Snowdrops: A Novel

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Year in Reading: Emily St. John Mandel

The commute to my day job takes an hour. Books are indispensable, because while I don’t necessarily believe that hell is other people (I’ve given this some thought, and am actually reasonably certain at this point that hell is Delta Airlines), if I had to be fully present on the subway for two hours a day I’d probably start snarling at random strangers.

Forgetting to bring a book with me constitutes an emergency. I’ve turned back on the street on harried mornings and walked back up four flights of stairs just to find something, anything to read. If I’m almost finished a book, I’ll take an extra just in case. All my memories of reading this year involve harsh overhead lighting, bright stations, glancing up in time to see that strange underground river that runs along the G line, and noise-blocking headphones. (There’s often nothing attached to these headphones. I just need a plausible reason to ignore anyone who bothers me while I’m trying to read.)

So, then, a few of the best books I read this year. This isn’t exhaustive, and to a reader of The Millions or other literary blogs, this list will likely have an air of déjà vu. The books I particularly loved this year mostly fell into one of two categories: either I already wrote them up on The Millions, or I didn’t write them up here, but only because they were already so popular that it kind of seemed like everyone was writing them up everywhere else, and what’s the point of covering a book that everyone else has already covered, when so many wonderful books are published each and every week with insufficient publicity budgets?

1. How To Keep Your Volkswagen Alive by Christopher Boucher
Christopher Boucher’s debut novel concerns a young man whose girlfriend gives birth to a 1971 Volkswagen Beetle. I found it to be deeply moving and hilarious.

2. How To Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe by Charles Yu
An intelligent novel about a time-machine technician. Upon reflection, there are surface similarities with the Boucher novel (sad young man seeks father in surrealist alternate universe), but this one’s less surreal and more pseudo-sciencey. I think of it as a beautifully conceived piece of literary science fiction. I very much like the idea of galaxies that are specifically zoned for space opera.

3. After Midnight by Irmgard Keun
Keun published this novel in 1937. The book follows a 19-year-old German girl, Sanna, through a catastrophic evening in late-1930s Frankfurt. It’s harrowing and beautifully written.

4. Spurious by Lars Iyer
A poignant and often funny meditation on friendship, failure, the apocalypse, messianism, Kafka, and mold. Mostly it’s an extended conversation between a writer named Lars and his best friend, W., who feels compelled to express his love via insults. (“W. remembers when I was up and coming, he tells me. He remembers the questions I used to ask, and how they would resound beneath the vaulted ceilings. — ‘You seemed so intelligent then,’ he says. I shrug. ‘But when any of us read your work…’, he says, without finishing the sentence.”)

5. Snowdrops by A.D. Miller
The book concerns a lonely British lawyer living and working in Moscow in the 1990s. There’s a body in the first chapter, but the real story here isn’t the crime; it’s the extent to which we’re willing to lie to ourselves, to ignore the obvious, in pursuit of happiness or companionship or love.

More from A Year in Reading 2011

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

The good stuff: The Millions’ Notable articles

The motherlode: The Millions’ Books and Reviews

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Two Debut Novelists on the 2011 Booker Shortlist

Well-known, established writer (and now four-time shortlister) Julian Barnes is likely the early favorite on the 2011 Booker shortlist, while Stephen Kelman and A.D. Miller make the list with their first novels. Alan Hollinghurst is probably the biggest surprise not to make it through to the next round. The longlist was offered here with some excerpts a month ago, but since you might not have gotten around to them then, we’ll offer the same with the shortlist below.

The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes (excerpt)
Jamrach’s Menagerie by Carol Birch (excerpt)
The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt (excerpt)
Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan
Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman (excerpt)
Snowdrops by A.D. Miller (Staff Pick)

Let us know if you’ve read any of these – and if you think any deserve to win.

The Booker’s Dozen: The 2011 Booker Longlist

With the unveiling of the Booker Prize longlist, the 2011 literary Prize season is officially underway. As is usually the case, the list offers a mix of exciting new names, relative unknowns and beloved standbys. The lone past winner (for The Line of Beauty) is Alan Hollinghurst, and longlisters Sebastian Barry and Julian Barnes have gotten shortlist nods in the past. At the other end of the experience specturm, four debut novelists make the list: Stephen Kelman, A.D. Miller, Yvvette Edwards, and Patrick McGuinness.

