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. The Sympathizer 6 months 2. 2. Mr. Splitfoot 6 months 3. 9. The Sellout 2 months 4. 7. Ninety-Nine Stories of God 3 months 5. 4. Zero K 5 months 6. 6. Barkskins 4 months 7. - The Underground Railroad 1 month 8. 8. Innocents and Others 3 months 9. - Here I Am 1 month 10. - Pond 1 month The Sellout rocketed up our Top Ten this month, jumping from ninth position all the way up to third. In a few weeks, when longtime frontrunners The Sympathizer and Mr. Splitfoot retire to our Hall of Fame, look for Paul Beatty's satirical novel to lead the pack. Speaking of the Hall of Fame, both Girl through Glass and The Lost Time Accidents graduated this month, opening space for two new entrants on our list: Colson Whitehead's universally acclaimed The Underground Railroad, and Jonathan Safran Foer's somewhat less acclaimed Here I Am. By now, Whitehead's novel needs no introduction. The #1 bestseller has drawn praise from both Obama and Oprah, and in his review for our site, Greg Walkin noted how "Whitehead’s brilliance is on constant display" throughout: After five previous novels, each very different, this is the only thing we can count on. It’s hard to imagine a new novel farther from Whitehead’s last, the zombie thriller Zone One. The Underground Railroad shares some features with his debut work, The Intuitionist, and his second novel, John Henry Days; both novels confront issues of race and American history through less-than-straightforward methods — a Whitehead signature. Yet by contrast, Safran Foer's Here I Am has drawn a wider spectrum of reviews, ranging from the simply mixed and relatively positive all the way over to Alexander Nazaryan's Los Angeles Times piece, the thrust of which can be pretty well understood just from its title: "With joyless prose about joyless people, Jonathan Safran Foer's 'Here I Am' is kitsch at best." Meanwhile, one title -- The Nest -- dropped from our monthly list, opening a spot for Claire-Louise Bennett's Pond. In his review of the work for our site, Ian Maleney wrote that it "rests with no little charm somewhere between collection and novel without ever settling on one or the other," and noted how "much of the book examines the strange process of alienation anyone might experience as they find themselves with time and space to interrogate their own behavior, private or otherwise." That sounds appropriate for the start of Autumn, if I say so myself. This month's near misses included: Heroes of the Frontier, Signs Preceding the End of the World, The Girls, and The Queen of the Night. See Also: Last month's list.
Emily Barton, Alexander Chee, and I all published new novels this year: The Book of Esther, The Queen of the Night, and The Good Lieutenant, respectively. None of us had published anything in 10 years or more. Working so long on a book is a scary proposition in the supposedly “fast-paced” media culture of the 21st century. But it happens more often than one might think. The three of us sat down to share strategies and retrace our steps in the hope that our experiences might provide a practical map -- or at least give some hope -- to other writers engaged in a long work. Here are our notes on a decade in the literary wilderness. --Whitney Terrell Whitney Terrell: What was the moment when you came closest to giving up on your book? Why didn't you? Emily Barton: I sent my agent an early, complete draft of the book to read in the summer of 2011, and he said he had some comments. So one morning in Brooklyn, on alternate-side-of-the-street-parking day, I took my phone, a notebook, and a pen into the car. I called him up and sat by the side of Prospect Place for an hour, listening to his thoughts. As always, he was an astute and generous reader; but it was an early draft and it had raised many questions for him. I understood his questions, yet at the time I didn’t know how to answer them or forestall them for other readers. So I took a break to think about what to do. As it turned out, that break ended up lasting quite a while. One day after 13 or 14 months of thinking, I at last had a good enough idea about how to address those questions. I felt confident I could sit down and work on the book. It did seem like a long fallow period, though. I never thought I had given up on the book, but it was a long stretch of quiet. WT: It’s interesting to me that Emily describes the 13 or 14 months she took off after talking to her agent as quiet. I finished a complete draft in the spring of 2011, turned it in to the publisher of my first two books, and they passed. The period after that was, for me, exactly the opposite of quiet, at least inside my head. I went into a sort of manic recovery mode. There were five or six or seven different “plans” for fixing the book over the next year -- each was, in retrospect, fairly desperate and ill-considered, sort of like a play that I was drawing up in the dirt. I remember long, long, long phone calls with very patient friends just jabbering on and on about how I was going to fix the book. Or how I wouldn’t and was doomed. When I wasn’t talking to friends, this dialogue would be internal. It felt like I had a television playing inside my head and I couldn’t figure out how to get quiet. It seems obvious now that these were panic attacks. But I didn’t know that at the time. Or that one shouldn’t be having panic attacks all day while you write. I wanted to quit the book on a daily basis during this period, because when you’re having a panic attack, you’ll do anything to get it to stop. Alexander Chee: As the years went by at first I was calm. Having studied with writers like Marilynne Robinson, James Alan McPherson, Frank Conroy, who had taken over a decade each with some of their books, I thought I was fine. But they had tenure. In my case I had chosen a visiting writer life and I was very aware every year that I didn’t finish the book how it affected my ability to get a new job, get a grant, etc. I had this feeling, whether or not it was real, that every year was a decline. The darkest part of the writing of the novel was 2012, in the winter, when I was in Leipzig and it seemed like my mom’s health was in trouble, and that she was starting to lose her memory. It was also just a lonely dark winter in Germany, the darkest winter in their recorded history. The sun came out in Berlin at one point, my friends there said, and people screamed because it had been so long. I really enjoyed being at Leipzig in a lot of ways, but I was having this feeling of just failing the novel, failing myself, failing my family, failing my partner who was tired of feeling a widow to the book. Every month I wasn’t done seemed like a sort of horrible affirmation of my own failures as a person and as a writer. And then every problem in the manuscript became a problem with my life. The feeling of total failure drove me into kind of excessive work on it that was not to its benefit. I was working on it all of my free time. And it was making my partner feel crazy that he had this person who was both in his life and not in his life. And so I did imagine that winter what it would be like to be free of it. To just stop and write something easier. WT: I had a period like that. It was also the summer that I had to start using glasses for the first time because I just burned my eyes out, reading stuff obsessively, not a healthy way of working. I wasn’t really making any progress either. EB: Is the fact that I don’t do that a gender difference? I am really unable. I’m the mom of two little kids who need me so badly. No matter how deep I am in work, I just have to turn off at 4:30. Except for this magical two weeks when I went to Yaddo, when my older son was about two and a half -- and I did spend the first two days crying because I missed him so much -- which allowed me to finish the first draft of this novel. Other than that, I go get the kids and I cook them dinner and I’m their mother for the rest of the day; I’m their mother until their lunches are packed and their teeth are brushed and they’ve been taken to their school and daycare in the morning. I envy that feeling of total concentration, and at the same time I feel that I get to hold on to this little piece of my sanity because I don’t have it. I am always aware that there’s another option besides obsessive work. Writing my first book when I was young and single, I could disappear into my apartment for two weeks, and who even knew where I was? That’s not the case anymore. AC: That makes sense. I’m thinking of my friend Sabina Murray who is in a similar situation as a working writer and professor and a mom who, she just writes whenever she has time and is completely un-neurotic about it and has been incredibly productive that way. I’ve been allowed this kind of neurotic obsession essentially because I’m a man, because I don’t have kids. And I don’t think it is even to my benefit. WT: That’s an interesting question. Like Emily, the day ends for me when the kids come home from school and then there’s dinner and screwing around and then putting them to bed. But I just felt like I wasn’t present for those moments even if I was physically there. I was kind of like mentally sick, thinking about the book all the time instead. Even if I was with them, I wasn’t about to detach in a helpful way. It sounds like you were able to do that. EB: I walk away. I put it to bed. And at the end of the day, I leave myself notes in brackets for whatever I’m working on: plans for what I’ll do the next day. If I don’t do that, when I come back in the morning, I have no memory at all of what I was thinking I’d do. I’ve gone to another world, which is the real world. WT: I would like to have that ability. I think that sounds like a nice ability to have. Were there changes in your life -- in terms of time, work, personal life, writing itself -- that made the work on this book different than previous books? AC: The first big change was that when my first novel appeared, I was an untested nobody, a debut author. The first novel took two years to find someone to buy it. Queen of the Night sold in nine days as a partial in 2005, so I wrote it with advance money as well as two grants, the Whiting and the NEA, and many residencies, so it was really different in just about every respect. I also had the anxiety of failing to live up to readers and critics in a new way. It is why that second novel can be so hard to write. You get all of these people in your head. And the second change was when I partnered with Dustin. When he and I got together, I had to stop being that person who just woke up and wrote and was home all day alone. Suddenly someone was there. Luckily Dustin doesn’t like to talk in the morning. And he’ll also sleep in later than me. That sort of works to my advantage in that sense. But definitely, even though I was still really obsessive, I was still making space for a person in this way that was entirely new to my life and my writing life. And I don’t think I would have made it without his love and support. EB: So much changed during those years. I got married. We moved five times. We had two children; both difficult pregnancies, and then of course once that period ends, if you are fortunate you have a child: infancy, nursing, sleep deprivation, daycare (or lack thereof), school, activities, challenges. I’ve also been working as a fancy adjunct during this time period. This means I’ve been fortunate to be teaching at good programs, but always on contingent contracts, with no job security. So during the 10 years since my last book appeared, I’ve taught at six schools. The farthest was a four-and-a-half-hour drive from my house; for five years, I drove two-and-a-half hours each way once or twice a week. Sometimes I’ve taught at three schools concurrently: managed those commutes (and non-intersecting academic calendars; and overlapping service responsibilities at all the institutions) while managing the kids and/or a difficult pregnancy; and then also scrounging up time to write. To me, the wonder is that I managed to write any book at all under these circumstances. I require stretches of uninterrupted time to manage the arc of character and story. What’s changed is that it’s become more difficult to find the time to fulfill those kinds of ambitions. WT: My wife and I had our first child just a few months before I published my last novel The King of Kings County, in August of 2005. I’d say for the next three or four years after he was born, I wasn’t really serious about writing. I was enjoying having a child. I’d also been really chained to Kansas City during those first two books. I’d been really broke most of the time. But I had a slightly better job then and my wife had an actual legitimate job, with health care, as a professor. We spent a summer in New York. I was accepted for a fellowship. We met new people, made new friends. I was no longer “alone” as a writer. Now I was part of a group of three, and then a group of four, when our second son was born in 2010. But in the end, finally, the only way I finished the book out was to resort to obsessive, isolating work habits that were extremely difficult for both my wife and my kids. In other words, people get in the way of writing, dang it. AC: If only we could just be brains in a jar of fluid with electricity shooting through it. What was the greatest benefit to spending 10 years writing a book? WT: For me, there really wasn’t a benefit. I mean, I don’t really see how things wouldn’t have been better if I’d just written the book more quickly. That said, the friendships I relied on when I was really in trouble and worried are the best thing to come out of this period. I’d always imagined that if I admitted that I was having trouble with a book, other writers would turn away and avert their gaze. They’d be embarrassed for me. They might feel sorry for me. But they would also (so I feared) sort of edge me out of the circle of writers. Not consciously or maliciously. But simply because any real writer wouldn’t be having trouble like this. I’d be marked as unfit in some way. But instead, many writers I talked to -- once I started being honest about how much I was struggling with my book -- told me that they, too, had had exactly the same experience. For instance, Margot Livesey. She’d been my professor back in graduate school in 1993. At the time, she’d seemed to me so . . . collected. Powerful. In control. But she told me that actually, at that time, she’d been working on a book that would eventually become Eva Moves the Furniture. And she’d been at a loss over how to write that book and would not in fact publish it until 2001, having worked on it for some 12 years. It was also helpful to know that, despite this long gestation, it turned out to be a stunning book. And she is just one example. This isn’t something that you hear discussed or praised much these days, but other writers do support each other. Their community is real and valuable. I wouldn’t have made it through this book without them. AC: I remember my agent said something like, “Maybe we’ll be able to fix publishing by the time your second book comes.” [general laughter] I know, right? For me the only benefit was that I had built up this online presence, a social media presence, that I think helped in the selling and promotion of the novel -- by which I mean a dedicated and supportive audience on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, WordPress, Instagram -- all those things that I was doing, starting circa 2004 and on, things that people assured me we're just a waste of time. I never really believed them despite much ambivalence. It’s true, it wasn’t the same as only working on a novel, but it definitely helped create an infrastructure for the novel to appear inside of. That eventually meant I had an audience that had been following me along the way in the writing of the novel, and I’m very grateful to those readers. Otherwise I would say, in just about every other respect, I started saying about a year ago that it wasn’t worth it to spend that much time on the novel -- that it would never be worth it. All the ruined family vacations, all the missed time with my mother and my partner, my nieces and nephews who grew up with me essentially a silent figure in the family’s background. But I am thinking that way less now. EB: I didn’t spend 10 years on this book, exactly. Four of those years, I was working on a different book. About six years ago, I “took a break” from it to write this one. So in some ways it feels to me as if I spent a perfectly normal amount of time writing the book, even though I’m aware it may not look that way to other people. The benefit to having 10 years between Brookland and The Book of Esther -- and I agree with you, Whit, that things might have been better in many ways if I’d written it more quickly -- is my increased maturity as a writer and as human being. The book as I’ve written it now reflects a kind of nuance that it couldn’t have 10 years ago. Also, I’ve been teaching all that time, which means I’ve worked with many and diverse young writers. I’ve come to understand their ambitions, collaborated with them to find solutions to problems that arise . . . and those aims, and the difficulties those writers face, can differ from my own. So my students have broadened my perspective, given me more tools for my toolkit, raised questions I myself might never have asked. WT: A number of technological milestones occurred during, or just before, the time we spent writing these books: in 2004 Google went public and Facebook was launched, in 2006 Twitter was created, in 2007 the first iPhone went on sale. Now that we’ve all released our books, how did technology change the process of introducing them to the public? What’s different between this time and the last time that you had a book out? EB: One thing that’s different is the decline of the newspaper as a regional news source. When each of us had a last book published, there were more numerous vibrant, powerful regional news sources; and now that Clear Channel has corporatized radio, there are fewer local talk shows on the radio. Ten years ago, when you were touring, the local paper would write a piece about your book, and you’d talk to the local radio host to gather interest for your event. I’m lucky to live in a place where we have great local news and talk radio, yet these have become more the exception than the norm. AC: The first thing I thought of was of how, in the cover approval process, the cover has to look good as a thumbnail and so does your author photo. I think we’re in a really funny place with e-books where, I don’t know if e-books have supplanted anyone’s books, it seems to me readers are a very specific kind: the people who read paperbacks don’t usually buy hardbacks and vice versa and I feel like e-books brought in, actually, new readers who only wanted to read e-books -- so often men would say this to me during the days the Kindle was blowing up: "I had stopped reading but it is so easy with e-books." I don’t think that’s necessarily all people with e-readers, but I think for many, the convenience made a difference and brought them back. WT: We kind of went through a cycle where e-books looked like they were going to take over and now actually print has been making a comeback over the last year or two and sales have been rising in print and flattening for e-books. AC: My students hate e-books, they don’t want to read them. I was teaching at NYU in Florence this summer and there was a snafu and all of the books had to be e-books and the students were really upset. No one was like “Woo, e-books!” EB: That’s funny to me. I’m a device agnostic reader. I buy hardcovers, I buy paperbacks, I check books out at the library, I’ll read them on my Kobo or my phone. It’s all good. I like to read. AC: More is more, for me too. EB: More is more! AC: Even though there has been a decline in local radio stations, as Emily noted, there is something I’ve noticed with independent bookstores in these different regions. They sort of function the way those local papers did. They’re community centers and the social media presences for those local bookstores, if they have them, are quite robust. So, for example, when I’m scheduling bookstore events, it’s a plus if a bookstore has a big social media following because it makes the footprint of the event bigger. It reaches more readers than an event with no social presence at all. WT: I noticed that too. It was neat to come into a town when you’re going to read and see that the bookstore has been tweeting about the fact that you’re going to read. That’s a completely new thing and that’s fun and cool. EB: And the rise of great literary blogs -- Maud Newton, and Ron Hogan of GalleyCat were pioneers -- has helped foster community too. AC: I wondered, Emily, this is your first year on Twitter. Are you having a reasonable good literary experience with this book? EB: I’m having a really great literary experience with Twitter. It’s a total pleasure to be in communication with the broader community of writers on this platform. My experience with readers on it has been positive too; people tweet about my book, or tweet me questions, and I’ve been glad to engage in conversation. Also I’m entranced with the “catching up with old friends” part of it. That’s part of Facebook too, but Facebook has at a certain level devolved into various competing screeds in a way that Twitter has not. WT: Really? I thought everyone saw Twitter as the sewer and Facebook as the friendly place. AC: I think it all depends on your Twitter community and I do think that literary Twitter is pretty decent as a place to be. Facebook in general to me can feel like a wedding that has gone on too long. Everyone is drunk and making speeches and interrupting each other and fights are breaking out. WT: Could you ever imagine working on something for this long again? What was the biggest discovery you made while writing the book and what was the biggest mistake? AC: I can’t imagine spending this much time on another book. I will be 65 if I do that. I would really like to write a lot more things by the time I’m 65 than this. I have four distinct novel ideas that I would like to get accomplished by 65. The biggest change was probably that I realized that the Franco-Prussian War had to matter as did the Paris Commune, and the Siege. There wasn’t any way around it and so the novel had to engage very seriously with war in a way I had not anticipated and I think, in my mind it changed from being a 250 page novel about opera and romances into something much bigger. The biggest surprise? That was probably the discovery of Pauline Viardot-Garcia as a character and her relationship with Ivan Turgenev and her husband Louis Viardot and the sort of odd three-way relationship they had which was very much centered on her and her genius as an artist and a teacher. The biggest mistake I made was that at one point I did an edit that took out all the chronological jumps, I made it a chronologically direct novel and it was a huge and redundant bore. One last fun question: did you have a favorite method of procrastination? Something you would do when you felt really anxious about the writing or needed a break from it. WT: I’ll give you mine, which is that I have a backyard that is filled with weeds, constantly, and we don’t spray it or anything and so I sat in that yard and by hand weeded little odd bits of not-grass out of it for thousands of hours while writing this book. For some reason that was a mindless, soothing thing I could do when I was most stressed or stuck. And it’s something I’ll always associate with this book. EB: I like to tidy up my office especially, but I will, if pressed, tidy all kinds of things. In her book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, Marie Kondo espouses a particular method for folding clothes and organizing them in drawers. If I feel stressed I will go do this -- I start with my own drawers, but really I’d happily do anyone’s. I could do yours. I did both of my kids’ the other day. They’re little, and they, you know, fling things at the drawers, yank them out haphazardly and shove them back in. So, I went in and folded all the pajamas and took away ones that didn’t fit anymore, put seasonally appropriate pajamas in the front and others in the back, and it was so satisfying. Also, they were both happy to see their socks in pairs, that kind of thing. I’m sure you don’t have to look too hard for the psychology of what we’re doing here. When the novel is unruly -- when it exemplifies the universe’s movement toward entropy -- you know that there is one form of order that you can restore things to, which is a state of weedlessness or of folded pajamas. AC: Or make elaborate breakfasts. That’s what I did. Kimchee fried rice, with fried eggs on top. There wouldn’t be just kimchee in the fried rice there’d be bacon or hot dogs or seaweed or sweet potatoes or kale. Breakfast that took at least an hour, hour and a half to prepare start to finish. EB: I don’t know about you guys, but my breakfast is often a triple espresso and the crusts of sandwiches children have abandoned. So Alex, I feel that that act of self-care could have great benefits for your writing day. AC: I also make breakfast for Dustin. He likes these yogurt and oatmeal and fruit parfaits. We make them in Mason jars in advance and I’ll make him like four in advance and he’ll go through them when I’m not around. That way, if I’m busy writing and he wakes up and wants to eat. He’s terrible at making himself breakfast, so it’s a little like folding pajamas for somebody. I often spend a lot of the day in terror of writing and needing to calm down and then I return to a place where the terror abates enough for me to do the writing, that’s why those gestures happen first. WT: I was drinking so much coffee in the mornings and also having panic attacks that by lunchtime I would be a complete wreck. So I’d start off very optimistically and by noon I’d be like, I gotta burn everything and this is all a disaster and I’d have to go out and weed for two hours to calm down. I figured out that maybe drinking a little less coffee would be helpful. EB: I had a moment in graduate school when I couldn’t stop shaking one day and I didn’t know what was wrong with me. Then I realized I had drunk 16 cups of coffee. That was what was wrong with me. Pressure is low late in the afternoon. If you can get all your errands done and do all the things you have to do, and if you have one hour left before you have to get the kids, you can say, "Whatever, I’ll do what I can do in an hour." AC: You can do so much in an hour. EB: You can do SO much in an hour. There’s something to that. Your time is up, so you do what you can and let go. Image Credit: Pixabay.
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. The Sympathizer 5 months 2. 1. Mr. Splitfoot 5 months 3. 4. Girl Through Glass 6 months 4. 5. Zero K 4 months 5. 6. The Lost Time Accidents 6 months 6. 7. Barkskins 3 months 7. 9. Ninety-Nine Stories of God 2 months 8. 8. Innocents and Others 2 month 9. - The Sellout 1 month 10. 10. The Nest 3 months "The past is never dead," wrote William Faulkner, who may have been unconsciously foreseeing Tessa Hadley's novel, and its six-month run on our site's Top Ten. While at times the book seemed likely to drop from our rankings - it began in tenth position and only once cracked the top three - it was nevertheless a gritty and determined run, now punctuated by its ascendance to our Hall of Fame. Most of the other titles on our list bumped up a spot to fill The Past's void, and a solitary newcomer emerged this August in our ninth spot. There, Paul Beatty's satirical novel, The Sellout, joins our list for the first time. The Sellout has been mentioned fairly often on our site, dating back to last December when staff writer Michael Schaub called it, "One of the funniest books I read this year was also one of the best novels I’ve ever read." (Knowing Schaub, he's going to take full credit for the book's appearance on our list now, nevermind the fact that it's been a year since he wrote that line.) But the praise didn't end there. Several months after Schaub selected The Sellout in his Year in Reading, fellow Millions staff writer Matt Seidel wrote: Beatty’s voice is as appealing, erudite, and entertaining as any since Alexander Portnoy’s. ... It is a lacerating, learned, witty, and vulgar voice — definitely not pejorative-free — brash and vulnerable and self-righteous in its jeremiad against self-righteousness of any kind. Still more recently, Alcy Levya traced a through-line between some of Beatty's lodestars - Richard Pryor, Kurt Vonnegut, and Dave Chapelle - to investigate the circumstances of the book's creation, as well as its enduring importance: In many ways, the comedian could very easily stand in place of the narrator in The Sellout: both being intelligent and hilarious with their keen and unfiltered views of our society, and both having to come to grips with the responsibility — and the cost — of being empowered to act on that vision. All of the characters, regardless of how completely absurd they seem, are reacting to living in a time in which Beatty also resides; one in which he is daring to call something “‘Racism’ in a post-racial world.” This month's near misses included: Signs Preceding the End of the World, Heroes of the Frontier, The Queen of the Night, Homegoing and The Underground Railroad. See Also: Last month's list.
