For readers who haven’t already discovered Julie Buntin’s Marlena, this visceral, gripping novel combines humanity with a thrilling edge. We watch as Marlena descends into addiction, but rather than being allowed to simply be voyeurs, we’re forced to face our own complicity in the vulnerability of girls—all girls, not just the reckless ones.
I was lucky enough to catch Julie during her paperback tour, and over a few weeks of emailing, we had the following conversation.
The Millions: One of the (many) gorgeously vivid, telling images of the book, for me, came near the end, when the narrator, Cat, goes back to one of the places she frequented as a teen and finds this: “A poster on the leftmost wall of a girl bent over, holding her ass apart, her face hanging down between her ankles, a cigarette burn in the middle of each cheek.”
As a psychiatrist, one aspect of the book I really appreciated and want to make sure gets the recognition it deserves is how skillfully and artfully you weave together the twin themes of trauma and addiction. It’s estimated that nearly 80 percent of people with PTSD, either from “civilian” causes (such as childhood sexual abuse and rape) or “military” (from combat exposure), suffer from some form of addiction, the most common of which is nicotine dependence and heavy smoking, with up to half of PTSD patients in some cohorts reporting some degree of opioid abuse (most commonly prescription). We know also that the endogenous opioid system (endorphin, dynorphin) is engaged during the formation of traumatic memories. So at this point in the history of neuroscience, we actually know a lot about the science that links trauma with addiction [for readers particularly interested in this, I recommend Neurobiology of Addiction, by George Koob, a genius scientist at the NIH].
Yet one of the strengths of your novel is how all that history, all the science and statistics, are so effectively submerged and seen through an adolescent perspective that absolutely knows “something is wrong” but not exactly what. In that way the book reminded me of Emma Donoghue’s Room, where the 5-year-old boy’s view makes clear how disturbed the situation is without ever getting “clinical” and removing the reader from the visceral experiences that he’s going through.
That poster—the brutally degraded young woman, senselessly violated with those painful cigarette burns but posing for a picture, allowing herself to be consumed—that in one image tells so much about the story of trauma and addiction and how they’re linked, how Marlena’s most self-abasing moments reflect such a complex mix of the symptoms of PTSD (self-blame, cognitive distortions, risk-taking/recklessness, suicidality, hopelessness, hypervigilance) and her ongoing craving to use.
What did you already know about addiction and trauma before writing the book, and what do you feel like you learned, and how did you learn it? Are there experiences from writing the book that you feel could be useful for emerging writers? What do you think are some of the key differences between writing about addiction in the memoir vs. novel mode? Did you intend, as I felt, that Marlena has so much more self-knowledge than she is sharing with the (younger) narrator Cat—and yet there’s something really avoidant in this “best friendship” for Marlena?
Julie Buntin: Most of what I knew about addiction and trauma prior to writing the book came from lived experience—by which I mean not necessarily experiences I’d had firsthand, but ones I’d witnessed. I have a family member, a young woman, who struggles with addiction, and her relationship to drugs and alcohol does seem intertwined with the fact that, even though she is blessed in many ways, her life has also had an outsize number of losses, including a central one that seems to have infected her worldview in a destructive way.
As I wrote the book, focusing in on Marlena’s character, I was always asking myself what felt true. I’m not sure if this will be useful to emerging writers, but it was useful to me; what feels true for your character isn’t always going to be the thing you want to write. Especially when Cat and Marlena start drifting apart near the end—I knew that was the authentic thing, considering the seriousness of Marlena’s addiction, but I hated writing it. And thank you for your observation that the friendship is avoidant for Marlena—I think that is absolutely right. She gets so close to Cat in part because Cat isn’t going to call her out, isn’t going to challenge her outright, and Cat’s someone she can fool into thinking she’s OK. But then, when Cat starts to figure it out, Marlena retreats inward.
TM: Did you, as you were writing the novel, think about “heroin chic” and any problems of glamorizing addiction and its aftermath? The one consequence presented as a discrete event is Marlena’s (sudden) death—but even that has so much brilliant shadowing around it (in particular the brief scene where Cat sees her looking like a scarecrow, a “meth-head,” skeletal and even her beautiful hair ugly). Other consequences seem more pervasive, subtle, expressed through mood shifts in the narrator, like the wistfulness you conveyed so beautifully as Cat compares what she’s doing in Silver Lake with what her school friend Haesung would’ve done, or the letter Cat writes to her absent father. There’s no question that we feel the negatives of addiction. And yet these kinds of sentences convey the thrill as well: “It’s not a question. I love this wildness. I crave it.”
Did you consciously think about or set up this ambivalence, to have “drug glamour” in there along with devastation?
JB: I thought a lot about the danger of glamorizing addiction while writing this, especially because I hoped that the book might be read by older teenagers. It was constantly on my mind, and while I had no interest in writing a cautionary tale, either, if the balance doesn’t tilt more toward cautionary tale then I’ve failed myself a little bit. I had to walk a careful line in the narrative—I needed to show all the ways this lifestyle could be intoxicating, how it might suck a girl like Cat in, and then slowly reveal the way those choices add up to a trap that nobody is going to want to find themselves in—and furthermore, a trap that extends past the teenage years and into adulthood. One of the ways of doing that, narratively, was to make Cat, herself, an addict.
I’ve often had people tell me very matter-of-factly that Cat drinks because she’s sad/guilty about what happened with Marlena, and while I never argue with that interpretation—certainly the narrative, structured as it is, argues that—I always find it very interesting that no one ever says, oh, of course Cat’s an alcoholic, because she started binge drinking frequently at 15 years old and her brain chemistry changed forever. I wanted both of those things to be at work at once, and for Cat’s trajectory, which on the surface seems great—upwardly mobile, at the very least—to be itself a warning about the danger of experimentation that goes too far. It’s not just your life that’s at stake, in terms of an early death, as in Marlena’s case; it’s also the possibility of living a life that’s not reliant upon a substance, that’s not in some way dimmed and hemmed in by dependency.
TM: So one of the other major symptoms of PTSD is “numbing” or “numbness.” Current science actually identifies a subgroup of PTSD patients who mainly are numbed out, who dissociate from current reality when remembering or reminded of their trauma, rather than showing more of a “fight or flight” response. I felt that the New York sections of the book told from Cat’s adult perspective so adeptly expressed what it is like to be numb in this way, and it made me think differently about what Cat and Marlena went through (including with various exploitative adult males). Can you talk about the craft challenges of writing a “numb” narrator? I’m thinking of Bret Easton Ellis’s Less than Zero (describing some of those scenes of drug use among a slightly younger cohort of adults in their early vs. late 20s) but also of Zadie Smith in The Autograph Man and even Aravind Adiga’s narrator in The White Tiger and Akhil Sharma’s narrator in An Obedient Father. All of these have numb narrators facing the aftermath, one could argue, of being complicit in one’s own traumatization. Numbness as a form of self-punishment but also involuntary. And numbness seems to become a force for delay, for waiting to move forward, for even blocking oneself from moving forward. A kind of semi-paralyzing spell that can only be broken by the person experiencing it and not externally by a therapist pointing it out.
How can you (how did you?) sustain an energetic and gripping narrative drive while writing a narrator who was experiencing a (very understandable) numbness? Did this challenge relate to what you said you did in 2015 (rewrite the novel substantially after it sold) and, to support other writers out there breathing hard from “editorial letters,” can you talk about your revision process and what that was like?
JB: Oh, I love this question, and I love that you used the word numb. Also, I wasn’t aware of that background on PTSD, though it relates so deeply to how I thought of Cat’s character. Certainly the experience of befriending Marlena, all of her experiences in Silver Lake, and then the sudden loss of Marlena all formed this hinge point in her life: She was one way before, and she would never be the same again after. That’s the kind of moment I’m fascinated by as a novelist—this periods when we become ourselves, for better or worse, the stories that change us forever.
When I was writing Cat as an adult, I was actively striving for numbness, which was challenging! You can never sacrifice your reader’s interest to achieve an effect, or I don’t believe you should, anyway, so I had to make those scenes in New York feel sort of muffled while being interesting and moving the story forward, which was genuinely hard. As you mention in your question, I did rewrite the novel after it sold, in an attempt to address some of my editor’s concerns—and as I worked through her comments, I kept coming up against a sort of larger question. We’re often, as writers, told that we need to know the answer to the question, “Why this story?” And I definitely knew why I was writing it—as I’ve discussed a little bit above. So the urgency and intensity were there, but there was something missing structurally. The question wasn’t just why this story, I realized—it was why this story, now? Why is Cat revisiting this at this precise moment in her life? And the answer actually was that numbness. She’s gotten everything—a whole new life, a better life than her mother and Jimmy, and yet why is she numb?
I thought I might be able to make it gripping and interesting by virtue of the contrast between the past sections and the present sections—the tonal dissonance, so to speak, might keep readers moving forward, wanting to know how Cat got to be quite like this. I also worked on varying the language, clipping it a little when Cat’s sober, and making it loose and blurry when she’s not. I also think there’s something inherently interesting, for better or for worse, about reading someone who is on the brink in their own life, and Cat really is, with her drinking. I hoped the reader would care enough about her, even if they didn’t exactly like her, to want to figure out whether she was going to pull through.
Hollywood has always looked to the literary world for stories, and 2018 has already seen a number of big screen adaptations, including Annihilation, A Wrinkle in Time, Ready Player One, and On Chesil Beach. Here’s a look ahead to the summer’s offerings, so if you’re the type of person who prefers to read the book before the movie—and we know you are, Millions readers!—you’ll have time to prepare.
Eating Animals is Jonathan Safran Foer’s memoir about becoming vegan. Now it’s a documentary narrated by Natalie Portman. Make sure to eat a good meal before watching it, because it’s one of those documentaries, like Food, Inc., that’s sure to make you lose your appetite (in theaters June 15).
Leave No Trace is an adaptation of Peter Rock’s My Abandonment, the story of a father and daughter who live secretly in a public urban park in Portland, Ore.—until they are accidentally discovered by a jogger. It’s written and directed by Debra Granik, who also directed Winter’s Bone (in theaters June 29).
Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot is based on the memoir of John Callahan, whose wickedly funny cartoons are the kind that make you say, “I really shouldn’t be laughing at this.” At 21, Callahan was involved in a bad car crash that left him a quadriplegic. After years of therapy, he learned to hold a pen again and started drawing. Joaquin Phoenix stars as Callahan, with Gus Van Sant directing (in theaters July 13).
Far from the Tree is a documentary based on Andrew Solomon’s nonfiction book about parents whose children are very different from them, e.g., hearing parents whose children are deaf, the parents of children with autism, the parents of child prodigies, the parents of children with dwarfism—to name just a few of the many people Solomon interviews. I loved this doorstopper of a book when it was first published and am curious to see how Solomon’s in-depth reporting and research translates to the screen (in theaters July 20).
The Wife will star Glenn Close as the titular wife of Meg Wolitzer’s 2003 novel, which is narrated by the self-sacrificing wife of a famous novelist. It’s a bitterly comic novel, one that the 2003 Publisher’s Weekly review notes has “no cheap, gratifying Hollywood ending to make it all better.” Let’s see if the movie stays true to form (in theaters Aug. 3).
Juliet, Naked is based on Nick Hornby’s 2009 novel about the girlfriend of a fanboy who begins a correspondence with the object of her boyfriend’s obsession, a singer-songwriter called Tucker Crowe. Hornby has had success with previous adaptations of his novels, including High Fidelity and About a Boy, and this latest book-to-screen transition looks like a smooth one. Starring Ethan Hawke as Tucker Crowe (in theaters Aug. 13).
Crazy Rich Asians looks like it’s going to be just as much fun as Kevin Kwan’s novel, a romantic comedy about an NYU student, Rachel Chu, who travels with her boyfriend, Nick Young, to Singapore to meet his family—who turn out to be ridiculously wealthy. Also, Nick is the sole heir to the family fortune! This spells trouble for Rachel, who is just a naive, middle-class girl from California. Kwan’s novel, the first of the Crazy Rich Asians trilogy, was a bestseller in 2013. So maybe this isn’t the last film adaptation we’ll see (in theaters Aug. 13).
