My English department colleagues and I can spend a whole lunch break making fun of To Kill a Mockingbird. A literary roast punctuated by sarcastic regurgitations of Atticus Finch’s sanctimonious advice. Just, you know, take a walk in her shoes, dude, I might sneer, interrupting a teacher’s account of an encounter with a difficult student’s unpleasant parent. Most of us have to teach the novel every year, and our irreverence springs from discomfort. We’re tasked with teaching a book that doesn’t live up to its longstanding responsibility.
In ninth-grade English classes around the country, To Kill a Mockingbird is supposed to deliver a reckoning with American racism. In the 2012 documentary Hey Boo, Oprah Winfrey calls it “our national novel.” Written by a white woman, To Kill a Mockingbird was published at the dawn of a civil rights movement distant to high school students accustomed to dutiful but shallow observations of Black History Month. The teenagers of today, in my experience, chortle (and bristle) at racist memes on Instagram, explore trollish sectors of Reddit, and absorb frequent police shootings of unarmed black men. As a chronicle of our country’s racism, To Kill a Mockingbird is quaint, ill-equipped to deflect turds flung by an evolved state of bigotry. Even before the 2015 publication of a controversial sequel, Go Set a Watchman, and a more recent legal battle over Aaron Sorkin’s newly opened Broadway adaptation, writers have scrutinized Atticus Finch’s flaws, some suggesting that the novel be excised from high school curricula.
The problem isn’t To Kill a Mockingbird as much as how teachers have learned to teach the novel—the way our teachers taught us when we were in high school, which reveals more about our past and present relationship with race than the book itself. I agree with much of the contemporary criticism I’ve read (although not complaints that the book is too audacious in its message or raw in its language). Still, To Kill a Mockingbird lets students assail a book’s long-proclaimed importance, which is common in college, but less so in high school, where literature is usually presented as something to “get” more than attack. With To Kill a Mockingbird, I can help students, like Scout Finch, lose some innocence (and ignorance) about their country. A book exemplifying our ailments may be a better starting point than one that claims to have transcended them.
I teach very few black students in Marin County, a punchline for moneyed liberal dippiness, home of hot tubs with Mt. Tam views, elk reserves, and George Lucas. Yet my public high school’s student body is 65 percent Latinx, and in the days after the 2016 presidential election, a handful of these students reported heckling by town residents as they walked to school. Both white and Latinx students marched out of class in protest of the election results, but a contingent of white counterprotesters wore familiar red hats and swaggered among them. Three boys whooped in a jeep booming the late, racist country singer Johnny Rebel. Months later, a Latino student accidentally grazed one of their cars in the school parking lot. Via slur-riddled Snapchat posts, the owner of the car, let’s call him Darren, threatened to deliver a beatdown. After serving a suspension, Darren left school to avoid tension with classmates and teachers. His friends considered a retaliatory walkout. Some faculty fretted over Darren’s diminished college prospects while others wondered how bigotry could bubble over in enlightened Marin. But most knew racism had always been there—in the isolation of newcomer immigrant students, in the white students’ domination of student government and Homecoming courts. Brown students walk to the bus station after school as white classmates steer newish cars out of the lot. After the Darren incident, the school convened student panels and hired consultants to lead professional development lessons, but I figured that my approach to teaching could help heal my school too. From experience, I knew a classic (and mandated) text like To Kill a Mockingbird could make discussions less immediately confrontational. The responsibility felt even more urgent at the beginning of the 2017 school year when unrest over a Confederate monument saw a self-professed neo-Nazi kill a counterprotester in Charlottesville, Virginia.
In To Kill a Mockingbird, when a racist jury threatens to condemn a black man for a crime he didn’t commit, defense attorney Atticus Finch valiantly tries the case he’s supposed to throw, insisting upon the purity of an obviously flawed American justice system. “Some men were born to do our unpleasant work for us,” says Finch family friend Miss Maudie. Lawyers, like former FBI Director James Comey for instance, or former President Barack Obama, often revere Atticus. Perhaps in homage to both Gregory Peck and the character he immortalized, actor Casey Affleck named a child after him. In 2017, Atticus was one of the most popular American baby names, a testament to his towering status. Still, nearly 25 years ago, in my Louisville, Kentucky high school English class, the Finch family patriarch was badly miscast as a civil rights crusader. From listening in on the lessons of teacher colleagues at multiple schools, despite the recent critiques, I’m pretty sure many (probably most) teachers in the United States still peddle some version of the worshipful narrative I was expected to embrace at age 14: Atticus, a hero for his time (the 1930s), his author’s (the late 1950s and early 1960s), and our ever-shifting present.
This pedagogical tradition reflects a lazy analysis of the book. Transforming Atticus Finch from icon to naive man of fundamental decency but narrow vision doesn’t require a deviation from the text, just an honest interpretation.
For a well-read lawmaker whose family name is synonymous with fictitious Maycomb County, Atticus poorly understands how much bigotry shapes its inhabitants. He relentlessly, gravely sees the essential good in people who present to contemporary teenage and adult readers as various strains along the spectrum of villainous to ignorant and misguided. In the book, he’s almost lynched along with his client, Tom Robinson. His children are nearly knifed by a racist, drunk sex criminal Atticus refuses to ever consider a serious danger despite his repeated threats. When Jem asks about the influence of the Klu Klux Klan in mid-1930s Alabama, Atticus dismisses his concerns with privileged detachment. The Klan may have lost members in the late 1920s, but it didn’t feel like “a political organization” without “anybody to scare” to the families of four black girls murdered in Birmingham three years after the novel’s 1960 publication. In a mockery of evidence, Atticus supplies the story of a lone Jewish citizen embarrassing some faint-hearted Klansmen with the revelation he’d sold them the sheets covering their faces. Even Scout’s half-literate classmates (themselves young bigots-in-training) understand that “old Adolf Hitler” is evil, but Atticus makes a grand show of telling her and Jem that it’s not okay to hate him—or anyone for that matter.
As a member of the Maycomb County elite, Atticus has little experience with being on hate’s receiving end, and once he gets his taste, unlike Tom Robinson, he sustains relatively minor wounds: insults from Ms. Dubose, spittle in his face courtesy of Mayella Ewell’s real tormentor, and injuries to his children’s bodies that leave them bruised, even, in Jem’s case, slightly disfigured, but certainly alive. Atticus saves his fiery passion for threats to the courts (those “great equalizers”) because they theoretically involve white law enforcement officers, judges, and jurors doing the right thing; readers have no evidence the book’s events reshape his view of Maycomb and America. Considering Atticus emphasizes the essential niceness of “most people” to a convalescing Scout on the last page of the book, it seems likely, Go Set a Watchman’s unpopular revisionism notwithstanding, that Atticus maintains his status quo. He luxuriously learns nothing, hardly coming of age at all, and although Martin Luther King arrives in a few decades and America trips forward, it’s pretty clear that Tom Robinson will presage other deaths, real deaths.
Harper Lee gives students alternatives to Atticus. In her only appearance in the book, Lula confronts Scout and Jem when Calpurnia brings them to church for Sunday service. The Finch family housekeeper, Cal, has applied Atticus’s maxim about walking in the shoes of others, a worn piece of advice that most years I simulate by asking students to document routines in one another’s homes. At the town’s black church, where white people gamble weeknights, Lula is the sole member of the congregation to question the white children’s presence. Rebuking her, the congregation proves as welcoming as the white community is exclusive. At Tom Robinson’s trial, after Atticus concludes his stirring closing argument about the importance of fair courts, the congregation stands respectfully from their prescribed section. Does Lee mean to show that black people reject segregation because they know the pain it causes? That Lula’s separatist impulse mirrors the sentiments of white people who question her humanity and intelligence? Maybe we’re supposed to clap when the community backs Jem and Scout intruding on a rare black safe space for healing, for solidarity, for strength-building, but I prefer to have faith in Lee’s talent. For all her supposedly “contentious,” “haughty,” and “fancy” ways, Lula never reduces the humanity of Scout and Jem. She just notes that they’re invaders, giving them a tiny taste of what she has always known (and also pointedly asking if Cal is considered “company” at the Finch house). Lula and Cal would never be welcomed into a white congregation, regardless of who brought them.
Ironically, when I ask students to compare, in a response essay, Lula’s prejudice with that of white townspeople, typically a slim majority of them see no difference. To many, judging someone on the basis of skin color is wrong, and the power of white people to define and exclude black people doesn’t make racism worse than the self-preserving actions of black people. Maybe Lee wants us to see that prejudice is a two-way street (as some of my students claim in their writing). But given Lula’s limited screen time, Lee does too masterful a job at portraying her as powerless as well as impassioned, incapable of being heard by her own people, much less altering the white power in her midst, even when its envoys are two timid children. As Reverend Sykes harangues his congregation for abstracted sin with the same fervor as the white preachers Scout knows (and collects money for the Robinson family), Lula comes across as brave and realistic, attacking the essential unfairness of the scenario.
Students are usually surprised when I remind them that Atticus never explicitly denounces racism or impugns the characters of townspeople who revel in it. His warning that his children’s generation may have to “pay the bill” for crimes against black people smacks of fear, not hope. He stands against hate, but not, specifically, white people’s hatred of black people. Everyone has their blind spot, Atticus likes to say. Yet he proclaims to Jem that it’s “sickening” to take advantage of a black man. He places black people in the role of wayward children—ignorant, foolish, gullible. This is not an empowering message.
I don’t want to ban To Kill a Mockingbird. While there are novels I’d certainly rather teach, in her portrayal of Atticus and his community of hypocrites and bystanders, Lee wrote a book far more relevant than she’s often given credit for by teachers. Bombarded with daily evidence that the United States remains hobbled by institutional racism, a contemporary reader may come to a pessimistic conclusion: The noblest adult with any power in the novel offers up no assault on bigotry itself, just the notion a spectacularly innocent client doesn’t even deserve counsel. Chipping away at Atticus elevates the book to bitter tragedy, both about the legacy of racism in this country and our inability to identify and combat it effectively.
Every year, I am more enthusiastic about sharing Beloved with my seniors. Its “malevolent phantom,” far grimmer than Boo Radley, comes to torment a formerly enslaved mother who made the profoundly human decision to try to kill her children instead of allowing them to be enslaved. The horrors of Sethe’s past have scattered mines throughout her present, walled off her future, and fragmented her autobiography. The book ends on an ambiguously ominous note. Yet in giving us Denver, her (possibly) Oberlin-bound adult daughter who finally steps off the porch of the old haunted house at 124 Bluestone Road, Toni Morrison offers some hope. Even with Denver’s bedridden mother adding a question mark after the pronoun “me,” as if she’s not quite sure of the self Paul D assures her she freely possesses. Once incapacitated by fear of an enslavement she never experienced firsthand, Denver brims with potential, a reminder to students that tattered stories can be stitched. In contrast, To Kill a Mockingbird leaves wounds gaping and, more offensively, ignored. Tom Robinson’s hopeless trial and eventual off-screen death is, as Roxane Gay suggests in this recent NYT piece, a formative event in the childhood of a precocious white girl. His imprisonment and casual annihilation is swallowed up by Ewell’s attack on Scout and Jem. Tom’s wife and three children live on, and I always wonder what it’d be like to read their pain, to trace the vacuum in their lives. I ask students to envision it. Beloved allows students to imagine how the surviving Robinsons live with that vacuum and the accompanying bitterness, for generations to come. As Sethe says, some things go, pass on, others just stay.
Predictably, white students often clam up during the Beloved unit. “I can’t relate to it,” shrugged Nick, a good student, when I asked why his quiz grades on Beloved had slumped. He’d probably never wondered why his Guatemalan and Mexican classmates might have struggled to connect to 1984 or The Stranger. He could not find himself in Beloved unless he wanted to slip into the white skin of a slave owner, aging abolitionist cynic, or abused teenage girl. He was used to finding himself, if not in the behavior of Meursault or Winston Smith, at least in their bodies. Tracy, a transgender student who once pointed out the unfairness of teachers addressing class as “boys and girls,” insisted that slavery was over and that dwelling on its horrors didn’t help anyone. An English major friend from college has never read Toni Morrison, and when I once asked why, he responded almost exactly like Nick. Melanie, conscientious and quirky, seethed when I pointed out that the Bodwins’ boarding arrangement with Baby Suggs borders on slavery, and that Mr. Bodwin himself characterizes his radical political phase as a romantic episode that, by the end of the war, and with his advancing age, has lost its luster. Bodwin fights against slavery without understanding its evil. Atticus fights for the law without understanding the people expected to obey, serve, and be abused by it.
Race is such a severe line of demarcation for the quality and character of the American experience, white students find contemplating it daunting and disquieting and try to avoid it as much as most white adults. In an interview published shortly after the book’s publication, Morrison called slavery our “national amnesia” and suggested that she struggled to write Beloved because she felt like she was “drowning” in a history she’d gone out of her way to duck.
“We haven’t forgotten; we never knew,” says lawyer John Cummings in a short New Yorker documentary about the Whitney Plantation, the unique Louisiana slavery museum he founded in 2014. In his 2014 book The Half Has Never Been Told, Cornell professor Edward Baptist compares slavery to the first crucial years in America’s retirement portfolio; it juiced our economic strength and permitted political and military power to expand in the 20th century. Sharing such ideas over the course of the Beloved unit is my way of asking students to entertain the tattered narrative from which they initially recoil. What’s much harder is having them feel invested in its repair.
I’ve sometimes debated amicably with colleagues, the same who join me in tweaking Atticus, about the extent to which class material should be tailored to the interests and lives of students. To foster buy-in, teachers need to make material relevant. Sometimes that means students essentially only end up thinking and writing about themselves. Facing To Kill a Mockingbird, Latinx students often turn the discussion toward immigration. White girls tend to focus on gender, LGBTQ students on sexual orientation, and so on. As a conclusion to my To Kill a Mockingbird unit, I have students write appointed and elected officials proposing potential solutions to symptoms of America’s continuing struggle with racism. To date they have received responses of varying depth from Department of Education representatives and Sen. Kamala Harris’s office. When I assigned the project, students had no qualms asking if they could avoid writing about race and instead focus on marriage equality or the environment. One girl picked an alternative topic and submitted a letter without asking permission. The point of my assignment is not to strip students of agency. I want them to get out of their comfort zones and practice empathy. To imagine themselves in someone else’s shoes, as Atticus says.
My colleagues agree with me: a teacher can provide bridges between the unfamiliar and the known, but to be serious students (as well as decent human beings), kids have to learn to be curious and uncomfortable. They can’t loll in the padded cells of their own personal experiences and social media feeds.
I came to my current school from a school in Los Angeles that served only low-income students of color. When I made the move, I told a grad school friend that I felt a little guilty, like helping relatively more affluent students embrace their power and potential might make my work feel less meaningful. He saw no discrepancy. “Your white students need to understand power maybe more than anyone,” he said.
For six decades, To Kill a Mockingbird has been taught with the comfort (and power) of white students (and their mostly white teachers) in mind. Ensuring this comfort has led millions to an absurd reading of a seminal work of literature. It’s this misreading, and misteaching, ironically, that truly makes it our national novel. A To Kill a Mockingbird unit needs to be about the way this book was taught to students’ parents, and those parents’ parents, and why that problematic understanding of the book hasn’t benefited any generation. The repetition of the teaching mirrors the repetition of errors, from Selma to Charlottesville, the narrative tapestry shredding again and again. It’s good if, through English class, all students—Darrens as well as those they might target—come away with a rich understanding of how racism is foundational to America and how it affects the lives of black and brown people. It’s better if they recognize that all marginalized groups in the United States and abroad can find common ground. It’s a profound thing if they come away more empathetic, less likely to contribute, as a hound of Twitter or meme-sharing troll, to a culture of ignorance, callousness, and knee-jerk antagonism. It’s worth noting that Atticus, who preaches such magnanimity, never once suggests his kids slip into the skin of someone who isn’t white. Students in 2019 can learn from his weakness even more than his wisdom.
As you learned last week, The Millions is entering into a new, wonderful epoch, a transition that means fretting over the Preview is no longer my purview. This is one of the things I’ll miss about editing The Millions: it has been a true, somewhat mind-boggling privilege to have an early look at what’s on the horizon for literature. But it’s also a tremendous relief. The worst thing about the Preview is that a list can never be comprehensive—we always miss something, one of the reasons that we established the monthly previews, which will continue—and as a writer I know that lists are hell, a font of anxiety and sorrow for other writers.
