As the year winds down, it's a great opportunity for readers to catch up on some of the most-read pieces from The Millions during the year. We’ll divide the most popular posts on The Millions into two categories, beginning with the 20 most popular pieces published on the site in 2017. 1. Our pair of Most Anticipated posts were popular among readers looking for something new to read. We now do monthly fiction and poetry previews as well. Our 2017 book preview is coming soon. 2. Dragons Are for White Kids with Money: On the Friction of Geekdom and Race: Daniel Jose Ruiz wrote "You’d think that when I found geekdom, I’d be welcomed in with open arms, but my ethnic identifiers have often caused friction." His exploration spurred a great deal of conversation on and off the site. 3. A Bookseller's Elegy: In a politically charged year, Douglas Koziol wrote about his struggle to sell books that go against what he believes. 4. Against Readability: Ben Roth wondered, why are books so frequently bestowed with the faintest of praise? "Given the tenor of our times, it is perhaps readable books that we need least." 5. I feel a project coming on: Our own Hannah Gersen gave us ten (10!) ways to organize our bookshelves. I'm trying to move beyond "in piles, all over the place." 6. Staring into the Soundless Dark: On the Trouble Lurking in Poets’ Bedrooms: Andrew Kay writes "Whatever the nature of their sleep hang-ups, their poems have furnished these writers with spaces in which to record their nocturnal trials." 7. Only partway done as I compile this list, our star-studded Year in Reading has been a big hit across the internet. 8. At the Firing Squad: The Radical Works of a Young Dostoevsky: "At 28, Fyodor Dostoevsky was about to die," begins Matthew James Seidel's riveting account of Dostoevsky's emergence as a great writer. 9. Have you found yourself dabbling in "crossover" lit. Do you ever peek your eyes over top that collection of short stories and spy lustily at your neighbor's sci-fi? Ian Simpson provided the genre-curious with a guide to breaking out of the literary rut. 10. The book vs. ebook debate is surely long over, no? They will co-exist forever. James McWilliams is therefore free to rhapsodize about being comforted, ensconced and tempted by (physical) books. 11. This was a treat: Catherine Baab-Muguira investigated how much Edgar Allan Poe earned from his writing. Was his haul commensurate with his contributions to the canon? Also note: "You never enter the same Poe whirlpool twice." 12. We were thrilled to exclusively announce the Best Translated Book Awards this year. The longlists piqued many readers' interest. 13. Everyone loves a good deep dive into smart TV. See: Gilmore Girls: The End of Good Faith by Kevin Frazier. 14. "The Education of Henry Adams is an extraordinary book, maddening, alternately fascinating and tedious, just as often mordantly and unexpectedly funny, one that seems both ragingly pertinent to and impossibly distant from our own time." - Michael Lindgren on Henry Adams. 15. The economics of the literary world can be frustrating and opaque. M.R. Branwen cleared up some lingering questions, including the biggest of all: "Why Literary Journals Don’t Pay." 16. Brevity Is the Soul of It: In Praise of Short Books by Kyle Chayka: What it says on the tin. 17. The Afterlife of F. Scott Fitzgerald: Joe Gioia delivers a fascinating theory of Fitzgerald's posthumous rise to fame, which may have been orchestrated by the author himself. 18. Our most popular interview of the year: Steve Paulson sat down with Teju Cole. 19. Our readers were excited to learn that Colson Whitehead's The Underground Railroad had taken home the Pulitzer Prize. 20. Our own Nick Ripatrazone proposed a rule: "Don’t Talk About Your Book Until It’s Published." Next we'll look at a number of older pieces that Millions readers return to again and again. This list of top “evergreens” comprises pieces that went up before 2017 but continued to find new readers. 1. Dickens’s Best Novel? Six Experts Share Their Opinions: Our own Kevin Hartnett polled the experts to discover the best on offer from the prolific 19th century master. 2. Tolstoy or Dostoevsky? 8 Experts on Who’s Greater: Readers also returned to Kevin Hartnett's Russian lit throwdown, for which he asked eight scholars and avid lay readers to present their cases for Tolstoy or Dostoevsky as the king of Russian literature. 3. How To Introduce an Author: We've all seen them -- awkward, long-winded, irrelevant. Bad author introductions mar readings every day across the land. For five years now, would be emcees have been turning to Janet Potter's guide on how to not screw up the reading before it even starts. 4. Shakespeare’s Greatest Play? 5 Experts Share Their Opinions: Yet another of Hartnett's roundtables asked five experts to name the greatest of Shakespeare's plays. 5. Readers of Laurent Binet's HHhH have been turning up to read the story of the section he excised from the novel as well as the missing pages themselves, which we published exclusively. 6. Our own Nick Ripatrazone wrote, "Lent is the most literary season of the liturgical year. The Lenten narrative is marked by violence, suffering, anticipation, and finally, joy. Here is a literary reader for Lent: 40 stories, poems, essays, and books for the 40 days of this season." Many readers followed along and we republished it in 2017; bookmark this for 2018. 7. Pansexual Free-for-All: My Time As A Writer of Kindle Erotica: It's a brave new world for writers on the make. Matthew Morgan tried his hand at the weird, wild world of self-published erotica and in the process introduced us to "shape-shifter sex creatures that could be anything from dolphins to bears to whales" and other oddities. 8. The Weird 1969 New Wave Sci-Fi Novel that Correctly Predicted the Current Day: Ted Gioia profiled John Brunner's uncanny novel Stand on Zanzibar, which included, way back in 1969, a President Obomi and visionary ideas like satellite TV and the mainstreaming of the gay community. 9. Way back in 2010, our own Edan Lepucki counted the ways in which Jane Eyre's Mr. Rochester is a creep. There are seven ways, and they remain compelling. 10. The World's Longest Novel: Ben Dooley's long-ago profile of this work of record-breaking performance art continues to fascinate.
A few days after the 2016 presidential election, I did a weird, sobbing thing. I copied Walt Whitman’s “A Noiseless Patient Spider” onto a card and posted it in my office. “And you, O my Soul, where you stand,/ Surrounded, surrounded, in measureless oceans of space,” I wrote. 2017 began, and that space had become everything; I just sat alone in the middle of it, swaddling myself in anxiety. I blocked myself from reading social media because I was afraid to feel angry about my friends and family. Every day was another national crisis; my husband and I started redirecting our money and attention to newspapers, charities, and organizations that protect —we’ve deemed these civic tithes. But I felt scattered and incapable of sustaining a thought, let alone a life of critical reading, or engagement with my government. I wanted to slip into a dark crack and hide there, unnoticed. I didn’t want to read. I didn’t want to move. To borrow from Whitman, my 2017 in reading was about the bridge I needed out of that dark space; the tentative, then hopeful casting of webs until something caught. Two books I read early in the year were bridges for different reasons. Courtney Maum’s novel Touch celebrates a future where the latest trends are freedom from technology, and physical human connection. That thought was a balm. The second was David McCullough’s collection of speeches, The American Spirit. Frankly, it gave me hope because it reminded me that America has been in dire straits before—awful messes—but is built on imperfection and persistence. I was reminded that books are products both of when they are written, and the world they are born into. I read Viet Thanh Nguyen’s phenomenal short story collection, The Refugees, the same week the president first cruelly called for a ban on all refugees entering the country. Many books I read—both fiction and nonfiction—in 2017 started to coalesce around the same idea: we don’t believe each other. Whether we’re talking about political needs, or allowing immigration, or honoring the story of someone who has been abused, belief is the central tenet of the conversation. Nguyen’s stories, like Roxane Gay’s memoir, Hunger, Hillary Clinton’s post-election memoir, What Happened, Mohsin Hamid’s magical novel Exit West, and Jesús Carrasco’s novel, Out in the Open, all deal in some way with the questioning of personal truth. This makes sense to me, given how we’ve treated truth like a toy for the last 10 years. I find that exhausting. I caught up on titles I’ve missed from years past, finally immersing myself in things like Phil Klay’s Redeployment, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah, Colson Whitehead’s Underground Railroad. I read George Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo like everyone else and, like everyone else, was amazed. Two books from 2017 that stood out were Attica Locke’s smart thriller Bluebird, Bluebird, which moves beyond easy tropes of good guy/bad guy to tackle real issues of race in East Texas, and Andrea Lawlor’s gutsy, hopeful, gender- and shapeshifting novel, Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl. I read wonderful books by people I adore: Liska Jacobs’s novel, Catalina, Tod Goldberg’s sequel to Gangsterland, Gangster Nation, JoAnn Chaney’s thriller, What You Don’t Know, Natashia Deón’s novel, Grace, Deanne Stillman’s historical nonfiction Blood Brothers, and Elizabeth Crane’s short story collection Turf. I read a funny memoir about a brain tumor: Mike Scalise’s The Brand New Catastrophe. I read Joan Acocella’s Twenty-Eight Artists and Two Saints and wondered if I’ll ever be the kind of critic I want to be. But all of these books were daring, moving, life affirming. And when I couldn’t handle the all-conflict-no-resolution scroll of social media, these words brought me back to myself and back to a sense of my place in the world. If there’s a slow words movement, like slow food, I want to join it. Most importantly: This summer I attended a teacher institute at the Library of Congress, and worked on a research project about the WPA Federal Writers’ Project—a time when our government prioritized putting writers to work by having them collect personal histories and write regional guides—writers like Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright, and Zora Neale Hurston. I knew that the Library has a vast array of online and physical resources, but what I didn’t know is that it relies on an almost parallel network of human historians. As I navigated my way through the various reading rooms, I was guided by experts in American Folklife who showed me slides of Hurston in Florida and played recordings of her singing; I was handed boxes of photographs of Federal Writers’ Project Book Fairs by WPA experts in the Prints and Photographs room, and in Manuscripts, an excited WPA expert pulled four boxes of FWP minutes, hand-written notes, and records for me to read. I kept wondering why they were letting me look at all of that stuff. (What if I sneezed on something?) But all I needed was my library card. My most powerful moment in reading was sitting in those quiet, beige rooms in D.C. with American history in my hands. Libraries are still a beautiful democracy of ideas. Despite the sky falling every day in 2017, we have that. It was the thread of connection I needed. O my soul. 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 [millions_ad]
1. The natural history museum is a buffet of symbolism that writers of fiction find it difficult to resist: shelves upon shelves of animals, rocks, and plants are primed for metaphor, while the gruesome behind-the-scenes drama of pickling, skinning, and other acts of specimen preparation provide copious fodder for allegory. It should come as no surprise then that writers are mining the displays for material, and that the public is enthusiastic about the results. Anthony Doerr’s mega-hit novel All The Light We Cannot See, published in 2014, owed much of its charm to the young Marie-Laure, who follows her locksmith father to work everyday at the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle in Paris. There she wanders the halls learning about mollusks, geodes, and fossils before losing her eyesight to cataracts shortly before the start of World War II. Suddenly the boon of bringing a blind child to a natural history museum everyday becomes clear: with her father “continually placing some unexpected thing into her hands: a lightbulb, a fossilized fish, a flamingo feather,” Marie-Laure’s other senses grow stronger until she is capable of navigating through the museum, and then her Parisian neighborhood, completely blind. All The Light is one of two books published recently in which the natural history museum plays a crucial role in the characters’ developing identity. The other, Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, allots only 20 pages to the natural history museum, but it nonetheless plays a pivotal and altogether different role; Whitehead’s natural history museum is embedded with political messages about the dark past of natural history itself. Both books made The New York Times bestseller list, meaning both reached a large audience with their very different messages about the role of natural history in fiction: one inviting the natural history museum into the discourse of the novel, skeletons and all, and the other allowing natural history to remain as so much window dressing, despite copious evidence of its role in perpetuating the violence at the heart of the novel. 2. The oldest, most venerable institutions devoted to studying natural history have long histories of exploiting human subjects in the name of knowledge; the same museum in Paris where Marie-Laure learns about mollusks was the site of Georges Cuvier’s hypersexualized examination and dissection of Saartjie Baartman (also known as the “Hottentot Venus”) roughly a century prior. In the United States, natural history museums have been instrumental in constructing the narrative of an upstart country with copious natural resources poorly defended and cared for by indigenous tribes—resources that were only properly named, catalogued, and displayed upon the arrival of Europeans. One highly publicized story from the turn of the century—natural history’s boom years— involved Minik, an Inuit boy, who was nine years old when he and his father, Kishu, were delivered to the American Museum of Natural History by arctic explorer Robert S. Peary in 1901. Minik’s father soon died of tuberculosis after living sequestered in the museum’s attic, and curators lost no time in dissecting and preparing Kishu like a specimen, going so far as staging a fake funeral to dupe Minik into thinking they had buried his father with traditional Inuit rites on museum grounds. In reality, the museum kept his bones and, the story goes, young Minik stumbled upon his father’s skeleton mounted in a display case. Baartman and Minik are just two of the more notorious instances of natural history museums exploiting indigenous people and people of color in the name of science, to say nothing of the hundreds upon thousands of nameless bones that have traveled the world in the satchels of grave robbers cum physical anthropologists. Such histories are latent within every literary natural history museum, whether or not the author consciously engages with them. In The Underground Railroad, Whitehead confronts the racism of the 19th-century natural history museum head on, and uses it to make a point about the African-American subject in the popular American imagination. Cora, who’s living in a South Carolina boarding house for black women after escaping enslavement on a Georgia plantation, is recommended for employment in the Museum of Natural Wonders by her house proctor (an institution apparently imagined by Whitehead as an amalgam of various 19th-century natural history museums) because she has “adapted” better than her housemates. But Cora isn’t wanted at the museum for her manual labor, as she assumes, but as a “type” to be employed by Mr. Fields, the curator of “Living History.” As a living exhibit, Cora pantomimes an imagined version of her history for a white public in three dioramas: “Scenes from Darkest Africa,” “Life on the Slave Ship,” and “Typical Day on the Plantation.” For hours at a time she plays her part, sometimes across from white mannequins (the white people on display are always dummies, never real people) while museum-goers file past. Having lived the horrors of a plantation while in bondage, Cora questions Mr. Fields on the inaccuracies of his exhibit: Mr. Fields did concede that spinning wheels were not often used outdoors, at the foot of a slave’s cabin, but countered that while authenticity was their watchword, the dimensions of the room forced certain concessions. Would that he could fit an entire field of cotton in the display and had the budget for a dozen actors to work it. One day perhaps. Mr. Fields’s use of the word “actors” is an interesting shift away from “types,” one that indicates an attempt to rephrase Cora’s job description as one of pure theater. But Mr. Fields cannot shed the discourse of the natural history museum so easily, as day after day Cora endures the “white monsters on the other side of the exhibit [...] pushing their greasy snouts against the window, sneering and hooting.” The white public, for whom the exhibit is intended, observes Cora as a specimen, which, despite her signs of life, shares more in common with the taxidermied animals and mannequins from “plaster, wire, and paint” than a living person with emotions. Mr. Fields’s employment of black women as living exhibits, coupled with the lack of white types, indicates clearly to Cora, the white public, and the reader that black specimens are to be observed without the veneer of human dignity or respectability, even outside the museum’s walls. Indeed, the logic went, because curators saw African-Americans as more “natural," and therefore closer to mankind’s shared animal relatives, they were more deserving of display within a natural history museum. Whitehead’s Museum of Natural Wonders may have been imagined, but Mr. Fields’s practice of displaying people was not. Human zoos were popular sites at World’s Fairs throughout the later half of the 19th century and well into the 1900s, often meant to demonstrate to the public the supposedly uncivilized nature of indigenous and non-white people. Humanity’s position within the pantheon of natural history museum displays has long been fractured along racial lines. Museums are largely products of colonialism and European cultures that sought to dominate “exotic” cultures by harvesting archeological treasures and human remains for the edification and amusement of the general white public. Throughout the late 1800s and early 20th century, eugenics masqueraded under physical anthropology as figures like Aleš Hrdlička erected exhibits of human remains to demonstrate the separation of the races at the American Museum of Natural History and the San Diego Museum of Man. Whitehead makes the connection explicit; while working at the Museum of Natural Wonders, Cora learns that white doctors are making sterilization mandatory for black women with intellectual disabilities or more than two children. This kind of bodily control is enabled by the politics of display inside the natural history museum, a logic that allowed white doctors and curators to dehumanize the black subject to the point of denying them autonomy over their own reproduction. Consider the moment when Mr. Fields “gives his types a proper tour of the museum.” As she’s shown around the different exhibits, Cora occupies the position of the white public looking at dioramas depicting scenes from American history: Pilgrims landing on Plymouth Rock, the Boston Tea Party, and the supposedly peaceful seizure of indigenous lands. Cora comes to her own conclusions about the history these exhibits portray: “Stolen bodies working stolen land. It was an engine that did not stop, its hungry boiler fed with blood.” It’s a moment of the black subject functioning as both critical museumgoer and “type” specimen; the living exhibit returning the gaze and critiquing. Cora’s position does not allow her to be behave as a passive observer like the white visitors; having been categorized by Mr. Fields as a member of the collection herself, she has a far more personal stake in the interpretation of said collection. Her taxonomy becomes one of “how are these things positioned in relation to me, and what does it say about my selfhood?” Yet despite all this, Cora’s is never allowed behind a microscope or to give any input on her own display. 