The Martian

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But Let Us Cultivate Our Garden

“But let us cultivate our garden.” —Candide by Voltaire (1759), translated by Theo Cuffe (2009)

1.
The first real garden I grew on my own was in 1996, when I was in my mid-20s. I had graduated as an engineer and started working at a pneumatics manufacturer in the British Midlands. My one-bedroom rental was in an old semi-detached two-story house where the local council authorities had converted each floor into a separate flat and sold off to private owners. Each flat had a small, equally sectioned area of the backyard. From my upstairs kitchen and bathroom windows, I could see the entire backyard with its two neatly fenced-off plots.

I would have probably left my patch of fenced-off grass alone, but the married couple I was renting from had made its maintenance one of the lease conditions. They also had family living down that same street to keep an eye on things.

On weekends and late summer evenings, I had noted neighbors up and down my street tending to their own gardens, both front and back, enjoying the brief nice weather as much as possible. Trying not to stare as I searched unsuccessfully for brown faces like mine, I would scurry past on red-gold evenings with my grocery-filled backpack. Often, they would be conversing across hedges and fences about plants or pests. A wisp of a breeze would tug slightly at their old gardening clothes and send snatches of their chatter—filled with exotic-sounding technical jargon—my way. On the odd occasion when one of them stopped to smile and wave, it felt as if I had interrupted something very private.

Gardening had never been of interest to a bookish, indoor sort like me. Growing up in Mumbai, there had never been anything to tend for besides the few potted plants on apartment balconies. But I was in a new part of England after several years of a mostly cloistered university life, so I knew nobody. My long workdays at the new job were difficult, and on weekends, I collapsed into comas of reading and television watching. This was the time before home computers or mobile phones were ubiquitous in all homes. And British Telecom reigned supreme with their absurd landline rates, both domestic and international, so that long chats with friends or family were out of the question. Still, it wasn’t so much a sense of loneliness as a sense of a growing desert inside. Much like the garden plot lying useless, I felt vast spaces within me going fallow too.

2.
The “garden” is a recurring motif in Voltaire’s novella Candide. It shows up throughout the story in various settings and symbolic themes, which is why there are still several differing interpretations of this particular Voltairean philosophy. The story is about a naive young man who travels the world, gets into all kinds of awful difficulties (e.g. rape, disemboweling), tries to dust off every horror with the optimistic maxim from his mentor, Pangloss, that “all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds,” and finally concludes that we can only (and we must) “cultivate our own garden.”

The garden at the very end of the story, where this line also occurs, provides the most commonly accepted interpretation. Candide and all the main characters set to work together on a bit of land, each taking responsibility for a specific task. The catalyst is another character, a Turk, whom they meet just before. This Turk tells them about his own garden and how he tends to it with his four children, doing simple work and not minding external affairs. Their main objective, he says, is to keep free of the three great evils: boredom, vice, and poverty.

Scholars continue to debate what Voltaire was saying with this ending. Was he advocating a passive retreat and isolation from society or an active contribution to it? Was he suggesting we lose all hope by giving up on the idea that “everything happens for the best”?

When Voltaire completed and published Candide, he was living in exile on his estate in Ferney, a town on the French side of the Franco-Swiss border. Within this country retreat, he designed and cultivated an actual garden where he could, as he had written in another book, The Age of Louis XIV, enjoy “affable manners, simple living, and the culture of the mind.” Of course, this was also the time when he took on religious fanaticism and torture as his main causes, fighting for those who had been convicted—wrongly as he saw it—in the name of religion. In his brilliant 2005 essay on Voltaire’s garden, Adam Gopnik writes:
It is not so much the establishment of a garden but the ownership of a gate that moves people from liking a society based on favors to one based on rights. Enclosing his garden broadened Voltaire’s circle of compassion. When people were dragged from their gardens to be tortured and killed in the name of faith, he began to take it, as they say, personally.
Gopnik goes on to confirm that, with Candide, Voltaire was really writing against optimal thinking of the kind that sees everything tending toward the best in the end. And, importantly, Voltaire was against the “flight from failed optimism into faith.” Gopnik also clarified the key phrase:
It was a garden with a principle. It represented what he saw as a new, French ideal of domestic happiness, windows wide and doors open,“simplicity” itself. … By “garden” Voltaire meant a garden, not a field—not the land and task to which we are chained by nature but the better place we build by love. The force of that last great injunction, “we must cultivate our garden,” is that our responsibility is local, and concentrated on immediate action. … Voltaire was a gardener and believed in gardens, even if other people were gardening them. His residual optimism lies in that alone.
Gopnik gave his interpretation and analysis in a pre-Facebook, pre-Twitter, pre-Trump era. Today, we have few, if any, physical or psychical gates or boundaries from the world at large. It comes at us from all sides like, as Virginia Woolf famously wrote once, “an incessant shower of innumerable atoms” (possibly, had she been writing that today, she would have added strong qualifiers for the speed at which this happens). So the “windows wide and doors open” aspect of Voltaire’s garden is no longer a promise of that metaphorical domestic bliss because these windows and doors have been blown off entirely. The careful cultivation of this personal garden to allow a life of deep, emotionally rich meaning is a much harder prospect for any would-be, modern-day Voltaire.

3.
And yet it was tempting for me to try just that sort of Voltairean endeavor with my little English garden back in 1996. I asked a couple of coworkers for advice on how to manage this 5-foot-by-3-foot bit of earth I was now responsible for. They made it sound simple enough: Buy seed packets at the local B&Q DIY store, aerate the soil (an elderly co-worker came by one evening to show me how to make both vertical and horizontal furrows and even loaned me his precious rake), place seeds in well-spaced rows at regular intervals and depths, cover up with fertilized topsoil, water as needed, and remove weeds when they appear.

In early spring, I planted vegetables—runner beans along a handmade wire trellis, cabbage, courgette (zucchini), cucumber, tomato, carrot, lettuce—and looked forward to sustaining myself on freshly tossed salads throughout the summer. Along one long fence edge, I scattered flower seeds three layers deep for irises, crocuses, lavender, chrysanthemums, sweet pea, daffodils, asters, zinnias, delphiniums, violets, dahlias, daisies, carnations, geraniums, nasturtiums, gladioli, larkspur, and more.

At first, I was too self-conscious, worried that everyone would see how I knew nothing. The tall widow in the flat below me would sit on her kitchen doorstep after supper, her short blue-rinsed hair in tight curlers. She would watch me planting, weeding, and watering through the smoke rings of her after-supper cigarette. We rarely spoke and, after that one cigarette, she would retreat indoors and lock her several door latches with loud, definitive clicks and clacks.

Eventually, I grew to love that solitude, silence, and space and even looked forward to it as my daily highlight. That I was taking care of things and making them grow felt more than productive—it felt both purposeful and grown up. And as my own gardening vocabulary grew from the books the local garden center had advised me to buy, I would whisper some of those new words while bending over the saplings—as if sprinkling them with sacred mantras to help them thrive.

4.
Diane Ackerman wrote an entire book about her garden, Cultivating Delight: A Natural History of My Garden. Taking us through how her upstate New York garden fares through the four seasons, Ackerman muses philosophically and lyrically on many aspects of life, growth, and death. Her opening is beautiful:
I plan my garden as I wish I could plan my life, with islands of surprise, color, and scent. A seductive aspect of gardening is how many rituals it requires. … By definition, the garden’s errands can never be finished and its time-keeping reminds us of an order older and one more complete than our own. … Gardeners have unique preferences, which tend to reflect dramas in their personal lives but they all share a love of natural beauty and a passion to create order, however briefly, from chaos. The garden becomes a frame for their vision of life. … Nurturing, decisive, interfering, cajoling, gardeners are eternal optimists who trust the ways of nature and believe passionately in the idea of improvement. As the gnarled, twisted branches of apple trees have taught them, beauty can spring in the most unlikely places. Patience, hard work, and a clever plan usually lead to success: private worlds of color, scent, and astonishing beauty. Small wonder, a gardener plans her garden as she wishes she could plan her life.
In her journals, May Sarton praised the slowness and patience that gardening requires: “Everything that slows us down and forces patience, everything that sets us back into the slow circles of nature, is a help. Gardening is an instrument of grace.” She also wrote of how it is a metaphor for life: “The garden is growth and change and that means loss as well as constant new treasures to make up for a few disasters.” And the “good” kind of death: “In the garden the door is always open into the “holy”—growth, birth, death. Every flower holds the whole mystery in its short cycle, and in the garden we are never far away from death, the fertilizing, good, creative death.”

