"Marta Reale, 10, her smile broad, her bangs blanched, made her way to a recreation center’s doorway through the dense crowd of other children, sunlit cigarette smoke and mothers fanning themselves on the seats of scooters. Above her, more children were hanging out the window, and above them, more were crammed onto a balcony." Jason Horowitz files from Naples, Italy for The New York Times about a casting call for HBO's upcoming adaptation of Elena Ferrante's My Brilliant Friend, noting that it "has already drawn 5,000 children, the vast majority of whom have never heard of Elena Ferrante, and injected a mix of hysteria and hope into parts of Naples that are poor in resources but rich in real characters." Pair with this piece about The Neapolitan Quartet‘s scope and impact.
At the first literary conference I attended, I was surprised to find that the advice I was given pertained less to craft and more to the management of public persona. Attendees discussed the nuances of the author photo and how to make their Twitter accounts appeal to a wide audience, and I was advised to have an answer prepared for when I am asked how much of my fiction comes from Real Life. After coming out of the modeling industry, where everything is quite explicitly about appearance, it was disheartening to discover that the literary world was no haven from these dynamics. Elena Ferrante’s desire to maintain the freedom of private life has always seemed quite sensible. In newspaper headlines she was called “The Writer Without a Face,” but why did she need one? Enter Ferrante’s new book, Frantumaglia, which includes selections of over 20 years of her essays, correspondences, and interviews. The book, whose title translates to “a jumble of fragments,” has been available in Italian since 2003. While there is no comparable word to frantumaglia in English, Ferrante illuminates what the term meant to her specifically, comparable to Lila’s “disappearing margins” in the Neapolitan novels: My mother left me a word in her dialect that she used to describe how she felt when she was racked by contradictory sensations that were tearing her apart. She said that inside her she had frantumaglia, a jumble of fragments. The frantumaglia (she pronounced it frantummaglia) depressed her. Sometimes it made her dizzy, sometimes it made her mouth taste like iron. It was the word for a disquiet not otherwise definable, it referred to a miscellaneous crowd of things in her head, debris in a muddy water of the brain. The frantumaglia was mysterious, it provoked mysterious actions, it was the source of all suffering not traceable to a single obvious cause…Often it made her weep, and since childhood the word has always stayed in my mind to describe, in particular, a sudden fir of weeping for no evident reason: frantumaglia tears. This concentration on the suffering of women is appropriately potent throughout the book, as is Ferrante’s own professed fragility. She states her deep interest in feminism, but does not consider herself to be well versed in it. She is deeply concerned for her goodness as a human, she is deeply apologetic to her publisher when she does not complete an interview or make an appearance, explaining that it is both a choice and a personal necessity that she is not subjected to a more public literary life. She corresponds with Mario Martone, the director of the film adaptation of her novel Troubling Love, expressing that she has no idea how to contribute to the project. Often, she defends her choice to write under a pseudonym. Whenever Ferrante is forced to communicate about her work, her communication is laced with an intense self-surveillance. The book is restrained and self-protective, and I find myself protective of her as well. Regrettably, the writing of this review is complicated somewhat by Claudio Gatti’s reveal of what is likely Ferrante’s true identity, a translator named Anita Raja. Gatti’s months-long probe was conducted with the tenacity of a criminal investigation, and served the purpose of radically violating the terms under which her work was created. He asserted that, given the publishing of a volume like Frantumaglia, the public had the right to Ferrante's true identity. This reveal is significant to a book review only because Gatti pointed out several discrepancies between what Ferrante says of herself in the volume and what is known to be true about the life of the woman he says she is. For instance, Ferrante writes of having three sisters in Frantumaglia, while Raja has none. Ferrante writes luminously of her mother’s work as a dressmaker, while Raja’s mother was a teacher. Ferrante says that “Naples is a space containing all my primary, childhood, adolescent, and early adult experiences,” while Raja was born in Naples but moved to Rome at age three, and so on. But the real Elena Ferrante is, quite explicitly, a fiction. In her new volume, Ferrante herself acknowledges that she sometimes resorts to lies “when necessary to shield my person, feelings, pressures.” In this way, the volume takes on a narrative of its own, though the plot, if there is one at all, is subtle. What is exceptionally clear is that the way Ferrante presents herself, however minimally, is too calculated, too realized to exist anywhere outside the realm of fiction. And why should it? As writer Nicola Lagioia wrote to Ferrante’s publisher, “If she wants to adjust, polish, clarify the argument, that’s fine of course. For me literary needs always take precedence over journalistic ones.” I have always relished reading the journals, letters, and reflections of the writers I admire. When I got my hands on Susan Sontag’s journals as a teenager, it felt as though I was being allowed access to the formation of the sort of mind I hoped to cultivate myself. Frantumaglia, as might be expected, offers access to a very different sort of process, in which Ferrante both practices the exercise of her literary needs (in crafting the story of herself) and defending her right to do so. She spends a significant portion of the book repeatedly explaining to journalists, her publisher, filmmakers, and others why she feels the need to remain anonymous. It doesn’t seem difficult to grasp: she believes that books should be able to exist in the world without being tied to a personality. For this reason, it has been suggested that the assembling of this book is antithetical to her professed desire for anonymity, that it seems to fly in the face of her convictions. I do not believe this to be the case, given that Ferrante has stated, in a correspondence with her publisher, the function that she wishes for the book to serve as an afterword and companion to the novels: In other words, I’m uncertain. I think a book like that might perhaps possess cohesiveness, but not autonomy. I think, that is, by its nature, it can’t be a book in itself. You’re very right to call it a book for readers of Troubling Love and The Days of Abandonment… Which is to say that, if you do decide to publish it, you have to do so feeling that it is editorially, as an appendix to those two books, a slightly dense afterword… It seems very successful as such. Frantumaglia contains a similar construction of female identity that we see in her novels, and, as with her novels, the line between fact and fiction is unclear. “The biggest mystery outside Italy about Italy is Elena Ferrante,” Gatti said in defense of his investigation and subsequent reveal of Raja. But he is perhaps incorrect -- or at least, those who are readers and not fans of Ferrante’s are haunted by a much more compelling mystery, which is that of the female condition -- how to exist in a world as a female body subjected to the trials and tribulations that seem to come with it. At a dinner party in Rome this summer, I spoke with Italian director Anna Negri about what could be fueling the American engrossment with Ferrante’s works. Negri believes that Ferrante is captivating in that she tells the woman’s side of the Italian machismo that Americans have grown fascinated with via movies and television like The Godfather and The Sopranos. Essentially, Ferrante warns us (in case the domestic abuse in these films and shows wasn't convincing enough) -- it’s not that great. Ferrante ends up addressing this phenomenon herself in one of Frantumaglia’s featured interviews: The greatest risk now is female regret for the “real men” of bygone days. Every form of male violence should be fought against, but the female desire to regress should not be neglected. The crowd of women who adore the sensibility and sexual energy of the worst male characters in My Brilliant Friend illustrate this temptation. The same kind of immediacy Ferrante exhibits in her fiction is most present and potent in Frantumaglia when she speaks of her concern for other women: “Even if we’re constantly tempted to lower our guard -- out of love, or weariness, or sympathy, or kindness -- we women shouldn’t do it. We can lose from one moment to the next everything that we have achieved,” she says when asked by an interviewed what she hopes readers will take away from her work. In a literary culture that has elevated personality to currency, in a world where my beginning fiction students frequently assess the value of writing based off how “relatable” they find the author to be, there is much to be learned from Ferrante. Even if she is who Gatti says she is, she has created a body of work that lucidly and luminously shown us a very different kind of life. What is fiction for, if not for this? What does a female artist owe the world? Certainly not consistency; hopefully not “authenticity” or “relatability.” Ferrante’s true readers (as opposed to fans -- she draws a sharp distinction between the two) will be grateful for Frantumaglia and the story it tells, which is exquisite, regardless of those who would fact-check her.
