Working in a bookshop every day, seeing much-anticipated new releases being freshly unpacked and incredible vintage paperbacks that have wound their ways onto our shelves, it’s almost impossible not to slip a book into my pocket on the way out each evening.
Once home, the competition begins. Do I continue with last night’s novel, Feeding Time by fellow Parisian Adam Biles, a dazzling work on the dismal decay, and humour, of old age? “Everyone lied, and everyone knew they were being lied to, and yet lying and being lied to was preferable to the truth.” Or shall it be Henry Marsh’s Do No Harm, an engrossing exploration of neuroscience? “That memories, dreams, and reflections should consist of jelly is simply too strange to understand.” Marsh’s book was recommended to me by the featured writer at last night’s shop event, the charming Philippe Sands, author of East West Street, a compelling journey into the origins of the terms “crimes against humanity” and “genocide,” all told alongside his own fascinating family history.
There’s a pile next to my bed of the books I’ve recently finished and been recommending to friends. Animal by Sara Pascoe is a hilarious, enlightening account on what it is to be a woman today. Jo Marchant’s Cure explores the use of hypnosis to avoid pain — I was especially intrigued to learn we’re now relying more than ever on medical pain relievers that are, reportedly, starting to work less effectively on us. I gave a copy to my doctor who often seems amused by my recommendations. Tribe by Sebastian Junger, a timely exploration, convincingly argues for unison rather than division in society, underscoring our shared humanity: “Our fundamental desire, as human beings, is to be close to others, and our society does not allow for that” and yet “Intact communities are far more likely to survive than fragmented ones.” Janine Di Giovanni’s The Morning They Came for Us is also essential reading for this tumultuous time, offering important insight into Syria: “What you yearn for more than anything is for the ordinary to return. The simple pleasure of going to a shop to buy apples.”
A day without poetry is a sad one so, in the morning, I pick a page at random from the rather erotic Dirty Pretty Things by Michael Faudet, which a friend told me had marked her significantly: “two drowning lovers lost at sea, my lips adrift in yours.” One of the booksellers I work with is a huge Elena Ferrante fan (who isn’t, really?) and lent me the slim and shocking The Lost Daughter. Just seeing its spine here on the shelf reminds me of the story’s cold ending, a slap in the face. It sits next to Leo Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich, in a lovely vintage edition, which I thought wouldn’t keep me up all night, but did. It haunts me still.
I finish the last pages of Flâneuse before leaving to flâne around Paris with its author, Lauren Elkin, hats slid down over our foreheads Jean Rhys-style: “Traces of the past city are, somehow, traces of the selves we might once have been.” I’m looking forward also to finishing Zadie Smith’s addictive Swing Time and Ali Smith’s Autumn, which sits on my dresser, a leaf stuck between its pages: “How many worlds can you hold in a hand. In a handful of sand.” After, I plan to reread a chapter from Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City, an engrossing book on artists and loneliness: ”What does it feel like to be lonely? It feels like being hungry: like being hungry when everyone around you is readying for a feast.”
My continual search for intelligent writing on motherhood was most recently satisfied by Rivka Galchen’s Little Labors:
I had imagined that I was going to meet, at birth, a very sophisticated form of plant life, a form that I would daily deliver to an offsite greenhouse; I would look forward to getting to know the life-form properly later, when she had moved into a sentient kingdom, maybe around age three. But instead, within hours of being born, the being—perhaps through chemicals the emotional-vision equivalent of smoke machines — appeared to me not like a plant at all, but instead like something much more powerfully moving than just another human being, she had appeared as an animal, a previously undiscovered old-world monkey, but one with whom I could communicate deeply: it was an unsettling, intoxicating, against-nature feeling. A feeling that felt like black magic.
In the evening, the chill from the walk home still on my fingertips, I smell the mulled wine brewing in the kitchen as I prepare to nestle in with Jeanette Winterson’s Christmas Days: 12 Stories and 12 Feasts for 12 Days. “Stories round the fire at Christmas, or told with frosty breath on a wintry walk, have a magic and a mystery that is part of the season.”
Tomorrow there will be more titles in which to indulge my curiosity, to expand into other worlds, to seek for answers, to delve into the imagination.
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For those of us who read incessantly — books often serving as a kind of muzzy hideyhole from the world, our lives — our reading memories of 2016 may be forever tied to the presidential campaign. Pre-nomination, post-conventions, pre-Access Hollywood, post-James Comey, pre-November 8th, and The After. So it is for me and the three books I want to talk about, each one tentacled to the election, but far more for the intensity of feeling the election induced:
In the middle of May (Ted Cruz withdraws, Donald Trump secures the needed number of delegates), which feels like a lifetime ago, I read The Red Car by Marcy Dermansky a humming wonder of a novel about Leah, a writer, stifled in her current life and marriage, who travels to San Francisco when a coworker from a decade ago suddenly dies.
In late October, a tense and hopeful time, the ground shifting every day beneath one’s feet, I sunk into The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone by Olivia Laing. A luminous non-fiction meditation on loneliness and its “potential beauty,” Laing considers the way it “drive[s] creativity of all kinds,” as explored through the lives of artists including Edward Hopper, Henry Darger, and David Wojnarowicz.
The dire week after the election, when every day seems to wrench and pull at so many of us, I read without stopping an advance copy of All Grown Up by Jami Attenberg (out in March 2017), a funny, startling, melancholy stunner of a novel about Andrea, an artist no longer doing her art, a sister and daughter and friend and colleague and New Yorker trying to find her way and figure out what it means to be an adult.
