What Belongs to You: A Novel

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2016 National Book Award Longlists Unveiled

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Book award season enters high gear as the National Book Award finalists have been released in a series of four longlists consisting of ten books apiece. Five finalists in each category will be announced on October 13, and winners will be announced in New York City on November 16.

The fiction list seems well balanced but also includes many familiar names. Alongside highly touted books by Colson Whitehead and Garth Greenwell are critical darlings like Lydia Millet and Karan Mahajan. It’s a great time to be a reader.

You read about nearly all of the books on the Fiction longlist here first, of course, as they appeared in our indispensable first-half and second-half previews.

Here’s a list of the finalists in all four categories with bonus links and excerpts where available:

Fiction:

The Throwback Special by Chris Bachelder (“Men in Tights Crammed into Confined Spaces“)
What Belongs to You by Garth Greenwell (“ISO the Next Great Gay Novel“)
Imagine Me Gone by Adam Haslett (A Most Anticipated book)
News of the World by Paulette Jiles (excerpt (pdf))
The Association of Small Bombs by Karan Mahajan (I Want Complete Freedom When I Write: The Millions Interviews Karan Mahajan)
The Portable Veblen by Elizabeth McKenzie (excerpt)
Sweet Lamb of Heaven by Lydia Millet (Lydia Millet, writing at The Millions)
Miss Jane by Brad Watson (Brad Watson’s Year in Reading)
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead (“Scars That Never Fade“)
Another Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson (A Most Anticipated book)

Nonfiction:

America’s War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History by Andrew J. Bacevich (excerpt)
The Firebrand and the First Lady, Portrait of a Friendship: Pauli Murray, Eleanor Roosevelt and the Struggle for Social Justice by Patricia Bell-Scott (excerpt)
Imbeciles: The Supreme Court, American Eugenics, and the Sterilization of Carrie Buck by Adam Cohen (interview)
Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right by Arlie Russell Hochschild (Most Anticipated)
Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America by Ibram X. Kendi (excerpt)
Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War by Viet Thanh Nguyen (Viet Thanh Nguyen’s Year in Reading)
Weapons of Math Destruction by Cathy O’Neil (Most Anticipated)
The Other Slavery: The Uncovered Story of Indian Enslavement in America by Andrés Reséndez (excerpt)
The Slave’s Cause: A History of Abolition by Manisha Sinha (interview)
Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy by Heather Ann Thompson (Most Anticipated)

Poetry:

The Performance of Becoming Human by Daniel Borzutzky
Collected Poems 1974–2004 by Rita Dove (Race and American Poetry: Dove v. Vendler)
Archeophonics by Peter Gizzi (Peter Gizzi on J.H. Prynne)
The Selected Poems of Donald Hall by Donald Hall (Sonya Chung on Donald Hall)
The Abridged History of Rainfall by Jay Hopler (poem)
Bestiary by Donika Kelly (poem)
World of Made and Unmade by Jane Mead
Look by Solmaz Sharif (the title poem)
Blackacre by Monica Youn (Siobhan Phillips on Monica Youn)
Blue Laws by Kevin Young (poem)

Young People’s Literature:

Booked by Kwame Alexander (excerpt)
Raymie Nightingale by Kate DiCamillo (Susan Orlean on Kate DiCamillo)
March: Book Three by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, Nate Powell (our review of Book One in the series)
When the Sea Turned to Silver by Grace Lin (excerpt)
When the Moon Was Ours by Anna-Marie McLemore (excerpt)
Burn Baby Burn by Meg Medina (excerpt(pdf))
Pax by Sara Pennypacker and Jon Klassen
Ghost by Jason Reynolds
Sachiko: A Nagasaki Bomb Survivor’s Story by Caren Stelson (excerpt)
The Sun is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon

The Millions Top Ten: July 2016

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.

This Month
Last Month

Title
On List

1.
2.

Mr. Splitfoot
4 months

2.
1.

The Sympathizer
4 months

3.
5.

The Past
6 months

4.
3.

Girl Through Glass
5 months

5.
6.

Zero K
3 months

6.
8.

The Lost Time Accidents
5 months

7.
10.

Barkskins
2 months

8.


Innocents and Others
1 month

9.


Ninety-Nine Stories of God
1 month

10.
9.

The Nest
2 months

There’s some jostling atop the list this month as Samantha Hunt’s Mr. Splitfoot pulls ahead of Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer. Likewise, there’s been a minor shake-up in the third and fourth positions as Girl Through Glass drops below The Past, and Zero K holds pretty steady.
The real mover in July, by contrast, was Annie Proulx’s Barkskins, which climbed three spots from tenth to seventh, a rise no doubt attributable to Claire Cameron’s strong endorsement in her “Summer Reading List for Wretched Assholes Who Prefer to Wallow in Someone Else’s Misery.” Of course, highlighting this influence reminds one of Mary Shelley’s question from The Last Man: “What is there in our nature that is forever urging us on towards pain and misery?”
Meanwhile we bid adieu to What Belongs to You and My Name is Lucy Barton, both of which have punched one-way tickets to the literary Valhalla known to mere mortals as the Millions Hall of Fame. In their places we welcome two new arrivals.
Among those newcomers is Dana Spiotta’s Innocents and Others, which Jason Arthur called “a novel about how intimacy works best from a distance” in his review for our site. “There is also so much more to this book that defies quick summary,” explained Edan Lepucki in her long, thoughtful interview with Spiotta, such as “technology and how it creates, bolsters, and distorts identity; making and consuming art; the responsibility and trespassing of representation; friendship; imagination; the fear of being unoriginal.” (P.S. Edan, did your resolution from last January work out?)
Joining Spiotta on this month’s list is Joy Williams’s Ninety-Nine Stories of God, which our own Nick Ripatrazone called “gorgeously written, sentence-to-sentence … arriv[ing] in vignettes that are condensed but not constrained; tight but not dry.” He noted forty-nine other reasons to read the book as well, in case you needed them, which you really shouldn’t because Joy Williams is one of America’s best living writers of short stories and fiction – and for my money she’s unquestionably the best author of travel guides.
‘Til next month, as they say!
This month’s near misses included: Signs Preceding the End of the WorldThe Queen of the Night, Heroes of the Frontier, The Girls, and Homegoing. See Also: Last month’s list.

The New Gay Novel

“Garth Greenwell’s project with What Belongs to You is to remind us how illicit cruising and anonymous sex figure within the modern gay identity. As the gay marriage movement helps sanitize (and de-sexualize) queerness, Greenwell brings the dark and sordid elements of sex and promiscuity back into sharp relief.” Over at Pacific Standard, Nathan Smith writes on the new gay novel. Pair with the Millions review of Greenwell’s book.

The Millions Top Ten: June 2016

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 June.

This Month
Last Month

Title
On List

1.
2.

The Sympathizer
3 months

2.
3.

Mr. Splitfoot
3 months

3.
4.

Girl Through Glass
4 months

4.
5.

The Past
5 months

5.
6.

What Belongs to You
6 months

6.
8.

Zero K
2 months

7.
7.

My Name is Lucy Barton
6 months

8.
9.

The Lost Time Accidents
4 months

9.


The Nest
1 month

10.


Barkskins
1 month

Fresh off the heels of its Pulitzer win, there’s a new number one in Millionsland: The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen. (He’s a Year in Reading alumnus, by the way.) If past success in any indication, then smart money rides on Nguyen’s debut novel soon heading to our Hall of Fame, where it’ll join the past six Pulitzer winners: All the Light We Cannot See (2015), The Goldfinch (2014), The Orphan Master’s Son (2013), A Visit from the Goon Squad (2011), Tinkers (2010), and Olive Kitteridge (2009). You can read an excerpt of The Sympathizer at our sister site, Bloom.
Speaking of the Hall of Fame, we graduate two novels this month — Adam Johnson’s Fortune Smiles and Marlon James’s A Brief History of Seven Killings — each of which took different paths en route to the honor. Johnson’s novel enjoyed a comfortable position on the rankings pretty much out of the gate, when it debuted in the seventh spot last December. It subsequently climbed to fourth position the next month, then second, and ultimately it held the top position in March, April, and May. James’s work, on the other hand, never climbed higher than the seventh spot, and most months it hovered around the ninth or tenth position. Nevertheless, it’s staying power that matters around these parts, and now both works are headed to the Hall of Fame together. I, for one, am heartened!
Filling the two open spots on this month’s list are recent novels by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney and Annie Proulx, both of which were featured in our Great 2016 Book Preview last January. (Bonus: Did you hear we published the Great Second-Half Preview this week?)
Sweeney’s novel, The Nest, was teased by Rumaan Alam in his 2015 Year in Reading entry, and has been described since its March release as “delightful,” “hilarious,” “lively,” and more. It focuses on four adult siblings waiting to cash in on their shared inheritance.
Meanwhile Proulx’s Barkskins was a lynchpin piece on our own Claire Cameron’s “Summer Reading List for Wretched Assholes Who Prefer to Wallow in Someone Else’s Misery.” It focuses on greed, wilderness, and the desolation of our forests.
Truly, Millions readers are all over the map!
This month’s near misses included: Innocents and OthersThe Queen of the Night, Signs Preceding the End of the WorldWhy We Came to the City, and Everybody’s Fool. See Also: Last month’s list.

The Millions Top Ten: May 2016

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 May.

This Month
Last Month

Title
On List

1.
1.

Fortune Smiles
6 months

2.
2.

The Sympathizer
2 months

3.
10.

Mr. Splitfoot
2 months

4.
7.

Girl Through Glass
3 months

5.
5.

The Past
4 months

6.
3.

What Belongs to You
5 months

7.
4.

My Name is Lucy Barton
5 months

8.


Zero K
1 month

9.
8.

The Lost Time Accidents
3 months

10.
9.

A Brief History of Seven Killings
6 months

People love The Millions for a variety of reasons, but most of all I love The Millions because the site’s readers do things like buy tons of copies of The Big Green Tent, Ludmila Ulitskaya’s doorstop of a book about Soviet dissidents, which features almost as many characters as it does pages. Well, maybe y’all don’t buy literal tons of copies, but certainly a substantial amount of copies – enough over a six-month span that the book has now graduated to our hallowed Hall of Fame. And that’s an impressively bookish feat, so have a round of applause!
Filling that open spot is Don DeLillo, whose Zero K describes not the Atlanta Braves pitching staff, as one might reasonably expect, but instead focuses on what Mark O’Connell called “the desire to achieve physical immortality through technology.” (Read more in O’Connell’s interview with DeLillo, which gets into the author’s iPad usage, and how long it took him to write his latest novel.) It’s a concern that, in a certain sense, can be tracked through much of DeLillo’s past work, as our own Nick Ripatrazone recently made clear in his nice piece on the author’s oeuvre: “Zero K is an extension of DeLillo’s developing themes, but it places a darker color upon them.”
Elsewhere on our list, some shakers and movers but overall things held steady.
Clinging to the last spot this month is Marlon James, whose Brief History of Seven Killings remains one of the most memorable things I read in 2015, and who really, truly belongs in our Hall of Fame. What I mean to say is: y’all should buy a few more copies of his book to ensure its graduation in next month’s write-up – not only because we’ve come this close and it’s the right thing to do, but also because it’s a fantastic book and one that you’ll return to months and years after finishing. For instance, consider this passage on the cultural variety of male loathsomeness, which I think about whenever I start feeling mean at the corner bar:

All of them came through Mantana’s. White men, that is. If the man is French he thinks that he gets away with saying cunt but saying you cohnnnt, because we bush bitches will never catch his drift. As soon as he sees you he will throw the keys at your feet saying you, park my car maintenant! Dépêche-toi! I take the keys and say yes massa, then go around to the women’s bathroom and flush it down the shittiest toilet. If he’s British, and under thirty, then his teeth are still hanging on and he’ll be charming enough to get you upstairs but too drunk to do anything. He won’t care and you won’t either, unless he vomits on you and leaves a few pounds on the dresser because that was such dreadful, dreadful business. If he’s British and over thirty, you spend the whole time watching the stereotypes pile up, from the letttttt meeeee ssssspeeeeeakkk toooo youuuuu slowwwwlyyyyy, dahhhhhhhhling beccauuuuuse youuuuuuu’re jussssst a liiiiiiiitle blaaaaack, speed of their speech to the horrible teeth, coming from that cup of cocoa right before bed. If he’s German he will be thin and he will know how to fuck, well in a car piston kind of way, but he will stop early because nobody can make German sound sexy. If he’s Italian, he’ll know how to fuck too, but he probably didn’t bathe before, thinks there’s such a thing as an affectionate face slap and will leave money even though you told him that you’re not a prostitute. If he’s Australian, he’ll just lie back and let you do all the work because even us blokes in Sydney heard about you Jamaican girls. If he’s Irish, he’ll make you laugh and he’ll make the dirtiest things sound sexy. But the longer you stay the longer he drinks, and the longer he drinks, well for each of those seven days you get seven different kinds of monster.