The Bookshop adapts Penelope Fitzgerald’s novel by the same name. It’s a tragicomedy about a bookstore trying to thrive in a small fishing village in 1959. Today’s bookstore owners might relate? Originally published in 1978 in the U.K., it didn’t make it to the U.S. until the late 1990s. Now it’s a film starring Emily Mortimer, Bill Nighy, and Patricia Clarkson, written and directed by Isabel Coixet (in theaters Aug. 24).
The Little Stranger is based on Sarah Waters’s bestselling haunted house thriller. Set in postwar England, it tells the story of a country doctor, Farady, who is called to the estate of Hundreds Hall to treat a servant. The house is one he knows from childhood, because his mother used to work there as a maid. He soon becomes entangled with the family. With Domhnall Gleeson as Farady and Charlotte Rampling as the lady of the house, and directed by Lenny Abrahamson, who directed the 2015 adaptation of Emma Donoghue’s Room (in theaters Aug. 31).
It turns out the novel is alive and well and living in, of all places, Hollywood. Who would have thought? As recently as 1998, all five finalists for the Oscar for Adapted Screenplay drew on novels for their source material, but by 2014 not a single Oscar nomination went to a screenplay adapted from a novel. Last year, Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice was the lone work of fiction in a field of sources dominated by biography, autobiography, and, weirdly, a short film.
This trend sent me into Mr. Gloomy mode last year when I wrote:
(T)he novel is now in retreat — and not only in Hollywood — as screenwriters and moviegoers turn their gaze to movies based on established franchises, comic books, graphic novels, musicals, non-fiction books and magazine articles, TV shows, memoirs, and biographies. There’s nothing inherently wrong, or particularly new, about such source material. Screenwriters have been adapting scripts from comic books at least since 1930, and filmmakers have always favored a “true” story (or, better yet, something “based on a true story”) over fictional stories. That’s because “true” stories are easier to write, make, and sell. I would argue that they’re also less likely to amaze than stories that come from a gifted novelist’s imagination.
What a difference a year makes. This year, for some unknowable reason, Hollywood screenwriters mined novels — from the shamelessly commercial to the highly literary — for four of the five adapted screenplays that garnered Oscar nominations. (The fifth nomination went to the team of Adam McKay and Charles Randolph for their adaptation of Michael Lewis’s non-fiction book, The Big Short.)
What happened? Did some pixie slip a vial of smart powder into the L.A drinking water? Did someone in Hollywood start a book club for screenwriters? Since there’s no way to parse the reading habits of Tinseltown, let’s cut straight to the nominees. Here, in chronological order of their release dates, are the four movies with scripts based on novels that are up for the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar on Feb. 28:
It seems that the Irish writer Colm Tóibín (pronounced Col-um toe-BEAN) wrote this 2009 novel with sepia ink — and without a worry that his pacing and hushed tone might put some readers to sleep. But readers who stick with the novel will be rewarded by a story that accumulates a fierce power. It’s the story of Eilis (pronounced AY-lish) Lacey, a plain Irish girl who leaves her mother and sister in the provincial Irish town of Enniscorthy and emigrates to Brooklyn in the early 1950s, a world of shocking sights and sounds and customs, where she overcomes crippling homesickness and haltingly makes her way toward financial independence and even manages to find a decent man who loves her. But a return trip to Ireland after her sister’s sudden death will threaten to rip apart Eilis’s fragile chance at happiness. This is no potboiler, obviously. The drama takes place inside Eilis’s head and heart.
How to turn such interiority into a compelling movie? Mainly by hiring talented actors who can convey deep emotions through the slightest facial gesture or body movement. Saoirse Ronan (pronounced Sur-sha Row-nin) was an inspired choice to play Eilis, and her portrayal of a plain young woman’s blossoming has justly won a nomination for the Best Actress Oscar.
Equally important to the movie’s success was the choice of screenwriter. The mission of a writer who sets out to transport words from page to screen is both simple and devilishly difficult: be always faithful to the spirit of the novel without ever being slavish to it. For this reason, it’s usually better for a novelist to stay in the wings when the screenwriting assignment gets doled out. Most novelists are too close to their own material not to be enslaved by it.
Tóibín never considered adapting his own novel, instead suggesting to the producer, Finola Dwyer, that she hire Nick Hornby, who is both an accomplished novelist (High Fidelity, About a Boy) and screenwriter (An Education, Wild).
“And I soon realized that nobody wanted me around,” Tóibín told The New York Times. “Nick was doing it. He didn’t ask any questions, never even got in touch. And I thought that was perfectly reasonable. It was the only way it could work. He took the central spine of the novel — the romantic story and the immigration, the two things that really matter — and left other things off to the side. But he wasn’t trying to tell a new story. He was faithful to the book within the constraints of film.”
And that’s why the movie works every bit as well as the novel.
In adapting Patricia Highsmith’s second novel, The Price of Salt, screenwriter Phyllis Nagy remained faithful to the book within the constraints of film. The result is a spellbinding script for a movie that was renamed Carol — just one of numerous instances when the movie strays from the letter of the novel without betraying its spirit.
Like Hornby, Nagy left out some things and changed others but preserved the central spine of the novel — the story of forbidden love between a radiant but unfulfilled suburban housewife named Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett) and a plain New York City shop girl named Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara). Nagy has changed Therese from an aspiring theatrical set designer into an aspiring photographer, and she has cleverly jumbled time sequences. But what she left intact, most crucially, is Highsmith’s unhurried unfolding of the romantic love between the two women, a story that plays out against a backdrop of impeccable 1950s period details, from cars and fashions to interiors and even the way women move.
Nagy’s writing has certainly benefited from the high quality of the production it serves. The movie is up for six Oscars, including Blanchett for Best Actress, Mara for Best Supporting Actress, and the cinematographer Edward Lachman, who gives an appropriately gauzy look to a story about infatuation amid fuzzy moral boundaries.
This movie is proof that most novelists should follow Tóibín’s lead and leave it to others to adapt their work for the screen. In adapting her own novel, Room, Emma Donoghue made the mistake of following the text almost to the letter — then leaving out the wrong parts, the very parts that would have given the movie heft and drama. Both novel and movie open with an enthralling setup — a woman has been imprisoned in an 11-foot-by-11-foot shed for seven years, where she gave birth five years ago to a boy named Jack. The revelation that this loving, seemingly happy pair are actually being held prisoners by a monster named Nick is handled, in novel and movie, with supreme assurance. It’s perfectly horrible.
The trouble begins when Ma (Brie Larson) helps Jack (Jacob Tremblay) escape, and suddenly they’re thrust into the outside world that’s utterly foreign to the boy — and far from welcoming to his traumatized mother. In the novel, they’re hounded by the ravenous news media and by medical professionals who are less than sympathetic to their ordeal and its lingering effects. This tension is gone from the movie, and instead we get Ma coming unglued and fighting with her own mother (Joan Allen), while her father (William H. Macy) puts in a pointless cameo. Jack, meanwhile, wanders through something that passes for healing. It’s all drift. I have a hunch that a screenwriter who wasn’t so close to the source material would not have made these missteps. Just a hunch.
4. The Martian
Andy Weir went to work as a computer programmer for a national laboratory at the age of 15 and has been working as a software engineer ever since. He’s also a self-proclaimed space nerd who’s into relativistic physics, astronomy, orbital mechanics, and the history of manned spaceflight. How do you spell geek? In this case, you spell it n-o-v-e-l-i-s-t.
Weir’s first novel, The Martian, became a bestseller and fodder for a big-budget Hollywood production with Matt Damon in the lead role of Mark Watney, a botanist on a Mars mission who gets abandoned by his crew when a freak storm blows up and they mistakenly believe he’s dead. And voilà, we have a high concept: Robinson Crusoe stranded on the Red Planet.
Actually, Weir’s book is less a novel than a blueprint for a movie. Just as no one will question Weir’s scientific bona fides — he wrote his own software to make the physics of space travel as accurate as possible — no one will accuse him of being a graceful writer. The novel is full of junior high prose like this: “They gathered. Everywhere on Earth they gathered. In Trafalgar Square and Tiananmen Square and Times Square, they watched on giant screens. In offices, they huddled around computer monitors. In bars, they stared silently at the TV in the corner. In homes, they sat breathlessly on their couches, their eyes glued to the story playing out.” But people don’t read books like this for the artful prose; they read them for the ingenious setup and the brisk storytelling.
Screenwriter Drew Goddard has connected the dots from Weir’s novel to create a script that’s seamless and irresistible. The movie winds up being superior to the novel because it’s comfortable being what it is — a thriller that manipulates the audience without shame, an entertainment that wants nothing more than to please its audience at all times. You can hear Goddard pulling the levers — or is that the sound of him painting by numbers? — but you’re having too much fun to care. This is partly due to the deft direction of Ridley Scott, who is most at home in outer space, and strong performances by Damon and a supporting cast that includes Jessica Chastain, Kristen Wiig, Jeff Daniels, and Chiwetel Ejiofor.
Weir’s book is a novel that wants to be a movie. The movie is content to be a big, fat, satisfying, popcorn thrill-fest. What’s wrong with being comfortable inside your own skin?
And the Oscar For Best Adapted Screenplay Goes to…
Phyllis Nagy for CAROL!!!
Now that justice has been served, for once, I’m hoping that when Nagy gets up onstage and finishes thanking her agent and her producer and her mom and Todd and Cate and Rooney and her Jack Russell terrier, she’ll have the decency to hoist her statue to the heavens and give a shout-out to the novelist who made this terrific movie possible — that princess of darkness, the diabolically great Patricia Highsmith.
Image Credit: Flickr/Dave_B_.
Last year offered many treats for readers: long-awaited new books by Donna Tartt and Norman Rush; the emergence of Rachel Kushner as a literary superstar; the breakout success of George Saunders. 2014 offers more riches. This year we’ll get to crack open new books by E.L. Doctorow, Richard Powers, Sue Monk Kidd, Lorrie Moore, Teju Cole, Mona Simpson, Lydia Davis, and Peter Matthiessen. Our own Edan Lepucki and Bill Morris will have new books on shelves in a few months. Look ahead to the hazy end of summer 2014 and a new novel by Haruki Murakami will be hitting American shores. All of these and many more are the books we’re looking forward to this year.
The list that follows isn’t exhaustive—no book preview could be—but, at 9,100 words strong and encompassing 89 titles, this is the only 2014 book preview you will ever need. Scroll down and get started.
