“Try to hold onto this tissue,” the leader said.
The man took the tissue. The leader snatched it back.
“Don’t hold it. Try to hold it.” The tissue floated to the hotel conference room’s geometrically-patterned carpet. “Do you see the difference?”
The difference is clear for those wishing to change their lives and willing (and able) to pony up the money to do so. The personal empowerment seminars that surged to prominence in the 1970s are going strong, some with a twist. New Age pyramid schemes in the age of Instagram; hard-sell self-help seminars; online mediumship: These manifestations of spiritual hucksterism are commodifying the sacred in a time of unprecedented connection and despair.
On a leave from work one year, I signed up for a weekend seminar that promised to change my life. For three 12-hour days, I sat full-bladdered in the too-close chairs, hands empty, phone off; told my story of job dissatisfaction at the mic; made uncomfortable phone calls to family members and had the promised epiphany. For days afterward, I floated, colors vibrant, music brighter, my euphoria so pronounced, my partner signed up, too. I took seminars for several months, but eventually the money ran out.
Garage-sale self-improvement books had shaped my thinking as a child. The practicality and optimism of 30 Days to a More Powerful Vocabulary—only 15 minutes a day!—How to Win Friends and Influence People, and The Power of Positive Thinking appealed to me, so I knuckled down to follow their prescriptions.
Minister Norman Vincent Peale’s best-selling The Power of Positive Thinking begins, “Have faith in yourself!” and ends chapters with lists of 10 actions that “you can do now to build up your self-confidence.” The actions include much repetition of phrases and many invoke a populist faith-based edict. The repetitions amount to a form of self-hypnosis and indeed theologians and psychologists have criticized them as doing more harm than good. Peale has a dark side, however: He is also known for having befriended Richard Nixon and has been credited as a source for Donald Trump’s relentless positive spins.
Motivational seminars, in all of their earnest, feel-good glory, also make money. Some work on a pyramid model that most rewards those at the top. Under the guise of genuine spirituality, they market platitudinal or pragmatic thinking though they may inspire feelings of improved well-being. Their structures are ripe for satire. A “peak performance coach” like infomercial-peddler Tony Robbins is easy to exaggerate or render ridiculous, evoking laughter to make a comment about our need for connection outside of religion or our desire to feel a sense of control.
In her novel Radiant Shimmering Light, Sarah Selecky satirizes sacred-based businesses like Danielle LaPorte’s Lighter and Marie Forleo’s B School, systems which operate much like Selecky’s own real-life online writing school. A glamorous woman at the helm of these enterprises promises an improved lifestyle: the opportunity to associate with other attractive aspirants with the promise of successful entrepreneurship. The novel’s charismatic leader, Eleven, markets a seminar called “Express Your Enlightenment,” complete with color palette, aphoristic tagline—Want What You Want—and alliances with New Age products like “conscious” truffles infused with positive energy. It’s a heady cocktail, and one I’ve drunk a couple of times (hello Spark Kit): one that blends business with core values, psychology with the bottom line.
As far back as the 1970s, the film Semi Tough skewered EST (Erhard Seminars Training), the cult-like, quasi-religious organization that evolved into Landmark Education. In Semi Tough, Bert Convy as Friedrich Bismarck leads a disturbingly (and hilariously) realistic seminar called BEAT (Bismarck Earthwalk Action Training): calling the participants “assholes,” refusing to let them go to the bathroom, insisting that they will know “IT” when they get “IT.” The bit is laugh-out-loud funny, and not just because of the presence of a laconic Burt Reynolds in a star-printed denim suit and 10-gallon hat dozing in an aisle seat. As Bismarck says, “Believing is shit. Being is where it’s at.”
As a young adult, my taste for self-help woo-woo continued unabated. Despite my graduate-level education, I devoured everything from Celestine Prophecy to The Rules to You Can Heal Your Life. Yet I struggled to put the fuzzy concepts into practice, sitting in front of a mirror in my junior one-bedroom apartment repeating, “I love and accept myself,” staring at trees and hoping to see their energy and not accepting Saturday-night dates after Wednesday. Then a breakup that coincided with a work drought and writers’ block plunged me into a depression. Among other salves, I bought A Course in Miracles—the text, workbook, and teacher’s edition, as well as a companion guide—and made it through 30 days’ worth of daily reading and incantations, fluffing over the claim that Jesus himself had dictated these muddled teachings to a woman named Helen [Schucman]. At a low point, I attended a church basement meet-up of random people, many of whom seemed as unemployed and unhappy as me.
Author Denis Johnson took a unique approach to incorporating New Age spirituality into his work, throwing random quotes from A Course in Miracles into his novel Already Dead: A California Gothic. In his author’s note, Johnson writes, “In some passages, the dialog is sprinkled with quotes from the text of A Course in Miracles in a way that distorts their intent.” He goes on to recommend the text, workbook, and teacher’s manual to readers. Already Dead ends up the worse for these insertions, which muddy an already confusing book and send readers (if they choose) on a wild goose chase rather than into an immersive experience.
More appealing is Tom Perrotta’s novel The Leftovers, which features characters who’ve turned to a cult as a valid means of coping with the unbearable. In The Leftovers, a Rapture-like event disappears millions of random people all over the planet in a single moment. In response, a cult called The Guilty Remnant forms under the premise that those who remain didn’t make the cut in what the government has branded “The Sudden Departure.” Their business card makes their position clear: “WE STAND BEFORE YOU AS LIVING REMINDERS OF GOD’S AWESOME POWER. HIS JUDGMENT IS UPON US.” Members sell their businesses, donate the money and cut themselves off from their families. Yet there is a logic to the Guilty Remnant in the wake of such random loss on a massive scale. The group provides a template for how to respond to the unreasonable—a surrender, even.
Later in life, I sought any method I could find to remove whatever was blocking me from getting pregnant. On a naturopath’s recommendation, I ended up in a hotel conference room in Ottawa as a white-haired woman in a blue caftan led me through a garden-variety meditation down into a cave to (mentally) confront someone from my past. The visualization came through very clearly (visualizing has never been a problem for me) and the energy of the crowd was stimulating. I left ready to drop multiple thousands of dollars to take a cruise with the seminar leader (and hundreds of others) just to continue the teachings. Like many, I didn’t have enough in my bank account, so I settled for the CD, which would allow me to enter the cave on a daily basis and which I didn’t listen to once. I returned home no more or less fertile than I’d been before I left and hundreds of dollars poorer.
George Saunders takes a buoyant satirical approach to the motivational seminar that turns on a protagonist’s weak-moment humanity, often walking that fine line between the desire for the lottery-like promise of “success” and the realities of mental illness, responsibility, and family ties. In his short story “Winky” from Pastoralia, Saunders jumps into a head-on satire of self-help seminars complete with characters playacting negative emotional labels like “Whiny” and “Self Absorbed.” The leader’s patter soon reveals familial issues with a brother disabled by a drunken motorcycle accident. The leader has based the resultant book and seminar, the proceeds of which are able to fund a wheelchair ramp, on avoidance of responsibility as much as he has on helping others.
