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.
The Practicing Stoic: A Philosophical User’s Manual
Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead
The New Me
The Nickel Boys
The Golden State
The Memory Police
Major shakeups this month with fully half of the Top Ten being populated by newcomers. Led by Olga Tokarczuk, whose novel Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead has skyrocketed up to second position on our list, the pack also includes J. Robert Lennon’s Pieces for the Left Hand, Téa Obreht’s Inland, Helen Phillips’s The Need, and Yoko Ogawa’s The Memory Police. Welcome, all. For the record, four of these five were listed in our Great Second-Half 2019 Book Preview.
Tokarczuk’s ascent up our list makes sense, as “mystical detective novel[s]” are usually sure to excite, but as Gabe Habash explained in his review for our site:
… with Tokarczuk behind the murder mystery, the whodunit is a sort of Trojan horse, a container for her to explore, with characteristic complexity and rigor, a whole host of deeper concerns, including animal rights, morality, fate, and how one life fits into the world around it. For her, simply finding out the identity of the murderer would be boring.
Meanwhile, something interesting is happening with Pieces for the Left Hand and The Need: the author of the latter reviewed the former’s work for our site last month. In her piece, Helen Phillips dubbed J. Robert Lennon’s Pieces for the Left Hand “the best book you’ve never read,” but obviously that statement’s not so true anymore. The strength of that review shot both works into this month’s Top Ten.
Two of this month’s new titles filled spaces vacated by The Shell Game: Writers Play with Borrowed Forms and Educated, both of which graduated to our Hall of Fame. The other three newcomers replaced Slave Old Man, Becoming, and Conversations with Friends, each of which dropped out of the running.
If Facebook is making us sad, as a recently published study suggests, by seeming to crop from the picture all things unpleasant, presenting modern life as a sort of celebrity marriage, smiley, brittle and always going somewhere eager with cameras, then the call for meaningful fiction is to restore to the reader some sense of life as it could be, once was and would be again, but for the feeling to make it so. Good fiction colors our understanding of modernity, the train roaring obliviously forward. It sparks in negative space, what gets left behind.
Carol Ann Page, one of six protagonists populating Kevin Brockmeier’s third novel The Illumination, nearly severs her thumb while cutting open a package from her ex-husband, its tip separating “like the hinged cap of a lighter.” Awaiting surgery, she finds that her wound has begun to glow – and not hers alone. Across the globe, individual pain has begun to emit light, a phenomenon newscasters label “The Illumination.” Carol Ann’s job is to create newsletters, assembling for her market-minded employer a listing of headlines that could sway the Dow’s money-flooded wavering. This world where pain shines out, making quaint any social network’s gloss, is the headline of moment for Brockmeier, one he unreels from thin air. Wonders disaster magnet Ryan Shifrin, a missionary, featured in the novel’s fourth section: “Was it discourteous to admit that you could see a person’s sickness playing out on the surface of his body?”
The Illumination is philosophically rich. Absent, though, are sequences of sweeping wonder, commuters leaving open car doors dinging, the arthritic mother’s curled hand turned blindingly bright, a daughter crying at her feet. The Hollywood, that is. Instead, the great majority of people ticker by like notations on a reel, an effect Brockmeier duly cultivates. The novel’s final protagonist, Morse Putnam Strawbridge, a vagabond bookseller for whom the streets are home, observes passersby:
On the corner, beneath the black canopy of a newsstand, he saw an abscessed tooth blazing like a newborn star. The stacked blocks of a degenerative disk disorder came leaning out a taxi. Behind the window of the drugstore were a pair of inflamed sinuses, by the counter a shimmering configuration of herpes blisters, on the bench a lambent haze of pneumonia.
There is a lot of this sort of thing, visible maladies without people behind them. No Irvine Welsh, no Jeanette Winterson, no Bob Dylan – nothing nearing visceral incoherence here.
An adept of sci-fi, a maestro of metaphor – The Illumination teems with it – Brockmeier is much more the miniaturist, excelling at the otherworldly, while taking intense interest in arcana, whether of character, practice or feeling. The novel’s uniting thread is a journal passed intentionally, and otherwise, from one character to the next. Within its pages, in a deceased woman’s handwriting, is a collation of her husband’s “I love you” notes, one of which he wrote for every day of their marriage. (J. Robert Lennon has an unnervingly funny spin on this kind of passion in flash fiction piece “Flowers” from the collection Pieces for the Left Hand.)
It is exactly the Babel-like vertigo of such a project, a love note for every day – every day – of a marriage, that Brockmeier makes the centerpiece of his novel, and an ample one at that. For the chances that it will lose its original meaning, just like those maladies strolling by in the streets, are legion. Carol Ann, having been gifted the journal at the hospital immediately prior to its subject’s passing, wills a relationship to the words on the page from her empty house: “I love to wake up in the middle of the night and listen to you sleeping (Carol Ann, she added): the funny noises you make when you dream, the tiny pop of your lips separating.” “You’re too sweet,” Carol Ann says back to the journal, “Stop it.”
