“I’ve whispered ‘Racism’ in a post-racial world,” declares the protagonist of Paul Beatty’s The Sellout. And yet this is more a confession by Beatty himself, a warning shot by an expert marksman of diction. When his 1996 novel The White Boy Shuffle arrived, it was enough to satisfy fans of his nights onstage at the Nuyorican Poets Café on East 3rd. But it wasn’t until the release of The Sellout that Beatty stepped forward to share his audacious prose and penchant for outlandish diatribes with the uninitiated. The Sellout arrived as an examination of our present social dysfunctions, and succeeds in granting a marginalized group the chance to laugh, curse, scream, and celebrate.
In The Sellout, Paul Beatty introduces readers to a nameless narrator of African-American descent who lobbies for the reinstatement of segregation in his hometown of Dickens, Los Angeles. This is oversimplifying what Beatty pulls off on the page, which is a rich and calculated unearthing of social stigma and ignorance, on every side of the line — black/white, poor/rich, political/radical. With Beatty in the pilot’s seat, no one is safe. Page after page, he slings wickedly sharp satire that in lesser hands would hijack the entire narrative. Instead, Beatty’s page-long riffs land safely right back on the page, leaving the reader with just enough energy to shake her head and turn it over. “How come they never describe the white characters in relation to foodstuffs and hot liquids?” the narrator asks us. “Why aren’t there any yogurt-colored, eggshell-toned, string-cheese-skinned, low-fat-milk white protagonists in these racist, no-third-act-having books?”
In a 2000 interview with Rone Shavers for BOMB, Beatty was asked about the figures who inspire him to write with such unfiltered focus, naming Richard Pryor and Kurt Vonnegut: “By trying to be vulnerable and not (being) afraid to parody things that are important to you and to others. Those are two guys that I feel aren’t afraid to show the cursed antihero.” Beatty studied Vonnegut during the author’s boom in popularity, although he was never able to meet him. Beatty creates a lead character who –like Vonnegut’s Billy Pilgrim of Slaughterhouse-Five — is displaced in his own life following a violent event. In his period in time, Vonnegut connected displacement to the horrors of war by crafting a character who was “unstuck” in time. For Beatty, the institutional racism forged a character raging against the displacement of erasure. Both characters attempt to live out rational lives, but must do so using irrational means. But Beatty and Vonnegut’s scars are immensely different.
When the father of Beatty’s protagonist is gunned down by police, he attempts to resolve his anger only to find that his hometown of Dickens has literally been erased from the map. In order to be recognized by the rest of the world, he hires a slave to serve as his footstool (among other things) and then lobbies in America’s highest court for the reinstatement of segregation, as Beatty cartoonishly straps TNT to current realities. The character decides to face one injustice by burying it beneath another, setting off a series of beautifully awkward but truth-dispensing absurdities.
In every chapter, Beatty evokes, not only the pain of the African-American community, but also that of the various other cultures which society has enmeshed in the institution of racism. In one section, a character named Charisma Molina says the phrase “Too many Mexicans,” prompting a perfect example of a Beatty’s explosion of phrasing and social commentary.
The Indians, who were looking for peace and quiet, ended up finding Jesus, forced labor, the whip, and the rhythm method…White people, the type who never used to have anything to say to black people except “We have no vacancies,” “You missed a spot,” and “Rebound the basketball,” finally have something to say to us…Mexicans are to blame for everything. Someone in California sneezes, you don’t say “Gesundheit” but “Too Many Mexicans.”
Beatty wrestles this complicated issue to the ground by explaining that white supremacy is in constant need of placing the subjugated into a hierarchy: whites try to relate to black people by calling into question the character of other groups, dragging people of color into racial stereotyping.
Amazingly, Beatty did not write this book as a reaction to the current wave of police brutality and social injustice. According to Evelyn McDonnell, who has been following his career for over a decade, The Sellout was written and finished well before the rise of the #BlackLivesMatter movement. But the message hidden within its pages harkens to our past and our future. Even the setting of The Sellout is itself a collision of the African-American past and present; the town of Dickens contains ghettos and farmland, a tapestry of the African-American struggle:
You know when you’ve entered the Farms, because the city sidewalks, along with your rims, car stereo, nerve, and progressive voting record, will have vanished into air thick with the smell of cow manure and, if the wind is blowing the right direction — good weed.
Beatty crafts Dickens to be possibly his most tragic character — that which comes to represent the beaten black body. Both are a commodity reaped after colonization. Both are treated as entities whose existence and nonexistence is decided by an elite few. The neighboring towns who voted to erase Dickens from the map did so stating that it was done “to keep their property values up and their blood pressures down,” a quote that could be plucked in this day and age from the mouths of city planners, neighborhood watches, and business owners who have never heard of Paul Beatty.
With this world as his stage, Beatty seems to relish having such a flawed mouthpiece — his very own “cursed antihero” — to guide us through the events of the book. Here is a man who, like Billy Pilgrim, is being forced to exist outside of society. But unlike Vonnegut’s protagonist, Beatty’s narrator comes to understand that his lot in life has also contributed to, and yes even benefited from, racism (he is a farmer of watermelon and weed), making him both an active practitioner and victim of the societal construct. In short, the narrator in The Sellout is able to carry the story, and do so with unapologetic zeal, because he believes that in his world, two wrongs do make a right.
Dickens is home to some farcical characters. The narrator is raised by his father, a brilliant social scientist named (of all things) Carl Jung who seems more interested in experimenting on his son than actually raising him. At another point in the book, the narrator goes on to describe someone as:
“(a) Living National Embarrassment. A mark of shame on the African American Legacy, something to be eradicated, stricken from the racial record, like the hambone, Amos ’n’ Andy, Dave Chappelle’s meltdown…”
Much like Richard Pryor, Beatty’s other lodestar, Dave Chappelle had made a name for himself on the stand-up circuit when, in 2003, Comedy Central gave him a 12-episode show. At the time, there was nothing like it. Saturday Night Live and the now cancelled Fox’a Mad TV were the only popular sketch comedy shows with a strong viewership. But the moment Chappelle’s Show launched, people of color were instantly drawn to it. This was long before the power and reach of social media, decades before “Black Twitter” became a sounding board for people of color. And yet, by episode three, on the strength of word of mouth alone, there wasn’t a black or Latino teenager I knew who was missing a new Chappelle’s Show every Tuesday night. We would cancel hanging out with friends, basketball games. I went as far as rescheduling a date so that I wasn’t behind on the references my friends were bound to make the following day.
Season one broke records in DVD sales for Comedy Central and in 2003, Chappelle signed a $50 million deal to produce more episodes, but in 2004, he ended up walking away from the show and going into hiding. The press speculated mental stress, fatigue, and even drug problems as possible reasons for the comedian’s sudden departure. Later, he would go on to dispel the rumors by explaining, “I’m not going to lie to you, I got scared,” he said. “The higher up I went, the less happy I was. Once you get famous, you can’t get unfamous. You can get infamous, but you can’t get unfamous.”
Ironically, what had made the Chappelle’s Show valuable to African Americans, and what had likewise boosted Chappelle himself to superstar status, also shortened its lifespan. At its peak, standout sketches such as “Black Bush,” a sketch many years before Barack Obama was a household name, and the “Racial Draft,” a wild segment in which different nationalities participate in an NBA-style event to settle celebrity identities once and for all, became embedded in the cultural lexicon. The show’s clever routing of cultural tropes coupled with its exposure, was a testament to the craft Chappelle and co-creator Neal Brennan infused in the show’s weekly sketches and musical performances. Their subject matter was always raw, completely devoid of the political correctness of current television. And yet it was also oddly silly in a way, a perfect concoction of bite and R&B. The short sketches could be enjoyed simply for their ridiculous shock value alone. But many also dissected these pieces for their reflections on societal norms and saw the entire show as an expansion of the strides black comedians like Eddie Murphy and Richard Pryor made before Chappelle’s time.
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.” These are people in pain, lost, forgotten. They are the “unstuck,” the “disappeared.” The denizens of Beatty’s America have to own their dysfunctions in order to be recognized. In the end of the story, a character that has been speaking down to and infantilizing his black community (a possible allusion to Beatty’s own thoughts on icons such as Toni Morrison), has been harboring a secret that derails his self-righteous standing. In short, Beatty is posing that these people need to play characters in order to protect their true selves from being swallowed by society.
So what does this mean for Paul Beatty the poet, the writer, the black satirist? “Once you get famous, you can’t get unfamous.” How does he avoid the pitfalls of becoming as absurd as his narrator, or the symbol trying to carry his entire community on his back? As his narrator puts it at the end of the book, “I’m afraid. Afraid of what I might say. What promises and threats I might make and have to keep.”
Clarence Thomas speaks!
Among the outrageous occurrences in Paul Beatty’s The Sellout, in which a black man finds himself before the Supreme Court for conducting a “six-month campaign of localized apartheid” in his native Los Angeles, Justice Thomas’s decision to utter something from the bench is the most unlikely. We first see the notoriously reticent justice as a specimen of cool detachment:
There he is, Chamaeleo africanus tokens hidden way in the back among all the shrubbery, his slimy feet gripped tightly around the judicial branch in a cool torpor, silently gnawing on the leaves of injustice.
But so heinous are the narrator’s crimes against racial unity that a furious Thomas, who has famously almost never spoken during oral arguments throughout his career, is roused to question the defendant’s sanity. And with good reason: In an effort to “bring people together,” the narrator has introduced segregation and slavery to the black and Latino community of Dickens, Calif., a neighborhood so bad that authorities have removed it from official city maps.
Justice Thomas breaks his silence because, “like all people who believe in the system, he wants answers.” By contrast, satirists, unlike judges (and moralists, with whom satirists are sometimes confused), see any system, principle, or self-evident truth as vulnerable to attack. Beatty is a true satirist, and therefore his irreverence extends to the 13th and 14th Amendments. Like his narrator, he is a “social pyromaniac,” conducting a scorched-earth campaign against piety, whether pertaining to the hallowed Constitutional or the “proud history of [his] race.” There is no fixed moral stance from which the satirist operates, which makes him particularly well suited to take on the pervasive immorality, and inanity, of America’s “dysfunctional plutocracy.”
In this his fourth novel, Beatty returns to Los Angeles, the primary setting for his buoyant debut, The White Boy Shuffle, in which a young poet accidentally attains the status as “savior of the blacks.” Los Angeles is a “mind-numbingly racially segregated” city, from its neighborhoods to its comedy scene, “the epicenter of social apartheid.” Beatty’s previous novel, Slumberland, dealt with another segregation-haunted metropolis, Berlin, where the “inexorable ghost” of the Berlin Wall remained even after its collapse. In that novel, a so-called jukebox sommelier hunts down a reclusive avant-garde musician who, for years, had been producing legendary beats from within (pre-Fall) East Berlin, the “Wall inspir[ing] him like the Skinner box inspires the rat.” After the Wall falls, the two collaborate to create a performance piece-cum-concert to “celebrate the city’s resegregation” by sonically rebuilding the barrier: “The music was so real that anyone within earshot would feel as if they could reach out and touch it. They’d have to figure out for themselves if the wall of sound was confinement or protection.”