And this isn’t even in the top ten of passages from that book, either. So, for real, if you’re thinking about reading it, hop to it already. Take it from a monster.
This month’s near misses included: Innocents and OthersThe Nest, Signs Preceding the End of the WorldWhen We Came to the City, and The Queen of the Night. See Also: Last month’s list.

The Millions Top Ten: April 2016

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 April.

This Month
Last Month

Title
On List

1.
1.

Fortune Smiles
5 months

2.


The Sympathizer
1 month

3.
4.

What Belongs to You
4 months

4.
5.

My Name is Lucy Barton
4 months

5.
6.

The Past
3 months

6.
3.

The Big Green Tent
6 months

7.
8.

Girl Through Glass
2 months

8.
10.

The Lost Time Accidents
2 months

9.
7.

A Brief History of Seven Killings
5 months

10.


Mr. Splitfoot
1 month

If you’re reading this, you survived to bear witness as Donald Trump became the Grand Old Party’s official presidential candidate. (Thanks a lot, William Faulkner!) And if the unpredictable, foreboding days spread out ahead promise nothing if not apocalyptic visions – glimpses of failures personal and societal, as well as cosmic – then take solace in this one thing: the Millions Top Ten abides as ever – safe, regular, and fun.
For here on our list, we celebrate the buying habits of our readers, and we can illuminate the works that bring them joy, inspire them, or whisk their emotions. Surely in these trying times, that’s better to read than, say, any newspaper. Right?
And so let’s begin with the good news. We graduated two – count ’em! – books to our hallowed Hall of Fame this month. First, David Mitchell launched his fourth – count it! – book to immortality, as his latest novel, Slade House, joined three of his others: Cloud AtlasThe Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, and The Bone Clocks. (Connections abound with that last one, noted Alex Miller, Jr. in his review for our site.) Next, our own Garth Risk Hallberg sent his debut novel, City on Fire, to the Hall as well. Although this is the first time Garth has reached the Hall of Fame as the author of a work of fiction, he did previously reach it as the editor of one of our Millions Originals – Konstantin Kakaes’s The Pioneer Detectives.
Filling those two opened spots are Samantha Hunt’s Mr. Splitfoot and Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer. Hunt’s work is an “elegantly structured novel,” observed our own Kaulie Lewis in the Great 2016 Book Preview, and it “promises to be the year’s most unusual ghost story.” Don’t miss her interview for our site with Adam Vitcavage. Meanwhile Nguyen’s work is “rich, surprising, and often darkly funny,” according to Claire Messud in her most recent Year in Reading entry. (Bonus: Thanh Nguyen contributed his own entry in that same year’s Year in Reading series.) You can read an excerpt from The Sympathizer from our friends at Bloom.
Elsewhere on the list, A Brief History of Seven Killings dropped from seventh position to ninth. Ordinarily I wouldn’t remark about a book moving down our list, but this is a special case because it only needs one more month to reach our Hall of Fame, and frankly I nagged y’all too damn hard for it to drop out when it’s this close. Do your part and buy seven copies immediately, please.
Now, wasn’t that better than reading the political tipsheets?
This month’s near misses included: The Queen of the NightThe Sellout, The Nest, When We Came to the City, and The Turner House. See Also: Last month’s list.

Going Places No One Else Goes: The Millions Interviews Pamela Erens

I’ve been following Pamela Erens’s work since her debut in 2007. With each novel, her reputation has grown; I admit that I expected her new book to land on my doorstep with a resounding thud — the sound of a weighty third novel announcing its author has arrived. The actual tone was higher, more like a plonk.

Erens’s third novel, Eleven Hours, is 165 pages long. It is a heart-in-your-mouth, hold-your-breath read that uses one of the most familiar, and possibly underused, time constraints to hold tension: labor. A woman named Lore, in the early stages of labor, checks into the hospital alone. She brings with her a detailed birth plan, which her assigned nurse, Franckline, eyes skeptically. The nurse knows all too well that the only certain thing about birth is that it won’t go to plan. As the novel charts the course of the contractions, the relationship between the two women becomes more intense. Their lives and past experiences become briefly intertwined through the deeply intimate process of birth.

Why hasn’t a novel like Eleven Hours been written thousands of times before? Like storming the castle, slaying a serial killer, or saving the world, the story of a labor has all the elements of a classic plot. An inciting incident, conflicting needs, rising action, suspense, a built-in climax, and a kind of resolution that often feels both surprising and true.

Like the structure of Eleven Hours, the outcome of a birth, though often happy, isn’t assured. For with every birth, comes the possibility of death. And it’s this natural tension — as Karen Russell puts it, “the tides of memory, sensation, and emotion” — that Pamela Erens has caught so precisely. On the eve of publication, I wanted to know how Erens came to this point in her writing career. In an email exchange, I asked her about working at Glamour magazine, the hard slog of doing publicity yourself, getting the rights back and the reissue of her first novel, glowing reviews by John Irving, “big” books, and “small” topics.

The Millions: Since your first novel was published in 2007, you have been listed for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, you were named a contemporary writer to read by Reader’s Digest, your criticism has appeared in many prestigious publications, and your work has been lauded by The New York Times, The New Yorker, and The Guardian. Have you made it?

Pamela Erens: Hmm, what is “making it?” On the one hand, so much more has come my way than I could have imagined 10 or 15 years ago. I remember when my second novel, The Virgins, came out, realizing that people I didn’t actually know were reading my novel. That was thrilling! Honestly, I think almost everyone who read my first novel, The Understory, either knew me or knew someone who knew me. Getting to write essays for a place like Virginia Quarterly Review, a journal I’d held in awe for years: that knocks me out.

But one keeps moving the goal posts, right? It’s just human nature. You (I) want more readers, more sales, a prize…Sometimes I hate that the mind works like this.

TM: You were an editor at Glamour magazine. How did you make the transition from magazines to novels?

PE: Actually, the fiction came before any magazine work (I also had stints at Ms., Connecticut Magazine, and a New York City weekly called 7 Days). The magazine work was what I gravitated to after college because I was a huge reader of magazines (still am) and needed to make a living. But I wrote fiction as far back as I can remember. If Glamour shaped my work, it was by training me to be succinct and draw the reader in quickly. In school, you learn to generate a lot of blah-blah in your writing, a lot of what my boss at Glamour called “throat-clearing.” Magazine work cures you of that.

TM: Did the success of The Understory surprise you?

PE: Very much. For one thing, during the editing process I gradually gleaned that my editor and publisher (it was the same man) was no longer really running the press that was supposed to bring out my book. He was traveling a lot, hard to reach, involved in other business ventures. He was shutting down operations, and there were many months where I didn’t think the book was going to come out. In the end he did honor the commitment to publish, thank goodness, but there were long delays, and the press lost its distributor. The book was not in bookstores, period. People rightly criticize some of Amazon’s practices, but if it hadn’t been for Amazon no one would ever have been able to get ahold of the book without coming over to my house to ask for a copy.

There was no publicity for The Understory other than what I did myself. The publisher did print advance reading copies, but I had to figure out where to send them. I ran myself ragged writing notes to newspapers and possible reviewers — but at the time I knew hardly anybody. A couple of things worked out, including a Publishers Weekly review, which was hugely important in legitimizing the novel. Jim Ruland, a wonderful writer I’d gotten to know via the online writers’ site Zoetrope, did an interview with me for the literary blog The Elegant Variation. It was an L.A.-based blog, so perhaps that was how the Los Angeles Times folks, who nominated it for the book prize, got wind of the novel. I sent the book to several prize competitions, cursing at the steep entry fees, but it led to the short list for the William Saroyan Award. So: a combination of stubbornness and a few contacts and some lucky breaks.

TM: Picking up on things working out, Tin House republished The Understory in 2014. How did this come about?

PE: By the time The Understory came out in 2007, Ironweed was basically no longer operating except to send copies to Amazon once in a while and bring out one other book they had under contract. I figured that if I could get the rights back, maybe eventually another press would be willing to do a reissue. I was afraid of losing track of my publisher (he was often in Asia) and not being able to contact him if an offer came up. So in 2010 I made a request for the reversion of rights. The publisher was very accommodating about it.

Later, when I got an agent for The Virgins I mentioned to her that I owned the rights to The Understory. After Tin House took The Virgins, she sent The Understory to my new editor, who said that he was interested it in, too, but wanted to see what happened with The Virgins first. And luckily that went well, so Tin House brought out a reissue of The Understory about eight months after The Virgins. It was great to see it with a new cover and in bookstores.

TM: The Virgins got a rave review from John Irving in The New York Times. How did you swing that?

PE: I don’t think authors ever get to swing anything when it comes to The Times!

The review was exciting for reasons beyond the obvious. I’d been a John Irving fan since the age of 15, when I read The World According to Garp. My early- to mid-teens was the one time in my life I stopped writing. I’d been a massively scribbling kid. I’d written a novel at the age of 10 — that was published — I really should refer to it as my first novel. It was called Fight for Freedom and it was about a slave girl who escapes to the North before the Civil War with the help of Harriet Tubman. My mom, always an optimist and a booster, sent it out to a few places and it got taken by a small feminist press in California called The Shameless Hussy Press (this was the 1970s, okay?). But once adolescence hit I guess I just got too busy with trying to be popular and attract the interest of boys. Anyway, The World According to Garp blew me away. I couldn’t believe fiction could be written that way. It was so irreverent and joyful and antic and dark and political. Afterwards, I went out and read all of Irving’s earlier books.

They jolted me into writing again (at first very Irving-imitatively), and I haven’t stopped since, other than for a brief period when I couldn’t sell The Understory and thought, crap, I really don’t have what it takes, maybe I would like to be a librarian. Not a joke; I was looking into it. So there was a big kick in being reviewed by one of my first literary heroes.

TM: Big books are having a moment. Of the many virtues of novels like The GoldfinchThe LuminariesA Little Life, and City on Fire, they have also received attention for their high page count. Eleven Hours is 165 pages long, is this a contrarian stance?

