In the Basement of the Ivory Tower: Confessions of an Accidental Academic

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Beyond Holokitsch: Spiegelman Goes Meta


The class met on weekends – three hours on Saturday, three hours on Sunday – and was filled with working people: grocery store clerks, UPS delivery guys, off-duty cops, all trying to squeeze a few extra community college credits into their overstuffed lives. A giggle ran through the room when I showed the class Art Spiegelman’s Maus, the first book on our syllabus. At the time, fifteen years ago, Maus was still fairly new, and “graphic novel” wasn’t yet a term you saw on the shelves at Barnes & Noble. My students couldn’t believe they were actually going to read a comic book for an English class, much less one that told the story of the Holocaust as a kind of Tom & Jerry cartoon with the Nazis as cats and the Jews as mice.

The students were mostly Asian and Latino immigrants, and they came to the class knowing next to nothing about Nazi Germany. In some ways, that was the most startling part of the class for me. How do you explain the slaughter of six million Jews to a group of people who couldn’t find Germany on a map? It was like describing ice cream to room full of Martians. They just couldn’t get it. Why were the Germans so mad at the Jews? Why didn’t the Jews fight back? Why didn’t the Americans just bomb the bejesus out of the camps and set all the Jews free? Finally, on the last day, when we were deep into the Auschwitz section of the book, one of the younger students, a tall, skinny Vietnamese gangbanger kid named Loc raised his hand. “It just doesn’t make sense,” he said. “They’re all white people.”

Whatever lesson plan I’d written for the day sailed out the window and for the next hour we talked about how racism works. To one degree or another, nearly every student in the class had suffered discrimination at the hands of white people, but to them, wise to the ways of the American melting pot, racism was largely a matter of skin color. To be dark was bad; to be lighter, even the tiniest bit lighter, was a gift. But what if racism wasn’t based on skin color? What if it had no fixed basis whatever? What if two groups of equally white people could hate each other to the degree that one group would try to wipe the other off the face of the earth?

The stories began to pour out. Loc, my lanky young gangbanger, talked about how much he’d hated members of a rival Vietnamese gang, even though to most Americans the two groups looked identical. Other, older students talked of Mexican-on-Mexican violence in Chiapas, Catholic-against-Communist violence in Vietnam. What made the conversation so electric was that they had moved out of their comfort zone of talking about their victimhood. Now, in many of these stories, they were the aggressors. They were the cats and other people who looked just like them were the mice. When we returned to the book, and to the stories of the Nazis’ brutal treatment of Spiegelman’s parents, Anja and Vladek, in the camps, Auschwitz was real to them in a way that no documentary film or historical lecture could have ever hoped to achieve.

I was reminded of that electrifying class session recently when I read Spiegelman’s new book, MetaMaus. Timed for the twenty-fifth anniversary of the publication of the first volume of Maus, the new book is built around a series of interviews University of Chicago professor Hillary Chute conducted with Spiegelman and his family. Sprinkled between the interviews are dozens of old family photos, early drafts of certain pages of Maus, reproductions of cartoons and other art work that influenced Spiegelman, and, just for a bit of mean-spirited fun, copies of the many rejection letters he received, with the names of the editors, whose cluelessness cost their companies untold millions after Maus became a hit, there for all to see. Appendices include a full transcript of Spiegelman’s taped interviews with his father and a DVD containing hours of original audio recordings, along with more family photos and early drafts of Maus.

The book is thus little more than an artfully curated culling of Art Spiegelman’s attic, and yet for those of us who have come to regard Maus as one of the half dozen or so truly indispensable works of post-World War II American literature, it is a treasure trove of background material and historical context. More than that, though, MetaMaus is a loose, rambling treatise on the alchemical process of transforming the raw material of one’s own experience into a work of art capable of reaching – and teaching – millions.

Some may chuckle at the notion of Maus as one of a handful of truly indispensable works of post-World War II American literature. American literature since 1945 encompasses Nobel laureates Saul Bellow and Toni Morrison, along with Philip Roth, who if anybody ever listened to me, would already have his Nobel by now. The period also includes the likes of John Updike, John Cheever, Joyce Carol Oates, and Thomas Pynchon, to say nothing of more recent authors such as Tim O’Brien, David Foster Wallace, and Louise Erdrich. Do I seriously mean to compare modern classics like Beloved or Gravity’s Rainbow to a comic book?

In fact I do, and to explain why I need to go back to that community college classroom fifteen years ago. The students in that class were by no means stupid. They weren’t in the least intellectually lazy, either. I find myself annoyed by teachers like the mysterious Professor X, author of In the Basement of the Ivory Tower, who depict their students as lazy, ill-mannered lunks who have no business being in college. This view has no relationship to the reality I encountered in my years teaching in community colleges. After all, those students were giving up their weekends to take an introductory English course. They weren’t saints – I busted a plagiarist in that class, as I recall – but they understood, probably better than the kids in my classes at Fordham University today, that the American dream is built upon education, and they struck me as hungry to get started.

Still, no one in that class was ready for Saul Bellow or, God forbid, Thomas Pynchon. One of the first lessons of teaching literature in the real world is that you have to meet your students where they are, not where you want them to be. In academic jargon, this is called finding your students’ “zone of proximal development,” the sweet spot between what they already know and what they couldn’t possibly comprehend even if you were there to help them. The wonder of Maus is that it fits into everyone’s zone of proximal development. I taught it to those working-class immigrants in California fifteen years ago; I taught it at a third-rate night school in Virginia; and just last month, I taught it in an advanced writing class at Fordham, a prestigious, four-year private university. Every time, in every context, students told me they’d stayed up half the night finishing the book, and then when we discussed it in class, it took the tops of their heads off all over again. Maus is that rare work of literature that speaks to everyone while pandering to no one.

MetaMaus is a record of how Spiegelman pulled off this magic trick. The first, and perhaps most important piece of the puzzle, has to do with the form itself, the fact that Spiegelman chose to tell one of the most horrific tales of the twentieth century in the form of a barnyard comic book. In Maus, not only are the Germans cats and the Jews mice, but the Poles are pigs, the Americans are dogs, the French are frogs, and for a few antic pages late in the book, the Swedes are reindeer. But at the same time, they aren’t. In Spiegelman’s comic book, the characters have animal heads, but the rest of their bodies are human, and so far as the story is concerned, they are human. Even more perversely, the animals can wear masks to pass themselves off as other kinds of animals. Thus, when Spiegelman’s father wishes to pass as a non-Jewish Pole, in the comic his mouse character wears a pig mask, tied with a string visibly knotted in the back.

It’s a simple conceit, stolen from a million superhero comics, but set here in the middle of a story of Nazified Europe, the image makes a startlingly modern argument. Or, rather, it offers a series of startling arguments that intertwine and contradict each other in ways that only literature can do. On the one hand, Spiegelman’s central visual metaphor answers the question, in a chillingly deterministic fashion, why the Germans killed the Jews. They did it for the same reason cats chase mice: because it’s in their nature. On the other hand, if a mouse can become a pig, or even a cat, merely by behaving like one, then racial categories aren’t fixed in biology and are instead artifacts of performance. And if race is rooted in behavior, not biology, then it is essentially meaningless, and Hitler’s racial ideology is a murderous sham.

This is just one example of how Maus takes on the knottiest of historical questions in the simplest of terms, without losing any of the underlying complexity. For the dedicated reader of Maus, what is fascinating about MetaMaus is how carefully Spiegelman thought through all this complexity. MetaMaus functions as a sort of public scrapbook of the twenty-year process from Spiegelman’s first fumbling attempts to draw his parents’ story in comic book form in the early 1970s to the finished book, the second volume of which was published in 1991. At the same time, the book works at the atomic level, walking the reader through Spiegelman’s agonizingly slow process of creating individual panels, layering in his taped interviews with his father and his historical research with his encyclopedic knowledge of the comic-book genre, and then using his skill as an artist to tie it all together into an arresting visual image. Panel by painstaking panel, Spiegelman’s images serve to answer a basic question that hangs mutely over the entire project: Did this terrible thing really happen?

The Holocaust, after all, didn’t just strike Spiegelman’s family. It is a vast and controversial war crime that has inspired an enormous range of responses from outright denial to what Spiegelman calls “Holokitsch,” his term for the numbing stream of books and movies that use the backdrop of the camps to lend weight to the unbearable slightness of their premises:
After the fall of the Berlin Wall, Communists ceased to be attractive as villains. I guess interest in the Holocaust really metastasized at that point: “This is the perfect hero/villain paradigm for movies.” It’s replaced cowboys and Indians… The Holocaust has become a trope, sometimes used admirably, as in Roman Polanski’s The Pianist, or sometimes meretriciously, like in Roberto Benigni’s Life is Beautiful.
In MetaMaus, it becomes clear that Spiegelman spent almost two decades creating Maus because it took him that long to figure out how to force his readers to tune out the blaring cultural noise of Holokitsch and actually see what had happened to his parents.