The seminar Yaniky attends in a hotel ballroom includes many trappings that induce the character to feel important. Inside he carries deep shame about his parents—their poverty and ignorance and inability to stand up for themselves. He deeply resents having his sister live with him and determines to kick her out. His self-talk—“Ho, man, he was stoked! He wanted a Jag, not a Benz!”—parrots the hollow, unattainable promise of the seminar. More poignantly, he thinks, “If Dad could see [me] now. Walking home in a suit from a seminar at the freaking Hyatt!” The seminar’s promise of a better life and his determination to attain it are underscored by his sister’s story of potential brain damage and the heaviness of our responsibilities to each other.
That desire for a better life is not unreasonable, and motivational seminars provide a non-religious, low-commitment access to self-improvement. They also dovetail nicely with capitalist principles: You are paying for a service—in some cases, as with EST/Landmark, a semi-abusive leader—and you will see change. The catch: The change comes from you, your effort. Another truth: As with “Winky,” the leader often carries a full share of trauma.
Frank TJ Mackey’s scenes in Paul Thomas Anderson’s film Magnolia are a trenchant send-up of motivational speakers, addressing the cocktail of arrogance and vulnerability unique to a charismatic individual with a life-changing process to market. Mackey (played against type by Tom Cruise) enters to Richard Strauss’s “Also sprach Zarathustra.” The backlighting, greasy, shoulder-length hair, and tight vest give Cruise the look of an erect penis about to take flight. From the flopping sound of the “Seduce and Destroy” banner dropping to Mackey’s sleazy, snake-hipped, Elvis-esque sex-mime, this parody has all the elements of a motivational seminar pushed to the extreme. Cruise sells it: His “respect the cock” is believable if laughable, and if the Youtube comments below the snippets are any example, its contents sincerely, if disturbingly, speak to some people. As with Radiant Shimmering Light and “Winky,” the satire bleeds into the real.
Ross Jeffries, known as “one of the biggest names in pickup,” purveyor of Speed Seduction, whom Anderson claims inspired the Mackey character, speaks about “manipulation” in an interview with Hayley Quinn, defining it as “the act of moving forward deliberately.” His interviewer agrees with him despite his glossing over the nuance of the word’s meaning, the aspects of unfairness and unscrupulousness. His offerings include webinars, home-study courses, and one-on-one coaching. He is using manipulation to sell the secret of manipulation and becoming wealthy in the process.
Mackey’s techniques, from his repetition to his booklets to his appeals to the hard-done-by nature of his pre-incel audience members, are Jeffries’s techniques exaggerated out to just a little beyond impossible. Like firewalker and “neuro linguistic programmer” Tony Robbins, he sports a head microphone and uses language to convince audience members to spend more money on his tapes, his CDs, his DVDs, his vitamins—whatever he tells them they need to make them attractive to women.
Serial TV show The Americans picks up on the need to connect that drives many of us to motivational seminars while resisting the urge to mock. When Russian spy and brutal killer Philip Jennings attends an EST graduate seminar on sexuality in 1983, he finds he can open up more readily in the context of Werner Erhard’s teachings. When discussing why he is there, Philip’s friend Sandra parrots Erhard: “Everyone comes here thinking they’re here for someone else but they’re here for themselves.” The props are the same—the chalkboards, the PowerPoint axioms, the microphone, the crammed-together chairs—but so is something else: participants baring their feelings in a roomful of strangers.
In her recent Netflix show Nanette, Hannah Gadsby speaks about how the reliance of comedy on the setup and the punchline is ineffective for comedians like her. Jokes depend on tension, may derive from trauma, and by their nature freeze the story at the moment of trauma. Motivational seminars promise a way forward from trauma and despair, one whose odds of success seem commensurate with how much one can afford to pay. Yet as Gadsby says, “You learn from the part of the story you focus on.” In satire of motivational speakers, we focus on the rube, the hopeful, easily fooled desperate person willing to surrender money to make a difference or make a connection. But the story freezes there.
A bout of nausea, precursor to a migraine, signaled the end of me taking seminars. It hit me as I sat in the front row of a weekend workshop sneak-eating salted chocolate. As I was leaving, the head coach reminded me of the agreement I’d signed the first night promising to make up any time missed. I consented to complete that day at my expense, a decision which meant I’d have to go fly to another city. I chose Vancouver. To friends and family, I dressed up the reason for my trip, calling it an “opportunity,” telling them (if I told them) I was going for “a conference.” Was this how it felt to belong to a cult? Vancouver felt significant, as if not going would pass worse judgments on who I was. I’d set out to hold onto the tissue. In the process, I missed the funeral of my partner’s well-loved nephew.
Beyond a few selfies in front of rainy windows, my Vancouver photos were generic: trees, nests, totem poles, beaches. Not so much those of a tourist, but those of one from a cold-locked place admiring the soft warmth of early spring. Embarrassed, I stayed for less than 48 hours, connected with no one, worried that others would think me a zealot.
Completing every minute of the course, as I told the seminar group the following week, even half a continent away, did increase my sense of my own integrity. Yet I didn’t take any more seminars, the cost too great. Our nephew had taken his own life. My cousin had died the same way. I’d dreaded being triggered and chose to heed the rules of a self-improvement seminar instead of canceling my plans, taking the financial hit and supporting my partner. Had I really improved? This is the story I am left with.
It’s the (second) most wonderful time of the year: Millions Most Anticipated Great Second-Half Preview time! Below you will find just shy of 80 wonderful books to get you from July to December 2017. We’ve got new titles from big names (Erdrich! Eugenides! Ward! Messud!); we’ve got stellar debuts (Zhang! Clemmons! Rooney! Khong!); we’ve got translated gems (Binet! Szabó! Krasznahorkai!); we’ve even got cross-genre celebrities (Weiner! Hanks! McKibben!).
The Millions Previews — both our semi-annual long lists and our newer monthly offerings — are some of the best things we do at this site. As Millions founder and publisher C. Max Magee wrote yesterday, 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 site has been running for 14 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.
Please enjoy the rich offerings below, come back August 1 for the monthly preview, and prepare yourselves for 2018 (which, according to our agents in the literary field, is going to be a doozie).
Made for Love by Alissa Nutting: A retiree has sold his station wagon to buy a lifelike sex doll, his daughter’s come home after running out on her paranoid tech billionaire husband, and another man’s been sexually assaulted by a dolphin. Just so you know what you’re getting into: all of this happened in the first 60 pages of Nutting’s new novel, a darkly comic exploration of familial and romantic love, and how technology warps both. (Read our review.) (Nick M.)
