Lately I’ve found myself collecting short non-fiction books. Collecting makes it sound grandiose, but my stash of 30 or so volumes is smaller in aggregate than a breadbox. It’s also been less intentional than the word “collecting” implies: The books seem to turn up of their own accord like stray kittens or spare socks, orphaned except for the company of their own kind. Each one on its own might not amount to much, but together they comprise a highly portable compendium of human knowledge.
Monographs are in style, from Ben Lerner’s The Hatred of Poetry to Kristin Dombek’s The Selfishness of Others and Edwidge Danticat’s The Art of Death, all presenting critical, topical investigations driven by the wry voices of their authors. The format can be a venue for public discourse on pressing issues, too, as in Valeria Luiselli’s Tell Me How It Ends, a harrowing first-person look into the immigration system, or Eula Biss’s On Immunity, with its eloquent delineation of vaccines. Brian Dillon’s Essayism, however, is the ultimate literary ouroboros: a book-length essay on essayists.
The short book can also be a container for the self without the self-aggrandizement of a full memoir. Rivka Galchen’s Little Labors and Gregor Hens’s Nicotine both fit here, as does the Italian translator Franco Nasi’s lovely pamphlet about living in the United States, Translator’s Blues. Sarah Manguso’s Ongoingness and 300 Arguments likewise offer only slantwise glimpses of the author through aphoristic fragments sharp as darts. It’s easy to recognize yourself in them: A friend memorably described the latter as “subtweets about your life.”
The Twitter connection is apropos, since social media has contributed to our sense of a depleted attention span. Is the short book popular because we just can’t handle more than 150 pages anymore? The form does thrive in tweets and Instagrams as intellectual plumage. It’s easy to finish them, and thus easier to brag about having read them. “They come already compressed,” Christine Smallwood observed of the trend in T Magazine. “You will learn something, for sure, but not more than you can handle.”
But this gloss gives short books short shrift. Short books are not narratives, but devices: instead of the telescope of a long novel or history tome, they are a pair of sunglasses, allowing you to see the world, briefly and temporarily, in a different shade. Most mornings, I look at the stack on my shelf, a rainbow of thin spines, and pick a few to carry with me—to a cafe, on the subway, to my office. Like choosing an outfit, the books both express and influence how I feel that day.
Say the mood is colorful. Here you have options, because a single color is the perfect subject for a short book. In Bluets, Maggie Nelson can tell you about blue, and patches of blue outside seem to glow with new meaning. Alain Badiou’s Black offers the semiotics of that “non-color,” shot through with his own memories of (literally) dark moments: as a child playing in an unlit room or camping out in the French military. Kenya Hara, a Japanese designer, meditates on the emptiness of white in White; Han Kang has her own version coming up with The White Book.
Each of these volumes frees its mates of the burden of being comprehensive: The short book doesn’t need to pretend that it’s the only object a reader has at hand. Instead, they are entries in a collective lexicon, a library you can take with you.
For a bracing blast of postmodern ennui, pick up the architect Rem Koolhaas’s Junkspace with Running Room, an aria to the endlessness of 21st-century detritus: “The aesthetic is Byzantine, gorgeous and dark, splintered into thousands of shards, all visible at the same time.” Or you could carry Walter Benjamin’s The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, 38 pages that upend the world: “The instant the criterion of genuineness in art production failed, the entire social function of art underwent an upheaval.” Or George W.S. Trow’s Within the Context of No Context, a fractured 1981 diagnosis of the impact of mass media on American identity: “Comfort failed. Who would have thought that it could fail?”
These contain potent medicine (or poison, I sometimes think), and it’s a relief that each ends before too long, though still long enough to change your life. Like a pill, their form is always inextricable from their content, just right for proper delivery of the drug within.
The short book demonstrates ways in which to live, but rather than self-help’s prescriptive explanations, it is content to evoke possibilities. The Swiss writer Fleur Jaeggy’s aptly titled These Possible Lives gives prismatic recitations of the biographies of Thomas De Quincey, John Keats, and Marcel Schwob, reducing what could be thousands of pages into a scant 60 of hallucinatory description. Shawn Wen’s A Twenty Minute Silence Followed by Applause sketches an impressionistic biography of Marcel Marceau, a famed French mime. I like the book’s voyeurism into the peculiar life, but also observing the challenge—and Wen’s success—of describing in words Marceau’s absence thereof. (The short book is also great for writer’s block.)
The paragon of the short-book form, for my taste, is In Praise of Shadows by the Japanese novelist Jun’ichirō Tanizaki. In the 42-page essay first published in 1933, Tanizaki contrasts the Japanese appreciation of darkness—the dim of rice-paper windows, candle lanterns, and black lacquered dishes—with the Westerner’s “quest for a brighter light:” electric lamps, glass windows, and white porcelain. The book’s brevity is synecdochic: It contains the world, from Noh drama to Albert Einstein, “murmuring soup,” the difficulties of building a house, an obscure local recipe for sushi, and what the author perceived as the roots of Japanese identity.
Tanizaki persistently reminds readers that the essay is merely his vision, a personal worldview as an elderly novelist perhaps more at home in the previous century than his present. He claims no authority. Yet his ambition is grand, to preserve in writing that particular lens so that it might be experienced by others: “I would call back at least for literature this world of shadows we are losing,” he writes in the book’s final paragraph. Every time I open it, the patches of shade around me are briefly illuminated by Tanizaki’s prose.
I Instagrammed In Praise of Shadows so many times that friends asked how long I was taking to finish it. Rather than some kind of brag, I just liked how it looked—it was fun to put a monochrome book about darkness in patches of bright sunlight, a visual pun. But getting to the end of a short book isn’t the point. It’s about rereading, mulling, flipping it open to see what you find, turning it over like a coin in your pocket.
Tanizaki’s essay accomplishes the highest criteria I have for any book, short or long, which is that it offers an alternative aesthetic imaginary, a toolset to reconstruct the world in real time. Its voice sneaks into your head. And its format makes it convenient to keep hidden away in my bag, with me at all times.