January or Already Out:
Little Failure by Gary Shteyngart: Say what you will, but Shteyngart is putting the fun back in literary life. If you haven’t yet seen the trailer for his fourth book and first memoir, Little Failure, well, start your new year with a giggle or two and be prepared to be delightfully convinced by the romantic (if not quite “erotic”) affection between Shteyngart and James Franco in pink bathrobes. But seriously, folks—I’m guessing Adam Gopnik’s blurb is just what the Chekhov-Roth-Apatow of Queens (now upstate) was hoping for: “I fully expected Gary Shteyngart’s memoir of his search for love and sex in a Russian-Jewish-Queens-Oberlin upbringing to be as hilarious and indecorous and exact as it turns out to be; what I wasn’t entirely prepared for was for a book so soulful and pained in its recounting of the feints and false starts and, well, little failures of family love. Portnoy meets Chekhov meets Shteyngart! What could be better?” (Sonya)
The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd: Don’t expect to find Sue Monk Kidd’s third novel at the library anytime soon because Oprah has already selected it as her newest Book Club read. She praised the book as a “conversation changer” regarding how we think about womanhood and history. The novel follows two headstrong women trying to make a change in the Antebellum South. Sarah Grimke, the daughter of a Charleston plantation owner, trades slavery for abolitionism and the suffragist movement. Her slave Handful has equally progressive desires, and the two form an unlikely friendship. (Tess)
Andrew’s Brain by E.L. Doctorow: Doctorow’s latest novel, his twelfth, is “structured as an extended series of conversations between Andrew, a cognitive neuroscientist by training, and an unnamed man who initially appears to be his psychotherapist,” according to Publishers Weekly. Their conversations focus on Andrew’s guilt over giving up his daughter after her mother died. Given Doctorow’s reputation as king of the American historical novel, it’s worrying that early reviews complain of a lack of clarity about exactly when the story takes place, but no one dramatizes complex ideas better than Doctorow. (Michael)
The Scent of Pine by Lara Vapnyar: Lena is on the brink of an early midlife crisis: her career is stalled, she feels disconnected to her adopted country, and her marriage is faltering. She finds romance with a similarly lost academic, Ben, and the two embark on an affair in a cabin in Maine. Yet Lara Vapnyar’s sophomore novel is more than just a sexy romp in the woods. Up north, Lena reflects on a romantic and mysterious summer she spent at a Soviet children’s camp 20 years before. Early reviewers have called Vapnyar’s latest a “Russian Scheherazade.” (Tess)
On Such a Full Sea by Chang-rae Lee: Many of Chang-rae Lee’s novels are firmly grounded in reality, examining the worlds of displaced outsiders from the Korean War to the lives of immigrants in the present-day United States. His latest book leaps further afield, into the realm of speculative fiction, in a dystopian American future where declining urban neighborhoods have been transformed into “highwalled, self-contained labor colonies,” whose Chinese immigrant residents work catching fish for the surrounding elites. As with any good dystopian work, it promises to highlight and draw parallels with growing inequalities in our own society, which might “change the way readers think about the world they live in.” (Elizabeth)
Perfect by Rachel Joyce: When two seconds get added to clock time because “time was out of kilter with the natural movement of the Earth” in the 1970s, two young boys worry if the world will ever be the same. In the present day, a man is so crippled by his OCD that he struggles to maintain a normal life outside the psychiatric hospital. Rachel Joyce weaves these parallel narratives together in her highly anticipated followup to bestseller and Booker longlisted The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry. Perfect has garnered great reviews in the U.K. with Susanna Rustin at The Guardian lauding it as, “ambitious, darker and more honest.” (Tess)
Orfeo by Richard Powers: Richard Powers’ novels are often laced with serious science, with narratives that delve into the complexities of genetic engineering, computer coding, and cognitive disorders. In Orfeo Powers returns to the pairing of DNA coding and musicality from his Gold Bug Variations, with a tech-age take on the Orpheus myth. Orfeo follows a retired music professor who’s built a DIY genetics lab where he finds musical patterns in DNA sequences. When his dog dies unexpectedly, the FBI seizes the lab, and he goes on the lam. It seems that DNA and music are inextricably paired for Powers, who noted in an essay on having his genome sequenced, “If the genome were a tune played at a nice bright allegro tempo of 120 beats per minute, it would take just short of a century to play.” (Anne)
The Radiance of Tomorrow by Ishmael Beah: Beah, a former child soldier in Sierra Leone’s civil war, detailed his experiences of the conflict and its aftermath in his 2007 memoir, A Long Way Gone. His debut novel, which Edwidge Danticat has called “formidable and memorable,” tells the story of two friends who return to their village after the war and their struggle to restore a sense of order and normalcy in the space between an unspeakable past and an uncertain future. (Emily)
Leaving the Sea by Ben Marcus: At Columbia’s M.F.A. Program, Ben Marcus teaches a course called “Technologies of Heartbreak”—a nifty coinage that also points to the two poles of Marcus’s own aesthetic. In his mind-blowing story collection, The Age of Wire and String, and in the first novel that followed, Marcus gravitated toward the technological: meat masks, air bodies, soft machines… Seldom did one encounter a normal human being. But his most recent novel, The Flame Alphabet, placed wild invention at the service of more straightforward emotion. It’ll be worth watching to see where Leaving the Sea comes down; it’s likely to be good either way. (Garth)
A Highly Unlikely Scenario, or a Neetsa Pizza Employee’s Guide to Saving the World by Rachel Cantor: Anybody else miss Kurt Vonnegut? Rachel Cantor is here to fill the void with her debut novel, which mixes the comic with the speculative in a voice that one early reviewer described as “Terry Pratchett crossed with Douglas Adams.” It’s got time travel, medieval kabbalists, and yes, pizza. What more can you ask for? (Hannah)
Silence Once Begun by Jesse Ball: In a small Japanese town, eight people disappear from their homes with only a playing card marking their doors and absences; one man, a thread salesman, confesses to the crimes and is put in jail, but refuses to speak. These disappearances form the mystery around which Jesse Ball’s fourth novel, Silence Once Begun, is constructed, and which obsess a journalist who shares Ball’s name. Interview transcripts make up the central text of a story ultimately concerned with speech, silence, and the control of information. (Anne)
The Secret History of Las Vegas by Chris Abani: Abani is both a novelist and a poet, and he brings a poet’s instinct for sublime language to his latest work, a crime novel set in Las Vegas. Salazar, a detective, is determined to solve a string of recent murders before he retires. He enlists the help of an expert in psychopathy, Dr. Sunil Singh, who is haunted by a betrayal of his loved ones in apartheid South Africa. “Here in Vegas,” Abani writes, “the glamor beguiled and blinded all but those truly intent on seeing, and in this way the tinsel of it mocked the obsessive hope of those who flocked there.” (Emily)
A Place in the Country by W.G. Sebald: In his seminal novels, the late W.G. Sebald more or less obliterated the line between essay and fiction, if one even existed in the first place. Here, Sebald explores the lives and work of Robert Walser, Gottfried Keller, and other artists. The book is labeled nonfiction, but one imagines that this capstone to the English translation of Sebald’s work will offer many of the satisfactions of his novels. (Garth)
Praying Drunk by Kyle Minor: Along with his colleague Matt Bell, Kyle Minor was the subject of a flame war in a recent comment thread here at The Millions. But the imputation of log-rolling struck me as unfair. As someone who’s never met, spoken with, or seen Kyle Minor, I can say that the Guernica excerpt of his as-yet-unpublished novel, The Sexual Lives of Missionaries, was one of the more memorable pieces of fiction by a young writer I read in 2012. I guess we’ll have to wait a while longer to see the rest, but in the meantime, Minor’s latest story collection, Praying Drunk, promises to explore some of the same territory. (Garth)
Bark by Lorrie Moore: New Lorrie Moore! Let us rejoice! Bark is Lorrie Moore’s first short story collection since the miraculous and magnificent Birds of America came out fifteen years ago. Some of these eight stories might be familiar; The New Yorker published “Debarking” back in 2003, and “The Juniper Tree” in 2005. All of these stories, new to you or not, should be about as pun-filled, clever, and devastating as we’ve come to expect from Moore, who is arguably the best American short story writer alive today. (Edan)
MFA vs. NYC: Two Cultures of American Fiction edited by Chad Harbach: Although its title and implied dichotomy will pain any person who writes things and is neither an MFA-holder nor connected with the NYC publishing scene, Chad Harbach’s collection of commentaries on the two major drivers of the literary economy promises to deliver valuable collective insight on the current state of writing in America. Harbach first conceived this dichotomy in 2010 in an essay for n+1 (available online at Slate), wherein he made intriguing and provocative statements on, among other things, the rise of the MFA program (“an ingenious partial solution to an eminent American problem: how to extend our already protracted adolescence past 22 and toward 30, in order to cope with an oversupplied labor market”) and argued that the “university now rivals, if it hasn’t surpassed, New York as the economic center of the literary fiction world.” The book will feature contributions from writers, editors, and teachers at various stages of their careers, including George Saunders, Elif Batuman, Keith Gessen, Maria Adelmann, Emily Gould, and Alexander Chee. (Lydia)
Kinder Than Solitude by Yiyun Li: Two things intrigue me right off the bat about Yiyun Li’s new novel—its title, and this, from the publisher: “Kinder Than Solitude is the story of three people whose lives are changed by a murder one of them may have committed.” A murder mystery! And from a writer as patient, observant, and precise as Li. Given Li’s gifts of insight into human nature, the story will surely evolve less around whodunit? and more around what really happened? and does it matter? The eponymous kindness seems to have been bestowed upon one of the three friends, Moran, by a man who was once her husband, at a time when she fled into—and presumably believed in the kindness of—solitude; all of which is yet more intriguing. (Sonya)
The UnAmericans by Molly Antopol: Molly Antopol’s debut is a collection about characters lost in the labyrinth of recent history. Stories are set against various geographical and historical backdrops—the McCarthy witch hunt, Communist-era Prague, Israeli settlements. The book has been accumulating some promising advance praise. Adam Johnson, for instance, has written that “Not since Robert Stone has a writer so examined the nature of disillusionment and the ways in which newfound hope can crack the cement of failed dreams.” Antopol was named one of the National Book Foundation’s “5 Under 35” last year. (Mark)
An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine: The narrator of Rabih Alameddine’s fourth novel is reclusive seventy-two-year-old Aaliya Sobi, who lives alone in an apartment in Beirut who spends her time translating books into Arabic and then stowing them away, never to be read. The book is an exploration of Aaliya’s inner life—of her memories of Lebanon’s troubled recent history and her own turbulent past, and of her thoughts on literature and art. Colm Tóibín has compared it to Calvino and Borges, describing it as a “fiercely original act of creation”. (Mark)
Thirty Girls by Susan Minot: In 1996, The Lord’s Resistance Army kidnapped a group of 139 young teenage girls from a convent school in Uganda, holding them captive. The deputy headmistress of their school, Sister Rachele Fassera, pursued the kidnappers and negotiated the release of 109 of the girls; the remaining thirty were kept and subjected to a long ordeal of captivity and brutality. Susan Minot’s new novel, Thirty Girls, is a fictionalized account of this mass abduction and its aftermath. Minot tells the stories of these abductees, interweaving them with that of an American journalist named Jane Wood who is interviewing them about their experiences. In 2012, Minot published an extract of the same name in Granta’s “Exit Strategies” issue. (Mark)
Strange Bodies by Marcel Theroux: The British broadcaster and novelist Marcel Theroux, a son of Paul Theroux, wants to have it all in his fifth novel. Strange Bodies is a high-concept literary thriller that flirts with science fiction while making inquiries into language, identity and what it means to be human. The concept is this: Nicholas Slopen has been dead for months, yet one day he turns up to visit an old girlfriend. He leaves behind a flash drive containing something as unbelievable as he is—a cache of letters supposedly written by Samuel Johnson. This smart novel’s central conceit is that we are all, like books, made of words. (Bill)
The News: A User’s Manual by Alain de Botton: Known for his wide-ranging curiosity and penchant for philosophical musing, the author of How Proust Can Change Your Life, Religion for Atheists, and The Art of Travel has turned his attention to the news. This branch of the media that incorporates everything from war to celebrities getting pizza is almost omnipresent in our lives, and de Botton here examines how that affects us and how much longer the news can get bigger. (Janet)
The Swan Gondola by Timothy Schaffert: Schaffert’s fifth novel, which he describes on his website as “a love story (with ghosts),” is set in the 1898 Omaha World’s Fair. The fair marks a point of possible transformation, both for Omaha—still in some ways a Wild West town, but yearning for the glamor of Chicago—and for the actors, aerialists, ventriloquists, and assorted hustlers who descend on the city for the fair. Schaffert brings his trademark lyricism, precision, and exquisite character development to a love story between a ventriloquist and a secretive traveling actress. (Emily)
A Life in Men by Gina Frangello: Gina Frangello is a true champion of indie literature—she’s an editor at The Rumpus and The Nervous Breakdown and has appeared repeatedly on the annual “Who Really Books Chicago” list—and yet she somehow finds time to write her own books, too. Frangello’s fiction is often sexual, seductive, forward, and frank. Her latest novel, A Life of Men, promises more in the same vein, with a story about two young friends, one recently diagnosed with cystic fibrosis, who travel the world seeking to fill their lives, however brief, with a wealth of experience. (Anne)
Europe in Sepia by Dubravka Ugresic: Ugresic has published several distinguished works of fiction, but her wide-ranging, boundary-blurring essays on politics and culture may be the ideal entry point for English-language readers. Here, in pieces originally published in The Baffler and elsewhere, she ranges from Occupy Wall Street to Ireland’s Aran Islands. For a preview, check out Arnon Grunberg’s tribute to Ugresic, published here last year. (Garth)
What’s Important is Feeling by Adam Wilson: Adam Wilson follows up his debut novel Flatscreen, a dark comedy of suburban listlessness, with a collection of stories taking place across the modern American landscape (the title story, which appeared in the Paris Review and was later included in the Best American Short Stories of 2012, describes a movie set in Texas and opens with the immortal question, “‘What is this cockshit?'”) Like Flatscreen, What’s Important is Feeling promises youthful- to middle-aged angst, ennui, relationship troubles, and weed. (Lydia)
