I suffer from reading amnesia quite terribly. I often joke to my students that the only book I reliably remember having read is Lolita. I also suffer from the particular anxiety that comes with knowing too many writers: I feel certain I am going to alienate friends and further alienate enemies with any list I might compile. Well, dammit, here goes:
I loved Michael Kupperman’s graphic memoir All the Answers. Kupperman’s father was Joel Kupperman, one of television and radio’s Quiz Kids, and the book examines all sorts of American concerns, and personal ones, too: celebrity, propaganda, secrets, and grace.
I reread two of my favorite very short novels, So Long See You Tomorrow by William Maxwell and Tinkers by Paul Harding, both works of genius, generosity, and above all strangeness: I was struck by how both books go where they want to go, assume their own shapes, and though in some way they are realistic, they are also eccentric in their very souls. (I also noted that somehow my first edition personally inscribed Tinkers has lipstick on it, which makes it even more valuable to me.)
Technically I read Jamel Brinkley’s first collection of stories, A Lucky Man, at the very end of 2017, but it came out this year and good grief is it good. I got sucked in first by the very sentences—Brinkley is surely one of the finest prose writers we’ve got; I feel confident in saying that with one book of evidence—but he’s also, like the best writers, a peculiar balance of enveloping compassion and necessary ruthlessness. I can’t wait to read his next book.
Wild Milk by Sabrina Orah Mark—oh, I can’t even figure out how to describe this strange and gorgeous book. It’s a collection of stories. It’s very strange. It’s very beautiful. Mark has a mind like no other. You need to read it.
Margaret Wilkerson Sexton’s A Kind of Freedom is a novel about three generations of a New Orleans family, cut back and forth so that each generation can whisper in the other’s ears, beautifully intimate and heartbreaking, and also a portrait of America. The book was longlisted for the National Book Award in 2017 but I don’t think it got nearly enough attention.
Susan Orlean’s The Library Book reminded me of the grown-up version of the reference books I loved as a kid (The Book of Lists, The People’s Almanac), though it’s not a reference book. It’s a portrait of the Los Angeles Public Library, kind of, but it, too, goes where it wants and needs to go. It’s just so crammed with facts and anecdotes, all of them interesting and lucid, many of them deeply strange. Orlean has a Dickensian knack for describing people (living and historical) the minute they appear so that they are instantly palpable: there are so many people interfiled with all those books. It also gives a better sense of what it’s like to work in a big urban library than anything I’ve ever read.
Bruce Holbert’s Whiskey is a twisty, hilarious, dark story about two brothers on a mission in Washington State, with one of the most original and wrenching ends of a novel I’ve ever read.
And I read two books that will be published in the new year: The Heavens by Sandra Newman, a disorienting stunner of a novel, with characters as brilliant as its ideas; and Where Reasons End by Yiyun Li, which is, simply, a masterpiece.
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A little more than 10 years ago I was an MFA student finishing my thesis, a collection of short stories that I had no intention of publishing. I wanted to be a novelist; the stories, I figured, were teaching me how I might do that. After I graduated, I started a book. Between SAT tutoring jobs, bookstore and cheese store shifts, and teaching my own workshops, I would sit down to write — and also panic. I thought, I have no idea what I’m doing! It was true, I didn’t; as anyone who’s written both knows, novels and short stories are very different beasts. At these moments, I would hear the voice of my former thesis advisor Margot Livesey in my head. In her sweet Scottish lilt, she’d urge me forward. She was (and is) an author I admire, and I wanted to make her proud. In this way, I put one sentence down, then another and another.
Livesey isn’t a preachy teacher. She doesn’t have little slogans or rules; she isn’t the type to ban certain points of view from her classes, or tell you that dead grandmothers are a tired trope. Her treatment of fiction and writing is open-minded and deep, and she considers and critiques a manuscript both on its own terms and against a long tradition of fiction. She is encouraging, and yet her expectations are high. As with the best teachers, she invited me to be the writer I wanted to be, while also pushing me to be better than that.
