Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling with D. H. Lawrence

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Books as Constant Companion: The Millions Interviews Pamela Paul

I once knew a Holocaust survivor, a Russian non-native English speaker with a thirst for learning, who kept a wonderful book: a logbook of obsessive reading with highly particular summaries. “War and Peace,” the survivor notated, “a bunch of people, war, and countries — can’t anyone get along?” “Madame Bovary,” she wrote,  “a fancy lady spends a lot of time dreaming until all is lost for love.”

We are deep into a moment in which authors write of lives, often their own, through the habit of reading. Hearing of the trend from afar, a person could ask: does the practice  signify a retreat to a self-reflexive cave? A recherché activity, a hall-of-mirrors exercise, a willed innocence? And yet, these last 15 years, books on reading have proliferated at the same time that newspaper space for discussing the magic of reading has shrunk. Consider Elif Batuman’s The Possessed, Geoff Dyer’s Out of Sheer Rage, Laura Miller’s The Magician’s Book, a hundred others.

Such authors share the same gleam you find in the self-portrait of Diego Velázquez in “Las Meninas” in which the artist depicts himself as the aware but lowly court servant  painting the aristocratic family. The artist supersedes his content, eyes leaping out of the frame at us, becoming our proxy for understanding a given milieu. With similar esprit, in many of these books, the authors gaze back at us reading them, showing how at a crucial point in life, a book or series swayed them unalterably. Reader, I was never the same, these books whisper, confidingly. The earth moved. These books on reading often also move earth, however subtly, achieving what Aristotle demanded for drama: both recognition and catharsis.

In Pamela Paul’s fifth book, My Life with Bob: Flawed Heroine Keeps Book of Books, Plot Ensues, she takes us traveling through a landscape of childhood aspiration and adolescently blind romanticism, the accruals and loss of adulthood, all told from a temperament with a fierce, passionate allegiance to principle. Her Bob is a logbook of reading and also a rueful, joyful autobiography of interests and selves, an elegy fond and bittersweet. Bob in its physical form — even when a mate, soon to be ex, actually writes in it himself — survives courtships, marriages, and the most Aristotelian of reversals.

On first reading, I felt the book created a new genre, the polemic picaresque, in which readers get to wander happily with a Michel de Montaigne-like narrator through varied realms while picking up bits of advice as buried treasure. Imagine a guide who seems at first to speak only of her small village and family while showing the reader a local tower, who meanwhile, subtly, persuades us of the greatness of the parish. On my second reading, Paul’s book seemed to be in conversation with Boswell’s travels with Johnson, Sei Shōnagon, or The Canterbury Tales, in which we roam aesthetic terrain with a hapless and memorable group of individuals, the world rich with surfaces while belying the deeper moral conviction and instruction to be had.

The journey is as good as the guide, and one of My Life with Bob’s pleasures is the humorous and affectionate light cast on the narrator’s strong convictions. As a young girl, Paul begins with reading as a quirky hagiography, finding lives to learn and emulate, the horizon of her worldliness as wide as her last book read. Older, she shows great, impulsive agency in making book-inspired choices while becoming increasingly nostalgic for an earlier temporal freedom, leaving her reader to understand that a life too far from books is not just unexamined, but unfelt, unknown, unarticulated.

From the joy-filled vantage of someone illuminated, and even dominated, by books she has read, Paul inspires her reader to revisit works canonical and unsung. As the best memoir writers do, the witty persona Paul creates for her narrator is not so much heroine but more in the spirit of Paul Klee’s “Hero with a Broken Wing”: gifted and burdened by aspiration, she lives the paradox of being the obedient rebel and contrarian student who delights in having a mind with a thousand pockets. If August Wilson says everyone should wake to see the face of our own god in the mirror, in this case, for a very singular reader, the mirror itself is literature.

Below, Paul speaks of seeing her recollection of Bob emerge.

The Millions: You were a reader with a great understanding of privacy. What is your experience of My Life with Bob, an exegesis of such an important relic of the self, traveling out in the world?

Pamela Paul: A certain amount of trepidation. I never thought I would write a memoir, and in fact, didn’t think of this book as a memoir until Publishers Weekly announced the deal and called it one. My first thought was, “Oh, no — but they’re right! I guess it is a memoir.”

To my mind, it was to be a book about books, a book about travels, a book about storytelling. But of course, it’s not really about those things. It’s about the intersection of books and life, and about how what we read infiltrates, influences, reflects, expands on, and colors everything else. When we read, even when the book is temporarily put down with a bookmark firmly in place, the stories from inside the book don’t entirely recede from our consciousness. They become part of us. My stories are part of me, and therefore a lot more “me” had to be in this book that I am used to putting. My previous books were all journalistic investigations that had one or two first-person sentences in the introductions before firmly leaving that voice behind. This book is not only about me — it’s about (I hope) all readers and the way all of us experience stories. But it’s obviously quite personal.

TM: What are you reading — or hoping to read — now?

PP: I choose my books on a gut level, to match a strong mood or an urge or even a need. But it’s not a one-step or simple process. That’s one of the reasons I ask what books people have on their nightstand in my By the Book interviews: I’m curious about how people narrow down and make their choices among all the possibilities. Personally, I keep a large pile on my nightstand — on the wide edge of my platform bed, actually — and then a few other piles across from the bed on a room-length wall of built-in bookshelves. Like all readers, I have so many books that I’d like to read, that I intend to read, that I feel I must read, but I never truly know what I’ll read next until the moment I finish the previous book.

This doesn’t mean I don’t plan. I do all kinds of planning! And then I cast those plans aside. Right now, for example, I was planning to be reading Anthony Marra’s A Constellation of Vital Phenomena because the reviews were strong and so many people I respect have recommended it. The glowing praise for his follow-up collection of short stories pushed that book further to the top of the list. So it was on my shortlist. Then I did something I’ve never done before: I enlisted my two older children to help me decide between reading the Marra, Émile Zola’s The Belly of Paris or Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop next. I read the back covers and inside jackets aloud to them. My daughter voted for Marra and my son for Zola. I read the Zola first, and so had turned to the Marra next to be fair. But a few chapters in, I found that it wasn’t quite matching my mood. This isn’t to say I didn’t like it — thus far, I like it very much and I plan to go back to it. But it just wasn’t what I needed at the moment.

What I needed, I realized, and this is what had drawn me to all three of those books, was a book that was engrossing and serious and relevant to my life right now, but also an escape. And that was accompanied by an urge to read about an earlier era in journalism. Scoop wasn’t quite the right book because I didn’t want humor (I’ve kind of been adverse to comedy, overall, since the fall — read into that what you will, though I hope it means I haven’t permanently lost my sense of humor). “Scoop will be read one day…I do love Waugh.

Then, on a shelf I keep devoted to books about writing and about journalism, I noticed Ben Bradlee’s memoir, A Good Life: Newspaper and Other Adventures. I’ve been wanting to read this book since it was published, which to my embarrassment was in 1995, therefore making it a book I’ve meant to read for 22 years now. I adored Katharine Graham’s Personal History, which I’d read as soon as it came out. I picked up the Bradlee and it fits every need I have at this moment: Serious, yet also entertaining. Relevant to my life (journalism), yet also a departure (journalism back when it was strictly about print). Plus, Bradlee is a terrific narrator. You can hear his distinctive voice, his infectious personality. And the part I’m up to now is very much a different world: His experiences in the Navy in World War II, his early days at a startup weekly newspaper in New Hampshire, his experience as a press attaché in Paris. I’m just now getting back to Washington and his Newsweek years. It’s a delight on every level.

Do other readers go through a version of this elaborate mood-matching process when considering what to read next? I suspect many do. To me, it’s one of the great decisions we get to make in life, and we get to make it again and again: What to Read Next.

TM: What is the relation of risk to your practice of writing? And what was your process in sequencing and editing this book, and did it differ from your others?

PP: This book was completely different from any other book I’ve written. My previous books were essentially argument books: journalistic investigations that set out to explore a subject through research and reporting, marshal the evidence, and make a case. My first book, The Starter Marriage and the Future of Matrimony, came out of personal experience — an early marriage and divorce — but I quite adamantly didn’t want the book to be about me, so after the first paragraph, the first person dropped out. That book still felt personal. I discovered and learned through other people’s answers and lessons that I was seeking to help make sense of my own experience. What did these other young divorced people know that I didn’t yet know myself? What had they learned two or five years after their marriages ended that they didn’t know at the point of rupture? The next two books came out of reported stories that I wrote for Time magazine and expanded on issues around consumer culture that I thought worth further exploration. For all of those books, the driving goal was to prove a point.

By contrast, I had nothing to prove with this book. I am not trying to persuade anyone of anything. So the underlying motivation is altogether different, and that fundamentally changes the writing process. This book isn’t probably not going to change anyone’s mind about anything (except perhaps about the wisdom of writing down what you read). So it has to want to be read for other reasons.

If I had a driving sense of purpose with this book in terms of its relationship to readers, it was to write something that was a pleasure to read. Because I get so much pleasure from books, and from my Book of Books. When people have told me they’ve read my previous books, my knee-jerk response has always been, “I’m sorry.” That may sound ridiculous and self-defeating, but I don’t think my earlier books were particularly fun to read. Enlightening, in certain ways, perhaps. But not enjoyable. I wanted to write a book that might be an actual enjoyable reading experience. And that made the book an actual pleasure to write — even when I was writing about embarrassing or frightening or upsetting experiences, like the end of my first marriage or my father’s death.

But I like that you compare it to a journey because that’s how it feels to me. Like a journey through life with books as constant companion. With little discoveries made, both within and outside of books, along the way.

TM: Having also encountered Thalia Zepatos’s book of advice for the independent woman traveler at a young age, to my detriment or advantage, I was nonetheless happy to see her mentioned. Yet what makes your suitcase so singular  is the manner in which your narrator, like a lover or devotee, brings books as an offering to beautiful environments, most notably in an outdoor scene in China. Similarly, a landscape can be ruined for your narrator by the errancy of the particular author you happen to be reading, your mind infected by a particular voice. Books similarly permeate the courtships with men you end up marrying. In such moments, you do a great deal to erase the binary of life versus art, the dichotomy that Cynthia Ozick felt she misunderstood as a dictum from Henry James: “Life! Life, not art!” Was there something not mentioned in your  book, whether in early environ or temperament, that may have led to this happy erasure, a habit of convergence? The curiosity the reader has — having traveled with you through travel, jobs, marriages, divorces, children — is whether your narrator would say her highest self, her best part, was formed by reading rather than life?

PP: For me, reading Thalia Zepatos was inspiring in the most concrete sense of the word: It inspired me to something I didn’t feel capable of or well-suited for. I read her book and then did something that was highly unlikely given the cautious, ambitious, responsible, fearful person I was at that time. I threw aside all my life and career goals and set out to do something that I knew I might hate. Something that terrified me. Something that nobody like me would do. As I put it in the book, it was as if 5 percent of me made a decision and dragged along the other 95 percent. It ended up being the best decision I’ve ever made.

 TM: Your narrator is similarly remarkable in the complexity of being a success-driven rebel: she is both the child who early on learns not to procrastinate, getting her work done first so she can with easier mind enjoy the poking of her pencil into the carpet, and the principle-driven rebel. Within aspirational milieus, in equal measure, she passionately protests and excels within received dictates. One of the abiding sub rosa questions in the book has to do with the quirkiness of free will and self-determination against given legacies: your narrator finds herself shooting out of a particular set of birthright assumptions. How does this complexity inform your relation to your life in writing and reading these days?

PP: I just wrote a piece adapted from the book called “The Joy of Hate Reading” in the Sunday Review section of The New York Times that describes one of the key ways I’ve come to read and write, which is to challenge myself through words. It’s a way to remind myself of how little I actually know. As a writer, with this book, I set out to write the kind of book I never thought I’d write — a memoir. And as a reader, I am always pushing myself to try out books I don’t think I’ll enjoy. I have a kind of perverse urge to constantly test my own assumptions. To a certain extent this has always been there. I was a supremely unathletic child, always picked second-to-last for sports teams in elementary school (an excruciating experience that I wrote about in my college application essay). But when I got to college, I ended up joining the rugby team. It was an entirely absurd decision to make — I have never once hit a ball with a baseball bat in my life. But I joined the rugby team and I loved it. I still have near-zero interest in sports, but I recently read The Throwback Special because it’s about football. (I loved that too.)

TM: “Without imagination of another’s mind there can be no understanding of that other and hence no love,” Sherwin Nuland writes in relation to Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “A Defence of Poetry,” a quotation you cite in your book when talking of a first love. How would you relate BOB to that very same imagination?

PP: Reading is ultimately about empathy — about experiencing another person’s story, his version of events, his voice, his way of viewing the world. To me one of the beauties of literature is that two different people from very different worlds can read the same book, and share that experience, even as if in different variations. You can have a 16-year-old girl in India read The Underground Railroad and a 45-year-old stay-at-home mother in Indiana read that same book. They will read it in different ways, but also, in similar ways, sharing a version of the characters’ experience, both with each other, and with the author. That’s connection.

TM: Everyone who has ever worked in publishing or known anyone with a foot near the industry knows something about towering piles of books that have arrived over the transom. Does your delighted, curatorial rapture about books remain intact or has it shifted emphasis? You speak movingly about your almost physical pain as, in an early bookstore job, you had to tear covers off books to be remaindered. Has the status of books as beloved fetish objects begun to alter or have you become just more focused in your pursuit?

PP: I feel like I live in a castle of riches at The New York Times Book Review. Not a day goes by when I don’t feel giddy by the unopened cartons of books awaiting me, eager to see the contents inside, excited by the galleys on the shelves and delighted and slightly stunned that I get to take finished copies home with me. Books to me are still treasures. I’m still greedy and I’m extremely grateful. I am not nearly as focused in my acquisitiveness as I should be and have towering shelves of books at home to attest to that weakness.

Image Credit: Marcia Ciriello.

Most Anticipated: The Great 2015 Book Preview

Last year offered many treats for readers: hotly anticipated new books by David Mitchell and Marilynne Robinson; the emergence of our own Emily St. John Mandel as a literary superstar; the breakout success of Anthony Doerr. 2015 offers more riches. This year we’ll get to crack open new books by Jonathan Lethem, Kelly Link, Kazuo Ishiguro, Kate Atkinson, Toni Morrison, Aleksandr Hemon, and Milan Kundera. Our own Garth Risk Hallberg will have his much anticipated debut on shelves later this year. Look beyond the hazy end of summer 2015 and Jonathan Franzen will be back with a new novel. All of these and many more are the books we’re looking forward to this year.

The list that follows isn’t exhaustive—no book preview could be—but, at 9,000 words strong and encompassing 91 titles, this is the only 2015 book preview you will ever need. Scroll down and get started.

