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.
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.
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 January. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. 3. Fates and Furies 5 months 2. 4. Purity 6 months 3. 5. Slade House 4 months 4. 7. Fortune Smiles 2 months 5. 8. The Big Green Tent 3 months 6. 9. The Heart Goes Last 5 months 7. 10. City on Fire 4 months 8. - What Belongs to You 1 month 9. - My Name is Lucy Barton 1 month 10. - A Brief History of Seven Killings 2 months It's with a certain degree of triumph that I welcome Marlon James to the first Millions Top Ten of 2016. While this isn't the first time his superb novel A Brief History of Seven Killings has appeared on our list overall — that first occurred in October of last year — it nevertheless feels a bit like a personal victory for me, the humble author of this series, who has since that time urged each and every one of you to go out and purchase a copy (or three!) immediately. Well, it finally seems that the work has paid off. (Happy New Year to me!) Now let's work on keeping it here, eh? This month we graduated three Top Ten fixtures to our Hall of Fame: Ta-Nehisi Coates's Between the World and Me, Hanya Yanagihara's A Little Life, and Harper Lee's Go Set a Watchman. The first two were fixtures atop our list for the past six months, while Lee's Mockingbird sequel-prequel got off to a hot start before ultimately settling in the middle of our ten-book pack. Their success means Lauren Groff's Fates and Furies is the new top book in town. It's a novel that Margaret Eby described in her Year in Reading entry as the kind "I would start reading on a Saturday morning and soon find myself cancelling weekend plans to finish by Sunday night." To get acquainted with it, I recommend first checking out our exclusive first look at its opening lines, and then settling in for our interview with its author. If somehow you're still not convinced that this is a book you absolutely need to read in full, immediately, then allow our own Edan Lepucki's praise to coax you over the threshold: I have read all of Groff’s novels, and each one is better than the last, which gives me vicarious hope for my own puny literary pursuits. I get the sense that Groff is always looking for new ways to tell stories, to show time passing, to express human longing, shame, desire, need, all without succumbing to the same-old conventions of scenic conflict and cause-and-effect. Plus, her prose is so shining and unexpected she could describe getting her license renewed at the DMV and I’d find it compelling. Also this month in addition to A Brief History... we welcome two newcomers to our list: Garth Greenwell's What Belongs to You and Elizabeth Strout's My Name is Lucy Barton. Both novels have received heaps of praise — both appeared on our Most Anticipated preview — but Greenwell's in particular has been drawing some seriously effusive reviews. On our site, Jameson Fitzpatrick wrote that What Belongs to You "offers us the most exacting and visionary reading in contemporary literature of what it means to be gay in America today." This month's near misses included: Eternity Street: Violence and Justice in Frontier Los Angeles, The Turner House, The 3 A.M. Epiphany, Undermajordomo Minor, and A Strangeness in My Mind. 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 December. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. 1. Between the World and Me 6 months 2. 2. A Little Life 6 months 3. 6. Fates and Furies 4 months 4. 3. Purity 5 months 5. 4. Slade House 3 months 6. 5. Go Set a Watchman 6 months 7. - Fortune Smiles 1 month 8. 10. The Big Green Tent 2 months 9. 9. The Heart Goes Last 4 months 10. 8. City on Fire 3 months After being crowned the 2015 National Book Award winner, Fortune Smiles by Adam Johnson has received an even greater honor: entry onto The Millions's December 2015 Top Ten list! The collection was described in our second-half Book Preview* as being “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,’” and it was said to “echo” the author's “early work while also building upon the ambition of his prize-winning tome.” Elsewhere on the list, small shakeups abound. Fates and Furies and The Big Green Tent rose three and two spots, respectively, while Garth Risk Hallberg's City on Fire moved from the eighth spot to the tenth. Beyond that? There isn't too much to report. Next month, however, three fixtures on our list— Between the World and Me, A Little Life, and Go Set a Watchman — will likely head to our Hall of Fame, and their ascendance should free up space for fresh blood. They'll join Book of Numbers by Joshua Cohen, which joins the Hall this month. If past is prologue, most of those newcomers will have been culled from our Year in Reading series. If so, do you have any guesses on which ones will become fan favorites? Will it be another installment of Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan Quartet? (The first one's already in our Hall...) Will it be Maggie Nelson's The Argonauts? And whatever it may be, will it have a Florida connection?** Stay tuned to find out. * Speaking of Previews, have you checked out the first installment of our Great 2016 Book Preview, which posted this week? ** Probably. Everything does. This month's near misses included: A Brief History of Seven Killings, The Turner House, Undermajordomo Minor, The 3 A.M. Epiphany, and A Strangeness in My Mind. See Also: Last month's list.
This year brought forth another crop of terrific books about the D, as we Detroiters refer to our beloved, beleaguered hometown. Here are four of the year’s very best: The Turner House by Angela Flournoy When the debut novel The Turner House was published last summer, I wrote a foam-at-the-mouth review because I was smitten by Angela Flournoy’s assured portrait of a sprawling Detroit family’s struggle to deal with their rotting home-place on the city’s rotting east side. The titular house was the family’s “mascot” and “coat of arms,” but as the 2008 recession bears down, it’s empty and worth about one-tenth of what’s owed on it. Through this ingenious lens, Flournoy examines the inner lives of Francis and Viola Flournoy, up from Arkansas, and their rumbustious brood of 13 children –-- and, in the bargain, she explores such big topics as the Great Migration and Detroit’s racial divide, as well as the small dramas that take place inside the city’s casinos, pawn shops, and living rooms. It’s a bewitching blend of the grand and the intimate. I was delighted when The Turner House was named a finalist for this year’s National Book Award for fiction. Though the novel didn’t win, the nomination surely enlarged its pool of readers who, like me, are waiting impatiently to see what the gifted Angela Flournoy comes up with next. Scrapper by Matt Bell Matt Bell’s second novel, Scrapper, gets its hands dirty wrestling with Detroit’s abundant wreckage, both material and human. It does this by taking us into the dark and dangerous world of a freelance metal scrapper named Kelly, who works the city’s gutted core, known here as “the zone.” There, one day, he makes a horrific discovery: a naked 12-year-old boy handcuffed to a bed in the sound-proofed basement of an abandoned house. The shock of this discovery complicates Kelly’s life, sends the novel soaring, and breaks the reader’s heart. Working the high wire without a net, Matt Bell has dared to take us into a netherworld rarely visited in even the best books about Detroit. Once in a Great City by David Maraniss David Maraniss, a Detroit native, prolific author, and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, came out this year with a joyride of a non-fiction book called Once In a Great City: A Detroit Story. Rather than trying to dissect the many sources of his hometown’s misery, Maraniss goes in the opposite direction: he gives us a Technicolor snapshot of the city at its giddy peak, from late 1962 to early 1964, when the long decline was set in motion but most Detroiters were too busy making money and having fun to notice. The book gives us a compelling cast of characters, from the famous to the obscure, including Martin Luther King Jr., President John F. Kennedy, Henry Ford II, Berry Gordy, Walter Reuther, an infamous prostitute, a beat cop, and a kid playing hooky. As Maraniss writes in his introduction: It was a time of uncommon possibility and freedom when Detroit created wondrous and lasting things. But life can be luminescent when it