We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for June.
Girl Through Glass
What Belongs to You
My Name is Lucy Barton
The Lost Time Accidents
Fresh off the heels of its Pulitzer win, there’s a new number one in Millionsland: The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen. (He’s a Year in Reading alumnus, by the way.) If past success in any indication, then smart money rides on Nguyen’s debut novel soon heading to our Hall of Fame, where it’ll join the past six Pulitzer winners: All the Light We Cannot See (2015), The Goldfinch (2014), The Orphan Master’s Son (2013), A Visit from the Goon Squad (2011), Tinkers (2010), and Olive Kitteridge (2009). You can read an excerpt of The Sympathizer at our sister site, Bloom.
Speaking of the Hall of Fame, we graduate two novels this month — Adam Johnson’s Fortune Smiles and Marlon James’s A Brief History of Seven Killings — each of which took different paths en route to the honor. Johnson’s novel enjoyed a comfortable position on the rankings pretty much out of the gate, when it debuted in the seventh spot last December. It subsequently climbed to fourth position the next month, then second, and ultimately it held the top position in March, April, and May. James’s work, on the other hand, never climbed higher than the seventh spot, and most months it hovered around the ninth or tenth position. Nevertheless, it’s staying power that matters around these parts, and now both works are headed to the Hall of Fame together. I, for one, am heartened!
Filling the two open spots on this month’s list are recent novels by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney and Annie Proulx, both of which were featured in our Great 2016 Book Preview last January. (Bonus: Did you hear we published the Great Second-Half Preview this week?)
Sweeney’s novel, The Nest, was teased by Rumaan Alam in his 2015 Year in Reading entry, and has been described since its March release as “delightful,” “hilarious,” “lively,” and more. It focuses on four adult siblings waiting to cash in on their shared inheritance.
Meanwhile Proulx’s Barkskins was a lynchpin piece on our own Claire Cameron’s “Summer Reading List for Wretched Assholes Who Prefer to Wallow in Someone Else’s Misery.” It focuses on greed, wilderness, and the desolation of our forests.
Truly, Millions readers are all over the map!
This month’s near misses included: Innocents and Others, The Queen of the Night, Signs Preceding the End of the World, Why We Came to the City, and Everybody’s Fool. See Also: Last month’s list.
“In the imposed rhythm of the day, there wasn’t the time to step back and appraise my ideas, to delete paragraphs, to question my identity. Whether or not I was a writer was temporarily immaterial, because I was writing.” Adam Dalva contemplates life at an artists’ residency. For more of his writing, check out his essay on Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch for The Millions.
Following last year’s win for Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, the Pulitzer jury named Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See this year’s winner in the fiction category, a second year in a row that the year’s break-out literary bestseller took home the prize.
Here are this year’s Pulitzer winners and finalists with bonus links:
Winner: All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr (A World Made of Words: On Anthony Doerr’s Nouns and Verbs, Doerr’s Year in Reading 2010 and 2014)
Let Me Be Frank With You by Richard Ford (Tossed on Life’s Tide: Richard Ford’s Let Me Be Frank with You)
The Moor’s Account by Laila Lalami (Ship of Fools: On Laila Lalami’s The Moor’s Account)
Lovely, Dark, Deep by Joyce Carol Oates
Winner: The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbert (Extinction Stories: The Ecological True-Crime Genre)
No Good Men Among the Living by Anand Gopal
Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China by Evan Osnos
Winner: Encounters at the Heart of the World: A History of the Mandan People by Elizabeth Fenn
Empire of Cotton: A Global History by Sven Beckert
An Empire on the Edge: How Britain Came to Fight America by Nick Bunker
Winner: The Pope and Mussolini: The Secret History of Pius XI and the Rise of Fascism in Europe by David I. Kertzer
Louis Armstrong: Master of Modernism by Thomas Brothers
Stalin: Volume I: Paradoxes of Power, 1878-1928 by Stephen Kotkin
Compass Rose by Arthur Sze
Winners and finalists in other categories are available at the Pulitzer Web site.
There is a famous saying from Mao Zedong that all students of Chinese learn early into their studies: 好好学习天天向上 (haohao xuexi tiantian xiangshang), which implores students to apply themselves every day if they hope to improve and rise up. 好好学习 天天向上 (haohao xuexi tiantian xiangshang) functions because of its rhythm. It plays with the flexibility of characters in Chinese, which are monosyllabic. Its literal translation, however, “good good study, day day up” is essentially meaningless. The Chinese often hold this example up as a reason why their language is so hard for foreigners to study. Often it just doesn’t translate.
Chinese is a much more flexible language than English, which makes it beautiful to study but a nightmare to translate. I recently saw a post on 微信 (weixin), Chinese Twitter, that left me stumped. The title was 最近有活动 (zuijin you huodong). The final three characters mean “an event,” but the first two, 最近 (zuijin), can mean either recent or upcoming. So I had no idea from the post whether the person was celebrating the fact that there had recently been an event or whether he or she was promoting an upcoming one.
The flexibility and playfulness of the Chinese language is in full force In Mo Yan’s latest novel, Frog. Mo Yan controversially won the Nobel Prize in 2012, being simultaneously lauded at home by the ruling CCP and criticized abroad for not adequately distancing himself from that same party. That he has published critical books, such as Red Sorghum, and even called for the release of fellow Nobel Laureate Liu Xiaobao (albeit only once) seemed to elude the critical voices. His new book, therefore, is released under something of a cloud.
As is typical of his novels, Frog takes place in North Gaomi township, which is his own hometown, a small city in Shandong province in northeast China. It takes on the politically sensitive topic of forced abortions under the infamous “One Child Policy” and simultaneously charts the fortunes of multiple generations of residents, from those who suffer from the great famine caused by the Great Leap Forward in the 1960s to the “sweet potato” generation born after, who become teenagers in a China tentatively embracing capitalism. It’s a nuanced portrait of China and hardly a paean to the CCP. Still despite its ambition, it isn’t without its problems, particularly in translation.
Frogs are omnipresent. As a repeated metaphor, it can seem a bit strange — lacking the weight of kitsch in Milan Kundera’s Unbearable Lightness of Being or the whimsical beauty of balloons in Julian Barnes’s Levels of Life. In a review for The Guardian, Isabel Hilton states that the reasoning behind calling the book Frog is the “meandering connection Mo Yan makes between human sperm, early stage embryos, tadpoles and bullfrogs that is woven through a novel concerned primarily with the importance of love and life.” Other reviewers have dwelt on the notion of the frog as a symbol of fertility in Eastern cultures and on quotes from the text such as, “The croaking of frogs is often described in terms of drumbeats…But the cries that night were infused with a sense of resentment and of grievance, as if the souls of countless murdered infants were hurling accusations.”
Although these reasons are all valid in their own way, they result from the flatness of the translation. The word frog in Chinese is 蛙 (wā), while the word for child is 娃 (wá). Frogs are omnipresent in the text and haunt Gugu, a village obstetrician who rabidly enacts China’s infamous family planning policy and is thus responsible for thousands of abortions. The beauty of the metaphor lies in the ambiguity between these two similar sounding words. If we substitute the word frog for child, then the constant references to frogs throughout becomes haunting.
At one point in the novel, Gugu, returning after a night of drinking with friends, is chased by frogs. In the English translation, she is initially unsettled by the sound of croaking reverberating “as if the cries of infants” before eventually being chased by “an incalculable number of frogs.” But in Chinese, both the cries of frogs and children are also 哇 (wā). So in the Chinese original, this paragraph hangs on the inflections of these three wa sounds. If we see Gugu as chased by the ghostly wails of the children she has aborted, as opposed to the mere croaks of frogs, then the scene takes on the gravity and weight appropriate for a Nobel Prize winner. The way the meanings interweave due to their similar pronunciation is ethereal and translucent — and entirely lost in the English translation.
Without understanding the similarity between the Wa sounds that appear throughout the novel, the metaphor of frogs seems labored and bizarre. Without context, the constant recurrence of frogs is arbitrary. Rather, in the original, the metaphor of frogs is multifaceted and beautifully subtle. It’s thus strange that the book only makes a passing reference to this, embedded within the text, glossed over in a single sentence in the latter third. There is no translator’s note prefacing the work, which is limiting for readers unfamiliar with Chinese.
Why then is such a note missing from Frog? It’s no doubt intentional and stylistic. Excessive footnoting not only disrupts texts but also can turn fictional works into something resembling an academic thesis. To explain the intentional ambiguity in the text is also problematic, as it would break down the natural flow and could sound patronizing (it would obviously sound ridiculous to state that Gugu was chased by “an incalculable number of frogs, a word which sounds a lot like ‘child’ in the original Chinese”).
Howard Goldblatt, the translator, has chosen to stick to the flow of the original and not encumber it with excessive intrusions from the translator. While laudable, this means that some of the most interesting aspects of the prose remain out of reach for the average reader of the work in translation.
There are further issues, but these are more systemic and common to all works of Chinese fiction in translation. Most translation is done by sinologists, who come from a thoroughly academic background. Goldblatt, who has dedicated a life to translation, is regarded rightly as the foremost translator of Chinese into English. He has translated more than 50 books and received numerous translation prizes.
Yet utter proficiency and experience in a foreign language is not tantamount to literary prowess. Roy Harris argued in the Times Literary Supplement that today, “the translator’s primary function is no longer mimetic but analytical.” This being the case, the translator draws as much from unique life experiences, wide reading, and a deeply embedded knowledge of both the culture he is translating from and the one he is translating into. The problem however is that the vast majority of translation comes from within the academy (Goldblatt has a PhD and taught for many years at Notre Dame), which means that sometimes though the translations are mimetic, they are too formal and stodgy to be accurate portrayals of the texts themselves. This is certainly the case in Frog, in which many of the characters, despite being farmers and lacking formal education, often sound as if they too have PhDs. It’s a catch-22: To be proficient enough in the language to be an accurate translator requires a high level of education, but just such an education can cripple the ability of the translator to render the text accurately.
Goldblatt is so totemic and the universe of literary translators from Chinese to English is so small that often there is only one translation for literary texts. When languages have a similar linguistic root (i.e. Latin for romance languages), cognizant words, and similar grammatical structures, then translation should be straightforward. The measure of a good translation of French to English is that one could translate the English back into French and arrive at largely the same text as the original. The same is not true in translating from Chinese to English because the languages are so fundamentally different. Translation is largely subjective. If one were to translate back from the English into the Chinese, the text would only vaguely resemble the original, like the hazy outlines of a skyscraper in smog. This is problematic because the average reader only has Goldblatt’s subjective decisions to go by. It’s impossible to arrive at a consensus of how Mo Yan should sound in English when there is only one translation that we can go from.
This is why flawed aspects of the text, such as characterization, become so frustrating. The characters in Frog suffer not just from sounding overly formal, but also from the translation of key phrases that makes them sound like literary constructs, not human beings. Take this sentence, “Money is nothing; it’s as transient as floating clouds.” Undoubtedly beautiful and poetic, it nonetheless sounds bizarre coming from a peasant farmer in response to his friend. It’s a direct translation of the word 浮云 (fuyun), which does mean floating clouds and is often used metaphorically in the context of aspirational desires such as money and fame. But was Goldblatt right to not dilute the translation in this context? It’s far more likely that the character, were his native language English, would respond something along the lines of “Don’t worry about money; it comes and goes.” This construction is undoubtedly less interesting, but it’s also more authentic. Chinese often has multiple levels of translation. A surface level translation retains the original form and the metaphor intact, while a deeper level gives the meaning straight and without the flowery symbolism of the original. 浮云 (fuyun) thus goes from “transient as floating clouds” to “temporary” or “ephemeral.” What’s crucial is the context. Were 浮云 (fuyun) not directly reported speech, then the surface level translation is beautiful and worth retaining. As speech between farmers, a deeper level would have been more appropriate.
What’s more jarring is that there are multiple instances in the text of characters dismissing things as “floating clouds,” which to a western reader makes the author seem lazy and grasping for metaphors. There is an ontological difference in what constitutes great writing between Chinese and English. Chinese writing values the ability to deploy 成语 (chengyu), four character idioms which come from canonical works or poems. English on the other hand has no such affinity for tradition and rabidly eschews cliché.
Take the following hypothetical: My room is a mess. Were I to describe it in a literary context in Chinese, I would say it’s 乱七八糟 (luan qi ba zao) or seven parts chaos, eight parts spoiled. In English, however, were I to say, “My room is a disaster area,” it would be seen as lazy and painfully clichéd. This sort of criticism plagued the reception of The Goldfinch, with Francine Prose in The New York Review of Books highlighting clichés such as “Theo’s high school friend Tom’s cigarette is ‘only the tip of the iceberg'” or “The bomb site is a ‘madhouse.’” A crucial subjective decision is made over the translation of these idioms. Does one choose a similar idiom or quote in English and risk sounding clichéd, or does one get inventive and risk being unfaithful to the text? I would capture some of 乱七八糟’s (luan qi ba zao) vividness by describing my room as “covered in clothes scattered as haphazardly as falling snow,” but that is neither a faithful nor direct translation.
Kundera quotes his Italian publisher Roberto Calasso, as saying, “The mark of a good translation is not its fluency but rather all those unusual and original formulations that the translator has been bold enough to preserve and defend.” There is certainly something to be said for this, but in Frog the inclusion of original formations is overdone and makes the text heavy and unwieldy. There happens to be a 成语 (chengyu) for this: 画龙点睛 (hualongdianjing). It translates as “adding the pupils to a painting of a dragon,” in other words, to put the finishing touches to bring a work of art to life. Original formations, when over done, are not merely dotting the “i”s; they are scribbling over the original outline and intention of the work.
Without multiple translations of the same work, it’s impossible to adequately evaluate the author. To what extent Mo Yan writes in clichés or to what extent it’s a tic of the translator is not a judgment call that the average reader can make. This means that placing him alongside authors such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Kundera, and Haruki Murakami is difficult. Although all of the authors are themselves presented to an Anglophone audience in translation, there are at least multiple translations available. In the case of Kundera, the imprecision of translation drove him to such despair that he spent years correcting the translations of his own work into the four languages he can read.
Both Mo Yan and Marquez have received the Nobel Prize for literature, while Kundera and Murakami are regularly tapped as potential winners (Murakami was odds on favorite to win the 2014 prize according to the British bookmaker Ladbrokes). What is important to note is that unlike the other denizens of magical realism, we only ever see Mo Yan’s work through the prism of Howard Goldblatt. In that case, it seems unfair to make a comparison and to evaluate his oeuvre. As Goldblatt himself noted in an interview with The LA Review of Books, “What the reader has in her hands is a facsimile of the original work.” We should therefore see multiple facsimiles, and then we can decide on Mo Yan’s true place within literature.
Literature is important in providing nuanced and divergent interpretations of a country so often rendered in stark black and white terms. Translating a country as vast and diverse as China to a wider audience may be Sisyphean, or it may be 精卫填海 (Jiangweitianhai) or like a bird trying to fill the ocean with pebbles. Perhaps the most important thing we can learn from the plurality of voices emerging from China today is not what separates our cultures, but how ontologically similar they are. For every Sisyphus and his bolder, there is a 精卫 and his pebbles.
It’s thus a sad systemic irony that many great novels from contemporary China, which are so crucial in providing a sounding board for the diversity of the Chinese experience, suffer from being the sole preserve of one translator. Until the field opens dramatically, much of what is being said will be lost in translation.
At the beginning of the year, I made a resolution that I hoped would help me to curtail my online reading habits, which I felt were getting out of control. It wasn’t necessarily that I was spending too much time online, it was more that I felt like the Internet was leading me around by the nose. I would go online with the intent of reading a particular writer or article and my attention would be dragged into various micro-feuds — micro because they existed only within a particular community, feuds because there was a level of passion that gave everything an operatic edge. The drama was fascinating and not without value, but it was also exhausting. More importantly, I never ended up reading what I wanted to read.
I considered banning certain websites, but decided that approach was too broad. Instead, I resolved to stop reading criticism and blog posts that were written in reaction to someone else’s criticism. The only criticism I would read would be pieces that were directly tied to a primary source, such as a book, film, museum exhibition, television show, etc. No more re-caps, round-ups, or lists. Likewise, I would avoid op-ed pieces and news analysis. I was sick of having to hack through two or three layers of commentary and interpretation before I got to the actual thing or event or person that existed in the world.
I wasn’t sure if this new reading diet would actually help with my distraction problem, so I was kind of embarrassed to discover, in the first weeks, that over half of what I typically clicked on fell into this category. I started to read more things on paper because it was easier than navigating the short-term headlines.
As it turns out, paging through a magazine is a lot more relaxing than going from thing to thing online, and it’s also a pretty effective way to find new things to read. One writer I discovered on paper is the critic Tim Parks. I’m sure I’ve read Parks’s criticism before this year, but there is reading criticism and reading a critic, and Parks became someone I had to follow after I read his review of Peter Matthiesen’s In Paradise in The New York Review of Books. Something about this review struck me as deeply felt, but also very clear and easy, the distillation of many hours of thought. I started to look out for Parks’s reviews and I also began to follow his posts on the NYRB blog.
Ironically, Parks’s blog posts became more important to me than his print reviews. I reread many of them while working on this post, because Parks is very interested in the question of how and what we read in the age of the Internet, when there are oh-so-many interesting things to read. More broadly, Parks is curious about the way that globalization and the number of online outlets are affecting how fiction is written and constructed, and what pressures this new, global audience and delivery system are putting on literary writing in general and the novel in particular. This is a question he touches upon in many of his blog posts but faces head-on in “Reading: The Struggle,” an essay about just how hard it is to find time to read books. Parks is old enough to remember a time when his workday was interrupted just once, by the mailman — an event he neurotically anticipated, but was nevertheless able to put out of his mind after the mail’s arrival. While Parks doesn’t lament the advent of email, he notes that we are living in a time when “every moment of serious reading has to be fought for, planned for.” And, at the same time, he observes we are living in an era when readers seem to relish long, densely plotted books, fantasy trilogies, and a return to the kind of episodic, repetitive storytelling many reviewers favorably liken to 19-century authors like George Eliot and Charles Dickens. But contemporary novels, Parks argues, are quite different from their forebears: “There is a battering ram quality to the contemporary novel, an insistence and repetition that perhaps permits the reader to hang in despite the frequent interruptions to which most ordinary readers leave themselves open.”
When I read that, I thought, yes, that is exactly how I feel when faced with the prospect of reading The Goldfinch or The Luminaries, novels that I have been told are wonderfully entertaining and intelligent, but which are so long, and so virtuosic, that I can’t help feeling cowed by them. Suspend your disbelief! they seem to say. Do it now!
It’s also how I feel, a little, about Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle, which Parks includes on his list of exceptionally long contemporary novels. I loved reading Knausgaard, but looking back on the experience I feel as if the books were somewhat manic, as if a crazy old friend came to visit for two weeks, got drunk every night and talked nonstop about himself, and then left. My friend Maura read the books at the same time and we sent each another Knausgaard-length texts, trying to figure out why we were so fascinated by this overly long, repetitive, and sometimes quite inelegantly constructed narrative. Maura felt it was written in reaction to the blogosphere, as if Knausgaard was racing against the never-ending outpouring of confession, information, and analysis. I felt it was written in reaction to parenthood, to the feeling of really stupid things shaping your time and therefore your work, things like laundry and shopping lists and yes, online chatter.
The opposite of a battering ram novel is what Parks describes as “the novel of elegant, highly distinct prose, of conceptual delicacy and syntactical complexity.” He predicts that in the Internet and smartphone age, this type of novel “will tend to divide itself up into shorter and shorter sections, offering more frequent pauses where we can take time out.”
When I read that, I immediately thought of Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation, which mines many of the same themes as Knausgaard, but does so in short, carefully pruned paragraphs, sometimes consisting of just one sentence. You get the sense, as with Knausgaard, that Offill was pressed for time when she wrote it, but instead of furiously filling up as many pages as possible, she just tried to write down one or two good sentences on index cards. Both approaches, strangely, were riveting in the same way — I couldn’t put down Offill’s book any more easily than Knausgaard’s. And both books were the ones that I returned to the most, throughout the year, in thought and in conversation.
This post was supposed to be on the short side, and I’ve already past 1,000 words. Obviously, my writing style leans toward Knausgaard. I’m also aware that this post is exactly the kind of writing I tried all year to avoid: Here I am, piling onto another writer’s already excellent criticism and observations. Please relish my hypocrisies. The truth is that I did not keep up my peculiar info-fast for the entire year. I blame Ann Friedman, whose weekly email newsletter pulled me back into the fray, pointing me to all the articles, blog posts, and debates that I might be interested in following. (She recommends books, too.) The best thing about her newsletter is that it arrives on Friday afternoons, so in theory, I could just skip a lot of my aimless browsing during the week and wait for Ann to point the way. I think I did that maybe twice this year — and one of those weeks I was on vacation. So now you know what next year’s New Year’s Resolution will be.
Last year, I ended my year in reading with a nod to the book I read most often to my son, so I’ll attempt to begin a tradition and share this year’s book: The Cat In The Hat by Dr. Suess. Have you read this book lately? It’s perfect. I can honestly say I never tire of reading it out loud — and I read it a potentially tiring number of times. The rhymes are simple and addictive and will make you love the English language. If I were a writing teacher, I would assign it to my students. One sentence in particular stuck with me, it’s kind of the perfect slogan for how to deal with the huge variety of material on the internet, or maybe just the animated GIFS: “It is fun to have fun / but you have to know how.”
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Most Revelatory Second Pass
In January I finished rereading the Harry Potter series for the first time since the final book was released in 2007. My first readings of the series’s final books had all been feverish and nocturnal — usually consuming the 24 hours after the book’s initial release. Pushing through the last 200 pages of the series at 4a.m. in July 2007, I was only interested in finding out who lived and died. When I reread Half-Blood Prince and Deathly Hallows in January, I couldn’t believe how much of the books I hadn’t retained. There was one character, who is introduced and plays a major part in the seventh book, whom I didn’t remember at all. The section of Deathly Hallows where Harry, Ron, and Hermione are in hiding, which felt ponderous my first time through, revealed itself to be a well-done study of the book’s central relationships, and my previous disgust with it was obviously just impatience for plot and clues. I thought rereading the series would be a fun, nostalgic exercise, but it turned out to be a singular reading experience, enriching in a way that was wholly distinct from my first read.
Best Serendipitous Literary Connection
There’s a new Little Free Library a block from my apartment — one of those birdhouse-like structures full of donated books that you’re welcome to take, and encouraged to replenish with unwanted books of your own. I think of myself as its fairy godmother — one of my secret joys has been stocking it with extra copies of new releases or review copies that I’ve received, like a hardcover copy of The Goldfinch I put in the library the day after its release (you’re welcome, lucky neighbor!). I rarely take a book out, except for the day I spotted The Cradle by Patrick Somerville and gasped with joy.
Best Read of the Year
I still think about Another Great Day At Sea by Geoff Dyer, which I reviewed here in May, all the time. It’s remarkable how openly delighted Dyer allowed himself to be by everyone and everything he came across aboard an aircraft carrier. It’s remarkable the depth of love and passion the carrier’s personnel shared with him. It’s remarkable that there are still secret worlds and books to introduce them to us.
I took Pulphead by John Jeremiah Sullivan on my summer vacation, and nothing will ever be the same. All of the included essays are exceptional, but it was “The Final Comeback of Axl Rose,” originally published in GQ, that really fascinated me. Besides a passing familiarity with their most popular songs, I didn’t know a thing about Guns N’ Roses, but after reading that profile I started watching their music videos on YouTube, which led to watching documentaries about them, which led to reading both Slash and Duff McKagan’s memoirs. Now I sleep in a Guns N’ Roses shirt and I listen to Live Era while I bake.
Cloud Atlas is my favorite book. I await the release of David Mitchell’s books with unmatched glee. But with The Bone Clocks I felt like I was going through the motions. That penultimate sci-fi section — the one that all the reviewers either hate or concede is the book’s low point — really unsettled me. It felt like realizing you need to break up with your boyfriend — like, I still love you, David Mitchell, I just don’t think I’m in love with you anymore. Kathryn Schultz’s extraordinary profile of him went a long way towards repairing the relationship. Hearing about Mitchell’s master plan for his unwritten novels, and how The Bone Clocks pivoted his ouevre towards them, gave me a lot of hope for the future.
Most Aggravating Historical Legend
President William Howard Taft probably never got stuck in a bathtub. He was a stress eater, yes, and gained close to 100 pounds while in office, but I came to like him when I read William Howard Taft by Henry F. Pringle and I’m sad that the bathtub story is the only thing most people know about him. The story appears in exactly one place, a book called Forty-Two Years in the White House by Irwin Hoover, who was White House Chief Usher for most of his career. The book is full of anecdotes about the 10 presidents he served under, and a number of them have proved to be fictional, especially the ones about Taft, whom Hoover seemed to think distinctly undeserving of respect. The authenticity of the bathtub story is questionable at best.
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Because Ruth Curry and I are always looking for the next Emily Books pick, and are now reading unpublished manuscripts as well as published books in preparation for our plan to begin publishing a very select number of Emily Books originals, this Year in Reading was INTENSE for me. I probably read more books in 2014 than I did even in the extremely uneventful summer between 6th and 7th grade, when I read literally every book in the YA section of the White Oak public library, plus almost all the books on my parents’ bookshelves. I read The Second Sex that summer because I was hoping there might be sex in it. Also The Prince, Our Bodies Ourselves, and several presidential biographies. In retrospect my parents should have sent me to summer camp.
Instead of a laundry list of the seriously hundreds of books I read this year, I thought I’d focus here on just a handful that made me excited about books again in a way I haven’t felt in years — both reading and writing them. These were books that I unequivocally loved, books that I’m certain will stay with me in the years to come.
The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing by Mira Jacob: I first heard Mira Jacob on my friend Jaime’s podcast, The Catapult, reading a scene where narrator Amina has a tense conversation with her mom, who has a hilarious, idiosyncratic take on English usage and is just in general a maddening, overbearing/lovable mom character to add to the pantheon of all-time great mom characters. “No wonder that dirty man shot himself — all that time without sun and this devil woman tearing her pantyhoses,” is her take on Kurt Cobain’s suicide. Jacob performed the dialogue like an actress and I was immediately hooked. The book traces a deep, painful, years-long family tragedy, but Jacob balances humor and heartache deftly, and Amina is wry and sad and totally real.
The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters: God, this book. This BOOK! Since I devoured four Sarah Waters books in a row this year, I feel qualified to judge that this book represents a new level of excellence for Waters. Since her other books are all amazing too, that’s really saying something. I had kind of expected this book to blow up Goldfinch-style; it’s a gripping page-turner in addition to being perfectly written and it’s about something important and real. I wonder whether reviewers’ understandable reticence about revealing the plot twist that changes the book halfway through from masterful historical portraiture to something more like a thriller made it a harder sell than it ought to have been? Anyway, if you like interwar London, fraught lesbian secret affairs, and hot sex scenes, plus crime, punishment, and hard moral questions that keep you thinking long after the book is over — I mean, it’s just hard to imagine anyone not loving this book. I think it’s perfect.
After Birth by Elisa Albert: This book is kind of the opposite in terms of appeal-universality — I can imagine a reasonable person hating it. But I am helpless with love for Elisa Albert’s work. Something about her voice and her style, not to mention her subject matter, just does it for me in a way no one else’s books do, and I’ve been salivating for years for her to come out with another one (this one doesn’t actually get published til February). It’s about a malcontented woman who has a baby and moves to upstate New York, where she falls in intense friend-love with a charismatic fellow new mother. Albert is great on the darkness at the heart of all kinds of hallowed intimacies, and even when you’re gasping, appalled by the narrator’s pinched, cruel worldview, you’ll never stop reading.
