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 West, Enigma Variations, Blind Spot, and The Night Ocean. See Also: Last month's list.
This year’s New York Times Notable Books of the Year list is out. At 100 titles, the list is more of a catalog of the noteworthy than a distinction. Sticking with the fiction exclusively, it appears that we touched upon a few of these books as well: The Accursed by Joyce Carol Oates (A Virtuoso at Work: Joyce Carol Oates Turns 75) All That Is by James Salter (All You Have Is What You Remember: The Millions Interviews James Salter, James Salter’s All That Is: From Dream to Reality) The Circle by Dave Eggers (A Little Bit Beta: On Dave Eggers’s The Circle) The Color Master by Aimee Bender (Childish Things: Aimee Bender’s The Color Master) The Dinner by Herman Koch (After The Dinner: A Round Up of Newly Translated Dutch Fiction) Dissident Gardens by Jonathan Lethem (Queens As a Metaphor for the World: On Jonathan Lethem’s Dissident Gardens) Doctor Sleep by Stephen King (Everything I Know About America I Learned from Stephen King) The End of the Point by Elizabeth Graver (The Life that Develops In-Between: On Elizabeth Graver’s The End of the Point) The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner (Rachel Kushner Is Well On Her Way to Huges) A Guide to Being Born by Ramona Ausubel (The Chemistry between Fiction and Reality: The Millions Interviews Ramona Ausubel, a Millions contributor) Half The Kingdom by Lore Segal (The Smile in the Bone: Lore Segal’s Half The Kingdom) The Infatuations by Javier Marías (The Darkness is Deep Indeed: On Javier Marías’s The Infatuations) The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer (Sing It, Sister! On Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings) The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton (When the Stars Align: On Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries) MaddAdam by Margaret Atwood (The Past is What Matters: On Margaret Atwood’s Vision of the Future) A Marker to Measure Drift by Alexander Maksik (Something Stark and Essential: On Alexander Maksik’s A Marker to Measure Drift) Schroder by Amity Gaige (Living a Lie: The Millions Interviews Amity Gaige) The Son by Philipp Meyer (The Last of the Comanches: Philipp Meyer’s The Son, Delusion is Crucial: The Millions Interviews Philipp Meyer) Tenth of December by George Saunders (George Saunders and the Question of Greatness) Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis (Peeling Back the Oprah Seal: Ayana Mathis’s Twelve Tribes of Hattie) Woke Up Lonely by Fiona Maazel (Alienation for Two: Fiona Maazel’s Woke Up Lonely, a Millions contributor)
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. Epic Fail: Bad Art, Viral Fame, and the History of the Worst Thing Ever 3 months 2. 3. Tenth of December 3 months 3. 4. An Arrangement of Light 4 months 4. - The Middlesteins 1 month 5. 5. Building Stories 3 months 6. 6. Object Lessons: The Paris Review Presents the Art of the Short Story 6 months 7. - Stand on Zanzibar 1 month 8. - Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk 1 month 9. 8. Arcadia 3 months 10. 7. Both Flesh and Not 4 months Last fall saw the arrival of three hotly anticpated titles from a trio of the most popular literary writers working today. Now those three titles are ending their run in our Top Ten by graduating to our Hall of Fame: This Is How You Lose Her by Junot Díaz, NW by Zadie Smith, and Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon. Those graduations made room for three debuts. Jami Attenberg's The Middlesteins pops up at number four. Attenberg made an appearance in our Year in Reading in December. The most popular piece on The Millions last month, by a wide margin, was Ted Gioia's unearthing of John Brunner's Stand on Zanzibar and the remarkably prescient predictions contained within. The essay sent readers running to check out the book. Finally, Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain completed its long, stead ascent onto our list. Fountain also appeared in our Year in Reading, and Edan Lepucki interviewed him in these pages last June. Our first ebook original, Epic Fail: Bad Art, Viral Fame, and the History of the Worst Thing Ever by staff writer Mark O'Connell, stayed atop our list and continues to win praise from readers and critics. An exerpt is available here and you can learn more about the book here. Near Misses: The Round House, Vampires in the Lemon Grove, Dear Life, Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief, and Sweet Tooth. See Also: Last month's list.
We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for February. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. 1. Epic Fail: Bad Art, Viral Fame, and the History of the Worst Thing Ever 2 months 2. 2. This Is How You Lose Her 6 months 3. 3. Tenth of December 2 months 4. 4. An Arrangement of Light 3 months 5. 5. Building Stories 2 months 6. 8. Object Lessons: The Paris Review Presents the Art of the Short Story 5 months 7. 9. NW 6 months 8. - Arcadia 2 months 9. 10. Telegraph Avenue 6 months 10. 7. Both Flesh and Not 3 months With our top five remaining unchanged, the big action in February was the graduation of a pair of books to our Hall of Fame. Gillian Flynn's juggernaut Gone Girl won over Millions readers with help from Edan Lepucki and Janet Potter's entertaining tag-team reading of the book in September, though copies were already flying off the shelves in the months prior. Meanwhile, D.T. Max's Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace was hotly anticipated by Millions readers from the moment the book was announced. We ran an excerpt and interviewed Max. Those graduations made room for the return of Lauren Groff's Arcadia (recently interviewed in our pages) and, appropriately enough, David Foster Wallace's Both Flesh and Not. Our first ebook original, Epic Fail: Bad Art, Viral Fame, and the History of the Worst Thing Ever by staff writer Mark O'Connell, stayed atop our list and continues to win praise from readers and critics. An exerpt is available here and you can learn more about the book here. Near Misses: Dear Life, Sweet Tooth, The Round House, Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief, and Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk. See Also: Last month's list.
