The Sympathizer: A Novel

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Unsettling the American Dream: The Millions Interviews Viet Thanh Nguyen

When Viet Thanh Nguyen visited Iowa Writers’ Workshop in May, everyone—including me—was starstruck. He talked about a prevailing belief back in his college years at Berkeley. “People say literature saves the world,” he said. “No, it doesn’t. But social movements do.”

At a time when democracies around the world keep making bad decisions and young writers feel the urge to facilitate social changes, Nguyen’s role as one of the leading public intellectuals in the literary world is both inspiring and motivating. He is aware of the underrepresentation of minority groups in literature, but he also understands that great fiction is much more than making one’s community look good. He views the customary writing adage “Show. Don’t tell.” with suspicion. As writers, we need to make great art and bring to light vital social issues, he says, rather than simply trust that readers will understand.

In the following interview, we talked about the aesthetics and politics of his brilliant novel The Sympathizer; how his literary education has nourished his writing; and how he deals with opposition and hostility from people with very different worldviews.

The Millions: I’d like to start by talking about The Sympathizer. Like everyone, I was hooked from the beginning: “I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces.” This distinctive perspective challenges the binary thinking that people often have. We cannot use words like “good” or “bad” to describe the narrator; we cannot use words like “failure” or “victory” to describe the war. How did you come up with this premise?

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Well, I had to write a novel. And I wanted to write an entertaining novel—that was also a very serious novel at the same time—and a novel that would grapple with politics, history, and obviously the Vietnam War.

The spy novel was the genre that was a perfect fit for all of these concerns. And also because I enjoyed reading spy novels, so I knew the genre very well. And as a writer, I gravitate toward both highbrow literature, like modernism, and so-called lowbrow literature, the genre literature. I don’t agree with any of these classifications, but the spy novel would allow me to bridge all these things.

Lastly, the idea of making a man of two minds and two faces was there from the very beginning, because I wanted the novel to be a cultural critique as well. I wanted the novel to deal with both cultural divisions—the so-called East-West divide—but also ideological divisions between capitalism and communism in the Cold War. So that’s where the man with two minds came from. And in order to make that seemed organic and not simply something that I was forcing onto the book, I made him a mixed race—half Vietnamese and half French—and someone who was both infatuated with capitalism but also a devoted communist. Putting all of these elements into his character made these theoretical ideas very organic as the plot unfolded.

TM: To follow up on that: In his book The Souls of Black Folk, W.E.B. Du Bois said that this American world yields “no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world.” He ever feels his “twoness”: “an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts,” “two warring ideals in one dark body.” Also, the opening of The Sympathizer pays tribute to Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. I wonder if African-American literature has influenced your writing and the way you perceive the Vietnamese and other previously colonized Asian communicates (e.g. Korean, Filipino)? If so, how?

VTN: I have another book called Nothing Ever Dies. And the title comes from Toni Morrison’s Beloved. And in my book, the section where I talked about W.E.B. Du Bois, the quote that you just mentioned to me, and Du Bois’s notion of the inevitable twoness of the Negro that he sees himself through his own eyes and those of others, is also true in many ways for Asian immigrants and Asian Americans. You see that also in the work of someone like Chang-Rae Lee, in the thoughtful Native Speaker.

It’s no doubt that African-American literature has been very influential on me. I think that African-American writers have created, in the United States, the body of literature that is both most politically committed and yet also most aesthetically elevated. I mean, the masters, the most accomplished practitioners of African-American literature—like Toni Morrison and Ralph Ellison and many more—have demonstrated that you can be both politically and artistically engaged at the same time. And that if you are, in fact, a minority in this country, you need to do both at the same time. So, their model of aesthetic and political commitment was very important for my own work.

TM: Who are some of the other writers you most admire, and what else do you feel you have learned from them?

VTN: You know, I had a very good literary education as a student when I was growing up before I went to college. So that meant that I had read some of the modernist and classical literature of the West. And then when I got to college, I also encountered African-American literature and Asian-American literature, including Maxine Hong Kingston. And so I’m trying to bring all these different strands together. So Asian-American literature in general has been very influential to me, including Kingston, but also, for example, Chang-Rae Lee’s Native Speaker, which I mentioned, and many other works, because they foreground Asian-American experiences. And among other Asian-American writers that I haven’t included, there would be the classics like John Okada, Carlos Bulosan, Frank Chin. Contemporary writers, after Kingston, like Susan Choi—her book, The Foreign Student—or Julie Otsuka, in her novels about the internment.

When writing The Sympathizer, I wanted to write a novel that was a so-called minority novel and that was unapologetic about being a person of color in the United States, but also a novel that could contend with both the Vietnam War canon and American literature as a whole. Hopefully it will be an American novel that will also have a presence internationally. So that was why it was important to The Sympathizer to directly confront the Vietnam War, so that I could contest the narratives of American writers of the Vietnam War, like Tim O’Brien, just to name the most famous example. And in writing The Sympathizer, I had my eye directly on how this novel would fit at the canonical level of American literature. Because I had studied writers like Herman Melville and William Faulkner, I wanted this novel to gesture at these major novels and their major concerns, their major themes about American literature and culture.

