The Luminaries: A Novel

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The Millions Top Ten: April 2014


We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for April.

This
Month
Last
Month

Title
On List

1.
6.

The Beggar Maid: Stories of Flo and Rose
5 months

2.
9.

Beautiful Ruins
2 months

3.


The Son
1 month

4.
8.

Just Kids
4 months

5.


Bark: Stories

1 month

6.


Well-Read Women: Portraits of Fiction’s Most Beloved Heroines
1 month

7.
10.

The Circle
2 months

8.


Eleanor & Park

1 month

9.


The Good Lord Bird
1 month

10.


Jesus’ Son: Stories
1 month

 

Major shakeups to the April Top Ten were wrought by the graduation of six (count ’em) titles to our Millions Hall of FameThe Goldfinch, Selected Stories, The Flamethrowers, The Luminaries, Draw It With Your Eyes Closed, and The Lowland. This “March 2014” class of ascendants is noteworthy not only for being the biggest single-month Hall of Fame class ever, but also for being one of the most highly-decorated classes in series history. How decorated? Let’s run the tape: Donna Tartt’s novel won this year’s Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Alice Munro won the last Nobel Prize for Literature. Rachel Kushner’s novel was a finalist for the National Book Award. Eleanor Catton was the winner of last year’s Man Booker Prize. And Jhumpa Lahiri’s work was shortlisted for that same Man Booker Prize. Objectively speaking, this is the biggest and best class to date.

Of course, here at The Millions, our readers have plenty of decorated authors on their “to be read” shelves, and as a result, our Top Ten doesn’t so much rebuild — to borrow the parlance of a college football team — as it reloads.

To wit: we’re replacing a National Book Award finalist, a Pulitzer winner, and a Man Booker winner with two National Book Award winners, a Pulitzer finalist, and Lorrie Moore.

Heading off this new crop of titles is Philipp Meyer’s The Son, which was a Pulitzer finalist this past year, and which was met with critical acclaim for weeks after it was first published. It’s a book that John Davidson described for our site as being, “a sprawling, meticulously researched epic tale set in southern Texas,” and one that “leverages” a “certain theory of Native American societies … to explore the American creation myth.” Indeed, Meyer himself noted in his Millions interview that, “If there’s a moral purpose to the book, it’s to put our history, the history of this country, into a context.”

Additionally, the April Top Ten welcomes James McBride’s The Good Lord Bird, which blew past the field at last year’s National Book Awards to claim top prize overall. (The announcement of a movie deal soon followed.) For The Millions, our own Bill Morris sang the work’s praises and he sang them loudly. The book, Morris wrote in his latest Year in Reading piece, is “one of the most astonishing, rollicking, delightful, smart and sad books I’ve read in all my life.” Evidently you listened.

New(ish) releases weren’t the only new additions to our list this month, either. Sneaking into the tenth spot on our list was a classic collection from Denis Johnson, the winner of the National Book Award in 2007. It’s a pity they no longer print the version that fits in your pocket.

And what to say of Lorrie Moore, whose addition to the Vanderbilt faculty last Fall was overshadowed by news of Bark‘s imminent publication? Perhaps it’s best if I let the final paragraph from Arianne Wack’s profile of the author speak for itself:
Exploring the demands of a life is the heart of Moore’s work, and the resonate truth of her prose has fueled a fevered desire for her books. Her characters don’t so much adventure through life as they do drift and stumble through it, making it a map of emotional landmarks, places you keep finding yourself in. One suspects that Moore is not simply writing a life, but cleverly recording yours. There is a commonality linking reader with character, an elastic boundary between her fiction and our reality that both reinforces and subverts one’s own sense of uniqueness. Coming away from one of her stories, one is reminded that we are all just doing this the best we know how.
Or better yet, perhaps I should point you toward our own Edan Lepucki’s summation of Moore’s influence on a generation of American short story writers:
We all came out of Lorrie Moore’s overcoat–or her frog hospital, her bonehead Halloween costume.  If you’re a young woman writer with a comic tendency, and you like similes and wordplay, and you traffic in the human wilderness of misunderstanding and alienation, then you most certainly participate in the Moore tradition.
Lastly, the April Top Ten welcomes two other newcomers as well. Entering the field in the eighth spot is Eleanor & Park, of which Janet Potter proclaimed, “Rarely is a realistic love story a page-turner, but when I got to the end I tweeted: ‘Stayed up til 3 finishing Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell. Would have stayed up forever.'” (The book is being made into a movie, by the way.) Meanwhile, a collection of portraits entitled Well-Read Women: Portraits of Fiction’s Most Beloved Heroines enters the list in sixth place, likely owing to its prominence on Hannah Gersen’s list of gift ideas from last year.

Near Misses: AmericanahLittle Failure: A MemoirStories of Anton ChekhovA Highly Unlikely Scenario, or a Neetsa Pizza Employee’s Guide to Saving the World: A Novel, and Tampa. See Also: Last month’s list.

The Millions Top Ten: March 2014

We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for March.

This
Month
Last
Month

Title
On List

1.
1.

The Goldfinch
6 months

2.
2.

Selected Stories
6 months

3.
3.

The Flamethrowers
6 months

4.
4.

The Luminaries
6 months

5.
5.

Draw It with Your Eyes Closed: The Art of the Art Assignment
6 months

6.
6.

The Beggar Maid: Stories of Flo and Rose
4 months

7.
8.

The Lowland
6 months

8.
10.

Just Kids
3 months

9.


Beautiful Ruins
1 months

10.


The Circle
1 month

 

The first six spots in the March Top Ten are unchanged from February, and only two newcomers — Beautiful Ruins and The Circle — managed to crack this month’s list. Their arrival was made possible by the ascension of Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings and Thomas Pynchon’s Bleeding Edge to the hallowed ground of our Millions Hall of Fame.

It may come as a surprise to faithful Millions readers that this is the first time Jess Walter’s Beautiful Ruins has made our Top Ten. First published in 2012, Walter’s novel has been a mainstay in our Year in Reading series ever since. First came the estimable trio of Emma StraubRoxane Gay, and Robert Birnbaum, who by turns referred to the book as “precise, skilled, quick-witted, and warm-hearted,” “one of my favorite books of the year,” and “especially special.” More recently, Kate Milliken commented on how it seems the entire world has read the book already, and that she was late to the party when she got to it in 2013. Of course, that didn’t stop her from diving in, later confirming what others have said all along: “Jess Walter’s Beautiful Ruins is indeed bumpin’.”

(If you still need more convincing, then know this: the book is on its way to the big screen, too.)

On the other hand, Dave Eggers’s The Circle has hovered outside of the Top Ten ever since Lydia Kiesling identified it as “occup[ying] an awkward place of satire and self-importance.” It wasn’t the most positive review she’s written, but it wasn’t altogether negative, either: “There are noble impulses behind this novel — to prophesy, to warn, and to entertain — and it basically delivers on these fronts.” And if nothing else, Kiesling notes that the book provides a reliable glossary of “awful techno-cum-Landmark Forum-cum-HR-cum-feelings-speak,” which should prove useful for anyone hoping to understand the language of blog posts on TechCrunch, ValleyWag, and other sites devoted to the latest digital secretions from Silicon Valley.

Stay tuned next month for the likely graduation of six titles to our Millions Hall of Fame. Which books will take their places? Will surprises emerge? As with March Madness, the only certainty is uncertainty, so we’ll have to wait and see.

Near Misses: Eleanor & Park, Bark: StoriesThe Son, The Unwinding, Well-Read Women: Portraits of Fiction’s Most Beloved Heroines, and The Good Lord Bird. See Also: Last month’s list.

The Millions Top Ten: February 2014

We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for February.

This
Month
Last
Month

Title
On List

1.
1.

The Goldfinch
5 months

2.
2.

Selected Stories
5 months

3.
3.

The Flamethrowers
5 months

4.
4.

The Luminaries
5 months

5.
6.

Draw It with Your Eyes Closed: The Art of the Art Assignment
5 months

6.
5.

The Beggar Maid: Stories of Flo and Rose
3 months

7.
9.

The Interestings
6 months

8.
8.

The Lowland
5 months

9.
7.

Bleeding Edge
6 months

10.
10.

Just Kids
2 month

 

No new titles were added to this month’s Top Ten, and the four books in the top spots held onto their exact positions from last January. That’s to be expected, I suppose, considering the fact that The Goldfinch is everywhere these days, and was also the subject of Claire Cameron’s recent Millions piece, “How to Tweet Like Boris from The Goldfinch.”

Meanwhile, Alice Munro continues to ride her rightfully-deserved wave of post-Nobel Prize publicity, and her Selected Stories held onto her second-place spot in our list as a result. Still, it may behoove some readers to check out Munro’s other works in the coming months, and for guidance in that department, look no further than Ben Dolnick’s classic, “Beginner’s Guide to Alice Munro.” In the event that you’ve exhausted her bibliography, or you’re simply bitten by Maple Fever following Canada’s hockey sweep in the Sochi Olympics, you might also want to check out Michael Bourne’s essential “Beginner’s Guide to Canadian Lit.” (The cure for Maple Fever, incidentally, is a serving of Timbits from any Tim Horton’s establishment.)

Another item of interest for avid Top Ten fans is the recent debut of Paper Monument’s Draw it With Your Eyes Closed supplemental website of the same name, which was developed to “expand on the previously published content, allowing a broader range of teachers, students, and artists to access, share, and contribute to the project.”

Rounding out this month’s near misses is Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being, which surely blipped onto some readers’ radars after being nominated for the The L.A. Times Book Prize a few weeks back. That Prize will be awarded on April 11. Ozeki’s novel was also featured prominently in our recent comparison of U.S. Vs. U.K. book covers.

Lastly, I’d like to take this moment to announce that I’ll be taking the Top Ten reins from now on. My hope is that I can use my experience with the Curiosities blog to supplement each month’s list with as much recent news about the books as possible. See you in a few weeks!

Near Misses: The Circle, Eleanor & Park, The Son, The Unwinding, and A Tale for the Time Being. See Also: Last month’s list.

The Millions Top Ten: January 2014

We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for January.

This
Month
Last
Month

Title
On List

1.
1.

The Goldfinch
4 months

2.
2.

Selected Stories
4 months

3.
3.

The Flamethrowers
4 months

4.
4.

The Luminaries
4 months

5.
6.

The Beggar Maid: Stories of Flo and Rose
4 months

6.
7.

Draw It with Your Eyes Closed: The Art of the Art Assignment
2 months

7.
8.

Bleeding Edge
5 months

8.
9.

The Lowland
4 months

9.
10.

The Interestings
5 months

10.


Just Kids
1 month

 

Two books graduated to our Hall of Fame in January. We’re very proud to bestow the honor on our ebook original The Pioneer Detectives by Konstantin Kakaes. The book, which debuted in July 2013, is an ambitious work of page-turning reportage, the kind of journalism we all crave but that can often be hard to find. Filled with brilliant insights into how scientific discoveries are made and expertly edited by our own Garth Hallberg, The Pioneer Detectives is a bargain at $2.99. We hope you’ll pick it up if you haven’t already. Pioneer is joined in the Hall of Fame by another ebook orginal, George Saunders’s $0.99 short story Fox 8, which returned to our Top 10 for a seventh month in January after missing the list in December and therefore qualifies for the Hall.

Other than that, the list is positively gridlocked with several books staying put, including Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch atop the list. Our lone debut is unexepected: Patti Smith’s memoir Just Kids. The National Book award-winning title has been popular among our readers for quite a while and was a “Near Miss” for several months on our list as recently as March 2011. The book likely got a boost thanks to Garth’s mention in his Year in Reading in December.

Incidentally, this also means that with the exception of Thomas Pynchon and the group-authored Draw it With Your Eyes Closed, our list is made up entirely of books by women.

Near Misses: The Circle, Eleanor & Park, The Son, Night Film, and Well-Read Women: Portraits of Fiction’s Most Beloved Heroines. See Also: Last month’s list.

Beethoven Got There First

Pity the novel.  Once upon a time it was a big, baggy story told in chronological order by an omniscient narrator.  Over time, it’s been marginalized, shunned, belittled, banned, and more recently, broken into pieces that vie with each other to make a cohesive whole.  You could blame dwindling attention spans, pared down by digital toys.  It’s ancient history that any TV viewer can either reorder or skip scenes at home.  Now we spend a day streaming series that took years to air, let alone produce.  The consequences of contemporary viewing preferences are the random jumbling of storyline, as well as time’s transposition and compression.  Why wouldn’t novels follow suit?

When I first started thinking about this, I looked for parallels with how we share personal stories in our increasingly scarce private lives.  Individual narratives are never linear, nor do we recount them to each another in a linear fashion.  Small wonder that contemporary novels unfold out of order.

And yet, I’m sure there’s more.  Michael David Lukas, reaching into the musical lexicon to examine novel developments, used the term “polyphonic” (referring to a chorus or multiplicity of voices) to make an intriguing argument:   “Polyphony widens the novel’s geographic, psychological, chronological, and stylistic range, while simultaneously focusing its gaze.”

