Norwegian by Night

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The Next Great American Crime Writer May Be Living in Norway

Derek B. Miller caught the eye of readers of The Millions with his 2013 debut novel, Norwegian by Night, lauded by Richard Russo in his Year in Reading and staying atop our Top Ten for months. The novel featured an octogenarian ex-Marine, Sheldon Horowitz, who has lost his son in Vietnam and who tries to save another boy from his father, an Albanian war criminal. Set in Norway, the novel also introduced the wily cop Sigrid Ødergård; Miller followed it with The Girl in Green, in which two men involved in the Gulf War get a chance at redemption decades later. Now Miller is publishing American by Day, which sends Sigrid Ødergård from Norway to upstate New York to find her brother, who has disappeared after being named the prime suspect in his girlfriend’s mysterious death. Miller spoke with The Millions, via Skype, from his home in Oslo.

The Millions: You have a background in International Studies, I think.

Derek B. Miller: The short version is that I got a master’s degree from Georgetown in National Security, in conjunction with Oxford, where I finished my degree. I knew I wanted to do a doctorate, so I stayed in Europe, futzed around for a while working for a newspaper, and then I moved to Geneva, Switzerland, where I got a second master’s and a Ph.D. from the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies.

TM: What did you do after earning your degrees?

DBM: I spent about a decade in the United Nations Institute of Disarmament Research. Basically I was looking at countries recovering from war—jump-starting the economy, trying to collect weapons after a war, establishing a transitional justice system. So I worked on that for a long time, trying to push the elephant of the United Nations in a direction that I thought was both more pragmatic and ethical.

TM: That wasn’t exactly the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, was it?

DBM: No [Laughs].

TM: So how did you become a novelist?

DBM: Well, I think the idea of creative writing was planted in my head back at Sarah Lawrence, which at the time, 1988 to ’92, had the only undergraduate creative writing program in the country. I didn’t actually do creative writing there, but I think it demystified the notion that writing is something only geniuses or crazy people do. When I tried to write, my first manuscript took me three years. It wasn’t very good, but some of the tone, my approach to characterization, my approach to the relationship between tragedy and comedy—I can look back on my efforts from my mid-20s, and it’s clearly my writing. I found that short stories weren’t for me. So I just kept writing.

TM: So all these years you’re traveling around working for the U.N.—and you’re writing fiction on the side, as an apprentice?

DBM: I was writing. I have a good education for finding patterns in data and building theory, and I think I approached writing from both a creative perspective and an analytical one. I asked fundamental questions I felt I needed to ask in order to write better, such as: What is a story? What differentiates a story from a mere sequence of events? What is the nature of dramatic tension, and where does it come from? How do you deal with large gaps of time? Lots of architecture and craft issues. So I asked these questions, I interrogated the material I was reading to see how different authors achieved that. I wasn’t trying to copy them, I was trying to learn. And it took me a long time to figure it out.

TM: Norwegian by Night, your first novel, resonated with readers of The Millions—and a lot of other readers. Do you remember, was there a day you started writing that book, or did it sort of morph into shape over the years?

DBM: What happened was, I had written a manuscript prior to that, and it didn’t work. There were two reasons why. The architecture of the story was all over the place, and my protagonist was too milquetoast. He just wasn’t interesting enough. Sheldon Horowitz was a minor character in that failed effort, and what I found was that my secondary characters were great. They were relieved of the burden of having to be the protagonist, and that let them be far more decisive and funny and wild and everything else. So when it came time to try again, I decided to move Sheldon Horowitz forward. The reason was because I was very close to my grandfathers and they were dying at that time, and my son Julian was born in 2008, which was when I wrote Norwegian by Night. The ending of the book came to me while I was at the hospital waiting for Julian to be born—it was by C-section, so it was scheduled. I was sitting there and I probably should have been thinking about my wife, Camilla, but the fact of the matter is that I was thinking about the ending of the book. And once I realized how the pieces fit together, I wrote that book in about a year.

