I have a hard time remembering the books I have read without also remembering who I have read them with or where. Increasingly, since so much of my reading is done out loud to my children, it seems natural to me that all reading should be shared reading of one sort or another. Sifting through text messages, chats, emails, and the letters and envelopes scattered around my office, I have pieced together a calendar of the books I have read and the people who made them matter.
January, February: The Collected Stories of Diane Williams, “stories that show how the momentary convergence of yearning and surrender can make time hang still,” I shout first at Stephanie, then at the bartender serving us, before putting the thought in an essay on Williams; Helen Garner’s The Spare Room, Monkey Grip, and The Children’s Bach (“one of the best novels of the twentieth century,” Len writes to me after reading a draft of my essay on Garner)—novels built out of beautifully Brechtian tableaux. My calendar reminds me that most of February was spent at festivals and talks, reading on freezing trains. On a train to Harrogate: Dasa Drndić’s Doppelganger, which features an old lady giving an old man a hand job beat out to a Nazi alphabet primer. On a train to Cambridge: Lydia Davis’s The End of the Story, the best anatomization of how one person can colonize another’s thought after a break up. During a long weekend in New York: Drndić’s Belladonna, EEG, and Trieste for an essay about Drndić’s novels of unsuccessful self-annihilation. On a flight to Glasgow, Brigid Brophy’s Flesh, about an inexperienced, neurotic, young man seduced by a wry, charismatic, older woman.
March, April: Nightwood, The Sound and the Fury, Lolita, Giovanni’s Room, Housekeeping, Beloved, novels I re-read during the term with my students. (“Is modernism inherently depressing or do you just like depressing modernist novels?” one asks.); Siri Hustvedt’s fine and predictable Memories of the Future for a review. Obsessed with telescopes and other instruments of sight after scientists release the first image of a black hole, I read Margaret Cavendish’s mind-blowing The Blazing World and Poems and Fancies and Danielle Dutton’s enchanting novelization of Cavendish’s life, Margaret the First. I chase down some seventeenth century scholars, all of them named Katharine (why?), so I can learn how old telescopes work.
In mid-April, my friend Sarah comes to visit Oxford. A sense of civility and calm descends on my loud, disordered home. She airs out the cottage, opens a bottle of wine, roasts a chicken, and makes a salad, the likes of which my children have never seen before because I feed them only frozen peas, still frozen. We read together. The kids—The Jolly Postman, Each Peach Pear Plum, Julián Is a Mermaid, Tiny T-Rex and the Impossible Hug. She—Sally Rooney’s Normal People, interrupting her reading every ten minutes to groan at me. (I prefer Conversations with Friends.) Me—The Last Samurai, the pages of which have stiffened into little waves after I laughed so hard at DeWitt’s mad, philological genius that I dropped the book into the tub. To make Sarah happy again, I take her to Blackwell’s and make her buy her own copy of The Last Samurai, which has a nicer cover than mine because it’s the U.K. edition. She reads it in a single sitting the next day, draped over the couch in my office, and complains that Jonathan Safran Foer ripped off Helen DeWitt when he wrote Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. “Only his version was squishier,” she says.
At the very end of April, someone—I wish I could remember who, but I can’t—recommends Olive Moore’s Spleen, a forgotten modernist novel, painterly and queer, about the fearful eroticism of maternity. In Paris for work, I do an interview with British Vogue about “serious erotic fiction,” trying hard to convince the wide-eyed editor that Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons is full of practical sex tips. On the flight to Guernsey for a festival, I read the first half of my friend Rachel’s forthcoming book On Compromise: Essays on Art and Democracy, which is bracing and sensitive and funny.
May: a month consumed by gradually escalating illnesses. A sniffle, a cold, a sinus infection, bronchitis. I am bravely preparing to die of tuberculosis in a garret somewhere when I receive a copy of Guy de Maupassant’s Like Death from Nicholas at the New York Review of Books. How does he know nothing heals me like a novel about French aristocrats and artists behaving badly? Convalescing, I blow through Iris Murdoch’s A Severed Head at the urging of Sarah, who is convinced that my life is always one punch in the face away from a Murdoch novel. The recommendation is seconded by our friend Gloria. “When I gave this book to my roommate when we were twenty-two, she said she felt like bread that just discovered butter,” Gloria writes. “I have never forgotten that.” On the train to Cardiff for a talk, I read Adam Sach’s debut novel The Organs of Sense, which is extremely funny on seventeenth-century telescopes, blind astronomers, and the temporary luminosity of love.
June: Fleur Jaeggy’s novella Sweet Days of Discipline (cold, gleaming), then to Ingeborg Bachmann’s Malina (eddying, frantic), poolside at Cliveden House where I burn badly, convinced that the English sun is too puny to warrant sun screen; Fran Ross’s Oreo after swimming the Thames, flanked by unarousable cows; Leah Price’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Books, one of only three non-fiction books I will read this year and the inspiration for the bookish tattoo I get at the end of the month.
July: Yiyun Li’s Where Reasons End, before a flight to Turkey to drop the kids off with my mother at her summer house on the coast. On the flight there, I read them the animal books they love: Just So Stories, Where the Wild Things Are, The Elephant and the Bad Baby. My last night at my mother’s, I stay up too late reading Kafka’s Letters to Milena, which I find on the shelf of the guest bedroom. I am mesmerized by how Frank—Milena calls him Frank; I will too—burdens this woman with his torment, yet how real and irreducible that torment seems. I am sad that Milena’s side of the correspondence has not survived. I like her voice as I encounter it in the appendix to the book, in a letter to Max Brod. It’s a voice that seeks reality and clarity and, glimpsing both, bends toward compassion. There’s an excellent description of how annoying it is to accompany Frank to the post office. I reread Lydia Davis’s short story “Kafka Cooks Dinner” in The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis to hear the echoes of that voice, mined for its comic potential: “I am so filled with despair as the time grows near when she will come and I have not even begun to make a decision about what I will offer her. I am so afraid I will fall back on the Kartoffel Surprise, and it’s no surprise to her anymore. I mustn’t, I mustn’t.” On a flight to New York, I read over a dozen applications for the Whiting Non-Fiction Grant, though the one that I remember best, because it feels fated somehow, is a haunting new translation of Kafka’s diaries by Ross Benjamin.
August, back in the U.K., reunited with the kids: Claire Louise-Bennett’s Pond, because I have decided to include a chapter in this book I’m trying to finish writing on the short story and close reading; Ben Lerner’s The Topeka School, because it’s “the new Ben Lerner” and because I used to be a high school debater. In the passenger seat on a drive to Cornwall, I pivot to read backwards to the kids—Ludwig Bemelman’s Madeleine, Ogden Nash’s Custard the Dragon, Julia Donaldson’s Tabby McTat, all of which I have memorized, so I can recite instead of reading—until I start to feel car sick. While they nap, I finish Penelope Mortimer’s The Pumpkin Eater and begin Nicholas Mosley’s Accident, recommended by Claire, who describes Mosely as a “bloodless D.H. Lawrence”—lots of shadowy evil, too little golden sex. On the ride home, I write a short, exorcising essay on Natalia Ginzburg’s The Dry Heart, a grim, anti-Romantic novella about a woman who murders her cheating husband. The week after in Paris, everyone gets a 24-hour stomach bug, only no one gets it in the same 24 hours. The trip becomes a relay race of illness. The kids are listless, filthy. I read them their favorites: Lost and Found, Up and Down, How to Catch a Star, Stuck, The Incredible Book Eating Boy, all by the magnificent children’s author and illustrator Oliver Jeffers. I read chapter 42 of Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady on my phone about a dozen times because his sentences stave off nausea.
September: On a trip to Boston and New York: Deborah Levy’s calm, aphoristic The Cost of Living—Sarah’s copy, a re-read from last December; Fleur Jaeggy’s S.S. Proleterka. Three Lives, and I Am the Brother of XX and Rachel Ingalls’s Mrs. Caliban, all courtesy of Mieke who invites me to raid her bookshelf at New Directions; the proofs for The Ferrante Letters with Kat, Jill, and Sarah, which I read aloud to us around Sarah’s kitchen table because I always read proofs aloud, though it is slow and excruciating. At a conference in South Bend, Nan recommends Susan Choi’s My Education, about a graduate student who sleeps with her literature professor’s wife, a literature professor too but also—shocking and confusing to all involved—a young mother. I read it on the plane home, and find that, like most relationships, the novel is fun and full of possibility in the first half, turns stale and falls apart in the second.
October: Len, who is on a one-man crusade against what he calls the “New Piety” in literary criticism, convinces me to read Philip Roth’s The Professor of Desire. It starts out funny—Roth is trying hard to retool Chekhov’s short story “The Lady with the Dog” as a comic novel—but Roth makes compulsive sexual desire into such a sad, annihilating thing that my laughter runs out quickly. In an afternoon, I read Isabel Waidner’s propulsive We Are Made of Diamond Stuff, a Brexit novel that manages to write about the present without making the present feel dated; in a night, Ingeborg Bachmann and Paul Celan’s Correspondence, which, though not as intense or agonized as Letters to Milena, still crackles with Celan’s despair and Bachmann’s self-possession. On a flight to Stockholm at the end of the month: Niklas Luhmann’s Love: A Sketch, for a talk I’m supposed to give preemptively titled “Critical Love Studies.” (What does this mean? I don’t know yet.)
November is frantic with reading to crowd out the holidays, which leave me bored and melancholy. There is Hermione Lee’s engrossing biography of Virginia Woolf and Volumes 2 and 3 of Woolf’s diaries for the new edition of Mrs. Dalloway I am annotating and introducing; John Berger’s sexy, phenomenologically attentive G., on Len’s recommendation, and Alison Light’s compassionate memoir about marriage and communism, A Radical Romance, on Pam’s; The Complete Gary Lutz for an essay on the un-erotics of art and sad literary men; all of Benjamin Chaud’s gorgeously illustrated Bear books to my children and the new Oliver Jeffers book The Fate of Fausto, a parable about an angry, possessive man for whom nothing in the world is enough. “What is enough?” my younger son asks. I do not know how to answer.
In mid-November, Diane Williams, who I have dinner and drinks with after a reading she gives in London, tells me to read John Cheever’s “The Season of Divorce.” I do, ending the year more or less where it started. Though by the time this piece goes up, I may finally finish Lucy Ellman’s Ducks, Newburyport, which I have been reading at a disciplined snail’s pace of 20 pages a night for the past several months.
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Casual readers and self-proclaimed Wild Things are probably not aware of Maurice Sendak’s deep love for the opera. Over at Artsy, Wallace Ludel explores the vivid, imaginative sets Sendak designed for about a dozen operas and ballets, as well as the author’s fascination with the stage. “In 1981, Sendak published Outside Over There, one of the only books he would publish during this period in which he was so dedicated to set design. It’s a dark story about a little girl named Ida whose infant sister is stolen by ladder-wielding goblins. Ida eventually distracts the goblins by playing her horn and saves her sister.”
This week in book-related infographics: a chart of just how long it takes kids to finish popular books. Where the Wild Things Are? 4 minutes. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire? 24 hours.