Beatty restages this ambiguously divisive act in The Sellout, this time as a social rather than artistic experiment. After painting a line around Dickens’s borders, the narrator admires its “implication of solidarity and community” even as the narrator voices his ambivalence towards his own project by likening the enclosure to a quarantine. Anything is preferable to erasure, even a “…community-cum-leper colony.
The narrator (we only learn his last name, Me) lives on The Farms, an area zoned for agriculture in the heart of a ghetto. Unlike the other inhabitants, he makes his living cultivating the land — “forty acres and a fool” as he describes his occupation, one that hints at his future exploits. Farmers, he tells us, are “natural segregationists” who parcel up their land to allow space for every plant to grow. As Beatty relishes confronting stereotypes head-on, his narrator “chooses to specialize in the plant life that had the most cultural relevance to me — watermelon and weed,” the latter sold under colorful names such as “Ataxia” and “Anglophobia.”
Me was homeschooled by his father, a man as committed to his son’s education as Laurence Sterne’s Walter Shandy, but considerably more demented. A psychology professor, informal neighborhood crisis counselor, and “sole practitioner” of “Liberation Psychology,” which adapts famous behavioral experiments to his own specifically African-American concerns, he subjects his son to all manner of deranged trials. Some are meant to condition the narrator to the harsh realities of racial prejudice; others simply use him as a guinea pig to test current behavioral theories. In one experiment, he places toy police cars, Richard Nixon campaign buttons, and The Economist in his infant son’s crib, then fires off his gun into the ceiling while screaming racial slurs. In another, he publicly mugs him to test a hypothesis about the bystander effect, which holds that people are less likely to help a victim the more witnesses are around. It doesn’t go as expected.
Later, Me’s father is senselessly gunned down by the cops, a tragedy followed by Dickens being “exiled to the netherworld of invisible L.A. communities” by unaccountable bureaucrats:
Dickens was me. And I was my father. Problem is, they both disappeared from my life, first my dad, and then my hometown, and suddenly I had no idea who I was, and no clue how to become myself.
As the first step in his journey to become himself, the narrator attempts to reanimate the vanished city, beginning by replacing the “DICKENS — NEXT EXIT” sign on the 110 Freeway that had been taken down. It’s too tempting for Beatty to resist contemplating future signs that mock some of the perceptions about the community from outsiders: “CAUTION — BLACK ON BLACK CRIME AHEAD” and “WATCH OUT FOR FALLING HOME PRICES.”
The narrator next sets out to bring back Jim Crow-era regulations, including priority seating for whites on buses and segregated businesses and education. The problem is that the high school is already essentially segregated, the white families long since having fled. And so he must establish a Potemkin village of sorts: the wholly illusory and all-white Wheaton Academy, a “sleek, state-of-the-art plate-glass building that looked more like a death star than a place of learning.” In reality, the neighboring school is just an empty lot with a painting of the campus on the gate.
Accompanying the quixotic narrator during his inner-city adventures is his own vassal, Hominy Jenkins, former child actor on The Little Rascals and “living national embarrassment” for being the butt of countless, unbelievably racist jokes on that show. (Beatty reaches Pynchonian levels of zaniness describing lost episodes screened at the L.A. Festival of Forbidden Cinema and Unabashedly Racist Animation.) Refusing to disown his television career, he instead revels in being the embodiment of “American primitivism,” an attitude the narrator, who has spent his life chafing under the “burden of being black and constantly having to decide when and if I gave a shit about it,” envies: “I’m jealous of Hominy’s obliviousness, because he, unlike American, has turned the page.” In an instance where Beatty needlessly oversteps the mark to highlight a cheap irony about the freedom to choose bondage, Hominy also demands that he be the narrator’s slave, reasoning that “Freedom can kiss [his] postbellum black ass.” Hominy’s desire for slavery and humiliation — the narrator farms out the regular whipping to a dominatrix — comes across as belabored and flattens a caricature even further.
The more outrageous the narrator’s social experiments are, the more they succeed. The painted borders and road signs foster a sense of pride in the community and eventually puts Dickens back on the map; the passengers on the segregated buses become more courteous; and the public school’s scores improve (even if it prompts a panicked cover story from the “New-ish Republic” entitled “The New Jim Crow: Has Public Education Clipped the Wings of the White Child?”) The contrast between pre- and post-segregated Dickens is a tale of two cities.
All of these beneficial effects are casually reported to the narrator by his bus-driver girlfriend or the high school principal, which identifies one of the major weaknesses of the novel. The satirical workings seem cursorily conceived compared to, say, how Helen DeWitt imagines the contraption for an anonymous office prostitution ring in Lightning Rods, or how in A Modest Proposal, Jonathan Swift provides detailed annual accounting figures and suggestions for what to do with the flayed baby skins (“admirable gloves for ladies, and summer boots for fine gentlemen”). Rather, Beatty’s narrator performs some brazen action and backs off, only marginally interested in the results until someone gives him a brief progress report on the wondrous effect of his segregationist efforts or a district judge pops up to provide a rationale:
In attempting to restore his community through reintroducing precept, namely segregation and slavery, that, given his cultural history, have come to define his community despite the supposed unconstitutionality and nonexistence of these concepts, he’s pointed out the fundamental flaw in how we as Americans claim we see equality.
Perhaps, but this post-hoc, overly tidy account of a coherent social vision doesn’t jibe with the anarchic spirit of the novel, which in essence works better as a loose framework for Beatty to deploy his comic talent. Bit for bit, Beatty is among the funniest authors writing today, whether describing the Crips applying for NATO membership (reasoning that they could “kick the shit out of Estonia”) or making wry comments on the lackluster D.C. tourist experience: “Not surprisingly, there’s nothing to do at the Pentagon except start a war.” Looking to find a sister city, Dickens is rejected by Juarez, Chernobyl, and Kinshasha (in the Democratic Republic of Congo) for being too violent, too polluted, and too black, respectively. The narrator makes his own list of candidates, cities that “disappeared under dubious circumstances,” including Thebes (the sand-covered Cecil B. DeMille movie set) and the Lost City of White Male Privilege, “a controversial municipality whose very existence is often denied by many (mostly privileged white males).”
This being the same mischievous Beatty who included a presidential candidate speech from the Rev. Al Sharpton in his anthology of African-American humor, Hokum, satirical targets are lined up, easy or otherwise. Beatty mocks those “brass-bangled teacher-poets whose elegiac verse compares everything to jazz;” proposes “Whitey Week” as a “counterbalance to the onslaught of disingenuous pride and niche marketing that took place during Black History and Hispanic Heritage Months;” and skewers a group called the Dum Dum Donut Intellectuals, “star-struck, middle-class, black out-of-towners and academics” discussing the problems facing the “indigent black community” and the meaning of bimonthly. The group is led by Foy Cheshire: philosopher, social critic, entertainer, blowhard, strident opponent of the narrator’s efforts, and bowdlerizer of classic works of American literature, e.g., The Pejorative-Free Adventures and Intellectual and Spiritual Journeys of African-American Jim and His Your Protégé, White Brother Huckleberry Finn as They Go in Search of the Lost Black Family Unit for Mark Twain’s masterwork.
Beatty’s voice is as appealing, erudite, and entertaining as any since Alexander Portnoy’s. (Philip Roth’s kvetcher, the Assistant Commissioner for the City of New York Commission of Human Opportunity, is trapped inside a Jewish joke, while Beatty’s, “City Planner in Charge of Restoration and Segregation” is caught in a case of “standard black inner-city absurdity.”) 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.
Clarence Thomas speaks, which is novel indeed, but I’d rather listen to Beatty.
Last year offered many treats for readers: hotly anticipated new books by David Mitchell and Marilynne Robinson; the emergence of our own Emily St. John Mandel as a literary superstar; the breakout success of Anthony Doerr. 2015 offers more riches. This year we’ll get to crack open new books by Jonathan Lethem, Kelly Link, Kazuo Ishiguro, Kate Atkinson, Toni Morrison, Aleksandr Hemon, and Milan Kundera. Our own Garth Risk Hallberg will have his much anticipated debut on shelves later this year. Look beyond the hazy end of summer 2015 and Jonathan Franzen will be back with a new novel. All of these and many more are the books we’re looking forward to this year.
The list that follows isn’t exhaustive—no book preview could be—but, at 9,000 words strong and encompassing 91 titles, this is the only 2015 book preview you will ever need. Scroll down and get started.
