The Overstory: A Novel

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Tree Time and Mortality in the Eyes of Alfred Hitchcock, Richard Powers, and Ursula K. Le Guin

1. Trees tell time when they cease to live. Concentric bands show up clean and countable, the index of so many wet and dry seasons past, but only when the end has been determined, when no more rings will be added. The tree is always recording, but it takes chopping it down to render the story legible, to make counting count for us. Dendrochronology—the science of studying time by way of trees—is a postmortem practice encircled by beginnings and endings. We need an end to make sense of what came before. This, according to Frank Kermode’s classic study of literature The Sense of an Ending (1967) is what makes apocalyptic narratives so appealing: An ending provides the frame in which to plot out our concerns. Feeling ourselves on the way to something is infinitely preferable to being simply out here, somewhere. It is partly this “sense of an ending” that makes climate change so difficult to conceptualize and to confront in narrative terms. Climate change, after all, should not be thought of in terms of an end but rather on the order of many ends, ends with varying temporalities and which will unevenly affect life distributed around the globe along different axes of power and privilege. Disaster movies notwithstanding, climate change poses what literary critic Rob Nixon calls a “representational challenge” to narrative. We need new narrative modes, Nixon says, for registering the “slow violence” of environmental collapse, the many endings resistant to—or unavailable to—attention-grabbing denouement. At least one major critic and novelist, Amitav Ghosh, has argued that this task is anathema to literary fiction all together. Climate change, Ghosh argues in The Great Derangement, is beyond the conventional novel form. Yet the Anthropocene, one of the most important terms to emerge from recent discussions regarding climate change, attempts to overcome this narrative impasse. However one feels about the term—disagreements abound regarding when it started, about what we should really call it instead, and about whether it is a geological epoch at all—the notion of the Anthropocene tries to force in some of the narrative parameters that we so crave. As many have pointed out, the Anthropocene suggests not only a beginning to the human story but also—projecting forward—an end. The qualifications for a geological epoch indicate that a scientist should be able to discern the stratigraphic rock boundaries of the discrete period in question. Because every epoch previous to the current Holocene began and ended long before humans existed—and because the Anthropocene itself is still in formation—we are for the first time tasked with considering an open rather than closed chapter in the book of the earth. As historian of science Robert V. Davis explains, if the Anthropocene is to be accepted, it is only because, in the future, “retrospection will show the present as having been shaped geologically by man.” The many smaller ends of climate change slip past our narrative conventions, but the Anthropocene promises—however bleakly—that the end is foreseeable, at least from some future finality looking back. This despite the fact that, as philosopher Claire Colebrook points out, there may be no humans left to do the looking. Some of the strongest material evidence for the Anthropocene comes from studies of ice core samples, but at least one instance of dendrochronology helps make sense of the epoch’s strangely anticipatory narrative logic. Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) depicts film’s most famous scene of tree ring reading by way of perhaps the world’s most famous species of trees. Scottie Ferguson (Jimmy Stewart) and Madeleine Elster (Kim Novak) travel north from San Francisco to the John Muir forest, where they stand amidst Redwoods. When asked by Scottie what she is thinking, Madeleine responds, “Of all the people who have born and died while the trees went on living.” Scottie responds professorially: “Their true name is Sequoia sempervirens, always green, ever living.” “I don’t like them,” Madeleine says. “Why?” “Knowing I have to die,” she answers. The pair walk from the living trees to a nearby cross section of a tree that is suspended by a sign, a “Redwood round.” The camera pans across the tree cross-section slowly enough for us to read the white flags which mark historical events at various rings: “1215 Magna Carta Signed,” “1776 Declaration of Independence,” etc. At this point a swell of eerie music prepares us for what Madeline says next, as she reaches her hand to the wood. Pointing to one and then another ring just inside the inner edge of the round, she says, “Somewhere in here I was born, and here I died. It was only a moment for you, you don’t notice.” Madeleine’s seemingly absurd statement works within the complex plot of the film: In short, she is possessed by a long-dead ancestor, and so this idea that she—inhabited by a past personality—can point to rings indicating both her birth and death makes a sort of spooky sense. Hitchcock certainly had other things in mind, but we might consider Madeleine’s words as the pronouncement necessitated by the projective schema of the Anthropocene. Here we humans were born, and here we died. She stands at the vantage of the future which looks back to read the opening and closing of homo sapiens as it is scored into the planet. We have come and gone; the trees and their story of us remain. This, after all, is what Madeleine feels so poignantly: all the people who died as these trees, impassive but watchful, continued to live. The Anthropocene invites us, like Madeleine, to see our existence bounded in a time that trees, the planet—the tellers of the story—surpass. Standing poised over the containing record, we see the story entire. The tree thus acts as a partially satisfying symbol and harbinger of a distant future end, a seeming permanence against which our narratives can unfold. 