These are books of aloneness — women alone, artists alone, women artists alone, doing or not doing art. And they are books of connecting — painfully, tentatively, transcendently, warily, fleetingly, bravely. Reading them as the nation seemed to jolt and bob and weave and hurtle, I felt my nerve endings exposed, every feeling a soft suffusion in the chest.
“What does it feel like to be lonely?” Laing asks in The Lonely City. “It feels like being hungry: like being hungry when everyone around you is readying for a feast.” Leah and Andrea, Dermansky and Attenberg’s heroines, are both hungry, and their hunger is rendered painful, consuming, transformational. It enables them to see the hunger in loved ones, strangers, celebrities, servicepeople, everyone — even, or especially, when it’s hurtful to do so.
“What is it about the pain of others?” Laing asks. “Easier to pretend that it doesn’t exist. Easier to refuse to make the effort of empathy, to believe instead that the stranger’s body on the sidewalk is simply a render ghost, an accumulation of colored pixels, which winks out of existence when we turn our head, changing the channel of our gaze.”
Reading these words before November 8th and after is the same, yet different. All three books remind us how painful it is to feel so much and how critical it is, maybe now more than ever, to feel so much. How challenging it can be to connect to others — especially when we feel pushed out or when we are the ones doing the pushing — and how important it is to keep on trying, through art or friendship or activism or simple empathy. These are all books that reach their hand out and say: This is hard, all of it, but we have to. We have to.
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In a recent feature in Afar magazine, Chris Colin describes three friends he made while traveling in Tokyo. They accompanied him to restaurants around the city, talked with him about relationships and parents, and were paid by the hour to hang out with him.
Colin was reporting on the service Client Partners, which provides simple, platonic friendship to its customers. At first he chalks this up to a phenomenon he calls “Japanese wackiness,” in line with cat cafes and host clubs. But in a country with an overworked, rapidly shrinking population and high suicide rates — a country still recovering from the twin blows of the Tohoku earthquake and Fukushima nuclear disaster — Client Partners seeks to address a societal crisis rather than fill a niche demand. The deluge of photos on social media and gaggles of people hanging out in subway stations are all a mask, the professional friends tell Colin. There is a deep loneliness there, an unmet need for human intimacy.
In The Lonely City, set 6,700 miles from the young skyscrapers of Tokyo in the older, grimier blocks of New York City, Olivia Laing conducts her own investigation into the way loneliness is expressed in the metropolis, using art as her point of departure: Andy Warhol’s endless audio tapes, the epic bloody watercolors hoarded by Chicago janitor Henry Darger, the terrifyingly public Internet-cum-social-experiments of Josh Harris. “Loneliness,” she writes is “a populated place: a city in itself.” Laing draws on the “fertile as well as frightening” sensation of loneliness — a state of being experienced from Tokyo to New York, felt by a quarter of American adults and a greater percentage of British ones — to tackle not only why and how loneliness is experienced, but the fruit it brings forth. How does art resist the isolating effects of solitude?
The success of Laing’s book is that it doesn’t require the reader to know much about — or even to be particularly interested in — the New York art world. It’s more about the people that populate it and the stories that make them who they are. The Lonely City draws on social science, gay culture, AIDS history, and the influence of technology, weaving in snippets of memoir. Laing’s prose is elegant and concise, with a breath of Joan Didion: a painting is described as a “cool green icebox,” loneliness as a “city, perhaps at dusk, when everyone turns homeward and the neon flickers into life.”
The book moves seamlessly between Blade Runner and Ludwig Wittgenstein, from art to attachment theory, from Henry Darger to behavioral psychology and Harry Harlow’s experiments with “monster mothers.” In its interdisciplinary scope and mix of culture, theory, and memoir, The Lonely City brings to mind other nonfiction hits of recent years, books like Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts or Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams. These books are written by complex, fiercely intelligent women with deep capacities for rigorous research, analysis, and synthesis. The topics they tackle are tough and human: queer identity and modern families in The Argonauts; the various trespasses and violences of empathy (as well as its tenderness and necessity) in The Empathy Exams. Laing has likewise done the legwork; her evocations of the various artists that make up her book are penetrating and full of reversals.
There’s Andy Warhol, of whom Laing writes, “[He was] famous for his relentless sociability…almost never without a glittering entourage and yet his work is surprisingly eloquent on isolation and the problems of attachment.” She paints a particularly loving and detailed portrait of David Wojnarowicz, whose first memory is of horseshoe crabs and who liked to hang by his fingers from the window ledge of his bedroom. (Laing refers to him by his first name; the intimacy is startling.) The connections and conclusions she draws are coherent, nuanced, and sometimes surprising. See, for instance, how she juggles the delicate politics of communication and the double-edged blade of confession and intimacy:
It’s about wanting and not wanting: about needing people to pour themselves out into you and then needing them to stop, to restore the boundaries of the self, to maintain separation and control. It’s about having a personality that both longs for and fears being subsumed into another ego.
The Lonely City is smart and crisp without being jargony, and the wide cast of characters and complex ideas are laid out in easy-to-absorb ways. Laing’s research and insight into the queer art community in New York, both before and during the AIDS crisis, is particularly rich ground. Through Laing’s book we can see the systemic causes of loneliness — an individual experience, but one that comes from an interplay of a broad variety of societal factors of exclusion and inequality. As she tells us, “Loneliness is personal, and it is also political.” This is important, and where The Lonely City is at its best. Laing carefully shows us how social deprivation as a result of poor environment or systemic prejudice can result in a lifelong struggle with socialization and belonging that colors an individual for life.