TM: Your protagonist, Sheldon Horowitz, an 82-year-old Marine veteran who lost is son in Vietnam, feels guilt but has a second chance to redeem himself. Guilt seems to be a big engine in your fiction. Is that a fair thing to say?

DBM: Guilt is a funny word. It comes about from making decisions that in retrospect you feel were fundamentally wrong—getting drunk and running over a kid, pretty straightforward. Sheldon’s guilt over his son is far more complex than that—it’s tied up with patriotism, his Jewish identity, things that are too complex to pin on a bad decision. They’re the consequences of a long life lived. I think loss is a stronger word.

TM: Let’s bring it up to your new book, American by Day. Marcus Ødegård, the brother of the protagonist Sigrid, an Oslo cop—he’s off in America and he’s feeling guilt or loss or regret over his mother’s death from cancer years ago. And now his lover in America dies under mysterious circumstances—I don’t want to give too much away—but again I’m thinking about Sheldon Horowitz. Here’s something that happened years ago that a person’s carrying around like a stone in his stomach—and trying to figure out how to come to terms with it. I guess you could call that loss.

DBM: I think in Marcus’s case he feels he should have spoken up and he didn’t—and that led to his mother’s death. With Marcus I was thinking specifically of a scene from a Saul Bellow book called Seize the Day. A middle-aged guy is having a breakdown, saying, “Are you telling me that I’m not who I think I am? That I’ve lived my life under an illusion of who I thought I was?” If you wake up and you’re 50 years old and you find out you’ve been living under a delusion since childhood and clearly you’re never going to recover the life you might have led, if only—that was a very interesting and powerful theme that I wanted to explore as a way of looking at the way tragedy and crime can go together. I wanted the story of Marcus and his American girlfriend, Lydia, to be about the result of these rich but incredibly different lives, that the collision of those lives created this moment of possibility that ended very, very badly. That felt like an interesting way to create a story—not so much a crime, but to create a story that on the surface looks like a straightforward mystery, but the ultimate mystery is the way these two lives collided to create a tragedy.

TM: You’re living in Oslo now?

DBM: Right.

TM: How did you wind up there?

DBM: I met a Norwegian girl and she outsmarted me.

TM: Aha. Where did you two meet?

DBM: Geneva. We were both working in the same think tank on weapons. Basically it was an office romance.

TM: The Scandinavian literary tradition is of course gigantic—from Ibsen to Knut Hamsun to Astrid Lindgren up to Jo Nesbø. As an American writer in Norway, is that a cloud over your head? Something you don’t think about? An inspiration? I’m curious what it’s like writing in a place that’s very different from where you grew up in New England.

DBM: I’ve been living abroad for 22 years now. The fact is, I still haven’t read Jo Nesbø and he’s not on my short list. That kind of crime novel—where something horrific happens and somebody’s investigating and everybody’s miserable—it just bores me. I see myself as an American writer, and what I mean by that is that I’m writing into the American literary tradition and drawing quite heavily from it. Though I’m happy to be included in a global conversation on literature as well, that’s the footing from which I have that conversation.

When Don DeLillo published Underworld, it was came out in France. At the beginning of the book, it said, “translated from the American.” Right? And DeLillo said in an interview that he actually quite liked that because while he and everyone else knows that American is not a language, it was nice to emphasize the vernacular. It’s kind of a compliment, if you choose to see it that way.

TM: You’re not reading Jo Nesbø. So what are you reading?

DBM: What’s on my desk is Richard Russo’s debut, Mohawk. After that I want to read Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter, who I have not read before but I read the first chapter and loved it. I just finished The Marriage Plot from Jeffrey Eugenides, which I quite liked. I just finished The Weight of Ink by Rachel Kadish, which I thought was exquisite. I do not write reviews, but I did write to her and tell her I think she’s absolutely wonderful. I haven’t checked in with Nick Hornby in a while. Then there’s Andy Weir’s new book, Artemis—he wrote The Martian, which became the movie with Matt Damon.

