Nox

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The Ultimate List: 25 Gifts That Writers Will Actually Use

Two years ago I wrote a holiday gift guide for writers after I realized that I had a drawer full of blank journals that I had never used, all given to me by friends and family wanting to support my writing habit. I knew I couldn’t be the only writer with this particular surplus, so I decided to draw up a list of items that writers might actually use. I repeated the exercise in 2012, coming up with ten new suggestions. This year’s list is an updated version of those two lists, now all in one place with a few new items added to the end, for a grand total of 25 writer-friendly gifts. 1.  A Cheesy New Bestseller One of the best presents I ever got was a hardcover copy of The Nanny Diaries from my roommate. I really wanted it, but there were over 300 people on the library’s waiting list and I wasn't going to shell out $25 for something I was unlikely to read twice. The funny thing was that I never told my roommate that I wanted to read The Nanny Diaries. She just guessed that I had a secret craving for it. Of course, it can be as hard to gauge your friend’s taste in pop culture as it is in high culture, but it’s better to guess wrong in the pop culture arena, because your friend is more likely to exchange it for something she likes better. Whereas, if you give her Gravity’s Rainbow, she’ll keep it for years out of obligation. 2.  Good lipstick Writers are often broke. If they have $30 to spare, they are going to spend it on dinner, booze, or new books. Not lipstick. But writers are pale from spending so much time inside and could use some color. Make-up can be a tricky gift because it suggests that you think your friend’s face could use improvement. That’s why it’s important to go to a department store make-up counter and buy something frivolous and indulgent, like a single tube of red lipstick or some face powder or blush in a nice-looking case. 3.  Foreign language learning software Most writers wish they knew more languages. It can also be relaxing to be rendered inarticulate in a new language, in that it offers a real break from personal expression, nuance, and irony. At the same time, learning a new language sharpens your native tongue, and expands your vocabulary. It’s sort of like cross training. 4.  A Bathrobe John Cheever famously donned a suit every morning in order to write. But as Ann Beattie revealed, and as a generation of bloggers already knows, most writers wear awful clothing while they are working. Help your writer friend out by giving her a beautiful robe to cover up her bizarre ensembles. Even if she already has one, she probably hasn't’t washed it in a long time, and could use another. 5.  A Manicure I bite my nails, especially when I’m writing. I've noticed that a lot of other writers have suspiciously short nails, too. Manicures help. Also, manicures get writers out of the house and out for a walk. 6.  “Freedom”, the internet-blocking software “Freedom” is a computer program that blocks the internet on your computer for up to eight hours. I don’t understand why it’s effective, since it’s relatively easy to circumvent, but as soon as I turn it on, I stay off the internet for hours at a time. (There is also a program called “Anti-social”, which only blocks the social parts of the internet, like Facebook and Twitter.) 7.  Booze, coffee, and other stimulants Find out what your friend likes to drink and buy a really nice version of that thing. If your friend is a coffee or tea drinker, find out how he brews it and buy him really good beans or tea leaves. Even better, find out what cafe he frequents and see if they sell gift certificates. 8.  Yoga Classes Yoga does wonders for anxiety, depression, and aching backs, three afflictions common in writers. Most yoga classes also incorporate some kind of meditation practice, which is also very helpful. 9.  A pet This is not a gift to be given casually and definitely not as a surprise, but if you live with a writer and you've been on the fence on whether or not to get a furry companion, consider this advice on how to be more prolific, from Muriel Spark: “If you want to concentrate deeply on some problem, and especially some piece of writing or paper-work, you should acquire a cat... The effect of a cat on your concentration is remarkable, very mysterious.” Another prolific writer, Jennifer Weiner, recommends dogs on her website, where she's posted a list of tips for aspiring writers. Dogs, she explains, foster discipline, because they must be walked several times a day. Furthermore, Weiner notes, walking is as beneficial for the writer as it is for the dog: “While you're walking, you're thinking about plot, or characters, or that tricky bit of dialogue that's had you stumped for days.” 10.  Freezable homemade foods: casseroles, soups, breads, and baked goods. This is a potentially Mom-ish gift, but if your friend is on deadline, a new parent, or just far from home during the holidays, a home-cooked meal could be a lovely gesture. I emphasize freezable because it should be something that you make at home and leave with your friend to eat later. If you can’t cook, buy a pie. 11.  A hand-written letter When I first recommended this gift, two years ago, I pointed out that a lot of writers still get rejection letters through the U.S. mail, so it would be a nice change of pace to receive a note from a friend. But over the past couple years, I’ve noticed that magazines are sending most of their rejections via email. However, that simply means that a handwritten card would be an even more astonishing and special occurrence. 12.  The Gift, by Lewis Hyde The Gift examines the role of artists in market economies and is the perfect antidote to all the earnest, helpful guides that aim to teach writers how to be more publishable, saleable, and disciplined. Where most writing guides make writers feel they could succeed if only they were more productive and efficient, The Gift argues that productivity and efficiency are market-based terms that have little meaning in gift economies, which is where many creative writers exchange and share their work. Another way of putting it is to say that The Gift makes writers feel less crazy. 13.  A Bookshelf Portrait If every bookshelf is a portrait of its owner, then why not commission an actual portrait of a bookshelf? That’s what Your Ideal Bookshelf allows booklovers to do, offering hand-painted portraits of “the books that changed your life, that defined who you are, that you read again and again.” If that seems like too much pressure, you can purchase prints of other people’s ideal bookshelves, as well as drawings of ideal bookshelves organized by genre, subject, and author. Harry Potter fanatics can find portraits of the entire series, while home cooks can choose from several different shelves of culinary classics. The creators of Your Ideal Bookshelf have also produced a book, My Ideal Bookshelf, which showcases the favorite bookshelves of a variety of writers and artists, including Patti Smith, Junot Diaz, Miranda July, and Judd Apatow. 14.  Bookends Bookends are underrated. Not only do they keep books from falling off the shelf, they allow you to make a bookshelf anywhere — on a desk, in a windowsill, or atop a bedside table. Even ugly bookends end up being used, so go ahead and spring for ones in the shape of golden pigs or poodles. 15.  Clothing With a Literary Print Last year, I highlighted the prints of fashion designer Mary Katranzou’s fall 2012 collection, which included a dress whose bodice was dominated by a red Olivetti typewriter. This year, I was hoping to recommend Tommy Hilfiger’s library shirt dress, but unfortunately, it is already sold out. (Maybe you can find it on ebay.) For a more reliable purveyor of book-inspired clothing, check out Out of Print, an online shop that sells tee shirts and other items that feature “iconic and often out of print book covers.” 16.  An Elaborately Beautiful Book 2012 brought Chris Ware’s graphic novel, Building Stories, a book that was included on several “Year In Reading” lists, and which got me thinking about other beautifully designed books: Anne Carson’s poem Nox; Lauren Redniss’s biography of Marie and Pierre Curie, Radioactive: A Tale of Love and Fallout; and Vladimir Nabokov’s unfinished novel-in-index-cards, The Original of Laura. To this list I would like to add two 2013 titles: David Rakoff’s novel-in-verse: Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish and Samantha Hahn’s book of illustrations of fictional heroines, Well-Read Women. 17.  A subscription to Journal of the Month Literary journals! There are so many of them, and so many of them are good, and almost all of them would like you to read a copy before you submit your stories to them. Journal of the Month helps writers sample a wide variety of journals by sending subscribers a different journal each month. Each month’s selection is a surprise, and you can buy subscriptions of 3, 6, or 12 months. You can also choose to receive magazines on a quarterly basis. 18.  Draw It With Your Eyes Closed This unusual, practical, gossipy, eclectic, and highly entertaining anthology is a collection of assignments for fine arts students. But it’s unexpectedly useful for writers, too — or, at least, it was useful to me, helping me to think about the writing process in new ways. I bought if for my brother-in-law, who teaches drawing, but found myself unable to put it down after reading a couple of entries. With contributions from art teachers, art students, artists, and art professionals, Draw It With Your Eyes Closed delves into the creative process of artists by focusing on their art school training. If there’s an equivalent to this book from the world of creative writing MFAs, I’d love to read it, but I doubt it’d be as raucous or mischievous. 19.  The Dictionary of American Regional English When I was growing up, my parents had a slang dictionary, which I dorkily consulted in order to learn the meanings of certain colorful insults. But I quickly found the dictionary to be more interesting when I browsed beyond the curse words. The Dictionary of American Regional English is kind of like the slang dictionary except that it is six volumes, and based on fifty years of research. The final volume was completed last year, an event that one of its founding researchers did not live to see. Long a resource for editors and lawyers, it’s the kind of book that any word nerd could appreciate. 20.  A Quill Pen Okay, this is a ridiculous gift idea, I admit it. But with the current enthusiasm for typewriters going strong, can quill pens be far behind? There are hundreds on Etsy, from turkey feather models to Harry Potter-inspired models. 21.  A Fireplace According to poet Adam Kirsch, “Every writer needs a fireplace”: On publication day, an author should burn a copy of his book, to acknowledge that what he accomplished is negligible compared to what he imagined and intended. Only this kind of burnt offering might be acceptable to the Muse he has let down. The ultimate in old-school technology, a fireplace (or perhaps, a fire table?) allows writers to dispose of unsatisfying drafts in a dramatic fashion. Sometimes the trashcan icon at the bottom of your computer screen just doesn’t feel definitive enough. 22.  A Place to Write Virgina Woolf said it best when she wrote that a woman “must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” Poet Brenda Shaughnessy put a somewhat finer point on it in Poets & Writers, when she speculated that the happiness of her marriage to fellow poet Craig Morgan Teicher depended on a shared rented writing studio: This might be the true secret of the sane poet-couple: Rent writing space. Make it as private as possible. This single thing has completely changed our lives. How do you give someone a place to write? It could mean finding someone a cubicle in your office, renting a studio, lending a summer cottage or winter cabin, helping someone to finance a residency, or simply rearranging a shared space to make room for a bookshelf, a comfy chair, or a desk. 23.  Childcare If you are the spouse of a writer and the two of you have a small or even medium-sized child (or children) here is a foolproof gift idea: Take yourself and the kiddos away for a long weekend. Go to the grandparents, the zoo, the casino, wherever. Leave early Friday morning; do not come back until late Sunday night. 24.  A Donation to a Literary Charity A gift to the literary community is a gift to your writer-friend. Almost all literary magazines, libraries, and writer’s residencies are non-profit organizations. You can also help build and create new literary communities by donating to a charity that promotes literacy. Here is a partial list of groups whose work brings books, literature, and writing resources to those who might not otherwise have access (please feel free to leave additional suggestions in the comments): First Book provides new books to kids; Reading Is Fundamental delivers books and reading resources directly to the homes of families in need; 826 National is a network of free writing centers (pioneered by author Dave Eggers); Literacy Partners is a New York City-based non-profit that helps adults learn to read; and finally, Books Through Bars, another non-profit based in New York City, provides books to prisoners. 25.  A Blank Journal I realize I am contradicting myself with this last recommendation, but earlier this fall, when I was interviewing Dani Shapiro for The Millions, she mentioned that she often starts new projects in a fresh notebook, saying “there’s such freedom in a notebook.” Her comment made me think of my drawer full of blank journals, those gifts I never used but for some reason cannot not give away. I always thought I kept them out of guilt but maybe the truth is that I keep them because they are hopeful reminders of the freedom that writing can provide—that sense of openness and possibility that comes not only at the beginning of projects but sometimes in the midst of composing a sentence. So, go ahead and give your writer friend a beautiful blank notebook. She may never write a word in it but will likely keep it as a symbol of the elusive beauty of the writing process.