Every Day Is for the Thief by Teju Cole: Teju Cole’s peripatetic, meditative Open City drew comparisons to Sebald and Coetzee and firmly placed Cole on the map of young authors endowed with serious smarts and talent, who engage in cultural critique—and this holds true whether he’s writing about race, class, and post-colonialism, or Tweeting about drones. Cole’s novel Every Day Is for the Thief is an “amalgamation of fiction, memory, art, and travel writing” originally culled from his blog (now removed) about a young Nigerian revisiting Lagos and a version of the book was published in 2007 by Nigeria-based Cassava Republic Press. (Anne)
What Would Lynne Tillman Do by Lynne Tillman: I ask myself this question all the time – WWLTD? – and here, in a thick abecedarium of essays introduced by Colm Tóibín, Tillman offers a variety of answers. A crib sheet: sometimes Lynne Tillman would crack wise; sometimes Lynne Tillman would offer an insight so startling I had to go back and read it twice; always Lynne Tillman would do something smarter and finer and better than I would. And that’s why you, too, should be reading Lynne Tillman. (Garth)
The Heaven of Animals by David James Poissant: Early reviews have compared Poissant’s stories, which ply the literary territory between realism and allegory, to the work of Anton Chekhov and Raymond Carver. In one story from this debut collection, a man throws his teenage son out a window when he learns the boy is gay, seeking reconciliation only after helping free an alligator from a golf club pond. In another, two parents confront the unusual complications of having a newborn baby that literally glows. Poissant, whose stories have appeared in One Story, Ploughshares, and The Atlantic, also has a novel in the works. (Michael)
Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi: Oyeyemi’s newest novel will be her fifth, not bad for a writer who will celebrate her 30th birthday later this year. Oyeyemi’s 2009 novel, White is for Witching, won a Somerset Maugham Award (the prize is given to British writers under 35) and she was named to the Granta Best Of Young British Novelists list last year, following the 2011 publication of Mr. Fox, the novel that introduced Oyeyemi to many U.S. readers. Boy, Snow, Bird, Oyeyemi told the Times last year, is “about a woman named Boy who tries to avoid becoming a wicked stepmother and really doesn’t know if she’s going to manage it.” (Max)
The Brunist Day of Wrath by Robert Coover: Coover’s enormous follow-up to his first novel, Origin of the Brunists, has been delayed several times, but this spring, it should finally see the light of day. Coover’s recent short stories in The New Yorker suggest he’s still near the top of his game. (Garth)
Pushkin Hills by Sergei Dovlatov: A new translation of a Dovlatov novel is like Christmas morning for the English-speaking world; and this one from his daughter, no less. Pushkin Hills, published 30 years ago, is one of his most popular novels in Russia (posthumously, along with all his work). Said The Guardian of the translation that first hit the UK last fall: “Alma Classics have been searching for a suitable translator for years. Now the writer’s daughter, Katherine Dovlatov, has captured her father’s style. . . [she] only took on the task of translating it after the publishers rejected a previous translation and numerous samples.” The story is, of course, autobiographical, featuring “[a]n unsuccessful writer and an inveterate alcoholic, Boris Alikhanov. . . running out of money and . . . recently divorced from his wife Tatyana, who intends to emigrate to the West with their daughter Masha.” From The Independent: “Vodka-fuelled mishaps, grotesque comic cameos and—above all—quick-fire dialogue that swings and stings propel this furious twilight romp from the final days of Soviet power.” Counterpoint is publishing the book in the U.S. (Sonya)
All Our Names by Dinaw Mengestu: A MacArthur genius, a 5 Under 35 awardee, and a 20 Under 40 recipient all walk into a bar and take a single seat, because it’s one person and his name is Dinaw Mengestu. The author of the The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears and How to Read the Air—both concerned with Africans fleeing their countries—returns this year with All Our Names, an elegiac love story about pair of African men separated by a political revolution: one in exile, and another in their war-torn homeland. Split across two narratives—one in the past, one in the present—All Our Names dramatizes the clashes between romantic idealism and disillusioned practicality, as well as between self-preservation and violence, all while blurring the identities of those who can move on, those who stay behind, and those who simply change. (Nick M.)
Blood Will Out by Walter Kirn: Billed as an In Cold Blood for the 21st century, Walter Kirn’s non-fiction book Blood Will Out: The True Story of a Murder, a Mystery, and a Masquerade tells the story of how this celebrated critic, essayist and novelist (Up In the Air, Thumbsucker) got duped by a man who claimed to be a Rockefeller but turned out to be an impostor, a child kidnapper and a brutal murderer. Part memoir, part true-crime story and part social commentary, Blood Will Out probes the dark psychological links between the artist and the con man. (Bill)
Mount Terminus by David Grand: The titular hilltop in David Grand’s third novel roosts high above sunny, sleepy pre-Hollywood Los Angeles. Mount Terminus is a refuge for grieving Jacob Rosenbloom, whose wife died back East. Jacob’s invention, the Rosenbloom Loop, has revolutionized the budding art of filmmaking, and he’s determined to use his invention’s earnings to protect his son, Bloom, from the family’s past. But Bloom, a dark, brooding genius, is prodded by his very different half-brother to come down from Mount Terminus and meet the world. This novel, 11 years in the making, becomes that rarest of things: a plausible myth, an intimate epic. (Bill)
Falling Out of Time by David Grossman: An acclaimed Israeli novelist, Grossman found an American audience with 2010’s To the End of the Land, an epic novel of love and war hailed as a masterpiece. He returns with a allegorical novel one third its length that tells the story of Walking Man, who walks in circles around his town in an attempt to come to peace with his son’s death. Having lost his own son in 2006, Grossman here probes the meaning of loss, memory, and grief. (Janet)
Sleep Donation by Karen Russell: The newly minted MacArthur grantee mines the fertile territory between short story and novel. In Russell’s lightly science-fictionalized world (which, come to think of it, sounds a lot like my house) a deadly insomnia epidemic is spreading. The well-rested can help out the afflicted by donating their excess sleep—but scarce supplies force everyone to reevaluate the line between gift and commodity. This is the first title from Atavist Books, so expect some bells and whistles in the digital edition. (Garth)
Clever Girl by Tessa Hadley: Like Alice Munro and Evan Connell, Hadley’s devotees exclaim that her sophisticated prose and skill with character transcend their subject—the unfortunately named “domestic fiction.” Her fifth novel, Clever Girl follows the life of Stella from her adolescence in the 1960s to the present day. Stella’s life, in every description, is ordinary, but illuminates both the woman living it and the times around her. (Janet)
Updike by Adam Begley: What’s left to say about John Updike that Updike didn’t already say exhaustively, and say better than anyone else could have? Yet Adam Begley has apparently found enough fresh material, or a fresh enough angle on the well-trod, to fill 576 pages. For a primer on Updike, there’s no way this book can surpass Nicholson Baker’s U&I, but it’s always a good sign when a literary biographer is a novelist himself. (Garth)
Can’t and Won’t by Lydia Davis: “Can’t and Won’t,” the title story from Lydia Davis’s new collection of short and short-short stories playfully pokes fun at the brevity of her fictions. In this two-sentence story the author is refused a literary prize, because of the laziness evident in his/her frequent use of linguistic contractions. Quite the contrary is true with Davis’s work, where much of the flare is tongue in cheek. Concision and precision invigorate her fictions, and apparently the prize committee agrees, as Davis was just awarded the prestigious Man Booker International Prize. (Anne)
And the Dark Sacred Night by Julia Glass: In her fifth novel, Julia Glass revisits two beloved characters—Malachy Burns and Fenno McLeod—from her first novel, the National Book Award-winning Three Junes. The publisher’s description assures us, however, that the novel will range and weave and shift perspectives—as all Glass’s novels do—among new characters as well. In an interview with Bloom earlier this year, Glass, who debuted with Three Junes at age 46, said: “I suspect that I simply can’t help exploring a story from many angles. . . I have to look through as many windows as I can reach; now and then I resort to a ladder.” When interviewer Evelyn Somers described Glass as “fearless” in the way she weaves together complex stories, Glass replied: “I like the idea of being ‘fearless,’ but sometimes I think the complexity of my novels is more related to another trait I have: I’m an overpacker. . . Call me a maximalist. I won’t be insulted.” (Sonya)
Love & Treasure by Ayelet Waldman: The plot of this novel revolves around the true history of the Hungarian gold train, a trove of stolen valuables that was seized by American soldiers during World War II but which was never returned to its rightful owners. Seventy years later, the granddaughter of one of the treasure-seizing soldiers must look into the turbulent past—and into her own turbulent life—when her grandfather gives her a jeweled pendant with a murky history. (Hannah)
Lovers at the Chameleon Club: Paris, 1932 by Francine Prose: Francine Prose’s 20th novel, Lovers at the Chameleon Club: Paris, 1932, is framed as a biography by a French feminist high school teacher. The subject of this fictional biography is Lou Villars, based on an historical figure, a professional athlete, lesbian, cross-dresser and German spy who became a torturer and was executed by the Resistance. One early reader claimed she could smell the nicotine on the fingers of Prose’s fictional French biographer. Woven into the text are sections of a fake Peggy Guggenheim memoir and a fake Henry Miller novel. The latter, Prose reports, “was super fun to write.” (Bill)
Thunderstruck & Other Stories by Elizabeth McCracken: The novelist, short story writer, and memoirist Elizabeth McCracken, whose novel The Giant’s House was a finalist for the 1996 National Book Award, has earned a reputation as a writer of rare empathy and descriptive powers. Thunderstruck, her first short story collection in twenty years, charts the territory of family, love, and loss. In their review of the collection, Publisher’s Weekly wrote that “McCracken transforms life’s dead ends into transformational visions.” (Emily)
Frog Music by Emma Donoghue: Best known for the 2010 bestseller Room, Donoghue latest novel sees her returning to historical fiction (four of her eight novels are historical), this one based on a still-unsolved murder in 1870s San Francisco. After her friend is killed by a gunshot through a boardinghouse window, Blanche—a burlesque dancer, prostitute, and the only witness—is forced to seek justice on her own. (Janet)
All the Birds, Singing by Evie Wyld: This second novel from British thirty-something sensation Evie Wyld (After the Fire, A Still Small Voice, 2009) is about a woman named Jake who, along with a flock of sheep, is the only inhabitant on an unnamed island off the coast of Britain. The novel came out abroad last year and revolves around a mysterious predator stalking Jake’s flock, picking off her sheep one at a time in gory fashion. As The Guardian put it in a review last June, the novel is “not a ruminant whodunnit exactly; it is a thoughtful and intense account of a young woman seemingly determined to disappear from the world’s radar.” (Kevin)
In Paradise by Peter Matthiessen: 86-year-old lion of American letters Peter Matthiessen has written his first novel since Shadow Country and what he told the NY Times may be his “last word.” A novel based upon his own experience attending three “Bearing Witness” Zen retreats at the site of Auschwitz-Birkenau, In Paradise will describe one attendee’s experience of meditation in a former concentration camp as a non-Jew of Polish descent. (Lydia)
Family Life by Akhil Sharma: Sharma’s first novel, An Obedient Father, won the PEN/Hemingway and the Whiting in 2001. More than a decade later, the Indian-born writer publishes his second novel, which begins in Delhi in 1978 and tracks a family’s migration to the United States. “Life is extraordinary until tragedy strikes,” the publisher writes, “leaving one brother severely brain-damaged and the other lost and virtually orphaned in a strange land.” For a introduction to Sharma’s writing, his first short story in twelve years, about cousins living in Delhi, was published in The New Yorker this past spring: “I wrote this story as soon as I had e-mailed the novel to my editor,” he told New Yorker fiction editor Deboarah Treisman. “Get thee behind me, devil is what I thought about finishing the novel.” (Elizabeth)
With My Dog Eyes by Hilda Hilst: If 2012 was the year of Clarice Lispector, when New Directions issued four new translations of her seminal works, then 2014 may very well be the year of Lispector’s friend and fellow Brazilian author, Hilda Hilst. Obscene Madame D was Hilst’s first work translated into English, and it made appearances on my best of 2013 reading list as well as Blake Butler’s. Two more Hilst translations debut this year, with another from Nightboat (Letters from a Seducer) and Melville House’s publication of With My Dog Eyes. This title seems apt, as Hilst produced much of her work after retreating to an estate where a pack of more than one hundred dogs roamed. For a taste, check out the excerpt Bomb published last summer. (Anne)
Talking to Ourselves by Andrés Neuman: Neuman’s first novel to be translated into English, Traveler of the Century, was an enormous feat of fabulism, and was critically acclaimed when it appeared here in 2012. Talking to Ourselves demonstrates Neuman’s range by running in completely the opposite direction. This comparatively short work is set in the present day, and alternates among the voices of three family members. For those who missed Traveler of the Century, it may be an equally potent introduction to Neuman’s work. (Garth)
Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace by Nikil Saval: Saval, an n+1 editor, has produced what may be an essential volume on a subject that bedevils so many of the over-educated and under-employed among us: the office. It is likely the rare desk jockey who hasn’t, in a fugue of 3pm boredom and amid a din of inane small talk, wondered “why does it have to be like this?” Cubed looks for an answer, exploring how the office as we know it came to be, “starting with the smoke one-room offices of the 19th century and culminating in the radical spaces of the dot-com era and beyond.” (Max)
Casebook by Mona Simpson: The consistently excellent Simpson returns with what sounds like a riff on Harriet the Spy: the story of a boy investigating his parents’ disintegrating marriage. The coming-of-age narrative is complicated here, though, by the disintegration of the possibility of privacy in the age of Facebook, or Snapchat, or whatever we’re all on now. Am I the only one hoping that the “stranger from Washington D.C. who weaves in and out of their lives” is Anthony Weiner? (Garth)
Off Course by Michelle Huneven: Michelle Huneven, author of Blame and Jamesland, returns with an engrossing and intimate new novel set in the early 1980s. Cressida Hartley is a young PhD candidate in Economics who moves to her parents’ shabby vacation cabin in the Sierras; she ends up getting drawn into the small mountain community there—in particular, its men. According to the jacket copy, Huneven introduces us to “an intelligent young woman who discovers that love is the great distraction, and impossible love the greatest distraction of all.” Publishers Weekly says that “Cress makes for an eerily relatable and heartbreaking protagonist.” If you haven’t yet read a book by Huneven, whom Richard Russo calls “a writer of extraordinary and thrilling talent,” then you’re in for a treat. (Bonus: Michelle Huneven’s beautiful essay, “On Walking and Reading At the Same Time.”)