PE: You’ve hit a sore spot for me. Some of the novels most dear to me are big and multi-charactered, with wide panoramas. MiddlemarchAnna KareninaHoward’s EndAngle of Repose. Then I have this other passion for slender, intense, highly concentrated novels and collections, such as Wide Sargasso SeaDesperate CharactersThey Came Like SwallowsJesus’ Son. But it’s the longer, more sprawling books that epitomize “The Novel” to me. Why?

I’ve been pressing myself on this one lately. It has nothing to do with artistry, I’m beginning to realize. It has to do with certain longings for status and, believe it or not, with how I want to see myself as a person. Do I not have enough empathy to write more than two or three or four characters a book? Am I lacking in imagination? I just have to get over those probably false equivalences. Jane Austen famously referred to “the little bit (two inches wide) of ivory on which I work.” Well, we’re still reading Jane Austen today, while Walter Scott, the “big book” writer of her day, not so much.

TM: What is a “big book?”

PE: Usually, for me, it’s a novel that takes on a lot of the “outside” world, that’s sociological and/or historical as well as psychological. Sometimes a book like that truly does offer a “big” experience, and sometimes it’s just kind of, well, journalistic: doing the work of nonfiction rather than fiction.

I think about Kafka, another writer I love. Can you imagine if Kafka sat around saying, “God, why can’t I write a multi-generational novel with lots of sociological color and several gripping subplots?”? You could argue that Kafka is one of the narrowest writers around. He barely does description or character. There’s only sometimes a bit of plot. But in plumbing what he plumbs he brings us some of the most potent experiences in literature. He brings us the unconscious erupting into our lives and the dread at the heart of being human. He goes places no one else goes.

We authors just have to write what we write and not get caught up in these ideas of “big” or “small.”

TM: I agree, but know from experience that it’s not a comfortable feeling to be told your novel is “small.” While there is no set definition of “small,” it can feel diminishing?

PE: Yes, it can. My other hangup about “writing short” is that long books do often generate more excitement and attention. Though it’s not always the case. The wonderful Dept. of Speculation, a novel you can read in an hour and a half, was one of the most lauded books of 2014. There’s Garth Greenwell’s book What Belongs to You. There are Ben Lerner’s two short novels. These have been among the most justly praised books of recent years.

I’ll also say this: When advance reader’s copies of Eleven Hours were mailed out, I realized one big advantage of a short book: people are much more likely to get around to reading it. It’s not such a huge investment of time.

That’s a long way around to your question of whether writing short is a contrarian stance. No! Both The Understory and The Virgins started out as longer books. Making them into the best books I could resulted in major amputations. I knew from the start that Eleven Hours would be short, because of the time frame and because there were only so many uterine contractions I could describe without losing my shit, but I kept hoping it would magically pass the 200-page mark. It just didn’t want to.

Some authors seem to achieve their best effects through expansion. For me, at least so far, it’s compression that brings out what I want.

TM: What did your editor at Tin House say about the length of the manuscript?

PE: I worried about what both my agent and my editor would say about the length of Eleven Hours.

I was afraid someone was going to use the dread word “novella.” (For the record, as a reader, I love the novella form. I just thought that if Eleven Hours was labelled as a novella it might be tougher to sell or get reviews for.)

Neither said anything. When I expressed my own anxieties, my editor mentioned another novel that Tin House had done, even shorter, and commented that the right layout and presentation can make a short book very appealing. That was nice. Tin House does in fact have a track record of beautifully publishing shorter novels.

TM: Eleven Hours tells the incredibly tense story of a woman’s 11-hour labor. How did it feel to write?

PE: I had a lot of false starts with Eleven Hours. I wrote my first two novels in almost complete isolation. With The Virgins, I submitted the first 15 pages to a workshop once; that was it until it was finished. By Eleven Hours, I had a writers’ group, and I was also having trouble getting it launched. Trying to capture the physical and psychological experience of childbirth was so difficult. Not because I didn’t remember it well or was spooked by the material, but simply because it was hard to find the language to say much about it. What I was able to get down on paper was fragmentary and rather dreamlike. I would bring in these fragments and my group would be encouraging but also kind of lost. I really felt that this book needed to be in third person, unlike my first two novels, and I just couldn’t hear the right voice.

Eventually I had a setup and a reasonably workable narrator and I proceeded. Then I didn’t show anything more to anybody and completed a draft in about a year. Wow, I’m getting really fast! I thought. This is progress!

I sent the manuscript to my agent. When we spoke on the phone, I could hear her trying carefully not to make me feel terrible. She pointed out what she liked and didn’t. She didn’t like that much, but what she did I gained the confidence to build on. I got some good feedback from her then assistant also. I spent two more years on the book and got regular critiques from my group. They were essential in helping me see where there was a live vibe and where things were going dead.

The breakthrough was when some intuition sent me back to Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse, two of my favorite novels. That was the voice I wanted, that mobile, poetic, exalted, wry, empathic voice that is distinct from any of the characters. So then I spent the rest of my time figuring out what of Woolf’s method I could adapt or steal. In short, the novel didn’t get written all in one breath, by any means!

TM: Eleven Hours is published by Tin House tomorrow. How do you feel right now?

PE: A bit strung out, as always before a publication. But pleased. It’s always sort of a miracle when something that started years ago as an idea, a little thread of words in your head, becomes this independent object in the world. And something that is particularly satisfying to me this time is that the content of the novel brings me full circle to some of my earliest concerns and interests.

In college I discovered I was a feminist — that is, someone who is very interested in how gender shapes inner and outer experience. I studied gender via philosophy, psychology, history, anthropology, literature. Glamour magazine was a continuation of that. Women’s magazines are where you can routinely find some of the most inquiring and informative journalism about women’s physical and mental health, reproductive rights, sexuality, and so on. The Virgins drew somewhat on that vein of interest, in its attempt to be straightforward about teenage female sexuality, but Eleven Hours does even more so. Why are there so few accurate or in-depth depictions of labor and delivery in literature? It’s just staggering.

TM: That’s a great question. Where is the experience of labor and delivery in our literature?

PE: You and I were just talking about “small” books, and it seems as if childbirth, this absolutely enormous event in the life of billions of people past and present, is seen as a “small” topic. It’s absurd. With Eleven Hours I wanted to write this thing that I wasn’t seeing out there. I wanted to do it as both an artist and a feminist. And now it’s out there, and I feel very satisfied.

The Millions Top Ten: March 2016

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 March.

This Month
Last Month

Title
On List

1.
2.

Fortune Smiles
4 months

2.
3.

Slade House
6 months

3.
4.

The Big Green Tent
5 months

4.
5.

What Belongs to You
3 months

5.
6.

My Name is Lucy Barton
3 months

6.
10.

The Past
2 months

7.
9.

A Brief History of Seven Killings
4 months

8.


Girl Through Glass
1 month

9.
8.

City on Fire
6 months

10.


The Lost Time Accidents
1 month

Ascend, ascend Lauren Groff and Margaret Atwood! Set forth and lay claim to your spots within our Millions Hall of Fame. For one of these authors, it’s their second time making the list. For the other, it’s their debut. Can you guess which is which? The answer may surprise you.
And with the ascension of Fates and Futures and The Heart Goes Last, we welcome two newcomers to our monthly Top Ten: Girl Through Glass by Sari Wilson and The Lost Time Accidents by John Wray.
In his write-up for our Most Anticipated Book Preview three months ago, Matt Seidel described how Wilson’s novel “alternates between late-1970s New York, where its heroine works her way into George Balanchine’s School of American Ballet, and the present day, where she is a dance professor having an affair with a student.” It’s a novel ripe with dramatic tension, and one more than a little fixated on body type, as Martha Anne Toll noted in her recent exploration of women — lost, thin, and small — in fiction.
Joining Wilson on the list this month is John Wray, whose newest novel, The Lost Time Accidents, covers a great many topics, such as physics, the Czech Republic, watch factories, Nazi war criminals, the Church of Scientology (but not really), and science fiction, among others. In her write-up for the Book Preview, Anne K. Yoder called it a “mash-up of sci-fi, time-travel, and family epic [that’s] both madcap and ambitious.” The novel was also covered by Michael Schaub in a recent edition of The Book Report — come for the overview, but stay for Bong Crosby!
Stay tuned for next month’s list, in which two more newcomers are poised to join our ranks.
This month’s near misses included: The Queen of the Night, Mr. SplitfootThe Turner HouseEternity Street: Violence and Justice in Frontier Los Angeles, and The Sellout. See Also: Last month’s list.

The Millions Top Ten: February 2016


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.
1.

Fates and Furies
6 months

2.
4.

Fortune Smiles
3 months

3.
3.

Slade House
5 months

4.
5.

The Big Green Tent
4 months

5.
8.

What Belongs to You
2 months

6.
9.

My Name is Lucy Barton
2 months

7.
6.

The Heart Goes Last
6 months

8.
7.

City on Fire
5 months

9.
10.

A Brief History of Seven Killings
3 months

10.


The Past
1 month

For the first time in five years, but also the third time in six, Jonathan Franzen sent one of his books to our site’s Hall of Fame. And with the ascension of Purity, that makes Franzen three-for-three on his most recent novels reaching such hallowed ground. (Sorry, Kraus Project, but it looks like the streak is limited to fiction; and sorry as well, Strong Motion, but it looks like you arrived before the Franz-y* picked up full force; you’ll have to content yourself with Brain Ted Jones’s Millions essay instead of a HoF berth.)
Filling Purity’s spot this month is The Past by Tessa Hadley, which was featured in both our Second-Half 2015 and also our Great 2016 Book Previews. The novel concerns siblings who reunite to sell their grandparents’ old house, but it really shouldn’t be summed up by its plot. The author would protest. After all, in an interview for our site last year, Hadley remarked upon the dangers that come from focusing too narrowly on plot and sequential order, and how she controls that impulse when she writes:

Things in life don’t, on the whole, add up or get resolved in that deliciously satisfactory, finalizing way that novels are so good at. Nineteenth-century novelists resolved their plotty novels so magnificently because they shared convictions about meaning and fulfillment that we surely mislaid somewhere in the 20th century. But I do believe that “leaping over the gaps” doesn’t mean you can’t hold a story together. Rather, we’ve grown suspicious of stories that resolve too satisfactorily. The danger is that if you fill in all the gaps you lose the essence of the story, you write something stodgy and merely consecutive, instead of keeping your hand on the live wire of the life, which jumps from place to place.

Elsewhere on this month’s list we see Marlon James’s A Brief History… move up on spot, which is good because that means you’re listening to my repeated pleas for you to buy that book. It also appears that next month our list will welcome two new additions, as both Fates and Furies and The Heart Goes Last seem destined for the Hall of Fame.

*No, I don’t want to apologize for that. It was good.

This month’s near misses included: The Queen of the Night, The Lost Time AccidentsEternity Street: Violence and Justice in Frontier Los Angeles, Girl Through Glass, and The Turner House. See Also: Last month’s list.

The Millions Top Ten: January 2016


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.

This Month
Last Month

Title
On List

1.
3.

Fates and Furies
5 months

2.
4.

Purity
6 months

3.
5.

Slade House
4 months

4.
7.

Fortune Smiles
2 months

5.
8.

The Big Green Tent
3 months

6.
9.

The Heart Goes Last
5 months

7.
10.

City on Fire
4 months

8.


What Belongs to You
1 month

9.


My Name is Lucy Barton
1 month

10.


A Brief History of Seven Killings
2 months

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 AngelesThe Turner HouseThe 3 A.M. EpiphanyUndermajordomo Minor,  and A Strangeness in My Mind. See Also: Last month’s list.

