Purity: A Novel

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Sexy Backs and Headless Women: A Book Cover Manifesto

1. Before I saw the cover of my second novel, I worried about it. My greatest fear was this: A woman, looking out to sea. Her back is to the reader. Her hair is thrown up in a vague style that if nothing else can be described as “timeless.” Her stance evokes a wistful, feminine longing—for a man, perhaps, or for a dinner she doesn’t have to cook. You know this cover. Hundreds of versions exist. There are covers that display only a woman’s head—from behind—and countless others that show a woman’s body, without the head. Sometimes, a complete woman is shown. My first novel got this treatment. Originally, it got no woman at all, just a beautiful, font-only cover. Then a “step-back” was added, one of those glossy pages that sticks out from behind the actual cover to catch the reader’s eye. The step-back showed a woman—from behind—standing in a field in a lilac-colored dress while looking off into some middle distance, and was presumably meant to assure readers that however muted (i.e. perhaps literary) the cover, the story did indeed include a woman who might, if called upon for marketing purposes, stand out on the prairie, not holding anything, not doing anything, just looking wistfully away. In the years between that first book and the second, these sorts of covers had begun to make my heart seize. Their ubiquity might almost be laughable, if it didn’t reflect and result in serious inequities. Walk into a bookstore and see which authors receive what Eugenia Williamson, in a wonderful essay on “the implied correlation between feminine imagery and literary inferiority,” aptly terms the “Sexy Back” or “Headless Woman.” I’ll save you the work: they’re rarely men. Even when male authors write novels that include women and sex—and let’s face it, how many novels don’t?—their covers are more likely to feature large font, maybe an abstract image, perhaps a landscape. In a survey of covers by South Asian writers, Mary Anne Mohanraj notes that the books by male authors displayed “ancient paintings, people in motion, buildings or cities, large landscape features, such as bridges or mountains, abstract images, the author’s name or title, and the color blue.” Mohanraj’s own collection of stories, Bodies in Motion, was first given a cover showing the open pages of a book, but this was nixed by her marketing teams and replaced by a woman—headless, of course—in a red sari. While her critique addresses the gendering of South Asian literature in particular, the trend is global. Cristina Henríquez's second novel, The Book of Unknown Americans, went through a similar twist: an initial cover by acclaimed designer Chip Kidd that featured a semi-abstract, red-and-blue couple in embrace was rejected in favor of a girl’s head against an aqua backdrop, viewed—yep—from behind. The messaging is clear. These covers are code for “women’s fiction”—i.e. breezy, easy, accessible. For many women authors who don’t happen to write breezy fiction, we feel caught in a double bind, with a cover that demeans the book in the eyes of the literary establishment while also promising readers a kind of book we didn’t necessarily write. When the book doesn’t sell in a huge way—and most don’t—we’re left feeling like we lost on both fronts. 2. The night I finally got an email with the subject line “Cover!” I was out for a drink with a friend. I glanced at the downloading image for only a second before passing my phone like a hot potato to my friend. I felt ready to fight this time, for my second novel—no woman on my cover! I winced, waiting, until my friend said, “Oh!” and showed me. I loved it right away: the bold colors, the big letters, the feeling I had looking at it that I was on the verge of something. And then I saw what I was looking at: a painting of a woman, standing on a rock by the sea. She was not facing away. She was not doing nothing. (She was reading a book.) She was neither headless nor bodiless. But she was a woman. And she was on my cover. I was miffed, because it was what I’d known would happen, and because I loved it. 3. A couple days later, I was looking at the cover again when I noticed something strange on the rocks next to the woman. What were they? I nosed closer. A pair of boots. Someone was lying on the rock—another woman, judging by the boots. So there was not just one woman on the cover of my book but two! And yet, despite myself, I loved it even more, because the boots made the second woman a mystery. They opened up the cover for me. They seemed to be the feet of all the characters I had created, all of them at once, lying on a rock together, listening to this other woman reading their stories to them. 4. A while after that, my editor sent me another email: “Thought you’d like to see this.” She linked to the larger painting from which the cover had been drawn. The boots turned out to be attached to a woman in a black dress, who is looking out—though not at the viewer—with what I can only describe as a delightfully illegible expression. She might be half-asleep. She might be judging the woman reading to her. She might have to pee. She might—my favorite interpretation—be aware of the viewer and proudly ignoring us. “Will it wrap around the book?” I asked. Because I wanted this woman, too. 5. Once I saw the whole painting, called "Summertime Cornwall", I wanted to know about the painter. I looked her up and learned that Laura Knight, a British artist born in 1877, managed to be both wildly popular and a pioneer: in 1936, she was the first woman elected to the Royal Academy; decades later, she was the first woman to whom the Academy gave a large retrospective. Most striking to me was the controversy Knight stirred in 1913 when she made a painting called "Self Portrait with Nude". At the time, women artists were restricted to using casts of the human body, not live models. So when Knight’s painting was shown, depicting herself in her studio painting a sensually positioned model—her back to Knight (and us), her arms lifted to cradle her head, her hip tilted, the pale curve of one breast visible—the art world was shaken. The Royal Academy rejected the painting. The Daily Telegraph called it “vulgar.” Others embraced her challenge to the establishment. She became a sensation. The more I look at Self Portrait with Nude, the less I focus on the model. I notice Knight herself. She is dressed in plain work clothes, another affront to custom, for women painters typically painted themselves as conventional subjects, dressed in finery. I am reminded of Marilynne Robinson talking about how she likes to write on her couch in clothes that “disappear,” how her body drops away and leaves her mind freer. Looking in this light at Knight, in her frumpy jacket and loose skirt, I see that she is asserting her right—at least for a period of time, in her own studio—to not be looked at, but to look. 6. My publisher kept the cover for the paperback version. Laura Knight’s two women are still there, one reading her book, the other looking out with her unknowable gaze. I still love them, though I can’t explain exactly why. And I keep seeing other wonderful book covers with women on them. On the cover of Claire Dederer’s new memoir, Love and Trouble, a young Dederer stares out at us as if to say, What are you staring at? A similarly assertive woman, holding a baby, faces us on Janet Benton’s debut novel, Lilli de Jong. There is even a woman—albeit a very tiny, blurry one, largely overwhelmed by large blue font—on Jonathan Franzen’s last novel, Purity. Maybe the point isn’t banishing the women from the covers. And maybe it’s not even that the women should be more active and less sexualized—though there are still plenty of covers that shamelessly traffic in women’s backs and belittle authors and their work. The bigger problem may be how the women on book covers are received, and not only by top review outlets that routinely cover men’s books in egregious disproportion to those by women—check out the Vida Count if you’re unfamiliar with this issue—but by women ourselves. We’ve internalized the establishment’s dismissal to the point where we can write a book about women, and maybe about children, too, and sex, and then feel pissed off when women and children and sex show up on our covers. What if we were to reclaim them, as Important Subjects? We know that they are. And we know that they are tied up inextricably in the subjects deemed important by the patriarchy: war and death and politics and business. We have written all this into our books, in fact, though perhaps with different emphasis, or in different form. My novel, for one, concerns itself with World War One, Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, Prohibition...and men! Straight men, gay men, men being dicks, men getting their hearts broken. Still, it’s fair to say that the most central characters are women. Why should I be ashamed of that? I’m a woman, too. If a man doesn't want to read my book because there’s a woman on it—and my publisher hasn’t given it what Williamson calls the “man trap” treatment (really, you should read her essay)—so be it. The painter Laura Knight was engaged in a project that sounds, like so many difficult projects do, very simple: asserting that women and our lives are of equal value to men and their lives. It sounds so simple that it’s easy for me to forget sometimes that the very fact of my working is an assertion. Last week I met a woman who had written a book arguing that women should make their children their top priority until the age of three, and blaming a plethora of childhood disorders on less-than-present mothers. Hearing this was enough to drive me home to my kitchen table, where I sit now, writing, and where I’ll stay, writing, until I have to make dinner for my kids. Or, maybe, I’ll stay at this table until the instant I have to pick them up, and not cook at all. Mac and cheese has yet to kill anyone. But work—good work—has the power to keep us fully alive. That’s why I’m wearing worn out clothes, like Laura Knight in her self-portrait. There is always time to be seen. For now, I sit, in my version of a studio. This is what I see. Previously: "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Designing a Book Jacket..."

The Case for Non-IKEA Writing in the Age of Jonathan Franzen

1. It's tough being a novelist of ideas these days. Just ask Scarlett Thomas. Her newest novel, The Seed Collectors, is laugh-out-loud funny for pages at a time. As British reviewers noted, it fits securely into the great tradition of the modern British comic novel represented by P.G. Wodehouse, Evelyn Waugh, Muriel Spark, Iris Murdoch, Kingsley Amis, and Terry Pratchett, and offers considerable further satisfactions. The blurbs are from William Gibson and Neil Gaiman. And yet it looked like the book would not even come out in North America until it was picked up by the venturesome but tiny Soft Skull Press. Far worse British novels have been published in the United States and Canada; far worse British novels have won the Booker Prize. So why did the best novel yet from the most ambitious novelist in the United Kingdom almost fail to get published in North America? The Seed Collectors is the saga of an extended family the members of which are (un)happy in their own ways; Anna Karenina updated by both Amises. That saga starts with the death of Aunt Oleander. Oleander has bequeathed a mysterious seed pod to each of her Gardener grandnephews and nieces -- Clem(atis), an Oscar-nominated documentary filmmaker; Charlie, a botanist at Kew; and Bryony, a part-time real estate broker and graduate student -- and to Fleur Meadows, her longtime factotum at Namaste House, her New Agey retreat. It seems that the seed pods, retrieved from a Pacific island by the vanished middle generation of Gardeners, confer enlightenment -- but also death. Fleur is the only major character to reach enlightenment; she consumes her seed pod and -- shades of The Master and Margarita -- finds herself capable of astral flight, able to see all things at once as if she’s become Jorge Luis Borges’s Aleph. For the rest, sex will have to do. “There is quite a lot of sexing in it” -- a comment on the journal of one of the vanished pod seekers -- applies to the book as a whole. Little wonder that the family tree at the start of the book needs to be revised by the end. The Seed Collectors is a departure for Thomas. Her three most recent novels, PopCo (2004), The End of Mr. Y (2006), and Our Tragic Universe (2010), were first-person narratives about young, unattached women on knowledge quests, all told with humor and inventiveness, but broadly similar. In The Seed Collectors she widens her canvas to encompass at least seven major characters including a child and a bird, a gallery that showcases her mastery of “free indirect style.” Consider the Namaste House pet robin, Thomas's tribute to Levin’s dog in Anna Karenina, who thinks -- don't all robins? -- in a quasi-medieval dialect: Through the bedroom window he can see that Fleur is nesting, Fleur often nests. But she never lays any eggs. That man in her nest has made it yblent. Did he make Fleur put out the firedangerfish? Did he eat the other macarons? Did he make her cry out in the night, as she so often does now? But Thomas's real comic masterpiece is Bryony. Thomas has never written a character remotely like her before. Surrounded by the ascetically inclined, Bryony is all id and no superego: fat, spendthrift, alcoholic, shopaholic, able to resist anything except temptation, and dedicated to ludicrously self-defeating schemes for self-improvement. She is all these things, and she is magnificent. Her 15-page rampage through Selfridge’s onto Oxford Street and the train home (starting with extreme shopping, escalating through way too much wine, eating the children’s candy, inappropriate flirting with hooligans, and ending with toilet masturbation -- yes, there’s a lot of sexing in this book) is the novel’s tour de force; her progress from one appalling yet hilarious act to the next is a high-wire act on Thomas’s part, requiring a virtuosic command of tone and structure. If there is anyone in greater need of enlightenment yet less susceptible to it, they are not to be found in this book: There are 165 calories in this glass of wine, but Bryony won’t log it in her food diary later because it isn’t very nice and she didn’t really mean to have it. When she gets home she’ll have 250mls of Chablis and she’ll log that instead...Fuck it. She just won’t fill in her food diary at all today. She’ll start afresh tomorrow. That means she can drink all the Chablis when she gets home. More important, Bryony does monstrous things to her family out of self-absorption (pulling her daughter Holly from tennis camp out of pique, choosing wine over her husband, James, when he gives her a foolish ultimatum), No wonder Holly develops an eating disorder. No wonder James pours a kettle of boiling water over his head. But, but ...We’ve all reached for that last glass of wine or Twinkie while saying to ourselves "I'll start cutting down tomorrow." Bryony is no different, except that she takes self-indulgence beyond comedy into the realm of menace to those closest to her. We may laugh at her or we may cringe, but she’s never uninteresting. 2. Why did it take this book almost a year to find a publisher? I believe that a combination of industry-specific reasons and more significant cultural attitudes are to blame. The state of American publishing is a problem for any writer without a preexisting mass following. Certainly with the death of the mid-list, an idiosyncratic British writer can expect trouble with American audiences (though Paul Murray's similar The Mark and the Void at least got published in the United States—and reviewed, with an interview, in The Millions). And in a tweet on June 29, 2015, Thomas summarized some of the reasons publishers gave for rejecting the novel: "Too weird, British, far too much sex, 'unlikeable' characters who drink too much..." We can only take Thomas at her word here, but "too weird, British, far too much sex, 'unlikeable' characters who drink too much" could once have been part of a rave reader's report on, say, Money, or ("British" apart) Gary Shteyngart's Absurdistan. It’s impossible not to notice that these are books by male authors centered on powerful male voices. Would Thomas have had less trouble if she were male and her main character had been Bryan rather than Bryony? I’m inclined to think not in this particular case; Thomas doesn’t mention the issue, and her defiance of literary convention is extreme enough to make an American publisher nervous. (This issue deserves a full discussion, which might begin by noting that Bridget Jones is a less extreme version of Bryony in many ways, but her self-deprecating first-person voice and the Jane Austen–derived structure of Bridget Jones’s Diary, promising a happy ending, ensure that Bridget is reader friendly. Thus, a very different woman writer achieved worldwide success with a fairly similar female character; there are lessons here.) In fact, Thomas's unconventionality, perhaps her greatest literary virtue, has paradoxically diminished her appeal to some of the very readers who should love her. Readers seem to have particular trouble getting their heads around her notion of the “storyless story” (as a character in Our Tragic Universe calls it, “a vagina with teeth”). For example, in a piece ostensibly arguing for the publication of The Seed Collectors, Laura Miller opined that the book's difficulty in finding a U.S. publisher was largely due to the failure of Our Tragic Universe to engage Miller and her friends as much as its predecessor, The End of Mr Y. (The friends' opinion: "Nothing happened.") Where Mr Y was a science-fiction thriller that featured a lengthy chase through a Victorian, computerless cyberspace, Our Tragic Universe deals with a young writer of sharecropped science fiction (think the Star Trek series) living her coincidence-inflected life on the Devonshire coast. It is, Miller complains, "a book about stories that tries mightily to avoid telling a story," one that "deliberately avoids introducing the sort of mechanical crises, complications, and adventures that would make the proceedings more conventionally exciting.” A succinct statement of the idea of the storyless story; but it's hard, Miller concludes, "to see why masses of people would want to read it." Although this is exactly the kind of book I want to read, Miller seems to align herself with Jonathan Franzen's statement that "fiction is storytelling, and our reality arguably consists of the stories we tell about ourselves." But Franzen’s assumption is optional, and Thomas's signature strength as a novelist is showing how. From her early novel Going Out -- where the young protagonist Julie observes, “In real life nothing means anything. Stuff just happens and there is no structure...Not all events are stories.” -- she has acknowledged that “stories give events meaning” (as Luke, the other protagonist of Going Out, responds) while battling the distortion of meaning that results from formula, cliché, and convention. Meg in Our Tragic Universe is depressed that her own writing is the equivalent of “flat-pack furniture,” screwing pieces together according to a recipe “in exactly the way anyone would expect.” The storyless story is a protean concept in Thomas’s hands, but the reader will find Our Tragic Universe much more tractable if it is defined as the rejection of the flat pack: non-IKEA writing. The Seed Collectors may appear less storyless -- it has a beginning, middle, and end, and teems with stories the way a forest teems with trees -- but look closer. Along with conventional stretches in "free indirect style," the book contains voiceless elements such as lists and elements the voice of which comes from nowhere, such as a series of metaphysical puzzles for the reader akin to koans. At least one of the lists is Charlie's and at least one of the puzzles is Fleur's, but neither can be the narrator, because so much happens that they could not know. The Seed Collectors may not have an identifiable narrator, confirming Edward Champion's insightful suggestion that "the novel, which we have believed all along to be thoroughly structured, has perhaps been a lifelike unstructured mess all along." If so, the plot itself would mirror one of the book’s principal themes, the exuberant unstructured living mess that is nature, specifically the plant world. Whatever else it is, The Seed Collectors is not flat-pack writing, and is all the more exciting for it. 3. Somewhere James Wood claims that "broadly speaking, there are two great currents in the novel: one flows from [Samuel] Richardson and the other from [Henry] Fielding." Among many other inadequacies, this distinction ignores the current that flows from Laurence Sterne, the patron saint of non-IKEA writing. Tristram Shandy is more than the fount of postmodernism and metafiction. By using these techniques, Sterne reminds us that fictions are made out of words and therefore rejects a crude Richardsonian realism. Sterneans are above all playful; at the same time, they create characters readers can care about: Tristram Shandy, Leopold Bloom, Bryony Croft. As a Sternean, Thomas is more interested in rubbing words and ideas together and seeing what sparks they throw off than in telling stories that reinforce what we already think and end happily for likeable characters. Not so long ago, a novel like The Seed Collectors would have been enthusiastically received in North America. What is a writer like Thomas to do in the Age of Franzen? Kudos to Soft Skull Press for the courage to bring out The Seed Collectors -- but such a small press, however estimable, just doesn’t have the resources to ensure mainstream success. Thomas may have to resign herself to cult status on these shores. But at least The Seed Collectors is finally available in the United States and Canada; you can judge for yourself. And if you don't like sophisticated work that makes us laugh and think at the same time? There’s always Purity.