The New York Times is reporting that Maurice Sendak has died at 83. In part because I shared a name with its main character, Where the Wild Things Are was a beloved book of mine. Sendak’s last book Bumble-Ardy, full of chaotic drawings of mischievous pigs, is a favorite of 19-month-old son’s. May Sendak’s bountiful imagination and heart live on for many generations in his books.
A little over three years ago, in a fit of apparent insanity, a New York-based independent press bought a sizeable chunk of the short-story collection I’d been working on and published it as a stand-alone volume. I remain proud of the book, A Field Guide to the North American Family, which was reissued last month in paperback. A lot has changed since the end of 2007, though, and the new edition has me thinking again about a couple of misapprehensions I was laboring under at the time of its writing. The first was that inserting an “illustrated fiction” into an otherwise un-illustrated cycle of stories was just the thing to ignite the bidding war that would make me a millionaire. (Thanks a lot, W.G. Sebald!) The more important, related misapprehension, though, has to do with “the future of the book.”
In college, I had been an extracurricular binge-reader of 1960s and ’70s “experimental” literature, in secret rebellion against the masterpieces-only Atkins diet that comprised my coursework. Even in my mid-twenties, I was convinced that the novel of the future would incorporate as much Cortazar and Cather, as much Willie Masters as Wilhelm Meister. History had different ideas, as usual. Two weeks after my exuberantly book-y book came out – replete with color photography and typographic mayhem – Amazon launched the first Kindle, which sold out in less than a day. The book of the future, it turned out, had a built-in battery. And what I’d just published would never work on it.
Then again, as my therapist suggests (though my accountant begs to differ) maybe this accidental Kindle-proofing is a blessing in disguise. My nostalgia for print, after all, is something like Balzac’s for the wooden printing press in Lost Illusions:
At the time when this story opens, the Stanhope press and the ink-distributing roller had not yet come into use in small provincial printing-houses…. [Now] the rapid spread of machine presses has swept away all this obsolete gear to which, for all its imperfections, we owe the beautiful books printed by Elzevir, Plantin, Aldus Didot, and the rest…
In the novel that follows, Balzac links speedier and more efficient printing technology, and the larger cultural pressures it stands for, to the artistic failures of his would-be hero, the “provincial” Lucien Chardon. Unable to withstand the allure of a fast franc, Lucien becomes in Paris whatever is French for “sellout.” (Not to mention – horrors – a critic!) But I would become no Lucien Chardon – not with Field Guide, anyway. To “sell out,” you first have to sell, and in committing to the ideal of the “beautiful” book, I had pretty much guaranteed that this particular project would remain unsullied by commerce.
Now, in honor of the future that never was, the durable pigments of the almost obsolete, I offer you the following trade secrets to fellow writers. The availability for the Kindle of some of the titles mentioned below points to the difficulty of the task; nonetheless, here are:
Seven Ways to Kindle-proof Your Book
Step 1. Use Color
The iPad and Barnes & Noble’s NookColor have already gone some way toward countering this strategy, and Amazon is rumored to have plans to follow suit with a full color, full-functionality tablet. As of this writing, however, the top-selling eReader, the Kindle, remains a black-and-white only affair. I suggest, then, that all of you aspiring Kindle-proofers out there familiarize yourselves with the color palette on your word-processors. You may, as Mark Z. Danielewski does in House of Leaves, choose to assign a single word its own color, like the sodapop in the old Cherry 7-Up commercials. (Isn’t it cool…in pink?) Or you may opt for a subtler approach, à la Richard Flanagan. In Gould’s Book of Fish, Flanagan uses a different color for each chapter, to represent the different dyes employed by his ichthycidal narrator. Still not persuaded? I once heard that Faulkner planned to use different-colored type to distinguish the different voices in As I Lay Dying. If it’s good enough for a Nobelist, isn’t it good enough for you?
Step 2. Illustrate, Illustrate, Illustrate
In an essay published in The New Yorker a couple years back, Nicholson Baker complained that “photographs, charts, diagrams, foreign characters, and tables don’t fare so well on the little gray screen” of the Kindle. Of course, as with Step 1, the iPad complicates things, and glossy (“glossy”?) magazine readers are apparently “flocking” to the NookColor. (Constant vigilance is the price of Kindle-proofing!) But it’s worth pointing out that, where words on a page are an abstraction of an abstraction, illustrations are only one representative step away from the visual world. And so the venerable tradition of the illuminated manuscript still seems to favor, at this stage of the game, the codex book. No wonder that, as writers grow anxious about the fate of print, we’re seeing an uptick in illustrated fiction; it’s the literary equivalent of abstract painting’s retort to photography. (This is to say nothing of graphic novels.) Lavishing attention on hand-made illustrations – as in Joe Meno’s Demons in the Spring – or incorporating photographs, like Rod Sweet and Tim Williams’ Instructions for the Apocalypse or Leanne Shapton’s Important Artifacts, is a great way to add an extra exclamation point to your literary pooh-poohing of the eReader.
Step 3. Play With Text, Typeface, and White Space
eReaders currently use two approaches to rendering text. One is quasi-photographic, but the Kindle’s remains the more battery-efficient method of imposing a standard typeface. This makes the effects of a textually playful book like Danielewski’s House of Leaves or Karen Tei Yamashita’s I Hotel or William H. Gass’ The Tunnel – difficult to render on a Kindle. If you want to up the degree of difficulty, you can try combining this with step 1, following Gass’ lead in Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife, wherein text in a range of typefaces and sizes curves and distends and floats around and behind the illustrations. And then there’s white space. Mallarmé may have got there first, but Blake Butler’s There is No Year is moving the ball forward. It’s available for Kindle, but only the good Lord and Jeff Bezos know how it reads there. (I don’t think I need to point out the irony of the Amazon customer review for A Visit from the Goon Squad that finds “the ‘powerpoint’ chapter…extremely difficult to read on the Kindle.”)
Step 4. Run With Scissors
The opening story of John Barth’s Lost in the Funhouse, famously invites readers to take scissors to it and create a Mobius strip. This cut-up aesthetic is more literal in Jonathan Safran Foer’s Tree of Codes, which slices and dices the pages of Bruno Schulz’s Street of Crocodiles to create pages like lace. It’s a piece of found prose-poetry whose sentences change as you turn the page. Except on the Kindle, where it doesn’t – and couldn’t – exist.
Step 5. Go Aleatory
Narrative fiction, as Vladimir Propp would tell you, need not proceed in a straight line. Presumably, the HopScotching of Cortazar’s Rayuela would be easy enough to approximate via hyperlink on a Kindle, as might something structured like Raymond Queneau’s “A Story As You Like It.” But what about a story where the order of the pieces genuinely doesn’t matter. Or one where an Oulippan element of chance is built in? A narrative like Coover’s “deck of cards” story from A Child Again, say. Or B.S. Johnson’s The Unfortunates, which consists of a beginning, an ending, and 25 middle chapters to be shuffled and read at random. Speaking of The Unfortunates…
Step 6. Put It In A Box
Gass at one point imagined reinforcing the random, “pile of pages” aspect of The Tunnel by printing it loose-leaf and selling it in a box. It can’t be any coincidence that, in the age of the Kindle, the book as boxed set has been making a comeback. New Directions, in addition to The Unfortunates, has given us the slipcovered (and thus far unKindled) Microscripts of Robert Walser. McSweeney’s, another box-loving press, has delivered any number of issues of the Quarterly, not to mention One Hundred and Forty Five Stories in boxed form. And in 2008, Hotel St. George Press published Ben Greenman’s archetypally box-intensive Correspondences, albeit in a limited edition.
Step 7. Pile on the End Matter
This strategy exploits not so much a technical weakness of the Kindle as a practical one. My theory is that, because the number of pages remaining in a book aren’t palpable on a digital device, readers are less likely to go digging around in appendices, acknowledgments, and so forth. The endnotes function on the Kindle apparently makes it pretty easy to jump from the main text to the famous fine print of Infinite Jest. But with other kinds of end matter, aren’t you likely to hit “The End” and think: I’m done? Writers who sneak interesting and potentially meaningful information into the back of the book are thus a step closer to Kindle-proofing than the rest of us. Here I’m thinking specifically of William T. Vollmann, whose resolutely booktacular books often contain dozens, even hundreds of pages of end matter (interesting in direct proportion to the interest of the main text.) Or Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project. But I was struck, reading Georges Perec’s Life A User’s Manual this spring, by the way the various indexes and appendices offered a variety of possible reformattings of the main text.
Bonus List: 10 Pretty Damn Kindle-Proof (at least, as of this writing) Books:
1. Nox, by Anne Carson (Rules Exploited: 1, 2, 3, 6): In many ways, this boxed version of a mourning journal Carson made after the death of her brother is the paragon of the Kindle-proof book: a book built out of books, and alert to its own status as an object.
2. The Original of Laura, by Vladimir Nabokov (Steps Taken: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5): The chief attraction of this slender posthumous work is its Chip Kidd design, which invites readers to cut out facsimiles of the notecards Nabokov composed on and make their own book…though, given the $35 cover price, I can’t imagine too many readers took Kidd up on it.
3. A Field Guide to the North American Family, by yours truly (1, 2, 3, 5): This is probably the only excuse I’ll ever have to insert my name in a list between Nabokov’s and Jonathan Safran Foer’s. There. I’ve done it.
4. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, by Jonathan Safran Foer (1, 2, 3): A Kindle version of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close actually exists, but, even if Amazon were to insert an animation, there is just no way to achieve in e-form the flip-book effect on which this novel’s conclusion rises…and falls.
5. The Principles of Uncertainty, by Maira Kalman (1, 2): Okay, this is actually pretty easy to recreate on an iPad. But who would want to read this gorgeous thing on a screen?
6. Dictionary of the Khazars, by Milorad Pavic (5): The chief Kindle-resistant feature of Dictionary of the Khazars is that it is actually two books: a “male version” and a (slightly different) “female version,” bound back to back. You move from one to the other by flipping the book over and starting from the other end. Kindle that, Amazon!
7. Only Revolutions, by Mark Z. Danielewski (1, 3, 5): Unlike House of Leaves, the National-Book-Award-nominated Only Revolutions is too insanely Kindle-proof to actually be a good book. I found its main text – which takes the flip & read logic of Pavic a step further – to be a hackneyed pastiche of Finnegans Wake. But you can’t blame a guy for trying.
8. One Hundred Thousand Million Poems, by Raymond Queneau (4, 5): This echt-Oulippan “poetry machine” is a set of 10 sonnets, bound to a spine, but with incisions between the lines that extend out to the edge of the page. Readers can manipulate the pages to form and reform sonnets. Mathematically, there are 1,000,000,000,000,000 possible variations. In theory, an eBook equivalent of this would work beatifully (you’d just have to build in a “shuffle” function) – though by equivalence rather than reproduction.