But this is not just a book of cultural criticism and social research. Like The Argonauts and The Empathy Exams, or Vivian Gornick’s The Odd Woman and the City, Laing also incorporates memoir. Curiously, this is where the book feels most flat. We get snippets of her time in New York, subletting various friends’ apartments and moving around different neighborhoods. We hear about a Halloween party and a little bit about a failed relationship, about where Laing likes to walk for her morning coffee and the hours she spends on Twitter. We know Laing is lonely, because she says that she is. But though her analysis of the lives and motivations of the artists is deep and compelling, she very rarely turns that same analytical lens to herself, and in the rare moments she does, doesn’t push through to any type of conclusion.
In one of the lengthier personal passages, but also one of the most confusing parts of the book, Laing describes a struggle with gender identity:
I was not at all comfortable in the gender box to which I’d been assigned…I’d never been comfortable with the demands of femininity, had always felt more like a boy, a gay boy, that I inhabited a gender position somewhere between the binaries of male and female, some impossible other, some impossible both.
What do we do with this information? It’s striking; we feel it must have some significance to Laing’s project. But as part of Laing’s narrative it mysteriously drops out and isn’t returned to.
This invites the question that arises again and again in popular discourse around writing: what do we want from our nonfiction writers? Confession? Resolution? In her essay “Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain”, Leslie Jamison uses her own history of heartbreak and self-harm to talk about the icon of the “damaged” female and the shadow she casts on the modern-day women who are afraid of being her. “I am not a melodramatic person.” It’s personal. It digs deep. Jamison is not afraid to share a lot. Even if she were, today’s readers have such an appetite for these explosive, confessional personal essays that it’s too late to be afraid.
Laing, by contrast, is reticent. She doesn’t share much of herself. Unlike Nelson or Jamison, Laing doesn’t seem committed enough to the memoir strain of her cross-genre book. We wonder, then, why she traverses the personal at all. In some ways this highlights one of her opening precepts: “Loneliness is difficult to confess; difficult too to categorize.” A running theme in her book is the difficulty of tackling loneliness head-on, in writing or in speech — and why, perhaps, so many artists approached it in elliptical ways.
We are aware of Laing’s loneliness as she researches and engages with the artists in the book, so we also see her dogged (but perhaps not always completely truthful) optimism about the ameliorative effects of art for combating loneliness. Was Henry Darger’s disturbing art really about “the reparative impulse” of collaging together the self’s fractured, lonely parts? In all her description of the generative side to loneliness — the stuff that comes from loneliness, Laing never quite answers the question: Were these artists’ lives made happier because of their art?
Reading a book about loneliness when you are lonely is tricky; the reader looks for a solution to the problem. Writing a book about loneliness when you are lonely must be even more difficult. At the end of The Lonely City, Laing does not offer up novel “answers,” either to her own loneliness or the reader’s; it’s not clear, even, whether the book feels loneliness is a problem to be solved. (Indeed, the best conclusion from Laing’s personal experience comes after the book ends, in the acknowledgements: “writing a book about loneliness…has been astonishingly connecting.”) Her closing prescriptions — to be kind, to stay open — are the stuff of motivational blogs. It’s hard to fault her for this; it’s not, after all, a self-help book. As anyone who has been lonely knows, it can’t necessarily be cured — either by friends who are paid by the hour, or by a book.
Last week, we previewed 93 works of fiction due out in the first half of 2016. Today, we follow up with 45 nonfiction titles coming out in the next six months, ranging from a new biography of the late Leonard Nimoy by his Star Trek crewmate William Shatner to a book-length essay on art, modernity, and the city by Olivia Laing to a pair of new studies looking at the legacy of the 1960s-era War on Poverty. Along the way, we profile hotly anticipated titles by Jhumpa Lahiri, Annie Dillard, Tama Janowitz, Thomas Piketty, Roxane Gay, and many more.
Set aside some space on those bookshelves, Millions readers. This is looking to be a very, very good year for nonfiction.
Eternity Street by John Mack Faragher: Long before The Big Sleep or Boyz N the Hood, Los Angeles was a lawless, violent city better known for its murder rate than for its orange groves. Faragher, a Yale historian, follows L.A.’s tumultous rise from its origins as a small Mexican pueblo at the edge of the loosely governed frontier in the 19th century. “[T]here is no country where human life is of so little account,” one Angeleno wrote in 1853. “Men hack one another to pieces with pistols and other cutlery as if God’s image were of no more worth than the life of one of the two or three thousand ownerless dogs that prowl about our streets and make night hideous.” (Michael)
The Narrow Door by Paul Lisicky: A memoir of two long-term friendships, one with a woman novelist and the other with Lisicky’s ex-husband, a poet. Written in a collaged and non-linear way, it’s an honest and fierce examination of the ways that platonic and romantic loves inform one another — and how their losses devastate in equal measure. (Hannah)
Why the Right Went Wrong by E.J. Dionne Jr.: A syndicated columnist and NPR commentator, Dionne is a pundit for people who hate pundits: lucid, funny, ideologically coherent without being rigid. Here, he argues that today’s radical conservatism is rooted not in Tea Party opposition to Obamacare but much further back in history with the Republican Party’s choice of Barry Goldwater for president in 1964. (Michael)
Leonard by William Shatner, with David Fisher: Anyone with fond memories of the original Star Trek has to be rooting for this book to be good. With his music and photography, Leonard Nimoy always came off as a fascinating, multi-faceted man. Shatner, on the other hand, often came off as a serious cheeseball. Wouldn’t it be marvelous to learn that, beneath the bluster and bad acting, Shatner is a sensitive and observant friend and biographer? (Michael)
