Seattle-area writers Kristen Millares Young and Kirsten Sundberg Lunstrum met just after the 2016 presidential election through the literary advocacy organization Write Our Democracy. As a result of that volunteer service, they began an ongoing conversation about the intersections of literature, community, parenthood, and the canon.
Kirsten Sundberg Lunstrum’s short story collection What We Do with the Wreckage, published in October of 2018, won the 2017 Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction. Kristen Millares Young’s debut novel Subduction publishes with Red Hen Press on April 14, 2020. Young is the Prose Writer-in-Residence at Seattle’s Hugo House.
The following conversation unfolded over the course of a few months and a presidential election cycle.
Kristen Millares Young: Kirsten, you’ve long centered your stories on women’s lives—a radical act, given the canon’s preference for masculine problems and ways of being. Your fiction operates as a slow burn of intimate disclosures about the constraints of being a daughter, a wife, and a mother—roles that both resolve and compound the problems of being a woman. Three books in, with a full-time job and a family, you’re familiar with the demands of fulfilling many identities. And yet, since 2017, you’ve co-organized a reading series in Seattle, Write Our Democracy, to engage performers and audiences in civic ideals. Why now?
Kirsten Sundberg Lunstrum: I became involved with Write Our Democracy when it was first founded (still under the name Writers Resist) in late 2016. After the election, I (like many) felt bereft, and that grief stripped me of my sense of meaning as a writer. Nothing I’d been working on before the election seemed to hold any value or relevance anymore, and so I put it all aside and looked for more immediate ways to use my time and energy. I found Writers Resist through Sam Ligon, whom I’ve known for years, and he invited me to what turned out to be the first meeting of the Seattle Write Our Democracy cohort. There I made connections to other writers (you among them) that have sustained me over the last two years. One of those writers was Julia Hands, who with me decided to collaborate on organizing a reading series. The series eventually took the shape of a quarterly “Write In,” hosted by Hugo House. At each event, four or five local writers read a short piece related to the mission of Write Our Democracy, followed by a community “write in.” It’s a simple structure, but these events foster relationships between writers, create spaces that uplift truth and the democratic ideal of free expression, and illuminate how art cultivates a more just republic. By making and sharing art, we expand our capacity for critical thought and empathy. And that drives justice, civil discourse, and the co-creation of a humane and functioning democracy.
KSL: As I was moving toward a more direct expression of the ideals that have long driven my writing, you were affecting a different transition, from a career in journalism to writing Subduction, your first novel. From the outside, this feels like a radical transformation of your gaze. What influenced (or maybe necessitated) that shift? Why fiction? What were the challenges of making that shift? And—because I always look for light—what joys did you encounter?
KMY: Lately, I’ve been seeking books with the desperation that drove my reading as a child. Novels have always been where I go for insight into humanity. These long stories imbue those who love them with subtlety and compassion. Without novels, my outlook on life can take on a harsh cast, beaten into shape by the incessant news cycle. I need novels in order to live as I must.
It was action—the timing of my own efforts set against a global sense of urgency—that brought me into journalism, which I still practice as a freelancer for The Washington Post and The Guardian. I turn toward articles, reported essays, and investigations when I want something done now—whether it’s removing plastics from our waste streams, honoring the memory of an indigenous woman whose disappearance was ignored by the police, or attracting resources to an underserved elementary school while critiquing the system that created such disparities.
Journalism heightens social awareness and reflects a pact of trust between reporters, who labor without knowing what will happen upon publication, and readers, who either respond to such calls to action or do not. Having experienced the displacement of revolution as part of the Cuban diaspora, I believe in incremental change, though our current circumstances call for exponential amounts of it.
I flicker between writing personal and reported essays. As a writer, I find true pleasure in lyric prose. I found a cadence to fiction that is extraordinarily difficult to replicate elsewhere, a patience for the withheld. That respect for longing—an ache, though attenuated—is at the center of my most cherished books. Through creative non-fiction, I’ve been able to use what I learned writing Subduction.
I write essays to dislodge recurrence from my memory. Together, we return to phrases and images that haunt my private meanings. With the discipline of revision arrives the revelation of joys unavailable to the first draft of history. I make novels to share that which society would rather keep hidden. In revision, I discover and reveal my true concerns, refracted through characters with thoughts in contradiction to my own.
As a society, we have work to do. I believe in the power of investigative journalism to deliver the progress promised by democracy, which is why I serve as board chair of InvestigateWest, a nonprofit newsroom I co-founded in 2009. InvestigateWest’s reporting has led to the passage of 15 new laws to better the environment and the lives of foster families, health care workers, people of color caught in the criminal justice system, and advocates for government transparency. Stories can be powerful if we pay attention.
KMY: I was so pleased when your new collection, What We Do with the Wreckage, won the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction. O’Connor has been my favorite ever since I read “The Geranium,” and yet a crucial aspect of her lifelong thematic inquiry has fallen out of favor in literary fiction—spirituality. An agnostic, I read widely for wisdom derived wherever I can find it. The question begged by your latest collection’s title is existential. How do you draw upon your faith while writing? At what point, if ever, do you set that structure aside?
KSL: I’m wrestling with that question now—or, rather, I’m wrestling with the place faith might have in my life and in my work now and in the future. I was raised within the progressive strand of Lutheranism (the ELCA), the daughter of a pastor, and I’m not sure I’d be a writer had I not experienced the isolation that is part of being in a clergy family, which taught me to become a careful observer. Growing up steeped in the stories of the gospels and sensibilities of faith also gave me a vision of the world as a place full of complexity, metaphor, and mystery. That’s a perfect brine for a young writer. But also built into my childhood was a charge to use what you’ve been given in service of others (that verse from Luke is fairly tattooed on my heart: From those to whom much has been given, much will be expected)—and I think it was that responsibility not just to see (and to be comfortable sort of swimming around in the darkness and light of being human in this world), but also to do something with what I saw that pulled me toward writing, because what better, truer witness is there than fiction?
The trouble I’m in now is that my adult relationship with faith—and with the church, in particular—is not easy or straightforward or even certain at all. I’m far more aligned with you in agnosticism than I am with people who definitively and firmly claim belief, but I haven’t yet figured out how to cast that tension into story.
In O’Connor’s often-quoted prayer, she writes to God, “Please help me to get down under things and find where You are.” That’s what I want in fiction. I want to find the mystery and beauty that is (as Lutherans say) in, with, and under the scrim of the physical, visible world.
KSL: I want to turn this question about wisdom back toward you. You’ve said that you “read widely for wisdom.” I’m interested in knowing more about the specific influences—the sources of wisdom—that informed you as you wrote Subduction.
KMY: That question requires a deep dive into the many years of research I invested in writing Subduction and refining my own thought, and, I hope, that of my readers.
The tendency of dominant cultures to predicate that which is written has been the source of much pain in millennia of contact with indigenous peoples. Though I’ve sent you a lengthy bibliography, which includes many texts created by indigenous scholars, oral histories are my most specific influence for Subduction.
For their generosity, in and of itself a great source of wisdom, I thank the Makah elders with whom I’ve spent many hours during the past 10 years. I respect their buoyant humor and clear vision. They know what matters.
Like my fellow Cubans (I was raised by immigrants in coerced diaspora), the Makah community places a very high value on family. Tribal members make hard decisions—often costly—to be there for kin. That can seem like a rarity in the constant churn of personal socioeconomic ambition that characterizes mainstream America, where old people are left to die alone in warehouses crowded by beds.
Resilience is both an individual and a community practice. Age teaches us endurance. As a community, the Makah tribe has worked hard to preserve cultural resources for future generations. They’ll travel long distances to attend ceremonies that can still last for days. They show up for each other.
KSL: In the bibliography you sent me for Subduction, you cite Leslie Marmon Silko, whose work considers and illuminates the essential role of storytelling (and particularly oral storytelling) in identity, the construction and perpetuation of memory, and the connections between past and present/self and other. Do you write toward these same themes? How do you approach the stories of a tradition outside of your own in Subduction?
KMY: I wrote this novel to explore the potential and peril of engaging with stories outside our own experience. Because Subduction is a lyric retelling of the troubled history of encounter in the Americas, the storyline juxtaposes an indigenous community with an outsider who, living in diaspora, has come to uneasy terms with the power structures that make her successful.
Subduction begins when Latinx anthropologist Claudia Ranks embarks on fieldwork in Neah Bay on the Makah Indian Reservation, an ancient whaling village. Reeling from her husband’s adultery with her sister, Claudia fails to keep ethical boundaries and begins an affair with Peter Beck, an underwater welder and the prodigal son of her best informant.
Told in chapters that alternate between Peter and Claudia’s points of view, Subduction traces Peter’s attempts to deal with his mother Maggie’s hoarding and trick memory, the key to the enduring mystery of his seafaring father’s murder. It’s not just the stories we tell, but what we refuse to say, and when, and to whom. Peter gives Claudia access because he needs help unraveling old family secrets withheld by his mother in an attempt to keep him safe.
Maggie shares very personal stories with Claudia—but she also obscures and adapts Makah cultural knowledge to highlight the dangers of Claudia’s presence for others who are listening and know the true telling. For example, Maggie changes the identities of a tribal tale’s characters to critique Peter and Claudia’s affair. Claudia, in turn, mischaracterizes the facts of her own life in an unsuccessful, self-protective effort to maintain distance.
Peter is unprepared for the consequences of Claudia’s presence. Her work is both transgressive and transformational. Like many disruptors, Claudia risks damaging what she finds, even as her participation creates a new dynamic to heal a family grown stagnant. Claudia unearths Maggie’s plan for the hoard she spent her life building, and with that discovery, enacts the family’s long-cherished wish for a legacy.
By examining the fallout of this family’s engagement with an anthropologist, Subduction provides meta-commentary about finding meaning in stories that were made for the Makah people. Alive in the hands of their makers, stories condition how we think of ourselves and others. Subduction begins by exploring the lies we tell ourselves so we don’t have to change. The novel ends by showing the power of narrative—both communal and self-given—to change who we are and what we do.
KMY: In What We Do with the Wreckage, you also explore this power of story to change and define the self, though you occasionally step outside the boundaries of realism to do so. The story “Where Have the Vanished Girls Gone?” comes to mind—here you play with fable to unearth the dangers of our daily lives, particularly as self erasure becomes more than metaphor for your characters. How and when do you invite transgression of the real, by which I mean the possibility for the fantastic, into your fiction?
KSL: A few years ago I began to feel boxed in by the limitations of realism in trying to capture what I’m going to call here the liminal zones of life: adolescence, grief, anxiety, anger, real and difficult love, pregnancy, faith, middle age. These are not objective spaces, and we don’t occupy them with a straightforward gaze. It suddenly didn’t make sense to me to write these states as if they were certain or solid or easily perceptible. That recognition sent me into a panic for a while, and I stopped writing as I looked for how to better—and more honestly—convey the layered, the mysterious (and I use that word here to mean that which is hidden and even sacred).
I went back to my bookshelf, looking for books that walked a line between realism and the surreal. I reread Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, Brontë’s Jane Eyre; but also more contemporary work, like John Berger’s To the Wedding, Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping, Anne Enright’s The Gathering. I read traditional and contemporary fairy tales (stories by Karen Russell and Dan Chaon and Kelly Link and Karen Joy Fowler). I read widely within recent children’s literature and YA. While I’d say that I’m still exploring how and where to enter the fantastic in my fiction, the result of that reflection and reading is that I’m already far less confined by the strictures of any particular genre than I once was, and I think shrugging off those strictures is actually getting me closer to writing something that feels true.
KMY: On that note, I’m curious about the role your family has had in your writing process and focus. You’ve written about the difficulties of bringing early parenthood into the canon. Why has this fruitful topic, central to the lives of so many readers, been avoided?
KSL: That’s the question of the moment, I think, for writers who are mothers, and it’s long been a question at the core of my writing. To return to where we began this conversation, I’d say that it’s here—in my dedication to seeing women’s stories on the page and in the canon—that my politics most fully inform my writing. For generations (as we all know) the canon was determined by men, by people outside of the experience of pregnancy and childbearing and (largely) childcare. Stories focused on the female body as an agent of change, of creation, of the more difficult kind of beauty that pregnancy and childbirth necessarily are—those stories weren’t reflective of either men’s lived realities or their desires, and so they weren’t given space in the canon.
But the answer is more complicated than just “men had no interest;” the other truth is that women artists always have had to make a choice about their use of time and energy (“Book or baby?” my friends and I started to joke when we hit 30, but our laughter was edged in anxiety), and they’ve also always had to make a choice about representation. This is changing, I think, but I still feel it now. It’s best not to talk too openly about one’s children in literary circles (lest you be seen as boring). It’s best not to note that parenting slows down your writing process, that it alters the way you see and tell stories. Best not to admit that motherhood is—like sex or love or violence or grief—a fundamental and sometimes identity-fracturing experience (lest you be seen as weak).
To me, though, that’s where the stories are—in that tug of war between identity and relationship. As a writer and as a reader I’m far more engaged by the messy human drama of family than by anything else, and I don’t think that’s an intellectual or artistic weakness. To talk about my motherhood—my daughterhood, wifehood, womanhood—is to talk about my craft as a writer. The threads of identity are inseparable for me. And while I recognize that there’s still a fear that a woman acknowledging that truth is a woman undermining her own professional authority, I refuse that fear. I feel a kind of righteous fury about that refusal, in fact, and it’s out of that fury, too, that my energy for organizing the Seattle Write Our Democracy series comes. There must be space in literature for the multiplicity of human experiences. I didn’t do enough to hold that space in the past, but I’m trying to now—for other writers and for myself.
KSL: What about your dual role as a parent and writer? How has being a mother transformed your work?
KMY: Birth forced me to submit to my own potential. Not just the fruition of the sons I would suckle for years, not just the creation and completion of the family I wanted to build. The act of carrying a body inside my own, and laboring to deliver that body, whole and filling with breath, to the world, burned away the excesses of my youth and replaced them with the urgency of creation.
Twice, I did so, with no regrets.
I had always worked hard. But I also allowed myself a trough for every crest. Work hard, play hard—a family motto. Being a mother brought me closer to my baseline. I weave through it with tighter and tighter stitches until I pull back and see, in that brocade, the tapestry of my happy life.
When I was a child dreaming of adulthood, I didn’t know that having what I want would require constant motion. But my children taught me the true meaning of play—not the delirium of released stress, but an unchecked upwelling of joyful intention. When we laugh, it is not ironic. When we shout, it is not in anger. We are in orbit of love.
I learned to accept myself because I no longer have time to waste. I decided to love myself—finally!—so that I could be present for my sons. With these choices came a comfort. I am who I am. Though I often defied power structures as a reporter, I once thought professionalism required an impersonal presentation to the world. In the end, I prefer intimacy—its dangers, its rewards.
I’ve brought that capacity for risk into my writing, and my work is better for it. In my prose, I don’t hide my rowdy self, nor the sophisticate within. Vulnerabilities I once tried to conceal as a reporter—unanswered doubts and cravings, the difficulties of being—are now that which I examine through my writing. I tell stories because they showed me how to live.
It was no surprise to me that after I interviewed Anne Enright in 2011 we talked about family. About her children who came relatively late in life, and about my not having any of my own. She said she’d been shocked at how much she loved motherhood, and wished she hadn’t put it off so long because she would have had five. She had two. Eventually, we decided motherhood was rather like a cult. Enright said, “Having a baby is like becoming a member of a cult because like a cult, you’re woken up at random hours of the day and night and you have to placate and worship. That’s what they do in the Moonies. They wake them up in the middle of the night and make them pick beans in the field. That’s what they do in re-education camp when they break people down to try to make them believe in something. Having a baby is a perfect example of how well it works because you end up loopy and talking about these human beings endlessly and alienating everyone else.”
Family — children, siblings, spouses, parents — is a theme that Enright has explored masterfully throughout her literary career. The author of three volumes of stories, one book of nonfiction, and five novels, she was named the inaugural Laureate for Irish Fiction in 2015. Her novel The Gathering won the Man Booker Prize, and her last novel, The Forgotten Waltz, won the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction.
In her new book, The Green Road, Enright tackles motherhood, alcoholism, love in all its many forms, failure, AIDS, aging, and death — all the stuff that fills life with anxiety, despair, and dread. Moments of sweetness and compassion percolate up through this miasma though, showing that family bonds are difficult to break no matter how hard you try. Enright, who is allergic to sentimentality and cliche, has written a powerful story of the Madigan clan that is a mesmerizing family portrait.
I talked with Enright by phone on May 15th, when she was in Washington D.C. to promote The Green Road.
The Millions: Congratulations on becoming Ireland’s inaugural fiction laureate. Did you know you were in the running? What will your responsibilities be?
Anne Enright: Thank you. I was delighted. It’s half an honor and half a job, so you have to be available for it. They do run an availability check by you, of course, so I had an inkling I was in the mix. I’ll teach at NYU in 2016 from January to May, and I’m going to give a lecture every year and also curate some events. It’s designed to leave time for my own work. You know, you don’t want to kill the goose.
TM: Has there been any backlash about a woman being named?
AE: No, it’s all been very decorous and polite. I suppose if I were in some way clearly under-qualified for the job they might have been saying you know it’s just because you’re a woman. But that hasn’t been the case. My gender hasn’t been mentioned in this context publicly or privately to me, which has been interesting and nice.
TM: Do you think it’s a good time to be a woman writer?
AE: Yeah, something changed after the bust in 2008. A lot of certainties were disturbed, and the new work that’s coming out of that disturbance is really interesting and very urgent. A lot of it is written by women. For the first time in my writing life, I think the future is going to be a better balanced one. The Irish tradition has been very male heavy. It’s going to see these younger women coming through, and they don’t give a damn. It seems that something is over. Some idea of Irishness that doesn’t involve being female is over. I think it’s global, it’s happening all across the Western world.