Reared in the dressing rooms of the 18th century, the novel can often seem out of place in our age of LOLcats and Angry Birds. But in spite of its advanced age and sometimes stuffy reputation, the old chap is surprisingly nimble. In the technological tumult of the past decade, for example, YA went through puberty, electric literature moved out of the ivory tower, and the literary novel was successfully (for the most part) cross-pollinated with a number of more exotic genres. In the midst of all this, a strange literary beast has reemerged, a hybrid of the short story and traditional novel. This newly reinvigorated genre -- let’s call it the polyphonic novel -- uses a chorus of voices and narrative styles to create a whole that’s greater than the sum of its parts. Think Nicole Krauss’s Great House or David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad or Tom Rachman’s The Imperfectionists. Just as polyphonic music combines melodies to create texture and tension, the polyphonic novel collects a multiplicity of distinct, often conflicting voices around a single place, family, object, or idea. Polyphony widens the novel’s geographic, psychological, chronological, and stylistic range, while simultaneously focusing its gaze. Drawing inspiration from classics like The Brothers Karamazov, The Sound and the Fury, Mrs. Dalloway, and John Dos Passos’s USA Trilogy, contemporary polyphonic novels make music from the messy cacophony that is life in the 21st century. Bypassing traditional notions of character and plot, polyphonic novels create meaning at the intersection of seemingly random plot lines. Harmonies are found in the artful assemblage of disparate voices. As the Russian literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin described the work of Fyodor Dostoevsky: “A plurality of consciousnesses, with equal rights and each with its own world, combine but are not merged in the unity of the event.” Eschewing objectivity and uniformity, polyphonic novels rely instead on simultaneity, contradiction, and the empty space between voices. Zadie Smith’s most recent novel, NW, is a perfect example of the genre. The book traces four Londoners as they attempt to understand, escape, and make their way through Kilburn, the working-class neighborhood where they all grew up. With each new narrator, the novel loops back on itself, answering and expanding upon questions raised by previous sections. Towards the beginning of the book, for example, one of the main characters watches her best friend and her best friend’s husband exchange a glace across a crowded party. “She sees no smile, no nod, no wave, no recognition, no communication, nothing at all.” Two hundred pages later, we have begun to understand the glance in all its sad complexity. The seemingly enviable couple is really nothing but “an advert for themselves,” “like a double act that only speaks to each other when they are on stage.” Polyphony is particularly well-suited to excavations of the urban landscape. (For what is a city if not a collection of conflicting voices?) In Let the Great World Spin, Colum McCann mobilizes a chorus of seemingly incongruous voices to conjure a portrait of New York in the 1970s. Skipping between narrators -- an aging prostitute, an Irish monk, a judge, and an irresponsible young artist, to name just a few -- McCann creates a dissonant, yet synchronistic world nearly as vivid and wonderfully cluttered as the city itself. But polyphonic novels need not live in the city. Take, for example, Hari Kunzru’s brilliant Gods Without Men, which layers the Mojave desert with a progression of characters searching for meaning in the void. Narrators pop up and fade away. They build doomsday bunkers, military bases, and geodesic domes. They spend decades looking for truth, but the quiet mystery of the desert subsumes them all. As the final narrator writes, “that which is infinite is known only to itself and cannot be contained in the mind of man.” Contemporary polyphonic novels come in a wide variety of flavors. Many find structure in the family. Others, like The Imperfectionists, are shaped around the extended family of the workplace. Ian McEwan’s Atonement centers around a single act of accusation. While Great House and Geraldine Brooks’s People of the Book follow a single object through history, dipping in and out of the lives of those who have possessed it. And then there are those polyphonic novels built on nothing more than an idea. Swirling around seemingly unapproachable concepts such as authorship and fictionality, aging and time, novels like Cloud Atlas and A Visit From the Goon Squad use a variety of forms and styles to create a sense of scope that would be difficult (if not impossible) to achieve with a single narrator. It can be hard sometimes to tell the difference between these most disparate polyphonic novels and linked short story collections like Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge or Emma Donoghue’s Astray. Often, unfortunately, this border is delineated by marketing departments eager to attract readers (who, as conventional wisdom would have it, are drawn like moths to those two tiny words, “a novel,” tucked away at the bottom of the book cover). As Jay McInerney grumbled in a recent review: “I suspect that if Dubliners had been published in recent years it would have been marketed as a novel.” Whether or not his assessment is true, many readers agree with McInerney’s basic premise. Indeed, a quick perusal of Goodreads reveals a sizable cadre of those frustrated by polyphonic novels’ lack of traditional plot and character development. As one reviewer on the Great House page wrote: “writing a book of short stories, fitting them together Tetris-like, and calling it a novel DOES NOT MAKE YOUR BOOK A NOVEL.” Even some professional critics seem flummoxed by polyphony (see, for example, Douglas Copeland on Gods Without Men or Mike Peed on Let the Great World Spin). While certain readers and critics might be frustrated by shifting genre boundaries and non-linearity, the polyphonic novel has found favor among those responsible for giving out literary awards. Almost all of the books mentioned above have won (or should win) major literary prizes. The finalists for the past decade of Pulitzers, Bookers, and National Book Awards include quite a few works that could be described as polyphonic. This might be a coincidence, or a peculiar bias of the awards’ judges. Regardless, these awards indicate that the polyphonic novel occupies an important sector of the contemporary literary landscape. With each foray onto the Internet, each ping and clang, we are searching for meaning in a haystack of data, balancing perspectives, trying to find reason in a cacophony of opinion. Is it any wonder we are drawn to fiction that reflects this new way of being, to a form that’s uniquely suited to our fragmented and globalized century? The novel survived the advent of radio, cinema, and television, thanks in large part to its pliability. And the novel will continue to survive so long as it continues to adapt.
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. - Epic Fail: Bad Art, Viral Fame, and the History of the Worst Thing Ever 1 month 2. 1. This Is How You Lose Her 5 months 3. - Tenth of December 1 month 4. 5. An Arrangement of Light 2 months 5. - Building Stories 1 month 6. 4. Gone Girl 6 months 7. 2. Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace 6 months 8. 3. Object Lessons: The Paris Review Presents the Art of the Short Story 4 months 9. 6. NW 5 months 10. 7. Telegraph Avenue 5 months To kick off a new year of our Top Ten lists at The Millions, we made a slight adjustment to our calculations. The change has to do with how we account for lower-priced, shorter-form ebook originals that have become popular with our readers and effectively gives a modest penalty to the cheaper ebooks and recognizes that a purchase of a $1.99 ebook is different from buying a hardcover costing $20 or more. Despite this change, thanks to the overwhelmingly positive response from our readers, our first ebook original, Epic Fail: Bad Art, Viral Fame, and the History of the Worst Thing Ever by staff writer Mark O'Connell, lands atop our list. So far, the feedback from readers has been great, and we hope more will be inspired to pick it up. An exerpt is available here and you can learn more about the book here. Also debuting is Tenth of December by George Saunders, one of our Most Anticipated books and a title that has gotten a ton of positive press. Finally, also debuting is Chris Ware's Building Stories, reviewed in these pages by none other than Mark O'Connell. Ware also participated in our Year in Reading in December. Dropping from the list were David Foster Wallace's Both Flesh and Not, Lauren Groff's Arcadia and Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan Other Near Misses: Dear Life and The Round House. See Also: Last month's list.
The finalists for the annual National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) Award have been announced. The fiction list includes one of the biggest fiction releases of last year and a book in translation. To our eye, the five make up a well-rounded an interesting mix of titles. Here are the finalists for fiction and non-fiction with excerpts and other links where available. As a side note, the NBCC award is particularly interesting in that it is one of the few major awards that pits American books against overseas (usually British) books. Fiction Laurent Binet, HHhH (The missing pages of HHhH) Ben Fountain, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (Ben Fountain's Year in Reading, The Millions interview) Adam Johnson, The Orphan Master’s Son (excerpt) Lydia Millet, Magnificence (Lydia Millet's Year in Reading) Zadie Smith, NW (Zadie Smith's Year in Reading, our review, the first lines of NW) Nonfiction Katherine Boo, Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity (The Millions Interview, National Book Award winner) Steve Coll, Private Empire: ExxonMobil and American Power (excerpt) Jim Holt, Why Does the World Exist?: An Existential Detective Story (excerpt) David Quammen, Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic (excerpt) Andrew Solomon, Far From the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity (Staff Pick, excerpt [pdf]) For more on the NBCC Awards and the finalists in the other categories, visit the NBCC.