And finally, in writing The Sympathizer, I was also reading European modernist literature, because I always felt that this was not going to be the great American novel; this was going to be the European modernist version of the American novel. So that would be writers like Dostoevsky, Louis-Ferdinand Celine from the 1920s in France, Antonio Lobo Antunes from the 1970s in Portugal. So I really wanted this to be a novel that was both very specific to being Asian-American and American, but also to have those global ambitions as well.

TM: You grew up in the age of “narrative scarcity.” In other words, there were not many stories told from an Asian-American point of view. Because of this, minorities cared more about their representation as a group on the big screen or in fiction. Did you consider the potential reaction of your readership while you were writing? Did you do anything to avoid being misunderstood or misinterpreted?

VTN: I was worried about those kinds of things. When I wrote my short story collection The Refugees, most of which was written before The Sympathizer, I was concerned about how my audiences would respond to my work, both Americans in general but also Vietnamese readers. And when I wrote The Sympathizer, I decided that I no longer cared what my audiences thought, that in order to write the novel that I wanted to write, I had to stop caring. Because even as conditions of narrative scarcity were true, which they are, I don’t think a writer can allow herself or himself to be shaped by those conditions. We should be aware of narrative scarcity, but we can’t let our writing be shaped by that. For example, the anxiety that because there are so few stories about us, we have to write our stories to make our own community look good, whatever that community is.

The Sympathizer is written from the perspective of a communist spy. And when I did that, I knew that my community, which is the Vietnamese-Americans, many of them would reject the novel because communism is completely antithetical to Vietnamese-Americans. But I couldn’t care about that. And then I knew many Americans would reject the novel because the novel was a very strong critique of American culture. But I couldn’t pay attention to that either, not to write the novel I wanted to write. So that can be a tricky position for writers who live in narrative scarcity, we have to be aware of that condition. We have to fight back against it, but we can’t let our work be driven by the anxieties around narrative scarcity.

TM: Have any of your family members read the novel? What was their feedback like?

VTN: I don’t know about how many members of my own family have read the book. I don’t ask. That could be an awkward question to ask. But I think they are very proud of me, as are many people in the Vietnamese and Vietnamese-American community. So when The Sympathizer came out and got uniformly great reviews, it made, I think, very little difference in the Vietnamese and Vietnamese-American community, because like most communities, they don’t read, not on the average, right? I’m exaggerating a little bit. I mean, certainly, some Vietnamese-Americans sought out the book, and I got some very good feedback from them. But I also knew that a lot of Vietnamese-Americans were not reading the book, because they didn’t read books or because they heard it was from the perspective of a communist spy, and they just refused to engage. But after the novel won the Pulitzer Prize, all of a sudden, all these Vietnamese-Americans that never read the book and might never read the book were suddenly proud of me. And in Vietnam, the case was similar. But I think the difference the Pulitzer made is that it made more of them read the book. So in Vietnam, for example, even though the book is not available, apparently young Vietnamese readers who can read English will seek the book out in English. Because I encounter quite a few of them, who are foreign students in the United States and who told me that the book offers them something that is completely unavailable in Vietnam, which is history that is completely antithetical to the government’s point of view.

TM: If I am not wrong, the narrator is loosely based on Pham Xuan An, the Vietnamese man most beloved by American journalists during and shortly after the war. Can you say more about how you balance historical fact with fiction? What do you expect your readers to take away from a setting that is both real and imaginative?

VTN: In writing The Sympathizer, I felt that I had a fairly unique opportunity to engage with real historical events and real historical characters, because so much of what I knew about the war in Vietnam, and how it affected Vietnamese people, is fairly common knowledge in the Vietnamese refugee community but is not talked about widely or known widely to the rest of the world. It was actually relatively easy to construct the plot of the novel, because almost all the events are drawn from history. Very little in the novel in terms of major historical events are made up. And yet, for most people, this would be a completely new story. Writing this historical novel, I had an easier time probably than a lot of other historical writers would writing about events that are more widely known. And the major challenge was to put in enough historical detail so that the events would be convincing without writing a history book where there would be too much information. And so I always had to read much more than what actually appeared in the book. But the history from the book is drawn both from my fascination with the Vietnam War—over the last 30 years, I’ve read a lot of books and seen a lot of movies—but also from some very specific research I had to do for the novel. So, for example, while I knew that the Fall of Saigon had happened and I knew the general outlines of that, I still had to go and read 10 or 15 books on the Fall of Saigon in order to construct first 50 pages of the novel at a level of novelistic detail that would be compelling for the reader.

TM: Did you collect oral history?

VTN: No, that’s a completely different skill set for journalists. That’s not the book I wanted to write.

TM: Back when you visited Iowa City in May, you discussed your decision to open the novel in Saigon. You said that if the story had begun in the States and ended in the States, it would have been all about the life and death of the American dream. This inspired me to think about the prevailing immigrant narrative. Even though a lot of those stories intend to challenge the American dream, they are still built upon the assumption that the immigrants are attracted by the American dream in the first place, which, like you mentioned before, “affirms America to Americans.” But you identify as a refugee writer. Can you say more about the potential differences between a refugee narrative and an immigrant narrative?