2. The cover of Richard Powers’s new novel The Overstory (2018) superimposes rings radiating outward atop what appears to be a Redwood forest. Each ring contains a different time: from day to night to day, and seemingly across years, too, as the small figures on horseback suggest. That The Overstory is about both trees and time is perhaps the simplest thing one could say about this environmental epic. Powers follows close to a dozen distinct storylines across centuries. Trees are characters alongside the people who form these multigenerational sagas—sagas that, by the novel’s conclusion, connect and blend. Forest ecology is an explicit focus of much of the novel—especially as focalized through Patty Westerford, an ecologist whose fictional The Secret Forest is a nod to the real-life The Hidden Life of Trees, by forester Peter Wohlleben. But even when characters aren’t musing over or discussing the life of the forest, the novel reinforces on the level of form the sense that trees offer profound testament to duration and interconnection. Trees testify to a life both older and stranger than any we commonly perceive, and The Overstory is largely an experiment in scrambling—or splicing, in botanical terms—temporal orders: What happens when trees bend to the whims of human time? Usually, the novel suggests, they break, or are broken, at which point we are able to observe time, and thus ourselves amid the rings. This, the novel insists, is what is happening in the age of environmental catastrophe: Trees and the planet they sustain are forcefully sped up to our pace, a doomsday clock, and we are confronted by the repercussions in the downed wreckage that follows. But how does human life look and feel when put in terms of old growth and legacy trees? More expansive than we can easily imagine, it turns out. Good fodder for Powers, who, as Jeff Karnicky explains in his review of the novel, “Tree Time,” has the uncanny ability to build an entire narrative world around a single prevailing motif. Powers keeps tree rings always in mind as the novel moves forward, with small images of tree cross-sections adorning chapter and section breaks. Throughout, too, various characters refer to and reflect on tree rings, whether in conducting actual dendrochronological research (as in the case of the ecologist character) or when thinking—as in Vertigo—of all the events that transpired at various points in a given tree’s ring record (a historic flood, a father’s death). Poignant in relation to Madeleine’s words in the Muir Woods is one haunting scene that closes a major section of the novel. Nick, the artist figure of the novel, returns home to a scene of tragedy, of death, which he immediately flees: Nick blunders through the front door, trips down the porch steps, and falls into the snow. He rolls over in the freezing white, gasping and reviving. When he looks up, it’s into the branches of the sentinel tree, lone, huge, fractal, and bare against the drifts. All its profligate twigs click in the breeze as if this moment, too, so insignificant, so transitory, will be written into its rings and prayed over by the branches that wave their semaphores against the bluest of Midwestern winter skies. Passive and watchful, the tree—a “sentinel”—is the permanence under which the little human dramas unfold. This is the way it should be, Powers suggests: Human stories mix, meander, and sputter in the understory of a larger life always proliferating above our heads, rooted sprawling under our feet. It is our poverty of imagination that keeps us dull to this life. A voice seemingly belonging to a tree—or to all trees, perhaps—makes this clear in the opening page: “All the ways you imagine us—bewitched mangroves up on stilts, a nutmeg’s inverted spade, gnarled baja elephant trunks, the straight-up missile of a sal—are always amputations. Your kind never sees us whole. You miss the half of it, and more. There’s always as much belowground as above.” On the scale of civilization, missing the half of it means we will “lose by winning” the war against nature and necessity, as one characters puts it. Towards the end of the novel, Powers actually uses one character to explain this problem in terms of the novel form itself. Ray Brinkman is in bed, his permanent place since a stroke that laid him low dozens of pages before. He listens to his wife read him books, working through “The Hundred Greatest Novels of all Time.” All of Powers’s characters are cognizant to some degree of the impending direness of environmental collapse, and Ray is no different. These thoughts follow him even into his interaction with books, which he understands to be fundamentally limited and limiting. “To be human,” Ray thinks: is to confuse a satisfying story with a meaningful one, and to mistake life for something huge with two legs. No: life is mobilized on a vastly larger scale, and the world is failing precisely because no novel can make the contest for the world seem as compelling as the struggles between a few lost people. It is difficult to know where Powers stands in relation to this statement. Is The Overstory a book-length refutation of Ray? Does Powers claim that a novel—this novel—can in fact do what Nixon wants and also accomplish what Ghosh says is beyond the scope of literary fiction? That is, can a novel render legible and compelling “life” as “mobilized on a vastly larger scale”? Or does this moment in The Overstory betray the novelist’s own doubts about his project? Is Ray the puncturing problem that Powers feels is always there, nagging? Whatever the case, the novel asks us to consider whether novels can indeed impress the overstory. [millions_ad] 3. In a recent interview, Powers cited Ursula K. Le Guin as inspiration for his environmental epic. He has in mind her classically environmental fiction—specifically, the novella The Word for World is Forest (1972). This science fiction shares with Powers an interest in confronting human concerns with the sublime expanse of forest