is most vulnerable. There was a precarious balance during those crucial months between composition and decomposition, what the world gained and what a great city lost. Even then, some part of Detroit was dying, and that is where the story begins. How to Live in Detroit Without Being a Jackass by Aaron Foley Last but not least -- and just in time for Christmas -- the Cleveland-based independent press Belt Publishing has come out with that rarest oxymoron: a smart how-to book. This one’s author, Aaron Foley, is a Detroit native and current resident who seems to know everything about the city -- its history, language, food, fashions, architecture, music, politics, news media, neighborhoods, literature, social customs, and racial minefields -- and he has a knack for imparting his vast knowledge in humorous, insightful, helpful prose. The kicker on the cover was enough to make me love the book before I read the first page. Detroit, it announces, is not the new Brooklyn! Having done six years in Brooklyn, my first thought was: Hallelujah. How to Live in Detroit Without Being a Jackass could not have existed even a few years ago, because it was inspired by and is addressed to the very recent influx of transplants, many of them young and white and creative, who have been drawn to Detroit by the prevailing narrative that the place is cheap, supportive, wide-open, and on the rebound. Foley opens the book with a list of rules for new arrivals, including this cold-eyed satirical stinger: The fifth rule applies to all you transplants from New York City and other places that are really expensive: please do not consider moving to Detroit part of a deep, soul-touching experience that will wash clean the sins of your past and renew your spiritual energy to live in your new purpose. This ain’t fucking Eat, Pray, Love, OK? You likely moved here because you either wanted to further your career or you got priced out of where you were. As this quote illustrates, Foley’s mission is both to inform and to amuse, and he does a knockout job of both. Among the many subjects he tackles are how to drive in Detroit, how to be white in Detroit, how to be black in Detroit, how to make peace with the suburbs, how to do business in Detroit, and how to renovate a Detroit house without being a jackass. He remarks that only new arrivals wear the popular DETROIT -vs- EVERYBODY T-shirts, which carried a personal sting because I grew up in Detroit, in both the city and the suburbs, and I’m wearing one of the T-shirts as I write these words. (It was a gift from a nephew who recently visited the city -- honest!) Frankly, I like the us-against-the-world sentiment. To each his own, I say. At the heart of this book is Foley’s position as a native Detroiter -- that is, as someone who is stubbornly proud of his troubled hometown, and weary of the clichés and half-baked myths that continue to cling to the place like the smoke gushing from the stacks at Ford’s River Rouge factory. As he wrote in last year’s superb A Detroit Anthology, edited by Anna Clark, Foley is tired of Detroit being “the butt of jokes and the target of pity.” So his noble mission in this new book is to wipe away the jokes and the pity, the clichés and myths, so people can start to see Detroit for what it truly is. The picture Foley paints isn’t always pretty, but it’s always real. All readers -- native Detroiters and new arrivals, citizens of America and residents of outer Mongolia -- should thank him for telling it like it is. Isn’t that what all books are supposed to do? 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.
I’m a promiscuous reader, always reading multiple books at a time, switching back and forth. I’m not a poet, but every year, I find myself reading more and more poetry collections. My biggest poetry crushes this year? Ross Gay's Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude, and (though they weren’t published this year) Stacey Waite's Butch Geography, and Anne Carson's Autobiography of Red, which (I guess) qualifies as poetry, but I would call it fiction. My poet friends and I keep having the same argument about whether Maggie Nelson's work is poetry or nonfiction. They keep trying to claim her, of course, but we all know the truth. After reading Maggie Nelson’s Bluets, an examination of love and suffering and her personal obsession with the color blue, I immediately went out and got The Argonauts, which is a hybrid of sorts, although I’d call it lyric essay. It’s a love story, but it’s also an exploration of motherhood and gender and family and queerness and sexuality, and so many other things. Bonus: the sections discussing women’s anal eroticism, in which Nelson writes, “I am not interested in a hermeneutics, or an erotics, or a metaphorics, of my anus. I am interested in ass-fucking.” Yes! Most of the novels and story collections I enjoyed most this year were fabulist, or had some kind of supernatural element -- apparitions or hallucinations or ghosts or the unexplained -- and required some suspension of disbelief. Kelly Link's stories in Get in Trouble, funny and imaginative, were rife with ghosts, super heroes, vampires, and pocket universes. César Aira's allegorical novel Ghosts, in which a family squatting in an unfinished apartment building in Buenos Aires can see ghosts, is strange and witty and sometimes a little disturbing but surprisingly lighthearted. John Henry Fleming's stories in Songs for the Deaf were inventive in the best way, sometimes satiric, sometimes dreamy and lyrical, sometimes dysfunctional, and often hilarious. This year I also revisited Shirley Jackson's We Have Always Lived in the Castle -- one of my all-time favorites -- a gothic novel, about two sisters who still live (with their elderly uncle) in a house where most of their family was murdered. It’s dark and funny and surprising, part murder mystery, part psychological thriller. Bonus: Merricat, the young narrator, is creepy and sadistic as hell. Diane Cook's Man V. Nature was probably my favorite story collection in the last two or three years. I finished it and then texted a bunch of friends to tell them about it and then immediately re-read it because DAMN it was just that good. Cook’s stories are hilarious, even when they’re tragic. Executives are hunted by a monster in an office building, babies are stolen from their mothers, unwanted (or “not needed”) boys are sent off to be incinerated, a giant baby can bench press more than his father. Cook’s stories remind me of Karen Russell, whose stories always knock me out. (By the way, Karen Russell’s novella, Sleep Donation, was one of my favorite reads last year.) My two favorite memoirs this year, Lacy M. Johnson's The Other Side and M.J. Fievre's A Sky the Color of Chaos were both as harrowing as they were beautiful. The Other Side opens with Johnson’s escape from a soundproof room, where she was imprisoned by her former boyfriend -- he’d intended to kill her, but she managed to escape. Johnson’s memoir, rather than just a story of the trauma and violence inflicted on her, is about how one deals with the aftermath and effects of trauma, written mostly in short, lyrical sections, often laced with metaphor. M.J. Fievre’s A Sky the Color of Chaos is a memoir about growing up in Haiti after the fall of Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier, the country’s violent dictator, when Jean-Bertrand Aristide became president. During this time, the Haitian people were taking violent revenge on the Tonton Macoutes, who were responsible for thousands upon thousands of rapes and murders, and several massacres. As much as it explores Haiti’s difficult history, A Sky the Color of Chaos is a coming of age story, and a story about Fievre’s complicated relationship with her father. I started reading Angela Flournoy's The Turner House while planning a move to Detroit. I was looking for what I thought would be “a Detroit novel.” What I got was so much more than that. A moving family saga full of complex characters and subtle metaphors -- Cha-Cha seeing haints, the rise and fall of the city, the house itself. Everything about this novel feels balanced -- the writing is controlled and elegant; Flournoy chooses two of the 13 siblings to focus on, the eldest and the youngest; the family experiences hard times but also, much like in real life, joy. The Turner House is timeless. And speaking of timeless: I was lucky enough to snag a copy of Amina Gautier's The Loss of All Lost Things, her third story collection, which comes out next year. The