9. Rising Up and Rising Down (the unabridged version), by William T. Vollmann (2, 3, 5, 7): In theory, this should be the perfect eBook candidate, in the sense that no one wants to lug the damn thing on the subway. It is, in a sense, almost all appendix. I’d bet dollars to donuts, though, that, via the logic sketched in point 7 above, no one would ever get through a digital edition. Vollmann’s detractors would argue that’s a good thing. I’m not so sure…
10. Where the Wild Things Are, by Maurice Sendak (1, 3): The brilliance of Where the Wild Things Are, as a children’s librarian once pointed out to me, is not just the illustrations, but the way they gradually expand to fill the page spreads (what’s called a full-bleed)…and then recede again into white space. It enacts for children the dialectic of wildness and safety that is the book’s explicit subject, and has, this librarian insisted, a deeply therapeutic effect. Wild Things, that is, uses its book-ness beautifully. You could reproduce this on a screen…but unless the aspect ratio was 2:1, it would have to be in thumbnail form. Perhaps the solution, as Reif Larsen has suggested, is to get away from the idea of reproduction altogether. Rather than deluding ourselves that the eBook is a book, we should think carefully about the effects each can achieve that the other can’t, and then work to find equivalents between them. And lo and behold, a fantastically inventive app of Larsen’s The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet (Steps Taken: 2, 3) is now available for the iPad…perhaps pointing the way to yet another future of the book.
I read and admired Leslie Jamison’s The Gin Closet when it first came out –and was immediately curious about its author: How could someone so young (Jamison was 26 at publication) write a book so lyrical, dark and knowing? As she and I both found ourselves in Iowa City this last spring, Jamison, now 28, agreed to sit down for a chat.
This was Jamison’s second stint in Iowa City; she’d received her MFA from the Writers Workshop five years ago, and is presently a PhD candidate at Yale. Now, she was accompanying her boyfriend, another Yale PhD student, while he got his MFA in poetry at the workshop.
On a cool spring day, before the cornfields were plowed or the leaves of the trees had unfurled, Jamison and I drove to the small town of Mount Vernon twenty miles north of Iowa City. Our destination was a coffeehouse called Fuel, a standard-bearer among coffeehouses with nooks and comfortable chairs, ample table space, amusing oddments to look at and buy, not to mention great coffee, and cookies baked in small batches all day long. (Jamison works part time in a bakery and has developed, she says, a snobbery about cookies: Fresh from the oven or none at all!). Fuel is one of Jamison’s natural habitats; she reads and writes there for hours at a stretch, so it seemed the ideal spot for a good long chat into the digital recorder. Also, as Jamison herself pointed out, The Gin Closet, which came out in paperback this month, is concerned with three generations of women and Fuel is run by three generations of women. Today, the granddaughter served as barista as the grandmother baked.
Stella, The Gin Closet’s protagonist, joins a long line of literary heroines, very intelligent young women on the cusp of adult lifewho willfully make bad choices (think Emma Woodhouse, Dorothea Brooke, Hester Prynne, Isabel Archer). At loose ends in her mid-twenties, Stella works for a famous, abusive boss and has fallen in love with a married man. In part to console herself, Stella moves in with her grandmother Lucy only to discover that Lucy is dying.
Jamison’s prose is lyrical, with the frank blare of youth:
Every night I said things like: Today my boss and I got drunk at lunch. Today my boss was on Oprah! Today I spent a thousand dollars on gift baskets. Today I used the word “autumnal” twice, and both times I was speaking to tulip salesmen…I compressed my days neatly into appetizer courses. I worked as a personal assistant for a woman with a reputation for treating people like shit, and she treated me like shit. I couldn’t spin witty versions of the rest. In the darkness I began caring for my collapsing grandmother. She wasn’t being inspirational or having sex or treating anyone like shit. She was just getting old.
As Lucy dies, a secret emerges: Stella has an aunt, Matilda, who was cast out of the family before Stella was born. After the funeral, Stella sets out to find this Aunt Tilly, ostensibly to deliver a letter but really to set things right. Tilly is found in a trailer in the Nevada desert.
The novel alternates between Stella’s first person and her aunt Tilly’s limited third person narrations. Tilly is a late-stage alcoholic and ex-prostitute whose difficult past Jamison renders fearlessly. Tilly’s one son Abe, a banker, has been sending her enough money so she can quit turning tricks; he wants her to live with him in San Francisco, but only if she’ll stop drinking. Stella convinces Tilly to take up this longstanding offer and the three of them—Stella, Tilly and Abe—set up housekeeping together in the city.
The center, if there ever was one, doesn’t hold.
As I suspected, Jamison is whip smart, articulate and intense—a terrific conversationalist.
Michelle Huneven: What got you started on this book—what was the germ, the seed?
Leslie Jamison: The short answer is my family I was working on a different novel and was stuck–I didn’t understand how stuck. I moved into a family home with my grandmother who was very sick. My life was taken over by her declining health. Trying to take care of her was completely beyond what I understood how to do. I realized when I woke up in the morning that there was no way I could work on this other novel, it had no claim on my heart or thoughts, so I just started writing with no particular plan about what was happening with my grandmother and how it was bringing up a lot of feelings about our family, a lot of old wounds that hadn’t been repaired. I had a fantasy that they could all be repaired before she died. It didn’t happen that way. But I was left with these pages about how I wish things had been different in our family, in particular with an aunt who had been estranged for a long time. I started to write a novel that explored bluntly what if– what if my aunt came back into the conversation of my family. That scenario had a lot of emotional weight with me and really drove the first draft of the novel. It took many more drafts to get further in–and further away from my family.
MH: I particularly liked Stella’s mix of naieve hopefulness and her blind confidence that she could repair the familial breach and somehow accomplish what her mother and grandmother hadn’t managed to do.
LJ: Yes, Stella has a dual feeling of guilt and superiority. I shared some version of that, myself. You feel responsible for what your family has done, even if you weren’t alive for it, but you also feel like, I’m better than that, I would never do that to somebody, and what’s more, I can go fix it. Stella thinks “I can do what my mother wasn’t capable of doing, which was to love the damage in another person.”
MH: In a way, Stella’s a classic young heroine. She’s smart and deep, but she’s not yet fully-formed, which makes her ripe for demons—in the beginning of the book, she has a terrible boss, she’s deep in it with a married man, then she’s in over her head with her sick grandmother. A flick on the back of the head is all that’s needed to send her down some misbegotten path—like saving her aunt.
LJ: Which lets you in on the dirty secret of what altruism really is, which is saying I don’t know how to deal with my own stuff so I’ll immerse myself in somebody else’s stuff, so I can feel like a hero in their life.
MH: Yes, but there are times when nothing can touch your low self esteem except getting out of yourself and being of service to another person.
LJ: We can do good things out of flawed motives–which doesn’t make them less good. But you can also show up for a certain situation only to discover that the situation is bigger than you are–you’re really signing up to lose control.
MH: One scene really haunts me. Stella goes to her aunt’s trailer in Nevada and sees the gin closet, her aunt’s drinking room. It’s a terrible womb-tomb place, bottles, flies, a turkey carcass of all things, a stool in the corner—truly the nightmare version of a tuffet. Appalling! But the next thing you know, Stella and Tilly are drinking together. Reading along, I was thinking: No! Don’t do it, Stella–you’re giving too much ground! I knew she wanted to help her aunt and bring her back into the family. While I never thought she had a chance of succeeding, I really didn’t want her to sink to her aunt’s level.
LJ: I wanted to destabilize Stella’s hero complex from the start to show it as confused. She wanted to connect with her aunt and build a sense of trust and to not be just another voice saying, “you’re a fuck up and we want your problems far away from us.” The short cut to that was to get low with her, get shamed with her.
That’s as opposed to saying I’m here, in a better spot, and I want you to come here too, which imposes a boundary and a separateness that requires a lot of moral fortitude and a kind of caring that’s willing to be patient.
MH: And drinking with her aunt is like taking food in the dark realm, like Persephone eating the pomegranate seeds—it compromises the mission, prefigures its doom.
The novel also plays with a universal orphan fantasy: you’re a little girl and you’re mad at your parents and then you think, Hey! what if I had another, secret family which was my real, true family. Even the happiest child imagines at some point that she actually belongs with the fairies.
LJ: (Laughs) Yeah! Drunken fairies! Absolutely. Stella replaces her mother with a woman she can be a mother to. She has trouble recognizing all the ways that her mother has been a mother for her, and wants to instead focus on what she resents her for and to replace her with a relationship that can make her feel good about herself, where she can occupy this nurturing role. What Stella’s mother has given her is complicated, but there’s a lot of good in it. And that, I think is ultimately the reckoning in the orphan family fantasy–where you have to come back and say, maybe I didn’t want the fairies after all.
MH: It’s Coraline—suddenly your busy, hardworking mother seems infinitely better than the one who wants to replace your eyes with buttons.
LJ: Or Where the Wild Things Are. Suddenly, your cold porridge in your room doesn’t look so bad after where you’ve been…
MH: I was interested, too, in how, when the new family forms, when they move into Abe’s apartment, closeness doesn’t follow. The two educated young people don’t really know how to find common ground with Tilly, who is white-knuckling it through her days working at a new job that’s essentially busywork, and trying to put her stamp on the loft by decorating it with cheap little trinkets she finds on her wanderings. The three don’t even enjoy a honeymoon period together.
LJ: Yes. It’s strange to suddenly be family with someone with whom you don’t have that whole backlog of quiet awkward shared family experience. Tilly and Stella are family but there’s no territory that they share beyond a feeling that it’s wrong that they hadn’t been family so far. So there’s kind of a rabid good intention coming up against, well, what it looks like day to day.
MH: Here’s a question all the bookclubs will ask you: How did you write so convincingly about prostitution?
LJ: I did what every self-respecting PhD student does…which is to say, I went to the library. I checked out 20 books from the Yale system and spent a month doing little but reading them. The main thing I remember feeling from all these womens’ stories was that, yes, many of them were stories of incredible hardship, but they weren’t about soul-erasure or the effacement of dignity–they weren’t black and white Before and After stories. There was a tremendous amount of dailiness; not quite so much melodrama as I’d imagined. I remember thinking, I’m not qualified to imagine my way into this. And then thinking, I’m just going to have to get over that.
MH: What writing, what literary models conditioned you for writing The Gin Closet?
LJ: I distinctly remember reading–over the course of two long, lonely, completely engrossed days–the entirety of Yates’ Revolutionary Road. I’d reached one of those points where I’d forgotten what the point of a novel was–why the world was better-off for having it, I guess–and why I was writing my own; and I read Yates and felt such deep humanity and honesty and richness in his world, and felt myself so changed–I thought, if I can do this for anyone, the book will be worth it. The deep geneology of my conditioning had been going on for a long time before the draft, as is true for all writers: Faulkner and Woolf are my twin gods; Plath has always been important to me, Anne Carson, the many beautiful and talented writers I’m lucky to call friends.
MH: What’s the next book? How is it different or the same from The Gin Closet?
LJ: I am working on the second draft of a novel about the Sandinista Revolution in Nicaraugua.
