The Last Samurai

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If Only We’d Fucking Listen to Helen DeWitt

Writers toil for years to squeeze even an ounce of their soul into their work, but when it comes to the acknowledgements page, they happily bow before convention. It’s rare to find an author’s note that isn’t a list of names paired with phrases of gratitude, each paragraph rising in pitch as if announcing the next rank in a hierarchy of angels, rarer still to find one that quietly captures the full agony and ecstasy of its author’s being. On the final page of Some Trick, her first collection of short stories, Helen DeWitt writes:
Over the years visitors to my blog (paperpools.blogspot.de) have generously helped me live to fight another day. While The Last Samurai was out of print buyers of secondhand copies would send donations to the beleaguered author. More recently two dedicated readers have been thinking of ways to approach the challenge in a less haphazard manner; anyone who would like to be involved should contact me at [email protected] to be put in touch.
Some context: In 2000, when DeWitt was 43, her acclaimed debut The Last Samurai came out with Miramax Books. It was a victory after years of setbacks and menial jobs, but also the lone highlight in what became her long praying mantis courtship with the publishing industry, which began with a war over the novel’s typesetting and led to two suicide attempts. After Miramax Books went bankrupt, The Last Samurai fell into contractual purgatory, and DeWitt’s subsequent novels were either delayed for a decade (Lightning Rods), pulled due to technical challenges (Your Name Here) or deemed unpublishable. The familiar ivy of poverty re-encircled her life, even as critical appreciation for both Lightning Rods and The Last Samurai continued to grow; the latter was recently a broad consensus pick for the 21st century’s most canonical novel.

And so here is one our foremost authors, poor but nonetheless foremost, inviting her readers not just to send her a few bucks (which she does later in the note), but to get involved in a project that is, presumably then, more elaborate than direct donation, that involves joining a dedicated network of DeWitt supporters, and to do so by writing said foremost author at her personal email account. Can you imagine any of the Didions, Franzens, Ferrantes or Bolaños whom she beat out in the canon rankings extending that request to the world? Even less rarified authors would be warned off by an inkling that this was a thing one simply does not do.

DeWitt can ignore that inkling in part because she’s made a public persona out of questioning its merits, especially when it comes to what she calls “normative publishing.” In her interviews, wielding the sort of rationalism more commonly associated with economists, tech entrepreneurs and utilitarians, she picks apart the industry’s conventions, like the puritanical separation of authors and type-setters, the unwillingness to experiment with new revenue models, especially ones perfected by the art world, and even the norm of meetings editors in cafés, where table space is too limited for spreading out one’s papers. My favorite of her frustrations is how when she met with prospective agents she couldn’t get them to agree to squeeze as much marketing juice as possible from any future suicides she attempted. “If I could have sold off a suicide attempt,” she said in a 2008 interview, “I would have had more time for reading Spinoza.” Duh.

It’s not surprising, then, that she might try out unusual methods of financing. I can imagine her calculating out Spinoza time wasted from extraneous emails vs. Spinoza time gained from projected extra income (naturally I’d like to message her and ask what the scheme is all about, except then I remember my own income and have to admit that I’d be tipping the scales toward time wasted). But even a positive net expected value wouldn’t account for the note. To put such an entreaty out in the world requires something rarer than strict rationality; it requires, in large amounts and in equal measure, optimism and desperation. If DeWitt were merely desperate, she wouldn’t be the sort of person who burned bridges over type-setting; she’d write The Last Samurai derivatives and own a brownstone in Brooklyn. If she were merely an optimist, she would have accepted her lot and put her faith in posterity. Put the two together and you get one of our best writers leveraging her stature and her inbox for what is in all likelihood a moonshot of a fundraising scheme.

You also get what defines her fiction, even more so than the two themes most often used to describe it, genius and making ends meet. True, The Last Samurai begins with Sibylla, a single mother, earning scraps as a freelancer while teaching her son Ludo to speak a dozen languages and do advanced math, but what gives the novel its wheels is Ludo growing up to have the same need and daring as his creator. At 11 years old, he disobeys his mother and sets out to identify and meet his biological father, a travel writer named Val Peters. When he figures out that Peters is a mediocrity, Ludo is disappointed, but he doesn’t despair. He simply reasons that he should let Peters down easy and find someone better, and begins showing up at the doors of various impressive men, armed with a con man’s set of ruses and an appraising eye.

Ludo is, to quote another of DeWitt’s stories, a “go-getter … that quintessential American thing to be,” an archetype that reappears throughout her fiction. DeWitt’s characters don’t suffer from boredom, midlife crises, existential dread or a surplus of time. They engage with the world, and, like DeWitt, they do so with unusual requests and ingenious proposals. In “My Heart Belongs to Bertie,” Peter, a highly successful fiction writer, wants to work with a mathematically literate editor for his next book, and he worries that his agent, Jim, won’t find one through the usual auction process. Struggling to convince Jim why this matters so much, Peter makes an unheard of but seemingly foolproof proposal: He offers an 85 percent commission, or roughly half a million dollars, in exchange for Jim finding him the right editor. “As ours is a business relationship,” he explains, “… it is entirely reasonable for me to determine my own ends and offer financial compensation to you for the inconvenience of promoting them.” Jim, though, brushes him off, making “a number of friendly American remarks” about being happy with the standard commission, friendly yet in a way that implies he has taken offense.

In her fiction DeWitt gets to be clear-sighted about how and why ingenious proposals fail, not without some irony: “Climbers” explores the pitfalls of dedicated readers trying to help an author they love. Peter Dijkstra, a reclusive Dutch writer, receives a series of emails from American literary types, utterly out of the blue, suggesting that a famous American writer is willing to give Dijkstra his apartment and all his things, out of respect for the European’s genius. It’s a strange and sudden altruism, born out of a New York loft-party conversation, but one that Dijkstra, pondering his debts, wants to talk advantage of, if only he can figure out how: “The fact that a fame-kissed young American would happily hand over all his worldly goods did not make it socially straightforward to write asking for a gift of 20,000 euros.” He doesn’t know how to survey, at a distance, the terrain of his admirers’ enthusiasm. Can he ask for a lifetime supply of cigarettes? Too shocking. A subscription to the Vienna Philharmonic? “An American … would see [such a gift] as too finely tuned.” Just how fully would the American writer move out of his apartment? “He could not think of any sentences that would ascertain the position in a socially acceptable fashion.”

The difficulty of ascertaining other people’s positions, and of conveying one’s own, is where many of these ingenious proposals run into trouble. DeWitt describes the problem more explicitly in “Sexual Codes of the Europeans,” a story that opens with a guidebook of systems developed in five cities for indicating certain sexual preferences. In Bilbao, for instance, people set out items on café tables to indicate the material in or upon which they wish to make love, whether sand or milk or acacia blossom honey. In Stuttgart, people leave out plastic figurines indicating a preference for a uniformed stranger, whether a Canadian Mountie or an Air Singapore stewardess. The practice is explained as arising from a scarcity of language:
The words for sexual practices and preferences are not included in a book for travelers, nor are the words that would accompany the speech acts of requesting a practice, expressing a preference. Perhaps you think: yes, but the words and speech acts must be known to the natives! If you buy a book in your own country you will find words for practices. You will not find an account of the speech acts in which the words may be deployed. The scarcity, it seems, is not one of vocabulary but one of speech acts.
More specifically, there is a scarcity of socially acceptable speech acts, or speech acts that carry only the precise information that one wishes to convey, with no surplus or remainder. When Peter offers 85 percent of the sale of his book in exchange for the right editor, what a robot or an economist might hear as a simple exchange sounds to Jim like a purely figurative hyperbole that politely says, “I’m worried you’re not going to do a good job.” Naturally, Jim is offended, as would be the airline employees who saw you walking around in your “I Prefer Sex With Air Singapore Stewardesses” T-shirt. As would be most literary agents when they realize you see them as the kind of person who would peddle their client’s suicide. To have a preference or proposal, even one justified by reason, is not enough. If the proposal is at all strange, one must also invent a sufficiently dexterous speech act, capable of slipping past the alarm system of prejudice, taboo and convention that protects us.

Perhaps it’s this idea that led DeWitt to write “The Wrong Stuff,” the essay she published in the LARB to accompany Some Trick. If her author’s note is the strangest example of its genre, “The Wrong Stuff” holds the crown among those now equally ubiquitous things, half artist statement and half college essay, used to publicize new fiction releases. It begins with a question Hans Ulrich Obrist, the renowned artistic director for Serpentine Galleries, posed to Zadie Smith, about whether she has any unrealized literary projects. DeWitt envies the question:
I could have explained that I had a hundred-odd unrealized projects immured on my hard drive, projects of which agents had said No Publisher Will Allow, projects that could change the face of 21st-century fiction. Projects that were not even books, so no agent or editor would know what to do with them. I would need a week to set out materials on tables, tack papers to walls, and talk nonstop.
Having dangled this prize, DeWitt offers the requisite humility: If that’s how the industry works, there could be thousands of authors with stalled century-changing projects. If any of these hypothetical projects were ever realized, she suggests, it will be because their hypothetical creators will have had a chance meeting with a well-financed visionary like, hypothetically, Hans Ulrich Obrist.