Labor Day: True Birth Stories by Today’s Best Women Writers, edited by Eleanor Henderson and Anna Solomon: There’s no such thing as a predictable birth—a fact that maddens parents-to-be but eventually makes for a whopper of an anecdote. If your Aunt Mildred can tell a good story about her scheduled c-section, imagine the tales that writers like Julia Glass, Lauren Groff, Dani Shapiro, and The Millions’ own Edan Lepucki can spin. (Hannah)
All the Rage by A. L. Kennedy: The Independent once described A. L. Kennedy as “one of nature’s Eeyores”: “She knows grimness the way some novelists know music or food.” So the Scottish writer’s sixth collection of short stories—billed as “a dozen ways of looking at love, or the lack of love”—should likely be avoided by the overly sentimental. But it promises to be marked by the dark humor that pervades her work—the “Department 5” (“a shadowy organisation about which it’s best you know nothing”) page on her website gives you a good taste. (Elizabeth)
Vernon Downs by Jaime Clarke: Clarke, the co-owner of Newtonville Books in Boston, offers a slippery roman-a-clef, or simulacrum thereof. A sad sack writer becomes obsessed with a more famous colleague, the titular Vernon Downs, who despite his lack of a middle name, bears more than a passing resemblance to Bret Easton Ellis. This is the intriguing debut title for a new indie called Roundabout Press. (Garth)
The Temporary Gentleman by Sebastian Barry: The Irish poet, playwright and novelist Sebastian Barry’s new novel, The Temporary Gentleman, tells the story of Jack McNulty, an Irishman who served in the British army in the Second World and has washed up in Accra, Ghana, in 1957, determined to write down the story of his life. Jack is an ordinary man who has seen extraordinary things—as a world traveler, soldier, engineer, UN observer and ill-starred lover. Once again Barry, a repeat contender for the Man Booker Prize, deftly twines his own family history with the rumbustious history of the Irish in the 20th century. (Bill)
The Snow Queen by Michael Cunningham: Michael Cunningham’s sixth novel is set in New York City in 2004 and tells the story of two brothers facing loss. One brother, newly bereft, experiences a religious awakening; the other, whose wife is gravely ill, falls into drug use. It sounds like a tearjerker of a story, one likely to be made even more heartrending by Cunningham’s graceful prose. (Hannah)
My Struggle, Book III by Karl Ove Knausgaard: It’s not really news anymore that Knausgaard’s unfolding project (unfolding into English, anyway; in Norwegian, it’s already complete) is phenomenal. But now that FSG is handling the paperback editions (replete with Williamsburg-ready jacket design) you’ll be hearing even more about My Struggle. And it’s true: you should read it! Start Book I now, and you will have caught up by the time Book III comes out. (Garth)
Lost for Words: A Novel by Edward St Aubyn: St Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose quintet of novels, based on his own upbringing, center around the nasty dealings of a family in the English aristocracy. (James Wood diminishes regular comparisons to Waugh and Wilde, saying that despite surface similarities, St Aubyn is “he is a colder, more savage writer than either.”) His newest novel is somewhat of a departure then, a “a hilariously smart send-up of a certain major British literary award.” Readers hesitant to leave the Melrose family behind can rest assured that the new novel promises to be just as cutting as those before it. (Elizabeth)
Another Great Day at Sea: Life Aboard the USS George H.W. Bush by Geoff Dyer: Geoff Dyer’s latest sees the prolific journalist, essayist, and novelist chronicle a two-week stay aboard a US aircraft carrier. As the tallest (well, second-tallest), oldest, and easily most self-conscious person on the boat, Dyer occupied an odd position on the crew, one which forced him to reconcile his own bookish life with a lifelong interest in the military. (Those readers with Army experience may not be surprised to learn that the text is heavy on acronyms.) (Thom)
An Untamed State by Roxane Gay: If Roxane Gay wrote it, I’ll read it. Perhaps best known for her thoughtful and engaging essays about all kinds of topics, from Orange is the New Black to Twitter to Paula Deen’s racism, Gay will publish not only a book of essays in 2014, called Bad Feminist, but also this first novel. In An Untamed State, Mireille Duval Jameson, the daughter of one of Haiti’s richest men, is kidnapped and held captive for thirteen days by a man who calls himself the Commander. Mat Johnson says, “An Untamed State is the kind of book you have to keep putting down because you can’t believe how good it is. Awesome, powerful, impossible to ignore, Roxane Gay is a literary force of nature. An Untamed State arrives like a hurricane.” (Edan)
All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr: A blind French girl and a young German boy navigate the perils of occupied France in the latest by the author of Memory Wall. The French girl, Marie Laure, flees Paris with her father, eventually holing up with her agoraphobic uncle in his house on the coast of Brittany. The German boy, Werner, a mechanical whiz, parlays his aptitude into a spot in the Nazi army. The Nazis ship him off to Russia and then from there to northern France. If we can trust Abraham Verghese’s endorsement, the story is “put together like a vintage timepiece.” (Thom)
The Vacationers by Emma Straub: The highlight of Emma Straub’s short story collection, Other People We Married, was the romantically lost but sympathetic Franny. We left the collection wanting to read an entire novel on her, and fortunately, Straub has done just that with her second novel after Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures. Surprisingly, Franny is still married to Jim, and the Post family and friends are off to Mallorca to celebrate their 35th anniversary. Yet not everything is tranquil as the Mediterranean Sea, and the vacation dredges up embarrassments, rivalries, and secrets. (Tess)
To Rise Again at a Decent Hour by Joshua Ferris: To read a Joshua Ferris novel is to stare at the gaping emptiness just below the surface of modern life—and, quite often, laugh. In this third novel from the author of the much-beloved Then We Came to the End, dentist Paul O’Rourke discovers that someone is impersonating him online, with a website, a Facebook page, and a Twitter account all mysteriously created in Paul’s name. As he looks into who has stolen his identity and why, Paul begins to fear that his digital doppelgänger may be better than the real thing. (Michael)
The Painter by Peter Heller: An expressionist painter with a penchant for violence tries to outrun his own crimes in this novel by the author of The Dog Stars. The protagonist, Jim Stegner, thought he’d settled into a peaceful life in his home in rural Colorado. One day, Stegner witnesses a local man beating a horse, and the act so enrages him that he hunts down the man and kills him. He then sets off on a Dostoevskyan quest, one which sees him make sense of his actions while hiding his crime from the cops. All the while, in spite of his turmoil, he keeps painting. (Thom)
Cutting Teeth by Julia Fierro: When a group of thirty-something parents gather at a ramshackle beach house called Eden, no serpent is required for the sins, carnal and otherwise, to pile up. Fierro, founder of Brooklyn’s Sackett Street Writers’ Workshop, argued in The Millions last year that writers need to put the steam—and the human sentiment—back into sex scenes in literary novels. You may want to keep Fierro’s debut novel on a high shelf, away from children and prudish literary snobs. (Michael)
The Last Illusion by Porochista Khakpour: Porochista Khakpour is the author of the blazingly original (pun intended!) novel Sons and Other Flammable Objects. In her new novel, its hero, Zal, is born in a rural Iranian village to a mother who believes he is evil because of his pale skin and hair. For the first ten years of his life he’s raised in a cage with the rest of his mother’s birds—eating insects, shitting on newspaper—until he is rescued by a behavioral analyst who brings him to New York. The Last Illusion recounts Zal’s struggles and adventures in this foreign land, where he befriends a magician, and falls for a supposed clairvoyant. Claire Messud writes, “This ambitious, exciting literary adventure is at once grotesque, amusing, deeply sad—and wonderful, too.” (Edan)
The Lobster Kings by Alexi Zentner: A generational drama set on fictional Loosewood Island, about the King family vying to maintain control of a centuries old lobstering dynasty. Early reports speak of meth dealers, sibling rivalry, and intra-lobster boat love as the main threats to Cordelia King’s attempt to preserve the family business. In an interview last April, Zentner (Touch, 2011) also allowed that one of the characters has “a Johnny Cash tape stuck in the cassette player in his truck.” (Kevin)
Wonderland by Stacey D’Erasmo: I’m particularly excited about Stacey D’Erasmo’s fourth novel Wonderland—not only because its protagonist is a female indie musician, the likes of whom have not made it into novels often, if ever (think about it); but because said musician, Anna Brundage, is on a comeback tour at age 44. Bloomer! From the publisher: “Wonderland is a moving inquiry into the life of a woman on an unconventional path, wondering what happens next and what her passions might have cost her, seeking a version of herself she might recognize.” D’Erasmo herself, who spent a decade as a books editor, first for the Village Voice and then Bookforum, did her own later-blooming comeback as a debut novelist at age 39, and now a professor at Columbia. (Sonya)
The Rise and Fall of Great Powers by Tom Rachman: Rachman follows The Imperfectionists, a pitch perfect novel-in-stories set at a dying English-language newspaper in Rome, with a novel about a bookseller named Tooly Zylberberg, who was kidnapped as a child and then adopted by her kidnappers. In a narrative that hopscotches the globe from Bangkok to Brooklyn to the border towns of Wales, Zylberberg is lured into setting off on a journey that will unravel the mysteries of her past. Never one to worry overmuch about plot credibility, Rachman is a master of wringing pathos from essentially comic tales. (Michael)
The Possibilities by Kaui Hart Hemmings: Seven years after the publication of The Descendents—which you might remember because of a certain movie adaptation starring George Clooney—Kaui Hart Hemmings returns to the themes of familial loss, grief, and unexpected turns of fate all cast against gorgeous scenery. In The Possibilities, a Colorado mother loses her son in an avalanche near their Breckinridge home. Coping with her loss, and trying to piece her life back together, she’s suddenly confronted with something she couldn’t have seen coming. (Nick M.)