Not to be too contrarian, but sometimes I like people to be wrong. Is that terrible? Maybe it’s terrible. Either way, when everyone I knew said, "just try reading Elena Ferrante, she’s amazing, incredible, you’ll love her, you won’t even look up until you’re through, how lucky are you the fourth book is out, you didn’t even have to wait, I wish I was reading them for the first time again," I decided I didn’t want them to be right. Ferrante? Not my style, I said. Alas, 2016 was the year I finally read Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels and got just as swept up as everyone said I would. I made the mistake of beginning My Brilliant Friend on a plane, headed out to visit friends in San Francisco. Rudely but predictably, I spent the rest of the trip curled up on somebody else’s couch, far more engaged with the novels than I was with my real-life companions and hosts. Day outings were almost painful; I practically had to be dragged out of my imaginary Naples to drive out to a vineyard or to walk across the Golden Gate Bridge. Dramatics aside, the Neapolitan novels stunned me. Lila, Lenu, the reality and complexity of their world, and the incredibly insightful, moving, and painful female friendship at its heart, were more than enough to knock me over. I’ve rarely been so glad to be so wrong. After recovering from my obsessive tear through Ferrante -- and it did require an actual recovery process, it felt like weeks before the novels really left me -- I took up The Last Love Song, Tracy Daugherty’s biography of Joan Didion. Since this was also the year I went back to school for a master’s in journalism, Didion’s biography was both an interesting, inspiring read and a welcome relief from the AP Stylebook and The Elements of Journalism. As far as literary biographies go, it’s difficult to imagine much better than The Last Love Song, a writer’s take on a writer’s writer. And, in an election year that seemed to make less sense with every passing day, Didion’s fascination with the flaws in the national narrative seemed somehow appropriate, disheartening, and bracing, all at once. Political Fictions, indeed. But my most impactful and longest-lasting read this year was Marilynne Robinson’s essay collection, The Givenness of Things. I thought it would be a light read, something I could pick up and set down again and again, the way I often read collections. An essay while I’m waiting at the doctor’s office, while I take an evening bath, while I wait for dinner to finish, while I wait for a friend to call. Something to pass the time, to broaden the horizon but not too much. I quickly realized my mistake; I should have known better. These are not essays to read when you have a spare minute, they're essays to wrestle with. Robinson has never written anything “light,” really, but this collection is particularly heavy. The essays are almost meaty, thick with her usual intelligence and insight, quiet and calm on the surface but deep in both feeling and meaning. I couldn't walk away from these and come back to find them unchanged. This is the best kind of reading, and the slowest. I’ve been digesting Robinson’s collection on and off all year, coming back to think through each piece one more time, uncovering another bit of wisdom and then another. I found Robinson’s essays most comforting and challenging this November, for reasons that are probably obvious. One piece in particular stuck with me, and I revisited it again and again. Simply titled “Fear,” it served as a much needed reminder that, though “contemporary America is full of fear,” “we owe it to [each other] to be calm and clear, to hold fast to what is good, and to hate the thought that we may leave behind an impoverished or a lethal heritage.” That’s the thought that will carry me through 2016 and that has me ready for whatever 2017 brings. More from A Year in Reading 2016 Do you love Year in Reading and the amazing books and arts content that The Millions produces year round? We are asking readers for support to ensure that The Millions can stay vibrant for years to come. Please click here to learn about several simple ways you can support The Millions now. Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005
This year a group of friends and I started a book club because we wanted to talk about Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet. It so happened that we also love karaoke, so we became a karaoke book club: we talk about writing and desire and friendship and then we go and sing our hearts out. This pairing works beautifully and maybe it’s because we want to be in a moment, like Ferrante Fever. I’ve been thinking about how much immersion matters, how I’m reading for what books can make me feel, especially a particular collusion of sadness and rage, sparked by longing. This takes many forms: rawness, interiority, yelling, even silence. It has to do with characters working against histories and structures that often seem impossible to break. Elena Ferrante’s Elena and Lila are trying to figure out their own selves, at times creative and wild, within harsh patriarchal and provincial structures. Peter Ho Davies’s The Fortunes gives us a part of American history that’s often overlooked: the Asian-American experience through the building of the transcontinental railroad, early Hollywood, and more. The rage here, like the prose, is transcendent. Rabih Alameddine’s The Angel of History pushes against the tide of forgetting, against the smoothing over of the past, against moving on. Death and Satan argue over a man’s soul and every page is a reckoning. Brit Bennett’s The Mothers is gorgeous, suffused with sorrow and the weight of obligation and time, as it considers what might and will happen to a young ambitious woman. And with all of this rage and sorrow and longing, there is laughter in these books. Maybe it’s what we need to do right now as part of taking care of ourselves: we listen, learn, rave, and cry, and then we laugh (which is to sing) because we have to, somehow, get through what we’re going through. More from A Year in Reading 2016 Do you love Year in Reading and the amazing books and arts content that The Millions produces year round? We are asking readers for support to ensure that The Millions can stay vibrant for years to come. Please click here to learn about several simple ways you can support The Millions now. Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005
Reader looke, Not on his Picture, but his Book -- Ben Jonson When I was in my 20s, I used to spend hours at the Strand Bookstore in New York, obsessively gazing at book jacket photos of authors. I was trying to discern something -- A key to genius? Or the mere fact that this lucky person, in this photo, had managed to get a book out into the world? The variations were endless: Here was a classic black-and-white, chin resting on fist. Here was a playful one, slightly off-center. Sexy duck face for a middle-grade children's book...okay. Or, how about this one, gorgeous photo, but one that looked completely different -- like witness protection plan different -- from the author I saw as I sat in the audience at a crowded Barnes & Noble. Or this one: instead of confined to the inner flap, her face on the entire back of the book, where the blurbs would normally be. Was this good? Did this mean the press thought she was such a great writer they wanted everyone to know her? Or, was it like using a pretty face to sell toothpaste? Fast forward a few years on, and I'm finally published. My husband is in grad school, but before that, he'd worked at the venerated publisher Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Knowing my obsession, he would often point out the different FSG authors' pictures, noting how the press often signaled the importance of a book by commissioning one of the well-known author photographers, most famously, Marion Ettlinger, whose black-and-whites portraits are instantly recognizable by the unsmiling, dramatic poses of her subjects, the marmoreal lighting. These could run thousands of dollars for a single image. My first novel came out with Beacon Press, an independent press that published both poet Mary Oliver and the Pentagon Papers; it's owned by the Unitarian Church -- hardly to be faulted for not shelling out big bucks for an author photo. I was lucky enough to use a lovely black-and-white portrait done at MacDowell, an artist's colony. Earlier in my career, when I'd published young adult and middle grade fiction with Houghton Mifflin, my husband took the photos: we'd spent a day running goofily around New York City, occasionally imitating "serious author" poses and cracking up. The ones I submitted had me grinning, in jeans and sneakers sitting by the Bethesda Fountain in Central Park. But even though both my novel and children's books came out before social media, I received creepy messages via email and AOL about how "nice" I looked. "You look like a model." I don't look like a model. I am, however, smiling warmly and authentically at my husband and at Joanna Eldredge Morrissey, the MacDowell photographer. A majority of these creeps seemed to be Asian fetishists, and were persistent as barnacles -- one guy stuck with it into the social media age, posting on my Facebook author page how we must meet -- I don't know if he realizes he's in love with a decade-old photo. Funny, yes, but unnerving, especially when the invitations for coffee appear. Sometimes I don't post events because of them. But after being out of the publishing game for more than a decade, it's author photo time! But I have come to wonder if, perhaps, for women, author photos are too often a lose-lose situation. Women are judged -- very often wrongly -- because of their looks. There is no more obvious evidence of how women's looks are "consumed" and "read" by the public than the most recent presidential debate. Donald Trump galumps onto the stage in an ill-fitting suit, hair (if it is, indeed human hair) afrizz, his amorphous horse-fish hybrid face like a genetic engineering experiment gone awry. Hillary Clinton shows up in polished hair and makeup, understated age-appropriate business attire, probably a media consultant's pop of color -- but it's her appearance that becomes the Rorschach blot for an overheated electorate: She smiled too much! She smiled too little! Did she look healthy, sick, or overprepared? Was she going to cough, pundits wondered, breathlessly, while the audience could barely hear Trump through his odd and unsightly sniffling. It's as if we already give any American (white) man the benefit of the doubt in terms of fitting into any narrative, especially one of heroism or competence, but a woman who breaks through always has to be stopped, something must be wrong. Women authors, genius aside, must make sure they are not too old, or too young. Not too serious, but also serious enough. They have to be attractive, but not too attractive; for some reason in men it's dreamy but in women it's suspicious. Take the example of poet Sarah Howe, winning the U.K.'s top poetry prize, the T.S. Eliot, but also nabbing the all-around medal for a trifecta of misogyny, racism, and ageism: "too young, beautiful -- and Chinese"--a bunch of male "critics" (I'm only calling them critics, in that they criticize) seemed to feel someone who looked like that somehow didn't deserve such a storied prize, it had to be rigged! Forget the quality of her work, let's merely assume there must have been "extra-poetic reasons" for the award, such as her being "presentable" ("You look like a model!"). Author photos matter for