stories in this collection, which is her best, are about all types of loss -- parents who lose their son, a boy who comes to terms with the fact that he is lost, the loss of innocence. Gautier is definitely a prose stylist. Her sentences are lyrical, evocative, often haunting. Like every other person I know, I’m in the middle of Marlon James's A Brief History of Seven Killings, which is brutal and irreverent and unapologetic and badass, which is why everybody in the world is talking about it. I’m also finishing Phillippe Diederich's Sofrito, a novel about a restaurant owner who travels to Cuba, his parents’ homeland, in order to steal a secret recipe he thinks may save his restaurant. Diederich, a former photojournalist, really has an eye for details. Cuba is very vivid in this novel -- you can see it, smell it, taste it. And I just started Suki Kim's Without You, There Is No Us. Kim is a South Korean investigative journalist who secretly crossed the border into North Korea, going undercover in Pyongyang and posing as a North Korean teacher. Without You, There Is No Us is the book she wrote while immersed in the North Korean culture. What’s next? I’m excited to finally get to Tanwi Nandini Islam's Bright Lines. Tanwi and I will be in conversation at the Betsy Hotel South Beach on December 12, talking about books, queer coming of age stories, and so much more! 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.
1. I began 2015 with my then-girlfriend, now fiancée, and two other couples, at a rented house in the Catskills. The house belonged to a college art professor -- Bard, I think -- and on every available wall of the place hung some darkly priapic piece of art. There was a small, cold artist’s studio in the backyard where Renée and I were supposed to sleep, but after discovering a bundle of dreadlocked human hair, strung invisibly from the ceiling, and a series of circular collages that can only be described as psychosexually insane (or insanely psychosexual?), we opted for the narrow futon in the main house, near the dry heat of the hearth. We cooked every night, drank a survey of Caribbean sugar cane -- Appleton, Barbancourt, Brugal -- went hiking through the crater lakes at Minnewaska, talked and sometimes argued about music, art, magazines. Renée made a playlist I still sometimes listen to when I’m pretending to write, and as we counted down the seconds to the new year, we formed a little crooked circle and danced and sang. During quiet times, I read poems: Richard Wright’s Haiku, and the Robert Frost collection I always throw into my backpack when I leave the city. This was the beginning of a halting, yearlong attempt to read more poetry. I finally caught up with people like Morgan Parker and Phillip B. Williams, revisited Langston Hughes (and dug into his enigmatic, newly released Selected Letters) and Gwendolyn Brooks and Kevin Young, consulted with the back-pocket edition of Pablo Neruda I used to carry around as an annoying undergraduate, and -- speaking of haiku -- tried, again and again, all year, to figure out the effectiveness and easy grace of Matsuo Bashō's frog, slipping into the water with a immortal plop. No luck there. I have been trying to understand pastoralism -- I hit 30 and everything suddenly seems so loud -- and so have been working my way, slowly, through a slim Dover Thrift anthology of English Romantic Poetry. (Has anybody, by the way, published a big takedown of the Dover people? What they do -- I’m sometimes very cheap, it seems right to mention -- seems too good to be morally right.) They’ve all got their merits, but let’s be honest: the whole movement was John Keats and the Pips. I reread Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein at some point (Dover again! Please tell me this is okay to do), and her prose, and imagination, blows all her husband’s friends’ verse out of the water. Speaking of publishers, I -- like everybody else, maybe -- was wowed, and often tutored, by this year’s offerings from NYRB books. Eileen Chang’s Naked Earth helped me to understand the logic and language of Mao’s China; Linda Rosenkrantz’s unruly, addictive Talk drew me closer to Andy Warhol’s drug-and-Freud-fueled New York than I’d ever, at least consciously, wanted to venture. I can’t remember the last time I laughed at a book the way I laughed at Paul Beatty’s The Sellout. Or the last time I felt as trustful of the control and restraint and taste of a novelist as I did with Angela Flournoy’s The Turner House. Or as happy to be crawling through the oeuvre of a favorite playwright as with Eugene O’Neill’s Seven Plays of the Sea. I found a first-edition, hard-copy of the O’Neill on one of the uncountable book-lousy folding tables you’ll find, any Sunday of the year, on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. These tables, and their attendant “book guys,” are a good reason, if you need one, to live in New York. On another day -- summer, sun-stunned -- after, I’m just now remembering, a long weekend meal with those same couples from the Catskills, I stopped by a book table and picked up Michael Beckerman’s impressive New Worlds of Dvorak, a close reading -- journalistic and musicological at turns -- of the great composer’s years spent in America, trying to bequeath to us the “national music” we kind of already had. I cherish Saul Bellow, so I started but am hesitant to finish his newly collected nonfiction, There Is Simply Too Much to Think About. I cherish Flannery O’Connor, so I read a few more of her beautiful, chastening letters and left her alone. I cherish Ralph Ellison -- third big cliche in a row, I know -- so I read Arnold Rampersad’s magisterial, appropriately tragicomic biography -- very late to that particular party, I know -- and went sprinting back to the essays in Going to the Territory and Shadow and Act. Speaking of cherished writers and unfashionable lateness, I finally picked up my copy of Mansfield Park (Dover!!!) and wished I’d read it 10 years earlier, for all sorts of real-life reasons. I finally read Toni Morrison’s Playing in the Dark, and felt the same way. I read Hilton Als’s White Girls and felt awkward about the looks I got on the subway. (The dynamics of reading on the subway are another essay entirely.) And speaking of taking things slowly, for fear of ever catching up, I read the second of the Karl Ove Knausgaard novels and called it a year. Ta-Nehisi Coates’s haunting, world-beating Between the World and Me led me back -- inevitably -- to James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time. Those aforementioned Hughes letters led me back to the Harlem Renaissance -- and specifically, for some reason, back to the so-called “passers:” Jessie Redmon Fauset’s Plum Bun; Nella Larsen’s odd, twitchy Quicksand; Jean Toomer’s Cane, an insane, beautiful blend of verse, prose, and drama. Cane’s is probably still my favorite book, and reading it again made me want to someday try to write a life of Toomer, who seems to have been America’s most interesting psychopath as well as its most tragically unrealized and overlooked modernist. (The Fauset, the Larsen, and the Toomer are collected in the Library of America’s beautiful boxed set of Harlem Renaissance Novels.) At some point Renée and I began reading Jeffrey Eugenides’s Middlesex -- which she’s already read, and I have not -- aloud, in bed, at night, sort of inconsistently. It’s wonderful so far. As always, I ended up feeling like I should’ve been able to read a lot more. 2. Maybe it makes sense to share, before leaving this exercise alone, that this has been one of the more emotionally intense years of my life. I’ve been introduced to entirely new, often overwhelming species of joy and anxiety and fulfillment and fear and hope. There were times of ridiculous, almost uncomfortable happiness; other days (weeks, months) I spent wishing for a side exit. With these extremes came a change in my reading. For the first time since I was a kid, I found myself reading almost desperately, reading as a purposeful means of escape. I guess I’d forgotten (likely during the slow and misguided process of becoming a writer) how effective and merciful an analgesic it can be to leave your own imagination and pick up somebody else’s. Reading has always been my favorite thing to do. This year it was sometimes the only thing I could do. I felt more grateful for books, and for writers -- because I remembered that I need them -- than I’d been in a very long time. 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.