3. For Doerr’s Marie-Laure, it would seem the natural history museum’s politics of display are irrelevant; in fact by the end of Doerr’s novel she has gained considerable agency over the natural history museum’s holdings she once wandered about blindly. Marie-Laure returns to Paris after the war to work in the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle, where she establishes her own laboratory to study mollusks. Doerr informs us that she has published monographs on “the evolutionary rationale for the folds in the West African cancellate nutmeg shells” and an “oft-cited paper on the sexual dimorphism of Caribbean volutes.” Marie-Laure is given authority over an entire subset of African mollusks by virtue of the many hours she has been able to devote to the study of the creatures over her career—a career only made possible by many long hours spent in laboratories and traveling to collect specimens, both activities that Cora, as a “type” whose value only registers within the confines of the museum exhibit, is unable to participate in. Much separates the experiences of Marie-Laure and Cora within their respective museums, not least of which is a roughly 80-year period during which many of the more grisly activities of natural history museums were curtailed and swept under the rug (although grave robbing remained in good health). Anthropologists have for awhile made their names in softer ways: Franz Boas, who often paid Hrdlička for the skulls he brought back from the southwest and Latin America, gradually moved away from seeking out racial logic in physical anthropology, becoming more interested in the customs and traditions of different cultures. Today, many anthropologists look to philosophy and the social sciences for their conclusions, like Donna Haraway, whose The Cyborg Handbook points out the many ways in which humans and technology are both “natural.” But this is not a comparison of ‘"had it worse," Cora or Marie-Laure. Rather, I want to examine the choices these writers made in depicting the natural history museum, and how this impacts the message behind both novels. Take, for example, the treatment of Charles Darwin in All The Light. When the Nazis swoop in and occupy the French town of Saint-Malo, Marie-Laure and her great uncle endure de facto home imprisonment inside his chateau. To pass the time they recite passages from Voyage of the Beagle—“the variety of species among the jumping spiders appears almost infinite”—and act out exchanges with Darwin himself, whom Maire-Laure loves to imagine “at night, leaning over the ship’s rail to stare into bioluminescent waves, watching the tracks of penguins marked by fiery green wakes.” It’s a whimsical picture of a naturalist at work, understandably appealing to a child under stress, but one that curiously overlooks the connections between Adolf Hitler’s drive toward racial purity and the mission of many early naturalists and natural history museums. It’s no secret, for example, that the Nazis found inspiration in American eugenics of the sort that permitted Cora’s encounter with forced sterilization; even the eye color charts used by the Nazis can be traced to charts displaying the separation of the races in the American Museum of Natural History's Darwin Hall in a 1926 exhibit curated by Hrdlička for the International Congress of Eugenics. If Doerr intends to draw this connection between natural history, eugenics, and Nazism, it’s ultimately smothered by the overwhelming sentimentality of the novel’s dependence on the natural history museum’s role in preserving Marie-Laure’s sense of wonder at the world. Doerr’s description of the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle, in which “fossilized dinosaur femurs” sit across the hall from “two-hundred-year-old herbarium sheets bedecked with orchids and daisies and herbs” and “a meteorite on a pedestal [...] as ancient as the solar system itself,” sounds strangely similar to Mr. Fields “holding forth on the cross-sections of pumpkins and the life rings of venerable white oaks, the cracked-open geodes with their purple crystals like glass teeth, the tiny beetles and ants the scientists had preserved with a special compound.” Both descriptions collapse time and space and generally confirm the view of the natural history museum as infinite, a place where all corners of the universe, from the depths of the ocean to deep underground, can be intimately known. The natural history museum reduced to a grocery list of specimens to be plucked off the shelf abdicates all responsibility for horrors committed in its name; if just anyone can come along and make their own selection from the vast collections, then it’s no fault of the museum and the curators and anthropologists who built the institutions if those selections are used to fatal ends. But natural history is not just a grab bag; it’s not neutral, and it’s important that in fiction it not be allowed to become a playground where white people, characters, and authors can retreat into an allegorical fantasy land, as it has functioned in real life for hundreds of years with extreme consequences. 4. Museums of all kinds play their specific role in constructing the broader understanding of the human subject by housing, displaying, and labeling the residue of humanity in a delicate hierarchy. You’ll never find a Jackson Pollock exhibited alongside a woolly mammoth skeleton, just like you rarely find indigenous beadwork or sculpture in the main halls of the Louvre or MOMA, even though they are equally products of humanity’s ingenuity. We assume that anthropologists and curators are more sensitive now regarding framing and positioning, but as I write this, there are articles being published in The New York Times in which scientists are quoted saying that a recent hominid fossil discovery has the face of “somebody you could come across in the Metro.” Interestingly, Whitehead writes that “the stuffed coyotes on their stands did not lie, Cora supposed. And the anthills and the rocks told the truth of themselves. But the white exhibits contained as many inaccuracies and contradictions as Cora’s three habitats.” Cora backs away from a sweeping statement about the the discipline of natural history in general, even though it’s highly suspect that even a taxidermied coyote, after being killed, skinned, preserved, stuffed, and displayed, has not acquiesced to the great white lie of American domination of nature. It’s Cora’s grandmother, Ajarry, who in the early pages of the novel sounds a more complex note: She knew that the white man’s scientists peered beneath things to understand how they worked. The movement of the stars across the night, the cooperation of humors in the blood. The temperature requirements for a healthy cotton harvest. Ajarry made a science of her own black body and accumulated observations. Each thing had a value and as the value changed, everything else changed also. A broken calabash was worth less than one that held its water, a hook that kept its catfish more prized than one that relinquished its bait. In America the quirk was that people were things. Ajarry comes to her own conclusion, both philosophical and material, that people and nature occupy a muddy space together, but for different reasons than Hrdlička or Darwin. Ajarry’s perspective is born of watching the white man’s scientists carry out their experiments on her very body, the same as they would on cotton and cows. It’s an embodied knowledge born from the experience of being treated as chattel and object, and it’s a perspective that natural history museums, and the books about them, would be wise to explore further.
“I can tell you that, as of today, I don’t feel any different about Mr Whitehead, or his review, or my response.” Richard Ford doubles down on his reaction to a negative 2001 review by fellow novelist Colson Whitehead. (Said response, in case you missed it, was to tell Whitehead 'you’re a kid, you should grow up,' and spit in his face.) We hope Whitehead is laughing at home with his Pulitzer Prize, recently awarded for last year's literary juggernaut The Underground Railroad. And as our own Emily St. John Mandel reminds us, there are far more gracious ways to respond to criticism.
I once knew a Holocaust survivor, a Russian non-native English speaker with a thirst for learning, who kept a wonderful book: a logbook of obsessive reading with highly particular summaries. "War and Peace," the survivor notated, "a bunch of people, war, and countries -- can’t anyone get along?" "Madame Bovary," she wrote, "a fancy lady spends a lot of time dreaming until all is lost for love." We are deep into a moment in which authors write of lives, often their own, through the habit of reading. Hearing of the trend from afar, a person could ask: does the practice signify a retreat to a self-reflexive cave? A recherché activity, a hall-of-mirrors exercise, a willed innocence? And yet, these last 15 years, books on reading have proliferated at the same time that newspaper space for discussing the magic of reading has shrunk. Consider Elif Batuman’s The Possessed, Geoff Dyer’s Out of Sheer Rage, Laura Miller’s The Magician’s Book, a hundred others. Such authors share the same gleam you find in the self-portrait of Diego Velázquez in "Las Meninas" in which the artist depicts himself as the aware but lowly court servant painting the aristocratic family. The artist supersedes his content, eyes leaping out of the frame at us, becoming our proxy for understanding a given milieu. With similar esprit, in many of these books, the authors gaze back at us reading them, showing how at a crucial point in life, a book or series swayed them unalterably. Reader, I was never the same, these books whisper, confidingly. The earth moved. These books on reading often also move earth, however subtly, achieving what Aristotle demanded for drama: both recognition and catharsis. In Pamela Paul’s fifth book, My Life with Bob: Flawed Heroine Keeps Book of Books, Plot Ensues, she takes us traveling through a landscape of childhood aspiration and adolescently blind romanticism, the accruals and loss of adulthood, all told from a temperament with a fierce, passionate allegiance to principle. Her Bob is a logbook of reading and also a rueful, joyful autobiography of interests and selves, an elegy fond and bittersweet. Bob in its physical form -- even when a mate, soon to be ex, actually writes in it himself -- survives courtships, marriages, and the most Aristotelian of reversals. On first reading, I felt the book created a new genre, the polemic picaresque, in which readers get to wander happily with a Michel de Montaigne-like narrator through varied realms while picking up bits of advice as buried treasure. Imagine a guide who seems at first to speak only of her small village and family while showing the reader a local tower, who meanwhile, subtly, persuades us of the greatness of the parish. On my second reading, Paul’s book seemed to be in conversation with Boswell’s travels with Johnson, Sei Shōnagon, or The Canterbury Tales, in which we roam aesthetic terrain with a hapless and memorable group of individuals, the world rich with surfaces while belying the deeper moral conviction and instruction to be had. The journey is as good as the guide, and one of My Life with Bob’s pleasures is the humorous and affectionate light cast on the narrator’s strong convictions. As a young girl, Paul begins with reading as a quirky hagiography, finding lives to learn and emulate, the horizon of her worldliness as wide as her last book read. Older, she shows great, impulsive agency in making book-inspired choices while becoming increasingly nostalgic for an earlier temporal freedom, leaving her reader to understand that a life too far from books is not just unexamined, but unfelt, unknown, unarticulated. From the joy-filled vantage of someone illuminated, and even dominated, by books she has read, Paul inspires her reader to revisit works canonical and unsung. As the best memoir writers do, the witty persona Paul creates for her narrator is not so much heroine but more in the spirit of Paul Klee’s "Hero with a Broken Wing": gifted and burdened by aspiration, she lives the paradox of being the obedient rebel and contrarian student who delights in having a mind with a thousand pockets. If August Wilson says everyone should wake to see the face of our own god in the mirror, in this case, for a very singular reader, the mirror itself is literature. Below, Paul speaks of seeing her recollection of Bob emerge. The Millions: You were a reader with a great understanding of privacy. What is your experience of My Life with Bob, an exegesis of such an important relic of the self, traveling out in the world? Pamela Paul: A certain amount of trepidation. I never thought I would write a memoir, and in fact, didn’t think of this book as a memoir until Publishers Weekly announced the deal and called it one. My first thought was, “Oh, no -- but they’re right! I guess it is a memoir.” To my mind, it was to be a book about books, a book about travels, a book about storytelling. But of course, it’s not really about those things. It’s about the intersection of books and life, and about how what we read infiltrates, influences, reflects, expands on, and colors everything else. When we read, even when the book is temporarily put down with a bookmark firmly in place, the stories from inside the book don’t entirely recede from our consciousness. They become part of us. My stories are part of me, and therefore a lot more “me” had to be in this book that I am used to putting. My previous books were all journalistic investigations that had one or two first-person sentences in the introductions before firmly leaving that voice behind. This book is not only about me -- it’s about (I hope) all readers and the way all of us experience stories. But it’s obviously quite personal. TM: What are you reading -- or hoping to read -- now? PP: I choose my books on a gut level, to match a strong mood or an urge or even a need. But it’s not a one-step or simple process. That’s one of the reasons I ask what books people have on their nightstand in my By the Book interviews: I’m curious about how people narrow down and make their choices among all the possibilities. Personally, I keep a large pile on my nightstand -- on the wide edge of my platform bed, actually -- and then a few other piles across from the bed on a room-length wall of built-in bookshelves. Like all readers, I have so many books that I’d like to read, that I intend to read, that I feel I must read, but I never truly know what I’ll read next until the moment I finish the previous book. This doesn’t mean I don’t plan. I do all kinds of planning! And then I cast those plans aside. Right now, for example, I was planning to be reading Anthony Marra’s A Constellation of Vital Phenomena because the reviews were strong and so many people I respect have recommended it. The glowing praise for his follow-up collection of short stories pushed that book further to the top of the list. So it was on my shortlist. Then I did something I’ve never done before: I enlisted my two older children to help me decide between reading the Marra, Émile Zola’s The Belly of Paris or Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop next. I read the back covers and inside jackets aloud to them. My daughter voted for Marra and my son for Zola. I read the Zola first, and so had turned to the Marra next to be fair. But a few chapters in, I found that it wasn’t quite matching my mood. This isn’t to say I didn’t like it -- thus far, I like it very much and I plan to go back to it. But it just wasn’t what I needed at the moment. What I needed, I realized, and this is what had drawn me to all three of those books, was a book that was engrossing and serious and relevant to my life right now, but also an escape. And that was accompanied by an urge to read about an earlier era in journalism. Scoop wasn’t quite the right book because I didn’t want humor (I’ve kind of been adverse to comedy, overall, since the fall -- read into that what you will, though I hope it means I haven’t permanently lost my sense of humor). “Scoop will be read one day…I do love Waugh. Then, on a shelf I keep devoted to books about writing and about journalism, I noticed Ben Bradlee’s memoir, A Good Life: Newspaper and Other Adventures. I’ve been wanting to read this book since it was published, which to my embarrassment was in 1995, therefore making it a book I’ve meant to read for 22 years now. I adored Katharine Graham’s Personal History, which I’d read as soon as it came out. I picked up the Bradlee and it fits every need I have at this moment: Serious, yet also entertaining. Relevant to my life (journalism), yet also a departure (journalism back when it was strictly about print). Plus, Bradlee is a terrific narrator. You can hear his distinctive voice, his infectious personality. And the part I’m up to now is very much a different world: His experiences in the Navy in World War II, his early days at a startup weekly newspaper in New Hampshire, his experience as a press attaché in Paris. I’m just now getting back to Washington and his Newsweek years. It’s a delight on every level. Do other readers go through a version of this elaborate mood-matching process when considering what to read next? I suspect many do. To me, it’s one of the great decisions we get to make in life, and we get to make it again and again: What to Read Next. TM: What is the relation of risk to your practice of writing? And what was your process in sequencing and editing this book, and did it differ from your others? PP: This book was completely different from any other book I’ve written. My previous books were essentially argument books: journalistic investigations that set out to explore a subject through research and reporting, marshal the evidence, and make a case. My first book, The Starter Marriage and the Future of Matrimony, came out of personal experience -- an early marriage and divorce -- but I quite adamantly didn’t want the book to be about me, so after the first paragraph, the first person dropped out. That book still felt personal. I discovered and learned through other people's answers and lessons that I was seeking to help make sense of my own experience. What did these other young divorced people know that I didn’t yet know myself? What had they learned two or five years after their marriages ended that they didn’t know at the point of rupture? The next two books came out of reported stories that I wrote for Time magazine and expanded on issues around consumer culture that I thought worth further exploration. For all of those books, the driving goal was to prove a point. By contrast, I had nothing to prove with this book. I am not trying to persuade anyone of anything. So the underlying motivation is altogether different, and that fundamentally changes the writing process. This book isn’t probably not going to change anyone’s mind about anything (except perhaps about the wisdom of writing down what you read). So it has to want to be read for other reasons. If I had a driving sense of purpose with this book in terms of its relationship to readers, it was to write something that was a pleasure to read. Because I get so much pleasure from books, and from my Book of Books. When people have told me they’ve read my previous books, my knee-jerk response has always been, “I’m sorry.” That may sound ridiculous and self-defeating, but I don’t think my earlier books were particularly fun to read. Enlightening, in certain ways, perhaps. But not enjoyable. I wanted to write a book that might be an actual enjoyable reading experience. And that made the book an actual pleasure to write -- even when I was writing about embarrassing or frightening or upsetting experiences, like the end of my first marriage or my father’s death. But I like that you compare it to