Here’s a quick look at some notable books—new titles from the likes of Bryan Washington, Siri Hustvedt, Polly Rosenwaike, Claudia Rankine and more—that are publishing this week.
Look How Happy I’m Making You by Polly Rosenwaike
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Look How Happy I’m Making You: “The 12 stories in Rosenwaike’s striking debut collection portray women of childbearing age confronting the challenges of becoming, or not becoming, a mother. In ‘Grow Your Eyelashes,’ a web developer admires a baby on a bus while recalling her own fruitless efforts to get pregnant. Freelance editor Cora, of ‘Period, Ellipsis, Full Stop,’ has a miscarriage. In incisive language, Rosenwaike evokes the baby’s miniature hands and swollen cheeks; the cavernous, windowless institute where Leah works; and Cora writing pleasant work emails despite her throbbing uterus. Longing and anxiety pervade ‘White Carnations’ as four motherless, childless friends celebrate Mother’s Day together, and ‘June,’ in which an expectant mother feels torn between her unborn daughter and dying aunt. Self-aware humor helps baby Alice’s parents through her first Christmas/Hanukkah gathering in ‘Welcome to Your Family’ and a wakeful infant’s parents through the night in ‘Parental Fade.’ The road to parenthood is paved with denial in ‘The Dissembler’s Guide to Pregnancy,’ resistance in ‘Ten Warning Signs of Postpartum Depression,’ and overwhelming affection in ‘Love Bug, Sweetie Dear, Pumpkin Pie, Etc.’ Rosenwaike’s edgy stories are endearingly honest, excruciatingly detailed, and irresistibly intimate, expertly depicting what motherhood means to millennials.”
Far Country by Franco Moretti
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Far Country: ‘Short in pages, and compressed in style,’ according to the author, this smart collection from Moretti (The Bourgeois: Between History and Literature), cofounder of the Stanford Literary Lab, takes five introductory lectures on literary history out of the classroom. His selections pair authors in unexpected ways, such as Walt Whitman and Charles Baudelaire, or Ernest Hemingway and James Joyce, or, branching out from literature, Jans Vermeer and Edward Hopper. Moretti has a penchant for grammatical analysis, at one point counting the number of prepositional phrases (25) in a passage from Hemingway’s ‘Big Two-Hearted River.’ He observes that sentences such as ‘In his shirt the breast pockets bulged against him with his lunch and his fly book’ tell the reader what the character has already done, so that action is implied, but ‘not really visible anymore.’ This interest in the invisible or the ‘missing thing’ also gets applied to the use of repetition in Gertrude Stein’s Three Lives (Moretti argues that the difficulty of Stein’s language duplicates the problem of expressing one’s inner state), and to the sense of mystery Vermeer creates about what might have happened just before the scene depicted in a painting. Learned without being difficult or jargony, Moretti proves that criticism can be both thought provoking and fun.”
Horizon by Barry Lopez
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Horizon: “A globe-trotting nature writer meditates on the fraught interactions between people and ecosystems in this sprawling environmentalist travelogue. Essayist Lopez (Arctic Dreams) recounts episodes from decades of his travels, most of them tied to scientific investigations: camping on the Oregon coast while considering the exploits of British explorer James Cook; examining archaeological sites in the high Arctic while reflecting on the harshness of life there; hunting for hominin fossils in Kenya while weighing human evolution; scuba-diving under an Antarctic ice shelf while observing the rich marine biota. His free-associative essays blend vivid reportage on landscapes, wildlife, and the knotty relationships among the scientists he accompanies with larger musings on natural history, environmental and climate crises, and the sins of Western imperialism in erasing indigenous cultures. It’s often hard to tell where Lopez is going with his frequent digressions: one two-page section skitters from global cancer rates past a one-eyed goshawk he once saw in Namibia to an astrophysics experiment at the South Pole to detect dark matter, with no particular conclusion. Still, his prose is so evocative—during a tempest at sea, ‘veils of storm-ripped water ballooned in the air around us’ amid ‘the high-pitched mewling of albatrosses, teetering impossibly forty feet away from us on the wind’—and his curiosity so infectious that readers will be captivated.”