A Year in Reading: Jane Hirshfield

Published as poetry, Anne Carson’s Nox is closer by far to W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz than to any book of pocketable lyrics. Ultimately uncategorizable, this physically onomatopoetic facing of the death of a long-absent, long-estranged brother comes (as effects or ashes do) in a box. The pages not sewn, not glued, but accordion-folded into one inseparable, extendable fan of grief. On the left-hand pages: an OED style meditation on each Latin word of the saddest elegy ever written, that of Catullus for his own brother. The scholarship is visibly stained by its originating situation -- almost every entry holds some reference to night, to vanishment. On the right-hand pages: meditations on history-gathering itself, familial photos, single lines of thought or perception, stories -- a record of how the mind scratches against the obdurate to raise some glint of comprehension. Both typography and images take the form of ransom notes, rubbings, recollections, glimpsed parts of an unfathomable whole. There is a story. What matters -- as always, in matters of literature -- is the penumbra around it in every direction. A book can be a battering ram against the doors of the actual. The intention is not to break but to break into. Resistance, in electrical circuitry, is both the manifestation of the objective world’s recalcitrance and the part that throws heat and light. I have perhaps made Nox sound difficult, depressing, a book of distance. I suppose it is -- I owned it for a year before I could bring myself to read it through fully. The density demanded it simply sit near at hand, a mute and almost mineral presence. Bring yourself to enter, it becomes rivetting, a daredevil-defiant and heartbroken confrontation of fracture. The welding torch’s ferocity arcs through it, drawing the eye it burns. More from A Year in Reading 2012 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 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.

