To the End of the Land

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The Millions Top Ten: February 2011

We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for February.

This
Month
Last
Month

Title
On List

1.
3.

The Imperfectionists
2 months

2.
4.

Atlas of Remote Islands
3 months

3.
8.

Skippy Dies
2 months

4.
5.

Room
6 months

5.
7.

Cardinal Numbers
3 months

6.
10.

The Finkler Question
4 months

7.
9.

Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption
3 months

8.


The Late American Novel: Writers on the Future of Books
1 month

9.


Autobiography of Mark Twain, Vol. 1
1 month

10.


The Hunger Games
1 month

Tom Rachman’s The Imperfectionists surges to the top of our list, followed by Judith Schalansky’s Atlas of Remote Islands, and Paul Murray’s Skippy Dies. Meanwhile, the bottom of our list includes three very diverse debuts. The Late American Novel, co-edited by yours truly, is only just now "officially" out but it has been shipping from Amazon for a few weeks now. (To everyone out there who’s picked up the book, thanks for all your support.) Also, new on the list is the Mark Twain Autobiography that has gotten so much attention over the last few months. A few commentators, notably Adam Gopnik in the New Yorker, deflated the hype somewhat, but there is undoubtedly an enormous amount of interest in this literary legend. Finally, all the excitement around YA sensation The Hunger Games has landed the first book in the popular series on our list. Those three debuts took the spots left open by a trio of new Hall of Fame inductees, three books you could argue were the biggest literary reads of last summer, Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story, Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, and, of course, Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom.

Near Misses: How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One, Postcards from Penguin: One Hundred Book Covers in One Box, To the End of the Land, Just Kids , and Woman in White.

See Also: Last month’s list

2010 National Book Critics Circle Award Finalists Announced

The finalists for the annual National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) Award have been announced. The fiction list includes four books that have gotten quite a lot of attention over the last year – the Franzen, Egan, Grossman, and Murray – and one outlier, a novella originally written in 1947 by the 101-year-old Keilson, that was published in English for the first time last year. One might argue that with this set of finalists, the NBCC’s fiction contest is more high-profile this year than the NBA and Booker slates were. Here are the finalists for fiction and non-fiction with excerpts and other links where available. As a side note, the NBCC award is particularly interesting in that it is one of the few major awards that pits American books against overseas (usually British) books.

Fiction

Jennifer Egan, A Visit from the Goon Squad (at The Millions, Egan’s Year in Reading, excerpt)
Jonathan Franzen, Freedom (at The Millions, excerpt)
David Grossman, To the End of the Land (review)
Hans Keilson, Comedy in a Minor Key (profile)
Paul Murray, Skippy Dies (review, Murray’s Year in Reading, excerpt)

Nonfiction

S.C. Gwynne, Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches (excerpt)
Jennifer Homans, Apollo’s Angels: A History of Ballet (excerpt)
Barbara Demick, Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea (excerpt)
Siddhartha Mukherjee, The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer (excerpt)
Isabel Wilkerson, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration (excerpt)

For more on the NBCC Awards and the finalists in the other categories, visit PW.

The Notables: 2010

This year’s New York Times Notable Books of the Year list is out. At 100 titles, the list is more of a catalog of the noteworthy than a distinction. Sticking with the fiction exclusively, it appears that we touched upon a few of these books as well:

The Ask by Sam Lipsyte (our profile of Lipsyte, a most anticipated book)
Bound by Antonya Nelson (a most anticipated book)
Foreign Bodies by Cynthia Ozick (a most anticipated book)
Freedom by Jonathan Franzen (our review, an all-female book club reads Freedom, taking down B.R. Myers’ take on Freedom, “Is Big Back?,” the Franzen cover of Time, a Millions Top Ten book, a most anticipated book)
Fun With Problems by Robert Stone (our review, a most anticipated book)
The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest by Stieg Larsson (The Stieg Larsson takedown, a most anticipated book, a Millions Top Ten book)
Great House by Nicole Krauss (National Book Award finalist, a most anticipated book)
I Curse the River of Time by Per Petterson (a most anticipated book)
The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman (our review)
The Invisible Bridge by Julie Orringer (“20 More Under 40,” a most anticipated book)
The Long Song by Andrea Levy (Booker shortlister)
The Lotus Eaters by Tatjana Soli (Tatjana Soli’s writing at The Millions)
Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes (“Is Big Back?“)
Memory Wall by Anthony Doerr (our review, a most anticipated book)
The Privileges by Jonathan Dee (The Millions interview)
Room by Emma Donoghue (our review, Booker shortlister, a Millions Top Ten book)
Selected Stories by William Trevor (a most anticipated book)
Solar by Ian McEwan (a most anticipated book)
Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart (our review, a most anticipated book, a Millions Top Ten book)
The Surrendered by Chang-Rae Lee (a most anticipated book)
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell (a morning with David Mitchell, our review, a Millions Top Ten book, a most anticipated book)
To the End of the Land by David Grossman (our review)
A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan (our profile of Jennifer Egan, our review, a Millions Top Ten book, a most anticipated book)
What Becomes by A.L. Kennedy (a most anticipated book)

Tuesday New Release Day

New releases this week: All Is Forgotten, Nothing Is Lost by Lan Samantha Chang, “a writing-school success story” according to the New York Times in its review, Obama’s Wars, the latest book by legendary reporter Bob Woodward, Listen to This, a collection of essays published by music critic Alex Ross during his 12-year career at The New Yorker, and (almost new) is David Grossman’s To the End of the Land, as reviewed by Rayyan Al-Shawaf for The Millions.

