I spent a lot of this year trying to write a book: lying on the floor, making spaghetti, chewing on my fingernails, staring at the wall, reading. I wanted to figure some things out, and surrounded myself with books that I thought would help. Instead of reading them, I got distracted. I read an endless number of articles and essays about politics, technology, politics and technology. I stuffed my brain with information. Wikipedia. I was thinking about Yelp culture and V.C. culture, so I read a lot of Yelp reviews, and a lot of tweets from venture capitalists and nascent venture capitalists. Medium posts. Hacker News.
After a while, this became boring, and I remembered how to read for pleasure. I read, or reread: Red Brick, Black Mountain, White Clay; Things I Don’t Want to Know; Stone Arabia; Asymmetry; Housekeeping; Fierce Attachments; The Maples Stories; Twilight of the Superheroes; Talk Stories; To the Lighthouse; Mating; Imperial San Francisco; The Book of Daniel; White Noise; The Fire Next Time; Close to the Machine. Essays from Happiness, and The Essential Ellen Willis, and The White Album, and Discontent and Its Civilizations, and The Earth Dies Streaming. This Boy’s Life and Stop-Time. I meant to reread Leaving the Atocha Station, but it fell into the bathtub; fine. 10:04. A stack of books about Silicon Valley history, many of which I did not finish; a lot of them told the same stories.
I read a 1971 edition of the Whole Earth Catalog, and the free e-book preview of The Devil Wears Prada, and some, but not all, of The Odyssey, the Emily Wilson translation. I got stoned before bed and read What Was the Hipster?––? I read Eileen and The Recovering and And Now We Have Everything and The Golden State and Chemistry and The Boatbuilder and Normal People and Breaking and Entering and Notes of a Native Son and Bright Lights, Big City and Heartburn and That Kind of Mother and How Fiction Works and Motherhood and Early Work and My Duck Is Your Duck and The Cost of Living and Who Is Rich? and The Mars Room. Some more pleasurable than others but all, or most, satisfying in their own ways.
I read the Amazon reviews for popular memoirs and regretted doing that. I did not read much poetry, and I regret that, too.
A few weeks ago, I read What We Should Have Known: Two Discussions, and No Regrets: Three Discussions. Five discussions! Not enough. I was very grateful for No Regrets, which felt both incomplete and expansive. Reading it was clarifying across multiple axes.
I wish I’d read more this year, or read with more direction, or at the very least kept track. I wish I’d read fewer books published within my lifetime. I wish I’d had more conversations. Staring at the wall is a solitary pursuit. I didn’t really figure out what I hoped to understand, namely: time. Time? I asked everyone. Time??? (Structure? Ha-ha.) Whatever. It’s fine. Not everything has to be a puzzle, and not everything has a solution. Time did pass.
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Although 2016 has gotten a bad rap, there were, at the very least, a lot of excellent books published. But this year! Books from George Saunders, Roxane Gay, Hari Kunzru, J.M. Coetzee, Rachel Cusk, Jesmyn Ward? A lost manuscript by Claude McKay? A novel by Elif Batuman? Short stories by Penelope Lively? A memoir by Yiyun Li? Books from no fewer than four Millions staffers? It’s a feast. We hope the following list of 80-something upcoming books peps you up for the (first half of the) new year. You’ll notice that we’ve re-combined our fiction and nonfiction lists, emphasizing fiction as in the past. And, continuing a tradition we started this fall, we’ll be doing mini previews at the beginning of each month — let us know if there are other things we should be looking forward to. (If you are a big fan of our bi-annual Previews and find yourself referring to them year-round, please consider supporting our efforts by becoming a member!)
Difficult Women by Roxane Gay: Gay has had an enormously successful few years. In 2014, her novel, An Untamed State, and an essay collection, Bad Feminist, met with wide acclaim, and in the wake of unrest over anti-black police violence, hers was one of the clearest voices in the national conversation. While much of Gay’s writing since then has dealt in political thought and cultural criticism, she returns in 2017 with this short story collection exploring the various textures of American women’s experience. (Ismail)
Human Acts by Han Kang: Korean novelist Kang says all her books are variations on the theme of human violence. The Vegetarian, her first novel translated into English, arrested readers with the contempt showered upon an “unremarkable” wife who became a vegetarian after waking from a nightmare. Kang’s forthcoming Human Acts focuses on the 1980 Korean Gwangju Uprising, when Gwangju locals took up arms in retaliation for the massacre of university students who were protesting. Within Kang tries to unknot “two unsolvable riddles” — the intermingling of two innately human yet disparate tendencies, the capacity for cruelty alongside that for selflessness and dignity. (Anne)
Transit by Rachel Cusk: Everyone who read and reveled in the nimble formal daring of Outline is giddy to read Transit, which follows the same protagonist, Faye, as she navigates life after separating from her husband. Both Transit and Outline are made up of stories other people tell Faye, and in her rave in The Guardian, Tessa Hadley remarks that Cusk’s structure is “a striking gesture of relinquishment. Faye’s story contends for space against all these others, and the novel’s meaning is devolved out from its centre in her to a succession of characters. It’s a radically different way of imagining a self, too — Faye’s self.” (Edan)
4321 by Paul Auster: Multiple timelines are nothing new at this point, but it’s doubtful they’ve ever been used in quite the way they are in 4321, Auster’s first novel since his 2010 book Sunset Park. In his latest, four timelines branch off the moment the main character is born, introducing four separate Archibald Isaac Fergusons that grow more different as the plot wears on. They’re all, in their own ways, tied up with Amy Schneiderman, who appears throughout the book’s realities. (Thom)
Collected Stories by E.L. Doctorow: Doctorow is known for historical novels like Ragtime and The Book of Daniel, but he also wrote some terrific stories, and shortly before his death in 2015 he selected and revised 15 of his best. Fans who already own his 2011 collection All the Time in the World may want to give this new one a miss, since many of the selections overlap, but readers who only know Doctorow as a novelist may want to check out his classic early story “A Writer in the Family,” as well as others like “The Water Works” and “Liner Notes: The Songs of Billy Bathgate,” which are either precursors of or companion pieces to his novels. (Michael B.)
Enigma Variations by André Aciman: The CUNY Professor New York magazine called “the most exciting new fiction writer of the 21st century” returns with a romantic/erotic bildungsroman following protagonist Paul from Italy to New York, from adolescence to adulthood. Kirkus called it an “eminently adult look at desire and attachment.” (Lydia)
Scratch: Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living, edited by Manjula Martin: Martin ran the online magazine Scratch from 2013 to 2015 and in those two years published some terrific and refreshingly transparent interviews with writers about cash money and how it’s helped and hindered their lives as artists. The magazine is no longer online, but this anthology includes many of those memorable conversations as well as some new ones. Aside from interviews with the likes of Cheryl Strayed and Jonathan Franzen, the anthology also includes honest and vulnerable essays about making art and making a career –and where those two meet — from such writers as Meaghan O’Connell and Alexander Chee. It’s a useful and inspiring read. (Edan)
Homesick for Another World by Ottessa Moshfegh: A long, dull day of jury duty in 2008 was redeemed by a lunchtime discovery of Unsaid magazine and its lead story “Help Yourself!” by Moshfegh, whose characters were alluring and honest and full of contempt. I made a point to remember her name at the time, but now Moshfegh’s stories appear regularly in The Paris Review and The New Yorker, and her novel Eileen was shortlisted for the 2016 Booker Prize. Her debut collection of stories, Homesick for Another World, gathers many of these earlier stories, and is bound to show why she’s considered one of literature’s most striking new voices. (Anne)
Glaxo by Hernán Ronsino: Ronsino’s English-language debut (translated by Samuel Rutter) is only 100 pages but manages to host four narrators and cover 40 years. Set in a dusty, stagnating town in Argentina, the novel cautiously circles around a decades-old murder, a vanished wife, and past political crimes. Allusions to John Sturges’s Last Train From Gun Hill hint at the vengeance, or justice, to come in this sly Latin American Western. (Matt)
Lucky Boy by Shanthi Sekaran: Set in Berkeley, Sekaran’s novel follows two women: Soli, an undocumented woman from Mexico raising a baby alone while cleaning houses, and an Indian-American woman struggling with infertility who becomes a foster parent to Soli’s son. Kirkus called it “superbly crafted and engrossing.” (Lydia)
A Mother’s Tale by Phillip Lopate: One day in the mid-’80s, Lopate sat down with his tape recorder to capture his mother’s life story, which included, at various times, a stint owning a candy store, a side gig as an actress and singer, and a job on the line at a weapons factory at the height of World War II. Although Lopate didn’t use the tapes for decades, he unearthed them recently and turned them into this book, which consists of a long conversation between himself, his mother, and the person he was in the ’80s. (Thom)
The Gringo Champion by Aura Xilonen: Winner of Mexico’s Mauricio Achar Prize for Fiction, Xilonen’s novel (written when she was only 19, and here translated by Andrea Rosenberg) tells the story of a young boy who crosses the Rio Grande. Mixing Spanish and English, El Sur Mexico lauded the novel’s “vulgar idiom brilliantly transformed into art.” (Lydia)
Selection Day by Aravind Adiga: If Selection Day goes on to hit it big, we may remember it as our era’s definitive cricket novel. Adiga — a Man Booker laureate who won the prize in 2008 for his epic The White Tiger — follows the lives of Radha and Manju, two brothers whose father raised them to be master batsmen. In the way of The White Tiger, all the characters are deeply affected by changes in Indian society, most of which are transposed into changes in the country’s huge cricket scene. (Thom)
Huck Out West by Robert Coover: Coover, the CAVE-dwelling postmodern luminary, riffs on American’s great humorist in this sequel to Mark Twain’s classic set out West. From the opening pages, in which Tom, over Huck’s objections, sells Jim to slaveholding Cherokees, it is clear that Coover’s picaresque will be a tale of disillusionment. Unlike Tom, “who is always living in a story he’s read in a book so he knows what happens next,” Huck seems wearied and shaken by his continued adventures: “So many awful things had happened since then, so much outright meanness. It was almost like there was something wicked about growing up.” (Matt)
Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin. Nobel Laureate Mario Vargas Llosa called Schweblin “one of the most promising voices in modern literature in Spanish.” The Argentinian novelist’s fifth book, about “obsession, identity and motherhood,” is her first to be translated into English (by Megan McDowell). It’s been described “deeply unsettling and disorientating” by the publisher and “a wonderful nightmare of a book” by novelist Juan Gabriel Vásquez. (Elizabeth)
Perfect Little World by Kevin Wilson. Wilson’s first novel, The Family Fang, was about the children of performance artists. His second is about a new mother who joins a sort of utopian community called the “Infinite Family Project,” living alongside other couples raising newborns, which goes well until eventually “the gentle equilibrium among the families is upset and it all starts to disintegrate.” He’s been described by novelist Owen King as the “unholy child of George Saunders and Carson McCullers.” (Elizabeth)
Foreign Soil by Maxine Beneba Clarke: Clarke’s award-winning short story collection Foreign Soil is now being published in the U.S. and includes a new story “Aviation,” specifically written for this edition. These character-driven stories take place worldwide — Australia, Africa, the West Indies, and the U.S. — and explore loss, inequity, and otherness. Clarke is hailed as an essential writer whose collection challenges and transforms the reader. (Zoë)