Now in its second glorious decade, the Year in Reading has become a Millions tradition, featuring contributions from a roster of emerging and marquee authors, staff writers, and friends of the site. It’s an effort that yields hundreds of books for to-be-read piles, as well as some of the best writing we run all year. After 13 years of solo striving, this was the first year that site editor C. Max Magee finally called for reinforcements; we happily stepped into the breach (now that we've seen the amount of work that goes into this, we’re a little frightened of him). It has been a thrill to look for exciting voices, to send emails like carrier pigeons off into the universe and hope they’ll come back bearing book recommendations from Stephen King (maybe next year). If you follow the literary world, you’d think that everyone is reading Elena Ferrante 24/7. And while lots of people are (you’ll see), Year in Reading is also our annual chance to peek behind the curtain at people’s singular reading lives—who went down a comics wormhole, or read multiple Freddie Mercury biographies, or discovered August Wilson for the first time. And not only what they read, but how they felt about what they read--how the reading shaped the year. There are a huge number of books represented in the series this year, many fantastic lists, and many extraordinary meditations on reading and life. We think you’ll enjoy reading them as much as we enjoyed putting them together. As in prior years, the names of our 2015 contributors will be unveiled throughout the month as their entries are published. Bookmark this post, load up the main page, subscribe to our RSS feed, or follow us on Facebook or Twitter to make sure you don’t miss an entry. - Your Year in Reading Editors, Lydia Kiesling & Janet Potter Stephen Dodson, co-author of Uglier Than a Monkey’s Armpit, proprietor of Languagehat. Ottessa Moshfegh, author of Eileen. Atticus Lish, author of Preparation for the Next Life. Angela Flournoy, author of The Turner House. Claire Messud, author of The Woman Upstairs. Celeste Ng, author of Everything I Never Told You. Nell Zink, author of Mislaid. Claire Vaye Watkins, author of Gold Fame Citrus. Chris Kraus, author of Summer of Hate. Katrina Dodson, translator of The Complete Stories of Clarice Lispector. Joyce Carol Oates, author of The Accursed, among many other books. Saeed Jones, author of Prelude to Bruise. The Book Report, everyone's favorite literary show. Bijan Stephen, associate editor at the New Republic. Garth Risk Hallberg, contributing editor for The Millions, author of City on Fire. Lydia Kiesling, staff writer for The Millions and creator of the Modern Library Revue. Janet Potter, staff writer for The Millions. Elizabeth Minkel, staff writer for The Millions. Emily St. John Mandel, staff writer for The Millions and author of Station Eleven. Michael Schaub, staff writer for The Millions. Thomas Beckwith, social media and previews editor for The Millions. Anne K. Yoder, staff writer for The Millions. Chigozie Obioma, author of The Fishermen. Greg Hrbek, author of Not on Fire, but Burning. Terry McMillan, author of Waiting to Exhale. Sasha Frere-Jones, writer and musician. Matthew Salesses, author of The Hundred-Year Flood. Meaghan O’Connell, author of And Now We Have Everything. Cristina Henríquez, author of Come Together, Fall Apart. Vinson T. Cunningham, contributing writer for The New Yorker. J.M. Ledgard, author of Submergence. Nadifa Mohamed, author of The Orchard of Lost Souls. Manjula Martin, editor of SCRATCH: Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living. Lauren Groff, author of Fates and Furies. Alexander Chee, author of Edinburgh. Olivia Laing, author of The Lonely City. Rahawa Haile, author of short stories and essays. Rumaan Alam, author of Rich and Pretty. Justin Taylor, author of Flings. Julia Alvarez, author of How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents. Jaquira Díaz, editor of 15 Views of Miami . Dave Cullen, author of Columbine. Hannah Gersen, staff writer for The Millions. Tess Malone, associate editor for The Millions. Matt Seidel, staff writer for The Millions. Claire Cameron, staff writer for The Millions, author of The Bear. Nick Ripatrazone, staff writer for The Millions, author of We Will Listen for You. Edan Lepucki, staff writer for The Millions, author of California. Viet Thanh Nguyen, author of The Sympathizer. Daniel José Older, author of Shadowshaper. Lincoln Michel, author of Upright Beasts. Rebecca Carroll, author of Saving the Race. Ana Castillo, author of So Far from God. Patrick Rothfuss, author of The Name of the Wind. Katie Coyle, author of Vivian Apple at the End of the World. Sady Doyle, a writer in New York. Patricia Engel, author of Vida. Manuel Muñoz, author of What You See in the Dark. Karolina Waclawiak, author of The Invaders. Hamilton Leithauser, a singer/songwriter in New York City. Catie Disabato, author of The Ghost Network. Parul Sehgal, senior editor at The New York Times Book Review. Margaret Eby, author of South Toward Home. Tahmima Anam, author of A Golden Age. Sandra Cisneros, author of Have You Seen Marie?. Brian Etling, intern for The Millions. Nick Moran, special projects editor for The Millions. Jacob Lambert, staff writer for The Millions. Michael Bourne, staff writer for The Millions. Bruna Dantas Lobato, intern for The Millions. Bill Morris, staff writer for The Millions, author of Motor City Burning. Summer Brennan, author of The Oyster War. Kerry Howley, author of Thrown. Rachel Eliza Griffiths, author of Lighting the Shadow. Maggie Nelson, author of The Argonauts. Lauren Holmes, author of Barbara the Slut and Other People. Kate Harding, author of Asking for It. Year in Reading Outro. 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.
