The English Patient

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We Leave Our Stories in the Bones

There is a trinket in my parents’ house that was always my favorite: a cow’s knee-bone. It was the only instrument needed for a traditional Argentinian game the gauchos played. I used to hold it in my hands thinking it felt too light to be real, but it was. I held the little bone and felt overwhelmed by the fact that it once gave shape to such a big and powerful animal. Our own bones—so fragile now, so flexible when we are kids—literally hold us up. These elegant, live objects provide the structure to our lives. They hold our secrets and tell our stories when we are gone. Bones are infinitely important, and how we choose to see, write, or speak about them influences what others will make of them after we leave them behind: literary playthings or dust.

Years ago, when MTV was a main source of entertainment, I would watch the show Scarred with equal measures of love and dread. Watching people fall or hurt themselves for the most part isn’t funny to me; it caused me a certain anxiety to think about how badly this accident was going to affect their mobility. And yet I couldn’t stop. I’d sit, appalled, until an accident would come where the rupture was such that bone was exposed. I closed my eyes only then. We should never see bones; they are too intimate.

As much as real bones unnerve me, for just as long as I’ve been secretly obsessed with accidental bones, I’ve been fascinated by the description of them. Bones are worlds in themselves, tangible reminders of the multitudes we can contain. It is soothing to think that beneath everything that weighs down on us on a daily basis we have these sturdy things keeping everything up. Even if we rarely see them (ideally) whenever we are profoundly exhausted or certain of something, the sentiment is always bone-deep.

In The Godfather, Moe Green defends his honor by reminding Michael that he had “made his bones when he was dating cheerleaders.” While it is no longer necessary to actually kill someone to prove your worth, expressions like making your bones or cutting your teeth speak about learning through change. Like us, bones can be broken or molded. This scaffolding we have knows exactly how much pressure we can withstand, even if it is uncertain to the more anxious and eager part of ourselves.

When the written word tackles the issue of bones, how bodies are built, we get to see them as what they truly are: silent testimony of our lives. In The English Patient, Michael Ondaatje describes the collection of experiences that gathers in our bodies: “We die containing a richness of lovers and tribes, tastes we have swallowed, bodies we have plunged into and swum up as if rivers of wisdom, characters we have climbed into as if trees, fears we have hidden in as if caves.” Bone ekphrases are inherently elegant. The words used for the description of the individual pieces of our skeletons oftentimes involve: dry, soft, osseous, straight, bleached, pallid. Such austere but precise description of texture doesn’t come without a certain sensuality. Bones contain our stem cells and our secrets.

The truths that bones can tell about the world go beyond the romantic experiences. In Leila Guerriero’s essay “The Trace in the Bones,” she introduces us to the complex and beautiful work done by a team of self-taught forensic anthropologists in Argentina who identified and returned to their families hundreds of bodies that were murdered and disappeared during Argentina’s dictatorship. Through exhaustive investigation of the exhumed bodies found in common graves, the crimes of the past can be held accountable forever. As Clyde Snow—an American forensic anthropologist who began the project in Argentina and who testified at the trial of the Argentine junta—explained to the Argentina newspaper Página/12, “What we are doing, will make it impossible for future revisionists to deny what really happened. Every time we recover the skeleton of a young person with a bullet hole at the base of their skull, it becomes harder to make up excuses.”

Bones are too intimate; they keep messages about the lives they held up. Sofía Engaña has worked in Buenos Aires, Ciudad Juárez, and others, identifying bodies. She knows that life can be evident in the bones of the deceased: “Do you see the evidence of arthritis? What can you say about this jawbone? Touch it, pick it up. What do these teeth tell you?” Teeth, stronger but less intelligent than bones, are another window into who we are. In Valeria Luiselli’s fun and philosophical second novel, The Story of My Teeth, her main character Gustavo “Highway” Sánchez Sánchez calls himself the best auctioneer in the world due to his ability to sell not just things, but the stories that give those things value. In one case, said things happened to be his own teeth, which, according to him, used to belong to a long string of people including Marilyn Monroe and Jorge Luis Borges. What is more intimate than sharing teeth with your literary hero?

In an interview for The Paris Review, Jesmyn Ward recounts the ideas behind the title for her novel Salvage the Bones. “Salvage” becomes a tribute to the resilience and strength behind the word “Savage”; meanwhile, “bones” is simply a reminder to readers “what this family, and people like this family, are left with after tragedy strikes.” What is left. The family in Ward’s novel, as well as the people struck by Katrina, are left with just the bones of their previous life. The marrow within them can help build their life again just as much as their bareness can push away the seedlings of hope. It is because of this duality of possibilities—the very end of something, the capacity to create new things—that we must pay attention to the stories bones tell.

Image: Flickr/Joey Gannon

As Good as Gold

Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient won the Golden Man Booker Prize, the one-off award celebrating the best work of fiction from the last five decades of the prize. About the prize, Ondaatje said “I wish in fact that those of us on this Man Booker list had been invited to propose and speak about what we felt were the overlooked classics—in order to enlarge what ought to be read, as opposed to relying on the usual suspects.” Read the rest of his illuminating and gracious speech over at Literary Hub

May Preview: The Millions Most Anticipated (This Month)

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We wouldn’t dream of abandoning our vast semi–annual Most Anticipated Book Previews, but we thought a monthly reminder would be helpful (and give us a chance to note titles we missed the first time around).  Here’s what we’re looking out for this month — for more May titles, check out our First-Half Preview. Let us know what you’re looking forward to in the comments!

(Also, as Millions founder and publisher C. Max Magee wrote recently, you can help ensure that these previews, and all our great books coverage, continue for years to come by lending your support to the site as a member. The Millions has been running for nearly 15 years on a wing and a prayer, and we’re incredibly grateful for the love of our recurring readers and current members who help us sustain the work that we do.)

Warlight by Michael Ondaatje: From internationally acclaimed, bestselling author of The English Patient​ and Divisidero among his other works,​ this new novel ​from Ondaatje ​is set in the decade after World War II. ​When their parents move to Singapore, ​​​14-year-old​ Nathaniel and his older sister, Rachel, ​are left in London under the watchful eye of a mysterious figure called The Moth. As they ​become immersed in his eccentric circle of friends, ​they are both protected and educated in confusing ways. The mystery deepens when ​​their mother returns months later without their father, but​ ​gives them no explanation. Years later, Nathaniel ​begins to uncover the story through​ a journey of​ facts, recollection, and ​​imagination. If only Anthony Minghella were still with us to make the movie. (Claire)

The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner: In her third novel, two-time National Book Award-finalist Kushner writes about a woman named Romy Hall who is serving two consecutive life sentences (plus six years) in a prison in California’s Central Valley. The year is 2003, and the Mars Room in the title refers to a strip club in San Francisco where Romy used to dance; according to the jacket copy, Kushner details “the deadpan absurdities of institutional living…with humor and precision.” George Saunders calls Kushner “a young master” and Robert Stone wrote that she is “a novelist of the very first order.” Check out this short excerpt published by Entertainment Weekly. (Edan)

Some Trick by Helen DeWitt: If you periodically spend afternoons sitting around wondering when you will get to read something new by DeWitt, this is your season. In May we get 13 stories from the brilliant writer who brought us The Last Samurai—one of the best books of this or any millennium—and the evilly good Lightning Rods. In this collection DeWitt will evidently apply her mordant virtuosity to territory ranging from statistics to publishing. (Lydia)

Not That Bad, edited by Roxane Gay: In this age when (some) sexual assault survivors are finally being listened to and (some) sexual predators are being held accountable, there couldn’t be a better time for an essay collection examining just how pervasive and pernicious rape culture is. Gay has become a champion for survivors of sexual assault since the beginning of her writing career, so she is the ideal editor of this book that attacks rape culture from all angles. From essays by well-known figures such as Gabrielle Union to emerging writers, this book explores all elements of this ill from child molestation to the rape epidemic in the refugee world. (Tess)

Motherhood by Sheila Heti: Heti’s previous two books have created and followed lines of inquiry—with Misha Glouberman she wrote a book of conversational philosophy, The Chairs Are Where People Go. Heti’s novel How Should a Person Be? is an early work of autofiction that delves deep into art-making and friendship. Some called it a literary form of reality TV, making James Wood’s backhanded assessment of the book as both “unpretentious” and “narcissistic” quite the unintentional compliment. Heti’s new novel Motherhood follows in a similar line of existential questioning—the narrator approaches the topic of motherhood, asking not when but if she should endeavor to become a mother at all.  (Anne)

That Kind of Mother by Rumaan Alam: “Just because something is natural doesn’t mean it’s easy.” Priscilla Johnson says those words to Rebecca Stone early in Alam’s novel. Rebecca’s just given birth to her son Jacob, and the novel’s first scene feels both dizzying and precise—a visceral reminder of life’s complex surprises. Priscilla is the hospital staffer who most calms Rebecca’s anxieties, so much that she asks Priscilla to be Jacob’s nanny. A few years later, Priscilla’s own pregnancy ends in heartbreak. Rebecca’s decision to adopt Andrew is complex: she loves and misses Priscilla, and dearly loves this boy, but is she ready for the reality of raising a black son as a white mother? Alam’s sharp narrative asides—lines like “Some percentage of the things she did for the children were actually for her”—carry such weight and truth that we trust his route toward the bigger question of the book: are we ever ready for the pain and joy that life delivers us? (Nick R.)

Welcome to Lagos by Chibundu Onuzo: Five characters arrive in the megacity seeking to make a new start, leaving behind traumatic situations born of Nigeria’s sociopolitical complexities and mingling their fortunes in what Booklist calls, in a starred review, “a tangy Ocean’s Eleven–esque escapade that exposes class and ethnic divides in the country even as it manages to mock the West for its colonial gaze toward the African continent as a whole.” (Lydia)

Spring by Karl Ove Knausgaard, translated by Ingvild Burkey: This is the third book in the master’s Seasons Quartet, a novel rather than the essays that characterized the previous volume. With Spring, Knausgaard explores a family disaster, explaining to his daughter (the intended audience of the Quartet) why it is that they receive visits from Child Services, and what it was that caused her mother to leave. (Lydia)

Last Stories by William Trevor: Prior to his death in November 2016, Trevor told a friend that the book he was working on would be called Last Stories.  That is this book—the last we will ever have from the Irish author. Six of the 10 stories included here have never been published before, and what preview would be sufficient? Perhaps just this: if the engine of accomplished fiction truly is empathy, then you will be hard pressed to uncover a finer practitioner of the core humanity that inspired and inspires this deliberate, and personal, epitaph. (Il’ja)

Slave Old Man by Patrick Chamoiseau, translated by Linda Coverdale: A newly translated novel from a Prix Goncourt winner who Milan Kundera called the “heir of Joyce and Kafka,” Slave Old Man is the hallucinatory journey of an old man who has escaped enslavement on a plantation in the forest of Martinique, pursued by his former captor and a fierce dog. In a starred review, Publishers’ Weekly writes, “Chamoiseau’s prose is astounding in its beauty.” (Lydia)

Like a Mother by Angela Garbes: Several years ago Garbes, a food writer, wrote a viral and absolutely bananas piece about the mysteries and miracles of breastfeeding. Now she brings the same spirit of inquiry and amazement to a related and equally bananas process, filling a lacuna she faced when she was pregnant with her first child. The result is a deeply reported, deeply felt book on everything surrounding reproduction and its effects on the body and the mind. (Lydia)

Calypso by David Sedaris: In this, his first essay collection in five years, Sedaris uses a family beach house as a starting point to explore mortality and age with his characteristic humor and aplomb. (Read Sedaris’s latest essay, on his mother’s alcoholism, here at The New Yorker.) (Lydia)

 

 

 

The Ensemble by Aja Gabel: A novel about art and friendship and the fraught world of accomplished musicians—four young friends who comprise a string quartet. Mat Johnson said Gabel’s novel “deserves a standing ovation.” For a taste of Gabel’s prose, read her Best American Essays-notable piece on grief and eating ortolans in France. (Lydia)

 

The Lost Empress by Sergio De La Pava: De La Pava’s first novel, A Naked Singularity, was the rare self-published novel to receive critical acclaim, including the PEN/Bingham Prize. The Lost Empress is as ambitious as his first, a 672-page doorstopper that takes on both football and the criminal justice system. The novel has a large cast, but centers on two characters: Nina Gill, the daughter of the owner of the Dallas Cowboys, and presumed heir to the franchise; and Nuno DeAngeles, “a brilliant criminal mastermind,” who gets himself thrown into prison in order to commit a crime. (Hannah)

A Lucky Man by Jamel Brinkley: New York-bred writer Brinkley (and Year in Reading alum) delivers this anticipated debut story collection. Ranging from encounters on the New York subway to a young boy’s first encounter with the reality of racial hierarchy, these sensitive and probing stories promise to captivate. If you’ve read Brinkley’s title story “A Lucky Man” in A Public Space, then you know that he’s a talent to watch. (Ismail)

The Optimistic Decade by Heather Abel: Abel’s debut centers around a group of young people who converge in a utopian summer camp in a small town in the Colorado mountains, exploring American obsessions of freedom, ownership, property, and class against the vagaries of the Reagan and Bush years. In a starred review, Publishers’ Weekly calls this novel “politically and psychologically acute.” (Lydia)

 

Belly Up by Rita Bullwinkel: Bullwinkel’s stories are fantastic and fabulist feats that (often) address our messy, cumbersome bodies in thrilling and imaginative ways. For example: in lieu of a bra, a man is hired to support a daughter’s breasts; a woman whose plastic surgeon, when fixing her eyes, leaves her with a turkey neck (not literally but); twin brothers Gleb and Oleg, surgeon and sculptor, live in a prison infirmary and perform a thumb transplant. A compelling new voice, Bullwinkel has had stories in Tin House, Guernica, and Noon. Her first book, the story collection Belly Up, will be published by A Strange Object. (Anne)

Meet behind Mars by Renee Simms: In stories taking place across the United States and ranging in style from fabulist to realist to satyrical, Simms, a professor at University of Puget Sound, writes scenes from the American experience, focusing on the connections and inner spaces of a large cast of African-American characters. Tayari Jones calls this “an exciting debut of a vibrant new voice in American literature.” (Lydia)

Kickflip Boys by Neal Thompson: We all turn out like our parents to some degree — an unsettling revelation when we remember our own missteps growing up. In Neal Thompson’s new memoir Kickflip Boys, he recalls his rough-edged upbringing as he raises his skateboard-obsessed boys and wonders about their own emerging rough edges. Thompson is a magazine writer and the author of four prior books, most notably his biography of Robert “Believe It or Not!” Ripley. (Max)

The Pisces by Melissa Broder: You may know Broder because of her incredible So Sad Today tweets. If you do, you won’t be surprised to hear about her novel, The Pisces, which follows a Ph.D student in love with a Californian merman. The student, Lucy, has a breakdown after nine years of grad school, which compels her Angeleno sister to invite her to dogsit at her place. On the beach, a merman appears, and Lucy embarks on a romance that seems impossible. (Thom)

The Map of Salt and Stars by Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar: A novel about the Syrian war and the refugee crisis, juxtaposing the life of a modern girl fleeing Homs across land and sea and her medieval counterpart, a girl who traversed the same territory while apprenticed to a renowned mapmaker. Simultaneously an homage to Arab intellectual history and a lament of modern chaos. (Lydia)

Most Anticipated: The Great 2018 Book Preview

Settle in, folks, because this is one the longest first-half previews we’ve run in a long while. Putting this together is a labor of love, and while a huge crop of great spring books increases the labor, it also means there is more here for readers to love. We’d never claim to be comprehensive—we know there are far more excellent books on the horizon than one list can hold, which is why we’ve started doing monthly previews in addition to the semi-annual lists (and look out for the January Poetry Preview, which drops tomorrow). But we feel confident we’ve put together a fantastic selection of (almost 100!) works of fiction, memoir, and essay to enliven your January through June 2018. What’s in here? New fiction by giants like Michael Ondaatje, Helen DeWitt, Lynne Tillman, and John Edgar Wideman. Essays from Zadie Smith, Marilynne Robinson, and Leslie Jamison. Exciting debuts from Nafkote Tamirat, Tommy Orange, and Lillian Li. Thrilling translated work from Leïla Slimani and Clarice Lispector. A new Rachel Kushner. A new Rachel Cusk. The last Denis Johnson. The last William Trevor. The long-awaited Vikram Seth.

As Millions founder and publisher C. Max Magee wrote recently, you can help ensure that these previews, and all our great books coverage, continue for years to come by lending your support to the site as a member. The Millions has been running for nearly 15 years on a wing and a prayer, and we’re incredibly grateful for the love of our recurring readers and current members who help us sustain the work that we do.

