Mark Binelli and I met for the first time on Oct. 27, 2012, in New York City. The excuse for the meeting was the TV broadcast of Game 3 of that year’s World Series between the San Francisco Giants and the Detroit Tigers. I grew up in Detroit and its suburbs and have remained a life-long fan of the Tigers, so the sports editor at The New York Times thought it might be amusing to have me hook up with fellow Detroiters and write a string of sketches about the agonies and ecstasies of watching the Series. With a nod to Frederick Exley, they called the sketches “A Fan’s Notes.”
Mark Binelli also grew up in the Detroit area, and he agreed to join me for Game 3 at a dive called the Motor City Bar, about halfway between our apartments in lower Manhattan. As soon as we were settled on our barstools, Binelli delighted me by confessing that he didn’t have much use for Detroit’s twinned obsessions, cars and sports. So with one eye on the TV screen — a Detroit loss, one of four straight in an ignominious sweep — Binelli and I spent the game talking mostly about books. We talked about his first novel, Sacco and Vanzetti Must Die!, a wicked recasting of the two doomed anarchists as a slapstick comedy act; we also talked about Binelli’s forthcoming non-fiction book, Detroit City Is the Place to Be, which turned out to be a marvel, a clear-eyed look at our hometown’s history, its racial divide, and the many forces that brought it low.
Since that night in 2012, Binelli, a contributing editor Rolling Stone and Men’s Journal, has published a stack of superb journalism — about Pope Francis, supermax prisons, George Clinton, feral dogs and ruin porn in Detroit, and a U.S. Border Patrol guard who gunned down an unarmed Mexican boy on the far side of the border fence. And now Binelli has published his second novel, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ All-Time Greatest Hits, a title of considerable irony since Hawkins’s only hit record, “I Put a Spell on You,” qualified him as the quintessential one-hit wonder, though one with an outlandish stage show and a backstory that Binelli found irresistible. Binelli and I met recently in a park near New York’s Chinatown, where we drank beer and talked about books.
The Millions: Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ All-Time Greatest Hits is one weird little book.
Mark Binelli: Thanks very much [laughs]. I take that as a compliment.
TM: In spots the book reads like straight journalism, then it’s almost a biography, then there are passages of pure fantasy, a little autobiography — but somehow it all hangs together. How did you arrive at this strange narrative strategy?
MB: I guess what attracted me to Jay [Hawkins] as a subject initially — I never thought I would write fiction about a musician, I’d been writing about musicians for Rolling Stone for years and that always felt like kind of a separate zone — and honestly it didn’t interest me that much, fictionalizing Jay’s story. I’d been backstage, I’d been on tour buses, I’d been in recording studios with musicians — and the idea of creating made-up scenes that I’d already lived through didn’t hold much appeal. The idea to write about Jay basically came from reading the liner notes on his albums.
TM: So there was no life-long attraction to Screamin’ Jay Hawkins for you?
MB: I loved “I Put a Spell On You” the moment I heard it, which was probably at some point in college. I’m pretty sure my first exposure to it was in the Jim Jarmusch film, Stranger Than Paradise. I immediately thought, this is such a weird fucking song — it’s funny but it’s also very haunting and evil. It’s hard to make a funny song not cross into a novelty song. It was recorded in 1956, so it’s 50 years old, but to record something that’s that timeless, almost out of time, it’s a tough thing to do. So years after I first heard the song I was reading the liner notes to one of his CD’s, and the way his biography unfolded — in his telling — I thought, God, this is the ultimate rock star story/novelistic picaresque.
TM: You say “in his telling” because he was always embellishing his life’s story — claiming that he was adopted and raised by a tribe of Blackfoot Indians, that he studied opera in Cleveland, that he joined the Army at age 14, that he was a middleweight boxing champion in Alaska, that he fathered 75 illegitimate children. Did that attract you as a novelist — the fact that it was almost a made-up life to begin with?