That said, the technical term for this particular January-through-June list is Huge Giant Monster. Clocking in at more than 120 books, it is quite simply, too long. (If I were still the editor and he were still the publisher, beloved site founder C. Max Magee would be absolutely furious with me.) But this over-abundance means blessings for all of us as readers. The first half of 2019 brings new books from Millions contributing editor Chigozie Obioma, and luminaries like Helen Oyeyemi, Sam Lipsyte, Marlon James, Yiyun Li, and Ann Beattie. There are mesmerizing debuts. Searing works of memoir and essay. There’s even a new book of English usage, fodder for your future fights about punctuation.
Let’s celebrate very good things, and a lot of them, where we find them. The Millions, its writers, and its readers have been some of my very good things. I’m so grateful for the time I’ve spent as editor, and with all of you. Happy new year, and happy reading. I’ll be seeing you around.
An Orchestra of Minorities by Chigozie Obioma: Millions Contributing Editor Obioma’s debut novel, The Fishermen, is a merciless beauty and one of my favorites of 2015. I wasn’t alone in this feeling: The Fishermen garnered universal critical acclaim with its recasting of biblical and African mythos to create a modern Nigerian tragedy. His second novel, An Orchestra of Minorities, is a contemporary retelling of Homer’s Odyssey blended with Igbo folklore that has received similar glowing notice so far. As Booklist says in a starred review, An Orchesta of Minorities is “magnificently multilayered…Obioma’s sophomore title proves to be an Odyssean achievement.” (Adam P.)
Hark by Sam Lipsyte: In Lipsyte’s latest novel since The Ask, we meet Hark Morner, an accidental guru whose philosophies are a mix of mindfulness, fake history, and something called “mental archery.” Fellow comedic genius Paul Beatty calls it “wonderfully moving and beautifully musical.” While Kirkus thought it too sour and misanthropic, Publishers Weekly deemed it “a searing exploration of desperate hopes.” Their reviewer adds, “Lipsyte’s potent blend of spot-on satire, menacing bit players, and deadpan humor will delight readers.” (Edan)
Mouthful of Birds by Samanta Schweblin: Schweblin’s Fever Dream, published in America in 2017 and shortlisted for the Booker Prize, was, excepting Fire and Fury, perhaps the most frightening book of the last two years. Schweblin has a special knack for blending reality and eerie unreality, and she provides readers more nightmare fuel with Mouthful of Birds, a collection of 20 short stories that has drawn advance praise describing it as “surreal,” “visceral,” “addictive,” and “disturbing.” If you like to be unsettled, settle in. (Adam P.)
We Cast a Shadow by Maurice Carlos Ruffin: VQR columnist and essayist Ruffin now publishes his debut novel, a near-futurist social satire about people in a southern city undergoing “whitening” treatments to survive in a society governed by white supremacy. In a starred review, Publishers Weekly calls this a “singular and unforgettable work of political art.” For Ruffin’s nonfiction, read his excellent essay on gentrification and food in New Orleans for Southern Foodways or his work for VQR. (Lydia)
Late in the Day by Tessa Hadley: It took Hadley 46 years to publish her first novel, 2002’s Accidents in the Home. In the 17 years since, she has made up for lost time, publishing three story collections and six novels, including Late in the Day, about two middle-aged married couples coping with the death of one member of their tight-knit quartet. “Hadley is a writer of the first order,” says Publishers Weekly, “and this novel gives her the opportunity to explore, with profound incisiveness and depth, the inevitable changes inherent to long-lasting marriages.” (Michael)
House of Stone by Novuyo Rosa Tshuma: House of Stone is a debut novel by Zimbabwean author Tshuma. The book opens with the narrative of a 24-year-old tenant Zamani, who works to make his landlord and landlady love him more than they loved their son, Bukhosi, who went missing during a protest in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe. In his book review for The Guardian, Helon Habila praises Tshuma as a “wily writer,” and says that her book is full of surprises. House of Stone not only takes unexpected turns in terms of plot lines, but also bears no single boring sentence. It makes the violent political scenes and circumstance-driven characters vivid on the page and thus renders Zimbabwean history in a very powerful and yet believable way. (Jianan)
Sugar Run by Mesha Maren: In what Publishers Weekly describes as an “impressive debut replete with luminous prose,” Maren’s Sugar Run tells the story of Jodi McCarty, unexpectedly released from prison after 18 years inside. McCarty meets and quickly falls in love with Miranda, a troubled young mother, and together they set out towards what they hope will be a better life. Set within the insular confines of rural West Virginia, Sugar Run is a searing, gritty novel about escape—the longing for it, the impossibility of it—and it announces Maren as a formidable talent to watch. (Adam P.)
The Far Field by Madhuri Vijay: Searching for answers about her late mother, Shalini, a 30-year-old privileged woman, travels from Bangalore to Kashmir in search of a mysterious man from her past. In the remote village, political and military tensions rise and threaten the new community she’s immersed herself in. Publishers Weekly, in starred review, wrote: “Vijay’s stunning debut novel expertly intertwines the personal and political to pick apart the history of Jammu and Kashmir.” (Carolyn)
Thick by Tressie McMillan Cottom: A scholar who has earned acclaim both within her discipline of Sociology and outside of the academy for her book Lower Ed, on the predatory for-profit college industry, Cottom has a huge following that looks to her for her trenchant analyses of American society. Now she publishes a collection of essays on race, gender, money, work, and class that combines scholarship and lived experience with Cottom’s characteristic rigor and style. (Lydia)
To Keep the Sun Alive by Rebeah Ghaffari: A story of the family of a retired judge in Iran just before the Revolution, where the events that roil the family are set against, and affected by, the events that will roil the nation. Kirkus calls this “an evocative and deeply felt narrative portrait.” (Lydia)
Castle on the River Vistula by Michelle Tea: Protagonist Sophie Swankowski’s journeys in Tea’s Young Adult Chelsea Trilogy will come to an end in Castle on the River Vistula, when the 13-year-old magician journeys from her home in Massachusetts to Poland, the birthplace of her friend “the gruff, filthy mermaid Syrena.” Tea is an author familiar with magic, having penned Modern Tarot: Connecting with Your Higher Self through the Wisdom of the Cards, and she promises to bring a similar sense of the supernatural in Sophie’s concluding adventures. (Ed)
Mothers by Chris Power: Smooth and direct prose makes Power’s debut story collection an entrancing read. In “Portals,” the narrator meets Monica, a dancer from Spain, and her boyfriend. “We drank a lot and told stories.” A year later, Monica messages the narrator and says she wants to meet up—and is newly single. Power pushes through the narration, as if we have been confidently shuffled into a room to capture the most illuminating moments of a relationship. Lying on the grass together, Monica stares at the narrator as she rolls onto her back. “It was an invitation, but I hesitated. This was exactly what I had come for, but now the tiny space between us felt unbridgeable.” Mothers is full of those sharp moments of our lives: the pulse of joy, the sting of regret. (Nick R.)
Nobody’s Looking At You by Janet Malcolm: This essay collection is a worthy follow-up to Malcolm’s Forty-One False Starts, which was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for Criticism. In this new collection, readers can catch up on the masterful profiles of Eileen Fisher, Rachel Maddow, and Yuju Wang they may have missed in The New Yorker, as well as book reviews and literary criticism. (Hannah)
Talent by Juliet Lapidos: This debut is a literary mystery/campus novel set into motion by a graduate student, Anna Brisker, who can’t finish her dissertation on “an intellectual history of inspiration.” When Anna crosses paths with the niece of a deceased writer famous for his writer’s block, she’s thrilled to discover that the eminent writer has left behind unfinished work. Anna thinks she’s found the perfect case study for her thesis, but soon learns that the niece’s motives aren’t what they seem and that the author’s papers aren’t so easily interpreted. (Hannah)
Golden State by Ben Winters: With The Last Policemen Trilogy and Underground Airlines, Winters has made a career of blending speculative fiction with detective noir. His next in that vein is Golden State, a novel set in California in the not-too-distant future—an independent state where untruth is the greatest offense. Laszlo Ratesic works as a Speculator, a state force with special abilities to sense lies. (Janet)
Hear Our Defeats by Laurent Gaudé: Prix Goncourt winning French playwright Gaudé’s philosophical meditation on human foibles and violence makes its English language debut. Bracketed around the romance of a French intelligence officer and an Iraqi archeologist, the former in pursuit of an American narco-trafficker and the latter attempting to preserve sites from ISIS, Hear Our Defeats ultimately ranges across history, including interludes from Ulysses S. Grant pushing into Virginia and Hannibal’s invasion of Rome. (Ed)
You Know You Want This by Kristen Roupenian: The short story collection whose centerpiece is “Cat Person,” the viral sensation that had millions of people identifying with/fearing/decrying/loving/debating a work of short fiction last year. (Lydia)
Last Night in Nuuk by Niviaq Korneliussen: This writer from Greenland was 22 when she won a prestigious writing prize, and her subsequent debut novel took the country by storm. Now available for U.S. readers, a profile in The New Yorker calls the novel “a work of a strikingly modern sensibility—a stream-of-consciousness story of five queer protagonists confronting their identities in twenty-first-century Greenlandic culture.” (Lydia)
Dreyer’s English by Benjamin Dreyer: A guide to usage by a long-time Random House copyeditor that seems destined to become a classic (please don’t copyedit this sentence). George Saunders calls it “A mind-blower—sure to jumpstart any writing project, just by exposing you, the writer, to Dreyer’s astonishing level of sentence-awareness.” (Lydia)
Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James: Following up his Man Booker Prize for A Brief History of Seven Killings, James has written the first book in what is to be an epic trilogy that is part Lord of the Rings, part Game of Thrones, and part Black Panther. In this first volume, a band of mercenaries—made up of a witch, a giant, a buffalo, a shape-shifter, and a bounty hunter who can track anyone by smell (his name is Tracker)—are hired to find a boy, missing for three years, who holds special interest for the king. (Janet)
Where Reasons End by Yiyun Li: Where Reasons End is the latest novel by the critically acclaimed author of Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life. Li creates this fictional space where a mother can have an eternal, carefree conversation with her child Nikolai, who commits suicide at the age of 16. Suffused with intimacy and deepest sorrows, the book captures the affections and complexity of parenthood in a way that has never been portrayed before. (Jianan)
The Collected Schizophrenias by Esmé Weijun Wang: Wang writes brilliantly and beautifully about lives lived with mental illness. Her first novel, The Border of Paradise, traces a family through generations, revealing the ways each becomes inheritors of the previous generation’s isolation and depression. In The Collected Schizophrenias, her first essay collection (for which she was awarded the Whiting Award and Greywolf Nonfiction Prize), Wang draws from her experience as both patient and speaker/advocate navigating the vagaries of the mental healthcare system while also shedding light on the ways it robs patients of autonomy. What’s most astonishing is how Wang writes with such intelligence, insight, and care about her own struggle to remain functional while living with schizoaffective disorder. (Anne)
American Spy by Lauren Wilkinson: It’s the mid-1980s and American Cold War adventurism has set its sights on the emerging west African republic of Burkina Faso. There’s only one problem: the agent sent to help swing things America’s way is having second, and third, thoughts. The result is an engaging and intelligent stew of espionage and post-colonial political agency, but more important, a confessional account examining our baser selves and our unscratchable itch to fight wars that cannot be won. (Il’ja)
Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli: The two-time
finalist for the National Book Critic’s Circle Award has written a road novel
for America in the 21st century. In the book, a family of four set out from their home in New York to visit a place in Arizona called Apacheria, a.k.a. the region once inhabited by the Apache tribe. On their way down south, the family reveals their own set of long-simmering conflicts, while the radio gives updates on an “immigration crisis” at the border. (Thom)
The White Book by Han Kang (translated by Deborah Smith): In 2016, Kang’s stunning
novel The Vegetarian won the Man Booker Prize; in 2018, she drew Man Booker attention again with her autobiographical work The White Book. There are loose connections between the two—both concern sisters, for one, and loss, and both feature Han’s beautiful, spare prose—but The White Book is less a
conventional story and more like a meditation in fragments. Written about and to the narrator’s older sister, who died as a newborn, and about the white objects of grief, Han’s work has been likened to “a secular prayer book,” one that “investigates the fragility, beauty and strangeness of life.” (Kaulie)
Bangkok Wakes to Rainby Pitchaya Sudbanthad: NYFA Fellow Sudbanthad’s debut novel, Bangkok Wakes to Rain, has already been
hailed as “important, ambitious, and accomplished,” by Mohsin Hamid, and a book
that “brilliantly sounds the resonant pulse of the city in a wise and far-reaching meditation on home,” by Claire Vaye Watkins. This polyphonic novel follows myriad characters—from a self-exiled jazz pianist to a former student
revolutionary—through the thresholds of Bangkok’s past, present, and future. Sudbanthad, who splits his time between Bangkok and New York, says he wrote the novel by letting his mind wander the city of his birth: “I arrived at the site of a house that, to me, became a theatrical stage where characters…entered and left; I followed them, like a clandestine voyeur, across time and worlds, old and new.” (Anne)
The Source of Self-Regard by Toni Morrison: A new collection of nonfiction–speeches, essays, criticism, and reflections–from the Nobel-prize winning Morrison. Publishers Weekly says “”Some superb pieces headline this rich collection…Prescient and highly relevant to the present political moment…” (Lydia)
Spirit of Science Fiction by Roberto Bolano: Spirit of Science Fiction is a novel by the critically acclaimed author of 2666, Bolano, translated by Natasha Wimmer. Apparently it is a tale about two young poets aspiring to find their positions in the literary world. But the literary world in Bolano’s sense is also a world of revolution, fame, ambition, and more so of sex and love. Like Bolano’s previous fiction, Spirit of Science Fiction is a Byzantine maze of strange and beautiful life adventures that never fails to provide readers with intellectual and emotional satisfaction. (Jianan)
Bowlaway by Elizabeth McCracken: It’s hard to believe it’sbeen 20 years since McCracken published her first novel, The Giant’s House,perhaps because, since then, she’s given us two brilliant short storycollections and one of the most powerful memoirs in recent memory. Her fanswill no doubt rejoice at the arrival of this second novel, which follows threegenerations of a family in a small New England town. Bowlaway refers to acandlestick bowling alley that Publishers Weekly, in its starred review, calls“almost a character, reflecting the vicissitudes of history that determineprosperity or its opposite.” In its own starred review, Kirkus praisesMcCracken’s “psychological acuity.” (Edan)
