The Idiot

New Price: $27.00
Used Price: $2.34

Mentioned in:

A Year in Reading: Lydia Kiesling

I was pregnant with my second child for most of the year and I was also working from home, which meant I was very sedentary and slothful, and able to spend a lot of time reading articles that made me miserable. And since I was working on a book, and the pace and nature of that work were utterly different from any other kind of work I’ve done, I was grumpy and anxious a lot of the time even without reading anything at all. And I worried about being miserable and anxious and grumpy, and sedentary and slothful, wondering what it would do to the fetus, and whether the fetus would want to be around someone like me.
 

The reading I did while gestating the baby and my book was catch-as-catch-can and felt mostly like a reprieve and a cheat when I should have been working or doing something civic-minded. Books and the time they went with are blurring together for some reason. I think I read and was ruined by Housekeeping last year, but I can’t be certain it wasn’t this year. I think I read Private Citizens this year and found it spiky and perfect, but I’m not actually sure I didn’t read it in 2016.  I do know this year I read The Idiot, which is among other things a delightful evocation of ostensibly fruitless but formative romantic pining, and Sport of Kings, which is absurdly ambitious and devastating. I read The Regional Office Is Under Attack, which is weird and transporting. I gratefully blew off my work for New People, The Windfall, MarlenaThe Reef, Hunger, and Conversations with Friends. I read White Tears and The Changeling and Frankenstein in Baghdad on the bus to the OBGYN and marveled at the ways great writers are documenting the effects of the unholy past on the unholy present. I read 10:04 in a lovingly serene and receptive state after spending $60 to float in a very salty pool in the dark (I was trying to make the fetus turn head-down). When I was freaked out about everything the only book that sort of soothed me was the phenomenal new translation of The Odyssey, which is modern but not jarringly so, and highlights the sense of human continuity we apprehend from an ancient text. I re-read Off Course, a wonderful California novel that has become one of my favorite books in the last few years. I re-read A Suitable Boy to get ready for A Suitable Girl, which is allegedly arriving in 2018 and which I’ve been waiting for my entire adult life. I read The Golden Road, Caille Millner’s gemlike memoir about growing up. I read a Word document containing the first half of Michelle Dean’s excellent forthcoming literary history Sharp, and I’m clamoring for the rest of it. I read a Word document containing the entirety of Meaghan O’Connell’s forthcoming essay collection, And Now We Have Everything, and it is a stunningly insightful book that I’m hesitant to say is about motherhood because it might turn away people who might otherwise profit from it. I loved my colleagues Edan and Claire and Sonya’s novels Woman No. 17 and The Last Neanderthal and The Loved Ones, which are about motherhood (and fatherhood, and daughterhood, and a lot of other things too). More mothers: I cried over Mr. Splitfoot in an airplane after reading Samantha Hunt’s “A Love Story” in The New Yorker.  The book I thought about most during my gestational period was Mathias Énard’s Compass, which is a love story of a different kind. I don’t think I’ve read another book so deft in transmitting both the desire and the violence that are bound up in the production of knowledge, another complicated act of creation.

In October I had the baby. I wouldn’t suggest that anyone have a baby just to shake things up, but babies have a way of returning you to your body and adjusting your relationship to time that I’d hazard is difficult to find elsewhere in the arena of positive experiences. First you have the singular experience of giving birth; then you have the physical reminders of that experience, and a baby. If you are lucky you get good hormones (if you are spectacularly lucky you get paid leave, or have a spouse who does). The morning she was born I looked at the baby lying in her bassinet and felt like the cat who swallowed the canary, or a very satisfied hen. Animal similes suggest themselves because it is an animal time: you smell blood and leave trails of it on the hospital floor; milk oozes. You feel waves of such elemental fatigue that rational thought and speech seem like fripperies for a younger species. Even now, nine weeks later, sneezing reminds me viscerally of what the flesh endured.

This is what I mean when I say the experience returns you to your body. If it’s your second child, it also makes you a time traveler. I spent my first child’s infancy desperate to slow down time, to fully inhabit this utterly strange nesting season of my life and hers before we were both launched into the future.  When the second baby was born I got the unhoped-for chance to live in that season again. I had forgotten so much: the comically furtive and then plucky look a newborn gets when she is near the breast, and the bizarre thing her eyes do when she’s eating—zipping back and forth like a barcode scanner apprehending some ancient sequence. The sound she makes after sneezing, like a little wheeze from an oboe.

Since, during this period, I felt I had a legitimate excuse to not read every dire news item for at least a couple of weeks, and since I experienced a wonderful if brief disinclination to open Twitter, and since sometimes I got to sit in clean linen sheets that are my prized possession and nurse a tiny brown-furred baby, I fell in love both with the baby and with every book I touched. I started re-reading Mating when I was waiting to give birth and finished it the week after. I read it for the first time three years ago when my older daughter was born and felt so incredibly altered by it then, and I slipped back into that state immediately. Right after Mating I read Mortals, and after Mortals, I read Chemistry, and forthcoming novels The Parking Lot Attendant and That Kind of Mother, and I loved them all too.

Being with the baby and reading deeply and more or less avoiding the things that make me miserable was such an unanticipated return to Eden that even the bad things I now remembered about having a baby were good: the strange combination of agitation and dullness that enswaddled me when the sun went down and made me weep; the sudden urge to throw beloved visitors out of the house; visions of stumbling, of soft skulls crushed against sharp corners; fear of contagion; agonizing knowledge of other babies crying and drowning and suffering while your own baby snuffles contentedly in a fleece bag.

But even when the blues fluoresced what registered was not the badness of the thoughts, but their intensity. The shitty hospital food you eat after expelling a baby is the best food you’ve ever had because you had a baby and you didn’t die. And like a person on drugs who knows a cigarette is going to taste amazing or a song will sound so good, an exhausted, oozing postpartum woman can do her own kind of thrill-seeking. I re-read Under the Volcano, which really popped in my altered state. It’s a hard book to follow but I found to my delight that I’ve now read it enough I’m no longer spending a lot of time trying to understand what is going on. Its insane, calamitous beauty was perfect for my technicolor emotional state; rather than despairing over my inability to form a sentence I put myself in the hands of a pro, shaking though Malcolm Lowry’s were as he wrote.

It hasn’t all been déjà vu. There have been new things, some of them bad: namely the feeling of being driven absolutely bananas by my poor sweet firstborn, who is no longer tiny and blameless and new, but a harum-scarum toddler who jumps on the bed and windmills her arms and kicks and screams WAKE UP MAMA and refuses to put on her jacket. On this front one of the random galleys that pile up in the vestibule was a surprise hit—a children’s book from the Feminist Press called How Mamas Love Their Babies.  My daughter loves this book, which has beautiful photo collage illustrations. It is a progressive book that encourages workers’ solidarity in a way I was not necessarily prepared to address with a just-turned-three-year-old but am now trying to do in my poky fashion (“Some mamas dance all night long in special shoes. It’s hard work!” the book reads, and my child peers inquisitively at a photo of platform lucite heels). It also helps me: I look at myself in the mirror and note that some genetic vandal has lately streaked what looks like raspberry jam across the skin of my hips and one (!) breast (“Some mamas care for their babies inside their own bodies,” the book reminds me). When the baby was three weeks old I got pneumonia, and that was a bad new sensation too, although even that interlude had its attractions. I discovered coconut water, and read Swamplandia in a febrile, almost louche state of abandon in my increasingly musty sheets, a perfect complement to the novel’s climate—its rotting house and the visions and moods of its protagonists.

During early nights of nursing I read a galley of a memoir by a writer who also got good hormones and who became addicted to having babies, having five in fairly rapid succession. If nothing else, I understood the irrational drive to overabundance. In the first weeks of this new baby’s life I astonished myself by wanting more, more, more. Around week five I actually googled “is it morally wrong to have a third child,” and if you are a well-fed, utilities-using first-worlder like me, yes, not to mention yes, in philosophical terms (not to mention we can’t afford it, not to mention it would surely drive me batshit). Everything you read about life on this planet, including some of the novels I read this year, suggests you should not have children, and if you must, that you should have only as many as you have arms to carry them away from danger. Even that formulation is a consoling fallacy.

Things are less technicolor now, but the hormones are still there, propping me up. (I read over this and see they’ve even led me to write a somewhat revisionist history of what the past few weeks have been like.) Last week, week eight, I finally read Open City, which is a few years old but speaks to the state of the world today in a way that is depressing. I love how it is a novel of serious ideas and style, but is also approachable and pleasure-making for its reader. I love that it is a humane book even as it is gimlet-eyed. Now I’m reading Go, Went, Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck and finding it similarly humane and gimlet-eyed and serious and pleasure-making. It is about the state of the world at this moment. It also speaks to the double consciousness of people like its protagonist, who are living not necessarily with suffering but with a metastasizing awareness of suffering, and how it changes them, and this is on my mind. The novel also seems to be about time and space and how people are altered when their time and space are altered. It’s about the difference, not between “us” and “them,” but between “you” and “you.” I’m thinking about that too as I time travel this winter.

I know I need to prepare for the moment when all this gladness provided gratis by Mother Nature will deflate and disappear like a wet paper bag. And there will be a time—I feel it coming on as I type this and hope the baby stays asleep in her bouncer—when the deep satisfaction of one kind of generative act, this bodily one, will be supplanted with the need for other kinds of creation. I think Cole and Erpenbeck’s novels will help me with these eventualities. I’m counting on them, and on all the beautiful things I hope to read next year. You know what they say about books: they’re like babies; when you have one you’re never alone.

More from A Year in Reading 2017

Do you love Year in Reading and the amazing books and arts content that The Millions produces year round? We are asking readers for support to ensure that The Millions can stay vibrant for years to come. Please click here to learn about several simple ways you can support The Millions now.

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

The Millions Top Ten: November 2017

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.

This Month
Last Month

Title
On List

1.
1.

Manhattan Beach
2 months

2.
5.

The Changeling
4 months

3.
2.

Exit West
5 months

4.


Don’t Save Anything: Uncollected Essays, Articles, and Profiles
1 month

5.
4.

The Seventh Function of Language: A Novel
4 months

6.
9.

Little Fires Everywhere

2 months

7.
6.

Forest Dark
3 months

8.


Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process

1 month

9.


The Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage

1 month

10.
8.

My Absolute Darling

3 months

 

Haruki Murakami’s short story collection Men Without Women is off to our Hall of Fame this month. It’s the author’s third title to achieve that feat, so add “Millions readers” to the list of things closely associated with Murakami’s works. (That list also includes spaghetti, cats, The Beatles, and long distance running.) Meanwhile, two titles from last month’s Top Ten list dropped out in November: Autumn by Ali Smith and What We Lose by Zinzi Clemmons.

Filling the three open spaces are works by James Salter, John McPhee, and Philip Pullman. Perhaps you’ve heard of them?

Ninth place this month belongs to Philip Pullman’s La Belle Sauvage, the first installment in the author’s new Book of Dust trilogy – itself a quasi-prequel/-sequel (it’s been called, flatly, an “equel”) to the author’s His Dark Materials trilogy. In his review for our site, Charles-Adam Foster-Simard wrote that Pullman’s latest novel is “more mature” than his earlier trilogy “because it explores psychological darkness.”
There are whispers of pedophilia and sex crimes at the fringes of the story, which heightens the sense of danger, and underscores the theme of innocence and experience, which plays an essential role in Pullman’s books.
Checking in one spot up the list in the eight spot is John McPhee’s Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process., which our own Iľja Rákoš described as “a primer in the how, the why, the who, and the humor of getting at the story without sacrificing the art.” It’s also, as Stephen Phillips argues in his review for our site, “a capsule of the charmed status of an elite practitioner during what looks today like a golden era of magazine journalism replete with extended parlays with editors, protracted fact-checking triangulation, and two weeks on a picnic table.”

And speaking of the “golden era” of publishing, James Salter’s Don’t Save Anything holds the fourth spot on this month’s list. The book collects, according to Nick Ripatrazone, “Salter’s previously uncollected non-fiction; essays that appeared in The New Yorker, Esquire, People, and elsewhere. The book’s title comes from a line from one of Salter’s final interviews: ‘You try to put everything you have in a book. That is, don’t save anything for the next one.'”

Next month our list will no doubt be reshaped by our Year in Reading series, which is currently ongoing, and which reliably reorders everyone’s “to read” lists every winter.

This month’s other near misses included: The Idiot, Sing, Unburied, Sing, and The Stories of Breece D’J Pancake. See Also: Last month’s list.

A Year in Reading: Jeff VanderMeer

As an omnivore, I define the word “enjoyment” as anything from a heady intellectual excitement at exposure to new ideas or narrative structures all the way to an uneasy/comfortable feeling that lives visceral in the gut and defies analysis. I’m not really interested in imposing my own idea of a good book on what I read—I want the book to imprint itself on me and take me over and change me.

I have left off most of thousand or so books I blurbed in 2017, believing their blurbification gave them an unfair advantage. However, I couldn’t resist including blurbed books by Leonora Carrington, Jac Jemc, and Quintan Ana Wikswo. (Since this is The Year of the Machado, I don’t think I need to draw your attention that way—if you haven’t read Her Body and Other Parties, what’s your problem?) I have also included a couple of 2016 titles that I first read this year.

As for regrets, my current to-read pile includes Clade by James Bradley, Compass by Mathias Énard, Camilla Grudova’s The Doll’s Alphabet, Notes of a Crocodile by Qiu Miaojin, A State of Freedom by Neel Mukherjee, Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng, Chemistry by Weike Wang, and The Inner Lives of Animals by Peter Wohlleben. My regrets also include a half-dozen much-lauded titles that I would characterize as damp sparklers dressed up as a full fireworks display, but the less said about them the better.

Belladonna by Daša Drndić, translated by Celia Hawkesworth (New Directions) – I place this selection first, out of alphabetical order, because it was my favorite read of 2017 and one of my favorites of this decade. Using as her canvas the life of the elderly ex-psychologist and ex-author Andreas Ban, Belladonna unflinchingly explores the horrors of fascism in Croatia, the break-up of Yugoslavia, World War II crimes against humanity, and the absurdities of aging and of the modern era. Deftly diving into various periods of Ban’s life, Drndić’s accomplishment here is astonishing for several reasons. First, that what easily could be drifty, dreamy, and unfocused is so sharp, structured, and acerbic. Second, that she can deal so nakedly with atrocity and yet say something new and pin the offenders to the wall and somehow not become didactic in the negative sense of that word. To give just one example of the novel’s many strengths, Drndić in chronicling a trip made by Ban to Amsterdam observes of a particularly stupid example of recycling that “people are obedient, they like to separate their trash, to recycle the debris of their own and other people’s lives. Following a diktat, they fly to embrace goodness, which they shift around in their pockets the way men scratch their balls, then they sleep soundly.” Like much of Belladonna, the observation sends up modern life but also has relevance to the terrible history Drndić lays bare. The novel is multi-faceted, sharp, surprising, darkly and grimly hilarious, relevant to our times, and possesses limitless depth. It also bristles with intelligence and defiance in every paragraph, like an exceptionally erudite and alert porcupine. Belladonna deserves major awards consideration, and I don’t mean for “best translation,” although definitely that too—Hawkesworth’s work here is marvelous. (Curmudgeonly aside: Reviewers, please stop comparing authors to W.G. Sebald just because a novel includes a grainy black-and-white photo or two and pays attention to history.)