TM: I guess that leads to the inevitable question: What are you working on now?

DBM: I’ve written two things. I’ve written a draft—I don’t know if I should call it science fiction, maybe speculative fiction—of a post-post-post-post-apocalyptic story set a couple hundred years in the future. It’s called Radio Life, and I’m going back to revisions of it. I haven’t shared it with anybody but my agent. And I’m writing a contemporary inter-family drama set on the coast of New England called A Simple Arrangement. I’m hoping to have both of them done, in draft form anyway, by the end of the year.

TM: Are you a full-time writer now?

DBM: I would say yes. I feel the novelists around me are extraordinarily good, and while you’re always competing against yourself to be the best writer you can be, you’re also competing against the market in order to survive, and I can’t write this stuff on my knee on the way to class anymore. Which isn’t to say you try to anticipate the market, because that’s almost pointless.

TM: But you are trying to make a living.

DBM: Yeah, I have a wife and two kids and this is what I’m doing. So if I can’t pull it off, we don’t eat. It has gone extraordinarily well. I’m not a bestseller so I don’t have bestseller money, but I’m writing full time now and have been for about two years.

TM: Is it a good life?

DBM: It’s wonderful. It’s like walking a high wire without a net, but it’s a second career and it’s a chance to turn a corner. I feel I can really appreciate it at this point in my life because it’s the first job I’ve ever had where it’s just absolute blue sky, where instead of being penalized for being creative, I’m encouraged to do it. It’s an amazing space to be in.

This interview was produced in partnership with Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

The Millions Top Ten: June 2017


 

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.
2.

Lincoln in the Bardo
5 months

2.
3.

A Separation
5 months

3.
4.

Ill Will
3 months

4.
8.

Men Without Women: Stories
2 months

5.
7.

American War
3 months

6.
5.

Scratch: Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living
5 months

7.
9.

Homesick for Another World
6 months

8.


The Nix
1 month

9.


Eileen
1 month

10.


The Stories of Breece D’J Pancake
1 month

 

One book dropped out, two ascended to our Hall of Fame, and that means three slots opened up for new titles on our June Top Ten. Before getting to the newcomers, congratulations are in order for The North Water author Ian McGuire, and especially for Derek B. Miller, whose Norwegian by Night dominated the Top Ten on the strength of Richard Russo’s recommendation. Both authors are off to the Hall of Fame this month. At the same time, Zadie Smith’s Swing Time has fallen off of the list after four months. Smith fans, fear not. In the past, authors have fallen off our list only to reappear later on, so it’s possible for her to send her second book (after NW, which reached in 2013) to the Hall of Fame in due time.

Filling the new slots are three very different books following three very different trajectories.

The Nix by Nathan Hill finally joins the June Top Ten after hovering among the “Near Misses” since last December. At the time, our own Garth Risk Hallberg highlighted the book’s “disparate concerns — video games, parental neglect, political anger” and praised the ways they’re “bound together by the warmth, charm, and wit of the author’s voice.” Nick Ripatrazone went further, invoking a lofty comparison in his teaser for our Great 2016 Book Preview:
Eccentricity, breadth, and length are three adjectives that often earn writers comparisons to Thomas Pynchon. Hill tackles politics more headlong than Pynchon in this well-timed release.
This is Hill’s first time on one of our monthly lists.

Ottessa Moshfegh, meanwhile, is no stranger to them. Impressively, Eileen is the second Moshfegh book on this very month’s Top Ten, after Homesick for Another World. It’s Ottessa Moshfegh’s world; we just live in it.

Finally, The Stories of Breece D’J Pancake launched onto our list thanks to an insightful, moving, and comprehensive review from Mike Murphy. “Breece Pancake could see the future of America and it must have scared the hell out of him,” Murphy writes of the late author, who took his own life in 1979, before this story collection was published posthumously.

