And just like that book award season is back! The National Book Foundation announced the National Book Award longlist this week on the New Yorker's Page Turner section. Each containing ten books, the five longlists are fiction, nonfiction, poetry, young people's literature, and, the newly minted, translated literature. The five-title shortlists will be announced on October 10th and the awards will be revealed in New York City (and streamed online) on November 14. Some fun facts about these nominees: The Fiction list only contains one previous nominee (Lauren Groff). All of the Nonfiction nominees are first-time contenders for the National Book Award for Nonfiction. The Poetry list include one previous winner (Terrance Hayes), one previous finalist (Rae Armantrout), and eight first-time nominees—three of which are for debut collections (Diana Khoi Nguyen, Justin Phillip Reed, and Jenny Xie). 2018 is the first year of the Translated Literature category so all nominees are first-time contenders for this award. Here’s a list of the finalists in all five categories with bonus links where available: Fiction: A Lucky Man by Jamel Brinkley (Our interview with Brinkley; Brinkley's 2017 Year in Reading) Gun Love by Jennifer Clement Florida by Lauren Groff (Our review; The Millions interview with Groff) The Boatbuilder by Daniel Gumbiner Where the Dead Sit Talking by Brandon Hobson (Featured in our February Book Preview) An American Marriage by Tayari Jones (Jones's 2017 Year in Reading) The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai (Our interview with Makkai) The Friend by Sigrid Nunez (Nunez's 2010 Year in Reading) There There by Tommy Orange (Featured in our June Book Preview) Heads of the Colored People by Nafissa Thompson-Spires (Featured in our April Book Preview) Nonfiction: One Person, No Vote: How Voter Suppression Is Destroying Our Democracy by Carol Anderson The Indian World of George Washington: The First President, the First Americans, and the Birth of the Nation by Colin G. Calloway Directorate S: The C.I.A. and America’s Secret Wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan by Steve Coll Brothers of the Gun: A Memoir of the Syrian War by Marwan Hisham and Molly Crabapple American Eden: David Hosack, Botany, and Medicine in the Garden of the Early Republic by Victoria Johnson The Tangled Tree: A Radical New History of Life by David Quammen Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth by Sarah Smarsh (Smarsh's 2017 Year in Reading) Call Them by Their True Names: American Crises (and Essays) by Rebecca Solnit The New Negro: The Life of Alain Locke by Jeffrey C. Stewart We the Corporations: How American Businesses Won Their Civil Rights by Adam Winkler Poetry: Wobble by Rae Armantrout feeld by Jos Charles (ft. in our August Must-Read Poetry preview) Be With by Forrest Gander American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin by Terrance Hayes (Our review) Museum of the Americas by J. Michael Martinez Ghost Of by Diana Khoi Nguyen Indecency by Justin Phillip Reed lo terciario / the tertiary by Raquel Salas Rivera Monument: Poems New and Selected by Natasha Trethewey Eye Level by Jenny Xie (ft. in our April Must-Read Poetry preview) Translated Literature: Disoriental by Négar Djavadi; translated by Tina Kover (Featured in our 2018 Great Book Preview) Comemadre by Roque Larraquy; translated by Heather Cleary (Featured in our Second-Half 2018 Great Book Preview) The Beekeeper: Rescuing the Stolen Women of Iraq by Dunya Mikhail; translated by Max Weiss and Dunya Mikhail One Part Woman by Perumal Murugan; translated by Aniruddhan Vasudevan Love by Hanne Ørstavik; translated by Martin Aitken Wait, Blink: A Perfect Picture of Inner Life by Gunnhild Øyehaug; translated by Kari Dickson Trick by Domenico Starnone; translated by Jhumpa Lahiri (An essay on learning new languages) The Emissary by Yoko Tawada; translated by Margaret Mitsutani (Tawada's 2017 Year in Reading) Flights by Olga Tokarczuk; translated by Jennifer Croft (Our review; 2018 Man Booker International Prize) Aetherial Worlds by Tatyana Tolstaya; translated by Anya Migdal Young People's Literature: The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo The Assassination of Brangwain Spurge by M. T. Anderson and Eugene Yelchin (Our three-part conversation from 2009 with Anderson) We’ll Fly Away by Bryan Bliss The Truth as Told by Mason Buttle by Leslie Connor The Journey of Little Charlie by Christopher Paul Curtis Hey, Kiddo by Jarrett J. Krosoczka A Very Large Expanse of Sea by Tahereh Mafi Blood Water Paint by Joy McCullough Boots on the Ground: America’s War in Vietnam by Elizabeth Partridge What the Night Sings by Vesper Stamper
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 August. Looking for additional book recommendations? One of the benefits of subscribing to The Millions is access to our exclusive monthly newsletter in which our venerable staffers let you know what they’re reading right now. Learn more here. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. 1. Less 4 months 2. 3. Lost Empress 4 months 3. 6. The Ensemble 2 months 4. 5. Frankenstein in Baghdad 5 months 5. 7. The Overstory 3 months 6. 4. The Recovering: Intoxication and its Aftermath 5 months 7. - The Incendiaries 1 month 8. 9. There There 2 months 9. 10. Warlight 2 months 10. - The Mars Room 1 month “I have to watch I don’t get arrogant,” said Andrew Sean Greer after a Guardian reporter asked him how he’s changed since winning the Pulitzer for his latest novel, Less. Will he be able to stave off arrogance now that he's held first position in our Top Ten for two months, though? Bet smart. So, we bid farewell to two titles ascending to our Hall of Fame this month – The Immortalists and My Favorite Thing is Monsters – and we welcome two newcomers in their place – The Incendiaries and The Mars Room. Much praise has been heaped upon The Incendiaries, not least of all Celeste Ng's compliment on R.O. Kwon's "dazzlingly acrobatic prose." That admiration might be topped only by Michael Lindgren's review of The Mars Room in which he called Rachel Kushner "the most vital and interesting American novelist working today." The point is obvious. Golden rules are hard to find these days, but maybe it's enough to say that Millions readers always have good taste. State of California native Tommy Orange's There There earned a place on the 7-title shortlist for the Center for Fiction First Novel Prize this month, and the debut also moved up a spot from ninth to eight on our list. Will that momentum carry it up again next month? Be sure to check back and find out in October. On and on we go. Next to Orange's novel on our list in ninth position is Michael Ondaatje's Warlight, which earned Man Booker longlist recognition last July. Month's end is when we'll see if it makes the next round of cuts. List long or short, Ondaatje's no stranger to any kind. This month’s near misses included: Severance, Circe, What We Were Promised, An American Marriage, and Some Trick. See Also: Last month's list. [millions_ad]
The Center for Fiction First Novel Prize announced their 7-title shortlist, narrowed down from their 26-title longlist. The prize awards $10,000 to the author of the best debut novel of the calendar year. Here is the 2018 shortlist, with bonus links where available (and several titles mentioned in our Great Book Preview!): Asymmetry by Lisa Halliday Confessions of the Fox by Jordy Rosenberg (Our interview with Rosenberg) Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi The Parking Lot Attendant by Nafkote Tamirat Pretend I'm Dead by Jen Beagin There There by Tommy Orange Trenton Makes by Tadzio Koelb The Center for Fiction will announce the winner of the First Novel Prize in December. [millions_ad]
Here are seven notable books of poetry publishing in September. Like by A.E. Stallings Stallings has described the “strange dream-logic connections of the rhymes themselves that lead the poem forward, perhaps into territory the poet herself had not intuited. Rhyme is a method of composition.” Like, her fourth collection, is exactly the book needed in our time of neutered cultural language. Her poems are an antidote to the anodyne. We use the word “sculpted” to describe a well-formed poem, and Stallings earns that description: She’s adept at poetic control. In “Alice, Bewildered,” she brings the reader elsewhere—“Deep in the wood where things escape their names”—before alluding to a tale we know, of “likeness in the glass.” I love what she does next: “Yet in the dark ellipsis she can tell, / She’s certain, that her name begins with an ‘L’— / Liza, Lacie? Alias, alas, / A lass alike alone and at a loss.” A bounty of consonance and assonance to turn your tongue enough to taste what’s happening: She’s remaking language. Not with tricks, but with stretches and sprints. Like in “Bedbugs in Marriage Bed,” when the narrator wonders if “it’s best to burn the whole thing down.” Each morning, she checks “the seem of seams,” and there’s nothing for weeks and months—except paranoia. “When darkness blanches and the stars go grey. / Who knows what eggs are laid deep in your dreams / Hatching like doubts. They’re gone, but not for good: / They are the negatives you cannot prove.” Subject becomes symbol becomes saying—it’s a clever movement for a poem. As in her other volumes, Stallings can bend to antiquity as easily as she can write of modern life. My favorite? “Dyeing the Easter Eggs.” Any poet who can deliver phrases like “chrism of olive oil” and “Punctilious