TM: In The Green Road you’ve brought together a group of deliciously flawed characters who make up the Madigan family. We follow the four children over 30 years as they suffer though mistakes, regrets, health scares, and dashed hopes. Can you talk about the family you’ve chosen to write about?
AE: The Madigans are a very particular family with a particular problem that perhaps we all face: that, as they go on in life, stuff catches up with them. They have to somehow deal with all of that — your stuff, your mental baggage, which you’re carrying around with you, which in their case is to do with their mother Rosaleen. I think they all have a gap, or a loneliness, or a chill, or something that they’re trying to fix or fill. They’re trying to become proper human beings in one way or the other, or they’re not trying. Dan doesn’t try all that hard. But they all have a challenge to their compassion and their ability to rise to what life throws their way. I was very drawn to the whole business of compassion.
TM: There aren’t very many strong matriarchal figures in literature these days so I was delighted to see Rosaleen. She’s kind of a pain in the neck, questioning her children’s career choices, nagging them to come home, lose weight, whatever. But still, their lives continue to revolve around her. What were you looking for in her character?
AE: It took me a long time to get her onto the page. I really stalked her for a long time. I seeded in this character a few small vanities. She thinks she’s important in this small town. She has a sense of being an important person who married beneath her. It’s this slight preening sense that as she gets older becomes more problematic. She becomes more of a difficulty to herself. She’s not hugely self-aware, nor is she hugely grown up. We expect our parents to be grown ups, but Rosaleen has a kind of childlike quality to her. She gets upset quite easily. She’s quite fragile.
TM: Do you think Rosaleen is worried she let her children down?
AE: No, Rosaleen is in that hall of mirrors. She doesn’t know the difference between her children and herself. So basically she’s saying that she can’t accept that Dan is a separate human being, because he will leave her. She’s always on the brink of being abandoned. She’s always complaining that her children are ungrateful. They won’t do what they’re told, which is the same thing as “Oh god, they’re going to leave me.” That’s all we ever do is leave our mothers. We start leaving from the day we’re born, and that separation is difficult for both mother and child. So yes, it’s more about Rosaleen’s anxiety about being abandoned.
TM: As usual you’re not skimpy on the sex, and all your characters have healthy sexual appetites. There’s happily married sex, lonely sex, gay sex, romantic sex, and hot sex between long-time lovers. Was your knowledge intuitive or did you do research?
AE: Each of the characters has their own distinctive sexual style, you might say. They also have various spiritual lives, which is fairly new for me. For the gay sex, I did look up some statistics at one stage. I’ve read both the AIDS related work of Mark Doty which is kind of relationship centered, and also Larry Kramer. I have read over the years a fair amount of work about gay life.
TM: Part of Dan’s story takes place during the height of the AIDS crisis in New York City. We watch him evolve into someone who wants to live out his life with a partner, and to perhaps get married. I see that Ireland will hold a referendum on gay marriage on May 22nd. What do you think The Green Road says about this issue?
AE: The writer of The Green Road says she going to be home to cast her vote. That’s the most important thing. Everyone has an opinion, but the important thing is to put it into the ballot box. I had written all of that stuff long before the referendum was mooted. I’m interested to see some of the arguments that are happening now that had a foreshadowing in Dan’s life in The Green Road. It just seems that in 2005 this was a natural place for him to be. When his sister is kind of disappointed that he is getting into a conventional, heterosexual idea of long-term relationships she said, “I thought you got away from all that boring stuff,” and he says, “I did get away from it, and now I can do what I want.” That would be pretty close to my point of view about all that.
TM: The scene where Rosaleen is writing out her Christmas cards to her children fascinated me. She becomes so self-conscious with her words that she’s rendered practically mute.
AE: When Rosaleen’s doing her Christmas cards, it’s different for each child. You can see how she views them all different. This is one of the things that Rosaleen does that is supposed to be wrong as a mother of children. She labels her children, and she has favorites, and she has difficulties with each of them. She has no problem writing to Dan even though Dan never comes home. She’s not bothered writing to Constance even though Constance is down the road looking after her. This is like something I’ve seen and observed, this style of mother. The one who’s away is sort of worshipped, the prodigal son, and then they are not particularly grateful for the help they get. They just expect the one that is closest to home to look after them the whole time.
TM: When Dan announces he’s going to be a priest, Rosaleen feels as though there’s been a death in the family. She’s so heartbroken that she goes to bed for days, or as you say in the book, “mother took the horizontal solution.”
AE: By 1980 the amount of vocations to the priesthood were already very few. When the Pope came to visit there was this brief euphoria, but also a questioning of what was going on on the ground in the Catholic church in terms of new priests for the diocese. There were only like four or five a year entering the seminary. That time in 1980 was when the denial about Catholicism became a lot more obvious, you know, that we were all Catholic for two minutes. In fact, people were conducting their lives in ways the Catholic Church would not approve. Like when people were trying to obtain contraception, which was still illegal, and succeeding in getting it. It was one of those illegals that nobody really cared about. But Rosaleen isn’t the type of Irish mother who would be delighted. There are many types of Irish mothers, and that’s partly my point. There isn’t one quintessential Irish mammy who’s delighted to have a son as a priest.
TM: Sometimes the siblings seem like strangers to each other. They’re stuck in the same roles they had as children.
AE: The thing about the siblings is they come back in their mid-to-late 40s, and they’ve had all these amazing, unexpected, unimaginable things happen to them. They’ve had their disappointments, and all the rest of it. The thing is you go back to your family and your family really isn’t interested in your adult, complex, changed sort of self. They’re only interested in the old patterns of how people behaved in the family. You can’t actually communicate all this new vast knowledge you’ve acquired in the 30 years since you left. Family, since they shared so much early on, seem utterly familiar and known to each other. Those siblings continue to be familiar. They know the sounds of their footsteps. They know who’s in the next room by the sound of their breathing, but they can’t know what each other has been through. Nor can that be shared. We have some transcendental idea of perfect knowledge that comes when you love someone. That when you’re connected to them you want to sort of merge in some way and know everything about them. But we’re discreet separate units. It’s one thing whether we can know each other, it’s another thing why we should want to. The book really is interested in what it is to be alone. The scene where Rosaleen goes out on the green road is all about our concentrated and isolated individual humanity. It’s about being alone. The book is very interested in that, and what it is to be connected with people, as well.
TM: What’s the significance of the green road?
AE: The green road is a real road on the west coast of Ireland in County Clare overlooking the Burren and the Erin Islands. It’s very beautiful and a very iconic landscape. One of the key tourist images of Ireland is the Cliffs of Moher, which are visible from the green road, and it’s been used in work by [John Millington] Synge and [W.B.] Yeats and Lady Gregory. They were all interested in this landscape, which is a very impoverished, stony, barren kind of landscape. It seems quite bleak. It’s the last place before America. It’s kind of hard to be on that coast without thinking of elsewhere. There is a kind of feeling that there’s a wide world out there, and yet it’s a very intensely local, small town place as well.
TM: Your writing never drops into sentimentality or cliche. Is that something you purposely try to avoid?
AE: Yeah, I suppose I do. If I write something that’s cliche, then it’s going to bore me. I’m not going to spend my day being bored by my own work.
TM: Good dialogue is an art form. Yours seems so realistic and natural.
AE: That’s good to hear. I didn’t know whether I could do dialogue, or not. The second half of the book really becomes a play when they’re all sitting around the table talking to each other. I was kind of worried about that, because I hadn’t done a lot of dialogue before so I’m really glad you thought it was okay.
TM: How did you know when your story was done?
AE: Well, I wrote out beyond the end of this book, and then I brought it back in again. I wanted the characters to be on the brink of something new, without actually going into that territory. You get out early in your ending. I sometimes write for an editor who takes out my very carefully crafted first paragraph and my very wonderfully rendered last paragraph, and runs the piece without any other alterations. You realize you often don’t need that explaining bit of getting up to speed at the beginning or you don’t need to over finish the end. You don’t need to make many big bows as you walk out the door.
TM: Is there anything you still want to explore in your writing?
AE: I think the thing that excites me is structure or shape. And, I was pleased this time that I was writing men without too much difficulty. I haven’t written many men before. I may continue to do that a bit more.
TM: I’ve read that you said your books bridge the gap between high and low culture. Where do you think your books sit in the literary canon?
AE: I’m sort of anti-canonical. I’m not a canon sort of person. Also, since I’m not a maker or accepter of canons, I’d have to let somebody else answer that question. I think as a writer I have always refused any of the contexts that people might want to put me into. Might have been the reason I survived actually.
TM: It’s a busy time for you. You’re touring for The Green Road, and you’re at the beginning of a three-year post as fiction laureate. How do you keep your sanity?
AE: Actually, I’m much more relaxed on this tour than I have been on previous tours. I’m just getting a bit older, I think. This book was written after all questions about success or failure were kind of finished, and I don’t have to be asked about prizes any more. I’m just very happy to present the book rather than the career. But, in order to keep my sanity, this time out on tour I’ve been trying to domesticate it as much as possible, so instead of staying at hotels I’ve been staying with friends or family. There’s nothing like leaning up against the kitchen counter with a cup of tea, which is not something you can do in hotels all that much. Yeah, so I’m trying to see people I like to keep me sane. And, I like a bit of fresh air, and maybe a little bit of meditation.
TM: At the end of the day, what makes you happiest?
AE: When all is said and done what makes me happy is the great beauty of my children.
Last year offered many treats for readers: hotly anticipated new books by David Mitchell and Marilynne Robinson; the emergence of our own Emily St. John Mandel as a literary superstar; the breakout success of Anthony Doerr. 2015 offers more riches. This year we’ll get to crack open new books by Jonathan Lethem, Kelly Link, Kazuo Ishiguro, Kate Atkinson, Toni Morrison, Aleksandr Hemon, and Milan Kundera. Our own Garth Risk Hallberg will have his much anticipated debut on shelves later this year. Look beyond the hazy end of summer 2015 and Jonathan Franzen will be back with a new novel. All of these and many more are the books we’re looking forward to this year.
The list that follows isn’t exhaustive—no book preview could be—but, at 9,000 words strong and encompassing 91 titles, this is the only 2015 book preview you will ever need. Scroll down and get started.
Amnesia by Peter Carey: Carey’s new novel uses a cyberattack as the lens through which to consider the often-fraught history of the relationship between the United States and Australia. A radical hacker releases a worm into a computer system that governs both Australian and American prisoners. The doors of five thousand prisons in the United States are opened, while in Australia, hundreds of asylum-seekers escape. An Australian journalist, determined to figure out the motivation behind the attack and trying to save his career, struggles to get the hacker to cooperate on a biography. (Emily)
Outline by Rachel Cusk: First serialized in The Paris Review, Cusk’s new work is described by its publisher (FSG) as “a novel in ten conversations”, but I prefer Leslie Jamison’s description: “a series of searing psychic X-rays bleached by coastal light.” The woman at the center of these conversations is a writing teacher who travels to Greece to teach a workshop. Her portrait is revealed by her various interlocutors, beginning with her neighbor on a plane en route to Athens. (Hannah)
The First Bad Man by Miranda July: Miranda July, artist, filmmaker and author of the story collection No One Belongs Here More Than You, has written a debut novel about a woman named Cheryl who works at a women’s self-defense nonprofit, and, according to the jacket copy, is a “tightly-wound, vulnerable woman who lives alone with a perpetual lump in her throat.” Cheryl also believes she’s made love with her colleague “for many lifetimes, though they have yet to consummate in this one.” In her blurb, Lena Dunham writes that July’s novel “will make you laugh, cringe and recognize yourself in a woman you never planned to be.” While you prepare for the book’s release, check out The First Bad Man Store, where you can purchase real items that are mentioned in the novel. (Edan)
Almost Famous Women by Megan Mayhew Bergman: This new book is Bergman’s second short story collection, after her heartbreakingly humane debut, Birds of a Lesser Paradise. Her new collection takes inspiration from historical figures, women who attained a certain degree of celebrity but whose stories have never been fully imagined. We meet Lord Byron’s illegitimate daughter, Edna St. Vincent Millay’s sister, a conjoined twin, and a member of the first all-female integrated swing band. (Hannah)
Sweetland by Michael Crummey: The award-winning author of Galore returns to the land and the past of Newfoundland in his latest novel, which follows Moses Sweetland, the one man determined to stay on an island long after every one else has left, in defiance of both their warnings and their threats. As the Vancouver Sun puts it, Sweetland “demonstrates, as the best fiction does (and as Crummey’s novels always have) that the past is always with us, and that contemporary events are history embodied and in motion.” The novel also promises to be the best kind of ghost story, one in which memory and place are as haunting as the ghosts Sweetland believes he sees. (Kaulie)
Glow by Ned Beauman: Multiple prize nods for each of his first two novels have set high expectations for Ned Beauman’s next effort. If the plot, which slingshots through England, Burma and Iceland, is any indication, the new book will match the ambition of his previous work. The story kicks off at a rave in London, where Raf, a sufferer of a chronic sleep disorder, is trying out a new drug, the eponymous “glow.” The drug leads him on a quest to uncover a massive conspiracy involving a multinational named Lacebark. (Thom)
Honeydew by Edith Pearlman: Long a distinguished short-story writer, Pearlman emerged into the spotlight with her 2011 collection Binocular Vision. The new-found fame landed her a new publisher — Little, Brown — for her latest collection and a profile in the Times. It seems, in fact, that Pearlman is now assured the larger audience that eluded her for decades. (Max)
Binary Star by Sarah Gerard: An introduction to a recently published excerpt of Binary Star suggests Sarah Gerard has a reputation for tackling her subject matter with unusual ferocity. In her debut, she turns her attention to eating disorders, focusing on a would-be teacher who struggles with anorexia. When the story begins, the teacher weighs ninety-eight pounds, and she reflects on the parallels between her own compulsions and the hopeless alcoholism of her lover. Gerard heightens the intensity, meticulously listing what her characters eat and drink. (Thom)
Frog by Mo Yan: In the latest novel by the Chinese Nobel laureate to get an English translation, Mo Yan takes on the one-child policy, depicting the lives of several characters throughout the lifespan of Communist China. Gugu, a gynecologist who delivered hundreds of babies during Mao Zedong’s reign, finds herself performing illegal abortions after the policy takes effect in the late seventies. Yan also depicts the sexism of the policy — his characters work hard to have sons and not daughters. (Thom)
Watch Me Go by Mark Wisniewski: Wisniewski’s third novel channels the best of his profluent short fiction (Best American Short Stories, Virginia Quarterly Review). Watch Me Go speeds by with clipped chapters that follow Douglas “Deesh” Sharp, who helps haul the wrong junk: an oil drum that holds a corpse. Sharp does it for the money, and that bad decision haunts him until the final page of the novel. Wisniewski’s tale unfolds in the shadow of the Finger Lakes, New York racetracks, where, one character warns “in the long run, gamblers always lose.” Watch Me Go feels particularly apt to our national present, when police procedure is under constant scrutiny. Deesh is a victim of the system, and his redemption will only happen by fire. Wisniewski’s prose burns forward, but he knows when to slow the pace and make the reader feel Deesh’s injustice. (Nick R.)