In Other Words by Jhumpa Lahiri: New Yorker readers got a sneak preview of this beguiling memoir of Lahiri’s struggle to learn Italian, a language she found herself drawn to for mysterious reasons. Written in Italian and translated by Ann Goldstein (who also translated the Elena Ferrante novels), Lahiri explores what it means to think and write in another language, and how a new language can give a writer a new voice. (Hannah)
Pandemic by Sonia Shah: Beware germophobes! This book may stoke your fears as Shah describes how vibro cholerae, a marine bacteria in the Bay of Bengal, caused a global outbreak of cholera in the late-19th century. Shah draws parallels between the technological advancements that allowed cholera to spread (steamships, canals, urbanization) with today’s rapid globalization, reporting on modern pathogens found all over the world. (Hannah)
The Immortal Irishman by Timothy Egan: At the height of the Great Famine of the 1840s, the hero of Egan’s new book, Thomas Meagher, led a failed uprising against British rule, for which he was banished to a Tasmanian prison colony. He promptly escaped and turned up in America, where he led the New York-based Irish Brigade in some of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War and later won a post as territorial governor of Montana. A Pulitzer-winning New York Times reporter and columnist, Egan is the author of The Worst Hard Time, about America in the Dustbowl years, which won a National Book Award. (Michael)
All the Single Ladies by Rebecca Traister: Despite what De Beers would have you think, only 20 percent of American women are married by age 29, a startling demographic shift that Traister examines in this group portrait of America’s female singletons. Based on interviews with academics, social scientists, and, of course, single ladies, this book shows how unmarried women have historically brought about great social change — and will continue to do so in the future. (Hannah)
Seven Brief Lessons on Physics by Carlo Rovelli: The title says it all. This 78-page primer was a bestseller in Italy, and came from a series of popular newspaper articles. It’s written to be accessible and to appeal to the imagination of the liberal arts major — as opposed to aspiring physicists already well versed in the theory of relativity. In writing for a general audience, Rovelli highlights the beauty of theories of gravity, time, and consciousness. (Hannah)
The Lonely City by Olivia Laing: This booklength essay offers an alert and moving exploration of art, anonymity, and modernity as they collide in that great crucible: the city. As in her first book, The Trip to Echo Spring, Laing deftly blends memoir and criticism; the chapters on David Wojnarowicz and Henry Darger, in particular, are not to be missed. (Garth)
The Abundance by Annie Dillard: Forty-two years after Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (which netted the author a nonfiction Pulitzer at the age of 29), Dillard has chosen both old and new essays to fill out her latest collection. In the older pieces corner, “Total Eclipse” exemplifies the author’s naturalistic bent, while “This Is the Life” adds her voice to the 9/11 canon. In the younger pieces corner, she follows a teenager memorizing Arthur Rimbaud, as well as a man who takes a snowball fight a little too seriously. Geoff Dyer provides the foreword. (Thom)
The Civil Wars of Julia Ward Howe by Elaine Showalter: Best known as the author of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” Howe was a prominent abolitionist and an early feminist who campaigned for women’s rights and social reform. This new biography focuses on her unhappy marriage and lack of independence from her husband, a private life at odds with her public achievements. (Hannah)
Charlotte Brontë by Claire Harman: Arriving just in time for Charlotte Brontë’s 200th birthday, this biography will speak to those already familiar with her life story as well as those who have never read a word of her novels. This isn’t the first or last biography we’ll have of Brontë, but according to advance reviews from across the pond, it may be the most novelistic. Harman brings a storyteller’s finesse as she synthesizes decades of research and scholarship, and a realist’s eye to some of the more romantic Brontë myths. (Hannah)
Heads by Jesse Jarnow: Subtitled “A Biography of Psychedelic America,” this new history suggests that psychedelic drugs and the Grateful Dead form a “secret American through-line between the 1950s and the present.” Jarnow, a Brooklyn-based musician and music journalist, uses the history of the legendary jam band and its loyal followers to explore an alternative America packed with “utopian homesteaders and self-taught black market chemists, spiritual seekers and pranksters, graffiti artists and government-wanted hackers, entrepreneurs and pioneering DJs.” (Michael)
Girls & Sex by Peggy Orenstein: The author of Cinderella Ate My Daughter delves into the adolescent years, taking a look at a subject that most parents prefer to turn a blind eye to: the sex lives of teenage girls. Drawing on extensive interviews with young women, Orenstein explores the effects of pornography and social media on a new generation’s sexual coming of age. (Hannah)
The Gunning of America by Pamela Haag: “God, guts, and guns made America free,” goes the old line. This revisionist history by the author of Marriage Confidential begs to differ. Drawing on documents from the archives of the Winchester and Colt companies, Haag shows how the gun industry, not freedom-loving anti-colonialists and frontiersmen, sowed the seeds of the bond between Americans and their firearms. (Michael)
All Tomorrow’s Parties by Rob Spillman: A memoir from the founder of Tin House, who was born in Berlin and grew up among West Berlin artists and intellectuals, the son of two musician parents. As a young adult, Spillman made his way to literary New York, only to return to Germany in his mid-20s after the fall of the Berlin Wall. As much a travelogue as a memoir, Spillman portrays the changing cultural landscape of Berlin while documenting his own coming of age and search for a place to call home. (Hannah)
One-Man Band by Simon Callow: This is the third volume of Callow’s four-volume biography of the great American icon and enigma, Orson Welles. In this volume, which covers the years 1947 to 1964, Callow tracks Welles’s self-exile from the United States when he produced some of his most lasting work, including Touch of Evil. Watch the video of Welles slurring his lines in a late Paul Masson wine commercial, then read Callow’s bio to be reminded why this is so sad. (Michael)
67 Shots by Howard Means: For many Americans, the 1960s ended on May 4, 1970, when a National Guard troop fired 67 bullets into a peaceful crowd of Vietnam War protestors at Kent State University, killing four and injuring nine others. Means uses recently compiled oral histories to piece together the inside story of the campus tragedy that sounded the final death knell for popular support for the war in Vietnam. (Michael)