She is also one of the most talented novelists working today. Her gift, in particular, for writing complicated characters is what inspires me most. Through her fiction, she continues to be my teacher. Livesey’s new novel, Mercury, is a kind of morality tale, but without an easy sense of right and wrong. It’s also a literary thriller, about a husband and wife and the secrets they keep from one another, and the ways in which they fail to see each other truthfully. It’s got an eye doctor, a beautiful and powerful horse, an African Grey parrot named Nabokov, and a gun, which does, of course, go off.
Livesey was kind enough to answer some questions via email about teaching, reading, and writing her excellent books.
The Millions: You spend the fall in Iowa City, teaching graduate writing students at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. In the spring you’re in Boston. Can you talk about how writing (and perhaps reading) changes for you, depending on whether or not you’re teaching? How has teaching influenced you as a writer, and, conversely, how has your writing influenced you as a teacher?
Margot Livesey: Teaching every autumn, I find myself plunged into the varied worlds that my students are creating, and at the same time rereading the stories and novels I’ve assigned for my classes. Both I think, I hope, influence my work. I do reread quite often but rereading with a class in mind, trying to figure out an author’s decisions, forces me to think more deeply, and more critically, about works I already admire and that’s nearly always fruitful. Maybe I can imitate how Jhumpa Lahiri manages her shifts in point of view in The Namesake. Or steal something from William Maxwell’s use of journalistic techniques in So Long, See You Tomorrow.
Meanwhile my students offer me maps of the contemporary world, constantly under revision as we debate voice, character, and motivation. In our workshops I get to study those maps in detail and to see how very good readers are responding to fiction. I cherish their voices in my head when I’m teaching and they remain, perched on my shoulder as it were, when I’m not — avoid that cliche, think about the setting, do you need to mention politics, is the animal too symbolical, is the dialogue going deep enough, can the mother have a more interesting job?
My own writing has made me very aware that there are some things I need to write to advance a novel or a story which the reader absolutely does not need to read. I tell my students a good first chapter is a chapter that helps the author to write the rest of the novel. Of course, later, the first chapter also needs to be a good ambassador but being too critical, too early, can sometimes distract the writer from what she really needs to do.
TM: Are there any themes or styles that are popular with your students right now? Which writers are inspiring and influencing them?
ML: A number of my students are dealing with material that engages with race, class, and gender in interesting ways. They cherish the work of such writers as Junot Díaz , Edward P. Jones, Toni Morrison, and Zadie Smith. Others are interested in the work of Jonathan Franzen, the sweeping panorama of social concerns, or in grittier voices like Bonnie Jo Campbell and of course Raymond Carver. Still others are working on historical material or using texts within texts. Rather than a single popular theme or style I would say there’s a wonderful range of themes, forms, and subject matters being explored.
TM: Your husband is a painter. Can you talk about how his work with a visual artist informs your process? Do you talk to each other about your work?
ML: Eric paints large abstract oil paintings. He works in layers on seven or eight paintings at once and many of his paintings take well over a year to complete. I don’t know if he’d agree but I think of his work as having a novelistic quality; the colors and composition gradually come into focus. We do spend a lot of time talking about our processes although I am often not very forthcoming when I’m in the midst of a new novel. Happily when I have nothing to say we can fall back on talking about our reading, a passion we share.
TM: At a recent event you told the audience that you write on a computer without the Internet, and said this was essential to your process. Can you talk more about this? I also can’t stop thinking about how you said that sometimes you read the dictionary during your writing time. I hope this is true! If so, what dictionary are you reading, and what recent gems have you come upon?
MG: Research is often a crucial part of my novel writing but it can also be very distracting. And then of course I can so easily fall into checking email. For a while I did try to be disciplined, but more recently I’ve solved the problem by having two computers, one on which I write fiction and essays, and a second one, a laptop, on which I do my correspondence and go online. Sometimes I go back and forth between the two 20 times in a few hours but I still think that this is better for my concentration and my efficiency.