MB: Yeah, that immediately gave me liberties to take him at his word, and then go further than that and make up scenes based on these stories that he told. But back to your original question about how the form came about, it was kind of through that. Once I was attracted to the idea of writing about him as a character, I started thinking about all kinds of different ways I might get at it. At one point I thought it could be kind of cool to write a straight, thoroughly researched biography.
TM: But you rejected that idea.
MB: I rejected that idea ultimately. I liked the perversity of the idea, because he’s not that sort of iconic musician, like John Lennon or Dylan. We could sit here and make a list of hundreds of musicians and Jay would be very, very far down the list of subjects for a biography or a novel or a rock biopic. For me, that was a big part of the appeal. It was such a weird idea to take this marginal figure who had one hit song and who made up all this shit about his life story — and then elevate him into the pantheon of rock gods.
TM: Did you start doing research into a possible biography before the book became a novel?
MB: I did a little bit of research, but pretty quickly I decided it was going to be a novel. And then at that point I decided I didn’t really want to know the truth, which is the opposite of what we have to do in our jobs as journalists. It was very freeing and nice not to want to know if he actually fought in World War II. If I know the truth, it might impair my ability to imagine it.
TM: So in a sense, the less you knew, the freer you were?
MB: Yeah, and I intentionally kind of researched around his stories. I probably could have found his military records and figured that out, but I didn’t want to do that. I did look into whether or not younger kids lied about their age to enlist, and that turns out to be true. I did look into what it was like for an African-American in the Army at that time? — how segregated was the Army? I wanted to get the details kind of right, or at least have a sense in my head of what it might have been like.
TM: Little tiny things, like when Jay goes squirrel hunting as a boy and winds up feeling that killing the squirrel was such a pathetic act — I’ve got to believe there was some autobiography in that. It was such a vivid little grace note.
MB: The funny thing about a lot of the childhood scenes is that some of that is the most autobiographical writing I’ve done. I love the idea of grafting details from my life — a white Italian-American living in 2016, in his 40s — grafting that onto the life of a black singer born in Cleveland in the late-1920s. Being able to mix all that stuff together was really appealing to me.
TM: You mentioned the Jarmusch movie Stranger Than Paradise. Something I was surprised you didn’t include was Screamin’ Jay’s movie parts. He played a hotel clerk in Jarmusch’s Mystery Train. There’s that great scene in A Rage in Harlem, based on the Chester Himes novel, where Hawkins is performing “I Put a Spell on You” while Forest Whitaker is trying to dance with Robin Givens. Why didn’t you include some of that stuff?
MB: That did cross my mind, but in my head the book stops with him in Hawaii, sort of in exile. Pretty early on, I became less interested in what he did after that. The only point in the book that jumps forward in time is that one short scene where all of Jay’s offspring have a family reunion.
TM: That actually happened, right?
MB: Again, I’m not sure. There really was a website somebody put together after Jay died called “Jay’s Kids,” and they put out a call to Jay’s offspring to get together. I don’t know if there really was a meeting. Early on, I thought about doing a chapter where I interviewed a bunch of his kids. Then I had an idea about doing a long chapter from the point of view of one of his kids, going around the country trying to meet his lost siblings. I kind of cycled through lots of alternate scenarios. I have a problem picking one book when I start writing a book, and I think that’s partly where this hybrid style comes from.
TM: Have you heard this term “ahistorical fantasia?”
MB: Um, no.
TM: I’ve seen it used in reference to Sacco and Vanzetti Must Die! — where there’s a set of historical facts, which the author twists and then adds fantasy on top. Matthew Sharpe’s Jamestown is such a book, and I would certainly think Screamin’ Jay would fit in there.
MB: I’ve never heard that term, but I like that kind of book. Based on these first two novels, I guess that’s what I do [laughs].
TM: What is it that you do?