This year’s New York Times Notable Books of the Year list is out. At 100 titles, the list is more of a catalog of the noteworthy than a distinction. Sticking with the fiction exclusively, it appears that we touched upon a few of these books and authors as well: Beatlebone by Kevin Barry (You Can’t Lie in Fiction: An Interview with Kevin Barry, You Must Read Kevin Barry, A Year in Reading: Kevin Barry) Citizen by Claudia Rankine (Hinge of History: Nine Books for the Post-Ferguson Era) City on Fire by Garth Risk Hallberg (The Opening Lines of Garth Risk Hallberg’s City on Fire, I’ve Rarely Felt So Free: The Millions Interviews Garth Risk Hallberg, Garth at The Millions) The Complete Stories by Clarice Lispector (A Horribly Marvelous and Delicate Abyss: The Complete Stories by Clarice Lispector) Delicious Foods by James Hannaham (A Happy Sort of Pessimism: The Millions Interviews James Hannaham) Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff (Exclusive First Look: Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies, The Most Joyous Part: The Millions Interviews Lauren Groff) The First Bad Man by Miranda July (A Box of Powerful Things: The Millions Interviews Miranda July) The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma (The Audacity of Prose, Clickworthy Headlines about The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma) The Hollow Land by Jane Gardam (Jane Gardam’s Characters: Organically Grown) Honeydew by Edith Pearlman (Loneliness, Interrupted: Edith Pearlman’s Honeydew, Overnight Sensation? Edith Pearlman on Fame and the Importance of Short Fiction) How to Be Both by Ali Smith (Wordsmith: The Beguiling Gifts of Ali Smith) A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara (Two Lives: On Hanya Yanagihara and Atticus Lish, ‘I Wouldn’tve Had a Biography at All’: The Millions Interviews Hanya Yanagihara) Loving Day by Mat Johnson (A Blacker Shade of Pale: On Mat Johnson’s Loving Day) A Manual for Cleaning Women by Lucia Berlin (The Book Report: Episode 30) The Mare by Mary Gaitskill (A Heightened State of Emotion: The Millions Interviews Mary Gaitskill) The Meursault Investigation by Kamel Daoud (The Crime of Life: On Kamel Daoud’s The Meursault Investigation) Preparation For The Next Life by Atticus Lish (Two Lives: On Hanya Yanagihara and Atticus Lish) Purity by Jonathan Franzen (Flamed but Not Forgotten: On Jonathan Franzen’s Purity) The Sellout by Paul Beatty (The Inanity of American Plutocracy: On Paul Beatty’s The Sellout) The Sellout by Paul Beatty (The Inanity of American Plutocracy: On Paul Beatty’s The Sellout) The Story of the Lost Child by Elena Ferrante (Elena Ferrante Names the Devil and Slays the Minotaur, Outside the Neighborhood: Reading Italy Through Elena Ferrante) The Story of My Teeth by Valeria Luiselli (Tricks and Lies: On Valeria Luiselli’s The Story of My Teeth) The Tsar of Love and Techno by Anthony Marra (The Writer I Was: Six Authors Look Back on Their First Novels) The Turner House by Angela Flournoy (Dynamite Detroit Debut: On Angela Flournoy’s The Turner House, The Tortoise, Not the Hare: The Millions Interviews Angela Flournoy)
“If I was working against any existing Detroit narrative, it is the one where working-class black people exist as numbers or victims and not as fully-realized, complex people.” Angela Flournoy on her most recent work, The Turner House, a National Book Award finalist. We interviewed the author and reviewed the book.
Angela Flournoy is in the midst of a year all debut novelists dream of. She has secured a spot as a finalist for the National Book Award; she was also named as one of the “5 Under 35” writers by the same organization. Her debut, The Turner House, is an elegant and intimate exploration of a large family in Detroit and how the housing crisis of 2008 has affected them. While this generational saga covers a multitude of themes, it feels concise and is an enthralling page turner. We spoke over the phone about her writing process of her debut novel, the current state of diversity in literature, and what she has planned next. The Millions: You’ve been nominated for the National Book Award and were named part of the “5 Under 35.” How have you been feeling about all of the recognition? Angela Flournoy: I’ve been feeling great. For your first book you really don’t sit around thinking about getting on a long list. At least I don’t as a writer because then you’d be perpetually disappointed. I was really excited, surprised, and delighted. I didn’t even think the “5 Under 35” was even possible. Especially on the first go around. There’s a way if you write short stories and you get them placed well [in certain magazines] things happen incrementally. You have this little business card out there in the world. You can get little awards or fellowships with that. When you write a novel you’re the tortoise, not the hare. For four of five years, I was just writing. There was the adjunct position and I was just waiting tables in Iowa, but I was really just out in the world writing. I wasn’t being looked at by people who can help. Everything just happened at once. As a novelist, people told me but I forgot, that if it happens, it will all happen at once. There is no business card, there is no little story out there in the world. The night they announced the “5 Under 35” at a cocktail party in New York, I wasn’t there. I was teaching in Brooklyn. It was a class that night about Roberto Bolaño’s novel The Savage Detectives. It’s weird how everything connects because the first time I read that novel was four years prior in a class taught by ZZ Packer, who was actually the writer who nominated me. It seemed like the right place to be [teaching that class] even though I wasn’t “celebrating.” It felt right teaching about a book that I learned about by the person who nominated me. TM: What was the writing process of your debut novel like during your time at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop? AF: I started it there. The idea for the project really came to me when I first moved to Iowa in the fall of 2009. My father’s family is from Detroit, so I had frequent trips just driving from Iowa City to Detroit. It’s about a seven-hour drive. It just seems that people from the Midwest drive more often. So I was driving to Detroit to visit the house my father grew up in and it was the first time ever that no one was living in the house. My grandmother was older and she no longer lived there. It was on the east side of town, which is a depopulated area; I was just sort of bothered by this house. People worked so hard to maintain it and it looked so great, but I didn’t really know what the future of the house would be. So it just stayed there for about 10 months. In my second semester, I had this idea of this woman who was staying in a house. She wasn’t necessarily trespassing, but she didn’t want anybody to know that she was there. That character became Lelah, and that’s how the novel really began. I workshopped 15 pages near the end of the semester, but of course nobody knew it was going to end up as a novel. Once I started writing about her, I didn’t want to write about anything else. Really, in my second year at Iowa, all of my workshops were just chapters of the novel. I wrote about 80 pages and I decided to stay in Iowa for a third year just so I wouldn’t have to move to an expensive city and I could adjunct [teach at the Workshop]. By staying in Iowa for the third year, I got to about 200 pages, and with those pages I got an agent. I moved and continued to work on the book and it took another year to get to the 300 pages that it ended up becoming. The most useful thing about my time in Iowa was just not having