If you could travel back in time to a particular literary era, like Woody Allen’s characters in Midnight in Paris, where would you prefer to drop in? The New York of Mailer and Capote? The Paris of Stein, Hemingway, and Fitzgerald? Not me. I’d defy all the glamour and glitz and go to soggy ’70s London. Specifically, I would waltz into the Pillars of Hercules, an ancient pub on Greek Street in Soho, and report to the poet, critic and editor Ian Hamilton, who would no doubt be holding down the fort at the bar, an emperor-sized scotch in one hand and a cigarette in the other (they didn’t call him High-Tar Hamilton for nothing), and ask to review a book for his monthly magazine, The New Review. Its offices were just upstairs from the pub, but all the real business was completed bar-side. There in the Pillars I might encounter Martin Amis or Ian McEwan, Jonathan Raban, or Clive James, possibly even an ageing and manic Robert Lowell, ensconced by wide-eyed admirers. With any luck, I would become audience to one of Hamilton’s celebrated witticisms, like the one about the young poet who came down from Oxford to write for the magazine. According to legend, Hamilton took him downstairs to the pub at 11:30 in the morning and bought them two large scotches. “Oh no, I just can’t keep drinking,” the poet demurred, “I must give it up, it’s doing terrible things to me. I don’t even like it anymore.” To which Hamilton indignantly remarked: “Good god, man! None of us likes it.”
Karl Miller once remarked that you could write an anthology of Hamilton’s pub-sayings. Accordingly, much of the written material concerning him tends toward the personal-anecdotal: everyone seems to have their favorite Hamilton-zinger. Julian Barnes, for instance, whose go-to drink in those days was a gin and bitter lemon (hardly a pub-drink), recalls that “the first time Ian offered me a drink in the Pillars and I told him what I wanted, he didn’t react, no doubt confident that he had misheard me. He was generously willing to stand me the round, but unable to pronounce every word in case the barman got the wrong idea. ‘Large whisky, pint of Old Skullsplitter, a gin and …you say it.’ ‘Bitter lemon,’ I admitted, completing the order and my shame.” Hamilton makes a fictional cameo in Martin Amis’s novel The Pregnant Widow as the “charming, handsome, litigious, drink-drenched, debt-ridden, women-infested Neil Darlington,” and in North Face of Soho, the fourth of his so-called “Unreliable Memoirs,” Clive James devotes a couple of pages to his old friend and editor. One and a half of those pages are devoted to his old friend’s sexual success, which was by all accounts considerable. “At the height of his pulling power,” James writes, “he never had to do anything to get a woman he wanted except fight off the ones he didn’t, so as to give her a free run to the target.” Hamilton’s good looks, in collusion with his poetic air and understated cool, caught the attention of more than just a few women. But there was an attractive darkness, too; an ironic, reserved demeanor that hinted at something broken or damaged. “He had the knack of embodying self-destruction in an alluring form,” James writes. When the two of them did a reading together in Oxford they were approached by a gorgeous young student. Smitten, Clive James invited her to drop by at the Pillars when she was next in London. When she did, James greeted her enthusiastically at the bar. “Is he here?” was all she said to him.
It’s tempting to romanticize this kind of set-up, what with all pub-hub and boozy camaraderie, but it shouldn’t keep us from acknowledging the achievements of the magazine itself. Hamilton, though fearless, was a dream-editor. He launched his first literary journal, Scorpion, when he was in the sixth form at Darlington Grammar School, skipping class to ensure its distribution and getting in trouble for publishing it on the same day as the official school magazine. “It was an anti-school magazine,” Hamilton said. He would have much rather been playing soccer (a life-long passion; he was a self-professed “soccer bore”), but a heart condition prevented him from joining in with his fellow classmates. “I reached for my Keats,” he said. “I developed a kinship with sickly romantic poets who couldn’t play games.” When asked what eventually happened to that heart condition, Hamilton observed wryly that “it went away as soon as I started drinking.”