Lot by Bryan Washington
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Lot: “Washington debuts with a stellar collection in which he turns his gaze onto Houston, mapping the sprawl of both the city and the relationships within it, especially those between young black and brown boys. About half of the stories share a narrator, whose transition into manhood is complicated by an adulterous and absent father, a hypermasculine brother, a sister who leaves their neighborhood the first chance she gets, and a mother who learns that she and her restaurant may no longer be welcome in a gentrifying Houston. All this is on top of his grappling with the revelation that he might be attracted to men. Washington is exact and empathetic, and the character that emerges is refreshingly unapologetic about his sexuality, even as it creates rifts in his family. In general, there is a vein of queerness in these stories that runs deep and rich. Washington excels when he gets playful with his narration, like the Greek chorus of ‘Alief,’ in which the residents of an apartment complex acknowledge their role in an affair and its disastrous ending. And in the best stories, such as ‘South Congress,’ ‘Waugh,’ and ‘Elgin,’ Washington captures the dual severity and tenderness of the world for young people. Washington is a dynamic writer with a sharp eye for character, voice, and setting. This is a remarkable collection from a writer to watch.”
The Parade by Dave Eggers
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Parade: “Eggers’s unremarkable latest (after The Monk of Mokha) follows two unnamed men sent to an unnamed country by an unnamed corporation to pave a road. The country—tropical, malarial—is emerging from years of civil war, and a new road running through the heart of the country is intended to be a first step by the government to unite the populace. The men charged with paving it are code-named Four and Nine. Four is a stoic company man intent on getting the job done ahead of schedule and with as little fuss as possible. Nine exists seemingly only to annoy Four; he talks incessantly, has no problem breaking company protocol—particularly when it comes to interacting with locals, which the company prohibits but he engages in endlessly—and does pretty much anything other than his job, including playing in a potentially contaminated river. As Four gets to work, Nine becomes increasingly irresponsible, and after his antics predictably get him ill and in trouble with the locals, both men end up in a precarious, possibly grave, situation. The repetitive narrative, sparse prose, and overall vagueness lend this an allegorical feel, and because the reader spends the whole book waiting for the hammer to drop, when it finally does (on the last page), it lands with more a thud than a wallop. There’s nothing particularly bad about this, but it comes across as more an exercise than a full-blooded novel.”
Waiting for Bojangles by Olivier Bourdeaut (translated by Regan Kramer)
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Waiting for Bojangles: “Bourdeaut’s debut, an international bestseller, is a wacky, melancholy tribute by a loving young son to his charmed life in the company of his eccentric parents. In his own words, and quoting diaries his father kept—each often falling into rhyming verse—the boy recalls his unconventional upbringing. His mother is beautiful and mad, and dances her way through his childhood. His father is indulgent and kind, giving up his job when his son is born and always telling ‘such beautiful lies for love.’ The two met and married one night on a whim, and their life proceeds as a succession of parties and holidays, even after the boy’s birth. The narrator chronicles alcohol-fueled evenings, an old-fashioned turntable always playing Nina Simone’s ‘Mr. Bojangles,’ sunlit weeks in Spain after being confronted by the taxman, and so many days late to school that the boy is simply allowed to stop going altogether. Their household is chaotic, and includes an exotic squawking crane and occasionally a famous senator (whom the father worked for). But the boy’s mother teeters on the brink of insanity, and sorrows fall on her ‘from somewhere very, very high.’ When darkness threatens to overcome the intensity of light she has always thrown off, father and son go to great lengths to try to protect her. This fanciful love story, fraught with sadness, is a sweet meditation on the more unorthodox gifts that parents leave the children they cherish.”