American Berserk by Bill Morris: Five years ago, a Millions commenter read Morris’s crackling piece about his experience as a young reporter in Chambersburg, Penn., during the 1970s: “Really, I wish this essay would be a book.” Ask, and you shall receive. To refresh your memories, Morris encountered what one would expect in the pastoral serenity of Pennsylvania Dutch country: “Kidnapping, ostracism, the paranormal, rape, murder, insanity, arson, more murder, attempted suicide — it added up to a collective nervous breakdown.” Morris has plenty to work with in these lurid tales, but the book is also about the pleasure of profiling those “interesting nobodies” whose stories never make it to the front page, no matter how small the paper. (Matt)
Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders: For Saunders fans, the prospect of a full-length novel from the short-story master has been something to speculate upon, if not actually expect. Yet Lincoln in the Bardo is a full 368-page blast of Saunders — dealing in the 1862 death of Abraham Lincoln’s son, the escalating Civil War, and, of course, Buddhist philosophy. Saunders has compared the process of writing longer fiction to “building custom yurts and then somebody commissioned a mansion” — and Saunders’s first novel is unlikely to resemble any other mansion on the block. (Jacob)
The Schooldays of Jesus by J.M. Coetzee: This sequel to the Nobel Prize-winning South African author’s 2013 novel The Childhood of Jesus picks up shortly after Simón and Inés flee from authorities with their adopted son, David. Childhood was a sometimes thin-feeling allegory of immigration that found Coetzee meditating with some of his perennial concerns — cultural memory, language, naming, and state violence — at the expense of his characters. In Schooldays, the allegorical element recedes somewhat into the background as Coetzee tells the story of David’s enrollment in a dance school, his discovery of his passion for dancing, and his disturbing encounters with adult authority. This one was longlisted for the 2016 Man Booker Prize. (Ismail)
To Be a Machine by Mark O’Connell: Millions staffer and author of Millions Original Epic Fail O’Connell brings his superb writing and signature wit and empathy to a nonfiction exploration of the transhumanist movement, complete with cryogenic freezing, robots, and an unlikely presidential bid from the first transhumanist candidate. O’Connell’s sensibility — his humanity, if you will — and his subject matter are a match made in heaven. It’s an absolutely wonderful book, but don’t take my non-impartial word for it: Nicholson Baker and Margaret Atwood have plugged it too. (Lydia)
The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen: Pulitzer Prize Winner Nguyen’s short story collection The Refugees has already received starred pre-publication reviews from Kirkus Reviews and Publishers Weekly, among others. Nguyen’s brilliant new work of fiction offers vivid and intimate portrayals of characters and explores identity, war, and loss in stories collected over a period of two decades. (Zoë)
Amiable with Big Teeth by Claude McKay: A significant figure in the Harlem Renaissance, McKay is best-known for his novel Home to Harlem — which was criticized by W.E.B. Dubois for portraying black people (i.e. Harlem nightlife) as prurient — “after the dirtier parts of its filth I feel distinctly like taking a bath.” The novel went on to win the prestigious (if short-lived) Harmon Gold Medal and is widely praised for its sensual and brutal accuracy. In 2009, UPenn English professor Jean-Christophe Cloutier discovered the unpublished Amiable with Big Teeth in the papers of notorious, groundbreaking publisher Samuel Roth. A collaboration between Cloutier and Brent Hayes Edwards, a long-awaited, edited, scholarly edition of the novel will be released by Penguin in February. (Sonya)
Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life by Yiyun Li: The Oakland-based Li delivers this memoir of chronic depression and a life lived with books. Weaving sharp literary criticism with a perceptive narrative about her life as an immigrant in America, Your Life isn’t as interested in exploring how literature helps us make sense of ourselves as it is in how literature situates us amongst others. (Ismail)
Autumn by Ali Smith: Her 2015 Baileys prize-winning How to Be Both was an experiment in how a reader experiences time. It has two parts, which can be read in any order. Now, Smith brings us Autumn, the first novel in what will be a Seasonal quartet — four stand-alone books, each one named after one of the four seasons. Known for writing with experimental elegance, she turns to time in the post Brexit world, specifically Autumn 2016, “exploring what time is, how we experience it, and the recurring markers in the shapes our lives take.” (Claire)
A Separation by Katie Kitamura: A sere and unsettling portrait of a marriage come undone, critics are hailing Kitamura’s third book as “mesmerizing” and “magnificent.” The narrator, a translator, goes to a remote part of Greece in search of her serially unfaithful husband, only to be further unmoored from any sense that she (and in turn the reader) had of the contours of their shared life. Blurbed by no fewer than six literary heavyweights — Rivka Galchen, Jenny Offill, Leslie Jamison, Teju Cole, Rachel Kushner, and Karl Ove Knausgaard — A Separation looks poised to be the literary Gone Girl of 2017. (Kirstin B.)
Things We Lost in the Fire by Mariana Enriquez: This young Argentinian journalist and author has already drawn a lot of attention for her “chilling, compulsive” gothic short stories. One made a December 2016 issue of The New Yorker; many more will be published this spring as Things We Lost in the Fire, which has drawn advanced praise from Helen Oyeyemi and Dave Eggers. The stories themselves follow addicts, muggers, and narcos — characters Oyeyemi calls “funny, brutal, bruised” — as they encounter the terrors of everyday life. Fair warning: these stories really will scare you. (Kaulie)
Universal Harvester by John Darnielle. Darnielle is best known for the The Mountain Goats, a band in which he has often been the only member. But his debut novel, Wolf in White Van, was nominated for a number of awards, including the National Book Award for Fiction. His second novel, set in Iowa in the 1990s, is about a video store clerk who discovers disturbing scenes on the store’s tapes. (Elizabeth)
300 Arguments by Sarah Manguso: It’s as if, like the late David Markson, Manguso is on a gnomic trajectory toward some single, ultimate truth expressed in the fewest words possible — or perhaps her poetic impulses have just grown even stronger over time. As its title suggests, this slim volume comprises a sequence of aphorisms (“Bad art is from no one to no one”) that in aggregate construct a self-portrait of the memoirist at work. “This book is the good sentences from the novel I didn’t write,” its narrator writes. (Kirstin B.)
The Woman Next Door by Yewande Omotoso: Set in South Africa, Omotoso’s novel describes the bitter feud between two neighbors, both well-to-do, both widows, both elderly, one black, one white. Described by the TLS as one of the “Best Books by Women Every Man Should Read.” (Lydia)
Running by Cara Hoffman: The third novel from Hoffman, celebrated author of Be Safe I Love You, Running follows a group of three outsiders trying to make it the red light district of Athens in the 1980s. Bridey Sullivan, a wild teenager escaping childhood trauma in the States, falls in with a pair of young “runners” working to lure tourists to cheap Athenian hotels in return for bed and board. The narrative itself flashes between Athens, Sullivan’s youth, and her friend and runner Milo’s life in modern-day New York City. According to Kirkus, this allows the novel to be “crisp and immediate,” “beautiful and atmospheric,” and “original and deeply sad.” (Kaulie)
Lower Ed by Tressie McMillan Cottom: Academic and Twitter eminence McMillan Cottom tackles a subject that, given a recent spate of lawsuits, investigations, and closings, was front-page news for a good part of 2016. Drawing on interviews with students, activists, and executives at for-profit colleges and universities, Lower Ed aims to connect the rise of such institutions with ballooning levels of debt and larger trends of income inequality across the U.S. (Kirstin B.)
Abandon Me by Melissa Febos. Febos’s gifts as a writer seemingly increase with the types of subjects and themes that typically falter in the hands of many memoirists: love (both distant and immediate), family, identity, and addiction. Her adoptive father, a sea captain, looms large in her work: “My captain did not give me religion but other treasures. A bloom of desert roses the size of my arm, a freckled ostrich egg, true pirate stories. My biological father, on the other hand, had given me nothing of use but life…and my native blood.” Febos transports, but her lyricism is always grounded in the now, in the sweet music of loss. (Nick R.)
Pachinko by Min Jin Lee: A sweeping look at four generations of a Korean family who immigrates to Japan after Japan’s 1910 annexation of Korea, from the author of Free Food for Millionaires. Junot Díaz says “Pachinko confirms Lee’s place among our finest novelists.” (Lydia)
Flâneuse by Lauren Elkin: Following in the literary tradition of Charles Baudelaire, Virginia Woolf and Edgar Allan Poe, Elkin is fascinated by street wanderers and wanderings, but with a twist. The traditional flâneur was always male; Elkin sets out to follow the lives of the subversive flâneuses, those women who have always been “keenly attuned to the creative potential of the city, and the liberating possibilities of a good walk.” In a review in The Guardian, Elkin is imagined as “an intrepid feminist graffiti artist,” writing the names of women across the city she loves; in her book, a combination of “cultural meander” and memoir, she follows the lives of flaneuses as varied as George Sand and Martha Gellhorn in order to consider “what is at stake when a certain kind of light-footed woman encounters the city.” (Kaulie)
Exit West by Mohsin Hamid: In an unnamed city, two young people fall in love as a civil war breaks out. As the violence escalates, they begin to hear rumors of a curious new kind of door: at some risk, and for a price, it’s possible to step through a portal into an entirely different place — Mykonos, for instance, or London. In a recent interview, Hamid said that the portals allowed him “to compress the next century or two of human migration on our planet into the space of a single year, and to explore what might happen after.” (Emily)
The Idiot by Elif Batuman: Between The Possessed — her 2010 lit-crit/travelogue on a life in Russian letters and her snort-inducing Twitter feed, I am a confirmed Batuman superfan. This March, her debut novel samples Fyodor Dostoevsky in a Bildungsroman featuring the New Jersey-bred daughter of Turkish immigrants who discovers that Harvard is absurd, Europe disturbed, and love positively barking. Yet prose this fluid and humor this endearing are oddly unsettling, because behind the pleasant façade hides a thoughtful examination of the frenzy and confusion of finding your way in the world. (Il’ja R.)
White Tears by Hari Kunzru: A fascinating-sounding novel about musical gentrification, and two white men whose shared obsession with hard-to-find blues recordings leads them to perdition. In a starred review, Publishers Weekly called White Tears “perhaps the ultimate literary treatment of the so-called hipster, tracing the roots of the urban bedroom deejay to the mythic blues troubadours of the antebellum South.” (Lydia)
South and West: From a Notebook by Joan Didion: Excerpts from two of the legendary writer’s commonplace books from the 1970s: one from a road trip through the American south, and one from a Rolling Stone assignment to cover the Patty Hearst trial in California. Perhaps the origin of her observation in Where I Was From: “One difference between the West and the South, I came to realize in 1970, was this: in the South they remained convinced that they had bloodied their land with history. In California we did not believe that history could bloody the land, or even touch it.” (Lydia)
All Grown Up by Jami Attenberg: A novel about a 39-year-old woman taking stock of her life, from the best-selling author of The Middlesteins and St. Mazie. This one prompted Eileen Myles to ask “Is all life junk — sparkly and seductive and devastating — just waiting to be told correctly by someone who will hold our hand and walk with us a while confirming that what we’re living is true.” Evidently so. (Lydia)
Ill Will by Dan Chaon: Dustin Tillman was a child when his parents and aunt and uncle were murdered in his home, and it was his testimony that sent his older, adopted brother, Rusty, to jail for the crime. Forty years later, he learns that Rusty is getting out based on new DNA evidence. As that news sends tremors through Dustin’s life and the life of his family, he buddies up with an ex-cop who has a theory about some local murders. As often happens in Chaon’s book, you’ll be gripped by the story and the characters from the first page, and then all of a sudden you suspect that nothing is as it seems, and you’re sucked in even further. (Janet).