Adam by Ariel Schrag: Ariel Schrag is one of the most talented human beings alive. Not only did she create comics that evoke high school perfectly while still in high school, she’s a screenwriter and teacher and now, the author of one of the funniest novels I’ve ever read. Adam is the weird, touching story of a high school senior who spends a summer with his cool older sister in NYC and uses the opportunity to try on a new identity. Schrag’s writing is sharp and stylish but also effortlessly graceful; you almost don’t notice how great her sentences are because they flow straight into your brain, situating themselves there like some better, funnier version of your own thoughts.
Florence Gordon by Brian Morton: I am lucky enough to know Brian a little and so after I finished this book I wrote him an email saying that I loved everything about it except was he sure about the title? At the time I felt strongly that it should have been called Opportunities For Heroism In Everyday Life, which is the title of a book by the namesake protagonist. Now I realize that I was very wrong. This book is about Florence Gordon; it couldn’t and shouldn’t pretend it’s about anything else for one second. Florence would want it that way! She’s a very forceful character: a heroic feminist activist-author who’s beloved by many readers and acolytes, but somewhat feared and even hated by her intimates and her family, whose lives have been shaped/deformed in response to her uncompromising personality. The book is about the relationship her granddaughter doggedly forges with her, a description that makes it seem like the book might be sentimental. It’s not; Florence would never allow it to be. But you will still cry. (So much!!)
The Wallcreeper by Nell Zink: This funny, profane, deeply weird book defies description. The author has been writing for years but, aside from a zine, never before for publication. When an email correspondence with Jonathan Franzen turned into a friendly rivalry, she set out to prove that she can write better than he can. Can she? Well, he thinks so and to be honest I do too. (And I love J. Franz. I am a known Franz-stan.)
Wish You Were Me by Myriam Gurba: Reasons to live: food, beautiful fall days, cats, being in the ocean and being lifted up by a perfect wave, and reading a new writer for the first time whose voice is different from any you’ve heard before and who you want to keep hearing forever.
The Girls From Corona Del Mar by Rufi Thorpe: This novel got great reviews, came our around the same time as my novel Friendship, and is also about female best friends. If the author hadn’t contacted me out of the blue via Facebook and offered to send it to me, I would have been too jealous to read it. Luckily, she did! It’s very different from Friendship — Rufi’s voice is nothing like mine, and her book’s scope is broader, in every way — but has a similar unsparing attitude, stripping away familiar pieties about love and goodness until all that’s left is the truth.
Sisterland by Curtis Sittenfeld: I’m a Sittenfeld superfan and her latest book delighted me just as much as all her others have, maybe more so in some ways. She pulls off a trick in it that, in less masterful hands, often goes awry: she creates a world just like our own but with one crucial supernatural difference (here, it’s that one of a pair of twins is psychic). I read this back to back with Dorothy Baker’s Cassandra At The Wedding, another book about very dissimilar twins, and I recommend this! You can feel like you took a mini-seminar in twin lit, and they’re both fantastic books.
Notice by Heather Lewis: The hardest to read book I’ve ever read. Lewis was a phenomenal talent who died young and whose work never got the recognition it deserved. We republished this out of print book as an Emily Books ebook that includes corrections from the original manuscript, courtesy of Lewis’s literary executor Ann Rower, and a new Introduction by Dale Peck. It’s about a woman who enters an abusive relationship with an older couple whose daughter has died. I had to trap myself underground with it and ride the subway til I got to the last page, but I’m so glad I did. Ruth and I are incredibly proud that we were able to bring this book back to life.
Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel by Anya Ulinich: Ulinich’s brilliance and wryness are up against their most formidable opponent yet: online dating. Her heroine, Lena Finkle, finds herself single in her mid-30s with two teenage kids and embarks on the kind of romantic odyssey many people get out of the way in their early-20s, when Finkle was tethered to her then-babies. She eventually falls, hard, for a total cad, and the book documents what it’s like to be in love with someone terrible with painful realness.
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For the past three years, The Millions has offered a holiday gift list for writers. This year we’d like to give readers their due, with a list of bookish treats. Because where would writers be without readers? Also, let’s face it: discriminating and avid readers can be as difficult to shop for as cranky writers. It’s hard to pinpoint the tastes of a truly omnivorous reader and you always run the risk of buying something they’ve already read. So, for this year’s list, we’ve tried to go beyond book recommendations (although a few snuck in) with a list of items and services that’s a mix of the cozy, the classic, and the curated.
1. An Excellent Reading Chair.
Some swear by an Adirondack chair on the front porch, while others prefer the classic wing chair. For me, the quintessential reading chair is a folding butterfly chair, which you lug out to the backyard with a glass of iced tea and park beneath the shade of a large locust tree. (But since I live on the second floor of a building without a backyard, I’ll have to settle for an apartment-friendly version.) If you live with a reader, maybe this is the year to finally buy them that big, cozy lounger they’ve always wanted, the one that doesn’t have anything to do with your minimalist decorating scheme but which will provide hours of reading pleasure.
2. A Cozy Blanket or Throw.
You’ll need the right blanket to go with that chair. My own personal favorite is a Woolrich blanket, a preference that, like the butterfly wing chair, goes back to childhood. Others might prefer a lightweight throw or wrap. There are thousands of options available this time of year, for a range of budgets. You can spend upwards of $200 on the perfect cashmere blanket, or you can spend $3.99 on a fleece throw from IKEA. Only someone who exclusively reads in the bath would not have a use for this gift.
When you’re settling in for a marathon reading session, you need the right snack to keep you going. The subject of snack food always spurs passionate debate, so I decided to contact an expert, Dan Pashman, host of the WNYC podcast The Sporkful and the Cooking Channel web series You’re Eating It Wrong, and the author of the new book Eat More Better: How To Make Every Bite More Delicious for his advice: “There are several considerations when snacking while reading. First and foremost, you don’t want to have to take your eyes off the book. So you need a snack you can eat blind. Second, you may not want to get food all over your hands, because that food will end up all over your book. Therefore I recommend a drinkable snack that you can enjoy through a straw. For some people that might be a smoothie — for others it’s a milkshake. Either way, this option is clean, tidy, and delicious without being distracting.” Of course, it’s hard to give someone a smoothie, especially if you’re mailing it from afar, but you could certainly send a blender, or perhaps an immersion blender, which are handy for making single-servings of milkshakes and smoothies. Reading is, after all, a solitary activity.
For those who to take a more traditional approach to snacks, there’s always tea, cookies, and bon-bons. Opinions vary on whether or not it is wise to enjoy alcoholic beverages while reading, but if you want to match your tipple with your title, you can’t go wrong with this list of book and booze pairings over at Abe Books.
4. Curated Book Subscription.
I grew up with The Library of America, my parents amassing a collection of classic books that I rarely read because the editions were so austerely bound and boxed. But there is a new breed of book subscription out there, services that aren’t in the canon-making business and instead aim to connect readers to writers they might not otherwise discover. Emily Books offers its subscribers one carefully selected e-book per month, for an annual price of $159.99 (or a monthly price of $13.99). It’s an excellent list that leans feminist, autobiographical, and gutsy. At Quarterly Co., Book Riot will send you a surprise package “books and bookish stuff” every three months. Packages are $50 a piece and you can sign up for a year’s worth or just one delivery. Powell’s Books hosts a similar subscription service, Indispensable, which, for $39.95 per mailing, sends readers a special edition of a new book every six weeks. Just the Right Book sends “hand-picked books chosen by a literary expert based on your personal reading tastes and individual preferences.” Subscribers fill out a questionnaire to assess their tastes and choose a subscription plan to meet their price point, which ranges from $90 to $395 per year. Finally, Stack, a U.K.-based company, sends subscribers a different independent magazine every month. These are the beautifully-printed, idiosyncratic magazines you see in bookstores and secretly want to take home, but would never buy for yourself. An annual subscription is £72, about $112.
5. Small Press Book Subscription.
Many small presses also offer book subscriptions, and this is another great way to find titles for adventurous readers who are willing to take a chance on less well-known writers as well as foreign and translated works. If there’s a small press you already know and love, check to see if they offer a subscription package. Otherwise, here are a few recommendations: Coffee House Press and Archipelago Press offer annual subscriptions to their consistently excellent catalogs, at considerable savings. (Coffee House press’s current season is $100, while Archipelago’s 2015 subscription, which includes 10 hardcover books, is $150.) New Vessel Press, which publishes new English translations of foreign literature, offers a subscription to their current season for $75. For $12.99/month (or $6.99 for a digital subscription), Melville House will send you two books from their award-winning “The Art of the Novella” series. Wave Books, an independent poetry publisher based in Seattle, offers signed hardcover and paperback subscriptions to their 2015 season, at $375 and $100, respectively. For a truly extravagant gift, you can make your friend a subscribing partner of Copper Canyon Press. They’ll receive signed copies of all Copper Canyon’s new titles and the knowledge that they are supporting poets around the world.
6. Books About Reading.
For those who really love to read, there are books about reading. I recently enjoyed Rebecca Mead’s My Life In Middlemarch, about reading and rereading George Eliot’s masterpiece. Other titles to consider are 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel, by Jane Smiley; Reading Like A Writer by Francine Prose; How to Read Literature Like a Professor by Thomas C. Foster, and Michael Schmidt’s The Novel: A Biography, which received a rave review here on The Millions a couple months ago.
7. A Wearable Book.
It’s easy to find tote bags and tee shirts emblazoned with quotations from great books, but how many tee shirts contain the entire text of the book on one tee shirt? Litographs offers strangely mesmerizing posters, tote bags, and tee shirts, that from a distance look like simple graphic designs, but up close contain the entire texts of classic novels and poems. You have to see them to believe them and you have to squint to read them, but you really can carry around Moby-Dick or Hamlet or Walden in tote bag form. That way, even if you finish the books you’re carrying around, you’ll still have something to read.
8. Special Editions of Treasured Books.
At a recent Millions meet-up, there was a debate about special editions of books. Some staffers love a fancy version of a classic novel, while other prefer a grubby paperback they can underline to their heart’s content. I tend toward grubby, but I do treasure a hardcover edition of The World According To Garp that I received as a gift many years ago. It’s not a pristine or valuable copy but I liked seeing the original cover art as well as the slightly idiosyncratic type-setting. You don’t have to spend a lot to find a special version of a favorite book; Etsy and Ebay are fun to browse for collectibles and just plain bizarre titles. For more serious buyers, Abe Books and The Strand have online rare book shops. If you’re looking for pure beauty, check out Folio Books, which reprints classic books in lavishly bound and illustrated editions.
9. Gift Certificate to a Local Independent Bookstore.
Sure, you could email your book-loving friend a gift card to an online bookseller and they probably wouldn’t complain. But why not send them a gift certificate to their local independent bookstore, a place they’d probably love to have an excuse to visit? If your friend lives in a different area, you can use this handy store finder to figure out what bookstore is closest to them.
10. Time to Read.
How do you give someone time to read? It might be as simple as giving permission. A lot of people have trouble putting aside a Saturday afternoon of errand-running/housework/babysitting/gym-going/family-visiting/etc., in order to finish The Goldfinch. So, if there is such a person in your life, take the kid/dog/visiting family out of the house and tell them you’ll be back in a few hours — with dinner.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons
This morning, the longlist for the 2015 IMPAC Dublin award came out, and the nominees include some familiar names. Year in Reading alum Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah is on there, as is Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane (reviewed here by our own Tess Malone), Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch (which won this year’s Pulitzer) and The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner (whom you can learn more about in this essay by our own Bill Morris).
Every week, The New York Times Book Review asks two of its 12 “Bookend” columnists to respond to “questions about the world of books.” Here are some prompts that for whatever reason didn’t make the cut.
Do you prefer your column to appear on the right or left side of the page?
Is it ever okay to burn a book?
Do you support the amendment legalizing marriage between works of commercial and literary fiction?
When we read fiction, how relevant is the author’s SAT score?
What book would you recommend to someone having difficulty thinking up a literary prompt?
Is it ethical to dog-ear pages?
In the Book of Job, God asks: “Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth?” Well, where were you? Gird up your loins and answer the guy.
What is the Great American Twitter Novel?
What will the rise of e-books mean to traditional publishers? What about to those who like to sniff book-binding glue?
How do you think the pathetic fallacy will adapt to climate change?
Can the state of contemporary literature be used to forecast stock prices?
When the “Bookender” crew gets together to drink, who never buys a round?
On a related note, what book — hardcover or paperback — would you use to bludgeon a fellow columnist?
Do you find it disrespectful to read canonical masterpieces in the bathroom?
This question comes from Samuel Beckett’s Molloy: “Does it really matter which hand is used to absterge the podex?”
When your piece appears, how often do you ever read the facing column on the same topic? Be honest.
Do you see the New York Giants’s season as more of a Greek tragedy or a comic picaresque? I’ll take my answer off the air.
Which of these statements do you find most true?: 1) Poetry makes nothing happen; 2) Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world; or 3) Poetry helps me get laid.
What is the relationship between font and content?
I know I screwed up — and I swear I’ll never see that divorcée from BookExpo America again — but do you think my darling wife Marcy can find it in her heart to take me back? I’m begging you, please save my marriage by both saying yes.
So…The Goldfinch? Discuss.
Image Credit: Wikipedia
The first thing you may hear about Eimear McBride’s debut novel, A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing, is that it took nine years to find a publisher. The second is that it is brilliant, the winner of multiple literary prizes, and that McBride is, as Anne Enright put it in a 2013 review, “that old-fashioned thing, a genius.” First published in the U.K. by a small independent publisher, Galley Beggar, in 2013, A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing has finally made it to America thanks to another small independent publisher, Coffee House Press.
There is undeniable romance to the misunderstood genius narrative, but I have to admit that the first thing I thought when I began this bracing, unrelenting, and audacious novel was that I could understand why it took almost a decade to find an editor. From page one it’s a tough read, both in terms of subject matter and style. Here’s the novel’s third paragraph, in which the novel’s unnamed narrator, at this point an infant in utero, describes the illness that has befallen her older brother:
I know. The thing wrong. It’s a. It is called. Nosebleeds, headaches. Where you can’t hold. Fall mugs and dinner plates she says clear up. Ah young he says give the child a break. Fall off swings. Can’t or. Grip well. Slipping in the muck. Bang your. Poor head wrapped up white and the blood come through. She feels the sick of that. Little boy head. Shush.
A few broken sentences later, we get the diagnosis: “It’s all through his brain like the roots of trees.”
I don’t mean to sound glib, but from here, things only get worse. To give a brief, vague summary, this book is about a girl born into a diseased situation — literally and metaphorically — and how she uses her sexuality to cope with it. The sentences remain broken and inarticulate throughout the novel, even after the narrator is born, grows up, and comes of age. This novel does not shy away from the world’s cruelty. There were times when I had to look away from the page despite the opaque-ness of the prose. There were times when I was worried for the physical well being of the narrator. There were times when I had to disengage from the story, because the scenes of abuse and violence were too harsh. It’s not the kind of book that makes you cry; it’s the kind of book that shakes you up. While reading this novel, I had several dreams about terrible things happening to my son. Yes, this book actually gave me nightmares. And yet I did not want to stop reading it.
I finished this book a couple days ago and I wanted to write about it immediately, to capture my visceral response. Still, just a few days away from it has given me a chance to wonder, from a calmer place, what is it about this terrifying book that held my attention. The prose, while arresting and utterly unique, is slightly repellant. If I re-read a sentence, it was often to figure out what was happening — although I was surprised by how quickly I adjusted to the novel’s fragmented style. I quickly began to appreciate how much information McBride was available to convey in her short, snapshot paragraphs. In this scene, a classic first-day-of-school scenario is rendered completely new by McBride’s breakneck prose:
I be new girl. I could wish to be dead but for the wrong of it. To have to be saying again again where I come from. Who I am. And I’m from someplace so much littler than this. That redneck culchie. Backward. Farmyard. I am all these things to the great girl face. Those herd. Such bovine swinging heifers. Come don’t hate me. All your walkmans fizz in tune, in time with conversation, point graffitis on the bus, love this one that one. New girl stinks.
Here’s another schoolyard scene, in which the narrator’s brother, who has survived brain cancer but is left with scars, lies to a group of older boys about their origins:
You say, and shock me, a knife did it. Silence. For the first time impressed. They cannot delve you all a sudden.
It’s the word “delve” that brought me up short. It suggests a shovel, a blunt instrument, and the blunt way these bullies are trying to get at the source of her brother’s pain, which is on the surface for everyone to see. “Delve” also has an echo of playground rhymes: one, two, buckle my shoe, three, four, shut the door…eleven, twelve, dig and delve. There is also something striking about “a knife did it.” The phrase is eerie, a reminder of all the surgeries (“going under the knife”) the brother has undergone.
In yet another scene of schoolyard brutality, the brother is unable to defend himself:
Bulged indignated. The bullish face fat with humiliation. Handicap. Handicap. One from the back gets the ball. Kicks and aims. It strikes your face. Bleared with mud. And knock you over. Laughter. Laughter. Never ever will it stop. Not ever again. The bell rings and release for you from that place.
“Indignated,” “bleared,” “release for you” — these word are at their root, the right words, but are jammed to fit the experience, like sawed-off puzzle pieces. Never mind if they’re in the right tense, never mind if they are paired with the right pronouns (or any pronoun), never mind if they are even being deployed correctly. There is no precision in this narrator’s world. No steadiness. Only movement and feeling.
Bits of familiar language seep through. Not familiar in the sense of slang or cliché, but bones-of-the-English-language familiar, half-scraps of Shakespeare and Milton, and the King James Bible, too. The narrator’s mother is deeply, ruthlessly religious, and at once point McBride simply writes the Lord’s Prayer as a single paragraph, a scrap of prayer wedged between two paragraphs seared with the guilt of sexual abuse. It’s striking how well the prayer fits, the words written in one headlong sentence without commas or a breath taken, just the way the narrator would say it.
I could go on about McBride’s prose, but ultimately I don’t think that’s why I kept reading this book. Nor was I compelled by the horror of the story. I had deep sympathy for the narrator, but it was complicated by the narrator’s intensely self-destructive behavior. It’s hard to spend time with someone who is so hell-bent on suffering, who rejects friendship, tenderness, comfort, laughter. But I realized that she does not reject love. The problem is she is so rarely offered it. In the wake of her brother’s illness, her parents have nothing in reserve for her. As a young woman, her uncle sexually abuses her. She’s capable of deep friendships with other women, but she is so full of self-loathing that she runs away from anyone who truly cares. Her brother is the only person she loves unconditionally and who is able to give her that love in return. “I swim to your touch” — that’s the narrator, in utero, already more attuned to her brother’s presence than anyone else in the world, including her mother. It’s this thread of love that sustains the novel and keeps it from becoming an unending tale of misery. It’s also what gives weight and power to the novel’s most beautifully written passages.
A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing is already a literary sensation, the recipient of numerous awards, including the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction (formerly the Orange Prize), for which she competed against several highly-lauded novels, including Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah, and Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch. I haven’t read The Goldfinch, but I have read The Lowland and Americanah, and while I have affection for those novels, especially Americanah, they didn’t startle me the way McBride’s debut did. There is something so desperate and prayerful about this book, something so burned-out and raw, that it’s hard to simply recommend. I can only say that it was worth reading, and that I’m grateful that it finally found its publishers.
Following last year’s Pulitzer Prize, which Donna Tartt won for her first novel in eleven years, it means something when a critic draws a favorable comparison between The Goldfinch and a new book. For Laura Miller, though, it’s a natural reaction to the latest from Sarah Waters, which seems poised to “scratch the same big-novel itch” as Tartt’s novel did last year. (FYI, Sarah Waters wrote a Year in Reading entry for The Millions.)
As usual, you’re talking with your friend about books. “Have you read it?” she asks. “No,” you say, “but it’s on the nightstand.” It’s on the nightstand. That’s code for, I’ve made mental note of it. Or It’s on my list but not a priority. Or even, I actually own it, and I’ll be reading it next. Regardless, for me, It’s on the nightstand has always been metaphorical — an abstract and elastic category of Books I Hope To Read.
That is, until recently.
You could call it an “alcove,” but it’s not big enough for a queen-sized bed. The full-sized has worked just fine, but the piles of unshelved books — on the floor, on the dresser, on the dining chairs, in the bathroom, on top of the puppy crate for godssakes — haven’t. I wanted a nightstand.
And so, an end table was repurposed. Finally, I have an actual nightstand.
What’s on the nightstand? Suddenly the question is not so abstract. Of the mess of books that has been unsystematically scattered throughout my home, and my life, which ones will make it to the nightstand? In what order will they be stacked?
Perhaps most importantly: how will I decide?
A mini-debate recently bloomed among colleagues at the college where I teach, after the department administrator sent around a brief and innocent-enough email: would we please send changes or additions to the attached post-grad Suggested Reading List? The list, she reminded us, would be distributed to graduating seniors; a deadline was specified.
“Are the students asking for this?” Professor B wrote. Was it perhaps odd to foist such a list on departing students, “a noodging sort of gesture from teachers who can’t let go?” Professor H concurred, quoting Professor L: “Why ask for a booklist now, dear graduates? We’ve given you the tools to read and to make discriminations among the various books you encounter: So feel free to fly away from the comfortable nest of your undergraduate English Department and read what you want and when you want.”
Off-line conversations ensued. Professor H came back with an idea:
“[O]ne of my main goals in the classroom,” she wrote, “is to teach students to go from one book to another all by themselves; I am never so dejected as when seniors complain they have no clue as to what to read next…What if we encouraged our seniors to put together a list of books for the rest of our majors?” A week later, Professor H further articulated her thinking: “It won’t be enough, of course, to ask the grads what books they recommend. The real question is how they found them.”
To go from one book to another all by themselves. It sounds simple enough. As a young person just entering the world of post-academy literature, the challenge may be discerning “what’s good.” In youth, there is a blessed naiveté about this, a hunger for objective, definitive recommendations from an authoritative source. In graduate school, when a professor first challenged me to “create your own map of literary influences,” it was indeed a revelation: the image I remember conjuring was of lily pads — each of us in our own deep black pond, bug-eyed and hopping from one pad to another. Sometimes just one pad over, sometimes a greater leap to the far shore. Apparently random, and yet mysteriously considered.
As we get older — as the nature of our work and passions specifies, as our aesthetic palates grow more particular — we understand that, given the sheer number of artful and compelling books in the world relative to the time we have on the planet, “good” is more contextual than absolute. Deciding what to read next is thus as much about Knowing Thyself as Knowing Literature. School attempts to teach the latter; it’s the self-knowledge that we must develop on our own, over time.
And so, in my humble opinion, the process by which you decide what to read must not be outsourced — to your professors, to reviewers or awards, to online algorithms. An external source can’t tell you what you need to read next any more than a spouse can tell a pregnant partner what she’s craving to eat; what will satisfy. Read what you want and when you want. Choosing what to read is about attuning yourself to what it means to be nourished. By this I mean confronted, changed, filled, emptied, engrossed, surprised, instructed, consoled — all these. You. At this moment in time.
What should I read next? It is not a casual question. We are not frogs. We are chasing something more profound than flies. Every time I finish a book and consider what to read now, it feels…important.
Since I am not so much looking for a foolproof test of a book’s “objective” quality, my decision process is no more suitable for you than my nightstand list. Nevertheless, here it is — my provisional, evolving list of the (sometimes absurd) ways I decide/have decided what to read next:
A. The 25-Page Test
Standard trial run. I bought the book on impulse; it’s been lying around for a while. I pick it up and start reading. Am I eager to read page 26 (even better: did page 26 come and go without my noticing)? Am I stopping to scribble in my notebook because the book is sparking responses that matter enough to write down? Or — have two paragraphs gone by and I don’t know what I just read (in which case something is evidently not clicking).
B. The Three-Book Shell Game
Okay, the truth is, I bought three books on impulse. I lay them out side-by-side. I stare at them. Which one should get the trial run first? I stare some more. I pick up each one, feel it in my hands — heft, cover material. I look at the cover for some time. Sure, there is that two-second impression; but there is also the three-minute study and consideration. The emotions and ideas it evokes. I skim the jacket copy but not too closely. I am not interested in the publisher’s sell job but rather words or phrases that resonate, with me, right now, for whatever reason. I lay them out again. I wait. I swear to you, one of them starts to levitate.
C. Narrative Point-of-View/Voice
As reader, writer, and teacher, for me, narrative POV is perhaps the most intriguing, and most important, feature of any work of fiction. Usually, I am primed for something specific: first person or third person; omniscience or (in James Wood’s terminology) free indirect style; vernacular or formal, contemporary or non-contemporary; verbal density or spareness (the author who achieves these simultaneously always wins). When narrative voice is a driving factor, three or four pages is usually enough to determine Yay or Nay. Do I want to hear this voice speaking for the next two days or two weeks? Do I need a voice I can “trust,” insightful and articulate? Or something less stable, a wild and deeply subjective ride?
D. Bookshelf Staring
I’ve just finished a book, and I’m on a reading roll. I stand in front of my bookshelves. Like yours, mine are “organized” in a particular way that would make very little sense to anyone else. I change up this organization from time to time, and sometimes this staring prompts reorganization. Sometimes the reorganization becomes part of the process of choosing — handling the books and moving them around as a way of reorganizing my mind. At the moment, there is the not-yet-read section. But I stare at the whole canvass of books, not just that one section. The book I’ve just read is still buzzing in my mind; if it was great, it’s buzzing in my body, too. I want more of that buzzing, but differently. The last book did X so well, so interestingly. I’m intrigued by X’s impact and also interested in how X would read if it was plus Y and minus Z.
I step back, lean in, repeat. I swear to you, one of the books starts to vibrate.
E. Loved This Author, Want More of Same, Read Everything in the Author’s Oeuvre
This is the most exhilarating — like falling love. The last book did X. I want more and more and more of X. I am learning something here, seeing something new, growing intimate with characters and ideas. Maybe I haven’t identified what, exactly, was so captivating, so I read on to find out. More, more, more. Sometimes I’ll read them in order of best reviewed to worst reviewed; sometimes vice versa (reading the supposedly minor works of a favorite author can be particularly illuminating); sometimes chronologically; sometimes via the three-book shell game.
I do keep wishlists, haphazardly. Or, I used to. When I’m stumped, I’ll log on to Goodreads or Audible and see what, at some point in time, I decided I might someday like to read. Then I proceed with Item D above, the online version of bookshelf staring. With audiobooks, a two-minute sample is usually available — the audio version of the 25-page test combined with the narrative voice test.
(As I write this, I am reminded of the usefulness of online wishlists. It’s a place to be impulsive about books, without opening your wallet. And looking back on your wishlists is such an interesting journey in itself: Vasily Aksyonov? Dorothy Day? Suttree. I craved these books enough to click them. What was I thinking about at the time? Hmm…)
G. The “Should” Lists
I really should read Thackeray. I really should read Vollman. I really should read The Goldfinch. Well, maybe. I was glad I pushed myself to read Faulkner and Proust and To the Lighthouse; less so Philip Roth and Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. I’m still pushing with Thomas Mann, the verdict is out. It’s good to ask yourself why you should read it. So you don’t feel stupid in a workshop or at a cocktail party? Or maybe because your favorite author from Item E above was deeply influenced by it. There are better and worse reasons for force-reading.
If you are a professional literarian of some sort, there are more “shoulds” to contend with: you must teach, review, converse about certain books. I’ve been fortunate to “have” to read Jean Stafford, Esther Freud, Henry James, Carson McCullers, Giuseppe di Lampedusa, Steven Millhauser, Miranda July, Sherwood Anderson, on and on (in the cases of Lampedusa and McCullers, it led to Item E). In other words, there is certainly such thing as benevolent authority, and required reading can be a blessing (that is, when it’s not a curse).