January:

Amnesia by Peter Carey: Carey’s new novel uses a cyberattack as the lens through which to consider the often-fraught history of the relationship between the United States and Australia. A radical hacker releases a worm into a computer system that governs both Australian and American prisoners. The doors of five thousand prisons in the United States are opened, while in Australia, hundreds of asylum-seekers escape. An Australian journalist, determined to figure out the motivation behind the attack and trying to save his career, struggles to get the hacker to cooperate on a biography. (Emily)

Outline by Rachel Cusk: First serialized in The Paris Review, Cusk’s new work is described by its publisher (FSG) as “a novel in ten conversations”, but I prefer Leslie Jamison’s description: “a series of searing psychic X-rays bleached by coastal light.” The woman at the center of these conversations is a writing teacher who travels to Greece to teach a workshop. Her portrait is revealed by her various interlocutors, beginning with her neighbor on a plane en route to Athens. (Hannah)

 

The First Bad Man by Miranda July: Miranda July, artist, filmmaker and author of the story collection No One Belongs Here More Than You, has written a debut novel about a woman named Cheryl who works at a women’s self-defense nonprofit, and, according to the jacket copy, is a “tightly-wound, vulnerable woman who lives alone with a perpetual lump in her throat.” Cheryl also believes she’s made love with her colleague “for many lifetimes, though they have yet to consummate in this one.” In her blurb, Lena Dunham writes that July’s novel “will make you laugh, cringe and recognize yourself in a woman you never planned to be.” While you prepare for the book’s release, check out The First Bad Man Store, where you can purchase real items that are mentioned in the novel. (Edan)

Almost Famous Women by Megan Mayhew Bergman: This new book is Bergman’s second short story collection, after her heartbreakingly humane debut, Birds of a Lesser Paradise. Her new collection takes inspiration from historical figures, women who attained a certain degree of celebrity but whose stories have never been fully imagined. We meet Lord Byron’s illegitimate daughter, Edna St. Vincent Millay’s sister, a conjoined twin, and a member of the first all-female integrated swing band. (Hannah)

 

Sweetland by Michael Crummey: The award-winning author of Galore returns to the land and the past of Newfoundland in his latest novel, which follows Moses Sweetland, the one man determined to stay on an island long after every one else has left, in defiance of both their warnings and their threats. As the Vancouver Sun puts it, Sweetland “demonstrates, as the best fiction does (and as Crummey’s novels always have) that the past is always with us, and that contemporary events are history embodied and in motion.” The novel also promises to be the best kind of ghost story, one in which memory and place are as haunting as the ghosts Sweetland believes he sees. (Kaulie)

Glow by Ned Beauman: Multiple prize nods for each of his first two novels have set high expectations for Ned Beauman’s next effort. If the plot, which slingshots through England, Burma and Iceland, is any indication, the new book will match the ambition of his previous work. The story kicks off at a rave in London, where Raf, a sufferer of a chronic sleep disorder, is trying out a new drug, the eponymous “glow.” The drug leads him on a quest to uncover a massive conspiracy involving a multinational named Lacebark. (Thom)

 

Honeydew by Edith Pearlman: Long a distinguished short-story writer, Pearlman emerged into the spotlight with her 2011 collection Binocular Vision. The new-found fame landed her a new publisher — Little, Brown — for her latest collection and a profile in the Times. It seems, in fact, that Pearlman is now assured the larger audience that eluded her for decades. (Max)

 

 

Binary Star by Sarah Gerard: An introduction to a recently published excerpt of Binary Star suggests Sarah Gerard has a reputation for tackling her subject matter with unusual ferocity. In her debut, she turns her attention to eating disorders, focusing on a would-be teacher who struggles with anorexia. When the story begins, the teacher weighs ninety-eight pounds, and she reflects on the parallels between her own compulsions and the hopeless alcoholism of her lover. Gerard heightens the intensity, meticulously listing what her characters eat and drink. (Thom)

Frog by Mo Yan: In the latest novel by the Chinese Nobel laureate to get an English translation, Mo Yan takes on the one-child policy, depicting the lives of several characters throughout the lifespan of Communist China. Gugu, a gynecologist who delivered hundreds of babies during Mao Zedong’s reign, finds herself performing illegal abortions after the policy takes effect in the late seventies. Yan also depicts the sexism of the policy — his characters work hard to have sons and not daughters. (Thom)

 

Watch Me Go by Mark Wisniewski: Wisniewski’s third novel channels the best of his profluent short fiction (Best American Short Stories, Virginia Quarterly Review). Watch Me Go speeds by with clipped chapters that follow Douglas “Deesh” Sharp, who helps haul the wrong junk: an oil drum that holds a corpse. Sharp does it for the money, and that bad decision haunts him until the final page of the novel. Wisniewski’s tale unfolds in the shadow of the Finger Lakes, New York racetracks, where, one character warns “in the long run, gamblers always lose.” Watch Me Go feels particularly apt to our national present, when police procedure is under constant scrutiny. Deesh is a victim of the system, and his redemption will only happen by fire. Wisniewski’s prose burns forward, but he knows when to slow the pace and make the reader feel Deesh’s injustice. (Nick R.)

Hall of Small Mammals: Stories by Thomas Pierce: Pierce’s stories are reminiscent of the work of Laura van den Berg: his fiction exists in a space that’s just slightly offset from reality, not quite surrealism but not quite realism either. A woman admits to her boyfriend that she’s married to another man, but only in her dreams; in dreams she and her husband live out an ordinary domestic life. A man who works for a sinister television show that clones extinct animals delivers a miniature woolly mammoth to his mother. Pierce’s stories are beautifully written and suffused with mystery. (Emily)

A Bad Character by Deepti Kapoor: “Delhi is no place for a woman in the dark,” Kapoor writes, “unless she has a man and a car or a car and a gun.” Idha, the narrator of Kapoor’s debut novel, is young, middle-class, and bored. Her car allows a measure of freedom, but not enough, and when she meets a somewhat unsuitable older man, the temptation to capsize her life with an affair is irresistible. Both a coming-of-age story and a portrait of New Delhi. (Emily)

 

 

Bonita Avenue by Peter Buwalda: Buwalda’s first novel, translated from the Dutch, traces the dissolution of the outwardly solid Sigerius clan, updating the family saga by way of technical intricacy, narrative brio, and internet porn. In the Netherlands, the book was a bestseller, nominated for a dozen prizes. The English translation has drawn comparisons to Jonathan Franzen and the manic heyday of a young Philip Roth. (Garth)

February:

Lucky Alan: And Other Stories by Jonathan Lethem: Jonathan Lethem has made a career of capturing transition—whether it’s Brooklyn’s gentrification or his masterful blend of genre and literary fiction. He works with similar themes in his third short story collection, but this time, it’s people—not places—that are in limbo. From forgotten comic book characters stuck on a desert island to a father having his midlife crisis at SeaWorld, the nine stories in this collection explore everything from the quotidian to the absurd, all with Lethem’s signature humor, nuance, and pathos. (Tess)

Find Me by Laura van den Berg: In most post-apocalyptic fiction, the end of the world is devastating, but what if it were a chance for renewal and redemption? Laura van den Berg is the perfect writer to answer this question as she has proven herself a master of scrutinizing fresh starts in her short story collections, What The World Will Look Like When All The Water Leaves Us and The Isle of Youth. In her first novel, a lost young woman named Joy is immune to an Alzheimer’s-like plague sweeping the country. With society’s rules broken down, Joy travels across America in search of the mother who abandoned her, making new friends and a new world along the way. (Tess)

Satin Island by Tom McCarthy: McCarthy’s fourth novel introduces us to a “corporate anthropologist” struggling to wrest an overarching account of contemporary existence from a miasma of distraction and dream. Perhaps he’s a stand-in for your average internet user. Or novelist. At any rate, expect ideas and delight in equal measure (assuming there’s a distinction); McCarthy’s reputation as a “standard bearer of the avant-garde” underrates how thoroughly he’s mastered the novelistic conventions he’s concerned to interrogate – and how fun he is to read. (Garth)

Get in Trouble by Kelly Link: Link’s last story collection for adults, Magic for Beginners, was something like the Jesus’ Son of Magical Realism. Its publication nearly a decade ago won the author a passionate cult; since then, mostly through word-of-mouth, its excellence has become a matter of broader consensus. Get in Trouble, her fourth collection, offers a vivid reminder of why. Beneath the attention-getting levity of Link’s conceits – ghosts, superheroes, “evil twins” – lies a patient, Munrovian attunement to the complexities of human nature. (Garth)

The Strange Case of Rachel K by Rachel Kushner: Before she published her two richly accomplished novels, Telex From Cuba and The Flamethrowers, Rachel Kushner wrote three short works of fiction that are collected in The Strange Case of Rachel K. In “The Great Exception,” a queen pines for an explorer as he makes his way to “Kuba.” In “Debouchement,” a faith healer’s illegal radio broadcasts give hope to an oppressed island populace. And in the title story, a French-style zazou dancer in pre-revolutionary Cuba negotiates the murky Havana night. The stories read like warm-up sketches for Telex From Cuba, and they’ll be of interest to Kushner’s ardent fans and future scholars. Others will be left hungering for something new from this outlandishly gifted writer. (Bill)

Discontent and its Civilizations: Dispatches from Lahore, New York, and London by Mohsin Hamid: Hamid’s latest is a collection of pieces that he wrote for various publications between 2000—the year his first novel, Moth Smoke, was published—and 2014. Hamid has lived in Pakistan, New York City, and London, and in works ranging from extended essays to brief op-eds, he brings personal insight and thoughtful analysis to issues ranging from the war on terror to the future of Pakistan to the costs and the promise of globalization. (Emily)

 

Trigger Warning: Short Fictions and Disturbances by Neil Gaiman
Neil Gaiman is known for finding the fantastical in the everyday and the cracks in reality. So it should be no surprise that his third short story collection defies genre categorization, delving into fairy tales, horror, fantasy, poetry, and science fiction. Yet not all of it is unfamiliar: “Adventure Story” shares themes with his last novel The Ocean at the End of the Lane, and “Black Dog” brings him back to the American Gods world. (Tess)

 

Suspended Sentences by Patrick Modiano: Patrick Modiano, winner of the 2014 Nobel Prize in Literature, will get a belated introduction to many American readers through Suspended Sentences.  Originally published between 1988 and 1993, these three atmospheric novellas share Modiano’s recurring theme: an attempt to understand the secret histories of the Nazi Occupation of his native Paris.  “Afterimage” is the shadow tale of a young writer cataloging the work of a haunted photographer.  The title piece is a child’s-eye view of the gang of circus performers and crooks who raise him.  In “Flowers of Ruin,” a double suicide triggers an investigation into gangsters and collaborators during the Occupation.  It’s a delectably broad sampling from a writer with a doggedly narrow scope.  American readers should rejoice. Update: The release date was moved up following the Nobel win and the book has already been published! (Bill)

The Infernal by Mark Doten: After ten years of near-silence, we’re now in the full roar of fiction about the Iraq War. The most notable efforts to date have taken a realist slant, but Mark Doten’s first novel marks a sharp swerve into Coover territory: its key figure channels the voices of Condoleezza Rice, Paul Bremer, and Osama bin Laden. Early readers have reached for adjectives like “deranged,” “crazy,” and “insane,” in addition to the more usual “thrilling” and “dazzling.” (Garth)

 

There’s Something I Want You to Do by Charles Baxter: We don’t often want authors to moralize, but Charles Baxter is a fictional minister we have been devout to throughout more than a dozen works of fiction, poetry, and nonfiction. Virtue and vice are inextricably related in his latest short stories. The collection features ten stories, five about virtue and five about vice, with the same characters participating in both and all motivated by the book’s titular request. What Baxter wants us to do is note human frailty, ambiguity, and its shameful depths. As fellow master of the form Lorrie Moore notes, “Baxter’s stories proceed with steady grace, nimble humor, quiet authority, and thrilling ingeniousness.” (Tess)

The Last Good Paradise by Tatjana Soli: The author of The Lotus Eaters (winner of the James Tait Black Memorial Prize) and The Forgetting Tree returns with a novel about a ragtag group of modern people attempting to escape their troubles on a remote Pacific island. Come for the scenery, the picaresque cast, and the comic reflections on the vagaries of contemporary life; stay for, as Kirkus puts it, Soli’s “idiosyncratic prose style.” (Lydia)

 

My Documents by Alejandro Zambra: “Camilo” was both the first thing I’d read by this young Chilean writer and one of the two or three best stories to run in The New Yorker last year. It appears alongside 10 other pieces in this collection, Zambra’s first book with McSweeney’s. (Garth)

 

 

I Am Radar by Reif Larsen: Reif Larsen’s follow-up to the bestselling The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet takes off from a premise halfway between Steve Martin and Judy Budnitz: “In 1975, a black child named Radar Radmanovic is mysteriously born to white parents.” But the ensuing 650 pages venture into realms of Pynchonian complexity and Irving-esque sweep. Erudite and voracious, skylarking and harrowing, they follow Radar around the world and into entanglements with some of the worst atrocities of the 20th Century. (Garth)

 

The Half Brother by Holly LeCraw: When Harvard graduate Charlie Garrett starts teaching at Abbott, an Episcopal boarding school in Massachusetts, the chair of the English department tells the young teacher that his students “all still believe in truth.” LeCraw’s gorgeous sentences dramatize a campus where literature stirs young hearts and minds. Charlie falls for a student, May Bankhead, daughter of the campus chaplain, and makes his feelings known when she returns home from college. Love turns to lust, and later to jealousy, when Charlie’s half brother, attractive Nick Garrett, arrives at Abbott to teach. Nick catches May, who has returned to teach at the school. “I need to be here,” she tells Charlie. LeCraw never eases the emotional tension. The novel begins with an epigraph from gifted teacher-writer Andre Dubus, who says he “learned to walk into a classroom wondering what I would say” rather than planning. The Half Brother captures his spirit, and the result is one of the finest school-set novels in recent memory. (Nick R.)

The Country of Ice Cream Star by Sandra Newman: Newman’s third novel is set in a world of children. Eighty years ago, a deadly pandemic swept across North America, and now every child is born with the disease; they begin showing symptoms around the age of eighteen or nineteen, and die soon after. When fifteen-year-old Ice Cream Star’s beloved older brother falls ill, she sets out after rumors of a cure. It’s a compelling story, but the most fascinating thing about Newman’s book is the language: the novel is written in the kind of beautifully warped English that one might expect to develop over eighty years without adults, and the prose often approaches a kind of wild poetry: “We flee like a dragonfly over water, we fight like ten guns, and we be bell to see.” (Emily)

All the Wrong Places: A Life Lost and Found by Philip Connors: After the suicide of his brother Connors finds himself in, as the title of his second memoir promises, many incongruous and wrong places, ranging from a hot-air balloon floating over New Mexico to a desk at the Wall Street Journal. A kind of prelude to his debut memoir, Fire Season, All The Wrong Places helps to explain why spending a decade in mountain solitude was so attractive to Connors. It’s also a look at the wandering years that often follow early loss, and has already drawn comparisons toCheryl Strayed’s seemingly infinitely-popular Wild. (Kaulie)

Bon Appétempt: A Coming of Age Story (With Recipes!) by Amelia Morris : As anyone who has ever creamed butter and sugar together in a mixing bowl knows, the precision of baking can also bring order to your life. With a few failed careers and a dysfunctional family, Amelia Morris needed to learn this lesson, too. From her blog of the same name to this memoir, she chronicles her transformation into an adult and cook, complete with a good dose of humor and recipes. (Tess)

March:

The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro: It’s been ten years since Never Let Me Go, so for Ishiguro fans, his new novel has been long-anticipated. His British publisher, Faber & Faber, offered up a somewhat oblique teaser early last year: it’s a book about “lost memories, love, revenge and war”; the website, which is currently just a (kind of intense) book trailer, doesn’t help much either—but then, if Never Let Me Go is any indicator, perhaps we’d all be better off without a lot of spoilery summaries in advance. (Tess)

Ember Days by Nick Ripatrazone: Nick’s lovely meditations on teaching, writing, reading, and faith have come fast and furious on The Millions since he joined the site as a staff writer at the tail end of 2013. Nick is prolific–he’s the author of two novellas, two poetry collections, a book of criticism, and a short story collection, which he somehow managed to write while teaching public school in New Jersey and parenting twins. His newest collection of short stories will be published by Braddock Avenue Books; you can read the eponymous story, a haunting number about atomic power and retribution, the title of which is taken from the Christian liturgical calendar, at Story South. (Lydia)

The Tusk That Did the Damage by Tania James: Tania James’s debut novel Atlas of Unknowns and follow-up story collection Aerogrammes were both published to critical acclaim. This second novel may be her true coming out. Says Karen Russell: “The Tusk that Did the Damage is spectacular, a pinwheeling multi-perspectival novel with a cast that includes my favorite character of recent memory, ‘the Gravedigger,’ an orphaned homicidal elephant.” The elephant is not only a primary character, but one of three narrators, who also include a poacher and a young American filmmaker. Ivory trading, poaching, an escaped elephant, a risky love affair, all set in rural South India and “blend[ing] the mythical and the political”—this novel seems to have it all. (Sonya)

Ashes in My Mouth, Sand in My Shoes and I Refuse by Per Petterson: Since Out Stealing Horses brought him international acclaim in 2007, many more of Norwegian novelist Per Petterson’s books have been translated into English, although not quite in the order he wrote them. Ashes in My Mouth, Sand in My Shoes, a collection of linked stories, was his first, published in Norway in 1987, and introduces young Arvid Jansen — a character he revisits in In the Wake and I Curse the River of Time — growing up in the outskirts of Oslo in the early 60s. I Refuse, meanwhile, is Petterson’s latest novel, published in Norway in 2012. It tells the story of Jim and Tommy, whose friendship was forged in their youth when Tommy stood up to his abusive father and needed Jim’s support. When they meet by chance 35 years later, they recall those painful events, as well as a night on a frozen lake that separated them until now. (Janet)

B & Me: A True Story of Literary Arousal by J.C. Hallman: Nicholson Baker’s characteristically idiosyncratic biography of John Updike, U and I, has become a literary classic. Now J.C. Hallman, himself a gifted practitioner of eclectic non-fiction with books on topics ranging from chess to Utopia, turns the lens on Baker. Publisher Simon & Schuster calls it “literary self-archaeology” and offers up comparisons to Geoff Dyer’s Out of Sheer Rage and Elif Batuman’s The Possessed, two books that have helped carve out a new genre of memoir that arrives refracted through the lens of the writers’ literary obsessions. (Max)