Why Save the Bankers? by Thomas Piketty: Remember when everyone was obligated to pretend to have read Piketty’s 700-page tome Capital in the Twenty-First Century? Now, the wise folks at Houghton Mifflin have produced a Piketty for the proletariat, compiling eight years of the economist’s columns written for the French magazine Libération. The book begins in September 2008 just after the collapse of Lehman Brothers and takes readers through the aftermath of the crisis that followed, offering Pikettian analysis of the Obama presidency and the European Union’s debt woes. (Michael)
CRUSH edited by Cathy Alter and Dave Singleton: An anthology of essays about formative celebrity crushes from the likes of Stephen King, Jodi Picoult, Roxane Gay, James Franco, Emily Gould, and more. Swoon-worthy subjects include Jared Leto, River Phoenix, Mary Tyler Moore, Paul Newman, and of course, Donny Osmond. It’s hard to resist a book that’s having this much fun with its subject. (Hannah)
True Crimes by Kathryn Harrison: An essay collection from the author of the memoirs The Kiss and The Mother Knot. Written over the course of 10 years, these personal essays are about the author’s family: her parents, her children, her in-laws, and even her dog. Katie Roiphe describes the collection as “the most honest family album ever.” (Hannah)
We Are As Gods by Kate Daloz: In the early 1970s, as war raged in the jungles of Vietnam and in the streets of America’s cities, millions of baby boomers headed for the hills in search of rural authenticity. Shunning life in America’s “plastic” suburbs, these back-to-the-landers built geodesic domes and formed non-traditional families to populate them. Daloz, herself a child of former Peace Corps volunteers who decamped to Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom, focuses on a small group of communards who struggle to hold fast to their high-minded ideals as they endure brutal Northern winters without indoor plumbing or electricity — and, some might argue, basic common sense. (Michael)
The Midnight Assassin by Skip Hollandsworth: Those who like their true-crime leavened with historical insight may want to take a look at this tale of “America’s first serial killer” who terrorized frontier Austin, Texas, in the 1880s. Hollandsworth, executive editor of Texas Monthly, chronicles the hunt for a vicious murderer who attacked women with axes, knives, and even steel rods. “Skip Hollandsworth has a bloodhound’s nose for a great tale,” writes Hampton Sides, author of Ghost Soldiers. “Through scrupulous research and a finely tuned sense of the gothic, Hollandsworth has brought this Texas-sized true-crime story, more than a century old, to vivid, chilling life on the page.” (Michael)
Kill ‘Em and Leave by James McBride: A biography of James Brown, one of the great musical artists of the 20th century and among the most influential. McBride, who is a musician as well as the award-winning author of The Color of Water and The Good Lord Bird, is the perfect biographer for Brown, finding universal American themes in the musician’s life story: the divide between the North and South, rich and poor, and black and white. McBride also delves into the legal battles over Brown’s estate, a subject that sounds so complicated and epic that it could probably warrant its own book. (Hannah)
Pretentiousness by Dan Fox: In this book-length essay, art critic Fox wants to make an argument for the virtues of pretentiousness. “Without pretension,” Fox writes, “we would never have 99% of the art, literature, music, buildings, theater, fashion, cinema, poetry, philosophy, food or design that we love.” Drawing on a wide variety of sources from literature to film to fashion and the art world, this energetic and entertaining book is written with a clarity and humor that is decidedly lacking in pretension. (Hannah)
Violation by Sallie Tisdale: “A Buddhist woman who’s written about porn,” one critic has said of Tisdale. “Do you really need another reason to read her?” Well, if you put it that way, probably not. Portland-based indie press Hawthorne Books has compiled this first-ever essay collection by the author of Talk Dirty to Me and The Best Thing I Ever Tasted. The essays span Tisdale’s 30-year career and range in subject from the biology of flies to the author’s experience of working in an abortion clinic. (Michael)
Labor of Love by Moira Weigel: In this thoughtful work of social history, Weigel likens modern dating to “the worst, most precarious form of contemporary labor: an unpaid internship.” Weigel examines the history of dating, and explains why dating not only feels like work, but is a particular kind of unpaid labor shaped by larger economic forces. Our dating rituals (and apps) have long needed the context that this book provides. (Hannah)
Little Labors by Rivka Galchen: Galchen is to fiction what Ferran Adrià is to gastronomy, serving up the whimsical, the startling, and the revelatory in the guise of the delightfully familiar. And here she comes again, bearing a tray of amuse-bouches: a short book of linked stories and essays about parenthood. (Garth)
White Sands by Geoff Dyer: Originally titled “Where Do We Come From, What Are We, Where Are We Going,” this collection of travel essays asks those three very questions as its British author tours Beijing’s Forbidden City with a guide who isn’t in fact a tour guide, journeys to French Polynesia to soak up the atmosphere that inspired painter Paul Gauguin, and picks up a hitchhiker near a prison at White Sands, N.M. (Michael)
Unforbidden Pleasures by Adam Phillips: The latest from the prolific author of Missing Out, On Balance, On Flirtation, and Side Effects — to name just a few of Phillips’s curiously addictive essay collections, which marry Freudian theory with a literary sensibility. This new collection examines the relationship between prohibition and pleasure, pushing back against the notion that things that are forbidden are necessarily more enjoyable. (Hannah)
Robert Parris Moses by Laura Visser-Maessen: No one was as central to the battle for voting rights for African Americans in Mississippi in the 1960s as Bob Moses, and few figures of that era are more deserving of a full-dress biography. This book, like an earlier Moses biography And Gently He Shall Lead Them, is an academic title, written by a Dutch historian and published by the University of North Carolina Press. No matter. Any treatment of Moses’s role in the violent crucible of the 1964 Freedom Summer and his later work with the math literacy program, The Algebra Project, is bound to be riveting. (Michael)