MB: Before I wrote Sacco and Vanzetti, I was trying for years, pretty unsuccessfully, to write short stories taken from my life. It never worked. When I hit upon the idea of Sacco and Vanzetti, part of what worked for me was the history element of it — having something I could research and draw upon. In a way, it connects with my work as a journalist. You go out and talk to people and take notes. You have raw material to work with. With the novels, I liked having raw material to work with — with Sacco and Vanzetti, it was the history of Italian anarchists and film comedy teams; with Screamin’ Jay, it was his story of the world he was living in. I liked having that stuff and then being able to just fuck with it.
TM: So the history is a springboard, a beginning point. It’s not the point.
MB: Right. You can play off of it and mess with people’s expectations. I found that works for me.
TM: What are some other books that you would consider similar in that approach? E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime?
MB: Maybe Ragtime. I loved the book, but Doctorow is not doing anything totally crazy with history. A novel by Kevin Barry, Beatlebone, is a recent example, where he takes this sliver of a fact from history–
TM: That John Lennon actually owned an island off the west coast of Ireland.
MB: — and then he makes up this great taxi driver/fixer character who takes Lennon around on this lost weekend there. I think all of that’s made up. I don’t know if Lennon even visited the island. That’s something great. I think maybe Pynchon to a degree does a lot of that. It’s funny, the other day I was in a Duane Reade and they were playing an old Chuck Berry tune, one of his big hits. I love Chuck Berry, it was a great song, but I heard it and I thought this really sounds like a song from the ’50s. It sounds very dated. And it just made me think how weird “I Put a Spell on You” is — you don’t really know where it comes from. I think that’s partly why it’s been covered so often and in so many different ways. And then Jay’s theatricality was ahead of his time.
TM: He was fucking with political correctness before political correctness existed. Going onstage inside a coffin? With a bone in his nose? Come on!
MB: Right, he was dressing like an African witch doctor from a very racist Looney Tunes cartoon from the ’40s. He knew what he was doing. He was messing with audience expectations — white audience expectations. One of his later records was called Black Music for White People, and it seems to me his stage persona, his get-up, his whole shtick was a way of saying to white audiences, “You think you want authenticity from a black performer? How ’bout this?” I kind of love the idea of that. Again, I don’t know what his true intentions were, but I’ve got think some of that was going on in his head.
TM: Are you going to write about musicians again, other than in your journalism? You think fictionally you’ll attack other musicians?
MB: I don’t have a next project. I have a few rough ideas, but none of them involves music. I stumbled onto Jay’s story and was drawn to it, so it could happen again. You never know.
Loren D. Estleman is a crazy prolific writer, in a league with Anthony Trollope and Joyce Carol Oates. In his 63 years, Estleman has produced more than 70 books — novels, collections of short stories, and writing manuals, as well as book reviews and assorted journalism. The words don’t just pour out of Estleman’s typewriters — he owns dozens of them, including some century-old museum pieces — no, they roar out, a relentless typhoon of words — words that are even more remarkable for their consistently high quality than their staggering quantity. In this sense he’s closer to rock-solid Trollope than to hit-or-miss Oates.
Newly published is Desperate Detroit: And Stories of Other Dire Places, a collection that will solidify Estleman’s stature with his hardcore fans while serving as an ideal introduction for uninitiated readers. The book is a sumptuous smorgasbord featuring hit men, riffs on John Dillinger and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, a homicidal newspaper reporter, a grifter, an insurance scammer, a coffin-maker, a crime-solving bookseller, a truck-driving contract killer, and a cop who gets seduced into murder. Estleman’s universe is not a just or tidy place. Some people get away with murder, repeatedly, while others get framed for murders they didn’t commit. Everyone’s working an angle, and there are double-crosses and surprise twists, humor and ample darkness. There’s even a vampire western! One of the few things missing from this collection is a hard-boiled story featuring Estleman’s irrepressible Detroit P.I., Amos Walker.
For 40 years and counting, Estleman’s bread and butter have been the western and the crime story, though his fiction ranges so widely, from the 19th century to today, from prairies to ghettos, that it would be impossible and unfair to peg him as any single kind of genre writer. If anything ties Estleman’s work together, it is the eternal presence of crime in human affairs. “Crime,” as he writes in the new book’s introduction, “is the most durable small business we have.”