Who Is Rich? by Matthew Klam: Klam was one of The New Yorker’s original “20 Under 40” writers in 1999 and published a story collection, Sam the Cat, the next year. And then nothing. For 17 years. Now at last, Klam is publishing his debut novel, about a has-been cartoonist who leaves his family behind to teach at a weeklong arts conference where he rekindles an affair with one of his students, the unhappy wife of a Wall Street titan. When he’s firing on all cylinders, Klam is hilarious. (Michael)
What We Lose by Zinzi Clemmons: The buzz around this debut is more like a roar. Thandi is caught between black and white, America and South Africa. When she loses her mother, she has to try to connect the dislocated pieces of her life. While Clemmons has recently burst to prominence, she has long been doing the work to get there. She teaches literature and creative writing, her work has appeared in Zoetrope: All-Story, Transition, the Paris Review Daily, she is co-founder of Apogee Journal, and a contributing editor to LitHub.com. The best part? She’s got a two-book deal. (Claire)
The Unwomanly Face of War by Svetlana Alexievich: Nobel Prize—winner Alexievich is best known stateside for her Voices of Chernobyl, where she documented the stories of survivors of the nuclear disaster, but it’s her first book The Unwomanly Face of War that established her as an oral historian. Alexievich gave voice to the less documented women’s role in WWII by interviewing female gunners, pilots, medical workers, and others. She writes: “Their words and feelings? A whole world is hidden from us. Their war remains unknown…I want to write the history of that war.” First published in English in 1985, this new edition is translated by the renowned Russian duo Richard Pevear & Larissa Volokhonsky. (Read our interview with her.) (Anne)
My Heart Hemmed In by Marie NDiaye: A novel “in the existentialist tradition” that both obscures and exposes xenophobia in contemporary French society, the story of provincial school teachers Nadia and her husband, Ange, is described by the publisher as “surreal, allegorical, and psychologically acute,” and by Publishers Weekly in a starred review as “revelatory and devastating.” NDiaye, winner of both the Prix Goncourt and Prix Femina, is the author of 13 works of fiction, seven of which have been translated into English. She also co-wrote the powerful, artful film White Material with Claire Denis. Despite comparisons to Elena Ferrante and Doris Lessing, she is little known in the U.S.; hopefully this will change. (Sonya)
Refuge by Dina Nayeri: Nayeri’s first novel, A Teaspoon of Earth, follows a young girl as she grows up in post-revolutionary Iran and dreams about her sister’s life in America. Refuge, Nayeri’s second novel, also centers on a young Iranian girl, Niloo, but this time the story is flipped: Niloo flees Iran, leaving her father behind, and grows up in Europe. Twenty years later, she’s a sophisticated academic struggling to navigate her connections to her family, a growing community of Iranian refugees, and her adopted homeland. A nuanced look at what it means to seek refuge; novels don’t get more timely than this. (Kaulie)
The Dark Dark by Samantha Hunt: Maybe you’ve heard of Hunt’s last novel, Mr. Splitfoot? It’s in our Millions Hall of Fame, and Hunt’s been interviewed for the site. She’s also published in The New Yorker and been reviewed (glowingly) by almost every major publication. Now she’s back with her first collection of short stories and, in true Hunt style, they’re bizarre, beautiful, and haunting. Dead dogs come back to life, women turn into deer, and there’s at least one killer robot; there’s also suburban loneliness and anxiety mixed with a healthy dose of witty humor. What more could you ask for? (Kaulie)
Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney: In Rooney’s debut novel, former lovers and current best friends Frances and Bobbi are Trinity College students turned spoken word artists who become entangled in the lives of Melissa and Nick, an older married couple with married-people problems. Much has been made of Rooney’s age (she was born in 1991), and her sharp, funny dialogue. Her editor calls her the “Salinger for the Snapchat generation” and in its review, The Guardian notes, “Her hyperarticulate characters may fail to communicate their fragile selves, but Rooney does it for them in a voice distinctively her own.” (Edan)
Out in the Open by Jesús Carrasco: In this 2013 debut, the Spanish novelist spins a dystopian yarn tracking a young boy’s flight into the wild. There he is confronted by an ancient goat herder bearing wisdom that trust is a hard-won commodity, and once violated, often too fragile to ever be redeemed. Described as “harrowing,” “stark,” “violent,” and “parabolic,” Out in the Open provides a timely and certainly intense meditation on the role trust plays in cultural progress and preservation. A reliably literate, fluid Margaret Jull Costa translation makes for a gripping read. (Il’ja)
A Twenty Minute Silence Followed by Applause by Shawn Wen: A long essay exploring, of all things, a mime. Wen, a former radio producer, pens this tribute to Marcel Marceau, the “artist of silence,” who in addition to being the most well-known mime in history was also a Holocaust survivor and member of the French Resistance. Kirkus raves “Readers will marvel not only at Marceau, but at the book itself, which displays such command of the material and such perfect pitch.” (Lydia)
The Art of Death by Edwidge Danticat: In this hybrid work of memoir-criticism, prolific writer (and Year in Reading alumna) Danticat reflects on the death of her mother, part of a longer meditation on the way that artists cope with death. Michiko Kakutani writes that Danticat “wants to learn how to use language to try to express the inexpressible, to use her art to mourn.” (Lydia)
Goodbye, Vitamin by Rachel Khong: Khong, who was an editor at Lucky Peach, brings us a debut novel about a 30-year-old woman who’s moved back home with her parents to help with her father’s Alzheimer’s. Told in short vignettes that span a single year, Goodbye, Vitamin has, according to Justin Taylor, “breathed fresh life into the slacker comedy, the family drama, and the campus novel.” In its starred review, Booklist writes: “In her tender, well-paced debut novel…Khong writes heartbreaking family drama with charm, perfect prose, and deadpan humor.” (Edan)
South Pole Station by Ashley Shelby: Just when you think you’ve seen all the books, along comes a comedy of manners about climate change starring a ragtag team of cultural misfits at the edge of the world. Shelby’s novel grew out of a(n award-winning) short story, but its scope is capacious; in an advance review, Year in Reading alum Robin Sloan says “South Pole Station is a portrait painted with the whole palette―science and politics; art and history; love and frostbite―and all of it crackles with the can’t-make-this-up details of life at the bottom of the world.” (Kirstin)
Sex and Rage by Eve Babitz: 1960s and 70s L.A. party girl and writer extraordinaire Babitz is having a revival. Eve’s Hollywood and Slow Days, Fast Company were recently published by NYRB Classics, and now her novel Sex and Rage is being re-issued by Counterpoint. Readers can’t seem to get enough of her writing and it’s hard to imagine literary L.A. without her voice. That’s because Los Angeles is not just a setting in her work, it’s not a character, it’s not a myth, or a lover. It’s love itself. (Zoë)
The Violins of Saint-Jacques by Patrick Leigh Fermor: Fermor, who died in 2011, is perhaps best known for the books chronicling his youthful tramp across Interwar Europe—drinking and frolicking and picking up a half-dozen languages along the way. Here, in his only novel (originally published in 1953), the action is concentrated on the island of Saint Jacques, whose French aristocracy is in the midst of Mardi Gras revels. A volcano looms over the picturesque town in carnival, an outsized force of nature in this slender work as florid as it is fun. (Matt)