VTN: I think that immigrant and refugee narratives overlap. We cannot completely separate them all the time. But as you were saying, immigrant narratives generally have a trajectory of moving from one country to the other country. And the immigrant narrative implies settling down in the new country. So we leave one home and we build another home. In the context of the United States, where the immigrant narrative is very strong, that idea of settling in the United States inevitably affirms this American mythology of the American dream. So that even when immigrant stories talk about how difficult life in the United States might be because of racism or economic challenges and so on, nevertheless, the very existence of the immigrant story itself—the immigrant novel that we’re reading—is evidence of the success of the immigrant story and the American dream.

The refugee story introduces other elements that can unsettle the immigrant and American dream story. These elements include, most critically, the fact that many refugees that come to the United States have come because of something the United States has done in their country of origin. The refugee writers, simply by acknowledging that history, introduce some troubling elements into the American story. So the existence of Vietnamese refugee writers talking about Vietnamese refugees, acknowledging the history of the war in Vietnam, means that the Americans who read these books or anybody who reads these books has to at least acknowledge this war took place. Now, the problem is, where the refugee and immigrant narratives overlap is that many refugee writers still, in the end, even as they acknowledge the refugee origin, including American intervention, often end with settlement in the United States. So that in the end, the refugee story looks like an immigrant story. And that’s why I think a lot of Vietnamese-American literature that deals more with refugees ends up focusing on what happened in the United States.

Writing The Sympathizer, I did not want to do that. If I look at the way that American literature has dealt with the Vietnam War, it’s bifurcated. It’s mostly Americans who get to write about the war in Vietnam, and it’s mostly the Vietnamese who write about the Vietnamese refugee experience in the United States. And when there are refugees who write about both parts, they write about their civilian experiences of the war in Vietnam and then the refugee resettlement. The Vietnamese soldiers who could write these war stories don’t write in English. So typically their story is only available in Vietnamese. What that means is that Americans still get to define the war. And so The Sympathizer is unique, I think, in this landscape by refusing the immigrant story, using the refugee narrative to demonstrate these contradictions of American intervention, and directly confronting the actual war in Vietnam, in a way that Americans are not used to. So I think that’s how the book is different, by deploying the refugee perspective.

TM: In your opinion, what is the difference between writing a novel and writing a short story? Do you have to train different muscles for different genres? If so, how?

VTN: I spent 20 years writing that short story collection The Refugees, and I think I exercised a lot of muscles, but maybe very different muscles and I never really coordinated everything together. So even now I could not explain to you what I’m doing in each of those stories and why I made the decisions that I did. It was, for the most part, a very intuitive process of trial and error in writing each story, which is very frustrating to me. Because I’m not a natural short story writer and I don’t have very good understanding of the short story form, it took a very long time to write that book. But I was exercising muscles.

So when it came time to write the novel, all of a sudden, it felt that I could put all these muscles together and work much more quickly, much more powerfully. And in the context of the novel, it felt much more natural. So it wasn’t as though there was no connection between short stories and novels; it was that they exercise different physical/mental capacities that I had. And with the novel, I feel like I can explain almost every single decision that goes into the book, and I can explain almost anything about the book that you could ask me about. It took two and a half years to write that novel versus 20 years for The Refugees, even though The Sympathizer is more than twice as long. So I don’t think I could have written The Sympathizer without having first written The Refugees. That being said, I would never want to go back to writing short stories and try to exercise those muscles again.

TM: Do you read to exercise your muscles?

VTN: Yeah. I tried to read books that personally move me both in terms of their story and concerns, but also how they move me at the level of a sentence. So unfortunately, I often pick up a book, I’ll read the first sentence or first paragraph, and I will decide immediately if I’m going to continue reading. I have so little time; I cannot afford to waste time on a book that doesn’t move me in every respect, but especially at the level of a sentence. Unfortunately, you know, in my life now, I have to read a lot of books that I would not necessarily pick up except that I’m reading books because I’m doing favors for other people and writing blurbs and things like that.

But in terms of reading for my own work, I tried to find books that I think are going to teach me something about some kind of literary technique or political concern that I need to know. So with The Sympathizer, it was very important for me to have discovered, again, Louis-Ferdinand Celine’s Journey to the End of the Night or Antonio Lobo Antunes’s The Land at the End of the World, because both of those books were doing things at the level of the sentence and at the level of politics. And the whole novelistic forms were not typical. They were very inspiring for me. And then finally when I’m actually writing, I try to read poetry, because the rhythm, the use of images, the use of sound, and these kinds of things are very important for me, in terms of trying to construct sentences and deploying images that are almost as concentrated as what you would find in poetry.

TM: I really enjoyed the introduction you wrote for The Displaced. You said something beautiful about memory. Your personal memory of displacement cultivates sympathy and empathy in you; remembering the best of humanity allows us to form an ideal that we can hope and work for. But others may go in the exact opposite direction for the same reason. Their past trauma teaches them to be self-centered to protect themselves; their recollections of the worst of humanity become the reason why we must close off our borders. Currently, the two groups cannot even have a conversation with each other. What’s your suggestion for a writer who aspires to speak to the latter group?