as Pontius Pilate” is a gift. When Rap Spoke Straight to God by Erica Dawson Although broken into sections in the table of contents, Dawson’s book functions as a single, long poem. The stanzas brew and burst, but they build across pages. It feels like a book born to be read aloud. Dawson has said there’s “nothing wrong” with poetry that’s “difficult or strange.” Those descriptors can be applied, quite positively, to her new book: an athletically sure trip that begins with Wu-Tang and ends in an oneiric place, “a dark and empty heaven.” The speaker of Dawson’s continuous poem is witty, wise, hilarious, enchanting. She wonders about a Lady Jesus, who dares Peter to deny her. Who commands: “When I asked for grace / the dust hid all the stars and not / a single thing happened. But now/ I am the dust.” She concludes the section suggesting that now “the Holy Spirit finds its voice.” This voice has many varieties; some sections pun presidential, while others are satirical shreds of identity—“Let’s ball, / white boy. Next time I get exotic, I’ll call / You Hoss. Third person. You’re beside yourself.” Dawson’s fluidity is her function: When Rap Spoke Straight to God barrels across a wide plane. “You won’t believe what happened to the angels,” the narrator says. “They never speak the language of the body. / I have a dream I corner Gabriel and tell / him how, one time, I cored the moon and lived, / for a month of Sunday’s, warm inside its curve.” Read this book and you’ll want Dawson to sing of everything. Citizen Illegal by José Olivarez “My parents fold like luggage,” Olivarez writes, “into the trunk of a Toyota Tercel.” Above, “stars glitter against a black sky,” a sky from which “borders do not exist.” What folds them into that trunk is “the belief that the folding will end. // it doesn’t. dollars fold into bills. my parents / near breaking. broke.” This sense of passage and crossing bleeds throughout the collection, which includes interspersed, short pieces titled “Mexican Heaven.” In one, St. Peter is “a Mexican named Pedro.” He waits at the gate “with a shot of tequila to welcome all the Mexicans / to heaven, but he gets drunk & forgets about the list. / all the Mexicans walk into heaven, / even our no-good cousins who only / go to church for baptisms & funerals.” Olivarez’s humor often arises from a place of cultural anxiety: To be Mexican in America is to be talked about, to be labeled and debated, all so without being asked and respected. In one poem, the narrator dreamt he had “Armani suits / isn’t that what Harvard / was supposed to buy / where the border ended / in a boardroom.” An Ivy League education might unlock doors, but it doesn’t unlock stereotypes. What makes Citizen Illegal so pitch-perfect is the anxiety of expectations of immigrant families, the narrator who tries to be “a good Mexican son” but whose Spanish has begun to falter: “my mom still loved me. even when i couldn’t understand her blessings.” In another poem, the narrator is asked “what i am,” if he is really Mexican. I love how that poem ends: “i know i’m a questionable narrator / when it comes to my own life, i ask Jesus / how i got so white & Jesus says / man, / i’ve been trying to figure out the same damn thing myself.” Anagnorisis by Kyle Dargan “Live streams, meanwhile, / pump night-green footage from Ferguson’s / punctured lung into our timelines. Flash / grenades gush like stars spangling from a flag / drawn and quartered. I feel a vicarious / smallness watching demonstrations flee. / A boy has been murdered again.” Dargan is a master of threnody: lines tensed and pulled so much that his poems shake the page. He’s writing within an American language that is broken. In “Poem Resisting Arrest”: “This poem is trying to compose itself. It has // the right to remain either bruised or silent, / but it is a poem, so it hears you’d be safer // if you stopped acting like a poem, ceased resisting.” Poem as resistance, reaction, rejoinder. In a later poem, Dargan writes about the problem of seeking joy from poets: “my struggles with writing / for you, friends, a poem / about gratitude—gratitude / which is all the rave / now.” He prefers poems of gratitude like “Thanks” by Yusef Komunyakaa, where “the gods are blind / and so he praises / off-mark bullets / and butterflies / that kept him alive.” What, really, do we want of poets? What confessions? Who seeks penance? “You want / my private aspect / (joy) to be public. / You want my public / aspect (pain) to be / stowed beneath / my bed like a precious / something someone / might steal from me.” Those “peckish for a peek / at my cloistered, incandescent / revelry—were you as earnest / about my frostbite, my burns, / I would have opened / these hands, sated you all.” Anagnorisis is a book of the inevitable: “To be born human is to be tendered / this challenge to live larger than your woe.” A Cruelty Special to Our Species by Emily Jungmin Yoon Yoon’s book is anchored in poetic testimonies of “comfort women” of the Japanese Empire: women forced into military prostitution. Yoon envisions her channeled narratives as a way “to amplify and speak these women’s stories, not speak for them. I’d like my poetry to remind readers that even if a part of history may not seem to be relevant to their lives, it is—it is their reality too.” She succeeds on several levels. In poems like “Comfort,” she captures the rhythm of pain: “On Wednesdays, it rains // for the children they bore. For the children / they could not bear. For the children / they were.” Several pieces in the collection are titled “An Ordinary Misfortune,” suggesting that violence against women is endemic, threaded into culture, normal. “She is girl. She is gravel. She is grabbed. She is grabbed like handfuls of gravel.” Yoon’s cadences accumulate in this particular iteration, with a stress on girls grabbed: stolen and kept. Another refrain across poems are the “reused condoms,” capturing a shared experience of suffering. Her powerful “Testimonies” section will make you weep—and wonder at evil. Other poems in the collection exist beyond the years of war; pieces like “Bell Theory” skillfully consider how language displaces us. “When I was laughed at for my clumsy English, I touched my throat.” The narrator wants to escape the mockery, but she can’t: One of the cruelties special to our species is how language—and its daggers—is often all we have. Secure Your Own Mask by Shaindel Beers “The (Im)Precision of Language” is the perfect poem to introduce this collection, a book in which clever wordplay, trauma, and transcendence live together. The narrator begins by wondering about how porous and flexible English can be: “How far the ring-necked dove is / from wringing a dove’s neck. The way / a stand of trees can hide a deer // stand, concealing the hunter who / will shoot the deer.” Then, she moves her mood: “Once, someone who was dear to me / threatened me with a deer rifle.” Words and wounds are close. “Language became a tricky game where saying / nothing meant everything, where saying everything // meant nothing left to fear.” Her conclusion, though it stings, works so well: “Which brings us back to the dove, / the difference between ringing // and wringing and where language leaves us / when someone controls every word we say, / when we have no one left to talk to.” The narrators of these poems seek other, better bonds, such as between mother and son. From “Last Night”: “Since Liam turned two, it has been less / and less. The gradual stretching and thinning / of the thread between us.” She thinks “about / before he was born, lying in that same spot / on the bed, watching him flip and roll under / my skin.” Her boy will be 3 in a few hours, “and I will remember sadly the night before / the last time I ever held him so close.” Despite all that these narrators have experienced, they retain hope—to do so is a power against despair. American Journal: Fifty Poems for Our Time selected by Tracy K. Smith I don’t often think of books of poems as potential gifts, but Smith’s volume could make the perfect present. Pocket-sized, long enough to offer a breadth of poets without becoming repetitive or overbearing, Smith’s collection is well-prepared—exactly what you’d hope for in an anthology from a poet laureate. In Smith’s introduction, she says these poems “bear witness to the daily struggles and promises of community, as well as to the times when community eludes us.” Her prefatory remarks, and the book as a whole, feel optimistic. There are some poems of pain within this bunch, certainly, but Smith has done a fine job of giving the reader poems of earned emotions. There’s a fantastic lineup here, but what follows are some special highlights. “’N’em” by Jericho Brown: “They said to say goodnight / And not goodbye.” “They fed / Families with change and wiped / Their kitchens clean.” (Brown’s poems of place and generation drill down, puncture the earth: if you’re looking for a poet of community, look no further.) The always great Vievee Francis with “Sugar and Brine: Ella’s Understanding”: “When it’s time to celebrate, something dies. / When something dies, we take it with the sweet.” The spiritual architecture of “After the Diagnosis” by Christian Wiman: “Change is a thing one sleeps through / when young.” And the prose poetry of Nathalie Handal in “Ten Drumbeats to God”: “Then I heard the drumbeats and remembered—like rain like song like light lit by old questions—there is no reason, there is god, drum, beat, there is what lingers and there is what comes later.”
