This year we lost a Nobel laureate, several Pulitzer Prize winners, many writers with wide readerships, and many more who never achieved the acclaim or the audiences they deserved. Happily for them all, their books live on.
C.D. Wright’s poetry was grounded in her native Arkansas — she called her early style “idiom Ozarkia” — but her work broke so many boundaries and wandered so freely that she belonged, in the words of the poet Joel Brouwer, “to a school of exactly one.” Wright, who died on Jan. 12 at 67, wrote that her poems were about “desire, conflict, the dearth of justice for all. About persons of small means.” Some of those persons were inmates she interviewed in Louisiana prisons, who inspired these lines:
AC or DC
You want to be Westinghoused or Edisoned
Your pick you’re the one condemned
Tennessee’s retired chair available on eBay.
In an autobiographical prose poem from 2005, Wright, a MacArthur fellow and winner of the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award, wrote this of herself: “I poetry. I write it, study it, read it, edit it, publish it, teach it…Sometimes I weary of it. I could not live without it. Not in this world.”
Umberto Eco, who died on Feb. 15 at 84, was a semiotician by training, a scholar who studied signs and symbols — religious icons, clothing, words, musical scores. When he turned his hand to writing novels, Eco achieved superstar success on a global scale, never more so than with the first of his seven novels, The Name of the Rose, a yarn about murderous monks in a medieval monastery. Though it was larded with descriptions of heresies and Christian theology, it succeeded as a page-turner, a shameless whodunit that sold 10 million copies and was made into a big-budget Hollywood movie starring Sean Connery. Eco’s runaway popularity won the scorn of some critics and more than a few disgruntled academics, but he was unapologetic about wearing two hats. “I think of myself as a serious professor who, during the weekend, writes novels,” he said. In a postscript to The Name of the Rose, he added, “I wrote a novel because I had a yen to do it. I believe this is sufficient reason to set out to tell a story. Man is a storytelling animal by nature. I began writing in March of 1978, prodded by a seminal idea: I felt like poisoning a monk.”
Harper Lee, who died on Feb. 19 at 89, spent most of her long life claiming she was perfectly content being a one-hit wonder. No wonder. To Kill a Mockingbird won the Pulitzer Prize and has been branded “America’s most beloved novel,” with more than 40 million copies in print and a permanent place on every high school reading list in the land. The love was enormous but not universal. Flannery O’Connor dismissed the novel as “a child’s book,” which strikes me as neither unkind nor unfair.
In 2015, Lee’s lawyer talked her into publishing a “lost” novel, Go Set a Watchman. Reviews were mixed, to put it kindly, and many fans were dismayed to learn that Atticus Finch did not always walk on water, that he was capable, in fact, of being a card-carrying south Alabama peckerwood racist. Of course Watchman became an instantaneous #1 bestseller, but that doesn’t dispel the fact that some books should have the decency to stay lost and die a quiet death.
When I heard that Jim Harrison had died on March 26 at 78, I immediately reread Revenge, my personal favorite of his many magnificent novellas, a form at which he had few peers. This one has it all: vivid descriptions of the twinned geographies of the natural world and the human heart, a torrid affair between a former fighter pilot and a dangerous friend’s wife, which leads to rococo violence, which leads to more violence during a long campaign for revenge. The novella runs just 96 pages, yet it contains worlds. Jim Harrison’s world was a moral place, as finely calibrated as a clock. Violence begets violence; violation demands vengeance; every act has its price, and that price must be paid.
Harrison was also a prolific novelist, essayist and poet, author of a memoir, a children’s book, and some very funny writing about food. A shaggy Falstaffian from the wilds of northern Michigan, Harrison was a man with boundless appetites for food and wine, hunting and fishing, literature and life, a man who adored antelope liver and detested skinless chicken breasts, a man who once flew to France to take part in a 37-course lunch that featured 19 wines. French readers revere him, though his American readership is smaller than it should be. No matter. Jim Harrison lived and wrote his own way, the only way — all the way to the brim.
Read: A personal account of a decades-long friendship with Harrison.
Many books have captured the physical horrors of our Vietnam misadventure, but only one captured its psychedelic, rock ‘n’ roll absurdity. That book was Dispatches, a bombshell piece of reporting by Michael Herr that appeared in 1977, nearly a decade after his tour of duty as a war correspondent for Esquire magazine, covering an unwinnable orgy of carnage the only purpose of which, as he put it, was “maintaining the equilibrium of the Dingdong by containing the ever encroaching Doodah.” Herr, who died on June 23 at 76, made no secret of his respect for what the grunts went through, or his disdain for the officers and politicians who put them through it. John le Carré called Dispatches “the best book I have ever read about men and war in our time.” A decade after it appeared, Herr co-wrote the screenplay for Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket. He also wrote a book about his friendship with Kubrick, and a fictionalized biography of Walter Winchell. But in the last years of his life, Herr took up Buddhism and gave up writing.
Read: Our look at war books and the work Herr inspired.
James Alan McPherson
James Alan McPherson was the first black writer to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, for his 1977 story collection Elbow Room. After attending segregated schools in his native Georgia and graduating from Harvard Law School, McPherson took a sharp detour into the writing life, earning a master of fine arts degree from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where he wound up teaching from 1981 until his retirement in 2014.
Though his short stories, essays, and memoirs didn’t flinch from the evils of Jim Crow, McPherson strove to embrace the one thing he felt could possibly bestow greatness on America: its cultural diversity. An acolyte and occasional collaborator with Ralph Ellison, McPherson wrote in a 1978 essay in The Atlantic: “I believe that if one can experience its diversity, touch a variety of its people, laugh at its craziness, distill wisdom from its tragedies, and attempt to synthesize this inside oneself without going crazy, one will have earned to right to call oneself a citizen of the United States.” Speaking of the characters in his first collection of short stories, Hue and Cry, McPherson said, “Certain of these people happen to be black, and certain of them happen to be white; I have tried to keep the color part of most of them far in the background, where these things should rightly be kept.”
Read: A note on McPherson’s skill as a eulogist.
George and Martha — sad, sad, sad. It’s unlikely anyone will ever write a more acidic portrait of an American marriage than Edward Albee’s play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. After his 1959 debut, The Zoo Story, which opened in Berlin on a bill with Samuel Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape, Albee went on to write some 30 plays that shone light into the darkest precincts of well-to-do lives, where the regrets and the lies and the self-deception dwell. Though Albee, who died on Sept. 16 at 88, won two Tony Awards and three Pulitzer Prizes, he was not always embraced by critics or audiences. One reviewer dismissed Virginia Woolf as “a sick play for sick people.” Its film adaptation, starring Richard Burton as George, a bitter alcoholic academic, and Liz Taylor as Martha, his bitter alcoholic wife, captured the essence of Albee’s output. He described his work this way to a New York Times interviewer in 1991: “All of my plays are about people missing the boat, closing down too young, coming to the end of their lives with regret at things not done, as opposed to things done. I find most people spend too much time living as if they’re never going to die.”
Read: A personal account of someone who got his mail from Albee (really).
With her 1982 debut novel, The Women of Brewster Place, Gloria Naylor hit the trifecta: a National Book Award, a TV adaptation by Oprah Winfrey, and a wide and devoted readership. Naylor, who died on Sept. 28 at 66, spun her best-known novel around seven African-American women, straight and gay, who live in a shabby housing project plagued by sexual predators and poverty. Naylor said she regarded those seven women “like an ebony phoenix, each in her own time and with her own season had a story.” The Women of Brewster Place won the National Book Award for a first novel in 1983. A New York native and one-time Jehovah’s Witnesses missionary, Naylor said she left the church out of frustration over its limited role for women, a break that sent her into a deep depression. Like the “ebony phoenix,” she rose and was saved by her writing.
William Trevor wrote extraordinary fiction about the most ordinary of people — mechanics, priests, and farmers who lived in small English and Irish towns. Trevor, a native of Ireland who died on Nov. 20 at 88, wrote nearly 20 novels, many of them prize-winners, but he considered his true form the short story. Few would argue. “I’m a short story writer who writes novels when he can’t get them into short stories,” he said, adding, “I’m very interested in the sadness of fate, the things that just happen to people.” Like the evening a lovelorn Irish mechanic named Cahal, in the short story “The Dressmaker’s Child,” is driving a pair of Spanish lovers back from a visit to a bogus religious pilgrimage site — and the girl of the story’s title hurls herself at the passing car. Cahal is tortured by uncertainty over what happened to the girl and what will happen to him — until the dressmaker offers him a twisted form of absolution. Things just happen to people, and suddenly their ordinary predicaments are transformed into something startling and new.
Read: Lionel Shriver on reading Trevor.
And let’s not forget these notables, in alphabetical order:
Anita Brookner, 87, was an accomplished art historian when she started writing novels in her 50s, many of them about women mired in gloom. Her fourth novel, 1984’s Hotel du Lac, won the Booker Prize.
Read: A detailed exploration of of Brookner’s considerable charms.
David Budbill, 76, worked out of a remote cabin in rural Vermont for more than 40 years, writing stripped-down poems about the Vermont mountains and the “invisible” people who live there, in all their beauty and ugliness. A workmanlike writer who detested artsy pretension, Budbill was once asked about the source of his inspiration. “I don’t know where it comes from,” he replied, “and I don’t care.”
Vincent “Buddy” Cianci, 74, was the author of an autobiography, but he’ll be remembered as the brash mayor who breathed new life into his tired old hometown of Providence, Rhode Island — only to be undone by some nasty habits. He assaulted a romantic rival with a fireplace log, an ashtray, and a lit cigarette, which cost him his job as mayor. After serving a suspended sentence and winning re-election, Cianci was convicted of racketeering for accepting envelopes of cash in return for city jobs. After serving a federal prison sentence, he made a third run for the mayor’s office in 2015, but lost. His autobiography was called Politics and Pasta.
Read: A personal account of meeting Cianci.
Pat Conroy, 70, may have written his share of prose dripping with Spanish moss and Low Country hokum, but he attracted an army of devoted readers. he son of an abusive Marine fighter pilot, Conroy turned the horrors of his childhood into the novel The Great Santini, then followed it with The Lords of Discipline and The Prince of Tides, all made into hit Hollywood movies, all gobbled up by his fans. Asked to describe his son’s readers, the ever-charming Donald Conroy said, “That’s easy: psychiatrists, homosexuals, extreme liberals and women.” He forgot to add: and lots of them.
Read: Conroy’s reaction to having his books banned.
Warren Hinckle, 77, was the swashbuckling, hard-drinking editor of Ramparts and other magazines who railed against the Vietnam War, published Che Guevara’s diaries and Eldridge Cleaver’s letters from prison, and helped birth gonzo journalism by publishing Hunter S. Thompson’s seminal article “The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved,” along with Ralph Steadman’s volcanic drawings. American journalism was changed forever.
Thom Jones, 71, was a recovering alcoholic working as a high school janitor when he mailed a short story called “The Pugilist at Rest” to The New Yorker. The magazine published the story in 1991, and it won the O. Henry Prize for best short story. It was a stunning beginning to a career of writing semi-autobiographical stories about soldiers, boxers, janitors, crime victims — “people,” as Jones put it, “you don’t want living next door to you.”
Read: A Year in Reading on Jones.
Imre Kertész, 86, survived internment at Auschwitz and Buchenwald, then spent years writing semi-autobiographical novels about the Holocaust and its aftermath. The books, remarkable for their lack of sensationalism, languished in obscurity until 2002, when Kertesz became the only Hungarian to win the Nobel Prize in Literature.
Read: A Year in Reading on Kertész.
Florence King, 80, was one of the last of a breed that is all but extinct: the misanthropic curmudgeon. In columns for the conservative National Review and several books, most notably Confessions of a Failed Southern Lady, King skewered liberalism, feminism, and anything that smelled remotely of political correctness. Nobody could possibly agree with all of her opinions, but just about everybody admired her ability to lacerate and enrage, which, after all, is what misanthropic curmudgeons are supposed to do. She once wrote: “Feminists will not be satisfied until every abortion is performed by a gay black doctor under an endangered tree on a reservation for handicapped Indians.” Wow.
Read: A detailed look at King’s work and life.
W.P. Kinsella, 81, wrote 30 books of fiction, nonfiction and poetry, much of it infused with his intertwined love for magic realism and the game of baseball. His best known book is the novel Shoeless Joe, which was made into the 1989 movie Field of Dreams, in which Kevin Costner plays an Iowa farmer who carves a baseball diamond into his cornfield to attract Shoeless Joe Jackson and the rest of the disgraced Chicago “Black Sox” back from the grave. One viewer dismissed the movie as “Field of Corn,” but it produced a line that lives on: “If you build it, he will come.”
Read: A piece on the great writers of baseball.
Image Credit: Public Domain Pictures.
When Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman was published last summer, fans were disturbed at its depiction of Atticus Finch, which seemed to warp an iconic hero of American fiction beyond recognition. Go Set a Watchman shows Atticus as a hidebound defender of Southern tradition who mingles with white supremacists — a far cry, many felt, from the lawyer and family man who took a courageous stand against racism in To Kill a Mockingbird.
We might have been less surprised by the unsavory aspects of Atticus’s character, however, if we paid closer attention to the birds in Lee’s work. Animals are central to the novel’s message; this is, after all, the story of a family of Finches whose protracted battle against Jim Crow is captured in a metaphor about mockingbirds. A better understanding of the cultural significance of the birds in the book suggests what so many readers otherwise miss: that Atticus’s noble actions are inseparable from his investment in the romantic glory of the American South.
The phrase “to kill a mockingbird” comes from a bit of fatherly advice that Atticus delivers to his children, Scout and Jem. When they receive a pair of air rifles as a gift, Atticus lays down some strange rules about how to use their weapons responsibly: “Shoot all the blue jays you want, if you can hit ‘em, but remember it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.” Why it is acceptable to shoot blue jays, but not mockingbirds? Miss Maudie, a neighbor, tries to clarify:
‘Your father’s right,’ [Miss Maudie] said. ‘Mockingbirds don’t do one thing but make music for us to enjoy. They don’t eat up people’s gardens, don’t nest in corncribs, they don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.’
Miss Maudie’s explanation helps direct Scout’s developing moral understanding. For Scout and for the novel’s many young adult readers, killing mockingbirds becomes shorthand for any gratuitous violence directed at innocent, unassuming individuals like Tom Robinson.
Yet there is something off about Miss Maudie’s explanation. As any amateur birder could tell you, mockingbirds are neither innocent nor unassuming. Although it’s true that they don’t destroy seed crops the way a jay might, mockingbirds are hardly models of civility themselves. Like jays, they have a variety of abrasive, grating calls. Their songs can be melodious, but they can also be infuriating; they consist of snippets of other sounds repeated multiple times at high volume. These snippets may include borrowed birdsongs, door hinges, car alarms, or any other ambient noise. They perform these soliloquies all day and often deep into the night.
Another trait mockingbirds share with jays is aggression. What sets the mockingbird’s aggression apart from the jay’s, however, is a tendency to extend its ferocity to almost any species. Mockingbirds happily attack all “intruders” unlucky enough to stumble into their supposed territory. As Mark Cocker notes in his encyclopedic Birds & People:
They are well known for fiercely defending their nests and young from all comers including humans, but also from birds of prey, cats, raccoons and snakes. Sometimes the species extends these violent assaults to almost any small bird straying into its territory…Mockingbirds are sometimes so aggressive they can even kill snakes by pecking out their eyes.
In short, the mockingbird is a remarkable animal, but not exactly an ideal neighbor. Nevertheless, Atticus’s preference for it is so pronounced that it leads him afoul of the law.
Atticus’s advice to his children actually condones what an accomplished lawyer should have recognized as a federal offense. Since the passage of The Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, it has been illegal “to pursue, hunt, take, capture, kill, attempt to take, capture, or kill…any migratory bird” in the United States. Under this statue, both the Blue Jay and the Northern Mockingbird qualify as migratory birds; shooting either one is punishable by fines of up to $500 or up to six months imprisonment. Yet Atticus takes the trouble to draw nice distinctions between species to clarify what sorts of crimes his children can commit with a clear conscience. If the law does not discriminate between blue jays and mockingbirds, why does Atticus Finch?
The answer lies in the Northern Mockingbird’s unusual place in American cultural history. The mockingbird has an elaborate literary pedigree, one that stretches across the Atlantic through the bird’s longstanding association with the European nightingale. That relationship helped enshrine the mockingbird as a symbol of the faded magnificence of the American South — a meaning it retains to this day.
The mockingbird’s rise to prominence began with the Romantic movement. In the late-1700s, a number of writers, artists, and intellectuals sought to escape the corruption of European society through a return to nature. In the process, they founded what is now known as the Romantic movement. As they praised nature in poetry, painting, and music, the Romantics sometimes singled out particular species for special symbolic significance. One species beloved by the Romantics was the Common Nightingale.
To the Romantic poet John Keats, the Common Nightingale was anything but common. As Leonard Lutwack points out in his study of Birds in Literature, admiration for the nightingale’s song dates back to Ancient Greece. The bird’s beautiful music — and its classical associations — awed Keats. His 1820 “Ode to a Nightingale” depicts the bird as enviably happy, the symbol of a golden age in Western Civilization lost to modern man. The nightingale’s music contrasts sharply against the song of the melancholy modern poet; as night falls and the poet’s vision fails, the bird warbles “of summer in full-throated ease,” spurring its lonely listener to meditate on the grandeur of “ancient days” and pine for “the warm South” of the Mediterranean.
Although they were separated from the main currents of Romanticism by the Atlantic, American writers welcomed the new cult of nature worship. After all, the Romantic fondness for wild places promised to redeem America’s sprawling tracts of uninhabited land, recasting the new country’s wastes and deserts as sources of cultural pride. There was only one problem: the iconic species featured in so many Romantic poems — nightingales, song thrushes, skylarks — were Old World species, confined to Eurasia and Africa. In order to adapt Romantic nature worship to their national landscape, American writers needed to find native species that could stand in for their more storied European cousins. They needed creatures that would tap into the glories of Old World traditions, but that remained distinct enough to symbolize the natural purity and power unique to the American continent.
Luckily, European explorers and naturalists had already begun that work for them. A glance through the ornithological writings collected in Donald Culross Peattie’s A Gathering of Birds, for example, shows foreign-born writers freely equating the species they encountered in the New World with better-known ones back home. So, the 19th-century Englishman Thomas Nuttall begins his writings on the Northern Mockingbird by immediately equating it to a European counterpart. He repeatedly characterizes its appearance (drab plumage) and behavior (nighttime singing) as “like the Nightingale.” Both the jarring mockeries of the mockingbird’s song and its unpredictable aggressions are softened by this comparison to a more timid, musical corollary from the Continent.
When they sought to construct their own natural iconography, then, American writers like Walt Whitman had such associations ready-to-hand. Oceans may have divided Whitman’s Long Island from Keats’s Hampstead and Homer’s Greece, but Whitman could still frame his poetic engagement with nature in familiar terms, because he, too, found inspiration in solitary encounters with birdsong at night. Whitman’s “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking” depicts the poet as a boy, wandering the shore and listening to a bird sing mournfully in the darkness. The experience moves Whitman as it moved Keats and the Greeks before him. In Whitman’s case, though, the conventional nightingale is replaced by the American mockingbird, which sets the young boy on his path to develop a uniquely American literary voice.
The final fruit of that effort was Whitman’s oft-revised masterpiece, Leaves of Grass. Composing this collection of national poetry entailed treating the United States as, well, united. But “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking” first appeared in 1859, when tensions over slavery were tearing the young nation apart. Whitman was a Northerner who would go on to champion Abraham Lincoln and the Union cause. He stressed American unity in his poem, however, by building it around admiration for the mockingbird, a species powerfully associated with the slaveholding states; like its counterpart the nightingale, the mockingbird was an emissary of “the warm South.” In fact, from an ornithological perspective, one of the most striking features of Whitman’s poem is his claim to have seen mockingbirds breeding as far north as Long Island; Whitman acknowledges them as an oddity by hailing the mated pair as “Two feather’d guests from Alabama.”
The mockingbird’s range has expanded northward in the intervening years, obscuring the bird’s deep regional associations. But a glance at the list of U.S. state birds shows how strongly those associations persist. Indeed, the Northern Mockingbird’s name is something of a misnomer; all of the states that have declared it their official bird (Mississippi, Tennessee, Texas, Florida, Arkansas, and — formerly — South Carolina) lie well below the Mason-Dixon Line. The seemingly pointless practice of selecting state animals turns out, then, to provide a useful index of this bird’s ongoing importance to a certain kind of regional pride — an affection that persists long after most Southerners could rationally explain it.
Despite Miss Maudie’s claims, then, the mockingbird is no innocent entertainer. It has long served as a rallying point for a very specific vision of American communal identity — one intertwined with the romantic glories of the Old South. Its associations with the nightingale allow the mockingbird to suggest a vision of the South as a lost idyll, the mythic location of a golden age we can no longer inhabit. At the same time, the contrast between the mockingbird’s symbolic traits and its real-world behavior remind us of just how misleading that vision can be.