VTN: To the ones whose minds and hearts are closed? I think it’s very difficult because writers live and work oftentimes in environments and an entire marketplace that are different from the environments and marketplaces of people who are opposed to immigration and to refugees, for example. As writers, we like to believe that if we write an important story, the story will move people and change hearts and minds, because that’s our background; we’ve been moved by stories. But the people who really need to have the hearts and minds moved are oftentimes the people who are not going to be reading what we write, either because they don’t read literature or because they’re reading different kinds of books. And I can tell, based on my own personal experience; because I can go on amazon.com and see on my author page where my books are being sold, they are sold mostly in the so-called blue parts of the country, the coasts and big cities. But there are huge swaths of America where the books are not sold, and that is oftentimes a rural or red America. So that means that authors—especially literary authors who are writing fiction and poetry and so on—we have to be realistic about what our writing can actually do.

And we have to recognize that if we have a message that is not just an aesthetic message but also a political message, oftentimes we have to do different things to get that message out there, which is why I write op-eds. And I go give lectures in different parts of the country, because people who read my op-eds oftentimes are not people who are reading my books. And even in the context of the publications I write for, like The New York Times, Washington Post, or Time, they’re certainly not leftist, and sometimes they’re not even liberal. And so it is actually gratifying to see sometimes that people, like even childhood friends of mine who would not read my books, get Time. Or when I go give lectures, I have to go sometimes to very red parts of the country. And even if I’m giving these lectures in the blue parts of a red area, like a university, sometimes there will still be people who show up who are hostile to what it is I have to say. So they have to listen. And I have to acknowledge their presence. Sometimes I get some very difficult questions from people who come from a completely different perspective. So the work of changing hearts and minds is oftentimes not just at the level a book, but also at the level of personal interaction and going out there and having these kinds of conversations, trying to meet people where they’re coming from.

TM: How do you deal with hostility?

VTN: I think that I’m still relatively fortunate, because I know that women and women of color, especially in particular, get the criticism much worse than I do. As for me, I still get hostility, but it’s oftentimes restricted. You know, people will write me emails, they will send me letters that are very critical, but they’re still polite. The worst I heard is “Go back to where you came from,” which is bad, but not that bad compared to what people may actually have said. Social media allows people to have much more direct confrontations; people will send me messages on Twitter, or Facebook, or through my personal website. And sometimes, rarely, the conversations will be face to face. So people have said things very critical to me in an audience. But again, that doesn’t happen that often. And it’s happened less since I won the Pulitzer Prize. And so I think there are all these layers of insulation that I have that other people, particularly women and women of color, may not.

How do I deal with that? In a face-to-face moment, it’s important to have those moments, to not back away from that and to have that conversation. I don’t have a problem with that. And then with other kinds of written communication, sometimes I’ll respond. And sometimes these conversations will have an immediate dead-end, because the other person is so angry that we can’t have a conversation. But sometimes we exchange a few emails or communications, and we actually move forward a little bit in terms of understanding each other a little bit more.

TM: That brings me to my next question. How has the Pulitzer Prize changed your life as a writer? Have the changes been good, bad, or both?

VTN: Both. I mean, obviously I’m not complaining. There are negatives, challenges, but they’re completely outweighed by the positives. And the negative is that there has been a huge imposition on my time. So I’m about a year and a half behind in delivering my novel to my publisher. If I were to quantify how much time the Pulitzer cost me, that’s how much: a year and a half, because of giving lectures and responding to people and blurbing people’s books and things like that. The positives are that I’ve earned a lot more money. Because of the Pulitzer Prize, there’s no doubt about that. And that’s afforded me more time to write, my audiences have grown. I went from having no foreign edition to 30 foreign editions of The Sympathizer, because of the Pulitzer. So it’s turned me into more of an international author.

And it’s given me the prestige and the opportunity to speak to audiences I would never get to speak to before, both in terms of lectures but also in terms of op-eds. So I think the Pulitzer has, in every way, transformed my status as a writer, and it’s made me want to live up to that status, to use the Pulitzer for good and for other purposes.

The final challenge of the Pulitzer power play is what people will say about the novel that I’m writing now.

TM: I don’t want to get writers to talk about their ongoing projects. But in one of your previous interviews, you mentioned that you are working on a sequel to The Sympathizer. I only want to ask this question: What do you hope to achieve with this sequel?

VTN: Well, I think I want to write a good novel. That’s the most basic thing to do. And I want to write a novel that lives up to The Sympathizer, both in terms of its entertainment, but also its politics. And, let me set the expectations low and say, it won’t probably be better than The Sympathizer, but I hope it was at least be good and can live up to the reputation of that first novel.

