Few of the books I read this year have touched me as deeply as Alyson Hagy’s Scribe. Eventually, after blackening almost every sentence with underlines and every margin with exclamation marks, I had to give up highlighting the passages I found remarkable. This is an untamed, unlit, unforgiving book—which makes its relentless beauty all the more impressive.
This was the year when I finally read William Gaddis’s The Recognitions. I have always been interested in aesthetics, and Gaddis gives wonderfully diagonal and opaque answers to the eternal questions about representation, originality, and how personal expression struggles to make its way through historically sedimented forms and materials. Also, I love loners, and Wyatt Gwyon is Arctically alone. Then, there is the prose. A few chapters into the book, I found myself creating a document that collected Gaddis’s descriptions of skies. (Bonus: the Dalkey Archive edition features an intense introduction by William Gass.)
Being obsessed with P. G. Wodehouse, Max Beerbohm, and, to a lesser degree, other British parodists from that general era, I am surprised to have come to the Mitford sisters only this year. But more than with Nancy, my heart is with Jessica. I simply loved Hons and Rebels, and for a whole weekend I annoyed everyone around me by sharing passages made totally unintelligible by my fits of laughter. Many events in the book are genuinely horrifying and heart-wrenching: two of her sisters’—Diana and Unity Valkyrie (yes, that’s right: Unity Valkyrie)—ties to Nazism, the terrors of the Spanish Civil War, the death of Jessica’s first baby… Still, when it comes to family dynamics and politics, Mitford keeps a Wodehousian stiff upper lip that exposes their ultimate absurdity.
I have been reading a lot of Theodore Dreiser, and I am almost done with the Trilogy of Desire, of which, I believe, only the first volume, The Financier, is still in print. I can’t say I am enjoying the writing or the general architecture of the novels, but I think they are helping me to understand American realism (and America) a little better.
About a year ago, Mandy Medley, Coffee House Press publicist and fanatical Scandophile, told me to read Elisabeth Rynell’s To Mervas. I did, although it took me a very long time. The novel—which narrates a recluse’s impossible journey to find the great love of her life, who sends her an enigmatic letter after decades of absence—is almost physically depressing: After a few pages, the weight would become too much, forcing me to put the book aside for days. The result was an extended read that, in a way, mimicked the protagonist’s trip. I know this doesn’t sound like a recommendation. But it is.
Briefly, in the 19th century, a strong taxonomical drive in science coincided with the diametrically opposed experience of the sublime the Romantics found in nature. I suppose both were, in their own way, totalizing impulses—the former was systematic and detached, the latter transcendental and rhapsodic. But these opposites came together in the short-lived figure of the naturalist. And yet, in the 20th century, Loren Eiseley brought to the cosmos the same sense of awe his predecessors had for far-away lands. I don’t ever want to finish the double volume of his Collected Essays on Evolution, Nature, and the Cosmos. These are texts by a true polymath and, above all, one of the greatest stylists I have read in a long time. It was fortunate that I was late to come to Eisley: earlier, his influence would have been paralyzing.
Eisley was one of our most eloquent environmentalists, and it was quite an experience to read his work almost in conjunction with Lauren Groff’s latest book. Florida addresses the urgent dangers posed by climate change but does so without falling into the didacticism that often characterizes “engaged” literature. Groff can create a reality, down to the last detail, only to shatter it in the most brutal, gorgeous ways, showing us that our world is a fragile construct besieged by forces over which we have no control—among them, increasingly, the rightful revenge of nature. The range of the prose is striking: from transcriptions of the barely audible murmurs of a conscience to the deafening roars of apocalyptic storms.
Describing one of Diane Williams’s stories inevitably takes more words than those in the story itself. And there is something equally wonderful about the dissonance between the sheer size of the megalithic Collected Stories of Diane Williams and the conciseness of the perplexing, beautiful texts within. I have always been drawn to books that can be opened at random and still provide a full reading experience. This volume is that and more. It reminds me of Borges’s book of sand, which has neither a beginning nor an end because its pages multiply infinitely as one turns them.