Judging Books by Their Covers 2016: US vs. UK

The London Book Fair starts on April 12th. As a kick off, we thought it would be fun to compare the U.S. and U.K. covers of a few notable titles from last year, a task previously taken on by our much-loved outgoing editor, Mr. Max Magee. I've lived in both the U.S. and the U.K. and always felt that if I could pinpoint the reason why the soap operas are so different -- the kleenex-lensed, pearly hues of The Young and the Restless vs. the gruff, flattened grays of East Enders as one example -- or articulate why marmite sandwiches appeal in one place when peanut butter and jelly is preferred in the other, I would finally understand where the two cultures divide. Sometimes I look to book covers in an attempt for clarity. Why is a cover in the U.S. replaced with another in the U.K. when the words inside are exactly the same? I may not like marmite, but I do have a taste for books. I sat down to see if I could finally develop the overarching theory that has eluded me so far. It's notable that many covers are the same. Some of the biggest books, like Helen Macdonald's H is for Hawk, Ta-Nehisi Coates's Between The World And Me, and Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan novels sport the same jackets in the U.S. and U.K. "It often comes down to differences in cultures and tastes. What appeals to people in one country doesn't appeal to others," says my literary agent, Denise Bukowski. "But if the book has been published first in one country and has been successful there, subsequent publishers often choose to capitalize on that success by using the original cover." But many others titles still have completely different covers, which is fortunate as it means there is still plenty for us to argue about. Below I present just a few of the choice examples. U.S. covers are on the left. U.K. covers are on the right. Your equally inexpert analysis, baseless opinions, and sweeping generalizations are encouraged in the comments.   Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff These covers are intriguingly similar and yet so different. Swirls vs. angles, blues vs. reds, swishes vs. swipes, almost like a mirror of the two halves of the book, the first told by the husband, Lotto, and the second by the wife, Mathilde. I had trouble making sense of it all until I consulted an article called "How to Use Color Psychology to Give Your Business an Edge" and understood that there is subliminal messaging at work. The U.S. cover designer is on team Lotto and emphasized blue for grief, sadness, and distraction. In the U.K., the designer was on Mathilde's side, hence anger, rage, and ecstasy.    Hausfrau by Jill Alexander Essbaum I love the U.S. cover for this book, but how does it relate to the story? Flowers are sex organs. This book is about sex organs. Then what of the U.K. cover -- embroidery is about not having sex. Or not messy sex. Maybe strictly missionary? Or if you get up to more, you have to make the bed perfectly afterwards, including carefully smoothing the bedspread so that no one will suspect what you've been up to. Which is exactly what this book is about.    The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins These two covers clearly illustrate one big difference between the two countries, their respective outlooks on the events leading up to the U.S. presidential election. If you are a drunk woman in the U.S., the primaries feel like you are on a train and with all the antics, both comic and tragic, hurtling around you in an incomprehensible blur. If you are a drunk woman in the U.K., you watch from the outside and find yourself unable to take your wavering eyes off the speeding train -- the question that holds your attention is not if it will crash, but how.    Purity by Jonathan Franzen Only a fool would think these covers came from different countries. They were clearly designed in alternate dimensions.   Did You Ever Have a Family by Bill Clegg Both designs take inspiration from the publisher's description of the inciting incident: "This book of dark secrets opens with a blaze." However each seem to have decided that a different element of that incident is more enticing. In the U.S., readers might like dark, mildewy, water-damaged secrets, whereas in the U.K., a good house fire will make the book fly off the shelves?   A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara It's hard for me to imagine A Little Life without the ecstasy and agony conveyed by the iconic photograph on the U.S. edition, Orgasmic Man by Peter Hujar. I was struck by ecstasy every time I picked up this book and collapsed into agony after each reading session. I understand the reasoning behind the U.K. cover; it makes sense to put forward an image that evokes life in New York, but it doesn't echo the experience in the writing, as does Hujar's art. I wonder, are orgasms not a universal experience? Perhaps people in the U.K. do not have them.    Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee Finally, the clarity I seek. This one is straightforward. The U.S. cover lets you know the name of the book you are buying. The U.K. cover lets you know that you are buying a draft of a sequel that you won't enjoy unless you keep To Kill a Mockingbird in the back of your mind at all times while reading.

The Millions Top Ten: February 2016

We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for February. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. 1. Fates and Furies 6 months 2. 4. Fortune Smiles 3 months 3. 3. Slade House 5 months 4. 5. The Big Green Tent 4 months 5. 8. What Belongs to You 2 months 6. 9. My Name is Lucy Barton 2 months 7. 6. The Heart Goes Last 6 months 8. 7. City on Fire 5 months 9. 10. A Brief History of Seven Killings 3 months 10. - The Past 1 month For the first time in five years, but also the third time in six, Jonathan Franzen sent one of his books to our site's Hall of Fame. And with the ascension of Purity, that makes Franzen three-for-three on his most recent novels reaching such hallowed ground. (Sorry, Kraus Project, but it looks like the streak is limited to fiction; and sorry as well, Strong Motion, but it looks like you arrived before the Franz-y* picked up full force; you'll have to content yourself with Brain Ted Jones's Millions essay instead of a HoF berth.) Filling Purity's spot this month is The Past by Tessa Hadley, which was featured in both our Second-Half 2015 and also our Great 2016 Book Previews. The novel concerns siblings who reunite to sell their grandparents’ old house, but it really shouldn't be summed up by its plot. The author would protest. After all, in an interview for our site last year, Hadley remarked upon the dangers that come from focusing too narrowly on plot and sequential order, and how she controls that impulse when she writes: Things in life don’t, on the whole, add up or get resolved in that deliciously satisfactory, finalizing way that novels are so good at. Nineteenth-century novelists resolved their plotty novels so magnificently because they shared convictions about meaning and fulfillment that we surely mislaid somewhere in the 20th century. But I do believe that “leaping over the gaps” doesn’t mean you can’t hold a story together. Rather, we’ve grown suspicious of stories that resolve too satisfactorily. The danger is that if you fill in all the gaps you lose the essence of the story, you write something stodgy and merely consecutive, instead of keeping your hand on the live wire of the life, which jumps from place to place. Elsewhere on this month's list we see Marlon James's A Brief History... move up on spot, which is good because that means you're listening to my repeated pleas for you to buy that book. It also appears that next month our list will welcome two new additions, as both Fates and Furies and The Heart Goes Last seem destined for the Hall of Fame. *No, I don't want to apologize for that. It was good. This month's near misses included: The Queen of the Night, The Lost Time AccidentsEternity Street: Violence and Justice in Frontier Los Angeles, Girl Through Glass, and The Turner House. See Also: Last month's list.

The Anxiety of Influence: Children’s Books and Their Grown-Up Counterparts

If, like me, you're a parent to a young child, you probably find yourself reading a lot of picture and chapter books, and then, before your own bedtime, reading different books, ones that feature more adults, more drinking, more ennui. You might believe these books, theirs and yours, to be quite different -- but that's not always the case. Over the years I've made connections between my favorite authors and my son's. Once you see the similarities, you can't un-see them. So read on, brave adult, if you want the veil pulled from your eyes... Jonathan Franzen and The Berenstain Bears by Stan and Jan Berenstain Once you get beyond the shock of how the most famous Bear Family spells its name, you might notice how alike these books are to certain famous American novels written by a certain famous American man. A classic Berenstain story (by the original duo Stan and Jan, not the later, inferior titles by Jan and Mike), contains a lot of back story and exposition, and its lessons -- on manners, nightmares, and so on -- contain at least one moment of domestic strife and misunderstanding. Like The Corrections or Purity, these are narratives about beasts in human clothing (a la Chip Lambert and Andreas Wolf), and the mother controls not just the household but everyone's psyches. And like Franzen's novels, the Berenstain Bear books might meander, reveling in details alternately informative and irrelevant, but ultimately they're straightforward tales about family. (Also, as a friend pointed out to me recently, JFran sort of looks like a Berenstain Bear. This can't be coincidental.) A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara and Frog and Toad by Arnold Lobel Yanagihara clearly recognizes this connection because she put it in her book: artist JB names his series of paintings of Willem and Jude Frog and Toad, after Lobel's famous amphibious friends. And, let's face it, A Little Life is basically Lobel for Adults (now with rape and suicide!) Willem is Frog, the perennial optimist, while Jude is sad old Toad. Like Frog and Toad, Willem and Jude need and love each other despite their differences, and because of them. Toad will keep trying to push Frog away, but Frog will remain by his side. Lobel's stories, like Yanagihara's novel, maintains an elegant clarity about the unimpeachable sadness of the world.  Plus, Toad's nice, cozy Toad Hole is the animal equivalent of Willem and Jude's million-dollar country home. Emma Straub and What Pete Ate From A-Z by Maira Kalman Kalman is mainly an artist and illustrator for people of all ages, but her children's alphabet book is a favorite in our household for its cheeky commentary and beautiful, funny drawings. (I would like to live inside her picture of a pink ice-pop, please.) The characters in this book -- Roberta Rothschild, president of the Rubber Band Society; cousin Rocky with his list of people who have wronged him -- remind me of the Post family in Straub's novel The Vacationers: they're sometimes put-upon, often very funny, from Manhattan, and quite lovable. An Emma Straub novel is the literary equivalent of a Maira Kalman drawing; I have no doubt that her forthcoming novel, Modern Lovers, about two families in Brooklyn, will cement this kinship. My Struggle by Karl Ove Knausgaard and Richard Scarry You might think you're super literary, cozying up with Knausgaard's multiple-tome fictional autobiography after a long day with your toddler. You probably agree with James Wood, esteemed literary critic for The New Yorker, who wrote: "There is something ceaselessly compelling about Knausgaard’s book: even when I was bored, I was interested." But you probably also feel this way reading Richard Scarry's books, which, like Knausgaard's, describe so much of the mundane. Do we really need to know about every piece of clothing in Huckleberry's wardrobe? Also, Richard Scarry's Busy, Busy Town, with its quaint town squares, its weird cars you've never heard of, and its waiters carrying tagines, could only be, like Knausgaard himself, one thing: European. Gary Shteyngart/George Saunders and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl Have you introduced your kid to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory yet? I don't mean the movie with Gene Wilder (or the remake with Johnny Depp in that creepy bob). I mean the book by Roald Dahl. Shit is fucked up! Charlie Bucket lives in horrible poverty, Wonka is a shut-in maniac with too much money, and the Oompa Loompas are victims of the global economy, trucked in from some far-off land to perform labor cheaply. (I'm not kidding. Wonka performs experiments on these workers! They never get to leave the factory!) Wonka's crazy schemes and nonchalance about everyone's endangerment remind me of the nutty heroes of Gary Shteyngart's novels. (Absurdistan, indeed.) The book's workplace commentary, so tragic it's funny, is straight Saunders. In fact, I'd love to see him write a novel from the perspective of an Oompa Loompa. It would be like "Pastoralia" but with sugar and torture instead of a cave fax machine. So there you have it. I suppose it's time we just rolled up our sleeves and read the child some Don DeLillo, and at night tucked ourselves in with Hop on Pop. We're tired enough, aren't we?