ecology. Like The Overstory, Le Guin’s story wends conventional characters together with rooted ecologies more complex, interdependent, and surprising than anything we ambulatory beings can grasp. (Powers may also be thinking of Le Guin’s wonderfully weird “Vaster than Empires and More Slow,” which expands on the sublimity of plant power in ways that I will not spoil here.) It makes sense for Powers to see in The Word for World an important predecessor to The Overstory, but given the centrality of trees, the more important comparison is actually a lesser-known piece of fiction by the late great Le Guin. “The Direction of the Road” (1974) is a “tale" in Le Guin's preferred fantastical sense of the term. Collected recently in The Unreal and the Real (2012), one of a two-volume set of collected works from Saga Press, the tale spans a mere seven pages, yet it asks the same questions that animate Powers’s 500-plus-page tome. But in asking the same questions, Le Guin’s tale comes to substantially different conclusions. Much like The Overstory, “The Direction” is an exercise in point of view. While Powers begins with a tour de force opening from the perspective of a tree/trees only to then affix to human concerns, Le Guin’s entire story is narrated by a tree. But Le Guin lets us figure this out on our own through the first few pages. We get to know the tree: proud, dutiful, a bit inflexible and wooden, perhaps. The tree tells of its long life, its watchful stance over a century that sees horses give way to automobiles give way to traffic. Throughout, Le Guin plays a trick with relativity and perception in a way that I will let you explore on your own. (The provocation: How might a tree—a rooted tower—see the world? As she herself explains of her process in David Naimon’s recent Ursula K. Le Guin: Conversations on Writing, this is quintessential Le Guin. Change one rule, one significant parameter, and explore the repercussions all the way down.) As usual, however, the most important moment of the tale arrives at the end. A car on the bustling road beside the tree smashes into its trunk. We might expect that the tree is done for, is mangled beyond recovery, a minimalist drama of the collision course we’ve set the warming planet on. This may have been the finale in the hands of a lesser writing. But for Le Guin the point is—as usual—almost completely the opposite of the expected. In the moment before the car makes contact, the driver looks up at the tree, and the tree feels itself seen in a wholly new and unwelcome way. “He saw me under the aspect of eternity,” the tree tells us. “He confused me with eternity. And because he died in that moment of false vision, because it can never change, I am caught in it, eternally.” The driver dies, and in his final moment, he makes the tree eternal, an injustice it can hardly bear, a cruelty it objects to passionately. “Eternity is none of my business,” the tree bemoans: I am an oak, no more, no less. I have my duty; I have my pleasures, and enjoy them, thought they are fewer, since the birds are fewer, and the wind’s foul. But, long-lived though I may be, impermanence is my right. Mortality is my privilege. And it has been taken from me. The tree is barely scathed. It is left standing, as if a permanent, unshakeable part of the landscape. And this is the tragedy. 4. The Overstory is about the human inability to comprehend “tree time,” to borrow Karnicky’s phrase, a scale of hundreds if not thousands of years, and about the death of trees that follow in the wake of this continuing and perhaps inevitable misunderstanding. Joining Madeleine in Muir Woods, The Overstory suggests that we see in dead trees the catastrophe in full, written in rings as if having already occurred. Le Guin’s tale, on the other hand, is about a tree that demands the dignity of death. In the Anthropocene, a tree that clings to “impermanence” as a “right” is a reminder that the very idea of permanence is human. Powers makes of trees a would-be permanence felled low by human hubris, but Le Guin suggests exactly the opposite—that it is our misunderstanding that makes of trees a permanent fixture in the first place. Le Guin’s tale is an elegant reminder that the tidiness of the end—as if final and absolute—exists nowhere but in our collective desires. A problem as overwhelming as climate change would seem to require the complexities of the long-form novel. We need not just characters but generations of characters; not just arcs but intersecting webs. Powers provides all of this and more, and there is much to commend in his remarkably synoptic and sprawling masterpiece. The Overstory is a deftly choreographed weave of human stories overshadowed and branched in extensive canopy. But even with this achievement in mind, Le Guin’s compact fable tugs as a necessary critique. Telling stories about the timelessness of trees risks forgetting that death is, of course, a natural part of life, even in the Anthropocene. There’s something in the comparative simplicity and compactness of Le Guin’s tale that insists on a perspective we hardly stop to accept, a voice lost amidst the din of our clamoring narrative needs. In our eagerness to find the end where there are only ends, the tree is made subordinate to a human story that is thereby circumscribed that much tighter. The novel form has been pronounced dead by more critics through time than perhaps any other art form, and we will not further challenge its seemingly eternal, vampiric existence here. But even as the novel should continue to play an important (if vexed) role in addressing climate change through narrative, we would do well to hear the still, strange voice of an oak tree that has not yet died but hopes to do so, perhaps one day soon. This tree has something to say: If they wish to see death visibly in the world, that is their business, not mine. I will not act Eternity for them. Let them not turn to the trees for death. If that is what they want to see, let them look into one another’s eyes and see it there.