Hall of Small Mammals: Stories by Thomas Pierce: Pierce’s stories are reminiscent of the work of Laura van den Berg: his fiction exists in a space that’s just slightly offset from reality, not quite surrealism but not quite realism either. A woman admits to her boyfriend that she’s married to another man, but only in her dreams; in dreams she and her husband live out an ordinary domestic life. A man who works for a sinister television show that clones extinct animals delivers a miniature woolly mammoth to his mother. Pierce’s stories are beautifully written and suffused with mystery. (Emily)
A Bad Character by Deepti Kapoor: “Delhi is no place for a woman in the dark,” Kapoor writes, “unless she has a man and a car or a car and a gun.” Idha, the narrator of Kapoor’s debut novel, is young, middle-class, and bored. Her car allows a measure of freedom, but not enough, and when she meets a somewhat unsuitable older man, the temptation to capsize her life with an affair is irresistible. Both a coming-of-age story and a portrait of New Delhi. (Emily)
Bonita Avenue by Peter Buwalda: Buwalda’s first novel, translated from the Dutch, traces the dissolution of the outwardly solid Sigerius clan, updating the family saga by way of technical intricacy, narrative brio, and internet porn. In the Netherlands, the book was a bestseller, nominated for a dozen prizes. The English translation has drawn comparisons to Jonathan Franzen and the manic heyday of a young Philip Roth. (Garth)
Lucky Alan: And Other Stories by Jonathan Lethem: Jonathan Lethem has made a career of capturing transition—whether it’s Brooklyn’s gentrification or his masterful blend of genre and literary fiction. He works with similar themes in his third short story collection, but this time, it’s people—not places—that are in limbo. From forgotten comic book characters stuck on a desert island to a father having his midlife crisis at SeaWorld, the nine stories in this collection explore everything from the quotidian to the absurd, all with Lethem’s signature humor, nuance, and pathos. (Tess)
Find Me by Laura van den Berg: In most post-apocalyptic fiction, the end of the world is devastating, but what if it were a chance for renewal and redemption? Laura van den Berg is the perfect writer to answer this question as she has proven herself a master of scrutinizing fresh starts in her short story collections, What The World Will Look Like When All The Water Leaves Us and The Isle of Youth. In her first novel, a lost young woman named Joy is immune to an Alzheimer’s-like plague sweeping the country. With society’s rules broken down, Joy travels across America in search of the mother who abandoned her, making new friends and a new world along the way. (Tess)
Satin Island by Tom McCarthy: McCarthy’s fourth novel introduces us to a “corporate anthropologist” struggling to wrest an overarching account of contemporary existence from a miasma of distraction and dream. Perhaps he’s a stand-in for your average internet user. Or novelist. At any rate, expect ideas and delight in equal measure (assuming there’s a distinction); McCarthy’s reputation as a “standard bearer of the avant-garde” underrates how thoroughly he’s mastered the novelistic conventions he’s concerned to interrogate – and how fun he is to read. (Garth)
Get in Trouble by Kelly Link: Link’s last story collection for adults, Magic for Beginners, was something like the Jesus’ Son of Magical Realism. Its publication nearly a decade ago won the author a passionate cult; since then, mostly through word-of-mouth, its excellence has become a matter of broader consensus. Get in Trouble, her fourth collection, offers a vivid reminder of why. Beneath the attention-getting levity of Link’s conceits – ghosts, superheroes, “evil twins” – lies a patient, Munrovian attunement to the complexities of human nature. (Garth)
The Strange Case of Rachel K by Rachel Kushner: Before she published her two richly accomplished novels, Telex From Cuba and The Flamethrowers, Rachel Kushner wrote three short works of fiction that are collected in The Strange Case of Rachel K. In “The Great Exception,” a queen pines for an explorer as he makes his way to “Kuba.” In “Debouchement,” a faith healer’s illegal radio broadcasts give hope to an oppressed island populace. And in the title story, a French-style zazou dancer in pre-revolutionary Cuba negotiates the murky Havana night. The stories read like warm-up sketches for Telex From Cuba, and they’ll be of interest to Kushner’s ardent fans and future scholars. Others will be left hungering for something new from this outlandishly gifted writer. (Bill)
Discontent and its Civilizations: Dispatches from Lahore, New York, and London by Mohsin Hamid: Hamid’s latest is a collection of pieces that he wrote for various publications between 2000—the year his first novel, Moth Smoke, was published—and 2014. Hamid has lived in Pakistan, New York City, and London, and in works ranging from extended essays to brief op-eds, he brings personal insight and thoughtful analysis to issues ranging from the war on terror to the future of Pakistan to the costs and the promise of globalization. (Emily)
Trigger Warning: Short Fictions and Disturbances by Neil Gaiman
Neil Gaiman is known for finding the fantastical in the everyday and the cracks in reality. So it should be no surprise that his third short story collection defies genre categorization, delving into fairy tales, horror, fantasy, poetry, and science fiction. Yet not all of it is unfamiliar: “Adventure Story” shares themes with his last novel The Ocean at the End of the Lane, and “Black Dog” brings him back to the American Gods world. (Tess)
Suspended Sentences by Patrick Modiano: Patrick Modiano, winner of the 2014 Nobel Prize in Literature, will get a belated introduction to many American readers through Suspended Sentences. Originally published between 1988 and 1993, these three atmospheric novellas share Modiano’s recurring theme: an attempt to understand the secret histories of the Nazi Occupation of his native Paris. “Afterimage” is the shadow tale of a young writer cataloging the work of a haunted photographer. The title piece is a child’s-eye view of the gang of circus performers and crooks who raise him. In “Flowers of Ruin,” a double suicide triggers an investigation into gangsters and collaborators during the Occupation. It’s a delectably broad sampling from a writer with a doggedly narrow scope. American readers should rejoice. Update: The release date was moved up following the Nobel win and the book has already been published! (Bill)
The Infernal by Mark Doten: After ten years of near-silence, we’re now in the full roar of fiction about the Iraq War. The most notable efforts to date have taken a realist slant, but Mark Doten’s first novel marks a sharp swerve into Coover territory: its key figure channels the voices of Condoleezza Rice, Paul Bremer, and Osama bin Laden. Early readers have reached for adjectives like “deranged,” “crazy,” and “insane,” in addition to the more usual “thrilling” and “dazzling.” (Garth)
There’s Something I Want You to Do by Charles Baxter: We don’t often want authors to moralize, but Charles Baxter is a fictional minister we have been devout to throughout more than a dozen works of fiction, poetry, and nonfiction. Virtue and vice are inextricably related in his latest short stories. The collection features ten stories, five about virtue and five about vice, with the same characters participating in both and all motivated by the book’s titular request. What Baxter wants us to do is note human frailty, ambiguity, and its shameful depths. As fellow master of the form Lorrie Moore notes, “Baxter’s stories proceed with steady grace, nimble humor, quiet authority, and thrilling ingeniousness.” (Tess)
The Last Good Paradise by Tatjana Soli: The author of The Lotus Eaters (winner of the James Tait Black Memorial Prize) and The Forgetting Tree returns with a novel about a ragtag group of modern people attempting to escape their troubles on a remote Pacific island. Come for the scenery, the picaresque cast, and the comic reflections on the vagaries of contemporary life; stay for, as Kirkus puts it, Soli’s “idiosyncratic prose style.” (Lydia)
My Documents by Alejandro Zambra: “Camilo” was both the first thing I’d read by this young Chilean writer and one of the two or three best stories to run in The New Yorker last year. It appears alongside 10 other pieces in this collection, Zambra’s first book with McSweeney’s. (Garth)
I Am Radar by Reif Larsen: Reif Larsen’s follow-up to the bestselling The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet takes off from a premise halfway between Steve Martin and Judy Budnitz: “In 1975, a black child named Radar Radmanovic is mysteriously born to white parents.” But the ensuing 650 pages venture into realms of Pynchonian complexity and Irving-esque sweep. Erudite and voracious, skylarking and harrowing, they follow Radar around the world and into entanglements with some of the worst atrocities of the 20th Century. (Garth)
The Half Brother by Holly LeCraw: When Harvard graduate Charlie Garrett starts teaching at Abbott, an Episcopal boarding school in Massachusetts, the chair of the English department tells the young teacher that his students “all still believe in truth.” LeCraw’s gorgeous sentences dramatize a campus where literature stirs young hearts and minds. Charlie falls for a student, May Bankhead, daughter of the campus chaplain, and makes his feelings known when she returns home from college. Love turns to lust, and later to jealousy, when Charlie’s half brother, attractive Nick Garrett, arrives at Abbott to teach. Nick catches May, who has returned to teach at the school. “I need to be here,” she tells Charlie. LeCraw never eases the emotional tension. The novel begins with an epigraph from gifted teacher-writer Andre Dubus, who says he “learned to walk into a classroom wondering what I would say” rather than planning. The Half Brother captures his spirit, and the result is one of the finest school-set novels in recent memory. (Nick R.)
The Country of Ice Cream Star by Sandra Newman: Newman’s third novel is set in a world of children. Eighty years ago, a deadly pandemic swept across North America, and now every child is born with the disease; they begin showing symptoms around the age of eighteen or nineteen, and die soon after. When fifteen-year-old Ice Cream Star’s beloved older brother falls ill, she sets out after rumors of a cure. It’s a compelling story, but the most fascinating thing about Newman’s book is the language: the novel is written in the kind of beautifully warped English that one might expect to develop over eighty years without adults, and the prose often approaches a kind of wild poetry: “We flee like a dragonfly over water, we fight like ten guns, and we be bell to see.” (Emily)
All the Wrong Places: A Life Lost and Found by Philip Connors: After the suicide of his brother Connors finds himself in, as the title of his second memoir promises, many incongruous and wrong places, ranging from a hot-air balloon floating over New Mexico to a desk at the Wall Street Journal. A kind of prelude to his debut memoir, Fire Season, All The Wrong Places helps to explain why spending a decade in mountain solitude was so attractive to Connors. It’s also a look at the wandering years that often follow early loss, and has already drawn comparisons toCheryl Strayed’s seemingly infinitely-popular Wild. (Kaulie)
Bon Appétempt: A Coming of Age Story (With Recipes!) by Amelia Morris : As anyone who has ever creamed butter and sugar together in a mixing bowl knows, the precision of baking can also bring order to your life. With a few failed careers and a dysfunctional family, Amelia Morris needed to learn this lesson, too. From her blog of the same name to this memoir, she chronicles her transformation into an adult and cook, complete with a good dose of humor and recipes. (Tess)
The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro: It’s been ten years since Never Let Me Go, so for Ishiguro fans, his new novel has been long-anticipated. His British publisher, Faber & Faber, offered up a somewhat oblique teaser early last year: it’s a book about “lost memories, love, revenge and war”; the website, which is currently just a (kind of intense) book trailer, doesn’t help much either—but then, if Never Let Me Go is any indicator, perhaps we’d all be better off without a lot of spoilery summaries in advance. (Tess)
Ember Days by Nick Ripatrazone: Nick’s lovely meditations on teaching, writing, reading, and faith have come fast and furious on The Millions since he joined the site as a staff writer at the tail end of 2013. Nick is prolific–he’s the author of two novellas, two poetry collections, a book of criticism, and a short story collection, which he somehow managed to write while teaching public school in New Jersey and parenting twins. His newest collection of short stories will be published by Braddock Avenue Books; you can read the eponymous story, a haunting number about atomic power and retribution, the title of which is taken from the Christian liturgical calendar, at Story South. (Lydia)
The Tusk That Did the Damage by Tania James: Tania James’s debut novel Atlas of Unknowns and follow-up story collection Aerogrammes were both published to critical acclaim. This second novel may be her true coming out. Says Karen Russell: “The Tusk that Did the Damage is spectacular, a pinwheeling multi-perspectival novel with a cast that includes my favorite character of recent memory, ‘the Gravedigger,’ an orphaned homicidal elephant.” The elephant is not only a primary character, but one of three narrators, who also include a poacher and a young American filmmaker. Ivory trading, poaching, an escaped elephant, a risky love affair, all set in rural South India and “blend[ing] the mythical and the political”—this novel seems to have it all. (Sonya)
Ashes in My Mouth, Sand in My Shoes and I Refuse by Per Petterson: Since Out Stealing Horses brought him international acclaim in 2007, many more of Norwegian novelist Per Petterson’s books have been translated into English, although not quite in the order he wrote them. Ashes in My Mouth, Sand in My Shoes, a collection of linked stories, was his first, published in Norway in 1987, and introduces young Arvid Jansen — a character he revisits in In the Wake and I Curse the River of Time — growing up in the outskirts of Oslo in the early 60s. I Refuse, meanwhile, is Petterson’s latest novel, published in Norway in 2012. It tells the story of Jim and Tommy, whose friendship was forged in their youth when Tommy stood up to his abusive father and needed Jim’s support. When they meet by chance 35 years later, they recall those painful events, as well as a night on a frozen lake that separated them until now. (Janet)
B & Me: A True Story of Literary Arousal by J.C. Hallman: Nicholson Baker’s characteristically idiosyncratic biography of John Updike, U and I, has become a literary classic. Now J.C. Hallman, himself a gifted practitioner of eclectic non-fiction with books on topics ranging from chess to Utopia, turns the lens on Baker. Publisher Simon & Schuster calls it “literary self-archaeology” and offers up comparisons to Geoff Dyer’s Out of Sheer Rage and Elif Batuman’s The Possessed, two books that have helped carve out a new genre of memoir that arrives refracted through the lens of the writers’ literary obsessions. (Max)
The Dream of My Return by Horacio Castellanos Moya: Castellanos Moya’s short novels are hallucinatory, mordant, and addictive – like Bernhard transplanted to warmer climes. And his translator, Katherine Silver, is admirably attuned to the twists and turns of his sentences. We’ve offered enthusiastic readings of Senselessness and The She-Devil in the Mirror. Here Castellanos Moya flirts again with autobiographical material, tracing the crack-up of “an exiled journalist in Mexico City [who] dreams of returning home to El Salvador.” (Garth)
So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson: There’s a robust online conversation right now about public shaming: when someone says or does something offensive on the internet, does the collective outcry — a digital torch-wielding mob — go too far? Ronson’s previous books include The Psychopath Test and The Men Who Stare at Goats, and he’s a frequent contributor to This American Life and BBC Radio 4. In his newest book, billed as “a modern-day Scarlet Letter,” he examines the culture that’s grown up around public shaming, talking with people like Jonah Lehrer, who shook the publishing world with several rounds of plagiarism revelations, and Justine Sacco, who tweeted an offensive “joke” before boarding a transatlantic flight — and had what felt like the entire internet demanding that she be fired before her plane touched down. (Elizabeth)
Young Skins by Colin Barrett: Ireland right now is ridiculously fertile ground for writers, though I guess that’s been said so often in the last century as to border on cliché. Still: Anne Enright, Paul Murray, Eimear McBride, Kevin Barry, Keith Ridgway…and 32-year-old Colin Barrett is, as they say, the coming man. This collection, winner of the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award and the Guardian First Book Award, wastes no motion in its unsparing look at youth and masculinity in the small towns of the west. (Garth)
Decoy by Allan Gurganus: In 2013, 12 years after the appearance of his last full-length book, Allan Gurganus published Local Souls, a collection of three novellas. One of these, Decoy, which Dwight Garner called “the keeper” of the bunch, is indeed being kept, appearing as a separate publication this spring. Set in the fictional North Carolina town that has housed much of Gurganus’s previous work–including his beloved debut Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All–Decoy deals in small-town social relations and obscure homoerotic longings. Gurganus, known as a writer’s writer (he taught Donald Antrim’s first writing class), is reportedly at work on another massive full-length novel, “The Erotic History of a Southern Baptist Church.” (Lydia)
Crow Fair by Thomas McGuane: A new release by gifted prose stylist McGuane should be cause for celebration by sentence lovers. McGuane long ago moved from the sardonic prose of his earlier novels (The Sporting Club) to lyric representations of the American West (The Cadence of Grass). In his own words: “As you get older, you should get impatient with showing off in literature. It is easier to settle for blazing light than to find a language for the real. Whether you are a writer or a bird-dog trainer, life should winnow the superfluous language. The real thing should become plain. You should go straight to what you know best.” The seventeen stories of Crow Fair model that sentiment. Start with the patient words of “A Prairie Girl,” but stay for the rest. (Nick R.)