men, too, but often these are calculated statements, gimmicks to gin up publicity -- the sloe-eyed Truman Capote-as-odalisque portrait was a publicist's dream. Men get to define what being an author is, women have to try conform to an abstraction that sometimes doesn't even include them: when Jennifer Egan won the Pulitzer for her wildly inventive A Visit From the Goon Squad, the Los Angeles Times ran the picture they thought best represented the genius novelist: a picture of Jonathan Franzen. In this hyper-exposed age, as authors we're told repeatedly we need a platform, a brand, some way to distinguish us from the swarming thousands of other authors being published each month. But this presenting can get in the way of the solitude that's needed for creation. I'm a creature of the Internet (hence you are reading this), but I've admired Elena Ferrante, the pseudonym of the Italian novelist who wrote the beloved series of Neapolitan novels. She does nary a book festival, a signing. She's stated she needs anonymity and privacy to write; her books are the only public thing about her -- and as book lovers, is there anything more we need? We know how that turned out. Some reporter tracked her down and wrote all about her personal life because he (yes, a he) decided he was somehow entitled to it. And The New York Review of Books (!) decided to publish his findings (a piece I have not read, as I am trying to -- possibly futilely -- keep the "Elena Ferrante" image running in my brain, pristine). Privacy-pro Thomas Pynchon indeed acknowledged the curiosity readers have about authors in his introduction to his 1984 collection, Slow Learner, Somewhere I had come up with the notion that one's personal life had nothing to do with fiction, when the truth, as everyone knows, is nearly the direct opposite. But he's been more or less successful staying a mystery. True, there was a 1996 article in New York Magazine, "Meet Your Neighbor, Thomas Pynchon," that tracked down his supposed address in Manhattan, but what stood out to me in the article was not the exposure but its opposite: how much his putative neighbors were united in the protecting of his privacy, which has been left more or less unmolested for 40-plus years, so much that he was portrayed in an episode of The Simpsons with a bag over his head. Yet for Elena Ferrante, My Brilliant Friend made her a worldwide sensation in 2012. I.e., she enjoyed her anonymity for four, not 40 years before a journalist decided to forcibly rip away her veil of privacy in a way that feels assaultive. Nobody feels Thomas Pynchon owes his public. But Ferrante, how dare she try to keep anything from an inquiring mind! One shudders imagining the secret videos and the doxxing that would occur if Emily Dickinson were living today. Back to author photos. Because I myself enjoying peeking at author photos, I felt it right to update mine for my forthcoming novel. I contacted several photographers, went with a woman who specializes in musicians' headshots, and, because musicians must always be broke, was pleased by her reasonable rates and that she would give me the images to all the photos she took. But, even as I had the photos done in a chilly loft in Chelsea, knowing I was posing for pictures, I didn't feel like I looked like me. I don't wear makeup, that was part of the problem. But it went beyond that. Makeuppy me didn't look like the me who wrote the book. I also didn't want my spouse to take a picture -- I didn't want the self I save for my friends and family out there for public consumption. After what happened to Elena Ferrante, I feel that more than ever. I needed a buffer, a filter, a conception of an author that would be a stand-in for me. Indeed, trying to find a platonic ideal of author photo made me recall my friend Monique Truong's portrait for her first novel, The Book of Salt. I know what my friend looks like. But her Marion Ettlinger portrait somehow embodied the novel in an artful, ineffable way. When I asked her about the process, she said, indeed, what was funny was that the photo -- the one I liked so much -- was not the one she liked the best. Her editor chose it, which made her realize, in retrospect, "An author photo is a marketing tool, like the cover of your book. In that way, there's necessarily a disconnect between it and you." Ben Harnett, my friend on Twitter, has an ongoing art-project where he creates watercolors of Twitter avatars, many of them writers. I was curious if that would work. It took a while -- he has a long waiting list. I loved it, but still felt it was a little too me, i.e., the private me. Then I did a reading that was attended by author-artist Kate Gavino, whose tumblr, "Last Night's Reading" (and book of the same name) showcases her unique talent of making a quick, almost crayon-y sketch of the author during a reading, and pulling out an interesting quote. She's profiled everyone from Amy Bloom to Zadie Smith. I was excited to appear there, too, and after first admiring the quote she picked -- "I write slowly because I have to fail in every single way possible before I get it right" -- I kept looking at the picture. I'm not smiling or frowning but something in-between -- it seems just right. I've started using it as my "official" author photo, and the responses I've gotten have ranged from "Can you send something a little less weird?" to "I love it!" to quiet acceptance. To me, it's the perfect image, one that includes a very simplified sketch of a necklace made of coconut shell, purchased in Key West when I was there finishing my novel. I didn't know the artist was going to be there that night, that she caught the necklace, and my beloved glasses (another story), made it perfect, landed it somewhere between a Ben Jonsonish no-photo and wearing a sandwich board with my face on it. Occupy author photo! Image Credit: Flickr/Christopher Dombres.
In case you missed it, this past weekend The New York Review of Books likely outed the author who's been writing under the nom de plume of Elena Ferrante. Condemnation was fast and furious, including pieces by n+1 and this fantastic Twitter thread by critic Lili Loofbourow. We join the chorus of voices who would rather direct the attention back to Ferrante's work. Might we suggest starting with this piece about The Neapolitan Quartet's subversive power?
We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for December. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. 1. Between the World and Me 6 months 2. 2. A Little Life 6 months 3. 6. Fates and Furies 4 months 4. 3. Purity 5 months 5. 4. Slade House 3 months 6. 5. Go Set a Watchman 6 months 7. - Fortune Smiles 1 month 8. 10. The Big Green Tent 2 months 9. 9. The Heart Goes Last 4 months 10. 8. City on Fire 3 months After being crowned the 2015 National Book Award winner, Fortune Smiles by Adam Johnson has received an even greater honor: entry onto The Millions's December 2015 Top Ten list! The collection was described in our second-half Book Preview* as being “six stories, about everything from a former Stasi prison guard in East Germany to a computer programmer ‘finding solace in a digital simulacrum of the president of the United States,’” and it was said to “echo” the author's “early work while also building upon the ambition of his prize-winning tome.” Elsewhere on the list, small shakeups abound. Fates and Furies and The Big Green Tent rose three and two spots, respectively, while Garth Risk Hallberg's City on Fire moved from the eighth spot to the tenth. Beyond that? There isn't too much to report. Next month, however, three fixtures on our list— Between the World and Me, A Little Life, and Go Set a Watchman — will likely head to our Hall of Fame, and their ascendance should free up space for fresh blood. They'll join Book of Numbers by Joshua Cohen, which joins the Hall this month. If past is prologue, most of those newcomers will have been culled from our Year in Reading series. If so, do you have any guesses on which ones will become fan favorites? Will it be another installment of Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan Quartet? (The first one's already in our Hall...) Will it be Maggie Nelson's The Argonauts? And whatever it may be, will it have a Florida connection?** Stay tuned to find out. * Speaking of Previews, have you checked out the first installment of our Great 2016 Book Preview, which posted this week? ** Probably. Everything does. This month's near misses included: A Brief History of Seven Killings, The Turner House, Undermajordomo Minor, The 3 A.M. Epiphany, and A Strangeness in My Mind. See Also: Last month's list.
Year in Reading reminds me of that cinematic device where the camera slowly backs away from the characters we’ve been following until it’s looking at them from outside their window, and then back farther still until you see into their neighbors’ windows as well, and farther still to show a whole building of occupied windows, and then a whole city, until you are looking at hundreds of little scenes in hundreds of little windows. And you think, if I contain multitudes, and there are multitudes of people, then there are multitudes upon multitudes, and your brain starts to spin. What I’m trying to say is that over the last few weeks, 78 writers have written about close to 500 books, and following the posts as they roll out is as intimidating and overwhelming one day as it is invigorating the next. Of those books, nearly half were fiction, the most popular genre by far, followed by biography and memoir, making up roughly 15% of the recommendations. Another 15% was taken up by traditional non-fiction — books I categorized as either “history,” “essays,” or “events.” And our contributors recommended 55 books of poetry during the series, a healthy list for anyone who is definitely, no take-backs, going to read more poetry in 2016. Surprising no one, Ta-Nehisi’s Coates’s Between the World and Me and Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet were the twin titans of this year’s series, each being cited by 12 of our contributors. Close behind, A Little Life and The Argonauts were each mentioned eight times. What is surprising, and a little delightful, is that two contributors read Colette’s Claudine at School this year, and two more read Chelsea Girls by Eileen Myles. I’ve added Eileen Myles to my reading list for next year based on that, and because Chelsea Girls wasn’t even her only book to be recommended this year. I’ve also added Joy Harjo’s Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings based on Sandra Cisneros’s recommendation, and the line she quoted, and its awesome title. I also added Vivian Gornick, especially The Odd Woman and the City, because Hannah says it’s “about what it feels like to be lonely, and what it feels like to be free. It’s about what it feels like to change your mind, about the intellectual, spiritual, and emotional growth that comes after you’ve come of age, and even after you’ve ‘come into your own.’” It’s been a privilege for Lydia and I to edit the series this year. We hope you’ve found a few things you’d like to read, a few writers who share your tastes, and a few who don’t. Year in Reading is like drinking from a firehose of literary wonders. It always helps me start off my new year itching to get into the books I’ll write about at the end of it. See you then. More from A Year in Reading 2015 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 The good stuff: The Millions' Notable articles The motherlode: The Millions' Books and Reviews Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.