I used to read poems or stories when I was stuck, but too often I was fatally seduced. Now I have a shorter Oxford English Dictionary in which I browse, sometimes purposefully, sometimes randomly, as I try to think what to write next. I often treat it as a kind of I Ching, simply opening it at random. I love knowing where words come from — disaster — ruin of the stars — and seeing the examples of usage: “Disaster always brought out the best in Churchill.”
TM: So much of your work is about morality and Mercury in particular is about life’s murky gray areas, when it’s not always quite clear what is right and what is wrong. Can you talk a little bit about how morality and making-hard-choices informs the characters you write, and the stories you tell. Your Iowa colleague, and another former teacher of mine, Ethan Canin, used to say in class that fiction writers are “moral philosophers.” Would you agree, and why or why not?
ML: I do agree with Ethan, but I would also paraphrase John Updike’s comment: The novel is our greatest psychological experiment. I am very interested in what people will do given certain possibilities. And I am very interested in how we are often quite confident in analyzing other people, but surprisingly reluctant to analyze ourselves. I think the best characters in novels combine that confidence with a sense of appropriate mystery and I think it is the job of plot, or conflict, to let us look more deeply into that mystery.
I am still a little surprised by how deeply interested I am in moral choices. Clearly I was paying more attention in my Scottish Sunday school than I realized. I remain deeply puzzled — I’d have to say indignant — that as adults we can find ourselves in situations where there is no obvious right thing to do.
TM: A few friends of mine, all of them women, have taken up or returned to horseback riding lately, and with your book and Mary Gaitskill’s The Mare, it seems that horses are…trending! What drew you to write about horses in Mercury?
ML: I think horses, and our relationships with them, are fascinating. I knew when I started Mercury that I wanted to write about an ambitious woman and I knew that I wanted the object of that ambition to be something that many people, but by no means everyone, would value. A horse seemed perfect: large, complicated, fragile. I haven’t ridden much as an adult, but I did as a teenager and I felt I knew what it was like to inhabit that passion. Riding around Boston turned out to be very different from riding the Scottish Highland ponies of my youth. I loved visiting the stables and observing various horses and riders. And I loved reading books about horses including Enid Bagnold’s National Velvet and more recently Jane Smiley’s Horse Heaven.
TM: And, because this is The Millions, I must ask you: what are you reading?
ML: I am currently reading Peter Ho Davies’s The Fortunes. The novel opens with an account of Ah Ling who hopes to strike gold and ends up working on the railway. Part II follows the life of Anna May Wong, Hollywood’s first Chinese film star. Part III explores the racially motivated killing of Vincent Chin in Detroit in 1982. In part IV we learn how these three are connected as an American couple struggle to adopt a Chinese baby. Davies writes beautiful and dangerous sentences, and I love his timely exploration of issues of race and racism.
I am in the habit of slipping objects between the pages of whatever book I am reading: sometimes to mark a place, more often because a book is the safest place I know for letters or receipts or tickets or whatever I need to bring with me somewhere.
I have carried books for over two decades of adult life now, years spent largely in Illinois and New York, but also on vacations and trips that go much farther afield. Earlier this month, I went through every book in our Manhattan apartment to see what I could discover. This meant flipping pages in roughly 700 books, mostly novels, but also poetry books, memoirs, and essays, searching for pieces of my own history.
The Orchard Keeper by Cormac McCarthy
A slim copy request slip from Columbia’s writing program, circa 1999. I was workshopping my first novel and adjusting to life in New York City. McCarthy’s rustic prose was like a postcard from the woodsy plain in Michigan where I grew up. On the flip side of the slip, a handwritten list of obscure words in the text I admired — slewed, purl, wale, rictus — words that, alas, I then tried to jam into my own doomed manuscript.
The Blue Estuaries by Louise Bogan
Torn strips of paper mark dozens of poems that I liked as an undergraduate at Northwestern, back when I wanted to be a penniless poet when I grew up. I remember announcing this career path to my parents one chilly bright autumn afternoon while we milled outside Ryan Field before a football game. They took the news remarkably well. Today, I remember nothing of what drew the 20-year-old me to poems like “The Frightened Man” or “Betrothed.”