His editorial breakthrough arrived in the form of The Review, a journal bulging with poetry that followed the failure of Tomorrow, a “rather awful magazine” he’d launched in 1959 while a student at Oxford. The Review appeared in part because of the money Hamilton owed the printer of Tomorrow — a pattern that repeated itself with The New Review. Along with like-minded poets such as John Fuller, Colin Falck, and the American Michael Fried, The Review established a reputation for its acidity and combativeness. “I saw myself protecting poetry against the pretenders, the charlatans, the fakes,” Hamilton explained. It lasted 10 years. During that time, Hamilton moved to London and became the Times Literary Supplement’s poetry editor, not to mention a published poet himself. A pamphlet, Pretending not to sleep, had appeared in 1964 as part of a special edition of The Review, while his debut collection The Visit was published by Faber & Faber in 1970.
When it was revealed that the cultural magazine Encounter, launched in 1953 by the poet Stephen Spender, was being covertly funded by the C.I.A., Spender left in protest, as did other high-ranking officers like the late Frank Kermode, and steps were taken by England’s Arts Council to launch a counter-Encounter. After years of meetings and lunches (presumably to discuss next week’s meetings and lunches) the project ultimately failed to materialize, but a sizable amount of money had been put aside and was, in Hamilton’s words, “just lying there.” Charles Osborne, the Council’s literary director, didn’t object when Hamilton suggested the funds be used to re-launch The Review as a monthly magazine. A year later, in April 1974, the inaugural issue of The New Review appeared, featuring contributions from Robert Lowell, Clive James, Al Alvarez, and Martin Amis, among others.
The magazine, with its glossy pages and design-conscious format, immediately caused a stir. This was the time, as Hamilton explained it, of widespread labor protests and Edward Heath’s three-day work week, and here was a large, baronial litmag priced at 90p an issue. “It did come under a lot of fire on all the waste-of-public money issues — which was bollocks, because public money paid only for about half of any single issue,” Hamilton said. The money was a mixed blessing at best. The Council’s Literature Panel, a committee made up of fellow writers, turned out to be a pharisaical outfit. “The truth is that when you give a bunch of writers any kind of money-muscle, they go slightly mad,” Hamilton wrote in a later essay printed in Granta:
And when you put them on committees that give money to other writers, they go madder still. I can hear their voices now: “Mr Chairman, on a point of order, I feel it my duty to observe…” And this would be some foppish, dreamy-faced poetaster fresh from a three-absinthe lunch. But nearly all of them behaved like this. Wild-eyed anarchic novelists would transmute into prim-lipped accountants. Tremulous lyric poets would rear up like tigers of the bottom line. Book-reviewers who, I knew, lived in daily terror of being rumbled by the Revenue were all at once furrow-browed custodians of public funds.
Of necessity, Hamilton became one of literature’s great hustlers, jingling with money knowhow. “Knowing how many days pass between a final notice and a cut-off, knowing much time you gain with a carefully-phrased ‘WAFDA pdc’… such information is the small change of a life that’s sometimes financed by small change.” When the poet Craig Raine worked as books editor on Fridays, he once met a bailiff on the stairs who asked him if he was Ian Hamilton. Raine took him upstairs to the office and asked Ian Hamilton if he’d seen Ian Hamilton. “No,” Ian Hamilton said, “You just missed him.”
Hounded by debt collectors, pressured by printer’s fees, fearful that the Arts Council would come through on its threats to pull their funding (not to mention more local troubles, such as the mental illness of his first wife and their eventual divorce), Hamilton was ever under intense strain. “He was the only person I knew who was sued by his own solicitor,” Christopher Hitchens recalled. On one occasion his thick, dark hair began to turn white and fall out in clumps. Eventually it grew back again.
In 1999, two years before his untimely death at age 63, the Cargo Press published a festschrift, Another Round at the Pillars: Essays, Poems and Reflections, in which many of Hamilton’s old friends and contributors paid homage to the man who took a chance on their work and half-destroyed himself doing so. In his contribution to the book, Ian McEwan memorably evokes what it was like in the Pillars, amid all the fumes and vapors and drink:
In The Pillars I met “my generation” of writers — male, born in the late forties — and made friendships that will last me a lifetime — among them Amis, Barnes, Raine, Fenton, Reid. Most of us had yet to publish our first books. We read each other with close, gossipy attention. It was a given that there was nowhere as good to place a story or poem as The New Review — at least, until the Amis-Barnes era began at The [New] Statesman. If this was a literary clique, it was remarkably open. I took various friends along who weren’t really writers at all, but Ian treated them as though they were and gave them books to review. Anyone, it seemed, could wander in and get a drink. Junkies came in to shoot up in the lavatories upstairs. If you wandered in too often, you were likely to be given an unpaid job. Mine was at a desk in a corner of the packing room on the second floor. Ian asked me to read the short story slush pile and tell him if there was anything worth his consideration. It took me two weeks to discover that there wasn’t.