10 More Holiday Gifts That Writers Will Actually Use

Once again, it’s time to buy a gift for the writer in your life, that fickle person who probably already has more classic novels and Moleskine notebooks than he knows what to do with. Last year’s guide was inspired by my own collection of blank notebooks and high-quality pens, beautiful gifts that I had never found occasion to use. This year’s list is inspired by my e-reader, which I received last year as a Christmas present. It took me most of the year to incorporate it into my reading routine, but now, as more of my reading happens electronically, I’m feeling nostalgic for all things bookish and old-fashioned. Judging by the market for vintage typewriters, I know I’m not the only one feeling this way. So, here it is, a list for the sentimental writer, with a couple of book recommendations thrown in for good measure. 1.  A Bookshelf Portrait If every bookshelf is a portrait of its owner, then why not commission an actual portrait of a bookshelf? That’s what Your Ideal Bookshelf allows booklovers to do, offering hand-painted portraits of “the books that changed your life, that defined who you are, that you read again and again.” If that seems like too much pressure, you can purchase prints of other people’s ideal bookshelves, as well as drawings of ideal bookshelves organized by genre, subject, and author. Harry Potter fanatics can find portraits of the entire series, while home cooks can choose from several different shelves of culinary classics. The creators of Your Ideal Bookshelf have also produced a book, My Ideal Bookshelf, which showcases the favorite bookshelves of a variety of writers and artists, including Patti Smith, Junot Diaz, Miranda July, and Judd Apatow. 2.  Bookends Bookends are underrated. Not only do they keep books from falling off the shelf, they allow you to make a bookshelf anywhere — on a desk, in a windowsill, or atop a bedside table. Even ugly bookends end up being used, so go ahead and spring for ones in the shape of golden pigs or green poodles. 3.  Typewriter-inspired clothing The prints in fashion designer Mary Katranzou’s fall 2012 collection were partially inspired by old school office equipment, and included a cape printed with the circular numbers of a rotary phone dial, skirts printed with classic yellow #2 pencils, and most striking of all, a dress whose bodice was dominated by a red Olivetti typewriter. The runway items are hard to come by (not to mention, several thousand dollars), but you can purchase a Katranzou rotary-phone dial tee shirt here, with the proceeds going to charity. 4.  An Elaborately Beautiful Book The recent publication of Chris Ware’s graphic novel, Building Stories, got me thinking about the many beautifully designed books that have been released in the past few years. To name a few: Anne Carson’s poem Nox; Lauren Redniss’s biography of Marie and Pierre Curie, Radioactive: A Tale of Love and Fallout; and Vladimir Nabokov’s unfinished novel-in-index-cards, The Original of Laura. In addition to being wonderful literary works, they are also beautiful objects, the kind of book that simply cannot exist in electronic form, and which readers will keep for a lifetime. 5.  A subscription to Journal of the Month Literary journals! There are so many of them, and so many of them are good, and almost all of them would like you to read a copy before you submit your stories to them. Journal of the Month helps writers sample a wide variety of journals by sending subscribers a different journal each month. Each month’s selection is a surprise, and you can buy subscriptions of 3, 6, or 12 months. You can also choose to receive magazines on a quarterly basis. 6.  Draw It With Your Eyes Closed This unusual, practical, gossipy, eclectic, and highly entertaining anthology is a collection of assignments for fine arts students. But it’s unexpectedly useful for writers, too — or, at least, it was useful to me, helping me to think about the writing process in new ways. I bought if for my brother-in-law, who teaches drawing, but found myself unable to put it down after reading a couple of entries. With contributions from art teachers, art students, artists, and art professionals, some within the academic community and some without, Draw It With Your Eyes Closed delves into the creative process of artists by focusing on their art school training. If there’s an equivalent to this book from the world of creative writing MFAs, I’d love to read it, but I doubt it’d be as raucous or mischievous. 7.  The Dictionary of American Regional English When I was growing up, my parents had a slang dictionary, which I dorkily consulted in order to learn the meanings of certain colorful insults. But I quickly found the dictionary to be more interesting when I browsed beyond the curse words. The Dictionary of American Regional English is kind of like the slang dictionary except that it is six volumes, and its contents are fifty years in the making. Based on hundreds of years of historical documents, as well as interviews taken from across the country, it is a comprehensive record of American dialect. The final volume was completed earlier this year, an event that one of its founding researchers did not live to see. Long a resource for editors and lawyers, it’s the kind of book that any word nerd could appreciate. 8.  A Quill Pen With the current enthusiasm for typewriters going strong, can quill pens be far behind? There are hundreds on Etsy, from turkey feather models to Hunger Games-inspired arrow-feather quills. 9.  A Fireplace According to poet Adam Kirsch, “Every writer needs a fireplace”: On publication day, an author should burn a copy of his book, to acknowledge that what he accomplished is negligible compared to what he imagined and intended. Only this kind of burnt offering might be acceptable to the Muse he has let down. The ultimate in old-school technology, a fireplace (or perhaps, a fire table?) allows writers to dispose of unsatisfying drafts in a truly dramatic fashion. Sometimes the trashcan icon at the bottom of your computer screen just doesn’t feel definitive enough. 10.  A Place to Write Virgina Woolf said it best when she wrote that a woman “must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” Poet Brenda Shaughnessy put a somewhat finer point on it in Poets & Writers, when she speculated that the happiness of her marriage to fellow poet Craig Morgan Teicher depended on a shared rented writing studio: This might be the true secret of the sane poet-couple: Rent writing space. Make it as private as possible. This single thing has completely changed our lives. As I write this, I have been displaced from my own writing desk for almost a month, courtesy of Hurricane Sandy, and without that space it has been very hard to sit down and get to work. Laptops and abundant wi-fi access have turned us all into nomads, but there’s something to be said for returning to the same place every day. How do you give someone a place to write? It could mean finding someone a cubicle in your office, renting a studio, lending a summer cottage or winter cabin, helping someone to finance a residency, or simply rearranging a shared space to make room for a bookshelf, a comfy chair, or a desk.

Anne Carson’s Latest

Anne Carson, author of Nox (reviewed by Jane Alison last year), has a new book out, Antigonick, in which the translator and poet collaborates with an artist and designer to produce an unconventional translation of Antigone. Unfortunately, Amanda Shubert calls it “the first book of Carson’s where … her scholarly impulse barricades textual meanings. Usually it provides a generous way in.” Yet despite its problems, Shubert notes there are still “moments of brilliance,” and indeed the act of “doing Sophocles as a graphic novel … is kind of ingenious.”

A Year In Reading: Jane Alison

Prowling the meanings of a word, prowling the history of a person, no use expecting a flood of light. Human words have no main switch. But all those little kidnaps in the dark. And then the luminous, big, shivering, discandied, unrepentant, barking web of them that hangs in your mind when you turn back to the page you were trying to translate . . . —Anne Carson, NOX The book I read in 2011 that most affected me is one I would have read the year before, but its publishers could not reprint it fast enough — and this is Anne Carson’s NOX. In content an elegy to her dead brother, Carson’s NOX is most strikingly an object: a strip of paper twenty-seven yards long, folded into a hundred accordion pages and neatly packed in a silver-grey box. Upon first unfolding it, you find a smudged reproduction of a poem Catullus wrote to his dead brother, in Latin, two thousand years ago. On the folds thereafter, you watch Carson prowl the meanings of each word of the poem — which works as a table of contents — and through them, she prowls the ghost of her brother, who left traces as fleet as oar-strokes in the sea. This she does with torn and pasted dictionary entries, drawings, photos, transcriptions of dialogue, scraps of poems, letters, stamps...making NOX both an intellectual scrapbook and a visual excursion into the idea of translation itself: the translation of words, and the translation of a living body into death and onward, into art. NOX’s intelligence, sadness, and wry humor alone might be enough, but its form takes me even more. To read NOX is sensual. You handle the folds, opening one winged pair at a time or in quick, Slinky unfurlings. And this read is not linear, with pages dissolving behind you as you turn, but spatial, more like letting your eyes wander a room. With the whole book unfurled you see it entire and make links among images, like a staircase or an egg that reappear folds apart, and among words like ash, festive, blush. You prowl the book itself. But most of all, everything that makes NOX hybrid and modern also makes it ancient, taking us back thousands of years to when “fiction,” “nonfiction,” and “poetry” were not penned in separate rooms, when shades of the same story might equally appear as a red-figure painting on a vase or as a voice singing in darkness. To read NOX is like unwinding an ancient scroll, or following a frieze around the porch of a temple, or tracing a history twisting down a column, or walking through a house in Pompeii, with story in tiny bright fragments underfoot, painted in walls, and carved into the wood of couches . . . Because it is both so modern and ancient, because it looks back thousands of years and finds blood still quick in the oldest flesh of narrative, NOX has made me renew my vows to this nervy act of reading and writing: the barking web of image and word. More from A Year in Reading 2011 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 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, The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.

Kindle-Proof Your Book in Seven Easy Steps!

