editor for The Millions.
Emily St. John Mandel, author of The Lola Quartet, staff writer for The Millions.
Edan Lepucki, author of If You’re Not Yet Like Me, staff writer for The Millions.
Janet Potter, staff writer for The Millions, blogger at At Times Dull.
David Haglund, writer and editor at Slate.
Zadie Smith, author of White Teeth.
Chris Ware, author of Building Stories.
Kevin Smokler, author of Practical Classics: 50 Reasons to Reread 50 Books You Haven’t Touched Since High School, on twitter as @weegee.
Thomas Mallon, author of Watergate.
Geoff Dyer, author of Zona: A Book About a Film About a Journey to a Room.
Susan Orlean, staff writer for The New Yorker, author of Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend.
Michael Schaub, book critic for
Matt Dojny, author of The Festival of Earthly Delights.
Nell Freudenberger, author of The Newlyweds.
Ed Park, author of Personal Days.
Hamilton Leithauser, lead singer for the rock band The Walkmen.
Meg Wolitzer, author of The Interestings.
Sheila Heti, author of How Should a Person Be?.
Paul Murray, author of Skippy Dies.
Elliott Holt, author of You Are One of Them.
Jami Attenberg, author of The Middlesteins.
Antoine Wilson, author of Panorama City.
Paul Ford, author of Gary Benchley, Rock Star, writer at
Garth Risk Hallberg, author of A Field Guide to the North American Family.
Lydia Kiesling, staff writer for The Millions.
Mark O’Connell, staff writer for The Millions.
Christian Lorentzen, editor at the London Review of Books.
Michael Bourne, staff writer for The Millions.
Emily M. Keeler, editor of Little Brother Magazine.
Elizabeth Minkel, staff writer for The Millions.
Nichole Bernier, author of The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D.
Alix Ohlin, author of Inside.
Lars Iyer, author of Exodus.
Robin Sloan, author of Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore.
Malcolm Jones, senior writer at Newsweek/The Daily Beast, author of Little Boy Blues.
Susan Straight, author of Between Heaven and Here.
Christine Schutt, author of Prosperous Friends.
Patrick Somerville, author of This Bright River.
Lydia Millet, author of Magnificence.
Jennifer duBois, author of A Partial History of Lost Causes.
Nick Dybek, author of When Captain Flint Was Still a Good Man.
Reif Larsen, author of The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet.
Megan Mayhew Bergman, author of Birds of a Lesser Paradise.
Ellen Ullman, author of By Blood.
Jane Hirshfield, author of Come, Thief.
Michael Robbins, author of Alien vs. Predator.
Jeet Thayil, author of Narcopolis.
Thomas Beckwith, intern for The Millions.
Benjamin Anastas, author of Too Good to Be True.
Kate Zambreno, author of Heroines.
Carolyn Kellogg, staff writer for the LA Times, a vice president of the National Book Critics Circle.
Buzz Poole, author of Madonna of the Toast.
Robert Birnbaum, editor-at-large at Identity Theory.
Brian Joseph Davis, creator of The Composites, co-publisher of Joyland Magazine.

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

The good stuff: The Millions’ Notable articles

The motherlode: The Millions’ Books and Reviews

Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.

Year in Reading Graphics by LK Magee

The Notables: 2012

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This year’s New York Times Notable Books of the Year list is out. At 100 titles, the list is more of a catalog of the noteworthy than a distinction. Sticking with the fiction exclusively, it appears that we touched upon a few of these books as well:

Arcadia by Lauren Groff (a Staff Pick, Paradise Regained: An Interview with Lauren Groff)
At Last by Edward St Aubyn (Most Anticipated, Illicit Pleasures: On Edward St Aubyn’s At Last)
Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain (Everything is Political: An Interview with Ben Fountain, National Book Award Finalist)
Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel (Booker Prize Winner)
Building Stories by Chris Ware (Infographics of Despair: Chris Ware’s Building Stories)
By Blood by Ellen Ullman (Who We Are Now: On Ellen Ullman’s By Blood)
Canada by Richard Ford (Across the Border: Richard Ford’s Canada)
City of Bohane by Kevin Barry (The Mad Music of Kevin Barry’s City of Bohane)
Fobbit by David Abrams (Post-40 Bloomer: David Abrams Taking As Long As It Takes)
The Forgetting Tree by Tatjana Soli (Going Back to the Page: An Interview with Tatjana Soli, A Millions contributor)
Gods Without Men by Hari Kunzru (Plot, Rhyme, and Conspiracy: Hari Kunzru Colludes with His ReadersFractured World: Hari Kunzru’s Gods Without Men)
HHhH by Laurent Binet (Exclusive: The Missing Pages of Laurent Binet’s HHhH)
A Hologram for the King by Dave Eggers (National Book Award Finalist)
Home by Toni Morrison (Where the Heart Is: Toni Morrison’s Home)
Hope: A Tragedy by Shalom Auslander (So, Nu?: Shalom Auslander’s Hope: A Tragedy)
How Should a Person Be? by Sheila Heti (How Should a Writer Be? An Interview with Sheila Heti)
NW by Zadie Smith (Lamenting the Modern: On Zadie Smith’s NWExclusive: The First Lines of Zadie Smith’s NW)
The Round House by Louise Erdrich (National Book Award Winner)
Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward (National Book Award Winner)
Shout Her Lovely Name by Natalie Serber (Mothers and Daughters: On Natalie Serber’s Shout Her Lovely Name)
Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan (The Lies We Tell: Ian McEwan’s Sweet Tooth)
Swimming Home by Deborah Levy (Booker Shortlisted)
Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon (Golden Oldie: Michael Chabon’s Telegraph AvenueExclusive: The First Lines of Michael Chabon’s Telegraph Avenue)
This Is How You Lose Her by Junot Díaz (The ‘You’ In Yunior: Junot Díaz’s This Is How You Lose HerA Brief Wondrous Interview with Junot Díaz)
Watergate by Thomas Mallon (I Am Not A Character: On Thomas Mallon’s Watergate)
What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank by Nathan Englander (Speaking of Anne Frank…)
The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers (National Book Award Finalist)

The Millions Top Ten: September 2012


We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for September.


On List


A Naked Singularity
4 months


Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace
2 months


1 month


Telegraph Avenue
1 month


This Is How You Lose Her
1 month


Bring Up the Bodies
5 months


The Swerve: How the World Became Modern
6 months


Gone Girl
2 months


How to Sharpen Pencils
6 months


The Patrick Melrose Novels
4 months

Millions readers know: we had been looking ahead to September as a big month for books for quite some time, with new titles arriving from three of the biggest names working in literary fiction working today. We reviewed all three books and all three landed high up in our Top Ten this month with NW by Zadie Smith (our review) besting Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon (our review) and This Is How You Lose Her by Junot Díaz (our review).

A Naked Singularity by Sergio De La Pava remains in our top spot (don’t miss Garth Hallberg’s profile of La Pava from June), and D.T. Max’s biography Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace holds on to the second spot (read the book’s opening paragraphs). Dropping off our list are New American Haggadah (just missing our Hall of Fame), A Hologram for the King, and Binocular Vision (read our interview with author Edith Pearlman)

Other Near Misses: An Arrangement of Light and How Should a Person Be?: A Novel from Life. See Also: Last month’s list.