ISO the Next Great Gay Novel: On Garth Greenwell’s ‘What Belongs to You’

The advance praise for What Belongs to You (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), the debut novel by Garth Greenwell, has been superlative to say the least. The handsome, nearly 200-page hardcover boasts blurbs from Edmund White and Hanya Yanagihara, among others, and early rave reviews have appeared in Interview and Booklist, in addition to starred reviews from Kirkus Reviews and Publishers Weekly, which hailed the book as “the first great novel of 2016.”

Greenwell’s elegant, meticulously crafted prose certainly merits such endorsements, and for its probing, unusually candid inquiry into gay desire, his book seems poised to be received not just as the first great novel of 2016, but the next great gay novel — a somewhat fraught designation that Greenwell has himself considered in his review of Yanagihara’s A Little Life for The Atlantic. There, Greenwell defines the category in passing as “a big, ambitious novel about gay life in America today,” and goes on to argue for A Little Life’s qualification. Funnily enough, however, it’s his own novel, spare and set abroad though it may be, that offers us the most exacting and visionary reading in contemporary literature of what it means to be gay in America today.

Of the many favorable comparisons What Belongs to You is sure to invite, none seems quite so apt — or useful in understanding just what it is that makes it a great gay novel — as its parallels to James Baldwin’s 1956 classic Giovanni’s Room. Both books take place in a European city (Sofia, Bulgaria, and Paris, France, respectively) and center on an ill-fated gay love affair between an American expatriate narrator and a titular, foreign man. Both Greenwell’s Mitko (who gives the novel’s first section its name) and Baldwin’s Giovanni exemplify and are othered by a working-class masculinity, in addition to being tragically beautiful. And like their protagonist counterparts, both love objects have also left behind their home cities, though, Mitko, meaningfully, has not escaped his native Bulgaria or the effects of its depressed economy, and, unlike Giovanni, is identified as a sex-worker upon his introduction. (Greenwell is a writer of such subtle clarity, however, he never need name him explicitly or euphemistically as such. Many reviewers, unfortunately, have not been as careful in their treatment of Mitko, a complex and lovingly rendered character whom Greenwell goes to great pains not to reduce to the role of predator.)

In many ways, What Belongs to You inverts the terms of Giovanni’s Room: where in Baldwin, Paris is the only place where the expatriate is able to experience some semblance of sexual freedom, ultimately compromised by the impossibility thereof elsewhere, in Greenwell, Sofia mirrors the recalled Southern city of the narrator’s aspirationally middle-class childhood, a last outpost of a conservative worldview in which gay happiness cannot be imagined.

The action of both books is, for the most part, recalled — though retrospection and introspection might be even more central to What Belongs to You, in which everything that happens is explicitly filtered through the mind and/or memory of our unnamed narrator. The main character, like Greenwell himself, is a thinking writer and a poet, which informs his language and his approach to art-making. During his first encounter with Mitko, in which he pays Mitko for his performance, so to speak, he muses:

But then there’s something theatrical in all our embraces, I think, as we weigh our responses against those we perceive or project; always we desire too much or not enough, and compensate accordingly.

The novel is bursting with such observations, as quotable as they are uncanny in the precision with which they reveal the transactional, often confounding nature of desires — and what determines them. Two sections that chronicle the narrator’s relationship with Mitko bookend a single-paragraph, 42-page second section of astonishing urgency, scope, and skill, in which the narrator, out on a long walk, re-enacts the joys and traumas of his childhood in order to consider his father’s legacy and imminent death.

Its place in the larger narrative of our protagonist, as he’s teaching English at the American College and looking for love in all the ostensibly wrong places, functions much like David’s recollection of his first lover, Joey, from his school days, in Giovanni’s Room — as an origin point. Once again, however, the terms of the two books are inverted: while it is an ashamed David who puts an end to his relationship with Joey, it is Greenwell’s narrator who is essentially abandoned by his best friend and first love K. after they spend an evening in an intimate (but chaste) embrace. Later, the desire between the two boys is triangulated between K.’s first girlfriend, for whom the narrator becomes both watchman and voyeur:

He knew I was watching and he let me watch. It was like a parting gift, I thought as I kept watching his face and the movements it made, it looked almost as if he were in pain. I was in pain too, and almost without thinking I let my hand drop between my legs and gripped myself hard. I’ve sought it ever since, I think, the combination of exclusion and desire I felt in his room, beneath the pain of exclusion the satisfaction of desire; sometimes I think it’s the only thing I’ve sought.

The indefatigable desire realized in K.’s room, and its repetition in the form of Mitko, also recalls David’s description of Giovanni’s: “It became, in a way, every room I had ever been in and every room I find myself in hereafter will remind me of Giovanni’s room.”

For the narrator of What Belongs to You, K.’s rejection is also already something of an echo — of an experience with his father when he “must have been nine or ten” in which he unknowingly transgresses the boundaries of filial affection and which signals “the end of care:”

…his look entered me and settled there and has never left, it rooted beneath memory and became my understanding of myself, my understanding and expectation.

There’s nothing particularly revelatory in the idea that our relationships with our parents and early attempts at intimacy shape what we seek in our romantic pursuits as adults — the credit goes to Sigmund Freud there — but the remarkable intervention Greenwell makes in What Belongs to You, as Baldwin did in Giovanni’s Room, is that for gay men, the sociocultural trauma of sexual difference is just as integral an etiological force, and one that informs both our relationships with our parents and our adolescent fumblings. Neither What Belongs to You nor Giovanni’s Room is a coming-of-age novel, quite, but both deal with the consequences of having come-of-age gay in a particular time and place.

That the two novels differ substantially should be obvious on the basis of their differing authors and publication dates alone, but both are great gay novels, and, I think, achieve that success according to a similar mechanism. Just as Giovanni’s Room was the novel that best expressed the precarious and shifting social position of American gay men in the mid-20th century, so What Belongs to You offers us an almost uncomfortably clear articulation of our own time.

Published 60 years prior, in a time when homosexuality was still classified as a mental illness and the prospect of same-sex marriage must have seemed laughable, Giovanni’s Room is, accordingly, a sadder book. This isn’t to minimize what a sad book What Belongs to You is, however (if you are, like me, a crier, you’ve been forewarned). Its story and title invite us to consider what does belong to us, whether we share the relative social privilege of its narrator or, like the doomed Mitko (or Giovanni, or even David), are trapped in an environment in which it seems impossible to follow our desires to their fulfillment. What belongs to us, Greenwell opines, is what we inherit — from our lovers, our families, and our cultures. What Belongs to You commits itself to revealing how our desires are forged in our early moments of rejection, frustration, and punishment, how even as we grow up and into lives in which we might be free to pursue our desires in whatever form they take, we are never truly free. We do not shape our desires so much as they shape us.

In a sense, the novel’s first sentence is a synecdoche of the whole, in which Mitko’s betrayal is a stand-in for the much larger betrayal of a world that teaches us to be ashamed of our attractions:

That my first encounter with Mitko B. ended in a betrayal, even a minor one, should have given me greater warning at the time, which should have in turn made my desire for him less, if not done away with it completely.

But finally, the response this book offers to the question of what belongs to us, if it is not quite joyful, is hopeful — and key to understanding what makes it the great gay novel of today. Greenwell’s narrator does ultimately find a healthy, reciprocal love in the form of a long distance relationship. And the role that Skype plays in that relationship is not incidental. Though the narrator first meets Mitko in an old-world cruising spot, the new possibilities for gay connection that technology has created are central to this book, as reflected in Mitko’s fascination with electronics he cannot afford, and both his and the narrator’s use of gay chatrooms as a means to mitigate loneliness (and for Mitko, to arrange his appointments).

We live in a time of a great transition, in which, for the fortunate, the experience of being gay does indeed get better. But the very construction of “it gets better” depends on the fact of it once having been worse, and it is this difficult passage between rejection and acceptance (from others and of the self) that characterizes gay identity in What Belongs to You. In his narrator, Greenwell has created a character who, somewhat counterintuitively, functions as an archetype of the gay experience today: moving from shame and secrecy toward liberation, even as liberation remains difficult to realize. Despite the vivid specificity of the narrator’s biographical details (which, it’s worth mentioning, bear a striking resemblance to Greenwell’s own life), his narrator, meaningfully nameless, remains capacious. If it would be a stretch to call him a universal character (this reviewer is also a gay poet, after all), it is important to recognize the ways in which the arc of his life epitomizes a certain moment in American culture: he’s a child of upwardly mobile middle-class parents, of divorce (and therefore also of the death of the nuclear family), and of the legacy of domestic violence, caught in a cultural moment of changing mores and moral panic, when the mainstreaming of psychotherapy spelled for a larger reckoning with family secrets, and when being gay was still mostly associated with AIDS and pedophilia.

Though he must recognize the enduring consequences of this legacy, that Greenwell’s narrator succeeds in imagining — and then making — a life in which he is not condemned by his desires is no small change in the history of gay literature. It heartens me to think that in 100 years, a young gay reader may no longer recognize the experience in this book as his own, as I don’t quite recognize mine in Giovanni’s Room. Greenwell’s masterful first novel suggests that in addition to all the pain we inherit, something else might belong to us too: something of our choosing — in another room, another country, another future — at the end of the street, just out of sight.

Most Anticipated: The Great 2016 Book Preview

We think it’s safe to say last year was a big year for the book world. In addition to new titles by Harper Lee, Jonathan Franzen, and Lauren Groff, we got novels by Ottessa Moshfegh, Claire Vaye Watkins, and our own Garth Risk Hallberg. At this early stage, it already seems evident this year will keep up the pace. There’s a new Elizabeth Strout book, for one, and a new Annie Proulx; new novels by Don DeLillo, Curtis Sittenfeld, Richard Russo and Yann Martel; and much-hyped debut novels by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney and Callan Wink. There’s also a new book by Alexander Chee, and a new translation of Nobel Prize-winner Herta Müller. The books previewed here are all fiction. Our nonfiction preview is available here.

While there’s no such thing as a list that has everything, we feel certain this preview — at 8,600 words and 93 titles — is the only 2016 book preview you’ll need. Scroll down to get started.

January:
My Name Is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout: The latest novel from the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Olive Kitteridge centers on a mother and daughter’s tumultuous relationship. In a starred review, Kirkus reports: “The eponymous narrator looks back to the mid-1980s, when she goes into the hospital for an appendix removal and succumbs to a mysterious fever that keeps her there for nine weeks. The possible threat to her life brings Lucy’s mother, from whom she has been estranged for years, to her bedside — but not the father whose World War II–related trauma is largely responsible for clever Lucy’s fleeing her impoverished family for college and life as a writer.” Publishers Weekly says this “masterly” novel’s central message “is that sometimes in order to express love, one has to forgive.” Let’s hope HBO makes this one into a mini-series as well. (Edan)

The Past by Tessa Hadley: Hadley was described by one critic as “literary fiction’s best kept secret,” and Hilary Mantel has said she is “one of those writers a reader trusts,” which, considering the source, is as resounding an endorsement as one can possibly imagine. The English novelist is the author of five novels and two short story collections; in The Past, her sixth novel, siblings reunite to sell their grandparents’ old house. Most likely unsurprising to anyone who’s reunited with family for this sort of thing, “under the idyllic surface, there are tensions.” (Elizabeth)

Good on Paper by Rachel Cantor: Following her time-traveling debut, A Highly Unlikely Scenario, or a Neetsa Pizza Employee’s Guide to Saving the World (which is a member of The Millions Hall of Fame), Cantor’s second novel, Good on Paper, chronicles the story of academic and mother Shira Greene. After Shira abandons her PhD thesis on Dante Alighieri’s Vita Nuova, she takes an unfulfilling temp job. When Nobel Prize-winner Romei contacts her to translate his latest work based on Dante’s text, she couldn’t be more excited. But upon receiving his text, she fears “the work is not only untranslatable but designed to break her.” (Cara)

The Happy Marriage by Tahar Ben Jelloun: The latest novel by Morocco’s most acclaimed living writer focuses on the dissolution of a marriage between a renowned painter and his wife. Using two distinct points of view, Ben Jelloun lets each of his characters — man and wife — tell their side of the story. Set against the backdrop of Casablanca in the midst of an awakening women’s rights movement, The Happy Marriage explores not only the question of who’s right and who’s wrong, but also the very nature of modern matrimony. (Nick M.)