I feel like The Gin Closet was a gush of consciousness. I wrote it from pure feeling. I followed it intuitively. I’m not sure if any of my other books are going to be like that. The process of writing since then has been much more deliberate– not that my heart isn’t involved. But I’ve been extending out of myself much more, whereas with the first one, I was dredging stuff out from inside myself. That’s not to say it’s totally autobiographical.
MH: Who are you looking to now, for the new book? What writers do you reach for to “prime the pump” so to speak—to make you want to write?
LJ: There are some writers who make me want to write, and other writers who make me feel as if I can write–as if I have it in me–and these circles aren’t entirely overlapping. Shirley Hazzard makes me want to write–in fact, she makes me want to write exactly like she writes–but this is usually bad, because I end up writing second-tier Hazzard instead of any-tier Jamison. I usually read poetry when I’m trying to write–it makes me swollen with beauty and possibility, with honesty, but it doesn’t call up the urge to imitate. Lately I’ve been reading Carson’s Nox, and Berryman’s Dream Songs. The new book is about history, which gives me a rich well of reading that isn’t fiction. I’ve been reading a lot of Sandinista memoirs–they are just so fucking interesting; full of the physical world and translated curse-words and a surprising (maybe not so surprising) amount of sex and humor.
MH: You seem to have a penchant for poets…how has living with/among poets affected your writing and your attitudes toward fiction and poetry?
LJ: I’ve always thought “A penchant for poets” might be a good title for my memoir, if I ever publish one. I’ve dated a few of them, and–as you point out—I have been living with one for several years, in a house so laden with books in multiple genres it’s creaking at the seams. As I’ve mentioned, poetry gets me inspired to write–I love getting close to the minds that make it. I love having conversations over scrambled eggs about line breaks and refrains, because I get to think about making without thinking about my own making. Sometimes it’s hard because I feel like Practical Peggy juxtaposed against the infinite and infinitely disorganized energy of a poet–short attention span, fickle production, wild strokes of genius.
MH: So which side are you going to root for this year at the Writers Workshop softball game?
LJ: I’m going to have to root for fiction. Genre before love. Plus, my boyfriend loves to argue, so I think this will suit him just fine.
MH: How has it been being back in Iowa City for two years, when you’re not at the workshop?
LJ: Yeah! (Laughs and squints at the iphone on the table between us) How much time do you have left on your little recorder there?
The books that parents read to their very young children don’t change much from generation to generation. When my son was born two years ago I was surprised to find that with few exceptions, the titles we welcomed into our Philadelphia apartment were the same ones that three decades earlier had served as my own introduction to storytelling.
I made an informal study of the Amazon sales rankings of the books I enjoyed having read to me most as a kid. It seemed to confirm that taste in books for young children is remarkably constant. Here are just a handful of popular titles with their publication years and their overall Amazon ranks:
The Very Hungry Caterpillar (1969), #169
Goodnight Moon (1947), #227
Where the Wild Things Are (1963), #314
The Giving Tree (1964), #342
Harold and the Purple Crayon (1955), #559
Pat the Bunny (1940), #743
Richard Scarry’s What Do People Do All Day (1968), #817
For comparison’s sake, consider Thomas Friedman’s The World is Flat, which was a bestseller only a few years ago and enjoys strong residual sales. It’s currently ranked #2,194, which leaves it well behind the leading titles in the Dr. Seuss canon (Green Eggs and Ham, #1,050; The Lorax, #1,063).
The reason children’s books endure seems clear enough: The books that toddlers read are determined entirely by adults, and when adults select books for kids they naturally gravitate towards the books they loved as kids. As a result, the market for children’s books is probably more resistant to cultural churn than just about any other slice of the consumer economy; it’s a closed circuit that reproduces itself one generation after another.
There are benefits to this system. For one, it helps to ensure that passing fads doesn’t wash quality books away. It’s doubtful, for example, that toddlers would opt for Goodnight Moon as often as their parents do, so maybe it’s just as well that they don’t have a say. For two, the persistence of children’s books yields a kind of experience we don’t get so often in a culture that has relatively few traditions: the chance to revisit childhood experiences through an older set of eyes.
Just the other weekend I took my two-year-old son to Barnes and Noble to buy a birthday present for a friend of his. I browsed the aisles while my son emptied a carousel of Berenstain Bears books onto the floor. After a few minutes I spotted Caps for Sale (#5057), a book that had once meant a great deal to me but which I had not thought about in decades. It was nice to see that it had managed to last all this time without my attention. We bought two copies, one for the friend and one for us.
That night I put my son in his pajamas, filled his cup with milk, sat him in my lap and began to read Caps for Sale. It only took a few lines before the entire story came back to me: an old world peddler walks around a village with a stack of caps on his head; one luckless afternoon he leans back against a tree to take a nap and when he wakes up he finds his caps have been confiscated by a troop of monkeys in the tree branches above him; he demands the monkeys give him his caps back by shaking his fists and stomping his feet but the monkeys mock his efforts and for a moment it seems like he’ll never get them back.
In addition to remembering the plot, I was somewhat stunned by how vividly the feelings the book had elicited in me as a kid came tumbling back. It’s noted several times in the book, for example, that the peddler always stacks his caps on his head in the same order—“first his own checked cap, then the gray caps, then the brown caps, then blue caps, then the red caps on the very top.” As I read this to my son I found myself flush with the same covetousness for the red caps, so bright and distinct above the rest, that I’d felt as a child.
I had a similar experience at the end of the story. In order to get his caps back, the peddler remonstrates the monkeys every way he can: he shakes his fists, stomps his feet, jumps up and down. The monkeys repeat his actions back to him but the simple peddler doesn’t see what’s going on. He thinks the monkeys are mocking his suffering when really they’re just aping (monkeying?) him like the lower-order mammals that they are. In despair the peddler takes his own checked cap off his head—the one cap that’s not for sale, and the only cap the monkeys didn’t take—and throws it to the ground and starts to walk away.
As my son finished his milk and started to fall asleep, I found myself awash in the same anguish I’d felt at this point in the story as a child. I couldn’t have explained why at the time, but as a child I knew there was something deeply sad about the peddler throwing his own cap to the ground. Now as an adult, I can put words to that sadness; I can see that by throwing his own cap to the ground the peddler is effectively saying that without his caps, nothing in the world matters anymore.
I was surprised by the complexity of the reaction to Caps for Sale I’d had as a kid. As a four-year-old I had no firsthand experiences that would have taught me there is such a thing as despair in the face of an unforgiving world, but on an intuitive level I understood that what the peddler was experiencing went beyond mere frustration.
When the peddler throws down his cap the monkeys throw their caps down too, and tragedy is averted. The peddler collects his caps from the ground, stacks them back atop his head, and walks back to town calling “Caps for sale, fifty cents a cap.” It is not exactly a happy ending—the fact that the peddler became so desperate over the loss of a few caps reveals just how precarious his life really is—but there is a melancholic satisfaction in knowing that he gets to go on selling for one more day at least.
For me, the feeling I had after I’d closed Caps for Sale and laid my son down in his crib was melancholic and satisfying, too. It was an unexpected gift to have glimpsed myself as a child through the pages of the book, and a wonder to imagine that if trends hold, my son might one day have the same experience himself.
Bonus Link: Are Picture Books Leading Our Children Astray?
The literary world, and I speak here primarily of its online incarnation, does some things really well. We chew on abstract issues like why literature matters, what counts as art, and how to navigate the writing life. What we don’t do as well is consider “average” or “real” readers, the people who subsidize most of the book production in the country. This wouldn’t be a big deal if we simply left them alone. (Not that I’m advocating this strategy.) But these people come up all the time, if only by proxy: we chuckle at Dan Brown’s unit sales or snipe at HarperCollins’s “It” imprint, all without necessarily engaging with the readers behind these trends.
So, late on a late December Friday, I decided to try something different: I headed to a mall-bound Borders and asked 37 customers about their relationship to books. I realize my approach has its own problems (sample size, anyone?), but it offers something others can’t—readers speaking in their own voices.
Don’t be fooled by the Seattle’s Best Coffee and all those overstuffed chairs: Borders is not a great place to talk books, mostly because, in my experience, doing so requires weeks of answering machines and unrequited emails—all to secure the Borders Group’s tepid “yes” and a two-hour time limit.
At least I didn’t have much territory to canvass. In the last year, especially, Borders has flailed about for a business model—like Barnes & Noble, it’s now looking to lose its mall locations—and one new initiative has been Borders Ink, a teen-themed sub-store. If the Borders I visited were laid out like the back of a paperback book, the bar code would be checkout area; the author photo would be the coffee shop; and the three blurbs would be music, movies, and Borders Ink and its mass of Twilight merchandise. (Does any celebrity look more like his plastic figurines than Robert Pattinson?) The paperback’s plot summary—maybe 30 percent of the space—would be the tables and shelves of books.
My first interview ended up being my favorite. Mary Anne, an older woman with red clogs and a kind face, tells me that “reading is a real passion of mine.” Her favorite author is Diana Gabaldon, and Mary Anne likes to let the TV hum in the background as she reads (or rereads) 10 to 12 books of historical fiction per week. “Books put me right in the moment,” she says. “The story, the characters, the period stuff.” (Dan Brown elicits an “eh”—he’s “outlandishly far-fetched,” in her nice phrase.)
I start every interview by asking people what they read, coming across all the names the bestseller lists would suggest: Clive Cussler, Robert Ludlum, Mitch Albom, Steve Berry and James Rollins, Stephen King (“The cheeseburger of American lit,” as one Borders employee puts it), Janet Evanovich, James Patterson, and plenty more I hadn’t heard of. (I confess to writing Diane Gabeldern? in my notes.) Bob, an older man in a grubby New York Giants hat, gives the same one-word answer to “What do you read?” and “Why do you read?”: “mystery.” Another guy admits he reads “whatever’s in the airport.”
Most people, though, classify their reading tastes as “eclectic.” Kelly, a young English major, reads Shakespeare and Jane Austen for “inspiration” and “this stuff” (she gestures at the Borders Ink sign) for “relaxation.” But where Kelly seems genuinely eclectic, others invoke the descriptor simply because they aren’t in the habit of talking about books. “I’ll read anything” is the easiest answer to questions you don’t regularly think about, and, when pressed for specifics, most of the people I talked to either reaffirmed their eclecticism or settled on a sub-category—yes, romance, that’s it. All of them lacked a ready vocabulary for stuff like style, technique, or genre.
People were more articulate on why they read, which is also, of course, a genre-inflected question. Beth, a mom loading up on chapter books, reads to learn something. “I didn’t pay too much attention in school,” she says, “so I like to read about our nation’s history.” Ted, who sticks to sports, demands books on current events—ideally someone “with a checkered past.” Tom relied on Ian Fleming to survive his New York City commute; he’s got a different job, now, and “it’s been harder to find the time.”
Renee, a bubbly twentysomething, says she reads “all kinds of stuff”—David Sedaris is a favorite—but also cops to a Twilight addiction. Just don’t ask her about the movies: “The books are so much more horrifying. With movies, you can only feel by seeing. With a book, your imagination does the work.”