We wouldn’t dream of abandoning our vast semi–annual Most Anticipated Book Previews, but we thought a monthly reminder would be helpful (and give us a chance to note titles we missed the first time around). Here’s what we’re looking out for this month. Find more September titles at our Great Second-Half Preview, and let us know what you’re looking forward to in the comments! Transcription by Kate Atkinson: As a fangirl of both the virtuosic Life After Life and of her Jackson Brody detective novels, I barely need to see a review to get excited about a new Atkinson novel—especially a period novel about a female spy, recruited by MI5 at age 18 to monitor fascist sympathizers. Nonetheless, here’s some love from Booklist (starred review): “This is a wonderful novel about making choices, failing to make them, and living, with some degree of grace, the lives our choices determine for us.” (Sonya) The Golden State by Lydia Kiesling: File The Golden State under "most most-anticipated" as it’s the first novel of The Millions’ own brilliant and beloved Lydia Kiesling, who has has been wielding her pen and editorial prowess on this site for many a year. Two months pre-pub, The Golden State is already off to the races with a nomination for the Center for Fiction's First Novel Prize and a starred review from Publisher's Weekly, stating, "Kiesling depicts parenting in the digital age with humor and brutal honesty and offers insights into language, academics, and even the United Nations." Kiesling herself has written that "great writing is bracing, and makes you feel like making something of your own, either another piece of writing, or a joyful noise unto the Lord.” The Golden State promises just that. (Anne) She Would Be King by Wayétu Moore: It’s the early years of Liberia, and three strangers with nothing in common help smooth the way for the nation. Gbessa is a West African exile who survives certain death; June Dey is running from a Virginia plantation; Norman Aragon, the son of a colonizer and a slave, can disappear at will. Their story stands at the meeting point of the diaspora, history, and magical realism, and Edwidge Danticat calls the novel “beautiful and magical.” (Kaulie) Washington Black by Esi Edugyan: Edugyan’s last novel, Half-Blood Blues, won the Scotiabank Giller Prize and was a finalist for the Man Booker. Attica Locke calls this one “nothing short of a masterpiece.” When Wash, an 11-year-old enslaved in Barbados, is chosen as a manservant, he is terrified. The chooser, Christopher Wilde, however, turns out to be a naturalist, explorer, and abolitionist. But soon Wash and Christopher find themselves having to escape to save their lives. Their run takes them from the frozen North to London and Morocco. It’s all based on a famous 19th-century criminal case. (Claire) Crudo by Olivia Laing: Olivia Laing, known for her chronicles of urban loneliness and writers' attraction to drink as well as critical writing on art and literature, jumps genres with her first novel, Crudo. It's a spitfire of a story with a fervent narrator and a twist: The book is written in the voice of punk feminist author Kathy Acker performed in mash-up with Laing's own, as she considers marriage (with equivocation) and the absurdity of current events circa 2017. Suzanne Moore at The Guardian says, "Here [Laing] asks how we might not disappear…She reaches out for something extraordinary. Crudo is a hot, hot book.” (Anne) Boomer1 by Daniel Torday: Daniel Torday follows his acclaimed debut, The Last Flight of Poxl West, with a second novel that carries a menacing subtitle: Retire or We’ll Retire You. It’s apt because this is the story of a millennial loser named Mark Brumfeld, a bluegrass musician, former journalist, and current grad student whose punk bassist girlfriend rejects his marriage proposal, driving him out of New York and back to his parents’ basement in suburban Baltimore. There, under the titular handle of Boomer1, he starts posting online critiques of baby boomers that go viral. Intergenerational warfare—what a smart lens for looking at the way we live today. (Bill) The Lost Art of Reading by David Ulin: In the book, David delves into the current political and cultural milieu, ultimately offering a hopeful message: “Why should we fear one another’s stories? The true act of resistance is to respond with hope. All those voices are what connect us. In a culture intent on keeping us divided, they are, they have been always, the necessary narrative.” (Edan) The Shape of Ruins by Juan Gabriel Vasquez (translated by Anne McLean): In this, his sixth novel in English translation, Colombian writer Juan Gabriel Vasquez plays mischief with history, a string of murders, and the conspiracy theories that commonly arise alongside. Add a storyline carried by a duet of narrators—one with a healthy dollop of paranoia, the other with a fixation for real crime so engrossing he’s turned his home into a kind of museum of crime noir—and you’ve got a gripping read and a solid reflection on the appeal of conspiracy. (Il’ja) The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker: Barker is best known for her fantastic World War I Regeneration trilogy, including The Ghost Road, winner of the 1995 Booker Prize. The Silence of the Girls sees Barker casting her historical imagination back further, to Ancient Greece and the Trojan War. Captured by Achilles, Briseis goes from queen to concubine, from ruler to subject—in this retelling of The Iliad, Barker reclaims Briseis as a protagonist, giving authorial voice to her and the other women who have long existed only as powerless subjects in a male epic. (Adam) The Deeper the Water the Uglier the Fish by Katya Apekina: Edie finds her mother Marianne in the living room only just surviving a suicide attempt, while her sister Mae is upstairs in a trance. Marianne is committed to a mental hospital, and the sisters are sent to live with their father, far from their native Louisiana. But as they spend more time with their father, the girls grow further apart, torn by their deep loyalty to opposite parents and their own grief and confusion. Apekina’s debut novel plays with tricky family relationships and the way fact and fantasy, loyalty and obsession, can be so difficult to tease apart. (Kaulie) Ordinary People by Diana Evans: The third novel from Evans, the inaugural winner of the Orange Prize for New Writers, Ordinary People follows two troubled couples as they make their way through life in London. The backdrop: Obama’s 2008 election. The trouble: Living your 30s is hard, parenthood is harder, and relationships to people and places change, often more than we’d like them to. But Evans is as sharply funny—in clear-eyed, exacting fashion—as she is sad, and Ordinary People cuts close to the quick of, well, ordinary people. (Kaulie) The Caregiver by Samuel Park: Park’s third novel takes place in Rio de Janeiro and California. Mara is an immigrant whose beloved mother Ana, a voice-over actress, was involved with a civilian rebel group in Rio. In California as an adult now, Mara works as a caregiver to a young woman with stomach cancer and grapples with her mother’s complicated, enigmatic past. Shortly after finishing the novel in 2017, Park himself died of stomach cancer at age 41. (Sonya) Sea Prayer by Khaled Hosseini (illustrated by Dan Williams): Hosseini, author of The Kite Runner, has written a short, illustrated book about the refugee crisis. Told from the