Everyday Splendor: David Grossman’s To the End of the Land

Early in To the End of the Land, the new, epic novel by acclaimed Israeli writer David Grossman (The Yellow Wind, See Under: Love, The Book of Intimate Grammar), an anxious and fearful Ora scans her absent son Ofer’s room, taking stock of his possessions. These include several books by postmodernist novelist Paul Auster. One cannot help but wonder whether Grossman chose to identify the books’ author as a nod to the literary tastes of his son Uri, who was performing his military service while his father labored on this magnificent and haunting novel. Uri would be killed in the Second Lebanon War in 2006, and Auster, a friend of Grossman’s, would dedicate his novel Man in the Dark (2008) to the bereaved family and the memory of their recently departed member. Grossman himself dedicated To the End of the Land, first published in Hebrew in 2008 and now translated into fluid and elegant English by Jessica Cohen, to his wife, his two surviving children, and the late Uri.

Following a prologue set during the Six-Day War in 1967, the story begins in earnest in 2000. Ofer has just finished his three-year military service, but voluntarily re-enlists in the Israeli army for a 28-day tour of duty following the outbreak of hostilities with the Palestinians. (In reality, a Palestinian intifada did erupt in 2000.) A distressed Ora embarks on a quixotic journey meant to ward off the dreadful news of Ofer’s death, which she anticipates at any moment. “She will be the first notification-refusenik.”

But Ora’s ambition is greater than that; she intends to keep Ofer alive. Unfortunately, she “rationed all her oaths and talismans to last exactly three years,” meaning that she must now devise a new means of protecting her son. Jerusalemite Ora goes to Tel Aviv, rousts Ofer’s father Avram, who has been mired in a deep funk ever since his capture and torture at the hands of the Egyptian army in the Yom Kippur War (1973), and alternately cajoles and bullies him into joining her mission. The traumatized Avram could never bring himself to meet Ofer, who was raised along with his half-brother Adam by Ora and her now-estranged husband Ilan. But a buoyant notion crystallizes in Ora’s mind; by talking about Ofer, she will shield him from harm and simultaneously coax Avram out of his shell.

During the extraordinary odyssey that follows, Grossman subtly and understatedly locates the story of Ora’s family within the Arab-Israeli tragedy in whose roiling midst it is trapped. We are treated to a multivalent exchange between Ora and a wise and wisecracking Israeli Arab taxi driver; Ora and an initially recalcitrant Avram hiking aimlessly but determinedly through the scenic Galilee, coming upon the ruins of Arab villages destroyed during the war over Israel’s founding in 1948, as well as monuments to Israeli soldiers who have fallen in subsequent wars; and the revelation of what exactly befell Avram all those years ago in Egypt. And throughout their journey, Ora tells Avram about Ofer: his wondrous first steps as a baby; his tender relationship with his brother Adam; her husband Ilan’s love for both Adam and Ofer; her feeling left out by her three men when they were all together; and her distinctly maternal wish, during Ofer’s three-year military service in the Occupied Territories, that he not get hurt and also not hurt anyone. Ora brings her son to life in words even as he may lie dying on the battlefield, and she slowly reawakens Avram’s long-dormant Lebenslust and his suppressed paternal instincts.

To be sure, the heady swirl of emotions often proves enervating, while the focus on quotidian family matters inevitably creates boring stretches, especially when elongated by the story’s languid pace. Yet the payoff is worth it. When fully explored, as it is by Grossman in this novel, the drama of the human condition enthralls more than the most gripping action sequence.

Much of Israeli literature remains plagued by a lingering triumphalist strain born of the whitewashed and mythologized Zionist enterprise. To the End of the Land is not the first Israeli novel to depart from that rigid and jarring narrative, but it is arguably the finest. For even as Ora remains impervious to the militant and totalistic anti-Israel ideologies engulfing the Arab world and beyond, she defies Israel itself, the state that has “nationalized her life” and demands that she acquiesce in its jingoism and its greedy claim to her son.

Indeed, To the End of the Land is, above all, a bold restoration of humanity’s primacy over ideology and politics of any kind. At the same time, the novel unabashedly embraces the life-affirming splendor of the mundane. This is Ora in her kitchen, enveloped in the bosom of her family: “Listen to the soundtrack, she thinks. Believe in the soundtrack. This is the right tune: a pot bubbles, the fridge hums, a spoon clangs on a plate, the faucet flows, a stupid commercial on the radio, your voice and Ilan’s voice, your children’s chatter, their laughter—I never want this to end.”

When Literary Praise Goes Too Far

More amusement has been prompted by The History of Love author Nicole Krauss’s arguably over-the-top blurb for David Grossman’s To the End of the Land: “To read it is to have yourself taken apart, undone, touched at the place of your own essence; it is to be turned back, as if after a long absence, into a human being.” Following Guardian’s subsequent contest for who can write the most absurdly laudatory blurb for a Dan Brown novel, Laura Miller at Salon dissects why author endorsements are so unreliable.

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