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. 2. Mr. Splitfoot 4 months 2. 1. The Sympathizer 4 months 3. 5. The Past 6 months 4. 3. Girl Through Glass 5 months 5. 6. Zero K 3 months 6. 8. The Lost Time Accidents 5 months 7. 10. Barkskins 2 months 8. - Innocents and Others 1 month 9. - Ninety-Nine Stories of God 1 month 10. 9. The Nest 2 months There's some jostling atop the list this month as Samantha Hunt's Mr. Splitfoot pulls ahead of Viet Thanh Nguyen's The Sympathizer. Likewise, there's been a minor shake-up in the third and fourth positions as Girl Through Glass drops below The Past, and Zero K holds pretty steady. The real mover in July, by contrast, was Annie Proulx's Barkskins, which climbed three spots from tenth to seventh, a rise no doubt attributable to Claire Cameron's strong endorsement in her "Summer Reading List for Wretched Assholes Who Prefer to Wallow in Someone Else’s Misery." Of course, highlighting this influence reminds one of Mary Shelley's question from The Last Man: "What is there in our nature that is forever urging us on towards pain and misery?" Meanwhile we bid adieu to What Belongs to You and My Name is Lucy Barton, both of which have punched one-way tickets to the literary Valhalla known to mere mortals as the Millions Hall of Fame. In their places we welcome two new arrivals. Among those newcomers is Dana Spiotta's Innocents and Others, which Jason Arthur called "a novel about how intimacy works best from a distance" in his review for our site. "There is also so much more to this book that defies quick summary," explained Edan Lepucki in her long, thoughtful interview with Spiotta, such as "technology and how it creates, bolsters, and distorts identity; making and consuming art; the responsibility and trespassing of representation; friendship; imagination; the fear of being unoriginal." (P.S. Edan, did your resolution from last January work out?) Joining Spiotta on this month's list is Joy Williams's Ninety-Nine Stories of God, which our own Nick Ripatrazone called "gorgeously written, sentence-to-sentence ... arriv[ing] in vignettes that are condensed but not constrained; tight but not dry." He noted forty-nine other reasons to read the book as well, in case you needed them, which you really shouldn't because Joy Williams is one of America's best living writers of short stories and fiction – and for my money she's unquestionably the best author of travel guides. 'Til next month, as they say! This month's near misses included: Signs Preceding the End of the World, The Queen of the Night, Heroes of the Frontier, The Girls, and Homegoing. See Also: Last month's list.
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. 2. The Sympathizer 3 months 2. 3. Mr. Splitfoot 3 months 3. 4. Girl Through Glass 4 months 4. 5. The Past 5 months 5. 6. What Belongs to You 6 months 6. 8. Zero K 2 months 7. 7. My Name is Lucy Barton 6 months 8. 9. The Lost Time Accidents 4 months 9. - The Nest 1 month 10. - Barkskins 1 month Fresh off the heels of its Pulitzer win, there's a new number one in Millionsland: The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen. (He's a Year in Reading alumnus, by the way.) If past success in any indication, then smart money rides on Nguyen's debut novel soon heading to our Hall of Fame, where it'll join the past six Pulitzer winners: All the Light We Cannot See (2015), The Goldfinch (2014), The Orphan Master’s Son (2013), A Visit from the Goon Squad (2011), Tinkers (2010), and Olive Kitteridge (2009). You can read an excerpt of The Sympathizer at our sister site, Bloom. Speaking of the Hall of Fame, we graduate two novels this month -- Adam Johnson's Fortune Smiles and Marlon James's A Brief History of Seven Killings -- each of which took different paths en route to the honor. Johnson's novel enjoyed a comfortable position on the rankings pretty much out of the gate, when it debuted in the seventh spot last December. It subsequently climbed to fourth position the next month, then second, and ultimately it held the top position in March, April, and May. James's work, on the other hand, never climbed higher than the seventh spot, and most months it hovered around the ninth or tenth position. Nevertheless, it's staying power that matters around these parts, and now both works are headed to the Hall of Fame together. I, for one, am heartened! Filling the two open spots on this month's list are recent novels by Cynthia D'Aprix Sweeney and Annie Proulx, both of which were featured in our Great 2016 Book Preview last January. (Bonus: Did you hear we published the Great Second-Half Preview this week?) Sweeney's novel, The Nest, was teased by Rumaan Alam in his 2015 Year in Reading entry, and has been described since its March release as "delightful," "hilarious," "lively," and more. It focuses on four adult siblings waiting to cash in on their shared inheritance. Meanwhile Proulx's Barkskins was a lynchpin piece on our own Claire Cameron's "Summer Reading List for Wretched Assholes Who Prefer to Wallow in Someone Else’s Misery." It focuses on greed, wilderness, and the desolation of our forests. Truly, Millions readers are all over the map! This month's near misses included: Innocents and Others, The Queen of the Night, Signs Preceding the End of the World, Why We Came to the City, and Everybody's Fool. See Also: Last month's list.
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. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. 1. Fortune Smiles 6 months 2. 2. The Sympathizer 2 months 3. 10. Mr. Splitfoot 2 months 4. 7. Girl Through Glass 3 months 5. 5. The Past 4 months 6. 3. What Belongs to You 5 months 7. 4. My Name is Lucy Barton 5 months 8. - Zero K 1 month 9. 8. The Lost Time Accidents 3 months 10. 9. A Brief History of Seven Killings 6 months People love The Millions for a variety of reasons, but most of all I love The Millions because the site's readers do things like buy tons of copies of The Big Green Tent, Ludmila Ulitskaya's doorstop of a book about Soviet dissidents, which features almost as many characters as it does pages. Well, maybe y'all don't buy literal tons of copies, but certainly a substantial amount of copies - enough over a six-month span that the book has now graduated to our hallowed Hall of Fame. And that's an impressively bookish feat, so have a round of applause! Filling that open spot is Don DeLillo, whose Zero K describes not the Atlanta Braves pitching staff, as one might reasonably expect, but instead focuses on what Mark O'Connell called "the desire to achieve physical immortality through technology." (Read more in O'Connell's interview with DeLillo, which gets into the author's iPad usage, and how long it took him to write his latest novel.) It's a concern that, in a certain sense, can be tracked through much of DeLillo's past work, as our own Nick Ripatrazone recently made clear in his nice piece on the author's oeuvre: "Zero K is an extension of DeLillo’s developing themes, but it places a darker color upon them." Elsewhere on our list, some shakers and movers but overall things held steady. Clinging to the last spot this month is Marlon James, whose Brief History of Seven Killings remains one of the most memorable things I read in 2015, and who really, truly belongs in our Hall of Fame. What I mean to say is: y'all should buy a few more copies of his book to ensure its graduation in next month's write-up - not only because we've come this close and it's the right thing to do, but also because it's a fantastic book and one that you'll return to months and years after finishing. For instance, consider this passage on the cultural variety of male loathsomeness, which I think about whenever I start feeling mean at the corner bar: All of them came through Mantana’s. White men, that is. If the man is French he thinks that he gets away with saying cunt but saying you cohnnnt, because we bush bitches will never catch his drift. As soon as he sees you he will throw the keys at your feet saying you, park my car maintenant! Dépêche-toi! I take the keys and say yes massa, then go around to the women’s bathroom and flush it down the shittiest toilet. If he’s British, and under thirty, then his teeth are still hanging on and he’ll be charming enough to get you upstairs but too drunk to do anything. He won’t care and you won’t either, unless he vomits on you and leaves a few pounds on the dresser because that was such dreadful, dreadful business. If he’s British and over thirty, you spend the whole time watching the stereotypes pile up, from the letttttt meeeee ssssspeeeeeakkk toooo youuuuu slowwwwlyyyyy, dahhhhhhhhling beccauuuuuse youuuuuuu’re jussssst a liiiiiiiitle blaaaaack, speed of their speech to the horrible teeth, coming from that cup of cocoa right before bed. If he’s German he will be thin and he will know how to fuck, well in a car piston kind of way, but he will stop early because nobody can make German sound sexy. If he’s Italian, he’ll know how to fuck too, but he probably didn’t bathe before, thinks there’s such a thing as an affectionate face slap and will leave money even though you told him that you’re not a prostitute. If he’s Australian, he’ll just lie back and let you do all the work because even us blokes in Sydney heard about you Jamaican girls. If he’s Irish, he’ll make you laugh and he’ll make the dirtiest things sound sexy. But the longer you stay the longer he drinks, and the longer he drinks, well for each of those seven days you get seven different kinds of monster. And this isn't even in the top ten of passages from that book, either. So, for real, if you're thinking about reading it, hop to it already. Take it from a monster. This month's near misses included: Innocents and Others, The Nest, Signs Preceding the End of the World, When We Came to the City, and The Queen of the Night. See Also: Last month's list.
We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for April. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. 1. Fortune Smiles 5 months 2. - The Sympathizer 1 month 3. 4. What Belongs to You 4 months 4. 5. My Name is Lucy Barton 4 months 5. 6. The Past 3 months 6. 3. The Big Green Tent 6 months 7. 8. Girl Through Glass 2 months 8. 10. The Lost Time Accidents 2 months 9. 7. A Brief History of Seven Killings 5 months 10. - Mr. Splitfoot 1 month If you're reading this, you survived to bear witness as Donald Trump became the Grand Old Party's official presidential candidate. (Thanks a lot, William Faulkner!) And if the unpredictable, foreboding days spread out ahead promise nothing if not apocalyptic visions - glimpses of failures personal and societal, as well as cosmic - then take solace in this one thing: the Millions Top Ten abides as ever - safe, regular, and fun. For here on our list, we celebrate the buying habits of our readers, and we can illuminate the works that bring them joy, inspire them, or whisk their emotions. Surely in these trying times, that's better to read than, say, any newspaper. Right? And so let's begin with the good news. We graduated two - count 'em! - books to our hallowed Hall of Fame this month. First, David Mitchell launched his fourth - count it! - book to immortality, as his latest novel, Slade House, joined three of his others: Cloud Atlas, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, and The Bone Clocks. (Connections abound with that last one, noted Alex Miller, Jr. in his review for our site.) Next, our own Garth Risk Hallberg sent his debut novel, City on Fire, to the Hall as well. Although this is the first time Garth has reached the Hall of Fame as the author of a work of fiction, he did previously reach it as the editor of one of our Millions Originals - Konstantin Kakaes's The Pioneer Detectives. Filling those two opened spots are Samantha Hunt's Mr. Splitfoot and Viet Thanh Nguyen's The Sympathizer. Hunt's work is an "elegantly structured novel," observed our own Kaulie Lewis in the Great 2016 Book Preview, and it "promises to be the year’s most unusual ghost story." Don't miss her interview for our site with Adam Vitcavage. Meanwhile Nguyen's work is "rich, surprising, and often darkly funny," according to Claire Messud in her most recent Year in Reading entry. (Bonus: Thanh Nguyen contributed his own entry in that same year's Year in Reading series.) You can read an excerpt from The Sympathizer from our friends at Bloom. Elsewhere on the list, A Brief History of Seven Killings dropped from seventh position to ninth. Ordinarily I wouldn't remark about a book moving down our list, but this is a special case because it only needs one more month to reach our Hall of Fame, and frankly I nagged y'all too damn hard for it to drop out when it's this close. Do your part and buy seven copies immediately, please. Now, wasn't that better than reading the political tipsheets? This month's near misses included: The Queen of the Night, The Sellout, The Nest, When We Came to the City, and The Turner House. See Also: Last month's list.
We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for March. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. 2. Fortune Smiles 4 months 2. 3. Slade House 6 months 3. 4. The Big Green Tent 5 months 4. 5. What Belongs to You 3 months 5. 6. My Name is Lucy Barton 3 months 6. 10. The Past 2 months 7. 9. A Brief History of Seven Killings 4 months 8. - Girl Through Glass 1 month 9. 8. City on Fire 6 months 10. - The Lost Time Accidents 1 month Ascend, ascend Lauren Groff and Margaret Atwood! Set forth and lay claim to your spots within our Millions Hall of Fame. For one of these authors, it's their second time making the list. For the other, it's their debut. Can you guess which is which? The answer may surprise you. And with the ascension of Fates and Futures and The Heart Goes Last, we welcome two newcomers to our monthly Top Ten: Girl Through Glass by Sari Wilson and The Lost Time Accidents by John Wray. In his write-up for our Most Anticipated Book Preview three months ago, Matt Seidel described how Wilson's novel "alternates between late-1970s New York, where its heroine works her way into George Balanchine’s School of American Ballet, and the present day, where she is a dance professor having an affair with a student." It's a novel ripe with dramatic tension, and one more than a little fixated on body type, as Martha Anne Toll noted in her recent exploration of women -- lost, thin, and small -- in fiction. Joining Wilson on the list this month is John Wray, whose newest novel, The Lost Time Accidents, covers a great many topics, such as physics, the Czech Republic, watch factories, Nazi war criminals, the Church of Scientology (but not really), and science fiction, among others. In her write-up for the Book Preview, Anne K. Yoder called it a "mash-up of sci-fi, time-travel, and family epic [that's] both madcap and ambitious." The novel was also covered by Michael Schaub in a recent edition of The Book Report -- come for the overview, but stay for Bong Crosby! Stay tuned for next month's list, in which two more newcomers are poised to join our ranks. This month's near misses included: The Queen of the Night, Mr. Splitfoot, The Turner House, Eternity Street: Violence and Justice in Frontier Los Angeles, and The Sellout. See Also: Last month's list.
There’s a moment in Shawna Yang Ryan’s soaring new novel, Green Island, where the narrator is about to break away from the life she’s always known; she will shortly be leaving Taiwan behind -- emigrating across the Pacific Ocean to California. Her father comes into her bedroom as she’s packing. He has a gift, of sorts, for her. He’s brought a jar of soil from the family garden. “I want you to remember.” He set the jar atop my heaped clothing. “Don’t forget.” Don’t forget. His words were both an order and a plea. It is February 1972. Richard Nixon is on his trip to China. Visiting Hangzhou, he’s completing the diplomatic mission that will open formal relations with the PRC. Taiwan, of course, watches with concern; China is a hostile power; with the recognition of the People’s Republic by the United States, Taiwan’s sovereignty might soon be at risk. These, then, are the twin concerns of Green Island: the political and the personal. Indeed, just a few pages earlier, Nixon’s visit has been relayed by the novel’s narrative voice: Nixon stands against a metal rail and tosses food into the water with concentration and joy. He drops into a grinning reverie as if he has forgotten the entire world is watching. “Dr. Kissinger,” the translator says, “you can have a package if you want to feed the fish.” “Denmark, Denmark,” says the Secret Service. “President feeding fish.” They stand here at this moment, three of them the most important people to the fate of Taiwan -- Richard Nixon, Chou En-lai, and Henry Kissinger -- on an overcast day in Hangchow, feeding fish. Walter Benjamin wrote that it is, “more arduous to honor the memory of the nameless than that of the renowned.” And there are a number of novels, right now, that are balancing these antipodes -- that take significant, well-known historical moments, and show them through the lens of nearly powerless, "nameless" protagonists. Through individuals buffeted by the afflictions of their age. Of course, Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See -- with over two million copies sold, in hardback -- is an example of this. Doerr’s novel follows two deeply-menaced protagonists -- Marie-Laure LeBlanc and Werner Pfennig -- as they move within the world of German-occupied France. Though Werner has enlisted in the Nazi army, he has done it from necessity, and his efforts to retain his decency in the face of war, in a way, end up causing his death. Marie-Laure is blind; the conflict threatens her in a bodily way; she feels wholly apart from the big geopolitical forces that are -- with generalized malice -- trying to kill her. She is a suffering witness to history. Many of the successful literary novels of the past 30 years have negotiated a similar territory, pairing small characters and big circumstances. Girl with a Pearl Earring (Griet, the fictional household servant, and Johannes Vermeer), Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children (fictional Saleem Sinai, balanced against the political and social figures of the 1947 Partition of India and Pakistan), Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain (W.P. Inman, the wounded Confederate deserter, and the army he’s just left), Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace (the fictional doctor Simon Jordan, and the 19th-century murderer Grace Marks) even Toni Morrison’s Beloved (Sethe and the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850), have all paired erstwhile anonymous, imaginary characters with unquestionably "real" circumstances. These books do not ignore history; they don’t neglect the geopolitical events that shape the societies in which their characters have "lived." Rather they thread their characters through these times, using the novel as an opportunity to show the impact of world-historical events on individual lives. In “An Essay Concerning Human Understanding,” John Locke says that, “the pictures drawn in our mind are laid in fading colors.” The project of the historical novel, then, is fashioned as an assault on this very fade. We, as human beings, struggle to remember, to retain a sense of the past. It has -- surprise! surprise! -- passed. But by inserting ordinary people into its great events, novelists can once again vivify and free the emotions of departed times. In a way, this is a gesture of resurrection. The text as Lazarus, stumbling -- bandaged by covers -- out of its dark cave. If the struggle of man against power is, indeed, the struggle of memory against forgetting, then the historical novel is -- imaginatively, at least -- a part of that struggle. As for the marketplace -- its appetite for this type of book is not surprising. Since the early 1990s, when publishers started calling it “upmarket historical fiction,” many successful literary novels have been set in a time -- or place -- other than our contemporary world. But the willingness of literary tastemakers to accept a work of historical fiction as "important" does feel like something new. Whether it’s Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers, Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries, Marlon James’s A Brief History of Seven Killings -- or two of the most anticipated novels of 2016: Alison Anderson’s The Summer Guest and Mark Beauregard’s The Whale: A Love Story -- it feels like there is a vast new space opening up in the fiction world, one that has the potential for both critical acclaim and strong sales. Writing last month in The New Republic, the novelist Alexander Chee touched on some of these issues. Chee, of course, has just published the historical novel, The Queen of the Night -- a book that has, as its central axis, a fictional 19th-century coloratura soprano, Lillet Berne. The book has been well-received, with positive reviews in nearly every major periodical, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, NPR’s Weekend Edition, Time, Vogue, The Atlantic, The Boston Globe, The San Francisco Chronicle. It also went through multiple printings before its publication. Still, Chee was worried about the reaction his fellow writers had whenever he told them he was working on a novel set in the past. Writing last month in The New Republic, Chee said that it was, “as if I’d announced that I was giving up years of hard work writing literary fiction to sell out and become a hack. I had inadvertently hit on a literary taboo.” Yet both Alexander Chee and Shawna Yang Ryan took nearly 15 years to complete their novels. Labor on this scale is almost unthinkable. It is perhaps the exact antithesis of the genre model of fiction writing -- with the rapacious, regular demands of the marketplace. The bruising deadlines, the concept-driven, pre-packaged product. Clearly, these two historical novels -- with their robust intellectual projects, their deeply imagined settings -- are of a different order. The hours-per-page, per-sentence, per-word -- for both The Queen of the Night and Green Island -- would discourage any beginning novelist. In an interview with Slate, Chee said, “The longer the novel was unfinished, the more it endangered my ability to keep teaching, which was a large part of my income. It endangered my ability to get further grants. It endangered my relationship, because I had been working on the novel so obsessively for so long that my partner felt widowed by the project.” Ryan’s experience was similar. “It kind of took over my life for the last decade and a half,” she said. Building her book’s foundation was an arduous process. In a conversation with The New York Times, she described the work of structuring the novel. Her dedication to craft -- and her ceaseless evaluation and reevaluation of the project’s success -- was built on a twinning of imagination and historical exploration. “I often thought of my research as similar to unraveling a sweater,” she said. “I’d tug at one thread, and a whole sleeve would come undone.”
We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for February. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. 1. Fates and Furies 6 months 2. 4. Fortune Smiles 3 months 3. 3. Slade House 5 months 4. 5. The Big Green Tent 4 months 5. 8. What Belongs to You 2 months 6. 9. My Name is Lucy Barton 2 months 7. 6. The Heart Goes Last 6 months 8. 7. City on Fire 5 months 9. 10. A Brief History of Seven Killings 3 months 10. - The Past 1 month For the first time in five years, but also the third time in six, Jonathan Franzen sent one of his books to our site's Hall of Fame. And with the ascension of Purity, that makes Franzen three-for-three on his most recent novels reaching such hallowed ground. (Sorry, Kraus Project, but it looks like the streak is limited to fiction; and sorry as well, Strong Motion, but it looks like you arrived before the Franz-y* picked up full force; you'll have to content yourself with Brain Ted Jones's Millions essay instead of a HoF berth.) Filling Purity's spot this month is The Past by Tessa Hadley, which was featured in both our Second-Half 2015 and also our Great 2016 Book Previews. The novel concerns siblings who reunite to sell their grandparents’ old house, but it really shouldn't be summed up by its plot. The author would protest. After all, in an interview for our site last year, Hadley remarked upon the dangers that come from focusing too narrowly on plot and sequential order, and how she controls that impulse when she writes: Things in life don’t, on the whole, add up or get resolved in that deliciously satisfactory, finalizing way that novels are so good at. Nineteenth-century novelists resolved their plotty novels so magnificently because they shared convictions about meaning and fulfillment that we surely mislaid somewhere in the 20th century. But I do believe that “leaping over the gaps” doesn’t mean you can’t hold a story together. Rather, we’ve grown suspicious of stories that resolve too satisfactorily. The danger is that if you fill in all the gaps you lose the essence of the story, you write something stodgy and merely consecutive, instead of keeping your hand on the live wire of the life, which jumps from place to place. Elsewhere on this month's list we see Marlon James's A Brief History... move up on spot, which is good because that means you're listening to my repeated pleas for you to buy that book. It also appears that next month our list will welcome two new additions, as both Fates and Furies and The Heart Goes Last seem destined for the Hall of Fame. *No, I don't want to apologize for that. It was good. This month's near misses included: The Queen of the Night, The Lost Time Accidents, Eternity Street: Violence and Justice in Frontier Los Angeles, Girl Through Glass, and The Turner House. See Also: Last month's list.