Virginia Woolf used gardens in fiction (the most well-known example: “Kew Gardens”) as metaphors for different aspects of life, relationships, and more. She even wrote in a little separate shed-like room in her garden at Monk’s House, her weekend home in Sussex. Though her husband, Leonard Woolf, did much of the cultivating and tending, there’s a lovely throwaway sentence in her diaries that summarizes the joys she got from gardens: “Wind enough outside; within sunny and sheltered; & weeding all day to finish the beds in a queer sort of enthusiasm which made me say this is happiness.”

5.
Happiness also came through in my garden. By late spring and early summer, the weekend and late-evening hours spent taking care of all that life teeming its way through the rich loam paid off more than I had imagined. On the vegetable side, the dense, lush crop was too much for one person, and I gave most of it away to neighbors and coworkers to avoid spoilage. On the flower side, the countless upstanding blooms were all mixed into a riotously colored palette, wafting ripe and heady scents, and sheltering an entire ecosystem of small insects.

Yes, a lot of this had to do with that perfect confluence of natural elements—weather, water, soil, seed, ecology—and helpful and neighborly friends. But, as it had been for Ackerman and Sarton and Woolf, my garden had also been a way to make some order from chaos, find some grace through growth and change, and create an enthusiasm of my own.

In the next two decades, I went on to buy (and sell) homes of my own as I moved across several different states in the U.S. Each house had a decent-sized backyard where I hoped to replicate that first gardening success. But the careful, patient cultivation of those spaces had to be outsourced while I invested almost all my time and energy in the cultivation of my professional career. And while that career did bloom and grow, it never had quite the same effortless magic and satisfaction as that physical garden.

6.
In my 40th year, I came across Andy Weir’s online-published novel, The Martian.

Mark Watney is a NASA astronaut who gets left on Mars and is presumed dead. After his initial shock and panic, Watney decides to “science the shit out of” the disaster of being left alone on an uninhabitable terrain with practically no life resources. The most important thing he has to do is figure out how to sustain himself while waiting to make contact with NASA so they know he’s still alive and can rescue him. As a botanist, he cultivates a potato garden with ingenuity, hard work, and patience. He goes to great lengths and works diligently, all the while knowing that it may never matter in the end if he can’t get back to earth. Still, at one point, he has 400 healthy potato plants that buy him a whole lot more waiting time.

Now, while Watney’s fictional solution to potato gardening on Mars is complex, it isn’t entirely technically sound—from the use of human feces (without composting for months) as fertilizer to turning the rocket’s hydrazine fuel into water to all the other unpredictable accidents along the way. Still, let’s move past all that to the key message his garden cultivation gives us—or what it gave me at a major turning point in my career and life.

I had finally gotten around to admitting to myself, after decades, that I had hit stony ground and needed to transplant myself into new soil. I knew what kind of garden, metaphorically speaking, I wanted to cultivate. I had, in fact, been attempting to work at it all my life with scraps of free time here and there and a bit of nourishment from a writing workshop now and then. But the writing work often ran to weed quickly and the long fallow periods in between each new sprouting certainly did not help.

Like Candide and his cohorts, I decided to focus my most essential occupation on the local/personal and immediate. I told myself that, even if it involved starting with something as boring as potatoes in a difficult Mars-like environment, as Watney had done, then I would do that.

I have been cultivating my “literary” garden for six years now. There have been seeds that did not germinate and crops both good and bad. The lessons of my first garden are with me always: tend constantly; accept that everything has its season; ensure good fences; leave no stones unturned; know that weeds can, sometimes, be wildflowers too; and appreciate that the occasional strong breezes create strong trees.

The last bit of conversation in Candide is between Candide and his mentor, Pangloss. Pangloss reminds his mentee that he would not be sitting in that garden and enjoying its fruits if he had not gone through his many troubles before. As much as Voltaire intended Pangloss to be a satirical, laughable caricature of old-fashioned optimism, this is ancient, true wisdom. All of us finally arrive at the gardens we are meant to cultivate after a “concatenation of all events in the best of possible worlds.”

In literary works around the world, gardens have been portrayed as places of trysts, romance, sex, contemplation, escape, solace, possibilities, and more. They evoke a wide range of metaphoric images, represent our many connections with nature, and bring a richer language into play. Voltaire’s garden, I’ve always believed, is not the typical Edenic kind requiring expulsion at some stage. Instead, it wholeheartedly advocates a complete focus on its cultivation and a rightful enjoyment of its pleasures.

Image: Flickr/hardwarehank

How to Write a Bestseller

I have a friend—call him Tom—who, like me, is a writer. Tom has written many novels over a long and enviable publishing career, and his novel-writing philosophy, related to me over various drinks at various bars, can be summarized as follows: Write whatever the hell you write, whatever concept or character or situation has burrowed under your skin and must be freed. Forget commerce and forget audience—you write for an audience of one, and if an editor or reader happens to find it interesting, all the better. A bestseller, in Tom’s view, should merely be a happy alignment of the world’s interests with your own, a momentary occupation of a dominant paradigm that is essentially unplannable. Or not something to be planned, at any rate.

Tom’s philosophy holds many advantages. It is pure, uncompromised and uncompromising. It presumably results in the best art, at least if you assume that, in theory, the most adventurous art usually takes money the least into account. And it is easily followed, as well, simply by adhering to its lone Thelemic precept: Do what thou wilt.

It is, finally, a comforting artistic position for an artist to hold vis-à-vis commerce. If you are utterly beholden to your artistic impulses, you cannot be surprised or mind much when a piece of art does not sell. You did not create it to sell. If it does, great, but whether it does or not is a simple matter of luck, of spinning the wheel. Further, it implies a retroactively absolving determinism—if a lifetime of artistic work has sold no paintings, no albums, no books, why fret? After all, you were always going to do the thing you were going to do, and you were never going to do the thing you weren’t going to do, and the thing you did do was never not going to be unpopular, QED.

This may be a philosophically solid position, but is it necessarily true? I began to ask this question after the publication and non-success—the anti-success—of my first novel. I wrote the book, as many first-time novelists do, in a kind of prelapsarian innocence, protected from the practical concerns of publication by ignorance and wonder at the odd fact of writing a novel in the first place. In the beginning, I hadn’t even really intended to write a novel, had simply been working on a short story that kept accumulating pages. In the end, it sold to a trade house, and the whole experience had the hazy quality of a dream, an impression strengthened by the arcane inscrutability of the publishing process.

Preparing to write a second novel, I had no such illusions. I had seen the amount of machinery required to make a book, all the stubborn engines of commerce that must be coaxed to life; I had received the distant publication schedules, the important dates that feel imaginary set nearly two years in the future; most importantly, I had a book come out that didn’t do much of anything besides get some nice reviews. These are lessons that cannot be unlearned, and they come with a circumspection about the projects to which you are willing to commit your time and attention. Suddenly lots of market-related considerations crept in that would never have occurred to me the first time around. I began to wonder, contra Tom: Could a writer set out to write a popular book?

In a largely facetious (though slightly more serious than I’d like to admit) attempt to address this question, I decided to take the most literal possible approach and go through several years of New York Times Best Seller lists. After all, to write a bestseller, it would be helpful to know what has sold best. Making the Times best-seller list may seem like casting a broad net, but only counting literary number ones, I was left with, approximately, All the Light We Cannot See and The Nightingale. So I figured hitting the top ten for a week would do it, over the previous five years. Too much further back and you might run into epochal changes of taste, some forgotten mania of the aughts. Also, I didn’t have the time.

An immediate issue this exercise presented, and a question much larger than the scope of this piece, was deciding what qualifies as “literary fiction.” For my purposes, I included almost anything not having to do with worldwide conspiracies, serial killers, werewolves and shapeshifters and rogue triple agents—i.e. anything not obviously genre. And though they invoke the Bard of Avon, William Shakespeare’s Star Wars series—The Empire Striketh Back, The Jedi Doth Return, I am not making this up—did not make the final cut.

(Before moving on to actual findings, a couple of notes after having spent many man hours going through nearly 300 or so of these weekly lists. First—and I realize this is the summit of trite publishing observation—but holy shit does James Patterson, or The James Patterson Military Industrial Complex or whatever it is, produce a lot of books. I’m not sure I noticed more than a handful of weeks in the last five years in which some Pattersonian permutation wasn’t on The List. David Baldacci, also. Second, Brad Thor may be the only bestselling genre author with a less plausible name than his protagonist, the relatively mundane “Scott Horvath.” You would think his hero should be named something like Odin Hercules, but no.)