Like the Old South itself, Atticus’s beloved mockingbird has been sanitized of all its obnoxious traits and associations. The song of his mockingbird is pure, joyous entertainment; in reality, the mockingbird’s song weaves borrowed sounds together into a patchwork melody both beautiful and jarring, an assertive boast the disturbing elements of which keep conscientious listeners awake at night. Atticus’s mockingbird behaves with pure courtesy; in reality, the mockingbird combines charming bluster with surprising violence in defense of its self-proclaimed territory. Neither Atticus nor Miss Maudie bothers to mention the bird’s unimpressive plumage. If they did, though, they might praise it as a staid Confederate gray — a sharp contrast to the jay’s flashier Union blues.
The mentality of the Old South infiltrates even the apparently positive application of the mockingbird metaphor to Tom Robinson. Although Scout understands the metaphor as an injunction to protect all forms of innocence and goodness, its actual implication is far more specific: Miss Maudie explains that protecting mockingbirds is an exercise in benevolence towards harmless, joyful, music-loving souls.
Tom Robinson is innocent, but this image of him isn’t. It reproduces stereotypes of blackness popularized by the minstrel shows of the antebellum South. The black characters in minstrel performances — really white actors in blackface makeup — were clownish and lazy, but otherwise harmless and musical. The devastating cultural legacy of these characters is visible in the term “Jim Crow” itself. The phrase that now designates the pervasive racism of the post-Reconstruction South originated with Thomas Dartmouth Rice’s “Jump Jim Crow,” a song-and-dance routine that popularized Jim Crow as a stereotypical minstrel figure.
As Miss Maudie explains it, then, the mockingbird metaphor deals in the same oppressive stereotypes that Atticus appears to fight. Readers are free, of course, to reject Miss Maudie’s interpretation in favor of Scout’s more expansive moral understanding. But the heavily symbolic mockingbird retains its deeply entrenched and unsettling associations with the slaveholding South.
Idolizing Atticus as a paragon of moral decency requires passing over these things in silence — as Atticus himself does when he expresses a preference that is, finally, unjustifiable. Reading into his silence reveals the hidden complexity of Atticus’s character, suggesting the tensions between real progress and Romantic regionalism at work in his psyche. For many readers, that tension was imperceptible until the publication of Go Set a Watchman. But if we listened a little closer, we might have heard what a little bird was telling us all along.
Recommended Reading: On the forgotten journalism of Harper Lee, author of To Kill a Mockingbird. Lee’s forays into journalism included a 1,200-word profile of Officer Dewey, the lead investigator in the series of murders which were the focus of Truman Capote’s seminal In Cold Blood, and another short profile of Capote himself for the newsletter of a Book of the Month Club which had selected In Cold Blood as its monthly read — seriously.
Harper Lee may have died earlier this year, but the drama surrounding her final years rages on. Last week, a stage adaptation of Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird was performed in her hometown of Monroeville, Alabama, as it has for many years. This time, however, things got a bit contentious. Here’s a dispatch from Monroeville by Robert Rea for The Millions.
The London Book Fair starts on April 12th. As a kick off, we thought it would be fun to compare the U.S. and U.K. covers of a few notable titles from last year, a task previously taken on by our much-loved outgoing editor, Mr. Max Magee.
I’ve lived in both the U.S. and the U.K. and always felt that if I could pinpoint the reason why the soap operas are so different — the kleenex-lensed, pearly hues of The Young and the Restless vs. the gruff, flattened grays of East Enders as one example — or articulate why marmite sandwiches appeal in one place when peanut butter and jelly is preferred in the other, I would finally understand where the two cultures divide.
Sometimes I look to book covers in an attempt for clarity. Why is a cover in the U.S. replaced with another in the U.K. when the words inside are exactly the same? I may not like marmite, but I do have a taste for books. I sat down to see if I could finally develop the overarching theory that has eluded me so far.
It’s notable that many covers are the same. Some of the biggest books, like Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk, Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between The World And Me, and Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels sport the same jackets in the U.S. and U.K. “It often comes down to differences in cultures and tastes. What appeals to people in one country doesn’t appeal to others,” says my literary agent, Denise Bukowski. “But if the book has been published first in one country and has been successful there, subsequent publishers often choose to capitalize on that success by using the original cover.”
But many others titles still have completely different covers, which is fortunate as it means there is still plenty for us to argue about.
Below I present just a few of the choice examples. U.S. covers are on the left. U.K. covers are on the right. Your equally inexpert analysis, baseless opinions, and sweeping generalizations are encouraged in the comments.
Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff
These covers are intriguingly similar and yet so different. Swirls vs. angles, blues vs. reds, swishes vs. swipes, almost like a mirror of the two halves of the book, the first told by the husband, Lotto, and the second by the wife, Mathilde. I had trouble making sense of it all until I consulted an article called “How to Use Color Psychology to Give Your Business an Edge” and understood that there is subliminal messaging at work. The U.S. cover designer is on team Lotto and emphasized blue for grief, sadness, and distraction. In the U.K., the designer was on Mathilde’s side, hence anger, rage, and ecstasy.
Hausfrau by Jill Alexander Essbaum
I love the U.S. cover for this book, but how does it relate to the story? Flowers are sex organs. This book is about sex organs. Then what of the U.K. cover — embroidery is about not having sex. Or not messy sex. Maybe strictly missionary? Or if you get up to more, you have to make the bed perfectly afterwards, including carefully smoothing the bedspread so that no one will suspect what you’ve been up to. Which is exactly what this book is about.
The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins
These two covers clearly illustrate one big difference between the two countries, their respective outlooks on the events leading up to the U.S. presidential election. If you are a drunk woman in the U.S., the primaries feel like you are on a train and with all the antics, both comic and tragic, hurtling around you in an incomprehensible blur. If you are a drunk woman in the U.K., you watch from the outside and find yourself unable to take your wavering eyes off the speeding train — the question that holds your attention is not if it will crash, but how.
Purity by Jonathan Franzen
Only a fool would think these covers came from different countries. They were clearly designed in alternate dimensions.
Did You Ever Have a Family by Bill Clegg
Both designs take inspiration from the publisher’s description of the inciting incident: “This book of dark secrets opens with a blaze.” However each seem to have decided that a different element of that incident is more enticing. In the U.S., readers might like dark, mildewy, water-damaged secrets, whereas in the U.K., a good house fire will make the book fly off the shelves?
A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara
It’s hard for me to imagine A Little Life without the ecstasy and agony conveyed by the iconic photograph on the U.S. edition, Orgasmic Man by Peter Hujar. I was struck by ecstasy every time I picked up this book and collapsed into agony after each reading session. I understand the reasoning behind the U.K. cover; it makes sense to put forward an image that evokes life in New York, but it doesn’t echo the experience in the writing, as does Hujar’s art. I wonder, are orgasms not a universal experience? Perhaps people in the U.K. do not have them.
Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee
Finally, the clarity I seek. This one is straightforward. The U.S. cover lets you know the name of the book you are buying. The U.K. cover lets you know that you are buying a draft of a sequel that you won’t enjoy unless you keep To Kill a Mockingbird in the back of your mind at all times while reading.
Harper Lee’s estate will no longer allow publication of the mass-market paperback edition of To Kill a Mockingbird, which was popular with schools. Over at The New Republic, Alex Shephard writes that “Without a mass-market option, schools will likely be forced to pay higher prices for bulk orders of the trade paperback edition—and given the perilous state of many school budgets, that could very easily lead to it being assigned in fewer schools.” For more about the author’s legacy, read Robert Rea’s Millions essay on his travels to her home.
Harper Lee, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of To Kill a Mockingbird and Go Set a Watchman, died this morning in Monroeville, Alabama at the age of 89. Lee won the Pulitzer Prize in 1961 for Mockingbird, which later formed the basis of a film starring Gregory Peck. To learn more about her legacy, you could read our own Michael Bourne on the hidden character of Atticus Finch, or else read Robert Rea on a pilgrimage he took to her home.
We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for January.
Fates and Furies
The Big Green Tent
The Heart Goes Last
City on Fire
What Belongs to You
My Name is Lucy Barton
A Brief History of Seven Killings
It’s with a certain degree of triumph that I welcome Marlon James to the first Millions Top Ten of 2016. While this isn’t the first time his superb novel A Brief History of Seven Killings has appeared on our list overall — that first occurred in October of last year — it nevertheless feels a bit like a personal victory for me, the humble author of this series, who has since that time urged each and every one of you to go out and purchase a copy (or three!) immediately. Well, it finally seems that the work has paid off. (Happy New Year to me!) Now let’s work on keeping it here, eh?
This month we graduated three Top Ten fixtures to our Hall of Fame: Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me, Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life, and Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman. The first two were fixtures atop our list for the past six months, while Lee’s Mockingbird sequel-prequel got off to a hot start before ultimately settling in the middle of our ten-book pack.
Their success means Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies is the new top book in town. It’s a novel that Margaret Eby described in her Year in Reading entry as the kind “I would start reading on a Saturday morning and soon find myself cancelling weekend plans to finish by Sunday night.” To get acquainted with it, I recommend first checking out our exclusive first look at its opening lines, and then settling in for our interview with its author. If somehow you’re still not convinced that this is a book you absolutely need to read in full, immediately, then allow our own Edan Lepucki’s praise to coax you over the threshold:
I have read all of Groff’s novels, and each one is better than the last, which gives me vicarious hope for my own puny literary pursuits. I get the sense that Groff is always looking for new ways to tell stories, to show time passing, to express human longing, shame, desire, need, all without succumbing to the same-old conventions of scenic conflict and cause-and-effect. Plus, her prose is so shining and unexpected she could describe getting her license renewed at the DMV and I’d find it compelling.
Also this month in addition to A Brief History… we welcome two newcomers to our list: Garth Greenwell’s What Belongs to You and Elizabeth Strout’s My Name is Lucy Barton. Both novels have received heaps of praise — both appeared on our Most Anticipated preview — but Greenwell’s in particular has been drawing some seriously effusive reviews. On our site, Jameson Fitzpatrick wrote that What Belongs to You “offers us the most exacting and visionary reading in contemporary literature of what it means to be gay in America today.”
This month’s near misses included: Eternity Street: Violence and Justice in Frontier Los Angeles, The Turner House, The 3 A.M. Epiphany, Undermajordomo Minor, and A Strangeness in My Mind. See Also: Last month’s list.
Welcome to a new episode of The Book Report presented by The Millions! This week, Janet and Mike discuss characters from literature they’d like to see join the already hilariously crowded Republican 2016 presidential primary. Why stop at 17? Come on! We’re just getting warmed up, y’all!
Discussed in this episode: Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James, Atticus Finch, To Kill a Mockingbird and Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee, Gregory Peck, Christian Grey, Grey by E.L. James, Edmund Pevensie, The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis, Rep. Greg Stillson (I-N.H.), The Dead Zone by Stephen King, air pollution, Donald Trump (R-N.Y.), Mitt Romney (R-Utah), the Frank Bascombe books by Richard Ford, Eloise by Kay Thompson and Hilary Knight, pugs.
Not discussed in this episode: 15 of the 17 Republican candidates actually running for president, including Jeb Bush (R-Fla.), Gov. Scott Walker (R-Wisc.), Rep. John Whiteman (R-Ohio), Sen. Robert “Bobby” Dollar (R-Wash.), and that one governor who yells at people all the time (R-Ohio).
We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for July.
Go Set a Watchman
Between the World and Me
The Buried Giant
The Girl on the Train
Book of Numbers
A Little Life
The Paying Guests
Four new additions splashed climbed into the Top Ten this month, with Go Set a Watchman — Harper Lee’s ubiquitous Mockingbird pre/sequel — topping the chart. It would be generous to say that the critical reception to the novel, which was written prior to Mockingbird but set two decades afterward, has been mixed. Many evaluations hinge on whether or not the work is capable of standing on its own, or whether it can only be understood as a draft. (There’s also the whole matter of whether the thing should’ve been published to begin with…) In an essay for our site, Michael Bourne wrapped it all together by writing:
Whatever its true provenance, Go Set a Watchman, despite some deft prose and sharp dialogue, fails as a work of art in every way except as a corrective to the standard sentimental reading of Atticus Finch. … The great revelation of the novel isn’t that Atticus Finch is a bigot, but that he has been one all along and his daughter has been too in love with him to notice.
(Bonus: Robert Rea went to Monroeville, Alabama on the day of the book’s release, and wrote about the experience for our site.)
Also appearing on our list this month is Ta-Nahisi Coates’s Between the World and Me. In her preview for our site last month, Anne K. Yoder wrote that the work “grapples with how to inhabit a black body and how to reckon with America’s fraught racial history from a more intimate perspective — in the form of a letter to his adolescent son. Given the current state of affairs, this book should be required reading.”
We also welcome Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life and Andy Weir’s The Martian to this month’s list. No doubt their presence owes to a recent essay from Lydia Kiesling, and Hollywood’s ongoing obsession with abandoning Matt Damon in space, respectively. We also interviewed Yanagihara this week.
Nipping at the heels of this month’s selections is Ernest Cline’s new novel, Armada, which was discussed by yours truly in our Great Second-Half 2015 Book Preview a few weeks ago. Be honest: a bunch of you bought it because I referenced my “Diablo III” prowess, didn’t you?
Miranda July’s The First Bad Man and Mark Z. Danielewski’s The Familiar dropped from our list this month. Other near misses included: Armada, The Tusk That Did the Damage, and Everything I Never Told You: A Novel. See Also: Last month’s list.
It’s summertime in Harper Lee’s hometown, the inspiration for the setting of To Kill a Mockingbird. Summertime at midnight, and light from the dome atop the proud courthouse beams high above the storefronts facing the downtown square. Summertime, and two blocks away a string of lights runs from the front porch of Ol’ Curiosities & Book Shoppe to a lamppost near the street, emitting a soft glow over 400 or so people gathered in the sweltering heat to celebrate the arrival of Miss Lee’s second novel, Go Set a Watchman. It’s summertime, and the literary event of the year is right here in Monroeville, Ala.
To Kill a Mockingbird introduced me to a world I already knew. Other books I’d read as a child lured me away from the soulless and repressive place I lived in. I imagined floating off to a magical land full of mythical creatures or maybe a slightly less spectacular world where a cool, resourceful detective inspects the scene of a crime in search of clues. Nothing worth writing about happened in a small town like mine, or so I believed.
I wasn’t old enough to understand the politics of race or anything regarding rape when I first crossed paths with the Finches, the Radleys, and the rest of Maycomb, Ala. To be honest, I wasn’t quite clear on the meaning of the word chiffarobe, nor did I altogether grasp how to bust one up. Those lessons came later. Still, I was taught a good book shouldn’t instruct so much as inspire.
I took to Scout immediately because she could say anything, without bowing to authority or status quo. As in Maycomb, young people in my hometown dwelled near the bottom of the barrel as far as art, music, and books were concerned. I shared Scout’s frustration with her fellow classmates and teachers like Miss Caroline who “seemed unaware that the ragged, denim-shirted and floursack-skirted first grade, most of whom had chopped cotton and fed hogs from the time they were able to walk, were immune to imaginative literature.” Scout spoke my tongue, sized up my home turf, yet somehow bent the familiar toward a richly imaginative — not to mention comical — purpose.
And so, for the release of Miss Lee’s long-lost novel, I lit out on a literary pilgrimage. Upon arriving in Monroeville, I checked in at the Mockingbird Inn & Suites, which exuded the quaint appeal of your standard suburban strip mall. I asked the clerk behind the counter for her thoughts on the new book. “I’m embarrassed to admit I just finished To Kill a Mockingbird for the first time,” she explained. Her co-worker, thumbing through a filing cabinet, leaned over and barked, “I’m not gonna read it — I don’t read fiction books!”
I snagged a schedule of events for the following day’s affairs about town before cutting out. A marathon reading inside the courthouse kicked off at nine. What grabbed my attention, more than anything else, was the midnight release at Ol’ Curiosities & Book Shoppe.
On the way to the square, located in what several street signs assured me was a “historic” downtown area, a freshly coated billboard displayed the Go Set a Watchman cover with “Thank you, Miss Lee! Welcome Visitors” scribbled across the top. Although the square is no longer a hub of commercial activity, the old courthouse — now converted into a museum — retains the majestic beauty moviegoers will recall from the 1962 adaptation of Mockingbird. I caught a glimpse of what looked like a bespectacled Atticus, decked out in white seersucker, lingering on the courthouse lawn. (Should the dubious reader roll his eyes here, so be it.)
My endless quest for the ideal independent bookstore borders on an unhealthy, Ahab-level obsession. I turned up as a forklift unloaded three shrink-wrapped pallets stacked with boxes. Inside the phone rang without end as I browsed the shelves. By noon, Spencer Madrie and his staff, which includes his mother, counted 7,500 orders. “As soon as all this is over, I’ll get a cup of coffee and find a cozy corner to read it,” he told me. “We have 5,000 books to ship out. I’m holding out on reading it until I mail a book to every customer.” Each copy contains a certificate of authenticity and a seal with the store logo embossed on the front flyleaf. I checked my bank account before settling up.
The countdown to midnight exceeded all expectations. News trucks from Birmingham, Mobile, Pensacola, as well as major outlets like CNN, jockeyed for curb space along West Claiborne Street. Reporters flanked the throng of Lee enthusiasts, requesting interviews. Mr. Madrie, dressed in his Sunday best and seeming genuinely surprised at the sizable turnout, welcomed the crowd and thanked them for coming. Roughly half were out-of-towners looking to score a copy of a book that’s available online or at every airport in the English-speaking world.
Meanwhile, alongside the shop, a tent and chairs offered relief from the soul-crushing humidity. An Atticus impersonator, flown in from Baltimore, posed for selfies. (To hell with you, dismissive reader, and your smug skepticism! It was him, after all!) Champagne corks popped, plates of finger foods were passed around, a squad of little leaguers, still suited up in game jerseys, chased one another through a maze of pesky adults. No wine-and-cheese reception, this was a free-for-all blowout for book-lovers of every stripe.
I mean no disrespect to Mr. Madrie and his exceptional bookstore when I say the true hosts on this occasion were the people of Monroeville. I sensed no resentment toward myself and the other strangers-come-lately who’d crashed their party. What’s more, I was treated like one of them. A mother and daughter kept me in polite company as I stood in line. The daughter was hell-bent on reading the entire novel on no sleep. Her mother and I chatted about the negative reviews printed in The New York Times. “Being from Monroeville, this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” she said. “There’s been so much back-and-forth about whether or not the book should be published. Now it’s time for everyone to read it and decide for themselves.”
Go Set a Watchman stunned reviewers by constructing an alternate universe where the beloved moral giant of American literature appears as a racist jerk. From these dashed off impressions, you’d assume Atticus Finch is the character central to the plot. The starting point for this strain of critical myopia begins with the Mockingbird film and the decisive role Gregory Peck played in editing the final cut. According to Charles J. Shields’s biography of Lee,
At the time, the film was considered politically liberal because of the attention paid in the screenplay to social justice. Looking back, however, Peck’s insistence that Atticus’s character occupy more of the film’s center injects a heavy dose of white patriarchal values. In a word, Atticus, an educated white male, appears to be the most important person in the film. Everyone else defers to him, humors him, reacts to him, or disagrees with him. As one critic recently noted, the elimination of Scout’s voice-over from most of the film means that the viewer doesn’t see small-town southern society from the perspective of a young female growing up in it.
Never forget, aspiring Scout impersonators, Lee’s treatment of the story, unlike the cinematic version, is told from the point-of-view of a young girl. By the same token, Go Set a Watchman catches up with our scrappy heroine as a 26-year-old exile, returning to the scene of her childhood.
It comes as no surprise that Lee’s second novel doesn’t quite measure up to the achievement of her debut. An ill-formed draft submitted to publishers at J.B. Lippincott in 1957, Watchman underwent a major overhaul after her editor, Tay Hohoff, recommended rewriting it from the perspective of a child. Two years and untold revisions later, Lippincott finally accepted the manuscript — this time bearing the title To Kill a Mockingbird.
What makes the book a fascinating read, nonetheless, is getting to know Scout as an adult. For those of us who take the liberty of reading Mockingbird as an origin story, Watchman points her toward a destination in life. She stares out a window on a moving train in the opening scene. Her homecoming takes place after living in New York for five years. Sparks fly when a city girl feels pressured to settle down in Maycomb County.
Except for the fact Scout’s dropped her nickname, in certain ways, she’s the same “juvenile desperado, hell-raiser extraordinary” we’ve come to know and love. Jean Louise Finch still thumbs her nose at her prudish Aunt Alexandra, and “when confronted with an easy way out, [she] always took the hard way.”
At a glance, even less has changed in Maycomb, where “if you did not want much, there was plenty.” Atticus, we are told, “was seventy-two last month, but Jean Louise always thought of him as hovering somewhere in his middle fifties — she could not remember him being any younger, and he seemed to grow no older.”