The Idiot by Elif Batuman (Penguin Press) – This first novel chronicling hilarious and sad misadventures on a college campus in 1995, and then in Hungary for a student work program, delights in large measure due to the unusual narrator and the exasperating relationship at the story’s core. Batuman has a talent for exposing the absurdity of how we conduct ourselves in the world and the ridiculousness of societal rituals. It’s a tribute to Batuman’s formidable magic tricks that although the novel fades a bit in the final fifth, I still enjoyed The Idiot more than almost anything I read in 2017.

The Gift by Barbara Browning (Coffee House) – An overlooked gem from the year, The Gift chronicles a woman’s journey through art and experience in the context of the Occupy movement, with observations about our modern attempts to form meaningful connection. As I wrote for Bookforum, “The Gift is unusual novel about the performance of life and the life of performance that tells us empathy and passion are deeply political, and that fiction that flips a finger to the boundary between storytelling and the body is an expression of hope and a way toward a different future. In so many ways, Browning’s creation is a beautiful meditation on art, and a balm for readers in these difficult times.”

The Complete Stories of Leonora Carrington by Leonora Carrington (Dorothy) – The famous surrealist painter and contemporary of Max Ernst also wrote fiction, and this fiction bridged the gap between the surrealists and post-World War II fabulists. Her writings were a huge influence on Angela Carter, and likely allowed Carter to imagine a surrealism wedded to stronger cause-and-effect and something resembling a plot. In short, Carrington is essential to the history and evolution of 20th-century non-realist fiction. Stories like “The Debutante” and “White Rabbits” are strange and timeless and conjure up the universality of fairy tales while being thoroughly modern.

The Green Hand and Other Stories by Nicole Claveloux, text translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith (NYBR Classics) – These heady, surreal, transgressive stories from a forgotten imaginative juggernaut in French comics feature talking vegetables, depressed birds, and imagery that will lodge deep in your subconscious. The art style is like some aggressive mash-up of R. Crumb, Moebius, and Jim Woodring, but utterly unique. Simultaneously beautiful and disturbing.

The Trespasser by Tana French (Viking) – My first experience with French’s fiction, The Trespasser is a layered, complex tale that includes the added frisson of the detective narrator’s justified “paranoia” that the murder squad is out to sabotage her because of her gender. The combination of a fascinating case, a deep dive into the history of the narrator’s colleagues, and the fraught relationship she has with her partner create something special. I’ve now read all of French’s novels and recommend everything she’s written. Her work has contributed greatly to my continuing education as a writer.

Houses of Ravicka by Renee Gladman (Dorothy) – Gladman continues her utterly marvelous tales of the imaginary Ravicka, this time focusing on the mystery of invisible houses that seem to experience spatial dislocation. The narrator pursues this mystery with an implacable logical illogic that is reminiscent less of Franz Kafka or Italo Calvino than of a fabulist J.G. Ballard. Time and space are compressed and expanded in ways that create beautiful glittering structures in the reader’s mind. By the end, your brain has new secret compartments, which will reveal themselves when least expected.

The End of My Career by Martha Grover (Perfect Day) – An utterly enthralling and sobering tragicomic memoir of job and life experience that showcases Grover’s perfect sense of pacing and her eye for the absurdities of life and of the institutions of the modern world. Highlights include the essay “Women’s Studies Major” and the title essay. Out from a press in Portland, Ore., this collection deserves a much wider audience.

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid (Riverhead Books) – The author demonstrates the power of using a slight speculative element—mysterious doors used by people fleeing civil war to pass into Europe—to create a near-perfect novel about love, loss, and displacement. The novel’s most brilliant extrapolation is in not undermining the emotional resonance of the doors, and their effect on the main characters, with pointless explanation. Instead, Hamid creates a sensitive tapestry that comments on our current situation to devastating and beautiful effect.

Rabbit Cake by Annie Hartnett (Tin House Books) – Set in Freedom, Ala., Hartnett’s novel is an exploration of a mother’s death and the lives of animals that manages to be both “funny and heart-breaking” while avoiding the cliché inherent in the bittersweet. The narrator, Elvis Barrett, is endearing and in some ways wise beyond her years—and certainly knows more facts about critters than the average person. Although dead when the novel opens, the mother’s character is vividly portrayed and the family dynamic rather beautifully rendered as well. This is the kind of book I try to resist as a noted curmudgeon, but with not a smidge more sentiment than needed, Rabbit Cake is an instant classic that you could confidently give as a gift to any reader.

Crawl Space by Jesse Jacobs (Koyama Press) – Jacobs’s 2014 Safari Honeymoon was a tour de force about contamination and containment, portraying in lush comic panels relationships between humans and the environment that were horrific, hilarious, and unique. Crawl Space, with its psychedelic chronicle of people discovering a hidden world behind mundane reality, warps and rewires the reader’s brain in ways more about control and damage, while exploring a genuinely unearthly ecosystem of creatures.

The Grip of It by Jac Jemc (FSG Originals) – An original ghost story is nearly impossible to write, but somehow Jemc manages to come very close. In part, her clever structure—alternating between the points of view of a husband and wife as they encounter horrors in their new house—helps achieve new effects. But the novel also demonstrates an uncanny knowledge of ghost story tropes in the answers it provides—and doesn’t provide. I found The Grip of It genuinely creepy, in a jaded context in which I’ve been marinating (almost literally, and much to the detriment of my internal organs) in weird fiction for decades.

The Answers by Catherine Lacey (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) – I love the conceit of Lacey’s second novel, which allows the author to tackle so much that is so relevant about relationships and power structures. A rich creative seeks to have his personal life so structured that different women perform different roles for him. The narrator of the first part of the novel, whose own life is fraught, is hired for one of the roles and from there Lacey pursues the idea about as far as it can go. The novel then opens up to include other points of view. The real genius of the novel is how the central conceit allows Lacey to structure scenes in ingenious ways, creating narrative drive and reader investment for what, on the face of it, might otherwise seem a purely intellectual exercise. The differences between The Answers and her wonderful first novel suggest that Lacey will continue to surprise and is unlikely to repeat herself.

Black Moses by Alain Mabanckou, translated by Helen Stevenson (The New Press) – Author of the infamous African Psycho and Memoirs of a Porcupine, Mabanckou’s Black Moses is less formally inventive than prior translated works, and perhaps an easier entry point for readers unfamiliar with his fiction. But it is nonetheless riveting and powerful stuff, set in the 1970s and 1980s in Congo-Brazzaville. Tokumisa, whose full name means “Let us thank God, the Black Moses is born on the lands of the ancestors,” lives in an orphanage run by a jerk and abused by his fellows. Following his escape, Tokumisa joins a gang and thus begins a dark journey through a criminal underworld, with tragic consequences.

Humankind: Solidarity with Nonhuman People by Timothy Morton (Verso Books) – Considered by many to be among the top philosophers in the world, especially among those tackling issues related to human effects on our environment, Morton herein provides an important, spirited, and sometimes frenetic analysis of the foundational assumptions of Marxism and other -isms with regard to nature and culture (whilst also wanting to redefine those terms). Morton makes a compelling case for how our existing ideologies must adapt or change radically to repatriate ourselves with a world in which we are entangled physically but which we have convinced ourselves we are estranged from, or stand apart from, in our minds. If that sounds wordy, it’s because this is a complex topic and Morton is better than I am at expressing complex concepts in ways that are useful to a layperson.

Sourdough by Robin Sloan (MCD/FSG) – This satire of the tech industry manages to be both sweet and savory, in telling the story of a woman who inherits the possibly sentient starter for a sourdough recipe. More fairy tale than incisive critique, Sourdough epitomizes the heart-warming story that isn’t saccharine and as such it’s a rare novel indeed in a landscape dominated by more weighty books. But lightness is much more difficult to pull off (without devolving into the trivial), and Sloan manages the magic trick handily.

I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith (Wednesday Books ) – Like a relic from a simpler time, Smith’s novel, originally published in 1948, is a bit of a time capsule, but no less enjoyable for that reason. In charming and disarming prose, 16-year-old Cassandra Mortmain chronicles her family’s life in a crumbling castle. The place was bought by her father at the height of his literary success, but the death of their mother has given him writer’s block. Now they’re penniless and trying to eke out a spartan existence in their huge empty palace (complete with moat). Then Americans buy a neighboring farm and by extension become the Mortmain’s landlord, creating complications. All of the characters—from Cassandra’s siblings to her step-mom and her dad—are expertly drawn and the novel has lovely pacing and astute observation of human behavior.

My Cat Yugoslavia by Pajtim Statovci, translated by David Hackston (Pantheon) – By turns subtle and explicit, Statovci’s first novel focuses on the mysteries of a love story across two countries narrated by Bekim, a displaced Yugoslavian living in Finland with a boa constrictor as his sole companion. Investigating his mother’s life (and loves) brings him back to Kosovo, which he hasn’t seen since he was a young child, and the novel opens up to become a haunting and beautifully written exploration of identity, father-son relationships, and history. Did I mention that a sarcastic talking cat also figures prominently? I’ve never read anything quite like this novel, expertly translated, which draws equally on fabulist and realist influences to create a unique tale.

Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin, translated by Megan McDowell (Riverhead Books) – If environmental pollution and climate change require new approaches to narrative, then Schweblin in Fever Dream has hit upon one potent approach. At the crossroads of the surreal and the real, her story about a dying woman and a boy who is not her son manages to convey the confusion and pain of the modern condition in a way I haven’t seen before. A short read, utterly riveting and poignant.

Stages of Rot by Linnea Sterte (PEOW) – This first graphic novel by a talented Swedish artist depicts an alternate Earth in which up is down and the small have become the mighty. From giant moths ridden by post-humans to orcas that cruise through the sky, Sterte up-ends the order of the natural world and in doing so makes that world more visible to us. The panels are largely wordless, the story told through the lifecycles and everyday existence of the fantastical creatures on display. The ecosystems she’s created are monstrous and magnificent.

Orgs: From Slime Molds to Silicon Valley and Beyond edited by Jenna Sutela (Garrett Publications) – This slim glossy expose of slime mold organization as applied to a (not always subtle) critique of capitalism is oddly charming and especially relevant in how it attempts to map organic systems to the human world. Diagrams and maps along with full-color photos of various weird slime-molds jostle for dominance along with fascinating main text that discusses “Sublime Management” and the biological metaphors inherent in corporate-speak. As a writer who tries to get beyond the human and is invested in exploration of soft tech like mushrooms, I found Orgs very interesting. However, I must point out that a supposedly progressive or leftist approach to the topic might have come in a more eco-friendly container: the glossy paper of this booklet stank of chemicals when I rescued it from the unnecessary shrink-wrap. (Thus, we all live with hypocrisy.)

Black Wave by Michelle Tea (Feminist Press) – This skillful, sui generis, and bawdy intertwining of climate change anxiety and queer feminism has no equal or parallel in my experience. Set in a future of impending environmental doom, Tea’s narrator attempts to carve out a life, career, and relationships in a crumbling San Francisco. In a series of brilliant and hilarious set-pieces, sex and drugs and gender issues figure prominently, but also a complex awareness of the precariousness of our modern times. Although the environmental movement has in some ways lagged behind on social justice issues, Tea demonstrates the value of non-cis-gendered voices in this space, and how deviating from predominantly straight white male experiences can radicalize and make new the whole idea of the apocalyptic or mid-apocalyptic novel. Messy, poignant, funny, sad, visionary—Black Wave is pretty much everything.

The Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African American Culinary History in the Old South by Michael W. Twitty (Amistad) – If everything is political and nothing about our foundational assumptions should remain unexamined, then The Cooking Gene helps hasten the process in an interesting direction, coming at racism, gender, and faith from a different vantage. Twitty’s thorough and thought-provoking book uses recipes for West African Brisket, among others, and trips to Civil War battlefields, synagogues (Twitty is Jewish), and plantations to tell the story of his family’s own personal history and the origins of Southern cooking. He also explores our relationship with animals, where our food really comes from, and how we’ve become disconnected from the natural world. Much of the history of food preparation he uncovers concerns survival and necessity. The author’s loss of his mother while writing the book adds a sadness but also a kind of strength.

A Long Curving Scar Where the Heart Should Be by Quintan Ana Wikswo (Stalking Horse Press) – Taking on all kinds of issues with regard to history and the marginalized, this deep and ultimately cathartic novel, replete with anchoring photographs by the author, chronicles the attempts of a midwife abandoned by her husband to establish a sanctuary for the downtrodden in a deserted plantation. This location, the secrets of the small town nearby, and the lives of those who seek sanctuary come together to create a powerful story about the damage of the past and the power of community. But, honestly, until you live within the intimacy of Wikswo’s prose, you can’t really understand A Long Curving Scar; it tends to defy summary.

The Book of Joan by Lidia Yuknavitch (Harper) – This transformative and ecstatic retelling of the Joan of Arc story in a future dystopian setting of environmental collapse and fascism challenges the reader to confront the iniquities of the present day. This is a phantasmagorical literary opera full of dramatic moments but also quiet scenes of intense realism, and Yuknavitch has created a timely tale that is always disturbing and thought-provoking. Nor, as in some dystopias, does she neglect an searing examination of the role of animals in our lives. I also highly recommend her nonfiction book The Misfit’s Manifesto, released late in the year.

More from A Year in Reading 2017

Do you love Year in Reading and the amazing books and arts content that The Millions produces year round? We are asking readers for support to ensure that The Millions can stay vibrant for years to come. Please click here to learn about several simple ways you can support The Millions now.

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

The Millions Top Ten: August 2017


 

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 August.

This Month
Last Month

Title
On List

1.
3.

Ill Will
5 months

2.
2.

American War
5 months

3.
4.

Men Without Women: Stories
4 months

4.
7.

Exit West
2 months

5.
10.

The Idiot
2 months

6.
8.

What We Lose

2 months

7.


The Seventh Function of Language: A Novel
1 month

8.


The Stories of Breece D’J Pancake
2 months

9.


Eileen
2 months

10.


The Changeling
1 month

 

Lots of action this month as our Hall of Fame absorbs three mainstays from the past six months: Lincoln in the Bardo, A Separation, and Scratch: Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living. This marks George Saunders’s third entry into the Hall of Fame. He’d previously reached those hallowed halls for Tenth of December and Fox 8.

Meanwhile, The Nix dropped from our list after two months of solid showings. If he’s reading this (because who isn’t?) then hopefully Nathan Hill can look to two other titles on this month’s list for solace. Both The Stories of Breece D’J Pancake as well as Otessa Moshfegh’s Eileen are examples of books that have graced our monthly Top Ten one month (June, in this case) only to drop out for another (July), and then reappear (August). If they can do it, so you can you, Nix fans!