John Adams by David McCullough
A full sheet (minus one) of Forever Stamps from the U.S. Post Office. The picture on the stamps: the Liberty Bell, of course
Stamboul Train by Graham Greene:
Two colorful ticket stubs, mementoes from an official starting point of my own: Flight 438 from Lisbon to Paris on May 30, 2004, Seats 23E and 23F, one for me and one for my wife, Raina, on the flight back home from our honeymoon.
One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
The business card of a Vice President of Strategy for Razorfish, a major Internet consultancy in the ‘00s — and perhaps the strangest bedfellow possible for a book about Stalinist oppression. But these were my late-20s, a time of routine contradictions, when I fancied myself a professional Web geek by day but a self-serious failed novelist at the night.
Christine Falls by John Banville (writing as Benjamin Black)
The inspection certificate for our brand new Toyota RAV-4 from May 6, 2009. Despite having sworn never to have a car in the city again, Raina and I leased the Toyota because our daughter was two and we wanted to improve our ability to flee for the suburbs and the helpful hands of her parents whenever our nascent parenting skills failed us.
A Multitude of Sins by Richard Ford
Devil’s Dream by Madison Smartt Bell
The floor plan for the apartment that Raina and I moved into in 2011, right before our son — our second child — was born. Our new neighborhood’s streets were littered with more trash than our previous, and car alarms would trumpet the start of the work day for livery drivers at 6 a.m., but the apartment felt big enough for all four of us, plus our dog, and in New York City having enough space means having everything.
So Long, See You Tomorrow by William Maxwell
A yellow Post-It note that says “Waverly and Mercer” and “penne and chocolato,” written in my hand. I know I met many friends near the intersection of these two Village streets over the years — before we’d get pints of Belhaven at Swift or maybe cheap margaritas at Caliente Cab Company — but the meaning has gone just as those friends have left for Westport, Conn., or Chicago, Ill., or wherever friends go.
For 10 years, from 2003 through 2013, I commuted from New York to New Jersey each day — an hour each way. I used to tell people that I didn’t mind, because I had so much time to read books. And it’s true, I did a lot of reading then. But I did mind. I slipped three off-peak round trip passes for New Jersey Transit trains in the Beattie; 4 more receipts and three canceled tickets in the Baldwin; and, in the Sartre, six receipts, more than six round trips, perhaps a signal of how hard I worked to find joy in that joyless fusion of philosophy and fiction.
The Stranger by Albert Camus
City of Glass by Paul Auster; A Rage to Live by John O’Hara; God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater and A Man Without a Country by Kurt Vonnegut; This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolff; The 9/11 Commission Report; Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom by August Wilson; Spring Snow by Yukio Mishima; and on and on.
During that long commuting decade, I often took not just the New Jersey Transit train but also a local tram in Newark. To ride the Downtown line, I had to buy a lavender ticket from a machine at the top of a long escalator. On the platforms at select stops, conductors would surprise commuters and demand proof that we each had used the ticket punch clocks to validate our 50-cent passes. I find these lavender alibis slipped in the pages of dozens and dozens of books.
A Separate Peace by John Knowles
Inside this hardcover I find the phone number for a taxi company and words written in Spanish: Buena Vista Villas en la picinade abajo. Also, a receipt for a $26 car ride. I know that Raina and I were in Costa Rica for my brother’s wedding in 2005. But I don’t speak or write Spanish. And I don’t know where the taxi brought us.
The Master of Petersburg by J.M. Coetzee
A full-color 3×2 photo strip. Two duplicates of a portrait still from my daughter’s kindergarten year, her tiny face smiling out, forever five years old. I brought this book with me when I went to a writer’s retreat for a week in 2013. I tried but failed to engage in the Coetzee, never finished it. Spent a lot of time looking at the little girl.
The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford
A piece of notebook paper from 1999 with phrases from the text that I liked (“the smell of lavender,” “like a person who is listening to a sea-shell held to her ear”), and a toll-free telephone number. I dial the telephone digits now, curious, but a recording says the number is no longer in service.