The Accusation by Bandi: For readers interested in a candid look at life in North Korea, The Accusation — originally published in South Korea in 2014 — will immerse you via the stories of common folk: a wife who struggles to make daily breakfast during a famine, a factory supervisor caught between denouncing a family friend and staying on the party’s good side, a mother raising her child amidst chilling propaganda, a former Communist war hero who is disillusioned by the Party, a man denied a travel permit who sneaks onto a train so he can see his dying mother. Bandi is of course a pseudonym: according to the French edition, the author was born in 1950, lived in China, and is now an official writer for the North Korean government. The stories, written between 1989 and 1995, were smuggled out by a friend — and will be available to us via Grove Press. (Sonya)
The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley by Hannah Tinti: This new novel by the editor of One Story magazine follows a career criminal who goes straight to give his daughter a chance at a normal life. But when his daughter, Loo, gets curious about the 12 mysterious scars on her father’s body, each marking a separate bullet wound, she uncovers a history much darker than she imagined. Twelve Lives is “is one part Quentin Tarantino, one part Scheherazade, and twelve parts wild innovation,” says Ann Patchett, author of Commonwealth. (Michael B.)
The Night Ocean by Paul La Farge: Fiction meets history in The Night Ocean’s series of intricately nested narratives. A psychologist’s husband, obsessed with a did-they-or-didn’t-they affair between horror writer H.P. Lovecraft and a gay teenage admirer, disappears while attempting to solve the mystery. Set over a 100-year period and spanning latitudes from Ontario to Mexico City, this novel from New Yorker contributor La Farge promises to pull Lovecraft’s suspense into the present day with flair. (Kirstin B.)
Wait Till You See Me Dance by Deb Olin Unferth: Unferth is an author about whom many overused litspeak cliches are true: she is incisive, bitingly funny, and — here it comes–— whipsmart. A National Book Critics Circle Award finalist for her memoir, Revolution, her short stories have been published in Granta, McSweeney’s, and the Paris Review, and are collected here for the first time. (Janet)
Anything Is Possible by Elizabeth Strout: “As I was writing My Name Is Lucy Barton,” said Strout, the New York Times bestselling author and Pulitzer Prize winner, of her 2016 novel, “it came to me that all the characters Lucy and her mother talked about had their own stories.” Anything is Possible was written in tandem to Lucy Barton. For Strout’s many devoted readers, this novel promises to expand on and add depth to the story, while exploring themes for love, loss, and hope in a work that, “recalls Olive Kitteridge in its richness, structure, and complexity.” (Claire)
Devil on the Cross by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o: Set in post-colonial Kenya, this troubling allegory from the perennial Nobel candidate explores the evil that men do and the hope that serves as its only antidote. Written while in prison, the book’s proverbial structure and unapologetically political message — think Karl Marx delivering liberation theology in East Africa — follow a young Kenyan woman, Jacinta Wariinga, who, despite grave injustice, is determined to see neither her spirit nor her culture crushed. This is the original 1982 translation from the Gikuyu language, now being rereleased as part of the Penguin Classics African Writers Series. (Il’ja)
Marlena by Julie Buntin
I was lucky enough to read an advance copy of Buntin’s remarkable debut novel, about an intense friendship between two young women in rural Michigan, and I agree with Stephanie Danler, author of Sweetbitter, who calls it “lacerating.” Aside from a riveting story and nuanced characters, Buntin has also delivered an important story about addiction and poverty in middle America. In its starred review, Booklist called it “Ferrante-esque.” (Edan)
American War by Omar El Akkad: El Akkad is an award-winning Canadian journalist, whose reporting has ranged from the war in Afghanistan to the protests in Ferguson, Mo. His brilliant and supremely disquieting debut novel opens in 2074, at the outbreak of the Second American Civil War, and follows a young Louisiana girl, Sarat Chestnut, as time and conflict gradually transform her from a child into a weapon. (Emily)
The Book of Joan by Lidia Yuknavitch: In a new kind of world, we need a new kind of hero and a reimagined Joan of Arc from Yuknavitch seems like just the thing. Following her widely lauded The Small Backs of Children, this novel takes place in the near future after world wars have turned the Earth into a war zone. Those surviving are sexless, hairless, pale-white creatures who write stories on their skin, but a group of rebels rally behind a cult leader named Jean de Men. Roxane Gay calls it, “a searing condemnation, and fiercely imaginative retelling.” (Claire)
The Last Neanderthal by Claire Cameron: Our own Cameron returns with a new novel about two women separated by, oh, only 40,000 years: Girl, the eldest daughter in the last family of Neanderthals, and present-day archeologist Rosamund Gale, who is excavating Neanderthal ruins while pregnant. How these two stories echo and resonate with one another will be just one of its delights. Such an ingenious premise could only come from the writer who brought us The Bear, which O, The Oprah Magazine deemed “a tender, terrifying, poignant ride” and which People gave 4 stars, saying “it could do for camping what Jaws did for swimming.” (Edan)
Startup by Doree Shafrir: Probably you know Shafrir by her byline at Buzzfeed — her culture writing always whipsmart, current, and grounded. Shafrir’s debut novel sounds like more of the same: three people working in the same Manhattan office building with colliding desires, ambitions, and relations, head for major conflict and reckoning as scandal sucks each of them into a media-and-money vortex. Hilarity, a mindfulness app, and an errant text message are also involved. Looking forward to this one. (Sonya)
What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky by Lesley Nneka Arimah: This debut collection of short stories, which takes its name from a story published in Catapult in 2015 to wide acclaim — one that seamlessly blends magical realism and a kind of sci-fi, resulting in a one-of-a-kind dystopia — announces the arrival of a brilliant new talent. Don’t take our word for it: one story, “Who Will Greet You at Home,” appeared in The New Yorker and was a National Magazine Award finalist, and others are already drawing high praise from across the publishing community. These stories explore the ties that bind us together, but in magical, even subversive forms. (Kaulie)
Void Star by Zachary Mason: In Mason’s second novel, three people living in wildly different circumstances in a dystopian near-future are drawn together by mysterious forces. The future that Mason imagines in Void Star is not particularly startling — extreme climate change, ever-widening class divisions, and AIs who have evolved well beyond the understanding of the humans who created them — but what sets Void Star apart is the stunning and hallucinatory beauty of Mason’s prose. Both a speculative thriller and a meditation on memory and mortality. (Emily)
Imagine Wanting Only This by Kristen Radtke: I tell as many people as possible how cool I think Radtke is, so that when she blows up I’ll have proof that I was ahead of the curve. Besides having her own career as a writer and illustrator, she is the managing editor of Sarabande Books (where she not only published Thrown by Kerry Howley — one of my favorite books of the last 5 years — but designed its killer cover). Her first book is graphic memoir/travelogue about her life, family history, and a trip around the world in search of ruins. (Janet)
Sunshine State by Sarah Gerard: The author goes home in Gerard’s thorough, personal, and well-researched collection of essays on Florida, its inhabitants, and the ways they prey upon each another. As far as Floridian bona fides, it doesn’t get much more Sunshine State than growing up on the Gulf in an Amway family, and truly in the book’s eight essays, Gerard covers more of the state’s ground than Walkin’ Lawton Chiles. (Nick M.)
Kingdom of the Young by Edie Meidav: A new collection of the stories by novelist who brought us Lola, California, Crawl Space, and The Far Field. The stories have invited comparisons to Vladimir Nabokov, Clarice Lispector and Italo Calvino. (Lydia)
Men Without Women by Haruki Murakami: The seven stories in Murakami’s new collection concern the lives of men who, for one reason or another, find themselves alone. In “Scheherazade,” a man living in isolation receives regular visits from a woman who claims to remember a past life as a lamprey; in “Yesterday,” a university student finds himself drawn into the life of a strange coworker who insists that the student go on a date with his girlfriend. (Emily)
The Purple Swamp Hen by Penelope Lively: Across her many wonderful books, Lively has ranged from low farce (How It All Began) to high feeling (Moon Tiger), from children’s literature to a memoir on old age. Now comes her fourth story collection, the first in 20 years. The title story draws on reliably entertaining source material: the meretricious lives of Roman rulers. Robert Graves turned to a stammering Claudius for his narrator, Lively to a less exalted personage: a purple swamp hen. Other stories involve trouble: a husband and wife working their way out of it, and a betrayed wife doing her best to cause some for her husband. (Matt)
Woman No. 17 by Edan Lepucki: Our own Lepucki has always had keen insight into the psyches of women — particularly so-called “difficult” protagonists. Her first novel, California, may have been about a family surviving the end of society, but it was really a post-apocalyptic domestic drama full of sharp wit and observations. Her sophomore effort is more grounded in reality but equally cutting. Lady is a writer struggling to raise her two kids and finish her memoir when she hires S. to help, but the artist becomes more than just a nanny for Lady’s eldest troubled son. (Tess M.)
Trajectory by Richard Russo: In this new collection, Russo, a 2016 Year in Reading contributor, takes a break from the blue-collar characters that readers have come to know from his bestselling novels Nobody’s Fool and Empire Falls to spin tales of struggling novelists trying their hands at screenwriting and college professors vacationing in Venice. No matter. Readers can still count on Russo to deliver deeply human stories of heartbreak leavened by gently black humor. (Michael B.)
The Dinner Party by Joshua Ferris: The book after Ferris’s Man Booker shortlisted To Rise Again at a Decent Hour is a collection of short stories. The title story, first published by The New Yorker in 2008, is about a couple who invite a boring couple over to dinner (“even their goddam surprises are predictable,”) only to be surprised when the boring couple manage to surprise by not showing up. The collection pulls together stories that promise the, “deeply felt yearnings, heartbreaking absurdity, and redemptive humor of life,” for which Ferris is so well known. (Claire)
The Leavers by Lisa Ko. Ko’s debut novel has already won the 2016 Pen/Bellwether Award for Socially Engaged Fiction, a prize created and selected by Barbara Kingsolver. The contest awards a novel “that addresses issues of social justice and the impact of culture and politics on human relationships,” and Ko’s book certainly fits that laudable description. The novel is the story of Deming Gao, the son of a Chinese-American immigrant mother who, one day, never returns home from work. Adopted by white college professors, Deming is renamed and remade in their image — but his past haunts him. (Nick R.)
Isadora by Amelia Gray. The endlessly inventive Gray (whose story “Labyrinth” from The New Yorker is a gem) creates a fictional interpretation of Isadora Duncan, once described as the “woman who put the Modern into Modern Dance.” A dancer who mixed the classical, sacred, and sensual, Duncan is the perfect subject matter for Gray; if a writer can expertly resurrect the Theseus myth at a small-town fair, then she can do justice to a life as inspiring — and troubled — as Duncan’s. (Nick R.)
Chemistry by Weike Wang: In this debut novel, a graduate student in chemistry learns the meaning of explosive when the rigors of the hard sciences clash with the chronic instability of the heart. A traditional family, a can’t-miss fiancé, and a research project in meltdown provide sufficient catalyst to launch the protagonist off in search of that which cannot be cooked up in the lab. If the science bits ring true, in her diabolical hours, the author doubles as a real-life organic chemist. (Il’ja R.)