This month’s other near misses included: The Idiot, Exit WestEnigma Variations, Blind Spot, and The Night Ocean. See Also: Last month’s list.

The Millions Top Ten: May 2017


 

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 May.

This Month
Last Month

Title
On List

1.
1.

Norwegian by Night
6 months

2.
2.

Lincoln in the Bardo
4 months

3.
4.

A Separation
4 months

4.
7.

Ill Will
2 months

5.
5.

Scratch: Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living
4 months

6.
6.

The North Water
6 months

7.
8.

American War
2 months

8.


Men Without Women: Stories
1 month

9.
9.

Homesick for Another World
5 months

10.
10.

Swing Time
4 months

 

April showers bring May flowers, but a month of May book purchases launched Michael Chabon’s Moonglow into our Hall of Fame. It’s the author’s second appearance there; Telegraph Avenue made the list four years back.

Chabon’s success freed up an opening on this month’s Top Ten. Filling his place in 8th position is another author who’s no stranger to our Hall of Fame: Haruki Murakami. In our Great 2017 Book Preview, Murakami’s latest story collection, Men Without Women, was said to “concern the lives of men who, for one reason or another, find themselves alone.” Emily St. John Mandel continued:
In “Scheherazade,” a man living in isolation receives regular visits from a woman who claims to remember a past life as a lamprey; in “Yesterday,” a university student finds himself drawn into the life of a strange coworker who insists that the student go on a date with his girlfriend.
Could this book become Murakami’s third to make our Hall of Fame? Only time will tell.

Meanwhile Derek B. Miller’s Norwegian by Night continues its reign over our list, further demonstrating that if you want to sell books to Millions readers, you ought to get an endorsement from Richard Russo first.

Elsewhere on the list, a few movers moved and shakers shook, but overall things held steady. Next month, we’ll likely graduate two titles to our Hall of Fame, which means we’ll welcome two more newcomers. By then, we’ll be in full swing with our Great Second-Half 2017 Book Preview, which was a shocking thing to type. Can 2018 come soon enough?

This month’s other near misses included: The IdiotEileenThe Nix, Exit West, and Enigma Variations. See Also: Last month’s list.

The Millions Top Ten: April 2017


 

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.
1.

Norwegian by Night
5 months

2.
2.

Lincoln in the Bardo
3 months

3.
4.

Moonglow
6 months

4.
5.

A Separation
3 months

5.
7.

Scratch: Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living
3 months

6.
6.

The North Water
5 months

7.


Ill Will
1 month

8.


American War
1 month

9.
8.

Homesick for Another World
4 months

10.
10.

Swing Time
3 months

 

Spring has sprung but things are not what they seem. Here in Baltimore, watermen welcomed reports that the Chesapeake Bay crab population is the strongest its been in years, and yet simultaneously we got news that efforts to strengthen the Bay are on dire straits. Nationwide, things are not what they seem. Spring has sprung, and yet it snowed in Utah last weekend.

Appearances deceive. On our Top Ten list this month, Otessa Moshfegh’s Homesick for Another World fell one spot — perhaps because Brooks Sterritt disgusted y’all with his review for our site — but at the same time, Moshfegh’s earlier collection, Eileen, got a strong enough boost to make our list of near misses (at the bottom of this post). What is down is also up.

After six months of strong showings, we graduated two titles to The Millions’s Hall of Fame: Tana French’s The Trespasser and Ann Patchett’s Commonwealth. Both have been there before: French six years ago for Faithful Place, and Patchett a year later for The Getaway Car: A Practical Memoir About Writing and Life.

Their spots on this month’s list are filled by works from Dan Chaon and Omar El Akkad.