So don your specs, clear off your TBR surfaces, and prepare for a year that, if nothing else, will be full of good books.
JANUARY
The Perfect Nanny by Leïla Slimani (translated by Sam Taylor): In her Goncourt Prize-winning novel, Slimani gets the bad news out of the way early—on the first page to be exact: “The baby is dead. It only took a few seconds. The doctor said he didn’t suffer. The broken body, surrounded by toys, was put inside a gray bag, which they zipped up.” Translated from the French by Sam Taylor as The Perfect Nanny—the original title was Chanson Douce, or Lullaby—this taut story about an upper-class couple and the woman they hire to watch their child tells of good help gone bad.  (Matt)

Halsey Street by Naima Coster: Coster’s debut novel is set in Bedford-Stuyvesant, a rapidly gentrifying corner of Brooklyn. When Penelope Grand leaves a failed art career in Pittsburgh and comes home to Brooklyn to look after her father, she finds her old neighborhood changed beyond recognition. The narrative shifts between Penelope and her mother, Mirella, who abandoned the family to move to the Dominican Republic and longs for reconciliation. A meditation on family, love, gentrification, and home. (Emily)

Fire Sermon by Jamie Quatro: Five years after her story collection, I Want to Show You More, drew raves from The New Yorker’s James Wood and Dwight Garner at The New York Times, Quatro delivers her debut novel, which follows a married woman’s struggle to reconcile a passionate affair with her fierce attachment to her husband and two children. “It’s among the most beautiful books I’ve ever read about longing—for beauty, for sex, for God, for a coherent life,” says Garth Greenwell, author of What Belongs to You. (Michael)

The Largesse of the Sea Maiden by Denis Johnson: Johnson’s writing has always had an antiphonal quality to it—the call and response of a man and his conscience, perhaps. In these stories, a dependably motley crew of Johnson protagonists find themselves forced to take stock as mortality comes calling.  The writing has a more plangent tone than Angels and Jesus’ Son, yet is every bit as edgy. Never afraid to look into the abyss, and never cute about it, Johnson will be missed. Gratefully, sentences like the following, his sentences, will never go away: “How often will you witness a woman kissing an amputation?” R.I.P. (Il’ja)

A Girl in Exile by Ismail Kadare (translated by John Hodgson): Kadare structures the novel like a psychological detective yarn, but one with some serious existential heft. The story is set physically in Communist Albania in the darkest hours of totalitarian rule, but the action takes place entirely in the head and life of a typically awful Kadare protagonist—Rudian Stefa, a writer. When a young woman from a remote province ends up dead with a provocatively signed copy of Stefa’s latest book in her possession, it’s time for State Security to get involved.  A strong study of the ease and banality of human duplicity. (Il’ja)

Frankenstein in Baghdad by Ahmed Saadawi (translated by Jonathan Wright): The long-awaited English translation of the winner of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction in 2014 gives American readers the opportunity to read Saadawi’s haunting, bleak, and darkly comic take on Iraqi life in 2008. Or, as Saadawi himself put it in interview for Arab Lit, he set out to write “the fictional representation of the process of everyone killing everyone.” (Check out Saadawi’s Year in Reading here.) (Nick M.)

This Will Be My Undoing by Morgan Jerkins: Wünderkind Jerkins has a background in 19th-century Russian lit and postwar Japanese lit, speaks six languages, works/has worked as editor and assistant literary agent; she writes across many genres—reportage, personal essays, fiction, profiles, interviews, literary criticism, and sports and pop culture pieces; and now we’ll be seeing her first book, an essay collection.  From the publisher: “This is a book about black women, but it’s necessary reading for all Americans.” The collected essays will cover topics ranging from “Rachel Dolezal; the stigma of therapy; her complex relationship with her own physical body; the pain of dating when men say they don’t ‘see color’; being a black visitor in Russia; the specter of ‘the fast-tailed girl’ and the paradox of black female sexuality; or disabled black women in the context of the ‘Black Girl Magic’ movement.”  (Sonya)

Mouths Don’t Speak by Katia D. Ulysse: In Drifting, Ulysse’s 2014 story collection, Haitian immigrants struggle through New York City after the 2010 earthquake that destroyed much of their county. In her debut novel, Ulysse revisits that disaster with a clearer and sharper focus. Jacqueline Florestant is mourning her parents, presumed dead after the earthquake, while her ex-Marine husband cares for their young daughter. But the expected losses aren’t the most serious, and a trip to freshly-wounded Haiti exposes the way tragedy follows class lines as well as family ones. (Kaulie) 

The Sky Is Yours by Chandler Klang Smith: Smith’s The Sky Is Yours, is a blockbuster of major label debuts. The dystopic inventiveness of this genre hybrid sci-fi thriller/coming of age tale/adventure novel has garnered comparisons to Gary Shteyngart, David Mitchell and Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. And did I mention? It has dragons, too, circling the crumbling Empire Island, and with them a fire problem (of course), and features a reality TV star from a show called Late Capitalism’s Royalty. Victor LaValle calls The Sky Is Yours “a raucous, inventive gem of a debut.” Don’t just take our word for it, listen to an audio excerpt.  (Anne)

Everything Here Is Beautiful by Mira T. Lee: Spanning cultures and continents, Lee’s assured debut novel tells the story of two sisters who are bound together and driven apart by the inescapable bonds of family. Miranda is the sensible one, thrust into the role of protector of Lucia, seven years younger, head-strong, and headed for trouble. Their mother emigrated from China to the U.S. after the death of their father, and as the novel unfurls in clear, accessible prose, we follow the sisters on journeys that cover thousands of miles and take us into the deepest recesses of the human heart. Despite its sunny title, this novel never flinches from big and dark issues, including interracial love, mental illness and its treatment, and the dislocations of immigrant life. (Bill)

The Infinite Future by Tim Wirkus: I read this brilliant puzzle-of-a-book last March and I still think about it regularly! The Infinite Future follows a struggling writer, a librarian, and a Mormon historian excommunicated from the church on their search for a reclusive Brazilian science fiction writer. In a starred review, Book Page compares Wirkus to Jonathan Lethem and Ron Currie Jr., and says the book “announces Wirkus as one of the most exciting novelists of his generation.” I agree.  (Edan)

 The Job of the Wasp by Colin Winnette: With Winnette’s fourth novel he proves he’s adept at re-appropriating genre conventions in intriguing ways. His previous book, Haint’s Stay, is a Western tale jimmyrigged for its own purposes and is at turns both surreal and humorous. Winnette’s latest, The Job of the Wasp, takes on the Gothic ghost novel and is set in the potentially creepiest of places—an isolated boarding school for orphaned boys, in the vein of Robert Walser’s Jakob von Gunten, Jenny Erpenbeck’s The Old Child, or even Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist. “Witty and grisly” according to Kelly Link, strange and creepy, Job of the Wasp reveals Winnette’s “natural talent” says Patrick deWitt. (Anne) 

Brass by Xhenet Aliu:  In what Publishers Weekly calls a “striking first novel,” a daughter searches for answers about the relationship between her parents, a diner waitress from Waterbury, Conn. and a line cook who emigrated from Albania. Aliu writes a story of love, family, and the search for an origin story, set against the decaying backdrop of a post-industrial town. In a starred review, Kirkus writes “Aliu’s riveting, sensitive work shines with warmth, clarity, and a generosity of spirit.” (Lydia)

The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin: Four adolescent sibling in 1960s New York City sneak out to see a psychic, who tells each of them the exact date they will die. They take this information with a grain of salt, and keep it from each other, but Benjamin’s novel follows them through the succeeding decades, as their lives alternately intertwine and drift apart, examining how the possible knowledge of their impending death affects how they live. I’m going to break my no-novels-about-New-Yorkers rule for this one. (Janet)

King Zeno by Nathaniel Rich: This historical thriller features an ax-wielding psychopath wreaking havoc in the city of Sazeracs. It’s been eight years since Rich moved to New Orleans, and in that time, he’s been a keen observer, filing pieces on the city’s storied history and changing identity for various publications, not least of all The New York Review of Books. He’s certainly paid his dues, which is vitally important since the Big Easy is an historically difficult city for outsiders to nail without resorting to distracting tokenism (a pelican ate my beignet in the Ninth Ward). Fortunately, Rich is better than that. (Nick M.)

The Monk of Mokha by Dave Eggers: Eggers returns to his person-centered reportage with an account of a Yemeni-American man named Mokhtar Alkhanshali’s efforts to revive the Yemeni tradition of coffee production just when war is brewing. A starred Kirkus review calls Eggers’s latest “a most improbable and uplifting success story.” (Lydia)

 

In Every Moment We Are Still Alive by Tom Malmquist (translated by Henning Koch): A hit novel by a Swedish poet brought to English-reading audiences by Melville House. This autobiographical novel tells the story of a poet whose girlfriend leaves the world just as their daughter is coming into it–succumbing suddenly to undiagnosed leukemia at 33 weeks. A work of autofiction about grief and survival that Publisher’s Weekly calls a “beautiful, raw meditation on earth-shattering personal loss.” (Lydia)

Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett: The award-winning British historian (The Pike: Gabriele D’Annunzio, Poet, Seducer and Preacher of War) makes her fiction debut. Narrated by multiple characters, the historical novel spans three centuries and explores the very timely theme of immigration. Walls are erected and cause unforeseen consequences for both the present and futurey. In its starred review, Kirkus said the novel was “stunning for both its historical sweep and its elegant prose.” (Carolyn)

Neon in Daylight by Hermione Hoby: A novel about art, loneliness, sex, and restless city life set against the backdrop of Hurricane Sandy-era New York, Neon in Daylight follows a young, adrift English catsitter as she explores the galleries of New York and develops an infatuation with a successful writer and his daughter, a barista and sex-worker. The great Ann Patchett called Hoby “a writer of extreme intelligence, insight, style and beauty.” (Lydia)

This Could Hurt by Jillian Medoff: Medoff works a double shift: when she isn’t writing novels, she’s working as a management consultant, which means, as her official bio explains, “that she uses phrases like ‘driving behavior’ and ‘increasing ROI’ without irony.” In her fourth novel, she turns her attention to a milieu she knows very well, the strange and singular world of corporate America: five colleagues in a corporate HR department struggle to find their footing amidst the upheaval and uncertainty of the 2008-2009 economic collapse. (Emily)

The Afterlives by Thomas Pierce: Pierce’s first novel is a fascinating and beautifully rendered meditation on ghosts, technology, marriage, and the afterlife. In a near-future world where holograms are beginning to proliferate in every aspect of daily life, a man dies—for a few minutes, from a heart attack, before he’s revived—returns with no memory of his time away, and becomes obsessed with mortality and the afterlife. In a world increasingly populated by holograms, what does it mean to “see a ghost?” What if there’s no afterlife? On the other hand, what if there is an afterlife, and what if the afterlife has an afterlife? (Emily)

Grist Mill Road by Christopher J. Yates: The follow-up novel by the author of Black Chalk, an NPR Best of the Year selection.  Yates’s latest “Rashomon-style” literary thriller follows a group of friends up the Hudson, where they are involved in a terrible crime. “I Know What You Did Last Summer”-style, they reconvene years later, with dire consequences. The novel receives the coveted Tana French endorsement: she calls it “darkly, intricately layered, full of pitfalls and switchbacks, smart and funny and moving and merciless.” (Lydia)
FEBRUARY
The Friend by Sigrid Nunez: In her latest novel, Nunez (a Year in Reading alum) ruminates on loss, art, and the unlikely—but necessary—bonds between man and dog. After the suicide of her best friend and mentor, an unnamed, middle-aged writing professor is left Apollo, his beloved, aging Great Dane. Publishers Weekly says the “elegant novel” reflects “the way that, especially in grief, the past is often more vibrant than the present.” (Carolyn)

Feel Free by Zadie Smith: In her forthcoming essay collection, Smith provides a critical look at contemporary topics, including art, film, politics, and pop-culture. Feel Free includes many essays previously published in The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books and it is divided into five sections: In the World, In the Audience, In the Gallery, On the Bookshelf, and Feel Free. Andrew Solomon described the collection as “a tonic that will help the reader reengage with life.” (Zoë)

What Are We Doing Here? by Marilynne Robinson: One of my favorite literary discoveries of 2017 was that there are two camps of Robinson fans. Are you more Housekeeping or Gilead? To be clear, all of us Housekeeping people claim to have loved ​her ​work before the Pulitzer committee agreed. But this new book is a collection of essays​ where Robinson explores the modern political climate and the mysteries of faith, including​,​ “theological, political, and contemporary themes​.”​ ​Given that ​the essays come​​ from Robinson’s incisive mind​, I think there will be more than enough to keep both camps happy.​ (Claire)​

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones: In our greatest tragedies, there is the feeling of no escape—and when the storytelling is just right, we feel consumed by the heartbreak. In Jones’s powerful new novel, Celestial and Roy are a married couple with optimism for their future. Early in the book, Jones offers a revelation about Roy’s family, but that secret is nothing compared to what happens next: Roy is arrested for a crime he didn’t commit, and sentenced to over a decade in prison. An American Marriage arrives in the pained, authentic voices of Celestial, Roy, and Andre—Celestial’s longtime friend who moves into the space left by Roy’s absence. Life, and love, must go on. When the couple writes “I am innocent” to each other in consecutive letters, we weep for their world—but Jones makes sure that we can’t look away. (Nick R.) 

The Strange Bird by Jeff VanderMeer: Nothing is what it seems in VanderMeer’s fiction: bears fly, lab-generated protoplasm shapeshifts, and magic undoes science. In this expansion of his acclaimed novel Borne, which largely focused on terrestrial creatures scavenging a post-collapse wasteland, VanderMeer turns his attention upward. Up in the sky, things look a bit different. (Check out his prodigious Year in Reading here.) (Nick M.)

House of Impossible Beauties by Joseph Cassara: First made famous in the documentary Paris Is Burning, New York City’s House of Xtravaganza is now getting a literary treatment in Cassara’s debut novel—one that’s already drawing comparisons to Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life. The story follows teenage Angel, a young drag queen just coming into her own, as she falls in love, founds her own house and becomes the center of a vibrant—and troubled—community. Critics call it “fierce, tender, and heartbreaking.” (Kaulie)

Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi: A surreal, metaphysical debut novel dealing with myth, mental health, and fractured selves centering around Ada, a woman from southern Nigeria “born with one foot on the other side.” She attends college in the U.S., where several internal voices emerge to pull her this way and that. Library Journal calls this “a gorgeous, unsettling look into the human psyche.” (Lydia)

 

Red Clocks by Leni Zumas: The latest novel from the author of The Listeners follows five women of different station in a small town in Oregon in a U.S. where abortion and IVF have been banned and embryos have been endowed with all the rights of people. A glimpse at the world some of our current lawmakers would like to usher in, one that Maggie Nelson calls “mordant, political, poetic, alarming, and inspiring–not to mention a way forward for fiction now.” (Lydia)

Heart Berries by Terese Mailhot: In her debut memoir, Mailhot—raised on the Seabird Island Indian Reservation in southwestern Canada, presently a postdoctoral fellow at Purdue—grapples with a dual diagnosis of PTSD and Bipolar II disorder, and with the complicated legacy of a dysfunctional family. Sherman Alexie has hailed this book as “an epic take—an Iliad for the indigenous.” (Emily)

 

Asymmetry by Lisa Halliday: 2017 Whiting Award winner Halliday has written a novel interweaving the lives of a young American editor and a Kurdistan-bound Iraqi-American man stuck in an immigration holding room in Heathrow airport. Louise Erdrich calls this “a novel of deceptive lightness and a sort of melancholy joy.” (Lydia)

 

Back Talk by Danielle Lazarin: long live the short story, as long as writers like Lazarin are here to keep the form fresh. The collection begins with “Appetite,” narrated by nearly 16-year-old Claudia, whose mother died of lung cancer. She might seem all grown up, but “I am still afraid of pain—for myself, for all of us.” Lazarin brings us back to a time when story collections were adventures in radical empathy: discrete panels of pained lives, of which we are offered chiseled glimpses. Even in swift tales like “Window Guards,” Lazarin has a finely-tuned sense of pacing and presence: “The first time Owen shows me the photograph of the ghost dog, I don’t believe it.” Short stories are like sideways glances or overheard whispers that become more, and Lazarin makes us believe there’s worth in stories that we can steal moments to experience. (Nick R.) 

The Château by Paul Goldberg: In Goldberg’s debut novel, The Yid, the irrepressible members of a Yiddish acting troupe stage manages a plot to assassinate Joseph Stalin in hopes of averting a deadly Jewish pogrom. In his second novel, the stakes are somewhat lower: a heated election for control of a Florida condo board. Kirkus writes that Goldberg’s latest “confirms his status as one of Jewish fiction’s liveliest new voices, walking in the shoes of such deadpan provocateurs as Mordecai Richler and Stanley Elkin.” (Matt)

The Line Becomes a River by Francisco Cantú: A memoir by a Whiting Award-winner who served as a U.S. border patrol agent. Descended from Mexican immigrants, Cantú spends four years in the border patrol before leaving for civilian life. His book documents his work at the border, and his subsequent quest to discover what happened to a vanished immigrant friend. (Lydia)

 

Call Me Zebra by Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi: If the driving force of Van der Vliet Oloomi’s first novel, Fra Keeler,  was “pushing narrative to its limits” through unbuilding and decomposition, her second novel, Call Me Zebra, promises to do the same through a madcap and darkly humorous journey of retracing the past to build anew. Bibi Abbas Abbas Hossein is last in a line of autodidacts, anarchists, and atheists, whose family left Iran by way of Spain when she was a child. The book follows Bibi in present day as she returns to Barcelona from the U.S., renames herself Zebra and falls in love. Van der Vliet Oloomi pays homage to a quixotic mix of influences—including Miguel de Cervantes, Jorge Luis Borges, and Kathy Acker—in Call Me Zebra, which Kirkus calls “a brilliant, demented, and bizarro book that demands and rewards all the attention a reader might dare to give it.” (Anne)

Some Hell by Patrick Nathan: A man commits suicide, leaving his wife, daughter, and two sons reckoning with their loss. Focused on the twinned narratives of Colin, a middle schooler coming to terms with his sexuality, as well as Diane, his mother who’s trying to mend her fractured family, Nathan’s debut novel explores the various ways we cope with maturity, parenting, and heartbreak. (Read Nathan’s Year in Reading here.) (Nick M.)