But besides that, I think, going back to our earlier conversation about how I situate myself in terms of other bodies of literature and so on. Obviously, narrative scarcity, one of the problems for the so-called minority writer is that we get pigeonholed. We write a book that’s ostensibly about “our experience,” in my case, being a Vietnamese refugee in the Vietnam War. And we’re allowed by dominant culture to own that little piece of territory with the expectation that we won’t break out. That’s a trap. Because on the one hand, we want to break out; on the other hand, we don’t want to feel as if somehow we can’t write about what we just wrote about. I think about Philip Roth, arguably and possibly a minority writer, but definitely a majority writer. And no one now would ever say, “Oh, Philip Roth is only a Jewish writer, because he only wrote about Jewish experiences,” right? For me, the challenge is the same. That in the second novel, in the sequel, I’m still dealing with Vietnamese people, Vietnamese refugees and so on, which I’m not reluctant to do and I’m not apologetic about. But also, at the same time, I want to make the claim that just because I’m still writing about Vietnamese refugees and the consequences of the war, it doesn’t mean that it’s “only” about these things. In fact, we can write about these things, and yet they still are universally important. It’s up to me to prove that. But it’s also up to me to challenge readers who would not be able to see that.

TM: One last question: What are some of the habits that you think aspiring writers need to develop?

VTN: There are so many, but I think if there’s only one, that is to write a lot. Some writers would say you have to write every day. I don’t think that’s true. But I do think it’s true that you have to write a lot. No one ever became a writer by writing 100 hours. I think almost everybody has become a writer by literally thousands of hours. So however you choose to do it, you’ve got to do it. Whether it takes you five years or 10 years or 50 years. You can’t be a writer unless you do that.

And what goes along with writing a lot is enduring a lot. You have to endure rejection, obscurity, mockery, miscomprehension, apathy, that no one cares that you want to be a writer. And, in fact, life will constantly throw obstacles in your way. For me, one obstacle is I live in California, so to spend thousands of hours writing I have to sit in a room and not go outside and enjoy the sun. That may not be much of an issue in Iowa but it is here in California. So we endure and sacrifice a lot. So if you cannot write a lot, if you cannot endure, if you cannot sacrifice, then you should probably choose another passion.

The interviewer would like to thank Alyssa Asquith and Philip Kurian for their generous and thoughtful contributions to the interview.

A Year in Reading: Jianan Qian

My 2018 experience, perhaps like everyone else, is much swamped with all sorts of political news that keeps me in dread and panic. As a result, my reading life is divided into three categories: (1.) I consult history-related books to try to understand our current age; (2.) I read fiction works that match my ambition to live a big life and write a big book; (3.) I translate essay collections from English to Chinese for work. The following three books are the most impressive one in each category:

1. The World of Yesterday
It feels very strange and even terrifying to find every line in this masterly memoir of the 20th century resonating. Stefan Zweig described his childhood as the age of scientific accomplishments—the invention of electric light, telephone, and train—and recalled a unanimous belief that men would eventually vanquish “the last vestige of evil and violence.” From his portrait I felt as if I’d seen my childhood in the Age of Information again—the arrival of personal computers and Internet made us believe that all borders could be trespassed and that the spirit of democracy would soon triumph. But now, seeing the growing dark side of social media and Internet in general, I realize that I too was being naïve.

Zweig quotes Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar in his last chapter: “The sun of Rome is set. Our/ day is gone. / Clouds, dews, and dangers come;/ our deeds are done.” I read it with great sadness, but I try to remind myself that even at the night of humanism, we still have our own inner light to illuminate at least the path ahead of us.

2. The Sympathizer
Viet Thanh Nguyen’s stunning debut novel, The Sympathizer, has received much critical acclaim, including the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Reading such a profound and beautiful book, everyone can have very different takeaways. As a fiction writer, I am amazed by how Nguyen can make so many contrasts and contradictions all fit extraordinarily well together in this spy novel: the protagonist’s confession is grandiloquent and yet genuine, the narrative voice has a character but not a name, the conventional idea of fraternity and kinship is challenged and yet confirmed. Any summary or depiction would only narrow the scope of this great work. It is the book about the size of our large, chaotic contemporary world.

3. Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose
I have spent my first post-workshop year translating Flannery O’Connor’s The Habit of Being and Mystery and Manners into Chinese for Shanghai Translation Publishing House. This towering canonical American author has refreshed my thoughts on the nature and aim of fiction. Fiction, as she put it in a Catholic way, is about mystery incarnated in specific and concrete characters. O’Connor, in her time, needed to confront the general readers’ demand that novels should demonstrate a “positive image” of a social group, i.e. the South, the Catholics. As a writer in a second language, I am facing the same demand that my China stories should only show the bright side of my country. O’Connor’s response is not only refreshing but also encouraging to me: fiction writers need to show what it is rather than what it should be; the latter means that we have closed our own eyes on the real world.

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A Year in Reading: Laura Turner

The best book club I ever joined was one that reads exclusively from two categories: Bestselling books from several years back, and books set in the place we happen to be traveling. We meet whenever we want, read whatever we want, and eat whatever we want—mostly milk chocolate peanut butter cups from Trader Joe’s.