A little over three years ago, in a fit of apparent insanity, a New York-based independent press bought a sizeable chunk of the short-story collection I'd been working on and published it as a stand-alone volume. I remain proud of the book, A Field Guide to the North American Family, which was reissued last month in paperback. A lot has changed since the end of 2007, though, and the new edition has me thinking again about a couple of misapprehensions I was laboring under at the time of its writing. The first was that inserting an "illustrated fiction" into an otherwise un-illustrated cycle of stories was just the thing to ignite the bidding war that would make me a millionaire. (Thanks a lot, W.G. Sebald!) The more important, related misapprehension, though, has to do with "the future of the book." In college, I had been an extracurricular binge-reader of 1960s and '70s "experimental" literature, in secret rebellion against the masterpieces-only Atkins diet that comprised my coursework. Even in my mid-twenties, I was convinced that the novel of the future would incorporate as much Cortazar and Cather, as much Willie Masters as Wilhelm Meister. History had different ideas, as usual. Two weeks after my exuberantly book-y book came out - replete with color photography and typographic mayhem - Amazon launched the first Kindle, which sold out in less than a day. The book of the future, it turned out, had a built-in battery. And what I'd just published would never work on it. Then again, as my therapist suggests (though my accountant begs to differ) maybe this accidental Kindle-proofing is a blessing in disguise. My nostalgia for print, after all, is something like Balzac's for the wooden printing press in Lost Illusions: At the time when this story opens, the Stanhope press and the ink-distributing roller had not yet come into use in small provincial printing-houses.... [Now] the rapid spread of machine presses has swept away all this obsolete gear to which, for all its imperfections, we owe the beautiful books printed by Elzevir, Plantin, Aldus Didot, and the rest... In the novel that follows, Balzac links speedier and more efficient printing technology, and the larger cultural pressures it stands for, to the artistic failures of his would-be hero, the "provincial" Lucien Chardon. Unable to withstand the allure of a fast franc, Lucien becomes in Paris whatever is French for "sellout." (Not to mention - horrors - a critic!) But I would become no Lucien Chardon - not with Field Guide, anyway. To "sell out," you first have to sell, and in committing to the ideal of the "beautiful" book, I had pretty much guaranteed that this particular project would remain unsullied by commerce. Now, in honor of the future that never was, the durable pigments of the almost obsolete, I offer you the following trade secrets to fellow writers. The availability for the Kindle of some of the titles mentioned below points to the difficulty of the task; nonetheless, here are: Seven Ways to Kindle-proof Your Book Step 1. Use Color The iPad and Barnes & Noble's NookColor have already gone some way toward countering this strategy, and Amazon is rumored to have plans to follow suit with a full color, full-functionality tablet.  As of this writing, however, the top-selling eReader, the Kindle, remains a black-and-white only affair. I suggest, then, that all of you aspiring Kindle-proofers out there familiarize yourselves with the color palette on your word-processors. You may, as Mark Z. Danielewski does in House of Leaves, choose to assign a single word its own color, like the sodapop in the old Cherry 7-Up commercials. (Isn't it cool...in pink?) Or you may opt for a subtler approach, à la Richard Flanagan. In Gould's Book of Fish, Flanagan uses a different color for each chapter, to represent the different dyes employed by his ichthycidal narrator. Still not persuaded? I once heard that Faulkner planned to use different-colored type to distinguish the different voices in As I Lay Dying. If it's good enough for a Nobelist, isn't it good enough for you? Step 2. Illustrate, Illustrate, Illustrate In an essay published in The New Yorker a couple years back, Nicholson Baker complained that "photographs, charts, diagrams, foreign characters, and tables don’t fare so well on the little gray screen" of the Kindle. Of course, as with Step 1, the iPad complicates things, and glossy ("glossy"?) magazine readers are apparently "flocking" to the NookColor. (Constant vigilance is the price of Kindle-proofing!) But it's worth pointing out that, where words on a page are an abstraction of an abstraction, illustrations are only one representative step away from the visual world. And so the venerable tradition of the illuminated manuscript still seems to favor, at this stage of the game, the codex book. No wonder that, as writers grow anxious about the fate of print, we're seeing an uptick in illustrated fiction; it's the literary equivalent of abstract painting's retort to photography. (This is to say nothing of graphic novels.) Lavishing attention on hand-made illustrations - as in Joe Meno's Demons in the Spring - or incorporating photographs, like Rod Sweet and Tim Williams' Instructions for the Apocalypse or Leanne Shapton's Important Artifacts, is a great way to add an extra exclamation point to your literary pooh-poohing of the eReader. Step 3. Play With Text, Typeface, and White Space eReaders currently use two approaches to rendering text. One is quasi-photographic, but the Kindle's remains the more battery-efficient method of imposing a standard typeface. This makes the effects of a textually playful book like Danielewski's House of Leaves or Karen Tei Yamashita's I Hotel or William H. Gass' The Tunnel - difficult to render on a Kindle. If you want to up the degree of difficulty, you can try combining this with step 1, following Gass' lead in Willie Masters' Lonesome Wife, wherein text in a range of typefaces and sizes curves and distends and floats around and behind the illustrations. And then there's white space. Mallarmé may have got there first, but Blake Butler's There is No Year is moving the ball forward. It's available for Kindle, but only the good Lord and Jeff Bezos know how it reads there. (I don't think I need to point out the irony of the Amazon customer review for A Visit from the Goon Squad that finds "the 'powerpoint' chapter...extremely difficult to read on the Kindle.") Step 4. Run With Scissors The opening story of John Barth's Lost in the Funhouse, famously invites readers to take scissors to it and create a Mobius strip. This cut-up aesthetic is more literal in Jonathan Safran Foer's Tree of Codes, which slices and dices the pages of Bruno Schulz's Street of Crocodiles to create pages like lace. It's a piece of found prose-poetry whose sentences change as you turn the page. Except on the Kindle, where it doesn't - and couldn't - exist. Step 5. Go Aleatory Narrative fiction, as Vladimir Propp would tell you, need not proceed in a straight line. Presumably, the HopScotching of Cortazar's Rayuela would be easy enough to approximate via hyperlink on a Kindle, as might something structured like Raymond Queneau's "A Story As You Like It." But what about a story where the order of the pieces genuinely doesn't matter. Or one where an Oulippan element of chance is built in? A narrative like Coover's "deck of cards" story from A Child Again, say. Or B.S. Johnson's The Unfortunates, which consists of a beginning, an ending, and 25 middle chapters to be shuffled and read at random. Speaking of The Unfortunates... Step 6. Put It In A Box Gass at one point imagined reinforcing the random, "pile of pages" aspect of The Tunnel by printing it loose-leaf and selling it in a box. It can't be any coincidence that, in the age of the Kindle, the book as boxed set has been making a comeback. New Directions, in addition to The Unfortunates, has given us the slipcovered (and thus far unKindled) Microscripts of Robert Walser. McSweeney's, another box-loving press, has delivered any number of issues of the Quarterly, not to mention One Hundred and Forty Five Stories in boxed form. And in 2008, Hotel St. George Press published Ben Greenman's archetypally box-intensive Correspondences, albeit in a limited edition. Step 7. Pile on the End Matter This strategy exploits not so much a technical weakness of the Kindle as a practical one. My theory is that, because the number of pages remaining in a book aren't palpable on a digital device, readers are less likely to go digging around in appendices, acknowledgments, and so forth. The endnotes function on the Kindle apparently makes it pretty easy to jump from the main text to the famous fine print of Infinite Jest. But with other kinds of end matter, aren't you likely to hit "The End" and think: I'm done? Writers who sneak interesting and potentially meaningful information into the back of the book are thus a step closer to Kindle-proofing than the rest of us. Here I'm thinking specifically of William T. Vollmann, whose resolutely booktacular books often contain dozens, even hundreds of pages of end matter (interesting in direct proportion to the interest of the main text.) Or Walter Benjamin's Arcades Project. But I was struck, reading Georges Perec's Life A User's Manual this spring, by the way the various indexes and appendices offered a variety of possible reformattings of the main text. Bonus List: 10 Pretty Damn Kindle-Proof (at least, as of this writing) Books: 1. Nox, by Anne Carson (Rules Exploited: 1, 2, 3, 6): In many ways, this boxed version of a mourning journal Carson made after the death of her brother is the paragon of the Kindle-proof book: a book built out of books, and alert to its own status as an object. 2. The Original of Laura, by Vladimir Nabokov (Steps Taken: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5): The chief attraction of this slender posthumous work is its Chip Kidd design, which invites readers to cut out facsimiles of the notecards Nabokov composed on and make their own book...though, given the $35 cover price, I can't imagine too many readers took Kidd up on it. 3. A Field Guide to the North American Family, by yours truly (1, 2, 3, 5): This is probably the only excuse I'll ever have to insert my name in a list between Nabokov's and Jonathan Safran Foer's. There. I've done it. 4. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, by Jonathan Safran Foer (1, 2, 3): A Kindle version of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close actually exists, but, even if Amazon were to insert an animation, there is just no way to achieve in e-form the flip-book effect on which this novel's conclusion rises...and falls. 5. The Principles of Uncertainty, by Maira Kalman (1, 2): Okay, this is actually pretty easy to recreate on an iPad. But who would want to read this gorgeous thing on a screen? 6. Dictionary of the Khazars, by Milorad Pavic (5): The chief Kindle-resistant feature of Dictionary of the Khazars is that it is actually two books: a "male version" and a (slightly different) "female version," bound back to back. You move from one to the other by flipping the book over and starting from the other end. Kindle that, Amazon! 7. Only Revolutions, by Mark Z. Danielewski (1, 3, 5): Unlike House of Leaves, the National-Book-Award-nominated Only Revolutions is too insanely Kindle-proof to actually be a good book. I found its main text - which takes the flip & read logic of Pavic a step further - to be a hackneyed pastiche of Finnegans Wake. But you can't blame a guy for trying. 8. One Hundred Thousand Million Poems, by Raymond Queneau (4, 5): This echt-Oulippan "poetry machine" is a set of 10 sonnets, bound to a spine, but with incisions between the lines that extend out to the edge of the page. Readers can manipulate the pages to form and reform sonnets. Mathematically, there are 1,000,000,000,000,000 possible variations. In theory, an eBook equivalent of this would work beatifully (you'd just have to build in a "shuffle" function) - though by equivalence rather than reproduction. 9. Rising Up and Rising Down (the unabridged version), by William T. Vollmann (2, 3, 5, 7): In theory, this should be the perfect eBook candidate, in the sense that no one wants to lug the damn thing on the subway. It is, in a sense, almost all appendix. I'd bet dollars to donuts, though, that, via the logic sketched in point 7 above, no one would ever get through a digital edition. Vollmann's detractors would argue that's a good thing. I'm not so sure... 10. Where the Wild Things Are, by Maurice Sendak (1, 3): The brilliance of Where the Wild Things Are, as a children's librarian once pointed out to me, is not just the illustrations, but the way they gradually expand to fill the page spreads (what's called a full-bleed)...and then recede again into white space. It enacts for children the dialectic of wildness and safety that is the book's explicit subject, and has, this librarian insisted, a deeply therapeutic effect. Wild Things, that is, uses its book-ness beautifully. You could reproduce this on a screen...but unless the aspect ratio was 2:1, it would have to be in thumbnail form. Perhaps the solution, as Reif Larsen has suggested, is to get away from the idea of reproduction altogether. Rather than deluding ourselves that the eBook is a book, we should think carefully about the effects each can achieve that the other can't, and then work to find equivalents between them. And lo and behold, a fantastically inventive app of Larsen's The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet (Steps Taken: 2, 3) is now available for the iPad...perhaps pointing the way to yet another future of the book.