a journey because that’s how it feels to me. Like a journey through life with books as constant companion. With little discoveries made, both within and outside of books, along the way. TM: Having also encountered Thalia Zepatos’s book of advice for the independent woman traveler at a young age, to my detriment or advantage, I was nonetheless happy to see her mentioned. Yet what makes your suitcase so singular is the manner in which your narrator, like a lover or devotee, brings books as an offering to beautiful environments, most notably in an outdoor scene in China. Similarly, a landscape can be ruined for your narrator by the errancy of the particular author you happen to be reading, your mind infected by a particular voice. Books similarly permeate the courtships with men you end up marrying. In such moments, you do a great deal to erase the binary of life versus art, the dichotomy that Cynthia Ozick felt she misunderstood as a dictum from Henry James: "Life! Life, not art!" Was there something not mentioned in your book, whether in early environ or temperament, that may have led to this happy erasure, a habit of convergence? The curiosity the reader has -- having traveled with you through travel, jobs, marriages, divorces, children -- is whether your narrator would say her highest self, her best part, was formed by reading rather than life? PP: For me, reading Thalia Zepatos was inspiring in the most concrete sense of the word: It inspired me to something I didn’t feel capable of or well-suited for. I read her book and then did something that was highly unlikely given the cautious, ambitious, responsible, fearful person I was at that time. I threw aside all my life and career goals and set out to do something that I knew I might hate. Something that terrified me. Something that nobody like me would do. As I put it in the book, it was as if 5 percent of me made a decision and dragged along the other 95 percent. It ended up being the best decision I’ve ever made. TM: Your narrator is similarly remarkable in the complexity of being a success-driven rebel: she is both the child who early on learns not to procrastinate, getting her work done first so she can with easier mind enjoy the poking of her pencil into the carpet, and the principle-driven rebel. Within aspirational milieus, in equal measure, she passionately protests and excels within received dictates. One of the abiding sub rosa questions in the book has to do with the quirkiness of free will and self-determination against given legacies: your narrator finds herself shooting out of a particular set of birthright assumptions. How does this complexity inform your relation to your life in writing and reading these days? PP: I just wrote a piece adapted from the book called “The Joy of Hate Reading” in the Sunday Review section of The New York Times that describes one of the key ways I’ve come to read and write, which is to challenge myself through words. It’s a way to remind myself of how little I actually know. As a writer, with this book, I set out to write the kind of book I never thought I’d write -- a memoir. And as a reader, I am always pushing myself to try out books I don’t think I’ll enjoy. I have a kind of perverse urge to constantly test my own assumptions. To a certain extent this has always been there. I was a supremely unathletic child, always picked second-to-last for sports teams in elementary school (an excruciating experience that I wrote about in my college application essay). But when I got to college, I ended up joining the rugby team. It was an entirely absurd decision to make -- I have never once hit a ball with a baseball bat in my life. But I joined the rugby team and I loved it. I still have near-zero interest in sports, but I recently read The Throwback Special because it’s about football. (I loved that too.) TM: “Without imagination of another’s mind there can be no understanding of that other and hence no love,” Sherwin Nuland writes in relation to Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “A Defence of Poetry,” a quotation you cite in your book when talking of a first love. How would you relate BOB to that very same imagination? PP: Reading is ultimately about empathy -- about experiencing another person’s story, his version of events, his voice, his way of viewing the world. To me one of the beauties of literature is that two different people from very different worlds can read the same book, and share that experience, even as if in different variations. You can have a 16-year-old girl in India read The Underground Railroad and a 45-year-old stay-at-home mother in Indiana read that same book. They will read it in different ways, but also, in similar ways, sharing a version of the characters’ experience, both with each other, and with the author. That’s connection. TM: Everyone who has ever worked in publishing or known anyone with a foot near the industry knows something about towering piles of books that have arrived over the transom. Does your delighted, curatorial rapture about books remain intact or has it shifted emphasis? You speak movingly about your almost physical pain as, in an early bookstore job, you had to tear covers off books to be remaindered. Has the status of books as beloved fetish objects begun to alter or have you become just more focused in your pursuit? PP: I feel like I live in a castle of riches at The New York Times Book Review. Not a day goes by when I don’t feel giddy by the unopened cartons of books awaiting me, eager to see the contents inside, excited by the galleys on the shelves and delighted and slightly stunned that I get to take finished copies home with me. Books to me are still treasures. I’m still greedy and I’m extremely grateful. I am not nearly as focused in my acquisitiveness as I should be and have towering shelves of books at home to attest to that weakness. Image Credit: Marcia Ciriello.
The Pulitzer jury named Colson Whitehead's The Underground Railroad this year's winner in the fiction category. Here are this year's Pulitzer winners and finalists with bonus links: Fiction: Winner: The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead (Millions review) Imagine Me Gone by Adam Haslett The Sport of Kings by C. E. Morgan General Nonfiction: Winner: Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond In a Different Key: The Story of Autism by John Donvan and Caren Zucker The Politics of Mourning: Death and Honor in Arlington National Cemetery by Micki McElya History: Winner: Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy by Heather Ann Thompson Brothers at Arms: American Independence and the Men of France and Spain Who Saved It by Larrie D. Ferreiro New England Bound: Slavery and Colonization in Early America by Wendy Warren Biography or Autobiography: Winner: The Return: Fathers, Sons and the Land in Between by Hisham Matar In the Darkroom by Susan Faludi When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi (Millions review) Poetry: Winner: Olio by Tyehimba Jess Collected Poems: 1950-2012 by Adrienne Rich XX: Poems for the Twentieth Century by Campbell McGrath Winners and finalists in other categories are available at the Pulitzer Web site. [millions_ad]
1. I read a lot, and so do you. We read books, and we read about books. Still, with surprising frequency, a writer comes across your screen, and you’re surprised you’ve never encountered his or her name or work previously. This was the case for me with Laird Hunt, whose seventh novel, The Evening Road, was published by Little, Brown last month. Having followed the controversy around Lionel Shriver’s remarks at the Brisbane Writers’ Conference last fall (and having commented myself on the process of writing across race and gender in interviews), when I learned that Hunt, who is white and male, has written three novels featuring female first-person protagonists, two of whom are black, I took notice. And wondered why I hadn’t come across consideration of his work in this context earlier. In an interview about his 2012 novel Kind One, a Pen/Faulkner finalist, Hunt had said: My approach to writing about people who are, in different ways, unlike me...is to speak of not for. In other words I’m not talking about appropriation here, but about acknowledging and actively advocating...a larger, truer, more exciting sense of our shared humanity. Five of Hunt’s novels were published by the venerable and very indie Coffee House Press in Minneapolis (only recently has he published with a corporate house); this struck me as possibly contributing to his quietish presence in the literary media. In any case, with the release of The Evening Road, Hunt’s work may begin the shift to center stage. 2. Seven novels. In addition to being specifically interested in the above-mentioned two, I am struck by Hunt’s range -- subject matter, setting, form, voice, conceptual and moral interests -- over a long career. The earlier novels -- The Impossibly, The Exquisite, and Ray of the Star -- form a loose group: experimental in form, set in current times and urban environments, engaged in relational and conceptual puzzles. Laird himself suggested such a grouping in a 2006 interview, and included his second novel, Indiana, Indiana, an elegiac, Midwestern family saga: I think of The Exquisite more as a brother or sister of The Impossibly, rather than as a son or daughter. Looking at it that way, I might suggest that Indiana, Indiana is a cousin of those two texts, a cousin that would have had more fun playing with The Exquisite than The Impossibly...even if The Exquisite wouldn't, I imagine, be caught dead with it. The Evening Road and Kind One are set in the periods of Jim Crow and slavery, respectively. In Kind One -- inspired, says Hunt, by Edward P. Jones’s The Known World, which plumbs the little-known history of black slaveowners in the antebellum south -- a white woman named Ginny Lancaster narrates her past story as both abused and abuser; we hear later the first-person voice of Zinnia, one of two slave girls (sisters) whom Ginny tormented, directly and indirectly, and who subsequently revolted, shackling Ginny in a shed without food for long periods. Neverhome features a nontraditional female -- a married woman who pretends to be a man in order to soldier for the Union during the Civil War. In The Evening Road, we hear two distinct first-person accounts -- by a white woman named Ottie Lee and a 16-year-old black girl named Calla Destry -- of events surrounding a lynching in a fictional Indiana town called Marvel. What I admire, and what is simultaneously difficult, about The Evening Road is its portrayal of the contradictions that riddle human nature and that ultimately fuel systematic acts of violence and injustice. White characters condone, participate in, find “festive” the spectacle of a lynching, while at the same time digress from that sanctioning in moments of more evolved humanness. There is a critical scene in which a group of white characters steals a wagon from a black family, and two of the white characters express their sincere regret: He had served in the war and seen cornflowers [black men] fresh up out of Africa stand up and fight the kaiser with their bare hands and American cornflowers stand up to fight when no one else would…No one ought to have taken a wagon and left folks trying to get to a prayer vigil to set in the dark by the side of the road. Yet those characters go along and board the wagon, and their giddiness about the lynching returns soon enough. It’s an affecting portrayal of sincerity and complicity together, disturbing -- and too familiar -- in its plain accuracy. In addition, these white characters have painful stories of their own: Ottie Lee, the white female narrator, was the strongest voice for stealing the wagon, and we learn shortly after that as a child she was nearly killed by her mentally unstable mother on multiple occasions. Laird’s recent novels remind us that within the tradition of historical fiction, approaches to telling historical stories are diverse. A review at Vulture of The Evening Road describes the novel, admiringly, as “More bonkers Americana than straight historical fiction.” In a New York Times review, Kaitlyn Greenidge -- whose NYT Op-Ed piece about the Lionel Shriver controversy last fall became a lucid and important rallying voice for many writers of color, myself included -- criticized The Evening Road for being unrealistic; specifically for “attempt[ing] to prettify the violence” of a lynching, for example inventing terminology -- “cornflower” -- for racist epithets (Hunt has spoken about this particular choice as both part of his writing process and ultimately an expression of the novel’s “alt world ontology”). Greenidge’s critique implies a belief that a novel concerning true acts of injustice -- acts that have been systematically minimized or ignored in order to dehumanize entire groups of people -- has a responsibility to the hardest of hard facts. And while Greenidge doesn’t say so explicitly, her critique raises for me the question of whether that responsibility is heightened when the writer is a member of the racial group who committed and has benefited from the acts. Hunt is a white man more or less from Indiana. His varied, peripatetic background -- stints and partial education in Singapore, Hong Kong, San Francisco, Indiana, The Hague, London, and Paris as a youth and young adult, then New York, where he worked for the United Nations, and on to Denver for most of his adult life -- amounts to an unusually heterogeneous map of influences. For five years, he worked as a press officer for the United Nations. As a translator, French is the non-English language most in his ear, yet a crafted, lyrical 19th-century American dialect(ish) makes the music of four of his novels. Hunt engaged in this robust exchange with me, in the midst of a busy tour schedule. We talked about inventing literary language, whiteness and complicity, historical surrealism, and the dual challenges of reviewing and being reviewed. The Millions: Your seven novels cover such a wide range of subject matter and style. I’ve suggested -- as have you -- that your work might be “grouped” into two phases. When you consider your novelistic journey, what do you see in terms of continuities, kinships, pivots, departures, etc? Laird Hunt: My split trajectory as a writer is absolutely informed by my split trajectory as a person. I did seventh grade in London and eighth in rural Indiana. Even after I had settled in then, on my grandmother’s farm, I spent my summers in Hong Kong, which is where my stepmother is from and my younger sister grew up. When I set to writing seriously I kept going deeply into the distinct archives my mind had built around these two sets of experience. Still, just as I was keeping my hand in with Indiana during the years I was mostly publishing city novels set in something much like now, I am continuing to draw on my lengthy and varied urban experience in projects that are growing up quietly but insistently as I spelunk in the shallower and deeper pockets of the past of rural America. At a reading last night in Denver I announced, in a sudden moment of exhaustion, that with the publication of The Evening Road I had finished this exploration I undertook, for better or worse, of crucible moments in individual and national life. Almost as soon as I said it I remembered that the novel on witches I am currently completing, which is told by a female narrator and touches on questions of race, erasure, agency, and rebellion, will make me a liar when/if it is published. TM: Coffee House Press published your first five books; with Neverhome and The Evening Road, you’re with a larger corporate publisher, Little, Brown. Some might perceive this as a “promotion,” but I wonder if you do. What has this pivot/departure meant for you -- professionally, creatively -- if anything? LH: Coffee House is one of the most amazing literary presses on the planet, and I wouldn’t trade my years of having had the honor of appearing on their lists for anything. The move to Little, Brown has been exciting and in all ways quite seamless. I am still writing exactly those books I feel I need to write and am being fully supported as I do so. Support of course means receiving tough edits and essential feedback off the page too. Having friends in Minneapolis AND new ones in New York is an awfully pleasant side benefit. TM: In response to an interview question about Kind One and writing female characters in a context of racial injustice, you said: “[I]t’s time to do better. It has been time for a good long while now.” Four years on, and in the midst of heated cultural-political polarization -- are we doing better? Worse? Both? LH: We are far, indeed very far away from where we need to be as a country. I believe very deeply that we stand a better chance of getting there, if individually -- with care and determination -- we do our best to grapple with our past. And to own up to what we inherit from said past and how we perpetuate it. I do these things with fiction. Others do it other ways. Or plough some intriguing middle ground between essay, poetry, history and fiction. Do I think we will get there? Wherever there is? I am somewhere between “I don’t know” and “I do.” TM: Whose work in particular would you cite as inspiring? LH: There is a great deal of passion and brilliance at work out there. See Renee Gladman’s recent Calamities. Or John Keene’s Counternarratives. Or Karen Tei Yamashita’s Circle K. Cycles. Or a curious little book like The Correspondence by J.D. Daniels. TM: Given your wide and varied background and work as a translator, tell us about your sense of home, and language, and the voices in your writerly ear. LH: At just this moment the voice, so to speak, of the pianist Girma Yifrashewa is in my ears and rare is the occasion that I don’t have something equally extraordinary and transporting coming through headphones or earbuds as I write. This has been the case for me almost since my earliest days as a writer, and I’m certain it has impacted on this question. Also, I went through a long period of reading a lot of poetry and even publishing work that wasn’t quite poetry (let’s be very clear), but had some linguistic charge, in poetry magazines, so some residual sonic eddies live on in my ear. Add to that the fact that I spent years living in places surrounded by people who didn’t speak English the way I do or speak English at all, then went to live with someone who had a very marked Central Indiana accent. My best friends during the five years I spent working as a press officer at the United Nations were from Kenya and Guyana, and just about everyone in the English press service (colleagues from Ghana, Nigeria, the Gambia, the Netherlands, England, New Jersey, the Bronx, Brazil, etc.) had their own way of shaping English. Which is to say the meaningful layers have accumulated as they do for all of us. When I’m digging in on voice it always feels like there is a lot to draw on. And it should be stressed, especially in the case of these three most recent books, that because the voices are composites and constructions, rather than faithful imitations of actual speech patterns from the past, it is useful to have more than just one way of getting things said in my ear. TM: Is there a sense, then, that you are creating a language/vernacular -- not so unlike what, say, Tolkien did in Lord of the Rings? Tell us a bit about that approach, as opposed to actually attempting to imitate speech patterns? LH: There is a precursor to the voices I am working with in these novels in the character of Opal in Indiana, Indiana. We know her in the novel as the great love of the main character, Noah, and get direct access to her mainly through letters she writes him. These letters are adaptations of prose poems I wrote years ago in the wake of traveling to San Francisco and Paris. Something about their almost giddy, forward-rushing quality and the melancholy hiding in their corners, made them perfect for Opal. Still, you wonder if you have gotten something right. In this case I had a kind of answer when I visited a museum attached to the Logansport State Hospital, the real-world equivalent of the hospital where Opal is for many years in the book. One of the exhibits was comprised of the letters of a brilliant young woman, an aspiring composer, who found herself at the hospital in the early 20th century. The