perspective of a scared Syrian father to his son as they prepare to leave for Europe, Kirkus’s starred review calls the book “an emotional gut-punch…an excruciating one.” (Carolyn) The Piranhas by Roberto Saviano: An explosive novel about the Neapolitan underworld by the author of the nonfiction book Gomorrah, a publishing event that caused the author to go into hiding (where he lives and writes still). Patient X: The Case-Book of Ryūnosuke Akutagawa by David Peace: A biographical novel about the master writer Ryūnosuke Akutagawa from the Granta Young British novelist who wrote the Red Riding quartet. According to a Guardian review, his latest is "a novel composed of 12 stories which retell incidents from the life and work of the writer who lived from 1892 to 1927 and is often referred to as the father of the Japanese short story; he is renowned in the west as the author of “In a Grove”, which was the basis for Akira Kurosawa’s film Rashōmon." (Lydia) River by Esther Kinsky (translated by Iain Galbraith): One of the unsung attractions of London is the transitional areas at the edges, where city meets country meets industry meets waterfowl meets isolated immigrant laborer. A book in which scarcely anything ever happens, River is, however, filled with life. Resolute in her take on the terrain as the outsider looking in, Kinsky skillfully chronicles the importance in our lives of the homely, the unobserved and the irrepressibly present. A book for those who would gladly reread W.G. Sebald but wish he had written about people more often. (Il’ja) The Real Lolita by Sarah Weinman: Sarah Weinman uncovers that Sally Horner, an 11-year-old girl who was kidnapped in 1948, was the inspiration for Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita. Through her thorough research, Weinman learns that Nabokov knew much about Horner’s case and made efforts to disguise this fact. Megan Abbott writes that The Real Lolita “offers both nuanced and compassionate true-crime reportage and revelatory cultural and literary history. It will, quite simply, change the way you think about Lolita and ‘Lolitas’ forever.” (Zoë) The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar: Shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction, Gowar’s debut novel features a prosperous merchant whose life is thrown into chaos when he receives a mermaid and meets a mysterious, older woman. In a starred review, Kirkus describes the the novel as ambitious “with enough romance, intrigue, and social climbing to fill a mermaid’s grotto to the brim.” (Carolyn) After the Winter by Guadalupe Nettel (translated by Rosalind Harvey): A story about love and consciousness that takes place in Havana, Paris, and New York, by the Mexican author who Katie Kitamura called “a brilliant anatomist of love and perversity…each new book is a revelation.” (Lydia) The Diary of a Bookseller by Shaun Bythell: A runaway hit in the UK already, this memoir of bookselling in remote Scotland is now published in the U.S. by Melville House. Dwight Garner called it "Among the most irascible and amusing bookseller memoirs I've read." Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke by Sarah Smarsh: An uncomfortable reality of contemporary American society, one of many, is that where social mobility is concerned, the so-called American Dream is best achieved in Denmark. If you’re born into poverty here, in other words, hard work won’t necessarily pull you out. In Heartland, Smarsh blends memoir—she comes from a long line of teen mothers and was raised primarily by her grandmother on a farm near Wichita—with analysis and social commentary to offer a nuanced exploration of the impact of generational poverty and a look at the lives of poor and working-class Americans. (Emily) Writers Under Surveillance: The FBI Files by MIT Press (ed., JPat Brown, B. C. D. Lipton, and Michael Morisy): Obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests by MuckRock, a nonfiction dedicated to increasing government transparency, this collection reveals former FBI investigations against writers such as James Baldwin, Hannah Arendt, and Allen Ginsberg. (Carolyn) The Dictionary of Animal Languages by Heidi Sopinka: A novel based on the life of the surrealist painter Leonora Carrington, who Sopinka interviewed for The Believer before the artist's death. Our own Claire Cameron said of the book, "With stunning prose, lavish details, deep wisdom, and emotional precision, reading this book is like falling in love--my interest in everything else was lost." (Lydia) These Truths by Jill Lepore: A one-volume history of the United States by the brilliant writer and historian, focusing on the promises and contradictions of the republic. Henry Louis Gates Jr. says "With this epic work of grand chronological sweep, brilliantly illuminating the idea of truth in the history of our republic, Lepore reaffirms her place as one of one of the truly great historians of our time.” (Lydia) My Pet Serial Killer by Michael Seidlinger: Writer and Electric Literature alumnus Seidlinger has written a horror novel that Alissa Nutting calls "A rowdy menagerie of the unexpected, this book will delight and disturb even the bravest of readers; all preconceptions of what to trust and what to fear are masterfully upended." (Lydia) A Key to Treehouse Living by Elliot Reed: A novel in glossary form narrated by an orphan growing up in the midwest. Joy Williams calls the book, “Disorienting, weirdly wise, indescribably transparent, impossibly recognizable. Fun, too.” (Lydia) The Personality Brokers by Merve Emre: The Myers-Briggs personality test is the most popular test of its kind in the world, and affects life in ways large and small--from the hiring and career development practices of Fortune 500 companies, to time-wasting Facebook tests to, amazingly, people's Twitter bios. (I'm allegedly an ENFP, incidentally.) As it happens, the test was contrived by a team of mother-daughter novelists with a Jung obsession. Scholar and trenchant literary critic Emre uses archival research to tell this story, revealing the fictions woven into a supposedly "scientific" instrument. (Lydia) Static Flux by Natasha Young: From the streets of Brooklyn to the hills of Los Angeles, this witty debut novel follows Calla—a millennial with a personality disorder—as she leaves post-Great Recession New York for LA after failing to make it as a writer. (Carolyn) [millions_ad]