The Millions Top Ten: January 2016

We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for January. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. 3. Fates and Furies 5 months 2. 4. Purity 6 months 3. 5. Slade House 4 months 4. 7. Fortune Smiles 2 months 5. 8. The Big Green Tent 3 months 6. 9. The Heart Goes Last 5 months 7. 10. City on Fire 4 months 8. - What Belongs to You 1 month 9. - My Name is Lucy Barton 1 month 10. - A Brief History of Seven Killings 2 months It's with a certain degree of triumph that I welcome Marlon James to the first Millions Top Ten of 2016. While this isn't the first time his superb novel A Brief History of Seven Killings has appeared on our list overall — that first occurred in October of last year — it nevertheless feels a bit like a personal victory for me, the humble author of this series, who has since that time urged each and every one of you to go out and purchase a copy (or three!) immediately. Well, it finally seems that the work has paid off. (Happy New Year to me!) Now let's work on keeping it here, eh? This month we graduated three Top Ten fixtures to our Hall of Fame: Ta-Nehisi Coates's Between the World and Me, Hanya Yanagihara's A Little Life, and Harper Lee's Go Set a Watchman. The first two were fixtures atop our list for the past six months, while Lee's Mockingbird sequel-prequel got off to a hot start before ultimately settling in the middle of our ten-book pack. Their success means Lauren Groff's Fates and Furies is the new top book in town. It's a novel that Margaret Eby described in her Year in Reading entry as the kind "I would start reading on a Saturday morning and soon find myself cancelling weekend plans to finish by Sunday night." To get acquainted with it, I recommend first checking out our exclusive first look at its opening lines, and then settling in for our interview with its author. If somehow you're still not convinced that this is a book you absolutely need to read in full, immediately, then allow our own Edan Lepucki's praise to coax you over the threshold: I have read all of Groff’s novels, and each one is better than the last, which gives me vicarious hope for my own puny literary pursuits. I get the sense that Groff is always looking for new ways to tell stories, to show time passing, to express human longing, shame, desire, need, all without succumbing to the same-old conventions of scenic conflict and cause-and-effect. Plus, her prose is so shining and unexpected she could describe getting her license renewed at the DMV and I’d find it compelling. Also this month in addition to A Brief History... we welcome two newcomers to our list: Garth Greenwell's What Belongs to You and Elizabeth Strout's My Name is Lucy Barton. Both novels have received heaps of praise — both appeared on our Most Anticipated preview — but Greenwell's in particular has been drawing some seriously effusive reviews. On our site, Jameson Fitzpatrick wrote that What Belongs to You "offers us the most exacting and visionary reading in contemporary literature of what it means to be gay in America today."   This month's near misses included: Eternity Street: Violence and Justice in Frontier Los AngelesThe Turner HouseThe 3 A.M. EpiphanyUndermajordomo Minor,  and A Strangeness in My Mind. See Also: Last month's list.

Good News! China Miéville Has Written a Bad Book

A few years back I binge-read China Miéville’s first seven novels straight through, in chronological order. The experience was an eye-opener, a mind-blower. Until then I had read little science fiction, and some J.R.R. Tolkien was the extent of my dabbling in fantasy. And now suddenly, this British writer named China Miéville had taken me to the place where, as one fan so nicely put it, “Middle Earth meets Dickensian London on really good acid.” One of the most impressive things about those seven fantasy novels was that each one was very different from the others, yet they bore the stamp of a single, and singular, intelligence. That intelligence was not merely restless, it was ravenous -- for new worlds, new characters, new stories, new machines, new monsters, new ways to embody good and evil. The novels teemed with human frogs, creatures that were half-human and half-bird, cactus people, human rats, giant squids, plus an assortment of cultists, magickers, talking tattoos, and stone-cold killers. There wasn’t a space ship or a space alien in sight. The stories unspooled in the sewers of London, in phantasmagorical cities, on floating cities made of roped-together boats. There was even a delightful children’s book in the mix, featuring a church made of cobwebs, flying double-decker buses, and trash bins that know karate. As I wrote here after my reading binge, a key to Miéville’s success is that he has chosen to work that fertile borderland where pulp meets the surreal, and his most persistent themes are highly pertinent to the world we live in today: the bogus nature of messiahs, the need for solidarity among society’s marginalized people as they fight prejudice, oppression, and state power. To top it off, he’s proud to be pegged a genre writer, and he writes knockout sentences. Shortly before I sat down with Miéville’s new novel, This Census-Taker, I happened to read an essay in The New York Review of Books by Tim Parks entitled “A Novel Kind of Conformity.” It’s a tightly argued lament about one of the more damaging trends in contemporary book publishing -- “the decision on the part of most large publishers to allow their sales staff a say in which novels get published and which don’t.” Parks quotes an editor who says that whenever he pitches a new novel at editorial meetings, someone from the sales staff invariably asks, “But what other book is it like?” As Parks puts it, “Only when a novel could be presented as having a reassuring resemblance to something already commercially successful was it likely to overcome the veto of the sales staff.” One result is that all novelists -- from first-timers to denizens of mid-list limbo to established international brands -- “tend to give publishers what they want.” Yes, book publishers traded their tweed jackets for calculators a while ago, and since then most books have morphed from works of art into product that must be moved in sufficient numbers. That’s not news, and it’s not a sin for publishers (or writers) to want to make money. What is news, as Parks points out, is that the ascendancy of economic considerations over artistic ones has led to “a growing resistance at every level to taking risks in novel writing.” Parks adds that the attention to sales numbers has been dramatically -- and, one could argue, disastrously -- magnified by electronic media and its immediate, inescapable feedback loop. Novelists, like everyone else today, ache to be looked at, clicked on, shared with, and “liked,” if not loved. “Hence,” Parks concludes, “the successful novelist is constantly encouraged to produce more of the same...Celebrity, it would appear, breeds conformity.” He cites two recent examples: Haruki Murakami’s “dull” Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, and Jonathan Franzen’s Purity. Parks calls them “tired, lackluster attempt(s) to produce yet another bestseller in the same vein.” That essay’s central lament -- the dearth of risk-taking by today’s novelists -- was on my mind as I dipped into This Census-Taker. On the very first page it became apparent that this novel was not in the same vein as Miéville’s earlier work. The first two sentences establish the central narrative ploy: an unnerving switching back and forth between the first and third persons, a way of establishing the indeterminacy of everything that is to follow. Unlike its predecessors, this novel’s world is claustrophobic, not expansive. Its characters are made of cardboard, not flesh and blood and scales and feathers. Monsters are hinted at but never seen. The maddeningly vague story amounts to this: a boy living on a remote hillside above a town may or may not have seen his father murder his mother; the father may or not be a serial murderer; the mother may or may not have fled the home before the father had a chance to kill her. Hunh? A rare flash of Miéville’s trademark ingenuity surfaces in the father’s profession as a maker of magical keys: “His customers would come up from the town and ask for the things for which people usually ask -- love, money, to open things, to know the future, to fix animals, to fix things, to be stronger, to hurt someone or save someone, to fly -- and he’d make them a key.” Far more prevalent, unfortunately, are murky descriptions like this one of a derelict bridge where homeless children live as squatters: Houses built on bridges are scandals. A bridge wants to not be. If it could choose its shape, a bridge would be no shape, an unspace to link One-place-town to Another-place-town over a river or a road or a tangle of railway tracks or a quarry, or to attach an island to another island or to the continent from which it strains. The dream of a bridge is of a woman standing at one side of a gorge and stepping out as if her job is to die, but when her foot falls it meets the ground right on the other side. A bridge is just better than no bridge but its horizon is gaplessness, and the fact of itself should still shame it. But someone had built on this bridge, drawn attention to its matter and failure. An arrogance that thrilled me. Where else could those children live? Even as my unease and disappointment increased with each passage like this, I began to feel a strangely pleasurable tingling. There was no escaping the fact that I was reading a bad book by a very fine writer, but it occurred to me that this was actually a good thing. China Miéville, a writer with an international cult following whose commercial success is every bit as secure as Murakami or Franzen’s, had dared to do something that they, so far, have not. He had dared to take risks, he had dared to leave his comfort zone, he had dared to fail. And that’s precisely what he did. I find a failure of this kind far more admirable, if not more satisfying, than another safe commercial success. Even so, I can’t help wondering why Miéville wrote such a book. I have a theory, though it might be far-fetched. In the Acknowledgments, Miéville writes, “Much of this book was written during a fellowship at the MacDowell Colony, Peterborough, N.H.; and then as a residency fellow of the Lannan Foundation, in Marfa, Tex. I am profoundly grateful to both organizations for their generous support.” Here, maybe, is the devilish paradox. The publishing industry is set up to minimize risk-taking by novelists and to ensure that novels will be safe, saleable commodities. Yet it was when he stepped away from the grubby demands of the marketplace -- when he took the MacDowell and Lannan money and was suddenly free to write whatever he chose to write, without regard for its marketability -- that Miéville stumbled. In this case, the freedom to take risks led not to something fresh and new, but to a disastrous disconnect with readers. That said, I still applaud China Miéville for daring to fail. I hope he realizes his earlier novels were successful precisely because they were ablaze with risk and they avoided the novelist’s cardinal sin. They never lost sight of the fact that the writer’s primary responsibility is not to himself, but to the reader.

The Millions Top Ten: December 2015

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. Between the World and Me 6 months 2. 2. A Little Life 6 months 3. 6. Fates and Furies 4 months 4. 3. Purity 5 months 5. 4. Slade House 3 months 6. 5. Go Set a Watchman 6 months 7. - Fortune Smiles 1 month 8. 10. The Big Green Tent 2 months 9. 9. The Heart Goes Last 4 months 10. 8. City on Fire 3 months After being crowned the 2015 National Book Award winnerFortune Smiles by Adam Johnson has received an even greater honor: entry onto The Millions's December 2015 Top Ten list! The collection was described in our second-half Book Preview* as being “six stories, about everything from a former Stasi prison guard in East Germany to a computer programmer ‘finding solace in a digital simulacrum of the president of the United States,’” and it was said to “echo” the author's “early work while also building upon the ambition of his prize-winning tome.” Elsewhere on the list, small shakeups abound. Fates and Furies and The Big Green Tent rose three and two spots, respectively, while Garth Risk Hallberg's City on Fire moved from the eighth spot to the tenth. Beyond that? There isn't too much to report. Next month, however, three fixtures on our list— Between the World and MeA Little Life, and Go Set a Watchman — will likely head to our Hall of Fame, and their ascendance should free up space for fresh blood. They'll join Book of Numbers by Joshua Cohen, which joins the Hall this month. If past is prologue, most of those newcomers will have been culled from our Year in Reading series. If so, do you have any guesses on which ones will become fan favorites? Will it be another installment of Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan Quartet? (The first one's already in our Hall...) Will it be Maggie Nelson's The Argonauts? And whatever it may be, will it have a Florida connection?** Stay tuned to find out. * Speaking of Previews, have you checked out the first installment of our Great 2016 Book Preview, which posted this week? ** Probably. Everything does. This month's near misses included: A Brief History of Seven Killings, The Turner HouseUndermajordomo Minor, The 3 A.M. Epiphany, and A Strangeness in My Mind. See Also: Last month's list.

The Millions Top Ten: November 2015

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. Between the World and Me 5 months 2. 2. A Little Life 5 months 3. 3. Purity 4 months 4. 7. Slade House 2 months 5. 4. Go Set a Watchman 5 months 6. 6. Fates and Furies 3 months 7. 5. Book of Numbers 6 months 8. 8. City on Fire 2 months 9. 9. The Heart Goes Last 3 months 10. - The Big Green Tent 1 month My uncharacteristically bold plug for Marlon James's outstanding novel, A Brief History of Seven Killings, was not enough to keep the book on our Top Ten this month, and I'm choosing to believe that the only reason is because you'd already purchased your copies when it first came out. It's not because you don't trust my recommendations, right? Can't be. Nevertheless, this month's newest title — filling James's former spot — is Ludmila Ulitskaya's The Big Green Tent. For five years since the novel's Russian publication, English and North American readers have been eagerly awaiting the translation to finally hit shelves. (In fact, it's been on The Millions's radar for so long that it appeared in both our 2014 and 2015 Book Previews.) Following three friends-turned-dissidents who come of age during the Soviet era, the 592-page novel provides a richly detailed, intimate depiction of what life was like behind the Iron Curtain. Still, "any plot-based retelling of The Big Green Tent misses the point entirely," wrote Emily Tamkin in her review of the book for our site. "It is the story of three boys growing up, yes, but so, too, is it a portrait of a time, and a sketch of so many types who lived in and through it, and of Russian literature itself. ... In this way, Ulitskaya has not only described the spirit of an era, but also captured it." Stay tuned for our December list, which will undoubtedly be heavily influenced by our current Year in Reading series, underway all month long. Who will be this year's breakout star? Only one way to find out. This month's near misses included: Fourtune SmilesUndermajordomo Minor, Satin Island, and The Paying Guests. See Also: Last month's list.

Before They Were Notable: 2015

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This year’s New York Times Notable Books of the Year list is out. At 100 titles, the list is more of a catalog of the noteworthy than a distinction. Sticking with the fiction exclusively, it appears that we touched upon a few of these books and authors as well: Beatlebone by Kevin Barry (You Can’t Lie in Fiction: An Interview with Kevin Barry, You Must Read Kevin Barry, A Year in Reading: Kevin Barry) Citizen by Claudia Rankine (Hinge of History: Nine Books for the Post-Ferguson Era) City on Fire by Garth Risk Hallberg (The Opening Lines of Garth Risk Hallberg’s City on Fire, I’ve Rarely Felt So Free: The Millions Interviews Garth Risk Hallberg, Garth at The Millions) The Complete Stories by Clarice Lispector (A Horribly Marvelous and Delicate Abyss: The Complete Stories by Clarice Lispector) Delicious Foods by James Hannaham (A Happy Sort of Pessimism: The Millions Interviews James Hannaham) Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff (Exclusive First Look: Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies, The Most Joyous Part: The Millions Interviews Lauren Groff) The First Bad Man by Miranda July (A Box of Powerful Things: The Millions Interviews Miranda July) The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma (The Audacity of Prose, Clickworthy Headlines about The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma) The Hollow Land by Jane Gardam (Jane Gardam’s Characters: Organically Grown) Honeydew by Edith Pearlman (Loneliness, Interrupted: Edith Pearlman’s Honeydew, Overnight Sensation? Edith Pearlman on Fame and the Importance of Short Fiction) How to Be Both by Ali Smith (Wordsmith: The Beguiling Gifts of Ali Smith) A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara (Two Lives: On Hanya Yanagihara and Atticus Lish, ‘I Wouldn’tve Had a Biography at All’: The Millions Interviews Hanya Yanagihara) Loving Day by Mat Johnson (A Blacker Shade of Pale: On Mat Johnson’s Loving Day) A Manual for Cleaning Women by Lucia Berlin (The Book Report: Episode 30) The Mare by Mary Gaitskill (A Heightened State of Emotion: The Millions Interviews Mary Gaitskill) The Meursault Investigation by Kamel Daoud (The Crime of Life: On Kamel Daoud’s The Meursault Investigation) Preparation For The Next Life by Atticus Lish (Two Lives: On Hanya Yanagihara and Atticus Lish) Purity by Jonathan Franzen (Flamed but Not Forgotten: On Jonathan Franzen’s Purity) The Sellout by Paul Beatty (The Inanity of American Plutocracy: On Paul Beatty’s The Sellout) The Sellout by Paul Beatty (The Inanity of American Plutocracy: On Paul Beatty’s The Sellout) The Story of the Lost Child by Elena Ferrante (Elena Ferrante Names the Devil and Slays the Minotaur, Outside the Neighborhood: Reading Italy Through Elena Ferrante) The Story of My Teeth by Valeria Luiselli (Tricks and Lies: On Valeria Luiselli’s The Story of My Teeth) The Tsar of Love and Techno by Anthony Marra (The Writer I Was: Six Authors Look Back on Their First Novels) The Turner House by Angela Flournoy (Dynamite Detroit Debut: On Angela Flournoy’s The Turner House, The Tortoise, Not the Hare: The Millions Interviews Angela Flournoy)