The Last Word by Hanif Kureishi: British man of letters Hanif Kureishi, OBE, has been, variously, a novelist, playwright, filmmaker, writer of pornography, victim of financial fraud, and sometimes reluctant professor of creative writing. His newest novel takes on another man of letters, Mamoon Azam, a fictional lout rumored to be based on the non-fictional lout V.S. Naipaul. Echoing Patrick French’s biography of Naipaul, Kureishi (who has assiduously avoided drawing comparisons between his novel and Naipaul) describes an imperious and irascible master of post-colonial fiction and his hapless biographer. (Lydia)
The Unloved and Beautiful Mutants and Swallowing Geography: Two Early Novels by Deborah Levy: For those who loved the oneiric Swimming Home, 2015 will be a great year as three Deborah Levy books—one new novel and two earlier works—are due to come out. Her latest, The Unloved, starts out as a sexually charged, locked door mystery set in a French chateau, then expands into a far-ranging tale about sadism and historical atrocities. Beautiful Mutants, her strange first novel about a Russian exile who is either a gifted seer or a talented fake, and Swallowing Geography, a European road novel with nods to Kerouac, are being reissued in June. (Matt)
Aquarium by David Vann: Vann, whose work we have examined previously at The Millions, returns with a new novel in March. Library Journal offers high praise: “Since electrifying the literary world five years ago with his debut novel, Legend of a Suicide, Vann has racked up an astonishing number of international awards. This lovely, wrenching novel should add to that list.” (Thom)
The Harder They Come by T.C. Boyle: When precisely, one wonders, does T.C. Boyle sleep? In the 35 years since his first book came out, Boyle has published 14 novels and more than 100 stories. The Harder They Come is the usual T.C. Boyle clown car of violent misfits, anti-authoritarian loons, and passionate losers set loose in a circus of serious-minded zaniness. After being declared a hero for stopping a hijacking, an ex-Marine returns home to Northern California to find that his mentally disturbed son has taken up with a hardcore member of a right-wing sect that refuses to recognize the authority of the state. (Michael)
Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids, edited by Meghan Daum: Well, the title speaks for itself. “Controversial and provocative,” no doubt. This is the book I wanted to edit myself, so now I’m looking forward to reading it. Sixteen authors offer their reflections on this topic, including Lionel Shriver, Sigrid Nunez, Kate Christensen, Elliott Holt, Geoff Dyer, and Tim Kreider. Daum published her own story of not being a parent—but rather a mentor of teenagers—at The New Yorker back in September. The anthology’s title is likely both tongue-in-cheek and uncomfortably accurate; its cleverness, to my mind, is in the fact that the subtitle might easily omit the “not.” (Sonya)
The Animals by Christian Kiefer: Christian Kiefer leaves behind the suburban cul-de-sacs of his first novel, The Infinite Tides, and takes us to rural Idaho for his follow-up, The Animals. Bill Reed is trying to move beyond his criminal past by managing a wildlife sanctuary for injured animals – raptors, a wolf, a bear. He plans to marry the local veterinarian and live a quiet life – until a childhood friend is released from prison and comes calling. Aimed at fans of Denis Johnson and Peter Matthiessen, this literary thriller is a story of friendship, grief, and the desire to live a blameless life. (Bill)
Delicious Foods by James Hannaham: I learned of James Hannaham’s sophomore novel back in 2013, at which point I mentioned to him how excited I was—about the title in particular: “You wrote a book called DELICIOUS FOODS?!” “The title is slightly misleading,” he replied. His publisher gives us this: “[A]n incisive look at race relations in America and an unflinching portrait of the pathos and absurdity of addiction.” Delicious or not, the story of Eddie and his mother Darlene promises to be both “blistering” and “inventive”—not to mention timely. (Sonya)
The World Before Us by Aislinn Hunter: In Hunter’s eerily compelling new novel, an archivist at a small London museum embarks on a final project before the museum’s impending closure: she is searching for information related to a woman who disappeared over a century ago from a Victorian asylum. The project holds some personal interest: when the archivist was fifteen years old, a little girl whom she was babysitting vanished in the woods near the asylum, and the archivist has begun to suspect that the two events were connected. (Emily)
The Sellout by Paul Beatty: Back in the ‘90s, The White-Boy Shuffle, Beatty’s first novel (after several poetry collections) was one of the bibles of my adolescence – furiously funny and ineffably sad. Two subsequent novels confirmed him as a scorching satirist in the vein of his contemporaries Sam Lipsyte and Gary Shteyngart. His latest outing features, in a supporting role, “the last surviving Little Rascal, Hominy Jenkins” – but its deeper concerns couldn’t be more timely: the precipitating incident is the death of the hero’s father in a police shootout, and the ultimate destination is the Supreme Court. (Garth)
The Last Flight of Poxl West by Daniel Torday: Torday’s novella, The Sensualist, won the 2012 Jewish Book Award for debut fiction. In his first novel, The Last Flight of Poxl West, the titular character is a war hero and something of an idol to his teenage nephew, Eli Goldstein. Kirkus gave the novel a starred review, remarking, “While Torday is more likely to be compared to Philip Roth or Michael Chabon than Gillian Flynn, his debut novel has two big things in common with Gone Girl–it’s a story told in two voices, and it’s almost impossible to discuss without revealing spoilers. A richly layered, beautifully told and somehow lovable story about war, revenge and loss.” Rivka Galchen calls it both “brilliant” and “hilarious” and George Saunders says, “Torday is a prodigiously talented writer, with a huge heart.” I myself had the great pleasure of reading an advanced copy and I loved it. The final scene…what an ending! I still think about it. (Edan)
Her 37th Year: An Index by Suzanne Scanlon: Delivered in a series of pithy and emphatic observations, thoughts, and quotations, Suzanne Scanlon’s Her 37th Year: An Index examines love and desire and disappointment and writers and influence and ideas and passion and affairs and depression and writing and friendship and mothering and being a woman and aging. The potential excess of all this is balanced by its lean form, with each entry a vignette, quote, or observation. As a “fictional memoir”, Her 37th Year re-imagines form and redefines boundaries in a way similar to how Jenny Offil’s Dept. of Speculation revitalized the novel: the sum of its parts is flooring. (Anne)
God Help the Child by Toni Morrison: Morrison was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature more than two decades ago; her newest novel will be her sixth in that span of time, following 2012’s Home. A new Morrison novel, according to Slate, is “news that amounts to at least an 8 on the literary Richter scale.” It is, according to Knopf, “about the way childhood trauma shapes and misshapes the life of the adult,” and though it’s just 192 pages long, it promises to be more powerful than many books twice its length. (Elizabeth)
My Struggle: Book 4 by Karl Ove Knausgaard: There’s still time to jump on the Knausgaard bandwagon! English-speaking fans of Books 1-3 have been waiting almost a year for this translation, the fourth in a six-volume autobiographical novel by Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard — or just plain “Karl Ove” to those of us who have been following his confessional outpourings. Dwight Garner likened reading Knausgaard to “falling into a malarial fever”, and James Wood remarked that “even when I was bored, I was interested.” Book 4 covers Knausgaard’s late adolesence as he struggles to support his writing by teaching, falls in love with a 13-year-old student, and boozily greets the long arctic nights. (Hannah)
Early Warning by Jane Smiley: This is the second installment in Smiley’s Last Hundred Years Trilogy, which follows a single Iowa farming family and its descendants through the American Century, from 1920 to 2020. The first book, Some Luck, which Smiley discussed in a wide-ranging Millions interview last fall, covers the Depression years and World War II. The new book starts in the depths of the Cold War and takes readers through Vietnam and into the Reagan era. The final volume, as yet untitled, is due out this fall. (Michael)
A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson: Kate Atkinson’s 2013 novel Life After Life followed Ursula Todd as she lived and re-lived her life in mid-century Britain. In this companion to the novel, we get the story of Ursula’s beloved younger brother Teddy, an aspiring poet and celebrated RAF pilot, who leaves a war he didn’t expect to survive to become a husband, father, and grandfather in an ever-changing world. (Janet)
Voices in the Night by Steven Millhauser: A friend of mine keeps Steven Millhauser’s collection We Others by her bedside; she speaks of it, and Millhauser, like it’s 1963 and he’s a dark-eyed mop-top. Indeed, Millhauser inspires cult following: his stories do the impossible, getting way under your skin via immaculately simple prose and deceptively placid storylines. Voices in the Night collects 16 stories — “culled from religion and fables. . . Heightened by magic, the divine, and the uncanny, shot through with sly humor” – that promise to once again unsettle us with their strangeness and stun us with their beauty. (Sonya)
Gutshot by Amelia Gray: Gray’s stories come at you like fists wrapped in sirloin to pack a punch—they’re wonderfully idiosyncratic, visceral, and grotesque, with humor added for heft. Stories in her collection Museum of the Weird feature high-end cannibalism (eating monk’s tongues), a serial killer nicknamed “God” who cuts chests open and removes a rib, and a plate of hair served with soup. With the arrival of her next collection, Gutshot, Gray’s stories threaten to knock you out. (Anne)
Academy Street by Mary Costello: Bravo to Mary Costello, a “Bloomer” whose first story collection The China Factory I wrote about here back in 2012. Her debut novel Academy Street—the story of Tess Lohan, who emigrates from 1940s western Ireland to New York City—is drawing comparisons to Colm Tóibín’s Brooklyn and John Williams’s Stoner. Academy Street has already been published in Europe and received the Eason Novel of the Year Irish Book Award. (Sonya)
The Dead Lands by Benjamin Percy: Percy rides the increasingly porous border between literary and genre fiction in this post-apocalyptic thriller that re-imagines the Lewis and Clark expedition in an America brought low by a super flu and nuclear fallout. When word comes to Sanctuary – the remains of St. Louis – that life is better out West, Lewis Meriwether and Mina Clark set out in secrecy, hoping to expand their infant nation and reunite the States. Should be a snap, right? (Michael)
The Children’s Crusade by Ann Packer: The author of The Dive from Clausen’s Pier again displays her gift for delving into complicated families and the women who aren’t sure they want to be part of them. Narrated in turns by each of the four Blair children, The Children’s Crusade follows the twists and turns of the family’s fortunes from the day in 1954 when their father, Bill, impulsively buys a plot of wooded land south of San Francisco, through to the modern day. “Imagine, if you will, that Jonathan Franzen’s excellent novel, The Corrections, had likeable characters,” says one early reader on GoodReads. (Michael)
The Making of Zombie Wars by Aleksandr Hemon: His first full-length novel in seven years (since 2008’s The Lazarus Project), The Making of Zombie Wars is the story of Josh Levin, an ESL teacher in Chicago with a laptop full of hundreds of screenplay ideas, Zombie Wars chief among them. As Josh’s life goes from bad to worse to absurd — moving in with his girlfriend only to become entangled in the domestic disputes of her neighbors — he continues to work on the zombie movie that might get him away from it all. (Janet)
Mislaid by Nell Zink: Zink’s first novel The Wallcreeper, published by the Dorothy Project, a feminist small press, made a big splash last year. Its backstory provided the hook: a fifty-year-old expat writes a novel on a dare from her pen pal Jonathan Franzen. But Zink’s sui generis sensibility was the main event: taut, acerbic, and free. She moves to a major press for her second book, a decade-hopping Southern family novel that tackles race, sexuality, and the wilderness of youth. (Garth)
The Familiar, Volume 1: One Rainy Day in May by Mark Z. Danielewski: On the jacket of David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks is a blurb from Publishers Weekly: Is this “the most ambitious novel ever written or just the most Mitchell-esque?” One might ask the same question, mutatis mutandis, about Mark Danielewski’s The Familiar. Danielewski combines Mitchell’s fondness for formal innovation and genre tropes with an appealing indifference to questions of taste. At its best, this gives you House of Leaves, at its worst, Only Revolutions. One Rainy Day in May introduces us to “nine lives,” principally that of a 12-year-old girl who rescues “a creature as fragile as it is dangerous” – some kind of totemic/architectonic cat? Anyway, Volume 1 is 880 pages long. Word is, 26 more volumes are on the way, so this one had better be good. (Garth)
The Green Road by Anne Enright: Spanning three decades and three continents, this new book by Anne Enright centers on Rosaleen, the head of the Madigan family. Beginning in County Clare, the book follows the four Madigan children — Dan, Hanna, Emmet and Constance — as they set off on their own lives, travelling as far away as Mali to explore their adult selves. On Christmas Day, they all come home, and the issues of their family come back to them. In many ways, it’s a premise similar to that of Enright’s Booker-winning The Gathering. (Thom)
A Hand Reached Down to Guide Me by David Gates: In a year rich with surrealist romps and boundary-blurring semi-memoirs, David Gates returns with a welcome injection of “the present palpable intimate” in the form of eleven stories and a novella. Gates is a natural and capacious realist, at once ironic and warm, in a way that makes the ordinary ambit of experience, from marriage to parenthood to getting old, seem as trippy as it really is. (Garth)
Loving Day by Mat Johnson: Johnson’s Pym, an entertaining riff on race and Edgar Allan Poe’s only novel, took us all the way to Antarctica. Loving Day (the title refers to a holiday celebrating interracial love) is set in a less remote locale, a black neighborhood in Philadelphia, but promises to be no less hallucinatory than its predecessor. A mixed race man returns from Wales, where both his marriage and his comic shop have failed, to inhabit a ghost-haunted mansion left to him by his father. He soon discovers the existence of a daughter, and the pair is drawn into a “utopian mixed-raced cult.” (Matt)
The Book of Aron by Jim Shepard: While Jim Shepard was a student at Brown, John Hawkes told him “You know, you’re not really a novelist, you’re really a short story writer.” Thankfully, good writers can be terribly wrong. Shepard’s long fiction is as fantastic as his classic stories. Shepard has always been a writer who exists outside of himself on the page, and this Holocaust-set novel is no different. The story focuses on Aron, a boy from the Warsaw Ghetto, who joins other children in smuggling goods to those “quarantined.” The novel also illuminates the life of Janusz Korczak, the real-life protector of Jewish children in ghetto orphanages (he once said “You do not leave a sick child in the night, and you do not leave children at a time like this.”). Serious material requires sensitive hands, and Shepard’s care creates beauty. (Nick R.)
Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf: Kent Haruf, who died last year at 71, will be best remembered for his 1999 novel Plainsong, a finalist for the National Book Award. It was set in the fictional eastern Colorado town of Holt, which Haruf (rhymes with sheriff) returns to yet again for his last novel, Our Souls at Night, finished shortly before his death. It’s the story of a widower named Louis Waters and a widow named Addie Moore who come together in Holt and begin sharing the aspirations, disappointments and compromises of their long lives. One critic likened Haruf’s prose to Pottery Barn furniture – with its “rustic lines,” “enduring style” and “aged patina.” His legion of fans wouldn’t have it any other way, and Our Souls at Night will not disappoint them. (Bill)
City by City: Dispatches from the American Metropolis edited by Keith Gessen and Stephen Squibb: Drawn from an n+1 series of the same name, City by City offers an insider’s glance into the state of America’s urban spaces. The mix of personal and historical essays explore issues such as crime, gentrification, and culture in cities as varied and far-reaching as Miami, Florida and Gold Rush, Alaska. Described as “a cross between Hunter S. Thompson, Studs Terkel, and the Great Depression–era WPA guides to each state in the Union,” City by City provides a collective portrait of the American city during the Great Recession. (Anne)
The Ghost Network by Catie Disabato: Disabato, who has written for The Millions, debuts with a high-concept mystery that looks to be a lot of fun. Pop stars aren’t known for avoiding the limelight, which is why the disappearance of a Lady Gaga-like singer inspires two women to track her down. Racing around Chicago in search of clues, they find themselves decoding arcane documents and ancient maps rather than liner notes as the disappearance turns out to involve a secret society. (Matt)
Odd Woman in the City by Vivian Gornick: For a sneak preview of Gornick’s witty and unsparing observations of city life, please read Gornick’s “Letter from Greenwich Village” in The Paris Review (it’s also collected in The Best American Essays 2014). A master memoirist, Gornick’s latest is an ode to New York City’s street life, old friends, and the fascinating joy of “living out conflicts, rather than fantasies.” (Hannah)
The Edge Becomes The Center by DW Gibson: Following up his critically-acclaimed oral history of the recession, Not Working (the title is a play on Studs Terkel’s classic oral history, Working), Gibson’s latest oral history portrays gentrifying New York City from all sides. Gibson interviews brokers, buyers, sellers, renters, landlords, artists, contractors, politicians and everyone in between to show how urban change feels to those living through it. (Hannah)
Black Glass: Short Fictions by Karen Joy Fowler: Fowler’s 2014 novel, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, won the PEN/Faulkner award and landed her on the Booker shortlist, one of two American finalists for the now American-friendly prize. This year will see her 1998 short story collection, Black Glass, re-released in hardcover. The stories — with influences and references from Carry Nation to Gulliver’s Travels to Albert Einstein to Tonto and the Lone Ranger — have been described as “occasionally puzzling but never dull,” and “ferociously imaginative and provocative.” (Elizabeth)
Saint Mazie by Jami Attenberg: Saint Mazie is Attenberg’s much anticipated follow-up to her bestselling novel The Middlesteins, which was also a finalist for the LA Times book prize. Inspired by the life of a woman profiled in Joseph Mitchell’s Up in the Old Hotel, Saint Mazie follows Mazie Phillips, “the truth-telling proprietress of The Venice, the famed New York City movie theater,” through the Jazz Age and the Depression; her diaries, decades later, inspire a contemporary documentarian to find out who this intriguing woman really was. Therese Ann Fowler, author of Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald, calls the book “both a love song and a gut punch at once,” and Maggie Shipstead says it’s a “raw, boisterous, generous novel.” (Edan)
The Book of Numbers by Joshua Cohen: Cohen, 34, is as prolific as he is ambitious. Five years after his mega-novel, Witz (and three years after a lauded story collection), he returns with a long book about a novelist ghost-writing the autobiography of one of Silicon Valley’s new Masters of the Universe. The set-up should give Cohen’s caustic sensibility a target-rich environment, while the scope leaves his fierce intelligence ample room to play. (Garth)
The Festival of Insignificance by Milan Kundera: Fifteen years after the publication of his last novel, Kundera returns with a (very brief) story of four friends in Paris who talk self-importantly about “sex, history, art, politics, and the meaning of life” while simultaneously celebrating their own insignificance (Library Journal). While these themes may be familiar to fans of Kundera’s past work (of which there are many – The Unbearable Lightness of Being has been enduringly popular since its publication in the mid-1980s) it will be exciting to see fresh writing from a modern master. (Kaulie)
Muse by Jonathan Galassi: Over his long literary career, Galassi has done everything except write a novel. Now the FSG publisher, Italian translator, critic and poet has checked that off his list with a story that satirizes the industry he knows so well and sounds like an updating of Henry James’ The Aspern Papers. In the novel, a publisher tries to wrestle a famous female poet away from a rival, eventually securing a meeting in her Venetian palazzo and learning a revelatory secret. (Matt)
The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty by Vendela Vida: Believer founding editor Vendela Vida’s trilogy of novels about “women in crisis” becomes a tetralogy with the debut of her latest, The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty. As in her previous novels, the story involves a woman traveling abroad (in this case, Casablanca, Morocco). When the woman is robbed of her wallet and passport, she experiences distress and also unexpected freedom. The novel dips into All About Eve territory in this part-thriller, part-novel-of-ideas when the woman finds work as a celebrity stand-in and then begins to assume this alternate identity as her own. (Anne)
In the Country: Stories by Mia Alvar: Alvar is a frequent contributor to literary magazines—she’s been nominated twice for a Pushcart Prize—but this is her first short story collection. In the Country focuses on the Filipino diaspora, from Bahrain to Manila to New York. Alvar considers themes of alienation, displacement, the sometimes-troubling bonds of family, and the struggle to find a sense of home. (Emily)
The Dying Grass by William T. Vollmann: The one living novelist who makes Joyce Carol Oates look like a slacker returns with the fifth volume of his “Seven Dreams” series, about the confrontations between native people and settlers in North America. This installment swings west to investigate the Nez Perce War of the late 19th Century, and is rumored to lean on dialogue to an unusual degree. The first of the Seven Dreams was published in 1990; at this rate, the series should conclude some time in 2027. (Garth)
A Cure for Suicide by Jesse Ball: Jesse Ball’s novels are playful and clever and often quite grim, although this is not a contradiction. As he said in an interview: “a life of grief can be joyful too.” In his fifth novel, A Cure for Suicide, this again seems to be evident. A man and woman move in together: she is his guide and doctor who teaches him about life, defining for him the nature of objects and interaction and ways of being. That is, until another woman arrives and upends all he’s learned, making him question. (Anne)
Confession of the Lioness by Mia Couto : Couto, a Mozambican who writes in Portuguese, has for years been considered one of Africa’s leading writers, fusing indigenous settings and traditions with influences from abroad. His first novel, Sleepwalking Land, was named one of the best African books of the 20th Century; his most recent, Tuner of Silences, was published by the terrific independent press Biblioasis, and was longlisted for the IMPAC Dublin award. In Confessions of the Lioness, a series of lion attacks in a remote village forces an eruption between men and women, modernity and tradition. It’s Couto’s first book to be published by FSG. (Garth)
Music for Wartime by Rebecca Makkai: Fans of 2014’s The Hundred Year House don’t have to wait too long for more of Makkai’s clever and wonderfully imaginative work. Her third book and her first story collection, Music for Wartime offers a diverse array of stories, four of which are inspired by Makkai’s family history and her paternal grandparents’ involvement in 1930s Hungarian politics. (For more on this, check out this Harper’s Magazine interview with Makkai). Overall, the collection showcases the author’s talent for the short form–which has gotten her anthologized four (!) times in the Best American Short Stories series. (Edan)
Flood of Fire by Amitav Ghosh: Following Sea of Poppies (shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize) and River of Smoke, Calcutta-born Amitav Ghosh brings his Ibis Trilogy to a rousing conclusion with Flood of Fire. It’s 1839, and after China embargoes the lucrative trade of opium grown on British plantations in India, the colonial government sends an expeditionary force from Bengal to Hong Kong to reinstate it. As the force arrives, war breaks out, and with it a blaze of naval engagements, embezzlement, profiteering and espionage. In bringing the first Opium War to crackling life, Ghosh has illuminated the folly of our own failed war on drugs. Historical fiction doesn’t get any timelier than this. (Bill)
The State We’re In: Maine Stories by Ann Beattie: A new collection of linked stories set in Maine from one of the short story masters. Call her the American Alice Munro, call her a New Yorker darling, call this the perfect summer read. (Hannah)
The Marriage of Opposites by Alice Hoffman: In her 30 works of fiction, Alice Hoffman always finds the magical in the ordinary. Her narratives have roamed from ancient Israel (The Dovekeepers) to 20th-century New York City (The Museum of Extraordinary Things). Hoffman’s new novel, The Marriage of Opposites, transports us to the tropical island of St. Thomas in the early 1800s, where a girl named Rachel is growing up in the community of Jews who escaped the Inquisition. When her arranged marriage ends with her husband’s death, she begins an affair with her late husband’s dashing nephew. There is nothing ordinary about their son: his name is Camille Pissarro, and he will grow up to become an immortal father of Impressionism. (Bill)
Purity by Jonathan Franzen: There are few American authors who can hit all the popular news outlets simply by releasing the title of their next novel (Purity), or launch a thousand hot takes with the publication of one grumpy book excerpt in The Guardian (an excerpt which, curiously, is no longer available at its previous URL as of this writing). Franzen haters were derisive at the news of his impending novel (Gawker’s headline was “Jonathan Franzen to Excrete Book Called Purity”), described by its publisher as “a multigenerational American epic that spans decades and continents,” with bonus “fabulist quality.” But some people believe, privately, that Franzen is such a good novelist that his detractors must just be jealous. And for those people, the new book can’t come quickly enough. (O Franzen! My Franzen!) (Lydia)
City on Fire by Garth Risk Hallberg: We at The Millions look forward to reading fellow staff writer Garth Risk Hallberg’s debut novel. At over 900 pages, the novel takes place in 1977 New York and culminates in the city’s famed black-out. The Guardian reports, “The polished third-person narration conjures up a cast of characters living in a New York City divided by race and money – the reluctant heirs to a great fortune, two Long Island kids exploring downtown’s nascent punk scene, a gay schoolteacher from rural Georgia, an obsessive magazine reporter, a revolutionary cell planning to set the Bronx ablaze, a trader with a hole on his balance sheet and a detective who is trying to piece together the mystery which connects them all to a shooting in Central Park.” In anticipation of the book’s release, I suggest you dip into Garth’s essays here at The Millions, perhaps starting with his 2010 piece on long novels, “Is Big Back?” (Edan)
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If you don’t think the lads dominate the Irish literary landscape with all manner of Colums and Seamuses, quickly, name three Irish women writers. I’m guessing two of those would be Edna O’Brien and Emma Donoghue. And one of those would no doubt be Anne Enright, whose novel The Gathering, garnered the prestigious Man Booker Prize in 2007.