The remaining two spots were filled by new novels from Laurent Binet and Victor LaValle.

The Seventh Function of Language: A Novel, which was highlighted in both installments of our Great 2017 Book Preview, was expected to provide “highbrow hijinks.” In her review for our site this month, Shivani Radhakrishnan confirms that it delivers in this respect. Calling Binet’s novel “a madcap sharply irreverent French theory mash-up that’s part mystery and part satire,” Radhakrishnan goes on to contextualize it among other works in detective fiction and theory, which, she writes, have a good deal in common and which, she writes, intertwine to great effect here:
The new book turns Roland Barthes’s accidental death in 1980 into a murder investigation set against French intellectual life. With a cast of characters that includes Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, and Julia Kristeva with guest appearances by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Umberto Eco, and John Searle, it’s no surprise Binet’s book is way more dizzying than most detective stories. What is shocking, though, is how it manages to respect the theories and mock the theorists all at once.
The Changeling, too, was highlighted on this site in one of our monthly mini-previews. At the time, Lydia Kiesling implored readers to check out LaValle’s second novel, which she described as “a book that somehow manages to be a fairy tale, an agonizing parenting story, a wrenching metaphor for America’s foundational racist ills, and a gripping page-turner to usher in the summer.” If you’re still not sold, you can check out an excerpt from the book, or read our interview with the author from last year.

Skulking just beyond our list – like some expectant, lovelorn dolphin admiring a human home-wrecker as he swims – is Alissa Nutting’s Made for Love, which I reviewed a month ago, and which I encourage you all to buy and read so that this sentence makes sense.

This month’s other near misses included: The Art of Death: Writing the Final StoryHillbilly Elegy, Made for Love, Enigma Variations, and The Night Ocean. See Also: Last month’s list.

The Spaces In-Between: The Millions Interviews Rachel Khong

Rachel Khong has trouble telling her life story. To her, life happens in the tiny daily interactions, and so to have a tidy narrative ready—the sweeping story of how she got from A to B—doesn’t accurately take into account how mysterious everything is.

Khong says that she “didn’t want anything big” to happen in her debut novel, Goodbye, Vitamin, but instead wanted it to exist in the “space in-between.” Written in a series of diaristic entries, the novel starts around Christmas and spans a year. Thirty-year-old Ruth Young, fresh off a broken engagement, has moved home after learning that her father, Howard, has Alzheimer’s disease. The book follows her as she tries to care for him while dealing with her breakup and career ambivalence.

Khong and I spoke by phone about the relationship between food and control, the process of editing her novel, and the odd things your exes remember about you.

The Millions: You’ve mentioned before that you don’t think Goodbye, Vitamin is necessarily about Alzheimer’s, and that it’s more a novel about memory. I’m curious, what do you mean by that?

Rachel Khong: Well, it’s obviously not not a novel about Alzheimer’s. That’s absolutely a component of the book and it’s a really important dynamic in the family. The fact that her father’s been diagnosed with it is the reason that Ruth comes home.

But I’m hesitant to have it be labeled a novel specifically about Alzheimer’s because I don’t think that’s the main struggle. I think it would be disappointing to someone who came to this thinking, “this is going to tell me a lot about Alzheimer’s and what it’s like to take care of someone with the disease.” It’s more about this woman who is having to come to terms with her own life as she has narrated it until that point, and also navigate these relationships with family members and with friends and obviously with her ex-fiancé.

TM: Right, the novel takes place at the very early stages of Alzheimer’s. We can see the effects, but it’s not yet about tropes like “my father doesn’t recognize me” or “should I put him in a nursing home.” He’s not really in the worst of it.

RK: Yeah, her dad is in the beginning stages and it’s not quite as bad as it will be. It’s still a more pronounced version of the memory loss that, really, we all experience. I think Alzheimer’s was just a way to talk about memory that was more explicit for people to understand.

I think I err on the side of subtlety and not saying things really directly. That’s the kind of thing I like to read and I think more can be communicated sometimes in the space between words. That sounds so pretentious, I know, but I think more can be said by not directly going, hey, it really sucks that Alzheimer’s wipes away your whole life and it destroys the relationships in your life. That was not something that I felt needed to be explored because it was almost too obvious. I wanted to write about the day-to-day memory loss that we all experience because that was just more interesting to me.

TM: What drives this interest in memory? You said that Alzheimer’s was a way to explore memory, is the theme of “memory” a way to explore something else?

RK: I have always been interested in communication and how faulty it can be between people and trying to understand the reason for that, and I think I pinpointed that to memory. Memory is everywhere, in the ways we think of ourselves and tell our stories. There are certain kinds of people who have more of a sense of who they are and their whole life story. They could tell it to you at a campfire. I think that I have never thought of my own life in that way. Does that make sense?

TM: Yes, definitely. I know people who have an “elevator pitch” version of their life that’s very coherent and that they have down flat.

RK: Exactly. I’ve never been able to completely narrate my life from like from start to finish because that’s just not the way that my brain operates. And so I was interested in, what’s the difference between these two approaches—not that there are only two—and trying to understand what makes us think of ourselves in a certain way, how we as individuals think about our own lives and how memory figures into that.

TM: So what do you say when you do get asked that question about your life story?

RK: Immediately, I just am deeply skeptical. It doesn’t feel accurate to narrate your life in that elevator pitch way, so I just feel kind of squirmy. I know the things that have been consistent in my life. I know that I have always wanted to be a writer, for example, and I’ve always been somebody who likes to make stuff up and imagine things and wants to know more about other people and get inside their brains. But that’s not what people necessarily are asking. They want to know how you get from point A to point B. I think life is so much more mysterious than that and it feels really fake to me to try to make sense of that and that’s not what the book does.

TM: The book takes place over a year and it uses this very diaristic form. What made you choose that span, and that format? And have you read Elif Batuman’s The Idiot? That’s the book that I was thinking of when I was reading Goodbye, Vitamin.

RK: I have not.

TM: I think they’re similar, not necessarily in plot or theme, but in that they’re both written in these short entries, and they’re both very—I think “observant” is the word that comes to mind. Just made up of these little moments.

RK: Yeah. I wanted the book to be a reflection of life, I think, and so I didn’t want anything huge to happen. I didn’t want anything terrible to happen to Howard, I didn’t want anyone to die, I didn’t want anyone to get married.

In that big life story that you tell somebody—that myth that you tell people—you wouldn’t talk about things that just happened quietly every day and yet those things are the very material of that big sweeping story. Those little moments, those little interactions are who you are; every day is what makes up your life. I think I just wanted to explore that space and to not have those big events and those things that would normally get told in the big sweeping story to be part of this book. I wanted it to exist in the space in-between.

TM: One of my favorite scenes was this really small moment. At one point Joel, Ruth’s ex-fiancé, calls her and tells her that he learned that goats have square pupils and that this is something he thought she’d like. It’s such a small, sort of useless thing to know about someone, but it’s special that they remember it about you. And knowing that other people remember these small moments about you, to my mind, gives all of these day-to-day moments more power.

RK: Yeah, I think you have it exactly right. The fact is that Ruth has sort of been waiting for this call. She’s been waiting for a call or some word from him, she’s been quietly agonizing when she knows she shouldn’t be and then the thing he calls about is square goat pupils. Which sounds silly, but it’s also something really intimate to know about a person, that they care about that sort of thing. But it’s also sort of arbitrary and that’s how things are.

TM: Yeah, there’s a line where Ruth talks about how Joel did “half the work of remembering.” And I remember reading Elizabeth Alexander’s The Light of the World, which is a memoir about her husband’s sudden death, and she says something very similar, about how in a relationship you divide up the labor of who remembers what.

RK:  Two people can have a whole list of shared things and shared experiences and when that, when a relationship ends and you no longer have those shared things, it’s almost like your identity has changed. You have to learn how to be the person and do the work of remembering your own life again.

I think it’s easy for people to tell you when you’re mourning the end of something, it’s easy to say, you’ll get over it and it’ll just take time, you’ll get over it. There are still things that remain in your brain that you have no power over and will always take up space there.

TM: In the novel, Howard is a university professor who’s had affairs in the past. At one point, we meet one of Howard’s current students, Joan. Ruth thinks that Joan has had some sort of affair with her dad. Joan says something like, “he doesn’t remember me,” and Ruth goes, “what doesn’t he remember?”

That was really poignant. On the one hand, it’s sad that he can’t remember because it’s a disease, but on the other hand, him not remembering almost absolves him and makes their family life easier. But Ruth won’t forget.

RK: Having Joan in the book to me was a way for Ruth to have to confront this version of her father that she didn’t really know that much about and see it in action and up close. And she has to process it and be forced to deal with it and to see what her brother had seen all along.  Unlike him, she left home because she got to really see her father’s flaws close up.

It was really important to me to have Howard be this flawed character, not this shining, amazing history professor who was blameless and was a perfect father and now having tragic things happening. I really want to explore all the ways in which we all kind of fail one another and having Joan be there and just sort of having her be there for Ruth to deal with was a way to do that.

TM: Did she have to confront this directly? She couldn’t really believe her brother’s memories or take his word for it?

RK: She didn’t want to have her bubble burst. Some of us are more able to just take someone else’s word at things and then others of us need to experience things more empirically and experience the heartbreak firsthand. For Ruth, of course she believes her brother, but it’s hard to really take someone else’s word for something so big when all you know of that person is their more loving side. She is obviously throughout pretty conflicted. She wants to hang onto this previous memory of her dad. You do kind of want to believe the best about people.

TM: I’m also interested in the role of food and health in the novel, especially given the title. Ruth becomes obsessed with making her dad eat “cruciferous foods” like broccoli because she reads that they ward off dementia. That made me think about how, culturally, we really want to believe that if we eat enough acai berries, we can protect ourselves. Then, near the end of the book, Howard refuses to eat the cruciferous food and Ruth is just like, “okay.” Is this her acknowledging that she doesn’t have much control?

RK: I think the sense there is just that maybe happiness is more important than food. Even as the book spans a year and nothing huge happens, there is this small shift in the way that Ruth and her father kind of come to think about, well, just living and the time that they have.

They sort of start to learn more to live moment-to-moment, be content in moments and just be able to observe something and have that be completely fulfilling. For Ruth, it would make sense for her to want the future to come quicker, in her own life personally. She wants things to be better, she wants to get over this breakup, she wants to have a job that she loves, she wants things for her own life. But I think because she knows that wanting the future for herself means wanting a worse future for her father—a future in which he will necessarily be in a worse mental state—she’s learned how to think less about, or obsess less about, the future, to just live more in the present.

So, back to the question about food, I think that’s just an offshoot of that. She’s kind of surrendered some of that control, control of obsessing over the diet, the control of whatever her own future will be personally.

TM: What was the process of researching this book like? How much of it was biographical—you’re also from southern California, where the novel takes place—versus a lot of research?

RK:  I don’t think any element of the book was either straight-up from my knowledge or straight-up imagined. I was reading a lot about California history, about Alzheimer’s as a disease. Some of the characters are really some amalgamation, others are a blend of things I’ve stolen from people.

TM: What sorts of things did you steal?

RK: There’s this journal that Howard has kept for Ruth and it’s full of entries about days when she was younger. I made a lot of those up, but I did have a few of those that my friends told me about their kids. I have one friend that was telling me about her son Darwin, and he had said the line in the book about asking what nerds are, and then getting them confused with nerves. Then I asked her for permission to reuse that in the book because I thought it was so wonderful.

TM: What about the process of editing?

RK: It was a really very haphazard process. I wrote the beginning, middle, end as a draft and then I sort of would attack really randomly. I had a day job too and just having to revise when I had any spare moment led to this really random way of approaching the revision process.

It helped that the book is formatted in the way that it is. I would open the book up at random and see what needed to be fixing, and then fix it. Sometimes I’d just think of a new scene and stick it in there and try to arrange it or deal with it later. The book is a lot about the layering of emotions and dynamics between people. So revising was just this really gentle layering and layering on of emotions, but also of people’s characteristics and things like that, spending lot of time with these characters and thinking about what their motivations were and what they would do next was a big part of revising.

TM: So this book is out, and you’re writing another novel! Can you tell me a little about it?

RK: Not quite. I am definitely working on a novel, but it’s I’m a little stuck right now and I’m trying to figure out what’s happening next, so I can’t jinx it.

The Millions Top Ten: June 2017


 

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.

This Month
Last Month

Title
On List

1.
2.

Lincoln in the Bardo
5 months

2.
3.

A Separation
5 months

3.
4.

Ill Will
3 months

4.
8.

Men Without Women: Stories
2 months

5.
7.

American War
3 months

6.
5.

Scratch: Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living
5 months

7.
9.

Homesick for Another World
6 months

8.


The Nix
1 month

9.


Eileen
1 month

10.


The Stories of Breece D’J Pancake
1 month

 

One book dropped out, two ascended to our Hall of Fame, and that means three slots opened up for new titles on our June Top Ten. Before getting to the newcomers, congratulations are in order for The North Water author Ian McGuire, and especially for Derek B. Miller, whose Norwegian by Night dominated the Top Ten on the strength of Richard Russo’s recommendation. Both authors are off to the Hall of Fame this month. At the same time, Zadie Smith’s Swing Time has fallen off of the list after four months. Smith fans, fear not. In the past, authors have fallen off our list only to reappear later on, so it’s possible for her to send her second book (after NW, which reached in 2013) to the Hall of Fame in due time.

Filling the new slots are three very different books following three very different trajectories.

The Nix by Nathan Hill finally joins the June Top Ten after hovering among the “Near Misses” since last December. At the time, our own Garth Risk Hallberg highlighted the book’s “disparate concerns — video games, parental neglect, political anger” and praised the ways they’re “bound together by the warmth, charm, and wit of the author’s voice.” Nick Ripatrazone went further, invoking a lofty comparison in his teaser for our Great 2016 Book Preview:
Eccentricity, breadth, and length are three adjectives that often earn writers comparisons to Thomas Pynchon. Hill tackles politics more headlong than Pynchon in this well-timed release.
This is Hill’s first time on one of our monthly lists.

Ottessa Moshfegh, meanwhile, is no stranger to them. Impressively, Eileen is the second Moshfegh book on this very month’s Top Ten, after Homesick for Another World. It’s Ottessa Moshfegh’s world; we just live in it.

Finally, The Stories of Breece D’J Pancake launched onto our list thanks to an insightful, moving, and comprehensive review from Mike Murphy. “Breece Pancake could see the future of America and it must have scared the hell out of him,” Murphy writes of the late author, who took his own life in 1979, before this story collection was published posthumously.

This month’s other near misses included: The Idiot, Exit WestEnigma Variations, Blind Spot, and The Night Ocean. See Also: Last month’s list.