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. 2. This Is How You Lose Her 4 months 2. 3. Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace 5 months 3. 4. Object Lessons: The Paris Review Presents the Art of the Short Story 3 months 4. 8. Gone Girl 5 months 5. - An Arrangement of Light 1 month 6. 5. NW 4 months 7. 6. Telegraph Avenue 4 months 8. 7. Both Flesh and Not 2 months 9. - Arcadia 1 month 10. - Sweet Tooth 1 month After an impressive run, A Naked Singularity by Sergio De La Pava graduates to our Hall of Fame (check out Garth Hallberg's profile of De La Pava that introduced many of our readers to this unusual book). This makes room for Junot Díaz's This Is How You Lose Her (our review) to be crowned our new number one. Also joining our Hall of Fame is The Patrick Melrose Novels by Edward St. Aubyn (see our review of the last book in the series). Debuting on our list is Nicole Krauss's An Arrangement of Light, a bite-sized ebook original. And Krauss is joined on our list by Lauren Groff's Arcadia (selected by Alexander Chee, Emily St. John Mandel, and Janet Potter in our recent Year in Reading series; Groff was also a participant) and Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan (which we recently reviewed). Dave Eggers' A Hologram for the King slipped off the list. Other Near Misses: Dear Life, Building Stories, The Round House, Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, and Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar. See Also: Last month's list.
Oh, what did I read this year. I read all the Dear Prudence columns and some of The New York Times Vows and 6,000 things on Wedding Bee and even more things on Facebook and a lot of Tweets I do not remember now. I read two-thirds of the things about the election and one-third of the Mormon mommy blogs. I read most of the Andrew Sullivan and some of the Ta-Nehisi Coates and half of The New Yorker, but not the thing about Hilary Mantel, because I didn't read Wolf Hall, until this week when I read half of it on the train. In the airplane I read Esquire. In the bathroom I read The Economist that I got free with the miles I accrued reading Esquire in the airplane. In the living room I read the alumni magazine I got free with the expense I incurred on my education. I read the whole Jonah Lehrer scandal. My favorite thing I read on Jezebel was a video of a dog fetching a cat. I read In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, and my word, was that good. I read The Appearance of a Hero, and wrote a whole review of it in my head called "Where the Bros Are" -- or was it "For the Bros"? -- but forgot to write it down (don't get me started on the things I didn't write this year). I read NW and couldn't stop thinking about the scene with the tampon string like a mouse tail and got the taste of metal in my mouth, thank you very much Zadie Smith. I read We Need to Talk About Kevin and got the feel of bleach in my eye and hamster in my sink, thank you very much Lionel Shriver. I read The Snow Child which was like Crystal Light with extra Splenda (that is not a compliment, in case it's not clear). I read The Silent House which gave me the willies (that is a compliment). I read the The Deptford Trilogy because every year I have to read something by Robertson Davies and like it and then forget what it was about. I read the Donald Antrim triple-decker (one, two, three), and those were the greatest old new things I read this year. I re-read Good-bye to All That and Tender is the Night and Midnight's Children. I did not re-read The Tin Drum or Middlemarch or The Chronicles of Narnia or any Sherlock Holmes stories, and I really feel it in my bones that I did not re-read these things. I did not re-read The Corrections or Cleveland's History of the Modern Middle East, which I was going to re-read to remember what is the deal with Syria. I only re-read half of one movement of A Dance to the Music of Time (one-eighth, then). I still did not read Witz or Swamplandia! or The Instructions or A Visit from the Goon Squad or Skippy Dies or The Art of Fielding, or How Should a Person Be? even though I spent $30 on it at a book thing to seem like a team player. More distressing, I still did not really read Don Quixote or Das Kapital or War and Peace, or a thing by Stendahl or Ulysses. I did not read one really hard book this year, except one by Buket Uzuner, and that was just hard for me, and I didn't really read that either, just 20 pages. As usual, to compose my Year in Reading is to confront my failures. Resolved for 2013: more paper, less screen. More reading, more revelation. 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.
I can no longer remember the precise distinction between the uncertainty principle and the observer principle, but one way or another, I've started to detect a feedback loop involving the Year in Reading series and the reading life it purports to document. When I dashed off my first entry, in 2005 (can that be right?), it was purely in the spirit of a report. But by 2012, even in January, February, and March, I found myself picking up a given book and asking: Is this a contender for the series? Is there any chance this is going to be the best thing I read this year? And if not, back onto the shelves it went. As a consequence, of the 50-odd books I finished this year, at least half ended up being terrific. And the arbitrary cap I set for myself annually (Okay, I'm going to stick to writing about eight books. Fine, a dozen. Fifteen.) has proven harder than ever to enforce. I haven't bothered to count the number of titles below, because, frankly, I just don't want to know how far over my own limit I am. Let me just say, by way of apology, that this was a really, really good year in reading. Probably my favorite thing I read was part one of Karl Ove Knausgaard's My Struggle -- which bodes well, because five more volumes are on their way into English. Knausgaard's been described as a Nordic Proust, and that more or less captures the book's scope and its candid thefts from the author's own life. It's not a perfect comparison, of course; the suburban Norway where Knausgaard came of age in the '80s can't touch the Faubourg St.-Germain for social complexity, nor is Knausgaard's prose -- even in Don Bartlett's lucid translation -- as refined as Proust's. But both authors, in vivisecting their own consciousness, alter the reader's. A key word in My Struggle is "presence," and after reading a few pages of Knausgaard's descriptions of snow and soap, corpses and copses, you look up and find your own world pressing its presence urgently upon you, a messenger with an envelope you'll never quite manage to unseal. But then, it's hard to give the laurels to Knausgaard, because this was also the year I read László Krasznahorkai's The Melancholy of Resistance and Clarice Lispector's Near to the Wild Heart. I'd started the former several times over the years, only to put it down again. (I blame the absence of paragraph breaks.) But I finished it this summer over four long nights, preparing to interview the author, and found it to be one of the great novels of the last quarter-century -- like a MittelEuropean Moby-Dick. Near to the Wild Heart, meanwhile, is a Portuguese Mrs. Dalloway, as written by Peter Handke. I'm still not exactly sure what all happens to Lispector's semi-feral heroine, but the writing is just exquisite. It kills me that Lispector was in her early 20s when she wrote this...and that it took me so long to discover her. She's one of those writers who changes dramatically from book to book, but I look forward to reading everything of hers I can get my hands on. If you want to give her a try, start with this Modernist masterpiece. Speaking of Modernist masterpieces...the Microscripts of Robert Walser are now out in paperback. I'm crazy about Walser's early novel Jakob von Gunten, but have struggled with his short stories (many of which would today be called "short shorts"). All those quicksilver shifts of tone and intellect, compressed into the small space of a paragraph or two; all those discrete paragraphs, jam-packed together in a 4 x 8 inch book like roommates in a railroad apartment. The gorgeous new edition of the Microscripts, by contrast, surrounds each text with white space, and pairs it with a facsimile of its original, which somehow gives Walser's sentences room to breathe...and to beguile. I was similarly entranced by Andrey Bely's 1916 opus Petersburg back in the winter. I always read something Russian when it's snowing, and I