Moving Kings by Joshua Cohen: The latest by the man behind the labyrinthine Book of Numbers kicks off with a situation that’s nothing if not explosive. Two Israeli veterans, Yoav and Uri, decide to spend a year in New York with Yoav’s cousin, a right-wing American patriot who runs a tri-state moving company. In short order, the two get enlisted to work as ruthless eviction-movers, which leads inevitably to one homeowner seeking revenge. (Thom)
A Life of Adventure and Delight by Akhil Sharma: The title of Sharma’s new story collection is apparently ironic—“An apter phrase might be ‘bad luck and isolation,’” according to Kirkus Reviews. David Sedaris deems the stories “complex, funny enough to laugh out loud at but emotionally devastating,” and the Kirkus reviewer does ultimately concede that the stories exhibit “a psychological acuity that redeems their dark worldview.” Fans of Sharma’s Family Life may be interested in a story that seems to have been the seed of that novel. And if you’re interested in a sneak, the title story and “You are Happy?” (among others) were both published in The New Yorker. (Sonya)
The Epiphany Machine by David Burr Gerrard: In an interview with Vol. 1 Brooklyn about his first novel, Short Century, Gerrard succinctly described the plot of his second: “It’s about a machine that tattoos epiphanies on the forearms of its users. That is my attempt to question and honor one of the major ideas of fiction, which is that fiction should lead up to an epiphany.” This new work explores the effects of such epiphanies—the narrator’s tattoo reads “Dependent on the Opinion of Others”—on the inscribed-upon individuals and society as a whole. The result, according to Publishers Weekly, is a “wildly charming, morally serious bildungsroman.” (Matt)
I Hear Your Voice by Young-ha Kim: One of Korea’s most prolific and celebrated authors brings us a new novel, translated by Krys Lee, about two young men on the streets of Seoul: Jae, who is abandoned as a baby and becomes a leader of a powerful motorcycle gang, and Dongyu, who runs away from home as a teenager to follow Jae. Booklist remarks: “this is a wrenching examination of discarded youth, abuses of power, and the irreparable disintegration of societal structures,” and John Darnielle is a fan, saying, “Young-ha Kim is kin to those writers of more experimental times than ours: Daniel Defoe and Thomas Nashe, writers who followed their stories and themes into whatever haunted, humid dark corners they found, and who weren’t afraid to linger in those places to see what else might be there. (Edan)
Like A Fading Shadow by Antonio Muñoz Molina: Part memoir and part historical fiction, this unusual book uses recently declassified FBI files to trace the escape of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassin, James Earl Ray. With a fake passport, Ray managed to elude capture for 10 days in Lisbon, Portugal. Muñoz Molina’s fascination with this story has to do, in part, with his personal connection to Lisbon, a city that was the inspiration for his first novel, Winter in Lisbon. Muñoz Molina recounts Ray’s hideouts in Lisbon in 1968, while also looking back on his own memories of the place, when he lived there in the late 1980s, and was just getting started as a novelist. Throughout the narrative, Muñoz Molina reflects on the writing process itself, and how he came to construct Ray’s narrative. (Hannah)
The Burning Girl by Claire Messud: Following The Woman Upstairs, Messud’s new novel tells the story of lifelong friends Julia and Cassie. Their paths diverge and the result is a story about adolescence that contrasts a childhood’s imaginary world against adult reality. Messud, who will always have my heart for her response to a question about an unlikeable female character, tackles big questions with complex and nuanced novels. It looks like this will deliver. (Claire)
Sour Heart by Jenny Zhang: Sour Heart is Lena Dunham’s first pick for her imprint at Random House, which is a delight since Zhang is a powerful fiction writer who offers an intimate look at girlhood. Karan Mahajan says that the book, which is narrated by daughters of Chinese immigrants, “blasts opens the so-called immigrant narrative.” And Miranda July reveals that Sour Heart will come to “shape the world—not just the literary world, but what we know about reality.” (Zoë)
Mrs. Fletcher by Tom Perrotta: Here is how Mrs. Fletcher, the seventh novel by the author behind The Leftovers, begins: a woman named Eve Fletcher gets an anonymous text with a simple and unsubtle message: “U R a MILF!” The message, over the course of several months, drives Mrs. Fletcher to grow obsessed with a MILF-porn website, which leads to some unsavory consequences in her day-to-day life. It doesn’t bode well that she’s also the director of a senior center. (Thom)
The Seventh Function of Language by Laurent Binet: French intellectual history is unlikely whodunit territory, but leave it to Binet to mine comic and genre gold from the milieu of 1980s Paris. Set into motion by the sudden (and real-life) 1980 death of cultural critic Roland Barthes, Binet’s novel features all the literary and cultural heavyweights of the time—Butler, Derrida, Deleuze, Eco, Foucault, and Kristeva—while also, in a Calvino-like touch, including a hunt for a manuscript that purports to unlock hitherto unknown linguistic mysteries. Highbrow hijinks ensue, obviously. (Kirstin)
The Red-Haired Woman by Orhan Pamuk: The 10th novel from Nobel Prize-winning Pamuk, The Red-Haired Woman is a story of fathers, sons, and myths. Master Mahmut, a traditional Turkish well-digger, and his young apprentice work hard at their back-breaking trade, searching for water in a barren land, until an accident changes everything; the “demonic” voice of a red-haired woman haunts the survivor. Allusions to Oedipus Rex and Shanameh, stories of patricide and filicide, fill the novel, but there’s more than a little mystery here as well. And since this is Pamuk, you can be sure to find plenty of musings on the clash between modernism and tradition, new and old. (Kaulie)
New People by Danzy Senna: The fifth book from Senna, whose previous work includes the best-selling novel Caucasia and a memoir, Where Did You Sleep Last Night?, about her parents’ marriage. Like her earlier work, New People explores complex issues of race and class, following two light-skinned black Americans who marry and attempt to have it all in Brooklyn in the 1990s. In her review for The New Republic, Morgan Jerkins writes “What this novel succeeds in is creating a dense psychological portrait of a black woman nearing the close of the 20th century: inquisitive, obsessive, imaginative, alive.” (Lydia)
Autumn by Karl Ove Knausgaard: What’s newsworthy about Autumn is what it is not: it’s not an entry in the epic (and still going) My Struggle, which made Knausgaard famous. Instead, it’s book number one in a new, unrelated project, which the author refers to (naturally) as the Four Seasons Quartet. Conceived as a “lexicon for an unborn child,” the projects consists of hundreds of very short texts, each of which tackles a different everyday object. “Now, as I write this,” the first entry begins, “you know nothing about anything, about what awaits you, the kind of world you will be born into. And I know nothing about you…” (Thom)
Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie: Described as “a modern-day Antigone,” Home Fire follows Isma Pasha, a British woman who comes to America in pursuit of her Ph.D., her beautiful younger sister, and their brother, who’s haunted by the legacy of their jihadi father. Add in a rival London family, an increasingly tense political climate, an impossible romance, and remorse in Raqqa, and perhaps you can begin to see the Grecian similarities. The latest novel from Shamsie, whose Burnt Shadows was shortlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction, Home Fire should prove moving and thought-provoking, even for those who never cared much for Antigone. (Kaulie)
The Mountain by Paul Yoon: In his second published story collection, Yoon presents six distinct stories set at various times—past, present, and future—and all across the world. Throughout, characters are linked not by personal connections to one another, but instead by a shared theme: how they reconcile violent, traumatic pasts with their present-day lives. (Nick M.)