No One Can Pronounce My Name by Rakesh Satyal: Satyal’s novel takes place in a suburb near Cleveland and tells the story of Harit and Ranjana, who are both Indian immigrants that are experiencing loss. Harit’s sister has passed away and he’s caring for his mother; Ranjana’s son has left to college and she’s worrying her husband is having an affair. These two characters form a friendship amidst grief and self-discovery in a novel that is both heartfelt and funny. (Zoë)
Bad Dreams and Other Stories by Tessa Hadley: The New Yorker stalwart (whose title story “Bad Dreams” appeared in the magazine in 2013) comes out with her third collection of short stories in the past decade. In one set in 1914, a schoolteacher grapples with the rising power of the women’s suffrage movement; in another, a young housesitter comes across a mysterious diary. In general, the stories let tiny events twirl out into moments of great consequence — in the title story, a young child’s nightmare turns out to be the hinge of the plot. (Thom)
One Day We’ll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter by Scaachi Koul. Ah, the current frontrunner for Most Relatable Title of the Coming Year. The Canadian writer’s debut essay collection is “about growing up the daughter of Indian immigrants in Western culture, addressing sexism, stereotypes, and the universal miseries of life.” Fans of her work online will be eager to see her on the printed page. Canadian journalist (and Koul’s former journalism professor) Kamal Al-Solaylee said of her writing, “To me, she possesses that rarest of gifts: a powerful, identifiable voice that can be heard and appreciated across platforms and word counts.” (Elizabeth)
Salt Houses by Hala Alyan: In her debut novel, Alyan tells the story of a Palestinian family that is uprooted by the Six-Day War of 1967 and Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990. This heartbreaking and important story examines displacement, belonging, and family in a lyrical style. (Zoë)
So Much Blue by Percival Everett: In Everett’s 30th book, an artist toils away in solitude, painting what may be his masterpiece. Alone in his workspace, secluded from his children, best friend, and wife, the artist recalls memories of past affairs, past adventures, and all he’s sacrificed for his craft. (Nick M.)
The Accomplished Guest by Ann Beattie: 1976 was a good year for Beattie: she published her first story collection, Distortions, as well as her debut novel, Chilly Scenes of Winter. Forty years and roughly 20 books later, Beattie has a new collection of stories, closely following last year’s The State We’re In, linked stories set in Maine. One defining trait of Beattie’s short fiction is her fondness for quirks: “However well you write, you can become your own worst enemy by shaping it so highly that the reader can relate to it only on its own terms. Whereas if you have some little oddities of everyday life that aren’t there to be cracked, it seems to me that people can identify with it.” (Nick R.)
Hunger by Roxane Gay: A few years ago, Gay wrote Tumblr posts on cooking and her complex relationship with food that were honest yet meditative. It was on the cusp of her breakthrough essay collection Bad Feminist. Now she may be a household name, but her second nonfiction book delves into the long-running topic of the role food plays in her family, societal, and personal outlook with the same candor and empathy. (Tess M.)
The Last Kid Left by Rosecrans Baldwin: The Morning News cofounder and author of Paris, I Love You but You’re Bringing Me Down returns with a murder mystery/romance/coming-of-age story set in New Hampshire. (Lydia)
Dear Cyborgs by Eugene Lim: Lim has long been publisher of the small, avant-garde Ellipsis Press, whose authors, including Joanna Ruocco, Evelyn Hampton, Jeremy M. Davies, and Lim himself, are remarkable for their unique voices, their attention to language and experimentation. Together they make a significant if lesser-known body of work. Dear Cyborg, Lim’s third novel, will be his first with a major press (FSG). Tobias Carroll has said, “Lim’s novels tread the line between the hypnotically familiar and the surreptitiously terrifying.” With comparisons to Tom McCarthy and Valeria Luiselli and praise from Gary Lutz and Renee Gladman, Lim’s work is worth seeking out. (Anne)
The Gypsy Moth Summer by Julia Fierro: In this follow-up to Cutting Teeth, about a zeitgeisty group portrait of Brooklyn hipster moms, Fierro turns back the clock to the summer of 1992 when a plague of gypsy moths infests Avalon, an islet off the coast of Long Island, setting in motion a complex tale of interracial love, class conflict, and possible industrial poisoning at the local aircraft factory. Joanna Rakoff, author of My Salinger Year, says Fierro, director of Brooklyn’s Sackett Street Writers’ Workshop, has written “a novel to slowly savor, settling in with her characters as you would old friends.” (Michael B.)
The City Always Wins by Omar Robert Hamilton: A debut novel about the Egyptian revolution from filmmaker and activist Hamilton, who has written about the events of Tahrir square for The Guardian and elsewhere. (Lydia)
Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward: The Odyssey has been repeatedly invoked by early reviewers of Sing, Unburied, Sing, which follows its protagonist on the journey from rural Mississippi to the state penitentiary and beyond. In the hands of a less talented writer, that parallel might seem over-the-top, but in the hands of one of America’s most talented, generous, and perceptive writers, it’s anything but. (Nick M.)
The Passenger by Cormac McCarthy: What does Niels Bohr’s take on quantum mechanics have to do with Johann Sebastian Bach and the suicide of a young New Orleans woman? Perhaps nothing. Or perhaps this, overheard at an advance reading — from 2015 — of Cormac McCarthy’s long-awaited new novel: “Intelligence is numbers; it’s not words. Words are things we made up.” That semi-colon haunts me. From Knopf: a “book one” and “book two” by McCarthy are set for a March 2017 release. A week later the story changes. Maybe July. Perhaps December. With McCarthy, the calculus remains inscrutable but the wait worth it. (Il’ja R.)
And So On by Kiese Laymon: We’ve learned virtually nothing new about this book since our last preview, but continue to expect it in 2017. As I said then, “Laymon is a Mississippi-born writer who has contributed to Esquire, ESPN, the Oxford American, Guernica, and writes a column for The Guardian. His first novel, Long Division, makes a lot of those ‘best books you’ve never heard of’ lists, so feel free to prove them wrong by reading it right now. What we know about his second novel is that he said it’s ‘going to shock folks hopefully. Playing with comedy, Afro-futurist shit and horror.’” (Janet)
The Seventh Function of Language by Laurent Binet: A madcap critical theory mystery by the author of HHhH. In the new novel, a police detective comes up against the likes of Jacques Derrida, Umberto Eco, Gilles Deleuze, Michel Foucault, Judith Butler, and Julia Kristeva. It sounds bonkers. (Lydia)
Sour Heart by Jenny Zhang: Zhang’s got range: the poet/Rookie writer/essayist/ and now fiction writer has a voice that’s at once incisive and playful and emboldened. “If I fart next to a hulking white male and then walk away, have I done anything important?” she asks in her chapbook Hags, when wondering about ways to fight imperialism; she has written of encounters with white privilege as a Chinese American, of messiness and feelings and depression, of errata and text messages and Tracey Emin, and of resisting Donald Trump. Zhang’s sure to bring this force to her first collection of short stories, Sour Heart, which will be the first book published by Lena Dunham’s Lenny imprint. (Anne)
Made for Love by Alissa Nutting: Hazel ran out of her husband and moved into her father’s retirement community, a trailer park for senior citizens. She’s laying low for a while. Things are complicated, though. Her husband is the founder and CEO of Gogol Industries, a tech conglomerate bent on making its wares ubiquitous in everyday life, and he’s determined to use the company’s vast, high-tech resources to get her back. Meanwhile, did I mention Hazel’s father is obsessed with a realistic sex robot? (Nick M.)
What We Lose by Zinzi Clemmons: A debut novel from Apogee Journal cofounder and contributing editor at LitHub. Thandi loses her South African mother and navigates the process of grieving and growing up in Pennsylvania. (Lydia)
And Now We Have Everything by Meaghan O’Connell: Millions Year in Reading alum and New York magazine’s The Cut columnist O’Connell will bring her signature voice to a collection of essays about motherhood billed as “this generation’s Operating Instructions.” Readers who follow O’Connell’s writing for The Cut or her newsletter look forward to a full volume of her relatable, sometimes mordant, sometimes tender reflections on writing and family life. (Lydia)
This Will Be My Undoing by Morgan Jerkins: Jerkins is way too accomplished for her age, but her range of skills and interests – 19th-century Russian lit, postwar Japanese lit, speaker of six languages, editor, assistant literary agent — is so awesome I just can’t begrudge her. Jerkins writes reportage, personal essays, fiction, profiles, interviews, literary criticism, and sports and pop culture pieces. Now she has an essay collection coming out: This Will Be My Undoing. Some of her previously published essays include “The Psychic Toll of Reading the News While Black”, “Why I Got a Labiaplasty in My 20s”, and “How Therapy Doesn’t Make Me a Bad Christian” — all of which may or may not be collected in the new book; but you get a feel for the great stuff we can expect. (Sonya)
Sharp by Michelle Dean: Dean has made a name for herself as an astute feminist journalist and critic for the likes of The Guardian, the New Republic, and The Nation. Her work often focuses on the intersection of crime, culture, and literature. So it’s fitting that her first book is nonfiction on other powerhouse female critics. (Tess M.)
Last weekend, my local library hosted a “bag sale” in its basement, one of its occasional fundraisers in which eight dollars gets you a paper shopping bag and free, manic rein to fill it with used books. I look forward to these sales with the childish excitement that once accompanied major holidays, despite the glaring fact that I don’t need any books. Given my hoarder’s mania for gathering them — from give-a-book/take-a-book racks, curbside boxes, friends both generous and easily stolen from, and bookstores new and secondhand — one could make a convincing argument that a sack of secondhand books is one of the last things I need. My house is filled with books, and though I try to get rid of those I no longer care about, such efforts are largely futile. The things gather like autumn leaves at the corners of a fence; no sooner do I rake them away then another heap blows in. I’m running out of places to stash them. Unless I live to 140, I’ll never read them all.
But still: eight dollars.
So on Sunday morning, I descended the library’s rear staircase like a man eager to be condemned, and entered its long, low, yellow-lit cellar, lined with tables, carts, and boxes of books. Thousands and thousands of books. I gave a grandmotherly, white-haired volunteer — is there any other kind? — my eight bucks; she wrote “PAID” on a Trader Joe’s bag and handed it to me. I thanked her, turned around, and waded into the stacks, joining 30 or so others, brows knit in concentration, in pursuit of more books.
It was 11:55.
At noon, in the hardcover fiction section, I made my first pull of the day: T.C. Boyle’s 2006 story collection, Tooth & Claw. I’m not a huge short-story fan, and I had no real intention of taking Tooth & Claw home. But it was fairly new — at such a sale, anything published within the last decade qualifies as “fairly new” — and I love Boyle. So I just held it for a second, looking at its black-and-grey cover, before sliding it back on the shelf. There was a strange tenderness to the act; the impulse seemed to come from the same place that leads me to absently ruffle my son’s hair whenever he passes by.
Two minutes later, crouching above a shallow box of paperbacks, I brought up Richard Russo’s The Risk Pool. I’ve only read one Russo novel, Empire Falls, and although I enjoyed it, I’ve also lazily assumed that I don’t need to read any other Russos; his work strikes me — rightly or not — as a minor series of variations on a familiar theme. What attracted me to The Risk Pool was its cover; it was an old Vintage Contemporary, a fine time capsule of late ‘80s art direction. I’ve never been disappointed by anything I’ve read in the Vintage line — Yates, Portis, Doyle, Carver — and I’ve never been disappointed by the books’ surreal, pastel covers. The Risk Pool’s was a pleasingly nostalgic painting of a man and a boy resting beside a country road. I took it in, as if standing in a gallery, then nestled it back in its box, needing to move on.
At 12:03, I dropped my first book of the day into the bag: Boyle’s East is East, an early-ish novel of his that I’d never gotten around to. I felt an inane sense of accomplishment, as if I were a St. Bernard who had just discovered a lost cross-country skier. I looked down at East is East in the bottom of the sack; it seemed tragically small and lonesome, and I resolved to find it some friends.
At 12:05, as I again ran my eyes across the hardcover fiction titles, I heard a woman say to a volunteer: “Shoot me if I come back again.” They laughed, and although I didn’t look up, I pictured the joker struggling with a book-overflowing bag, preparing to drag it back to her book-overflowing house. I haven’t reached the point where I need to tell strangers that they may murder me if I try to buy any more books, but I’ll probably get there soon.