picked this up thinking to polish it off in a couple of weeks. Instead, it took me a couple of months. Bely's symbolist prose, in many respects, is probably untranslatable, and his atmospherics are so relentless that the plot keeps disappearing behind them. But somehow, that comes to seem like the book's whole point: to distill and bottle the phantasmagoric atmosphere of its titular city. Another classic I loved this year was William Faulkner's Sanctuary. Critics tend to treat this one as a disreputable entry in the Yoknapatawpha oeuvre...a liquored-up uncle trying to crash a party already full of liquored-up uncles. But one of the book's supreme pleasures is seeing Faulkner turn his mature method (and he never wrote better than he did in 1929, '30, '31) to the kind of luridly pulpy material that would later surround him in Hollywood. Temple Drake, the kidnapped and forcibly debauched coed at the heart of the novel, is no one's idea of a feminist icon. But she's a flesh-and-blood character, and when she quakes in terror, we do, too. ...And is it too early to start filing Roberto Bolaño under "classics?" The well of posthumous Bolaño fiction has finally, I gather, run dry, and I expected to resent late trickles like The Secret of Evil. Instead, I found myself totally delighted, as ever, by this writer's sui generis sensibility. A 15-page synopsis of a zombie movie, or of a dream about a zombie movie? Yes, please -- provided Bolaño's doing the dreaming. This was a good year for new fiction, too. I was really taken with Ben Fountain's Billy Lynn's Halftime Walk, not least because it's about damn time somebody wrote a novel about the Iraq War. Kevin Powers and David Abrams would soon join Fountain on the G.W.O.T. bookshelf. Unlike them, though, Fountain has never served in the armed forces and so it's an act of ethical daring for him to imagine himself into the head of Specialist Billy Lynn, the book's hero. Equally ballsy, I think, is the book's formal dare: with one exception, it's written in a relentlessly forward-moving present tense. I usually find this sort of thing to be a cop-out, as if the writer couldn't be bothered to find a form other than Transcribed Screenplay, but Fountain treats realtime as a challenge, rather than an excuse. And he pulls it off. In short, he's one of our best and bravest writers. So is Zadie Smith. Critics seemed to chafe at the avant-garde ambitions of her new novel, NW. But I'm not sure those ambitions would have registered as such, had her essay, "Two Paths for the Novel," much ballyhooed in 2008, not seemed to presage an avant-garde turn. It's equally easy to make the case for NW as a novel of psychological realism. Its formal experimentation is light, easy to follow, and really pretty old-school (see: Mallarmé, Joyce). More unsettling, and more sneakily experimental, is the book's approach to character. Smith's protagonists, Leah, Natalie, and Felix, are incomplete, metamorphic, works in progress (as is their author). And it freaks them out. The book's temperament, then, is anxious, pained, repressed - an obverse to the ebullience of White Teeth. But that doesn't mean it's not a step forward. I also got around to some older contemporary lit this year. Marilynne Robinson's Gilead had been on my list since our Best of the Millennium project, and I now understand why so many people voted for it. The explicitly religious subject matter -- the novel comprises the letters of an elderly priest -- may put some readers off, but Robinson's eloquent embrace of faith doesn't banish doubt and mystery; it foregrounds them. Or as her narrator puts it: I have wandered to the limits of my understanding any number of times, out into that desolation, that Horeb, that Kansas, and I’ve scared myself, too, a good many times, leaving all landmarks behind me, or so it seemed. And it has been among the true pleasures of my life. Salvation is nowhere to be found in Slow Fade, Rudolph Wurlitzer's early-80s novel of the movie business. Neither, come to think of it, is pleasure...unless it's the pleasure of Wurlitzer's bone-clean prose. But Slow Fade struck me nonetheless as a great introduction to this neglected writer. And speaking of neglected: what ever happened to Mark Costello? Okay, fine, there are at least two Mark Costellos; I mean the one who was David Foster Wallace's college roommate. His secret service sendup, Big If, was nominated for a National Book Award in 2002, and though it isn't exactly a complete novel -- it's missing an ending, and rarely even descends into scene-- Costello's one of the funniest and brightest turners of phrase this side of...well, this side of Wallace. His long riff on the novel's eponymous video game is like an existentialist parable rewritten by George Saunders, and is on its own worth the price of admission. I want a new Costello novel, and I want it now. But real art takes as long as it takes, and half the time we're not ready to recognize it when it comes. That's one of the lessons of the best work of nonfiction I read this year, Lawrence Weschler's Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees, a biography of the artist Robert Irwin. I've read a lot of Weschler, but this book, his first, may be his best. And whether your particular field of endeavor is painting or writing or delivering the mail, Irwin's story will teach you to see it in a new way. On the journalism side, I was also vastly impressed by Dave Cullen's Columbine, notwithstanding his misinformed blurb for the Anthony Shadid book ("If Marquez [sic] had explored nonfiction..." Um...). Here, the attraction's not so much the writing but the reporting, the way Cullen extends journalistic objectivity to both victims and killers. The back half of the book feels like a long, vivid nightmare, but one returns to sanity with the same feeling Weschler and Irwin keep urging on us: the wonder that there is anything at all. I'd also recommend Michael Gorra's Portrait of a Novel, about Henry James. Like Janet Malcolm's little books on Chekhov and Gertrude Stein, it's an approachable blend of biography, criticism, and travelogue. Its charms will be less considerable, and its insights less penetrating, to anyone who hasn't read Portrait of a Lady, to which Gorra's book is keyed. But for readers looking to spend more time with the Master, or just to see what the fuss is about, Gorra's book is the equivalent of a good undergraduate seminar. And you know who else is a good critic? Jonathan Lethem. While his novels get much of the attention, Lethem's been steadily carving out a niche for himself as a polymorphous culture freak. His 2011 collection The Ecstasy of Influence doesn't spare us his squibs and blog posts (and commentary on those squibs and blog posts), and for that reason I was prepared to hate it. Weirdly, though, it works, adding up to a warts-and-all portrait of the artist. And if you like your essays more polished, check out the long James Brown profile two-thirds of the way through. Finally, a confession: I did something crazy this year. I blew half of a freelancing check on the complete, seven-volume edition of William T. Vollmann's 3,000 page essay on violence, Rising Up and Rising Down. (What can I say? It was either that or diapers for my children.) I remain deeply conflicted about my fascination with Vollmann. I know there's an obvious case to be made that he's not a good writer. I also think he might be a great one. To my surprise, given its length, RURD is one of his more carefully crafted books. In its learned monomania, it reminds me of Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy. To a contemporary audience, its style of argumentation may feel bizarre; I keep thinking of an archaeologist sitting at a table, sweeping a pile of sand from one hand to the other, waiting for artifacts to emerge in the middle. But when Vollmann arrives, after many divagations, at a point, you don't feel like you understand; you feel like you've lived it. (For this reason, I cannot imagine the 700-page abridged version making any sense at all.) And if Violence seems like too broad a subject, consider this: it's a head-fake. The essay's really about Everything. Or so it seems to me at present; I'm only two volumes in. RURD is destined, probably, to join The Book of Disquiet and The Arcades Project and The Making of Americans as one of those books I read and read and never finish. But I'm grateful to the weird pressure of A Year in Reading for giving me the impetus to start. 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.
