Claire Messud on Edith Wharton’s Clear and Complex Vision

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For the New York Times Style Magazine, Claire Messud reflects on one of Edith Wharton’s most memorable characters, Undine Spragg from The Custom of the Country. “The fact that The Custom of the Country is entertaining — that it seems to whisk us, as readers, to a faraway time and to glamorous places — doesn’t mean that Undine Spragg’s dogged rise through the social ranks of the early 20th century is irrelevant to our times,” Messud writes. “Wharton’s clear but complex vision (whether Undine is ultimately heroine or antihero is not entirely obvious) follows her protagonist as she navigates ever more rarefied realms, from the dining rooms and opera boxes of Manhattan to the spas and châteaus of France, each with its own language and conventions, in search of the ultimate triumph — though what that may be, beyond enormous wealth, is never entirely clear, and remains just out of reach.”

James Baldwin, Seen Through His Record Collection

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At Hyperallergic, Valentina Di Liscia speaks to Hammer Museum curator Ikechúkwú Onyewuenyi, who compiled a 32-hour Spotify playlist based on James Baldwin’s sprawling record collection, which includes Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, Shirley Bassey, and more. “The playlist is a balm of sorts when one is writing,” Onyewuenyi says. “Baldwin referred to his office as a ‘torture chamber.’ We’ve all encountered those moments of writers’ block, where the process of putting pen to paper feels like bloodletting. That process of torture for Baldwin was negotiated with these records.”

Image source: Allan Warren

The Unruly Energy of Ursula K. Le Guin

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At the London Review of Books, Colin Burrow reflects on how Ursula K. Le Guin’s narrative prowess flourished within the constraints of science fiction and children’s literature. “Fiction needs the unruly energies of indeterminacy,” Burrow writes, “of being partly inside the mind of the reader, of trying to hold in check or wrestle with earlier fictions that it doesn’t quite want to become, of being only in an illusory way autonomous. To put that less abstractly, the constraints of genre fiction, of SF and children’s literature, were good for Le Guin: they forced her imagination not only to make a world, but to throw stories at it. Narrative matters in fiction because when things happen the structures of an imagined world have to flex a bit, and that can test their resilience and generate new energies.”

Image credit: Marian Wood Kolisch

Carmen Maria Machado on the Darkness Behind Patricia Highsmith

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At the Guardian, Carmen Maria Machado reflects on the complicated, “fundamentally difficult” work of suspense writer Patricia Highsmith. “If you read the genres of suspense,” Machado writes, “crime and mystery and horror in its many iterations – you know the sensation of allowing a master of her craft to pursue you through a maze; the tingly energy of the chase, the eroticism of encountering the end of the line. ‘Murder,’ Highsmith wrote in her diary in 1950, ‘is a kind of making love, a kind of possessing.’ When you read one of Highsmith’s stories, you’ve given her permission to follow you, catch you, take you apart. Get ready to run.”

Jacqueline Woodson on the Power of Changing the Narrative

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At the Cut, Jacqueline Woodson, author of Red at the Bone, shares how she structures her days, from her reading habits to how she organizes her thoughts. “Another thing about being a writer is you get to create content and you get to change the narrative,” Woodson says. “For me, writing allows me to have some control in that way. Living in my head and imagining what the world can be like — where there can be beauty, hope, empathy, social justice, and change — is really a way to make it through every day.”

Jenny Offill on the Shocks of Recognition in Mrs. Dalloway

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At the New Yorker, Jenny Offill writes about the multitudes found within her favorite book, Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway. “In 1916, Virginia Woolf wrote about a peculiarity that runs through all real works of art,” Offill writes. “The books of certain writers (she was speaking of Charlotte Brontë at the time) seem to shape-shift with each reading. […] For me, Mrs. Dalloway is such a book, one to which I have mapped the twists and turns of my own autobiography over the years. Each time, I have found shocks of recognition on the page, but they are always new ones, never the ones I was remembering. Instead, some forgotten facet of the story comes to light, and the feeling is always that of having blurred past something that was right in front of me.”

George Saunders on Stories as Laboratories of Connection

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At the Guardian, George Saunders discusses his newest book, A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, with Killian Fox. “I think the main thing that it [fiction] teaches us about is the process of projection that we’re constantly doing,” Saunders says. “I’m a Buddhist, and we believe you really do make the world with your mind. So a story is like a laboratory to help you identify your own habits and projections. Also, it’s about being in connection with that other human being who wrote it. Working on this book made me realise that when you’re reading a story and analysing it, you’re really reassuring yourself that connection is possible, and that even though this person looks like my enemy, there is – maybe, not always – a way to temper that a bit.”