Image credit: Unsplash/Duc Ly.
Corporate entities and media conglomerates have historically tended to take me for their target demographic. Representation? I’m a straight white man: I could be Walter White one day, Louis C.K. the next, and any Avenger I wanted (Tony Stark, obviously). “Everyone listens to me!” I could declaim, like Homer Simpson opening a can of Nuts and Gum.
Then my wife and I became parents, and I became a stay-at-home dad. Suddenly popular culture wasn’t an endless hall of mirrors, reflecting most superficial aspects of my life and circumstances back at me.
I had better luck when I turned to books. A number of writers were dwelling on parenthood and the seemingly impossible demands it made of artistic practice. But all of these writers were women. (There was one major exception, of course, which I’ll get to later.) Their subject wasn’t parenthood in a gender-neutral sense, but rather motherhood, an all-encompassing identity if ever there was one.
The wisdom in these books and related commentary seems to be that the roles of mother and writer are inherently in conflict. Give attention to your child and your writing suffers; give attention to your writing and your child pounds on the door of your office like the SWAT team. A feature article in New York magazine’s The Cut examined this conflict at length; Kim Brooks surveyed these books while detailing her own struggles to finish her manuscript while cutting up apple slices. She dubbed this subgenre “the literature of domestic ambivalence,” and its paradigmatic example was Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation. Brooks comes across this book, appropriately enough, in the bedroom. She writes:
I first became aware of it lying beside my husband one night, our kids sleeping after the usual protracted battle. He was reading a slim book with an attractive cover. He read the last page, closed it, and extended it toward me. “Read this,” he said. “Read it now.” The book was Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation, and I read it in a single gulp, loving it for the oldest and silliest reason a reader can love a book, because I saw myself on the page, heard my own, unarticulated angst in the voice.
She goes on to read many more works in this vein—sister books, you could say—including Eula Biss’s On Immunity, Sarah Manguso’s Ongoingness, and Elisa Albert’s After Birth. You’ll notice that Brooks collects both fiction and nonfiction under this heading; Dept of Speculation is a novel related in aphoristic bursts, On Immunity is a book-length essay about vaccination and the demands of modern society. A body of literature about individual women performing multiple, even contradictory roles has the happy result of producing books that pick and choose from a wide breadth of styles and techniques, genre boundaries be damned.
I read these books and thrilled to the descriptions of quotidian tasks. Lyrical paragraphs about changing diapers! Ethnographic studies of playground moms! But there was a running theme in nearly all of these books that didn’t quite translate into my own experience. And no, it wasn’t breastfeeding. I used a bottle to feed my kids, sure, but I still recognized the semi-conscious state one falls into during that 3 a.m. feeding. What I didn’t experience was precisely that sense of domestic ambivalence, the conflict between the roles of artist and caregiver. This isn’t to say that writing while parenting is all paychecks and playdates. Far from it! I have two children under the age of five, and on a not-infrequent basis will I retreat to the kitchen, closing the childproof gate behind me, to get a few minutes’ peace and check Twitter while they watch Peppa Pig.
But for me, this struggle is an issue of resources more than identity. If only my kids napped more like when they were younger, or if only we had more money to afford a babysitter or daycare, then I could write more pages per day and feed my kids something other than peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Rather then being two states in opposition, I’ve found that domestic and artistic life have many parallels. Both involve shuffling around the house in sweatpants while accomplishing minor tasks: write a paragraph here, read Curious George there. Unlike Offill’s conception of the “art monster,” I discovered that the transcendent and the mundane make good partners.
Is my male privilege showing yet? “Wow, sir, congratulations on navigating the demands of art and life! You must be the first person in recorded history ever to accomplish such an apparently insurmountable task!” Yes, I get it. Women have been maintaining this balance for centuries before I came along. I think that this disconnect of mine says something about the nature of contemporary parenthood, and how expectations differ depending on who does it.
Back when my oldest child was first born, I experienced a burst of creative energy. I finished work that had stalled before I was a father; I did research for future projects. I wrote a complete rough draft of a novel in a couple months, then I went back and rewrote it again in a couple more months, and again, and again. In my first year as a father, I wrote more than I had in the previous five. I chalked this up to what I called the American Idol effect. Every season on the show, there was at least one contestant, if not multiple ones, who claimed that they were competing on their children’s behalf, to demonstrate that anything was possible, they should always follow their dreams, #staypositive. Supremely corny, yes, but if that’s where my motivation was coming from, I wasn’t going to question it.
After a while, I grew convinced that I was able to experience that creative burst because I had chosen, consciously and deliberately, to be a stay-at-home father. Granted, it wasn’t a terribly difficult decision to make. My wife earned more than I did, and had health insurance to boot. Still, it didn’t feel like I was backed into a corner. Conversely, my wife feels that the decision to continue working has been, in some sense, made for her, as she has to provide for our family. There’s a structural conflict to her side of our domestic arrangement, sometimes making her feel that she’s doing what she has to do while I, more or less, am doing what I chose to do. Not to say that she’s unhappy with the arrangement; raising a family together has shown us that she’s more comfortable going to work and earning an income, while I’m more comfortable staying home. But the mere fact that I’ve assumed an unconventional domestic role further demonstrates that it’s a choice I made for myself. It’s one that seems to work, too. Once my daughter started sleeping through the night (at six weeks—yes, I did win the lottery on that one), I was able to establish a routine that allowed me to write for a few hours every day while still keeping her alive. Work, family, a reasonable balance between the two: it’s what I want out of life, honestly.
My experience ran directly counter to much of Domestic Ambivalence Lit. The mothers writing these books often felt like the choice to care for their children wasn’t a choice at all, but an imposition foisted on them by the one-two punch of society and biology. This is, of course, one of the central struggles of modern feminism. Even if you can manage to assert yourself in a patriarchal culture and make an actual choice, is it the right one?