1. Reprise This was the year I lived in a log cabin in the redwoods and then -- suddenly, crudely -- I didn’t. This year I moved back to San Francisco after moving away just a year earlier, just for a minute, a break, just for some air, and when I returned I found I didn’t love you anymore, SF. This was the year I found wrinkles around my mouth and eyes, the year of three more tattoos because fuck it, I mean we’re all going to die/become climate chaos refugees anyway, I mean did you notice how crazy the weather was this year? 2015: It was the year of cooking more. Of jazz. It was the year of bupropion, the year of boot camps, the year I sold my first nonfiction book and didn’t finish my first novel. The year my friends all bought houses and I didn’t. A year of trying to be more like an adult, and a year of understanding how I never will be. In the cabin, books felt realer. The woodstove replaced the TV. I started doing things like baking cookies and hanging bird feeders and sleeping all night. My partner and I stopped going out much, and when we did it was always to a dive bar and always for hamburgers. But we were lonely. We missed our friends. And so I read with friendship in mind, searching for female companionship in a way that I haven’t since junior high school. Most of the novels I read and loved this year were also books I was revisiting. I loved these books because they are at heart about women, about “little” lives, and about what it means to become oneself. 2. #squad I re-read Colette’s Claudine at School; Colette was a self-mythologizer of Greek proportions, and all us lady writers today could learn a thing or two from her swagger. I binge-read every E.M. Forster novel, and realized how key turns in each book hinge on women; characters who may be small in deed or acknowledgment but whose impact looms large. (In my head, I call them Forster’s Girls, as though they’re some sort of Pink Lady-like posse, which is probably a terrible thing to think?) Cousin Charlotte in A Room with a View; idealist Helen Schlagel in Howards End; terrified, terrible Adele Quested in A Passage to India. These women fuck shit up, for good or bad, in part because they cannot help but yield to their true selves. For the first time, I read Department of Speculation (Jenny Offill) and The Folded Clock (Heidi Julavits) and Everything I Never Told You (Celeste Ng) -- books with small interiors but tremendous landscapes, each about women struggling in some way with what I’ll call, for lack of a better word, domestication. On the wilder side of the spectrum, I read Get In Trouble over and over again and I still have no idea how the fuck Kelly Link does it. I got to know some new heroes a bit better in sequels -- Sarah McCarry’s About a Girl and Katie Coyle’s Vivian Apple Needs a Miracle -- and I felt grateful for women younger than I being stronger than I am. Then I invited over The Girls from Corona del Mar (Rufi Thorpe) and the Collected Poems of Edna St. Vincent Millay, girls who maybe aren’t heroes but maybe I like them better that way. Finally, I read Elizabeth McCracken’s Thunderstruck, and I remembered how the best stories are edged with grief. 3. Ablutions In Madness, Rack, and Honey, Mary Ruefle writes in defense of sentimentality: “Nostalgia, which evokes sentimentality, belongs exclusively to culture. Because it belongs to the idea of progress and change and the idea of accumulation, accretion and storage.” When I moved back to San Francisco this year, I did so for the fifth time in two decades. This time, though, there is a new sentimentality attached to my interactions with the city. It’s neither pure regret nor Vaseline-lensed nostalgia; more like a backwards-facing gaze, a constant awareness of what Ruefle might call the city’s “accumulation.” When I walk around this town, I can't see it clearly, I'm so clouded with visions of lives I have lived here, things I did or didn’t do, and -- most urgently -- what isn’t here anymore. When I look at San Francisco now, my eye’s camera loops a constant montage of how it used to be. Jobs and apartments, lovers and friendships and grocery stores, the behavior of the clouds. How we used to be, it and me inside it. Every intersection stores a memory, and every time I cross one I have the surprising feeling that I don’t belong to this place anymore. It’s surprising mainly because I hadn’t realized I felt like I belonged. Along with my nostalgia, I've been regressing into analog entertainments, to coloring books and piano lessons and young adult classics I haven’t enjoyed since girlhood. These diversions comfort me because they still feel like me. Undisrupted me. Who I was in all the thens and who I am now are not the same, as my city is not the same, but we are still ourselves. I'm told this is a pretty typical sensation for a person to have in her 40th year of life. I’m told San Francisco is changing, has changed, will always be a city of change, so get over it. I’m in the midst of reading Ada Calhoun’s St. Mark’s Is Dead: The Many Lives of America’s Hippest Street and so I’m thinking about how yes, cities change. Culture proceeds. Sentiments accumulate. However, not all change is good change. That there are cycles of boom and bust on a particular parcel of land doesn’t render irrelevant the wrongs done in service of those cycles. The disappearance of my San Francisco is a big deal, to me. 4. Those Who Leave Like everyone else, I mainlined Elena Ferrante this year, reading all four books in her epic and important Neapolitan series. After I finished The Story of the Lost Child, I was at a loss. What could I possibly read next, what act could follow Ferrante’s? I loved her so much, so unironically. I wanted to stay close to her characters, Elena and Lina. I had an inspiration: I would re-read Little Women, the novel that, in My Brilliant Friend, inspires the girls to become readers and writers, to push beyond the usual boundaries of their neighborhood and their gender. Louisa May Alcott’s children’s classic was published in two volumes in 1868 and 1869; it follows the four daughters of the March family, each of whom embodies a neat archetype. The Marches are poor, or at least Gentlewomen In Classic Literature Poor -- the girls all have jobs as teenagers, but the family still has a maid. And they are literate and progressive and loving; they do all right for themselves. I read Little Women obsessively as a girl. I even had the book-on-tape (an actual cassette). This time around, it was a bit harder for me to roll with all the moralism. Each escapade of each sister always ends in a tidy lesson, usually summarized by their wise, perfect Marmee and immediately grokked by all the girls. Despite such antiquated conventions, Alcott’s writing shines through. Little Women is a YA page-turner, each short chapter leading addictively to the next, tears and all. Ferrante and Alcott have that in common, as well as the driving principle behind their work: I can sense in both these authors’ bracing rhapsodies an assertion of value, a celebration of the delicate plainness of la vie quotidien. I was a Jo, I was always a Jo. Most American girls were, I think (and “most” includes Louisa May Alcott herself). Jo March is rebellious and defiant of gender norms, passionate and tortured in her writing; she is smarter and more useful than the people she loves, but still devoted to them. Mostly, she incapable of being anyone but herself. But upon this re-read, the first in probably 25 years, it's Amy March who is a revelation to me. Amy is the baby, the blonde, the sibling antagonist to Jo’s heroine. Amy is not as good and pure as pitiful, one-note Beth, nor as docile as Meg. She wants to be an artist, a genius artist, although she would also settle for having enough money to devote herself to just working really hard at her art, genius or no. When I was a girl, Amy struck me as a snob, shallow and insipid. Her destruction of Jo’s book manuscript (spoilers!) seemed unforgiveable -- oddly, far more so than a similar act in Ferrante’s epic. Now, however, Amy’s character has stretched and grown with age. There is something about a woman who, deep inside the drab gray of Civil War-era New England, desires elegance and then goes out and acquires it. Not the false elegance of fancy clothes and leisurely French carriage rides (although Amy gets those, too) but the elegance of good character. Throughout the book, Amy is trying to be -- to become -- a better person. She fails a lot and gets lucky a lot, but at least she tries. At the end, Amy gets the boy -- the boy who as a girl I furiously wanted for Jo. But Amy gets the boy only because she demands the boy be worthy of her, something none of her sisters ever bothered to do. Unlike her sisters, Amy has experience with and exists within the larger world as well as within her family. As she wishes and wills and learns and, yes, works herself into intelligence and grace, Amy stands increasingly apart from her family. She is the only character in Little Women who actually evolves. I wonder if Elena Greco, Ferrante’s main character/cipher, imagined herself to be Jo. She's not; she's Amy, the one at a slight remove from all the rest, the one who leaves the swaddle of family and habit for the bigger life she knows exists out there. Elena struggles to choose art over home. Like Amy, she is always strong-willed but never too brutally so (well, mostly never). If Elena is Ferrante’s Amy, then Lina must be her Jo. Like Jo, Lina stays even when she could go. She is hot-headed enough to destroy her own chances for transformation; as Jo did, Lina chooses her community over her own brilliance, her art. And, like Jo, she is impeccably, immovably, tragically herself. Elena wears masks, she code switches, she travels between two worlds and learns to speak fluently the languages of her different existences. But Lina, although she may be at times swayed by men or money or work or tragedy, is incapable of camouflage. She does not become; she is. 5. Volver When you leave and then come back, you get new eyes. In San Francisco this time, I’ve uncovered a type of grief that I do not perhaps yet fully understand. A place becomes a home without you realizing it; when it stops being so, it's sometimes equally difficult to know. Over the course of decades, people become themselves, without note. It’s only when we look back that we see the shape we've taken, see its shadows and imprints. In returning to the stories that have shaped us, we see too how we have been mis-formed, which parts of us have been cast in coppery truths and which have failed to adhere. And so to the tidy moral: My reading list this year was about growing up, I guess; about how, be we little or epic, we become. More from A Year in Reading 2015 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 The good stuff: The Millions' Notable articles The motherlode: The Millions' Books and Reviews Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.