The Millions Top Ten: October 2015

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. Between the World and Me 4 months 2. 2. A Little Life 4 months 3. 4. Purity 3 months 4. 3. Go Set a Watchman 4 months 5. 6. Book of Numbers 5 months 6. 7. Fates and Furies 2 months 7. - Slade House 1 month 8. - City on Fire 1 month 9. 8. The Heart Goes Last 2 months 10. - A Brief History of Seven Killings 1 month The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, a book about de-cluttering and organizing, just became the 102nd title to join our ever-more-cluttered Hall of Fame, which feels appropriate. Meanwhile, two titles - Satin Island and The Paying Guests - fell out of this month's Top Ten, despite strong showings for the past four months. As a result, three spots have opened up for newcomers, so let's take a look at these fresh new faces: This month's seventh spot belongs to David Mitchell's latest project, Slade House, which got its start as a Twitter-based short story last year. (We published the story in full.) Now expanded into a 256-page book, Slade House, spans across five decades, focusing on a mysterious residence down the road from a British pub, and the people who live within - or are invited to. Next on the list is Garth Risk Hallberg's debut novel, City on Fire, which is surely familiar by now to anyone who a) reads this site, and b) doesn't live beneath a rock. (Psssst! You can read its opening lines over here.) At 944 pages, this doorstop provides a surprisingly intimate glimpse into the lives of its closely-observed subjects. As Brian Ted Jones remarked in his review for The Rumpus: It’s not a big novel about the human condition. It’s a novel that word by word reaches out to capture the smallness of life, the minute particularity that stacks up until—whoa, baby—you’ve got a whole universe on your hands, but a universe that flies away like a pile of dirt in a strong wind. And that level of observation does not come easily, as Hallberg himself noted in his interview with our own Lydia Kiesling: Writing is definitely not what we typically think of as “easy” or “natural” for the person doing it. You know this as a writer — it’s mostly torture. You have those days when you kind of light up inside like a pinball machine or something, and all of a sudden everything is feeding back 10 times as much as it did the previous day, and you have this sense of joy and you walk out of the house and run into someone you know, or your spouse comes home and says “How was your day,” and you say, “This was a great day! The writing went well!” And then if you actually paused and walked back through the writing hour by hour you would realize, “No, it was still mostly torture, but it was a kind of exquisite and joyous torture on this day, as opposed to the gray horrible torture that it is on most days.” Man, that must've been a fun way to feel for the five years it took to write the book, huh? Finally, this month we also welcome newly-minted Booker Award winner Marlon James to our Top Ten. His third novel, A Brief History of Seven Killings, concerns Jamaica at a pivotal moment in its history, and really the history of its relationship with the United States as well, but also it's about so much more: Bob Marley, CIA machinations, international drug dealers, race, family, friendship, journalism, and art. To call this novel ambitious is to undersell it. If I can be bold for a moment, allow me to say this: James's novel is the best book I've read in years. Heck, even our resident video-bloggers, Michael Schaub and Janet Potter, were rendered speechless by it. This month's near misses included: Undermajordomo Minor, Fourtune Smiles, and A Strangeness in My Mind. See Also: Last month's list.

Purity from Prison

“I was interested enough in WikiLeaks, state transparency, and emergent opposition networks to do five years in prison over such things, but I wasn’t interested enough that I would have voluntarily plowed through 500 pages of badly plotted failed-marriage razzmatazz by an author who’s long past his expiration date simply in order to learn what the Great King of the Honkies thinks about all this.” Barrett Brown reviews Jonathan Franzen’s Purity from prison. Pair with our own Lydia Kiesling’s review of the book.

The Millions Top Ten: September 2015

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. Between the World and Me 3 months 2. 7. A Little Life 3 months 3. 2. Go Set a Watchman 3 months 4. 8. Purity 2 months 5. 3. The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing 6 months 6. 6. Book of Numbers 4 months 7. - Fates and Furies 1 month 8. - The Heart Goes Last 1 month 9. 10. The Paying Guests 4 months 10. 9. Satin Island 5 months Our Hall of Fame grows to 101 titles strong this month, thanks to the ascension of Kazuo Ishiguro's The Buried Giant (#100) and Paula Hawkins's The Girl on the Train (#101). It's the first appearance in the Hall for both authors. In their place, we welcome Fates and Furies and The Heart Goes Last, the latest works from Lauren Groff and Margaret Atwood, respectively. The former should be especially familiar to Millions readers, as we shared the book's opening lines on our site last March, and we interviewed Groff about her writing process (and why she feels ambivalent about Florida) more recently. Atwood, meanwhile, took part in our Year in Reading in 2010. For the second consecutive month, Ta-Nahesi Coates's Between the World and Me tops our list. It's an honor that Coates should treasure because his year has otherwise been fairly uneventful for him. After all, he's only won a MacArthur "genius grant," been longlisted for the National Book Award, and announced a forthcoming Marvel comic. In other words: nothing that holds a candle to the honor of being named a Millions fan favorite. Moving along: Hanya Yanagihara's A Little Life occupies this month's number two spot. The book's steady rise over the past three months — unlisted in July, #7 in August, and now runner-up — surprised me almost as much as it's likely surprised our own Lydia Kiesling, who wrote of the work: A Little Life has stayed with me, not because I found it so sad, but because I found it so strangely bad, and have spent significant time wondering if what I perceive to be its badness is in fact a function of a bold narrative experiment that, to quote James Wood on Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled, “invents its own category of badness,” and thus deserves a very particular set of laurels. Indeed, it's as though a negative review from Lydia has the perverse effect of skyrocketing her victim's works into the hands of Millions readers. (After all, this is the second time it's happened...) Perhaps from now on publicists should refer to Lydia as the Literary Queen Midas? Elsewhere on the list, Go Set a Watchman and that book on de-cluttering dropped one spot apiece, Franzen's latest rose a bit, and works by Joshua Cohen, Sarah Waters, and Tom McCarthy held steady. This month's near misses included: Undermajordomo Minor, The Martian, Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight NightsThe First Bad Man, and Wind/Pinball. See Also: Last month's list.

The Millions Top Ten: August 2015

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. 2. Between the World and Me 2 months 2. 1. Go Set a Watchman 2 months 3. 4. The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing 5 months 4. 3. The Buried Giant 6 months 5. 5. The Girl on the Train 6 months 6. 6. Book of Numbers 3 months 7. 8. A Little Life 2 months 8. - Purity 1 month 9. 7. Satin Island 4 months 10. 9. The Paying Guests 3 months A shuffling atop this month's Top Ten puts Ta-Nahesi Coates's Between the World and Me above Harper Lee's Go Set a Watchman, which may be expected when one book earns inspires praise from Toni Morrison while copies of the other one are refunded by local bookstores. Of course, it hasn't all been praise for Coates's essay-letter to his son – and, to be fair, it hasn't all been negative press for Lee's early novel. In a recent piece for our site, Sonya Chung used a regrettable column by David Brooks to explore the "convergence of The Road to Character and the conflict that arose from Brooks’s public response to Between the World and Me." Similarly, our own Michael Bourne pondered the silver lining of Go Set a Watchman's release, which occasioned the reevaluation of Atticus Finch: “Jean Louise, have you ever met your father?” her uncle asks, and she realizes she never has, not really. Neither have we, though we have been living with Atticus Finch for more than half a century. It is high time we got to know him. The question is whether we will still love him once we have. Moving from two major publishing stories to a third: this month's Top Ten welcomes Jonathan Franzen's latest novel, Purity, into its ranks. The work debuts in the eighth spot, likely but a pit stop on its way to the higher reaches of our list, as the book (whose release date was technically September 1st) was only just reaching readers' hands in the final days of August. Purity follows blockbusters The Corrections and Freedom and, as our own Lydia Kiesling notes, the book contains "a few digs at you, reader." The Martian dropped from our list this month. Other near misses included: Wind/Pinball, The First Bad ManThe Tusk That Did the Damage, and Armada. See Also: Last month's list.

Purely Comedic

Fresh Air’s Terry Gross sits down with Jonathan Franzen to talk about Purity, writing, and the possibility of parenthood. “I’ve always thought of myself as a comic novelist. It’s a tough road to hoe because comedy means light in people’s mind. There was an ambitious part of me that kind of chafed and was secretly relieved when the comedy was overlooked, but at a certain point, it becomes wearing for people not to get the humor.” Pair with our review of the novel.

The Book Report: Episode 29: Great Literary Friendships

Welcome to a new episode of The Book Report presented by The Millions! This week, inspired by the recent reconciliation of Axl Rose and Slash of Guns N' Roses, Janet and Mike talk about great literary friendships. Discussed in this episode: Scarlett O'Hara, Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell, Rhett Butler, Melanie Wilkes, Wonder Boys by Michael Chabon, The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer, female friendships, P.G. Wodehouse, Jeeves & Wooster, Purity by Jonathan Franzen, birds, "Paradise City" by Guns N' Roses. Not discussed in this episode: The obscure Guns N' Roses cover of the theme song from Barney. Only two seven-inches are known to exist. Janet has both of them.

Flamed but Not Forgotten: On Jonathan Franzen’s ‘Purity’

