Stories of Anton Chekhov

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The Millions Top Ten: June 2014


We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for June.

This
Month
Last
Month

Title
On List

1.
2.

Beautiful Ruins
4 months

2.
9.

A Highly Unlikely Scenario, or a Neetsa Pizza Employee’s Guide to Saving the World
2 months

3.
4.

The Son
3 months

4.
3.

Bark: Stories
3 months

5.
8.

The Good Lord Bird

3 months

6.
7.

Well-Read Women: Portraits of Fiction’s Most Beloved Heroines
3 months

7.
5.

Just Kids
6 months

8.


Americanah

1 month

9.
6.

Eleanor & Park
3 months

10.
10.

Jesus’ Son: Stories
3 months

 

As I predicted in last month’s write-up, the ascension of The Beggar Maid to our Hall of Fame means that Alice Munro has now officially graduated to the “Top Ten Two Timers Club” (working title) — a nine-member cohort of authors who’ve reached the Hall of Fame for more than one book.

Consequently, space on the Top Ten has opened up for a new number one — Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter — and for a new addition to the list: Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, which saw a sales bump after it was released in paperback last March, and then again after it was announced that a film adaptation could be on the way. (Of course, being featured on a surprise Beyoncé album never hurts, either.) Millions readers looking for an additional Adichie fix are welcome to check out her contribution to our Year in Reading series, as well.

Meanwhile, Rachel Cantor’s A Highly Unlikely Scenario, or a Neetsa Pizza Employee’s Guide to Saving the World continues to enjoy breakout success among Millions readers. The book takes place in the not-too-far-off future, where “competing giant fast food factions rule the world.” (One could be forgiven for wondering how, exactly, that’s different from the way things are right now.)

Next month, I expect to see multiple books from our recent Most Anticipated list to make it into our Top Ten. After all, two Millions staffers did just publish books last week, you know

Near Misses: Little Failure: A MemoirStories of Anton Chekhov, My Struggle: Book 1, The Fault in Our Stars, and Blood Will Out: The True Story of a Murder, a Mystery, and a Masquerade. See Also: Last month’s list.

The Millions Top Ten: May 2014


We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for May.

This
Month
Last
Month

Title
On List

1.
1.

The Beggar Maid: Stories of Flo and Rose
6 months

2.
2.

Beautiful Ruins
3 months

3.
5.

Bark: Stories
2 months

4.
3.

The Son
2 months

5.
4.

Just Kids

5 months

6.
8.

Eleanor & Park
2 months

7.
6.

Well-Read Women: Portraits of Fiction’s Most Beloved Heroines
2 months

8.
9.

The Good Lord Bird

2 months

9.


A Highly Unlikely Scenario, or a Neetsa Pizza Employee’s Guide to Saving the World
1 month

10.
10.

Jesus’ Son: Stories
2 months

 

In order to graduate to our Hall of Fame, books must remain on the Millions Top Ten for more than six months. The feat has only been accomplished by 82 books in the series’s five year history. Within that subset of hallowed tomes, though, eight authors have attained an even higher marker of success: they’ve reached the Hall of Fame more than once. This accomplishment is remarkable for two reasons: 1) the Top Ten typically favors heavily marketed new releases, so it means that these eight authors have more than once produced blockbusters in the past few years; and 2) because Top Ten graduates must remain on our monthly lists for over half a year before ascending to the Hall of Fame, that means their books must be popular enough to have sustained success. (In other words, marketing only gets you far.)

The names of these eight authors should be familiar to Millions readers, of course. They belong to some of the most successful writers of the past 25 years: David Foster Wallace* (Infinite Jest, The Pale King), Junot Díaz (The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, This Is How You Lose Her), Stieg Larsson (The Girl with the Dragon TattooThe Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest), David Mitchell (Cloud Atlas, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet), Hilary Mantel (Wolf Hall, Bring Up the Bodies), Jonathan Franzen (The Corrections, Freedom), George Saunders (Tenth of December, Fox 8), and — as of this month — Dave Eggers (Zeitoun, The Circle).

(*David Foster Wallace has the unique distinction, actually, of having two of his own books in our Hall of Fame in addition to a biography written about him.)