1. Of the many high-drama events that occur throughout Alexander Chee’s second novel Queen of the Night, my favorites are identity theft via cancan shoes, murder by fire-breathing, a hot-air balloon escape, and a scandalous curtsy. Queen is a Big Book in every way: within its 550 pages, a lot happens, and it’s “about” a lot of things. Big Books are back, it seems, though I confess I’ve started and chosen not to finish several over the past few years. On the other hand, once I started reading Queen, I could not put it down. Paris, 1882. A decade into the Third Republic. Our heroine, the celebrated “Falcon” soprano Lilliet Berne -- née a Minnesota farm girl whose real name we never learn -- makes her entrance at a ball in Luxembourg Palace. Lilliet is also our narrator, and within the first pages she tells us she has had a “premonition” about this return to Paris after an extensive European tour: “I would be here for a meeting with my destiny.” Enter the writer Frédéric Simonet, who corners Lilliet and conveys a proposition: he has written a novel, the novel will be staged as an opera, and she must play the starring role. Unbeknownst to Simonet, the story he describes -- of a circus performer, later a courtesan, who sings for the Emperor and so moves him that he bestows upon her a ruby brooch -- is Lilliet’s own. She is duly spooked: how does this man know these details of her secret past? Who has prompted him to approach her with the role? What sort of trap is this? “In an opera this moment would the signal the story had begun, that the heroine’s past had come for her, intent on a review of her sins decreed by the gods.” And so launches our heroine’s recounting -- infused with this decidedly operatic sense of fateful retribution -- of her farm girl-to-diva tale. Interspersed with a flashback narrative, which takes place between 1867 and 1872 and features the Franco-Prussian war of 1870 as its central historical crisis, are present-time (a decade later) scenes in which Lilliet confronts characters from that past; for if someone is in cahoots with Simonet, perhaps with malicious intent, she must find out who, and why. 2. Writers and readers alike will recognize this narrative structure as both familiar and sound: the past and the present move forward simultaneously, criss-crossing at strategic moments, generating suspense upon suspense. Lilliet herself literally, anxiously, turns the pages of Simonet’s novel as she investigates its ulterior intentions, while the reader becomes absorbed in Lilliet’s tale -- her unlikely and at times outlandish journey from orphan to opera star, which she recounts in a voice somehow both taut and melodramatic at once: “I slunk from the bed and stood again in the cold. As I dressed myself in that dim kitchen light, I felt the opposite of ruined. I felt strong again, ready to cross the ocean again. “I was sore, that was all. And so this felt like a triumph over death, as if I had been dealt a murderous blow and lived.” The “murderous blow” -- her first sexual experience -- occurs shortly after her entire family dies from fever. She is alone and hungry; she takes up with a widower who shelters her. The transaction of sex becomes then inevitable, as does the pattern of Lilliet’s life henceforth -- bargaining for survival, over and again. Herein perhaps is a key to Chee’s success in crafting a captivating protagonist: our heroine is a celebrity in the Paris opera world, yes, but she never forgets her hardscrabble Methodist roots. Her love of opera -- its outsized gestures, symbols, and emotions -- is real, while at the same time she has no delusions about life’s essential requirements. When later in the novel, during the Siege of Paris, Lilliet must survive weeks of hunger, we have no trouble believing that she could in fact do so -- no matter what gowns and jewels she now dons. And we love this sort of protagonist, don’t we? In Lilliet, Chee has done that thing that all historical novelists must do well: draw the modern reader into a past world via the glamor of that past (we enjoy detours into evenings at the opera and Rules of the Game type gatherings, as well as cameos from Ivan Turgenev, George Sand, Cora Pearl, Giuseppe Verdi, and others) but also with contemporary ideas and conflicts. Her twisty-turny journey takes Lilliet from farm girl to orphan to circus performer to courtesan, back to orphan, then to servant, again to courtesan, finally to opera singer (there’s more, but no spoilers here); and as she drifts from the street to the conservatory to the ballroom and back again, we are aware that our heroine has a complicated and heterogeneous identity, with all the attending, familiar dilemmas. Lilliet is ultimately a distinctly modern American heroine: the child of parents who “came to settle America for God,” Lilliet must, and can, continually reinvent herself. In this vein, the episode with the widower sets another pattern: it is from a dead child’s gravestone near the widower’s farm that our heroine takes her name, Lilliet Berne. In a later scene where Lilliet steals yet another identity -- from a girl with whom she shares a jail cell and who dies in her sleep -- we see Lilliet switching clothing (parting with the aforementioned cancan shoes) and calculating her opportunity: “[S]he couldn’t use her future, and I could.” At this point one can’t help but think of another historically-conceived protagonist of recent years who hit a contemporary nerve: Don Draper. Like Don, Lilliet is a consummate opportunist and chameleon; unlike Don, of course, she is female in a world where what she desires most -- independence, love on her own terms -- is impossible. 3. There is a curious way in which Queen of the Night wears its feminism -- by which I mean portrays and expresses the timeless female struggle to be free -- so heavily that it ultimately wears it lightly. The book does not read so much as an “argument” for female power or independence, nor as an activist cry in the face of female oppression; rather, Chee expresses himself authorially in such a way that you are just enough aware of him -- an enlightened, empathic, culturally heterogeneous male in the 21st century crafting this tale -- to simply take for granted, even enjoy, the dramatic ways in which this female protagonist’s struggle for self-determination plays out. Voice is an obvious central trope here: Lilliet is deemed a “Falcon” because her voice is as fragile as it is strong (the soprano Cornélie Falcon lost her voice at age 23); thus, the female voice as both power and liability. As she navigates her successive identities, Lilliet learns that feigning muteness is a useful disguise. In this way Lilliet, and Chee, reclaim traditional female voicelessness in service of self-preservation. Jewels and dresses figure prominently throughout the plot: jewelry is gifted and worn in acts of love, dominance, charity, regret, rebellion, and terror, and a woman’s choice of gown has the power to determine not only individual but national fates. None of this strikes the reader as particularly farfetched: While Chee may have been having fun with the characters of Louis-Napoleon and the Empress Eugénie, it seems perfectly plausible, and pleasingly so, that it was indeed a rivalry between Eugénie and Louis-Napoléon’s mistress the Comtesse to Castiglione (which involved both jewels and dresses) that catalyzed the Franco-Prussian War. This is just one example among many where Chee fulfills with gusto yet another crucial, if hackneyed, obligation of the historical novelist -- to make history “come alive” through human personality. In this sense Queen joins ranks with the best historical novels and made me think, not infrequently as I read, of one of my all-time favorites -- E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime. Lilliet’s dividedness when it comes to romantic prospects is perhaps the most explicitly feminista thread of her story, the one that seems to want to “say” something to our current culture. One man seeks to possess Lilliet, another she falls for “at first sight” -- at first listen, actually, as he is a pianist who plays a mesmerizing Frédéric Chopin. While the choice between them seems conventionally obvious throughout most of the story, there is an unsettling moment when she considers romantic love and abusive obsession not so far apart: perhaps the man who essentially imprisoned and raped her, and the man who manipulated her to manage his own fears, are not so different in the end. In trying to more fully inhabit her role as Carmen, Lilliet concludes: “She loves neither the toreador nor the killer,it came to me as I went on the stage. More than these men, she loves her freedom.” In other words: Up with single women; down, once and for all, with the derisive notion of a spinster. For the most part, though, the strain of feminist messaging does not bog the novel down. This is a particularly subjective assessment, I recognize: it did matter to me as I read that the author is male. This character did not seem like someone Chee had to force into a psychology of freedom-seeking: she is a woman the author seems to know better than any, and one the reader thus recognizes instantly. Her desires, conundrums, strategies, and strength are all, at this moment in time -- the reader’s historical moment -- wonderfully and completely familiar, and written into this story as The New Normal. It’s exhilarating to follow Lilliet, over the course of 550 high-drama pages, as she simply does what needs to be done -- as any woman with talent and intelligence would. 4. Speaking of subjective, this wouldn’t be a piece written by me if I didn’t acknowledge my initial interest in Queen of the Night based on its long-blooming history. Chee’s first novel, the award-winning Edinburgh, was published nearly 15 years ago, in 2001. By lit-world norms, and for someone as visible and active in the literary community as Chee -- he teaches, has written for The Rumpus and The Morning News among other publications, won a Whiting Award and an NEA grant, was named one of Out's 100 Most Influential People, hüber-active on social media, and is an editor of LitHub -- 15 years is quite a long time. There was also a first novel preceding Edinburgh -- a “Great American Novel” type as he puts it -- that he was unable to publish. Queen of the Night is itself the protagonist of a twisty-turny narrative -- much of which Chee describes in his recent interview with our own Claire Cameron. The novel began with inspiration from a real historical figure, Jenny Lind, aka the Swedish Nightingale, and a fruitfully mistaken notion on Chee’s part that she had sung with a circus. When I asked Chee if the novel had always been conceived in the first person, and/or if he had hesitated to take on a female voice, he wrote: There were seasons of hesitation and apprehension. I put the novel down for three years before I finally sold it because I was both drawn to and afraid of the idea, sure that I knew that woman on the train very well and then later sure that the vision had tricked me into making a terrible mistake that I just couldn’t see. When he did sell the novel, it was sold based on 115 early pages and a synopsis, with a manuscript due date of 2006. In 2008, the novel still very much in progress, Chee’s editor at Houghton Mifflin was laid off; thus began Queen’s fittingly itinerant quest, including a total of four different editors to date. Cameron’s interview focuses on Chee’s coping with the low points and dismay of Queen’s odyssey. As a fellow novelist who struggled mightily with novel #2, I felt the following like a punch in the gut: The longer the novel wasn’t published, the more it seemed to endanger everything in my life -- my ability to get teaching work, to successfully apply for grants, my relationship, future projects. Each small delay, each mistake, each wrong turn in the writing became enormous as a result and it was unendurable in the last two years. But Chee endured; and so, I believe, will the critical acclaim that has and will be showered on Queen of the Night. The novel thus has a personal resonance for me as a testament to persistence, and to the pursuit of a driving, ambitious artistic vision that just won’t cooperate with conventions of time and career progress. 5. A Big Book asks a lot of the reader, who is also a busy person eager to get on to other books and her own projects. When a Big Book doesn’t satisfy, the reader feels especially betrayed: in the contract between reader and writer, the stakes are higher. Some might feel that the bigger the book, the more forgiving we are as readers: surely among so many pages, there will be bagginess and flaws and plot points that ring false. The truth is I did put Queen down -- for a couple of days at the point where the past and present-time threads converged. This occurs approximately three-fourths of the way through and felt like the moment to take a breath. Lilliet readies herself for the dramatic finale, and so do we. When I picked it back up, I found that the final 130 pages read differently: with so many plot points finding their resolutions, mysteries solved and threads reaching back toward details that both Lilliet and the reader brushed over, I became confused and frequently flipped back and forth to earlier scenes. I also found myself less engaged by extended descriptions of operatic plots. Faust, Un Ballo in Maschera, Il Trovatore, Lucia di Lamermoor, La Sonnambula, Carmen, Orphée aux enfers, The Magic Flute, among others, all figure significantly into Lilliet’s story. The novel is true to Lilliet’s initial premonition, that her life is an opera and vice versa, so the material is utterly relevant. Still, if you are like me -- a listener and a fan, but not a buff -- those sections may feel more opaque than others. Chee is at his best, I think, when he is doing opera, via Lilliet’s life, as opposed to describing it. I am not one to be more forgiving of a Big Book when it comes to the interruption of John Gardner’s notorious vivid continuous dream; but what is notable about these so-called “flaws” is that they are also part and parcel of what makes Queen worth reading. It’s a challenging novel in addition to a page-turning one. You feel, as you read, that you are being swept away by this delicious plot and voice, and that the novel wants to be read slowly -- is actually smarter and deeper and more intricately constructed than can be appreciated at its decidedly propulsive pace. Great books satisfy in that particular way, leaving you sated and spent, but at the same time craving to do it all over again. Queen is a book that I look forward to rereading, savoring, studying for my own novelistic purposes. And when I do, it would not surprise me if those flaws were revealed as my own.
New this week: The High Mountains of Portugal by Yann Martel; The Book of Memory by Petina Gappah; Youngblood by Matthew Gallagher; Black Deutschland by Darryl Pinckney; The Collected Novellas of Stefan Zweig; A Decent Ride by Irvine Welsh; Don't Lose Track by Jordannah Elizabeth; and The Queen of the Night by Alexander Chee (who we interviewed this week). For more on these and other new titles, go read our Great 2016 Book Preview.
Alexander Chee’s debut novel, Edinburgh, was called, “spectacular, gripping, and gut-wrenching,” by critics and widely lauded for his careful handling of the tough subject of sexual abuse. As The New Yorker put it, “by balancing its anguish with fantasy and Korean folk tales, he keeps a sad story from becoming maudlin.” I’ve been feeling the buzz about Chee’s second novel, The Queen of the Night (Feb 2) since the summer. It tells the story of Lilliet Berne, a legendary soprano who is offered the last big accolade she has yet to gain in her singing career, a libretto written just for her. When she realizes that the libretto is based on her life, she knows that someone is trying to reveal the secrets of her past, but who? An early review says that the novel, “feels in many ways like Thackeray’s Vanity Fair.” The Queen of the Night is Chee’s first novel hardcover release since Edinburgh in 2001 and its reissue in 2003. While he has hardly been idle, I wondered how that felt. As novelists often talk of the pressure to publish, were the intervening 13 to 15 years productive or full of angst? What I found was a story filled with all the twists and turns of the greatest writing careers, a publisher bankruptcy, bouts of teaching yoga, the consequences of missing a deadline by 10 years, the advance money running out, an Amtrak residency, surviving through four changes of editor, and whether it's all worth it in the end. I interviewed Chee by email. The Millions: Since Edinburgh was published, you have done a few things, like been named one of Out Magazine's 100 Most Influential People, been published in Granta, Tin House, and Guernica, written for The New York Times, won fellowships, awards, and taught for Wesleyan, University of Leipzig, and Princeton, to name just a few. But, you have not published a second novel. Why did you keep us waiting? Alexander Chee: Well, when you say it like that, it does seem like a lot. But I feel much as I did the last time, with Edinburgh -- I remember telling a friend it felt like digging a tunnel to freedom and arriving at a party. I had worked several jobs in order to write the first novel -- teaching writing, writing freelance, waiting tables, cater-waitering, working as a yoga instructor. I had hoped to earn a break from that, but instead, during the entire paperback re-launch of Edinburgh by Picador, I had to deal with how my hardcover publisher, an indie publisher who sold the paperback rights to Picador, went bankrupt owing me the equivalent of a year's salary at the time. And so as I went on tour, I felt celebrated and also robbed simultaneously. I switched agents then, and my agent was able to get me half of the remaining paperback money owed to me. But I've never recouped that loss. And while this may seem small, perhaps -- what is a year among 13? -- well, it was the first one, it set the tone. It said, you could work all this time and at the end have everything taken from you. There’s something else, an essay I’ve tried to write for a while, in my next, next book -- a book of essays I’m collecting now -- about a recovered memory I had in that first year the novel was out. I remember a guy at book club asking me why I hadn’t written a memoir. I said, "I don’t remember all of it." This was how I learned to articulate something about fiction writing: that you write to describe something you learn from your life but that is not described by describing your life. So I wrote Edinburgh. I wrote to fit the shape of what I knew to be true, but what I found was, I hadn’t dealt with what it described. And then once the book was out, the missing pieces came back. It was as if I’d cornered myself to force the truth out of me. For example, the night before Edinburgh's official pub day, I understood I hadn’t ever told my mother I’d been through something like what the novel describes. And the novel just couldn’t be the way she found out. So I called her and told her. TM: Was the time in between your two novels a frustrating period, or was it fruitful? AC: Both. Fruitful work periods are full of frustration, I think. Marilynne Robinson once observed to me something like, “Great works of art are never created out of self esteem.” I think that may be true. There was a brief moment when I remember feeling so excited about showing the world what I could do with a novel now that I’d published Edinburgh. But, in addition to the aforementioned psychic crisis, I was also just burnt out. And so as much as part of me was so excited by the idea of writing more novels, that soon became, “You want me to do all this again?” What happened next is, I won two prizes that fall -- the Whiting Writers' Award and the National Endowment for the Arts fellowship -- prizes that on their own would have meant for an amazing year. At the level of magical thinking, it felt like the universe making up some for what bankruptcy court had taken away from me. And as I had won the N.E.A. for an excerpt of The Queen of the Night, the prize seemed like a finger pointing at me and saying, “Go and do this.” So, I did...sort of. It was like wandering blind into a storm. I moved to Los Angeles, where I really just sort of rested for a few months, read things, and went to parties and libraries and tried to put my head together again. When I ran out of money, I moved to my Mom’s in Maine, Charles D'Ambrosio-style, writing in her basement every morning starting at 5 a.m., taking a break for Buffy the Vampire Slayer reruns at 11 a.m. and making an early lunch before working more. It was like the weirdest saddest colony stay, about three months. And then I showed my agent what I had and she sold The Queen of the Night as a partial in 9 days. This shocked me. It had taken two years to find a publisher for Edinburgh. I moved out, spent the summer researching in Paris, spent a year in Rochester as a disgruntled faculty spouse to a man I was trying to love, and when that fell apart, got a job at Amherst College, where I had the honor of being their Visiting Writer for four years. I wrote much of the novel there. When that ended, I moved to New York again, where it seemed as if all that had troubled me about the city before had bleached away in the weather. But the writing schools in New York all pay terribly -- they can have anyone they want for adjunct money -- we should all go on strike actually and force them to give raises. Anyway, you have to constantly leave town to make enough money to live. Thus my stints at Iowa, Leipzig, and Austin. These were productive, but the moves slow the writing down. I wrote many other things besides the novel to make a living -- nonfiction is one of my day jobs. I did a lot of research, maybe too much. I was haunted by that review you get from a historian who claims your novel is stupid because of one minor historical mistake. TM: Did you hit a low while writing The Queen of the Night? AC: The hardest part came when I decided to pull the novel in 2013, and revise it around new research I'd found regarding the relationship between the singer Pauline Viardot-Garcia and Ivan Turgenev -- both characters in the novel. In particular, it was information on how she was composing operas as her voice faded, and he was writing the libretti -- he loved her, believed in her talent, and was urging her to do this. I knew if I didn't find a way to include this, I was in danger of returning to the material to write an entire novel just about the two of them. That piece then, and The Last Sorcerer, perhaps the most successful of their opera collaborations, is now a part of the novel that I may love the most. TM: Did you experience any pressure from your agent or publisher? AC: Yes. And they were well within their rights. My original contract was for a book due in 2006. Everyone involved has been remarkably patient and supportive, though there was a period when my agent would punch me in the arm whenever I saw her out. Other writers in this situation have been cancelled, so I would never complain about the pressure. While it often made me feel guilty, I tried to understand it as a way of being loved. TM: Did you feel commercial pressure, or worry about your own livelihood? AC: This is a constant under capitalism though, right? But nothing in the book is there to make it more commercial or I would have used quotation marks around the dialogue. Other people may be able to write cynically, but when I do I want to die. Which was never the point of writing. The biggest pressure was when I had run out of the money. I was paid for this book, everything else was essentially unpaid work during which time I also had to work to pay bills. And the longer the novel wasn't published, the more it seemed to endanger everything in my life -- my ability to get teaching work, to successfully apply for grants, my relationship, future projects. Each small delay, each mistake, each wrong turn in the writing became enormous as a result and it was unendurable in the last two years. The novel also ruined every family holiday vacation for a decade, too -- typically the down time between semesters when you can get writing done. Right near the end, I had a student write a story about the workshop, in which she was unkind to everyone in the class except herself, who she portrayed as a talented writer and a great beauty. This is something that happens at least once in every writing teacher’s life -- the student who thinks it is brilliant to write about the class and make everyone talk about what she thinks of them. Me? She portrayed me as a failed writer who couldn't sell his new book. All I can say is, I look forward to when this happens to her. TM: Edinburgh came out with Picador, while The Queen of the Night is published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, why did you change publishers? Did it have anything to do with the gap between them? AC: This was pretty ordinary. Picador was nothing but supportive of Edinburgh and kept it in print well after anyone else would have. I can say nothing but good things about them. The publisher at the time declined to bid on The Queen of the Night. I think they knew I was likely to follow my editor at the time, who had left Picador for Houghton. The Queen of the Night took so long to write that I was orphaned three times. My current editor, Naomi Gibbs, is my fourth, the former assistant to the third, promoted now to associate. And she really did much of the trench work on the novel at the end, assisting me with the insertions I made. A painstaking task I will owe her for forever. TM: Were you concerned that you might be "forgotten" as a novelist? AC: Definitely. I would sometimes come across blog posts praising the first novel and saying things like, "It seems like he's stopped writing." That was hard to read. But, I understand. Eventually, I accepted that I was known more for personal essays and social media than for my first novel, especially after my idea for the Amtrak Residency became a real thing thanks to Twitter. But, this all makes the reception of this novel thus far really gratifying. My friend Maud Newton and I were talking about our history with blogs recently, and we agreed to think of them respectively as the sort of minor books that you publish in between the books that matter, an experiment done in a way that eventually helps the sale of the next book -- people read it, treat it like a blog and not a book -- and which allows to sustain a readership without suffering the damage of a tragic sales track record. TM: Facebook didn't exist, let alone Twitter or anything like that when Edinburgh came out. Does it feel like a very different world to publish a novel into? AC: Sure, like different planets. I laughed recently to remember those post cards I was asked to make. How I would leave them at the yoga studio I worked at, and then would feel guilty if they blew onto the floor, guilty again when I had to recycle them for having gotten dirty on the floor, etc. Such a mess. But in addition to the postcards, back in 2001, I also had a website, made for me by a friend who is an early adopter -- which I remember people treated it as a bit of a curiosity. I remember the moment my webmaster said, "You should have a blog, something to keep your readers coming back for,” something I couldn't imagine at first. It wasn’t until I moved to L.A. and everyone there seemed to have a blog that I began blogging as a way to work out of burnout. I never found out why everyone in L.A. was blogging, but I remember people sometimes mocked me for having a blog, saying it was something serious literary writers didn't do. Sarah Manguso and Susan Steinberg, one night at MacDowell, the writers colony, kept chanting at me “delete your blog delete your blog.” But by 2006, hiring committees told me it helped them hire me -- that it showed I was a thinker in a bigger way than the books and submitted essays did -- and by 2008 I found I had a reputation as a literary writer who used the Internet like a blogger, with a blog that had a reputation for literary quality. I began consulting with writers and literary organizations, teaching them how to use Twitter and Facebook, blog strategies for publication that supported their launches and tours. It’s become popular to mock writers’ use of social media again, but everyone is using it. If we disdain it, how will we know what people’s lives are like? Almost no one lives in the way these critics are asking writers to live, offline and shuttered away. Anything you write from that position will be literally blinkered. Social media makes it much easier to get attention as a writer and to be relevant between books -- in my case, a very long time. It has also leveled the playing field for LGBTQ writers and writers of color. Yes, I too hate the weird sort of wedding toast atmosphere that can come over Facebook. But, at least when I write about it in fiction, I won’t be guessing what it is like. TM: What is the biggest difference for you this time around? AC: I don’t know how to describe it yet. Mostly, I’m trying to focus on what’s next. I have my essay collection, plus ideas and pages for a nonfiction book as well as four novels. And a screenplay I’ve adapted with my partner, Dustin Schell. We’ve adapted Barry Werth’s biography of Newton Arvin, The Scarlet Professor, and we have high hopes for it. Dustin has never known me until now without me working on this novel and feeling like I would be killed by writing it. So I’m introducing him to that guy. The one who finished and survived it. TM: There is huge buzz about The Queen of the Night. How did it start? AC: Well, thanks. This answer is just an educated guess but Houghton Mifflin Harcourt has some serious game, I have to say. Their strategy was to begin with galleys early, to give people time to read it, and to make the cover into something physically beautiful -- a galley that was also an object of desire. Anyone who says a cover doesn’t matter isn’t paying attention. Michelle Triant there and Hannah Harlow were the galley masters. But I have to give a lot of credit to Liberty Hardy first of all, and her partner in crime, Rebecca Schinsky over at Book Riot, who were early champions of the novel. Liberty even made a countdown clock. Rachel Fershleiser, of Tumblr, Lisa Lucas, of Guernica, Maris Kreizman over at Kickstarter, Michele Filgate, Stephanie Anderson (aka Bookavore), and Sarah McCarry -- what we call the Bookternet, basically. Women in cool glasses who read crates of books. Plus Jason Diamond and Tobias Carroll, of Vol. 1 Brooklyn and Saeed Jones and Jarry Lee at Buzzfeed. And of course, The Millions. It has to have helped to have the novel on your most anticipated list for several years. I’m just glad it is really finally coming out. And then the writer Maud Newton, who will be in conversation with me at my launch at McNally Jackson on February 2. She has consistently written about me and the novel over the years, even read an early draft -- she’s a great friend and when I thought of who to do this first event with, she was my first choice. I’m really looking forward to talking to her about it. TM: The Queen of the Night comes out on February 2. How do you feel right now? AC: I feel great. For a while I was telling people, "It could never be worth it," in terms of the time and sacrifices. Now it feels like maybe it was. We’ll see.