American Innovations by Rivka Galchen: It’s been six years since readers were introduced to Galchen via her ambitious debut Atmospheric Disturbances (James Wood called it “a contribution to the Hamsun-Bernhard tradition of tragicomic first-person unreliability.”) Since then she has been chosen as one of the New Yorker’s 20 writers under 40 and produced an impressive body of unusually lyrical science journalism (on topics like quantum computers and weather control). Galchen’s new collection American Innovations reflects an experiment of another sort. Per publisher FSG, “The tales in this groundbreaking collection are secretly in conversation with canonical stories, reimagined from the perspective of female characters.” “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” and Gogol’s “The Nose” are among the stories mined. (Max)
Funny Once by Antonya Nelson: Antonya Nelson’s new story collection brings together short pieces from the last few years as well as a previously unpublished novella. In the title story, a couple, united by a shared propensity for bad behavior, reckons with the consequences of a lie they tell to their friends. In “The Village,” a woman comes to grips with her feelings about her father’s mistress. In “Three Wishes,” the novella, a group of siblings deals with the fallout of their brother’s death. Like much of the native Kansan’s work, the collection takes place largely in Heartland and Western settings. (Thom)
The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henríquez: The Book of Unknown Americans, the second novel by Iowa Writers Workshop graduate Cristina Henríquez, begins as a love story between a Panamanian boy and a Mexican girl. After the girl suffers a major injury, the story moves from Mexico to a cinderblock apartment building in Delaware populated with immigrants from Latin America. From there the novel expands outward to become a symphonic love story between these immigrants and an impossible America. Told in a multiplicity of voices, the novel manages that rare balance of being both unflinching and unsentimental. In doing so, it rewrites the definition of what it means to be American. (Bill)
Summer House With Swimming Pool by Hermann Koch: Last year, in a “Books of the Times” review, Janet Maslin took Hermann Koch’s novel, The Dinner, out into the town square for a public flogging. A funny thing happened though: the book ended up a bestseller. A bestseller translated from the Dutch, no less! Koch’s misanthropic view of contemporary life seemed to resonate with American audiences, and his latest appears to offer more of the same. Here, a murder disturbs the idyll of a group of friends on vacation together, bringing far darker currents to the surface. (Garth)
Paper Lantern and Ecstatic Cahoots by Stuart Dybek: Dybek’s The Coast of Chicago was, like Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son, practically required reading in writing programs in the late ’90s and early Aughts. Dybek’s voice was lusher than Johnson’s, and more openly romantic, but equally poetic. His follow-up, I Sailed With Magellan, sometimes let that lushness grow too wild; the gritty Chicago settings of the earlier book gave way in places to nostalgia. But a new Dybek volume is always welcome, and this year offers a treat: the simultaneous publication of two. Paper Lantern is a group of love stories, while Ecstatic Cahoots gathers together the kinds of short shorts that so memorably punctuated The Coast of Chicago. (Garth)
I’ll Be Right There by Kyung-Sook Shin: Kyung-sook Shin is one of Korea’s most popular novelists. In I’ll Be Right There, set during a period of political turmoil in 1980s South Korea, she uses European literature to bridge experiential differences between East and West. The novel concerns a highly literate woman who receives a phone call from an ex-boyfriend after nearly a decade of separation. The call triggers a flood of memories, and she finds herself reliving her intense and tumultuous youth: memories of tragedy and upheaval and of profound friendships forged in a time of uncertainty. (Emily)
In the Wolf’s Mouth by Adam Foulds: The third novel from British writer Foulds takes place at the end of World War II and follows two Allied soldiers during the final push to sweep the Germans out of Italy. In an interview last July with the Hindustan Times, Foulds previewed the book, saying, it “would like to give the reader a sense of history as being very complicated and rapid in these high-conflict situations. It is one thing after another. The events are too massive to care for particular individual stories, so there are a number of stories. For a while, one is unsure if they are going to converge but they do.” (Kevin)
California by Edan Lepucki: In July, Millions staffer and preferred writing teacher Edan Lepucki will follow up her novella If You’re Not Yet Like Me with her first full-length novel, California, a post-apocalyptic number set in, er, California. Lepucki’s debut follows a young couple struggling to make it work in a shack in the wilderness and straddles the (complementary) domestic and dystopian spheres, addressing horrors like marital strife, pregnancy, and the end of society as we know it. Dan Chaon called it “a wholly original take on the post-apocalypse genre.” (Full disclosure: I have eaten meals with Edan, squeezed her baby, and admired her tiny dog. My feeling of anticipation regarding this novel is thus not impartial.) (Lydia)
Motor City Burning by Bill Morris: Our own Bill Morris, a Motor City native, tells the story of Willie Bledsoe—once an idealistic black activist, now burnt-out and trying to write a memoir about the ’60s—who joins his brother to drive a load of illegal guns up to Detroit in 1968. While in Detroit, Bledsoe becomes the top suspect in an unsolved murder from the previous year’s bloody race riots. The book will dive deep into some of Morris’s great fascinations: cars, Detroit, and the The Indigenous American Berserk that lurks below the surface. (Kevin)
Tigerman by Nick Harkaway: A couple of years back, Charlie Jane Anders—writing on i09—declared that Harkaway had invented a new genre: existential pulp. That might be as good a way as any to describe his wildly inventive ouevre, which involves ninjas, mimes, doomsday machines, schoolgirl spies, shadowy secret societies, and mechanical soldiers. His third novel, Tigerman, concerns a burnt-out sergeant of the British Army, Lester Ferris, who is sent to serve out his time on Mancreu, a shady former British colony slated for destruction, where he encounters a street kid in need of a hero. (Emily)
Friendship by Emily Gould: Emily Gould’s debut novel charts the friendship of two women who, at thirty, have been closely entwined in one another’s lives for years. Bev lives the kind of aimless life that’s easier to put up with at 23 than at 30. Amy has been coasting for some time on charisma, luck, and early success, but unfortunate decisions are catching up with her. A meditation on friendship and maturity in an era of delayed adulthood. (Emily)
Last Stories and Other Stories by William T. Vollmann: Vollmann writes so much that you forget it’s been a blue moon since he’s published a work of fiction. And that book won the National Book Award! This collection is said to comprise a bunch of ghost stories—perhaps less inherently promising than, say, a Vollmann essay on how the FBI mistook him for the Unabomber, but still liable to fascinate. One of the remarkable things about Vollmann’s story collections is the way they add up to more than the sum of their parts; I’m eager to see how these stories connect. (Garth)
The Great Glass Sea by Josh Weil: If orbital “space mirrors” reflecting constant sunlight upon Oranzheria, a massive greenhouse in Petroplavilsk, Russia, doesn’t pique your interest, then I can’t do anything for you. These are the mysterious devices at the heart of Josh Weil’s second novel, which follows two twins, Yarik and Dima, who were inseparable as children, but who have grown apart in adulthood. Today, the two work in the collective farms of Oranzheria, the “great glass sea,” to harvest crops for the benefit of the place’s billionaire owner. What follows is a story of two brothers on oppositional paths, each hoping to reconvene, all set against the backdrop of an “alternative present-day Russia.” (Nick M.)
The Hundred-Year House by Rebecca Makkai: Doug is an academic interested in the poetry of Edwin Parfitt. As it happens, Doug’s mother-in-law owns a former artists’ colony where the poet had long ago been an artist in residence. Fancy that. But for whatever reason, she prohibits Doug from entering the estate’s attic, where file cabinets of Edwin Parfitt’s papers are said to be located. After asking around, however, Doug ultimately gains access to some of the files—only to find that they are much more disturbing than he could have imagined. What ensues is a fragmented narrative, split between 1999, 1955, and 1929, in which readers see glimpses of the present day, the near past, and the final days of the artist colony, all the while affected by the enduring legacy of the estate’s original owners. (Nick M.)
Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami: When Murakami’s new novel—his first since the in-all-ways-gigantic 1Q84—came out in Japan last year, there were apparently 150-deep midnight queues outside Tokyo bookstores. It sold 1 million copies in its first week alone. This is a novel, let’s remember, not a new Call of Duty game. And such were its unit-shifting powers in its author’s country that it caused a significant spike in sales of a particular recording of Franz Liszt’s “Years of Pilgrimage” piano pieces described in the novel, leading to a swift decision by Universal Music to reprint CDs of the recording to meet Murakami-based demand. The novel tells the story of Tsukuru Tazaki, a young man mysteriously ostracized by his friends. It stands a good chance of selling a few copies in English translation too. (Mark)
The Kills by Richard House: The second section of this four-part novel is called “The Massive”; it’s a title that could have stood for the whole. House’s sprawling quadruple-decker, longlisted for the Booker Prize, is a literary thriller set against the background of the Iraq War. Intriguingly, House created extensive digital video and audio supplements that unfold alongside the narrative. Not sure how that works, though, if you’re going to be reading on boring old paper, as I am. (Garth)
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At Book Club, I’m a spy. I’m the only writer in this group of a dozen women. The others are scientists, doctors, social workers, winemakers. I’ve enjoyed the company of these smart, opinionated women immensely for nearly ten years, but I’d be lying if I said the camaraderie (and the pinot and the cheese) were the only reasons I participate. You see, my membership in the group gives me a real window into the reading habits of the very audience I’m trying to capture with my own fiction, a way to conduct a living room focus group, if you will, without anyone being the wiser. I can report that, over a decade, the tastes of the group have changed dramatically, in a way that doesn’t necessarily bode well for my own emerging career.
At Book Club, I’m also the secretary. One of my annual jobs is to compile a list of recommendations for the coming year. Every member offers a couple suggestions — title, author, and a one paragraph description typically cut and pasted from Amazon. Before sending out the list, I read through it closely, excited about all the interesting possibilities. And yet, my mind gets stuck on particular phrases in the descriptions that I know, from years of experience, will likely push the book out of contention.
I’m in the heads of these ladies, imagining the silent demerits they will offer to words like “heartbreaking,” (too sad), “epic” (too long), “thought-provoking” (meh, could go either way). Any book that features the loss of a child is out, no debate. Spousal abuse, cruelty to animals, anything hinting at a conservative world-view (unless it’s written by someone who abandoned that world-view), nope, nope, and nope.
It wasn’t always this way. Ten years ago, most of us were just reaching our thirties. We’d yet to have children. We were career-focused, new transplants to our little town (brought here through our or our spouses’ jobs at the local college), and we were eager for friendship and mind-stimulation. We used to read at least a dozen books a year for the club. We read literary best-sellers by Jhumpa Lahiri and Zadie Smith. We read classics, such as the collected stories of Charlotte Perkins Gilman. We read topical nonfiction, such as Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran. We had a night solely devoted to poems we loved. We read cookbooks. Once, just after Obama won his first election, we kicked off a meeting with a reading of Goodnight Bush, a parody of the classic Goodnight Moon we’d all soon enough be reading to our own children.
I vividly remember a meeting, about six years ago, when half of our small group was pregnant, myself included. We were propped uncomfortably on couches and chairs, using pillows strategically. Those who weren’t pregnant had left their infants or toddlers home with spouses. One nursed her newborn while we discussed my top pick for that year, Lorrie Moore’s bestselling story collection, Birds of America. I was the discussion leader, another relic that’s been lost.