The Dream of My Return by Horacio Castellanos Moya: Castellanos Moya’s short novels are hallucinatory, mordant, and addictive – like Bernhard transplanted to warmer climes. And his translator, Katherine Silver, is admirably attuned to the twists and turns of his sentences. We’ve offered enthusiastic readings of Senselessness and The She-Devil in the Mirror. Here Castellanos Moya flirts again with autobiographical material, tracing the crack-up of “an exiled journalist in Mexico City [who] dreams of returning home to El Salvador.” (Garth)

So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson: There’s a robust online conversation right now about public shaming: when someone says or does something offensive on the internet, does the collective outcry — a digital torch-wielding mob — go too far? Ronson’s previous books include The Psychopath Test and The Men Who Stare at Goats, and he’s a frequent contributor to This American Life and BBC Radio 4. In his newest book, billed as “a modern-day Scarlet Letter,” he examines the culture that’s grown up around public shaming, talking with people like Jonah Lehrer, who shook the publishing world with several rounds of plagiarism revelations, and Justine Sacco, who tweeted an offensive “joke” before boarding a transatlantic flight — and had what felt like the entire internet demanding that she be fired before her plane touched down. (Elizabeth)

Young Skins by Colin Barrett: Ireland right now is ridiculously fertile ground for writers, though I guess that’s been said so often in the last century as to border on cliché. Still: Anne Enright, Paul Murray, Eimear McBride, Kevin Barry, Keith Ridgway…and 32-year-old Colin Barrett is, as they say, the coming man. This collection, winner of the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award and the Guardian First Book Award, wastes no motion in its unsparing look at youth and masculinity in the small towns of the west. (Garth)

 

Decoy by Allan Gurganus: In 2013, 12 years after the appearance of his last full-length book, Allan Gurganus published Local Souls, a collection of three novellas. One of these, Decoy, which Dwight Garner called “the keeper” of the bunch, is indeed being kept, appearing as a separate publication this spring. Set in the fictional North Carolina town that has housed much of Gurganus’s previous work–including his beloved debut Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All–Decoy deals in small-town social relations and obscure homoerotic longings. Gurganus, known as a writer’s writer (he taught Donald Antrim’s first writing class), is reportedly at work on another massive full-length novel, “The Erotic History of a Southern Baptist Church.” (Lydia)

Crow Fair by Thomas McGuane: A new release by gifted prose stylist McGuane should be cause for celebration by sentence lovers. McGuane long ago moved from the sardonic prose of his earlier novels (The Sporting Club) to lyric representations of the American West (The Cadence of Grass). In his own words: “As you get older, you should get impatient with showing off in literature. It is easier to settle for blazing light than to find a language for the real. Whether you are a writer or a bird-dog trainer, life should winnow the superfluous language. The real thing should become plain. You should go straight to what you know best.” The seventeen stories of Crow Fair model that sentiment. Start with the patient words of “A Prairie Girl,” but stay for the rest. (Nick R.)

The Last Word by Hanif Kureishi: British man of letters Hanif Kureishi, OBE, has been, variously, a novelist, playwright, filmmaker, writer of pornography, victim of financial fraud, and sometimes reluctant professor of creative writing. His newest novel takes on another man of letters, Mamoon Azam, a fictional lout rumored to be based on the non-fictional lout V.S. Naipaul. Echoing Patrick French’s biography of Naipaul, Kureishi (who has assiduously avoided drawing comparisons between his novel and Naipaul) describes an imperious and irascible master of post-colonial fiction and his hapless biographer. (Lydia)

The Unloved and Beautiful Mutants and Swallowing Geography: Two Early Novels by Deborah Levy: For those who loved the oneiric Swimming Home, 2015 will be a great year as three Deborah Levy books—one new novel and two earlier works—are due to come out. Her latest, The Unloved, starts out as a sexually charged, locked door mystery set in a French chateau, then expands into a far-ranging tale about sadism and historical atrocities. Beautiful Mutants, her strange first novel about a Russian exile who is either a gifted seer or a talented fake, and Swallowing Geography, a European road novel with nods to Kerouac, are being reissued in June. (Matt)

Aquarium by David Vann: Vann, whose work we have examined previously at The Millions, returns with a new novel in March. Library Journal offers high praise: “Since electrifying the literary world five years ago with his debut novel, Legend of a Suicide, Vann has racked up an astonishing number of international awards. This lovely, wrenching novel should add to that list.” (Thom)

 

 

The Harder They Come by T.C. Boyle: When precisely, one wonders, does T.C. Boyle sleep? In the 35 years since his first book came out, Boyle has published 14 novels and more than 100 stories. The Harder They Come is the usual T.C. Boyle clown car of violent misfits, anti-authoritarian loons, and passionate losers set loose in a circus of serious-minded zaniness. After being declared a hero for stopping a hijacking, an ex-Marine returns home to Northern California to find that his mentally disturbed son has taken up with a hardcore member of a right-wing sect that refuses to recognize the authority of the state. (Michael)

Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids, edited by Meghan Daum: Well, the title speaks for itself.  “Controversial and provocative,” no doubt.  This is the book I wanted to edit myself, so now I’m looking forward to reading it.  Sixteen authors offer their reflections on this topic, including Lionel Shriver, Sigrid Nunez, Kate Christensen, Elliott Holt, Geoff Dyer, and Tim Kreider.  Daum published her own story of not being a parent—but rather a mentor of teenagers—at The New Yorker back in September.  The anthology’s title is likely both tongue-in-cheek and uncomfortably accurate; its cleverness, to my mind, is in the fact that the subtitle might easily omit the “not.” (Sonya)

The Animals by Christian Kiefer: Christian Kiefer leaves behind the suburban cul-de-sacs of his first novel, The Infinite Tides, and takes us to rural Idaho for his follow-up, The Animals.  Bill Reed is trying to move beyond his criminal past by managing a wildlife sanctuary for injured animals – raptors, a wolf, a bear.  He plans to marry the local veterinarian and live a quiet life – until a childhood friend is released from prison and comes calling.  Aimed at fans of Denis Johnson and Peter Matthiessen, this literary thriller is a story of friendship, grief, and the desire to live a blameless life. (Bill)

Delicious Foods by James Hannaham: I learned of James Hannaham’s sophomore novel back in 2013, at which point I mentioned to him how excited I was—about the title in particular: “You wrote a book called DELICIOUS FOODS?!”   “The title is slightly misleading,” he replied.  His publisher gives us this: “[A]n incisive look at race relations in America and an unflinching portrait of the pathos and absurdity of addiction.”  Delicious or not, the story of Eddie and his mother Darlene promises to be both “blistering” and “inventive”—not to mention timely. (Sonya)

The World Before Us by Aislinn Hunter: In Hunter’s eerily compelling new novel, an archivist at a small London museum embarks on a final project before the museum’s impending closure: she is searching for information related to a woman who disappeared over a century ago from a Victorian asylum. The project holds some personal interest: when the archivist was fifteen years old, a little girl whom she was babysitting vanished in the woods near the asylum, and the archivist has begun to suspect that the two events were connected. (Emily)

 

The Sellout by Paul Beatty: Back in the ‘90s, The White-Boy Shuffle, Beatty’s first novel (after several poetry collections) was one of the bibles of my adolescence – furiously funny and ineffably sad. Two subsequent novels confirmed him as a scorching satirist in the vein of his contemporaries Sam Lipsyte and Gary Shteyngart. His latest outing features, in a supporting role, “the last surviving Little Rascal, Hominy Jenkins” – but its deeper concerns couldn’t be more timely: the precipitating incident is the death of the hero’s father in a police shootout, and the ultimate destination is the Supreme Court. (Garth)

The Last Flight of Poxl West by Daniel Torday: Torday’s novella, The Sensualist, won the 2012 Jewish Book Award for debut fiction. In his first novel, The Last Flight of Poxl West, the titular character is a war hero and something of an idol to his teenage nephew, Eli Goldstein. Kirkus gave the novel a starred review, remarking, “While Torday is more likely to be compared to Philip Roth or Michael Chabon than Gillian Flynn, his debut novel has two big things in common with Gone Girl–it’s a story told in two voices, and it’s almost impossible to discuss without revealing spoilers. A richly layered, beautifully told and somehow lovable story about war, revenge and loss.” Rivka Galchen calls it both “brilliant” and “hilarious” and George Saunders says, “Torday is a prodigiously talented writer, with a huge heart.” I myself had the great pleasure of reading an advanced copy and I loved it. The final scene…what an ending! I still think about it. (Edan)

Her 37th Year: An Index by Suzanne Scanlon: Delivered in a series of pithy and emphatic observations, thoughts, and quotations, Suzanne Scanlon’s Her 37th Year: An Index examines love and desire and disappointment and writers and influence and ideas and passion and affairs and depression and writing and friendship and mothering and being a woman and aging. The potential excess of all this is balanced by its lean form, with each entry a vignette, quote, or observation. As a “fictional memoir”, Her 37th Year re-imagines form and redefines boundaries in a way similar to how Jenny Offil’s Dept. of Speculation revitalized the novel: the sum of its parts is flooring. (Anne)

April:

God Help the Child by Toni Morrison: Morrison was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature more than two decades ago; her newest novel will be her sixth in that span of time, following 2012’s Home. A new Morrison novel, according to Slate, is “news that amounts to at least an 8 on the literary Richter scale.” It is, according to Knopf, “about the way childhood trauma shapes and misshapes the life of the adult,” and though it’s just 192 pages long, it promises to be more powerful than many books twice its length. (Elizabeth)

 

My Struggle: Book 4 by Karl Ove Knausgaard: There’s still time to jump on the Knausgaard bandwagon! English-speaking fans of Books 1-3 have been waiting almost a year for this translation, the fourth in a six-volume autobiographical novel by Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard — or just plain “Karl Ove” to those of us who have been following his confessional outpourings. Dwight Garner likened reading Knausgaard to “falling into a malarial fever”, and James Wood remarked that “even when I was bored, I was interested.” Book 4 covers Knausgaard’s late adolesence as he struggles to support his writing by teaching, falls in love with a 13-year-old student, and boozily greets the long arctic nights. (Hannah)

Early Warning by Jane Smiley: This is the second installment in Smiley’s Last Hundred Years Trilogy, which follows a single Iowa farming family and its descendants through the American Century, from 1920 to 2020. The first book, Some Luck, which Smiley discussed in a wide-ranging Millions interview last fall, covers the Depression years and World War II. The new book starts in the depths of the Cold War and takes readers through Vietnam and into the Reagan era. The final volume, as yet untitled, is due out this fall. (Michael)

A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson: Kate Atkinson’s 2013 novel Life After Life followed Ursula Todd as she lived and re-lived her life in mid-century Britain. In this companion to the novel, we get the story of Ursula’s beloved younger brother Teddy, an aspiring poet and celebrated RAF pilot, who leaves a war he didn’t expect to survive to become a husband, father, and grandfather in an ever-changing world. (Janet)

Voices in the Night by Steven Millhauser: A friend of mine keeps Steven Millhauser’s collection We Others by her bedside; she speaks of it, and Millhauser, like it’s 1963 and he’s a dark-eyed mop-top. Indeed, Millhauser inspires cult following: his stories do the impossible, getting way under your skin via immaculately simple prose and deceptively placid storylines. Voices in the Night collects 16 stories — “culled from religion and fables. . . Heightened by magic, the divine, and the uncanny, shot through with sly humor” – that promise to once again unsettle us with their strangeness and stun us with their beauty. (Sonya)

Gutshot by Amelia Gray: Gray’s stories come at you like fists wrapped in sirloin to pack a punch—they’re wonderfully idiosyncratic, visceral, and grotesque, with humor added for heft. Stories in her collection Museum of the Weird feature high-end cannibalism (eating monk’s tongues), a serial killer nicknamed “God” who cuts chests open and removes a rib, and a plate of hair served with soup. With the arrival of her next collection, Gutshot, Gray’s stories threaten to knock you out. (Anne)

 

Academy Street by Mary Costello: Bravo to Mary Costello, a “Bloomer” whose first story collection The China Factory I wrote about here back in 2012.  Her debut novel Academy Street—the story of Tess Lohan, who emigrates from 1940s western Ireland to New York City—is drawing comparisons to Colm Tóibín’s Brooklyn and John Williams’s Stoner.  Academy Street has already been published in Europe and received the Eason Novel of the Year Irish Book Award. (Sonya)

 

The Dead Lands by Benjamin Percy: Percy rides the increasingly porous border between literary and genre fiction in this post-apocalyptic thriller that re-imagines the Lewis and Clark expedition in an America brought low by a super flu and nuclear fallout. When word comes to Sanctuary – the remains of St. Louis – that life is better out West, Lewis Meriwether and Mina Clark set out in secrecy, hoping to expand their infant nation and reunite the States. Should be a snap, right? (Michael)

 

The Children’s Crusade by Ann Packer: The author of The Dive from Clausen’s Pier again displays her gift for delving into complicated families and the women who aren’t sure they want to be part of them. Narrated in turns by each of the four Blair children, The Children’s Crusade follows the twists and turns of the family’s fortunes from the day in 1954 when their father, Bill, impulsively buys a plot of wooded land south of San Francisco, through to the modern day. “Imagine, if you will, that Jonathan Franzen’s excellent novel, The Corrections, had likeable characters,” says one early reader on GoodReads. (Michael)

May:

The Making of Zombie Wars by Aleksandr Hemon: His first full-length novel in seven years (since 2008’s The Lazarus Project), The Making of Zombie Wars is the story of Josh Levin, an ESL teacher in Chicago with a laptop full of hundreds of screenplay ideas, Zombie Wars chief among them. As Josh’s life goes from bad to worse to absurd — moving in with his girlfriend only to become entangled in the domestic disputes of her neighbors — he continues to work on the zombie movie that might get him away from it all. (Janet)

 

Mislaid by Nell Zink: Zink’s first novel The Wallcreeper, published by the Dorothy Project, a feminist small press, made a big splash last year. Its backstory provided the hook: a fifty-year-old expat writes a novel on a dare from her pen pal Jonathan Franzen. But Zink’s sui generis sensibility was the main event: taut, acerbic, and free. She moves to a major press for her second book, a decade-hopping Southern family novel that tackles race, sexuality, and the wilderness of youth. (Garth)

The Familiar, Volume 1: One Rainy Day in May by Mark Z. Danielewski: On the jacket of David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks is a blurb from Publishers Weekly: Is this “the most ambitious novel ever written or just the most Mitchell-esque?” One might ask the same question, mutatis mutandis, about Mark Danielewski’s The Familiar. Danielewski combines Mitchell’s fondness for formal innovation and genre tropes with an appealing indifference to questions of taste. At its best, this gives you House of Leaves, at its worst, Only Revolutions. One Rainy Day in May introduces us to “nine lives,” principally that of a 12-year-old girl who rescues “a creature as fragile as it is dangerous” – some kind of totemic/architectonic cat? Anyway, Volume 1 is 880 pages long. Word is, 26 more volumes are on the way, so this one had better be good. (Garth)

The Green Road by Anne Enright: Spanning three decades and three continents, this new book by Anne Enright centers on Rosaleen, the head of the Madigan family. Beginning in County Clare, the book follows the four Madigan children — Dan, Hanna, Emmet and Constance — as they set off on their own lives, travelling as far away as Mali to explore their adult selves. On Christmas Day, they all come home, and the issues of their family come back to them. In many ways, it’s a premise similar to that of Enright’s Booker-winning The Gathering. (Thom)

A Hand Reached Down to Guide Me by David Gates: In a year rich with surrealist romps and boundary-blurring semi-memoirs, David Gates returns with a welcome injection of “the present palpable intimate” in the form of eleven stories and a novella. Gates is a natural and capacious realist, at once ironic and warm, in a way that makes the ordinary ambit of experience, from marriage to parenthood to getting old, seem as trippy as it really is. (Garth)

 

Loving Day by Mat Johnson: Johnson’s Pym, an entertaining riff on race and Edgar Allan Poe’s only novel, took us all the way to Antarctica. Loving Day (the title refers to a holiday celebrating interracial love) is set in a less remote locale, a black neighborhood in Philadelphia, but promises to be no less hallucinatory than its predecessor. A mixed race man returns from Wales, where both his marriage and his comic shop have failed, to inhabit a ghost-haunted mansion left to him by his father. He soon discovers the existence of a daughter, and the pair is drawn into a “utopian mixed-raced cult.” (Matt)

The Book of Aron by Jim Shepard: While Jim Shepard was a student at Brown, John Hawkes told him “You know, you’re not really a novelist, you’re really a short story writer.” Thankfully, good writers can be terribly wrong. Shepard’s long fiction is as fantastic as his classic stories. Shepard has always been a writer who exists outside of himself on the page, and this Holocaust-set novel is no different. The story focuses on Aron, a boy from the Warsaw Ghetto, who joins other children in smuggling goods to those “quarantined.” The novel also illuminates the life of Janusz Korczak, the real-life protector of Jewish children in ghetto orphanages (he once said “You do not leave a sick child in the night, and you do not leave children at a time like this.”). Serious material requires sensitive hands, and Shepard’s care creates beauty. (Nick R.)

Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf: Kent Haruf, who died last year at 71, will be best remembered for his 1999 novel Plainsong, a finalist for the National Book Award. It was set in the fictional eastern Colorado town of Holt, which Haruf (rhymes with sheriff) returns to yet again for his last novel, Our Souls at Night, finished shortly before his death. It’s the story of a widower named Louis Waters and a widow named Addie Moore who come together in Holt and begin sharing the aspirations, disappointments and compromises of their long lives. One critic likened Haruf’s prose to Pottery Barn furniture – with its “rustic lines,” “enduring style” and “aged patina.” His legion of fans wouldn’t have it any other way, and Our Souls at Night will not disappoint them. (Bill)

City by City: Dispatches from the American Metropolis edited by Keith Gessen and Stephen Squibb: Drawn from an n+1 series of the same name, City by City offers an insider’s glance into the state of America’s urban spaces. The mix of personal and historical essays explore issues such as crime, gentrification, and culture in cities as varied and far-reaching as Miami, Florida and Gold Rush, Alaska. Described as “a cross between Hunter S. Thompson, Studs Terkel, and the Great Depression–era WPA guides to each state in the Union,” City by City provides a collective portrait of the American city during the Great Recession. (Anne)

The Ghost Network by Catie Disabato: Disabato, who has written for The Millions, debuts with a high-concept mystery that looks to be a lot of fun. Pop stars aren’t known for avoiding the limelight, which is why the disappearance of a Lady Gaga-like singer inspires two women to track her down. Racing around Chicago in search of clues, they find themselves decoding arcane documents and ancient maps rather than liner notes as the disappearance turns out to involve a secret society. (Matt)

 

Odd Woman in the City by Vivian Gornick: For a sneak preview of Gornick’s witty and unsparing observations of city life, please read Gornick’s “Letter from Greenwich Village” in The Paris Review  (it’s also collected in The Best American Essays 2014). A master memoirist, Gornick’s latest is an ode to New York City’s street life, old friends, and the fascinating joy of “living out conflicts, rather than fantasies.” (Hannah)

 

The Edge Becomes The Center by DW Gibson: Following up his critically-acclaimed oral history of the recession, Not Working (the title is a play on Studs Terkel’s classic oral history, Working), Gibson’s latest oral history portrays gentrifying New York City from all sides. Gibson interviews brokers, buyers, sellers, renters, landlords, artists, contractors, politicians and everyone in between to show how urban change feels to those living through it. (Hannah)

June:

Black Glass: Short Fictions by Karen Joy Fowler: Fowler’s 2014 novel, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, won the PEN/Faulkner award and landed her on the Booker shortlist, one of two American finalists for the now American-friendly prize. This year will see her 1998 short story collection, Black Glass, re-released in hardcover. The stories — with influences and references from Carry Nation to Gulliver’s Travels to Albert Einstein to Tonto and the Lone Ranger — have been described as “occasionally puzzling but never dull,” and “ferociously imaginative and provocative.” (Elizabeth)

Saint Mazie by Jami Attenberg: Saint Mazie is Attenberg’s much anticipated follow-up to her bestselling novel The Middlesteins, which was also a finalist for the LA Times book prize. Inspired by the life of a woman profiled in Joseph Mitchell’s Up in the Old Hotel, Saint Mazie follows Mazie Phillips, “the truth-telling proprietress of The Venice, the famed New York City movie theater,” through the Jazz Age and the Depression; her diaries, decades later, inspire a contemporary documentarian to find out who this intriguing woman really was. Therese Ann Fowler, author of Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald, calls the book “both a love song and a gut punch at once,” and Maggie Shipstead says it’s a “raw, boisterous, generous novel.” (Edan)

The Book of Numbers by Joshua Cohen: Cohen, 34, is as prolific as he is ambitious. Five years after his mega-novel, Witz (and three years after a lauded story collection), he returns with a long book about a novelist ghost-writing the autobiography of one of Silicon Valley’s new Masters of the Universe. The set-up should give Cohen’s caustic sensibility a target-rich environment, while the scope leaves his fierce intelligence ample room to play. (Garth)

The Festival of Insignificance by Milan Kundera: Fifteen years after the publication of his last novel, Kundera returns with a (very brief) story of four friends in Paris who talk self-importantly about “sex, history, art, politics, and the meaning of life” while simultaneously celebrating their own insignificance (Library Journal). While these themes may be familiar to fans of Kundera’s past work (of which there are many – The Unbearable Lightness of Being has been enduringly popular since its publication in the mid-1980s) it will be exciting to see fresh writing from a modern master. (Kaulie)

Muse by Jonathan Galassi: Over his long literary career, Galassi has done everything except write a novel. Now the FSG publisher, Italian translator, critic and poet has checked that off his list with a story that satirizes the industry he knows so well and sounds like an updating of Henry James’ The Aspern Papers. In the novel, a publisher tries to wrestle a famous female poet away from a rival, eventually securing a meeting in her Venetian palazzo and learning a revelatory secret. (Matt)

 

The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty by Vendela Vida: Believer founding editor Vendela Vida’s trilogy of novels about “women in crisis” becomes a tetralogy with the debut of her latest, The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty. As in her previous novels, the story involves a woman traveling abroad (in this case, Casablanca, Morocco). When the woman is robbed of her wallet and passport, she experiences distress and also unexpected freedom. The novel dips into All About Eve territory in this part-thriller, part-novel-of-ideas when the woman finds work as a celebrity stand-in and then begins to assume this alternate identity as her own. (Anne)

In the Country: Stories by Mia Alvar: Alvar is a frequent contributor to literary magazines—she’s been nominated twice for a Pushcart Prize—but this is her first short story collection. In the Country focuses on the Filipino diaspora, from Bahrain to Manila to New York. Alvar considers themes of alienation, displacement, the sometimes-troubling bonds of family, and the struggle to find a sense of home. (Emily)

July:

The Dying Grass by William T. Vollmann: The one living novelist who makes Joyce Carol Oates look like a slacker returns with the fifth volume of his “Seven Dreams” series, about the confrontations between native people and settlers in North America. This installment swings west to investigate the Nez Perce War of the late 19th Century, and is rumored to lean on dialogue to an unusual degree. The first of the Seven Dreams was published in 1990; at this rate, the series should conclude some time in 2027. (Garth)

 

A Cure for Suicide by Jesse Ball: Jesse Ball’s novels are playful and clever and often quite grim, although this is not a contradiction. As he said in an interview: “a life of grief can be joyful too.” In his fifth novel, A Cure for Suicide, this again seems to be evident. A man and woman move in together: she is his guide and doctor who teaches him about life, defining for him the nature of objects and interaction and ways of being. That is, until another woman arrives and upends all he’s learned, making him question. (Anne)

 

Confession of the Lioness by Mia Couto : Couto, a Mozambican who writes in Portuguese, has for years been considered one of Africa’s leading writers, fusing indigenous settings and traditions with influences from abroad. His first novel, Sleepwalking Land, was named one of the best African books of the 20th Century; his most recent, Tuner of Silences, was published by the terrific independent press Biblioasis, and was longlisted for the IMPAC Dublin award. In Confessions of the Lioness, a series of lion attacks in a remote village forces an eruption between men and women, modernity and tradition. It’s Couto’s first book to be published by FSG. (Garth)

Music for Wartime by Rebecca Makkai: Fans of 2014’s The Hundred Year House don’t have to wait too long for more of Makkai’s clever and wonderfully imaginative work. Her third book and her first story collection, Music for Wartime offers a diverse array of stories, four of which are inspired by Makkai’s family history and her paternal grandparents’ involvement in 1930s Hungarian politics. (For more on this, check out this Harper’s Magazine interview with Makkai). Overall, the collection showcases the author’s talent for the short form–which has gotten her anthologized four (!) times in the Best American Short Stories series. (Edan)

August:

Flood of Fire by Amitav Ghosh: Following Sea of Poppies (shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize) and River of Smoke, Calcutta-born Amitav Ghosh brings his Ibis Trilogy to a rousing conclusion with Flood of Fire. It’s 1839, and after China embargoes the lucrative trade of opium grown on British plantations in India, the colonial government sends an expeditionary force from Bengal to Hong Kong to reinstate it. As the force arrives, war breaks out, and with it a blaze of naval engagements, embezzlement, profiteering and espionage. In bringing the first Opium War to crackling life, Ghosh has illuminated the folly of our own failed war on drugs. Historical fiction doesn’t get any timelier than this. (Bill)

The State We’re In: Maine Stories by Ann Beattie: A new collection of linked stories set in Maine from one of the short story masters. Call her the American Alice Munro, call her a New Yorker darling, call this the perfect summer read. (Hannah)

The Marriage of Opposites by Alice Hoffman: In her 30 works of fiction, Alice Hoffman always finds the magical in the ordinary. Her narratives have roamed from ancient Israel (The Dovekeepers) to 20th-century New York City (The Museum of Extraordinary Things). Hoffman’s new novel, The Marriage of Opposites, transports us to the tropical island of St. Thomas in the early 1800s, where a girl named Rachel is growing up in the community of Jews who escaped the Inquisition. When her arranged marriage ends with her husband’s death, she begins an affair with her late husband’s dashing nephew. There is nothing ordinary about their son: his name is Camille Pissarro, and he will grow up to become an immortal father of Impressionism. (Bill)

September:

Purity by Jonathan Franzen: There are few American authors who can hit all the popular news outlets simply by releasing the title of their next novel (Purity), or launch a thousand hot takes with the publication of one grumpy book excerpt in The Guardian (an excerpt which, curiously, is no longer available at its previous URL as of this writing). Franzen haters were derisive at the news of his impending novel (Gawker’s headline was “Jonathan Franzen to Excrete Book Called Purity”), described by its publisher as “a multigenerational American epic that spans decades and continents,” with bonus “fabulist quality.” But some people believe, privately, that Franzen is such a good novelist that his detractors must just be jealous. And for those people, the new book can’t come quickly enough. (O Franzen! My Franzen!) (Lydia)

October:

City on Fire by Garth Risk Hallberg: We at The Millions look forward to reading fellow staff writer Garth Risk Hallberg’s debut novel. At over 900 pages, the novel takes place in 1977 New York and culminates in the city’s famed black-out. The Guardian reports, “The polished third-person narration conjures up a cast of characters living in a New York City divided by race and money – the reluctant heirs to a great fortune, two Long Island kids exploring downtown’s nascent punk scene, a gay schoolteacher from rural Georgia, an obsessive magazine reporter, a revolutionary cell planning to set the Bronx ablaze, a trader with a hole on his balance sheet and a detective who is trying to piece together the mystery which connects them all to a shooting in Central Park.” In anticipation of the book’s release, I suggest you dip into Garth’s essays here at The Millions, perhaps starting with his 2010 piece on long novels, “Is Big Back?” (Edan)

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Some Other, Better Bernhard, or the Rights and Wrongs of Readership

1.
Maybe you’ve seen them, stranded in shoals of the fiction section in some out-of-the-way used bookstore: the black-clad members of the cult of Thomas Bernhard. Incurably bookish, ninety percent male, they hand you well-thumbed copies of The Loser and The Lime Works and stare fixedly into your eyes.

“Bleak stuff,” they say, “but then again, what is life but one long bleak expanse in which all human experience is ground down, endlessly ground down by bleakness and incurable human stupidity?”

They stuff his novels into your jacket pocket with furtive hands that smell of strong coffee and tobacco.

“Don’t worry,” they whisper. “It’s funny, if you can stand it.”

They say it like it’s a challenge.

I’m exaggerating, of course. We wouldn’t be experiencing such a flowering of Thomas Bernhard’s literary reputation if all his supporters were maladjusted young men malingering in coffee shops and contemplating the depths of human misery. But what is striking about even the most thoughtful and culturally astute admirers of Bernhard is that their praise often resembles the scenario I’ve mentioned above: an exhortation to read, read, read the mad Austrian, but always with a caveat: only if you dare.

Hence Claire Messud, recommending The Loser on National Public Radio, felt obligated to issue a warning: “you will not find it pleasant.” Thus Geoff Dyer, who has written exceptionally well about Bernhard, calling him “the funniest writer… also one of the most profound,” felt the need to add that “Bernhard is nothing if not interminable.”

Hello, I’d like to read the novel by Thomas Bernhard that was recently recommended me by the fellow from the Guardian. Yes, please: the interminable one.

But by far the most virulent example of this sort of behavior comes from the pen of Ben Marcus, in an essay he wrote for Harper’s in 2006. Although it’s more than half a decade old, it still serves quite well as a reference point for the current understanding of Bernhard, as well as a fascinating case study in what a certain kind of writer (or reader) takes away from Bernhard’s novels. Marcus writes:
Bernhard was altogether unconcerned with immunizing a reader against his surgical attacks on humanity, and if he made a blood sport of novel writing, he did it with a zeal and a gallows humor that is unrivaled in contemporary literature. His formally radical novels, which sometimes blasted into shape as a single, unbroken paragraph, were manic reports on such fixations as the futility of existence; the dark appeal, and inevitable logic, of suicide; the monstrosity of human beings; and the abject pain of merely being alive. Bernhard’s language strained the limits of rhetorical negativity: if his prose were any more anguished, it would simply transmit as moaning and wailing.
Novel-writing as “blood sport?” Rhetorical negativity? Moaning and wailing? Not to mention the military word choice: “blasted,” “transmit,” “attacks.” This is the sort of language that would normally be used to send readers running for the hills, but Marcus makes a strength out of disgust and darkness, fashions it into a sort of badge of honor, a platonic ideal of negativity that separates the men from the boys, the wheat from the chaff. One gets the sense of a perverse sort of initiation into the pleasures of unpleasant fiction.

And yet, Bernhard is experiencing a flowering beyond what one would expect from a cult author. Consider the extensive reissue project undertaken by Vintage, culminating in the recent publication of Bernhard’s pseudo-memoir, Gathering Evidence, bundled with his satirical treatment of his own fame, My Prizes. Stroll through the B’s in the fiction section of your local Barnes and Noble – hurry, you might not have much time – and you’ll find a series of delightful paperbacks to catch your eye.

How did such an unpleasant author fashion such a stunning coup? Is it because he isn’t as unpleasant as everyone says he is? What if all this talk about the Bernhard’s “blood-sport” amounts to a colossal mis-reading of the entire canon, a mis-reading which says more about the readership than it does about Bernhard?

2.
The first secret, shared only by the initiated, is that Bernhard is very funny.

Bernhard himself wrote a sort of self-mocking description of his particular brand of humor in his novel The Lime Works, placing the manifesto in the mouth of his antihero Konrad:
Whatever point a man like himself reached, arrived at, all he ever reached or arrived at was irritation, further irritation. But all of it was ultimately so comical, it’s all more comical than anything, which is why, he is supposed to have said, it is all quite bearable after all, because it is comical. All we have in this world is the very essence of comedy, and do what we will, we can’t escape from this comedy, for thousands of years men have tried to turn this comedy into tragedy, but their efforts had to fail, in the nature of things.
This from the mouth of a man who has subjected his wife to grotesque experiments and then shot her in the head with a shotgun. So yes, Marcus is partially right: gallows humor.

But not always gallows humor, and not always humor about the gallows. Sometimes the humor is about more quotidian stuff, like clothes. Consider this riff from The Loser, in which the protagonist Wertheimer ruminates on Tyrolian folk costume.
If she wanted to invite guests he wouldn’t allow it, said Franz, she also wasn’t permitted to dress the way she wanted, had always had to wear the clothes that he wanted to see on her, even during the coldest weather she was never allowed to put on her Tyrolian hat, for her brother hated Tyrolian hats and hated, as I also know, everything connected with Tyrolian folk costume, as of course he himself never wore anything that even vaguely recalled Tyrolian folk costume, thus here, in this region, he naturally always stood out, for here everybody always wears Tyrolian folk costume, above all clothes that are made from coarse loden wool, which is actually quite well suited for the quite dreadful climatic conditions in the lower Alps, I thought, he found Tyrolian folk costume, like anything that even reminded him of Tyrolian folk costume, deeply repugnant.
I would offer this as one of the funniest sentences in the history of European literature. It is also, no matter how you look at it, neither a keening wail of misery or a ruthless display of novel-writing as blood sport. It is representation of an author in fine and firm control of his ironic faculties, capable of resting a sentence on the keenest edge – the angle of absurd laughter.