Having compiled a long list of recent literary hits, what did I learn? Well, for one thing, start your title with “The.” Around a third of these bestsellers are “The” books. The Goldfinch, The Nightingale, The Martian, The Interestings, The Vacationers, The Girl on the Train. Granted, “the” is a fairly common word in English usage, but I suspect it also holds some subliminal power for prospective readers, announcing a book as official in subject and purpose—the definite article, so to speak. Just imagine how many more copies All the Light We Cannot See would have sold if it had been titled, for example, The Light We Cannot See (All of It), or The Entirety of Unseen Light.

Another smart move is to be famous already. Ideally, have written To Kill a Mockingbird 50 years ago, but otherwise, at least be a known quantity. This, of course, introduces another chicken/egg problem, i.e., how did these writers get to be known quantities before they were? At any rate, surprisingly few authors seem to make the list from out of nowhere.

More seriously, write one of two types of books: mysteries or historical fiction, both if possible. In either of these genres, you’re in good shape if you can work in something to do with a famous painting or painter or other noteworthy work of art or artist. Anything to do with marriage and travel to exotic locales, as well. Over and again, a combination of these elements popped up, and the obvious common theme is that of escape: escape into the past, escape into a mystery, escape into aesthetics and culture, escape into imagined relationships, and the literal escape from one’s home to parts unknown. It turns out that the escapist instinct that drives genre fiction sales is alive and well in readers of literary fiction—it simply requires (debatably) better sentences and (usually) less fantastic trappings.

With these guidelines in mind, I came up with a few potential novels that wouldn’t have seemed out of place on the list. Here’s one: a historical mystery based on the life and death of Paul Gauguin. But told from the perspective of his estranged wife, Mette-Sophie, via a diary she keeps as she travels the world, investigating her husband’s artistically triumphant and morally bankrupt life after leaving his family. Call it The Journals of the First Mrs. Gauguin. A synopsis of this ghostly book in the style used to query agents is as follows:
When a previously unknown Paul Gauguin painting is discovered in an abandoned apartment in Chicago, art historian Lena Wexler is assigned the job of tracking its provenance; an investigation back through time, and place—from Chicago to Miami, from Denmark to France, from Tahiti to, finally, The Marquesas, all with the help of The Journals of the First Mrs. Gauguin.
Does this sound like a book people would buy? I think so. I can very easily imagine this book on the coffee table of my mother-in-law, an omnivorous reader of literary bestsellers, classics, and nonfiction who helms a monthly book club. I’m fairly confident that if I queried 20 agents with this synopsis, one or two would request a read. It sounds like a popular book.

The only problem is that for it to exist, I would have to write it. And it’s not a book I can write. Working through this little thought experiment confirmed what I already knew writing a novel requires: an ineffable, personal spark of interest that catches fire and burns steadily enough to not be extinguished by doubt and creative incapacity; a fire that manifests over time as curiosity about the subject, and the project itself, how it all turns out. Lacking this deep interest, an otherwise valid project—exciting, interesting, and commercial—remains a theoretically good idea, like going to medical school or quitting social media.

Since this essay’s inception, I’ve published another novel and have two more in stages of revision, and I’ve fully accepted Tom’s point of view: You have to write what you want to write, even if what you want to write won’t usually be what people want to read. You can’t spend two to five years on something for a theoretical, external reward. Or I can’t, anyway, but maybe some people can—if so, The Journals of the First Mrs. Gauguin is all yours.

Image: Flickr/Nabeel H

The Literature of Mars: A Brief History

Though Venus is more like Earth in size, Mars is the planet that regularly makes headlines. New ice under its sandy cliffs has been caught on camera, causing more hope that life may have been present at some point in the past. Prominent people like Elon Musk are talking about going to Mars in the near future.

Scientists are once again planning sustainable living quarters for the colonization of the fourth planet from our sun. This is not the first time humanity has endeavored to send a manned mission there. For more than a century this planet has been popularized in the news as well as in pop culture. Mars has especially held a rich place in world literature.

In 1877, the Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli said he saw channel-like structures in his observations of the Martian surface. Partially through mistranslation, some scientists further thought these were actually canals built by intelligent life-forms. A few years later, American astronomer Percival Lowell agreed wholeheartedly with Schiaparelli’s so-called findings. Years later, when better telescopes were more readily available, the scientific community for the most part dismissed the concept of the channels for they were not present on the planet’s surface. However, Lowell was no fool. He predicted that another planet in our solar system existed outside Neptune’s orbit.

This extraterrestrial body was indeed discovered (it was called Pluto). But despite their brilliance, Lowell and Schiaparelli (and others) saw things in their telescopes that weren’t really there. It has been suggested that the optics or even tired eyesight brought on the effect that tricked these astronomers. This is still a bit of a mystery.

Prior to the scientific community’s brushing-off of this concept, another French astronomer, Camille Flammarion, wrote several works that would today be considered sci-fi novels. In one of these, Les Terres du Ciel (1884), Flammarion describes the scenery of bodies such as the moon and Mars to his readers. Flammarion’s interest in the moon may have been sparked by the 1865 novel by his fellow countryman Jules Verne, From the Earth to the Moon.

Percival Lowell was also able to write and have published a number of lengthy essays about the proposed life on the Red Planet. His first was a book that was simply called Mars, originally published in 1895. Two more followed: Mars and Its Canals (1906) and Mars as the Abode of Life (1908). Lowell died in 1916, and Pluto would be discovered in 1930 by Clyde Tombaugh.

Around 1898, a mere three years after the publication of Percival Lowell’s first Martian book, H.G. Wells’s epic sci-fi classic The War of the Worlds was published. The story he tells is one of invaders from Mars coming to Earth and leveling cities with their destructive lasers. Humanity retaliates with what it can, but the Martians’ tech is too advanced and efficient. It is fitting that the Earth finds itself in a desperate fight with the inhabitants of Mars, the name for the ancient god of war. The War of the Worlds enjoyed a host of Hollywood film adaptations. It was also converted into a radio play in 1938, late in the Great Depression, and was broadcast and narrated by Orson Welles. His realistic rendition and delivery of the script famously caused a panic throughout the U.S. (although, this historic aspect has been disputed in recent years).

In 1917, the year after Percival Lowell’s death, a novelization entitled A Princess of Mars was published. This book was the first in the Barsoom series; its author was the renowned Edgar Rice Burroughs. Apart from the Barsoom series, Burroughs other famous story was that of Tarzan. Ten sequels were produced, most of them being attributed to Edgar Rice Burroughs. The last of these was John Carter of Mars, which was published in the early 1940s. Barsoom is the Martian word for Mars itself. Thus, the series is referred to as the “Barsoom series.” (It was the basis for the 2012 film John Carter.)

Sci-fi was a new and rising genre in the 1930s. Stanley G. Weinbaum’s short story “A Martian Odyssey” was published around this time. Many stories of the same caliber were being published in that decade. In 1938 (the year Orson Welles made the renowned radio broadcast), a book called Out of the Silent Planet was published. It is often overlooked by sci-fi fans, and yet is was created and penned by one of the greatest fantasy authors of the 20th century. Its author was none other than British professor C.S. Lewis, a good friend of J.R.R. Tolkien. Out of the Silent Planet was the first installment of Lewis’s sci-fi trilogy. The alien planet on which much of the story takes place is Malacandra, which is meant to be Mars.

The next notable literary work is Robert A. Heinlein’s 1949 novel Red Planet. The Martian Chronicles, a collection of short stories about the colonization of Mars by Ray Bradbury, was published the year later. Then in 1951, Arthur C. Clarke’s The Sands of Mars was published. This whole period was filled with Martian literature. The 1950s and ’60s were the golden era of sci-fi, and so Mars appeared frequently in much of the pop culture of the day. Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land (1961) also takes the reader to Mars.

It was really not until the ’90s when quality literature about Mars and Martians became popular again. This is because it was in the 1990s that high-tech probes like Mars Global Surveyor, Pathfinder, and Sojourner landed on the planet, giving us new, more detailed imagery of the Martian surface. The Mars Society was also founded in the late 1990s. In this decade, astronomer and astrobiologist Carl Sagan said, “Because of the historic romance of the general public with Mars (consider even today the associations of the word ‘martian’), the exploration of Mars has a public resonance and support that probably no other goal of the space program can claim.”

In 1993, Greg Bear published his award-winning novel Moving Mars, a futuristic story that discusses many political themes. Kim Stanley Robinson also published numerous Martian novels throughout this decade. Dr. John Gray published a book entitled Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus (1992), which covered topics about the psychological differences between men and women. It employed the metaphor of the title to get its point across, picturing that the two sexes originated from two different planets of drastically different societies. Apparently, it was the longest-running nonfiction bestseller of the ’90s. And in 1999, bringing the decade to a close, the novel The Martian Race by Gregory Benford was released.