 

 

Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine by Diane Williams: Williams’s short stories operate according to the principles of Viktor Shklovsky’s ostranenie: making strange in order to reveal the ordinary anew. They are dense and dazzling oddities with an ear for patois and steeped deeply in the uncanny. Darkness and desire and despair and longing and schadenfreude and judgment roil just below the surface of seemingly pleasant exchanges, and, in their telling, subvert the reader’s expectations of just how a story unfolds. Williams’s previous collection Vicky Swanky Is a Beauty was a beauty. Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, her forthcoming, warns of linguistic breakdown, insistence, and restlessness. (Anne)

Mr. Splitfoot by Samantha Hunt: It’s been seven years since Samantha Hunt’s novel about Nicola Tesla, The Invention of Everything Else, was listed as an Orange Prize finalist. Now Hunt’s back with a modern gothic starring a scam-artist orphan who claims to talk to the dead; his sister who ages into a strange, silent woman; and, later, her pregnant niece, who follows her aunt on a trek across New York without exactly knowing why. Also featured: meteorites, a runaway nun, a noseless man, and a healthy dash of humor. Although it’s still too early to speculate on the prize-winning potential of Mr. Splitfoot, Hunt’s fantastical writing is already drawing favorable comparisons to Kelly Link and Aimee Bender, and her elegantly structured novel promises to be the year’s most unusual ghost story. (Kaulie)

The Kindness of Enemies by Leila Aboulela: Aboulela’s new novel transports readers to Scotland, the Caucasus, St. Petersburg, and Sudan. The protagonist is a Scottish-Sudanese lecturer researching “the lion of Dagestan,” a 19th-century leader who resisted Russian incursions, when she finds out that one of her students is his descendant. As they study up on the rebel leader, and the Georgian princess he captured as a bargaining chip, the two academics become embroiled in a cultural battle of their own. Aboulela’s fifth book sounds like a fascinating combination of Leo Tolstoy’s Hadji Murat and A.S. Byatt’s Possession. (Matt)

Girl Through Glass by Sari Wilson: With its intense competition and rivalries, the ballet world provides a novelist with plenty of dramatic material. Girl Through Glass alternates between late-1970s New York, where its heroine works her way into George Balanchine’s School of American Ballet, and the present day, where she is a dance professor having an affair with a student. Exploring the exquisite precision of dancing alongside the unruliness of passion, Wilson’s novel looks to be on point. (Matt)

 

Unspeakable Things by Kathleen Spivack: In her debut novel, Spivack, an accomplished poet, tells the story of a refugee family fleeing Europe during the final year of WWII. In New York City, where they’ve been laying low, we meet a cast of characters including a Hungarian countess, an Austrian civil servant, a German pediatrician, and an eight-year-old obsessed with her family’s past — especially some long-forgotten matters involving late night, secretive meetings with Grigori Rasputin. Described by turns as “wild, erotic” as well as “daring, haunting, dark, creepy, and surreal,” Unspeakable Things certainly seems to live up to its title. (Nick M.)

What Belongs to You by Garth Greenwell: Greenwell’s debut novel expands his exquisitely written 2011 novella, Mitko. A meticulous stylist, Greenwell enlarges the story without losing its poetic tension. An American teacher of English in Bulgaria longs for Mitko, a hustler. Think the feel of James Salter’s A Sport and a Pastime. Greenwell’s lines tease and tear at the soul: “That my first encounter with Mitko B. ended in a betrayal, even a minor one, should have given me greater warning at the time, which should in turn have made my desire for him less, if not done away with it completely. But warning, in places like the bathrooms at the National Place of Culture, where we met, is like some element coterminous with the air, ubiquitous and inescapable, so that it becomes part of those who inhabit it, and thus part and parcel of the desire that draws us there.” (Nick R.)

On the Edge by Rafael Chirbes: This novel about the ills of Europe generally and Spain specifically appears in English mere months after the death of its author, one of Spain’s premier novelists. Readers unmoved by, say, the sour hypotheticals of Michel Houellebecq will find a more nuanced, if no less depressing, portrait of economic decline and societal breakdown in On the Edge, the first of Chirbes’s novels to be translated into English (by Margaret Jull Costa). (Lydia)

 

The Unfinished World by Amber Sparks: The second collection of short fiction by Sparks, The Unfinished World comprises 19 short (often very short) stories, surreal and fantastic numbers with titles like “The Lizzie Borden Jazz Babies” and “Janitor in Space.” Sparks’s first collection, May We Shed These Human Bodies, was The Atlantic Wire’s small press debut of 2012. (Lydia)

 

 

And Again by Jessica Chiarella: This debut by current UC Riverside MFA student Chiarella is a speculative literary novel about four terminally ill patients who are given new, cloned bodies that are genetically perfect and unmarred by the environmental dangers of modern life. According to the jacket copy, these four people — among them a congressman and a painter — are “restored, and unmade, by this medical miracle.” And Again is a January Indie Next Pick, and Laila Lalami calls it “a moving and beautifully crafted novel about the frailty of identity, the illusion of control, and the enduring power of love.” (Edan)

February:
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: Whiting Award-winner Wray’s fourth novel, The Lost Time Accidents, moves backwards and forwards in time, and across the Atlantic, while following the fates of two Austrian brothers. Their lives are immersed in the rich history of early-20th-century salon culture (intermingling with the likes of Gustav Klimt and Ludwig Wittgenstein), but then they diverge as one aids Adolf Hitler and the other moves to the West Village and becomes a sci-fi writer. When the former wakes one morning to discover that he has been exiled from time, he scrambles to find a way back in. This mash-up of sci-fi, time-travel, and family epic is both madcap and ambitious: “literature as high wire act without the net,” as put by Marlon James. (Anne)

A Doubter’s Almanac by Ethan Canin: Canin is the New York Times bestselling author of The Palace Thief and America America and a faculty member at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Mathematical genius Milo Andret, subject of A Doubter’s Almanac, shares a home with Canin in northern Michigan. Milo travels to Berkeley, Princeton, Ohio, and back to the Midwest while studying and teaching mathematics. Later in the story, Hans, Milo’s son, reveals that he has been narrating his father’s mathematical triumphs and fall into addiction. Hans may be “scarred” by his father’s actions, but Canin finds a way to redeem him through love. (Cara)

Why We Came to the City by Kristopher Jansma: Kirkus described this book as an ode to friendship, but it could just as easily be described as a meditation on mortality. Jansma’s second novel — his first was The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards, published in 2014 — follows the intertwined lives and increasingly dark trajectories of a group of four young friends in New York City. (Emily)

 

 

Tender by Belinda McKeon: McKeon took her place among the prominent Irish novelists with her 2011 debut, Solace, which was voted Irish Book of the Year. Her second novel, Tender, follows the lifelong friendship of Catherine and James, who meet when they are both young in Dublin. At first she is a quiet college student and he the charismatic artist who brings her out of her shell, but McKeon follows their friendship through the years and their roles change, reverse, and become as complicated as they are dear. (Janet)

 

Wreck and Order by Hannah Tennant-Moore: Tennant-Moore’s debut novel, Wreck and Order, brings the audience into the life of Elsie, an intelligent young woman making self-destructive decisions. Economically privileged, she travels instead of attending college. Upon her return from Paris, she finds herself stuck in an abusive relationship and a job she hates — so she leaves the U.S. again, this time for Sri Lanka. A starred review from Publishers Weekly says, “Tennant-Moore is far too sophisticated and nuanced a writer to allow Elsie to be miraculously healed by the mysterious East.” Tennant-Moore leaves the audience with questions about how to find oneself and one’s purpose. (Cara)

Dog Run Moon by Callan Wink: A few short years ago, Wink was a fly-fishing guide in Montana. Today, he has nearly bagged the limit of early literary successes, reeling in an NEA grant, a Stegner Fellowship at Stanford, and publications in The New Yorker, Granta, and the Best American Short Stories. “[T]hrough the transparency of his writing, at once delicate and brutally precise, the author gifts us with the wonderful feeling of knowing someone you’ve only met in a book,” Publishers Weekly says of Wink’s debut collection, which is mostly set in and around Yellowstone National Park. (Michael)

The Fugitives by Christopher Sorrentino: Ten years after Sorrentino’s much-lauded and National Book Award-nominated Trance, he returns with The Fugitives, called “something of a thriller, though more Richard Russo than Robert Ludlum,” by Kirkus. Within, struggling writer Sandy Mulligan leaves New York for a small, seemingly quiet Michigan town to escape scandal and finish his novel, and, well, does anything but. His name evokes Sorrentino’s father’s acclaimed novel Mulligan Stew, another tale of a struggling writer whose narrative falls apart. Mulligan’s novel suffers neglect as he befriends a swindler and becomes involved with an investigative reporter who’s there to uncover the crime; Sorrentino’s plot, in contrast, is fine-tuned. (Anne)

The Book of Memory by Petina Gappah: Gappah’s first book, a short story collection called An Elegy for Easterly, won the Guardian First Book Prize in 2009. The Book of Memory is her first novel, and if the first sentence of the description doesn’t hook you, I’m not sure what to tell you: “Memory is an albino woman languishing in Chikurubi Maximum Security Prison in Harare, Zimbabwe, where she has been convicted of murder.” The novel follows this “uniquely slippery narrator” as she pieces together her crime and the life that led her there. (Elizabeth)

Youngblood by Matthew Gallagher: In his debut work of fiction, Gallagher, a former U.S. Army captain, focuses his attentions on Jack Porter, a newly-minted lieutenant grappling with the drawdown of forces in Iraq. Struggling with the task of maintaining a delicate peace amongst warlords and militias, as well as the aggressive pressures being applied by a new commanding officer, Jack finds himself embroiled in a conflict between the nation he serves and the one he’s supposedly been sent to help. Described as “truthful, urgent, grave and darkly funny” — as well as “a slap in the face to a culture that’s grown all too comfortable with the notion of endless war” — this novel comes more than 12 years after George W. Bush declared, “Mission Accomplished,” and nine months before we elect our next president. (Nick M.)

