Things We Didn't See Coming

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The Millions Top Ten: November 2010

We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for November. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. 1. Freedom 4 months 2. 2. The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet 6 months 3. 5. A Visit from the Goon Squad 4 months 4. 9. Super Sad True Love Story 4 months 5. 4. The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest 6 months 6. (tie) 6. Room 3 months 6. (tie) 8. Faithful Place 5 months 8. 7. The Passage 5 months 9. - The Finkler Question 1 month 10. 10. Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling With D.H. Lawrence 6 months November saw Booker-winner The Finkler Question, which we reviewed here, debut on our list. Last year's Booker winner Wolf Hall also landed on our list after being awarded the prize and ended up in our Hall of Fame. Speaking of which, another prizewinner, Pulitzer-winning underdog Tinkers is the newest inductee into our hallowed hall. Meanwhile, Freedom by Jonathan Franzen retains our top spot, while Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad and Super Sad True Love Story continue to surge higher on a wave of interest from Millions readers. Near Misses: The Hunger Games, The Imperfectionists, Things We Didn't See Coming, The Autobiography of Mark Twain, and The Gone-Away World. See Also: Last month's list

The Millions Top Ten: October 2010

We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for October. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. 1. Freedom 3 months 2. 2. The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet 5 months 3. 4. Tinkers 6 months 4. 3. The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest 5 months 5. 6. (tie) A Visit from the Goon Squad 3 months 6. 10. Room 2 months 7. 5. The Passage 4 months 8. 6. (tie) Faithful Place 4 months 9. 9. Super Sad True Love Story 3 months 10. 8. Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling With D.H. Lawrence 5 months October was relatively quiet for our list, with no new arrivals or departures, but Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad and Emma Donoghue's Booker shortlisted Room were our top movers, with both books continuing to enjoy significant interest. Meanwhile, the same four books remained ensconced in our top four spots, with Freedom by Jonathan Franzen still in the top spot, while Pulitzer-winning underdog Tinkers continues to find new fans. Near Misses: The Imperfectionists, The Gone-Away World, The Girl Who Played with Fire, Things We Didn't See Coming, and Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself. See Also: Last month's list

The Millions Top Ten: September 2010

We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for September. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. 1. Freedom 2 months 2. 2. The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet 4 months 3. 3. The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest 4 months 4. 5. Tinkers 5 months 5. 4. The Passage 3 months 6. (tie) 10. A Visit from the Goon Squad 2 months 6. (tie) 6. Faithful Place 3 months 8. 8. (tie) Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling With D.H. Lawrence 4 months 9. 8. (tie) Super Sad True Love Story 2 months 10. - Room 1 month Summer favorites stayed firmly ensconsed on our list in September, but Emma Donoghue's Booker shortlisted Room managed to debut on the list in the tenth spot. Edan recently offered up a compelling review of the book in our pages. Meanwhile, the top three spots on our list remain unchanged from the prior month, with Freedom by Jonathan Franzen still in the top spot. Garth's review of the book was published here in August. Graduating to our Hall of Fame this month was Michael Lewis' The Big Short. Garth offered up a a look at the book and n+1's entry into the financial meltdown post-mortem genre earlier this week. Near Misses: The Girl Who Played with Fire, The Gone-Away World, War and Peace, Things We Didn't See Coming, The Imperfectionists. See Also: Last month's list