H. Recommendations from Friends
This, I confess, is one of the least successful categories. It’s not that my friends don’t have good taste. That many of them are thoughtful and discriminating readers may be the very problem: their passions are as contextual and idiosyncratic as mine. It would be, in a way, a little weird if the books they raved about were books that I would rave about, at the same moments in our lives. (Recommendations seem to work better, I find, when a friend talks about something he read some time ago, within the context of current conversation — as opposed to, “I just read this great book!”).
My shameless plug. When Lisa Peet and I started writing about “post-40 bloomers,” there was a sense of mission, of trying to bring an alternative perspective to the table. Little did we know how many important writers — important to us personally — we’d discover along the way. For me, to name just a few: Harriet Doerr, William Gay, Spencer Reece, Shannon Cain, Edward P. Jones, Virginia Hamilton Adair, W.M. Spackman, Robin Black. And don’t get me started on Jane Gardam (I cannot stop talking about Jane Gardam — Item E bigtime).
J. The Dessert Selection
Sometimes reading is about imaginative and intellectual expansion, the difficult pleasure that is, in the end, transformative and satisfying. But sometimes you have a reading window in which you want to treat yourself to an easier pleasure. Life is hard; you want to be carried away, both far and deep. As with physical nourishment, occasional dessert is as important for your health as kale. Endorphins or something? But let me be clear: a truly pleasurable dessert is still made of excellent ingredients, not junk. Me, I’ve been working pretty hard this summer; for this last week, I’m delving into Bring Up the Bodies.
So, go throw darts at your bookshelves. Read 10 pages aloud. Stack up your wishlists. Read what you want when you want. If you don’t have one, get yourself a nightstand.
Image Credit: Flickr/seanfreese.
Now that the summer blockbusters are winding now, we can all focus on book-to-film adaptations. Kirkus Reviews has a list of new books that would make for great movies, some of which, like Christopher Beha’s Arts & Entertainments, The Millions has reviewed. Pair with our dream casting of a film version of The Goldfinch.
With last month’s awarding of the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, the 2013/2014 literary award season is now over, which gives us the opportunity to update our list of prizewinners. Literary prizes are, of course, deeply arbitrary in many ways; such is the nature of keeping score in a creative field. Nonetheless, our prizewinners post is compiled in the same spirit that one might tally up Cy Young Awards and MVPs to determine if a baseball player should be considered for the Hall of Fame. These awards nudge an author towards the “canon” and help secure them places on literature class reading lists for decades to come.
2013/14 was a suprisingly diverse year when it comes to literary awards, with no single novel winning multiple awards and very little crossover on the shortlists. Only one book is climbing the ranks this year. Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, which won the Pulitzer and was on the National Book Critics Circle shortlist.
Next year, we will need to make some changes to our methodology. When compiling this list, I wanted to include both American books and British books, as well as the English-language books from other countries that are eligible to win some of these awards. I started with the National Book Award and the Pulitzer from the American side and the Booker and Costa (formerly the Whitbread) from the British side. Because I wanted the British books to “compete” with the American books, I also looked at a couple of awards that recognize books from both sides of the ocean, the National Book Critics Circle Awards and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. The IMPAC is probably the weakest of all these, but since it is both more international and more populist than the other awards, I thought it added something. However, now that the Booker Prize will be open to English-language books from all over the world, including the U.S., the panel of awards is now lopsided in favor of the U.S. Is there another British-only award that we can use to replace the Booker next year?
I looked at these six awards from 1995 to the present, awarding three points for winning an award and two points for an appearance on a shortlist or as a finalist. Here’s the key that goes with the list: B=Booker Prize, C=National Book Critics Circle Award, I=International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, N=National Book Award, P=Pulitzer Prize, W=Costa Book Award (formerly the Whitbread) bold=winner, red=New to the list or moved up* the list since last year’s “Prizewinners” post
*Note that the IMPAC considers books a year after the other awards do, and so this year’s IMPAC shortlist nods were added to point totals from last year.
11, 2003, The Known World by Edward P. Jones – C, I, N, P
9, 2001, The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen – C, I, N, P
8, 2010, A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan – C, I, P
8, 2009, Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel – B, C, W
8, 2007, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz – C, I, P
8, 1997, Underworld by Don DeLillo – C, I, N, P
7, 2005, The March by E.L. Doctorow – C, N, P
7, 2004, Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst – B, C, W
7, 2002, Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides – I, N, P
7, 2001, Atonement by Ian McEwan – B, C, W
7, 1998, The Hours by Michael Cunningham – C, I, P
7, 1997, Last Orders by Graham Swift – B, I, W
7, 1997, Quarantine by Jim Crace – B, I, W
>6, 2012, Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel – B, W
6, 2009, Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann – N, I
6, 2009, Home by Marilynn Robinson – C, N, I
6, 2005, The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai – B, C
6, 2004, Gilead by Marilynn Robinson – C, P
5, 2013, The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt – P, C
5, 2012, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain – C, N
5, 2012, The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson – C, P
5, 2011, Binocular Vision by Edith Pearlman – C, N
5, 2011, The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes – B, W<
5, 2009, Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín – W, I
5, 2008, The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry – B, W
5, 2008, Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout – C, P
5, 2007, Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson – N, P
5, 2006, The Road by Cormac McCarthy – C, P
5, 2006, The Echo Maker by Richard Powers – N, P
5, 2005, Europe Central by William T. Vollmann – C, N
5, 2005, The Accidental by Ali Smith – B, W
5, 2004, The Master by Colm Tóibín – B, I
5, 2003, The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard – I, N
5, 2001, True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey – B, I
5, 2000, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon – C, P
5, 2000, The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood – B, I
5, 1999, Waiting by Ha Jin – N, P
5, 1999, Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee – B, C
5, 1999, Being Dead by Jim Crace – C, W
5, 1998, Charming Billy by Alice McDermott – I, N
5, 1997, American Pastoral by Philip Roth – C, P
5, 1996, Every Man for Himself by Beryl Bainbridge – B, W
5, 1996, Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer by Steven Millhauser – N, P
5, 1995, The Moor’s Last Sigh by Salman Rushdie – B, W
5, 1995, The Ghost Road by Pat Barker – B, W
5, 1995, Independence Day by Richard Ford – C, P
5, 1995, Sabbath’s Theater by Philip Roth – N, P
“No novel gets uniformly enthusiastic reviews, but the polarized responses to The Goldfinch lead to the long-debated questions: What makes a work literature, and who gets to decide?” Vanity Fair has big questions and lots of opinions about Donna Tartt’s latest novel, which we’ve covered pretty extensively ourselves.
We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for April.
The Beggar Maid: Stories of Flo and Rose
Eleanor & Park
The Good Lord Bird
Jesus’ Son: Stories
Major shakeups to the April Top Ten were wrought by the graduation of six (count ’em) titles to our Millions Hall of Fame: The Goldfinch, Selected Stories, The Flamethrowers, The Luminaries, Draw It With Your Eyes Closed, and The Lowland. This “March 2014” class of ascendants is noteworthy not only for being the biggest single-month Hall of Fame class ever, but also for being one of the most highly-decorated classes in series history. How decorated? Let’s run the tape: Donna Tartt’s novel won this year’s Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Alice Munro won the last Nobel Prize for Literature. Rachel Kushner’s novel was a finalist for the National Book Award. Eleanor Catton was the winner of last year’s Man Booker Prize. And Jhumpa Lahiri’s work was shortlisted for that same Man Booker Prize. Objectively speaking, this is the biggest and best class to date.
Of course, here at The Millions, our readers have plenty of decorated authors on their “to be read” shelves, and as a result, our Top Ten doesn’t so much rebuild — to borrow the parlance of a college football team — as it reloads.
To wit: we’re replacing a National Book Award finalist, a Pulitzer winner, and a Man Booker winner with two National Book Award winners, a Pulitzer finalist, and Lorrie Moore.
Heading off this new crop of titles is Philipp Meyer’s The Son, which was a Pulitzer finalist this past year, and which was met with critical acclaim for weeks after it was first published. It’s a book that John Davidson described for our site as being, “a sprawling, meticulously researched epic tale set in southern Texas,” and one that “leverages” a “certain theory of Native American societies … to explore the American creation myth.” Indeed, Meyer himself noted in his Millions interview that, “If there’s a moral purpose to the book, it’s to put our history, the history of this country, into a context.”
Additionally, the April Top Ten welcomes James McBride’s The Good Lord Bird, which blew past the field at last year’s National Book Awards to claim top prize overall. (The announcement of a movie deal soon followed.) For The Millions, our own Bill Morris sang the work’s praises and he sang them loudly. The book, Morris wrote in his latest Year in Reading piece, is “one of the most astonishing, rollicking, delightful, smart and sad books I’ve read in all my life.” Evidently you listened.
New(ish) releases weren’t the only new additions to our list this month, either. Sneaking into the tenth spot on our list was a classic collection from Denis Johnson, the winner of the National Book Award in 2007. It’s a pity they no longer print the version that fits in your pocket.
And what to say of Lorrie Moore, whose addition to the Vanderbilt faculty last Fall was overshadowed by news of Bark‘s imminent publication? Perhaps it’s best if I let the final paragraph from Arianne Wack’s profile of the author speak for itself:
Exploring the demands of a life is the heart of Moore’s work, and the resonate truth of her prose has fueled a fevered desire for her books. Her characters don’t so much adventure through life as they do drift and stumble through it, making it a map of emotional landmarks, places you keep finding yourself in. One suspects that Moore is not simply writing a life, but cleverly recording yours. There is a commonality linking reader with character, an elastic boundary between her fiction and our reality that both reinforces and subverts one’s own sense of uniqueness. Coming away from one of her stories, one is reminded that we are all just doing this the best we know how.
Or better yet, perhaps I should point you toward our own Edan Lepucki’s summation of Moore’s influence on a generation of American short story writers:
We all came out of Lorrie Moore’s overcoat–or her frog hospital, her bonehead Halloween costume. If you’re a young woman writer with a comic tendency, and you like similes and wordplay, and you traffic in the human wilderness of misunderstanding and alienation, then you most certainly participate in the Moore tradition.
Lastly, the April Top Ten welcomes two other newcomers as well. Entering the field in the eighth spot is Eleanor & Park, of which Janet Potter proclaimed, “Rarely is a realistic love story a page-turner, but when I got to the end I tweeted: ‘Stayed up til 3 finishing Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell. Would have stayed up forever.'” (The book is being made into a movie, by the way.) Meanwhile, a collection of portraits entitled Well-Read Women: Portraits of Fiction’s Most Beloved Heroines enters the list in sixth place, likely owing to its prominence on Hannah Gersen’s list of gift ideas from last year.
Near Misses: Americanah, Little Failure: A Memoir, Stories of Anton Chekhov, A Highly Unlikely Scenario, or a Neetsa Pizza Employee’s Guide to Saving the World: A Novel, and Tampa. See Also: Last month’s list.
Jonas T. Bengtsson’s A Fairy Tale — his third novel, but the first available in English — begins as a chronicle of an unusual upbringing. A small boy is being raised by his father in Denmark, and for reasons that are initially unclear, the father keeps them moving from town to town. Early on, the boy is transported through the streets of Copenhagen in the front basket of his father’s bicycle:
My dad stands up in the pedals; I can see his head above me.
“What, then, extraordinary stranger, do you love?” he says and looks down at me.
I know what to reply. “I love the clouds — the clouds that pass — yonder — the marvelous clouds.”
They’re speaking lines from “The Stranger,” a poem by Charles Baudelaire that takes the form of a brief conversation. The poem begins: “Tell me, enigmatic man, whom do you love best? Your father, your mother, your sister, or your brother?” and progresses through a series of questions and negations. The stranger replies: he has no parents, no siblings, no friends. Does he love his country, then? No, he is “ignorant of the latitude in which it is situated.” He hates gold and God in equal measure. But he does love beauty, “goddess and immortal,” and the clouds. Beauty and freedom. He’s essentially untethered from human society.
The problem, of course, is that while the boy knows the stranger’s responses by heart, the responses express sentiments that belong to his father, not to him. The boy’s being carried along in his father’s strange life. His father is committed to living outside of mainstream society. He works odd jobs and keeps his son out of school. There are early intimations that the father’s grip on reality is shaky, but he’s genuinely kind and an attentive parent. The boy — we never learn his real name, but let’s call him Peter, which is a name he uses occasionally — knows that they’ll always keep moving, but he knows also that his father will never leave him behind. There are moments of transcendent beauty and joy. Bengttson’s prose is clear and unadorned, and he strikes a fine balance between momentum and careful character development.
In the evenings, Peter’s father tells him a story. It’s a fairy tale about love and exile, but the line between the fairy tale and their real lives is unsettlingly blurred. In their real lives, his father counsels the boy to stay alert and watch for signs of the White Men. Sometimes they move when his father thinks the White Men are close. The White Men aren’t evil, his father tells him, but they don’t know the difference between right and wrong. In the nightly fairy tale, the White Men are helpers of the White Queen.
Every night my dad tells me a little more of the same fairy tale.
The story of the King and the Prince who no longer have a home.
The King and Prince have gone out into the world to find the White Queen and kill her. With an arrow or a knife, a single stab through her heart will lift the curse. They’re the only ones who can do it because the King and the Prince are the last people who can see the world as it truly is. Only they haven’t been blinded by the Queen’s witchcraft.
This uneasy life continues, until catastrophe strikes: a young and charismatic politician draws the father’s attention. She’s a reform-minded populist, a gifted speaker who appears often in the press. Peter’s father goes from interest to obsession to setting out for the capitol building with a knife. He has found the White Queen.
Who will you become? It’s an intriguing question, both in coming-of-age novels and in life. To me, one of the darkest and most interesting aspects of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch was the slow drift whereby the half-orphaned Theo, unloved and longing for his lost mother, starts to resemble his shady and unreliable father instead. Laura van den Berg sums up the problem beautifully in “Lessons, a short story included in her recent collection The Isle of Youth. The story concerns four teenaged cousins, who have left their survivalist pentecostal parents in the isolated Midwestern settlement of Elijah and set out into a new life of armed robbery:
At first Dana thought leaving Elijah meant getting away from how things were on the farm, but now she thinks the past is like the hand of God, or what she imagines the hand of God would be like if God were real: it can turn you in directions you don’t want to be turned in.
A Fairy Tale is a fascinating and often brutal meditation on alienation and trauma. “What separates man from any other species,” Peter’s father told him one evening, before it all came undone, “is his ability to adapt.” But in A Fairy Tale, adaptation is precisely the problem. We see Peter in childhood, adolescence, and adulthood, and it’s clear by the second section that he hasn’t been entirely successful in finding a way to live in the mainstream world. In adolescence and in adulthood, Bengtsson presents him with a cool remove that makes him appear somewhat shell-shocked.
Herein lies the one flaw, in my opinion, in an otherwise virtually flawless novel. The spare coolness of Bengtsson’s prose style is effective, particularly in the almost eerie detachment with which he describes the book’s few moments of overt violence, but this translates at times to a frustrating distance from his narrator. We’re allowed to draw close to Peter in childhood, to glimpse his thoughts and fears, but the adult Peter is something of a cipher, the first-person narration notwithstanding.
By the time we see Peter in adulthood, he’s managed to build a life for himself. But he’s living as a stranger in the world, in a manner eerily reminiscent of his father. He lives under an assumed name and has few ties to society. In Bengtsson’s remarkable novel, past is never entirely behind us.
Following last year’s win for The Orphan Master’s Son, Adam Johnson’s novel of North Korea, the Pulitzer jury named Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch this year’s winner in the fiction category. The Son by Philipp Meyer and The Woman Who Lost Her Soul by Bob Shacochis were the other finalists for the fiction prize.
Here are this year’s Pulitzer winners and finalists with bonus links:
Winner: The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt (excerpt, Adam Dalva’s essay on the novel, casting the upcoming movie)
The Son by Philipp Meyer (our review, our interview with Meyer)
The Woman Who Lost Her Soul by Bob Shacochis (excerpt, an essay by Martha Anne Toll)
Winner: Toms River: A Story of Science and Salvation by Dan Fagin
The Blood Telegram: Nixon, Kissinger and a Forgotten Genocide by Gary J. Bass (excerpt)
The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War by Fred Kaplan (excerpt)
Winner: The Internal Enemy: Slavery and War in Virginia, 1772–1832 by Alan Taylor (review)
A Dreadful Deceit: The Myth of Race from the Colonial Era to Obama’s America by Jacqueline Jones (excerpt)
Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident and the Illusion of Safety by Eric Schlosser (excerpt
Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life by Jonathan Sperber
Winners and finalists in other categories are available at the Pulitzer Web site.
We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for March.
Draw It with Your Eyes Closed: The Art of the Art Assignment
The Beggar Maid: Stories of Flo and Rose
The first six spots in the March Top Ten are unchanged from February, and only two newcomers — Beautiful Ruins and The Circle — managed to crack this month’s list. Their arrival was made possible by the ascension of Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings and Thomas Pynchon’s Bleeding Edge to the hallowed ground of our Millions Hall of Fame.
It may come as a surprise to faithful Millions readers that this is the first time Jess Walter’s Beautiful Ruins has made our Top Ten. First published in 2012, Walter’s novel has been a mainstay in our Year in Reading series ever since. First came the estimable trio of Emma Straub, Roxane Gay, and Robert Birnbaum, who by turns referred to the book as “precise, skilled, quick-witted, and warm-hearted,” “one of my favorite books of the year,” and “especially special.” More recently, Kate Milliken commented on how it seems the entire world has read the book already, and that she was late to the party when she got to it in 2013. Of course, that didn’t stop her from diving in, later confirming what others have said all along: “Jess Walter’s Beautiful Ruins is indeed bumpin’.”
(If you still need more convincing, then know this: the book is on its way to the big screen, too.)
On the other hand, Dave Eggers’s The Circle has hovered outside of the Top Ten ever since Lydia Kiesling identified it as “occup[ying] an awkward place of satire and self-importance.” It wasn’t the most positive review she’s written, but it wasn’t altogether negative, either: “There are noble impulses behind this novel — to prophesy, to warn, and to entertain — and it basically delivers on these fronts.” And if nothing else, Kiesling notes that the book provides a reliable glossary of “awful techno-cum-Landmark Forum-cum-HR-cum-feelings-speak,” which should prove useful for anyone hoping to understand the language of blog posts on TechCrunch, ValleyWag, and other sites devoted to the latest digital secretions from Silicon Valley.
Stay tuned next month for the likely graduation of six titles to our Millions Hall of Fame. Which books will take their places? Will surprises emerge? As with March Madness, the only certainty is uncertainty, so we’ll have to wait and see.
“Feminism did not need a guilty drunk!”
For years I bought into the old saw that says the second novel is the hardest one to write. It seemed to make sense. When starting out, most writers pour everything from the first 20 (or 30, or 40) years of their lives into their debut novel. It’s only natural that on the second visit to the well, many novelists find it has gone dry.
Stephen Fry, the British writer and actor, explained it this way: “The problem with a second novel is that it takes almost no time to write compared with a first novel. If I write my first novel in a month at the age of 23 and my second novel takes me two years, which one have I written more quickly? The second, of course. The first took 23 years and contains all the experience, pain, stored-up artistry, anger, love, hope, comic invention and despair of a lifetime. The second is an act of professional writing. That is why it is so much more difficult.”
Fry made these remarks at the inaugural awarding of the Encore Prize, established in England in 1989 to honor writers who successfully navigate the peculiar perils of the second novel. Winners have included Iain Sinclair, Colm Toibin, A.L. Kennedy, and Claire Messud.
Fry’s point is well taken, but it’s just the beginning of the difficulties facing the second novelist. If a first novel fails to become a blockbuster, as almost all of them do, publishers are less inclined to get behind the follow-up by a writer who has gained a dubious track record but has lost that most precious of all literary selling points: novelty. Writers get only one shot at becoming The Next Big Thing, which, to too many publishers, is The Only Thing. Failure to do so can carry a wicked and long-lasting sting.
(Full disclosure: I’m speaking from experience. My first novel enjoyed respectable sales and a gratifying critical reception, including a largely positive review from impossible-to-please Michiko Kakutani in The New York Times. But the novel failed to land on any best-seller lists or get me on Oprah. Five years later, my second novel disappeared like a stone dropped in a lake. I don’t think anyone even noticed the splash. I recently sold my third novel — 17 years after that quiet splash.)
There’s plenty of empirical evidence to support the claim that the second novel is the hardest one to write — and that it can be even harder to live down. After his well-received 1988 debut, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, Michael Chabon spent years wrestling with a woolly, 1,500-page beast called The Fountain that finally defeated him and wound up in a drawer. Wisely, Chabon went in a different direction and produced Wonder Boys, a successful second novel that was, technically, his third. After getting nominated for a National Book Award for her 1973 debut, State of Grace, Joy Williams puzzled and pissed-off a lot of people with The Changeling, her unsettling second novel about a drunk woman on an island full of feral kids. Williams blamed the book’s frosty reception on the political climate of the late 1970s: “Feminism did not need a guilty drunk!” Martin Amis followed his fine debut, The Rachel Papers, with the disappointingly flippant Dead Babies. I still find it hard to believe that the writer responsible for Dead Babies (and an even worse wreck called Night Train) could also be capable of the brilliant London Fields, Time’s Arrow, The Information and, especially, Money: A Suicide Note. Then again, outsize talent rarely delivers a smooth ride. Even Zadie Smith stumbled with The Autograph Man after her acclaimed debut, White Teeth.
Sometimes a hugely successful — or over-praised — first novel can be a burden rather than a blessing. Alex Garland, Audrey Niffenegger, Charles Frazier, and Donna Tartt all enjoyed smash debuts, then suffered critical and/or popular disappointments the second time out. Frazier had the consolation of getting an $8 million advance for his dreadful Thirteen Moons, while Niffenegger got $5 million for Her Fearful Symmetry. That kind of money can salve the sting of even the nastiest reviews and most disappointing sales. Tartt regained her footing with her third novel, The Goldfinch, currently the most popular book among readers of The Millions and a few hundred thousand other people.
A handful of writers never produce a second novel, for varied and deeply personal reasons. Among the one-hit wonders we’ve written about here are James Ross, Harper Lee, Margaret Mitchell, and Ralph Ellison. And in certain rare cases, the second novel is not only the hardest one to write, it’s the last one that gets written. Consider Philip Larkin. He published two highly regarded novels, Jill and A Girl in Winter, back to back in the 1940s — and then abruptly abandoned fiction in favor of poetry. Why? Clive James offered one theory: “The hindsight answer is easy: because he was about to become the finest poet of his generation, instead of just one of its best novelists. A more inquiring appraisal suggests that although his aesthetic effect was rich, his stock of events was thin…Larkin, while being to no extent a dandy, is nevertheless an exquisite. It is often the way with exquisites that they graduate from full-scale prentice constructions to small-scale works of entirely original intensity, having found a large expanse limiting.” In other words, for some writers the biggest canvas is not necessarily the best one.
Of course, second novels don’t always flop — or drive their creators away from fiction-writing. Oliver Twist, Pride and Prejudice, Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa, Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, and John Updike’s Rabbit, Run are just a few of the many second novels that were warmly received upon publication and have enjoyed a long shelf life. But until about a year ago, I regarded such stalwarts as the exceptions that proved the rule. Then a curious thing happened. I came upon a newly published second novel that knocked me out. Then another. And another. In all of these cases, the second novel was not merely a respectable step up from a promising debut. The debuts themselves were highly accomplished, critically acclaimed books; the second novels were even more ambitious, capacious, and assured.
I started to wonder: With so much high-quality fiction getting written every day in America — especially by writers who are supposed to be in the apprentice phase of their careers — is it possible that we’re entering a golden age of the second novel? Here are three writers who make me believe we are:
Rachel Kushner’s 2008 debut, Telex from Cuba, was a finalist for the National Book Award. Refreshingly free of the mirror-gazing that mars many first novels, it told the story of two insulated colonies in the eastern end of Cuba in the late 1950s, where Americans were blithely extracting riches from sugar crops and nickel deposits while Fidel Castro and his rebels were getting ready to sweep away the corrupt regime of Fulgencio Batista — and, with it, the Americans’ cloistered world.
The novel is richly researched and deeply personal. Kushner’s grandfather was a mining executive in Cuba in the 1950s, and her mother grew up there. Kushner interviewed family members, pored over their memorabilia, even traveled to Cuba to walk the ground and talk to people who remembered life before the revolution. To her great credit, Kushner’s imagination took precedence over her prodigious research as she sat down to write. As she told an interviewer, “Just because something is true doesn’t mean it has a place.”
While her debut took place inside a hermetically sealed cloister, Kushner’s second novel, The Flamethrowers, explodes across time and space. The central character is Reno, a young woman from the West hoping to break into the 1970s downtown New York art scene, a motorcycle racer with “a need for risk.” But Reno’s artistic aspirations are merely the springboard for this ambitious novel as it moves from the 1970s to the First World War, from America to Europe to South America. It teems with characters, events, voices, ideas. It’s a big, sprawling, assured novel, and it announced the arrival of a major talent.
Dear American Airlines, Jonathan Miles’s first novel, exists in an even more tightly circumscribed space than Kushner’s American enclave in pre-revolutionary Cuba. This novel takes place inside the American Airlines terminal at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport — or, more accurately, inside the brain of Benjamin R. Ford, who has been stranded at O’Hare while trying to fly from New York to Los Angeles to attend the wedding of his gay daughter and, just maybe, reverse the downward momentum of a magnificently botched life. The novel’s conceit is a beauty: furious and utterly powerless, Ben, a failed poet, a failed drunk, a failed husband and father — but a reasonably successful translator — decides to sit down and write a complaint letter, demanding a refund from the soulless corporation that has kept him from attending his daughter’s wedding, effectively thwarting his last chance at redemption. The conceit could have turned the novel into a one-trick pony in less capable hands, but Miles manages to make Ben’s plight emblematic of what it’s like to live in America today — trapped and manipulated by monstrous forces but, if you happen to be as funny and resourceful as Ben Ford, never defeated by them.
It was a deft performance, but Miles outdid it last year with his second novel, Want Not, a meditation on the fallout of omnivorous consumerism. It tells three seemingly unrelated stories that come together only at the novel’s end: Talmadge and Micah, a couple of freegan scavengers, are squatting in an abandoned apartment on the New York’s Lower East Side, living immaculately pure lives off the grid; Elwin Cross Jr., a linguist who studies dying languages, lives alone miserably in the New Jersey suburbs, regularly visiting the nursing home where his father is succumbing to Alzheimer’s; and Dave Masoli, a bottom-feeding debt collector, his wife Sara, whose husband was killed on 9/11, and her daughter Alexis, who brings the strands of the story together, in shocking fashion.
From the first pages, it’s apparent that the themes are large, the characters are vivid and complex (with the exception of Dave Masoli), and the prose is rigorously polished. Here’s one of many astonishing sentences, a description of what Elwin hears after he has accidentally struck and killed a deer while driving home late at night:
It took a few seconds for the panicked clatter in his head to subside, for the hysterical warnings and recriminations being shouted from his subcortex to die down, and then: silence, or what passes for silence in that swath of New Jersey: the low-grade choral hum of a million near and distant engine pistons firing through the night, and as many industrial processes, the muted hiss and moan of sawblades and metal stamps and hydraulic presses and conveyor belts and coalfired turbines, plus the thrum of jets, whole flocks of them, towing invisible contrails toward Newark, and the insectile buzz of helicopters flying low and locust-like over fields of radio towers and above the scrollwork of turnpike exits, all of it fused into a single omnipresent drone, an aural smog that was almost imperceptible unless you stood alone and quivering on a deserted highwayside in the snow-hushed black hours of a November morning with a carcass hardening in the ice at your feet.
Want Not is a profound book not because Miles preaches, not even because he understands that we are what we throw away, but because he knows that our garbage tells us everything we need to know about ourselves, and it never lies.
In 1994, Charles McNair’s weird little first novel, Land O’ Goshen, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. It reads as if it were written by Faulkner on acid. It’s corn-pone sci-fi. It’s nasty and funny. It’s brilliant.