The most popular Martian-related literary tale next to the classical War of the Worlds did not reach its readers until 2011. This of course is Andy Weir’s widely acclaimed The Martian which, unlike The War of the Worlds, actually takes place on Mars itself. It was adapted for the silver screen and released to theaters in 2015. This obviously helped in popularizing the novel itself.

It was also in 2011 that the poetry collection Life on Mars by Tracy K. Smith was first published. The work features creative pieces that include imagery of numerous objects seen throughout the cosmos. Smith was likely inspired by the life of her father, a scientist involved with the development of the Hubble Space Telescope. Even more recently, Martian anthologies such as Old Mars which was edited by George R.R. Martin and Gardner Dozois have been published.

Even music writers have shown a great fascination with the Red Planet. For instance, English composer Gustav Holst wrote the classical suite “The Planets” between 1914 and 1916. Mars is given tribute in its own section entitled, “Mars—Bringer of War.” In hearing it, it can easily remind the listener of various John Williams soundtracks such as that of Star Wars. Nearly a century after Holst’s composition, in 2012, the singer, voice actor, and songwriter will.i.am had his piece “Reach for the Stars” broadcast from Earth to Mars and back again.

We are entering a new age of Martian exploration in both science and science fiction. Our efforts are being directed at colonizing the sandy celestial body. As humanity strives to reach out toward the Red Planet, more imaginations will be sparked, more pens put to work. Someday soon, writers may find themselves living on a red planet, writing even more far-fetched fantasies than those of their forebears.

Image Credit: Wikipedia.

The Next Great American Crime Writer May Be Living in Norway

Derek B. Miller caught the eye of readers of The Millions with his 2013 debut novel, Norwegian by Night, lauded by Richard Russo in his Year in Reading and staying atop our Top Ten for months. The novel featured an octogenarian ex-Marine, Sheldon Horowitz, who has lost his son in Vietnam and who tries to save another boy from his father, an Albanian war criminal. Set in Norway, the novel also introduced the wily cop Sigrid Ødergård; Miller followed it with The Girl in Green, in which two men involved in the Gulf War get a chance at redemption decades later. Now Miller is publishing American by Day, which sends Sigrid Ødergård from Norway to upstate New York to find her brother, who has disappeared after being named the prime suspect in his girlfriend’s mysterious death. Miller spoke with The Millions, via Skype, from his home in Oslo.

The Millions: You have a background in International Studies, I think.

Derek B. Miller: The short version is that I got a master’s degree from Georgetown in National Security, in conjunction with Oxford, where I finished my degree. I knew I wanted to do a doctorate, so I stayed in Europe, futzed around for a while working for a newspaper, and then I moved to Geneva, Switzerland, where I got a second master’s and a Ph.D. from the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies.

TM: What did you do after earning your degrees?

DBM: I spent about a decade in the United Nations Institute of Disarmament Research. Basically I was looking at countries recovering from war—jump-starting the economy, trying to collect weapons after a war, establishing a transitional justice system. So I worked on that for a long time, trying to push the elephant of the United Nations in a direction that I thought was both more pragmatic and ethical.

TM: That wasn’t exactly the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, was it?

DBM: No [Laughs].

TM: So how did you become a novelist?

DBM: Well, I think the idea of creative writing was planted in my head back at Sarah Lawrence, which at the time, 1988 to ’92, had the only undergraduate creative writing program in the country. I didn’t actually do creative writing there, but I think it demystified the notion that writing is something only geniuses or crazy people do. When I tried to write, my first manuscript took me three years. It wasn’t very good, but some of the tone, my approach to characterization, my approach to the relationship between tragedy and comedy—I can look back on my efforts from my mid-20s, and it’s clearly my writing. I found that short stories weren’t for me. So I just kept writing.

TM: So all these years you’re traveling around working for the U.N.—and you’re writing fiction on the side, as an apprentice?

DBM: I was writing. I have a good education for finding patterns in data and building theory, and I think I approached writing from both a creative perspective and an analytical one. I asked fundamental questions I felt I needed to ask in order to write better, such as: What is a story? What differentiates a story from a mere sequence of events? What is the nature of dramatic tension, and where does it come from? How do you deal with large gaps of time? Lots of architecture and craft issues. So I asked these questions, I interrogated the material I was reading to see how different authors achieved that. I wasn’t trying to copy them, I was trying to learn. And it took me a long time to figure it out.

TM: Norwegian by Night, your first novel, resonated with readers of The Millions—and a lot of other readers. Do you remember, was there a day you started writing that book, or did it sort of morph into shape over the years?

DBM: What happened was, I had written a manuscript prior to that, and it didn’t work. There were two reasons why. The architecture of the story was all over the place, and my protagonist was too milquetoast. He just wasn’t interesting enough. Sheldon Horowitz was a minor character in that failed effort, and what I found was that my secondary characters were great. They were relieved of the burden of having to be the protagonist, and that let them be far more decisive and funny and wild and everything else. So when it came time to try again, I decided to move Sheldon Horowitz forward. The reason was because I was very close to my grandfathers and they were dying at that time, and my son Julian was born in 2008, which was when I wrote Norwegian by Night. The ending of the book came to me while I was at the hospital waiting for Julian to be born—it was by C-section, so it was scheduled. I was sitting there and I probably should have been thinking about my wife, Camilla, but the fact of the matter is that I was thinking about the ending of the book. And once I realized how the pieces fit together, I wrote that book in about a year.

TM: Your protagonist, Sheldon Horowitz, an 82-year-old Marine veteran who lost is son in Vietnam, feels guilt but has a second chance to redeem himself. Guilt seems to be a big engine in your fiction. Is that a fair thing to say?

DBM: Guilt is a funny word. It comes about from making decisions that in retrospect you feel were fundamentally wrong—getting drunk and running over a kid, pretty straightforward. Sheldon’s guilt over his son is far more complex than that—it’s tied up with patriotism, his Jewish identity, things that are too complex to pin on a bad decision. They’re the consequences of a long life lived. I think loss is a stronger word.

TM: Let’s bring it up to your new book, American by Day. Marcus Ødegård, the brother of the protagonist Sigrid, an Oslo cop—he’s off in America and he’s feeling guilt or loss or regret over his mother’s death from cancer years ago. And now his lover in America dies under mysterious circumstances—I don’t want to give too much away—but again I’m thinking about Sheldon Horowitz. Here’s something that happened years ago that a person’s carrying around like a stone in his stomach—and trying to figure out how to come to terms with it. I guess you could call that loss.

DBM: I think in Marcus’s case he feels he should have spoken up and he didn’t—and that led to his mother’s death. With Marcus I was thinking specifically of a scene from a Saul Bellow book called Seize the Day. A middle-aged guy is having a breakdown, saying, “Are you telling me that I’m not who I think I am? That I’ve lived my life under an illusion of who I thought I was?” If you wake up and you’re 50 years old and you find out you’ve been living under a delusion since childhood and clearly you’re never going to recover the life you might have led, if only—that was a very interesting and powerful theme that I wanted to explore as a way of looking at the way tragedy and crime can go together. I wanted the story of Marcus and his American girlfriend, Lydia, to be about the result of these rich but incredibly different lives, that the collision of those lives created this moment of possibility that ended very, very badly. That felt like an interesting way to create a story—not so much a crime, but to create a story that on the surface looks like a straightforward mystery, but the ultimate mystery is the way these two lives collided to create a tragedy.

TM: You’re living in Oslo now?

DBM: Right.

TM: How did you wind up there?

DBM: I met a Norwegian girl and she outsmarted me.

TM: Aha. Where did you two meet?

DBM: Geneva. We were both working in the same think tank on weapons. Basically it was an office romance.

TM: The Scandinavian literary tradition is of course gigantic—from Ibsen to Knut Hamsun to Astrid Lindgren up to Jo Nesbø. As an American writer in Norway, is that a cloud over your head? Something you don’t think about? An inspiration? I’m curious what it’s like writing in a place that’s very different from where you grew up in New England.

DBM: I’ve been living abroad for 22 years now. The fact is, I still haven’t read Jo Nesbø and he’s not on my short list. That kind of crime novel—where something horrific happens and somebody’s investigating and everybody’s miserable—it just bores me. I see myself as an American writer, and what I mean by that is that I’m writing into the American literary tradition and drawing quite heavily from it. Though I’m happy to be included in a global conversation on literature as well, that’s the footing from which I have that conversation.