To help American readers up to their eyeballs in Holokitsch see this oft-told tale anew, Spiegelman conceived of a great, overarching metaphor structure, and then, masterfully, set about getting the reader to ignore it. What we see when we open up Maus is a work of head-spinning surrealism – a bunch of people walking around with animal heads – but its power as literature lies in the fact that it presents itself as documentary realism. The very unreality of the imagery allows viewers who might never be able to sit through a realistic documentary about Auschwitz that showed dead bodies stacked like cordwood in the snow to follow Vladek and Anja Spiegelman through six long years of Nazi terror. At the same time, the humanity of their interactions, the way they talk and scheme and love one another, forces us to in effect draw faces on their mouse heads, to enter the story in our imagination. As Spiegelman puts it: “In other words, you’ve got to do the work the same way you do when you’re reading prose, and Maus retains that attribute of prose.”

It is this liminal state – part comic book, part family saga, part war documentary – that explains the book’s staying power as a teaching tool and as a work of literature a quarter century after the first volume appeared. Maus is, like the comic books that inspired it, a profoundly democratic text, accessible to anyone who has ever sat in front of a TV on a Saturday morning. Yet unlike its many imitators, it doesn’t stop there. The book demands that its readers “do the work,” look closely and follow its many telling details, and in doing so, readers melt into the story, becoming not just the mice, but also, terrifyingly, the cats and pigs that torment them.

Our Growing Higher Ed Crisis: Making Myths In the Basement of the Ivory Tower

1.
While living in Germany three years ago, I talked my way into a job teaching high school students how to write fiction – in English.  The administrator who hired me, normally a stickler about credentials like any self-respecting German bureaucrat, was willing to ignore the fact that I had never taught anything to anyone.  In her eyes, I offered something far more valuable than a teaching certificate or classroom experience.  I was a published American novelist.  And so… Willkommen!

The dozen sophomores and juniors who’d signed up for the after-school class were fluent in English and able to write solid sentences, but they were initially a bit leery of me.  When I tried to get them to create characters from whole cloth, to imagine problems for them, to dream up action that would dramatize how they grappled with those problems, the students balked.  For nearly a dozen years they’d been conditioned by a system that rewarded them for doing things the right way.  This school was a gymnasium (with a hard g), the highest level of high school, and these students would soon be taking the brutal Abitur, the week-long written and oral exam that makes the American SAT look like a pop quiz and which would determine which of them was worthy of the Holy Grail: a free university education.  Understandably, it took these students a while to grasp what I was telling them: when writing fiction there are no right or wrong answers, only good choices and bad ones.  This Amerikaner is standing up there telling us we get to make stuff up!  Cool! Once they got it, they took to fiction writing the way birds take to the blue.

2.
That experience was very much on my mind as I read In the Basement of the Ivory Tower: Confessions of an Accidental Academic, the chilling new book about the travails of an adjunct professor of college English who goes by the pseudonym Professor X.  His students, at an unnamed private college and an unnamed community college somewhere in America, could not have been more unlike my German charges.  While my high schoolers were gamely writing fiction in a second (and in some cases third) language, Professor X’s college students could barely put together grammatical sentences in their native tongue.  The reason was that his students and the people who “prepared” them for college had bought into one of the most common and debilitating American myths – namely, that everyone has an inalienable right to a college education, regardless of their level of academic achievement.

“As my students drift into the classroom each evening,” Professor X writes, “I find myself feeling sorry for them.  Many are in over their heads…  They lack rudimentary skills; in some cases, they are not even functionally literate…  Some are not ready for high school, much less college.”

So what are these people doing in college?  Trying to get ahead, of course, trying to position themselves to get their slice of that big gooey pie known as the American Dream.  And in one of those snake-eating-its-tail scenarios, as more and more Americans, both qualified and unqualified, enroll in colleges, more and more employers are able to demand that job seekers have some college education, even for jobs that patently do not require it.  Professor X calls this “credential inflation” and he explains its existence this way: “There is a sense that our bank tellers should be college educated, and our medical billing techs, our county tax clerks, our child welfare agents, our court officers and sheriffs and federal marshals.”

And so colleges keep growing, enrollments keep expanding, and lowly adjuncts like Professor X toil away in the basement of the ivory tower – with little prestige, no benefits and no hope of tenure.  But there is a price attached to this relentless expansionism.  “This push for universal college enrollment, which at first glance seems emblematic of American opportunity and class mobility, is in fact hurting those whom it is meant to help,” Professor X writes.  “Students are leaving two- and four-year colleges with enormous amounts of debt.”

About a trillion dollars worth, according to Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of FinAid and Fastweb, which track student debt.  The average debt of college students who took out loans and graduated was $24,000 last year, when student debt outpaced credit card debt for the first time.  In 1993, fewer than half of bachelor’s degree recipients graduated with debt; by 2008 the figure had risen to more than two-thirds.  “In the coming years,” Kantrowitz says, “a lot of people will still be paying off their college loans when it’s time for their kids to go to college.”

This “debt-for-diploma” system would shock a German because in Germany college tuition is free – that is, it’s paid for with taxes.  It’s also available only to those students who have proved, over the course of 12 rigorous years, that they deserve to attend.  How utterly un-American.  As Professor X writes: “In no other age but our own – idealistic, inclusive, unwilling to limit anyone’s possibilities for self-determination – would some of my students be considered ready for college.  They have been abducted into college, sold a bill of goods…  Without heaping too much solemnity upon it, college is something that one must ascend to.”

With these simple sentences – and especially with the loaded words inclusive and ascend – Professor X finally lets the cat out of the bag.  To suggest that someone should be excluded from college because he or she is not equipped to ascend is to open yourself to the predictable charges of elitism, classism (love that word!) and, quite possibly, sexism and racism.  These charges take me back to my teaching experience in Germany.  I did not teach at some pricey private prep school; it was an ordinary public high school in a small town outside Cologne, yet the students were no strangers to the concepts of exclusion and ascending – or, if you will, elitism.  After fourth grade, all German students are put on one of four tracks on the basis of teacher evaluations: main school, which can lead to a trade school at age 16; intermediate school, which can lead to such mid-level careers as secretary or draftsman; and college-prep comprehensive school or gymnasium, where performance on the Abitur will determine not only who can go on to university but what they’ll be allowed to study once they get there.  The system is rigid but not unyielding.  It’s possible for high-performing students to rise from one level to the next.  But if they don’t perform, they don’t advance.  Period.

Professor X does a nice job of explaining exactly why this is so un-American: “First of all, twenty-first-century American culture makes it more difficult to fail people.  Our society, for all its blathering about embracing diversity and difference, really has no stomach for diversity and difference when it constitutes disparity.  We don’t like to admit that one student may be smarter, sharper, harder working, better prepared, more energetic, more painstaking – simply a better student – than another.  So we level the playing field…(but) our quest to provide universally level playing fields has made us reluctant to keep score.”

And he knows first-hand that if you refuse to keep score, if you don’t set standards, if you promote students simply for trying, you will produce mediocrity, or worse.  Don’t take Professor X’s word for it.  Emily Colette Wilkinson, my fellow staff writer here at The Millions, also spent some time in the basement of the ivory tower trying to teach English to unqualified students.  In an e-mail she describes the experience:

Yes, I taught two classes at a community college in Southern California right after I finished my Ph.D.  It was a temporary adjunct position for two classes, Advanced Writing and Advanced English Grammar (advanced, in this case, meaning 12th-grade level).  They hired me about two days before the semester started and gave me no syllabus or text book or course description for either class.  When the “department head” did get in touch with me two weeks after classes had started, he told me not to get my hopes up, that most of them would fail.  It didn’t turn out to be most, but it was close, maybe 40 to 45 percent failed.  And this was after I’d lowered the bar on the course expectations – in a big way.