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Out this week: All You Can Ever Know by Nicole Chung; Things to Make and Break by May-Lan Tan; Gone So Long by Andre Dubus III; Impossible Owls by Brian Phillips; Scribe by Alyson Hagy; A Dream Called Home by Reyna Grande; What If This Were Enough? by Heather Havrilesky; and Good and Mad by Rebecca Traister.
We wouldn’t dream of abandoning our vast semi–annual Most Anticipated Book Previews, but we thought a monthly reminder would be helpful (and give us a chance to note titles we missed the first time around). Here’s what we’re looking out for this month. Find more October titles at our Great Second-Half Preview, and let us know what you’re looking forward to in the comments!
Killing Commendatore by Haruki Murakami (translated by Philip Gabriel and Ted Goossen): Like many before me, I once fell into Murakami’s fictional world only to emerge six months later wondering what on earth happened. So any anticipation for his new books is tempered by caution. His new novel is about a freshly divorced painter who moves to the mountains, where he finds an eerie and powerful painting called “Killing Commendatore.” Mysteries proliferate, and you will keep reading—not because you are expecting resolution but because it’s Murakami, and you’re under his spell. (Hannah)
All You Can Ever Know by Nicole Chung: This book—the first by the former editor of the much-missed site The Toast—is garnering high praise from lots of great people, among them Alexander Chee, who wrote, “I’ve been waiting for this writer, and this book—and everything else she’ll write.” Born prematurely to Korean parents who had immigrated to America, the author was adopted by a white couple who raised her in rural Oregon, where she encountered bigotry her family couldn’t see. Chung grew curious about her past, which led her to seek out the truth of her origins and identity. (Thom)
Heavy by Kiese Laymon: Finally! This memoir has been mentioned as “forthcoming” at the end of every Kiese Laymon interview or magazine article for a few years, and I’ve been excited about it the entire time. Laymon has written one novel and one essay collection about America and race. This memoir focuses on Laymon’s own body—in the personal sense of how he treats it and lives in it, and in the larger sense of the heavy burden of a black body in America. (Janet)
Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger by Rebecca Traister: What it says in the title, by one of the foremost contemporary chroniclers of the role(s) of women in American society. It feels as though the timing of this release could not be better (that is to say, worse). Read an interview with Traister here. (Lydia)
Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver: The beloved novelist’s latest tells the story of Willa Knox, whose middle-class life has crumbled: The magazine she built her career around has folded, and the college where her husband had tenure has shut down. All she has is a very old house in need of serious repair. Out of desperation, she begins looking into her house’s history, hoping that she might be able to get some funding from the historical society. Through her research, she finds a kindred spirit in Thatcher Greenwood, who occupied the premises in 1871 and was an advocate of the work of Charles Darwin. Though they are separated by more than a century, Knox and Greenwood both know what it’s like to live through cultural upheaval. (Hannah)
Friday Black by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah: In his debut short story collection, that garnered him the National Book Foundation’s “5 under 35” honor, Adjei-Brenyah writes about the injustice black people face every day in America. Tackling issues like criminal justice, consumerism, and racism, these timely stories are searching for humanity in a brutal world. The collection is both heartbreaking and hopeful, and George Saunders called it “an excitement and a wonder: strange, crazed, urgent and funny.” (Carolyn)
Things to Make and Break by May-Lan Tan: This debut collection of short fiction is the most recent collaboration between Coffee House Press and Emily Books. The 11 short stories argue that relationships between two people often contain a third presence, whether that means another person or a past or future self. Tan’s sensibility has been compared to that of Joy Williams, David Lynch, and Carmen Maria Machado. (Hannah)
Gone So Long by Andre Dubus III: Whether in his fiction (House of Sand and Fog) or his nonfiction (Townie), Dubus tells blistering stories about broken lives. In his new novel, Daniel Ahern “hasn’t seen his daughter in forty years, and there is so much to tell her, but why would she listen?” Susan, his daughter, has good reason to hate Daniel—his horrific act of violence ruined their family and poisoned her life. Dubus has the preternatural power to make every storyline feel mythic, and Gone So Long rides an inevitable charge of guilt, fear, and stubborn hope. “Even after we’re gone, what we’ve left behind lives on in some way,” Dubus writes—including who we’ve left behind. (Nick R.)