The Triumph of Achilles by Louise Glück
There is, technically, nothing in this book. But it is hardly empty. I can still find the poem marked with a hard diagonal line at the page corner, as if the paper were folded over a knife. “Sooner or later you’ll begin to dream of me,” the poem promises. “I don’t envy you those dreams.” A haunting line called out by an ex-girlfriend who borrowed the book after we broke up. Two decades later, the curse has yet to come true.
Atonement by Ian McEwan
The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro
A Polaroid taken last year when it was my son’s turn to be in kindergarten: We are seated together in his classroom on a morning I don’t precisely remember — just as, I suppose, the father in The Buried Giant cannot quite recall his own son — although anyone can see this moment still matters by the bright and radiant looks on our faces. And will always matter, I like to think. Even if that’s not possible to prove.
After I finished this long walk through the books of the last 20 years, I asked myself whether I should leave the found objects or take them out. Should I strip the books clean for whoever comes through next — perhaps for my children when they are adults, if their taste in books resemble mine at all? Or shall I leave the objects more or less where I found them, a story-within-the-stories that tells the tale of one reader’s life for anyone who cares to sleuth out the details? This wasn’t a hard decision, as you’d guess. The objects go back. The page turns.
“Is the reason to have a home, as the narrator in Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation, asserts, ‘to keep certain people in and everyone else out’? Or does home, as the narrator in William Maxwell’s autobiographical novel So Long, See You Tomorrow suggests, work primarily as a scaffolding of known things — as a place to read, a place to stash the damp umbrella, a place to listen to the porch swing creak?” Beth Kephart on the literary significance of home.
It’s a single line of dialog in Ernest Hemingway’s classic story, “Hills Like White Elephants,” but that one line, 11 words, has had an outsized influence on the course of literary titling. It’s spoken by the female character, Jig, as she waits for a train in Zaragosa with her unnamed American man. In the train station they begin drinking, first cervezas then anisette, and soon conduct a suppressed dispute about whether or not to end a pregnancy. Tensions mount, differences are exposed, and with that, Jig utters the legendary line. It’s a breaking point that is as much textual as emotional: “Would you please please please please please please please stop talking?”
Hemingway couldn’t have known the legacy that line would have — or maybe he did, he famously sought “a prose that had never been written.” When the story was published in 1927, the line broke open a new way characters talked on the page. Exactly four decades later, that groundbreaking colloquy resurfaced as a stylistic approach to the contemporary American literary title. Raymond Carver’s story, “Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?” published in 1967 (the titular collection appeared in 1976), echoed Hemingway’s line, and in turn spawned a subgenre of titling in the vernacular style.
What I’ve come to think of as the colloquial title rejects literary tone for the purely voice-driven. Colloquial titles can be wordy, even prolix, and often make use of a purposefully curious yet catchy syntax. The colloquial title is based in common parlance, but also draws on aphorism, the stock phrase, and familiar expressions. For a more elevated voice-driven title, look to the literary/biblical allusion, the colloquial title’s highborn cousin. With exemplars like As I Lay Dying and Slouching Toward Bethlehem, the allusion-based title has undisputed gravitas, and frankly, when it comes to authoritative tone, is hard to beat. Think of The Violent Bear It Away and A River Runs Through It.
And yet, ordinary language is equally capable of authority. Like any compelling title, those based in the vernacular can deftly portray a sense of foreboding, loss, or lack. Plus, when ordinary language is placed in a literary context, meaning can shift and complicate, taking shades of tone it might not otherwise. It might even be said that, unlike the conventional variety, the colloquial title is captivating even when its message is trouble-free.
There is a certain power in hearing phrases we know and may have used ourselves. When a title speaks to us in everyday language, it’s not so different from any voice aiming to get our attention. I read a colloquial title and hear a speaker with an urgent message. Maybe like Jig’s, its phrasing is odd, idiosyncratic. Or, where one speaker might as easily equivocate, another may cut in, or confess. Or be presumptuous and opinionated. Whatever the persona, the colloquial title leans in close and says I’m talking to you, and I listen, eager to know what lies beyond that strangely familiar voice.