The Millions Interview: Leslie Jamison

I read and admired Leslie Jamison’s The Gin Closet when it first came out --and was immediately curious about its author:  How could someone so young (Jamison was 26 at publication) write a book so lyrical, dark and knowing?  As she and I both found ourselves in Iowa City this last spring, Jamison, now 28, agreed to sit down for a chat. This was Jamison’s second stint in Iowa City; she’d received her MFA from the Writers Workshop five years ago, and is presently a PhD candidate at Yale.  Now, she was accompanying her boyfriend, another Yale PhD student, while he got his MFA in poetry at the workshop. On a cool spring day, before the cornfields were plowed or the leaves of the trees had unfurled, Jamison and I drove to the small town of Mount Vernon twenty miles north of Iowa City.  Our destination was a coffeehouse called Fuel, a standard-bearer among coffeehouses with nooks and comfortable chairs, ample table space, amusing oddments to look at and buy, not to mention great coffee, and cookies baked in small batches all day long.  (Jamison works part time in a bakery and has developed, she says, a snobbery about cookies: Fresh from the oven or none at all!).  Fuel is one of Jamison’s natural habitats; she reads and writes there for hours at a stretch, so it seemed the ideal spot for a good long chat into the digital recorder.  Also, as Jamison herself pointed out, The Gin Closet, which came out in paperback this month, is concerned with three generations of women and Fuel is run by three generations of women.  Today, the granddaughter served as barista as the grandmother baked. Stella, The Gin Closet’s protagonist, joins a long line of literary heroines, very intelligent young women on the cusp of adult lifewho willfully make  bad choices  (think Emma Woodhouse, Dorothea Brooke, Hester Prynne, Isabel Archer).  At loose ends in her mid-twenties, Stella works for a famous, abusive boss and has fallen in love with a married man. In part to console herself, Stella moves in with her grandmother Lucy only to discover that Lucy is dying. Jamison’s prose is lyrical, with the frank blare of youth: Every night I said things like: Today my boss and I got drunk at lunch.  Today my boss was on Oprah! Today I spent a thousand dollars on gift baskets.  Today I used the word “autumnal” twice, and both times I was speaking to tulip salesmen…I compressed my days neatly into appetizer courses.  I worked as a personal assistant for a woman with a reputation for treating people like shit, and she treated me like shit.  I couldn’t spin witty versions of the rest.  In the darkness I began caring for my collapsing grandmother.  She wasn’t being inspirational or having sex or treating anyone like shit.  She was just getting old. As Lucy dies, a secret emerges:  Stella has an aunt, Matilda, who was cast out of the family before Stella was born. After the funeral, Stella sets out to find this Aunt Tilly, ostensibly to deliver a letter but really to set things right.  Tilly is found in a trailer in the Nevada desert. The novel alternates between Stella’s first person and her aunt Tilly’s limited third person narrations.  Tilly is a late-stage alcoholic and ex-prostitute whose difficult past Jamison renders fearlessly. Tilly’s one son Abe, a banker, has been sending her enough money so she can quit turning tricks; he wants her to live with him in San Francisco, but only if she’ll stop drinking.  Stella convinces Tilly to take up this longstanding offer and the three of them—Stella, Tilly and Abe—set up housekeeping together in the city. The center, if there ever was one, doesn’t hold. As I suspected, Jamison is whip smart, articulate and intense—a terrific conversationalist. Michelle Huneven: What got you started on this book—what was the germ, the seed? Leslie Jamison: The short answer is my family  I was working on a different novel and was stuck--I didn’t understand how stuck.  I moved into a family home with my grandmother who was very sick. My life was taken over by her declining health. Trying to take care of her was completely beyond what I understood how to do.  I realized when I woke up in the morning that there was no way I could work on this other novel, it had no claim on my heart or thoughts, so I just started writing with no particular plan about what was happening with my grandmother and how it was bringing up a lot of feelings about our family, a lot of old wounds that hadn’t been repaired. I had a fantasy that they could all be repaired before she died.  It didn’t happen that way. But I was left with these pages about how I wish things had been different in our family, in particular with an aunt who had been estranged for a long time.   I started to write a novel that explored bluntly what if-- what if my aunt came back into the conversation of my family.  That scenario had a lot of emotional weight with me and really drove the first draft of the novel.  It took many more drafts to get further in--and further away from my family. MH:  I particularly liked Stella’s mix of naieve hopefulness and her blind confidence that she could repair the familial breach and somehow accomplish what her mother and grandmother hadn’t managed to do. LJ:  Yes, Stella has a dual feeling of guilt and superiority. I shared some version of that, myself.  You feel responsible for what your family has done, even if you weren’t alive for it, but you also feel like, I’m better than that, I would never do that to somebody, and what’s more, I can go fix it.  Stella thinks "I can do what my mother wasn’t capable of doing, which was to love the damage in another person." MH:  In a way, Stella’s a classic young heroine. She’s smart and deep, but she’s not yet fully-formed, which makes her ripe for demons—in the beginning of the book, she has a terrible boss, she’s deep in it with a married man, then she’s in over her head with her sick grandmother. A flick on the back of the head  is all that’s needed to send her down some misbegotten path—like saving her aunt. LJ:  Which lets you in on the dirty secret of what altruism really is, which is saying I don’t know how to deal with my own stuff so I’ll immerse myself in somebody else’s stuff, so I can feel like a hero in their life. MH:  Yes, but there are times when nothing can touch your low self esteem except getting out of yourself and being of service to another person. LJ:  We can do good things out of flawed motives--which doesn’t make them less good. But you can  also show up for a certain situation only to discover that the situation is bigger than you are--you’re really signing up to lose control. MH:  One scene really haunts me.  Stella goes to her aunt’s trailer in Nevada and sees the gin closet, her aunt’s drinking room. It’s a terrible womb-tomb place, bottles, flies, a turkey carcass of all things, a stool in the corner—truly the nightmare version of a tuffet. Appalling! But the next thing you know, Stella and Tilly are drinking together.  Reading along, I was thinking: No! Don’t do it, Stella--you’re giving too much ground! I knew she wanted to help her aunt and bring her back into the family.  