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 November. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. 1. A Naked Singularity 6 months 2. 3. This Is How You Lose Her 3 months 3. 2. Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace 4 months 4. 6. Object Lessons: The Paris Review Presents the Art of the Short Story 2 months 5. 4. NW 3 months 6. 5. Telegraph Avenue 3 months 7. - Both Flesh and Not 1 month 8. 7. Gone Girl 4 months 9. 10. A Hologram for the King 4 months 10. 9. The Patrick Melrose Novels 6 months With our November list, A Naked Singularity by Sergio De La Pava is enjoying the final month of its miracle run at the top before graduating to our Hall of Fame next month (don't miss Garth Hallberg's profile of De La Pava before it goes). A Naked Singularity will join Hilary Mantel's Bring Up the Bodies, as the Booker winner, which has just been inducted Mantel's first Thomas Cromwell book, Wolf Hall, is now also a Hall of Famer. Moving up to number two on the list, Junot Díaz's This Is How You Lose Her (our review) continues its climb, surpassing D.T. Max's biography Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace. Wallace looms large on our list as his posthumously published collection of essays Both Flesh and Not debuts at number seven. The book is the third by Wallace (after Infinite Jest and The Pale King) to appear on a Millions Top Ten list. The new Paris Review anthology is another big mover, hopping two spots in its second month on the list. We've got an interview with one of the editors. Near Misses: The Fun Stuff: And Other Essays, The Fifty Year Sword, The Round House, Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, and Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar. See Also: Last month's list.
This year’s New York Times Notable Books of the Year list is out. At 100 titles, the list is more of a catalog of the noteworthy than a distinction. Sticking with the fiction exclusively, it appears that we touched upon a few of these books as well: Arcadia by Lauren Groff (a Staff Pick, Paradise Regained: An Interview with Lauren Groff) At Last by Edward St Aubyn (Most Anticipated, Illicit Pleasures: On Edward St Aubyn’s At Last) Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain (Everything is Political: An Interview with Ben Fountain, National Book Award Finalist) Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel (Booker Prize Winner) Building Stories by Chris Ware (Infographics of Despair: Chris Ware’s Building Stories) By Blood by Ellen Ullman (Who We Are Now: On Ellen Ullman’s By Blood) Canada by Richard Ford (Across the Border: Richard Ford’s Canada) City of Bohane by Kevin Barry (The Mad Music of Kevin Barry’s City of Bohane) Fobbit by David Abrams (Post-40 Bloomer: David Abrams Taking As Long As It Takes) The Forgetting Tree by Tatjana Soli (Going Back to the Page: An Interview with Tatjana Soli, A Millions contributor) Gods Without Men by Hari Kunzru (Plot, Rhyme, and Conspiracy: Hari Kunzru Colludes with His Readers, Fractured World: Hari Kunzru’s Gods Without Men) HHhH by Laurent Binet (Exclusive: The Missing Pages of Laurent Binet’s HHhH) A Hologram for the King by Dave Eggers (National Book Award Finalist) Home by Toni Morrison (Where the Heart Is: Toni Morrison’s Home) Hope: A Tragedy by Shalom Auslander (So, Nu?: Shalom Auslander’s Hope: A Tragedy) How Should a Person Be? by Sheila Heti (How Should a Writer Be? An Interview with Sheila Heti) NW by Zadie Smith (Lamenting the Modern: On Zadie Smith's NW, Exclusive: The First Lines of Zadie Smith's NW) The Round House by Louise Erdrich (National Book Award Winner) Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward (National Book Award Winner) Shout Her Lovely Name by Natalie Serber (Mothers and Daughters: On Natalie Serber’s Shout Her Lovely Name) Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan (The Lies We Tell: Ian McEwan’s Sweet Tooth) Swimming Home by Deborah Levy (Booker Shortlisted) Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon (Golden Oldie: Michael Chabon’s Telegraph Avenue, Exclusive: The First Lines of Michael Chabon’s Telegraph Avenue) This Is How You Lose Her by Junot Díaz (The ‘You’ In Yunior: Junot Díaz’s This Is How You Lose Her, A Brief Wondrous Interview with Junot Díaz) Watergate by Thomas Mallon (I Am Not A Character: On Thomas Mallon’s Watergate) What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank by Nathan Englander (Speaking of Anne Frank…) The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers (National Book Award Finalist)
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 October. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. 1. A Naked Singularity 4 months 2. 2. Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace 2 months 3. 5. This Is How You Lose Her 2 months 4. 3. NW 2 months 5. 4. Telegraph Avenue 2 months 6. - Object Lessons: The Paris Review Presents the Art of the Short Story 1 month 7. 8. Gone Girl 3 months 8. 6. Bring Up the Bodies 6 months 9. 10. The Patrick Melrose Novels 5 months 10. - A Hologram for the King 3 months Our hurricane-delayed Top Ten for October has arrived. This month we see a new Paris Review anthology land on our list. We recently covered its creation in an interview with one of the editors. Meanwhile, Dave Eggers'A Hologram for the King returns to our list after a month off wandering in the desert. A Naked Singularity by Sergio De La Pava remains in our top spot (don't miss Garth Hallberg's profile of De La Pava from June), and D.T. Max's biography Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace holds on to the second spot (read the book's opening paragraphs), and Junot Díaz's This Is How You Lose Her (our review) leapfrogs other big fall books to land the third spot. We had two books graduate to our Hall of Fame: How to Sharpen Pencils by David Rees (don't miss the hilarious, yet oddly poignant interview) and Stephen Greenblatt's Pulitzer winner The Swerve: How the World Became Modern. Near Misses: Shakedown, Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar, An Arrangement of Light, The Fifty Year Sword, and New American Haggadah. See Also: Last month's list.
We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for September. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. 1. A Naked Singularity 4 months 2. 2. Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace 2 months 3. - NW 1 month 4. - Telegraph Avenue 1 month 5. - This Is How You Lose Her 1 month 6. 3. Bring Up the Bodies 5 months 7. 5. The Swerve: How the World Became Modern 6 months 8. 7. Gone Girl 2 months 9. 4. How to Sharpen Pencils 6 months 10. 6. The Patrick Melrose Novels 4 months Millions readers know: we had been looking ahead to September as a big month for books for quite some time, with new titles arriving from three of the biggest names working in literary fiction working today. We reviewed all three books and all three landed high up in our Top Ten this month with NW by Zadie Smith (our review) besting Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon (our review) and This Is How You Lose Her by Junot Díaz (our review). A Naked Singularity by Sergio De La Pava remains in our top spot (don't miss Garth Hallberg's profile of La Pava from June), and D.T. Max's biography Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace holds on to the second spot (read the book's opening paragraphs). Dropping off our list are New American Haggadah (just missing our Hall of Fame), A Hologram for the King, and Binocular Vision (read our interview with author Edith Pearlman) Other Near Misses: An Arrangement of Light and How Should a Person Be?: A Novel from Life. See Also: Last month's list.