This is an idea I hear again and again—the idea that, more than any other medium, books let you “put your own spin on things” and “escape from the real world,” in the words of Stephanie, a college student. Leah and Tammy, two moms in the Nicholas Sparks section who don’t appear to know each other but immediately begin swapping stories about reading after their kids fall asleep, agree that books offer a unique, imaginative escape. Cheryl, a middle-aged woman, enjoys novels steeped in “criminology and anthropology.” Books provide her with “details and depth that the TV shows just can’t match.”
Cheryl also stresses that she tries to remain faithful to her favorite authors. “I just love the way she writes,” she says of Patricia Cromwell*. Most of my conversations were similarly author-centric. (At least as it pertained to novelists; not a single person named a journalist or historian.) When I asked people if they attend author readings, though, I got the weirdest stares. I think you could make a pretty solid argument that these readers have a healthier connection to their authors (and to their art) than do more literary audiences.
But this brings up another question: How else do the people I talked to interact with the book world? Renee subscribes to Entertainment Weekly and reads its page of book reviews. Beth, a fan of “mysteries and romances,” reads the New York Times Book Review “religiously.” And… that’s it. Mary Anne watches the bookish segments on CBS’s Sunday Morning, but she distrusts professional critics because “they don’t look at the story, which matters to me. Besides, they’re too worried about trends.”
No one else seeks out any more extensive book coverage, online or off. Those who do surf the web stick to authors’ official sites or to those of Borders or Barnes & Noble. Only one woman mentions Amazon; a couple of people bring up used-book stores or warehouse club chains. When I ask how they learn about new books or authors, people point to browsing book stores and seeking out “if you like X, you’ll really like Y” recommendations from the staff. (I should add that the Borders staff I talked to, while universally helpful and kind, were not exactly the literary equivalent to the cast of High Fidelity.) The biggest driver of book sales seems to be word-of-mouth. Stephanie is currently reading Gregory Maguire’s Wicked because her sister gave it to her. And let’s give the last word to Mary Anne: “I always buy books for everyone for Christmas—especially for my six grandchildren.”
On one of the sinks in the Borders’ bathroom, I found someone’s forgotten Christmas list, printed out and water-stained:
The list went on for a full page. It even included two books: Chuck Palahniuk’s Pygmy and Charles Bukowski’s Dangling in the Tournefortia. Point is, the people I talked to might not live for books, but they still live with and through them.
*Update: Paul Constant, the estimable Books Editor at The Stranger, emailed to let me know that Cheryl was almost certainly speaking of Patricia Cornwell, the bestselling crime writer, and not Patricia Cromwell, whom I appear to have invented. Sigh. I hope it’s clear that my heart was always in the right place.
[Image credit: Kevin Dooley]
If I had any sway in Hollywood, which I don’t, I would currently be urging Spike Jonze, Dave Eggers and the brass at Warner Bros. to begin an aggressive Oscar campaign for Where the Wild Things Are. But not for the actual film, no way (maybe cinematography). I’m talking about the trailer. I know, I know. Trailers can’t win Oscars, much less be nominated. But what if it wasn’t submitted as a “trailer,” but as a “short film?” A really short film. A film that run less than two and a half minutes in length. Why not?
I hate to say it, but the film left me cold for the most part. However the trailer was and remains to be a revelation. I remember sitting in the theater and seeing it the way I remember seeing full-length films. It all begins so quietly, forest sounds and footsteps. We see Max, in his famous wolf suit, being carried by one of the Wild Things. As if to prepare the audience for the experience that is to come, the Wild Thing says to Max “I really want to show you something.”
In the remaining 90 or so seconds we learn that Max is a lonely child, he runs away from home, takes a boat over rough seas to an island full of Wild Things and has many adventures. That is the book. The pace of the trailer speeds up, emphasized by the brilliant musical backdrop Arcade Fire’s “Wake Up”. I was so hoping to hear this song in the finished version, but that didn’t happen. As we near the end, nearly every character is running, playing and behaving like real children behave. Spike Jonze says that this is a film about childhood, not necessarily a film for children. If he is talking about the trailer, he is absolutely right.
One of the main criticisms of the film has been the argument that there simply wasn’t enough content in the source material to warrant a feature film. After seeing the film, I spent the better part of two weeks trying desperately to find some way to disagree. But I can’t.
Part of this could be attributed to the ridiculously high expectations I brought with me into that theater. What was I really expecting, some sort of transformational experience? Yep. Call me crazy, but I was absolutely certain that I would have some sort of epiphany by the time the end credits were rolling. Why? That damn trailer.
I won’t say that I was depressed about the overall film experience. But then again, I can’t think of any other accurate way to express how I felt. A few days ago, for reasons I can’t explain, I felt the urge to see the trailer again. There have been several versions since that first one, some edited differently, some made for television. It took a few minutes to find the original cut. But when I watched it again, I realized that I had no reason to be depressed. Sure, the film was a letdown, but I didn’t need it. The experience I longed for was fully contained in this little gem. The emotions, the energy, the music, it was all there. The same way a tight little pop song can be more effective and memorable than a lengthy concept album, this trailer captured the spirit of Maurice Sendak’s book in its entirety.
I don’t regret my Where the Wild Things Are experience in any way. I’ve come to think of the full-length film the way I think of those indulgent overlong director’s cuts that always seem to show up on DVD. I know what the real film is and it doesn’t bother me at all. I feel bad for Spike Jonze, but I don’t blame him. He set out to make something great, and in a roundabout way, he has. He has created one of the best (and certainly most expensive) short films in the history of cinema. And I, for one, am thankful.
Along with the dreaded switch to Daylight Wastings Time, the first of the month brings new issues of Open Letters Monthly and N1BR. Between the two of them, you can find, among other things, reviews of Where the Wild Things Are, J.M. Coetzee’s Age of Iron, Bob Seger, and the Complete Bloggings of Caleb Crain.
We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for October.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
The Wild Things
The Skating Rink
Dave Eggers lands a second book on our Top Ten with his novelization of the Spike Jonze movie The Wild Things. (Eggers is having similar success on some other distinguished lists.) Here at The Millions, Wild Things was a Most Anticipated book and Emily recent revisited the beloved children’s book that started it all. Also debuting is Austerlitz, the 2001 novel by W.G. Sebald. The book recently landed at #7 in our “Best of the Millennium” series.
We didn’t have any new Hall of Fame inductees this month, and falling off the Top Ten were The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood, The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga, Future Missionaries of America by Matthew Vollmer, and Netherland by Joseph O’Neill.
And, finally, Inherent Vice and Zeitoun hold on to their top positions.
See Also: Last month’s list.
Family lore has it that many years ago my grandfather, upon seeing his dirty, half-naked two-year-old first-born toddle grumpily into his study, proclaimed this variation of Thomas Hobbes’ famous line: “Man in the state of nature is nasty, brutish, and short.”
I like to think that Maurice Sendak might smile wryly at my grandfather’s detached observation and the rather unsentimental view of his own child and children in general that the remark revealed. Anyone who has read Sendak’s books—Where The Wild Things Are, Outside Over There, In The Night Kitchen—knows that his illustrated stories for children and the vision of childhood these stories contain more than a tincture of darkness: a trio of demented Oliver Hardy-esque bakers with Hitler mustaches try to bake a little boy into a cake, goblins steal a baby and replace it with a baby carved of ice, a boisterous little boy chases his dog with a fork, threatens to eat his mother, and subdues a race of savage imaginary creatures many times larger than himself. And when Sendak is not illustrating his own dark tales, he often illustrates those of old masters of the uncanny, grotesque, and fantastic: Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, E.T.A. Hoffman, Henry James (The Turn of the Screw—these unpublished illustrations are in the archives at the Rosenbach Museum and Library, Philadelphia), Mozart (opera sets for The Magic Flute).
As Patricia Cohen reflected in the New York Times last year, Sendak “is not, as children’s book writers are often supposed, an everyman’s grandpa.” Cohen’s conclusion reflects Sendak’s preoccupation with the Holocaust in his work for children—suggested in details like the baker’s mustaches and their desire to bake Mickey alive in Night Kitchen; engaged explicitly in his illustrations for Hans Kràsa’s 1938 work Brundibar, a political allegory of the Nazis treatment of European Jews qua children’s opera, first performed clandestinely by Jewish orphans in Nazi-occupied Prague, and again in his illustrations for Zlateh the Goat, Isaac Bashevis Singer’s collection of children’s tales, to whose characters Sendak gave the faces of his own relatives lost in the Holocaust. But Cohen’s assessment also reflects Sendak’s confession of extensive and passionate hatreds: a cruel uncle from his childhood, God and religion, Salman Rushdie, sugary animation. Sendak’s hates culminated in the revelation: “I hate people”—though he had high praise the company of dogs, like his German shepherd, Herman (as in Melville).
This Gulliver-ian preference for animals over people is perhaps fitting for the man who gave us Max, the wolf suit-clad hero of Where The Wild Things Are, a boy who has more to do with beasts and the beastly than he does with the human and the civilized. Max seems an archetypal example of my grandfather’s intuition that human infants offer us intimations of the infancy of human civilization, at least as Hobbes described it. This is also perhaps a central theme of Where The Wild Things Are. One of the most wonderful and arresting things about children is their tinge of the feral, the uncivilized, the wild: They pick their noses in public, they stare unrepentantly at strangers and ask scandalously blunt questions, they are not ashamed to be naked, they snatch things they covet, they scream and kick and sob when they are thwarted in their desires.
To be a child is to lack the inhibiting self-consciousness of adulthood, the stifling ever-present awareness of other people, their needs, the dangers of their disapproval. Children are still not fully aware of the things we must do (bathe, dress, wait our turn) and must not do (steal, bite our enemies, wail when we don’t get our way) so that we can bear and trust each other enough to exchange goods and ideas, so that we do not live in abject horror of our fellow creatures, so that civilization and the arts and sciences can advance. My grandfather’s artful misquotation of Hobbes finds its source in this passage from Leviathan that describes the state of perpetual war (the “Warre…of every man, against every man”) in which Hobbes believed that humanity lived while in “the state of nature” (a mythical time in human history before the institution of laws and governments, often invoked by early modern political theorists):
In such condition, there is no place for Industry; because the fruit thereof is uncertain: and consequently no Culture of the Earth; no Navigation, nor use of commodities that may be imported by Sea; no commodious Building; no Instruments of moving, and removing such things as require much force; no Knowledge of the face of the Earth; no account of Time; no Arts; no Letters; no Society; and which is worst of all, continuall feare, and danger of violent death; And the life of man, solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short.
This is a world ruled by violence, mischief, and selfishness rather than law; Each man is free to do whatever he likes because there is no ruler and no law to impose a sense of mutual obligation and respect among people. Every man is a law unto himself, interested only in the fulfillment of his own desires, whatever the cost to others. This is also the world in which Max lives in Where The Wild Things Are. When we meet Max in the first small frame of Sendak’s book, his expression is angry and determined. He’s wearing the wolf suit that makes him look only half human (“brutish”), and he’s in the midst of building himself a tent or fort of some kind with a hammer, nails, and sheets. He’s using books—those symbols of civilized culture, learning, and wisdom—as a stepping-stool (“short”) to construct his ragged dwelling, and his stuffed bear hangs by its arm or neck from a string at the edge of the frame (“nasty”). Max is alone except for his hanged teddy (“solitary”).