While I never thought she had a chance of succeeding, I really didn’t want her to sink to her aunt’s level. LJ:  I wanted to destabilize Stella’s hero complex from the start to show it as confused. She wanted to connect with her aunt and build a sense of trust and to not be just another voice saying, “you’re a fuck up and we want your problems far away from us.” The short cut to that was to get low with her, get shamed with her. That’s as opposed to saying I’m here, in a better spot, and I want you to come here too, which imposes a boundary and a separateness that requires a lot of moral fortitude and a kind of caring that’s willing to be patient. MH:  And drinking with her aunt is like taking food in the dark realm, like Persephone eating the pomegranate seeds—it compromises the mission, prefigures its doom. The novel also plays with a universal orphan fantasy:  you’re a little girl and you’re mad at your parents and then you think, Hey! what if I had another, secret family which was my real, true family. Even the happiest child imagines at some point that she actually belongs with the fairies. LJ:  (Laughs) Yeah! Drunken fairies!  Absolutely.  Stella replaces her mother with a woman she can be a mother to. She has trouble recognizing all the ways that  her mother has been a mother for her, and wants to instead focus on what she resents her for and  to replace her with a relationship that can make her feel good about herself, where she can occupy this nurturing role.  What Stella’s mother has given her is complicated, but there’s a lot of good in it.  And that, I think is ultimately the reckoning in the orphan family fantasy--where you have to come back and say, maybe I didn’t want the fairies after all. MH:  It’s Coraline—suddenly your busy, hardworking mother seems infinitely better than the one who wants to replace your eyes with buttons. LJ:  Or Where the Wild Things Are. Suddenly, your cold porridge in your room doesn’t look so bad after where you’ve been… MH:  I was interested, too, in how, when the new family forms, when they move into Abe’s apartment, closeness doesn’t follow. The two educated young people don’t really know how to find common ground with Tilly, who is white-knuckling it through her days working at a new job that’s essentially busywork, and trying to put her stamp on the loft by decorating it with cheap little trinkets she finds on her wanderings. The three don’t even enjoy a honeymoon period together. LJ:  Yes. It’s strange to suddenly be family with someone with whom you don’t have that whole backlog of quiet awkward shared family experience. Tilly and Stella are family but there’s no territory that they share beyond a feeling that it’s wrong that they hadn’t been family so far.  So there’s kind of a rabid good intention coming up against, well, what it looks like day to day. MH:  Here’s a question all the bookclubs will ask you: How did you write so convincingly about prostitution? LJ: I did what every self-respecting PhD student does...which is to say, I went to the library. I checked out 20 books from the Yale system and spent a month doing little but reading them. The main thing I remember feeling from all these womens' stories was that, yes, many of them were stories of incredible hardship, but they weren't about soul-erasure or the effacement of dignity--they weren't black and white Before and After stories. There was a tremendous amount of dailiness; not quite so much melodrama as I'd imagined. I remember thinking, I'm not qualified to imagine my way into this. And then thinking, I'm just going to have to get over that. MH: What writing, what literary models conditioned you for writing The Gin Closet? LJ: I distinctly remember reading--over the course of two long, lonely, completely engrossed days--the entirety of Yates' Revolutionary Road. I'd reached one of those points where I'd forgotten what the point of a novel was--why the world was better-off for having it, I guess--and why I was writing my own; and I read Yates and felt such deep humanity and honesty and richness in his world, and felt myself so changed--I thought, if I can do this for anyone, the book will be worth it. The deep geneology of my conditioning had been going on for a long time before the draft, as is true for all writers: Faulkner and Woolf are my twin gods; Plath has always been important to me, Anne Carson, the many beautiful and talented writers I'm lucky to call friends. MH: What’s the next book?  How is it different or the same from The Gin Closet? LJ:  I am working on the second draft of a novel about the Sandinista Revolution in Nicaraugua. I feel like The Gin Closet was a gush of consciousness. I wrote it from pure feeling.  I followed it intuitively. I’m not sure if any of my other books are going to be like that.  The process of writing since then has been much more deliberate-- not that my heart isn’t involved.  But I’ve been extending out of myself much more, whereas with the first one, I was dredging stuff out from inside myself.   That’s not to say it’s totally autobiographical. MH: Who are you looking to now, for the new book? What writers do you reach for to “prime the pump” so to speak—to make you want to write? LJ: There are some writers who make me want to write, and other writers who make me feel as if I can write--as if I have it in me--and these circles aren't entirely overlapping. Shirley Hazzard makes me want to write--in fact, she makes me want to write exactly like she writes--but this is usually bad, because I end up writing second-tier Hazzard instead of any-tier Jamison. I usually read poetry when I'm trying to write--it makes me swollen with beauty and possibility, with honesty, but it doesn't call up the urge to imitate. Lately I've been reading Carson's Nox, and Berryman's Dream Songs. The new book is about history, which gives me a  rich well of reading that isn't fiction. I've been reading a lot of Sandinista memoirs--they are just so fucking interesting; full of the physical world and translated curse-words and a surprising (maybe not so surprising) amount of sex and humor. MH: You seem to have a penchant for poets…how has living with/among poets affected your writing and your attitudes toward fiction and poetry? LJ: I've always thought "A penchant for poets" might be a good title for my memoir, if I ever publish one. I've dated a few of them, and--as you point out—I have been living with one for several years, in a house so laden with books in multiple genres it's creaking at the seams. As I've mentioned, poetry gets me inspired to write--I love getting close to the minds that make it. I love having conversations over scrambled eggs about line breaks and refrains, because I get to think about making without thinking about my own making. Sometimes it's hard because I feel like Practical Peggy juxtaposed against the infinite and infinitely disorganized energy of a poet--short attention span, fickle production, wild strokes of genius. MH:  So which side are you going to root for this year at the Writers Workshop softball game? LJ:  I'm going to have to root for fiction. Genre before love. Plus, my boyfriend loves to argue, so I think this will suit him just fine. MH:  How has it been being back in Iowa City for two years, when you’re not at the workshop? LJ: Yeah! (Laughs and squints at the iphone on the table between us) How much time do you have left on your little recorder there?