But of course, one of those authors is DeWitt and those projects exist in her hard drive and surely a few LARB readers are connected to Obrist. The essay is an elaborate speech act to convey what cannot be said directly: I have art that is too wild and expensive for New Directions, I’m running out of time, someone please give me the resources to make it. From various interviews one can piece together the problem: The projects she dreams of realizing need the help of graphic designers and computer programmers, individuals who need to be paid, but publishers won’t sign a contract until they see an almost fully realized book. Thus the elaborate plea, which, needless to say, our society doesn’t know how to readily parse, not coming from a 61-year-old writer, certainly not a woman. “The Wrong Stuff” sank to the bottom of the internet without a sound, without even inciting some jerk to call out claims which, coming from any other author, would seem outlandish. At least that might have started a conversation.

What makes it all the more depressing is that this plea could so easily have been unnecessary. One can imagine The Last Samurai propelling DeWitt into the same liberating echelon that Infinite Jest or Gödel, Escher and Bach (equally long, unorthodox and surprisingly popular works) propelled David Foster Wallace and Douglas Hofstadter, two famously inflexible writers who found forgiving editors in Michael Pietsch and Bill Kessel (who let Hofstadter do his own type-setting). Even Jonathan Safran Foer got to write Tree of Codes. One can imagine DeWitt getting a MacArthur “genius” grant, rather than setting the world record for torturously coy equivocations on a writer’s intellect (“Helen DeWitt’s great subject is genius … she may just be one herself …” “If we wanted to call Helen DeWitt a genius …” “She is one of those writers who seems to demand the description genius”). One can imagine how differently her rationalism and casual attitude toward suicide marketing would be coded and received if it came from a Peter DeWitt, rather than a Helen.

Or one can simply imagine a world such that when one of our best writers says she has projects that will change literature immured in her hard drive, we do better than plugging our ears, waiting until she’s dead, and giving our descendants the joy of opening her laptop and asking how we let this happen. If DeWitt wants to give our descendants a hint, she can set her login password to a line of Proust: “So it is that a well-read man will at once begin to yawn with boredom when anyone speaks to him of a new ‘good book,’ because he imagines a sort of composite of all the good books that he has read and knows already …”

How to convince you that there are new books, new languages, new speech acts, new ways of living or doing business, new textures upon which to make love? This is the true engineering feat of DeWitt’s writing. Its ambition is not merely refilling spent canisters of frisson. Proust speaks of jaded readers as an analogy for his own jaded attitude toward young girls, renewed by a milkmaid, but the analogy seems flawed—youthful beauty, like a party with guest list or a bull market, sells itself. We’re so susceptible to certain easy charms that economists warn investors against ever thinking “this time is different.” This time, beauty won’t come to bore me. This time, the party will be bacchanalia. This time, the bubble won’t burst.

Yet there are moments when this time really is different. Once in a rare while, some new pleasure or pain or art, one that pales doe-eyed youth or owning real estate, reveals life to be richer and more expansive than you knew it to be. These strange gems are not ones you find where you go panning for novelty. By definition, they exist beyond what you know, so your powers of induction cannot guide you to them. The best you can do, the only thing you can do, is sustain the belief that all of life is yet to be amassed within your composite existence.

This might comfort the patient and the lazy, but it’s also the tragic aspect of DeWitt’s work and life. No matter how ingenious their proposals, how elaborate their speech acts, or how airtight their arguments become, her characters struggle to surmount a latent, animal skepticism. And so does she. I’ve read most of DeWitt’s interviews from the past decade or more. Through them I can track all the subtle refinements to her theory of publishing’s failures and possibilities, all the way to “The Wrong Stuff,” succinct and dazzling. But what are all those refinements worth, and who are they for? In the end, it’s all one plea, endlessly repeated to those who, if they don’t already, probably never will: Believe me.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

The Life of the Mind: On Helen DeWitt’s ‘Some Trick’

Helen DeWitt’s great subject is genius, an ambitious undertaking made less so by the fact that she may just be one herself. DeWitt is less concerned with the nature of genius, or if such a thing even exists—in her fiction, it undoubtedly does—than she is with the ways in which capitalism, social conditioning, and gender serve to stifle it at every turn.

Her debut novel, The Last Samurai, follows an impoverished woman named Sibylla as she attempts to educate her precocious son Ludo in the style that John Stuart Mill’s father raised the great philosopher: learning Greek by age 4, Japanese by age 5, then on to high-level statistics. Ludo eventually strikes out on his own to discover the true identity of his father.

It’s a novel unlike any other, a work of tremendous intellectual and emotional depth—genius, really—and as Christian Lorentzen lays out in a 2016 profile for New York Magazine, it was “the toast of the Frankfurt Book Fair in 1999, with rights sold to more than a dozen countries.” The novel was critically acclaimed, sold well, and was nominated for various prizes. But works of genius don’t exist in a vacuum, and a series of misfortunes—among them accounting errors, copyright issues, the subsequent folding of her publisher, and the release of an unrelated Tom Cruise vehicle that shared the novel’s title—cast DeWitt back into obscurity.

Her follow-up novel, Lightning Rods, published in 2011—more than a decade after she finished it—is a scathing satire of the corporate world. As daring as Mel Brooks’ The Producers must have been when it first appeared in 1967, only two decades after World War II—the film is credited in DeWitt’s acknowledgments—the story follows a man named Joe as he implements a crude solution to workplace harassment: hiring undercover sex workers to service male employees who might otherwise take out their sexual frustration on their female colleagues. Joe’s inner monologue is saturated with workplace clichés (“It’s important to give that new job 101%, 25 hours a day, 366 days a year”). DeWitt has a gift for appropriating banal, colloquial language in an effort to make us consider the words that make our world.

DeWitt told Lorentzen in their interview that if The Last Samurai had not been plagued by one publishing disaster after another, it might have risen to the status of Infinite Jest—certainly her style is similar to that of David Foster Wallace. If that’s the case, her new collection, Some Trick: Thirteen Stories, might be her Brief Interviews with Hideous Men. Wry, playful, drawing on high-level mathematics and critical theory, these 13 stories read like experiments from a mad scientist’s laboratory.

Once again, DeWitt takes up the idea of genius and the constraints placed upon it by the “real world.” Her style incorporates both the dryness of Lightning Rods and the dexterity of The Last Samurai. In “Brutto,” the standout first story, an artist behind on her rent is asked by a top gallerist to reproduce a piece she made decades ago. He values it for its ugliness. “If you set out to make something ugly,” the artist thinks, “it is like setting out to make something beautiful, you will just end up with kitsch.” She makes a series of compromises at the gallerist’s request—she needs the money—and by the end of the story, she is literally handing over her bodily fluids.

The second story, “My Heart Belongs to Bertie,” stages a lunch between a literary agent and an author of children’s books about probability theory. “I don’t really get it at all, but I don’t need to get it,” the agent says. The author seethes. “The fact that Jim could unashamedly admit to finding a perfectly simple explanation of the binomial distribution over his head, that he could unblushingly dismiss it as the province of a genius, only went to show how deep-seated innumeracy actually is in our benighted culture,” he thinks. In other hands, the joke might be on the character of the pretentious author. And certainly, the italics are a tipoff that we’re meant to read his grievances with a degree of irony. But they also serve to signify his genuine frustration, one shared by DeWitt, who has spoken often about her dismay at the philistinism of the publishing world.

It’s hard not to read the trials of her publishing history into stories like this, or “Climbers,” in which a group of industry types attempt to profit off the brilliance of a reclusive author. Many stories directly take up the subject of a beleaguered or impoverished artist who has gone unrecognized. But in DeWitt’s universe, this suffering is hardly noble. It’s infuriating, inconvenient, and unfair.

Gender is tackled in these stories, as it is in DeWitt’s previous books, not as the sole or even primary cause for her characters’ woes but as a significant factor nonetheless. In “Improvisation Is the Heart of Music,” Maria becomes exasperated as her husband Edward keeps telling the same anecdote over and over again. DeWitt takes up the question of authenticity in storytelling—we see the anecdote appear multiple times throughout the story, in different contexts—but the emphasis is on Maria, who feels the burden of reacting in a new way each time she hears it. “It seemed unfair,” she thinks. “She must improvise because he had rehearsed.”

The following story, “Famous Last Words,” dramatizes a seduction between the narrator and a character called X, their conversation moving from Barthes to Boswell to Bob Dylan, when suddenly the narrator thinks:
There is a text which I could insert at this point which begins, “I’m not in the mood,” but the reader who has had occasion to consult it will know that, though open to many variations, there is one form which is, as Voltaire would say, Optandum potius quam probandum, and that is the one which runs “I’m not in the mood,” “Oh, OK.” My own experience has shown this to be a text particularly susceptible to discursive and recursive operations, one which circles back on itself through several iterations and recapitulations, one which ends pretty invariably in “Oh, OK,” but only about half the time as the contribution of my co-scripteur. I think for a moment about giving the thing a whirl, but finally settle on the curtailed version which leaves out “I’m not in the mood” and goes directly to “Oh, OK.” X and I go upstairs.
In the collection’s most arresting moments, DeWitt’s command of intellectual subject matter—statistics, critical theory, the fourteen languages she reads—rubs shoulders with the base, the bodily, the human.