I am also the only member of this book club, which is either brilliant or terribly sad. I was beginning to think it was the latter until one morning in July, when, sitting on a dock at a small alpine lake in the Sierra Nevada, I realized how incredibly happy I was to be reading The Goldfinch at that moment, stuck with our heroes in Las Vegas, when all the other, self-respecting book clubs had read it four years ago, when it first came out.

If you haven’t read The Goldfinch, welcome! This is a safe space. You could call it a coming-of-age story (“bildungsroman,” if you’re nasty), and it is, but it’s also a philosophical treatise on the value of art, family, and New York City. Young Theo survives a terrorist attack at an art museum, and takes something more from the scene than what he arrived with. The best part of the book is Theo’s fever dream year in the near-empty suburbs of Las Vegas with his Russian friend, Boris, who has to be played by Adam Driver in the eventual film version. That section alone is worth the price of admission. Don’t tell me if you didn’t like the book, or if you think I’m dumb for reading it four years after its release. I had fun reading it, and this year, fun reading was hard to come by.

The only other truly fun book I read in 2017 was We’re Going to Need More Wine by Gabrielle Union, everyone’s best friend in every truly good teen movie of the ’90s. Union is much more forthcoming about almost every aspect of her life than in most celebrity memoirs; as a life-long and self-proclaimed B-lister this may be because she has less to lose. She talks frankly about her sexuality as a teenage girl growing up in northern California; about being one of only two black girls at her mostly upper-middle-class high school; and her surprise at having to code-switch when she returned each summer to visit family in Omaha. She deconstructs her first marriage with an incredible amount of honesty and responsibility, and her chapter about wanting to get pregnant and having had “7, maybe 8” miscarriages after many rounds of IVF was heartbreaking, as was her account of her family’s response to her rape by a burglar at the Payless store where she worked. It’s not Marcel Proust, but then again, I’ve never really liked Proust.

Traveling through Turkey and Georgia this spring, I was eager to read some books by local authors, so when I found Motherland Hotel by Yusuf Atilgan at a bookstore, I picked it up. Set in Izmir, a port city on Turkey’s Aegean coast, the titular hotel is run by Zeberjet, whose family ran the place before him. He has no nearby relatives or family of his own, but spends his days attending to the work of running a small hotel, including a daily tryst with the sleeping housekeeper, who seems to have halfheartedly agreed to being used in this way. That all comes to an end when Zeberjet falls in love with a beautiful guest, and his obsession over her causes his days and his world to constrict to an impossibly small pinprick. He keeps the guest’s room in just the order she left it, turning out paying customers in case of her return. His descent into madness is precipitated by unexpected sexual behavior, revealing traumas from his past, and a terrible (metaphorical) claustrophobia that shuts off any possibility of a meaningful life. It’s a strange read, immersive and Kafkaesque, and hard to forget.

Prospero’s bookstore in Tblisi is enough to drive any reader to max out her credit card. I was limited by the size of my suitcase to one or three new books, and so I chose The Knight in the Panther’s Skin carefully—it was a beautiful edition but sizable, hardcover with beautiful illustrations. The book is an epic poem, written by the 12th-century Georgian poet Shota Rustaveli, (his fame is still great enough that the central avenue running north-south in Tbilisi is called Rustaveli). In this poem, two best friends (Tariel and Avtandil) go in search of Nestan-Darejan, the Helen of Troy-ish figure who was actually modeled on the Georgian Queen Tamar (a woman so badass she was occasionally referred to as “King”). In Lyn Coffin’s translation of the poem, which is essentially Lord of the Rings meets The Once and Future King with a dash of the Biblical book of Esther, we encounter a weeping knight wearing a panther’s skin (“Lost in his grief he wept, and knew not that any stood near him”) who seems to disappear into thin air. Avtandil spends three years searching for him, and finally finds him living in a cave. This is Tariel. Together, they set out to find Nestan-Darejan.

Strangely, the book takes place entirely outside of Georgia—Rustaveli sets it in Arabia, India, and China—but commentators have found in Knight an entirely Georgian vision of the world. I’m not entirely sure what that means, except that in Georgia I found the most sweeping sense of world history—the earliest hominids to be found outside of Africa were found there—alongside a warmth of spirit that was not disconnected from the warmth of appealing food, which Knight also celebrated.

My book club of one is finishing up the year with Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer, a book that reminds me both of Graham Greene and Joseph Heller, which is a perfect combination. There is some, um, imaginative use of squid, conflicted feelings about the protagonist’s homeland, and a lot of wandering questions about when a place really becomes home. It’s a perfect book for the end of a year that has seen me asking much of the same. Til next year!

More from A Year in Reading 2017

Do you love Year in Reading and the amazing books and arts content that The Millions produces year round? We are asking readers for support to ensure that The Millions can stay vibrant for years to come. Please click here to learn about several simple ways you can support The Millions now.

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

The 2017 International DUBLIN Literary Award Shortlist

The International DUBLIN Literary Award (formerly known as the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award) is the world’s most valuable annual literary award for a single work of fiction published in English, clocking in at €100,000. Now in its 22nd year, the award is sponsored by the Dublin City Council and managed by the city’s libraries. This year’s titles were nominated by public libraries in Austria, Belgium, Brazil, Croatia, Denmark, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Poland, Portugal, Russia, Scotland, Sweden and the USA, according to the award’s website.