Little by Edward Carey: Set in a Revolutionary Paris, a tiny, strange-looking girl named Marie is born—and then orphaned. Carey blurs the lines between fact and fiction, and art and reality, in his fictionalized tale of the little girl who grew up to become Madame Tussaud. In a starred review, Publishers Weekly writes the novel’s “sumptuous turns of phrase, fashions a fantastical world that churns with vitality.” (Carolyn)
White Dancing Elephants by Chaya Bhuvaneswar: Drawing comparisons to Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Margaret Atwood, and Sandra Cisneros, Bhuvaneswar’s debut collection pulls together stories of diverse women of color as they face violence, whether it be sexual, racial, or self-inflicted. The Buddha also makes an appearance, as do Hindu myths, incurable diseases, and an android. No wonder Jeff VanderMeer calls White Dancing Elephants “often provocative” as well as bold, honest, and fresh. (Kaulie)
Impossible Owls by Brian Phillips: You know meritocratic capitalism is a lie because everyone who wrote during Holly Anderson’s tenure as editor of MTV News is not presently wealthy beyond imagination, but that’s beside the point. Better yet, let’s pour one out for Grantland. Better still, let’s focus on one truth. Brian Phillips’s essays are out of this world: big-hearted, exhaustive, unrelentingly curious, and goddamned fun. It’s about time he graced us with this collection. (Nick M.)
Scribe by Alyson Hagy: In a world devastated by a civil war and fevers, an unnamed protagonist uses her gift of writing to protect herself and her family’s old Appalachian farmhouse. When Hendricks, a mysterious man with a dark past, asks for a letter, the pair set off an unforeseen chain of events. Steeped in folklore and the supernatural, Kirkus’s starred review called it “a deft novel about the consequences and resilience of storytelling.” (Carolyn)
The Witch Elm by Tana French: For six novels now, French has taken readers inside the squabbling, backstabbing world of the (fictional) Dublin Murder Squad, with each successive book following a different detective working frantically to close a case. Now, in a twist, French has—temporarily, we hope—set aside the Murder Squad for a stand-alone book that follows the victim of a crime, a tall, handsome, faintly clueless public relations man named Toby who is nearly beaten to death when he surprises two burglars in his home. Early reviews online attest that French’s trademark immersive prose and incisive understanding of human psychology remain intact, but readers do seem to miss the Murder Squad. (Michael)
Hungry Ghost Theater by Sarah Stone: Siblings Robert and Julia Zamarin want to reveal the dangers of the world with their small political theater company while their neuroscientist sister Eva attempts to find the biological roots of empathy. While contending with fraught family dynamics, the novel touches on themes like art, free will, addiction, desire, and loss. Joan Silber writes she “found this an unforgettable book, astute, vivid, and stubbornly ambitious in its scope.” (Carolyn)
Love is Blind by William Boyd: In Boyd’s 15th novel, Brodie Moncur—a piano tuner with perfect pitch—flees his oppressive family in Scotland and travels across Europe. In the shadow of a (seemingly) doomed affair, the novel ruminates on the devastating power of passion, secrets, and deception. (Carolyn)
Famous Adopted People by Alice Stephens: Stephens’ debut novel follows Lisa, a 27-year-old adoptee, as she travels to South Korea to find her birth mother. Equally tense, tragic, and comedic, Publishers Weekly describes the novel as a “fun-house depiction of the absurdities and horrors of the surveillance state.” (Carolyn)
Girls Write Now by Girls Write Now: Containing more than one hundred essays from young women in the Girls Write Now program, a writing and mentorship program in New York City. The anthology contains stories rife with angst, uncertainty, grief, hope, honesty, and joy, and advice on writing and life from powerhouses like Roxane Gay, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and Zadie Smith. Kirkus calls the anthology “an inspiring example of honest writing.” (Carolyn)
A Dream Called Home by Reyna Grande: A former undocumented Mexican immigrant, Grande’s memoir explores to her journey from poverty to successful author—and the first of her family to graduate from college. Candid and heartfelt in exploring the difficulties of immigration and assimilation, Publishers Weekly’s starred review called the book an “uplifting story of fortitude and resilience.” (Carolyn)