The title conjures two locales: the place in Egypt where the Israelites began their exodus to the Promised Land; and the place where the novel unfolds, a little one-blinking-light grease stain in the piney wastes of southern Alabama. The story is told by Buddy, a 14-year-old orphan who lives in the woods, dodging the Christian soldiers who are trying to subjugate the populace. This future era is called the New Times, but it’s a lot like the Old Testament — bloody tooth and bloody claw. Sometimes Buddy dresses up in animal skins and, as The Wild Thing, terrorizes the locals, trying “to wake up those tired, beaten-down old souls in every place where folks just gave up to being stupid and bored and commanded.” Buddy enjoys a brief idyll at his forest hideout with a beautiful girl named Cissy Jean Barber, but the world won’t leave them in peace. Through the nearly Biblical tribulations of his coming of age, Buddy learns the key to survival: “Sad sorrow can’t kill you, if you don’t let it.”
Last year, after nearly two decades of silence, McNair finally published his second novel, Pickett’s Charge. It’s bigger than its predecessor in every way. It traverses an ocean, a century, a continent. If Land O’ Goshen was content to be a fable, Pickett’s Charge aspires to become a myth. It tells the story of Threadgill Pickett, a former Confederate soldier who, at the age of 114 in 1964, is a resident of the Mobile Sunset Home in Alabama. As a teenage soldier, Threadgill watched Yankees murder his twin brother, Ben, a century earlier, and when Ben’s ghost appears at the nursing home to inform Threadgill that he has located the last living Yankee soldier, a wealthy man in Bangor, Maine, Threadgill embarks on one last mission to avenge his brother’s death.
Pickett’s Charge has obvious echoes – the Bible, Twain, Cervantes, Marquez, Allan Gurganus’s Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All. But this novel’s most direct forebear might be Charles Portis’s Norwood, another story about a southerner’s quixotic journey to the North to seek justice. While Threadgill Pickett is after something big — vengeance — Norwood Pratt is simply out to collect the $70 he loaned a buddy in the Marines. Yet McNair and Portis seem to agree that folly is folly, regardless of its scale. And they both know how to turn it into wicked fun.
Of course one could argue that a half dozen books do not constitute a trend or herald a new golden age. But I’m sure I’ve missed a truckload of recent second novels that would buttress my claim. Maybe Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation, which has come out 15 years after her debut and is concerned, in part, with the difficulty of writing a second novel. Surely there are others that disprove the old saw. I would love it if you would tell me about them.
Image Credit: Wikipedia
Now that we’ve casted the film adaptation of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, we’d like to turn your attention to Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie’s Americanah, which may be involved in an upcoming collaboration with Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o. Adichie framed the possibility this way in a recent interview: “I’m going to do the mysterious thing and say that Lupita might be making an announcement very soon.”
We learned earlier this month that Nina Jacobson, a movie producer responsible for the the Hunger Games franchise, among other things, has acquired the rights to Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch and is looking for a director to make it into a film or mini-series. Lucky for Jacobson, dream-casting the movie version of a book is one of my life’s true passions, and my colleague Edan Lepucki and I hereby submit our ideas for the Goldfinch cast. The process reveals the bizarre extent to which I think I understand the Hollywood casting processes (and how often my first choice is ten years too late), which starlets we think play trashy the best, and how it might be worth it to turn the cast on its head to let Michael B. Jordan play Theo.
[Warning: Our discussion of what will be required to play these characters results in many spoilers.]
Janet: It strikes me that almost any beautiful actress past her starlet age could swoop in and play an angelic, sophisticated mother who loved art and New York and whom we will probably see in fuzzy, nostalgic flashbacks for the duration of the film. Ten years ago it would have been Julianne Moore’s in a heartbeat, but now I picture Rachel Weisz or Michelle Monaghan (probably because we all just saw her play a lovely woman who married the wrong guy young in True Detective).
Edan: I love the idea of Rachel Weisz playing this role — she does elegant/maternal very well. The same goes for Kate Winslet. (I’m sorry, but a chair can act better than Michelle Monaghan.) I’d also suggest Kerry Washington for the role; her face can go from assured to vulnerable in a millisecond, and she’s got a powerful presence that both Theo and the audience will grieve.
Imagine, too, a non-white Theo Decker…his outsider status might then take on a whole other dimension…
Janet: Theo’s father is complicated. At one point he wooed Rachel Weisz up there, and continues to be a charming, charismatic guy, but ends up running schemes in Vegas. The part of me that likes to think I understand Hollywood surmises that it’s not a big enough role for the likes of Ben Affleck or Bradley Cooper, who would both be great but might be too busy on the A list. I could see Josh Brolin or Mark Ruffalo, though. They’ve both got the range and the tragic good looks.
Edan: If Mark Ruffalo knocked on my door right now, I’d open it naked. Yes! Ruffalo! I also could see Peter Krause of Six Feet Under (and Parenthood) fame — he’s handsome enough, and he emits a slight aura of bratty rage that playing Larry Decker would require.
Janet: Larry’s girlfriend is introduced as “a strange woman, tan and very fit-looking: flat gray eyes, lined coppery skin, and teeth that went in, with a split between them. Although she was older than my mother, or at any rate older-looking, she was dressed like someone younger: red platform sandals; low-slung jeans; wide belt; lots of gold jewelry. Her hair, the color of caramel straw, was very straight and tattered at the ends; she was chewing gum and a strong smell of Juicy Fruit was coming off her.”
So not Amy Adams, is what I’m saying. I could see Anna Paquin (who already has a gap in her teeth) or Chloe Sevigny taking a fun trip to trashville to play Xandra, or, if they stick to the age described, Rachel Griffiths.
Edan: Like Hollywood would ever stick to the age described! I bet the producers cast Elle Fanning, those ageists! Though I love Paquin and Sevigny, Paquin strikes me as too round-faced, and Sevigny is far too rich girl for me to believe her as Xandra. She’d be better off as a Barbour with her George Plimpton-esque mid-Atlantic accent! My pick for this role is Taryn Manning; her meth-head-turned-religious savior in Orange is the New Black is by turns gleeful, hideous, frightening, and humanizing. That girl can trash it up, and she is so fun to watch. [Janet: With Peter Krause as Larry and Rachel Griffiths as Xandra we could have a Six Feet Under reunion on our hands. Think about it.]
Young Theo/Young Boris:
Janet: The first section of the book follows Theo from age 13 to 18, and Boris comes in about halfway through, so it’s hard to know how that will be cast—maybe they’ll shrink the timeline so that one actor can play all those years, because I can’t imagine them getting both a middle school Theo and a high school Theo. Teenage Theo and Boris are also pretty weighty parts, so they can’t just find kids who look like a young version of their leading men to fill in for the first 20 minutes — like Jennifer Garner’s doppelganger in 13 Going on 30. Not that any of this matters, because I’m not familiar with a lot of young teenage actors, so I’ll just name the three I know because of Divergent or The Fault in Our Stars: Ansel Elgort, Miles Teller, and Nat Wolff. (Ten years ago: Nicholas Hoult.)
Edan: I have no opinions about man-boy actors. Just don’t cast the teenage son from USA’s Necessary Roughness; I have nightmares about his Ken-doll face.
Janet: Theo is an intentionally divisive character. I found myself loving and hating him in equal measure, and getting the wrong actor could push the character too far in either direction. And, like his father, Theo is equally conversant in New York society, the antiques world, a life of crime, and a drug habit, so the actor has to have the same versatility. Andrew Garfield and Joseph Gordon Levitt both came to mind as bankable leading men, but they might be too adorable for Theo. (And can you imagine Joseph Gordon Levitt pining for but never winning Pippa? Hahahaha no.) Our colleague Lydia suggested Adrien Grenier, Adam Brody, and Zachary Quinto, each of whom have varying degrees of edge. My prediction is Jake Gyllenhaal, because I think he’s established enough that a studio would trust him to carry the movie (why am I talking like this?). But my dream actor is Emile Hirsch. He’s that perfect tragic-hero mix of magnetic, melancholy, doomed, but likable, and I’ve been waiting for the rest of America to fall in love with him since Into the Wild.
Edan: You think Joseph Gordon Levitt is that irresistible? [Janet: YES.] I mean, he’s adorable, yes, but he’s also small — he looks short on screen, which must mean he’s a teeny-tiny person. There’s also a strain of nerdery in him that could work for this role and make him less Mr. Cool. However, I love your idea to cast Emile Hirsch — what a phenomenal actor.
If Kerry Washington is cast as the mother, however, might I suggest Donald Glover from Community in this role? Or, the incredible Michael B. Jordan from The Wire, Friday Night Lights, and Fruitvale Station? (Hell, cast Jordan anyway! His eyes — they convey innocence, rage, curiosity and longing all at once!)
Janet: Oh Boris, you lying knave. I can’t get past the idea of how great a younger Leonardo DiCaprio would be, so I have no ideas. Lydia astutely suggested Paul Dano. But I know you have a strong opinion…
Edan: Adam Driver is the only man for this role. That pale skin! Those jug ears! He looks like a boy raised on vodka! Driver continually surprises me as Hannah Horvath’s boyfriend on Girls. He imbues every line of dialogue with unexpected nuance, and his physical presence is fascinating, discomfiting, sexy, comic, and tragic. Plus, he’d do something great with Boris’s accent!
Janet: This will probably be some child actress we’ve never seen before, but Kiernan Shipka would be great.
Edan: I vote for an unknown here.
Janet: Saintly, delicate Pippa is the European boarding school-educated flautist whom Theo doesn’t know how to quit. I think Emma Watson would do nicely. And she kind of looks like Kiernan Shipka!
Edan: I’m the only person (on Tumblr) who hated the film adaptation of Perks of Being a Wallflower, and Emma Watson’s bad American accent was part of that hatred. Shipka can have it. Or perhaps Saoirse Ronan (from Atonement and Hanna) is available? She’s like a younger, prettier, and more ethereal version of myself, so of course I’m rooting for her always.
Janet: Widely decried as the most two-dimensional character in the book, lovely old Hobie could basically be played by any amicable actor who has time on their hands. I thought of Michael Gambon, who is most likely too old. Jeff Bridges or William Hurt would also be good, although both too American. Screw it, let’s give it to Cumberbatch.
Edan: I would have loved to have cast Philip Seymour Hoffman in this role. If we want bona fide English, I’d go for Steve Coogan. Everyone loves Coogan, right?
Kitsey “Kitten” Barbour:
Janet: Theo’s high-society, two-timing fiancee. Leighton Meester or no one at all.
Edan: I’ve never seen Gossip Girl, but I’ve read the gossip rags for many years, so I am all about Ms. Meester and her snobby, beautiful face. She looks like she was born wearing a sweater set and pearls.
Various Barbours and background players:
Janet: Mrs. Barbour is a surprisingly complex minor character that you’d just have to be elegant and icy to play. Jennifer Connelly, perhaps (ten years ago: Joan Allen). I have a sinking feeling Paul Giamatti will be Mr. Barbour because he shows up everywhere, and I don’t have any strong opinions about their children other than Kitten. Matt Dillon could show up as the guy who comes to threaten Theo’s dad with a baseball bat.
Edan: Let’s just call Meryl and see if she’ll play Mrs. Barbour, though I also love Connelly’s skinny-woman-ice. I’d love to see Robert Englund play a member of the criminal art underworld. Oh, and of course: a little known actor named Omar Little would be perfect as Popchik. (I’m Omar’s momager; call me if you’re interested!)
We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for February.
Draw It with Your Eyes Closed: The Art of the Art Assignment
The Beggar Maid: Stories of Flo and Rose
No new titles were added to this month’s Top Ten, and the four books in the top spots held onto their exact positions from last January. That’s to be expected, I suppose, considering the fact that The Goldfinch is everywhere these days, and was also the subject of Claire Cameron’s recent Millions piece, “How to Tweet Like Boris from The Goldfinch.”
Meanwhile, Alice Munro continues to ride her rightfully-deserved wave of post-Nobel Prize publicity, and her Selected Stories held onto her second-place spot in our list as a result. Still, it may behoove some readers to check out Munro’s other works in the coming months, and for guidance in that department, look no further than Ben Dolnick’s classic, “Beginner’s Guide to Alice Munro.” In the event that you’ve exhausted her bibliography, or you’re simply bitten by Maple Fever following Canada’s hockey sweep in the Sochi Olympics, you might also want to check out Michael Bourne’s essential “Beginner’s Guide to Canadian Lit.” (The cure for Maple Fever, incidentally, is a serving of Timbits from any Tim Horton’s establishment.)
Another item of interest for avid Top Ten fans is the recent debut of Paper Monument’s Draw it With Your Eyes Closed supplemental website of the same name, which was developed to “expand on the previously published content, allowing a broader range of teachers, students, and artists to access, share, and contribute to the project.”
Rounding out this month’s near misses is Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being, which surely blipped onto some readers’ radars after being nominated for the The L.A. Times Book Prize a few weeks back. That Prize will be awarded on April 11. Ozeki’s novel was also featured prominently in our recent comparison of U.S. Vs. U.K. book covers.
Lastly, I’d like to take this moment to announce that I’ll be taking the Top Ten reins from now on. My hope is that I can use my experience with the Curiosities blog to supplement each month’s list with as much recent news about the books as possible. See you in a few weeks!
Boris is coming to the big screen. Nina Jacobson, the producer behind The Hunger Games, has acquired the rights to adapt Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch. Whether it will be a film or TV miniseries is still up for question, but if the actors need any help getting into character, check out our essay on identifying with Theo and learn how to tweet like Boris.
We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for January.
The Beggar Maid: Stories of Flo and Rose
Draw It with Your Eyes Closed: The Art of the Art Assignment
Two books graduated to our Hall of Fame in January. We’re very proud to bestow the honor on our ebook original The Pioneer Detectives by Konstantin Kakaes. The book, which debuted in July 2013, is an ambitious work of page-turning reportage, the kind of journalism we all crave but that can often be hard to find. Filled with brilliant insights into how scientific discoveries are made and expertly edited by our own Garth Hallberg, The Pioneer Detectives is a bargain at $2.99. We hope you’ll pick it up if you haven’t already. Pioneer is joined in the Hall of Fame by another ebook orginal, George Saunders’s $0.99 short story Fox 8, which returned to our Top 10 for a seventh month in January after missing the list in December and therefore qualifies for the Hall.
Other than that, the list is positively gridlocked with several books staying put, including Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch atop the list. Our lone debut is unexepected: Patti Smith’s memoir Just Kids. The National Book award-winning title has been popular among our readers for quite a while and was a “Near Miss” for several months on our list as recently as March 2011. The book likely got a boost thanks to Garth’s mention in his Year in Reading in December.
Incidentally, this also means that with the exception of Thomas Pynchon and the group-authored Draw it With Your Eyes Closed, our list is made up entirely of books by women.
Greg Cwik in the Los Angeles Review of Books said that Boris in The Goldfinch is: “quite simply, is the most singularly fun character [Donna] Tartt has created.” I agree, though I don’t need Cwik’s words of affirmation. I knew I found Boris fetching as a few days after finishing the novel, I couldn’t get his voice out of my head.
I muttered like Boris while in a meeting. I wrote a few emails in Boris’s voice to entertain friends. Next thing I knew I was fighting the urge to tweet in the voice of Boris. He is from everywhere and nowhere at once, but somehow Tartt grounded him so thoroughly within the pages that he is threatening to leak out onto the Internet through my fingertips.
The following is my attempt to break down the patterns of Boris’s dialogue. My idea is that I might show you how to tweet like Boris in the hopes that I, then, won’t.
1. Understand where Boris is (not) from
Theo Decker, the main character in The Goldfinch, on first meeting describes Boris’s voice as having a “strong Australian accent, there was also a dark, slurry undercurrent of something else: a whiff of Count Dracula, or maybe it was a KGB agent.”
Boris tells Theo that he lived in Russia, Scotland, Australia, Poland, New Zealand, Texas, Alaska, New Guinea, Canada, Saudi Arabia, Sweden, Ukraine to name a few. He speaks Russian, Ukrainian, and Polish and was taught to speak English by a barkeep named Judy in Karmeywallag, a town in the Northern Territory of Australia.
Pepper your tweets with expressions from any of these places, for example: pfft (for ridiculous), eh?, bloody, brilliant, shite, yah, nyah, heaps, and ha!
Polish is “maybe” Boris’s first language and his mother was Polish, so use this as your default language or culture in a time of crisis. Comfort foods, for example, include black bread, herring, stuffed cabbage, and pickled eggs.
Russian is “best for swearing and cursing.” Suggestion: Nekulturny – Russian for “you are a slob” or “don’t pick your nose in public.”
Add in the occasional touch of American teenager: “I’m gonna be sick.”
2. Assume the Boris mindset
Boris knows that everyone around him will behave in wildly inappropriate ways. If they seem to be acting normal, he waits. At some point soon, they become blindingly drunk and try to hit something. Probably him.
Remember that the weather is always against Boris. It singles him out for particular persecution and no one else can possibly understand how bad it can be, “Winter — you don’t what it’s like. Even the air is bad. All grey concrete, and the wind — ”
Soon after they met, the seemingly worldly Boris asks Theo simple questions like, “What is Sophomore?” or “In what province was California located?” Keep in mind that Boris has lived in so many places that he can’t quite remember where he is.
Boris has a moral code that is very clear…to him. He feels assured that every step he takes is justified (or so he will tell you). As he says to Theo, “What if our badness and mistakes are the very thing that set our fate and bring us round to good?”
Be prepared to shrug and apply a Polish saying to any misbehavior: “…it’s a storm in a glass of water.” Accept all teary apologies without question come the sober light of day.
If a person dares to suggest that the sun might come out or that it soon will be summer, remind them of its misery: “Mosquitoes. Stinking mud. Everything smells like mold…I would walk on the river bank and think of drowning myself.”
If in doubt, opt for cultural confusion: Specific questions around local customs will help you sound authentic. All candy bars are Nestle bars. All pop is Pepsi.
Regardless of what you are doing at the time, brand others as immoral, “Likely you will end up in jail, Potter. Loose morals, slave to the economy. Very bad citizen, you.” It will help you feel better in comparison.
3. Mimic his mannerisms!
Remember that Boris calls Theo “(Harry) Potter” because of his round glasses. Mrs. Spear, the teacher, is “Spirsetskaya.” And Xandra’s dog, Popper, became, “Amyl” and “Nitrate” and “Popchik” and “Snaps” before settling in on a nickname.
Boris overuses exclamation points! They aren’t so much about exclamation, but rather when he is trying to sound convincing (and he actually believes the opposite is true).
As Boris knows many languages, but none of them particularly well, you can swap the order of words in sentences at will.
Also remember that Boris has, “done more drugs by the age of 15 than Pete Doherty…[drinks] beer the way other kids drink Pepsi.”
Apply nicknames to anyone at any time. They should come from references to your life, rather than theirs, but anything that sounds drug related or vaguely Russian/Eastern European will work. No need to justify your choices.
Spend time convincing others of things with an exclamation point, especially when you know to opposite to be true: A new girlfriend is “so brave and wise, such a big heart!” You come across someone that you were looking for, “Was not expecting to run into you!” Or, “What! I was trying to be nice!” And especially, “I did not mean to!”
Start sentences with a verb, like “Was just trying to help you,” or “Will make your headache go like magic,” but feel free to scramble further, “loads better than Ukraine. Miami Beach, compared.”
Sound smart, but also feel free to not make sense all the time. If you say something dumb, quickly ask someone to light your cigarette or fetch you a beer to cover it up.
To apply the guidelines, I gathered a few actual tweets from writers to show how you might tweet like Boris:
My eating habits are
horrible. Favorite restaurant is Waffle House. How sad is
— Stephen King (@StephenKing) January
Boris: Your eating habits, Czar! Horrible! Favorite restaurant is Waffle House, ha! I think better to drown myself.
Finally getting the clay-like kitty litter off the front steps: sprinkled during recent ice storm when #toronto ran out of EcoMelt + salt!
— Margaret E. Atwood (@MargaretAtwood) January 12, 2014
Boris: Finally making Theo get clay-like dog poop off steps: made Popchik go there when too much sun to walk in #lostvegas with no umbrella!
Neil Gaiman (@neilhimself) December
Boris: I show hot @amandapalmer this Nestle bar advert. Made her headache go away like magic. I am genius! http://youtu.be/6mYr90nCFZE
Joyce Carol Oates
Does anyone else wonder about the fate of the turkeys who’d received a “Presidential pardon” at Thanksgiving? We have not seen them since.
— Joyce Carol Oates (@JoyceCarolOates) January 29, 2014
Boris: Those turkeys! I did see them! Not living a good life and no more pickled eggs. A “Presidential Pardon” is jinx. Slave to economy is why they are not seen.
Who is the bigger fool? The one who says “The Novel is Dead,” or the one who wastes time rebutting moron statements like “TheNovel is Dead”?
— colson whitehead (@colsonwhitehead) November 12, 2013
Boris: Who is bigger fool? The nekulturny who says “Novel is Dead,” or the nekulturny who gets knuckles all bloody from punching the mouth of a moron who time wastes about things like “Novel is Dead?”
I’ve fallen in love with my copyeditor Susan Bradanini Betz. Not only did she find all the mantle/mantel homonym errors in my novel manuscript, she also helped me with my commas and discovered a couple of embarrassing inconsistencies. (“First she had a briefcase,” one of her notes reads. “Now it’s a suitcase.”) She is both respectful of style and sharp as knives about grammar. Also, she said she’d read a sequel to my book — if not a whole series! — so of course I love her.
I’ve always been curious about a copyeditor’s process and Susan was kind enough to answer a few questions of mine. Susan has been in the publishing business for, as she puts it, a zillion years. She’s worked in-house as both a copyeditor and an acquisitions editor, and currently freelances, mostly for Knopf and Soho Press. She recently started working with Little, Brown again, which was one of her main clients in the 1980s and 1990s. She lives in Chicago.
The Millions: You have worked in book publishing for years, not only as a copyeditor but as an in-house editor doing acquisitions and all that. You told me copyediting is your favorite of these jobs. Why?
Susan Bradanini Betz: When I copyedit, I get closer to the manuscript than I was ever able to as an acquisitions editor. I read every single word, looking at each word and tracking the syntax, not skimming over sentences. It’s not my job as a copyeditor to suggest big-picture changes or comment on quality, so I am focused on the story and the language at the word and sentence level. I keep the reader in mind and try to anticipate what might be confusing or problematic; I check facts and dates, track characters and events for consistency; and I do the most thorough read I possibly can, coming away with an in-depth understanding of the work that wasn’t possible for me in acquisitions.
As a freelance copyeditor, I work for publishers who expect me to do a thorough job. And when I find an error in a novel’s chronology or an incorrect date in a nonfiction book, I feel that is as important to the integrity of the book as when I used to suggest switching chapters around.
TM: What are the copyeditor’s particular pleasures and challenges?
SBB: I love being able to read a manuscript closely, word by word or even, when something is particularly dense, syllable by syllable. (Yes, I have done that.) The main challenge, other than the usual one of balancing deadlines with quality, is making a sustainable living as a freelance copyeditor. With Obamacare, I’ll have health insurance for the first time in quite a while.
TM: Can you describe how you go about copyediting a manuscript? That is, what’s your reading process like? How in the hell do you manage to catch the smallest of errors?
SBB: Ideally, I’d have time to read through every manuscript twice: once to mark everything and once just to read and find whatever I missed the first time through. But the schedules don’t allow for that. Plus, I usually end up reading each sentence multiple times anyway.
So, when I get a manuscript, I just start right in on page one. I don’t page through or skim the manuscript first because I want to be aware of the evolution of the story and the order in which information is presented. That way, if some detail important to the reader’s understanding was inadvertently dropped in the author’s revision process, I’m more likely to catch it.
I usually read the first 60 to 100 pages without marking anything but the most cut-and-dried items — serial commas, typos, backward quotation marks, those sorts of things. I start my style sheets right away on page one, keeping track of the author’s existing style for thoughts, words, dialogue, and so on, and noting what seems intentional and what seems unintentional.
Once I’m familiar with the author’s style and voice, which usually happens around page 60, I begin making copyediting changes that I hope are consistent with the author’s intent and the publisher’s expectations. I query a lot rather than changing a lot. When I reach the end of the manuscript, I go back and copyedit those first sixty pages.
Creating style sheets is the secret to catching small errors. I am obsessed with my style sheets. I keep a word list, a character list, a list of places (fictional and real), a chronology, a general style sheet, a list of hyphenated modifiers, and any other list that helps me keep track of everything. I usually fact check as I go, although when I’m pressed for time I make a list of items to look up later, sometimes after I’ve returned the manuscript to the publisher. In those cases, I send a list of corrections that can be added by the production editor to the first pass. (Ha-ha, if someone else wrote this paragraph, I’d query the repeat of “list” — I used it seven times in five sentences.)
Because I read slowly, I also remember odd little details that provide a strong visual image, and so as I read along, if my visual image is jarred by a description, I’ll backtrack to figure out if there’s some inconsistency. I remember more details about characters in novels I’ve copyedited than I remember from my own life.
TM: Can you turn off your copyediting mind when you’re reading for pleasure?
SBB: No, I can’t turn it off, but believe it or not, that mind-set makes pleasure reading more pleasurable for me. When reading for pleasure I don’t read as slowly as when I copyedit, but I am not a fast reader. Often I will read a sentence more than once, then flip back and forth comparing it with other sentences, just like I do when copyediting. I think I’ve always read like a copyeditor, even way back before I knew what a copyeditor was. One of my favorite authors is Proust, and when I was young I would read some of his sentences over and over trying to make sure I understood how every word related to the other words and just to make sure I understood what he was saying.
TM: So I guess it’s possible to have fun reading while you’re copyediting…
SBB: Yes! I have fun reading nearly all the manuscripts that come to me — maybe all. I think of my job as publishers setting up an amazing reading list for me.
I try not to read ahead of my editing, but sometimes it’s impossible not to because I’m so caught up in the story. Many things can only be noticed when you are reading slowly and reading something for the first time. If I read ahead, I have to go back and reread everything at a copyediting pace. But because I already know what’s going to happen, I might make assumptions that don’t take into account the reader’s limited information at that point in the story
TM: In a conversation between Michael Pietsch and Donna Tartt that ran in Slate, Pietsch quoted from the letter Tartt sent to her copyeditor for The Goldfinch:
I am terribly troubled by the ever-growing tendency to standardized and prescriptive usage, and I think that the Twentieth century, American-invented conventions of House Rules and House Style, to say nothing of automatic computer functions like Spellcheck and AutoCorrect, have exacted an abrasive, narrowing, and destructive effect on the way writers use language and ultimately on the language itself. Journalism and newspaper writing are one thing; House Style indubitably very valuable there; but as a literary novelist who writes by hand, in a notebook, I want to be able to use language for texture and I’ve intentionally employed a looser, pre-twentieth century model rather than running my work through any one House Style mill.
What are your thoughts on Tartt’s argument? (And were you the copyeditor to receive this note?!)
SBB: Yikes — no, fortunately, I wasn’t the copyeditor to receive that note. But often, when an author has that kind of reaction, it’s a result of misunderstanding. Most copyeditors don’t want to alter anything in a manuscript that the author has done on purpose.
The house style is set by the publisher, and copyeditors generally receive a manuscript without any guidelines other than to follow the house style for that publisher. And “house style” doesn’t refer to writing style but to mechanics such as capitalization, hyphenation, spelling (most often the house dictionary is Webster’s 11th), and so on. In addition, copyeditors watch for dangling modifiers, subject-verb and antecedent-pronoun agreement, repeating words, chronology, consistent names and dates, among other things. And they are expected minimally to verify dates, proper nouns (personal names, place-names, streets and highways, institutions, etc.), foreign words, brand names, slogans or advertisements — really, to verify as much as possible within the allotted time. Add to that that freelancers have no benefits and work for an hourly rate, so getting continual work from a publisher is important. What all that means is that the copyeditor is pressed for time and is unlikely to go against house style unless instructed to do so, for fear that the publisher will think she just doesn’t know how to copyedit.