Memories of the Future by Siri Hustvedt
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Memories of the Future: “This provocative, experimental novel from Hustvedt (The Blazing World) joins several narratives to illustrate the roles of memory and perspective in making sense of a life. A version of the author, called S.H. and nicknamed Minnesota by her friends for her state of origin, stumbles through her first year in New York, which begins in August, 1978. Having saved up her money and postponed graduate school, she has given herself a year to write a novel in a ‘grim apartment in a scraped, chipped, battered building.’ Passages from that dryly humorous, meandering novel, which follows a misfit pair of teenage detectives, are interspersed with the memories of the now 61-year-old narrator, selections from her journals in 1978 and ’79, and slices of the life of ‘proto-punk’ Dada poet Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, who serves as a sort of muse. Dominating S.H.’s memories of her year in New York is her fascination with the disturbed older woman in the next apartment, Lucy Brite, to whose rants she listens regularly with a stethoscope pressed to the wall, and for whom she becomes an unexpected savior when Lucy is assaulted. The many moods and flavors of this brash ‘portrait of the artist as a young woman’ constantly reframe and complicate the story, making for a fascinating shape-shifter of a novel.”
Little Boy by Lawrence Ferlinghetti
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Little Boy: “‘I’ve always been off in my own burb in some suburb of consciousness dreaming away or otherwise goofing off,’ writes the author of this wonderfully effusive autobiographical prose poem. Ferlinghetti (A Coney Island of the Mind, etc.), who turns 100 this year, offers a lyrical accounting of his life, both the ‘Me-me-me,’ with whom he identifies, and ‘the Other,’ who is his ‘shadow self.’ He also reflects on his private preoccupations with such broader issues as ‘ecological meltdown,’ third-world politics, and the ‘bad breath… of industrial civilization’—what he refers to as a way ‘to find the universal in the particular.’ He provides vivid memories of his tumultuous childhood, shuttled between family, orphanages, and the foster family he eventually chose for his own, and his wartime experiences as part of the D-Day invasion. Ferlinghetti’s prose pulses with the enjambments that energized the beats, whose work he published (famously, Ginsberg’s Howl), and it’s punctuated with such stunningly evocative metaphors as his recall of himself in Paris in 1948 as ‘a little like Conrad carrying Coleridge’s albatross and the albatross my past’—one of the numerous literary allusions that pepper the text. This book is a Proustian celebration of both memory and moments that will delight readers.”
Oksana, Behave! by Maria Kuznetsova
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Oksana, Behave!: “Kuznetsova’s standout debut offers a fresh and funny look into the life of a bold young immigrant woman. Told in a series of long vignettes, Oksana’s story begins in her last moments in Ukraine as a young girl and traverses the U.S. from Florida to Ohio, the East Coast to the West Coast over the next 20-odd years. Along with her fiery, sexy grandmother, her gentle and brilliant father, and her nervous but loving mother, Oksana attempts to assimilate, but her efforts are thwarted by her own bad behavior. Known as ‘little idiot’ to her family, Oksana seems incapable of taking on the role of Model Immigrant. In middle school, she attempts to blackmail the principal of her school; by high school, she has an illicit relationship with her troubled track coach. And in her young adulthood, she sleeps around and relies on substances to help repress her family’s painful past. Using light humor, Kuznetsova tackles difficult themes in her sparky narrator’s life; the nuances of trauma and campus rape culture are particularly well handled. While a yearning and affection for her homeland underlie much of the novel, Oksana’s story is that of a young woman making her own place in a world both new and familiar. This accomplished and frank work is a new take on an immigrant girl’s complicated coming-of-age.”
The Island of Sea Women by Lisa See
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Island of Sea Women: “See (The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane) once again explores how culture survives and morphs in this story of a real-life Korean female diving collective. Young-Sook and Mi-Ja meet as young girls in 1939 in Hado, a village on the island of Jeju, where traditionally the women earn a living while their husbands care for the children and home. The two girls begin training as haenyeo, divers who harvest oysters, sea slugs, and octopi from the sea. But after WWII when American occupation of southern Korea begins, the two grow apart. While Young-Sook struggles to make ends meet for her family, Mi-Ja’s husband’s role in the government spares her the economic suffering endured by most of the country. But after Mi-Ja’s family betrays Young-Sook, Young-Sook struggles for decades to reconcile her anger with fond memories of her friend, even after their families cross paths again. Jumping between the WWII era and 2008, See perceptively depicts challenges faced by Koreans over the course of the 20th century, particularly homing in on the ways the haenyeo have struggled to maintain their way of life. Exposing the depths of human cruelty and resilience, See’s lush tale is a wonderful ode to a truly singular group of women.”