The first book I remember reading this year was an advance copy of Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, handed to me by my friend Amanda. I had a six-month-old baby, and Amanda and I had both, coincidentally, just moved from New York to Portland. I am sure I’d read things in the first six months of my son’s life, but I don’t remember any of them. I think mostly I tweeted and Googled paranoid things late at night. She pressed this book to me and I read it on a car ride out to the Oregon coast, baby napping in his car seat. At first it made me mad, all the theory getting in the way of what I really wanted, THE LIFE OF MAGGIE. She is one of those people for me, writers who I want to cross all boundaries with, writers from whom I ask too much. She makes me want more than, as a reader, I deserve. She already gives us more than we deserve. It isn’t fair. I read about how she put a laminated copy of her Guggenheim fellowship announcement (given to her by her mother) under her son’s high chair to catch everything he tossed, and my heart soared. I got used to the theory, came to love it. I read the book a few times over. Then I read Bluets again. Then I ordered The Art of Cruelty, and was told we already owned a copy. Actually I put it on the stoop before we left New York. It was a galley, I rationalized. But really, that book makes me mad. It’s hard to get into and it isn’t Bluets -- this is how unfair I am to Maggie. I always call her Maggie in my mind. Anyway, in my newly regained readerly flush I paid for this book and it’s still on my nightstand. I haven’t been able to get through the first few pages. I am an apostate, I know it. Still, though, I think of this as the year of Maggie Nelson, for the world and, more specifically, for me. She brought me back into loving reading. I read Sarah Manguso’s Ongoingness soon after, the Graywolf one-two punch of 2015, but it just made me want to reread Manguso’s book The Two Kinds of Decay, which is such a mean thing to say, I know. Anyway I did reread it, in the mornings before settling into writing for a few weeks. Reading someone else’s book during the work day feels like the ultimate indulgence to me. It makes me anxious, but then the words, the voice, the confidence (if it’s the right book) soothe it, too. I’m not sure it serves as anything more than a more virtuous, exciting way to procrastinate. Even still: Grace Paley, Nora Ephron, Manguso, they all put the voice back in my head, helped settle the whirling panic and reform it into something more confident and at ease. I felt like they were the band playing me in. When a certain ferocity was needed, I listened to Sylvia Plath read her own work on Spotify. Afterward, I started reading parts of her journal. Her mundane anxiety about publishing her work, applying to residencies, and walking to the mailbox looking for checks is what made me put it down. Not today, Sylvia. Not today. Same goes for Adrienne Rich’s Of Woman Born. And Paula Bomer’s Baby & Other Stories. I recommend these in a certain state of mind, when you can handle them. It’s important to know when you can’t. This is a skill I’ve yet to master. If it was the year of Maggie Nelson, for me, it was also the year of Heidi Julavits. She’s “Heidi J” to me and my writer-reader friends, because we refer to her constantly. Her book The Folded Clock came out in earlyish spring and this book and iced coffee were about all I saw on Instagram, and all I cared to see. At first I thought it was the Leanne Shapton cover, but it goes deeper. It’s a book that seems effortless, which means it was brilliantly engineered. The kind of book that makes you happy to have to wait somewhere, because you have it in your totebag; happy to go to bed early so you can sit up reading it. I saw Heidi J read one night at Powell’s and my friend and I left immediately to get a drink. She was so funny, so charming, so effortlessly beautiful (like her writing!), we sat in the car sighing. “Her kids are older right?” Right. She makes me excited to be a decade older, to be more settled into life, to work my ass off and to know myself. This, and the hidden work of the book, is its power. On the occasion of Vivian Gornick’s The Odd Woman and the City being published, and a friend texting me photos of random pages of Gornick’s backlist, I said, Fine, and ordered a bunch of her books from Powell’s. I’d read her best book, Fierce Attachments on a road trip a few years ago; I was 30 weeks pregnant and the bookstore owner confessed she was pregnant, too. When she sighed and proclaimed her love for the book as she rung up my purchase, I knew it was brought to me by fate. We became friends and I sent her a box full of baby clothes. I read the rest of Gornick’s books this year like they were the key to something, though none of them touches Fierce Attachments. The End of The Novel of Love felt a lot like a brilliant incisive woman writing on Tumblr, full of the sort of projection and assumption and familiarity that is absent from more traditional criticism. In other words, I loved it. The Situation and the Story was that kind of clarifying reading experience where the clarity might be a delusion but at least you have the confidence, the reassurance, of clarity. Months later I couldn’t tell you what I took from The Situation and The Story aside from that mental cheering and gratitude for a book coming into your life at the exact right time you think you need it (for me, I was finishing a nonfiction book proposal). The Odd Woman And The City itself seemed sharp and funny and a little sad. Did it ever really cohere? Transcend? I’m not sure, but I am grateful to have spent time inside her head. After that, propelled forward by fate, the final Neapolitan novel from Elena Ferrante was coming out, so I finally GAVE IN and bought the first two books, My Brilliant Friend and The Story of a New Name. My initial reaction was something like, “What is this shit, enough with these dolls!” But then I got sucked into what was one of the most satisfying reading experiences of my life. I finished these books in the course of a few days, stopping only to drive to the bookstore one late afternoon, cursing myself for not buying all of them at once. When I finished all four I was bereft. I was mad at Ferrante. I thought she screwed up the ending. Really, I was mad it was over. I didn’t read anything for awhile, or nothing memorable. How do you follow Ferrante? After a few weeks of false starts and Googling furiously to try and figure out Ferrante’s secret identity, I found my cure: Barbara Comyns. I knew of her from an Emily Books pick: Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead, brilliantly reissued by The Dorothy Project, and still unread by me. I have learned in my time as a reader that the writers Emily Books publishes will always be the ones people come to be obsessed with, even if it takes, regrettably, a few years. Elena Ferrante! Eve Babitz! Ellen Willis. Eileen Myles. Those are just the people whose names start with E, for fuck’s sake. Renata Adler! Nell Zink! I could go on. Resistance is foolish. All this to say Barbara Comyns’s Our Spoons Came From Woolworths got me out of my own head and onto the couch for three hours, reading this in one setting after my son went to bed. Her voice is sui generis and I goddamn love her. She reminded me of a thing that Emily Gould -- who along with Ruth Curry started Emily Books, and who also not coincidentally wrote the introduction to the edition of the book I was reading -- told me once when I was having a crisis of confidence. Okay, a crisis of jealousy. She said something like, with regard to writing, it’s useless to be jealous because, “No one can ever be better than you are at being you.” No one else can be better than Comyns is at being Comyns, that is no one can write like Comyns, so I ordered her book The Vet’s Daughter and inhaled that one, too. I need more. As the year comes to an end, this is all I want, to read books that aren’t the key to anything except themselves. Mary Gaitskill’s The Mare made me sad and anxious. I am waiting for David Copperfield to come in the mail. More from A Year in Reading 2015 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 The good stuff: The Millions' Notable articles The motherlode: The Millions' Books and Reviews Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.
Early in 2015, I was lucky enough to do an event with Joan Wickersham at a new indie bookstore in Boston, Papercuts JP. So her memoir The Suicide Index was one of the first books I read this year, and at year’s end, it’s still haunting me. It’s a painful book but also a beautiful one, in which Wickersham tries to make sense of her father’s unexpected suicide -- but it’s also a meditation on loss, the secrets kept within a family, and continuing to live and find meaning even in the face of unimaginable grief. 2015 was also the year I caved in and read Elena Ferrante. Her novels had been recommended to me so many times -- by so many people -- I was sure they couldn’t possibly live up to the hype. But the first page of My Brilliant Friend sucked me in, just like everyone said it would. How is it possible that a novel about two girls living in mid-20th-century Naples can be so relevant to lives in the 21st century -- especially the lives of women? I’ve never read novels like this and am so glad they exist. Don’t be put off by the list of characters at the beginning; just dive in and let the voice carry you. And when you hit that gut-punch of a last line, be prepared to run out and get the next book. I don’t know why it took me so long to pick up Alyssa Harad’s memoir Coming to My Senses -- it’s been out for a few years and is squarely in my wheelhouse, as I’m fascinated by scent -- but once I did, this fall, I sank into it like a warm bubble bath. Harad tells the story of her growing obsession with perfume, in luscious language that will have you shivering with delight. I mean: “Bal à Versaille eau de parfum is famously rich and dirty: huge, overblown roses and rotting cherries smoked with incense and mellow, rotting manure. The eau de cologne is just plain dirty and is best worn by very wicked old women.” How can you not want to keep reading after that? Finally, last year I read Heap House, the first book in Edward Carey’s middle-grade/YA Iremonger Trilogy; this year, the last two volumes (Foulsham and Lungdon) came out. The best description I have is if Edward Gorey and Joan Aiken collaborated on a novel, which I mean as high praise: it’s weird and wonderful and thought-provoking and just plain fun. Clod -- not a typo, there -- is a scion of the Iremonger family, who live in a garbage-filled wasteland called the Heaps, outside an alternate Victorian London. Every Iremonger is given an object at birth, from which they must never part -- but Clod can hear something the others can’t: each object has a name, which it repeats over and over. Add a spunky housemaid heroine named Lucy Pennant, a mysterious disease that turns people into objects (and vice versa), and Carey’s own evocative black-and-white drawings, and if you aren’t intrigued enough to run out and treat yourself to this series, please check for your pulse. More from A Year in Reading 2015 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 The good stuff: The Millions' Notable articles The motherlode: The Millions' Books and Reviews Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.
We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for June. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. 4. Loitering: New and Collected Essays 6 months 2. 5. The Buried Giant 4 months 3. 6. The David Foster Wallace Reader 6 months 4. 7. The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing 3 months 5. 8. The Girl on the Train 3 months 6. - Book of Numbers 1 month 7. 10. Satin Island 2 months 8. 9. The First Bad Man: A Novel 3 months 9. - The Familiar, Vol. 1 1 month 10. - The Paying Guests 1 month Our Hall of Fame added three volumes this month — Elena Ferrante's My Brilliant Friend, Haruki Murakami's The Strange Library, and Jenny Offill's Dept. of Speculation — and that opened the door for three new entrants. Before moving on to them, however, let's give a shout out to Murakami, who's now officially made it into the Hall of Fame for two separate books (1Q84 graduated in April '12). It's a praiseworthy feat, and one that's only been accomplished by nine other authors: David Foster Wallace, Junot Díaz, Stieg Larsson, David Mitchell, Hilary Mantel, Jonathan Franzen, George Saunders, Dave Eggers, and Alice Munro. That's some lofty company to keep. Also noteworthy is the fact that, David Foster Wallace has the unique distinction of having two of his own books in our Hall of Fame in addition to a biography written about him. And if current trends hold true for another 31 days, then he'll be adding an anthology put together in his honor to that group as well. Of the three new entrants to our list, two of them — Book of Numbers by Joshua Cohen and The Familiar, Vol. 1 by Mark Z. Danielewski — appeared in our Most Anticipated List earlier this year. Danielewski teased his ambitious 27-volume Familiar project in our 2012 interview. Meanwhile, the third new book on the list is Sarah Waters's The Paying Guests. To quote Emily Gould in last year's Year in Reading, "God, this book. This BOOK!" Stay tuned next month as we open two more spots. Will they be books we featured in our new Book Preview? My guess is yes, but there's only one way to find out. Near Misses: My Struggle: Book 1, Everything I Never Told You: A Novel, Redeployment, The Martian, and To Rise Again at a Decent Hour. See Also: Last month's list.