Related, and perhaps even more salient, is the fact that it’s easier to be a stay-at-home dad than it is to be a stay-at-home mom. Not in the terms of the workload, mind you. I change as many diapers and weather as many tantrums as any mother. The biggest difference, to put it bluntly, is guilt. On a day-to-day basis, I would imagine that I experience significantly less guilt about my abilities as a caregiver than my female counterparts. Are the kids alive? Yes? Then I’m doing fine. And I’m not the only one grading myself on a curve. When I go the library, when I go to the grocery store, I am greeted with beatific smiles and congratulatory nods. Behold the stay-at-home dad, savior of civilized society!
This asymmetry often means that I’m reading about the same mundane events that make up my life at the moment without sharing some of the underlying emotions. It’s an unusual experience, like reading a Wikipedia summary of a movie without ever watching the movie itself. Probably this contributed to the fact that my favorite entry in this subgenre is Little Labors by Rivka Galchen, a short book of short entries, some no longer than a sentence, whose central emotion isn’t guilt, but wonder. Staying home with my kids, in my experience, consists of long stretches of tedium and stress, punctuated by occasional moments of transcendence and general oneness of the universe. Galchen somehow resides in those moments while letting the stresses recede into the background, a trait that would make me resentful if her book weren’t so good.
Still, Galchen’s book touches on the theme of the role of caregiver being imposed on those who practice it, rather than choosing it. Nor is this ambivalence new; writers of various commitments to feminist ideals have been examining it for years, from Grace Paley and Tillie Olsen in the 1970s, all the way back to Virginia Woolf, the godmother of Domestic Ambivalence. There’s a history to this sensibility, and I never considered myself a part of it.
This is why I haven’t written about stay-at-home fatherhood until this essay. All those drafts I wrote when I first became a father had nothing to do with being a father. Even trying to write this short piece is difficult, and it’s because there are few models for how to depict these experiences.
“But Adam,” I hear you think. “What about celebrated Norwegian novelist Karl Ove Knausgaard? He writes about the quotidian nature of fatherhood at great, some would say unreadable, length!” Indeed he does! I confess to you that, after multiple attempts, I simply haven’t been able to find my footing in My Struggle. I suspect it’s a structural issue. Part of what I enjoy about the Domestic Ambivalence works is their fragmentary nature. They are, almost without exception, short books made up of small parts. For me, the chamber music approach gets closer at depicting the realities of staying home with kids than Knausgaard’s opera-cycle tactic. Plus, reading about his reliance on Norway’s free, state-mandated childcare simply makes me jealous.
So where do I look for models? I’ve found one in an unusual place.
Don DeLillo is one of my favorite writers. The gnomic pronouncements on technology, the pervasive paranoia, the verbose yet affectless dialogue: I love all of it. But there’s an aspect to his work that receives less attention than the postmodern pyrotechnics, and it is that he is a poet of the domestic sphere. For all the schemata of late capitalist information networks in his work, the characters themselves are frequently confined to isolated, cramped spaces. “Men in small rooms,” goes the refrain from Libra, his novel about Lee Harvey Oswald and the Kennedy assassination. History is made by men sitting in small rooms, waiting for the opportunity to assert themselves on the public consciousness. A number of his works feature little more than a few characters in a confined domestic setting. Great Jones Street finds rock star Bucky Wunderlick holed up in a small apartment in Lower Manhattan, staring at an unplugged phone and meditating on fame. The Body Artist tracks performance artist Lauren Hartke as she wanders around her home following the death of her husband. Perhaps most germane, Mao II gives us Bill Gray, a blocked writer who sits at his desk all day, blowing his nose and accumulating drafts. Much like a parent, you could say.
This thread running through DeLillo’s work testifies to his belief that a small, single room can function as a node where one can plug into the larger forces of economics, history, and technology. Where did this computer come from? How does it change the room in which it sits, and how does it change me? These are the kinds of thoughts that cross my mind during the lulls that sometimes occur during the course of the day, when my kids are thankfully quiet for a few moments and I can let myself think. If there’s a model for how to write about the experience of a stay-at-home father, I could do worse than choosing this one.
But maybe I’m kidding myself. I’m a man performing a role that gets coded as feminine, and I might be assuaging my insecurities about occupying such a marginalized position by spinning elaborate fantasies of masculine intellect and profundity. Housewives in the 1950s had soap operas and sleeping pills; I have my college reading list.
But maybe doubting the validity of my own perspective is the quintessential problem of the stay-at-home parent, one that mothers have struggled with for ages—precisely the sort of trap that I shouldn’t fall into. Trust your instincts: good advice for writers and caregivers both.
Image Credit: Jin.Dongjun.
Working in a bookshop every day, seeing much-anticipated new releases being freshly unpacked and incredible vintage paperbacks that have wound their ways onto our shelves, it’s almost impossible not to slip a book into my pocket on the way out each evening.
Once home, the competition begins. Do I continue with last night’s novel, Feeding Time by fellow Parisian Adam Biles, a dazzling work on the dismal decay, and humour, of old age? “Everyone lied, and everyone knew they were being lied to, and yet lying and being lied to was preferable to the truth.” Or shall it be Henry Marsh’s Do No Harm, an engrossing exploration of neuroscience? “That memories, dreams, and reflections should consist of jelly is simply too strange to understand.” Marsh’s book was recommended to me by the featured writer at last night’s shop event, the charming Philippe Sands, author of East West Street, a compelling journey into the origins of the terms “crimes against humanity” and “genocide,” all told alongside his own fascinating family history.
There’s a pile next to my bed of the books I’ve recently finished and been recommending to friends. Animal by Sara Pascoe is a hilarious, enlightening account on what it is to be a woman today. Jo Marchant’s Cure explores the use of hypnosis to avoid pain — I was especially intrigued to learn we’re now relying more than ever on medical pain relievers that are, reportedly, starting to work less effectively on us. I gave a copy to my doctor who often seems amused by my recommendations. Tribe by Sebastian Junger, a timely exploration, convincingly argues for unison rather than division in society, underscoring our shared humanity: “Our fundamental desire, as human beings, is to be close to others, and our society does not allow for that” and yet “Intact communities are far more likely to survive than fragmented ones.” Janine Di Giovanni’s The Morning They Came for Us is also essential reading for this tumultuous time, offering important insight into Syria: “What you yearn for more than anything is for the ordinary to return. The simple pleasure of going to a shop to buy apples.”