I checked my watch. I’d been there for twelve minutes. After East is East, I had tossed a couple more books in my bag (Margaret Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale and Joe Meno’s Office Girl), and I was feeling fairly content until I spotted an old, weathered copy of William Styron’s The Confessions of Nat Turner. I had no particular problem with or interest in the novel; the issue was that it reminded me that my mother had given me James McBride’s The Good Lord Bird two Christmases ago. That, in turn, reminded me that I hadn’t read The Good Lord Bird — or The Imperfectionists, or Ender’s Game, or A Fan’s Notes, or any other of the dozens of other novels that I’ve picked up over the years, each time thinking, “I can’t wait to read this,” before making the purchase. It was another reminder that I will surely die before I read all of my books, that my descendants will one day be forced to shovel through it all, skeptically asking one another, “Did he actually read all these?” Then, with a Homer Simpson “Ooh,” I spotted Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America, dropped it in my bag, and forgot about my eventual demise. I can’t wait to read The Plot Against America.
At 12:10, I saw the fourth copy of Sarah Gruen’s Water for Elephants since I arrived at the sale just fifteen minutes before. It brought me back to a college-era bull-session question I used to pose: Which album do you see more than any other at used-CD stores? (I always went with R.E.M.’s Monster, which, it seemed, everybody bought and nobody really liked.) So was Water for Elephants the new Monster? I didn’t think so. For one thing, between Freakonomics and Eat, Pray, Love, the competition was fairly stiff. Perhaps Water for Elephants is the new Zooropa.
These are what pass for thoughts at a library bag sale.
At 12:18, I found a paperback copy of Steven King’s Lisey’s Story, and pondered its possibilities. I wasn’t wondering whether or not I might want to read it; I had already made that determination at a church rummage sale in July, when I bought the book in hardcover. That version of Lisey’s Story was the approximate weight of an Oldsmobile, and the questions before me now were: 1) Should I take this paperback and, once home, swap it out for the hardcover? 2) Would I actually get rid of the massive thing, or would I just keep them both? And 3) Was I really in the business of buying books that I already owned?
Lisey’s Story went back on the shelf.
At around 12:25, with two more books in the bag (E.L. Doctorow’s The Book of Daniel and Mark Haddon’s A Spot of Bother), I realized that I needed to get back home. There were chores to be done, errands to be run, kids to be corralled. I buzzed the children’s section and chose a quick nine or ten titles — Clifford’s Kitten and a Tom and Jerry Golden Book among them — that looked to be in decent shape. Then a peculiar Black Friday anxiety washed over me as I forced myself towards the exit: what was I missing? There was so much still to see! Christ, I barely browsed Nonfiction! My eyesight grew twitchy and granular as I tried to take it all in: every sci-fi novel, every mystery, every moldering Penguin Classic. I picked up something by Arthur Koestler, as if grabbing at a bobbing life preserver, while I moved slowly from the room. Then, with a sigh, I put Darkness at Noon back in its box and walked into the day, struck by the freshness of the air outside. The bag felt heavy in my hand, but not oppressively so. All in all, the previous half-hour had been a success: six more books to add to the top of the teetering mountain. I wouldn’t be back that day; I could survive until the next bag sale, whenever that might be. Nobody would have to shoot me for buying things I didn’t need.
“Judge Irving Kaufman, of Rosenberg Spy Trial and Free-Press Rulings, Dies at 81.” The 1992 New York Times obituary stated that Judge Kaufman hoped “he would be remembered for his role not in the Rosenberg case…but as the judge whose order was the first to desegregate a public school in the North.” Kaufman was appointed to the federal bench in Manhattan in 1949. Two years later, the “espionage trial of the century” landed in his courtroom.
Consider the backdrop. America, flush with victory, was pivoting to Cold War politics. Redbaiting was in; Fireside Chats out. Against the shiny orange roofs of proliferating Howard Johnsons and the pulsating floors of teenage sock hops, the country was off to war again. This time on the Korean peninsula, fighting a new enemy called Communism.
Our literary imagination remains captive to this era, as if we could jump in a Studebaker and road trip past the nostalgic caricature of ourselves to discover something new. In her seminal The Future of Nostalgia, Svetlana Boym opines: “Nostalgia is a sentiment of loss and displacement, but it is also a romance with one’s own fantasy…The twentieth century began with a futuristic utopia and ended with nostalgia.” We may not be stuck mid-century, but if Mad Men is an indication, we’re still trying to figure a few things out.
“Damn Cold in February,” part of Joni Tevis’s stunning new essay collection, The World Is on Fire, combs the 1950s for atomic kitsch. Tevis lines up Buddy Holly with choice snippets of U.S. government operating manuals (and propaganda), artifacts to underscore the era’s cultural ironies. In 1957, The New York Times “explained how to plan one’s summer vacation around the ‘non-ancient but none the less honorable pastime of atomic-bomb watching.’” After winning Miss Atomic Bomb, “a local woman poses for photos with a cauliflower-shaped cloud pasted to the front of her bathing suit.” Tevis clicks through the slides of an atomic view-master toy and concludes, “Not only do Americans want to see the bomb, we want to become it, shaping our bodies to fit its form.”
It turns out, however, that it’s much less fun once the Russians have it. In 1949, a successful Soviet nuclear test threatened our self-image as supreme in the world, invoking terror around the country. Treason took on new meaning with rumors of espionage and leaks of classified documents to our former ally Russia. Everyone, it seemed, was building a fallout shelter — public buildings, apartment houses, families. School children practiced for bomb attacks.
The House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) was all about the Russian threat. HUAC revved up in the late-’40s, holding hearings the broadcasts of which stoked public fear and paranoia. Congressman Richard Nixon cut his teeth crushing the distinguished public servant Alger Hiss, convicted of perjury — not espionage — charges the merits of which are still debated. Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy fulminated, wielding a list of alleged Reds lurking in the State Department. HUAC pitted neighbor against neighbor and colleague against colleague, destroying careers in Hollywood and plenty of others too. Old Blue Eyes may have been ascendant, but celebrated actor/singer Paul Robeson went down for his politics.
Enter Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. They bonded over the Communist Party the tenets of which, they believed, would level the playing field between the haves and have-nots. Julius, an electrical engineer, and Ethel, an aspiring actress/singer turned secretary, were struggling to provide for their two young sons on New York’s Lower East Side when the FBI set them in its crosshairs. The Rosenbergs were indicted in 1950 — Julius on atomic espionage charges for passing secrets to the Russians, and Ethel as his accomplice. Ethel was denounced on apparently false charges by her brother, David Greenglass, an Army machinist at the weapons installation in Los Alamos. To state the barest facts — the Rosenbergs were tried in 1951, found guilty of conspiracy to commit espionage, and given the electric chair on June 19, 1953.
Jillian Cantor steps into this space with her forthcoming novel, The Hours Count, narrated by Millie Stein, fictional neighbor to the Rosenbergs. Millie’s consuming interest is her son, David, who appears to be autistic. Largely estranged from her family, Millie is unable to connect to her husband, Ed, a surly and often drunk Russian, who may or may not be entangled in nefarious political activities.
This isn’t the first time Cantor has fictionalized history. In Margot, Cantor imagines Anne Frank’s older sister to have survived, living in Philadelphia. Like Margot, The Hours Count is narrated by a woman who declines to swim through history’s riptides, but instead bobs passively along. Perhaps the passivity of these narrators is meant to bring the surrounding characters into focus. In The Hours Count, Ethel Rosenberg is such a character, portrayed as a devoted wife and mother, and a caring friend.
Much of The Hours Count is taken up with Millie’s strange and conflicted relationship with a man who promises to help her disabled child. Dramatic scenes from the Rosenbergs’ execution at Sing Sing are spliced throughout the novel. But the main part of the story breaks off when Ethel departs for the grand jury, leaving her two young sons in Millie’s care.
Ethel never returned. She refused to testify against her husband and was taken straight to prison, leaving her boys behind. Michael and Robert Rosenberg were six and 10 when their parents were electrocuted three years later. They were ultimately adopted by Abel and Anne Meeropol, changing their last names to Meeropol. (Abel Meeropol, incidentally, wrote both the words and music to the iconic song, “Strange Fruit.”)
What of those children, purposefully orphaned by the State? E.L. Doctorow takes them on in The Book of Daniel, tackling the whole raging tragedy. Reimagining them as Daniel and Susan Isaacson, Doctorow explores the agonized years between their parents’ arrest and execution when they moved among harsh grandparents, private homes, and an orphanage. He gives us the lawyer who not only had the thankless task of representing their parents, but also worked tirelessly to find an appropriate home for Daniel and Susan. (The lawyer’s widow accuses the Isaacsons of causing her husband’s untimely death.) And the anguished stepparents, who cannot staunch Daniel’s fury, nor heal his sister, a former radical dying in a mental institution. “Today Susan is a starfish,” Daniel says. “There are few silences deeper than the silence of the starfish. There are not many degrees of life lower before there is no life.”
Published in 1971, The Book of Daniel remains as charged as a live wire. This big meaty book follows Daniel as he plunges into the radical 1960s, an angry young father on a quest to confront the people in his parents’ and thus his own drama. He suggests his parents mistook shared political ideology for friendship, and socialist doctrine for life advice. Of lessons learned from his father, who “ran up and down history like a pianist playing his scales,” Daniel says, “I heard about the framing of Tom Mooney and the execution of Joe Hill, and all the maimed and dead labor heroes of the early labor movement. The incredibly brutal fate of anyone who tried to help the worker.”
Cousin Linda, whose father betrayed Daniel’s mother and got 10 years instead of death, tells him, “neither you nor I was responsible for what happened. But we’ve borne the brunt…This is what happens to us, to the children of trials; our hearts run to cunning, our minds are sharp as claws.”
The real children, Michael and Robert Meeropol, have dedicated their lives to bringing justice to their executed parents. Their continued presence on the public stage subverts nostalgia; if you’re paying attention, it’s pretty tough to get sentimental about this time period. In August 2015, The New York Times ran a lengthy Op Ed by the Meeropols, pleading their mother’s case and urging her posthumous exoneration. Their father might have been “legally guilty of the conspiracy charge, but not atomic spying,” but their mother “was prosecuted primarily for refusing to turn on our father.”
“The government held her life hostage to coerce our father to talk, and when that failed, it extracted false statements to secure her wrongful execution…[with] disturbing implications in post-9/11 America.”
What about the judge who meted the sentence, Irving Kaufman? Doctorow portrays him as an ambitious man who saw the trial as a means to advance his career. Here’s Daniel’s father, describing the fictional Judge Kaufman. “Not having known of [the judge’s] existence even a few short months ago, [he] knows a good deal more about him now, including [the judge’s] most intimate professional secret, that he hopes to be appointed to the Supreme Court. All the lawyers in the corridor know this. [The judge] has heard more cases brought by the government in the field of subversive activities than anyone else.”
In 1960, Judge Kaufman published a lengthy piece in the Atlantic Monthly called “Sentencing: The Judge’s Problem,” in which he asserted his belief that judges should have wide discretion in sentencing. “In no other judicial function is the judge more alone,” Kaufman wrote. Judges take their role seriously; every judge “is painfully aware of what five years without a father may mean to a prisoner’s son.” Moreover, sentences that are too harsh “have historically had an effect opposite from the one intended.” A judge should have the “satisfaction” of saying “to oneself, ‘I have never consciously rendered an unjust decision.’”