How I Learned to Start Driving (and Writing)

I took so long to learn how to drive. Eight years. “Learn” is perhaps the wrong word, because I spent many of those years strenuously avoiding addressing the issue out loud, or else expending equally vigorous effort into making my inability to drive a charming and integral feature of my personality. I have avoided many things I am frightened of in this way. I was a writer. Someone like me couldn’t drive a motorised vehicle, obviously; it would chip into the time I needed to ride a horse around my hilly and varied mental landscape. What was I, an accountant? A businesswoman in an office with some kinds of scanners? It got so at one point I freely drew equivalencies between the ability to drive and collusion with The Man. But even as I compared people with licenses to BP executives, I pined. I wanted to be able to do it so badly. I was just so scared, and so terrible. I was not good at any of it, but starting was the real problem. Starting on the flat, starting on a hill. Starting on a busy road where the idea was that the enraged hooting of the people behind would spur me into competence. Starting in an empty parking lot next to the dump, where the idea was that the rows of abandoned washing machines and rotting office chairs would make me see that I had all the time in the world. I just couldn’t do it. My heart would start beating in my ears so fast I became deaf. My legs wouldn’t work, and it was a good thing they didn’t, because if they did then what I would do is get out the car and run round and round in panicked circles until I fell to the floor exhausted.

I tried, though. I tried to start for six months, while driving instructor Hester patted my shoulder as I cried and told me that she knew it was hard, but that she knew I could do it, and that I needed to do it because it had been Too Long, now, and adults need to know how to drive. What if their boyfriends are choking on a piece of fruit and they need to get to hospital pronto? What if someone cracks their head open at the beach? Or someone gets bitten by a snake and we sit there waiting for the ambulance and watching the poison make its way up from their bitten leg to their heart, and it’s all because I can’t start a car? It just made me cry even more.  I didn’t want to hear from well-meaning driving instructor Hester that it was hard but necessary. I wanted to hear that it was easy, and so fun, and like being in Wacky Races every day. No one ever said this to me, not in eight years, not even when I eventually pulled myself together and got a license and found out that driving is so easy, and so fun, and exactly like being in what I remember of the cartoon show Wacky Races, where everyone just zooms around and has a wonderful time. If only someone had told me. I have had a car now for five years and every day I drive up and down hills with the cruel proud smile of a Roman emperor on my face.

I am still intimately acquainted with the feeling of dread panic that accompanies Not Knowing How to Start, though. I get it every time I have to write something that I suspect someone other than my mom might read, or something that I think is important, or honestly just any time at all. It’s never the actual writing itself, which is always okay when I get going. It’s the starting, and the prospect of starting, and the thinking about how I will have to think about starting, that makes me want to vomit and die on the floor for a long time.

But a person can’t just die on the floor for their whole week, and so I have developed ways to cope. Over the years, I have compiled a list of writers who are the literary equivalent of an instructor patting me on the shoulder and promising me that the process is nothing but a complete riot from start to finish. I read them before I have to start, and it reassures me to an unbelievable degree. Sometimes specific essays or poems or profiles, sometimes a certain paragraph from a novel, other times the whole book. This is just off the top of my head, but for a while now I have relied on the following: John Jeremiah Sullivan’s profile on Bunny Wailer, Jo Ann Beard’s “The Fourth State of Matter,” the second third of A Brief History of Seven Killings, George Saunders’s “Victory Lap,” Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (all of it, but especially the bits about Beli), Masande Ntshanga’s “Space,” Miriam Toews’s Irma Voth, Frank O’Hara’s “The Day Lady Died,” the first section of Derek Walcott’s “The Schooner Flight,” the ending of Lucky Jim (the whole thing, but especially “As a kind of token, he made his Sex Life in Ancient Rome Face”), the very end of Blood Meridian. Most recently: Molly Young’s profile on Amanda Chantal Bacon, Elif Batuman’s The Idiot, and Patricia Lockwood’s Priestdaddy. Always: Denis Johnson. I have never figured out how a Denis Johnson story works, what the trick is, or if the trick even exists. I don’t know why I think about “Two Men” once a day, at least, or why every single time I go into a hospital I am just about overcome with the desire to relay the plot of “Emergency” to whoever is in the lift with me. I do know, though, that whenever I read him, I feel that the problem of starting is not really a problem at all. Just start. Just be Denis Johnson and make it seem like you tipped forward a bit in your seat and the whole story just fell out of your brain and onto the page. Just get going.

It’s not that I want to write like these people, or that I could even hope to try. It’s that they make me feel better, in the way that reading, say, Franz Kafka, does not. Kafka, whose every word assures me that writing is a terrible torment, and that it kills you off early. Kafka, febrile, writhing and twisting about in a chair that he purchased precisely because it was uncomfortable, his leaden fingers gripping his slightly broken fountain pen. The pen is made out of iron and holding it makes his fingers smell like the railings of a cold bus. The room is icy. I understand how Kafka’s agony would make a certain class of stoical person feel better about her own writing-related tortures. I am not one of these people. I need to be buoyed. I have no idea whether any of the writers on my list actually find the process to be enjoyable or not, but I read what they have written and I believe in my heart that they are having the time of their lives. They are driving up and down hills very fast, and their favorite song is playing on the radio. They have no trouble starting at all.

Image Credit: Wikimedia

The Millions Top Ten: May 2017


 

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 May.

This Month
Last Month

Title
On List

1.
1.

Norwegian by Night
6 months

2.
2.

Lincoln in the Bardo
4 months

3.
4.

A Separation
4 months

4.
7.

Ill Will
2 months

5.
5.

Scratch: Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living
4 months

6.
6.

The North Water
6 months

7.
8.

American War
2 months

8.


Men Without Women: Stories
1 month

9.
9.

Homesick for Another World
5 months

10.
10.

Swing Time
4 months

 

April showers bring May flowers, but a month of May book purchases launched Michael Chabon’s Moonglow into our Hall of Fame. It’s the author’s second appearance there; Telegraph Avenue made the list four years back.

Chabon’s success freed up an opening on this month’s Top Ten. Filling his place in 8th position is another author who’s no stranger to our Hall of Fame: Haruki Murakami. In our Great 2017 Book Preview, Murakami’s latest story collection, Men Without Women, was said to “concern the lives of men who, for one reason or another, find themselves alone.” Emily St. John Mandel continued:
In “Scheherazade,” a man living in isolation receives regular visits from a woman who claims to remember a past life as a lamprey; in “Yesterday,” a university student finds himself drawn into the life of a strange coworker who insists that the student go on a date with his girlfriend.
Could this book become Murakami’s third to make our Hall of Fame? Only time will tell.

Meanwhile Derek B. Miller’s Norwegian by Night continues its reign over our list, further demonstrating that if you want to sell books to Millions readers, you ought to get an endorsement from Richard Russo first.

Elsewhere on the list, a few movers moved and shakers shook, but overall things held steady. Next month, we’ll likely graduate two titles to our Hall of Fame, which means we’ll welcome two more newcomers. By then, we’ll be in full swing with our Great Second-Half 2017 Book Preview, which was a shocking thing to type. Can 2018 come soon enough?

This month’s other near misses included: The IdiotEileenThe Nix, Exit West, and Enigma Variations. See Also: Last month’s list.

The Sexless Idiot

1.
A riddle: a woman and a man get to know one another in the 21st century. They flirt, go on long walks, exchange poetic emails, and stay up all night in his apartment. This goes on for months. But they never so much as kiss. Why?

It’s a state of affairs that makes us suspicious. At a time when sex is the starting point rather than the goal of most romantic relationships, we don’t have a rich phrasebook for understanding why two seemingly interested people fail at step one. Our explanations tend to be base: one of the two must be ugly, or in the closet, or unfashionably religious, or simply not interested in sex. If they wanted to, we reassure ourselves, they would.

Elif Batuman is skeptical of these reassurances. Her first novel, The Idiot, is a love story about two people who can’t bring themselves to kiss. The book has been praised for its humor, style, and linguistic observations, less so for what it has to say about the problem of sex. The few reviews that have mentioned sex at all have largely complained about its absence. But it’s precisely that absence that animates The Idiot and allows Batuman to present a more nuanced answer to the riddle: two people might fail to sleep together because they either can’t or won’t negotiate the power dynamic that physical intimacy inevitably requires.

2.
Selin Karadağ, the novel’s narrator, is a newly arrived freshman at Harvard in the early days of electronic mail, a teenager who’s spent more time wondering on what day she’ll die than to whom she’ll lose her virginity. She’s cynically funny, with a keen eye for the absurd, but also possessed of an unsentimental idealism: she isn’t afraid to say she wants “a life unmarred by laziness, cowardice, and conformity.” She’s drawn to these sorts of confident, precise expressions, finding an almost existential comfort in the descriptive capacity of language, and feeling unmoored whenever she’s at a loss for words.

In her introductory Russian course she meets Ivan. He’s a senior, a looming Hungarian mathematician with the rarified aura that mathematicians have for laypeople. Selin’s interest grows as she watches him move through space, as she hears him speak, and as they find themselves cast as dialogue partners performing “Nina in Siberia,” a bizarre, elliptical love story made for teaching Russian grammar. One day, after overhearing his last name, she finds his email and writes him an impulsive letter, a playful sequel to their Nina dialogue, the sort of note that demands either an earnest reply or none at all. Ivan replies.

Their relationship graduates from email to long walks around Cambridge and finally to sitting up all night in his apartment, talking about nothing. They lurch through cycles of heartbreak and reconciliation. Ivan disappears, Selin writes to him that she’s in love with him, Ivan writes her that she’s the most special person he knows, Ivan mentions a girlfriend who quickly becomes an ex-girlfriend, Selin calls him the worst insult she can think of, Ivan takes her to Walden on his motorcycle, etc.

Like all young lovers, they struggle with voicing their expectations and feelings to each other but, at least to herself, Selin is able to articulate a clear idea of what constitutes true love. At one point, discussing Ivan with a therapist, she says: “Most people, the minute they met you, were sizing you up for some competition for resources…They’re always separating people into two groups, allies and dispensable people.” Ivan, she says, no matter how complicated he is, genuinely seems to care more about understanding her than about figuring out if she’s dispensable. This, to her, means he loves her.

Nothing very tangible comes out of this love. The summer after her freshman year, Selin travels to Hungary as a volunteer English teacher, largely because Ivan will be there, and the cycle repeats. In the end they have a climactic heart-to-heart that resolves nothing, and he leaves for Stanford to begin his PhD. It’s unlikely they’ll see each other again.

In what amounts to almost a year of knowing each other, the closest they come to physical intimacy is when he playfully touches her ear.

Reviewers have found this fact — by far the most unusual fact about the story — hard to account for. Some have dismissed it as an unfortunate flaw, or else, by glossing over it, implied that if sex is lacking it’s because sex isn’t what the book is about. Others have blamed the characters: either Selin is too much of a brain for physical intimacy (obviously contradicted by the text) or Ivan is, variously, not into her, emotionally unavailable, or a bad boy whose advances Selin wisely rejects. We don’t have access to Ivan’s thoughts, and there’s plenty of evidence for a cynical reading of his character, but these explanations feel forced. He never makes a move on her. He always calls her first (when they agree once that she’ll call first, he later admits he couldn’t focus on his work, so wrapped up was he in waiting). He’s not a paragon of vulnerability, but he’s available in ways that matter to Selin: “All I had to do was write him an email, and then he walked around with me all day long. Who else in the world would do that?”

Still, they don’t manage to move beyond walking. Once in a while Ivan makes superficially enigmatic statements about how much “easier things would be” if they were intoxicated:
[Ivan said,] “I’m not saying we have to get hammered…You just bypass the suffering…Something breaks down. I don’t know what to call it — those blocks, that obstruct a connection in your mind.”

“Inhibitions,” I said.

“Yes, exactly,” he said. I felt my face flush. “I don’t mean,” he added, “that you never talk about sex, and then you get drunk and suddenly you can talk about sex.”

“Right,” I said.

Time passed. I was thinking about how much time we had, and how little, at the same time. At some point, Ivan ask if I liked doughnuts.
If your sexual initiation didn’t take place in a John Irving novel, perhaps this scene is familiar. You sit around with your love interest, talking in suggestive generalities, trying to bait them into making the first move. We usually call this shyness, a little-respected emotion, because we think of it as the fear of committing to an action that we’re sure is totally fine and normal. We tell shy people: “Get on with it!”

This seems to be the frustration that many reviewers circle around. But I don’t think Selin’s inhibitions are mere shyness. She seems, at least in those moments, certain of Ivan’s interest. What she unconsciously fears, I believe, is that introducing the demands of physical desire into their relationship would compromise the notion of love that she has articulated, according to which Ivan loves her because he lets no worldly concerns get in the way of trying to understand her.

3.
One of two books that Selin reads in Hungary is Thomas Mann’s 1924 bildungsroman The Magic Mountain. The book’s protagonist, Hans Castorp, is a kind of proto-millennial: he visits his cousin in a sanatorium and ends up staying there for seven years, living off his trust fund, cultivating hobbies and becoming an unpaid DJ. Selin says she sympathizes with much in the book, especially how they always eat two breakfasts, but as I read The Idiot, I kept wondering what she thought about one of The Magic Mountain’s more objectionable scenes.

Midway through the story, Castorp sleeps with a very ill Russian girl named Clavdia Chauchat, who he’s been making eyes at for 250 pages. She promptly leaves the sanatorium, and he waits for her, feigning illness. When she returns, however, it’s as the “traveling companion” of a Dutch colonialist, Pieter Peeperkorn, who, despite his advanced age, radiates a charisma that’s both Dionysian and Christ-like. Castorp is disappointed but, amiable as he is, he develops a friendship with the Dutchman.

At one point the pair spend a drunk morning theorizing about the nature of female desire. They arrive at the conclusion that it’s essentially passive: “Desire intoxicates the male,” Peeperkorn sums up. “The female demands and expects to be intoxicated by his desire.” Castorp is then able to confess his liaison with Chauchat, because, as he assures his friend, this liaison was entirely the result of his desire, and so shouldn’t reflect on the girl. The Dutchman more or less accepts this, saying, in short, if I were younger we might have to duel, but since I’m old, let’s make a bond of brotherhood instead. They drink to it.

Not exactly edifying reading, but it states shamelessly the algebra of desire that was assumed to be true for centuries and which, though it has largely passed from our discourse, still governs, often against our wills, sexual dynamics between men and women. In this algebra, desire is not fulfilled by a man learning what a woman wants. What she wants is obvious — she wants to be overwhelmed. The man’s challenge is to rise to the occasion, not to speak the right words but merely to speak, as loudly and shamelessly as he can.

Desire, then, is inseparable from power. What we desire is either to overpower or to be overpowered, and pleasure stems not from some combination of physical stimuli, not from being understood, but from how purely we’re able to play one of those two roles. And you don’t need to be a dyed in leather BDSMer or under-informed about consent to admit, with however heavy a heart, that this dynamic remains for many people an aspect of sexual pursuit and fulfillment, and that the concept of “intoxicating male desire” remains embedded in customs of who makes the first move, who pursues and who encourages pursuit, who emulates strength and who emulates weakness.