Lukas cites Nicole Krauss’s Great House and Tom Rachman’s The Imperfectionists.  Categorized as “novels,” these books are linked short stories with a common item or thread running through the chapters.  In Great House, it’s a desk; in The Imperfectionists, it’s the characters’ association with an English language newspaper published in Rome.  More recently, Ayana Mathis’s The Twelve Tribes of Hattie has a character — Hattie — who serves as the common element.  Lukas uses  “polyphony” to describe novels that further increase structural complexity by inverting time and space.  For example, David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas is populated with seemingly unrelated characters, geography, and time periods.  Bob Shacochis’s The Woman Who Lost Her Soul shares similarities.  The action is set against historical events that are presented out of chronological order within diverse geographies and between seemingly unrelated protagonists.

Ted Gioia, a musician and writer, followed Lukas with an essay written in fragmented bits of text, probing why the novel is breaking up, accompanied by an ambitious 57-volume booklist.

Gioia places the fracturing novel in a broad cultural context that includes Thelonious Monk as the “jazzman of fragmentation” and Wittgenstein as its philosopher.  Applauding the current fragmenters for successfully navigating literary complexity and traditional storytelling (aka plot), Gioia affirms that despite fission, novel craft is improving.  Even if master short story writer Alice Munro were not the most recent Nobel laureate, every writer worth her salt knows that writing lean is far more difficult than producing the more leisurely, lazy, lengthy counterpart.

Except that novels are swelling again.  Not only did last year’s Booker Prize winner, Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries clock in at 848 pages, but several equally celebrated books boast equivalent heft, including Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Signature of All Things, and Shacochis’s The Woman Who Lost Her Soul.

Why?  Ted Gioia offers a theory.  “All experimental approaches in the arts can perhaps be divided into two categories — experiments of disjunction or experiments of compression.  Either things get pushed apart, or get squeezed together.  Either an aesthetic of disintegration, or an aesthetic of wave-like flow.”

The Grand Experimenter, it turns out, was Ludwig van Beethoven.  This musical colossus, completely deaf, his personal affairs in chaos, perennially behind in his finances, unwell and unloved, reworked the string quartet in ways that continue to bewilder and astonish.  The six late quartets, for two violins, viola, and cello, were composed within two years of Beethoven’s death in 1827.  They are called by their opus numbers: 127, 130, 131, 133, 132, 135 (don’t ask about numerical order).  These pieces span the experimental pendulum’s trajectory.  The composer not only fractured, he compressed and expanded as well.

Beethoven’s earlier quartets and those of his predecessors and successors as well, generally have four movements:  a lively opening, a slow second movement, a “minuet and trio” movement beat in three (the order of the second and third are often reversed), and an authoritative final movement.  Around structure, Beethoven went rogue with his late quartets.  He took the traditional four-movement quartet, split it up, and then both condensed and augmented it.  Opus 130 has six movements as opposed to the usual four; Opus 131 has seven that are played/performed without a break as one long movement; and Opus 132 has five.  Opus 133, the Grosse Fugue, is a one-movement leviathan.  It was meant to be the sixth and final movement to Opus 130, but was horrendously difficult and got an appalling reception.  “I think, with Voltaire, ‘that a few gnat-stings cannot arrest a spirited horse in his course,’” Beethoven said of critics.  However, he bowed to outside pressure and  lopped off the Grosse Fugue, publishing it as a stand-alone composition.  Then wrote a frothy new ending that was the last piece he completed.

Within these overarching structures, Beethoven took traditional form and forged new trails.  For example, he quarried the unconventional from the garden-variety “minuet and trio” movement.  All but two of the late quartets contain such a movement, beat in three according to the rules, and organized thematically just as Haydn or Mozart would have done.  In these movements, however, Beethoven plays with rhythm by blurring the lines between measures.  He foreshortens melodic line and accelerates tempo.  In other words, most of these movements go at breakneck speed and/or the tune is too fractured to sing along.

Beethoven took another well-known form, the theme and variations movement, and stretched and deepened it in new ways.  Opus 127’s second movement opens with an austere violin melody that sets the theme for the variations that follow.  The movement is immense, vastly longer than the slow movements of string quartets that preceded it, including previous slow movements that Beethoven had written.  Here the composer takes his time on a grand scale, luxuriating in the breadth and depth of his melodic creation.

The fugue, a melody introduced by one instrument that is subsequently taken up by another instrument, appears in many string quartet movements.  (Think of a round, where the melody travels through various voices and is inverted and lengthened throughout the course of the piece.)  Beethoven’s Grosse Fugue, however, is in a class by itself.  It is the longest of Beethoven’s late quartet movements.  Talk about dense.  With its abrupt, ruptured bursts of sound, the Grosse Fugue is virtually inaccessible on first hearing.  Like the 20th-century music that was to follow, the Grosse Fugue is dissonant.  There are long stretches where rhythm elbows out melody, relentless beats without much tune.

One hundred ninety years ago, Beethoven was covering the experimental spectrum, fragmenting and enlarging within the space of a few short years.  His late quartets fluctuate between slower, lyrical movements and faster movements with short, chopped up melody, compacted rhythms, interrupted tempos, and challenging key signatures.  He deployed the four instruments (voices) in novel ways, assembled new harmonies, smashed rhythmic convention, messed with dynamic (volume) markings, upended time signatures, and a whole lot else.  Including inspiring countless artists; for example, T.S. Eliot and the Four Quartets.

Beethoven may have turned out to be the Grand Experimenter, but did he actually set out to experiment?  Radical innovation may be the consequence, rather than the cause, of self-expression at this stratospheric level.  Some combination of genius and drive spurred Beethoven’s compositional feats.  To satisfy the demands of his genius, Beethoven tilled new musical ground.

His deafness must have played a central role.  Beethoven’s ability to compose through the deafness does not speak to his musicality per se.  Any well-trained composer can pick up a score and understand what’s on the page without playing it.  Beethoven’s deafness speaks instead to something deeper.  In his early 30s, 15 years before his death, Beethoven prepared a document for his brothers.  Named for the place it was written, Beethoven’s “Heiligenstadt Testament” bears witness to the despair and isolation caused by his deafness, as reprinted in Thayer’s Life of Beethoven:

Though born with a fiery, active temperament…I was soon compelled to withdraw myself, to live life alone.  If at times I tried to forget all this, oh how harshly was I flung back by the doubly sad experience of my bad hearing…How could I possibly admit an infirmity in the one sense which ought to be more perfect in me than in others, a sense which I once possessed in the highest perfection, a perfection such as few in my profession enjoy or ever have enjoyed…For me there can be no relaxation with my fellow-men, no refined conversations, no mutual exchange of ideas.  I must live almost alone like one who has been banished…

Despite being the most accomplished musician of his day, Beethoven became unable to perform his piano concertos because he could not hear the orchestra.  He was thwarted from conducting his symphonies and from playing his chamber music.  In short, at the apex of his musical powers, he was prevented from participating in the joy of his own creation, forced to plumb the music in silence.

Silence birthed late Beethoven — music of profound and unparalleled emotional range.  What did Beethoven discover within the silence?  Certainly he found the freedom to buck convention and strike out on his own.  But within the silence, he accessed something more: the arduous, agonizing road to his own mortality.  The late quartets contain movements of such introspection and depth that to partake in the composer’s grief becomes a sublime, transformative experience.  This musical giant is frustrated and raging, tormented by illness and loneliness, wrestling with the divine.  We hear him grappling to make his peace.

There isn’t a more majestic, reflective hymn than the fifth “Cavatina” movement to Opus 130.  Beethoven himself said that nothing he had written so moved him; in fact “merely to revive it afterwards in his thoughts and feelings brought forth renewed tributes of tears,” according to Thayer’s Life of Beethoven. Or the transcendent otherworldly opening of Opus 131.  And Beethoven’s rare commentary to Opus 132’s third movement summons the divine directly, “Heiliger Dankgesang eines Genesenen an die Gottheit, in der lydischen Tonart” — “A Convalescent’s Holy Song of Thanksgiving to the Divinity, in the Lydian mode.”  The spare, deliberate simplicity of this movement is music of the spheres.  The quartet’s final movement combines longing with agitated dissonance, delivering a sense of cosmic urgency.

In the last substantial work Beethoven finished — Opus 135 — the listener travels through sanctified territory, accompanying Beethoven to his death. Beethoven’s notes to Opus 135’s fourth movement, printed in the final manuscript above a nine-note tune, read: “’Der Schwer Gefasste Entschluss.’  Muss es sein?  Es muss sein!  Es muss sein!” — “‘The Difficult Decision.’  Must it be?  It must be!  It must be!”

Except that these words are not what they seem.  A story that circulated during Beethoven’s time was that the tune came from a canon Beethoven had penned to capture a patron’s reaction to unwelcome news; Herr Dembscher had been told that to obtain a quartet manuscript for a party he wanted to host, he would have to pay 50 florins.

Perhaps these imponderables are meant to remain so; for example why the novel is shrinking or fracturing or expanding or twisting itself into something else.  No matter.  Writers pursuing their creative ends are apt to reinvent the medium for a long time.

Image Credit: Wikipedia

Judging Books by Their Covers 2014: U.S. Vs. U.K.

As we’ve done for several years now, we thought it might be fun to compare the U.S. and U.K. book cover designs of this year’s Morning News Tournament of Books contenders. Book cover art is an interesting element of the literary world — sometimes fixated upon, sometimes ignored — but, as readers, we are undoubtedly swayed by the little billboard that is the cover of every book we read. And, while some of us no longer do all of our reading on physical books with physical covers, those same cover images now beckon us from their grids in the various online bookstores. From my days as a bookseller, when import titles would sometimes find their way into our store, I’ve always found it especially interesting that the U.K. and U.S. covers often differ from one another. This would seem to suggest that certain layouts and imagery will better appeal to readers on one side of the Atlantic rather than the other. These differences are especially striking when we look at the covers side by side.

The American covers are on the left, and the UK are on the right. Your equally inexpert analysis is encouraged in the comments.


So this is interesting. It would seem that us American readers require more orbs to get us interested in a novel of Victorian scope and heft. I like the slightly more subtle U.K. look


The U.S. version is a little dull though it has a pleasing spareness to it and I like the vintage botanical illustration thing going on there. I far prefer it to the U.K. cover. I get that there’s a handmade motif happening but the colors are jarring to my eye.


I don’t think you would ever see a cover that looks so “genre” on a literary novel in the U.S., and it kind of makes sense with Hamid’s self-help-inflected title and the “Filthy Rich” in a giant font. The U.S. cover is aggressively boring.


Both are bold, but I prefer the U.S. cover. The burnt tablecloth is a more original image than the lobster.


I suspect I may be in the minority here, but I prefer the U.S. cover which seems to bank on the Lahiri name, rather than the U.K., edition which seems to telegraph the subcontinental content.


Neither of these seems to be exerting much effort to break out of the Western-genre tradition, but the U.S. version’s painterly affect at least gives it a little intrigue.


At first glance, both of these appear to be going for the creative use of classic Asian motifs, but the British cover is actually pretty wild, using something called “Blippar technology” to produce an animated effect when you look at it with a smartphone. So, points for innovation in book cover design.


Both of these are pretty great, but I love the U.S. cover. It’s clever to have a YA book with a cover that looks drawn by the hand of a precocious teen. It kind of reminds me of the similar design philosophy of the 2007 movie Juno.


Drawings inspired by vintage botany texts must be in this year. Here we have two different versions of the same idea, but the U.S. take is more lush and interesting.


Atkinson is a superstar in the U.K. (as opposed to merely having legions of devoted fans in the U.S.) so that may account for the foregrounding of her name on the U.K. cover. Regardless, the U.S. look is far more intriguing.


The Flamethrowers unaccountably didn’t get a Tournament bid, but it should have, so we’ll include it here, especially because it’s a great example of some seriously bold cover design going on on both sides of the pond.

The Millions Top Ten: December 2013

We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for December.

This
Month
Last
Month

Title
On List

1.
6.

The Goldfinch
3 months

2.
1.

Selected Stories
3 months

3.
2.

The Flamethrowers
3 months

4.
5.

The Luminaries
3 months

5.
3.

The Pioneer Detectives
6 months

6.
7.

The Beggar Maid: Stories of Flo and Rose
3 months

7.


Draw It with Your Eyes Closed: The Art of the Art Assignment
1 month

8.
9.

Bleeding Edge
4 months

9.
10.

The Lowland
3 months

10.