Amnesia by Peter Carey: Carey’s new novel uses a cyberattack as the lens through which to consider the often-fraught history of the relationship between the United States and Australia. A radical hacker releases a worm into a computer system that governs both Australian and American prisoners. The doors of five thousand prisons in the United States are opened, while in Australia, hundreds of asylum-seekers escape. An Australian journalist, determined to figure out the motivation behind the attack and trying to save his career, struggles to get the hacker to cooperate on a biography. (Emily)
Outline by Rachel Cusk: First serialized in The Paris Review, Cusk’s new work is described by its publisher (FSG) as “a novel in ten conversations”, but I prefer Leslie Jamison’s description: “a series of searing psychic X-rays bleached by coastal light.” The woman at the center of these conversations is a writing teacher who travels to Greece to teach a workshop. Her portrait is revealed by her various interlocutors, beginning with her neighbor on a plane en route to Athens. (Hannah)
The First Bad Man by Miranda July: Miranda July, artist, filmmaker and author of the story collection No One Belongs Here More Than You, has written a debut novel about a woman named Cheryl who works at a women’s self-defense nonprofit, and, according to the jacket copy, is a “tightly-wound, vulnerable woman who lives alone with a perpetual lump in her throat.” Cheryl also believes she’s made love with her colleague “for many lifetimes, though they have yet to consummate in this one.” In her blurb, Lena Dunham writes that July’s novel “will make you laugh, cringe and recognize yourself in a woman you never planned to be.” While you prepare for the book’s release, check out The First Bad Man Store, where you can purchase real items that are mentioned in the novel. (Edan)
Almost Famous Women by Megan Mayhew Bergman: This new book is Bergman’s second short story collection, after her heartbreakingly humane debut, Birds of a Lesser Paradise. Her new collection takes inspiration from historical figures, women who attained a certain degree of celebrity but whose stories have never been fully imagined. We meet Lord Byron’s illegitimate daughter, Edna St. Vincent Millay’s sister, a conjoined twin, and a member of the first all-female integrated swing band. (Hannah)
Sweetland by Michael Crummey: The award-winning author of Galore returns to the land and the past of Newfoundland in his latest novel, which follows Moses Sweetland, the one man determined to stay on an island long after every one else has left, in defiance of both their warnings and their threats. As the Vancouver Sun puts it, Sweetland “demonstrates, as the best fiction does (and as Crummey’s novels always have) that the past is always with us, and that contemporary events are history embodied and in motion.” The novel also promises to be the best kind of ghost story, one in which memory and place are as haunting as the ghosts Sweetland believes he sees. (Kaulie)
Glow by Ned Beauman: Multiple prize nods for each of his first two novels have set high expectations for Ned Beauman’s next effort. If the plot, which slingshots through England, Burma and Iceland, is any indication, the new book will match the ambition of his previous work. The story kicks off at a rave in London, where Raf, a sufferer of a chronic sleep disorder, is trying out a new drug, the eponymous “glow.” The drug leads him on a quest to uncover a massive conspiracy involving a multinational named Lacebark. (Thom)
Honeydew by Edith Pearlman: Long a distinguished short-story writer, Pearlman emerged into the spotlight with her 2011 collection Binocular Vision. The new-found fame landed her a new publisher — Little, Brown — for her latest collection and a profile in the Times. It seems, in fact, that Pearlman is now assured the larger audience that eluded her for decades. (Max)
Binary Star by Sarah Gerard: An introduction to a recently published excerpt of Binary Star suggests Sarah Gerard has a reputation for tackling her subject matter with unusual ferocity. In her debut, she turns her attention to eating disorders, focusing on a would-be teacher who struggles with anorexia. When the story begins, the teacher weighs ninety-eight pounds, and she reflects on the parallels between her own compulsions and the hopeless alcoholism of her lover. Gerard heightens the intensity, meticulously listing what her characters eat and drink. (Thom)
Frog by Mo Yan: In the latest novel by the Chinese Nobel laureate to get an English translation, Mo Yan takes on the one-child policy, depicting the lives of several characters throughout the lifespan of Communist China. Gugu, a gynecologist who delivered hundreds of babies during Mao Zedong’s reign, finds herself performing illegal abortions after the policy takes effect in the late seventies. Yan also depicts the sexism of the policy — his characters work hard to have sons and not daughters. (Thom)
Watch Me Go by Mark Wisniewski: Wisniewski’s third novel channels the best of his profluent short fiction (Best American Short Stories, Virginia Quarterly Review). Watch Me Go speeds by with clipped chapters that follow Douglas “Deesh” Sharp, who helps haul the wrong junk: an oil drum that holds a corpse. Sharp does it for the money, and that bad decision haunts him until the final page of the novel. Wisniewski’s tale unfolds in the shadow of the Finger Lakes, New York racetracks, where, one character warns “in the long run, gamblers always lose.” Watch Me Go feels particularly apt to our national present, when police procedure is under constant scrutiny. Deesh is a victim of the system, and his redemption will only happen by fire. Wisniewski’s prose burns forward, but he knows when to slow the pace and make the reader feel Deesh’s injustice. (Nick R.)
Hall of Small Mammals: Stories by Thomas Pierce: Pierce’s stories are reminiscent of the work of Laura van den Berg: his fiction exists in a space that’s just slightly offset from reality, not quite surrealism but not quite realism either. A woman admits to her boyfriend that she’s married to another man, but only in her dreams; in dreams she and her husband live out an ordinary domestic life. A man who works for a sinister television show that clones extinct animals delivers a miniature woolly mammoth to his mother. Pierce’s stories are beautifully written and suffused with mystery. (Emily)
A Bad Character by Deepti Kapoor: “Delhi is no place for a woman in the dark,” Kapoor writes, “unless she has a man and a car or a car and a gun.” Idha, the narrator of Kapoor’s debut novel, is young, middle-class, and bored. Her car allows a measure of freedom, but not enough, and when she meets a somewhat unsuitable older man, the temptation to capsize her life with an affair is irresistible. Both a coming-of-age story and a portrait of New Delhi. (Emily)
Bonita Avenue by Peter Buwalda: Buwalda’s first novel, translated from the Dutch, traces the dissolution of the outwardly solid Sigerius clan, updating the family saga by way of technical intricacy, narrative brio, and internet porn. In the Netherlands, the book was a bestseller, nominated for a dozen prizes. The English translation has drawn comparisons to Jonathan Franzen and the manic heyday of a young Philip Roth. (Garth)
Lucky Alan: And Other Stories by Jonathan Lethem: Jonathan Lethem has made a career of capturing transition—whether it’s Brooklyn’s gentrification or his masterful blend of genre and literary fiction. He works with similar themes in his third short story collection, but this time, it’s people—not places—that are in limbo. From forgotten comic book characters stuck on a desert island to a father having his midlife crisis at SeaWorld, the nine stories in this collection explore everything from the quotidian to the absurd, all with Lethem’s signature humor, nuance, and pathos. (Tess)
Find Me by Laura van den Berg: In most post-apocalyptic fiction, the end of the world is devastating, but what if it were a chance for renewal and redemption? Laura van den Berg is the perfect writer to answer this question as she has proven herself a master of scrutinizing fresh starts in her short story collections, What The World Will Look Like When All The Water Leaves Us and The Isle of Youth. In her first novel, a lost young woman named Joy is immune to an Alzheimer’s-like plague sweeping the country. With society’s rules broken down, Joy travels across America in search of the mother who abandoned her, making new friends and a new world along the way. (Tess)
Satin Island by Tom McCarthy: McCarthy’s fourth novel introduces us to a “corporate anthropologist” struggling to wrest an overarching account of contemporary existence from a miasma of distraction and dream. Perhaps he’s a stand-in for your average internet user. Or novelist. At any rate, expect ideas and delight in equal measure (assuming there’s a distinction); McCarthy’s reputation as a “standard bearer of the avant-garde” underrates how thoroughly he’s mastered the novelistic conventions he’s concerned to interrogate – and how fun he is to read. (Garth)
Get in Trouble by Kelly Link: Link’s last story collection for adults, Magic for Beginners, was something like the Jesus’ Son of Magical Realism. Its publication nearly a decade ago won the author a passionate cult; since then, mostly through word-of-mouth, its excellence has become a matter of broader consensus. Get in Trouble, her fourth collection, offers a vivid reminder of why. Beneath the attention-getting levity of Link’s conceits – ghosts, superheroes, “evil twins” – lies a patient, Munrovian attunement to the complexities of human nature. (Garth)
The Strange Case of Rachel K by Rachel Kushner: Before she published her two richly accomplished novels, Telex From Cuba and The Flamethrowers, Rachel Kushner wrote three short works of fiction that are collected in The Strange Case of Rachel K. In “The Great Exception,” a queen pines for an explorer as he makes his way to “Kuba.” In “Debouchement,” a faith healer’s illegal radio broadcasts give hope to an oppressed island populace. And in the title story, a French-style zazou dancer in pre-revolutionary Cuba negotiates the murky Havana night. The stories read like warm-up sketches for Telex From Cuba, and they’ll be of interest to Kushner’s ardent fans and future scholars. Others will be left hungering for something new from this outlandishly gifted writer. (Bill)
Discontent and its Civilizations: Dispatches from Lahore, New York, and London by Mohsin Hamid: Hamid’s latest is a collection of pieces that he wrote for various publications between 2000—the year his first novel, Moth Smoke, was published—and 2014. Hamid has lived in Pakistan, New York City, and London, and in works ranging from extended essays to brief op-eds, he brings personal insight and thoughtful analysis to issues ranging from the war on terror to the future of Pakistan to the costs and the promise of globalization. (Emily)
Trigger Warning: Short Fictions and Disturbances by Neil Gaiman
Neil Gaiman is known for finding the fantastical in the everyday and the cracks in reality. So it should be no surprise that his third short story collection defies genre categorization, delving into fairy tales, horror, fantasy, poetry, and science fiction. Yet not all of it is unfamiliar: “Adventure Story” shares themes with his last novel The Ocean at the End of the Lane, and “Black Dog” brings him back to the American Gods world. (Tess)
Suspended Sentences by Patrick Modiano: Patrick Modiano, winner of the 2014 Nobel Prize in Literature, will get a belated introduction to many American readers through Suspended Sentences. Originally published between 1988 and 1993, these three atmospheric novellas share Modiano’s recurring theme: an attempt to understand the secret histories of the Nazi Occupation of his native Paris. “Afterimage” is the shadow tale of a young writer cataloging the work of a haunted photographer. The title piece is a child’s-eye view of the gang of circus performers and crooks who raise him. In “Flowers of Ruin,” a double suicide triggers an investigation into gangsters and collaborators during the Occupation. It’s a delectably broad sampling from a writer with a doggedly narrow scope. American readers should rejoice. Update: The release date was moved up following the Nobel win and the book has already been published! (Bill)
The Infernal by Mark Doten: After ten years of near-silence, we’re now in the full roar of fiction about the Iraq War. The most notable efforts to date have taken a realist slant, but Mark Doten’s first novel marks a sharp swerve into Coover territory: its key figure channels the voices of Condoleezza Rice, Paul Bremer, and Osama bin Laden. Early readers have reached for adjectives like “deranged,” “crazy,” and “insane,” in addition to the more usual “thrilling” and “dazzling.” (Garth)
There’s Something I Want You to Do by Charles Baxter: We don’t often want authors to moralize, but Charles Baxter is a fictional minister we have been devout to throughout more than a dozen works of fiction, poetry, and nonfiction. Virtue and vice are inextricably related in his latest short stories. The collection features ten stories, five about virtue and five about vice, with the same characters participating in both and all motivated by the book’s titular request. What Baxter wants us to do is note human frailty, ambiguity, and its shameful depths. As fellow master of the form Lorrie Moore notes, “Baxter’s stories proceed with steady grace, nimble humor, quiet authority, and thrilling ingeniousness.” (Tess)
The Last Good Paradise by Tatjana Soli: The author of The Lotus Eaters (winner of the James Tait Black Memorial Prize) and The Forgetting Tree returns with a novel about a ragtag group of modern people attempting to escape their troubles on a remote Pacific island. Come for the scenery, the picaresque cast, and the comic reflections on the vagaries of contemporary life; stay for, as Kirkus puts it, Soli’s “idiosyncratic prose style.” (Lydia)
My Documents by Alejandro Zambra: “Camilo” was both the first thing I’d read by this young Chilean writer and one of the two or three best stories to run in The New Yorker last year. It appears alongside 10 other pieces in this collection, Zambra’s first book with McSweeney’s. (Garth)
I Am Radar by Reif Larsen: Reif Larsen’s follow-up to the bestselling The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet takes off from a premise halfway between Steve Martin and Judy Budnitz: “In 1975, a black child named Radar Radmanovic is mysteriously born to white parents.” But the ensuing 650 pages venture into realms of Pynchonian complexity and Irving-esque sweep. Erudite and voracious, skylarking and harrowing, they follow Radar around the world and into entanglements with some of the worst atrocities of the 20th Century. (Garth)
The Half Brother by Holly LeCraw: When Harvard graduate Charlie Garrett starts teaching at Abbott, an Episcopal boarding school in Massachusetts, the chair of the English department tells the young teacher that his students “all still believe in truth.” LeCraw’s gorgeous sentences dramatize a campus where literature stirs young hearts and minds. Charlie falls for a student, May Bankhead, daughter of the campus chaplain, and makes his feelings known when she returns home from college. Love turns to lust, and later to jealousy, when Charlie’s half brother, attractive Nick Garrett, arrives at Abbott to teach. Nick catches May, who has returned to teach at the school. “I need to be here,” she tells Charlie. LeCraw never eases the emotional tension. The novel begins with an epigraph from gifted teacher-writer Andre Dubus, who says he “learned to walk into a classroom wondering what I would say” rather than planning. The Half Brother captures his spirit, and the result is one of the finest school-set novels in recent memory. (Nick R.)
