Welcome to the 15th annual Year in Reading series at The Millions. When site founder C. Max Magee first put together his year-end reading reflections in the early 2000s, no one suspected that a blog post would eventually grow into a series that has featured hundreds of writers and readers: librarians, critics, bloggers, journalists, essayists, poets, and fiction writers ranging from just-starting-out to just-won-a-Pulitzer-Prize. What the participants have in common is that they are loving, devoted readers.
To celebrate its 15th year, this December’s series is, at 90-something contributors, the most crowded yet. As in every year, entries turn out not to be mere lists of books, but records of time passing–there were births and deaths, moves and separations and career changes. As in every year, some books pop up again and again in contributors’ collections of memorable reading experiences. And as in every year, we guarantee you will conclude the month with at least one book to add to your TBR pile.
The names of our 2019 contributors will be unveiled throughout the month as entries are published (starting with our traditional opener from Languagehat’s Stephen Dodson later this morning). Bookmark this post, load up the main page, subscribe to our RSS feed, or follow us on Facebook or Twitter to make sure you don’t miss an entry — we’ll run at least three per day for the next three weeks.
Stephen Dodson, proprietor of Languagehat.Ayşe Papatya Bucak, author of The Trojan War Museum and Other Stories.Shea Serrano, author of Movies (And Other Things)Dantiel W. Moniz, author of the forthcoming collection Milk Blood Heat.Andrea Long Chu, author of Females.De’Shawn Charles Winslow, author of In West Mills.Omar El Akkad, author of American War.Kali Fajardo-Anstine, author of Sabrina & Corina: StoriesAlexandra Kleeman, author of You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine.Isabella Hammad, author of The Parisian.Nayomi Munaweera, author of What Lies Between Us.Marcos Gonsalez, author of the forthcoming memoir Pedro’s Theory.Max Porter, author of Lanny.Yan Lianke, author of The Explosion Chronicles.Lauren Michele Jackson, author of White Negroes: When Cornrows Were in Vogue … and Other Thoughts on Cultural Appropriation.Catherine Lacey, author of the forthcoming novel Pew.Sonya Chung, staff writer for The Millions, author of The Loved Ones.Carolyn Quimby, associate editor for The Millions.Nick Ripatrazone, staff writer for The Millions, author of Longing for an Absent God.Garth Risk Hallberg, contributing editor for The Millions, author of City on Fire.Jianan Qian, staff writer for The Millions.Nick Moran, special projects editor for The Millions.Kate Gavino, social media editor for The Millions, author of Last Night’s Reading and Sanpaku.Adam O’Fallon Price, staff writer for The Millions, author of The Grand Tour and The Hotel Neversink.Merve Emre, author of The Personality Brokers.Rion Amilcar Scott, author of The World Doesn’t Require You.Devi S. Laskar, author of The Atlas of Reds and Blues.Jason R Jimenez, author of The Wolves.Iva Dixit, associate editor at The New York Times Magazine.Jennifer Croft, author of Homesick.Venita Blackburn, author of Black Jesus and Other Superheroes.C Pam Zhang, author of How Much of These Hills Is Gold.Jedediah Britton-Purdy, author of This Land Is Our Land: The Struggle for a New Commonwealth.Julia Phillips, author of Disappearing Earth.
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Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2018, 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005
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Here is a secret about writers, or at least most writers I know, including me: we don’t like to read our published work. Conversations I’ve had over the years with author friends have tended to confirm my own feelings on the matter—namely, that it is very nice and fortunate and rewarding to get something published, but you don’t ever especially want to read it again. One reason for this is the fact that, by the time you’ve finished revising, copyediting, and proofreading a book, you have already reread it effectively a hundred million times before publication. Another reason: there is something deeply nerve-wracking about the fact of the thing you’ve written, mutable for so long, now being fixed and frozen forever, with no possibility of rewriting whatever mistakes you might—and will—find upon rereading. Among the countless, loving tributes in the wake of her recent death, one memorable Toni Morrison anecdote recounted her habit of taking a red pencil to her published works as she read from them; Toni Morrison, of course, was one of the few authors who might have reasonably expected reprintings and possible future opportunities for correcting errata. Toni Morrison was Toni Morrison.