Chaon’s novel, Ill Will, has been described by our own Edan Lepucki as being “about grief, about being unable to accept reality, and about the myriad ways we trick ourselves about our selves.” In a wide-ranging conversation that ran on our site last month, the two discussed, among other things, Chaon’s fascination with characters’ names:
Names are weirdly important to me. … I don’t know if it’s superstition or magic or what, but for me a name somehow breathes life into a puppet, gives shape to an abstraction. The characters often refuse to perform unless they have been properly christened.
Meanwhile El Akkad’s debut, American War, “presents a highly plausible dystopia in the not so distant American future,” according to Nicholas Cannariato:
El Akkad deploys a subtle critique of torture as not only immoral, but ineffective — and a direct critique of the Bush administration’s embrace of torture and Donald Trump’s lurid flirtation with it.
Next month, we look forward to opening at least one new spot on the list. Which newcomer will come forth? Stay tuned to find out. (And enjoy the Spring as best you can!)

This month’s other near misses included: Enigma Variations, EileenHere I AmThe Nix, and Version Control. See Also: Last month’s list.

The Millions Top Ten: March 2017


 

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.

Norwegian by Night
4 months

2.
3.

Lincoln in the Bardo
2 months

3.
2.

The Trespasser
6 months

4.
4.

Moonglow
5 months

5.
8.

A Separation
2 months

6.
5.

The North Water
4 months

7.
6.

Scratch: Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living
2 months

8.
10.

Homesick for Another World
3 months

9.
7.

Commonwealth
6 months

10.


Swing Time
2 months

 

News broke recently that Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad will be adapted for the screen by Moonlight director Barry Jenkins, and it’s hard to say what Whitehead’s going to celebrate more: that wonderful development, or the fact that his novel, after a six-month run on our Top Ten list, has at last graduated to our site’s hallowed Hall of Fame. Regardless, it can be said that good news seldom comes alone.

Filling the open spot on our list is Zadie Smith, whose latest novel, Swing Time, returns to our list after a three-month absence. (It first cracked the rankings in December.) At this pace, look for Smith, who’s previously reached our Hall of Fame four years ago with NW, to send her second work there in March 2018.

Elsewhere on the list, several titles swapped positions, and George Saunders’s Lincoln In the Bardo overtook Tana French’s The Trespasser to claim second place. On our site this week, Millions staffer Jacob Lambert penned a simultaneously hysterical and haunting “modern” adaptation of Saunders’s first novel, featuring a lumbering, slovenly beast by now familiar to us all:
Even in the gloom, his skin held an unhealthy rusty glow; his hair, if one might call it that, had an aspect of spun sugar, though it did not appetize.
Meanwhile, Manjula Martin’s Scratch anthology – which chronicles the ways writers do and do not make money from their craft — held fast in the middle of our list. Millions editor Lydia Kiesling caught up with Martin last week to discuss the way the book came to be, the struggles of trying to make a living from writing, and how writers, editors, and publishers alike feel about the same:
On the one hand I’m like yeah, people who do work should be paid. On the other hand…there is a way in which artistic value cannot be quantified. These two things can be true at the same time. But I think where things become far less ambivalent is when it comes to writing for publications and companies that make a lot of money off your work while you’re not making money off your work.
Skulking just beyond our Top Ten ranks this month are two particularly notable titles: Ill Will by Dan Chaon, who was recently interviewed by Edan Lepucki; and Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing, which made it to the Championship Round of the Tournament of Books. Will either break into the rankings of our list next time? Well, there’s only one way to find out.

This month’s other near misses included: Here I Am, Version Control, and The Nix. See Also: Last month’s list.

The Millions Top Ten: February 2017


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.

Norwegian by Night
3 months

2.
4.

The Trespasser
5 months

3.


Lincoln in the Bardo
1 month

4.
5.

Moonglow
4 months

5.
6.

The North Water
3 months

6.


Scratch: Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living
1 month

7.
8.

Commonwealth
5 months

8.


A Separation
1 month

9.
4.

The Underground Railroad
6 months

10.
7.