The rage and sadness that resulted from this experience – an experience in which I failed as much as most of my student did – was not directed at them.  It was directed at the college. The college had failed us all.  The other enraging thing was that my students really needed English.  I did have three students who were learning, whom I connected with.  But if I’d known how deeply demoralizing the whole experience would be, I don’t think I’d have done it, even for them.  I was scandalized and enraged by this shitshow masquerading as a school – failing everyone except the incompetent administrators who kept collecting their money from the state of California – the bankrupt state of California, no less – even though the enterprise they were supporting was worse than a joke.  I think Professor X is right on the money.  Of course there is the other side too: I know people who’ve had community colleges change their lives – set them on the path to become nurses and professors, helped them up the class ladder.  But that isn’t what I saw.

3.
A book that can profitably be read in tandem with In the Basement of the Ivory Tower is Matthew B. Crawford’s best-seller from 2009, Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work. This passionately argued and deftly written little book – part polemic, part manifesto, part philosophical inquiry – questions the values Americans attach to different kinds of work.  Crawford, equal parts motorcycle mechanic and philosopher, argues persuasively that there has been a fundamental and disastrous disconnect in American life over the past century: thinking has been divorced from doing.  He traces the source of this split to the industrialists of the early 20th century, most notably Henry Ford, whose automobile assembly line helped create the notions of white collar and blue collar – that is, it pitted mental work against manual work.

“These seem to be the categories that inform the educational landscape even now, and this entails two big errors,” Crawford writes.  “First, it assumes that all blue-collar work is as mindless as assembly line work, and second, that white-collar work is still recognizably mental in character.”  If you still think most white-collar work is mental in character, you have almost surely never seen an episode of The Office or worked in a beige cubicle, as Crawford and I have.

He points out that the American tendency to elevate the status of mental work while devaluing manual work has become institutionalized: “Today, in our schools, the manual trades are given little honor.  The egalitarian worry that has always attended tracking students into ‘college prep’ and ‘vocational ed’ is overlaid by another: the fear that acquiring a specific skill set means that one’s life is determined.  In college, by contrast, many students don’t learn anything of particular application; college is the ticket to an open future.  Craftsmanship entails learning to do one thing really well, while the ideal of the new economy is to be able to learn new things, celebrating potential rather than achievement.”

Again I was transported back to that gymnasium in Germany.  Germans demand results while Americans demand opportunity, or, more precisely, the illusion of opportunity.  Germans are willing to make determinations that lead to achievement, while Americans insist on freedoms that supposedly will lead to the realization of the individual’s potential.  Small wonder that trade schools flourish alongside universities in Germany, or that German tradesmen are respected and well paid while German doctors and CEOs earn a fraction of what their American counterparts earn.  In a country that has neither artificially inflated the value of mental work nor artificially debased the value of manual work, the distance between top and bottom is not so great, and the middle class is secure and well cared for.  In Crawford’s formulation, Germans have embraced the value of craftsmanship – “the desire to do something well, for its own sake” – because all work done well is valuable.

Another way of saying this is that Germans tend to be serious in ways Americans are not.  I don’t mean serious in the sense of humorless, solemn, staid, grim or dour; I mean it in the sense my dictionary defines it, “concerned with important rather than trivial matters,” that is, clear-eyed, willing to set standards and make judgments based on performance, and not inclined to buy into hollow myths.

Serious people would never buy into the most enduring American myths – that everyone deserves a college education; that everyone deserves to own a home, and real estate will always rise in value; that everyone can become president; that your slice of the pie is there for the taking, provided you’re willing to work for it.  Those serious Germans, on the other hand, may not believe in pie in the sky yet they enjoy universal health care, excellent mass transit, free college educations for qualified students, six weeks of paid vacation every year, high wages and low unemployment, and many other goodies of a vast social network.  And unlike their neighbors in Greece and Portugal – unlike Americans – they tend to live within their means.

People who are not serious, on the other hand, buy houses they can’t afford and run up credit card debt.  They let the oil industry write the deep-sea drilling regulations that led to the BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico.  They don’t insist that their government inspect their commercial airplanes, their levees, their bridges or their food.  They rail against taxes and then devote more than half of every tax dollar to military spending.  They argue that universal health care and strict environmental laws are evil government intrusions, and that “creationism” should be taught alongside evolution in public schools.  They regard Sarah Palin and Donald Trump as valid presidential contenders.  All this because the basement of the ivory tower is teeming with illiterates?  Well, yes.  A society unwilling to demand excellence of its students is unlikely to demand – or get – competence from its government.

It’s no surprise that people so lacking in seriousness would eagerly embrace another myth: that a college education will lead naturally to better-paying, white-collar work, and that that work will be more satisfying and secure than working with your hands.  This myth is built on the belief that the rise of technology will require ever-higher levels of education.  In fact, new software is reducing the demand for highly educated workers in a growing number of fields, including legal research, medical diagnosis and, yes, even computer chip design.

If your computer seizes up you will probably wind up on the telephone with someone in a cubicle in Bangalore who will sleep-walk you through a trouble-shooting checklist.  But if, as Crawford points out, your toilet won’t stop overflowing or you experience severe chest pains, you will have to call on a plumber or a doctor.  Some jobs, especially manual ones, can’t be outsourced.  That’s why a plumber’s license has started looking very attractive to a lot of people during this recession, including a lot of under- and unemployed college graduates.  Conversely, once-coveted advanced degrees have started looking less enticing.  According to the Law School Admission Council, law school applications dropped 11.5 percent this year, to the lowest level since 2001.  Why?  Because young people don’t want to pile up thousands of dollars of debt so they can become unemployed lawyers.

The truth is that most employers who demand a college education of job applicants aren’t terribly interested in what those applicants studied or how well they performed.  The corporate recruiter is looking for “pliable generalists unfettered by any single set of skills,” as Crawford puts it before taking us inside the mind of an applicant during a job interview: “He senses that what is demanded of him is not knowledge but rather that he project a certain kind of personality, an affable complaisance…  There seems to be a mismatch between form and content, and a growing sense that the official story we’ve been telling ourselves about work is somehow false.”

Or, as Professor X says of college, that it’s all a bill of goods.

4.
None of us – neither Professor X (M.F.A. in creative writing), Matthew B. Crawford (Ph.D. in political philosophy), Emily Colette Wilkinson (Ph.D. in English), nor I (B.A. in English) – are opposed to college education.  I dropped out of college after two years, worked a string of brain-killing jobs, then went back and got my degree because I realized, way back in the 1970s, that “credential inflation” meant I would need a degree if I hoped to get even the lowly job I aspired to – as a cub reporter at a small-town daily newspaper.  While it gave me nothing that was useful in my job, my liberal arts education did feed and foster my curiosity about the wider world, certainly a valuable asset for a newspaper reporter and absolutely essential for anyone hoping to become a novelist.

So while I don’t regret going to college, I do find myself agreeing with Professor X’s and Wilkinson’s claim that allowing unqualified students into college is a disservice to everyone, especially the students.  And as college students struggle to write grammatical sentences while their debt piles up, I join Matthew B. Crawford in asking, “What the hell is going on?  Is this our society as a whole, buying more education only to scale new heights of stupidity?”

(Image: graduation caps from whatcouldgowrong’s photostream)

Tuesday New Release Day: Bezmozgis, Dyer, Professor X, Pletzinger, Still

New this week is David Bezmozgis’s The Free World, the new Geoff Dyer collection of criticism Otherwise Known as the Human Condition (reviewed here today), “Professor X’s” higher ed expose In the Basement of the Ivory Tower, Funeral for a Dog, a German novel in translation by young author Thomas Pletzinger, which John Wray has blurbed as “ballsy,” and Chinaberry, a posthumously published novel by the Appalachian author James Still.

Most Anticipated: The Great 2011 Book Preview

If 2010 was a literary year of big names — featuring Franzen, Mitchell, Delillo and McEwan to name just a few — 2011 is lining up to be more subtle. Amid a very full lineup of intriguing forthcoming books, just one stands above the rest in terms of hype and anticipation, a literary peak that’s likely to be bittersweet in the form of the posthumous release of David Foster Wallace’s final novel. Readers will be hoping it does justice to his legacy.

In the shadow this big book are many others likely to be deserving of readers’ time. While 2010 was given over to the headliners, 2011 may be a year of new discoveries. Here are some of the books we’re looking forward to — 8,000 words strong and encompassing 76 titles, this is the only 2011 book preview you will ever need.

January or Already Out:

Gryphon by Charles Baxter: A collection of short fiction from an acknowledged master of the form. Seven of the twenty-three stories in the collection are new; others, including the title story, are considered classics. In each of these pieces, Publisher’s Weekly writes in a starred review, “the acutely observed real world is rocked by the exotic or surreal.” Baxter’s previous works include four novels (including a National Book Award nominee, The Feast of Love) and four prior short story collections. (Emily M.)