Well-Read Black Girl ed. Glory Edim: Glory Edim founded Well-Read Black Girl, a Brooklyn-based book club and an online space that highlights black literature and sisterhood, and last year she produced the inaugural Well-Read Black Girl Festival. Most recently, Edim curated the Well-Read Black Girl anthology, and contributors include Morgan Jerkins, Tayari Jones, Lynn Nottage, Gabourey Sidibe, Rebecca Walker, Jesmyn Ward, Jacqueline Woodson, and Barbara Smith. The collection of essays celebrates the power of representation, visibility, and storytelling. (Zoë)
What If This Were Enough? by Heather Havrilesky: Havrilesky’s, the acclaimed memoirist and columnist for The Cut’s “Ask Polly” advice column, newest collection addresses our culture’s obsession with self-improvement. Publishers Weekly’s starred review writes “it’s a message she relates with insight, wit, and terrific prose.” Tackling subjects like materialism, romance, and social media, she asks readers—who are constantly inundated with messages about productivity and betterment—to ask less of themselves, to realize that they (and their lives) are enough. (Carolyn)
It’s been 18 years since Alyson Hagy and I both won a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. Nested within the list of grantees was a scattering of addresses. I wrote to Alyson. She answered.
We’ve seen each other just twice in all these years. Our correspondence is legion. “I’m buried in a fat, loosely written Minette Walter crime novel just now,” she’ll write. “But Alice Munro and Madison Bell are next.” Or “I’m going to have to tweak the dramatic arc of the book in a significant way, but I think it’s the right way to go.” Or, “We have had a little cold rain here, and the skies have been huge and glowering—enough to tinge the aspens in town just a little.”
Her notes are like miniature novellas. Her gifts—shells, cards, carved stones—populate my windowsills. Her emoji choices can be quite hysterical, and once the sound of her voice on the phone insta-cured a migraine. When an Alyson Hagy book makes its way into the world (Ghosts of Wyoming; Snow, Ashes; Keeneland; Graveyard of the Atlantic; others), I try not to read too fast, for I know that with all the other things Alyson does in the world—her teaching and leadership at the University of Wyoming, her hiking and fishing, her tennis and travel—it will be too long before the next new Alyson Hagy comes my way.
A few weeks ago, Alyson’s new book, Scribe (Graywolf Press, October), arrived. I read this slender novel while storms pummeled the lily lake near a vacation cottage and before Kirkus, in its starred review, called it an “affecting powerhouse.” Rooted in Alyson’s Appalachia and yet otherworldly, bound by symbols and held just slightly out of time, Scribe is a storyteller’s book about the radical power and responsibility of words. It’s about a woman who believes she has nothing to offer but the words she can put on a page, and about those who ask for the favor. It’s about dogs, too, and tribal politics in a bartering culture. It’s about power and who wields it and who loses it, too.
I asked her questions.
The Millions: In a leaking red pen that has left my fingers looking bloody I began to circle all the places smell becomes story in your book: “the peppery scent of her best ink,” “the torched scent of sugar,” “the air-burned hints of lightning.” Why does that sense become so crucial in Scribe? I guess I can’t help but think about how dogs come to understand and navigate the world, and how large a role they play in your book. Is it the same for these characters? That they smell their way toward knowing?
Alyson Hagy: I suspect smell is vivid in Scribe because the story is set on the farm where I grew up, and I experienced that world as smell and sound as much as sight when I was a child. My parents and neighbors were extremely attentive to the natural world and how it expressed itself. They marked the arrival and departure of birds. They read their gardens and their fruit trees as if they were books. They knew what the neighbors were up to—harvesting, burning, fertilizing—based on smoke or stink or sweetness. I’m lucky I grew up around such attentiveness.