Black Deutschland by Darryl Pinckney: West Berlin in the years before the Wall came down — “that petri dish of romantic radicalism” — is the lush backdrop for Pinckney’s second novel, Black Deutschland. It’s the story of Jed Goodfinch, a young gay black man who flees his stifling hometown of Chicago for Berlin, hoping to recapture the magic decadence of W.H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood’s Weimar era and, in the process, remake and discover himself. In Berlin, Jed is free to become “that person I so admired, the black American expatriate.” Kirkus praises the novel for embodying the “inventive, idiosyncratic styles” now flourishing in African-American writing. (Bill)

Cities I’ve Never Lived In by Sara Majka: The linked stories in Majka’s debut collection beg the question how much of ourselves we leave behind with each departure we make, as we become “citizens of the places where we cannot stay.” Kelly Link offers high praise: “A collection that leaves you longing — as one longs to return to much loved, much missed homes and communities and cities — for places that you, the reader, have never been. Prodigal with insight into why and how people love and leave, and love again.” You can read excerpts at Catapult and Longreads. (Bruna)

The Heart by Maylis de Kerangal: De Kerangal, a short-lister for the Prix Goncourt, has not been widely translated in English, although this may change after this novel — her first translation from an American publisher — simultaneously ruins and elevates everyone’s week/month/year. The Heart is a short and devastating account of a human heart (among other organs) as it makes its way from a dead person to a chronically ill person. It is part medical thriller, part reportage on the process of organ donation, part social study, part meditation on the unbearable pathos of life. (Lydia)

You Should Pity Us Instead by Amy Gustine: A debut collection of crisp short stories about people in various forms of extremis — people with kidnapped sons, babies who won’t stop crying, too many cats. The scenarios vary wildly in terms of their objective badness, but that’s how life is, and the writer treats them all with gravity. (Lydia)

 

 

The Lives of Elves by Muriel Barbery: Following the hoopla around her surprise bestseller The Elegance of the Hedgehog, Barbery, trained as a philosopher, became anxious about expectations for the next book. She traveled, and went back to teaching philosophy. She told The Independent that for a time she had lost the desire to write. Eight years on, we have The Lives of Elves, the story of two 12-year-old girls in Italy and France who each discover the world of elves. Barbery says the book is neither a fairytale nor a parable, strictly speaking, but that she is interested in “enchantment” — how the modern world is “cut off from” from its poetic illusions. (Sonya)

Square Wave by Mark de Silva: A dystopian debut set in America with a leitmotif of imperial power struggles in Sri Lanka in the 17th century. Part mystery, part sci-fi thriller, the novel reportedly deals with “the psychological effects of a militarized state upon its citizenry” — highly topical for Americans today. Readers of The New York Times may recognize de Silva’s name from the opinion section, where he was formerly a staffer. (Lydia)

 

The Arrangement by Ashley Warlick: Food writing fans may want to check out a novelization of the life of M.F.K. Fisher, focusing on, the title suggests, the more salacious personal details of the beloved food writer’s life. (Lydia)

 

 

 

Sudden Death by Álvaro Enrigue: At once erudite and phantasmagoric, this novel begins with a 16th-century tennis match between the painter Caravaggio and the poet Francisco de Quevedo and swirls lysergically outward to take in the whole history of European conquest. It won awards in Spain and in Enrigue’s native Mexico; now Natasha Wimmer gives us an English translation. (Garth)

 

 

The Daredevils by Gary Amdahl: Over the last decade, Amdahl has traced an eccentric orbit through the indie-press cosmos; his mixture of bleakness, comedy, and virtuosity recalls the Coen Brothers, or Stanley Elkin’s A Bad Man. The “Amdahl Library” project at Artistically Declined Press seems to be on hold for now, but perhaps this novel, about a young man riding the currents of radical politics and theater in the early-12th century, will bring him a wider audience. (Garth)

March:

What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours by Helen Oyeyemi: Oyeyemi wrote her first novel, The Icarus Girl, at 18 and was later included on Granta’s Best of Young British Novelists in 2013. Following her fifth release, the critically-praised novel Boy, Snow, Bird, in 2014, Oyeyemi is publishing her first collection of short stories. The stories draw on similar fairy tale themes as her past works. In What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours, Oyeyemi links her characters through literal and metaphorical keys — to a house, a heart, a secret. If you can’t wait to get your hands on the collection, one of the stories, “‘Sorry’ Doesn’t Sweeten Her Tea,” was published in Ploughshares this summer. (Cara)

The Ancient Minstrel by Jim Harrison: With The Ancient Minstrel, our national treasure known as Jim Harrison returns to his greatest strength, the novella. Like Legends of the Fall, this new book is a trio of novellas that showcase Harrison’s seemingly limitless range. In the title piece, he has big fun at his own expense, spoofing an aging writer who wrestles with literary fame, his estranged wife, and an unplanned litter of piglets. In Eggs, a Montana woman attempting to have her first child reminisces about collecting eggs at her grandparents’ country home in England. And in The Case of the Howling Buddhas, retired detective Sunderson returns from earlier novels to investigate a bizarre cult. The book abounds with Harrison’s twin trademarks: wisdom and humor. (Bill)

The Throwback Special by Chris Bachelder: As a fan of sports talk radio and its obsessive analysis, I’m looking forward to Bachelder’s novel, which endlessly dissects the brutal 1985 play where Lawrence Taylor sacked Washington’s quarterback Joe Theismann, breaking his leg. In the novel, 22 friends meet to reenact the play, an occasion that allows Bacheler to philosophize about memory and the inherent chaos of sports. As he put it in a New York Times essay: “I’m moved…by the chasm…between heady design and disappointing outcome, between idealistic grandeur and violent calamity.” (Matt)

The Year of the Runaways by Sunjeev Sahota: Sahota’s second novel is the only title on the 2015 Man Booker Prize shortlist that has yet to be published in the United States. It tells the story of four Indians who emigrate to the north of England and find their lives twisted together in the process. Many critics cited its power as a political novel, particularly in a year when migration has dominated news cycles. But it works on multiple levels: The Guardian’s reviewer wrote, “This is a novel that takes on the largest questions and still shines in its smallest details.” (Elizabeth)

Burning Down the House by Jane Mendelsohn: The author of the 1990s bestseller I Was Amelia Earhart here focuses on a wealthy New York family beset by internal rivalries and an involvement, perhaps unwitting, in a dark underworld of international crime. Mendelsohn’s novel hopscotches the globe from Manhattan to London, Rome, Laos, and Turkey, trailing intrigue and ill-spent fortunes. (Michael)

 

Stork Mountain by Miroslav Penkov: In this first novel from Penkov (author of the story collection East of the West), a young Bulgarian immigrant returns to the borderlands of his home country in search of his grandfather. Molly Antopol calls it “a gorgeous and big-hearted novel that manages to be both a page-turning adventure story and a nuanced meditation on the meaning of home.” (Bruna)

 

Gone with the Mind by Mark Leyner: With novels like Et Tu, Babe and The Sugar Frosted Nutsack, Leyner was one of the postmodern darlings of the 1990s (or you may remember him sitting around the table with Jonathan Franzen and David Foster Wallace for the legendary Charlie Rose segment). After spending almost the last decade on non-fiction and movie projects, he’s back with a new novel in which the fictional Mark Leyner reads from his autobiography at a reading set up by his mother at a New Jersey mall’s food court. Mark, his mother, and a few Panda Express employees share an evening that is absurd and profound — basically Leyneresque. (Janet)

Innocents and Others by Dana Spiotta: “Maybe I’m a writer so I have an excuse to do research,” Spiotta said of what she enjoys about the writing process. And yet, for all of her research, she avoids the pitfalls of imagination harnessed by fact. In fact, Spiotta’s fourth and latest novel, Innocents and Others, is nearly filmic, channeling Jean-Luc Godard, according to Rachel Kushner, and “like classic JLG is brilliant, and erotic, and pop.” Turn to The New Yorker excerpt to see for yourself: witness Jelly, a loner who uses the phone as a tool for calculated seduction, and in doing so seduces the reader, too. (Anne)

Prodigals by Greg Jackson: Jackson’s collection opens with a story originally published in The New Yorker, ”Wagner in the Desert,” a crackling tale of debauchery set in Palm Springs. In it, a group of highly-educated, creative, and successful friends seek to “baptize [their] minds in an enforced nullity.” They also repeatedly attempt to go on a hike. The wonderfully titled “Serve-and-Volley, Near Vichy,” in which a former tennis star enlists his houseguest in a bizarre project, and the eerily beautiful “Tanner’s Sisters” are two particularly memorable stories in this sharp and often haunting debut. (Matt)

Shelter by Jung Yun: Yun’s debut novel concerns Kyung Cho: a husband, father, and college professor in financial trouble who can no longer afford his home. When his own parents — whom he barely tolerates because they’ve never shown him warmth and affection — are faced with violence and must move in with him, Cho can no longer hide his anger and resentment toward them. The jacket copy compares the book to Affliction and House of Sand and Fog, and James Scott, author of The Kept, calls it “an urgent novel.” Yun’s work has previously been published in Tin House. (Edan)

99 Poems: New and Selected by Dana Gioia: A gifted poet of rhythm and reason, Gioia’s civic and critical pedigree is impressive. A previous chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, Gioia was recently named California’s Poet Laureate. In recent years Gioia’s critical writing has taken precedence — his 2013 essay “The Catholic Writer Today” is already a classic in its genre – but this new and selected collection marks his return to verse. Graywolf is Gioia’s longtime publisher, so look for emblematic works like “Becoming a Redwood” next to new poems like “Hot Summer Night:” “Let’s live in the flesh and not on a screen. / Let’s dress like people who want to be seen.” (Nick R.)

Margaret the First by Danielle Dutton: “I had rather be a meteor, singly, alone,” writes Margaret Cavendish, the titular character in Dutton’s novel Margaret the First. Cavendish is “a shy but audacious” woman of letters, whose writing and ambitions were ahead of her time. The taut prose and supple backdrop of courtly life are irresistible. (Witness: quail in broth and oysters; bowls stuffed with winter roses, petals tissue-thin; strange instruments set beside snuffboxes.) Dutton is something of a meteor herself, as founder of the Dorothy Project and with two wondrous books already under her belt, including the Believer Book Award-nominated novel Sprawl. (Anne)

The North Water by Ian McGuire: A raw and compulsively readable swashbuckler about the whaling business, with violence and intrigue in dirty port towns and on the high seas. There are many disturbing interactions between people and people, and people and animals — think The Revenant for the Arctic Circle. This is McGuire’s second novel; he is also the author of the “refreshingly low-minded campus novel” Incredible Bodies. (Lydia)

 

Blackass by A. Igoni Barrett: A young middle-class Nigerian man wakes up in his bed one morning to find that he has become white in the night. As a consequence, he loses his family but gains all manner of undeserved and unsolicited privileges, from management positions at various enterprises to the favors of beautiful women from the upper crust of Lagos society. His dizzying tragicomic odyssey paints a vivid portrait of the social and economic complexities of a modern megacity. (Lydia)

 

The Nest by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney: D’Aprix Sweeney’s debut novel The Nest will hit shelves in March trailing seductive pre-hype: we learned last December that the book was sold to Ecco for seven figures, and that it’s the story of a wealthy, “spectacularly dysfunctional” family — which for me brings to mind John Cheever, or maybe even the TV series Bloodlines, in which one of the siblings is a particular mess and the others have to deal with him. But The Nest has been described as “warm,” “funny,” and “tender,” so perhaps the novel is more an antidote to the darkness in family dysfunction we’ve known and loved — fucked-up families with hearts of gold? (Sonya)

What Lies Between Us by Nayomi Munaweera: A novel about a mother and daughter who leave Sri Lanka after a domestic disturbance and struggle to find happiness in the United States. Munaweera won the Regional Commonwealth Book Prize for Asia for her first novel, Island of a Thousand Mirrors. (Lydia)

 

 

The Association of Small Bombs by Karan Mahajan: A novelist examines the enduring fallout of a “small” terrorist attack in a Delhi marketplace, and the way that families, politics, and pain weave together. Mahajan’s first novel, Family Planning, was a finalist for the Dylan Thomas prize. (Lydia)