The shortlisted titles are:

A General Theory of Oblivion by José Eduardo Agualusa, translated from the Portuguese by Daniel Hahn

Confession of the Lioness by Mia Couto, translated from the Portuguese by David Brookshaw

The Green Road by Anne Enright

The Prophets of Eternal Fjord by Kim Leine, translated from the Danish by Martin Aitken

The Story of My Teeth by Valeria Luiselli, translated from the Spanish by  Christina MacSweeney

The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen

Under the Udala Trees by Chinelo Okparanta

A Strangeness in My Mind by Orhan Pamuk, translated from the Turkish by Ekin Oklap

A Whole Life by Robert Seethaler, translated from the German by Charlotte Collins

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara 

A Year in Reading: Kevin Nguyen

I read a lot of books this year (around 100), but if I’m completely honest, I spent more time reading Book Twitter than anything else.

The makeup of Book Twitter resembles the makeup of publishing itself: critics, authors, booksellers, and a mix of people who work in publishing proper. Which is to say that Book Twitter is extremely white. And in a year where even people who love books had an opinion about racism, Book Twitter was patronizingly white.

With the election impending, this became the year of performative wokeness. When you see tweets of people praising The Sellout (“it’s funny!”) but not really saying anything about it of substance (“it’s about… race”), you start to wonder if people like the book or just want to be seen as the kind of person who would like Paul Beatty. Maybe it came from a place of white guilt or insecurity, but Book Twitter mostly looked like people saying, “There are bad white people, but I am a good white person because I have read Ta-Nehisi Coates.” When white people vocally identify themselves as Book People, they are assuring everyone around them that they are better than other whites who don’t read. How this declaration of allyship benefits people of color I have no idea, but I’m sure it makes a lot of Book Twitter feel better about itself.

Still, it was easy to overlook the superficial conversation taking place about these books. Hell, I think a lot of us were just glad people were talking about The Underground Railroad at all. But Book Twitter found an even flimsier look after the election. The immediate reaction turned into abundance of tweets reinforcing how important books were in country that was soon to be led by a racist demagogue. I’ll pick on Gary Shteyngart, since he has a good sense of humor:

Shteyngart was far from the only person projecting this shallow sentiment. The logic of Book Twitter is: Books are inherently good. Therefore, if we’d all just read more books, Donald Trump wouldn’t have been elected. If you believe that books have the power to do good, you also have to believe that they can do just as much harm. After the election, there was no soul searching on Book Twitter. No one questioned the power structures of publishing. Can we talk about how one of the Big Five publishers is owned by News Corp? Often the publishing of things like Bill O’Reilly’s twisted histories is justified as a means to support literary fiction. But does anyone ask if that trade-off is worth it?

Instead, there was just a lot of self-congratulatory tweets like Shteyngart’s that read like a call to action but really only urged Book Twitter to keep doing what it was already doing. Book Twitter doubled down on its unending positivity and back patting, which amounted to a lot of white people tweeting the equivalent of “All Books Matter.”

At this point, you’re thinking, Does Book Twitter reflect the greater publishing culture? To which I would say: It’s worse IRL.

If I sound mad, it’s because I’m exhausted. A few months ago, I mostly stopped going to book events. There is a bland sameness that has started to pervade them. You hang out with a familiar group of people — many of whom I like a lot, some I am supposed to like. And if you think Book Twitter is white, try going to a book event. These are almost exclusively white spaces, and being a person of color in them has become increasingly anxiety inducing. You drink with familiar people and strangers and just wait for someone to say something kinda fucked up to ruin your night. Just because my last name is Nguyen doesn’t mean I want to talk about Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer. I am not interested in hearing you talk about how attractive an Asian-American debut novelist is. And for the last time, as much as I love Ed Park, we really, really do not look alike.

2016 had one bright spot: the National Book Awards. I’ve been to the ceremony five years in a row, and this was the first time I would say it was really good. In fact, it was great, and I’ll credit that to Lisa Lucas, the National Book Foundation’s new executive director. Publishing take note. This is what happens when you put a person of color in charge of something important: it becomes more vital, more relevant.

This year’s host was Larry Wilmore, which is pretty remarkable upgrade over 2015’s dad joke machine Andy Borowitz, and an even bigger improvement over 2014’s Daniel Handler who couldn’t resist making an unbelievably racist joke on stage. Each acceptance speech thoughtfully contextualized what Trump’s America meant for them. “We have seen a black president,” poet Terrance Hayes said, “and we have seen what kind of president comes after a black president.”

Though there were more people of color than I’ve ever seen at the National Book Awards, the room was still mostly white. After Ibram Kendi gave his acceptance speech, Wilmore took the stage again to joke that “the National Book Foundation is woke.” There was laughing and clapping, lots of white people nodding along to show that they got it.

And I wonder if they did get it. That in a room — and industry and community — that is overwhelmingly white, just proving that you aren’t racist isn’t going to be enough.