A day without poetry is a sad one so, in the morning, I pick a page at random from the rather erotic Dirty Pretty Things by Michael Faudet, which a friend told me had marked her significantly: “two drowning lovers lost at sea, my lips adrift in yours.” One of the booksellers I work with is a huge Elena Ferrante fan (who isn’t, really?) and lent me the slim and shocking The Lost Daughter. Just seeing its spine here on the shelf reminds me of the story’s cold ending, a slap in the face. It sits next to Leo Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich, in a lovely vintage edition, which I thought wouldn’t keep me up all night, but did. It haunts me still.
I finish the last pages of Flâneuse before leaving to flâne around Paris with its author, Lauren Elkin, hats slid down over our foreheads Jean Rhys-style: “Traces of the past city are, somehow, traces of the selves we might once have been.” I’m looking forward also to finishing Zadie Smith’s addictive Swing Time and Ali Smith’s Autumn, which sits on my dresser, a leaf stuck between its pages: “How many worlds can you hold in a hand. In a handful of sand.” After, I plan to reread a chapter from Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City, an engrossing book on artists and loneliness: ”What does it feel like to be lonely? It feels like being hungry: like being hungry when everyone around you is readying for a feast.”
My continual search for intelligent writing on motherhood was most recently satisfied by Rivka Galchen’s Little Labors:
I had imagined that I was going to meet, at birth, a very sophisticated form of plant life, a form that I would daily deliver to an offsite greenhouse; I would look forward to getting to know the life-form properly later, when she had moved into a sentient kingdom, maybe around age three. But instead, within hours of being born, the being—perhaps through chemicals the emotional-vision equivalent of smoke machines — appeared to me not like a plant at all, but instead like something much more powerfully moving than just another human being, she had appeared as an animal, a previously undiscovered old-world monkey, but one with whom I could communicate deeply: it was an unsettling, intoxicating, against-nature feeling. A feeling that felt like black magic.
In the evening, the chill from the walk home still on my fingertips, I smell the mulled wine brewing in the kitchen as I prepare to nestle in with Jeanette Winterson’s Christmas Days: 12 Stories and 12 Feasts for 12 Days. “Stories round the fire at Christmas, or told with frosty breath on a wintry walk, have a magic and a mystery that is part of the season.”
Tomorrow there will be more titles in which to indulge my curiosity, to expand into other worlds, to seek for answers, to delve into the imagination.
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“Literature has more dogs than babies,” Rivka Galchen writes in Little Labors, “and also more abortions.”
Put like that, the observation is startling. And though the babies are definitely out there — Galchen finds them in Beloved, The Millstone, A Personal Matter, The Fifth Child, and Dept. of Speculation for starters — the search seems to leave her (playfully) grasping at straws. Perhaps Frankenstein’s monster is her favorite fictional baby, Galchen cheekily suggests. Perhaps Rumpelstiltskin is the metaphoric firstborn of the fairy tale, and his hijinks are merely sad attempts to gain his surrogate mother’s attention.
From my own bookshelf I’ll add to the list Rachel Cusk’s A Life’s Work, a vicious and spry chronicle of her daughter’s first year. Ernest Hemingway’s “Indian Camp” features a baby of sorts. (Though one centimeter over is “Hills like White Elephants,” in which there will soon be an abortion.) Trials of parenting, once a child has achieved a certain age, give us highs of tenderness and brushstrokes of true cruelty. See Mrs. Ramsey winding her shawl around a fright-giving pig skull in To the Lighthouse; or Jason’s attempts to corral his mutinous niece in The Sound and the Fury.
And yet between courtship and marriage, or between the searchings of early adulthood and the intrigues of family life, literature seems to draw a two-year blank. A survey of 1,000 novels might produce nuanced portraits of extramarital affairs, or descriptions of all-night benders, but scant answer to the questions: Where do people come from? Under what circumstances are we born?
Why the omission?
Galchen isn’t sure. Thankfully not. Her investigations shoot off from her subject like finely-pointed spokes from a hub. The book’s split-up structure fits her purpose well. On the one hand you can occasionally imagine these short chapters as the immediate and authentic jotting-downs of a new mother reporting from the front. (For instance, Galchen on iPhone videos of her daughter, a.k.a. the puma: “footage of the puma has the unfortunate quality of making it seem as if the puma has passed away and the watcher, me, is condemned to replaying the same scene again and again and again.”) On the other hand, the book’s loose form also gives room to Galchen’s commendable analytical mind. Here, as in her novel, Atmospheric Disturbances, she is the type of writer who can show you in an outstretched arm one view of a sphere, then spin her subject in hand, and show you something quite different.
Unifying these chapters is a low-wattage but steadily glowing anxiety: that babies are not a subject of literature because babies are not interesting. To their parents and families in real life, yes, but not in general, not as a surface that will for the writer yield fruitful depths. Before she was a mother herself, Galchen confesses a nose-in-the-air dismissiveness toward a subject so patently and traditionally female. And her aloofness, she admits, didn’t stop at just babies: the authors she liked were all men (including Denis Johnson, whom she mistook for a French woman during an attempt to diversify her reading.) Two people with otherwise equal qualities would differentiate by gender: the man inevitably more magnetic in the pair. As for babies? The way Galchen tells it, you’d think it a prerequisite of youthful intellectualism to fall asleep at the mere mention of the word: God help you if you cared to go into particulars. Or put those particulars into writing.