At Sea in the Deserts of Letdown: On Davy Rothbart’s My Heart is an Idiot

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We lost a great soul in the world of writing with the passing of David Rakoff, a writer who wrote with equal measures moody nostalgia and clear-eyed nihilism. Rakoff was no Hunter S. Thompson, or even David Sedaris — his stories did not come from great calamities of family, or of the road, or of a hijinks-ridden life. Instead, they emerged, like slow-cooked barbecue basted in sugar and vinegar, from Rakoff’s perspective on everyday life. He was the quintessential essayist, one whose voice made any subject worth attending to, and that voice made the incidentals of any experience worthwhile.

Writers that can draw inspiration from within, not from without, are rare, and we’ll be hard-pressed to find an heir to Rakoff’s legacy. Many memoirists seem to find their material through premeditated sprees of fuck-up-itude, going on the premise that “everything is copy,” and letting things fall to pieces in the hopes that it’ll eventually be memoir-worthy. Such is the case in Davy Rothbart’s My Heart is an Idiot, a collection of essays focused on chronicling relationships — romantic and platonic — that never settle out the way they should.

There’s nothing wrong with writing about bad romances or bad sex — after all, they don’t write songs about the loves that come easy. But the laziness with which Rothbart’s hookups and hangouts are depicted, highlighting major moments of failure without meditating on their significance, indicates a troubling trend in young memoirs. It takes more than experience to make a narrative voice, and not every failure or triumph should be destined for memoirization.

The unifying theme, if there is any, of Rothbart’s collection is of the frustrated and interrupted searches for love and connection in the modern world. Some of these moments play out like great capers, as in the best essay, “Human Snowball,” in which Rothbart, a 110-year-old bus passenger, a Chinese family, and a buddy destined to end up in prison all cram into a Ford Explorer in search of a long-lost love and find a winning lottery ticket instead.

Serendipity seems to guide most of Rothbart’s escapades, and when his renegade optimism is not rewarded, he goes off the rails. When Rothbart discovers that a writing contest turns out to be a scam, his form of vengeance involves, among other things, mailed bottles of Nantucket Nectars filled with his own urine. Not all the stories show Rothbart at his most infantile, and the most moving of them all, “New York, New York,” details a bus ride from Chicago to New York in the days immediately following 9/11. Rothbart’s not shy about interacting with his fellow passengers, who range from utterly shell-shocked to fully loquacious. But at the very moment he seems to be genuinely connecting with people, the narrative always withdraws, makes itself impersonal once more. As the passengers disembark at Port Authority, Rothbart says, “On a thousand-mile bus trip like that, after all those interviews and brief but intense conversations, I would’ve gathered a slew of e-mail addresses and made a dozen new Facebook friends. But that was another time, before the souls we cross paths with could be collected like passport stamps, and I never saw or heard from any of those people again.” Instead of digging deep into a moment of transitory friendship, into the dazed confusion of those early days of national uncertainty, Rothbart briefly reduces his experience to a moment of failed networking.

This is not to say that Rothbart is cavalier about his relationships — but rather, he lacks the ability to communicate his emotional investment, whether powerful or non-existent, to the reader. You especially feel this in stories about his romantic escapades, where his admiration — of a girl’s hair, lips, swing of her hips — gets only slightly more space than his rejection or remorse. He can fall for a girl through a series of exchanged emails (as in the essay “Shade”), only to decide upon meeting her that “our whole chemistry seemed off.” (The title comes from the movie Gas Food Lodging. A character from that film, a trailer-park teen girl named Shade, utterly bewitches the young Rothbart, a character he called “the love of my life.” The guy bought stock in the Manic Pixie Dream Girl at seventeen, and hasn’t been able to shake the obsession since.) The depictions of these kinds of women aren’t so much misogynistic or even offensive — there’s not enough attention to them to become deeply invested in their fates or in what Rothbart thinks of them.

Moreover, the moments that might prompt greater description, or greater examination on what drives love, or lust, or obsession, are almost always abbreviated, to the point where the reader is regularly prompted to ask, “Is that all there is?” Skimping on the details that would take the stories from attitudinal to authentic — in the essay, “Tarantula,” which chronicles a drunken hook-up, a waterlogged corpse, and the title spider among other things, the best moment comes in transit. Rothbart’s girl of the night, a bartender as “skinny as a signpost” with a “sideways smile” tells him to hide under a tarp in the back of her pickup truck, so they can leave for the night without her fiancé hearing about it later. Rothbart complies, and she slips into the truck 30 minutes later and they take off.

I peeled off the tarp and lay on my back looking at the dull comets of orange streetlights overhead, until we hit a dirt road and they trailed off, replaced by a few cooling stars. Thinking back, this was probably the only worthwhile, positive part of the night — the thrumming anticipation, the cold air ripping over my face, the truck’s surefire vroom-vrooms as we tore like a shot arrow toward somewhere mysterious.

This brief description, one of the few that details a landscape or perspective more than a friend’s tattoos or a girlfriend’s eyeliner, hints that Rothbart knows what parts of the story might drive anticipation. Yet his voice remains so passive, so stage direction-y, that such moments lose their power almost immediately, and are never expanded upon later. He tips his hand at the description’s intended effect before he moves us, and the foreshadowing is wasted.

The impulse to memoirize isn’t a bad one, even on the part of the young and reckless — I’ve spent hours on end devouring the first season of Girls and underlining sentence after sentence of Sheila Heti’s extraordinary How Should a Person Be? What makes stories worth telling is not what happened, but how what happened made something else happen to the teller. And the true stories that we remember — from the Burroughs, the Karrs, the Nabokovs and Rakoffs of the world — didn’t just serve up the events of their day planner or black book. They spun them into glittering tales of experience. “I needed a cover story,” Rothbart said in “Shade,” and you can see it in every story in this collection, each essay that yearns to be “collection-worthy.” “What I craved and had been chasing…was the exquisite misery I’d felt when I’d first seen Shade on the screen. That wrenching longing was its own perfect drug, and as long as a girl kept me at arm’s length and maintained a distance, some veil of mystery, then my excruciating and exhilarating ache could be preserved.”

In the last volume published before his death, the morbidly funny collection of essays, Half Empty, Rakoff had wise words for a writer like Rothbart. “Even the most charmed life is a veritable travelogue of disappointment. There will always be an inevitable gulf between hope and reality. It is how we traverse these Deserts of Letdown that show us what we are made of (perhaps almost as much as does choosing to characterize them as Deserts of Letdown).” The thing that makes great memoir is not the road we journey down, but the details and attitude we use to chronicle the journey. I’d be curious to see if Rothbart, turning his attention to a more mundane story — a flat tire on the side of the highway, a dead-end desk job, a delayed flight to a nondescript city — would suddenly reveal himself to be a born storyteller, telling tales that served up more than highs and lows, but all the mysterious moments in-between.