Even money would seem to indicate that Alice Munro is poised to join this esteemed group next. Her Selected Stories graduated to the Hall of Fame shortly after her Nobel Prize was awarded in 2013, and her collection, The Beggar Maid, has been holding fast ever since. Meanwhile, the surprise re-emergence of Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son, which has been hovering at the bottom of the Top Ten lists these past two months, indicates that maybe he’ll reach that group soon as well. His novella, Train Dreams, graduated in August of 2012.

Changing gears a bit: the lone new addition to our Top Ten this month in the form of Rachel Cantor’s mouthful of a novel, A Highly Unlikely Scenario, or a Neetsa Pizza Employee’s Guide to Saving the World. The book, which was published last month, was featured in our Great 2014 Book Preview, during which time Millions staffer Hannah Gersen posed the eternal question, “It’s got time travel, medieval kabbalists, and yes, pizza. What more can you ask for?”

What more, indeed?

Near Misses: Little Failure: A MemoirAmericanahStories of Anton Chekhov, My Struggle: Book 1, and Tampa. See Also: Last month’s list.

The Millions Top Ten: April 2014


We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for April.

This
Month
Last
Month

Title
On List

1.
6.

The Beggar Maid: Stories of Flo and Rose
5 months

2.
9.

Beautiful Ruins
2 months

3.


The Son
1 month

4.
8.

Just Kids
4 months

5.


Bark: Stories

1 month

6.


Well-Read Women: Portraits of Fiction’s Most Beloved Heroines
1 month

7.
10.

The Circle
2 months

8.


Eleanor & Park

1 month

9.


The Good Lord Bird
1 month

10.


Jesus’ Son: Stories
1 month

 

Major shakeups to the April Top Ten were wrought by the graduation of six (count ’em) titles to our Millions Hall of FameThe Goldfinch, Selected Stories, The Flamethrowers, The Luminaries, Draw It With Your Eyes Closed, and The Lowland. This “March 2014” class of ascendants is noteworthy not only for being the biggest single-month Hall of Fame class ever, but also for being one of the most highly-decorated classes in series history. How decorated? Let’s run the tape: Donna Tartt’s novel won this year’s Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Alice Munro won the last Nobel Prize for Literature. Rachel Kushner’s novel was a finalist for the National Book Award. Eleanor Catton was the winner of last year’s Man Booker Prize. And Jhumpa Lahiri’s work was shortlisted for that same Man Booker Prize. Objectively speaking, this is the biggest and best class to date.

Of course, here at The Millions, our readers have plenty of decorated authors on their “to be read” shelves, and as a result, our Top Ten doesn’t so much rebuild — to borrow the parlance of a college football team — as it reloads.

To wit: we’re replacing a National Book Award finalist, a Pulitzer winner, and a Man Booker winner with two National Book Award winners, a Pulitzer finalist, and Lorrie Moore.

Heading off this new crop of titles is Philipp Meyer’s The Son, which was a Pulitzer finalist this past year, and which was met with critical acclaim for weeks after it was first published. It’s a book that John Davidson described for our site as being, “a sprawling, meticulously researched epic tale set in southern Texas,” and one that “leverages” a “certain theory of Native American societies … to explore the American creation myth.” Indeed, Meyer himself noted in his Millions interview that, “If there’s a moral purpose to the book, it’s to put our history, the history of this country, into a context.”

Additionally, the April Top Ten welcomes James McBride’s The Good Lord Bird, which blew past the field at last year’s National Book Awards to claim top prize overall. (The announcement of a movie deal soon followed.) For The Millions, our own Bill Morris sang the work’s praises and he sang them loudly. The book, Morris wrote in his latest Year in Reading piece, is “one of the most astonishing, rollicking, delightful, smart and sad books I’ve read in all my life.” Evidently you listened.

New(ish) releases weren’t the only new additions to our list this month, either. Sneaking into the tenth spot on our list was a classic collection from Denis Johnson, the winner of the National Book Award in 2007. It’s a pity they no longer print the version that fits in your pocket.