But Galchen knows that’s not the whole story. Only recently have women begun writing with equal output of men, and with equal education to back them up. Only very recently have writers who are also women and also mothers had any significant spousal or institutional support to continue their work with children at home. Karl Ove Knausgård, for instance, whose influence is apparent in passages, manages to write about children’s birthday parties, his wife’s labor, a child’s real-time soiling of a diaper, in a way that makes those moments tremble with cosmic meaning. (Of course in Knausgård everything trembles with cosmic meaning.) Perhaps, though, the subject matter isn’t really the problem. Perhaps the problem is that while you are taking care of a baby you often don’t have time to write about taking care of a baby. Or as Galchen describes life with a newborn:
The world seemed ludicrously, suspiciously, adverbially sodden with meaning. Which is to say that the puma made me again more like a writer (or at least a certain kind of writer) precisely as she was making me into someone who was, enduringly, not writing.
And it isn’t just time that’s the problem. Despite the fertile ground that Galchen describes — and which other new parents must certainly feel — it seems remarkably difficult to see past the “dull” label that has been affixed to infant heads. And no wonder, given a literary tradition in which an erection can boast an established history of metaphoric usage, while a menstrual cycle, for instance — with exceptions such as in Elena Ferrante’s Troubling Love — is a detail that writers habitually leave out with trips to the bathroom and the buzzing of morning alarms.
Galchen, though, breathes decided life into her topic. And her writing is so good that her observations double as arguments for her choice of subject. Take, for example, this passage on a baby’s seemingly metaphysical essence:
We know babies are the only ones among us in alliance with time. They are the only incontestable assessors to power, or, at least, they are immeasurably more well-placed than their elder co-unequals. The way a baby, in a stroller, briefly resembles a fat potentate, for a moment unlovable, has something in it of the premonition. Even as to see a baby raise its chubby hand — to bow down before that random emperor can feel very right.
Or consider this, a comment on a baby’s loss of intrigue with the acquisition of language:
It’s as if babies don’t grow larger but instead smaller, at least in our perception. It’s striking that in the canonical Gospels, we meet Jesus as a baby and as an adult, but as a child and teenager, he is unserviceable.
There are a few places in this book where the writing does make a dangerous shift from brightly analytical to willfully cryptic (e.g., an unnecessarily complex description of a movie poster and its surrounding geography.) But that is rare. In Little Labors Galchen is recognizably the writer of the masterful short story, “The Lost Order.” Language like “random emperor” and “unserviceable” are the brilliant norm.
In interviews, Galchen has cited Sei Shōnagon’s 11th-century The Pillow Book as an influence for her work’s fragmented and miscellanea-driven structure. Shōnagon’s text gets room here, in summary form, if not thanks to what it offers on motherhood than as good evidence for the artistic worth of daily domestic life. (If an empresses’s court indeed counts as daily domestic life.) But Little Labors might be too tightly wrought, too self-conscious to really call back the flowing, pure diary feel of that book. Observations here more frequently have the ring of Susan Sontag or William Vollmann than dashed-off notes-to-self. And even the vivid glimpses of quotidian life with a child — the comments provoked by a trendy orange snowsuit, the comical tribulations involved in obtaining a passport photo for an infant, a child’s eerily suspicious fall among playmates — give the cumulative effect of toes cautiously dipped into water. Does this count as literature? the book seems to be asking itself. And this?
The result is that this quietly revolutionary little book is extremely difficult to qualify. I found myself thinking of it as a metanarrative on the genre of parenting novels: a genre, in other words, that does not yet fully exist. That is not Galchen’s fault; nor does it detract from the book. The way she writes, you feel she is onto something, as if she were peering down a long pathway of New Yorker issues to a literature ahead.
Little Labors ends as inconspicuously as it began. The child’s grandmother totes her to a senior dinner at their synagogue, where the child charms the crowd, “carrying her winter pants here and there, offering them to diners, rescinding the offer.” Couldn’t you charge $1,000 a day to bring a baby to a nursing home? the grandmother jokes afterwards. Couldn’t a family charge 20 bucks an hour to babysitters, adds the father, for the privilege of being with the baby? “Everything they said was true,” Galchen concludes, “and yet also, we know, not the case.”
Given what’s come before, it’s nearly impossible not to read this final note as a mordant analogy to the ambivalent place that the baby occupies in literature at large. After all, if novels are investigations into the workings of human existence — shouldn’t a baby, and a baby’s arrival, provide a useful key? Isn’t a baby a good place to start? In life, in literature, to borrow Galchen’s phrase, a baby should be a goldmine. And yet we know it is not the case.
Out this week: Labor of Love by Moira Weigel; Little Labors by Rivka Galchen; Unforbidden Pleasures by Adam Phillips; Joe Gould’s Teeth by Jill Lepore; Letters to Kevin by Stephen Dixon; and The Fat Artist and Other Stories by Benjamin Hale. For more on these and other new titles, go read our Great 2016 Book Preview.
Last week, we previewed 93 works of fiction due out in the first half of 2016. Today, we follow up with 45 nonfiction titles coming out in the next six months, ranging from a new biography of the late Leonard Nimoy by his Star Trek crewmate William Shatner to a book-length essay on art, modernity, and the city by Olivia Laing to a pair of new studies looking at the legacy of the 1960s-era War on Poverty. Along the way, we profile hotly anticipated titles by Jhumpa Lahiri, Annie Dillard, Tama Janowitz, Thomas Piketty, Roxane Gay, and many more.
Set aside some space on those bookshelves, Millions readers. This is looking to be a very, very good year for nonfiction.