We think it's safe to say last year was a big year for the book world. In addition to new titles by Harper Lee, Jonathan Franzen, and Lauren Groff, we got novels by Ottessa Moshfegh, Claire Vaye Watkins, and our own Garth Risk Hallberg. At this early stage, it already seems evident this year will keep up the pace. There's a new Elizabeth Strout book, for one, and a new Annie Proulx; new novels by Don DeLillo, Curtis Sittenfeld, Richard Russo and Yann Martel; and much-hyped debut novels by Cynthia D'Aprix Sweeney and Callan Wink. There's also a new book by Alexander Chee, and a new translation of Nobel Prize-winner Herta Müller. The books previewed here are all fiction. Our nonfiction preview is available here. While there's no such thing as a list that has everything, we feel certain this preview -- at 8,600 words and 93 titles -- is the only 2016 book preview you'll need. Scroll down to get started. January: My Name Is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout: The latest novel from the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Olive Kitteridge centers on a mother and daughter’s tumultuous relationship. In a starred review, Kirkus reports: “The eponymous narrator looks back to the mid-1980s, when she goes into the hospital for an appendix removal and succumbs to a mysterious fever that keeps her there for nine weeks. The possible threat to her life brings Lucy’s mother, from whom she has been estranged for years, to her bedside -- but not the father whose World War II–related trauma is largely responsible for clever Lucy’s fleeing her impoverished family for college and life as a writer.” Publishers Weekly says this “masterly” novel’s central message “is that sometimes in order to express love, one has to forgive.” Let's hope HBO makes this one into a mini-series as well. (Edan) The Past by Tessa Hadley: Hadley was described by one critic as “literary fiction’s best kept secret,” and Hilary Mantel has said she is “one of those writers a reader trusts,” which, considering the source, is as resounding an endorsement as one can possibly imagine. The English novelist is the author of five novels and two short story collections; in The Past, her sixth novel, siblings reunite to sell their grandparents’ old house. Most likely unsurprising to anyone who’s reunited with family for this sort of thing, “under the idyllic surface, there are tensions.” (Elizabeth) Good on Paper by Rachel Cantor: Following her time-traveling debut, A Highly Unlikely Scenario, or a Neetsa Pizza Employee’s Guide to Saving the World (which is a member of The Millions Hall of Fame), Cantor’s second novel, Good on Paper, chronicles the story of academic and mother Shira Greene. After Shira abandons her PhD thesis on Dante Alighieri’s Vita Nuova, she takes an unfulfilling temp job. When Nobel Prize-winner Romei contacts her to translate his latest work based on Dante’s text, she couldn’t be more excited. But upon receiving his text, she fears “the work is not only untranslatable but designed to break her.” (Cara) The Happy Marriage by Tahar Ben Jelloun: The latest novel by Morocco's most acclaimed living writer focuses on the dissolution of a marriage between a renowned painter and his wife. Using two distinct points of view, Ben Jelloun lets each of his characters -- man and wife -- tell their side of the story. Set against the backdrop of Casablanca in the midst of an awakening women's rights movement, The Happy Marriage explores not only the question of who's right and who's wrong, but also the very nature of modern matrimony. (Nick M.) Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine by Diane Williams: Williams’s short stories operate according to the principles of Viktor Shklovsky’s ostranenie: making strange in order to reveal the ordinary anew. They are dense and dazzling oddities with an ear for patois and steeped deeply in the uncanny. Darkness and desire and despair and longing and schadenfreude and judgment roil just below the surface of seemingly pleasant exchanges, and, in their telling, subvert the reader’s expectations of just how a story unfolds. Williams’s previous collection Vicky Swanky Is a Beauty was a beauty. Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, her forthcoming, warns of linguistic breakdown, insistence, and restlessness. (Anne) Mr. Splitfoot by Samantha Hunt: It’s been seven years since Samantha Hunt’s novel about Nicola Tesla, The Invention of Everything Else, was listed as an Orange Prize finalist. Now Hunt’s back with a modern gothic starring a scam-artist orphan who claims to talk to the dead; his sister who ages into a strange, silent woman; and, later, her pregnant niece, who follows her aunt on a trek across New York without exactly knowing why. Also featured: meteorites, a runaway nun, a noseless man, and a healthy dash of humor. Although it’s still too early to speculate on the prize-winning potential of Mr. Splitfoot, Hunt’s fantastical writing is already drawing favorable comparisons to Kelly Link and Aimee Bender, and her elegantly structured novel promises to be the year’s most unusual ghost story. (Kaulie) The Kindness of Enemies by Leila Aboulela: Aboulela’s new novel transports readers to Scotland, the Caucasus, St. Petersburg, and Sudan. The protagonist is a Scottish-Sudanese lecturer researching "the lion of Dagestan,” a 19th-century leader who resisted Russian incursions, when she finds out that one of her students is his descendant. As they study up on the rebel leader, and the Georgian princess he captured as a bargaining chip, the two academics become embroiled in a cultural battle of their own. Aboulela’s fifth book sounds like a fascinating combination of Leo Tolstoy’s Hadji Murat and A.S. Byatt’s Possession. (Matt) Girl Through Glass by Sari Wilson: With its intense competition and rivalries, the ballet world provides a novelist with plenty of dramatic material. Girl Through Glass alternates between late-1970s New York, where its heroine works her way into George Balanchine’s School of American Ballet, and the present day, where she is a dance professor having an affair with a student. Exploring the exquisite precision of dancing alongside the unruliness of passion, Wilson’s novel looks to be on point. (Matt) Unspeakable Things by Kathleen Spivack: In her debut novel, Spivack, an accomplished poet, tells the story of a refugee family fleeing Europe during the final year of WWII. In New York City, where they’ve been laying low, we meet a cast of characters including a Hungarian countess, an Austrian civil servant, a German pediatrician, and an eight-year-old obsessed with her family's past -- especially some long-forgotten matters involving late night, secretive meetings with Grigori Rasputin. Described by turns as “wild, erotic” as well as "daring, haunting, dark, creepy, and surreal," Unspeakable Things certainly seems to live up to its title. (Nick M.) What Belongs to You by Garth Greenwell: Greenwell’s debut novel expands his exquisitely written 2011 novella, Mitko. A meticulous stylist, Greenwell enlarges the story without losing its poetic tension. An American teacher of English in Bulgaria longs for Mitko, a hustler. Think the feel of James Salter’s A Sport and a Pastime. Greenwell’s lines tease and tear at the soul: “That my first encounter with Mitko B. ended in a betrayal, even a minor one, should have given me greater warning at the time, which should in turn have made my desire for him less, if not done away with it completely. But warning, in places like the bathrooms at the National Place of Culture, where we met, is like some element coterminous with the air, ubiquitous and inescapable, so that it becomes part of those who inhabit it, and thus part and parcel of the desire that draws us there.” (Nick R.) On the Edge by Rafael Chirbes: This novel about the ills of Europe generally and Spain specifically appears in English mere months after the death of its author, one of Spain's premier novelists. Readers unmoved by, say, the sour hypotheticals of Michel Houellebecq will find a more nuanced, if no less depressing, portrait of economic decline and societal breakdown in On the Edge, the first of Chirbes's novels to be translated into English (by Margaret Jull Costa). (Lydia) The Unfinished World by Amber Sparks: The second collection of short fiction by Sparks, The Unfinished World comprises 19 short (often very short) stories, surreal and fantastic numbers with titles like "The Lizzie Borden Jazz Babies" and "Janitor in Space." Sparks's first collection, May We Shed These Human Bodies, was The Atlantic Wire's small press debut of 2012. (Lydia) And Again by Jessica Chiarella: This debut by current UC Riverside MFA student Chiarella is a speculative literary novel about four terminally ill patients who are given new, cloned bodies that are genetically perfect and unmarred by the environmental dangers of modern life. According to the jacket copy, these four people -- among them a congressman and a painter -- are "restored, and unmade, by this medical miracle." And Again is a January Indie Next Pick, and Laila Lalami calls it "a moving and beautifully crafted novel about the frailty of identity, the illusion of control, and the enduring power of love." (Edan) February: The High Mountains of Portugal by Yann Martel: The fourth novel by Martel is touted as an allegory that asks questions about loss, faith, suffering, and love. Sweeping from the 1600s to the present through three intersecting stories, this novel will no doubt be combed for comparison to his blockbuster -- nine million copies and still selling strong -- Life of Pi. And Martel will, no doubt, carry the comparisons well: “Once I’m in my little studio...there’s nothing here but my current novel,” he told The Globe and Mail. “I’m neither aware of the success of Life of Pi nor the sometimes very negative reviews Beatrice and Virgil got. That’s all on the outside.” (Claire) The Queen of the Night by Alexander Chee: We’ve been awaiting Chee’s sophomore novel, and here it finally is! A sweeping historical story -- “a night at the opera you’ll wish never-ending,” says Helen Oyeyemi -- and the kind I personally love best, with a fictional protagonist moving among real historical figures. Lilliet Berne is a diva of 19th-century Paris opera on the cusp of world fame, but at what cost? Queen of the Night traffics in secrets, betrayal, intrigue, glitz, and grit. And if you can judge a book by its cover, this one’s a real killer. (Sonya) The Lost Time Accidents by John Wray: Whiting Award-winner Wray’s fourth novel, The Lost Time Accidents, moves backwards and forwards in time, and across the Atlantic, while following the fates of two Austrian brothers. Their lives are immersed in the rich history of early-20th-century salon culture (intermingling with the likes of Gustav Klimt and Ludwig Wittgenstein), but then they diverge as one aids Adolf Hitler and the other moves to the West Village and becomes a sci-fi writer. When the former wakes one morning to discover that he has been exiled from time, he scrambles to find a way back in. This mash-up of sci-fi, time-travel, and family epic is both madcap and ambitious: “literature as high wire act without the net,” as put by Marlon James. (Anne) A Doubter's Almanac by Ethan Canin: Canin is the New York Times bestselling author of The Palace Thief and America America and a faculty member at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Mathematical genius Milo Andret, subject of A Doubter’s Almanac, shares a home with Canin in northern Michigan. Milo travels to Berkeley, Princeton, Ohio, and back to the Midwest while studying and teaching mathematics. Later in the story, Hans, Milo’s son, reveals that he has been narrating his father’s mathematical triumphs and fall into addiction. Hans may be “scarred” by his father’s actions, but Canin finds a way to redeem him through love. (Cara) Why We Came to the City by Kristopher Jansma: Kirkus described this book as an ode to friendship, but it could just as easily be described as a meditation on mortality. Jansma’s second novel -- his first was The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards, published in 2014 -- follows the intertwined lives and increasingly dark trajectories of a group of four young friends in New York City. (Emily) Tender by Belinda McKeon: McKeon took her place among the prominent Irish novelists with her 2011 debut, Solace, which was voted Irish Book of the Year. Her second novel, Tender, follows the lifelong friendship of Catherine and James, who meet when they are both young in Dublin. At first she is a quiet college student and he the charismatic artist who brings her out of her shell, but McKeon follows their friendship through the years and their roles change, reverse, and become as complicated as they are dear. (Janet) Wreck and Order by Hannah Tennant-Moore: Tennant-Moore’s debut novel, Wreck and Order, brings the audience into the life of Elsie, an intelligent young woman making self-destructive decisions. Economically privileged, she travels instead of attending college. Upon her return from Paris, she finds herself stuck in an abusive relationship and a job she hates -- so she leaves the U.S. again, this time for Sri Lanka. A starred review from Publishers Weekly says, “Tennant-Moore is far too sophisticated and nuanced a writer to allow Elsie to be miraculously healed by the mysterious East.” Tennant-Moore leaves the audience with questions about how to find oneself and one’s purpose. (Cara) Dog Run Moon by Callan Wink: A few short years ago, Wink was a fly-fishing guide in Montana. Today, he has nearly bagged the limit of early literary successes, reeling in an NEA grant, a Stegner Fellowship at Stanford, and publications in The New Yorker, Granta, and the Best American Short Stories. “[T]hrough the transparency of his writing, at once delicate and brutally precise, the author gifts us with the wonderful feeling of knowing someone you’ve only met in a book,” Publishers Weekly says of Wink’s debut collection, which is mostly set in and around Yellowstone National Park. (Michael) The Fugitives by Christopher Sorrentino: Ten years after Sorrentino’s much-lauded and National Book Award-nominated Trance, he returns with The Fugitives, called “something of a thriller, though more Richard Russo than Robert Ludlum,” by Kirkus. Within, struggling writer Sandy Mulligan leaves New York for a small, seemingly quiet Michigan town to escape scandal and finish his novel, and, well, does anything but. His name evokes Sorrentino’s father’s acclaimed novel Mulligan Stew, another tale of a struggling writer whose narrative falls apart. Mulligan’s novel suffers neglect as he befriends a swindler and becomes involved with an investigative reporter who's there to uncover the crime; Sorrentino’s plot, in contrast, is fine-tuned. (Anne) The Book of Memory by Petina Gappah: Gappah’s first book, a short story collection called An Elegy for Easterly, won the Guardian First Book Prize in 2009. The Book of Memory is her first novel, and if the first sentence of the description doesn’t hook you, I’m not sure what to tell you: “Memory is an albino woman languishing in Chikurubi Maximum Security Prison in Harare, Zimbabwe, where she has been convicted of murder.” The novel follows this “uniquely slippery narrator” as she pieces together her crime and the life that led her there. (Elizabeth) Youngblood by Matthew Gallagher: In his debut work of fiction, Gallagher, a former U.S. Army captain, focuses his attentions on Jack Porter, a newly-minted lieutenant grappling with the drawdown of forces in Iraq. Struggling with the task of maintaining a delicate peace amongst warlords and militias, as well as the aggressive pressures being applied by a new commanding officer, Jack finds himself embroiled in a conflict between the nation he serves and the one he's supposedly been sent to help. Described as "truthful, urgent, grave and darkly funny" -- as well as "a slap in the face to a culture that's grown all too comfortable with the notion of endless war" -- this novel comes more than 12 years after George W. Bush declared, "Mission Accomplished," and nine months before we elect our next president. (Nick M.) Black Deutschland by Darryl Pinckney: West Berlin in the years before the Wall came down -- “that petri dish of romantic radicalism” -- is the lush backdrop for Pinckney’s second novel, Black Deutschland. It’s the story of Jed Goodfinch, a young gay black man who flees his stifling hometown of Chicago for Berlin, hoping to recapture the magic decadence of W.H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood’s Weimar era and, in the process, remake and discover himself. In Berlin, Jed is free to become “that person I so admired, the black American expatriate.” Kirkus praises the novel for embodying the “inventive, idiosyncratic styles” now flourishing in African-American writing. (Bill) Cities I've Never Lived In by Sara Majka: The linked stories in Majka’s debut collection beg the question how much of ourselves we leave behind with each departure we make, as we become “citizens of the places where we cannot stay.” Kelly Link offers high praise: “A collection that leaves you longing -- as one longs to return to much loved, much missed homes and communities and cities -- for places that you, the reader, have never been. Prodigal with insight into why and how people love and leave, and love again.” You can read excerpts at Catapult and Longreads. (Bruna) The Heart by Maylis de Kerangal: De Kerangal, a short-lister for the Prix Goncourt, has not been widely translated in English, although this may change after this novel -- her first translation from an American publisher -- simultaneously ruins and elevates everyone's week/month/year. The Heart is a short and devastating account of a human heart (among other organs) as it makes its way from a dead person to a chronically ill person. It is part medical thriller, part reportage on the process of organ donation, part social study, part meditation on the unbearable pathos of life. (Lydia) You Should Pity Us Instead by Amy Gustine: A debut collection of crisp short stories about people in various forms of extremis -- people with kidnapped sons, babies who won't stop crying, too many cats. The scenarios vary wildly in terms of their objective badness, but that's how life is, and the writer treats them all with gravity. (Lydia) The Lives of Elves by Muriel Barbery: Following the hoopla around her surprise bestseller The Elegance of the Hedgehog, Barbery, trained as a philosopher, became anxious about expectations for the next book. She traveled, and went back to teaching philosophy. She told The Independent that for a time she had lost the desire to write. Eight years on, we have The Lives of Elves, the story of two 12-year-old girls in Italy and France who each discover the world of elves. Barbery says the book is neither a fairytale nor a parable, strictly speaking, but that she is interested in “enchantment” -- how the modern world is “cut off from” from its poetic illusions. (Sonya) Square Wave by Mark de Silva: A dystopian debut set in America with a leitmotif of imperial power struggles in Sri Lanka in the 17th century. Part mystery, part sci-fi thriller, the novel reportedly deals with "the psychological effects of a militarized state upon its citizenry" -- highly topical for Americans today. Readers of The New York Times may recognize de Silva's name from the opinion section, where he was formerly a staffer. (Lydia) The Arrangement by Ashley Warlick: Food writing fans may want to check out a novelization of the life of M.F.K. Fisher, focusing on, the title suggests, the more salacious personal details of the beloved food writer's life. (Lydia) Sudden Death by Álvaro Enrigue: At once erudite and phantasmagoric, this novel begins with a 16th-century tennis match between the painter Caravaggio and the poet Francisco de Quevedo and swirls lysergically outward to take in the whole history of European conquest. It won awards in Spain and in Enrigue's native Mexico; now Natasha Wimmer gives us an English translation. (Garth) The Daredevils by Gary Amdahl: Over the last decade, Amdahl has traced an eccentric orbit through the indie-press cosmos; his mixture of bleakness, comedy, and virtuosity recalls the Coen Brothers, or Stanley Elkin’s A Bad Man. The "Amdahl Library" project at Artistically Declined Press seems to be on hold for now, but perhaps this novel, about a young man riding the currents of radical politics and theater in the early-12th century, will bring him a wider audience. (Garth) March: What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours by Helen Oyeyemi: Oyeyemi wrote her first novel, The Icarus Girl, at 18 and was later included on Granta’s Best of Young British Novelists in 2013. Following her fifth release, the critically-praised novel Boy, Snow, Bird, in 2014, Oyeyemi is publishing her first collection of short stories. The stories draw on similar fairy tale themes as her past works. In What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours, Oyeyemi links her characters through literal and metaphorical keys -- to a house, a heart, a secret. If you can’t wait to get your hands on the collection, one of the stories, “‘Sorry’ Doesn’t Sweeten Her Tea,” was published in Ploughshares this summer. (Cara) The Ancient Minstrel by Jim Harrison: With The Ancient Minstrel, our national treasure known as Jim Harrison returns to his greatest strength, the novella. Like Legends of the Fall, this new book is a trio of novellas that showcase Harrison’s seemingly limitless range. In the title piece, he has big fun at his own expense, spoofing an aging writer who wrestles with literary fame, his estranged wife, and an unplanned litter of piglets. In Eggs, a Montana woman attempting to have her first child reminisces about collecting eggs at her grandparents’ country home in England. And in The Case of the Howling Buddhas, retired detective Sunderson returns from earlier novels to investigate a bizarre cult. The book abounds with Harrison’s twin trademarks: wisdom and humor. (Bill) The Throwback Special by Chris Bachelder: As a fan of sports talk radio and its obsessive analysis, I’m looking forward to Bachelder’s novel, which endlessly dissects the brutal 1985 play where Lawrence Taylor sacked Washington’s quarterback Joe Theismann, breaking his leg. In the novel, 22 friends meet to reenact the play, an occasion that allows Bacheler to philosophize about memory and the inherent chaos of sports. As he put it in a New York Times essay: “I’m moved...by the chasm...between heady design and disappointing outcome, between idealistic grandeur and violent calamity.” (Matt) The Year of the Runaways by Sunjeev Sahota: Sahota’s second novel is the only title on the 2015 Man Booker Prize shortlist that has yet to be published in the United States. It tells the story of four Indians who emigrate to the north of England and find their lives twisted together in the process. Many critics cited its power as a political novel, particularly in a year when migration has dominated news cycles. But it works on multiple levels: The Guardian’s reviewer wrote, “This is a novel that takes on the largest questions and still shines in its smallest details.” (Elizabeth) Burning Down the House by Jane Mendelsohn: The author of the 1990s bestseller I Was Amelia Earhart here focuses on a wealthy New York family beset by internal rivalries and an involvement, perhaps unwitting, in a dark underworld of international crime. Mendelsohn’s novel hopscotches the globe from Manhattan to London, Rome, Laos, and Turkey, trailing intrigue and ill-spent fortunes. (Michael) Stork Mountain by Miroslav Penkov: In this first novel from Penkov (author of the story collection East of the West), a young Bulgarian immigrant returns to the borderlands of his home country in search of his grandfather. Molly Antopol calls it “a gorgeous and big-hearted novel that manages to be both a page-turning adventure story and a nuanced meditation on the meaning of home.” (Bruna) Gone with the Mind by Mark Leyner: With novels like Et Tu, Babe and The Sugar Frosted Nutsack, Leyner was one of the postmodern darlings of the 1990s (or you may remember him sitting around the table with Jonathan Franzen and David Foster Wallace for the legendary Charlie Rose segment). After spending almost the last decade on non-fiction and movie projects, he’s back with a new novel in which the fictional Mark Leyner reads from his autobiography at a reading set up by his mother at a New Jersey mall’s food court. Mark, his mother, and a few Panda Express employees share an evening that is absurd and profound -- basically Leyneresque. (Janet) Innocents and Others by Dana Spiotta: “Maybe I’m a writer so I have an excuse to do research,” Spiotta said of what she enjoys about the writing process. And yet, for all of her research, she avoids the pitfalls of imagination harnessed by fact. In fact, Spiotta’s fourth and latest novel, Innocents and Others, is nearly filmic, channeling Jean-Luc Godard, according to Rachel Kushner, and “like classic JLG is brilliant, and erotic, and pop.” Turn to The New Yorker excerpt to see for yourself: witness Jelly, a loner who uses the phone as a tool for calculated seduction, and in doing so seduces the reader, too. (Anne) Prodigals by Greg Jackson: Jackson’s collection opens with a story originally published in The New Yorker, ”Wagner in the Desert,” a crackling tale of debauchery set in Palm Springs. In it, a group of highly-educated, creative, and successful friends seek to “baptize [their] minds in an enforced nullity.” They also repeatedly attempt to go on a hike. The wonderfully titled “Serve-and-Volley, Near Vichy,” in which a former tennis star enlists his houseguest in a bizarre project, and the eerily beautiful “Tanner’s Sisters” are two particularly memorable stories in this sharp and often haunting debut. (Matt) Shelter by Jung Yun: Yun’s debut novel concerns Kyung Cho: a husband, father, and college professor in financial trouble who can no longer afford his home. When his own parents -- whom he barely tolerates because they’ve never shown him warmth and affection -- are faced with violence and must move in with him, Cho