Enright has followed up that dark novel with The Forgotten Waltz, which on the surface is a lighter more external narrative. Set in 2009, Gina Moynihan, a married mid-30s IT professional, looks back at her adulterous adventure with a married man named Sean. It’s a survey of that dysfunctional coupling with precise snapshots dating to Gina’s first sighting of Sean at her sister’s housewarming barbeque seven years earlier.
The period of her dalliance corresponds to the economic bubble known as the Celtic Tiger when, much like other countries riding an economic upswing, the material world dominated the attentions and energies of Ireland’s striving classes (and then some). And so Enright, who is acutely observant and precisely expressive, paints that consuming hysteria as the backdrop for the Gina’s romantic and illicit thrill seeking.
Robert Birnbaum: Did you look at any news source this morning?
Anne Enright: Umm, yeah I glanced at the papers.
RB: What the big story for you today?
AE: Me, I am checking the Eurozone and keeping an eye on the banks. Whether they are going to fall apart — how slowly or how quickly.
RB: Who is going first — is Greece going?
AE: Greece hasn’t gone. They really are going to work to keep it together. There hasn’t been any doubt about that for a while. On the panic level, the worst panic level was probably September, October 2008. After Lehman’s, when the Irish government guaranteed all the banks. Everybody was going crazy about this decision that was made to guarantee all deposits in Irish banks. But in fact I had gone to bed the night before with the assurance that I was going to go into the bank and take all my money out the next morning.
RB: How much has the defanging of the Celtic Tiger affected you?
AE: Personally, I am really lucky. I am always out of sync with Ireland, you know. When Ireland was booming away, I was sitting in my garret, writing The Gathering, rearing two small children out in Bray, which is south of Dublin, wondering why this had nothing to do with me. All I got from the boom was ripped off.
AE: It’s true. Childcare, fees, everything was ridiculously expensive. My nieces and nephews are coming up to their 20s now — so my generation and their generation missed the worst of it. The worst of it hit the people in their 30s. And their early 40s, who really felt the need to buy a house they couldn’t afford, in a place they didn’t want to live and stuck with partners they don’t like anymore.
RB: Much like the characters that appear in The Forgotten Waltz.
AE: Yeah, The Forgotten Waltz is full of real estate that’s unsellable.
RB: Is this an Irish novel?
AE: Umm, when you think about it, it’s a highly contemporary novel set in February 2009, when the economy is falling. There is real estate in it. There’s money in it.
RB: Designer names.
AE: Designer labels. You look at John B. Keane’s The Field, and love and land; we always understood the connection between the two in Ireland. So, it’s Irish to that extent. It’s also interested in family ties and family love and what’s the difference between romantic and family love. That’s quite Irish as well. It’s Irish in that you can’t get away from those forces. The novel is a highly individualistic form — my characters are dragged back to the communal, (laughs) blood ties — and that’s quite Irish.
RB: To look at it, the focus appears to on adultery. But–
AE: Yeah (pauses) actually, it’s a book that seems to be about adultery but is about a different kind of love that sort of creeps in afterwards. On February 6, 2009, it was a day of snow in Ireland and the place was stalled. I was making a journey through the countryside with my family in the snow with all of them annoying me about how to drive —
AE: “Watch out for the black ice,” and all of that, in the back of the car. It was a very melancholy sort of moment — the country was falling and we didn’t know how fast, how far. And something about the stillness of that day (pauses) — you know, it made me think of the silence after all the noise; all the hubbub has stopped. And that’s when reality come stealing in. I’m not against reality. The adultery part of the book is glorious and fantastic, full of denial and bliss and getting away with it–
RB: And passion.
AE: Passion, a bit like the boom. Doing what you want. The country was doing what it wanted for a while.
RB: Maybe, it could be viewed as mass hysteria.
AE: Well, there was a hectic quality to those last years. And there was a lot of — you were not allowed disbelief. If you said it’s all going to come falling down — no, you have to believe in property prices, if you don’t they will crash.
RB: Barbara Ehrenreich has written about this industry of self-improvement rooted in being positive and upbeat.
AE: But it really works economically. Until it doesn’t work at all. It’s a confidence trick — you take belief out of the system and all the money turns into dust.
RB: It’s true in a lot of areas. It’s true in sports. Is it true in writing? Writers don’t have any confidence (laughs)
AE: Writers have a lot of emotions about their work, and about themselves in relation to the work. None of them matter that much. It’s just a way of making you get to the desk a bit more, with more intensity. But yeah, writers always think their work is no good and they have no confidence and yada, yada, yada.
RB: After you won a major prize and went on to work on the next book how did you feel?
AE: I felt just fine. The whole prize thing was so external and so much hard work, actually. And I felt so relieved to get back to the desk, you know.
RB: You were in some way anonymous before winning the Man Booker.
AE: I felt a bit robbed in that way.
AE: Because books are incredibly personal items and you have to keep vulnerable, to keep your vulnerability at the desk. Too famous is not good — for whatever limited amount of time that that happens.
RB: Did I read correctly that you never returned to the room where you wrote The Gathering?
AE: You’ve been doing your research? (laughs) Well, it’s a small room and full of books, it’s a bit unmanageable as a space. No, I didn’t go back, really. I mean, I never wrote in that room again.
RB: Are there other things in your life that you do but can’t explain? Like that — can you explain why you never wrote in that room again?
AE: I didn’t realize I wasn’t going back for a long time. And then I did [realize]. Yeah, I knew why — it wasn’t much.
RB: Sometimes we call those ghosts or skeletons, hanging there, not fleshed out.
AE: Yeah, it’s more an aura.
RB: When I spoke to John Banville recently, he was very positive about the future of the U.S. — the great hope of civilization. When you come to the USA what do you see and feel?
AE: It’s more interesting going to China and looking around China (both laugh). Sean in The Forgotten Waltz, says you should go to Shanghai, just to see that it’s all happening, it’s all real. It was very much my experience in Shanghai, these eight-lane highways with no cars on them. Ah, what do I think of America? Elsewhere is always important for Irish writers because Ireland is a little bit like that room where I wrote The Gathering. (laughs) I always wanted to come back to it (laughs). It’s a complicated place for writers. It’s the origin, it’s the spring of it, you know. The place things come from.
RB: The U.S. is the place things come from?
AE: No Ireland is. Elsewhere is really important for Irish writers because that’s where your book goes. And, the flavor of the readership is important. Or the critical response. America has always been a great opportunity for Irish writers.
RB: And the Continent?
AE: France is slightly impermeable to foreign influence. They say in France, “But we have so many great French writers” — none of whom are translated into English, of course. You want to say, “But who are they?” Germany is important.
RB: The French like Paul Auster and Julian Barnes?
AE: Yeah, they like what they like. Paul Auster walks down the street in Paris and he is bothered. People take his picture. Germany is interested in Ireland in a way that France isn’t. France thinks we are savage (pronounced with French accent).
RB: (laughs) Well, so that should be a positive. Does that mean wild?
RB: Don’t the French use the word apache as a positive description?
AE: I know — of course, they consider themselves very tamed, very sophisticated. It’s not so interesting to be looked upon as some sort of wild object. Fintan O’Toole wrote an article in The Irish Times about how important America was to a whole generation of Irish writers, but he didn’t include me in the list. He said partly because I was a woman. I didn’t know that as a woman I would be less interested in America. I am a little outside the run of regular Irish writing which has post-colonial concerns. So I don’t write about that kind of power relationship between the rural and the urban between Ireland and England, between the noble savage and the chilly aristocrat. Within that argument, America is clear space and an opportunity. And also it has a huge diaspora Irish community. So there is a kind of melancholy connection between the two countries — of loss and opportunity.
RB: Irish Americans are strongly supportive of what is exported from Ireland?
AE: In the readings you meet them. My name is Anne Theresa. I met an Anne Theresa Enright in Australia — Melbourne. And I met an Anne Theresa Enright; it may have been in Kansas, I’m not sure. They looked like each other. They didn’t look like me. I knew there were different Enrights. I am signing books and there is often, there used to often be a Bernadette. We’d know when she was born. She was born when the Song of Bernadette came out as a movie. And then Martinas were born when Saint Martina was being canonized. Not only can you spot trends, you can know what age people are when they tell you their names. Why did Banville voice his admiration for America — he wants Americans to buy his novels? They do. They love him.
RB: I live here and I have my disappointment about the USA. I am buoyed by this Wall Street occupation.
AE: Who’d a thunk it. In Ireland there was a march — 50,000 depressed middle class, middle-aged people walking silently through the city, through the streets in their good shoes. Not their best shoes, but in their decent walking shoes.
RB: One day?
AE: One day. Nobody burned any cars. In Greece they were turning cars over in the streets.
RB: Do you believe in class warfare? Isn’t there complicity between such people?
AE: Yea, but of what kind? It’s a bit like Regina says in the book — the way people have, the way men have of getting ahead. For no ascertainable reason the guy just has a talent for being “on side.” It’s not an envelope full of money. It’s not any of these things — it’s just because–
RB: How or why did you decide to use the title, The Forgotten Waltz?
AE: I was sitting in a chair downstairs writing and the afternoon radio was on, the classical station and he said that was the “Forgotten Waltz” by Franz Liszt. I was half way through the book and I just put it in a headline, as an email to my editor. And I don’t talk to him really at all when I am working. I pressed send to see what it would look like. And then it came back and it was on the title of the email and it looked just fine.
RB: There are no other obvious reference points in the book.
AE: There are various dances.
RB: You also title the chapters after pop love songs.
AE: There is one reference. I mean, there is nothing cheesier than putting “a waltz that has been forgotten” in a book called The Forgotten Waltz. Gina is in the room at the hotel where they have their affair, and says, “…the shape of our love in a room like some forgotten music, beautiful and gone.” So that’s the waltz. Also, I wasn’t going to do explicit descriptions of sex in this book because I didn’t think Gina would. A forgotten waltz is a better way of describing what has been going in between her and Sean. This romance, this game.
RB: And the chapter titles? Any concern that they will be distracting if the reader notices what they are?
AE: I wanted the songs to be catchy and a bit kitsch. Because love is best described in song, I think. The thing I like about pop songs is that they are aware of the foolishness of love. They are delighted by the foolishness of love. I mean, Gina clearly is a woman who likes to be in love and who wouldn’t, ya know? Do they stick in your head and annoy you?
RB: No, they don’t annoy me. It’s another thing to reckon with for a close reader. Do they mean something? Are they clues to the chapter? Is there a code in their order?
AE: Well, there’s a whole heap of The Good Soldier [Ford Maddox Ford] in my Forgotten Waltz — after the fact. Edward, in it, falls in love with the girl at the end — his ward. It depends how plugged in you are to music.
RB: I was tempted to create an iTunes playlist to see if there was a message in the sequence
AE: No, it’s a little more arbitrary that that. As in some of the chapter titles were there before — Like “There Will be Peace in the Valley” which is sort of a little anomalous. And “Love is Like a Cigarette” which is slightly anomalous too. Before it gets into the catchy, boppy, you know, “the Shoop Shoop Song.” Yeah. And then the Leonard Cohen — I had a lot of doubts about putting in the Leonard Cohen. Because his lyrics — he’s too interesting (laughs). You know?
RB: You must listen to music a lot?
AE: I listen to classical music. I had some trepidation with the song titles because I hate the way boys do music — because I always like the wrong things. “Oh you like that, yeah?”
RB: Give me an example.
AE:I don’t know — it’s sort of what I mentioned about men — they use music as a counter. I don’t know what the game is. ”You say Arcade Fire?” “Oh you like Arcade Fire?” “Yeah, I don’t know about Arcade Fire.” Constantly pushing their taste. In a kind of slightly strange–
RB: Using groups as identifiers or parametrics. You are supposed to understand something about someone.
AE: It’s slightly a competition and it’s slightly warm — because music is a filter. If you like something you are really quite exposed by liking it. I listen to Bach. No, I don’t. My husband brings in the new stuff. I am slow to catch on to his stuff. It’s amazing that with the Internet our external sources get smaller and smaller. It’s all about selecting.
RB: Your life is composed of writing and raising your kids–
AE: Which isn’t conducive to keeping up with the music scene, I have to say.
RB: How old are your children?
AE: Eleven and 8. I couldn’t even listen to music after they were born. That was the thing that went.
AE: I don’t know. It wasn’t talking about emotions that I had.
RB: Did you play Mozart to make your kids smarter?
AE: There’s Mozart around. I do love Mozart. But I didn’t do that. Actually, it put Rachel to sleep. Now they’re coming in and she has her earphones on. Do you know Adele? Adele is on the other end. She can sing.
RB: How much of your life is now devoted to the persona of being a writer? Conferences, festivals, awards juries, and on?
AE: I get invitations — I’m a conscientious sort of chick. I said yes and I went to Australia. It was amazing. I suppose it was amazing. Martin my husband said, “Just do it, do the year.” As opposed to Linda, Roddy’s wife—
RB: Roddy Doyle?
AE: Yeah. When he won [the Booker] they looked at the schedule and decided what he was going to do and said no to the rest of it. He’s very unswayable. I met Kiran Desai. She had won the Booker. And we met in Colombia — in Cartagena. I was there for 2 days. I mean what a life. It was fantastic. I didn’t have much time to go outside.
RB: You would never had gone there–
AE: No. And to meet Kiran Desai, also a great pleasure. Although we did kind of glance off each other. And she said I am going to sit down in March. I emailed her next March and she was doing something else. (laughs) Really, it was hard. I have to say, ”No more, absolutely no more.” So then I sat down in January and looked at the wall for three months, until March basically. I had the book started. It’s the same thing, the same problem as it always is. You have to sink in order to write a book. I don’t mean in a depressive sort of way.
AE: It is like a depressive state. You have to sink into it — not even focus. You have to diffuse as much as anything else. Just in those early days — to lose control of it and to be helpless and not know what you are doing. And then the focus comes sentence by sentence.
RB: A vulnerability and openness. I’m reminded of Don Van Vliet (Captain Beefheart) who said that in order to hit really low notes, to sing in low registers, you almost had to go to sleep. Almost suspended animation, hibernation
AE: Ah, ah hah. Those are both good.
RB: Was it hard to come out and talk about The Gathering — since, as you say, it was more private, seemingly more personal?
AE: The great thing about having done two books — people ask if they are autobiographical? — and I am really delighted when they ask that because it means I have succeeded in what I wanted to do. And I have never bothered about those questions. But you know, I steal from my own life quite freely. So some of it, yes for sure happened to me.
AE: (laughs) You have no other place to write from. You can’t be someone else at the desk.
RB: You change some names and some nuance and–
AE: No, actually it much more mechanical, no as organic as that. You steal a bit. For example, I once took a train journey to Gstaad, and I’ve been waiting to use that train journey for 20 years.
RB: You have vivid recollection of the details, exactly as you think it happened?
AE: Oh yeah. Oh yeah.