1. There are a few digs at you, reader, in Purity, Jonathan Franzen’s big new novel. Here’s one buried in the musings of Andreas Wolf, the sociopathic leader of a data-dumping transparency project -- one analogous to but at odds with WikiLeaks: “The more he existed as the Internet’s image of him, the less he felt like he existed as a flesh-and-blood person. The Internet meant death.” Have you read a take or a tweet excoriating Jonathan Franzen? You inhabit a world “governed...by fear: the fear of unpopularity and uncoolness, the fear of missing out, the fear of being flamed or forgotten.” Ironically, the Internet -- the thing with which Franzen's opprobrium is most frequently associated -- is also the vehicle by which his utterances become collectively memorable. The Internet is why I know, for example, that 20 years ago, Franzen expressed anxiety about  cultural irrelevance in the type of tone-deaf revelation primed to annoy less-famous writers and destined to become characteristic: “I had already realized that the money, the hype, the limo ride to a Vogue shoot weren’t simply fringe benefits. They were the main prize, the consolation for no longer mattering to the culture.” No one should be permanently lashed to his or her remarks of decades past, but Franzen, with his frequent public grumping, invites a certain amount of scrutiny. And despite the easy prey of Franzen’s Vogue shoots, that essay, “Perchance to Dream,” published in Harper’s in 1996, contains an artist’s statement that remains the tidiest, most cogent thesis on the project of Franzen’s writing: “It had always been a prejudice of mine that putting a novel’s characters in a dynamic social setting enriched the story that was being told; that the glory of the genre consisted in its spanning of the expanse between private experience and public context.” Of course, nailing the “public context” was a source of considerable anxiety: I’d already worked in contemporary pharmacology and TV and race and prison life and a dozen other vocabularies; how was I going to satirize Internet boosterism and the Dow Jones as well while leaving room for the complexities of character and locale? Panic grows in the gap between the increasing length of the project and the shrinking time increments of cultural change... With Purity, the project is long, the cultural change significant, time of the essence. Time presses in all of Franzen’s novels, for reasons of health -- human or environmental -- or economics, or plate tectonics. In his latest, several plot devices add urgency: there’s a home on the verge of foreclosure, a sensational news story in danger of being scooped, more data in need of the “disinfecting” sunshine of the aforementioned Wolf’s Sunlight Project. If there’s anything that denotes a Franzen text, it’s a socio-cultural rant, and the slightly Bill-and-Ted-like deployment of the adjective “excellent.” Here’s Walter Berglund of Franzen’s last novel, Freedom, telling the employees of an Appalachian body-armor plant what’s what: 'You, too, can help denude every last scrap of native habitat in Asia, Africa, and South America! You, too, can buy six-foot-wide plasma TV screens that consume unbelievable amounts of energy, even when they’re not turned on. But that’s OK, because that’s why we threw you out of your homes in the first place, so we could strip-mine your ancestral hills and feed the coal-fired generators that are the number-one of cause of global warming and other excellent things like acid rain.' Or Chip of The Corrections, foaming at the sister who is just trying to get him upstairs for a parental lunch: 'I’m saying the structure of the entire culture is flawed. I’m saying the bureaucracy has arrogated the right to define certain states of mind as "diseased." A lack of desire to spend money becomes a symptom of disease that requires expensive medication. Which medication then destroys the libido, in other words destroy the appetite for the one pleasure in life that’s free, which means the person has to spend even more money on compensatory pleasures. The very definition of mental "health" is the ability to participate in the consumer economy. When you buy into therapy, you’re buying into buying. And I’m saying that I personally am losing the battle with a commercialized, medicalized, totalitarian modernity right this instant.' Franzen, for all that he attracts online derision, knows that nobody is irredeemable who has a sense of humor (as he told the Guardian in a recent profile, he considers himself a “comic novelist”). Comic, ranting males abound in his last two novels, but Purity as a whole is comparatively humorless in ways that are both intentional and not; humor's absence, on the intentional front, is what damns the leaker Wolf and a cruelly drawn character named Anabel Laird, the mother of the novel's heroine, Purity "Pip" Tyler. Purity is baggy -- comprising several deep, character-driven sections linked together by a series of unlikely events. Wolf's segments are in a jarring, significantly darker key than that of Franzen’s previous fiction. Wolf wrestles throughout the book with a second self he calls “the Killer;” in some especially gross moments he almost channels Jonathan Littell’s seemingly placid, ultimately depraved Nazi narrator in The Kindly Ones. Here's Wolf recalling his troubled mother: "He remembered remembering, when he saw her pussy in the rose garden, that this wasn't the first time he'd seen it -- that something he's thought was a disturbing dream from his early childhood hadn't actually been a dream." Or here, exercising his sexual frustrations about Pip: "It was a relief to stop fighting the Killer and submit to the evil of his idea; it turned him on so much that he went to the spot on the floor where Pip had stood naked and used the panties she’d left to milk himself, three times, of the substance he hadn’t spent in her...” Purity's "public context," as Franzen put it in 1996, also feels more urgent than that of his previous work; there’s a polemic built into Wolf that his character is finally a bit too flimsy to support. You'd think that someone like Wolf would worship the Internet for its purifying possibilities; but its potentiality is more obliterating -- more like the state in George Orwell's Oceania -- than it is a vehicle for liberation. In Wolf’s conception, the Internet is aligned with the totalitarian system that characterized the East Germany of his youth: “If -- and only if -- you had enough money and/or tech capability, you could control your Internet persona and, thus, your destiny and your virtual afterlife. Optimize or die. Kill or be killed.” In a keystone passage, Franzen intersperses a description of East Germany under Socialism with the tech orthodoxies and infelicities of the present day: The real appeal of apparatchikism was the safety of belonging. Outside, the air smelled like brimstone, the food was bad, the economy moribund, the cynicism rampant, but inside, victory of the class enemy was assured. Outside, the middle class was disappearing faster than the icecaps, xenophobes were winning elections or stocking up on assault rifles, warring tribes were butchering each other religiously, but inside, disruptive new technologies were rendering traditional politics obsolete. Inside, decentralized ad hoc communities were rewriting the rules of creativity, the revolution rewarding the risk-taker who understood the power of networks. The New Regime even recycled the old Republic’s buzzwords, collective, collaborative. Axiomatic to both was that a new species of humanity was emerging. On this, apparatchiks of every stripe agreed. It never seemed to bother them that their ruling elites consisted of the grasping, brutal old species of humanity. It's unclear, ultimately, why Wolf, with his mistrust of the Internet's role in society, has spent so much time, so much effort, to set up his Bolivian hacker's commune. (Because he's a little insane, basically.) And his Sunlight Project, apart from the spectacular descriptions of its setting in a Bolivian valley, takes place essentially in front of a green screen, cobbled together with references to a “private fiber-optic line,” a “network of malcontents and hackers,” “facial-recognition software,” or an “impenetrable maze of electronic red herrings to protect the source.” Perhaps due to generational differences, something about Franzen’s “public context” has never quite rung true to me -- his college freshman’s September 11th in Freedom didn’t match my freshman self, staring blank-faced at the television in week two of college. But it has also never much mattered to me, because I think Franzen’s ability to convey the private experience is often transcendent and perfect. I can just look at the final paragraph of The Corrections and start crying -- Alfred and Enid and the ice chip and the changes she’s going to make in her life. Goddamn. But in Purity, like Freedom, the world is sometimes only an echo of a world that should be familiar. Gertrude Stein said of Oakland that there was “no there there,” and Franzen seems content to take her at her word. Pip, too, occasionally lacks a “there;” in the end she works as a character -- you root for her happiness -- but Franzen includes oddly few context clues for her. Who were the friends that Pip slowly broke up with via aloof text messages and hangout-cancellations? What clothes did they wear; what things did they read; what shows did they watch? Barring financial constraints, would Pip see Magic Mike XXL in the theater? $130,000 in student loans is alleged to loom over Pip, clouding her future happiness, but the day-to-day math of her straitened circumstances is missing, with none of the lovingly crafted accounting of pitiful finances that resulted in Chip Lambert's memorable salmon-down-the-pants scene in The Corrections. Nothing about the description of the Oakland squatters’ domicile that Purity inhabits -- or her co-residents -- necessarily convinces the reader that Jonathan Franzen has embedded with Occupiers and freegans. Purity sang for me in its least overtly culturally relevant moments -- like the complex romantic history of Pip's mentor (and Wolf's brother/foil) Tom Aberant, or that of his partner Leila Helou, who blooms into brilliant life for one section and then more or less fades away. There's the twisted romance of Tom and Pip’s mother, Anabel, put forth in a memoir saved on Tom’s hard drive as “A river of meat.” Like Patty Berglund in Freedom, Tom's explosive personal document drives events in the text. This is a vengeful -- on Franzen’s part, it seems -- piece of writing that describes Tom's long marriage with a comically unhinged harpy. Anabel is an artist; for much of their marriage she is at work on a decade-long performance piece visually documenting every centimeter of her own body: “You need to do whatever it takes to be finished,” Tom tells her. “You know I've never finished anything in my life,” she says. She beat her fists on her offending head. It took me two hours to talk her down and then a further hour to emerge from the sulk she’d put me in by suggesting that my aesthetic was vulgar. Then, for three hours, I helped her block out a rough schedule for completing her project, and then, for another hour, I began the transfer of important thoughts from the first of her forty-odd notebooks into a new notebook, written by me. Then it was time for her three hours of exercise. It's cruel, but it works. We never get Anabel’s point of view, although Pip more or less corroborates Tom’s account with her experience of being Anabel’s dutiful child. But unlike Tom, Pip has access to Anabel’s most endearing feature: "The pure, spontaneous love in that smile, every time she’d caught sight of Pip...Her mother had needed to give love and receive it...Was that so monstrous?" 2. In a recent article in Harper’s, William Deresiewicz lamented the neoliberalism that has taken over the university campus. “For all its rhetoric of freedom and individual initiative, the culture of the market is exceptionally good at inculcating a sense of helplessness. So much of the language around college today...presumes that young people are the passive objects of economic forces. That they have no agency, no options.” Franzen gives Pip a healthy dose of agency, considering the challenges posed by her financial situation and her difficult mother, but he also gives her a Dickensian surprise, making a millennial fairy-tale out of the story that somewhat corroborates Pip's oblivious young-person-ness: “The flight, in a too-small jet, dodging thunderstorms, cured Pip of any desire for future air travel. She expected death the whole way. What was interesting was how quickly she then forgot about it, like a dog to whom death was literally unimaginable...” As Pip hits tennis balls with a young man in a touching, chaste courtship, Franzen gives us all tacit permission to stop caring about the big stuff; it's nearly an acknowledgement that the big stuff, globally speaking, is never really what matters in his novels -- not nearly so much as love, anyway: “All over the state, reservoirs and wells were going dry, the taste and clarity of tap water worsening, farmers suffering, Northern Californians conserving while Orange County set new records for monthly consumption, but none of this mattered for the hour and a half that she was on the court with Jason.” Franzen's last book was The Kraus Project, an annotated translation of essays by the Viennese writer Karl Kraus. In one of these, Kraus lashes out against a style of brief, impressionistic journalism ascendant in his day. “Writing feuilletons means twining curls on a bald head,” Kraus grumped, and thus provided a point of entry for Franzen’s own celebrated brand of grumping. By coincidence, mere days after the release of Purity, New Directions will publish a collection of feuilletons by Joseph Roth, the great Austro-Hungarian novelist and journalist -- and a contemporary of Kraus -- beautifully translated by Michael Hofmann. Roth was a master of shedding light onto the "public context" in the uneasy interwar moment when Germany was gearing up for the great smash-up, when "in these assembly halls, where people used to go to smooch and drink, they [were] now daubing swastikas and Soviet stars on grimy walls." I read this haunting compilation -- one which utterly gives the lie to Kraus’s denigration of the feuilleton form -- concurrently with Purity. About Germany in this awful, pregnant moment, Roth wrote: Anyone who has sat at the bedside of a sick patient will know that the hours are not all pathos and anguish. The sick man will talk all kinds of nonsense, ridiculous, trivial, unworthy of himself and his condition. He is missing the regulating consciousness. That’s just want is missing in Germany: the regulating consciousness. I can't say how well Franzen writes Germany -- according to Roth in 1923, it is the "least understood nation in all of Europe" -- but I know that he is interested in the “regulating consciousness.” The noble art of journalism practiced well, the good sense of Pip, whatever it is that keeps Tom from strangling Anabel, whatever it is that's lacking from Andreas Wolf’s strange brain -- these things are that consciousness embodied. Franzen is also, I think, interested in creating the kind of luminous societal prophesy that animates Roth’s short, wondrous pieces. But Roth himself knew the pitfalls of that effort: From time to time I think of describing the ‘German,’ or defining his ‘typical’ existence. Probably that isn’t possible. Even when I sense the presence of such a thing, I am unable to define it. What can I do, apart from writing about individuals I meet by chance, setting down what greets my eyes and ears, and selecting from them as I see fit? The describing of singularities within this profusion may be the least deceptive; the chance thing, plucked from a tangle of others, may most easily make for order. I have seen this and that; I have tried to write about what stuck in my senses and my memory. I think Jonathan Franzen is a wonderful novelist. I don't know him, but I often feel like he knows me, and for that I love him. His work is most vulnerable to attack when it tries too visibly to be the chief diagnoser and prognosticator of "the culture." It is most meaningful when it deals in those "singularities within the profusion." Still, it endeavors always to do both -- and therein, I think, lies its essential goodness, its essential purity.