letters are not Opal’s but, wow, they were awfully close both in tone and content and even in some of their constructions. It wasn’t the same but it felt the same. All this to say you can get to something that richly evokes the past for the 21st-century eye and ear by going at it otherwise. I have rarely felt more sunk in the past than I have in the pages of Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell novels, and they are extraordinarily unlike the past as we would encounter it by reading diaries and other documents from that time. Then there is an approach like Paul Kingsnorth’s in The Wake. Kingsnorth creates what he calls a “shadow tongue” that is neither modern nor old English and the resultant hybrid brings the world most vividly to life. This is the sort of thing I am going for, trying for, failing better at. TM: White characters like Ottie and Ginny are compelling in their human dimensionality, and also disturbingly complicit in racial violence. Is your ultimate vision of white conscience a dark one? LH: In one of the scenes in Kind One, the ghost of a murdered slave returns to the narrator, Ginny Lancaster, as she lies in a misery of her own making. Before Ginny, the ghost dances a terrible dance in which eyes and ears and mouths sprout in frightening profusion from his body. He calls this dance “The Way of the World.” In the wagon-stealing scene in The Evening Road, Ottie Lee makes an awful, self-damning choice that speaks pretty loudly to this “way” and to how unambiguously she is a part of it and is perpetuating it. This doesn’t mean, and it almost never does, that she isn’t capable at other moments of compassion and doing the right thing. Her companions are all stretched along this spectrum and slide back and forth depending on the situation. I don’t know how we get off this road of whiteness and onto some other. I do know that it’s real and we can’t afford abstractions when we discuss it and think about it and fight it. TM: In these combative times under this new political regime, some on the progressive left would say that empathizing with oppressors -- trying to understand where Trump supporters are coming from -- is folly. Tell us about your specific hope/interest in alternating between white and black narrators in these novels about slavery and its legacy. LH: I think more than “folly,” as you put it, what I have heard or at least understood from the progressive left, of which I am a part (so we’re not all the same) is that it’s best not to undertake this sort of endeavor at all. As in just don’t do it. As soon as I start to hear proscription of this sort, especially around the arts, I want to get in there and see what’s going on. How much great work would be gone if its author had not tried to go into the bad as well as the good? Think of all the characters in Colson Whitehead’s Underground Railroad who would have to be zapped because they are flawed, complex, and on the wrong side of things. Even some of the worst of the worst in that novel, the relentless slave catcher, say, are allowed a story, a narrative, a past. They aren’t just unexamined caricatures. Their dimensionality doesn’t let them off the hook: to the contrary. It’s just that instead of being told they are bad, we readers get to understand the textures of that badness and draw our own conclusions. TM: You’ve been writing in the tradition of historical fiction for some time now. How would you describe your fiction’s relationship to historical truth? Is Kaitlyn Greenidge correct that certain situations would have been much more dangerous for black people in 1930s Indiana than is depicted in The Evening Road? Are the benign, sometimes harmonious encounters between black people and white people fantastical creations born of “a sort of reconciliation fantasy?” LH: Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Paramo; Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale; Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go; Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle; Samuel Delany’s Dhalgren; Toni Morrison’s Beloved; Percival Everett’s I Am Not Sidney Poitier; Octavia Butler’s Kindred; Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior; Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber; George Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo; Paul Beatty’s The Sellout; and Whitehead’s already mentioned Underground Railroad are just a very, very few of the novels that have effectively used the tools of fantasy, sci-fi, fable, allegory, satire, and humor to look at very serious subject matter. These are the kinds of sources of inspiration I have gone to as I have written or considered the implications of my own recent novels. I would have thought The Evening Road, with its giant pigs; corn-based vocabulary; impossible prayer vigils; flag forests; a town called Marvel at its middle; hallucinations in foul beauty parlors; conversations with angels over breakfast; and bloodhounds wearing neckties, would have made clear its method and its lineage very quickly. Just as, to greater or lesser degree, the previous two novels did. I do the work I do then put it out there. Others get to critique it. I review more than enough to know how much time and effort goes into writing a thoughtful take on something. That’s an act of generosity. If someone has taken the time to read one of my books, and has issues with it, I’m always ready to listen.
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. Norwegian by Night 3 months 2. 4. The Trespasser 5 months 3. - Lincoln in the Bardo 1 month 4. 5. Moonglow 4 months 5. 6. The North Water 3 months 6. - Scratch: Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living 1 month 7. 8. Commonwealth 5 months 8. - A Separation 1 month 9. 4. The Underground Railroad 6 months 10. 7. Homesick for Another World 2 months We sold so many copies of The Sellout over the past seven months that Paul Beatty's novel is now off to our Hall of Fame, and if current trends hold it looks like it'll soon by joined by Tana French's The Trespasser and Ann Patchett's Commonwealth. Colson Whitehead's The Underground Railroad, too, has the Hall of Fame in its sights, although it'll need to hang on for one more month, and momentum is not on its side – it dropped five spots on our list this month. Newcomers on this month's list include George Saunders's Lincoln in the Bardo, Katie Kitamura's A Separation, and Scratch: Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living edited by Manjula Martin. All three were previously featured on our Great 2017 Book Preview. "Reading Lincoln in the Bardo is thus, itself, its own kind of bardo," wrote Louise McCune in her recent review for our site, which bound the novel – Saunders's first – to the Tibetan Buddhist concept of "something other than death." It is an intermediate state. In Buddhist cosmology, it is most commonly understood as the period of transmigration, between death and new life, when the consciousness is waiting on the platform for the proverbial next train. Scratch, meanwhile, concerns itself with something far more immediate: money, and the making of one's livelihood. The collection includes more than 30 essays, each focused on writers' precarious quests to earn income from their craft. Its appearance on our list was no doubt aided by "Ghost Stories," an excerpt from Sari Botton's contribution to the anthology, in which the author highlights some of her "most memorable deals from almost two decades in the [ghost writing] trenches." For me, ghostwriting is a job — one I wouldn’t do if I didn’t need the money. Like any job, it has its pros and cons, its ups and downs — lots of freedom, the satisfaction of helping someone tell their story; but also, frequently, having to handle intense personalities with kid gloves. Dropping out of this month's list were Jonathan Safran Foer's Here I Am, which was not exactly celebrated on our site (citation), as well as Yaa Gyasi's Homegoing, which most certainly was (citations 1, 2, 3, and 4). Until next month, I'll leave it to y'all to sort that out. This month's near misses included: The Nix, Swing Time, and Hillbilly Elegy. See Also: Last month's list.
In 2008, Anheuser-Busch ran a series of perplexing ads extolling Bud Light’s “drinkability.” What could it mean to say that a beer is able to be drunk? That it won’t kill you? That it does not taste completely terrible? That it is liquid, and so will run down your throat so long as you remain at least vaguely upright? “Bud Light keeps it coming.” Under most conceivable interpretations, “drinkable” seems insulting: this beer is not good, merely drinkable. It’ll do, I guess. The ads seemed premade for mockery, almost as if an agency staffed by craft-beer lovers had snuck a self-negating pitch past their clients. Unsurprisingly, the campaign was widely chalked up as a failure. One of Budweiser’s 2015 Super Bowl ads, which openly mocked craft beer -- “proudly a macro beer,” “not brewed to be fussed over” -- seemed comparatively savvy: if your product can’t be confused for good, then play the populist card and deride the good as elitist. (And sell Goose Island, and now Camden Town, with your other hand.) Seemingly this must have been the aim of the “drinkability” ads as well, even if they were too tin-eared to achieve it. “Easy to drink,” “won’t fill you up,” the ads also said. “Drinkable” must mean: doesn’t have too much taste, too distinctive of a flavor, won’t slow you down, offers nothing in need of savoring. I have been reminded of these Bud Light ads repeatedly since when perusing, of all things, book reviews, where “readable” has risen to become the preeminent adjective of praise. Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch: “brilliantly readable.” Jonathan Franzen’s Purity: “Superbly readable.” The Girl on the Train, Room, The Martian, Gone Girl: “compulsively readable” (too many hyperlinks to include). A micro-history of cultural gatekeeping: once told by the censors what we may read, then by critics what we should, we are now told merely what we can read. What could it mean to say that a novel is able to be read? Composed of words that you can pass your eyes over one after another and comprehend? “Readable,” like “drinkable,” seems almost an insult: this book isn’t good, but you’ll be able to finish it. Readable books are full of familiar characters, familiar plots, and most especially familiar sentences. They are built up out of constituent commonplaces and clichés that one only has to skim in order to process. Nothing slows you down, gives you pause, forces you to think or savor. Not too much description, or abstraction, or style. A little bit literary, perhaps, but not too literary. To praise a book as readable is really just to say that you won’t have to add it your shelf with the bookmark having migrated only halfway through its leaves, won’t find yourself secretly glad to have to return it to the library, only half finished, when your two weeks are up. A readable book holds out the promise that you’ll be able to resist putting it down to check your email, or to look for updates on Slate or ESPN, or to turn on the television, or to give in to Netflix. (“Compulsively readable” means “the screen rights have already been sold,” I’m pretty sure.) “Readable” has become the chosen term of praise in our times precisely because so many of us find ourselves unable to concentrate as we once could or still aspire to. But to praise readability is to embrace the vicious feedback loop that our culture now finds itself in. Short on concentration, we give ourselves over to streams of content that further atrophy our reserves of attention. Soon a 1,000-word polemic seems too long to drag oneself through, and we resort to skimming. So websites post yet shorter articles, even warn you how many minutes they will take to read (rarely double digits; will they soon warn us how long one takes to skim?). Editors pre-empt their own taste, choosing not what they like, or think is actually good, but what they think they can sell. Teachers, even professors, shy away from assigning long or difficult books. It might seem that “readable” is most at home as a term of praise of thrillers and beach reads. But this is definitional: an unreadable thriller isn’t a thriller at all. “Readable” is quintessentially a term of praise for the middlebrow: fiction that aspires to the literary, but doesn’t make its reader try too hard. Fiction that you read to console yourself that you can still read a real book, or at least an approximation of one. Maybe you’re with me so far -- in the abstract, that is to say. But now it’s time to name names. The last year alone brought new books from many of our most celebrated middlebrow authors, which is to say our most celebrated authors: Dave Eggers, Zadie Smith, Michael Chabon, Jonathan Lethem, and Jonathan Safran Foer. All eminently readable, all more (Chabon, Foer) or less (Smith, Lethem) diverting, all completely forgettable. None of these books would reward being reread, studied, taught. A provisional definition of literature: that which does. It is no coincidence that even the literary sensations of our times sit, readably, at the margins of the middlebrow. Elena Ferrante’s Neopolitan novels: “compulsively readable.” You will be propelled through the text, unable to attend to anything else until finished. Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle: “intensely, irresistibly readable.” Zadie Smith says she “needs the next volume like crack.” Though seemingly meant as praise, Smith’s blurb actually captures well my own ambivalent feelings toward Knausgaard’s saga: after reading each new novel in a two-day binge I wonder why I had, if I took anything away from their style-less prose. (My own backhanded blurb for Knausgaard: great airplane reading.) Ferrante’s and Knausgaard’s projects are perhaps the most praised of our times, and this is so not despite, but because, they are not too literary. For all their wonderful insight into female relationships, the Neopolitan novels are essentially a soap opera, their plotting determined by one love triangle after another. The thousands of pages in Knausgaard’s My Struggle, though this wouldn’t seem possible, include remarkably little self-reflection, favoring the flat narration of events instead. But both projects are eminently readable, neither requiring nor inviting the reader to ever pause and think, easy enough to finish, but long enough to feel like an accomplishment. Any more style than this, and “readable” is needed to soften the potential intimidation. Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers: “unique in its style, yet immensely readable.” “Yet:” style and readability as contraries. What novels are not readable? Finnegans Wake, Beckett’s trilogy, a still cut-up and unrestored William S. Burroughs? (Those are some books I’ve not only not finished, but never really been able to even start.) Here’s the rub: the unreadable is simply whatever the reader hasn’t been able to finish. William Gaddis’s second masterpiece JR becomes unreadable to even a self-styled curmudgeonly elitist like Jonathan Franzen simply because he couldn’t make his way through it. Franzen’s own novels, by contrast, are quintessentially readable. I read Purity, and before it Freedom, in two days; at no point did either invite me to pause and think. After being propelled through The Goldfinch, my only reaction was to wonder why I had wasted three days of my life on it. These are the definition of “readable” books: long, and thus in need of that consoling word, but unchallenging and middlebrow, false trophies. Readable fiction is not the problem; rather, “readable” as a -- especially as our highest -- term of praise is. Readability tells one precisely nothing about the quality of a novel. There are good and bad readable books; high, low, and most definitely middlebrow ones. Given the tenor of our times, it is perhaps readable books that we need least, however. It is books that slow us down and teach us to concentrate again that we need. Books that force us to attend to language, and ideas, and the forgotten weirdness of the world. Don DeLillo, master of the gnomic, aphoristic sentence, each one calling for your attention, has said that he doesn’t think his first novel, Americana, would be published today, that any editor would have given up before making it through 50 pages. A great but strange book like Tom McCarthy’s Remainder was rejected by mainstream presses and only found life, slowly, through the art world. But these are the sorts of books we need. To embrace a literary culture of Tartts and Franzens, even Ferrentes and Knausgaards, may not be to settle for Budweiser. But it is to limit oneself to lager and pilsner when there are porters and stouts, black, white, and session IPAs, even sours and wilds to be had. It is to drink Stella and Bass when Dogfish Head, Lefthand, Nighshift, and countless others are readily available. The beer critic who claims that Budweiser, or even Yuengling, is actually worth your time is either trolling you, or a corporate shill. So too the literati if the best they can recommend is the latest readable bestseller. So: critics, reviewers, blurbers, tell us not what we are able to read, but what we should. It is no accident that The Underground Railroad, rather than the far superior Intuitionist or John Henry Days, finally allowed Colson Whitehead to break through, but, if you’re only now hearing of him, read those earlier books instead, or too. Read anything by Dana Spiotta, or Ben Marcus, or Lydia Davis, or Steven Millhauser. Read Adam Ehrlich Sachs’s hilarious and thoughtful Inherited Disorders. Read any of the novels recovered and republished each year by NYRB Classics. Read Teju Cole’s Open City, and Michel Houellebecq’s The Map and the Territory. Read the beautiful alliterative sentences of William Gass. Read Dexter Palmer’s Version Control, rather than the 102 more popular time travel books ahead of it on Amazon. Some of these books are readable, others less so, some awarded, others ignored, but it hardly matters. What matters is that they resist commonplace and cliché, that they slow you down, reward attention and concentration, transfigure language and, through it, the world. They have new ideas, and images, and phrases. What matters is that they are good. You should read them, whether or not you, or I, think you can. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
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. 1. Norwegian by Night 2 months 2. 2. The Sellout 6 months 3. 4. The Underground Railroad 5 months 4. 3. The Trespasser 4 months 5. 5. Moonglow 3 months 6. 9. The North Water 2 months 7. - Homesick for Another World 1 month 8. 7. Commonwealth 4 months 9. - Homegoing 1 month 10. 8. Here I Am 5 months New year, same frontrunner: Norwegian by Night, no doubt propelled atop our list on the strength of Richard Russo's recommendation, begins the year in first position. On its heels, The Sellout, The Underground Railroad, The Trespasser, and Moonglow jostle around. Swing Time drops out of our rankings, which was perhaps a result of Kaila Philo's underwhelmed review for our site: Ultimately, while Swing Time makes admirable artistic choices -- who doesn’t love a nonlinear narrative? -- the main issue I take with this novel has to do with how these choices don’t mesh well to create the relevant masterpiece it could have been. The whole does not amount to the sum of its parts, in other words. Ascending to our Hall of Fame, meanwhile, is Ninety-Nine Stories of God, the latest collection from Joy Williams, praised by our own Nick Ripatrazone (who provides a scant fifty reasons) here. All of this action freed up spots for two newcomers on this month's list, both of which were featured on our book previews: Ottessa Moshfegh's Homesick for Another World (2017 Book Preview) and Yaa Gyasi's Homegoing (2016 Book Preview). In Moshfegh's case, the timing is logical. The book was previewed, it came out this past month, and y'all promptly bought it. But what explains Gyasi's debut on our list almost a full year after we first previewed it, and half a year since it first published? Well, it recently won the John Leonard Prize for best debut novel. So there you go. This month's near misses included: The Nix, Pond, Scratch: Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living, and The Lyrics: 1961-2012. See Also: Last month's list.