The Wedding Date by Jasmine Guillory: If 2017 was any indication, events in 2018 will try the soul. Some readers like to find escape from uncertain times with dour dystopian prognostications or strained family stories (and there are plenty). But what about something fun? Something with sex (and maybe, eventually, love). Something Roxane Gay called a “charming, warm, sexy gem of a novel….One of the best books I’ve read in a while.” Something so fun and sexy it earned its author a two-book deal (look out for the next book, The Proposal, this fall). Wouldn’t it feel good to feel good again? (Lydia)
MARCH
The Census by Jesse Ball: Novelist Ball’s nimble writing embodies the lightness and quickness that Calvino prized (quite literally, too: he pens his novels in a mad dash of days to weeks). And he is prolific, too. Since his previous novel, How to Start a Fire and Why, he has has written about the practice of lucid dreaming and his unique form of pedagogy, as well as a delightfully morbid compendium of Henry King’s deaths, with Brian Evenson. Ball’s seventh novel, The Census, tells the story of a dying doctor and his concern regarding who will care for his son with Down Syndrome, as they set off together on a cross-country journey. (Anne)

Men and Apparitions by Lynne Tillman: News of a new Tillman novel is worthy of raising a glass. Men and Apparitions is the follow-up novel to Tillman’s brilliant, ambitious American Genius: A Comedy. Men and Apparitions looks closely at our obsession with the image through the perspective of cultural anthropologist Ezekiel “Zeke” Hooper Stark. Norman Rush says, “this book is compelling and bracing and you read many sentences twice to get all the juice there is in them.”  Sarah Manguso has said she is “grateful” for Tillman’s “authentically weird and often indescribable books.” I second that. (Anne)

Whiskey & Ribbons by Leesa Cross-Smith: Police officer Eamon Michael Royce is killed in the line of duty. His pregnant wife, Evi, narrates Eamon’s passing with elegiac words: “I think of him making the drive, the gentle peachy July morning light illuminating his last moments, his last heartbeat, his last breath.” Months later and wracked with grief, Evi falls for her brother-in-law Dalton: “Backyard-wandering, full-moon pregnant in my turquoise maternity dress and tobacco-colored cowboy boots. I’d lose my way. Dalton would find me. He was always finding me.” The sentences in Cross-Smith’s moving debut are lifted by a sense of awe and mystery—a style attuned to the graces of this world. Whiskey & Ribbons turns backward and forward in time: we hear Eamon’s anxieties about fatherhood, and Dalton’s continuous search for meaning in his life. “I am always hot, like I’m on fire,” Evi dreams later in the novel, still reliving her husband’s death, “burning and gasping for air.” In Cross-Smith’s novel, the past is never forgotten. (Nick R.)

The Emissary by Yoko Tawada (translated by Margaret Mitsutani): In a New Yorker essay on Tawada, author of Memoirs of a Polar Bear, Riva Galchen wrote that “often in [her] work, one has the feeling of having wandered into a mythology that is not one’s own.” Tawada’s latest disorienting mythology is set in a Japan ravaged by a catastrophe. If children are the future, what does it presage that, post-disaster, they are emerging from the womb as frail, aged creatures blessed with an uncanny wisdom? (Read her Year in Reading here.) (Matt)

The Sparsholt Affair by Alan Hollinghurst: Hollinghurst’s sixth novel has already received glowing reviews in the U.K. As the title suggests, the plot hinges on a love affair, and follows two generations of the Sparsholt family, opening in 1940 at Oxford, just before WWII. The Guardian called it “an unashamedly readable novel…indeed it feels occasionally like Hollinghurst is trying to house all the successful elements of his previous books under the roof of one novel.” To those of us who adore his books, this sounds heavenly.  (Hannah)

The Chandelier by Clarice Lispector (translated by Magdalena Edwards and Benjamin Moser): Since Katrina Dodson published a translation of Lispector’s complete stories in 2015, the Brazilian master’s popularity has enjoyed a resurgence. Magdalena Edwards and Benjamin Moser’s new translation of Lispector’s second novel promises to extend interest in the deceased writer’s work. It tells the story of Virginia, a sculptor who crafts intricate pieces in marked isolation. This translation marks the first time The Chandelier has ever appeared in English (Ismail).

The Parking Lot Attendant by Nafkote Tamirat: It’s very easy to love this novel but difficult to describe it. A disarming narrator begins her account from a community with strange rules and obscure ideology located on an unnamed island. While she and her father uneasily bide their time in this not-quite-utopia, she reflects on her upbringing in Boston, and a friendship–with the self-styled leader of the city’s community of Ethiopian immigrants–that begins to feel sinister. As the story unfolds, what initially looked like a growing-up story in a semi-comic key becomes a troubling allegory of self-determination and sacrifice. (Lydia)

Let’s No One Get Hurt by Jon Pineda: A fifteen-year-old girl named Pearl lives in squalor in a southern swamp with her father and two other men, scavenging for food and getting by any way they can. She meets a rich neighbor boy and starts a relationship, eventually learning that his family holds Pearl’s fate in their hands. Publisher’s Weekly called it “an evocative novel about the cruelty of children and the costs of poverty in the contemporary South.” (Lydia)

The Merry Spinster by Mallory Ortberg: Fairy tales get a feminist spin in this short story collection inspired by Ortberg’s most popular Toast column, “Children’s Stories Made Horrific.” This is not your childhood Cinderella, but one with psychological horror and Ortberg’s signature snark. Carmen Maria Machado calls it a cross between, “Terry Pratchett’s satirical jocularity and Angela Carter’s sinister, shrewd storytelling, and the result is gorgeous, unsettling, splenic, cruel, and wickedly smart.” Can’t wait to ruin our favorite fables! (Tess)

The House of Broken Angels by Luis Alberto Urrea: Urrea is one of the best public speakers I’ve ever seen with my 35-year-old eyes, so it’s incredible that it’s not even the thing he’s best at. He’s the recipient of an American Book Award and a Pulitzer nominee for The Devil’s Highway. His new novel is about the daily life of a multi-generational Mexican-American family in California. Or as he puts it, “an American family—one that happens to speak Spanish and admire the Virgin of Guadalupe.” (Janet)

Speak No Evil by Uzodinma Iweala: Nearly 15 years after his critically-acclaimed debut novel, Beasts of No Nation, was published, Iweala is back with a story as deeply troubling. Teenagers Niru and Meredith are best friends who come from very different backgrounds. When Niru’s secret is accidentally revealed (he’s queer), there is unimaginable and unspeakable consequences for both teens. Publishers Weekly’s starred review says the “staggering sophomore novel” is “notable both for the raw force of Iweala’s prose and the moving, powerful story.” (Carolyn)

American Histories: Stories by John Edgar Wideman: Wideman’s new book is a nearly fantastical stretching and blurring of conventional literary forms—including history, fiction, philosophy, biography, and deeply felt personal vignettes. We get reimagined conversations between the abolitionist Frederick Douglass and the doomed white crusader for racial equality John Brown. We get to crawl inside the mind of a man sitting on the Williamsburg Bridge, ready to jump. We get Wideman pondering deaths in his own family. We meet Jean Michel Basquiat and Nat Turner. What we get, in the end, is a book unlike any other, the work of an American master working at peak form late in a long and magnificent career. (Bill)

Happiness by Aminatta Forna: A novel about what happens when an expert on the habits of foxes and an expert on the trauma of refugees meet in London, one that Paul Yoon raved about it in his Year in Reading: “It is a novel that carries a tremendous sense of the world, where I looked up upon finishing and sensed a shift in what I thought I knew, what I wanted to know. What a gift.” In a starred review, Publisher’s Weekly says “Forna’s latest explores instinct, resilience, and the complexity of human coexistence, reaffirming her reputation for exceptional ability and perspective.” (Lydia)

The Neighborhood by Mario Vargas Llosa (translated by Edith Grossman): The Nobel Prize winner’s latest arrives in translation from the extraordinary Edith Grossman. The Neighborhood is symphonic, a “thriller,” if you can call it that, about a detective whose wife gets roped into a debilitating situation. It is set in Llosa’s 1990s Peru, and you see this place with its paradox of grayness and color, juxtaposed with spots of blood. Two women married to very affluent men are having a lesbian affair, and one of their husbands, Enrique, is being blackmailed. When he fails to meet a photo magazine editor’s demands, he is slandered with photos of an erotic encounter on the front pages of the magazine. These two threads will converge at a point of explosion as is wont with Llosa’s novels. While this may not be his best work, it will keep readers reading all the way. (Chigozie)

My Dead Parents by Anya Yurchyshyn: Sometimes truth is more fascinating than fiction. Such is the case with Yurchyshyn’s My Dead Parents, which started as an anonymous Tumblr blog where the author posted photos and slivers of her parents’ correspondences in an attempt to piece together the mystery of their lives. Yurchyshyn’s father was a banker who died in Ukraine in a car “accident” that was possibly a hit when she was 16, and years later, though not many, her mother succumbed to alcoholism. Her parents made an enviously handsome couple, but they lived out Leo Tolstoy’s adage of each family being unhappy in its own way. Yurchyshyn’s tale is one of curiosity and discovery; it’s also an inquiry into grief and numbness. Her Buzzfeed essay, “How I Met My Dead Parents,” provides an apt introduction. (Anne)

The Last Watchman of Old Cairo by Michael David Lukas: Year in Reading alum and author of The Oracle of Stamboul explores the history of Cairo’s Ben Ezra Synagogue (site of the famous Cairo Geniza document trove discovered in the nineteenth century) through the story of its generations of Muslim watchmen as gleaned by their modern-day, Berkeley-dwelling scion. Rabih Alameddine calls it “a beautiful, richly textured novel, ambitious and delicately crafted…a joy.” (Lydia)

Bury What We Cannot Take by Kirstin Chen: This is an atmospheric novel of betrayal and ardent allegiance to ideology and political choices. When young Ah Liam decides it’s virtuous to report the resistance of his grandmother to Maoist rule to the authorities, he unravels his family with his own hands. His decision leads to the family having to flee the country and for them to have to make a decision: leave a fraction of the family behind or face greater harm. With its striking title about the sacrifice (the “burying”) of those who are left behind, the novel succeeds in drawing a very striking portrait of this turbulent period of Chinese history. (Chigozie)

Memento Park by Mark Sarvas: Many of us who have been with The Millions for some years surely remember Sarvas’s pioneer lit blog, The Elegant Variation—and look forward to his second novel, Memento Park, 10 years after his critically acclaimed Harry, Revised.  Memento Park is about art, history, Jewishness, fathers and sons: Joseph O’Neill writes pithily, “A thrilling, ceaselessly intelligent investigation into the crime known as history.”  So far, Kirkus praises Sarvas for “skillful prose and well-drawn characters.” (Sonya)

Wrestling with the Devil by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o: Famously, Kenyan author Ngugi wrote his Gikuyu novel Devil on the Cross while serving out a prison sentence. (And he did it on toilet paper, no less.) Now, the writer whom Chimamanda Adichie calls “one of the greatest of our time” is releasing a memoir of his prison stay, begun a half-hour before he was finally released. Taking the form of an extended flashback, the memoir begins at the moment of the author’s arrest and ends, a year later, when he left prison with a novel draft. (Thom)

Stray City by Chelsey Johnson: Twenty-something artist Andrea ran away from the Midwest to Portland to escape the expectation to be a mother and create a life for herself as a queer artist. Then, confused and hurt by a break-up, she hooked up with a man—and ended up having his child. Chelsey Johnson’s debut novel, which comes  after a successful run of short stories like the Ploughshares Solo “Escape and Reverse,” is a humorous and heartfelt exploration of sexual identity and unconventional families. (Ismail)
APRIL
The Female Persuasion by Meg Wolitzer: Wolitzer is ​one of those rare​​ novelist​s​ who is able to capture the zeitgeist. Her follow up to The Interestings, The Female Persuasion centers around Greer Kadetsky, who is a freshman in college when she meets Faith Frank, an inspiring feminist icon who ignites Greer’s passions. ​After graduation, Greer lands a job at Frank’s foundation and things get real. Wolitzer is a master weaver of story lines and in this novel she brings four ​together as the characters search for purpose in life and love. As the starred review in Publisher’s Weekly says, this novel explores, “what it is to both embrace womanhood and suffer because of it.” Amen sister. (Claire)

The Recovering by Leslie Jamison: The bestselling author of The Empathy Exams brings us The Recovering, which explores addiction and recovery in America, in particular the stories we tell ourselves about addiction. Jamison also examines the relationship many well-known writers and artists had with addiction, including Amy Winehouse, Billie Holiday, Raymond Carver, David Foster Wallace, and more. The Recovering has received advance praise from Stephen King, Vivian Gornick, and Anne Fadiman. Chris Kraus described the The Recovering  as “a courageous and brilliant example of what nonfiction writing can do.” (Zoë)

Circe by Madeline Miller: It took Miller 10 years to write her Orange Prize-winning debut novel, The Song of Achilles. Happily, we only had to wait another five for Circe, even more impressive when one considers that the novel’s story covers millennia. Here Miller again invokes the classical world and a massive cast of gods, nymphs, and mortals, but it’s all seen through the knowing eyes of Circe, the sea-witch who captures Odysseus and turns men into monsters. (Kaulie)

America Is Not the Heart by Elaine Castillo: As we enter year two of the Donald Trump presidency, Castillo’s first novel challenges readers to look beyond the headlines to grasp the human dimension of America’s lure to immigrants in this big-hearted family saga about three generations of Filipina women who struggle to reconcile the lives they left behind in the Philippines with the ones they are making for themselves in the American suburbs. (Michael) 

You Think It, I’ll Say It by Curtis Sittenfeld: Is Sittenfeld a serious literary novelist who dabbles in chick lit? Is she a writer of frothy beach reads who happens to have an MFA from Iowa? Do such distinctions still have any meaning in today’s fiction market? Readers can decide for themselves when Sittenfeld publishes her first story collection, after five novels that have ranged from her smash debut Prep to American Wife, her critically acclaimed “fictional biography” of former First Lady Laura Bush. (Michael)

Varina by Charles Frazier: Returning to the setting of his NBA winning Cold Mountain, Frazier taps into the American Civil War, specifically the life of Varina Howell Davis, the teenage bride of Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy. In this personal tragedy set in an epic period of American history, Frazier examines how “being on the wrong side of history carries consequences” regardless of one’s personal degree of involvement in the offense.  Something to think about. (Il’ja)

Sharp: The Women Who Made an Art of Having an Opinion by Michelle Dean: You’ve been reading Dean’s reviews and journalism for some time at The Nation, The Guardian, Buzzfeed, The New Yorker, Slate, Salon The New Republic, et alia.  Winner of the 2016 NBCC’s Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing, Dean is debuting her first book with apt timing: Sharp features intertwining depictions of our most important 20th-century female essayists and cultural critics—Susan Sontag, Dorothy Parker, Hannah Arendt, Pauline Kael, Rebecca West, Janet Malcolm, Joan Didion, and others.  A hybrid of biography, literary criticism, and cultural history, Sharp has been praised and starred by PW as “stunning and highly accessible introduction to a group of important writers.” (Sonya)

How to Write an Autobiographical Novel by Alexander Chee: In addition to receiving a starred review—and being named a Top 10 Essay Collection of Spring 2018—by Publishers Weekly, Chee’s essay collection explores a myriad of topics that include identity, the AIDS crisis, Trump, tarot, bookselling, art, activism, and more. Ocean Vuong described the book as “life’s wisdom—its hurts, joys and redemptions—salvaged from a great fire.”  (Zoë)

Disoriental by Négar Djavadi (translated by Tina Kover): From the waiting room of a French fertility clinic, a young woman revisits the stories of generations of her Iranian ancestors culminating in her parents, who brought her to France when she was 10. This French hit, published in English by Europa Editions, is called “a rich, irreverent, kaleidoscopic novel of real originality and power” by Alexander Maksik. (Lydia)

Heads of the Colored People by Nafissa Thompson-Spires: A debut collection of stories exploring black identity and middle-class life in so-called “post-racial” America, with storylines ranging from gun violence and depression to lighter matters like a passive-aggressive fight between the mothers of school kids. George Saunders called these stories “vivid, fast, funny, way-smart, and verbally inventive.” (Lydia)

 

Black Swans by Eve Babitz: Until last year, Babitz was an obscure writer who chronicled hedonistic Los Angeles in the 1960s and 1970s. And then Counterpoint and NYRB Classics began reissuing her memoirs and autofiction, and word of Babitz’s unique voice began to spread. In The New Yorker, Jia Tolentino wrote, “On the page, Babitz is pure pleasure—a perpetual-motion machine of no-stakes elation and champagne fizz.” Novelist Catie Disabato asserts that Babitz “isn’t the famous men she fucked or the photographs she posed in. She is the five books of memoir and fiction she left behind for young women, freshly moved to Los Angeles, to find.” Black Swans is the latest in these recent reissues. Published in 1993, these stories/essays cover everything from the AIDS crisis to learning to tango. And, of course, the Chateau Marmont. (Edan)