And so we have in Wild Things Hobbes for children and a Hobbesian child hero (“no Arts; no Letters; no Society…the life of man, solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short.”) Max seems constrained by the civilized domestic world in which we find him in the first frame. Sendak reveals Max’s confinement by making his first illustration only four inches by five and a half, with three-inch, white margins; the story’s illustrations grow progressively larger as Max’s wildness escalates and he is finally sent to his room. Only when the imaginary forest realm of the wild things has totally overgrown his room do the illustrations take up the whole of each page—as if to say that only when Max enters his imaginary world of unadulterated wildness and savagery do we see him fully. His appetite for savagery is hampered in his mother’s tidy, monochromatic home; he is a rebel whose taste for violence and mischief makes him eternally at odds with the civilized, rule-bound world of his mother’s house.
For his wildness, Max is sent to bed without dinner. At first he is angry at this confinement, but as his room transforms into a forest, Max’s expressions grow increasingly pleased. When he sails off in his private boat on the great ocean of the imagination, “through night and day and in and out of weeks and almost over a year to where the wild things are,” we see him smile for the first time. Amongst the wild things, Max’s wild willfulness is not punished, but celebrated: For his fierceness and the force of his will he is made king of this race of yellow-eyed grotesques. They obey and take pleasure in his wild ways—the rumpus-making that had gotten him into so much trouble with his mother, is here a delightful, unproblematic pastime.
But there is something missing in Max’s private world, for all of the power and freedom it gives him. When he calls an end to the wild rumpus and imperiously orders the other wild things off to bed without supper, they sleep contentedly beneath the trees, while Max, alone in his royal tent, remains awake, pensive. As king of the wild things he has his way amongst them absolutely; he can do whatever he wants—and yet he feels a sense of loss and loneliness. It may be, as Nicolo Machiavelli insisted, “much safer to be feared than loved,” but that does not make the loveless life pleasant. Max craves love—”to be where someone loved him best of all,” and he realizes, in his kingly solitude, that the price of absolute wildness, violence, and willfulness is that love.
And so he returns back over the ocean in his private boat and arrives in his room to find a hot supper waiting for him. In Sendak’s final illustration, Max smiles at this discovery and pushes off the hood of his wolf suit. The gesture suggests that he relinquishes something of his savageness in exchange for his mother’s forgiveness, her kindness, her care. Max has discovered that selfishness and lawlessness come at a very high price indeed.
This is what we all learn, if we grow up. Adults (more or less) follow “the way of the world” (as Hegel called it): the rules, written and unwritten, that keep us from punishment and disapproval, that make us (we hope) loveable—and, more practically, keep us employed, fed, out of jail. Children obey the law of heart (Hegel, again); they know only what they want and pursue that relentlessly, whatever the cost to others (if you have seen a child throw a tantrum, you know what Hegel meant).
We are all born wild things, we are all born “nasty, brutish, and short”—when and whether we take the wolf suit off is the question.
At the beginning of the year, we noted that “2009 may be a great year for books.” With the publishing schedule for the remainder of the year filled out, calling 2009 a great year for readers is now a certainty. If anything, 2009 is backloaded, with new titles coming in the second half of the year from legends like Thomas Pynchon and Philip Roth and fan favorites like Lorrie Moore and Jonathan Lethem. A peek into 2010, meanwhile, reveals more literary excitement on tap, with new titles on the way from Jonathan Franzen, Joshua Ferris, and others. Below you’ll find, in chronological order, the titles we’re most looking forward to right now. (Special thanks to the illustrious members of The Millions Facebook group who let us know what they are looking forward to. Not everyone’s suggestions made our list, but we appreciated hearing about all of them.)In July, Dave Eggers continues the trend he started with What is the What, working closely with his subject to produce a work with elements of memoir and non-fiction. In Zeitoun, the subject is Abdulrahman Zeitoun, “a prosperous Syrian-American and father of four,” who lived in New Orleans and disappeared in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. A few weeks ago, The Rumpus ran a long interview with Eggers that touches on Zeitoun, among several other topics. Eggers first encountered Zeitoun when McSweeney’s put out Voices from the Storm, an oral history of Katrina, and he told The Rumpus, “Their story intrigued me from the start, given that it’s at the intersection of so many issues in recent American life: the debacle of the government response to Katrina, the struggles facing even the most successful immigrants, a judicial system in need of repair, the problem of wrongful conviction, the paranoia wrought by the War on Terror, widespread Islamophobia.” (Scroll down to October for more “Anticipated” action from Eggers.)William T. Vollmann is known for his superhuman writing output, but his forthcoming book Imperial is a monster, even for him. Weighing in at 1,296 pages and carrying a list price of $55, this work of non-fiction is “an epic study,” in the words of the publisher, of Imperial County, California along the U.S.-Mexico border. Ed offers quite a bit more discussion of the book. Don’t miss the comments, where it’s said that Vollmann has called the book “his Moby-Dick.”August kicks off with what will no doubt be a peculiar literary event, the publication of Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice. It is a rare thing these days when a flurry of media attention centers on someone who has no interest in basking in it. And so, perhaps as Pynchon intends, the focus will be on the book. Inherent Vice promises to be odd. It’s 416 pages, shorter than the typical Pynchon doorstop, and the publisher Penguin, in its catalog, notes that Pynchon is “working in an unaccustomed genre” this time around. “Genre” seems to be the buzzword here. The book sports neon cover art and follows a private eye (Doc Sportello). The book begins: “She came along the alley and up the back steps the way she always used to.” Review copies are already out, and the early word is that the novel overlaps somewhat with and bears some similarities to Vineland.Inherent Vice shares a release date with a new book by Richard Russo, That Old Cape Magic, which Entertainment Weekly has already called “very beach-y.” (Sadly, it appears to have come in last in their poll to determine the “Must book of the summer.”) It sounds like fairly standard “suburban malaise” fare in which a mid-life crisis is endured over the course of the summer, the upside for the reader being that Russo is bringing his considerable skills to the table. PW is fairly tepid on the book, “Though Russo can write gorgeous sentences and some situations are amazingly rendered… the navel-gazing interior monologues that constitute much of the novel lack the punch of Russo’s earlier work.”Of Roberto Bolaño’s forthcoming, newly translated novels, Millions contributor Lydia writes: “I almost never know about the hot, up-and-coming items, but I do happen to know about this one, and I feel that, like many readers, my relationship to Bolaño has been one of breathless anticipation since the moment I first heard his name. Which was like this: at my old job, I was going through the mail. There was a New Directions catalog of aforementioned hot, up-and-coming items. I haven’t historically had a lot of interest in contemporary trade publications, but New Directions has a very warm spot in my heart because I associate it with The Berlin Stories. Anyway, in said mag I read a blurb about Nazi Literature in the Americas, and thought it sounded really neat, and then learned I would have to wait a year to read it, and since then it feels like there’s been a lot of waiting – sometimes with glorious gratification at the end (2666), sometimes not (Nazi Literature in the Americas, ironically). It’s thrilling that they keep coming! The Skating Rink in August, Monsieur Pain in 2010. It’s like new the James Bond franchise (btw, I’m a Craig, not a Brosnan). I just love having something to look forward to. I hope I don’t wet my pants on the way to the bookstore.” (Bolaño fans will also be looking out for Melville House’s Bolaño: The Last Interview And Other Conversations)Dan Chaon’s Await Your Reply returns to the territory of separated siblings (You Remind Me of Me looked at a pair of long-lost brothers.) This time, the focus is on twins, one of whom has been missing for ten years. The book garnered a blurb from Jonathan Franzen, who will appear later in this list and who says of Chaon’s book, “I’ve been waiting for somebody to write the essential identity-theft novel, and I’m very glad Dan Chaon’s the one to have done it”Let’s just get this out of the way: In September, you are going to hear a lot about Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol.More importantly, we’ll get Richard Powers’ follow up to his award-winning novel The Echo Maker. In Generosity: An Enhancement, Powers explores the idea of patenting the human gene for happiness. Last year, Powers wrote about the human genome for GQ. There’s not a lot of info available about this one but Ed Champion writes he “foresee(s) some animosity from the vanilla critics hostile to idea-driven novels,” and Sarah Weinman “tweeted,” “Richard Powers’ new novel Generosity is about as audacious as a novel gets, and has fucked with my head as a reader every which way.”Lorrie Moore is set to deliver her first novel in over a decade, A Gate at the Stairs. All those Moore fans out there are faced with a huge dilemma this week. Do they read the “Childcare,” the excerpt of the novel that is the fiction offering in this week’s New Yorker, or do they avoid the magazine and hold out for two more months until the novel comes out? We’ve never been big fans of the New Yorker’s packaging of novel excerpts as short stories, so to all the Moore fans out there, we say – avert your eyes when you reach page 70 of this week’s issue!Kazuo Ishiguro’s Nocturnes: Five Stories of Music and Nightfall is already out in much of the rest of the English-speaking world. In The Guardian, Christopher Taylor described the book as “a carefully arranged sequence of interlocking stories” and said, “while many of the stories hinge on artistic talent – the risks and unkindnesses associated with it; who’s got it and who hasn’t – the strong focus on more widespread problems in life makes Nocturnes more than a writer’s thoughts on his job.” The Complete Review rounds up the rest of the early reactions.Pete Dexter returns in September with Spooner. This one sounds like another dark, Southern tale not unlike Paris Trout, the book that first put Dexter on the fiction map. The first line of Spooner is “Spooner was born a few minutes previous to daybreak in the historic, honeysuckled little town of Milledgeville, Georgia, in a make-shift delivery room put together in the waiting area of the medical offices of Dr. Emil Wood.”We’ll also get a new novel from E.L. Doctorow about a pair of brothers. Homer & Langley is about