Copyeditors are always guessing at the author’s intentionality, and a copyeditor who assumes everything the author has done is inadvertent does come off as a harsh schoolmarm. For example, in the note the author writes “Twentieth century, American-invented conventions.” A copyeditor would revise that as “twentieth-century, American-invented conventions,” assuming that the cap T in “Twentieth” was a typo, and the inconsistent hyphenation of compound modifiers was an oversight. However, “House Style,” which is not a proper noun, is capped three times in one paragraph. For me, that would be a signal that the author might have a personal cap style that I shouldn’t mess with. So I’d probably query the author about her intentionality regarding caps, calling out the occurrences so she can double-check that everything is as she wants it. If the copyeditor doesn’t at least call out the nonstandard style with a query, someone will do it later — either the production editor or the proofreader or even someone in publicity. And if the issue is raised after typesetting, the publisher is perfectly justified in asking why the copyeditor hadn’t settled that question earlier.
But that said, as an acquisitions editor, I saw copyeditors make all sorts of unjustified changes. And when I was acquiring poetry and fiction, I would sometimes lose it myself when I saw what copyeditors would do. I once had a copyeditor rewrite the last paragraph in a novel, which made the author (and me) go ballistic. The final paragraph! As if the author hadn’t given it considerable thought.
And sometimes a copyeditor is just mismatched to a project. Last year a publisher asked me to do a second copyedit on a memoir that had been thoroughly (way too thoroughly) copyedited already. The first copyeditor had changed so much that the author became paralyzed about a third of the way through his review of her changes. According to what the publisher told me, and from what I could tell from the author’s comments on her comments, he not only felt the copyeditor didn’t understand his work, but he started doubting his own choices. When I looked at the first copyedit, I understood the reasons behind nearly all of her changes, but I also saw that she clearly did not get this author’s humor or his unique voice, which often involved nonstandard syntax. She had done a ton of work recasting passive sentences and paring down “awkward” (and by “awkward” I mean “hilarious”) sentences. And in many places he had agreed to a change that honestly purged all the humor and personality from a passage. So then I would query if it was OK to reinstate his original as it was better than the copyedited version. That was a case of a complete mismatch.
TM: Is there a tension between what you know to be “correct” and the artistic license of the writer? How do you handle that tension?
SBB: I see my job as a copyeditor less about enforcing rules than about making sure the author is aware of anything in the manuscript that is nonstandard and confirming that any variations from standard grammar and punctuation are intentional. In my queries, I try to get across the idea that just because I’m asking a question doesn’t mean that something needs to be changed. As you know, I often qualify my questions by saying something like “just checking” or “it might be just me” or “not really necessary to change.” Especially with poetry, I love when an author responds with “yes, that is intentional,” because it means he or she truly thought through the style, so I don’t have to be so OCD about it.
TM: Have you noticed any new style and grammar trends in the last five years?
SBB: New copyediting trends generally pop up after a new edition of The Chicago Manual of Style is published, and the 16th edition came out in 2010. New guidelines in CMOS cause publishers to reevaluate their current house style, because they have to decide what changes they will incorporate from the new edition. These are changes like what to do about capping a generic geographic noun when it follows more than one proper noun — so is it “Illinois and Chicago rivers” or “Illinois and Chicago Rivers”? The style has changed back and forth over the last editions of CMOS, but it’s something really only copyeditors get excited about.
For informative and entertaining updates on the state of copyediting, I keep up with Washington Post copyeditor Bill Walsh’s Twitter feed.
Just anecdotally, in the manuscripts I receive, I’ve noticed a lot of two-word proper nouns closed up (like “SpongeBob”), a result of tech product names, I guess. So when an author creates a fictional product or company now, it’s often one word made up of two.
I’ve noticed, too, that a lot of authors are omitting the word “that” and putting a comma in its place in dialogue or first-person narratives in fiction. I think that’s because many throwaway phrases currently used in conversation omit “that,” and the speaker pauses — for example, “I mean, I had a really good time at the party.” Almost every novel I’ve worked on in the past few years had at least one “I mean, . . .” in dialogue. And in just about every conversation I have in real life someone uses the phrase. But the comma for an omitted “that” happens with other constructions, too, as in “She was so late, she missed the show” rather than “She was so late she missed the show” or “She was so late that she missed the show.”
TM: What are your favorite errors to fix?
SBB: I love to find errors that are important to the accuracy or quality of the manuscript, because then I feel as if my copyediting is contributing something more than tiny details. So, for example, things like a character being described as not having visitation with his kids later taking them somewhere on “his” weekend, or someone beginning a scene sitting on a couch, then rising from a chair, or a character drinking a shot of whiskey but getting a refill on her red wine. Those are errors that usually result from the author’s revisions and multiple drafts, and they can slip past easily. I also like to catch dangling modifiers, because we all miss those, so it means I’m paying attention. I never change any of these, though, without querying, and most often I will just call them out to the author with a query. And, yes, I have had authors who say that dangling modifiers are part of their style and don’t want to change them.
TM: I am proud that you said my manuscript was “clean,” but I was also appalled by my misuse of the comma! Can you provide three rules for comma use to put in my back pocket for the next book?
SBB: It isn’t so much that commas are misused as that authors often don’t realize their phrasing is effective enough to make the addition of nonstandard commas unnecessary. A comma isn’t always needed to make the reader catch the pause in dialogue or narrative; often the syntax does that just fine, and an unnecessary comma slows the reader down too much.
So, in addition to the serial comma (“I adopted a lab mix, a poodle, and a Lhasa mix”), here are the three commas that I think work best when handled per standard punctuation style:
1. Avoid a comma between elements of a series connected by conjunctions.
I adopted a lab mix and a poodle and a Lhasa mix.
2. Add a comma between independent clauses connected by a conjunction unless each clause is short, especially if the conjunction is “but.”
I used to foster dogs, but I had to stop after I adopted Frank.
3. Avoid using a comma between compound predicates or objects.
I brought Frank home as a foster dog and just couldn’t return him to the shelter.
I’ve had many dogs but never bought a puppy from a pet store.
I feed my dogs kibble and homemade treats.
4. And a bonus tip: Always add a comma after a phrase or clause ending in a preposition to avoid “reading on.”
After I put my coat on, the dogs knew it was time to go out. (Even “After I put on my coat, the dogs knew it was time to go out” reads better with the comma, though there’s no chance of reading on.)
Image Credit: LPW
“The Goldfinch is a grand nineteenth-century novel in that it is an 800-page chronicle of capitalism, a paean to the ways in which the world turns on the questions of who can or can’t pay for what, and how these abilities and inabilities mold us over time. Like the life events and relationships it depicts, it purports to be about love but is actually about money. This portrayal of twentieth century North American society is accurate, but also, just as in life, both exhausting and demoralizing.” On Donna Tartt’s latest novel. (You could also read Adam Dalva’s take on the book.)
Pity the novel. Once upon a time it was a big, baggy story told in chronological order by an omniscient narrator. Over time, it’s been marginalized, shunned, belittled, banned, and more recently, broken into pieces that vie with each other to make a cohesive whole. You could blame dwindling attention spans, pared down by digital toys. It’s ancient history that any TV viewer can either reorder or skip scenes at home. Now we spend a day streaming series that took years to air, let alone produce. The consequences of contemporary viewing preferences are the random jumbling of storyline, as well as time’s transposition and compression. Why wouldn’t novels follow suit?
When I first started thinking about this, I looked for parallels with how we share personal stories in our increasingly scarce private lives. Individual narratives are never linear, nor do we recount them to each another in a linear fashion. Small wonder that contemporary novels unfold out of order.
And yet, I’m sure there’s more. Michael David Lukas, reaching into the musical lexicon to examine novel developments, used the term “polyphonic” (referring to a chorus or multiplicity of voices) to make an intriguing argument: “Polyphony widens the novel’s geographic, psychological, chronological, and stylistic range, while simultaneously focusing its gaze.”
Lukas cites Nicole Krauss’s Great House and Tom Rachman’s The Imperfectionists. Categorized as “novels,” these books are linked short stories with a common item or thread running through the chapters. In Great House, it’s a desk; in The Imperfectionists, it’s the characters’ association with an English language newspaper published in Rome. More recently, Ayana Mathis’s The Twelve Tribes of Hattie has a character — Hattie — who serves as the common element. Lukas uses “polyphony” to describe novels that further increase structural complexity by inverting time and space. For example, David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas is populated with seemingly unrelated characters, geography, and time periods. Bob Shacochis’s The Woman Who Lost Her Soul shares similarities. The action is set against historical events that are presented out of chronological order within diverse geographies and between seemingly unrelated protagonists.
Ted Gioia, a musician and writer, followed Lukas with an essay written in fragmented bits of text, probing why the novel is breaking up, accompanied by an ambitious 57-volume booklist.
Gioia places the fracturing novel in a broad cultural context that includes Thelonious Monk as the “jazzman of fragmentation” and Wittgenstein as its philosopher. Applauding the current fragmenters for successfully navigating literary complexity and traditional storytelling (aka plot), Gioia affirms that despite fission, novel craft is improving. Even if master short story writer Alice Munro were not the most recent Nobel laureate, every writer worth her salt knows that writing lean is far more difficult than producing the more leisurely, lazy, lengthy counterpart.
Except that novels are swelling again. Not only did last year’s Booker Prize winner, Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries clock in at 848 pages, but several equally celebrated books boast equivalent heft, including Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Signature of All Things, and Shacochis’s The Woman Who Lost Her Soul.
Why? Ted Gioia offers a theory. “All experimental approaches in the arts can perhaps be divided into two categories — experiments of disjunction or experiments of compression. Either things get pushed apart, or get squeezed together. Either an aesthetic of disintegration, or an aesthetic of wave-like flow.”
The Grand Experimenter, it turns out, was Ludwig van Beethoven. This musical colossus, completely deaf, his personal affairs in chaos, perennially behind in his finances, unwell and unloved, reworked the string quartet in ways that continue to bewilder and astonish. The six late quartets, for two violins, viola, and cello, were composed within two years of Beethoven’s death in 1827. They are called by their opus numbers: 127, 130, 131, 133, 132, 135 (don’t ask about numerical order). These pieces span the experimental pendulum’s trajectory. The composer not only fractured, he compressed and expanded as well.
Beethoven’s earlier quartets and those of his predecessors and successors as well, generally have four movements: a lively opening, a slow second movement, a “minuet and trio” movement beat in three (the order of the second and third are often reversed), and an authoritative final movement. Around structure, Beethoven went rogue with his late quartets. He took the traditional four-movement quartet, split it up, and then both condensed and augmented it. Opus 130 has six movements as opposed to the usual four; Opus 131 has seven that are played/performed without a break as one long movement; and Opus 132 has five. Opus 133, the Grosse Fugue, is a one-movement leviathan. It was meant to be the sixth and final movement to Opus 130, but was horrendously difficult and got an appalling reception. “I think, with Voltaire, ‘that a few gnat-stings cannot arrest a spirited horse in his course,’” Beethoven said of critics. However, he bowed to outside pressure and lopped off the Grosse Fugue, publishing it as a stand-alone composition. Then wrote a frothy new ending that was the last piece he completed.
Within these overarching structures, Beethoven took traditional form and forged new trails. For example, he quarried the unconventional from the garden-variety “minuet and trio” movement. All but two of the late quartets contain such a movement, beat in three according to the rules, and organized thematically just as Haydn or Mozart would have done. In these movements, however, Beethoven plays with rhythm by blurring the lines between measures. He foreshortens melodic line and accelerates tempo. In other words, most of these movements go at breakneck speed and/or the tune is too fractured to sing along.
Beethoven took another well-known form, the theme and variations movement, and stretched and deepened it in new ways. Opus 127’s second movement opens with an austere violin melody that sets the theme for the variations that follow. The movement is immense, vastly longer than the slow movements of string quartets that preceded it, including previous slow movements that Beethoven had written. Here the composer takes his time on a grand scale, luxuriating in the breadth and depth of his melodic creation.
The fugue, a melody introduced by one instrument that is subsequently taken up by another instrument, appears in many string quartet movements. (Think of a round, where the melody travels through various voices and is inverted and lengthened throughout the course of the piece.) Beethoven’s Grosse Fugue, however, is in a class by itself. It is the longest of Beethoven’s late quartet movements. Talk about dense. With its abrupt, ruptured bursts of sound, the Grosse Fugue is virtually inaccessible on first hearing. Like the 20th-century music that was to follow, the Grosse Fugue is dissonant. There are long stretches where rhythm elbows out melody, relentless beats without much tune.
One hundred ninety years ago, Beethoven was covering the experimental spectrum, fragmenting and enlarging within the space of a few short years. His late quartets fluctuate between slower, lyrical movements and faster movements with short, chopped up melody, compacted rhythms, interrupted tempos, and challenging key signatures. He deployed the four instruments (voices) in novel ways, assembled new harmonies, smashed rhythmic convention, messed with dynamic (volume) markings, upended time signatures, and a whole lot else. Including inspiring countless artists; for example, T.S. Eliot and the Four Quartets.
Beethoven may have turned out to be the Grand Experimenter, but did he actually set out to experiment? Radical innovation may be the consequence, rather than the cause, of self-expression at this stratospheric level. Some combination of genius and drive spurred Beethoven’s compositional feats. To satisfy the demands of his genius, Beethoven tilled new musical ground.
His deafness must have played a central role. Beethoven’s ability to compose through the deafness does not speak to his musicality per se. Any well-trained composer can pick up a score and understand what’s on the page without playing it. Beethoven’s deafness speaks instead to something deeper. In his early 30s, 15 years before his death, Beethoven prepared a document for his brothers. Named for the place it was written, Beethoven’s “Heiligenstadt Testament” bears witness to the despair and isolation caused by his deafness, as reprinted in Thayer’s Life of Beethoven:
Though born with a fiery, active temperament…I was soon compelled to withdraw myself, to live life alone. If at times I tried to forget all this, oh how harshly was I flung back by the doubly sad experience of my bad hearing…How could I possibly admit an infirmity in the one sense which ought to be more perfect in me than in others, a sense which I once possessed in the highest perfection, a perfection such as few in my profession enjoy or ever have enjoyed…For me there can be no relaxation with my fellow-men, no refined conversations, no mutual exchange of ideas. I must live almost alone like one who has been banished…
Despite being the most accomplished musician of his day, Beethoven became unable to perform his piano concertos because he could not hear the orchestra. He was thwarted from conducting his symphonies and from playing his chamber music. In short, at the apex of his musical powers, he was prevented from participating in the joy of his own creation, forced to plumb the music in silence.
Silence birthed late Beethoven — music of profound and unparalleled emotional range. What did Beethoven discover within the silence? Certainly he found the freedom to buck convention and strike out on his own. But within the silence, he accessed something more: the arduous, agonizing road to his own mortality. The late quartets contain movements of such introspection and depth that to partake in the composer’s grief becomes a sublime, transformative experience. This musical giant is frustrated and raging, tormented by illness and loneliness, wrestling with the divine. We hear him grappling to make his peace.
There isn’t a more majestic, reflective hymn than the fifth “Cavatina” movement to Opus 130. Beethoven himself said that nothing he had written so moved him; in fact “merely to revive it afterwards in his thoughts and feelings brought forth renewed tributes of tears,” according to Thayer’s Life of Beethoven. Or the transcendent otherworldly opening of Opus 131. And Beethoven’s rare commentary to Opus 132’s third movement summons the divine directly, “Heiliger Dankgesang eines Genesenen an die Gottheit, in der lydischen Tonart” — “A Convalescent’s Holy Song of Thanksgiving to the Divinity, in the Lydian mode.” The spare, deliberate simplicity of this movement is music of the spheres. The quartet’s final movement combines longing with agitated dissonance, delivering a sense of cosmic urgency.
In the last substantial work Beethoven finished — Opus 135 — the listener travels through sanctified territory, accompanying Beethoven to his death. Beethoven’s notes to Opus 135’s fourth movement, printed in the final manuscript above a nine-note tune, read: “’Der Schwer Gefasste Entschluss.’ Muss es sein? Es muss sein! Es muss sein!” — “‘The Difficult Decision.’ Must it be? It must be! It must be!”
Except that these words are not what they seem. A story that circulated during Beethoven’s time was that the tune came from a canon Beethoven had penned to capture a patron’s reaction to unwelcome news; Herr Dembscher had been told that to obtain a quartet manuscript for a party he wanted to host, he would have to pay 50 florins.
Perhaps these imponderables are meant to remain so; for example why the novel is shrinking or fracturing or expanding or twisting itself into something else. No matter. Writers pursuing their creative ends are apt to reinvent the medium for a long time.
Image Credit: Wikipedia
The finalists for the annual National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) Award have been announced. The fiction list includes one of the biggest fiction releases of last year and a book in translation. As often tends to be the case, the NBCC is offering up what may be the most well-rounded fiction shortlist you’ll find. Here are the finalists for fiction and non-fiction with excerpts and other links where available. As a side note, the NBCC award is particularly interesting in that it is one of the few major awards that pits American books against overseas (usually British) books. Finally, this was first year of the new John Leonard Prize, which goes to a debut work and was awarded to Anthony Marra for A Constellation of Vital Phenomena.
Donna Tartt, The Goldfinch (excerpt, Janice Clark’s Year in Reading, Adam Dalva’s essay)
Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie, Americanah (excerpt, the author’s Year in Reading)
Ruth Ozeki, A Tale for the Time Being (excerpt, Dani Shapiro’s Year in Reading)
Alice McDermott, Someone (excerpt, the author’s Year in Reading)
Javier Marias, The Infatuations (excerpt, our review)
Kevin Cullen and Shelley Murphy, Whitey Bulger (excerpt)
Sheri Fink, Five Days at Memorial (excerpt)
David Finkel, Thank You for Your Service (excerpt)
George Packer, The Unwinding (excerpt, our review)
Lawrence Wright, Going Clear (excerpt, Aleksandar Hemon’s Year in Reading)
For more on the NBCC Awards and the finalists in the other categories, visit the NBCC.
Like so many this fall, I read The Goldfinch at one of those sleepless-night clips: the light sighing back on, the pillow rotated 90 degrees, that despairing look at the clock. But it wasn’t just in admiration of, as Janice Clark puts it, the “unfakeable depth and luster of long gestation,” nor was I aping Stephen King and reading “with a mixture of terror and excitement.” No — I was up late because Donna Tartt, a Mississippi-reared 49 year old woman, has apparently been following me around with her notebook in hand for the last 14 years. Her lead character, Theo Decker, is pretty much me.
Now, in matters of age, locale, race, and sex, there is little wonder to that. Theo and I are both 27 year old white guys from New York, and there are a lot of us — too many, probably. The first real attention-grabbing coincidence came when 13 year-old Theo’s building on 57th street off Sutton turned out to be the same as my own. I greedily accumulated evidence: it has to be on the odd-numbered side since at one point Theo walks south down Sutton and turns onto 57th before crossing; it’s not the building on the corner, but the doormen walk away from oncoming traffic to hail cabs, something you would only do when particularly close to their careening turns. Put this together and it’s most likely the second canopy down: 447.
Now, this was all nice and Prousty, but there’s nothing essay-worthy here. It’s a pretty, doublewide block and the other Sutton place streets have narrative complications (bridge traffic; lack of light). Fine. I tweeted: “Protagonist of #thegoldfinch is my exact age and grew up on the same block as me. What a likable guy!” and got a favorite from a stranger who didn’t subsequently follow me.
But then things started to get weird. 27-year-old Theo is a 18th and 19th century British antique dealer; I’m a 18th and 19th century French antique dealer. He spends 90 percent of his time working front of house and 10 percent in the restoration shop downstairs — same as me. We both sort through veneers, use ammonia on bronzes, join chairs with wacky old clamps, and match wood-grains. In fact, when I took an unauthorized Goldfinch break from practicing shellac application on ancient wood strips, Theo was sorting through the exact same set.
And it’s strange: the aspects of my job that have always seemed mundane are rendered delightful in Tartt’s capable hands. It’s all there, from the way we mark our catalogues with pencil (have I been picturesque all this time?) to the way we identify symmetrically dinged-up gilding as problematic (does everyone know to look for uneven wear?). Although, I have to say that Tartt’s trick of not vacuuming objects to make collectors think they’re finding overlooked gems doesn’t really work. Clients just glaze right on by.
The indulgence with which the author treats my profession might be the product of research vs. actuality. (How I flinched in the King review when he wrote, “There’s a lot more about furniture restoration than I needed.” Story of my life, S.K.) When you’re studying something there is such joy in discovery. Every flourish feels necessary. Tartt’s realization that cabinet doors shift over time must have been a eureka moment instead of part of an unbroken chain of osmosis. As I was reading the book, I’d walk around the store and see my work as literary instead of mere lunchbreak impediments.
There are even nods at French furniture. Hobie the loveable old well-read British furniture restorer (as opposed to Mark, the loveable old well-read Russian furniture restorer in our shop) may claim early on that it’s not his “bailiwick,” but toward the end Theo points out “inlaid French cabinets and tables in the French court style with garlanded carvings and veneer work that would have made Hobie gasp in admiration.”
Now, we don’t do the alchemy in the book, that piecing together of broken-down old classics to create borderline unimpeachable Frankenstein monsters of furniture. But I know who did. The source material is beyond a doubt the Dickensian-named “Buggins scandal” — an anecdote I will no longer be able to tell during pauses at dinner parties. As a reader, my tension leaked away the second I saw Hobie (a name, that I would argue is related to Hobbs, the dealer behind l’affaire Buggins) melding two pieces. The whole crucial subplot got shorted out by inevitability — it was like reading The Art of Fielding after having endured the Chuck Knoblauch era. (I never believe Yankees fans who say they loved that book. It’s too soon to get any sort of pleasure out of the yips; it’s like being shocked by 3rd act Kryptonite.)
The minor accumulation of my own personal facts just didn’t stop — Popchik, the charming Maltese in the book? Meet ZoZo, the charming Maltese I had from (drumroll) ages 13-27. The pleasantly horrific Subway Inn, where Theo’s dad sneaks a drink? My own exact high school sneakaway. Not all the incidental details are perfect. I went to school on the Upper East Side, not the Upper West; Theo grew up in 7C, but I was parked in 8B.
Tartt somehow even hacked into my private empathetic experiences. Not to make too big a thing of it, but there was an uncanny feel in reading about a teenager taking a scary midday walk from the Upper East Side to a 57th and Sutton apartment on the day of a terrorist attack. I saw again the way the cops that remained uptown looked; I remembered that the demographics of people walking in each direction were so much more mixed then normal. This was subliminal stuff — I hadn’t thought about it in such specificity since the day of.
(Although, then, the book takes care to note that this attack is not a substitute for 9/11. In fact, it’s not quite clear when the book actually takes place — Theo shoplifts XBOX games at one point, and there is an iPod, and those were the hottest devices of 2002 (I know this because I remember being around Theo’s age and desperately wanting an XBOX and an iPod), but then, somewhat shockingly, Jet Li’s Unleashed (2005) is mentioned. This means the “contemporary” action of the book happens in 2019. Future Fiction! Future Fiction with our exact smart phone technology and without drone package delivery or the singularity! Was this a move to get it further away from 9/11? Or is it just when the movie will come out? (This will be a killer movie if they gussie up the Amsterdam stuff a bit.)
Is The Goldfinch good? I don’t know. A friend hated it and I was totally unable to mount a defense. It was like someone attacking my own biography. How could she have thought Theo was an unsympathetic, cynically drawn lead? Is this why people sometimes ignore my Facebook messages? I’ve started wondering how many other people have had this happen to them. Was there a brave civil rights lawyer who just shook his head when Atticus gets all that food? A woman in a tool-filled kimono who started crying the second Seymour pulled out the gun? Willowy chivalry fetishists cursing in 17th Century Spanish?
Or did these people also feel the other side of things — the strange validation of this massive coincidence? Never before have I have been confident enough to talk at parties about how shellac is made (pro-tip: you really want to DIY with the flakes, that store-bought stuff loses its pop). Maybe clients won’t find it disingenuous if I talk about how a piece perfectly fits their aesthetic. Perhaps, King be damned, I can throw a description of this really killer Italian 18th century console table into my novel. And my childhood street might not be as boring as I’ve always thought.
Oh, and speaking of that inevitable movie? I’ll be hitting the gym double time, because I’m pretty sure I’d be the perfect Theo Decker.
We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for December.
The Pioneer Detectives
The Beggar Maid: Stories of Flo and Rose
To start the new year, we’ve made some minor changes to how we calculate our list. Basically, we’ve added a slight penalty for lower-priced books because we were finding that spikes in sales of cheaper short-format books (e.g. "Kindle Singles") and aggressive promotional pricing of ebooks was skewing the list a bit. The change had no dramatic impact on the December list other than that it knocked George Saunders’s $0.99 short story Fox 8 out of our top 10.
The rest of the big changes were driven by our 2013 Year in Reading. Some books that were already popular with our readers got a lot of love in the series, including Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch which surged into the top spot after three contributors named the book as a favorite read of 2013. Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings was also a popular name in the series, and that helped return the book to the Top Ten after a few months off the list. Rachel Kushner was the runaway favorite in our series for The Flamethrowers, though the book dropped a spot to number three.
Our lone debut is a very unusual title. Draw It with Your Eyes Closed: The Art of the Art Assignment is a slim collection, the result of several art teachers being asked to contribute the best art assignments they’ve ever heard of. Hannah Gersen included the book in her list of offbeat gifts for writers last month.
Finally, the contentious Taipei by Tao Lin graduates to our Hall of Fame. The book was the subject of a famously negative review here that perhaps not so paradoxically seemed to get a lot of people interested in the book.
Near Misses: The Circle, Night Film, Eleanor & Park, The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America, and MaddAddam. See Also: Last month’s list.
Another year has flown by and so has another Year In Reading. We thank everyone who participated and all who read and shared these wonderful pieces in our series.
While we trimmed our contributor list slightly this year, they shared their thoughts on more books than our participants did a year ago. 2013 brought 68 participants (down from 74 participants in 2012) sharing 350 different books (up from 289 a year ago). We’re happy to note that 11 of those authors highlighted in our series also submitted their own pieces in the series. The books selected run the gamut from nonfiction to poetry, short stories, essays, fiction, and even a zine and an interactive story.
The youngest author selected was Gabby Bess. Her book Alone with Other People was one of several selected by Roxane Gay. Bess was born in 1992. This beats out the next-youngest author, Eleanor Catton (b. 1985), whose Booker-winning The Luminaries was a selection of both Garth Risk Hallberg and Janice Clark, by quite a bit.
Finally, seven books were named by three or more Year In Reading participants, and six of those seven books were written by women. Rachel Kushner was the runaway favorite for her book The Flamethrowers, getting six mentions (picked by Garth Risk Hallberg, David Gilbert, Matt Bell, Bill Morris, Adam Wilson, and Elliott Holt.) Dave Eggers’s The Circle was picked by Choire Sicha, Hannah Gersen, and Tess Malone. Alissa Nutting’s Tampa was picked by Roxane Gay, Matt Bell, and Charles Blackstone. Renata Adler’s Speedboat was selected by David Gilbert, Matt Bell, and Emily St. John Mandel. Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow was picked by Sergio De La Pava, Rachel Kushner, and Teddy Wayne. Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings was chosen by three staffers: Hannah Gersen, Edan Lepucki, and Janet Potter. And Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch was picked by Benjamin Percy, Edan Lepucki, and Janice Clark.
We hope you enjoyed we had on offer this month, and we’ll see you again next year.
