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.’”
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.
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.
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.”
At Guernica, in an interview with Madhuri Sastry, author Claire Messud discusses her recent essay collection, finding hope in art, and the value of ordinary lives. “Who’s gonna see the handkerchief, which is literally for blowing your nose, right? And yet, this beautiful embroidery. It’s because each life is important. You might never leave the town in which you were born. You might never know anything grand. You might never have money. But in these small details, your life is made meaningful and made beautiful,” she says. “I do feel that this sense of the value of an individual life, however small, is being lost. It isn’t about it being seen by others; its integrity is in itself. That was given, that is worth preserving. And I think fiction is a place where that happens. It’s one thing to read a novel about Laura Bush, or Melania, or whatever, but most of the novels we read are about ordinary people, living ordinary lives, and that’s quite another thing.” We featured Messud’s collection, Kant’s Little Prussian Head and Other Reasons Why I Write, as a notable new title last month.
At The Guardian, this year’s six Booker Prize finalists describe the inspiration behind their books. Yesterday, the 2020 Prize was awarded to Shuggie Bain author Douglas Stuart, who explains that writing is both a source of comfort and a rejection of his childhood. “I grew up to be a textile designer. I had wanted to study English and to become a writer, but in the world of my childhood, boys didn’t do such things. Studying English was middle-class; even the word English was jarring and dangerous in the East End of Glasgow,” he says. “Because of my upbringing I felt so much like an impostor that I wrote in secret, and told no one (other than my husband)…Men from the west coast of Scotland are not known for revealing their tenderer feelings. Fiction allows me to make sense of things I am unable to express in other ways. It took 10 years to write the novel because I felt such comfort in the world I was creating.” Shuggie Bain was featured on our February Most Anticipated list alongside another shortlisted book: Brandon Taylor’s Real Life.
At The End of the World Review, Lauren Oyler talks about her career as a critic and writer, why literary fiction needs protecting, and the differences between literary culture in America and Europe. “It is certainly valuable to see people living and writing in other ways. To a certain extent in Europe, you’re more likely to be around people who have been encouraged to read a lot more serious literature and philosophy, and they aren’t just wealthy or upper-class people,” she says. “Meanwhile, in the United States you can go through an entire private-school-to-Ivy-League education and still be stupid. There are many very smart Americans, but they aren’t being served by our publishing industry or media or our ‘literary culture.’ I think many people are very alienated by the way things work here—enough people to make a bestseller!—not because it’s inaccessible, but because it’s patronizing. You can find a lot of great reading through weird avenues, but it would be nice if you didn’t have to look very hard.” Oyler’s debut novel, Fake Accounts, will be published in February.
On The Maris Review podcast, David Sedaris discusses what it’s like to promote a book during a pandemic and an election, what he wears at his writing desk, and much more. He personally selected the essays included in his greatest hits collection, The Best of Me, and says readers won’t find many examples of his earliest work. “I just see somebody trying so desperately to be funny, it’s just embarrassing to me,” he explains. “I think that’s interesting, too, when somebody says, ‘I really liked that thing you wrote 30 years ago.’ It’s like, gosh, can’t you see the difference between what I wrote last year and what I wrote 30 years ago? And a lot of people can’t. They can’t see the difference. But you know, they’re looking at the story, they’re not looking at the words that make up the story, they’re not noticing that a sentence has rhythm or doesn’t have rhythm. They’re in it for the story.” At the end of his conversation with host Maris Kreizman, Sedaris recommends three books: Wells Tower’s Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, Halle Butler’s The New Me, and Blake Bailey’s The Splendid Things We Planned.
At The New York Times, book critic and Garner’s Quotations author Dwight Garner shares his decades-long habit of keeping a commonplace book. “It’s where I write down favorite sentences from novels, stories, poems and songs, from plays and movies, from overheard conversations. Lines that made me sit up in my seat; lines that jolted me awake…into it I’ve poured verbal delicacies, ‘the blast of a trumpet,’ as Emerson put it, and bits of scavenged wisdom from my life as a reader. Yea, for I am an underliner, a destroyer of books, and maybe you are, too.” He notes that commonplace books have long been popular, including among some of the most well-known literary figures. “Virginia Woolf kept one. So did Samuel Johnson. W. H. Auden published his, as did the poet J. D. McClatchy. E. M. Forster’s was issued after his death. The novelist David Markson wrote terse and enveloping novels that resembled commonplace books; they were bird’s nests of facts threaded with the author’s own subtle interjections.”
At the virtual Charleston to Charleston Literary Festival, Trick Mirror author Jia Tolentino interviewed Jenny Offill about research, writing, climate change, and her latest novel, Weather. The conversation is thrilling, in part because they pause to celebrate the just-announced election results, but also because the two writers and their sense of curiosity are so well matched. On the topic of incorporating facts into her fiction, Offill said, “The reason I put so many facts that are interesting to me in books is because I don’t actually remember things unless I write them down and try to put them in my own words. If I don’t want to forget that antelopes have 10x vision and can see the rings of Saturn, I think, okay, I’m going to find a place for this.” She also explained that writing about climate change helped ease her anxiety, at least momentarily: “Because I was writing and because I was thinking these things through, I actually became less doom-laden; I think I had a place to put it, I didn’t necessarily need to be the Ancient Mariner telling people my story in the streets. I would talk the most when I was not writing.”
Looking for an inimitable holiday gift for the literary person in your life, or maybe for yourself? The Common’s annual postcard auction, which runs through Dec. 1, is your opportunity to receive handwritten, personalized letters from renowned authors. This year’s list includes David Sedaris (The Best of Me), Ross Gay (The Book of Delights), Laila Lalami (The Other Americans), Fran Lebowitz (The Fran Lebowitz Reader), André Aciman (Call Me by Your Name), and many more. Proceeds support The Common, an award-winning literary magazine dedicated to nurturing the careers of global, emerging writers.