Zadie Smith’s fourth novel, NW, sees her return to Willesden, northwest London, the same setting as her debut novel, White Teeth. Her first novel in seven years, NW signifies a departure for Smith in terms of her prose as well as her thematic scope: not only is NW a more poetic and abstract novel, but it is also one that calls iteratively to its reader to “keep up!” Indeed, it is in the pacing and in the gaps amid the fractured narrative structure that the reader locates NW’s most incisive social criticisms, insights, and its numerous laments about what it means to be “modern.” A novel of visits and visitations, ghosts and hauntings, NW begins with the destabilizing visit of Shar, who rings the doorbell to Leah’s council flat to ask for money. This uncanny encounter sets off a chain of events and memories, a narrative spiral that occasionally feels out of control, but which comes full circle in a surprisingly satisfying way in Smith’s sure hands. When the narrative does return back to this initial moment, its effects are just as unexpected on the two main female protagonists as they are on the reader. On the surface, NW is the story of two childhood friends, Leah and Keisha (who later changes her name to Natalie, to sever ties with the council estate on which she grew up), brought together by a “dramatic event:” as a young girl, Natalie saves Leah from near-drowning, causing the two to be joined together for life in spite of their different cultural backgrounds. United by this near-death experience and their shared socioeconomic status, the two girls grow up in a council estate in Willesden, northwest London, sharing their experiences with a host of characters ranging from Cheryl, Natalie’s sister who, despite several pregnancies, refuses the financial assistance of her now much wealthier sister, to the drug-addicted, morose Nathan Bogle, Leah’s childhood crush. But NW is much more than a tale of a friendship. Indeed, Smith chooses to structure the novel in such a way that it textualizes the chaotic world of the estate and its inhabitants while, at the same time, dramatizing the intense anguish, emptiness, and despair found in the psychological lives of her protagonists. As Leah muses at one point: “She has forced a stillness in herself, but it has not stopped the world from continuing on.” She is ostensibly happily married to Michel, a Frenchman of African descent who works as a hairdresser, and yet secretly takes contraceptives to maintain control over her body and her life (“He is two feet away. He is on the other side of the world”); by contrast, Natalie marries the affluent, debonair Frank De Angelis strategically -- or so she thinks -- only to find her sexual desires wandering, enhanced by the technological world and myriad websites offering quick, anonymous sex with no strings attached. Technology is one of the major culprits in NW, causing rifts in our interactions with others and creating more distance when there should be more intimacy: “Everyone comes together for a moment to complain about the evils of technology, what a disaster, especially for teenagers, yet most people have their phones laid next to their dinner plates.” Eerily enough, Smith suggests that the two women know one another better than anyone else does, and yet the secrets each keeps from the other enhance their states of isolation within a community to which each still feels indebted in often inexplicable ways, despite an ever-growing distance. Several critics have already pointed out NW’s debt to Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway. Both novels are concerned with female characters who are lost in their marriages and in their modern worlds. The pace of Smith’s prose, especially in the opening section, is reminiscent of Woolf’s, but in NW Smith creates a rhythm all her own: Nothing to listen to but this bloody girl. At least with eyes closed there is something else to see. Viscous black specks. Darting boatmen, zig-zagging. Zig. Zag. Red river? Molten lake in hell? The hammock tips. The papers flop to the ground. World events and property and film and music lie in the grass. Also sport and the short descriptions of the dead. The two different Londons are utterly incongruous in this intertextual alignment in rather jarring ways: Clarissa Dalloway encounters crowds in Hyde Park baffled about the modern aerial advertising upon which no one can agree as far as the trade name goes. “But what letters? A C was it? an E, then an L? Only for a moment did they lie still; then they moved and melted and were rubbed out up in the sky, and the aeroplane shot further away and again, in a fresh space of sky, began writing a K, an E, a Y perhaps?” As Leah journeys through the NW district, she is even more bombarded than Clarissa is; not only can Leah not escape the commercialization of the city itself, but she is similarly trapped in a multicultural space where different groups -- while joined in similar socioeconomic circumstances -- carve out different spaces, thus creating rifts of separation in a zone that is already a kind of No Man’s Land: Polish paper, Turkish paper, Arabic, Irish, French, Russian, Spanish, News of the World. Unlock your (stolen) phone, buy a battery pack, a lighter pack, a perfume pack, sunglasses, three for a fiver, a life-size porcelain tiger, gold taps. Casino! Everybody believes in destiny. Everybody. It was meant to be. Deal or no deal? TV screens in the TV shop. TV cable, computer cable, audiovisual cables, I give you good price, good price. As in Mrs. Dalloway, there is a death that sends a rupture through the community; however, unlike Woolf’s more direct approach, Smith has complicated the dynamics and inserted two characters who are affected by the death rather than just one. This demonstrates how contemporary identity is shared, collective, and yet also at risk of being subsumed beneath another’s; it also underlines how compartmentalized each of our identities become in our high-paced, technology-driven culture. Mrs. Dalloway does this in its own way, but Smith’s strength here in updating Woolf’s novel is in her hopeful pessimism: while Septimus Smith’s death allows Clarissa to see her own anguish reflected, the death in NW actually upsets the mirror images Leah and Natalie reflect for each other. As such, the individual stands both for and against the community, and the harrowing walk Natalie finds herself on toward the novel’s close -- where Smith indicates the need to meet one’s own ghost, if only to prove that one is solely a ghost in this world -- coupled with the two women’s final act suggests that living is at the cost of sacrificing a part of oneself and also a willful condemnation of one’s own subculture. To stress NW’s debt to Mrs. Dalloway alone, though, would be to Smith’s great discredit. The reader is asked here to read between the lines, and the events are not given in chronological order; in fact, we begin with Leah’s adult life (which includes some memories of her past and her friendship with Natalie), and, after a rupture that places a marginal Felix front and center to centralize a noble kind of masculinity (a rare kind indeed in Willesden), we are then presented with a very postmodern bildungsroman that grants us access to Natalie’s formative years. As this section progresses with its deployment of short sections almost reminiscent of Roland Barthes’s A Lover’s Discourse -- a text that is about its author coming to terms with the end of a relationship, much as Natalie’s section is, too, in its own way -- one gets a full sense of Natalie’s identity from the fragments themselves. Smith is able to build a very solid portrait of her protagonist from bits and pieces, implying that this is how we are all fashioned by our society and that perhaps such a form is the best way to render modern experience. To be sure, we are all shaped by devouring films, books, music, from our early love affairs, and from our traumatic experiences; it is no surprise that, in shaping Natalie’s subjectivity, Smith manages in a masterful way such allusions to figures as seemingly disparate as Jean-Luc Godard, Søren Kierkegaard, John Donne, and Michael Jackson. Although her prose owes much to the modernist school and her structure to the postmodernist dissection of time and identity, Smith continually returns to “the modern” as a continuum: “At some point we became aware of being ‘modern,’ of changing fast. Of coming after just now. John Donne was also a modern and surely saw change but we feel we are more modern and that the change is faster. Even the immutable is faster. Even blossom.” As we witness Leah swallowing her pride and working for a charity despite her university degree, rendered moot in the economy; as we witness Natalie rising as a barrister despite her class status and in spite of an ambivalence she can never wholly express, one which she tries to correct or mask through motherhood; and as we witness how these women relate to the men in their lives (whether central or tangential), we are left with the sense that, like Anna in Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook, modernity wreaks havoc on individuals’ conceptualizations of their own identities. Smith’s great skill in NW is not only questioning this -- and, in so doing, allowing her prose to mimic the nuances, cadences, and occasional sing-song slang of the NW district, proving her yet again a master of dialogue and tone -- but in the way she finds dangerous such a compartmentalization of experience, desire (“Desire is never final, desire is imprecise and impractical”), and subjectivity when it comes to how we relate to others in the world, whether these be the strangers we pass on the street or the ones with whom we share our beds. Smith seems to be calling us to unite these disparate parts of our lives, and perhaps NW’s strength is in her insistence: “Global consciousness. Local consciousness. Consciousness.”