Conceptually resonant, The Illumination opens up a flood of dramatic possibility it never quite harnesses. Would standards of beauty change, the photogenic and suffering claiming coverage over the callow and posturing? Is it possible the healthy might begin to envy the ill’s glow – or, conversely, find stigmatizing them to be simpler? (One section, among the novel’s best, does track attention-starved teens carving up their bodies for effect.) Would the elderly, in their abundance of light, attract greater reverence? Would boxing become as popular as football, a veritable fireworks display, competitors honing in on their opponents’ most brilliant spots, blinded in the approach to triumph? How would boardroom deal-making differ if the entire room could see Ken Lay’s stomach flip when professing that the fundamentals of his company were sound? What about the divide between bodily and psychological pain?
What we get instead, among the lonely assortment, is Nina Poggione, a novelist with a mysterious illness, sores blossoming on her mouth one after the other, the worst kind of light show. At a book signing, she receives a t-shirt that reads ‘FICTIONAL CHARACTER.’ Engraving signature after signature on the page she marvels at its form, the limit of her agonized apprehension: “It was like the pattern she had once watched a moth draw with its wings in the condensation on her bathroom mirror.”
The publishing industry (and every other industry) may be going down the tubes, but readers won’t be wanting for good new books this year, I suspect. Readers will get their hands on new Pynchon, Atwood, Lethem, and Zadie Smith – those names alone would make for a banner year, but there’s much more. Below you’ll find, in chronological order, the titles we’re most looking forward to this year. (Garth penned a few of these little previews, where noted. And special thanks to members of The Millions Facebook group who let us know what they are looking forward to. Not everyone’s suggestions made our list but we appreciated hearing about all of them.)In February, T.C. Boyle returns again to his unique brand of historical fiction with The Women. The four women in question all loved famous architect (and eccentric) Frank Lloyd Wright. Given the time period and subject matter, this one may resemble Boyle’s earlier novel The Road to Wellville. PW says “It’s a lush, dense and hyperliterate book – in words, vintage Boyle.”Yiyun Li wowed quite a few readers with a pair of standout stories in the New Yorker last year, and all her fans now have her debut novel The Vagrants to look forward to. PW gave this one a starred review and called it “magnificent and jaw-droppingly grim.” Quite a combo. All signs point to Li being a writer to watch in 2009 and beyond.Out of My Skin by John Haskell: I like John Haskell’s writing a lot, and I like books about L.A., and so I think I’ll like John Haskell writing a novel about L.A. (Garth)Home Schooling by Carol Windley: This book of short stories set in the Pacific Northwest is certain to garner comparisons to that other Canadian, Alice Munro. (Garth)March brings Jonathan Littell’s very long-awaited novel The Kindly Ones. American readers have waited for an English translation since 2006, when the book was originally published in French. The German reviews for this Prix Goncourt winner were decidedly mixed, but I’m still intrigued to read this novel about an S.S. Officer. Literature, pulp, or kitsch? We’ll know soon enough. (Garth)Walter Mosley, best known for his Easy Rawlins mysteries, offers up The Long Fall, the first in a new series, the Leonid McGill mysteries. The new book is notable in the change of venue from Los Angeles, Mosley’s heretofore preferred fictional setting, to New York City. PW says Mosley “stirs the pot and concocts a perfect milieu for an engaging new hero and an entertaining new series.”In Castle by J. Robert Lennon, “A man buys a large plot of wooded land in upstate New York, only to find that someone has built a castle in the middle of it–and the castle is inhabited.” Intriguing, no? (That description is from Lennon’s website.) In related news, Lennon’s collection of stories Pieces for the Left Hand will be published also in March. It’ll be the book’s first U.S. edition.Mary Gaitskill’s 2005 novel Veronica was a National Book Award finalist. Now she’s back with Don’t Cry. The title story in this collection appeared in the New Yorker last year.I’ve already devoured Wells Tower’s debut collection Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned. Tower’s eclectic style is on full display here. Some of these stories are masterful iterations in the New Yorker style, while others experiment with voice and style. The collection closes with the title story, his most well known, an ingenious tale of vikings gone plundering. Normally a debut collection wouldn’t merit much buzz, but readers have had their eye on Tower for years because of his impressive long-form journalism in Harper’s and elsewhere. (Tower also appeared in our Year in Reading this year.)Zoe Heller had a huge hit with What Was She Thinking in 2003. Her follow-up effort, The Believers arrives in March. PW gives it a starred review and says it “puts to pointed use her acute observations of human nature in her third novel, a satire of 1960s idealism soured in the early 21st century.” The book came out in the UK last year, so you can learn plenty more about this one if you are so inclined. Here’s the Guardian’s review for starters.April