It’s not a leap to read this article today as post hoc justification for sending the Rosenbergs to their deaths. Whatever its intent, the following year Kaufman received a promotion to the Second Circuit Federal Court of Appeals where he served more than a quarter century.
The trial and execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg are sobering reminders of how public sentiment can affect the wheels of justice. The Rosenbergs were tried within a particular context: Congress inflaming the Red Scare, the country again at war, and mounting fears about the A-bomb. Ideally a judge would take extra precaution to separate hysteria from legitimate danger. Judge Kaufman, it seems, thought he would do well to embrace the times — “The general attitude of the public toward a particular type of crime…must be taken into consideration if respect for the law is to be upheld.”
Perhaps we’d best let the Meeropols have the last word: “Neither of our parents deserved the death penalty.”
Image Credit: Wikipedia.
Miniatures on a Broad Canvas
At the National Book Awards ceremony in New York City on November 2, E.L. Doctorow received the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. On that night he joined a rarefied posse of past recipients that includes Eudora Welty, Toni Morrison, Norman Mailer, John Updike, Joan Didion, Philip Roth, Gore Vidal, Stephen King, Tom Wolfe, John Ashbery, and Elmore Leonard, among others. The award formalized something legions of readers have known for more than half a century: E.L. Doctorow is a national treasure.
While I wouldn’t presume to single out one of Doctorow’s dozen novels or story collections as his “best” book, I do think it is fair to say that, so far, his best known and best loved work is the novel Ragtime. And I would argue that this has also been his most influential book, the one that has done more than all the others to change the way American authors approach the writing of novels.
Ragtime, like so much of Doctorow’s fiction, is pinned to a particular, acutely rendered moment in American history. In other novels he has taken us back to the Wild West (Welcome to Hard Times, 1960), the Civil War (The March, 2005), post-bellum New York City (The Waterworks, 1994), the Depression (World’s Fair, 1985, winner of the National Book Award; Loon Lake, 1980; and Billy Bathgate, 1989), and the Cold War (The Book of Daniel, 1971).
In Ragtime he takes us back to the years immediately preceding the First World War, when America and much of the world lived in a state of dreamy innocence, oblivious that twinned calamities loomed. The book’s theme, as I read it, is that such innocence is an untenable luxury, then and now, and its inevitable loss is always laced with trauma, pain, and bloodshed. To heighten the trauma, Doctorow first builds a nearly pastoral world. Here is the novel’s serene opening:
In 1902 Father built a house at the crest of the Broadview Avenue hill in New Rochelle, New York. It was a three-story brown shingle with dormers, bay windows, and a screened porch. Striped awnings shaded the windows. The family took possession of this stout manse on a sunny day in June and it seemed for some years thereafter that all their days would be warm and fair.
In just four deceptively simple sentences, Doctorow has established the novel’s tone and central strategy. The key word in this passage is seemed, for it hints that this stout manse will not be able to provide the stability it promises. More subtly – and crucially – Doctorow also establishes a slippery narrative voice, which will be a key to the novel’s success. When we learn that “Father” built this house, we assume that the man’s son or daughter is narrating the story. Later references to “Grandfather” and “Mother” and “Mother’s Younger Brother” and “the Little Boy” reinforce the familial sleight of hand. But three sentences after the intimate introduction of “Father,” Doctorow switches to the impersonal third-person plural and tells us that after “the family” took possession of the house, it seemed that “their” days would be warm and fair. It is a deft shift of focus, a quiet, barely noticeable pulling back, but it gives Doctorow the freedom to have it both ways – to paint miniatures on a broad canvas. The strategy is crucial to everything that will follow.
The novel was stylistically innovative in other ways. The paragraphs are long, unbroken by quoted dialog. This allows Doctorow to immerse the reader in the seamless atmosphere of a particular place and time. In the middle of the novel’s long opening paragraph, Doctorow plays the gambit that will become the novel’s signature and the source of its enduring influence on the way many American novelists work right up to today: he starts injecting historical figures into his fictional world.
The gambit unfolds like this: “Across America sex and death were barely distinguishable. Runaway women died in the rigors of ecstasy. Stories were hushed up and reporters paid off by rich families. One read between the lines of the journals and gazettes. In New York City the papers were full of the shooting of the famous architect Stanford White by Harry K. Thaw, eccentric scion of a coke and railroad fortune. Harry K. Thaw was the husband of Evelyn Nesbit, the celebrated beauty who had once been Stanford White’s mistress.” A few lines later Emma Goldman, the revolutionary, strolls onto the page. Soon after that, Harry Houdini wrecks his car, “a black 45-horsepower Pope-Toledo Runabout,” in front of the family’s house in New Rochelle. Five pages in, and Doctorow is already off to the races.
In the course of the novel we’ll meet the muckraking journalist Jacob Riis, Sigmund Freud, Theodore Dreiser, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, Henry Ford, J.P. Morgan, Booker T. Washington, and Emiliano Zapata. With one exception – a luncheon meeting between Ford and Morgan – the appearance of these historical figures feels unforced and plausible. Doctorow’s historical research is obviously prodigious, but the reader never feels that the author is emptying his notebook or showing off. The historical details, such as Houdini’s “black 45-horsepower Pope-Toledo Runabout,” are chosen carefully and slipped into the narrative without fanfare. In other words, Doctorow’s mastery of his material and his narrative voice prevents the novel’s central conceit from sliding into mere schtick.
From Kohlhase to Kohlhaas to Coalhouse
All writing comes from other writing, and of course E.L. Doctorow was not the first writer to populate a fictional narrative with historical figures. It just seemed that way to many people when Ragtime was published, to great fanfare, in the summer of 1975.
But as Doctorow happily admitted in an interview in 1988, Ragtime sprang from a very specific source – an 1810 novella called Michael Kohlhaas by the German writer Heinrich von Kleist. The parallels between the two books are unmistakable. In Kleist’s novella, the title character is based on an historical figure, a 16th-century horse dealer named Hans Kohlhase, who seeks justice when he is swindled out of two horses and a servant, a campaign that wins the support of Martin Luther but eventually leads to Kohlhass’s violent death; in Doctorow’s novel, the black musician Coalhouse Walker mounts an equally fierce campaign for justice when his pristine Model T is desecrated by a company of racist firemen, a campaign that wins the support of Booker T. Washington but eventually leads to Coalhouse’s violent death.
“Kleist is a great master,” Doctorow told the interviewer. “I was first attracted to his prose, his stories, and the location of his narrative somewhere between history and fiction… Ragtime is a quite deliberate homage. You know, writers lift things from other writers all the time. I always knew I wanted to use Michael Kohlhaas in some way, but I didn’t know until my black musician was driving up the Broadview Avenue hill in his Model T Ford that the time had come to do that.”
Ragtime’s Ragged Spawn
I read Ragtime not as a conventional historical novel – that is, a novel that hangs its fictions on a scaffold of known events – but rather as a novel that makes selective use of historical figures and events to create its own plausible but imaginary past. Yes, Doctorow did his research and he includes factual renderings of numerous historical figures and events, but these are springboards for his imaginings, not the essence of his enterprise. Put another way, Doctorow is after truth, not mere facts. But as he set out to write the book he understood that a prevailing hunger for facts had put the art of conventional storytelling under extreme pressure. He explained it this way in a 2008 interview with New York magazine: “I did have a feeling that the culture of factuality was so dominating that storytelling had lost all its authority. I thought, If they want fact, I’ll give them facts that will leave their heads spinning.” And when William Shawn, editor of The New Yorker, refused to run a review of the novel, Doctorow remarked, “I had transgressed in making up words and thoughts that people never said. Now it happens almost every day. I think that opened the gates.”
I think he’s right. Doctorow’s selective use of historical figures and events lends Ragtime its air of verisimilitude without robbing him of the freedom to imagine and distort and mythologize. It is, for a writer of fiction, the best of all possible worlds. Small wonder, then, that Doctorow’s strategy, radical in 1975, is now so commonplace that it’s impossible to keep up with the torrent of novels, short stories, and movies that owe a debt to his act of transgression.
(For an interesting take on how transgressions can become commonplace, go see the 100th-anniversary recreation of the Armory Show, currently at the New York Historical Society. Works by Duchamp, Matisse, and Gauguin that shocked America in 1913 – the precise moment when Ragtime is set – are now part of the Modernist canon, tame and acceptable.)
Colum McCann, the decorated Irish writer now living in New York, is among the many writers who have come around to Doctorow’s way of writing novels. McCann’s early fiction is loosely based on historical events but populated with fictional characters. Then in 2003 he published Dancer, a fictional telling of Rudolf Nureyev’s life. McCann’s National Book Award-winning novel from 2009, Let the Great World Spin, pivots on Philippe Petit’s mesmerizing high-wire walk between the Twin Towers in 1974. Earlier this year, McCann published TransAtlantic, a triptych that fictionalizes the stories of three journeys across the ocean by actual historical figures: the aviators John Alcock and Arthur Brown; the abolitionist Frederick Douglass; and the former U.S. Senator and peace envoy George Mitchell. In an interview with The Guardian, McCann explained his shift toward historical figures and events over the past decade by citing a maxim from the cultural anthropologist Clifford Geertz: “The real is as imagined as the imaginary.” It follows that the imagined is as real as the real. McCann added, “I said about 12 years ago that writing about biographical figures showed a sort of failure of the writer’s imagination.” And then? “Absolutely busted. Because then I wrote Dancer…and then more or less ever since I’ve been hovering in this territory.”
He’s not alone. Here is a list, far from exhaustive and widely varying in quality, of Ragtime’s progeny, with some of the historical figures who appear in each work: Blonde by Joyce Carol Oates (Marilyn Monroe); Cloudsplitter by Russell Banks (John Brown); Quiet Dell by Jayne Anne Phillips (the mass-murderer Harry F. Powers); Hollywood by Gore Vidal (William Randolph Hearst, Warren Harding, Marion Davies, Douglas Fairbanks – not to mention Vidal’s more conventional historical novels such as Lincoln, Burr and 1876); The Public Burning by Robert Coover (Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, Joe McCarthy, Richard Nixon, the Marx Brothers); Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel (King Henry VIII, Thomas Cromwell, Sir Thomas More); The Women by T.C. Boyle (Frank Lloyd Wright); DaVinci’s Bicycle by Guy Davenport (Picasso, Leonardo, Joyce, and Apollinaire); Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by Therese Anne Fowler (Zelda and Scott, Hem, Ezra Pound); Dead Stars and Still Holding by Bruce Wagner (Michael Douglas, the Kardashians, a Russell Crowe look-alike and a Drew Barrymore look-alike); The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson (Franco, Truman, Stalin, Churchill, Mao); and the movies Forrest Gump (Tom Hanks meets Elvis, Bear Bryant, JFK, LBJ, and Richard Nixon) and Zelig (Woody Allen brushes up against Babe Ruth, Adolph Hitler, and others in this faux documentary, with added commentary from the real-life Susan Sontag, Saul Bellow, and Bruno Bettelheim).
The last three items on this list illustrate the dangers of the strategy Doctorow pursued in Ragtime. In each of these three works, the central character encounters historical figures by pure chance and for no good reason, other than to amuse the reader or audience, or show off the filmmaker’s technical wizardry. There is nothing organic or plausible about any of these contrived encounters, and they drag the works down to the level of mere schtick.