Most Anticipated: The Great Second-Half 2015 Book Preview

If you like to read, we've got some news for you. The second-half of 2015 is straight-up, stunningly chock-full of amazing books. If someone told you, "Hey, there are new books coming out by Margaret Atwood, Lauren Groff, Elena Ferrante, John Banville, and Jonathan Franzen this year," you might say, "Wow, it's going to be a great year for books." Well, those five authors all have books coming out in September this year (alongside 22 other books we're highlighting that month). This year, you'll also see new books from David Mitchell, Bonnie Jo Campbell, Aleksandar Hemon, Patti Smith, Colum McCann, Paul Murray, and what we think is now safe to call a hugely anticipated debut novel from our own Garth Risk Hallberg. The list that follows isn’t exhaustive -- no book preview could be -- but, at 9,100 words strong and encompassing 82 titles, this is the only second-half 2015 book preview you will ever need. Scroll down and get started. July: Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee: Fifty-five years after the publication of Lee's classic To Kill a Mockingbird, this “newly discovered” sequel picks up 20 years after the events of the first novel when Jean Louise Finch -- better known to generations of readers as Scout -- returns to Maycomb, Ala., to visit her lawyer father, Atticus. Controversy has dogged this new book as many have questioned whether the famously silent Lee, now pushing 90 and in poor health, truly wanted publication for this long-abandoned early effort to grapple with the characters and subject matter that would evolve into her beloved coming-of-age novel. (Michael) Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates: A journalist who learned the ropes from David Carr, Coates is one of our most incisive thinkers and writers on matters of race. Coates is unflinching when writing of the continued racial injustice in the United States: from growing up in Baltimore and its culture of violence that preceded the Freddie Gray riots, to making the case for reparations while revealing the systematic racism embedded in Chicago real estate, to demanding that South Carolina stop flying the Confederate flag. In Between the World and Me, Coates grapples with how to inhabit a black body and how to reckon with America’s fraught racial history from a more intimate perspective -- in the form of a letter to his adolescent son. Given the current state of affairs, this book should be required reading. Originally slated for September, the book was moved up to July. Spiegel & Grau Executive Editor Chris Jackson said, "We started getting massive requests from people [for advance copies.] It spoke to this moment. We started to feel pregnant with this book. We had this book that so many people wanted." Publishers Weekly's review dispensed with any coyness, saying, "This is a book that will be hailed as a classic of our time." (Anne) A Cure for Suicide by Jesse Ball: Elegant and spooky, dystopian and poetic, Jesse Ball’s follow-up to the well-reviewed Silence Once Begun follows a man known only as “the claimant” as he relearns everything under the guidance of an “examiner,” a woman who defines everything from the objects in their house to how he understands his existence. Then he meets another woman at a party and begins to question everything anew. A puzzle, a love story, and a tale of illness, memory, and manipulation, A Cure for Suicide promises to be a unique novel from a writer already known for his originality. (Kaulie) The Dying Grass by William T. Vollmann: Volume number five of Vollmann’s Seven Dreams series expands on the author's epic portrayal of the settlement of North America. In his latest, Vollmann depicts the Nez Perce War, a months-long conflict in 1877 that saw the eponymous Native American tribe defend their mountain territories from encroachment by the U.S. Army. According to Vollmann, who spoke with Tom Bissell about the series for a New Republic piece, the text consists of mostly dialogue. (Thom)   Armada by Ernest Cline: Billy Mitchell, the “greatest arcade-video-game player of all time,” devoted 40 hours a week to the perfection of his craft, but he says he never skipped school or missed work. That was 35 years ago, before video games exploded not only in size and complexity, but also in absorptive allure. Recently, things have changed. It was only a year ago that a California couple was imprisoned for locking their children in a dingy trailer so the two of them could play 'World of Warcraft" uninterrupted. (By comparison, Mitchell’s devotion seems pedestrian.) This year, programmers are working on "No Man’s Sky," a “galaxy-sized video game” that’ll allow players to zip around a full-scale universe in the name of interplanetary exploration. It sounds impossibly gigantic. And with escalation surely comes a reckoning: Why are people spending more time with games than without? Across the world, a new class of professional gamers are earning lucrative sponsorships and appearing on slickly produced televised tournaments with tuition-sized purses. But surely more than money is at stake. (Full disclosure: I made more real money selling virtual items in "Diablo III’s" online marketplace than I did from writing in '12.) As increasingly rich worlds draw us in, what are we hoping to gain? It can’t just be distraction, can it? Are there practical benefits, or are we just hoping there are? This, to me, sounds like the heart of Ernest Cline’s latest novel, Armada, which focuses on a real life alien invasion that can only be stopped by gamers who’ve been obediently (albeit unknowingly) training for this very task. (Nick M.) The Small Backs of Children by Lidia Yuknavitch: The visionary editor of Chiasmus Press and first to publish books by Kate Zambreno and Lily Hoang is herself a fierce and passionate writer. Yuknavitch is the author of a gutsy memoir, The Chronology of Water, and Dora: A Headcase, a fictional re-spinning of the Freudian narrative. Her new novel, Small Backs of Children, deals with art, violence, and the very real effects of witnessing violence and conflict through the media. According to Porochista Khakpour, the novel achieves “moments of séance with writers like Jean Rhys and Clarice Lispector,” a recommendation destined to make many a reader slaver. (Anne) Lovers on All Saints’ Day by Juan Gabriel Vásquez: The Colombian writer Juan Gabriel Vásquez has been compared to Gabriel García Márquez and Roberto Bolaño. Winner of the International IMPAC Dublin Award for his novel The Sound of Things Falling, Vásquez is bringing out a collection of seven short stories never before published in English (nimbly translated from the Spanish by Anne McLean). The twinned themes of this collection are love and memory, which Vásquez unspools through stories about love affairs, revenge, troubled histories -- whole lives and worlds sketched with a few deft strokes.  Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa has called Vásquez “one of the most original new voices of Latin American literature.” (Bill) Among the Wild Mulattos and Other Tales by Tom Williams: The recent passing of B.B. King makes Williams's previous book, Don't Start Me Talkin' -- a comic road novel about a pair of traveling blues musicians -- a timely read. His new story collection also skewers superficial discussions of race; admirers of James Alan McPherson will enjoy Williams's tragicomic sense. The book ranges from the hilarious “The Story of My Novel,” about an aspiring writer's book deal with Cousin Luther's Friend Chicken, to the surreal “Movie Star Entrances,” how one man's quest to remake himself with the help of an identity consulting company turns nefarious. Williams can easily, and forcefully, switch tragic, as in “The Lessons of Effacement.” When the main character is followed, he thinks “When your only offenses in life were drinking out of the juice carton and being born black in these United States, what could warrant such certain persecution?” Williams offers questions that are their own answers, as in the final story, when a biracial anthropologist discovers that a hidden mulatto community is more than simply legend. (Nick R.) August: Flood of Fire by Amitav Ghosh: Following Sea of Poppies (shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize) and River of Smoke, Calcutta-born 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. 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) Fortune Smiles by Adam Johnson: Johnson is best known for his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about North Korea, The Orphan Master’s Son, but he’s also the author of a terrific and off-kilter story collection called Emporium, a literary cousin to the sad-comic work of George Saunders, Sam Lipsyte, and Dan Chaon. This new collection of six stories, about everything from a former Stasi prison guard in East Germany to a computer programmer “finding solace in a digital simulacrum of the president of the United States,” echoes his early work while also building upon the ambition of his prize-winning tome. Kirkus gave the collection a starred review, calling it, “Bittersweet, elegant, full of hard-won wisdom.” (Edan) Wind/Pinball by Haruki Murakami: A reissue of Murakami's first novels, Hear the Wind Sing and Pinball, 1973, which form the first half of the so-called (four-book) Trilogy of the Rat. Written in 1978 and 1980, these books were never published outside of Japan, evidently at Murakami's behest. He seems to have relented. (Lydia)     The State We’re In: Maine Stories by Ann Beattie: Fifteen stories -- connected by their depictions of a number of shared female characters – make up this new collection by short story master Beattie. In “Major Maybe,” which originally appeared in The New Yorker, two young roommates navigate Chelsea in the '80s. In “The Repurposed Barn,” readers glimpse an auction of Elvis Presley lamps, and in “Missed Calls,” a writer meets a photographer’s widow. Though most of the stories take place in Beattie’s home state of Maine, the author says they required her to call on the work of memory, as they took place in a “recalled” Maine rather than the Maine “outside her window.” (Thom) The Marriage of Opposites by Alice Hoffman: Describing Rachel, the protagonist of Alice Hoffman’s 34th novel, as the mother of Camille Pissarro, the Father of Impressionism, feels like exactly the kind of thing I shouldn’t be doing right now. That’s because The Marriage of Opposites isn’t about an artist. It’s about the very real woman who led a full and interesting life of her own, albeit one that was profoundly shaped by decisions she didn’t make. Growing up in 19th-century St. Thomas, among a small community of Jewish refugees who’d fled the Inquisition, Rachel dreams of worlds she’s never known, like Paris. No doubt she yearns for a freedom she’s never known, too, after her father arranges her marriage to one of his business associates. What happens next involves a sudden death, a passionate affair, and an act of defiance signaling that perhaps Rachel is free, and that certainly she’s got her own story to tell. (Nick M.) The Complete Stories by Clarice Lispector: For readers who worship at the altar of Lispector, the appearance of new work in translation is an event. Her writing has long been celebrated across her homeland, Brazil, and Latin America, but it wasn’t until recently that her name became common currency among English readers thanks to New Directions’s reissue of her novels and Benjamin Moser's notable biography. To add to the allure of “Brazil’s great mystic writer,” Moser offers, she was “that rare woman who looked like Marlene Dietrich and wrote like Virginia Woolf.” Calling the release of Lispector’s Complete Stories in English an “epiphany” in its promotional copy may sound like hyperbole. It’s not. (Anne) Let Me Tell You: New Stories, Essays, and Other Writings by Shirley Jackson: Shirley Jackson has been a powerhouse in American fiction ever since her haunting 1948 short story “The Lottery,” which showcased her talent for turning the quotidian into something eerie and unnerving. Although she died 50 years ago, her family is still mining her archives for undiscovered gems, resulting in this new collection of 56 pieces, more than 40 of which have never been published before. From short stories to comic essays to drawings, Jackson’s full range is on display, yet her wit and sharp examination of social norms is present throughout. (Tess) Three Moments of an Explosion by China Miéville: Miéville, the author of more than a dozen novels, is the sort of writer that deftly leaps across (often artificially-imposed) genre divides. He describes his corner of speculative fiction as “weird fiction,” in the footsteps of H.P. Lovecraft. (Tor.com mocked the desire to endlessly subcategorise genre by also placing his work in “New Weird!” “Fantastika!” “Literary Speculation!” “Hauntological Slipstream!” “Tentacular Metafusion!”) His first short story collection was published a decade ago; his second, with 10 previously-published stories and 18 new ones, is out in the U.S. in August. (Elizabeth) The Daughters by Adrienne Celt: Celt, who is also a comics artist, writes in her bio that she grew up in Seattle, and has both worked for Google and visited a Russian prison.  Her debut novel covers a lot of ground, emotionally and culturally: opera, Polish mythology, and motherhood/daughterhood. Kirkus has given The Daughters a starred review -- “haunting” and “psychologically nuanced” -- and she was a finalist for the Sherwood Anderson Fiction Award, among others. Celt’s web comics appear weekly here, and she sells t-shirts! One to watch.(Sonya) Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh: If anyone’s a Paris Review regular it’s Ottessa Moshfegh, with a coveted Plimpton Prize and four stories to her name (in only three year’s time). Her narrators have a knack for all kind of bad behavior: like the algebra teacher who imbibes 40s from the corner bodega on school nights, who smokes in bed and drunk dials her ex-husband, or the woman who offers to shoot a flock of birds for her apartment-manager boyfriend. Moshfegh’s novels track the lives of characters who are equally and indulgently inappropriate. Moshfegh’s first full-length novel Eileen follows a secretary at a boys prison (whose vices include a shoplifting habit) who becomes lured by friendship into committing a far larger crime. (Anne) Shipbreaking by Robin Beth Schaer: Schaer worked as a deckhand on the HMS Bounty, which sank during Hurricane Sandy, so I entered Shipbreaking feeling that I would be in credible hands. I often read poetry to find phrases and lines to hold with me beyond the final page, and Schaer, who once wrote that “to leave the shore required surrender,” delivers. “I am / forgiven by water, but savaged by sky” says one narrator. Another: “Even swooning / is a kind of fainting, overwhelmed / by bliss, instead of pain.” Shipbreaking is a book about being saved while recognizing loss. Schaer’s words apply equally to marine and shore moments, as so often life is “a charade that only deepens / the absence it bends to hide.” Schaer’s long poems are especially notable; “Middle Flight” and “Natural History” remake pregnancy and motherhood: “Before now, he floated in dark water...Someday he too will chase his lost lightness / half-remembered toward the sky.” If we trust our poets enough, we allow them cause wounds and then apply the salves: “The world without us / is nameless.” (Nick R.) Last Mass by Jamie Iredell: "I am a Catholic." So begins Iredell's book, part memoir about growing up Catholic in Monterey County, Calif., part historical reconsideration of Blessed Father Fray Juníperro Serra, an 18th-century Spanish Franciscan who will be canonized by Pope Francis later this year. Structured around the Stations of the Cross, Iredell's unique book reveals the multitudinous complexities of Catholic identity, and how the tensions between those strands are endemic to Catholic culture. Think of Last Mass as William Gass's On Being Blue recast as On Being Catholic: Iredell's range is encyclopedic without feeling stretched. Delivered in tight vignettes that capture the Catholic tendency to be simultaneously specific and universal, the book's heart is twofold. First, how faith is ultimately a concern of the flesh, as seen in the faithful’s reverence for the body of Christ and struggles over experiencing sexuality (Catholics pivot between the obscene and the divine without missing a step). Second, in documenting Catholic devotion to saintly apocrypha, Iredell carries the reader to his most heartfelt note: his devotion and love for his father and family. (Nick R.) September: Purity by Jonathan Franzen: Known for his mastery of the modern domestic drama and his disdain for Internet things, Franzen, with his latest enormous novel, broadens his scope from the tree-lined homes of the Midwest and the Mainline to variously grim and paradisiacal domiciles in Oakland, East Germany, and Bolivia; alters his tableaux from the suburban nuclear family to fractured, lonely little twosomes; and progresses from cat murder to human murder. The result is something odd and unexpected -- a political novel that is somehow less political than his family novels at their coziest, and shot through with new strains of bitterness. Expect thinkpieces. (Lydia) Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff: Groff’s highly anticipated third novel follows married couple Lotto and Matthilde for over two decades, starting with an opening scene (published on The Millions), of the young, just-hitched duo getting frisky on the beach. The book was one of the galleys-to-grab at BookExpo America this spring, and it’s already received glowing reviews from Library Journal, Publishers Weekly, and Kirkus. Meg Wolitzer writes of Groff: “Because she's so vitally talented line for line and passage for passage, and because her ideas about the ways in which two people can live together and live inside each other, or fall away from each other, or betray each other, feel foundationally sound and true, Fates and Furies becomes a book to submit to, and be knocked out by, as I certainly was.” (Edan) The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood: A hotly anticipated story about “a near-future in which the lawful are locked up and the lawless roam free,” this is Atwood’s first standalone novel since The Blind Assassin, which won the Man Booker in 2000 (The Penelopiad was part of the Canongate Myth Series). Charmaine and Stan are struggling to make ends meet in the midst of social and economic turmoil. They strike a deal to join a “social experiment” that requires them to swap suburban paradise for their freedom. Given Atwood’s reputation for wicked social satire, I doubt it goes well. Publishers Weekly notes, "The novel is set in the same near-future universe as Atwood’s Positron series of four short stories, released exclusively as e-books. The most recent Positron installment, which was published under the same name as the upcoming novel, came out in 2013." (Claire) The Blue Guitar by John Banville: Banville’s 16th novel takes its title from a Wallace Stevens poem about artistic imagination and perception: “Things as they are/ Are changed upon the blue guitar.” Banville’s protagonist, Oliver Otway Orme, is a talented but blocked painter, an adulterer, and something of a kleptomaniac who returns to his childhood home to ruminate on his misdeeds and vocation. With such an intriguing, morally suspect central character as his instrument, Banville should be able to play one of his typically beguiling tunes. (Matt) The Story of the Lost Child by Elena Ferrante: Ferrante writes what James Wood called "case histories, full of flaming rage, lapse, failure, and tenuous psychic success." In the fourth and final of the reclusive global publishing sensation's Neapolitan novels, we return to Naples and to the tumultuous friendship of Lila Cerullo and Elena Greco. (Lydia)     Undermajordomo Minor by Patrick DeWitt: DeWitt’s second novel, The Sisters Brothers, was short-listed for the Man Booker and just about every Canadian prize going, and for good reason. It took the grit, melancholy, and wit of the Western genre and bent it just enough toward the absurd. This new work, billed as “a fable without a moral,” is about a young man named Lucien (Lucy) Minor who becomes an undermajordomo at a castle full of mystery, dark secrets, polite theft, and bitter heartbreak. Our own Emily St. John Mandel calls it, “unexpectedly moving story about love, home, and the difficulty of finding one’s place in the world.” (Claire) Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights by Salman Rushdie: A new Rushdie novel is an event -- as is a new Rushdie tweet for that matter, especially after his vigorous defense of PEN’s decision to honor Charlie Hebdo. His latest follows the magically gifted descendants of a philosopher and a jinn, one of those seductive spirits who “emerge periodically to trouble and bless mankind.” These offspring are marshaled into service when a war breaks out between the forces of light and dark that lasts, you got it, two years, eight months, and 28 nights. You can read an excerpt at The New Yorker. (Matt) Sweet Caress by William Boyd: Boyd is one of those Englishmen who changes hats as effortlessly as most people change socks. A novelist, screenwriter, playwright, and movie director, Boyd has been shortlisted for the Booker Prize (for 1982’s An Ice-Cream War), and he recently wrote the James Bond novel Solo. His new novel, Sweet Caress, is the story of Amory Clay, whose passion for photography takes her from London to Berlin in the decadent 1920s, New York in the turbulent '30s, and France during World War II, where she becomes one of the first female war photographers. This panoramic novel is illustrated with “found” period photographs. (Bill) The Visiting Privilege: New and Collected Stories by Joy Williams: The “definitive” collection from an acknowledged mastress of the short story -- Rea Award Winner alongside Donald Barthelme, Alice Munro, Robert Coover, Deborah Eisenberg, James Salter, Mary Robison, Amy Hempel, et alia -- The Visiting Privilege collects 33 stories from three previous collections, and 13 stories previously unpublished in book form. Joy Williams has been a writer’s writer for decades, yet never goes out of fashion. Her stories are sometimes difficult, bizarre, upsetting even; and always funny, truthful, and affecting. Williams once exhorted student writers to write something “worthy, necessary; a real literature instead of the Botox escapist lit told in the shiny prolix comedic style that has come to define us.” Would-be writers perplexed by what is meant by an original “voice” should read Williams, absolutely. Read her in doses, perhaps, but read her, for godssakes. (Sonya) Did You Ever Have a Family by Bill Clegg: By day, Clegg is a glamorous New York literary agent known for snagging fat book deals for literary authors like Matthew Thomas and Daniyal Mueenuddin. At night, he peels off the power suit and becomes a literary author himself, first with two memoirs about his descent into -- and back out of -- crack addiction, and now a debut novel. In Did You Ever Have a Family, tragedy strikes a middle-aged woman on the eve of her daughter’s wedding, setting her off on a journey across the country from Connecticut to the Pacific Northwest, where she hides out in a small beachside hotel. (Michael) The Lost Landscape by Joyce Carol Oates: Volcanically prolific Oates has produced another memoir, The Lost Landscape: A Writer’s Coming of Age, which focuses on her formative years growing up on a hard-scrabble farm in upstate New York.  We learn of young Oates’s close friendship with a red hen, her first encounters with death, and the revelation, on discovering Alice in Wonderland, that life offers endless adventures to those who know how to look for them.  