Homesick for Another World
2 months

We sold so many copies of The Sellout over the past seven months that Paul Beatty’s novel is now off to our Hall of Fame, and if current trends hold it looks like it’ll soon by joined by Tana French’s The Trespasser and Ann Patchett’s Commonwealth. Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, too, has the Hall of Fame in its sights, although it’ll need to hang on for one more month, and momentum is not on its side – it dropped five spots on our list this month.

Newcomers on this month’s list include George Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo, Katie Kitamura’s A Separation, and Scratch: Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living edited by Manjula Martin. All three were previously featured on our Great 2017 Book Preview.

“Reading Lincoln in the Bardo is thus, itself, its own kind of bardo,” wrote Louise McCune in her recent review for our site, which bound the novel – Saunders’s first – to the Tibetan Buddhist concept of “something other than death.”
It is an intermediate state. In Buddhist cosmology, it is most commonly understood as the period of transmigration, between death and new life, when the consciousness is waiting on the platform for the proverbial next train.
Scratch, meanwhile, concerns itself with something far more immediate: money, and the making of one’s livelihood. The collection includes more than 30 essays, each focused on writers’ precarious quests to earn income from their craft. Its appearance on our list was no doubt aided by “Ghost Stories,” an excerpt from Sari Botton’s contribution to the anthology, in which the author highlights some of her “most memorable deals from almost two decades in the [ghost writing] trenches.”
For me, ghostwriting is a job — one I wouldn’t do if I didn’t need the money. Like any job, it has its pros and cons, its ups and downs — lots of freedom, the satisfaction of helping someone tell their story; but also, frequently, having to handle intense personalities with kid gloves.
Dropping out of this month’s list were Jonathan Safran Foer’s Here I Am, which was not exactly celebrated on our site (citation), as well as Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing, which most certainly was (citations 1, 2, 3, and 4). Until next month, I’ll leave it to y’all to sort that out.

This month’s near misses included: The NixSwing Time, and Hillbilly Elegy. See Also: Last month’s list.

The Millions Top Ten: January 2017


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.

Norwegian by Night
2 months

2.
2.

The Sellout
6 months

3.
4.

The Underground Railroad
5 months

4.
3.

The Trespasser
4 months

5.
5.

Moonglow
3 months

6.
9.

The North Water
2 months

7.


Homesick for Another World
1 month

8.
7.

Commonwealth
4 months

9.


Homegoing
1 month

10.
8.

Here I Am
5 months

New year, same frontrunner: Norwegian by Night, no doubt propelled atop our list on the strength of Richard Russo’s recommendation, begins the year in first position. On its heels, The SelloutThe Underground RailroadThe Trespasser, and Moonglow jostle around. Swing Time drops out of our rankings, which was perhaps a result of Kaila Philo’s underwhelmed review for our site:

Ultimately, while Swing Time makes admirable artistic choices  — who doesn’t love a nonlinear narrative? — the main issue I take with this novel has to do with how these choices don’t mesh well to create the relevant masterpiece it could have been. The whole does not amount to the sum of its parts, in other words.

Ascending to our Hall of Fame, meanwhile, is Ninety-Nine Stories of God, the latest collection from Joy Williams, praised by our own Nick Ripatrazone (who provides a scant fifty reasons) here.
All of this action freed up spots for two newcomers on this month’s list, both of which were featured on our book previews: Ottessa Moshfegh’s Homesick for Another World (2017 Book Preview) and Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing (2016 Book Preview).
In Moshfegh’s case, the timing is logical. The book was previewed, it came out this past month, and y’all promptly bought it. But what explains Gyasi’s debut on our list almost a full year after we first previewed it, and half a year since it first published? Well, it recently won the John Leonard Prize for best debut novel. So there you go.
This month’s near misses included: The NixPond, Scratch: Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living, and The Lyrics: 1961-2012. See Also: Last month’s list.

The Millions Top Ten: December 2016


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.


Norwegian by Night
1 month

2.
1.