When Don DeLillo published Underworld, it was came out in France. At the beginning of the book, it said, “translated from the American.” Right? And DeLillo said in an interview that he actually quite liked that because while he and everyone else knows that American is not a language, it was nice to emphasize the vernacular. It’s kind of a compliment, if you choose to see it that way.

TM: You’re not reading Jo Nesbø. So what are you reading?

DBM: What’s on my desk is Richard Russo’s debut, Mohawk. After that I want to read Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter, who I have not read before but I read the first chapter and loved it. I just finished The Marriage Plot from Jeffrey Eugenides, which I quite liked. I just finished The Weight of Ink by Rachel Kadish, which I thought was exquisite. I do not write reviews, but I did write to her and tell her I think she’s absolutely wonderful. I haven’t checked in with Nick Hornby in a while. Then there’s Andy Weir’s new book, Artemis—he wrote The Martian, which became the movie with Matt Damon.

TM: I guess that leads to the inevitable question: What are you working on now?

DBM: I’ve written two things. I’ve written a draft—I don’t know if I should call it science fiction, maybe speculative fiction—of a post-post-post-post-apocalyptic story set a couple hundred years in the future. It’s called Radio Life, and I’m going back to revisions of it. I haven’t shared it with anybody but my agent. And I’m writing a contemporary inter-family drama set on the coast of New England called A Simple Arrangement. I’m hoping to have both of them done, in draft form anyway, by the end of the year.

TM: Are you a full-time writer now?

DBM: I would say yes. I feel the novelists around me are extraordinarily good, and while you’re always competing against yourself to be the best writer you can be, you’re also competing against the market in order to survive, and I can’t write this stuff on my knee on the way to class anymore. Which isn’t to say you try to anticipate the market, because that’s almost pointless.

TM: But you are trying to make a living.

DBM: Yeah, I have a wife and two kids and this is what I’m doing. So if I can’t pull it off, we don’t eat. It has gone extraordinarily well. I’m not a bestseller so I don’t have bestseller money, but I’m writing full time now and have been for about two years.

TM: Is it a good life?

DBM: It’s wonderful. It’s like walking a high wire without a net, but it’s a second career and it’s a chance to turn a corner. I feel I can really appreciate it at this point in my life because it’s the first job I’ve ever had where it’s just absolute blue sky, where instead of being penalized for being creative, I’m encouraged to do it. It’s an amazing space to be in.

This interview was produced in partnership with Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Against Readability

In 2008, Anheuser-Busch ran a series of perplexing ads extolling Bud Light’s “drinkability.” What could it mean to say that a beer is able to be drunk? That it won’t kill you? That it does not taste completely terrible? That it is liquid, and so will run down your throat so long as you remain at least vaguely upright? “Bud Light keeps it coming.” Under most conceivable interpretations, “drinkable” seems insulting: this beer is not good, merely drinkable. It’ll do, I guess. The ads seemed premade for mockery, almost as if an agency staffed by craft-beer lovers had snuck a self-negating pitch past their clients. Unsurprisingly, the campaign was widely chalked up as a failure. One of Budweiser’s 2015 Super Bowl ads, which openly mocked craft beer — “proudly a macro beer,” “not brewed to be fussed over” — seemed comparatively savvy: if your product can’t be confused for good, then play the populist card and deride the good as elitist. (And sell Goose Island, and now Camden Town, with your other hand.) Seemingly this must have been the aim of the “drinkability” ads as well, even if they were too tin-eared to achieve it. “Easy to drink,” “won’t fill you up,” the ads also said. “Drinkable” must mean: doesn’t have too much taste, too distinctive of a flavor, won’t slow you down, offers nothing in need of savoring.

I have been reminded of these Bud Light ads repeatedly since when perusing, of all things, book reviews, where “readable” has risen to become the preeminent adjective of praise. Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch: “brilliantly readable.” Jonathan Franzen’s Purity: “Superbly readable.” The Girl on the Train, Room, The Martian, Gone Girl: “compulsively readable” (too many hyperlinks to include). A micro-history of cultural gatekeeping: once told by the censors what we may read, then by critics what we should, we are now told merely what we can read. What could it mean to say that a novel is able to be read? Composed of words that you can pass your eyes over one after another and comprehend? “Readable,” like “drinkable,” seems almost an insult: this book isn’t good, but you’ll be able to finish it. Readable books are full of familiar characters, familiar plots, and most especially familiar sentences. They are built up out of constituent commonplaces and clichés that one only has to skim in order to process. Nothing slows you down, gives you pause, forces you to think or savor. Not too much description, or abstraction, or style. A little bit literary, perhaps, but not too literary. To praise a book as readable is really just to say that you won’t have to add it your shelf with the bookmark having migrated only halfway through its leaves, won’t find yourself secretly glad to have to return it to the library, only half finished, when your two weeks are up. A readable book holds out the promise that you’ll be able to resist putting it down to check your email, or to look for updates on Slate or ESPN, or to turn on the television, or to give in to Netflix. (“Compulsively readable” means “the screen rights have already been sold,” I’m pretty sure.)

“Readable” has become the chosen term of praise in our times precisely because so many of us find ourselves unable to concentrate as we once could or still aspire to. But to praise readability is to embrace the vicious feedback loop that our culture now finds itself in. Short on concentration, we give ourselves over to streams of content that further atrophy our reserves of attention. Soon a 1,000-word polemic seems too long to drag oneself through, and we resort to skimming. So websites post yet shorter articles, even warn you how many minutes they will take to read (rarely double digits; will they soon warn us how long one takes to skim?). Editors pre-empt their own taste, choosing not what they like, or think is actually good, but what they think they can sell. Teachers, even professors, shy away from assigning long or difficult books.

It might seem that “readable” is most at home as a term of praise of thrillers and beach reads. But this is definitional: an unreadable thriller isn’t a thriller at all. “Readable” is quintessentially a term of praise for the middlebrow: fiction that aspires to the literary, but doesn’t make its reader try too hard. Fiction that you read to console yourself that you can still read a real book, or at least an approximation of one. Maybe you’re with me so far — in the abstract, that is to say. But now it’s time to name names. The last year alone brought new books from many of our most celebrated middlebrow authors, which is to say our most celebrated authors: Dave Eggers, Zadie Smith, Michael Chabon, Jonathan Lethem, and Jonathan Safran Foer. All eminently readable, all more (Chabon, Foer) or less (Smith, Lethem) diverting, all completely forgettable. None of these books would reward being reread, studied, taught. A provisional definition of literature: that which does.

It is no coincidence that even the literary sensations of our times sit, readably, at the margins of the middlebrow. Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels: “compulsively readable.” You will be propelled through the text, unable to attend to anything else until finished. Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle: “intensely, irresistibly readable.” Zadie Smith says she “needs the next volume like crack.” Though seemingly meant as praise, Smith’s blurb actually captures well my own ambivalent feelings toward Knausgaard’s saga: after reading each new novel in a two-day binge I wonder why I had, if I took anything away from their style-less prose. (My own backhanded blurb for Knausgaard: great airplane reading.) Ferrante’s and Knausgaard’s projects are perhaps the most praised of our times, and this is so not despite, but because, they are not too literary. For all their wonderful insight into female relationships, the Neopolitan novels are essentially a soap opera, their plotting determined by one love triangle after another. The thousands of pages in Knausgaard’s My Struggle, though this wouldn’t seem possible, include remarkably little self-reflection, favoring the flat narration of events instead. But both projects are eminently readable, neither requiring nor inviting the reader to ever pause and think, easy enough to finish, but long enough to feel like an accomplishment. Any more style than this, and “readable” is needed to soften the potential intimidation. Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers: “unique in its style, yet immensely readable.” “Yet:” style and readability as contraries.

What novels are not readable? Finnegans Wake, Beckett’s trilogy, a still cut-up and unrestored William S. Burroughs? (Those are some books I’ve not only not finished, but never really been able to even start.) Here’s the rub: the unreadable is simply whatever the reader hasn’t been able to finish. William Gaddis’s second masterpiece JR becomes unreadable to even a self-styled curmudgeonly elitist like Jonathan Franzen simply because he couldn’t make his way through it. Franzen’s own novels, by contrast, are quintessentially readable. I read Purity, and before it Freedom, in two days; at no point did either invite me to pause and think. After being propelled through The Goldfinch, my only reaction was to wonder why I had wasted three days of my life on it. These are the definition of “readable” books: long, and thus in need of that consoling word, but unchallenging and middlebrow, false trophies.