The Country of Ice Cream Star by Sandra Newman: Newman’s third novel is set in a world of children. Eighty years ago, a deadly pandemic swept across North America, and now every child is born with the disease; they begin showing symptoms around the age of eighteen or nineteen, and die soon after. When fifteen-year-old Ice Cream Star’s beloved older brother falls ill, she sets out after rumors of a cure. It’s a compelling story, but the most fascinating thing about Newman’s book is the language: the novel is written in the kind of beautifully warped English that one might expect to develop over eighty years without adults, and the prose often approaches a kind of wild poetry: “We flee like a dragonfly over water, we fight like ten guns, and we be bell to see.” (Emily)
All the Wrong Places: A Life Lost and Found by Philip Connors: After the suicide of his brother Connors finds himself in, as the title of his second memoir promises, many incongruous and wrong places, ranging from a hot-air balloon floating over New Mexico to a desk at the Wall Street Journal. A kind of prelude to his debut memoir, Fire Season, All The Wrong Places helps to explain why spending a decade in mountain solitude was so attractive to Connors. It’s also a look at the wandering years that often follow early loss, and has already drawn comparisons toCheryl Strayed’s seemingly infinitely-popular Wild. (Kaulie)
Bon Appétempt: A Coming of Age Story (With Recipes!) by Amelia Morris : As anyone who has ever creamed butter and sugar together in a mixing bowl knows, the precision of baking can also bring order to your life. With a few failed careers and a dysfunctional family, Amelia Morris needed to learn this lesson, too. From her blog of the same name to this memoir, she chronicles her transformation into an adult and cook, complete with a good dose of humor and recipes. (Tess)
The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro: It’s been ten years since Never Let Me Go, so for Ishiguro fans, his new novel has been long-anticipated. His British publisher, Faber & Faber, offered up a somewhat oblique teaser early last year: it’s a book about “lost memories, love, revenge and war”; the website, which is currently just a (kind of intense) book trailer, doesn’t help much either—but then, if Never Let Me Go is any indicator, perhaps we’d all be better off without a lot of spoilery summaries in advance. (Tess)
Ember Days by Nick Ripatrazone: Nick’s lovely meditations on teaching, writing, reading, and faith have come fast and furious on The Millions since he joined the site as a staff writer at the tail end of 2013. Nick is prolific–he’s the author of two novellas, two poetry collections, a book of criticism, and a short story collection, which he somehow managed to write while teaching public school in New Jersey and parenting twins. His newest collection of short stories will be published by Braddock Avenue Books; you can read the eponymous story, a haunting number about atomic power and retribution, the title of which is taken from the Christian liturgical calendar, at Story South. (Lydia)
The Tusk That Did the Damage by Tania James: Tania James’s debut novel Atlas of Unknowns and follow-up story collection Aerogrammes were both published to critical acclaim. This second novel may be her true coming out. Says Karen Russell: “The Tusk that Did the Damage is spectacular, a pinwheeling multi-perspectival novel with a cast that includes my favorite character of recent memory, ‘the Gravedigger,’ an orphaned homicidal elephant.” The elephant is not only a primary character, but one of three narrators, who also include a poacher and a young American filmmaker. Ivory trading, poaching, an escaped elephant, a risky love affair, all set in rural South India and “blend[ing] the mythical and the political”—this novel seems to have it all. (Sonya)
Ashes in My Mouth, Sand in My Shoes and I Refuse by Per Petterson: Since Out Stealing Horses brought him international acclaim in 2007, many more of Norwegian novelist Per Petterson’s books have been translated into English, although not quite in the order he wrote them. Ashes in My Mouth, Sand in My Shoes, a collection of linked stories, was his first, published in Norway in 1987, and introduces young Arvid Jansen — a character he revisits in In the Wake and I Curse the River of Time — growing up in the outskirts of Oslo in the early 60s. I Refuse, meanwhile, is Petterson’s latest novel, published in Norway in 2012. It tells the story of Jim and Tommy, whose friendship was forged in their youth when Tommy stood up to his abusive father and needed Jim’s support. When they meet by chance 35 years later, they recall those painful events, as well as a night on a frozen lake that separated them until now. (Janet)
B & Me: A True Story of Literary Arousal by J.C. Hallman: Nicholson Baker’s characteristically idiosyncratic biography of John Updike, U and I, has become a literary classic. Now J.C. Hallman, himself a gifted practitioner of eclectic non-fiction with books on topics ranging from chess to Utopia, turns the lens on Baker. Publisher Simon & Schuster calls it “literary self-archaeology” and offers up comparisons to Geoff Dyer’s Out of Sheer Rage and Elif Batuman’s The Possessed, two books that have helped carve out a new genre of memoir that arrives refracted through the lens of the writers’ literary obsessions. (Max)
The Dream of My Return by Horacio Castellanos Moya: Castellanos Moya’s short novels are hallucinatory, mordant, and addictive – like Bernhard transplanted to warmer climes. And his translator, Katherine Silver, is admirably attuned to the twists and turns of his sentences. We’ve offered enthusiastic readings of Senselessness and The She-Devil in the Mirror. Here Castellanos Moya flirts again with autobiographical material, tracing the crack-up of “an exiled journalist in Mexico City [who] dreams of returning home to El Salvador.” (Garth)
So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson: There’s a robust online conversation right now about public shaming: when someone says or does something offensive on the internet, does the collective outcry — a digital torch-wielding mob — go too far? Ronson’s previous books include The Psychopath Test and The Men Who Stare at Goats, and he’s a frequent contributor to This American Life and BBC Radio 4. In his newest book, billed as “a modern-day Scarlet Letter,” he examines the culture that’s grown up around public shaming, talking with people like Jonah Lehrer, who shook the publishing world with several rounds of plagiarism revelations, and Justine Sacco, who tweeted an offensive “joke” before boarding a transatlantic flight — and had what felt like the entire internet demanding that she be fired before her plane touched down. (Elizabeth)
Young Skins by Colin Barrett: Ireland right now is ridiculously fertile ground for writers, though I guess that’s been said so often in the last century as to border on cliché. Still: Anne Enright, Paul Murray, Eimear McBride, Kevin Barry, Keith Ridgway…and 32-year-old Colin Barrett is, as they say, the coming man. This collection, winner of the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award and the Guardian First Book Award, wastes no motion in its unsparing look at youth and masculinity in the small towns of the west. (Garth)
Decoy by Allan Gurganus: In 2013, 12 years after the appearance of his last full-length book, Allan Gurganus published Local Souls, a collection of three novellas. One of these, Decoy, which Dwight Garner called “the keeper” of the bunch, is indeed being kept, appearing as a separate publication this spring. Set in the fictional North Carolina town that has housed much of Gurganus’s previous work–including his beloved debut Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All–Decoy deals in small-town social relations and obscure homoerotic longings. Gurganus, known as a writer’s writer (he taught Donald Antrim’s first writing class), is reportedly at work on another massive full-length novel, “The Erotic History of a Southern Baptist Church.” (Lydia)
Crow Fair by Thomas McGuane: A new release by gifted prose stylist McGuane should be cause for celebration by sentence lovers. McGuane long ago moved from the sardonic prose of his earlier novels (The Sporting Club) to lyric representations of the American West (The Cadence of Grass). In his own words: “As you get older, you should get impatient with showing off in literature. It is easier to settle for blazing light than to find a language for the real. Whether you are a writer or a bird-dog trainer, life should winnow the superfluous language. The real thing should become plain. You should go straight to what you know best.” The seventeen stories of Crow Fair model that sentiment. Start with the patient words of “A Prairie Girl,” but stay for the rest. (Nick R.)