The Millions Top Ten: September 2018

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. Less 5 months 2. 5. The Overstory 4 months 3. 2. Lost Empress 5 months 4. 8. There There 3 months 5. 7. The Incendiaries 2 months 6. 4. Frankenstein in Baghdad 6 months 7. 3. The Ensemble 3 months 8. 6. The Recovering: Intoxication and its Aftermath 6 months 9. - Washington Black 1 month 10. - Transcription 1 month   Pulitzer-winner Andrew Sean Greer holds this month's top spot with his latest novel, Less. Two more months of strong sales and he'll ascend to our Hall of Fame, just as Leslie Jamison (The Recovering) and Ahmed Saadawi (Frankenstein in Baghdad) seem poised to do in October. One of two newcomers this month is Esi Edugyan, whose Booker-shortlisted novel Washington Black is based on a famous 19th-century criminal case and tells the story of an 11-year-old slave's incredible journey from the cane fields of the Caribbean to the Arctic, London, and Morocco. "In its rich details and finely tuned ear for language," wrote Martha Anne Toll for our site last week, "the book creates a virtual world, immersing the reader in antebellum America and Canada as well as in Victorian England." Edugyan is joined on our list by Kate Atkinson, whose new period novel Transcription focuses on a female spy, recruited by MI5 at age 18 to monitor fascist sympathizers. "As a fangirl of both the virtuosic Life After Life and of her Jackson Brody detective novels, I barely need to see a review to get excited about a new Atkinson novel," wrote Sonya Chung in our Great Second-Half 2018 Book Preview, and evidently her feelings are shared by many Millions readers alike. Spots for both books were opened when Warlight and The Mars Room dropped from our ranks. Elsewhere on the list, shuffling abounds. The Overstory rose to second position after being shortlisted for the Booker Prize, and There There rose as well after being longlisted for the National Book Award. Meanwhile, if you'll turn your attention to this month's "near misses" below, you'll see The Golden State, the debut novel from Lydia Kiesling, our intrepid editor. Longtime readers of this site are no doubt familiar with Lydia's brand of antic, incisive writing – she's one of the few authors who've made me laugh and tear up in the same piece – but prepared as I was, I'll admit this book floored me in the best way. Not only is it an engrossing depiction of a very particular parent's mind, but it's also an exploration of what it means to connect with others, raise them, be influenced and repulsed by them, as well as overwhelmed by them alike. As a bonus, there's also an absolutely ruthless and necessary skewering of modern university administrative work, and the entire story vibrates with an extreme sense of place. I cannot wait to read what Lydia writes next and in the meantime I encourage you all to check this one out. This month’s near misses included: Severance, The Practicing Stoic, and The Golden State. See Also: Last month's list. [millions_ad]

2018 Man Booker Shortlist Announced

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The 2018 Man Booker Shortlist has been revealed! In its 50th year, the Man Booker Prize continues to uphold its mission to "promote the finest in fiction by rewarding the best novel of the year written in English and published in the United Kingdom." Wittled down from the 13-title longlist, the 6-book shortlist includes writers from the UK, US, and Canada—three, two, and one, respectively. With her debut novel, Johnson is the youngest writer to be shortlisted for the Man Booker at 27, and Edugyan is the only nominee this year to have been shortlisted before (Half-Blood Blues in 2011). Here's the 2018 Man Booker shortlist (which features many titles from our 2018 Great Book Preview) and applicable bonus links: The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner (Read our review) Everything Under by Daisy Johnson Washington Black by Esi Edugyan The Long Take by Robin Robertson The Overstory by Richard Powers Milkman by Anna Burns The Man Booker Prize will be awarded on October 16.