The Booker Prize has long been, arguably, the book prize with the most buzz, the one award that carries with it a raft of commentary and gossip. There has always been something provincial about the Booker; the award is closely watched by book lovers globally, but these readers may also roll their eyes a bit at the betting lines and fevered U.K. newspaper commentary that it comes with. That changes this year — we’ll see how much — as books from the U.S. are eligible for the first time. Previously, entries were limited to titles from the U.K. and Commonwealth countries (India, Australia and so on). Books published between October 2013 and September 2014 are eligible.
U.S. book prizes have never generated the same degree of interest in the U.S. that the Booker does in the U.K, and the Booker folks clearly saw an opportunity there. The motivation behind the wider Booker field seems to be to try to build the brand, as they say, and create a first truly global, annual book prize, a plan met with some consternation by those who appreciated that Prize’s ability to focus the book world’s attention on U.K. writers. The U.S. and U.K. book industries run on parallel tracks that also have plenty of crossover. Novels become hits on both sides of the Atlantic, but readers and the publishing establishments in each country also have distinct tastes (and not just in book cover design).
The experiment begins today, with Joshua Ferris, Karen Joy Fowler, Siri Hustvedt, and Richard Powers representing the first crop of Americans to be featured on a Booker Prize longlist. While the list has some global diversity, it is male-dominated, with only three women among the 13 authors on the longlist. The biggest surprise might be the appearance of Paul Kingsnorth, whose longlisted novel The Wake was released by a crowd-funded publisher, Unbound.
All the Booker Prize longlisters are below (with bonus links where available):
To Rise Again at a Decent Hour by Joshua Ferris (excerpt, Ferris’s Year in Reading 2009)
The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler (Khaled Hosseini on Karen Joy Fowler)
The Blazing World by Siri Hustvedt (our review)
J by Howard Jacobson
The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth (at Unbound)
The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell (Exclusive: David Mitchell’s Twitter Story “The Right Sort” Collected)
The Lives of Others by Neel Mukherjee
Us by David Nicholls
The Dog by Joseph O’Neill (O’Neill’s 2008 Year in Reading)
Orfeo by Richard Powers (our review)
How to Be Both by Ali Smith (Wordsmith: The Beguiling Gifts of Ali Smith)
History of Rain by Niall Williams
In 2010, the Whitney Biennial made history when, for the first time, over half (52 percent) of its featured artists were women. In 2012, the numbers returned to their typical proportions, with women representing roughly 35 percent of all artists. At this year’s biennial, about 32 percent of the artists represented are women. What’s most frustrating about these numbers is that they haven’t changed much since the mid-nineties, when the Guerilla Girls first charted gender bias.
I looked up these statistics while reading Siri Hustvedt’s new novel, The Blazing World, which is set in the New York art world and tells the story of Harriet Burden, an accomplished, middle-aged artist so frustrated by her lack of stature that she arranges for three younger male artists to show her work as their own. Burden believes her artwork will be better received if exhibited by young men, rather than an aging widow. It’s an experiment of sorts, an artwork in and of itself, which she calls Maskings. At the end of the experiment, she plans to reveal herself as the true artist. In her journal, Burden calls it her “fairy tale”:
There will be three masks, just as in the fairy tales. Three masks of different hues and countenances, so that the story will have its perfect form. Three masks, three wishes, always three. And the story will have bloody teeth.