McEwan goes on, like practically everyone else who contributed to The New Review, to emphasize the central importance of Hamilton to the magazine. Despite a reputation for being coolly reticent with praise, and devoutly more butch with dispraise (he apparently once told a writer that, if torn into small strips, his piece might serve nicely as cat litter), he was an editor writers were eager to please. He encouraged them to do their best — even if they weren’t getting paid (which they often weren’t). “There was no house style at all, but it had the personality of its editor, who was both hugely enthusiastic and encouraging and capable of scowling sardonically at what he thought was phony,” the writer Jonathan Raban recalls. “Hemingway famously said, ‘The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shockproof shit-detector,’ and was what Ian provided for us.” Scanning its back catalogues, The New Review’s quality is glaringly obvious: fiction by Ian McEwan, Nadine Gordimer, Jim Crace, Jean Rhys, Paul Theroux, and John Cheever; poetry by Tom Paulin, Robert Lowell, Seamus Heaney, and Zbigniew Herbert; essays and reportage by Jonathan Raban, Frank Kermode, John Carey, Mary-Kay Wilmers, Terry Eagleton, A. S. Byatt, and Germaine Greer. There were special features on Scientology, Jaws, and the IRA; entire plays by Harold Pinter and Bertolt Brecht; interviews with Saul Bellow and Gore Vidal. There was a recurring satirical column by Edward Pygge, a fictional name used to poke fun at the Modish London Literary World.
In The Little Magazines: A Study of Six Editors, a small book published in 1976, Hamilton looked closely at some of the most influential of the 20th century’s little magazines: The Little Review, Poetry, New Verse, The Criterion, Partisan Review, and Horizon. What characterized them were “small resources, small respect for the supposed mysteries of ‘how to run a business’, small appeal outside a very small minority of readers.” It’s hard to shake the sense that Hamilton, whether he is writing about T. S. Eliot and The Criterion or Geoffrey Grigson and New Verse, was also writing about himself and The New Review. He would definitely have sympathized with Eliot’s complaints to John Quinn in a letter of 1923: “I wish to heaven I had never taken up The Criterion… It has been an evergrowing responsibility… a great expense to me and I have not got a penny out of it: there is not enough money to run it and pay me too… I think the work and worry have taken 10 years off my life.” And no doubt he must have been a little inspired by Grigson’s sardonic willingness to make enemies, even of his friends. Just as practically all poet-contributors to New Verse would eventually see their own work savagely debunked in its pages, so Hamilton never shied away from publishing reviews that were critical of the writing of friends or contributors. Before John Carey’s panning of Clive James’ The Metropolitan Critic appeared in The New Review’s pages, Hamilton showed James the typescript over drinks at the Pillars. “In the name of editorial integrity,” James wrote, “he not only didn’t mind making enemies, he didn’t mind hurting his friends either.” James, however, didn’t hold a grudge: his second collection of essays, published five years later, bore the title At the Pillars of Hercules.
“Each magazine needs a new decade,” Hamilton wrote, “and each decade needs a new magazine.” Clearly The New Review was the magazine of the ’70s, and though he believed that the ideal lifespan of a little magazine was 10 years, it only ever made it to five. The Arts Council pulled the plug in 1979 and The New Review collapsed under a ton of debt. Hamilton remained in financial rubble for years to come, though eventually made a living from his journalism and, later, as the author of acclaimed biographies of Robert Lowell (Robert Lowell: A Biography) and J. D. Salinger (Ian Hamilton, being Ian Hamilton, was naturally sued for In Search of J D Salinger — by Salinger himself). He wrote learned and entertaining volumes about the lives of writers and their biographers — Writers in Hollywood 1915-1951 (1990); Keepers of the Flame: Literary Estates and the Rise of Biography (1992); A Gift Imprisoned: The Poetic Life of Matthew Arnold (1998); Against Oblivion: Some Lives of the Twentieth-Century Poets (2002) — as well as several volumes of essays and reviews, not to mention two books on Paul Gascoigne, the once-controversial English soccer star. “I think every book I’ve written has some strong autobiographical element in it. That seems to me okay,” he told Dan Jacobson in the London Review of Books shortly before his death.