Good Will Come from the Sea by Christos Ikonomou (translated by Karen Emmerich): In the same way that Greece was supposedly the primogeniture of Western civilization, the modern nation has prefigured over the last decade in much of what defines our current era. Economic hardship, austerity, and the rise of political radicalism are all manifest in the Greece explored by Ikonomou in his short story collection Good Will Come from the Sea. These four interlocked stories explore modern Greece as it exists on the frontlines of both the refugee crisis and scarcity economics. Ikonomou’s stories aren’t about the Greece of chauvinistic nostalgia; as he told an interviewer in 2015 his characters “don’t love the Acropolis; they don’t know what it means,” for it’s superficial “to feel just pride;” rather, the author wishes to “write about the human condition,” and so he does. (Ed)
The Heavens by Sandra Newman: This novel connects analternate universe New York in the year 2000 with Elizabethan England, througha woman who believes she has one foot in each era. A fascinating-soundingromance about art, illness, destiny, and history. In a starred review, Kirkuscalls this “a complex, unmissable work from a writer who deserves wideacclaim.” (Lydia)
All My Goodbyes by Mariana Dimópulos (translated by Alice Whitmore): Argentinian writer Dimópulos’s first book in English is a novel that focuses on a narrator who has been traveling for a decade. The narrator reflects on her habit of leaving family, countries, and lovers. And when she decides to commit to a relationship, her lover is murdered, adding a haunting and sorrowful quality to her interiority. Julie Buntin writes, “The scattered pieces of her story—each of them wonderfully distinct, laced with insight, violence, and sensuality—cohere into a profound evocation of restlessness, of the sublime and imprisoning act of letting go.” (Zoë)
The Hundred Wells of Salaga by Ayesha Harruna Attah: An account of 19th-century Ghana, the novel follows twoyoung girls, Wurche and Aminah, who live in the titular city which is a notoriouscenter preparing people for sale as slaves to Europeans and Americans. Attah’s novelgives a texture and specificity to the anonymous tales of the Middle Passage,with critic Nadifa Mohamad writing in The Guardian that “One of the strengthsof the novel is that it complicates the idea of what ‘African history’ is.”(Ed)
The Age of Light by Whitney Scharer: This much sought-afterdebut, which was the object of a bidding war, is based on the life of LeeMiller, a Vogue model turned photographer who decided she would rather “take apicture than be one.” The novel focuses on Miller’s tumultuous romance withphotographer Man Ray in early 1930s Paris, as Miller made the transition frommuse to artist. Early reviews suggests that the novel more than lives up to itspromise, with readers extolling its complicated heroine and page-turningpacing. (Hannah)
Northern Lights by Raymond Strom: A story about the struggle for survival in a small town in Minnesota, the novel follows the androgynous teen run-away ShaneStephenson who is searching in Holm, Minn., for the mother who abandonedhim. Shane finds belonging among the adrift and addicted of the crumbling town,but he also finds bigotry and hatred. (Ed)
Adèle by Leila Slimani (translated by Sam Taylor): Slimani, who won the Prix Goncourtin 2016, became famous after publishing Dans le jardin de l’ogre, which is nowbeing translated and published in English as Adèle. The French-Morocconnovelist’s debut tells the story of a titular heroine whose burgeoning sexaddiction threatens to ruin her life. Upon winning an award in Morocco for thenovel, Slimani said its primary focus is her character’s “loss of self.” (Thom)
The Nine Cloud Dream by Kim Man-Jung (translated by Heinz Insu Fenkl): Known as “one of the most beloved masterpieces in Korean literature,” The Nine Cloud Dream (also known as Kuunmong) takes readers on a journey reminiscent of Dante’s Inferno combining aspects of Buddhism, Taoism, and indigenous Korean shamanic religions in a 17th-century tale, which, rare in Buddhist texts, includes strong representation of women. Accompanied by gorgeous illustrations and an introduction, notations, and translation done by one of my favorite translators, Heinz Insu Fenkl. Akin to Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha, an intriguing read for readers interested in Buddhism, Korea, and mindfulness. (Marie Myung-Ok)
Notes From a Black Woman’s Diary by Kathleen Collins: Notlong after completing her first feature film, Losing Ground, in 1982, Collins died from breast cancer at age 46. In 2017, her short story collectionabout the lives and loves of black Americans in the 1960s, Whatever Happened toInterracial Love?, was published to ringing critical acclaim. Now comes NotesFrom a Black Woman’s Diary, which is much more than the title suggests. Inaddition to autobiographical material, the book includes fiction, plays,excerpts from an unfinished novel, and the screenplay of Losing Ground, withextensive directorial notes. This book is sure to burnish Collins’sflourishing posthumous reputation. (Bill)
Hard to Love by Briallen Hopper: A collection of essays on therelationships between family members and friends, with background on the author’schildhood in an evangelical family. The collection garnered a starredreview from Kirkus and praise from essayist Leslie Jamison, who calls is “extraordinary.”(Lydia)
A Weekend in New York by Benjamin Markovits: Markovits is aversatile writer, his work ranging from a fictional trilogy about Lord Byron toan autobiographical novel about basketball. He returns to athletics in AWeekend in New York, where Paul Essinger is a mid-level tennis player and1,200-1 shot to win the U.S. Open. Essinger may be alone on the court, but he hasplenty of company at his Manhattan home when his parents visit during thetournament. Upon its British publication, The Guardian praised the “light,limber confidence” with which Markowits handles sporting knowledge and hisacute treatment of the family tensions amid “first-world also-rans.” (Matt)
Mother Winter by Sophia Shalmiyev: This debut is the memoirof a young woman’s life shaped by unrelenting existential terror. The story istold in fragmentary vignettes beginning with Shalmiyev’s fraught emigration asa young child from St. Petersburg, Russia to the United States, leaving behindthe mother who had abandoned her. It closes with her resolve to find herestranged mother again. (Il’ja)
Zuleikha by Guzel Yakhina (translated by Lisa C. Hayden): It is 1930 in the Soviet Unionand Josef Stalin’s de-kulakization program has found its pace. Among thevictims is a young Tatar family: the husband murdered, the wife exiled toSiberia. This is her story of survival and eventual triumph. Winner of the 2015Russian Booker prize, this debut novel draws heavily on the first-personaccount of the author’s grandmother, a Gulag survivor. (Il’ja)
The Atlas of Red and Blues by Devi Laskar: This novel’sinciting incident is a police raid on the home the daughter of Bengaliimmigrants, told from her perspective as she lies bleeding and running throughthe events, experiences, and memories that have led her to this moment. KieseLaymon calls Laskar’s book “as narratively beautiful as it isbrutal…I’ve never read a novel that does nearly as much in so few pages.Laskar has changed how we will all write about state-sanctioned terror in thisnation.” (Lydia)
Sea Monsters by Chloe Aridjis: Imagine if Malcom Lowry’shallucinogenic masterpiece Under the Volcano, about the drunken perambulationsof a British consul in a provincial Mexican village on Dia de Los Muertos, hadbeen written by a native of that country? Such could describe Aridjis’snovel Sea Monsters, which follows the 17-year-old Luisa and her acquaintanceTomás as they leave Mexico City in search of a troupe of Ukrainian dwarves whohave defected from a Soviet circus. Luisa eventually settles in Oaxaca whereLuisa takes sojourns to the “Beach of the Dead” in search of anyone who “nomatter what” will “remain a mystery.” (Ed)
Elsewhere, Home by Leila Aboulela: The 13 stories inAboulela’s new collection are set in locales as distant as Khartoum and London,yet throughout they explore the universal feelings of the migrant experience:displacement, longing, but also the incandescent hope of creating a differentlife. (Nick M.)
The Cassandra by Sharma Shields: Mildred Groves, TheCassandra’s titular prophetess, sometimes sees flashes of the future. She isalso working at the top-secret Hanford Research Center in the 1940s, where theseeds of atomic weapons are sown and where her visions are growing morehorrifying—and going ignored at best, punished at worst. Balancing thoroughresearch and mythic lyricism, Shields’s novel is a timely warning of whathappens when warnings go unheeded. (Kaulie)
Tonic and Balm by Stephanie Allen: A new title from ShadeMountain Press, Tonic and Balm takes place in 1919, it’s setting a travelingmedicine show, complete with “sideshows,” sword-swallowers, anddubious remedies. The book explores this show’s peregrinations against thebackdrop of poverty and racist violence in rural Pennsylvania. Allen’s firstbook, A Place Between Stations: Stories, was a finalist for the Hurston-WrightLegacy Award. (Lydia)
Death Is Hard Work by Khaled Khalifa (translated by Leri Price): “Most of my friendshave left the country and are now refugees,” Khalifa wrote in a recentessay. Yet he remains in Syria, a place where “those of us who have stayed aredying one by one, family by family, so much so that the idea of an empty citycould become a reality.” If literature is a momentary stay against confusion,then Khalifa’s novels are ardent stays against destruction and decay—and DeathIs Hard Work continues this tradition. The novel begins with the dying hours ofAbdel Latif al-Salim, who looks his son Bolbol “straight in the eye” in orderto give his dying wish: to be buried several hours away, next to his sister.The novel becomes a frenetic attempt for his sons to honor this wish and reachAnabiya. “It’s only natural for a man,” Khalifa writes, “to be weak and makeimpossible requests.” And yet he shows this is what makes us human. (Nick R.)
Aerialists by Mark Mayer. For those gutted by the news ofRingling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus closing in 2017, Mayer’s debutcollection supplies a revivifying dose of that carney spirit. The storiesfeature circus-inspired characters—most terrifyingly a murderous clown-cum-realestate agent—in surrealist situations. We read about a bearded womanrevolutionist, a TV personality strongwoman, and, in the grand tradition of petburial writing that reached its acme with Evelyn Waugh’s The Loved One, thefuneral of a former circus elephant. Publishers Weekly called it a “high-wiredebut [that] exposes the weirdness of everyday life.” (Matt)
Friend of My Youth by Amit Chaudhuri: Published for thefirst time in the U.S., this is the seventh novel by the renowned writer, awork of autofiction about a novelist named Amit Chaudhuri revisiting hischildhood in Mumbai. Publishers Weekly says, “in this cogent andintrospective novel, Chaudhuri movingly portrays how other people can allowindividuals to connect their present and past.” (Lydia)
A People’s Future of the United States edited by Victor LaValle and John Joseph Adams: An anthology of 25 speculative stories from a range of powerful storytellers, among them Maria Dahvana Headley, Daniel José Older, and Alice Sola Kim. LaValle and Adams sought stories that imagine a derailed future—tales that take our fractured present and make the ruptures even further. Editor LaValle, an accomplished speculative fiction writer himself (most recently The Changeling, and my personal favorite, the hilarious and booming Big Machine), is the perfect writer to corral these stories. LaValle has said “one of the great things about horror and speculative fiction is that you are throwing people into really outsized, dramatic situations a lot…[including] racism and sexism and classism, biases against the mentally ill”—the perfect description for this dynamic collection. (Nick R.)
Trump Sky Alpha by Mark Doten: Doten’s Trump Sky Alpha,is the first and last Trump novel I’ll ever want to read. Doten started writingthe novel in 2015, when our current predicament, I mean, president, was a mereand unfathomable possibility. Doten’s President Trump brings about the nuclearapocalypse, and in its aftermath a journalist takes an assignment to researchInternet humor at the end of the world. The result? An “unconventional anddarkly satirical mix of memes, Twitter jokes, Q&As, and tightly writtenstream-of-consciousness passages,” according to Booklist. From this feat, saysJoshua Cohen,“Mark Doten emerges as the shadow president of our benightedgeneration of American literature.” (Anne)
Nothing but the Night by John Williams: The John Williams ofStoner fame revival continues with the reissue of his first novel by NYRB,first published in 1948, a story dealing with mental illness and trauma withechoes of Greek tragedy. (Lydia)
Famous Children and Famished Adults by Evelyn Hampton:“[Evelyn] Hampton’s stunned sentences will remind you, because you haveforgotten, how piercingly disregulating life is,” writes Stacey Levine ofHampton’s debut story collection Discomfort, published by Ellipsis Press. Ifirst encountered Hampton’s fictions through her novella, Madam, a story of aschoolteacher and her pupils at an academy, where memory is a vehicle and somuch seems a metaphor and language seems to turn in on itself. Hampton’sforthcoming story collection Famous Children and Famished Adults won FC2’sRonald Sukenick Innovative Fiction Prize, and continues with the quixotic. Inthis collection, Noy Holland says, “the exotic and toxic intermingle.” (Anne)
The Old Drift by Namwali Serpell: Described as the “Great Zambian Novel you didn’t know you were waiting for,” this debut novel, from the winner of the 2015 Caine Prize for African writing, tells the story of three Zambian families—black, white, and brown—caught in a centuries-long cycle of retribution, romance, and political change. Serpell asks, “How do you live a life or forge a politics that can skirt the dual pitfalls of fixity (authoritarianism) and freedom (neoliberalism)? And what happens if you treat error not as something to avoid but as the very basis for human creativity and community?” Recipient of a starred review from Kirkus and advance praise from Carmen Maria Machado, Alice Sebold, and Garth Greenwell, The Old Drift is already well positioned to become the Next Big Thing of 2019. (Jacqueline)
Gingerbread by Helen Oyeyemi: Oyeyemi became a criticaldarling in 2014 with Boy, Snow, Bird, a retelling of “Snow White.” She takes usback into fairy tale world with Gingerbread, the story of mother and daughter,Harriet and Perdita Lee, and their family’s famous, perhaps…magical,gingerbread recipe. Along with Harriet’s childhood friend Gretel, the Leesendure family, work, and money drama all for the sake of that crunchy spice.(Janet)
The Reign of the Kingfisher by TJ Martinson: Martinson’s debut novel is set in a Chicago that used to have a superhero. It’sone of those books that plays with genre in an interesting way: the prologuereads like a graphic novel, and the entire book reads like literary detectivefiction. With a superhero in it. Back in the 1980s, a mysterious and inhumanlystrong man known as the Kingfisher watched over the streets, until hismutilated body was recovered from the river. In his absence, crime once againbegan to rise. But did the Kingfisher really die? Or did he fake his own death?If he faked his own death, why won’t he return to save his city? Either way,the book suggests, we cannot wait for a new superhero, or for the return of theold one. We must save ourselves. (Emily)
Lot by Bryan Washington: Washington is a talentedessayist—his writing on Houston for Catapult and elsewhere are must-reads—andLot is a glowing fiction debut. Imbued with the flesh of fiction, Lot is aliterary song for Houston. “Lockwood,” the first story, begins: “Roberto wasbrown and his people lived next door so of course I went over on weekends. Theywere full Mexican. That made us superior.” Their house was a “shotgun withswollen pipes.” A house “you shook your head at when you drove up the road.”But the narrator is drawn to Roberto, and when they are “huddled in hiscloset,” palms squeezed together, we get the sense Washington has a keen eyeand ear for these moments of desire and drama. His terse sentences punch andpop, and there’s room for our bated breath in the remaining white space. (NickR.)