The same stagnant air hovers over Jean Louise’s ex-boyfriend, Hank Clinton, whose world stopped turning back in high school. She keeps him at arm’s length, even though he clearly aims to marry her: “She was easy to look at and easy to be with most of the time, but she was in no sense of the word an easy person. She was afflicted with a restlessness of spirit he could not guess at, but he knew she was the one for him. He would protect her; he would marry her.” His intentions are both noble and condescending. Fortunately, Jean Louise brushes him off in a memorable scene after a late-night swim: “When you live in New York, you often have the feeling that New York’s not the world. I mean this: every time I come home I feel like I’m coming back to the world, and when I leave Maycomb it’s like leaving the world. It’s silly. I can’t explain it, and what makes it sillier is that I’d go stark raving living in Maycomb.”
For every strike against Maycomb, there are homespun moments such as the rapport she shares with the owner of an ice cream shop: “Mr. Cunningham, a man of uncompromising rectitude, had given her a pint free of charge for having guessed his name yesterday, one of the tiny things she adored about Maycomb: people remembered their promises.”
But Atticus and Hank, it turns out, are hiding a continuity-shucking secret. The tipping point comes after Jean Louise discovers they are members of the Maycomb County Citizens’ Council. Torn between staying and going, she condemns their actions in what is perhaps the most striking passage in the novel.
Hell is eternal apartness. What had she done that she must spend the rest of her years reaching out with yearning for them, making secret trips to long ago, making no journey to the present? I am their blood and bones, I have dug in this ground, this is my home. But I am not their blood, the ground doesn’t care who digs it, I am a stranger at a cocktail party.
After seeking guidance from her long-winded uncle, Dr. Jack Finch, Jean Louise barges in her father’s office for a final showdown. With the calm demeanor of a seasoned country lawyer, Atticus delivers a chilling argument in favor of white supremacy and scolds his daughter for “talk[ing] like the NAACP.”
I won’t spoil what happens, but let me just say the closing chapter leaves readers to debate the value of origins, and whether or not Jean Louise succeeds in escaping Maycomb. To be fair, her home turf can’t simply be dismissed as a wasteland because her native soil, somehow, nurtured the independent woman we admire. And yet, tales of success told in small towns across the country are so often stories of sons and daughters who have cut those ties and left. In either case, Go Set a Watchman taps into a classic myth that crosses every stage of American literature, from Walt Whitman and Mark Twain to John Steinbeck and Toni Morrison: the story of American migration.
I overslept the next morning after a late night at the bookstore. My thoughts turned to Atticus as I peered over the balcony where Scout, Jem, and Dill joined Maycomb’s black citizens for Tom Robinson’s trial. Below me, an integrated audience met in the courtroom for a marathon reading of Go Set a Watchman, proof that life stops for no one.
I spotted a billboard off the highway advertising Monroeville as “The Literary Capital of Alabama” as I drove north. It’s been many years since I left my hometown with dreams of living closer to the center of literary culture. As I sat down to write about my summer trip to Monroeville, Ala., I couldn’t help wondering if I didn’t exchange wealth for poverty.
Image Credit: John Rea.
Imagine that you are an eighth-grade English teacher who has been teaching Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird for decades. The book works for your students because it tells a compelling story about an ugly period in American history in an accessible and often funny way, with children not much younger than the students in your classes as central characters. But you also return to it year after year because the novel provokes lively discussions of profound moral questions: What societal forces can turn even decent people into racists? How do we combat intolerance? Can one good man willing to die for the rule of law face down an angry mob?
But with the school year weeks away, you are wavering about whether to put To Kill a Mockingbird on the syllabus this fall because you know that 10 minutes into the first day of teaching the book some smart ass in the back row will ask: “But wait, isn’t Atticus Finch a racist?”
This question troubles you because you have now read Go Set a Watchman, the 1957 precursor to To Kill a Mockingbird, and you know the smart ass in the back row is right. According to no less an authority than Harper Lee, Atticus Finch, the lawyer hero of Mockingbird who defends an innocent black man charged with raping a white woman, is an ardent segregationist. In Watchman, the iconic character venerated by generations of American schoolchildren rails against the NAACP and invites a white supremacist to address the White Citizens Council he has helped organize to combat the 1954 Supreme Court decision ending segregation in public schools.
Try explaining that one to a 14-year-old.
In perhaps the richest irony of the ever-shifting tale of how an early draft of Lee’s classic novel came to be published 58 years after it was put in a drawer, the release of Go Set a Watchman may kill the goose that laid American publishing’s most lucrative golden egg by putting an end to a willfully misguided reading of one of the 20th century’s bestselling novels. If it does not, it should, for the plot of Go Set a Watchman, creaky as it is, shatters once and for all the popular misunderstanding of Atticus Finch’s legal philosophy that turned To Kill a Mockingbird into a white liberal fairy tale for the Civil Rights Era.
Were it not so clumsily constructed, Go Set a Watchman would be the great undiscovered masterwork of 20th-century Southern literature. Jean Louise Finch, who still answers to her childhood nickname of Scout, returns to Maycomb, Ala., to visit her family. Twenty years after the events of the novel American readers thought they knew so well, Jean Louise’s brother, Jem, is dead and has been replaced in the family structure by a neighbor boy named Henry Clinton, who stands to inherit her father’s law practice and who wants to marry Jean Louise. Meanwhile, Atticus has moved into a new home and the house Jean Louise grew up in has been replaced by an ice cream parlor. Finch Landing, the family’s ancestral home and the site of her fondest childhood memories, has been turned into hunting lodge.
More troublingly, Jean Louise learns that the grandson of Calpurnia, the family’s beloved cook, has killed the town drunk in a car accident. Atticus takes the case, not because he thinks he can get the young black man off for killing a white man — Calpurnia’s grandson is plainly guilty — but because he fears that if he doesn’t step in, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund will use the case to insist, among other things, that black people be seated on the jury. “Scout, you probably don’t know this, but the NAACP-paid lawyers are standing around like buzzards waiting for things like this to happen,” Atticus tells her.
This breaks Jean Louise’s heart, and if Watchman were a better book, it would break ours, too. Jean Louise sees her father as a model of moral probity and racial tolerance, a man who defended a black man wrongly accused of raping a white woman 20 years earlier (in Watchman, unlike in Mockingbird, Atticus wins an acquittal). She recalls hearing “her father’s voice, a tiny voice talking in the warm comfortable past. Gentleman, if there’s one slogan in this world I believe, it is this: equal rights for all, special privileges for none.” When he tells her he plans to take the case to keep the NAACP at bay, Jean Louise struggles not to vomit up her morning coffee, and when he again calls her Scout she bristles. “His use of her childhood name crashed on her ears. Don’t you ever call me that again [she thought]. You who called me Scout are dead and in your grave.”
Unfortunately for readers of Go Set a Watchman, the inherent drama of Jean Louise’s disillusionment with her father is drowned in a sea of talk and murky plotting. Watchman is structured as a series of conversations Jean Louise has with friends and family members, intercut with extended memories of the “warm comfortable past” that she recalls Atticus presiding over.
For Watchman’s original readers, who could feel no nostalgia for a novel that had not yet been written, these flashbacks must have been puzzling. The scenes with Jem and Dill are carried off with Lee’s signature warmth and charm, but aside from standing as an Edenic counterpoint to the fallen world of present-day Maycomb, the flashbacks play little role in the novel. Jem is dead, and Dill is in Europe. Why, one wonders, are they even in this novel? Why create Jem only to kill him off and replace him with a surrogate brother for Jean Louise to consider marrying? It makes no sense.
It makes so little sense, in fact, that I could never shake the queasy feeling that Go Set a Watchman is part of some elaborate hoax. Perhaps, as some have suggested, Lee wrote Watchman as a failed sequel to Mockingbird. Perhaps another author wrote Watchman and has somehow passed it off as Lee’s long-lost first draft. I have no idea. All I know is the most powerful passages in the newly released novel — the revelation of Atticus’s stand against integration, the flashbacks with Dill and Jem, Scout’s visit to an ailing Calpurnia — moved me only because of my relationship to a book that did not exist when Watchman was ostensibly written. If I hadn’t read Mockingbird, why would I have plowed through 20 pages of Jean Louise’s memories of Jem and Dill, who don’t otherwise figure in Watchman? If I hadn’t read Mockingbird, why would I give a damn that Atticus Finch is a racist?
Whatever its true provenance, Go Set a Watchman, despite some deft prose and sharp dialogue, fails as a work of art in every way except as a corrective to the standard sentimental reading of Atticus Finch. In an uncanny way, Jean Louise’s view of her father at the start of Watchman mirrors how generations of schoolchildren have been taught to read Atticus Finch in Mockingbird. In his daughter’s adoring eyes, Atticus is not merely an attorney who defended an innocent black man charged with raping a white woman, but a model for all that is good in white educated society. “She did not stand alone,” Lee writes, “but what stood behind her, the most potent moral force in her life, was the love of her father.
She never questioned it, never thought about it, never even realized that before she made any decision the reflex, “What would Atticus do?” passed through her unconscious; she never realized what made her dig in her feet and stand firm whenever she did was her father; that whatever was decent and of good report in her character was put there by her father; she did not know that she worshiped him.
The passage is worth quoting at length because in it lies the heart of the tragedy of Go Set a Watchman. The great revelation of the novel isn’t that Atticus Finch is a bigot, but that he has been one all along and his daughter has been too in love with him to notice. “She was,” Lee writes, “extravagant with her pity, and complacent in her snug world.”
If we are to accept the facts as they have been presented to us, Lee wrote those words before To Kill a Mockingbird was written, before the novel won a Pulitzer Prize and Gregory Peck won an Oscar for playing its hero in the movies. She wrote those words before white America, beleaguered by televised images of billy clubs raining down on the heads of praying women and Bull Connor’s dogs set upon children, fell in love with Atticus Finch as a good Southern white man standing up to white “trash” abusing law-abiding black people. Yet it is hard to read those words and not think Harper Lee is speaking to us, her future readers. She is telling us, “Don’t fall in love too easily with this man.” She is saying, “Listen carefully to everything he says because he is a much more complicated man than he appears.”
And of course she is right. Erase Gregory Peck from your memory. Forget everything your middle school teacher ever told you about To Kill a Mockingbird. Trim away the golden halo that materializes over Atticus’s head every time he appears on the page, and think about what he actually does in the novel. He doesn’t volunteer to take Robinson’s case; he is assigned it. He doesn’t win the case, either. Granted, Clarence Darrow couldn’t have won an acquittal in a black-on-white rape case in Depression-era Alabama, but Atticus goes into court expecting to lose and he is careful only to directly challenge Bob Ewell and his daughter Mayella, the alleged victim, two of the least powerful white people in Maycomb. Atticus does sit in front of the jail to protect his client from a lynching party, but one so feeble and half-hearted that the jabbering of an eight-year-old girl can shame them from their mission.
He also teaches Scout a memorable lesson about empathy, saying that “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.” The fact that Atticus uses the words “climb into his skin” rather than the commonplace “step into his shoes” certainly suggests he is thinking about people of different races, but in fact he is saying nothing of the kind. In the scene, he is advising Scout to empathize with her inexperienced teacher, Miss Caroline, and the other, less fortunate children at her school — all of whom are white.
I don’t mean to dismiss Atticus, who is a fundamentally decent man. For him, defending a man wrongly accused, whatever that man’s station in life, is a matter of conscience, and given the time and place in which he lives, the fact that he follows through on his beliefs shows rare courage. But nothing he does in To Kill a Mockingbird suggests he believes that black children should go to school with white children, or even that he believes that black people are equal to white people when they’re not on trial for their lives for a crime they did not commit.
In his summation at the end of the rape trial, Atticus lays out his peculiarly Southern patrician view of the foundational American idea of universal equality. “Thomas Jefferson once said all men are equal, a phrase that the Yankees and the distaff side of the Executive branch in Washington [i.e. Eleanor Roosevelt] are fond of hurling at us,” he tells the jury. “There is a tendency in this year of grace, 1935, for certain people to use this phrase out of context, to satisfy all conditions. The most ridiculous example I can think of is that the people who run public education promote the stupid and idle along with the industrious — because all men are created equal, educators will gravely tell you, the children left behind suffer terrible feelings of inferiority.”
He continues: “But there is one way in this country in which all men are created equal — there is one human institution that makes a pauper the equal of a Rockefeller, the stupid man the equal of an Einstein, the ignorant man the equal of any college president. That institution, gentlemen, is a court.”
There, in plain English, is Atticus Finch’s view of human equality: All men are equal in a court of law, but to apply the axiom outside a courtroom is to take it “out of context.” We, Harper Lee’s white readers, fashioned out of the tissue of our desperate need for a white Southern hero a progressive icon yearning for a day when the sons of slaves and the sons of slaveowners will sit together at the table of brotherhood. But that man exists only in our minds, and in the mind of his worshipful eight-year-old daughter. On the page, Atticus makes clear that while he believes in the rule of law, in others sphere of life, including public education, he wants natural differences between people to be recognized.
In other words, the Atticus Finch defending Tom Robinson against a trumped-up rape charge in To Kill a Mockingbird is very much the same Atticus Finch rallying to prevent school integration in Go Set a Watchman. All that changes between the two novels is the perspective of the narrator from a child to a grown woman. What this says about us, Harper Lee’s legions of white readers, is too obvious to bear stating.
In the closing pages of Go Set a Watchman, after Atticus and his brother Jack have worn Jean Louise down with hours of elegant sophistry on all the ways the Constitution allows for the enlightened subjugation of a race of people, Jack tells her bluntly that it is time for her see her father for the man he has always been:
“As you grew up, you confused your father with God. You never saw him as a man with a man’s heart, and a man’s failings…You were an emotional cripple, leaning on him, getting the answers from him, assuming that his answers would always be your answers.”
“Jean Louise, have you ever met your father?” her uncle asks, and she realizes she never has, not really. Neither have we, though we have been living with Atticus Finch for more than half a century. It is high time we got to know him. The question is whether we will still love him once we have.
Welcome to a new episode of The Book Report presented by The Millions! This week, Janet and Mike get inspired by Harper Lee’s new Go Kill a Watchbird, and talk about sequels to classic books they’d like to discover.
Discussed in this episode: Go Set a Watchman and To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, racist Atticus Finch, The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, A Christmas Story by Charles Dickens, Scarface (dir. Brian De Palma), Little Women by Louisa May Alcott, The Family Stone (dir. Thomas Bezucha), Dermot Mulroney, Sarah Jessica Parker, Claire Danes, Animal Farm by George Orwell, middle school plays, old-timey editorial cartoons, Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell, Scarlett O’Hara’s nonsense, The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger, Holden Caulfield’s stupid cap, selling out, the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling, the forgotten students of Hogwarts, Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Jean Valjean.
Cut for time from this episode but likely to be included as an extra on the eventual DVD: 2 Naked 2 Dead by Norman Mailer.
If you like to read, we’ve got some news for you. The second-half of 2015 is straight-up, stunningly chock-full of amazing books. If someone told you, “Hey, there are new books coming out by Margaret Atwood, Lauren Groff, Elena Ferrante, John Banville, and Jonathan Franzen this year,” you might say, “Wow, it’s going to be a great year for books.” Well, those five authors all have books coming out in September this year (alongside 22 other books we’re highlighting that month). This year, you’ll also see new books from David Mitchell, Bonnie Jo Campbell, Aleksandar Hemon, Patti Smith, Colum McCann, Paul Murray, and what we think is now safe to call a hugely anticipated debut novel from our own Garth Risk Hallberg.
The list that follows isn’t exhaustive — no book preview could be — but, at 9,100 words strong and encompassing 82 titles, this is the only second-half 2015 book preview you will ever need. Scroll down and get started.
Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee: Fifty-five years after the publication of Lee’s classic To Kill a Mockingbird, this “newly discovered” sequel picks up 20 years after the events of the first novel when Jean Louise Finch — better known to generations of readers as Scout — returns to Maycomb, Ala., to visit her lawyer father, Atticus. Controversy has dogged this new book as many have questioned whether the famously silent Lee, now pushing 90 and in poor health, truly wanted publication for this long-abandoned early effort to grapple with the characters and subject matter that would evolve into her beloved coming-of-age novel. (Michael)
Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates: A journalist who learned the ropes from David Carr, Coates is one of our most incisive thinkers and writers on matters of race. Coates is unflinching when writing of the continued racial injustice in the United States: from growing up in Baltimore and its culture of violence that preceded the Freddie Gray riots, to making the case for reparations while revealing the systematic racism embedded in Chicago real estate, to demanding that South Carolina stop flying the Confederate flag. In Between the World and Me, Coates grapples with how to inhabit a black body and how to reckon with America’s fraught racial history from a more intimate perspective — in the form of a letter to his adolescent son. Given the current state of affairs, this book should be required reading. Originally slated for September, the book was moved up to July. Spiegel & Grau Executive Editor Chris Jackson said, “We started getting massive requests from people [for advance copies.] It spoke to this moment. We started to feel pregnant with this book. We had this book that so many people wanted.” Publishers Weekly’s review dispensed with any coyness, saying, “This is a book that will be hailed as a classic of our time.” (Anne)
A Cure for Suicide by Jesse Ball: Elegant and spooky, dystopian and poetic, Jesse Ball’s follow-up to the well-reviewed Silence Once Begun follows a man known only as “the claimant” as he relearns everything under the guidance of an “examiner,” a woman who defines everything from the objects in their house to how he understands his existence. Then he meets another woman at a party and begins to question everything anew. A puzzle, a love story, and a tale of illness, memory, and manipulation, A Cure for Suicide promises to be a unique novel from a writer already known for his originality. (Kaulie)
The Dying Grass by William T. Vollmann: Volume number five of Vollmann’s Seven Dreams series expands on the author’s epic portrayal of the settlement of North America. In his latest, Vollmann depicts the Nez Perce War, a months-long conflict in 1877 that saw the eponymous Native American tribe defend their mountain territories from encroachment by the U.S. Army. According to Vollmann, who spoke with Tom Bissell about the series for a New Republic piece, the text consists of mostly dialogue. (Thom)
Armada by Ernest Cline: Billy Mitchell, the “greatest arcade-video-game player of all time,” devoted 40 hours a week to the perfection of his craft, but he says he never skipped school or missed work. That was 35 years ago, before video games exploded not only in size and complexity, but also in absorptive allure. Recently, things have changed. It was only a year ago that a California couple was imprisoned for locking their children in a dingy trailer so the two of them could play ‘World of Warcraft” uninterrupted. (By comparison, Mitchell’s devotion seems pedestrian.) This year, programmers are working on “No Man’s Sky,” a “galaxy-sized video game” that’ll allow players to zip around a full-scale universe in the name of interplanetary exploration. It sounds impossibly gigantic. And with escalation surely comes a reckoning: Why are people spending more time with games than without? Across the world, a new class of professional gamers are earning lucrative sponsorships and appearing on slickly produced televised tournaments with tuition-sized purses. But surely more than money is at stake. (Full disclosure: I made more real money selling virtual items in “Diablo III’s” online marketplace than I did from writing in ’12.) As increasingly rich worlds draw us in, what are we hoping to gain? It can’t just be distraction, can it? Are there practical benefits, or are we just hoping there are? This, to me, sounds like the heart of Ernest Cline’s latest novel, Armada, which focuses on a real life alien invasion that can only be stopped by gamers who’ve been obediently (albeit unknowingly) training for this very task. (Nick M.)
The Small Backs of Children by Lidia Yuknavitch: The visionary editor of Chiasmus Press and first to publish books by Kate Zambreno and Lily Hoang is herself a fierce and passionate writer. Yuknavitch is the author of a gutsy memoir, The Chronology of Water, and Dora: A Headcase, a fictional re-spinning of the Freudian narrative. Her new novel, Small Backs of Children, deals with art, violence, and the very real effects of witnessing violence and conflict through the media. According to Porochista Khakpour, the novel achieves “moments of séance with writers like Jean Rhys and Clarice Lispector,” a recommendation destined to make many a reader slaver. (Anne)
Lovers on All Saints’ Day by Juan Gabriel Vásquez: The Colombian writer Juan Gabriel Vásquez has been compared to Gabriel García Márquez and Roberto Bolaño. Winner of the International IMPAC Dublin Award for his novel The Sound of Things Falling, Vásquez is bringing out a collection of seven short stories never before published in English (nimbly translated from the Spanish by Anne McLean). The twinned themes of this collection are love and memory, which Vásquez unspools through stories about love affairs, revenge, troubled histories — whole lives and worlds sketched with a few deft strokes. Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa has called Vásquez “one of the most original new voices of Latin American literature.” (Bill)
Among the Wild Mulattos and Other Tales by Tom Williams: The recent passing of B.B. King makes Williams’s previous book, Don’t Start Me Talkin’ — a comic road novel about a pair of traveling blues musicians — a timely read. His new story collection also skewers superficial discussions of race; admirers of James Alan McPherson will enjoy Williams’s tragicomic sense. The book ranges from the hilarious “The Story of My Novel,” about an aspiring writer’s book deal with Cousin Luther’s Friend Chicken, to the surreal “Movie Star Entrances,” how one man’s quest to remake himself with the help of an identity consulting company turns nefarious. Williams can easily, and forcefully, switch tragic, as in “The Lessons of Effacement.” When the main character is followed, he thinks “When your only offenses in life were drinking out of the juice carton and being born black in these United States, what could warrant such certain persecution?” Williams offers questions that are their own answers, as in the final story, when a biracial anthropologist discovers that a hidden mulatto community is more than simply legend. (Nick R.)