On the other end of spectrum is one of Ragtime’s worthiest successors, the under-appreciated 1990 novel Silver Light by David Thomson, a writer best known for A Biographical Dictionary of Film. The novel takes the central conceit of Ragtime – fictional characters interacting with historical figures – and then gives it a delicious twist. Using the medium he knows so well, the movies, Thomson gives us a rambling cast of characters, a mix of real and imagined people and – here’s the twist – the actors who played some of them in movies. It was not until I read the extensive Note on Characters at the end of the book that I understood the histories of these people. The character Noah Cross, for instance, was lifted directly from the 1974 movie Chinatown. The (real? imagined?) character Susan Garth is the cantankerous 80-year-old daughter of a cattle rancher named Matthew Garth, who was played by Montgomery Clift in the 1948 Howard Hawks movie Red River, which was based on a Saturday Evening Post story by Borden Chase. Thomson makes superb use of this layered source material. In a scene that goes to the heart of such fiction, Thomson puts Susan Garth on the Red River set outside Willcox, Arizona, in 1946 with Hawks, Clift, and John Wayne. No one on the movie crew is aware that Susan is the daughter of the character Clift is playing in the movie. She has told Hawks her name is Hickey, and when Clift arrives on the set, Hawks performs the introductions:
“Miss Hickey…may I introduce Mr. Clift, our Matthew Garth?”
The spurious father and the unknown daughter shook hands, worlds and fifty years apart.
“Interesting role you’ve got,” said Susan.
“Well, look,” grinned Clift, tolerantly, “this is just a Western, you know.”
“Still,” she persevered, “the real Garth. He was an unusual fellow.”
“Hey, Howard,” whined Clift, “was Garth a real person? Is that right?”
Delicate and dangerous, Howard saunteringly rejoined them. “There are no real people,” he told them. “See if they sue.”
There are no real people; there are only the ones we can imagine truly. When I read Hawks’s made-up words, I could hear echoes of Clifford Geertz and Colum McCann and E.L. Doctorow and every writer on my incomplete and ever-growing list.
The I’s Have It
This homage to Ragtime would not be complete without mention of two related strains of fiction. In the first, a writer places a historical figure at center stage and then attempts to channel that character’s voice and enter his mind. One of this strain’s early avatars was the wildly popular 1934 novel I, Claudius, in which Robert Graves set out to refute the conventional view that the man who ruled the Roman Empire from 41 to 54 A.D. was a stuttering, doddering idiot. (Graves followed it a year later with Claudius the God.) Jerry Stahl took on a similar revisionist challenge in 2008 with I, Fatty, a look into the dark soul of the supposedly sunny silent-movie star Roscoe Arbuckle. Other figures from history, literature, and myth who have become titles of I, ______ novels include Hogarth, Iago and Lucifer. And then there are such masterpieces of ventriloquism as Peter Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang, Margeurite Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian, and Thomas Berger’s Little Big Man (whose narrator, fictional 111-year-old Jack Crabb, recounts his encounters with such historical figures as Gen. George Armstrong Custer, Wyatt Earp, and Wild Bill Hickok).
In the Epilogue to Little Big Man, Ralph Fielding Snell, the fictional character who tape-recorded Jack Crabb’s reminiscences of the West, offers this caveat about their veracity: “So as I take my departure, dear reader, I leave the choice in your capable hands. Jack Crabb was either the most neglected hero in the history of this country or a liar of insane proportions.” Or maybe he was both. Does it matter? This novel, like Ragtime, is distinguished not by the facts it relates, but by the truths it reveals.
The second strain is something that has come to be known as “self-insertion,” which sounds like a sexual kink but is actually the increasingly common practice of writers inserting themselves, as characters with their own names, into their novels and stories. The practice – gimmick? – has proven irresistible to Ben Marcus, Jonathan Ames, David Foster Wallace, Kurt Vonnegut, Bret Easton Ellis, Douglas Coupland, Philip Roth, and Nick Tosches, among others. As the wave of postmodernism became a tsunami, this trend was probably inevitable; mercifully it’s not yet universal. I can’t imagine coming across a character named E.L. Doctorow in a novel by E.L. Doctorow. His imagination is too rich and too demanding to allow such a thing.
Too Much Like Work
With the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s assassination now upon us, it’s worth noting that the events in Dallas in November of 1963 continue to inspire a steadily growing shelf of American fiction, movies, and TV shows. Among the writers and filmmakers who have mined the assassination for fictional ends are Don DeLillo, Norman Mailer, William F. Buckley, Oliver Stone, Bobbi Kornblit, J.G. Ballard, and Stephen King. For readers operating under the illusion that novelists and filmmakers use historical figures and events as crutches for a hobbled imagination, listen to Stephen King’s thoughts on the research that went into the writing of his novel, 11/22/63: “I have never tried anything like that before and I’m not sure I would ever want to try it again because, man, it was too much like work.”
E.L. Doctorow has been doing that hard work for more than half a century, producing novels and stories that have illuminated the American soul by bringing American history to life. It’s why he deserves his Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. It’s what makes him a national treasure.
Today I began teaching E.L. Doctorow’s The Book of Daniel in my first-year writing seminar at Fordham. I feel kind of bad about it. They’re nice kids, and they don’t deserve the royal butt-kicking Doctorow’s underappreciated Vietnam-era novel dishes out.
Edgar Lawrence Doctorow, now 81, occupies an avuncular place in our literary culture. He has been an eminence grise in the NYU creative writing program for many years, and before his rise as a writer in his own right, he was editor-in-chief at The Dial Press where he edited the likes of Norman Mailer, James Baldwin, and William Kennedy. With his bald pate and genial, bearded countenance, the guy just looks nice. But as we know from books, looks can be deceiving.
A grandchild of Russian Jewish immigrants raised in the depths of the Great Depression, Doctorow often centers his historical novels around violent insurgents bent on overturning a smug, wealthy elite. Ragtime, perhaps his best-known book, sets a white upper-middle class family that owes its fortune to the production of American flags and fireworks against a family of poor Jewish immigrants who find solace in the politics of anarchist Emma Goldman, and a fictional black jazz musician named Coalhouse Walker, who turns violent after white policemen kill his wife. The March follows General William Tecumseh Sherman on his scorched-earth March to the Sea from Atlanta to Savannah in the waning months of the Civil War.
As good as these books are – and they are good – they keep these historical fire-breathers safely in the past, dead and buried and of no threat to us. This is what makes The Book of Daniel an outlier on the Doctorow bookshelf. Published in 1971, Daniel tells the story of accused Communist spies Ethel and Julius Rosenberg – called the Isaacsons in the novel – from the perspective of their son, Daniel, who is not merely still alive, but over the course of the novel becomes deeply enmeshed in one of the principal historical movements of his day, the fight against the Vietnam War.
As a literary conceit, this is in itself daring. The Rosenbergs, when they were executed in 1953, did have two children, Michael and Robert Meeropol, both still living today, and both former academics long aligned with left-wing causes. In the novel, the two brothers morph into Susan, a mentally unstable twenty-year-old college student involved in the protests against the Vietnam War, and her older brother Daniel, a twenty-four-year-old Columbia University graduate student trying to finish his dissertation. The novel is that dissertation, or rather, the crazy mishmash of autobiography, historical analysis, self-justification, and blind rage that Daniel pours out onto the page after he learns that his sister has attempted suicide after being betrayed by the anti-war New Left.
Structured in this way, and set during the long hot summer of 1967, the novel poses the question: What would it be like to know that your own government, in a fit of mass political hysteria, murdered your parents? How would you relate to such a government? And, more importantly, how would you function if you saw your country entering a new phase of political hysteria against a phantom Communist menace, this time located half a world away in North Vietnam, that appears likely to consume the last remaining member of your family, your own baby sister?
Daniel at first responds to this crisis by going mad, and it is this, Doctorow’s depiction of a very bright, very angry young man losing his grip on his senses, in real time, right there on the page before you, that gives the book its taut drama. But what makes the book work as fiction is that Doctorow never loses his grip, not for a second. Daniel is a horror show: cruel, vituperative, physically abusive toward his young wife, and at times just this side of clinically psychotic. The text he produces is fractured and wild, careening from first-person to third-person perspective, from engrossing family narrative to dry historical analysis, from quirkily annotated lists to long, barely coherent rantings from Daniel’s crazy Russian grandmother – and yet the whole thing, if you take the time to read it carefully, makes perfect sense.
The Book of Daniel is metafiction done right, by an author who cares as much about telling stories as he does about talking about telling stories. And just as that other great modern metafictional triumph, Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, is the smartest book about the experiences of soldiers in the Vietnam War, The Book of Daniel is the smartest book I know about the home front during that war.
One favorite book I’ve read all year? Impossible. But when I think it over, I do see a trend in the books I’ve most enjoyed in 2010. This probably says way too much about my year, but I have delighted most in narratives peopled with characters who have come undone in some fashion, be it by history, by the failing of their bodies or minds, their screwed up finances. These characters are negotiating how to remain in their own skins, or they are doing what they can to unzip their hides, step out of their pelts.
Or they are figuring out how to come undone alone. Marisa Silver’s story collection Alone With You was one of my favorite reads this year. I admire all of Silver’s novels—The God of War was one of my favorites of 2008—but her stories go even deeper into the vast terrain of human longing. My favorite story in the collection is the title piece, which gets into the head and heart of someone dealing with mental illness, who, “has come to understand that identity is a porous thing, an easily felled house of cards.” Like the keen way Charles D’Ambrosio’s stories delve into the pain of that loss of self, this story—the whole assemblage—works with the backdrop of family, motherhood in particular, and the result is a stunning collection, sad in all the best, thinking ways.
Dear Money, Martha McPhee’s fourth novel, was a favorite for many reasons, one of them being that writing about money has always seemed to me to fall under the purview of men. Well, McPhee goes at it whole hog with her character, India Palmer, a financially strapped writer married to a visual artist who is more concerned with his work than financial security. (Here is where I must confess: I am a financially strapped writer married to a visual artist.) With the help of a mentor, India is transformed Pygmalian-style from midlist writer into a Wall Street wizard (is that even a term?) and McPhee manages to realistically remodel this woman—what she wants, what validates her, what grants her power—while bearing miraculous witness to the financial crisis. The book, which is also an investigation of what it means to want, takes no prisoners and it ends terrifically.
Switching gears entirely, I found An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination by Elizabeth McCracken, published in 2009, to be one of my more exquisite, if difficult reads this year. This is the story of the author’s experience giving birth to a stillborn child. I have never not admired anything McCracken has written and I imagine I will always love whatever she offers up, but what I admired most about this memoir was how she put order to her devastating experience. What happened leading up to discovering her child would not live, and the after effects of that shattering moment of discovery is quite miraculously contained in these few spare pages. McCracken’s ability to convey that experience—convey grief, convey hope, convey despair, convey relief, convey unspeakable want—all the facts and emotions that accompany terrible loss, whatever that may be—is breathtaking.
There were many other books read and loved: Matt Bondurant’s utterly gripping The Wettest County in the World, in which Sherwood Anderson, here an investigative reporter, chronicles the story of these three distinct brothers, the author’s kin, who have been distilling and distributing moonshine in Prohibition-era Virginia. I also re-read The Book of Daniel, by E.L. Doctorow, which to my mind is one of the most perfect novels on earth, one written from the fictionalized and incredibly wacked out and necessary point of view of the Rosenberg’s—as in Ethel and Julius’s—son. It’s about the end of the American old left and start of the new, about a family and a country undone but their respective histories. And Hyatt Bass’s The Embers, also about a family in crisis, negotiating how to stay knit together after a death in the family threatens to unravel them. Which led me to what I am embarrassed to admit is the first time I’ve read A Death in the Family by James Agee, a novel that gives terrific insight into how we think during a moment of tragedy.