The Millions Top Ten: August 2018

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. Looking for additional book recommendations? One of the benefits of subscribing to The Millions is access to our exclusive monthly newsletter in which our venerable staffers let you know what they’re reading right now. Learn more here. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. 1. Less 4 months 2. 3. Lost Empress 4 months 3. 6. The Ensemble 2 months 4. 5. Frankenstein in Baghdad 5 months 5. 7. The Overstory 3 months 6. 4. The Recovering: Intoxication and its Aftermath 5 months 7. - The Incendiaries 1 month 8. 9. There There 2 months 9. 10. Warlight 2 months 10. - The Mars Room 1 month   “I have to watch I don’t get arrogant,” said Andrew Sean Greer after a Guardian reporter asked him how he’s changed since winning the Pulitzer for his latest novel, Less. Will he be able to stave off arrogance now that he's held first position in our Top Ten for two months, though? Bet smart. So, we bid farewell to two titles ascending to our Hall of Fame this month – The Immortalists and My Favorite Thing is Monsters – and we welcome two newcomers in their place – The Incendiaries and The Mars Room. Much praise has been heaped upon The Incendiaries, not least of all Celeste Ng's compliment on R.O. Kwon's "dazzlingly acrobatic prose." That admiration might be topped only by Michael Lindgren's review of The Mars Room in which he called Rachel Kushner "the most vital and interesting American novelist working today." The point is obvious. Golden rules are hard to find these days, but maybe it's enough to say that Millions readers always have good taste. State of California native Tommy Orange's There There earned a place on the 7-title shortlist for the Center for Fiction First Novel Prize this month, and the debut also moved up a spot from ninth to eight on our list. Will that momentum carry it up again next month? Be sure to check back and find out in October. On and on we go. Next to Orange's novel on our list in ninth position is Michael Ondaatje's Warlight, which earned Man Booker longlist recognition last July. Month's end is when we'll see if it makes the next round of cuts. List long or short, Ondaatje's no stranger to any kind. This month’s near misses included: SeveranceCirce, What We Were PromisedAn American Marriage, and Some Trick. See Also: Last month's list. [millions_ad]

The Millions Top Ten: July 2018

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. Looking for additional book recommendations? One of the benefits of subscribing to The Millions is access to our exclusive monthly newsletter in which our venerable staffers let you know what they’re reading right now. Learn more here. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. 2. Less 3 months 2. 1. The Immortalists 6 months 3. 7. Lost Empress 3 months 4. 6. The Recovering: Intoxication and its Aftermath 4 months 5. 4. Frankenstein in Baghdad 4 months 6. - The Ensemble 1 month 7. 10. The Overstory 2 months 8. 8. My Favorite Thing is Monsters 6 months 9. - There There 1 month 10. - Warlight 1 month   Reflecting on the Great 2018 Book Preview - the first of the year, not the more recent Second-Half preview - it's interesting to note that of the first six titles we highlighted, four of them have made appearances in our Top Ten. For six months, Jamie Quatro's Fire Sermon and Denis Johnson's The Largesse of the Sea Maiden hung around our list; this month they graduate to the Hall of Fame. On their heels, Ahmed Saadawi's Frankenstein in Baghdad holds fifth position this month, and in two months' time will likely join Quatro and Johnson in our Hall. Also, among the "near misses" listed at the bottom of this post, you'll find Leïla Slimani's The Perfect Nanny, a French story which "tells of good help gone bad," as our own Matt Seidel put it months ago. From a certain perspective, it's wild that 66% of the first half dozen books we flagged last January have resonated so much with our audience. In fact, of the 10 titles on this month's list, 70% of them appeared on that first Book Preview. Put simply: Millions readers, we're here for y'all. Trust us. (For the record, the three titles currently on our Top Ten which did not appear in our Book Preview last January: LessThe Overstory and My Favorite Thing is Monsters.) Three new titles joined our list after Quatro and Johnson's books moved on to our Hall of Fame and Tayari Jones's An American Marriage dropped out. The newcomers are Aja Gabel's The Ensemble, Tommy Orange's There There, and Michael Ondaatje's Warlight, which hold the sixth, ninth and tenth positions this month, respectively. In a preview for our site, Millions editor Lydia Kiesling recommended readers get "a taste of Gabel’s prose [by] read[ing] her Best American Essays-notable piece on grief and eating ortolans in France," and noted that "Orange’s novel has been called a 'new kind of American epic' by the New York Times." Meanwhile staffer Claire Cameron, while writing about Michael Ondaatje's latest, mused, "If only Anthony Minghella were still with us to make the movie." Overall it's clear that the Book Preview foretells Top Ten placements. Next month at least two spots should open up for new titles. Will those new books come from our latest Second-Half Preview? Based on the numbers, it looks likely. This month’s near misses included: Circe, Some TrickThe Mars Room, and The Perfect Nanny. See Also: Last month's list. [millions_ad]