RB: What now?
AE: I have nothing on the screen for the first time in 10 years. This summer I stopped working for the first time in 10 years. I would be in holiday saying, “Isn’t it lovely being able to write my book in the sun?” And so I stopped. We went to South East Asia for a long trip with the kids — came back and I had two weeks when I didn’t work.
RB: That’s a good feeling?
AE: It’s like being young again. It’s amazing. I haven’t a single idea, a single fragment.
RB: I assume you love writing and are devoted to it?
AE: But this is the first time I’ve stopped in 10 years, yeah. Maybe it’s a bit like ooooooooohh yeah? No I am very poor company when I am not writing — so I do need it. Everybody around me needs it.
RB: Am I the only person willing to talk with you right now (laughs)?
AE: I’ve been fine.
RB: You don’t know what to make of it?
AE: Yeah, it’s great. I mean, I have some intimations.
RB: Is there anything else you want to do in addition to writing?
AE: No (pause). No.
RB: You produced a TV show.
AE: I did yeah. I was a baby. I was one of those trendy young media types that get burnt out, thrown on the scrap heap in four to six years. So I was that one.
RB: Like Tina Fey?
AE: No she’s a bit older and she is a much better manager than I ever was.
RB: Like the woman in the BBC’s “The Hour”?
AE: The woman in Broadcast News — Holly Hunter (laughs). No, I used to do things to earn money and there is a kind of balance there. Where you are writing stuff to earn money, but you are writing. So that’s OK. It’s as good a reason as any other. And so it really pushed you. And you go places where you wouldn’t necessarily have thought to go. And I am a great believer in a bit of hard work actually. I was reduced to walking around hands on my forehead saying “Where’s my book?” So, I don’t have to do that so much anymore.
RB: Do you have a timeframe for writing a book?
RB: You churn away at it?
AE: I do.
RB: Can you imagine spending seven to 10 years writing a book?
AE: I can. You know Trollope wrote for three hours every morning. And if he was finished with a book an hour and a half in, he would start another book. But he knew three hours was it.
RB: Do you look forward and have a sense of where you want to go, what you want to accomplish?
AE: (pause) Staying alive is a good way of advancing in the literary world. I am slow — I did a count. It was too scary. I reckoned I have five books left — but it was too scary. I am quite interested in looking at the idea of the late style. And the feeling after a certain stage that you don’t give a monkey — so that you are able to expand on the page or go somewhere strange. Strange (chuckles), I don’t need more strange.
RB: You don’t strike me as someone constrained by much.
AE: No, I wouldn’t mind — you change so much from decade to decade. I like to sort of reflect in the book, where I am. Or find out by writing the book where I am. So, I am into my 50s now and I am thinking it would be good to write some longer, more — having a book that you don’t really know what the edges are so precisely. Does that make sense?
RB: When you are well published you have a couple of jobs.
AE: Yes, it’s an absolute full-time job — the Booker was another full time job. And I had two full-time jobs already. I had a home to run and I had books to write. It was a third full-time job, for sure. And then there’s being the travel agent. After the Booker, I was on Expedia saying, ”I think I can do this — this journey can be done in under 20 hours.
RB: What’s your feeling about winning awards in the future (laughs)?
AE: I am sure I will get a bit plaintive. After the Booker they don’t give you any little ones any more — they give them to other people on the way up.
RB: Some people claim about these awards that they don’t mean anything until you win one–
AE: They mean everything when you don’t have one.
AE: Yeah. “If only I had the Booker.” I was taking to my husband, we were in Indonesia and we were looking at shooting stars and my daughter asked me what I wished for? And I said, ”Probably that I win the fucking Booker Prize.” (laughs) I really wanted it. Ever writer has that–
RB: Some awards seem to mean something and some seem to be beauty contests.
AE: Yeah, yeah, sure.
RB: I like the IMPAC Dublin because the long list comes from librarian nominations from around the world. Also, the MacArthur–
AE: And the Lannan. I’m the only person I know who doesn’t have a Lannan (laughs).
RB: We could talk some more but you need to go. So thanks.
AE: Thank you.
Image Credit: Robert Birnbaum
If 2010 was a literary year of big names — featuring Franzen, Mitchell, Delillo and McEwan to name just a few — 2011 is lining up to be more subtle. Amid a very full lineup of intriguing forthcoming books, just one stands above the rest in terms of hype and anticipation, a literary peak that’s likely to be bittersweet in the form of the posthumous release of David Foster Wallace’s final novel. Readers will be hoping it does justice to his legacy.
In the shadow this big book are many others likely to be deserving of readers’ time. While 2010 was given over to the headliners, 2011 may be a year of new discoveries. Here are some of the books we’re looking forward to — 8,000 words strong and encompassing 76 titles, this is the only 2011 book preview you will ever need.
January or Already Out:
Gryphon by Charles Baxter: A collection of short fiction from an acknowledged master of the form. Seven of the twenty-three stories in the collection are new; others, including the title story, are considered classics. In each of these pieces, Publisher’s Weekly writes in a starred review, “the acutely observed real world is rocked by the exotic or surreal.” Baxter’s previous works include four novels (including a National Book Award nominee, The Feast of Love) and four prior short story collections. (Emily M.)
The Empty Family by Colm Tóibín: Tóibín follows up his wildly successful 2009 novel Brooklyn with a new collection of nine short stories concerned with love and loss, memory and homecoming. The Telegraph has called this collection “exquisite and almost excruciating.” (Emily M.)
While Mortals Sleep by Kurt Vonnegut: In the four years since his death, the Vonnegut vaults have been raided, yielding 2008’s Armageddon in Retrospect and 2009’s Look at the Birdie. Now comes While Mortals Sleep, 16 more unpublished pieces described by Delacorte Press as “a present left behind by a departed loved one.” Perhaps. But Vonnegut’s short fiction was generally uneven, and one might be forgiven for wondering how many more presents there are. Because the further we move from his passing, the further we move from his best. Dave Eggers, in the book’s foreword, calls Vonnegut “a hippie Mark Twain”; he is also in some danger of becoming a dorm-lit Tupac Shakur. (Jacob)
Night Soul and Other Stories by Joseph McElroy: Underappreciated master McElroy is known (and loved) for the challenging body of work, and these stories aren’t likely to disappoint his fans, though they may have come across some of them before. The oldest story in this collection of 12 dates back to 1981 and the title story was first published in 1982. But seven of them are reportedly from the last decade, including one “The Campaign Trail” which one early review describes as imagining “the 2008 Democratic presidential primary much like a Matthew Barney film of the subject might: unnamed figures representing Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama ceremonially confront each other in a wild area of what once was Canada.” (Max)
Swamplandia! by Karen Russell: Swamplandia! is the first novel from New Yorker “20 Under 40” writer Karen Russell. It builds out of a short story from her 2006 collection St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves and tells the tale of the Bigtree family, operators of an alligator wrestling tourist attraction deep in the Everglades. The family business is imperiled when the star ‘gator grappler dies, setting off a chain of catastrophes that lead 12-year-old Ava Bigtree to set off through the swamp in search of her lost sister Osceola. (Kevin)
Townie: A Memoir by Andre Dubus III: Andre Dubus III, of The House of Sand and Fog fame, grew up poor and hard in a Massachusetts mill town. His famous father, the late great short story writer Andre Dubus was AWOL, chasing younger tail, leaving Dubus and his three siblings to the care of their loving but overworked mother. The Townie is Dubus’s memoir of growing up and learning to fight before he learned to write. Advance word coming out of Kirkus and Booklist suggests this is going to be a good one. (Kevin)
When the Killing’s Done by T.C. Boyle: In his thirteenth novel, T.C. Boyle turns his attention to the Channel Islands off the coast of Santa Barbara and the practice of killing non-native fauna in an effort to protect the original ecosystem. A starred review in Booklist says, “Incisive and caustically witty, Boyle is fluent in evolutionary biology and island biogeography, cognizant of the shared emotions of all sentient beings, in awe over nature’s crushing power, and, by turns, bemused and appalled by human perversity.” (Edan)
The Strange Case of Edward Gorey by Alexander Theroux: Originally published in paperback in 2000, this biography of writer and illustrator Edward Gorey is being reissued by Fantagraphics Books in a new hardcover edition. Gorey was a reclusive, enigmatic figure who never married, professed asexuality in interviews, and became famous for a twisted and faintly ominous body of work — marked by a distinctive Victorian Gothic sensibility — that includes an alphabet book of dead children (“A is for Amy who fell down the stairs.”) Alexander Theroux was Gorey’s friend and neighbor for more than a quarter century. Part biography, part artistic analysis, and part memoir of a long friendship, with exclusive interviews conducted shortly before Gorey’s death, this book is generally accepted as the most comprehensive portrait of Gorey ever written. (Emily M.)
Mr. Chartwell by Rebecca Hunt: Perhaps you are aware that Winston Churchill called his spells of depression “black dog”? Well, Mr. Chartwell is that black dog–literally, he’s a man-sized, ill-intentioned black laborador. In Rebecca Hunt’s fabular first novel, Mr. Chartwell rents a room in a terrace in Battersea from a recently widowed young librarian named Esther Hammerhans: the black dog has business with the widow and with the war-weary Prime Minister. British reviewers have been quite taken with the book’s whimsy and its muscular grappling with the nature of depression—through the stinking, canine bulk of Chartwell himself and the dark philosophy he whispers such that only his intended victim can hear. (Emily W.)
The Illumination: A Novel by Kevin Brockmeier: A new novel from the author of A Brief History of the Dead asks the question: What if our pain is the most beautiful thing about us? On a particular Friday night at 8:17pm, the Illumination commences: wounds and bruises begin to radiate light, to glimmer and shine. The Illumination follows the journey of a private book, a journal of love notes written by a man for his wife. The journal passes into the hands of a hospital patient following a lethal accident, and as it passes from hand to hand—to a data analyst, a photojournalist, a child, a missionary, a writer, a street vendor—the recipients find their lives subtly altered by their possession of the book. (Emily M.)
Portraits of a Marriage by Sándor Márai: Sándor Márai is one of those novelists, like Irène Némirovsky, about whom those of us in the English-speaking community tend to employ words like “discovered,” as if they were an obscure wine of quality unearthed in a Parisian basement. When Márai killed himself in 1989 in San Diego, shortly before his books began being translated to English, it’s true that his status as a great mind of an imperial age was probably unknown to the gang at his local Circle K. However, the (Austro-)Hungarian novelist was one of the premier authors of his milieu–Budapest before World War II–and English readers are the redeemed rather than the redeemers now that we can finally read his beautiful novels. Portraits of a Marriage is a chronicle of a relationship and an era on the way out. (Lydia)
West of Here by Jonathan Evison: Evison’s new novel is the #1 Indie Next pick for February, meaning that independent booksellers across the United States have voted it their favorite of all the books scheduled for publication that month. Set in a fictional town on the Pacific coast of Washington State, West of Here moves back and forth in time between the stories of the town’s founders in the late 1890s, and the lives of their descendants in 2005. It’s a structure that allows for a remarkably deep sense of history and place, and Evison handles the sweeping scope of his narrative masterfully. (Emily M.)
The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore by Benjamin Hale: In this buzzed-about debut novel from Twelve Books, the eponymous hero is a chimpanzee who has learned to speak, read, and enjoy the visual arts, among other human endeavors. There is apparently interspecies love (and sex!) in the book, and the jacket copy declares that it goes beyond satire “…by showing us not what it means, but what it feels like be human — to love and lose, learn, aspire, grasp, and, in the end, to fail.” A bookseller at legendary West Hollywood indie bookstore Book Soup has raved to me about the novel’s inventiveness and its beautiful, beautiful prose. (Edan)
Other People We Married by Emma Straub: This debut collection of stories is one of the first books being printed by FiveChapters Books, the new publishing imprint of the popular website FiveChapters, which publishes a story a week in five installments. Straub inaugurated the New Novella series for Flatmancrooked Press with her much-praised novella, Fly-Over State, and she proved that with the internet and some good old fashioned charm, an unknown author can sell books and win hearts. Straub’s new book includes that novella as well as eleven other stories. Straub has been compared to Lorrie Moore for her humor and playful wit, and Moore herself has called this debut collection, “A revelation.” (Edan)
The Late American Novel: Writers on the Future of Books edited by C. Max Magee and Jeff Martin: Yes, there’s certainly a conflict of interest in naming my book one of the year’s most anticipated, but what’s the point of having a website if I can’t use it to self-promote? And anyway, if my co-editor Jeff and I had an ideal reader in mind when we put together this collection, it was the Millions reader, passionate about books and reading and thoughtful about the future of this pastime as it intersects with the onslaught of technology. The essays we managed to gather here are illuminating, entertaining, funny, and poignant, and taken together they form a collection that is (dare I say) essential for the reader and writer invested in books at this critical and curious moment in their long history. Along with appearances by Millions staffers Garth Risk Hallberg, Emily St. John Mandel, and Sonya Chung and an introduction by me and my co-editor, this collection includes pieces by Jonathan Lethem, Reif Larsen, Elizabeth Crane Victor LaValle, Ander Monson, Tom Piazza, Lauren Groff, Benjamin Kunkel, Clancy Martin, Joe Meno, Rivka Galchen, and several others. All you technophiles: Consider making this the last physical book you ever buy. All you technophobes: This might be a good candidate for the first ebook you ever own. (Max)
You Think That’s Bad by Jim Shepard: Jim Shepard will once again dazzle us with his talent for universalizing the highly particular. According to the publisher, the stories in this new collection, like those of his National Book Award nominated Like You’d Understand Anyway, “traverse centuries, continents, and social strata,” featuring, among others, an Alpine researcher, a French nobleman’s manservant, a woman traveling the Arabian deserts to track an ancient Shia sect, and the inventor of the Godzilla epics. Further, Shepard culls “the vastness of experience—from its bizarre fringes and breathtaking pinnacles to the mediocre and desperately below average.” Easier said than done, and Shepard is a master. One of the stories, “Boys Town,” appeared in the November 10 issue of the New Yorker. (Sonya)
The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht: Of all The New Yorker’s choices for the “20 Under 40” list, none was more surprising than Obreht, the youngest on the list and the only author chosen who had not yet published a book. That changes in March with the publication of her debut novel The Tiger’s Wife. The novel follows a young doctor, Natalia, as she travels to a war-torn Balkan country to work at an orphanage. But Natalia is also in search of answers – specifically, what happened to her grandfather, who has died recently. With blurbs from T.C. Boyle, Ann Patchett, and recent National Book Award winner Colum McCann already secured, expectations are high for this literary debut. (Patrick)
At the Fights: American Writers on Boxing from Library of America edited by George Kimball and John Schulian: Boxing writing inhabits a curious niche, resting at the juncture of sports journalism and noir. Perhaps “resting” is the wrong word, as the genre’s best examples rush toward victory or loss; even away from the arena, motion remains the thing. In a recent Irish Times article, Kimball described a 1954 John Lardner piece as At the Fights’ “cornerstone,” and delivered its opening line: “Stanley Ketchel was 24 years old when he was fatally shot in the back by the common-law husband of the lady who was cooking his breakfast.” Also on the card: Talese, Mailer, Mencken, and many, many others. (Jacob)
Unfamiliar Fishes by Sarah Vowell: “I’m better with dead people… than the living,” claims Sarah Vowell, only half joking. Her books often deal with historical figures, in most cases, long-dead and overlooked. In Assassination Vacation she chronicled her travels while researching the murders of Presidents Lincoln, Garfield, and McKinley. Details such as Garfield’s assassin bursting into song during trial coated the history lessons with a good dose of social intrigue. Vowell’s latest, Unfamiliar Fishes, was borne out of a fascination with American Imperialism in 1898, a year when the U.S, annexed Hawaii, invaded Cuba and the Philippines, and acquired Guam and Puerto Rico. Vowell follows the Americanization of Hawaii from its first missionary settlers to the overthrow of its monarchy and later annexation. A quote exemplary of Vowell’s humor, to prep you for reading: “They still love their last queen, celebrate her birthday, drape her statue with leis. It can be a traditional, reverent place. And I am a smart-alecky libertine.” (Anne)
Otherwise Known as the Human Condition: Selected Essays and Reviews by Geoff Dyer: Dyer has a gained a reputation as one of our most inventive essayists (not to mention novelists). Dyer delights in bending genres and subverting expectations, and covering a 25-year span, this collection will likely showcase Dyer’s impressive range. The book, published by indie Graywolf, appears to have at least some overlap with a British collection that came out last year under the title Working the Room. The Guardian called Dyer “the most productive of slackers” and described the British collection as seeming to be “constructed as a vague quest. You move through the unusually lit rooms of the author’s fascinations.” (Max)
All the Time in the World: New and Selected Stories by E.L. Doctorow: When a new story collection arrives from an elder master, one is eager to know the balance of “new” versus “selected,” who has done the selecting, and by what criteria. But Random House has revealed little as of yet. We do know that six of the stories have never before appeared in book form; the title story appeared in the winter ’09 issue of the Kenyon Review. Doctorow is the author of 11 novels, and I for one hate to think the release of this collection signals a denouement in his novel production. On January 6, Doctorow turns 80 – happy birthday, ELD; may this be a productive year for you, for all our sakes. (Sonya)