I’ve also lived with dogs my whole life. There is nothing like watching animals navigate the world to remind you what you’re missing. Being with animals makes real how many layers there are to the world—layers that aren’t visible but are true and essential. Dogs do smell stories. And they hear them, too. I am probably more obsessed with that kind of “story radar” than I realize.
TM: There are circles of evil in this book and circles of redemption. A rise and fall and meshing. Did you map these deliberately as you wrote? And does redemption always necessarily win in story?
AH: I didn’t map much of anything when I was writing Scribe, not until I tried to balance a few things out in later edits. The idea for the novel came to me in a flash as I was driving from Charlottesville, Virginia, to my home in Franklin County on the back roads. That country is beautiful and verdant and littered with the remnants of small family farms. People could live there sustainably again if they had to. So I began to wonder what the post-Civil War barter culture must have been like—and what might happen to women who didn’t have a practical skill or trade in an economy like that. I immediately imagined a woman who had nothing to trade but her literacy. I saw her as both mysterious, because of her power with words, and vulnerable.
Redemption does not always win out in stories. And it shouldn’t. I’ve tried to write about the costs of belief in books like Boleto and Snow, Ashes. I wanted Scribe to be a tale right from the get-go, something that reflects the inventiveness and mystery of the stories I grew up hearing, those Appalachian remnants. A lot of the strangest tales I absorbed as a child come from the Christian Bible. Evil and redemption are big things in rural brands of Christianity. So I probably plugged directly into those rhythms without even thinking about it much. I didn’t know what the scribe would find at the end of her journey until late in the first draft of the novel.
The work of other tale-tellers definitely hovers behind Scribe, too, books like The Long Home by William Gay and almost anything by Louise Erdrich.
TM: The sections are brilliantly labeled as the parts of a letter. Did the section titles come first or the story? In other words, did the titles bind you, shape your imagination, or did you discover that superstructure only in the wake of early drafting?
AH: The first working title for the book was The Letter Writer, and the word “Salutations” came to me almost right away. It was a blast from the past, from the days when girls at my high school took Typing (I kid you not) and boys took Shop Class. Anyhow, as I recalled the parts of a letter, I thought I might be able to use them. I tried not to let them dictate too much. I wanted the “Alphabet” section to contain only 26 segments, for instance. But it wasn’t working. So I drafted as many segments as I thought I needed and kept the title. It was definitely fun to mess around with concept of enclosures.
TM: The dangers of authoritarian rule are made abundantly clear in Scribe. Did current political fever shape the tale? Is compassion the only fix for now?
AH: Believe it or not, Graywolf accepted Scribe in December 2015 before the political fever spiked, at least in this country. But certain anxieties and evils made their way into the book, probably because they have been stewing in my home culture (and elsewhere) for a very long time. Appalachians are tribal, and tribes often take comfort in authoritarian rule. It makes defining who is “in” and who is “out” simpler. Christianity, as defined by some folks, can exacerbate the tribal, too. Also, the evils of slavery still haven’t faded from that land—and instinctive distrust of outsiders or migrants of any kind remains very high. I want Scribe to be universal in the way tales are. I hope it translates beyond the Blue Ridge. Billy Kingery is the kind of leader who appears to make life easier. He’s an eloquent populist. And he will take all the power you are willing to cede, just like any devil will.
Compassion? If we cannot find it, we will see those who aren’t like us as “other,” as enemy. Literature—all art—is essential to human empathy.
TM: How and when did you discover the Jack tales that rustle to the surface in this tale? Certainly we all know “Jack and the Beanstalk” as children. But I did not realize there were so many of those Jack tales, and that they had arrived to the Appalachian region in the ways that they did. Can you talk about them?
AH: First, may I mention how cool it is to get that question from someone related to the incredible Horace Kephart, a man who pioneered the preservation of Appalachian landscape and culture?