Moments like these do not appear as frequently throughout Some Trick as they might, but DeWitt has made clear her suspicion of people who read for emotional connection. “I don’t know how to deal with a world where there’s this language of infatuation that people use,” she told Lorentzen. “‘Infatuated!’ ‘Besotted!’ ‘Obsessed!’ I’m not sure that has ever been my attitude toward any text. …Look, I sometimes think I have Asperger’s syndrome. I’m really bad at people’s emotional investment in things.” She aims to stimulate the head, not the heart, but her blistering sense of humor, rivaled today only by Paul Beatty and Nell Zink, keeps the stories earthbound.

DeWitt writes as comfortably about musicians as she does painters, writers, and statisticians. “The French Style of Mlle Matsumoto” contrasts pianists with opposite styles: one precise and affectless and fluid, the other theatrical and showy; the latter dismisses the former, calling her an “automaton,” before coming to see her brilliance later in life. “Stolen Luck” opens on the disgruntled drummer of a rock band watching a novelty musician on the street, Crazy Nick and His Musical Traffic Cones, and finds himself coveting Crazy Nick’s freedom from record labels and marketing. The stories themselves aren’t bitter but rather take bitterness as their subject matter. In DeWitt’s world, there are Mozarts, Salieris, and the many suits whose livelihoods depend on them. No one is spared, the suits least of all.

It’s safe to say that the stories in Some Trick have their rough edges. They are the farthest thing from the model writers’ workshop story, “plotless and sparkling with epiphanic dew,” to borrow a phrase from Michael Chabon. But for sheer brilliance and humor, Some Trick delivers like nothing else, simply because DeWitt writes like no one else. Readers unfamiliar with her work should begin with The Last Samurai, which remains peerless, but Some Trick further cements Helen DeWitt as one of the smartest writers of fiction today.

May Preview: The Millions Most Anticipated (This Month)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

Most Anticipated: The Great 2018 Book Preview

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

A Year in Reading: Lydia Kiesling

My dad lives in Greece and this September we took the baby who is no longer a baby there for a visit. I was vaguely dreading the trip, even though I love Greece and miss it dearly when I’m not there, which is most of the time. I didn’t want to be so callous — or to appear to be so callous — as to go on vacation to a country experiencing a refugee crisis with the express intention of avoiding the crisis. “We are visiting family,” I told people preemptively.

When we arrived I was surprised to see that everything looked eerily normal in my old Athenian haunts and on the island where we spent most of the trip. But while we were there, this article came out, and I was reminded that if you are not seeing the bad thing it is because someone doesn’t want you to see it, whether that someone is yourself or a group of politicians and others with whom you willingly or unwillingly collude. So we colluded, and had a nice time, and sat on a beach watching Italian package tourists doing group calisthenics, and the men we saw selling plastic clips and doodads on the beach were not refugees, or not new ones  — perhaps they were born elsewhere; now they spoke with one another in perfect Greek. During naptime I read Fates and Furies and Swing Time and Transit, and it felt like a sin to enjoy them all like I did.

Later I read Exit West, Mohsin Hamid’s forthcoming novel about the refugee crisis — a novel the surreal elements of which are only as surreal as the things people are facing in Syria and Iraq and Greece and points beyond. It’s a haunting yet spare and somehow efficient book that describes how quickly the conditions of ordinary people can change, and how few reasonable options those people have once events are in motion. I read the novel months after reading this unsparing article about the people who have been preparing for the (increasingly unlikely) day when Bashar al-Assad might be called to account. On Twitter, I see pictures of mortar-blasted infants and bloodied strollers on the ruined streets of Aleppo.

I have been thinking about collusion, and bubbles, and things seen and unseen. After Greece I read Negroland, in which Margo Jefferson describes upper-middle class black families whose class bubble was insufficient defense against the effects of whiteness:
Caucasian privilege lounged and sauntered, draped itself casually about, turned vigilant and commanding, then cunning and devious. We marveled at its tonal range, its variety, its largess in letting its humble share the pleasures of caste with its mighty.
I read about her relatives who took the course of abdicating and living as white people, functionally erasing whole parts of their lives: “When Uncle Lucious stopped being white, my parents invited him to dinner,” Jefferson writes.

After the election I read a series of astute tweets I wish I could find now about how liberal white Americans approach their lives with the same unfortunate tactics as illiberal ones; that is, they create their own enclaves and wall themselves off from elements they find unsavory. My deceased grandparents lived in a California county with a population of two people per square mile, and 71 percent of those people voted for Donald Trump. The last time we drove the hours and hours to get there I saw a huge “Kafir” flag on a lonely homestead, someone’s warning to would-be jihadists who might find themselves in the goddamned middle of nowhere, U.S.A. I try to picture life there now and experience a failure of imagination. I read Where I Was From, Joan Didion’s great California book on the “vexed issue” of “a birthright squandered, a paradise lost,” the illusion of which seems to animate so much of the white American psyche. (Even her investigation stops a few hundred miles short of that high-desert plain.)

Since coming aboard The Millions I feel like I know the titles of more books than ever before, while actually reading fewer books. I hate this. Partly it’s because I no longer have a commute with a daily designated hour for reading, but really it’s because I stare too long at my phone. Nonetheless, sometimes conditions and moods and books coincided to make memorable reading experiences. Before I quit my job I read Grief Is the Thing with Feathers over a single day’s commute and wept into my jacket on the train. Over Thanksgiving, while talking heads brayed horribly from the television in my in-laws’ kitchen, I read a new edition of The Haunting of Hill House with Laura Miller’s introduction. I have the best couch in the world; on it I read Here Comes the Sun and The Last Samurai and Queen Sugar and Housekeeping and Void Star and Gold Fame Citrus over the course of precious, orgiastic pig-in-a-blanket afternoons. My husband found me bawling as I read the final page of the latter — in addition to being a warning for the planet, I can’t think of a novel that better captures the bruising horror of loving small children.

Every year I seem to read about bereaved parents. I read this beautiful essay about a random, preventable disaster, and I read this article about an inevitable one. I’ve fixated cruelly on the family in the second piece. I tell myself Jesus doesn’t want me to politicize the death of a child, but everything is inflected by politics lately, and the rancor of a walled-off elite like myself for my non-elite white brethren is at its zenith. The rancor extends both ways, obviously; I read this heartbreaking article, and subsequently learned there are benighted people who believe it’s part of a vast liberal hoax. After watching Alton Sterling’s son weep next to his mother onscreen I read Citizen — its cover an homage to another dead child — aware that I was showing up late and unprepared, more colluding.

I felt late and unprepared again after the U.S. election, and I read this essay by Uday Jain, his reminder that “there is no single…story where if we just do this, this, and this, things will be fine.” I have been thinking about Jain’s lovely formulation:
When one gives up on being a Rawlsian, absolutely transparent to oneself, perfectly good in one’s own life, autonomous liberal subject — one gains the Platonic, the feminist, the Marxist sense of a self as constituted essentially by interdependence. I am not an individual. I am the voices and affects and legacies and bodies of everyone I’ve ever read, talked to, befriended, and loved; their parents and grandparents; the dead. Solidarity consists in this refusal of individuality — and simultaneously the maintenance of difference that makes interdependence possible.
I have wondered how to reconcile my interest in literature and my sense of it as a fundamentally bourgeois chronicle of individual concerns — my Of Human Bondage, my The Sea, the Sea — with the solidarity Jain describes. I don’t understand exactly how literature works with politics; perhaps the answer for now is simply that literature is one of the most pleasing and enduring ways of capturing those voices and affects and legacies. Currently I’m reading Yiyun Li’s Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life; I dog-eared the page where she writes “Every word one writes, every dream and fear and hope and despair one reveals to others and to oneself — they all end up like chicks refusing to be returned to the eggshell.” (The chicks she mentions are dead, so it’s not super-hopeful, but what a line.)

I can’t stop worrying all these things between my teeth. My mom says I have to log off and tune out and I snarl at her, as though everything is her fault. I feel calm when I reread A Dance to the Music of Time. In volume one I found a torn-out poem from The New Yorker by Adam Zagajewski — “Erinna from Telos.” (I like the Claire Cavanagh translation that ends with “grasshopper” and not the one on Google Books that ends with “cricket.”) The poem is about death and art and history; my mother, Miss Cheer-Up-Charlie, is the one who tore it out of the magazine (she, by the way, exclusively reads morose novels by Eastern-European intellectuals). But I wonder if she has a point when she chastises me: if there is any value in feeling sad, any point wallowing in rancor, if you are not going to be good. If you are going to know about those bloody strollers and continue to go about your business.