The rest of us have to live with the reality of what we’ve written and managed to get out in the world, and so there’s a self-protective instinct to look away from it. But when the case of author’s copies of my new novel, The Hotel Neversink, arrived—and with it, the usual reticence to crack one open—I found myself wondering about this impulse: is it good? Maybe not. A writer could go through their whole life accumulating work and publications without ever, in earnest, going back and looking at what they’ve done with a reader’s eye. And if you never revisit your old work, you may never fully understand how, or if, you’ve changed as an artist and person. With a sense of great reluctance and apprehension, I therefore decided to sit down and fully reread my first novel.
The novel in question is The Grand Tour, which I wrote from 2013 to 2014, while I was in graduate school at Cornell. I revised it over the following year, during which time I was lucky enough for it sell to Doubleday, which published it almost exactly three years ago, in August, 2016. For what it’s worth, it received good reviews from outlets like Kirkus and Publishers Weekly, and was generally well-received by readers, although not readers who were expecting an uplifting read. One of the highlights of publication came in the form of a hostile email from a very old woman telling me how much she hated my main character, Richard. And she wasn’t wrong to hate him. Richard is quite hateable. In an era of nice characters, and an ever-increasing expectation of “relatability” from readers, The Grand Tour features the kind of anti-heroic ’60s/’70s protagonist sometimes played in films by Jack Nicholson, the kind who no longer curries any cultural favor whatsoever.
But that’s the point of Richard Lazar: he doesn’t curry any favor in his fictional world, either. He is washed-up and alcoholic and socially radioactive, having lived in the desert for ten years following the collapse of his second marriage. When he receives word that his Vietnam memoir has grazed the bestseller list, he is uniquely unprepared to capitalize on this fleeting moment of success. Nonetheless, his publisher trundles him out on a promotional tour, where he meets a young fan named Vance, providing the basis for what is essentially a coming-of-age road novel, (a bildungsroadman?).
The book’s first chapter sets the tone. Richard comes to after blacking out on a flight, is rude to a flight attendant and hostile to Vance, who meets him at the airport with a homemade sign. He proceeds to get drunk before the reading, do a predictably bad job, get drunker at the faculty dinner, and hit on the Dean’s wife. As he’s driven back to his hotel room by the disillusioned Vance, he tells the kid not to bother with writing.
I knew Richard sucked, but this time around, I found myself disliking him a lot more than I did while writing or revising the novel. Richard is a version of the Unhappy White Guy protagonists I grew up reading, and that I attempted to classify in this essay. His specific lineage is the hard-drinking hard-luck variety found in books by the Southern writers I loved in my twenties: Messrs Hannah, Brown, and Crews—Barry, Larry, and Harry. Ultra-masculine, drunk and doomed, these writers and their antiheroes exerted an outsized influence on The Grand Tour. I suppose it speaks well of my personal growth that I’m less (read: not) enamored with this type of character the way I was seven years ago. In a way, this disenchantment feels healthy and generally axiomatic: books take a long time to write and publish, and perhaps they should always feel a little dusty and outmoded by the time they come out.
To the novel’s credit, I think, it is aware of Richard’s awfulness, and, to an extent, Vance’s. It is not the kind of book that misjudges its protagonist, although it might misjudge the extent to which, for a reader, the comedy of complete assholishness can justify having to spend 300 pages with a complete asshole. That said, this time around, I still found it to be a pretty funny book with lots of amusing passages, for instance this one, describing Richard’s purchase of a house in foreclosure after the 2008 real estate bubble:
[His advance] was enough, as it turned out, to buy a nearby house in foreclosure, in a superexurban neighborhood called The Bluffs. There was no bluff visible in the landscape, so perhaps the name referred to the cavalier attitude local banks and homeowners had taken toward the adjustable-rate mortgages that subsequently emptied the neighborhood. It turned out they were giving the things away—all you had to do was show up at auction with a roll of quarters and a ballpoint pen.