The New Me by Halle Butler: If Butler’s first novel,Jillian, was the “feel-bad book of the year,” then her second, The New Me, is askewering of the 21st-century American dream of self-betterment. Butlerhas already proven herself a master of writing about work and its discontents,the absurdity of cubicle life and office work in all of its dead ends. The NewMe takes it to a new level in what Catherine Lacey calls a Bernhardian “darkcomedy of female rage.” The New Me portrays a 30-year old temp worker whoyearns for self-realization, but when offered a full-time job, she becomesparalyzed realizing the hollowness of its trappings. (Anne)
Kaddish.com by Nathan Englander: Pulitzer finalist Englander’s latest novel follows Larry, an atheist in a family of orthodox MemphisJews. When he refuses to recite the Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead,for his recently deceased father, Larry risks shocking his family andimperiling the fate of his father’s soul. Like everyone else in the21st century, Larry decides the solution lies online, and he makes awebsite, kaddish.com, to hire a stranger to recite the daily prayer in hisplace. What follows is a satirical take on God, family, and the Internet thathas been compared to early Philip Roth. (Jacqueline)
Minutes of Glory by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o: Thiong’o, the perennial Nobel Prize contender who once got through a prison sentence by drafting a memoir on toilet paper, has collected his best short stories in this collection, which spans half a century. From “The Fig Tree,” which Thiong’o wrote when he was an undergraduate in Uganda, to “The Ghost of Michael Jackson,” which he wrote while teaching at Irvine, these stories affirm the wide range of a global sensation. (Thom)
Guestbook: Ghost Stories by Leanne Shapton: A collection of haunting stories and illustrations from the writer and visual artist Shapton, of which Rivka Galchen says, “Guestbook reveals Shapton as a ventriloquist, a diviner, a medium, a force, a witness, a goof, and above all, a gift. One of the smartest, most moving, most unexpected books I have read in a very long time.” (Lydia)
Look How Happy I’m Making You by Polly Rosenwaike: A couple of months ago I zipped through this funny and poignant collection of stories about women grappling with motherhood in many different ways: one struggles with infertility, for instance, and another gets pregnant by accident. Throughout, I was struck by the depth of feeling, not once compromised by the brevity of the form. In its starred review, Kirkus calls it “an exquisite collection that is candid, compassionate, and emotionally complex.” Meaghan O’Connell says, “Each story in Look How Happy I’m Making You is a lovely universe unto itself — funny, intimate, casually profound — but there is something transcendent about reading them together like this.” (Edan)
Little Boy by Lawrence Ferlinghetti: Ostensibly a memoir.Yet the idea of a Beat poet rhapsodizing, eulogizing or—God help us—memorizing his life as a Beat would be a defeat difficult to recover from.Don’t worry. There’s plenty of indignation, wry observation, and inevitableprognostication as Ferlinghetti looks back on his near-century on the planet toremind us to—among other matters—stop griping and play the hand we’redealt. (Il’ja)
If, Then by Kate Hope Day: In a quiet mountain town, four neighbors’ worlds are rocked when they begin to see versions of themselves in parallel realities. As the disturbing visions mount, a natural disaster looms and threatens their town. From a starred review in Publishers Weekly: “Day’s well-crafted mix of literary and speculative fiction is an enthralling meditation on the interconnectedness of all things.” (Carolyn)
Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls by T Kira Madden: With a sparkling blurb from Mary Gaitskill—“Sad, funny, juicy and prickly with deep and secret thoughtful places”—and a sparkling cover (literally—see her website), T. Kira Madden’s debut memoir, a coming-of-age story set in Boca Raton, is primed for buzz. As a grownup, Madden self-describes as an “APIA writer, photographer, and amateur magician”; as a child, “Madden lived a life of extravagance, from her exclusive private school to her equestrian trophies and designer shoe-brand name. But under the surface was a wild instability . . . she found lifelines in the desperately loving friendships of fatherless girls.” One of the best, most evocative titles of the release season, IMHO. (Sonya)
A Woman Is No Man by Etaf Rum: Isra, a 17-year-old Palestinian girl in 1990, prefers reading to suitors, but after her family marries her to an American deli owner she finds herself living in Brooklyn, trapped in a losing struggle against his oppressive mother, Fareeda. Eighteen years later, Fareeda attempts to pressure Isra’s oldest daughter into an early marriage, but an estranged family member offers Isra a chance to determine her own life. Rum, who was born to Palestinian immigrants living in Brooklyn, has written that she hopes her debut novel moves readers “by the strength and power of our women.” (Kaulie)
The White Card by Claudia Rankine: The author of Citizen, Macarthur Genius grant honoree, and founder of the Racial Imaginary Institute will publisher her first play, one that examines the concept of whiteness and white Americans’ failures to acknowledge it, through a series of interactions between an artist and an affluent couple. In the play’s introduction, Rankine writes “The scenes in this one-act play, for all the characters’ disagreements, stalemates, and seeming impasses, explore what happens if one is willing to stay in the room when it is painful to bear the pressure to listen and the obligation to respond.” (Lydia)
EEG by Dasa Drndic: I first encountered Daša Drndic through her novel Belladona in June, unwittingly a mere two weeks after the author’s death from lung cancer. I was struck by the character Andreas Ban, and his idiosyncratic reflection upon ears, that “marvelous ugly organ,” accompanied by a diagram of an ear marked with the body’s points. This character Ban continues into Drndic’s next and final book, EEG, where after surviving a suicide attempt he goes on to dissect and expose the hidden evils and secrets of our times. He’s stand-in for Drndic herself, who wrote emphatically and had stated that “Art should shock, hurt, offend, intrigue, be a merciless critic of the merciless times we are not only witnessing but whose victims we have become.” (Anne)
Great American Desert by Terese Svoboda: Poet Terese Svoboda brings a lyrical intensity to her collection of short stories in Great American Desert. Svoboda examines the excavations that we perform on ourselves and on the land, with her stories ranging from the ancient North American Clovis people, to a science fiction description of a massive pink pyramid arising from the prairies far into the future. Author of Swamplandia! Karren Russel describes Great American Desert as “A devious and extraordinary new collection of stories from one of our best writers.” (Ed)
King of Joy by Richard Chiem: Richard Chiem is the author of You Private Person, which was named one of Publishers Weekly’s 10 Essential Books of the American West, and now he brings us King of Joy, an experimental narrative that explores fantasy, trauma, survival, and resilience. The novel follows Corvus, a woman that can imagine her way out of any situation–until she experiences a grief so profound that she cannot escape through fantasy. Foreword Reviews recently gave it a starred review and Kristen Arnette describes the novel as “a brilliant, tender examination of the unholy magnitude of trauma. It shows how pain can simultaneously destroy and preserve a person. Most of all, it is just goddamn beautiful writing.” (Zoë)
Instructions for a Funeral by David Means: Means’s last publication, Hystopia, was a Booker-nominated novel, but he is still best known for his short stories. Instructions for a Funeral is therefore a return to (the short story) form, 14 pieces, previously published in the New Yorker, Harpers, The Paris Review, and VICE, that display the intelligence and questing range for which Means is known. From a fistfight in Sacramento to a 1920s FBI stakeout in the midwest, Instructions for a Funeral invites readers on a literary journey with a master of the modern short story. (Adam P.)
The Cook by Maylis de Kerangal (translated by Sam Taylor): Writes Priya Parmal in her 2014 New York Times review of Maylis de Kerangal’s first novel translated into English, The Heart, “These characters feel less like fictional creations and more like ordinary people, briefly illuminated in rich language, beautifully translated by Sam Taylor, that veers from the medical to the philosophical.” In the The Cook, a “hyperrealist” tale centered around a self-taught professional cook, we are treated to “lyricism and [the] intensely vivid evocative nature of Maylis de Kerangal’s prose, which conjures moods, sensations, and flavors, as well as the exhausting rigor and sometimes violent abuses of kitchen work.” The Cook is her 10th novel, her second translated into English (also by Taylor); Anglophones can be grateful that we’re finally catching up with this many-prize-winning author. (Sonya)
Infinite Detail by Tim Maughan: A speculative novel about the “end of the Internet,” and what comes after for a society increasingly dependent on Big Data, surveillance, and the other sinister trappings of the 21st century. From the author of this vivid take on Santa Claus and his elves in the age of Amazon. (Lydia)
What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Blacker by Damon Young: A memoir in essays by the co-founder of VerySmartBrothas.com, heartfelt and bursting with humor. In Young’s words, “it’s a look at some of the absurdities, angsts and anxieties of existing while black in America,” and includes deeply personal material, including about the death of his mother, which was rooted in racism in America. (Lydia)
The Parade by Dave Eggers: No one can accuse Eggers of playing it safe. Last year, in The Monk of Mokha, he profiled a Yemeni American who dreams of reconstituting the ancient art of Yemeni coffee. A couple years before that, he wrote a novel, Heroes of the Frontier, about an American dentist road-tripping around Alaska with her kids. In his latest novel, two Western contractors, one named Four, the other named Five, travel to an unnamed country to build a new road intended to mark the end of a ruinous civil war. It’s “a parable of progress, as told by J.M. Coetzee to Philip K. Dick,” says Richard Flanagan, author of The Narrow Road to the Deep North. (Michael)
Memories of the Future by Siri Hustvedt: For her seventh novel, the celebrated Siri Hustvedt goes meta. A novelist of a certain age, known as S.H., discovers a notebook and early drafts of a never-completed novel she wrote during her first year in New York City in the late 1970s, some four decades ago. The discovery allows S.H. to revisit her long-ago obsession with her mysterious neighbor, Lucy Brite. Weaving the discovered texts with S.H.’s memories and things forgotten, Hustvedt has produced a rich novel built on the sand of shifting memory. As a bonus, the book includes a sampling of Hustvedt’s whimsical drawings. (Bill)
Sing to It by Amy Hempel: Hempel, the short story legend best known for “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried,” is back with her first new collection of stories in over a decade. From “Cloudland,” which depicts a woman’s reckoning with her decision to give up her child, to “A Full-Service Shelter,” which follows a volunteer at a shelter where abandoned dogs are euthanized, the stories in Sing to It are fitting additions to Hempel’s work. (Thom)
The Other Americans by Laila Lalami: Lalami, whose previous novel, The Moor’s Account, was a finalist for the Pulitzer, returns with a “structurally elegant mystery” (Kirkus). At the opening of this highly anticipated new novel, Morroccan immigrant Driss Guerraoui is killed by a speeding car on a California highway. The book then follows a number of characters connected to and affected by his death, including his jazz composer daughter, his wife, and an undocumented immigrant who witnessed the accident. J.M. Coetzee says, “This deftly constructed account of a crime and its consequences shows up, in its quiet way, the pressures under which ordinary Americans of Muslim background have labored since the events of 9/11.” (Edan)
White Elephant by Julie Langsdorf: When a huge, garish home called the White Elephant infiltrates Willard Park, a quiet suburb, the neighborhood falls into utter comedic chaos. In the shadow of the home, neighbors begin to fight, lives are upended, and their once-peaceful town becomes anything but. Meg Wolitzer calls the debut novel a “smart, enjoyable suburban comedy.” (Carolyn)
The Promise of Elsewhere by Brad Leithauser: The intellectually peripatetic Brad Leithauser—poet, novelist, editor, translator and MacArthur fellow whose interests range from Iceland to insects, American music and ghosts—has produced a sharp comic novel about a monster of a mid-life crisis. Louie Hake, a 43-year-old professor at a third-rate Michigan college, comes undone when his actress wife is discovered performing acts of “gross indecency” with her director. Bipolar Louie sets off on a tour of great world architecture, but he has stopped taking his lithium (though not all psychotropic substances), so he can get erratic. He can also be very funny—and very touching on those great American taboos, shame and failure. (Bill)
The Altruists by Andrew Ridker: Touted as “an international sensation” and sold in many countries, this debut novel follows the quest of a down-on-his-luck professor to get his mitts on his children’s inheritance. In a starred review, Kirkus calls it “a painfully honest, but tender, examination of how love goes awry in the places it should flourish.” (Lydia)
When All Else Fails by Rayyan al-Shawaf: Past Millions contributor and NBCC critic al-Shawaf is out with his own novel, an absurdist tale of a lovelorn and luckless Iraqi college student in the States whose life is upended by 9/11 and who later moves to Lebanon. (Lydia)
Good Talk by Mira Jacob: A graphic novel about raising her mixed-race son in a white supremacist society by the author of The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing, built around conversations with a curious six-year-old. Jacqueline Woodson says “In Jacob’s brilliant hands, we are gifted with a narrative that is sometimes hysterical, always honest, and ultimately healing.” (Lydia)
Working by Robert A. Caro: Widely known—and celebrated—for his monumental biographies of LBJ and Robert Moses, Caro steps out from behind his subjects in Working, a collection of personal writings about, well, working. Here he describes his experiences searching Johnson’s presidential archives, what it was like to interview some of the major figures of the last half century, and how exactly he goes about structuring those massive, award-winning books. Think of it as a behind-the-scenes look at how “the greatest political biographer of our time” gets the job done. (Kaulie)
Morelia by Renee Gladman: It’s been said again and again that no one writes quite like Renee Gladman, whose writing and drawing explore movements of thought. Gladman’s Ravicka series of novels, published by Dorothy Project, traverses the fictional city, where “everything is vivid and nothing is fixed.” In Gladman’s essay collection Calamities, she writes toward the experience of the everyday where nothing of importance happens (which are most days, she has commented). Gladman’s latest, short novel, Morelia, “is an expansive mystery,” Amina Cain writes, “but I don’t think it exists to be solved…. There is a city with structures in it that multiply or are ‘half-articulated,’ where climate dictates how the city’s inhabitants move.” (Anne)
Women Talking by Miriam Toews: Canadians have come to accept that we can’t keep Toews to ourselves any longer. After her sixth novel, All My Puny Sorrows, became an international sensation, the timely and urgent Women Talking is set to do the same. It’s a fictionalized telling of real life rapes that took place in a remote Mennonite colony in Bolivia. After repeated attacks, a group of women are told they are lying about the violence or being punished by Satan. The narrative unfolds as they meet to decide what they will do: forgive, fight, or run. (Claire)
Let’s Tell This Story Properly by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi: This story collection by the author of the acclaimed epic novel, Kintu, is centered on the lives of Ugandans living in Britain, where they are both hyper-visible and unseen, excluded from British life as they work jobs in airport security, in hospitals, in caring for the elderly. In the title story, when the protagonist’s husband dies in England, her fellow Ugandans start a fund-raising drive to pay for transporting the body back home. Their motivation beautifully captures the dislocation of exile: “We are not burying one of us in snow.” It has been said that Makumbi has done for Ugandan writing what the great Chinua Achebe did for Nigerian literature. (Bill)
Walking on the Ceiling by Ayşegül Savaş: Of her family, global citizen (of Turkish descent) Savaş writes, “They share a ruthless knack of observation and an eye for the comedic . . . This is a family of runaway bandits and conspiring matriarchs, where uncles swagger around with pistols, illegitimate children emerge at every turn, family heirlooms . . . are nicked from brothel fires.” Evidently drawing on her own life, Savas’s debut novel is set in Paris (where she lives) and features a young Turkish woman who tells her family’s stories to a novelist friend. “Their intimacy deepens, so does Nunu’s fear of revealing too much . . . fears that she will have to face her own guilt about her mother and the narratives she’s told to protect herself from her memories.” Writes Helen Phillips, “This quietly intense debut is the product of a wise and probing mind.” (Sonya)
The Ash Family by Molly Dektar: A story about a young woman who is lured to an intentional community in the North Carolina mountains by an enigmatic man, only to find out that her community members are disappearing one by one. Samantha Hunt says “Dektar’s unstoppable tale of a country beyond is an addictive read so engrossing I forget where I am.” (Lydia)
I Miss you When I Blink by Mary Laura Philpott: An debut essay collection from the Emmy-winning TV host and beloved bookseller at Parnsassus Books in Nashville. Philpott’s inspiration came from readers who would beeline to the memoir section to pick up Eat, Pray, Love or Wild, then ask, “What do you have like this, but more like me?” With essays that Ann Patchett calls relentlessly funny, self-effacing, and charming,” the result is a kind of wisdom that comes from making so many wrong turns they strangely add up to something that is exactly right. (Claire)
Optic Nerve by Maria Gainza (translated by Thomas Bunstead): Critically acclaimed Argentinian writer Maria Gainza’s first book translated in English. The story interweaves the narrator’s fascination and obsession with art and art history and her intimate experiences involving her family, romantic relationships, and work life. Mariana Enríquez declares, “In between autofiction and the microstories of artists, between literary meet-ups and the intimate chronicle of a family, its past and its misfortunes, this book is completely original, gorgeous, on occasions delicate, and other times brutal.” (Zoë)
Naamah by Sarah Blake: In a stunning, feminist retelling of Noah’s Ark, Blake’s debut novel focuses on Naamah (Noah’s wife) and their family in the year after the Great Flood. Full of desire, fury, strength, and wavering faith, Naamah becomes the bedrock on which the Earth is rebuilt upon. Written in poetic prose, Lidia Yuknavitch praises the novel as “a new vision of storytelling and belief” and “a new myth-making triumph.” (Carolyn)
Sabrina & Corina by Kali Fajardo-Anstine: With accolades from all-stars like Sandra Cisneros, Julia Alvarez, Joy Williams, Ann Beattie—Kali Fajardo-Anstine’s debut short-story collection promises to wow us. “Set against the remarkable backdrop of Denver, Colorado–a place that is as fierce as it is exquisite–these women navigate the land the way they navigate their lives: with caution, grace, and quiet force.” A two-book deal with historical novel to follow. (Sonya)
Miracle Creek by Angie Kim: This debut has it all—a novel of the Korean immigrant experience, a courtroom thriller, an exploration of controversies over autism therapies (specifically here, hyperbaric oxygen therapy, HBOT). Kirkus calls it “deeply satisfying” and says “it should be huge.” (Marie Myung-Ok)
Phantoms by Christian Kiefer: Kiefer’s previous novel The Animals, was downright masterful, and I’ve been anticipating Phantoms ever since. In this new novel, veteran John Frazier returns shaken from the Vietnam War to witness a dispute between his family and their former neighbors, a Japanese-American family that was displaced during World War II and sent to an internment camp. The jacket copy calls it “a fierce saga of American culpability.” Luis Alberto Urrea says, “Christian Kiefer is a masterful writer, and this magisterial novel is aching with beauty and power. This is a great book.” I, for one, cannot wait! (Edan)
Trust Exercise by Susan Choi: In this novel’s opening section, Dave and Sarah, two new students at a prestigious performing arts high school, fall madly in love under the watchful eye of a charismatic acting teacher. But in a second segment, set 12 years later, a change in narrative viewpoint calls into question everything the reader has understood to have happened before. Early reviews are highly polarized. Publishers Weekly says the novel is “destined to be a classic” while a reader on Goodreads, speaking for a number of other dissatisfied early readers, complained “the payoff wasn’t worth the ick.” (Michael)
Normal People by Sally Rooney: Rooney, the Irish author known for the acclaimed Conversations with Friends, has written a second novel about the lives of young people in modern Ireland. The protagonists of Normal People are teenagers named Connell and Marianne, who develop a strange friendship that both are determined to hide. Years pass, and as the two get older, their relationship grows steadily more complicated. (Thom)
The Gulf by Belle Boggs: The author of a trenchant inquiry into fertility and maternity in America, Belle Boggs turns to satire in her debut novel, a divinely witty look at the writing industry and religion. A job is a job, and so Marianne, a struggling Brooklyn poet—and atheist—agrees to direct a Christian artists’ residency program, “The Genesis Inspirational Writing Ranch,” in Florida. (One of the residents is working on a poem cycle about Terri Schiavo, the comatose woman in the “right-to-die” case that galvanized religious groups in 2005.) There’ll be skewering aplenty, but also a comic hero’s conversion toward acceptance of her new community. (Matt)
A Wonderful Stroke of Luck by Ann Beattie: How do our charismatic teachers set the stage for the rest of our lives? That’s one of the questions that Ann Beattie tackles in this novel. When a former New England boarding school student named Ben looks back on his childhood, he starts to questions the motives of his superstar teacher. Later on, his teacher gets in contact, and Ben has to grapple with his legacy. (Thom)
The Appendix Project by Kate Zambreno: Sometimes, you don’t stop being obsessed with something just because the book’s written. The Appendix Project takes up where Kate Zambreno’s last book, Book of Mutter, left off, examining, as Kate Briggs describes it, about “how things – interests, attachments, experiences, projects – don’t finish.” The Appendix Project is a genre-crossing work about grief, time, memory, and the maternal, which is also a work about writing itself. Oh, and she’s also got a collection of stories and a novel coming out this year – no big deal. “I try to work on many books at the same time,” Zambreno has said. Same. (Jacqueline)
The Limits of the World by Jennifer Acker: Meet the Chandarias. Premchand is a doctor. His wife Urmila imports artisanal African crafts. Their son Sunil is studying for a doctorate in philosophy at Harvard. But for all their outward success, theirs is a family riven with secrets, and when the family is forced to return to Nairobi, where Premchand and Urmila were born, Sunil reveals an explosive secret of his own: his Jewish girlfriend, who has accompanied the family on the trip, is already his wife. (Michael)
Cape May by Chip Cheek: A novel about a 50s couple from Georgia on what turns into a louche honeymoon in Cape May. It sounds like whatever the literary opposite of On Chesil Beach is, with lots of sex, gin, and intrigue. (Lydia)
What My Mother and I Don’t Talk About edited by Michele Filgate: A collection of essays about subjects too painful or explosive to broach among families. Based on Filgate’s essay of the same name, about being abused by her stepfather, the essay features work from a stellar lineup of writers like Kiese Laymon, Carmen Maria Machado, Brandon Taylor, André Aciman, and Leslie Jamison, among others. (Lydia)
Furious Hours by Casey Cep: Did you know Harper Lee wanted to write her own true-crime story à la In Cold Blood? That following the publication of To Kill a Mockingbird, Lee spent a year living in the Alabama backwoods to report it, and many more years in research, but ultimately never completed the work? In Furious Hours, Casey Cep completes the work Lee couldn’t, writing a vivid portrayal of a killer, but also exploring the effects of fame and success on one of the most famous writers in U.S. history. (Nick)
Home Remedies by Xuan Juliana Wang: Home Remedies, forthcoming in May 2019, is a debut collection of stories by Xuan Juliana Wang. The characters in the 12 stories vary from an immigrant family living in a cramped apartment on Mott Street who tries very hard to fit in, to a couple of divers at the Beijing Olympics who reach for their success. Wang conveys a promising message through her mind-boggling stories that whoever they are and wherever they are from, they have their rights to live extraordinary lives. (Jianan)
Lanny by Max Porter: The follow-up to Porter’s highly lauded Grief Is a Thing With Feathers, which won the International Dylan Thomas Prize. This follow-up gives readers all the experimental typography and poignant insight they might expect—with a twist of gut-wrenching suspense thrown in. Lanny is a mischievous young boy who moves to a small village outside of London, where he attracts the attention of a menacing force. Porter has done it again. (Claire)
Tears of the Trufflepig by Fernando A. Flores: Move over, chupacabra—there’s a new mythical Southwestern beast in town: the trufflepig, a creature worshipped by a lost Aranana Indian tribe in this exuberant novel set on a trippier version of the American border. Drugs are legal in this near-future society, but the new (illegal) craze is “filtered animals,” extinct species revived, Jurassic-park style, and sold at great cost. The novel follows Esteban Bellacosa, trying to live the quiet life amid the region’s traffickers, obscenely rich pleasure seekers and legends. This is Flores’s first novel after a short story collection, wonderfully titled Death to the Bullshit Artists of South Texas. (Matt)
The Unpassing by Chia-Chia Lin: A Taiwanese family of six struggles to make a go of it in far-flung Anchorage, Alaska, but tragedy strikes like a stone in a still pond, rippling out to affect each family member differently. Lin’s debut novel is a raw depiction of grief and resolve set against the terrible beauty of the Alaskan north. (Nick M.)