P.S. Special thank yous are due to Ujala Sehgal and Adam Boretz, our tireless editors, who prepared every last one of our Year in Reading entries for publication. Also very deserving of thanks are Tess Malone and Thom Beckwith, both of whom have helped spread the word about our biggest Year and Reading to date, and to Nick Moran who oversaw their efforts and compiled the stats I used to write this very round-up. Thank you to our staff writers, whose pieces were some of the highlights of the series and who did wonderful work for us throughout 2013.
And of course, thanks to all of you, our readers, and to all a Happy New Year!
The good stuff: The Millions’ Notable articles
The motherlode: The Millions’ Books and Reviews
With the arrival of both my first novel and my firstborn this year, my available time for reading evaporated right alongside time for other basic human requirements such as sleeping and breathing. When my nose found its way between pages, it was likely to be advice about how to raise the Happiest Bébé in my Arrondissement so that I might someday again do something other than swaddle, swoop, and shush my son.
Research for my next novel (out in 2015!) took top priority, so I dove deep into both Everybody Was So Young, Amanda Vaill’s moving biography of Gerald and Sara Murphy, and re-reading F. Scott Fitzgerald’s portrait of them in Tender is the Night. But what novel about Lost Generation types would be complete without some theoretical physics? So I’ve been going back over Brian Green’s The Elegant Universe and Fabric of the Cosmos and, on somewhat of the other end of the spectrum, my Robert Fagles translations of The Iliad and The Odyssey.
Because one central character is an artist, and most art from Warhol to present leaves me eye rolling and/or giggling, an artist friend of mine recommended his favorite book on contemporary art, David Hickey’s Air Guitar: Essays on Art & Democracy – which has finally helped me to understand the contents of the Whitney Museum as more than bad practical jokes.
Outside of book research, the rest of my yearly reading has been mostly focused on my students at SUNY Purchase College. In addition to their (often) impressive work in class, I’ve been pushing myself to expose them to the kinds of great books and stories that they wouldn’t normally see in a classroom. Last Spring in a course on The Art of the Novella, we read classics like The Dead and Breakfast at Tiffany’s, but also mind & form-bending works like Chronicle of a Death Foretold, Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?, and Jean-Christophe Valtat’s 03. (If that sounds exciting, I apologize – registration for Spring 2014 was last month and the class is now full).
This fall, my Advanced Fiction students have been knocking me out, and I’m doing my best to keep up with them as we work our way through James Wood’s How Fiction Works. (Wood came to campus in September to deliver an incredible lecture on the question of “Why?” in Fiction, which we’ve been grappling with ever since.) We’ve now been focusing on short fiction, from classic masterpieces like Chekov’s “Rothschild’s Fiddle” and Nabokov’s “Spring in Fialta” to contemporary writers like David Foster Wallace, Ben Loory, Karen Russell, Jessica Francis Kane, George Saunders, and Wells Tower. Most of the time I can’t tell who is learning more, me or the students, but I’m glad to be there either way.
When the semester winds to a close, I’ve got a huge pile waiting for me. If all goes well I might get to the first two on the pile – Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch and Julian Barnes’s The Sense of an Ending – before January, when I have to start reading for my Creative Nonfiction seminar in the spring.
The good stuff: The Millions’ Notable articles
The motherlode: The Millions’ Books and Reviews
I’m a sucker for a reading list, so much so that for many years I had an obsessive relationship with a “100 books” list copied from an old edition of Clifton Fadiman’s Lifetime Reading Plan. The list, which moved with me from city to city and wall to wall, included nothing post-1978, few women, and only grudgingly departed Britain and the U.S. to tap the odd German and a Russian or two. I ignored the list’s omissions and biases, seduced by the pregnant roundness of “100” and the treasure-map appeal of the list itself, its typing fading, its edges growing ragged as it travelled. I was convinced that if I read those books the fundamental secrets of the world would be laid bare in an alchemical flash and I would be transfigured, but only if I adhered to the magical-thinking rules I had set for myself: I must read from the beginning, chronologically, and read nothing else in between. With each fresh attempt, I would pace happily through the Greeks, stall somewhere in the Middle Ages, skip with guilty pleasure to Melville or Tolstoy, then give up altogether, relieved, to read something new. I never could throw out the list, though. Every few years it surfaces in an odd place, sifting to the top of a drawer or edging out from under a drawing tacked to a wall, and I’m tempted to start again.
My reading list this year was short. When I’m drafting something new and I’m deep into the process, I read less and more warily, hoping to modulate that unwitting, sponge-like process whereby one’s prose becomes infused with whatever one is reading. This year, because I’m working on a sort of children’s book for adults, I revisited childhood favorites including The Princess and the Goblin by George MacDonald, The Diamond in the Window by Jane Langton, and Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped.
The novels I most love grant me access to immersive fictional worlds, long, atmospheric, and unafraid of artifice. This year I enjoyed the unabashedly Dickensian flavor of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, packed with coincidence and and melodrama, riding a line between Victorian conceits — an orphan, a ring, a mysterious painting — and contemporary realities. Tartt’s prose has the unfakeable depth and luster of long gestation, reward for the decade-long waits between her books.
Though I’m only halfway through Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries, it’s already my other favorite of 2013, for its ingenious structure, blithe disregard for the primacy of character in fiction, and heedless invention.
The good stuff: The Millions’ Notable articles
The motherlode: The Millions’ Books and Reviews
The Second Annual Janet Potter Awards for Literary Achievement
Vampires in the Lemon Grove by Karen Russell
In last year’s awards I proclaimed that “everyone is wrong” about Swamplandia!, which I couldn’t stand. I only tried this book at the very strong recommendation of my never-wrong friend Michael Schaub and the promise that one of the stories was about dead presidents reincarnated as farm animals. I loved that story and went on to love all the stories in Vampires. Everything that irked me about Swamplandia! clicked into place in this volume. Perhaps I should give more authors a second chance.
You Don’t Know Me but You Don’t Like Me by Nathan Rabin
“Everybody who rides a Greyhound from Newark at that hour might as well wear a sign reading, ASK ME ABOUT THE HORRIBLE MISTAKES THAT HAVE LED ME HERE.”
Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell
I recently heard Rowell speak, and when asked whether it bothered her that her books were sometimes labeled as Young Adult Romance, replied, “I think ‘romance’ is a word used to make women feel bad about themselves and how they feel, and I refuse to feel bad about either of those things.” So not only do I love Rowell even more than I did already, I’ve become even bolder in recommending the most romantic book I read this year.
Best Temper Tantrum
The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt by Edmund Morris
The young Theodore Roosevelt loved nature, and brought a lot of it into his childhood bedroom for what he called the Roosevelt Museum of Natural History — snapping turtles tied to the furniture, frogs hidden in his hats — but most of his family called a nuisance. When his mother, exasperated, let loose a litter of field mice he had been housing, he cried, “The loss to Science! The loss to Science!”
Most Belated Reading Experience
The Secret History by Donna Tartt
All the excitement surrounding The Goldfinch’s release led me to read the novel that made Tartt a literary darling back in 1992. A few sleepless nights later I was dying to go back in time so I could talk to everyone about it.
Best Back Catalog
After joining the legions who love The Fault in Our Stars last year, I quickly read his first three novels. Although they don’t transcend the YA genre as much as his mega-seller, they’re all superb YA novels. I don’t think anyone has portrayed high school life as realistically since Freaks & Geeks.
The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr
For a few years I have been wanting to read Carr’s book about how the internet is affecting our attention spans and “ability to read and think deeply,” so I got it out from the library. But then I got busy with, I don’t know, finding new Tumblrs and watching eyeshadow tutorials on YouTube, so 3 weeks later, to avoid the fine, I returned it to the library unread, and the gods of irony laughed.
Best Career Inspiration
Dud Avocado by Elaine Dundy
One of the characters in this book says that she wants to start a magazine called “Everything Gauche” and now, by gum, so do I.
This Bright River by Patrick Somerville
I turned 30 this year, a milestone I was relieved to reach in a way I couldn’t put my finger on. A few days after my birthday I read this passage that sums it up perfectly.
Occasionally I would join them for their weekly baby lunches, depending on whether I was busy that day, and all of us could discuss how strange it was that we were no longer part of the youngest generation or (for that matter) the generation of the main people on TV, that marketing didn’t seem directed at us anymore, how we didn’t quite know what to make of the early days of this new status as adults but that it did seem to have its benefits, like a remarkable unbounded freedom, despite the stresses and responsibilities, which seemed to want to take that same freedom right back.
Best Read of the Year
The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer
This book also swept Best Depiction of Female Friendship, Book I’ve Recommended and Given the Most, Best Depiction of Class, and Author I Want to Be Friends With.
The good stuff: The Millions’ Notable articles
The motherlode: The Millions’ Books and Reviews
I read so many great books this year, from Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, which hijacked my life for two weeks with its absorbing story of an orphan, his grief, and that stolen painting, to Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings (reviewed here), which I still sigh over lovingly each time I pass it on the bookshelf.
However, two books stood above the rest in 2013, one a novel and the other a work of nonfiction…
It doesn’t matter that I attended public school (L.A. Unified in the house!) whereas Matthew Specktor went to one of the best private schools in Southern California. Or that his dad is a legendary Hollywood agent, while mine works below the line as a location manager. Or that he was a boy in L.A., probably burning bugs with a microscope, or whatever boys do, and I was a girl, filming fashion shows with my sisters in the living room, getting my ears pierced on Melrose. None of these piddling distinctions mattered when I read Specktor’s brilliant and ambitious novel, American Dream Machine, which waxes poetic about the Hamburger Hamlet on Sunset (R.I.P.!) and Damiano’s, the cave-like pizzeria on Fairfax, and which comes out swinging with descriptions like this one: “And eventually the whole hill flattened out into that ash-colored plane, that grand and gray infinity that is Los Angeles from above: God’s palm, checkered with twinkling lights and crossed with hot wind.” My city, its ash-colored plane! There it is! Specktor’s gorgeous book, about the flawed, chauvinist, talented film agent Beau Rosenwald, as tender as he is damaged, made me feel like my native city had been properly seen. It made me feel like a piece of fiction had finally and properly seen me. And if you’ve never even been to Los Angeles? No matter. Specktor’s prose alone is enough to lure you in: it’s sharply observed and nimble, like a more mischievous cousin of John Cheever, and his characters are wonderfully and deeply complicated, wounded and secretive. American Dream Machine is narrated by Beau’s illegitimate son, Nate, and the sprawling first person omniscience (first person omniscience!) is what I keep coming back to, months later, to puzzle over and admire. How did Specktor do it? He’s a magician, I tell you.
If I see you at a holiday party this December, I will corner you at the punch bowl and talk your ear off about Far From the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity by Andrew Solomon, which resonated with me not only as a mother and as a daughter, but as a human being on this big messy planet of human beings. It’s page-turning nonfiction in the tradition of Random Family by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc and Columbine by Dave Cullen, a genre I love but don’t read enough of. Solomon spent years researching this book, and he interviewed many, many parents with children who are different from them; the book includes chapters about the deaf, the autistic, the schizophrenic, geniuses, and so on. Solomon depicts these communities with respect and compassion, and he consistently raises meaningful questions about tolerance and empathy. Solomon’s book pushed me to investigate my own notions of normalcy, and I came away grateful to my own parents, for letting me become who I needed to become. This book is a masterpiece! And, hey, here, let me ladle you some punch, that’s a nice sweater, etc.
The good stuff: The Millions’ Notable articles
The motherlode: The Millions’ Books and Reviews
This year I read articles about the San Francisco housing market and the Oakland housing market and the rise of the tech class and the death of the middle class, and I had anxieties. But I was fortunate to have a job, so I subscribed to three magazines, two of which I read. I read trend pieces in which I recognized myself because I have student loans and no car and no house and no offspring. I read online guides for how to introduce cats to babies, in case the latter condition should change. I read laments on the death of the humanities and felt morose. I read tweets where people said they didn’t like Frances Ha and felt misunderstood. I read the numbers on the scale and learned that I am fatter than I was the last time I wrote my Year in Reading. I read warnings about sitting being the new smoking and wondered if smoking will become okay by comparison. I read the ingredients in my lotion and wondered if they are giving me a rash. I read a WebMD thing about my rash and wondered if my lotion would be harmful for a baby. I read Amazon reviews for natural flea treatments and learned that there are none.
When I wasn’t reading a bunch of depressing shit, I read some strange and wonderful things. I read Dissident Gardens and thought it was so overwhelmingly wonderful that I read The Fortress of Solitude right away, and was underwhelmed by comparison. I read half of William Vollmann’s An Afghanistan Picture Show, which was not wonderful, and then I read all of his article about not being The Unabomber, which was. I read Ross Raisin’s Waterline. I read The Kindly Ones and wanted to talk to someone about it, but it’s old news and everyone is arguing about whether The Goldfinch and The Circle are bad or good. So I read four-year-old commentaries by Garth Risk Hallberg and Andrew Seal and had an imaginary talk with them both, and I think we all felt good at the end.
I read the memoir of Donald Antrim and felt very moved by his description of an outlandish kimono constructed by his mother, and wondered what it would be like to be the mother of Donald Antrim, or to have the mother that Donald Antrim had. I read an interview with Charles Manson, but did not care to consider what it would be like to be his mother. I read Tortilla Flat. I read Cannery Row. I read the Granta collection of under-40-year-olds and felt sort of stunned and worthless at the end. A story by Tahmima Anam about Dubai and falling continues to haunt me at odd moments. I read another story about falling, by Lionel Shriver, and got the spooky feeling I always get from Lionel Shriver, that she found the diary I would never actually keep, containing all my most awful thoughts. I wondered if Lionel Shriver is a witch. I re-read Of Human Bondage for the utter joy of it. I re-read Lucky Jim. I re-read Bridget Jones’s Diary. I got a cold and stayed home sick and re-read both memoirs of Beverly Cleary, and wished that I could stay home all week. I re-read Betsy was a Junior. I re-read The Adventures of Augie March, and wondered how it could have failed to show up on this list.
I read more things than I anticipated about Miley Cyrus. I somehow also read an interview with the woman whose husband committed infidelity with Kristen Stewart, accompanied by a picture of her nipples. I watched the music video for “Blurred Lines” and felt for a moment how very much people must hate women to come up with this shit. I realized that some of my favorite books by women are actually by men. I resolved to read more books by women. I felt obscurely annoyed at society for necessitating extra work on my part to correct its imbalance. I felt annoyed at myself for having this thought. I read The Group, which was a revelation. I read The Dud Avocado. I read The Conservationist and The Debut. I read The Affairs of Others and some good stories by Kate Milliken. Now I note that my reading list, like Ms. Cyrus, has a race problem–another thing requiring redress.
Next year I’ll do better, in this and all other matters.
The good stuff: The Millions’ Notable articles
The motherlode: The Millions’ Books and Reviews
Neither of them had published a novel in a good long while. Neil Gaiman was busy in Hollywood and casting spells, Donna Tartt was holed up in her office and listening to classical music. This made 2013, when they respectively published The Ocean at the End of the Lane and The Goldfinch, an exciting year for reading. And judging from their bestseller status, I’m not the only person who felt these were two of the most anticipated titles. If you’re one of those Grinches who avoids something simply because everyone else is talking about it, get over yourself. These books live up to the hype. My wife tries to read books before I do, because I feather them with sticky notes, write in the margins. I have a nerdy, mechanical interest in how sentences and paragraphs and stories are put together. It’s rare anymore that I’m swept away. But that’s what happened to me with both these novels. I reviewed them both (for The New York Times and Esquire), but I felt so transported, so gripped, I had to set down my pen. I ended up reading them twice — the first time for the rush, the second to make analytical sense of the frantic and heart-bruised feelings the stories gave me. Give them a chance and you too will be inhabited, possessed by two of my favorite literary sorcerers.
The good stuff: The Millions’ Notable articles
The motherlode: The Millions’ Books and Reviews
“In the aftermath of tragedies, people become obsessive, do strange things. As the tragedy recedes and is sewn up into the past, these strange things appear increasingly weird to casual observers.” At The Rumpus, our own Lydia Kiesling reviews Donna Tartt’s new novel The Goldfinch, which centers around a fictional bombing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for November.
The Pioneer Detectives
The Beggar Maid: Stories of Flo and Rose
There wasn’t much action on our list November as the top 5 stayed unchanged. Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch was the big mover, jumping from the eighth spot to the sixth.
The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson graduates to our illustrious Hall of Fame after a six-month run on the list that was initially spurred by the book’s Pulitzer win earlier this year. That departure makes room for the return of Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland
Near Misses: Night Film, Visitation Street, The Interestings, MaddAddam and Dear Life. See Also: Last month’s list.
We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for October.
The Pioneer Detectives
The Beggar Maid: Stories of Flo and Rose
The Orphan Master’s Son
In October, we were in the thick of book prize season, and the announcements sent readers running to new books, resulting in a big shake-up on our list, led by new Nobel Laureate Alice Munro. Within minutes of the announcement, readers were finding our “Beginner’s Guide to Alice Munro“, penned by Ben Dolnick, author of Shelf-Love, an ebook original about Munro. Dolnick called Munro’s Selected Stories “the Munro book to read if you’re only willing to read one” and he singled out The Beggar Maid as “the Munro book to read if you’re only willing to read one but don’t like the idea of reading a literary greatest hits album.” Many readers took his advice and the former landed atop our list, while the latter ended up in the sixth spot.
Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers continued to win fans (here at The Millions, for example; we also interviewed her), but it was the book’s landing on the National Book Award shortlist that rocketed it to the second spot on our list.
And the last of our several debuts is Donna Tartt’s long-awaited The Goldfinch. No surprise there.
All these new books bumped five names from our list, collected here as this month’s Near Misses: Night Film, The Lowland, The Interestings, Visitation Street and MaddAddam. See Also: Last month’s list.
Amazon released their annual Best Books of the Year: Top 100 in Print list today (as well as a free and helpful Reader’s Guide), and numerous Millions favorites made the cut. Both George Saunders’s Tenth of December and Philipp Meyer’s The Son cracked the top 10. We reviewed both here and here, respectively. Other notable books boasting extensive Millions coverage include Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings (review), George Packer’s The Unwinding (review), Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries (review), Dave Eggers’s The Circle (review), James Salter’s All That Is (review), Karen Russell’s Vampires in the Lemon Grove (interview), Stuart Nadler’s Wise Men (review), Colum McCann’s TransAtlantic (review), and Colm Tóibín’s The Testament of Mary (review). Meanwhile, the top spot belongs to Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch.
Out this week: The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt (who Angela Qian wrote about for The Millions in September); We Are Water by Wally Lamb; Aimless Love: New and Selected Poems by Billy Collins; Roth Unbound: A Writer and His Books by Claudia Roth Pierpont; and The Eternal Wonder, a recently discovered novel by Nobel laureate Pearl S. Buck. For more on these and other new books, check out our Great Second-half 2013 Book Preview.
1.I encountered Donna Tartt’s The Secret History the summer after my first year of college, as part of a grab bag of used but new-to-me books (along with poetry by Dickinson and Glück and Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose) passed on to me by an alumnus of my school who had enrolled as an English major a decade before I had. Now over twenty years after its publication, and with Tartt’s widely anticipated new novel The Goldfinch on the way, The Secret History still endures, and, in light of all the recent discussions about the liberal arts and its students, it may be worth revisiting why.
Though I had not taken classes with secretive Aristotelian professors, partook of drinking binges and bacchanals, made friends with twenty-year olds who were fluent in ancient Greek, or, significantly, murdered a friend, the book (what to classify it as? A reverse murder mystery, a literary novel, a college story, a coming of age story) struck a chord in me. At first I pinned it down to the plot, but there was something more compelling to it than that — and specifically, something compelling to readers, like me, who identified with Tartt’s characters: introspective and book-loving students of the liberal arts.
For the protagonists of Tartt’s novel were just that: students who liked to write and read and think, dreamy and bookish, studying for a degree in Classics. Richard, Henry, Camilla, Francis, and the rest were not pre-professionals, or enrolling in classes with an eye to generating career skills; rather, they were students who devoted themselves to an intense teacher and an intense study of ancient texts and ideas, and who looked to those studies for answers to questions in their own personal lives. They were, in short, liberal arts students, precisely of the breed that is lamented as being increasingly endangered.
2.The appeal of the story to a certain type of crowd (“students of an intellectual bent,” the alumnus said, while my ego purred) goes beyond the intrigue. If The Secret History were a simple murder mystery, the narrative could have ended at Bunny’s death. But it didn’t, because, more than being a story about murder, the novel is about wanting to change, but failing. And it is precisely this failed transformation that makes the book relatable.
Richard, the novel’s narrator, first describes the five students in the elite Classics class as isolated, aloof, with “a strange cold breath of the ancient world,” strange but arresting — and ultimately, when given the option to join this crew, he takes it, hoping to cultivate the same aura himself. Once in, he and these other otherworldly students study (and oh, studying so picturesquely!) under their irresistible, charismatic teacher, who on Richard’s first day asks them to “leave the phenomenal world, and enter into the sublime,” before leading them in a whirlwind discussion on divine madness in the cozy style of a Socratic seminar.
Richard had escaped the dust and destitution of Plano by coming to Hampden, wanting to get as far away from himself as possible, and from the first had been mesmerized by the mystery of the Classics group. Crucially, he believes that the aura of Julian Morrow’s students is one he can achieve by studying what they studied. And once in with them, he comments, “I felt myself trembling on the brink of a fabulous discovery, as though any morning it was all going to come together…I was going to sit up in a bed like a thunderbolt and say oh! oh! oh!”
Such is the seductive appeal of the liberal arts. We are told that being a true student of the liberal arts means to have cultivated a love of learning and a set of broadly applicable skills in critical thinking, writing, reading, constant questioning, and interpersonal empathy. We are told that such students are in search of truth, looking for guidance in their studies on how to live the good life and cultivate their souls. We are told the liberal arts are a way of experiencing life; we are told the schools and institutions that teach the humanities to students — at least, in the ideal education — are not merely teaching texts but fostering great citizens and empathetic human beings. From these descriptions, the liberal arts seem like a kind of magic medicine that will make you smarter, cooler, better. One certainly might hope, and many do, that the liberal arts would make everything, like Richard said, suddenly come together.
At the time the college alumnus gave me the book bag, I was fresh from a year when I’d read for the first time in my life ancient philosophers and meditations on the nature of man. Impressed by the confidence and air of intelligence my professors and this college alumnus shared, I thought that I had gotten my foot into the door of the right club, the club that would set me apart from the common masses and propel me into a higher class: intellectual. Basically, my professors and the alumnus represented the same elitism that appealed to Richard and beckoned him to join the Classics. It was the wink-wink-nudge-nudge, you get me, we’re both literary, we appreciate this kind of thing, the secret handshake and tip of the hat: follow us, we know what to do, we’ll make you into an intellectual. In short, I, like Richard, thought I could leave everything boring and nasty about me behind, and was on the brink of transforming into a completely new and better person. Who among us hasn’t wanted that?
3.The character that to me is the most striking, out of everyone, in The Secret History, is that of Henry Winter. (Even Camilla and Charles, with their incestuous relationship lifted straight from Greek tragedy, can’t compare). Henry, the rigid, imposing scholar, who makes puns in Greek more fluently than he can in English and greets his beloved teacher on the phone with “Khairei!” was, out of the six, certainly the most devoted scholar. After all, it was he who attempted to simulate divine madness and who successfully held a bacchanal.
The believability of the fiction aside, one has to admire Henry’s passion. But in this case, it is Henry’s passion that leads to not only his fall, but also the breaking of the magic circle that they had been living in.
The bacchanal leads to a dead body, which leads to blackmail, which leads Henry to organize Bunny’s death. All of these events, in narrative, happen breathlessly; under the light of objective reality, they do, of course, seem utterly ludicrous. And yet the extremity of the tale does not lessen the takeaway.
Henry had seen the most concretely out of the group the possibility of a completely new self. He admits to Richard that his life had been stale, dead, and colorless, and that the entire appeal of the bacchanal was to “lose one’s self, lose it utterly.” The night it happened, he was able to do what he always wanted: to live without thinking.
The similarities between Richard and Henry are obvious. Like Richard, Henry had wanted to escape his old life. Like Richard, Henry was drawn to the study of the liberal arts to do so — but, seemingly, he found the key that Richard hadn’t. He might even have found it as a result of the studies he felt were so colorless. They were what enabled him to draw in the madness and kill the farmer. And as a result, he felt invincible, confident, in control; he had changed himself, become everything he wanted.
If the story stopped here, the moral lesson would be troubling. But Henry ultimately kills himself. Richard speculates on why: Julian had abandoned his students after hearing about the results of his teaching, and Henry, devastated, had needed to prove the worth of “those high cold principles which Julian had taught…Duty, piety, loyalty, sacrifice.” Though Henry, unlike Richard, had managed to forge a new self for a brief moment, it didn’t last. He could not escape from the realities of life so easily, and had to return to his old self. He was stuck. Then, bam, the gunshot.
4.What this tells us is that really, there is no magical transformation. It isn’t that books can’t change you. Of course they can, if you let them. With time and effort, they allow you to understand yourself and the world more deeply and better. But your self is not remade with a bang. There is no thunderbolt. Whether you like it or not, you are who you are. And it is the reality of this youthful illusion’s dissolution that gives The Secret History its tragic appeal.
Of course, one could point out that this book is fiction, that the characters are not real, and that most liberal arts students do not try to induce divine madness or push friends off cliffs. But that’s not the point. The novel depends on its strong characters, characters we can believe in and empathize with: Camilla liking novels, Francis gay, Bunny a spendthrift, Charles liking alcohol too much. In fact, at one point, late in the story, Richard comments that neither he nor his friends, despite their aura, were destined for a career in academia. They were just normal students, who were trying to learn how to live with all parts of themselves that they hoped to change. And when they stepped under Julian Morrow’s guidance, it seemed they might.
But by the end, Richard admits the failure: the magic teacher, turned out to be rather useless in light of a real crisis; two of their circle, dead; the rest of them, living rather aimless and unhappy lives. He became one of the elite circle, all right, but the elite circle turned out to be a rather ordinary one. He didn’t become a new person, unless as to assume a new identity of murderer. He did not leave his past self behind. At the end of the story, he states himself that he had remained what he always was: a bystander.
That doesn’t mean that he learned nothing. Quite the contrary.
His recourse was perhaps the most obvious one for a student taught to think, criticize, and observe. He analyzes the past, wonders at it, and teases out the motivations and forces leading down the chain of events. He tries to make sense of the chaos. He examines his life.
And then he does about the only thing that he, and all the line of questioners before him who have tried to find meaning out of living, can do: he writes down the entire story. And in so doing, his readers can escape their own lives, swept away briefly before coming jarringly back to their own bodies.
Image: Unsplash/Max Letek.
Dear Writing Teacher,
Could you explain in as much detail as possible what a story arc is?
I’m gonna be straight with you: I have put off answering this question not only because I’ve been busy editing my novel and potty training my kid, but also because it fills me with a swampy kind of dread. The thought of a student asking me this question in a classroom, where I would have to improvise a coherent answer, is enough to make me retire. Story arc?! It feels like I’m stuck in that dream I have fairly often, the one where I’m pushed on stage to perform a hip hop dance routine I’ve only just learned and haven’t sufficiently rehearsed. The horror!
Okay, okay, deep breath, 5-6-7-8, here I go…
At some point, you probably learned the traditional notion of story arc: there’s an inciting incident, then rising action, then a climax, and then a resolution–or, as I like to say in a husky voice, a denouement. Your sixth grade teacher probably showed you that familiar story arc graph, the one that looks like a steep mountain, or maybe a mountain range. Years later, someone might have said to you, “A story needs a beginning, a middle and an end!” Someone else might have cried out, “You need to introduce conflict!”
Honestly, all that stuff leaves me cold and confused. Once again, I find myself considering retirement.
The truth is, I’m not sure I know anything about story arc as it’s traditionally discussed, so I can’t really describe it in detail. That’s not to say, however, I haven’t investigated the topic, for myself and my students. I have. Story arc continues to perplex and thrill me.