can no longer hide his anger and resentment toward them. The jacket copy compares the book to Affliction and House of Sand and Fog, and James Scott, author of The Kept, calls it “an urgent novel.” Yun’s work has previously been published in Tin House. (Edan) 99 Poems: New and Selected by Dana Gioia: A gifted poet of rhythm and reason, Gioia’s civic and critical pedigree is impressive. A previous chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, Gioia was recently named California’s Poet Laureate. In recent years Gioia’s critical writing has taken precedence -- his 2013 essay “The Catholic Writer Today” is already a classic in its genre - but this new and selected collection marks his return to verse. Graywolf is Gioia’s longtime publisher, so look for emblematic works like “Becoming a Redwood” next to new poems like “Hot Summer Night:” “Let’s live in the flesh and not on a screen. / Let’s dress like people who want to be seen.” (Nick R.) Margaret the First by Danielle Dutton: “I had rather be a meteor, singly, alone,” writes Margaret Cavendish, the titular character in Dutton’s novel Margaret the First. Cavendish is “a shy but audacious” woman of letters, whose writing and ambitions were ahead of her time. The taut prose and supple backdrop of courtly life are irresistible. (Witness: quail in broth and oysters; bowls stuffed with winter roses, petals tissue-thin; strange instruments set beside snuffboxes.) Dutton is something of a meteor herself, as founder of the Dorothy Project and with two wondrous books already under her belt, including the Believer Book Award-nominated novel Sprawl. (Anne) The North Water by Ian McGuire: A raw and compulsively readable swashbuckler about the whaling business, with violence and intrigue in dirty port towns and on the high seas. There are many disturbing interactions between people and people, and people and animals -- think The Revenant for the Arctic Circle. This is McGuire's second novel; he is also the author of the "refreshingly low-minded campus novel" Incredible Bodies. (Lydia) Blackass by A. Igoni Barrett: A young middle-class Nigerian man wakes up in his bed one morning to find that he has become white in the night. As a consequence, he loses his family but gains all manner of undeserved and unsolicited privileges, from management positions at various enterprises to the favors of beautiful women from the upper crust of Lagos society. His dizzying tragicomic odyssey paints a vivid portrait of the social and economic complexities of a modern megacity. (Lydia) The Nest by Cynthia D'Aprix Sweeney: D’Aprix Sweeney’s debut novel The Nest will hit shelves in March trailing seductive pre-hype: we learned last December that the book was sold to Ecco for seven figures, and that it’s the story of a wealthy, “spectacularly dysfunctional” family -- which for me brings to mind John Cheever, or maybe even the TV series Bloodlines, in which one of the siblings is a particular mess and the others have to deal with him. But The Nest has been described as “warm,” “funny,” and “tender,” so perhaps the novel is more an antidote to the darkness in family dysfunction we’ve known and loved -- fucked-up families with hearts of gold? (Sonya) What Lies Between Us by Nayomi Munaweera: A novel about a mother and daughter who leave Sri Lanka after a domestic disturbance and struggle to find happiness in the United States. Munaweera won the Regional Commonwealth Book Prize for Asia for her first novel, Island of a Thousand Mirrors. (Lydia) The Association of Small Bombs by Karan Mahajan: A novelist examines the enduring fallout of a "small" terrorist attack in a Delhi marketplace, and the way that families, politics, and pain weave together. Mahajan's first novel, Family Planning, was a finalist for the Dylan Thomas prize. (Lydia) Hold Still by Lynn Steger Strong: An emotionally suspenseful debut about the relationship between a mother and her troubled young daughter, who commits an unfixable indiscretion that implicates them both. (Lydia) Dodge Rose by Jack Cox: This young Australian has evidently made a close study of James Joyce and Samuel Beckett (and maybe of Henry Green) -- and sets out in his first novel to recover and extend their enchantments. A small plot of plot -- two cousins, newly introduced, attempt to settle the estate of an aunt -- becomes the launch pad for all manner of prose pyrotechnics. (Garth) High Dive by Jonathan Lee: The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher could have been the title of Lee's first novel, had Hilary Mantel not taken it for her 2014 short story collection. The similarities end with the subject matter, though. Where Mantel opted for a tight focus, Lee's novel uses a real-life attempt to blow up Mrs. Thatcher as an opportunity to examine other, less public lives. (Garth) April: My Struggle: Book Five by Karl Ove Knausgaard: Translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett, the fifth installment of this six-volume autobiographical novel covers Knausgaard’s early adulthood. The book is about a love affair, alcoholism, death, and the author’s struggle to write. James Wood describes Knausgaard’s prose as “intense and vital […] Knausgaard is utterly honest, unafraid to voice universal anxieties.” (Bruna) Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld: In Sittenfeld's modern retelling of Pride and Prejudice, Liz is a New York City magazine writer and Darcy is a Cincinnati neurosurgeon. Although the update is certainly on trend with themes of CrossFit and reality TV, Sittenfeld is an obvious choice to recreate Jane Austen's comedy of manners. From her boarding school debut, Prep, to the much-lauded American Wife, a thinly veiled imagination of Laura Bush, Sittenfeld is a master at dissecting social norms to reveal the truths of human nature underneath. (Tess) Alice & Oliver by Charles Bock: The author’s wife, Diana Colbert, died of leukemia in 2011 when their daughter was only three years old. Inspired in part by this personal tragedy, this second novel by the author of 2008’s Beautiful Children traces a day in the life of a young New York couple with a new baby after the wife is diagnosed with cancer. “I can’t remember the last time I stayed up all night to finish a book,” enthuses novelist Ayelet Waldman. “This novel laid me waste.” (Michael) Our Young Man by Edmund White: White’s 13th novel sees a young Frenchman, Guy, leave home for New York City, where he begins a modeling career that catapults him to the heights of the fashion world. His looks, which lend him enduring popularity amongst his gay cohort on Fire Island, stay youthful for decades, allowing him to keep modeling until he’s 35. As the novel takes place in the '70s and '80s, it touches on the cataclysm of the AIDS crisis. (Thom) Now and Again by Charlotte Rogan: After harboring a secret writing habit for years, Rogan burst onto the bestseller list with her debut novel, The Lifeboat, which was praised for its portrayal of a complex heroine who, according to The New York Times, is “astute, conniving, comic and affecting.” Rogan’s second novel, Now and Again, stars an equally intricate secretary who finds proof of a high-level cover-up at the munitions plant where she works. It is both a topical look at whistleblowers and a critique of the Iraq War military-industrial complex. Teddy Wayne calls it “the novel we deserve for the war we didn't.” (Claire) Hystopia by David Means: After four published books, a rap sheet of prizes, and six short stories in The New Yorker, Means is coming out with his debut novel this spring. Hystopia is both the name of the book and a book-within-the-book, and it revolves around Eugene Allen, a Vietnam vet who comes up with an alternate history. In Allen’s bizarre, heady what-if, John F. Kennedy survives the '60s, at the end of which he creates an agency called the Psych Corps that uses drugs to wipe traumas from people’s brains. (Thom) Ear to the Ground by David L. Ulin and Paul Kolsby: In this “rollicking” tale about 1990s L.A., seismologist Charlie Richter, grandson of the man who invented the Richter scale, heads to the City of Angels to work at the Center of Earthquake Science to prove his methods for predicting quakes. The book, co-written by an essayist and critic (Ulin) and a screenwriter and movie producer (Kolsby), comes with an introduction by Karolina Waclawiak, author of The Invaders, and was previously serialized in the L.A. Reader. The novel will be published by the small but mighty Unnamed Press, an L.A.-based publishing house with a roster of quirky and formally daring books. (Edan) Thomas Jefferson Dreams of Sally Hemings by Stephen O’Connor: A fictional account of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings told in conversations, fragments, and dreams. An excerpt is available at Electric Literature's Recommended Reading -- the site's editor called it "experimental, metaphysical, deeply unsettling, and important." (Lydia) Bardo or Not Bardo by Antoine Volodine: In his publisher’s synopsis, the French writer Volodine's multi-novel project sounds appealingly nuts: "Most of his works take place in a post-apocalyptic world where members of the 'post-exoticism' writing movement have all been arrested as subversive elements." A recent critical essay in The New Inquiry furthers the sense of a cult in the making. Bardo or Not Bardo, a comedy the characters of which keep bungling attempts at reincarnation, may be a good place to begin the indoctrination. (Garth) Letters to Kevin by Stephen Dixon: In 2015, it’s remarkably easy to make a phone call, so the latest novel by Stephen Dixon comes off as a Beckettian farce. The plot is absurd: in it, a man named Rudy sets out to call his friend Kevin Wafer, a teenager-going-on-college-student who lives across the country in Palo Alto. Rudy doesn’t have a phone, but when he tries to use a phone booth, a crane picks it up and deposits it (and Rudy) in a warehouse. Eventually, he gives up and opts to write a letter instead. Throughout, Dixon's black-and-white drawings lend depth to his nightmare of inconvenience. (Thom) The Bricks That Built the Houses by Kate Tempest: Barely 30, Tempest has won awards for her poetry, performances, and recordings. Her long narrative poem "Brand New Ancients" found the through-line from Homer to Jay-Z. Now she turns to prose, in a novel about scrabbling young Londoners trying to outrun the past. (Garth) May: Zero K by Don DeLillo: When Jennifer Egan introduced DeLillo for his reception of the National Book Foundation Lifetime Achievement Award, she noted “There will be no better way to understand life in the late-20th and early-21st century than reading the books of Don DeLillo.” Paranoia does not always lead to prescience, but DeLillo’s anxious eye toward the future has always been tempered by his identity as the son of immigrants and the Catholic spectacle of his youth. Zero K begins big: “Everybody wants to own the end of the world,” says billionaire Ross Lockhart to his son Jeff, the novel’s narrator. Jeff notes “We were sharing a rare point in time, contemplative, and the moment was made complete by his vintage sunglasses, bringing the night indoors.” No one is better than DeLillo at vaulting between registers of comedy and tragedy, between the consequence of eternity and the power of a single moment. (Nick R.) LaRose by Louise Erdrich: On a summer day in North Dakota, 1999, a man named Landreaux stalks a deer along his property line. He shoots and misses, but he’s hit something else: his neighbor’s five-year-old son, Dusty. Landreaux’s close with his neighbors, in part because he has a five-year-old son of his own, LaRose, and the boys were inseparable. Erdrich’s 15th novel explores the complicated aftermath of the death, as Landreaux and his wife decide to give LaRose to their grieving neighbors as retribution. (Emily) The Fox Was Ever the Hunter by Herta Müller: As if living in a totalitarian regime wasn't bad enough, the four friends in Müller's novel must contend with the fact that one of them is spying on the group for the secret police. Capturing the fear and moral corruption of the final days of Romania's Ceausescu regime -- and inevitably drawing on her own persecution by the secret police -- Müller won a Nobel Prize in Literature in 2009 for her work. Now, her long-time translator Philip Boehm brings the classic to English readers. (Tess) The Pier Falls by Mark Haddon: Haddon is nothing if not versatile. You know him for his international bestseller, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, but did you know Haddon is also an illustrator, screenwriter, poet, winner of two BAFTAs, and has written 15 books for children? It might not come as a surprise that his new book is a departure: a collection of short stories. An expedition to Mars goes wrong, a seaside pier collapses, a woman is marooned on an island, two boys find a gun in a shoebox. The stories are billed as “searingly imaginative and emotionally taut.” (Claire) Sweet Lamb of Heaven by Lydia Millet: In her 10th novel, Millet delves into the territory of the psychological thriller: a young mother, Anna, takes her six-year-old daughter, Lena, and flees her estranged husband, Ned, who’s running for office in Alaska. Anna and Lena go into hiding in a derelict hotel in Maine, which quickly begins to fill up with other guests; guests who, as the novel progresses, begin to seem less and less like ordinary tourists, even as Ned begins to seem more and more sociopathic. (Emily) Modern Lovers by Emma Straub: What happens when you age out of your cool? It's a topic that filmmaker Noah Baumbach has explored, and Straub is his literary counterpart. Her third novel follows three Brooklyn Gen X friends and former bandmates nearing 50 and handing off the baton of hipness to their children, stifled ambition and sexual frustration included. With the multigenerational structure, it would be easy to compare Straub to other masters of the genre like Meg Wolitzer or Jennifer Egan, but she's already a master in her own right after The Vacationers, so Modern Lovers should prove to be a witty romp. (Tess) The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes: Barnes’s new novel -- his first since 2011’s Man Booker Prize-winning The Sense of an Ending -- concerns the life of the Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich. Barnes considers his character not just on a human level, as a young man fearing for his life and the safety of his family under Joseph Stalin, but also as a lens through which to examine the fall of the Soviet Union and the role of the artist in society. (Emily) Everybody's Fool by Richard Russo: There are two kinds of Russo aficionados -- those who came to him through his hilarious 1997 academic satire Straight Man and those who started with his wry, brooding 1993 breakthrough Nobody’s Fool. The latter strain of Russophile will rejoice that Russo has brought back Donald “Sully” Sullivan, the irascible hero of Nobody’s Fool, who was played by Paul Newman in the movie version. Two decades on, Sully has learned from his doctor that he has at most a year or two to live, and spends the novel striving to keep the news from everybody he loves. (Michael) The Sport of Kings by C.E. Morgan: You had to know the person who’s spent more than a decade working at thoroughbred racetracks would choose to blurb the horse racing novel. Morgan, who was named one of The New Yorker’s 20 Under 40 in 2010, has set both of her novels in her native Kentucky; this one centers on a powerful family aiming to breed the next racing great, and a young black man who comes to work for them and brings their prejudices into full view. It is described as “an unflinching portrait of lives cast in shadow by the enduring legacy of slavery.” (Elizabeth) The City of Mirrors by Justin Cronin: Cronin brings his mammoth, vampire apocalypse horror trilogy to a close this spring with The City of Mirrors. The Twelve (godfather vampires) have been defeated, and their descendants with them, and the human colonists start to retake the world, no longer confined to their fortresses and hiding places. But are they really safe? (They’re not.) Zero -- the vampire who created The Twelve -- survives, and he’s mad as hell. The conclusion of this suspenseful, surprising, frequently heartwarming, more often creepy-as-shit series promises to go out with a bang. (Janet) The Fat Artist and Other Stories by Benjamin Hale: Hale's simian debut novel, The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore, was widely praised; it takes talent to craft the believable voice of a chimpanzee who has “finally decided to give this undeserving and spiritually diseased world the generous gift of my memoirs.” Hale recently co-edited an issue of Conjunctions titled “A Menagerie,” that collects bestial tales. The short story form allows Hale’s own penchant for invention to further shine. One story, “The Minus World,” investigates shadow, “unfinished or rejected levels that the programmers left floating around” in Super Mario Bros: “It’s as if Mario had traveled to the distant, frayed edges of space and time. He must look into the void. It’s a little frightening.” The Fat Artist, which includes stories about dominatrices and performance artists, is sure to please. (Nick R.) Imagine Me Gone by Adam Haslett: In his third book and second novel, Imagine Me Gone, Haslett returns to the territory of mental illness -- the subject of many of the stories in his award-winning debut collection You Are Not a Stranger Here. Margaret marries John, after learning of his serious struggle with depression, and later their eldest son, Michael, battles with despair as well. From Joy Williams: “[O]ne of the most harrowing and sustained descriptions of a mind in obsessive turmoil and disrepair that I've ever read.” Peter Carey, on the other hand, speaks to the hopeful elements of the novel -- “both dreadfully sad and hilariously funny all at once. It is luminous with love.” (Sonya) Eleven Hours by Pamela Erens: In her two previous novels, Erens has quietly built a reputation as a sharp stylist with a gift for bringing quirky outsiders alive on the page. In Eleven Hours, a very pregnant young woman arrives alone at the maternity ward wanting to give birth without a fetal heart monitor, IV tubes, or epidural anesthesia. The novel follows her 11-hour labor in the care of a Haitian nurse who is herself pregnant. “Erens evokes the layered experience of living in a body -- its tides of memory, sensation, and emotion -- like no other writer I know,” writes novelist Karen Russell. (Michael) Allegheny Front by Matthew Neill Null: A collection of short stories set in the author's native West Virginia, where people and landscapes and animals reap the wages of resource extraction. Null's first novel, Honey from the Lion, was a historical novel about West Virginia's timber industry. (Lydia) June: Barkskins by Annie Proulx: The award-winning author of The Shipping News and Brokeback Mountain returns with a new novel in June -- 10 years in the making -- about wilderness, the rampant destruction of forests, and greed. At over 800 pages, this ambitious novel spans over three centuries and travels from France to China to New England. (Bruna) Vinegar Girl by Anne Tyler: If anyone was going to update The Taming of the Shrew, it should be the Pulitzer-winning Tyler, who is a keen observer of the nuances of the American family. In her take on the classic Shakespearean comedy, Kate is managing her odd scientist father's household when his assistant might be deported, and the men scheme to keep him in the country with Kate's help. Even though we think we already know the ending, the independent and contemporary Kate might have a surprise up her sleeve. (Tess) They May Not Mean To, But They Do by Cathleen Schine: Her new novel, They May Not Mean To, But They Do, will solidify Schine’s reputation as “the Jane Austen of the 21st century.” When her husband dies, Joy Bergman finds that her children, Molly and Daniel, have an arsenal of weapons to fend off the woes of widowhood. But Joy is not about to take advice or antidepressants from anyone. When an ardent suitor from Joy’s college days reappears, Molly and Daniel must cope with their widowed mother becoming as willful and rebellious as their own kids. They May Not Mean To, But They Do is a compassionate look at three generations, all coming of age together. (Bill) The Girls by Emma Cline: This debut follows two young women into the world of a Manson-ish cult in the 1960s. Cline won the 2014 Plimpton Prize from the Paris Review, which also published her essay about how she came to this material. (Garth) Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty by Ramona Ausubel: Ausubel’s first novel, No One Is Here Except All of Us, won the PEN Center USA Fiction Award and the VCU Cabell First Novel Award. The New York Times Book Review wrote that her story collection, A Guide to Being Born, “finds a way to record the tensions between the corporeal and the invisible” -- that’s an excellent way to read all her mischievous, magical work, actually. Ausubel’s second novel is about a moneyed family on Martha’s Vineyard in the 1970s -- except this moneyed family is out of dough. The terror of being broke spins parents Fern and Edgar off on separate, strange journeys; meanwhile, their three kids are left to fend for themselves “in an improvised Neverland helmed by the tender, witty, and resourceful Cricket, age nine.” Maggie Shipstead calls it a “brilliantly imagined novel about family and fortune and the hidden knots between.” (Edan) Rich and Pretty by Rumaan Alam: In Alam’s debut novel, Rich and Pretty, Sarah is the rich one and Lauren is the pretty one. They first met 20 years ago at a tony private school in Manhattan and became inseparable through high school, college, first jobs, and first loves. But now, all grown up and living very different New York lives, they have to navigate the tricky ways that the closest of friendships evolve, erode, and endure. Emma Straub, author of The Vacationers, says Alam, a Year in Reading alum at The Millions, has crafted a debut that’s “smart, sharp and beautifully made.” (Bill) Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi: Gyasi's debut distills hundreds of years of of history into 300 pages, tracing the lives and legacies of two Ghanaian half-sisters, one of them sold into slavery, one of them comparatively free. (Garth) July and Beyond: Home Field by Hannah Gersen: Our own Hannah Gersen’s debut novel is the story of Dean, a high school football coach in small town Maryland -- and therefore a pillar of his community -- whose life comes untethered after his wife’s suicide. Left to raise three children dealing with their mother’s death -- a daughter at Swarthmore, an 11-year-old son acting out, and an eight-year-old son who barely understands it all -- not to mention keep winning football games, Dean has to take stock of the life he thought he had, and how to move forward. (Janet) Here I Am by Jonathan Safran Foer: FSG editor Eric Chinski knows Foer’s new novel -- his first since Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (2005) -- better than anyone (other than Foer himself of course). Chinski says of Here I Am, “It’s got this high-wire inventiveness and intensity of imagination in it, and the sheer energy that we associate with Jonathan’s writing, but it’s a big step forward for him. It’s got a kind of toughness; it’s dirty, it’s kind of funny, like Portnoy’s Complaint, it exposes American Jewish life.” It’s not, Chinski says, autobiographical in any strict sense, but does borrow from Foer’s life -- the story of a Jewish family, divorce, and three sons, in Washington D.C. (Sonya) How to Set a Fire and Why by Jesse Ball: In his new novel, Ball follows the trajectory of a brilliant teenager living an impoverished and increasingly precarious life in the absence of her parents. Her father is dead, her mother institutionalized, and when she discovers that there’s an arson club at her school, she finds herself rapidly running out of reasons not to set the world on fire. (Emily) I Am No One by Patrick Flanery: How far does reasonable suspicion live from outright paranoia? Are they close neighbors; do they overlap? These are questions for Jeremy O'Keefe, a professor who has just returned to New York City after 10 years abroad, and suddenly finds himself the object of obsession for a pale young man from his past -- or is he? (Nick M.) Listen to Me by Hannah Pittard: Winner of the Amanda Davis Award from McSweeney’s and author of the novels Reunion and The Fates Will Find Their Way, Pittard now brings us the story of a young married couple, Mark and Maggie, on a road trip gone wrong. Maggie’s recently been robbed at gun point, and by the time they stop for the night at an out-of-the-way inn (without power), the two aren’t even speaking to one another. Frederick Barthelme calls it “a positively Hitchcockian misadventure” and the jacket copy dubs it a “modern Gothic.” (Edan) Monterey Bay by Lindsay Hatton: Hatton (my quondam classmate) blends historical fact -- the life of John Steinbeck circa Cannery Row -- with the story of a young woman discovering the complexities of adult life. In the process, the novel illuminates the founding of the famous Monterey Bay Aquarium. Celeste Ng, in her blurb, compares Monterey Bay, Euphoria, and The Signature of All Things. (Garth) Losing It by Emma Rathbone: In her debut, The Patterns of Paper Monsters, Rathbone proved herself a wry observer of coming of age in difficult circumstances. Her second novel follows this theme, as protagonist Julia Greenfield visits her spinster aunt during a hot North Carolina summer to conquer her greatest insecurity: why she's still a virgin at 26. Except her aunt is one as well at 58. What follows is a candid yet funny take on just what desire and love mean. (Tess) Thus Bad Begins by Javier Marías: Marías returns with another masterful tapestry of noir-ish twists and digressive cerebration. A young man goes to work for a famous film director, and then finds himself entangled with the mysteries of the director’s wife. This one will be published in the U.S. in the fall. (Garth) More from The Millions: 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.