The Millions Top Ten: August 2012

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We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for August.


On List


A Naked Singularity
3 months


Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace
1 month


Bring Up the Bodies
4 months


How to Sharpen Pencils
5 months


The Swerve: How the World Became Modern
5 months


The Patrick Melrose Novels
3 months


Gone Girl
1 month


New American Haggadah
6 months


A Hologram for the King
2 months


Binocular Vision
3 months

A Naked Singularity by Sergio De La Pava is our newest number one, with a ton of reader interest since De La Pava was profiled by Garth Hallberg in June. The book replaces Denis Johnson’s Pulitzer finalist Train Dreams in the top spot, as it graduates to our Hall of Fame. Our list has two debuts this month. D.T. Max’s widely anticipated biography Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace lands in the second spot (read the book’s opening paragraphs). And Gillian Flynn’s juggernaut of a novel Gone Girl is our other debut. Dropping off our list is Visual Storytelling: Inspiring a New Visual Language, which was brought to our readers’ attention when author Reif Larsen penned an engrossing exploration of the infographic.
Other Near Misses: Broken Harbor, How Should a Person Be?: A Novel from Life, Leaving the Atocha Station, Gone Girl, and The Flame Alphabet . See Also: Last month’s list.

The Great Taxonomy of Literary Tumblrs: Round Two

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[Ed Note: Don’t miss Part One and Part Three!]

Six months ago, I rounded up a list of my favorite literary Tumblr accounts. Half a year later, I’m pleased to see those blogs still going strong. I’m also pleased to see that a pile of the names on my Wish List came around to the land of likes and reblogs. In that regard, some shout outs are in order: Picador Book Room (and its “Sunday Sontags”) has become a favorite of The Millions’ social media team; The Strand made its way onto the blogging platform and we’re all better because of it; Poetry Magazine continues to draw from its enviable archives to bring some really exciting content to our Dashboard; and — whether it’s due to my friendly dig or their own volition — The Paris Review’s presence has been especially awesome of late. Indeed, the literary community on Tumblr is growing stronger by the day, and it has to be noted that a lot of that growth is due to Rachel Fershleiser’s evangelism and infectious enthusiasm. (An example of Rachel’s work was recapped recently by Millions staffer Lydia Kiesling as part of our own Emily M. Keeler’s Tumblr-centric #LitBeat column.)

Alas, six months in the real world is different from six months online, and Tumblr now has not only its own Storyboard curatorial system (run by the vaguely Soviet-sounding Department of Editorial), but it’s also grown by a few million blogs. The site boasts a growing number of blogs that have inked book deals. Rachel maintains a running tally of poets and writers who use the platform in exciting ways. This past week, Molly Templeton organized a blog, The How-To Issue, specifically aimed at countering the gender imbalance in the recent “How-To” installment of The New York Times Book Review. As a testament to the number of smart, engaged literary folks on the site, that blog has since received posts from a Salon writer, a former New Yorker staffer, and quite a few artists and freelancers.

So with all of that in mind, I’ve decided it’s time for another list — a better list, a bigger list. This list aims not only to cover blogs I missed last time, but also new blogs that have been born only recently. To that end, my rubric has been simple: 1) I’ve chosen blogs I not only believe to be the best and most compelling accounts out there, but also blogs that were overlooked on the last list — in some cases, readers helped me out in the last post’s comment thread. 2) I’ve done my best to ensure that these blogs are active members of the Tumblr community. 3) I’ve tried to make sure that the content on these blogs is “safe for work,” however I am but mortal, and perhaps some NSFW material will slip in between now and when you read this list. For that reason I can only caution you to use your judgment as you proceed.

For your convenience, I’ve organized the list in a similar manner as last time. “Single-Servings” are blogs organized around one or two particular, ultra-specific themes. The rest of the categories should be self-explanatory.

Please feel free to comment and shout out the ones I omitted or did not cover in Part One.

0. Shameless Self-Promotion

The Millions: duh!

1. Single-Servings

Book and Beer: The combination of everybody’s favorite duo will tease you from your office chair.
Match Book: Or is it, instead, that books and bikinis are an even better pair?
Movie Simpsons: An encyclopedic recap of every film reference in The Simpsons. Now open to submissions.
Underground NYPL: Pairs well with CoverSpy. I’ve yet to find a match, however.
The Unquotables: Brought to you by Dan Wilbur (Better Book Titles, which is going to be a book!) and Robert Dean. The premise is simple: Gandhi didn’t say that.
Infinite Boston: A catalog of the locations mentioned in The Great Bandana’s Infinite Jest.
Write Place Write Time: Remember our WriteSpace project? (Which we Storify’d?) This is ongoing.
The Composites: Composite sketches of characters in famous literature. Creepy ones, at that.
Poets Touching Trees: Happy Arbor Day, poets!
You Chose Wrong: The tragic fates of mistaken “Choose Your Own Adventure” readers. It’s like reading The Gashlycrumb Tinies.
Doodling on Famous Writers: Those warped lines beneath Proust’s eyes really suit him.
Old Book Illustrations: A visual treat for nostalgic book nerds.
Visual Poetry: Exactly what it says it is, yet also much more.
PBS’ This Day in History: So much better to get this stuff on your Dashboard than in your inbox.
Historical Nonfiction: This blog pairs well with the one above. Follow both and you’ll rival Howard Zinn in no time.
Writers and Kitties: I have often wondered about that particular feline-author bond.
Page Twenty Seven: The text from one reader’s collection of twenty seventh pages.
Book Storey: Eye candy for lovers of book design.

2. Requisite “F*** Yeah!” Blogs

Book Arts!

3. Foundations, Organizations and Writing Centers

826 Valencia: Dispatches and success stories from the California writing center focused on kids aged six to eighteen. It was co-founded by Dave Eggers.
The National Book Foundation: They’ll announce finalists for their big awards in October, so you’ve got some time to get acquainted with the foundation.
The Moth: Fabulous stuff from the story gurus. I’ll let Kevin Hartnett take it from here.
The Poetry Society of America: Nice to see the nation’s oldest poetry non-profit embrace one of the newest mediums for storytelling.
Harry Ransom Center: They have more than David Foster Wallace’s papers, you know.
The Academy of American Poets: The organizers of National Poetry Month deliver some excellent Tumblr material, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t super relieved when they finally found Rob.
PEN Live: A great example of a fresh, exciting way to use the blogging platform. PEN Live covers events put on by the PEN American Center.
Poets & Writers: A great source of guidance for creative writers.
Button Poetry: Performance poetry delivered straight to your Dashboard from the Twin Cities.
VIDA Community: The creators of publishing’s annual gender-imbalance list curate a really interesting list of updates on women, culture, and writing.