Because I am going about my business, in spite of reading all these miserable things.  The day after the election, I saw the faintest of faint lines on a pregnancy test; it disappeared within a few days, as though the egg, while trying to settle in, had been warned off by troubled vibes.  This was less demoralizing than it might have been if I didn’t have a small child to parent. She just turned two, and she says, “Mommy Mommy Mommy Mommy,” and I answer, “Yes Yes Yes Yes.” She loves our cats, and she pets them and kisses them until they scratch her, and she says “scratchoo” and begs me to put a “benden” on the wound. From her I learned about that thing that Zadie Smith calls “joy” in something else I read this year:
Occasionally the child, too, is a pleasure, though mostly she is a joy, which means in fact she gives us not much pleasure at all, but rather that strange admixture of terror, pain, and delight that I have come to recognize as joy, and now must find some way to live with daily. This is a new problem.
Once you feel joy you can’t unfeel it; I’m fiending helplessly for more. The polar ice is melting, but I want to hold another baby.  I feel like the grasshopper who sang all summer.

More from A Year in Reading 2016

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What I Learned on My Debut Book Tour From the Books I Read Along the Way

In her collection of essays and talks The Wave in the Mind, Ursula K. Le Guin wonders why we have book tours at all. “It wasn’t until the seventies, I think, that publishers realized they could sell more books by sending their author to two hundred cities in eight days to sign them,” she told a Women in Language conference in 1998. “So now here in Berkeley you have Black Oak and Cody’s, and we in Portland have Powell’s and the Looking Glass, and Seattle has Elliot Bay Books running two readings a day every day of the week and people come.”

I packed The Wave in the Mind into my luggage as I set out from Britain for North America. Not least because I’d be visiting Portland, Ore., Le Guin’s home city; and not only because 35 percent minimum of my carry-on is reading material; but as an unknown British writer, I needed to holdfast to Le Guin’s promise for my 12-events-in-seven-cities first book tour: people come!

I hoped my other reading would be as encouraging: Han Kang’s The Vegetarian, J.M. Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello, and, on the recommendation of a friend, Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic. I’d pick up others along the way. All would be serendipitous. I’m going to learn from them not only how to handle a book tour better, but how to be better, fully stop.

Lantern Books, Brooklyn, N.Y.
“This is how I want to spend my life,” writes Gilbert in Big Magic, “collaborating to the best of my ability with forces of inspiration that I can neither see, nor prove, nor command, nor understand.”

This was how I wanted to spend my life, too—as a published author. I’d come to Brooklyn for the launch of my debut, The Pig in Thin Air. The event marked a psychological “end” to writing the book; despite having done publicity events in the U.K., New York provided closure on the book’s making. Lesson one, perhaps: writing a book is a desperately personal thing, and only you know when it’s “finished.” I needed a public introduction for that. I needed that moment to be recognized.

Pig is my first published book. I’ve always written: journalism, non-fiction, short stories, flash fiction, and I teach writing too. I have a mob of novels complaining bitterly of unfinished business from their various stashes. Pig came after a 2014 tour of North America working with organizations and individuals changing our species’ relationship to nonhuman animals. I approached Lantern Books with an idea based on this trip: a carnivore-to-vegan literary memoir, and a study of how we come closer to the animals we eat. The publisher was keen. I wrote the book in six months. Another nine of rewriting, copy editing, and proofing later, and Pig was published.

Then the hard work began. If you’re Thomas Merton, it’s okay if your books “stand outside all processes of production, marketing, consumption, and destruction.” For the rest of us, there are sales to make. A publisher to please. It means months of emails, organizing events. It means the people at Powell’s and Elliot Bay saying, “We’ve got Murakami that night…what did you say your name was?” It means more time on social media than is good for any writer, in an attempt to secure an audience.

I’ve got an audience in Brooklyn. Readers, artists, wine buyers, magazine editors. My introduction is conducted by my publisher. I calm my nerves (will I read well?; answer clearly?) by recalling Big Magic’s closing exhortation: “we did not come all this great distance, and make all this great effort, only to miss the party at the last moment.”

On the face of it, you couldn’t get two more different books, or writers, than myself and Gilbert; Pig, and Big Magic. But in other ways I couldn’t have chosen (okay, it was a recommendation) a better book as company. Before Eat, Pray, Love, Gilbert was a writer without fame or fortune. She had three well-received books, and still worked full-time elsewhere. But like Gilbert, “my intention was to spend my entire life in communion with writing” and that meant finding a way to be the professional writer; maybe even making money from it. Because I was not making any money from this tour. Lesson two: in Gilbert’s words, “I became my own patron” to make this tour happen. Even mid-list authors at big publishing houses are expected to organize, and usually pay for, their promotion and travel. And that’s okay.

Lesson three: opening nights will always be nerve-wracking. But that’s okay too. The evening is full of goodwill and good sales and good food and fireflies and my new shoes start to break in; and, yeah, I’ve finally achieved something I’ve dreamt of for 35 years. I count myself lucky; a little bit of big magic has found its way to my door.

Various Locations, Including a Chicken Slaughterhouse, Toronto
The last two chapters of Pig tell the story of my involvement with the Save Movement, a group advocating for the end of the exploitation of nonhuman animals, which holds regular vigils to bear witness to the vast numbers of animals killed every day. Pig is one of the first published accounts of this movement, and it’s important for me to return and support their work; okay, as well as sell my books.

On the flight from New York I read Han Kang’s The Vegetarian. As a vegan writer, there are few representations of veganism or vegetarianism in literature; I want to study them, to see how we come across. Pig is a vegan memoir; in my fictional writing, also, I experiment with vegan characters to explore difference, especially around toxic masculinities (the macho need for meat). The Vegetarian was—or should have been—the ideal book to read before hosting a potluck, reading to a crowd outside a slaughterhouse, and giving a talk to activists at the University of Toronto.

But The Vegetarian is a disappointing book (Jon Yargo and I will have to disagree on this one). The emotions are “vague” and “almost.” The female protagonist is passive; we hear her voice only through italicized fragments or the eyes of of other people. As Kate Tempest says, “there’s a temptation to create passive female characters. It’s a narrative trap set up by the male standard that you’ve got to fight. I don’t know why I fell into it. I don’t even know any passive women!” It’s easy to see what Kang has tried to do by exploring the ways in which male culture objectifies women—but do you do that by again objectifying a woman?

But The Vegetarian was the right book to read for Toronto. It made me observe more closely the active (not passive) and present (not withdrawn) women who lead the advocacy movement in the city. The vigils are organized and run mainly by women. There are men participating, but the Save movement is led and shaped by proactive, intelligent, and compassionate women. So across my three events, I prioritize reading the sections that speak to the ways in which feminist ethical thought has shaped my work. That feels the right thing to do for this white, British, middle-class man with a book in his hand.

I need a new book for travelling. My host Lorena, who runs healing circles for those who attend the vigils, tells me about a second-hand store 10 minutes walk away: Circus Books & Music. Within half an hour I’ve got four new titles, including The Beluga Café by Pacific Northwest writer Jim Nollman, a book that will come in handy later.

The FARM Animal Rights Conference, Los Angeles
Four days in a hotel. I’m here to “work the room” and promote Pig to hundreds of animal-loving attendees as well as help out on the Lantern Books table, and do my first official signing. Conferences can be good places to sell your book if the theme is aligned. But four days? That’s a lot of “working the room” for a writer who prefers early nights.

By Day Three and the awards dinner it’s all a bit much. I’ve done my “meet the writer” signing. I need time out. I get caught reading a novel at the bar while the other 1,700 delegates are, mostly, attending the gala. At least the novel is Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello, the most well-known fiction to explore our relationship with the animals we eat. The only “appropriate way and indeed the only way in which to absorb [the novel],” says Costello, “is in silence and in solitude.” It’s too cramped in the gala; too many people; and too much weird singing. For an introvert writer, a book tour is a many-peopled challenge. And the conferences at which our books might sell are one long, tiring, smiling engagement.

A Hollywood music producer comes over and starts chatting. This is the type of contact I should be cultivating, says my promotional brain; she produced the sound for the new advocacy film Unity. She’s attractive, too. “Does the mind by nature prefer sensation to ideas; the tangible to the abstract?” asks Coetzee of Elizabeth Costello’s son as he lies in bed with a woman he’s just met at…okay, a conference (albeit one at which his mother, not he, is the invited writer). Well, tonight the mind prefers the ideas, the abstract. I need quietude; to read.

As soon as I say this, the music producer admits she’s overwhelmed by all the people too. She squats down—I don’t ask her to sit—and we talk about the need for creative solitude. I didn’t expect there to be much on this tour—but this little? Another lesson: you cannot, as Le Guin says, be both a writer and a person on the book tour. “People line up to ‘meet the writer,’ not realizing this is impossible,” she continues. “Nobody can be a writer during a book tour […] All their admirers can meet is the person—who has a lot in common with, but is not, the writer. Maybe duller, maybe older, maybe meaner.” Right then, probably all three.

Writers live with this contradiction. We read in solitude, and we write in solitude. But in between, we need to make connections, and it can be a trial, a judgement. We do it as person or writer (or both); and yet who this I, this you, this writer/person is, is anybody’s guess. Perhaps, as Le Guin says, the book tour “recovers for us the social act.” It brings us out into the world again. It might feel like the gates of hell, but it is also a doorway to other people.