I, for one, will never again hear the phrase “Tyrolian folk costume” without breaking out into hysterics.

Here’s more in the same vein: the following paragraph from Frost, cited in Marcus’ essay.
In fact: the hideous thing. You open your chest of drawers: a further molestation. Washing and dressing are molestations. Having to get dressed! Having to eat breakfast! When you go out on the street, you are subject to the gravest possible molestations. You are unable to shield yourself. You lay about yourself, but it’s no use. The blows you dole out are returned a hundredfold. What are streets, anyway? Wendings of molestation, up and down. Squares? Bundled together molestations.
What are streets, anyway? There are times, in the middle of his expertly modulated rants, when Bernhard resembles nothing so much as the most single-minded stand-up comedian you could ever imagine. What’s the deal with streets, anyway?

Having to get dressed! Glory at those exclamation points, let them tickle your eye. Having to eat breakfast!

Now, this is not to say that Bernhard is not bleak, not funny, not interminable (at times). I am only suggesting that in playing up certain sides of Bernhard his admirers are selling an image which is woefully incomplete, an image which neglects many of the sides which make a writer capable of masterpieces.

In fact, of all the sides of Bernhard which are routinely neglected, the humorous Bernhard sometimes gets the best treatment. Geoff Dyer, for instance, understands; understands so well, in fact, that there are beautiful humorous sections of his great pseudo-essay on D. H. Lawrence, Out of Sheer Rage, that seem as if they were pulled straight from The Loser. Even Marcus, in his Harper’s essay, admits to an appreciation of Bernhard’s “light comic relief.”

What seems always to be neglected, amongst this sea of praise for the author’s supposed hatred for all the things of this world, is what one might call the softer side of Bernhard: the side which incurable misanthropes, thinking they have found a brother with which to hurl rage and bile at the horrors of this world, might easily miss.

3.
There is beauty in Thomas Bernhard, if you are willing to look for it, and sadness. Not despair, mind you, or aesthetic perfection; not intellectualization thereof, but the genuine article. There is even love, of a difficult kind, in the sense of love for a place in which you can no longer live, love for a homeland that has harmed you, and which you love deeply without ever quite forgiving.

Here, for example, is the unnamed narrator of Correction, writing about the way he and his friend took to school in the morning, through the Aurach river gorge.
Suddenly I no longer had to hold back anything. I said, putting off a little what I’d primarily meant to say, that my finest memory, and probably Hoeller’s as well, and Roithamer’s too, was my memory of our walks to school together… I could remember those thousands, hundreds of thousands of weather conditions on our walk to school, abrupt shifts in the weather, I felt them suddenly take place, transforming our way to school from one minute to the next and thereby transforming us inside from one minute to the next, and the incessant changing of colors in the woods and in the Aurach as it tumbled headlong from the woods down to the plain.
There is anger here, and bitterness, too, but there is another sort of emotional register on display, as well. It exists in that simple phrase which appears in the middle of the sentence: I felt them suddenly take place. It is this feeling that we need to concern ourselves with, as readers, to understand that Bernhard is capable of more than just wailing in rage and misery. It rests in a phrase like this one: the incessant changing of colors in the woods and in the Aurach as it tumbled headlong from the woods down to plain. This phrase – and many others like it in Correction, which deserves to be called Bernhard’s pastoral novel – displays a distinctly unfashionable but extremely important novelistic gift: the ability to set the reader firmly in the middle of an emotional state, an emotional state by which they cannot help but be deeply affected.

Sometimes this power rises softly, like that bit about the Aurach gorge. Other times it appears in the middle of a particularly vicious, sarcastic rant, and it feels like being in the eye of a tornado. It is, above all else, a distinctly pleasant feeling. After all, visceral linguistic sensation is one of the deepest pleasures afforded by fiction.

Bernhard is also capable of sadness. When I say sadness, I don’t mean the solitary, monomaniacal despair people often reference in regard to his obsessed narrators. I mean the sadness of humans in relation, in their inability to connect to each other.

Consider this section in The Lime Works, concerning Konrad and his wife:
At bottom it was nothing more than an infinitely sad story of a marriage, astounding, shocking if you chose, and yet it could just as well be regarded as almost laughably commonplace, even though it might seem strange, extraordinary, crazy to the superficial observer. But there was no use talking about it. The mitten: while watching her knit his mitten he asks himself: Why is she knitting that mitten, always the same one? but he also asks himself why, instead of continually working on that mitten, doesn’t she take time out to mend his socks, patch his shirts, his torn vest, all my clothes have big holes in them, everywhere, he said to himself, but she sits there knitting that mitten. Her own cap needs mending, so does her blouse, too, but not, she keeps working on that mitten. The lime works have been the finish of her, he thought, watching her work on that mitten.
Marcus claims the following about Bernhard: “His project is not to reference the known world, stuffing it with fully rounded characters who commence to discover their conflicts with one another, but to erect complex states of mind — usually self-loathing, obsessive ones — and then set about destroying them.” But the truth of the matter is that self-loathing, obsessive narrators can also be round, can also live in the known world, can have wives and childhoods and pains. And what can be more obsessive and also more real than a husband watching his wife obsessively knitting and re-knitting a single mitten – a mitten he doesn’t even want – while the rest of their lives crumble about them? This is not grand despair; it is small and desperate sadness.

Hundreds of examples abound of these small, precise emotional details. Roithamer’s trip to the music festival in Correction, where he miraculously shoots twenty-four paper roses and then, in despair, gives them all away to a random girl. The bicycle ride in Gathering Evidence, where Bernhard describes the initial freedom and eventual despair of a young child escaping his town on two wheels, only to have the grand machine break down and strand him in unfamiliar territory.

Grand despair is a great hobbyhorse for the intellectual, precisely because it can be intellectualized away, or worse, traded in conversation for some obscure aesthetic satisfaction. Small sadness provides no such feeling of satisfaction. It gets under your skin, it works its way deeper. What makes Bernhard such a compelling writer is that he builds his vistas of grand despair from the tiniest building blocks, the most rote disappointments. His lofty edifices rest on the lowliest and most traditional of observations, and though they are painful and stifling constructions – like the Cone in Correction that Roithamer builds for his sister – they are all the more horrible for feeling real.

4.
Any famous author undergoes a reduction in the public eye. To those who have yet to read them, David Foster Wallace is footnotes, Lydia Davis is neurotic brevity, Georges Perec is that guy who didn’t use the letter e. Our responsibility as champions of the writers we love is to overcome the reductive impulse and try to portray as best we can the immense complexities of the writers we love, to resist at all times the propensity to fit capacious literary work into the smallest possible box. What makes the literary reputation of Thomas Bernhard so strange is that his champions seem to be uninterested in presenting anything but one side to the public, even as they recommend him.

One could think of many hypotheses for this. Perhaps people want to keep Bernhard to themselves, for fear of his being co-opted by the masses; this hinges on the idea that a suicide-obsessed Austrian writer of incredibly long sentences and rampant repetition will go over like gangbusters with the American middlebrow reading public. Fat chance.

Maybe the fault rests in the slippery nature of humor; this is, after all, the same country that took a hundred years or so to get around to Melville’s ironic turn of phrase. Who’s to say that in a hundred years people won’t be crowning Bernhard as misunderstood comic genius? Except that a vast percentage of the people who love Bernhard now already get the humor; the problem is that, like Ben Marcus, they only see it as suicide’s humor, and so they shelve it in with despair.

The fault, it seems to me, is the idea of Bernhard: his perfection as a literary figure, as opposed to his existence as an actual creator of prose. Consider this the ideal recipe for a cult writer. Take the bleakest of all bleakness, mix in enough convoluted prose style to warn off the philistines, sprinkle with a dash of black humor, then put it in the oven until it has baked to perfection. Only perfection never arrives, as it never arrives for Bernhard’s characters – characters one suspects the man’s more faithful readers sometimes wish they could become. So the faithful reader never eats, which is no great loss, since eating would entail too much pleasure; the idea of eating it is aesthetic pleasure enough.

But you are interested in writers, I assume, not the images of writers, and so it is my responsibility as a lover of Thomas Bernhard to give you the roundest message I can muster: for those of you who may have been frightened away by the overwhelming anhedonia of his supporters, I say, do not be afraid. There is no initiation. You do not need, as Ben Marcus once said, half-jokingly, 355 years of schooling and the safety of a steel cage to read Thomas Bernhard. Please partake of the paperback feast which Vintage has now set before you. Despite all reports to the contrary, there is pleasure here.

A Year in Reading: Mark O’Connell

It’s slightly embarrassing to have to admit that the best book you read all year was Anna Karenina. It’s a bit like saying that you’ve been listening to an album called Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club by these Beatles kids out of Liverpool and that, yes, you can confidently reveal that they were definitely onto something. At the risk of redundancy, Anna Karenina (which I finally got around to reading this year) is pretty much the Platonic ideal of the great novel. The most astounding thing about it for me is Tolstoy’s seemingly infinite compassion for his characters. It’s almost inhuman how fully present he makes these people. Reading it, I kept thinking of that much-quoted bit of Stephen Dedalus bluster about how “the artist, like the God of creation, remains within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails.” There is something god-like about the simultaneous breadth and intensity of Tolstoy’s vision here, but there’s nothing remote or indifferent about it. I don’t think I’ve ever read a book where so many characters are portrayed with such clarity and empathy. He didn’t seem to create characters for instrumental reasons; no one is there just to bring the plot forward or to create a situation for someone more central than themselves. If he introduces a character, he also makes you see the world from their point of view (even Levin’s dog Laska has her moment in the free indirect narrative spotlight). His compassion and clarity are such that I often found myself thinking that if God existed and had sat down to write a novel, this is what it would look like. So yes, this Lev Tolstoy kid out of Yasnaya Polyana is definitely one to watch. You heard it here first.

As for less canonically enshrined books, I read two very powerful works of fiction in 2011 dealing with the theme of suicide. The first was David Vann’s Legend of a Suicide, a collection of linked stories and a novella. Here, Vann approaches the central biographical fact of his own father’s suicide from a range of fictional starting points. The novella, “Sukkwan Island,” is one of the most harrowing and moving pieces of fiction I’ve read in a very long time. In it, Vann inverts the reality of his father’s death, staging a hostile takeover of fact on behalf of fiction. It’s a really extraordinary piece of writing, and it takes the reader to a harsh and terrifying place. If you want to remind yourself of how literature can be a matter of life and death, this is a book you need to read.

Edouard Levé’s novel Suicide, which I wrote about for The Millions back in July, also really shook me up. As I mentioned in that piece, it’s nearly impossible to separate a reading of this book from the knowledge that Levé took his own life within a few days of having completed it. But on its own terms, its a bleak and beautiful exploration of self-alienation, marked by a sustained mood of quiet despair. The fact that it is written entirely in the second person — the subject of the narrative, with whose suicide the novel opens, is only ever referred to as “you” — forces the reader into a strangely schizoid position. Levé’s “you” addresses itself at once to the first, second, and third persons, and so the distinctions between author, protagonist, and reader become unsettlingly nebulous. Take a number of deep breaths, read it in one sitting, and go for a long walk afterwards. (As great as both Vann’s and Levé’s books are, by the way, I wouldn’t recommend reading them back-to-back in any kind of double bill.)

Along with everyone else in the world, it seems, I fell pretty hard for Geoff Dyer this year. I had a great time with Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi, and I’ve since gone on an extended binge. Right now, I’m reading But Beautiful, his book about jazz, and Working the Room, his recent collection of essays and reviews. (Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It and Out of Sheer Rage are lined up and ready to go.) I’m pretty sure no author since Proust has spun so much great material out of pastries — what Dyer doesn’t see fit to tell us about cappuccinos, doughnuts, and croissants isn’t worth knowing. I’m not sure whether we actually need a Laureate of Elevenses, but if we do, this is our guy. Dyer is one of those people who could bang out a book on just about any subject and it would be more or less guaranteed to be interesting.

The same could be said for Nicholson Baker, whose House of Holes had a higher guffaw-to-page ratio than any other book I read this year. It’s ridiculously, euphorically filthy and yet strangely innocent, in a way that seems to me to be unique to Baker. But House of Holes is not really about sex, any more than The Mezzanine was about office work or Room Temperature was about child rearing. Sex provides a useful and fertile pretext for exercising what seems to me to be the animating principal of all his fiction: the absurd and fantastic possibilities of language itself. But don’t, for God’s sake, read it on public transport, or in the presence of anyone to whom you wouldn’t be willing to explain the cause of your snickering.

The novel that I really fell in love with this year, though, was Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead. She writes prose as beautifully as any living writer in English, but what makes her work so special is that its beauty seems to emanate as much from a moral as an aesthetic sensibility. I read Gilead not long after I saw Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, and I was struck by the similarities between these two works of art. Both Robinson’s exquisite sentences and Malick’s stunning visual compositions are animated by a sense of wonder at the beauty, strangeness and sadness of the world. They are both religious artists, and they each confront metaphysical themes, but what comes across most strongly in both works is their creators’ amazing ability to capture and heighten the beauty of everyday things. Robison does with her sentences, in other words, what Malick does with his camera. Reading this book reminded me of something Updike once said about Nabokov — that he “writes prose the only way it should be written, that is, ecstatically.” In this passage, the dying narrator, the Rev. John Ames, recalls a simple vision of the beauty of water:
There was a young couple strolling along half a block ahead of me. The sun had come up brilliantly after a heavy rain, and the trees were glistening and very wet. On some impulse, plain exuberance, I suppose, the fellow jumped up and caught hold of a branch, and a storm of luminous water came pouring down on the two of them, and they laughed and took off running, the girl sweeping water off her hair and her dress as if she were a little bit disgusted, but she wasn’t. It was a beautiful thing to see, like something from a myth. I don’t know why I thought of that now, except perhaps because it is easy to believe in such moments that water was made primarily for blessing, and only secondarily for growing vegetables or doing the wash. I wish I had paid more attention to it. My list of regrets may seem unusual, but who can know that they are, really. This is an interesting planet. It deserves all the attention you can give it.
If you haven’t turned into James Wood by the time you reach the end of that passage, there’s no hope for you. (Go on, let it out: “How fine that is!”) It’s extremely difficult to pull off something that simple, and I can’t think of many other novelists with the skill to do it. Marilynne Robinson’s writing is like water, like the world: it’s a blessing, and it deserves all the attention you can give it.

I read some great non-fiction this year, too. John D’Agata’s book About a Mountain is a lot of things at once. It’s a journalistic account of the almost literally unthinkable effects of nuclear waste. It’s an obliquely impressionistic depiction of the city of Las Vegas. And it’s an attempt to imaginatively reconstruct the suicide of a teenager. I didn’t always like the book, and its not by any means an unqualified triumph, but I certainly admired it. It’s a reminder of the Montaignian origins of the word “essay” (which we get from the French word for “trial” or “attempt”). The essay, at its best, is an open-ended, explorative form, and D’Agata is an exciting example of what a gifted writer can do with it. I also read Between Parentheses, the collection of Roberto Bolaño’s essays, reviews and speeches published this year by New Directions. I wrote about it for the second issue of Stonecutter (a wonderfully old school paper and ink literary journal whose first issue was itself one of the highlights of my reading year) and relished every sentence. Among its numberless pleasures is this quintessentially Bolañoesque definition of great writing: “So what is top-notch writing? The same thing it’s always been: the ability to sprint along the edge of the precipice: to one side the bottomless abyss and to the other the faces you love, the smiling faces you love, and books and friends and food, and the ability to accept what you find, even though it may be heavier than the stones over the graves of all the dead writers.” Almost every book that I loved over the last year satisfied this definition in some way. As, I’m sure, will every book I love in the next.

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

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A Year in Reading: John Williams (The Second Pass)

This year I finally read Out of Sheer Rage by Geoff Dyer, which a friend had been recommending for years as tailor-made for me. The friend was right. I also read Dyer’s Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It, which I enjoyed nearly as much, and several pieces in Otherwise Known as the Human Condition, a new collection of his work. In short, I became a big Dyer fan in 2011.