brings Colson Whitehead’s novel Sag Harbor, which jumped a few notches on many readers’ wish lists following the publication of an excerpt (registration required) in the New Yorker’s Winter Fiction issue. Based on that excerpt (and the publisher’s catalog copy), we are in store for a coming of age story about Benji, a relatively well-off African-American kid growing up in New York (and summering on Long Island) in the 1980s.Colm Toibin has a new novel coming in May called Brooklyn. This one looks to be a novel of immigration. From the catalog copy: “In a small town in the south-east of Ireland in the 1950s, Eilis Lacey is one among many of her generation who cannot find work at home. So when a job is offered in America, it is clear that she must go.”I’ve been following Clancy Martin’s How to Sell as it’s appeared in excerpts in NOON and McSweeney’s. The writing is terrific, funny, and disturbing: ripe for a Coen Brothers adaptation. (Garth)Summer reading season gets going in June with Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin, which his publisher is calling “his most ambitious work to date.” This one sounds like it will look in on the lives of several disparate characters in New York city in the mid-1970s. Audio of McCann reading from the book is available at CUNY Radio.Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie won tons of praise for Half of a Yellow Sun. Now she’s back with a collection of stories, The Thing Around Your Neck, likely including “The Headstrong Historian,” which appeared in the New Yorker last year.Monica Ali is back with her third novel, In the Kitchen. This one is based in London and apparently involves a murder at a hotel.July: William T. Vollmann is known for his superhuman writing output, but his forthcoming book Imperial is a monster, even for him. Weighing in at 1,296 pages and carrying a list price of $55, this work of non-fiction is “an epic study,” in the words of the publisher, of Imperial County, California. Ed offers quite a bit more discussion of the book. Don’t miss the comments, where it’s said that Vollmann has called the book “his Moby-Dick.”August: When the deliberate and reclusive Thomas Pynchon puts out a new book it’s a publishing event, and with Pynchon set to deliver a new book just three years after his last one, well, that’s like Christmas in July, er, August. This one is called Inherent Vice and its cover is already causing much speculation (and some consternation) among the Pynchon fans. Expect rumors about the book to be rife through the first part of the year. Pynchon’s publisher Penguin, meanwhile, has called it “part noir, part psychedelic romp, all Thomas Pynchon – private eye Doc Sportello comes, occasionally, out of a marijuana haze to watch the end of an era as free love slips away and paranoia creeps in with the L.A. fog.”The Amateur American by Joel Saunders Elmore: I have to mention this novel by my old friend Joel, sections of which I read in manuscript. Surreal yet propulsive, it has one of the sharpest opening lines I’ve ever read… assuming he kept the opening line. (Garth)September: Scarcely a year goes by without Philip Roth sending a new novel our way. Little is known about his forthcoming novel except the title The Humbling. Amazon UK’s listing for the book puts it at just 112 pages which seems like just an afternoon’s work for the prolific Roth. As Garth notes, his last two outings have been underwhelming but with Roth there’s always a chance of greatness.Kazuo Ishiguro’s collection of stories also comes out in the U.S. in September (though it will be out in much of the rest of the English-speaking world in May). The catalog copy calls Nocturnes: Five Stories of Music and Nightfall “a sublime story cycle” that “explores ideas of love, music and the passing of time.”Acclaimed novelist Margaret Atwood will have a new novel out in September called The Year of the Flood. There’s not much info on this except that it is being described as “a journey to the end of the world.”E.L. Doctorow has an as yet untitled novel on tap for September.As does Jonathan Lethem. According to Comic Book Resources, Lethem said his untitled novel is “set on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, it’s strongly influenced by Saul Bellow, Philip K. Dick, Charles Finney and Hitchcock’s Vertigo and it concerns a circle of friends including a faded child-star actor, a cultural critic, a hack ghost-writer of autobiographies, and a city official. And it’s long and strange.” I like the sound of that.A Gate at the Stairs, Lorrie Moore’s first new novel in over a decade will arrive in September. The Bookseller sums up some of the excitement.October: You probably already know that Dave Eggers is working with Spike Jonze on a film version of Where the Wild Things Are, but did you know that Eggers is doing a novelization of the childrens classic too? It’s apparently called The Wild Things and will show up in October.Arriving at some point in late 2009 is Zadie Smith’s Fail Better. With her critical writing in The New York Review, Zadie Smith has quietly been making a bid to become the 21st Century Virginia Woolf. When she writes from her own experience as a novelist, she’s sublime; when projecting her own anxieties onto others, she’s less so. It will be interesting to see which Zadie Smith appears in this book of essays on books and writing. (Garth)We encourage you to share your own most anticipated books in the comments or on your own blogs. Happy Reading in 2009!