As I read these stories, I kept flipping to the front of the book, where their original publication venues and dates are printed. I was surprised to notice that, with a few exceptions, they first appeared in one of two places: Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine or Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. The first short story Estleman published, “The Tree on Execution Hill,” appeared in the August 1977 issue of Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. “The Used” was his first sale to Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, in the June 1982 issue. These stories, which both appear in Desperate Detroit, were the beginnings of long and fruitful partnerships that endure to this day.
So this book was turning out to be more than a sampling of stories by a writer with a vast range, an iron work ethic, and a time-tested ability to please readers. The book is also a window into the way the publishing of short fiction has changed in America since World War II — a time of brutal contraction both in the audience for short stories and in the venues where they get published.
The first issue of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, featuring stories by Dashiell Hammett and Cornell Woolrich, was published in the fall of 1941, which means the magazine has now reached the venerable age of 75. The first thing you need to know about Ellery Queen is that he didn’t exist. It was the pen name of two cousins, Frederic Dannay and Manfred B. Lee, who developed an unusual division of labor. Dannay edited the magazine until his death in 1982, while the two collaborated, sometimes contentiously, on the short stories and novels that appeared under the byline of Ellery Queen and sold some 100 million books. “We fight like hell,” Dannay said of his collaborating cousin. He added, a bit more loftily, “Our books are as much a canvas of their time as the books of Proust were of his time.”
In 1956, a sister publication, Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, began publishing, also edited by Dannay. Its only affiliation with the great filmmaker was the use of his name and image on the cover for branding purposes, sort of like Donald Trump spring water. The magazine was born at what would seem an unpropitious moment — as the slick magazines (Collier’s, The Saturday Evening Post, Story, Good Housekeeping) were either going out of business or dropping fiction, while the pulps (Black Mask, Two-Fisted Detective, Weird Tales) were succumbing to television, paperback novels, comics, and changing post-war tastes. And yet, both EQMM and AHMM managed to survive the shakeout, and they continue to thrive.
Dannay’s likening of Ellery Queen to Proust may be a stretch, but it was revealing. “One of Dannay’s aspirations for EQMM was to demonstrate that the mystery was a ‘genuine literary form,’” the magazine’s current editor, Janet Hutchings, told me in an email. “This led to the publication of work by more than 40 Nobel and Pulitzer Prize winners, including William Faulkner.” Other names to grace the table of contents include Agatha Christie, P.G. Wodehouse, Ed McBain, Isaac Asimov, Ruth Rendell, and Ian Rankin. EQMM was the first magazine to publish Jorge Luis Borges in English. Stephen King, a frequent contributor, calls it “the best mystery magazine in the world, bar none.”
Maybe one reason the magazine and its sister continue to thrive is that our age has finally caught up with Dannay’s 75-year-old vision. In 1941, as the Christian Science Monitor put it, the detective story was “frowned upon by the fusty gatekeepers of the literary establishment.” Recently, after years of being segregated by those gatekeepers, writers began to allow “high” and “low” literary genres to cross-pollinate freely and fruitfully. The result was mash-ups, crossbreeds, delirious hybrids. Along with Estleman’s vampire western, we got movies like Cowboys and Aliens. Novelists, including Mark Binelli (Sacco and Vanzetti Must Die!) and Matthew Sharpe (Jamestown), fused seemingly incompatible genres into novels that are called “ashistorical fantasias.” Michael Chabon’s romp about comic book artists, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, won the 2001 Pulitzer Prize. Elmore Leonard — primarily a writer of crime and western fiction like Loren D. Estleman — won high praise from such “literary” authors as Walker Percy and Martin Amis. Meanwhile, there have been successful efforts to resuscitate the impulses that once drove pulp fiction, most notably the Hard Case Crime series, which has published more than 100 titles in the past dozen years, including a lost novel by James M. Cain, an original by Stephen King, and, later this year, a lost novel by Erle Stanley Gardner, the creator of Perry Mason. “We’re trying to keep that style of publishing alive,” the series’s co-creator, Charles Ardai, told me. “Short books with a lot of velocity, compelling plots, beautiful cover art — and not too much ‘literary’ artifice.”