The Perils of Reading Pregnant

When I was engaged to be married, I lost my mind.  I'm aware that sounds hyperbolic,  but that's really how it felt: as if my mind had abandoned me,  slipped through my ears when I wasn't looking, to be replaced with something that I didn't recognize or trust.  I was so nervous all the time, my mind skipping from one terrible and scary thought to the next, that reading became almost impossible.  Do you know how many stories there are about bad marriages? During this fraught time, I tried to read an Alice Munro story in the bath.  What story, I have no idea (clearly, I blocked it out), but it was about a woman who kills her husband.  I couldn't finish it because I began to fear--to believe, actually--that I was in danger of killing my own future husband.  Oh, how my Intended laughed when I voiced these fears!  He wasn't afraid of me and my murderous capabilities!  He eventually talked me down from my nonsense ledge, and got me laughing along with him.  But I was still too afraid to finish the story. That was five years ago.  I've since retrieved my mind, gotten and stayed married, and returned to reading.   Thank goodness.  Sometimes, I imagine all the great and beautiful books I must have missed during my engagement, and the loss sends a shiver of regret through me. Last fall, when I found out I was pregnant, I waited for the mind-losing anxiety to descend on me once more.  It didn't.  (Or, I should say, it hasn't yet.  I do have five more weeks to lose my mind for old time's sake!)  Because I feel as normal as can be expected when you're growing a human being inside of you, I've noticed that other people experience anxiety for me.  They don't want me to carry anything, not even a carton of orange juice.  They want me to sit down already!  They want to give me more water, a glass of milk, a pint of ice cream.  And they don't want  me to read just anything.  More than once I've had a person recommend a book to me, and then say, "Oh, but don't read it now.  Not while you're pregnant!"   Apparently, people's protective urges extend beyond the body of the mother-to-be, and into her reading life.  If literature is clogged with unhappy marriages, it's certainly also darkened with dead babies and the complex melancholy of mothers. So, as either a warning to other mothers-to-be, or as great "Fuck you!" to all the people who keep telling me to keep things light as I carry my child to term, here's a list of non-friendly pregnancy books.  Read at your own risk... Rosemary's Baby by Ira Levin: I admit, I haven't read the novel, but I love the movie, starring the bewitching Mia Farrow.  I have purposely kept my blonde hair very short these last 8 and a half months because I appreciate the cinematic allusion, though I have one friend in particular who urged me, early on, to grow out my locks.  "It's not funny!" she said. "What kind of message are  you sending?"  How about this: Every pregnant woman wonders, at least once, if she's got the devil's spawn growing inside of her. The Hand That First Held Mine by Maggie O'Farrell: This is the next novel I'm going to read, despite my sister Heidi's warnings that I should wait until after my baby's born. O'Farrell's novel, which my sister could not put down, and which made her sob at its ending, follows two stories--one about a woman in post-war London, and one about contemporary parents in that same city.  There's apparently some childbirth trauma.  Lots of blood, my sister said.  She also told me to avoid Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague by Geraldine Brooks.  The deaths--deaths, plural--in this novel still haunt her. An Exact Replica of a Figure of My Imagination by Elizabeth McCracken: Every morning I awake to the spine of this powerful and painful memoir, which I chose as one of my favorite books of 2008.  It sits on the shelf by my bed, right next to Nox by Anne Carson and Skippy Dies by Paul Murray.  (That's a lot of death to wake up to, I realize).   McCracken's story of raising a child after the stillbirth of her first is all the more terrifying and moving because it's true, and because she speaks of trauma and grief in a distinct, unflinching, and sometimes even funny way.  I keep wondering if this book might mean more to me on a second read, now that I am pregnant, now that I know firsthand what I could lose, what and whom I would mourn.  Such a book reminds me not to take this time in my life lightly; it reminds me that I'm already a mother. Arlington Park by Rachel Cusk: This novel is about one day (a la Mrs. Dalloway) in the posh lives of British mothers.   The unhappiness of its characters is so delicately and expertly rendered that it, at times, grows oppressive.  These are women who feel unconnected to their husbands, their kids, their lives. Such a book makes me fear the very phrase Sippy Cup. We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver: Shriver's brilliant and dark novel is narrated by Eva, whose son Kevin is guilty of carrying out a Columbine-style high school killing.  It's a grim but often very funny narrative of maternal ambivalence, and it's certainly a mind-fuck for any mom-to-be.  Eva articulates every single dark thought a pregnant woman would be wise to avoid (For instance:  "What if my child grows up to be a murderer?" And, "What if I don't love him?").  Here's a taste of the sharp prose, most likely to be left out of the highly-anticipated film adaptation with Tilda Swinton, due out this fall: Meanwhile, I came to regard my body in a new light. For the first time I apprehended the little mounds on my chest as teats for the suckling of young, and their physical resemblance to udders on cows or the swinging distentions on lactating hounds was suddenly unavoidable. Funny how even women forget what breasts are for. The cleft between my legs transformed as well. It lost a certain outrageousness, an obscenity, or achieved an obscenity of a different sort. The flaps seemed to open not to a narrow, snug dead end, but to something yawning. The passageway itself became a route to somewhere else, a real place, and not merely to a darkness of my mind. The twist of flesh in front took on a devious aspect, its inclusion overtly ulterior, a tempter, a sweetener for doing the species' heavy lifting, like the lollipops I once got at the dentist. We Need to Talk About Kevin is so far my favorite book of the year.  I read it when I was about four months pregnant, and as I did so, I prayed I was having a girl (She might be anorexic, I thought, but she probably won't be a serial killer.)  Turns out, I'm having a boy.  Ha!   Shriver's novel is the most memorable book I've read in a while. And also, um, the most frightening. What novels do you recommend a pregnant woman avoid?  Tempt me...

Is Big Back?