These notions of desire disquiet Selin, and not because she worries about consent. To the possibility that Ivan is trying to “push” her in “the scenario known to us both in which boys pushed girls,” she says that was “so obviously not what was going on.” Rather, it’s the thought that power might in any way have anything to do with love that makes her anxious. This is most apparent in moments when Selin feels unexpectedly hurt, because it’s almost always when Ivan suggests, even in a trivial way, that he’s aware of a power dynamic in their relationship. In one scene, he gives her a box of cookies to hold, and a dog that he’d been teasing with the cookies jumps on Selin, ruining her dress. Ivan jokes that he didn’t do it on purpose. “The sense of hurt,” she says, “took my breath away. It would never have occurred to me that he had done it on purpose.” In their climactic heart-to-heart, when Ivan admits one of his hurtful emails was “a power thing”, her breath catches in her throat: “It had never occurred to me that power was something he would actually use, on me of all people.”

For Selin, power seems inseparable from the competition for resources that she sees as antithetical to love. Power, she suspects, is always used for extraction. She sees it in The Beatles, whose “harmoniously innocent warbling” hides for her a “calculating cynical worldview” where they’re “keeping tally, resenting [their girl] for making them show her the way, waiting to be pleased in return.” As in most Beatles songs (except “Run For Your Life”), power and sex are not explicitly linked in The Idiot, but the hints are clear. After their first long night together, when he walks her home, she pre-empts any possibility of a kiss by leaving suddenly, and thinks she’s “won.” By extension, if she’d lingered, and shown that she expected something from him, he would have won, by giving her what she wanted, by showing her the way. It’s their first moment of sexual tension, and one of the few times she uses such explicit language about winning and losing.

Ivan is caught in a similar bind. On the one hand, as the more sexually experienced man, the aesthetics of his situation are less ugly, because in any power dynamic he would be the stronger, the “winner.” On the other hand, he can’t bring himself to make the first move, because if he genuinely loves her he doesn’t want to see her in a weaker position. The best he can do is hint at the sort of role he could play, and see how she reacts (not well). In Hungary they walk by a river and Ivan says that he wants to throw a stray dog into it. She asks why he’d want to do such a thing. He says rivers make him want to throw things into them, and jokes that he can’t throw her in. She knows this is “meant to sound playful,” but feels “insulted and humiliated.” Ivan reads her mood correctly: “I think you don’t like to throw the dog into the river.” I don’t think Ivan would throw a dog into a river, and I don’t think they’re talking about dogs.

As the story progresses there are hints that Selin might be, if not coming to terms with power dynamics, then at least becoming more aware of their pleasures. She starts enjoying The Beatles. Even as she’s ashamed of it, she admits how much she likes following Ivan’s instructions. The most revealing moment comes during their heart-to-heart. At one point he asks her about one of her letters, and Selin feels “a shock, like when he had mentioned power, but this time the feeling was intoxicating. I felt it, his power — but like he was going to use it delicately —
but not like he wasn’t going to use it.” Batuman is a crystalline stylist. Whenever her sentence constructions feel awkward, a character is trying to express something that language has trouble expressing. Here, Selin glimpses, however hazily, a power dynamic redeemed, and immediately undoes her hair clip, letting her hair down. But the hair covers her face, her self, and within the same sentence, she clips it back up again. They talk for a while longer, and make some important admissions, but in the end nothing they say bridges the physical distance between them, not even when Selin consents to Ivan killing a moth that’s buzzing around her room. He doesn’t kill it. With her help, he lets it out the window.

The next morning Selin ponders the prescience of Dr. Seuss: “We would not, could not, here or there. We would not, could not, anywhere.”

4.
The sermonic version of The Idiot might conclude with this: if power compromises love, and sex involves power, then sex always compromises love. To be intoxicated by someone’s power is to allow your love for them to be compromised. True love will not save you: the truer the love the deeper the compromise.

I don’t think Selin sees a way out of this predicament. After her big talk with Ivan, she has a dream. She’s in a bathhouse, and Ivan walks in, except in the dream he’s also her brother. He is followed by a deluge of water. They hold one another. They say I love you. The water will drown them. Coldness and wetness, throughout the novel, are associated with death. If sex is a debasement of love, only one option remains to stay true to that love — confess it and die, chastely in the arms of your brother.

I found something admirable about Selin’s stubborn skepticism, perhaps because it’s grounded in her faith in language. She’s not skeptical of what she’s able to articulate, like her notion of love or her dislike of The Beatles. But when she arrives at something she can’t justify or explain, like why power dynamics must exist between two people in love, or why we drink so much, she refuses to go forward, no matter how much convention nudges at her back. She’ll believe in something, but not before it is made legible.

Her insistence on an explanation stands in contrast to two ways in which the rest of us make do with our compromises (three if you count alcohol). The first is by not talking about them. Many of us have internalized some vague idea that sex, whatever its myriad pleasures, is symbiotic with love, and that the two together represent the highest interpersonal fulfilment we can reasonably expect to achieve. When this assumption almost inevitably fails to hold, we think, well, desire is a strange thing that can’t be put into words anyway. This idea may seem obvious, because it’s so pervasive, but I think Selin would call it willful ignorance.

The second, more subtle way is by labelling the power dynamics involved in sexuality and seduction as “performative” and “arbitrary,” as if anything as basic as sex could ever be purely performative. Even if it were, it’s not obvious that what we perform on a regular basis doesn’t change us or how we’re perceived. If we perform weakness for our partner enough times, they may begin to believe we are weak, or dispensable, no matter how much they love us. It’s the fear of this, I think, that keeps many people from expressing their desires precisely to the partners they love most. How can you really ask someone, whom you love and respect as an equal, to put either you or themselves in a position of desirable weakness?

In the absence of physical intimacy, there’s a limit to how deeply The Idiot can explore these questions. Batuman has said that this novel is the first of a series, and I suspect she’ll go farther in its sequels (about one of which she said, “I want to write more about sex in this one; I think sex is a really big problem that people don’t acknowledge enough.”). Still, if The Idiot only describes the tip of the problem, it nonetheless points out both the problem and how much our language, so at ease with describing linguistic theory and croissants, struggles to articulate it. At the same time, Batuman presents this struggle not as the product of a fundamental rift between what can and can’t be articulated, but as a basic tension in our development as people. What Selin, in her grasping attempts to say how she feels about Ivan’s power, comes to understand is that we will always be pressing up against a reality that we cannot yet put into words. We will always, at the margins of our experience, be struggling with a new language.

Boiled Down

“Like reading, love works in roughly the same way every time, but the details of any given case are irreducibly particular, and it’s in the details that everything happens.” Lidija Haas on Elif Batuman’s debut novel, The Idiot. (You could also read our review by Virginia Marshall.)

Elif Batuman Has Learned Nothing at All: On ‘The Idiot’

In the preface of his faux-memoir novel Moonglow, Michael Chabon warns the reader: “I have stuck to facts except where facts refused to conform with memory, narrative purpose, or the truth as I prefer to understand it.” The world he creates in his novel — with a narrator so like the author in age, origin, and mannerism — is so convincingly real that for most of the book I was distracted by my desire to know which parts of the story were true and which were made up. Did Chabon’s grandfather really want to blow up Washington D.C.? And how much is true of the grandmother’s horrifying brush with Nazis?

But this, of course, is not the point of a novel, a book that is specifically marketed as fiction. Authors throughout history have taken this approach, creating fiction memoirs, perhaps to give themselves more freedom to embellish or play down scenes from life — I’m thinking of titles like Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, and Tobias Wolff’s Old School. In an interview with The Telegraph, Chabon clarified his intent in blending fact and fiction: “I actually feel like fiction, which is open about its deception, is a much more powerful and more revealing tool for getting at truths about what happens in families.” What kind of fiction is better at telling the truth than memoir? And what kind of truth is revealed from such writing?

These questions were at the forefront of my mind when I read Elif Batuman’s debut novel, The Idiot. Like Chabon’s Moonglow, the narrator of The Idiot, Selin Karadağ, bears a strong resemblance to the author. Selin, like Batuman herself, is a New Jersey-born woman of Turkish descent, who goes to Harvard where she flirts with linguistics and the Russian language, falls in love with a senior who has another girlfriend, and follows him to Hungary that summer. Batuman writes about several of these events in her collection of nonfiction essays The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them (2010), a thrilling book that I devoured in a matter of a few days.

I’ve long admired Batuman for her nonfiction writing (if you, too, want to fall in love, read Batuman’s essay on the peculiar history of Harvard’s Russian bells). Batuman’s incisive intelligence and blunt humor (for which she won the Terry Southern Humor Prize from The Paris Review in 2011) pervade both her essays — in The Possessed and in The New Yorker, where she has been a staff writer since 2010 — and her novel. Because of the similarities between The Idiot and Batuman’s personal essays, I found myself almost fact-checking the novel, measuring it up both against Batuman’s writing about her Harvard years and my own time as an undergrad there. I, too, took a psycholinguistics class with an attractive (though 15 years older) Italian man who, like Selin’s professor, wore shiny grey suits and taught in a cramped classroom on the 10th floor of the psychology building. And the series of strange events that lead to the character Selin spending a month teaching English in a Hungarian village are strikingly similar to the parade of missteps Batuman the nonfiction writer chronicles in The Possessed. I slipped so completely into Batuman’s fictional world, convinced of its truth, that when I reminded myself that Batuman had written a novel, not a memoir, I felt let down. I so wanted it all to be real. But why?

Batuman speaks directly to my strange urge to read this novel as nonfiction in an interview with The Rumpus in 2012. In response to a question about why publishers are more interested in getting writers to pen memoirs rather than novels, Batuman said: They want it to be true. And it’s actually an odd thing to want. The rationale is that people these days are no longer interested in novels, because we live in a newsy age, we care about facts, we care about the truth.” She ends by mentioning Tolstoy’s War and Peace and points out, “Tolstoy didn’t think he was detracting from the truth-telling power of his book by writing it as a novel.

So, now to Batuman’s novel and the truthiness living in its pages. At first blush, The Idiot is a bildungsroman of the late ’90s; Selin comes of age in a world where e-mail is just emerging and students at Harvard are social slaves to their dorm room phones, hoping that crushes will call on weekend nights. Indeed, Batuman introduces her narrative with a quote from the second volume of Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, perhaps the heftiest tome of the bildungsroman genre. Batuman quotes from Proust, “In later life we look at things in a more practical way, in full conformity with the rest of society, but adolescence is the only period in which we learn anything.”

Adolescence is the beginning, middle, and end of The Idiot. Selin the character strikes me as an 18-year-old female version of Professor Timofey Pnin in Vladimir Nabokov’s Pnin; she is as confused by language and apt to make highly specific observations as the professor, though with a more modern, deadpan humor. Like this: an aerial view of one Hungarian town Selin describes as “spread out like some fantastic salad,” and a patch of overgrown grass in Boston “resembled a comb-over on the head of a bald person who didn’t want to see reality.”

Batuman’s enthusiasm for words comes through in Selin, whose quest to discover the truth about language makes her quite crazed. As Selin immerses herself in linguistics, psycholinguistics, and philosophy of language, she seems to hang her theories of language up, one by one, next to the linguists’ theories, a dizzying parade of Benjamin Whorf, Edward Sapir, Donald Davidson, and Noam Chomsky. Soon, Selin begins to be unraveled by language; she cannot communicate and loses the meaning of narratives and conversations, unable to step back from a close observation of form and structure to identify her own place in the story. She begins to feel anxious about her untethered position, and begs her own novelist to show her the way. “I wanted to know how it was going to turn out, like flipping ahead in a book,” Selin says in one of several metanarrative moments. “I didn’t even know what kind of story it was, or what kind of role I was supposed to be playing.”

Redemption in all this muddled language comes from literature, a nod to the author’s own preference for losing herself in the complex world of Russian fiction. Selin finds her own anxieties about language in a passage in Anton Chekhov’s “The Darling:” “You see a bottle, for example, standing there, or the rain falling, or a peasant going along in his cart, but what the bottle or rain or peasant are for, what sense they make, you can’t say and couldn’t say, even if they offered you a thousand rubles.” Even in her Russian classes, Selin sees more truth in the Russian literature the students are meant to read than in the facts of her own life. The short fiction stories in “Nina in Siberia,” which are only intended to teach the students Russian grammar and vocabulary, eerily mirror events in Selin’s life so that it becomes a challenge for Selin to separate what is happening to Nina from what is happening to her. (To me, this makes perfect sense. While a fanciful college sophomore with too many literature and language classes, I became so confused by my real life and so engrossed in Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks that, while writing a paper about the literary significance of mouth pain and tooth aches in the book, I became convinced that I too had a mouth infection. And indeed, a week later I found myself strapped to a dentist chair, sedated and listening to the shrieking drills dig deep into my gums. Once again the truth of the book struck me; I understand that anxious absorption of an early college career. I’ve been there before.) As Nina the character searches for her love, Ivan, Selin begins to search for her own Ivan, the Hungarian senior she falls in love with. As Selin is made to act out Nina’s lines in her beginning Russian class with Ivan (the Hungarian) playing Ivan (Nina’s lover), I heard Elif Batuman’s laughter as she pulled the strings from above, coaxing Selin through a version of Batuman’s own hilarious search for the meaning of language by way of another layer of fiction — poor Nina’s fictional saga.

It was in this part of the book — when Elif seems to become Selin who seems to become Nina — that I came to understand one unique achievement of Batuman’s transformation of memoir into novel. The layered truths and fictions of The Idiot compounded so that everything in the novel became true and real in a deep, shining way that cannot be achieved through essays.

By the end of her novel, Batuman swerves away from the bildungsroman she seemed to have been writing all along. Selin returns to school convinced that her linguistics and philosophy of language classes had led her astray. In an allusion to Proust, whose pronouncement — that adolescence “is the only period in which we learn anything” — begins the book, Batuman concludes, “I hadn’t learned what I had wanted to about how language worked. I hadn’t learned anything at all.”

And that, in fact, might be the real truth of the whole conceit. That if we’re really searching for meaning, trying to dissect the whole novel and nose around for the facts hidden in it, then we risk not learning anything at all.

March Preview: The Millions Most Anticipated (This Month)

We wouldn’t dream of abandoning our vast semi–annual Most Anticipated Book Previews, but we thought a monthly reminder would be helpful (and give us a chance to note titles we missed the first time around).  Here’s what we’re looking out for this month. For more March titles, check out the Great First-Half 2017 Preview.