Joe Gould’s Teeth by Jill Lepore: Legendary New Yorker writer Joseph Mitchell first discovered Joseph Gould on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. In Gould, Mitchell found an eccentric and charismatic writer who was supposedly working on an epic manuscript called “The Oral History of Our Time.” When the manuscript went missing after Gould’s death, Mitchell concluded it had never really existed in the first place. Nearly 60 years later, New Yorker writer Lepore picks up where Mitchell left off, to further investigate one of the magazine’s most elusive subjects. (Hannah)
From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime by Elizabeth Hinton: How did the “land of the free” become the home of the world’s largest prison system? Hinton, a professor of African-American Studies at Harvard, traces the mass incarceration of America’s young black men to a surprising source: President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs of the 1960s. With America’s inner cities ablaze with urban riots, Hinton writes, Johnson combined his famous “War on Poverty” with a lesser-known call for a “War on Crime” — which, over time, helped create a penal system that now locks up one in every 11 black men in America. (Michael)
You May Also Like by Tom Vanderbilt: “I like, therefore I am” is the motto of our social media avatars, and yet — red heart and thumbs-up emojis aside — what does it mean to like something? How are preferences formed? By something in our biology? From our life experiences? Do we shape our preferences or do our preferences shape us? Vanderbilt tackles these questions and more in this book that you may or may not like, but will certainly find interesting. (Hannah)
The Apache Wars by Paul Andrew Hutton: Fans of Philipp Meyer’s epic novel The Son may want to check out this nonfiction account of Mickey Free — born Felix Telles — a mixed-race child whose kidnapping by Apache Native Americans set off a 30-year war between the Apaches and federal troops. Hutton, a professor at the University of New Mexico, relates the violent history of America’s Southwest borderlands where dwindling Native bands, led by legendary chiefs Cochise and Geronimo, made their last stand against the American war machine. (Michael)
Oneida by Ellen Wayland-Smith: A history of the Christian utopian sex-cult cum cookware and flatware makers, by a descendant of one of the group’s founders. As the book would have it, this was possibly the oddest moment in America, when extreme religious fervor in the 19th century resulted in a free-love commune for the devout, which in turn became a major corporation and one of the hallmarks of bourgeois respectability in 20th-century America. (Lydia)
June and beyond
Hunger by Roxane Gay: A powerful new memoir about food, weight, self-image, and what it means to feed yourself. Fans of Gay’s Tumblr blog will recognize these themes from her disarmingly diaristic posts about cooking Blue Apron meals. In an era of Instagrammed desserts and lifestyle blogs, Gay’s writing about food is refreshingly sensitive to the emotions we bring to cooking and eating. (Hannah)
The Hatred of Poetry by Ben Lerner: An award-winning poet before he became known as a novelist (and recently crowned as a MacArthur genius), Lerner defends his life’s work in this book-length essay about what it means to resist poetry. Lerner examines poetry’s great haters, as well as the work of some of the best and worst poets. (Hannah)
I’m Just a Person by Tig Notaro: Low-key, little-known comedian Tig Notaro had a run of bad luck to rival Job’s: first she was hospitalized with a near-fatal intestinal infection, then her mother died, and then she went through a break-up. Shortly after that, she was diagnosed with bilateral breast cancer. A few days after her cancer diagnosis, Notaro took her grief on stage and delivered a brazenly honest stand-up set that went viral. Notaro then found herself on a completely different roller coaster as she experienced fame and national acclaim. Her aptly named memoir reflects on an unexpectedly eventful year. (Hannah)
Battle for Bed-Stuy by Michael Woodsworth: The Johnson-era War on Poverty, despised for its over-reach by conservatives and lamented for its under-performance by liberals, hasn’t fared well in history, so it is a surprise to see a book-length study touting its successes. Battle for Bed-Stuy details how LBJ’s antipoverty programs tapped into existing networks of black residents in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood to battle endemic crime and shore up the local social safety net — in the process, ironically, setting the stage for the present-day gentrification of the once solidly black neighborhood. (Michael)
The Secret Lives of Web Pages by Paul Ford: Every week, it seems, some starlet’s outsized derrière or surgically reconfigured cheekbones “breaks the Internet,” but how is the Internet built in the first place? Ford, an early blogger and adviser to sites like Medium and Kickstarter, explains it all for you in this breezy overview of the hows and whys of what happens when a web page loads onto your browser. (Michael)
Behind the Glass Wall by Aleksandar Hemon: In 2012, Hemon, a Bosnian-American fiction writer best known for his novel The Lazarus Project, spent a few months as a “writer-in-residence” at the United Nations, meeting with officials, attending staff meetings, and sitting in on sessions of the Security Council. In Behind the Glass Wall, Hemon struggles to come to grips with the daily reality of a troubled institution that responded all too slowly to the humanitarian crisis that crippled his home city of Sarajevo, but whose charter allowed for the prosecution of Serbian war criminals. (Michael)
Scream by Tama Janowitz: A memoir from the author of Slaves of New York, the acclaimed short story collection about young people trying to make it in downtown Manhattan in the 1980s. Following the publication of Slaves, Janowitz was grouped with the “Brat Pack” writers alongside Bret Easton Ellis and Jay McInerney — famed for their deadpan minimalist style. Scream reflects on that time, as well as the more universal life experiences that followed as Janowitz became a wife, mother, and caregiver to her aging mother. (Hannah)
At the beginning of the year I was finishing a book, and at the end I was starting to think tentatively about another one, and in between I was making a concerted effort to rediscover reading for pleasure, so one way or another this really has been a year in reading. Heavy reading (A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara), light reading (a spree of memoirs about Freddie Mercury), nourishing reading (Derek Jarman’s Garden), shallow reading (The Andy Warhol Diaries). I built new shelves, and painted them too, so there was at least a month without book piles, though it didn’t take long for buying to exceed capacity.