Phinney Books, Greenwood, Seattle, Wash.
The dreaded fear on every tour is, of course, that no one will turn up. Well, not no one. That would be okay; you slink off with only the bookseller’s disdainful smile and a few hours saved (nothing more welcome than a cancelled social engagement). But if two people and a dog turn up, you have to sit through the embarrassment and shame that they know that you know that hardly anyone came out for you. And that despite your author-status, in this town, on this night, you’re still a nobody. That smarts.

Apparently there’s an anthology about book reading failures. I cannot find it, and perhaps the included writers have thought better and sought injunctions to have it censored. Or maybe it’s that, as Gilbert says in Big Magic, failure is not what it seems to be. According to the acclaimed Anne Enright, “failure is what writers do.”

Tell that to a writer waiting for a crowd to arrive on a warm, sunny evening in Seattle. Warm and sunny means people don’t want to come inside. Great.

I go onto social media to seek advice from fellow writers. The best is from ethicist Carol J. Adams, author of The Sexual Politics of Meat. “Don’t judge by numbers. Give those two people (and the dog) everything that you’d give a larger crowd. Then you know you haven’t let them down. Or yourself.”

And so that’s what I do. Seattle is my smallest event. But there are some people, including a friend, and including a woman from the mid-sized non-profit Physicians’ Committee for Responsible Medicine, who happens to be in town. She buys a book, and is generous in her praise of the talk. And yet that isn’t the magic. About halfway through, two young girls (and a dog! called Fenway) slip in at the back. When the questions begin, one of the girls shares her story: she was diagnosed as diabetic, and was on her way to losing her sight and having a foot amputated. But she adopted a vegan diet, recovered her sight and saved her foot. She’s still diabetic, but her health is massively improved.

I understand that—while it is no panacea or cure-all—vegan food practices are healthier for humans, and the only way to feed a planet of nine billion. Others in the audience give the girl incredulous looks. But the woman from PCRM corroborates her story with direct reference to medical research.

Then I understand: this event isn’t for me. I didn’t organize it to sell books. I organized it so this young woman could have her story validated by the woman from PCRM, who she would never have met otherwise. And I learn this lesson well: you don’t write the book for yourself. Once it’s published, it’s not yours. It’s theirs.

Before I leave, I ask Tom the bookseller (and author of A Reader’s Book of Days, essential desktop material for all writers) what he’d recommend. He puts in my hands The Last Samurai by Helen DeWitt.

“It’s an old book, but reissued,” he says. “It’s my favorite right now.”

“Okay, then I’ll take it,” I say, equally unequivocally.

I’m full of relief the evening is over, eager to settle up and have a drink at a bar. So eager in fact that I trade the sale of three Pigs for which Tom has taken the money, for The Last Samurai. This is a learning in itself: that getting out of the bookstore with your profit can be an escape act—not because of the bookseller, but because of a) the relief of selling any at all; and b) what else do you do with cash in a bookstore?

So I leave two bucks down, and four copies of Pig heavier, taking back some advances I’d sent ahead. I start reading The Last Samurai that night. It’s a sublimely written tale of the life of Ludovic, a child genius, and his mother Sybilla, that explores the limits of genius (or knowledge porn, as Brian Hurley puts it) through Ludo’s search for his father, told through his prodigious learning—dozens of languages, engineering, history, literature, film. All this is sieved through their mother-and-son obsession with Akira Kurosawa’s film Seven Samurai

It’s only now that I wonder if my fear of the low turnout and the, well, actual low turnout, was on Tom’s mind as he recommended The Last Samurai. In the last pages, when Ludo’s narrative arc has come to its end, he meets another genius, a pianist his mother once took him to see in concert. This pianist cannot play concerts any longer because of his unconventional and noncommercial approach. Their discussion turns to what art is worth making and how to put it into the world.  That is, even if there are only five people in the world who will buy the pianist’s CD (my book) but they are the type of person who will buy his CD (my book) and get off their train (path in life) to work for a sculptor in Paris (challenge themselves and do something amazing)…does he (me) need 10,000 people to buy his CD (my book)? Does he (I) need 1,000 people at his concert (my reading)?

Or just the five people (and dog!) that matter? Discuss.

Village Books, Bellingham, Wash.
Or, let’s talk about fathers. Jim Nollman’s The Beluga Café is an enjoyable book. Considering it was published in 2002, it was weird how often it turned up on shelves during my tour. Perhaps the most magical element is that, for an adventure with “art, music and whales in the far North” the artist-adventurers never actually see any whales. There’s a hint of this when Nollman quotes Rainer Maria Rilke: “The purpose of life is to be defeated by greater and greater things.” But it’s a good book for touring the Pacific Northwest. It’s a story of the clash of cultures between Western colonial whites and the Inuit. It would be a lifesaver during the reading at Village Books.

I’d fallen on a successful pattern for book readings of less than 20 people. I’d introduce how I wrote Pig, then read for 10 to 15 minutes and open it up to the audience to hear their stories, before reading another section. I ask Clarissa, a local vegan who’d given me support on Twitter in generating interest for the event, to share her story. Then I open it up to the wider audience; a man in his ’60s puts up his hand.

“So, you, as a vejjan [sic]” he says to me, “what do you think about the Native Americans hunting whales?”

I’d wanted the moment to be a sharing of stories, not Q&A, and whales hadn’t featured; but okay, I’d read Nollman so I was prepared. No, I’m not another white British colonialist telling the indigenous people of the Pacific Northwest they can’t hunt whale. But for myself, as for Jim Nollman and his companions, I just don’t believe people can “own” whales.

It settles him. The conversation continues, I read another section, and then there’s the Q&A. The troublemaker raises his hand.

I often read from the first half of Pig, a memoir of growing up as a meat eater, and the family consternation at my attempts to go vegetarian. So I talk about growing up, and explain how my father is/was an alcoholic, and in 2008 went on a bender and went missing—and remains missing. I read this bit, admitting that it’s also for affect. I want to move people with my writing; and this bit moves people.

I never guessed anyone would actually ask me about it.

“So can you explain the relevance of your missing father to this book?”

Later, a friend says she wanted to hug me (and slug the guy). But wasn’t this why I’d written the book? To answer that question: not for him, but for myself?

I say that toxic masculinity is a major global problem; the perverse need for men to dominate others, to own or consume their flesh, is wrecking our world. And maybe having a father whom I rebelled against at such an early age, who left my mother when I was two, providing my sister and I with a childhood shaped more by women who cared and less by men who drank, made me feel this way. Staring down the crises we face—climate change, deforestation, water pollution, our common health problems, gender inequality, the suffering of other species—calls for care and interdependence, not more toxic machismo.

Another guy in the crowd thanks me for what I’ve said, and shares his own story. After the reading is over, the troublemaker comes up.

“You know, I rescue those little black and red ladybugs from my car windscreen and put them into the grass,” he says. “So maybe I’m a little bit vejjan too.”

Hey, maybe. Isn’t that a start?

Silently I thank Jim Nollman and his sober failure in the Arctic, a failure that, as a writer and artist, he suffered, but was able to blend into a humble story of adventure and commitment. “Few professionals make their livings describing internal demons,” writes Nollman. “These professionals have decided that the internal story must be excised from their documentaries and non-fiction accounts, best left to novelists and feature-film writers to invent. What is it? Sissy? Too difficult? Too personal? Or is it just deemed uninteresting?”

Too difficult? Too personal? I don’t know. What I do know is I’m glad I wrote that part about my father. I’m glad I read it out. And I’m glad I was asked that question.

Portland, Ore., Vancouver, B.C., the End
There are two more stops on the tour—Portland and Vancouver, B.C., and five more lunches and readings and dinners and signings, including a talk in a church to 150 people, which emphasizes the lessons I’ve learnt. Not least of these is that having locals on the ground organizing and supporting makes the event go swimmingly. So what practical things have I learnt for the next tour?

two people and a dog is okay, too—and sometimes, better
invitation is better than confrontation
rely on social media only so far
don’t think that you’ll get downtime in between events
being professional counts; those sore shoes, trimmed nails, suit jacket all go towards the impression you leave on the individuals who turn up

I may have laid down on the floor of an Airbnb apartment and cried that I did not want to get up and travel for another six hours to do it all again. But I did get up. I did do it all again. And what I earned from doing that will not be taken away easily.

What did I earn? Freedom. Freedom from the fear that your work doesn’t count. It counts. Even if it’s for the five people who buy your book, but those five people, as Ludo says, cross the bridge, take a train, and go to work for a famous sculptor (or some similarly beautiful thing) because they read your book (or listened to your CD).

“The most ancient, most urgent function of words,” writes Le Guin, is “to form for us ‘mental representations of things not actually present,’ so that we can form a judgment of what world we live in and where we might be going in it, what we can celebrate, what we must fear.”

We create books or write essays and invest in the infrastructure around that writing; we put it into people’s hands and ask them to read, or listen. This is an auxiliary but no less essential part of the writer’s craft. It is a hard slog; there is little downtime in the downtime. But the joy of meeting people and having them hear your words; the emails and reviews that emerge from the ether; the connections made between people who ‘get’ the same mental representation that you do… All this means that maybe you’ve given them something to think about, and that changes them.