Look Alive Out There by Sloane Crosley: Crosley, author of the New York Times bestselling essay collection I Was Told There’d Be Cake, returns with a new collection of essays. Ten years removed from her debut, Crosley takes on issues ranging from the pressures of fertility, to swingers, to confronting her own fame. Look Alive promises to be a worthwhile follow-up to Crosley’s 2011 collection How Did You Get This Number?. (Ismail)

The Only Story by Julian Barnes: Give this to Barnes: the Man Booker laureate’s not afraid of difficult premises. In his 13th novel, a college student named Paul spends a lazy summer at a tennis club, where he meets a middle-aged woman with two daughters around his age. Soon enough, the two are having an affair, and a flash-forward to a much-older Paul makes clear it upended their lives. (Thom)

 

Blue Self-Portrait by Noémi Lefebvre (translated by Sophie Lewis): In this torrential inner monologue out from Oakland publisher Transit Books, a woman reflects on music, politics and her affair with a musician, a pianist obsessed with the 1910 self-portrait painted by Arnold Schoenberg, a haunting, blue-tinted work in which the composer’s“expression promised nothing positive for the art of the future, conveyed an anxiety for the future, looked far beyond any definition of the work of art or of the future.” (Matt)

How to Be Safe by Tom McCallister: This novel, by the author of The Young Widower’s Handbook, is billed as We Need to Talk About Kevin meets Dept. of Speculation—those are two of my favorite books! Also? Tom McCallister…is a man!  Although high school English teacher Anna Crawford is quickly exonerated after being named a suspect in a campus shooting, she nevertheless suffers intense scrutiny in the wake of the tragedy. As the jacket copy says, “Anna decides to wholeheartedly reject the culpability she’s somehow been assigned, and the rampant sexism that comes with it, both in person and online.” Of the book, novelist Amber Sparks writes, “It’s so wonderful—so furious and so funny and urgent and needed in this mad ugly space we’re sharing with each other.” Author Wiley Cash calls McCallister “an exceptionally talented novelist.” (Edan)
MAY
Warlight by Michael Ondaatje: From internationally acclaimed, bestselling author of The English Patient​ and Divisidero among his other works,​ this new novel ​from Ondaatje ​is set in the decade after World War II. ​When their parents move to Singapore, ​​​14-year-old​ Nathaniel and his older sister, Rachel, ​are left in London under the watchful eye of a mysterious figure called The Moth. As they ​become immersed in his eccentric circle of friends, ​they are both protected and educated in confusing ways. The mystery deepens when ​​their mother returns months later without their father, but​ ​gives them no explanation. Years later, Nathaniel ​begins to uncover the story through​ a journey of​ facts, recollection, and ​​imagination. If only Anthony Minghella were still with us to make the movie. (Claire)

The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner: In her third novel, two-time National Book Award-finalist Kushner writes about a woman named Romy Hall who is serving two consecutive life sentences (plus six years) in a prison in California’s Central Valley. The year is 2003, and the Mars Room in the title refers to a strip club in San Francisco where Romy used to dance; according to the jacket copy, Kushner details “the deadpan absurdities of institutional living…with humor and precision.” George Saunders calls Kushner “a young master” and Robert Stone wrote that she is “a novelist of the very first order.” Check out this short excerpt published by Entertainment Weekly. (Edan)

Some Trick by Helen DeWitt: If you periodically spend afternoons sitting around wondering when you will get to read something new by DeWitt, this is your season. In May we get 13 stories from the brilliant writer who brought us The Last Samurai—one of the best books of this or any millennium—and the evilly good Lightning Rods. In this collection DeWitt will evidently apply her mordant virtuosity to territory ranging from statistics to publishing. (Lydia)

Motherhood by Sheila Heti: Heti’s previous two books have created and followed lines of inquiry—with Misha Glouberman she wrote a book of conversational philosophy, The Chairs Are Where People Go. Heti’s novel How Should a Person Be? is an early work of autofiction that delves deep into art-making and friendship. Some called it a literary form of reality TV, making James Wood’s backhanded assessment of the book as both “unpretentious” and “narcissistic” quite the unintentional compliment. Heti’s new novel Motherhood follows in a similar line of existential questioning—the narrator approaches the topic of motherhood, asking not when but if she should endeavor to become a mother at all.  (Anne)

That Kind of Mother by Rumaan Alam: “Just because something is natural doesn’t mean it’s easy.” Priscilla Johnson says those words to Rebecca Stone early in Alam’s novel. Rebecca’s just given birth to her son Jacob, and the novel’s first scene feels both dizzying and precise—a visceral reminder of life’s complex surprises. Priscilla is the hospital staffer who most calms Rebecca’s anxieties, so much that she asks Priscilla to be Jacob’s nanny. A few years later, Priscilla’s own pregnancy ends in heartbreak. Rebecca’s decision to adopt Andrew is complex: she loves and misses Priscilla, and dearly loves this boy, but is she ready for the reality of raising a black son as a white mother? Alam’s sharp narrative asides—lines like “Some percentage of the things she did for the children were actually for her”—carry such weight and truth that we trust his route toward the bigger question of the book: are we ever ready for the pain and joy that life delivers us? (Nick R.)

Adjustment Day by Chuck Palahniuk: Four years since publishing his last novel, Palahniuk returns in the era of fake news, obvious government corruption, and widespread despair. (It’s as though the protagonists in his most famous novels were right from the start.) In Adjustment Day, these themes weave together in the form of a mysterious day of reckoning orchestrated by an out of touch, aging group of elected officials. (Nick M.)

Last Stories by William Trevor: Prior to his death in November 2016, Trevor told a friend that the book he was working on would be called Last Stories.  That is this book—the last we will ever have from the Irish author. Six of the 10 stories included here have never been published before, and what preview would be sufficient? Perhaps just this: if the engine of accomplished fiction truly is empathy, then you will be hard pressed to uncover a finer practitioner of the core humanity that inspired and inspires this deliberate, and personal, epitaph.  RIP. (Il’ja)

MEM by Bethany Morrow In this debut novel set in a speculative past, a Montreal-based scientist discovers a way to extract memories from people, resulting in physical beings, Mems, who are forced to experience the same memory over and over. Complications ensue when one of the Mems, Dolores Extract #1, begins to make and form her own memories. (Hannah)

 

And Now We Have Everything by Meaghan O’Connell: O’Connell’s memoir—her first book—is here to remedy the “nobody tells you what it’s really like” refrain of new mothers. Giving birth to her son in her 20s, after an unplanned pregnancy, O’Connell chronicles the seismic changes that happened to her body, routine, social life, and existential purpose before she knew what was coming. All the cool moms of literary twitter (including Edan!) are raving. (Janet)

The Ensemble by Aja Gabel: A novel about art and friendship and the fraught world of accomplished musicians—four young friends who comprise a string quartet. Mat Johnson said Gabel’s novel “deserves a standing ovation.” For a taste of Gabel’s prose, read her Best American Essays-notable piece on grief and eating ortolans in France. (Lydia)

 

The Lost Empress by Sergio De La Pava: De La Pava’s first novel, A Naked Singularity, was the rare self-published novel to receive critical acclaim, including the PEN/Bingham Prize. The Lost Empress is as ambitious as his first, a 672-page doorstopper that takes on both football and the criminal justice system. The novel has a large cast, but centers on two characters: Nina Gill, the daughter of the owner of the Dallas Cowboys, and presumed heir to the franchise; and Nuno DeAngeles, “a brilliant criminal mastermind,” who gets himself thrown into prison in order to commit a crime. (Hannah)

A Lucky Man by Jamel Brinkley: New York-bred writer Brinkley (and Year in Reading alum) delivers this anticipated debut story collection. Ranging from encounters on the New York subway to a young boy’s first encounter with the reality of racial hierarchy, these sensitive and probing stories promise to captivate. If you’ve read Brinkley’s title story “A Lucky Man” in A Public Space, then you know that he’s a talent to watch. (Ismail)

Belly Up by Rita Bullwinkel: Bullwinkel’s stories are fantastic and fabulist feats that (often) address our messy, cumbersome bodies in thrilling and imaginative ways. For example: in lieu of a bra, a man is hired to support a daughter’s breasts; a woman whose plastic surgeon, when fixing her eyes, leaves her with a turkey neck (not literally but); twin brothers Gleb and Oleg, surgeon and sculptor, live in a prison infirmary and perform a thumb transplant. A compelling new voice, Bullwinkel has had stories in Tin House, Guernica, and Noon. Her first book, the story collection Belly Up, will be published by A Strange Object. (Anne)

The Pisces by Melissa Broder: You may know Broder because of her incredible So Sad Today tweets. If you do, you won’t be surprised to hear about her novel, The Pisces, which follows a Ph.D student in love with a Californian merman. The student, Lucy, has a breakdown after nine years of grad school, which compels her Angeleno sister to invite her to dogsit at her place. On the beach, a merman appears, and Lucy embarks on a romance that seems impossible. (Thom)
JUNE
Kudos by Rachel Cusk: When I first encountered Cusk’s writing in the mid-aughts I wrote her off as an author of potentially tedious domestic drama. I was woefully wrong. It’s true Cusk is a chronicler of the domestic: she is as known for her memoirs of motherhood and divorce as she is for her novels, but her writing is innovative, observant, and bold. The New Yorker declared that with the trilogy that her latest novel Kudos completes, Cusk has “renovated” the novel, merging fiction with oral history, retooling its structure. Cusk has said: “I’ve never treated fiction as a veil or as a thing to hide behind, which perhaps was, not a mistake exactly, but a sort of risky way to live.” (Anne)

A Suitable Girl by Vikram Seth: Reportedly delayed by writer’s block brought on by a breakup, Seth has finally produced the much-anticipated sequel to his international smash of 1993, A Suitable Boy. That novel, a gargantuan epic set in post-independence India in the 1950s, was a multi-family saga built around the pursuit of a suitable husband in a world of arranged marriages. In the “jump sequel,” the original protagonist is now in her 80s and on the prowl for a worthy bride for her favorite grandson. Though best-known for A Suitable Boy, the versatile Seth has produced novels, poetry, opera, a verse novel, a travel book, and a memoir. (Bill)

Florida by Lauren Groff: After collecting fans like Bara​c​k Obama with her bestselling novel Fates and Furies, ​Groff’s next book is a collection of short stories that center around Florida, “the landscape, climate, history, and state of mind​.” Included is ​”Dogs Go Wolf,​”​ the haunting story that appeared in The New Yorker earlier in the year. ​In a​ recent​ interview,​ Groff gave us the lay of the land:​ “The collection is a portrait of my own incredible ambivalence about the state where I’ve lived for twelve years.​..​I love the disappearing natural world, the sunshine, the extraordinary and astonishing beauty of the place as passionately as I hate the heat and moisture and backward politics and the million creatures whose only wish is to kill you.​”​ (Claire)

There There by Tommy Orange: Set in Oakland, Orange’s novel describes the disparate lives that come together for the Oakland Powwow and what happens to them when they get there. In an extraordinary endorsement,  Sherman Alexie writes that Orange’s novel “is truly the first book to capture what it means to be an urban Indian—perhaps the first novel ever to celebrate and honor and elevate the joys and losses of urban Indians. You might think I’m exaggerating but this book is so revolutionary—evolutionary—that Native American literature will never be the same.” (Lydia)

Upstate by James Wood: It’s been 15 years since Wood’s first novel, The Book Against God, was published. What was Wood doing in the meantime? Oh, just influencing a generation of novelists from his perch at The New Yorker, where his dissecting reviews also functioned as miniature writing seminars. He also penned a writing manual, How Fiction Works. His sophomore effort concerns the Querry family, who reunite in upstate New York to help a family member cope with depression and to pose the kinds of questions fiction answers best: How do people get through difficulty? What does it mean to be happy? How should we live our lives? (Hannah)

The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai: This third novel from the acclaimed author of The Borrower and The Hundred-Year House interlaces the story of an art gallery director whose friends are succumbing to the AIDS epidemic in 1980s Chicago with a mother struggling to find her estranged daughter 30 years later in contemporary Paris. “The Great Believers is by turns funny, harrowing, tender, devastating, and always hugely suspenseful,” says Margot Livesey, author of Mercury. (Michael) 

Good Trouble by Joseph O’Neill: Frequent New Yorker and Harper’s readers will know that O’Neill has been writing a lot of short fiction lately. With the new Good Trouble, the Netherland author now has a full collection, comprised of 11 off-kilter, unsettling stories. Their characters range from a would-be renter in New York who can’t get anyone to give him a reference to a poet who can’t decide whether or not to sign a petition. (Thom)

Number One Chinese Restaurant by Lillian Li: A family chronicle, workplace drama, and love story rolled into one, Li’s debut chronicles the universe of the Beijing Duck House restaurant of Rockville, Md., run by a family and long-time employees who intertwine in various ways when disaster strikes. Lorrie Moore raves, “her narratives are complex, mysterious, moving, and surprising.” (Lydia)

 

SICK by Porochista Khakpour: In her much anticipated memoir SICK, Khakpour chronicles her arduous experience with illness, specifically late-stage Lyme disease. She  examines her efforts to receive a diagnosis and the psychological and physiological impact of being so sick for so long, including struggles with mental health and addiction. Khakpour’s memoir demonstrates the power of survival in the midst of pain and uncertainty. (Zoë) 

Fight No More by Lydia Millet: Millet’s 2010 collection Love in Infant Monkeys was a Pulitzer Prize finalist. Eight years later she’s released another collection of stories arranged around a real estate broker and their family as they struggle to reconnect. Millet’s satire is well-known for it’s sharp brutality—and its compassionate humanity. Both sides are on full display here. (Kaulie)

 

Tonight I’m Someone Else by Chelsea Hodson: Examining the intersection of social media and intimacy, the commercial and the corporeal, the theme of Hodson’s essay collection is how we are pushed and pulled by our desire. The Catapult teacher’s debut has been called “racingly good…refreshing and welcome” by Maggie Nelson. (Tess)

 

Invitation to a Bonfire by Adrienne Celt: On the heels of her critically praised debut, The Daughters, Celt gives us a love-triangle story that, according to the publisher, is “inspired by the infamous Nabokov marriage, with a spellbinding psychological thriller at its core.”  The protagonist is a young Russian refugee named Zoya who becomes entangled with her boarding school’s visiting writer, Leo Orlov, and his imperious wife, Vera.  Our own Edan Lepucki praised the novel as “a sexy, brilliant, and gripping novel about the fine line between passion and obsession. I am in awe of Celt’s mastery as a prose stylist and storyteller; I can’t stop thinking about this amazing book.” (Sonya)

Books Out of Place

1.
The house vomits everything a family has accumulated over three decades. Appliances, utensils, tchotchkes, forgotten photographs, important documents—everything has to be packed away. Everything impinges on them, whining to be replaced, put back out of sight, left alone.

As we make piles to help my partner’s parents sort through their effects the day before their kitchen will be demoed, his father stumbles across a basket full of books—Native Son catches my eye. Uncle, can I have it? He glances at the book, wondering why he’s still holding onto it. My partner’s parents have reached the end of their patience. It would be simpler to throw everything away, rather than figure out what’s worth saving. As more books resurface, uncle says, Rajat, you want this; I’m not sure whether it’s a question.

The next day, my partner bristles at the books I cart home from the Performing Arts library, a few blocks from our apartment. I hold them the way my school librarian showed my third-grade class—palm cupping the spine, spine facing down. I set them in a cubby near my desk, next to books they may never have met or brushed up against before. My goal is to reorganize them, remove them from the system of classification inflicted upon them by the library. The essay I may write using some or none of these books feels like a dinner party I’m hosting—which books will play nice with one another? Which books will start up an argument?

More books? my partner asks. So dusty! He’s resigned to the fact that I’ve never taken to using the iPad he gave me years ago. I once saw a booger fall out of a library book when I was a kid. Now I’m traumatized, he says.

I roll my eyes—our little joke. I apologize for the lean of our shelves, which the previous tenants had affixed to the walls, a lean that seems to get more precarious each week. Without any shelf space these days, I try maintain tidy piles of magazines, printouts, and books, on the floor, piles that grow taller by the day. I know when I’m ready for each book I acquire. I touch it and feel it. But until then, the stacks become shakier. All the while, I pretend they’re not on the floor.

The Old English word “dustsceawung” means, literally, “a contemplation of dust.” It’s an understanding not of what’s been lost, or the transience of things, but of how the past persists in the present. To consider dust, however, is also to consider the work left to do with things that impinge on us. Dust collects because I haven’t circulated in a book’s ideas, or had a chance to let their words inhabit me.

2.
What is it about books left on the sidewalk that makes me weep? As Ralph Waldo Emerson writes, “In the highest civilization, the book is still the highest delight.” I take it upon myself to pluck used books off a stranger’s stoop or from a trash can lid. This is how they sneak into my life, crawling with traces of the people who held them in the past, who touched them, who were touched by them. Strangers, like germs, cling to the pages of the books I steal for myself.

Books don’t belong on the floor, my mother always said to me. For South Asians, the logic is twofold: books are considered sacred objects, as vessels of knowledge; and two, our feet are considered unclean. We keep books off the ground, above where our feet travel. This responsibility toward books confers on them a quiet dignity. Accidently grazing a book with my foot today makes me shudder—I instinctively reach for it, touching it to my forehead as if to offer an apology, a little idiosyncrasy I’ve even performed in public. I promise myself I’ll treat books well, for they’ve done the same for me.