And what to say of Lorrie Moore, whose addition to the Vanderbilt faculty last Fall was overshadowed by news of Bark‘s imminent publication? Perhaps it’s best if I let the final paragraph from Arianne Wack’s profile of the author speak for itself:
Exploring the demands of a life is the heart of Moore’s work, and the resonate truth of her prose has fueled a fevered desire for her books. Her characters don’t so much adventure through life as they do drift and stumble through it, making it a map of emotional landmarks, places you keep finding yourself in. One suspects that Moore is not simply writing a life, but cleverly recording yours. There is a commonality linking reader with character, an elastic boundary between her fiction and our reality that both reinforces and subverts one’s own sense of uniqueness. Coming away from one of her stories, one is reminded that we are all just doing this the best we know how.
Or better yet, perhaps I should point you toward our own Edan Lepucki’s summation of Moore’s influence on a generation of American short story writers:
We all came out of Lorrie Moore’s overcoat–or her frog hospital, her bonehead Halloween costume.  If you’re a young woman writer with a comic tendency, and you like similes and wordplay, and you traffic in the human wilderness of misunderstanding and alienation, then you most certainly participate in the Moore tradition.
Lastly, the April Top Ten welcomes two other newcomers as well. Entering the field in the eighth spot is Eleanor & Park, of which Janet Potter proclaimed, “Rarely is a realistic love story a page-turner, but when I got to the end I tweeted: ‘Stayed up til 3 finishing Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell. Would have stayed up forever.'” (The book is being made into a movie, by the way.) Meanwhile, a collection of portraits entitled Well-Read Women: Portraits of Fiction’s Most Beloved Heroines enters the list in sixth place, likely owing to its prominence on Hannah Gersen’s list of gift ideas from last year.

Near Misses: AmericanahLittle Failure: A MemoirStories of Anton ChekhovA Highly Unlikely Scenario, or a Neetsa Pizza Employee’s Guide to Saving the World: A Novel, and Tampa. See Also: Last month’s list.

Read Chekhov for a Better 2014

New Year’s resolutions tend toward self-improvement. This is the year you will start going to the gym, or finally kick caffeine, or nip in the bud your nascent addiction to cronuts. Maybe you have promised to watch less television, or you have fiendishly reasoned that self-improvement relies on watching more television: you still don’t know what happened at the Red Wedding or who Walter White is, and this is making it hard for you to connect with your fellow human beings.

But what if you’re interested in connecting with your fellow human beings in a way that doesn’t require access to premium cable? According to a study published in October in the journal Science, reading literary fiction — including the works of Anton Chekhov — increases scores on tests of empathy and emotional intelligence. Who wouldn’t want to be more empathetic in 2014?

But before embarking on a self-help tour of late-Czarist Russia, be advised that Chekhov doesn’t provide easy answers to becoming a kinder, more caring person. There’s no five-step solution, no short prayer that will increase your fortunes and lay waste to the fields of your enemies.

Instead, he brings us into a world where bad things often happen — and for that world, there’s no better Baedeker than Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky’s Stories of Anton Chekhov. “Sleepy” tells of a young orphan tending a baby whose crying prevents her from ever sleeping; the girl solves this problem by smothering the baby. In “Anyuta,” a callous medical student draws charcoal lines on the emaciated body of his “roommate” — the poor seamstress Anyuta — to help him study for an anatomy exam; they both know that as soon as he graduates, their relationship will end and he will marry a more respectable spouse. And “In the Ravine” features Aksinya, a woman who pours boiling water on her sister-in-law’s infant son (the baby dies, Aksinya keeps control of the family-owned brickworks, and the bereaved sister-in-law descends into poverty).

Chekhov doesn’t make us better people by restoring our faith in the fundamental goodness of humanity or by charming us with the bright hope of a happy ending. In fact, he makes it hard for us to make snap judgments about heroes and villains. Varka, the girl in “Sleepy,” has witnessed the deaths of both parents, she works for a family that abuses her, she is exhausted to the point of hallucination, and her awful crime arises from a primal desire for one moment of peaceful slumber. Aksinya, also guilty of infanticide, acts when her father-in-law declares that her nephew will one day inherit his business — a business which the child’s father has almost ruined, and which Aksinya has devoted her life to saving. None of this excuses their actions, but Chekhov forces us to understand these characters before we can quickly write them off as monsters, as evil-doers.