Recommending this book was perhaps a mistake, not because I didn’t love it, but because I loved it too much, to the point of challenging anyone in the room to a knife fight lest they claim Moore was anything less than the greatest living writer. The trouble started when, one by one, members admitted they could not read the book’s show-stopper, “People Like That Are The Only People Here,” a gut-wrenching story, yet full of Moore’s characteristic wit and humor, despite, or perhaps because of, the fact that the setting is a pediatric cancer ward.
“Does this kid die?” someone asked. A roomful of frightened eyes asked me the same question. My arms were crossed over my expanding belly. I knew that Moore’s story, though billed as fiction, was largely autobiographical. I knew, from some interview or another, that Moore’s son was alive and well. I urged people to go back to the story, said they’d be glad they did, but I’m not sure that anyone did so.
A similar thing happened when we picked Emma Donaghue’s Room. Thankfully, during the meeting to pick that year’s books, someone was there who had already read Room and could assure everyone that the boy and his mother do escape from their captor and survive. Without that member’s impassioned plea, it would not have been chosen, despite its stellar reviews. I worry about what our picks say about us, myself included. Although I might read more widely due to my profession as a writer, I, too, have found myself on many nights, once the children are finally asleep, the dishes washed, reaching for a decorating magazine by the side of my bed rather than the stack of National Book Award nominees. As I’m currently battling insomnia, my doctor warned me against reading anything too “heavy” right before sleep. And so, the books must wait until I have a swath of time during the day when I can absorb myself in something more challenging. But with two young children, that just isn’t going to happen.
Is that a lame excuse? Have I, and our other club members, become lazy? Complacent? Has motherhood made us incapable of putting literary tragedy in its proper perspective? Or are we just…tired? Are we victims of the mentality that says we must do it all or die trying? (Books on this topic will almost always get the nod.) Is it so wrong to simply want to zone out with a magazine, or a Will Ferrell movie, instead of the latest Oscar nominee for Best Picture?
This year, we will pick only five books. It was a decision made last year when the club was on life support. Attendance had dwindled to nothing, and something had to be done. We threw all the former rules aside. Can’t make most of the meetings? That’s okay! Come whenever! Come to the meeting, even if you haven’t read the book! Bring a friend, who also hasn’t read the book! We now have two purely social meetings each year, one a potluck that includes our families. The other five meetings feature discussion of a brief magazine article of interest to the group, usually something from The New Yorker or The Atlantic, which can be read over lunch the day of the meeting.
Though membership has changed, the Book Club has been with me since I started writing my debut novel five years ago. I’m finally done and showing it to agents, but will I show it to club members? I’m not so sure I can just yet. I worry about their reaction. Though there is humor and lightheartedness scattered throughout, my book is about serious themes, a controversial mix of religion and politics and science, all the things one is not supposed to talk about in polite company. If I anonymously offered a description of it in the list of recommendations, would it get chosen? I’m afraid I know the answer to that question, and it makes my eye start to twitch.
In any case, we’ve gravitated from novels to mostly non-fiction, titles that impact our lives directly, such as books examining child-rearing, work/life balance, or books that show us the science of our decision making. If they’re going to take the time to read them, members want books they can use. I read the list of recommendations again before sending it to the group. “Hilarious,” (check) “Unputdownable,” (this is a word now? check) “Eye-opening” (could go either way). I look over the books I’d personally like to read, even when they inevitably don’t get chosen. These are books that might make me sad, but that I think ultimately will give me an understanding of what it means to be human. These books will be my non-required reading, should I be ambitious enough at the end of a long day to put down the decorating magazines.
And so the voting begins. I feel bad for the excellent authors who won’t make our list. Laugh, I want to tell them, and the Book Club laughs with you. Cry, and you cry alone.
Image: Sean M. Freese/Flickr
After I wept over the last page of Emma Donoghue’s extraordinary 2010 novel Room, I took a break from reading altogether. The break was more for self-preservation than anything else: Donoghue had managed, over the course of her horrific tale of a mother and child’s sadistic imprisonment and wrenching return to the world, to lock me into a tiny cell, a knot of intensely plotted turns and hypnotic language so tight that other novels could not unravel it. After living in Room, I saw all my environments differently. Locks clicked with more finality, and large spaces suddenly left me gasping for air. I put the book away, fleeing to nonfiction for several months afterwards. Fiction had taken me too deep down the rabbit hole.
So it’s with some relief that I can say that Donoghue’s Astray poses no similar threat. Instead of pulling the reader close into a whispered narrative of despair as she did in Room, Donoghue now throws the windows of the world open in fourteen stories of wanderlust, exploration, and possibilities promised by new and unknown lands. The stories are split into three sections “Departures,” “In Transit,” and “Arrivals and Aftermaths,” and each stage of travel poses questions of why we travel, migrate, and drive forward into new territories, and what cost. Where once she constrained us to an eleven-by-eleven-foot cell, Donoghue’s stage is expansive and generous. She notes in her lovely afterword, that our wanderlust is really about the desire to find our fates: “Travelers know all the confusion of the human condition in concentrated form…Moving far away to some arbitrary spot simply highlights the arbitrariness of getting born into this particular body in the first place: this contingent selfhood, this sole life.”
Each of Donoghue’s storytellers goes on great journeys, yet she tethers them before they — and we — ever know it. Each story, shifting in time and location across the last four centuries, concludes with a note from Donoghue, revealing the factual roots that inspired it. In “Man and Boy,” she shows us the poignant bond between the trainer Matthew Scott and his ward, the famous elephant known as “Jumbo,” just as the future circus magnate P.T. Barnum is making an offer to bring the beast into his American tour circuit in 1882. Donoghue slips, Zelig-like, into each story and embellishes the historical skeleton with perfectly attuned language: as the trainer Scott strokes Jumbo’s trunk, he murmurs, “We don’t mind the piddling tiddlers of this world, do we, boy? We just avert our gaze.” The “based upon a true story” hook makes the stories wildly informative and engaging. It’s not necessarily the case that narrative needs truth for maximum impact, but finding the kernel of reality in each tale makes the bigger tale even more resonant. In “Onward,” a young mother turns from a life of prostitution and wins her ticket to Canada by way of Charles Dickens. In “The Widow’s Cruse,” a young lawyer sees only what he wants to see in a young Jewish widow seeking his help. (Donoghue digs deep into the lawyer’s intentions, giving us the delicious description of his lechery. “The days that followed were full of pleasurable anticipations, and the nights brought scalding dreams. His sheets were dreadfully stained; he had to send them out for laundering.”) Donoghue knows how to employ the very best descriptors, all while perfectly mimicking the tone of her story’s time and place. “The Widow’s Cruse,” set in 1735 New York, sounds just as Edgar Allen Poe might lay it out, perfectly noble on the surface and subtly sinister below, just as “Snowblind” is pulled straight from the mouths of doomed prospectors as they trudge into the frozen Yukon during the 1896 Gold Rush. Jack London would be proud.
Some stories are less provocative than others — the moment of a mother’s journey across the Gulf of Saint Lawrence (juxtaposed with her dying husband on shore), or the story of grave robbers going after Abraham Lincoln’s corpse, fall too much on our pre-established pathos and recognition to move the uninformed reader. But where Donoghue really gets us is in the stories that challenge their very contexts. I found unanticipated humor and intrigue in “The Long Way Home,” the story of Mollie Monroe, a cowgirl who also acts as a bounty hunter for wayward husbands in 1870s Arizona, and who agrees to an unlucky trade with one of her targets. The story’s resolution is unexpected in its modern bravado, and Donoghue’s revelation of its true-to-life source — an apocryphal story about a female bounty hunter later committed for insanity (aka cross-dressing, promiscuity, and alcoholism) only makes it more entertaining. But the most startling of these tales, and perhaps the most consequential, has to be “The Lost Seed,” the account of a settler in Cape Cod in 1639, who begins his time in the New World a good Christian, forgiving and compassionate for his neighboring colonists. “If we do not help each other, who will help us? We are all sojourners in a strange land…in this rough country we stand together or we fall.” But as time passes, “each household shuts its doors at night,” and so the man shuts his heart against his former friends. He is scorned by a girl he fancies, and later turns and accuses her and another woman of lewd behavior, of laying together with “not a hand-span between their bodies. It is time now to put our feet to the spades to dig up evil and all its roots.” It would seem that despite the initial clean slate of the new world, it would only take a single man’s wicked and petty mind to sully the entire enterprise. Once part of a community, he now wanders “across the fields for fear of meeting any human creature on the road. And it seemed to me the snow was like a face, for its crust is an image of perfection, but underneath is all darkness and slime.”
Perhaps travel is what produces the desire to settle down at all, in that finding oneself without territory can be profoundly destabilizing. The same impulse that would drive us to travel, to form new communities in new lands, is the same that would have us cling to our tiny plots and ward off interlopers. Accord and antipathy may grow from the same tree, if the soil allows it to be so. A new home, a new land, promises a chance at new definition, a chance to clear old disappointments away and start again. As Donoghue notes in her Afterword, perhaps written as she tours the globe telling stories, “I don’t know where I am. I peer out the little window at the flat landscape hurtling towards me several thousand feet below, and I think, where on earth is this? . . . Emigrants, immigrants, adventurers, and runaways — they fascinate me because they loiter on the margins, stripped of the markers of family and nation; they’re out of place, out of their depth.” By giving us true stories of wanderers and vagabonds in search of broader vistas, Donoghue has given narrative weight to both the journey and the destination. And in offering up history newly made into stories, Donoghue makes the journey of literary reinvention into its own reward.
I’d been waiting to read another novel by Lauren Groff ever since I finished her first, The Monsters of Templeton, a genealogy-detective story which also happens to include an enormous lake monster and sentences so beautiful you just want to weep. That promising debut, however, could not prepare me for the brilliance and wisdom of Arcadia, Groff’s recently-released second novel. I was wholly swept up in this story about, among other things, a man who is raised on a commune; I would’ve read it faster were it not for the stunning prose that I wanted, like a fine meal, to savor. Groff’s novel is so richly imagined that every word, every detail, feels true. She is one of the most talented writers working today.
The Millions: I was immediately drawn to Bit as a narrator–he’s sensitive, thoughtful, a keen observer of his surroundings, sweet, and tiny. Can’t get much more loveable than that. (He also seems an antidote to another fictional boy, Kevin, from one of my favorite books, We Need to Talk About Kevin–and I think, as a mother of a son, I needed that!) I really enjoyed being in Bit’s world, his perspective. Was he always the person to tell this story? How do you feel a different member of Arcadia might have altered our perception of it?
Lauren Groff: Bit was always the person to tell the story, even if he didn’t begin as the character he ended up being by the last draft. I started this book when I was pregnant with my first son Beckett; from the beginning, I knew there was going to be a child’s point-of-view in the first part. That said, Bit was at first a girl, primarily because almost every point-of-view character I’ve ever written up to then was female. Then Beck was born, and suddenly the character had to be a boy, and he grew into a fuller life as my son did. This book is equally Bit’s mother’s story–Hannah’s story–and even though she and I are similar in a lot of ways, I found Bit’s perspective to be more interesting, his loss more keen. When Arcadia falls apart, Bit knows nothing of the world beyond, really, and has to go into it as an innocent, which seemed utterly terrifying to me. (As a side-note, I love Lionel Shriver [holy hell!].)
TM: I was impressed with how language of this book shifted, grew more mature, as the book progressed, as Bit aged. Also, there’s almost a groovy rhythm to the prose early on that reflects the lifestyle of the commune. Later on, the prose is far more subdued. Was this intentional, and how did you calibrate the perspective with each section?
LG: It’s hard to say how intentional the shift in language was–I write from the gut a lot. That said, I believe very deeply in the symbiosis of story and mode, that the way that a writer chooses to tell the story has to be at least an equal partner to the story itself. Global things matter–the external architecture of the story, its internal structure, point-of-view, voice, verb tense, authorial distance, things like that. And smaller things matter equally–the use of white space, the length and rhythm of the sentences, the choice of details. When a story I’ve written has failed, it’s because I haven’t found the right way to tell it in either a large way or a small way.