The literary world loves to love Clarice Lispector. The Ukrainian-born Brazilian was undoubtedly one of the most important writers of the 20th century and probably competes only with Borges for the title of Giant of Latin American Letters. Ask any follower of world literature if they’ve read anything from Brazil and they’re likely to at least mention Lispector, and if you’re lucky, perhaps Machado de Assis or Jorge Amado. This is all well and good, but it makes for a grand total of one female author from a country of more than 200 million people. Lispector aside, there are a number of incredible female writers, both contemporary and 20th-century, who deserve a spot in the canon of world literature. In honor of Women in Translation Month, which ends today, here are five. 1. Tatiana Salem Levy I first came across Levy in Granta’s The Best of Young Brazilian Novelists. Her debut work A Chave da Casa, published in English as The House in Smyrna (translated by Alison Entrekin), was the winner of the 2015 English PEN award. It is a brilliant, fragmented work of autofiction about generational dislocation and language. I was also reminded of Olga Tokarczuk’s Flights to the extent that Levy is also concerned with the gritty details of bodies: blood, phlegm, bile. The House in Smyrna spans across Brazil, Portugal, and Turkey. Levy herself descends from Turkish Jews and was born in Portugal and raised in Brazil. 2. Ana Paula Maia Ana Paula Maia is one of many Brazilian writers who, for whatever reason, has had more international success outside of the Anglophone world than inside of it—before Saga of Brutes (A Saga Dos Brutos, translated by Alexandra Joy Forman) was published by Dalkey Archive Press, Maia’s work had been published in Serbia, Germany, Argentina, France, and Italy. Saga of Brutes is as grim as the title suggests: It is a collection of three interrelated novellas about men who carry society’s collective shame: crematorium workers, garbage collectors, bloodied-floor-level slaughterhouse employees. Dark though it is, Maia’s work glimmers, if opaquely, with compassion for her characters. 3. Beatriz Bracher Bracher is undoubtedly the most recent author to find her way into English; I Didn’t Talk (Eu Nao Falei) was published by New Directions at the end of July of this year (translated by Adam Morris). Bracher bears some resemblance to Lispector stylistically, but her preoccupations are her own. I Didn’t Talk is an unflinching look at the short- and long-term impacts of political violence; anybody wishing for a more intimate look at life under the Brazilian dictatorship would find the book useful. Azul e Duro (Blue and Hard) examines how a white woman benefits from Brazil’s bigoted legal system. Since Eu Não Falei’s publication just a few weeks back, a number of positive reviews have been published. 4. Carolina Maria de Jesus Carolina Maria de Jesus was born in Minas Gerais but would come to be associated with the Canindé favela of São Paulo. Child of the Dark (Quarto de Despejo, translated by David Saint Claire) catapulted her into immediate, if somewhat ephemeral, literary fame, selling extremely well both in Brazil and in the United States. The book, an edited version of her diary, recorded the conditions of favela life and its inhabitants. It reminded me of Jacob Riis’s How the Other Half Lives, an 1890 book about tenement life in New York City. After Child of the Dark, Carolina published multiple other memoirs in her characteristically sparse style. Although Brazil’s overall quality of life has risen considerably since Carolina’s work was first published, the economic inequality she wrote about is still present. 5. Hilda Hilst Hilda Hilst died in 2004, but her first work didn’t make it into English until 2012 with The Obscene Madam D. (A Obscena Madam D., translated by Nathanaël and Rachel Gontijo Araújo), published by Nightboat Books. This is partly because of how challenging her prose is: Much of it alternates between fragmentation and stream of consciousness; fans of Thomas Bernhard and Laszlo Krasznahorkai will find themselves at home with Hilst’s work. Like Lispector, her work frequently shifts between the sacred and the profane; she continually returns to the supernatural and the utterly corporeal in her work. Since the publication of The Obscene Madam D., a flurry of her work has become available in English. Fluxo-Floema is forthcoming this year from Nightboat Books (translated by Alexandra Joy Forman).
Women writers from the Balkans rarely reach an English-reading audience, but this year is a notable exception. Three books from the post-Yugoslav space have appeared in the last few months, ranging from a literary journey by master novelist Dubravka Ugresic to the family sagas of first-time authors Sofija Stefanovic and Tania Romanov. While the country of Yugoslavia fell apart over a quarter century ago, these works show that its narratives of loss and belonging are still relevant and alive. Fox, by Dubravka Ugresic (Open Letter Books) Dubravka Ugresic opens her latest novel with a bold question: How do stories come to be written? Her search for an answer starts in the world of Russian avant-garde in the 1930s, which has fascinated for her decades since her student encounter with the little-known works of Boris Pilnyak, Doivber Levin, and the OBERIU collective. The journey further involves literary conferences in Italy and England, Nabokov’s West Coast road trips, and Ugresic's visit to an unexpected inheritance among minefields in Croatia. Hugely personal and autobiographical, this is the story of a writer in self-exile who, at the onset of the Yugoslav wars, "refused to be a Croatian woman," "refused to be a Serbian woman," and settled in Amsterdam—but no longer had a home. The search for the key to storytelling is also a search for a path home, ever elusive and mostly unsatisfying, yet fun: "the moment a story slips an author's control, when it starts behaving like a rotating lawn sprinkler, firing off every which way; when grass begins to sprout not because of any moisture, but out of thirst for a near source of moisture." Miss Ex-Yugoslavia, by Sofija Stefanovic (Atria Books) In 1988, Yugoslavia was still a relatively stable country, where Dubravka Ugresic won the prestigious NIN Prize for her novel Fording the Stream of Consciousness, and 5-year-old Sofija Stefanovic attended an elite French kindergarten. But Stefanovic’s forward-thinking father sensed trouble on the horizon and convinced his wife to relocate to Australia, leaving behind a comfortable life in downtown Belgrade and lots of extended family and friends. This was the beginning of endless journeys between two distant parts of the world, with the news of Balkan conflicts constantly playing in the background and fueling arguments between the author's parents, whose hearts and minds never moved out of their troubled but beloved hometown. Their children, however, were left searching for a home between the schools of suburban Melbourne and gatherings of the Yugoslav diaspora, the most curious one of which promised the title of beauty queen and a free ticket to the old continent. Both funny and poignant, this is a story of growing up between different cultures under challenging historical and personal circumstances. Mother Tongue, by Tania Romanov (Travelers' Tales) While born in Yugoslavia in the same year as Ugresic, Tania Romanov was forced to leave the country much sooner. Her father was a Russian, a son of czarist emigrants who found refuge in the Yugoslav Kingdom of the 1920s only to lose it during Tito-Stalin split in the late 1940s. But Tania's mother Zora was no stranger to relocation. Her family had moved across the Balkans when she was an infant because of Mussolini's annexation of their native Istria Peninsula on the Croatian Coast. With engaging descriptions of the geographical setting and seamless insertion of historical information, Romanov narrates this gripping story of displacement, of a family separated by ever-changing borders, of years spent in refugee camps. This is also a story of perseverance and attachment. The one thing Zora always held onto was her mother tongue, which she managed to pass onto her children despite being the only person who spoke it with them for decades, as they eventually settled in a predominantly Russian community in San Francisco. If language is the only homeland, then Tania Romanov has three, and this book is about the one she left early but never lost.