Eternity Street by John Mack Faragher: Long before The Big Sleep or Boyz N the Hood, Los Angeles was a lawless, violent city better known for its murder rate than for its orange groves. Faragher, a Yale historian, follows L.A.’s tumultous rise from its origins as a small Mexican pueblo at the edge of the loosely governed frontier in the 19th century. “[T]here is no country where human life is of so little account,” one Angeleno wrote in 1853. “Men hack one another to pieces with pistols and other cutlery as if God’s image were of no more worth than the life of one of the two or three thousand ownerless dogs that prowl about our streets and make night hideous.” (Michael)
The Narrow Door by Paul Lisicky: A memoir of two long-term friendships, one with a woman novelist and the other with Lisicky’s ex-husband, a poet. Written in a collaged and non-linear way, it’s an honest and fierce examination of the ways that platonic and romantic loves inform one another — and how their losses devastate in equal measure. (Hannah)
Why the Right Went Wrong by E.J. Dionne Jr.: A syndicated columnist and NPR commentator, Dionne is a pundit for people who hate pundits: lucid, funny, ideologically coherent without being rigid. Here, he argues that today’s radical conservatism is rooted not in Tea Party opposition to Obamacare but much further back in history with the Republican Party’s choice of Barry Goldwater for president in 1964. (Michael)
Leonard by William Shatner, with David Fisher: Anyone with fond memories of the original Star Trek has to be rooting for this book to be good. With his music and photography, Leonard Nimoy always came off as a fascinating, multi-faceted man. Shatner, on the other hand, often came off as a serious cheeseball. Wouldn’t it be marvelous to learn that, beneath the bluster and bad acting, Shatner is a sensitive and observant friend and biographer? (Michael)
In Other Words by Jhumpa Lahiri: New Yorker readers got a sneak preview of this beguiling memoir of Lahiri’s struggle to learn Italian, a language she found herself drawn to for mysterious reasons. Written in Italian and translated by Ann Goldstein (who also translated the Elena Ferrante novels), Lahiri explores what it means to think and write in another language, and how a new language can give a writer a new voice. (Hannah)
Pandemic by Sonia Shah: Beware germophobes! This book may stoke your fears as Shah describes how vibro cholerae, a marine bacteria in the Bay of Bengal, caused a global outbreak of cholera in the late-19th century. Shah draws parallels between the technological advancements that allowed cholera to spread (steamships, canals, urbanization) with today’s rapid globalization, reporting on modern pathogens found all over the world. (Hannah)
The Immortal Irishman by Timothy Egan: At the height of the Great Famine of the 1840s, the hero of Egan’s new book, Thomas Meagher, led a failed uprising against British rule, for which he was banished to a Tasmanian prison colony. He promptly escaped and turned up in America, where he led the New York-based Irish Brigade in some of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War and later won a post as territorial governor of Montana. A Pulitzer-winning New York Times reporter and columnist, Egan is the author of The Worst Hard Time, about America in the Dustbowl years, which won a National Book Award. (Michael)
All the Single Ladies by Rebecca Traister: Despite what De Beers would have you think, only 20 percent of American women are married by age 29, a startling demographic shift that Traister examines in this group portrait of America’s female singletons. Based on interviews with academics, social scientists, and, of course, single ladies, this book shows how unmarried women have historically brought about great social change — and will continue to do so in the future. (Hannah)
Seven Brief Lessons on Physics by Carlo Rovelli: The title says it all. This 78-page primer was a bestseller in Italy, and came from a series of popular newspaper articles. It’s written to be accessible and to appeal to the imagination of the liberal arts major — as opposed to aspiring physicists already well versed in the theory of relativity. In writing for a general audience, Rovelli highlights the beauty of theories of gravity, time, and consciousness. (Hannah)
The Lonely City by Olivia Laing: This booklength essay offers an alert and moving exploration of art, anonymity, and modernity as they collide in that great crucible: the city. As in her first book, The Trip to Echo Spring, Laing deftly blends memoir and criticism; the chapters on David Wojnarowicz and Henry Darger, in particular, are not to be missed. (Garth)
The Abundance by Annie Dillard: Forty-two years after Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (which netted the author a nonfiction Pulitzer at the age of 29), Dillard has chosen both old and new essays to fill out her latest collection. In the older pieces corner, “Total Eclipse” exemplifies the author’s naturalistic bent, while “This Is the Life” adds her voice to the 9/11 canon. In the younger pieces corner, she follows a teenager memorizing Arthur Rimbaud, as well as a man who takes a snowball fight a little too seriously. Geoff Dyer provides the foreword. (Thom)
The Civil Wars of Julia Ward Howe by Elaine Showalter: Best known as the author of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” Howe was a prominent abolitionist and an early feminist who campaigned for women’s rights and social reform. This new biography focuses on her unhappy marriage and lack of independence from her husband, a private life at odds with her public achievements. (Hannah)
Charlotte Brontë by Claire Harman: Arriving just in time for Charlotte Brontë’s 200th birthday, this biography will speak to those already familiar with her life story as well as those who have never read a word of her novels. This isn’t the first or last biography we’ll have of Brontë, but according to advance reviews from across the pond, it may be the most novelistic. Harman brings a storyteller’s finesse as she synthesizes decades of research and scholarship, and a realist’s eye to some of the more romantic Brontë myths. (Hannah)
Heads by Jesse Jarnow: Subtitled “A Biography of Psychedelic America,” this new history suggests that psychedelic drugs and the Grateful Dead form a “secret American through-line between the 1950s and the present.” Jarnow, a Brooklyn-based musician and music journalist, uses the history of the legendary jam band and its loyal followers to explore an alternative America packed with “utopian homesteaders and self-taught black market chemists, spiritual seekers and pranksters, graffiti artists and government-wanted hackers, entrepreneurs and pioneering DJs.” (Michael)
Girls & Sex by Peggy Orenstein: The author of Cinderella Ate My Daughter delves into the adolescent years, taking a look at a subject that most parents prefer to turn a blind eye to: the sex lives of teenage girls. Drawing on extensive interviews with young women, Orenstein explores the effects of pornography and social media on a new generation’s sexual coming of age. (Hannah)