Here then is a sampling of colloquial titles, culled from eight decades of classic and contemporary literature.
1. Classics of the Form
An early example of the colloquial impulse is Horace McCoy’s They Shoot Horses Don’t They? (1935). The title of this Depression-era portrait adopts ironic tone to reference the period’s human desolation and the suffering of its characters.
William Gass’s collection In the Heart of the Heart of the Country (1968) uses the power of repetition to suggest a journey to the deeper realms of character and place. The recursive device proved influential, as demonstrated by more than a few of the examples that follow here.
Leonard Michaels’s I Would Have Saved Them If I Could (1975) is an exemplar of the colloquial approach. The title seamlessly integrates the prose style of the collection and its mood of uncertainty and pathos.
Charles Bukowski’s You Get So Alone at Times That It Just Makes Sense (1986). Bukowski’s style pays a debt to the Hemingway prose style, to the confessional tone of the Beat Poets, and, to this reader’s ear, the personalized truth-telling of the ’60s.
David Foster Wallace’s A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again (1997). The distinct SoCal syntax and wry tone make this title a classic of the colloquial style.
2. The Aphoristic Vein
Common phrases and well-worn adages make ideal colloquial titles. Somehow, in a title, platitudes and cliché never feel stale, but spark irony and double-meaning.
Flannery O’Connor’s A Good Man is Hard to Find (1955). The title is drawn from a popular idiom of its day, and the homespun tone runs against the grain of the titular story’s mystical, violent drama.
William Maxwell’s novella So Long See You Tomorrow (1979) and Elizabeth McCracken’s collection Here’s Your Hat What’s Your Hurry (1993). Both operate on the familiarity of common parlance (and what might be called the gravity of goodbye), not to mention direct address: we read “you” and feel at once a stand-in for the addressee.
Jean Thompson’s collection Who Do You Love (1999). While a good number of colloquial titles take the form of a question, Thompson’s intentionally drops its question mark. The lyric from the Bo Diddley song is used without its original punctuation, shifting the phrase to an assertion, a stark refrain that echoes throughout the collection.
Amy Bloom’s collection A Blind Man Can See How Much I Love You (2000). Here, aphorism meets avowal and reflects the fierce attachments that occupy Bloom’s stories of youth, aging, loss, and hope.
Adam Haslett’s collection You Are Not a Stranger Here (2002). Another appropriation of dialog. Here, the outsider tone is a salutation that is both welcoming and sorrowful, and likewise defines the collection.
3. Matters of Opinion
This colloquial vein might be called the idiosyncratic declarative, a variety of title distinguished by off-kilter observation, unconventional syntax, and the frequent use of personal pronouns:
In this category, Raymond Carver alone spawns a near-genre of declarative titling. The story collections Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? (1976) and What We Talk About When We Talk About Love (1981) and the poetry collection Where Water Comes Together With Other Water (1985), are seminal in their approach. Crucial to the effect is the nonliterary usage, as is repetition. Notable too is the tone of candor, rather than irony.
Lorrie Moore’s story “Which Is More Than I Can Say About Some People,” from Birds of America (1998) reframes the declarative title as an ironic aside. Likewise, Moore’s formative “People Like That Are the Only People Here: Canonical Babbling in Peed Onk,” takes the conversational into a uniquely personal lexicon.
William Gay’s I Hate to See That Evening Sun Go Down (2002), is defined by a plaintive tone and suggestion of intimate disclosure.
Robin Black’s collection If I Loved You I Would Tell You This (2010) is a prime example of a declarative with an artfully placed hanging pronoun.
Richard Ford’s Let Me Be Frank With You (2014). In the latest installment of the Frank Bascombe saga, an old adage takes the form of wordplay.
Finally, not to be overlooked in this category, Nathan Englander’s collection What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank (2013), a riff on Carver’s iconic title.
4. Be Forewarned
Everyday language can spawn titles of a more unusual sort, whether instructional, cautionary, or sometimes surreal. The style often has a portentous tone, and interestingly, makes frequent use of the first person plural.