Readable fiction is not the problem; rather, “readable” as a — especially as our highest — term of praise is. Readability tells one precisely nothing about the quality of a novel. There are good and bad readable books; high, low, and most definitely middlebrow ones. Given the tenor of our times, it is perhaps readable books that we need least, however. It is books that slow us down and teach us to concentrate again that we need. Books that force us to attend to language, and ideas, and the forgotten weirdness of the world. Don DeLillo, master of the gnomic, aphoristic sentence, each one calling for your attention, has said that he doesn’t think his first novel, Americana, would be published today, that any editor would have given up before making it through 50 pages. A great but strange book like Tom McCarthy’s Remainder was rejected by mainstream presses and only found life, slowly, through the art world. But these are the sorts of books we need. To embrace a literary culture of Tartts and Franzens, even Ferrentes and Knausgaards, may not be to settle for Budweiser. But it is to limit oneself to lager and pilsner when there are porters and stouts, black, white, and session IPAs, even sours and wilds to be had. It is to drink Stella and Bass when Dogfish Head, Lefthand, Nighshift, and countless others are readily available. The beer critic who claims that Budweiser, or even Yuengling, is actually worth your time is either trolling you, or a corporate shill. So too the literati if the best they can recommend is the latest readable bestseller. So: critics, reviewers, blurbers, tell us not what we are able to read, but what we should. It is no accident that The Underground Railroad, rather than the far superior Intuitionist or John Henry Days, finally allowed Colson Whitehead to break through, but, if you’re only now hearing of him, read those earlier books instead, or too. Read anything by Dana Spiotta, or Ben Marcus, or Lydia Davis, or Steven Millhauser. Read Adam Ehrlich Sachs’s hilarious and thoughtful Inherited Disorders. Read any of the novels recovered and republished each year by NYRB Classics. Read Teju Cole’s Open City, and Michel Houellebecq’s The Map and the Territory. Read the beautiful alliterative sentences of William Gass. Read Dexter Palmer’s Version Control, rather than the 102 more popular time travel books ahead of it on Amazon. Some of these books are readable, others less so, some awarded, others ignored, but it hardly matters. What matters is that they resist commonplace and cliché, that they slow you down, reward attention and concentration, transfigure language and, through it, the world. They have new ideas, and images, and phrases. What matters is that they are good. You should read them, whether or not you, or I, think you can.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

And the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay Goes to…

It turns out the novel is alive and well and living in, of all places, Hollywood. Who would have thought? As recently as 1998, all five finalists for the Oscar for Adapted Screenplay drew on novels for their source material, but by 2014 not a single Oscar nomination went to a screenplay adapted from a novel. Last year, Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice was the lone work of fiction in a field of sources dominated by biography, autobiography, and, weirdly, a short film.

This trend sent me into Mr. Gloomy mode last year when I wrote:
(T)he novel is now in retreat — and not only in Hollywood — as screenwriters and moviegoers turn their gaze to movies based on established franchises, comic books, graphic novels, musicals, non-fiction books and magazine articles, TV shows, memoirs, and biographies. There’s nothing inherently wrong, or particularly new, about such source material. Screenwriters have been adapting scripts from comic books at least since 1930, and filmmakers have always favored a “true” story (or, better yet, something “based on a true story”) over fictional stories. That’s because “true” stories are easier to write, make, and sell. I would argue that they’re also less likely to amaze than stories that come from a gifted novelist’s imagination.
What a difference a year makes. This year, for some unknowable reason, Hollywood screenwriters mined novels — from the shamelessly commercial to the highly literary — for four of the five adapted screenplays that garnered Oscar nominations. (The fifth nomination went to the team of Adam McKay and Charles Randolph for their adaptation of Michael Lewis’s non-fiction book, The Big Short.)

What happened? Did some pixie slip a vial of smart powder into the L.A drinking water? Did someone in Hollywood start a book club for screenwriters? Since there’s no way to parse the reading habits of Tinseltown, let’s cut straight to the nominees. Here, in chronological order of their release dates, are the four movies with scripts based on novels that are up for the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar on Feb. 28:

1. Brooklyn

It seems that the Irish writer Colm Tóibín (pronounced Col-um toe-BEAN) wrote this 2009 novel with sepia ink — and without a worry that his pacing and hushed tone might put some readers to sleep. But readers who stick with the novel will be rewarded by a story that accumulates a fierce power. It’s the story of Eilis (pronounced AY-lish) Lacey, a plain Irish girl who leaves her mother and sister in the provincial Irish town of Enniscorthy and emigrates to Brooklyn in the early 1950s, a world of shocking sights and sounds and customs, where she overcomes crippling homesickness and haltingly makes her way toward financial independence and even manages to find a decent man who loves her. But a return trip to Ireland after her sister’s sudden death will threaten to rip apart Eilis’s fragile chance at happiness. This is no potboiler, obviously. The drama takes place inside Eilis’s head and heart.

How to turn such interiority into a compelling movie? Mainly by hiring talented actors who can convey deep emotions through the slightest facial gesture or body movement. Saoirse Ronan (pronounced Sur-sha Row-nin) was an inspired choice to play Eilis, and her portrayal of a plain young woman’s blossoming has justly won a nomination for the Best Actress Oscar.

Equally important to the movie’s success was the choice of screenwriter. The mission of a writer who sets out to transport words from page to screen is both simple and devilishly difficult: be always faithful to the spirit of the novel without ever being slavish to it. For this reason, it’s usually better for a novelist to stay in the wings when the screenwriting assignment gets doled out. Most novelists are too close to their own material not to be enslaved by it.

Tóibín never considered adapting his own novel, instead suggesting to the producer, Finola Dwyer, that she hire Nick Hornby, who is both an accomplished novelist (High Fidelity, About a Boy) and screenwriter (An Education, Wild).

“And I soon realized that nobody wanted me around,” Tóibín told The New York Times. “Nick was doing it. He didn’t ask any questions, never even got in touch. And I thought that was perfectly reasonable. It was the only way it could work. He took the central spine of the novel — the romantic story and the immigration, the two things that really matter — and left other things off to the side. But he wasn’t trying to tell a new story. He was faithful to the book within the constraints of film.”

And that’s why the movie works every bit as well as the novel.

2. Carol

In adapting Patricia Highsmith’s second novel, The Price of Salt, screenwriter Phyllis Nagy remained faithful to the book within the constraints of film. The result is a spellbinding script for a movie that was renamed Carol — just one of numerous instances when the movie strays from the letter of the novel without betraying its spirit.

Like Hornby, Nagy left out some things and changed others but preserved the central spine of the novel — the story of forbidden love between a radiant but unfulfilled suburban housewife named Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett) and a plain New York City shop girl named Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara). Nagy has changed Therese from an aspiring theatrical set designer into an aspiring photographer, and she has cleverly jumbled time sequences. But what she left intact, most crucially, is Highsmith’s unhurried unfolding of the romantic love between the two women, a story that plays out against a backdrop of impeccable 1950s period details, from cars and fashions to interiors and even the way women move.

Nagy’s writing has certainly benefited from the high quality of the production it serves. The movie is up for six Oscars, including Blanchett for Best Actress, Mara for Best Supporting Actress, and the cinematographer Edward Lachman, who gives an appropriately gauzy look to a story about infatuation amid fuzzy moral boundaries.

3. Room

This movie is proof that most novelists should follow Tóibín’s lead and leave it to others to adapt their work for the screen. In adapting her own novel, Room, Emma Donoghue made the mistake of following the text almost to the letter — then leaving out the wrong parts, the very parts that would have given the movie heft and drama. Both novel and movie open with an enthralling setup — a woman has been imprisoned in an 11-foot-by-11-foot shed for seven years, where she gave birth five years ago to a boy named Jack. The revelation that this loving, seemingly happy pair are actually being held prisoners by a monster named Nick is handled, in novel and movie, with supreme assurance. It’s perfectly horrible.

The trouble begins when Ma (Brie Larson) helps Jack (Jacob Tremblay) escape, and suddenly they’re thrust into the outside world that’s utterly foreign to the boy — and far from welcoming to his traumatized mother. In the novel, they’re hounded by the ravenous news media and by medical professionals who are less than sympathetic to their ordeal and its lingering effects. This tension is gone from the movie, and instead we get Ma coming unglued and fighting with her own mother (Joan Allen), while her father (William H. Macy) puts in a pointless cameo. Jack, meanwhile, wanders through something that passes for healing. It’s all drift. I have a hunch that a screenwriter who wasn’t so close to the source material would not have made these missteps. Just a hunch. 

4. The Martian

Andy Weir went to work as a computer programmer for a national laboratory at the age of 15 and has been working as a software engineer ever since. He’s also a self-proclaimed space nerd who’s into relativistic physics, astronomy, orbital mechanics, and the history of manned spaceflight. How do you spell geek? In this case, you spell it n-o-v-e-l-i-s-t.