More from A Year in Reading 2016

Do you love Year in Reading and the amazing books and arts content that The Millions produces year round? We are asking readers for support to ensure that The Millions can stay vibrant for years to come. Please click here to learn about several simple ways you can support The Millions now.

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

The Millions Top Ten: October 2016


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

This Month
Last Month

Title
On List

1.
3.

The Sellout
3 months

2.
4.

Ninety-Nine Stories of God
4 months

3.


The Trespasser
1 month

4.
5.

Zero K
6 months

5.
6.

Barkskins
5 months

6.
7.

The Underground Railroad
2 months

7.
10.

Pond
2 months

8.
9.

Here I Am
2 months

9.
8.

Innocents and Others
4 months

10.


Commonwealth
1 month

How to rule The Millions’s monthly Top Ten list:

Write and publish a great book.
Have the book’s protagonist’s voice praised for being “as appealing, erudite, and entertaining as any since Alexander Portnoy’s.”
Win the Man Booker Prize.

Congratulations, Paul Beatty, you’ve done hit the trifecta!

We also welcome two newcomers to our list this month: Tana French’s The Trespasser and Ann Patchett’s Commonwealth, both of which had previously been featured on our Most Anticipated list.

French’s novel, the sixth in her Dublin Murder Squad series, focuses on the murder of a young woman ostensibly preparing for a date. Around here at The Millions, it’s tough to pick a resident Tana French expert – both Janet Potter and Edan Lepucki hold legitimate claims to that title — so site readers interested in a taste of French’s work should start by reading the author’s recent interview for our site, focusing on her penchant for using police interrogations as literary devices; Lepucki’s piece on French’s plotting; a conversation between both Edan and Janet about French’s writing; and the author in her own words recounting her Year in Reading.

Patchett’s work, too, is familiar to Millions staffers and readers alike. In her blurb for our Most Anticipated list, Lepucki wrote of Commonwealth:
A new novel by the bestselling author of gems like Bel Canto and State of Wonder is certainly a noteworthy publishing event. This time, Patchett, who also owns Parnassus Books in Nashville, Tenn., takes on a more personal subject, mapping multiple generations of a family broken up by divorce and patched together, in new forms, by remarriage. Commonwealth begins in the 1960s, in California, and moves to Virginia and beyond, spanning many decades.
Meanwhile, this month we graduate two Top Ten mainstays to our Hall of Fame: Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer and Samantha Hunt’s Mr. Splitfoot. Fare thee well in Valhalla!
This month’s near misses included: The GirlsHeroes of the FrontierSigns Preceding the End of the World, The Nest, and The Unseen World. See Also: Last month’s list.

The Millions Top Ten: September 2016


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 FrontierSigns Preceding the End of the World, The Girls, and The Queen of the Night. See Also: Last month’s list.

The Millions Top Ten: August 2016

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 WorldHeroes of the FrontierThe Queen of the NightHomegoing and The Underground Railroad. See Also: Last month’s list.

The Millions Top Ten: July 2016

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 WorldThe Queen of the Night, Heroes of the Frontier, The Girls, and Homegoing. See Also: Last month’s list.

The Millions Top Ten: June 2016

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 OthersThe Queen of the Night, Signs Preceding the End of the WorldWhy We Came to the City, and Everybody’s Fool. See Also: Last month’s list.

The Millions Top Ten: May 2016

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 OthersThe Nest, Signs Preceding the End of the WorldWhen We Came to the City, and The Queen of the Night. See Also: Last month’s list.

The Millions Top Ten: April 2016

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 AtlasThe 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 NightThe Sellout, The Nest, When We Came to the City, and The Turner House. See Also: Last month’s list.

The 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction Goes to Viet Thanh Nguyen’s ‘The Sympathizer’

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The Pulitzer jury named Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer this year’s winner in the fiction category.

Here are this year’s Pulitzer winners and finalists with bonus links:

Fiction:

Winner: The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen (Nguyen’s Year in Reading 2015)
Get in Trouble: Stories by Kelly Link (Memory is a Mysterious Machine: The Millions Interviews Kelly Link)
Maud’s Line by Margaret Verble

 

General Nonfiction:

Winner: Black Flags: The Rise of ISIS by Joby Warrick
Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
If the Oceans Were Ink: An Unlikely Friendship and a Journey to the Heart of the Quran by Carla Power

History:

Winner: Custer’s Trials: A Life on the Frontier of a New America by T.J. Stiles
Marching Home: Union Veterans and Their Unending Civil War by Brian Matthew Jordan
Target Tokyo: Jimmy Doolittle and the Raid That Avenged Pearl Harbor by James M. Scott

Biography or Autobiography:

Winner: Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life by William Finnegan
Custer’s Trials: A Life on the Frontier of a New America by T.J. Stiles
The Light of the World: A Memoir by Elizabeth Alexander

Poetry:

Winner: Ozone Journal by Peter Balakian
Alive: New and Selected Poems by Elizabeth Willis
Four-Legged Girl by Diane Seuss

Winners and finalists in other categories are available at the Pulitzer Web site.

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