1. The book review is dead. At the very least, it’s very obviously dying. Anyway, we can all agree that it should be killed off, because it’s gotten to be irrelevant. If not downright parasitic. (Though maybe it might be salvaged if the average review was a little meaner.) I exaggerate only slightly here. This past August, a pair of meta-critical essays by Dwight Garner in The New York Times and Jacob Silverman in Slate sent everyone who fancied him- or herself a critic — whether institutionalized or not — into a collective fit. It was probably the biggest literary-cultural dustup since the Great MFA Debate of 2010-2011, when Elif Batuman’s London Review of Books article, “Get a Real Degree,” made everyone feel just a little bit bad about the existence of MFA programs. I found it hard to get terribly worked up about literary criticism’s emotional register. For every Laura Miller or Lev Grossman who has foresworn negative reviews, I know that there will be just as many qualifiers for the Hatchet Job of the Year Award to fulfill the angry review quota. For every purchased five-star review, there will be that lady on Goodreads who says that the only good thing about the new Junot Diaz novel is that it taught her the Spanish word sucio. But enough about the State of the Art! I enjoyed all of these essays, but the one thing that struck me was that they were all essentially negative, in the sense that they set out to describe how things were going wrong or why things ought not to be the way that they are. What they didn’t do a very good job of was describing what criticism or book reviewing is, or what it should be. Okay, there were some nice, bold mission statements thrown in there. Here’s Dwight Garner: “What we need more of…are excellent and authoritative and punishing critics.” Agreed. Or Daniel Mendelsohn, in the New Yorker: “the critic is someone who, when his knowledge, operated on by his taste in the presence of some new example of the genre he’s interested in...hungers to make sense of that new thing, to analyze it, interpret it, make it mean something.” Sounds great. Or Richard Brody, again in the New Yorker: “Criticism is the turning of the secondary (the critic’s judgment) into the primary.” Sure, why not. So I think we can all agree that A) the “book review” is a prestigious class of writing that people aspire to write, and B) there is a continuum of, shall we say, critical perceptiveness — what in the pre-everyone-gets-a-trophy age we might call “value” or “quality” — on which the multiple-thousand-word, tightly-argued essays of the New York/London/L.A. Review of Books reside at one end, and the rapid reactions of John Q. Tumblr reside at the other. (By the way, I don’t want to suggest that there is something philosophically corrupt or intrinsically wrong about the latter, or that just because something is edited and not self-published, it is automatically better than a blog post. Advanced degrees, journalistic credentials, and/or getting published in hard copy is not a guarantee that a book review is any good. See, for example Janet Maslin’s misreading of This Bright River.) But what should this excellence and interpretation and maybe a little bit of hard-headedness actually look like, in practice? Why has it been absent? And why does any discussion about literary criticism turn into a giant game of dodging the question, as if the concept of a book review were like the concept of pornography, in that you might not know how to define it, but you’d know it when you see it? In the interest of getting everyone on the same page (book pun!), I thought it would be an interesting exercise to dissect a book review, to pick apart what makes it work or not work, what makes some book reviews great and others — most of them, really — bland and unhelpful and immediately forgettable. Because book reviewing is a genre with its own conventions, just as every murder mystery must start with a body, and every epic fantasy must feature elvish words with too many apostrophes. It’s worth figuring out what those conventions are. 2. In the beginning, there is ego. As George Orwell put it in his essay “Writers and Leviathan”: “One’s real reaction to a book, when one has a reaction at all, is usually ‘I like this book’ or ‘I don’t like it,’ and what follows is a rationalization.” The decision to like or not like a book is where every book review begins. This is what gives the genre its underlying suspense — will Michiko Kakutani like this book or won’t she? — but also its frustrating sense of chaos, because no matter how technically sound or philosophically sophisticated or beautiful a book might be, something minor or tangential can turn off a reviewer so much that he or she decides the book is not good. A lot of book reviews never get past this first stage, and this is where the whole free-for-all of online reviewing can get frustrating. For instance, the Goodreads lady on Junot Diaz, or the people who unironically give one-star reviews to classic literature: all of these reviews consist entirely of the initial response and a subsequent explanation, and no self-reflection about whether there might be more to the book — and to the reviewer’s response — than that initial, emotional decision. If the nauseating chumminess of the publishing world is the Scylla of book criticism, than this kind of reviewerly narcissism is surely its Charybdis. But hopefully, no matter how much reviewers are in love with themselves, they will at least step aside and say a few things about the book. In the case of fiction, its plot, its characters, some of the backstory, and the setting. In the case of nonfiction, the overall narrative or argument of the book, the author’s source material and expertise in the subject matter. This is the next stage in the evolution of a book review, and it is plain nuts and bolts kind of stuff. But it’s so important to do readers this simple courtesy because, unlike an oil filter or a frying pan, the world of literature is so expansive and dependent on authorial decisions and whims that two books within a genre, or a sub-genre, or even a sub-sub-genre, may vary wildly in so many ways. Is the protagonist of this hard science-fiction story an astrobiologist on a generation ship or a detective on an asteroid base? And so on. This is where things start to get complicated. The average paid reviewer gets one scant paragraph in Publisher’s Weekly, maybe four or six in your average major metropolitan daily, to appraise a book. And more often than not, they splurge on summary — often to the exclusion of everything else. So their concluding paragraphs tend to be a little overstuffed, as these recent examples show: But finally, of course, this kind of rigidity exacts its own price, and Natalie can’t avoid paying. Each of the novel’s sections ends with a scene of violence, something Ms. Smith presents as inescapable in northwest London. Some characters die from it, others survive, but none are unscathed. What Ms. Smith offers in this absorbing novel is a study in the limits of freedom, the way family and class constrain the adult selves we make. In England, the margin for self-invention is notoriously smaller than it is in the U.S. — which is one reason why Ms. Smith, with NW, seems more than ever a great English novelist. (Adam Kirsch, review of NW in The Wall Street Journal) There are moments here and there in Telegraph Avenue where Mr. Chabon, himself sounds as if he’s trying very hard “to sound like he was from the ’hood,” but for the most part he does such a graceful job of ventriloquism with his characters that the reader forgets they are fictional creations. His people become so real to us, their problems so palpably netted in the author’s buoyant, expressionistic prose, that the novel gradually becomes a genuinely immersive experience — something increasingly rare in our ADD age. (Michiko Kakutani, review of Telegraph Avenue in The New York Times) The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving deals with sorrow and disability and all the things that can go wrong in life. But mostly Evison has given us a salty-sweet story about absorbing those hits and taking a risk to reach beyond them. What a