Flood of Fire by Amitav Ghosh: Following Sea of Poppies (shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize) and River of Smoke, Calcutta-born Ghosh brings his Ibis Trilogy to a rousing conclusion with Flood of Fire. It’s 1839, and after China embargoes the lucrative trade of opium grown on British plantations in India, the colonial government sends an expeditionary force from Bengal to Hong Kong to reinstate it. In bringing the first Opium War to crackling life, Ghosh has illuminated the folly of our own failed war on drugs. Historical fiction doesn’t get any timelier than this. (Bill)
Fortune Smiles by Adam Johnson: Johnson is best known for his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about North Korea, The Orphan Master’s Son, but he’s also the author of a terrific and off-kilter story collection called Emporium, a literary cousin to the sad-comic work of George Saunders, Sam Lipsyte, and Dan Chaon. This new collection of six stories, about everything from a former Stasi prison guard in East Germany to a computer programmer “finding solace in a digital simulacrum of the president of the United States,” echoes his early work while also building upon the ambition of his prize-winning tome. Kirkus gave the collection a starred review, calling it, “Bittersweet, elegant, full of hard-won wisdom.” (Edan)
Wind/Pinball by Haruki Murakami: A reissue of Murakami’s first novels, Hear the Wind Sing and Pinball, 1973, which form the first half of the so-called (four-book) Trilogy of the Rat. Written in 1978 and 1980, these books were never published outside of Japan, evidently at Murakami’s behest. He seems to have relented. (Lydia)
The State We’re In: Maine Stories by Ann Beattie: Fifteen stories — connected by their depictions of a number of shared female characters – make up this new collection by short story master Beattie. In “Major Maybe,” which originally appeared in The New Yorker, two young roommates navigate Chelsea in the ’80s. In “The Repurposed Barn,” readers glimpse an auction of Elvis Presley lamps, and in “Missed Calls,” a writer meets a photographer’s widow. Though most of the stories take place in Beattie’s home state of Maine, the author says they required her to call on the work of memory, as they took place in a “recalled” Maine rather than the Maine “outside her window.” (Thom)
The Marriage of Opposites by Alice Hoffman: Describing Rachel, the protagonist of Alice Hoffman’s 34th novel, as the mother of Camille Pissarro, the Father of Impressionism, feels like exactly the kind of thing I shouldn’t be doing right now. That’s because The Marriage of Opposites isn’t about an artist. It’s about the very real woman who led a full and interesting life of her own, albeit one that was profoundly shaped by decisions she didn’t make. Growing up in 19th-century St. Thomas, among a small community of Jewish refugees who’d fled the Inquisition, Rachel dreams of worlds she’s never known, like Paris. No doubt she yearns for a freedom she’s never known, too, after her father arranges her marriage to one of his business associates. What happens next involves a sudden death, a passionate affair, and an act of defiance signaling that perhaps Rachel is free, and that certainly she’s got her own story to tell. (Nick M.)
The Complete Stories by Clarice Lispector: For readers who worship at the altar of Lispector, the appearance of new work in translation is an event. Her writing has long been celebrated across her homeland, Brazil, and Latin America, but it wasn’t until recently that her name became common currency among English readers thanks to New Directions’s reissue of her novels and Benjamin Moser’s notable biography. To add to the allure of “Brazil’s great mystic writer,” Moser offers, she was “that rare woman who looked like Marlene Dietrich and wrote like Virginia Woolf.” Calling the release of Lispector’s Complete Stories in English an “epiphany” in its promotional copy may sound like hyperbole. It’s not. (Anne)
Let Me Tell You: New Stories, Essays, and Other Writings by Shirley Jackson: Shirley Jackson has been a powerhouse in American fiction ever since her haunting 1948 short story “The Lottery,” which showcased her talent for turning the quotidian into something eerie and unnerving. Although she died 50 years ago, her family is still mining her archives for undiscovered gems, resulting in this new collection of 56 pieces, more than 40 of which have never been published before. From short stories to comic essays to drawings, Jackson’s full range is on display, yet her wit and sharp examination of social norms is present throughout. (Tess)
Three Moments of an Explosion by China Miéville: Miéville, the author of more than a dozen novels, is the sort of writer that deftly leaps across (often artificially-imposed) genre divides. He describes his corner of speculative fiction as “weird fiction,” in the footsteps of H.P. Lovecraft. (Tor.com mocked the desire to endlessly subcategorise genre by also placing his work in “New Weird!” “Fantastika!” “Literary Speculation!” “Hauntological Slipstream!” “Tentacular Metafusion!”) His first short story collection was published a decade ago; his second, with 10 previously-published stories and 18 new ones, is out in the U.S. in August. (Elizabeth)
The Daughters by Adrienne Celt: Celt, who is also a comics artist, writes in her bio that she grew up in Seattle, and has both worked for Google and visited a Russian prison. Her debut novel covers a lot of ground, emotionally and culturally: opera, Polish mythology, and motherhood/daughterhood. Kirkus has given The Daughters a starred review — “haunting” and “psychologically nuanced” — and she was a finalist for the Sherwood Anderson Fiction Award, among others. Celt’s web comics appear weekly here, and she sells t-shirts! One to watch.(Sonya)
Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh: If anyone’s a Paris Review regular it’s Ottessa Moshfegh, with a coveted Plimpton Prize and four stories to her name (in only three year’s time). Her narrators have a knack for all kind of bad behavior: like the algebra teacher who imbibes 40s from the corner bodega on school nights, who smokes in bed and drunk dials her ex-husband, or the woman who offers to shoot a flock of birds for her apartment-manager boyfriend. Moshfegh’s novels track the lives of characters who are equally and indulgently inappropriate. Moshfegh’s first full-length novel Eileen follows a secretary at a boys prison (whose vices include a shoplifting habit) who becomes lured by friendship into committing a far larger crime. (Anne)
Shipbreaking by Robin Beth Schaer: Schaer worked as a deckhand on the HMS Bounty, which sank during Hurricane Sandy, so I entered Shipbreaking feeling that I would be in credible hands. I often read poetry to find phrases and lines to hold with me beyond the final page, and Schaer, who once wrote that “to leave the shore required surrender,” delivers. “I am / forgiven by water, but savaged by sky” says one narrator. Another: “Even swooning / is a kind of fainting, overwhelmed / by bliss, instead of pain.” Shipbreaking is a book about being saved while recognizing loss. Schaer’s words apply equally to marine and shore moments, as so often life is “a charade that only deepens / the absence it bends to hide.” Schaer’s long poems are especially notable; “Middle Flight” and “Natural History” remake pregnancy and motherhood: “Before now, he floated in dark water…Someday he too will chase his lost lightness / half-remembered toward the sky.” If we trust our poets enough, we allow them cause wounds and then apply the salves: “The world without us / is nameless.” (Nick R.)
Last Mass by Jamie Iredell: “I am a Catholic.” So begins Iredell’s book, part memoir about growing up Catholic in Monterey County, Calif., part historical reconsideration of Blessed Father Fray Juníperro Serra, an 18th-century Spanish Franciscan who will be canonized by Pope Francis later this year. Structured around the Stations of the Cross, Iredell’s unique book reveals the multitudinous complexities of Catholic identity, and how the tensions between those strands are endemic to Catholic culture. Think of Last Mass as William Gass’s On Being Blue recast as On Being Catholic: Iredell’s range is encyclopedic without feeling stretched. Delivered in tight vignettes that capture the Catholic tendency to be simultaneously specific and universal, the book’s heart is twofold. First, how faith is ultimately a concern of the flesh, as seen in the faithful’s reverence for the body of Christ and struggles over experiencing sexuality (Catholics pivot between the obscene and the divine without missing a step). Second, in documenting Catholic devotion to saintly apocrypha, Iredell carries the reader to his most heartfelt note: his devotion and love for his father and family. (Nick R.)
Purity by Jonathan Franzen: Known for his mastery of the modern domestic drama and his disdain for Internet things, Franzen, with his latest enormous novel, broadens his scope from the tree-lined homes of the Midwest and the Mainline to variously grim and paradisiacal domiciles in Oakland, East Germany, and Bolivia; alters his tableaux from the suburban nuclear family to fractured, lonely little twosomes; and progresses from cat murder to human murder. The result is something odd and unexpected — a political novel that is somehow less political than his family novels at their coziest, and shot through with new strains of bitterness. Expect thinkpieces. (Lydia)
Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff: Groff’s highly anticipated third novel follows married couple Lotto and Matthilde for over two decades, starting with an opening scene (published on The Millions), of the young, just-hitched duo getting frisky on the beach. The book was one of the galleys-to-grab at BookExpo America this spring, and it’s already received glowing reviews from Library Journal, Publishers Weekly, and Kirkus. Meg Wolitzer writes of Groff: “Because she’s so vitally talented line for line and passage for passage, and because her ideas about the ways in which two people can live together and live inside each other, or fall away from each other, or betray each other, feel foundationally sound and true, Fates and Furies becomes a book to submit to, and be knocked out by, as I certainly was.” (Edan)
The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood: A hotly anticipated story about “a near-future in which the lawful are locked up and the lawless roam free,” this is Atwood’s first standalone novel since The Blind Assassin, which won the Man Booker in 2000 (The Penelopiad was part of the Canongate Myth Series). Charmaine and Stan are struggling to make ends meet in the midst of social and economic turmoil. They strike a deal to join a “social experiment” that requires them to swap suburban paradise for their freedom. Given Atwood’s reputation for wicked social satire, I doubt it goes well. Publishers Weekly notes, “The novel is set in the same near-future universe as Atwood’s Positron series of four short stories, released exclusively as e-books. The most recent Positron installment, which was published under the same name as the upcoming novel, came out in 2013.” (Claire)
The Blue Guitar by John Banville: Banville’s 16th novel takes its title from a Wallace Stevens poem about artistic imagination and perception: “Things as they are/ Are changed upon the blue guitar.” Banville’s protagonist, Oliver Otway Orme, is a talented but blocked painter, an adulterer, and something of a kleptomaniac who returns to his childhood home to ruminate on his misdeeds and vocation. With such an intriguing, morally suspect central character as his instrument, Banville should be able to play one of his typically beguiling tunes. (Matt)
The Story of the Lost Child by Elena Ferrante: Ferrante writes what James Wood called “case histories, full of flaming rage, lapse, failure, and tenuous psychic success.” In the fourth and final of the reclusive global publishing sensation’s Neapolitan novels, we return to Naples and to the tumultuous friendship of Lila Cerullo and Elena Greco. (Lydia)
Undermajordomo Minor by Patrick DeWitt: DeWitt’s second novel, The Sisters Brothers, was short-listed for the Man Booker and just about every Canadian prize going, and for good reason. It took the grit, melancholy, and wit of the Western genre and bent it just enough toward the absurd. This new work, billed as “a fable without a moral,” is about a young man named Lucien (Lucy) Minor who becomes an undermajordomo at a castle full of mystery, dark secrets, polite theft, and bitter heartbreak. Our own Emily St. John Mandel calls it, “unexpectedly moving story about love, home, and the difficulty of finding one’s place in the world.” (Claire)
Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights by Salman Rushdie: A new Rushdie novel is an event — as is a new Rushdie tweet for that matter, especially after his vigorous defense of PEN’s decision to honor Charlie Hebdo. His latest follows the magically gifted descendants of a philosopher and a jinn, one of those seductive spirits who “emerge periodically to trouble and bless mankind.” These offspring are marshaled into service when a war breaks out between the forces of light and dark that lasts, you got it, two years, eight months, and 28 nights. You can read an excerpt at The New Yorker. (Matt)
Sweet Caress by William Boyd: Boyd is one of those Englishmen who changes hats as effortlessly as most people change socks. A novelist, screenwriter, playwright, and movie director, Boyd has been shortlisted for the Booker Prize (for 1982’s An Ice-Cream War), and he recently wrote the James Bond novel Solo. His new novel, Sweet Caress, is the story of Amory Clay, whose passion for photography takes her from London to Berlin in the decadent 1920s, New York in the turbulent ’30s, and France during World War II, where she becomes one of the first female war photographers. This panoramic novel is illustrated with “found” period photographs. (Bill)
The Visiting Privilege: New and Collected Stories by Joy Williams: The “definitive” collection from an acknowledged mastress of the short story — Rea Award Winner alongside Donald Barthelme, Alice Munro, Robert Coover, Deborah Eisenberg, James Salter, Mary Robison, Amy Hempel, et alia — The Visiting Privilege collects 33 stories from three previous collections, and 13 stories previously unpublished in book form. Joy Williams has been a writer’s writer for decades, yet never goes out of fashion. Her stories are sometimes difficult, bizarre, upsetting even; and always funny, truthful, and affecting. Williams once exhorted student writers to write something “worthy, necessary; a real literature instead of the Botox escapist lit told in the shiny prolix comedic style that has come to define us.” Would-be writers perplexed by what is meant by an original “voice” should read Williams, absolutely. Read her in doses, perhaps, but read her, for godssakes. (Sonya)
Did You Ever Have a Family by Bill Clegg: By day, Clegg is a glamorous New York literary agent known for snagging fat book deals for literary authors like Matthew Thomas and Daniyal Mueenuddin. At night, he peels off the power suit and becomes a literary author himself, first with two memoirs about his descent into — and back out of — crack addiction, and now a debut novel. In Did You Ever Have a Family, tragedy strikes a middle-aged woman on the eve of her daughter’s wedding, setting her off on a journey across the country from Connecticut to the Pacific Northwest, where she hides out in a small beachside hotel. (Michael)
The Lost Landscape by Joyce Carol Oates: Volcanically prolific Oates has produced another memoir, The Lost Landscape: A Writer’s Coming of Age, which focuses on her formative years growing up on a hard-scrabble farm in upstate New York. We learn of young Oates’s close friendship with a red hen, her first encounters with death, and the revelation, on discovering Alice in Wonderland, that life offers endless adventures to those who know how to look for them. Witnessing the birth of this natural storyteller, we also witness her learning harsh lessons about work, sacrifice and loss — what Oates has called “the difficulties, doubts and occasional despair of my experience.” (Bill)
The Double Life of Liliane by Lily Tuck: The only child of a German movie producer living in Italy and an artistic mother living in New York, Liliane also has ancestors as varied as Mary Queen of Scots, Moses Mendelssohn, and a Mexican adventurer. In this sixth, semi-autobiographical novel from Lily Tuck, winner of the National Book Award for The News from Paraguay, the imaginative Liliane uncovers her many ancestors, tracing and combining their histories as she goes. The result is a writerly coming-of-age that spans both World Wars, multiple continents, and all of one very diverse family. (Kaulie)
This is Your Life, Harriet Chance! by Jonathan Evison: A writer with a reputation for having a big heart takes on Harriet Chance who, at 79 years old and after the death of her husband, goes on a Alaskan cruise. Soon she discovers that she’s been living under false pretenses for the past 60 years. In other hands, this story might turn out as schmaltzy as the cruise ship singer, but Evison’s previous novels, The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving, West of Here, and All About Lulu have established him as a master of the wistfully wise and humanely humorous. As Evison said in a recent interview, fiction is “an exercise in empathy.” (Claire)
Gold, Fame, Citrus, by Claire Vaye Watkins: Set in an increasingly plausible-seeming future in which drought has transformed Southern California into a howling wasteland, this debut novel by the author of the prize-winning story collection Battleborn finds two refugees of the water wars holed up in a starlet’s abandoned mansion in L.A.’s Laurel Canyon. Seeking lusher landscape, the pair head east, risking attack by patrolling authorities, roving desperadoes, and the unrelenting sun. (Michael)
Cries for Help, Various by Padgett Powell: Back when the working title for his new story collection was Cries for Help: Forty-Five Failed Novels, Padgett Powell proclaimed the book “unsalable.” He was wrong. It’s coming out as Cries for Help, Various, and it’s a reminder that with Padgett Powell, anything is possible. In “Joplin and Dickens,” for instance, the titular singer and writer meet as emotionally needy students in an American middle school. Surreal wackiness can’t disguise the fact that these 44 stories are grounded in such very real preoccupations as longing, loneliness, and cultural nostalgia. The authorial voice ranges from high to low, from cranky to tender. It’s the music of a virtuoso. (Bill)
The Marvels by Brian Selznick: You know a book is eagerly awaited when you witness an actual mob scene full of shoving and elbows for advance copies at BookExpo America. (In case there’s any doubt, I did witness this.) Selznick, the Caldecott-winning author and illustrator of dozens of children’s books, is best known for The Invention of Hugo Cabret, published in 2008. His newest work weaves together “two seemingly unrelated stories” told in two seemingly unrelated forms: a largely visual tale that begins with an 18th-century shipwreck, and a largely prose one that begins in London in 1990. (Elizabeth)
Scrapper by Matt Bell: Set in a re-imagined Detroit, Bell’s second novel follows Kelly, a “scrapper,” who searches for valuable materials in the city’s abandoned buildings. One day Kelly finds an orphaned boy, a discovery that forces Kelly to reexamine his own past and buried traumas. Advance reviews describe Scrapper as “harrowing” and “grim,” two adjectives that could also be used to describe Bell’s hypnotic debut, In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods. (Hannah)
Above the Waterfall by Ron Rash: For his sixth novel, Ron Rash returns to the beautiful but unforgiving Appalachian hills that have nourished most of his fiction and poetry. In Above the Waterfall, a sheriff nearing retirement and a young park ranger seeking to escape her past come together in a small Appalachian town bedeviled by poverty and crystal meth. A vicious crime will plunge the unlikely pair into deep, treacherous waters. Rash, a 2009 PEN/Faulkner Award finalist, is one of our undisputed Appalachian laureates, in company with Robert Morgan, Lee Smith, Fred Chappell, and Mark Powell. He has called this “a book about wonder, about how nature might sustain us.” (Bill)
The Story of My Teeth by Valeria Luiselli: This young Mexican writer and translator was honored last year with a National Book Foundation “Five Under 35” Award for her 2013 debut, Faces in the Crowd. Her essay collection Sidewalks, published the same year, was also a critical favorite. Her second novel, The Story of My Teeth, is a story of stories, narrated by Gustavo “Highway” Sánchez Sánchez, a traveling auctioneer whose prize possession is a set of Marilyn Monroe’s dentures. Set in Mexico City, it was written in collaboration with Jumex Factory Staff — which is a story in and of itself. (Hannah)
Marvel and a Wonder by Joe Meno: The author of Hairstyles of the Damned and The Boy Detective Fails has taken an ambitious turn with Marvel and a Wonder. The book follows a Korean War vet living with his 16-year-old grandson on a farm in southern Indiana. They are given a beautiful quarterhorse, an unexpected gift that transforms their lives, but when the horse is stolen they embark on a quest to find the thieves and put their lives back together. (Janet)
Under the Udala Trees by Chinelo Okparanta: Okparanta was born in Nigeria and raised as a Jehovah’s Witness. She emigrated to the United States at age 10, but her fiction often returns to Nigeria, painting a striking portrait of the contemporary nation. Her first book, the 2013 short story collection Happiness, Like Water, was shortlisted for many prizes and won the 2014 Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Fiction. Her debut novel, Under the Udala Trees, tells the story of two young girls who fall in love against the backdrop of the Nigerian Civil War. (Elizabeth)
After the Parade by Lori Ostlund: This assured debut tells the story of Aaron, an ESL teacher who decides, at age 40, to leave his lifelong partner, the older man who “saved him” from his Midwestern hometown. But in order to move on, Aaron has to take a closer look at his Midwestern past and find out if there’s anything worth salvaging. Readers may know Ostlund from her award-winning 2010 short story collection, The Bigness of the World. (Hannah)
The Hundred Year Flood by Matthew Salesses: Like the titular flood that churns through the second half of the novel, The Hundred Year Flood is a story of displacement. Salesses, whose non-fiction examines adoption and identity, tells the story of Tee, a Korean-American living in Prague in late 2001. The attacks of 9/11 are not mere subtext in this novel; Tee’s uncle commits suicide by plane, and the entire novel dramatizes how the past binds our present. “Anywhere he went he was the only Asian in Prague,” but Tee soon finds friendship in Pavel, a painter made famous during the 1989 Velvet Revolution, and Katka, his wife. Tee becomes Pavel’s subject, and soon, Katka’s lover. “In the paintings, [Tee] was more real than life. His original self had been replaced:” Salesses novel dramatically documents how longing can turn, painfully, into love. (Nick R.)