The Last Word by Hanif Kureishi: British man of letters Hanif Kureishi, OBE, has been, variously, a novelist, playwright, filmmaker, writer of pornography, victim of financial fraud, and sometimes reluctant professor of creative writing. His newest novel takes on another man of letters, Mamoon Azam, a fictional lout rumored to be based on the non-fictional lout V.S. Naipaul. Echoing Patrick French’s biography of Naipaul, Kureishi (who has assiduously avoided drawing comparisons between his novel and Naipaul) describes an imperious and irascible master of post-colonial fiction and his hapless biographer. (Lydia)
The Unloved and Beautiful Mutants and Swallowing Geography: Two Early Novels by Deborah Levy: For those who loved the oneiric Swimming Home, 2015 will be a great year as three Deborah Levy books—one new novel and two earlier works—are due to come out. Her latest, The Unloved, starts out as a sexually charged, locked door mystery set in a French chateau, then expands into a far-ranging tale about sadism and historical atrocities. Beautiful Mutants, her strange first novel about a Russian exile who is either a gifted seer or a talented fake, and Swallowing Geography, a European road novel with nods to Kerouac, are being reissued in June. (Matt)
Aquarium by David Vann: Vann, whose work we have examined previously at The Millions, returns with a new novel in March. Library Journal offers high praise: “Since electrifying the literary world five years ago with his debut novel, Legend of a Suicide, Vann has racked up an astonishing number of international awards. This lovely, wrenching novel should add to that list.” (Thom)
The Harder They Come by T.C. Boyle: When precisely, one wonders, does T.C. Boyle sleep? In the 35 years since his first book came out, Boyle has published 14 novels and more than 100 stories. The Harder They Come is the usual T.C. Boyle clown car of violent misfits, anti-authoritarian loons, and passionate losers set loose in a circus of serious-minded zaniness. After being declared a hero for stopping a hijacking, an ex-Marine returns home to Northern California to find that his mentally disturbed son has taken up with a hardcore member of a right-wing sect that refuses to recognize the authority of the state. (Michael)
Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids, edited by Meghan Daum: Well, the title speaks for itself. “Controversial and provocative,” no doubt. This is the book I wanted to edit myself, so now I’m looking forward to reading it. Sixteen authors offer their reflections on this topic, including Lionel Shriver, Sigrid Nunez, Kate Christensen, Elliott Holt, Geoff Dyer, and Tim Kreider. Daum published her own story of not being a parent—but rather a mentor of teenagers—at The New Yorker back in September. The anthology’s title is likely both tongue-in-cheek and uncomfortably accurate; its cleverness, to my mind, is in the fact that the subtitle might easily omit the “not.” (Sonya)
The Animals by Christian Kiefer: Christian Kiefer leaves behind the suburban cul-de-sacs of his first novel, The Infinite Tides, and takes us to rural Idaho for his follow-up, The Animals. Bill Reed is trying to move beyond his criminal past by managing a wildlife sanctuary for injured animals – raptors, a wolf, a bear. He plans to marry the local veterinarian and live a quiet life – until a childhood friend is released from prison and comes calling. Aimed at fans of Denis Johnson and Peter Matthiessen, this literary thriller is a story of friendship, grief, and the desire to live a blameless life. (Bill)
Delicious Foods by James Hannaham: I learned of James Hannaham’s sophomore novel back in 2013, at which point I mentioned to him how excited I was—about the title in particular: “You wrote a book called DELICIOUS FOODS?!” “The title is slightly misleading,” he replied. His publisher gives us this: “[A]n incisive look at race relations in America and an unflinching portrait of the pathos and absurdity of addiction.” Delicious or not, the story of Eddie and his mother Darlene promises to be both “blistering” and “inventive”—not to mention timely. (Sonya)
The World Before Us by Aislinn Hunter: In Hunter’s eerily compelling new novel, an archivist at a small London museum embarks on a final project before the museum’s impending closure: she is searching for information related to a woman who disappeared over a century ago from a Victorian asylum. The project holds some personal interest: when the archivist was fifteen years old, a little girl whom she was babysitting vanished in the woods near the asylum, and the archivist has begun to suspect that the two events were connected. (Emily)
The Sellout by Paul Beatty: Back in the ‘90s, The White-Boy Shuffle, Beatty’s first novel (after several poetry collections) was one of the bibles of my adolescence – furiously funny and ineffably sad. Two subsequent novels confirmed him as a scorching satirist in the vein of his contemporaries Sam Lipsyte and Gary Shteyngart. His latest outing features, in a supporting role, “the last surviving Little Rascal, Hominy Jenkins” – but its deeper concerns couldn’t be more timely: the precipitating incident is the death of the hero’s father in a police shootout, and the ultimate destination is the Supreme Court. (Garth)
The Last Flight of Poxl West by Daniel Torday: Torday’s novella, The Sensualist, won the 2012 Jewish Book Award for debut fiction. In his first novel, The Last Flight of Poxl West, the titular character is a war hero and something of an idol to his teenage nephew, Eli Goldstein. Kirkus gave the novel a starred review, remarking, “While Torday is more likely to be compared to Philip Roth or Michael Chabon than Gillian Flynn, his debut novel has two big things in common with Gone Girl–it’s a story told in two voices, and it’s almost impossible to discuss without revealing spoilers. A richly layered, beautifully told and somehow lovable story about war, revenge and loss.” Rivka Galchen calls it both “brilliant” and “hilarious” and George Saunders says, “Torday is a prodigiously talented writer, with a huge heart.” I myself had the great pleasure of reading an advanced copy and I loved it. The final scene…what an ending! I still think about it. (Edan)
Her 37th Year: An Index by Suzanne Scanlon: Delivered in a series of pithy and emphatic observations, thoughts, and quotations, Suzanne Scanlon’s Her 37th Year: An Index examines love and desire and disappointment and writers and influence and ideas and passion and affairs and depression and writing and friendship and mothering and being a woman and aging. The potential excess of all this is balanced by its lean form, with each entry a vignette, quote, or observation. As a “fictional memoir”, Her 37th Year re-imagines form and redefines boundaries in a way similar to how Jenny Offil’s Dept. of Speculation revitalized the novel: the sum of its parts is flooring. (Anne)
God Help the Child by Toni Morrison: Morrison was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature more than two decades ago; her newest novel will be her sixth in that span of time, following 2012’s Home. A new Morrison novel, according to Slate, is “news that amounts to at least an 8 on the literary Richter scale.” It is, according to Knopf, “about the way childhood trauma shapes and misshapes the life of the adult,” and though it’s just 192 pages long, it promises to be more powerful than many books twice its length. (Elizabeth)
My Struggle: Book 4 by Karl Ove Knausgaard: There’s still time to jump on the Knausgaard bandwagon! English-speaking fans of Books 1-3 have been waiting almost a year for this translation, the fourth in a six-volume autobiographical novel by Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard — or just plain “Karl Ove” to those of us who have been following his confessional outpourings. Dwight Garner likened reading Knausgaard to “falling into a malarial fever”, and James Wood remarked that “even when I was bored, I was interested.” Book 4 covers Knausgaard’s late adolesence as he struggles to support his writing by teaching, falls in love with a 13-year-old student, and boozily greets the long arctic nights. (Hannah)
Early Warning by Jane Smiley: This is the second installment in Smiley’s Last Hundred Years Trilogy, which follows a single Iowa farming family and its descendants through the American Century, from 1920 to 2020. The first book, Some Luck, which Smiley discussed in a wide-ranging Millions interview last fall, covers the Depression years and World War II. The new book starts in the depths of the Cold War and takes readers through Vietnam and into the Reagan era. The final volume, as yet untitled, is due out this fall. (Michael)
A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson: Kate Atkinson’s 2013 novel Life After Life followed Ursula Todd as she lived and re-lived her life in mid-century Britain. In this companion to the novel, we get the story of Ursula’s beloved younger brother Teddy, an aspiring poet and celebrated RAF pilot, who leaves a war he didn’t expect to survive to become a husband, father, and grandfather in an ever-changing world. (Janet)
Voices in the Night by Steven Millhauser: A friend of mine keeps Steven Millhauser’s collection We Others by her bedside; she speaks of it, and Millhauser, like it’s 1963 and he’s a dark-eyed mop-top. Indeed, Millhauser inspires cult following: his stories do the impossible, getting way under your skin via immaculately simple prose and deceptively placid storylines. Voices in the Night collects 16 stories — “culled from religion and fables. . . Heightened by magic, the divine, and the uncanny, shot through with sly humor” – that promise to once again unsettle us with their strangeness and stun us with their beauty. (Sonya)
Gutshot by Amelia Gray: Gray’s stories come at you like fists wrapped in sirloin to pack a punch—they’re wonderfully idiosyncratic, visceral, and grotesque, with humor added for heft. Stories in her collection Museum of the Weird feature high-end cannibalism (eating monk’s tongues), a serial killer nicknamed “God” who cuts chests open and removes a rib, and a plate of hair served with soup. With the arrival of her next collection, Gutshot, Gray’s stories threaten to knock you out. (Anne)
Academy Street by Mary Costello: Bravo to Mary Costello, a “Bloomer” whose first story collection The China Factory I wrote about here back in 2012. Her debut novel Academy Street—the story of Tess Lohan, who emigrates from 1940s western Ireland to New York City—is drawing comparisons to Colm Tóibín’s Brooklyn and John Williams’s Stoner. Academy Street has already been published in Europe and received the Eason Novel of the Year Irish Book Award. (Sonya)
The Dead Lands by Benjamin Percy: Percy rides the increasingly porous border between literary and genre fiction in this post-apocalyptic thriller that re-imagines the Lewis and Clark expedition in an America brought low by a super flu and nuclear fallout. When word comes to Sanctuary – the remains of St. Louis – that life is better out West, Lewis Meriwether and Mina Clark set out in secrecy, hoping to expand their infant nation and reunite the States. Should be a snap, right? (Michael)
The Children’s Crusade by Ann Packer: The author of The Dive from Clausen’s Pier again displays her gift for delving into complicated families and the women who aren’t sure they want to be part of them. Narrated in turns by each of the four Blair children, The Children’s Crusade follows the twists and turns of the family’s fortunes from the day in 1954 when their father, Bill, impulsively buys a plot of wooded land south of San Francisco, through to the modern day. “Imagine, if you will, that Jonathan Franzen’s excellent novel, The Corrections, had likeable characters,” says one early reader on GoodReads. (Michael)
The Making of Zombie Wars by Aleksandr Hemon: His first full-length novel in seven years (since 2008’s The Lazarus Project), The Making of Zombie Wars is the story of Josh Levin, an ESL teacher in Chicago with a laptop full of hundreds of screenplay ideas, Zombie Wars chief among them. As Josh’s life goes from bad to worse to absurd — moving in with his girlfriend only to become entangled in the domestic disputes of her neighbors — he continues to work on the zombie movie that might get him away from it all. (Janet)
Mislaid by Nell Zink: Zink’s first novel The Wallcreeper, published by the Dorothy Project, a feminist small press, made a big splash last year. Its backstory provided the hook: a fifty-year-old expat writes a novel on a dare from her pen pal Jonathan Franzen. But Zink’s sui generis sensibility was the main event: taut, acerbic, and free. She moves to a major press for her second book, a decade-hopping Southern family novel that tackles race, sexuality, and the wilderness of youth. (Garth)
The Familiar, Volume 1: One Rainy Day in May by Mark Z. Danielewski: On the jacket of David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks is a blurb from Publishers Weekly: Is this “the most ambitious novel ever written or just the most Mitchell-esque?” One might ask the same question, mutatis mutandis, about Mark Danielewski’s The Familiar. Danielewski combines Mitchell’s fondness for formal innovation and genre tropes with an appealing indifference to questions of taste. At its best, this gives you House of Leaves, at its worst, Only Revolutions. One Rainy Day in May introduces us to “nine lives,” principally that of a 12-year-old girl who rescues “a creature as fragile as it is dangerous” – some kind of totemic/architectonic cat? Anyway, Volume 1 is 880 pages long. Word is, 26 more volumes are on the way, so this one had better be good. (Garth)
The Green Road by Anne Enright: Spanning three decades and three continents, this new book by Anne Enright centers on Rosaleen, the head of the Madigan family. Beginning in County Clare, the book follows the four Madigan children — Dan, Hanna, Emmet and Constance — as they set off on their own lives, travelling as far away as Mali to explore their adult selves. On Christmas Day, they all come home, and the issues of their family come back to them. In many ways, it’s a premise similar to that of Enright’s Booker-winning The Gathering. (Thom)
A Hand Reached Down to Guide Me by David Gates: In a year rich with surrealist romps and boundary-blurring semi-memoirs, David Gates returns with a welcome injection of “the present palpable intimate” in the form of eleven stories and a novella. Gates is a natural and capacious realist, at once ironic and warm, in a way that makes the ordinary ambit of experience, from marriage to parenthood to getting old, seem as trippy as it really is. (Garth)
Loving Day by Mat Johnson: Johnson’s Pym, an entertaining riff on race and Edgar Allan Poe’s only novel, took us all the way to Antarctica. Loving Day (the title refers to a holiday celebrating interracial love) is set in a less remote locale, a black neighborhood in Philadelphia, but promises to be no less hallucinatory than its predecessor. A mixed race man returns from Wales, where both his marriage and his comic shop have failed, to inhabit a ghost-haunted mansion left to him by his father. He soon discovers the existence of a daughter, and the pair is drawn into a “utopian mixed-raced cult.” (Matt)
The Book of Aron by Jim Shepard: While Jim Shepard was a student at Brown, John Hawkes told him “You know, you’re not really a novelist, you’re really a short story writer.” Thankfully, good writers can be terribly wrong. Shepard’s long fiction is as fantastic as his classic stories. Shepard has always been a writer who exists outside of himself on the page, and this Holocaust-set novel is no different. The story focuses on Aron, a boy from the Warsaw Ghetto, who joins other children in smuggling goods to those “quarantined.” The novel also illuminates the life of Janusz Korczak, the real-life protector of Jewish children in ghetto orphanages (he once said “You do not leave a sick child in the night, and you do not leave children at a time like this.”). Serious material requires sensitive hands, and Shepard’s care creates beauty. (Nick R.)
Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf: Kent Haruf, who died last year at 71, will be best remembered for his 1999 novel Plainsong, a finalist for the National Book Award. It was set in the fictional eastern Colorado town of Holt, which Haruf (rhymes with sheriff) returns to yet again for his last novel, Our Souls at Night, finished shortly before his death. It’s the story of a widower named Louis Waters and a widow named Addie Moore who come together in Holt and begin sharing the aspirations, disappointments and compromises of their long lives. One critic likened Haruf’s prose to Pottery Barn furniture – with its “rustic lines,” “enduring style” and “aged patina.” His legion of fans wouldn’t have it any other way, and Our Souls at Night will not disappoint them. (Bill)
City by City: Dispatches from the American Metropolis edited by Keith Gessen and Stephen Squibb: Drawn from an n+1 series of the same name, City by City offers an insider’s glance into the state of America’s urban spaces. The mix of personal and historical essays explore issues such as crime, gentrification, and culture in cities as varied and far-reaching as Miami, Florida and Gold Rush, Alaska. Described as “a cross between Hunter S. Thompson, Studs Terkel, and the Great Depression–era WPA guides to each state in the Union,” City by City provides a collective portrait of the American city during the Great Recession. (Anne)
The Ghost Network by Catie Disabato: Disabato, who has written for The Millions, debuts with a high-concept mystery that looks to be a lot of fun. Pop stars aren’t known for avoiding the limelight, which is why the disappearance of a Lady Gaga-like singer inspires two women to track her down. Racing around Chicago in search of clues, they find themselves decoding arcane documents and ancient maps rather than liner notes as the disappearance turns out to involve a secret society. (Matt)
Odd Woman in the City by Vivian Gornick: For a sneak preview of Gornick’s witty and unsparing observations of city life, please read Gornick’s “Letter from Greenwich Village” in The Paris Review (it’s also collected in The Best American Essays 2014). A master memoirist, Gornick’s latest is an ode to New York City’s street life, old friends, and the fascinating joy of “living out conflicts, rather than fantasies.” (Hannah)
The Edge Becomes The Center by DW Gibson: Following up his critically-acclaimed oral history of the recession, Not Working (the title is a play on Studs Terkel’s classic oral history, Working), Gibson’s latest oral history portrays gentrifying New York City from all sides. Gibson interviews brokers, buyers, sellers, renters, landlords, artists, contractors, politicians and everyone in between to show how urban change feels to those living through it. (Hannah)
Black Glass: Short Fictions by Karen Joy Fowler: Fowler’s 2014 novel, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, won the PEN/Faulkner award and landed her on the Booker shortlist, one of two American finalists for the now American-friendly prize. This year will see her 1998 short story collection, Black Glass, re-released in hardcover. The stories — with influences and references from Carry Nation to Gulliver’s Travels to Albert Einstein to Tonto and the Lone Ranger — have been described as “occasionally puzzling but never dull,” and “ferociously imaginative and provocative.” (Elizabeth)
Saint Mazie by Jami Attenberg: Saint Mazie is Attenberg’s much anticipated follow-up to her bestselling novel The Middlesteins, which was also a finalist for the LA Times book prize. Inspired by the life of a woman profiled in Joseph Mitchell’s Up in the Old Hotel, Saint Mazie follows Mazie Phillips, “the truth-telling proprietress of The Venice, the famed New York City movie theater,” through the Jazz Age and the Depression; her diaries, decades later, inspire a contemporary documentarian to find out who this intriguing woman really was. Therese Ann Fowler, author of Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald, calls the book “both a love song and a gut punch at once,” and Maggie Shipstead says it’s a “raw, boisterous, generous novel.” (Edan)
The Book of Numbers by Joshua Cohen: Cohen, 34, is as prolific as he is ambitious. Five years after his mega-novel, Witz (and three years after a lauded story collection), he returns with a long book about a novelist ghost-writing the autobiography of one of Silicon Valley’s new Masters of the Universe. The set-up should give Cohen’s caustic sensibility a target-rich environment, while the scope leaves his fierce intelligence ample room to play. (Garth)
The Festival of Insignificance by Milan Kundera: Fifteen years after the publication of his last novel, Kundera returns with a (very brief) story of four friends in Paris who talk self-importantly about “sex, history, art, politics, and the meaning of life” while simultaneously celebrating their own insignificance (Library Journal). While these themes may be familiar to fans of Kundera’s past work (of which there are many – The Unbearable Lightness of Being has been enduringly popular since its publication in the mid-1980s) it will be exciting to see fresh writing from a modern master. (Kaulie)
Muse by Jonathan Galassi: Over his long literary career, Galassi has done everything except write a novel. Now the FSG publisher, Italian translator, critic and poet has checked that off his list with a story that satirizes the industry he knows so well and sounds like an updating of Henry James’ The Aspern Papers. In the novel, a publisher tries to wrestle a famous female poet away from a rival, eventually securing a meeting in her Venetian palazzo and learning a revelatory secret. (Matt)
The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty by Vendela Vida: Believer founding editor Vendela Vida’s trilogy of novels about “women in crisis” becomes a tetralogy with the debut of her latest, The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty. As in her previous novels, the story involves a woman traveling abroad (in this case, Casablanca, Morocco). When the woman is robbed of her wallet and passport, she experiences distress and also unexpected freedom. The novel dips into All About Eve territory in this part-thriller, part-novel-of-ideas when the woman finds work as a celebrity stand-in and then begins to assume this alternate identity as her own. (Anne)
In the Country: Stories by Mia Alvar: Alvar is a frequent contributor to literary magazines—she’s been nominated twice for a Pushcart Prize—but this is her first short story collection. In the Country focuses on the Filipino diaspora, from Bahrain to Manila to New York. Alvar considers themes of alienation, displacement, the sometimes-troubling bonds of family, and the struggle to find a sense of home. (Emily)
The Dying Grass by William T. Vollmann: The one living novelist who makes Joyce Carol Oates look like a slacker returns with the fifth volume of his “Seven Dreams” series, about the confrontations between native people and settlers in North America. This installment swings west to investigate the Nez Perce War of the late 19th Century, and is rumored to lean on dialogue to an unusual degree. The first of the Seven Dreams was published in 1990; at this rate, the series should conclude some time in 2027. (Garth)
A Cure for Suicide by Jesse Ball: Jesse Ball’s novels are playful and clever and often quite grim, although this is not a contradiction. As he said in an interview: “a life of grief can be joyful too.” In his fifth novel, A Cure for Suicide, this again seems to be evident. A man and woman move in together: she is his guide and doctor who teaches him about life, defining for him the nature of objects and interaction and ways of being. That is, until another woman arrives and upends all he’s learned, making him question. (Anne)
Confession of the Lioness by Mia Couto : Couto, a Mozambican who writes in Portuguese, has for years been considered one of Africa’s leading writers, fusing indigenous settings and traditions with influences from abroad. His first novel, Sleepwalking Land, was named one of the best African books of the 20th Century; his most recent, Tuner of Silences, was published by the terrific independent press Biblioasis, and was longlisted for the IMPAC Dublin award. In Confessions of the Lioness, a series of lion attacks in a remote village forces an eruption between men and women, modernity and tradition. It’s Couto’s first book to be published by FSG. (Garth)
Music for Wartime by Rebecca Makkai: Fans of 2014’s The Hundred Year House don’t have to wait too long for more of Makkai’s clever and wonderfully imaginative work. Her third book and her first story collection, Music for Wartime offers a diverse array of stories, four of which are inspired by Makkai’s family history and her paternal grandparents’ involvement in 1930s Hungarian politics. (For more on this, check out this Harper’s Magazine interview with Makkai). Overall, the collection showcases the author’s talent for the short form–which has gotten her anthologized four (!) times in the Best American Short Stories series. (Edan)
Flood of Fire by Amitav Ghosh: Following Sea of Poppies (shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize) and River of Smoke, Calcutta-born Amitav Ghosh brings his Ibis Trilogy to a rousing conclusion with Flood of Fire. It’s 1839, and after China embargoes the lucrative trade of opium grown on British plantations in India, the colonial government sends an expeditionary force from Bengal to Hong Kong to reinstate it. As the force arrives, war breaks out, and with it a blaze of naval engagements, embezzlement, profiteering and espionage. In bringing the first Opium War to crackling life, Ghosh has illuminated the folly of our own failed war on drugs. Historical fiction doesn’t get any timelier than this. (Bill)
The State We’re In: Maine Stories by Ann Beattie: A new collection of linked stories set in Maine from one of the short story masters. Call her the American Alice Munro, call her a New Yorker darling, call this the perfect summer read. (Hannah)
The Marriage of Opposites by Alice Hoffman: In her 30 works of fiction, Alice Hoffman always finds the magical in the ordinary. Her narratives have roamed from ancient Israel (The Dovekeepers) to 20th-century New York City (The Museum of Extraordinary Things). Hoffman’s new novel, The Marriage of Opposites, transports us to the tropical island of St. Thomas in the early 1800s, where a girl named Rachel is growing up in the community of Jews who escaped the Inquisition. When her arranged marriage ends with her husband’s death, she begins an affair with her late husband’s dashing nephew. There is nothing ordinary about their son: his name is Camille Pissarro, and he will grow up to become an immortal father of Impressionism. (Bill)
Purity by Jonathan Franzen: There are few American authors who can hit all the popular news outlets simply by releasing the title of their next novel (Purity), or launch a thousand hot takes with the publication of one grumpy book excerpt in The Guardian (an excerpt which, curiously, is no longer available at its previous URL as of this writing). Franzen haters were derisive at the news of his impending novel (Gawker’s headline was “Jonathan Franzen to Excrete Book Called Purity”), described by its publisher as “a multigenerational American epic that spans decades and continents,” with bonus “fabulist quality.” But some people believe, privately, that Franzen is such a good novelist that his detractors must just be jealous. And for those people, the new book can’t come quickly enough. (O Franzen! My Franzen!) (Lydia)