My year in reading was a strange one for me, like only one year previous in my life thus far: I had finished a novel -- The Queen of the Night, due out in Feb. 2016 -- and so the year was that peculiar kind of annus horribulis, in which you try to keep a lid on your ego and act casual, all while you wait for your novel to appear in stores with all that implies. You dutifully prepare your events, your website, and your life for a period of time that has no certain borders and that will have little relationship either to what you fear or what you desire. And everyone’s advice never changes: start on finding your next project, so you have at least a relationship to it and aren’t caught out by what eventually happens. To get through this as a writer is a little like splitting into two: one of you heads off into the woods of your own self while the other becomes some public version of you, making its way like a renegade balloon from the Thanksgiving Day Parade that just keeps inflating. My reading then was both a little like it always is -- a mix of books I’m teaching and books I simply wanted to read -- but several ideas for what my next book will be were already underway and auditioning for my attention -- a mystery novel, a novel I’ve put off writing for nearly two decades, a space opera, and a collection of essays. In order to think about them and to also get my work done, I planned two new classes: one on autobio, as autobiographical fiction is increasingly called, and one on plot. And it is true that I do have a few more answers now than I started the year with, but I also had a lot of fun. In the first half of the year, I read autobiographical fiction and some nonfiction work that ran along its edges: Maxine Hong Kingston’s China Men, for example, which I remember suffered by comparison to The Woman Warrior back when I first read it, but which seems to me now a bravura performance in its own right: her attempt to imagine her way into the silences inside the men in her family’s history. Go Tell It on the Mountain, James Baldwin’s first novel, is still as relevant as ever and as immaculately made -- line for line, the prose is a wonder. Colette’s puckish first novel, Claudine at School, was like finding a whole other writer after her later novels, which I already knew. Edmund White’s The Married Man paired beautifully with Chris Kraus’s I Love Dick, two very different stories of the personal social cost of trying to hold on to and even love your obsessions (and not just be obsessed with them). And I reread Renata Adler’s Pitch Dark alongside Ben Lerner’s 10:04, and thought about how each portrays a way of transcending the first person while also staying firmly in it. Once summer began, I dove into Charles D’Ambrosio’s fantastic collection of personal essays and criticism, Loitering, which I read alongside Jan Morris’s majestic metafiction, Hav -- a plotless novel written as travel writing of the oldest best kind. It describes her trip to an entirely fictional country, and done with a thoroughness of detail that is so convincing, I am still stunned Hav doesn’t exist. I then prepared for my plot class with some favorites. Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go was as chilling as ever, a way of thinking about the present -- and describing it -- by inventing a past instead of a future. I loved Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire the more for knowing at last what life is like now as a professor (I hadn’t read it since undergrad). Likewise Toni Morrison’s Sula, which I now think of as a way to describe America through the lives of two women and a single Ohio town. Reading Justin Torres’s We the Animals for structure meant finding the fretwork is actually a spine. Throughout, I mixed in the new: Like many, I devoured Hanya Yanagihara’s astonishing A Little Life. And then I also read from the more than new, books you can read next year: Garth Greenwell’s breathtaking What Belongs to You, which is a little like if Marguerite Yourcenar returned to us with Bruce Benderson’s obsessions, and Chris Offutt’s new memoir of the secret estate his father left him (and the secrets in it), coming in March -- My Father, the Pornographer. 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.
Trying to make sense of the books I loved in the last year and why is a bit like trying to divine the logic that guided me into past relationships. The books -- each a kind of lover -- all just...made sense at the time. I don’t have favorite lovers, just current ones. Right now, I’m cheating on all of you with Helen Oyeyemi's novel Mr. Fox. Like her excellent Boy, Snow, Bird -- another recent paramour of mine -- the magical realism in Mr. Fox pulled me into its grasp one page at a time, seducing me so effectively I didn’t realize I had walked into a heart-shaped trap until it was too late. My relationship with A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara was so brutal I spent the entire summer in France trying to get my groove back. Reading a galley of Alexander Chee's forthcoming epic The Queen of The Night helped a great deal. But then I returned to New York City in the fall and couldn’t walk down a single sidewalk in the city without meeting someone else who’d also been seduced then wrecked by A Little Life. There should be a recovery group, ALL-Anonymous, for people who, like me, didn’t know that a book could be so gorgeously wrought and exacting at the same time. That book hurt me; I’m not sure if this is a recommendation or confession. Some lovers sent me running into the arms of old haunts. Reading Eula Biss's On Immunity forced me to think about the self in relation to others. If the borders of our bodies are in fact porous, what do we owe one another? I expected a book about disease and instead Bliss’s brilliant meditation urged me to consider morals in a challenging, beautiful way. And so from that lover, only one ghost would do: I got my hands on a copy of Melville House’s James Baldwin: The Last Interview. The conversations the book captures speak to the self’s relationship with racism, America’s most infectious disease, and I just don’t know what to do with the fact that everything Baldwin says feels so hauntingly contemporary -- except know it and honor it. 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.
As a writer who is still working on her debut novel manuscript, I can’t resist the temptation to feel as though every author who has her name splashed across a cover in a bookstore is the happiest writer who has ever written. She is, after all, published; after working hard, her best work is polished and released, and out for the world to consume. Despite, as writers, knowing how easily and often our relationship with our own work fluctuates, we can sometimes silently impose an expectation on published authors that they should retain a permanently positive relationship with their books once they’re in print. Perhaps it’s ungrateful if they don’t. They could, after all, still be struggling like so many of us. Is it actually that easy, though? Does a writer love all of his published works as much as the day they were released -- or as much as we on the outside expect him to? Or does he actually want to burn every copy each time he sees an open flame? I asked six writers to look back on their debut novels, released as many as 25 years ago, and talk about how their relationships with their books have evolved with time and distance. 1. Colum McCann on Songdogs (1995) My first novel, Songdogs, was actually my second book, after a collection of stories, Fishing the Sloe-Black River. I was in my mid-20s when I wrote it. I recall my agent saying that the first draft felt like it had been “preserved in aspic.” Basically, he was saying that it was god-awful. He was right, too. I got a second chance and wrote and rewrote and rewrote. I have a bit of a contradictory relationship with that book, which is now about 25 years old. I think I’m correct in saying that it’s a young man’s novel, flawed and flaring. I would never read it again -- why spend my time with my own work when I can read someone else’s? -- but there are parts of it that still rattle my tired memory. Thirteen Ways of Looking (Random House) is forthcoming on October 13. 2. Alexander Chee on Edinburgh (2001) I'm probably more proud of [Edinburgh now] than I was at the time it appeared. At the time, the struggle to publish it had consumed me -- it took 24 rejections and two and a half years to find a publisher. I think I somehow internalized all those rejections. And so the eventual celebration when it appeared at last got a somewhat chilled embrace from me, even once it went better than I had expected. People kept saying to me, “Aren't you happy?” And I couldn't quickly answer. I was thinking, “Well...I don't know.” A sort of anhedonia had set in. That feeling puzzled me for a long time. I understand it now, though -- I was braced for something bad to happen, one last disaster. But it didn’t happen, and now I can celebrate it wholeheartedly. The Queen of the Night (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) is forthcoming on February 2. 3. Jami Attenberg on Instant Love (2007) I actually have a real fondness for my first book, Instant Love. I wasn't in an MFA program, and it had been more than a decade since I’d studied writing as an undergrad, so the book was constructed mainly on passion and voice and life experience rather than anything strategic or structural or academic. I just really stumbled my way through the writing of it, had no expectations, and was just happy it sold. Now that book feels as pure to me as anything I've ever written. When people tell me that they've read it, I get a little choked up thinking about that time in my life. I’m serious! I definitely think of that book as my first love. 4. Emily St. John Mandel on Last Night in Montreal (2009) My first three novels were recently reissued, and I had the opportunity to read through them and make minor changes and corrections prior to publication. It was interesting to revisit them after all these years, especially my first novel, Last Night in Montreal. I think that novel’s by far the weakest of my books. I’m mystified that it gets more attention than my second and third novels, and if I were to write that story now I would go about it in a completely different way, but I was reassured to find upon rereading that I didn’t dislike it. Looking at it again was like opening a time capsule: there was a sense of “Oh, this is how I wrote in my early-to-mid-20s, when my sensibility was almost completely different.” 5. Justin Taylor on The Gospel of Anarchy (2012) Gospel was brutally reviewed upon publication, for reasons that I felt -- and still feel -- were largely unfair, and only tangentially related to its contents. A lot of people wanted it to be pure punk rock slapstick, and so decided in advance that it probably would be, and so were more than a little bit put off by what turned out to be a dense, recursive, intermittently X-rated meditation on theology. The book’s great crime, in the critical consensus, was in taking its own central question seriously, namely: Is there a vantage point from which Christianity and anarchism appear (or are revealed) to be, one and the same thing? This is not to say I posed this as elegantly as I could have, or that anyone other than me is obliged to agree with my answer or even care what the possible answers are -- it may not be a great novel, who knows? -- but many critics seemed to be offended that I had asked the question in the first place. It was the refusal to engage, and the smug self-satisfaction of the unengaged, that hurt me far more than the negativity itself. I started this paragraph planning to say that I’m no longer as upset by this as I was then, but it’s obviously not true. I'm still upset -- maybe not in a day-to-day “Arya Stark’s revenge list” way, but still. I hate the part of American culture that prides itself on its shallowness, the cold and at least honest “fuck you” reduced even further to the squirrelly and smirking “WTF,” and I hate that we -- literary culture -- have allowed the infection to cross our borders. One does try to be a good literary citizen, and most of the time it’s a decent country to be citizen of, but other times it feels like you’re wading to middle school through a waist-deep river of shit. So, let me end on a positive -- and sane -- note by mentioning my single favorite response to The Gospel of Anarchy, which came in the form of a nine-panel comic by Horn! Reviews, which is the project of Kevin Thomas. He just understood exactly what I was after, met me where I was, produced art in response to art. All of which reassured me, at a time when I needed to hear it, that I wasn’t completely nuts to have gone about things the way I did. If Gospel ever gets reissued, his comic is going on the cover. In fact, there won't be anything else on the cover. The whole cover will just be it.” 6. Anthony Marra on A Constellation of Vital Phenomena (2013) I still do get a jolt of pride whenever I see Constellation in a bookstore, but now it’s more a nod across the room to an old friend. The greatest change has been the realization that when you publish a book, it stops being yours and begins belonging to whoever reads it. At an event a couple months back, a woman asked a question about the specifics of a particular plot point. I haven’t read Constellation since I finished writing it four years ago, and to my embarrassment, I’d forgotten the exact details of the scene in question. A couple other people in the crowd immediately jumped in with their own interpretations and I silently stood at the podium, relieved to listen to readers tell me what my book is about. The Tsar of Love and Techno (Hogarth) is forthcoming on October 13.
If you like to read, we've got some news for you. The second-half of 2015 is straight-up, stunningly chock-full of amazing books. If someone told you, "Hey, there are new books coming out by Margaret Atwood, Lauren Groff, Elena Ferrante, John Banville, and Jonathan Franzen this year," you might say, "Wow, it's going to be a great year for books." Well, those five authors all have books coming out in September this year (alongside 22 other books we're highlighting that month). This year, you'll also see new books from David Mitchell, Bonnie Jo Campbell, Aleksandar Hemon, Patti Smith, Colum McCann, Paul Murray, and what we think is now safe to call a hugely anticipated debut novel from our own Garth Risk Hallberg. The list that follows isn’t exhaustive -- no book preview could be -- but, at 9,100 words strong and encompassing 82 titles, this is the only second-half 2015 book preview you will ever need. Scroll down and get started. July: Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee: Fifty-five years after the publication of Lee's classic To Kill a Mockingbird, this “newly discovered” sequel picks up 20 years after the events of the first novel when Jean Louise Finch -- better known to generations of readers as Scout -- returns to Maycomb, Ala., to visit her lawyer father, Atticus. Controversy has dogged this new book as many have questioned whether the famously silent Lee, now pushing 90 and in poor health, truly wanted publication for this long-abandoned early effort to grapple with the characters and subject matter that would evolve into her beloved coming-of-age novel. (Michael) Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates: A journalist who learned the ropes from David Carr, Coates is one of our most incisive thinkers and writers on matters of race. Coates is unflinching when writing of the continued racial injustice in the United States: from growing up in Baltimore and its culture of violence that preceded the Freddie Gray riots, to making the case for reparations while revealing the systematic racism embedded in Chicago real estate, to demanding that South Carolina stop flying the Confederate flag. In Between the World and Me, Coates 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. Originally slated for September, the book was moved up to July. Spiegel & Grau Executive Editor Chris Jackson said, "We started getting massive requests from people [for advance copies.] It spoke to this moment. We started to feel pregnant with this book. We had this book that so many people wanted." Publishers Weekly's review dispensed with any coyness, saying, "This is a book that will be hailed as a classic of our time." (Anne) A Cure for Suicide by Jesse Ball: Elegant and spooky, dystopian and poetic, Jesse Ball’s follow-up to the well-reviewed Silence Once Begun follows a man known only as “the claimant” as he relearns everything under the guidance of an “examiner,” a woman who defines everything from the objects in their house to how he understands his existence. Then he meets another woman at a party and begins to question everything anew. A puzzle, a love story, and a tale of illness, memory, and manipulation, A Cure for Suicide promises to be a unique novel from a writer already known for his originality. (Kaulie) The Dying Grass by William T. Vollmann: Volume number five of Vollmann’s Seven Dreams series expands on the author's epic portrayal of the settlement of North America. In his latest, Vollmann depicts the Nez Perce War, a months-long conflict in 1877 that saw the eponymous Native American tribe defend their mountain territories from encroachment by the U.S. Army. According to Vollmann, who spoke with Tom Bissell about the series for a New Republic piece, the text consists of mostly dialogue. (Thom) Armada by Ernest Cline: Billy Mitchell, the “greatest arcade-video-game player of all time,” devoted 40 hours a week to the perfection of his craft, but he says he never skipped school or missed work. That was 35 years ago, before video games exploded not only in size and complexity, but also in absorptive allure. Recently, things have changed. It was only a year ago that a California couple was imprisoned for locking their children in a dingy trailer so the two of them could play 'World of Warcraft" uninterrupted. (By comparison, Mitchell’s devotion seems pedestrian.) This year, programmers are working on "No Man’s Sky," a “galaxy-sized video game” that’ll allow players to zip around a full-scale universe in the name of interplanetary exploration. It sounds impossibly gigantic. And with escalation surely comes a reckoning: Why are people spending more time with games than without? Across the world, a new class of professional gamers are earning lucrative sponsorships and appearing on slickly produced televised tournaments with tuition-sized purses. But surely more than money is at stake. (Full disclosure: I made more real money selling virtual items in "Diablo III’s" online marketplace than I did from writing in '12.) As increasingly rich worlds draw us in, what are we hoping to gain? It can’t just be distraction, can it? Are there practical benefits, or are we just hoping there are? This, to me, sounds like the heart of Ernest Cline’s latest novel, Armada, which focuses on a real life alien invasion that can only be stopped by gamers who’ve been obediently (albeit unknowingly) training for this very task. (Nick M.) The Small Backs of Children by Lidia Yuknavitch: The visionary editor of Chiasmus Press and first to publish books by Kate Zambreno and Lily Hoang is herself a fierce and passionate writer. Yuknavitch is the author of a gutsy memoir, The Chronology of Water, and Dora: A Headcase, a fictional re-spinning of the Freudian narrative. Her new novel, Small Backs of Children, deals with art, violence, and the very real effects of witnessing violence and conflict through the media. According to Porochista Khakpour, the novel achieves “moments of séance with writers like Jean Rhys and Clarice Lispector,” a recommendation destined to make many a reader slaver. (Anne) Lovers on All Saints’ Day by Juan Gabriel Vásquez: The Colombian writer Juan Gabriel Vásquez has been compared to Gabriel García Márquez and Roberto Bolaño. Winner of the International IMPAC Dublin Award for his novel The Sound of Things Falling, Vásquez is bringing out a collection of seven short stories never before published in English (nimbly translated from the Spanish by Anne McLean). The twinned themes of this collection are love and memory, which Vásquez unspools through stories about love affairs, revenge, troubled histories -- whole lives and worlds sketched with a few deft strokes. Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa has called Vásquez “one of the most original new voices of Latin American literature.” (Bill) Among the Wild Mulattos and Other Tales by Tom Williams: The recent passing of B.B. King makes Williams's previous book, Don't Start Me Talkin' -- a comic road novel about a pair of traveling blues musicians -- a timely read. His new story collection also skewers superficial discussions of race; admirers of James Alan McPherson will enjoy Williams's tragicomic sense. The book ranges from the hilarious “The Story of My Novel,” about an aspiring writer's book deal with Cousin Luther's Friend Chicken, to the surreal “Movie Star Entrances,” how one man's quest to remake himself with the help of an identity consulting company turns nefarious. Williams can easily, and forcefully, switch tragic, as in “The Lessons of Effacement.” When the main character is followed, he thinks “When your only offenses in life were drinking out of the juice carton and being born black in these United States, what could warrant such certain persecution?” Williams offers questions that are their own answers, as in the final story, when a biracial anthropologist discovers that a hidden mulatto community is more than simply legend. (Nick R.) August: Flood of Fire by Amitav Ghosh: Following Sea of Poppies (shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize) and River of Smoke, Calcutta-born Ghosh brings his Ibis Trilogy to a rousing conclusion with Flood of Fire. It’s 1839, and after China embargoes the lucrative trade of opium grown on British plantations in India, the colonial government sends an expeditionary force from Bengal to Hong Kong to reinstate it. In bringing the first Opium War to crackling life, Ghosh has illuminated the folly of our own failed war on drugs. Historical fiction doesn’t get any timelier than this. (Bill) Fortune Smiles by Adam Johnson: Johnson is best known for his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about North Korea, The Orphan Master’s Son, but he’s also the author of a terrific and off-kilter story collection called Emporium, a literary cousin to the sad-comic work of George Saunders, Sam Lipsyte, and Dan Chaon. This new collection of six stories, about everything from a former Stasi prison guard in East Germany to a computer programmer “finding solace in a digital simulacrum of the president of the United States,” echoes his early work while also building upon the ambition of his prize-winning tome. Kirkus gave the collection a starred review, calling it, “Bittersweet, elegant, full of hard-won wisdom.” (Edan) Wind/Pinball by Haruki Murakami: A reissue of Murakami's first novels, Hear the Wind Sing and Pinball, 1973, which form the first half of the so-called (four-book) Trilogy of the Rat. Written in 1978 and 1980, these books were never published outside of Japan, evidently at Murakami's behest. He seems to have relented. (Lydia) The State We’re In: Maine Stories by Ann Beattie: Fifteen stories -- connected by their depictions of a number of shared female characters – make up this new collection by short story master Beattie. In “Major Maybe,” which originally appeared in The New Yorker, two young roommates navigate Chelsea in the '80s. In “The Repurposed Barn,” readers glimpse an auction of Elvis Presley lamps, and in “Missed Calls,” a writer meets a photographer’s widow. Though most of the stories take place in Beattie’s home state of Maine, the author says they required her to call on the work of memory, as they took place in a “recalled” Maine rather than the Maine “outside her window.” (Thom) The Marriage of Opposites by Alice Hoffman: Describing Rachel, the protagonist of Alice Hoffman’s 34th novel, as the mother of Camille Pissarro, the Father of Impressionism, feels like exactly the kind of thing I shouldn’t be doing right now. That’s because The Marriage of Opposites isn’t about an artist. It’s about the very real woman who led a full and interesting life of her own, albeit one that was profoundly shaped by decisions she didn’t make. Growing up in 19th-century St. Thomas, among a small community of Jewish refugees who’d fled the Inquisition, Rachel dreams of worlds she’s never known, like Paris. No doubt she yearns for a freedom she’s never known, too, after her father arranges her marriage to one of his business associates. What happens next involves a sudden death, a passionate affair, and an act of defiance signaling that perhaps Rachel is free, and that certainly she’s got her own story to tell. (Nick M.) The Complete Stories by Clarice Lispector: For readers who worship at the altar of Lispector, the appearance of new work in translation is an event. Her writing has long been celebrated across her homeland, Brazil, and Latin America, but it wasn’t until recently that her name became common currency among English readers thanks to New Directions’s reissue of her novels and Benjamin Moser's notable biography. To add to the allure of “Brazil’s great mystic writer,” Moser offers, she was “that rare woman who looked like Marlene Dietrich and wrote like Virginia Woolf.” Calling the release of Lispector’s Complete Stories in English an “epiphany” in its promotional copy may sound like hyperbole. It’s not. (Anne) Let Me Tell You: New Stories, Essays, and Other Writings by Shirley Jackson: Shirley Jackson has been a powerhouse in American fiction ever since her haunting 1948 short story “The Lottery,” which showcased her talent for turning the quotidian into something eerie and unnerving. Although she died 50 years ago, her family is still mining her archives for undiscovered gems, resulting in this new collection of 56 pieces, more than 40 of which have never been published before. From short stories to comic essays to drawings, Jackson’s full range is on display, yet her wit and sharp examination of social norms is present throughout. (Tess) Three Moments of an Explosion by China Miéville: Miéville, the author of more than a dozen novels, is the sort of writer that deftly leaps across (often artificially-imposed) genre divides. He describes his corner of speculative fiction as “weird fiction,” in the footsteps of H.P. Lovecraft. (Tor.com mocked the desire to endlessly subcategorise genre by also placing his work in “New Weird!” “Fantastika!” “Literary Speculation!” “Hauntological Slipstream!” “Tentacular Metafusion!”) His first short story collection was published a decade ago; his second, with 10 previously-published stories and 18 new ones, is out in the U.S. in August. (Elizabeth) The Daughters by Adrienne Celt: Celt, who is also a comics artist, writes in her bio that she grew up in Seattle, and has both worked for Google and visited a Russian prison. Her debut novel covers a lot of ground, emotionally and culturally: opera, Polish mythology, and motherhood/daughterhood. Kirkus has given The Daughters a starred review -- “haunting” and “psychologically nuanced” -- and she was a finalist for the Sherwood Anderson Fiction Award, among others. Celt’s web comics appear weekly here, and she sells t-shirts! One to watch.