The Farm by Joanne Ramos: This debut novel takes us to Golden Oaks Farm, where the super-rich begin life in utero with the best of everything, including balanced organic diets in young, cortisol-optimized wombs. The surrogate Hosts offer their wombs in exchange for a big payday that can transform their marginal lives. But as the Hosts learn, nine months locked inside the Farm can be a very long time. The story roams from the idyllic Hudson Valley to plush Fifth Avenue to a dormitory in Queens crowded with immigrant service workers. Echoing The Handmaid’s Tale, the novel explores the tensions between ambition and sacrifice, luck and merit, and money and motherhood. (Bill)
Riots I Have Known by Ryan Chapman: In a New York penitentiary, a doorman-turned-inmate has barricaded himself inside the computer lab while a prison riot rages like hell. Alone, the inmate confesses, recounting the twists of fate that landed him in this predicament, and pondering the many—often hysterically funny—questions he has about it all. Chapman’s satirical jab packs a full-fledged punch. (Nick M.)
China Dream by Ma Jian (translated by Flora Drew): A new novel from the Chinese novelist who lives in exile in the U.K. and whose books have never been allowed to appear in China. A dystopian satire where the dystopia is today, and an exploration of totalitarianism in China. Madeleine Thien writes for The Guardian: “Ma has a marksman’s eye for the contradictions of his country and his generation, and the responsibilities and buried dreams they carry. His perceptiveness, combined with a genius for capturing people who come from all classes, occupations, backgrounds and beliefs; for identifying the fallibility, comedy and despair of living in absurd times, has allowed him to compassionately detail China’s complex inner lives.” (Lydia)
Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips: Fulbright alumna Phillips has written a literary mystery about two sisters who go missing on the Kamchatka peninsula, an isolated spot and one of the easternmost points of Russia. Jim Shepard called this “a dazzlingly impressive first novel.” (Lydia)
The Dinner Guest by Gabriela Ybarra (translated by Natasha Wimmer): Ybarra’s critically acclaimed first novel, which won the Euskadi Literature Prize 2016 and was longlisted for the Man Booker International Prize in 2018. Her novel makes connections between two losses in her family: her mother’s private death from cancer and her grandfather’s public kidnapping and murder by terrorists in the 1970s. Drawing on research and personal experiences, the book creatively blends nonfiction and fiction. The Irish Times praises her work as a “captivating debut…written with the forensic eye of a true crime writer.” (Zoë)
Exhalation by Ted Chiang: A new collection by the beloved science fiction writer, winner of many Hugo and Nebula awards, whose story “The Story of Your Life” formed the basis of the movie Arrival. (Lydia)
Rough Magic by Lara Prior-Palmer: Lots of people grow up loving horses; few of them end up competing (and winning) in the “world’s longest, toughest horse race.” Lara Prior-Palmer, the niece of famed British equestrian Lucinda Green, is just the person to attempt that challenge, galloping across 1,000 kilometers of Mongolian grassland, competing in a country so adept at riding that they once conquered the world from the backs of horses. In Rough Magic, Prior-Palmer follows in the hoofs of Genghis Khan and becomes the first woman to win the challenge. (Ed)
Patsy by Nicole Dennis-Benn: In her much anticipated second novel, the author of the acclaimed Here Comes the Sun—a Young Lions, Center for Fiction, and John Leonard National Book Critics Circle finalist, and Lambda Literary Award winner, among other honors—Dennis-Benn plumbs the wrenching, too-real inner (and outer) conflict that women face when self-fulfillment is pitted against nurturing loved ones. Immigration, mother-daughter estrangement, sexuality and identity; “Frank, funny, salty, heartbreaking,” writes Alexander Chee. What else could you ask for? (Sonya)
On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong: Poet Ocean Vuong, winner of the 2017 T.S. Eliot Prize for his collection Night Sky with Exit Wounds, returns with his highly anticipated debut novel. When Little Dog writes a letter to his illiterate mother, he reveals the family’s past as well as parts of his life he had hidden from his mother. With his tender, graceful style, Vuong’s family portrait explores race, class, trauma, and survival. (Carolyn)
In West Mills by De’Shawn Charles Winslow: Winslow’s debut novel takes place in a small town in North Carolina from the 1940s to the 1980s. Through the story of Azalea “Knot” Centre, a fiercely independent woman, and Otis Lee, a helpful neighbor and longtime fixer, the narrative explores community and love with compassion and a singular voice. Rebecca Makkai describes Winslow’s voice as “one that’s not only pitch-perfect but also arresting and important and new.” (Zoë)
Vincent and Alice and Alice by Shane Jones: There’s always a hint of play and whimsy in Shane Jones’s fictions. His previous novel, Crystal Eaters, was a wonderfully sad and tender story where what remained of a character’s life could be measured in crystal counts—and where a young girl attempted to save her sick mother by reversing her diminishing numbers. In his latest, Vincent and Alice and Alice, Vincent’s life has hit some doldrums with a divorce from his wife Alice and a mindless job with the state. However, things turn weird when work enrolls him in a productivity program and Alice returns, but changed. Is she a clone? A hologram? Possibly. It’s a book that Chelsea Hodson calls both “laugh-out-loud funny and knife-in-your-heart sad.” (Anne)
Mostly Dead Things by Kristen Arnett: In her Twitter bio, Arnett, known for her award-winning fiction and essays, describes herself thusly: “writer, librarian, lesbian willie nelson. 7-eleven scholar ™.” I assume you are already sold, but just in case: This debut novel starts when Jessa walks into the family taxidermy shop to find her father dead. Though grieving, she steps up to manage the business while her family unravels around her. Besides dead things, Jami Attenberg points out this novel includes all the best things, “messed-up families, scandalous love affairs, art, life, death and the great state of Florida.” (Claire)
Time Is the Thing a Body Moves Through by T Fleischmann: In the essay “Spill Spilt,” T Fleischmann writes of itinerancy, languorous Brooklyn summers, and art-going, with Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s Untitled (Portrait of Ross in L.A.) at its center. The artwork is a pile of candies piled high in a corner that visitors are invited to take from and consume, and I am struck how sensual and alluring and and contemplative and intimate both the artwork and Fleischmann’s writing feel, how this pairing seems essential. I can only imagine that essential is the word to describe Fleischmann’s forthcoming Time Is the Thing a Body Moves Through, a book-length essay which reflects on Gonzalez-Torres’s artwork while probing the relationships between bodies and art. Bhanu Kapil says the book “is ‘spilled and gestured’ between radical others of many kinds. Is this love? Is this ‘the only chance to make of it an object’? Is this what it’s like to be here at all? To write ‘all words of life.’” (Anne)
City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert: The bestselling author of The Signature of All Things—and of course, Eat, Pray, Love—returns to historical fiction with a novel set in the theater world of 1940s New York City. Ninety-five-year-old Vivian Morris looks back on her wild youth as a Vassar College dropout who is sent to live with her Aunt Peg, the owner of a decrepit, flamboyant, Midtown theater, called the Lily Playhouse. There, Vivian falls in love with the theater—and also meets the love of her life. (Hannah)
How Could She by Lauren Mechling: A novel about women’s friendships and professional lives within the cutthroat media world that Elif Batuman called “as wise and unforgiving as a nineteenth-century French novel.” (Lydia)
Among the Lost by Emiliano Monge (translated by Frank Wynne): A perverse love story about two victims of traffickers in an unnamed country who become traffickers themselves, by the renowned novelist from Mexico. The Guardian says “Monge’s realist, deadly topical fiction is a weighty metaphor for our world gone mad.” (Lydia)
The Travelers by Regina Porter: A debut novel-in-stories with a large cast of characters from two American families, one white, one black, flung across the world—in America, France, Vietnam, and Germany—from points in time ranging from 1950 to the early 2000s. Garth Greenwell calls this “an innovative and deeply moving debut.” (Lydia)
Shapes of Native Nonfiction edited by Elissa Washuta and Theresa Warburton: A new collection of essays by Native writers using the art of basket-weaving as a formal organizing principle for the essays and collection. Featuring work by Stephen Graham Jones, Deborah Miranda, Terese Marie Mailhot, Billy-Ray Belcourt, Eden Robinson, and Kim TallBear. (Lydia)
Oval by Elvia Wilk: In Elvia Wilk’s debut novel, weird things have been happening in Berlin: strange weather, artists hired as corporate consultants. Young couple Anja and Louis move into an “eco-friendly” community on an artificial mountain, The Berg, where they live rent-free in exchange for their silence on the house’s structural problems. When Louis invents a pill called Oval that has the power to temporarily rewire a user’s brain to become more generous, Anja is horrified—but Louis thinks it could solve Berlin’s income disparity. Described as speculative fiction, but also sort of just what life is like now, Oval depicts life in the Anthropocene, but a little worse. For fans of Gary Shteyngart and Nell Zink. (Jacqueline)
“I was guilty as soon as I was accused,” says Tom Robinson to Atticus Finch.
“I get called an optimist a lot. What I don’t get called is stupid,” Atticus responds, trying to convince Tom to sign the “not guilty” plea that sits before him on a wooden table. He assures Tom that the trial “will happen in an American court of law.” Tom “should have faith in that institution.”
It’s early in the first act of Aaron Sorkin’s Broadway adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird, and Gbenga Akinnagbe as Tom is squaring off against Jeff Daniels as Atticus. Akinnagbe, masterfully bottling up Tom’s bottomless anger and sadness, offers a sort of half-laugh at the privilege inherent in blindly trusting an American court in 1934 (or any other year).
A long pause ensues before Tom responds, “You gonna answer that question?” The audience laughs knowingly.
By the end of the conversation, of course, Tom Robinson agrees to plead “not guilty” to the rape he did not commit. “And just like that,” says Scout, in her role as narrator, “everyone’s fate was sealed.”
This interaction, which does not exist in Harper Lee’s 1960 novel, nor the 1962 film version, is the first of several invented scenes intended to flesh out the perspectives of the story’s previously one-dimensional African-American characters. In each of them, Atticus Finch is not the wisest person on the stage.
To Kill a Mockingbird opened on December 13 at the Sam S. Shubert Theatre under the direction of Bartlett Sher. The play has had an unusually public path to Broadway, garnering national headlines in a dispute between mega-producer Scott Rudin and Tonja Carter, the lawyer who now controls Harper Lee’s estate. As Sorkin recently revealed in an essay for Vulture, one of the concessions of the settlement between the parties was that his version of Atticus could not use the Lord’s name in vain.
In that essay, Sorkin revealed his desire to put Atticus at the heart of his adaptation (in the book, Atticus’s daughter Scout is the protagonist). Of course, any tragic hero needs a hamartia, but Sorkin realized he “didn’t have to give Atticus a flaw because,” well, “he already had one.” Atticus “believes in the fundamental goodness in everyone, even homicidal white supremacists. He believes … that there are fine people on both sides?”
Enter Jeff Daniels, who tackles the inevitable comparisons to Gregory Peck by playing a different character entirely. Peck’s Atticus is statuesque, his anger measured, his words slow and mellifluous, his voice a carefully-plucked bass. Daniels’s Atticus is slightly stoop-shouldered, increasingly short-tempered, and more urgent. He delivers his lines in a cascading baritone, slurring together syllables in a sing-song Southern lilt. It’s an indelible portrait, so much so that to go back and watch Peck after watching Daniels is jarring.
Daniels is joined by a trio of adult actors—Celia Keenan-Bolger, Will Pullen, and Gideon Glick—as Scout, Jem, and Dill. This casting maneuver elides one of Mockingbird’s perceived narrative flaws: the inconsistency of Scout’s voice. It is so well-executed that not a single moment goes by in which it feels like the wrong move. Each time Keenan-Bolger joyfully stomps around with her brand-new baton, or angrily stomps back and forth in front of the house, slamming her hand against the porch over and over, she wins our love all over again. Pullen deftly channels the uncertain gulf between boyhood and manhood. Glick brings to mind Nathan Lane with his absurdly high laugh rate. (I lost track, but it seemed well over 50 percent, and every word he spoke felt fresh.)