 

 

Hold Still by Lynn Steger Strong: An emotionally suspenseful debut about the relationship between a mother and her troubled young daughter, who commits an unfixable indiscretion that implicates them both. (Lydia)

 

 

 

Dodge Rose by Jack Cox: This young Australian has evidently made a close study of James Joyce and Samuel Beckett (and maybe of Henry Green) — and sets out in his first novel to recover and extend their enchantments. A small plot of plot — two cousins, newly introduced, attempt to settle the estate of an aunt — becomes the launch pad for all manner of prose pyrotechnics. (Garth)

 

 

High Dive by Jonathan Lee: The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher could have been the title of Lee’s first novel, had Hilary Mantel not taken it for her 2014 short story collection. The similarities end with the subject matter, though. Where Mantel opted for a tight focus, Lee’s novel uses a real-life attempt to blow up Mrs. Thatcher as an opportunity to examine other, less public lives. (Garth)

 

April:
My Struggle: Book Five by Karl Ove Knausgaard: Translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett, the fifth installment of this six-volume autobiographical novel covers Knausgaard’s early adulthood. The book is about a love affair, alcoholism, death, and the author’s struggle to write. James Wood describes Knausgaard’s prose as “intense and vital […] Knausgaard is utterly honest, unafraid to voice universal anxieties.” (Bruna)

 

Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld: In Sittenfeld’s modern retelling of Pride and Prejudice, Liz is a New York City magazine writer and Darcy is a Cincinnati neurosurgeon. Although the update is certainly on trend with themes of CrossFit and reality TV, Sittenfeld is an obvious choice to recreate Jane Austen’s comedy of manners. From her boarding school debut, Prep, to the much-lauded American Wife, a thinly veiled imagination of Laura Bush, Sittenfeld is a master at dissecting social norms to reveal the truths of human nature underneath. (Tess)

 

Alice & Oliver by Charles Bock: The author’s wife, Diana Colbert, died of leukemia in 2011 when their daughter was only three years old. Inspired in part by this personal tragedy, this second novel by the author of 2008’s Beautiful Children traces a day in the life of a young New York couple with a new baby after the wife is diagnosed with cancer. “I can’t remember the last time I stayed up all night to finish a book,” enthuses novelist Ayelet Waldman. “This novel laid me waste.” (Michael)

 

Our Young Man by Edmund White: White’s 13th novel sees a young Frenchman, Guy, leave home for New York City, where he begins a modeling career that catapults him to the heights of the fashion world. His looks, which lend him enduring popularity amongst his gay cohort on Fire Island, stay youthful for decades, allowing him to keep modeling until he’s 35. As the novel takes place in the ’70s and ’80s, it touches on the cataclysm of the AIDS crisis. (Thom)

 

Now and Again by Charlotte Rogan: After harboring a secret writing habit for years, Rogan burst onto the bestseller list with her debut novel, The Lifeboat, which was praised for its portrayal of a complex heroine who, according to The New York Times, is “astute, conniving, comic and affecting.” Rogan’s second novel, Now and Again, stars an equally intricate secretary who finds proof of a high-level cover-up at the munitions plant where she works. It is both a topical look at whistleblowers and a critique of the Iraq War military-industrial complex. Teddy Wayne calls it “the novel we deserve for the war we didn’t.” (Claire)

Hystopia by David Means: After four published books, a rap sheet of prizes, and six short stories in The New Yorker, Means is coming out with his debut novel this spring. Hystopia is both the name of the book and a book-within-the-book, and it revolves around Eugene Allen, a Vietnam vet who comes up with an alternate history. In Allen’s bizarre, heady what-if, John F. Kennedy survives the ’60s, at the end of which he creates an agency called the Psych Corps that uses drugs to wipe traumas from people’s brains. (Thom)

 

Ear to the Ground by David L. Ulin and Paul Kolsby: In this “rollicking” tale about 1990s L.A., seismologist Charlie Richter, grandson of the man who invented the Richter scale, heads to the City of Angels to work at the Center of Earthquake Science to prove his methods for predicting quakes. The book, co-written by an essayist and critic (Ulin) and a screenwriter and movie producer (Kolsby), comes with an introduction by Karolina Waclawiak, author of The Invaders, and was previously serialized in the L.A. Reader. The novel will be published by the small but mighty Unnamed Press, an L.A.-based publishing house with a roster of quirky and formally daring books. (Edan)

Thomas Jefferson Dreams of Sally Hemings by Stephen O’Connor: A fictional account of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings told in conversations, fragments, and dreams. An excerpt is available at Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading — the site’s editor called it “experimental, metaphysical, deeply unsettling, and important.” (Lydia)

 

 

Bardo or Not Bardo by Antoine Volodine: In his publisher’s synopsis, the French writer Volodine’s multi-novel project sounds appealingly nuts: “Most of his works take place in a post-apocalyptic world where members of the ‘post-exoticism’ writing movement have all been arrested as subversive elements.” A recent critical essay in The New Inquiry furthers the sense of a cult in the making. Bardo or Not Bardo, a comedy the characters of which keep bungling attempts at reincarnation, may be a good place to begin the indoctrination. (Garth)

 

Letters to Kevin by Stephen Dixon: In 2015, it’s remarkably easy to make a phone call, so the latest novel by Stephen Dixon comes off as a Beckettian farce. The plot is absurd: in it, a man named Rudy sets out to call his friend Kevin Wafer, a teenager-going-on-college-student who lives across the country in Palo Alto. Rudy doesn’t have a phone, but when he tries to use a phone booth, a crane picks it up and deposits it (and Rudy) in a warehouse. Eventually, he gives up and opts to write a letter instead. Throughout, Dixon’s black-and-white drawings lend depth to his nightmare of inconvenience. (Thom)

The Bricks That Built the Houses by Kate Tempest: Barely 30, Tempest has won awards for her poetry, performances, and recordings. Her long narrative poem “Brand New Ancients” found the through-line from Homer to Jay-Z. Now she turns to prose, in a novel about scrabbling young Londoners trying to outrun the past. (Garth)

 

May:
Zero K by Don DeLillo: When Jennifer Egan introduced DeLillo for his reception of the National Book Foundation Lifetime Achievement Award, she noted “There will be no better way to understand life in the late-20th and early-21st century than reading the books of Don DeLillo.” Paranoia does not always lead to prescience, but DeLillo’s anxious eye toward the future has always been tempered by his identity as the son of immigrants and the Catholic spectacle of his youth. Zero K begins big: “Everybody wants to own the end of the world,” says billionaire Ross Lockhart to his son Jeff, the novel’s narrator. Jeff notes “We were sharing a rare point in time, contemplative, and the moment was made complete by his vintage sunglasses, bringing the night indoors.” No one is better than DeLillo at vaulting between registers of comedy and tragedy, between the consequence of eternity and the power of a single moment. (Nick R.)

LaRose by Louise Erdrich: On a summer day in North Dakota, 1999, a man named Landreaux stalks a deer along his property line. He shoots and misses, but he’s hit something else: his neighbor’s five-year-old son, Dusty. Landreaux’s close with his neighbors, in part because he has a five-year-old son of his own, LaRose, and the boys were inseparable. Erdrich’s 15th novel explores the complicated aftermath of the death, as Landreaux and his wife decide to give LaRose to their grieving neighbors as retribution. (Emily)

 

The Fox Was Ever the Hunter by Herta Müller: As if living in a totalitarian regime wasn’t bad enough, the four friends in Müller’s novel must contend with the fact that one of them is spying on the group for the secret police. Capturing the fear and moral corruption of the final days of Romania’s Ceausescu regime — and inevitably drawing on her own persecution by the secret police — Müller won a Nobel Prize in Literature in 2009 for her work. Now, her long-time translator Philip Boehm brings the classic to English readers. (Tess)

 

The Pier Falls by Mark Haddon: Haddon is nothing if not versatile. You know him for his international bestseller, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, but did you know Haddon is also an illustrator, screenwriter, poet, winner of two BAFTAs, and has written 15 books for children? It might not come as a surprise that his new book is a departure: a collection of short stories. An expedition to Mars goes wrong, a seaside pier collapses, a woman is marooned on an island, two boys find a gun in a shoebox. The stories are billed as “searingly imaginative and emotionally taut.” (Claire)

Sweet Lamb of Heaven by Lydia Millet: In her 10th novel, Millet delves into the territory of the psychological thriller: a young mother, Anna, takes her six-year-old daughter, Lena, and flees her estranged husband, Ned, who’s running for office in Alaska. Anna and Lena go into hiding in a derelict hotel in Maine, which quickly begins to fill up with other guests; guests who, as the novel progresses, begin to seem less and less like ordinary tourists, even as Ned begins to seem more and more sociopathic. (Emily)

 

Modern Lovers by Emma Straub: What happens when you age out of your cool? It’s a topic that filmmaker Noah Baumbach has explored, and Straub is his literary counterpart. Her third novel follows three Brooklyn Gen X friends and former bandmates nearing 50 and handing off the baton of hipness to their children, stifled ambition and sexual frustration included. With the multigenerational structure, it would be easy to compare Straub to other masters of the genre like Meg Wolitzer or Jennifer Egan, but she’s already a master in her own right after The Vacationers, so Modern Lovers should prove to be a witty romp. (Tess)

The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes: Barnes’s new novel — his first since 2011’s Man Booker Prize-winning The Sense of an Ending — concerns the life of the Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich. Barnes considers his character not just on a human level, as a young man fearing for his life and the safety of his family under Joseph Stalin, but also as a lens through which to examine the fall of the Soviet Union and the role of the artist in society. (Emily)

 

Everybody’s Fool by Richard Russo: There are two kinds of Russo aficionados — those who came to him through his hilarious 1997 academic satire Straight Man and those who started with his wry, brooding 1993 breakthrough Nobody’s Fool. The latter strain of Russophile will rejoice that Russo has brought back Donald “Sully” Sullivan, the irascible hero of Nobody’s Fool, who was played by Paul Newman in the movie version. Two decades on, Sully has learned from his doctor that he has at most a year or two to live, and spends the novel striving to keep the news from everybody he loves. (Michael)

The Sport of Kings by C.E. Morgan: You had to know the person who’s spent more than a decade working at thoroughbred racetracks would choose to blurb the horse racing novel. Morgan, who was named one of The New Yorker’s 20 Under 40 in 2010, has set both of her novels in her native Kentucky; this one centers on a powerful family aiming to breed the next racing great, and a young black man who comes to work for them and brings their prejudices into full view. It is described as “an unflinching portrait of lives cast in shadow by the enduring legacy of slavery.” (Elizabeth)

The City of Mirrors by Justin Cronin: Cronin brings his mammoth, vampire apocalypse horror trilogy to a close this spring with The City of Mirrors. The Twelve (godfather vampires) have been defeated, and their descendants with them, and the human colonists start to retake the world, no longer confined to their fortresses and hiding places. But are they really safe? (They’re not.) Zero — the vampire who created The Twelve — survives, and he’s mad as hell. The conclusion of this suspenseful, surprising, frequently heartwarming, more often creepy-as-shit series promises to go out with a bang. (Janet)

The Fat Artist and Other Stories by Benjamin Hale: Hale’s simian debut novel, The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore, was widely praised; it takes talent to craft the believable voice of a chimpanzee who has “finally decided to give this undeserving and spiritually diseased world the generous gift of my memoirs.” Hale recently co-edited an issue of Conjunctions titled “A Menagerie,” that collects bestial tales. The short story form allows Hale’s own penchant for invention to further shine. One story, “The Minus World,” investigates shadow, “unfinished or rejected levels that the programmers left floating around” in Super Mario Bros: “It’s as if Mario had traveled to the distant, frayed edges of space and time. He must look into the void. It’s a little frightening.” The Fat Artist, which includes stories about dominatrices and performance artists, is sure to please. (Nick R.)