The Empty Family by Colm Tóibín: Tóibín follows up his wildly successful 2009 novel Brooklyn with a new collection of nine short stories concerned with love and loss, memory and homecoming. The Telegraph has called this collection “exquisite and almost excruciating.” (Emily M.)

While Mortals Sleep by Kurt Vonnegut: In the four years since his death, the Vonnegut vaults have been raided, yielding 2008’s Armageddon in Retrospect and 2009’s Look at the Birdie.  Now comes While Mortals Sleep, 16 more unpublished pieces described by Delacorte Press as “a present left behind by a departed loved one.”  Perhaps.  But Vonnegut’s short fiction was generally uneven, and one might be forgiven for wondering how many more presents there are.  Because the further we move from his passing, the further we move from his best.  Dave Eggers, in the book’s foreword, calls Vonnegut “a hippie Mark Twain”; he is also in some danger of becoming a dorm-lit Tupac Shakur. (Jacob)

Night Soul and Other Stories by Joseph McElroy: Underappreciated master McElroy is known (and loved) for the challenging body of work, and these stories aren’t likely to disappoint his fans, though they may have come across some of them before. The oldest story in this collection of 12 dates back to 1981 and the title story was first published in 1982. But seven of them are reportedly from the last decade, including one “The Campaign Trail” which one early review describes as imagining “the 2008 Democratic presidential primary much like a Matthew Barney film of the subject might: unnamed figures representing Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama ceremonially confront each other in a wild area of what once was Canada.” (Max)

February:

Swamplandia! by Karen Russell: Swamplandia! is the first novel from New Yorker “20 Under 40” writer Karen Russell. It builds out of a short story from her 2006 collection St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves and tells the tale of the Bigtree family, operators of an alligator wrestling tourist attraction deep in the Everglades. The family business is imperiled when the star ‘gator grappler dies, setting off a chain of catastrophes that lead 12-year-old Ava Bigtree to set off through the swamp in search of her lost sister Osceola. (Kevin)

Townie: A Memoir by Andre Dubus III: Andre Dubus III, of The House of Sand and Fog fame, grew up poor and hard in a Massachusetts mill town. His famous father, the late great short story writer Andre Dubus was AWOL, chasing younger tail, leaving Dubus and his three siblings to the care of their loving but overworked mother. The Townie is Dubus’s memoir of growing up and learning to fight before he learned to write. Advance word coming out of Kirkus and Booklist suggests this is going to be a good one. (Kevin)

When the Killing’s Done by T.C. Boyle: In his thirteenth novel, T.C. Boyle turns his attention to the Channel Islands off the coast of Santa Barbara and the practice of killing non-native fauna in an effort to protect the original ecosystem. A starred review in Booklist says, “Incisive and caustically witty, Boyle is fluent in evolutionary biology and island biogeography, cognizant of the shared emotions of all sentient beings, in awe over nature’s crushing power, and, by turns, bemused and appalled by human perversity.” (Edan)

The Strange Case of Edward Gorey by Alexander Theroux: Originally published in paperback in 2000, this biography of writer and illustrator Edward Gorey is being reissued by Fantagraphics Books in a new hardcover edition. Gorey was a reclusive, enigmatic figure who never married, professed asexuality in interviews, and became famous for a twisted and faintly ominous body of work — marked by a distinctive Victorian Gothic sensibility — that includes an alphabet book of dead children (“A is for Amy who fell down the stairs.”) Alexander Theroux was Gorey’s friend and neighbor for more than a quarter century. Part biography, part artistic analysis, and part memoir of a long friendship, with exclusive interviews conducted shortly before Gorey’s death, this book is generally accepted as the most comprehensive portrait of Gorey ever written. (Emily M.)

Mr. Chartwell by Rebecca Hunt: Perhaps you are aware that Winston Churchill called his spells of depression “black dog”? Well, Mr. Chartwell is that black dog–literally, he’s a man-sized, ill-intentioned black laborador. In Rebecca Hunt’s fabular first novel, Mr. Chartwell rents a room in a terrace in Battersea from a recently widowed young librarian named Esther Hammerhans: the black dog has business with the widow and with the war-weary Prime Minister.  British reviewers have been quite taken with the book’s whimsy and its muscular grappling with the nature of depression—through the stinking, canine bulk of Chartwell himself and the dark philosophy he whispers such that only his intended victim can hear. (Emily W.)

The Illumination: A Novel by Kevin Brockmeier: A new novel from the author of A Brief History of the Dead asks the question: What if our pain is the most beautiful thing about us? On a particular Friday night at 8:17pm, the Illumination commences: wounds and bruises begin to radiate light, to glimmer and shine. The Illumination follows the journey of a private book, a journal of love notes written by a man for his wife. The journal passes into the hands of a hospital patient following a lethal accident, and as it passes from hand to hand—to a data analyst, a photojournalist, a child, a missionary, a writer, a street vendor—the recipients find their lives subtly altered by their possession of the book. (Emily M.)

Portraits of a Marriage by Sándor Márai: Sándor Márai is one of those novelists, like Irène Némirovsky, about whom those of us in the English-speaking community tend to employ words like “discovered,” as if they were an obscure wine of quality unearthed in a Parisian basement. When Márai killed himself in 1989 in San Diego, shortly before his books began being translated to English, it’s true that his status as a great mind of an imperial age was probably unknown to the gang at his local Circle K. However, the (Austro-)Hungarian novelist was one of the premier authors of his milieu–Budapest before World War II–and English readers are the redeemed rather than the redeemers now that we can finally read his beautiful novels. Portraits of a Marriage is a chronicle of a relationship and an era on the way out. (Lydia)

West of Here by Jonathan Evison: Evison’s new novel is the #1 Indie Next pick for February, meaning that independent booksellers across the United States have voted it their favorite of all the books scheduled for publication that month. Set in a fictional town on the Pacific coast of Washington State, West of Here moves back and forth in time between the stories of the town’s founders in the late 1890s, and the lives of their descendants in 2005. It’s a structure that allows for a remarkably deep sense of history and place, and Evison handles the sweeping scope of his narrative masterfully. (Emily M.)

The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore by Benjamin Hale: In this buzzed-about debut novel from Twelve Books, the eponymous hero is a chimpanzee who has learned to speak, read, and enjoy the visual arts, among other human endeavors. There is apparently interspecies love (and sex!) in the book, and the jacket copy declares that it goes beyond satire “…by showing us not what it means, but what it feels like be human — to love and lose, learn, aspire, grasp, and, in the end, to fail.” A bookseller at legendary West Hollywood indie bookstore Book Soup has raved to me about the novel’s inventiveness and its beautiful, beautiful prose. (Edan)

Other People We Married by Emma Straub: This debut collection of stories is one of the first books being printed by FiveChapters Books, the new publishing imprint of the popular website FiveChapters, which publishes a story a week in five installments. Straub inaugurated the New Novella series for Flatmancrooked Press with her much-praised novella, Fly-Over State, and she proved that with the internet and some good old fashioned charm, an unknown author can sell books and win hearts. Straub’s new book includes that novella as well as eleven other stories. Straub has been compared to Lorrie Moore for her humor and playful wit, and Moore herself has called this debut collection, “A revelation.” (Edan)

March:

The Late American Novel: Writers on the Future of Books edited by C. Max Magee and Jeff Martin: Yes, there’s certainly a conflict of interest in naming my book one of the year’s most anticipated, but what’s the point of having a website if I can’t use it to self-promote? And anyway, if my co-editor Jeff and I had an ideal reader in mind when we put together this collection, it was the Millions reader, passionate about books and reading and thoughtful about the future of this pastime as it intersects with the onslaught of technology. The essays we managed to gather here are illuminating, entertaining, funny, and poignant, and taken together they form a collection that is (dare I say) essential for the reader and writer invested in books at this critical and curious moment in their long history. Along with appearances by Millions staffers Garth Risk Hallberg, Emily St. John Mandel, and Sonya Chung and an introduction by me and my co-editor, this collection includes pieces by Jonathan Lethem, Reif Larsen, Elizabeth Crane Victor LaValle, Ander Monson, Tom Piazza, Lauren Groff, Benjamin Kunkel, Clancy Martin, Joe Meno, Rivka Galchen, and several others. All you technophiles: Consider making this the last physical book you ever buy. All you technophobes: This might be a good candidate for the first ebook you ever own. (Max)