Who hasn’t been unmoored? Each of these characters in these terrific books in some way is granted a new beginning. It’s not all unicorns and daffodils, to be sure, but there is something gained here after loss. Always. Which feels very promising for my favorite books of 2011…
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Once upon a time, I would not even consider quitting a book mid-read. Reading a book was not unlike a monogamous human relationship in that sense; it involved conscious commitment, and fidelity: Book, I’m going to read you.
Over the years, this has changed. Recently it struck me that the list of books I’ve started and not finished has grown quite formidable. I ask myself what this “means,” if it reflects some kind of moral devolution. It’s interesting how there does seem to be a kind of morality of reading, and people express their reading values quite passionately.
One of my favorite Millions Quizzes was “The Glaring Gap,” a post in which regular contributors confessed which Great Books / Great Authors they’ve never read. One contributor shared that she consciously chose not to read a certain category of male writers, and the comments came a-flying: oh, but you “should” read those! Should should should. Even the word “confess” implies sheepishness, shame and guilt. I know, I know, I should read (and love) Proust! And Dickens! And Virginia Woolf! And (these days) Bolaño!
My commitment to finishing books in the past was probably related to the above – fear of ensuing guilt and shame. Failure, too, I suppose. And perhaps at this point in my reading life, I’ve finished (and more than that, really ingested into my mind and emotions) enough books so that I feel a little freer in exercising the right to choose how to invest my reading time and energy; to veer from the Canonical Path – if such a thing actually exists anymore – and forge my own highly specific map of literary experience and influence. I’m not getting any younger, after all. Fifteen hours – the average it takes to read a book (and I tend to be on the slow side of this average) – is an increasingly precious chunk of time. Professional book reviewers, you have my sympathies.
My list of Unfinished Books breaks down into a few categories.
Perusing my list – from the last 3 or 4 years – reminds me that the convergence between book and reader is so specific; of-the-moment; contextual. For me, abandoning a book often has little to do with the book’s “objective quality,” and much more to do with the nature of my reading appetite at that moment. As a writer, there are books that you need during certain seasons of your own work, and others that must be held at bay, for the time being, or perhaps, but hopefully not, forever (oh, how the Bitch Goddess Time precludes so many returns to books we’d like to try again):
Books I Did Not Finish But Very Much Want to Try Again
The Children’s Book by A.S. Byatt
2666 by Roberto Bolano
Remembrance of Things Past by Marcel Proust
The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann (out of reverence for Susan Sontag)
The Moviegoer by Walker Percy
The Essential Kierkegaard
The Night Watch by Sarah Waters
Eugene Onegin by Pushkin
Then there are the books that you feel you “should” like — you’ve adored this writer’s other books, your most trusted reader-friend recommended it, etc. – and you can’t figure out what the disconnect is. You’ve tried and tried again, 50 pages, 75 pages, 120 pages, but for whatever reason… it’s like the blind date that looks perfect “on paper,” but the chemistry never happens:
Books That I’ve Already Tried More Than Once But Couldn’t Engage With, I Don’t Know Why
Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson
The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai
The Book of Daniel and City of God by E.L. Doctorow (I am a Doctorow acolyte, these were particularly painful to abandon)
Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton
Sons and Lovers by D.H. Lawrence (I loved Women in Love so much)
It’s not that often that I really toss a book away and wipe my hands of it. And I know the following books are critically acclaimed and/or beloved by many. What can I say…
Books That I Found Mostly Painful and Likely Will Not Revisit
The following category speaks for itself:
Books Written By Friends/Acquaintances That I May Have Been Destined Not to Like in the First Place, But Gave Them a Try For Friendship’s Sake
I won’t be listing these, for obvious reasons. There aren’t many, but it’s an awkward thing for all of us; and I never imagine that a person who knows and supports me will necessarily like my fiction.
Now, onto books that I’ve nearly abandoned or considered abandoning, but actually finished.
“Should” is generally a battle between instinct and logic, id and superego. An allegory of sorts: when I was in high school, I was moderately athletic, but in a limited way; I ended up as a quintessential starting JV player on all my teams, never quite attaining to Varsity level. But one year, my senior year, I thought that I really “should” push myself, to get to that next level, to pursue some kind of fullness of achievement; even though I was enjoying perfectly all the playing time I was getting and never considered athleticism a central part of my identity. So I went out for Varsity, just barely made the team, and spent the rest of the season miserably subjecting myself to the coach’s masochistic training drills and sitting on the bench during games. I had thought that if I pushed myself, it would be “worth it” in some spiritual-existential way. It absolutely was not. I think about that experience often, and the metaphor pertains to the following list:
Shlogged Through and Almost Abandoned, But Kept On; No Pay-off, I Felt, In the End
The Accidental by Ali Smith
Telex From Cuba by Rachel Kushner
Sweetwater by Roxana Robinson
Enduring Love by Ian McEwan
The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen
The Unconsoled by Kazuo Ishiguro
Run by Ann Patchett
This final list is perhaps most significant, in terms of our moral quandary. This list keeps me from indulging appetite exclusively, from missing out on the pleasures of a difficult, not-immediately-or-obviously-gratifying read. I can’t imagine not having read these books; abandoning any one of them permanently really would have been a crying shame.
In particular, Tim O’Brien’s In the Lake of the Woods was an odd, and revelatory experience. I found the first 40 pages brilliant and alive and ground-shifting in that all-cylinders-firing way; then I found the next almost-150 pages tedious, repetitive, gimmicky; almost unbearable. Book, I’m going to quit you, I remember consciously thinking. But something made me pick it up again – all the acclaim, the voices of smart reader-friends in my head, my long-standing admiration of The Things They Carried; and also, I like to think, something more mysterious, my personal book fairy, who nudges me from category 3 above to this one, guiding and protecting me from tragically missed literary connections. So then, my God, those last 75 pages or so of In the Lake of the Woods – how it all comes together and wrecks you, shows you all the work that the previous 150 pages was doing. This is the novel that always pokes into my consciousness when I am considering quitting a book; but maybe this one will be another O’Brien miracle.
Struggled Through, Maybe Put Down For a While, But Finished and Am Very Glad I Did
In the Lake of the Woods by Tim O’Brien
Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf
The Names by Don Delillo
A Defense of Ardor: Essays by Adam Zagajewksi
The Blue Flower by Penelope Fitzgerald
I can imagine a day when the proportions of these lists begin to shift. If you’re like me – neither young nor old – you feel a pressure, like every reading minute counts, in a way that you don’t feel as much when you’re younger, and perhaps I won’t feel in quite the same way when I am older. I have no way of knowing, really, if category 3 (or even category 4), past, present or future, actually contains The One That Got Away, the book that may have changed my life. To the books and writers that I’ve broken up with, I truly am sorry it didn’t work out; it is always at least a little bit true that it’s not you, it’s me.
For me, 2009 was the year of Europe Central – not so much because I would wind up reading, in late November, William T. Vollmann’s large novel of that name, but because a couple of chance encounters back in January (Bohumil Hrabal’s I Served the King of England and Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones (reviewed here)) set me on a path toward it. In the intervening months, I found myself traipsing back and forth between literary Berlin and literary Moscow and losing myself in the territories in between.
My very favorite of the books I encountered during these peregrinations – indeed, the best book I read all year – was A Book of Memories, by the Hungarian master Péter Nádas. A glib way of describing this indescribable novel would be to say that it is to postmodernism what The Magic Mountain is to modernism – rigorous, comprehensive…a classic. However, the author who kept coming to mind as I read was Harold Brodkey. Nádas’ psychological and phenomenological insights are, like those of Brodkey’s stories, microscopically acute. Formally, however, A Book of Memories offers more excitement. The novel unfolds like a game of three-card monte, giving us several narrators whose gradual convergence seems to encompass the entire aesthetic and political history of Central Europe in the 20th Century.
A close second would have to be The Foundation Pit, by the early-Soviet-era writer Andrey Platonov. This slim novel reckons the cost of the Stalinist industrial program, but in the process reveals an ecstatic vision of the human soul. I agree with Edwin Frank of NYRB Classics: Platonov’s voice is as arresting as Kafka’s. It is also tender, and weirdly touching. And Platonov inspired me to read (finally) Life and Fate, the sweeping World War II saga by his good friend Vasily Grossman. This novel, like some of Platonov’s work, was suppressed by Soviet censors, and as a consequence was never properly edited. That shows, I think, in the sketchiness of some of the book’s secondary characters and plots. But at its frequent best – in its depiction of German death camps; in its attention to the trials of Viktor Shtrum and his family; and in an early, haunting letter from Viktor’s mother – Life and Fate approaches the depth of its models, Tolstoy and Chekhov.
The two finest works of nonfiction I read this year, by contrast, had a distinctly American flavor: Gay Talese’s Thy Neighbor’s Wife and Edie, a riveting oral history of Edie Sedgwick, edited by Jean Stein. Each is in the neighborhood of 500 pages, but reads with the propulsion of an intellectual whodunit. Taken together, they create a panorama of the transformative years between World War II and Vietnam, whose upheavals we’re still living down today. Come for the titillation; stay for the education.
Amid these longer works, it was a relief to have poetry collections to dip into. My favorites were Frederick Seidel’s Ooga-Booga and John Berryman’s The Dream Songs, both of which I wrote about here. (On second thought, where these two poets are concerned, maybe relief isn’t quite the right word.) Similarly, a couple of coffeetable books offered piecemeal inspiration. Air : 24 Hours, a remarkable monograph on/interview with the painter Jennifer Bartlett, is freshly minted MacArthur Genius Deborah Eisenberg’s My Dinner With Andre. I also heartily recommend Up is Up, But So is Down, an anthology of Downtown New York literature from the 1970s and 1980s. Reproductions of flyers and zines adorn this volume, expertly compiled by Brandon Stosuy. Come for the images; stay for the writing.
A couple of other novels I loved this year were Saul Bellow’s Humboldt’s Gift and Virginia Woolf’s The Waves. Each, in my read, unraveled at the end, and so didn’t quite stand with Nádas (or Herzog, or Mrs. Dalloway). But each reached rare pinnacles of perception and beauty, and I’m always pleased to spend time in the company of these writers.
The best new books I read were Jonathan Lethem’s Chronic City and Ingo Schulze’s New Lives. One of the first things people notice about Lethem is his skylarking prose, but in this most recent novel, a note of deeper irony (the kind born of pain; one wants to call it European, or maybe Bellovian) disciplines the sentences. I look forward to seeing where Lethem goes next. The East German setting of New Lives, and its uroboric epistolary structure – starting late in the story, slowly filling in the background – made for slow going at first, but the ethical intensity of its restaging of Faust has haunted me since I read it.
And then there was Europe Central, about which more anon. I’m not sure I can recommend it, anymore than I was sure I could recommend Joseph McElroy’s Women and Men last year. I haven’t even decided if I think Europe Central is a good book. But it swallowed me by slow degrees, and hasn’t quite let go.
There are many, many more amazing books I’d like to write about here: Janet Malcolm’s book on Chekhov; McElroy’s Lookout Cartridge; Rabbit Redux, Running Dog, Dog Soldiers; The Book of Daniel, Daniel Deronda… In fact, looking forward to “A Year in Reading” has begun to exert a formal pressure on my reading list, encouraging me to bypass the ephemeral in search of books I might passionately recommend. Fully half of what I read this year blew my mind, and I look forward to some future “Year in Reading” entry when I have 52 masterpieces to endorse. Imagine: one great book a week. For now, though, mindful that your hunger to read a 10,000 word post about what I read is probably even less keen than mine is to write it, I’ll leave you with these titles, and wishes for great reading in 2010.