And remember this: you will never have a first book tour again.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

The Millions Quiz: The Best Political Fiction

With campaign rhetoric thrumming and throbbing around us, along with deepening divisions around race, guns, sexuality, and national security; and since much of what we see/hear in the media is alarming, disappointing, and not infrequently inane; I thought we might offer up some alternatives for readers looking to sink their political minds into something intelligent, compelling, possibly even hopeful (if not exactly optimistic). I asked Millions staff writers:

What is/are the best political fiction(s) you’ve read in the past decade?

We’re focusing on fiction because we’re interested in a broad definition of “political.” I wanted to hear from my colleagues what even constitutes “political fiction” in their minds.

The novel that came to mind for me first was J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace I read it when it was published 16 years ago, but its chilling notion of social justice has stayed with me: in post-apartheid South Africa, Lucy, a white woman, is gang-raped in her home by three black men. She learns that the men are known by (one is even related to) Petrus, the black man and former employee with whom she runs a small farm and kennel on the eastern Cape. Her father, a womanizing university professor who’s been dismissed from his position for harassment, was with her when the attack happened — beaten and set aflame. Both survive the attack, but to David Lurie’s dismay, his daughter does not report the attack, nor leave the homestead; in fact, she eventually enters into a transactional relationship with Petrus, financial and sexual. If this narrative outcome isn’t disturbing enough, Coetzee makes sure to supply Lucy’s character with a motivational “theory” — that rape was
the price one has to pay for staying on…they see me as owing something. They see themselves as debt collectors, tax collectors. Why should I be allowed to live here without paying? Perhaps that is what they tell themselves.
Fans of his work may know that Coetzee was criticized by his countrywoman Nadine Gordimer for writing stories that “leave nothing unsaid…about what human beings do to other human beings” — such that “the truth and meaning of what white has done to black [in South Africa] stands out on every page” — yet at the same time eschew the possibility of progressive change via political actors. Of Coetzee’s The Life and Times of Michael K, Gordimer famously wrote:
Coetzee’s heroes are those who ignore history, not make it…A revulsion against all political and revolutionary solutions rises with the insistence of the song of cicadas to the climax of this novel…I don’t think the author would deny that it is his own revulsion…The exclusion is a central one that may eat out the heart of the work’s unity of art and life.
For Gordimer, a political writer was one who ruthlessly rendered social breakdown, but who also crafted characters that embodied the possibility of political upheaval and societal renewal; indeed the writer of the truly political novel must himself be driven by this possibility.

Interestingly, in his New York Times review of Disgrace, Michael Gorra compared the contemporaneous writing of Coetzee and Gordimer and wrote, “it is perhaps Coetzee, despite his resistance to a historically conditioned realism, who has the more deeply political mind.” And in the London Review of Books, while not naming Gordimer per se, Elizabeth Lowry suggested that a definition of political fiction along the lines of Gordimer’s engenders a simplistic, inferior genre:
For the South African novelist…how should the volatile, explosive history of South Africa, a history in the making, be represented in fiction without lapsing into the impoverished aesthetic of merely political writing?
Over a decade later, in “Where Has Political Fiction Gone?” (The Guardian, May 2010), Stuart Evers postulated on how novelists seem to have responded to Lowry’s challenge: “[C]ontemporary political novels — the ones that sell, at least — are more concerned with political disengagement than they are with values or beliefs. The theme that courses through…is not one of right versus left or socialism versus capitalism, but about inaction versus action.”

Disgrace is an unpleasant, unforgettable novel. While Lucy is in fact not the protagonist — David Lurie is — her actions, and inactions, constitute the novel’s most provocative questions: is a theory of necessary retribution extreme, regressive, even barbaric? Or could it be that such a theory expresses the profound truth of a spiritual reality? Is Lucy a creation of social realism, or of symbolic allegory? Can the answers to all these questions be yes, and if so, how so? In any case, there is nothing impoverished or disengaged about the effects of Disgrace on this reader. Sixteen years later, in the midst of our own racial horrors and retributions, the novel’s haunting questions—political and interpersonal — are as relevant as they’ve ever been.

Lydia Kiesling
In my early-20s I worked for an antiquarian bookseller who helped institutions build up collections of subject areas; one university was at work on a large collection of 20th-century American “literature of social change,” and he had me assist with finding these books. The guidelines took a passage from Barbara Kingsolver’s copy for the Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction.
The mere description of an injustice, or the personal predicament of an exploited person, without any clear position of social analysis invoked by the writer, does not in itself constitute socially responsible literature. ‘Social responsibility’ describes a moral obligation of individuals to engage with their communities in ways that promote a more respectful coexistence.
That’s a very, perhaps impossibly high bar, and I often found myself confused when I tried to separate out the various strands of literature that qualified. I’m still confused by the distinction, frankly. So as a very roundabout way of answering, I’ll say first that the books I’ve read and loved that explicitly include politics, as in electoral politics or political movements, are All the King’s Men — which is one of the most beautiful books I’ve read full-stop — and Richard Wright’s Native Son, and A Man in Full by Tom Wolfe, and Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy, and Dissident Gardens by Jonathan Lethem, and Christopher Isherwood’s The Berlin Stories, and Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (you’ll notice a masculine trend). I don’t really think of A Suitable Boy and Berlin Studies as political novels, but they actually have a lot of politics in them, i.e., elections, and I reread both every two or three years because I love them so much.

Then are lots of books that fall more under that “social change” category that are intensely political, in that politics shaped and were shaped by the social conditions they described — the wheelhouses of James Baldwin, Sinclair Lewis, John Steinbeck — all authors whose books I’ve read and been moved by in the last decade. A Passage to India and Beloved jump out at me as the books that beautifully damn entire systems in miniature, although their temporal relationships to those systems are different. I finally read Claudia Rankine’s Citizen last week and though it’s not quite fiction, I can’t think of a book that so concisely lays out the most pressing American social issue of this month/year/decade/century. It collapses the border between “social” and “political.”

But it also turned out, when I worked on this university list, that the literature of social change could mean books where writers did something as ostensibly mundane as depicting sex, or depicting families. I take Aleksandar Hemon’s point that politics is real and has consequences, and that Americans excel at avoiding it in their novels. I also know people hate it when women take selfies and say it’s a political act, but I do find ideological kinship with books that depict women thinking about sex and families and work in complicated, even unpalatable ways. So even though it wouldn’t be eligible for The Bellwether Prize, Helen DeWitt’s The Last Samurai feels compelling to me, because I read it as a statement about motherhood and its effects on intellectually curious women. Or The Bell Jar. Or A Life’s Work, although again it’s not fiction. But I don’t suppose those are actually political in a real sense. In fact, my interest in them may be exemplary of something less pleasant — finding kinship with people who look and feel the way that you do is the ugliest thing about politics right now.

Edan Lepucki
I must admit, when I first saw this question, I told myself I wouldn’t participate. Political fiction? No thank you! Like everyone else, I already feel overwhelmed by politics from day to day: Bernie v. Hillary; how do we stop Donald Trump?; will we ever have the chutzpah to take on the NRA?; the intersection of poisoned water and poverty; climate change; yet another black man killed by a white police officer; and, hey, look, some congressman wants to take away my reproductive rights yet again…on and on, and I haven’t even gotten into international issues!

I don’t want politics to be a source of entertainment — there is too much at stake for that — and so I read fiction to be entertained. But please don’t misunderstand: reading fiction is no mere escape. Doing so requires sustained attention, and that attention lets me understand better human action and reaction. It requires me to produce empathy for people who may do the opposite of what I might do. A necessary skill in the real world. Politics can reduce us to numbers, to noise. Fiction is human. Let’s keep them separate.

But maybe that isn’t possible.

Soon after I received the Millions Quiz question, I began my friend Ramona Ausubel’s novel Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty, about a privileged family that loses its fortune. The novel takes place in a particular era (the 1970s), and yet it’s whimsical and dreamy enough to feel out of time. It doesn’t feel overtly political; it’s concerned with human characters who are complicated and nuanced, and never beholden to a message or platform. But at the same time, the Vietnam War is quite central to the story, and the book doesn’t shy away from how the family came to acquire its wealth — with black slaves, for starters.

The novel also pays particular attention to the women in the family’s history: for instance, one mother’s goal to become a famous sculptor is never realized, not for lack of talent, but because she is female. In describing a woman who wants the career she can’t have, Ausubel has acknowledged that experience, validated it. While the book lets you see its players for themselves, out of time and circumstance, a sort of human essence that would persist no matter what, it also reveals how race, gender, and class privilege inform our worldview, and participate in our becoming.

That’s…political.

Michael Schaub
Molly Ivins once called Texas politics the “finest form of free entertainment ever invented.” It’s a rare understatement from the late journalist, who knew more about the Lone Star State than most of us Texans ever will. (She tried to warn us, too, writing in 2001, “Next time I tell you someone from Texas should not be president of the United States, please pay attention.”)

Everything is crazier in Texas, especially politics. The novelist Kinky Friedman (who is crazy, but the good kind of crazy) once got 12 percent of the vote in a gubernatorial election despite having written song lyrics like “They ain’t makin’ Jews like Jesus anymore / They ain’t makin’ carpenters who know what nails are for.” And this year, crazy has gone national, though it’s New York, not Texas, to blame.