4. Humorous

Sh*t My Students Write: Proof positive that more MFA graduates should be teaching in secondary schools.
The Monkeys You Ordered: These literal New Yorker cartoon captions are topped only by this one comment applicable to all of them.
What Should We Call Poets: Based on the grandmother that started them all. This is the GIF blog poets deserve, but not the one they need right now.
Title 2 Come: You can never follow too many GIF blogs. This one is for for writers of every stripe.
News Cat GIFs: Same as above. Last but not least, this one is for journalists. (Who like cats.)
Least Helpful: The worst of the worst reviews from the annals of the internet.
Hey, Author: It’s like a Regina George’s Burn Book for the literati.
Alt Lit Gossip (Can be NSFW): HTMLGiant is leaking.

5. Literary, Cultural and Art Magazines or Blogs

Recommended Reading: Home of the marvelous ongoing fiction series run by Electric Literature.
Words Without Borders: Spreading the gospel of international and translated literature one Tumblr post at a time.
Tin House: You (should) know the magazine. Now you should know their blog.
VQR: The brand new companion to the invaluable source for great long-form and narrative journalism.
n+1: They recently decided to kill off their Personals blog, so perhaps this one will become more active.
New York Review of Books: Need I introduce them? Also, not to be missed, check out the NYRB Classics blog, A Different Stripe.
Granta: Follow these guys for updates on the magazine’s new releases and competitions.
Guernica: Hey, you’re spilling your art into my politics!
Full Stop: Who else would recommend Errol Flynn’s memoir, posit an alternate Olympics Opening Ceremony, and then review the work of Victor Serge?
Vol. 1 Brooklyn: As their banner says, “If you’re smart, you’ll like us.”
Rusty Toque: An online literary and arts journal backed by Ontario’s Western University.
Book Riot: How can you help loving the kind of people who reblog photos of Faulkner’s oeuvre alongside galleries of literary tattoos?
Berfrois: Some highbrow curiosities for that eager, eager brain of yours.
Literalab: Dispatches from Central and Eastern Europe, which as anybody who knows me knows to be my favorite parts of Europe.
Triple Canopy: The online magazine embraces yet another means of communicating.
fwriction review: Finally an honest banner: “specializing in work that melts faces and rocks waffles.” (See also: fwriction)
Little Brother: The latest project from our own Emily M. Keeler.
Asymptote: Dedicated to works in translation and world literature.
Glitterwolf Magazine: Devoted to highlighting UK writers and writers from LGBT communities.
The Essayist: Aggregated long-form writing from all over the place.

6. Major, General and More Well-Known Magazines

Smithsonian Magazine: “Retina” consists of the best visual content from Smithsonian Magazine.
The American Scholar: Follow them. You’ll be more fun to talk to at cocktail parties.
Boston Globe: News and photos, and we all know they’ve got plenty of both.
Salon: Finally! We get to read Salon without actually having to go to!
The Morning News: Our friends who host the annual Tournament of Books have a Tumblr presence, too.
Mother Jones: Politics and current events, ahoy!
Tomorrow Mag: Ann Friedman & Co.’s new venture.
Lively Morgue: Typically awesome photos from The New York Times archives.
Bonus: This article covers the ways in which twelve news outlets are using Tumblr in innovative, fresh ways.

7. Publishers (Big Six) — Note: Many of these blogs are used by the imprint or publisher’s marketing team, but you’ll find that some of the most successful publisher Tumblrs are getting more focused and specific. This is an interesting development, and I encourage more of the same. Also: This list is only a small sampling of the publisher Tumblrs on the site — just naming all the ones from Penguin would amount to its own post!

Random House Digital: Dispatches from the Random House digital team.
Vintage Books Design: As they say, “vintage design from Vintage designers.”
Harper Books: The publisher’s flagship imprint sets up shop on Tumblr.
The Penguin Press: They publish Zadie Smith, in case you need validation of their taste.
Simon Books: Straight from Rockefeller Center to your Dashboard!
Pantheon: News and miscellany from Random House’s literary fiction and serious nonfiction imprint.
Penguin English Library: Celebrating the Classic Penguins we all love so much. Plus, get a load of that animated masthead!
Back Bay Books: Little, Brown’s paperback pals. Their list of authors is incredible.
Mulholland Books: This group fully embraces Tumblr’s multimedia capabilities. A solid A+ in my book.
Penguin Teen: Excellent content for younger readers.
Free Press Books: Let’s just say these folks enjoyed the week Michael Phelps had at the Olympics.
HMH Books: Be sure to check out their Translation and Poetry blogs, too.
Riverhead: Of all the publisher Tumblrs, they boast the cutest mascot.
Little, Brown: Their Daily First Line posts are tantalizing.

8. Publishers (University Presses)

Duke: Hate the basketball team, love the press. (And their blog.)
Chicago: Their posts are excellent. Continually substantial and interesting.
McGill-Queens: Fun Fact: some folks up North would have it that Harvard is “America’s McGill.”
Cambridge Exhibitions: Alerts and updates on the myriad academic conferences and events attended by the CUP staff.

9. Publishers (Indies and Little Ones)

Chronicle: These folks have been known to turn Tumblr blogs into books, so of course they know their way around the platform.
Grove Atlantic: I’m not a tough sell, but giving away books related to The Wire is my kryptonite.
Open Road Media: Worth a follow for their YouTube discoveries alone.
Two Dollar Radio: They published Grace Krilanovich’s book (the one I recommended), so you know they’re good.
Timaş Publishing Group: These Turkish publishers are so generous, they give away eBook credits on a bi-weekly basis.
Quirk Books: These Philadelphia-based publishers sure find a lot of pretty bookshelves to reblog.
The Feminist Press: The important indie operating out of NYC delivers some really interesting, innovative stuff in addition to the classics they “rescue.”
The Lit Pub: Recommendations from The Lit Pub‘s staff.
Muumuu House: No doubt this account is run by Tao Lin’s legion of interns.
Overlook Press: Their About page even features a TL;DR version. They get Tumblr.
Arte Público Press: Your dashboard destination for U.S. Hispanic literature.
Coffee House Press Interns: Bonus “little” points because it’s run by their interns.
Unmanned Press: They just joined Tumblr, but their “Sunday Rejections” posts seem promising.

10. Authors (Direct Involvement) — The Tumblr “Spotlight” list can be found here; it’s not comprehensive, but it lists accounts you’re sure to enjoy. I’ve listed one of each author’s books alongside their names. Additionally: YA Highway, an excellent resource for fans of Young Adult books, maintains a great directory of YA Authors.

Emily St. John Mandel: Millions staffer whose most recent book is The Lola Quartet.
Edan Lepucki: Millions staffer whose most recent book is If You’re Not Yet Like Me.
Patrick Somerville: This Bright River.
Neil Gaiman: American Gods.
Roxane Gay: Ayiti.
Sheila Heti: How Should a Person Be?
Emma Straub: Other People We Married.
Jami Attenberg: The Middlesteins. Bonus: check out her advice, too.
Nathan Englander: What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank.
Matthew Gallaway: The Metropolis Case.
Miles Klee: Ivyland.
John Green: Looking for Alaska.
Alexander Chee: Edinburgh.
Tayari Jones: Silver Sparrow.
Rosencrans Baldwin: Paris, I Love You but You’re Bringing Me Down.
Tao Lin: Richard Yates.
Dan Chaon: Stay Awake.
Christopher Dickey: Securing the City.