The Interestings
4 months

 

To start the new year, we’ve made some minor changes to how we calculate our list. Basically, we’ve added a slight penalty for lower-priced books because we were finding that spikes in sales of cheaper short-format books (e.g. "Kindle Singles") and aggressive promotional pricing of ebooks was skewing the list a bit. The change had no dramatic impact on the December list other than that it knocked George Saunders’s $0.99 short story Fox 8 out of our top 10.
The rest of the big changes were driven by our 2013 Year in Reading. Some books that were already popular with our readers got a lot of love in the series, including Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch which surged into the top spot after three contributors named the book as a favorite read of 2013. Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings was also a popular name in the series, and that helped return the book to the Top Ten after a few months off the list. Rachel Kushner was the runaway favorite in our series for The Flamethrowers, though the book dropped a spot to number three.
Our lone debut is a very unusual title. Draw It with Your Eyes Closed: The Art of the Art Assignment is a slim collection, the result of several art teachers being asked to contribute the best art assignments they’ve ever heard of. Hannah Gersen included the book in her list of offbeat gifts for writers last month.
Finally, the contentious Taipei by Tao Lin graduates to our Hall of Fame. The book was the subject of a famously negative review here that perhaps not so paradoxically seemed to get a lot of people interested in the book.
Near Misses: The Circle, Night Film, Eleanor & Park, The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America, and MaddAddam. See Also: Last month’s list.

Wrapping Up A Year in Reading 2013

Another year has flown by and so has another Year In Reading. We thank everyone who participated and all who read and shared these wonderful pieces in our series.

While we trimmed our contributor list slightly this year, they shared their thoughts on more books than our participants did a year ago. 2013 brought 68 participants (down from 74 participants in 2012) sharing 350 different books (up from 289 a year ago). We’re happy to note that 11 of those authors highlighted in our series also submitted their own pieces in the series. The books selected run the gamut from nonfiction to poetry, short stories, essays, fiction, and even a zine and an interactive story.

The oldest books selected were Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey by Kristopher Jansma. These slightly beat out (by a century or two) Michael Robbins’s selection of Confucius’s Analects.

The youngest author selected was Gabby Bess. Her book Alone with Other People was one of several selected by Roxane Gay. Bess was born in 1992. This beats out the next-youngest author, Eleanor Catton (b. 1985), whose Booker-winning The Luminaries was a selection of both Garth Risk Hallberg and Janice Clark, by quite a bit.

Finally, seven books were named by three or more Year In Reading participants, and six of those seven books were written by women. Rachel Kushner was the runaway favorite for her book The Flamethrowers, getting six mentions (picked by Garth Risk Hallberg, David Gilbert, Matt Bell, Bill Morris, Adam Wilson, and Elliott Holt.) Dave Eggers’s The Circle was picked by Choire Sicha, Hannah Gersen, and Tess Malone. Alissa Nutting’s Tampa was picked by Roxane Gay, Matt Bell, and Charles Blackstone. Renata Adler’s Speedboat was selected by David Gilbert, Matt Bell, and Emily St. John Mandel. Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow was picked by Sergio De La Pava, Rachel Kushner, and Teddy Wayne. Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings was chosen by three staffers: Hannah Gersen, Edan Lepucki, and Janet Potter. And Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch was picked by Benjamin Percy, Edan Lepucki, and Janice Clark.


We hope you enjoyed we had on offer this month, and we’ll see you again next year.

P.S. Special thank yous are due to Ujala Sehgal and Adam Boretz, our tireless editors, who prepared every last one of our Year in Reading entries for publication. Also very deserving of thanks are Tess Malone and Thom Beckwith, both of whom have helped spread the word about our biggest Year and Reading to date, and to Nick Moran who oversaw their efforts and compiled the stats I used to write this very round-up. Thank you to our staff writers, whose pieces were some of the highlights of the series and who did wonderful work for us throughout 2013.

And of course, thanks to all of you, our readers, and to all a Happy New Year!

More from A Year in Reading 2013

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

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.

A Year in Reading: Janice Clark

I’m a sucker for a reading list, so much so that for many years I had an obsessive relationship with a “100 books” list copied from an old edition of Clifton Fadiman’s Lifetime Reading Plan. The list, which moved with me from city to city and wall to wall, included nothing post-1978, few women, and only grudgingly departed Britain and the U.S. to tap the odd German and a Russian or two. I ignored the list’s omissions and biases, seduced by the pregnant roundness of “100” and the treasure-map appeal of the list itself, its typing fading, its edges growing ragged as it travelled. I was convinced that if I read those books the fundamental secrets of the world would be laid bare in an alchemical flash and I would be transfigured, but only if I adhered to the magical-thinking rules I had set for myself: I must read from the beginning, chronologically, and read nothing else in between. With each fresh attempt, I would pace happily through the Greeks, stall somewhere in the Middle Ages, skip with guilty pleasure to Melville or Tolstoy, then give up altogether, relieved, to read something new. I never could throw out the list, though. Every few years it surfaces in an odd place, sifting to the top of a drawer or edging out from under a drawing tacked to a wall, and I’m tempted to start again.

My reading list this year was short. When I’m drafting something new and I’m deep into the process, I read less and more warily, hoping to modulate that unwitting, sponge-like process whereby one’s prose becomes infused with whatever one is reading. This year, because I’m working on a sort of children’s book for adults, I revisited childhood favorites including The Princess and the Goblin by George MacDonald, The Diamond in the Window by Jane Langton, and Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped.

The novels I most love grant me access to immersive fictional worlds, long, atmospheric, and unafraid of artifice. This year I enjoyed the unabashedly Dickensian flavor of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, packed with coincidence and and melodrama, riding a line between Victorian conceits — an orphan, a ring, a mysterious painting — and contemporary realities. Tartt’s prose has the unfakeable depth and luster of long gestation, reward for the decade-long waits between her books.

Though I’m only halfway through Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries, it’s already my other favorite of 2013, for its ingenious structure, blithe disregard for the primacy of character in fiction, and heedless invention.

More from A Year in Reading 2013

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

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.

A Year in Reading: Garth Risk Hallberg

This August, not long before Labor Day, my wife and I packed the kids into the back of a rented car and left behind the garbage-smelling streets of New York for the comparative balm of Maine. For the second year running, we’d booked ourselves into a little bungalow about as far east as you can go before you drive into the ocean. This modest slice of paradise doesn’t come cheap; a week’s sublet costs only slightly less than our monthly rent. To my mind, though, it’s worth it — not least because the house’s sun porch is my favorite place to read in the entire world. There, with the kids napping upstairs and the porch’s old glass rippling the heavy-limbed spruces outside and the bees bumbling around in the hydrangeas and the occasional truck droning past on the two-lane, I can actually feel time passing. Moreover, I can choose to lavish a couple unbroken hours of it on a book, in a way life in the 21st-century metropolis (with small children!) renders vanishingly improbable.

It’s no surprise, then, that many of my best reading experiences of the last year were concentrated in that single week. Early on, I read for the first time Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, and found in the wry lushness of its prose a perfect literary analogue for the sensory assault of high summer in a new place. In fact, the divide between the life of the senses and the life of the mind is one of the many barriers Woolf’s intrepid hero/ine surmounts, “For it must be remembered that… [the Elizabethans] had none of our modern shame of book learning…no fancy that what we call ‘life’ and ‘reality’ are somehow connected with ignorance and brutality.” I then devoured, in the course of two naptimes, Norman Rush’s Subtle Bodies. Unlike its predecessors, Mating and Mortals, this novel has some glaring defects, and reviewers, by turns baffled and hostile, went straight for the invidious comparison. Yet what struck me was the through-line of Rush’s sensibility. The supreme pleasures of all of his work (the characters, the loving irony, the human comedy) are present here, in spades, and that made Subtle Bodies feel like a gift. And just before returning to New York, I read, in a state of admiration bordering on envy, the brilliant first third of Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers.

Probably the single most perfect book I encountered in 2013, though, appeared under completely different circumstances — that is, in February, back in the city, amid the ice. Gertrude Stein’s Three Lives didn’t just reward my attention; it commanded it. To pick up the book was to be summoned away from the diced-up jumble of my own unfinished errands and brought into the presence of Anna and Melanctha and Lena. Reading Stein is like being brainwashed, but in a positive sense. It cleanses the windows of perception. It is Maine on the page.

In fact, much of what moved me most in 2013 drew in one way or another on the Modernist legacy of “deep time,” a countervailing force to the jump-cut, the click-through, the sample rate. I came to the reissue of Renata Adler’s Pitch Dark, for example, expecting a kind of cool PoMo minimalism. Instead, I discovered a crypto-maximalist whose sentences, surfing along on volumes of unexpressed pain, are as perfect in their way as Woolf’s. Péter Nádas’s putatively maximalist Parallel Stories, meanwhile, offered the most miniaturist reckoning of behavioral psychology this side of…well, of Gertrude Stein. The erotic excesses everyone complains about — e.g, the 300-page sex scene — are in fact the opposite of erotic; they’re a kind of clinical accounting of the physical side of human history, the flesh that has a mind of its own. “Unsubtle Bodies,” would have been a good title. But in the end, I respected the hell out of Parallel Stories, and ended up despite myself — despite, perhaps, even Nádas — caring deeply about its characters. And then there was Laszlo Krasznahorkai. Where his first three novels to appear in English were dark, his latest, Seiobo There Below, is bright. Where they were terrestrial, it is astral. But in one important respect, it’s just like them: it’s a masterpiece.

I know I tend to go on about the Hungarians, but this seemed to be a ridiculously rich year for American fiction, too. Fall, in particular, was a murderer’s row of big books; I could talk here about Lethem, about Tartt, about Pynchon, about David Gilbert, about Caleb Crain, about James McBride’s surprise National Book Award, but I’d like to put in a good word for a couple of books that came out in the early part of the year, and were perhaps overlooked. The first is William H. Gass’s Middle C. Not only hasn’t Gass lost a step at age 88; he’s gained a register. One of Middle C’s deep motifs involves an “Inhumanity Museum,” but the surface here is warmer and funnier and more approachable than anything Gass has written since Omensetter’s Luck.

Fewer readers will have heard of Jonathan Callahan, whose first book, The Consummation of Dirk, was published in April by Starcherone Press. It’s a multifariously ambitious story collection on the model of David Foster Wallace’s Girl With Curious Hair. The glaring debts to Wallace and Krasznahorkai and Thomas Bernhard can be a liability, but in the longer stories here, including “A Gift” and “Cymbalta” and “Bob,” and in the closing trio, Callahan uses the pressure of influence to form shapes entirely his own.

On the poetry side, I adored Bernadette Mayer’s rousing and funny collection, The Helens of Troy, New York. Meyer uses various quasi-Oulipian formal constraints to turn interviews with the titular Helens — yes, every woman named Helen living in Troy, New York — into poems. Both Helens and Troy emerge richer for the transformation. And while Patti Smith’s Just Kids isn’t technically verse, it makes good on every claim for Smith as one of the few true rock n’ roll poets. (The late Lou Reed was another.) Not only is Just Kids an unmissable story; it attains the same purity of expression as Horses.

Usually, rock writing is a kind of guilty pleasure. Unforgettable Fire, Glory Days… I feel absolutely no guilt, though, in recommending the English journalist Nick Kent’s collection of rock profiles, The Dark Stuff. It’s John Jeremiah Sullivan good. Gay Talese good. Sometimes it’s even Joseph Mitchell good.

I made it through a couple of other great works of narrative journalism this year, as well. William Finnegan, in addition to being one of my favorite New Yorker writers, has got to be one of the best reporters on earth, and his Cold New World, published in 1998, is like a Clinton-era companion to George Packer’s The Unwinding. In it, Finnegan spends months with teenagers in four far-flung American communities, uncovering the frictions of the new economy long before it blew up in our faces. Robert Kolker’s The Lost Girls, which came out this summer, similarly examines the effect of those frictions on young women drawn into prostitution — specifically, five young women who would end up murdered by a serial killer out on Long Island. Kolker doesn’t turn phrases with the acuity of Kent or Finnegan, but his patient unfolding of his story gives the reader room to become outraged.

As usual, I find myself running on well beyond “Year in Reading” length. But in my defense: I hardly reviewed anything this year! This is my one chance to enthuse! And though I’ve talked about William Gass, and William Finnegan, what about William Styron’s The Long March, or William T. Vollmann’s Fathers & Crows? This is not to mention The Luminaries, which is currently sitting half-read on my nightstand, alongside The Cuckoo’s Calling and The Bridge Over the Neroch and Teju Cole. My wife says it’s starting to look like a hoarder lives here. How am I ever going to finish all this stuff? But I remain optimistic, against all the evidence, that life might offer a little more time to read in 2014. And if not, I suppose we’ll always have Maine.

More from A Year in Reading 2013

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

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.

The Millions Top Ten: November 2013

We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for November.

This
Month
Last
Month

Title
On List

1.
1.

Selected Stories
2 months

2.
2.

The Flamethrowers
2 months

3.
3.

The Pioneer Detectives
5 months

4.
4.

Taipei
6 months

5.
5.

The Luminaries
2 months

6.
8.

The Goldfinch
2 months

7.
6.

The Beggar Maid: Stories of Flo and Rose
2 months

8.
7.

Fox 8
5 months

9.
9.

Bleeding Edge
3 months

10.


The Lowland
2 months

 

There wasn’t much action on our list November as the top 5 stayed unchanged. Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch was the big mover, jumping from the eighth spot to the sixth.
The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson graduates to our illustrious Hall of Fame after a six-month run on the list that was initially spurred by the book’s Pulitzer win earlier this year. That departure makes room for the return of Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland
Near Misses: Night Film, Visitation Street, The Interestings, MaddAddam and Dear Life. See Also: Last month’s list.