LaTanya Richardson Jackson draws mid-scene applause as Calpurnia with her withering critiques of Atticus’s liberalism. (I would happily watch a sequel all about her.) It is through Calpurnia’s eyes, and Tom’s, that the overwhelmingly white audience sees Atticus’s perfect whiteness: He has the luxury of wrongly believing in people, whereas she and Tom are required by circumstance to rightly understand systems.
The empty stage is constantly being reinvented via Miriam Buether’s set design. It’s a courthouse, it’s a front porch, it’s the yard of Boo Radley. This is all done with workmanlike precision and grace, as a combination of automated and actor-controlled set pieces rise and fall and roll and lock into place.
Each time Akinnagbe’s Tom Robinson enters or exits, he, too, is pushed or pulled by a cast member. Akinnagbe’s physical resistance increases as the play progresses, but even in his quietest moments, he loathes the controlling hands. Tom’s body, it is clear, does not belong to him.
When the inevitable verdict is reached—and you may want to skip this paragraph and the next one if you have not read the book, or if you don’t remember—we hear it repeated 12 times, one “guilty” for each juror. It brings to mind the verdict in the Laquan McDonald case, in which each count was read aloud, one “guilty” for each of the sixteen shots from the gun of Officer Jason Van Dyke.
That verdict took a full two minutes to read. And while it was a more hopeful verdict than the one that meets Tom Robinson, the gap between the two Black men, one real and one fictional, is a small one. Late in the play, Calpurnia insists that Atticus share how many times Tom is ultimately shot during his attempted prison escape. (Puzzlingly, the answer is five, while in the book, it is seventeen.)
This is a production that is well aware of how far our society has not come since 1934, or since 1960. In the theatre’s basement, Mockingbird merchandise is on sale alongside a T-Shirt that reads “Patriarchy is a Bitch,” a woman’s tank top with the words “consent is sexy,” and a gray hoodie emblazoned with the name “TRAYVON.” The offerings are the result of a partnership with Liberated People, a brand founded by Akinnagbe. According to a sign on the gift kiosk counter, some portion of the proceeds benefit the Monroe County Public Library, the Southern Poverty Law Center, and the Trayvon Martin Foundation.
The Atticus Finch onstage at the Shubert Theatre is many people. He is the two-time Obama voter who eventually goes for Trump, as we know he did in Go Set a Watchman. He is the white Obama-Clinton voter who never saw a Trump victory coming, right up until all those swing states went red, one by one. And he is Obama himself, who, as Ta-Nehisi Coates has written, is “unfailingly optimistic about the empathy and capabilities of the American people.”
Obama looms large over this play, not least because he lovingly quoted Atticus in his January 2017 farewell address to the nation. In a segment focusing on race relations, Obama enumerated policy recommendations, but also noted that “Laws alone won’t be enough. Hearts must change. They won’t change overnight. Social attitudes often times take generations to change.” (In the play, Calpurnia mocks Atticus’s patience with the glacial pace of change in Maycomb, asking, “How much time would Maycomb like?”)
“But if our democracy is to work the way it should in this increasingly diverse nation,” Obama went on, “then each one of us need to try to heed the advice of a great character in American fiction, Atticus Finch, who said, “you never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view. Until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”
This advice comes early on in the play, after an ugly front-porch confrontation between Atticus and Bob Ewell. Scout and Jem are itching for a fight, and Atticus sits them down and reviews the plan for what to do when people say “unpleasant” things to them. “Go for the eyes,” Scout responds, without missing a beat.
Not quite. “There’s goodness in everyone,” Atticus says. “Before you judge someone, it’s a good idea to get inside their skin for a while and crawl around.”
It’s a notable rewrite on Sorkin’s part, substituting the nobler-sounding “climb” and “walk” for the more modest “get” and “crawl.” And it is this advice, as much as Tom Robinson himself, that is on trial throughout the play. It is brought up three more times in the first act, once by Scout and twice by Calpurnia, and all three times the women are spitting Atticus’s advice back at him defiantly.
Whether to “go for the eyes” or don your opponent’s skin is a tension deeply felt in Obama’s inner circle today. This October, former Attorney General Eric Holder, who once called To Kill a Mockingbird “America’s story” and credited Atticus with launching countless law careers, was on a campaign stop for Stacey Abrams in Georgia. He referenced the former first lady’s Atticus-like words at the 2016 Democratic National Convention. “Michelle always says, ‘When they go low, we go high.’
“No, no,” he corrected. “When they go low, we kick ‘em.” Amid the laughter and applause, some members of the crowd chanted, “fight, fight, fight!”
Atticus, who is on the Obamas’ side, ends the play diminished. Deaths and injuries have piled up around him. Each one is in some way the result of his optimism, and each one flies in the face of his faith in his friends and neighbors. Calpurnia and Tom, meanwhile, are on Holder’s. And not a single moment goes by when their clear-eyed vision of the world is proven wrong.
I have a friend—call him Tom—who, like me, is a writer. Tom has written many novels over a long and enviable publishing career, and his novel-writing philosophy, related to me over various drinks at various bars, can be summarized as follows: Write whatever the hell you write, whatever concept or character or situation has burrowed under your skin and must be freed. Forget commerce and forget audience—you write for an audience of one, and if an editor or reader happens to find it interesting, all the better. A bestseller, in Tom’s view, should merely be a happy alignment of the world’s interests with your own, a momentary occupation of a dominant paradigm that is essentially unplannable. Or not something to be planned, at any rate.
Tom’s philosophy holds many advantages. It is pure, uncompromised and uncompromising. It presumably results in the best art, at least if you assume that, in theory, the most adventurous art usually takes money the least into account. And it is easily followed, as well, simply by adhering to its lone Thelemic precept: Do what thou wilt.
It is, finally, a comforting artistic position for an artist to hold vis-à-vis commerce. If you are utterly beholden to your artistic impulses, you cannot be surprised or mind much when a piece of art does not sell. You did not create it to sell. If it does, great, but whether it does or not is a simple matter of luck, of spinning the wheel. Further, it implies a retroactively absolving determinism—if a lifetime of artistic work has sold no paintings, no albums, no books, why fret? After all, you were always going to do the thing you were going to do, and you were never going to do the thing you weren’t going to do, and the thing you did do was never not going to be unpopular, QED.
This may be a philosophically solid position, but is it necessarily true? I began to ask this question after the publication and non-success—the anti-success—of my first novel. I wrote the book, as many first-time novelists do, in a kind of prelapsarian innocence, protected from the practical concerns of publication by ignorance and wonder at the odd fact of writing a novel in the first place. In the beginning, I hadn’t even really intended to write a novel, had simply been working on a short story that kept accumulating pages. In the end, it sold to a trade house, and the whole experience had the hazy quality of a dream, an impression strengthened by the arcane inscrutability of the publishing process.
Preparing to write a second novel, I had no such illusions. I had seen the amount of machinery required to make a book, all the stubborn engines of commerce that must be coaxed to life; I had received the distant publication schedules, the important dates that feel imaginary set nearly two years in the future; most importantly, I had a book come out that didn’t do much of anything besides get some nice reviews. These are lessons that cannot be unlearned, and they come with a circumspection about the projects to which you are willing to commit your time and attention. Suddenly lots of market-related considerations crept in that would never have occurred to me the first time around. I began to wonder, contra Tom: Could a writer set out to write a popular book?
In a largely facetious (though slightly more serious than I’d like to admit) attempt to address this question, I decided to take the most literal possible approach and go through several years of New York Times Best Seller lists. After all, to write a bestseller, it would be helpful to know what has sold best. Making the Times best-seller list may seem like casting a broad net, but only counting literary number ones, I was left with, approximately, All the Light We Cannot See and The Nightingale. So I figured hitting the top ten for a week would do it, over the previous five years. Too much further back and you might run into epochal changes of taste, some forgotten mania of the aughts. Also, I didn’t have the time.
An immediate issue this exercise presented, and a question much larger than the scope of this piece, was deciding what qualifies as “literary fiction.” For my purposes, I included almost anything not having to do with worldwide conspiracies, serial killers, werewolves and shapeshifters and rogue triple agents—i.e. anything not obviously genre. And though they invoke the Bard of Avon, William Shakespeare’s Star Wars series—The Empire Striketh Back, The Jedi Doth Return, I am not making this up—did not make the final cut.
(Before moving on to actual findings, a couple of notes after having spent many man hours going through nearly 300 or so of these weekly lists. First—and I realize this is the summit of trite publishing observation—but holy shit does James Patterson, or The James Patterson Military Industrial Complex or whatever it is, produce a lot of books. I’m not sure I noticed more than a handful of weeks in the last five years in which some Pattersonian permutation wasn’t on The List. David Baldacci, also. Second, Brad Thor may be the only bestselling genre author with a less plausible name than his protagonist, the relatively mundane “Scott Horvath.” You would think his hero should be named something like Odin Hercules, but no.)
Having compiled a long list of recent literary hits, what did I learn? Well, for one thing, start your title with “The.” Around a third of these bestsellers are “The” books. The Goldfinch, The Nightingale, The Martian, The Interestings, The Vacationers, The Girl on the Train. Granted, “the” is a fairly common word in English usage, but I suspect it also holds some subliminal power for prospective readers, announcing a book as official in subject and purpose—the definite article, so to speak. Just imagine how many more copies All the Light We Cannot See would have sold if it had been titled, for example, The Light We Cannot See (All of It), or The Entirety of Unseen Light.
Another smart move is to be famous already. Ideally, have written To Kill a Mockingbird 50 years ago, but otherwise, at least be a known quantity. This, of course, introduces another chicken/egg problem, i.e., how did these writers get to be known quantities before they were? At any rate, surprisingly few authors seem to make the list from out of nowhere.
More seriously, write one of two types of books: mysteries or historical fiction, both if possible. In either of these genres, you’re in good shape if you can work in something to do with a famous painting or painter or other noteworthy work of art or artist. Anything to do with marriage and travel to exotic locales, as well. Over and again, a combination of these elements popped up, and the obvious common theme is that of escape: escape into the past, escape into a mystery, escape into aesthetics and culture, escape into imagined relationships, and the literal escape from one’s home to parts unknown. It turns out that the escapist instinct that drives genre fiction sales is alive and well in readers of literary fiction—it simply requires (debatably) better sentences and (usually) less fantastic trappings.
With these guidelines in mind, I came up with a few potential novels that wouldn’t have seemed out of place on the list. Here’s one: a historical mystery based on the life and death of Paul Gauguin. But told from the perspective of his estranged wife, Mette-Sophie, via a diary she keeps as she travels the world, investigating her husband’s artistically triumphant and morally bankrupt life after leaving his family. Call it The Journals of the First Mrs. Gauguin. A synopsis of this ghostly book in the style used to query agents is as follows:
When a previously unknown Paul Gauguin painting is discovered in an abandoned apartment in Chicago, art historian Lena Wexler is assigned the job of tracking its provenance; an investigation back through time, and place—from Chicago to Miami, from Denmark to France, from Tahiti to, finally, The Marquesas, all with the help of The Journals of the First Mrs. Gauguin.
Does this sound like a book people would buy? I think so. I can very easily imagine this book on the coffee table of my mother-in-law, an omnivorous reader of literary bestsellers, classics, and nonfiction who helms a monthly book club. I’m fairly confident that if I queried 20 agents with this synopsis, one or two would request a read. It sounds like a popular book.
The only problem is that for it to exist, I would have to write it. And it’s not a book I can write. Working through this little thought experiment confirmed what I already knew writing a novel requires: an ineffable, personal spark of interest that catches fire and burns steadily enough to not be extinguished by doubt and creative incapacity; a fire that manifests over time as curiosity about the subject, and the project itself, how it all turns out. Lacking this deep interest, an otherwise valid project—exciting, interesting, and commercial—remains a theoretically good idea, like going to medical school or quitting social media.
Since this essay’s inception, I’ve published another novel and have two more in stages of revision, and I’ve fully accepted Tom’s point of view: You have to write what you want to write, even if what you want to write won’t usually be what people want to read. You can’t spend two to five years on something for a theoretical, external reward. Or I can’t, anyway, but maybe some people can—if so, The Journals of the First Mrs. Gauguin is all yours.
Image: Flickr/Nabeel H
A while back, I gave a reading for Little Salon, a Washington, DC arts event that takes place in the comfort of someone’s living room. I read a poem called “Stroke Diary,” and I told the audience that the poem was very personal, as it attempts to capture the minute-by-minute unfolding of my wife’s 2009 stroke at the age of 27 and the paranoia that followed such an unexpected medical event.
During the Q&A afterwards, I was asked how much of my work was autobiographical—the dreaded question. I answered that the “I” in the poems was, most times, actually me, but at the same time not really me. Instead, they were a version of me. Everything is both true and not true at once. Which naturally got me thinking about professional wrestling.
What’s been most interesting to audiences in professional wrestling across the last two decades has been when and how the WWE writers integrate truth and storytelling. The fans are in on this. There are hundreds of “news” sites and Twitter accounts that spin out rumors from backstage—so-and-so doesn’t like this guy, this person’s contract is about to be up, this guy is losing so much because he failed a drug test, etc.—and I eat it all up along with millions of other people.
As a fan, wrestling is best when those real-life factors get pulled into the on-screen drama. In a world that is so heightened and artificial, World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) has succeeded most when material from real life is mixed in subtly for those in-the-know, and the writers and performers can make the audience ask, wait, was that real? Just YouTube CM Punk’s top of the ramp pipebomb that closed out a 2011 Monday Night Raw to see what I mean. Where’s the line between the truth in employee Phil Brooks’s head and the fiction of wrestler CM Punk’s delivery? It’s like trying to separate the dancer from the dance.
So how does this relate to the work of writing fiction and poetry? The principles of combining what’s real and what’s fake are the backbone of good storytelling. Here are a few things that you always hear about writing, advice that has become as cliché as a knocked-out ref during a title match pin, but with a few tweaks straight out of the world of pro wrestling.
Write What You Know
When you look back at the rise of Stone Cold Steve Austin, the biggest Superstar WWE has ever had, his real rise begins in Extreme Championship Wrestling (ECW). After being released from World Championship Wrestling (WCW), Austin was frustrated. He felt held down and held back. He knew what he was feeling, even if he didn’t know what was going to happen next. He channeled that emotion into his promos to transform from the Hollywood Blonde Stunning Steve Austin of WCW to the pissed-off Texas rattlesnake Stone Cold Steve Austin that we all know and love. It was the emotion behind Austin’s antics—the aggression, the hatred for one’s boss, the take-no-shit attitude—that defined him and helped him connect with fans, even more so than stompin’ mud holes in the competition.
Your own life is where your most meaningful material comes from and where your weird obsessions, like wrestling, can be an advantage. If you work in healthcare for your day job, all of your stories don’t have to be about diseases and doctor’s offices. Maybe your grandma just died and that’s very sad, but a story about a dying grandma might not be that interesting. Instead, think of what the experience of losing a loved one has taught you. Now that you know what grief is, someday when you’re writing a story in which someone loses something or someone very important to them (grandma or no), you’ll know how to capture it, what metaphors to use, what images stay with you, what rings true.
When novelist Tananarive Due’s relationship with a boyfriend ended in deception and feelings of betrayal, she used the experience to write My Soul to Keep. In the book, a young journalist (as Due was at the time) discovers her husband has been keeping secrets. [Spoiler alert] It turns out he’s a soulless cult member who needs to kill people to maintain his immortality. Due used what she knew of the stain of bad relationships and duplicity to create a stunning imaginative work. There are some things you have to learn the hard way. Use the emotional and behavioral truth of those things in your writing, not necessarily the real-world fact-truth.
Know What’s Interesting to Your Readers
The best wrestling gimmicks are when you have a version of the real person turned up to 11. Sometimes it takes a few iterations to really get working. The best example of this is The Rock. When he debuted as Rocky Maivia, the idea was to highlight his heritage from the famous Maivia wrestling family. He was a goofy-looking, grinning good guy. After struggling for a while in arenas full of “Die Rocky Die” chants, he was eventually added to the Nation of Domination, a bad guy stable, and only then, when he got the mic in his hand and was able to show off his quick wit and intensity, did people really take notice.
The moral? You’ve got to know your role and shut your mouth until you have something interesting to say.
Continuing with the dead grandma from above, sometimes things happen and they have a great impact on our lives, but they are completely uninteresting to other people. Young writers often spend a long time figuring this out. Drug stories are very rarely interesting. I-got-drunk-with-my-friends stories are almost never interesting. Cut through all those ideas and find the root of the conflict. Give your characters and speakers passions and ideas that are legitimately interesting and surprising to readers. You’ve got to figure out what you can say that no one else can say.