All the Booker Prize longlisters are below (with excerpts where available):

The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes (excerpt)
On Canaan’s Side by Sebastian Barry (excerpt [pdf])
Jamrach’s Menagerie by Carol Birch (excerpt)
The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt (excerpt)
Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan
A Cupboard Full of Coats by Yvvette Edwards
The Stranger’s Child by Alan Hollinghurst (excerpt)
Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman (excerpt)
The Last Hundred Days by Patrick McGuinness
Snowdrops by A.D. Miller (Staff Pick)
Far to Go by Alison Pick
The Testament of Jessie Lamb by Jane Rogers
Derby Day by D.J. Taylor

Staff Pick: Two Crime Novels

I’ve been thinking lately that I should be reading more crime fiction. I’ve never been against it—in theory I’m in favor of anything good, regardless of genre, although I’ve never taken to werewolves—but I haven’t actively sought it out.

But since my second novel keeps getting categorized as crime fiction, my illiteracy in the genre that I’ve apparently been shoehorned into has become slightly uncomfortable. “What kind of a book have you written?” people ask.

“Um,” I say, “I guess it’s a sort of literary crime novel?” (I know. Awkward. But if you set out to write literary fiction and end up getting reviewed in Spinetingler Magazine, what are you supposed to call it?)

“Oh!” they say. “Have you read [insert name of high-profile crime writer whom I haven’t read but obviously should have if I’m claiming any sort of association with the genre]?”

The most recent books I’ve read in the genre confirm my long-held suspicion that attempting to categorize books by genre does readers a disservice; these books are no less literary than any of the other great books I’ve read this year, they just have crimes and/or guns in them. For your reading pleasure, two books you might consider reading even if you don’t think you like crime fiction very much:

1.
Savages by Don Winslow: I think this book is perhaps best described as a Tarantino film crossed with a prose poem. It’s violent, beautifully written, and experimental, and I’ve never read anything like it. Structurally, it’s a dizzyingly intricate 290 chapters, the first one only two words long (1. “Fuck you.”)

Ben is a brilliant botanist who’s partnered up with his best friend, Chon, to produce and distribute the best pot on the West Coast. Chon, a former Navy SEAL who brought unspeakably high-quality marijuana seeds back from Afghanistan, has a girlfriend named O, but she sleeps with Ben too. Everyone’s in their twenties. The trio lead lives of hedonistic ease in Laguna Beach, until a vicious Mexican cartel arrives on the scene to stage a hostile takeover of the business.

The shifts in perspective are interesting; Winslow shifts back and forth within his central trio and then moves outward, until we’re reading short chapters from the viewpoint of practically every thug who populates the pages. The effect is fragmented, but effective. What I found most startling about this book was Winslow’s willingness to abandon conventional form and slip without warning in and out of a sort of loose poetry—

Slicing through SoCal
Cutting through a California night
The freeway (5) is soft and warm and
Welcoming
But for Ben
The green exit signs are like steps climbing up a scaffold
Toward O.

The cartel kidnaps O to speed up the takeover negotiations. The body count is considerable. The book’s practically impossible to put down.

2.
Snowdrops by A.D. Miller: Snowdrops is as quiet as Savages is loud. The book opens with the early-spring discovery of a body; a snowdrop, in Moscow slang, a corpse hidden all winter under heavy snows. It appears with the first thaw in front of Nick Platt’s apartment building.

It’s apparent from the first pages that a complicated crime is being played out, something slow and deadly unfolding over weeks and months; evidence of it is all around us even as we can’t see how the pieces fit together—until, of course, the trap snaps shut in the final chapters and the significance of the body in the first chapter falls devastatingly into place.

Nick Platt is a British lawyer who lives and works in Moscow in the early 2000s. One day in the Metro he meets a young woman, Masha, and quickly falls in love. His narration takes the loose form of a confession to his soon-to-be-bride, years later—“You’ve wanted to know why I haven’t talked to you about Russia”—although the deeper he goes into the story, the less certain the wedding seems.

Masha asks for his assistance in helping her aunt, Tatiana, move to a new apartment. The real story here isn’t the crime; it’s the extent to which we’re willing to lie to ourselves, to ignore the obvious, in pursuit of happiness or companionship or love. A lonely man in a foreign city, courted suddenly by a beautiful young girl, is willing to suspend disbelief even when her story begins to crumble and lies start showing through, even when he’s half-aware at every turn that he’s complicit in something dreadful and that everything is wrong. An intriguing debut, suffused with an atmosphere of dread.

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