The Talented Ribkins by Ladee Hubbard: The Ribkins are quite the talented family. Johnny Ribkins, now 72, can make a precise map of any space, whether he’s been there or not. Johnny’s father could see colors no one else could see. His brother could scale walls. His cousin belches fire. This black American family once used their powers to advance the civil rights movement, but when disillusionment set in, Johnny and his brother turned their talents to a string of audacious burglaries. Now Johnny’s got one week to come up with the money he stole from a mobster—or he’ll swim with the fishes, as they say. Praised by Toni Morrison and Mary Gaitskill, Hubbard arrives on the scene with an auspicious bang. (Bill)
White Plains by Gordon Lish: Would we be highlighting this collection of literary odds and ends from a tiny indie press if its author were not the erstwhile Captain Fiction, editor of Raymond Carver’s early stories, and one of American fiction’s most infamous provocateurs? Probably not. Even the publisher’s own promotional materials expend more words on Lish than on the book he has written, enigmatically subtitled Pieces and Witherings. But whatever else can be said about the man, Lish is among the most influential literary figures of his generation. His own work, though wildly uneven, is worth a read. (Michael)
After Kathy Acker by Chris Kraus: In her life and work, radical punk writer Kathy Acker assaulted the male hegemony of narrative fiction with her transgressive experimental books, including Blood & Guts in High School and her re-appropriation of Great Expectations. As true to these ideals in life, Acker begat a full mythology. “Acker understands that writing without myth is nothing,” writes Kraus, Semiotext(e) editor, author of I Love Dick, and now author of Acker’s first biography. After Kathy Acker, according to Sheila Heti, “feels like it’s being told in one long rush of a monologue over late-night drinks by someone who was there.” (Anne)
Gravel Heart by Abdulrazak Gurnah: Gurnah’s Gravel Heart is a book that may remind some readers of the author’s Man Booker Prize finalist, Paradise. It circles around the falling of a society, herein Zanzibar, in the wake of colonial disruption. The protagonist, Salim, is caught in the midst of all this, and his slow spinning—internally and externally—revolves into a moving portraiture of a man caught in a web of things, hard and difficult. The structure of the book pays homage to William Shakespeare, and it may this that solidifies Gurnah’s ninth novel as an ambitious work worthy of attention. (Chigozie)
My Absolute Darling by Gabriel Tallent: The book industry trades in superlatives, but the buzz for this debut novel stands out. To read it is to become an evangelist for it, apparently, and Stephen King says he’ll remember it forever. It’s about 14-year-old Turtle Alveston and her “tortured but charismatic father,” from whom she’s gradually realized she needs to escape, with the help of her one and only friend and an arsenal of survival skills. (Janet)
Eastman Was Here by Alex Gilvarry: Artistic ambition, intellectual misogyny, and Saigon provide the backdrop for Gilvarry’s second novel, whose Norman Mailer-like protagonist seeks to reclaim his former journalistic eminence by chronicling the end of the Vietnam War. It turns out, however, that no matter how far from home you go, you take your troubles with you; and the titular Eastman finds that his ghosts, like those of the nation that created his oversized public persona, can’t be outrun. Year in Reading alum Saïd Sayrafiezadeh says “Eastman Was Here is a wildly entertaining book, intoxicatingly written and deceptively profound in its insights into the nature of celebrity, country, marriage, war and the pitfalls of being a writer.” (Kirstin)
Stay with Me by Ayobami Adebayo: This debut was described by The Guardian as a “clever and funny take on domestic life and Nigerian society.” Set in the 1980s, the story centers around the familial—and family planning—struggles of a young woman trying to conceive. She does everything she can, including ascending the Mountain of Jaw-Dropping Miracles, goat in tow, only to have her in-laws foist a second, and presumably more fertile, wife, upon her feckless husband. Published earlier this year in Britain, the novel was shortlisted for the Bailey’s Women Prize for Fiction. (Matt)
The Future Won’t Be Long by Jarett Kobek: Kobek had a surprise hit on his hands with 2016’s I Hate The Internet, his self-published satirical novel that lambasted the tech industry’s distortion of San Francisco. After that novel published to favorable reviews—including one from Dwight Garner in The New York Times—and strong sales, Kobek is returning with The Future Won’t Be Long.The forthcoming novel is a prequel to Internet that finds a younger version of Internet’s protagonist, Adeline, as a struggling young artist in New York. Written before Internet, Won’t Be Long tracks Adeline and her friend Baby as they navigate, in Kobek’s words, “the decaying remnants of Punk New York.” We can expect this novel to observe that decay with the same wit that characterized Internet. (Read our interview with him.) (Ismail)
A Kind of Freedom by Margaret Wilkerson Sexton: New Orleans native Sexton’s debut novel tracks the sliding fortunes of three generations of a black family in her hometown, as they move from tenuous middle-class respectability during World War II through the ravages of the War on Drugs, the crack epidemic, and the psychic calamity of Hurricane Katrina, casualties of the American Dream that has unraveled from Jim Crow to Donald Trump. (Bill)
To Lay to Rest Our Ghosts by Caitlin Hamilton Summie: Ten stories whose settings range widely from WWII Kansas City to New York City to western Massachusetts to woodsy Wisconsin to rural Minnesota and the Twin Cities—from a writer who’s been working the biz side of indie publishing for decades. Foreword Reviews writes: “What is remembered; what is missed; what will never be again…all these are addressed with the tenderness of a wise observer whose heart is large enough, kind enough, to embrace them all without judgment…intense and finely crafted.” From Kirkus: “…Summie writes elegantly of Minnesota and northern Wisconsin, with their disappearing farmland, aging population, and winters that are both brutal and engendering of intimacy.” Summie’s debut marks her later-life chapter, and you can read about that in our interview with her here. (Sonya)
Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward: Ward returns with her first novel since her National Book Award-winning Salvage the Bones. Ward’s two books between, a memoir (Men We Reaped) and a book of essays she edited (The Fire This Time), deal head-on with racism in America and the woeful ways it’s still deeply embedded in our society. In Sing, Unburied, Sing, Ward’s southern-steeped voice is just as keen and continues to take on the South’s murky history, this time through the young Jojo as he travels with his drug-addicted mother and baby sister as they go to pick up his father just released from prison. (Anne)
Forest Dark by Nicole Krauss: Krauss’s fourth novel follows the lives of two Americans in Israel in alternating chapters. The first character, Jules Epstein, is a recently-divorced, retired lawyer drawn to a rabbi; the second, a novelist named Nicole, is recruited by a mysterious literature professor working on a project about Franz Kafka. Krauss’s novel A History of Love has been rightly praised, but this new book might send people back to her equally intriguing debut, Man Walks into a Room, another investigation of what happens when our lives are radically transformed. (Nick R.)
Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng: With her 2014 debut, Everything I Never Told You, Ng proved she is a powerful storyteller of multifaceted families and the women within them forced to make difficult decisions. Her sophomore effort tangles multiple families in a drama of class and race in a Cleveland suburb. When single mother and artist Mia Warren moves to Shaker Heights, she rents from the well-off Richardson family. Of course, the initial fascination with the Warrens turns sour when they are pitted against the Richardsons in a town rift about a family adopting a Chinese-American child. (Tess)
The Ninth Hour by Alice McDermott: National Book Award winner McDermott is simply one of the finest living Catholic writers, and her new novel looks to capture the spirit of her previous work: families and cultures strained by the optimism of faith tempered by the suffering of reality. A man’s suicide early in the novel leaves behind his pregnant wife. She is comforted by The Little Nursing Sisters of the Sick Poor, a Brooklyn convent. A generational novel sure to appeal to longtime McDermott fans, and to bring-in new readers as well. (Nick R.)