That’s why I’ve been thinking about Billy Lee Brammer’s wonderful 1961 novel The Gay Place. The book follows three characters as they navigate the increasingly insane world of Texas politics: a state legislator, a United States senator, and a speechwriter who works for Governor Arthur “Goddamn” Fenstemaker (who is based very, very heavily on Lyndon B. Johnson). There’s a lot of drinking and a lot of sex. In other words, it’s the perfect Austin novel.

The protagonists in The Gay Place are perpetually filled with dread, and a feeling that something’s gone horribly wrong with the way the state is governed. But there’s not much pushback on their part, and few attempts to kick against the pricks. Brammer does a great job exploring how those who work in politics go from idealistic to cynical in record time, and how graft and bombast became the new normal in Austin. And it’s happening now, again, on a national level, though with higher stakes and an even more bizarre would-be leader (I am beginning to think that no fiction, even the most dystopian, could possibly account for Trump).

The Gay Place is brilliant and sui generis, even if the chicken-fried dialogue might perplex non-Southern readers. And it’s a great look at what happens when a state basically decides to expect political corruption. Sorry, the rest of America, but we warned y’all. Or at least we meant to.

Janet Potter
One reason I rarely wade into discussions about modern U.S. politics is that I don’t give it enough sustained attention. I don’t have an adequately comprehensive understanding of the major lawmakers and issue negotiations to do anything other than parrot my commentator of choice when a flashpoint issue comes up. (That’s modern politics, mind you, I could talk about 1850s politics until I’m blue in the face.) In the summer of 2011, however, I knew the political machinations of George R.R. Martin’s Westeros like the back of my hand. I could talk about the Westerosi politics like the characters of The West Wing talk about U.S. politics — with long-winded complexity and near-perfect recall.

Martin is rightly praised for the scope and melodrama of his storytelling, but he’s also a political genius, or at least has the talent to write from the perspective of a handful of different political geniuses. I read the first 5 books in A Song of Ice and Fire in a few weeks. During that time, I probably spent more of my waking hours absorbed in the world of Westeros than I did going about my own life, and so for a short while I was able to hold all the details of its multi-faceted war in my head.

I knew I would like the romance, the battles, the centuries-old feuds and unlikely friendships, but I was surprised by how much I liked reading about the politics. Having a comprehensive understanding of the political scene made the council meetings electrifying. I found myself with an opinion of how these fictional politicians should proceed, something that never happens in my actual life. It helped me to understand why people who follow politics, you know, in the real world, get addicted to it. It was fascinating and confounding and impossible not to talk about.

At this point the finer points have slipped away, and I only remember the romance and melodrama (like how desperately I want Arya to be reunited with Nymeria), but for a few brief weeks I was a Westeros wonk.

Cara DuBois
Twice in the past year, I’ve read Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale — once for pleasure, the second time for a course called Disposable Life and the Contemporary Novel. The first reading was visceral; I swallowed the book whole and it left a lump in my throat. In my second reading (the text was paired with works like Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro and Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates), I focused on the body in another way and attempted to understand how and why a person becomes expendable.

As I stood in Offred’s place, I felt a familiar fear. Atwood’s novel may be satire, but the gendered violence in Gilead doesn’t feel like a part of a distant dystopian world to me. It is everyday violence. Offred says, “I try not to think too much. Like other things now, thought must be rationed. There’s a lot that doesn’t bear thinking about. Thinking can hurt your chances, and I intend to last.”

As I write this now, hours after the hate crime in Orlando, I understand what Offred means. Opening myself up to the realities of the world — to the disposability of my body as an LGBTQ woman — feels like a slow death.

Atwood calls her work “speculative fiction” because it builds on the existing world, presenting something outlandish but not entirely impossible, because it is anchored in the real. I related to the violence and the dehumanization in the text. Though it would be easier to ignore these feelings, I must acknowledge them in order to work toward positive change. (Offred, too, remains politically conscious throughout the text.) I can’t argue that The Handmaid’s Tale is the best political fiction ever written, but it helped me find my voice — the most important political weapon there is.

Image Credit: Flickr/Andrew Comings.

Knowledge Porn: On Helen DeWitt’s ‘The Last Samurai’

1.
My friend and I have created this running joke about a blockbuster movie in which the hero — a slothful young man with a mysteriously absent father — spends every day at a Starbucks, dutifully banging out a few sentences of his unfinished novel. One day the barista spells his name wrong on a cup, but it’s actually a cryptic message, and soon a wall in the bathroom is sliding open to reveal a hidden passageway. Our hero descends beneath the Starbucks into a bustling, technologically sophisticated control room where, for centuries, a secret cabal of the greatest writers on Earth has been using its literary chops to save humanity from all sorts of apocalyptic threats. Of course the hero’s father belonged to this cabal, and of course there’s an alien tyrant determined to invade Earth and muck up its entire public library system or whatever, and of course our hero wipes the muffin crumbs off his t-shirt and ends up saving us all from annihilation — but most importantly he learns a lot about the craft of writing.

In a way, that story has already been done. Have you read The Secret History by Donna Tartt? It’s about gifted college students who become so passionately intellectual that they have no choice but to start killing each other, and it captivated me when I first read it. Or maybe you read Special Topics in Calamity Physics, in which a painfully brilliant student solves an elaborate murder mystery using her exceptional skills in the humanities? Or The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore, which bravely explores how tragic and meaningful life can be when you’re a terribly erudite chimp? Or the warehouse of knowledge porn known as Wittgenstein’s Mistress?

And then we have The Last Samurai by Helen Dewitt. I’ll tell you right now that I love this book, but I feel helpless to love it, and I wonder if loving it makes me a bad person.

2.
This is what happens in The Last Samurai. Sibylla, a devastatingly smart and preternaturally rational young woman from America, goes to a party in London and meets a famous writer whose style she abhors, comparing it to Liberace’s. Disappointingly, she sleeps with him. (“I was still drunk, and I was still trying to think of things I could do without being unpardonably rude. Well, I thought, I could sleep with him without being rude.”) She ends up raising a child, Ludo, who can memorize The Iliad and teach himself foreign languages at age five. Ludo would be the crowning achievement of any comfortably situated Park Slope mom, but Sibylla, who struggles to pay the bills by transcribing old issues of magazines, can barely feed Ludo’s appetite for knowledge. She often resorts to playing an old tape of Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, hoping it will provide Ludo with some admirable male role models. Ludo begs to know his father’s identity. Sibylla won’t tell him.

After his 11th birthday, Ludo finds a clue that leads him — secretly, without Sibylla’s help — to “Liberace.” But when he sees that Liberace is a hack, and that telling him the truth won’t do any good, Ludo keeps the big revelation about his parentage to himself. “If we fought with real swords I would kill him,” he thinks, quoting one of his favorite lines from Seven Samurai. Instead, Ludo takes off on other journeys throughout London, searching for surrogate father figures — a brilliant linguist who traveled the world, a charismatic physicist with a popular TV show, a reclusive millionaire painter. When Ludo finds them, he lies and says he’s their son. “A good samurai will parry the blow.” Hilariously, most of them believe it — it seems that “great men” have a tendency to sleep around. As the father figures try to explain themselves and dish out advice to their not-quite son, Ludo gains a variety of perspectives on how he might conduct his own life.

3.
What worries me about The Last Samurai is how exceptional Sibylla and Ludo are, and how quickly I find myself identifying with them.

Sibylla’s work as an underpaid transcriber sounds backbreaking. She sits at a typewriter in a small London flat (which is so poorly heated that in winter she and Ludo ride the tube to stay warm) and labors for 36 hours at a stretch to preserve garbage publications like Advanced Angling, British Home Decorator and The Poodle Breeder for posterity. Meanwhile she has to ignore the emotional development of her absolute prodigy of a son because she’s too busy earning money to keep them alive. But when I read this, I’m happy! Because I feel like I’ve been there. Haven’t we all — especially those of us with a passion for language and typing — felt like a wage slave at some point, like an unheralded maestro, and doesn’t that memory lodge itself in our identities and become a part of who we are? So I read this heartbreaking passage about a single mother suffering in her cold London flat and I feel a vicarious joy, as if Helen DeWitt “gets” me.

And when Ludo takes his magnificent brain to public school for the first time, and discovers the exquisite agony of being misunderstood by a world of simpletons, I feel like Helen DeWitt “gets” me.

And when The Last Samurai jokes about the nobility of linguistics and the dreariness of Oxford University Press, then I really feel like Helen DeWitt “gets” me, because I used to be the linguistics editor at Oxford University Press.

The jacket copy for the new edition of The Last Samurai makes a big fuss about how, when the book was originally released in 2000, the publisher declared it was “destined to become a cult classic.” To which Garth Risk Hallberg replied, “Why not just, ‘destined to become a classic?’” By releasing this new edition, New Directions seems to be signaling that we’re ready to erase the word “cult” from the book’s reputation.