It doesn’t matter that the Rock comes from a family of Hall of Fame in-ring performers. What’s interesting about the Rock is his mouth (and his eyebrow). Both versions of Dwayne Johnson’s character are true, to a degree. The reflect different parts of him. It’s just a matter of figuring out which parts of yourself and your writing will make people take notice.
If you need an example of this from the literary world, look no further than Harper Lee. To Kill a Mockingbird is a beloved classic. Go Set A Watchman, not so much. Despite being marketed as a sequel, Watchman is reads much more as an early draft of Mockingbird. In the intervening time between the drafts, Lee, with the help of her editor, figured out what was really interesting about the story. She shifted the entire thing back into Scout’s childhood. She dropped or massaged many aspects of the various characters. She introduced more structure. She did all of these things in service to the reader, to make them fall in love with the people and the town, to create a story that would hold their interest.
Make It New
Perhaps you remember the love story of Macho Man Randy Savage and his manager Miss Elizabeth, which culminated in their in-ring wedding billed as “The Match Made in Heaven” at SummerSlam in 1991? In reality, Savage and Elizabeth had been married off-screen since 1984. The chemistry was real. Savage, who was notoriously jealous and possessive in real life, played the same character on television as the likes of Honky Tonk Man, George “The Animal” Steele, and Ric Flair all made advances on Elizabeth. At times, Savage’s over-protectiveness got the better of him, such as when he accused Hulk Hogan, his Mega Powers tag-team partner, of having eyes for Elizabeth. Hogan maintained they were just friends.
In reality, at the time of their wrestling wedding, Savage and Elizabeth were already headed for divorce, which would be finalized in 1992, only a year after their “wedding.” Maybe it was portentous that the “Match Made in Heaven” was interrupted by Jake “The Snake” Roberts and The Undertaker? They knew it wasn’t going to work out. Maybe the whole wedding storyline was an attempt to rekindle Savage and Elizabeth’s off-screen relationship in a time of trouble? Either way, the pain of the real-life relationship was transformed into possibly the most important love story in wrestling. Macho Man and Miss Elizabeth is WWE’s “Romeo and Juliet.”
So, shape truth into art. This is what wrestling does better than most writers just starting out. Take that truth that you know is interesting and apply your artistic skills—your language, your storytelling—and make it something completely new. That’s the art—not reinventing forms or innovating new styles, but taking life, digesting it, applying your skills as a writer, and making it something that is transformative. You know, like the WWE does.
Then again, some of us have greatness thrust upon us. I’ve heard Tim O’Brien say he would have always been a writer, but the Vietnam War gave him something to write about. I think it’s much the same for Vince McMahon, owner of the WWE. He had always been an on-screen personality, most often as announcer, but in 1997 the “Montreal Screwjob” would give him the chance to be a SuperStar.
Bret Hart was the champion, but he and Vince were unable to reach a contract agreement and so Bret was to leave shortly for WWE’s biggest competitor, WCW. Bret claims he was willing to drop the belt before leaving, but refused to lose to Shawn Michaels, his bitter rival, in Hart’s home country of Canada. He suggested losing to Michaels the next night when they returned to the States. McMahon was worried that Hart would not follow through on this promise, taking WWE’s top championship with him to another promotion, so a secret plan was hatched to ensure that Hart would not walk out of Survivor Series in Montreal as champion.
Wrestling, and writing for the most part, is fake. We all know that. It’s truth through make-believe. The matches have pre-determined outcomes and everyone works together to tell the story. In this case, however, one person was left in the dark. At the climax of the match, Shawn Michaels put Bret Hart in Hart’s own trademark submission maneuver. The referee immediately called for the bell to stop the match even though Hart had not tapped out. Michaels grabbed the belt and retreated to backstage. An enraged Hart trashed the ringside area, spit on Vince McMahon, and signed to the crowd “WCW.” Real life came crashing into the ring, and to this day it’s the most talked-about moment in wrestling history.
Coming out of the Montreal Screwjob, McMahon knew that everyone hated him for what he had done. His employees felt betrayed. His audience was confused. How could he write his way out of this one? By making himself the villain. Announcer Vince became Mr. McMahon, the evil boss everyone loves to hate. This character turn created the “Attitude Era,” the height of WWE’s popularity, and gave Stone Cold Steve Austin’s working man the perfect foil to in his manipulative, vindictive boss. Vince and his writing team took the real life drama of losing his biggest star and made it new, revolutionizing the business in the process.
Ezra Pound may have championed modernism with the slogan “Make it new,” but in order to make “it” new, we have to recognize the “it” was already there. We have to take the existing material and renovate it, reimagine it, change it from “it” into something “new.” Material or inspiration is all around us in our real lives. If you’re alive, it’s there. A creative writer sees that material and she adapts it. She takes what’s there and makes it new.
Each year, Wrestlemania offers the climax of various WWE storylines that have been at play. Will the underdog finally win the championship? Or will the dastardly villain succeed? Will someone from our past come back to save us? Will someone be betrayed? Will that cocky heel get what’s coming to him? Will the individual defeat the corporation? Will someone defeat the undefeated?
Will these stories move us or fall flat? It all depends on the creative staff getting the fundamentals right. The same can be said for all of us writers. We need to draw from our experience, find the most interesting parts, and transform them into compelling stories. No matter how ambitious our project, it’s these basic underpinnings of the craft that keep a piece of writing strong, that create emotion in a reader, and that ultimately let us have our Wrestlemania moment.
A Mississippi school district has decided to pull Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird from its junior-high reading list because it “makes people uncomfortable.” The novel, which frequently tops the American Library Association’s “Frequently Challenged Book” list, tackles racism. See also: an essay on the symbolism of mockingbirds.
Kim Kardashian and Kanye West’s daughter is barely a week old, and little North “Nori” West is already a household name. Yet despite endless commentary about the unconventional moniker, the literary origins of North West have yet to be revealed.
The obvious association is Hitchcock’s beloved film, North By Northwest, but this title is actually derived from Shakespeare’s Hamlet: “I am but mad north-north-west. When the wind is southerly, I know a hawk from a handsaw,” Hamlet muses to Guildenstern. In modern English, the troubled Prince of Denmark thinks he’s one fry short of a Happy Meal when the breeze blows north or north-west.
Is Kimye aware of the literary connotation of their baby name? Probably not, or they wouldn’t have associated their daughter with mommy issues and madness as fickle as the wind. The unique name, and its surprising Shakespearean association, bring up a fascinating question about the cultural legacy a baby inherits solely based on its name.
Certain names are forever tainted by their literary heritage. Jezebel couldn’t shake its association with the shameless wife of Ahab — until, perhaps, the feminist blog came along and reappropriated the name. Both Romeo and Lothario are inextricably linked to passionate seducers, one sincere, the other unscrupulous. Names derived from strong women in Shakespeare’s plays like Miranda and Portia are fairly common, but Ophelias are rare (Unless they’ve all gotten themselves to a nunnery, as Hamlet suggested.) Then there’s Lolita, a name practically synonymous with a sexually advanced, nymph-like young woman (So why don’t we call pathetic old guys infatuated with younger women Humbert Humberts? Just wondering.)
If some names are tainted, then others are forever blessed by their bookish
background. Is it any surprise that literary names like Phineas (A Separate Peace) and Atticus (To Kill a Mockingbird) have taken off in recent years? Who doesn’t want to bestow upon their child a Pavlovian response from strangers who automatically find their child attractive, wise, honest or dignified because of a book they read in ninth grade? And would an ironic little hipster like Ebenezer be the equivalent of naming a child Miser or Greed? (There actually are 70 people named Greed, according to the Census). I won’t even ask about Quasimotos. Somewhere in Brooklyn, there may be one being born right now.
Interestingly, for girls the names of precocious and whimsical yet feminine characters like Matilda, Madeline, and Alice have become perennial favorites — but not their feistier and more assertive literary sisters, Pippi and Eloise. I guess most parents don’t want daughters sliding down banisters and rejecting basic social norms. It’s no wonder the names of strong women in literature — Tolstoy’s Natasha, Morrison’s Sula, Larsson’s Lisbeth — carry a certain lyricism, fierceness, and sensuality that make them both intriguing and dangerous. Often these characters come to be known more closely than the hefty volumes they inhabit.
Then there are names whose connotations are transformed along with the popularity of a particular book. My generation knows Hermione from Harry Potter, but those prior knew her from The Winter’s Tale (J.K. Rowling probably knew what she was doing, naming a precocious young sorcerer after a Shakespearean character magically “resurrected” after being dead for 16 years.)
Which brings up another trait of literary naming: the cannonical tip of the hat. Claire Messud’s dollhouse-crafting Nora in The Woman Upstairs is clearly piggybacking on Nora in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. In doing so, Messud invokes the magic of her literary ancestors and creates depth of character before the book even begins. On that note, could any writer name a character Holden or Nathan without readers thinking the author was referencing Caulfield or Zuckerman?
Perhaps names in the titles of books — especially those from childhood — have the most lasting influence over how these names are perceived. Harriets must always wear glasses and are probably undercover agents; Annes are plucky and face difficult obstacles in faraway places like Green Gables and Amsterdam. Sheilas, well, they’re just great.
There’s the rare situation where the overwhelming popularity of a name can all but erase its literary connotations. The influx of Emmas (it was the second most popular baby name in U.S. for girls in 2012) has totally diminished its relevance to Ms. Bovary and Ms. Woodhouse in my mind. The first time I read The Merchant of Venice, Shylock’s daughter Jessica threw me for a loop. I thought her name simply didn’t have enough gravitas for Shakespeare, since it is one I associate with popular blonds and B-list actresses.
Some names are just plain obvious in their symbolism. Name a character Adam if you want him to be an everyman. Marys and Maggies are innocent and likely to get devoured in sci-fi or deflowered in literary fiction. Katherines, and now Katniss, are heroine types. Just as certain names in literature connote good and others evil, the concept is fairly often seen off the page too. The suggestion that Tamerlan, a common name in the Caucuses, be retired after the Boston Bombings was a culturally tone-deaf suggestion, but it spoke to the type of personal biases that many of us have with names. I admit to initially feeling slightly prejudged against guys with the same name as certain ex-boyfriends, and when I first started dating my current boyfriend, Lenny, the only other Lenny I knew was the protagonist in Super Sad True Love Story. I couldn’t help but wonder if I was setting myself up for heartbreak (We’re doing just fine, thanks.).
North West is what’s being called a concept name. Will it spawn a generation of Word Smiths and Harry Pitts? Putting Green? Old MacDonald? Cupcake Baker anyone? Names might carry the baggage of their literary predecessors, but what about a phrase? Little North’s legacy will likely be shaped by so many other factors, and to suggest a child’s destiny is exclusively shaped by his or her name is bunk. My prediction is that North West will be a force of nature. After all, wasn’t it the Bard who said a rose by any other name would smell as sweet?
Every life viewed from the inside would be a series of defeats…
– George Orwell
The only person I know who didn’t like To Kill a Mockingbird is a British kid I used to tutor, Alexander Brown. He spent the first 150 pages thinking Scout was a gay boy. When we got to the end, he said, “Look, Amy, I may not read a lot of endings of books, but that is a rubbish ending.” As with most things in life, Alexander Brown is a contrarian. When the book was published in 1960, it won the Pulitzer Prize and was nominated for the National Book Award. It changed the national conversation on civil rights, sold thirty million copies and counting, and was ranked by Alexander’s compatriots, the assembled British librarians, as the number one book to read before you die, ahead of The Holy Bible at number two.
The film version opened fifty years ago, on Christmas Day 1962. In 2003, the American Film Institute named Atticus Finch the greatest movie hero of all time. Gregory Peck won the Academy Award for Best Actor playing Atticus, and the film received eight total nominations.
It is much easier to think about Scout and Dill, about Oscars and Pulitzer Prizes and millions of copies, than about the ordinary day-to-day life in which the book took form. When Harper Lee won the Pulitzer Prize three days after her thirty-seventh birthday, she was a college and law school drop-out who had spent years working as a reservations agent for the airlines in order to write the book. Looking back, it is possible to see how Harper Lee got from point A to point B, as if pins on a map. From the perspective of point A though — which is the point of the view of the artist him- or herself — this is a trick in perception. When you are at point A, it’s not just that you can’t see point B, it’s that it doesn’t yet exist. It’s only your process and effort that creates point B. Point B might be extraordinary, but it is created by ordinary everyday effort.
I wanted to explore this difference between being the weedy uncertainty of the writing, and the Graceland-like enshrinement of the person. I wanted to get closer to the un-Kardashian obscurity in which Lee wrote, in a cold-water flat, “hop[ing] for the best and expect[ing] nothing.” Ironically, the way to do this was the embark on a life adventure I affectionately refer to as Stalking Harper Lee.
It turns out that if you want to stalk Harper Lee, you have to bring serious A game: the last person to do it rented the house next door — it was on the market. I possess far less commitment. I’ve written letters and joined the local museum. I do have idiot savant luck as a stalker: my trip coincides with the weekend of Harper Lee’s birthday. But the only real thing I have is the phone number of Dawn, a woman who had answered the phone at the museum and agreed to let me take her to breakfast.
I leave LaGuardia mid-morning on a Friday, passing a black SUV that is fully and shockingly engulfed in flames not twenty feet from the cars passing on the expressway. We are all one rubbernecking driver away from a fireball explosion ourselves. The Atlanta connection is tight enough I sprint four concourses to make my flight — a last bout of exercise that will serve me well in the coming days as I enter a near constant state of being offered baked goods. We have entered the land of Southern hospitality somewhere midair between Atlanta and Montgomery. The flight attendant tells a man reading his Kindle too late on the descent not that he’s being arrested when we land but “well, finish that one chapter. I don’t think you’re going to take the plane down.”
At the Montgomery Airport, I realize I don’t have Dawn’s number. I call the museum and a woman named Wanda answers, “First of all, which Dawn do you mean?” In a town of 6,400 people, three of the museum’s volunteers are named Dawn. Wanda says the one I am looking for runs a lemonade stand out front and goes to look for her. When she’s not there, Wanda gives me Dawn’s number out of her own cell phone.
The energy of New York is as far behind as the burning car, as different an atmosphere as oxygen and CO2, as profound a switch as give and take: the Montgomery airport has one of the only rental car exits in America that does not threaten to shred your tires. The gas station I will use to refuel on my return is not an obstacle course of three cloverleaf interchanges and two service roads away but right across the street. Drivers not only use their turn signals, they use them if the car in front of them is turning and they are not.
The interstate — I-65 South — is an almost vacant road surrounded by lush green trees that make me think of water moccasins and childhood drives to the beach.
As a native of Alabama—born in Memphis but raised in Birmingham from the age of ten — I have driven within a half an hour of where Harper Lee, the physical person, resides for a long stretch of my life. She is so close to where I have been that it is shocking that my parents — the same mother who brought Halley’s Comet sweatshirts back from a medievalist conference in Kalamazoo — would not have asked us to drive a half hour off the main road to visit the official Literary Capital of Alabama. I meander taking photos of old buildings, alternately boarded up or offering tax services, and change clothes in the parking lot of an old closed grocery story. Just the act of being in the car feels liberating.
When, an hour later, I do turn off toward Monroeville, I pass under an old plane landing in an airfield, an elegant cropduster-sized craft coming in at a North by Northwest angle. These jaunty, brightly colored, bumble-bee, World War II planes must go over Harper Lee all the time. They look like toy flyers, except for the shininess of their paint; they are what toys are based on.
I pass the Sho Nuff country cooking sign, the bungalow house that has been turned into a Pentecostal church — its cross small in proportion like a toddler teetering on a rooftop. There is a casual homemade sign that says Gates of Zion at the scale and politeness of a large suburban mailbox, not far down from a proudly manicured house with a tall and ornate fence. The gas station is a bait and tackle, there’s an old roller skating rink, and the Christian bookstore has a billboard — a small one, but a billboard nonetheless — and it looks new. This is the lifeblood moment of the adventure. Nothing has happened yet but I am enjoying myself.