I first met Leland Cheuk when he read for Dead Rabbits -- a reading series I co-host in New York City. Thoughtful, charismatic, and passionate about his work and the work of others, he immediately struck me as someone thinking on multiple planes about art and its role within the world. His writing operates in the same way; The Misadventures of Sulliver Pong is at once heartwarming and wrenching, examining heritage, immigrant life, and injustice in America with bite and comedic verve. After publishing his first two books, The Misadventures of Sulliver Pong (CCLaP Publishing, 2015) and Letters from Dinosaurs (Thought Catalog Books, 2016), he’s now moving into publishing. I talked with Leland over the course of a few days via email, discussing his new endeavor, 7.13 Books, the state of modern publishing, and issues of inclusivity, diversity, and more. The Millions: So, tell me about the mission of 7.13 Books. As we both know, there’s a wealth of small presses in the world now. What separates 7.13 from them? What unites it with them? Leland Cheuk: Yes, there are a ton of great small presses out there. In terms of what 7.13 is about, the authors are going to play a big role in determining what the press represents as a brand. The books will be bold, impeccably written. They’ll look great. And there will be no good literary reason why the books aren’t mainstream and award-winning. Their existence as small press titles will be an indictment on the tired traditional publishing model offered by the Big Five publishers, who in reality have been out of the business of publishing literature for years, maybe decades. Three-hundred thousand books each year are published from the Big Five and maybe a few hundred are what any reader would consider literature. An argument can be made that the big houses are really in the business of publishing cookbooks, celebrity memoirs, and adult coloring pads. For authors publishing with 7.13, they’ll be getting no bullshit. I won’t make promises I can’t keep. I’ll set clear expectations about what the press can and can’t do. The books get lots of editorial attention from me, and I give the author tons of control and input over every aspect of the book, from the cover design to the marketing and publicity. TM: I’m interested in knowing about the final straw in relation to 7.13 Books. What pushed you towards developing the press? LC: Like most writers who’ve been at it for 10, 15, 20 years, I felt I had done almost everything possible to get a book published. I’d done the work, gone to top residencies, signed with agents, and had close calls at big houses. But nothing happened. And nothing happened because the numbers are so daunting. Tens of thousands of qualified writers for a couple hundred deals. Every year, it seems like everyone is talking about the same two dozen or so titles as the big literary hits. The system is as rigged as the global economy. My books only exist because of the kindness of a few people willing to lose time and money on my title. The publication offers for both my books came on July 13. A bone marrow transplant successfully engrafted and saved my life on July 13. That’s why the press is named 7.13. Once I made those connections about my life as an author and the acts of radical kindness (from my anonymous stem cell donor to the small press publishers who took a chance on me) that made that life possible, I decided I had to do something to give back. We all need to do something to keep the business of literature alive. You host a reading series. Some people do podcasts. I read for a literary journal (Newfound) as well. Go to readings. Buy books. Support writers. Not every author understands that. You rarely hear about big-time authors doing stuff like this. Teaching is not enough. Hanging out in your literary echo chamber of fawning critics, editors, agents, and other successful authors is not enough. Tens of thousands of writers are doing great work and they’re getting zero. They need a hand up. TM: It can be hard, though -- what you’re saying. Running a reading series, or editing a small-time journal, whatever you do. How do you keep doing it? And for what? Also, to that end -- Kevin Nguyen had a great piece about #booktwitter and the sort of performative white "wokeness" that comes with, say, simply reading a book by a writer of color. There’s a lot to be doing that isn’t just reading, is all. Just reading isn’t enough. LC: It really isn’t enough! We need to be pushing books on friends, family, and strangers in the same way that we talk about TV shows. We shouldn’t even be keeping books in our private libraries. We should be giving them to others. Your Kindle should encourage you to send the book you just read to 10 other people if you liked it. Conversely, #booktwitter should be able to say when a book sucks. I know writing books is hard, but when nearly every book is a “OMG, so good!” and every review says “this is a must-read, tour-de-force,” we’ve just become part of this big, corporate book PR machine. I’m of the mind that authors should be banned from doing book reviews, and that the National Book Critics Circle should be an organization of professional book reviewers only. I know newspapers are slashing book reviews altogether, but we need independent-minded folks questioning the literary art form at all times. This “All Books Matter” mentality that Kevin Nguyen wrote about is contributing to a certain amount of stagnation of literature. Imagine if Alan Sepinwall was also a famed TV showrunner or if A.O. Scott was a renowned filmmaker. How would we trust that their reviews weren’t just propping up a friend of a friend? Then aesthetically, all upcoming screenwriters and filmmakers would be rushing to emulate their aesthetic. That’s where we are in the book industry today, where readers just get wave upon wave of what came before. TM: On another note, your story of fighting myelodysplastic syndrome is harrowing and inspiring, as is your piece in Salon about the process of beating it while trying to get published. How has your story informed your foray into publishing? How does it continue to inform your writing? LC: I hope I’m beating it. I seem to be okay, knock on wood. I think the experience just made me realize how self-absorbed I was before. More than ever, especially since the recent election, we need to take action and give. I think about the nurses who were collecting my stool samples and feeding me ice chips during chemo. I think about my wife, who stopped her life to become my caretaker. There are all these people lifting you up everyday. It’s the same for your writing and my writing. Think of all those people at your book launch. You and the Dead Rabbits Reading Series were there for me when my novel came out. I’m writing some nonfiction around this idea. I don’t know where it’s going, but I hope there’s a book in there somewhere. TM: Yes, for sure. I wouldn’t be anywhere close to where I am without dozens of people who have done both the biggest and smallest of things. How are you approaching writing about such a (I can’t imagine) powerful, life-altering event, especially as someone so used to writing fiction? LC: It’s hard. I guess the simple answer is I try to write about myself like I’m a character in a novel. But the deeper, truer answer is that I just imagine that my audience is my loved ones and the book is the message I would leave them if my health takes a turn for the worse. TM: That’s a beautiful, sorrowful sentiment. Now, the publishing world, as we both know, is often frustratingly stagnant and, at the same time, ever-changing. It responds to pertinent issues at the same time as it perpetuates certain wrongs. Just when I see one thing that’s worth celebrating, I see another that’s worth calling out. What are your thoughts on the publishing world at large? How has publishing your own work altered or confirmed any views you’ve had on the whole wide mess of it, from the Big Five to the indies? LC: Oh lord. How long do you have? [Laughs.] I’ve never been so bored with mainstream literary publishing. There’s an aesthetic sameness to most of the list titles. Naturalism is king. Identity is queen. And the family is the castle. And the castle is, for some reason, often located on the Upper West Side, Upstate New York, Montauk, or the Hamptons. I don’t see risk-taking. I see lots of opportunism. Great work still gets published. This year, I loved Paul Beatty’s hilarious and irreverent The Sellout, Colson Whitehead’s grimly imaginative The Underground Railroad, Kaitlyn Greenidge’s quietly incendiary We Love You, Charlie Freeman, Yaa Gyasi’s expansive, yet concise Homegoing, and Alexander Weinstein’s Black Mirror-esque Children of the New World. But honestly, I read a lot of the fiction that critics and book publicity people fawn over and just shrug. There’s a lot of meh-ness in the indie world too. But there’s no excuse for Big Five publishing companies dropping huge advances on meh books. TM: What do you think accounts for both big/indie meh-ness, to use your term? I know we each have our own ideas about what constitutes a good book. LC: Yeah, I shouldn’t put it in terms of good versus bad or meh versus un-meh. It’s more the lack of boundary-pushing on the form. I’m not a huge consumer of experimental fiction, but when I buy a book or when I’m reading submissions for 7.13, I want to be reading something I haven’t read before. And the older you get, the more you’ve read, so the bar for originality and newness gets higher and higher. I freely admit that I have snobbish tendencies. The general mediocrity at the big houses comes from what plagues the economy as a whole. It’s this short-term, winner-takes-all economic model that doesn’t allow for more books to be successful. Right now, they’re giving huge advances at the top and making those books successful to carry the business. For that author, it’s wonderful and terrific and we all root for and envy his or her success. For hundreds of other authors, they’re screwed because no one in the house, from editorial on down to sales and marketing, cares about their books. It’s just like Hollywood. Everyone sees Age of Ultron, The Force Awakens, and Superman v. Batman. But are those films for everyone? Not really. They’re being crammed down our throats for the sake of the bottom line. The publishing industry is a billion-dollar industry. If they can’t put out a few hundred successful literary books a year out of 300,000, what good are they? On the indie side, there are just so many presses and so many books. Of course, there’s going to be meh-ness. There are a lot of indie authors publishing pretty good first books that would’ve gone to big houses 15 years ago when they were more interested in growing an author’s career. Now it’s just churn and burn, up and out, and you get one chance to blow. TM: The indie world especially has made large strides towards inclusivity. I think of presses like Emily Books and Dorothy and countless others, or some of my favorite journals, like Apogee or Luther Hughes's new journal, Shade (among like so, so many more) -- what is 7.13 Books doing to be an inclusive press? And, further, I’m interested to know your thoughts about the responsibility of presses and journals and readers on this matter. LC: We’ll only be publishing a couple of books a year, but over time, I hope we’ll have good balance in terms of gender, ethnicity, and aesthetics. When I first opened for submissions, I noticed that the writers submitting were rather…blanco. So I put some feelers out on Twitter and the subs got more diverse. An eclectic list on all levels is the second thing I’m thinking about when I go through the slush. But finding writing that I really like is still the first. Everyone loves to talk about inequity for women and POCs, but an inequity no one wants to talk about is that 80 percent of mainstream literary fiction deals are sold to women. Eighty-four percent of editors are women. It’s extremely difficult to sell a male perspective right now. Recently, an agent said he brought that up on Twitter and was trolled to death. The authors I grew up enjoying like Bret Easton Ellis, Kurt Vonnegut, or Thomas Pynchon, would probably be relegated to small presses today. It’s a complex issue. Yes, men historically are more frequently reviewed and win more of the big awards. But if you’re a male author trying to break into literary fiction, you’re shooting for one of maybe two dozen deals each year. I’m going to try for a 50/50 gender-balanced list, which, frankly, is radical by today’s standards. TM: That is a deeply unpopular opinion. Don’t you think that the publishing world needed that shift, to a majority of female editors, among other things? At least to counteract what was once (and still often is, come awards season) a white-male dominated industry? But yes -- the complexity of that issue can be difficult to discuss honestly. You don’t fight for fairness with inequity. But, I mean, what’s interesting to me -- I’ve been co-running this reading series for almost three years and as we’ve grown older our submission queue and our lineups have by nature become more diverse. Like, we’re in New York City. It’s come to the point where if I see a reading with an all-white bill, it’s like -- it’s not that you’re not looking hard enough, it’s just that you’re not looking at all. To me, the issue of “solving the diversity problem” or whatever it’s labeled as can’t be entirely a numbers game. Maybe it has to be, I don’t know. But also, I think about ensuring the inclusivity of spaces -- appreciation, generosity, feeling, listening. LC: Thorny issue, for sure. The numbers don’t lie, though. And there are reasons for them. More women read. But 80/20? Unlikely. I agree with you on not making it a numbers game. It’s helpful to know the numbers, but for me, it comes back to the issue of that aesthetic sameness. For 7.13, I’m hoping every book will be different from what’s out there already. A writer can get to that difference any number of ways. It could be sexual orientation, gender, ethnicity, and/or form and use of language. Frankly, I get excited as a publisher when it’s all of the above. I recently read a submission that I just wanted right away. It was written by Farooq Ahmed (remember that name, because he’s going to be huge if he can find a NYC agent and editor with guts). The novel was named Kansastan, and it was set in a dystopic America where Kansas is a Muslim state. The main character was a crippled boy living in the minaret of a mosque and tending to goats. And the Christian Missourians are coming for them. It was absolutely enthralling, written in this Old Testament voice that echoed early Cormac McCarthy with all these allusions to Islamic lore and the Quran. The author hadn’t done an agent search yet, so I let the manuscript go. But that’s the type of book I want to do at 7.13 and that’s the way I want to approach the diversity issue -- from all possible angles. TM: That sounds wonderfully epic. It’s frustrating you had to add that caveat, the whole if he can find an agent and editor thing. That process is just, well, as someone going through it -- it has its moments where you feel like you’ve made it and then those moments where you feel so low, so far down. LC: I know plenty of well-published, acclaimed authors without agents. Both my books were published without one. An agent is a nice-to-have. You can’t make a living wage from your writing without one, but there are, like, 100 American writers total making a living wage from their books alone, and one of them is James Patterson. I tell writers not to sweat the agent search and do their thing. Send out queries like you’re going to the gym. Structurally, something in the traditional editor-agent-author troika needs to change. The transactional model is just not working. Not enough agents are making decent money and authors aren’t making any money at all. I can see a future where the big houses acquire dozens of small presses at a time to bypass the agent thing completely, leaving agents to add value by providing publicity services and career management. TM: You’re fairly active on social media. Which is cool. How has social media altered the book world since you started writing? I want the good and bad. And the in-between. LC: I think social media is great. It’s a way for writers to connect. I’ve often said that writing is not a vocation or avocation, it’s an identification. And social media gives writers a chance to identify themselves so that they can be found by other literature lovers. And social media requires excellent, concise writing. I do think it’s absolutely ridiculous the way Roxane Gay and other authors (usually female) with big platforms get trolled. I also think it’s absolutely absurd the way aspiring or emerging writers flood famous authors with likes when they tweet that they’ve fed their cat or had a good meal. Mr. or Ms. Famous Author isn’t going to blurb your book because you hearted his/her book tour photo. Social media tools don’t help users manage their dignity well. Perhaps a Dignity Warning should be the next thing on Mark Zuckerberg’s to-do list. LM: [Lauhgs.] Yeah. And though the hive mind quality of Twitter is not news, it’s one of those places where there’s this beautiful sense of community, of sharing, juxtaposed with this self-consciousness about what it means to belong, or what it takes to simply belong. I mean, Leland, the amount of times I’ve drafted and re-drafted a basic tweet. It can feel like the curated self at times. LC: But that’s part of writing, isn’t it? We should always be curating our words for an audience. I’m very much pro-social media. Sometimes it’s tiring and tiresome. Sometimes it’s hard to filter what’s real and true. But I feel like the work to be part of a living literary community is ultimately worth it.