Eclectic 2018 Man Booker Prize Longlist Announced

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The literary world was already a flutter with anticipation for the 2018 Man Booker Longlist announcement—and then The Guardian accidentally broke the embargo. Even though the article was promptly removed, the damage was already done (aka revealing the eclectic and unexpected list a day early). In an effort to promote fiction, the Man Booker Prize is awarded to  "aims to promote the finest in fiction by rewarding the best novel of the year written in English and published in the United Kingdom." In its 50th year, the longlist includes a few genre titles; two debut novelists (Sophie Macintosh and Guy Gunaratne); one previous Booker (and only Golden Booker) winner (Michael Ondaatje); and an emphasis on British and Irish authors. Here's the 2018 Man Booker longlist (which features many titles from our 2018 Great Book Preview) and applicable bonus links: Sabrina by Nick Drnaso The Water Cure by Sophie Macintosh The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner (Read our review) Everything Under by Daisy Johnson Snap by Belinda Bauer Washington Black by Esi Edugyan The Long Take by Robin Robertson From a Low and Quiet Sea by Donal Ryan In Our Mad and Furious City by Guy Gunaratne Warlight by Michael Ondaatje (From our archives, a piece on attending an Ondaatje reading) The Overstory by Richard Powers Milkman by Anna Burns Normal People by Sally Rooney (Rooney's 2016 Year in Reading entry) The Man Booker Prize shortlist will be announced on September 20th.

The Millions Top Ten: June 2018

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. Looking for additional book recommendations? One of the benefits of subscribing to The Millions is access to our exclusive monthly newsletter in which our venerable staffers let you know what they’re reading right now. Learn more here. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. 3. The Immortalists 5 months 2. 4. Less 2 months 3. 5. Fire Sermon 6 months 4. 7. Frankenstein in Baghdad 3 months 5. 8. The Largesse of the Sea Maiden 6 months 6. 9. The Recovering: Intoxication and its Aftermath 3 months 7. 10. Lost Empress 2 months 8. - My Favorite Thing is Monsters 5 months 9. - An American Marriage 1 month 10. - The Overstory 1 month   Three books are off to our Hall of Fame this month, but one of them is completely blank, which I believe is a first for our site. Back in November 2017, in Hannah Gersen's Gift Guide for Readers and Writers, she noted the benefits of the 5-Year Diary's design: The design is unique in that every page represents one day and is divided into five parts, with each part representing one year. So, when you write your entry for Feb 1, you can look back at Feb 1 of the previous year to see what you were doing/writing/reading/thinking/weathering. I think it’s especially useful for writers because if you use the space to track writing and reading projects (as I often do), it’s a great way to gauge your long-term progress. Accompanying the Diary are two works from Carmen Maria Machado and Jesmyn Ward. Maria Machado's Her Body and Other Parties was the darling of our most recent Year in Reading series, picked by seven participants – Jamel Brinkley, Morgan Jerkins, Rakesh Satyal, Julie Buntin, Lidia Yuknavitch, Louise Erdrich and Jeff VanderMeer – who together sang a chorus of Buy this Book, Buy this Book, Buy this Book. Over the chorus came Nathan Goldman, who wrote in his review for our site that "for all its darkness, Her Body and Other Parties is also a beautiful evocation of women’s—especially queer women’s—lives, in all their fullness, vitality, and complex joy. Formally daring, achingly moving, wildly weird, and startling in its visceral and aesthetic impact, Machado’s work is unlike any other." Evidently, Millions readers dug the tune. Ward's Sing, Unburied, Sing was also well-received, drawing praise from four of the seven Year in Reading participants linked above, as well as from Kima Jones and Sarah Smarsh. In her review for our site, Nur Nasreen Ibrahim observed that "Ward’s fiction is about inherited trauma in a deeply divided society, where the oppressor and the oppressed share a legacy" and she also pointed to the other works invoked within the text. "By invoking [Toni] Morrison and [William] Faulkner for new readers," Ibrahim wrote, "Ward excavates not only the suffering of her characters, but also the long tradition of fiction about slavery, fiction that grapples with racial injustice that extends into the present." Elsewhere on our list this month, My Favorite Thing is Monsters returns after a monthlong hiatus, and newcomers An American Marriage and The Overstory fill our ninth and tenth spots, respectively. In the weeks ahead, we'll publish our Great Second-Half 2018 Book Preview, and surely several of those upcoming titles will be reflected on our July list. Get ready. This month’s near misses included: The Mars RoomPachinko, Warlight, The Odyssey, and The World Goes On. See Also: Last month's list. [millions_ad]