Joshua Ferris’s Then We Came to the End (2007). This pronouncement marks many endings within the novel — of a century, a booming economy, a job, a relationship.
Ramona Ausubel’s No One is Here Except All of Us (2012). Here, the title is foreboding, an augur that taps into the novel’s speculative, catastrophic history.
Adrianne Harun’s A Man Came Out of a Door in the Mountain (2013). Colloquy here takes on a solemn and surreal turn, setting the tone for a tale of tragic disappearances.
Matthew Thomas’s We Are Not Ourselves (2014). The title is a literary allusion (from King Lear), referencing the novel’s characters who, as Thomas has said, “by dint of circumstances are not allowed to be themselves.” Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves (2013), contains a voice-driven prologue that begins, “Those who know me now will be surprised to learn I was a great talker as a child.” It’s a perfect opening to a novel with a colloquial title that, in typical style, doesn’t hold back.
In a year where it seemed like much of the conversation was about very long books — I’m thinking particularly about the series of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s novels — my favourite book was a very short one. In fact, the book has something in common with the Knausgaard books, in that it too is a sort of memoir cum novel. The book is William Maxwell’s So Long, See You Tomorrow. I was in San Francisco on my desultory book tour when it was recommended to me by a friend. Knocking around the city with little to do, I went into City Lights Books and asked for it. They had a single copy, still in print as a Vintage paperback, 135 pages. I knew very little about Maxwell before this and hadn’t read anything else by him, but, after I’d read the book and was still in its thrall, I discovered that friends whose literary taste I respect knew it well, and remembered certain passages from the book with remarkable fidelity. It is that kind of book. Published when Maxwell was in his 70s, it bears on every page the mark of experience, wisdom, and a gentle humility — the consequence of the many mysteries and regrets that comprise a man’s life. At the heart of the book is a murder, a crime of passion committed in a rural Illinois community in the 1920s. Maxwell, a boy at the time, had only a glancing connection to the event, in that he was acquainted with the murderer’s son. But the event haunts him, largely because of a seemingly trivial act of cruelty — barely perceptible — that he visited upon this other boy. Tormented by the memory, Maxwell reimagines the events in the minutest detail, recalling not only his own boyhood self but inhabiting every character related to the murder — including, famously, a dog. That he is able to realize this in only 135 pages, sacrificing no depth for brevity, is a extraordinary achievement. I recommend the novel for this, and also for its prose — in a class with George Orwell’s — each sentence honed for honesty and clarity. It is an exemplary book, well-deserving of its high reputation. I’m sure I’ll return to it again, as I do to a number of other short novels that have staked their claim on me: Cees Nooteboom’s Rituals, Leonard Michaels’s Sylvia and Philip Roth’s The Ghost Writer.
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I am not the first to say this, but let me say this nonetheless: Thank God for the NYRB series of reissued books. This year, I was blown away by the gnomic brilliance of Speedboat by Renata Adler, which reminded me of Nathanael West, whom I then re-read and re-loved all over again, which got me into a Stanley Elkin kind of mood, so hello to The Dick Gibson Show and its sneaky joy with that particular brand of American language, and speaking of language, the opening of The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner was like a fever dream of delight, so after that I had to dip back into Pafko at the Wall by Don DeLillo, the standard bearer of sustained openings, after which I wisely — and in some cases unwisely — read the first book of My Struggle by Karl Ove Knausgaard and I fear for its minute infections, unlike Stoner by John Williams, downed a month later, which is such a quiet yet profound thrill in its distillation of a nothing special life that it seems inimitable and totally beyond me, like William Maxwell’s So Long, See You Tomorrow, which I should read again, maybe next year — oh, and P.S. I watched my 11-year-old son take in ‘Salem’s Lot by Stephen King, pure delight, and my 10-year-old daughter puts in her vote for Wonder by R.J. Palacio.
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The motherlode: The Millions’ Books and Reviews
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Schott’s Miscellany 2008: An Almanac, Ben Schott: I know I’m at least a year behind, but Schott’s collections of odd information, lists, etc., is great fun and it doesn’t really matter which year you’re reading. Check out also his Schott’s Food & Drink Miscellany. Ben Schott’s great oddball idea almost makes me a little bit happy, as a person, almost. Briefly, at times.