Books left on the street are contaminated on account of their not belonging there. For the anthropologist Mary Douglas, writing in 1966, “dirt” is that which a society considers out of place. What we deem dirty demonstrates how we draw the boundary between what we think of as sacred and profane. Accordingly, things became polluted because they find themselves existing outside of a neat category. We avoid pollution for its potentially threatening effects on us. Douglas’s idea maps neatly onto the South Asian construct of dirt that I grew up adhering to.

3.
Most Saturday mornings, I’m woken up by the sounds of the garbage truck as it churns outside my building. Glass bottles shatter as they’re crushed, and the truck lets out a low grumble, its belly full on the things that have exhausted their value, that no longer give us pleasure. As I climb out of bed and see the stack of books on my nightstand, I wonder whether any books have been left downstairs, and what future awaits them. No one would leave a book to be thrown away and compacted, would they? The sanitation workers are attentive and considerate. They wouldn’t let such a fate befall a book.

In the afternoon, my partner and I pass long tables on Broadway piled high with bargain books. I wonder where they all came from, and why I don’t spend more time sifting through them. They’ve been spared the violence of dumpsters and compactors. Kind Haitian men sit next to them, never interested in helping you finding what you’re looking for, but always available for a friendly chat. I’m not even sure I’m looking for anything in particular. I twist around myself that I cannot approach these tables and locate anything for myself. The books lack order, or at least the curated appearance of a bookstore. The burden falls to me to scan everything, or walk away empty-handed without trying.

4.
September 1 feels like the most popular moving day in New York. Thousands of people either bid farewell to this city with a sigh of relief; arrive with trucks and boxes and high hopes to be welcomed here; or are simply—not so simply—moving from one part of New York to another. This new neighborhood will be more bearable than their old one as long as it feels fresh.[1] For days before and after September 1, the traces of our neighbors’ lives get tossed out and left behind. Near trash cans sit anxious heaps of books. I feel lucky that they aren’t discarded so much as displaced.

A friend who was visiting my partner and me asked me, one night, Who in New York is your person? Who can you count on for anything, even just for being lazy with on the couch? Her question pricked me. I realized I’ve spent almost a decade in New York with only one or two or three relationships like this. Some friends have moved away, others are near and we’ve let time fill the gaps between us. That night, my friend stirred something within me I didn’t know I yearned for.

Discarded, possibly contaminated books seem precious—even if I’ve never heard of the titles. They are the “unconsoled,” Arundhati Roy’s word—ever whining. But the possibility that books might rescue me is why I pluck them off the street. I protect them so that one day, they may save me.

5.
Somewhere on the Upper West Side, I walked away from what must have been a decade of National Geographic magazines, with their canary-yellow spines neatly fanned out, catching the sunlight. The shade of yellow varied subtly from issue to issue, as if time in the sun had faded some issues left out on coffee tables and not others, the ones toted around in New Yorker canvas bags. I left them all behind, however, and walked away. If I couldn’t cart away all the issues, how could I choose just a few? I realized, a block later, that my logic was flawed: this treasure didn’t represent the full material output of the magazine since its founding. I should’ve just rescued what I could and let the rest go. I couldn’t save all of them.

A year later, on my way to the hair salon, I passed a handsome leather armchair in good condition that wouldn’t take much effort to bring home, with help. By the time I stepped out of my appointment, freshly shorn, a white boy was sitting smugly in my armchair. I presumed, with indignation, that he was waiting for a friend to give him a hand to get it off the street. Half an hour ago, it was trash. Then it was mine. Now, it disgusted me that I saw a stranger with his butt in something I’d wordlessly laid claim to.

6.
Books were never mine to buy. Still, I grew up in a house of books—a double-volume of Grimm’s’Fairy Tales in pistachio green and gold-flecked pages stands out in my mind. Even if I never saw my parents open their copy of The English Patient or Sons and Lovers, I came to respect books, never mishandling them, or casting them aside. I spent a summer with Vikram Seth’s 1,500-word tome A Suitable Boy, humbled to have borrowed something I didn’t own—both book and time; humbled to immerse myself in 1950s Delhi, the world my parents were born into, a world I’d never experience. Even the Yellow Pages had a place in our home, with its supple shape, its soft, onionskin pages bearing thousands of inches of digits. Parents who leave the South Asian subcontinent teach their children, a world away, an epoch later, how to save everything for an era to come. Kitchen countertops and coffee tables spill over with reading material. They teach us who we’ll become.

7.
The French philosopher Gaston Bachelard writes of the mnemonic power of smell to conjure up childhood. With just a sniff, our past selves come flooding back to us. And the French noun sillage, from the verb meaning “to trail behind,” literally means the drift of perfume lingering in the air after a person departs. More poetically, perhaps, sillage is the subtle impression a person leaves behind. If a body can leave this trace, cannot the smell of an old book do so, too? Can selves pass from one body to another?

Hinduism may have taught me to treat books with respect, keep them off the floor, never throw them away. But according to Hindu philosophy, the soul lives many lives during its journey toward self-realization. During these rebirths, a soul passes from body to body until it’s eventually released, freed from the material world. How stirring, then, to consider books as liberated from their dusty covers, their words sent into the ethers. What could this mean other than the disembodied, sanitized iClouds that my partner urges me to pull my books down from?

Books represent our fundamental unwillingness to dispose of knowledge, as well as our desire to connect with one another. Do books ever wonder whether they’re going to better homes from the ones they came from? Do they delight in being chosen from a random heap? Do they smile when we crack open their pages, gazing on sentences we’ve never read, or sentences we’ve loved for years and they get to show us again, as if it were the first time?

 

[1] Since the days of colonial New York, May 1 used to be considered “Moving Day.” On this day, all leases in the city expired at 9 a.m., causing thousands of tenants to change their residence at the same time.

Image Credit: Pixabay.

Collision Courses and Castration Anxiety: Rereading John Irving

1.
It’s been fifteen years since I’ve been able to stomach John Irving’s novels, and yet I keep buying his new books. His most recent novel, In One Person, sat on my nightstand for six months before I finally cleared it off in a fit of New Year’s resolutions. I felt guilty as I placed it on my bookshelf near Last Night In Twisted River, Irving’s previous novel, also abandoned. I had gotten both in hardcover, unable to wait for the paperback editions — unable to wait even as I knew I would be unlikely to finish them. The last Irving novel I finished (and enjoyed) was 1998’s A Widow For One Year.

My reading of In One Person followed a typical pattern. First, there was a period of comfort as I settled into Irving’s slightly askew fictional world, happily noting familiar milieus (New England, private boarding schools, wrestling teams), and subjects (sexual outsiders, small town politics, literary awakening). But boredom crept in as the plot began to take shape. It wasn’t so much that I could predict what was going to happen. (Even a mediocre Irving novel delivers when it comes to plot twists and secret revelations.) It was more that I felt trapped, as if I were seated next to a dinner party bore, the kind who has to tell his anecdotes just so, and won’t stand for questions or interruptions. In One Person is told in the first person, a point of view that allows for ambiguity, but Irving doesn’t like to leave anything open to interpretation. From the beginning of In One Person it’s clear who is good and who is hiding something; who is going to meet a bad end and who is going to be saved. Irving even alerts readers to his jokes, using italics and exclamation points on every page. Much of In One Person concerns the theater, and as I read Irving’s highly punctuated dialogue, I began to think of him as a director who gives line readings.

As I put In One Person aside, I wondered if I was just too old for John Irving. Maybe his books had always been this didactic, but when I was younger, I didn’t mind as much. Or maybe I had outgrown Irving’s old-fashioned storytelling techniques; maybe, as the author David Shields has suggested, we’re all getting sick of the narrative grunt work that fills the traditional novel, the acres of backstory and scene-setting that authors like Irving must deploy at the beginning of their epics — what Shields calls “the furniture-moving, the table-setting.” Or maybe my boredom with Irving had to do with television: maybe I’d been getting my nineteenth-century novel fix from soapy serials like Mad Men and Downton Abbey.

Or maybe John Irving’s books just weren’t as good as they used to be.

I decided to find out, taking all my Irving novels down from my shelves and getting the rest from the library — an errand that required a special trip to my library’s Central Branch. As I carried my Irving novels home, I felt the glimmer of the anticipation I used get as a teenager, when I checked out one of his books. I could see those old Irving covers in my mind’s eye, the ones with just his name and the title in a large font, because that was all you needed to know; there was no need for cover art, hinting at what the novel was “about.” Irving would let you know what it was about in due time. All you had to do was read.

2.
I started reading John Irving when I was thirteen. My mother recommended The World According to Garp in a moment of exasperation. I was at a difficult age, reading-wise — too old for children’s books, but too unseasoned a reader to navigate the adult section of the library. My mother gave me novels from her own library, classics she thought appropriate for a young girl: Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, Pride and Prejudice, and Ethan Frome. The only one I liked was Ethan Frome — a novel about a terrible accident, set in New England. Maybe that’s why my mother thought I would like The World According to Garp.

“This book is probably not appropriate for someone your age,” she said. And then she added, cryptically. “It’s about castration anxiety. So don’t be alarmed.”

It was summer, and I remember I read the book in two afternoons, sitting underneath the locust tree in our backyard. I had never read anything so funny or with such vivid characters. The settings, too, were fascinating to me, especially the scenes that took place in the fictional New Hampshire boarding school of Steering Academy. My family had lived in Exeter, New Hampshire, for several years, and so I recognized that Steering was based on Exeter Academy. The recognition thrilled me. Even though I knew that authors often incorporated real-life people and places into their work, it was the first time I’d made the connection myself.

Looking back, I am surprised by how little I knew of writers’ lives — or maybe, how little I conceived of them. Even though I knew by then that I wanted to become a writer, I still thought of books in terms of their titles and their subject matter, not their authorship. Reading John Irving changed that. Maybe because Irving had written about a place where I had actually lived, it was easier to imagine him as a real person, living in the same world as me and writing about it. Or maybe it was because so many of Irving’s books contained writer characters and descriptions of the writing process. Whatever the reason, I began to pay attention to the contemporary literary world, noticing what books were being published and what other people thought of them. For the first time it occurred to me to care about the order in which books were written and to think about a writer’s output holistically. I did this with Irving, working backwards through his early “literary” novels, and then reading the bestsellers that followed Garp: The Hotel New Hampshire, The Cider House Rules, and A Prayer for Owen Meany. (Owen Meany was my introduction to the library’s waitlist.)

When his eighth novel, A Son of the Circus, was published, I was surprised to find that I didn’t like it enough to finish it. Still, when A Widow For One Year came out four years later, I asked my parents to buy it for me in hardcover as a twentieth birthday present. The book was published in May, the same month as my birthday, and I read it as a reward at the end of my semester. And what a reward! It was a long, absorbing reading experience, especially the book’s first section, a novella-like passage that unfolds over the course of one summer, and tells the story of a grieving couple who have given up on their marriage, but not on the memory of their dead teenage sons. The custody battle over their remaining child, a young girl — who in later sections becomes the novel’s writer-protagonist — is understandably complex, but in a completely unexpected and heartbreaking way. I thought it was one of Irving’s best books, maybe even better than Garp.

By then I was in college, an English major, and I had learned, among other things, that academia did not smile upon John Irving. It was a snobbery I didn’t understand until I pressed Garp into the hands of a new boyfriend. I don’t know what I was thinking. His favorite novel was The Remains of the Day. Upon finishing Garp, all he said was, “It’s not very subtle, is it?”

My boyfriend was one of those young men to whom taste is everything, and his opinion meant more to me than it should have. When he said “not very subtle”, I heard “trashy.” Crushed, I decided to stop by the office of a professor who had given A Widow For One Year a favorable review in The New York Times. I don’t know what I expected this professor to tell me; I suppose I wanted him to legitimize my love for Irving. He ended up elaborating upon what he had written in his review, praising Irving’s ability to write good action sequences, particularly violent ones. Walking back to my dorm, I thought about the many violent scenes in Irving’s fiction, how they are always a little bit slapstick — never choreographed and slick, like in the movies, or poetic, as in “grittily realistic” literary novels. It was this comic element, I thought, that made Irving seem crude, and maybe even trashy; but to me, the injection of humor — however broad — was what made Irving an honest and humane writer, one who was not writing “unsubtle” scenes to arouse or provoke, but to represent the absurd sloppiness of life.

Later that year, I took my first fiction-writing class, where I tried to write a story in the vein of Irving, about a gentleman farmer who flies planes for fun. One day the farmer crashes his hobby-plane into his hobby-field and dies upon impact. Instead of feeling sorry for his widow, everyone says she and the children are better off without such a stupid dilettante father. The widow moves to Baltimore and something happens there, I can’t remember what. The point is, it was supposed to be a funny story, but it came out very bleak and sad. I tried to use an all-knowing and transparently authorial narrator, as Irving often does, but this only irritated my classmates, who were accustomed to narration in the close third person and wrote things in the margins like “Who is narrating this story?? It should be one of the characters.” In short, I learned first hand just how hard it is to write like John Irving. You would think that would have made me respect him even more. Instead I began to think of him as a bad influence.

In the years that followed, I approached Irving’s new novels with caution and was almost relieved when I didn’t like them. It’s only recently that I’ve wanted to return to his work, and I’m not sure if it’s out of loyalty to him, or to my younger self.

3.
It’s always humbling to admit to changes in your own taste. Over Christmas, I found myself cringing with the release of Les Miserables, as snippets of the soundtrack played during television commercials and trailers. Why, out of all the music I could have burned onto my adolescent brain, had I picked Les Miserables? I thought I would feel the same annoyed regret as I skimmed old Irving novels, but the experience was more like getting back in touch with an ex-boyfriend — there was irritation, yes, but a lot of affection, too.

In my rereading, I was struck, first of all, by how cozy and self-contained Irving’s novels are. It was easy to peer into old favorites, to smile at the inside-joke chapter headings and emblematic sayings like “Keep passing the open windows,” (The Hotel New Hampshire) and “Good night you princes of Maine, you kings of New England,” (The Cider House Rules). I’ve read Garp a half dozen times, so I wasn’t surprised that I could dip in and out of it at will, but I found that I could also make myself at home in novels of Irving’s that I knew less well. Opening A Prayer for Owen Meany, I read a passage in which the narrator describes his grandmother’s love of Liberace. This was not a part of the book I remembered, but after just reading those few pages — which included some of Owen Meany’s infamous all-caps opining — I was able to recall a whole universe of characters and situations. The best Irving novels work like that; they create their own parallel worlds, underpinned by repetition — repetition of phrases, situations, descriptions, and motifs. And, as Irving fans love to note, the repetitions often continue across books; he doesn’t hesitate to recycle milieus and symbols that work for him, even if they’re quite specific. (Vienna, bears, wrestling…) Every writer does this to some degree, but with Irving it’s more noticeable, because the atmosphere of a John Irving novel is such a key part of its appeal.

Another thing I noticed while rereading was how clear Irving’s writing is, sentence by sentence. Critics don’t give Irving much credit for his prose style, maybe because his zany plots and characters overshadow it. (Or maybe it’s his enthusiastic use of italics and exclamation points.) But I was impressed by how gracefully he writes, even when he’s being “unsubtle.” There is a transparency to his exposition that is not easy to achieve, but Irving does nothing to draw attention to his effort. In contemporary fiction, this lack of preciousness is rare. Irving’s style has only become simpler over the years. It’s almost as if he decided to keep his prose straightforward so that his plotting could become more elaborate.

Which brings us to plot. If there’s one thing John Irving wants you to know about his literary technique, it’s that he plans his storylines in advance, and that he always knows the ending of the book before he starts writing. In every interview, going back at least twenty years, he hammers this point home, going so far as to reveal the last sentence of his novels-in-progress. In 1986, while he was working on A Prayer For Owen Meany, he told The Paris Review, “The authority of the storyteller’s voice — of mine, anyway — comes from knowing how it all comes out before you begin. It’s very plodding work, really.”

I find Irving’s choice of the word “plodding” interesting, because that’s exactly how I would describe parts of Owen Meany, a novel whose narrator is so prone to woebegone foreshadowing that the plot sometimes feels soggy. Plodding might also be the word I would use to describe the experience of reading (or rather, trying to read) Irving’s last three novels. Even though the prose was as easygoing as ever, and the settings and characters as richly imagined, the storytelling felt overdetermined, with all the plot elements neatly arranged, all the coincidences pointing in the same direction. This seems to be Irving’s artistic aim, though. In a recent interview with Portland Monthly, Irving explained his method this way: “My novels are predetermined collision courses; the reader always anticipates what’s coming — you just don’t know the how and the when, and the small details”. In another interview, Irving revealed the last sentence of his next novel: “Not every collision course comes as a surprise.”

If only there were more surprises in Irving’s fiction! It’s a writing workshop cliché to say, “if there’s no surprise for the writer, then there’s no surprise for the reader,” but in Irving’s case, that diagnosis seems apt. The irony is that Irving sees his tightly controlled plotting as evidence of his advanced skill. At a reading I attended, shortly after the publication of In One Person, he addressed fans who prefer his earlier works to his later ones, saying that they were welcome to choose favorites, but from his point of view, his later works were superior, because he was so much better at crafting stories. He compared his recent novels to well-tailored suits, explaining that they were just better-fitting, that he was the tailor, and he should know.

As a reader who prefers his earlier novels, I found this comparison annoying, the implication being that I preferred shiny off-the-rack suits. The more I thought about it, however, I realized it was an apt metaphor. Irving’s late novels are perfectly tailored, they do fit better — in fact they fit like straightjackets. There is no room for the reader to move around, to get comfortable.