Chekhov isn’t interested in something as flat and simple as evil. Time and again in his work, he draws a link between indifference — the failure of empathy — and cruelty. When terrible things happen in a Chekhov story, it isn’t because one of the characters is a bad seed. It is often because of the characters’ inability to extend to each other the kind of compassion that would force them outside of their own concerns.

It’s worth noting that Chekhov’s grandfather was a serf, his father was a hyper-religious tyrant, and he knew from the time he was in his twenties that tuberculosis would cut his life short (he died at 44). He didn’t believe in God or the reward of a joyous afterlife, and yet his stories affirm in ways large and small that the only hope we have lies in our relationships with other people. If the world is hell, it’s because we make it that way; if we are to be happy, it’s only by connecting with the people around us.

In Chekhov’s last play, “The Cherry Orchard,” — bracingly translated by Michael Henry Heim in Chekhov: The Essential Plays — the young idealist Trofimov lectures his one-time patroness Lyubov Andreevna about her failings in love and money: she is a spendthrift whose estate is about to be auctioned; she has driven herself into debt for the love of a ne’er-do-well. Her response, a scorching indictment of Trofimov’s easy dismissal of all that she has suffered in life, climaxes with this demand: “Show a little generosity!”

Lyubov Andreevna is speaking to Trofimov; Chekhov is speaking to us. This writer who sought objectivity in all of his work and who was blasted by his contemporaries for being apolitical and amoral, condenses into this line a plea to us all. That before we judge, we understand. That we extend to each other the same compassion that we all seek.

Resolutions are notoriously hard to keep. Gyms are full of people in better shape than you. Cronuts are tasty. Television is hard to kick. And the benefits of caffeine — among them wakefulness and the will to live — are obvious. But with a little help from Chekhov, perhaps 2014 can be the year that we all show a little generosity.

Image via Wikimedia Commons

Ask a Book Question: The Fifth in a Series (The Russians Are Coming)

All of a sudden I’ve worked my way pretty quickly through the pile of books I have lying around, so I was digging through my shelves looking for what to read next. I dug up an old copy of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov that I’d come across on a book finding expedition a while back. The Russians occupy a gaping hole among books that I have read. I have never read any of the 19th century classics, and I figure I ought to start sooner rather than later. However, staring at this brick-like copy of Karamazov, I became intimidated as I wondered if this was the best place to begin my education in Russian literature. Yet, I did not panic; instead I emailed my friend Brian, who I happen to know is a great connoisseur of Russian Lit. Here is what I wrote: I’ve never read any of the classic Russian writers, and I want to start, but I’m not sure which one to start with. Any ideas? I’ve got The Brothers Karamazov… so I’m thinking of starting with that. …and here is his response…the russians are my favorites — all of ’em, dostoevsky, tolstoy, chekhov, gogol, turgenev, pushkin, etc…my favorite russian writer is Dostoevsky (chekhov is second) and my favorite novel is definitely The Brothers Karamazov. it might be my favorite novel of all time, but i think you should start with Crime and Punishment a much more conventional and accessible book. not that i think you couldn’t handle The Brothers, but just think you might wanna ease your way in… check out Gogol’s short stories “The Overcoat” and “The Nose” [in The Collected Tales of Nikolai Gogol] and Chekhov’s story “Ward No. 6” [in Stories] is a masterpiece, as are many (most) of his stories.Thanks, Brian… If anyone else has insights on the Russians, let us know by using the comment button below.Two Hot New BooksA couple of very different brand new books have been getting lots of attention from customers lately: The Zanzibar Chest by Aidan Hartley is part mystery, part memoir that is a story of life in post-colonial Africa, which must necessarily touch upon the history of colonialism as well as all too recent war and genocide. Here is an excerpt. Completely unrelated but also very interesting is Where’d You Get Those? New York City’s Sneaker Culture: 1960-1987 a pictorial history of playground basketball and the footwear that accompanied it by Bobbito Garcia, writer for Vibe, world-class DJ, “basketball performer,” and world-renowned break-dancer. For pics of the hot kicks… go here.

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