Before They Were Notable: 2013

This year’s New York Times Notable Books of the Year list is out. At 100 titles, the list is more of a catalog of the noteworthy than a distinction. Sticking with the fiction exclusively, it appears that we touched upon a few of these books as well:

The Accursed by Joyce Carol Oates (A Virtuoso at Work: Joyce Carol Oates Turns 75)
All That Is by James Salter (All You Have Is What You Remember: The Millions Interviews James Salter, James Salter’s All That Is: From Dream to Reality)
The Circle by Dave Eggers (A Little Bit Beta: On Dave Eggers’s The Circle)
The Color Master by Aimee Bender (Childish Things: Aimee Bender’s The Color Master)
The Dinner by Herman Koch (After The Dinner: A Round Up of Newly Translated Dutch Fiction)
Dissident Gardens by Jonathan Lethem (Queens As a Metaphor for the World: On Jonathan Lethem’s Dissident Gardens)
Doctor Sleep by Stephen King (Everything I Know About America I Learned from Stephen King)
The End of the Point by Elizabeth Graver (The Life that Develops In-Between: On Elizabeth Graver’s The End of the Point)
The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner (Rachel Kushner Is Well On Her Way to Huges)
A Guide to Being Born by Ramona Ausubel (The Chemistry between Fiction and Reality: The Millions Interviews Ramona Ausubel, a Millions contributor)
Half The Kingdom by Lore Segal (The Smile in the Bone: Lore Segal’s Half The Kingdom)
The Infatuations by Javier Marías (The Darkness is Deep Indeed: On Javier Marías’s The Infatuations)
The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer (Sing It, Sister! On Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings)
The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton (When the Stars Align: On Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries)
MaddAdam by Margaret Atwood (The Past is What Matters: On Margaret Atwood’s Vision of the Future)
A Marker to Measure Drift by Alexander Maksik (Something Stark and Essential: On Alexander Maksik’s A Marker to Measure Drift)
Schroder by Amity Gaige (Living a Lie: The Millions Interviews Amity Gaige)
The Son by Philipp Meyer (The Last of the Comanches: Philipp Meyer’s The Son, Delusion is Crucial: The Millions Interviews Philipp Meyer)
Tenth of December by George Saunders (George Saunders and the Question of Greatness)
Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis (Peeling Back the Oprah Seal: Ayana Mathis’s Twelve Tribes of Hattie)
Woke Up Lonely by Fiona Maazel (Alienation for Two: Fiona Maazel’s Woke Up Lonely, a Millions contributor)

The Millions Top Ten: October 2013

We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for October.

This
Month
Last
Month

Title
On List

1.


Selected Stories
1 month

2.


The Flamethrowers
1 month

3.
1.

The Pioneer Detectives
4 months

4.
2.

Taipei
5 months

5.


The Luminaries
1 month

6.


The Beggar Maid: Stories of Flo and Rose
1 month

7.
3.

Fox 8
4 months

8.


The Goldfinch
1 month

9.
5.

Bleeding Edge
2 months

10.
4.

The Orphan Master’s Son
6 months

 

In October, we were in the thick of book prize season, and the announcements sent readers running to new books, resulting in a big shake-up on our list, led by new Nobel Laureate Alice Munro. Within minutes of the announcement, readers were finding our “Beginner’s Guide to Alice Munro“, penned by Ben Dolnick, author of Shelf-Love, an ebook original about Munro. Dolnick called Munro’s Selected Stories “the Munro book to read if you’re only willing to read one” and he singled out The Beggar Maid as “the Munro book to read if you’re only willing to read one but don’t like the idea of reading a literary greatest hits album.” Many readers took his advice and the former landed atop our list, while the latter ended up in the sixth spot.

Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers continued to win fans (here at The Millions, for example; we also interviewed her), but it was the book’s landing on the National Book Award shortlist that rocketed it to the second spot on our list.

There was also the Booker Prize. Fresh off a rave review here at The Millions, Eleanor Catton took home the Booker, and her big novel landed at #5 on our list.

And the last of our several debuts is Donna Tartt’s long-awaited The Goldfinch. No surprise there.

All these new books bumped five names from our list, collected here as this month’s Near Misses: Night Film, The Lowland, The Interestings, Visitation Street and MaddAddam. See Also: Last month’s list.

The Best Books of the Year (2013)

Amazon released their annual Best Books of the Year: Top 100 in Print list today (as well as a free and helpful Reader’s Guide), and numerous Millions favorites made the cut. Both George Saunders’s Tenth of December and Philipp Meyer’s The Son cracked the top 10. We reviewed both here and here, respectively. Other notable books boasting extensive Millions coverage include Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings (review), George Packer’s The Unwinding (review), Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries (review), Dave Eggers’s The Circle (review), James Salter’s All That Is (review), Karen Russell’s Vampires in the Lemon Grove (interview), Stuart Nadler’s Wise Men (review),  Colum McCann’s TransAtlantic (review), and Colm Tóibín’s The Testament of Mary (review). Meanwhile, the top spot belongs to Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch.

2013 Man Booker Prize Winner Announced

| 4

Eleanor Catton has claimed the 2013 Man Booker Prize – as well as its £50,000 payout – for her second novel, The Luminaries. Catton had 11/4 odds to win this year’s prize according to popular bookmakers, Ladbrokes, and she has now become the youngest author to ever win the prestigious award. The four judges read 151 novels before deciding on Catton’s work, and chairman Robert Macfarlane estimates that the reading amounted to “about 21 kilometres of prose” at “12-pt Adobe Garamond.”

In a recent review for our site, Martha Anne Toll referred to Catton’s novel as “that rarest literary treasure, a book of such dazzling breadth and scope that it defies any label short of masterpiece.” She continued:
Deeply entrenched in New Zealand’s South Island, The Luminaries makes clear that this author commands the world at her fingertips. Her literary ancestry derives less from her homeland and more from the British and American giants of the nineteenth century. Catton deserves their company. Nodding to Melville, she’s nailed the tormented sea captain and the revenge obsessed “Chinaman.” With so many characters taking on false identities and trying to out-cheat each other in New Zealand’s gold rush, Catton, too, has mined the seamy underside of greed and poverty so beloved by Dickens. Like George Eliot, Catton looks behind the stereotype of the whore and the opium dealer and forces us to question where the real morality lies. By the novel’s end, every character’s initial presentation has been destabilized. Reader, Catton instructs, don’t judge a book by its cover.
Next year will be the first year in which American authors will be eligible to win the Man Booker Prize, which has previously been open only to authors from the British Commonwealth.

You can take a glimpse at the other books on the 2013 Man Booker Prize longlist and shortlist as well.

Tuesday New Release Day: McCarthy, Phillips, Turow, Geni, Catton

Vintage International released Cormac McCarthy’s screenplay for The Counselor, the new Ridley Scott film which our own Nick Moran wrote about on Saturday. Also out: Quiet Dell by Jayne Anne Phillips; Identical by Scott Turow; The Last Animal by Abby Geni and The Luminaries by Booker Prize shortlister Eleanor Catton, which Martha Anne Toll reviewed for us on Monday. (For more on these and other new titles, go read our Great Second-half 2013 Book Preview.)

When the Stars Align: On Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries

Leave it to the astrologers to forecast unusual cosmological events for the coming months. What’s certain is that under the sign of Libra, the reading public will be gifted that rarest literary treasure, a book of such dazzling breadth and scope that it defies any label short of masterpiece.

Eleanor Catton’s skill was evident in her deft debut, The Rehearsal. The Rehearsal opened a disturbing window onto manipulative adults and adolescents snaking around each other in a music school. In addition to an uncomfortable set of relationships, the disturbance was fueled by lack of names, major characters, and place.

Now comes Catton’s The Luminaries, firmly rooted in both the history of Catton’s native New Zealand and in the literature of the Victorian era. A graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, Catton lives in Auckland. If The Rehearsal was an edgy and inventive debut, The Luminaries is a virtuoso performance. Published at the tender age of twenty-eight, Catton’s second novel tips its hat to Moby Dick’s singular language and Leviathan obsession; Charles Dickens’s sprawling, baggy investigations of ordinary, flawed humanity; George Eliott’s timeless moral inquiries; and the twentieth century romances of A.S. Byatt’s Possession and Peter Carey’s Oscar and Lucinda. The Luminaries is resplendent: a twenty first century Victorian novel that couldn’t be more original.

The novel drops us into the Otago region of New Zealand’s South Island, where a nineteenth century gold rush succeeded California’s by about twenty years. In 1866, twelve men congregate in the smoking room of Hokitika’s Crown Hotel, giving “the impression of a party accidentally met.” The party includes a collection of Chinese, Maori, Jewish, French, and local characters, from a banker to a chaplain to an opium dealer to a whoremonger. “Everyone’s from somewhere else,” the shipping agent comments. It transpires that they all share a common interest in Anna Wetherell, “the whore,” and in recapturing a fortune in gold discovered and then lost in the cabin of a recently deceased (murdered?) man.

Enter the thirteenth man, Walter Moody, just off the boat from England. In a literary sleight of hand, Moody plays audience for the story’s setup (more on that to come) and subsequently participates in the unfolding plot.

The organizing principle for The Luminaries is the Zodiac. “Luminaries” is astrology speak for the brightest and most important objects in the sky: the sun and the moon. Put simplistically, the greater and lesser light of the sun and moon represent the twin poles of man and woman and their array of accompanying characteristics. Each of the many characters is assigned an astrological identity that cycles through the novel. The major sections of the book begin with an illustrated chart of the Zodiac, including symbols and positioning. In an interpretive hint in the prologue, we are told that the novel takes place during a time of precession, when “the motion of the vernal equinox has come to shift.” The author dares us to conjecture that time in this novel is “Piscean in its quality…an age of mirrors, tenacity, instinct, twinship, and hidden things.” It would be reasonable to focus a review of The Luminaries exclusively on these five Piscean themes; they would surely provide enough material for a Ph.D. dissertation.

In common with any respectable Victorian, Catton doesn’t hesitate to interrupt herself with explication and expansive moral judgments. Of Walter Moody she writes, “like most excessively beautiful persons, he had studied his own reflection minutely and, in a way, knew himself from the outside best.” Or, the banker, who “spoke with the controlled alarm of a bureaucrat who is requested to explain some mundane feature of the bureaucracy of which he is a functioning part: controlled, because an official is always comforted by proof of his own expertise, and alarmed, because the necessity for explanation seemed, in some obscure way, to undermine the system which had afforded him that expertise in the first place.”

Catton waxes lyrical in her physical descriptions. Here’s Anna Wetherell, the whore: “Her complexion was translucent, even blue, and tended to a deep purple beneath her eyes — as if she had been painted in watercolor, on a paper that was not stiff enough to hold the moisture, so the colors ran…Her nose was narrow, even geometric: a sculptor might render it in four strokes, with one slice on either side, one down the bridge, and one tuck beneath.”

But the genius of The Luminaries resides in its structure. The novel generates an unusual and unique rhythm. The setup occurs over a sprawling three-hundred-sixty pages. Technically it’s closer to three-hundred-forty; the remaining twenty consolidate and summarize the previous book-length introduction. By this point, the reader is luxuriating in a state of agreeable confusion, curious and eager to read on. The twenty pages of summary are useful, but they could never substitute for such a grand exposition.

Chapter titles reference the Zodiac and are followed by short, italicized summations. For example, “In which the chemist goes in search of opium; we meet Anna Wetherell at last; Pritchard becomes inpatient; and two shots are fired.” Homage, perhaps, to Oliver Twist and its ilk. As secrets are revealed and contradictions unmasked, the book picks up speed with shorter chapters, more truncated sections, and longer and longer “in which” introductions that finally substitute for text and plot. Part One may be the length of most novels, but Part Twelve takes a mere two pages. No doubt astrological numerology would offer further insight into how those twelve parts relate to the twelve characters seated in the Crown Hotel’s smoking room at the outset, who in turn reflect the twelve signs of the Zodiac.

The novel’s pace accelerates with snowballing revelations of hypocrisy, exploitation, mendacity, revenge, and cruelty; all sprinkled with a healthy dose of coincidence. Even the cleverest literary sleuth may fail to solve the whole puzzle until the end. This is the stuff of life in all its unpredictability: mistaken assumptions; arrogant presumption; substance over surface; truth and consequences; and, ultimately, good versus evil.

Steeped in history, The Luminaries feels completely fresh. Contemporary American writers increasingly decline the sweeping range and flow of the past tense. The resulting language compacts into ever-shrinking pages, serving up clipped sentences written in present tense. By contrast, The Luminaries takes its leisurely time roaming the past tense, developing an intricate and complex plot.

Catton’s nineteenth century style feels brand new.