Horrible or not, Richard is a successfully drawn character, if one with many problematic antecedents. Vance is drawn convincingly, as well, although his chapters feel slightly less successful to me, simply for the fact that he’s a less funny character. He’s nineteen, stuck at home, depressed and painfully earnest—in other words, the perfect earnest foil for Richard’s cynical lout. This odd couple set-up does feel formulaic, although it also works, as formulas tend to do. Formulaic, as well, though less successfully so, are a clutch of chapters representing Richard’s memoir in the book. On a reread, the appearance of these Vietnam chapters felt somewhat unwelcome to me, and not just because of being typeset in italics. They lean a little too heavily on skin-deep source material like Full Metal Jacket and The Things They Carried. Here comes the gregarious, rebellious grunt. There goes the gruff sergeant and patrician lieutenant. I did do some actual research about troop movements and munitions and local geography, but the whole thing feels a bit stale, though maybe any Vietnam story published in 2016 would.
What does not feel stale at all this time around is the introduction of a third perspective, Richard’s estranged daughter, Cindy, a casino croupier and malcontent, who takes over the middle third of the book. On this read, Cindy strikes me as the most successful aspect of The Grand Tour. She’s the most original character, and she structurally provides respite from the bad male behavior that otherwise dominates the proceedings. Richard and Vance are, after all, two sides of the same coin, i.e. the coin of male ego and its attendant problems. That Vance’s ego is subdued and wounded makes it no less irritating.
The novel’s awareness of these men as problematic and tiresome, and the section in which Cindy more or less destroys them—Vance sexually, Richard emotionally—elevates (I hope) the book above similar novels that simply find their male hero’s antics fascinating. Cindy makes her gleeful exit, disappearing into a street fair crowd, in one of the novel’s most memorable passages:
The Friday-night crowd swelled around her as she neared downtown—in front of the façade of a large art deco building, a stage was set up on which a bunch of paunchy white dudes mangled “Whipping Post.” People pushed past and she rejoiced in it, becoming part of the throng, the multitude … she wondered what someone watching her from above, looking at her face, might think. Would they know anything, be able to divine something about her, her life, or her mistakes? No. No one knows anything about anyone, she thought, and for the second time that day was struck by the feeling that she could start over—that nothing, in fact, would be easier. Denver, why not? She dragged her suitcase into the hot jostle, for the moment immensely pleased.
The remainder of the novel (SPOILER) finds Vance getting sent to Riker’s Island (!) and all of Richard’s proverbial chickens coming home to roost. A lot happens in these last chapters, probably too much. This is, I think, an unavoidable function or symptom of the book itself trying to do too much. One thing that struck me on this reading is just how much there is going on. It’s a common feature of the debut novel, in which an author takes decades of reading and thinking about novels and compresses it all into their first try, as though it will also be their last. Some of it works here, and some of it doesn’t. If I were to give critical advice to the person who wrote this, I might tell him to think about losing at least one of the component parts—maybe the Vietnam sections—and to also not feel like he has to conclude all of the proceedings with quite such a bang. The tour, I might suggest, could end on a more muted note. The final pages do manage this quietness, and it’s a relief after the sound and fury that precede them.
All of which is to say, I think it’s… pretty good? It’s entertaining and funny, and the writing is solid and sometimes excellent. That sounds like an unreliable claim, given my obvious bias, but would it convince a reader of my objectivity if I also say that I found the book to be weirdly old-fashioned and in certain places very contrived? Ultimately, it’s an uneven novel held together by its humor and prose. I believe if I hadn’t written The Grand Tour and had just happened across it, I would have finished and enjoyed it, with reservations. And if I’d written a review, I might have been generous with this first-time author, adding to everything I’ve said here that I looked forward to what he comes up with next.
Image credit: Unsplash/Rey Seven.
Here’s a quick look at some notable books—new titles from the likes of Jia Tolentino, Sarah Valentine, Tope Folarin, Javier Marías, our own Adam O’Fallon Price, and more—that are publishing this week.
Want to learn more about upcoming titles? Then go read our most recent book preview. Want to help The Millions keep churning out great books coverage? Then sign up to be a member today.