Nothing was more autobiographical than his poetry, and turning from the wry, self-deprecating voice of his journalism to the spare, somber voice of his verse is something of a shock. His deeply personal subject matter — his father’s illness and early death when Hamilton was just thirteen; his first wife’s mental illness; his divorces and disappointments — are not, like the later poems of Robert Lowell, evoked with all the reticence of a tell-all tabloid spread. Instead, Hamilton’s poems are like eavesdropping on one half of a private conversation. Stripped of personal context, whatever private crisis was there has to be inferred by the reader — Hamilton remains stoically silent. But the emotional intensity, though sparing, is anything but:
I am dumpy, obtruse, old and out of it.
At night, I can feel my hands prowl over me,
Lightly probing at my breasts, my knees,
The folds of my belly,
Now and then pressing and sometimes,
In their hunger, tearing me.
I live alone.
The poetic voice comes as a jolt when compared to the prose, but the two are in no way contradictory. They are contained in each other. In a little analysis of the “none of us likes it” quip that I opened with, the critic James Wood rightly observes that the joke implies a “stoical tragi-comic world…a picture at once funny and sad.” Hamilton was funny in the way of a proverb from William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell: “Excess of sorrow laughs.” His self-deprecating tone is amusing and charming but, like the tip of the iceberg, is sustained by the bulk of private terrors submerged beneath it. In the long interview he gave to Dan Jacobsen in the London Review of Books at the end of his life, the same note is struck again and again. Of The New Review he says: “Looking back, I think I should probably have done it differently, but I didn’t, so there it was. And it still looks pretty okay to me and has some really quite good stuff in it.” When you look at those back issues, pretty okay and quite good are not exactly phrases that leap to mind — nor do they seem to be phrases Hamilton deployed merely out of a sense of false modesty. The New Review, after all, was a result of serial failures, and in the end must have seemed like something of failure to its creator, too. When it folded and he left the magazine racket for good, he went on to occupy an uncertain ground as a sometime-poet and occasional-biographer. There would have been plenty of occasions for the intense self-doubt he admired in Matthew Arnold. In his book on Arnold, published very late in his life, he put a quote of the poet’s at the beginning that he was very fond of:
It is a sad thing to see a man who has been frittered away piecemeal by petty distractions, and who has never done his best. But it is still sadder to see a man who has done his best, who has reached his utmost limits — and finds his work a failure, and himself far less than he had imagined himself.
Posterity isn’t usually kind to editors, biographers, critics, or even poets. Hamilton was all four, sometimes by accident, always by virtue of his wit, intelligence and quiet rebelliousness. Still, he very likely saw himself frittered away piecemeal and, if not exactly as a failure, then as less than he imagined himself. It’s fair to say, I think, that he made a career of his many failures: his failure to become a soccer star, his failures in the magazine business, the private failures that fuelled his poetry. He tried, he failed, and then he failed better. At certain moments we may wish to acknowledge the inevitability of this — in writing as in life. Those of us who lack the madcap artistic genius of a Lowell or a Salinger, and whose greatest gift to literature may simply be to serve it, will often feel that we have courted failure. Though he was not a genius or a great artist, Hamilton served literature by setting a great example (The Lowells and the Salingers of this world are hardly exemplary). In a kinder world, his achievements would have yanked him from the penury of posterity. But no matter. I still want to time-warp back to the Pillars, when Hamilton, in the words of his poem “Returning,” was at his best:
Dear friend, I wish you could have seen
This place when it was at its best,
When I was,
But it isn’t far. It isn’t far. Come with me.
This was the year my son became a toddler — which is to say, the year I surrendered the keys to my attention span to a traveling companion by turns delightful, dilatory, and insane. Among the casualties of this shift was an essay I had planned to write, called “How Having a One-year-old Will Change Your Reading and Writing Habits” … along with several hundred other essays, reviews, articles, and epic poems that got interrupted partway through. But the kid has just gone down for a nap, which should buy me an hour or two, provided all goes well. And I do have my notes. (My notes! How optimistic that phrase now sounds!) What follows, then, is a kind of museum of my failures, an atlas of incompletion, a tour of the ruins of a future that never came. I call it “Reviews I Did Not Write This Year.”