We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for July. Looking for additional book recommendations? One of the benefits of subscribing to The Millions is access to our exclusive monthly newsletter in which our venerable staffers let you know what they’re reading right now. Learn more here. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. 2. Less 3 months 2. 1. The Immortalists 6 months 3. 7. Lost Empress 3 months 4. 6. The Recovering: Intoxication and its Aftermath 4 months 5. 4. Frankenstein in Baghdad 4 months 6. - The Ensemble 1 month 7. 10. The Overstory 2 months 8. 8. My Favorite Thing is Monsters 6 months 9. - There There 1 month 10. - Warlight 1 month Reflecting on the Great 2018 Book Preview - the first of the year, not the more recent Second-Half preview - it's interesting to note that of the first six titles we highlighted, four of them have made appearances in our Top Ten. For six months, Jamie Quatro's Fire Sermon and Denis Johnson's The Largesse of the Sea Maiden hung around our list; this month they graduate to the Hall of Fame. On their heels, Ahmed Saadawi's Frankenstein in Baghdad holds fifth position this month, and in two months' time will likely join Quatro and Johnson in our Hall. Also, among the "near misses" listed at the bottom of this post, you'll find Leïla Slimani's The Perfect Nanny, a French story which "tells of good help gone bad," as our own Matt Seidel put it months ago. From a certain perspective, it's wild that 66% of the first half dozen books we flagged last January have resonated so much with our audience. In fact, of the 10 titles on this month's list, 70% of them appeared on that first Book Preview. Put simply: Millions readers, we're here for y'all. Trust us. (For the record, the three titles currently on our Top Ten which did not appear in our Book Preview last January: Less, The Overstory and My Favorite Thing is Monsters.) Three new titles joined our list after Quatro and Johnson's books moved on to our Hall of Fame and Tayari Jones's An American Marriage dropped out. The newcomers are Aja Gabel's The Ensemble, Tommy Orange's There There, and Michael Ondaatje's Warlight, which hold the sixth, ninth and tenth positions this month, respectively. In a preview for our site, Millions editor Lydia Kiesling recommended readers get "a taste of Gabel’s prose [by] read[ing] her Best American Essays-notable piece on grief and eating ortolans in France," and noted that "Orange’s novel has been called a 'new kind of American epic' by the New York Times." Meanwhile staffer Claire Cameron, while writing about Michael Ondaatje's latest, mused, "If only Anthony Minghella were still with us to make the movie." Overall it's clear that the Book Preview foretells Top Ten placements. Next month at least two spots should open up for new titles. Will those new books come from our latest Second-Half Preview? Based on the numbers, it looks likely. This month’s near misses included: Circe, Some Trick, The Mars Room, and The Perfect Nanny. See Also: Last month's list. [millions_ad]
1. The Catalog of Nibru (Various, circa 21st to 20th Centuries B.C.) I, the king, was a hero already in the womb I am a king treated with respect Not only did the lord make the world appear in its correct form Lady of all the divine powers These lines, inscribed in clay in Sumerian during the Third Dynasty of Ur, were initially confusing to the American archaeologists who around 1900 uncovered them from the ruins of the city of Nibru, or Nippur, in contemporary Iraq. They appeared to be poems, or the Sumerian equivalent of poems, but none cohered, or cohered as completely as the 40,000 or so other texts excavated from the area. And so the 62 lines of this incomprehensible tablet—of this intact yet stylistically fragmented tablet—were set aside, as the more formally explicable texts were decoded. In the course of that decoding, however, the same lines kept cropping up—as first lines: “I, the king, was a hero already in the womb” was the first line of a poem in praise of Shulgi; “I am a king treated with respect” was the first line of a poem in praise of Lipit-Ishtar; “Not only did the lord make the world appear in its correct form” was a song for hoeing; “Lady of all the divine powers” was a hymn to the love goddess Inana. This led scholars to conclude that this mysterious cuneiform slab was no avant-garde Gilgamesh (whose earliest version was also unearthed at Nibru), but a bibliography or curriculum—an index of the Sumerian canon intended for reference, or instruction. Literature began with the list: Online just made the links palpable. 2. The Talmud (Various, circa 200 A.D. to Present) A commentary on commentaries: a book divided into books, or tractates, whose every page is divided among debates about Jewish law (Mishnah, 200 A.D.), debates about the debates (Gemarah, 500 A.D.), the glosses of the 12th-century French rabbi Rashi (in a strip down one margin), and over six centuries of tosafot, which are glosses on Rashi’s glosses (in a strip down the opposite margin). Interspersed text blocks can feature extracts from legal codices by Maimonides (12th-century Egypt), Nachmanides (13th-century Spain), Joseph Caro (16th-century Palestine), and Elijah ben Solomon Zalman, aka the Vilna Gaon (18th-century Polish Lithuania). To speak of the Talmud is to speak of a multiplicity-seeking syncretism, a jurisprudential pullulation: a work that intermixes Aramaic and Hebrew and exists in two forms (the earlier Jerusalem Talmud, the later Babylonian Talmud), each of which has appeared in disparate editions, with dissenting annotations and addenda. The Talmud’s ultimate interpretive difficulty, however, inheres in the fact that for over a millennium, its primary “text” had been overwhelmingly oral—commandments communicated face-to-face before being transcribed. 3. The Compendious Book on Calculation by Completion and Balancing, by Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi (circa 820 A.D.) A book from Baghdad, written by a Persian astronomer and mathematician credited with the introduction of what we now call Arabic numerals to Europe. Al-Khwarizmi’s Arabic treatise, which is known to us solely through its 12th-century Latin translation by Robert of Chester, delineates two ways of solving quadratic equations: the first by means of completion, or the movement of negative terms from one side of an equation to the other; the second by means of balancing, or the cancelation of equal terms on both sides of an equation. “The balancing” was al-muqabala; “the completion” was al-gabr, whose transliteration into “algebra” was relatively logical when compared with the Latinate corruption of its creator’s name: from al-Khwarizmi to Algoritmi—source of the modern “algorithm.” By proposing the abstraction or transposition of all quantities into a representative language, al-Khwarizmi founded a method by which all extant mathematical disciplines could communicate. His immediate concerns, though, were more mundane, as his treatise concludes by turning theory to practice and, like the search engines that continue its work today, becomes preoccupied with mercantile transactions: “A man is hired to work in a vineyard for thirty days for 10 dinars. He works six days. How much of the agreed price should he receive?” 4. Summa Theologica, by Thomas Aquinas (1265–74) “It seems that those who see the essence of God see all things in God. For Gregory [of Nyssa] says: ‘What do they not see, who see Him Who sees all things?’ But God sees all things. Therefore those who see God see all things. ... Further, whoever sees a mirror, sees what is reflected in the mirror. But all actual or possible things shine forth in God as in a mirror; for He knows all things in Himself. Therefore whoever sees God, sees all actual things in Him, and also all possible things. ... Further, whoever understands the greater, can understand the least, as Aristotle says. But all that God does, or can do, are less than His essence. Therefore whoever understands God, can understand all that God does, or can do. ... Further, the rational creature naturally desires to know all things. Therefore if in seeing God it does not know all things, its natural desire will not rest satisfied; thus, in seeing God it will not be fully happy, which is incongruous. Therefore he who sees God knows all things.” Use the Ctrl key to find and replace “God” with “Google,” “Apple,” or the “Five Eyes” (the United States, U.K., Canada, Australia, New Zealand: the five nations that share signals intelligence), throughout. 