Unfortunately for Burden, her fairy tale has an unhappy ending, and instead of merely revealing the art world’s biases she ends up discovering some unpleasant truths about her own life. Of the three artists she works with, only one plays his part and remains friendly with her after their collaboration. The other two betray her, one breaking off contact, and the other disavowing their relationship — and then dying. Burden does not live long enough to set the record straight and dies with an uncertain reputation.
To back up a bit, Burden’s story, and the story of Maskings in particular, is presented as a scholarly work, a posthumous study of a controversial artist. Instead of a straightforward biography, the work is an anthology of interviews with people close to Burden, articles and reviews about Maskings, excerpts from Burden’s journals, and other miscellaneous writings, including experimental fiction from Burden’s son. The anthology is edited and footnoted by a professor of aesthetics, who describes Maskings as a work “meant not only to expose the antifemale bias of the art world, but to uncover the complex workings of human perception and how unconscious ideas about gender, race, and celebrity influence a viewer’s understanding of a given work of art.” The professor/editor also explains the origin of the title, The Blazing World, which is taken from a utopian fiction by Margaret Cavendish, the Duchess of Newcastle. Cavendish is one of Burden’s many intellectual fascinations, a sixteenth-century writer and thinker whose work went unrecognized in her time.
Are you still with me? With the exception of the journal excerpt, almost all of the information I have conveyed so far is revealed in the first five pages of this abundant (and sometimes too abundant) puzzle of a novel. I was game for the challenge, but there were times when the format was wearying and I became frustrated with the uneven narration. But by the end of the novel, I felt the anthology format was the most authentic way to present Burden’s life. She wasn’t someone the culture took interest in, so it stands to reason that the information remaining upon her death would be fragmentary, inconsistent, and unrealized.
So who was Harriet Burden? Who did she love? What was she like? What did she think about? What were her worries? Her pleasures? These were the questions that ended up interesting me more than the actual machinations of the plot, which center around Burden’s three-part artwork, Maskings, and the fates of the men Burden colluded with. Some of this has to do, I think, with the difficulty of rendering visual artworks in prose. Hustvedt has written about contemporary art as a journalist and critic (as well as in a previous novel, What I Loved) and she conjures up Burden’s sculptures and installations with wit and authority. But there is still a huge imaginative gap between reading about an artwork and seeing it in person — one that doesn’t exist, I think, when describing people, places, or things. I often felt an intellectual connection to Burden’s ambitious installations, but not an emotional one.
Another reason I lost interest in the Maskings plotline was simply that Harriet Burden (“Harry”, to her friends) is a complicated, lively character, more fully drawn than her male masks. As I got to know her as a mother and grandmother, a friend, a partner, and finally, a patient, I became less interested in her elaborate plan to unseat the art world. Maybe it’s inevitable for the personal to overwhelm the political in a novel, but it also has to do with the way Hustvedt shifts the story from one of ambition to an intimate portrait of a family gathering around a dying woman. Burden’s final journal entries portray an artist still raging against those who underestimated her, but they also reveal a nostalgic mother, a mournful child, and a woman still searching for self-knowledge. Crucially, her final entries reveal Burden’s changing relationship to her body as she succumbs to death. Her thoughts return to the birth of her children: “Birth, like illness, and like death, is not willed. It simply happens. The ‘I’ has nothing to do with it.”
Female bodies and images of birth are a recurring motif in Burden’s artworks, an irony that doesn’t escape Burden, a woman who employs male bodies to represent her work. One of her final sculptures portrays a woman giving birth to letters and numbers and hundreds of little people. It’s inspired by Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle, Burden’s spiritual mother. Burden includes a tiny self-portrait of herself among Cavendish’s progeny, one that is discovered by an art world outsider in the novel’s final pages. It’s the last view we get of Burden, a hopeful wink to anyone who cares to look closely at her legacy.
Out this week: The Blazing World by Siri Hustvedt; The Heaven of Animals by David James Poissant; Cementville by Paulette Livers; Damage Control by Amber Dermont; Blood Will Out by Up in the Air author Walter Kirn; Shotgun Lovesongs by Nickolas Butler; and The Haunted Life, a new collection of early writing by Jack Kerouac.