high overhead. There’s not a lot to do there, especially in winter, so there’s just time to write. TM: Where did the other pieces come from? There are a lot of different threads winding together to make something pretty concise. AF: My father is from a big family. In my mind, I had to find a reason why Lelah didn’t want people to know she was in this house and I thought about the big family and the fear of judgement. One way I could explore the history of the house and the family’s relationship with the city was to have her be the youngest of a very big line of siblings. So on the other end of the spectrum I needed someone who was the opposite of her, who was Cha Cha. I was able to explore a lot of different aspects of life in Detroit and life in a big family. TM: The novel has five different sections representing a week in 2008, as well as flashbacks to the 1940s. How does a writer come about finding the right structural elements of a novel? AF: The background just lived in my mind as useful information that probably wouldn’t end up in the book. I first started writing the novel as a contemporary Detroit story. When people read anything that has to do with a social issue or an economic issue, if you put it in the past, people don’t really look at themselves. If the book was completely set in the past people would just disassociate themselves with it. They would think this is just how housing discrimination was working in the past and it has nothing to do with them today. So I was hesitant to focus on the 1940s. The more I researched, the more I found interesting things. The part of the city that these people moved to during the Great Migration doesn’t even exist anymore. So I thought this would be a great opportunity to teach a lesson on part of the city’s history. Once I decided that, I knew that I could use it as a piece of backwards information. In the present timeline the question is where is the family going with this house, but in the past the question is how did this house even come into their lives? I thought the two together would play well off of one another. TM: Identity plays a major role in The Turner House. How do you feel about race or identity in current literature? AF: I feel like it’s one of those things that if you seek [writers of different races and genders] out you find it. I find, maybe not on purpose, that I’ve read more of that in the past year. Especially women and women of color. Once you find one writer, you find others like them. I think that publishing is a little behind of what people desire or what they’re gravitating towards. I was on a panel at Decatur [Georgia] Book Festival on Labor Day and a writer discussed how young adult literature is written more like what the country looks like. It’s trying harder to be inclusive; people of various ethnicities or various sexual orientation. I think that’s something that literary fiction is a little bit slower to embrace. I think it’s changing though. I can only hope that it is. There are certain people who only know people who look like them still, but I think it’s become less of the norm. As far as identity in literature, I think we’re coming to a place where readers have so many options. Eventually readers will read about everything and it will happen organically; it wouldn’t even be a thought. There’s so many books out there by such a diverse group of writers that readers won’t have to try hard to find diversity. Hopefully we can get to a point where diversity is the norm. TM: What’s the next project you’re working on? A novel or short stories? AF: I’m working on a book. If you can call it that. It’s the very early days. Being busy is a good problem to have. I moved to Brooklyn to teach in the summer and wanted to focus on writing in the fall. However, I got all of these opportunities to teach and talk about my book. It’s nice because when a debut novel comes out, you don’t think anything like this will happen. I’m looking forward to getting time to focus on the next book. It’s very early days. It’s about family, but it’s more about friendship than it is about familial connection TM: Between teaching, giving talks about The Turner House and working on the next one, do you have time to read for pleasure? AF: Yes. One thing I like reading are big, sprawling novels. You either love them or hate them. I’m a person who loves them. I’m always on the hunt for the next big book that’s going to take me to all of these places and enter all of these points of view. There may be a few digressions, but they’re going to be beautifully written. I’m currently reading Bright Lines by Tanwi Nandini Islam. It is probably not as sprawling as I seek out, but there’s a greatness to it. It’s a book set in the early 2000s in Brooklyn about a family from Bangladesh. It’s a coming of age story, but also familial history.
Book award season is peaking along with the autumn leaves as the National Book Award shortlists have been released in four categories. These have been whittled down from last month's longlists, and the winners will be announced in New York City on November 18. You read about nearly all of the books on the Fiction shortlist here first, as they appeared in our indispensable first-half and second-half previews. Here’s a list of the finalists in all four categories with bonus links and excerpts where available: Fiction: Refund by Karen E. Bender ("For What Purpose") The Turner House by Angela Flournoy (Dynamite Detroit Debut: On Angela Flournoy’s The Turner House) Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff (the book's opening passage, The Most Joyous Part: The Millions Interviews Lauren Groff, Lauren Groff writing at The Millions) Fortune Smiles by Adam Johnson (excerpt) A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara (Two Lives: On Hanya Yanagihara and Atticus Lish, ‘I Wouldn’tve Had a Biography at All’: The Millions Interviews Hanya Yanagihara) Nonfiction: Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates ("We Know Less Than We Think We Do") Hold Still: A Memoir with Photographs by Sally Mann (excerpt) The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration Into the Wonder of Consciousness by Sy Montgomery (excerpt) If the Oceans Were Ink: An Unlikely Friendship and a Journey to the Heart of the Quran by Carla Power (excerpt) Ordinary Light: A Memoir by Tracy K. Smith (A Field Guide to Silences: On Tracy K. Smith’s Ordinary Light) Poetry: Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude by Ross Gay (the title poem) How to Be Drawn by Terrance Hayes (poem) Voyage of the Sable Venus by Robin Coste Lewis (poem) Bright Dead Things by Ada Limón (Charring the Page: On Ada Limón’s Bright Dead Things) Elegy for a Broken Machine by Patrick Phillips (the title poem) Young People's Literature: The Thing About Jellyfish by Ali Benjamin (excerpt) Bone Gap by Laura Ruby (excerpt) Most Dangerous: Daniel Ellsberg and the Secret History of the Vietnam War by Steve Sheinkin (excerpt) Challenger Deep by Neal Shusterman (excerpt) Nimona by Noelle Stevenson (interview)