Pym by Mat Johnson: Eager readers of Edgar Allan Poe, having dispatched his short stories may have then turned to his hauntingly weird novel The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket. As I noted a few years back, the book has been an inspiration for generations of adventure and science-fiction writers and has maintained a cultish allure to this day. It is into this milieu that Johnson’s Pym arrives. Johnson wrote a pair of well regarded literary novels in the early part of last decade, turned to comics, and is now returning novels with this tale of a literature professor obsessed with the Pym tale, believing it to be true, and tracing the the journey of the doomed sailor to see what secrets might be unlocked. (Max)
Day of the Oprichnik by Vladimir Sorokin: The scenes of sodomy between Stalin and Krushchev in Vladimir Sorokin’s novel Blue Lard incurred charges of pornography and sparked protests, which included protestors wearing latex gloves while tossing flowers and copies of Sorokin’s books into a papier mâché toilet. Another novel of Sorokin’s (The Norm) depicts a Russian society where coprophagy is a la mode and only outcasts and outsiders refuse to partake. Needless to say, Sorokin’s fiction isn’t restrained in its critique of contemporary Russian society. His commentary continues in his latest novel, Day of the Oprichnik, where the ruling classes incorporate futuristic technology alongside the governing strategies of Ivan the Terrible. As Sorokin describes: “I just imagined what would happen to Russia if it isolated itself completely from the Western world–that is, if it erected a new Iron Curtain…. This would mean that Russia would be overtaken by its past, and our past would be our future.” (Anne)
This Vacant Paradise by Victoria Patterson: Victoria Patterson follows her acclaimed debut story collection Drift with a novel – her first – set in the posh environs of 1990s Newport Beach, California. As the title suggests, Patterson’s novel promises a social critique of the often vapid, money-laden 90s. It follows the beautiful but aging Esther Wilson as she attempts to navigate life without the aid of a wealthy man on her arm. Drift was a finalist for both the California Book Award and the Story Prize. (Patrick)
The Art of Asking Your Boss for a Raise by Georges Perec: Georges Perec wrote: “for us, who continue to have to do with a human race that insists on thinking, writing and above all publishing, the increasing size of our libraries tends to become one real problem.” We readers will have to deal with the fortunate burden of clearing shelf-space for another novel by Perec this spring, with the first English translation of The Art of Asking Your Boss for a Raise. The novel depicts an office underling’s attempts to ingratiate himself to his corporate superiors, while his neuroses expand a la Woody Allen. If Perec’s astutely observed yet darkly comical catalogue of managing directors, magnates, and heads of state in his essay “The Holy of Holies” is any indication, this “account of the office worker’s mindset” will offset the disorder it imposes. (Anne)
The Pale King by David Foster Wallace: When David Foster Wallace died in 2008, he left behind a huge, fragmentary manuscript set in and around a Midwestern IRS office and featuring a character named David Wallace. The manuscript, quixotically, takes monotony as its master-trope, much as Infinite Jest used “entertainment.” Since then, Michael Pietsch, Wallace’s real-life editor, has been working to arrange the fragments in book form. Published excerpts of varying degrees of sublimity – reportedly including two stories from Oblivion – offer glimpses of a Jest-like complex of supporting characters. But these beleaguered office workers have more in common with the denizens of the Ennet House Drug and Alcohol Recovery House (redundancy sic) than with the Enfield Tennis Academy’s student-athletes. A note, quoted in D.T. Max’s New Yorker piece, hints at the gift Wallace wanted to give his characters: “Bliss – a-second-by-second joy and gratitude at the gift of being alive, conscious – lies on the other side of crushing, crushing boredom.” For readers still mourning the books he didn’t get to write, may it be so. (Garth)
The Free World: A Novel by David Bezmozgis: Another debut novel from a Twenty-Under-Forty’er, Bezmogis’ The Free World tells the story of three generations of the Krasnansky family as they try to escape Communist Russia for the United States. They are waylaid in Rome where the characters pursue different paths through the underbelly of their adopted city, ultimately bringing them into tension with each other as they grapple with a merciless immigration system and try to decide the family’s fate. (Kevin)
The Great Night by Chris Adrian: Chris Adrian’s last novel, The Children’s Hospital, showed him to be a writer of immense daring, curiosity, and heart. Along with two other books, it earned him a spot (by a whisker – he’s now 40) on The New Yorker’s “20 Under 40 List.” His new book The Great Night, looks back to one of magical realism’s forebears: Shakespeare. It’s a retelling of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, set in modern-day San Francisco’s Buena Vista Park. (Garth)
Someday This Will Be Funny by Lynne Tillman: As if the publication of Lynne Tillman’s first book of short stories in nearly ten years–and her first book following her stand-out novel, American Genius: A Comedy–weren’t enough to celebrate, Tillman’s Someday This Will Be Funny also marks the debut of Richard Nash’s new publishing venture, Cursor. If Nash’s reading list, interviews, and speeches are any indication, Cursor will take publishing one giant leap into the future, with Tillman’s book at the forefront. Tillman’s new collection features appearances by Madame Realism, Marvin Gaye, and Clarence Thomas and incorporates epistle, quotation, and haiku as the stories “bounce between lyrical passages of lucid beauty, echoing the scattered, cycling arpeggio of Tillman’s preferred subject: the unsettled mind.” Tillman once said in an interview: “Writers are promiscuous with experience, absolutely.” She’s a woman of her word, and of the word. Hear, hear! (Anne)
Between Parentheses: Essays, Articles and Speeches 1998-2003 by Roberto Bolaño: Anyone who read “Literature + Illness = Illness” or “Myths of Chulu” in last year’s collection The Insufferable Gaucho can attest that a Bolaño essay no more resembles Montaigne than a Bolaño novel resembles Samuel Richardson. Indeed, the closest cousin of Bolaño’s nonfiction may be his fiction, and in some cases it’s hard to tell which is which. Confusion over the genre of the short piece “The Beach” (essay? story?) seems to have been the source of the misconception that Bolaño was a recovering junkie. Either way, though, it’s phenomenal writing – a single, extended, coruscating sentence – and it appears in this Natasha Wimmer translation of a 2004 Anagrama volume, along with 340 other pages of uncollected, unclassifiable Bolaño. (Garth)
The Tragedy of Arthur by Arthur Phillips: Phillips hasn’t quite recaptured the buzz that accompanied Prague his debut novel about expats in Budapest, but this new book just may. “The Tragedy of Arthur” is a fictional (or is it?), lost Shakespeare play about King Arthur and it is accompanied by a long introduction penned by a character (or is it the author?) named Arthur Phillips. Intertextual games ensue. (Max)
The Long Goodbye by Meghan O’Rourke: In another memoir about grief, O’Rourke draws on her dual patrimonies as a poet and cultural critic. The result is a searching account of losing her mother to cancer. O’Rourke finds herself blindsided by her own grief and bewildered by her inability to “share” it. Even as she documents her own feelings, she examines the changing cultural role of grief, and comes to long for the mourning rituals that are even now vanishing. The interplay of the objective and the subjective here speaks to audiences of both Oprah and The New Yorker, where the book was excerpted. (Garth)
The Basement of the Ivory Tower by Professor X: To begin, a short exemplary excerpt from Professor X’s manifesto against higher education for all: “America, ever-idealistic, seems wary of the vocational-education track. We are not comfortable limiting anyone’s options. Telling someone that college is not for him seems harsh and classist and British, as though we were sentencing him to a life in the coal mines. I sympathize with this stance; I subscribe to the American ideal. Unfortunately, it is with me and my red pen that that ideal crashes and burns.” And let me tell you (because I have wielded that red pen and know Professor X’s bloody business: adjuncting and community college teaching) it is a sad, sad world out there in America’s lesser colleges, many as crassly business-minded as Walmart and utterly delighted to have students who aren’t cut out to make the grade. Of course, liberal-minded idealists will object and cry Barbara Covett! at the likes of Professor X, but having been in his trench, I know how deeply painful and demoralizing—and pointless and dishonest—it is to teach college-level curriculum to those who are not equipped for high school: It’s like trying to teach the legless to dance. This is another commentary on the shoddy state of American higher education (see also, most recently, Ed Dante’s “Shadow Scholar” piece at The Chronicle of Higher Ed)—sure to be an incendiary little book. (Emily W.)
The Uncoupling by Meg Wolitzer: Wolitzer’s ninth novel is inspired by Lysistrata, the ancient Greek play wherein the women withhold sex from their menfolk until they agree to end their war. In Wolitzer’s novel, a New Jersey high school puts on a production of the play, and soon, the females in the town lose interest in coupling with their men. The Uncoupling follows Wolitzer’s bestselling novel The Ten Year Nap, about the lives of stay-at-home mothers in New York City, and I hope her latest is as funny, readable and wise as that book was. (Edan)
Fire Season by Philip Connors: This debut nonfiction effort by Connors is an account of his time spent over part of each of the last ten years as a fire lookout in New Mexico in a 7′ x 7′ tower. Connors also happens to be a literary critic and journalist whose writing has been fairly extensively published, including book reviews in the LRB and VQR. Some of his most powerful work has taken the form of diaries, including one in n+1 that recounts his brother’s suicide and another in The Paris Review about life as a fire lookout. The book takes the diary form and expands on it, with five long chapters, each one dedicated to a month he spends in the lookout tower each year. (Max)
My New American Life by Francine Prose: Francine Prose, former National Book Award finalist and prolific producer of novels, short stories, children’s books and nonfiction, will take us on a fictional tour of the bad old days of Bush-Cheney. My New American Life spins around Lula, a 26-year-old Albanian living in New York City on an expiring tourist visa. When she lands a job as a caretaker for a rebellious teenager in suburban New Jersey, she begins to live the American dream — until her brothers show up in a black Lexus SUV, a jarring reminder that family and history are always with us. The novel, according to the publisher’s jacket copy, captures the moment when American “dreams and ideals gave way to a culture of cynicism, lies and fear.” (Bill)
Swim Back to Me by Ann Packer: Ann Packer, who first burst onto the scene in 2002 with her blockbuster debut The Dive from Clausen’s Pier, returns with a fourth book. Kirkus describes it as a novella and five stories in its starred review, while the publisher calls it a collection of narratives framed by two linked novellas. Whichever the case, the collection seems likely to investigate the same avenues of grief that have been a hallmark of her prior, powerful work. (Max)
Bullfighting by Roddy Doyle: The title story of Doyle’s collection appeared in the New Yorker in early 2008 and concerns a collection of middle-aged Irish guys blowing off steam on a guys’ trip to Spain, wives and kids left behind in Dublin. When I traveled to the Mediterranean later that year and saw many a seaside watering hole advertising the “Full English Breakfast,” I thought of this story. (Max)
Nat Tate: An American Artist: 1928-1960 by William Boyd: Boyd, a wonderful author (Any Human Heart, Brazzaville Beach) who for whatever reason doesn’t seem to get much attention outside of prize committees, made culture vultures everywhere feel like complete assholes in 1998, when he carefully constructed and published a life of a fictional American artist who died by suicide at age 32. Enlisting the help of David Bowie, Gore Vidal, and others, Boyd had a number of people who should have known better reminiscing about Tate and lamenting his early death. Evidently a lot more people would have looked a lot more stupid had David Lister (an editor at The Independent who knew about the ruse), not revealed the hoax prematurely. Boyd’s great literary hoax is to be reissued this April. (Lydia)
Say Her Name by Francisco Goldman: A year after the publication of his last novel, The Divine Husband, Francisco Goldman watched his wife of two years, the promising young writer Aura Estrada, die as a result of a freak body-surfing accident. The aftermath sent him back to journalism for a time. Now Goldman has trained his considerable novelistic powers directly on the tragedy of his wife’s death, and on the ineffable continuities among love, grief, and art. (Garth)
There Is No Year by Blake Butler: Butler, one of the minds behind HTML Giant and author of the indie press favorite Scorch Atlas hits the big time with this new novel. The Harper Perennial catalog glosses it as evocative of House of Leaves and the films of David Lynch. A more iconoclastic “20 Under 40” list might have made room for Butler, and as for Harper’s labeling 32-year-ole Butler “one of the voices of his generation,” that may say more about how apocalypse-minded we are these days than it does about Butler. (Max)
Blue Collar, White Collar, No Collar: Stories of Work edited by Richard Ford: We’ve reminisced in the past about the steady disappearance of the short story anthology. Once common, these pocket-sized wonders now fill shelves at the kind of used bookstore I like to haunt but are rarely seen on the new release table at your local Borders. Still, a timely theme in these economically stagnant times (employment or lack thereof) and the imprimatur of a master of the form, Richard Ford, make this collection worth looking out for. Sure, most if not all of these stories have been previously published in other books, but how nice to have Stuart Dybek, Edward P. Jones, Charles D’Ambrosio, Ann Beattie, Alice Munro, John Cheever, Richard Yates, Deborah Eisenberg, Jhumpa Lahiri, and several others, all thematically linked and between two covers. (Max)
Embassytown by China Mieville Give China Mieville credit for refusing to rest on his laurels. After scoring a major hit with last year’s Kraken, his seventh lushly imagined fantasy novel, Mieville will abandon the world of Bas-Lag and his phantasmagorical London and take his fans someplace altogether different and unexpected. Embassytown, he recently told a Liverpool audience, will contain “science fiction, aliens and spaceships.” The title refers to “a city of contradictions on the outskirts of the universe” where humans and the native Hosts live in uneasy peace. When an unimaginable new arrival hits town, catastrophe looms. Given Mieville’s track record, expect a wild ride. (Bill)
Mondo and Other Stories by J.M.G. Le Clezio: The 2008 Nobel laureate’s large body of work continues to make its way into English. This collection of stories was first published in French in 1978. One of the stories collected here, the atmospheric “The Boy Who Had Never Seen the Sea,” appeared in the New Yorker shortly after Le Clezio’s Nobel win. Like that story, the rest in this collection focus on a child protagonist who seems to see the world through a different set of eyes. (Max)
To Do: A Book of Alphabets and Birthdays by Gertrude Stein: Described as “a fanciful journey through the alphabet” and originally conceived as a children’s book, Stein’s To Do “spiral[ed] out of simple childlike progression, so that by the time she reached the letter H, Henriette de Dactyl, a French typewriter (who exchanges typed messages with Yetta von Blickensdorfer, a German typewriter, and Mr. House, an American typewriter) wants to live on Melon Street and eat radishes, salads, and fried fish, and soup.” Written in 1940, the book was rejected several times by publishers for being too complex for children. A text-only version appeared in 1957 (after Stein’s death) from Yale, and in 2011, the publisher is putting out To Do with Giselle Potter’s illustrations, realizing Stein’s original concept. (Sonya)
Paying for It by Chester Brown: Throughout his twenty-year-long career, Chester Brown has developed a reputation as a wan and fearless confessor, presenting his lapses and failures from a dispassionate remove. Paying For It—subtitled “A Comic-Strip Memoir About Being a John”—may prove to be his most quietly self-lacerating. In exploring his penchant for prostitutes, Paying For It will likely feature little glamour, little boasting, and an understated honesty. Drawn and Quarterly predicts that the book “will be the most talked about graphic novel of 2011,” yet Brown doesn’t seem to relish controversy. When asked in 2004 why he might write so openly about his sex life, he responded, “Because it’s interesting.” (Jacob)
The London Train by Tessa Hadley: Stalwart of the fiction section of The New Yorker, Hadley’s latest is described as a “novel in two parts.” An early review in the Financial Times calls the book “darkly elegant” with “two distinct halves reflecting, enhancing and informing each other. The social and geographical territory is familiar for Hadley, that of the bourgeoisie and their travels (and travails) as they go looping between London and Cardiff.” (Max)
Pulse by Julian Barnes: Barnes’s latest is his third book of short stories. A preview from The Spectator explains the collection’s over-arching theme: “Each character is attuned to a ‘pulse’ – an amalgamation of a life-force and an Aristotelian flaw. They struggle against or thrive upon the submerged currents of life – touched by ambition, sex, love, health, work and death.” (Max)
The Tao of Travel by Paul Theroux: Theroux, the aging, still entertaining rake of the travel writing genre will indulge in a potentially interesting exercise here, collecting “the best writing on travel from the books that shaped him,” from Samuel Johnson, Eudora Welty and Mark Twain to Peter Matthiessen, Pico Iyer, and John McPhee. Cheesy title aside, it certainly sounds like an essential tome for travel writing fans. (Max)
State of Wonder by Ann Patchett: Ann Patchett has fearlessly ignored the admonition to write what you know. Her breakout novel, the intoxicating Bel Canto, centered around opera, Japanese business practices and a hostage situation in a South American embassy. Her new novel, State of Wonder, will have elements that sound similarly abstruse – doctors, medical students, drug development and the Amazon jungle. But at the heart of the novel is an inspiring student-teacher relationship, which, Patchett told an interviewer, is similar to the bond she had with her own writing teachers, Allan Gurganus and the late Grace Paley. “This one was a picnic,” Patchett says of State of Wonder, “because I didn’t have to make everything up wholesale.” (Bill)
The Astral by Kate Christensen The question to ask about Christensen’s next novel is will it deliver up another character on par with Hugo Whittier of The Epicure’s Lament? (“May we all simmer in the dark with such humor and gusto,” Sam Lipsyte wrote of Christensen’s immortal misanthrope.) The Penn-Faulkner Award-winning Christensen’s forthcoming sixth novel promises the story of a successful Brooklyn poet, Harry Quirk, whose marriage is in crisis and whose children have been swept up in cultishness of various kinds (perhaps a sort of Freedom, redux?). As a writer who reliably turns out novels that elicit warm praise from most of her reviewers, expect (at least) a genial, smart, gently satirical tale of the joys and woes of bougie New York life. (Emily W.)