(Sonya) Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh: If anyone’s a Paris Review regular it’s Ottessa Moshfegh, with a coveted Plimpton Prize and four stories to her name (in only three year’s time). Her narrators have a knack for all kind of bad behavior: like the algebra teacher who imbibes 40s from the corner bodega on school nights, who smokes in bed and drunk dials her ex-husband, or the woman who offers to shoot a flock of birds for her apartment-manager boyfriend. Moshfegh’s novels track the lives of characters who are equally and indulgently inappropriate. Moshfegh’s first full-length novel Eileen follows a secretary at a boys prison (whose vices include a shoplifting habit) who becomes lured by friendship into committing a far larger crime. (Anne) Shipbreaking by Robin Beth Schaer: Schaer worked as a deckhand on the HMS Bounty, which sank during Hurricane Sandy, so I entered Shipbreaking feeling that I would be in credible hands. I often read poetry to find phrases and lines to hold with me beyond the final page, and Schaer, who once wrote that “to leave the shore required surrender,” delivers. “I am / forgiven by water, but savaged by sky” says one narrator. Another: “Even swooning / is a kind of fainting, overwhelmed / by bliss, instead of pain.” Shipbreaking is a book about being saved while recognizing loss. Schaer’s words apply equally to marine and shore moments, as so often life is “a charade that only deepens / the absence it bends to hide.” Schaer’s long poems are especially notable; “Middle Flight” and “Natural History” remake pregnancy and motherhood: “Before now, he floated in dark water...Someday he too will chase his lost lightness / half-remembered toward the sky.” If we trust our poets enough, we allow them cause wounds and then apply the salves: “The world without us / is nameless.” (Nick R.) Last Mass by Jamie Iredell: "I am a Catholic." So begins Iredell's book, part memoir about growing up Catholic in Monterey County, Calif., part historical reconsideration of Blessed Father Fray Juníperro Serra, an 18th-century Spanish Franciscan who will be canonized by Pope Francis later this year. Structured around the Stations of the Cross, Iredell's unique book reveals the multitudinous complexities of Catholic identity, and how the tensions between those strands are endemic to Catholic culture. Think of Last Mass as William Gass's On Being Blue recast as On Being Catholic: Iredell's range is encyclopedic without feeling stretched. Delivered in tight vignettes that capture the Catholic tendency to be simultaneously specific and universal, the book's heart is twofold. First, how faith is ultimately a concern of the flesh, as seen in the faithful’s reverence for the body of Christ and struggles over experiencing sexuality (Catholics pivot between the obscene and the divine without missing a step). Second, in documenting Catholic devotion to saintly apocrypha, Iredell carries the reader to his most heartfelt note: his devotion and love for his father and family. (Nick R.) September: Purity by Jonathan Franzen: Known for his mastery of the modern domestic drama and his disdain for Internet things, Franzen, with his latest enormous novel, broadens his scope from the tree-lined homes of the Midwest and the Mainline to variously grim and paradisiacal domiciles in Oakland, East Germany, and Bolivia; alters his tableaux from the suburban nuclear family to fractured, lonely little twosomes; and progresses from cat murder to human murder. The result is something odd and unexpected -- a political novel that is somehow less political than his family novels at their coziest, and shot through with new strains of bitterness. Expect thinkpieces. (Lydia) Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff: Groff’s highly anticipated third novel follows married couple Lotto and Matthilde for over two decades, starting with an opening scene (published on The Millions), of the young, just-hitched duo getting frisky on the beach. The book was one of the galleys-to-grab at BookExpo America this spring, and it’s already received glowing reviews from Library Journal, Publishers Weekly, and Kirkus. Meg Wolitzer writes of Groff: “Because she's so vitally talented line for line and passage for passage, and because her ideas about the ways in which two people can live together and live inside each other, or fall away from each other, or betray each other, feel foundationally sound and true, Fates and Furies becomes a book to submit to, and be knocked out by, as I certainly was.” (Edan) The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood: A hotly anticipated story about “a near-future in which the lawful are locked up and the lawless roam free,” this is Atwood’s first standalone novel since The Blind Assassin, which won the Man Booker in 2000 (The Penelopiad was part of the Canongate Myth Series). Charmaine and Stan are struggling to make ends meet in the midst of social and economic turmoil. They strike a deal to join a “social experiment” that requires them to swap suburban paradise for their freedom. Given Atwood’s reputation for wicked social satire, I doubt it goes well. Publishers Weekly notes, "The novel is set in the same near-future universe as Atwood’s Positron series of four short stories, released exclusively as e-books. The most recent Positron installment, which was published under the same name as the upcoming novel, came out in 2013." (Claire) The Blue Guitar by John Banville: Banville’s 16th novel takes its title from a Wallace Stevens poem about artistic imagination and perception: “Things as they are/ Are changed upon the blue guitar.” Banville’s protagonist, Oliver Otway Orme, is a talented but blocked painter, an adulterer, and something of a kleptomaniac who returns to his childhood home to ruminate on his misdeeds and vocation. With such an intriguing, morally suspect central character as his instrument, Banville should be able to play one of his typically beguiling tunes. (Matt) The Story of the Lost Child by Elena Ferrante: Ferrante writes what James Wood called "case histories, full of flaming rage, lapse, failure, and tenuous psychic success." In the fourth and final of the reclusive global publishing sensation's Neapolitan novels, we return to Naples and to the tumultuous friendship of Lila Cerullo and Elena Greco. (Lydia) Undermajordomo Minor by Patrick DeWitt: DeWitt’s second novel, The Sisters Brothers, was short-listed for the Man Booker and just about every Canadian prize going, and for good reason. It took the grit, melancholy, and wit of the Western genre and bent it just enough toward the absurd. This new work, billed as “a fable without a moral,” is about a young man named Lucien (Lucy) Minor who becomes an undermajordomo at a castle full of mystery, dark secrets, polite theft, and bitter heartbreak. Our own Emily St. John Mandel calls it, “unexpectedly moving story about love, home, and the difficulty of finding one’s place in the world.” (Claire) Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights by Salman Rushdie: A new Rushdie novel is an event -- as is a new Rushdie tweet for that matter, especially after his vigorous defense of PEN’s decision to honor Charlie Hebdo. His latest follows the magically gifted descendants of a philosopher and a jinn, one of those seductive spirits who “emerge periodically to trouble and bless mankind.” These offspring are marshaled into service when a war breaks out between the forces of light and dark that lasts, you got it, two years, eight months, and 28 nights. You can read an excerpt at The New Yorker. (Matt) Sweet Caress by William Boyd: Boyd is one of those Englishmen who changes hats as effortlessly as most people change socks. A novelist, screenwriter, playwright, and movie director, Boyd has been shortlisted for the Booker Prize (for 1982’s An Ice-Cream War), and he recently wrote the James Bond novel Solo. His new novel, Sweet Caress, is the story of Amory Clay, whose passion for photography takes her from London to Berlin in the decadent 1920s, New York in the turbulent '30s, and France during World War II, where she becomes one of the first female war photographers. This panoramic novel is illustrated with “found” period photographs. (Bill) The Visiting Privilege: New and Collected Stories by Joy Williams: The “definitive” collection from an acknowledged mastress of the short story -- Rea Award Winner alongside Donald Barthelme, Alice Munro, Robert Coover, Deborah Eisenberg, James Salter, Mary Robison, Amy Hempel, et alia -- The Visiting Privilege collects 33 stories from three previous collections, and 13 stories previously unpublished in book form. Joy Williams has been a writer’s writer for decades, yet never goes out of fashion. Her stories are sometimes difficult, bizarre, upsetting even; and always funny, truthful, and affecting. Williams once exhorted student writers to write something “worthy, necessary; a real literature instead of the Botox escapist lit told in the shiny prolix comedic style that has come to define us.” Would-be writers perplexed by what is meant by an original “voice” should read Williams, absolutely. Read her in doses, perhaps, but read her, for godssakes. (Sonya) Did You Ever Have a Family by Bill Clegg: By day, Clegg is a glamorous New York literary agent known for snagging fat book deals for literary authors like Matthew Thomas and Daniyal Mueenuddin. At night, he peels off the power suit and becomes a literary author himself, first with two memoirs about his descent into -- and back out of -- crack addiction, and now a debut novel. In Did You Ever Have a Family, tragedy strikes a middle-aged woman on the eve of her daughter’s wedding, setting her off on a journey across the country from Connecticut to the Pacific Northwest, where she hides out in a small beachside hotel. (Michael) The Lost Landscape by Joyce Carol Oates: Volcanically prolific Oates has produced another memoir, The Lost Landscape: A Writer’s Coming of Age, which focuses on her formative years growing up on a hard-scrabble farm in upstate New York. We learn of young Oates’s close friendship with a red hen, her first encounters with death, and the revelation, on discovering Alice in Wonderland, that life offers endless adventures to those who know how to look for them. Witnessing the birth of this natural storyteller, we also witness her learning harsh lessons about work, sacrifice and loss -- what Oates has called “the difficulties, doubts and occasional despair of my experience.” (Bill) The Double Life of Liliane by Lily Tuck: The only child of a German movie producer living in Italy and an artistic mother living in New York, Liliane also has ancestors as varied as Mary Queen of Scots, Moses Mendelssohn, and a Mexican adventurer. In this sixth, semi-autobiographical novel from Lily Tuck, winner of the National Book Award for The News from Paraguay, the imaginative Liliane uncovers her many ancestors, tracing and combining their histories as she goes. The result is a writerly coming-of-age that spans both World Wars, multiple continents, and all of one very diverse family. (Kaulie) This is Your Life, Harriet Chance! by Jonathan Evison: A writer with a reputation for having a big heart takes on Harriet Chance who, at 79 years old and after the death of her husband, goes on a Alaskan cruise. Soon she discovers that she’s been living under false pretenses for the past 60 years. In other hands, this story might turn out as schmaltzy as the cruise ship singer, but Evison’s previous novels, The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving, West of Here, and All About Lulu have established him as a master of the wistfully wise and humanely humorous. As Evison said in a recent interview, fiction is “an exercise in empathy.” (Claire) Gold, Fame, Citrus, by Claire Vaye Watkins: Set in an increasingly plausible-seeming future in which drought has transformed Southern California into a howling wasteland, this debut novel by the author of the prize-winning story collection Battleborn finds two refugees of the water wars holed up in a starlet’s abandoned mansion in L.A.’s Laurel Canyon. Seeking lusher landscape, the pair head east, risking attack by patrolling authorities, roving desperadoes, and the unrelenting sun. (Michael) Cries for Help, Various by Padgett Powell: Back when the working title for his new story collection was Cries for Help: Forty-Five Failed Novels, Padgett Powell proclaimed the book “unsalable.” He was wrong. It’s coming out as Cries for Help, Various, and it’s a reminder that with Padgett Powell, anything is possible. In “Joplin and Dickens,” for instance, the titular singer and writer meet as emotionally needy students in an American middle school. Surreal wackiness can’t disguise the fact that these 44 stories are grounded in such very real preoccupations as longing, loneliness, and cultural nostalgia. The authorial voice ranges from high to low, from cranky to tender. It’s the music of a virtuoso. (Bill) The Marvels by Brian Selznick: You know a book is eagerly awaited when you witness an actual mob scene full of shoving and elbows for advance copies at BookExpo America. (In case there’s any doubt, I did witness this.) Selznick, the Caldecott-winning author and illustrator of dozens of children’s books, is best known for The Invention of Hugo Cabret, published in 2008. His newest work weaves together “two seemingly unrelated stories” told in two seemingly unrelated forms: a largely visual tale that begins with an 18th-century shipwreck, and a largely prose one that begins in London in 1990. (Elizabeth) Scrapper by Matt Bell: Set in a re-imagined Detroit, Bell’s second novel follows Kelly, a “scrapper,” who searches for valuable materials in the city’s abandoned buildings. One day Kelly finds an orphaned boy, a discovery that forces Kelly to reexamine his own past and buried traumas. Advance reviews describe Scrapper as “harrowing” and “grim,” two adjectives that could also be used to describe Bell’s hypnotic debut, In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods. (Hannah) Above the Waterfall by Ron Rash: For his sixth novel, Ron Rash returns to the beautiful but unforgiving Appalachian hills that have nourished most of his fiction and poetry. In Above the Waterfall, a sheriff nearing retirement and a young park ranger seeking to escape her past come together in a small Appalachian town bedeviled by poverty and crystal meth. A vicious crime will plunge the unlikely pair into deep, treacherous waters. Rash, a 2009 PEN/Faulkner Award finalist, is one of our undisputed Appalachian laureates, in company with Robert Morgan, Lee Smith, Fred Chappell, and Mark Powell. He has called this “a book about wonder, about how nature might sustain us.” (Bill) The Story of My Teeth by Valeria Luiselli: This young Mexican writer and translator was honored last year with a National Book Foundation “Five Under 35” Award for her 2013 debut, Faces in the Crowd. Her essay collection Sidewalks, published the same year, was also a critical favorite. Her second novel, The Story of My Teeth, is a story of stories, narrated by Gustavo “Highway” Sánchez Sánchez, a traveling auctioneer whose prize possession is a set of Marilyn Monroe’s dentures. Set in Mexico City, it was written in collaboration with Jumex Factory Staff -- which is a story in and of itself. (Hannah) Marvel and a Wonder by Joe Meno: The author of Hairstyles of the Damned and The Boy Detective Fails has taken an ambitious turn with Marvel and a Wonder. The book follows a Korean War vet living with his 16-year-old grandson on a farm in southern Indiana. They are given a beautiful quarterhorse, an unexpected gift that transforms their lives, but when the horse is stolen they embark on a quest to find the thieves and put their lives back together. (Janet) Under the Udala Trees by Chinelo Okparanta: Okparanta was born in Nigeria and raised as a Jehovah’s Witness. She emigrated to the United States at age 10, but her fiction often returns to Nigeria, painting a striking portrait of the contemporary nation. Her first book, the 2013 short story collection Happiness, Like Water, was shortlisted for many prizes and won the 2014 Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Fiction. Her debut novel, Under the Udala Trees, tells the story of two young girls who fall in love against the backdrop of the Nigerian Civil War. (Elizabeth) After the Parade by Lori Ostlund: This assured debut tells the story of Aaron, an ESL teacher who decides, at age 40, to leave his lifelong partner, the older man who “saved him” from his Midwestern hometown. But in order to move on, Aaron has to take a closer look at his Midwestern past and find out if there’s anything worth salvaging. Readers may know Ostlund from her award-winning 2010 short story collection, The Bigness of the World. (Hannah) The Hundred Year Flood by Matthew Salesses: Like the titular flood that churns through the second half of the novel, The Hundred Year Flood is a story of displacement. Salesses, whose non-fiction examines adoption and identity, tells the story of Tee, a Korean-American living in Prague in late 2001. The attacks of 9/11 are not mere subtext in this novel; Tee’s uncle commits suicide by plane, and the entire novel dramatizes how the past binds our present. “Anywhere he went he was the only Asian in Prague,” but Tee soon finds friendship in Pavel, a painter made famous during the 1989 Velvet Revolution, and Katka, his wife. Tee becomes Pavel’s subject, and soon, Katka’s lover. “In the paintings, [Tee] was more real than life. His original self had been replaced:” Salesses novel dramatically documents how longing can turn, painfully, into love. (Nick R.) Not on Fire, but Burning by Greg Hrbek: An explosion has destroyed San Francisco. Twelve-year-old Dorian and his parents have survived it, but where is his older sister, Skyler? She never existed, according to Dorian’s parents. Post-incident America is a sinister place, where Muslims have been herded onto former Native American reservations and parents deny the existence of a boy’s sister. According to the publisher, Hrbek’s sophomore novel is “unlike anything you've read before -- not exactly a thriller, not exactly sci-fi, not exactly speculative fiction, but rather a brilliant and absorbing adventure into the dark heart of...America.” Joining the Melville House family for his third book, Hrbek, whose story “Paternity” is in the current issue of Tin House, may be poised to be the next indie breakout. (Sonya) Dryland by Sara Jaffe: Jaffe has lived many lives it seems, one as a guitarist for punk band Erase Errata, another as a founding editor of New Herring Press (which just reissued a bang-up edition of Lynne Tillman's Weird Fucks with paintings by Amy Sillman). Proof of Jaffe’s life as a fiction-writer can be found online, too, including gems like “Stormchasers.” This fall marks the publication of Jaffe’s first novel, Dryland, a coming-of-age tale set in the '90s that depicts a girl whose life is defined by absences, including and especially that of her not-talked about older brother, until she has a chance to find him and herself. (Anne) Hotel and Vertigo by Joanna Walsh: British critic, journalist, and fiction writer Walsh kickstarted 2014 with the #readwomen hashtag phenomenon, declaring it the year to read only women. It seems that 2015 is the year to publish them, and specifically Walsh, who has two books coming out this fall. Hotel is “part memoir part meditation” that draws from Walsh’s experience as a hotel reviewer -- and that explores “modern sites of gathering and alienation.” The inimitable Dorothy Project will publish Vertigo, a book of loosely linked stories that channels George Perec and Christine Brooke-Rose, and which Amina Cain claims, “quietly subvert(s) the hell out of form.” (Anne) October: City on Fire by Garth Risk Hallberg: Garth is a contributing editor to the site, where he has written masterful essays over nearly a decade, while teaching and putting out his novella Field Guide to the North American Family. He is a keen and perfect reader of novels, and of critics -- he told us about Roberto Bolaño. We trust him to steer us through difficult books. (He is, additionally, a champion punner.) When his debut novel, a 900-pager written over six years, was purchased by Knopf, we felt not only that it couldn't happen to a nicer guy, but that it couldn't happen to a more serious, a more bona fide person of letters. City on Fire is the result of his wish to write a novel that took in "9/11, the 1977 blackout, punk rock, the fiscal crisis," which explains the 900 pages. Read the opening lines, evoking a modern Inferno, here. I think we're in for something special. (Lydia) Slade House by David Mitchell: Slade House started out with “The Right Sort,” a short story Mitchell published via 280 tweets last summer as publicity for The Bone Clocks. That story, which was published in full, exclusively here at The Millions, is about a boy and his mother attending a party to which they’d received a mysterious invitation. The story “ambushed” him, said Mitchell, and, before he knew it, it was the seed of a full-fledged novel, seemingly about years of mysterious parties at the same residence that we can assume are connected to each other and to characters we’ve already met. The book is said to occupy the same universe as The Bone Clocks and, by extension, Mitchell’s increasingly interconnected body of work. (Janet) M Train by Patti Smith: The follow-up to Just Kids, Smith’s much-beloved (and National Book Award-winning) 2010 memoir about her youthful friendship with the artist Robert Mapplethorpe as they made their way in 1960s New York City. In a recent interview, Smith said M Train is “not a book about the past so much. It’s who I am, what I do, what I’m thinking about, what I read and the coffee I drink. The floors I pace. So we’ll see. I hope people like it.” Oh Patti, we know we’re gonna like it. (Hannah) Behind the Glass Wall by Aleksandar Hemon: Hemon has lived in the U.S. since the war in his native Bosnia made it impossible for him to return from what should have been a temporary visit. So he came to his role as the U.N.’s first writer-in-residence in its 70-year history with a lot of baggage. Given unprecedented access to the organization’s inner working -- from the general assembly to the security council -- his book portrays a deeply flawed but vitally necessary institution. (Janet) A Strangeness in My Mind by Orhan Pamuk: Nobel laureate Pamuk’s ninth novel follows Mevlut, an Istanbul street vendor. Beginning in the 1970s, the book covers four decades of urban life, mapping the city’s fortunes and failures alongside Mevlut’s, and painting a nostalgic picture of Pamuk's beloved home. (Hannah) Mothers, Tell Your Daughters: Stories by Bonnie Jo Campbell: In Once Upon a River, Campbell introduced us to the wily and wise-beyond-her-years Margo Crane, a modern-day female Huck Finn taking to the river in search of her lost mother. The strong and stubborn protagonists that the Michigan author excels at writing are back in her third short story collection. The working-class women in these stories are grief-addled brides, phlebotomists discovering their sensuality, and vengeful abused wives, all drawn with Campbell’s signature dark humor and empathy. (Tess) 100 Years of the Best American Short Stories edited by Lorrie Moore: For 100 years, the Best American series has collected the strongest short stories, from Ernest Hemingway to Sherman Alexie. As editor, Lorrie Moore, a virtuoso of the genre herself, combed through more than 2,000 stories to select the 41 featured in this anthology. But this is not just a compilation, it’s also an examination of how the genre has evolved. Series editor Heidi Pitlor recounts the literary trends of the 20th century, including the rise of Depression-era Southern fiction to the heyday of the medium in the 1980s. The result is collection featuring everyone from F. Scott Fitzgerald to Lauren Groff. (Tess) The Secret Chord by Geraldine Brooks: The author of March and Caleb’s Crossing, known for her abilities to bring history to life, has turned her attention to David King of Israel. Taking the famous stories of his shephardic childhood, defeat of Goliath, and troubled rule as king, Brooks fills in the gaps and humanizes the legend in a saga of family, faith, and power. (Janet) Thirteen Ways of Looking by Colum McCann: With a title borrowed from the iconic Wallace Stevens poem “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” McCann explores disparate points of view in this collection of short stories. The title story follows a retired judge going about his day, not realizing it’s his last. Other stories peek into the life of a nun, a marine, and a mother and son whose Christmas is marked by an unexpected disappearance. (Hannah) The Mark and the Void by Paul Murray: Murray’s 2010 novel Skippy Dies earned the Irishman worldwide acclaim as a writer enviably adept at both raucous humor and bittersweet truth. His new novel, perhaps the funniest thing to come out of the Irish economic collapse, follows Claude, a low-level bank employee who, while his employers drive the country steadily towards ruin, falls in with a struggling novelist intent on making Claude’s life worthy of telling. (Janet) The Tsar of Love and Techno by Anthony Marra: A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, Marra’s first novel about war-torn Chechnya during the Second Chechen War, was not only a New York Times bestseller, it was also a longlist selection for the National Book Award and on a bevy of best-of lists for 2013. His second book is a collection of short stories that, like his novel, span a number of years, and take place in the same part of the world. There’s a 1930s Soviet censor laboring beneath Leningrad, for example, as well as a chorus of women who, according to the jacket copy, “recount their stories and those of their grandmothers, former gulag prisoners who settled their Siberian mining town.” The characters in these stories are interconnected, proving that Marra is as ambitious with the short form as he is with the novel. (Edan) Death