The Sellout
5 months

3.
3.

The Trespasser
3 months

4.
4.

The Underground Railroad
4 months

5.
5.

Moonglow
2 months

6.
2.

Ninety-Nine Stories of God
6 months

7.
7.

Commonwealth
3 months

8.
8.

Here I Am
4 months

9.


The North Water
1 month

10.


Swing Time
1 month

Richard Russo wasn’t kidding when he wrote in our Year in Reading series that the best novel he’d read this autumn was “a bit of a sleeper, though its fans are oh-so-passionate.” For evidence of said passion, look no further than the top-spot debut for Derek B. Miller’s Norwegian by Night on this month’s list. Billed by Russo as “one of those books that completely transcends its genre,” it focuses on a transplanted New Yorker suddenly on the run in Norway. “If you like those other Scandihoovian thriller writers,” Russo wrote, “this is your book.”
The rest of the December list remains largely unchanged from the one we saw in November, owing perhaps to the long tail of the aforementioned Year in Reading series, which will no doubt start influencing subsequent lists as early as next month. Meanwhile, we welcome two newcomers on the lower half of our list this month, which are likely to rise as the Year in Reading dust settles, and as holiday gift cards are spent.
In ninth position is Ian McGuire’s The North Water, which was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize and named by the New York Times’s editors as one of the Ten Best Books of the Year. The novel is a thriller set on a nineteenth-century Arctic whaling ship with a killer aboard, which sounds to this Top Ten writer like a very distinct flavor of Hell.
Zadie Smith’s Swing Time occupies the tenth spot. Smith’s novel, her fifth, is complicated. As Kaila Philo noted in her review for our site, its protagonist “has no name, no signifiers, no grounding, only to be figured out through her relationships, interactions, and circumstances.” She continues:

Our protagonist here is so nebulous she becomes an idea for the reader to grasp at and attempt to put together, like a puzzle made of stardust, but once the reader finishes the puzzle they’re left with a sparkling cloud reminiscent of nothing.

(Bonus: If you haven’t yet, you should read the text of Smith’s acceptance speech at the 2016 Welt Literature Prize.)
Lastly, Annie Proulx’s Barkskins graduates to our Hall of Fame this month, becoming the 20th title to ascend to those hallowed ranks in the year of 2016. Here’s to a new year!
This month’s near misses included: The NixThe Daily Henry James, and The Gene: An Intimate History. See Also: Last month’s list.

A Year in Reading: Richard Russo

Lately, I’ve been reading a lot of nonfiction, some terrific stuff.  Say you’re writing a sentence and the noun you’ve chose is “ferocity.”  Some writers would let that noun stand on its own, but you decide to intensify it with an adjective.  Which one?  Well, if you come up with the word “warthog,” then your name is Michael Paterniti and you’re the most talented essayist in the land.  Your latest book of essays is called Love and Other Ways of Dying, of which too much good cannot be said.  I was also blown away by David France’s chronicle of the AIDS epidemic, How To Survive a Plague.  The subject matter is too bleak for you?  Actually, no.  You’d be selling yourself short.  Yeah, it’s a heartbreaking story, but it’s also a funny and, in the end, uplifting.  Susan Faludi’s terrific memoir In the Darkroom is ostensibly about her transgender father, who becomes a woman at age 70, but it’s about so much more — the weight of history upon individuals, the interconnectedness of all the forces that make us who we are.  It’s also a study of fascism: how its seeds are sewn and nourished through fear and scapegoating.  Need I say that it’s timely reading?

Fiction?  Well, the best novel I read this autumn is a bit of a sleeper, though its fans are oh-so-passionate.  Derek B. Miller’s Norwegian by Night is one of those books that completely transcends its genre and offers us one of the most memorable characters — Sheldon Horowitz — that I’ve encountered in years.  If you like those other Scandihoovian thriller writers, this is your book.

More from A Year in Reading 2016

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