Homer and Langley Collyer, two famous Manhattan hoarders and recluses, who, after gaining notoriety for their obsessive habits and reportedly booby-trapped home, were found dead in 1947 surrounded by, according to Wikipedia, “over 100 tons of rubbish that they had amassed over several decades.” Newsweek has an excerpt of the book. The novel’s first line is “I’m Homer, the blind brother. I didn’t lose my sight all at once, it was like the movies, a slow fade-out.”Dan Brown is no doubt getting serious bank for his return to airport bookshelves and grocery store check-out lines, but he’s not the only one having a great recession. Audrey Niffenegger reportedly took home a $5 million advance for Her Fearful Symmetry, her follow-up to her very popular The Time Traveler’s Wife. Niffenegger describes the book on her website: “The novel concerns a pair of mirror-image twins, Julia and Valentina Poole… Julia and Valentina are inseparable, and function almost as one being, although in temperament they are opposites.”Acclaimed novelist Margaret Atwood will have a new novel out in September called The Year of the Flood, which has been described as “a journey to the end of the world.” The Random House catalog, meanwhile, called it a “dystopic masterpiece and a testament to her visionary power.” If that all isn’t intriguing enough, it appears that the book is maybe (or maybe not) the second book in a trilogy that was kicked off with Oryx & Crake. Atwood and her publishers have offered mixed signals on the trilogy question. Quill & Quire looked into the question, and included a quote from Atwood saying, “It’s not a sequel and it’s not a prequel… It’s a simultaneouel.” Ah, one of those.In The Anthologist, Nicholson Baker covers well-trod literary ground by focusing on a writer protagonist. However, PW gave the book a starred review, calling it “lovely” and saying “Baker pulls off an original and touching story, demonstrating his remarkable writing ability while putting it under a microscope.” Baker’s protagonist is Paul Chowder, who is tasked with writing an introduction for a poet friend’s anthology and delivers the book’s stream of consciousness narration. By all early accounts the book is quite funny and also deeply immersed in poetry, with digressions on a number of history’s great poets. The Simon & Schuster catalog calls the book a “beguiling love story about poetry.”It’s my feeling that John Irving’s fiction has fallen off quite a bit in recent years (the last really good read for me was A Son of the Circus), but I still keep an eye on Irving’s new novels for any sign that he has regained his early career mojo. His last several books haven’t tempted me, and it’s probably too early to tell whether the Last Night in Twisted River will. Reading the first sentence of the publisher’s description, we already find a couple of Irving’s authorial tics, New Hampshire and bears: “In 1954, in the cookhouse of a logging and sawmill settlement in northern New Hampshire, an anxious twelve-year-old boy mistakes the local constable’s girlfriend for a bear.” Don’t be surprised if a wrestler figures into the action somewhere in there. Still, Irving has compared the new book to The Cider House Rules. That’s a good sign.The venerable William Trevor will have a new novel out, Love and Summer.Millions reader Matthew looks forward to Laird Hunt’s Ray of the Star, due in September, “because Laird’s novels are fantastic.” Of Kamby Bolongo Mean River by Robert Lopez, he writes “This is his sophomore novel; his first, Part of the World was bizarre and funny.” He plans to read The Museum of Eterna’s Novel by Macedonio Fernandez (arriving in 2010) “because Borges sez so.”October is sure to bring Wild Things mania and Dave Eggers is going to be right in the middle of it. He worked with Spike Jonze on the film version of Where the Wild Things Are. And, in what is sure to be the most literary novelization of a film (adapted from a children’s book) ever, an Eggers-penned version of Wild Things is set to hit shelves when the movie comes out. There’s also the fur-covered edition.New Yorker readers have already gotten a taste of Jonathan Lethem’s forthcoming book Chronic City. Of the excerpt, packaged as the story “Lostronaut,” I wrote, “This story was pretty awesome. It was the only speculative fiction to land in The New Yorker this year, not quite making up for the absence of Murakami and Saunders from the magazine’s pages. This story is told in the form of letters from Janice, a ‘Lostronaut’ aboard some sort of space station, to her ‘Dearest Chase.’ She and her fellow astronauts are trapped in orbit by Chinese space mines and that’s not even the worst of it for poor Janice. While the premise and epistolary style are intriguing, Janice’s unique, irrepressible voice really carries the story.”Readers are soon set to see the fruits of an ambitious project by R. Crumb, his illustrated Book of Genesis, a surprisingly faithful rendering of the first book of The Bible done in Crumb’s unique style. Crumb talked about the project four years ago with Robert Hughes: “I was fooling around with Adam and Eve one day. Doodling about Adam and Eve. At first I did this satirical take off on Adam and Eve – lots of jokey asides and Jewish slang because they’re Jewish right? God is Jewish… Finally I got over fooling around and I realized I just had to tell it straight.”Booker winner A.S. Byatt’s The Children’s Book, according to publisher Knopf’s description, “spans the Victorian era through the World War I years, and centers around a famous children’s book author and the passions, betrayals, and secrets that tear apart the people she loves.” The book is out already in the UK, where a review in the Telegraph included this intriguing aside: “Byatt’s publisher is keen to present The Children’s Book, her first novel for seven years, as an equal to Possession, the work that secured her reputation and her mass-market appeal nearly 20 years ago. It certainly compares to its popular predecessor in its daring and scope and, unlike the more cerebral parts of Byatt’s output, is its equivalent in terms of storytelling and readability.”J.M. Coetzee’s Summertime is a follow up to Boyhood and Youth in Coetzee’s series of memoirs. The NYRB recently published an excerpt.Quite a lot of sub-par material has been published in order to satiate the ravenous demand for Hunter S. Thompson’s writing. Thompson’s essays for ESPN in his later years were uneven at best, but fans may find something to like in The Mutineer, which Simon & Schuster says is “The highly anticipated final volume of the previously unpublished letters of Hunter S. Thompson, king of Gonzo journalism and one of the greatest literary figures of our time.” Insofar as HST,in his latter years, may have been more entertaining and lucid in his letters, this may put The Mutineer slightly above the low bar set by other recent HST collections. On the other hand, the book is edited by Johnny Depp, implying that the book is more about venerating the cult of HST than unearthing new work on par with his best efforts.November will bring the publication of Michael Lewis’ much anticipated chronicle of the financial crisis, The Big Short. In October last year, when economic uncertainty was at its height and fears were voiced in some rarefied quarters about the possibility of some sort of structural collapse, we wrote, “The world needs an exhaustive look at what happened in 2008 and why.” There have already been several books about the collapse and what caused it, from The Two Trillion Dollar Meltdown to The Return of Depression Economics and the Crisis of 2008, but many readers have been waiting for a book by Lewis, both because of his long history writing about Wall Street’s excesses and because of the powerful essay he penned on the topic for Portfolio magazine in November. Some readers may be weary of the topic by the time the book comes out, but it’s sure to garner some interest.The great Philip Roth keeps churning out new novels. This year’s offering is The Humbling, Roth’s 30th novel. The publisher copy says “Everything is over for Simon Axler, the protagonist of Philip Roth’s startling new book. One of the leading American stage actors of his generation, now in his sixties, he has lost his magic, his talent, and his assurance.” The NY Times reported that yet another Roth novel, Nemesis, is due in 2010.Jonathan Safran Foer will have a non-fiction book out in November called Eating Animals, which most are guessing focuses on vegetarianism. An interview with Foer at Penguin’s UK website would seem to confirm this. It doesn’t mention the book, but the introduction says “Jonathan Safran Foer on why he doesn’t eat anything with parents.”Millions reader Laurie points us to My Bird by Fariba Vafi, translated from Farsi and originally published in Iran in 2002. The publisher Syracuse University Press says: “The narrator, a housewife and young mother living in a low-income neighborhood in [modern] Tehran…[is] forced to raise [her] children alone and care for her ailing mother… One of the most acclaimed and best-selling contemporary Iranian writers.” Laurie adds, “The novel won several literary awards in Iran and, according to a 2005 article in the New York Times, Vafi never attended college and writes when her children are in school.”2010: Probably the most anticipated book of next year will be the The Pale King, a coda to David Foster Wallace’s sadly shortened life as a writer. We already know a fair amount about the book – it will center on an IRS agent – and three excerpts have been published already, “Good People” and “Wiggle Room” in The New Yorker and “The Compliance Branch” (pdf) in Harper’s. A piece by D.T. Max went into some detail about The Pale King following DFW’s death. Given the amount work that lies ahead for DFW’s editors, this may be a second half of 2010 release.Also possibly arriving in the second half of 2010 is Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, which we are just beginning to hear about. The book is the long-awaited follow-up to Franzen’s loved, hated, celebrated, Oprah-snubbing novel of nearly a decade ago, The Corrections. Franzen has been coy about the title – the book is reportedly called Freedom – but readers got a taste of what Franzen has in store in “Good Neighbors,” an excerpt that was published in the New Yorker a few weeks ago.Joshua Ferris will follow up his blockbuster debut Then We Came to the End with The Unnamed. The Book Case writes, “The novel focuses on Tim and Jane Farnsworth, a long-married couple who seem to have it all. But Tim has twice battled a bizarre, inexplicable illness.” Beattie’s Book Blog mentions that the illness is that he “can’t stop walking.”John McPhee has a new book due out called Silk Parachute. McPhee wrote a 1997 Shouts & Murmurs piece called “Silk Parachute” about his elderly mother. It begins “When your mother is ninety-nine years old, you have so many memories of her that they tend to overlap, intermingle, and blur.”Time Out NY says Sam Lipsyte’s The Ask is about “Milo, a New York father who is on the brink of economic ruin, and covers themes including but not limited to ‘work, war, sex, class, race, child-rearing, romantic comedies, Benjamin Franklin, cooking shows on death row, the old-model brain, the commercialization of sadness and the eroticization of chicken wire.'”British publisher Faber says Rachel Cusk’s The Bradshaw Variations “is a powerful novel about how our choices and our loves and the family life we build will always be an echo – a variation – of a theme played out in our own childhood.”In the comments or on your own blogs, let us know what books you’re looking forward to.