Witnessing the birth of this natural storyteller, we also witness her learning harsh lessons about work, sacrifice and loss -- what Oates has called “the difficulties, doubts and occasional despair of my experience.” (Bill) The Double Life of Liliane by Lily Tuck: The only child of a German movie producer living in Italy and an artistic mother living in New York, Liliane also has ancestors as varied as Mary Queen of Scots, Moses Mendelssohn, and a Mexican adventurer. In this sixth, semi-autobiographical novel from Lily Tuck, winner of the National Book Award for The News from Paraguay, the imaginative Liliane uncovers her many ancestors, tracing and combining their histories as she goes. The result is a writerly coming-of-age that spans both World Wars, multiple continents, and all of one very diverse family. (Kaulie) This is Your Life, Harriet Chance! by Jonathan Evison: A writer with a reputation for having a big heart takes on Harriet Chance who, at 79 years old and after the death of her husband, goes on a Alaskan cruise. Soon she discovers that she’s been living under false pretenses for the past 60 years. In other hands, this story might turn out as schmaltzy as the cruise ship singer, but Evison’s previous novels, The Revised Fundamentals of CaregivingWest of Here, and All About Lulu have established him as a master of the wistfully wise and humanely humorous. As Evison said in a recent interview, fiction is “an exercise in empathy.” (Claire) Gold, Fame, Citrus, by Claire Vaye Watkins: Set in an increasingly plausible-seeming future in which drought has transformed Southern California into a howling wasteland, this debut novel by the author of the prize-winning story collection Battleborn finds two refugees of the water wars holed up in a starlet’s abandoned mansion in L.A.’s Laurel Canyon. Seeking lusher landscape, the pair head east, risking attack by patrolling authorities, roving desperadoes, and the unrelenting sun. (Michael)   Cries for Help, Various by Padgett Powell: Back when the working title for his new story collection was Cries for Help: Forty-Five Failed Novels, Padgett Powell proclaimed the book “unsalable.” He was wrong. It’s coming out as Cries for Help, Various, and it’s a reminder that with Padgett Powell, anything is possible. In “Joplin and Dickens,” for instance, the titular singer and writer meet as emotionally needy students in an American middle school. Surreal wackiness can’t disguise the fact that these 44 stories are grounded in such very real preoccupations as longing, loneliness, and cultural nostalgia. The authorial voice ranges from high to low, from cranky to tender. It’s the music of a virtuoso. (Bill) The Marvels by Brian Selznick: You know a book is eagerly awaited when you witness an actual mob scene full of shoving and elbows for advance copies at BookExpo America. (In case there’s any doubt, I did witness this.) Selznick, the Caldecott-winning author and illustrator of dozens of children’s books, is best known for The Invention of Hugo Cabret, published in 2008. His newest work weaves together “two seemingly unrelated stories” told in two seemingly unrelated forms: a largely visual tale that begins with an 18th-century shipwreck, and a largely prose one that begins in London in 1990. (Elizabeth) Scrapper by Matt Bell: Set in a re-imagined Detroit, Bell’s second novel follows Kelly, a “scrapper,” who searches for valuable materials in the city’s abandoned buildings. One day Kelly finds an orphaned boy, a discovery that forces Kelly to reexamine his own past and buried traumas. Advance reviews describe Scrapper as “harrowing” and “grim,” two adjectives that could also be used to describe Bell’s hypnotic debut, In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods. (Hannah)   Above the Waterfall by Ron Rash: For his sixth novel, Ron Rash returns to the beautiful but unforgiving Appalachian hills that have nourished most of his fiction and poetry. In Above the Waterfall, a sheriff nearing retirement and a young park ranger seeking to escape her past come together in a small Appalachian town bedeviled by poverty and crystal meth. A vicious crime will plunge the unlikely pair into deep, treacherous waters. Rash, a 2009 PEN/Faulkner Award finalist, is one of our undisputed Appalachian laureates, in company with Robert Morgan, Lee Smith, Fred Chappell, and Mark Powell. He has called this “a book about wonder, about how nature might sustain us.” (Bill) The Story of My Teeth by Valeria Luiselli: This young Mexican writer and translator was honored last year with a National Book Foundation “Five Under 35” Award for her 2013 debut, Faces in the Crowd. Her essay collection Sidewalks, published the same year, was also a critical favorite. Her second novel, The Story of My Teeth, is a story of stories, narrated by Gustavo “Highway” Sánchez Sánchez, a traveling auctioneer whose prize possession is a set of Marilyn Monroe’s dentures. Set in Mexico City, it was written in collaboration with Jumex Factory Staff -- which is a story in and of itself. (Hannah) Marvel and a Wonder by Joe Meno: The author of Hairstyles of the Damned and The Boy Detective Fails has taken an ambitious turn with Marvel and a Wonder. The book follows a Korean War vet living with his 16-year-old grandson on a farm in southern Indiana. They are given a beautiful quarterhorse, an unexpected gift that transforms their lives, but when the horse is stolen they embark on a quest to find the thieves and put their lives back together. (Janet)   Under the Udala Trees by Chinelo Okparanta: Okparanta was born in Nigeria and raised as a Jehovah’s Witness. She emigrated to the United States at age 10, but her fiction often returns to Nigeria, painting a striking portrait of the contemporary nation. Her first book, the 2013 short story collection Happiness, Like Water, was shortlisted for many prizes and won the 2014 Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Fiction. Her debut novel, Under the Udala Trees, tells the story of two young girls who fall in love against the backdrop of the Nigerian Civil War. (Elizabeth)   After the Parade by Lori Ostlund: This assured debut tells the story of Aaron, an ESL teacher who decides, at age 40, to leave his lifelong partner, the older man who “saved him” from his Midwestern hometown. But in order to move on, Aaron has to take a closer look at his Midwestern past and find out if there’s anything worth salvaging. Readers may know Ostlund from her award-winning 2010 short story collection, The Bigness of the World. (Hannah)     The Hundred Year Flood by Matthew Salesses: Like the titular flood that churns through the second half of the novel, The Hundred Year Flood is a story of displacement. Salesses, whose non-fiction examines adoption and identity, tells the story of Tee, a Korean-American living in Prague in late 2001. The attacks of 9/11 are not mere subtext in this novel; Tee’s uncle commits suicide by plane, and the entire novel dramatizes how the past binds our present. “Anywhere he went he was the only Asian in Prague,” but Tee soon finds friendship in Pavel, a painter made famous during the 1989 Velvet Revolution, and Katka, his wife. Tee becomes Pavel’s subject, and soon, Katka’s lover. “In the paintings, [Tee] was more real than life. His original self had been replaced:” Salesses novel dramatically documents how longing can turn, painfully, into love. (Nick R.) Not on Fire, but Burning by Greg Hrbek: An explosion has destroyed San Francisco. Twelve-year-old Dorian and his parents have survived it, but where is his older sister, Skyler? She never existed, according to Dorian’s parents. Post-incident America is a sinister place, where Muslims have been herded onto former Native American reservations and parents deny the existence of a boy’s sister. According to the publisher, Hrbek’s sophomore novel is “unlike anything you've read before -- not exactly a thriller, not exactly sci-fi, not exactly speculative fiction, but rather a brilliant and absorbing adventure into the dark heart of...America.” Joining the Melville House family for his third book, Hrbek, whose story “Paternity” is in the current issue of Tin House, may be poised to be the next indie breakout. (Sonya) Dryland by Sara Jaffe: Jaffe has lived many lives it seems, one as a guitarist for punk band Erase Errata, another as a founding editor of New Herring Press (which just reissued a bang-up edition of Lynne Tillman's Weird Fucks with paintings by Amy Sillman). Proof of Jaffe’s life as a fiction-writer can be found online, too, including gems like “Stormchasers.” This fall marks the publication of Jaffe’s first novel, Dryland, a coming-of-age tale set in the '90s that depicts a girl whose life is defined by absences, including and especially that of her not-talked about older brother, until she has a chance to find him and herself. (Anne) Hotel and Vertigo by Joanna Walsh: British critic, journalist, and fiction writer Walsh kickstarted 2014 with the #readwomen hashtag phenomenon, declaring it the year to read only women. It seems that 2015 is the year to publish them, and specifically Walsh, who has two books coming out this fall. Hotel is “part memoir part meditation” that draws from Walsh’s experience as a hotel reviewer -- and that explores “modern sites of gathering and alienation.” The inimitable Dorothy Project will publish Vertigo, a book of loosely linked stories that channels George Perec and Christine Brooke-Rose, and which Amina Cain claims, “quietly subvert(s) the hell out of form.” (Anne) October: City on Fire by Garth Risk Hallberg: Garth is a contributing editor to the site, where he has written masterful essays over nearly a decade, while teaching and putting out his novella Field Guide to the North American Family. He is a keen and perfect reader of novels, and of critics -- he told us about Roberto Bolaño. We trust him to steer us through difficult books. (He is, additionally, a champion punner.) When his debut novel, a 900-pager written over six years, was purchased by Knopf, we felt not only that it couldn't happen to a nicer guy, but that it couldn't happen to a more serious, a more bona fide person of letters. City on Fire is the result of his wish to write a novel that took in "9/11, the 1977 blackout, punk rock, the fiscal crisis," which explains the 900 pages. Read the opening lines, evoking a modern Infernohere. I think we're in for something special. (Lydia) Slade House by David Mitchell: Slade House started out with “The Right Sort,” a short story Mitchell published via 280 tweets last summer as publicity for The Bone Clocks. That story, which was published in full, exclusively here at The Millions, is about a boy and his mother attending a party to which they’d received a mysterious invitation. The story “ambushed” him, said Mitchell, and, before he knew it, it was the seed of a full-fledged novel, seemingly about years of mysterious parties at the same residence that we can assume are connected to each other and to characters we’ve already met. The book is said to occupy the same universe as The Bone Clocks and, by extension, Mitchell’s increasingly interconnected body of work. (Janet) M Train by Patti Smith: The follow-up to Just Kids, Smith’s much-beloved (and National Book Award-winning) 2010 memoir about her youthful friendship with the artist Robert Mapplethorpe as they made their way in 1960s New York City. In a recent interview, Smith said M Train is “not a book about the past so much. It’s who I am, what I do, what I’m thinking about, what I read and the coffee I drink. The floors I pace. So we’ll see. I hope people like it.” Oh Patti, we know we’re gonna like it. (Hannah) Behind the Glass Wall by Aleksandar Hemon: Hemon has lived in the U.S. since the war in his native Bosnia made it impossible for him to return from what should have been a temporary visit. So he came to his role as the U.N.’s first writer-in-residence in its 70-year history with a lot of baggage. Given unprecedented access to the organization’s inner working -- from the general assembly to the security council -- his book portrays a deeply flawed but vitally necessary institution. (Janet) A Strangeness in My Mind by Orhan Pamuk: Nobel laureate Pamuk’s ninth novel follows Mevlut, an Istanbul street vendor. Beginning in the 1970s, the book covers four decades of urban life, mapping the city’s fortunes and failures alongside Mevlut’s, and painting a nostalgic picture of Pamuk's beloved home. (Hannah)     Mothers, Tell Your Daughters: Stories by Bonnie Jo Campbell: In Once Upon a River, Campbell introduced us to the wily and wise-beyond-her-years Margo Crane, a modern-day female Huck Finn taking to the river in search of her lost mother. The strong and stubborn protagonists that the Michigan author excels at writing are back in her third short story collection. The working-class women in these stories are grief-addled brides, phlebotomists discovering their sensuality, and vengeful abused wives, all drawn with Campbell’s signature dark humor and empathy. (Tess) 100 Years of the Best American Short Stories edited by Lorrie Moore: For 100 years, the Best American series has collected the strongest short stories, from Ernest Hemingway to Sherman Alexie. As editor, Lorrie Moore, a virtuoso of the genre herself, combed through more than 2,000 stories to select the 41 featured in this anthology. But this is not just a compilation, it’s also an examination of how the genre has evolved. Series editor Heidi Pitlor recounts the literary trends of the 20th century, including the rise of Depression-era Southern fiction to the heyday of the medium in the 1980s. The result is collection featuring everyone from F. Scott Fitzgerald to Lauren Groff. (Tess) The Secret Chord by Geraldine Brooks: The author of March and Caleb’s Crossing, known for her abilities to bring history to life, has turned her attention to David King of Israel. Taking the famous stories of his shephardic childhood, defeat of Goliath, and troubled rule as king, Brooks fills in the gaps and humanizes the legend in a saga of family, faith, and power. (Janet)     Thirteen Ways of Looking by Colum McCann: With a title borrowed from the iconic Wallace Stevens poem “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” McCann explores disparate points of view in this collection of short stories. The title story follows a retired judge going about his day, not realizing it’s his last. Other stories peek into the life of a nun, a marine, and a mother and son whose Christmas is marked by an unexpected disappearance. (Hannah)   The Mark and the Void by Paul Murray: Murray’s 2010 novel Skippy Dies earned the Irishman worldwide acclaim as a writer enviably adept at both raucous humor and bittersweet truth. His new novel, perhaps the funniest thing to come out of the Irish economic collapse, follows Claude, a low-level bank employee who, while his employers drive the country steadily towards ruin, falls in with a struggling novelist intent on making Claude’s life worthy of telling. (Janet)   The Tsar of Love and Techno by Anthony Marra: A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, Marra’s first novel about war-torn Chechnya during the Second Chechen War, was not only a New York Times bestseller, it was also a longlist selection for the National Book Award and on a bevy of best-of lists for 2013. His second book is a collection of short stories that, like his novel, span a number of years, and take place in the same part of the world. There’s a 1930s Soviet censor laboring beneath Leningrad, for example, as well as a chorus of women who, according to the jacket copy, “recount their stories and those of their grandmothers, former gulag prisoners who settled their Siberian mining town.” The characters in these stories are interconnected, proving that Marra is as ambitious with the short form as he is with the novel. (Edan) Death by Water by Kenzaburō Ōe: Six years after Sui Shi came out in his native Japan, the 1994 Nobel Prize laureate’s latest is arriving in an English translation. In the book, which features Oe’s recurring protagonist Kogito Choko, a novelist attempts to fictionalize his father’s death by drowning at sea. Because the memory was traumatic, and because Choko’s family refuses to talk about his father, the writer begins to confuse his facts, eventually growing so frustrated he shelves his novel altogether. His quest is hopeless, or so it appears, until he meets an avant-garde theater troupe, which provides him with the impetus to keep going. (Thom) Submission by Michel Houellebecq: This much-discussed satirical novel by the provocative French author is, as Adam Shatz wrote for the LRB, a "melancholy tribute to the pleasure of surrender." In this case, the surrender is that of the French intelligentsia to a gently authoritarian Islamic government. The novel has been renounced as Islamophobic, defended against these charges in language that itself runs the gamut from deeply Islamophobic to, er, Islam-positive, and resulted in all kinds of moral-intellectual acrobatics and some very cute titles ("Colombey-les-deux-Mosquées" or "Slouching towards Mecca"). (Lydia) Golden Age by Jane Smiley: The third volume in Smiley’s Last Hundred Years trilogy follows the descendants of a hard-striving Iowa farming family through the waning years of the last century to the present day. The first two installments covered the years 1920-52 (in Some Luck) and 1953-86 (in Early Warning), mixing lively characters and sometimes improbable plot twists with gently left-of-center political analysis of the American century. With characters who are serving in Iraq and working in New York finance, expect more of the same as Smiley wraps up her ambitious three-book project. (Michael) Ghostly: A Collection of Ghost Stories by Audrey Niffenegger: From a contemporary master of spooky stories comes an anthology of the best ghost stories. Niffenegger’s curation shows how the genre has developed from the 19th century to now, with a focus on hauntings. Each story comes with an introduction from her, whether it’s a story by a horror staple like Edgar Allan Poe or the unexpected like Edith Wharton. Also look for a Niffenegger original, “A Secret Life with Cats.” (Tess)   The Hours Count by Jillian Cantor: In Cantor’s previous novel, Margot, Anne Frank’s sister has survived World War II, and is living under an assumed identity in America. Cantor’s new book once again blends fact and fiction, this time delving into the lives of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, the only Americans executed for spying during the Cold War. The day Ethel was arrested, her two young children were left with a neighbor, and in The Hours Count Cantor fictionalizes this neighbor, and we understand the Rosenbergs and their story through the eyes of this young, naïve woman. Christina Baker Kline calls the novel “Taut, atmospheric and absorbing...” (Edan) Lafayette in the Somewhat United States by Sarah Vowell: As a teenager, the Marquis de Lafayette was an officer in the Continental Army at the right hand of George Washington. Returning home to his native France after the war, he continued to socialize with his friends Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and Benjamin Franklin, and never lost his place in America’s affections. The author of Assassination Vacation tells the true story of the young French aristocrat who inserted himself into the American Revolution, his long and eventful life on both sides of the Atlantic, and his triumphant return to America at the end of his life. (Janet) The Early Stories of Truman Capote: As any teacher can tell you, fiction written by 14-year-olds is not something you’d typically pay money to read. (It’s hard enough to find people you can pay to read the stuff, at that.) But what about fiction written by a 14-year-old who started writing seriously at age 11? And one who’d go on to write some of the most memorable stories of the modern age? That certainly changes things, and that’s the case at hand with The Early Stories of Truman Capote, which is said to contain 17 pieces written during the author’s teenage years. “When [Capote] was 23, he used to joke that he looked like he was 12,” journalist Anuschka Roshani told Die Zeit after she had discovered the forgotten stories in the New York Public Library. “But when he was 12 he wrote like others did aged 40.” (Nick M.) Upright Beasts by Lincoln Michel: There’s a good chance you’ve encountered Michel’s stories, scattered far and wide across the Internet, and featured in the most reputable and disreputable journals alike. And if not his stories, then perhaps one of his many editorial or side projects, as co-founder of Gigantic, online editor of Electric Literature and, (delightfully) as creator of the Monsters of Literature trading cards. Michel’s stories are often an uncanny combination of sinister and funny, tender and sad. Laura van den Berg calls them “mighty surrealist wonders, mordantly funny and fiercely intelligent,” and many of them will soon be released together in Michel’s first story collection Upright Beasts. (Anne) November: The Mare by Mary Gaitskill: In 2012, Gaitskill read for a student audience from the novel-in-progress The Mare, which was then described as “an adult fairy-tale unsuitable for children’s ears.” The clichéd publicity blurb gives one pause -- “the story of a Dominican girl, the white woman who introduces her to riding, and the horse who changes everything for her” -- but also, for this Gaitskill fan, induces eagerness to see what will surely be Gaitskill’s intimate and layered take on this familiar story trope. The young girl, Velveteen, is a Fresh Air Fund kid from Brooklyn who spends time with a married couple upstate and the horses down the road. Drug addiction, race, and social-class collisions make up at least some of the layers here. (Sonya) The Givenness of Things: Essays by Marilynne Robinson: Robinson is one of the most beloved contemporary American writers, and she’s also one of our most cogent voices writing about religion and faith today. “Robinson's genius is for making indistinguishable the highest ends of faith and fiction,” Michelle Orange wrote of Robinson’s last novel, Lila, and this talent is on display across her new essay collection, 14 essays that meditate on the complexities of Christianity in America today. (Elizabeth) Beatlebone by Kevin Barry: IMPAC-winner Barry -- who we’ve interviewed here at The Millions -- follows John Lennon on a fictional trip to Ireland. In the story, which takes place in 1978, Lennon sets out to find an island he purchased nine years earlier, in a bid to get the solitude he needs to break out of a creative rut. His odyssey appears to be going according to plan -- until, that is, he meets a charming, shape-shifting taxi driver. (Thom) The Big Green Tent by Ludmila Ulitskaya: The Big Green Tent -- at 592 pages and dramatizing a panorama of life in the USSR in the 1950s through the story of three friends -- is a Russian novel, at the same time that it is a “Russian novel.”  An orphaned poet, a pianist, and a photographer each in his own way fights the post-Joseph Stalin regime; you might guess that the results are less than feel-good. This may be the Big Book of the year, and Library Journal is calling it “A great introduction to readers new to Ulitskaya,” who, along with being the most popular novelist in Russia, is an activist and rising voice of moral authority there. For more on Ulitsakya, read Masha Gessen’s 2014 profile. (Sonya) Hotels of North America by Rick Moody: For writers both motivated and irked by online reviews, the comment-lurking hero of Moody’s sixth novel should hit close to home. Reginald Edward Morse writes reviews on RateYourLodging.com, yet they aren’t just about the quality of hotel beds and room service -- but his life. Through his comments, he discusses his failings, from his motivational speaking career to his marriage to his relationship with his daughter. When Morse disappears, these comments become the trail of breadcrumbs Moody follows to find him in this clever metafictional take on identity construction. (Tess) Avenue of Mysteries by John Irving: Although Irving feels a little out of vogue these days, his novels have inflected the tenor of modern American literature -- open a novel and see a glimpse of T.S. Garp, a flash of Owen Meany, a dollop of Bogus Trumper. His 14th novel is based, confusingly, on an original screenplay for a movie called Escaping Maharashtra, and takes us to Mexico and the Philippines. (Lydia)     Twain & Stanley Enter Paradise by Oscar Hijuelos: When Hijuelos, author of The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, passed away in 2013, he left behind Twain & Stanley Enter Paradise, a novel he’d been working on for more than 12 years. In it, the author imagined a fictitious manuscript containing correspondence between Welsh explorer Henry Morton Stanley, the artist Dorothy Tennant, and Mark Twain. In a virtuoso performance, Hijuelos displays his ability to use a high 19th-century writing style while preserving the individual voices that made each of his subjects so unique. (Nick M.) A Wild Swan: And Other Tales by Michael Cunningham: Pulitzer Prize-winning Cunningham, best known for The Hours, a creative take on Mrs. Dalloway that was itself adapted into a prize-winning movie starring Nicole Kidman and a prosthetic nose, has chosen a new adaptation project: fairy tales. In A Wild Swan, all the familiar fairy tale characters are present, but clearly modernized -- Jack of beanstalk fame lives in his mother’s basement, while the Beast stands in line at the convenience store. Their stories receive similar updates and include all the questions and moments our childhood tales politely skimmed over. (Kaulie) Numero Zero by Umberto Eco: The Italian writer, best known in the U.S. for The Name of the Rose and Foucault’s Pendulum, takes on modern Italy's bete noire -- Benito Mussolini -- in Numero Zero. Moving deftly from 1945 to 1992 and back again, the book shows both the death of the dictator and the odyssey of a hack writer in Colonna, who learns of a bizarre conspiracy theory that says Il Duce survived his own murder. Though its plot is very different, the book pairs naturally with Look Who’s Back, the recent German novel about a time-traveling Adolf Hitler. (Thom) The Past by Tessa Hadley: Hadley’s fifth novel, the well-received Clever Girl, was released just over a year ago, but she’s already back with another delicately crafted novel of generational change in an English family. In The Past, four grown siblings -- three sisters and their brother -- return to their grandparents’ house for three sticky summer weeks. While there, they face collected childhood memories, the possibility of having to sell the house, and each other. Their families cause considerable chaos as well -- the sisters dislike their brother’s wife, while one sister’s boyfriend’s son attempts to seduce her niece. (Kaulie) January: Good on Paper by Rachel Cantor: Cantor’s first novel, A Highly Unlikely Scenario, or a Neetsa Pizza Employee’s Guide to Saving the World, garnered a devoted following for its madcap, time-traveling chutzpah. Her second novel, Good on Paper, also published by Melville House, sounds a bit different -- but just as enticing. According to the jacket copy, it’s about “a perpetual freelancer who gets an assignment that just might change her life,” and there are echoes of A.S. Byatt’s Possession. (Edan)     Destruction and Sorrow Beneath the Heavens: Reportage by László Krasznahorkai: Nine out of 10 doctors agree: Hungarian fiction is the cure for positivity, and few doses are as potent as the ones written by Krasznahorkai, recent winner of the Man Booker International Prize. “If gloom, menace and entropy are your thing,” Larry Rohter wrote in his profile of the author for The New York Times, “then Laszlo is your man.” And our interview with Krasznahorkai garnered the headline “Anticipate Doom.” Ominous for Chinese officials, then, that Krasznahorkai’s latest effort can be described not as a work of fiction, but instead as a travel memoir, or a series of reports filed while journeying through the Asian country. Because if there’s one guy you want to write about your country, it’s someone Susan Sontag described as the “master of the apocalypse.” (Nick M.) Mr. Splitfoot by Samantha Hunt: In Hunt’s fictions, imagination anchors the real and sometimes calls mutiny. Her tales earned her a spot in Tin House’s coterie of “Fantastic Women,” and The Believer has called her “a master of beautiful delusions.” Whether the delusion involves believing oneself to be a mermaid or a wife who becomes a deer at night or the eccentric life and ideas of the oft-overlooked inventor Nikola Tesla (who among other things, harbored pigeons in New York City hotel rooms), Hunt delivers them with what an essence akin to magic. Mr. Splitfoot, Hunt’s third novel, promises more in this vein. It's a gothic ghost story, involving two orphaned sisters, channeling spirits, and an enigmatic journey across New York State. (Anne) February: The High Mountains of Portugal by Yann Martel: The fourth novel by Martel is touted as an allegory that asks questions about loss, faith, suffering, and love. Sweeping from the 1600s to the present through three intersecting stories, this novel will no doubt be combed for comparison to his blockbuster -- nine million copies and still selling strong -- Life of Pi. And Martel will, no doubt, carry the comparisons well: “Once I’m in my little studio…there’s nothing here but my current novel,” he told The Globe and Mail. “I’m neither aware of the success of Life of Pi nor the sometimes very negative reviews Beatrice and Virgil got. That’s all on the outside.” (Claire) The Queen of the Night by Alexander Chee: We’ve been awaiting Chee’s sophomore novel, and here it finally is! A sweeping historical story -- “a night at the opera you’ll wish never-ending,” says Helen Oyeyemi -- and the kind I personally love best, with a fictional protagonist moving among real historical figures.  Lilliet Berne is a diva of 19th-century Paris opera on the cusp of world fame, but at what cost? Queen of the Night traffics in secrets, betrayal, intrigue, glitz, and grit. And if you can judge a book by its cover, this one’s a real killer. (Sonya) The Lost Time Accidents by John Wray: In his fourth novel, Lowboy author Wray moves out of the confines of New York City, tracing the history of an Eastern European family not unlike his own. Moving all the way from fin-de-siècle Moravia up to the present day, the book tracks the exploits of the Toula family, who count among their home cities Vienna, Berlin, and finally New York City. As the story progresses, the family struggles to preserve their greatest treasure, an impenetrable theory with the potential to upend science as we know it. For a sense of Wray’s eye, take note that Znojmo, the Moldovan town from which the family hails, is the gherkin capital of Austria-Hungary. (Thom) Alice & Oliver by Charles Bock: Bock’s first novel, Beautiful Children, was a New York Times bestseller and won the Sue Kaufman prize for First Fiction from the Academy of Arts and Letters. His second novel, Alice & Oliver, which takes place in New York City in the year 1994, is about a young mother named Alice Culvert, who falls ill with leukemia, and her husband Oliver, who is “doing his best to support Alice, keep their childcare situation stabilized, handle insurance companies, hold off worst case scenario nightmares, and just basically not lose his shit.” Joshua Ferris writes, “I was amazed that such a heartbreaking narrative could also affirm, on every page, why we love this frustrating world and why we hold on to it for as long as we can.” Richard Price calls it “a wrenchingly powerful novel.” (Edan) More from The Millions: The good stuff: The Millions' Notable articles The motherlode: The Millions' Books and Reviews Like what you see? 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Exclusive First Look: Lauren Groff’s ‘Fates and Furies’