Five-Carat Soul by James McBride: McBride returns to fiction for the first time since winning the National Book Award for The Good Lord Bird, his masterly novel about the exploits of the doomed abolitionist John Brown and his entourage. McBride’s new book, Five-Carat Soul, is a collection of stories told through the eyes of an antique toy dealer who makes the score of a lifetime; the poor kids in a neighborhood band called the Five-Carat Soul Bottom Bone Band; a mixed-race child who believes he’s the son of Abraham Lincoln; a boxer; a lion; a doctoral student who uncovers a beautifully complicated war story. Five-Carat Soul will thrill fans of McBride’s unmistakable fictional voice. (Bill)
The Golden House by Salman Rushdie: Rushdie’s 13th novel—heralded by his American publisher as a return to realism—is concerned with the lives of the extremely wealthy in Obama-era Manhattan. On Obama’s inauguration day, a mysterious billionaire named Nero Golden and his three adult sons move into a “cloistered community” in Greenwich Village. Their young neighbor René, drawn in by the family’s glamor, finds himself increasingly entangled in their lives, while elsewhere in Manhattan, another billionaire—or, well, perhaps we should go with “self-proclaimed billionaire,” because who knows—begins an improbable campaign for the presidency. (Emily)
The Origin of Others by Toni Morrison: This volume collects the great novelist’s Norton lectures at Harvard University, giving those of us who didn’t get to attend a glimpse at Morrison’s thoughts on race and otherness, and how these things affect literature and lives around the world. The lectures also include revealing discussion of her own novels. With an introduction by Ta-Nehisi Coates. (Lydia)
Dinner at the Center of the Earth by Nathan Englander: Though the latest by Englander takes place on three different continents, at heart it’s a novel about the conflicts of modern Israel. Z, or rather Prisoner Z, has been held at a black site in the desert for close to 12 years, where the only company he’s allowed is a single guard. The one official who knows about him is a comatose figure named The General. Through a series of flashbacks, we learn who Z really is: an American operative who compromised Israeli state secrets. (Thom)
Katalin Street by Magda Szabó: Why does writing this vivid take so long to find its way West? Equal parts lament, paean, and family saga, Szabó’s 1969 novel (and 2007 Prix Cévennes winner) in Len Rix’s legato English translation captures handily the “double tragedy of eastern Europe”—razed by Nazis and rebuilt by Communists. The unquiet spirits of post-war Budapest put meat on the bones of the Soviet joke that “only the past is unpredictable,” and one less-than-silent witness of the sins and slights of a shattered community harbors no illusions about permitting the living to exist peaceably in the soft-focus sentimentality of their survival. (Il’ja)
Bluebird, Bluebird by Attica Locke: I heard Locke—award-winning author of Pleasantville, a writer on Fox’s Empire, and a native of Texas—say that she wanted to write something about the black experience in the South that wasn’t only about prejudice, but showed that complexity and love and joy exist even in oppressive systems. I may be paraphrasing poorly, but I’m excited to read her book, which is about a black Texas Ranger trying to solve the murders of a black lawyer from Chicago and a local white woman. (Janet)
The Living Infinite by Chantel Acevedo: Acevedo’s third novel is a retelling of the life of the Spanish princess Eulalia, born four years before the revolution that removed her mother, Queen Isabella II, from the Spanish throne. After an upbringing in the Spanish court and in exile, Eulalia traveled first to Cuba and then to the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, with secret hopes of finding a publisher for her scandalous memoir. (Emily)
The Twelve-Mile Straight by Eleanor Henderson: It is 1930, in Cotton County, Ga., and Elma Jesup, a white sharecropper’s daughter, gives birth to two babies, one light-skinned, the other dark. A field hand is accused of her rape, lynched, and dragged behind a truck down a road known as the Twelve-Mile Straight. So begins this second novel by the author of the radically different Ten Thousand Saints, set in New York’s gritty Lower East Side in the 1980s. “This is the kind of novel you sink into, live inside,” says Victor LaValle, author of The Changeling, about The Twelve-Mile Straight. (Michael)
Draft No. 4 by John McPhee: McPhee has been producing lithe nonfiction pieces like “Uncommon Carriers,” “The Ransom of Russian Art,” and “Coming Into the Country” for The New Yorker for 54 years. That alone should provide sufficient incentive to sit up and listen when the man offers a primer in the how, the why, the who, and the humor of getting at the story without sacrificing the art. And that’s what Draft No. 4 is: eight crunchily practical, previously published New Yorker essays/workshops on the craft of creative nonfiction. Written by the departmental dean, no less. (Il’ja)
A Loving, Faithful Animal by Josephine Rowe: Rowe’s two previous books—How a Moth Becomes a Boat and Tarcutta Wake—were collections that walked the line between short fiction and prose poetry. A Loving, Faithful Animal, her exquisite first novel, is concerned with the long shadow of war across generations. Rowe tells the story of a fractured family in 1990s Australia after the father, a Vietnam War veteran, leaves home. (Emily)
Border by Kapka Kassabova: When Kassabova was a child growing up in Iron Curtain-era Bulgaria, the country’s isolated southern borderland—where Bulgaria meets Turkey and Greece—was rumored to be a relatively easy crossing point into the West, and so the region swarmed with migrants, soldiers, and spies. In Border, a work of narrative reportage, Kassabova returns to a region whose natural beauty is matched only by the complexity of its political and cultural landscapes: the Communist-era spies have long since departed, but the borderland, Mark Mazower wrote recently in The Guardian, remains “an environment that does not spare the unlucky or the vulnerable.” (Emily)
The Doubles by Scott Esposito: Esposito wears many literary hats as founder of lit blog Conversational Reading and its companion journal Quarterly Conversation; as director at Two Lines Press; and as a columnist at Lit Hub writing on strategies for enduring the Trump Presidency. With The Doubles, he turns his focus to film and through film, back to his own life. Mathew Specktor writes that through this prism, Esposito “arrives at something magnificent: a work of sustained criticism that is itself a work of high art and a profound meditation on how the art we see becomes who we are.” (Anne)
Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan: Six years after her quirkily brilliant novel-in-stories A Visit from the Goon Squad won the Pulitzer, Egan is back with a noirish historical novel set in wartime Brooklyn. At the Brooklyn Naval Yard, Anna Kerrigan becomes the nation’s first female diver, repairing ships that will help America win World War II. Through a chance encounter, she meets nightclub owner Dexter Styles, who she hopes can help her solve the riddle of her father’s disappearance years before. (Michael)
Fresh Complaint by Jeffrey Eugenides: Surprisingly, this is Eugenides’s first collection of short fiction—a debut of sorts from an author best known for his novels, especially his sprawling, Pulitzer Prize-winning saga, Middlesex. The stories in this collection span Eugenides’s 25-year career, and many were originally published in The New Yorker, including the story “Baster,” which was adapted into the 2010 romantic comedy The Switch. (Hannah)
Dogs at the Perimeter by Madeleine Thien: After the massive success of Man Booker Prize shortlisted Do Not Say We Have Nothing, the world has realized that Thien is one of the most gifted and powerful novelists writing today. Her previous novel, Dogs at the Perimeter, set in Cambodia during the regime of the Khmer Rouge and in present day Montreal, explores the aftermath of war. It was published in Canada 2011 and will now be released in the U.S. for the first time. Welcome to the party. (Claire)
We Were Eight Years in Power by Ta-Nehisi Coates: A collection of new and previously published essays on the Obama years, from the writer whose access to and insights about the former president were beautifully documented in The Atlantic essay “My President Was Black.” The new collection includes an interview with Obama. (Lydia)
A Field Guide to the North American Family by Garth Risk Hallberg: A decade after it first appeared, Hallberg’s debut illustrated novella is being reissued in a newly designed edition. It arrives two years after Hallberg, a contributing editor at The Millions, published his breathtaking first novel, City on Fire. Field Guide consists of 63 interlinked vignettes with accompanying photographs and annotations, which probe the inner workings of two families in the New York suburbs. The book’s subtitle would have delighted John James Audubon: “Concerning chiefly the Hungates and Harrisons, with accounts of their habits, nesting, dispersion, etc., and full descriptions of the plumage of both adult and young, with a taxonomic survey of several aspects of family life.” Taxonomic is the perfect word for this gorgeously executed little marvel. (Bill)
Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado: Machado is a talented essayist; particularly notable are her pieces for The New Yorker, including “O Adjunct! My Adjunct!,” one of the finest examinations of the adjunct crisis in America. Her fiction deals with more surreal fears, with sharply-drawn pieces like “Horror Story” in Granta: “It started so small: a mysteriously clogged drain; a crack in the bedroom window.” Stories like “The Husband Stitch” are marvels of language and experimentation. A fiction debut to watch. (Nick R.).