In retrospect, I’ve been voyaging thematically. Number one: the art of collage. One of the central questions of my new book, The Lonely City, is about brokenness and wholeness: how a self might end up in pieces, and how that sense of sundering might be medicated or treated, particularly by way of art. I was interested in artists like Henry Darger, who concentrated on collage, and in using psychotherapists like Donald Winnicott and Melanie Klein to think about what that kind of work might be doing.
No doubt this is part of why I responded so explosively to Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts (Graywolf Press). A work of collage in its own right, it also thinks deeply and with immense nuance and grace about division and completion, about how we make boundaries and categories and what happens when we cross over, or are more than one thing at the same time. An instruction manual for the art of being both, you might say, which brings me to another book of parts. Ali Smith’s magnificently curious and mobile How to Be Both (Hamish Hamilton) is a novel in two halves that circles in on itself like a mobius strip. You don’t often hear Nelson and Smith discussed in the same breath, but it seems to me they’re up to something of the same business: finding new forms for thinking about sexuality and selfhood, evading or exploding categories, and reveling in language while they do so.
Speaking of which, The Dictionary of Lost Languages is an A to Z of languages that are for one reason or another either extinct or under threat, from Jailic, the pidgin Gaelic IRA political prisoners taught themselves in the Maze, to Umbugarla, lost for good with the death of its last speaker, Butcher Knight. The Dictionary was made by the artist and filmmaker Sarah Wood as a public commission, with copies inserted into each of Cambridge’s public libraries (a very small run is for sale here). Considering that the loss of a language is almost always related to the destruction of a people, whether by war, imperialism, genocide, or globalization, it should make for depressing reading. And yet it’s imbued with an infectious faith in language’s capacity to regenerate and return, and is one of the most heartening and exciting things I’ve read all year (I’m very proud to have contributed an entry on the artist David Wojnarowicz).
Two more suggestions on the art-language axis. The poet Ian Patterson, also a Cambridge professor and translator of Marcel Proust, has just published Time Dust (Equipage), a volume of poems inspired by or written in response to the work of the artist Siân Bowen. A little reminiscent of John Ashbery or J.H. Prynne, and full of double meanings and retractions, this is language folded in upon itself, moody, wonderful, on the threshold of abstraction.
If Patterson has a counterpart in the visual, it’s the painter Matt Connors, whose luminous A Bell Is a Cup (Rainoff) seems to be turning over similar question by way of color and form, and who likewise inserts ripples of unease into what look at first glance like radiant surfaces. With its fabulous rainbow hues, A Bell also wins the prize for the most beautiful book I bought this year.
Another running thread I’ve been thinking about is long-term creativity. How do you keep making art, book after book, decade after decade? What really constitutes success? If you want to survive, you have to ask these questions, and to find answers that are robust and engaging, because if it’s just about critical or market approval you’d go completely crazy. You have to let yourself fail and fuck up, and you have to be able to make bad or messy or otherwise hopeless things on the way to good ones. (I’m writing this in a backyard in New Hampshire accompanied by two dogs and a merlin. Took a break a minute ago to attend to a hive being readied for the winter. I’m all for reading, but sometimes you just need to sit in the sun with a beer and feel the earth swing on its axis).
Anyway, what got me thinking about all this, asides from heading towards 40, was a commission to write about the minimalist painter Agnes Martin, who didn’t really get going until she was in her 40s, and who finished her last painting weeks before her death at the age of 92. Two terrific books about Martin came out this year: Nancy Princenthal’s biography Agnes Martin: Her Life and Art (Thames and Hudson) and a catalogue for the Tate retrospective, edited by Frances Morris and Tiffany Bell, which is full of intensely interesting and thought-provoking essays on closets, grids, withdrawal, persistence, and repetition. My favorite of the bunch is Agnes Martin: Paintings, Writings, Remembrances by Martin’s friend and gallerist Arne Glimcher (Phaidon). It combines scraps of her own writing with beautiful recollections about her defiant, difficult, and isolated life in New Mexico, and the extraordinary things she made there. Martin is something of a guiding light for me right now and will be central in my next book, for sure.
Another category: things that aren’t out in the world yet. First up: Amy Liptrot’s The Outrun (Canongate), a memoir by a young writer about overcoming alcoholism, in part by returning to the isolated Scottish island where she grew up. It’s wild writing: sexy, unguarded, raw, and ardent. Out January, and highly recommended.
I’ve been reading Jeremy Atherton Lin’s blog Leaves for years, and now he’s putting together a memoir, tentatively titled The Sun and the Air, about growing up in California and being obsessed with The Smiths. He’s one of the best writers I’ve encountered, remaking the world sentence by immaculate sentence, and he’s got a particular knack for zooming in on microscope details — an earring, say — and using them to sally outward on a dérivé through cultural and emotional landscapes. He’s better at this than almost anyone I’ve come across, and I hope the book finds a home soon, because I want to read it.
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Now in its second glorious decade, the Year in Reading has become a Millions tradition, featuring contributions from a roster of emerging and marquee authors, staff writers, and friends of the site. It’s an effort that yields hundreds of books for to-be-read piles, as well as some of the best writing we run all year.