Ardai, not surprisingly, is an ardent fan of EQMM and AHMM. (He has worked at the former and contributed stories to both.) He’s also a fan of Loren D. Estleman. “He’s a bit of a genre blender,” Ardai says. “He’s of that pulp tradition where a writer would write westerns and horror and crime. I think he’d be proud of being described as a throwback to an earlier era, when writers wrote prolifically and never failed to entertain. It’s not haute cuisine — it’s red meat, the stuff you can’t put down until your plate is clean.”
When I’d finished reading Desperate Detroit, I called Estleman at his home in Michigan. (Full disclosure to fend off charges of log-rolling: Estleman wrote an enthusiastic review of my first novel in The Washington Post Book World in 1992, I sent him a thank-you note, he responded — and we’ve been pen pals ever since.) When Estleman came on the line, I asked him about the recent cross-pollination between genres, and between genre and literary fiction.
“I’ve made the point for years now that no genre ever dies,” he said. “Mainstream literary writers — people like Anne Tyler, who I like very much — are fighting over a smaller and smaller patch of ground. And genre writers are writing with more maturity. What genre writers understand now is that when someone dies, someone is out there to mourn them. Every death has a repercussion. So there’s a maturity that wasn’t always there before. These are novels about social conscience, reflecting what’s going on in our world.”
We’re getting back to Proust here. When I asked him about the importance of EQMM and AHMM to writers of short fiction, Estleman said, “They’re great magazines. They support unknown writers and they’ve launched a lot of people. They pay quite well, too, and sometimes the stories get included in anthologies. I’m still getting royalty checks for stories I wrote 30 years ago.”
But Estleman doesn’t deny that the shrinking of the market for short fiction has put a pinch on him and every other writer working today. “I would have loved to work during the golden age of pulp magazines,” he said. “There were at least 100 of them, and a writer could just go down the list submitting a story until it sold. Elmer Kelton, the great western writer, once told me that back in the day a writer could become a millionaire at half a cent a word.”
It’s something Anthony Trollope understood more than a century ago. And while Loren D. Estleman may not be a millionaire, he’s a writer who has made a solid living by working every day, one word at a time. Writer’s block is not in his vocabulary.
Naturally he has a new novel out, a western, featuring one of his most durable characters, U.S. Deputy Page Murdock. It’s called Cape Hell, a title that would have been right at home on the cover of a pulp novel.
Happy Freedom Day: The work at the center of all the reviews, magazine covers, and even, of course, controversy, has arrived. Jonathan Franzen’s long-awaited novel Freedom hits shelves today. Our review. Also out today is Booker longlister Skippy Dies by Paul Murray. Another newly translated Roberto Bolaño is out, The Insufferable Gaucho. As is You Were Wrong by Jamestown author Matthew Sharpe. Finally, fashion fans will dig vintage Japanese prepster handbook Take Ivy.
Ah, 1999… We laughed along with Chandler and Phoebe, invested our surplus Benjamins with Lehman Brothers, danced a national macarena. Those days seem like the distant past now, and in many ways, the first decade of the 21st Century has been quite different from the giddy future we might have projected. In one way, though, the new millennium has delivered: we’ve gotten great fiction, often from unexpected quarters. When The New York Times named “The Best Work of American Fiction of the Last 25 Years” in 2006, none of the finalists was younger than 69, and the most recent publication date was 1997. But the ’00s have introduced us to new voices, spurred others to new levels of achievement, and ushered in the late masterworks that have capped distinguished careers.
It’s a bit early, of course, to pass definitive judgment on the literary legacy of the ’00s, or how it stacks up against that of the 1930s, or 1850s. Who knows what will be read 50 years from now? But, with the end of the decade just a few months away, it seemed to us at The Millions a good time to pause and take stock, to call your attention to books worthy of it, and perhaps to begin a conversation.