Not on Fire, but Burning by Greg Hrbek: An explosion has destroyed San Francisco. Twelve-year-old Dorian and his parents have survived it, but where is his older sister, Skyler? She never existed, according to Dorian’s parents. Post-incident America is a sinister place, where Muslims have been herded onto former Native American reservations and parents deny the existence of a boy’s sister. According to the publisher, Hrbek’s sophomore novel is “unlike anything you’ve read before — not exactly a thriller, not exactly sci-fi, not exactly speculative fiction, but rather a brilliant and absorbing adventure into the dark heart of…America.” Joining the Melville House family for his third book, Hrbek, whose story “Paternity” is in the current issue of Tin House, may be poised to be the next indie breakout. (Sonya)
Dryland by Sara Jaffe: Jaffe has lived many lives it seems, one as a guitarist for punk band Erase Errata, another as a founding editor of New Herring Press (which just reissued a bang-up edition of Lynne Tillman’s Weird Fucks with paintings by Amy Sillman). Proof of Jaffe’s life as a fiction-writer can be found online, too, including gems like “Stormchasers.” This fall marks the publication of Jaffe’s first novel, Dryland, a coming-of-age tale set in the ’90s that depicts a girl whose life is defined by absences, including and especially that of her not-talked about older brother, until she has a chance to find him and herself. (Anne)
Hotel and Vertigo by Joanna Walsh: British critic, journalist, and fiction writer Walsh kickstarted 2014 with the #readwomen hashtag phenomenon, declaring it the year to read only women. It seems that 2015 is the year to publish them, and specifically Walsh, who has two books coming out this fall. Hotel is “part memoir part meditation” that draws from Walsh’s experience as a hotel reviewer — and that explores “modern sites of gathering and alienation.” The inimitable Dorothy Project will publish Vertigo, a book of loosely linked stories that channels George Perec and Christine Brooke-Rose, and which Amina Cain claims, “quietly subvert(s) the hell out of form.” (Anne)
City on Fire by Garth Risk Hallberg: Garth is a contributing editor to the site, where he has written masterful essays over nearly a decade, while teaching and putting out his novella Field Guide to the North American Family. He is a keen and perfect reader of novels, and of critics — he told us about Roberto Bolaño. We trust him to steer us through difficult books. (He is, additionally, a champion punner.) When his debut novel, a 900-pager written over six years, was purchased by Knopf, we felt not only that it couldn’t happen to a nicer guy, but that it couldn’t happen to a more serious, a more bona fide person of letters. City on Fire is the result of his wish to write a novel that took in “9/11, the 1977 blackout, punk rock, the fiscal crisis,” which explains the 900 pages. Read the opening lines, evoking a modern Inferno, here. I think we’re in for something special. (Lydia)
Slade House by David Mitchell: Slade House started out with “The Right Sort,” a short story Mitchell published via 280 tweets last summer as publicity for The Bone Clocks. That story, which was published in full, exclusively here at The Millions, is about a boy and his mother attending a party to which they’d received a mysterious invitation. The story “ambushed” him, said Mitchell, and, before he knew it, it was the seed of a full-fledged novel, seemingly about years of mysterious parties at the same residence that we can assume are connected to each other and to characters we’ve already met. The book is said to occupy the same universe as The Bone Clocks and, by extension, Mitchell’s increasingly interconnected body of work. (Janet)
M Train by Patti Smith: The follow-up to Just Kids, Smith’s much-beloved (and National Book Award-winning) 2010 memoir about her youthful friendship with the artist Robert Mapplethorpe as they made their way in 1960s New York City. In a recent interview, Smith said M Train is “not a book about the past so much. It’s who I am, what I do, what I’m thinking about, what I read and the coffee I drink. The floors I pace. So we’ll see. I hope people like it.” Oh Patti, we know we’re gonna like it. (Hannah)
Behind the Glass Wall by Aleksandar Hemon: Hemon has lived in the U.S. since the war in his native Bosnia made it impossible for him to return from what should have been a temporary visit. So he came to his role as the U.N.’s first writer-in-residence in its 70-year history with a lot of baggage. Given unprecedented access to the organization’s inner working — from the general assembly to the security council — his book portrays a deeply flawed but vitally necessary institution. (Janet)
A Strangeness in My Mind by Orhan Pamuk: Nobel laureate Pamuk’s ninth novel follows Mevlut, an Istanbul street vendor. Beginning in the 1970s, the book covers four decades of urban life, mapping the city’s fortunes and failures alongside Mevlut’s, and painting a nostalgic picture of Pamuk’s beloved home. (Hannah)
Mothers, Tell Your Daughters: Stories by Bonnie Jo Campbell: In Once Upon a River, Campbell introduced us to the wily and wise-beyond-her-years Margo Crane, a modern-day female Huck Finn taking to the river in search of her lost mother. The strong and stubborn protagonists that the Michigan author excels at writing are back in her third short story collection. The working-class women in these stories are grief-addled brides, phlebotomists discovering their sensuality, and vengeful abused wives, all drawn with Campbell’s signature dark humor and empathy. (Tess)
100 Years of the Best American Short Stories edited by Lorrie Moore: For 100 years, the Best American series has collected the strongest short stories, from Ernest Hemingway to Sherman Alexie. As editor, Lorrie Moore, a virtuoso of the genre herself, combed through more than 2,000 stories to select the 41 featured in this anthology. But this is not just a compilation, it’s also an examination of how the genre has evolved. Series editor Heidi Pitlor recounts the literary trends of the 20th century, including the rise of Depression-era Southern fiction to the heyday of the medium in the 1980s. The result is collection featuring everyone from F. Scott Fitzgerald to Lauren Groff. (Tess)
The Secret Chord by Geraldine Brooks: The author of March and Caleb’s Crossing, known for her abilities to bring history to life, has turned her attention to David King of Israel. Taking the famous stories of his shephardic childhood, defeat of Goliath, and troubled rule as king, Brooks fills in the gaps and humanizes the legend in a saga of family, faith, and power. (Janet)
Thirteen Ways of Looking by Colum McCann: With a title borrowed from the iconic Wallace Stevens poem “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” McCann explores disparate points of view in this collection of short stories. The title story follows a retired judge going about his day, not realizing it’s his last. Other stories peek into the life of a nun, a marine, and a mother and son whose Christmas is marked by an unexpected disappearance. (Hannah)
The Mark and the Void by Paul Murray: Murray’s 2010 novel Skippy Dies earned the Irishman worldwide acclaim as a writer enviably adept at both raucous humor and bittersweet truth. His new novel, perhaps the funniest thing to come out of the Irish economic collapse, follows Claude, a low-level bank employee who, while his employers drive the country steadily towards ruin, falls in with a struggling novelist intent on making Claude’s life worthy of telling. (Janet)
The Tsar of Love and Techno by Anthony Marra: A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, Marra’s first novel about war-torn Chechnya during the Second Chechen War, was not only a New York Times bestseller, it was also a longlist selection for the National Book Award and on a bevy of best-of lists for 2013. His second book is a collection of short stories that, like his novel, span a number of years, and take place in the same part of the world. There’s a 1930s Soviet censor laboring beneath Leningrad, for example, as well as a chorus of women who, according to the jacket copy, “recount their stories and those of their grandmothers, former gulag prisoners who settled their Siberian mining town.” The characters in these stories are interconnected, proving that Marra is as ambitious with the short form as he is with the novel. (Edan)
Death by Water by Kenzaburō Ōe: Six years after Sui Shi came out in his native Japan, the 1994 Nobel Prize laureate’s latest is arriving in an English translation. In the book, which features Oe’s recurring protagonist Kogito Choko, a novelist attempts to fictionalize his father’s death by drowning at sea. Because the memory was traumatic, and because Choko’s family refuses to talk about his father, the writer begins to confuse his facts, eventually growing so frustrated he shelves his novel altogether. His quest is hopeless, or so it appears, until he meets an avant-garde theater troupe, which provides him with the impetus to keep going. (Thom)
Submission by Michel Houellebecq: This much-discussed satirical novel by the provocative French author is, as Adam Shatz wrote for the LRB, a “melancholy tribute to the pleasure of surrender.” In this case, the surrender is that of the French intelligentsia to a gently authoritarian Islamic government. The novel has been renounced as Islamophobic, defended against these charges in language that itself runs the gamut from deeply Islamophobic to, er, Islam-positive, and resulted in all kinds of moral-intellectual acrobatics and some very cute titles (“Colombey-les-deux-Mosquées” or “Slouching towards Mecca”). (Lydia)
Golden Age by Jane Smiley: The third volume in Smiley’s Last Hundred Years trilogy follows the descendants of a hard-striving Iowa farming family through the waning years of the last century to the present day. The first two installments covered the years 1920-52 (in Some Luck) and 1953-86 (in Early Warning), mixing lively characters and sometimes improbable plot twists with gently left-of-center political analysis of the American century. With characters who are serving in Iraq and working in New York finance, expect more of the same as Smiley wraps up her ambitious three-book project. (Michael)
Ghostly: A Collection of Ghost Stories by Audrey Niffenegger: From a contemporary master of spooky stories comes an anthology of the best ghost stories. Niffenegger’s curation shows how the genre has developed from the 19th century to now, with a focus on hauntings. Each story comes with an introduction from her, whether it’s a story by a horror staple like Edgar Allan Poe or the unexpected like Edith Wharton. Also look for a Niffenegger original, “A Secret Life with Cats.” (Tess)
The Hours Count by Jillian Cantor: In Cantor’s previous novel, Margot, Anne Frank’s sister has survived World War II, and is living under an assumed identity in America. Cantor’s new book once again blends fact and fiction, this time delving into the lives of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, the only Americans executed for spying during the Cold War. The day Ethel was arrested, her two young children were left with a neighbor, and in The Hours Count Cantor fictionalizes this neighbor, and we understand the Rosenbergs and their story through the eyes of this young, naïve woman. Christina Baker Kline calls the novel “Taut, atmospheric and absorbing…” (Edan)
Lafayette in the Somewhat United States by Sarah Vowell: As a teenager, the Marquis de Lafayette was an officer in the Continental Army at the right hand of George Washington. Returning home to his native France after the war, he continued to socialize with his friends Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and Benjamin Franklin, and never lost his place in America’s affections. The author of Assassination Vacation tells the true story of the young French aristocrat who inserted himself into the American Revolution, his long and eventful life on both sides of the Atlantic, and his triumphant return to America at the end of his life. (Janet)
The Early Stories of Truman Capote: As any teacher can tell you, fiction written by 14-year-olds is not something you’d typically pay money to read. (It’s hard enough to find people you can pay to read the stuff, at that.) But what about fiction written by a 14-year-old who started writing seriously at age 11? And one who’d go on to write some of the most memorable stories of the modern age? That certainly changes things, and that’s the case at hand with The Early Stories of Truman Capote, which is said to contain 17 pieces written during the author’s teenage years. “When [Capote] was 23, he used to joke that he looked like he was 12,” journalist Anuschka Roshani told Die Zeit after she had discovered the forgotten stories in the New York Public Library. “But when he was 12 he wrote like others did aged 40.” (Nick M.)
Upright Beasts by Lincoln Michel: There’s a good chance you’ve encountered Michel’s stories, scattered far and wide across the Internet, and featured in the most reputable and disreputable journals alike. And if not his stories, then perhaps one of his many editorial or side projects, as co-founder of Gigantic, online editor of Electric Literature and, (delightfully) as creator of the Monsters of Literature trading cards. Michel’s stories are often an uncanny combination of sinister and funny, tender and sad. Laura van den Berg calls them “mighty surrealist wonders, mordantly funny and fiercely intelligent,” and many of them will soon be released together in Michel’s first story collection Upright Beasts. (Anne)
The Mare by Mary Gaitskill: In 2012, Gaitskill read for a student audience from the novel-in-progress The Mare, which was then described as “an adult fairy-tale unsuitable for children’s ears.” The clichéd publicity blurb gives one pause — “the story of a Dominican girl, the white woman who introduces her to riding, and the horse who changes everything for her” — but also, for this Gaitskill fan, induces eagerness to see what will surely be Gaitskill’s intimate and layered take on this familiar story trope. The young girl, Velveteen, is a Fresh Air Fund kid from Brooklyn who spends time with a married couple upstate and the horses down the road. Drug addiction, race, and social-class collisions make up at least some of the layers here. (Sonya)
The Givenness of Things: Essays by Marilynne Robinson: Robinson is one of the most beloved contemporary American writers, and she’s also one of our most cogent voices writing about religion and faith today. “Robinson’s genius is for making indistinguishable the highest ends of faith and fiction,” Michelle Orange wrote of Robinson’s last novel, Lila, and this talent is on display across her new essay collection, 14 essays that meditate on the complexities of Christianity in America today. (Elizabeth)
Beatlebone by Kevin Barry: IMPAC-winner Barry — who we’ve interviewed here at The Millions — follows John Lennon on a fictional trip to Ireland. In the story, which takes place in 1978, Lennon sets out to find an island he purchased nine years earlier, in a bid to get the solitude he needs to break out of a creative rut. His odyssey appears to be going according to plan — until, that is, he meets a charming, shape-shifting taxi driver. (Thom)
The Big Green Tent by Ludmila Ulitskaya: The Big Green Tent — at 592 pages and dramatizing a panorama of life in the USSR in the 1950s through the story of three friends — is a Russian novel, at the same time that it is a “Russian novel.” An orphaned poet, a pianist, and a photographer each in his own way fights the post-Joseph Stalin regime; you might guess that the results are less than feel-good. This may be the Big Book of the year, and Library Journal is calling it “A great introduction to readers new to Ulitskaya,” who, along with being the most popular novelist in Russia, is an activist and rising voice of moral authority there. For more on Ulitsakya, read Masha Gessen’s 2014 profile. (Sonya)
Hotels of North America by Rick Moody: For writers both motivated and irked by online reviews, the comment-lurking hero of Moody’s sixth novel should hit close to home. Reginald Edward Morse writes reviews on RateYourLodging.com, yet they aren’t just about the quality of hotel beds and room service — but his life. Through his comments, he discusses his failings, from his motivational speaking career to his marriage to his relationship with his daughter. When Morse disappears, these comments become the trail of breadcrumbs Moody follows to find him in this clever metafictional take on identity construction. (Tess)
Avenue of Mysteries by John Irving: Although Irving feels a little out of vogue these days, his novels have inflected the tenor of modern American literature — open a novel and see a glimpse of T.S. Garp, a flash of Owen Meany, a dollop of Bogus Trumper. His 14th novel is based, confusingly, on an original screenplay for a movie called Escaping Maharashtra, and takes us to Mexico and the Philippines. (Lydia)
Twain & Stanley Enter Paradise by Oscar Hijuelos: When Hijuelos, author of The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, passed away in 2013, he left behind Twain & Stanley Enter Paradise, a novel he’d been working on for more than 12 years. In it, the author imagined a fictitious manuscript containing correspondence between Welsh explorer Henry Morton Stanley, the artist Dorothy Tennant, and Mark Twain. In a virtuoso performance, Hijuelos displays his ability to use a high 19th-century writing style while preserving the individual voices that made each of his subjects so unique. (Nick M.)
A Wild Swan: And Other Tales by Michael Cunningham: Pulitzer Prize-winning Cunningham, best known for The Hours, a creative take on Mrs. Dalloway that was itself adapted into a prize-winning movie starring Nicole Kidman and a prosthetic nose, has chosen a new adaptation project: fairy tales. In A Wild Swan, all the familiar fairy tale characters are present, but clearly modernized — Jack of beanstalk fame lives in his mother’s basement, while the Beast stands in line at the convenience store. Their stories receive similar updates and include all the questions and moments our childhood tales politely skimmed over. (Kaulie)
Numero Zero by Umberto Eco: The Italian writer, best known in the U.S. for The Name of the Rose and Foucault’s Pendulum, takes on modern Italy’s bete noire — Benito Mussolini — in Numero Zero. Moving deftly from 1945 to 1992 and back again, the book shows both the death of the dictator and the odyssey of a hack writer in Colonna, who learns of a bizarre conspiracy theory that says Il Duce survived his own murder. Though its plot is very different, the book pairs naturally with Look Who’s Back, the recent German novel about a time-traveling Adolf Hitler. (Thom)
The Past by Tessa Hadley: Hadley’s fifth novel, the well-received Clever Girl, was released just over a year ago, but she’s already back with another delicately crafted novel of generational change in an English family. In The Past, four grown siblings — three sisters and their brother — return to their grandparents’ house for three sticky summer weeks. While there, they face collected childhood memories, the possibility of having to sell the house, and each other. Their families cause considerable chaos as well — the sisters dislike their brother’s wife, while one sister’s boyfriend’s son attempts to seduce her niece. (Kaulie)
Good on Paper by Rachel Cantor: Cantor’s first novel, A Highly Unlikely Scenario, or a Neetsa Pizza Employee’s Guide to Saving the World, garnered a devoted following for its madcap, time-traveling chutzpah. Her second novel, Good on Paper, also published by Melville House, sounds a bit different — but just as enticing. According to the jacket copy, it’s about “a perpetual freelancer who gets an assignment that just might change her life,” and there are echoes of A.S. Byatt’s Possession. (Edan)
Destruction and Sorrow Beneath the Heavens: Reportage by László Krasznahorkai: Nine out of 10 doctors agree: Hungarian fiction is the cure for positivity, and few doses are as potent as the ones written by Krasznahorkai, recent winner of the Man Booker International Prize. “If gloom, menace and entropy are your thing,” Larry Rohter wrote in his profile of the author for The New York Times, “then Laszlo is your man.” And our interview with Krasznahorkai garnered the headline “Anticipate Doom.” Ominous for Chinese officials, then, that Krasznahorkai’s latest effort can be described not as a work of fiction, but instead as a travel memoir, or a series of reports filed while journeying through the Asian country. Because if there’s one guy you want to write about your country, it’s someone Susan Sontag described as the “master of the apocalypse.” (Nick M.)
Mr. Splitfoot by Samantha Hunt: In Hunt’s fictions, imagination anchors the real and sometimes calls mutiny. Her tales earned her a spot in Tin House’s coterie of “Fantastic Women,” and The Believer has called her “a master of beautiful delusions.” Whether the delusion involves believing oneself to be a mermaid or a wife who becomes a deer at night or the eccentric life and ideas of the oft-overlooked inventor Nikola Tesla (who among other things, harbored pigeons in New York City hotel rooms), Hunt delivers them with what an essence akin to magic. Mr. Splitfoot, Hunt’s third novel, promises more in this vein. It’s a gothic ghost story, involving two orphaned sisters, channeling spirits, and an enigmatic journey across New York State. (Anne)
The High Mountains of Portugal by Yann Martel: The fourth novel by Martel is touted as an allegory that asks questions about loss, faith, suffering, and love. Sweeping from the 1600s to the present through three intersecting stories, this novel will no doubt be combed for comparison to his blockbuster — nine million copies and still selling strong — Life of Pi. And Martel will, no doubt, carry the comparisons well: “Once I’m in my little studio…there’s nothing here but my current novel,” he told The Globe and Mail. “I’m neither aware of the success of Life of Pi nor the sometimes very negative reviews Beatrice and Virgil got. That’s all on the outside.” (Claire)
The Queen of the Night by Alexander Chee: We’ve been awaiting Chee’s sophomore novel, and here it finally is! A sweeping historical story — “a night at the opera you’ll wish never-ending,” says Helen Oyeyemi — and the kind I personally love best, with a fictional protagonist moving among real historical figures. Lilliet Berne is a diva of 19th-century Paris opera on the cusp of world fame, but at what cost? Queen of the Night traffics in secrets, betrayal, intrigue, glitz, and grit. And if you can judge a book by its cover, this one’s a real killer. (Sonya)
The Lost Time Accidents by John Wray: In his fourth novel, Lowboy author Wray moves out of the confines of New York City, tracing the history of an Eastern European family not unlike his own. Moving all the way from fin-de-siècle Moravia up to the present day, the book tracks the exploits of the Toula family, who count among their home cities Vienna, Berlin, and finally New York City. As the story progresses, the family struggles to preserve their greatest treasure, an impenetrable theory with the potential to upend science as we know it. For a sense of Wray’s eye, take note that Znojmo, the Moldovan town from which the family hails, is the gherkin capital of Austria-Hungary. (Thom)
Alice & Oliver by Charles Bock: Bock’s first novel, Beautiful Children, was a New York Times bestseller and won the Sue Kaufman prize for First Fiction from the Academy of Arts and Letters. His second novel, Alice & Oliver, which takes place in New York City in the year 1994, is about a young mother named Alice Culvert, who falls ill with leukemia, and her husband Oliver, who is “doing his best to support Alice, keep their childcare situation stabilized, handle insurance companies, hold off worst case scenario nightmares, and just basically not lose his shit.” Joshua Ferris writes, “I was amazed that such a heartbreaking narrative could also affirm, on every page, why we love this frustrating world and why we hold on to it for as long as we can.” Richard Price calls it “a wrenchingly powerful novel.” (Edan)
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Harper announced today that To Kill a Mockingbird author Harper Lee will publish a sequel to her famous novel this July. The sequel, titled Go Set a Watchman, was originally written before To Kill a Mockingbird, and features that book’s main character Scout as a grown woman. The book is Lee’s second novel, and the first she’s published since the 1950s.
Tom Nissley’s column A Reader’s Book of Days is adapted from his book of the same name.
November is the anti-April: gray and dreary, the beginning of the end of things rather than their rebirth. It’s the month you hunker down — if you don’t give up entirely. When Ishmael leaves Manhattan for New Bedford and the sea in Moby-Dick, it may be December on the calendar, but he’s driven to flee to the openness of oceans by “a damp, drizzly November in my soul.” And where else could Dickens’s Bleak House begin but, bleakly, in “implacable November,” with dogs and horses mired in mud, pedestrians “jostling one another’s umbrellas in a general infection of ill temper” (not unlike Ishmael “deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off”), and of course, the Dickens fog:
Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city. Fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights. Fog creeping into the cabooses of collier-brigs; fog lying out on the yards and hovering in the rigging of great ships; fog drooping on the gunwales of barges and small boats.