City on Fire by Garth Risk Hallberg: We at The Millions look forward to reading fellow staff writer Garth Risk Hallberg’s debut novel. At over 900 pages, the novel takes place in 1977 New York and culminates in the city’s famed black-out. The Guardian reports, “The polished third-person narration conjures up a cast of characters living in a New York City divided by race and money – the reluctant heirs to a great fortune, two Long Island kids exploring downtown’s nascent punk scene, a gay schoolteacher from rural Georgia, an obsessive magazine reporter, a revolutionary cell planning to set the Bronx ablaze, a trader with a hole on his balance sheet and a detective who is trying to piece together the mystery which connects them all to a shooting in Central Park.” In anticipation of the book’s release, I suggest you dip into Garth’s essays here at The Millions, perhaps starting with his 2010 piece on long novels, “Is Big Back?” (Edan)
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Time again for another installment of one of our newer features, The Millions Top Ten. Check out the original introduction for an explanation of how it works. The new list:ThisMonthLastMonth TitleOn List1.1.Sister Bernadette’s Barking Dog: The Quirky History and Lost Art of Diagramming Sentences2 months2.2.26663 months3.-The Rejection Collection: Cartoons You Never Saw, and Never Will See, in The New Yorker1 month4.-Celine Dion’s Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste1 month5.4.Olive Kitteridge2 months6.3.The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao3 months7. (tie)-Knockemstiff1 month7. (tie)7.The Dud Avocado3 months9.8. (tie)A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again3 months10.5.Infinte Jest3 monthsWe have three debuts on our list this month.The Rejection Collection is a book edited by New Yorker cartoonist Matthew Diffee that, as its title suggests, collects cartoons that didn’t quite make it into the New Yorker. And it’s not that these cartoons weren’t good enough to get in, it’s that they were just a little “off,” too weird or even off-color to grace the magazine’s hallowed pages. We wrote about the book when it came out in 2006, and we also wrote about its sequel, The Rejection Collection Vol. 2: The Cream of the Crap when it appeared in 2007.Celine Dion’s Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste is another quirky addition to the top 10. It’s a part of the 33 1/3 series of books about songs. Carl Wilson’s entry, about a Celine Dion song, was singled out by Dan Kois in his Year in Reading post in December. Reading the book, Kois said, “was to be both inspired and filled with despair.”Finally, we also add Donald Ray Pollack’s collection Knockemstiff, newly out in paperback. Knockemstiff was another Year in Reading selection. Kyle Minor described the book as “Eighteen wild and wooly stories from southern Ohio, in which a lifetime’s experience is distilled to nine or twelve pages of the most thrilling sentences I’ve ever read.” And he compared it to Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son.Meanwhile, sentence diagramming tome Sister Bernadette’s Barking Dog remains at the top thanks to the enduring quality of Garth’s recent post parsing President Obama’s sentences.Dropping from the list are Susan Sontag’s Reborn: Journals and Notebooks, 1947-1963, Paul Beatty’s The White Boy Shuffle, and J.K. Rowling’s work of Potter lore The Tales of Beedle the Bard.See Also: Last month’s list.
Time again for another installment of one of our newer features, The Millions Top Ten. Check out last month’s introduction for an explanation of how it works. The new list:ThisMonthLastMonth TitleOn List1.-Sister Bernadette’s Barking Dog: The Quirky History and Lost Art of Diagramming Sentences1 month2.1.26662 months3.2.The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao2 months4.-Olive Kitteridge1 month5.3.Infinte Jest2 months6.-Reborn: Journals and Notebooks, 1947-19631 month7.4.The Dud Avocado2 months8. (tie)5.The White Boy Shuffle2 months8. (tie)6.A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again2 months10.8.The Tales of Beedle the Bard2 monthsDebuting on the list this month in the top spot is Sister Bernadette’s Barking Dog, fueled by a huge amount of interest in Garth’s post diagramming one of the president’s sentences. With that post still quite popular, don’t be surprised if this quirky title stays on our list for quite some time.Another debut is Susan Sontag’s Journals and Notebooks. This collection of writing from Sontag’s younger years was highlighted in a recent post by Anne that got some attention.Also new on the list is Elizabeth Strout’s collection Olive Kitteridge, a National Book Critics Circle finalist and a Year in Reading pick from Manil Suri. Those two mentions were quite brief, however, and the recent interest in the book by Millions readers intrigues us. If you’ve read Kitteridge, let us know what you thought of it in the comments.Finally, dropping off the list this month are The Savage Detectives, The Northern Clemency, and Netherland.See Also: Last month’s list
We’ve added a new feature to The Millions sidebar. 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 inaugural Millions Top Ten list, and we’ll be updating the list in our sidebar each month.ThisMonthLastMonth TitleOn List1.-26661 month2.-The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao1 month3.-Infinte Jest1 month4.-The Dud Avocado1 month5.-The White Boy Shuffle1 month6.-A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again1 month7.-The Savage Detectives1 month8.-The Tales of Beedle the Bard1 month9.-The Northern Clemency1 month10.-Netherland1 monthLet us know if you’ve been reading any of these books. We’d love to hear about it.
Before we get too far into 2009, let’s take a look at what was keeping readers interested on The Millions in 2008. This year, I’ll divide the most popular posts on The Millions into two categories, and we’ll start with the “evergreens,” posts that went up before 2008 but continued to interest readers over the last year:Hard to Pronounce Literary Names Redux: the Definitive Edition: Our “definitive” literary pronunciation guide continues to bring people to The Millions. I guess people really do want to know how to pronounce Goethe.Hard to Pronounce Literary Names: Underscoring the interest in pronunciation, even our first, aborted attempt at the pronunciation post remains popular.Food Fight: Anthony Bourdain Slams Rachael Ray: For whatever reason, there remains an abiding interest in the bad blood between these two food (and publishing) celebrities.A Year in Reading 2007: 2007’s series stayed popular in 2008.The World’s Longest Novel: Ben’s profile of this work of record-breaking performance art continues to fascinate.Why Bolaño Matters: 2008 was the Year of Bolaño, but Garth’s 2007 piece helped set the stage.The Reading Queue Revisited: My goofy way of picking books to read.Reading List: World War 2 Fiction: There are a few books still on my wish list as a result of this post.A Year in Reading: New Yorker Fiction 2005: My ridiculous attempt to catalog all the New Yorker fiction in 2005. Will I ever do it again? Maybe.A Rare Treat for Murakami Fans: Pinball, 1973: Ben dug up a link to a “lost” Murakami novel, and the post has remained a constant draw for his fans.And now for the top posts written in 2008:A Year in Reading 2008: It was a big hit this year.The Best Sports Journalism Ever (According to Bill Simmons): This fruitful list of sports writing links hooked a lot of fans.Big in Japan: A Cellphone Novel For You, the Reader: Lots of big-name outlets covered the cell phone novel story in 2008, but only The Millions had a translated excerpt.Haruki Murakami in Berkeley: A rare American appearance by Murakami generated many memorable quotes.David Foster Wallace 1962-2008: Few did a better job of trying to make sense of the literary world’s great tragedy in 2008 than Garth did with his compassionate piece.The Most Anticipated Books of 2008: Books we all looked forward to.On Our Shelves: 45 Favorite Short Story Collections: Short story fans can get lost in this one.The Most Anticipated Books of the Rest of 2008: More books we all looked forward to.Obama and the Faulkner Quote: In the most memorable election year in a generation, politics crept in everywhere. Even at The Millions.Google Settlement Could Change the Literary Landscape: Google continued to roil the publishing world in 2008.Where did all these readers come from? Google sent quite a few of course, but many Millions readers come from other sites too. These were the top 10 sites to send us traffic in 2008:Conversational Readingkottke.orgThe Elegant Variationmimi smartypantsThe Morning NewsThe Complete ReviewMarginal RevolutionMaud NewtonThe New York Times Lede BlogNathan BransfordFinally, we can look at our Amazon stats to see what books Millions readers were buying in 2008. Here are the top-10 books bought by Millions readers over the last year.2666 by Roberto BolañoThe Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot DíazInfinite Jest by David Foster WallaceThe Savage Detectives by Roberto BolañoThe White Boy Shuffle by Paul BeattyA Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again by David Foster WallaceHear the Wind Sing by Haruki MurakamiLush Life by Richard PriceThe Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll by Alvaro MutisThe Dud Avocado by Elaine Dundy
Gene writes in with this question:I currently teach a high school English course called 21st Century Literature, and I’ve hit a bit of a block these last few weeks in trying to put together this year’s syllabus. We currently read Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, Lethem’s The Fortress of Solitude, Zadie Smith’s On Beauty, and Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao along with essays from the likes of David Foster Wallace (“E Unibus Pluram”) to Chuck Klosterman (“The Real World”). We also look at some popular TV shows, music, and films in an attempt to get the students to examine the world in which they live with something of a more “critical” eye.So. I’m trying to replace Fortress for this year’s class, partly because I update the syllabus every year and partly because it was the one last year’s students voted out. My problem, though, is that I haven’t read anything this year that has really blown me away. And so I turn to you, Millions, for some guidance. I’m currently considering Bock’s Beautiful Children, Ferris’ Then We Came To The End, Clarke’s An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England, or possibly the new collection of essays State by State. My students are really intelligent, and so just about anything is fair game. What, then, would you add to the class to be read right after Eggers’ Heartbreaking Work?Five of our contributors weighed in.Edan: What a terrific course! Can I take it? Your syllabus thus far sounds pretty damn spectacular as is, so I’ve tried my best to come up with texts that fulfill a role that the other books haven’t. Of the four you’re considering teaching, I think State by State is the best, since it showcases so many great writers. While I enjoyed Joshua Ferris’s Then We Came to the End, I think a workplace narrative would be lost on most teenagers. Here are my suggestions:Willful Creatures: Stories by Aimee Bender or Magic for Beginners by Kelly Link: It might be fun to add some short fiction to the syllabus, and to improve the male-to-female author ratio. Of the many writers I introduced to my Oberlin students, Bender and Link were the biggest hits, perhaps for the magic and fantasy they inject into their odd and beautiful stories. Both writers provide excellent discussion fodder about the construction of reality, and about notions of genre in contemporary fiction.The Known World by Edward P. Jones: Still one of my favorite novels of all time, this is a historical novel about black slave owners in antebellum Virginia. It’s told in a sprawling omniscient voice, not a common point of view in these fragmented, solipsistic times. It might be interesting to compare this perspective to the more intimate first person narratives on the syllabus. Also, since your other texts take place in the time they’re written, it might be interesting to see how a contemporary writer depicts and manipulates the past.Look at Me by Jennifer Egan Published a