To that end, we’ve conducted a poll of our regular contributors and 48 of our favorite writers, editors, and critics (listed below), asking a single question: “What are the best books of fiction of the millennium, so far?” The results were robust, diverse, and surprising.
We’ve finished tabulating them, and this week, we’ll be counting down the Top 20 vote-getters, at a rate of five per day. Each book will be introduced by one of the panelists who voted for it. On Friday, we’ll reveal Number One, along with the results of a parallel reader poll conducted via our Facebook group. And next week, we’ll run follow-up posts including Honorable Mention and “Best of the Rest” lists.
This page, updated as we post the list, will become an index. You can use it to navigate the series, or can check back at our home page; we also invite you to consider subscribing to The Millions via RSS feed or Kindle. We hope you’ll share your thoughts here or on the entries for the individual books throughout the week as our list is revealed.
#20: Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
#19: American Genius, A Comedy by Lynne Tillman
#18: Stranger Things Happen by Kelly Link
#17: The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem
#16: Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
#15: Varieties of Disturbance by Lydia Davis
#14: Atonement by Ian McEwan
#13: Mortals by Norman Rush
#12: Twilight of the Superheroes by Deborah Eisenberg
#11: The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz
#10: Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
#9: Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage by Alice Munro
#8: Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson
#7: Austerlitz by W.G. Sebald
#6: The Road by Cormac McCarthy
#5: Pastoralia by George Saunders
#4: 2666 by Roberto Bolaño
#3: Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
#2: The Known World by Edward P. Jones
#1: The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen
Sam Anderson is the book critic for New York Magazine.
Rosecrans Baldwin is the author of the forthcoming You Lost Me There and a founding editor of The Morning News.
Elif Batuman is the author of the forthcoming The Possessed: Adventures With Russian Books and the People Who Read Them
Mark Binelli is the author of Sacco and Vanzetti Must Die and is a contributor to Rolling Stone.
Elise Blackwell is the author of Hunger and other books
Patrick Brown is a contributor to The Millions.
Sonya Chung is the author of Long for This World and is a contributor to The Millions.
Elizabeth Crane is the author of You Must Be This Happy to Enter and other works of fiction.
Ben Dolnick is the author of Zoology.
Ben Ehrenreich is the author of The Suitors.
Stephen Elliot is the author of The Adderall Diaries and other books and is founding editor of The Rumpus.
Scott Esposito is the founding editor of Conversational Reading and The Quarterly Conversation.
Joshua Ferris is the author of Then We Came to the End and the forthcoming The Unnamed.
Rivka Galchen is the author of Atmospheric Disturbances.
Lauren Groff is the author of Delicate Edible Birds and The Monsters of Templeton.
Garth Risk Hallberg is the author of A Field Guide to the North American Family and is a contributor to The Millions.
John Haskell is the author of Out of My Skin and American Purgatorio.
Jeff Hobbs is the author of The Tourists.
Michelle Huneven is the author of Blame and other novels.
Samantha Hunt is the author of The Invention of Everything Else and The Seas.
Sara Ivry is a senior editor of Tablet.
Bret Anthony Johston is the author of Corpus Christi: Stories and is director of the Creative Writing Program at Harvard University.
Porochista Khakpour is the author of Sons and Other Flammable Objects.
Lydia Kiesling is a contributor to The Millions.
Benjamin Kunkel is the author of Indecision and is a founding editor of N+1.
Paul La Farge is the author of Haussmann, or The Distinction.
Reif Larsen is the author of The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet.
Dorothea Lasky is the author of Awe and other books.
Edan Lepucki is a contributor to The Millions.
Yiyun Li is the author of The Vagrants
Margot Livesey is the author of The House on Fortune Street and other books.
Fiona Maazel is the author of Last Last Chance.
C. Max Magee is the founding editor of The Millions.
Sarah Manguso is the author of the memoir The Two Kinds of Decay and other books.