Weir’s first novel, The Martian, became a bestseller and fodder for a big-budget Hollywood production with Matt Damon in the lead role of Mark Watney, a botanist on a Mars mission who gets abandoned by his crew when a freak storm blows up and they mistakenly believe he’s dead. And voilà, we have a high concept: Robinson Crusoe stranded on the Red Planet.

Actually, Weir’s book is less a novel than a blueprint for a movie. Just as no one will question Weir’s scientific bona fides — he wrote his own software to make the physics of space travel as accurate as possible — no one will accuse him of being a graceful writer. The novel is full of junior high prose like this: “They gathered. Everywhere on Earth they gathered. In Trafalgar Square and Tiananmen Square and Times Square, they watched on giant screens. In offices, they huddled around computer monitors. In bars, they stared silently at the TV in the corner. In homes, they sat breathlessly on their couches, their eyes glued to the story playing out.” But people don’t read books like this for the artful prose; they read them for the ingenious setup and the brisk storytelling.

Screenwriter Drew Goddard has connected the dots from Weir’s novel to create a script that’s seamless and irresistible. The movie winds up being superior to the novel because it’s comfortable being what it is — a thriller that manipulates the audience without shame, an entertainment that wants nothing more than to please its audience at all times. You can hear Goddard pulling the levers — or is that the sound of him painting by numbers? — but you’re having too much fun to care. This is partly due to the deft direction of Ridley Scott, who is most at home in outer space, and strong performances by Damon and a supporting cast that includes Jessica Chastain, Kristen Wiig, Jeff Daniels, and Chiwetel Ejiofor.

Weir’s book is a novel that wants to be a movie. The movie is content to be a big, fat, satisfying, popcorn thrill-fest. What’s wrong with being comfortable inside your own skin?

And the Oscar For Best Adapted Screenplay Goes to…

Phyllis Nagy for CAROL!!!

Now that justice has been served, for once, I’m hoping that when Nagy gets up onstage and finishes thanking her agent and her producer and her mom and Todd and Cate and Rooney and her Jack Russell terrier, she’ll have the decency to hoist her statue to the heavens and give a shout-out to the novelist who made this terrific movie possible — that princess of darkness, the diabolically great Patricia Highsmith.

Image Credit: Flickr/Dave_B_.

A Year in Reading: Janet Potter

Books I Read in One Day (or in One or Two Multi-Hundred Page Chunks)

Silver Screen Fiend by Patton Oswalt
Vivian Apple at the End of the World by Katie Coyle
So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson
The Martian by Andy Weir
Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Best Depiction of Rural Indiana

Marvel and a Wonder by Joe Meno
Joe Meno’s latest novel is an incredible modern myth involving horses, a dying agrarian economy, and the idea of American masculinity, and it also happens to be the most spot-on depiction of north central Indiana in the mid-’90s I’ve ever read. See, I myself grew up in north central Indiana in the mid-’90s, and it’s not like I’ve spent the intervening years clamoring for its place in literature. “Will no one plumb the depths of Steuben County during the Clinton years?” was never the cry of my heart. But when I found it in the pages of this book, I was surprised by how deeply it affected me. Is this how New Yorkers feel every day of their lives? I met Joe Meno at a reading and we talked about Indiana, found out where the other person was from, and then said nice things to each other for five minutes because Hoosiers are raised to be pleasant.

Favorite Learned Tidbit of Presidential History

Woodrow Wilson had chronic digestive problems, which he referred to as “trouble in Central America.”

Convincing Proof that I’m the Center of the Universe

Sarah Vowell and David Mitchell are my two favorite living authors. Guns N’ Roses are my favorite band. Both Vowell and Mitchell published new books in October 2015. Both of those books mention Guns N’ Roses.

Annual Reminder that Geoff Dyer Is a Genius

It’s no secret around these parts that I love Geoff Dyer. Here’s a passage from But Beautiful that provided my most breathless two minutes of reading in 2015:

The city quiet as a beach, the noise of traffic like a tide. Neon sleeping in puddles. Places shutting and staying open. People saying goodbye outside bars, walking home alone. Work till going on, the city repairing itself.

At some time all cities have this feel: in London it’s at five or six on a winter evening. Paris has it too, late, when the cafes are closing up. In New York it can happen anytime: early in the morning as the light climbs over the canyon streets and the avenues stretch so far into the distance that it seems the whole world is city; or now, as the chimes of midnight hang in the rain and all the city’s longings acquire the clarity and certainty of sudden understanding. The day coming to an end and people unable to evade any longer the nagging sense of futility that has been growing stronger through the day, knowing that they will feel better when they wake up and it is daylight again but knowing also that each day leads to this sense of quiet isolation.

More from A Year in Reading 2015

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

The good stuff: The Millions’ Notable articles

The motherlode: The Millions’ Books and Reviews

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: September 2015


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 September.

This Month
Last Month

Title
On List

1.
1.

Between the World and Me
3 months

2.
7.

A Little Life
3 months

3.
2.

Go Set a Watchman
3 months

4.
8.

Purity
2 months

5.
3.

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing
6 months

6.
6.

Book of Numbers
4 months

7.


Fates and Furies
1 month

8.


The Heart Goes Last
1 month

9.
10.

The Paying Guests
4 months

10.
9.

Satin Island
5 months

Our Hall of Fame grows to 101 titles strong this month, thanks to the ascension of Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant (#100) and Paula Hawkins’s The Girl on the Train (#101). It’s the first appearance in the Hall for both authors.

In their place, we welcome Fates and Furies and The Heart Goes Last, the latest works from Lauren Groff and Margaret Atwood, respectively. The former should be especially familiar to Millions readers, as we shared the book’s opening lines on our site last March, and we interviewed Groff about her writing process (and why she feels ambivalent about Florida) more recently. Atwood, meanwhile, took part in our Year in Reading in 2010.

For the second consecutive month, Ta-Nahesi Coates’s Between the World and Me tops our list. It’s an honor that Coates should treasure because his year has otherwise been fairly uneventful for him. After all, he’s only won a MacArthur “genius grant,” been longlisted for the National Book Award, and announced a forthcoming Marvel comic. In other words: nothing that holds a candle to the honor of being named a Millions fan favorite.

Moving along: Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life occupies this month’s number two spot. The book’s steady rise over the past three months — unlisted in July, #7 in August, and now runner-up — surprised me almost as much as it’s likely surprised our own Lydia Kiesling, who wrote of the work:
A Little Life has stayed with me, not because I found it so sad, but because I found it so strangely bad, and have spent significant time wondering if what I perceive to be its badness is in fact a function of a bold narrative experiment that, to quote James Wood on Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled, “invents its own category of badness,” and thus deserves a very particular set of laurels.
Indeed, it’s as though a negative review from Lydia has the perverse effect of skyrocketing her victim’s works into the hands of Millions readers. (After all, this is the second time it’s happened…) Perhaps from now on publicists should refer to Lydia as the Literary Queen Midas?

Elsewhere on the list, Go Set a Watchman and that book on de-cluttering dropped one spot apiece, Franzen’s latest rose a bit, and works by Joshua Cohen, Sarah Waters, and Tom McCarthy held steady.

This month’s near misses included: Undermajordomo Minor, The Martian, Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight NightsThe First Bad Man, and Wind/Pinball. See Also: Last month’s list.

The Millions Top Ten: August 2015


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

This Month
Last Month

Title
On List

1.
2.

Between the World and Me
2 months

2.
1.

Go Set a Watchman
2 months

3.
4.

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing
5 months

4.
3.

The Buried Giant
6 months

5.
5.

The Girl on the Train
6 months

6.
6.

Book of Numbers
3 months

7.
8.

A Little Life
2 months

8.


Purity
1 month

9.
7.

Satin Island
4 months

10.
9.

The Paying Guests
3 months

A shuffling atop this month’s Top Ten puts Ta-Nahesi Coates’s Between the World and Me above Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman, which may be expected when one book earns inspires praise from Toni Morrison while copies of the other one are refunded by local bookstores.

Of course, it hasn’t all been praise for Coates’s essay-letter to his son – and, to be fair, it hasn’t all been negative press for Lee’s early novel. In a recent piece for our site, Sonya Chung used a regrettable column by David Brooks to explore the “convergence of The Road to Character and the conflict that arose from Brooks’s public response to Between the World and Me.” Similarly, our own Michael Bourne pondered the silver lining of Go Set a Watchman’s release, which occasioned the reevaluation of Atticus Finch:
“Jean Louise, have you ever met your father?” her uncle asks, and she realizes she never has, not really. Neither have we, though we have been living with Atticus Finch for more than half a century. It is high time we got to know him. The question is whether we will still love him once we have.
Moving from two major publishing stories to a third: this month’s Top Ten welcomes Jonathan Franzen’s latest novel, Purity, into its ranks. The work debuts in the eighth spot, likely but a pit stop on its way to the higher reaches of our list, as the book (whose release date was technically September 1st) was only just reaching readers’ hands in the final days of August. Purity follows blockbusters The Corrections and Freedom and, as our own Lydia Kiesling notes, the book contains “a few digs at you, reader.”