4.
A funny thing happened while I was writing this essay: I got sucked into a John Irving novel in the old way. The novel was The Fourth Hand, a book I attempted when it was first published in 2002, but abandoned halfway through, irritated by its depiction of women. Rereading it now, I can guess what was offensive to me in its opening chapters, which include a female character whose salient quality is her bralessness, and a scene at a feminist convention where the participants are described mostly in terms of their looks. I almost gave up on the book a second time, but I could see that at least some of Irving’s misogyny was intentional, that he was trying to illustrate the crass mindset of his thoughtless protagonist, Patrick Wallingford. The Fourth Hand is about Wallingford’s transformation from a superficial, vain, person to a kind, loving one. Naturally, it’s a love story, with the bizarre coincidences and twists of fate you would expect from any romantic comedy (or John Irving novel). It’s also a newsroom satire: Patrick Wallingford is a TV anchorman whose career, as well as his soul, is at stake. It’s a funny, messy, uneven book, with a convoluted-borderline-nonsensical storyline, and a lot of recycling from Irving’s previous novels. Oh, and did I mention that Wallingford is missing his left hand? (In the words of my mother, it’s about castration anxiety, so don’t be alarmed.) The Fourth Hand is definitely not a “tailored suit” novel and that’s probably why I ended up liking it — it had some of that old Irving sloppiness.

The ending of The Fourth Hand is subdued and melancholy, and includes an unexpected discussion of Michael Ondaatje’s novel, The English Patient. Wallingford reads the novel when he’s trying to impress the woman he’s fallen in love with. But whenever he tries to discuss the book with her, he chooses the wrong parts to admire. He can’t seem to figure out what she likes about the book, or what it means to her, and finally decides that reading experiences are not something that can be easily shared, observing that good novels “are comprised of a range of moods you are in when you read them or see them. You can never exactly imitate someone else’s love of a movie or a book.”

To Wallingford’s observation, I might add that you can never exactly replicate your own reading experiences, and that books and authors are colored by age and experience, for good and for ill. As I was rereading Irving, I was aware that my formative experience of reading his novels made it hard for me to be objective about his later work. John Irving could write his best book next year, and it probably wouldn’t be as good as Garp was, the first time I read it. Sometimes you just have to be grateful for the time you had with an author, and then move on.

Illustration by Bill Morris

Special Effects: Gone with the Wind and Genre Difficulties

1.
One problem with modern American romance is that very little can prevent two Americans who love each other from getting married. (So long as they don’t share a combination of sex chromosomes, and it’s fair to say the tide is turning on that one.) This freedom — relatively unheard of in human history — is perhaps why we have more romantic comedies these days than romantic epics. It’s a limitation dictated by the times. Any story where two heterosexual Americans face any serious obstacle on the path to marriage is going to strain credulity or just plain bug people. While I’ve seen neither Valentine’s Day nor New Year’s Eve — and at the risk of being factually incorrect — I simply can’t imagine those kinds of movies trade in a currency of love problems whose snags aren’t pretty easily untangled. Such stories, as a classical matter, deal, rather, in misunderstandings, missed signals, crossed signals, and bunglings of translation from one heart to another. They’re nice and all, but does anyone out there get hit where it really hurts when they see or read a romantic comedy?

There’s something better, obviously, a more heightened version of the old Boy Meets Girl, Loses Girl formula. I’m talking about the previously mentioned romantic epic, and I’m talking about this because I’ve had a running conversation with my dear wife over the last few years about just what makes a romantic epic epic. This conversation hit a high point recently, as we’re finishing Gone with the Wind, a book I’ve been reading to her since last June.

Somewhere out there, you’re thinking, “Oh my God, I’m a Gone with the Wind fanatic!” Look — I don’t want to insult you, but if you’re a harder-core fan of Gone with the Wind than my wife, I’ll wear a red dress and dance the Macarena on the courthouse lawn. They just don’t make Gonezos (©) any bigger than my spouse. You cannot physically restrain her from paroxysms of joy when the damn thing’s on. She quotes from the film’s dialogue the way 2003-04 circa college guys spat lines from Old School. We’ve never been to the “Road to Tara Museum,” but it is strictly a matter of time.

She’s not alone, obviously. Gone with the Wind inspires mad devotion, in part, I think, because it works as both a romantic epic, and a tale of female empowerment. One reason for the story’s universal appeal, in fact, might lie in how neatly it nails a tricky middle ground between the Left and Right on issues of feminism. Scarlett is a thousand percent devoted to women’s rights — except really in any plural or political sense: Scarlett wants freedom for herself; she’s only truly interested in economic freedom; and could frankly give a damn about the rights of other women, or political liberty, voting, etc. She understands — with a clearsightedness that would be cynical if it weren’t so simply observant — that having money means you don’t really need to vote. For instance, late in the novel, she and Rhett entertain Georgia’s Scallywag Republican Governor at their tacky new McMansion, and even though Scarlett bears a real grudge against the Gov and all his Yankee ilk, she butters them up nonetheless, the better to use them for her own purposes.

In this sense, Scarlett is both a proto-feminist hero, and an almost Ayn Rand-y paragon of self-advancement. Not only does she tickle the imaginations of liberals and libertarians, but her canny progress from marriage to marriage takes place entirely within the boundaries of so-called “traditional” womanhood — something I’d bet more than a few Schlafly-types have found validating.

Even Scarlett’s devoted anti-intellectualism works to her advantage. You will not find a character in American fiction more rigorous in her disdain for abstract or philosophical topics (except as they give pasty old Ashley Wilkes something to be amazing at). Scarlett is interested in nice things, food, money, property, and getting what she wants — nothing else. The key feature of her character is therefore a sort of materialistic pragmatism — and since every branch of American politics considers itself “the practical one,” Scarlett occupies prime real estate to be adored by all sides.

All that being said, and just as ludicrously fantastic a character as Scarlett O’Hara is (the highest compliment you can pay a fictional character is Odyssean, and boy oh boy, is Scarlett Odyssean), none of this would register if Scarlett weren’t given an appropriately larger than life backdrop against which her labors could unfold. The Civil War? Check. Gone with the Wind also wouldn’t work, though, unless there were real problems for the story’s centerpiece romance. Something has to impair the parties’ full consummation in order for the love story to qualify as epic. The more grand the obstacle, the more epic the romance.

A quick survey of romantic epics bears this out. War, of course, is about the grandest and most epic obstacle a love affair could ever trip over. (See The English Patient). Class distinctions also place high on the list. (Likewise Atonement). Tragic events (cue flute from “My Heart Will Go On”) are obviously another. In my opinion, the most epic American romance of the past ten years was a little flick called Brokeback Mountain (based on the short story from Annie Proulx’s “Close Range,” whose lingering after-effects are a version of the same gut-gnawing pity induced by the movie). Brokeback Mountain is a romantic epic for the same reason only same-sex couples are really good candidates to have epically problematic love stories, at least in modern America: the problem for that story’s couple is pretty damn intractable, given their time. In fact, Brokeback Mountain has a harder edge than other classic romances, because the characters aren’t simply kept apart by grand circumstance, but by a threat of doom. Some band of redneck vigilantes would definitely have murdered Jack and Ennis if they’d ever tried to live together happily. The fact that death was a strong possible outcome — because of their love, and not incidental to it — puts that story on a high plane, stakes-wise.

Of course, Scarlett and Rhett face nothing like that. In fact, the inductions drawn from this drive-by survey point to a troubling conclusion for Gone with the Wind’s “epic” status. Scarlett and Rhett aren’t really kept apart by the Civil War. Rhett’s such a dastard that he sits most of the conflict out, right there in Atlanta, with Scarlett and the other ladies, speculating in foodstuffs and running off to England every now and then. Scarlett is in mourning, of course (her first husband died almost immediately after the War broke out), so preemptive norms of seemliness might interrupt the pair’s march to happiness — but Scarlett didn’t even like Rhett at that point, and all Rhett was interested in (I don’t think this scandalous wrinkle is mentioned in the movie) is having Scarlett be his mistress, his (goddammit, but it fits) “no strings attached,” “friend with benefits.”

Rhett does eventually run off to fight, in the last days of the Confederacy, and by the time he and Scarlett cross paths again, Scarlett’s desperate for cash to save Tara, and throws herself into Rhett’s arms, an offering of virtue given in sacrifice for the survival of Tara. Rhett sees right through this (with help from Scarlett’s grubby little turnip paws, of course), and flat, dropkick rejects her, sending her right into the arms of old Frank Kennedy. Once Frank dies, Rhett swoops in and proposes marriage, knowing he can’t wait forever to catch Scarlett between husbands. They marry, seem fond of each other, until Rhett figures out Scarlett is never going to get over that God damned Ashley Wilkes, and it’s “Adios amiga.” Microphone drop. I don’t give no damn.

But take a closer look: What does this story lack that other romantic epics have? Are Rhett and Scarlett kept apart by war? Class distinction? Tragedy? Disease? Threat of destruction?

Nope. They get together because they can, and they break up because one gets pissed at the other. A less grand set of circumstances could not be found.

This is not epic — this is mundane.

2.
At this point I’m in deep trouble. If the takeaway from this essay is that Gone with the Wind lacks the status of an epic romance — that it is, in fact, nothing but a love story with two rather bratty protagonists — my wife is not going to be happy with me.

Fortunately, the genuine size of Gone with the Wind, the sheer land area it occupies in the American imagination, offers enough glitz and orchestra to rocket even the flimsiest of romances up to orbital heights. Whether we’re talking about the novel or the movie, this story is celebrated. The film is such a gigantic deal that it’s easy to forget how enormous a deal the novel was: It won the Pulitzer Prize, captivated the nation, is apparently (if you believe Pat Conroy’s introduction to my copy) given a Biblical place of honor on many a Southern coffee table, and had its movie rights sold off for the unheard of at the time sum of $50,000. At any serious gathering of top shelf American cinema, Gone with the Wind would be at the Kane, Casablanca, Godfather table. Even as non-pop-culture-obsessed a writer as Flannery O’Connor has a story (one of her weirder ones (and that’s saying something)) that involves the famous Atlanta premiere of Gone with the Wind: “A Late Encounter with the Enemy,” which in classic Flannerian style makes us feel both sorry for and annoyed by a cranky genteel Southern White who thinks too highly of himself, in this case because they gussied him up for the movie premiere in a Confederate military costume, which now that he’s way older thinks is actually his original battle uniform and so insists on wearing to special occasions.

Think about that. Gone with the Wind is such a huge deal, Flannery O’Connor wrote a story that hinged on its status in the texture of Southern life. Flannery O’Connor. It doesn’t get any bigger than that.

Which is all to say, something is epic about this story. Can it be an epic because it makes us feel epic? A horror story scares us, a comedy makes us laugh, a tragedy makes us cry — I suppose a romance makes us feel, uh, twitterpated — is that, then, the real mark of genre? Not some academic’s induction based on a leisurely survey of the available material, but the specific kind of blast the story delivers, the special effects it drives into the hearts and guts of readers?

If that’s the case, then I think I’m sitting pretty with my wife. Because Gone with the Wind has got the chops in spite of the fact that the love problem at its center is not only mundane, but teenagerly so. Rhett really does love Scarlett, but has to act like he doesn’t, to protect his feelings, because he knows Scarlett never got over Ashley being the one man she couldn’t have. Drop that love triangle right into a CW plotline and nobody’s going to raise an eyebrow.

In other words, Gone with the Wind surpasses the un-epicness of its romance, and makes us feel romantically epic all the same. This is a serious accomplishment. I wish I could explain how it’s done. Of course, part of it is the historical backdrop, but I think a more important factor is just the expansiveness of the couple, particularly Scarlett (though Rhett’s a pretty insanely intriguing character, too — I’ve heard rumors he was based on Sam Houston — go read about that crazy bastard some time).

But maybe it’s epic because it’s just so successful as a story. I think we need to feel that a story is about everything in order to let it in, let it move us. That’s the mark, I think, of the true masterpiece, and if anything could coherently separate “literature” from “fiction,” that’d be it. It’s a pretty simple standard, actually — all any story has to do is just show us the meaning of life.

Gone with the Wind qualifies. Something in Scarlett’s practicality, something in her determination, something in her hunger (I don’t mean the turnip-eschewing kind, I mean the way Scarlett from the very first scene is driven by this crazy, all-consuming, no-boundaries-recognizing hunger for everything, the way she just wants it all) — there’s something brutal and fine to that. In her strange optimism, too, the way she pushes everything unpleasant from her thoughts, so that faced with the collapse of her third marriage, she is almost transported, idiotic, almost insensate, in her belief that she can fix it all, have it all, that she can get Rhett back — which of course wouldn’t mean that she’d have to give up on Ashley, too — and, most impressively, in her faith that tomorrow holds all the space you’ll ever need to get what you want, and keep it.

This is one of the strange centers of the world, a vein of pure human talent, unearthed and irrefutable, mysterious, friendly, beckoning, and fully beyond us.

The Sea and the Mirror: Reflections and Refractions from a Voyage by Ship in Michael Ondaatje’s The Cat’s Table

“It’s like a villanelle, this inclination of going back to events in our past, circling…at those familiar moments of emotion,” writes Anna, the literary historian who narrates Divisadero, Michael Ondaatje’s last novel. “We live with those retrievals from childhood that coalesce and echo throughout our lives, the way shattered pieces of glass in a kaleidoscope reappear in new forms and are songlike in their refrains and rhymes, making up a single monologue. We live permanently in the recurrence of our own stories, whatever story we tell.”

The kaleidoscope as a metaphor for the concinnity of memories, the process by which an adult narrator frames and makes sense of her past is, I venture, the cornerstone of Ondaatje’s fiction. Coming Through Slaughter married biographical and sonic details from jazz cornetist Buddy Bolden’s career and tales of louche Storyville portraitist E.J. Bellocq’s mutilated photographs of prostitutes with fictionalized accounts of internecine love affairs that drove Bolden’s character to paranoia and death. In the Skin of a Lion and its sequel, the Booker Prize-winning The English Patient, introduced readers to the chthonic world of Caravaggio, a morphine addict and thief notorious for art heists, and his friend’s daughter, Hana, a Canadian Army nurse and caretaker for a burn victim whose scars and stories, recounted while he recovers in an Italian villa in the wake of the Second World War, belie his identity and his past as a Hungarian desert explorer.

Ondaatje’s distinctive signature — the use of metanarrative; the graceful integration of historical filaments and intertexts; the quiescence, compassion, and ardor resonating from within luminous yet temperate prose — has won him a broad international readership, as well as doyen status on prize shortlists. In tenor, his new novel, The Cat’s Table, evinces a similar elegance. Its masterful rendering of time and memory, too, echo the part-fictional memoir, Running in the Family, and the novel Anil’s Ghost, in which a forensic anthropologist returns to her native Sri Lanka for the first time since adolescence to investigate crimes perpetrated by pro- and anti-government factions alike.

The life experiences of Michael, or Mynah, the narrator, dovetail with the author’s. Both were born in Ceylon (presently known as Sri Lanka), raised in England, and are now naturalized Canadian citizens and novelists. Mynah deftly weaves the novel from a series of vignettes, character sketches, and episodic journal entries drawn both from his voyage, at the age of eleven, from Colombo to England on the ship Oronsay in the early 1950s, and from present anecdotes and reflections.

This is no mean feat with a cast of characters ranging from Mynah’s equally lowly neighbors at the Cat’s Table, to the middling passengers, to the blue-blooded characters aboard Emperor Class, noble enough to be seated at the Captain’s Table. We meet Emily de Saram, his beloved, enigmatic seventeen-year-old cousin, en route to England to finish secondary school; Mr. Daniels, an admirer of Emily’s, who cultivates a secret garden aboard the ship; Mr. Mazappa, the ship’s pianist, who impresses Mynah with his knowledge of musicology and jazz history, his “ongoing mythology,” and, in memory, the recognition that “the future would never be as dramatic and joyous and deceitful as the way he had sketched it”; Mr. Fonseka, an English teacher who gently ministers to Mynah’s loneliness and intellectual curiosity; Niemeyer, a manacled prisoner whose crimes the passengers try to surmise; and his deaf daughter, Asuntha, a former acrobat of whom Emily grows increasingly fond and protective. Mynah’s two closest friends are Ramadhin, a sensitive but effete boy who takes precautions for his weak heart, and Cassius, a guarded rogue who renounces his past and masterminds the boys’ antics, including tying themselves to the ship with rope so that they can experience a storm from outdoors, and sneaking into the ship’s hold.

While the autobiographical contours enrich the novel’s sense of realism, its most beautifully wrought element is the integration of time present with time past — Mynah’s arrangement of shards of kaleidoscopic memory, of the atavistic with the prophetic, the hazy with the crystalline, the childlike with the adult. Mr. Fonseka and Emily are its most vivid embodiments. Visiting the former one night, Mynah observes:
It was the anonymity of the stories and poems that went deepest into me. And the curl of a rhyme was something new. I had not thought to believe he was actually quoting something written with care, in some far country, centuries earlier…He had a serenity that came with the choice of the life he wanted to live…I am aware of the pathos and the irony that come with such a portrait…I did realize that people like Mr. Fonseka came before us like innocent knights in a more dangerous time, and on the very same path we ourselves were taking now.
This evocative sketch nicely refracts what Mynah learns of human character both on the voyage, and, broadly, in his adult life. The precise histories, traumas, experiences, and dreams of his fellow passengers are ever discernible, yet partially opaque, anonymous, accessible only through subtleties of physiognomy and gesture, which Mynah sagely intuits and weds to his own sense of foreboding. When, in a later chapter, he reflects on the fate of a ship being destroyed in a breaker’s yard, there are echoes of his depiction of Fonseka, and of the other characters whose lives he discerns through impressionistic, deductive understanding: “in a breaker’s yard you discover that anything can have a new life, be reborn as part of a car or railway carriage, or a shovel blade. You take that older life and you link it to a stranger.”