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. - Norwegian by Night 1 month 2. 1. The Sellout 5 months 3. 3. The Trespasser 3 months 4. 4. The Underground Railroad 4 months 5. 5. Moonglow 2 months 6. 2. Ninety-Nine Stories of God 6 months 7. 7. Commonwealth 3 months 8. 8. Here I Am 4 months 9. - The North Water 1 month 10. - Swing Time 1 month Richard Russo wasn't kidding when he wrote in our Year in Reading series that the best novel he'd read this autumn was "a bit of a sleeper, though its fans are oh-so-passionate." For evidence of said passion, look no further than the top-spot debut for Derek B. Miller's Norwegian by Night on this month's list. Billed by Russo as "one of those books that completely transcends its genre," it focuses on a transplanted New Yorker suddenly on the run in Norway. "If you like those other Scandihoovian thriller writers," Russo wrote, "this is your book." The rest of the December list remains largely unchanged from the one we saw in November, owing perhaps to the long tail of the aforementioned Year in Reading series, which will no doubt start influencing subsequent lists as early as next month. Meanwhile, we welcome two newcomers on the lower half of our list this month, which are likely to rise as the Year in Reading dust settles, and as holiday gift cards are spent. In ninth position is Ian McGuire's The North Water, which was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize and named by the New York Times's editors as one of the Ten Best Books of the Year. The novel is a thriller set on a nineteenth-century Arctic whaling ship with a killer aboard, which sounds to this Top Ten writer like a very distinct flavor of Hell. Zadie Smith's Swing Time occupies the tenth spot. Smith's novel, her fifth, is complicated. As Kaila Philo noted in her review for our site, its protagonist "has no name, no signifiers, no grounding, only to be figured out through her relationships, interactions, and circumstances." She continues: Our protagonist here is so nebulous she becomes an idea for the reader to grasp at and attempt to put together, like a puzzle made of stardust, but once the reader finishes the puzzle they’re left with a sparkling cloud reminiscent of nothing. (Bonus: If you haven't yet, you should read the text of Smith's acceptance speech at the 2016 Welt Literature Prize.) Lastly, Annie Proulx's Barkskins graduates to our Hall of Fame this month, becoming the 20th title to ascend to those hallowed ranks in the year of 2016. Here's to a new year! This month's near misses included: The Nix, The Daily Henry James, and The Gene: An Intimate History. See Also: Last month's list.
2016 was a year of great joy and promise dotted with the specter and the results of the most poisonous news cycle in my entire memory. My family and I moved to Oxford, Miss., so I could begin my appointment as the Grisham Writer-in-Residence at the University of Mississippi. With that came the gift of time to write and read in a town so steeped in an almost mythic love for writing and literature -- so that, in times of despair, I often felt buoyed by books. This year also marked the first time in more than a decade where I lived in the same town as an independent bookstore -- the mighty and marvelous Square Books (and Square Books Jr. for kids) -- and never before have I been so perfectly happy to make my wallet just a bit lighter these days. Here then, is a sampling of the books I turned to and marveled over, often in more than one read-through, and thoroughly dog-eared to bits: The Home Place: Memoirs of a Colored Man’s Love Affair with Nature by J. Drew Lanham Thunder & Lightning: Weather Past, Present, Future by Lauren Redniss Lab Girl by Hope Jahren A Bestiary by Lily Hoang The Art of Waiting: On Fertility, Medicine, and Motherhood by Belle Boggs Bukowski in a Sundress: Confessions from a Writing Life by Kim Addonizio Another Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead Bestiary by Donika Kelly Four Reincarnations by Max Ritvo The Halo by C. Dale Young Brooklyn Antediluvian by Patrick Rosal Look by Solmaz Sharif Third Voice by Ruth Ellen Kocher No More Milk by Karen Craigo ShallCross by C.D. Wright Cannibal by Safiya Sinclair Ropes by Derrick Harriell Eternity & Oranges by Christopher Bakken Field Guide to the End of the World by Jeannine Hall Gailey Chord by Rick Barot play dead by francine j. harris The Ladder by Alan Michael Parker The Bees Make Money in the Lion by Lo Kwa Mei-en The Crown Ain’t Worth Much by Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib Family Resemblance: An Anthology and Exploration of 8 Hybrid Literary Genres edited by Marcela Sulak and Jacqueline Kolosov Hamilton: The Revolution by Lin-Manuel Miranda Raymie Nightingale by Kate DiCamillo Ada Twist, Scientist by Andrea Beaty And finally, very much in the spirit of how I gifted Matt de la Peña’s Last Stop on Market Street for its music and ebullient spirit to every parent I knew with young children, my favorite picture book of the year (resoundingly endorsed by my six- and nine-year-old boys): We Found a Hat by Jon Klassen. You will simply, never forget this wily pair of turtles. I promise you. The sparse storyline and hilariously evocative illustrations showcase more empathy and kindness in a few pages than many grown-ups have these days. The sheer beauty of this picture book will leave you clutching your heart. 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
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
Laura and I began 2016 with a weekend trip to Los Angeles, and though I can’t think of a better place to initiate a new life to go along with your new year -- what other city is as amenable to Americans’ obsessive sense of self-mythology and cyclical renewal? -- I always forget how profoundly strange Los Angeles is, particularly in the winter. The very qualities that make it America’s chosen stage on which to mount the drama of self-creation also make it a site of a profound dislocation. Swaddled year-round in warmth and light, you imagine yourself to be moving through a perpetual present; there’s always time to begin again, to wake up and do things better, to manufacture yourself anew. Time is a renewable resource, plentiful as sunshine. The sky looks like someone’s taken the roof off the world and the city itself stretches on ecstatically, looking like someone jammed a bunch of buildings together with great enthusiasm but little forethought. You can abide all this for a few months until you actually are moving through a perpetual present in which the seasons at best mark infinitesimal variations in light and warmth and the palm trees are always swaying gently, imperceptibly, maddeningly to and fro like faulty metronomes. This isn’t to say that time is static. No, it dilates and contracts according to the whims of traffic; a trip that took you 20 minutes one day takes you an hour the next. You reminisce about an episode in your life as if it took place a year ago, only to find that three years have elapsed. Henry James disparaged certain giant 19th-century novels without a sense of composition as loose, baggy monsters. One would be hard-pressed to find a better way of describing Los Angeles itself; reverence for the accidental and arbitrary is its operating principle. I like reading books that honor this reverence rather than treat it as a problem to be solved, ones that don’t try to depict the city so much as appropriate its flux. These books tend towards nothing more than a continual confounding, an arabesque that turns the failure to find composition into something interesting. In January, serendipity brought me one such book. Laura and I ducked into Skylight Books in Los Feliz and loitered in the fiction section until an attractive, slender little gray volume attracted our eyes -- Jarett Kobek’s BTW. The novel follows an unnamed, overeducated, literary young man who flees New York in the wake of a failed relationship, chronicling his attempt to -- what else? -- restart his life in contemporary Los Angeles He consorts with a cast of distinctly Southern Californian weirdoes who seem to be always high, drunk, weeping, or some combination of the three. The narrative is one of those aforementioned arabesques: we accompany Kobek’s characters as they sit in cafes, drink in bars, get sick at parties, read books, make scant progress on artistic projects, and try their hardest to navigate out of romantic cul-de-sacs. Imagine The Day of the Locust updated so that it encompasses the travails of interracial dating, celebrity worship, and college debt, among other topics. It’s a wonderfully observed novel about Los Angeles because one detects the presence of a mind actively wrestling with the city’s strangeness, rather than drawing from cultural stereotypes. It doesn’t hurt that Kobek’s language is impossibly precise, imbued with a crystalline quality, so that when he describes something like the Grand Central Market you don’t just feel the pang of familiarity that any good novel generates, the sense that the author is in your head; you feel like you’re seeing something clearly for the first time. And while Kobek’s acerbic humor (on even more impressive display in anti-tech polemic I Hate the Internet, another of my year’s highlights) is what initially caught my attention, it’s the depth of Kobek’s feeling that haunted me when I finished the novel. BTW is a stinging social satire, but all that humor supports a sensitive evocation of what it feels like to live your mid- to late-20s in an era of ever-accelerating social fragmentation, in a city that reifies such fragmentation. In those conditions, it’s no wonder Angelenos have developed any number of idiosyncratic practices to ground themselves. To outsiders these practices might seem exorbitant or silly, but they arise out of the starkest necessity. To prevent putting your head through your car window one day as you lurch through the city, you seize upon something, anything that might give your year a shape. When I read Eve Babitz’s glamorously lethargic nonfiction collection Slow Days, Fast Company, which NYRB Classics reissued this past summer, I felt like she understood this. Babitz chronicles a different time than Kobek’s novel, a decade when gas was relatively cheap and writers mingled with models and actors. She and her friends don’t live off much more than spurts of money from family, lovers, or the occasional gig, but they live well anyway, impulsively snorting cocaine, popping Quaaludes, and driving around Southern California as if everything between Palm Springs and Bakersfield were Los Angeles. Sometimes they work, but mostly they gossip and self-medicate. This book is a perpetual motion machine whose elliptic form elides what a canny chronicler of the human mind Babitz is. Her prose is as psychologically savvy as Joan Didion’s, but considerably more playful. Didion looked on her hometown’s surface frivolity and found an apocalyptic lack of substance and order. Babitz looks on the same and finds an aesthetic opportunity. Nathaniel Mackey’s multivolume epistolary novel From a Broken Bottle Traces of Perfume Still Emanate -- currently at four volumes and counting -- hooked me for the same reason. The novel takes the form of letters written by a L.A. jazz musician known only as “N.” to a mysterious figure named the Angel of Dust, wherein he holds forth on everything from slavery’s legacy to the etymology of the word “oboe.” There are some loosely constructed narratives floating around these volumes (sometimes ghosts emanate from record players, or speech bubbles expand from saxophones, for example) but mostly Mackey is content to let alliteration, rhyme, and copious punning propel the novel forward. I was particularly in love with the third volume, Atet A.D., which constructs an entire storyline out of the fact that one character plays an oboe, a word derived from the French “hautbois,” or “high wood,” which another character later misrecognizes as “high would.” Highbrow hijinks ensue. In this way, on a sentence-by-sentence basis, Mackey emulates both jazz improvisation and L.A.’s love of the accidental. The effect is a text that detaches language from the need to communicate anything at all other than beauty, in the hopes that beauty might teach us how to exist in solidarity with one another. This is the kind of writing that reorganizes thought patterns and social relations. There was so much else that I read and loved this year. Zero K delighted me despite the fact that at this point Don DeLillo seems set on self-parody. Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing was addictive, employing a narrative structure that has the same effect as a binge-worthy TV show; it doesn’t hurt that Gyasi has sharp observations on black diaspora and slavery’s echo. Max Porter’s Grief Is the Thing with Feathers is a bizarre delight, heart wrenching without being sentimental or cloying. The Underground Railroad is a neo-slave narrative whose speculative fiction elements force us to confront slavery’s lingering horror. Tim Murphy’s Christodora is a sensitive and searching epic that chronicles the social effects of AIDS across several decades. And Garth Greenwell’s What Belongs to You is an inspiring debut that undermines its own title: nothing belongs to us, because we are so thoroughly enmeshed with others. Looking back on my year in reading from the precipice of a Donald Trump presidency, I feel a strange bit of cognitive dissonance, a friction between the great pleasure that characterized my reading life, and the thickening sense of fear at what awaits us on January 20th. Against the backdrop of the totalitarian impulse that Trump represents, such pleasure feels exorbitant. But I also wonder if such exorbitance can be a form of resistance. It puts us in more attentive relation to the people and environments in which we’re enmeshed. To close the year out, I’m reading Hannah Arendt’s indispensableThe Origins of Totalitarianism. Early on, she makes a point that clarifies the nature of the threat looming over our nation: “Totalitarian politics -- far from being simply anti-Semitic or racist or imperialist or communist -- use and abuse their own ideological and political elements until the basis of factual reality, from which the ideologies originally derived their strength and their propaganda value …have all but disappeared.” Totalitarian politics want to estrange us from lived experience, from the fact that we’re wrapped up in and with others. My year in reading taught me that such immersion is what we must fight hardest for. 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
I’m a huge Charlie Rose fan. I DVR his show and watch it in the evenings while I eat chocolate pudding. I love Rose’s interview style -- engaged but relaxed; the hint of North Carolina accent, and the fact that when the camera pans back too far, I can see his New Balance sneakers. There’s something about that dark set that comforts me. No fake skyline, no news crawl along the bottom of the screen. Just a black backdrop and two glasses of water on the big oak table. Last March, Rose interviewed author David Payne, whose new memoir, Barfoot to Avalon, had just been released. I’d never heard of David Payne. But I leaned forward when Rose mentioned that David Payne was known for his long, meandering sentences. I love a lyrical, beautifully crafted sentence that takes me on a journey, and by the time Payne finished reading the opening pages of chapter one, the scene where he and his younger brother pack up Payne’s Vermont house and load the last of his possessions into the rented U-Haul so Payne can drive to North Carolina to salvage his marriage, I’d set down my chocolate pudding and found the book on Amazon. They were out of stock. The next morning, I headed to my local bookstore to see if they had any copies. No luck, the clerk said. They’d sold out. He offered to order a copy, but it was backordered from the publisher and wouldn’t be in for a week. I had to have that book. So, I downloaded the audio version and listened for the entire six-hour drive to Los Angeles the next day and for the entire six-hour drive back. I didn’t stop food. I didn’t stop to pee. I just stared through the windshield and gripped the steering wheel, carried along the twisting path of Payne’s wrenching narrative of alcoholism and generations of family dysfunction. Payne is indeed the master of the long sentence, but also of the extended metaphor, time and space. By the time I got back to San Francisco, my dashboard light was blinking. I had less than a mile’s worth of gas left in my tank. When my hard cover arrived, I sat down with a cup of tea and started at page one. I already knew the story, but now I needed to absorb it. That’s how good this book is. I’m a sucker for Annie Proulx. Have been since The Shipping News. I once trekked downtown through a thunderstorm to hear her speak, and couldn’t stop my hand from quivering when I asked her to sign my book. Her latest novel, Barkskins, is a masterpiece, but hasn’t, in my opinion, received the attention it deserves. Weighing in at a whopping 713 pages, it’s a delicious doorstop of a historical novel, perfect for long winter nights. Spanning 300 years, it chronicles the lives of two penniless Frenchman, who arrive in 17th-century Canada, known then as New France, and their descendants, and their travels across North America, Europe, China, and New Zealand. Like Proulx, I’m a huge believer in bond between character and place. Place is character and character is place. The two go hand in hand. The first paragraph of Barkskins reads, “In the twilight they passed bloody Tadoussac, Kebec and Trois-Rivieres and near dawn moored at a remote riverbank settlement...Mosquitoes covered their hands and necks like fur...Mud, rain, biting insects and the odor of willows made the first impressions of New France. The second impression was of dark vast forest, inimitable wilderness.” What else do you need to know? I spent a lot of 2016 feeling outraged. Too many black bodies killed. Too much intolerance and fear, too many acquittals, too little justice. Three books helped me maintain my sanity as I struggled to make sense of these strange and discouraging times. First up, Robin Coste Lewis’s award-winning book of poetry Voyage of the Sable Venus. Readers should be prepared to be crushed by the sheer accumulation of images of the black female figure as Lewis chronicles their appearance in centuries of Western art. Slowly, the narrative takes shape and we’re left to both ponder what it means to be a black and female, celebrated and objectified. Next, Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, a book of such brutality and clarity that when I finished, for 20 minutes, all I could do was stare out the window. Whitehead draws chilling parallels between the antebellum South and modern American life as he chronicles Cora’s escape from her Georgia plantation to the north. No surprise it won the National Book Award. When I finished Underground Railroad, I picked up Ben H. Winters’s Underground Airlines. Talk about jumping out of the frying pan into the fire. Where Whitehead examines slavery from a historical vantage point, Winters imagines how slavery might work today. The novel’s conceit is that the Civil War was never fought. Abraham Lincoln was assassinated before he could take office and slavery has been contained to four Southern states known as “The Hard Four,” Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and a unified Carolina. No spoilers here. All I’ll say is read the first chapter and see how you feel. But don’t say I didn’t warn you. 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