The single best thing I read in 2011 was Steps to an Ecology of Mind, a career-spanning nonfiction collection from the late anthropological polymath and proto-hippie genius Gregory Bateson. This may sound forbidding — and it is, in a way. Bateson is an artist of abstraction on par with Derrida or Kant. (What the hell is an “Ecology of Mind”, e.g.? Something like a way of thinking about thinking. Or thinking about thinking about thinking…) But Bateson’s method is inductive; each essay builds lucidly from some specific subject — alcoholism, Balinese art, the conversation of porpoises — toward a larger concern with form, communication, complexity, and how they inform systems of all kinds. After 400 pages of this, “Systems Theory,” which is another, uglier name for “Ecology of Mind,” comes to look like the great Road Not Taken of Western Thought. Or maybe a road gone partway down, backed out of, blocked off, and erased from the map, in favor of the road that got us to where we are today. In short, this book changed my brain. I don’t think it’s too strong to say that it changed my life.
Of the novels I read this year, my favorite was probably Philip Roth’s Sabbath’s Theater, but I’ve written about that elsewhere, so I guess there’s no room for it here. Equally captivating were a pair of books from that nebulous period just before Joyce and Eliot and Woolf arrived to put their stamp on literary history. The first was Lucky Per, the magnum opus of the Danish Nobelist Henrik Pontoppidan. First published in 1904, it’s either a late masterpiece of 19th century Realism, or an early masterpiece of 20th century Modernism … or maybe the missing term between them. Pontoppidan gives us both a Balzacian examination of a society on the cusp of cosmopolitanism and a Kierkegaardian x-ray of the vacant place where we once imagined the individual soul. Filling that vacancy is the hero-journey of the eponymous Per, and it culminates in one of the great, strange endings of world literature. But don’t take my word for it. Take Fredric Jameson’s. (Inexplicably, by the way, Lucky Per remained untranslated into English until a dear friend of mine took this mitzvah upon herself. In a just world there would be a nice Oxford World Classics edition of this available for $10, but as it stands, it’s a pricey import.)
The Forsyte Saga, which I read this summer, covers some of the same historical territory, but in England, rather than Denmark. You won’t catch me saying this often, but I think Virginia Woolf and V.S. Pritchett missed the boat on this one. Galsworthy’s style — his “port-wine irony,” as Pritchett puts it — looks pretty tasty a hundred years later, when the cultural palate tends to run either to near-beer or Jägermeister. And though he lacks the psychological penetration of a Pontoppidan (or a Woolf, for that matter) Galsworthy’s astuteness as an observer of the bourgeois mores that formed him is unimpeachable. You can almost read The Forsyte Saga as a spy novel, the work of a double-agent that both informs on and sympathizes with his class.
I’d be remiss, too, if I didn’t mention David Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress, which is just as amazing as everyone says it is. This had lingered on my list for years. If it’s done the same on yours, promote it to the top, post-haste.
4. Best New Fiction
As far as newish fiction, my favorites were David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King, Helen DeWitt’s Lightning Rods, Martin Amis’ The Pregnant Widow, and Haruki Murakami’s IQ84. The first two I wrote about here and here, so: disqualified on a technicality. But that’s a good thing, because it gives me more space to talk about The Pregnant Widow. This one struck me as a hetero version of Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty, only set in the go-go ’60s rather than the go-go ’80s. (If that description had appeared on the jacket, it would have been enough to get me to buy the book, as there are few things I love more than Hollinghurst, the ’60s, and books about sex.) Amis being Amis, the writing is fantastic. More importantly, though, this book shows off the heart everyone says he doesn’t have. It’s a wistful little f–ker, at that. In fact, The Pregnant Widow would be Amis’ best book … were it not marred by an abominable coda. (Trust me on this: just stop on page 308. Bind the rest of the pages shut with glue, if you have to. Rip them out. Burn them. They never happened.)