From whence has Catton sprung? Unfortunately, precious few New Zealand writers reach American shores. Perhaps Katherine Mansfield is best known to U.S. readers, along with Janet Frame, whose eerie, haunting novels unfurl a psychologically troubled personal history. Catton’s contemporary, Fiona Farrell, recently set a novel in Victorian times: Mr. Allbones’ Ferrets: An Historical Pastoral Satirical Scientifical Romance, with Mustelids. In Mr. Allbones, Farrell explores the burgeoning scientific understanding of evolution in the time of Charles Darwin, while Kiwi writer Emily Perkins uses nature differently in The Forrests — to examine a contemporary family in dissolution.

But Catton’s talent is too capacious to be confined to place. Deeply entrenched in New Zealand’s South Island, The Luminaries makes clear that this author commands the world at her fingertips. Her literary ancestry derives less from her homeland and more from the British and American giants of the nineteenth century. Catton deserves their company. Nodding to Melville, she’s nailed the tormented sea captain and the revenge obsessed “Chinaman.” With so many characters taking on false identities and trying to out-cheat each other in New Zealand’s gold rush, Catton, too, has mined the seamy underside of greed and poverty so beloved by Dickens. Like George Eliot, Catton looks behind the stereotype of the whore and the opium dealer and forces us to question where the real morality lies. By the novel’s end, every character’s initial presentation has been destabilized. Reader, Catton instructs, don’t judge a book by its cover.

Catton deploys daunting technique, yes. She’s spun a solar system into orbit — the planets, the stars, and the sun and the moon. But more importantly, she’s persuaded readers to invest emotionally in each foibled, flawed, lying character right through to page eight-hundred-thirty. The love story is simply an added pleasure.

All that, and Eleanor Catton is still on the nearside of thirty. Small wonder that The Luminaries has been nominated for the Booker Prize. No matter the outcome, the literary firmament has birthed a new star.

Famous Names and Newcomers on the 2013 Booker Shortlist (With Excerpts)

Colm Toibin and Jhumpa Lahiri headline the 2013 Booker shortlist, which also offers newer names like NoViolet Bulawayo, making the list with her first novel, and Eleanor Catton, shortlisted for her second. The longlist was offered here with some excerpts a month ago, but since you might not have gotten around to them then, we’ll offer the same with the shortlist below.

We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo (excerpt)
The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton (publisher synopsis)
Harvest by Jim Crace (excerpt)
The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri (excerpt)
A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki (review)
The Testament of Mary by Colm Tóibín (Millions review, excerpt)

The Booker’s Dozen: The 2013 Booker Longlist

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In a welcome change of pace from the customarily masculine lists of years past, the 2013 Booker Prize longlist is notable because women outnumber men. The thirteen novels on this year’s “Booker Prize dozen” are from an eclectic mix of up-and-comers as well as established heavy hitters. Interestingly, only Colm Tóibín and Jim Crace have previously been featured on Booker longlists. Meanwhile NoViolet Bulawayo, Eleanor Catton, Eve Harris, and Donal Ryan are each making their first appearances. This year’s longlist is among the most diverse ever put out by the Booker judges. In total, seven different countries are represented by the authors of these books.

All the Booker Prize longlisters are below (with excerpts where available):

Five Star Billionaire by Tash Aw (excerpt)
We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo (review)
The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton (publisher synopsis)
Harvest by Jim Crace (excerpt)
The Marrying of Chani Kaufman by Eve Harris
The Kills by Richard House (author interview)

The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri (excerpt)
Unexploded by Alison MacLeod
TransAtlantic by Colum McCann (Millions review, author interview)

Almost English by Charlotte Mendelson (YouTube video of author discussion)
A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki (review)

The Spinning Heart by Donal Ryan (YouTube video of author reading)

The Testament of Mary by Colm Tóibín (Millions review, excerpt)

Most Anticipated: The Great Second-Half 2013 Book Preview

The first half of 2013 delighted us with new books by the likes of George Saunders, Karen Russell, and Colum McCann, among many others. And if the last six months had many delights on offer for book lovers, the second half of the year can only be described as an invitation to gluttony. In the next six months, you’ll see new books by Jhumpa Lahiri, Margaret Atwood, Donna Tartt, Marisha Pessl, Norman Rush, Jonathan Lethem, and none other than Thomas Pynchon. And beyond those headliners there are many other tantalizing titles in the wings, including some from overseas and others from intriguing newcomers.

The list that follows isn’t exhaustive – no book preview could be – but, at 9,000 words strong and encompassing 86 titles, this is the only second-half 2013 book preview you will ever need. Scroll down and get started.

July:

Visitation Street by Ivy Pochoda: Crime writer Dennis Lehane chose Pochoda’s lyrical and atmospheric second novel for his eponymous imprint at Ecco/Harper, calling it “gritty and magical.”  Pitched as a literary thriller about the diverse inhabitants of Red Hook, Brooklyn, Visitation Street has already received starred reviews from Publisher’s Weekly, Kirkus Reviews, and Library Journal. Lionel Shriver says, “I loved it,” and Deborah Harkness calls it “marvelous.” (Edan)

 

Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish by David Rakoff: Rakoff was the author of three books of essays, the winner of the Thurber Prize for American Humor, and a beloved regular on This American Life who died last year shortly after finishing this book. A novel written entirely in verse (a form in which he was masterful, as evidenced here), its characters range across the 20th century, each connected to the next by an act of generosity or cruelty. (Janet)

 

The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. by Adelle Waldman: Waldman recently weighed in for us on the centuries-old Richardson vs. Fielding debate. Now, in her first novel, she expertly plays the former’s psychological penetration off the latter’s civic vision. The titular Nathaniel, one of Brooklyn’s sad young literary men, seeks to navigate between his public ambitions and his private compulsions in a series of romantic encounters. Those without 718 area codes shouldn’t let the milieu scare them off; questions of whether Nate can heed the difficult imperatives of the conscience—and of how Waldman will pull off a whole book from the man’s point of view—keep the pages turning, while generating volumes of quotable insight, in the manner of The Marriage Plot. (Garth)

Fin & Lady by Cathleen Schine: A country mouse moves to the city in Cathleen Schine’s ninth novel. The mouse is Fin, an orphaned eleven-year old boy, and the city is Greenwich Village in the 1960s. Under the guardianship of his glamorous half-sister, Lady, Fin gets to know both the city and his wild sister, and encounters situations that are a far cry from his Connecticut dairy farm upbringing. As with many of Schine’s previous novels, Fin & Lady explores changing definitions of family.  (Hannah)

 

My Education by Susan Choi: Reflect upon your sordid graduate school days with a novel of the perverse master-student relationship and adulterous sex triangle. Professor Brodeur is evidently the kind of man whose name is scrawled on restroom walls by vengeful English majors—rather than end up in the sack with him, Choi’s protagonist Regina instead starts up an affair with his wife.  Later in the novel and in time, Regina reflects on this period in her life and the changes wrought by the intervening 15 years.  Choi was a Pulitzer Prize finalist for her second novel, American Woman. (Lydia)

Five Star Billionaire by Tash Aw: The third novel from the winner of the 2005 Whitbread First Novel Award follows the lives and business ventures of five characters in Shanghai, each representing various—and at times dichotomous—social strata. There’s Phoebe, the poor and unsophisticated migrant worker from Malaysia; and there’s Yinghui, the rich and ambitious businesswoman. There’s Gary, the waylaid pop star; and there’s Justin, the scion of a wealthy real estate family. Lastly there’s Walter, the eponymous billionaire, who meddles behind the scenes with the lives of almost everybody. Altogether, their multi-layered, intersecting lives contribute to make “Shanghai itself [into] the book’s real main character,” writes Jill Baker in the Asian Review of Books. It’s a city “luring in people hoping for a second chance or … any chance at all.” (Nick)

Lotería by Mario Alberto Zambrano: It’s a rare first novel that can appeal to partisans of both S.E. Hinton and Julio Cortázar, but Lotería does just that. The story 11-year-old Luz Maria Castillo begins telling us from her room in a state institution is deceptively plainspoken: Here’s how I got here. But as the story proceeds in fragments, keyed not to chronology but to a deck of cards from Lotería (a kind of Mexican bingo), things get shiftier. Color reproductions of the cards introduce each chapter, making the book, if not exactly Kindle-proof, then at least uncommonly handsome. (Garth)

The Unknowns by Gabriel Roth: Gabriel Roth’s debut novel follows Eric Muller from his lonely high school days as a computer geek to his millionaire success in Silicon Valley as a computer geek. Slightly disoriented by his newfound abilities to make money and bed women, Muller wryly observes his life as if he is that same awkward teenager trapped in a dream life. When he falls in love with Maya, a beautiful woman with a mysterious past, he must choose between the desire to emotionally (and literally) hack into it, or to trust his good fortune. (Janet)

The Hare by César Aira: A recent bit of contrarianism in The New Republic blamed the exhaustive posthumous marketing of Roberto Bolaño for crowding other Latin American writers out of the U.S. marketplace. If anything, it seems to me, it’s the opposite: the success of The Savage Detectives helped publishers realize there was a market for Daniel Sada, Horacio Castellanos Moya, and the fascinating Argentine César Aira. The past few years have seen seven of Aira’s many novels translated into English. Some of them, like Ghosts, are transcendently good, but none has been a breakout hit. Maybe the reissue of The Hare, which appeared in the U.K. in 1998, will be it. At the very least, it’s the longest Aira to appear in English: a picaresque about a naturalist’s voyage into the Argentinean pampas. (Garth)

August:

Night Film by Marisha Pessl: Pessl’s first novel since Special Topics in Calamity Physics, her celebrated 2006 debut, concerns a David Lynchish filmmaker whose daughter has died in Lower Manhattan under suspicious circumstances. Soon, reporter Scott McGrath has launched an investigation that will take him to the heart of the auteur’s secretive empire: his cult following, his whacked-out body of work, and his near impenetrable upstate compound. With interpolated web pages and documents and Vanity Fair articles, the novel’s a hot pop mess, but in the special way of a latter-day Kanye West album or a movie co-directed by Charlie Kaufman and Michael Bay, and the climax alone—a 65-page haunted-house tour-de-force—is worth the price of admission. (Garth)

Cannonball by Joseph McElroy: McElroy was writing the lights out in the ‘70s and early ‘80s, and in the last few years has been rediscovered by a younger generation of readers, who justly class him with Thomas Pynchon—a writer of a wildly different sensibility, but a similar, world-devouring ambition. Hell, he even did a Year in Reading. If 2011’s Night Soul is any indication, McElroy’s can still intrigue, baffle, and stop the heart, often all at once. This, his first novel in many a moon, concerns the Iraq War, among other things, and it’s hard to think of an author more suited to reimagining the subject. (Garth)

Claire of the Sea Light by Edwidge Danticat: The author of a string of heartbreaking novels about the strife-torn Caribbean nation of Haiti, including The Farming of Bones and The Dew Breaker, Danticat here tells the story of a young motherless girl whose poverty-stricken father considers giving her away a wealthier family. Hailed by Publishers Weekly as “magical as a folk tale and as effective and devastating as a newsreel,” the novel paints a stark portrait of village life in Haiti. (Michael)

 

Remember How I Told You I Loved You?  by Gillian Linden: Gillian Linden’s debut collection of linked stories follows a young woman through college, careers, love affairs and marriages— “from delayed adolescence to (delayed) adulthood.” The publisher, Little A (Amazon’s new literary fiction imprint), describes the collection as “a sharp and intimate take on romance and infidelity, trust and betrayal,” written in a “deadpan narrative, cool and precise.”  Linden’s story “Pests” was recently published in The Paris Review.   Linden will join the ranks of several talented literary writers that Little A has published since its launch in March — including A.L. Kennedy, Shawn Vestal, and Jenny Davidson. (Sonya)

The Infatuations by Javier Marias: Marias’s only competitor for the title of Spain’s Most Important Living Writer may be Enrique Vila-Matas. Each of his last few books with New Directions, translated by Margaret Jull Costa, set a new high-water mark—most recently, the mammoth trilogy Your Face Tomorrow. Now he’s made the jump to Knopf, which means you’re about to hear a lot about him. And deservedly so, it would seem: The Infatuations has already been called “great literature” in Spain and “perhaps his best novel” in the U.K. Is there any reason on earth you wouldn’t want to read the greatest novel of Spain’s greatest living writer? Of course there isn’t. Now get thee to a bookshop! (Garth)

The Color Master by Aimee Bender: Ogres, tiger-mending and playing at prostitution—yep, it’s time for Aimee Bender to once again enchant us with her whimsical and magical fiction.  Her next story collection comes out just three years after the publication of her bestselling novel The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, and it looks like the book is a return to form for Bender.  Publishers Weekly says that even the tales that resemble children’s storybooks “are haunted by a taut, sardonic melancholy,” noting that her “mood pieces” about female friendship are the strongest of the bunch. (Edan)

Elect H. Mouse State Judge by Nelly Reifler: To Kafka’s “Josephine, the Mouse-Singer” and Bolaño’s “Police Rat” and Mrs. Frisby and that one A.M. Homes story where the kid gets it on with a Barbie doll, we must now add Nelly Reifler’s first novel. It’s a fast-paced caper—politician’s kids get abducted, private eyes go searching—but with a major twist: H. Mouse is a mouse, and both perps and dicks are dolls. Shrewdly, Reifler serves this concoction neat; what could have been cheap thrills give way to weirder and more surprising effects. (Garth)