Best Debuts: My debut novel was released this year, so I read a ton of debuts, mostly to reassure myself that all great debuts -- like all great novels, really -- are promising and flawed. As a reader, I look for debuts that excite me and make me anticipate the author’s next book, so some of my favorites this year were Desert Boys by Chris McCormick, Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi, and Here Comes the Sun by Nicole Dennis-Benn. Favorite Overall Reads: The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead is a brilliant reinvention of the slave narrative genre, a story with huge personal and historical stakes. We’ll be reading this one for a while. I also loved Another Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson, which is inventive and lyrical and meditative, a coming-of-age story driven forward by the beauty of its language, not plot. Couldn’t Put It Down: The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters. I love books that reset their terms partway through the story, and this book does so in dramatic fashion. What begins as a historical queer romance becomes a crime thriller and the entire world of the novel resets in a fascinating way. Best Post-Olympics Read: You Will Know Me by Megan Abbott. A creepy, unsettling page-turner, both a domestic thriller and exploration of the darker aspects of women’s gymnastics: the toll that intense competition takes on young girls and the punishing brutality of a beautiful sport. Obligatory Maggie Nelson Post: I’m late to the Maggie Nelson party, but I read The Argonauts and The Red Parts this year, two books that made me think and feel deeply. I love her ability to always write with expanding empathy, as she delves into the personal and the political, invoking theory and pop culture and literature. Best Conversation Starter: Playing Dead: A Journey Through the World of Death Fraud, because everyone I’ve talked to seems convinced that he could fake his own death even though, as Elizabeth Greenwood proves, death fraud is extremely difficult to pull off. This book is a fun exploration into a bizarre topic, but it also speaks to deeper existential desires. In a world of constant connection, who hasn’t wanted to disappear and start over? 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
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 November. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. 1. The Sellout 4 months 2. 2. Ninety-Nine Stories of God 5 months 3. 3. The Trespasser 2 months 4. 6. The Underground Railroad 3 months 5. - Moonglow 1 month 6. 5. Barkskins 6 months 7. 10. Commonwealth 2 months 8. 8. Here I Am 3 months 9. 7. Pond 3 months 10. 9. Innocents and Others 5 months How fitting it is for Don DeLillo's Zero K to move on to our Millions Hall of Fame in this, the month of November, the time of no baseball and, thus, no Ks. (I will not apologize for this joke; No I Said No I Won't No.) Speaking of baseball, others have pointed out the accuracy of Back to the Future II's foretelling of our current American predicament -- the Cubs winning the World Series; Biff Tannen ascending to a position of unimaginable power -- and so in that regard, it's fitting that an author who got his start around the time that movie came out would grace our latest Top Ten. Michael Chabon, of course, requires no introduction, and least of all from someone who'd build a strained Back to the Future II reference upon the foundation of a corny baseball joke. Nevertheless here we are. Moonglow, is a welcome addition to this month's list. In her preview for our site last summer, Tess Malone wrote: We’ve all had that relative who spills their secrets on their deathbed, yet most of us don’t think to write them down. Chabon was 26 years old, already author of The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, when he went to see his grandfather for the last time only to hear the dying man reveal buried family stories. Twenty-six years later and the Pulitzer Prize winner’s eighth novel is inspired by his grandfather’s revelations. A nearly 500-page epic, Moonglow explores the war, sex, and technology of mid-century America in all its glory and folly. It’s simultaneously Chabon’s most imaginative and personal work to date. A few weeks ago, Chabon expanded on this balancing act between novel and memoir in an interview for our site: [Some people have claimed] that memoirs are more appropriate to the time we live in, but also superior to fiction. Listening to that kind of talk and seeing situations like the James Frey incident…The thing that made everyone upset was the fact that he had lied, you know? That he passed this thing off as true when it was a work of fiction was wrong. What pissed me off as a novelist was that he wrote it as a novel and nobody wanted to publish it. Then he relabeled it as a memoir and suddenly everybody wants to publish it and everyone wants to read it. That offends me because I’m a novelist and writing novels is what I do. I take that personally on some levels. It also offends me because it’s bullshit. Memoirs are bullshit to some degree. I don’t mean memoirists are liars; some might be, most are not. I know memoirists try to be scrupulous and try not to deviate from what they remember. It’s the last few words of my sentence where the bullshit comes in. Of course what you remember is a lie or a distortion. It’s inaccurate, there’s conflation, there’s elision. There are gaps, there maybe things that you’ve deliberately forgotten and then forgotten that you’ve forgotten so that you sincerely think they didn’t happen. Elsewhere on the list, a few titles jostled around, but nothing dropped out altogether. Stay tuned for next month's list, which will likely be influenced by our ongoing Year in Reading series. This month's near misses included: The Daily Henry James, The Nest, Heroes of the Frontier, Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, and The Girls. See Also: Last month's list.
2016: The year my daughter learned to stand on her own and walk away. It's also the year my son learned about the Holocaust, that it happened, and not that long ago. He is five, she is one. If this opening relies too heavily on the metaphorical, please forgive me: I refuse to besmirch my entry with a certain someone's name, he has crowded my Internet and my brain too much already. I also would like to assert the pleasures of this year, no matter what happened in November. Those pleasures cannot be rescinded. I had a good time writing a book, seeing friends, meeting my youngest niece, cooking with my husband, even gossiping via direct messages on Twitter (oh god please don't hack me, Russia!). I watched my son graduate from preschool. He learned to read. When we rang in the new year, his baby sister was a basically a tadpole; now she can amble across the living room and ask for raspberries and point at everything in the room, a perpetual desire machine. Dat, Dat, Dat, she calls out. One day my son said, "Dolls are for girls -- in TV commercials." On another day he said, "Movies and stories usually open with the villain. It's the bad thing to get you interested." Reading isn't just the ABCs. Speaking of reading. There were also books in 2016. Great ones. Like everyone else, Oprah Winfrey among them, I loved The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead. I loved it because it does what it wants story-wise, demands you just go with it, but on the level of plot or structure it's not at all messy. As we used to say in high school: it's tight. More quote-unquote ambitious novels need to take note of this book's symmetry and precision. I've long been a fan of Whitehead's work, in particular his graceful and surprising turns-of-phrase. This new one is just as beautifully written, but the power of its prose held me in the paragraphs rather than single sentences or similes. See this one early on, describing the interruption of a rare party among the slaves: The music stopped. The circle broke. Sometimes a slave will be lost in a brief eddy of liberation. In the sway of a sudden reverie among the furrows or while untangling the mysteries of an early-morning dream. In the middle of a song on a warm Sunday night. Then it comes, always -- the overseer's cry, the call to work, the shadow of the master, the reminder that she is only a human being for a tiny moment across the eternity of her servitude. The rhythms here are brilliant, the sentences describing the celebration's end -- "The music stopped. The circle broke." -- as brief as the humanity each slave momentarily experiences before "the eternity of her servitude" takes it away. The cruel assonance of "eternity" and "servitude." There are so many paragraphs like this in The Underground Railroad. The book contains flashes of Whitehead's classic sharpness, that ironic gleam of his that I've always loved, but it peers in at the edges; the subject matter requires sincerity, gravity. The sharpness, though, keeps this from feeling like a safe, milky-glow historical story. This terror feels present, is present. Another book that rocked me was Ghettoside by Jill Leovy, which is about present-day South Central Los Angeles and its epidemic of murder and violence. Like The Underground Railroad, it's about vulnerable black bodies, about our American failure to protect and value black Americans. Leovy is a reporter for the L.A. Times and she covered homicide from 2001 to 2012, embedding herself in the LAPD's 77th Street Division a couple years into this assignment. Her thesis is simple: "When the criminal justice system fails to respond vigorously to violent injury and death, homicide becomes endemic." She argues that "perceived harshness of American criminal justice and its fundamental weakness are in reality two sides of a coin, the former a kind of poor compensation for the latter." She continues: Like the schoolyard bully, our criminal justice system harasses people on small pretexts but is exposed as a coward before murder. It hauls masses of black men through its machinery but fails to protect them from bodily injury and death. It is at once oppressive and inadequate." The book is a tremendous journalistic feat. Leovy is able to make statistics and historical data coherent and compelling, and she depicts the lives of those affected by these traumas with a vividness that can only come when you've truly seen someone and tried to view the world through his eyes. These first two books are clearly defined, respectively, as fiction and nonfiction. Another favorite from this year bled into both categories: Suite for Barbara Loden by Nathalie Léger, translated from the French by Natasha Lehrer and Cécile Menon. I had never heard of this little svelte book when I bought it from Green Apple Books in San Francisco. I was simply attracted to its square shape and its cover drawing of a blonde woman. I didn't even read the back cover. Turns out, Barbara Loden was an actress who starred in Wanda, the only film she also directed. I am not a movie buff -- in fact, I rarely watch movies, especially the "important" ones -- but I realize I love reading descriptions of film scenes. There's a kind of inert vividness to these descriptions, a scrim between me and the dramatic moment, that I find almost erotic. Léger intersperses descriptions of Wanda with passages about how she came to know this movie, how she tried and tried to understand Barbara Loden herself. Woven into these, too, are autobiographical asides. One begins: "Once upon a time the man I loved reproached me for my apparent passivity with other men." The result of these combined fragments is delicious and mysterious. Aside from these three new favorite books, I also found a new favorite author. I discovered him over the summer, when I was tired of reading what everyone else was reading or had read. What initially drew me in was the vintage Bantam paperback, tucked into a neighbor's front yard Little Library. Lurid red, with the phrase WIFE TROUBLE in big gold letters on the back. The novel was The Barbarous Coast, published in 1956 and written by Ross Macdonald, an L.A. pulp writer who was raised in Canada. Bookseller-friends had recommended his work to me before, but this was my first foray. Macdonald's detective is one Lew Archer, a quippy loner as they usually are, and I didn't care as much about the story -- a beautiful dead girl, a fancy beach club, etc. -- as I did about the writing. The writing! "Manor Crest Drive was one of those quiet palm-lined avenues which had been laid out just before the twenties went into their final convulsions." It's cool and stylish. I love it. I noted the sexist shit, too: "Her breath was a blend of gin and fermenting womanhood." Soon after finishing the book, I bought The Far Side of the Dollar on eBay. I longed to read another Macdonald, but like the first one, it had to be an old dime-store paperback, its pages yellowed and flaking, the jacket copy over-the-top cheesy ("I'm the man women can't forget and some men don't live to..."). Again the crisp language. Lew Archer's assessments of women -- "Legs still good. Mouth still good." -- continued to rankle, and I began to collect these instances...for what, I am not yet sure. Maybe as a reminder that this way of seeing females is historical, at least half a century old. It is also our inheritance. And it persists. I'm going to read The Galton Case next. Now onto 2017. Sometimes I am fearful and despairing about what's to come. Not entirely, though. I won't let that happen. To start, there will be books. 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 Save
Colson Whitehead has some advice: write the book that "scares you shitless." In a recent, wide-ranging interview with John Freeman, the Underground Railroad author talks about why he wrote his latest novel, along with his methods for sussing out good ideas. You could also read our review of The Underground Railroad.
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: The Association of Small Bombs by Karan Mahajan (I Want Complete Freedom When I Write: An Interview with Karan Mahajan) Barkskins by Annie Proulx (A Summer Reading List for Wretched Assholes Who Prefer to Wallow in Someone Else’s Misery) Children of the New World by Alexander Weinstein (Humanity’s Dogged Endurance: On Alexander Weinstein’s Children of the New World) Here I Am by Jonathan Safran Foer (A Year in Reading: Jonathan Safran Foer) The Mirror Thief by Martin Seay (Martin Seay’s The Mirror Thief as Explained by Martin Seay) Moonglow by Michael Chabon (Two Kinds of Aboutness: The Millions Interviews Michael Chabon) Ninety-Nine Stories of God by Joy Williams (50 Reasons Why You Should Read Joy Williams) Nutshell by Ian McEwan (The Body Doesn’t Lie: On Ian McEwan’s Nutshell) Still Here by Laura Vapnyar (Making Strange: On Laura Vapnyar’s Still Here) Swing Time by Zadie Smith (Nameless and Undefined: On Zadie Smith's Swing Time) Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead (Scars That Never Fade: On Colson Whitehead's The Underground Railroad) The Vegetarian by Han Kang (Taste Is the Only Morality: On Han Kang's The Vegetarian) War and Turpentine by Stefan Hertmans (Brutal and Tender: On Stefan Hertmans’s War and Turpentine) Zero K by Don DeLillo (The End of the Self Is the End of the Universe)
The 2016 National Book Award winners were announced tonight in New York City. The big prize for Fiction went to Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead. 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. The Nonfiction award went to Ibram X. Kendi for Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America. The Poetry award was won by Daniel Borzutzky for The Performance of Becoming Human. The winners in the Young People's Literature category were John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, Nate Powell for March: Book Three. See our review of Book One in the series. Bonus Links: Earlier in the year we dove into both the Shortlist and the Longlist to share excerpts and reviews where available.
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 Girls, Heroes of the Frontier, Signs Preceding the End of the World, The Nest, and The Unseen World. 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 September. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. 1. The Sympathizer 6 months 2. 2. Mr. Splitfoot 6 months 3. 9. The Sellout 2 months 4. 7. Ninety-Nine Stories of God 3 months 5. 4. Zero K 5 months 6. 6. Barkskins 4 months 7. - The Underground Railroad 1 month 8. 8. Innocents and Others 3 months 9. - Here I Am 1 month 10. - Pond 1 month The Sellout rocketed up our Top Ten this month, jumping from ninth position all the way up to third. In a few weeks, when longtime frontrunners The Sympathizer and Mr. Splitfoot retire to our Hall of Fame, look for Paul Beatty's satirical novel to lead the pack. Speaking of the Hall of Fame, both Girl through Glass and The Lost Time Accidents graduated this month, opening space for two new entrants on our list: Colson Whitehead's universally acclaimed The Underground Railroad, and Jonathan Safran Foer's somewhat less acclaimed Here I Am. By now, Whitehead's novel needs no introduction. The #1 bestseller has drawn praise from both Obama and Oprah, and in his review for our site, Greg Walkin noted how "Whitehead’s brilliance is on constant display" throughout: After five previous novels, each very different, this is the only thing we can count on. It’s hard to imagine a new novel farther from Whitehead’s last, the zombie thriller Zone One. The Underground Railroad shares some features with his debut work, The Intuitionist, and his second novel, John Henry Days; both novels confront issues of race and American history through less-than-straightforward methods — a Whitehead signature. Yet by contrast, Safran Foer's Here I Am has drawn a wider spectrum of reviews, ranging from the simply mixed and relatively positive all the way over to Alexander Nazaryan's Los Angeles Times piece, the thrust of which can be pretty well understood just from its title: "With joyless prose about joyless people, Jonathan Safran Foer's 'Here I Am' is kitsch at best." Meanwhile, one title -- The Nest -- dropped from our monthly list, opening a spot for Claire-Louise Bennett's Pond. In his review of the work for our site, Ian Maleney wrote that it "rests with no little charm somewhere between collection and novel without ever settling on one or the other," and noted how "much of the book examines the strange process of alienation anyone might experience as they find themselves with time and space to interrogate their own behavior, private or otherwise." That sounds appropriate for the start of Autumn, if I say so myself. This month's near misses included: Heroes of the Frontier, Signs Preceding the End of the World, The Girls, and The Queen of the Night. See Also: Last month's list.