Shall I go on? Jane Eyre begins on a “drear November day,” with a “pale blank of mist and cloud” and “ceaseless rain sweeping away wildly before a long and lamentable blast.” And it’s on a “dreary night in November,” as “rain pattered dismally against the panes,” that Victor Frankenstein, blindly engrossed in his profane labors as the seasons have passed by outside, first sees the spark of life in the watery eyes of his creation. Is it any wonder that Meg in Little Women thinks that “November is the most disagreeable month in the whole year”?
Not everyone agrees that it’s disagreeable. In his Sand County Almanac, Aldo Leopold, who finds value in each of the seasons, calls November “the month for the axe” because, in Wisconsin at least, it’s “warm enough to grind an axe without freezing, but cold enough to fell a tree in comfort.” With the hardwoods having lost their leaves, he can see the year’s growth for the first time: “Without this clear view of treetops, one cannot be sure which tree, if any, needs felling for the good of the land.” The season’s first starkness, in other words, brings clarity to the work of the conservationist, whose labors in managing his forest are done with axe not pen, “humbly aware that with each stroke he is writing his signature on the face of his land.”
But really, why go out in the fog and drear at all? Stay inside and read.
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (1813)
What is romance without obstacles, which are planted in Elizabeth Bennet’s path most enjoyably at November’s Netherfield ball, including an unwanted proposal from Mr. Collins and a further contempt for the perfidious Mr. Darcy.
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (1818)
The horrified, fascinated romance between creator and created begins with an electric spark in the gloom of November and ends on the September ice of the Arctic, with the monster, having outlived the man who called him into being, heading out to perish in the darkness.
Woman in the Nineteenth Century by Margaret Fuller (1845)
In November 1839, 25 women assembled in a Boston apartment for the first “Conversation,” a salon hosted by Margaret Fuller, a formidable intellect still in her 20s. She’d later be accused, after her early death, of having been a talker rather than a doer, but her friend Thoreau praised this major work for that very quality: it reads as if she were “talking with pen in hand.”
Bleak House by Charles Dickens (1853)
Not quite as muddy and befogged as the November afternoon on which it begins — nor as interminable as the legal case, Jarndyce v. Jarndyce, in which its story is enmeshed — Bleak House is actually one of Dickens’s sharpest and best-constructed tales.
The Return of the Native by Thomas Hardy (1878)
The restless desire of Hardy’s doomed characters, especially the bewitching “Queen of the Night,” Eustacia Vye, is fanned, at the novel’s beginning and its tragic end, by the pagan flames of November 5th’s Bonfire Night.
Quicksand by Nella Larsen (1928)
It’s on a rainy November day in New York that Helga Crane, after a life on the move from the South to Chicago to Harlem to Denmark and back to Harlem again, steps into a storefront church and — either lost or saved, she doesn’t know — makes a choice that mires her into a life from which there’s no escape.
Pippi Longstocking by Astrid Lindgren (1945)
Fed up with November? Why not celebrate it the way, according to Pippi, they do in Argentina, where Christmas vacation begins on November 11, ten days after the end of summer vacation?
Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry (1947)
The descent toward death of the alcoholic consul, Geoffrey Firmin, takes place entirely on the Day of the Dead in 1938, the same day Lowry later liked to say he had his first taste of mescal.
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (1960)
“Mr. Ewell,” asks the prosecutor, “would you tell us in your own words what happened on the evening of November twenty-first, please?” Those disputed events are what the jury — “twelve reasonable men in everyday life” — is presumed by law to be able to determine, with the guidance of the prosecutor and the defense attorney, Atticus Finch.
“Frank Sinatra Has a Cold” by Gay Talese (1966)
A few fall months spent in the orbit of Mr. Sinatra, but none in conversation with the man himself, were enough for Talese to put together this revolutionary, and still fresh, celebrity profile — and profile of celebrity — for Esquire.
The Friends of Eddie Coyle by George V. Higgins (1970)
Eddie Coyle was caught driving a truck through New Hampshire with about 200 cases of Canadian Club that didn’t belong to him, and now he has a court date set for January. So he spends the fall trying to make a deal — trying to make a number of deals, in fact — in Higgins’s debut, which Elmore Leonard has, correctly, called “the best crime novel ever written.”
The Death of Jim Loney by James Welch (1979)
The fall is indeed bleak in the Montana of Welch’s second novel, in which Loney, a young man with a white father and an Indian mother — both lost to him — stumbles toward his fate like Ivan Ilych, unsure of what it means to live.
The Ice Storm by Rick Moody (1994)
Thanksgiving and family dysfunction go together like turkey and gravy, but Moody deftly sidesteps the usual holiday plot in his Watergate-era tale of suburbanites unmoored by affluence and moral rot by setting his domestic implosion on the day and night after Thanksgiving, as an early-winter storm seals Connecticut in ice.
Libra by Don DeLillo (1988) and American Tabloid by James Ellroy (1995)
The Dallas motorcade was a magnet for plotters in 1963, and it has been ever since, especially in these two modern masterpieces in which too many people want the president dead for it not to happen.
A Century of November by W.D. Wetherell (2004)
November 1918 may have meant the end of the Great War, but for Charles Marden, who lost his wife to the flu and his son to the trenches, it means a pilgrimage, driven by unspoken despair, from his orchard on Vancouver Island to the muddy field in Belgium where his son died, an expanse still blanketed with barbed wire and mustard-gas mist that seem to carry another hundred years’ worth of war in them.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons
We here at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop have been surprised to find ourselves – for lack of a better word – trending. From Eric Bennett’s allegations in “How Iowa Flattened Literature” to n+1’s book MFA vs NYC, we really didn’t think there was more to say about our institution…and then Hannah Horvath, in an odd twist of fictional life becoming reality, was accepted on Girls.
Of course we were excited by the buzz. But in this larger discussion, we found that something was lacking: namely, the view from Iowa City. Right here, right now.
So: here it is.
On a dismal midwinter Thursday, we – eighteen current students of the Writers’ Workshop, poets and fiction writers alike – set out to chronicle one ordinary 24-hour period in our lives. That February 13th, we took copious notes. We worked, whether on our novels or on our Twitter accounts. Some of us taught classes. Some of us went to a poetry reading and after-party. And some of us just ran around tossing Valentines into each other’s houses.
My colleagues’ responses may vary widely in form, ranging from poems to stories to lyric essays, but all of them are, like my colleagues, entertaining. And furthermore: excerpts from their responses, when laid out to roughly span those 24 hours, give a decent picture of what it’s actually like to be a student at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop right now – that is, to be one of many people all striving to do the same difficult thing, in the same moderately-sized city, at the same talked-about school.
Hannah Horvath: take note.
(Van Choojitarom, second-year fiction)
Van is having trouble leaving his apartment. The problem today is getting dressed. It’s not that Van is particularly vain or fastidious. It’s that as he’s putting on his suit and necktie he invariably begins delivering a bad guy monologue to the bathroom mirror. Welcome to my island, Mr. Bond, the solid grey suit seems to say. Sometimes he can cut it down, but other times, some inner Hans Gruberian impulse cannot be checked and he ends up trying on all his different coats in front of the mirror, regardless of the actual weather, lapels folded over his throat, inveigling the ceiling, delivering solid broadly humanitarian, ultimately Marxist reasons for Bruce Willis to surrender.
This morning he’s fixated on a grey plaid double breasted jacket that puts in him in mind of Mads Mikkelsen’s Hannibal Lecter. It seems to be driving him to wider, patterned ties: “I don’t really think your story has POV problems, Will. I just wanted to see how you’d react…”
(Jessie Hennen, second-year fiction)
Every morning I wake up and Colin is still asleep. Usually I lie there for twenty minutes and try to ease myself out of the bed without him noticing, but inevitably he does. “Stay,” he says, not quite awake. Then I have to sound like an absolute bitch and say that I am done sleeping, that I have things to accomplish. Really it is that I am sick of looking at the light fixture, at the sky coming in bright against my peach-colored curtain, the ceiling shimmering like the northern lights. While I look at the ceiling I think too much about the future.
“I can’t sleep in any more. I have to finish (x),” I always say. Today (x) is a novel chapter about giant deep-sea fish who grow weary of being imprisoned in a tank and incite their angry brethren to make the oceans swim with rage.
“Oh, okay,” he says, but he doesn’t let go. Frida the cat sits in the middle of the bed, meowing. I suppose she is cozy. I tell him I had a very episodic dream. “I was surviving the Rapture with my family. Our house was under siege, people kept throwing rocks at our windows, everyone wanted in. Finally the call came from heaven, and our whole house floated up into the sky above the angry mobs. I almost got Left Behind because I was drinking a beer, but I tossed it out and we made it to heaven.
“Heaven, it turned out, looked a lot like Milwaukee. Very small houses, a very bright sky. The powers that be were keeping us in a strip mall until they could find proper heavenly places for us. It was packed – kind of a shantytown, really. It had a barter economy going. Some guy had a computer with Facebook, and I convinced him to check mine. Jen Percy had been posting these really great photos of Hell. As it turns out, Hell is a dusty Victorian with vintage drapes and canopy beds. I wasn’t sure whether she was there on assignment, or permanently.”
“Well, you have to include that,” he says, and we get up.
(David Kruger, second-year poet)
I walk through a parking lot, down a flight of outside stairs and into an old brick building where I teach what is essentially Basket Weaving 101, but instead of palm fronds and twigs, I talk as vaguely as possible about metaphors.
Today I say things like: student A, you need more flesh and muscle for that prostitute in your car, and Student B, the statue of David you encounter during your trip to Florence might be thought of as symbolic of the patriarchy and therefore of the trials you and your gal-pals endure. Student C’s story is about the big game, and so I simply point to Plot Mountain on the board and suggest that stakes, when raised, are like little plateaus for the reader to climb and consider.
Toward the end of all of this, I really have to pee.
(Mallory Hellman, second-year fiction)
4:07 pm – I’m late to pick everyone up, and I’m the one leading our lesson today. When I pull up to Dey House, all four of my fellow Youth Writing Project volunteers are assembled on a snowbank waiting for me. One holds a bag full of construction paper. Another shivers under a hat with long ear flaps. Troopers. They get in, and I gently disrespect the speed limit until we’ve reached Cedar Rapids.
4:45 pm – Our gang of ten is happy to see us, even though we didn’t come bearing snacks. We cluster three tables together in the classroom and hang up our laminated Writing Club sign.
5:15 pm – Teonie, who is eight, has written an ode to tacos and nachos. Most of it is a meditation on her two favorite foods’ similarities, concluding with a tenderly inflected, “Are you sisters?” This leads, naturally, to a heated debate about which foods are sisters, which are brothers, which might be cousins, and which aren’t related at all.
5:45 pm – Lasagna and calzones are parents to spaghetti. Pizza is a cousin, on the calzone side of course. Macaroni wants to be in the family but isn’t – it rolls with the hot dish instead. Peaches and plums go hand in hand, but mangoes and green peppers have never met. Avocados and pears hate it when they’re mistaken for sisters.
(Matthew Weiss, first-year fiction)
Taught Interpretation of Literature. Big old room. Clonking around in my shoes.
Talked about the etymology of the word symbol.
It originally meant two shards of a ceramic pot broken at the moment two parties made a deal. Later, you’d know things were legit if the two pot shards fit back together.
Hence Plato’s: man is a symbol of himself, looking for his other half.
Also, a symbol could mean: a chance meeting, a receipt, a watchword, or a Pythagorean cult password.
For example, the Pythagoreans would recognize a brother by muttering things like, “What is the sea?” and getting back, “The tear of Kronos!”
Lost track of time. Possibly I showed the kids a clip from the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey, which I claimed was “symbolic.”
They’d never heard of 2001: A Space Odyssey before.
(Patrick Connelly, first-year fiction)
There is a girl in the hall where I teach rhetoric. She looks like she is about eighteen, nineteen years old. I always see her. She is hunched in an electric wheelchair with her wrists and her neck bent and her chin down. She isn’t quadriplegic; I have seen her hands and fingers move. I think she has a neuromuscular disease. Her body is small. She is sitting against the wall, alongside the other kids, waiting for the classrooms to empty. To be honest, I try not to think about her beyond the end of the hall (outside, at Prairie Lights Café, at the gym, at home, and then at a party after a poetry reading), but I can’t help it. Today is different. When I pass her, she is playing Bejeweled on her iPad Mini, swapping the colors around the screen with her finger; she is bored.
In class, I ask for a show of hands. Who’s read To Kill a Mockingbird? I get up and talk about empathy. You can never really understand a person until you climb into her skin and walk around in it. You can’t understand a controversy or advocate for a proper solution until you’re able to consider things from other people’s point of view.
Is simply being aware of something or someone any good? Because I probably won’t ever talk to this girl in the hall. I will only write about her.
I should ask my students what they think.
(Misty Woodford, third-year poet)
On the way home from teaching, I’m thinking about trochees, and this happens: “GUTzon/BORglum/GUTzon/BORglum/GUTzon/BORglum” – by now I’m stomping out the rhythm as I walk – and I don’t realize I’m also saying this out loud until I near my apartment building, and see a figure freeze up on the lawn. It’s the guy who lives in the basement and I’ve scared him this time. I start to walk normally, more pyrrhic, I guess, and say, “Hello!”
He says “Hi” and attends to his cigarette. Dinner is multiple cups of tea and the hope that chamomile and valerian work tonight.
(Thomas Corcoran, second-year fiction)
After rereading the last day’s work, I begin the current day’s session, writing on a 1971 Olympia SM-9 typewriter with a 12-point font similar to Garamond. Typewriters are useful when the desire is more to make daily advances on a draft than to polish the prose. Before being written, sentences are usually imagined but not too precisely; and except for the occasional “xxxx” (over which I always feel a pang), corrections are simply too hard to make in great number. As with writing generally the challenge is to convert insights that might have limitless depth but no duration into sentences that are stretched out in length but constrained by their gathered energy, like ocean waves striking the shore. After a lot of practice the prose is reasonably good in this format anyway. The rhythm of the typing helps. What may still be needed are selection, precision, and courage.
(Dini Parayitam, second-year fiction)
…This place is about vulnerability. Every second of it is a lie you tell yourself. “I belong here. I am happy here. I am happiest here among people like me.” Really you are very hyper-conscious of the fact that you aren’t actually happy here. Being with so many people who do these things that you love better than you makes you question why you are worthy of doing it at all in the first place.
This is what Iowa Writers’ Workshop teaches you:
1. The wish to write a good story is fake.
2. The will to write a good story cannot be trusted.
3. The insecurity you feel when you are done is normal.
4. The insanity of the writer is a very real thing.
(Andy Axel, first-year poet)
“Observatory Log: 13 February 2014 Iowa City”
1 discreet tree relief
10 a whole class chanting what sounds like “TOGA” with increasing speed
11 dough-faced boy in american flag vest with cup not actually from starbucks
12 prime view of the capitol from the waiting room
1 the word “widowed” on a dropdown menu
2 when I see more than three robins in the same place I start to get suspicious
3 I check to see whether I’m wearing a sweater
5 child ode to cat:
“Feliz: you are not like a garbage can.
You are like a light when you surprise me.
Do you speak Spanish?”
6 when I enter the Dey House it smells like ink and xmas
7 my view field’s all baldspot
11 dogs express interest in the terrible smell of my boots
12 enough of weather
(Jake Andrews, first-year fiction)
After lunch, I sat down to write. The main character’s girlfriend had just walked into his room and told him some good news. He recollects: “Had I ever thought about sex as a way to celebrate academic achievement?” (I, the author, certainly have; Daniel was a bit more surprised.) The story had taken a turn I wasn’t expecting, and I was stuck. So I started cleaning up my desktop (the one on my computer, not the one on which the computer usually sits, though it wasn’t there on this day in any case; I was sitting in a chair in the living room because – to re-emphasize the solitude that prompts reflection – my wife was out).
I stumbled on a collection of photos that my step-mom had put together for my dad’s funeral back in December. I had downloaded them and forgotten about the folder.
Two photos in particular jumped out at me. In the first one, my dad has me on his shoulders. I can’t be two months old. (My mother remembers taking this picture and being horrified.) My head peeks out above his hair, and his hands hold me in place. My pudgy feet are almost to his chin. In spite of the 1970s glasses, he looks remarkably like my middle brother, mainly because he is skinnier than he was in later life. He’s smiling like a kid – he would’ve been 20 – and looking at the camera. I’m gazing off to the left, my hands gripping his hair, my face – wide cheeks and a small chin – looking remarkably like my own son’s the day we removed him from life support.
In the second photo, my dad isn’t looking at the camera, but he’s still smiling. He’s on all fours, and I’m crawling between his arms, probably just over six months old. My left hand is raised, reaching for a balloon. If you look close enough, you can see that he’s holding it for me. My straight blond hair has lost the red hue from the earlier photo; like my nephew, I’ve got pudgy cheeks and pudgy fingers. I’m in motion. There’s a blur to my hand.
I don’t really know how long I looked at the photos in the folder. I didn’t write for a while after finding them. I made myself a cup of tea.
On readings and parties:
(Sean Zhuraw, second-year poet)
A friend, SE S, sees the stich of my saccades trailing the runaway cambus down Clinton Street, sees I’ve missed the bus.
She gives me a ride to the doctor.
My eyes are fine.
Try this when looking at something, she says, after looking at it, look away.
Take sanitary breaks, she says.
Take mind off.
There are layers among the distances, magnifications.
Her assistant returns to dilate my pupils.
When the doctor leans into my eye, she says, don’t look at the light; keep focus past it.
I buy a few Valentines.
I live in a small town, so on the way home I stop by JM’s house, open her door, sneak into her kitchen, stuff a rabbit down the back of her shirt.
It says, Ears Hopping you’ll be mine.
I also make one Valentine from two.
They’re angels unless you mess with their halos – the TV’s ad.
Later, I catch myself eating a sandwich in a mirror. It is the only way I can see what my hands are on.
Ditto the poetry reading that night.
Language is an organ, he says, not just sensate but reciprocal too.
Q: Do the eyes rhyme with their host?
A: I don’t know. I keep checking to see if it’s changed.
(Laura Ferris, first-year poet)
Now that my schedule for the day has played out, I feel less certain of how I spent my time. Tomorrow I know I am going to the library to do more research for my historical-ish surrealist-adjacent poem, spending hours at a microfilm scanner. I consider going out because I’m supposed to be writing about my day, but ultimately decide I don’t care enough about making the day seem like anything.
I watch more episodes of Sailor Moon with Sailor Uranus and Sailor Neptune, think about to what extent I care about Valentine’s Day. I want to say that I usually do more, write more, than this. Today, though, I’m spent, uninspired, and a little lonely – and unable to go out.
(Will Jameson, first-year poet)
Anthony and Elyse and Jordan and I are drinking gin and tonics. Elyse doesn’t have a lime but she has a lemon. We finished the pepperoni and mushroom pizza from Falbo’s we’d ordered which was a circle cut into squares. Jordan is playing Drake on his computer and Anthony is drawing a grid in his notebook that plots where our poetics stand in relation to each other. It looks like a sketch of Orion without the helpful lines drawn in between to illuminate the figure. Elyse reads aloud some Norman Dubie. Anthony reads aloud some James Tate. Then we keep talking about ourselves.
(D.R. Simonds, second-year poet)
“The Willow Tree on the West Bank, Iowa River”
For Emma Woodhouse
Near the “Train Only” bridge we footbridge, you burn
willow branches two at a time, saying
you know I know
how to respond
in a heartbreaking situation, (having broken
hearts before), spine-burn
running thru your hands, but the other
white-hot willows nearby
I am never showing you, my first impulse for our survival
I can’t never show you.
(Jerika Marchan, second-year poet)
I want to be original and smart. I want to not feel guilty about eating half a chocolate bar for breakfast. I don’t eat microwave dinners. I want to delude myself into health. I listen to this interview on Iowa Public Radio because I feel like I can participate and because the conversation is smart. People feel strongly about things and I can, too. I Can Too.
I go downstairs and make a bean burrito. The door to the house is usually left unlocked, and as I’m guiltily overstuffing my burrito, someone busts in to tuck in the tag hanging out of my dress and leave me a Valentine. I scream for a long time.
Jessie gets home and asks if I wanna go to Meredith’s for pad thai and sake. Yes get me out of this house, I’m full of burrito. (I will eat only bunny-amounts of pad thai is what I tell myself.) Pad thai happens in a sake-induced fog. (Meredith googles “what’s in sake bombs?”) Meredith and I successfully open a very-difficult-to-open jar of organic coconut oil. I bust my ass trying to sit on what I thought was a chair but really was a cookie sheet resting on a chair, and I fall to the ground. It’s kinda nice. (Is that weird?) I haven’t fallen on my ass in a while. It’s nice to know what it feels like from time to time.
Jessie and I tell Mere about my ongoing boob-angst, and she looks at me for a quick second before deciding that I’m at least a D-cup.