Trick Mirror by Jia Tolentino
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Trick Mirror: “New Yorker contributor Tolentino debuts with a sharp, well-founded crackdown on the lies of self and culture in these nine original, incisive reflections on a hypercapitalist, internet-driven age that ‘positions personal identity as the center of the universe.’ While some essays peel back personal self-delusions—such as by recalling, in ‘Always Be Optimizing,’ how taking barre classes for fitness gave her the ‘satisfying but gross sense of having successfully conformed to a prototype’ —others comment on broader cultural movements with frightening accuracy, for instance noting in ‘Pure Heroines’ that ‘bravery and bitterness get so concentrated in literature, for women, because there’s not enough space for [women] in the real world,’ or that the election of Donald Trump represents the ‘incontrovertible, humiliating vindication of scamming as the quintessential American ethos.’ The collection’s chief strength is Tolentino’s voice: sly, dry, and admittedly complicit in an era where ‘the choice…is to be destroyed or to morally compromise ourselves in order to be functional.’ While the insights aren’t revelatory, the book’s candid self-awareness and well-formulated prose, and Tolentino’s ability to voice the bitterest truths—’Everything, not least the physical world itself, is overheating’—will gain Tolentino new fans and cement her reputation as an observer well worth listening to.”
The Hotel Neversink by Adam O’Fallon Price
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Hotel Neversink: “Centered on a rambling hotel in the Catskills, the striking latest from Price (The Grand Tour) is part multigenerational saga, part murder mystery. In 1950, a young boy, Jonah, goes missing from the Hotel Neversink, and his disappearance kicks off a string of similar crimes that stretch across decades. The owners of the hotel, the Sikorsky family, avert scandal, until Jonah’s remains are discovered in the hotel’s basement in 1973. With no obvious suspects, the Sikorskys suffer the ups and downs of running a business associated with an unsolved murder, entertaining crime buffs and conspiracy theorists while the hotel—passed down from patriarch, Asher, to his daughter, Jeanie, and eventually to his grandson, Len—slowly loses its luster with vacationers, despite Len’s dedication to keeping the family business alive. Price focuses each chapter on a single character, which gives the work a novel-in-stories feel that periodically drifts from the hotel. As a result, the central mystery moves into the background, yet it never fully vanishes, wearing on characters without their acknowledgement as they face marital strain, addiction, and depression. Price is a sharp writer, and his novel wonderfully critiques family obligation while simultaneously delivering a crafty, sinister whodunit.”
When I Was White by Sarah Valentine
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about When I Was White: “In this fervent and heartfelt memoir, Valentine, an artist-in-residence at Northwestern University, tells of coming-of-age in Pittsburgh, Pa., as the daughter of two white parents who refused to acknowledge an ethnicity hinted at by her appearance, and a family secret. Her mother and business consultant father were married in the 1970s when Valentine was born, and she describes an ordinary childhood in a loving family of Italian and Irish descent. Early on, she clues in that she is ‘different’ and even though her parents avoid the topic of race, others make note of her darker skin color (for instance, a school guidance counselor suggests she apply for a minority scholarship). Valentine attends Carnegie Mellon University, and at age 27 she presses her mother on the details of her past; her mother claims she was raped at a college party by an unknown black man (though her recollection is vague). The narrative moves fluidly between past and present as Valentine tries to make sense of the lies and misconceptions that have plagued her throughout her life. Beset with conflicting emotions and a sense of betrayal, Valentine begins a futile search to locate her biological father, and the revelation of Valentine’s conception (later confirmed by a DNA test that revealed 45% sub-Saharan African) will be simultaneously startling and yet expected to the reader. This is a disturbing and engrossing tale of deep family secrets.”
First Cosmic Velocity by Zach Powers
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about First Cosmic Velocity: “Powers’s entertaining and winning debut novel about the 1960s space race launches from an intriguing premise: that the Soviet Union covered up fatal rocket misfires by recruiting groups of twins as cosmonauts—one to pilot the ill-fated space capsule, the other to bask in the glory of a faked hero’s return. Set primarily in Star City, Russia, in 1964, Powers’s story centers around the earthbound experiences of Nadya (whose twin burned up on re-entry years before) and Leonid (whose brother, the last twin, is currently orbiting the earth), through which Powers refracts glimpses of the competitive Soviet space program and its personnel, the sometimes absurd politics of the Khrushchev era, and the process by which a cold-hearted recruiter pried the twin Leonids away from their family in 1950s Ukraine. Powers (Gravity Changes) endows his stoical, driven characters with distinctive personalities and the capacity to reflect philosophically on their charade, as when Leonid says, ‘Maybe our individual personalities are just the areas in which we failed to copy someone else.’ Powers’s deadpan depiction of the ruse that drives his tale and the historical figures duped by it will give readers pause to wonder if it really is that improbable.”