Dawn is at her lemonade stand when I arrive in the town square. I will later realize that Dawn was an outsider herself, and this status makes her — through holistic and simple empathy — part of the welcoming committee or membrane of the town. Museum volunteers surround her, already staged around the courthouse to welcome visitors for that evening’s sold out show of the To Kill a Mockingbird play the town puts on each spring. Dawn, who has only just met me, makes introductions. They ask if I have heard about the “mystery guest” at lunch today. I have missed Harper Lee’s cameo by two hours. Apparently, the Alabama Writers Symposium — idiot-savant stalker luck, take two: it is the weekend of their meeting — gives an annual Harper Lee Award, this time to Fannie Flagg. Miss Lee was not expected. They tell me that someone stopped by to visit her that morning and told her they were giving the award. She replied, “That sounds nice. Can I have one too?,” and then came along.
The museum volunteers invite me to join the writers’ symposium for an outdoor dinner. The picnic buffet spreads out like a greatest hits album of Southern cooking: fried catfish, hush puppies, which are also fried, fried okra, baked beans, cole slaw, and deviled eggs. Dawn knows I don’t have a ticket for the play and comes over to say that a cast member has returned two. She completely brokers my claiming and paying for one. The ticket comes from “Doc,” the local veterinarian who plays Mr. Cunningham and whom I get to meet later as he and the other characters who form the mob stand in the off-stage area around an old dark green trash can — square and covered with lattice wood. They use it as a bar.
As it turns out, I will not meet Harper Lee, but I will get to go to the church picnic, take a nap on the sofa of the president of the Chamber of Commerce, have a farm lunch and traipse through pastures with Truman Capote’s cousin, and be a bonnet-wearing extra in the play two days later. I will meet people starting properly Aristotelian four-year interdisciplinary programs at the local junior college, programs that sound a lot less like student loan factories than formative learning experiences. I will meet the police detective who plays Boo Radley, both Atticuses, two Scouts, and Crissy, an almost-Belgian existential philosopher who married a local doctor and runs the town’s one coffee shop. Like any life adventure or creative process, this is all steeped in the texture of everyday life — from daily drives past the vast Wal-Mart they call Wally World, to the man who wants to help Dawn get ice for her lemonade stand but quips, “The worst thing about losing the city council election was giving up the key to the ice machine.”
I will come to believe that the really interesting thing about Harper Lee is, moment to moment, what happens next. Harper Lee’s own life sounds fascinating, and I start to fantasize that she is a person I would have liked to be friends with, or even who is a little bit like myself. But to make her a character instead of a person — even inside her own mythology — is not as interesting as the living breathing life-as-art practice of all the townspeople who guard her privacy fiercely, who work as the bank CEO by day and play Atticus by night, and who print me a volunteer nametag even though I can’t give directions to anything but the ladies room, and offer me Styrofoam cups of Malibu Tropical Mojito out of a giant Capri-Sun container as we chat with Miss Stephanie backstage during the play. Crissy the bookstore owner who witnessed Lee’s cameo at lunch said, “Those people have no class, snapping pictures on their cell phones. They post them to Facebook and say they had lunch with Harper Lee.” She says it kindly in playful humor.
Unlike them, I have been given a gift by the town, the gift not of witnessing but of participation. It’s probably the hardest gift you could try to give Harper Lee herself — allowing me to show up and be game. In my own life as a work of art, they are collaborators, navigators, fellow hikers in the weedy terrain of process.
At the time, I was a writer-in-residence at the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council. An artist in my program, Daniel Bejar had gone on his own Stalking Harper Lee trip the week before, except that instead of being in small town Alabama looking for a literary giant he was in coastal Mexico looking for Muammar Gaddafi’s son’s safe house. He passed me the adventure baton at our weekly residency meeting the Tuesday before I left.
Daniel had, a couple of years ago, learned that he shared a name with a Canadian indie-rocker, Daniel Bejar. When he realized that they also looked a lot alike, he set out to recreate some of the photos of Bejar the singer that Bejar the artist found online. He was so successful that one of the artist photos ended up in a French music article. The project, The Googlegänger, exists as the Google image search in which the two bearded, curly-haired men pop in and out of uncanny similarity, with the pervasive subtlety and play of Alfred Hitchcock designing a prank.
As if a gift from the art gods, when Daniel the artist had at last completed his final Bejarian shot in Tampa and was preparing to, at long last, cut his hair, he learned that one of Gaddafi’s sons was in political asylum in Niger. He planned to escape under an assumed name, and that name was. . . Daniel Bejar. And, if Daniel the artist shaved his head and grew his beard out, he would look a lot like Gaddafi’s son.
Something happened to Daniel on his trip that didn’t happen to me. He had the crystallizing moment of artistic conversion. He was out in a fishing boat with a man he had hired to take him around. The man asked why he was visiting and Daniel explained that, although Gaddafi’s son was still in Niger in exile, Daniel was there because of one of the safe house locations. The fisherman replied as if a genie, “Do you want to see the house? I know the woman who owns it and she owes me a favor.” Daniel got fifteen minutes to take photos of himself in a tracksuit cleaning the pool — as he imagined Gaddafi’s son on the run. His moment with the fisherman — a moment in which Daniel was expecting nothing but open to something — allowed him to pass through the portal into an uncanny and authentic experience with the house.
I had no such moment with Harper Lee, accidentally bumping into her in the cereal aisle at the Piggly Wiggly. I was stuck squarely in the present moment, in the weeds of artistic process, which is to say, life, and having a good time. My only hope-against-hope moment of goal realization was finding a Chick-fil-A sandwich late in the fourth quarter, in the Atlanta airport on the way back—in the innocent culinary past before enjoying a chicken sandwich became a morally freighted political act. That sandwich was a certain answer to a smaller question, in a past world. The whole adventure was a messy uncertain answer to a much larger and more interesting one. As Laurence the therapist would say, there is no binary of success or failure, only the framework of process. The only way to fail is not to try.
That process of obscurity and sincere attempt may never lead anywhere. As in the sciences, it is an honorable career to contribute to the body of knowledge by having your entire life’s work telescope down to the phrase, “Nope, no cures for cancer here.”
The state of being an artist — which I mean broadly to be that of people making work in any field — is that you have to trust yourself at exactly that moment of vulnerability where you truly have no idea where you are going and you don’t know if the work is good or not. You have to trust your ability to play through. You have to accept the idea that if you show up as presently as you can with as much attention to being game as you can muster, that good will come of it. Harper Lee, of course, says this best, in the character of Atticus: “[R]eal courage is . . . when you know you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do.”
When I left town, I was sad to leave the people. I was wearing a bracelet Dawn had given me. I would never have said this as I passed the burning car and boarded my flight down there, but, I want to go back.
Next time, Dawn said I could stay with them.
Image courtesy the author
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 former (and current) booksellers in our ranks, we offer our own “Staff Picks” in a feature appearing irregularly.The Moves Make the Man by Bruce Brooks recommended by GarthIt’s been a long time since I read this 1984 coming-of-age novel, but its indelible images – the green glass of Mello Yello bottles, the soggy crackers used to make home-ec mock-apple pie, the railroad lantern by whose light the protagonists play night games of pickup basketball – remain seared into my memory. Author Bruce Brooks, a graduate of the Iowa Writers Workshop, combines descriptive mastery with the kind of compassion that can’t be taught. His story of an unlikely friendship also complicates some of our cherished myths about race and privilege. Though The Moves Make the Man, a Newbery Honor winner, might be slotted into young adult and sportswriting and Southern lit categories, it is no more a niche work than The Bluest Eye, or A Fan’s Notes, or To Kill a Mockingbird, in whose illustrious company it belongs.Barney’s Version by Mordecai Richler recommended by AndrewRichler’s final novel, Barney’s Version is a savagely funny piece of satire. It’s also quite moving as it sweeps you through one man’s life. Frank and cantankerous, Barney Panofsky lays bare his failed marriages, his work, and his possible crimes and misdemeanors. Somewhat unreliable as a narrator, Barney’s memories are annotated by his son Michael, who provides clarification and correction to his father’s version of events. Whenever I hear that a film adaptation of a beloved novel is in the works, I usually brace myself for disappointment, but with Paul Giamatti and Dustin Hoffman signed on to play the principal roles, I’m actually looking forward to this one.The Strangers and Brothers series by C. P. Snow recommended by LydiaThis sequence of novels, beginning with A Time of Hope, takes place in England from World War One to the sixties. I haven’t actually finished the series; I’ve only gotten through four out of a possible eleven. I’m a finisher, though, with the exception of Moby Dick on tape, The Alexandria Quartet, and Ulysses (fucking Ulysses, actually), so I am hoping for a completion date sometime before the autumn of my years.I was overjoyed to learn of the existence of these books. I love novel series, and it is my dream to find another Dance to the Music of Time. Or at least a Forsyte Saga. Or at the absolute least, the one with the cave bears. As it happens, C. P. Snow sits somewhere on the spectrum between Powell and Auel. The books are not nearly so delightful as Dance to the Music of Time, but I am nevertheless enjoying them quite a bit. They relate the life of a middle-class man of limited means, who rises to great heights in several professions. It’s a good chronicle of several English epochs and the attitudes found therein. The subject matter is not always riveting, but the books are quite readable. I realize that this doesn’t exactly sound like a ringing endorsement, but most of the books I love have already been ringing-ly endorsed by someone else, and these are a step or two off the beaten path. So this is me, endorsing.The Posthuman Dada Guide by Andrei Codrescu recommended by AnneDada wisdom, divined by Andrei Codrescu and dispersed throughout this guide includes: take a pseudonym (or many); embrace spam email as a form of cut-up poetry; and remember that “the only viable Dada is the banished Dada.” Codrescu posits with wit that as creatures of the digital age, whose lives are beholden to IMs, email, iPhones, Google, and Facebook, we have entered a posthuman era where employing Dada’s nonsense actually makes sense. Beginning with an imagined chess game in 1916 Zurich between Dada founder and poet Tristan Tzara and revolutionary Vladimir Lenin, Codrescu traces Dada from its nascence to show how Tzara and his rabble-rousers usurped and altered the course of twentieth-century thought. Dada resists meaning and revels in absurdity, and Codrescu would be the first to acknowledge this book doesn’t provide a list of how-to’s but rather resembles a nautical map that charts the currents of our times. “It is not advisable, nor was it ever, to lead a Dada life,” Codrescu warns. And for that reason alone, you just might want to try it.The Magnificent Mrs. Tennant by David Waller recommended by EmilyHow delightful to find a learned book that wears its scholarliness lightly: David Waller’s lovely new biography of the Victorian grande dame and salonniere Gertrude Tennant is such a book. Because the magnificent subject of Waller’s book lived from the end of the age of Jane Austen through the First World War, and lived both in France and in England, her biography offers a sort of intimate history of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries – its personalities and intellectual and cultural history. The famous and controversial explorer Henry Morton Stanley attended Mrs. Tennant’s salons (the horrors of his expeditions to Africa are thought to have been among Conrad’s models for Heart of Darkness), as did Labor Prime Minister William Gladstone, the famous Victorian painter John Everett Millais, and literary luminaries like Mark Twain, Oscar Wilde, Gustave Flaubert, Victor Hugo, Henry James, Robert Browning, and Ivan Turgenev.Her acquaintance was a motley of all the aesthetic and intellectual trends of the age: Imperialist explorers, socialists, anarchists, ex-emperors, Romantic and realist novelists, mediums and experts in telepathy all passed through Mrs. Tennant’s drawing room. Her allure as a biographical subject, however, is not limited to her extensive acquaintance: Tennant’s ability to balance her absolute commitments to her husband and children with her gifts for friendship and graciousness and her interest in social and cultural life reveal a more nuanced view of the age, and of the possibilities available to Victorian women. Tennant was a cosmopolitan, a woman of the world, and “an angel in the house” (as the Victorian ideal of wifely and motherly virtue came to be known). Waller trusts Tennant to express herself; he quotes extensively from her diaries and letters. Her voice is earnest, warm, unpretentious, intelligent, loving. You will be glad to have met her. And you will see, through her life, a more refined view of English nineteenth century social and intellectual history.
You may have heard of Google Squared. It’s a new service in development from Google that, as Wikipedia puts it, “extracts structured data from across the web and presents its results in spreadsheet-like format.” Basically, it returns your results in a list-like format with some additional descriptive columns.Trying it out, we naturally entered some book-related queries. And, if you assume that Google has compiled a database of the world’s knowledge and uses that to generate its results, then these must be – definitively – the “best books” and “best novels” ever.Best Books:The Catcher in the RyeCatch-22Animal FarmThe Very Hungry CaterpillarGoodnight MoonCurious GeorgeGravity’s RainbowBest Novels:Gravity’s RainbowTo Kill a MockingbirdThe Sound and the FuryOne Flew Over the Cuckoo’s NestThe Lord of the RingsTo The LighthouseA Portrait of the Artist as a Young ManNot bad for something computer-generated.(Google has been known to personalize and regularly adjust its results, so your lists may vary.)
Garth and Elise had some aditional thoughts on yesterday’s question: Elise, daughter of a children’s librarian and a great afficianado of too-smart-for-kids-too-fun-for-adults fantasy, likes the Garth Nix books (Lirael, Sabriel, and something else I can’t remember). I used to love Lloyd Alexander’s Taran Wanderer. Also, the Neil Gaiman/Terry Pratchett collabo Good Omens is pretty awesome. And did anyone actually read Summerland [by Michael Chabon]? Maybe it’s good, too.Great ideas. I can’t speak to many of these picks, although they sound intriguing. I didn’t read Summerland and I didn’t have any customers rush back into the store a week after buying it saying that it changed their kid’s life, as I occasionally do with, say, the Philip Pullman books. On the other hand, Chabon is a talented writer, so it makes sense that the book is at the very least quite readable. Moving on. Garth also posed an interesting question in which we enjoy the pleasures of trying to predict the future: Here’s my book question. Who are the under-50 writers you and your readers think are capable of producing something that will be read widely and passionately 100 years from now? Here’s my extemporaneous list: Jonathan Franzen, Michael Chabon, Jonathan Lethem, Jeffrey Eugenides, Rick Moody, Colson Whitehead, David Foster Wallace, Zadie Smith, Peter Carey, Roddy Doyle, Nick Baker, Paul Beatty, Jhumpa Lahiri, Conor McPherson, Suzan-Lori Parks, Patrick Chamoiseau and myself. Any thoughts?This is an interesting question having to do with capabilities. I think it’s fair to say that with the possible exception of Franzen’s The Corrections, none of these writers has as of yet written something that will be read in a 100 years. I am familiar with most but not all of the writers mentioned above, having said that, here are the writers that I think have the best chance to become immortal from the above list: Franzen, Wallace, Whitehead, and Lahiri. On the other hand I’m not sure that Zadie Smith or Suzan-Lori Parks should be included at all, though that may have to do more with my personal taste than the quality of their writing. This is of course an impossible question to answer, but you have to wonder what the prevailing opinion might have been to the same question posed 50 to 100 years ago. Do Hemingway and Faulkner get mentioned? Or is everyone convinced that Sinclair Lewis wll have enduring undying popularity. At any rate, it’s clear that the most fervent current acclaim is no guarantee of canonization. (For what it’s worth, the most voraciously read books that are at least 50 years old are as follows: The Catcher in the Rye, Fahrenheit 451, Great Gatsby, Lord of the Flies, 1984 and Animal Farm. These will be joined by To Kill a Mockingbird in a few years when it turns 50.) I would add a few names to Garth’s list George Saunders, Gary Schteyngart, Maile Meloy, and my favorite to take the title, Jonathan Safran Foer. Finally, I would like to point out three authors who may have already written something that will be read by future generations. All three have only recently turned fifty, so I don’t mind bending the rules to include them in this discussion. They are: Denis Johnson (age 54), Ian McEwan (age 55), Haruki Murakami (age 54), and maybe I’ll throw in Paul Auster (age 55) for good measure…….. Anyone else got some ideas???Loving the Little GuysI went to a “publishing party” at Book Soup in West Hollywood the other day to celebrate the emergence of two local publishers. First Cut Books is the coolest online book store ever. Each month or so they feature a new set of great books that their dedicated staff of reviewers selects and recommends. First Cut is also a publisher and their first publication is Filthy, a quarterly about baseball pitching, to which I am a contributor. Also there was Tam Tam Books, devoted publisher of all things Serge Gainsbourg, Boris Vian, and Guy Debord. Small publishers and the devoted people who run them may be the most exciting thing about the publishing industry.A Brief ExcerptFrom the book I’m reading right now: “I watch him go not without a tinge of envy. In nearly two decades of meditation the Buddha has not told me a single joke. Surely one would laugh for eternity?”