The Millions Top Ten: May 2018

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 May. Looking for additional book recommendations? One of the benefits of subscribing to The Millions is access to our exclusive monthly newsletter in which our venerable staffers let you know what they’re reading right now. Learn more here. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. 1. 5 Year Diary 6 months 2. 2. Her Body and Other Parties 6 months 3. 5. The Immortalists 4 months 4. - Less 1 month 5. 4. Fire Sermon 5 months 6. 7. Sing, Unburied, Sing 6 months 7. 10. Frankenstein in Baghdad 2 months 8. 6. The Largesse of the Sea Maiden 5 months 9. 9. The Recovering: Intoxication and its Aftermath 2 months 10. - Lost Empress 1 month   It's surprising that this is the first time John McPhee's sent a work to our site's Hall of Fame, which recognizes books that have made appearances on our Top 10 for more than six months. McPhee, whose Draft No. 4 attains that honor this month, has published more than three dozen books. To have only one ascend to our hallowed halls surely reveals more about us than him, no? Well, an honor is an honor regardless of past injustice. Going forward, consider this my call to action: go read Oranges and learn all about the absolute madmen who grew grapefruits and limes on the branches of orange trees. With one newly opened spot on this month's list and one title dropping out of favor from last month's, we welcome two newcomers. First there's Less by Andrew Sean Greer, who just won the Pulitzer, and second there's Lost Empress by Sergio De La Pava, who years ago won something even more coveted than an award: a glowing profile from our own Garth Risk Hallberg. Writing at the time about De La Pava's breakout, A Naked Singularity, which ultimately made it to our Hall of Fame, Hallberg recalled getting hooked on a big self-published book despite his initial skepticism, and in spite of the book's superficial flaws. A good big novel lives or dies at a level far removed from considerations of teachable “craft” — the level Henry James and Michel Houellebecq gesture toward when they speak, in different contexts, of “intensity.” ... And at that level, A Naked Singularity is, if not a masterpiece, then certainly a roaring success. Fast forward six years and De La Pava's returned with another 600+ page novel. Plus ça change... Elsewhere on our list, the top two titles retained their positions, The Immortalists rose two spots, Sing, Unburied, Sing dropped two more, and books by Ahmed Saadawi, Denis Johnson, and Leslie Jamison jostled around a bit. Altogether that part isn't terribly eventful, but next month we'll see three spots open up, and that's where the fun should really begin. Stay tuned. This month’s near misses included: An American MarriageThe Overstory, The Mars Room, and Pachinko. See Also: Last month's list. [millions_ad]

The Millions Top Ten: April 2018

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. Looking for additional book recommendations? One of the benefits of subscribing to The Millions is access to our exclusive monthly newsletter in which our venerable staffers let you know what they’re reading right now. Learn more here. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. 1. 5 Year Diary 5 months 2. 3. Her Body and Other Parties 5 months 3. 4. Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process 6 months 4. 5. Fire Sermon 4 months 5. 7. The Immortalists 3 months 6. 9. The Largesse of the Sea Maiden 4 months 7. 8. Sing, Unburied, Sing 5 months 8. 10. My Favorite Thing is Monsters 4 months 9. - The Recovering: Intoxication and its Aftermath 1 month 10. - Frankenstein in Baghdad 1 month   We sent both Jennifer Egan's Manhattan Beach and Celeste Ng's Little Fires Everywhere to our Hall of Fame this month. It's the second time Egan has attained this honor – her last novel A Visit from the Goon Squad reached the Hall in 2011. Egan joins twelve other authors who've had two works ascend to our Hall of Fame, and if the current pace holds true we can expect her third book to reach some time in 2025. If you're keeping track at home, we've now had thirteen authors send two books to our list; four have sent three; and then David Mitchell has sent four. The rest of our list shifted up the ranks accordingly. Carmen Maria Machado's Her Body and Other Parties moved from third to second position; John McPhee's Draft No. 4 from fourth to third. You get the idea. Two very different books fill the open spots on this month's list. Occupying ninth position is The Recovering, Leslie Jamison's sweeping exploration of addiction and those who grapple with it. The hefty volume was recently hailed by Michael Bourne as "a welcome corrective to the popular image of addiction as a gritty battle for the addict’s soul and recovery as a heroic feat of derring-do." He noted that Jamison's gifts are on display, and that the book "shimmers throughout." However Bourne was not without some criticism. The work could've used more "ruthless editing," and "there is little in The Recovering that wouldn’t be twice as compelling in a book half as long," Bourne wrote. Ahmed Saadawi's Frankenstein in Baghdad claimed the tenth spot after several months among the near misses. The book, which was translated for English readers by Jonathan Wright, was recently shortlisted for this year's Man Booker Prize. (While on the topic of honorifics, it had previously made an appearance on Lydia Kiesling's Year in Reading.) In our Great 2018 Book Preview, I looked ahead to Saadawi's latest: The long-awaited English translation of the winner of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction in 2014 gives American readers the opportunity to read Saadawi’s haunting, bleak, and darkly comic take on Iraqi life in 2008. Or, as Saadawi himself put it in interview for Arab Lit, he set out to write “the fictional representation of the process of everyone killing everyone.” This month’s other near misses included: LessAn American MarriageThe Odyssey, The World Goes On, and The Overstory. See Also: Last month's list. [millions_ad]