This form of linking, the reshaping of metal, or the mapping of observations onto lives, is one way to understand the valences of Emily’s character, too. Mynah’s only kin, she offers him security, enfolding him in her embrace and letting him fall asleep in her bed when an inexplicable grief seizes him. Yet darker sensibilities inflect even this fey moment: Emily’s allure, Mynah’s nascent attraction to her, the palpability of secrecy and danger as she becomes part of the underbelly of maritime life, engaging in criminal activity to protect Asuntha, and channeling her own yearnings into romantic involvement with a disreputable performer. “Who or what caused this darkness in her? At […] times she had an unreachable face. But when she returned to you, it was a gift,” Mynah lovingly recalls. She is a quintessentially Ondaatjean character, an Anil or a Hana, whose nature and grace one can only understand by suturing details.

Like Salman Rushdie’s narrator in Midnight’s Children, Mynah is “a swallower of lives,” navigating both the intimacy of and the demarcations between passengers, the ship the apposite vessel on which to experience the picaresque joys of childhood, the vertiginous beginnings of adolescence, and the furtive discoveries of the nuances of adult behavior. Seeing his reflection in a mirror early on in the novel, he recognizes only “someone startled, half-formed, who had not become anyone or anything yet,” but stochastic glimpses and profound emotions heighten his sensitivity to human frailty and strength, to the “story, always ahead of you. Barely existing. Only gradually do you attach yourself to it and feed it. You discover the carapace that will contain and test your character. You find in this way the path of your life.” So beautiful a novel, drawing these phases of life into a web of prose calibrated and lyrical, phlegmatic and passionate, could only flow from the hand of Michael Ondaatje.

Melissa Klug and the Permanence Matters Initiative

1.
How long do you expect the books on your shelves to last? The oldest book I own is a Victorian-era edition of The Collected Poetical Works of Samuel T. Coleridge, purchased from a street vendor for $15 some years ago. It’s an absolute beauty: a heavy little volume, solidly constructed, cloth-bound in bright blue with hand-painted vines and gold lettering on the front. The paper is thick and smooth, and—this is what I find most remarkable about it—hardly discolored by time. Well over a hundred years after publication, the paper is a bright and even cream. I fully expect that this book will outlast me. I can see no reason why it shouldn’t persist for another century or far longer.

I don’t, of course, expect this kind of longevity of all my books. I recently pulled my copy of Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient down from the shelf for the first time in some years, and was surprised to discover that the pages had gone yellow. I’m used to thinking of yellowed pages as a sort of pre-existing condition among books of my acquaintance, something I’d expect to find in the 1965 editions of books picked up in second-hand stores. But for all that, the yellowing and increasing brittleness weren’t entirely unreasonable: my copy of The English Patient is a trade paperback, and while trade paperbacks occupy something of a gray area in terms of paper quality—typically nicer than a mass market paperback, but in most cases not as nice as a hardcover—one doesn’t really expect them to last forever.

Hardcover books are a different matter. I’ve been buying a fair number of first edition hardcovers recently, one every two or three months. I happen to know a few people who are in the habit of publishing novels and I feel very strongly about supporting writers, so I often find myself buying first editions at readings and book launches. This is an expensive habit, and I tell myself that if I didn’t know the authors in question I’d just wait for the paperback, but I can’t say that the expenditure bothers me—hardcovers are beautiful, and they look so solid on my shelves. They look like they should last forever.

But a few months ago I purchased a book that rattled this assumption. An acquaintance published his debut novel with one of the major New York houses, and I acquired it at a book launch party. When I picked it up in the store, I was startled by how light it was: a hardcover with the weight of a paperback. Later, flipping through the book at home, I discovered why this was. The paper was so thin that I could read the words “Chapter One” through the title page. For all intents and purposes, the book was printed on tracing paper.

I had essentially purchased a disposable first edition hardcover, and it made me a little angry. Aside from the obvious—I’d just spent $26.95 for a book that will turn yellow and become brittle in a matter of years—I found that I was angry on the writer’s behalf. He’d spent years of his life on his novel, a book lauded as an astounding debut, but his publisher didn’t value him highly enough to print his book on paper that might reasonably be expected to outlast him. In another decade or so, perhaps sooner, the pages of his book will be as yellowed as the paperback of The English Patient that my aunt gave me for Christmas when I was fourteen.

2.
I spoke recently with Melissa Klug on the subject of paper quality. Melissa is a director of marketing at Glatfelter, a paper manufacturer with locations on three continents, and she’s involved with their Permanence Matters initiative. I met her online a year and a half ago or so, when I ventured nervously onto Twitter to promote my first book, and we’ve run into one another in person a few times since. She’s one of my favorite people online, an avid reader, and she’s the person I vent to in private when I buy an expensive book that turns out to have been printed on tracing paper.

The Millions: How did you wind up in the paper business? Did you always have an interest in the field?

Melissa Klug: I grew up in a small town called Chillicothe, Ohio, where the major industry of the town was, and still is today, a large paper mill.  At the time I was growing up it was a part of a company called Mead (which most people know from school supplies like my childhood favorite, the Trapper Keeper.) It is such an integral part of the community that people called it “The Mead.” For readers of The Millions, it might be most interesting to know that the paper mill is about 5 miles away from the setting of Knockemstiff, and the author of that book, Donald Ray Pollock, was a papermaker at the mill for several decades before becoming published.

At the end of college I had interviewed at a lot of places, and was deciding on the path my life might take. I had offers that would take me in different directions, but the one that felt the most right was to become an employee at the paper mill. I sold paper in New England for two years, and after that went back to Ohio to the mill and have been in several different positions since then, mostly in the sales and marketing field. In 2006, the paper mill in Chillicothe was purchased by Glatfelter, who has been making paper for books since the 1800’s. As a result of that, we began making book paper in Ohio, and I was fortunate to become the Director of Marketing for several lines, including the one closest to my personal love—books.

TM: I wonder if you would tell us a little bit about the Permanence Matters initiative.

MK: Eight years ago we started to notice the shift in buying patterns from free-sheet Permanent Paper to groundwood paper for hardcover books. Groundwood is the type of paper used in newspapers and mass market paperbacks, and its production is such that it is much lower-quality and degrades more quickly than traditional book publishing paper—this is called free-sheet, or what we at Glatfelter term Permanent Paper. Groundwood is certainly an acceptable paper for some categories of publishing—few people would expect a $6 mass-market paperback to look pristine for years.

However, what we began to notice around eight years ago was a shift to the use of groundwood for first edition hardcover books. This has accelerated with the decline in newspaper print sales—the paper mills which used to manufacture newsprint for papers now have a tremendous amount of open capacity that has to go into something, and they’ve shifted to groundwood publishing papers.

In 2008, we decided that we wanted to take a more public stand about this issue. We launched the Permanence Matters campaign to educate and activate the literary community about the rapid degradation of the quality of books. While we realize that much of the publishing industry is moving their attention to e-books, we still believe there is an important place for print books in the future of publishing, and want people to recognize that e- and p- books are not an either/or proposition, but rather an “and.”

TM: It’s an interesting issue. It seems to me that most people don’t really notice the paper quality in the books they buy, unless the quality’s either exceptionally good or exceptionally bad, but we expect our books to last a long time. How pervasive has this problem become?

MK: Many people know about the “acid paper crisis” which got a lot of publicity in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. Many authors and other publishing industry notables banded together, and publishers lobbied for paper mills to produce only acid-free paper. After this, people felt comfortable that books would endure because the paper mills began producing only alkaline paper (which allowed the paper to endure much longer.) But as I mentioned, approximately eight years ago we started to notice a shift in order patterns, as more publishers were moving some titles to groundwood.

As the years progressed, more and more titles began to shift from free-sheet Permanent Paper to groundwood, until now, when well over 50% of the New York Times hardcover bestseller list is now printed on groundwood. Someone recently challenged me on this, saying that the New York Times list isn’t necessarily what literary people would consider the most important works of current literature. This degradation in paper quality isn’t only happening to non-literary works—many award-winning works, including many of the 2009 National Book Award nominees and one of the major category winners, are also not printed on free-sheet Permanent Paper.

This is what I know professionally. But personally I am, first and foremost, a reader. I have noticed a marked decline in the quality of the paper in the books I’m reading personally (almost all hardcover books, first or second editions.) In the past six months, I have had a number of books whose paper is so flimsy feeling and looking that I was extremely frustrated to have spent money on it. I read a book on vacation in March which was literally almost see-through—words from the opposite pages showed through (by the way, major bestselling author, big five publisher.) My personal feeling is, as publishing turns its head increasingly to e-books, the physical production values of print books will decline even more (all the attention will go to e, few will be paying attention to physical print copies.) This is saddening both personally and professionally.

TM: As you see it, what is at stake here?

MK: I truly believe that we are at a critical crossroads in publishing. As the attention, bandwidth and energy of publishing turns to e-books, we are concerned that what is currently a trend toward lesser quality print versions of books will then become a landslide. Our stance in a world of e- and digital, very simply, is: If you are going to print a book, it should be on permanent paper. Our concern is the longevity of print books in the future—if many book editions will be digital, this is less permanent than a print version—as our CEO recently said, “My last laptop lasted 3 years”—and if a print version itself is not permanent, these words will not endure. Digitization is not a fail-safe answer to preservation, especially as formats change almost constantly. Print is still the most enduring way to preserve a work. As we see it, it’s the future of the printed word.

I also don’t want to lose sight of the “book as object” or “book as art”—I believe it’s important to still view important works as permanent artistic objects. I get an email each day from the Metropolitan Museum of Art with the “piece of the day” which I enjoy looking at–but I still wish to know that I could go see it in person to gain the nuances of that work. Books are no different.

TM: Have publishers been receptive to the Permanence Matters message? Have you encountered any resistance?

MK: We do try to be careful and walk a bit of a tightrope on the initiative, as we are a paper supplier to both major publishers as well as smaller publishers, and it is not our goal to alienate or upset them—they are incredibly important to us. One of our goals is to educate publishing employees as well—to help them make thoughtful decisions about the print production of books, and to start a dialogue with them.

TM: What’s next for Permanence Matters?

MK: We launched a new website at Book Expo America, www.permanencematters.com, one that will have more educational components rolling out this summer. One of the great aspects of the new site is a video interview with the director of book conservation at Johns Hopkins University, and we have educational components about the true costs of print books, among many other features. Additionally, we are launching a blog called “Gutenberg Girls” which will be co-written by myself and a coworker, which will allow us to more casually discuss issues within the book publishing industry as well as write about the books we’re reading.

Although we are in the business of making and selling paper, I can tell you that we have many employees who are extremely avid readers and are troubled by this issue, and thus Permanence Matters is much more a personal passion than a business initiative. Also, we are not the only company that makes free-sheet book publishing paper, and we support the shift back to permanent paper whether we are the beneficiary or not.

TM: Has the decline in paper quality impacted your buying habits at all? I know you’re an avid reader, and given your line of work, I imagine you must find yourself noticing the quality of the paper in all the books you buy. I’m wondering if you ever find yourself hesitating to buy a first edition hardcover because you can tell it won’t last.

MK: It has absolutely changed my buying habits. Professional hazards make me more cautious about what I buy—often, when I know a book is on groundwood, I will either wait for it to come out in paperback, or I will get it on audiobook instead of spending the money to buy a book which will yellow and degrade on the shelf. I buy a lot of books, so there is a financial impact of me choosing to shift what would have been hardcover purchases to either a library lend of an audiobook or a paperback purchase. Based on comments I’ve heard from book buyers, and an increasing number of articles I come across on the internet about book quality, I believe we may be on a precipice of people starting to change their purchases based on the poor quality of the finished product.

3.
An interesting facet of all of this is that we’re not talking about enormous cost differentials here: according to the Permanence Matters website, the savings a publisher might expect to realize by printing a book on groundwood rather than higher-quality paper amounts to about ten cents a book. And yes, in the current publishing environment every cent counts, but I’d like to respectfully suggest here that some things are worth paying for.

The day after our interview, Melissa sent me some photographs. The below images, courtesy of Permanence Matters, show what happens to a book printed on groundwood when it’s left out in the sun for a mere two days. A sticky note was left on the page for the entire two-day period to show contrast.

I think our books deserve better.

The Trojan Horse Problem: Thoughts on Structure

1.
I’m working on my third novel these days, and since I’m still deep in the mudflats of the first draft, I’ve been thinking a great deal lately about questions of structure. Specifically, how many complications of time and viewpoint a novel can stand and remain viable—and by “viable”, I think I mean both “elegant” and “not completely baffling.”

I find myself drawn equally to sheer unrelenting linear simplicity, wherein one thing follows another along a consistent timeline from the point of view of a single character (Dashiell Hammett’s The Thin Man, for instance) and to virtuosic displays of shifting viewpoints and fractured time (Colum McCann’s Let The Great World Spin.) I think it’s fair to say that I adore a fairly wide range of styles and structural ideas, and yet one thing that I’m consistently troubled by is what I’ve come to think of as the Trojan Horse novel: the book that’s structured as a delivery system for something entirely unrelated to the plot.

I bought a book last week that I’d never heard of before: Ghosts, by César Aira. A slim novella with one of the most understatedly lovely covers I’ve ever seen—all staticky grey, slightly luminescent, with raised text in an unobtrusive font—and an equally wonderful premise. Ghosts takes place over the course of a single day in Buenos Aires, the final day of an unspecified year. It’s December 31st, and the family of Raúl Viñas is preparing for the New Years celebration. Raúl is a Chilean builder, and he’s been serving as the night watchman on a construction site for the past year; his family lives in a makeshift apartment on the roof of the structure, beside the still-empty rooftop swimming pool, while Raúl and his crew construct high-end residences on the seven floors below. The project is somewhat behind schedule, some of the exterior walls still absent, the apartments open to the searing air.

“The heat was supernatural,” Aira writes, and so too are most of the building’s inhabitants.  The site is occupied by a drifting population of ghosts. Visible to Raúl and his family, a little eerie, but apparently harmless and no cause for real alarm. In fact, given that the rooftop apartment doesn’t have a fridge, the ghosts are occasionally useful for wine-cooling purposes:

Raúl Viñas was keeping fourteen bottles of red wine cool, using a system he had invented, or rather discovered, himself. It consisted of resolutely approaching a ghost and inserting a bottle into his thorax, where it remained, supernaturally balanced. When he went back for it, say two hours later, it was cold.

The ghosts are a transparent population of naked men, covered head-to-toe in construction dust, floating through walls and floors on their own mysterious errands. They’ve been around for as long as the family has lived on the construction site, but on this last day of the year, something seems different; more and more of them appear as the day goes on, and they seem possessed of a certain urgency.

As the day fades toward evening, with the party well underway, Elisa’s teenage daughter Patri slips away from the celebration. The ghosts on the lower floor of the construction site seem to be moving with unusual purpose, and so Patri asks one of them why he’s in such a hurry. The ghosts are throwing their own party at midnight, he tells her. Would she like to come?

Patri considers the question.

“Of course,” the ghost tells her, “you’ll have to be dead.”

2.
Ghosts was a wonderful read. I’m glad that I found it. Aira’s work is beautiful, even profound—he elevates the mundane details of a day spent preparing for a party, the grocery shopping and the cleaning, the cooking and the household gossip, to something of a revelation. The characters are alive, except of course for the ones who aren’t, and the set-up is inspired. And yet this book, in my entirely subjective opinion, flirts with disaster: it veers off, halfway through, into a ten-page essay about architecture.

I have very mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, I like my fiction to keep moving, and ten pages is an awful lot of real estate in a 139-page novella. And the delivery, in this case, can’t quite be called seamless: a sophisticated ten-page musing on the similarities between architecture and literature, on the social structures of the Bushmen and Zulu as reflected in the respective arrangements of their villages, on the “mental city” (e.g., Joyce’s Dublin) is shoehorned into the siesta dream of an uneducated teenager who doesn’t read very much (“But in Patri’s dream the architectural analogy was developed a little further.”) My feeling on the matter is that if you want to write an essay about architecture, you should probably just write an essay about architecture and get it published somewhere, instead of using your novel as a kind of envelope.

This is one of the major criticisms I’ve read of Ayn Rand: that her novels weren’t novels at all, but thinly veiled presentations of her philosophy. Trojan horses, in other words. (My major criticism of Ayn Rand is that I find Objectivism sociopathic, but that’s beside the point.)

3.
On the other hand, am I being unfair? Much of the ten-page interlude in Ghosts is fascinating, and as far off the rails as it pushes the book that carries it, I’m glad to have read it. I wonder if Trojan horses are ever justified—how much extra freight, aside from the weight of the plot itself, a novel can reasonably be expected to carry.