The publishing industry (and every other industry) may be going down the tubes, but readers won’t be wanting for good new books this year, I suspect. Readers will get their hands on new Pynchon, Atwood, Lethem, and Zadie Smith – those names alone would make for a banner year, but there’s much more. Below you’ll find, in chronological order, the titles we’re most looking forward to this year. (Garth penned a few of these little previews, where noted. And special thanks to members of The Millions Facebook group who let us know what they are looking forward to. Not everyone’s suggestions made our list but we appreciated hearing about all of them.)In February, T.C. Boyle returns again to his unique brand of historical fiction with The Women. The four women in question all loved famous architect (and eccentric) Frank Lloyd Wright. Given the time period and subject matter, this one may resemble Boyle’s earlier novel The Road to Wellville. PW says “It’s a lush, dense and hyperliterate book – in words, vintage Boyle.”Yiyun Li wowed quite a few readers with a pair of standout stories in the New Yorker last year, and all her fans now have her debut novel The Vagrants to look forward to. PW gave this one a starred review and called it “magnificent and jaw-droppingly grim.” Quite a combo. All signs point to Li being a writer to watch in 2009 and beyond.Out of My Skin by John Haskell: I like John Haskell’s writing a lot, and I like books about L.A., and so I think I’ll like John Haskell writing a novel about L.A. (Garth)Home Schooling by Carol Windley: This book of short stories set in the Pacific Northwest is certain to garner comparisons to that other Canadian, Alice Munro. (Garth)March brings Jonathan Littell’s very long-awaited novel The Kindly Ones. American readers have waited for an English translation since 2006, when the book was originally published in French. The German reviews for this Prix Goncourt winner were decidedly mixed, but I’m still intrigued to read this novel about an S.S. Officer. Literature, pulp, or kitsch? We’ll know soon enough. (Garth)Walter Mosley, best known for his Easy Rawlins mysteries, offers up The Long Fall, the first in a new series, the Leonid McGill mysteries. The new book is notable in the change of venue from Los Angeles, Mosley’s heretofore preferred fictional setting, to New York City. PW says Mosley “stirs the pot and concocts a perfect milieu for an engaging new hero and an entertaining new series.”In Castle by J. Robert Lennon, “A man buys a large plot of wooded land in upstate New York, only to find that someone has built a castle in the middle of it–and the castle is inhabited.” Intriguing, no? (That description is from Lennon’s website.) In related news, Lennon’s collection of stories Pieces for the Left Hand will be published also in March. It’ll be the book’s first U.S. edition.Mary Gaitskill’s 2005 novel Veronica was a National Book Award finalist. Now she’s back with Don’t Cry. The title story in this collection appeared in the New Yorker last year.I’ve already devoured Wells Tower’s debut collection Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned. Tower’s eclectic style is on full display here. Some of these stories are masterful iterations in the New Yorker style, while others experiment with voice and style. The collection closes with the title story, his most well known, an ingenious tale of vikings gone plundering. Normally a debut collection wouldn’t merit much buzz, but readers have had their eye on Tower for years because of his impressive long-form journalism in Harper’s and elsewhere. (Tower also appeared in our Year in Reading this year.)Zoe Heller had a huge hit with What Was She Thinking in 2003. Her follow-up effort, The Believers arrives in March. PW gives it a starred review and says it “puts to pointed use her acute observations of human nature in her third novel, a satire of 1960s idealism soured in the early 21st century.” The book came out in the UK last year, so you can learn plenty more about this one if you are so inclined. Here’s the Guardian’s review for starters.April brings Colson Whitehead’s novel Sag Harbor, which jumped a few notches on many readers’ wish lists following the publication of an excerpt (registration required) in the New Yorker’s Winter Fiction issue. Based on that excerpt (and the publisher’s catalog copy), we are in store for a coming of age story about Benji, a relatively well-off African-American kid growing up in New York (and summering on Long Island) in the 1980s.Colm Toibin has a new novel coming in May called Brooklyn. This one looks to be a novel of immigration. From the catalog copy: “In a small town in the south-east of Ireland in the 1950s, Eilis Lacey is one among many of her generation who cannot find work at home. So when a job is offered in America, it is clear that she must go.”I’ve been following Clancy Martin’s How to Sell as it’s appeared in excerpts in NOON and McSweeney’s. The writing is terrific, funny, and disturbing: ripe for a Coen Brothers adaptation. (Garth)Summer reading season gets going in June with Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin, which his publisher is calling “his most ambitious work to date.” This one sounds like it will look in on the lives of several disparate characters in New York city in the mid-1970s. Audio of McCann reading from the book is available at CUNY Radio.Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie won tons of praise for Half of a Yellow Sun. Now she’s back with a collection of stories, The Thing Around Your Neck, likely including “The Headstrong Historian,” which appeared in the New Yorker last year.Monica Ali is back with her third novel, In the Kitchen. This one is based in London and apparently involves a murder at a hotel.July: William T. Vollmann is known for his superhuman writing output, but his forthcoming book Imperial is a monster, even for him. Weighing in at 1,296 pages and carrying a list price of $55, this work of non-fiction is “an epic study,” in the words of the publisher, of Imperial County, California. Ed offers quite a bit more discussion of the book. Don’t miss the comments, where it’s said that Vollmann has called the book “his Moby-Dick.”August: When the deliberate and reclusive Thomas Pynchon puts out a new book it’s a publishing event, and with Pynchon set to deliver a new book just three years after his last one, well, that’s like Christmas in July, er, August. This one is called Inherent Vice and its cover is already causing much speculation (and some consternation) among the Pynchon fans. Expect rumors about the book to be rife through the first part of the year. Pynchon’s publisher Penguin, meanwhile, has called it “part noir, part psychedelic romp, all Thomas Pynchon – private eye Doc Sportello comes, occasionally, out of a marijuana haze to watch the end of an era as free love slips away and paranoia creeps in with the L.A. fog.”The Amateur American by Joel Saunders Elmore: I have to mention this novel by my old friend Joel, sections of which I read in manuscript. Surreal yet propulsive, it has one of the sharpest opening lines I’ve ever read… assuming he kept the opening line. (Garth)September: Scarcely a year goes by without Philip Roth sending a new novel our way. Little is known about his forthcoming novel except the title The Humbling. Amazon UK’s listing for the book puts it at just 112 pages which seems like just an afternoon’s work for the prolific Roth. As Garth notes, his last two outings have been underwhelming but with Roth there’s always a chance of greatness.Kazuo Ishiguro’s collection of stories also comes out in the U.S. in September (though it will be out in much of the rest of the English-speaking world in May). The catalog copy calls Nocturnes: Five Stories of Music and Nightfall “a sublime story cycle” that “explores ideas of love, music and the passing of time.”Acclaimed novelist Margaret Atwood will have a new novel out in September called The Year of the Flood. There’s not much info on this except that it is being described as “a journey to the end of the world.”E.L. Doctorow has an as yet untitled novel on tap for September.As does Jonathan Lethem. According to Comic Book Resources, Lethem said his untitled novel is “set on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, it’s strongly influenced by Saul Bellow, Philip K. Dick, Charles Finney and Hitchcock’s Vertigo and it concerns a circle of friends including a faded child-star actor, a cultural critic, a hack ghost-writer of autobiographies, and a city official. And it’s long and strange.” I like the sound of that.A Gate at the Stairs, Lorrie Moore’s first new novel in over a decade will arrive in September. The Bookseller sums up some of the excitement.October: You probably already know that Dave Eggers is working with Spike Jonze on a film version of Where the Wild Things Are, but did you know that Eggers is doing a novelization of the childrens classic too? It’s apparently called The Wild Things and will show up in October.Arriving at some point in late 2009 is Zadie Smith’s Fail Better. With her critical writing in The New York Review, Zadie Smith has quietly been making a bid to become the 21st Century Virginia Woolf. When she writes from her own experience as a novelist, she’s sublime; when projecting her own anxieties onto others, she’s less so. It will be interesting to see which Zadie Smith appears in this book of essays on books and writing. (Garth)We encourage you to share your own most anticipated books in the comments or on your own blogs. Happy Reading in 2009!
Since several others have covered the most anticipated books of 2007, I thought I’d fill everybody in on which of their favorite books are going to be ruined by Hollywood in the coming year. Since almost every movie made is based on some previously existing material (can we count Spider Man 3 as an adaptation?), I thought I’d separate the kids movies and the horror/comic adaptations from the “literary” adaptations. Feel free to point out the movies I missed.Kids flicks. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (IMDb) will dominate the box office in July. The latest installment of the juggernaut will feature a script by Michael Goldenberg (who is also penning the adaptation of Where the Wild Things Are (IMDb)) and direction by David Yates, who is best known for his HBO movie The Girl in the Cafe. I’ve never read a Harry Potter book, and I’ve never seen any of the movies either. It’s safe to say the phenomenon has completely passed me by, so I leave it to you to decide whether this movie will be better than the ones that Chris Columbus directed.His Dark Materials: The Golden Compass (IMDb), which has been discussed before on this blog, will no doubt own the holiday season. After some turbulence during development and production, the first part of Phillip Pullman’s trilogy will hit theaters on December 7.Finally, Bridge to Terabithia (IMDb) will get a new coat of paint, courtesy of Rugrats veteran Gabor Csupo. It’s a live action version of the book, starring Zooey Deschanel, Robert Patrick, and a bunch of child actors with whom I am not familiar. No telling whether this will replace the vaunted 1985 TV adaptation as the definitive Terabithia for the screen.Gore filled fun-fests. Dominic West, better known as hard-drinking detective Jimmy McNulty on the greatest show ever to air on television, has a hand in two bloody adaptations this year. In Hannibal Rising (IMDb), he’ll be playing Inspector. I can only assume that this Inspector is a hard-drinking Eastern European detective, but not having read the book, I can’t say. The folks over at Slow Match are debating the merits of Thomas Harris’ latest this month. Maybe they have the answer.In 300 (IMDb), adapted from a Frank Miller graphic novel, West will play Theron, the hard-drinking Spartan warrior. I wasn’t that excited about either of these films before I found out West was in them. Now I’m planning on camping out, Star Wars-style for tickets.Mainstream Literary Adaptations. Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake (IMDb), directed by Mira Nair (Monsoon Wedding, Vanity Fair) will debut in March. Kal Penn, of Harold and Kumar go to White Castle fame, has the lead role. Here’s hoping he has more lines than he did in Superman Returns.April will bring us showers, a new baseball season, and The Nanny Diaries (IMDb), starring Scarlett Johanson, Laura Linney, and Paul Giamatti. I’m sure the studio is hoping to hit the same market that made The Devil Wears Prada a huge success, but I’m skeptical. DWP had a tour de force performance from Meryl Streep (Don’t you just get the feeling she’s going to get snubbed for the Oscar, by the way?) and a generally likable cast. The Nanny Diaries has ScarJo, who I detest. Tough call.Also in April comes Atonement (IMDb). Directed by Joe Wright, whose version of Pride & Prejudice was almost universally lauded, Atonement features a bit of controversial casting. Yes, traditional English heavyweights Brenda Blethyn and Vanessa Redgrave have parts, but the lead role of Cecilia will be played by the skeletal remains of Keira Knightly. Fans of the book are less than pleased.In September, I will certainly be seeing Feast of Love (IMDb), adapted from the Charles Baxter novel. The cast features Selma Blair, Morgan Freeman, and Greg Kinnear (Tangent: Isn’t Greg Kinnear having one of the most sneaky-successful careers of the last ten years? Who would’ve predicted it during his “Talk Soup” days?). It’s an odd choice for an adaption. I’ve read the book, and while I thoroughly enjoyed it, it didn’t strike me as terribly cinematic.November will see John Burnham Schwartz’s novel Reservation Road (IMDb) adapted starring Joaquin Phoenix, Mark Ruffalo, and Jennifer Connelly. This is the prototypical small-ish novel adaptation, along the lines of The Ice Storm. It could go either way, turning into another In the Bedroom or another We Don’t Live Here Anymore.Also in November comes the granddaddy of all literary adaptations, Beowolf (IMDb). Robert Zemeckis directs a script from Neil Gaiman and Roger Avery. Beowolf features my favorite bit of casting for the year – Crispin Glover as Grendel. How perfect is that?And finally, in late December, comes Charlie Wilson’s War (IMDb), starring Tom Hanks as the eponymous Texas congressman. Julia Roberts, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, and Amy Adams are also aboard for this spy drama of which much is expected. Mike Nichols directs a rare film script from Aaron Sorkin, which means there will be lots of walking-and-talking scenes and probably too much pontificating, but hopefully no sketch comedy.Several literary adaptations of note, including the highly anticipated The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (IMDb), The Corrections (IMDb), and Motherless Brooklyn (IMDb) are all slated for release in 2007. My advice is don’t hold your breath for any of them. Until I see an actual release date, I’m not buying it. 2008 sounds about right for all of those. Until then, you’ll have to settle for Rush Hour 3, Fantastic Four: The Rise of the Silver Surfer, and Ocean’s 13: The Baker’s Dozen.