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid: In an unnamed city, two young people fall in love as a civil war breaks out. As the violence escalates, they begin to hear rumors of a curious new kind of door: at some risk, and for a price, it’s possible to step through a portal into an entirely different place — Mykonos, for instance, or London. In a recent interview, Hamid said that the portals allowed him “to compress the next century or two of human migration on our planet into the space of a single year, and to explore what might happen after.” (Emily)
 

The Idiot by Elif Batuman: Between The Possessed — her 2010 lit-crit/travelogue on a life in Russian letters and her snort-inducing Twitter feed, I am a confirmed Batuman superfan. This March, her debut novel samples Fyodor Dostoevsky in a Bildungsroman featuring the New Jersey-bred daughter of Turkish immigrants who discovers that Harvard is absurd, Europe disturbed, and love positively barking. Yet prose this fluid and humor this endearing are oddly unsettling, because behind the pleasant façade hides a thoughtful examination of the frenzy and confusion of finding your way in the world. (Il’ja)

White Tears by Hari Kunzru: A fascinating-sounding novel about musical gentrification, and two white men whose shared obsession with hard-to-find blues recordings leads them to perdition. In a starred review, Publishers Weekly called White Tears “perhaps the ultimate literary treatment of the so-called hipster, tracing the roots of the urban bedroom deejay to the mythic blues troubadours of the antebellum South.” (Lydia)
 
 

The Rules Do Not Apply by Ariel Levy: A memoir from an intrepid journalist who wrote, among other things, a truly unforgettable essay about losing a baby while on a reporting trip to Mongolia.  The memoir documents the forging of an extraordinary career, her loss and its aftermath, and the disintegration of her marriage. The Atlantic writes, “She plumbs the commotion deep within and takes the measure of her have-it-all generation.” (Lydia)
 
 

South and West: From a Notebook by Joan Didion: Excerpts from two of the legendary writer’s commonplace books from the 1970s: one from a road trip through the American south, and one from a Rolling Stone assignment to cover the Patty Hearst trial in California. Perhaps the origin of her observation in Where I Was From: “One difference between the West and the South, I came to realize in 1970, was this: in the South they remained convinced that they had bloodied their land with history. In California we did not believe that history could bloody the land, or even touch it.” (Lydia)

All Grown Up by Jami Attenberg: A novel about a 39-year-old woman taking stock of her life, from the best-selling author of The Middlesteins and St. Mazie. This one prompted Eileen Myles to ask “Is all life junk — sparkly and seductive and devastating — just waiting to be told correctly by someone who will hold our hand and walk with us a while confirming that what we’re living is true.” (Lydia)
 
 
 

Sorry to Disrupt the Peace by Patty Yumi Cottrell: A singular debut describes a woman taking on the role of detective to account for her brother’s suicide. In a starred review, Publishers Weekly calls the novel “complex and mysterious, yet, in the end, deeply human and empathetic.” (Lydia)
 
 
 
 

Ill Will by Dan Chaon: Dustin Tillman was a child when his parents and aunt and uncle were murdered in his home, and it was his testimony that sent his older, adopted brother, Rusty, to jail for the crime. Forty years later, he learns that Rusty is getting out based on new DNA evidence. As that news sends tremors through Dustin’s life and the life of his family, he buddies up with an ex-cop who has a theory about some local murders. As often happens in Chaon’s book, you’ll be gripped by the story and the characters from the first page, and then all of a sudden you suspect that nothing is as it seems, and you’re sucked in even further. (Janet)

The Accusation by Bandi: For readers interested in a candid look at life in North Korea, The Accusation — originally published in South Korea in 2014 — will immerse you via the stories of common folk: a wife who struggles to make daily breakfast during a famine, a factory supervisor caught between denouncing a family friend and staying on the party’s good side, a mother raising her child amidst chilling propaganda, a former Communist war hero who is disillusioned by the Party, a man denied a travel permit who sneaks onto a train so he can see his dying mother. Bandi is of course a pseudonym: according to the French edition, the author was born in 1950, lived in China, and is now an official writer for the North Korean government. The stories, written between 1989 and 1995, were smuggled out by a friend — and will be available to us via Grove Press. (Sonya)

The Night Ocean by Paul La Farge: Fiction meets history in The Night Ocean’s series of intricately nested narratives. A psychologist’s husband, obsessed with a did-they-or-didn’t-they affair between horror writer H.P. Lovecraft and a gay teenage admirer, disappears while attempting to solve the mystery. Set over a 100-year period and spanning latitudes from Ontario to Mexico City, this novel from New Yorker contributor La Farge promises to pull Lovecraft’s suspense into the present day with flair. (Kirstin)

 

Most Anticipated: The Great 2017 Book Preview

Although 2016 has gotten a bad rap, there were, at the very least, a lot of excellent books published. But this year! Books from George Saunders, Roxane Gay, Hari Kunzru, J.M. Coetzee, Rachel Cusk, Jesmyn Ward?  A lost manuscript by Claude McKay? A novel by Elif Batuman? Short stories by Penelope Lively? A memoir by Yiyun Li?  Books from no fewer than four Millions staffers? It’s a feast. We hope the following list of 80-something upcoming books peps you up for the (first half of the) new year. You’ll notice that we’ve re-combined our fiction and nonfiction lists, emphasizing fiction as in the past. And, continuing a tradition we started this fall, we’ll be doing mini previews at the beginning of each month — let us know if there are other things we should be looking forward to. (If you are a big fan of our bi-annual Previews and find yourself referring to them year-round, please consider supporting our efforts by becoming a member!)

January

Difficult Women by Roxane Gay: Gay has had an enormously successful few years. In 2014, her novel, An Untamed State, and an essay collection, Bad Feminist, met with wide acclaim, and in the wake of unrest over anti-black police violence, hers was one of the clearest voices in the national conversation. While much of Gay’s writing since then has dealt in political thought and cultural criticism, she returns in 2017 with this short story collection exploring the various textures of American women’s experience. (Ismail)

 

Human Acts by Han Kang: Korean novelist Kang says all her books are variations on the theme of human violence. The Vegetarian, her first novel translated into English, arrested readers with the contempt showered upon an “unremarkable” wife who became a vegetarian after waking from a nightmare. Kang’s forthcoming Human Acts focuses on the 1980 Korean Gwangju Uprising, when Gwangju locals took up arms in retaliation for the massacre of university students who were protesting. Within Kang tries to unknot “two unsolvable riddles” — the intermingling of two innately human yet disparate tendencies, the capacity for cruelty alongside that for selflessness and dignity. (Anne)

Transit by Rachel Cusk: Everyone who read and reveled in the nimble formal daring of Outline is giddy to read Transit, which follows the same protagonist, Faye, as she navigates life after separating from her husband. Both Transit and Outline are made up of stories other people tell Faye, and in her rave in The Guardian, Tessa Hadley remarks that Cusk’s structure is “a striking gesture of relinquishment. Faye’s story contends for space against all these others, and the novel’s meaning is devolved out from its centre in her to a succession of characters. It’s a radically different way of imagining a self, too — Faye’s self.”   (Edan)

4321 by Paul Auster: Multiple timelines are nothing new at this point, but it’s doubtful they’ve ever been used in quite the way they are in 4321, Auster’s first novel since his 2010 book Sunset Park. In his latest, four timelines branch off the moment the main character is born, introducing four separate Archibald Isaac Fergusons that grow more different as the plot wears on. They’re all, in their own ways, tied up with Amy Schneiderman, who appears throughout the book’s realities. (Thom)

 

Collected Stories by E.L. Doctorow: Doctorow is known for historical novels like Ragtime and The Book of Daniel, but he also wrote some terrific stories, and shortly before his death in 2015 he selected and revised 15 of his best. Fans who already own his 2011 collection All the Time in the World may want to give this new one a miss, since many of the selections overlap, but readers who only know Doctorow as a novelist may want to check out his classic early story “A Writer in the Family,” as well as others like “The Water Works” and “Liner Notes: The Songs of Billy Bathgate,” which are either precursors of or companion pieces to his novels. (Michael B.)

Enigma Variations by André Aciman: The CUNY Professor New York magazine called “the most exciting new fiction writer of the 21st century” returns with a romantic/erotic bildungsroman following protagonist Paul from Italy to New York, from adolescence to adulthood. Kirkus called it an “eminently adult look at desire and attachment.” (Lydia)

 

 

Scratch: Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living, edited by Manjula Martin: Martin ran the online magazine Scratch from 2013 to 2015 and in those two years published some terrific and refreshingly transparent interviews with writers about cash money and how it’s helped and hindered their lives as artists. The magazine is no longer online, but this anthology includes many of those memorable conversations as well as some new ones. Aside from interviews with the likes of Cheryl Strayed and Jonathan Franzen, the anthology also includes honest and vulnerable essays about making art and making a career –and where those two meet — from such writers as Meaghan O’Connell and Alexander Chee. It’s a useful and inspiring read. (Edan)

Homesick for Another World by Ottessa Moshfegh: A long, dull day of jury duty in 2008 was redeemed by a lunchtime discovery of Unsaid magazine and its lead story “Help Yourself!” by Moshfegh, whose characters were alluring and honest and full of contempt. I made a point to remember her name at the time, but now Moshfegh’s stories appear regularly in The Paris Review and The New Yorker, and her novel Eileen was shortlisted for the 2016 Booker Prize. Her debut collection of stories, Homesick for Another World, gathers many of these earlier stories, and is bound to show why she’s considered one of literature’s most striking new voices. (Anne)

Glaxo by Hernán Ronsino: Ronsino’s English-language debut (translated by Samuel Rutter) is only 100 pages but manages to host four narrators and cover 40 years. Set in a dusty, stagnating town in Argentina, the novel cautiously circles around a decades-old murder, a vanished wife, and past political crimes. Allusions to John Sturges’s Last Train From Gun Hill hint at the vengeance, or justice, to come in this sly Latin American Western. (Matt)

 

Lucky Boy by Shanthi Sekaran: Set in Berkeley, Sekaran’s novel follows two women: Soli, an undocumented woman from Mexico raising a baby alone while cleaning houses, and an Indian-American woman struggling with infertility who becomes a foster parent to Soli’s son. Kirkus called it “superbly crafted and engrossing.” (Lydia)

 

 

A Mother’s Tale by Phillip Lopate: One day in the mid-’80s, Lopate sat down with his tape recorder to capture his mother’s life story, which included, at various times, a stint owning a candy store, a side gig as an actress and singer, and a job on the line at a weapons factory at the height of World War II. Although Lopate didn’t use the tapes for decades, he unearthed them recently and turned them into this book, which consists of a long conversation between himself, his mother, and the person he was in the ’80s. (Thom)

 

The Gringo Champion by Aura Xilonen: Winner of Mexico’s Mauricio Achar Prize for Fiction, Xilonen’s novel (written when she was only 19, and here translated by Andrea Rosenberg) tells the story of a young boy who crosses the Rio Grande. Mixing Spanish and English, El Sur Mexico lauded the novel’s “vulgar idiom brilliantly transformed into art.” (Lydia)

 

 

Selection Day by Aravind Adiga: If Selection Day goes on to hit it big, we may remember it as our era’s definitive cricket novel. Adiga — a Man Booker laureate who won the prize in 2008 for his epic The White Tiger — follows the lives of Radha and Manju, two brothers whose father raised them to be master batsmen. In the way of The White Tiger, all the characters are deeply affected by changes in Indian society, most of which are transposed into changes in the country’s huge cricket scene. (Thom)

 

Huck Out West by Robert Coover: Coover, the CAVE-dwelling postmodern luminary, riffs on American’s great humorist in this sequel to Mark Twain’s classic set out West. From the opening pages, in which Tom, over Huck’s objections, sells Jim to slaveholding Cherokees, it is clear that Coover’s picaresque will be a tale of disillusionment. Unlike Tom, “who is always living in a story he’s read in a book so he knows what happens next,” Huck seems wearied and shaken by his continued adventures: “So many awful things had happened since then, so much outright meanness. It was almost like there was something wicked about growing up.” (Matt)

Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin. Nobel Laureate Mario Vargas Llosa called Schweblin “one of the most promising voices in modern literature in Spanish.” The Argentinian novelist’s fifth book, about “obsession, identity and motherhood,” is her first to be translated into English (by Megan McDowell). It’s been described “deeply unsettling and disorientating” by the publisher and “a wonderful nightmare of a book” by novelist Juan Gabriel Vásquez. (Elizabeth)

 

Perfect Little World by Kevin Wilson. Wilson’s first novel, The Family Fang, was about the children of performance artists. His second is about a new mother who joins a sort of utopian community called the “Infinite Family Project,” living alongside other couples raising newborns, which goes well until eventually “the gentle equilibrium among the families is upset and it all starts to disintegrate.” He’s been described by novelist Owen King as the “unholy child of George Saunders and Carson McCullers.” (Elizabeth)

 

Foreign Soil by Maxine Beneba Clarke: Clarke’s award-winning short story collection Foreign Soil is now being published in the U.S. and includes a new story “Aviation,” specifically written for this edition. These character-driven stories take place worldwide — Australia, Africa, the West Indies, and the U.S. — and explore loss, inequity, and otherness. Clarke is hailed as an essential writer whose collection challenges and transforms the reader. (Zoë)

 

American Berserk by Bill Morris: Five years ago, a Millions commenter read Morris’s crackling piece about his experience as a young reporter in Chambersburg, Penn., during the 1970s: “Really, I wish this essay would be a book.” Ask, and you shall receive. To refresh your memories, Morris encountered what one would expect in the pastoral serenity of Pennsylvania Dutch country: “Kidnapping, ostracism, the paranormal, rape, murder, insanity, arson, more murder, attempted suicide — it added up to a collective nervous breakdown.” Morris has plenty to work with in these lurid tales, but the book is also about the pleasure of profiling those “interesting nobodies” whose stories never make it to the front page, no matter how small the paper. (Matt)

February

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders:  For Saunders fans, the prospect of a full-length novel from the short-story master has been something to speculate upon, if not actually expect. Yet Lincoln in the Bardo is a full 368-page blast of Saunders — dealing in the 1862 death of Abraham Lincoln’s son, the escalating Civil War, and, of course, Buddhist philosophy. Saunders has compared the process of writing longer fiction to “building custom yurts and then somebody commissioned a mansion” — and Saunders’s first novel is unlikely to resemble any other mansion on the block. (Jacob)

The Schooldays of Jesus by J.M. Coetzee: This sequel to the Nobel Prize-winning South African author’s 2013 novel The Childhood of Jesus picks up shortly after Simón and Inés flee from authorities with their adopted son, David. Childhood was a sometimes thin-feeling allegory of immigration that found Coetzee meditating with some of his perennial concerns — cultural memory, language, naming, and state violence — at the expense of his characters. In Schooldays, the allegorical element recedes somewhat into the background as Coetzee tells the story of David’s enrollment in a dance school, his discovery of his passion for dancing, and his disturbing encounters with adult authority. This one was longlisted for the 2016 Man Booker Prize. (Ismail)

To Be a Machine by Mark O’Connell: Millions staffer and author of Millions Original Epic Fail O’Connell brings his superb writing and signature wit and empathy to a nonfiction exploration of the transhumanist movement, complete with cryogenic freezing, robots, and an unlikely presidential bid from the first transhumanist candidate. O’Connell’s sensibility — his humanity, if you will — and his subject matter are a match made in heaven. It’s an absolutely wonderful book, but don’t take my non-impartial word for it: Nicholson Baker and Margaret Atwood have plugged it too.  (Lydia)