TM: Everyone who’s read this book raves about its prose. It’s gorgeous! When Bit is alone as a child in the dark woods, you write, “There is a sense of gathering, a hand that clenches the center of a stretched cloth and lifts.” Later, Bit describes the unfamiliarity of boxed cookies, how they taste “the way batteries do when licked.” As an adult, he thinks of his students, their “faces cracked with interest.” The images are specific, surprising, beautiful. Can you talk a little about your relationship to sentences and imagery, and how you go about crafting your prose?
LG: Ha. Thanks. The prose that ends up in a finished piece is the product of lots and lots of drafts. I do a preliminary draft of almost everything I write, where I just sprint from the beginning of the story to the end in longhand, and when I’m done, I throw it out without rereading it. This seems wasteful, but it’s actually immensely freeing. By the time I’m done with the first draft, I’ve figured out my structural problems, have a good idea of the characters, and, most importantly, am not so wedded to the words themselves that I can’t fix what’s inherently broken about the piece. When I start again, the nice phrasing or images from the first draft reappear if they’re interesting or important and don’t if they’re not. And then, after a good longhand draft is finished (maybe after three or four re-starts), and I transfer it all to the computer, the second stage of drafting begins, where I print out the manuscript, scribble over it crabbily in red ink, insert changes, and reprint. This goes on for dozens and dozens of drafts. And then there are the trusted reader drafts, the agent drafts, the editor drafts, the copy-editor drafts. Sometimes, I wonder if writing fiction is, at its core, mostly a matter of finding a story or character that’s interesting enough to hold the writer’s interest through all of the painstaking work of revising.
TM: The novel reads episodically, with little moments or scenes broken up by white space. There are parts that feel more episodic than others, and it almost feels like time is passing in flashes, everything blurry but a brief, beautiful moment. This made the book not only highly readable, but it also emphasized the passage of time by giving it a physical dimension on the page. This is a long-winded preamble to asking you how you conceived of time passing in Arcadia. The novel is told in the present-tense, and yet, the latter half of the book is so much about Bit looking backward. How did you wrestle with all the years covered? How does scene-writing change in a book that covers so much time?
LG: Oh, I’m so glad you mentioned time. From the beginning, it was deeply important to my idea of the project of this book. I am in love with the gorgeous, elastic, leaping human brain that shuffles and connects disparate pieces of the world into a coherent story. I wanted the white space, either between the episodes or between the four parts of the book, to carry a lot of the narrative burden. Some people may live lives that are perfectly linear, but mine seems to happen in intense, emotionally-charged spurts, followed by long, fallow periods of relative calm. My impression of history–our collective storytelling–is that it happens in crests and troughs, too. With Arcadia, I wanted to examine time, through Bit, as this intensely personal experience; I also wanted to examine time in its larger historical patterns.
TM: I admit, I’m a bit annoyed that so many reviews of Arcadia give away its plot and structure , which was deeply surprising (and thus pleasurable) to me. So, ***spoiler alert*** to those reading this interview who haven’t read the book! I was shocked when this book moved forward into the future; this suddenly panoramic view of Bit’s whole life reminded me a little of A Visit from the Goon Squad (of which I am a big fan), in its surprising depiction of a future that supplies us with a new understanding of the book’s characters. Did you know you were going to structure Arcadia like this? I kept wondering if an earlier draft was more conventional, plot-wise, more like Room by Emma Donoghue–where the little boy who was born and raised in a shed escapes and in the second half of the book has to interact with this big, scary new world. Why skip ahead to Bit as an adult, now accustomed to the outside world? Were you meaning to shift our expectations of plot and novel structure?
LG: As soon as I figured out what I wanted to write about, I understood that my arc was going to move toward dystopia at the end of the book. The impulse stemmed from my research–a lot of the back-to-the-landers I read about and talked to for Arcadia went from being largely idealistic in the 1960s to being somewhat apocalyptic nowadays; for instance, a number of them ascribe to peak oil theories and practice radical homemaking. (For the record, I don’t think they’re wrong.) I was gobsmacked by the idea that people who were extremely future-thinking in their twenties would become extremely anxious about the future in their sixties. It keyed into a lot of the bleakness I was feeling at the time I envisioned this book, because, in truth, I was (am) afraid for my baby’s future. Also, the real pattern for this book was not just ending at Paradise Lost, but also extending into Paradise Regained; if Bit were going to be given the chance to return home, the stakes in the outside world had to be heightened. And though I deeply love Room, which I let myself read after my final edits, Bit’s trajectory was different because I wanted to explore how Bit carries his parents’ idealism throughout his life and how it changes him.
TM: How much research went into Arcadia? What in the commune is just pure imagination and fantasy, and what did you feel needed to be backed up with historical fact? Where does research fit into your writing process?
LG: I research first and a great deal, and then do a small amount throughout the rest of the writing process, all of which took about four years for this book. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do at the beginning, so I started with just basic texts about utopias and dystopias. I moved on to utopian novels (Butler, Morris, More, Le Guin, Campanella, and on and on), read about actual historical intentional communities. The two that took my breath away were Oneida, in mid-nineteenth-century upstate New York (Mansion House is the inspiration for Arcadia House), and The Farm in 1960s through ’80s Tennessee. I spent a few days at both places. Oneida is now a guest-house, and you can stay with people who still live at The Farm, both of which experiences I recommend heartily. And then I talked to everyone who would talk to me about their experiences in intentional communities. Serendipity was on my side with this project. Even during moments that I wasn’t looking for a story, I stumbled into one. We had a garage sale and someone came up to us who said our house had housed a cult in the 1970s that she’d been a part of. Apparently, they wore pink robes and made the kids sleep in the garage.
TM: And because The Millions is a site about books, I must ask, What’s the last great book you read?
LG: I just read Leela Corman’s Unterzakhn, and can’t say enough lovely things about it. It’s a graphic novel that just came out, set on the Lower East Side in the beginning of the twentieth century. It’s lush and smart and and funny and just beautifully drawn. And I just reread Jami Attenberg’s great new novel called The Middlesteins, which will be published in October. It’s so great-hearted and warm and brilliant. You’ll love it.
“Why do we read?” That was the journal prompt given one day to seniors at the International High School at Prospect Heights, a Brooklyn public school that teaches English to newly arrived immigrants and refugees from around the world. I spent a year at the school reporting my first book, The New Kids. During that time I heard many, many journal prompts, but this one made a lasting impression, in part because of one student’s answer. “We read to survive in the world,” wrote Hasanatu, who had grown up in Sierra Leone during the war, “because when we know how to read, we can have gob.”
Hasanatu had learned how to read only recently, around the same time that she learned how to write. Sometimes she read for fun — she liked Superfudge by Judy Blume — but reading had a more practical purpose, too. She read to learn English, to sharpen her language and communication skills, to propel her forward toward college, and, yes, toward a good job. She also read to find answers to pressing questions. For instance, she wanted to know why it seemed that only African Muslims practice female circumcision? She spent days in the library investigating.
For me, the question “What are you reading” inevitably leads to the question, “Why do we read?” This year, I’ve been reading mostly for entertainment and escape — more like I used to read as a kid. In past years, I’ve found myself reading books on a theme, usually related to whatever I’m working on at the moment. Before writing The New Kids, I read and revisited books about the immigrant/outsider experience: What Is the What and Zeitoun by Dave Eggers, The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman, Outcasts United by Warren St. John, and Call It Sleep by Henry Roth. (I wrote about a few of those books here.)
If I had known about The Gangster We Are All Looking For, Lê Thi Diem Thúy’s slim and elegant novel about a young girl who washes ashore in San Diego after fleeing Vietnam with her father by boat, I would have read it before writing my own book. In hindsight, I’m glad I didn’t know about it — I was able to read it without taking endless mental notes. I was pleased to discover that the author has a connection to western Massachusetts (where I recently moved with my husband), also home to Tracy Kidder, whose book Home Town gave me a glimpse into the inner workings of Northampton.
Leaving New York City helped rekindle my interest in books about my former home, which I sometimes miss. I loved Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad, not just for its memorable characters and pervasive sense of nostalgia, but for Egan’s wonderful inventiveness with language. I also ate up Amy Sohn’s bitchy Prospect Park West — especially the parts where she imagines dialogue for the “character” of Maggie Gyllenhaal, who works at the Park Slope Food Coop.
On the subject of Park Slope, I finally got to read the works of some of my friends from the neighborhood’s own Brooklyn Writers Space. Tamar Adler’s An Everlasting Meal is a cookbook written as a collection of pithy essays, in the tradition of M.F.K. Fisher’s How to Cook a Wolf. Bryan Charles’ memoir, There’s a Road to Everywhere Except Where You Came From, is about his first few years living in New York City, where he worked in a cubicle on the seventieth floor of the World Trade Center up until and on the day of 9/11. Michael Chabon described the book as “a sneakily disturbing, disarmingly profound, casually devastating memoir, taut and adept, that cracked me up even at its saddest moments.” I think he nailed it.
Speaking of Chabon, I finally read Wonder Boys, which has one of the best last lines of any book that I can remember. I also read Emma Donoghue’s Room, which ruined a recent family weekend vacation (I wouldn’t talk to anyone until I finished), and Ransom Riggs’ Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, another creepy book. This one is a young-adult novel — featuring some beautifully haunting vintage photos — about an abandoned orphanage filled with some very weird kids.
Last but not least, I revisited a few old favorites, including Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove, the first western I ever read, and Black Hole, the first graphic novel I ever read. The former is an epic adventure about a couple of aging Texas cowboys who embark on a perilous journey to settle amid the wilderness of Montana. The latter is a grotesque modern fable about a bunch of teenagers in 1970s Seattle, where a sexually transmitted “bug” is causing some horrific mutations among the locals.
Two titles you wouldn’t find side-by-side on most bookshelves, but I see a connection. As Hasanatu said, we read to survive in the world, but sometimes we just like reading about survival.
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The International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award has unveiled its massive 2012 longlist. Recall that libraries around the world can nominate books for the prize, and these nominations, taken together, comprise the longlist. This year there are 147 novels on the list, nominated by 122 libraries in 45 countries. All of the books must have been published in English in 2010 (including translations).
Because of the award’s global reach and egalitarian process, it’s always interesting to dig deeper into the longlist. Taken as a whole, the literary proclivities of various countries become evident, and a few titles recur again and again, revealing which books have made a global impact on readers.
Overall favorites: books that were nominated by at least seven libraries.
Room by Emma Donoghue (20 libraries representing Australia, England, France, Ireland, the Maldives, New Zealand, and the United States)
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell (13 libraries representing Belgium, the Czech Republic, Finland, France, New Zealand, Switzerland, and the United States)
Freedom by Jonathan Franzen (12 libraries representing Canada, England, Germany, Greece, Italy, Spain, and the United States)
To the End of the Land by David Grossman (10 libraries representing Brazil, Canada, Germany, and the United States)
Purge by Sofi Oksanen (8 libraries representing Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Greece, Norway, Poland, Sweden, and Switzerland)
Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes (7 libraries representing the Czech Republic, Ireland, the Netherlands, and the United States)
You can also look at the list and see which books are favorites in different countries. Several books were nominated by multiple libraries in the same country. Here’s a few:
In Canada, Annabel by Kathleen Winter
In Germany, Fame by Daniel Kehlmann
In Ireland, Skippy Dies by Paul Murray
There were also several countries with only one library nominating just one or two books. Here are a few of those:
From Bermuda, Gorée: Point of Departure by Angela Barry
From Cyprus, A Watermelon, a Fish and a Bible by Christy Lefteri
From Hungary, One Amazing Thing by Chitra Divakaruni
From India, Serious Men by Manu Joseph
From Japan, The Book of Heroes by Miyuki Miyabe
The huge, McSweeney’s-published, John Sayles novel A Moment in the Sun has been getting great reviews. It’s now out. Also new this week is China Mieville’s Embassytown, reviewed here today; Paul Theroux’s exploration of the genre of travel writing, The Tao of Travel; prizewinning Nigerian author Helon Habila’s new novel Oil on Water; and A Day in the Life of a Smiling Woman, the complete stories of Margaret Drabble, recently written up by Joyce Carol Oates in the New Yorker. New in paperback are a pair of Millions Hall of Famers, Emma Donoghue’s Room and Justin Cronin’s The Passage.