Detroit may not be cranking out the fire-breathing cars or the finger-popping Motown hits the way it used to, but the Motor City has been inspiring some splendid writing in recent years. The latest addition to this long and growing shelf is Matt Bell’s stirring second novel, Scrapper, a book that gets its hands dirty wrestling with the wreckage -- both material and human -- of a once-mighty city. Kelly is the novel’s titular scrapper, a loner who cruises the city’s abandoned heart, known as the zone, looking for metal he can salvage and sell. It’s lonely, dangerous, back-breaking, and marginally criminal work, but Kelly does it without complaint. He isn’t living any sort of real life, just “wallowing in the aftermath of terrible error.” Even so, he proves to be a savvy guide to the city’s underground economy, the contours of its decline. He knows, for instance, that the decline began long ago, as in, “Nearly two million citizens in 1950 but then fewer every year.” He knows about emptiness: “The farther he moved toward the center of the zone the more the neighborhoods sagged, all the wood falling off of brick, most every house uninhabited, the stores a couple thousand square feet of blank shelves, windows barred against the stealing of the nothing there.” He knows about the relative value of scrap: “A hundred pounds of copper pipe paid more than double a truckload of steel.” And he understands the gradations of the city’s scrap yards, from legitimate to flagrantly illegal: “The unofficial yards kept unofficial hours. You could show up in the middle of the day and find the place deserted, show up at midnight and find three guys playing cards, getting high, cutting scrap. They paid a fraction of the price, the price of no questions asked.” Such details are important because they ground the novel in a very real and very sinister world. Reading Scrapper, you don’t so much enter a conventional fictional world as you succumb to a fugue state, or a fever dream. Bell is a brave writer, willing to work without a safety net on a high wire of his own making. He stumbles from time to time, but that doesn’t diminish this novel’s admirable ambition. The story gains steam when Kelly meets a girl at a bar and they begin a relationship. An emergency dispatcher, she knows cars and she loves the local hockey team, the Red Wings, which is to say she’s a true Detroit girl. In time Kelly learns that she’s suffering from an unnamed progressive disease that has the markings of multiple sclerosis, which will provide a test for his love and his mettle. The story finally soars when Kelly makes a horrifying discovery: a naked 12-year-old boy chained to a bed in the sound-proofed basement of an abandoned house. He frees the boy, takes him to the hospital, and watches his own simple life mushroom with complications, including the suspicion that he was involved in the boy’s abduction, and his mission to seek vengeance against the abductor. These complications lead to a nearly schizophrenic split in Kelly’s personality, between the rapacious scrapper and the high-minded “salvor.” There are stumbles, as I say. Sections narrated in the second person by the kidnapper feel contrived. A sudden shift to first-person narration by Kelly is jarring. Two sections -- one set in Cuba, the other in the Ukraine -- add nothing to the story. In the former, a terrorism suspect talks like a Don DeLillo character on a bad Cosmopolis day: “In your country, if I had shot a man in my youth, could my crime be almost an accident, an inevitability, an unavoidable outcome of a system?...A crime, yes, but the crime of having been younger, less educated, less patient. There would be those who would protest my harsh treatment.” No one talks like that, and I have no idea why this man is in the novel. But such missteps are minor compared to this novel’s larger virtues. Kelly was a state champ wrestler in high school, under the tutelage of a demanding, abusive father, and now he takes up boxing. This leads to a bravura boxing match, during which Kelly absorbs a vicious beating and Matt Bell proves he can write like a dream, can make boxing a metaphor for a way to live life: How to protect yourself from the blow you can’t see coming. This was what the other boxers talked about...(b)ecause it was the blow you couldn’t see coming that knocked you out. If you stared into every punch you could never be put down. The illusion of control. Self-determination in battle. Kelly didn’t believe in anything else he’d once believed in but he thought he might believe in this. For such insights, Bell acknowledges his debt to On Boxing by Joyce Carol Oates. Maybe the finest thing about Scrapper is the way in takes us into a deep-pore underworld that’s rarely explored in even the best books about Detroit. Paul Clemens has written beautiful and sad stories about the decline of blue-collar Detroit, but Scrapper is something new, a book by a writer willing to explore worlds so dark you need a miner’s helmet to navigate your way. The novel’s publication coincides with the appearance of a wonderful new non-fiction book by David Maraniss, a Detroit native, prolific author, and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist. His Once In a Great City: A Detroit Story offers a vivid snapshot of the moment when Detroit reached its peak, from late 1962 to early 1964. Meanwhile, Dominique Morisseau continues to write wrenching plays set in Detroit’s glorious and turbulent past. There have recently been insightful books on Detroit by Anna Clark, Mark Binelli, Charlie LeDuff, Scott Martelle, John Gallagher, and others. And Angela Flournoy’s terrific debut novel, The Turner House, the story of a sprawling Detroit family’s crumbling home place, has just been long-listed for the National Book Award. With Scrapper, Matt Bell has joined some fast -- and fast-growing -- company.
The 2015 National Book Foundation 5 Under 35 Honorees have been announced! This year’s honorees are Angela Flournoy for The Turner House (our review here), Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi for Fra Keeler (our review here), Colin Barrett for Young Skins (which appeared in our most recent book preview), Tracy O’Neill for The Hopeful (you can read her Millions articles here and here), and Megan Kruse for Call Me Home. For all of the National Book Award longlists, check out our post.
Book award season enters high gear as the National Book Award finalists have been released in a series of four longlists consisting of ten books apiece. Five finalists in each category will be announced on October 14, and winners will be announced in New York City on November 18. The fiction list seems especially varied this year and includes many newcomers. Alongside highly touted books by Hanya Yanagihara, Lauren Groff, and Adam Johnson. Are "newcomers" like Bill Clegg, Angela Flournoy, and Nell Zink. It's a great time to be a reader. You read about nearly all of the books on the Fiction longlist here first, of course, as they appeared in our indispensable first-half and second-half previews. In the other categories, after last year's male-dominated Non-Fiction longlist, female authors have captured seven of the spots this year. Here’s a list of the finalists in all four categories with bonus links and excerpts where available: Fiction: A Cure for Suicide by Jesse Ball (Ball's Year in Reading, 2009) Did You Ever Have a Family by Bill Clegg (exerpt) Refund by Karen E. Bender ("For What Purpose") The Turner House by Angela Flournoy (Dynamite Detroit Debut: On Angela Flournoy’s The Turner House) Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff (the book's opening passage, The Most Joyous Part: The Millions Interviews Lauren Groff, Lauren Groff writing at The Millions) Fortune Smiles by Adam Johnson (excerpt) Welcome to Braggsville by T. Geronimo Johnson (excerpt (pdf)) Honeydew by Edith Pearlman (Overnight Sensation? Edith Pearlman on Fame and the Importance of Short Fiction, Loneliness, Interrupted: Edith Pearlman’s Honeydew) A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara (Two Lives: On Hanya Yanagihara and Atticus Lish, ‘I Wouldn’tve Had a Biography at All’: The Millions Interviews Hanya Yanagihara) Mislaid by Nell Zink Nonfiction: Rain: A Natural and Cultural History by Cynthia Barnett (interview and