Am I Insane? Dan Scott Ashwander Published by Carlton Press, New York, 1983 (self-published? I don’t know. 30 pages, hardcover): I like to pick up Ashwander’s book every now and then. I first found a copy when I was a newspaper reporter in the 80s on the Alabama Gulf Coast, and I believe Ashwander lived in the area. No idea how he’s doing now. “About the Author,” on the back jacket, reads “Disabled veteran Dan Scott Ashwander was born in Huntsville, Alabama. Says the author, ‘It sounds unbelievable but I am the one and only God. I have been told this many times through telepathy by the Eternal Spirit.’
“The author has a B.S. degree, is single and this is his first full-length published book.”
As to the title, Ashwander argues and concludes that he is not.
The Last Novel, David Markson: Personally, I liked the earlier Vanishing Point in this series of novels composed of fragments Markson’s detached ‘narrator’ compiles, gradually revealing his own situation (never very cheerful). But The Last Novel is good, too, and there’s nothing out there like these books.
The Death of a Beekeeper, Lars Gustafsson: I re-read Gustafsson’s beautiful brief novel every year, just as I do William Maxwell’s So Long, See You Tomorrow. They’re two of my most favorite short novels, very different, but similarly moving. Very different in structure, in conception — Gustafsson’s in the form of a series of found, incomplete notebooks left behind by a retired Swedish schoolteacher, deceased; Maxwell’s in the form of a memoir that turns itself inside-out in order to fictionalize the life of a boyhood friend whose emotional experience mirrors his own and provides the first relief from or release of long pent-up grief.
Stories by Joy Williams, from her several collections. Williams’ ability to surprise you with astounding moments of brilliant juxtaposition and insight is uncanny. Her intelligence flares up, startling, in your path, as unsettling and fascinating as the biblical burning bush to its observer, there.
The Granta Book of the American Short Story, edited by Richard Ford, 2007 ed.: I used this book in a class I taught on the contemporary American short story. I miss some of the selections from the earlier edition, such as the stories by Jane and Paul Bowles (his amazing “A Distant Episode”), “No Place for You, My Love,” by Welty (replaced with “Ladies in Spring”), “Good Country People” (replaced by “The Artificial Nigger,” for some reason, it’s said, O’Connor’s favorite story among her own published work), “Lechery,” Jayne Anne Phillips, stories by Leonard Michaels and James Salter. But there’s good new work in there by Barry Hannah, Elizabeth Spencer, Steve Yarbrough, George Saunders, Kevin Canty, Tom Franklin, Denis Johnson, Dennis McFarland, Robert Olen Butler, and, my favorite switch, substituting Joy Williams’ award-winning, devastating story, “The Farm,” for her great story, “Train.” “Train” is great, but “The Farm” is one of those stories that drains your blood, leaves you in some strange suspension of any life beyond what’s in its pages. It takes a while to come back to life, after reading “The Farm.”
Don Lee teaches in the graduate creative writing program at Western Michigan University and lives in Kalamazoo. Yellow won the Sue Kaufman Prize and Country of Origin won the American Book Award and the Edgar Award. His most recent novel is Wrack and Ruin.So Long, See You Tomorrow by William Maxwell is a novel that writers often mention, but of which hardly anyone else is aware. I knew about it, but didn’t get around to reading it until now, because I had assumed it was a routine coming-of-age story set in pre-Depression Middle America. I couldn’t have been more wrong. On the surface, it’s a story about a boy in a small Illinois farm town in the 1920s whose friendship with another boy is irretrievably interrupted by a murder. There’s nothing very mysterious about the murder itself, but Maxwell heartbreakingly reveals how it came about. This novel, published in 1980, is very short – only 135 pages – yet it feels capacious, and, from a writer’s perspective, it’s fascinating for its innovation, with a first-person narrator that begins to range freely into various characters’ points of view, including a dog’s. A lovely, surprising, and humane book.More from A Year in Reading 2008