few days before September 11th, this novel feels strangely prophetic. It also articulates, well before its time, the strange and complicated nature of online social networks like Facebook, certainly a topic of interest among high school students. The book tells two parallel narratives: one about a model whose face is unrecognizable after a car accident, and another about a teenage girl living in a long-dead industrial town in the Midwest. It’s equal parts beautiful, entertaining, satirical, and sad. This novel could inspire many fruitful discussions about identity, media, beauty, and representations of self.Andrew: Rawi Hage’s DeNiro’s Game is a tightly-written haunting jagged rush through the streets of war-torn Beirut in the 1980s. Now calling Montreal his home, Rawi Hage lived through the endless Lebanese civil war and writes this tale as a survival story, not a political polemic. The protagonists are ordinary young Lebanese guys – where ordinary means bombed-out homes, militias, snipers and rubble. No longer children, but not quite adults, Bassam and George flex their muscles amid the smoke and dust of a city that has been prodded and beaten by any group with a big enough stick.Winner of the 2008 IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, and short-listed for countless major awards up here in Canada, Hage’s debut novel throws the reader into a part of the world in the not-so-distant past that he likely has only seen from news images, and he gives these images human dimensions. This is a harrowing story of brutal youth.Emily: Although I wouldn’t say it blew me away, I submit Keith Gessen’s All The Sad Young Literary Men as a possible addition to your 21st century lit syllabus – not least because I think I would have found such a book personally useful had something like it been recommended it to me in high school. Its depiction of the social and intellectual chaos and disappointments of college and the post-college decade for three bright, ambitious, politically serious young men manages – oh, as I feared it might (for so many sad young literary men do) – not to take itself or its characters too seriously. Not that Gessen trivializes or denies the pains of his three protagonists, but he is exquisitely aware of the absurdities idealism and ambition sometimes fall into – particularly among the young. The character Sam is my favorite example of this: he aspires to write to great Zionist epic and has managed to get an advance from a publisher toward this end, but he does not speak Hebrew, has never been to Israel, and is a little bit fuzzy on Israeli history and politics. His best claim to the project is his extensive collection of fiery Jewish girlfriends. Like his fellow protagonists, Keith and Mark, Sam seems more delighted by the idea of literary accomplishment for himself than able to sit down and produce the stunning epic of the Jewish people that he imagines and more hungry for fame than to write his book (“Fame – fame was the anti-death. But it seemed to slither from his grasp, seemed to giggle and retreat, seemed to hide behind a huge oak tree and make fake farting sounds with its hands.”).Gessen has a particularly deft touch with juxtaposition – almost zeugma perhaps? – in his plotting and narration. The personal and the political – the sublime and the ridiculous – are cheek by jowl and often confused: Keith’s desire to sleep with the vice president’s daughter (who is in his class at Harvard and dating his roommate) is bound up with his desire for the vice president himself (Gore) to win the presidential election; For Sam, his intellectual work and his personal life are strangely aligned such that “refreshed by his summation of the Holocaust, Sam decided to put the rest of his life in order” and instead of wrestling with his genuine artistic problem (his inability to write his epic), he becomes crazily obsessed, instead, with his shrinking Google. I suspect that we will see better work from Gessen in the years to come, but for its humor, its pathos, and its willness to depict (and deftness in depicting) the humiliations and vagueries of early adulthood, I think it’s an excellent choice (particularly since among your students there are, I imagine, some present and future sad young literary men).Garth: This is sounds like a great class. I wish I’d had you as a teacher! One of the implicit challenges of answering the question is the tension between the need to appeal to high schoolers and the search for formal innovation. These two are not mutually exclusive; I vividly remember falling in love with Infinite Jest as a high-schooler. Still, some of the aesthetic strategies that separate contemporary writers from the hoary old 1900s (which are so last century) come at the cost of emotional immediacy. some of my favorite works of 21st Century fiction – Helen DeWitt’s The Last Samurai; Kathryn Davis’ The Thin Place; Lydia Davis’ Varieties of Disturbance; Aleksandar Hemon’s The Question of Bruno – may be a little too cerebral for high schoolers.I thought of several adventurous novels which are less formally pluperfect (in my opinion), but which might make a stronger appeal to this age group. Chief among them are Chris Adrian’s The Children’s Hospital, Uzodinma Iweala’s Beasts of No Nation, David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, Yann Martel’s Life of Pi, Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, and Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.Though I didn’t care for Beautiful Children, and suspect teenagers would see through its outdated assessment of youth culture, Then We Came to the End has an appealing warmth and good humor, as well as a fascinating first-person-plural voice. Ultimately, though, the two “21st Century” books I can most imagine teaching to high-schoolers are George Saunders’ Pastoralia (2000) and Paul Beatty’s The White-Boy Shuffle (1996).Max: Sounds like putting together the syllabus is a fun job. It’s interesting that the students didn’t like Fortress as much. I think I would agree with them on that. Though it was certainly an ambitious and at times entertaining book, I think it falls apart in the second half. I haven’t read Motherless Brooklyn, but I know it seems to have many more fans than Fortress.Thinking about short story collections, you could hardly go wrong with Edward P. Jones’s two collections – Lost in the City and All Aunt Hagar’s Children – Jones’s stories are terrific and offer a perspective that is quite different from Chabon, Lethem, and the rest of the Brooklyn crowd. Also, Jones’s The Known World is to my mind maybe the best novel of the last 20 years. Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides and Atonement by Ian McEwan also strike me as solid candidates, with the latter offering a unique and satisfying “reveal” at the end that changes how the reader thinks about the books structure (assuming your students haven’t already seen the film which, anyway, does the book a disservice in trying to render a purely literary twist via the language of Hollywood.)Gene, thanks for the question and please let us know what you select. Millions readers, please offer your suggestions in the comments below.
Tonight’s installment of the Pacific Standard Fiction Series here in Brooklyn features two Millions favorites: Paul Beatty, author of Slumberland and The White-Boy Shuffle, and Matthew Sharpe, author of Jamestown and The Sleeping Father. Books will be for sale on-site, and drink specials will be chosen by dartboard. The reading starts at 7 p.m. at Pacific Standard. Hope to see you there!Bonus link: Matthew Sharpe’s “Year in Reading” 2007
The “staff picks” shelf in any good independent bookstore is a treasure trove of book recommendations. Unmoored from media hype and even timeliness, these books are championed by trusted fellow readers. With many bookselling alums in our ranks, we offer our own “Staff Picks” in a feature appearing irregularly.Gates of Eden by Ethan Coen recommended by AndrewA treat for fans of the multiple-Oscar-winning Coen brothers, and for anyone who likes to spend some time in that grey area where the darkly comic and the absurdly tragic intersect. Published ten years ago, this collection of prose from the Ethan half of the Coen brothers comes from the same delightfully twisted mind that gave us rapid-fire gangster pastiches like Miller’s Crossing, and tough-talking old-time men-of-action like Michael Lerner’s studio honcho in Barton Fink.There’s a story of a boxer who never manages to lay a punch and who gets caught up in a war between rival gangsters. Another tale takes us back to Minneapolis (the Coen’s home town) where the Mafia have decided to set-up shop. There are some plays in this collection too, loaded with savagely funny dialogue. You can almost hear Steve Buscemi or John Goodman or John Turturro or any of the other Coen regulars sinking their chops into these characters.The White-Boy Shuffle by Paul Beatty recommended by GarthThis is one of those novels I loved so much circa my senior year of high school that I’m almost afraid to reread it, in case it’s not as great as I remembered. Thumbing back through the first few chapters, I’m noticing that Beatty shares a riff-intensive prose style with Colson Whitehead and Jonathan Lethem. Unlike those writers, however, he seems more inclined to pursue satire than high art. Still, Beatty’s natural emotional pallette – a kind of pissed-off innocence – and his poet’s eye for the absurd, pushes his story beyond the didactic. Narrator Gunnar Kaufman may transform himself from scholarship athlete to celebrity-poet-messiah (see? I said it was satire), but he remains, underneath, someone we know and care about… especially when we ourselves are pissed-off innocents. Is it premature to recommendThe White Boy Shuffle as a graduation present?The Keep by Jennifer Egan recommended by EdanThe Keep by Jennifer Egan manages to be both inventive and readable, character and plot driven, playful with genre conventions but also straightforward in its prose style. Egan draws you into a Gothic tale of an old, creepy castle, and the reunion of two cousins with a vicious secret between them, but it’s not long before the narrator announces himself as an outsider to the story (or is he?!), pulling another, wholly different, storyline into the mix. The threads of the various plots converge marvelously at the novel’s end, and you can’t help but love how fun this book is – fun and smart.The Modern Gentleman: A Guide to Essential Manners, Savvy & Vice by Phineas Mollod and Jason Tesauro recommended by TimothyNot all self-help books are beholden to the latest new-age or pop psychology craze. In The Modern Gentleman: A Guide to Essential Manners, Savvy & Vice, authors Phineas Mollod and Jason Tesauro offer timeless, entertaining tips on how today’s man can improve his wardrobe, grooming habits and love of literature, while keeping in mind his affinity for sexual intimacy, a day at the track and alcohol consumption. The book’s wit is second only to its practicality, from how to host a memorable dinner party to advice on handling inquiries from a potential mate about past lovers (charts included). The Modern Gentleman also makes for lively conversation when guests spot it casually displayed among coffee table reading material.Some choice excerpts:Honking – When lively conversation in the cabin boils over in delight, give a medium burst to alert the heavens to such joy.Swearing – There’s a high degree of cliche among cursers. Mix and match the filthy classics to create a string of fresh phrases that highlight your keen wit and local tongue.Hiccoughing – If at the cinema, suggest the hiccougher overstuff his mouth with buttery popcorn until breathing is labored and then insert one Milk Dud for good measure. While this procedure may prove ineffective, it is delicious.Bow ties – Never divulge to a rogue the bow tie’s true ease of knot – let’s keep it between us gentlemen, shall we?This book is both a lyrical masterpiece and a cultural gem.