Two Novellas

1. I've noticed an interesting trend recently toward what seems to me to be the deliberate miscategorization of books. Specifically, an insistence on the part of some publishers that practically everything’s a novel. I understand the reasoning behind it—novels, the argument goes, are somewhat easier to sell than either novellas or short story collections, and all’s fair in love, war, and literary fiction sales strategies—but it still seems unfortunate to me. There’s a good argument to be made that it doesn’t really matter what we call the work, so long as it’s good. I don’t entirely disagree, but all artforms thrive on diversity, and it seems to me that a diversity of form should be celebrated, not hidden. It troubles me a little to see diverse works given what seems to me to be an inaccurate label and sent out into the world in disguise. The small press Flatmancrooked, for example, declared Emma Straub's recent Fly-Over State (a wonderful book, praised elsewhere on this site) a “composite novel” on the book’s Amazon page, which I found puzzling: partly because the book was published by Flatmancrooked’s New Novella imprint, the name of which suggests a certain publication mandate, and partly because the edition I read was composed of a shortish novella followed by a longish short story, for a grand total of 77 pages. (Incidentally, every time I type out “Fly-Over State” I suffer considerable indecision over whether or not I should be capitalizing the Over, but that's neither here nor there.) It’s difficult to define the precise lines between a novel, a novella, and a short story, but the main difference, setting considerations of structure aside for just a moment, is of course one of length. There’s no such thing as a 3,000-word novel or a 70,000-word short story. Novellas occupy a shifting gray area in the middle. There are other, increasingly archaic subcategories, but who wants to get bogged down in the fine distinctions between a novella and a novelette? Regardless, the novella is among my favorite forms, and it seems to me a pity that we can’t just call it what it is. Steven Amsterdam's recent short story collection Things We Didn't See Coming was, rumor has it, marketed as a novel in Australia, and here’s where the question of structure comes into play. I have a hard time wrapping my head around the idea of Amsterdam’s book as a novel—the stories, each one a clearly-defined episode in a life lived out in a dystopian near-future, are too discrete; each one stands alone, with a beginning, a middle, an end. In other words, it seems to me that it’s a short story collection, although the lines between “short story collection” and “novel” can get awfully blurry sometimes—the stories in Things We Didn’t See Coming were much more linked than the two pieces in Fly-Over State, but not as interdependent as, say, the parts that comprise Jennifer Egan's spectacular A Visit From the Goon Squad, a work whose classification seems decidable by a coin toss: was that a novel, or a collection of tightly interwoven short stories? The book’s brilliant either way. But then, of course, there are the books that are impossible to categorize at all, that slip through not only considerations of length and genre but through the gauze curtains that separate prose from poetry and poetry from stage plays, and the literary world is richer for them. Terese Svoboda's Pirate Talk or Mermalade declares itself a novel on the dustjacket, which seems a stretch given certain whitespace/page count considerations—because here's the thing: can't we just proudly declare a novella to be a novella, when the form’s so wonderful, when there aren’t enough words between the covers to call the work a novel and it’s far longer than a short story?—but I don’t want to get too bogged down here. It’s a fascinating book and the length is the least interesting thing about it. 2. Pirate Talk or Mermalade is billed as a novel in voices—meaning that the only text is dialogue—about a pair of unnamed brothers who grow up by the Atlantic Ocean, raised by one of the worst cooks in modern literature (“Makes a person want to go to sea, your soup”), in a town where the hanging of captured pirates is a frequent entertainment. It’s the early eighteenth century, and the older brother has been sent to sea. The death of their domestically challenged Ma eventually drives the younger one to the ships as well, and their lives from that point until the day they’re stranded in the Arctic are a delirious blur of hangings, mutinies, piracy, lost limbs and storms from Nantucket to the Carribean to the Indian Ocean. There is cannibalism, a talking parrot, mermaids. I’m susceptible to books about the sea—my childhood memories include harassing sea cucumbers in tidal pools and conducting staring contests with seals—and this book had me from the opening: I’ve seen boats as big as this whale. I’ve seen gryphons the same size, with teeth growing in even as they were taking their last breath. You have not. And not a live one. I’ve been to sea, I’ve seen all you’re supposed to, being at sea. I’m sixteen, after all.” Dan Chaon calls Svoboda a true American original, and I believe he’s right. I’m enchanted, and yet in the end I find my reaction mixed. I think this book has some problems. There are moments when the action is unclear to say the least, and more seriously for a novel written entirely in voices, moments when it’s difficult to tell who’s talking. The brothers’ voices are very similar; at the openings of chapters, it’s often impossible to tell who’s speaking until someone says something to identify themselves, and then you have to perform that awkward hopscotching maneuver whereby you trace every second line of dialogue back to the beginning to figure out who said what. The issue could have been fixed quite easily by giving the brothers names. But there are also any number of moments where the technical issues are entirely unimportant, because the prose is funny and astoundingly beautiful and the characters feel fully alive. This book is something entirely new: a novella that’s also a sort of poetry, a poetry that’s also almost a stageplay. Pirate Talk is a strange and nastily beautiful book, frustrating because it comes so close to greatness, and I’m left with what must seem a strange response: I can’t say that this book entirely succeeds, but I want to read everything Terese Svoboda has ever written. In any form, at any length. 3. In the impressionism of the work, the gorgeous unsteadiness of form—is this fiction, poetry, a stage play?—Pirate Talk reminded me a little of Roberto Bolaño’s Antwerp, another novella in sheep’s clothing: Bolaño referred to it as a novel, but the volume weighs in at 78 pages and few of those pages are full. Here also is a sense of reading a new form, although the book's thirty years old. Antwerp is an impossible little book, frustrating and fascinating. There is a campground, a crime, a red-haired girl involved with the drug trade. If there’s a plot, it’s well-hidden. “The scorn I felt for so-called official literature was great,” Bolaño writes in the essay that precedes the book, and it shows. The book is composed of 56 numbered segments, some only a paragraph long. Antwerp was written in 1980, a time when a young Bolano was shifting his principal form from poetry to prose, and the transition between forms is incomplete. Some sections are slivers of narrative—“With instructions in an envelope, I left the city”—while others read more like prose poems. The first section begins: The kid heads toward the house. Alley of larches. The fronde. Necklace of tears. Love is a mix of sentimentality and sex (Burroughs). The mansion is just a façade—dismantled, to be erected in Atlanta, 1959. Everything looks worn. There’s a dreamlike quality to both novellas. I’m left with impressions of mermaids and polar bears, detectives, seaside highways in the rain.