Imagine Me Gone by Adam Haslett: In his third book and second novel, Imagine Me Gone, Haslett returns to the territory of mental illness — the subject of many of the stories in his award-winning debut collection You Are Not a Stranger Here. Margaret marries John, after learning of his serious struggle with depression, and later their eldest son, Michael, battles with despair as well. From Joy Williams: “[O]ne of the most harrowing and sustained descriptions of a mind in obsessive turmoil and disrepair that I’ve ever read.” Peter Carey, on the other hand, speaks to the hopeful elements of the novel — “both dreadfully sad and hilariously funny all at once. It is luminous with love.” (Sonya)

Eleven Hours by Pamela Erens: In her two previous novels, Erens has quietly built a reputation as a sharp stylist with a gift for bringing quirky outsiders alive on the page. In Eleven Hours, a very pregnant young woman arrives alone at the maternity ward wanting to give birth without a fetal heart monitor, IV tubes, or epidural anesthesia. The novel follows her 11-hour labor in the care of a Haitian nurse who is herself pregnant. “Erens evokes the layered experience of living in a body — its tides of memory, sensation, and emotion — like no other writer I know,” writes novelist Karen Russell. (Michael)

Allegheny Front by Matthew Neill Null: A collection of short stories set in the author’s native West Virginia, where people and landscapes and animals reap the wages of resource extraction. Null’s first novel, Honey from the Lion, was a historical novel about West Virginia’s timber industry. (Lydia)

 

June:

Barkskins by Annie Proulx: The award-winning author of The Shipping News and Brokeback Mountain returns with a new novel in June — 10 years in the making — about wilderness, the rampant destruction of forests, and greed. At over 800 pages, this ambitious novel spans over three centuries and travels from France to China to New England. (Bruna)

 

 

Vinegar Girl by Anne Tyler: If anyone was going to update The Taming of the Shrew, it should be the Pulitzer-winning Tyler, who is a keen observer of the nuances of the American family. In her take on the classic Shakespearean comedy, Kate is managing her odd scientist father’s household when his assistant might be deported, and the men scheme to keep him in the country with Kate’s help. Even though we think we already know the ending, the independent and contemporary Kate might have a surprise up her sleeve. (Tess)

 

They May Not Mean To, But They Do by Cathleen Schine: Her new novel, They May Not Mean To, But They Do, will solidify Schine’s reputation as “the Jane Austen of the 21st century.” When her husband dies, Joy Bergman finds that her children, Molly and Daniel, have an arsenal of weapons to fend off the woes of widowhood. But Joy is not about to take advice or antidepressants from anyone. When an ardent suitor from Joy’s college days reappears, Molly and Daniel must cope with their widowed mother becoming as willful and rebellious as their own kids. They May Not Mean To, But They Do is a compassionate look at three generations, all coming of age together. (Bill)

The Girls by Emma Cline: This debut follows two young women into the world of a Manson-ish cult in the 1960s. Cline won the 2014 Plimpton Prize from the Paris Review, which also published her essay about how she came to this material. (Garth)

Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty by Ramona Ausubel: Ausubel’s first novel, No One Is Here Except All of Us, won the PEN Center USA Fiction Award and the VCU Cabell First Novel Award. The New York Times Book Review wrote that her story collection, A Guide to Being Born, “finds a way to record the tensions between the corporeal and the invisible” — that’s an excellent way to read all her mischievous, magical work, actually. Ausubel’s second novel is about a moneyed family on Martha’s Vineyard in the 1970s — except this moneyed family is out of dough. The terror of being broke spins parents Fern and Edgar off on separate, strange journeys; meanwhile, their three kids are left to fend for themselves “in an improvised Neverland helmed by the tender, witty, and resourceful Cricket, age nine.” Maggie Shipstead calls it a “brilliantly imagined novel about family and fortune and the hidden knots between.” (Edan)

Rich and Pretty by Rumaan Alam: In Alam’s debut novel, Rich and Pretty, Sarah is the rich one and Lauren is the pretty one. They first met 20 years ago at a tony private school in Manhattan and became inseparable through high school, college, first jobs, and first loves. But now, all grown up and living very different New York lives, they have to navigate the tricky ways that the closest of friendships evolve, erode, and endure. Emma Straub, author of The Vacationers, says Alam, a Year in Reading alum at The Millions, has crafted a debut that’s “smart, sharp and beautifully made.” (Bill)

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi: Gyasi’s debut distills hundreds of years of of history into 300 pages, tracing the lives and legacies of two Ghanaian half-sisters, one of them sold into slavery, one of them comparatively free. (Garth)

July and Beyond:
Home Field by Hannah Gersen: Our own Hannah Gersen’s debut novel is the story of Dean, a high school football coach in small town Maryland — and therefore a pillar of his community — whose life comes untethered after his wife’s suicide. Left to raise three children dealing with their mother’s death — a daughter at Swarthmore, an 11-year-old son acting out, and an eight-year-old son who barely understands it all — not to mention keep winning football games, Dean has to take stock of the life he thought he had, and how to move forward. (Janet)

Here I Am by Jonathan Safran Foer: FSG editor Eric Chinski knows Foer’s new novel — his first since Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (2005) — better than anyone (other than Foer himself of course). Chinski says of Here I Am, “It’s got this high-wire inventiveness and intensity of imagination in it, and the sheer energy that we associate with Jonathan’s writing, but it’s a big step forward for him. It’s got a kind of toughness; it’s dirty, it’s kind of funny, like Portnoy’s Complaint, it exposes American Jewish life.” It’s not, Chinski says, autobiographical in any strict sense, but does borrow from Foer’s life — the story of a Jewish family, divorce, and three sons, in Washington D.C. (Sonya)

How to Set a Fire and Why by Jesse Ball: In his new novel, Ball follows the trajectory of a brilliant teenager living an impoverished and increasingly precarious life in the absence of her parents. Her father is dead, her mother institutionalized, and when she discovers that there’s an arson club at her school, she finds herself rapidly running out of reasons not to set the world on fire. (Emily)

 

I Am No One by Patrick Flanery: How far does reasonable suspicion live from outright paranoia? Are they close neighbors; do they overlap? These are questions for Jeremy O’Keefe, a professor who has just returned to New York City after 10 years abroad, and suddenly finds himself the object of obsession for a pale young man from his past — or is he? (Nick M.)

 

 

Listen to Me by Hannah Pittard: Winner of the Amanda Davis Award from McSweeney’s and author of the novels Reunion and The Fates Will Find Their Way, Pittard now brings us the story of a young married couple, Mark and Maggie, on a road trip gone wrong. Maggie’s recently been robbed at gun point, and by the time they stop for the night at an out-of-the-way inn (without power), the two aren’t even speaking to one another. Frederick Barthelme calls it “a positively Hitchcockian misadventure” and the jacket copy dubs it a “modern Gothic.” (Edan)

Monterey Bay by Lindsay Hatton: Hatton (my quondam classmate) blends historical fact — the life of John Steinbeck circa Cannery Row — with the story of a young woman discovering the complexities of adult life. In the process, the novel illuminates the founding of the famous Monterey Bay Aquarium. Celeste Ng, in her blurb, compares Monterey Bay, Euphoria, and The Signature of All Things. (Garth)

 

Losing It by Emma Rathbone: In her debut, The Patterns of Paper Monsters, Rathbone proved herself a wry observer of coming of age in difficult circumstances. Her second novel follows this theme, as protagonist Julia Greenfield visits her spinster aunt during a hot North Carolina summer to conquer her greatest insecurity: why she’s still a virgin at 26. Except her aunt is one as well at 58. What follows is a candid yet funny take on just what desire and love mean. (Tess)

 

Thus Bad Begins by Javier Marías: Marías returns with another masterful tapestry of noir-ish twists and digressive cerebration. A young man goes to work for a famous film director, and then finds himself entangled with the mysteries of the director’s wife. This one will be published in the U.S. in the fall. (Garth)

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A Year in Reading: Alexander Chee

My year in reading was a strange one for me, like only one year previous in my life thus far: I had finished a novel — The Queen of the Night, due out in Feb. 2016 — and so the year was that peculiar kind of annus horribulis, in which you try to keep a lid on your ego and act casual, all while you wait for your novel to appear in stores with all that implies. You dutifully prepare your events, your website, and your life for a period of time that has no certain borders and that will have little relationship either to what you fear or what you desire. And everyone’s advice never changes: start on finding your next project, so you have at least a relationship to it and aren’t caught out by what eventually happens.

To get through this as a writer is a little like splitting into two: one of you heads off into the woods of your own self while the other becomes some public version of you, making its way like a renegade balloon from the Thanksgiving Day Parade that just keeps inflating.

My reading then was both a little like it always is — a mix of books I’m teaching and books I simply wanted to read — but several ideas for what my next book will be were already underway and auditioning for my attention — a mystery novel, a novel I’ve put off writing for nearly two decades, a space opera, and a collection of essays. In order to think about them and to also get my work done, I planned two new classes: one on autobio, as autobiographical fiction is increasingly called, and one on plot. And it is true that I do have a few more answers now than I started the year with, but I also had a lot of fun.

In the first half of the year, I read autobiographical fiction and some nonfiction work that ran along its edges: Maxine Hong Kingston’s China Men, for example, which I remember suffered by comparison to The Woman Warrior back when I first read it, but which seems to me now a bravura performance in its own right: her attempt to imagine her way into the silences inside the men in her family’s history. Go Tell It on the Mountain, James Baldwin’s first novel, is still as relevant as ever and as immaculately made — line for line, the prose is a wonder. Colette’s puckish first novel, Claudine at School, was like finding a whole other writer after her later novels, which I already knew. Edmund White’s The Married Man paired beautifully with Chris Kraus’s I Love Dick, two very different stories of the personal social cost of trying to hold on to and even love your obsessions (and not just be obsessed with them). And I reread Renata Adler’s Pitch Dark alongside Ben Lerner’s 10:04, and thought about how each portrays a way of transcending the first person while also staying firmly in it.

Once summer began, I dove into Charles D’Ambrosio’s fantastic collection of personal essays and criticism, Loitering, which I read alongside Jan Morris’s majestic metafiction, Hav — a plotless novel written as travel writing of the oldest best kind. It describes her trip to an entirely fictional country, and done with a thoroughness of detail that is so convincing, I am still stunned Hav doesn’t exist.

I then prepared for my plot class with some favorites. Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go was as chilling as ever, a way of thinking about the present — and describing it — by inventing a past instead of a future. I loved Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire the more for knowing at last what life is like now as a professor (I hadn’t read it since undergrad). Likewise Toni Morrison’s Sula, which I now think of as a way to describe America through the lives of two women and a single Ohio town. Reading Justin Torres’s We the Animals for structure meant finding the fretwork is actually a spine.

Throughout, I mixed in the new: Like many, I devoured Hanya Yanagihara’s astonishing A Little Life. And then I also read from the more than new, books you can read next year: Garth Greenwell’s breathtaking What Belongs to You, which is a little like if Marguerite Yourcenar returned to us with Bruce Benderson’s obsessions, and Chris Offutt’s new memoir of the secret estate his father left him (and the secrets in it), coming in March — My Father, the Pornographer.

More from A Year in Reading 2015

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