Laura Miller is the author of The Magician’s Book and is the book critic at Salon.
Meghan O’Rourke is the author of Halflife: Poems and is a founding editor of DoubleX.
Ed Park is the author of Personal Days and is a founding editor of The Believer.
Emre Peker is a contributor emeritus to The Millions.
Arthur Phillips is the author of The Song is You and three other novels.
Nathaniel Rich is the author of The Mayor’s Tongue and is a senior editor at The Paris Review.
Marco Roth is a founding editor of N+1.
Andrew Saikali is a contributor to The Millions.
Mark Sarvas is the author of Harry, Revised and is the proprietor of The Elegant Variation.
Matthew Sharpe is the author of Jamestown and other works of fiction.
Gary Shteyngart is the author of Absurdistan and The Russian Debutante’s Handbook.
Joan Silber is the author of The Size of the World.
Martha Southgate is the author of Third Girl From the Left and other books.
Lorin Stein is a senior editor at Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Felicia Sullivan is the author of The Sky Isn’t Visible from Here and is the founding editor of Small Spiral Notebook.
Jean Thompson is the author of Do Not Deny Me and other books.
David Ulin is book editor of the Los Angeles Times
Amanda Eyre Ward is the author of Love Stories in This Town and other books.
Dan Wickett is executive director and publisher of Dzanc Books.
John Williams is founding editor of The Second Pass
Anne K. Yoder is a contributor to The Millions.
Todd Zuniga is the founding editor of Opium Magazine
Each panelist could name up to five books available in English with an original-language publication date no earlier than Jan. 1, 2000. We then tabulated the votes of our panelists, along with those of our contributors. Books were ranked according to number of votes received. In the few cases where more than one book received the same number of votes, our contributors, believing firmly that ties are like “kissing your sister,” voted to break them.
The “staff picks” shelf in any good independent bookstore is a treasure trove of book recommendations. Unmoored from media hype and even timeliness, these books are championed by trusted fellow readers. With many former (and current) booksellers in our ranks, we offer our own “Staff Picks” in a feature appearing irregularly.A Mercy by Toni Morrison recommended by EdanNow, Toni Morrison doesn’t need my staff pick (I’m sure it pales in comparison to her Nobel Prize in Literature), but I thought it appropriate since she’s a contender for this year’s Tournament of Books. Also, one time I tried to hand-sell A Mercy at the bookstore where I work, and the customer said, “Oh I hated her other book, you know, that Caged Bird Singing one?” So, let me set the record straight: Toni Morrison is not Maya Angelou. Got that? Also, I must say this: Toni Morrison has written an incredible and mesmerizing new novel. The prose in A Mercy blew me away, it was so strange and beautiful. From start to finish this book’s language put a charge through me – I actually felt the prose in my body, as a tingling in my wrists and up my arms. The language itself transported me to this historical era (the 1680s), and my mind had to shift to accommodate the language, and thus, this particular, brutal, past.The Mirror in the Well by Micheline Aharonian Marcom recommended by AnneLike a wanton lover, Micheline Aharonian Marcom’s Mirror in the Well leads you sensuously and breathlessly into the throes of an affair between “she,” the unnamed adulteress, and “you,” the beloved. Lust yields to ecstasy that seesaws into despair as the married mother of two’s web of trysts, lies, and longing grows larger. The blazing physicality of Marcom’s language is like a feminine countersignature to Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer; the trapped wife’s ennui and awakening shares its soul with Louis Malle’s The Lovers.The Wall of the Sky, The Wall of the Eye by Jonathan Lethem recommended by AndrewJonathan Lethem pushes the unsuspecting reader into one troubling, convoluted short story after another, then, when he’s good and ready, spits the reader out into the real world, leaving him twitching and scratching his head, barely able to catch his breath before luring him back into his alternate universe where futuristic horror butts heads with mystery and suspense.The genres aren’t new to him – his novels