Book award season enters high gear as the National Book Award finalists have been released. Winners will be announced in New York City on November 16. The short list includes the big fall book by Colson Whitehead and Jacqueline Woodson's first novel for adults in 20 years. It's a great time to be a reader. You read about nearly all of the books on the Fiction list here first, of course, 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: The Throwback Special by Chris Bachelder ("Men in Tights Crammed into Confined Spaces") News of the World by Paulette Jiles (excerpt (pdf)) The Association of Small Bombs by Karan Mahajan (I Want Complete Freedom When I Write: The Millions Interviews Karan Mahajan) The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead ("Scars That Never Fade") Another Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson (A Most Anticipated book) Nonfiction: Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right by Arlie Russell Hochschild (Most Anticipated) Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America by Ibram X. Kendi (excerpt) Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War by Viet Thanh Nguyen (Viet Thanh Nguyen's Year in Reading) The Other Slavery: The Uncovered Story of Indian Enslavement in America by Andrés Reséndez (excerpt) Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy by Heather Ann Thompson (Most Anticipated) Poetry: The Performance of Becoming Human by Daniel Borzutzky Collected Poems 1974–2004 by Rita Dove (Race and American Poetry: Dove v. Vendler) Archeophonics by Peter Gizzi (Peter Gizzi on J.H. Prynne) The Abridged History of Rainfall by Jay Hopler (poem) Look by Solmaz Sharif (the title poem) Young People's Literature: Raymie Nightingale by Kate DiCamillo (Susan Orlean on Kate DiCamillo) March: Book Three by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, Nate Powell (our review of Book One in the series) When the Sea Turned to Silver by Grace Lin (excerpt) Ghost by Jason Reynolds The Sun is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon
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 13, and winners will be announced in New York City on November 16. The fiction list seems well balanced but also includes many familiar names. Alongside highly touted books by Colson Whitehead and Garth Greenwell are critical darlings like Lydia Millet and Karan Mahajan. 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. Here’s a list of the finalists in all four categories with bonus links and excerpts where available: Fiction: The Throwback Special by Chris Bachelder ("Men in Tights Crammed into Confined Spaces") What Belongs to You by Garth Greenwell ("ISO the Next Great Gay Novel") Imagine Me Gone by Adam Haslett (A Most Anticipated book) News of the World by Paulette Jiles (excerpt (pdf)) The Association of Small Bombs by Karan Mahajan (I Want Complete Freedom When I Write: The Millions Interviews Karan Mahajan) The Portable Veblen by Elizabeth McKenzie (excerpt) Sweet Lamb of Heaven by Lydia Millet (Lydia Millet, writing at The Millions) Miss Jane by Brad Watson (Brad Watson's Year in Reading) The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead ("Scars That Never Fade") Another Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson (A Most Anticipated book) Nonfiction: America’s War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History by Andrew J. Bacevich (excerpt) The Firebrand and the First Lady, Portrait of a Friendship: Pauli Murray, Eleanor Roosevelt and the Struggle for Social Justice by Patricia Bell-Scott (excerpt) Imbeciles: The Supreme Court, American Eugenics, and the Sterilization of Carrie Buck by Adam Cohen (interview) Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right by Arlie Russell Hochschild (Most Anticipated) Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America by Ibram X. Kendi (excerpt) Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War by Viet Thanh Nguyen (Viet Thanh Nguyen's Year in Reading) Weapons of Math Destruction by Cathy O'Neil (Most Anticipated) The Other Slavery: The Uncovered Story of Indian Enslavement in America by Andrés Reséndez (excerpt) The Slave’s Cause: A History of Abolition by Manisha Sinha (interview) Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy by Heather Ann Thompson (Most Anticipated) Poetry: The Performance of Becoming Human by Daniel Borzutzky Collected Poems 1974–2004 by Rita Dove (Race and American Poetry: Dove v. Vendler) Archeophonics by Peter Gizzi (Peter Gizzi on J.H. Prynne) The Selected Poems of Donald Hall by Donald Hall (Sonya Chung on Donald Hall) The Abridged History of Rainfall by Jay Hopler (poem) Bestiary by Donika Kelly (poem) World of Made and Unmade by Jane Mead Look by Solmaz Sharif (the title poem) Blackacre by Monica Youn (Siobhan Phillips on Monica Youn) Blue Laws by Kevin Young (poem) Young People's Literature: Booked by Kwame Alexander (excerpt) Raymie Nightingale by Kate DiCamillo (Susan Orlean on Kate DiCamillo) March: Book Three by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, Nate Powell (our review of Book One in the series) When the Sea Turned to Silver by Grace Lin (excerpt) When the Moon Was Ours by Anna-Marie McLemore (excerpt) Burn Baby Burn by Meg Medina (excerpt(pdf)) Pax by Sara Pennypacker and Jon Klassen Ghost by Jason Reynolds Sachiko: A Nagasaki Bomb Survivor's Story by Caren Stelson (excerpt) The Sun is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon
1. Colson Whitehead's novel John Henry Days opens with differing versions of the same story, told by witnesses and observers, all recounting John Henry's famous battle with the steam-powered hammer. No story is the same. For men wagering on whether John Henry would defeat the machine, Whitehead writes, "[e]ach wager was a glimpse into the man who made it;" just the same, each story -- the details remembered or who won the contest, for example -- is a glimpse into the storyteller. The power of the folk hero, it becomes quickly evident, lies not in what actually happened; John Henry Days is not after the real story, but what it means that America keeps telling the story of the black steel-driving man. With his new novel, Whitehead has picked another well-known story often retold: the secret transportation network of slaves before the Civil War. Frederick Douglass (who famously escaped via a literal railroad) and Harriet Jacobs both wrote popular accounts of their slavery. Slave escapes play a large part in the plot of Uncle Tom's Cabin, published in 1852, about the same time The Underground Railroad is set. Numerous accounts of slaves and escapes were later collected and preserved by the Works Progress Administration. Whitehead has said that he relied upon many of these narratives, particularly the Works Progress Administration accounts, in writing The Underground Railroad, and many actual advertisements for catching runaway slaves preface the book's chapters. But for this story -- probably Whitehead's finest -- history is a stepping-stone. 2. The Underground Railroad's prologue summarizes the life of Ajarry. Kidnapped from her home, she is transported across the Atlantic. Standing naked on a platform, her breasts are pinched by an agent, who acquires her for $226.00. She's eventually sold and re-sold, from southern plantation to plantation, bondage to bondage, price rising with each transaction, “appraised and re-appraised, each day waking upon the pan of a new scale." She births five children, one of whom, Mabel, survives into adulthood, and has a child of her own, Cora. Ajarry dies in bondage, “[a]s if it could have been anywhere else.” The bulk of the novel then follows Cora, Ajarry's granddaughter, a slave by birth on the Randall Plantation in Georgia, owned by the (respectively) cruel and distracted Randall Brothers. Mabel escaped the plantation when Cora was 10 or 11, only leaving her daughter a three-yard plot of okra and yams. As a result, Cora grows up bitter at having been left behind. But she also emerges as clever and conscientious, someone who "cursed herself for her smallmindedness." From her early days she suffers greatly, including as a victim of gang rape by her fellow slaves. When she is approached by Caesar, another slave on the plantation, to escape, she is at first reluctant (channeling her grandmother), eventually willing (channeling her mother). During their escape, they spar with and kill a white boy who tries to return them to the plantation, and are relentlessly tracked by Ridgeway, a slavecatcher who had never been able to successfully apprehend Mabel. They flee through South Carolina and beyond. Either outcome seems possible: that Cora will die a slave in the "ruthless mechanism of the world," like Ajarry, or experience the "eddy of liberation," like her mother. 3. By now, if you have read anything about this novel -- perhaps that it was on President Obama's Summer Reading List, or that it has been blessed by Oprah Winfrey, or that it has become a #1 New York Times Bestseller -- you know its central conceit. For Cora's escape, the Underground Railroad is an actual underground network of trains, schedules, handcars with pumps, and tunnels that gradually lead north. Some of the stations are elaborate constructions, with comfortable waiting areas and refreshments, and some are rundown holes with boxcars. The tunnels and conductors are under a repeat threat of discovery. For something fantastic (imagine the engineering feat), not a bit of it is lacking in verisimilitude; it possesses its own history and myth, spliced with just the right amount of mystery. Whitehead’s brilliance is on constant display here. 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. The Underground Railroad is a more frank confrontation, albeit with a dose of magical realism. As he did in John Henry Days, Whitehead has taken something emblematic of a period in American history and pulled a nifty trick: he has made it simultaneously real and ahistorical. In The Intuitionist, Whitehead freely played with elevators, which obtained the weight of metaphor but not the heft of a symbol. Every American schoolchild learns about the Underground Railroad. As Kathryn Schultz recently wrote, the story of the Underground Railroad that Americans know was "not quite wrong, but simplified; not quite a myth, but mythologized." It assuages the national guilt; it reminds us of the noble struggle for freedom, and not the astounding moral failing that kept such an institution legal for more than a century. (In Edward P. Jones's The Known World, slavery is often simply, and appropriately, talked of as "the law.") When, here, Whitehead revisits the greatest crime in American history, he thus also revisits its greatest attempt at commutation, the "mythologized" Underground Railroad, and all the compromises that made it necessary. As one character says, slavery produced "scars [that] will never fade.” America “[i]s a delusion, too, the grandest one of all," built on “murder, theft and cruelty” -- best personified by a slave boy on the Randall Plantation, who has been taught to memorize the Declaration of Independence but has no grasp of its meaning. Toward the end of The Underground Railroad, Cora receives some advice. As she rides the railroad, she is instructed thusly: “Look outside as you speed through, and you’ll find the true face of America.” Of course, there is nothing to see from an underground track -- only the dim of the subterranean world. Whitehead's book asks: How can a country ever put such a period behind it? Putting the famous Underground Railroad conductor Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill won't change the fact that American money was used to purchase people. "This isn't Mississippi in the fifties, J.," one character in John Henry Days tells the protagonist. "It's always Mississippi in the fifties," J. answers. 4. Besides the underground locomotives, Whitehead has sprinkled other touches of magical realism, or anachronisms, throughout this book, including ghosts, a skyscraper in 1850s South Carolina, and the Museum of Natural Wonders, which, among its exhibits, re-creates anodyne living dioramas of the human trafficking trade. For a time, Cora, believing she has found her freedom in South Carolina, works in the museum, participating in the slave ship display. She quickly finds out that, even in her freedom, "[t]ruth was a changing display in a shop window, manipulated by hands when you weren’t looking, alluring and ever out of reach." These purposefully absurd sections are perhaps the closest thing to Whitehead's older work, and his jocular tone; the rest of The Underground Railroad, rather, is sober and measured. "[I]t is a serious subject that didn’t seem to warrant my usual satire and joking," Whitehead told Vulture. The ironies are cruel ones, taken from life: the doctors who sterilize black people in South Carolina, where Cora first emerges after her travel on the railroad, and justify the procedure to black women as "a chance for you to take control over your own destiny." In a one-off chapter, a grave robber reflects on stealing black bodies for the medical schools, observing, based on the obviously identical anatomy between whites and blacks: "In death the negro became a human being. Only then was he the white man’s equal.” The plotting is deft and sure-handed. But the story slows for poignant moments, like Cora's frisson when she finally puts on a soft cotton dress in South Carolina. There, she guiltily enjoys one of the keys product that drove the entire system of bondage. The inventiveness that characterizes elements of his plot extends to his voice in this novel. In interviews he has said it emerged complete from just writing the first section on Ajarry, and the resulting omniscient narrator's words prove lapidary, perhaps including some of the best writing Whitehead has done. The prose, in short, is spectacular. Few books have demanded so much tabbing, so many bookmarks, and so many marginal notes -- so often do crystalline turns of phrase and aphorisms materialize. Take this: “Freedom was a thing that shifted as you looked at it, the way a forest is dense with trees up close, but from outside, from the empty meadow, you see its true limits.” Or this: "In liberty or bondage, the African could not be separated from the American." 5. The Underground Railroad is ultimately a story about a motherless girl searching for some kind of protection and love, but often finding only exploitation. It is ruthless in its depiction of the antebellum world, but threads of hope also emerge from the bravery of many characters, and from the feat of the railroad itself: "The up-top world must be so ordinary compared to the miracle beneath," the book goes. As for Cora, as for America, the scars of slavery won't fade: Once Mabel ran, Cora thought of her as little as possible...[S]he realized she banished her mother not from sadness, but rage. She hated her. Having tasted freedom’s bounty, it was incomprehensible to Cora that Mabel had abandoned her to that hell. Even if she finds her way out of hell, it's clear that freedom doesn't mean heaven. "The Declaration [of Independence] is like a map," one character tells Cora. "You trust that it’s right, but you only know by going out and testing it yourself.”
We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for August. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. 2. The Sympathizer 5 months 2. 1. Mr. Splitfoot 5 months 3. 4. Girl Through Glass 6 months 4. 5. Zero K 4 months 5. 6. The Lost Time Accidents 6 months 6. 7. Barkskins 3 months 7. 9. Ninety-Nine Stories of God 2 months 8. 8. Innocents and Others 2 month 9. - The Sellout 1 month 10. 10. The Nest 3 months "The past is never dead," wrote William Faulkner, who may have been unconsciously foreseeing Tessa Hadley's novel, and its six-month run on our site's Top Ten. While at times the book seemed likely to drop from our rankings - it began in tenth position and only once cracked the top three - it was nevertheless a gritty and determined run, now punctuated by its ascendance to our Hall of Fame. Most of the other titles on our list bumped up a spot to fill The Past's void, and a solitary newcomer emerged this August in our ninth spot. There, Paul Beatty's satirical novel, The Sellout, joins our list for the first time. The Sellout has been mentioned fairly often on our site, dating back to last December when staff writer Michael Schaub called it, "One of the funniest books I read this year was also one of the best novels I’ve ever read." (Knowing Schaub, he's going to take full credit for the book's appearance on our list now, nevermind the fact that it's been a year since he wrote that line.) But the praise didn't end there. Several months after Schaub selected The Sellout in his Year in Reading, fellow Millions staff writer Matt Seidel wrote: Beatty’s voice is as appealing, erudite, and entertaining as any since Alexander Portnoy’s. ... It is a lacerating, learned, witty, and vulgar voice — definitely not pejorative-free — brash and vulnerable and self-righteous in its jeremiad against self-righteousness of any kind. Still more recently, Alcy Levya traced a through-line between some of Beatty's lodestars - Richard Pryor, Kurt Vonnegut, and Dave Chapelle - to investigate the circumstances of the book's creation, as well as its enduring importance: In many ways, the comedian could very easily stand in place of the narrator in The Sellout: both being intelligent and hilarious with their keen and unfiltered views of our society, and both having to come to grips with the responsibility — and the cost — of being empowered to act on that vision. All of the characters, regardless of how completely absurd they seem, are reacting to living in a time in which Beatty also resides; one in which he is daring to call something “‘Racism’ in a post-racial world.” This month's near misses included: Signs Preceding the End of the World, Heroes of the Frontier, The Queen of the Night, Homegoing and The Underground Railroad. See Also: Last month's list.
Doubleday pulled a Beyonce and published Colson Whitehead’s latest book, The Underground Railroad, a month early. Oprah chose Whitehead’s book for her book club, and Doubleday “secretly started shipping out 200,000 copies in anticipation of the announcement.” You can also read a review from Michiko Kakutani at the New York Times.