(Rachel Milligan, second-year poet)
I wake up at noon, spend the day reading Maggie Nelson’s Bluets on the couch, lighting three candles, blowing them out, and then lighting them again. I have a glass of wine before the Richard Kenney and Carol Light reading. My night concludes with one of my best friends scream-singing at me, perched on top of the refrigerator.
(Cassidy McFadzean, first-year poet)
After dinner, we walk to Dey House for Richard Kenney’s reading. Nathan slips on the ice outside our apartment, but he doesn’t see the blood on his hand until he leaves a mark on the door of the workshop. He wipes it off. We sit with Will, with Connor in front of us. The three of us were in Rick’s workshop last semester, and I see the other seven students scattered around the room. Rick refuses the microphone and reads a mix of riddles, charms, and pun-filled haikus, occasionally stepping out from behind the podium to address us, bringing his words closer to our ears.
The after party’s at Will’s and I make him show me the group pictures he took of our class last semester. I feel nostalgic. I eat pita chips and hummus and talk with Connor and Nikki about the classes we’re teaching. I talk with Winter about the buttons on the sleeves of her dress. I talk with Clare about how amazing Hy-Vee is, though she does not share my sentiments. I talk with Chad about Canadian poets, and Petro about Trailer Park Boys.
Every party proceeds the same: the bass gets turned up, the lights get dimmed down. Someone plays Robyn’s “Dancing On My Own.” We talk about how every party ends this way. It’s around midnight, and some of us leave, and some of us stay.
Image Credit: J.Y. “Warmer is not warm.”
Mark Seal explores the ongoing legal battle between Harper Lee and Samuel L. Pinkus, the latter of whom is said to have “’engaged in a scheme to dupe Harper Lee, then 80-years-old with declining hearing and eye sight, into assigning her valuable TKAM [To Kill a Mockingbird] copyright to [Pinkus’s company] for no consideration,’ and then created shell companies and bank accounts to which the book’s royalties were funneled.”
So that you may get to know us better, it’s The Millions Quiz, yet another occasionally appearing series. Here, as conceived of by our contributor Emily, we answer questions about our reading habits and interests, the small details of life that like-minded folks may find illuminating, and we ask you to join us by providing your own answers in the comments or on your own blogs.Today’s Question: What was the book that started it all for you?Edan: According to my mother, I could read novels before I was potty trained. I’m not contesting that mythology, but the first time I remember being totally enamored with a book was later than that, at about age 8, when my mother bought me Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery. I’d read and liked other books – The Babysitters Club series, of course, and nearly everything by Judy Blume – but Anne of Green Gables felt more magical, and more mature. It took me to a faraway world, specifically, to Prince Edward Island in the early 20th century, and used big, unfamiliar words (I remember asking my mom what the word “abundance” meant on the ride home from the bookstore – I had a small tingling of fear – or was it excitement? – that this book would be difficult). I loved that the story’s protagonist had carrot red hair, and, even better, freckles like mine! I took to calling people “kindred spirits” and wondering if I could pull of puffed sleeves. I spent the next couple of years reading Montgomery’s entire oeuvre, and I started taping the following warning into my inside book covers:This book is one thingMy fist is anotherYou take thisAnd you’ll get the otherAndrew: During my senior high school year, on an otherwise unremarkable school night, my English teacher – an inspiring educator named Robert Majer – took the entire class out to Zappi’s Pizza, where, on a large screen, Stanley Kubrick’s film adaptation of Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange leapt off of the wall, tossed aside plates of steaming pizza, and grabbed each one of us by the throat, commanding our attention. The next day, in a private moment following a discussion of the film, Mr. Majer brought out his own copy of the novel (we weren’t actually studying the novel in the class) and lent it to me.There had been novels that floored me before (Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye affected me as strongly as it did countless other youths) and in a matter of months I would immerse myself in American masters from Hemingway to Irving, by way of Vonnegut, not to mention all those nineteenth-century Russians. But the singular experience of reading Anthony Burgess, who contorted and then caressed the English language, made a huge impression on me and left me with a feeling that anything could be achieved with language. And that fiction is an expansive and limitless medium.Emily: The book that started it all for me was Little Black, A Pony, by Walter Farley. I, aged three, woke my parents up sobbing with the anguished announcement “I can’t read!” Thanks to my mom and trusty Little Black, I am now an accomplished reader (and a competent horsewoman). While this 1961 children’s book has recently been translated into Navajo and re-illustrated by Baje Whitethorne, Jr., the one I knew and loved had a little very blond and very crew-cutted Hardy Boys looking boy on the cover, and this original edition is still available for about five bucks (including shipping) through Amazon Marketplace. Not for the last time (ehem, cat dissertation), I found myself entranced by the animal’s eye-view.Emre: You pose a difficult question and at best I have 15 different answers. Agatha Christie and Jules Verne were my elementary school darlings, but I really turned the corner summer of junior year in high school with an unexpected choice that is brilliant in its simple collage of people, geography, life, death, love and suffering. I was high on Kemal Tahir’s Yorgun Savascı, which we had read during the school year. My father was quick to seize on my excitement about this novel, which told the story of the resistance against the occupying Allied Powers in post-World War I Istanbul and the budding independence movement in Anatolia. So, my dad casually suggested I leaf through Nazim Hikmet’s Human Landscapes from My Country. At the time a copy of Hikmet’s epic rested in our bathroom, atop the laundry machine. (Yes, laundry machines are often found in bathrooms in Turkish homes, to me it was the most normal thing growing up. And, yes, newspapers and assorted literature were always abundant in our domestic restroom.)One evening I took my seat on the porcelain throne and picked up Human Landscapes from My Country – never to put it down. My legs went numb and I forgot where I was as I dug into Hikmet’s verses, which in plain yet moving terms paint a startling picture of Turkey and its people. Starting with a traveler drinking at Haydarpasa, Istanbul’s second primary train station on the Asian side, the 17,000-line epic chronicles landscapes and people, wars and the birth of a nation. Don’t get thrown off by that latter part. Hikmet was a communist who, to the shame of the republic he loved so much, spent 12 years behind bars because of his political beliefs, eventually fleeing to the USSR. Naturally, he inserted his struggles with the republic’s authoritarian tendencies and his time in prison into Human Landscapes from My Country. But the beauty of Hikmet is his humanism, his ultimate love and trust in the brotherhood of all men. The verses reflect his deep-seated belief in people, who appear from all walks of life to provide a perfect landscape of Turkey from the bourgeois to peasants, politicians, factory workers, war veterans, struggling mothers and hopeless romantics. I still pick up Human Landscapes from My Country to reaffirm my own faith in people – it never ceases to make me weep or laugh with sadness and joy.Garth: True story: when I was in second grade, and in my second year of reading “chapter books,” I found a copy of To Kill A Mockingbird in a ballfield dugout after pee-wee league practice one day. That cryptic title haunted me, and when my mother was teaching the book to her high school class a couple of years later, I asked if I could read it, too. She agreed, provided I would promise to read it again when I was in middle school, again in high school, and again in college. It would mean something different to me each time, she said. (Years later, when I attempted Middlemarch, she would extract a similar promise… the difference being that I was actually in college at that point.) I complied with my mom’s wishes, but nothing came close to that very first reading, which may have taken me two months. The possibilities of books (to be complex, to be layered, to communicate things the characters themselves don’t know) had grown by an order of magnitude or so. To paraphrase Bruce Springsteen, and with apologies to Beverly Cleary (whom I still love): “It was bye-bye, Ramona Quimby… we were airborne.”Max: As a young insomniac, I read myself to sleep each night, and it turned out to be habit forming. My shelves bulged with Beverly Cleary, The Hardy Boys, and Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House series. I even discretely dipped into The Babysitters Club to see if I could get some intelligence on how the other half lived. (“They’re my sister’s!” I exclaimed to friends if I ever carelessly left a copy in plain sight.) Round about 7th grade I started raiding my parents’ large and haphazardly curated library. There were quite a few false starts, but one day I dipped into John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany and never looked back. It made me immediately realize that all the books I had been reading were “kids” books, and opened my eyes, ultimately, to the mind-bending (especially to a 12-year-old) possibilities of fiction. From there I read all of Irving, Kurt Vonnegut, and T.C. Boyle, acquired the hobby of haunting local bookshops, and was on my way.So, tell us, in the comments or on your own blog: What was the book that started it all for you?
I’d have thought that the whole concept of summer reading lists for high schoolers would have fallen by the wayside, as it would seem to lack usefulness in our testing- and extracurriculars-obsessed education system, but a CS Monitor article shows that it’s alive and well (and just in time for that last-two-weeks-of-summer cram).The article includes some interesting insights on the makeup of such lists and how they’ve changed over the years.For the most part, reading lists are still heavy on classics. But consider the differences between reading lists from the 1960s and those in the 1980s. Of the nine most commonly taught books in public high schools in 1963, only one (the 1938 play Our Town) was written in the 20th century. By 1988, the 10 most commonly taught novels in public schools included four books from the 20th century: The Great Gatsby (1925), Of Mice and Men (1937), Lord of the Flies (1954), and To Kill a Mockingbird (1960).But not all novels take a generation to catapult to required summer reading lists. Some new staples in summer reading lists: Life of Pi by Yann Martel, The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini, Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, by Mark Haddon, Monster by Walter Dean Myers, and The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold.Ten years ago, these reading lists didn’t have new books like that,” says Alleen Nilsen, Arizona State University English professor and co-author of the textbook Literature for Today’s Young Adult. “These are really popular new books.”So what catapults Life of Pi and The Lovely Bones to the elusive reading list club? Both are bildungsromans, or stories of young people coming of age. Ms. Nilsen says this theme is crucial for reading list inclusion, as youth need to feel a connection to the literature.
Longtime Millions reader Laurie sent in her reaction to all these “top ten” book lists that have been floating around in recent months, while also, of course, sharing her own:In the wake of the release of The Top Ten, [there is also a Web site] a collection of top ten books chosen by 125 British and American writers, the Washington Post is soliciting readers’ top ten picks.These exercises are fun, but I hope no one takes them seriously. The lists they receive (like mine) will lean toward American/British books, with a smattering of European titles, partly because American schools emphasize Western literature. Cao Xueqin’s Dream of the Red Chamber should be as well known as War and Peace, but most Americans have never heard of it. Even when we have read the non-Western classics, we tend to favor the familiar — my list included The Old Man & the Sea and To Kill A Mockingbird, but Murasaki Shikibu’s The Tale of Genji and Abolqasem Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh are probably greater works.What do you want to bet, though, that like the Modern Library a few years ago, they get inundated with a lot of lists that include Battlefield Earth?!My top ten (not set in stone, except for Heart of Darkness):The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn – Mark TwainThe Old Man and the Sea – Ernest HemingwayHeart of Darkness – Joseph ConradPortrait of the Artist As a Young Man – James JoyceTo Kill A Mockingbird – Harper LeeDon Quixote – CervantesThe Iliad & The Odyssey – HomerThe Dream of the Red Chamber – Cao XueqinWar & Peace – Leo TolstoyOedipus the King – SophoclesThanks Laurie!
Longtime Millions reader Laurie has a late entry to our Year in Reading series that includes her nifty system for rating books. We’re only five days into 2007 so I’m sure you’ll indulge us this brief look back at Laurie’s Year in Reading for 2006.To the list I composed last year of ten things that make a book a good read for me you can add #11: Memorable use of language. If you want to know what the numbers below refer to, go to that list. One book stood out from the 80 titles I read this year; it is the only one so far to score positively on all criteria – To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee. (“She read eighty titles?!,” you say. Twenty of those were poetry or kids books of less than 100 pages each. Another 25 titles had less than 200 pages. So over half the books I read were pretty short.)To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee (1960) 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11I avoided reading this book for years thinking it would be depressing, but it’s actually full of low-key observational humor, and is simply a beautifully told story about human nature and Southern life. Absolutely the best book I read all year, head and shoulders above everything else.Marley & Me by John Grogan (2005) 1, 3, 5, 7, 8, 10As of this writing, this nonfiction remembrance of a very stupid but loving dog is still on the NYT bestseller list, over a year after its debut (wish I had a copy from the earliest initial print run). There’s a reason: it’s laugh-out-loud funny and poignant.Walter the Farting Dog Goes On A Cruise by William Kotzwinkle (2006) 1, 3, 6, 7, 8, 10This may be fourth or fifth in the Walter picture-book series, but is still pretty amusing, partly due to the bug-eyed dog illustrations. If you’ve ever been trapped on a cruise ship or victimized by a loving but flatulent pet, check this out (and if you haven’t, count yourself lucky).Possum Come A-Knockin’ by N. Van Laan (1990) 1, 2, 3, 6, 7, 11Ages 4-7. Another great kids book – rhythmic, romping and humorous picture book adults can also enjoy about a family’s activities as a possum pesters them. Perfect read-aloud material.District & Circle by Seamus Heaney (U.K. April 2006; U.S. May 2006) 2, 4, 6, 10, 11Heaney’s poetry is so rich in sound, imagery and careful attention to multiple meanings, observations of the human-made world, and of what that world’s tools and constructions say about the toolmakers and builders, that it’s hard not to enjoy, even when the references are obscure to a non-Irish reader. “A Shiver” concisely describes the action of a moment everyone has experienced; “Moyulla” likens a stream to a woman in lively, sensuous language. Like other poems in this short collection, these are told, as Anthony Cuda in his April 16, 2006 Washington Post review says, with “high-pressure linguistic torque.”Deliverers of Their Country by E. Nesbit (U.K. 1899; U.S. edition 1991 illustrated by Lisbeth Zwerger) 1, 3, 5, 6, 7For ages 10-adult. Dragons start plaguing turn-of-the-century England and two children find out why in this dry-witted, short story-turned-picture-book. The 1991 edited version of the story contains beautiful illustrations by award-winning European artist Lisbeth Zwerger.Tales of Hulan River by Xiao (Hsiao) Hong (China 1942, U.S. 1988) 4, 6, 9, 10Observant, quietly funny and poignant look at small-town Chinese life in the first half of the 20th century, told with great sympathy for women. Hong died in early 1941, I think; this collection of her biographical short stories wasn’t published in English until 1988. Had she lived, she might have produced the great Chinese women’s novel; a story herein of a child bride was like a long warm-up for a novel. Hong is an underrated writer who should join the shelves with Eileen Chang (Love in a Fallen City).The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane by Kate DiCamillo (2006) 1, 3, 4, 8For ages 10-adult. I have problems with the crucified toy rabbit scene that occurs about midway through the story. other than that, it was a riveting read. Do not give this to just any ten-year-old though; give it to a kid who won’t be upset by a tearjerker of a tale. Some readers, like Elizabeth Ward of the Washington Post who saw no redemption in the ending and called it “bleak and manipulative,” will dislike the dark tone, so caveat lector.Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson & David O. Relin (2006) 4, 7, 9, 10Mortenson established (and continues to establish) basic schools in the remote mountains of northern Pakistan and Afghanistan, built and supported by local communities. His story of time-consuming negotiations and hard work against tremendous obstacles is told by Relin in fine descriptive language. The memoir’s sometimes heavy-handed message, that “the enemy is ignorance. The only way to defeat it is to build relationships with these people” (as said by one Pakistani general) is so broadly ignored by the governments involved in these troubled regions that you don’t wonder that the authors felt compelled to occasionally spell it out.Holmes On The Range by Steve Hockensmith (2006) 1, 3, 7, 11Two cowboy brothers in the 1890s West try to solve a murder using Sherlock Holmes’ techniques. Not high literature, just fun. One of my husband’s favorites this year, too.Other good reads of 2006:A Child’s Christmas in Wales by Dylan Thomas, illus. T.S. Hyman (1954, 1985) 6, 10, 11Timothy by Verlyn Klinkenborg (2006) 2, 6, 9The Hummingbird’s Daughter by L.A. Urrea (2005) 1, 3, 6Regarding the Fountain by Kate & Sarah Klise (1998) 1, 3, 7The Amalgamation Polka by Stephen Wright (2006) 2, 9, 11Kafka On The Shore by Haruki Murakami (Japan 2002, U.S. 2005) 4, 9, 10Kiki Strike by Kirsten Miller (2006) 1, 3, 7And by category:GrimmestThe Amalgamation Polka by Stephen Wright (2006)Distant Star by Roberto Bolano (Spain 1996, U.S. 2004)The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane by Kate DiCamillo (2006)Hardest to Put DownDeliverers of Their Country by E. Nesbit (1899)Best HistoryHell’s Broke Loose In Georgia by Scott Walker (2005)Great Use of LanguageA Child’s Christmas in Wales by Dylan Thomas, illus. T.S. Hyman (1954, 1985)District & Circle by Seamus Heaney (U.K. April 2006; U.S. May 2006)Timothy by Verlyn Klinkenborg (2006)The Amalgamation Polka by Stephen Wright (2006)Not Deep, Mostly Just FunMarley & Me by John Grogan (2005)Walter the Farting Dog Goes On A Cruise by William Kotzwinkle (2006)Possum Come A-Knockin by N. Van Laan (1990)Holmes On The Range by Steve Hockensmith (2006)Regarding the Fountain by Kate & Sarah Klise (1998)Kiki Strike by Kirsten Miller (2006)Best Illustrated BookA Child’s Christmas in Wales by Dylan Thomas, illus. by Trina Schart Hyman (1985)Deliverers of Their Country by E. Nesbit, illus. by Lisbeth Zwerger (1991 U.S. edition)Walter the Farting Dog Goes On A Cruise by William Kotzwinkle, illus. by Audrey Coleman (2006)Possum Come A-Knockin’ by Nancy Van Laan, illus. by George Booth (1990)WorstThe Coldest Winter by Paula Fox (2005) Could be called “the coldest narrative.” Despite the wide range of locales (London, Paris, Warsaw, Barcelona) and people, Fox’s memoir of her experiences as a news stringer in post-WWII Europe is claustrophobic and self-centered.The Man Who Could Fly & Other Stories by Rudolfo Anaya (2006) Someone needs to interpret the Chicano border experience, but not Anaya.Most DisappointingAverno by Louise Gluck (2006)Flaming London by Joe R. Lansdale (2006)One Christmas in Old Tascosa by C. Firman (2006)The Brooklyn Follies by Paul Auster (2006)Correcting the Landscape by M. K. Cole (2006)BoringSnow by Ellen Mattson (Sweden 2001, UK 2005)Five Children & It by E. Nesbit (1902)FunniestMarley & Me by John Grogan (2005)Walter the Farting Dog Goes On A Cruise by William Kotzwinkle (2006)Best Book Event I Attended in 20061st Annual Decatur Book FestivalFinally, Atlanta has a major, general-interest book festival. Michael Connolly, Edward P. Jones, Nicholas Basbanes, Roy Blount Jr. and many other authors, combined with an antique book fair and outdoor concerts in a cafe-strewn section of Atlanta, made for a good Labor Day weekend.Best Book BargainAn autographed copy of Chapters for the Orthodox by Don Marquis (1934), best known for his “Archy & Mehitabel” series, for $1.00. It’s beat up and missing the dustjacket, but I’d treasure anything signed by the guy who gave the world a typing cockroach.Thanks Laurie!