The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen: Pulitzer Prize Winner Nguyen’s short story collection The Refugees has already received starred pre-publication reviews from Kirkus Reviews and Publishers Weekly, among others. Nguyen’s brilliant new work of fiction offers vivid and intimate portrayals of characters and explores identity, war, and loss in stories collected over a period of two decades. (Zoë)

 

Amiable with Big Teeth by Claude McKay: A significant figure in the Harlem Renaissance, McKay is best-known for his novel Home to Harlem — which was criticized by W.E.B. Dubois for portraying black people (i.e. Harlem nightlife) as prurient — “after the dirtier parts of its filth I feel distinctly like taking a bath.”  The novel went on to win the prestigious (if short-lived) Harmon Gold Medal and is widely praised for its sensual and brutal accuracy. In 2009, UPenn English professor Jean-Christophe Cloutier discovered the unpublished Amiable with Big Teeth in the papers of notorious, groundbreaking publisher Samuel Roth.  A collaboration between Cloutier and Brent Hayes Edwards, a long-awaited, edited, scholarly edition of the novel will be released by Penguin in February. (Sonya)

Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life by Yiyun Li: The Oakland-based Li delivers this memoir of chronic depression and a life lived with books. Weaving sharp literary criticism with a perceptive narrative about her life as an immigrant in America, Your Life isn’t as interested in exploring how literature helps us make sense of ourselves as it is in how literature situates us amongst others. (Ismail)

 

Autumn by Ali Smith: Her 2015 Baileys prize-winning How to Be Both was an experiment in how a reader experiences time. It has two parts, which can be read in any order. Now, Smith brings us Autumn, the first novel in what will be a Seasonal quartet — four stand-alone books, each one named after one of the four seasons. Known for writing with experimental elegance, she turns to time in the post Brexit world, specifically Autumn 2016, “exploring what time is, how we experience it, and the recurring markers in the shapes our lives take.” (Claire)

 

A Separation by Katie Kitamura: A sere and unsettling portrait of a marriage come undone, critics are hailing Kitamura’s third book as “mesmerizing” and “magnificent.” The narrator, a translator, goes to a remote part of Greece in search of her serially unfaithful husband, only to be further unmoored from any sense that she (and in turn the reader) had of the contours of their shared life. Blurbed by no fewer than six literary heavyweights — Rivka Galchen, Jenny Offill, Leslie Jamison, Teju Cole, Rachel Kushner, and Karl Ove Knausgaard — A Separation looks poised to be the literary Gone Girl of 2017. (Kirstin B.)

Things We Lost in the Fire by Mariana Enriquez: This young Argentinian journalist and author has already drawn a lot of attention for her “chilling, compulsive” gothic short stories. One made a December 2016 issue of The New Yorker; many more will be published this spring as Things We Lost in the Fire, which has drawn advanced praise from Helen Oyeyemi and Dave Eggers. The stories themselves follow addicts, muggers, and narcos — characters Oyeyemi calls “funny, brutal, bruised” — as they encounter the terrors of everyday life. Fair warning: these stories really will scare you. (Kaulie)

Universal Harvester by John Darnielle. Darnielle is best known for the The Mountain Goats, a band in which he has often been the only member. But his debut novel, Wolf in White Van, was nominated for a number of awards, including the National Book Award for Fiction. His second novel, set in Iowa in the 1990s, is about a video store clerk who discovers disturbing scenes on the store’s tapes. (Elizabeth)

 

300 Arguments by Sarah Manguso: It’s as if, like the late David Markson, Manguso is on a gnomic trajectory toward some single, ultimate truth expressed in the fewest words possible — or perhaps her poetic impulses have just grown even stronger over time. As its title suggests, this slim volume comprises a sequence of aphorisms (“Bad art is from no one to no one”) that in aggregate construct a self-portrait of the memoirist at work. “This book is the good sentences from the novel I didn’t write,” its narrator writes. (Kirstin B.)

 

The Woman Next Door by Yewande Omotoso: Set in South Africa, Omotoso’s novel describes the bitter feud between two neighbors, both well-to-do, both widows, both elderly, one black, one white. Described by the TLS as one of the “Best Books by Women Every Man Should Read.” (Lydia)

 

 

Running by Cara Hoffman: The third novel from Hoffman, celebrated author of Be Safe I Love You, Running follows a group of three outsiders trying to make it the red light district of Athens in the 1980s. Bridey Sullivan, a wild teenager escaping childhood trauma in the States, falls in with a pair of young “runners” working to lure tourists to cheap Athenian hotels in return for bed and board. The narrative itself flashes between Athens, Sullivan’s youth, and her friend and runner Milo’s life in modern-day New York City. According to Kirkus, this allows the novel to be “crisp and immediate,” “beautiful and atmospheric,” and “original and deeply sad.” (Kaulie)

Lower Ed by Tressie McMillan Cottom: Academic and Twitter eminence McMillan Cottom tackles a subject that, given a recent spate of lawsuits, investigations, and closings, was front-page news for a good part of 2016. Drawing on interviews with students, activists, and executives at for-profit colleges and universities, Lower Ed aims to connect the rise of such institutions with ballooning levels of debt and larger trends of income inequality across the U.S. (Kirstin B.)

 

Abandon Me by Melissa Febos. Febos’s gifts as a writer seemingly increase with the types of subjects and themes that typically falter in the hands of many memoirists: love (both distant and immediate), family, identity, and addiction. Her adoptive father, a sea captain, looms large in her work: “My captain did not give me religion but other treasures. A bloom of desert roses the size of my arm, a freckled ostrich egg, true pirate stories. My biological father, on the other hand, had given me nothing of use but life…and my native blood.” Febos transports, but her lyricism is always grounded in the now, in the sweet music of loss. (Nick R.)

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee: A sweeping look at four generations of a Korean family who immigrates to Japan after Japan’s 1910 annexation of Korea, from the author of Free Food for Millionaires. Junot Díaz says “Pachinko confirms Lee’s place among our finest novelists.” (Lydia)

 

 

Flâneuse by Lauren Elkin: Following in the literary tradition of Charles Baudelaire, Virginia Woolf and Edgar Allan Poe, Elkin is fascinated by street wanderers and wanderings, but with a twist. The traditional flâneur was always male; Elkin sets out to follow the lives of the subversive flâneuses, those women who have always been “keenly attuned to the creative potential of the city, and the liberating possibilities of a good walk.” In a review in The Guardian, Elkin is imagined as “an intrepid feminist graffiti artist,” writing the names of women across the city she loves; in her book, a combination of “cultural meander” and memoir, she follows the lives of flaneuses as varied as George Sand and Martha Gellhorn in order to consider “what is at stake when a certain kind of light-footed woman encounters the city.” (Kaulie)

March

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid: In an unnamed city, two young people fall in love as a civil war breaks out. As the violence escalates, they begin to hear rumors of a curious new kind of door: at some risk, and for a price, it’s possible to step through a portal into an entirely different place — Mykonos, for instance, or London. In a recent interview, Hamid said that the portals allowed him “to compress the next century or two of human migration on our planet into the space of a single year, and to explore what might happen after.” (Emily)

 

The Idiot by Elif Batuman: Between The Possessed — her 2010 lit-crit/travelogue on a life in Russian letters and her snort-inducing Twitter feed, I am a confirmed Batuman superfan. This March, her debut novel samples Fyodor Dostoevsky in a Bildungsroman featuring the New Jersey-bred daughter of Turkish immigrants who discovers that Harvard is absurd, Europe disturbed, and love positively barking. Yet prose this fluid and humor this endearing are oddly unsettling, because behind the pleasant façade hides a thoughtful examination of the frenzy and confusion of finding your way in the world. (Il’ja R.)

White Tears by Hari Kunzru: A fascinating-sounding novel about musical gentrification, and two white men whose shared obsession with hard-to-find blues recordings leads them to perdition. In a starred review, Publishers Weekly called White Tears “perhaps the ultimate literary treatment of the so-called hipster, tracing the roots of the urban bedroom deejay to the mythic blues troubadours of the antebellum South.” (Lydia)

 

South and West: From a Notebook by Joan Didion: Excerpts from two of the legendary writer’s commonplace books from the 1970s: one from a road trip through the American south, and one from a Rolling Stone assignment to cover the Patty Hearst trial in California. Perhaps the origin of her observation in Where I Was From: “One difference between the West and the South, I came to realize in 1970, was this: in the South they remained convinced that they had bloodied their land with history. In California we did not believe that history could bloody the land, or even touch it.” (Lydia)

All Grown Up by Jami Attenberg: A novel about a 39-year-old woman taking stock of her life, from the best-selling author of The Middlesteins and St. Mazie. This one prompted Eileen Myles to ask “Is all life junk — sparkly and seductive and devastating — just waiting to be told correctly by someone who will hold our hand and walk with us a while confirming that what we’re living is true.” Evidently so. (Lydia)

 

Ill Will by Dan Chaon: Dustin Tillman was a child when his parents and aunt and uncle were murdered in his home, and it was his testimony that sent his older, adopted brother, Rusty, to jail for the crime. Forty years later, he learns that Rusty is getting out based on new DNA evidence. As that news sends tremors through Dustin’s life and the life of his family, he buddies up with an ex-cop who has a theory about some local murders. As often happens in Chaon’s book, you’ll be gripped by the story and the characters from the first page, and then all of a sudden you suspect that nothing is as it seems, and you’re sucked in even further. (Janet).

The Accusation by Bandi: For readers interested in a candid look at life in North Korea, The Accusation — originally published in South Korea in 2014 — will immerse you via the stories of common folk: a wife who struggles to make daily breakfast during a famine, a factory supervisor caught between denouncing a family friend and staying on the party’s good side, a mother raising her child amidst chilling propaganda, a former Communist war hero who is disillusioned by the Party, a man denied a travel permit who sneaks onto a train so he can see his dying mother. Bandi is of course a pseudonym: according to the French edition, the author was born in 1950, lived in China, and is now an official writer for the North Korean government. The stories, written between 1989 and 1995, were smuggled out by a friend — and will be available to us via Grove Press. (Sonya)

The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley by Hannah Tinti: This new novel by the editor of One Story magazine follows a career criminal who goes straight to give his daughter a chance at a normal life. But when his daughter, Loo, gets curious about the 12 mysterious scars on her father’s body, each marking a separate bullet wound, she uncovers a history much darker than she imagined. Twelve Lives is “is one part Quentin Tarantino, one part Scheherazade, and twelve parts wild innovation,” says Ann Patchett, author of Commonwealth. (Michael B.)

The Night Ocean by Paul La Farge: Fiction meets history in The Night Ocean’s series of intricately nested narratives. A psychologist’s husband, obsessed with a did-they-or-didn’t-they affair between horror writer H.P. Lovecraft and a gay teenage admirer, disappears while attempting to solve the mystery. Set over a 100-year period and spanning latitudes from Ontario to Mexico City, this novel from New Yorker contributor La Farge promises to pull Lovecraft’s suspense into the present day with flair. (Kirstin B.)

 

Wait Till You See Me Dance by Deb Olin Unferth: Unferth is an author about whom many overused litspeak cliches are true: she is incisive, bitingly funny, and — here it comes–— whipsmart. A National Book Critics Circle Award finalist for her memoir, Revolution, her short stories have been published in Granta, McSweeney’s, and the Paris Review, and are collected here for the first time. (Janet)

April

Anything Is Possible by Elizabeth Strout: “As I was writing My Name Is Lucy Barton,” said Strout, the New York Times bestselling author and Pulitzer Prize winner, of her 2016 novel, “it came to me that all the characters Lucy and her mother talked about had their own stories.” Anything is Possible was written in tandem to Lucy Barton. For Strout’s many devoted readers, this novel promises to expand on and add depth to the story, while exploring themes for love, loss, and hope in a work that, “recalls Olive Kitteridge in its richness, structure, and complexity.” (Claire)

Devil on the Cross by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o: Set in post-colonial Kenya, this troubling allegory from the perennial Nobel candidate explores the evil that men do and the hope that serves as its only antidote. Written while in prison, the book’s proverbial structure and unapologetically political message — think Karl Marx delivering liberation theology in East Africa — follow a young Kenyan woman, Jacinta Wariinga, who, despite grave injustice, is determined to see neither her spirit nor her culture crushed. This is the original 1982 translation from the Gikuyu language, now being rereleased as part of the Penguin Classics African Writers Series. (Il’ja)

Marlena by Julie Buntin
I was lucky enough to read an advance copy of Buntin’s remarkable debut novel, about an intense friendship between two young women in rural Michigan, and I agree with Stephanie Danler, author of Sweetbitter, who calls it “lacerating.” Aside from a riveting story and nuanced characters, Buntin has also delivered an important story about addiction and poverty in middle America. In its starred review, Booklist called it “Ferrante-esque.” (Edan)

 

American War by Omar El Akkad: El Akkad is an award-winning Canadian journalist, whose reporting has ranged from the war in Afghanistan to the protests in Ferguson, Mo. His brilliant and supremely disquieting debut novel opens in 2074, at the outbreak of the Second American Civil War, and follows a young Louisiana girl, Sarat Chestnut, as time and conflict gradually transform her from a child into a weapon. (Emily)

 

The Book of Joan by Lidia Yuknavitch: In a new kind of world, we need a new kind of hero and a reimagined Joan of Arc from Yuknavitch seems like just the thing. Following her widely lauded The Small Backs of Children, this novel takes place in the near future after world wars have turned the Earth into a war zone. Those surviving are sexless, hairless, pale-white creatures who write stories on their skin, but a group of rebels rally behind a cult leader named Jean de Men. Roxane Gay calls it, “a searing condemnation, and fiercely imaginative retelling.” (Claire)

The Last Neanderthal by Claire Cameron: Our own Cameron returns with a new novel about two women separated by, oh, only 40,000 years: Girl, the eldest daughter in the last family of Neanderthals, and present-day archeologist Rosamund Gale, who is excavating Neanderthal ruins while pregnant. How these two stories echo and resonate with one another will be just one of its delights. Such an ingenious premise could only come from the writer who brought us The Bear, which O, The Oprah Magazine deemed “a tender, terrifying, poignant ride” and which People gave 4 stars, saying “it could do for camping what Jaws did for swimming.” (Edan)

Startup by Doree Shafrir: Probably you know Shafrir by her byline at Buzzfeed — her culture writing always whipsmart, current, and grounded. Shafrir’s debut novel sounds like more of the same: three people working in the same Manhattan office building with colliding desires, ambitions, and relations, head for major conflict and reckoning as scandal sucks each of them into a media-and-money vortex. Hilarity, a mindfulness app, and an errant text message are also involved. Looking forward to this one. (Sonya)

 

What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky by Lesley Nneka Arimah: This debut collection of short stories, which takes its name from a story published in Catapult in 2015 to wide acclaim — one that seamlessly blends magical realism and a kind of sci-fi, resulting in a one-of-a-kind dystopia — announces the arrival of a brilliant new talent. Don’t take our word for it: one story, “Who Will Greet You at Home,” appeared in The New Yorker and was a National Magazine Award finalist, and others are already drawing high praise from across the publishing community. These stories explore the ties that bind us together, but in magical, even subversive forms. (Kaulie)

Void Star by Zachary Mason: In Mason’s second novel, three people living in wildly different circumstances in a dystopian near-future are drawn together by mysterious forces. The future that Mason imagines in Void Star is not particularly startling — extreme climate change, ever-widening class divisions, and AIs who have evolved well beyond the understanding of the humans who created them — but what sets Void Star apart is the stunning and hallucinatory beauty of Mason’s prose. Both a speculative thriller and a meditation on memory and mortality. (Emily)

Imagine Wanting Only This by Kristen Radtke: I tell as many people as possible how cool I think Radtke is, so that when she blows up I’ll have proof that I was ahead of the curve. Besides having her own career as a writer and illustrator, she is the managing editor of Sarabande Books (where she not only published Thrown by Kerry Howley — one of my favorite books of the last 5 years — but designed its killer cover). Her first book is graphic memoir/travelogue about her life, family history, and a trip around the world in search of ruins. (Janet)

Sunshine State by Sarah Gerard: The author goes home in Gerard’s thorough, personal, and well-researched collection of essays on Florida, its inhabitants, and the ways they prey upon each another. As far as Floridian bona fides, it doesn’t get much more Sunshine State than growing up on the Gulf in an Amway family, and truly in the book’s eight essays, Gerard covers more of the state’s ground than Walkin’ Lawton Chiles. (Nick M.)