The Rathbones by Janice Clark: The Rathbones is the most sui generis debut you’re likely to encounter this year. Think Moby-Dick directed by David Lynch from a screenplay by Gabriel Garcia Marquez…with Charles Addams doing the set design and The Decembrists supplying the chanteys. Initially the story of the last surviving member of an eccentric 19th-Century whaling dynasty, it becomes the story of that dynasty itself. I should also say that this was the single most exciting thing I read in manuscript in graduate school, where the author and I studied together. Clark writes a beautiful prose line, and the story, like the ocean, get deeper, richer, and stranger the farther out you go.  (Garth)

A Schoolboy’s Diary and Other Stories by Robert Walser: For a long time, Walser addicts—which is to say, pretty much anyone who has come into contact with this intoxicating writer—had to make do with the novel Jakob van Gunten (but what a novel!) and a slim edition of selected stories. But, half a century after his death, the Swiss master of smallness and obscurity is finally getting the treatment he deserves. Microscripts was one of the best books I read in 2012. The tireless Susan Bernofsky has also given us versions of The Tanners, The Assistant, and a collection of Berlin Stories. In this volume, Damion Searls translates a group of stories about school life—also the engine of much of Jakob van Gunten’s exquisite comedy. (Garth)

Necessary Errors by Caleb Crain: Lately, it’s seemed that the “literary” first novel had become a genre unto itself: a certain page-limit, a certain definition of scope, a certain set of problems, modestly conceived and modestly transcended. If so, Crain’s stately, wry, and generous first novel breaks the mold. Certainly, there’s a classic coming-of-age narrative here. But as the back-cover blurbs attest, the adventures of American Jacob Putnam in Czechoslovakia right after the Iron Curtain’s fall recall Henry James as much as they do Ben Lerner. Crain’s broad social canvas and his deep interest in the lives of other people are marks of distinction.  (Garth)

The Novel: An Alternative History (1600-1800) by Steven Moore: The first volume of Moore’s magisterial survey advanced a theory of the novel as inherently experimental and multicultural, and much older than is generally acknowledged. It’s not that Jane Austen moves to the margins and Gertrude Stein to the center, but that Austen and Stein become recognizably part of the same story. And though Moore hews closer, necessarily, to synopsis than to close-reading, his project is an invaluable desk reference for the catholic reader. In volume 2, he turns his sights to the era that inspired the argument in the first place, a period that begins with Don Quixote. (Garth)

The Sound of Things Falling by Juan Gabriel Vásquez: At The Age, Cameron Woodhead writes: “With The Sound of Things Falling, Colombian novelist Juan Gabriel Vásquez has created a story that can be appreciated purely for the dramatic way it dives into the black hole of his country’s past—the drug cartels and paramilitaries that scarred a generation—although the supple thought-weave of the prose won’t be lost on anyone with a taste for more reflective fiction.” Woodhead also compares Vasquez to Graham Greene, W.G. Sebald, and Robert Bolaño—all writers who give us an expansive sense of a country’s history and legacy through the lives of compelling individuals. The protagonist is a Colombian lawyer named Antonio whose memory takes him back to a long-ago acquaintance with the ex-pilot Ricardo LaVerde and a series of mysterious (and yes, violent) occurrences. Vásquez, who is 40, has published four previous novels, but prefers to not count the first two, which he wrote in his early 20s; so “officially,” Sound is his third novel. (Sonya)

The Virgins by Pamela Erens: This smart, unsettling novel is narrated by a middle-aged man obsessed by the star-crossed love affair of two classmates at his boarding school thirty years ago. Erens, author of one previous novel, The Understory, displays an uncanny gift for writing honestly about pot-toking, hormone-addled adolescents while granting them the full range of human emotion one expects from a novel for adults. The novel is from indie press Tin House Books, a spinoff of the well-known literary magazine that has quietly built a reputation as a home for first-rate literary fiction. (Michael)

The Wicked Girls by Alex Marwood: Alex Marwood is the pseudonym of British journalist Serena Mackesy, and The Wicked Girls is her dark and beautifully executed first novel. In the mid-eighties, two eleven-year-old girls meet for the first time and become friends. By the end of the day, a younger child has died at their hands. Twenty-five years later, with new lives and changed identities, the two women encounter one another in a seaside town where a serial killer is active. A haunting meditation on crime and punishment. (Emily)

The Affairs of Others by Amy Grace Loyd: Loyd, formerly the fiction editor at Playboy, moves to the other side of the desk with a first novel of elegant intensity. A young widow in Brooklyn has bought her apartment building, and so become an accidental landlord. Or do people still say landlady? At any rate, her straitened existence is challenged by the arrival of a fascinating new tenant, with emotional transformation the ultimate issue. Loyd’s burnished, spare sentences conceal hidden volumes of emotion, and in its different moods, the book may put readers in mind of Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland or of a more hopeful version of Claire Messud’s recent The Woman Upstairs. (Garth)

Brief Encounters with the Enemy by Saïd Sayrafiezadeh: Sayrafiezadeh’s acclaimed memoir, When Skateboards Will Be Free, chronicled a childhood being raised by an Iranian father and American Jewish mother united by an extreme devotion to the Socialist Workers Party. Three years later, Sayrafiezadeh, whose fiction has appeared in Granta, The New Yorker, and The Paris Review, among other places, publishes his first short story collection. The everyday trials of his characters, some of them grappling with the rippling effects of a nameless war (“this could be any war, or perhaps the next war,” Sayrafiezadeh told The New Yorker) “are transformed into storytelling that is both universally resonant and wonderfully strange.” (Elizabeth)

The Hypothetic Girl by Elizabeth Cohen: From Other Press, a collection of stories that “captures all the mystery, misery, and magic of the eternal search for human connection” via tales about the bizarre and inarguably ubiquitous world of online dating.  Says Amazon: “With levity and high style, Cohen takes her readers into a world where screen and keyboard meet the heart, with consequences that range from wonderful to weird.”  For anyone who’s been submerged in this wonderful weird search, these stories are likely to ring a therapeutic bell.  Or, in some cases perhaps, a gong.  Look out for an essay from Cohen in July, and an excerpt in early August, at Bloom. (Sonya)

September:

MaddAddam by Margaret Atwood: MaddAddam concludes the dystopian trilogy that Atwood began ten years ago with Oryx and Crake and continued in 2009 with The Year of the Flood. Booklist calls MaddAddam a “coruscating finale in an ingenious, cautionary trilogy of hubris, fortitude, wisdom, love, and life’s grand obstinacy.” (Emily)

 

 

Bleeding Edge by Thomas Pynchon: Since his 1997 comeback, Pynchon’s been uncommonly productive…and, more characteristically, all over the map. I thought Mason & Dixon his best book; Against the Day vastly underrated; and Inherent Vice fun but disposable. Proximity to the present moment can be a telling index of the quality of a Pynchon project, so the setting here—New York’s Silicon Alley on the eve of the dot-com crash—gives one pause. But Pynchon’s ability to “think the present historically” in his last two books was the best thing about them, so maybe he still has much to tell us about the way we live now. (Garth)

Doctor Sleep by Stephen King: Thirty-six years later, it’s here: a sequel to The Shining.  Dan Torrance, the tricycle peddling protagonist of the original horror classic, is now middle-age and working in a nursing home in New Hampshire where he uses his ebbing mental powers to comfort the dying.  The story picks up when Dan tries to save Abra Stone, a twelve-year-old girl with gifts like the ones he used to have, who is in danger from a group called The True Knot, which travels the country consuming children with the gift of The Shining. (Kevin)

The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri: Lahiri’s second novel (and fourth book) comes heaped with expectations and describes the relationship between two formerly inseparable brothers born in mid-century Calcutta.  The first, Udayan, is drawn into revolutionary politics; the second, Subash, leaves his native country to make a better life for himself as a scientist in the United States.  But tragedy strikes Udayan and Subash returns home where he gets to know Udayan’s former wife and reconnects with childhood memories. (Kevin)

Someone by Alice McDermott: An excerpt of Alice McDermott’s new novel, Someone, appeared in the New Yorker as a story of the same name.  The story is about Marie, who is seventeen years old in 1937, when a boy from her Brooklyn neighborhood turns her head, fondles her breast, promises marriage, and then spurns her for a better-looking girl.  In the story, the titular Someone is the person who, Marie’s brother promises, will one day love her.  McDermott told The New Yorker’s Deborah Treisman that the novel is the story of “one unremarkable woman,” because “novels about unremarkable women, especially those written by unremarkable women, seem a thing of the past.”   Who you calling “unremarkable,” Alice McDermott? (Lydia)

Seiobo There Below by László Krasznahorkai: In the last few years, American readers have rapidly awakened to Krasznahorkai’s important place in the republic of world letters. He is one of few working novelists who still aspires to mastery, in the Modernist sense, and each of the three previous novels translated into English has been a masterpiece. Those books were set in Europe and New York. Seiobo, published in Hungarian in 2009, reveals a different side of the Krasznahorkai oeuvre: his decades-long engagement with East Asia. It’s a major feat of editing and translating, and the publication date been pushed back. Those who can’t wait should check out the excerpt in Music & Literature. (Garth)

Enon by Paul Harding: Harding’s 2009 debut, Tinkers, won him the Pulitzer Prize and instant acclaim as one of the most profound writers of our time. Enon follows Charlie Crosby, the grandson of Tinkers protagonist George Washington Crosby, through a year of his life after a devastating loss. Inhabiting the same New England landscape so intricately rendered in Tinkers (Enon is the town where George Crosby died), Enon is a story about small moment and big questions. (Janet)

 

John Updike: The Collected Stories by John Updike: This two-volume collection spans the arc of a life’s work. One hundred and eighty-six stories are presented in their final versions and in definitive order of composition, established for the first time by archival research: from “Ace in the Hole” (1953), written when Updike was still a student at Harvard, to “The Full Glass” from 2008, the final year of his life. In his poem “Spirit of ’76,” written during his final illness and published in The New Yorker three months after his death, Updike wrote:
I see clear through to the ultimate page,
the silence I dared break for my small time.
No piece was easy, but each fell finished,
in its shroud of print, into a book-shaped hole. (Emily)
Nine Inches by Tom Perrotta: American fiction’s favorite lighthearted chronicler of suburban angst delivers his first collection of short stories since Bad Haircut, his first book, nineteen years ago. In Nine Inches, Perrotta, the author of the Hollywood-friendly novels Little Children and The Leftovers (currently under development as a HBO series), returns to familiar themes of fractured families and the undercurrent of disappointment that lurks just below the placid surface of suburban life. Perrotta knows his way around a punch line, so expect some chuckles to go along with your quiet desperation. (Michael)

The Childhood of Jesus by J.M. Coetzee: When it came out in the UK and Ireland this Spring, Coetzee’s new novel was received with an even more potent combination of admiration and confusion than his work is normally met with. Reviewing the book in the Telegraph, Michael Preston asked whether it was “possible to be deeply affected by a book without really knowing what it’s about?” (The fairly obvious answer: yes.) A man and a five year old boy arrive in a sort of refugee camp, where they are assigned new names and ages. The boy speaks in riddles and claims to be able to perform miracles. Together, they search for the boy’s mother, and endure a series of odd bureaucratic encounters. The inscrutable spirit of Kafka has often flickered across Coetzee’s pages, and that spirit seems to loom large here. (Mark)

The Maid’s Version by Daniel Woodrell: Daniel Woodrell, a master of “country noir” fiction, makes rare use of autobiography in his new novel, The Maid’s Version.  While growing up in West Plains, Missouri, Woodrell listened to stories his grandmother told about a mysterious dance hall explosion in town in 1928 that killed 39 people.  In the novel, a grandmother tells her grandson about working as a maid for the family that was implicated in the blast but never held responsible.  The novel is “very lyrical and not completely chronological,” Woodrell told an interviewer, “because it’s the story of a family and the after-effects on the family and the grandmother trying to get justice or revenge.” (Bill)

Levels of Life by Julian Barnes: Julian Barnes’s new book is not a novel, and not a memoir, and not a collection of essays, although it appears to contain elements of all three.  The collection begins with a brief history of hot air ballooning and the characters involved in its development and lured by its attractions.  Part two is an imagined romance between Sarah Bernhardt, who was in life one of the people from the latter category, and Colonel Frederick Burnaby, intrepid ballooner (who is, incidentally, documented on the delightful website “Great British Nutters”).  In the third part of his new book, Barnes ties these curious introductory portions into a memoir of his profound grief following the loss of Pat Kavanagh, his wife of 30 years. (Lydia)

Traveling Sprinkler by Nicholson Baker: Last year, Nicholson Baker treated the Internet to a cluster of peculiar, melancholy protest songs about Bradley Manning and the Obama administration’s drone assassination program. The venture was out of character in a way that was, weirdly, entirely characteristic of Baker. The songs appear to have been, at least in part, an aspect of a method writing exercise for his new novel, Traveling Sprinkler—a sort of sequel to 2009’s The Anthologist, in which Paul Chowder sat around having a lot of thoughts about poetry while failing to write the introduction to a poetry anthology. In the new novel, Chowder sits around trying to write protest songs. Very few writers are as interesting as Baker on the theme of men sitting (or standing) around, so this looks promising. (Mark)