Remembering Jan Morris

At The Daily Beast, journalist Katherine O’Donnell offers a tribute to Welsh historian, prolific author, and pioneering trans woman Jan Morris, who passed away on November 20. “Her Pax Britannica trilogy, a history of the British Empire, would alone cement a literary and academic reputation. I’m 55 and I’ve been reading her since I was a teen and I’m barely halfway through her canon and they may yet see me out. Despite sixty years of critical acclaim, Morris didn’t even think that Venice was her best work; that, she said, was her book Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere.” In addition to her memoir Conundrum, Morris is best known for her books on travel; however, she was not a fan of the travel writer label. “As Virgil was to Dante, you can feel Morris’s hand on your elbow, her voice and her presence runs through all of her writing. She described her books as an extended form of memoir: ‘They are one and all about the effects of everything on me,’ she told an interviewer who had begun by asking her why she disliked the term travel writer. ‘My books amount to one enormously self-centered autobiographical exposure! So I prefer to be described as simply—a writer.’”

Take a Tour of Octavia Butler’s Favorite Libraries

At the L.A. Times, take an interactive tour of Octavia Butler’s Los Angeles—in particular, discover the public libraries that the award-winning sci-fi writer referred to as her second home. “Butler was a voracious reader, checking out any title that remotely piqued her interest. ‘I taste books, taste knowledge and for that matter, taste life experiences as some people taste wine or food.’” Butler wrote her first novel, Patternmaster, at Los Angeles Public Library’s Central branch, where she also volunteered as a tutor. “When asked her reason for applying, she wrote, ‘I want to help.’” The online map features photographs of the Parable of the Sower and Kindred author’s library call slips, writing notebooks, personal journals and more.

Tuesday New Release Day: Starring Joukhadar, Celan, and van Heemstra

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Here’s a quick look at some notable books—new titles from Zeyn Joukhadar, Paul Celan, and Marjolijn van Heemstra—that are publishing this week.

Want to learn more about upcoming titles? Then go read our most recent book preview. Want to help The Millions keep churning out great books coverage? Then become a member today.

The Thirty Names of Night by Zeyn Joukhadar

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Thirty Names of Night: “Joukhadar’s evocative follow-up to The Map of Salt and Stars explores a 20-something Syrian-American trans man’s journey of self-discovery. The unnamed protagonist—he later goes by the name he gives himself, Nadir—is an aspiring artist in Brooklyn who likes to go out dancing with friends and enjoys listening to his friend Sami play the oud. Nadir lives with his grandmother, Teta, and is haunted by the death of his mother years ago in a fire. After Nadir finds a diary belonging to a Syrian artist named Laila, in an old tenement inhabited by Syrian-Americans, he becomes obsessed with finding the print of a rare bird by Laila. As the story unfolds, Nadir’s narration and direct addresses to his mother (‘your presence is still here, everywhere, your hand on everything’) expands to include Laila’s voice (‘The day I began to bleed was the day I met the woman who built the flying machine’) as Nadir blossoms into his trans identity. Scenes with Sami, with whom Nadir falls in love, are particularly affecting. Quietly lyrical and richly imaginative, Joukhadar’s tale shows how Laila and Nadir live and love and work past the shame in their lives through their art. This is a stirring portrait of an artist as a young man.”

A Memory Rose Into Threshold Speech: The Collected Earlier Poetry by Paul Celan (translated by Pierre Joris)

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about A Memory Rose Into Threshold Speech: “This ambitious bilingual edition completes Joris’s herculean effort to translate all of Celan’s poetry into English. Celan’s experiences of trauma as a Holocaust survivor permeate poems such as ‘Todesfuge’ (‘Deathfugue’): ‘Black milk of dawn we drink you at night/ we drink you at noon death is a master from Deutschland/ we drink you evenings and mornings we drink and drink.’ Celan expresses the propulsive, hypnotic unraveling of the world through his fragmented refrain. Elsewhere, he paints himself as a perpetual outsider: ‘Blacker in black, I am more naked./ Only as a renegade am I faithful./ I am you when I am I.’ The importance of seeing and witnessing comes up again and again throughout: ‘Gaze-trade, finally, at untime:/ imagefast,/ lignified,/ the retina—:/ the eternity-sign.’ Joris’s introduction and commentary provide useful historical and literary context. This admirable translation presents the early work of an eminent German language postwar poet to a new audience.”

In Search of a Name by Marjolijn van Heemstra (translated by Jonathan Reeder)

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about In Search of a Name: “Van Heemstra’s perceptive if tepid English-language debut confronts the transformation of family myth and the hazards of historical memory. When writer and narrator Marjolijn van Heemstra was 18, she was bequeathed a ring that once belonged to her late distant uncle Bommenneef, upheld by her family as a hero of the Dutch resistance during WWII. Fifteen years later, a pregnant Marjolijn, who had promised to name her first-born son after her uncle, sets out to better understand the man who was to be ‘the blueprint for my son.’ As her quest for more information leads her to the national archives and reconnections with far-flung relatives, Marjolijn begins to realize Bommenneef might not have been as heroic as her family insists. In a plot punctuated by the travails of a complicated pregnancy, Marjolijn’s investigation touches critical questions about the past and its relation to the present. How do the stories one tells come to supplant the truth? Is it better to preserve an idealized family history than mess it up with facts? Unfortunately, the monotonous and observational narrative, mired in mundane particulars, fails to provide insight on these deeper mysteries. Readers expecting an immersive family drama will be disappointed.”