We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for April. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. 3. My Brilliant Friend 5 months 2. 8. All the Light We Cannot See 6 months 3. 5. The Strange Library 5 months 4. 7. Dept. of Speculation 5 months 5. 6. The David Foster Wallace Reader 4 months 6. 10. The Buried Giant 2 months 7. 9. Loitering: New and Collected Essays 4 months 8. - The First Bad Man: A Novel 1 month 9. - The Girl on the Train 1 month 10. - The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing 1 month Major shake-ups this month as we bid adieu to three Top Ten fixtures of the past six months. After half a year of consistent success, Michael Schmidt's door-stopping biography of the novel goes to our Hall of Fame, along with Emily St. John Mandel's Station Eleven and Richard Flanagan's The Narrow Road to the Deep North. This is the third time a Millions staffer has had their own work graduate to the site's Hall of Fame, and in so doing, Emily St. John Mandel joins site founder C. Max Magee (The Late American Novel) and site writer Mark O'Connell (Epic Fail) on the list. How fitting it is, too, that in our first Springtime Top Ten, we welcome three new, fresh additions to our list! Checking in at #8 is Miranda July's The First Bad Man, which was previewed in our Great 2015 Book Preview. July was also interviewed for our site in January, and at the time she described the inspiration for her novel in terms sure to salt the wound of anyone who's ever struggled with writer's block: Well, the inspiration came very suddenly. I literally just had the idea on a long drive: of Cheryl and Clee, and their relationship and how it changed. I even knew that there would be a baby at the end and that Cheryl would end up alone with it. So that all came in a few minutes, which was very lucky and I still thank the gods for that. Next on our list is Paula Hawkins's The Girl on the Train, which was recently shouted out by Jon Ronson in his By the Book column for the New York Times Book Review. Hawkins's novel has been described elsewhere as "an ingenious slant on the currently fashionable amnesia thriller," and "a gripping, down-the-rabbit-hole thriller." Keeping with our "Spring" motif, we also welcome Marie Kondo's The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up to our April list, most likely as we all begin in earnest to at least think about finally doing some Spring cleaning. In her review, our own Janet Potter noted that Kondo's work lays out "a method for cleaning and reorganizing your home that might be crazy and might be brilliant, but works either way." Next month, we should clear up at least one spot for another newcomer. Will it be one of these "Near Misses" at the bottom of this post, or will it be something else entirely? Near Misses: To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, My Struggle: Book 1, An Untamed State, The Paying Guests and Everything I Never Told You. See Also: Last month's list.
We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for March. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. 1. The Novel: A Biography 6 months 2. 2. Station Eleven 6 months 3. 3. My Brilliant Friend 4 months 4. 5. The Narrow Road to the Deep North 6 months 5. 7. The Strange Library 4 months 6. 6. The David Foster Wallace Reader 3 months 7. 9. Dept. of Speculation 4 months 8. 8. All the Light We Cannot See 5 months 9. 10. Loitering: New and Collected Essays 3 months 10. - The Buried Giant 1 month Well, folks, it's happened. The enduring success of David Mitchell's The Bone Clocks has pushed the author to a Millions echelon so high that it's never before been reached. That's right: Mitchell is now the only author in site history to reach our hallowed Hall of Fame for three (count 'em!) different works. And with The Bone Clocks joining his past works, Cloud Atlas and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, Mitchell's latest achievement puts him ahead of David Foster Wallace (Infinite Jest,The Pale King), Junot Díaz (The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, This Is How You Lose Her), Stieg Larsson (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest), Hilary Mantel (Wolf Hall, Bring Up the Bodies), Jonathan Franzen (The Corrections, Freedom), George Saunders (Tenth of December, Fox 8), and Dave Eggers (Zeitoun, The Circle), each of whom authored two Hall of Fame titles. Maybe this repeated success will be enough to coax him into a Year in Reading 2015 appearance. (ARE YOU LISTENING, PUBLICISTS?) Joining this month's list thanks to The Bone Clocks's graduation is Kazuo Ishiguro's latest novel, The Buried Giant. It's a book "about war and memory," wrote Millions staffer Lydia Kiesling in her extremely personal review of the work for this site. "But it is also about love and memory, and you don’t need to have lived through an atrocity to get it." Lastly, I would be remiss if I didn't point out that our own Emily St. John Mandel's Station Eleven, which is poised to graduate to our Hall of Fame next month, was the recent winner of The Morning News's annual Tournament of Books. (It beat out Anthony Doerr's All the Light We Cannot See, which is also on our Top Ten.) The novel, which has earned the praise of George R. R. Martin, took the final match-up by a score of 15-2, which should be decisive enough to persuade all of you who haven't yet bought the book to do so immediately. Join us next month as we graduate three books and open the doors for three newcomers. Will they be among the "Near Misses" below, or will they be something new entirely? Near Misses: My Struggle: Book 1, To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, An Untamed State, The Paying Guests and The First Bad Man. See Also: Last month's list.
We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for February. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. 1. The Novel: A Biography 5 months 2. 2. Station Eleven 5 months 3. 4. My Brilliant Friend 3 months 4. 3. The Bone Clocks 6 months 5. 5. The Narrow Road to the Deep North 5 months 6. 6. The David Foster Wallace Reader 2 months 7. 7. The Strange Library 3 months 8. 8. All the Light We Cannot See 4 months 9. 9. Dept. of Speculation 3 months 10. 10. Loitering: New and Collected Essays 2 months I'm not going to pull any punches with you, Millions readers. This is the most boring update to our Top Ten in the history of the Top Ten. Not a single new title has cracked our list, and the flipping of My Brilliant Friend and The Bone Clocks is the only movement on the list whatsoever. That in mind, let's take a look at this month's crop. In first place is the hefty Novel: A Biography, a book that has been on the list for five months. Last month, it was also the first on the list. The hardcover book is 1,200 pages long, published by Belknap Press, and measures 2.2 x 6.5 x 10.5 inches. Its ISBN-13, which serves as its identification number to industry insiders and computer systems alike, is 978-0674724730. There is also an ISBN-10 used for identifying the book on Amazon, and in our website's shortlink system. That number is 0674724739. The list price of the book is $39.95, which at the time of this writing translates to approximately ¥4,776.62, £25.98, and R$116.18 in Japanese, English, and Brazilian currencies, respectively. Next on the list is Station Eleven, which is exactly 6 inches wide and 8.5 inches long. You would need to lay 185,614,983.5 copies of this book end-to-end if you wanted them to circle the Earth. The book's shipping weight of 1.2 pounds means it weighs more than three fully-grown pygmy marmosets, which each account for only 4.9 ounces apiece. There are three unique vowels in the first word used for this book's title; the second word in this book's title uses the same vowel three times. My Brilliant Friend is the book in third place this month, and this is the book's third month on our list. The book's cover features an illustration of three little girls, and there are three words in the book's title. It is three hundred and thirty one pages long. So far I have written three sentences in this paragraph, excepting this one. The fourth book on the Top Ten this month is The Bone Clocks, which is published by Random House. Random House's United States headquarters are located in New York City, but the publisher's contact information page lists addresses in Argentina, Australia, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Germany, India, Ireland, Mexico, New Zealand, South Africa, Spain, United Kingdom, Uruguay, and Venezuela as well. The chief exports of Uruguay are meat, wool, and hides and skins. Uruguay declared independence in 1825, but that independence was not recognized by Brazil until 1828. At 352 pages, a hardcover copy of The Narrow Road to the Deep North is exactly 1.3 inches thick. You could stack 66 copies of the book in a pile and that pile would be slightly taller than Shaquille O'Neal. Because this book is 9.6 inches tall and 6.5 inches wide, and because a stack of 66 copies would top off above seven feet in height, you could lie down on the floor staring up at the stack and it would appear, in a certain way, and with the right perspective, as if the stack of Narrow Road to the Deep North books was forming a sort of narrow road to the deep sky, if that makes any sense at all, which perhaps it doesn't. Sixth on this month's list is The David Foster Wallace Reader. A Google search of David Foster Wallace's name yields 31,400,000 results in 0.22 seconds. That same search on Bing results in 2,050,000 results. My attempt to search AltaVista did not yield any results, as apparently Googling for AltaVista now directs people to Yahoo's search page. A similar nostalgic search did prove to me that Ask Jeeves is still alive and kicking, however. The New York Knicks had a pitiful 4-15 record on December 2nd, the day The Strange Library was published in America. Since then, the Knicks have "improved" to 12-46 at the time of this writing. The Strange Library, meanwhile, has reached the seventh spot on our Top Ten. All the Light We Cannot See remains in the eighth spot this month. The ninth spot belongs to Dept. of Speculation. In tenth position is Loitering: New and Collected Essays. If you bought all three of these books and put them in a tote bag with a can of Coca-Cola, the contents of that bag would weigh a total of 3.6 pounds. Join us next month to see if we can shake things up a bit further! Near Misses: My Struggle: Book 1, To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, An Untamed State, The Paying Guests and The First Bad Man. See Also: Last month's list.