Amnesia Moon and Motherless Brooklyn ventured into futuristic sci-fi and mystery, albeit taking routes into these genres that I hadn’t taken before – but it’s a different experience to get these flights of fancy and fear in seven short bursts. I was exhausted and sometimes unsettled after each, but I couldn’t wait to get back into Jonathan Lethem’s crazy world.On Bullshit by Harry G. Frankfurt recommended by EmilyA rare treat awaits those who missed On Bullshit when it came out in 2005. Professor Harry Frankfurt’s unassuming little volume (four by six inches and a mere 67 pages long – somewhat physically reminiscent of the original binding of Maurice Sendak’s Chicken Soup With Rice) is not only, to use its own words, a “crisp and perspicuous” account of what bullshit is, but also a lesson in clean, graceful prose and logical, orderly thought.And what is bullshit, you ask? Quoting a bit of Longfellow that Ludwig Wittgenstein considered a personal motto:In the elder days of artBuilders wrought with greatest careEach minute and unseen part,For the Gods are everywhere.Frankfurt explains the mentality that these lines express: “The point of these lines is clear. In the old days, craftsmen did not cut corners. They worked carefully, and they took care with every aspect of their work. Every part of the product was considered, and each was designed and made to be exactly as it should be. These craftsmen did not relax their thoughtful self-discipline even with respect to features of their work that would ordinarily not be visible. Although no one would notice if those features were not quite right, the craftsmen would be bothered by their consciences. So nothing was swept under the rug. Or, one might perhaps also say, there was no bullshit.” And so beings an excellent explanation of the carelessly made and shoddy product we know as bullshit.For its clarity, gentle humor, conversational tone, and intelligence, On Bullshit is a delight. So charming is Frankfurt’s book, that even those traumatized by encounters with philosophy’s mind-wrecking titans (Hegel or Kant, say), might find themselves taken in.Sacco and Vanzetti Must Die by Mark Binelli recommended by MaxI’m not sure I have much fortitude for the mini-genre that has been termed “ahistorical fantasia” (coined by Matthew Sharpe author of Jamestown, perhaps the most widely recognized example of the form), but I do know that Sacco and Vanzetti Must Die, is undoubtedly ahistorical fantasia and undoubtedly a thoroughly entertaining book. Here’s the ahistoria: Mark Binelli reimagines Sacco and Vanzetti not as suspected anarchist bombers but as a slapstick comedy duo from the golden age of cinema. And here’s the fantasia: the pie and seltzer plot of Binelli’s pair slowly melds with the death-row fate of their real-life counterparts. The book is incredibly inventive and manages a rare feat: It is both challenging and laugh-out-loud funny, sometimes simultaneously.Ooga-Booga by Frederick Seidel recommended by GarthGertrude Stein aside, Frederick Seidel’s Ooga-Booga is the most excitingly strange book of poems I have ever read. In this case, the oddity lies not in the syntax, but in the author’s peculiar persona, at once cool and fevered. The collision of the “debonair” voice, the hallucinatory imagery, and a prosody keenly (even innocently) interested in rhyme and wordplay shouldn’t work, but it does: “And the old excellence one used to know / Of the chased-down fox bleeding its stink across the snow.” Consumed steadily over the course of a couple of weeks, Ooga-Booga reveals itself as a cohesive, almost novelistic statement about death, sex, wealth, motorcycles, and geopolitics. (And doesn’t that about sum it up?) I’m torn between the trenchant short poems and the long, visionary ones, like “Barbados” and “The Bush Administration.” Against the latter, one might say that elegy gets done to death these days. But when has it ever been so savage, or so full of joy?
Tonight’s installment of the Pacific Standard Fiction Series here in Brooklyn features two Millions favorites: Paul Beatty, author of Slumberland and The White-Boy Shuffle, and Matthew Sharpe, author of Jamestown and The Sleeping Father. Books will be for sale on-site, and drink specials will be chosen by dartboard. The reading starts at 7 p.m. at Pacific Standard. Hope to see you there!Bonus link: Matthew Sharpe’s “Year in Reading” 2007