Is Google making us stupid? Is reading in America a dying pursuit? Will novel srviv in age of twtr? String together enough of these think-piece propositions, and you begin to notice a pattern. Ostensibly open-ended, their very existence presumes an answer in the affirmative: yes, Google is making us stupid...at least, too stupid to entertain the possibility that this is other than a yes/no question. If the presumption is correct, we might reasonably expect to see it reflected in the evolving form of the literary novel. Just last month, in a cover story on Jonathan Franzen, Time's Lev Grossman postulated that "the trend in fiction over the past decade has been toward specialization: the closeup, the miniature, the microcosm." And in practice, a young writer presenting her manuscript  to editors quickly surmises that the working definition for a novel is no longer Randall Jarrell's "a prose narrative of a certain length that has something wrong with it," but "a prose narrative of 235 to 325 pages that we can bring out as a paperback original." Joshua Cohen, the 29-year-old author of several books, recently told The New York Observer that, of the eight publishers who passed on his novel Witz (800 pp), "One of them told me they would publish it if it was 200 pages.... One said 10 years ago they would have done it, back when people read novels." But if, as Grossman suggests, the "literary megafauna of the 1990s" no longer roam the earth, how to explain Time's interest in Freedom (576 pp)? Moreover, how to explain the thicket of big novels that surround it on the shelves of America's bookstores - not only Witz, but also A.S. Byatt's The Children's Book (675 pages), and Brady Udall's The Lonely Polygamist (599 pp), and Rick Moody's The Four Fingers of Death (725 pp), and Karl Marlantes' Matterhorn (592 pp), and Ralph Ellison's Three Days Before the Shooting (1136 pp), and Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall (560 pp), and Javier Marías' Your Face Tomorrow trilogy (1255 pp) and Adam Levin's The Instructions (1030 pp)? Surveying those shelves, one begins to suspect that the spread of micro-designations like "literary megafauna" (or less charitably, "phallic meganovels"), rather than the plenitude or scarcity of the species in question, is the true marker of our changing culture. Not so long ago, the phrase "long novel" was no less redundant than "short novel." The serial publication practices of the 19th Century nudged the Victorian novelist toward amplitude. Multiply 16 (the number of pages in a signature) by two (the number of signatures in an installment) by 20 (the number of installments favored by Dickens and his publishers), and you get 640 serial pages - the length, give or take, of Dombey and Son, Little Dorrit, and Bleak House. Not to mention Vanity Fair and Middlemarch and Daniel Deronda... Soon, Trollope would be conceptualizing his novels explicitly as two- or three-volume affairs. My Oxford World Classics edition of Barchester Towers retains its two-volume pagination; it runs from 1 to 271, and then from 1 to 280. Toward the end of the second volume, the author begins to make asides about having to reach a certain page count. In the age of offset printing, the long novel is more heterodox. Not much unites Moody and Marías and Mantel, other than the fact that they are currently stacked half-read on my nightstand. (There's nothing like the birth of a child to foreground the sheer length of a book in one's mind.) To yoke these writers together is thus to risk several kinds of reductionism. Most importantly (and speaking of Trollope): one doesn't want to conflate geometric greatness with the aesthetic kind. Some of the best novels I've read recently are shorter than American presses tend to publish. (In the Spanish-speaking world, in particular, the short novel seems to have thrived in a way it hasn't Stateside. A parallel essay may be warranted). Still, the current profusion of long novels would seem to complicate the picture of the Incredible Shrinking Attention Span. Publishers' willingness to take a chance on a long book circa 2010 may be directly connected to chances taken in the past. The fierce bidding, in 2007, for Jonathan Littell's The Kindly Ones (992 pp), a demanding work in translation, surely owes something to the rapt reception of Roberto Bolaño's The Savage Detectives (600 pp) and subsequent widespread anticipation for 2666 (912 pp). McSweeney's may be hoping The Instructions repeats the success of Chris Adrian's The Children's Hospital (615 pp). And David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest (1104 pp) continues to have a remarkable second life on the backlist, which is still the publisher's bread and butter. Biographical books and articles by David Lipsky and D.T. Max, as well as copious online discussion, sustain interest in the book. A clerk at a local bookstore told me last week that, for the last two months, it's been flying off the shelves. Indeed, après Jest, doubters may catch a whiff of decadence, or at least self-consciousness, around the efforts of Cohen, Levin, and other candidates for wunderkindency. To be even more crassly economic, in the slog of the Great Recession, the long novel offers readers a compelling value proposition. One may revile all the works of William T. Vollmann, and admire those of the Mexican novelist Mario Bellatin, but even at 55 bucks, Imperial (1344 pp) offers a wildly higher hours-to-dollars ratio (it's roughly one-to-one) than The Beauty Salon (72 pp). (Well, Imperial isn't actually a novel, but it feels weird to discuss long books and exclude Vollmann's megaliths.) To put it another way: Ann Beattie's Walks With Men (102 pp) will cost you about as much as a trip to the local multiplex, and last about as long. And let's not forget that publishers can charge more for a long book than a short one. This helps explain why the Harry Potter novels kept getting longer and longer... On the other hand, barring a guarantee of Potter-like sales, publishers hate big books, as Cohen learned the hard way. They're expensive to print, to ship, and to warehouse. And, to compound the problem, reviewers hate long novels. How much easier to say of Tom Rachman's The Imperfectionists (288 pp) than of, say, Joseph McElroy's Women and Men (1191 pp), "It's so good I had to read it twice." For a deeper explanation of the long novel's enduring health, we have to look toward something harder to quantify: the construction of the reader. The more we're told we're becoming readers of blogs, of texts, of tweets, of files the more committing to a big book feels like an act of resistance. To pick up a novel in excess of 600 pages is to tell oneself, "I am going to spend twenty-four to forty-eight hours of my life with a book, rather than the newspaper, the internet, or the smartphone. I am going to feel it in my muscles" (Some will object here that lugging Infinite Jest on the subway is more a way of saying, "Look at me!" But surely matters of style, and of gender, are at play here; no one levels the same charge at readers of Marguerite Young.) The desire to escape the hive-mind of cyberspace - to be, once more, a solitary reader - may also be at play in the rise of "the Kindle-proof book": the book so tailored to the codex form that it can't yet be reproduced electronically. Think of The Original of Laura, or of Reif Larsen's The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet, or of New Directions' editions of B.S. Johnson's The Unfortunates, or Anne Carson's Nox (actually more of a scroll), or Robert Walser's Microscripts. At the very least, the current boom, or miniboom, in big books should tell us that novelists still believe in this kind of reader.  In the end, this may be enough to ensure her survival; just as the audience shapes the writer's habits, the writer, by the demands she chooses to make on her imaginary readers, calls her audience into being. One  of the underappreciated things about Franzen is that he writes as if the novel still (as Benjamin Kunkel puts it) "dominate[s] the landscape like a mountain range." And lo and behold, there he is on the cover of Time! One doesn't want to draw a veil over the various corporate machinations that made that possible. At the end of the day, though, a large number of readers are, like their 19th Century antecedents, currently reading and thinking about and talking about a work of fiction whose physical dimensions signal a corresponding largeness of intellect and spirit. Surely, we can agree that that's a good thing. For amid all the debatable, slippery stuff about our evolving consciousness, the relationship between the novel and a certain quality of attention appears to be inescapable. Whether in long or otherwise demanding books, or in long or otherwise demanding sentences, or in prodigious subtleties of perspective, writers of the 21st century continue to seek out an audience possessed of that attention. And, in defiance (so far) of predictions to the contrary, readers keep rising up to meet them.
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