Two years ago I wrote an essay about the plot lessons of Irish crime writer Tana French, which touches somewhat on this topic. In that piece, I explored the ways French subverted my preconceived notions of plot. This essay might be useful to you as you think about this sticky topic. And now, I will quote myself, attributing it as such, so as not to pull a Jonah Lehrer:
If a scene is the completion of an action in a specific time and place, then plot is…what, exactly? I’d venture to say that it’s the relationship between these scenes. It’s the irresistible pull–and meaningful accumulation of–cause and effect. (“The king died and then the queen died of grief,” as E.M. Forster famously put it.)
Beyond the world of storytelling, plot is defined as a secret scheme to reach a specific end. Or it’s a parcel of land. Or it means to mark a graph, chart, or map: the plotting shows us what has changed; our ship is headed this way. To a writer (me) interested in (obsessed with?) plot-making, all of these are significant definitions. The lessons abound. I once read somewhere that Margaret Atwood compared novel writing to performing burlesque: don’t take off your clothes too slowly, she advised, or the reader will get bored; get naked too fast, and the entertainment ends before it can really begin. I put that in my plot-pocket, too.
Arc is tied into notions of plot because both concern action, event, and change as they relate to character. I want to say that arc is the structure on which plot hangs. And now, a second later, I want to say that arc is the unfolding of plot, the specific path that events take to enable a character to move through a story. And now, two seconds later, I want to say that if plot is the what and the why, then arc is the how. As you can see, I’m still working all this out in my mind.
While plot always emerges from character (at least, for me it does), I don’t think arc necessarily has to be related to character. There are multiple ways to think about arc when you’re writing. The first is, indeed, with character. There’s the oft-trotted-out rule that the story’s protagonist has to change for the story to be successful, and though I agree with that much of the time, I don’t think that’s always the case. Change should occur, but not necessarily within a character.
If it is character, you’d be wise to (binge) watch the television series Orange is the New Black to chart heroine Piper Chapman’s transformation from prissy, naive, and entitled young white woman to young white woman who is learning (trying? failing?) to shed her prissiness, naivete, and entitlement. Prison has changed her — hasn’t it? One could argue that the former version of herself would not — spoiler alert! — have beaten the shit out of a fellow human being. The arc is terrific because you can chart its progress: you can see how every conflict that arises pushes Piper and molds her. The question is whether you can see that same cause and effect in your own work.
I watched Orange is the New Black as I read Donna Tartt’s forthcoming novel, The Goldfinch (that’s right, people, I snagged that galley!), which is a massive and magnificent story about an orphaned boy and his relationship to art, the world, and himself in the wake of terrible grief. In both the TV series and the novel, I kept my eye on character arc. In each, the hero’s view of him- or herself shifts, as does his or her behavior. In The Goldfinch, however, that change is slow and complicated, and for much of the book, it’s the unchanging, repetition of destructive behavior that’s tragic yet dramatic. In Tartt’s novel, the hero’s desire for meaning, coupled with a need for solace and connection, pushes the character to act, be it in a new way or an unchanging one. His arc is thus thornier than anything on television, but it’s no less compelling. It reminds me of what my friend and colleague Adam Cushman, who recently taught a seminar on story structure for Writing Workshops Los Angeles, told me: “The greatest story arcs are layered, and conflict us emotionally. I call this falling forward, or using creative destruction as a way to create emotion.”
Another arc I’m interested is in the reader’s. As one scene follows the next, the reader amasses more and more information about the characters and their turmoil, about the situation they’re in. A reader thus experiences her own series of revelations and emotional responses, which may or may not mirror the protagonist’s. (Side note: I recently re-read Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood, and it got me thinking about how, with speculative fiction in particular, much of the narrative drive is puzzling together what’s happened to the world, and how, and why. Exposition-gathering is its own satisfying arc! Discuss among yourselves.)
Aside from — or instead of? — thinking about your character’s arc, you might consider your reader’s. What do you want your reader to feel at the beginning of your story? How about at the end? What needs to occur, what information needs to be supplied, in order to make your reader feel such-and-such?
What I really want to know is: What if a character doesn’t change, but the reader’s perception of that character does? (I think, in fact, this is what Oryx and Crake does, and does well.)
The last kind of arc that interests me is the arc of language. (The Arc of Language should be the title of my next novel. I promise it’ll be beautiful but super boring.) This can refer to how language evolves within a text as a whole, or within a chapter or even a paragraph. This is actually the arc I pay the most attention to during a first draft, for I don’t yet know enough about my characters or the story to make huge decisions. In many cases, language sheds light on the choices I need to make for the manuscript as a whole.
In my classes, I love to teach John Gardner’s “foreplay paragraph,” which is what he calls a paragraph that precedes a big reveal–like that of a dead body. In this kind of paragraph, the writer has to signal to the reader that something big is up ahead, while still making the prose good enough that the reader won’t want to skip over it. In this exercise, Gardener is tipping his hat to the way language itself evolves in a narrative: to signal, reflect or incite change. Next time you’re writing, consider if your piece records any kind of aesthetic change. Does the language start lyrical and move toward something more minimal? Does the voice go from barbed to vulnerable and back again? If you want, you can isolate a paragraph, and consider how it moves, how it affects the reader, how it reveals character, setting or conflict, as it progresses. Sometimes arc is best understood when considered on the smallest level.
And now that I have thoroughly confused you, here are some homework assignments that might help turn my abstract ramblings into something more applicable to your writing life:
1. Read a short story with a friend. Afterward, draw the arc of the narrative without discussing it with your friend, and have your friend do the same. Interpret the word “arc” any way you see fit; the point is to make the narrative visual. Then, compare drawings and discuss their similarities and differences. I highly recommend doing this exercise with “In a Bear’s Eye” (from the collection of the same name) by Yannick Murphy, which is lovely and strange. I once had my students break into groups to draw this story’s arc. Each arc was so different from the next, but they all made sense.
2. After you’ve written a short story or a chapter, take a look at your scenes and/or sections (if it’s summary). On an index card, write down what happens in each scene or section — keep it brief. Next, write down what the reader has learned plot- or character-wise, and then, what the character feels at the beginning of the scene versus what he or she feels at the end of the scene. Lastly, write down the questions raised and answered by the scene. These questions can be specific and literal, or not (anything from “Where is the dress?” to “Why does she believe herself inadequate?”) Some questions might carry from scene to scene, never to be answered, and others might be quickly resolved. Any scene that doesn’t ask or answer interesting questions, and doesn’t push the reader and/or the character into new territory, probably should be revised or cut. Please, remember: don’t do this until you’re finished with a draft! You don’t want to over-think matters!
3. Find a paragraph from fiction that you really love, and retype it as if it were your own. Then, taking the structure of this paragraph — its syntax, its sentence-lengths, its logical twist, etc. — write an emulation paragraph that copies only form, not content. Here’s one from Inferno by Eileen Myles that I am currently reading and rereading, which you might like to use:
The next book we will read she said, pulling the shade on existentialism for the moment, is a much older text. It’s part of the tradition, but is a very modern book, quite political. She had this cute glint when she was being smart which was always. She wasn’t big smart, she didn’t clobber you with words. She just kind of befriended us like wolves but she believed that wolves were good and could be taught too. But she was from New York, was Jewish and had been born intelligent. She was blonde. Are Jews blonde. I didn’t know. I would learn so much more. Sometimes her jersey was nearly green but that was as dark as it got.
Unexpected and great, right?
Maybe this last exercise has nothing to do with arc, but it’s fun and difficult, which is how I would describe writing to my grandma, or my gynecologist. Also, it’s an important reminder that a story arc is made up of words and more words, that’s it, and thank goodness.
Godspeed, Narratively Challenged, this is all I’ve got.
The Writing Teacher
Got a question? Send all queries about craft, technique, or the writing life to [email protected].
The first half of 2013 delighted us with new books by the likes of George Saunders, Karen Russell, and Colum McCann, among many others. And if the last six months had many delights on offer for book lovers, the second half of the year can only be described as an invitation to gluttony. In the next six months, you’ll see new books by Jhumpa Lahiri, Margaret Atwood, Donna Tartt, Marisha Pessl, Norman Rush, Jonathan Lethem, and none other than Thomas Pynchon. And beyond those headliners there are many other tantalizing titles in the wings, including some from overseas and others from intriguing newcomers.
The list that follows isn’t exhaustive – no book preview could be – but, at 9,000 words strong and encompassing 86 titles, this is the only second-half 2013 book preview you will ever need. Scroll down and get started.
Visitation Street by Ivy Pochoda: Crime writer Dennis Lehane chose Pochoda’s lyrical and atmospheric second novel for his eponymous imprint at Ecco/Harper, calling it “gritty and magical.” Pitched as a literary thriller about the diverse inhabitants of Red Hook, Brooklyn, Visitation Street has already received starred reviews from Publisher’s Weekly, Kirkus Reviews, and Library Journal. Lionel Shriver says, “I loved it,” and Deborah Harkness calls it “marvelous.” (Edan)
Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish by David Rakoff: Rakoff was the author of three books of essays, the winner of the Thurber Prize for American Humor, and a beloved regular on This American Life who died last year shortly after finishing this book. A novel written entirely in verse (a form in which he was masterful, as evidenced here), its characters range across the 20th century, each connected to the next by an act of generosity or cruelty. (Janet)
The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. by Adelle Waldman: Waldman recently weighed in for us on the centuries-old Richardson vs. Fielding debate. Now, in her first novel, she expertly plays the former’s psychological penetration off the latter’s civic vision. The titular Nathaniel, one of Brooklyn’s sad young literary men, seeks to navigate between his public ambitions and his private compulsions in a series of romantic encounters. Those without 718 area codes shouldn’t let the milieu scare them off; questions of whether Nate can heed the difficult imperatives of the conscience—and of how Waldman will pull off a whole book from the man’s point of view—keep the pages turning, while generating volumes of quotable insight, in the manner of The Marriage Plot. (Garth)
Fin & Lady by Cathleen Schine: A country mouse moves to the city in Cathleen Schine’s ninth novel. The mouse is Fin, an orphaned eleven-year old boy, and the city is Greenwich Village in the 1960s. Under the guardianship of his glamorous half-sister, Lady, Fin gets to know both the city and his wild sister, and encounters situations that are a far cry from his Connecticut dairy farm upbringing. As with many of Schine’s previous novels, Fin & Lady explores changing definitions of family. (Hannah)
My Education by Susan Choi: Reflect upon your sordid graduate school days with a novel of the perverse master-student relationship and adulterous sex triangle. Professor Brodeur is evidently the kind of man whose name is scrawled on restroom walls by vengeful English majors—rather than end up in the sack with him, Choi’s protagonist Regina instead starts up an affair with his wife. Later in the novel and in time, Regina reflects on this period in her life and the changes wrought by the intervening 15 years. Choi was a Pulitzer Prize finalist for her second novel, American Woman. (Lydia)
Five Star Billionaire by Tash Aw: The third novel from the winner of the 2005 Whitbread First Novel Award follows the lives and business ventures of five characters in Shanghai, each representing various—and at times dichotomous—social strata. There’s Phoebe, the poor and unsophisticated migrant worker from Malaysia; and there’s Yinghui, the rich and ambitious businesswoman. There’s Gary, the waylaid pop star; and there’s Justin, the scion of a wealthy real estate family. Lastly there’s Walter, the eponymous billionaire, who meddles behind the scenes with the lives of almost everybody. Altogether, their multi-layered, intersecting lives contribute to make “Shanghai itself [into] the book’s real main character,” writes Jill Baker in the Asian Review of Books. It’s a city “luring in people hoping for a second chance or … any chance at all.” (Nick)
Lotería by Mario Alberto Zambrano: It’s a rare first novel that can appeal to partisans of both S.E. Hinton and Julio Cortázar, but Lotería does just that. The story 11-year-old Luz Maria Castillo begins telling us from her room in a state institution is deceptively plainspoken: Here’s how I got here. But as the story proceeds in fragments, keyed not to chronology but to a deck of cards from Lotería (a kind of Mexican bingo), things get shiftier. Color reproductions of the cards introduce each chapter, making the book, if not exactly Kindle-proof, then at least uncommonly handsome. (Garth)
The Unknowns by Gabriel Roth: Gabriel Roth’s debut novel follows Eric Muller from his lonely high school days as a computer geek to his millionaire success in Silicon Valley as a computer geek. Slightly disoriented by his newfound abilities to make money and bed women, Muller wryly observes his life as if he is that same awkward teenager trapped in a dream life. When he falls in love with Maya, a beautiful woman with a mysterious past, he must choose between the desire to emotionally (and literally) hack into it, or to trust his good fortune. (Janet)
The Hare by César Aira: A recent bit of contrarianism in The New Republic blamed the exhaustive posthumous marketing of Roberto Bolaño for crowding other Latin American writers out of the U.S. marketplace. If anything, it seems to me, it’s the opposite: the success of The Savage Detectives helped publishers realize there was a market for Daniel Sada, Horacio Castellanos Moya, and the fascinating Argentine César Aira. The past few years have seen seven of Aira’s many novels translated into English. Some of them, like Ghosts, are transcendently good, but none has been a breakout hit. Maybe the reissue of The Hare, which appeared in the U.K. in 1998, will be it. At the very least, it’s the longest Aira to appear in English: a picaresque about a naturalist’s voyage into the Argentinean pampas. (Garth)
Night Film by Marisha Pessl: Pessl’s first novel since Special Topics in Calamity Physics, her celebrated 2006 debut, concerns a David Lynchish filmmaker whose daughter has died in Lower Manhattan under suspicious circumstances. Soon, reporter Scott McGrath has launched an investigation that will take him to the heart of the auteur’s secretive empire: his cult following, his whacked-out body of work, and his near impenetrable upstate compound. With interpolated web pages and documents and Vanity Fair articles, the novel’s a hot pop mess, but in the special way of a latter-day Kanye West album or a movie co-directed by Charlie Kaufman and Michael Bay, and the climax alone—a 65-page haunted-house tour-de-force—is worth the price of admission. (Garth)
Cannonball by Joseph McElroy: McElroy was writing the lights out in the ‘70s and early ‘80s, and in the last few years has been rediscovered by a younger generation of readers, who justly class him with Thomas Pynchon—a writer of a wildly different sensibility, but a similar, world-devouring ambition. Hell, he even did a Year in Reading. If 2011’s Night Soul is any indication, McElroy’s can still intrigue, baffle, and stop the heart, often all at once. This, his first novel in many a moon, concerns the Iraq War, among other things, and it’s hard to think of an author more suited to reimagining the subject. (Garth)
Claire of the Sea Light by Edwidge Danticat: The author of a string of heartbreaking novels about the strife-torn Caribbean nation of Haiti, including The Farming of Bones and The Dew Breaker, Danticat here tells the story of a young motherless girl whose poverty-stricken father considers giving her away a wealthier family. Hailed by Publishers Weekly as “magical as a folk tale and as effective and devastating as a newsreel,” the novel paints a stark portrait of village life in Haiti. (Michael)
Remember How I Told You I Loved You? by Gillian Linden: Gillian Linden’s debut collection of linked stories follows a young woman through college, careers, love affairs and marriages— “from delayed adolescence to (delayed) adulthood.” The publisher, Little A (Amazon’s new literary fiction imprint), describes the collection as “a sharp and intimate take on romance and infidelity, trust and betrayal,” written in a “deadpan narrative, cool and precise.” Linden’s story “Pests” was recently published in The Paris Review. Linden will join the ranks of several talented literary writers that Little A has published since its launch in March — including A.L. Kennedy, Shawn Vestal, and Jenny Davidson. (Sonya)
The Infatuations by Javier Marias: Marias’s only competitor for the title of Spain’s Most Important Living Writer may be Enrique Vila-Matas. Each of his last few books with New Directions, translated by Margaret Jull Costa, set a new high-water mark—most recently, the mammoth trilogy Your Face Tomorrow. Now he’s made the jump to Knopf, which means you’re about to hear a lot about him. And deservedly so, it would seem: The Infatuations has already been called “great literature” in Spain and “perhaps his best novel” in the U.K. Is there any reason on earth you wouldn’t want to read the greatest novel of Spain’s greatest living writer? Of course there isn’t. Now get thee to a bookshop! (Garth)
The Color Master by Aimee Bender: Ogres, tiger-mending and playing at prostitution—yep, it’s time for Aimee Bender to once again enchant us with her whimsical and magical fiction. Her next story collection comes out just three years after the publication of her bestselling novel The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, and it looks like the book is a return to form for Bender. Publishers Weekly says that even the tales that resemble children’s storybooks “are haunted by a taut, sardonic melancholy,” noting that her “mood pieces” about female friendship are the strongest of the bunch. (Edan)
Elect H. Mouse State Judge by Nelly Reifler: To Kafka’s “Josephine, the Mouse-Singer” and Bolaño’s “Police Rat” and Mrs. Frisby and that one A.M. Homes story where the kid gets it on with a Barbie doll, we must now add Nelly Reifler’s first novel. It’s a fast-paced caper—politician’s kids get abducted, private eyes go searching—but with a major twist: H. Mouse is a mouse, and both perps and dicks are dolls. Shrewdly, Reifler serves this concoction neat; what could have been cheap thrills give way to weirder and more surprising effects. (Garth)
The Rathbones by Janice Clark: The Rathbones is the most sui generis debut you’re likely to encounter this year. Think Moby-Dick directed by David Lynch from a screenplay by Gabriel Garcia Marquez…with Charles Addams doing the set design and The Decembrists supplying the chanteys. Initially the story of the last surviving member of an eccentric 19th-Century whaling dynasty, it becomes the story of that dynasty itself. I should also say that this was the single most exciting thing I read in manuscript in graduate school, where the author and I studied together. Clark writes a beautiful prose line, and the story, like the ocean, get deeper, richer, and stranger the farther out you go. (Garth)
A Schoolboy’s Diary and Other Stories by Robert Walser: For a long time, Walser addicts—which is to say, pretty much anyone who has come into contact with this intoxicating writer—had to make do with the novel Jakob van Gunten (but what a novel!) and a slim edition of selected stories. But, half a century after his death, the Swiss master of smallness and obscurity is finally getting the treatment he deserves. Microscripts was one of the best books I read in 2012. The tireless Susan Bernofsky has also given us versions of The Tanners, The Assistant, and a collection of Berlin Stories. In this volume, Damion Searls translates a group of stories about school life—also the engine of much of Jakob van Gunten’s exquisite comedy. (Garth)
Necessary Errors by Caleb Crain: Lately, it’s seemed that the “literary” first novel had become a genre unto itself: a certain page-limit, a certain definition of scope, a certain set of problems, modestly conceived and modestly transcended. If so, Crain’s stately, wry, and generous first novel breaks the mold. Certainly, there’s a classic coming-of-age narrative here. But as the back-cover blurbs attest, the adventures of American Jacob Putnam in Czechoslovakia right after the Iron Curtain’s fall recall Henry James as much as they do Ben Lerner. Crain’s broad social canvas and his deep interest in the lives of other people are marks of distinction. (Garth)
The Novel: An Alternative History (1600-1800) by Steven Moore: The first volume of Moore’s magisterial survey advanced a theory of the novel as inherently experimental and multicultural, and much older than is generally acknowledged. It’s not that Jane Austen moves to the margins and Gertrude Stein to the center, but that Austen and Stein become recognizably part of the same story. And though Moore hews closer, necessarily, to synopsis than to close-reading, his project is an invaluable desk reference for the catholic reader. In volume 2, he turns his sights to the era that inspired the argument in the first place, a period that begins with Don Quixote. (Garth)
The Sound of Things Falling by Juan Gabriel Vásquez: At The Age, Cameron Woodhead writes: “With The Sound of Things Falling, Colombian novelist Juan Gabriel Vásquez has created a story that can be appreciated purely for the dramatic way it dives into the black hole of his country’s past—the drug cartels and paramilitaries that scarred a generation—although the supple thought-weave of the prose won’t be lost on anyone with a taste for more reflective fiction.” Woodhead also compares Vasquez to Graham Greene, W.G. Sebald, and Robert Bolaño—all writers who give us an expansive sense of a country’s history and legacy through the lives of compelling individuals. The protagonist is a Colombian lawyer named Antonio whose memory takes him back to a long-ago acquaintance with the ex-pilot Ricardo LaVerde and a series of mysterious (and yes, violent) occurrences. Vásquez, who is 40, has published four previous novels, but prefers to not count the first two, which he wrote in his early 20s; so “officially,” Sound is his third novel. (Sonya)
The Virgins by Pamela Erens: This smart, unsettling novel is narrated by a middle-aged man obsessed by the star-crossed love affair of two classmates at his boarding school thirty years ago. Erens, author of one previous novel, The Understory, displays an uncanny gift for writing honestly about pot-toking, hormone-addled adolescents while granting them the full range of human emotion one expects from a novel for adults. The novel is from indie press Tin House Books, a spinoff of the well-known literary magazine that has quietly built a reputation as a home for first-rate literary fiction. (Michael)
The Wicked Girls by Alex Marwood: Alex Marwood is the pseudonym of British journalist Serena Mackesy, and The Wicked Girls is her dark and beautifully executed first novel. In the mid-eighties, two eleven-year-old girls meet for the first time and become friends. By the end of the day, a younger child has died at their hands. Twenty-five years later, with new lives and changed identities, the two women encounter one another in a seaside town where a serial killer is active. A haunting meditation on crime and punishment. (Emily)
The Affairs of Others by Amy Grace Loyd: Loyd, formerly the fiction editor at Playboy, moves to the other side of the desk with a first novel of elegant intensity. A young widow in Brooklyn has bought her apartment building, and so become an accidental landlord. Or do people still say landlady? At any rate, her straitened existence is challenged by the arrival of a fascinating new tenant, with emotional transformation the ultimate issue. Loyd’s burnished, spare sentences conceal hidden volumes of emotion, and in its different moods, the book may put readers in mind of Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland or of a more hopeful version of Claire Messud’s recent The Woman Upstairs. (Garth)
Brief Encounters with the Enemy by Saïd Sayrafiezadeh: Sayrafiezadeh’s acclaimed memoir, When Skateboards Will Be Free, chronicled a childhood being raised by an Iranian father and American Jewish mother united by an extreme devotion to the Socialist Workers Party. Three years later, Sayrafiezadeh, whose fiction has appeared in Granta, The New Yorker, and The Paris Review, among other places, publishes his first short story collection. The everyday trials of his characters, some of them grappling with the rippling effects of a nameless war (“this could be any war, or perhaps the next war,” Sayrafiezadeh told The New Yorker) “are transformed into storytelling that is both universally resonant and wonderfully strange.” (Elizabeth)
The Hypothetic Girl by Elizabeth Cohen: From Other Press, a collection of stories that “captures all the mystery, misery, and magic of the eternal search for human connection” via tales about the bizarre and inarguably ubiquitous world of online dating. Says Amazon: “With levity and high style, Cohen takes her readers into a world where screen and keyboard meet the heart, with consequences that range from wonderful to weird.” For anyone who’s been submerged in this wonderful weird search, these stories are likely to ring a therapeutic bell. Or, in some cases perhaps, a gong. Look out for an essay from Cohen in July, and an excerpt in early August, at Bloom. (Sonya)
MaddAddam by Margaret Atwood: MaddAddam concludes the dystopian trilogy that Atwood began ten years ago with Oryx and Crake and continued in 2009 with The Year of the Flood. Booklist calls MaddAddam a “coruscating finale in an ingenious, cautionary trilogy of hubris, fortitude, wisdom, love, and life’s grand obstinacy.” (Emily)
Bleeding Edge by Thomas Pynchon: Since his 1997 comeback, Pynchon’s been uncommonly productive…and, more characteristically, all over the map. I thought Mason & Dixon his best book; Against the Day vastly underrated; and Inherent Vice fun but disposable. Proximity to the present moment can be a telling index of the quality of a Pynchon project, so the setting here—New York’s Silicon Alley on the eve of the dot-com crash—gives one pause. But Pynchon’s ability to “think the present historically” in his last two books was the best thing about them, so maybe he still has much to tell us about the way we live now. (Garth)
Doctor Sleep by Stephen King: Thirty-six years later, it’s here: a sequel to The Shining. Dan Torrance, the tricycle peddling protagonist of the original horror classic, is now middle-age and working in a nursing home in New Hampshire where he uses his ebbing mental powers to comfort the dying. The story picks up when Dan tries to save Abra Stone, a twelve-year-old girl with gifts like the ones he used to have, who is in danger from a group called The True Knot, which travels the country consuming children with the gift of The Shining. (Kevin)
The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri: Lahiri’s second novel (and fourth book) comes heaped with expectations and describes the relationship between two formerly inseparable brothers born in mid-century Calcutta. The first, Udayan, is drawn into revolutionary politics; the second, Subash, leaves his native country to make a better life for himself as a scientist in the United States. But tragedy strikes Udayan and Subash returns home where he gets to know Udayan’s former wife and reconnects with childhood memories. (Kevin)
Someone by Alice McDermott: An excerpt of Alice McDermott’s new novel, Someone, appeared in the New Yorker as a story of the same name. The story is about Marie, who is seventeen years old in 1937, when a boy from her Brooklyn neighborhood turns her head, fondles her breast, promises marriage, and then spurns her for a better-looking girl. In the story, the titular Someone is the person who, Marie’s brother promises, will one day love her. McDermott told The New Yorker’s Deborah Treisman that the novel is the story of “one unremarkable woman,” because “novels about unremarkable women, especially those written by unremarkable women, seem a thing of the past.” Who you calling “unremarkable,” Alice McDermott? (Lydia)
Seiobo There Below by László Krasznahorkai: In the last few years, American readers have rapidly awakened to Krasznahorkai’s important place in the republic of world letters. He is one of few working novelists who still aspires to mastery, in the Modernist sense, and each of the three previous novels translated into English has been a masterpiece. Those books were set in Europe and New York. Seiobo, published in Hungarian in 2009, reveals a different side of the Krasznahorkai oeuvre: his decades-long engagement with East Asia. It’s a major feat of editing and translating, and the publication date been pushed back. Those who can’t wait should check out the excerpt in Music & Literature. (Garth)
Enon by Paul Harding: Harding’s 2009 debut, Tinkers, won him the Pulitzer Prize and instant acclaim as one of the most profound writers of our time. Enon follows Charlie Crosby, the grandson of Tinkers protagonist George Washington Crosby, through a year of his life after a devastating loss. Inhabiting the same New England landscape so intricately rendered in Tinkers (Enon is the town where George Crosby died), Enon is a story about small moment and big questions. (Janet)
John Updike: The Collected Stories by John Updike: This two-volume collection spans the arc of a life’s work. One hundred and eighty-six stories are presented in their final versions and in definitive order of composition, established for the first time by archival research: from “Ace in the Hole” (1953), written when Updike was still a student at Harvard, to “The Full Glass” from 2008, the final year of his life. In his poem “Spirit of ’76,” written during his final illness and published in The New Yorker three months after his death, Updike wrote:
I see clear through to the ultimate page,
the silence I dared break for my small time.