The Gunning of America by Pamela Haag: “God, guts, and guns made America free,” goes the old line. This revisionist history by the author of Marriage Confidential begs to differ. Drawing on documents from the archives of the Winchester and Colt companies, Haag shows how the gun industry, not freedom-loving anti-colonialists and frontiersmen, sowed the seeds of the bond between Americans and their firearms. (Michael)
All Tomorrow’s Parties by Rob Spillman: A memoir from the founder of Tin House, who was born in Berlin and grew up among West Berlin artists and intellectuals, the son of two musician parents. As a young adult, Spillman made his way to literary New York, only to return to Germany in his mid-20s after the fall of the Berlin Wall. As much a travelogue as a memoir, Spillman portrays the changing cultural landscape of Berlin while documenting his own coming of age and search for a place to call home. (Hannah)
One-Man Band by Simon Callow: This is the third volume of Callow’s four-volume biography of the great American icon and enigma, Orson Welles. In this volume, which covers the years 1947 to 1964, Callow tracks Welles’s self-exile from the United States when he produced some of his most lasting work, including Touch of Evil. Watch the video of Welles slurring his lines in a late Paul Masson wine commercial, then read Callow’s bio to be reminded why this is so sad. (Michael)
67 Shots by Howard Means: For many Americans, the 1960s ended on May 4, 1970, when a National Guard troop fired 67 bullets into a peaceful crowd of Vietnam War protestors at Kent State University, killing four and injuring nine others. Means uses recently compiled oral histories to piece together the inside story of the campus tragedy that sounded the final death knell for popular support for the war in Vietnam. (Michael)
Why Save the Bankers? by Thomas Piketty: Remember when everyone was obligated to pretend to have read Piketty’s 700-page tome Capital in the Twenty-First Century? Now, the wise folks at Houghton Mifflin have produced a Piketty for the proletariat, compiling eight years of the economist’s columns written for the French magazine Libération. The book begins in September 2008 just after the collapse of Lehman Brothers and takes readers through the aftermath of the crisis that followed, offering Pikettian analysis of the Obama presidency and the European Union’s debt woes. (Michael)
CRUSH edited by Cathy Alter and Dave Singleton: An anthology of essays about formative celebrity crushes from the likes of Stephen King, Jodi Picoult, Roxane Gay, James Franco, Emily Gould, and more. Swoon-worthy subjects include Jared Leto, River Phoenix, Mary Tyler Moore, Paul Newman, and of course, Donny Osmond. It’s hard to resist a book that’s having this much fun with its subject. (Hannah)
True Crimes by Kathryn Harrison: An essay collection from the author of the memoirs The Kiss and The Mother Knot. Written over the course of 10 years, these personal essays are about the author’s family: her parents, her children, her in-laws, and even her dog. Katie Roiphe describes the collection as “the most honest family album ever.” (Hannah)
We Are As Gods by Kate Daloz: In the early 1970s, as war raged in the jungles of Vietnam and in the streets of America’s cities, millions of baby boomers headed for the hills in search of rural authenticity. Shunning life in America’s “plastic” suburbs, these back-to-the-landers built geodesic domes and formed non-traditional families to populate them. Daloz, herself a child of former Peace Corps volunteers who decamped to Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom, focuses on a small group of communards who struggle to hold fast to their high-minded ideals as they endure brutal Northern winters without indoor plumbing or electricity — and, some might argue, basic common sense. (Michael)
The Midnight Assassin by Skip Hollandsworth: Those who like their true-crime leavened with historical insight may want to take a look at this tale of “America’s first serial killer” who terrorized frontier Austin, Texas, in the 1880s. Hollandsworth, executive editor of Texas Monthly, chronicles the hunt for a vicious murderer who attacked women with axes, knives, and even steel rods. “Skip Hollandsworth has a bloodhound’s nose for a great tale,” writes Hampton Sides, author of Ghost Soldiers. “Through scrupulous research and a finely tuned sense of the gothic, Hollandsworth has brought this Texas-sized true-crime story, more than a century old, to vivid, chilling life on the page.” (Michael)
Kill ‘Em and Leave by James McBride: A biography of James Brown, one of the great musical artists of the 20th century and among the most influential. McBride, who is a musician as well as the award-winning author of The Color of Water and The Good Lord Bird, is the perfect biographer for Brown, finding universal American themes in the musician’s life story: the divide between the North and South, rich and poor, and black and white. McBride also delves into the legal battles over Brown’s estate, a subject that sounds so complicated and epic that it could probably warrant its own book. (Hannah)
Pretentiousness by Dan Fox: In this book-length essay, art critic Fox wants to make an argument for the virtues of pretentiousness. “Without pretension,” Fox writes, “we would never have 99% of the art, literature, music, buildings, theater, fashion, cinema, poetry, philosophy, food or design that we love.” Drawing on a wide variety of sources from literature to film to fashion and the art world, this energetic and entertaining book is written with a clarity and humor that is decidedly lacking in pretension. (Hannah)
Violation by Sallie Tisdale: “A Buddhist woman who’s written about porn,” one critic has said of Tisdale. “Do you really need another reason to read her?” Well, if you put it that way, probably not. Portland-based indie press Hawthorne Books has compiled this first-ever essay collection by the author of Talk Dirty to Me and The Best Thing I Ever Tasted. The essays span Tisdale’s 30-year career and range in subject from the biology of flies to the author’s experience of working in an abortion clinic. (Michael)
Labor of Love by Moira Weigel: In this thoughtful work of social history, Weigel likens modern dating to “the worst, most precarious form of contemporary labor: an unpaid internship.” Weigel examines the history of dating, and explains why dating not only feels like work, but is a particular kind of unpaid labor shaped by larger economic forces. Our dating rituals (and apps) have long needed the context that this book provides. (Hannah)
Little Labors by Rivka Galchen: Galchen is to fiction what Ferran Adrià is to gastronomy, serving up the whimsical, the startling, and the revelatory in the guise of the delightfully familiar. And here she comes again, bearing a tray of amuse-bouches: a short book of linked stories and essays about parenthood. (Garth)
White Sands by Geoff Dyer: Originally titled “Where Do We Come From, What Are We, Where Are We Going,” this collection of travel essays asks those three very questions as its British author tours Beijing’s Forbidden City with a guide who isn’t in fact a tour guide, journeys to French Polynesia to soak up the atmosphere that inspired painter Paul Gauguin, and picks up a hitchhiker near a prison at White Sands, N.M. (Michael)