11. Authors (Indirect Involvement)

Reading Ardor: Two readers go through Vladimir Nabokov’s Ada, or Ardor: A Family Chronicle.
Chuck Palahniuk: Don’t forward this blog to any Turkish publishing houses.
John Banville Spectates Tennis: Serving up some observations on tennis. (I’ll excuse myself now.)
Martin Amis Drinking: This should really just be a livestream video feed of Amis at all times.
A. O. Scott Zingers: The film critic’s best one-liners.
Fitzgerald Quotes: F. Scott’s got lines for days.
Reading Markson Reading: Brainchild of Millions contributor, Tyler Malone.

12. Poets — As with the authors list, Tumblr’s poetry “Spotlight” can be found here.

Leigh Stein: Dispatch From the Future.
Michael Robbins: Alien vs. Predator.
Paolo Javier: The Feeling Is Actual. Full disclosure: Paolo was one of my college professors.
Zachary Schomburg: Fjords Vol. 1. He’s also one of the founders of Octopus Magazine.
Saeed Jones: When the Only Light is Fire. This blog is really cool. It’s like the poet’s global travelogue.

13. Bookstores — I’ll list the location of each one.

Unabridged: Chicago’s Lake View neighborhood.
Community Bookstore: Park Slope, Brooklyn.
McNally Kids: Manhattan.
Skylight Books: Los Angeles.
Open Books: Chicago.
Emily Books: The Internet.
Mercer Island Books: Seattle.
Luminous Books: East London.
Politics & Prose: Washington D.C.
Micawber’s: St. Paul.
City Lights: San Francisco.
57th Street Books: Chicago’s Hyde Park.
The Little Book Room: Melbourne, Australia.
Tattered Cover: Denver.
Uncharted Books: Chicago.
Green Apple Books: San Francisco.
Taylor Books: Charleston, WV.

14. Libraries

Darien Library: Excellent posts from one of the best libraries in the nation.
Looks Like Library Science: “Challenging the librarian stereotype.”
Live From the NYPL: Events and goings-on at the NYPL.
Library Journal: The editors of LJ share what they’re reading.
School Library Journal: Ditto for their scholastic counterparts.
Espresso Brooklyn: The Brooklyn Public Library has an espresso on-demand book printing machine. How cool is it that it has its own blog, too?

15. BONUS SECTION DEVOTED TO @Horse_ebooks — Everybody’s favorite Dadaist Twitter handle has a devoted following on the blogging platform.

Horse_ Fan Fiction: Look no further than your Twitter timeline for the best writing prompts on earth.
Annotated Horse_: A valuable resource for the inevitable scholarly study of Horse_’s oeuvre.
33, Pyramid, and Dalton: Max Read’s impressive catalog of recurring Horse_ themes.

16. Wish List

Oxford American: Maybe not the best time for the magazine at the moment, but my wish from last time still stands.
Garden & Gun
Oxford University Press
More authors and poets!


[Ed Note: Don’t miss Part One and Part Three!]

The Millions Top Ten: July 2012


We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for July.


On List


Train Dreams
6 months


A Naked Singularity
2 months


Bring Up the Bodies
3 months


How to Sharpen Pencils
4 months


The Patrick Melrose Novels
2 months


The Swerve: How the World Became Modern
4 months


New American Haggadah
5 months


Visual Storytelling: Inspiring a New Visual Language
4 months


Binocular Vision
3 months


A Hologram for the King
1 month

Denis Johnson’s Pulitzer finalist Train Dreams is our number one for a second month in a row, while A Naked Singularity by Sergio De La Pava (profiled by Garth Hallberg) leaps six spots to number two, putting it in good shape to be next month’s number one when Train Dreams graduates to our Hall of Fame. Our lone debut, meanwhile, Is Dave Eggers’ A Hologram for the King. Eggers is no stranger to our lists. Zeitoun was inducted into our Hall of Fame in 2010, while The Wild Things had a brief run in the Top Ten in late 2009. The Flame Alphabet by Ben Marcus drops off the list after a one-month stint.
Other Near Misses: How Should a Person Be?: A Novel from Life, Leaving the Atocha Station, Gone Girl, and Broken Harbor. See Also: Last month’s list.

Pass the Rémy Red Berry Infusion: John Wray Interviews Matt Dojny

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Wray and Dojny, 18 years ago in Texas.

Like another bold book that’s just hitting the shelves, Sheila Heti’s How Should A Person Be?, Matt Dojny’s The Festival of Earthly Delights is a novel from life, though the life that it’s from — to judge by the book that resulted — must be radically, grotesquely different. Dojny’s novel is high entertainment: a wildly heightened and distorted assembly of painfully funny, jaw-dropping misadventures that resolve themselves, in almost classical style, into a big old-fashioned technicolor ending. No less a literary funnyman than Gary Shteyngart called The Festival of Earthly Delights “A glorious novel” — with exclamation marks! — and I can’t help but agree. This is a quintessential summer book, but not the kind that you’d want to take to the beach, if only because it would turn you into the kind of snorting, cackling deviant that people tend to move their towels away from. Also, it has funny pictures.

Boyd Darrow, the novel’s epically star-crossed hero, has just landed in the tiny Southeast Asian country of Puchai (“The Kingdom of Winks!”) with his grouchy and distinctly less-than-faithful girlfriend, Ulla. In a series of letters to a mysterious figure from his past known only as “Hap,” Darrow narrates a string of cultural gaffes and psychosexual misadventures as his relationship and professional life and understanding of the world in general are radically and permanently Puchafied. But the country of Puchai itself is the real star of the novel, from the atomically smelly garong fruit everyone finds so delicious to its national fondness for the music of the mid-career Eagles and the Festival of Taang Lôke Kwaam Banterng Sumitchanani, the “Festival of Earthly Delights” of the title, the absurd and improbable celebration of which also serves as the rococo end of the novel itself.

In tribute to the novel’s theme of cultural dislocation, and to its author’s storied past on the Asian subcontinent, this interview was held in a Malaysian karaoke parlor in midtown Manhattan. Dojny, for reasons unclear to this writer, had smuggled in a bottle of Rémy Red Berry Infusion.

John Wray: You worked for a while as an actor in karaoke videos in Singapore, if I’m remembering rightly. I know that you drew on many experiences from your time in Southeast Asia when you were plotting out Boyd Darrow’s misadventures in The Festival of Earthly Delights — how come acting in karaoke videos didn’t make it into the book?

Matt Dojny: I’d originally planned to have Boyd’s journey more directly mirror my own — the first half of the book was going to be set in “Puchai” (my fictionalized stand-in for Thailand), and the second half was going to recount Boyd’s travels around the continent, including a stint doing some karaoke-acting. However, if I’d stuck with that structure, the book would’ve been 1,000 pages long, which seemed kind of excessive for a first novel, so — hey, do you want to perform “Bullet with Butterfly Wings” [Smashing Pumpkins], or can I?

JW: Wow, this interview is heading south in a hurry. Go ahead.