Uncommon Type by Tom Hanks: Yes, it is that Tom Hanks. A collection of 17 short stories involving typewriters, which the author also collects in real life. This is the debut collection of the 60-year-old cinema lion. According to The Guardian, everything came together for Hanks as a fiction writer when he published this story in The New Yorker in 2014. (Lydia)
The King Is Always Above the People by Daniel Alarcón: Award-winning writer Alarcón returns with a new short story collection that features a wide range of memorable characters. The King Is Always Above the People examines immigration, Latin American families, Los Angeles, and much more. Alarcón has received much critical acclaim for his previous books and his most recent novel, At Night We Walk in Circles, was a finalist for the 2014 Pen-Faulkner Award. (Zoë)
Here in Berlin by Cristina García: The Cuban-born American writer García—novelist, journalist, poet, anthologist, and National Book Award finalist—transports us to Berlin for her seventh novel. An unnamed Visitor, armed with a camera, goes spelunking in the German capital, seeking to reckon with the city’s tangled, living history. The result is a series of snapshots: a Cuban teenager taken as a POW on a German submarine; a female lawyer still haunted by her childhood in the bombed-out suburbs of Berlin; the son of a Berlin zookeeper who fought to protect the animals from both bombs and a starving human populace. These and other ghosts still walk the streets of García’s bewitching contemporary Berlin. (Bill)
A Natural by Ross Raisin: Named one of Granta’s “Best Young British Novelists” in 2013 and the author of books (God’s Own Country, Waterline) about intense loners, Raisin places his latest protagonist within a more communal setting: a soccer (or rather football) club. The novel follows a young, gay player navigating the sporting world. As Raisin explained in an interview, the subject threw some British publishers off, who explained their reasoning thusly: “We don’t know how to sell it to women because it’s about football, but at the same time we don’t know how we sell it to football supporters because it’s got gay in it.” Quite the dilemma, but thankfully not all were scared off the pitch. (Matt)
Ferocity by Nicola Lagioia: Ferocity is the latest from Europa Editions, which also publishes Elena Ferrante (as well as gems like Treasure Island!!! and The Elegance of Hedgehog). Pitched as Gillian Flynn meets Jonathan Franzen, Ferocity won the 2015 Strega Prize, Italy’s preeminent fiction prize, and concerns a dead woman, her brother who’s set on figuring out what happened to her, and Southern Italy in the 1980s. Sign me up. (Edan)
Vacationland by John Hodgman: Known variously for his work on The Daily Show, his podcast and New York Times Magazine column—both titled “Judge John Hodgman”—his role as “the PC” in those Mac commercials in the aughts, and three books of fake facts, Hodgman is a unique and hilarious public figure. Hodgman’s new book—a memoir about fatherhood, aging, travel, and his home state of Massachusetts—is the most (maybe the first) unironic thing in his career. (Janet)
Future Home of the Living God by Louise Erdrich: A new offering from Erdrich on the heels of her National Book Critics Circle Award win for LaRose last year. The new book takes place during an environmental cataclysm—evolution has begun reversing itself, and pregnant women are being rounded up and confined. A pregnant woman who was adopted in infancy from her Ojibwe birth mother returns to her mother’s reservation to pursue her own origin story even while society crumbles around her. (Lydia)
Don’t Save Anything by James Salter: November 2017. I remember hearing Salter read his heartbreaking story “Last Night” to a captivated audience in Newark, N.J., at Rutgers University—it was a moment of shared intimacy that I’ve rarely experienced at a reading. Salter had a presence both on and off the page. Don’t Save Anything collects Salter’s previously uncollected non-fiction; essays that appeared in The New Yorker, Esquire, People, and elsewhere. The book’s title comes from a line from one of Salter’s final interviews: “You try to put everything you have in a book. That is, don’t save anything for the next one.” (Nick R.)
Mean by Myriam Gurba: In her coming-of-age nonfiction novel about growing up queer and Chicana, Gurba takes on misogyny, racism, homophobia, and classism with cutting humor. Mean will make you LOL and break your heart. Mean has already received advance praise from brilliant, badass feminist writers Jill Soloway, Michelle Tea, and Wendy C. Ortiz. Gurba’s previous book Dahlia Season won the Edmund White Award and was a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award. (Zoë)
Houses of Ravicka by Renee Gladman: This fall Dorothy Project publishes Houses of Ravicka, the fourth book in Gladman’s series of novels set in the city-state of Ravicka and told in the author’s nimble prose. The books catalog the intricacies of language and architecture and their intersection—something Gladman’s recent Prose Architectures from Wave Press does quite literally. As The Renaissance Society notes, “Gladman approaches language as a space to enter and travel within, and her writing is attuned to the body as it moves through architectures of thought and experience.” In this latest volume, Ravicka’s comptroller tracks the ways the houses in the city-state shift with time. (Anne)
The World Goes On by László Krasznahorkai: The Hungarian author has described his style as “fun in hell.” With this, the seventh! New Directions translation of his work, English language hell just got even more fun. A giant with an H2O fixation and a Portuguese child quarry slave on a quest for the surreal are just two of the characters met in this short story collection that examines the practicalities of cultural entropy, and stylistically sacrifices little of the author’s depth, range, and extraordinary stacking of subordinate clauses. These stories should provide the uninitiated with a workable introduction to Krasznahorkai and his formidable oeuvre. (Il’ja)
Heather, the Totality by Matthew Weiner: The creator of Mad Men and former writer and producer for The Sopranos applies his screenwriting chops to literary fiction with this debut novel. Set in a privileged milieu in modern-day New York, it’s been described as “a dark fable,” “a collision course,” and, most intriguingly, by Philip Pullman, as a story characterized by an “ice-cold mercilessness reminiscent of Evelyn Waugh.” At 144 pages, this novel apparently cuts to the chase and doesn’t spare any of its characters. (Hannah)
Radio Free Vermont by Bill McKibben: Is it a surprise that the debut novel from one of our best-known environmental activists focuses on grassroots resistance? In backwoods Vermont, two radicals use an underground radio show to recruit people interested in seceding from the United States. What follows is a zany, witty, and altogether timely imagination of modern resistors. (Nick M.)