You Think That’s Bad by Jim Shepard: Jim Shepard will once again dazzle us with his talent for universalizing the highly particular. According to the publisher, the stories in this new collection, like those of his National Book Award nominated Like You’d Understand Anyway, “traverse centuries, continents, and social strata,” featuring, among others, an Alpine researcher, a French nobleman’s manservant, a woman traveling the Arabian deserts to track an ancient Shia sect, and the inventor of the Godzilla epics.   Further, Shepard culls “the vastness of experience—from its bizarre fringes and breathtaking pinnacles to the mediocre and desperately below average.”  Easier said than done, and Shepard is a master.  One of the stories, “Boys Town,” appeared in the November 10 issue of the New Yorker. (Sonya)

The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht: Of all The New Yorker’s choices for the “20 Under 40” list, none was more surprising than Obreht, the youngest on the list and the only author chosen who had not yet published a book. That changes in March with the publication of her debut novel The Tiger’s Wife. The novel follows a young doctor, Natalia, as she travels to a war-torn Balkan country to work at an orphanage. But Natalia is also in search of answers – specifically, what happened to her grandfather, who has died recently. With blurbs from T.C. Boyle, Ann Patchett, and recent National Book Award winner Colum McCann already secured, expectations are high for this literary debut. (Patrick)

At the Fights: American Writers on Boxing from Library of America edited by George Kimball and John Schulian: Boxing writing inhabits a curious niche, resting at the juncture of sports journalism and noir.  Perhaps “resting” is the wrong word, as the genre’s best examples rush toward victory or loss; even away from the arena, motion remains the thing.  In a recent Irish Times article, Kimball described a 1954 John Lardner piece as At the Fights’ “cornerstone,” and delivered its opening line: “Stanley Ketchel was 24 years old when he was fatally shot in the back by the common-law husband of the lady who was cooking his breakfast.”  Also on the card: Talese, Mailer, Mencken, and many, many others. (Jacob)

Unfamiliar Fishes by Sarah Vowell: “I’m better with dead people… than the living,” claims Sarah Vowell, only half joking. Her books often deal with historical figures, in most cases, long-dead and overlooked. In Assassination Vacation she chronicled her travels while researching the murders of Presidents Lincoln, Garfield, and McKinley. Details such as Garfield’s assassin bursting into song during trial coated the history lessons with a good dose of social intrigue. Vowell’s latest, Unfamiliar Fishes, was borne out of a fascination with American Imperialism in 1898, a year when the U.S, annexed Hawaii, invaded Cuba and the Philippines, and acquired Guam and Puerto Rico. Vowell follows the Americanization of Hawaii from its first missionary settlers to the overthrow of its monarchy and later annexation. A quote exemplary of Vowell’s humor, to prep you for reading: “They still love their last queen, celebrate her birthday, drape her statue with leis. It can be a traditional, reverent place. And I am a smart-alecky libertine.” (Anne)

Otherwise Known as the Human Condition: Selected Essays and Reviews by Geoff Dyer: Dyer has a gained a reputation as one of our most inventive essayists (not to mention novelists). Dyer delights in bending genres and subverting expectations, and covering a 25-year span, this collection will likely showcase Dyer’s impressive range. The book, published by indie Graywolf, appears to have at least some overlap with a British collection that came out last year under the title Working the Room. The Guardian called Dyer “the most productive of slackers” and described the British collection as seeming to be “constructed as a vague quest. You move through the unusually lit rooms of the author’s fascinations.” (Max)

All the Time in the World: New and Selected Stories by E.L. Doctorow: When a new story collection arrives from an elder master, one is eager to know the balance of “new” versus “selected,” who has done the selecting, and by what criteria. But Random House has revealed little as of yet.   We do know that six of the stories have never before appeared in book form; the title story appeared in the winter ’09 issue of the Kenyon Review. Doctorow is the author of 11 novels, and I for one hate to think the release of this collection signals a denouement in his novel production.  On January 6, Doctorow turns 80 – happy birthday, ELD; may this be a productive year for you, for all our sakes. (Sonya)

Pym by Mat Johnson: Eager readers of Edgar Allan Poe, having dispatched his short stories may have then turned to his hauntingly weird novel The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket. As I noted a few years back, the book has been an inspiration for generations of adventure and science-fiction writers and has maintained a cultish allure to this day. It is into this milieu that Johnson’s Pym arrives. Johnson wrote a pair of well regarded literary novels in the early part of last decade, turned to comics, and is now returning novels with this tale of a literature professor obsessed with the Pym tale, believing it to be true, and tracing the the journey of the doomed sailor to see what secrets might be unlocked. (Max)

Day of the Oprichnik by Vladimir Sorokin: The scenes of sodomy between Stalin and Krushchev in Vladimir Sorokin’s novel Blue Lard incurred charges of pornography and sparked protests, which included protestors wearing latex gloves while tossing flowers and copies of Sorokin’s books into a papier mâché toilet. Another novel of Sorokin’s (The Norm) depicts a Russian society where coprophagy is a la mode and only outcasts and outsiders refuse to partake. Needless to say, Sorokin’s fiction isn’t restrained in its critique of contemporary Russian society. His commentary continues in his latest novel, Day of the Oprichnik, where the ruling classes incorporate futuristic technology alongside the governing strategies of Ivan the Terrible. As Sorokin describes: “I just imagined what would happen to Russia if it isolated itself completely from the Western world–that is, if it erected a new Iron Curtain…. This would mean that Russia would be overtaken by its past, and our past would be our future.” (Anne)

This Vacant Paradise by Victoria Patterson: Victoria Patterson follows her acclaimed debut story collection Drift with a novel – her first – set in the posh environs of 1990s Newport Beach, California. As the title suggests, Patterson’s novel promises a social critique of the often vapid, money-laden 90s. It follows the beautiful but aging Esther Wilson as she attempts to navigate life without the aid of a wealthy man on her arm. Drift was a finalist for both the California Book Award and the Story Prize. (Patrick)

The Art of Asking Your Boss for a Raise by Georges Perec: Georges Perec wrote: “for us, who continue to have to do with a human race that insists on thinking, writing and above all publishing, the increasing size of our libraries tends to become one real problem.” We readers will have to deal with the fortunate burden of clearing shelf-space for another novel by Perec this spring, with the first English translation of The Art of Asking Your Boss for a Raise. The novel depicts an office underling’s attempts to ingratiate himself to his corporate superiors, while his neuroses expand a la Woody Allen. If Perec’s astutely observed yet darkly comical catalogue of managing directors, magnates, and heads of state in his essay “The Holy of Holies” is any indication, this “account of the office worker’s mindset” will offset the disorder it imposes. (Anne)

April:

The Pale King by David Foster Wallace: When David Foster Wallace died in 2008, he left behind a huge, fragmentary manuscript set in and around a Midwestern IRS office and featuring a character named David Wallace. The manuscript, quixotically, takes monotony as its master-trope, much as Infinite Jest used “entertainment.” Since then, Michael Pietsch, Wallace’s real-life editor, has been working to arrange the fragments in book form. Published excerpts of varying degrees of sublimity – reportedly including two stories from Oblivion – offer glimpses of a Jest-like complex of supporting characters. But these beleaguered office workers have more in common with the denizens of the Ennet House Drug and Alcohol Recovery House (redundancy sic) than with the Enfield Tennis Academy’s student-athletes. A note, quoted in D.T. Max’s New Yorker piece, hints at the gift Wallace wanted to give his characters: “Bliss – a-second-by-second joy and gratitude at the gift of being alive, conscious – lies on the other side of crushing, crushing boredom.” For readers still mourning the books he didn’t get to write, may it be so. (Garth)

The Free World: A Novel by David Bezmozgis: Another debut novel from a Twenty-Under-Forty’er, Bezmogis’ The Free World tells the story of three generations of the Krasnansky family as they try to escape Communist Russia for the United States. They are waylaid in Rome where the characters pursue different paths through the underbelly of their adopted city, ultimately bringing them into tension with each other as they grapple with a merciless immigration system and try to decide the family’s fate. (Kevin)

The Great Night by Chris Adrian: Chris Adrian’s last novel, The Children’s Hospital, showed him to be a writer of immense daring, curiosity, and heart. Along with two other books, it earned him a spot (by a whisker – he’s now 40) on The New Yorker’s “20 Under 40 List.” His new book The Great Night, looks back to one of magical realism’s forebears: Shakespeare. It’s a retelling of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, set in modern-day San Francisco’s Buena Vista Park. (Garth)