5. Index Librorum Prohibitorum (First Edition 1559, Final Edition 1948) A book necessitated by books: Gutenberg’s invention stilled the copyist’s hand, and ensured that texts were no longer the exclusive possessions of the aristocracy and Church. The democratization, along with the secularization, of “content,” suggested the establishment of institutional controls—if governments and ecclesiastical bodies had ceased to be the primary sources of reading material, they could at least license the printers who were, and regulate the materials they published. The first edition of the Vatican’s Index Librorum Prohibitorum—Index of Prohibited Books—was superintended by Pope Paul IV, and blacklisted over 500 works for reasons not just of heresy or blasphemy, but also of anticlericalism and obscenity; further, it set rules regarding book distribution that curtailed the influx of illicit texts from outside the Holy See’s dominion. The Index’s second edition, authorized by the Council of Trent and so referred to as the Tridentine Index, relaxed the standards of its predecessor, in that it distinguished between books to ban, and books merely to censor, and was more forgiving toward scientific works, except for those by Protestants. Taken in all its editions, the Index was both a guide to the evil opinions of heliocentrists (Kepler and Newton), pantheists (Bruno and Spinoza), Romantics (Balzac and Zola), and fascists (Alfred Rosenberg and Gabriele D’Annunzio), as well as a registry of the occulted holdings of the Vatican Library, which was required to obtain a copy of every book it proscribed. Paul VI abolished the Index in 1966—and in doing so appended it to another Index: that of Church books the Church has repudiated. Still, the list lives on, and has now been made searchable, at beaconforfreedom.org. [millions_ad] 6. Epistolae Ho-Elianae, by James Howell (1645–55) An all-over-the-map, four-volume autobiography—which, because it’s semifictionalized, and because it’s written as correspondence, qualifies it for the distinction of the first epistolary novel in English—Epistolae Ho-Elianae is more regularly referred to by its more regular title, Familiar Letters. Its Anglo-Welsh author, Howell, was arguably the first English-language author to earn his living solely from writing. He was the quintessential freelance, producing histories, political tracts, polyglot dictionaries, and wisdom miscellanies (English Proverbs, 1659, noted: “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.”). The variety of Howell’s interests—and the variety of his pre-freelance writing employment: as a tutor of and secretary to the nobility, and as the traveling representative of a glass manufacturer—accounts for the varied settings of his Letters (Germany, Italy, Poland, prison), and the varied nature of Letters’ addressees (family, friends, ambassadors of the British Crown, fellow belletristic hacks, and chummy sea captains encountered along the way). The only aggregating premise to this P.O. box of prose is Howell’s naive but endearing conviction that life and writing were synonymous and that everything that ever happened to him deserved to be written down. Beyond that: that everything that ever happened to him deserved to be communicated (published). 7. Gulliver’s Travels, by Jonathan Swift (1726) A “projector,” to Johnson’s Dictionary, is “one who forms schemes,” and, in its second definition, “one who forms wild impracticable schemes.” In Lagado, capital of Balnibarbi, Lemuel Gulliver is given a tour of the Academy of Projectors, an organization dedicated to “putting all Arts, Sciences, Languages, and Mechanics upon a new Foot.” Which is to say, dedicated to putting them onto, or through, a computer, with which “the most ignorant Person at a reasonable Charge, and with a little bodily Labour, may write books in Philosophy, Poetry, Politicks, Law, Mathematicks, and Theology, without the least Assistance from Genius or Study.” Gulliver relates: “It was twenty Foot Square, placed in the middle of the Room. The Superficies was composed of several bits of Wood, about the bigness of a Die, but some larger than others. They were all linked together by slender Wires. These bits of Wood were covered on every Square with Paper pasted on them, and on these Papers were written all the Words of their Language, in their several Moods, Tenses, and Declensions, but without any Order. The Professor then desired me to observe, for he was going to set his Engine at Work. The Pupils at his Command took each of them hold of an Iron Handle, whereof there were forty fixed round the Edges of the Frame, and giving them a sudden turn, the whole Disposition of the Words was entirely changed. He then commanded six and thirty of the Lads to read the several Lines softly as they appeared upon the Frame; and where they found three or four Words together that might make part of a Sentence, they dictated to the four remaining Boys who were Scribes. This Work was repeated three or four times, and at every turn the Engine was so contrived, that the Words shifted into new places, as the square bits of Wood moved upside down.” 8. The Telephone Directory, Connecticut District Telephone Company (1878) In 1877, an inventor from New Haven named George Coy witnessed a telephone demonstration by Alexander Graham Bell and immediately went about founding the Connecticut District Telephone Company—the world’s first commercial telephone exchange. In 1878, the company published its first directory—neither a white pages nor a yellow pages, just a single sheet of stiff cardboard. The company’s 50 subscribers were listed only by name. Numbers weren’t required or even useful: An operator connected, and was privy to, all calls. The second edition of the directory, published a year later, was a bound affair, listing nearly 400 names, alongside directions for telephone operation, guidelines for telephone etiquette, an advertisement for Watkin’s Automatic Signal Telegraph (a business that took telegrams via telephone dictation), and informative essays on “Progress in Electric Lighting” and “The Microphone.” 9. “Statistical Mechanics and Irreversibility,” by Émile Borel (1913) Not the first version of Swift’s scenario (which has also been imagined by Leibniz, Pascal, Cicero, and Aristotle), but the first to involve singes dactylographes—“typing monkeys.” Borel, the French probabilist, cracks his knuckles: “Let us imagine that a million monkeys have been trained to strike the keys of a typewriter at random, and that ... these typist monkeys work eagerly ten hours a day on a million typewriters of various kinds. ... And at the end of a year, these volumes turn out to contain the exact texts of the books of every sort and every language found in the world’s richest libraries.” The implication being that, given enough monkeys, typewriters, paper, and time, even Borel’s sentences are destined to be written again, as is this sentence, and so on. 10. The Foundation Pit, by Andrei Platonov (1930) “To change the world”: Half a century before this became the sanctimonious mantra of Silicon Valley, it was the violent imperative of Soviet Russia. Platonov’s darkling novel concerns a pit being dug to accommodate the foundations of a vast residential tower that will ultimately shelter the entire population of an anonymous city in the USSR. Once the tower is finished, all the people’s former dwellings will be destroyed. “And after ten or twenty years, another engineer would construct a tower in the middle of the world, and the laborers of the entire terrestrial globe would be settled there for a happy eternity. With regard to both art and expediency, Prushevsky could already foresee what kind of composition of static mechanics would be required in the center of the world, but he could not foresense the psychic structure of the people who would settle the shared home amid this plan—and still less could he imagine the inhabitants of the future tower amid the universal earth. What kind of body would youth have then? What agitating force would set the heart beating and the mind thinking?” Excerpted from Attention: Dispatches from a Land of Distraction by Joshua Cohen. Copyright © 2018 by Joshua Cohen. Published with permission from Random House, an imprint and division of Penguin Random House LLC. All Rights Reserved.