I normally devour Michael Lewis’ books as soon as they’re published, but for some reason I didn’t get around to The Big Short until it was in paperback. While you’re reading it, you feel you understand collateralized debt obligations, which is no mean trick.

John Gray’s The Immortalization Commission reads far more smoothly than its inelegant title. It recounts two movements to confront and transcend mortality — the psychic researchers of the 19th century (William James and Henri Bergson among them) and the “God-building” Bolsheviks of Russia who pursued the end of death for man, among other utopian goals. These two main sections are fairly narrow historical slices of the overlap between science and spirit in intellectual life, but Gray builds upon them to write a sweeping, impassioned conclusion that argues against the fetishizing of science’s solutions and for a humble, even inspiring acceptance of death’s finality.

Simon Reynolds’ Retromania brings a lot of intelligence and cultural breadth to bear on a thesis I only partially agree with about the stale dominance of established musical genres. I interviewed him about it here.

But two books left the deepest impression on me in the year almost past. Don Carpenter’s Hard Rain Falling was first published in 1966 and reissued in 2009 by NYRB Classics. Set in the Pacific Northwest, it’s about gambling, drinking, prison, and an unlikely but believably rendered relationship between two unlucky men. It’s a hard-boiled existentialist novel, and ultimately unlike any other I’ve read.

The other, The Correspondence of Shelby Foote and Walker Percy, follows the friendship of the two famous southern writers, who first met in their early teens. Many years of Percy’s letters weren’t saved, so the first 130 pages or so only feature Foote’s side of the conversation. He comes across as funny and spirited, but so arrogant early on — and the type who tries to hide it under jokes about arrogance, just making it worse — that you wonder how Percy withstood it. To his credit, Foote later in life reached the same conclusion. Reading over their letters, he says, “I was amazed to observe how didactic I was over the years — I don’t see how you managed the grace to put up with it all that time.” Percy is widely considered the better fiction writer, but got a much later jump than Foote, who adopted the tone of mentor throughout their correspondence. What lingers most clearly in the end is not shop talk (though there’s plenty of that) or even the evolution of a friendship (ditto), but Foote’s voice. Mostly commanding, sometimes conciliatory, his outsize enthusiasms and dictates dominate the book even after Percy’s letters start appearing. He urged Percy time and again to read Proust, Plato, Dante, and many others. (“Don’t underrate Shelley. He’s a kind of a sort of a shithead in an ideological way, but he sure as hell burned with a gemlike flame.”) He cautioned his friend to avoid seeing fiction as pamphleteering — to keep neat and orderly prescriptions out of his stories. And he talked incessantly about his own projects, including an ambitious novel called Two Gates to the City that he worked on periodically for more than 30 years, never completing.

I’m about halfway through James McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom, a single volume history of the Civil War, at the moment. It’s safe to say it will also end up being one of the best things I read this year, and I’m lining up a few other books about that period in history. Foote’s massive trilogy about the war is his best-known work, and I imagine at least the first installment of it will be on my reading schedule in 2012.

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.

The Millions Top Ten: October 2011

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.


1Q84
1 month

2.
1.

The Enemy
6 months

3.


The Marriage Plot
1 month

4.
4.

The Bathtub Spy
3 months

5.
3.

The Art of Fielding
2 months

6.
5.

Leaves of Grass
4 months

7.
9.

The Getaway Car: A Practical Memoir About Writing and Life
2 months

8.
6.

The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry
6 months

9.
7.

A Moment in the Sun
5 months

10.


Lightning Rods
1 month

The literary battle royale of 2011 played out and Haruki Murakami emerged the winner with 1Q84 (read our review here) debuting atop our October list. Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Marriage Plot (read our review here), meanwhile, debuted a bit farther down the list, but still put up an impressive showing. These two weren’t the only novels to make a splash in October, though. As Garth wrote in his review, “in a just world, Helen DeWitt’s Lightning Rods would be greeted with the same frenzy of publicity that attended Freedom last year, or The Marriage Plot just this month.”

The Murakami debut bumps Christopher Hitchens’The Enemy from the top spot, while Farnsworth’s Classical English Rhetoric, that perhaps unlikely favorite of Millions readers graduates to our Hall of Fame. Don’t miss the review that started it all.
Falling off our list is Geoff Dyer’s Otherwise Known as the Human Condition (our review). This is the second of Dyer’s books (Out of Sheer Rage) to spend time on our list but fail to make our Hall of Fame. Also slipping from our list was Christopher Boucher’s debut novel How To Keep Your Volkswagen Alive (our review).Other Near Misses: The Missing of the Somme, The Sisters Brothers, and The Sense of an Ending. See Also: Last month’s list.

The Millions Top Ten: June 2011

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.
1.

The Pale King
4 months

2.
4.

The Enemy
2 months

3.
2.

The Late American Novel: Writers on the Future of Books
5 months

4.
3.

The Imperfectionists
6 months

5.
6.

Farnsworth’s Classical English Rhetoric
3 months

6.
8.

The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry
2 months

7.
7.

Skippy Dies
6 months

8.
10.

The Hunger Games
4 months

9.


A Moment in the Sun
1 month

10.


Otherwise Known as the Human Condition
1 month

David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King is again in the top spot, but, interestingly, Christopher Hitchens’ "Kindle Single" The Enemy climbs further after its debut last month. The sudden proliferation of long-form journalism as ebook originals – Byliner has made a splash after releasing several of its own – will be an interesting trend to watch.
Debuting this month were filmmaker John Sayles’s massive and very well-recieved novel A Moment in the Sun and Geoff Dyer’s collection of essays Otherwise Known as the Human Condition. This is Dyer’s second book to crack our Top Ten, joining Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling with D. H. Lawrence.
Graduating to our Hall of Fame, meanwhile, are Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand and Atlas of Remote Islands by Judith Schalansky.
Near Misses:The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them, The Tiger’s Wife, How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, and Unfamiliar Fishes. See Also: Last month’s list

Putting It Together: Geoff Dyer’s Otherwise Known as the Human Condition

Geoff Dyer is very good at being shallow. Like a dragonfly hovering above the surface of a pond, his criticism skims across a subject rather than diving in. Yet not every critic can incite so many ripples with such a light touch, and not every critic can show such tremendous intelligence while leaving things slighted. Dyer launched himself into critical prominence by refusing to order things neatly: Out of Sheer Rage, for example, proved that failing to finish a project could be as entertaining as the project itself. It’s OK not to finish things, or even to master things, Dyer seems to say, so long as you are moved by them. In his introduction to his newest collection of essays, Otherwise Known as the Human Condition, he says that it was exactly the “the unruly range of my concerns” that he wished to see compiled, “as proof of just how thoroughly my career had avoided any focus, specialization, or continuity except that dictated by my desire to write about whatever I happened to be interested in at any given moment.” Dyer finds himself drawn to material in a hodge-podge way, jumping from one subject to another, and gaining a kind of critical breadth along the way. “I came to relish the way that getting interested in one thing led to my becoming very interested in something else—so interested, in fact, that I often lost interest in whatever it was that, a little while previously, had transfixed me utterly. Out of this relay of awakened and abandoned interests a haphazard kind of narrative hopefully emerges in the pages that follow.”

In Dyer’s latest collection, we get to see how Dyer has cultivated that broadly drawn critical life, in pieces published over the last 20 years from publications including Esquire, Granta, The Guardian, and so on. The collection is broken into five parts—Visuals, Verbals, Musicals, Variables, and Personals—and each piece can be read not only as crafted criticism, but also as Dyer’s unexpressed thoughts on the purposes of writing, of creation, and of art. The greatest pleasure one can take away is having Dyer as a fellow audience member—what he occasionally lacks in critical authority, he more than compensates for in critical awareness. It’s freeing to read his perspective, partly because he does not assume himself to be a master artist: like a football star watching ballet, or an actress reading an economist, he can appreciate the work without trying to emulate it. And in each piece he writes, whether examining his susceptibility to a Miroslav Tichý photograph of a woman lounging on a lawn, or first hearing John Coltrane’s “My Favorite Things”, he keeps his experience as a consumer of culture in the forefront of his verdict. He makes himself a critic for the everyman, who when faced with a cultural experience not only asks “Is it good?” but also “Will I enjoy it?”

What Dyer enjoys isn’t so easy to predict. In his “Visuals” works, he can delve into a photograph and find that what engages him is the frippery around its edges, rather than the photograph’s main subject. He writes, “If you look hard enough a photo will always answer your question—even if that answer comes in the form of further questions. Well, whoever, she is, she’s beautiful. Actually, I can’t really tell if that’s true, for the simple reason that I can’t see enough of her face. But she must be beautiful for an equally simple reason: because I’m in love with her.” Dyer doesn’t have to recognize the subject matter to get close to it; on the contrary, the less he knows for certain, the more interesting his impressions of it become. He can relate to what rings true to him: examining a photograph of Robert Capa’s of a soldier and his girl walking home with their bikes in tow, he doesn’t go into a high-falutin’ analysis of war, but instead focuses on the details he can imagine. The landscape. The dust on the tires. What makes the photograph for him makes it for all viewers. “The photograph would be diminished without the bicycle; it would be ruined without her long hair. Her hair says: this is how she was when he left, she has not changed, she has remained true to him.” So much more is going on, according to Dyer, beyond the frame of any given photograph—for all the meanings we bring to viewing, all our lived experience, is just as important as what our eyes capture.

Dyer’s reviews are at their best when they are interdisciplinary, and he’s at his strongest when he doesn’t have much critical background to reference. Though his forté is obviously literature, his reviews tend to rely too heavily on contextualizing the material. Sure, he has the authority to write the stuff, but then he doesn’t have to make the great interpretative leaps and connection of dots that he does in his other essays. He can become wonky, academic, and a little distant from the work. He often makes up for it by treating certain writers as compatriots: when he asks, “Was ever a writer so besotted by failure as F. Scott Fitzgerald?” it feels like a question he’d rhetorically pose at a roast of his good friend Francis. He can take some pleasure not in each work, but in the canon of literature and where he hopes it’s headed (he longs for a boom in literature on boxing, throwing little jabs at how every boxing story stands in Hemingway’s footsteps.) His writing is, throughout, touched with a modesty and humility that serves him well. “Whatever else might be said about my talents as a reader, my ability to quit is undisputed,” he says, in the course of reviewing Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke. “I can give up on any book—and I never for a moment considered abandoning this one, even when it seemed to be going nowhere.” By confessing his own foibles, Dyer paves the way for a compliment that means something—praise in the face of inborn resistance. It is a little too easy to skim over his book reviews, and his likes and dislikes start to insinuate themselves in a slightly irrelevant manner. But he is consistently asking the right questions, of why someone is coming to a particular text, and what their expectations might be. He demands things of himself even in the midst of assessing someone else. With Susan Sontag, he asks “To what extent is it possible to be a great prose writer without being a great writer of fiction?” That question will send him into Sontag’s gifts as a storyteller, but it will also haunt each word he writes. Can a fiction writer be critiqued by anyone but an equal?

In his book reviews, Dyer can afford to act like his subjects’ peer, but in his “Musicals” essays, he turns right back into a fanboy, and the reader can’t help but lap it up. His essay on “My Favorite Things” is epic, gushing, and rhapsodic in ways that only true music fans can be. He falls in love with the vocalist Ramamani and becomes a pseudo-roadie for Def Leppard on tour (nothing less than pure hilarity.) And his essay entitled “Editions of Contemporary Me” should be handed out in freshman year orientation packets, bearing the giant disclaimer “Caution: Your tastes in four years will be dramatically different than they are now.” This essay is Dyer at his best because, ultimately, he’s a critic interested in how taste evolves, making many, many concessions for how one comes to love and hate a piece of art. How you discover things—as he examines in the “Variables”—is as important as what you come to think of them. Dyer sees a homeless man’s daily plight and the story of Vincent and Theo van Gogh as two parts of the same story of the blues—“The message of the blues is simple . . . It cannot heal but it can hold us, can lay a hand around a brother’s shoulder and say: You will find a home, if not in her arms, then here, in these blues.” These variables, too, are where Dyer’s personal opinions seep in—in hoping to escape London, “with its sky of sagging cloud, where all the beautiful women already have boyfriends,” Dyer flees to Algeria in search of Camus’ rhapsodies on poverty and sunlight, and the rain seems to follow him. “Even in Algiers, on this autumn morning, I open the shutters with trepidation and find an allotment sky, a sky catarrhed with cloud. A shadowless day of loitering rain.”

These aren’t quite pieces of cultural criticism, but more like meditations on a life in the midst of culture, and of all the expectations art can saddle us with. Nora Ephron once wrote, “So much of what I see reminds me of something I read in a book, but shouldn’t it be the other way around?” This might be Dyer’s problem, too—when everything you see brings you back to art, it’s hard not to see art everywhere you go. And it’s hard to read his account of flying in a fighter jet without wondering if he was playing Top Gun in his head all the while. Nevertheless, the drama is real, and it emerges in Dyer’s impressionistic essays on the crisp white bathrobes in fancy hotels, or in the stark ghost bicycles peppering busy New York intersections. In his “Personals,” we get tiny glimpses at the developing life of the writer, the little influences along the way—the comics and what they do to adolescent boys; the limitations and freedoms of an only child; and so on. And perhaps Dyer’s true passions were discovered in childhood after all: “I loved arranging my things—whatever they were—and putting them into some kind of order.” Looking back on a photograph of himself on a London roof in the mid-1980s, he says, “it was an idyllic time and—such is the nature of idylls—it is now a vanished time… Destiny, I think, is not what lies in store for you; it’s what is already stored up inside you—and it’s patient as death.” He unpacks his library, his sense of adventure, and eventually, a great and serendipitously discovered love, and we get the sense of a person evolving through exposure to the great wide world.

Is there any truly fair way to review a critic? It seems like trying to see a telescope more clearly by gazing at it through a telescope…or perhaps it’s like the observation made by a prepubescent Sally Draper on this season’s Mad Men, talking about the Land O’Lakes butter box: “That Indian girl, sitting holding a box, and it has a picture of her on it, holding a box, with a picture of her on it, holding a box. Have you ever noticed that?” You can scrutinize each choice until the criticisms are just blobs of words and empty space. But buried somewhere within each well-schooled critic is a hungry cultural neophyte, ready to consume and report on whatever material they can get. Dyer is not so untouchable yet; he can still be moved to enjoy, or disdain, something without prejudgment. And ultimately that’s part of his charm: he can be like his reader, as blank as a slate, and demand that each piece of art freshly persuade him, charm him, move him to give it praise.

The Millions Top Ten: December 2010

We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for December.

This
Month
Last
Month

Title
On List

1.
1.

Freedom
5 months

2.
3.

A Visit from the Goon Squad
5 months

3.
6. (tie)

Room
4 months

4.


Atlas of Remote Islands

1 month

5.
6. (tie)

Faithful Place
6 months

6.
4.

Super Sad True Love Story
5 months

7.
8.

The Passage
6 months

8.


Cardinal Numbers
1 month

9.
9.

The Finkler Question
2 months

10.


Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption
1 month

During the month of December, The Millions was flooded with book recommendations thanks to our Year in Reading series. Many of these recommendations piqued the interest of our readers, and a pair of hidden gems were intriguing enough to make it into our Top Ten. One was Anthony Doerr’s effusive praise for Judith Schalansky’s Atlas of Remote Islands, and the other was Sam Lipsyte’s unearthing of the late and little known Hob Broun and his Gordon Lish-edited book Cardinal Numbers. A third debut in December was Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken, her hotly anticipated follow up to Seabiscuit that was noted with an “AAAH!” in December by Sam Anderson.

December also graduated a pair of books to our Hall of Fame, the second such honor for each of the authors. Joining Cloud Atlas as an all-time Millions favorite is David Mitchell’s newest, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. Meanwhile, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest is a second inductee from the late Stieg Larsson’s global sensation, the Millennium Trilogy

Finally, it’s worth noting that after many months of skewing male, our list has acheived gender parity, with four of the top five books penned by female writers. Don’t be surprised if Jennifer Egan’s breakout hit A Visit from the Goon Squad eclipses Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom next month for our top spot. Near Misses: Skippy Dies, The Imperfectionists, The Hunger Games, The Autobiography of Mark Twain , and Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling with D. H. Lawrence. See Also: Last month’s list

The Millions Top Ten: November 2010

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.

Freedom
4 months

2.
2.

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet
6 months

3.
5.

A Visit from the Goon Squad
4 months

4.
9.

Super Sad True Love Story
4 months

5.
4.

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest
6 months

6. (tie)
6.