The Martian dropped from our list this month. Other near misses included: Wind/Pinball, The First Bad ManThe Tusk That Did the Damage, and Armada. See Also: Last month’s list.

The Book Report: Episode 28: ‘As I Lay Dying’ and ‘The Scarlet Letter’

Welcome to a new episode of The Book Report presented by The Millions! This week, Janet and Mike present the second installment of Back 2 School, in which they read books they never got around to reading in high school. This time, Janet slogs through Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, and Mike has a much better time with William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying.

Discussed in this episode: pet names, dark humor, the Coen Brothers, unembalmed corpses, Weekend at Bernie’s (dir. Ted Kotcheff), Dune by Frank Herbert, boring-ass love affairs, pale trembling men, sex scenes, Hester Prynne, pastors, The Martian by Andy Weir, Colin Dickey.

Discussed in this episode but cut for time: Mike making fun of Colin Dickey for 47 straight minutes. Don’t worry. It’ll be an extra on the DVD.

The Millions Top Ten: July 2015


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 July.

This Month
Last Month

Title
On List

1.


Go Set a Watchman
1 month

2.


Between the World and Me
1 month

3.
2.

The Buried Giant
5 months

4.
4.

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing
4 months

5.
5.

The Girl on the Train
5 months

6.
6.

Book of Numbers
2 months

7.
7.

Satin Island
3 months

8.


A Little Life
1 month

9.
10.

The Paying Guests
2 months

10.


The Martian
1 month

Four new additions splashed climbed into the Top Ten this month, with Go Set a Watchman — Harper Lee’s ubiquitous Mockingbird pre/sequel — topping the chart. It would be generous to say that the critical reception to the novel, which was written prior to Mockingbird but set two decades afterward, has been mixed. Many evaluations hinge on whether or not the work is capable of standing on its own, or whether it can only be understood as a draft. (There’s also the whole matter of whether the thing should’ve been published to begin with…) In an essay for our site, Michael Bourne wrapped it all together by writing:
Whatever its true provenance, Go Set a Watchman, despite some deft prose and sharp dialogue, fails as a work of art in every way except as a corrective to the standard sentimental reading of Atticus Finch. … The great revelation of the novel isn’t that Atticus Finch is a bigot, but that he has been one all along and his daughter has been too in love with him to notice.
(Bonus: Robert Rea went to Monroeville, Alabama on the day of the book’s release, and wrote about the experience for our site.)

Also appearing on our list this month is Ta-Nahisi Coates’s Between the World and Me. In her preview for our site last month, Anne K. Yoder wrote that the work “grapples with how to inhabit a black body and how to reckon with America’s fraught racial history from a more intimate perspective — in the form of a letter to his adolescent son. Given the current state of affairs, this book should be required reading.”

We also welcome Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life and Andy Weir’s The Martian to this month’s list. No doubt their presence owes to a recent essay from Lydia Kiesling, and Hollywood’s ongoing obsession with abandoning Matt Damon in space, respectively. We also interviewed Yanagihara this week.

We saw two books graduate to our Hall of Fame; congratulations to Loitering by Charles D’Ambrosio and The David Foster Wallace Reader

Nipping at the heels of this month’s selections is Ernest Cline’s new novel, Armada, which was discussed by yours truly in our Great Second-Half 2015 Book Preview a few weeks ago. Be honest: a bunch of you bought it because I referenced my “Diablo III” prowess, didn’t you?

Miranda July’s The First Bad Man and Mark Z. Danielewski’s The Familiar dropped from our list this month. Other near misses included: Armada, The Tusk That Did the Damage, and Everything I Never Told You: A Novel. See Also: Last month’s list.

The Millions Top Ten: June 2015


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

This Month
Last Month

Title
On List

1.
4.

Loitering: New and Collected Essays
6 months

2.
5.

The Buried Giant
4 months

3.
6.

The David Foster Wallace Reader
6 months

4.
7.

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing
3 months

5.
8.

The Girl on the Train
3 months

6.


Book of Numbers
1 month

7.
10.

Satin Island
2 months

8.
9.

The First Bad Man: A Novel
3 months

9.


The Familiar, Vol. 1
1 month

10.


The Paying Guests
1 month

Our Hall of Fame added three volumes this month — Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend, Haruki Murakami’s The Strange Library, and Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation — and that opened the door for three new entrants. Before moving on to them, however, let’s give a shout out to Murakami, who’s now officially made it into the Hall of Fame for two separate books (1Q84 graduated in April ’12). It’s a praiseworthy feat, and one that’s only been accomplished by nine other authors: David Foster Wallace, Junot Díaz, Stieg Larsson, David Mitchell, Hilary Mantel, Jonathan Franzen, George Saunders, Dave Eggers, and Alice Munro. That’s some lofty company to keep.

Also noteworthy is the fact that, David Foster Wallace has the unique distinction of having two of his own books in our Hall of Fame in addition to a biography written about him. And if current trends hold true for another 31 days, then he’ll be adding an anthology put together in his honor to that group as well.

Of the three new entrants to our list, two of them — Book of Numbers by Joshua Cohen and The Familiar, Vol. 1 by Mark Z. Danielewski — appeared in our Most Anticipated List earlier this year. Danielewski teased his ambitious 27-volume Familiar project in our 2012 interview. Meanwhile, the third new book on the list is Sarah Waters’s The Paying Guests. To quote Emily Gould in last year’s Year in Reading, “God, this book. This BOOK!”

Stay tuned next month as we open two more spots. Will they be books we featured in our new Book Preview? My guess is yes, but there’s only one way to find out.

Near Misses: My Struggle: Book 1Everything I Never Told You: A Novel, Redeployment, The Martian, and To Rise Again at a Decent Hour. See Also: Last month’s list.

A Year in Reading: Michael Robbins

Well, what did I read? Epictetus’s Discourses. I read Samuel Pepys’s diary entries for 1660 and 1665. I read William Tyndale’s translation of the Gospel of Matthew. I read a bunch of Jonathan Edwards, in the Yale Reader and the old American Writers Selections. I read the first few delicious cantos of Lord Byron’s Don Juan. I read Samuel Johnson’s life of Dryden.

Like everyone else, I read Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle (just Book One). I reread Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping. I read five preposterously good genre novels: David Shafer’s Whiskey Tango Foxtrot; Tana French’s The Secret Place; Stephen L. Carter’s Back Channel; Megan Abbott’s Dare Me; and Andy Weir’s The Martian. I also liked Marisha Pessl’s Night Film, but the writing isn’t up to the story. (Shafer will slip a Hopkins line into his narrative without explaining it, but Pessl writes, “Did they think I’d been exiled to Saint Helena, like Napoleon after Waterloo?” Oh, that Saint Helena!) And I read a few of Philip Kerr’s fucking marvelous Bernie Gunther novels.

People keep writing poems, so I read some. I liked Rachel Zucker’s The Pedestrians and Dorothea Lasky’s Rome and some poems by Anthony Madrid and Patricia Lockwood and Jessica Laser and Adrienne Raphel and Sarah Trudgeon. And I read some Archie Ammons and some of C.K. Williams’s Flesh and Blood (couldn’t finish it; he reminds me of someone’s dad, and the paean to his new car still makes me angry).

I read James K.A. Smith’s How (Not) to Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor, a very useful précis (although it can’t replace a reading of Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age, which I think is the most important book published in the last decade). Too bad it’s nearly ruined by pandering quotations from absolutely terrible bands and movies. In Stanley Hauerwas’s With the Grain of the Universe I discovered the definitive answer to the idiocy of certain know-nothing pop-science writers: “If we could have the kind of evidence of God the evidentialist desires, then we would have evidence that the God Christians worship does not exist.”

Oh, I finally read Henry Green’s Loving! It’s like if Downton Abbey were good. And funny. One of the best English novels ever. I read David Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress. I’m embarrassed to say I only this year got round to Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady. I loved it, but I still prefer The Wings of the Dove and The Ambassadors. Maybe that’s only because I read them first, when I was young. Splendor in the grass!

I read a bunch of other things, too.

More from A Year in Reading 2014

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2013, 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.

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