After 13 years of solo striving, this was the first year that site editor C. Max Magee finally called for reinforcements; we happily stepped into the breach (now that we’ve seen the amount of work that goes into this, we’re a little frightened of him). It has been a thrill to look for exciting voices, to send emails like carrier pigeons off into the universe and hope they’ll come back bearing book recommendations from Stephen King (maybe next year). If you follow the literary world, you’d think that everyone is reading Elena Ferrante 24/7. And while lots of people are (you’ll see), Year in Reading is also our annual chance to peek behind the curtain at people’s singular reading lives—who went down a comics wormhole, or read multiple Freddie Mercury biographies, or discovered August Wilson for the first time. And not only what they read, but how they felt about what they read–how the reading shaped the year.
There are a huge number of books represented in the series this year, many fantastic lists, and many extraordinary meditations on reading and life. We think you’ll enjoy reading them as much as we enjoyed putting them together. As in prior years, the names of our 2015 contributors will be unveiled throughout the month as their entries are published. Bookmark this post, load up the main page, subscribe to our RSS feed, or follow us on Facebook or Twitter to make sure you don’t miss an entry.
– Your Year in Reading Editors, Lydia Kiesling & Janet Potter
Stephen Dodson, co-author of Uglier Than a Monkey’s Armpit, proprietor of Languagehat.
Ottessa Moshfegh, author of Eileen.
Atticus Lish, author of Preparation for the Next Life.
Angela Flournoy, author of The Turner House.
Claire Messud, author of The Woman Upstairs.
Celeste Ng, author of Everything I Never Told You.
Nell Zink, author of Mislaid.
Claire Vaye Watkins, author of Gold Fame Citrus.
Chris Kraus, author of Summer of Hate.
Katrina Dodson, translator of The Complete Stories of Clarice Lispector.
Joyce Carol Oates, author of The Accursed, among many other books.
Saeed Jones, author of Prelude to Bruise.
The Book Report, everyone’s favorite literary show.
Bijan Stephen, associate editor at the New Republic.
Garth Risk Hallberg, contributing editor for The Millions, author of City on Fire.
Lydia Kiesling, staff writer for The Millions and creator of the Modern Library Revue.
Janet Potter, staff writer for The Millions.
Elizabeth Minkel, staff writer for The Millions.
Emily St. John Mandel, staff writer for The Millions and author of Station Eleven.
Michael Schaub, staff writer for The Millions.
Thomas Beckwith, social media and previews editor for The Millions.
Anne K. Yoder, staff writer for The Millions.
Chigozie Obioma, author of The Fishermen.
Greg Hrbek, author of Not on Fire, but Burning.
Terry McMillan, author of Waiting to Exhale.
Sasha Frere-Jones, writer and musician.
Matthew Salesses, author of The Hundred-Year Flood.
Meaghan O’Connell, author of And Now We Have Everything.
Cristina Henríquez, author of Come Together, Fall Apart.
Vinson T. Cunningham, contributing writer for The New Yorker.
J.M. Ledgard, author of Submergence.
Nadifa Mohamed, author of The Orchard of Lost Souls.
Manjula Martin, editor of SCRATCH: Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living.
Lauren Groff, author of Fates and Furies.
Alexander Chee, author of Edinburgh.
Olivia Laing, author of The Lonely City.
Rahawa Haile, author of short stories and essays.
Rumaan Alam, author of Rich and Pretty.
Justin Taylor, author of Flings.
Julia Alvarez, author of How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents.
Jaquira Díaz, editor of 15 Views of Miami .
Dave Cullen, author of Columbine.
Hannah Gersen, staff writer for The Millions.
Tess Malone, associate editor for The Millions.
Matt Seidel, staff writer for The Millions.
Claire Cameron, staff writer for The Millions, author of The Bear.
Nick Ripatrazone, staff writer for The Millions, author of We Will Listen for You.
Edan Lepucki, staff writer for The Millions, author of California.
Viet Thanh Nguyen, author of The Sympathizer.
Daniel José Older, author of Shadowshaper.
Lincoln Michel, author of Upright Beasts.
Rebecca Carroll, author of Saving the Race.
Ana Castillo, author of So Far from God.
Patrick Rothfuss, author of The Name of the Wind.
Katie Coyle, author of Vivian Apple at the End of the World.
Sady Doyle, a writer in New York.
Patricia Engel, author of Vida.
Manuel Muñoz, author of What You See in the Dark.
Karolina Waclawiak, author of The Invaders.
Hamilton Leithauser, a singer/songwriter in New York City.
Catie Disabato, author of The Ghost Network.
Parul Sehgal, senior editor at The New York Times Book Review.
Margaret Eby, author of South Toward Home.
Tahmima Anam, author of A Golden Age.
Sandra Cisneros, author of Have You Seen Marie?.
Brian Etling, intern for The Millions.
Nick Moran, special projects editor for The Millions.
Jacob Lambert, staff writer for The Millions.
Michael Bourne, staff writer for The Millions.
Bruna Dantas Lobato, intern for The Millions.
Bill Morris, staff writer for The Millions, author of Motor City Burning.
Summer Brennan, author of The Oyster War.
Kerry Howley, author of Thrown.
Rachel Eliza Griffiths, author of Lighting the Shadow.
Maggie Nelson, author of The Argonauts.
Lauren Holmes, author of Barbara the Slut and Other People.
Kate Harding, author of Asking for It.
Year in Reading Outro.
The good stuff: The Millions’ Notable articles
The motherlode: The Millions’ Books and Reviews
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