But I’m not so sure. I feel helpless to love The Last Samurai because it “gets” me. But how many other people can say that? How many linguistics editors are there at Oxford University Press? How many people, when they read about a devastatingly smart and coldly rational white woman who tells her tragically brilliant son that she would have committed suicide by now if not for the fact that she feels obligated to raise him, will smile and quietly rejoice because this is exactly the type of misfit they fancy themselves to be? Who is foolish enough to admit that they fantasize about being oppressed by their own superior intellect?

I think there’s something shameful about loving The Last Samurai. The novel gratifies the individual egos of a very specific type of reader. And isn’t that what a cult classic is — a book that people love, but only for themselves?

4.

“A good samurai will parry the blow.”

5.
What’s so damning about knowledge porn is that it’s often written with the same basic level of intelligence as any other work of mainstream literary fiction. Which ruins the whole premise! Here is a paragraph from Special Topics in Calamity Physics:
Dad picked up women the way certain wool pants can’t help but pick up lint. For years, I had a nickname for them, though I feel a little guilty using it now: June Bugs (see “Figeater Beetle,” Ordinary Insects, Vol. 24).
So we have a lamestream analogy about pants gathering lint, followed by a completely invented bit of “scholarship” that leads the reader nowhere but is meant to indicate that the narrator is actually brilliant. This is not what a smart person sounds like. You can’t footnote a cliché and call it genius. (Remind me to yell at you about the magician-heist movie Now You See Me and its ridiculously named sequel, Now You See Me 2, which commit the same infuriating error on a massive Hollywood scale.)

Fortunately for us, The Last Samurai is better than that. It’s a rare work of knowledge porn that actually conveys knowledge. Flip through the book and the first thing you’ll notice is Greek writing, or Japanese writing, or impossibly long strings of numbers. As Ludo studies, DeWitt folds his material into the text, and a patient reader will learn that, in Japanese, JIN is an exogenous Chinese lexeme, while hito is an indigenous Japanese lexeme; that in E.V. Rieu’s translation of The Odyssey (yes, it’s a real thing), Odysseus calls his companions “lads;” and that in the sum of any sequence n + (n+1) + (n+2) + (n+3) etc. is simply half of the sum of the sequence added to itself backwards. DeWitt doesn’t just tell us her characters are smart; she builds the truth of that assertion into the book, and she makes us smarter for reading it.

As a stylist, too, DeWitt stands above most peddlers of knowledge porn. Both Sibylla and Ludo, as narrators, pour forth in a primly accurate voice that often gives way to sardonic or slapstick humor. Sibylla marvels at the cheesiness of a western movie that rips off Seven Samuai: “Not ONE but SEVEN tall men in tights — it’s simply MAGNIFICENT.” Unsure of what to say in the note she leaves for Liberace after sleeping with him, she writes several pages analyzing the The Iliad in the original Greek, and then realizes, “I still did not have something on the page that could be concluded with an airy Ciao.” At one point Ludo mentions that Sibylla dressed him up like a hunchback so they could sneak into an age-restricted screening of The Crying Game. It’s a frequently delightful book, zany in the same way that Nell Zink is zany, as we watch the narrator’s extraordinary intelligence run out from under her and trip against the common things in life.

During the five pages when Ludo confronts his father Liberace, I underlined everything they said because DeWitt’s use of dialogue — with innovative elisions and subtle shifts in POV — is masterful. Structurally the novel grows up and out, just like Ludo, grasping at new relationships and open-ended questions even as the story is ending.

So if The Last Samurai belongs to a genre of books that perpetuate a seductive fantasy about the nature of intelligence, then it’s the best example of that genre I’ve ever seen.

6.
And let me tell you another thing I love about The Last Samurai. It blurs the line between biological kinship and intellectual mentorship in a way that feels strangely mature and matter-of-fact.

From Sibylla’s perspective, raising Ludo seems an awful lot like a horror movie. She gives birth to this accidental child whose rapid intellectual development suddenly takes priority over her own (just like her being born ruined her mother’s goal of developing as a musician). But the child prodigy is basically a sociopath until he grows up, and in the meantime she is still responsible for feeding him, cleaning him, and providing him with the raw materials that his life’s work — whatever it may be — will be built upon. This is the horror that all mothers experience, just ratcheted up a notch because this particular child is smarter than Isaac Newton and Noam Chomsky combined. And that’s not even the worst part. The worst part is how easily Sibylla might fail, how easily Ludo could become a monster, how easily she might fall into despair and lash out at her son: “A chittering Alien bursts from the breast to devour your child before your eyes.”

When your child is not just smart, but freakishly smart — as Ludo putzes around like a child, Sibylla refers to him drily as “The Phenomenon” — you have a moral and social imperative to raise him well. Throughout the novel, Sibylla suffers from boredom and heartache and poverty and suicidal thoughts, but she never stops trying to raise Ludo responsibly. She forces Ludo to read a film critic’s take on a lesser Kurosawa film about a judo champion, hoping to teach him that there is no terminal state of contentment at the end of the hero’s journey; that “a hero who actually becomes is tantamount to a villain.” As Ludo’s fiendishly pedestrian schoolteacher puts it, Ludo “has got to understand that there is more to life than how much you know.”

The dramatic tension at the heart of The Last Samurai is this question of whether Ludo will ever learn that there is more to life than knowledge porn. And whether we will, too.

A Year in Reading: Rumaan Alam

The only New Year’s resolution I’ve ever kept (sorry vegetarianism!) was 2014’s: to write down every book I read. I’ve stuck with it; thus, I’m able to offer an exact accounting of my 2015 in reading. I can’t quite believe that someone has asked me to do so, but boy am I prepared.

As I suffer from tremendous anxiety of influence, I didn’t read a single book while writing my own. (To relax, I cooked; to fall asleep, I did crossword puzzles.) From June on, though, I read deliriously, hungrily, eager to make up for lost time. First, in (fruitless) search of an epigraph for my book, I reread Louise Fitzhugh’s The Long Secret and then Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye, both as wonderful, indeed much richer, than I remembered.

I played cultural catch-up, reading books that had been much discussed among my circle (my circle: complete strangers I follow on Twitter) over the previous year and half: Akhil Sharma’s Family Life, Megan Abbott’s The Fever, Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, Chris Kraus’s I Love Dick, Rachel Cusk’s Outline, Elizabeth Harrower’s In Certain Circles, Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life (in three days!), Cristina Henríquez’s The Book of Unknown Americans, Rabih Alameddine’s devastating An Unnecessary Woman, a book that makes bookish people feel, by association, unnecessary, and Lorrie Moore’s Bark.

We went on vacation and I sat by the pool and read Mira Jacob’s un-put-down-able The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing, and Rona Jaffe’s The Best of Everything, which was like if Mad Men had only been about Joan (that is to say: not boring).

You can never actually be well read; there’s too much out there. So sometimes it’s best to choose randomly. I picked up Günter Grass’s Cat and Mouse because my father-in-law happened to have a particularly groovy paperback edition of it. In a piece about the Argosy bookshop, Janet Malcolm wrote about one of the owners resigning Louis Auchincloss to the bargain bin. Thus, I read his The Rector of Justin. (If you spot it in a bargain bin, give it a shot; it contains a wonderful, truly hateful character.) I read Ed Lin’s slender and foulmouthed Waylaid on the recommendation of a friend, and Grégoire Bouillier’s The Mystery Guest because I’m fascinated by Sophie Calle, and Barbara Browning’s I’m Trying to Reach You because I loved the title. I read Mary McCarthy’s The Company She Keeps and Birds of America because I never got an MFA and I have to learn to write somehow, and I read Jean Rhys’s Good Morning, Midnight because I love sadness.

I’m working on a new novel that sort of involves a poet, so I read two books that involve poets: Saul Bellow’s Humboldt’s Gift and May Sarton’s Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing. This is like someone who’s never played tennis deciding to learn the game by studying Venus and Serena Williams, but there you go. I read Colm Tóibín’s characteristically wonderful Nora Webster, and Helen Dewitt’s icily smart The Last Samurai (I’ll confess a personal failing: I can’t handle children as narrators). I read Bellow’s superb Henderson the Rain King, (problematic, in the argot of our times) and then Dangling Man, the same author’s first novel.

One great perk about publishing a book is that people send you books. For free! That’s how I got my hands on Nell Zink’s Mislaid (my notes say I found it “bonkers”), and two titles that haven’t even been published yet: Emma Straub’s Modern Lovers and Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney’s The Nest, two excellent books destined to appear on a lot of Year in Reading 2016 lists. Jealous? You should be.

I read two works of nonfiction: Hermione Lee’s smart and comprehensive biography of Willa Cather, one of my all-time favorite writers, and Edmund White’s City Boy, a rambling and sort of disappointing document. And somewhere along the line, I read Margaret Atwood’s unexpectedly optimistic MaddAddam (spoiler: humanity perishes, the written word endures). I just counted: there are 36 volumes waiting on my bedside table (including collections of L.P. Hartley, Carson McCullers, and John Updike that contain multiple novels). Christ. The years are never long enough.

More from A Year in Reading 2015

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

The good stuff: The Millions’ Notable articles

The motherlode: The Millions’ Books and Reviews

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