IQ84 is, similarly and just as surprisingly, also full of heart (though Murakami’s temperament here runs more toward Tin Pan Alley than Let it Bleed). And, now that I think of it, IQ84 could likewise have used a nice strong edit at the end. But who’s going to complain about a thousand pages of assassins, “simple meals,” crazy religious cults, and “little people”? There are a million billion holes I could poke in this book, but for me, IQ84 bypassed questions of good taste entirely, en route to being often within shouting distance of the great. Just in terms of the massive tractor-beam effect it exerted on my attention, it was the most pleasurable reading experience I had all year. Away from it, I couldn’t wait to get back.
5. Brief Books With European Pedigrees
A wonderful new discovery for me was Lore Segal, whose Lucinella couldn’t be more unlike IQ84. It’s short, for one thing — I read it back during the time I thought I would read only short books. It’s wickedly funny, for another (writers’ colonies may be easy game, but it takes chutzpah to make sport of the gods). Also: it’s just exquisitely written. Here, the pleasure is less in the narrative burlesque than in every beautifully turned sentence. A New Year’s resolution: I will read more Lore Segal in 2012.
Another short, funny, weird novel I loved this year was Ludvíc Vakulíc’s The Guinea Pigs, now back in print in English. Vakulíc is like Bohumil Hrabal without the soft-shoe, or Kafka without the metaphysics. Here he writes about (in no particular order), bureaucracy, family, totalitarianism, money, and guinea pigs (natch). These emerge as aspects of the same phenomenon — an idea that struck me as weirdly apposite in America, circa 2011. At any rate, Vakulíc’s comedy is relentless, disconcerting, clear-eyed, and strange.
The last in my troika of great short books was Imre Kertesz’s Fatelessness. This is simply the best novel about the Holocaust I have ever read: the most meticulous, the most comprehensive, the most beautiful in its scruples, the most scrupulous in its beauty. To say that it, too, is disconcerting doesn’t mean what you’d think it means. Basically, you just have to read it.
Somehow I’ve gotten through the “shorter books” section without mentioning Skylark, Never Let Me Go, or The Elementary Particles, as I somehow managed to get through the last decade without reading them. I hereby rectify the former error, as I rectified the latter in 2011. You should read these, too.
Earlier this year, the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Rides inspired me to pick up John Lewis’ memoir Walking With the Wind. This seems to me the very model of the as-told-to book, in that you really feel the cadences of Lewis’ voice and the force of his insights. That this book is morally stirring is obvious. A couple things that often get lost in the narrative about the Civil Rights Movement, however, are what brilliant tacticians its leaders were and how widely their visions varied. You feel both here, powerfully. Occupiers, and for that matter Tea Partiers, could learn a lot at the feet of John Lewis.
Finally: everyone is required to read John Jeremiah Sullivan’s Pulphead. I know a lot of other people are saying this, but it’s true. The debt to Wallace’s A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again will be obvious even if you haven’t read Sullivan’s beautiful essay on Wallace, but the subtle subterranean orchestrations of these pieces, the way they press on and palpate the things they’re really about without ever naming them, remind me more of the great Joseph Mitchell. Most of them are practically perfect on their own, and collectively they comprise something greater. If you ever feel like the breach between journalism and anything of lasting consequence is getting wider and wider, let this book be your balm.
I should also say, it being the holidays and all, that Pulphead is a perfect stocking-stuffer, perfect to read on airplanes (also on subways and on park benches in cold weather), perfect for dads, perfect for moms, perfect for musicians, perfect for college kids, perfect for people with small children and a concomitant inability to concentrate. In short, a perfect gift. Oh, crap. I didn’t get to talk about The Gift! But the child is stirring in the next room, the laundry is almost done, I have apparently forgotten to eat lunch. Given that my pile of half-written essays now rivals the size of my pile of half-read books, I can’t say when you’ll next hear from me. Next December, probably, when it’s time for another Year in Reading piece. I promise that one will be shorter and more disciplined. Comparatively, haiku. But I hope this mess above will, if nothing else, give you some books to check out in the meantime.
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New this week is Julian Barnes’ new collection of stories, Pulse. We also have new novels from Geraldine Brooks (Caleb’s Crossing) and Jean Thompson (The Day We Left Home). There’s also a new collection available from Nobel laureate J.M.G. Le Clezio (Mondo and Other Stories). And new in paperback: Millions Hall of Famer Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart and The Pregnant Widow by Martin Amis.