Room
3 months

6. (tie)
8.

Faithful Place
5 months

8.
7.

The Passage
5 months

9.


The Finkler Question
1 month

10.
10.

Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling With D.H. Lawrence
6 months

November saw Booker-winner The Finkler Question, which we reviewed here, debut on our list. Last year’s Booker winner Wolf Hall also landed on our list after being awarded the prize and ended up in our Hall of Fame. Speaking of which, another prizewinner, Pulitzer-winning underdog Tinkers is the newest inductee into our hallowed hall. Meanwhile, Freedom by Jonathan Franzen retains our top spot, while Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad and Super Sad True Love Story continue to surge higher on a wave of interest from Millions readers. Near Misses: The Hunger Games, The Imperfectionists, Things We Didn’t See Coming, The Autobiography of Mark Twain, and The Gone-Away World. See Also: Last month’s list

The Millions Top Ten: October 2010

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.

Freedom
3 months

2.
2.

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet
5 months

3.
4.

Tinkers
6 months

4.
3.

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest
5 months

5.
6. (tie)

A Visit from the Goon Squad
3 months

6.
10.

Room
2 months

7.
5.

The Passage
4 months

8.
6. (tie)

Faithful Place
4 months

9.
9.

Super Sad True Love Story
3 months

10.
8.

Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling With D.H. Lawrence
5 months

October was relatively quiet for our list, with no new arrivals or departures, but Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad and Emma Donoghue’s Booker shortlisted Room were our top movers, with both books continuing to enjoy significant interest. Meanwhile, the same four books remained ensconced in our top four spots, with Freedom by Jonathan Franzen still in the top spot, while Pulitzer-winning underdog Tinkers continues to find new fans. Near Misses: The Imperfectionists, The Gone-Away World, The Girl Who Played with Fire, Things We Didn’t See Coming, and Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself. See Also: Last month’s list

The Millions Top Ten: September 2010

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.

Freedom
2 months

2.
2.

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet
4 months

3.
3.

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest
4 months

4.
5.

Tinkers
5 months

5.
4.

The Passage
3 months

6. (tie)
10.

A Visit from the Goon Squad
2 months

6. (tie)
6.

Faithful Place
3 months

8.
8. (tie)

Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling With D.H. Lawrence
4 months

9.
8. (tie)

Super Sad True Love Story
2 months

10.


Room
1 month

Summer favorites stayed firmly ensconsed on our list in September, but Emma Donoghue’s Booker shortlisted Room managed to debut on the list in the tenth spot. Edan recently offered up a compelling review of the book in our pages. Meanwhile, the top three spots on our list remain unchanged from the prior month, with Freedom by Jonathan Franzen still in the top spot. Garth’s review of the book was published here in August. Graduating to our Hall of Fame this month was Michael Lewis’ The Big Short. Garth offered up a a look at the book and n+1’s entry into the financial meltdown post-mortem genre earlier this week. Near Misses: The Girl Who Played with Fire, The Gone-Away World, War and Peace, Things We Didn’t See Coming, The Imperfectionists. See Also: Last month’s list

Millions Top Ten: August 2010

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 August.

This
Month
Last
Month

Title
On List

1.


Freedom
1 month

2.
2.

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet
3 months

3.
4.

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest
3 months

4.
10.

The Passage
2 months

5.
3.

Tinkers
4 months

6.
4.

Faithful Place
2 months

7.
6.

The Big Short
6 months

8. (tie)
7.

Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling With D.H. Lawrence

3 months

8. (tie)


Super Sad True Love Story
1 month

10.


A Visit from the Goon Squad

1 month

Three of the summer’s biggest literary novels vaulted onto our list in August. Surprising probably no one, Freedom by Jonathan Franzen came out on August 31 and in one day was popular enough to debut at the top of our list. Two other literary superstars also debuted, Gary Shteyngart with Super Sad True Love Story, reviewed here, and Jennifer Egan with A Visit from the Goon Squad, reviewed and profiled here. Meanwhile, David Shields’ controversial Reality Hunger ended its run on our list and graduated to the Hall of Fame. Shields wrote a spritied defense of his book for us and provided a supplementary and exhaustive reading list as well. Elsewhere, Stieg Larsson’s second “Millennium” book, The Girl Who Played with Fire, got bumped from our list (though the trilogy’s final book remains firmly ensconced), as did weighty fave War and Peace. Near Misses: The Girl Who Played with Fire, War and Peace, The Imperfectionists, The Gone-Away World, Things We Didn’t See Coming. See Also: Last month’s list

On Repetition

“On Repetition” was delivered as a craft talk at the 2010 Tin House Writers Workshop.

1.
Not long ago, James Wood wrote a review of Geoff Dyer’s Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi that struck me as a bit myopic. It wasn’t what Wood said about Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi that seemed short-sighted to me – it was what he said about the rest of Dyer’s career. Wood just didn’t get it, he admitted. None of Dyer’s books seemed to fit together – they were all about different things! And they’d all been executed in different ways too, almost as though they weren’t even by the same writer! What’s a critic supposed to do when a writer keeps on trying new things? Read it all? Sheesh! Who’s got time for that? Don’t you people understand deadlines?

I’m picking on James Wood here – and I like James Wood, I think the literary world is vastly richer for James Wood’s voice and presence in it – because he sort of duffed this one. There is a kind of common denominator in Dyer’s work, and tapping into it, I think, is central to coming to an understanding of at least one way to approach the craft of creative nonfiction, and it says something too about the state of literature today.

2.
Also not long ago, Geoff Dyer wrote a review of Don Delillo’s Point Omega that was also myopic. Dyer complained that what Delillo had done in Point Omega had been done before and better, by Delillo himself. This is interesting not just because it’s the exact opposite of Wood’s criticism of Dyer. It’s interesting because it’s a crime – if it’s a crime – of which Geoff Dyer is also guilty. That guy whose books are a problem because they aren’t anything like one another has also made the mistake of saying the same thing over and over. I’m quite sure this accounts for Geoff Dyer’s wide-ranging popularity.

As I see it, Dyer has two modes as a writer. First he has a kind of rakish mode in which he serves himself up as a leaner, wimpier version of James Bond, that post-Empire Brit superspy who shuttles around the world bedding as many women as he can. Truth be told, Dyer’s travel writing can seem a bit like this at times. But of course while James Bond saves the planet again and again – reminding the rest of the world that, while the Empire might be over, and England has surely seen her best days, the world still needs her (which suggests in turn that James Bond is a kind of Frodo Baggins with a tuxedo and a Beretta) – Dyer, by contrast, in his rakish mode, just seems to limp around and hang out and say funny, foolish things and get girls anyway. But the Dyer/Bond parallel is there. Don’t get me wrong. I like Geoff Dyer, and I even like the rakish mode of Dyer. I like it even though it creates arguments every time my girlfriend and I take turns reading Dyer passages back and forth in the bathtub. But it’s also this Dyer mode that is susceptible to repetition. I’m not going to list examples here (and I guess I’m not surprised that Wood didn’t note them), because that’s not what this essay is trying to do, but suffice it to say that Dyer’s guilt over having hiked back across terrain his work had already mapped enabled him to recognize when Delillo was doing the same thing. One can imagine Dyer’s stream of thought: Ah-ha, Delillo, I see you! I see what you’re doing. I do it myself from time to time, though maybe I don’t recognize it until later, and even though I can acknowledge that there might be good reasons why a writer would repeat himself, I’m not, in a spirit of writerly camaraderie, going to let it pass this time. No! Instead, I will make a big fucking deal about it in the New York Times because that’s what James Fucking Wood just did to me.

Perhaps now is a good time to mention that I think the literary world is vastly richer for Geoff Dyer’s voice and presence in it.

3.
All of which adds up to a kind of contradictory set of truths about books and publishing in the abstract: don’t repeat yourself, and don’t write books that are too different from one another. Other writers will pillory you for the first, and publishers will be more than happy to pigeonhole you from the moment you achieve anything like success. Blow out your advance? Great. Now write the same exact book again.

Thinking about books and publishing in the abstract was exactly what I was doing around about 1999, when I was a decade out from my degree at Iowa, had a dozen short stories but no collection published, and the pages of a failed novel sat scattered all over my crappy apartment as though to collect the droppings of a huge collection of homing pigeons that never came home. I was working then as a part-time casino dealer in Atlantic City, and though I’d once turned up my nose at nonfiction, I was now at least trying to turn up my nose at a career as a casino dealer in Atlantic City. After a not inconsiderable effort I had managed to sell an idea for a book of nonfiction. I say I’d been thinking in the abstract because it wasn’t really until I’d signed the contract – nonfiction tending to sell by way of book proposal (the writer is a kind of sub-contractor, perhaps like a plumber who shows up only occasionally and always late once he’s so underbid his competitors that he’s barely making enough to feed himself, let alone be on time) – not until then did it really occur to me that I’d actually have to write a book of nonfiction. This realization manifested itself physiologically as panic, a sudden peculiar sensation all across the body: it felt, instantaneously, as though every piece of myself was being worked on by some occult vibration, that every part of me had begun to jiggle with manic energy, and every cell, every nucleus, every mitochondria, seemed on the brink of imploding like a cathode-ray tube or a dwarf star going supernova. In other words, I fucking freaked out.

In a way, it was good that I lived in Atlantic City at this time. I’d had a number of writer friends, of course, from previous stints in graduate school, but after I went to Atlantic City these relationships had tended to fade, as is perhaps only natural. I say this is good because it meant that I had only one writer friend I could call and fucking freak out to. And I did. This friend had written several books by then, and what I did – working on the theory that previous experience writing books gives one insight as to how the process can and should be embarked upon – was call him and ask, well, so, how do you write a book? My friend didn’t know. My friend had no idea how to write a book. It turned out that he had managed to write several books without ever either acquiring the first thing one should know or formulating any general principle about writing books. Our conversation quickly became a discussion of how on earth he was going to figure out how to write his next book. When I hung up, I was left alone with my book contract and my panic in my empty roost in Atlantic City.

4.
So here’s what I did: I invented the idea of the book.

The book was to be about chess – the game, chess. In Atlantic City, I’d gotten to know an African American chess master named Glenn Umstead, a kind of quirky guy with a difficult personality who was nevertheless one of just forty black men in the history of the world to have achieved chess’s master ranking. That’s sounds pretty straightforward, but saying you’re going to write a buddy story/subculture book – which is pretty much what I said in my book proposal – is a whole lot easier than coming up with a way of actually executing it. I’m exaggerating a bit when I say I invented the idea of the book, but that’s how it felt as I was doing it – it felt as though I was inventing literature wholesale. And that moment when I acquired my essential strategy was recorded in the book itself:

…I wanted to write something about the game. But I still didn’t know what it was.

My relationship with Glenn began to change. Now that I was a lay historian, our bond became a version of the classic conflict between player of the game and student of the game… We were an even odder couple now. He was black and I was white, and we were like chessmen opposed on a board that was the game itself.

From there, the book came not easily but possibly – it was possible now. What I’d learned was that the way to write a book was to let the subject matter tell you how it ought to be written about.

5.
And it turns out that’s the common denominator of Geoff Dyer’s other mode as a writer: the mode when he stops trying to lay girls and gets down to the hard work of reading, writing, and thinking. A couple examples. Dyer’s book-length fret over D.H. Lawrence, Out of Sheer Rage, emphasizes on a number of occasions that its method is lifted from its subject: “If this book aspires to the condition of notes that is because, for me, Lawrence’s prose is at its best when it comes closest to notes.” And in introducing the partially imagined narratives of But Beautiful: A Book About Jazz, Dyer again lets the subject inspire the form he’ll use to examine it:
These episodes are part of a common repertory of anecdote and information – “standards” in other words, and I do my own versions of them, stating the identifying facts more or less briefly and then improvising around them, departing from them completely in some cases. This may mean being less than faithful to the truth but, once again, it keeps faith with the improvisational prerogatives of the form.
There are many examples of this outside of Dyer. One is Andrei Codrescu’s recent The Post Human Dada Guide, which executes a Dadaist encyclopedia of Dada. Another is Jay Kirk’s soon to be released Kingdom Under Glass, which reassambles the facts of the biography of taxidermist Carl Akeley so as to create an Akeley-inspired diorama of his life. But what’s already apparent is that this divining of one’s method from one’s subject is not only a way to make a book seem possible as you approach it, it’s also a way to avoid repetition, to bring to every work the excitement of invention while retaining some essential version of the self: the common denominator of one’s books being not their subject matter, but their organizing intellect, their animating spirit – their author, after all.

6.
Not long after my book about chess appeared and chalked up a handful of prominent, promising reviews, my editor asked me to come to New York. She bought me lunch, chatted me up. We talked about the future. She wanted me to write another book about chess. “Maybe a chess mystery,” she said, jiggling her shoulders in what was either a fair imitation of a stripper twirling her pasties or a hopeful anticipation of the reaction readers might have to the book she proposed. I actually considered this offer for a moment. There is a true story about a famous chess player being called in to assist with a serial killer investigation. But that moment didn’t last long. I realized almost at once that I would simply be repeating myself.

And the truth is, I don’t want to be a writer like that: a writer so imprisoned by their subject matter – chess writer, food writer, religion writer, etc. – that if they ever depart from it, if their publishers ever let them depart from it, you can be pretty sure that their departures will have only that level of appeal, the appeal of something attempting, straining, struggling and probably failing to branch out. I don’t think that’s the ideal literary life. And yet, to reiterate, this is something writers are more or less forever doing – repeating themselves, writing figurative if not literal sequels, trying to please again and again the same readers they pleased once – and other writers who are guilty of the same thing admonish them for it, again and again.

7.
So I have tried to be a little different. I went on to write a Jamesian biography of William James, and I cringed anew when my (new) editor told me that he wished the book had been a bit more like my first. Whatever, dude. From there, I set out to write a history of utopian thought and literature that would stylistically emulate Thomas More’s original Utopia, which blended a kind of analytical discourse with what scholars called “speaking pictures” – narrative.

There were two basic problems with this. First, I had already written about utopian concepts. I had grown up on a street called Utopia Road in a master-planned community, “Utopia Road” was the title of both my MFA thesis and one of my early short stories, and, to be fully honest, there was palpable utopian fascination in both my chess and James books. In other words, I was repeating myself. No, no – worse than that! I was repeating the shit out of myself! The second problem was that Thomas More had been repeating, too. He was repeating Lucian and Plato and Erasmus and Machiavelli. And soon enough, others were repeating More, repeating Utopia. In fact, others repeated Utopia so often that it became its own genre of literature – a genre so powerful that “utopia” not only became a word, it completed the demigod leap from noun to adjective. You’ll probably better appreciate Thomas More’s Utopia if I tell you not that it’s the most influential novel in the history of mankind, but that it’s the only book whose author is known that has its own index entry in the Chicago Manual of Style. It’s pretty damn impressive – and it’s all a function of repetition. Sort of.

And there’s another problem too – a third problem – because thinking about these two modes of Utopia, discourse and narrative, makes it pretty clear that I’ve been unfair to Geoff Dyer, that his two modes, critic and rake, basically fall under this same description. Indeed, it seems to me now that Dyer’s entire career can be understood as a Utopia-like toggling back and forth – sometimes within a single book, sometimes from book to book – between narrative and analytic modes, and this is what James Wood couldn’t see, couldn’t appreciate, and which I came to appreciate only as a function of the panic that set in when I had to stop thinking about books in the abstract and actually write one.

8.
In 1936, James Agee, two years out from a book of poems and “on loan from the Federal Government,” was assigned to write a series of documentary articles about Alabama tenant farmers for Fortune magazine. One can be pretty sure that Agee’s editor had some ideas about what he wanted to print – his readers had certain expectations based on what they’d read in the magazine before, and Agee’s assignment was to repeat that formula. That’s not what he did. Instead, he produced hundreds of pages of wildly poetic, passionate description of a few families from which he had strived to maintain no objective distance at all. The series of articles was promptly canceled; Let Us Now Praise Famous Men was not published until 1941; sales remained dismal until the book was rediscovered in 1960.