Someday This Will Be Funny by Lynne Tillman: As if the publication of Lynne Tillman’s first book of short stories in nearly ten years–and her first book following her stand-out novel, American Genius: A Comedy–weren’t enough to celebrate, Tillman’s Someday This Will Be Funny also marks the debut of Richard Nash’s new publishing venture, Cursor. If Nash’s reading list, interviews, and speeches are any indication, Cursor will take publishing one giant leap into the future, with Tillman’s book at the forefront. Tillman’s new collection features appearances by Madame Realism, Marvin Gaye, and Clarence Thomas and incorporates epistle, quotation, and haiku as the stories “bounce between lyrical passages of lucid beauty, echoing the scattered, cycling arpeggio of Tillman’s preferred subject: the unsettled mind.” Tillman once said in an interview: “Writers are promiscuous with experience, absolutely.” She’s a woman of her word, and of the word. Hear, hear! (Anne)

Between Parentheses: Essays, Articles and Speeches 1998-2003 by Roberto Bolaño: Anyone who read “Literature + Illness = Illness” or “Myths of Chulu” in last year’s collection The Insufferable Gaucho can attest that a Bolaño essay no more resembles Montaigne than a Bolaño novel resembles Samuel Richardson. Indeed, the closest cousin of Bolaño’s nonfiction may be his fiction, and in some cases it’s hard to tell which is which. Confusion over the genre of the short piece “The Beach” (essay? story?) seems to have been the source of the misconception that Bolaño was a recovering junkie. Either way, though, it’s phenomenal writing – a single, extended, coruscating sentence – and it appears in this Natasha Wimmer translation of a 2004 Anagrama volume, along with 340 other pages of uncollected, unclassifiable Bolaño. (Garth)

The Tragedy of Arthur by Arthur Phillips: Phillips hasn’t quite recaptured the buzz that accompanied Prague his debut novel about expats in Budapest, but this new book just may. “The Tragedy of Arthur” is a fictional (or is it?), lost Shakespeare play about King Arthur and it is accompanied by a long introduction penned by a character (or is it the author?) named Arthur Phillips. Intertextual games ensue. (Max)

The Long Goodbye by Meghan O’Rourke: In another memoir about grief, O’Rourke draws on her dual patrimonies as a poet and cultural critic. The result is a searching account of losing her mother to cancer. O’Rourke finds herself blindsided by her own grief and bewildered by her inability to “share” it. Even as she documents her own feelings, she examines the changing cultural role of grief, and comes to long for the mourning rituals that are even now vanishing. The interplay of the objective and the subjective here speaks to audiences of both Oprah and The New Yorker, where the book was excerpted. (Garth)

The Basement of the Ivory Tower by Professor X: To begin, a short exemplary excerpt from Professor X’s manifesto against higher education for all: “America, ever-idealistic, seems wary of the vocational-education track. We are not comfortable limiting anyone’s options. Telling someone that college is not for him seems harsh and classist and British, as though we were sentencing him to a life in the coal mines. I sympathize with this stance; I subscribe to the American ideal. Unfortunately, it is with me and my red pen that that ideal crashes and burns.” And let me tell you (because I have wielded that red pen and know Professor X’s bloody business: adjuncting and community college teaching) it is a sad, sad world out there in America’s lesser colleges, many as crassly business-minded as Walmart and utterly delighted to have students who aren’t cut out to make the grade. Of course, liberal-minded idealists will object and cry Barbara Covett! at the likes of Professor X, but having been in his trench, I know how deeply painful and demoralizing—and pointless and dishonest—it is to teach college-level curriculum to those who are not equipped for high school: It’s like trying to teach the legless to dance. This is another commentary on the shoddy state of American higher education (see also, most recently, Ed Dante’s “Shadow Scholar” piece at The Chronicle of Higher Ed)—sure to be an incendiary little book. (Emily W.)

The Uncoupling by Meg Wolitzer: Wolitzer’s ninth novel is inspired by Lysistrata, the ancient Greek play wherein the women withhold sex from their menfolk until they agree to end their war. In Wolitzer’s novel, a New Jersey high school puts on a production of the play, and soon, the females in the town lose interest in coupling with their men. The Uncoupling follows Wolitzer’s bestselling novel The Ten Year Nap, about the lives of stay-at-home mothers in New York City, and I hope her latest is as funny, readable and wise as that book was. (Edan)

Fire Season by Philip Connors: This debut nonfiction effort by Connors is an account of his time spent over part of each of the last ten years as a fire lookout in New Mexico in a 7′ x 7′ tower. Connors also happens to be a literary critic and journalist whose writing has been fairly extensively published, including book reviews in the LRB and VQR. Some of his most powerful work has taken the form of diaries, including one in n+1 that recounts his brother’s suicide and another in The Paris Review about life as a fire lookout. The book takes the diary form and expands on it, with five long chapters, each one dedicated to a month he spends in the lookout tower each year. (Max)

My New American Life by Francine Prose: Francine Prose, former National Book Award finalist and prolific producer of novels, short stories, children’s books and nonfiction, will take us on a fictional tour of the bad old days of Bush-Cheney. My New American Life spins around Lula, a 26-year-old Albanian living in New York City on an expiring tourist visa. When she lands a job as a caretaker for a rebellious teenager in suburban New Jersey, she begins to live the American dream — until her brothers show up in a black Lexus SUV, a jarring reminder that family and history are always with us. The novel, according to the publisher’s jacket copy, captures the moment when American “dreams and ideals gave way to a culture of cynicism, lies and fear.” (Bill)

Swim Back to Me by Ann Packer: Ann Packer, who first burst onto the scene in 2002 with her blockbuster debut The Dive from Clausen’s Pier, returns with a fourth book. Kirkus describes it as a novella and five stories in its starred review, while the publisher calls it a collection of narratives framed by two linked novellas. Whichever the case, the collection seems likely to investigate the same avenues of grief that have been a hallmark of her prior, powerful work. (Max)

Bullfighting by Roddy Doyle: The title story of Doyle’s collection appeared in the New Yorker in early 2008 and concerns a collection of middle-aged Irish guys blowing off steam on a guys’ trip to Spain, wives and kids left behind in Dublin. When I traveled to the Mediterranean later that year and saw many a seaside watering hole advertising the “Full English Breakfast,” I thought of this story. (Max)

Nat Tate: An American Artist: 1928-1960 by William Boyd: Boyd, a wonderful author (Any Human Heart, Brazzaville Beach) who for whatever reason doesn’t seem to get much attention outside of prize committees, made culture vultures everywhere feel like complete assholes in 1998, when he carefully constructed and published a life of a fictional American artist who died by suicide at age 32. Enlisting the help of David Bowie, Gore Vidal, and others, Boyd had a number of people who should have known better reminiscing about Tate and lamenting his early death. Evidently a lot more people would have looked a lot more stupid had David Lister (an editor at The Independent who knew about the ruse), not revealed the hoax prematurely. Boyd’s great literary hoax is to be reissued this April. (Lydia)

Say Her Name by Francisco Goldman: A year after the publication of his last novel, The Divine Husband, Francisco Goldman watched his wife of two years, the promising young writer Aura Estrada, die as a result of a freak body-surfing accident. The aftermath sent him back to journalism for a time. Now Goldman has trained his considerable novelistic powers directly on the tragedy of his wife’s death, and on the ineffable continuities among love, grief, and art. (Garth)

There Is No Year by Blake Butler: Butler, one of the minds behind HTML Giant and author of the indie press favorite Scorch Atlas hits the big time with this new novel. The Harper Perennial catalog glosses it as evocative of House of Leaves and the films of David Lynch. A more iconoclastic “20 Under 40” list might have made room for Butler, and as for Harper’s labeling 32-year-ole Butler “one of the voices of his generation,” that may say more about how apocalypse-minded we are these days than it does about Butler. (Max)

May:

Blue Collar, White Collar, No Collar: Stories of Work edited by Richard Ford: We’ve reminisced in the past about the steady disappearance of the short story anthology. Once common, these pocket-sized wonders now fill shelves at the kind of used bookstore I like to haunt but are rarely seen on the new release table at your local Borders. Still, a timely theme in these economically stagnant times (employment or lack thereof) and the imprimatur of a master of the form, Richard Ford, make this collection worth looking out for. Sure, most if not all of these stories have been previously published in other books, but how nice to have Stuart Dybek, Edward P. Jones, Charles D’Ambrosio, Ann Beattie, Alice Munro, John Cheever, Richard Yates, Deborah Eisenberg, Jhumpa Lahiri, and several others, all thematically linked and between two covers. (Max)