Unforbidden Pleasures by Adam Phillips: The latest from the prolific author of Missing Out, On Balance, On Flirtation, and Side Effects — to name just a few of Phillips’s curiously addictive essay collections, which marry Freudian theory with a literary sensibility. This new collection examines the relationship between prohibition and pleasure, pushing back against the notion that things that are forbidden are necessarily more enjoyable. (Hannah)
Robert Parris Moses by Laura Visser-Maessen: No one was as central to the battle for voting rights for African Americans in Mississippi in the 1960s as Bob Moses, and few figures of that era are more deserving of a full-dress biography. This book, like an earlier Moses biography And Gently He Shall Lead Them, is an academic title, written by a Dutch historian and published by the University of North Carolina Press. No matter. Any treatment of Moses’s role in the violent crucible of the 1964 Freedom Summer and his later work with the math literacy program, The Algebra Project, is bound to be riveting. (Michael)
Joe Gould’s Teeth by Jill Lepore: Legendary New Yorker writer Joseph Mitchell first discovered Joseph Gould on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. In Gould, Mitchell found an eccentric and charismatic writer who was supposedly working on an epic manuscript called “The Oral History of Our Time.” When the manuscript went missing after Gould’s death, Mitchell concluded it had never really existed in the first place. Nearly 60 years later, New Yorker writer Lepore picks up where Mitchell left off, to further investigate one of the magazine’s most elusive subjects. (Hannah)
From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime by Elizabeth Hinton: How did the “land of the free” become the home of the world’s largest prison system? Hinton, a professor of African-American Studies at Harvard, traces the mass incarceration of America’s young black men to a surprising source: President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs of the 1960s. With America’s inner cities ablaze with urban riots, Hinton writes, Johnson combined his famous “War on Poverty” with a lesser-known call for a “War on Crime” — which, over time, helped create a penal system that now locks up one in every 11 black men in America. (Michael)
You May Also Like by Tom Vanderbilt: “I like, therefore I am” is the motto of our social media avatars, and yet — red heart and thumbs-up emojis aside — what does it mean to like something? How are preferences formed? By something in our biology? From our life experiences? Do we shape our preferences or do our preferences shape us? Vanderbilt tackles these questions and more in this book that you may or may not like, but will certainly find interesting. (Hannah)
The Apache Wars by Paul Andrew Hutton: Fans of Philipp Meyer’s epic novel The Son may want to check out this nonfiction account of Mickey Free — born Felix Telles — a mixed-race child whose kidnapping by Apache Native Americans set off a 30-year war between the Apaches and federal troops. Hutton, a professor at the University of New Mexico, relates the violent history of America’s Southwest borderlands where dwindling Native bands, led by legendary chiefs Cochise and Geronimo, made their last stand against the American war machine. (Michael)
Oneida by Ellen Wayland-Smith: A history of the Christian utopian sex-cult cum cookware and flatware makers, by a descendant of one of the group’s founders. As the book would have it, this was possibly the oddest moment in America, when extreme religious fervor in the 19th century resulted in a free-love commune for the devout, which in turn became a major corporation and one of the hallmarks of bourgeois respectability in 20th-century America. (Lydia)
June and beyond
Hunger by Roxane Gay: A powerful new memoir about food, weight, self-image, and what it means to feed yourself. Fans of Gay’s Tumblr blog will recognize these themes from her disarmingly diaristic posts about cooking Blue Apron meals. In an era of Instagrammed desserts and lifestyle blogs, Gay’s writing about food is refreshingly sensitive to the emotions we bring to cooking and eating. (Hannah)
The Hatred of Poetry by Ben Lerner: An award-winning poet before he became known as a novelist (and recently crowned as a MacArthur genius), Lerner defends his life’s work in this book-length essay about what it means to resist poetry. Lerner examines poetry’s great haters, as well as the work of some of the best and worst poets. (Hannah)
I’m Just a Person by Tig Notaro: Low-key, little-known comedian Tig Notaro had a run of bad luck to rival Job’s: first she was hospitalized with a near-fatal intestinal infection, then her mother died, and then she went through a break-up. Shortly after that, she was diagnosed with bilateral breast cancer. A few days after her cancer diagnosis, Notaro took her grief on stage and delivered a brazenly honest stand-up set that went viral. Notaro then found herself on a completely different roller coaster as she experienced fame and national acclaim. Her aptly named memoir reflects on an unexpectedly eventful year. (Hannah)
Battle for Bed-Stuy by Michael Woodsworth: The Johnson-era War on Poverty, despised for its over-reach by conservatives and lamented for its under-performance by liberals, hasn’t fared well in history, so it is a surprise to see a book-length study touting its successes. Battle for Bed-Stuy details how LBJ’s antipoverty programs tapped into existing networks of black residents in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood to battle endemic crime and shore up the local social safety net — in the process, ironically, setting the stage for the present-day gentrification of the once solidly black neighborhood. (Michael)
The Secret Lives of Web Pages by Paul Ford: Every week, it seems, some starlet’s outsized derrière or surgically reconfigured cheekbones “breaks the Internet,” but how is the Internet built in the first place? Ford, an early blogger and adviser to sites like Medium and Kickstarter, explains it all for you in this breezy overview of the hows and whys of what happens when a web page loads onto your browser. (Michael)
Behind the Glass Wall by Aleksandar Hemon: In 2012, Hemon, a Bosnian-American fiction writer best known for his novel The Lazarus Project, spent a few months as a “writer-in-residence” at the United Nations, meeting with officials, attending staff meetings, and sitting in on sessions of the Security Council. In Behind the Glass Wall, Hemon struggles to come to grips with the daily reality of a troubled institution that responded all too slowly to the humanitarian crisis that crippled his home city of Sarajevo, but whose charter allowed for the prosecution of Serbian war criminals. (Michael)
Scream by Tama Janowitz: A memoir from the author of Slaves of New York, the acclaimed short story collection about young people trying to make it in downtown Manhattan in the 1980s. Following the publication of Slaves, Janowitz was grouped with the “Brat Pack” writers alongside Bret Easton Ellis and Jay McInerney — famed for their deadpan minimalist style. Scream reflects on that time, as well as the more universal life experiences that followed as Janowitz became a wife, mother, and caregiver to her aging mother. (Hannah)