Tuesday New Release Day: Wolitzer; Castillo; McCallister; Moore; Murnane; Powers; Jamison

Out this week: The Female Persuasion by Meg Wolitzer; America Is Not the Heart by Elaine Castillo; How to Be Safe by Tom McCallister; See What Can Be Done by Lorrie Moore; Border Districts by Gerald Murnane; The Overstory by Richard Powers; and The Recovering by Leslie Jamison. Want to learn more about upcoming titles? Then go read our most recent book preview. Want to help The Millions keep churning out great books coverage? Then sign up to be a member today.

A Year in Reading: Tayari Jones

This year has been rough. Between politics and the environment, I find it hard to slip into the fictional world of a novel, usually my favorite escape.  Lately, I will read a couple of chapters, and although the writing is good, the story is fresh, I can’t make myself engage. So 2017, has kind of been the year of not reading. Nevertheless, a few excellent books have broken through. Some are old favorites, revisited as I try to make sense of these trying times, but others are new reads that snagged my frayed attention. Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison is my favorite novel of all time and I reread it each year as I prepare for the holidays.  There is no malaise quite like a black bourgeois blues.  I like to follow it up with Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, the first novel I ever loved. While Morrison diagnoses the rot at the center of upwardly mobile patriarchal family life, Mildred D. Taylor lets you remember what it is to be a little girl who just loves her daddy.  Margaret Wilkerson Sexton’s debut, A Kind of Freedom, a family story set in New Orleans, is really good, too. I was in a nerd-fight with a friend and we read Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro and We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler. In my view, they are different takes on the same Big Question: how do we treat those whom we have arbitrarily marked different?  In Never Let Me Go, the outcasts are cloned human beings and Fowler chooses to excavate the not-so-fine line between humans and apes. My friend, who preferred the Fowler novel, accused me of preferring Ishiguro because his characters live in a posh English boarding school while Fowler’s people live in Bloomington, Ind., and go to IU.  I did concede that challenging the person/animal divide is more ambitious than interrogating person-on-person unkindness.  I was similarly intrigued by Richard Powers’s new one, The Overstory—check for it in April. [millions_ad] White Houses is the best novel in my galley stack.  Nobody writes love like Amy Bloom.  In this book, the lovers are Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hickok.  It’s a heart-healer and a heart-breaker.  It will be released just in time for Valentine’s Day.  Speaking of Mrs. Roosevelt, The Firebrand and the First Lady by Patricia Bell Scott tells the story of  Pauli Murray, another friend of Eleanor, and a great unsung hero of the civil rights movement, another “hidden figure.” I also found myself nibbling at short story collections.  I especially loved What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky by Lesley Arimah, Five Carat Soul by James McBride (I adored the story about the zoo!)  Get in Trouble by the ever-brilliant Kelly Link blew my mind.  Looking to the future, I adored Renee Simms's forthcoming Meet Behind Mars. In memory of James Allen McPherson I revisited his ground breaking collection, Elbow Room. Apparently, I read way more books this year than I thought. More from A Year in Reading 2017 Do you love Year in Reading and the amazing books and arts content that The Millions produces year round? We are asking readers for support to ensure that The Millions can stay vibrant for years to come. Please click here to learn about several simple ways you can support The Millions now. Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005
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