No piece was easy, but each fell finished,
in its shroud of print, into a book-shaped hole. (Emily)
Nine Inches by Tom Perrotta: American fiction’s favorite lighthearted chronicler of suburban angst delivers his first collection of short stories since Bad Haircut, his first book, nineteen years ago. In Nine Inches, Perrotta, the author of the Hollywood-friendly novels Little Children and The Leftovers (currently under development as a HBO series), returns to familiar themes of fractured families and the undercurrent of disappointment that lurks just below the placid surface of suburban life. Perrotta knows his way around a punch line, so expect some chuckles to go along with your quiet desperation. (Michael)
The Childhood of Jesus by J.M. Coetzee: When it came out in the UK and Ireland this Spring, Coetzee’s new novel was received with an even more potent combination of admiration and confusion than his work is normally met with. Reviewing the book in the Telegraph, Michael Preston asked whether it was “possible to be deeply affected by a book without really knowing what it’s about?” (The fairly obvious answer: yes.) A man and a five year old boy arrive in a sort of refugee camp, where they are assigned new names and ages. The boy speaks in riddles and claims to be able to perform miracles. Together, they search for the boy’s mother, and endure a series of odd bureaucratic encounters. The inscrutable spirit of Kafka has often flickered across Coetzee’s pages, and that spirit seems to loom large here. (Mark)
The Maid’s Version by Daniel Woodrell: Daniel Woodrell, a master of “country noir” fiction, makes rare use of autobiography in his new novel, The Maid’s Version. While growing up in West Plains, Missouri, Woodrell listened to stories his grandmother told about a mysterious dance hall explosion in town in 1928 that killed 39 people. In the novel, a grandmother tells her grandson about working as a maid for the family that was implicated in the blast but never held responsible. The novel is “very lyrical and not completely chronological,” Woodrell told an interviewer, “because it’s the story of a family and the after-effects on the family and the grandmother trying to get justice or revenge.” (Bill)
Levels of Life by Julian Barnes: Julian Barnes’s new book is not a novel, and not a memoir, and not a collection of essays, although it appears to contain elements of all three. The collection begins with a brief history of hot air ballooning and the characters involved in its development and lured by its attractions. Part two is an imagined romance between Sarah Bernhardt, who was in life one of the people from the latter category, and Colonel Frederick Burnaby, intrepid ballooner (who is, incidentally, documented on the delightful website “Great British Nutters”). In the third part of his new book, Barnes ties these curious introductory portions into a memoir of his profound grief following the loss of Pat Kavanagh, his wife of 30 years. (Lydia)
Traveling Sprinkler by Nicholson Baker: Last year, Nicholson Baker treated the Internet to a cluster of peculiar, melancholy protest songs about Bradley Manning and the Obama administration’s drone assassination program. The venture was out of character in a way that was, weirdly, entirely characteristic of Baker. The songs appear to have been, at least in part, an aspect of a method writing exercise for his new novel, Traveling Sprinkler—a sort of sequel to 2009’s The Anthologist, in which Paul Chowder sat around having a lot of thoughts about poetry while failing to write the introduction to a poetry anthology. In the new novel, Chowder sits around trying to write protest songs. Very few writers are as interesting as Baker on the theme of men sitting (or standing) around, so this looks promising. (Mark)
Dissident Gardens by Jonathan Lethem: Of the greats of his generation, Lethem is one of the few who’s gotten steadily better, novel by novel. Fortress of Solitude is a better book than Motherless Brooklyn, and in my read, Chronic City is even better than that—the highs less high, but the consistency more consistent. It’s also worth noting that Lethem’s always been a political writer (science-fiction being among other things a way of thinking about the possible) and has been more so lately. Expectations for Dissident Gardens, then—a generation-spanning saga centered around Leftists from Sunnyside Queens—should be very, very high. (Garth)
Mood Indigo by Boris Vian: Few of Vian’s novels have been translated, but L’Ecume des Jours is appearing in English for the third time, with a third title (Mood Indigo, Froth on the Daydream, Foam of the Daze, take your pick). Still, we should be grateful for what we are given—Le Monde named L’Ecume number 10 on the 100 best books of the century. Vian (d. 1959), published under his own name and the pseudonym Vernon Sullivan. He was a trumpeter in the Hot Club de France, devotee of Duke Ellington, ingester of peyote, consort of Sartre (until Sartre consorted with his wife). Written in 1947, L’Ecume is a sad, fanciful love story (which, the Harvard Crimson wrote in 1969, read like “perceptions at a stoned-soul picnic,” in a good way). Mood Indigo received the Michel Gondry film treatment last spring. (Lydia)
Subtle Bodies by Norman Rush: The decade-in-the-making follow-up to Mortals (one of our Best Novels of the Millennium) is also a departure. The first of Rush’s books not set in Botswana, it’s shorter by half than either of his previous novels, and when I got a galley in the mail, the jacket copy—comfortable fortysomethings at a Big Chill-style reunion near the start of the Iraq War—made me even more nervous. Was the Rush magic still there? Then my wife started reading it, then started putting it down to laugh, and finally began forcing me to listen to her read whole passages aloud for the sheer pleasure of the phrases. Note to Mr. Rush: You had me at “berserk industry.” (Garth)
His Wife Leaves Him by Stephen Dixon: A 600-page depiction of a jilted lover’s interior thoughts might not be your idea of an enjoyable book, but in the hands of a writer as talented as Stephen Dixon, it’s certainly one worth reading. In his own description of the novel, he’s noted that it’s about “a bunch of nouns” such as “love, guilt, sickness, death, remorse, loss, family, matrimony, sex, children, parenting, aging, mistakes, incidents, minutiae, birth, music, writing, jobs, affairs, memory, remembering, reminiscences, forgetting, repression, dreams, reverie, nightmares, meeting, dating, conceiving, imagining, delaying, loving.” Indeed these words convey the complexity of a life rendered whole, of a relationship’s threads and effects laid bare, and of honest memories enlivened by an acute and unrelenting ache. When a relationship dies, all that remains are remembered details, and in the words of Jim Harrison, “death steals everything except our stories.” (Nick)
Local Souls by Allan Gurganus: For his first book in a decade, Allan Gurganus returns to the imagined town of Falls, N.C., where he set his first and best-known novel, Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All. His new book, Local Souls, which owes more to Flannery O’Connor than to Nikolai Gogol, is three linked novellas set in the contemporary New South, with its air-conditioning and improved telecommunications, its freer sexuality and looser family ties. However, some old habits prove hard to break—including adultery, incest and obsession—in these tales that unfold in a Dixiefied version of Winesburg, Ohio. (Bill)
Between Friends by Amos Oz: Born in Jerusalem in 1939, Amos Oz spent three decades living on a kibbutz because city life was not “radical” enough for him and, as he puts it in his new book of stories, Between Friends, he wanted to live among “people with patience and doubts and compassion.” These eight stories, set in the imaginary Kibbutz Yikhat during the 1950s of Oz’s youth, spin around the shortcomings of idealism and the fragility of all utopias. In the end, the stories affirm Oz’s long-held belief that both on the kibbutz and throughout the larger Middle East, the only hope lies not in conflict, but in compromise. (Bill)
The Brunist Day by Robert Coover: Aside from being a terrific year for first novels, 2013 may be remembered for its efflorescence of major work from the eminences grises of postmodernism. So far, we’ve gotten Gass’s Middle C, Pynchon’s Bleeding Edge, and McElroy’s Cannonball. Now Coover, author of a couple of the great postwar novels (e.g., The Public Burning), returns with a thousand-page sequel to his very first book, The Origin of the Brunists. I haven’t been this excited to read new Coover…well, since I started reading Coover. The folks at Dzanc Books should be commended. (Garth)
Hawthorn & Child by Keith Ridgway: This isn’t the story of a family business, à la Dombey & Son, but rather a buddy-cop detective vehicle—except the cops aren’t exactly buddies, and most of what gets detected is random violence and existential unease. Ridgway is a brilliant stylist from Ireland, and the early word from the U.K. is that he’s hit his stride here, in a kind of deadpan avant-pop tour of contemporary London. (Garth)
Duplex by Kathryn Davis: Davis’s earlier novel, The Thin Place, is set in a place where the membrane between the real world and the spirit world is extremely thin. Most of her work, which includes six previous novels, sits at this same juncture, combining real and imagined worlds. Duplex is the story of Mary and Eddie, two children growing up in a duplex outside time, while “adulthood”—a world of sorcerers, robots, and slaves—looms ahead. (Janet)
Goat Mountain by David Vann: In his writing across a variety of forms—short stories, novels, memoir, and reportage—David Vann has returned repeatedly to the same deep well of themes: nature, thwarted masculinity, family, and violence. In his third novel Goat Mountain, an eleven-year-old boy goes on a deer-hunt with his father and grandfather, and things, as they tend to do this writer’s work, take a devastating turn. There’s a rawness and obsessional urgency to Vann’s writing that makes this ongoing project of recasting and development among the most compelling in contemporary literature. (Mark)
At the Bottom of Everything by Ben Dolnick: Dolnick’s third novel is about a dark secret that tears apart a boyhood friendship and how the two are brought back together as adults to reckon with what happened long ago. The jacket copy calls it “a tale of spiritual reckoning, of search and escape, of longing and reaching for redemption—a tale of near hallucinatory power.” Dolnick, who writes for NPR and the New York Times, has also written a Kindle single called Shelf-Love, about his fanaticism for Alice Munro. (Edan)
The Traymore Rooms by Norm Sibum: Poet Norm Sibum’s 700-pager should be on the radar of all the maximalism-starved readers who landed A Naked Singularity on our Top 10 list in 2012—though the book might more rightly be likened to something by William Gass or Alexander Theroux. Plot isn’t Sibum’s thing, exactly, but his erudition (considerable), sense of character (eccentric), and mood (quietly splenetic) more than compensate. The novel concerns a group of aging friends who share haunts in downtown Montreal. They talk, fight, love, and try to make sense of a historical moment that has disappointed their youthful hopes. And apart from an overreliance on that contemporary workhorse, the absolute phrase, the prose is a consistent pleasure. (Garth)
The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt: In a 2002 interview with The Guardian, Tartt said she couldn’t “think of anything worse than having to turn out a book every year. It would be hell.” She seems to have settled into a pattern of turning out a book every ten or eleven years instead. In her third novel, The Goldfinch, a young boy named Theo Decker survives an accident that kills his mother. In the years that follow, he finds himself drawn to things that remind him of her, including a painting that draws him eventually into the art underworld. (Emily)
Identical by Scott Turow: Every three years, with metronome-like regularity, bestselling lawyer-author Scott Turow comes out with another well-turned legal thriller set in corruption-rife Kindle County. Three years after 2010’s Innocent, Turow is right on schedule with a new thriller focusing on a pair of identical twins, one a candidate for mayor in Kindle County, the other a convicted murderer just released from prison after serving 25 years for killing his girlfriend. This is Turow country, so nothing is as it seems and the plot turns on a re-investigation of the decades-old murder that sent one of the brothers to prison. (Michael)
The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert: Elizabeth Gilbert’s return to fiction (she wrote that little-known memoir called Eat Pray Love) is a sprawling historical novel about Alma Whittaker, the daughter of a botanical explorer, and talented scientist in her own right, and her relationship with Utopian artist Ambrose Pike. As the jacket copy says, “Alma Whittaker is a witness to history, as well as maker of history herself.” The book spans the globe and two centuries, and it sounds like a big and exciting artistic departure for Gilbert. (Edan)
Solo (James Bond) by William Boyd: At this year’s London Book Fair, venerated author William Boyd announced the one-word title of his forthcoming James Bond novel, which reflects the spy’s solitary and unauthorized mission. The book is an authorized sequel to Jeffery Deaver’s novel, Carte Blanche, published in 2011. At the Book Fair, Boyd said that key action takes place in Africa, the US and Europe, and remarked that Bond “goes on a real mission to real countries and the world he’s in is absolutely 1969. There are no gimmicks, it’s a real spy story.” (Edan)
Dirty Love by Andre Dubus III: The four interlocking stories within Andre Dubus III’s sixth book explore the “bottomless needs and stubborn weaknesses of people seeking gratification in food and sex, work and love.” These highs and lows are depicted by Mark, a Massachusetts man who’s recently discovered his wife’s infidelity; by Marla, an overweight young woman who’s just found a lover; by Robert, who’s just betrayed his pregnant wife; and by Devon, a teenager terrorized by a dirty picture she’s posted online, and whose story comprises the collection’s titular novella. (Nick)
Cartwheel by Jennifer DuBois: Jennifer DuBois follows her decorated first novel, A Partial History of Lost Causes, with Cartwheel, a novel with loud echoes of the recent murder trial, conviction and eventual acquittal of Amanda Knox. Cartwheel’s protagonist, Lily Hayes, is an American arriving in Buenos Aires for a semester abroad. Five weeks later she’s the prime suspect in her roommate’s brutal murder. Questions arise. Is Lily guilty? More importantly, exactly who is Lily Hayes? “Cartwheel will keep you guessing until the final page,” the publisher promises, “and its questions about how much we really know about ourselves will linger well beyond.” (Bill)
The Hired Man by Aminatta Forna: Aminatta Forna made her name with The Devil That Danced on the Water, her memoir about her father’s execution for treason in Sierra Leone. In her new novel, The Hired Man, a naive middle-class Englishwoman named Laura arrives with her two teenage children in the Croatian town of Gost, planning to renovate an old house. She enlists the help of an introspective handyman named Duro, and before long the haunted memories of the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s come bubbling up from the past. Ill-equipped to understand the dark local history, Laura will come to see that there is great power in overcoming the thirst for revenge. (Bill)
Heart of Darkness (Illustrated) by Matt Kish: In October 2011, Tin House books published Matt Kish’s Moby Dick in Pictures, with artwork for each page of text taken from the Signet Classic Paperback. Now, Heart of Darkness will get similar treatment, although this project has 100 illustrations to Moby Dick’s 552. The New York Post showcased some wonderful images from the upcoming publication. Matt Kish, a librarian by day, prefers “illustrator” to “artist,” he says, “There’s a lot of artists out there, they’re real assholes, and if you haven’t gone to art school, if you haven’t had an MFA, if you haven’t had a gallery show, if you cant put together some rambling artist statement, you’re not worthy of that term.” Looks like art to me. (Lydia)
Quiet Dell by Jayne Anne Phillips: The creepy-sounding plot of Jayne Anne Phillips’s fifth novel is based on a true-life 1930s story of a con man who insinuated himself into the life of a young, impoverished widow only to murder her and her three children. Like Phillips’s previous novel, Lark & Termite (a 2009 National Book Award Finalist), parts of the story are set in rural West Virginia, where Phillips herself is from. With a reporter protagonist who sets out to investigate the crime after the fact, there are shades of In Cold Blood. (Hannah)
At Night We Walk in Circles by Daniel Alarcón: Peruvian native Daniel Alarcón’s stories thrive on equal parts revolution and spectacle, as evidenced in his first collection, War by Candlelight, as well as in his first novel, Lost City Radio, where the emcee of a popular radio show reunites loved ones separated during a recent civil war. In At Night We Walk in Circles, the Whiting Award-winning Best Young American Novelist draws inspiration from stories told to him by prisoners jailed in Lima’s largest prison. Alarcón again situates his novel in a South American state, where the protagonist flounders until he’s cast in a revival of touring play penned the leader of a guerilla theatre troupe. (Anne)
The Last Animal by Abby Geni: This debut collection of short stories is thematically linked by characters who “use the interface between the human and the natural world to contend with their modern challenges in love, loss and family life.” Geni, who is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and a winner of the Glimmer Train Fiction Open, has received early praise from Dan Chaon, who says, “These are sharp, incisive, thoughtful, and utterly original stories” and from Jim Gavin, who calls these stories “Haunting and beautiful.” (Edan)
Roth Unbound: A Writer and His Books by Claudia Roth Pierpont: Is it strange that an author many wouldn’t hesitate to call the greatest living American writer has yet to be the subject of a major critical work? Pierpont remedies this with a book described as “not a biography…but something more rewarding: an attempt to understand a great writer through his art.” The New Yorker staff writer should prove a fascinating non-biographer: her previous book was Passionate Minds: Women Rewriting the World, and while her current subject has been accused of sexism many times throughout his long career, David Remnick reported that at a celebration of Roth’s eightieth birthday in March, Pierpont “took it upon herself to survey the variety, depth, and complexity of Roth’s female characters — a strong, and convincing, rebuke to years of criticism that the books are misogynistic.” (Elizabeth)
How to Read a Novelist by John Freeman: Former Granta editor John Freeman’s first book, The Tyranny of Email, considered the ways that email collapsed great distances between us. In it he argues for a more nuanced and discerning form of communication through conversation—an art form that he showcases in his latest book, How to Read a Novelist. In more than fifty interviews and author profiles of literary titans such as Haruki Murakami, Philip Roth, David Foster Wallace, and Doris Lessing, Freeman’s conversations and observations uncover these authors’ obsessions, quirks, and nuances of character as if they’re characters themselves. According to Freeman, a novelist requires observational distance, something to be considered in light of the subject of his first book: “it’s the miraculous distance that I think makes the writers who they are.” (Anne)
The Karl Kraus Project by Jonathan Franzen: Karl Kraus, as immortalized in Walter Benjamin’s essay of the same name, was an incendiary aphorist and, in his one-man journal Die Fackel (The Torch), a critic who rivaled Nietzche for implacability. His influence on the culture of pre- and interwar Austria and Germany can’t be overstated; writers from Broch to Canetti are in his debt. Yet aphorisms are notoriously hard to translate, and to date, no really good volume of Kraus has been available to lay readers in English. Jonathan Franzen’s decision to attempt one is as likely to provoke grousing as most everything he does, but I, for one, salute his berserk industry. (Garth)
The Most of Nora Ephron by Nora Ephron: Ephron died a year ago and this fall Random House is bringing out a wide-ranging collection of her writing edited by Robert Gottlieb. The screenplay to When Harry Met Sally will be in there, as will her famous piece on being flat-chested, blog posts on politics and dying, and the screenplay to her last work, Lucky Guy. (Kevin)
The Pure Gold Baby by Margaret Drabble: Drabble’s eighteenth novel—her first since 2006—is set in 1960s London. It centers on Jessica, an anthropology student who, after becoming pregnant during an affair with a married professor, is forced to raise a daughter alone, her own life’s trajectory fracturing as a result. “One thing I have never been very good at is creating ‘good’ mothers,” Drabble said in a 1978 The Paris Review interview. “I’d written books and books before someone pointed out that I was perpetually producing these ‘bad’ mothers.” The “prismatic” novel is told from the perspectives of “the mothers who surround Jess,” examining “unexpected transformations at the heart of motherhood.” (Elizabeth)
Half the Kingdom by Lore Segal: Lore Segal is a treasure-house of wit and a power-house of style. Lucinella, reissued as part of Melville House’s Art of the Novella Series, was one of the best books I read in 2009. Now Melville House returns to the well for her first novel since the Pulitzer finalist Shakespeare’s Kitchen. The plot involves a suspicious surge in the incidence of Alzheimer’s Disease among patients (characters from previous Segal novels among them) at a Manhattan emergency room in the period after September 11. Even the catalog copy brims with insight: “terrorist paranoia and end-of-the-world hysteria masks deeper fears about mortality.” You’re welcome, America. (Garth)
The Night Guest by Fiona MacFarlane: Penguin Australia is calling Macfarlane “a new voice” and “a writer who comes to us fully formed.” It’s true that The Night Guest, which will be published in October, is Macfarlane’s debut novel; but she’s been publishing stories for some time now, and here you can read a Q&A about her story “Art Appreciation,” published in The New Yorker this past May. The Night Guest centers around the mysterious arrival of Frida at the isolated beach house of Ruth, a widow, but “soars above its own suspense to tell us, with exceptional grace and beauty, about ageing, love, trust, dependence, and fear; about processes of colonization; and about things (and people) in places they shouldn’t be.” (Sonya)
Every Short Story: 1951-2012 by Alasdair Gray: Exactly what it says on the tin: the comprehensive volume (nearly 1,000 pages!) offers up more than half a century of the Scottish fantasist’s short fiction, including sixteen stories published here for the first time. Known for his dark humor and wild imagination, the stories span the broad range of his fascinating career. Whimsical drawings are interspersed throughout, the stories as much visual works as literary ones. “Illustration and typography play a major part in his work,” says The Guardian. “He doesn’t just write books, he creates them.” It’s probably worth noting, too, that The Guardian has also described Gray as a “a glorious one-man band, the dirty old man of Scottish letters.” (Elizabeth)
Personae by Sergio de la Pava: In the wake of A Naked Singularity’s success, the University of Chicago Press is likewise reissuing de la Pava’s self-published second novel, Personae. In most ways, it’s as different from its predecessor as grits from greens—a Cloud Atlas-y series of nested genre pieces covering the whodunit, the interior monologue, and the theater of the absurd. But fans of the earlier book will recognize de la Pava’s fearlessness and wild ambition, along with the ventriloquistic range that made the Jalen Kingg letters so moving. An excerpt is available at The Quarterly Conversation. (Garth)
The Daylight Gate by Jeanette Winterson: Winterson’s new novella, published to critical acclaim in the UK last year, takes on the trial of the Lancashire Witches in 1612, when a group of destitute outcasts, mostly women, were put on trial for witchcraft. “What is clear amid the poverty and brutality here,” the critic Arifa Akbar wrote in The Independent, “is that other-worldy evil is far outweighed by the harm that human beings inflict.” (Emily)
The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton: The author of the critically acclaimed debut novel The Rehearsal returns with a literary mystery set in 19th century New Zealand. When Walter Moody arrives on the coast of New Zealand, hoping to strike it rich in the gold fields, he stumbles upon a gathering of men who have met in secret to discuss a number of apparently coincidental recent events: on the day when a prostitute was arrested, a rich man disappeared, a down-on-his-luck alcoholic died, and a ship’s captain canceled all of his appointments and fled. The prostitute is connected to all three men, and Moody finds himself drawn into their interlinked lives and fates. (Emily)
A Prayer Journal by Flannery O’Connor: When Flannery O’Connor was in her early 20s and a student at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, she kept a journal which focused on her relationship with her faith. Recently discovered, this journal should be a fascinating prospect for anyone with an interest in O’Connor’s writing, inseparable as it is from her Catholic belief in sin and redemption. It dates from 1946-47, around the time she was writing the stories that would converge into her debut novel Wise Blood. It looks to have been an exercise in bringing herself closer to her God through the act of writing: “I do not mean to deny the traditional prayers I have said all my life; but I have been saying them and not feeling them. My attention is always fugitive. This way I have it every instant.” (Mark)
Death of the Black-Haired Girl by Robert Stone: Steven Brookman is a brilliant professor at an elite college in New England. Maud Stack is his promising and alluring young student. You know where this is going. Unfortunately, however, Professor Brookman is a married man, and Maud Stack’s passions are “not easily contained or curtailed.” In this tale of infidelity and its affects on human relationships—as well as on the institutions in which they reside—Robert Stone makes clear that almost nothing is black and white, and that when it comes to “the allure of youth” and “the promise of absolution,” all roads may lead to madness. (Nick)
A Permanent Member of the Family by Russell Banks: Russell Banks—the author of The Sweet Hereafter and The Darling (among many others) and an acknowledged master chronicler of the tragedies of American life—will publish his first collection of short stories in fifteen years. The book is composed of twelve stories, six of which appear for the first time. The two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist’s last novel, Lost Memory of Skin, documented the straitened lives of a group of sex offenders living under a Florida causeway. (Lydia)
Report from the Interior by Paul Auster: Last year Auster released Winter Journal, a personal history of the author’s own body. This fall he will publish a companion piece of sorts that depicts the world as he saw it as a child growing up in New Jersey in the 1950s. (Kevin)
The Isle of Youth by Laura van den Berg: Laura van den Berg brings her mystical touch to her second collection of short stories, following her highly praised first collection, What The World Will Look Like When All The Water Leaves Us, which was shortlisted for The Frank O’Connor International Award. From a writer who professes to “freaking love coming up with zany plots,” The Isle of Youth delivers with stories of magicians, private detectives, and identity-trading twins. (Hannah)
Hild by Nicola Griffith: Nicola Griffith, British novelist and former poster child for the woes of American immigration policy (in 1998, The Wall Street Journal called her “a lesbian science-fiction writer,” like it’s a bad thing). Her newest novel Hild takes place in seventh-century Britain in the Synod of Whitby, where the people were deciding what kind of Christians to be. The name “Hild” refers to the person we now know as St. Hilda, who presided over the conference during which the Synod debated the relative merits of Celtic and Roman Christianity. In an interview with her editor, Griffith reported that the source material on St. Hilda is basically limited to five pages in the Venerable Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, so she was compelled to do a ferocious amount of research to recreate the world and customs, if not the life, of this early English figure. (Lydia)
Collected Stories by Stefan Zweig: Pushkin Press anointed 2013 as “The Year of Stefan Zweig,” in order to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the famed Austrian author’s death by a wartime suicide pact. Zweig’s fictions are oft fueled by seduction, desire, and affairs of the heart, mettle which helped make him an author of international renown during his tumultuous lifetime. Pushkin is singlehandedly attempting to reinvigorate Zweig’s reputation by issuing a series of rereleases and a handful of new translations of his works. An ideal introduction for the unacquainted comes in the form of Zweig’s Collected Stories, featuring twenty-three stories translated by Anthea Bell. (Anne)
Andrew’s Brain by E.L. Doctorow: Speaking of eminences grises… From The March to Homer & Langley to that cover version of Hawthorne’s “Wakefield” that ran in The New Yorker a few years back, Doctorow just keeps swinging. The product description on Amazon is sketchy, but the talk of a main character “speaking from an unknown place and to an unknown interlocutor [about] the circumstances that have led him to commit a mysterious act” sound downright Beckett-y, while the title makes me secretly hope Doctorow’s returning to science fiction (after suppressing his previous effort, Big as Life). (Garth)
A Place in the Country by W.G. Sebald: W.G. Sebald’s collection of six essays was originally published in German in 1998, three years before his untimely death. The collection is an homage to six writers and artists (“colleagues,” he calls them, and “Alemmanic”), all of whom meant something to Sebald: Johann Peter Hebel, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Eduard Mörike, Gottfried Keller, Robert Walser, and Jan Peter Tripp. Already out in the United Kingdom, the essays are apparently solidly in the Sebald tradition—which, as I understand it, defies attribution of stolid nouns like “criticism,” “fiction,” or “biography,” rejoicing instead in the patterns and echoes of what one critic called “half-reality.” (Lydia)
Silence Once Begun by Jesse Ball: Chronically saddled with the designation of “experimental author,” Jesse Ball has written three novels, including The Way Through Doors, a book of poems and flash fiction, and a co-written prose poem, each work demonstrating a gift for quiet, powerful prose and a loose relationship with realism. His first hardcover release, Silence Once Begun, tells the story of a man who confesses to a string of crimes in writing, then never speaks during his arrest or interrogation, and the journalist who becomes obsessed with his case. (Janet)
On Such a Full Sea by Chang-rae Lee: Best known for his haunting stories of Korean history and American immigrant life, Korean-American novelist Chang-rae Lee tries his hand at speculative fiction, setting his new novel in a dystopian future in which America is in steep decline and urban neighborhoods have been turned into walled labor colonies that provide fresh produce and fish for the surrounding villages where the elite live. In the novel, Fan, a woman laborer, sets out in search of a vanished lover and finds herself crossing the lawless Open Counties, where the government exerts little control and crime is rampant. (Michael)
Perfect by Rachel Joyce: Rachel Joyce’s first novel, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, was a national bestseller and was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize. Her highly anticipated second novel has two narratives, one about two boys in the early 1970s and their obsession with the two seconds added to clock time to balance with the movement of the earth, and one about a present-day man who is debilitated by his obsessive-compulsive routines. Blogger Kate Neilan loved it, saying, “Rachel Joyce should be praised from the rooftops for Perfect; there’s not a thing I’d change about it.”
Leaving the Sea by Ben Marcus: “With Ben Marcus, as with Beckett, such disruptions are signs of literature itself being stretched and tensed, pressed to express the process of a writer testing his limits,” says David Winters in his Millions review of Marcus’s recent novel The Flame Alphabet. Marcus has long been a champion of experimental writing and innovative uses of language, as demonstrated by the stories he selected for the unmatched Anchor Book of New American Short Stories. His forthcoming Leaving the Sea is the first collection of Marcus’s short stories. Expect nothing except more boundary pushing and an exquisite sense of the unexpected. (Anne)