Embassytown by China Mieville Give China Mieville credit for refusing to rest on his laurels. After scoring a major hit with last year’s Kraken, his seventh lushly imagined fantasy novel, Mieville will abandon the world of Bas-Lag and his phantasmagorical London and take his fans someplace altogether different and unexpected. Embassytown, he recently told a Liverpool audience, will contain “science fiction, aliens and spaceships.” The title refers to “a city of contradictions on the outskirts of the universe” where humans and the native Hosts live in uneasy peace. When an unimaginable new arrival hits town, catastrophe looms. Given Mieville’s track record, expect a wild ride. (Bill)

Mondo and Other Stories by J.M.G. Le Clezio: The 2008 Nobel laureate’s large body of work continues to make its way into English. This collection of stories was first published in French in 1978. One of the stories collected here, the atmospheric “The Boy Who Had Never Seen the Sea,” appeared in the New Yorker shortly after Le Clezio’s Nobel win. Like that story, the rest in this collection focus on a child protagonist who seems to see the world through a different set of eyes. (Max)

To Do: A Book of Alphabets and Birthdays by Gertrude Stein: Described as “a fanciful journey through the alphabet” and originally conceived as a children’s book, Stein’s To Do “spiral[ed] out of simple childlike progression, so that by the time she reached the letter H, Henriette de Dactyl, a French typewriter (who exchanges typed messages with Yetta von Blickensdorfer, a German typewriter, and Mr. House, an American typewriter) wants to live on Melon Street and eat radishes, salads, and fried fish, and soup.” Written in 1940, the book was rejected several times by publishers for being too complex for children. A text-only version appeared in 1957 (after Stein’s death) from Yale, and in 2011, the publisher is putting out To Do with Giselle Potter’s illustrations, realizing Stein’s original concept. (Sonya)

Paying for It by Chester Brown: Throughout his twenty-year-long career, Chester Brown has developed a reputation as a wan and fearless confessor, presenting his lapses and failures from a dispassionate remove.  Paying For It—subtitled “A Comic-Strip Memoir About Being a John”—may prove to be his most quietly self-lacerating.  In exploring his penchant for prostitutes, Paying For It will likely feature little glamour, little boasting, and an understated honesty.  Drawn and Quarterly predicts that the book “will be the most talked about graphic novel of 2011,” yet Brown doesn’t seem to relish controversy.  When asked in 2004 why he might write so openly about his sex life, he responded, “Because it’s interesting.” (Jacob)

The London Train by Tessa Hadley: Stalwart of the fiction section of The New Yorker, Hadley’s latest is described as a “novel in two parts.” An early review in the Financial Times calls the book “darkly elegant” with “two distinct halves reflecting, enhancing and informing each other. The social and geographical territory is familiar for Hadley, that of the bourgeoisie and their travels (and travails) as they go looping between London and Cardiff.” (Max)

Pulse by Julian Barnes: Barnes’s latest is his third book of short stories. A preview from The Spectator explains the collection’s over-arching theme: “Each character is attuned to a ‘pulse’ – an amalgamation of a life-force and an Aristotelian flaw. They struggle against or thrive upon the submerged currents of life – touched by ambition, sex, love, health, work and death.” (Max)

The Tao of Travel by Paul Theroux: Theroux, the aging, still entertaining rake of the travel writing genre will indulge in a potentially interesting exercise here, collecting “the best writing on travel from the books that shaped him,” from Samuel Johnson, Eudora Welty and Mark Twain to Peter Matthiessen, Pico Iyer, and John McPhee. Cheesy title aside, it certainly sounds like an essential tome for travel writing fans. (Max)

June:

State of Wonder by Ann Patchett: Ann Patchett has fearlessly ignored the admonition to write what you know. Her breakout novel, the intoxicating Bel Canto, centered around opera, Japanese business practices and a hostage situation in a South American embassy. Her new novel, State of Wonder, will have elements that sound similarly abstruse – doctors, medical students, drug development and the Amazon jungle. But at the heart of the novel is an inspiring student-teacher relationship, which, Patchett told an interviewer, is similar to the bond she had with her own writing teachers, Allan Gurganus and the late Grace Paley. “This one was a picnic,” Patchett says of State of Wonder, “because I didn’t have to make everything up wholesale.” (Bill)

The Astral by Kate Christensen The question to ask about Christensen’s next novel is will it deliver up another character on par with Hugo Whittier of The Epicure’s Lament? (“May we all simmer in the dark with such humor and gusto,” Sam Lipsyte wrote of Christensen’s immortal misanthrope.) The Penn-Faulkner Award-winning Christensen’s forthcoming sixth novel promises the story of a successful Brooklyn poet, Harry Quirk, whose marriage is in crisis and whose children have been swept up in cultishness of various kinds (perhaps a sort of Freedom, redux?). As a writer who reliably turns out novels that elicit warm praise from most of her reviewers, expect (at least) a genial, smart, gently satirical tale of the joys and woes of bougie New York life. (Emily W.)

The Curfew by Jesse Ball: What to expect from an author who teaches classes on dreaming, false identities, and lying? If the author is Jesse Ball, then one should expect expectations to be defied, plot summaries to fall short, and critics to use structures to describe the framework of his imaginative plottings (nesting-boxes, Klein bottle, labyrinth). Perhaps the magical realms Ball creates have something to do with his process: “to conjure up a state of affairs–a glimpse of one situated thought, where the situation is all that surrounds it in the mind.” Or with his imaginative approaches to writing, evident in his classes. Ball’s novel The Curfew depicts a father and daughter during wartime, the father risks it all to find his wife and the young daughter imagines her father’s treacherous journey. Expect for this description to only loosely conjure the realms of wonder within. (Anne)

Kurt Vonnegut: Novels & Stories 1963-1973: For those seeking Vonnegut’s aforementioned best, the Library of America will bestow upon him its black-cover treatment, collecting his great early novels (Cat’s Cradle, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, Slaughterhouse-Five, Breakfast of Champions) and stories into one thick volume.  In this setting, it will be especially jarring to read Breakfast of Champions, whose “World Classics Library” “published hard-core pornography in Los Angeles, California.” (Jacob)

The Storm at the Door by Stefan Merrill Block: The precocious Block published his first novel at 26. The Story of Forgetting, ambitious but flawed, nonetheless suggested Block might be a name to watch. Sure enough, here he is with a second novel arriving before his 30th birthday. This time around, Block will again take mental illness as a primary theme. (Max)

Lola, California by Edie Meidav: Meidav is a rare thing, a less than well known writer who continues to publish big, dense, challenging novels with a major press. Meidav’s third such effort weighs in at 448 pages and asks “Can an old friend carry in amber the person you were going to become?” Should Meidav be better known? Almost definitely. (Max)

July:

Once Upon a River by Bonnie Jo Campbell: A 2009 National Book Award nod (for her collectionAmerican Salvage) landed Campbell on the radar of many a reader. Her backcountry fiction focuses on rural characters, meth-cookers, and bad jobs or none at all, all shot through with redemption and compassion. This new novel, which Campbell says has been in the works for more than four years, sounds like something of a modern-day Huck Finn, following a sixteen-year-old girl who takes to the Stark River in search of her vanished mother. (Max)

Estonia: A Ramble Through the Periphery by Alexander Theroux: In his one-of-a-kind Year in Reading piece, Theroux mentioned being this year “in the outback of frozen Estonia where I was not only writing a book but, as a kind of project, undertaking a private study of St. Paul and his life.” The book in question was this title, forthcoming from Fantagraphics. The book emerges from Theroux’s time spent in the former Soviet republic while his wife was on a Fulbright Scholarship. Ever observant, Theroux uses Estonia and its people as a lens through which to look back at America. (Max)

The Devil All the Time by Donald Ray Pollock: Former meatpacker and paper mill employee Pollock’s debut story collection Knockemstiff was a favorite amongst indie booksellers, landed on both Amazon and Publishers Weekly’s lists of best books of the year, and garnered the following enigmatic praise from the LA Times “a powerful, remarkable, exceptional book that is very hard to read.” According to his blog, Pollock’s debut novel is set in the 50s and 60s and “centers on the convergent lives of a tough but morally-upright young man from Ohio, a pair of serial killers who prey on hitchhikers, and an itinerant, spider-handling preacher and his crippled guitar virtuoso accompanist.” Naturally. (Patrick)

August:

House of Holes: A Book of Raunch by Nicholson Baker: There’s very little info out there on Baker’s forthcoming novel, aside from some Twitter-excitement, including, “I don’t think it’s about poems” (McNally Jackson Bookstore) and “Back to Fermata territory?” (Ed Champion). So fans of Baker’s earlier (erotic) novels may be in for a treat. At Amazon, the description reads: “a gleefully provocative, off-the-charts sex novel that is unlike anything you’ve read.” (Sonya)

Night Film by Marisha Pessl: My first impression of Marisha Pessl’s Special Topics in Calamity Physics was clouded by the many, many stunned reviewers who could not help but mention Pessl’s beauty, often in the first paragraph of their reviews. (Indeed, it has been said that her picture was removed from advance copies of the novel to avoid just this.) Fortunately for those who do not choose books based on the bangability of their authors, while Ms. Pessl is hot, her prose is, by most assessments, hotter. Whether or not you liked Special Topics, you have to admit that the babe-authoress created one of the most startlingly distinctive fictional voices of recent years in Blue van Meer, the heroine-narrator of Pessl’s academic novel qua murder mystery (Oh, the breathtaking allusiveness! Ah, the witty figurative language—almost exhausting in its inventiveness!). My fear for Night Film—according to Pessl’s agent, “a psychological thriller about obsession, family loyalty and ambition set in raw contemporary Manhattan”—is that without Blue, Pessl’s nothing. Can she–could anyone (think Jonathan Safran Foer after Everything Is Illuminated)–generate another voice as distinct and scintillating as Blue’s? (Emily W.)