Longtime Millions reader Laurie sends in an account of her visit to the first annual Decatur Book Festival (with photos!) Sounds like a great event. The first annual Decatur Book Festival, held over Labor Day weekend, exceeded its organizers expectations. I know, because by Saturday afternoon they and the volunteers were grinning a lot and commenting to anyone who would listen how surprised they were. Bill Starr, director of the Georgia Center for the Book which hosted a bunch of speakers, never seemed to lose his smile. I was excited, because this was the first really large, general-interest book festival Atlanta has ever had. Crowds increased throughout each day and people continuously entered ongoing author talks (unless they were too packed), adding to the feeling that you were at an event of public interest as important as a town meeting or a political rally (except everyone was in a better mood). You had to squeeze through clumps of strollers winding past the dealer tents. Ron Rash (The World Made Straight) started with about 45 listeners at about 10:30 a.m. in the 200-something seat auditorium in the Decatur Library, and ended with over 60. At about 4 p.m., the Atlanta Journal Constitution panel filled the same auditorium. At the local Holiday Inn, there were long lines for signings by both pop-lit writers like Diana Gabaldon (Outlander) and Pulitzer-winners like Robert Olen Butler (pictured above) (A Good Scent From A Strange Mountain).The city of Decatur (pronounced De-KAY-tur) is basically part of Atlanta. As of the year 2000 the city-within-a-city’s population density was 4,343 people per square mile, 65% white, 31% black, with a median household income of $47k. It has a great little downtown area with a public library and courthouse and a Holiday Inn conference center a few blocks from each other. That and the restaurants and funky shops make for nice strolling, but going back and forth to get from one author event to another at these places turned into a real workout. From about 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. each day I ran, literally, to get to author appearances.The kickoff event, advertised as a “parade” led by the Cat in the Hat, consisted of a few costumed volunteers followed by a horde of kids down a city street to a small park. There, the mayor of Decatur and another volunteer read/enacted Green Eggs and Ham in an open-air tent too small to hold the overflow crowd. (pictured at right) No one complained, though — either because it was free or because the reading was pretty lively.The biggest problem (besides distance between venues) seemed to be too small spaces for the most popular authors. Michael Connelly (The Lincoln Lawyer) gave a talk in a courtroom that held less than 150 people, I think, nowhere near the number who were turned away (though they gave patient fans who couldn’t get in the first chance to get books signed when he finished talking). Pulitzer winner Edward P. Jones (The Known World) was put in an auditorium in the Holiday Inn conference center that held at most 110 seats (I counted). Fans filled the aisles and every open space for his talk. They sat quietly enthralled as he read a couple of stories from his latest collection All Aunt Hagar’s Children. Unlike some authors, he adopts the voices of his characters with an actor’s ability, and he had the audience laughing at words which on the page seemed more serious. He and other writers deserved a larger audience; maybe next year the organizers will get nearby Agnes Scott College to provide some larger auditoriums.The Georgia Antiquarian Booksellers held their annual fair in conjunction with the festival. One dealer had a first edition of To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee on sale for $12,000, another had a first edition of Live & Let Die by Ian Fleming for $750. There were a lot of cheaper works, but even if you weren’t into first editions, it was fun to walk through and marvel at the beautiful bindings and old children’s books (I saw a bunch I wish I still had).Maybe the festival owes its success to the lack of big book festivals around here, or the higher level of education of the Decatur population (over 60% have college degrees); maybe the summer’s high gas prices made folks more frugal and disinclined to travel (the festival was free); maybe no one wanted to deal with traffic and so stayed close to home. The audiences skewed mostly to families and retired folks — I saw very few late teens/20-somethings, despite the nearby liberal arts college. Does the lack of MTV/GenX/Y readers bode ill for the future of books? Should publishers only aim at the very young or the very anchored?Whatever, I’m just glad that Atlanta finally has a big general interest book festival in a friendly location. It’s near a MARTA station, the city’s bus/rail transit system. There’s a lot of parking if you drive yourself. You can picnic under trees by the courthouse and listen to musicians perform at a gazebo (rocking blues, even!), and Sunday night they had fireworks. There’s restaurants and cafes nearby, and Eddie’s Attic, a longtime acoustic music club where Wesley Stace (Misfortune) and others performed. One of the cafes, the Red Brick Pub, has over 200 kinds of beer including local brews like Athens’ own Terrapin Rye Pale Ale (which we here in Athens are fond and proud of). Plus Jake’s Ice Cream was serving their seasonal honey-fig ice cream. I’ll go again next year.
In the Washington Post, Meghan O’Rourke reviews one of the more talked about literary biographies in recent memory, Mockingbird by Charles Shields. In fact, I’m surprised that it took so long for the first serious biography of Harper Lee to emerge, since she is a figure that has long inspired curiosity among readers. One of the big questions the biography tries to answer is why she has never written another novel. The Post characterizes Shields’ conclusion thusly: Shields makes a convincing case that Lee, a standoffish, stubborn woman invested in precision, became too “overwhelmed” by the success of her first novel to finish any of her subsequent efforts… For Lee, he observes, writing was always about capturing the everyday nuances of Southern small-town life she knew so well — and, in her own way, loved; when she became famous, her relationship to that world was permanently altered.That certainly rings true to me.The biography has also prompted critics to revisit To Kill a Mockingbird, as Thomas Mallon did in the New Yorker back in May. He took the opportunity to present a somewhat contrarian view of Mockingbird, essentially calling the widely read novel over-rated.In the New York Times Garrison Keillor used his review to celebrate Lee and to pardon her sin of not giving us more books to read.Ahead of her is a deluge of success, a potful of money and some sort of vindication in the eyes of Monroeville. Truman will disintegrate and die at 59 and she will persist. The lady looks around at a room full of books, closes the door, and drives off with her sister to an early supper at Dave’s Catfish Cabin, a plate of fish and hush puppies and a glass of tea. Everybody at Dave’s knows who she is and nobody asks her made-up questions about writing or fame or how she explains the long run her novel has enjoyed. She is apparently in good humor and enjoying her food and not planning to go on Oprah or Charlie Rose. And so there, dear reader, you will just have to leave her.Though she has been labelled a one-hit wonder, Shields’ biography, and the discussion it has prompted, prove that she has inspired much more fascination than that label would imply.
For me, one of the great feats is to find a book that is so good you can’t put it down. I mean literally – a book that engulfs every spare moment you’ve got, forcing everything else that isn’t necessary to the side. A book that, after reading just the first few chapters, you know is going to be one of the best you’ve ever read.A book this good doesn’t come around very often. To Kill a Mockingbird. East of Eden… Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.Okay. I swear I’ll stop talking about Jonathan Safran Foer. I have to. I’ve read everything he’s written. And I’m glad I saved Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close for the end. So you’ll have to forgive me this month – I guarantee I’ll stop from now on.My first encounter with a Foer was actually with his brother, Franklin, in How Soccer Explains the World. I ran across Jonathan Foer later on, thanks to the Penguin Pockets 70th anniversary set, and then finally read Everything is Illuminated last month. The Penguin Pockets book – The Unabridged Pocketbook of Lightning, was a Vilhauer Book of the Month. Everything is Illuminated would have made it last month, except I chose Other Electricities instead.The reason I chose Other Electricities is because I didn’t want to “over-Foer” my welcome. This month I can’t say the same.Our narrator is nine-year-old Oskar Schell. And his grandmother. And his grandfather. In true Foer style, there are three separate voices embarking on three separate missions – Oskar is looking for a lock. The lock needs to match the key he found on top of his father’s dresser. Oh, and just to add a little timeliness, his father died in the World Trade Center on the morning of September 11th, 2001. Meanwhile, his estranged grandmother and grandfather are writing letters that will never be read.First of all, EL&IC is not a novel about September 11th, 2001. It is, however, a book that feeds off of the misery and fears of that day. Because really, everything that happens has a shadow of the 11th looming above it, a constant reminder of the fact that someone so kind, so unassuming – in this case, Oskar’s father – has died. You can see it in everyone he meets – the sorrow and the sudden protective nature in their actions. No one wants to talk about it, yet here, in the middle of New York City, you’ve got a boy that’s trying to solve a riddle that is nearly directly tied to that fateful day.You can’t expect a young boy to understand fully what happened on September 11th, and Oskar is a great example. He’s a genius, a boy that considers himself a Francophile and gets his news from international news sites. He’s wise beyond his young age, but he’s still a scared boy. He’s picked on at school, and he at times takes on the role of “pretentious little twit,” the smartest guy in the room – a kid that knows too much and isn’t afraid to say it.It’s Foer’s ability to twist relationships – the stranded relationship of Oskar’s grandparents, the strained relationship between Oskar and his mother, the lost relationship of Oskar and his father, the one man that he truly respected and looked up to – that makes the book work. The themes are dreadful, if you think about them too long, but you’re not doing yourself any justice by ignoring them and moving along. All three narratives chronicle disappointment. Sadness. The threat of never being able to say goodbye.But most of all, you find the dead hope of an unanswered question, the “what ifs” that torture each character as they try to go on with their lives. Oskar tries so desperately to be strong in the face of every unanswered question, but he keeps remembering back to that day, to the things he missed and the things he didn’t. What if his father would have lived? To Oskar’s grandmother, it’s a “what if” about her husband, a man who has been gone for years. To Oskar’s grandfather, it’s a series of questions from the 40s that have never been touched.September 11th. The bomb at Hiroshima. The napalm storm of Dresden.A lack of communication. The lost years of childhood. The connections between father and son.How can you spell out the feelings invoked in EL&IC? Because that’s exactly what this book does. It invokes feelings. It brings all of your emotions to your throat. It’s that powerful.What if a book was so intense, so full of questions, so full of the exhilaration that comes from discovering a character’s secret that you couldn’t put it down, and when you finished, all you could do is close the book, stare at the ceiling and think?What if?Corey Vilhauer – Black Marks on Wood PulpCVBoMC Jan, Feb, Mar, Apr.
With my personal sport of choice – professional basketball – surging towards the playoffs, I felt a need to read about sports. I needed to read about jocks and sweat and champions and the like.Instead, I read about gambling. And politics.Oh, and a little bit of about sports.(First, though, an aside. I read three books this month – not very many, I know, but it was a shorter month. One of them was To Kill a Mockingbird. Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.Yes, it was better than Hey Rube. But with To Kill a Mockingbird being selected as South Dakota’s “The Big Read” selection for this year, I figured it would be getting as much press as it could handle [“No, he’s not being ironic. Corey is from South Dakota” — Max]. So I’m going with number two.Back to the review.)Really, Hey Rube, a collection of Hunter S. Thompson’s ESPN.com columns, isn’t about sports at all. It’s about gambling, mostly, with a little counter-culture political rants thrown in to balance things out. There’s a fair bit about his friends, all of which involves gambling and politics. Still, every once in a while Thompson brings it back to sports.The primary focus of Thompson’s rants usually leans towards the NFL – widely though of as “the gamblers’ league” – and with rightful cause. Here you’ll delve into the mind of a degenerate gambler; one who understands the subtle difference between getting 10 points against the Colts compared to a measly 9. You’ll begin to understand the strengths and weaknesses of a man that loves his friends, but loves even more to take their money.Above all, though, you’ll see the fine line between politics and sports. While both seem incredibly different, you’ll find they’re not – at their cores, both subjects are nearly identical. Both deal with competing forces that, often times, exhibit nearly opposite styles. Both find themselves hotly debated at all times of the day, regardless of a person’s knowledge or competency in the subject. The only real difference is that political leaders are chosen, while in sports the leaders are determined after a long and brutal physical battle.In fact, politics would be a lot more interesting if they adopted the “physical battle” concept.Hey Rube is not for the faint of heart. It’s vitriolic. It’s spit out with a forked tongue. It’s full of anti-administration propaganda and cursing. Never before has anyone felt so pained while talking about his favorite sport. Thompson rages that “watching the Baltimore Ravens play football is like watching scum freeze on the eyeballs of a jackass,” a line that is as true a sports criticism as “steroids ruined baseball” or “the NFL Pro Bowl is no longer relevant.”The odd thing is how attractive he makes everything sound, while at the same time seemingly hating every minute of it. Thompson’s obsession with gambling, football, and his own twisted thoughts sounds unnatural. It is. Still, Hey Rube left me longing to join him. It couldn’t have been that horrible to hang out and watch football with Thompson, except for the fact that you might get shot.Or even worse – you might be convinced to run a marathon with Sean Penn.Listen, we all miss Hunter. It’s still incredibly chic to mention his name and blabber on incessantly about how he was a literary genius and how he’ll never be replaced.In all actuality, this is not Thompson’s best book. It’s fractured, and it’s not in his usual wheelhouse. But it is very good. And if you like sports more than politics, as I do, you’ll find more pleasure in Hey Rube than you might find in any of his campaign memoirs.And as far as his genius is concerned, well, it’s true. He was a genius. He filled a specific niche that not everyone respected – and that’s fine. Some like him, some revere him, and others can’t stand him. That’s all part of his shtick. Regardless of your feelings, you have to admit he made an impact.Even if it was only by pointing out the importance of never betting against Duke basketball.-Corey VilhauerBlack Marks on Wood PulpFebruary 2006 CVBoMCJanuary 2006 CVBoMC
I think I may have mentioned the USA Today bestseller list before. It’s fun because it ranks the top 150 books, not just the top 20 like most lists, and I also like it because it doesn’t separate books by category, so you can see how those self-help books stack up against those mystery novels. I also think it’s interesting to see which classic novels make appearances on the list. For example, this week – barring classics making the list due to movie tie-ins – we’ve got Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird at 93. I also recently noticed that you can use the search box at the top of the list to search its entire ten year history. For example, I now know that Living to Tell the Tale by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (which happens to be next to me on the shelf) was on the list for six weeks in late 2003, peaking at 108. Interesting.
Rodger Jacobs, author of the book Christopher Walken and the Tuna Fish Sandwich and Other L.A. Stories, shares with us the best books he read this year.Best books I’ve read this year? Well, I’m still going to stand behind Michelle Huneven’s Jamesland even though I had some minor quibbles with it. Next to that I would have to go with the stunning debut novel by Canadian journalist Robert Hough, The Final Confession of Mabel Stark. I can think of no other contemporary writer — with the obvious exception of Ron Hansen with Hitler’s Niece and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford — who has mastered the historical novel in such a vibrant and highly engrossing style. It’s a lengthy tome (440 pages) and by the time you have read the last page you feel that you have lived Mabel Stark’s life side-by-side with this amazing yet deeply troubled woman. The book is so evocative that I still — almost a year after having read it — have sense memories attached to the novel, the scents attached to circus life, the wet hay during sudden storm bursts, the kerosene lamp in Mabel’s railroad car. This was such a master work that I am anxious to see if Hough can follow it up or if, sadly, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime book like Leonard Gardner’s Fat City or Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. The book is that damn good.Thanks for that. That bit about “once-in-a-lifetime books” at the end made me think. Many a VH1 special is devoted to the musical one-hit wonder, but what about the literary variety? Who’s on that list? And what do these authors have in common? Hmmm… food for thought.
Oprah and her minions must read my blog because a little bird told me that her next book club selection is a book that also happens to be on my reading queue. The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter is a somewhat forgotten classic by Carson McCullers. From what I’ve heard, the book resembles To Kill a Mockingbird and several other works of fiction by Southern women authors. And now it will be a bestseller. If you are one of those people who gets annoyed about the Oprah logo, hurry and get one before they run out of unbesmirched copies.
I had the pleasure of making Kaye Gibbons’ acquaintance via email, and I have very quickly become a big fan. Aspiring writers and precocious readers could learn a lot from her. One of the more noteworthy events of Gibbons’ distinguished career was the selection of two of her books, Ellen Foster and A Virtuous Woman by Oprah Winfrey for her eponymous book club. I asked Gibbons how she looks back on this experience as a writer, and she was kind enough to send us the following reply:You’d asked how I felt about having two novels of mine on the Oprah Book Club. There’s so much to say about it that I’ll talk about it chronologically. Before the Oprah call, I was doing fine, amazing fine. But it didn’t start out that way. My advance for Ellen Foster was 1500. But I’ve always had a strong work ethic, and as I worked, as rights were sold and awards won, the money began to catch up to the blood and time I was putting into it. Unfortunately, being a rather eccentric, free-thinking woman in the South led others and eventually me to conclude that there had to be something pathological about me, and it wasn’t until two years ago that a twenty-year old diagnosis of bi-polar disorder was eradicated. Doctors made me feel forced to take drugs that took the edge off my creativity, but I’ve taken nothing in two years and haven’t ever felt and written better.My theory is that I want to write the best literature possible and have it read by as many people as possible. Living in NC, now half-time in NY, there’s a long tradition of writers helping one another, reading manuscripts, finding agents. Lee Smith introduced me to my agent, and then in 1997 I was able to pass that along when I read the first pages of Cold Mountain. Chuck [Charles Frazier] and I had had children at the same Montessori school for years and had been close friends. Things like that happen here all the time.But there’s still a great deal of intellectual isolation here–and that’s probably why I write and read as much as I do. The other day in the grocery store, an acquaintance asked me what’d I’d been writing since I finished Divining Women. When I told her I’d been reviewing books for Atlanta and Chicago, she asked, “They let you review your own books?” This is a strange occupation to have in Raleigh, not so much in Chapel Hill, where Alan Gurganus, Reynolds Price, and others live. But sometimes 20 miles feels very far away.So, with regard to Oprah, one thing her call did was to give what I do for a living a certain amount of validation. I’d been knighted by the French, won awards galore, sold about a million books, had a movie made, done 12 thirty-city book tours, but dealing with the perception that I was a local writer was often frustrating. I’d have an audience of 2000 in Michigan and then 30 in Raleigh, for example.What it took to manage it was self-esteem, and that generally comes from having a firm grasp of reality and what’s important, my children. A digression, because I anticipate someone mouthing about the Oprah money: I have a hard time tolerating the starving artist in the garret whining about how a writer writes a brilliant book that the publisher won’t promote and that no one is reading. It’s easier to be a victim than take action, write a better book, listen to an editor’s input, find a new publisher. I truly believe, because I’ve seen it, that if a brilliant manuscript exists, that if that writer has had enough gall, brains, energy, etc. to write it that he or she can get it to the right people. When a person sends me something that deserves publishing, I see it through the process. But ninety-nine percent of what I’m sent just isn’t good. A writer has to be a superb editor, and wishing a book good doesn’t make it so. When someone sends me something drowning in cliches, I tell them that language is to use, not to take easy advantage of. When Oprah called and said she wanted to put the two novels on her show, I was nervous about it diminishing my literary reputation, which sounds pompous to say. When she held A Virtuous Woman up and said, “America, you’ve wanted a love story, well, here it is,” I thought, Well, here we go.But, you see, her selling, what now, about three million books that month, didn’t change the basic nature of the novels or me. When Jonathan Franzen started running his mouth about the maudlin trash or whatever he said about her choices, I smiled and remembered that the first novel, Ellen Foster, is taught all over the world beside The Catcher in the Rye and To Kill a Mockingbird. When it was finished, in 1986, it was sent to and read by Eudora Welty, Walker Percy, Gordon Lish, John Barth, and other people who, over the years, became dear to me. The whole Franzen thing got sort of tedious, and I didn’t have the time to get dragged into it.What someone like a Franzen doesn’t see was how poor I was growing up, a surreal state of poverty, and then that small advance, and how I worked my way up to financial security. I’m finally making now what many, many first, very young writers are getting, and I think it damages the soul. I finally have a house that doesn’t have something hanging off in disrepair. There’s the whole attitude now in music and writing of, I’m 21, Where’s my Big Deal? So, even though the Oprah thing seemed to come out of the blue, it had been earned. I think I’d have felt a little ridiculous if it hadn’t been. I used a lot of the money establishing a library at a local children’s home, which my daughters and I still maintain. We sat down and wrote checks, making decisions together about where the money went. Anything I put away personally was completely eradicated, gone, during a horrible divorce two years later. So, I found myself back at the beginning financially, having been reamed. But I’ve got this work ethic, and I’ve got the post-Oprah, broadened visibility. It’ll be okay. My daughter wasn’t able to go to college in NY, stayed here because of the financial drain of the divorce, but it remains, we will all be okay.I admire Oprah, enormously. As for the book club, she’s getting it done, getting people in bookstores. If there’s the criticism that the books she selects have taken on a certain sameness, well, so what? She’s not picked Danielle Steele, for crying out loud. I know for a fact, given the hundreds of letters, that people are reading, because of her, who haven’t read before.Let me tell you that when I got a letter from a mother who said her daughter’s impression of her totally changed when she saw her mother sitting down, reading a book at night in bed, how very proud this woman was, it is hard to say anything critical about the Oprah Book Club.The problem is that it is hard, to impossible, for people who live around books, who read them, own them, who have, like me, about 4000 books in the bedroom, to even process the notion that houses exist where there are no books except the ones the kids bring home from school. That’s a deplorable, elitist attitude. When I was house-shopping, I looked at about fifty upper middle-class houses, and only in a couple did I see more than a handful of books. I started asking the real estate agent if the sellers had hidden the books, thinking they were clutter.I have two younger teenagers, and I can tell you that seeing them reading anything is a blessing. I don’t go over and demand that they upgrade. And for those 350 kids who use the library Oprah made possible day in and day out because the public library in their town will not trust them to check out and bring back books, they’d wonder what all the snobbish hoopla was about. They’re able to do their homework better, their grades have improved, and that money was funneled directly from Oprah.I felt nothing but honored by the whole process, and only wish that I’d been in better emotional and physical shape at the time. I was 75 pounds heavier, weight that drugs I didn’t need had put on me, and I felt run down and a little thick in the head. But that was then. This is now. I’m the person I used to be before my marriage went to hell, and I’m nothing but glad that the Oprah thing is a part of my experience. If nothing else, local ladies who stop me in the grocery store don’t talk to me like I’m having to sell books out of the back of my car.I think anybody who wants to be successful at this whole ordeal of publishing has to take a certain amount of responsibility that I see so many people abdicating in favor of bitter comparisons. Language is a gift, and to be able to use language to make a living is one of the most joyful enterprises I can imagine. I try to take that joy and make what I’m writing a better book every time I edit it. I work 18-hour days. It is a long, lonely, spiritually hazardous occupation. But the joy I feel in putting even two words together in something of an original way has nothing to do with money or movies, nothing external. I think that people buy and read my books, regardless of Oprah, because I’ve always studied everything I’ve read, even packaging on the mascara I just bought, and tried to figure out why a particular word was chosen. You can get in a habit of alert, concentrated reading that comes back when the writing begins. I’ve learned to be honest with myself and cut what sucks.Kaye Gibbons lives in Raleigh, North Carolina. Her books include Charms for Easy Life, On the Occasion of My Last Afternoon, A Cure for Dreams, and Sights Unseen, as well as the titles mentioned above. Her latest novel, Divining Women will come out April 14th. And make sure to check out her cool new website, kayegibbons.com.Many ThanksThanks to Will Femia for allowing my self-promotion to extend to MSNBC’s Weblog Central. For those that are blog-fans, it is always a must-read.