The Curfew by Jesse Ball: What to expect from an author who teaches classes on dreaming, false identities, and lying? If the author is Jesse Ball, then one should expect expectations to be defied, plot summaries to fall short, and critics to use structures to describe the framework of his imaginative plottings (nesting-boxes, Klein bottle, labyrinth). Perhaps the magical realms Ball creates have something to do with his process: “to conjure up a state of affairs–a glimpse of one situated thought, where the situation is all that surrounds it in the mind.” Or with his imaginative approaches to writing, evident in his classes. Ball’s novel The Curfew depicts a father and daughter during wartime, the father risks it all to find his wife and the young daughter imagines her father’s treacherous journey. Expect for this description to only loosely conjure the realms of wonder within. (Anne)
Kurt Vonnegut: Novels & Stories 1963-1973: For those seeking Vonnegut’s aforementioned best, the Library of America will bestow upon him its black-cover treatment, collecting his great early novels (Cat’s Cradle, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, Slaughterhouse-Five, Breakfast of Champions) and stories into one thick volume. In this setting, it will be especially jarring to read Breakfast of Champions, whose “World Classics Library” “published hard-core pornography in Los Angeles, California.” (Jacob)
The Storm at the Door by Stefan Merrill Block: The precocious Block published his first novel at 26. The Story of Forgetting, ambitious but flawed, nonetheless suggested Block might be a name to watch. Sure enough, here he is with a second novel arriving before his 30th birthday. This time around, Block will again take mental illness as a primary theme. (Max)
Lola, California by Edie Meidav: Meidav is a rare thing, a less than well known writer who continues to publish big, dense, challenging novels with a major press. Meidav’s third such effort weighs in at 448 pages and asks “Can an old friend carry in amber the person you were going to become?” Should Meidav be better known? Almost definitely. (Max)
Once Upon a River by Bonnie Jo Campbell: A 2009 National Book Award nod (for her collectionAmerican Salvage) landed Campbell on the radar of many a reader. Her backcountry fiction focuses on rural characters, meth-cookers, and bad jobs or none at all, all shot through with redemption and compassion. This new novel, which Campbell says has been in the works for more than four years, sounds like something of a modern-day Huck Finn, following a sixteen-year-old girl who takes to the Stark River in search of her vanished mother. (Max)
Estonia: A Ramble Through the Periphery by Alexander Theroux: In his one-of-a-kind Year in Reading piece, Theroux mentioned being this year “in the outback of frozen Estonia where I was not only writing a book but, as a kind of project, undertaking a private study of St. Paul and his life.” The book in question was this title, forthcoming from Fantagraphics. The book emerges from Theroux’s time spent in the former Soviet republic while his wife was on a Fulbright Scholarship. Ever observant, Theroux uses Estonia and its people as a lens through which to look back at America. (Max)
The Devil All the Time by Donald Ray Pollock: Former meatpacker and paper mill employee Pollock’s debut story collection Knockemstiff was a favorite amongst indie booksellers, landed on both Amazon and Publishers Weekly’s lists of best books of the year, and garnered the following enigmatic praise from the LA Times “a powerful, remarkable, exceptional book that is very hard to read.” According to his blog, Pollock’s debut novel is set in the 50s and 60s and “centers on the convergent lives of a tough but morally-upright young man from Ohio, a pair of serial killers who prey on hitchhikers, and an itinerant, spider-handling preacher and his crippled guitar virtuoso accompanist.” Naturally. (Patrick)
House of Holes: A Book of Raunch by Nicholson Baker: There’s very little info out there on Baker’s forthcoming novel, aside from some Twitter-excitement, including, “I don’t think it’s about poems” (McNally Jackson Bookstore) and “Back to Fermata territory?” (Ed Champion). So fans of Baker’s earlier (erotic) novels may be in for a treat. At Amazon, the description reads: “a gleefully provocative, off-the-charts sex novel that is unlike anything you’ve read.” (Sonya)
Night Film by Marisha Pessl: My first impression of Marisha Pessl’s Special Topics in Calamity Physics was clouded by the many, many stunned reviewers who could not help but mention Pessl’s beauty, often in the first paragraph of their reviews. (Indeed, it has been said that her picture was removed from advance copies of the novel to avoid just this.) Fortunately for those who do not choose books based on the bangability of their authors, while Ms. Pessl is hot, her prose is, by most assessments, hotter. Whether or not you liked Special Topics, you have to admit that the babe-authoress created one of the most startlingly distinctive fictional voices of recent years in Blue van Meer, the heroine-narrator of Pessl’s academic novel qua murder mystery (Oh, the breathtaking allusiveness! Ah, the witty figurative language—almost exhausting in its inventiveness!). My fear for Night Film—according to Pessl’s agent, “a psychological thriller about obsession, family loyalty and ambition set in raw contemporary Manhattan”—is that without Blue, Pessl’s nothing. Can she–could anyone (think Jonathan Safran Foer after Everything Is Illuminated)–generate another voice as distinct and scintillating as Blue’s? (Emily W.)
Lights Out in Wonderland by DBC Pierre: After the curious panic surrounding 2003’s Vernon God Little (“It’s sort of about Columbine!” “He’s not even from here!” “It won all kindsa prizes!”), Australia’s DBC Pierre faded from American minds. Three years later, his Ludmilia’s Broken English failed to gain traction, and it seems a sensible bet that Lights Out In Wonderland—another scattershot soap-box rant—will continue the downward trend. But as Lights Out is a foggy howl against the global market (“My hair crests over my head like the dying wave of capitalism,” reads one unfortunate simile), Pierre shouldn’t get too upset if units fail to move. (Jacob)
Anatomy of a Disappearance by Hisham Matar: Hisham Matar, author of In the Country of Men, is the child of Libyan parents. In 1990, the novelist’s father Jaballa Matar was kidnapped in Cairo and extradited to Tripoli as a political dissident. Since then, his family has endured a special hell of loss and uncertainty–scant news punctuating long periods of silence–which Hisham Matar described in a haunting piece for the Gaurdian last January. His novel, due in August, is about a missing father, and will presumably draw upon Matar’s experience as the child of someone disappeared. (Lydia)
Beijing Welcomes You by Tom Scocca: Slate blogger and former New York Observer Editor Scocca chronicles his years spent in Beijing, observing a city and a culture moving into the global spotlight. The book examines the Chinese capital on the cusp of its global moment, tracking its history and exploring its singular character. Since Scocca lived in Beijing in the middle of the last decade, one can assume the buildup to the 2008 Beijing Olympics figures prominently in the text. Assuming Scocca brings his typical insightful and sometimes scathing perspective (witness his epic takedown of The New Yorker for publishing Dave Eggers’s The Wild Things excerpt which ran two years ago at The Awl), Beijing Welcomes You promises to offer astute cultural observation on a culture Americans would do well to observe. (Patrick)
1Q84 by Haruki Murakami: Murakami’s three volume stemwinder came out in Japan in 2009 and sold out its first printing in a day. The first two volumes will appear in the US this fall and fervor among English-speaking Murakamians is already building. The alpha-numeric title is a play on Orwell’s 1984 – in Japanese the letter Q is a homophonic with the number 9 – and the book’s plot (which was a tightly guarded secret prior to its Japanese release) concerns two characters, a PE teacher and a writer, who become involved in a religious cult through which they create “a mysterious past, different than the one we know.” (Kevin)
The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach: In the Winter issue of n+1, Harbach published a provocative piece suggesting two paths for the novelist: MFA vs. NYC. Who needs the former, when you can ride the latter to a half-million dollar advance? Insiders have, predictably, likened Harbach’s treatment of a baseball team at a Wisconsin liberal arts college – presumably as a lens through which to view the American scene and the human condition – to the aforementioned Enfield Tennis Academy. (Garth)
The Forgotten Waltz by Anne Enright: Enright, winner of The Booker Prize for the international bestseller The Gathering, explores a woman’s affair and her relationship with her lover’s young daughter. (Max)
Parallel Stories by Péter Nadas: Péter Nádas’ A Book of Memories might just be the best novel published in the ’80s, and Imre Goldstein’s translation into English of its massive successor would, in a just world, be the publishing event of the fall. Nádas is, simply put, a master. The freedom with which he combines the diverse idioms of realism, modernism, and postmodernism can only come from decades of discipline. More importantly – as a recent excerpt in The Paris Review illustrates – he generates a continuous, Proustian intensity of feeling and perception – psychological, philosophical, and physical. This three-volume work, structured as a set of braided short stories, tracks two families, one Hungarian and one German, across many decades. Readers looking for a fuller preview might consult Hungarian Literature Online, or Deborah Eisenberg’s appreciation in The New York Review of Books. (Garth)
Unknown (fall and beyond):
The Queen of the Night by Alexander Chee: Described by Chee – a Whiting Award and NEA Fellowship recipient, currently a Visiting Professor at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop — as a kind of “historical fairy tale,” Queen is set in the time of the Second Empire (1852-70), in Paris. Chee’s first novel, Edinburgh, focused on a young boy’s surviving pedophilia. “The Queen of the Night sort of picks up in some ways from where Edinburgh leaves off,” Chee said in an interview, “in the sense that it is about a young woman who believes her voice is cursed, and if she uses it, terrible things will happen. And then she does, and they do. And she tries to put it right as best she can.” (Sonya)
The Map and the Territory by Michel Houellebecq: Michel Houellebecq, the reigning bad boy of French letters, has been accused of every imaginable sin against political correctness. His new novel, The Map and the Territory, is a send-up of the art world that tones down the sex and booze and violence, but it does feature a “sickly old tortoise” named Michel Houellebecq who gets gruesomely murdered. The book has drawn charges of plagiarism because passages were lifted virtually verbatim from Wikipedia. “If people really think that (this is plagiarism),” Houellebecq sniffed, “then they haven’t the first notion what literature is.” Apparently, he does. The Map and the Territory has just been awarded the Prix Goncourt, France’s most prestigious literary prize. (Bill)
The New Republic by Lionel Shriver: Shriver apparently finished a draft of The New Republic in 1998. After six well-regarded but commercially ignored novels, she couldn’t find a buyer for this story of “cults of personality and terrorism” and was about to give up fiction-writing altogether. Flash forward a dozen years: Shriver is an Orange Prize winner, a National Book Award finalist, and has sold over a million copies worldwide. She has been fêted by…er…The New Republic, and hailed in these pages as “America’s Best Writer.” Also: terrorism and cults of personality are very much on people’s minds. Maybe this will be the book that lands her on the cover of Time. (Garth)
Hot Pink by Adam Levin: Viewed from afar, Levin’s first novel, The Instructions, looked, for good and ill – mostly for good – like a kind of apotheosis of the McSweeney’s house style: playful, inventive, funny-melancholic, youth-focused. However, it also possessed a couple of attributes that set it apart from other titles on the McSweeney’s list. One was its dialectical genius; another was the ferocity of its anger at the way the world is (which elsewhere in McSweeneydom often gets sublimated into melancholy). Though Levin wears his influences on his sleeve, his sensibility is utterly distinctive, and almost fully formed. Look for the stories in the follow-up, Hot Pink, to be formally audacious, occasionally adolescent, but always bracing in their passion. (Garth)
The Unfolding Haggadah by Jonathan Safran Foer with Nathan Englander: The only evidence of what this might be comes from Tablet where an essay by Judith Shulevitz includes a note about this title in the author’s bio. An anthology it is then. And with Foer and Englander at the helm, this is one to keep on the radar. (Max)
Four Selected Titles with UK publication dates but no US date yet:
Dante in Love by A. N. Wilson: Later this year, English biographer and critic A.N. Wilson comes out with Dante in Love, a study of the Florentine poet that, confusingly, shares a title with a 2005 book about Dante written by Harriet Rubin. Wilson’s book will, one imagines, address Dante’s exile, Beatrice, Guelphs, Ghibellines, and so on; his perspective as a very public defector from and subsequent re-convert to Christianity might bring new insight to this well-trod territory (then again, it might not). (Lydia)
River of Smoke by Amitav Ghosh
King of the Badgers by Philip Hensher
The Stranger’s Child by Alan Hollinghurst
So, which of these books are you most looking forward to and which great new books did we neglect to include?
The International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award has unveiled its voluminous 2009 longlist. Recall that libraries around the world can nominate books for the prize, and these nominations, taken together, comprise the longlist. This year there are 146 novels on the list, nominated by 157 libraries in 41 countries. All of the books must have been published in English in 2007 (including translations).Because of the award’s global reach and egalitarian process, it’s always interesting to dig deeper into the longlist. Taken as a whole, the literary proclivities of various countries become evident, and a few titles recur again and again, revealing which books have made a global impact on readers.Overall favorites: books that were nominated by at least five libraries.A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini (18 libraries representing Belgium, England, Germany, Hungary, Ireland, New Zealand, Northern Ireland, Scotland, Spain, Switzerland, Uganda, and the US)Divisadero by Michael Ondaatje (13 libraries representing Belgium, Canada, Germany, Ireland, Poland, South Africa, Sweden, Switzerland, and the US)On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan (10 libraries representing Canada, the Czech Republic, England, Estonia, Germany, Portugal, The Netherlands, and the US)The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid (8 libraries representing Belgium, Canada, England, Germany, Ireland, Sweden, and the US)The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon (8 libraries representing Canada, England, and the US)The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz (7 libraries representing Ireland and the US)The Gathering by Anne Enright (6 libraries representing Brazil, the Czech Republic, Germany, Ireland, and the US)What Was Lost by Catherine O’Flynn (5 libraries representing Canada, England, and Northern Ireland)You can also look at the list and see which books are favorites in different countries. Several books were nominated by multiple libraries in the same country. Here’s a few:In The Netherlands, The Dinner Club by Saskia Noort and Lost Paradise by Cees NooteboomIn the US, Tree of Smoke by Denis JohnsonIn Canada, Late Nights on Air by Elizabeth Hay and The Outlander by Gil AdamsonThere were also several countries with only one library nominating just one or two books. Here are a few of those:From Colombia, Delirium by Laura RestrepoFrom Barbados, Man Gone Down by Michael ThomasFrom Estonia, Between Each Breath by Adam ThorpeFrom Jamaica, The Pirate’s Daughter by Margaret Cezair-ThompsonFrom Russia, Tomorrow by Graham SwiftFrom The Gambia, Ishq and Mushq by Priya BasilThe shortlist will be announced on April 2, 2009 and the winner on June 11, 2009.
This year’s New York Times Notable Books of the Year is out. At 100 titles, the list is more of a catalog of the noteworthy than a distinction. Looking at the fiction, it appears that some of these books crossed our radar as well:The Abstinence Teacher by Tom Perotta: A most anticipated book.After Dark by Haruki Murakami: Ben’s review.Bridge of Sighs by Richard Russo: A most anticipated book.The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz: A most anticipated book.Exit Ghost by Philip Roth: A most anticipated book.Falling Man by Don Delillo: Tempering Expectations for the Great 9/11 NovelThe Gathering by Anne Enright: Underdog Enright Lands the 2007 BookerHarry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by JK Rowling: Harry Potter is Dead, Long Live Harry Potter; Top Potter Town Gets Prize, Boy-Wizard Bragging Rights; Professor Trelawney Examines Her Tea Leaves; A Potter Post Mortem; A History of MagicHouse of Meetings by Martin Amis: A most anticipated book.In the Country of Men by Hisham Matar: The Booker shortlistKnots by Nuruddin Farah: A most anticipated book.Like You’d Understand, Anyway by Jim Shepard: National Book Award FinalistOn Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan: Booker shortlistThe Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid: Booker shortlistRemainder by Tom McCarthy: Andrew’s reviewSavage Detectives by Roberto Bolano: A most anticipated book; Why Bolano MattersThen We Came To The End by Joshua Ferris: A most anticipated bookTree of Smoke by Denis Johnson: Garth’s reviewTwenty Grand by Rebecca Curtis: Emily’s reviewVarieties of Disturbance by Lydia Davis: National Book Award FinalistWhat is the What by Dave Eggers: Garth’s review.The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon: Max’s review; Garth’s review.
From across the pond comes word that Anne Enright has won the 2007 Booker Prize for her novel The Gathering, beating out bookies’ favorite Mr. Pip by Lloyd Jones and On Chesil Beach by household name Ian McEwan. The Independent’s review of The Gathering sets the scene:brings together fragments of the past, real and imagined, all filtered through the consciousness of Anne Enright’s narrator, Veronica Hegarty.Veronica is a middle-aged, newly middle-class Irish mother of two, with a Tudor-redbrick-Queen-Anne house, a nice Saab and an incredibly long-suffering husband. She is endowed with vast numbers of siblings, one of whom, when the novel opens, has just walked into the sea and drowned himself in Brighton.For a second and third opinion, the Guardian offers a pair of raves from A.L. Kennedy and Adam Mars-Jones. Enright hails from Ireland and has three prior novels to her name The Wig My Father Wore, What Are You Like?, and The Pleasure of Eliza Lynch. The curious can also read an excerpt from The Gathering.How We Got Here: the longlist, the shortlist
The big news is that Ian McEwen’s On Chesil Beach stays alive. I’ve heard pretty good things about the book, but I’d guess it’s not winning. He’s already won one for Amsterdam, and Atonement, considered by most to be his best, didn’t win in 2001 (True History of the Kelly Gang took it home that year). For the slight On Chesil Beach to win the prize would seem odd. Clearly, I’m not alone in this thinking, as the bookies, who favored McEwen when the longlist was announced, now favor Mister Pip by Lloyd Jones. The longlist was offered here with some excerpts less than a month ago, but since you might not have gotten around to them then, we’ll offer the same with the shortlist below.Darkmans by Nicola BarkerThe Gathering by Anne Enright (excerpt)The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid (excerpt)Mister Pip by Lloyd Jones (excerpt)On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan (excerpt)Animal’s People by Indra Sinha (excerpt)
Perhaps the world’s most jawed about literary prize has released its 2007 longlist. It features one legitimate heavyweight (who is currently the favorite in the betting parlors) and a few other familiar names. All the Booker Prize longlisters are below (with excerpts where available):Darkmans by Nicola BarkerSelf Help by Edward Docx (excerpt)The Gift Of Rain by Tan Twan Eng (excerpt)The Gathering by Anne EnrightThe Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid (excerpt)The Welsh Girl by Peter Ho Davies (excerpt)Mister Pip by Lloyd Jones (excerpt)Gifted by Nikita Lalwani (excerpt)On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan (excerpt)What Was Lost by Catherine O’FlynnConsolation by Michael Redhill (excerpt)Animal’s People by Indra SinhaWinnie & Wolf by A.N.Wilson