Lights Out in Wonderland by DBC Pierre: After the curious panic surrounding 2003’s Vernon God Little (“It’s sort of about Columbine!” “He’s not even from here!” “It won all kindsa prizes!”), Australia’s DBC Pierre faded from American minds.  Three years later, his Ludmilia’s Broken English failed to gain traction, and it seems a sensible bet that Lights Out In Wonderland—another scattershot soap-box rant—will continue the downward trend.  But as Lights Out is a foggy howl against the global market (“My hair crests over my head like the dying wave of capitalism,” reads one unfortunate simile), Pierre shouldn’t get too upset if units fail to move. (Jacob)

Anatomy of a Disappearance by Hisham Matar: Hisham Matar, author of In the Country of Men, is the child of Libyan parents. In 1990, the novelist’s father Jaballa Matar was kidnapped in Cairo and extradited to Tripoli as a political dissident. Since then, his family has endured a special hell of loss and uncertainty–scant news punctuating long periods of silence–which Hisham Matar described in a haunting piece for the Gaurdian last January. His novel, due in August, is about a missing father, and will presumably draw upon Matar’s experience as the child of someone disappeared. (Lydia)

Beijing Welcomes You by Tom Scocca: Slate blogger and former New York Observer Editor Scocca chronicles his years spent in Beijing, observing a city and a culture moving into the global spotlight. The book examines the Chinese capital on the cusp of its global moment, tracking its history and exploring its singular character. Since Scocca lived in Beijing in the middle of the last decade, one can assume the buildup to the 2008 Beijing Olympics figures prominently in the text. Assuming Scocca brings his typical insightful and sometimes scathing perspective (witness his epic takedown of The New Yorker for publishing Dave Eggers’s The Wild Things excerpt which ran two years ago at The Awl), Beijing Welcomes You promises to offer astute cultural observation on a culture Americans would do well to observe. (Patrick)

September:

1Q84 by Haruki Murakami: Murakami’s three volume stemwinder came out in Japan in 2009 and sold out its first printing in a day. The first two volumes will appear in the US this fall and fervor among English-speaking Murakamians is already building. The alpha-numeric title is a play on Orwell’s 1984 – in Japanese the letter Q is a homophonic with the number 9 – and the book’s plot (which was a tightly guarded secret prior to its Japanese release) concerns two characters, a PE teacher and a writer, who become involved in a religious cult through which they create “a mysterious past, different than the one we know.” (Kevin)

The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach: In the Winter issue of n+1, Harbach published a provocative piece suggesting two paths for the novelist: MFA vs. NYC. Who needs the former, when you can ride the latter to a half-million dollar advance? Insiders have, predictably, likened Harbach’s treatment of a baseball team at a Wisconsin liberal arts college – presumably as a lens through which to view the American scene and the human condition – to the aforementioned Enfield Tennis Academy. (Garth)

October:

The Forgotten Waltz by Anne Enright: Enright, winner of The Booker Prize for the international bestseller The Gathering, explores a woman’s affair and her relationship with her lover’s young daughter. (Max)

November:

Parallel Stories by Péter Nadas: Péter Nádas’ A Book of Memories might just be the best novel published in the ’80s, and Imre Goldstein’s translation into English of its massive successor would, in a just world, be the publishing event of the fall. Nádas is, simply put, a master. The freedom with which he combines the diverse idioms of realism, modernism, and postmodernism can only come from decades of discipline. More importantly – as a recent excerpt in The Paris Review illustrates – he generates a continuous, Proustian intensity of feeling and perception – psychological, philosophical, and physical. This three-volume work, structured as a set of braided short stories, tracks two families, one Hungarian and one German, across many decades. Readers looking for a fuller preview might consult Hungarian Literature Online, or Deborah Eisenberg’s appreciation in The New York Review of Books. (Garth)

Unknown (fall and beyond):

The Queen of the Night by Alexander Chee: Described by Chee – a Whiting Award and NEA Fellowship recipient, currently a Visiting Professor at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop — as a kind of “historical fairy tale,” Queen is set in the time of the Second Empire (1852-70), in Paris. Chee’s first novel, Edinburgh, focused on a young boy’s surviving pedophilia. “The Queen of the Night sort of picks up in some ways from where Edinburgh leaves off,” Chee said in an interview, “in the sense that it is about a young woman who believes her voice is cursed, and if she uses it, terrible things will happen. And then she does, and they do. And she tries to put it right as best she can.” (Sonya)

The Map and the Territory by Michel Houellebecq: Michel Houellebecq, the reigning bad boy of French letters, has been accused of every imaginable sin against political correctness. His new novel, The Map and the Territory, is a send-up of the art world that tones down the sex and booze and violence, but it does feature a “sickly old tortoise” named Michel Houellebecq who gets gruesomely murdered. The book has drawn charges of plagiarism because passages were lifted virtually verbatim from Wikipedia. “If people really think that (this is plagiarism),” Houellebecq sniffed, “then they haven’t the first notion what literature is.” Apparently, he does. The Map and the Territory has just been awarded the Prix Goncourt, France’s most prestigious literary prize. (Bill)

The New Republic by Lionel Shriver: Shriver apparently finished a draft of The New Republic in 1998. After six well-regarded but commercially ignored novels, she couldn’t find a buyer for this story of “cults of personality and terrorism” and was about to give up fiction-writing altogether. Flash forward a dozen years: Shriver is an Orange Prize winner, a National Book Award finalist, and has sold over a million copies worldwide. She has been fêted by…er…The New Republic, and hailed in these pages as “America’s Best Writer.” Also: terrorism and cults of personality are very much on people’s minds. Maybe this will be the book that lands her on the cover of Time. (Garth)

Hot Pink by Adam Levin: Viewed from afar, Levin’s first novel, The Instructions, looked, for good and ill – mostly for good – like a kind of apotheosis of the McSweeney’s house style: playful, inventive, funny-melancholic, youth-focused. However, it also possessed a couple of attributes that set it apart from other titles on the McSweeney’s list. One was its dialectical genius; another was the ferocity of its anger at the way the world is (which elsewhere in McSweeneydom often gets sublimated into melancholy). Though Levin wears his influences on his sleeve, his sensibility is utterly distinctive, and almost fully formed. Look for the stories in the follow-up, Hot Pink, to be formally audacious, occasionally adolescent, but always bracing in their passion. (Garth)

The Unfolding Haggadah by Jonathan Safran Foer with Nathan Englander: The only evidence of what this might be comes from Tablet where an essay by Judith Shulevitz includes a note about this title in the author’s bio. An anthology it is then. And with Foer and Englander at the helm, this is one to keep on the radar. (Max)

Four Selected Titles with UK publication dates but no US date yet:

Dante in Love by A. N. Wilson: Later this year, English biographer and critic A.N. Wilson comes out with Dante in Love, a study of the Florentine poet that, confusingly, shares a title with a 2005 book about Dante written by Harriet Rubin. Wilson’s book will, one imagines, address Dante’s exile, Beatrice, Guelphs, Ghibellines, and so on; his perspective as a very public defector from and subsequent re-convert to Christianity might bring new insight to this well-trod territory (then again, it might not). (Lydia)

River of Smoke by Amitav Ghosh
King of the Badgers by Philip Hensher
The Stranger’s Child by Alan Hollinghurst

So, which of these books are you most looking forward to and which great new books did we neglect to include?

Surprise Me!

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