Millions Top Ten: August 2010

We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for August. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. - Freedom 1 month 2. 2. The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet 3 months 3. 4. The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest 3 months 4. 10. The Passage 2 months 5. 3. Tinkers 4 months 6. 4. Faithful Place 2 months 7. 6. The Big Short 6 months 8. (tie) 7. Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling With D.H. Lawrence 3 months 8. (tie) - Super Sad True Love Story 1 month 10. - A Visit from the Goon Squad 1 month Three of the summer's biggest literary novels vaulted onto our list in August. Surprising probably no one, Freedom by Jonathan Franzen came out on August 31 and in one day was popular enough to debut at the top of our list. Two other literary superstars also debuted, Gary Shteyngart with Super Sad True Love Story, reviewed here, and Jennifer Egan with A Visit from the Goon Squad, reviewed and profiled here. Meanwhile, David Shields' controversial Reality Hunger ended its run on our list and graduated to the Hall of Fame. Shields wrote a spritied defense of his book for us and provided a supplementary and exhaustive reading list as well. Elsewhere, Stieg Larsson's second "Millennium" book, The Girl Who Played with Fire, got bumped from our list (though the trilogy's final book remains firmly ensconced), as did weighty fave War and Peace. Near Misses: The Girl Who Played with Fire, War and Peace, The Imperfectionists, The Gone-Away World, Things We Didn't See Coming. See Also: Last month's list