1. Near the beginning of My Brilliant Friend, the first of Elena Ferrante’s series of novels about a complicated friendship between two women from the slums of Naples, the girls, then in elementary school, play hooky and sneak out of “the neighborhood,” their claustrophobic network of courtyards and stairwells filled with violence and poverty. Lenú and Lila aim for the sea. Though Naples is a port city, neither of them has seen the “vague bluish memory” of water. After hours of walking, Lila becomes suddenly afraid and turns them back, while Lenú, usually the timid one, discovers that distance “extinguished in me every tie and every worry.” The Neopolitan Novels, as they are known, expand this dynamic tension between the pull of Naples, the city, and the expansion of the girls’ consciousness as Italy enters the modern era. This is a story of self-realization alongside the self-realization of a nation. Acutely sensitive to the workings of class and power, Ferrante subtly works in black market war profiteers, fascist collaborators, mafiosi, the workers’ movements and radical terrorism of the 1960s and '70s, and the arrival of wealth and consumer goods to Italy’s new middle class. Ferrante attaches the story of Lenú and Lila to the history of postwar Italy in a way that never feels contrived. That’s also the history of feminism in Italy, a story that remains unfinished. Lenú escapes the confines of the neighborhood thanks to her book smarts, but remains tethered to Lila, and to the alienation and difficulty that makes “the form of a female body break.” The burden of the physical, the invisible work that makes up women’s lives, is a recurring theme in Ferrante. Radical Italian feminists once proposed wages for housework, but Ferrante is writing, after all, in the Italy where Silvio Berlusconi hosts bunga bunga parties with underage girls, and jokes that to prevent rape, the country needs “as many soldiers as there are beautiful Italian women." In Ferrante’s early novel The Days of Abandonment, set in contemporary Italy, the protagonist has a breakdown trapped in her apartment. Her children whine and one falls ill; it’s unnervingly possible she may ignore them entirely. She mentally runs through her chores to calm herself. “The vomit stained sheets. Run the vacuum.” “Housecleaning,” is the last word of the chapter, sinking like a sentence. I wonder if, for the American reader, part of Ferrante’s appeal is that her Italy -- with its complicated women and its political history -- is an antidote to popular destination literature and visions of expat romance like Eat, Pray, Love, Under the Tuscan Sun, or Beautiful Ruins. The next and final installment of the Neapolitan novels, which have become a surprise hit in the U.S., will be brought out in English this year (her website says only that an as yet untitled fourth volume in the series will be published in September 2015). In the meantime, here are a few suggestions for those hungering for more of Ferrante’s dark Naples and Italian feminist heroines. 2. A History of Contemporary Italy Ferrante’s heroines, Lenú and Lila, are born in Naples in 1944, at the very end of World War II. In September 1943, American troops landed south of Naples and marched up the peninsula after the Germans, who retreated looting and killing along the way. Italy -- a country then less than a century old -- soon found itself “with national state authority having dissolved, two occupying armies and three Italian governments...claimed the obedience and allegiance of the Italians,” writes Paul Ginsborg in History of Contemporary Italy, an exhaustive accounting of Italian politics from the war to the 1980s, paying special attention the position of Italy’s poorest, in the South. Naples, with over one million inhabitants, was devastated and impoverished by the war. Sewers and water systems barely functioned, Allied bombing left 200,000 homeless, and the black market commandeered what little supplies existed. Ginsborg quotes an Allied report describing “many hundreds of urchins” roaming the streets, “pimping, prostitution of minors, acting as ‘fences’ for stolen goods, etc.,” and “little girls ill and pregnant, at thirteen and even twelve years of age.” Even as Italy experienced enormous economic growth in the 20th century, the South continued to lag stubbornly behind, remaining until today the poorest part of Italy. Ginsborg also explains the consolidation of the reign of the mafia, romanticized in American mob movies and exposed as very real in Gomorrah, Roberto Saviano’s account of the mafia wars of the early 2000s. The children that Saviano finds fed into the Camorra's violent underworld are modern-day remnants of the destitution that has long characterized Naples: the city’s reputation is still dirty, difficult, and dangerous. The Skin In the spring of 1944, Mount Vesuvius erupted violently. American troops captured footage of villagers on the outskirts of Naples preparing to evacuate, holding a religious procession before billowing ash filled the streets and smashed their homes. It must have seemed like the end of the world. This is the dark setting of The Skin, a novel by Curzio Malaparte, a former fascist and political shapeshifter, perhaps better known now for his pink modernist villa on the rocks of Capri, where Bridgitte Bardot sunbathes nude in Contempt. The book’s narrator is an Italian Army captain also named Malaparte who has been assigned to escort occupying American officers around the “dreadful Neopolitan mob.” (The novelist, born Kurt Suckert, invented his name, which means “the bad part,” the opposite of Bonaparte.) Dressed in the bullet torn uniforms of dead Allied soldiers, Malaparte and his troops now have “to show ourselves worthy of the shame of Italy,” a people simultaneously liberated and conquered. Malaparte’s Naples is lurid and apocalyptic. He applies caustic humor equally across the decaying pretensions of European aristocrats, the naïve crowds cheering the arrival of U.S. troops, and the dangerously blithe good faith of the Americans. Misogyny abounds: the only women are prostitutes and Nazi collaborators, easy metaphors for Italy’s prone postwar position. But Malaparte’s chilling prose and bantering wit animate the most surreal horrors of postwar deprivation. The book’s finale is a frenzy at the summit of Vesuvius after its eruption, where supplicants pray and fling offerings into the volcano beneath the “blood-soaked sponge” of the moon. All the book’s cynicism rises to a sincere effort to make sense of the sacrifice the country made to war. Discovery of the World Luciana Castellina was 14 in 1943, when she began keeping a “political diary.” On the day it begins, she played tennis with the daughter of the fascist leader Benito Mussolini. The girl was called off the courts abruptly -- her father had been turned out of government and arrested. Four years later, when her teenage journals end, Castellina has become a student radical and gone to volunteer building railroads in Communist Yugoslavia. Discovery of the World: A Political Awakening in the Shadow of Mussolini, is a memoir “reconstructed” from these diaries, so we get rather a lot of Castellina, now an elderly former politician and prominent figure on the Italian left, interrupting to explain her younger self. Nonetheless, the diary excerpts are charming. They begin with a dutiful student whose notebooks are marked with her fascist party membership number, to whom the war arrives as the sudden need to hide Jewish relatives, to smuggle rations, and to await the Allies while hiding from their air raids. Later, she learns about the resistance, becomes enmeshed in Communist politics and debates on modernist painting and the atom bomb. It was a historic intellectual moment, when fascism’s fall seemed to have created an opening for utopian political reforms. Though it may be hard to follow for someone unfamiliar with the history of the European left, there’s still something infectious and familiar in the adolescent excitement that declares, one day, “It’s two years since Rome was liberated. What have I learned? Almost nothing. My ideas are more confused than ever,” and on another, “I am happy with everything. The world is mine and I want everything.” The Art of Joy “The world is mine and I want everything” might be a motto for Modesta, the ironically named firebrand heroine of The Art of Joy, a novel by Goliarda Sapienza. Completed in 1976, the book didn’t find a publisher until decades later, saturated as it is with sex and blasphemy (one Italian critic called it “a pile of iniquity.”) If Ferrante elegantly weaves history through her protagonists’ lives, Sapienza’s Modesta drags the 20th century behind her by the hair. Born in 1900 in a peasant hut in Sicily, she rises through a mix of guile and happenstance to become the unorthodox matriarch of a prosperous family. Her purpose in life is the pursuit of pleasure and freedom from authority in any form: she battles Catholicism, fascism, Freudianism, and even the demands of lovers and children. She realizes very young in life “how many false concepts I had fallen victim to.” Self-educated in business, politics, and history, she determines to take up every word she encounters, “wipe away the mold, free them from the deposits of centuries of tradition, invent new ones, and above all discard and no longer use...the most corrupt ones, such as sublime, duty, tradition, self-denial, humility, soul.” The first half of Sapienza’s mammoth book is that breathless wreckage, as Modesta’s self emerges from an angry, eccentric, and impoverished child. Later, it sometimes lapses into didactic dialogue and tedious political exegeses. But the initial brilliance of the book is, as with Ferrante, in watching the formal evolution of the narrator’s voice from the sensual environs of childhood to a sharp awareness of herself and her place in history.
We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for January. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. 1. The Novel: A Biography 4 months 2. 2. Station Eleven 4 months 3. 3. The Bone Clocks 5 months 4. 5. My Brilliant Friend 2 months 5. 6. The Narrow Road to the Deep North 4 months 6. - The David Foster Wallace Reader 1 month 7. 7. The Strange Library 2 months 8. 8. All the Light We Cannot See 3 months 9. 10. Dept. of Speculation 2 months 10. - Loitering: New and Collected Essays 1 month Happy New Year and glad tidings to you and yours. It's 2015 now; the year we've been promised hoverboards and self-lacing sneakers. We have half of these things (so far), and we also have two new entrants to our hallowed Hall of Fame: Reading Like a Writer and We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves. Overall, though, there is little change beyond the calendar. Our top-ranking book, The Novel: A Biography, remains the same for a second consecutive month, a second consecutive year. It's followed by our own Emily St. John Mandel's Station Eleven, which concerns itself with, among other things, a contagious disease that brings about the disintegration of civilization. (Et tu, California*?) And yet, the dawn of the new year does come with some new additions as well. Cracking our list in the tenth position is two-time Year in Reading alumnus (one, two) Charles D'Ambrosio's widely acclaimed essay collection, Loitering. In her review for our site, staffer Hannah Gersen identified the qualities of the work that make it so impressive: What I admired most about these essays is the way each one takes its own shape, never conforming to an expected narrative or feeling the need to answer all the questions housed within. D’Ambrosio allows his essays their ambivalence, and this gives ideas space to move freely across time, so that even “Seattle, 1974,” which was published twenty years ago, reflecting upon a time twenty years before, speaks to the present day. Higher up on the list, in the sixth spot, we find Little, Brown's nearly 1,000-page long omnibus, The David Foster Wallace Reader. It's a collection composed of excerpts and full-length pieces from David Foster Wallace's oeuvre, as selected by a dozen writers and critics, such as Hari Kunzru and Anne Fadiman. These pieces and their afterwords, wrote Jonathan Russell Clark, appeal equally to new readers and longtime devotees alike: For those unfamiliar with Wallace, the Reader will hopefully spark enough interest in his work to help some readers get over just how damned intimidating his writing can be. ... For Wallace fans, however, TDFWR is a chance to go back and read some of his most inventive and brilliant pieces, but more than that it’s an opportunity to reassess Wallace’s work, to judge it chronologically and thus progressively, and by doing so reacquaint one’s self to this incredible writer and thinker and person. Next month, we'll watch closely to see if David Mitchell's The Bone Clocks will come one month closer to the Hall of Fame. As I noted last September, doing so would make Mitchell the only author to have reached The Millions's Hall of Fame for three separate works. *Was that a measles reference, or a pun related to another Millions staffer's recent novel? Why not both? Near Misses: To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, My Struggle: Book 1, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, An Untamed State, and The Paying Guests. See Also: Last month's list.