MD: Here, try a sip of this of Remy Red. It tastes like a strawberry popsicle soaked in turpentine.

JW: Ugh. Okay.

Unlike a lot of novels that arise more or less directly out of the author’s coming of age, yours seems unfettered by any particular desire to represent your own life accurately, or even fairly, which may be part of the reason it’s so hilarious — you’ve given yourself the freedom to shape the material for maximum kick. Was transforming Thailand into the fictional (and very weird) country of Puchai an important step in that direction? Did it liberate you to get especially freaky?

That version of “Bullet” made me just a little uncomfortable, by the way. The lyrics really seemed to speak to you on a fundamental level. Do you consider yourself an angry person?

MD: No, I don’t think I’m particularly angry. But, I will admit that the lyrics “Despite all my rage/I am still just a rat in a cage” speak to my innermost being. Is that so wrong?

In answer to your first question: I mainly set the novel in Puchai because I’m lazy, and didn’t want to have to do a lot of research about Thailand. I loved living there, but it was more interesting for me to make up a new culture rather than having to interrogate an existing one. If that allowed for maximum freakiness, then, bully for me. Does that answer make sense? I feel like I’ve gotten drunk too early in this interview. This Remy Red might’ve been a mistake. I’m switching to beer. You pick a song.

JW: I’m going to vote for something classy this time. Do you do women’s voices?

MD: Not in my daily life. But I’ll do my best.

JW: Then I’m going to respectfully request “For The Good Times” by Al Green. Something tells me you have a soulful falsetto.

Did you have any particular models in mind when you were writing this novel? I’ve been trying to come up with some guesses, which hasn’t been easy. Kingsley Amis keeps springing to mind for some reason — especially his masterpiece of institutional satire, Lucky Jim. But maybe that’s just because Kingsley Amis was an angry writer too.

MD: I like to think that I’m not as much of a misanthrope — or a misogynist — as Amis was, but, that being said, Lucky Jim was absolutely a reference point — my book is basically half campus novel, and half epistolary novel. Oh, and half bildungsroman.

I’d like to reiterate that I do not think of myself as an angry writer — I feel like you’re still picking up on the powerful reverberations of that Smashing Pumpkins song.

And, with all due respect to Mr. Green, I’m going to pass on that song request. I feel like for a karaoke performance to be truly successful, you have to know the song inside and out, and my kinship with that track isn’t deep enough. Can I do some Otis Redding instead? Maybe “Try a Little Tenderness?”

JW: I’d never discourage anyone from performing that number. It also resonates with my next question, which touches on the sensual side of your writing. To wit: there’s a lot of sex in this book — a lot more than one tends to encounter in contemporary fiction by polite and well-spoken young men. Katie Roiphe would never have had to write her polemic in the Atlantic Monthly (or wherever that was) if the culture had more novelists of your stripe. What purpose does sex play in the novel? Were you setting out to write our generation’s version of Updike’s Couples? And don’t you worry what your mother will think?

MD: I absolutely worry what my mother might think; I’m even chagrined that she’s likely reading this interview. Hopefully she doesn’t know about the Internet.

My natural inclination is to be shy and retiring, and yet I also felt obligated to explore the more cringe-inducing corners of my psyche while writing the book. I’m guessing that inclination is somehow related to my Catholic upbringing? Anyway, I guess the purpose of my acknowledgment of the existence of human sexuality in the novel was to make myself and my family (and probably the reader) as uncomfortable as possible…Speaking of which, instead of Otis Redding, I’m going to sing “My Humps.” Hold my beer, please.

JW: Jesus. That was actually really, really good. I feel as if I’ve never truly heard that song before. And now I’ll never be able to erase it fully from my mind.

MD: That was the effect I’d intended.

JW: I wanted ask about the drawings in the book. There are so many of them, and they’re so illustrative, that the experience of reading it comes close, at certain points, to that of a graphic novel. Did you ever consider going in that direction with the story?

MD: My background is as a visual artist, and, when I first conceived of working on a book, I originally thought it’d be mostly art, with a little bit of text. I didn’t really think of myself as a writer back then, so this approach allowed me to ease myself into the concept of being a novelist. Once I started writing, the text took over, and the illustrations became secondary, or, at least, subservient to the story. I’d love to do a graphic novel someday, but it seems like so much work. It took me four or five years to write this book — if it had more art and fewer words, I’d probably still be working on it.

Can you do me a favor and do a rap song? I want to level the playing field after that Black Eyed Peas number. I feel unclean now.

JW: I’m not sure I have the sense of rhythm required for hip hop, but I’ll do something in that general direction. How about “Work It” by Missy Elliott? That song has always spoken to me for some reason.

I’m now going to do something that I strongly disapprove of and get annoyed by in interviews, which is to bring up specific episodes from your novel and ask about the stories behind them, as though the whole point of writing fiction weren’t the excitement and challenge of making things up. But I have to ask: did you, at any point in your time in Asia, have a job interview with an embittered Vietnam veteran gone native who asked you to smuggle a tiny bottle of his urine back to America, just so you could pour it out on to the ground when you arrived?

MD: The character of Sam is, in fact, based partially on the Vietnam vet who ran the language school where I taught English in Thailand. In reality, though, the man asked me to smuggle a bottle of urine into Vietnam and pour it onto the ground, not America. I’m sure he’d been through some terrible things there, and I fully understand why he might’ve had an adverse reaction to the young American backpackers such as myself who were now tourists in the country where he’d once fought. The image of the tiny vial of urine stuck with me, though, and seemed like it should be repurposed for the general reading public.

JW: How about the brothel in the novel — “Meowy X-mas?” Did it exist, and did you go there, and did a buxom and well-intentioned bar girl actually swallow your wedding ring? Feel free to pass on this question if answering it will ruin your life.

MD: First of all, I want to go on record as saying that your flow is formidable. Don’t sell your rap-skills short.

Regarding Meowy X-mas: I actually didn’t get around to visiting any brothels during my visit in Southeast Asia, and I have never had anyone eat my jewelry, so I had to rely on my fiction-making skills for that scene. I did, however, go to a bar in Singapore that was full of very ruddy and overweight middle-aged Englishmen and their incongruously beautiful 20-year-old Singaporean love interests. It had an unsavory vibe that makes me think that, in retrospect, it was basically a more evolved version of a brothel. I wasn’t actually propositioned there, but maybe I was too obviously poverty-stricken. Or maybe it was my lack of ruddiness.

Okay, I’m going to sing a Lionel Richie song now. You have a problem with that?

JW: Depends on the number. May I suggest “All Night Long?” Not sure I’m ready for a ballad from The Lion King right now.

I was impressed to see an ecstatic blurb from Kristen Schaal on the back of the book — I’ve loved her ever since she played the stalker fan on Flight of the Conchords. How did you get a copy of the novel to her, and do you know if she’s currently single?

MD: Kristen used to live upstairs from me and, back in the day, would walk my dog, before she went all Hollywood on me. She is very awesome, but I’m pretty sure she’s in a committed relationship — maybe you could woo her with your rapping skills.