Five Apocalypses: A Particularly Catastrophic Summer Reading List

It's summer in the northern hemisphere, and The Passage is everywhere. As I waited for my flight at LaGuardia Airport a month ago, headed north for a book tour, Justin Cronin talked about his book on Good Morning America on a screen above my head. The Passage waits for me, in stacks, at all the bookstores that I visit. Cronin’s readings draw enviably enormous crowds. The sheer scale of the marketing campaign inspires shock and awe: there is a Passage iPhone application, of all things, and not one but two wildly-expensive-looking websites. All of this delights me -- I haven't read the book yet, but a majority of booksellers of my acquaintance seem to have loved it, and I like seeing good books and their authors celebrated. The Passage, in my understanding, concerns a post-apocalyptic world. A virus has turned most of the population into vampires; the few human survivors are hunted in a dark and hopeless landscape. In other words, this sounds like exactly the kind of thing I’ll enjoy reading. I’ve long had an unhealthy interest in apocalypse. I seem not to be alone in this morbid fascination; every year new wastelands arise on screen and in fiction, bleak and ruined worlds with their own sets of rules, their own catastrophes and their own unique monsters. Perhaps there’s something about experiencing the end of everything that helps us confront our own mortality. Perhaps it's a way of dealing with the unsettling truth that the end, all conspiracy theories and misinterpreted Mayan calendars aside, will eventually be nigh: even if we manage to escape nuclear annihilation or a pandemic, we orbit a star and stars have lifespans. And on that bright note I present, for your consideration and summer reading enjoyment, a brief selection of my favorite fictional apocalypses. 1. The Gone-Away World by Nick Harkaway This is one of my favorite books, and it concerns a disaster like none other in literature. "I am in hell," the narrator of The Gone-Away World tells us. "I am in hell, and there are mimes." The book is set in a world that has come apart at the seams. One or two of the best minds in science have devised a Go-Away bomb, the effects of which are difficult to describe in under two or three pages; the short version is that it makes things Go Away, in a capitalized, future-of-modern-warfare, vanished-from-the-face-of-the-earth-without-a-trace sense. But the fallout from the Go-Away bombs creates a vacuum in which the fears and dreams and nightmares of humans and animals are reified and come to life. This is a swashbuckling adventure story set in a dangerous and beautiful world, a surrealist post-war landscape where nightmares walk the earth. There are ninjas. Also, mimes. 2. Things We Didn't See Coming by Steve Amsterdam The nature of the apocalypse is vague. The first story -- this is a collection of interlinked short stories, reviewed elsewhere on The Millions -- concerns a young boy on the night of Y2K, and the stories that comprise the rest of the collection afford us glimpses of his life in the changed world that follows. Is this an alternate reality wherein the projected disasters of Y2K came to pass? Perhaps. Cause and effect remain elusive, but the grid has gone down. Later there are plagues and torrential rainstorms, pervasive cancers and volcanoes, draconian bureaucracies and flocks of refugees. Everything, it seems, has gone wrong all at once. 3. The Road by Cormac McCarthy I loved The Road. I also loved Jacob Lambert's hilarious send-up of it, but I loved The Road more. It seemed fashionable a few months ago to not love The Road, but what the hell, I thought it was good. A man and his child move through a world decimated ten years earlier by an unspecified catastrophe. It’s the bleakest apocalypse I’ve come across in literature. Most apocalypse narratives, I’ve noticed, make it easy to imagine surviving the disaster; you imagine you’d probably be among the luckier refugees in Things We Didn’t See Coming, among the survivors of the Go-Away War; but McCarthy presents a world that seems not just unsurvivable, but like a place you might not actually want to survive. 4. A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr. I came across this book nearly a decade ago, and was surprised to realize just now that I no longer own a copy. It’s a strange and entrancing story, the only novel that Miller published in his lifetime. The book begins in the dark ages of the 26th century, six hundred years after a global nuclear war has destroyed civilization. Illiteracy is nearly universal, but a small order of monks in Utah is dedicated to the preservation of half-understood books hoarded by their founder in the 20th century. The novel spans over a thousand years and reads as a parable of human folly: in 3174 a new Renaissance is underway, and electricity has been re-discovered; in 3781 there are once again nuclear weapons, and rumors of war. 5. World War Z by Max Brooks I’m generally not a fan of zombie fiction, but I picked this up in McNally Jackson in New York one day when I had some time to kill before a downtown appointment. Nearly a hundred pages later I was still reading on a bookstore chair. World War Z is presented as an oral history of the zombie war. An unnamed interviewer travels the world, interviewing survivors of the apocalypse: a pilot who went down over a heavily infested area of the United States while transporting supplies between safe zones, a member of a Chinese submarine crew who watched the end of the world through a periscope, a warrior monk from the evacuated islands of Japan. It’s scarily captivating.