A Particular Kind of Black Man by Tope Folarin
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about A Particular Kind of Black Man: “Folarin’s tender, cunning debut begins as a realistic story of a boy coming of age in Utah in the 1980s, then slides into a subtle meditation on the unreliability of memory. Tunde, the older son of parents who emigrated from Nigeria, who is five years old when the novel opens, lives in a small town in Northern Utah where he is made to feel like an outsider. His hard-working father is frustrated because he can’t hold a job equal to his abilities, and his mentally ill mother frequently breaks down and physically abuses Tunde. When she leaves the family and returns home, Tunde’s father goes to Nigeria and brings back a ‘new mom,’ who has two children of her own whom she prefers to her stepchildren. After a move to Texas, the narrator is accepted by Morehouse College, where he realizes to his alarm that he is experiencing ‘double memories’ and is seeing ‘things I could have done as if I had done them,’ which causes him to re-write the version of the past by which the reader has come to know him. Only when he visits Nigeria does ‘reality click into place.’ Folarin pulls off the crafty trick of simultaneously bringing scenes to sharp life and undercutting their reliability, and evokes the complexities of life as a second-generation African-American in simple, vivid prose. Foralin’s debut is canny and electrifying.”
All the Water in the World by Karen Raney
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about All the Water in the World: “Raney’s ardent debut examines love and loss through the eyes of Maddy, a vibrant 16-year-old girl diagnosed with cancer, and Eve, her loving mother. Maddy is spending the summer recovering from chemotherapy at her family’s lake house in Pennsylvania. While her thoughts often turn to normal adolescent concerns—such as her summer reading assignments and her crush—they are also studded with existential worries as she contemplates death, the existence of God, and the ephemerality of nature. Maddy begins to think about her father, who separated amicably from her mother before she was born, and decides she must get to know him before she dies. Over her final summer, Maddy and her father begin an epistolary friendship and bond over their mutual love of nature and advocacy for environmental protections. Reading the correspondence is painful for Eve when she later finds the letters. Eve, struggling to process everything, begins to spend long hours at the lake talking with her neighbor Norma. The book is broken into three sections, and is at its strongest when Maddy’s naive, searching voice narrates the story, which is effused with a passion for life and nature. However, the novel’s final section loses momentum, tapering off into Eve’s self-examination and excavation of the past. Raney’s pleasing tale is a deep, genuine investigation of memory, the pain of loss, and the strength of a mother’s love.”
Berta Isla by Javier Marías
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Berta Isla: “Marías (Thus Bad Begins) transforms a spy thriller into an eloquent depiction of those left behind at home in this rich novel. Popular, beautiful Berta Isla decides she will marry Tomás Nevinson, a half-Spanish, half-British classmate with a preternatural ability to learn languages, while they are students together in mid-1960s Madrid. During his studies at Oxford, Tomás is recruited by a professor to use his abilities with languages and accents to serve as an infiltrator for the British Secret Intelligence Service. He demurs, until he is accused of murdering his British lover and needs help evading the charge. Marías toggles to Berta as a narrator for Tomás’s return to Spain, their marriage in 1974, and his cover job for the British Embassy. Berta struggles to cope with her husband’s long, mysterious absences and forces a confession about his real job after a terrifying threat on their young son’s life. Tomás offers scant details of his work, which only partially satisfies Berta, who spars with him. When he leaves on assignment just before the start of the Falklands War in 1982, Berta’s worries compound as his time away stretches into months and then years. Marías switches back to a third-person narrator for the gut-punching conclusion that explains what happened to Tomás. The espionage premise is initially enticing, but the real draw is the depth of Marías’s characterization. This weighty novel rewards readers with the patience for its deliberate dissection of a marriage.”
Also on shelves: The Pretty One by Keah Brown and White Flights by Jess Row.
Image credit: Unsplash/Amador Loureiro.