Now, what should we do next — maybe a duet? What would you say to a little “Islands in the Steam?”

JW: Dear lord. If that’s not a sign that this interview’s over, I don’t know what is.

Image courtesy of the author.

#LitBeat: Funny and Dirty in San Francisco

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Two weeks ago, I finished school, packed it up, and returned to San Francisco after a three-year hiatus. My first event as a Californian reborn was Saturday’s “Tumbeliever Party” at the Makeout Room, a dark and venerable joint in the Mission. The party, built around Sheila Heti’s book tour for her new novel, How Should a Person Be?, was a dual effort between Tumblr and The Believer and featured readings by several local writers. Presiding was Rachel Fershleiser, an energetic person whose job at Tumblr (Literary and Non-Profit Outreach) seems to be using technology to make things happen with books to make things happen with technology by having parties — so, the best job in the world.

The Makeout Room is designed like a bottle, with the entryway and bar area its neck. Trying to get a drink to dull the pain of feeling like everyone knows each other except for you was a minor trial, solved by Black Star beers in cans. The Booksmith ran the book table, and there were drink tickets (thx TumBelvr!). Isaac Fitzgerald, of The Rumpus, began the readings with a vignette about his first tattoo, an expansion of his bio on Pen & Ink, the tattoo tumblr Fitzgerald runs with Wendy MacNaughton. His tattoo, “Forgive Me,” is an apology to a particular young lady for his fickle heart and the freckled charms of the other young ladies with whom he spent one New Hampshire summer.

Fitzgerald and the main event, Sheila Heti, formed a sort of bracket to the proceedings in that they did not read pieces about San Francisco. The artist and writer Joshua Heineman, of the site Cursive Cities and the joint New York Public Library project the Stereogranimator, had been instructed by Fershleiser to make it “dirty or funny.” While he told the assembled that he was accustomed to being neither in his work, he made a strong showing toward the latter with a true-life tale about being clubbed by a mentally ill fellow wielding Mickey Mouse statuary in a Mission Street bagel shop. Before giving up the stage Heineman took the opportunity to read a poem, not funny or dirty, but heartfelt, about Abroad.

While San Francisco is commonly held to be a city of transplants (cf. the recent burn on 30 Rock), Melissa Graeber, tumblr proprietress and world’s youngest English Department Chair, is a fifth-generation San Franciscan. She read a lovely piece about her family, parents who grew up in adjacent houses, and a box of dirt — a literal interpretation of Fershleiser’s charge to be dirty. She was followed by crowd favorite and genial presence Mills Baker of Aporia (where you can also watch his performance). The San Francisco vibe peaked with this reading, because Baker read from an iPad, indicating that it is the future, and relayed another story of a San Franciscan who marched to the proverbial beat of her own drum (this is the long way to say crazy). Then came a brief meditation on the bougie guilt and writerly predation and color-line anxiety of one city dweller for another.

Sheila Heti took the stage last, and told us that she would be dirty. And how. Reading from her new book about a divorced feminist playwright, Heti selected what can only be the dirtiest bits, an extended sex party between the protagonist and an artist named Israel (a name which sometimes made the passage seem like very oblique comment on the Israel-Palestine conflict, e.g., “She thinks she can go around…not having known the humiliation of being fucked by Israel”). It was a funny and provocative passage to mark the end of a rousing evening in the golden West.

The Millions’s #LitBeat is an occasional report on readings and other real life literary happenings all over the world. You can read them all on our tumblr.

Tuesday New Release Day: Eggers, Russo, Heti, Frayn, Winslow, Henkin, Brunt, Maraniss


Dave Eggers’ latest, A Hologram for the King, is out today. Also out this week is an under-the-radar, new effort from Richard Russo, Interventions, a collection that’s a collaboration with his artist daughter Kate Russo. Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be? is out (Don’t miss our illuminating interview). And Michael Frayn has a new novel, Skios. More new fiction: Don Winslow’s The Kings of Cool (a prequel to Savages), Joshua Henkin’s The World Without You, and Carol Rifka Brunt’s Tell the Wolves I’m Home. In non-fiction, There’s David Maraniss’ Barack Obama: The Story.

How Should a Writer Be? An Interview with Sheila Heti

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Sheila Heti is the Interviews Editor at The Believer and author of five books including the critically acclaimed Ticknor. Her new novel How Should a Person Be? feels different from her previous work. It is deeply personal, while also detached and experimental. The sex is rough, the revelations are raw, and the form is strange. Heti lays bare what many writers try to hide — the mismatch between how we feel and what we do. Miranda July calls it a “book that risks everything.”

The main character in the novel, Sheila Heti, is reeling from a recent divorce and struggling to write a commissioned play. Seeking inspiration, she records conversations with her best friend, a painter named Margaux, and has an affair with a devilish and handsome painter, Israel. Sheila dives into both relationships, a journey that is steeped in philosophy and that uses email transcripts and recordings as clues on a search for the heart and mind. Ultimately, Sheila discovers how an artist can create work in the face of her own self-doubts. As a writer, I read the novel as a story that explores writing and rejection and moving on, but the themes can be more widely applied. It is a book about finding a way to move forward again.

I first read the book when it came out in Canada this past September. Given the theme of revising, it felt fitting when I read in The Paris Review that Heti has since rewritten parts of the just released U.S. edition.

Making changes a book that has already been published strikes me as both unusual and risky. If a writer makes changes, is it an admission that the original work wasn’t good enough?

I did a line-by-line comparison of the Canadian edition to the U.S. edition and then put the question to Heti.

The Millions: How did you start How Should a Person Be?

Sheila Heti: My last novel, Ticknor, was so neurotic. It was inside one person’s head. I wanted this one to be about a system among people. I didn’t want to just be in my room. I wanted to write it in the world.

I wanted to know, could I write without torturing myself? Well, I did end up torturing myself, but less. Less than I did with Ticknor.

TM: Many writers develop a style or a thing that they become known for, but this book is very different from Ticknor.

SH: I guess. Editors don’t buy two books from me. They say that they don’t know what my next book will be, so they will only buy one at a time. That’s fine. It could be that I won’t or I will find something that I will do and repeat, but maybe not because I like newness. I don’t like doing the same thing over and over in any area of my life. I don’t find it stimulating.

TM: How much did you work with your editor on this book?

SH: Lorin Stein, who is now the editor at The Paris Review, bought Ticknor at FSG. He was the person who I showed a draft of the book to first, apart from Margaux. It was a very early draft. He didn’t really like it. He told me this story about a young writer he knew who had a big book out then, and he said, “You know, he wrote a whole other book before this book, and he threw it away. Maybe this is that book for you.”

TM: Wow.

SH: I felt a lot of despair. I put How Should a Person Be? in the drawer. Finally I took it back out. I decided it was the wrong thing to do. I couldn’t accept that a drawer was the fate of this book. I felt determined to make it work.

I might be misremembering how all this went down with Lorin. But anyway, so you see he was very useful. The book was much, much more fractured in its earlier form. He and I talked a lot about it. I tried to show him that it was better than he understood by explaining to him this complicated process I had used to write many of the sections, with three decks of cards. It didn’t seem to change his feelings about it!