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Last week, the internet buzzed about and puzzled over the newly unveiled cover of Jonathan Franzen's Purity, forthcoming in September. While Franzen is sure to grab many headlines in the months to come, we're also intrigued by Lauren Groff's Fates and Furies, which also sports a cover with a blue and white color scheme. Along with the cover above, we have the book's opening paragraphs below. Fates and Furies has so far been cryptically described as "an exhilarating novel about marriage, creativity, art, and perception," and, as you'll see, the book wastes no time, uh, introducing us to its protagonists. Two people were coming up the beach. She was fair and sharp in a green bikini, though it was May in Maine and cold. He was tall, vivid; a light flickered in him that caught the eye and held it. Their names were Lotto and Mathilde. For a minute they watched a tide pool full of spiny creatures that sent up curls of sand in vanishing. Then he took her face in his hands, kissed her pale lips. He could die right now of happiness. In a vision, he saw the sea rising up to suck them in, tonguing off their flesh and rolling their bones over its coral molars in the deep. If she were beside him, he thought, he would float out singing. Well, he was young, twenty-two, and they had been married that morning in secret. Extravagance, under the circumstances, could be forgiven. Her fingers down the back of his trunks seared his skin. She pushed him backward, walking him up a dune covered in beach-pea stalks, down again to where the wall of sand blocked the wind, where they felt warmer. Under the bikini top, her gooseflesh had taken on a lunar blue, and her nipples in the cold turned inward. On their knees, now, though the sand was rough and hurt. It didn’t matter. They were reduced to mouths and hands. He swept her legs to his hips, pressed her down, blanketed her with his heat until she stopped shivering, made a dune of his back. Her raw knees were raised to the sky. He longed for something wordless and potent: what? To wear her. He imagined living in her warmth forever. People in his life had fallen away from him one by one like dominoes; every movement pinned her further so that she could not abandon him. He imagined a lifetime of screwing on the beach until they were one of those ancient pairs speed-walking in the morning, skin like lacquered walnut meat. Even old, he would waltz her into the dunes and have his way with her sexy frail bird bones, the plastic hips, and the bionic knee. Drone lifeguards looming up in the sky, flashing their lights, booming Fornicators! Fornicators! to roust them guiltily out. This, for eternity. He closed his eyes and wished. Her eyelashes on his cheek, her thighs on his waist, the first consummation of this terrifying thing they’d done.
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