I grew up near the Blue Ridge Institute at Ferrum College, one of the region’s first centers for all things Appalachian. The inventive Roddy Moore made sure school children, and adults, were exposed to productions based on the Jack tales. I loved seeing the past brought alive. I was never able to hear the tales told by an old-timey storyteller. They were all gone by the time I was born. Yet vestiges of the stories were embedded in anecdotes told by my father and superstitions relayed by neighbors. When I saw a play or eventually read the collected texts, I recognized eroded tropes and fears and wonders—and that fascinated me. I love how stories fall apart and morph and arise again. When I was a kid, folks would tell strange stories about certain crossroads. And every once in a while, an older person would remind you not to play cards with the devil, literally or figuratively. I have twisted and mashed up Jack tale fragments for my own use in Scribe. Yet I hope I’ve conveyed just how enjoyable a good story can be. And how fluid stories are even while they, sorry for the pun, inscribe our culture.
TM: Thank you for mentioning Horace Kephart, who left his gilded library life in St. Louis so that he might spend the rest of his time learning and then advocating for the culture, geography, and future of the Appalachians. You and I are perpetually unburying family. Speaking of which: Your family lore is mentioned in the acknowledgements. I have to know which lore found its way to Scribe.
AH: The “Enclosure” story, the myth about the soldier with the coin, is based on a family story from the Civil War. As my grandfather told it, a solider fleeing the Battle of Antietam sought food and shelter near the Potomac River where my great-great-grandmother had been left alone on the shambles of a tenant farm that had been plundered by troops on both sides. She fed him. He gave her a gold coin he earned when he saved the life of Colonel Jeb Stuart, the flamboyant Confederate raider. He didn’t believe he would live very long, and the coin was all he had save his firearm and his horse. The coin was etched with Stuart’s name and Latin motto. It’s still in the family, although there is no evidence Stuart ever truly handed out such things.
I also borrowed some names and other incidents. My kinfolk will recognize them.
TM: Sisters. You render the complexity of the relationship beautifully. How have you come to understand that relationship and its tugs on the soul?
AH: I have a sister, and she is a remarkable woman and was one of the very first readers of Scribe. I needed her eyes on the story because she’s an avid reader but also possesses a more intuitive heart than I. My mother had two sisters—grand souls who were, nonetheless, very different from her. I’ve been watching sisters all of my life. Yet parsing the relationship between the scribe and her sister was the hardest part of the book for me. The scribe possesses many of my own weaknesses. She misses important opportunities for connection in the world. So how do you get a character like that to make the right leap when she needs to?
TM: “All a writer can do is lay out the consequences of a person’s choices,” you write. I love that. It shifts, for me, something I have been trying to name myself. How did you come to this knowing?
AH: That line came to me late in the writing of the novel. It took me a while to figure out what Scribe was really all about. That’s usually the case for me. I get going with a character and a situation and events begin to spool out in front of me if the writing is going well. But in the end, the how and why of storytelling is at the heart of Scribe just as the how and why of art is at the heart of a great novel like Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven. I didn’t read that book until I had grappled through the second draft of Scribe, but it affirmed for me my hope that art can, and must, survive any disaster we bring upon ourselves as humans. No matter how digital the world becomes or how far we fall into our most brutal, tribal instincts, stories matter. Story makers are pivotal in all cultures. The consequences of human choices as we lay them out are important to building and maintaining societies.
TM: You will never write the same story twice. What released you to write this dystopian fable? When did you know that you could not not write it? Where lay the struggle?
AH: It probably says a lot about me that I didn’t think of Scribe as dystopian until I began to share it with early readers. The Appalachia I grew up in was beautiful and deprived, although I occupied a privileged place in it. Folks still spoke of polio and measles quarantines as if they were recent. Tragic tales are the coin of the realm in the South. Relaying death and destruction is second nature. I thought I was writing a slightly altered post-Civil War history of the hills where I grew up. I ended up with something different. I felt like I had to write it once I envisioned that besieged and lonely woman standing next to that faltering brick house with her dogs. The struggle was in trying to maintain its strangeness, to not explain too much, to trust that readers can and will shape some of the tale on their own.