Mirror Askew: Things We Didn’t See Coming by Steven Amsterdam

Don’t read this book in bed unless you want to stay up past your bedtime thrilled by the discovery of a new writer.  The collection of linked stories lasted me a week only because I loved the writing so much that I forced myself to close the book after each story and savor the experience of being enveloped by one of Steven Amsterdam’s thorough realms. The book begins mildly, describing New Year’s Eve through a boy’s eyes as his father panics about Y2K.  On the verge of adolescence, the narrator draws the reader into the tensions of his teetering personal world, and the world that teeters beyond.  He hits all the right notes of ambivalence and alignment as he carries the reader through his struggle to stay with his mother and grandparents, who believe nothing will change at midnight, or be with his father, who is sure everything will. I thought the rest of the stories would be similarly realistic, peppered with landmark events I might recognize from the last decade.  If I had paid attention to the title or the jacket flap, I might have had a clue, but I am happy to have been caught in a surprise. Things We Didn’t See Coming follows the growing boy through an unraveled world.  The uncertain social terrain of an ever-revising dystopia is revealed, and we get an intimate view of the narrator’s thoughts, feelings and loyalties as he matures.  The details of this place – necessary pills, strict division of rural and urban resources and spaces – and the just-beyond-now feeling of the scenarios are intriguing.  In one story, the boy and his grandparents escape the city.  In the next, he is older and on his own, clearing people out of suburban and vacation homes to make way for grazing livestock. The stories are compelling in terms of content, but the strong writing pulled my interest far beyond the subject’s what-if appeal.  The entire collection, which was marketed as a novel in Australia, is told in the first person, present tense.  While this is risky in terms of holding a reader too close for too long, the intimacy is off-hand because of the main character’s casual tone, and interrupted by spot-on dialogue. The voice delivers scenes in a conversational patter that is at once deftly easy on the reader and completely engaging. The author fleshes out environments without overburdening the reader with a museum catalog of elements, as in this stage setting sentence from “Dry Land.” “Inside, the place is all fake-rustic, patchwork quilts on the walls everywhere, a family of black skillets hanging over the kitchen counter, and the thousand-dollar appliances you can’t use since the grid went down.” Amsterdam writes paragraphs that are paintings of problems, like this report of a celebrity who is, at the time, the man’s employer. “Her goal, she says, is to connect the coasts and the north-south borders with great corridors of wild land – farms, forests, suburbs reclaimed by nature.  One day there will be no more cities – their shells will be ghostly interruptions of the new nation, which will be composed of rural communities linked in all directions.” Things We Didn’t See Coming is full of intensely imagined moments that smack of the human real.  In a story called “The Profit Motive,” the narrator is tested to see if he is fit to join a provisional government set to correct the mayhem that has reined.  We experience the sweaty discomfort of a situation where emotions matter only to the broader goal of survival.  We learn that he is “too old for theft,” and in this well-tossed phrase, glimpse with him back at his life. The final story stitches the beginning to the end as the narrator visits his father.  “The Best Medicine” describes a potential future while pointing a finger at problems that are happening right now. The tradition of exploring and reveling in the idiosyncrasies of human behavior in otherworldly realms is long.  This narrative habit works because the storyteller holds the mirror slightly askew, and we get to see all of our parts, good and bad. Amsterdam is an American who lives in Australia, and perhaps this displacement allows him a sweeping perspective on the whole business of being a person at the beginning of the 21st century.  The truths he shows in this mirror appealed wildly to Australian audiences last year, when a new small press first published it.  Things We Didn’t See Coming has been through multiple printings there, and won big literary awards on that continent.  Its recent release, here, in February, is echoing the acclaim.  I hope the book snowballs through his homeland and inspires him to create another stunning read.
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