We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for December. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. 4. The Novel: A Biography 3 months 2. 2. Station Eleven 3 months 3. 1. The Bone Clocks 4 months 4. 6. Reading Like a Writer 6 months 5. - My Brilliant Friend 1 month 6. 7. The Narrow Road to the Deep North 3 months 7. - The Strange Library 1 month 8. 10. All the Light We Cannot See 2 months 9. 3. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves 6 months 10. - Dept. of Speculation 1 month Ohio State over Alabama wasn't the only New Year's upset: in the first Top Ten of 2015, Millions readers propelled a mammoth, scholarly 1,200-page history of the novel ahead of David Mitchell's latest. That's right. The Novel: A Biography is our new number one. Let us all join hands as we usher in a new age dominated not by the Crimson Tide and kaleidoscopic fiction but instead by the Buckeyes and literary history. (Or you could read the review that started it all.) And that's not the only surprise this month, either. Two fixtures in our most recent Top Ten lists — Haruki Murakami and Karl Ove Knausgaard — saw their latest works — Colorless Tsukuru and My Struggle — drop out of our standings altogether. (Have no fear, Murakami fans: your darling remains on this month's list with the debut of The Strange Library, which Buzz Poole recently described as a heavily illustrated 96-page paperback that "like ... so much of Murakami’s fiction, questions the differences between what is real and what is not, and whether such a distinction even matters.") Moving along, it seems apparent that our recent Year in Reading series motivated a good number of Millions readers to purchase works by Elena Ferrante and Jenny Offill. In the case of Ferrante, whose My Brilliant Friend debuts this month in our list's fifth spot, we probably have Charles Finch to thank. He's the one who wrote, "I read Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan trilogy this year. I read it twice, actually. It made me want to quit writing." For her part, Offill's Dept. of Speculation earned heaps of praise in the series entries from Rachel Fershleiser, Scott Cheshire, and Dinaw Mengestu. (And Sam Lipsyte, way back in '13.) Meanwhile our own Emily St. John Mandel maintains a strong presence on the list with Station Eleven, and next month we'll likely see the graduation of two works— Reading Like a Writer and We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves — to our Hall of Fame. Near Misses: To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, My Struggle: Book 1, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, Loitering: New and Collected Essays, and An Untamed State. See Also: Last month's list.
I read Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan trilogy this year. I read it twice, actually. It made me want to quit writing. That sounds like the kind of cutesy thing you could say about any book you love, but in fact the reality of it was terrible, a sensation that lasted for days, a blend of nausea, fog, and loss. How can I explain it? Reading those books -- My Brilliant Friend, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, and The Story of a New Name -- it was as if I had spent my whole life training to be a world-class swimmer, waking up at dawn to do laps, eating the right stuff -- and then, all of the sudden, swimming in the ocean one day, I had been joined briefly by a dolphin and realized, oh, of course, that’s what swimming actually is. That is: There’s a difference between naturalism and naturalness. Naturalism is still a mode. Ferrante’s early books are great, but they’re modal, full of the effects a novelist can use, beautifully deployed, but effects. By the Neapolitan trilogy, those effects are gone. As a consequence it has less immediate line-to-line dazzle than what we’re used to calling great fiction these days, The Flamethrowers, for example, or even The Days of Abandonment, but what she buys with the sacrifice is a consuming naturalness. There’s not a single moment of falseness across all the thousand pages of the books. In general, even the best novelists enter their texts; the great ones do it almost imperceptibly, but still, behind Walter’s love of birds in Freedom, for instance, you just sense Jonathan Franzen’s love of birds, a weak but noticeable magnetic draw from character to author. Whereas Ferrante works so closely to her characters’ motivations, more closely than any novelist I’ve ever read, that it means the books are not so much realistic as that they are a reality. The result is intoxicating, art with all the beauties of a made thing and the authenticity of a discovered one. It’s like a garment without seams that fits perfectly, or like those Vija Celmins rocks. It’s like the opposite of the Pompidou Center. The last 20 years have seen the ascent of James Wood’s idea that what the novel offers uniquely is an encounter with another consciousness, and now we’ve arrived at the cultural triumph of his particular theodicy, Karl Ove Knausgaard and Ben Lerner. Those (wonderful) authors get rid of the problem of the novel by entering it overtly, and while that allows an magical nearness to them, it’s a solution that’s also an impoverishment, because it foregoes plot. An acceptable loss, you might say. I wonder. Wood’s pressure toward interiority almost seems to me to forget the structure of life, which is so crucially at once internal and external. Life has actions in it. In reading a novel, it’s profound to experience the self-in-other in memory or contemplation, but it’s sometimes just as profound to experience the self-in-other during moments of decision. In Ferrante, we have both -- they’re told in the first person, but they’re the story of more than a single person, of many equally weighted people. The plotting of their stories is so skillful, indeed so unplotted, in the sense that life is unplotted, in the sense that we don’t know the future, that as readers we suddenly exist both in other actions and in their actors’ consciousness of them. Not the latter alone. I read a lot of things in 2014, and I would like to imagine I’ll look back on the year and remember rereading Patrick O’Brian, whose achievement as an author of historical fiction I consider as great as Hilary Mantel’s, or Six Memos for the Next Millennium and Mythologies, which have both been rattling in my mind since winter, or the mysterious and beautiful 10:04, or the funniest book I read all year, a fantastic self-published novella that if there were justice in the world would upend pro sports, Goodell vs. Obama by PFT Commenter, or the fifth volume of Marcel Proust, finally I’m almost done. But realistically, Ferrante is who will stay with me. It’s considered unsophisticated to be normative about authors. Leave it to Buzzfeed, leave it to the Mike Trout zealots. I get that, but at the same time I also think it’s important to believe in greatness, and I don’t think it’s always wrong to calibrate it. I don’t know if Ian McEwan is greater than Don DeLillo, or whatever. What I do know is that before 2014, I thought Philip Roth was the greatest novelist alive. Now, for me, he’s second. More from A Year in Reading 2014 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 The good stuff: The Millions' Notable articles The motherlode: The Millions' Books and Reviews Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.
Naples, Italy, has always had a special draw for me. Back in 1952, before I was born, my parents and older brother Skip lived there for three years. It’s weird to have much of the family legend happen without me in it. But Naples stories were repeated fondly and often -- of the ghost who roamed the hallway in their apartment in a white nightgown; the three of them riding the funicular; visiting Pompeii every weekend with a picnic of salami sandwiches to watch them excavate the ruins; hiking Mt. Vesuvius and hot lava burning the soles of my father’s shoes. In fact, every time my father ascended the stairs in our house to get to the bedroom on the second floor, he’d groan, “Here I come, Mt. Vesuvius.” The characters of their neighborhood also populated our lives long after they’d come back to the United States. The fruit man, the fish man, the man who sold roasted chestnuts. So, it is perhaps no surprise that my greatest reading pleasure this year has been the first two books in Elena Ferrante’s trilogy that explores the lives and emotional connections of two girls in post World War II Naples. The first, My Brilliant Friend, follows them as young girls. The second, The Story of a New Name, continues their story into marriage and careers. Even if I wasn’t attracted to all things Naples, these novels are exactly what makes for terrific reading -- they are literary but accessible, poignant and emotionally true, and they explore both friendship and the role of women against a setting that is lively and interesting. Best part? There’s one more novel still to come. More from A Year in Reading 2013 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 The good stuff: The Millions' Notable articles The motherlode: The Millions' Books and Reviews Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.
This year brought me the work of Elena Ferrante, and reading her reminded me of that child-like excitement when you can’t look up from the page, when your eyes seem to be popping from your head, when you think: I didn’t know books could do this! But there is nothing child-like about Ferrante’s work. It’s adult stuff. The Days of Abandonment deals with the fracture of a marriage, and it takes it straight on. There is a profound thrill in witnessing such honest ferocity on the page. What followed for me were the first two books of her trilogy, My Brilliant Friend, and then The Story of a New Name, and finishing the latter, I had to stumble around the apartment before I could re-enter my own world. The world she creates in these two books is a world of poverty and harshness and childhood friendship that is deep in its love and envy. These scenes take place mostly in Naples, with some excursions as the narrator gets older, but all of this barely scrapes the surface of what Ferrante really does. Which is to keep your face pressed into the realities of class and sex and violence, and make you grateful to be there. I absolutely loved it. More from A Year in Reading 2013 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 The good stuff: The Millions' Notable articles The motherlode: The Millions' Books and Reviews Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.