great ride. (Ellen Emry Heitzel, review of The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving in The Seattle Times) In other words, you can see where these reviews are trying to do too much with too little space. Trying to sum up the quality of the prose with a few abstract descriptors. Making a final plea for the cultural relevance of the book. Ending on a gnomic, life-affirming mantra. And all this in fewer than 100 words. The fact that these reviewers are reaching for something beyond what they have space to cover is, to me, a tacit admission that there is more to be done here; that saying “Here is the plot of the book, and here is a pile of adjectives to show how much I (dis)liked it” just barely scratches the surface of what book criticism can cover. But if you’ve already done all that and you still feel that readers ought to take away one more big idea — what do you do? 3. Matt Taibbi hated The World is Flat and Hot, Flat, and Crowded. He hated their titles. He hated their premise. Hated their predictability, their utter lack of real insights, and most memorably of all, hated their language. In his reviews of Thomas Friedman’s two books, Taibbi tracked dozens of bizarre proclamations and just plain bad writing, from the first confusion between herd animals with hunting animals to his last, triumphant-until-you-think-about-it graph of freedom vs. oil prices, which used four data points selected basically at random to make a point about the march of democracy across the globe. (“What can’t you argue, if that’s how you’re going to make your point??” wrote Taibbi, two question marks included.) This might make Taibbi sound like a prescriptivist grump, a Grammar Nazi who just happened to find the one guy who was famous enough and bad at writing enough to deserve this kind of thrashing. Except that the reviews do more than that. It turns out that Friedman’s “anti-ear” is actually the most obvious symptom of a larger case of intellectual and moral fraud. In Friedman’s world, the rules of basic logic and historical causation do not exist; he invents new realities out of a few cherry-picked events and the limited frame of reference of a privileged, jet-setting columnist based out of New York City. On the one hand, this entire review stems from an act that we all can do: to try and gauge the quality of Friedman’s writing and thought. But Taibbi manages to do more than wag his finger at Friedman for writing poorly — he discovers something important and true that we didn’t know before, and more importantly, couldn’t know just by taking Friedman at his word. So Taibbi passes Daniel Mendelsohn’s “meaning” test, because we now know something new about Friedman’s book that we didn’t before. He certainly passes Dwight Garner’s bar for being both excellent and punishing. This is not simple aesthetic snobbery: it’s formal criticism that actually matters. Then there is the big picture. It’s hard to get much bigger than James Wood’s famous 2000 proclamation: “A genre is hardening.” In it, he identifies the “perpetual-motion machine that appears to have been embarrassed into velocity” that characterized novelists like Don DeLillo, Salman Rushdie, and mainly, Zadie Smith, whose then-new book White Teeth Wood was reviewing. These practitioners of “hysterical realism,” Wood argued, were to the novel what the van Eyck brothers were to medieval painting — artists who thought that conceptual virtuosity and an inexhaustible supply of detail substituted for a plausible, profound exploration of the human experience. Instead of treating the text as a mirror for the writer’s psyche, this kind of criticism assumes that the novel in question is a mirror of some kind of shared worldview, brought on not just by the writer’s personal choices (of character, setting, plot, and so on) but also by the context in which he or she is writing. In the case of the hysterical realists, they are all too in love with their grand, underlying, and basically untrue idea — everything and everyone is interconnected in ambition and subject to the same fate — that they have to make their characters essentially inhuman to make their plots work. But not everyone has to be present at the birth of a genre to do this sort of criticism. Rosecrans Baldwin discovered a trope that’s almost as old as the modern novel — the “distant-dog impulse” — from Tolstoy to Picoult. Evgeny Morozov tracked not only the intellectual vacuousness, but also the stylistic commonalities imposed by the new line of TED Books. What’s going on here? Elif Batuman explains that all of these reviewers are looking for context in the morass of personal and artistic choices that go into every piece of writing: Literature viewed in this way becomes a gigantic multifarious dream produced by a historical moment. The role of the critic is then less to exhaustively explain any single work than to identify, in a group of works, a reflection of some conditioned aspect of reality. Maybe it doesn’t sound great when reduced to a mission statement like this — in fact, I think it sounds vaguely totalitarian, especially when you consider that this sort of criticism is called “Marxist criticism” in academic circles. But in practice, it definitely works. 4. So. Reaction. Summary. Aesthetic and historical appraisal: these are the four classical elements of literary criticism. To that I might add that it helps to be negative — of the twelve reviews I quote here, eight are at least moderately negative, and about five are relentlessly so. That people are even having this conversation about the supposed niceness of book reviews is great: it shows that book reviews are anything but irrelevant. And now that we’ve teased out the ground rules of what can and should go into a book review, it’s time to turn you loose. You now have the tools to cut through the morass of literary criticism and decide for yourself not only if a book review is worthwhile, but why. You can critique the critics. You can be a meta-Michiko. Use this knowledge wisely. As for me, I eagerly await the next big, invented crisis to strike the world of literature. I hope it involves deckled edges. Image via Wikimedia Commons
A big week for books: Zadie Smith's NW is out (read the first lines), as is Christopher Hitchens's Mortality, a collection of essays penned while he fought cancer (our essay on Hitchens' death) (his collection Arguably is out in paperback today). More new books: Emma Straub's Laura Lamont's Life in Pictures, Umberto Eco's essay collection Inventing the Enemy, Davy Rothbart's essay collection My Heart Is an Idiot, Frederick Seidel's poetry collection Nice Weather, documentarian Errol Morris's A Wilderness of Error: The Trials of Jeffrey MacDonald, and the Navy Seal book about the bin Laden mission. Also, The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides is now out in paperback (read Eugenides on the book's genesis), as is Stephen Greenblatt's Pulitzer winner The Swerve.
There's a lot for readers to look forward to in the second-half of the year, and high up on the list is Zadie Smith's first novel in seven years, NW. Lydia covered the book in our big preview published last week, "NW follows a group of people from Caldwell–a fictional council estate in northwest London whose buildings are named for English philosophers–and documents the lives they build in adulthood. Smith (who since 2005 has become a mother, NYU professor, and Harper’s columnist) has variously called this a novel of class and a “very, very small book” (highly unlikely). Smith’s own deep roots to London, and this particular corner of London, were most recently aired in her stirring defense of London’s local libraries for the New York Review of Books blog." Smith sets the scene evocatively in the book's opening paragraph. The fat sun stalls by the phone masts. Anti-climb paint turns sulphurous on school gates and lampposts. In Willesden people go barefoot, the streets turn European, there is a mania for eating outside. She keeps to the shade. Redheaded. On the radio: I am the sole author of the dictionary that defines me. A good line—write it out on the back of a magazine. In a hammock, in the garden of a basement flat. Fenced in, on all sides.