Dissident Gardens by Jonathan Lethem: Of the greats of his generation, Lethem is one of the few who’s gotten steadily better, novel by novel. Fortress of Solitude is a better book than Motherless Brooklyn, and in my read, Chronic City is even better than that—the highs less high, but the consistency more consistent. It’s also worth noting that Lethem’s always been a political writer (science-fiction being among other things a way of thinking about the possible) and has been more so lately. Expectations for Dissident Gardens, then—a generation-spanning saga centered around Leftists from Sunnyside Queens—should be very, very high. (Garth)

Mood Indigo by Boris Vian: Few of Vian’s novels have been translated, but L’Ecume des Jours is appearing in English for the third time, with a third title (Mood Indigo, Froth on the Daydream, Foam of the Daze, take your pick).  Still, we should be grateful for what we are given—Le Monde named L’Ecume number 10 on the 100 best books of the century.  Vian (d. 1959), published under his own name and the pseudonym Vernon Sullivan.  He was a trumpeter in the Hot Club de France, devotee of Duke Ellington, ingester of peyote, consort of Sartre (until Sartre consorted with his wife).  Written in 1947, L’Ecume is a sad, fanciful love story (which, the Harvard Crimson wrote in 1969, read like “perceptions at a stoned-soul picnic,” in a good way).  Mood Indigo received the Michel Gondry film treatment last spring. (Lydia)

Subtle Bodies by Norman Rush: The decade-in-the-making follow-up to Mortals (one of our Best Novels of the Millennium) is also a departure. The first of Rush’s books not set in Botswana, it’s shorter by half than either of his previous novels, and when I got a galley in the mail, the jacket copy—comfortable fortysomethings at a Big Chill-style reunion near the start of the Iraq War—made me even more nervous. Was the Rush magic still there? Then my wife started reading it, then started putting it down to laugh, and finally began forcing me to listen to her read whole passages aloud for the sheer pleasure of the phrases. Note to Mr. Rush: You had me at “berserk industry.” (Garth)

His Wife Leaves Him by Stephen Dixon: A 600-page depiction of a jilted lover’s interior thoughts might not be your idea of an enjoyable book, but in the hands of a writer as talented as Stephen Dixon, it’s certainly one worth reading. In his own description of the novel, he’s noted that it’s about “a bunch of nouns” such as “love, guilt, sickness, death, remorse, loss, family, matrimony, sex, children, parenting, aging, mistakes, incidents, minutiae, birth, music, writing, jobs, affairs, memory, remembering, reminiscences, forgetting, repression, dreams, reverie, nightmares, meeting, dating, conceiving, imagining, delaying, loving.” Indeed these words convey the complexity of a life rendered whole, of a relationship’s threads and effects laid bare, and of honest memories enlivened by an acute and unrelenting ache. When a relationship dies, all that remains are remembered details, and in the words of Jim Harrison, “death steals everything except our stories.” (Nick)

Local Souls by Allan Gurganus: For his first book in a decade, Allan Gurganus returns to the imagined town of Falls, N.C., where he set his first and best-known novel, Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All.  His new book, Local Souls, which owes more to Flannery O’Connor than to Nikolai Gogol, is three linked novellas set in the contemporary New South, with its air-conditioning and improved telecommunications, its freer sexuality and looser family ties.  However, some old habits prove hard to break—including adultery, incest and obsession—in these tales that unfold in a Dixiefied version of Winesburg, Ohio. (Bill)

Between Friends by Amos Oz: Born in Jerusalem in 1939, Amos Oz spent three decades living on a kibbutz because city life was not “radical” enough for him and, as he puts it in his new book of stories, Between Friends, he wanted to live among “people with patience and doubts and compassion.” These eight stories, set in the imaginary Kibbutz Yikhat during the 1950s of Oz’s youth, spin around the shortcomings of idealism and the fragility of all utopias.  In the end, the stories affirm Oz’s long-held belief that both on the kibbutz and throughout the larger Middle East, the only hope lies not in conflict, but in compromise. (Bill)

The Brunist Day by Robert Coover: Aside from being a terrific year for first novels, 2013 may be remembered for its efflorescence of major work from the eminences grises of postmodernism. So far, we’ve gotten Gass’s Middle C, Pynchon’s Bleeding Edge, and McElroy’s Cannonball. Now Coover, author of a couple of the great postwar novels (e.g., The Public Burning), returns with a thousand-page sequel to his very first book, The Origin of the Brunists. I haven’t been this excited to read new Coover…well, since I started reading Coover. The folks at Dzanc Books should be commended. (Garth)

Hawthorn & Child by Keith Ridgway: This isn’t the story of a family business, à la Dombey & Son, but rather a buddy-cop detective vehicle—except the cops aren’t exactly buddies, and most of what gets detected is random violence and existential unease. Ridgway is a brilliant stylist from Ireland, and the early word from the U.K. is that he’s hit his stride here, in a kind of deadpan avant-pop tour of contemporary London. (Garth)

 

Duplex by Kathryn Davis: Davis’s earlier novel, The Thin Place, is set in a place where the membrane between the real world and the spirit world is extremely thin. Most of her work, which includes six previous novels, sits at this same juncture, combining real and imagined worlds. Duplex is the story of Mary and Eddie, two children growing up in a duplex outside time, while “adulthood”—a world of sorcerers, robots, and slaves—looms ahead. (Janet)

 

Goat Mountain by David Vann: In his writing across a variety of forms—short stories, novels, memoir, and reportage—David Vann has returned repeatedly to the same deep well of themes: nature, thwarted masculinity, family, and violence. In his third novel Goat Mountain, an eleven-year-old boy goes on a deer-hunt with his father and grandfather, and things, as they tend to do this writer’s work, take a devastating turn. There’s a rawness and obsessional urgency to Vann’s writing that makes this ongoing project of recasting and development among the most compelling in contemporary literature.  (Mark)

At the Bottom of Everything by Ben Dolnick: Dolnick’s third novel is about a dark secret that tears apart a boyhood friendship and how the two are brought back together as adults to reckon with what happened long ago.  The jacket copy calls it “a tale of spiritual reckoning, of search and escape, of longing and reaching for redemption—a tale of near hallucinatory power.” Dolnick, who writes for NPR and the New York Times, has also written a Kindle single called Shelf-Love, about his fanaticism for Alice Munro. (Edan)

The Traymore Rooms by Norm Sibum: Poet Norm Sibum’s 700-pager should be on the radar of all the maximalism-starved readers who landed A Naked Singularity on our Top 10 list in 2012—though the book might more rightly be likened to something by William Gass or Alexander Theroux. Plot isn’t Sibum’s thing, exactly, but his erudition (considerable), sense of character (eccentric), and mood (quietly splenetic) more than compensate. The novel concerns a group of aging friends who share haunts in downtown Montreal. They talk, fight, love, and try to make sense of a historical moment that has disappointed their youthful hopes. And apart from an overreliance on that contemporary workhorse, the absolute phrase, the prose is a consistent pleasure. (Garth)

October:

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt: In a 2002 interview with The Guardian, Tartt said she couldn’t “think of anything worse than having to turn out a book every year. It would be hell.” She seems to have settled into a pattern of turning out a book every ten or eleven years instead. In her third novel, The Goldfinch, a young boy named Theo Decker survives an accident that kills his mother. In the years that follow, he finds himself drawn to things that remind him of her, including a painting that draws him eventually into the art underworld. (Emily)

Identical by Scott Turow: Every three years, with metronome-like regularity, bestselling lawyer-author Scott Turow comes out with another well-turned legal thriller set in corruption-rife Kindle County. Three years after 2010’s Innocent, Turow is right on schedule with a new thriller focusing on a pair of identical twins, one a candidate for mayor in Kindle County, the other a convicted murderer just released from prison after serving 25 years for killing his girlfriend. This is Turow country, so nothing is as it seems and the plot turns on a re-investigation of the decades-old murder that sent one of the brothers to prison. (Michael)

The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert: Elizabeth Gilbert’s return to fiction (she wrote that little-known memoir called Eat Pray Love) is a sprawling historical novel about Alma Whittaker, the daughter of a botanical explorer, and talented scientist in her own right, and her relationship with Utopian artist Ambrose Pike. As the jacket copy says, “Alma Whittaker is a witness to history, as well as maker of history herself.”  The book spans the globe and two centuries, and it sounds like a big and exciting artistic departure for Gilbert. (Edan)

Solo (James Bond) by William Boyd: At this year’s London Book Fair, venerated author William Boyd announced the one-word title of his forthcoming James Bond novel, which reflects the spy’s solitary and unauthorized mission. The book is an authorized sequel to Jeffery Deaver’s novel, Carte Blanche, published in 2011.  At the Book Fair, Boyd said that key action takes place in Africa, the US and Europe, and remarked that Bond “goes on a real mission to real countries and the world he’s in is absolutely 1969. There are no gimmicks, it’s a real spy story.” (Edan)

Dirty Love by Andre Dubus III: The four interlocking stories within Andre Dubus III’s sixth book explore the “bottomless needs and stubborn weaknesses of people seeking gratification in food and sex, work and love.” These highs and lows are depicted by Mark, a Massachusetts man who’s recently discovered his wife’s infidelity; by Marla, an overweight young woman who’s just found a lover; by Robert, who’s just betrayed his pregnant wife; and by Devon, a teenager terrorized by a dirty picture she’s posted online, and whose story comprises the collection’s titular novella. (Nick)

Cartwheel by Jennifer DuBois: Jennifer DuBois follows her decorated first novel, A Partial History of Lost Causes, with Cartwheel, a novel with loud echoes of the recent murder trial, conviction and eventual acquittal of Amanda Knox.  Cartwheel’s protagonist, Lily Hayes, is an American arriving in Buenos Aires for a semester abroad.  Five weeks later she’s the prime suspect in her roommate’s brutal murder.  Questions arise.  Is Lily guilty?  More importantly, exactly who is Lily Hayes?  “Cartwheel will keep you guessing until the final page,” the publisher promises, “and its questions about how much we really know about ourselves will linger well beyond.” (Bill)

The Hired Man by Aminatta Forna: Aminatta Forna made her name with The Devil That Danced on the Water, her memoir about her father’s execution for treason in Sierra Leone.  In her new novel, The Hired Man, a naive middle-class Englishwoman named Laura arrives with her two teenage children in the Croatian town of Gost, planning to renovate an old house.  She enlists the help of an introspective handyman named Duro, and before long the haunted memories of the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s come bubbling up from the past.  Ill-equipped to understand the dark local history, Laura will come to see that there is great power in overcoming the thirst for revenge. (Bill)

Heart of Darkness (Illustrated) by Matt Kish: In October 2011, Tin House books published Matt Kish’s Moby Dick in Pictures, with artwork for each page of text taken from the Signet Classic Paperback.  Now, Heart of Darkness will get similar treatment, although this project has 100 illustrations to Moby Dick’s 552.  The New York Post showcased some wonderful images from the upcoming publication. Matt Kish, a librarian by day, prefers “illustrator” to “artist,” he says, “There’s a lot of artists out there, they’re real assholes, and if you haven’t gone to art school, if you haven’t had an MFA, if you haven’t had a gallery show, if you cant put together some rambling artist statement, you’re not worthy of that term.”  Looks like art to me. (Lydia)

Quiet Dell by Jayne Anne Phillips: The creepy-sounding plot of Jayne Anne Phillips’s fifth novel is based on a true-life 1930s story of a con man who insinuated himself into the life of a young, impoverished widow only to murder her and her three children. Like Phillips’s previous novel, Lark & Termite (a 2009 National Book Award Finalist), parts of the story are set in rural West Virginia, where Phillips herself is from. With a reporter protagonist who sets out to investigate the crime after the fact, there are shades of In Cold Blood. (Hannah)

At Night We Walk in Circles by Daniel Alarcón: Peruvian native Daniel Alarcón’s stories thrive on equal parts revolution and spectacle, as evidenced in his first collection, War by Candlelight, as well as in his first novel, Lost City Radio, where the emcee of a popular radio show reunites loved ones separated during a recent civil war. In At Night We Walk in Circles, the Whiting Award-winning Best Young American Novelist draws inspiration from stories told to him by prisoners jailed in Lima’s largest prison. Alarcón again situates his novel in a South American state, where the protagonist flounders until he’s cast in a revival of touring play penned the leader of a guerilla theatre troupe. (Anne)

The Last Animal by Abby Geni: This debut collection of short stories is thematically linked by characters who “use the interface between the human and the natural world to contend with their modern challenges in love, loss and family life.” Geni, who is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and a winner of the Glimmer Train Fiction Open, has received early praise from Dan Chaon, who says, “These are sharp, incisive, thoughtful, and utterly original stories” and from Jim Gavin, who calls these stories “Haunting and beautiful.” (Edan)