They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us by Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib: A collection of essays on music, culture, and personal history from the poet and Year in Reading alum (and MTV News writer, before MTV News made their woeful decision to “pivot to video”). Terrance Hayes writes, “Abdurraqib bridges the bravado and bling of praise with the blood and tears of elegy.” (Lydia)
The Vanishing Princess by Jenny Diski: British writer Diski won a wide following with a strikingly clear-eyed chronicle of her battle with the lung cancer that killed her last year at the age of 68. The Vanishing Princess, her only collection of short stories, is now available in the U.S. for the first time, and it will be welcomed by fans of Diski’s piercing nonfiction and dreamlike novels. In the story “Short Circuit,” Diski mines her own stays in mental institutions to pose an old but not unreasonable question: are the people we regard as mad the truly sane ones? (Bill)
Three Daughters of Eve by Elif Şafak: Şafak is one of Turkey’s most popular novelists, and her fiction and nonfiction has been translated around the world. Three Daughters of Eve, her 10th novel, takes place in contemporary Istanbul, but looks back on an earlier era, as Peri, a wealthy housewife, recalls her friendship with two fellow students at Oxford University. Together, these three young women became close through their studies, debating the role of women in Islam, and falling under the influence of a charismatic but controversial professor. The scandal that broke them apart still haunts Peri. (Hannah)
Nothing triggers my raging Impostor Syndrome quite like being asked to account for my year in reading by a fancy literary website. What did I read this year that was good — both in the sense that I liked it, and the sense that I wouldn’t be embarrassed to admit I liked it? Did I read anything good this year? Did I read anything at all? What is a book?
I have receipts that prove I bought a lot of books this year, at least, so let’s start with a sampling of 2015 purchases, separated according to my two main reasons for reading at the moment.
1. Because I’m Writing a Work of “Historiographic Metafiction” about 19th-Century Feminists, Plus a Critical Companion Piece, and if I Don’t Screw It up, I’ll Get a Ph.D. at the End of It
A Poetics of Postmodernism: History, Theory, Fiction by Linda Hutcheon
Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877 by Eric Foner
Trial and Triumph by Frances Ellen Watkins Harper
The Selected Papers of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, Vol. II: Against an Aristocracy of Sex, 1866-1873 edited by Ann D. Gordon
The Humbugs of the World by P.T. Barnum
Twelve Causes of Dishonesty by Henry Ward Beecher
Traps for the Young by Anthony Comstock
The Scarlet Sisters: Sex, Suffrage, and Scandal in the Gilded Age by Myra MacPherson
Alias Grace; The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood
Beloved by Toni Morrison
Possession by A.S. Byatt
Nights at the Circus by Angela Carter
The Passion by Jeanette Winterson
Gods Without Men by Hari Kunzru
2. Because, Occasionally, I Stop Working on My Dissertation/Checking Twitter Long Enough to Read for Pleasure
Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker
Luckiest Girl Alive by Jessica Knoll
The Round House by Louise Erdrich
We Believe the Children: A Moral Panic in the 1980s by Richard Beck
Saint Mazie by Jami Attenberg
The Sellout by Paul Beatty
Petite Mort by Beatrice Hitchman
Music for Wartime by Rebecca Makkai
Inconvenient People: Lunacy, Liberty, and Mad-Doctors in Victorian England by Sarah Wise
Loving Day by Mat Johnson
Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng
The Grownup by Gillian Flynn
Cloudsplitter by Russell Banks
We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
The Leftovers by Tom Perrotta
Step Aside, Pops by Kate Beaton
If I had actually read all those books, I would feel I’d made a respectable enough showing, but the ratio of books I buy to books I read all the way through has always been about 10 to one. I’ve dipped into most of them, and I can’t imagine eventually finishing any of these books and being mortified that I once mentioned it near my own name in a post at a fancy literary website. But if I’m going to speak honestly about my year in reading — beyond just submitting “the entire fucking internet, front to back, endlessly” — then I should probably focus on books that I a) finished and b) remember well. Right?
So I started thinking back month by month. In January, I spent my 40th birthday reading an ARC of Saint Mazie on the beach in Miami, falling in love with Jami Attenberg’s brave, witty, sexy, generous, heartbreaking heroine. In February, I reread Possession for the first time since college in the ’90s, marveling again at Byatt’s erudition, ambition, and perfectly calibrated storytelling. In March, I read Petite Mort, shortly after meeting Bea Hitchman and hearing her read from this twisty, brainy thriller that made me care about early cinematic techniques nearly as much as the central characters. In May, my preorder of Loving Day arrived, and in June, so did Music for Wartime; Mat Johnson and Rebecca Makkai have become drop-everything authors for me in the last few years, the kind who irresistibly combine intellectual seriousness with a total lack of self-seriousness. In July, on a rocky Canadian beach, I read Luckiest Girl Alive, which I honestly don’t remember much of now, but I remember enjoying it and thinking that, unlike Girl on the Train, it was not too unreasonably compared to Gone Girl. (Oh, right, I guess I also read Girl on the Train this year.) In August, my first solo book came out, and I started a tour that severely cut into my time for reading anything else, but I read a lot of fragments for school and blew through Step Aside, Pops in one highly satisfying hour.
There were other books I finished in 2015 — more keep coming back to me — but those are the ones that came immediately to mind, a fact that now gives me pause (and should have much earlier). A large portion of my novel deals with the way white men in power play men of color and white women off against each other, encouraging us to fight each other for scraps, while even those are kept out of reach of women of color. It happened during the fight over the 15th Amendment, during the Civil Rights Movement, during the 2008 Democratic primaries, and it’s been happening in the academy and the literary world ever since it occurred to folks in charge, about 15 minutes ago, that reading lists composed entirely of white men are perhaps too narrow in scope. As a 21st-century ranty feminist, I like to think I’m above all that, and yet there’s my actual reading list from the past year: A bunch of white women, and one mixed-race man.
As I write this, people who care about writing, literary gossip, and the publishing industry are all abuzz over Claire Vaye Watkins’s essay “On Pandering,” which has become a sort of Rorschach blot for everyone’s writerly grievances. Me, I was so enraged by Stephen Elliott’s behavior toward Watkins (and lack of shame in writing about it publicly), I blocked out nearly everything else she wrote. But other writers I admire, from The Toast’s Nicole Chung to Booker winner Marlon James, swiftly noted that in addition to the white-guy pandering Watkins describes, there’s a whole lot of pandering to white ladies going on in the book world. Do those of us sharing the post so widely and enthusiastically even realize that?
As I said to Nicole on Twitter, I came out of my M.F.A. program 10 years ago well over being impressed by the Serious White Men Everyone Loves — I believe my exact words were “Fuck Denis Johnson and Cormac McCarthy” — but all I did was sub in writers who look more like me. When I write a new syllabus, I told her, I always think of 40 white women I love right away, then have to cut most of them to add writers of color — maybe even, when it’s a slow misandry day, a couple of men. I do make a point of diversifying every syllabus beyond a token author or two, but why is that always Step Two?
Because, although I buy work by writers of color, it seems I’m still far more likely to read and retain work by white women — especially ones I know in real life. I knew I leaned that way, but I wouldn’t have guessed the imbalance was so extreme before I sat down and took stock. (And that’s without even counting my failed attempt to read Elena Ferrante because fancy literary people are so bonkers for her.)
I can understand why it happens: books written by people similar to me absorb my attention most easily, and are thus the ones I resist countless distractions to finish. But a zillion years of white men feeling that way about books written by and for white men is, of course, how so many of us ended up feeling like they were the only audience worth writing for. It was bullshit when they did it, and it’s bullshit I need to consciously interrupt in my 2016 reading. My account of next year’s reading may not be any fancier than this, but it will probably be a lot more interesting.
The good stuff: The Millions’ Notable articles
The motherlode: The Millions’ Books and Reviews
Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.