by Water by Kenzaburō Ōe: Six years after Sui Shi came out in his native Japan, the 1994 Nobel Prize laureate’s latest is arriving in an English translation. In the book, which features Oe’s recurring protagonist Kogito Choko, a novelist attempts to fictionalize his father’s death by drowning at sea. Because the memory was traumatic, and because Choko’s family refuses to talk about his father, the writer begins to confuse his facts, eventually growing so frustrated he shelves his novel altogether. His quest is hopeless, or so it appears, until he meets an avant-garde theater troupe, which provides him with the impetus to keep going. (Thom) Submission by Michel Houellebecq: This much-discussed satirical novel by the provocative French author is, as Adam Shatz wrote for the LRB, a "melancholy tribute to the pleasure of surrender." In this case, the surrender is that of the French intelligentsia to a gently authoritarian Islamic government. The novel has been renounced as Islamophobic, defended against these charges in language that itself runs the gamut from deeply Islamophobic to, er, Islam-positive, and resulted in all kinds of moral-intellectual acrobatics and some very cute titles ("Colombey-les-deux-Mosquées" or "Slouching towards Mecca"). (Lydia) Golden Age by Jane Smiley: The third volume in Smiley’s Last Hundred Years trilogy follows the descendants of a hard-striving Iowa farming family through the waning years of the last century to the present day. The first two installments covered the years 1920-52 (in Some Luck) and 1953-86 (in Early Warning), mixing lively characters and sometimes improbable plot twists with gently left-of-center political analysis of the American century. With characters who are serving in Iraq and working in New York finance, expect more of the same as Smiley wraps up her ambitious three-book project. (Michael) Ghostly: A Collection of Ghost Stories by Audrey Niffenegger: From a contemporary master of spooky stories comes an anthology of the best ghost stories. Niffenegger’s curation shows how the genre has developed from the 19th century to now, with a focus on hauntings. Each story comes with an introduction from her, whether it’s a story by a horror staple like Edgar Allan Poe or the unexpected like Edith Wharton. Also look for a Niffenegger original, “A Secret Life with Cats.” (Tess) The Hours Count by Jillian Cantor: In Cantor’s previous novel, Margot, Anne Frank’s sister has survived World War II, and is living under an assumed identity in America. Cantor’s new book once again blends fact and fiction, this time delving into the lives of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, the only Americans executed for spying during the Cold War. The day Ethel was arrested, her two young children were left with a neighbor, and in The Hours Count Cantor fictionalizes this neighbor, and we understand the Rosenbergs and their story through the eyes of this young, naïve woman. Christina Baker Kline calls the novel “Taut, atmospheric and absorbing...” (Edan) Lafayette in the Somewhat United States by Sarah Vowell: As a teenager, the Marquis de Lafayette was an officer in the Continental Army at the right hand of George Washington. Returning home to his native France after the war, he continued to socialize with his friends Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and Benjamin Franklin, and never lost his place in America’s affections. The author of Assassination Vacation tells the true story of the young French aristocrat who inserted himself into the American Revolution, his long and eventful life on both sides of the Atlantic, and his triumphant return to America at the end of his life. (Janet) The Early Stories of Truman Capote: As any teacher can tell you, fiction written by 14-year-olds is not something you’d typically pay money to read. (It’s hard enough to find people you can pay to read the stuff, at that.) But what about fiction written by a 14-year-old who started writing seriously at age 11? And one who’d go on to write some of the most memorable stories of the modern age? That certainly changes things, and that’s the case at hand with The Early Stories of Truman Capote, which is said to contain 17 pieces written during the author’s teenage years. “When [Capote] was 23, he used to joke that he looked like he was 12,” journalist Anuschka Roshani told Die Zeit after she had discovered the forgotten stories in the New York Public Library. “But when he was 12 he wrote like others did aged 40.” (Nick M.) Upright Beasts by Lincoln Michel: There’s a good chance you’ve encountered Michel’s stories, scattered far and wide across the Internet, and featured in the most reputable and disreputable journals alike. And if not his stories, then perhaps one of his many editorial or side projects, as co-founder of Gigantic, online editor of Electric Literature and, (delightfully) as creator of the Monsters of Literature trading cards. Michel’s stories are often an uncanny combination of sinister and funny, tender and sad. Laura van den Berg calls them “mighty surrealist wonders, mordantly funny and fiercely intelligent,” and many of them will soon be released together in Michel’s first story collection Upright Beasts. (Anne) November: The Mare by Mary Gaitskill: In 2012, Gaitskill read for a student audience from the novel-in-progress The Mare, which was then described as “an adult fairy-tale unsuitable for children’s ears.” The clichéd publicity blurb gives one pause -- “the story of a Dominican girl, the white woman who introduces her to riding, and the horse who changes everything for her” -- but also, for this Gaitskill fan, induces eagerness to see what will surely be Gaitskill’s intimate and layered take on this familiar story trope. The young girl, Velveteen, is a Fresh Air Fund kid from Brooklyn who spends time with a married couple upstate and the horses down the road. Drug addiction, race, and social-class collisions make up at least some of the layers here. (Sonya) The Givenness of Things: Essays by Marilynne Robinson: Robinson is one of the most beloved contemporary American writers, and she’s also one of our most cogent voices writing about religion and faith today. “Robinson's genius is for making indistinguishable the highest ends of faith and fiction,” Michelle Orange wrote of Robinson’s last novel, Lila, and this talent is on display across her new essay collection, 14 essays that meditate on the complexities of Christianity in America today. (Elizabeth) Beatlebone by Kevin Barry: IMPAC-winner Barry -- who we’ve interviewed here at The Millions -- follows John Lennon on a fictional trip to Ireland. In the story, which takes place in 1978, Lennon sets out to find an island he purchased nine years earlier, in a bid to get the solitude he needs to break out of a creative rut. His odyssey appears to be going according to plan -- until, that is, he meets a charming, shape-shifting taxi driver. (Thom) The Big Green Tent by Ludmila Ulitskaya: The Big Green Tent -- at 592 pages and dramatizing a panorama of life in the USSR in the 1950s through the story of three friends -- is a Russian novel, at the same time that it is a “Russian novel.” An orphaned poet, a pianist, and a photographer each in his own way fights the post-Joseph Stalin regime; you might guess that the results are less than feel-good. This may be the Big Book of the year, and Library Journal is calling it “A great introduction to readers new to Ulitskaya,” who, along with being the most popular novelist in Russia, is an activist and rising voice of moral authority there. For more on Ulitsakya, read Masha Gessen’s 2014 profile. (Sonya) Hotels of North America by Rick Moody: For writers both motivated and irked by online reviews, the comment-lurking hero of Moody’s sixth novel should hit close to home. Reginald Edward Morse writes reviews on RateYourLodging.com, yet they aren’t just about the quality of hotel beds and room service -- but his life. Through his comments, he discusses his failings, from his motivational speaking career to his marriage to his relationship with his daughter. When Morse disappears, these comments become the trail of breadcrumbs Moody follows to find him in this clever metafictional take on identity construction. (Tess) Avenue of Mysteries by John Irving: Although Irving feels a little out of vogue these days, his novels have inflected the tenor of modern American literature -- open a novel and see a glimpse of T.S. Garp, a flash of Owen Meany, a dollop of Bogus Trumper. His 14th novel is based, confusingly, on an original screenplay for a movie called Escaping Maharashtra, and takes us to Mexico and the Philippines. (Lydia) Twain & Stanley Enter Paradise by Oscar Hijuelos: When Hijuelos, author of The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, passed away in 2013, he left behind Twain & Stanley Enter Paradise, a novel he’d been working on for more than 12 years. In it, the author imagined a fictitious manuscript containing correspondence between Welsh explorer Henry Morton Stanley, the artist Dorothy Tennant, and Mark Twain. In a virtuoso performance, Hijuelos displays his ability to use a high 19th-century writing style while preserving the individual voices that made each of his subjects so unique. (Nick M.) A Wild Swan: And Other Tales by Michael Cunningham: Pulitzer Prize-winning Cunningham, best known for The Hours, a creative take on Mrs. Dalloway that was itself adapted into a prize-winning movie starring Nicole Kidman and a prosthetic nose, has chosen a new adaptation project: fairy tales. In A Wild Swan, all the familiar fairy tale characters are present, but clearly modernized -- Jack of beanstalk fame lives in his mother’s basement, while the Beast stands in line at the convenience store. Their stories receive similar updates and include all the questions and moments our childhood tales politely skimmed over. (Kaulie) Numero Zero by Umberto Eco: The Italian writer, best known in the U.S. for The Name of the Rose and Foucault’s Pendulum, takes on modern Italy's bete noire -- Benito Mussolini -- in Numero Zero. Moving deftly from 1945 to 1992 and back again, the book shows both the death of the dictator and the odyssey of a hack writer in Colonna, who learns of a bizarre conspiracy theory that says Il Duce survived his own murder. Though its plot is very different, the book pairs naturally with Look Who’s Back, the recent German novel about a time-traveling Adolf Hitler. (Thom) The Past by Tessa Hadley: Hadley’s fifth novel, the well-received Clever Girl, was released just over a year ago, but she’s already back with another delicately crafted novel of generational change in an English family. In The Past, four grown siblings -- three sisters and their brother -- return to their grandparents’ house for three sticky summer weeks. While there, they face collected childhood memories, the possibility of having to sell the house, and each other. Their families cause considerable chaos as well -- the sisters dislike their brother’s wife, while one sister’s boyfriend’s son attempts to seduce her niece. (Kaulie) January: Good on Paper by Rachel Cantor: Cantor’s first novel, A Highly Unlikely Scenario, or a Neetsa Pizza Employee’s Guide to Saving the World, garnered a devoted following for its madcap, time-traveling chutzpah. Her second novel, Good on Paper, also published by Melville House, sounds a bit different -- but just as enticing. According to the jacket copy, it’s about “a perpetual freelancer who gets an assignment that just might change her life,” and there are echoes of A.S. Byatt’s Possession. (Edan) Destruction and Sorrow Beneath the Heavens: Reportage by László Krasznahorkai: Nine out of 10 doctors agree: Hungarian fiction is the cure for positivity, and few doses are as potent as the ones written by Krasznahorkai, recent winner of the Man Booker International Prize. “If gloom, menace and entropy are your thing,” Larry Rohter wrote in his profile of the author for The New York Times, “then Laszlo is your man.” And our interview with Krasznahorkai garnered the headline “Anticipate Doom.” Ominous for Chinese officials, then, that Krasznahorkai’s latest effort can be described not as a work of fiction, but instead as a travel memoir, or a series of reports filed while journeying through the Asian country. Because if there’s one guy you want to write about your country, it’s someone Susan Sontag described as the “master of the apocalypse.” (Nick M.) Mr. Splitfoot by Samantha Hunt: In Hunt’s fictions, imagination anchors the real and sometimes calls mutiny. Her tales earned her a spot in Tin House’s coterie of “Fantastic Women,” and The Believer has called her “a master of beautiful delusions.” Whether the delusion involves believing oneself to be a mermaid or a wife who becomes a deer at night or the eccentric life and ideas of the oft-overlooked inventor Nikola Tesla (who among other things, harbored pigeons in New York City hotel rooms), Hunt delivers them with what an essence akin to magic. Mr. Splitfoot, Hunt’s third novel, promises more in this vein. It's a gothic ghost story, involving two orphaned sisters, channeling spirits, and an enigmatic journey across New York State. (Anne) February: The High Mountains of Portugal by Yann Martel: The fourth novel by Martel is touted as an allegory that asks questions about loss, faith, suffering, and love. Sweeping from the 1600s to the present through three intersecting stories, this novel will no doubt be combed for comparison to his blockbuster -- nine million copies and still selling strong -- Life of Pi. And Martel will, no doubt, carry the comparisons well: “Once I’m in my little studio…there’s nothing here but my current novel,” he told The Globe and Mail. “I’m neither aware of the success of Life of Pi nor the sometimes very negative reviews Beatrice and Virgil got. That’s all on the outside.” (Claire) The Queen of the Night by Alexander Chee: We’ve been awaiting Chee’s sophomore novel, and here it finally is! A sweeping historical story -- “a night at the opera you’ll wish never-ending,” says Helen Oyeyemi -- and the kind I personally love best, with a fictional protagonist moving among real historical figures. Lilliet Berne is a diva of 19th-century Paris opera on the cusp of world fame, but at what cost? Queen of the Night traffics in secrets, betrayal, intrigue, glitz, and grit. And if you can judge a book by its cover, this one’s a real killer. (Sonya) The Lost Time Accidents by John Wray: In his fourth novel, Lowboy author Wray moves out of the confines of New York City, tracing the history of an Eastern European family not unlike his own. Moving all the way from fin-de-siècle Moravia up to the present day, the book tracks the exploits of the Toula family, who count among their home cities Vienna, Berlin, and finally New York City. As the story progresses, the family struggles to preserve their greatest treasure, an impenetrable theory with the potential to upend science as we know it. For a sense of Wray’s eye, take note that Znojmo, the Moldovan town from which the family hails, is the gherkin capital of Austria-Hungary. (Thom) Alice & Oliver by Charles Bock: Bock’s first novel, Beautiful Children, was a New York Times bestseller and won the Sue Kaufman prize for First Fiction from the Academy of Arts and Letters. His second novel, Alice & Oliver, which takes place in New York City in the year 1994, is about a young mother named Alice Culvert, who falls ill with leukemia, and her husband Oliver, who is “doing his best to support Alice, keep their childcare situation stabilized, handle insurance companies, hold off worst case scenario nightmares, and just basically not lose his shit.” Joshua Ferris writes, “I was amazed that such a heartbreaking narrative could also affirm, on every page, why we love this frustrating world and why we hold on to it for as long as we can.” Richard Price calls it “a wrenchingly powerful novel.” (Edan) More from The Millions: 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.
Last winter I found myself lost in a draft of a novel, unable to keep track of the events in my book and getting hung up on unimportant logistical details. I felt kind of stupid because my story was simple, one that only took place over a few months in 1996. I had a list of scenes and an outline of what I had written but the only way I could really get my bearings was to Google old lunar calendars. Finally, I took a big piece of paper from my son’s easel and drew a three-month calendar that I could look at as I worked. In the calendar squares I wrote the events of the story, like a diary. After I did that, it was much easier to write. It was as if my brain could finally relax once the events of the story were organized in a familiar way. Shortly after I drew this calendar, I read an interview with Michelle Huneven on this site and smiled in recognition when she explained that “the difference between short stories and novels is, with a novel, sooner or later you’re on the floor with a pad of paper making timelines and calendars and family trees.” Then, last fall, I was reading The Millions interview with Emily St. John Mandel and was fascinated by the spreadsheet she created to organize her novel Station Eleven. I got curious about the other visual aids that novelists create to manage their books, so I asked around and gathered a variety of notebook pages, diagrams, and timelines. In my search for material, I was often stymied by two factors: 1) writers had thrown out notes and materials related to finished novels and 2) writers were nervous about sharing their notes, especially for works-in-progress. I can certainly understand this vulnerability, and in fact I still feel a little silly about the calendar I’ve shared above. I doubt I would feel so foolish if I were working on a biography or reporting a complicated story from a variety of sources. But there’s something about making a diagram or calendar for an imagined world that feels over-the-top or maybe borderline delusional. So, I thank the writers below for sharing (and saving!) their peculiar and illuminating designs. And if you’re in the midst of a novel now, and stuck, maybe the answer is not to keep typing but to get a blank piece of paper and start drawing. Claire Cameron, notebook pages for The Bear I am always underlining, clipping and making notes. Sometimes I decide that it's time to put some of these little bits of paper into a notebook. I like to think that I'm working on my visual side, but lately I've realized that I'm actually thinking. When my hands are busy, my mind is free to run. These are a couple pages that I made around the time I was writing my recent novel, The Bear. It's a survival story of two young kids who are lost in the wilderness after their parents are killed by a black bear. [caption id="attachment_73762" align="aligncenter" width="570"] Photo credits, from top: Man with Bandage (1968) from Fred Herzog: Photographs; Kotjebi “fluttering swallows” children in North Korea.[/caption] This page gave me a feel for the mix of vulnerability and resilience of the kids in The Bear. I read about Kotjebi or 'fluttering swallows' -- street kids in North Korea. Apparently they are often seen with a tube of toothpaste in hand as they believe it will help with the constant indigestion that comes from garbage-based diets. It's crushing to think about, but it's also the opposite of helpless. The kids are forming their own culture to help them survive. The stark, blocked composition in the Herzog photo spoke to me of a certain toughness. And that women. No one is going to mess with her, right? [caption id="attachment_73766" align="aligncenter" width="570"] Photo credits, clockwise from top left: The Tent by Tom Thompson, I cut it from a calendar from the McMichael Gallery; a slightly smaller Coleman cooler, I’ve lost track of who owns this particular one; a purple flower; Cat Power; a note, typical of the specimens that I find on my bedside table each morning ; Cat Power again.[/caption] The Bear ends with a short epilogue where the grown kids revisit the site of the bear attack. I knew the exact note that I wanted to hit -- I could hear it -- but I couldn't find it in my keyboard. I made this page while I was thrashing through that part of the edit. I thought, what do I know? And I stuck that all on a page. Lauren Groff, notebook pages for Fates and Furies (forthcoming from Riverhead, September 2015.) This is a page of my notebook that I used in writing my next novel, Fates and Furies. I've thrown out the enormous eight foot square wall-maps of incident and character that I relied on during the first three years of writing this novel; this page from my notebook is from just after I discovered I hadn't been writing the two slender novels I thought I'd been writing, but rather one (much fatter) novel. I love revising, but am easily overwhelmed, and I have to make lists and only concentrate on one change at a time to get through it all. Though this page is incomprehensible to me now (more god? Fat man -- & Dwight?), at the time it was my roadmap for the things I needed to do, from most urgent to least. The drawing under the notebook was given to me by my next door neighbor and friend, the kick-ass cartoonist Leela Corman, and it powered me through finishing the manuscript. Tania James, notebook page for The Tusk That Did the Damage I wrote a novel, The Tusk That Did the Damage, that involves three different perspectives, that of an elephant, a filmmaker, and a poacher's brother. Even with these differing perspectives, I wanted to keep the story flowing forward, to have the tail end of one section feed into the next. Hence my predilection for arrows. Scott Cheshire, notes from High as the Horses' Bridles I found this page, one of about five pages I used to occasionally and desperately display on my desk because they apparently helped me keep things "in order." Scrawled with phrases like "cell-phone logic," "truth!?," and "BOIL X2," I have no idea what they mean anymore. They look embarrassingly like those pieces of paper you see on cop shows, pinned to walls behind the desk of a brainy detective working on a tough case. My favorite phrase from this page: "This is the thing -- Joe." Joe is underlined, and circled. I have no idea who he is. Katherine Hill, timeline for The Violet Hour I began this timeline to keep track of all the narratives I'd started when I was drafting The Violet Hour. The early versions were really messy and full of question marks and speculations. But by the time I was making my final revisions, the timeline had grown shorter and tighter, and I was using it as a kind of retrospective blueprint: a file I could reference to make sure everything in the world of the novel was in line. It's a document of the novel's events -- or most of them -- but it's also, in a very real way, a document of the novel's process. By the time it was done, I knew the novel was basically done, too. Alexander Chee, drawing for The Queen of the Night (forthcoming from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Feb. 2016) This is a drawing I made in the back of my copy of The Kill by Emile Zola, which I was reading for research at the time. One of the hardest things for me to figure out with The Queen of the Night was how to structure the story. The novel is about a woman searching her memories of her past, identities she's adopted and discarded in order to survive a world that wasn't made for her to survive in. My narrator is the kind of woman I would glimpse in little glances to the side in novels like The Kill, and I wanted to make a novel that put her at the center. But it is very tricky to write a novel about someone who lies to themselves and others in order to live -- telling the truth even to herself is dangerous. When I did this, I had written several drafts, writing and then discarding sections until I realized the discard file -- where I saved everything -- was the novel. It was a novel composed out of rejected selves. This drawing then was one attempt to get the structure right. It's not what ultimately happened for the structure, it's a middle version I moved on from, but it helped me get there. I took a learning styles test once that told me I was a visual mathematician, and while I doubted it at the time, I think that it is true. I first did it to diagram a novel whose structure I was trying to understand while working on my first novel. I do it on chalkboards with my students now, to explain the way the force of the narrative moves the reader's attention. Looking at this now, I might have to get this made into a t-shirt to wear while on tour. Michelle Huneven, binder notes for a work-in-progress I am writing a novel about a church’s search for a new minister. I am following an actual process as determined by the denomination, which means I have a series of events in a set order that I have to somehow make dramatically interesting. I have all of these pamphlets and brochures and guidelines outlining the process; I have timelines, I have interviews with people who’ve conducted searches and those who’ve been hired (or not). And then, I have seven characters on the search committee who all have stuff going on in their lives... For a long time I had two or three manila folders of notes and any number of “notes for novel” files on my computer. A good portion of my writing day was spent trolling through these files for the nugget I needed, which was fine for a while because it familiarized me with all the stray bits I’d accumulated. Then, I started writing the book itself by hand on legal pads. And not on the same legal pad. Which meant that, when I wanted to write, I had to go through various legal pads to find where I wanted to work. That, too, was fine for a while, because I was constantly reviewing what I’d done. But at a certain point the accumulated disorder had me whimpering. Down to the floor I went. I had inherited my mothers three-hole punch (she was an elementary school teacher), and I had an empty three-ring binder sitting around, so I printed out all the notes on my computer, and put them in the binder with all my other notes and pertinent papers. Soon, it came clear that having research and writing in one binder was inefficient -- too much paging back in forth. So it was off to Office Depot, where I bought more binders and file dividers, and spent some very happy hours on the floor punching holes and organizing. (Since then, I also created separate binders for short stories and journalism...and, yes, recipes.) The floor of my office, as you can see from the picture, is my largest flat surface, so I’m down there when researching, and also when punching holes in new material. I can also work from both binders while writing...which proves that, at certain points, the floor is more useful than the computer screen.