 

Kingdom of the Young by Edie Meidav: A new collection of the stories by novelist who brought us Lola, California, Crawl Space, and The Far Field. The stories have invited comparisons to Vladimir Nabokov, Clarice Lispector and Italo Calvino. (Lydia)

 

May

Men Without Women by Haruki Murakami: The seven stories in Murakami’s new collection concern the lives of men who, for one reason or another, find themselves alone. In “Scheherazade,” a man living in isolation receives regular visits from a woman who claims to remember a past life as a lamprey; in “Yesterday,” a university student finds himself drawn into the life of a strange coworker who insists that the student go on a date with his girlfriend. (Emily)

 

The Purple Swamp Hen by Penelope Lively: Across her many wonderful books, Lively has ranged from low farce (How It All Began) to high feeling (Moon Tiger), from children’s literature to a memoir on old age. Now comes her fourth story collection, the first in 20 years. The title story draws on reliably entertaining source material: the meretricious lives of Roman rulers. Robert Graves turned to a stammering Claudius for his narrator, Lively to a less exalted personage: a purple swamp hen. Other stories involve trouble: a husband and wife working their way out of it, and a betrayed wife doing her best to cause some for her husband. (Matt)

Woman No. 17 by Edan Lepucki: Our own Lepucki has always had keen insight into the psyches of women — particularly so-called “difficult” protagonists. Her first novel, California, may have been about a family surviving the end of society, but it was really a post-apocalyptic domestic drama full of sharp wit and observations. Her sophomore effort is more grounded in reality but equally cutting. Lady is a writer struggling to raise her two kids and finish her memoir when she hires S. to help, but the artist becomes more than just a nanny for Lady’s eldest troubled son. (Tess M.)

Trajectory by Richard Russo: In this new collection, Russo, a 2016 Year in Reading contributor, takes a break from the blue-collar characters that readers have come to know from his bestselling novels Nobody’s Fool and Empire Falls to spin tales of struggling novelists trying their hands at screenwriting and college professors vacationing in Venice. No matter. Readers can still count on Russo to deliver deeply human stories of heartbreak leavened by gently black humor. (Michael B.)

 

The Dinner Party by Joshua Ferris: The book after Ferris’s Man Booker shortlisted To Rise Again at a Decent Hour is a collection of short stories. The title story, first published by The New Yorker in 2008, is about a couple who invite a boring couple over to dinner (“even their goddam surprises are predictable,”) only to be surprised when the boring couple manage to surprise by not showing up. The collection pulls together stories that promise the, “deeply felt yearnings, heartbreaking absurdity, and redemptive humor of life,” for which Ferris is so well known. (Claire)

The Leavers by Lisa Ko. Ko’s debut novel has already won the 2016 Pen/Bellwether Award for Socially Engaged Fiction, a prize created and selected by Barbara Kingsolver. The contest awards a novel “that addresses issues of social justice and the impact of culture and politics on human relationships,” and Ko’s book certainly fits that laudable description. The novel is the story of Deming Gao, the son of a Chinese-American immigrant mother who, one day, never returns home from work. Adopted by white college professors, Deming is renamed and remade in their image — but his past haunts him. (Nick R.)

Isadora by Amelia Gray. The endlessly inventive Gray (whose story “Labyrinth” from The New Yorker is a gem) creates a fictional interpretation of Isadora Duncan, once described as the “woman who put the Modern into Modern Dance.” A dancer who mixed the classical, sacred, and sensual, Duncan is the perfect subject matter for Gray; if a writer can expertly resurrect the Theseus myth at a small-town fair, then she can do justice to a life as inspiring — and troubled — as Duncan’s. (Nick R.)

 

Chemistry by Weike Wang: In this debut novel, a graduate student in chemistry learns the meaning of explosive when the rigors of the hard sciences clash with the chronic instability of the heart. A traditional family, a can’t-miss fiancé, and a research project in meltdown provide sufficient catalyst to launch the protagonist off in search of that which cannot be cooked up in the lab. If the science bits ring true, in her diabolical hours, the author doubles as a real-life organic chemist. (Il’ja R.)

 

No One Can Pronounce My Name by Rakesh Satyal: Satyal’s novel takes place in a suburb near Cleveland and tells the story of Harit and Ranjana, who are both Indian immigrants that are experiencing loss. Harit’s sister has passed away and he’s caring for his mother; Ranjana’s son has left to college and she’s worrying her husband is having an affair. These two characters form a friendship amidst grief and self-discovery in a novel that is both heartfelt and funny. (Zoë)

 

Bad Dreams and Other Stories by Tessa Hadley: The New Yorker stalwart (whose title story “Bad Dreams” appeared in the magazine in 2013) comes out with her third collection of short stories in the past decade. In one set in 1914, a schoolteacher grapples with the rising power of the women’s suffrage movement; in another, a young housesitter comes across a mysterious diary. In general, the stories let tiny events twirl out into moments of great consequence — in the title story, a young child’s nightmare turns out to be the hinge of the plot. (Thom)

 

One Day We’ll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter by Scaachi Koul. Ah, the current frontrunner for Most Relatable Title of the Coming Year. The Canadian writer’s debut essay collection is “about growing up the daughter of Indian immigrants in Western culture, addressing sexism, stereotypes, and the universal miseries of life.” Fans of her work online will be eager to see her on the printed page. Canadian journalist (and Koul’s former journalism professor) Kamal Al-Solaylee said of her writing, “To me, she possesses that rarest of gifts: a powerful, identifiable voice that can be heard and appreciated across platforms and word counts.” (Elizabeth)

Salt Houses by Hala Alyan: In her debut novel, Alyan tells the story of a Palestinian family that is uprooted by the Six-Day War of 1967 and Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990. This heartbreaking and important story examines displacement, belonging, and family in a lyrical style. (Zoë)

 

 

June

So Much Blue by Percival Everett: In Everett’s 30th book, an artist toils away in solitude, painting what may be his masterpiece. Alone in his workspace, secluded from his children, best friend, and wife, the artist recalls memories of past affairs, past adventures, and all he’s sacrificed for his craft. (Nick M.)

 

 

The Accomplished Guest by Ann Beattie: 1976 was a good year for Beattie: she published her first story collection, Distortions, as well as her debut novel, Chilly Scenes of Winter. Forty years and roughly 20 books later, Beattie has a new collection of stories, closely following last year’s The State We’re In, linked stories set in Maine. One defining trait of Beattie’s short fiction is her fondness for quirks: “However well you write, you can become your own worst enemy by shaping it so highly that the reader can relate to it only on its own terms. Whereas if you have some little oddities of everyday life that aren’t there to be cracked, it seems to me that people can identify with it.” (Nick R.)

Hunger by Roxane Gay: A few years ago, Gay wrote Tumblr posts on cooking and her complex relationship with food that were honest yet meditative. It was on the cusp of her breakthrough essay collection Bad Feminist. Now she may be a household name, but her second nonfiction book delves into the long-running topic of the role food plays in her family, societal, and personal outlook with the same candor and empathy. (Tess M.)

 

The Last Kid Left by Rosecrans Baldwin: The Morning News cofounder and author of Paris, I Love You but You’re Bringing Me Down returns with a murder mystery/romance/coming-of-age story set in New Hampshire. (Lydia)

 

 

 

Dear Cyborgs by Eugene Lim: Lim has long been publisher of the small, avant-garde Ellipsis Press, whose authors, including Joanna Ruocco, Evelyn Hampton, Jeremy M. Davies, and Lim himself, are remarkable for their unique voices, their attention to language and experimentation. Together they make a significant if lesser-known body of work. Dear Cyborg, Lim’s third novel, will be his first with a major press (FSG). Tobias Carroll has said, “Lim’s novels tread the line between the hypnotically familiar and the surreptitiously terrifying.” With comparisons to Tom McCarthy and Valeria Luiselli and praise from Gary Lutz and Renee Gladman, Lim’s work is worth seeking out. (Anne)

The Gypsy Moth Summer by Julia Fierro: In this follow-up to Cutting Teeth, about a zeitgeisty group portrait of Brooklyn hipster moms, Fierro turns back the clock to the summer of 1992 when a plague of gypsy moths infests Avalon, an islet off the coast of Long Island, setting in motion a complex tale of interracial love, class conflict, and possible industrial poisoning at the local aircraft factory. Joanna Rakoff, author of My Salinger Year, says Fierro, director of Brooklyn’s Sackett Street Writers’ Workshop, has written “a novel to slowly savor, settling in with her characters as you would old friends.” (Michael B.)

The City Always Wins by Omar Robert Hamilton: A debut novel about the Egyptian revolution from filmmaker and activist Hamilton, who has written about the events of Tahrir square for The Guardian and elsewhere.  (Lydia)

 

 

And Beyond

Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward: The Odyssey has been repeatedly invoked by early reviewers of Sing, Unburied, Sing, which follows its protagonist on the journey from rural Mississippi to the state penitentiary and beyond. In the hands of a less talented writer, that parallel might seem over-the-top, but in the hands of one of America’s most talented, generous, and perceptive writers, it’s anything but. (Nick M.)

The Passenger by Cormac McCarthy: What does Niels Bohr’s take on quantum mechanics have to do with Johann Sebastian Bach and the suicide of a young New Orleans woman? Perhaps nothing. Or perhaps this, overheard at an advance reading — from 2015 — of Cormac McCarthy’s long-awaited new novel: “Intelligence is numbers; it’s not words. Words are things we made up.” That semi-colon haunts me. From Knopf: a “book one” and “book two” by McCarthy are set for a March 2017 release. A week later the story changes. Maybe July. Perhaps December. With McCarthy, the calculus remains inscrutable but the wait worth it. (Il’ja R.)

And So On by Kiese Laymon: We’ve learned virtually nothing new about this book since our last preview, but continue to expect it in 2017. As I said then, “Laymon is a Mississippi-born writer who has contributed to Esquire, ESPN, the Oxford American, Guernica, and writes a column for The Guardian. His first novel, Long Division, makes a lot of those ‘best books you’ve never heard of’ lists, so feel free to prove them wrong by reading it right now. What we know about his second novel is that he said it’s ‘going to shock folks hopefully. Playing with comedy, Afro-futurist shit and horror.’” (Janet)

The Seventh Function of Language by Laurent Binet: A madcap critical theory mystery by the author of HHhH. In the new novel, a police detective comes up against the likes of Jacques Derrida, Umberto Eco, Gilles Deleuze, Michel Foucault, Judith Butler, and Julia Kristeva. It sounds bonkers. (Lydia)

 

 

Sour Heart by Jenny Zhang: Zhang’s got range: the poet/Rookie writer/essayist/ and now fiction writer has a voice that’s at once incisive and playful and emboldened. “If I fart next to a hulking white male and then walk away, have I done anything important?” she asks in her chapbook Hags, when wondering about ways to fight imperialism; she has written of encounters with white privilege as a Chinese American, of messiness and feelings and depression, of errata and text messages and Tracey Emin, and of resisting Donald Trump. Zhang’s sure to bring this force to her first collection of short stories, Sour Heart, which will be the first book published by Lena Dunham’s Lenny imprint. (Anne)

Made for Love by Alissa Nutting: Hazel ran out of her husband and moved into her father’s retirement community, a trailer park for senior citizens. She’s laying low for a while. Things are complicated, though. Her husband is the founder and CEO of Gogol Industries, a tech conglomerate bent on making its wares ubiquitous in everyday life, and he’s determined to use the company’s vast, high-tech resources to get her back. Meanwhile, did I mention Hazel’s father is obsessed with a realistic sex robot? (Nick M.)

 

What We Lose by Zinzi Clemmons: A debut novel from Apogee Journal cofounder and contributing editor at LitHub. Thandi loses her South African mother and navigates the process of grieving and growing up in Pennsylvania. (Lydia)

And Now We Have Everything by Meaghan O’Connell:  Millions Year in Reading alum and New York magazine’s The Cut columnist O’Connell will bring her signature voice to a collection of essays about motherhood billed as “this generation’s Operating Instructions.” Readers who follow O’Connell’s writing for The Cut or her newsletter look forward to a full volume of her relatable, sometimes mordant, sometimes tender reflections on writing and family life. (Lydia)

This Will Be My Undoing by Morgan Jerkins: Jerkins is way too accomplished for her age, but her range of skills and interests – 19th-century Russian lit, postwar Japanese lit, speaker of six languages, editor, assistant literary agent — is so awesome I just can’t begrudge her. Jerkins writes reportage, personal essays, fiction, profiles, interviews, literary criticism, and sports and pop culture pieces. Now she has an essay collection coming out: This Will Be My Undoing. Some of her previously published essays include “The Psychic Toll of Reading the News While Black”“Why I Got a Labiaplasty in My 20s”, and “How Therapy Doesn’t Make Me a Bad Christian” — all of which may or may not be collected in the new book; but you get a feel for the great stuff we can expect. (Sonya)

Sharp by Michelle Dean: Dean has made a name for herself as an astute feminist journalist and critic for the likes of The Guardian, the New Republic, and The Nation. Her work often focuses on the intersection of crime, culture, and literature. So it’s fitting that her first book is nonfiction on other powerhouse female critics. (Tess M.)

Surprise Me!

BROWSE BY AUTHOR