I lifted my copy of Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient down from the shelf just now. (It’s a shock, incidentally, to see that the pages are beginning to yellow; I think of this book as my contemporary, having requested it for Christmas when I was fourteen or so, and I remember when these pages were white.) There is no obvious narrative reason for Ondaatje to spend two pages naming various winds, and yet the opening sentence of that section is among my favorite of all the sentences I’ve read in my life:

There is a whirlwind in southern Morocco, the aajej, against which the fellahin defend themselves with knives. There is the africo, which at times reached into the city of Rome. The alm, a fall wind out of Yugoslavia. The arift, also christened aref or rifi, which scorches with numerous tongues. These are permanent winds that live in the present tense.

There are other, less constant winds that change direction…

This goes on for a while. I’m certain that others will disagree with me—as the writer and critic Edmund Wilson wrote, no two people ever read the same book—but I find Ondaatje’s digression weightless. It’s partly a question of relativity: ten pages in a 139-page novella is very different from two pages in a 301-page novel.

But much more importantly, Ondaatje’s digression exists solidly within the world of his book. The difference lies partly in the presentation—Patri’s sophisticated dream isn’t believable, or it isn’t believable that Patri would dream it; but two pages of notes on desert winds aren’t out of place in the personal journal of Ondaatje’s highly intelligent and well-traveled burn patient.

It seems to me that a good novel, one that holds a reader’s attention for three hundred pages, requires a kind of sustained enchantment. Structurally, a good novel can survive almost anything—multiple first-person narrators, long digressions, wild shifts in time and space—but forcing an essay or a philosophy into the narrative breaks the spell, and breaking a novel’s spell is fatal.

Ask a Book Question: #72 (Books on the Silver Screen)

Kathy wrote in with this question:Our book club is focusing on books made into movies. We read fiction, no murder mysteries. I would like to keep either the book or the movie fairly current. Beloved is as far back as I would like to go. I thought about Wonder Boys and then heard The Mysteries of Pittsburgh is now a movie. We read Homecoming so we will probably do The Reader. My idea about books to movies is to compare the two mediums so I suppose the movie adaptation would not have to be topnotch.Three of our contributors had some recommendations for Cathy. We’ll start with Emily, who covers both fiction and memoir:The Diving Bell and the Butterfly: This beautiful, lyrical movie, directed by American painter and filmmaker Julian Schnabel, was based on a 1995 memoir written by the French journalist Jean-Dominique Bauby. Bauby was 43 and the editor-in-chief of Elle magazine when he suffered a massive stroke and fell into a coma. When Bauby awoke from the coma, he could only move was his left eyelid. His memoir, from which Schnabel’s movie takes its name, was written using the French language frequency-ordered alphabet. An assistant slowly recited the special alphabet (the letters ordered by frequency of use in French) over and over again, and Bauby blinked when the assistant reached the correct letter. He wrote his book letter by letter, blink by blink, composing the whole in his head. The memoir recounts both the anguish of being locked inside a corpse (the diving bell of the title), and the liberating pleasures of the imagination (the butterfly) that allowed Bauby to escape the confines of his prison-like body. Schnabel’s movie is breathtaking – one of the most visually lush, visceral film experiences I’ve had in a long time. It is also a testament to the power of the imagination.Oscar and Lucinda (1988 novel by the Australian novelist Peter Carey, also the winner of the Booker Prize for that year; 1997 film adaptation by Gillian Armstrong with Ralph Fiennes and Cate Blanchette): This is another beautiful movie, and though I haven’t read this novel of Carey’s, I loved Jack Maggs and The True History of the Kelly Gang. Oscar and Lucinda is the story of Oscar Hopkins (Fiennes), a young Anglican priest, and Lucinda Leplastrier (Blanchette), a young Australian heiress who buys a glass factory. These two lonely eccentrics meet sailing to Australia and discover that they are both obsessive and gifted gamblers. The crux of the story concerns the transportation of a glass church made in Lucinda’s factory in Sydney to a remote settlement in New South Wales. Carey’s novel was influenced by the 1907 memoir Father and Son by the literary critic and poet Edmund Gosse. Gosse’s book recounts his painful relationship with his father, the self-taught naturalist and fundamentalist minister, Philip Henry Gosse. Gosse Sr. is the model for Oscar’s father.This Boy’s Life (1989 novel/autobiography by Tobias Wolff; 1993 movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Ellen Barkin, and Robert De Niro). Wolff’s memoir of his growing up is by turns funny and horrifying and very much in the tradition of Gatsby-esque self-reinvention. The book follows the wanderings of adolescent narrator and main character, Toby Wolff (who, inspired by Jack London, changes his name to Jack) and his hapless mother (who has a thing for abusive, damaged men). After an itinerant existence driving around the country (usually fleeing or in search of one of his mother’s bad-news boyfriends), Jack and his mother settle in Chinook, Washington where Jack’s mother marries Dwight. Dwight (De Niro in the film) turns out to be a vicious, tyrannical bastard once Jack and his mother are settled into his household. Wolff’s prose is strong, lean, and unsparing and De Niro, Barkin, and DiCaprio all give impressive performances in the adaptation.For another excellent film/novel pair also in the dysfunctional family vein (and also starring Leonardo DiCaprio), check out Peter Hedges’ 1991 novel What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? Hedges wrote a screenplay version of the novel for Lasse Hallstrom’s 1993 adaptation, starring Johnny Depp and Juliette Lewis. The cinematography by the legendary Sven Nykvist is spectacular, as is Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance as the mentally challenged Arnie (he earned an Oscar nod for it). For a third paring in this vein, consider Augusten Burroughs’ memoir Running With Scissors, and the excellent film version of the same name (with Brian Cox, Annette Bening, Alec Baldwin, Gwenyth Paltrow, and Evan Rachel Wood). Finally, for an English book/movie take on the eccentric/dysfunctional family, there’s Dodie Smith’s novel I Capture the Castle and the film version of the same name (with Bill Nighy and the lovely Romola Garai, who is also in the film version of Atonement).If you’re in the mood for American Beauty-esque lambasting of the American dream, consider Revolutionary Road (movie) or Little Children (movie). Both film versions star the gifted Kate Winslet, and both tell the tales of the sadness and frustration hidden away in grand colonial homes surrounded by green lawns and picket fences. Little Children also features a smashing book group discussion scene. The book under discussion is Madame Bovary and if one wanted a primary and a secondary text to read alongside the movie, Flaubert’s novel might make a nice complement. For a third slightly different take on the deceptions of American family life, consider David Cronenberg’s deeply disturbing and violent (but masterful) A History of Violence (2005), based on the 1997 graphic novel of the same name by John Wagner and Vince Locke. The movie stars Maria Bello, Viggo Mortensen, and Ed Harris.Possibly my favorite adaptation of a novel is the late Anthony Mingella’s 1999 The Talented Mr. Ripley, based on Patricia Highsmith’s 1955 novel. Its ensemble cast – Cate Blanchette, Jude Law, Gwenyth Paltrow, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Matt Damon – is one of the finest ever assembled, and the tale is a darker version of Gatsby myth: Tom Ripley, played by Matt Damon in the movie, decides that he wants the leisured life of his rich friend Dickie Greenleaf, no matter what the cost. Tom’s worshipful longing for well-made clothes and objects, travel, culture – a charmed, leisured life – is a kind of strange love story, and one of the most affecting and infectious depictions of desire I know. You want Tom to win even as he reveals himself to be utterly amoral and self-interested. Mingella’s reading of his source text gives Highsmith’s book a more tragic cast than I found the novel to have, and it also draws out homosexual undercurrents that I think Highsmith was more subtle about, but his version is just as captivating as the original. The movie is also a gorgeous period piece – necessary for a story about the irresistible power of material beauty and comfort.Don’t be put off by the title of this last one: Wristcutters: A Love Story. This 2007 movie directed by Goran Dukic is based on a short story called “Kneller’s Happy Campers” by the Israeli writer Etgar Keret (available in translation in the collection The Bus Driver Who Wanted To Be God and Other Stories). Basically, it’s about where you go after you commit suicide. But it’s not gothic or heavy-handed or overdone. The place that you go is pretty much like our world, only slightly cruddier and more run down – kinda how I imagine things were in Soviet states (scarcity, disrepair). After committing suicide, Zia (Patrick Fugit) finds himself in this world and befriends fellow suicide and former Russian punk band member Eugene (played by Shea Whigham), whose character is modeled on Gogol Bordello front man Eugene Hutz. Zia hears a rumor that his former girlfriend has also committed suicide and so is now in their alternate world, and Zia sets out to find her, accompanied by Eugene. Their adventures include an encounter with a self-proclaimed messiah (played by Will Arnett, GOB from “Arrested Development”) and another with a quasi-magical camp leader (played by Tom Waits). There’s a touch of Beckett about this movie, but there’s also something quietly humane and understated about it. It’s refreshing to see the afterlife imagined in such mundane terms.Lydia offers three movies she prefers over the books they were based on and two books she believes were done disservice by the movies made about them:

The English Patient – It is not Michael Ondaatje’s fault that Ralph Fiennes and Kristin Scott Thomas are basically the dreamiest couple possible. Maybe it’s because I saw the movie first, but I wasn’t as thrilled about the book. I know a number of people who completely freak out over Michael Ondaatje, but I completely freak out over tans and taciturnity.I have read that people take issue with the movie version of Schindler’s List because it, in its Spielberg way, glamorizes The Holocaust. I get this, because I think he made, in a weird way, such an intensely watchable film; it does follow a traditional Hollywood arc, and sometimes I find myself thinking, “Oh hey, I’d like to watch Schindler’s List,” just as I might think, “It’s been a while since I watched High Fidelity.” That’s kind of weird. But it is an incredible story, and I think that the performances of Liam Neeson, Ralph Fiennes, and Ben Kingsley (if you want to see range, by the way, watch this, then Gandhi, then Sexy Beast), are absolutely magnificent. The book is not particularly well-written, but it got the job done.Speaking of poorly written books that make great films, did you read The Godfather? Remember the tasteful subplot wherein the lady is always on the hunt for well-endowed gentleman because of a rather startling aspect of her physiology? How surprising that Francis Ford Coppola chose not to include that pivotal plot point. Jesus.Possession – This movie is a joke, which was disappointing because the novel is so wonderful. Whatever it is that is between Gwyneth Paltrow and Aaron Eckhart is the opposite of chemistry. It’s like giblets removed from a chicken, sitting coldly in their bag.Brideshead Revisited – Why someone would think it necessary to improve upon Waugh, and then Jeremy Irons, is beyond me. Everyone is very pretty in this movie. That is all that can be said on the matter.And Edan rounds things out with a pair of picks:Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson – I love this collection of loosely-linked short stories because it manages to be simultaneously masterful and raw, and because the drug use in the book doesn’t feel cliched, but instead weird and terrible and sometimes wonderful. The narrator of these stories is known as Fuckhead (played in the film by Billy Crudup), and all of these stories pay witness to moments of lucidity and beauty in a world that is otherwise incoherent and uncaring. The movie, I think, does the same. It also highlights the humor of the book: for instance, Jack Black takes Georgie, the pill-popping hospital orderly from “Emergency,” to a whole other level. Other cast members include Samantha Morton, Helen Hunt, Dennis Hopper, and even a cameo by Miranda July! It would be fun to discuss how the film takes on the adaptation of an entire collection, rather than a single story, which is a more common practice.Notes on a Scandal by Zoe Heller – This novel is darkly funny and disturbing, and the story is told in a series of diary entries by dowdy high school teacher Barbara Covett (played in the film by Dame Judi Dench), who befriends colleague Sheba Hart (played by Cate Blanchett), and becomes privy to Sheba’s extramarital affair with one of her students. I absolutely loved this novel, but felt ambivalent about the movie, which has a much more serious tone – probably because it loses Barbara’s wicked commentary on the world around her. It also focuses heavily on Barbara’s lesbian obsession with Sheba – in a way that screams obvious, even campy. Still, the film has been lauded by many, and the upsetting aspects of the book are even more so when watched on screen rather than imagined. (And, plus, Cate Blanchett’s cheekbones alone are worth watching for 2 hours.)If you have any suggestions, let us know in the comments. Thanks for the question Kathy!

Scarification: Ondaatje in the Library

As I watch a crowd build for readings at the public library, it is always with some anxiety that I survey my strange companions – chess geeks there for Gary Kasparov, decomposing leftists to hear Lawrence Wright on Iraq – and worry about my place among them.Last Thursday, when Michael Ondaatje came to the Philadelphia public library to read from Divisadero, there was no such trepidation however. It may set me on edge to share politics with a room of people, but it is intimate to share a story. While we waited for Ondaatje to appear, a library staffer poured water into a glass beside the lectern and I chatted with the woman sitting next to me. Neither of us had read Divisadero, but we had The English Patient between us. She had finished it well after midnight, in bed on a Tuesday. I was on a train headed for Albany, pulling along the Hudson, when I put my copy down.Ondaatje took the stage in standard touring author attire, a loosely cut gray suit over a white dress shirt, open at the collar. He had a puff of thinning white hair and a beard to match and a round of middle age paunch drooping over his waist. Never having met the man, I could have picked him out of a room of strangers.Ondaatje explained that he began his writing career as a poet and that tonight, before he began Divisadero, he wanted to read a few stanzas. I could not tell if this was routine, or if he’d been grabbed by an impulse on the way over. Either way, the room was rapt as he read “The Cinnamon Peelers Wife” which contained the question, “what good is it to be the lime burner’s daughter/ left with no trace/ as if not spoken to in the act of love/ as if wounded without the pleasure of a scar.” There was ample nodding as he went along, and some affirmational sighing at the end. It was reassuring to feel that out of this monotonous book tour, there might be some live pleasure in tonight’s performance. That, I think, was at least half the enjoyment of the poems, both our own, and what we hoped he gained by reading them.Book readings, particularly of literary fiction, often have an awkward quality. Athletes and actresses practice their craft in public and we consume it in the company of other people, but books are private affairs from start to finish. Ondaatje read a considerable amount from Divisadero, which is written in three parts and plays with time and memory much like The English Patient does. His prose has the same impressionistic, scattered quality as his poetry and subsequently Ondaatje talked about learning to write as if creating a collage. He was affable and warm and seemed genuinely happy to be in a basement auditorium with a room of people who had filled the interstices of their lives with his work.When it came time for questions, a man of approximately Ondaatje’s same age alluded to Henry James and Evelyn Waugh and asked Ondaatje to comment on the miscegenating effects of his work. Ondaatje answered he was glad if his writing had that effect, but that it was not really on his mind when he wrote. I raised my hand next. I wanted to know why he thought it was that it takes time before tragedies and wars yield themselves to art, such that the first efforts are rarely as good as later ones. He answered that he was not really interested in writing about political themes, and preferred to take the perspective of small characters with peripheral relationship to big events. I don’t think he meant to elide the question. It was more that from the perspective of his own creative experience, my question did not make any sense. As more questions followed, Ondaatje seemed a little befuddled by the inquiries and connections people drew from his work. They were clearly not the same provocations which had spurred him. It is possible for two people to love the same thing for different reasons and that was the space which developed between Ondaatje and the crowd as the event neared its finish. He had the pleasure of writing his stories, and we had the pleasure of reading them, and the limit of that relationship was like the pleasure of a scar.

Upcoming Books: Daniel Alarcon, Shalom Auslander, Tash Aw, Frederic Beigbeder

There’s some interesting fiction hitting stores in the next few weeks. Here are some to look for.You may remember Daniel Alarcon’s story “City of Clowns” from the summer 2003 debut fiction issue of the New Yorker (it also appeared in The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2004. Now the story, about a newspaperman in Lima, will anchor a debut collection called War by Candlelight. According to HarperCollins the collection “takes the reader from Third World urban centers to the fault lines that divide nations and people.” If you want to sample more of Alarcon’s writing try “The Anodyne Dreams of Various Imbeciles,” originally published in The Konundrum Engine Literary Review or you can enjoy this musing about the Mall of America at AlterNet.Another debut collection coming in April is Shalom Auslander’s Beware of God. In a recent review at small spiral notebook, Katie Weekly compares Auslander’s writing to that of Philip Roth and Woody Allen, but goes on to say: “Unlike the angst-ridden, often cynical work of Roth or Allen, Auslander’s stories are more observational, sometimes magical and always humorous.” (err… don’t know if I’d describe Woody Allen as angst-ridden, but anyway…) If that sounds like something you’d be into, I highly recommend you listen to Act 3 of this recent episode of “This American Life,” in which Auslander reads his story “The Blessing Bee.” If you like that you can read another story from the collection, “The War of the Bernsteins,” here.The Harmony Silk Factory, the debut novel by 25-year-old Malaysian author Tash Aw has been compared to The English Patient in the British press. The book takes place in Malaysia in the first part of the 20th century, and centers around the textile factory that gives its name to the novel. The book is already creating a generous amount of buzz on both sides of the Atlantic including being chosen as one of Barnes & Noble’s Discover Great New Writers selections for 2005.As this recent article in USA Today discussed, Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close isn’t the only novel to deal with 9/11 that’s coming out this spring. French author Frederic Beigbeder’s Windows on the World takes place in the final hours of the restaurant of the same name. The book is actually two years old and was very successful when it first came out in France, debuting at number two on the French bestseller list. The early reviews are good, with Publishers Weekly describing the book as “on all levels, a stunning read.” Still, the subject matter may be too wrenching for American readers. Beigbeder acknowledges in the Author’s Note that he altered the English version of the book slightly because he was concerned that the book was “more likely to wound” than he intendedStay tuned. I’ll be posting about more forthcoming books soon.

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