Roth Unbound: A Writer and His Books by Claudia Roth Pierpont: Is it strange that an author many wouldn’t hesitate to call the greatest living American writer has yet to be the subject of a major critical work? Pierpont remedies this with a book described as “not a biography…but something more rewarding: an attempt to understand a great writer through his art.” The New Yorker staff writer should prove a fascinating non-biographer: her previous book was Passionate Minds: Women Rewriting the World, and while her current subject has been accused of sexism many times throughout his long career, David Remnick reported that at a celebration of Roth’s eightieth birthday in March, Pierpont “took it upon herself to survey the variety, depth, and complexity of Roth’s female characters — a strong, and convincing, rebuke to years of criticism that the books are misogynistic.” (Elizabeth)

How to Read a Novelist by John Freeman: Former Granta editor John Freeman’s first book, The Tyranny of Email, considered the ways that email collapsed great distances between us. In it he argues for a more nuanced and discerning form of communication through conversation—an art form that he showcases in his latest book, How to Read a Novelist. In more than fifty interviews and author profiles of literary titans such as Haruki Murakami, Philip Roth, David Foster Wallace, and Doris Lessing, Freeman’s conversations and observations uncover these authors’ obsessions, quirks, and nuances of character as if they’re characters themselves. According to Freeman, a novelist requires observational distance, something to be considered in light of the subject of his first book: “it’s the miraculous distance that I think makes the writers who they are.” (Anne)

The Karl Kraus Project by Jonathan Franzen: Karl Kraus, as immortalized in Walter Benjamin’s essay of the same name, was an incendiary aphorist and, in his one-man journal Die Fackel (The Torch), a critic who rivaled Nietzche for implacability. His influence on the culture of pre- and interwar Austria and Germany can’t be overstated; writers from Broch to Canetti are in his debt. Yet aphorisms are notoriously hard to translate, and to date, no really good volume of Kraus has been available to lay readers in English. Jonathan Franzen’s decision to attempt one is as likely to provoke grousing as most everything he does, but I, for one, salute his berserk industry. (Garth)

The Most of Nora Ephron by Nora Ephron: Ephron died a year ago and this fall Random House is bringing out a wide-ranging collection of her writing edited by Robert Gottlieb.  The screenplay to When Harry Met Sally will be in there, as will her famous piece on being flat-chested, blog posts on politics and dying, and the screenplay to her last work, Lucky Guy.   (Kevin)

 

The Pure Gold Baby by Margaret Drabble: Drabble’s eighteenth novel—her first since 2006—is set in 1960s London. It centers on Jessica, an anthropology student who, after becoming pregnant during an affair with a married professor, is forced to raise a daughter alone, her own life’s trajectory fracturing as a result. “One thing I have never been very good at is creating ‘good’ mothers,” Drabble said in a 1978 The Paris Review interview. “I’d written books and books before someone pointed out that I was perpetually producing these ‘bad’ mothers.” The “prismatic” novel is told from the perspectives of “the mothers who surround Jess,” examining “unexpected transformations at the heart of motherhood.” (Elizabeth)

Half the Kingdom by Lore Segal: Lore Segal is a treasure-house of wit and a power-house of style. Lucinella, reissued as part of Melville House’s Art of the Novella Series, was one of the best books I read in 2009. Now Melville House returns to the well for her first novel since the Pulitzer finalist Shakespeare’s Kitchen. The plot involves a suspicious surge in the incidence of Alzheimer’s Disease among patients (characters from previous Segal novels among them) at a Manhattan emergency room in the period after September 11. Even the catalog copy brims with insight: “terrorist paranoia and end-of-the-world hysteria masks deeper fears about mortality.” You’re welcome, America. (Garth)

The Night Guest by Fiona MacFarlane: Penguin Australia is calling Macfarlane “a new voice” and “a writer who comes to us fully formed.”  It’s true that The Night Guest, which will be published in October, is Macfarlane’s debut novel; but she’s been publishing stories for some time now, and here you can read a Q&A about her story “Art Appreciation,” published in The New Yorker this past May.  The Night Guest centers around the mysterious arrival of Frida at the isolated beach house of Ruth, a widow, but “soars above its own suspense to tell us, with exceptional grace and beauty, about ageing, love, trust, dependence, and fear; about processes of colonization; and about things (and people) in places they shouldn’t be.” (Sonya)

Every Short Story: 1951-2012 by Alasdair Gray: Exactly what it says on the tin: the comprehensive volume (nearly 1,000 pages!) offers up more than half a century of the Scottish fantasist’s short fiction, including sixteen stories published here for the first time. Known for his dark humor and wild imagination, the stories span the broad range of his fascinating career. Whimsical drawings are interspersed throughout, the stories as much visual works as literary ones. “Illustration and typography play a major part in his work,” says The Guardian. “He doesn’t just write books, he creates them.” It’s probably worth noting, too, that The Guardian has also described Gray as a “a glorious one-man band, the dirty old man of Scottish letters.” (Elizabeth)

Personae by Sergio de la Pava: In the wake of A Naked Singularity’s success, the University of Chicago Press is likewise reissuing de la Pava’s self-published second novel, Personae. In most ways, it’s as different from its predecessor as grits from greens—a Cloud Atlas-y series of nested genre pieces covering the whodunit, the interior monologue, and the theater of the absurd. But fans of the earlier book will recognize de la Pava’s fearlessness and wild ambition, along with the ventriloquistic range that made the Jalen Kingg letters so moving. An excerpt is available at The Quarterly Conversation. (Garth)

The Daylight Gate by Jeanette Winterson: Winterson’s new novella, published to critical acclaim in the UK last year, takes on the trial of the Lancashire Witches in 1612, when a group of destitute outcasts, mostly women, were put on trial for witchcraft. “What is clear amid the poverty and brutality here,” the critic Arifa Akbar wrote in The Independent, “is that other-worldy evil is far outweighed by the harm that human beings inflict.” (Emily)

 

The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton: The author of the critically acclaimed debut novel The Rehearsal returns with a literary mystery set in 19th century New Zealand. When Walter Moody arrives on the coast of New Zealand, hoping to strike it rich in the gold fields, he stumbles upon a gathering of men who have met in secret to discuss a number of apparently coincidental recent events: on the day when a prostitute was arrested, a rich man disappeared, a down-on-his-luck alcoholic died, and a ship’s captain canceled all of his appointments and fled. The prostitute is connected to all three men, and Moody finds himself drawn into their interlinked lives and fates. (Emily)

November:

A Prayer Journal by Flannery O’Connor: When Flannery O’Connor was in her early 20s and a student at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, she kept a journal which focused on her relationship with her faith. Recently discovered, this journal should be a fascinating prospect for anyone with an interest in O’Connor’s writing, inseparable as it is from her Catholic belief in sin and redemption. It dates from 1946-47, around the time she was writing the stories that would converge into her debut novel Wise Blood. It looks to have been an exercise in bringing herself closer to her God through the act of writing: “I do not mean to deny the traditional prayers I have said all my life; but I have been saying them and not feeling them. My attention is always fugitive. This way I have it every instant.” (Mark)

Death of the Black-Haired Girl by Robert Stone: Steven Brookman is a brilliant professor at an elite college in New England. Maud Stack is his promising and alluring young student. You know where this is going. Unfortunately, however, Professor Brookman is a married man, and Maud Stack’s passions are “not easily contained or curtailed.” In this tale of infidelity and its affects on human relationships—as well as on the institutions in which they reside—Robert Stone makes clear that almost nothing is black and white, and that when it comes to “the allure of youth” and “the promise of absolution,” all roads may lead to madness. (Nick)

A Permanent Member of the Family by Russell Banks: Russell Banks—the author of The Sweet Hereafter and The Darling (among many others) and an acknowledged master chronicler of the tragedies of American life—will publish his first collection of short stories in fifteen years.  The book is composed of twelve stories, six of which appear for the first time. The two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist’s last novel, Lost Memory of Skin, documented the straitened lives of a group of sex offenders living under a Florida causeway. (Lydia)

Report from the Interior by Paul Auster: Last year Auster released Winter Journal, a personal history of the author’s own body.  This fall he will publish a companion piece of sorts that depicts the world as he saw it as a child growing up in New Jersey in the 1950s. (Kevin)

 

 

The Isle of Youth by Laura van den Berg: Laura van den Berg brings her mystical touch to her second collection of short stories, following her highly praised first collection, What The World Will Look Like When All The Water Leaves Us, which was shortlisted for The Frank O’Connor International Award. From a writer who professes to “freaking love coming up with zany plots,” The Isle of Youth delivers with stories of magicians, private detectives, and identity-trading twins. (Hannah)

 

Hild by Nicola Griffith: Nicola Griffith, British novelist and former poster child for the woes of American immigration policy (in 1998, The Wall Street Journal called her “a lesbian science-fiction writer,” like it’s a bad thing).  Her newest novel Hild takes place in seventh-century Britain in the Synod of Whitby, where the people were deciding what kind of Christians to be. The name “Hild” refers to the person we now know as St. Hilda, who presided over the conference during which the Synod debated the relative merits of Celtic and Roman Christianity.  In an interview with her editor, Griffith reported that the source material on St. Hilda is basically limited to five pages in the Venerable Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, so she was compelled to do a ferocious amount of research to recreate the world and customs, if not the life, of this early English figure. (Lydia)

Collected Stories by Stefan Zweig: Pushkin Press anointed 2013 as “The Year of Stefan Zweig,” in order to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the famed Austrian author’s death by a wartime suicide pact. Zweig’s fictions are oft fueled by seduction, desire, and affairs of the heart, mettle which helped make him an author of international renown during his tumultuous lifetime. Pushkin is singlehandedly attempting to reinvigorate Zweig’s reputation by issuing a series of rereleases and a handful of new translations of his works. An ideal introduction for the unacquainted comes in the form of Zweig’s Collected Stories, featuring twenty-three stories translated by Anthea Bell. (Anne)

Beyond:

Andrew’s Brain by E.L. Doctorow: Speaking of eminences grises… From The March to Homer & Langley to that cover version of Hawthorne’s “Wakefield” that ran in The New Yorker a few years back, Doctorow just keeps swinging. The product description on Amazon is sketchy, but the talk of a main character “speaking from an unknown place and to an unknown interlocutor [about] the circumstances that have led him to commit a mysterious act” sound downright Beckett-y, while the title makes me secretly hope Doctorow’s returning to science fiction (after suppressing his previous effort, Big as Life). (Garth)

A Place in the Country by W.G. Sebald: W.G. Sebald’s collection of six essays was originally published in German in 1998, three years before his untimely death.   The collection is an homage to six writers and artists (“colleagues,” he calls them, and “Alemmanic”), all of whom meant something to Sebald: Johann Peter Hebel, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Eduard Mörike, Gottfried Keller, Robert Walser, and Jan Peter Tripp.  Already out in the United Kingdom, the essays are apparently solidly in the Sebald tradition—which, as I understand it, defies attribution of stolid nouns like “criticism,” “fiction,” or “biography,” rejoicing instead in the patterns and echoes of what one critic called “half-reality.”  (Lydia)

Silence Once Begun by Jesse Ball: Chronically saddled with the designation of “experimental author,” Jesse Ball has written three novels, including The Way Through Doors, a book of poems and flash fiction, and a co-written prose poem, each work demonstrating a gift for quiet, powerful prose and a loose relationship with realism. His first hardcover release, Silence Once Begun, tells the story of a man who confesses to a string of crimes in writing, then never speaks during his arrest or interrogation, and the journalist who becomes obsessed with his case. (Janet)

On Such a Full Sea by Chang-rae Lee: Best known for his haunting stories of Korean history and American immigrant life, Korean-American novelist Chang-rae Lee tries his hand at speculative fiction, setting his new novel in a dystopian future in which America is in steep decline and urban neighborhoods have been turned into walled labor colonies that provide fresh produce and fish for the surrounding villages where the elite live. In the novel, Fan, a woman laborer, sets out in search of a vanished lover and finds herself crossing the lawless Open Counties, where the government exerts little control and crime is rampant. (Michael)

Perfect by Rachel Joyce: Rachel Joyce’s first novel, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, was a national bestseller and was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize.  Her highly anticipated second novel has two narratives, one about two boys in the early 1970s and their obsession with the two seconds added to clock time to balance with the movement of the earth, and one about a present-day man who is debilitated by his obsessive-compulsive routines.  Blogger Kate Neilan loved it, saying, “Rachel Joyce should be praised from the rooftops for Perfect; there’s not a thing I’d change about it.”

Leaving the Sea by Ben Marcus: “With Ben Marcus, as with Beckett, such disruptions are signs of literature itself being stretched and tensed, pressed to express the process of a writer testing his limits,” says David Winters in his Millions review of Marcus’s recent novel The Flame Alphabet. Marcus has long been a champion of experimental writing and innovative uses of language, as demonstrated by the stories he selected for the unmatched Anchor Book of New American Short Stories. His forthcoming Leaving the Sea is the first collection of Marcus’s short stories. Expect nothing except more boundary pushing and an exquisite sense of the unexpected. (Anne)

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