excerpt) Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates ("We Know Less Than We Think We Do") Mourning Lincoln by Martha Hodes (excerpt) Hold Still: A Memoir with Photographs by Sally Mann (excerpt) The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration Into the Wonder of Consciousness by Sy Montgomery (excerpt) Paradise of the Pacific: Approaching Hawaii by Susanna Moore (essay) Love and Other Ways of Dying by Michael Paterniti (excerpt) If the Oceans Were Ink: An Unlikely Friendship and a Journey to the Heart of the Quran by Carla Power (excerpt) Ordinary Light: A Memoir by Tracy K. Smith (A Field Guide to Silences: On Tracy K. Smith’s Ordinary Light) Travels in Vermeer: A Memoir by Michael White (excerpt) Poetry: Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude by Ross Gay (the title poem) Scattered at Sea by Amy Gerstler (excerpt) A Stranger’s Mirror: New and Selected Poems, 1994-2014 by Marilyn Hacker (the title poem) How to Be Drawn by Terrance Hayes (poem) The Beauty by Jane Hirshfield (poem) Voyage of the Sable Venus by Robin Coste Lewis (poem) Bright Dead Things by Ada Limón (Charring the Page: On Ada Limón’s Bright Dead Things) Elegy for a Broken Machine by Patrick Phillips (the title poem) Heaven by Rowan Ricardo Phillips (poem) Mistaking Each Other for Ghosts by Lawrence Raab (poem) Young People's Literature: Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli (excerpt) Symphony for the City of the Dead: Dmitri Shostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad by M.T. Anderson The Thing About Jellyfish by Ali Benjamin (excerpt) Walk on Earth a Stranger by Rae Carson (excerpt) This Side of Wild: Mutts, Mares, and Laughing Dinosaurs by Gary Paulsen Bone Gap by Laura Ruby (excerpt) X: A Novel by Ilyasah Shabazz with Kekla Magoon (excerpt) Most Dangerous: Daniel Ellsberg and the Secret History of the Vietnam War by Steve Sheinkin (excerpt) Challenger Deep by Neal Shusterman (excerpt) Nimona by Noelle Stevenson (interview)
Last year I agreed to take on the impossible challenge of singling out the 10 best books about my hometown, Detroit. It was impossible because the Motor City, justly famous for its cars and its music, its muscle and its misery, has also inspired a rich literature -- fiction, poetry, history, biography, autobiography, reportage. Undaunted, I picked works by Elmore Leonard, Philip Levine, Loren D. Estleman, Anna Clark, Donald Goines, Mark Binelli, Nelson George, and others, with honorable mention to Thomas Sugrue, Joyce Carol Oates, Scott Martelle, and Ze’ev Chafets. I’m happy to report that there’s a new applicant for membership in this august club. She’s a young writer named Angela Flournoy, and her debut novel, The Turner House, belongs on the shelf with the very finest books about one of America’s most dynamic, tortured, and resilient cities. The novel’s title refers to the crumbling edifice on Detroit’s crumbling East Side where Francis and Viola Turner, transplants from Arkansas, raised their rumbustious brood of 13 in a state of scrappy but not unhappy near-poverty. It’s now 2008. Francis is dead, Viola is fading, and as a brutal recession bears down and the city skids toward the largest municipal bankruptcy in American history, the Turner children are scrambling to figure out what to do about the empty family manse. It may be their “sedentary mascot” and their “coat of arms,” but it’s worth about one-10th of what’s owed on it. The debate about the house’s fate hangs over the novel because, like the city that shaped them, the Turner children are a squabbling, nurturing, demanding, forbidding, and complicated crew. This is Detroit. Nothing is simple. The novel opens on the night in 1958 when the first-born Turner child, 14-year-old Cha-Cha, does battle with a ghost -- a haint -- that tries to drag him out of his bedroom window. Though several of his siblings witness Cha-Cha tussling with the milky blue spirit, their father lays down the law: “Ain’t no haints in Detroit.” Years later, Cha-Cha is revisited by the haint while driving a truckload of Chryslers to Chicago, and the resulting accident changes his life. His employer sends him to a shrink named Alice Rothman, whose erotically charged therapy sessions will send ripples through Cha-Cha’s marriage and his relations with his mother and siblings. Cha-Cha’s obsession with finding out the truth about the haint will tear at the fabric of this tight-knit, combative family. Flournoy, according to the flap copy, is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and she was raised in southern California by a mother from Los Angeles and a father from Detroit. So the vividness of the writing here comes not through lived experience, but through the assimilation of stories told by a parent and other relatives. There are many sentences that nail a sense of place with a precision long-time Detroiters like Elmore Leonard or Donald Goines would have envied: “The last time Lelah saw Vernon, some eight years earlier, he’d been nodding off in the freezing rain on a curb in front of a twenty-four-hour Coney Island on Harper.” And: “The coffee made him jittery by the time work was over, and to help him relax he frequented a blind pig on Saint Antoine and Gratiot where for a nickel a day he rented a little locker to store his own hooch.” Here’s Troy Turner, a Detroit cop, discussing the endemic corruption in city government: “That’s what’s wrong with this city; it ain’t about the mayor. Too many people busy hoping shit will get better to actually figure out a way to make shit better.” And here’s Francis’s baptism when he arrives, alone, in the 1940s looking for work: “After a few thrilling binges of liquor and nightlife, Francis had learned that Detroit, with its overcrowded tenements and crooked bosses and exclusive restaurants downtown, was a lonely, backbreaking city.” There are cracklingly alive scenes inside pawn shops and factories, casinos and living rooms. Flournoy has a deft touch with the verbal and psychological sparring between spouses, siblings, and parents and children. My two favorite Turner siblings are Cha-Cha, the tortured eldest, and Lelah, the baby with a gambling problem. This is, in the best sense of the word, a domestic novel. One of Flournoy’s great achievements is that she doesn’t draw attention to the fact that virtually every one of her characters is black. This is just part of the novel’s oxygen and furniture, a Detroit given. Therein lies its quiet strength. But there are missteps. The constant cutting back and forth in time, between 2008 and the 1940s, becomes a distraction -- even though those early years, both in Detroit and Arkansas, are crucial to the story. Maybe the two eras could have been stitched together differently. This is not a plot-driven story, but at times the narrative sags. And while I’m no fan of overly tidy endings, I felt that the climactic family reunion was strangely cursory, and the story shuffled to its conclusion. None of that takes away from the fact that Angela Flournoy is an exciting new talent whose debut has enriched Detroit’s flowering literature. Read The Turner House, and I’m sure you’ll join me in waiting, eagerly, to see what its gifted author comes up with next.
New this week: Voices in the Night by Steven Millhauser; Gutshot by Amelia Gray; The Dead Lands by Benjamin Percy; The Turner House by Angela Flournoy; The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma; The Fair Fight by Anna Freeman; Lurid and Cute by Adam Thirlwell; The Given World by Marian Palaia; The Winter Family by Clifford Jackman; Diamond Head by Cecily Wong; and Whispering Shadows by Jan-Philipp Sendker. For more on these and other new titles, check out our Great 2015 Book Preview.