TM: I wonder if that’s a description of people who end up publishing books? You get angry. Rejection steels you, rather than breaks you?

SH: Hopefully, right?

TM: Hopefully.

SH: I was at Yaddo around this time. There was a writer who told me about how he had a great editor at FSG. This writer felt that he had showed the editor his second book too soon. He was never published by FSG again and said that he should have never showed the draft so soon. It ruined his career. That story became my horror story. I was convinced that would happen to me.

TM: The career of a writer is always an exception. There is never one way it happens, but the temptation to draw conclusions from another writer’s experience is always there. Do you find it tempting to try to follow the path that someone has taken? This is a theme at the heart of How Should a Person Be?

SH: Yes, but life doesn’t work that way. I don’t know what you can realistically learn from other people. Everyone’s experience is so different.

TM: Did you know that before writing this novel?

SH: No. It was something I figured out.

TM: Is that why you write, to figure something out?

SH: I hope so, yes. I don’t write from the place of “I know something that I’m going to tell to you.” I write from the place of “there’s something I don’t know and I need to write this book to figure it out.”

TM: Do you start a novel with an outline?

SH: I’ve tried. I find it too boring.

TM: Do you have to torture yourself every time you write a book?

SH: There always comes a point of deep uncertainty in the process. And it affects your feelings about your certainty as a human. I don’t know if you can get away from that, writing. Even with the children’s book I recently wrote, We Need a Horse, there were several days that were just deeply terrible. But when you look back, those are the days you romanticize. You realize that’s when you were really working.

TM: So How Should a Person Be? was published in Canada first?

SH: Yes. A lot of publishers saw it and didn’t want it, but Anansi took it.

TM: Do you think that’s because it isn’t like anything else? It’s a different kind of book, especially a different kind of book from a woman.

SH: Maybe. I wasn’t modeling it on other books. I was thinking about movies made by Werner Herzog and TV shows like The Hills. Other mediums are doing this kind of thing more.

Why do you think it’s different kind of book for a woman?

TM: It’s based on ideas. Is that sad? I think it is. It’s a book that is brave and exposing and maybe some women work to cover up what you are willing to expose? Or I guess I’m saying that I would. Why don’t women tend to publish 1,000 page novels?

SH: I kind of wanted this to be 1,000 pages. At one point it was 600 pages.

TM: You’ll have to write a book that length next time.

SH: [laughing] Yes! Or I’ll do another version that is 1,000 pages.

TM: How did you decide to re-edit the book for the U.S. edition?

SH: When the book came out in Canada, I felt like I didn’t really pull it off. It wasn’t a specific thing, I just knew it in my body. When it was going to be published in the U.S., I saw it as a chance to finish.

TM: Did your editor at Henry Holt give you notes?

SH: Yes, her name is Sarah Bowlin. She gave me very good notes and I thought about them. I sat down and I started pulling in things that I liked and had written but weren’t in the book. There was very little that I wrote newly; mostly it was stuff I had written before but didn’t end up using. I’d been thinking and living with this book for so long that the edits happened very quickly over a weekend.

TM: I went through and did a line-by-line comparison of the Canadian edition to the U.S. edition to see your changes.

SH: That’s nuts.

TM: It was kind of weird, but I found it so interesting. The changes are subtle, but the way you articulate the relationships between Sheila and the other characters is quite different. The divorce has been brought to the fore in the U.S. edition. What was your thinking behind this?

SH: I thought it might help the reader understand one of Sheila’s motivations for asking how should a person be? if the tipsiness that follows divorce was emphasized a bit more.

TM: There is a new email from your ex-husband’s mom.

SH: All these changes, where something was added – all of those were things that at one point I was thinking of putting into the Canadian edition, but did not. There is just so much material I amassed, so I had to make choices. I made a bunch of choices for the Canadian edition, and whatever I put in and left out – that all worked to make one whole. But when I wanted to rewrite it for the American edition, I put in new things and took out some things and changed others, which made another whole. I just wanted a different feeling in this new book, something more full and resolved, maybe to reflect me feeling more full and resolved than I did when I finished the Canadian edition.

TM: How many drafts did you do for this book? When did you start?

SH: It’s hard to know what the start was, but sometime in 2005. I didn’t know I was writing a book. I didn’t know I was writing this book. I was finished Ticknor…I was reading a lot of things. I was reading the Bible and business books and Forbes and books about companies…

I was thinking about art critics and how do they make decisions. How do they know what they like? I got a tape recorder. Mostly, I was trying to write a book that came from the world. I had note cards with all these sentences, which I carried around with me. I started recording myself narrating. I wanted to find a new way to write that would take things from the world.

I went through a crazy period where I had all these cards. Each card had symbols on them. It was a way of making scenes. All the symbols related to something real that happened in my life. I reduced those anecdotes down to a word and then I put those words on cards, and put those cards together randomly with a few other cards and then I’d try to come up with a scene from that. So it was a way to try and write about life, but not write about my life.

Somehow all these different things that I was writing started to come together. A draft started to assemble itself, but there were a thousand different drafts of the book.

TM: In the U.S. edition, you talk about your ancestors much earlier in the prologue. Why?

SH: My editor suggested that change. I agreed it was better that way; the Prologue is a kind of fugue so it really should have all the book’s themes in it. I hadn’t realized that this one was left out.

TM: In the Canadian edition, the Acts are numbered using roman numerals – Act II. In the U.S. edition, these become numbers – Act 2. I loved finding this kind of small detail. Why the change?

SH: I didn’t realize this! I guess that was a design decision they made without me.

TM: There are fewer words on a page in the U.S. edition. In the Canadian edition, this sentence appears all on one line:
There is so much beauty in this world that it’s hard to begin.
There are no words with which…
In the US edition, the same line looks like this:
There is so much beauty in this world that it’s hard to
begin. There are no words with which…
As a writer, does it make it feel like a different book?

SH: I didn’t notice that either. I don’t think it makes a big difference. I’m not a poet.

TM: There are a minor changes peppered throughout, like “she said it had already departed” (p. 72) changes to “she said it had already left” or “When the sun went down” (p. 99) changes to “After the sun went down…” Is there a systematic reason for these smaller changes, or how did they come about?

SH: It was just from going through the pages on computer, and then the galleys, and changing things to what I liked better. The usual.

TM: Does this interview feel exposing? This is a book about the revising the creative process and then you went through the process of revising it for the U.S. edition. Isn’t that scary?

SH: No. I just really wanted to make the changes. I thought, “that feels right.” It suits the book. It makes sense.

TM: In doing this interview, I am asking you to tell me things that most writers avoid discussing. Am I in danger of killing whatever it is that allows you to be a writer in the face of your doubts?

SH: No, no, this book is done. Whatever I do next I will do in a way that’s different from how I did this book.

TM: If the book comes out in France, will you rewrite it again?

SH: Never! No, this is it.

TM: How should a writer be?

SH: They should do whatever they want.

Surprise Me!