What’s relevant about Let Us Now Praise Famous Men for us, in this essay, is that right in the middle of it Agee pauses in his narrative and delivers a lengthy discussion of what he’s trying to do. It is the bit of analytical discourse to which he has toggled from his narrative descriptions of tenant farmer life. As a kind of set piece, this section of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, written long before Truman Capote and John McPhee and Geoff Dyer, serves as almost a post-facto manifesto of “creative nonfiction.” This manifesto insists on a stark distinction between creative prose and journalism, and in discussing an attempt to describe a hypothetical street it distinguishes Agee’s methodology from “naturalism:”
As nearly as possible in words (which, even by grace of genius, would not be very near) you try to give the street in its own terms: that is to say, either in the terms in which you…see it, or in a reduction and depersonalization into terms which will as nearly as possible be the “private,” singular terms of that asphalt, those neon letters, those and all other items combined, in that alternation, that simultaneity, of flat blank tremendously constructed chords and of immensely elaborate counterpoint which is the street itself.
I take Agee to mean that subjects ought to reveal themselves to you, that the writer’s job, the writer’s craft, is to be attentive to that which shall be rendered. A street will reveal to you the terms, the vocabulary, with which it ought to described just as surely as an abstract concept like William James or taxidermy or chess will proffer its proper strategy after some lengthy period of measured, painful, and above all, literary, meditation. Agee goes on to argue that words necessarily fail, and in so doing he echoes – or rather, anticipates – Dyer’s hope for what a creative use of language and form can bring to a consideration of jazz:
Words cannot embody; they can only describe. But a certain kind of artist, whom we will distinguish from others as a poet rather than a prose writer, despises this fact about words or his medium, and continually brings words as near as he can to an illusion of embodiment. In doing so he accepts a falsehood but makes, of a sort in any case, better art.
9.
Ostensibly, this is an essay about the craft of creative nonfiction. But I think what I’m ultimately trying to say is that it’s dangerous to say too much too definitively about craft in the abstract. If you feel absolutely overwhelmed by a project – that’s good. If you have absolutely no idea how or where to begin – that’s good too. No matter where one is in one’s career, a writer, it seems to me, ought to feel more or less completely at sea as they begin to approach the question or the subject they hope to address. There are two kinds of repetition. There is the kind we find inside our work, the themes that burble up lava-like from our subconscious again and again, and which we cannot resist and should not, I think, criticize in others. And then there is the repetition that ought to be resisted, that which gives us a program, a strategy that can be applied to any subject. This we should criticize in others. Art should never be the result of habit, it should strive eternally for the fresh and the new even when we work in forms we did not invent. Craft, we should vigilantly remind ourselves, means to make something absolutely new where before there was nothing at all.

The Millions Top Ten: June 2010

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.
1.

Reality Hunger
5 months

2.
5.

Stoner
6 months

3.
8.

Tinkers
2 months

4.
6.

The Big Short
4 months

5. (tie)


The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet
1 month

5. (tie)


The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest
1 month

7.
10.

Wolf Hall
6 months

8.
9.

War and Peace
3 months

9.


The Girl Who Played With Fire
1 month

10.


Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling With D.H. Lawrence
1 month

With four books — The Death of Ivan Ilych and Other Stories, The Mystery Guest, Let the Great World Spin, and The Interrogative Mood? — graduating to our Hall of Fame, we have plenty of room for newcomers on our latest list. The late Stieg Larsson, whose The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is already in our Hall of Fame, has the rest of his trilogy make the list, The Girl Who Played With Fire and the recently released The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest.

Meanwhile, David Mitchell’s new novel, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, which was released only a few days ago, debuts tied at number five, and Geoff Dyer’s 1998 bio of D.H. Lawrence, Out of Sheer Rage, which was recently championed by David Shields in these pages, debuts in the last spot on the list.

And it’s Shields’ controversial Reality Hunger that’s still holding on to our top spot.

Near Misses: Twilight of the Superheroes, Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace, The Known World, Then We Came to the End, The Imperfectionists

See Also: Last month’s list

The Millions Interview: Tom McAllister

At the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where he studied fiction, Tom McAllister became known as “the ultimate Philly guy.”  No  wonder, considering he grew up in a row house, attended La Salle University, teaches at Temple, and even worked in a cheesesteak shop.  But a person cannot be so reduced, as McAllister explores in his new memoir Bury Me in My Jersey.  His book is a look at how his relationship with two of the major forces in his life — his father and the Philadelphia Eagles — have shaped him as a man and as a writer.  As Justin Cronin says, “Within these unflinchingly honest pages lies a profound and personal meditation on manhood itself—on fathers and sons, on the inheritance of place, on the customs of a tribe and finding one’s place within it.”  A moving and very funny memoir, Bury Me in My Jersey transcends mere sports writing to form a portrait of an individual through the prism of the team and city he loves.

The Millions: I’m curious about the structure of this book.  It opens with the Eagles in the Super Bowl and you in your friend’s basement, watching the game.  From there, we move forward and backward in time before eventually arriving back in that basement.  Was this always how the book opened?  How did you decide that the Super Bowl had to be the opening?

Tom McAllister: I had originally considered starting with the eventual second chapter, which had been published as an essay in Black Warrior Review.  I still think that’s probably the best written chapter in the book, and one that presents a good overview of all the issues in the book: the football obsession, the message boards, my dad’s death, my relationship with my wife, and so on.  Pretty much the only major theme it doesn’t cover is the stuff about growing up in Philly.

I decided to start with Super Bowl XXXIX, though, for two reasons.  First, it was very pivotal time for me, both personally and as a fan: the Eagles, obviously, were at their peak, but I was at one of my lowest points, as I was drowning in grad school, trying to maintain a long-distance relationship, and still struggling with my dad’s death, among other things.  In hindsight, I realized how much I’d pinned my hopes on the Eagles, as if a Super Bowl win would somehow save me, which, of course, is short-sighted, but which is a pretty common trope in sports (think of all the stories about how the Saints Super Bowl last year made post-Katrina New Orleans all better).  Second reason: once I started writing that scene, I came up with the eventual first line (“This book, like so many other stories in this city, begins and ends in the same place.”) and right away, I knew that line was exactly how I wanted to open the book.  It hit the exact voice and tone I wanted to establish.

Okay, one more reason: I was very focused on organization in this book, and was determined to avoid a chronological retelling of my life as a fan.  That seemed a) boring, and b) not conducive to good storytelling, because I didn’t want to have to go season-by-season.  That would have killed any narrative drive I tried to establish.

TM: Considering that this is a deeply personal story and one that couldn’t have been easy to tell, were you ever tempted to make it a work of fiction, to try to process your relationship with your father through the veil of a story or novel?

McAllister: I was most tempted to make it fictional when the real-life details were inconvenient to the narrative.  There’s a chapter that’s focused entirely on a winter night I spent camping outside Veterans Stadium for Eagles tickets, along with 5000 other drunk Philadelphians.   People were wild, starting fights, breaking into the bowels of the stadium, setting everything on fire to stay warm, and even then my friends and I were sure we were on the verge of a riot.  And if the book were a novel, it absolutely would have escalated to bloodshed.  But what happened in real life is that everyone inexplicably stopped being crazy and in the morning stood in a single file line to quietly buy their tickets and go home.  So I had to write a sad disclaimer within the chapter saying, essentially, “I know this is disappointing, but that’s what happened.”

When it came to the personal stuff, that wasn’t as big an issue for me.  Initially, I had to clear the hurdle of revealing myself, but I really enjoyed the level of self-analysis required by this project.  If I’d gone with some sort of thinly veiled autobiographical fiction, I think I would have been too tempted to go easy on myself, to be less revealing and less emotionally honest.  I can see how the fictional approach would be important for some writers, but for me, the only way I felt like I could do this story justice was to just lay all the facts on the line and let them speak for themselves.

TM: I’ve written about my own internet message board obsession here before, and an Eagles message board plays a pretty significant role in this book (it’s the first memoir I’ve read in which a message board is a prominent setting).  How do you think the internet has changed sports fandom?  What has it offered you as a fan that you can’t get from your friends – many of whom are also Eagles fans?

McAllister: As I see it, Internet sports coverage makes us more cynical.  The relentlessness of the news cycle means there’s a constant pressure to expose us to every bit of corruption and stupidity in sports, the kinds of things that may have been overlooked in the past are now front page news (i.e.- a philandering athlete now somehow necessitates the use of live helicopter footage of his home, whereas it was just kind of okay for guys like DiMaggio and Mantle).  Every time someone accomplishes something remarkable, there’s suspicion of performance enhancing drugs.  It’s harder to be a fan who just watches the game and loves what they’re seeing, because when you look out on the field, you see a quarterback with two DUIs, a halfback who cheated his way through college, a tight end with seven children in six different states, an offensive lineman who’s been accused of steroid use, etc.

Not that it’s bad to expose corruption.  It’s just very different.

TM: There are a couple of moments in the book when you have a chance to meet one of the Eagles in person.  You chase [Eagles defensive back] Sheldon Brown on the freeway and run into [Eagles tackle] Tra Thomas at a Whole Foods.  But you don’t actually talk to either of them.  Do you think in the pre-internet era you might have acted differently?

McAllister: I think I may have been even more reluctant to approach them, pre-internet.  There was a greater distance between player and fan then, and it was harder to view these guys as regular people.  But now you have access to all the information you could possibly want– including athletes’ Twitter and Facebook pages– so it’s not entirely unreasonable to convince yourself that you’re already friends with each other, in a way.

By the time I saw Tra at Whole Foods, I knew pretty much everything one could reasonably know about him: hometown, college, the size of his family, marital status, health status, religious views, and so on.  So it became easier to fall into the delusion that maybe, if I just followed along, he might want to talk to me or be my friend or something.

Same deal with Sheldon– he was my favorite player for years, so I knew even more about him than I did about Tra.  I doubt I would have been able to “know” him so well if not for all the online access.  The Internet, in this case, served to deepen my obsession and to fuel my desire to meet these guys.

The only thing that held me back from actually speaking to them was my own social awkwardness, which is sometimes powerful enough to keep me from even saying hello to my neighbors when they’re waving to me from across the street.

TM: So has the web improved sports at all or just created this veneer of companionship?

McAllister: There is a positive angle to sports coverage on the internet, because one of the big promises of the web is that you can always find a community of like-minded people.  No matter what crazy thing you’re interested in, you can find someone out there who is just as interested, and who can help you to deepen your appreciation.  You can know that there’s someone else out there who cares about the things you do, and who feels the same way you do when your team blows a big game.  There’s an enormous comfort in that kind of knowledge.  For as lonely as it can be to be reading a message board at 2 AM, at least you’ve still got an outlet to talk to someone.  At least you know you’re not completely alone.

TM: You say that at Iowa you felt that writing didn’t offer the catharsis you hoped it would.  Do you feel any differently now that you’ve written this book and it’s out there in the world?

McAllister: Surprisingly, yes.  Not so much re: my dad’s death.  I think it was just time that softened the blow on that one—we’re 7 years removed from his death now, and after a while, wounds will heal themselves, even if they do leave a scar.

But the act of writing this book has been tremendously cathartic as far as my fandom goes.  I used to do everything I could to fit the obnoxious Philly fan stereotype.  I was proud of myself for hurling beer at opposing fans and generally having no regard for human decency on gameday.  I thought everyone else was crazy for not flying into a rage when the team lost, and I had no qualms about breaking bottles, punching holes in walls, sulking for weeks after a playoff loss.  But writing about it all from a distance, forcing myself to confront the reality of my behavior, I felt like I was getting that all out of my system.  I like to think I’m a rational, reasonably intelligent person, and there’s no way I could continue to think of myself like that if I wrote this book and then immediately went back to acting like a lunatic on Sundays.

I finished working on it in early summer 2008, a few months before the start of football season.  I didn’t watch any preseason games or read any articles online; I detached myself almost completely, as if going into detox.  It got to the point that my wife asked what was wrong with me, and I had to explain that I was just trying to distance myself a bit.

For the record, I still watch every game and still read about the team just about every day, but I do feel like I’ve found a happy medium.  It’s been a long time, for example, since I woke up on Monday morning with a football hangover, still dwelling on yesterday’s loss.

TM: You talk about the inherent bias against sports in the book, and it seems to me that football is especially victimized in this regard.  It’s always been acceptable to be a baseball fan, and recently, more and more intellectuals seem comfortable with basketball, but football remains the sport of cretins in the minds of many so-called intellectuals.  How do you view the book – as a writer and as a fan – in light of what you know will be a bias?  Do you even consider this book to be a work of sports writing?

McAllister: Sometimes when people ask me for a synopsis, I see them losing interest as soon as I say the word “football.”  They say, “I’m not really into football.  But my brother is!” as if that’s somehow a consolation for me.  One thing I try to do is emphasize that while football is the driving force in the book, the real heart of the memoir is about relationships and maturation.  Often, they don’t believe me, and they patronize me for a bit before moving on.

Despite its amazingly complex play designs and intricate strategies, football bears the stigma of being a sport for dumb brutes to run into each other arbitrarily.  Of course, football does little to combat this notion: when a player expresses outside interests, he’s mocked and his priorities are questioned.  Myron Rolle probably lost out on about $5 million because he was a Rhodes Scholar, and NFL coaches didn’t trust someone who seemed a little too smart.

So with this stigma in mind, I’ve tried to be very clear with the publisher that I don’t want this memoir marketed as “just a sports book.”  I worried that it would be relegated to the ghetto of the sports section in the bookstore, which many serious readers avoid assiduously. There’s a perception that sports writing equals bad writing.   It’s not a totally unfair perception either; things sure have changed in the world of popular sports writing since the days of Hemingway and Steinbeck writing for Sports Illustrated.

Do I consider this book sports writing? On one hand, sure of course it is sports writing.  On the other, it seems different from the most popular sports books on the market, which are almost entirely focused on reporting stats and facts, with little room for introspection.

If pushed to categorize this book, maybe I would go with literary sportswriting? Is that a category? Maybe it should be.

TM: Agreed, it should be.  I actually think it’s a great contribution to what might be called the literature of the fan (as distinct from the whiskey-infused, good-old-boy sports writing that professionals do).  I’m thinking here of Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch, Frederick Exley’s A Fan’s Notes (to which you refer in the book), and even some of Bill Simmons’ early work, before he went all Hollywood.  It’s a book about the way we actual live with sports, about what it does to us and how it shapes us as people.  Where should they shelve that?

McAllister: Where would they put it or where should they put it? Sometimes shelving decisions are mystifying to me.  I went to a local Barnes & Noble on my release date to see what my book looked like on an actual shelf, and I found it in the Pennsylvania section (which I didn’t know existed) filed next to something about the history of rivers in PA.  About 15 feet away, there was a big display table with a sign that said “Vampire Books!”

Anyway, I think the place to put something like that would be, ideally, between the Fiction/Literature section and the Non-fiction section, as kind of a bridge.  Actually, I wouldn’t mind an overall revision of the way we categorize fiction and non-fiction anyway.  Not to horn in on David Shields’ territory, but it seems to me that they’re much more similar than we often like to admit.  Maybe I’m thinking like this because I recently read Geoff Dyer’s amazing Out of Sheer Rage, which has no regard at all for traditional distinctions of fiction vs. non-fiction.  But that’s all a bit ambitious, perhaps.

TM: I can’t let you go without getting your take on the Donovan McNabb situation (I realize I’m now pinning you into that role of “go-to guy for Philly sports takes” that you found yourself playing in Iowa).  In the book, you argue that much of the criticism of McNabb is tinged with racism – that he’s too “uppity,” etc.  At this point, do you think he’s done?  Too banged up to win?  Did the Eagles make the right choice going with Kevin Kolb as their quarterback?  (Full disclosure:  I’m both a Redskins fan and a Syracuse football fan, from back when they still played D1 football and McNabb was their star quarterback.)

McAllister: I thought it was time for a change in Philly.  I was ready for the change about halfway through the ’08 season, but then they went on a totally unexpected hot streak to get to the conference championship.  When they blew it again, it should have been clear the old core wasn’t good enough to win a championship.  So last year was just more of the same, and they finally had to make a move.  I don’t know if Kolb is the right replacement, or if the trade will work out in the long run, but I do think the concept of moving McNabb made sense, because it was time to close the book on that era.  He’s not as good as he was– too inconsistent, too streaky– but still a solid NFL quarterback; definitely an upgrade for the Redskins, but not someone I think is capable of winning a championship at this point.

But I don’t hate McNabb like some in Philly do– a local sports anchor went to a Philly bar after the trade for people’s reactions, and about ninety percent of the people he spoke to were giddy about the Eagles having just traded one of the best players in franchise history.  The next morning, a sports talk radio show counted down the top 10 reasons they hated McNabb as a person.  He never seemed as funny as some people said he was, and I probably wouldn’t have gone out of my way to meet him for happy hour, but I never got why so many people here truly despised him.  If he weren’t a Redskin I would wish him well.  But since he is a Redskin, I hope he never wins again, and I get to see hundreds of shots of [Redskins owner] Dan Snyder clenching his tiny fists in impotent rage.

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