Here are seven notable books of poetry publishing in August. The Carrying by Ada Limón For a book metered by grief, there’s a lot of love here—that shouldn’t come as a surprise, considering Limón’s stylistic control and skill. Poems like “Almost Forty” appear next to “Trying,”; in the former, narrated by a couple, loud birds are “insane // in their winter shock of sweet gum and ash.” They look at each other and wonder if the birds’ screams are a warning—but don’t say a thing. Their silence extends to the end of the poem, when they “eat what we’ve made together, / each bite an ordinary weapon we wield // against the shrinking of mouths.” In “Trying,” they are again together. He is painting in the basement; she is “trellising / the tomatoes in what’s called / a Florida weave.” And then, “we try to knock me up again.” The day passes, the sun begins to set, and she checks the plants, her “fingers smelling of sex and tomato vines.” She doesn’t “know much / about happiness,” and yet “some days I can see the point / in growing something, even if / it’s just to say I cared enough.” Growing, caring, surviving: There’s a hymn at play here, and Limón is very good at pacing her poems to leave us satisfied but also curious. Elsewhere she writes, “Perhaps we are always hurtling our body towards / the thing that will obliterate us,” and that sentiment feels like a central truth to her poems. Her satirical poems sting (in “The Contract Says: We’d Like the Conversation to Be Bilingual,” she roasts empty attempts at inclusion: “Will you tell us the stories that make / us uncomfortable, but not complicit?”), yet so many of these poems are simply about how to stay alive. “I lost God awhile ago,” she ends one poem. “And I don’t want to pray, but I can picture / the plants deepening right now into the soil, / wanting to live, so I lie down among them, / in my ripped pink tank top, filthy and covered / in sweat, among red burying beetles and dirt / that’s been turned and turned like a problem / in the mind.” One of the best books of the year. Perennial by Kelly Forsythe Forsythe’s debut collection is about 1999 and now, the personal and the projected, villains and victims. Writing about high school is never easy—those hyper, hyperbolic years—but Forsythe is open and patient as she reconstructs life at Columbine High School. “Call us rebels,” begins one poem. “We’re making movies, / we’re making a plan, we’re / following each other // around basements.” As if the poem wants to nudge our assumptions about the infamous identities of these poem’s speakers, we see: “Will you set up a dynamic // that is also an obsession? / Will you discuss patterns?” Perennial shows how the violence of Columbine—a violence that has reverberated on campuses across America—creates an endless cycle of worry, fear, regret, and guilt. The narrative bounds between Colorado and Pittsburgh, where a young narrator is forced to accept the pain that now scars the mundane walls of such schools. Forsythe delivers precise lines of pain—“We are so small & red, red, collapsing,” ends one poem, holding the reader’s breath—but what also appears is the dizzying sense that even in these banal spaces, humanity remains. In “Homeroom,” “It felt strange to return to this space / the next day, or rather this concept: // a room meant as a home / for small enlisted selves.” In that weird, boring world, “we noticed the color / black, we noticed each other’s / hands, we noticed each other.” If You Have to Go by Katie Ford “The mind is full of mistakes as we set out to write the poem. We have flawed thoughts, collapsing systems, rotten boards and corroding anchors that make up how we think through a morning, through a day, through a love, and through a life. It is a crushing art.” Written after her second book Colosseum, Ford’s description of the poetic experience feels equally apt to her excellent new book. If You Have to Go is dedicated to the theologian Gordon D. Kaufman, one of Ford’s mentors at Harvard Divinity School. Her new book is part threnody, part longing, all song. The book is anchored by an extended crown of sonnets, which feel like pained and punctuated addresses to God, herself, and “Desire, that zealous servant / who won’t stop tending.” The speaker has had enough and only wants some rest. “Let me stand plain, undone in this room. / I never asked desire to be so rich.” The recursive sonnet crown pushes the reader deeper into the book, and deeper into the narrator’s woes: “I make my bed every morning. / I don’t know where to start / so I start with the bed. / Then I fall to my knees against it.” Her habit, or perhaps her condition, of seeking divine solace creates only more worry: “Do you think I don’t know that when I say Lord / I might be singing into the silo where nothing is stored.” Ford’s lines are impassioned, full of the terrible desire of doubt: “I don’t know what I mean, / but I mean it. I don’t know what to want, / but I want it. And when I say God / it’s because no one can know it—not ever, // not at all—. It’s a wall. / And it drops to the floor as I fall.” This book is a journey, particularly moored to “Psalm 40,” a robust poem that looks inward and upward: “I am content because before me looms the hope of love.” If They Come for Us by Fatimah Asghar Asghar’s debut mines past and present, Pakistan and America in poems that are driven by a penchant and talent for storytelling. She begins with “For Peshawar,” an elegy that considers the 2014 Taliban attack on schoolchildren: “From the moment our babies are born / are we meant to lower them into the ground?” The narrator moves from questions to frustrated requests: “I wish them a mundane life. / Arguments with parents.” A life should have moments of mundane, not mortal, pain: “Blisters on the back of a heel. // Loneliness in a bookstore.” As her poems move to other settings and moments, Asghar returns to this theme: Wounds are inevitable, and much of life is looking to story for closure, or at least comfort. In the poem “Kal,” the narrator says “Allah, you gave us a language / where yesterday & tomorrow / are the same word.” Then, “If yesterday & tomorrow are the same / pluck the flower of my mother’s body / from the soil.” There’s an energy to her sense of elegy, so much that it permeates other poems, like “Old Country.” A family goes to a buffet “on the days we saved enough money.” Kids carry “our rectangle / backpacks brimming with homework, calculators / & Lisa Frank trapper keepers, for we knew this was a day / without escape.” That space becomes a fantasy of play: “Here, our family reveled in the American / way of waste, manifest destinied our way / through the mac & cheese, & green bean // casseroles, mythical foods we had only / heard about on TV where American children rolled their eyes in disgust.” Hours of freedom pass, but as with many of Asghar’s poems, there’s a tinge of melancholy—an awareness of what permeates this world. [millions_ad] The Blue Clerk by Dionne Brand Every ars poetica is a conversation, an attempt at meaning and purpose. The Blue Clerk is a collection of such attempts—a meandering, metaphorical, sometimes mystical collection—and the result is a developed, inventive book. Brand is also a novelist, and her reach is showcased here in a book that begins with a curious premise: a clerk, dressed in blue, waits on a wharf. A ship is supposed to arrive soon. She is “inspecting and abating” the “bales of paper” that surround her. These are “left-hand pages” from a poet, “benign enough pages,” ones “you can’t use right now because the poem moved in another direction. Pages that are unformed, or pages that, at whatever moment, she did not have the patience or the reference to solidify.” Brand tells this unfolding story in prose poetic verses. Some sections are of indiscriminate authorship—the clerk is the poet, the poet is not the clerk—suggesting the drift of our poetic identities. Brand’s lines are unique and quite comfortable to get lost in. The cleaved personality, and person, between the poet and clerk brings us to places where poetry is birthed: “Living that little fissure between scenes of the real. Everyone lives that everyday but we quickly seal the fissure for whatever pleasures are in the so-called reality, or we give up on being on this side of the fissure because it is too lonely there. It is a chasm. It is a choice available to anyone, and apparent to everyone, but unfortunately my job is…I wish I couldn’t see that chasm.” The work of the clerk is curation. The work of the poet? “I am not really in life, the author says. I am really a voyeur. But the part of me that is in life is in pain all the time. That’s me, says the clerk. You watch, I feel.” feeld by Jos Charles “Why do we say that the word ‘tree’—spoken or written—is a symbol to us for trees? Both the word itself and the trees themselves enter into our experience on equal terms; and it would be just as sensible, viewing the question abstractedly, for trees to symbolize the ‘tree’ as for the word to symbolize the trees.” Alfred North Whitehead’s schema of language seems relevant to feeld, the second book by Jos Charles. Although Charles’s method has been compared to Chaucer, I think Stephanie Burt’s allusion to James Joyce is even more apt. feeld, in its mode and method, lives in the same world as Finnegans Wake—both books force us to reconsider how language transfers (and hides) meaning. “i a lone hav scaped 2 tell u this,” Charles writes, of various scenes from a “female depositrie room,” but also images of fields, unearthing metaphors and ways to think of identity: “i muste // re member / plese kepe ur handes / 2 urself / i meen this // ontologicklie // nayture is sumwere else.” Language is a place of skepticism but also necessity, and feeld builds toward a sense of resignation: “a lief is so smal / the nut // off a thynge / the trees // ive wetd / & wut weeve throne // inn 2 a stream / ull never kno // wut was here.” How Poems Get Made by James Longenbach Rather than wonder or worry about poetry’s larger, idealistic goals for society, Longenbach’s volume is a careful guidebook that sticks to the poem itself: its reading, its writing, its revision. “The impulse to be lyrical is driven by the need to feel unconstrained by ourselves,” he writes, and he proceeds like a good teacher through many of poetry’s essential modes: diction, syntax, voice, figure, rhythm, image, tone, and more. What I especially like is that he uses time-worn classics as sources of instruction. He draws from poets like Blake, Crane, Dickinson, Donne, and Keats for good reason: “Because they hold our attention as repeatable events, the best-known poems may seem wonderfully strange, especially after long acquaintance.” With healthy quotes from poems that demonstrate the technical and metaphorical values he lauds, Longenbach creates a book that is not literary analysis, but an explanation of how poems work—which might just be enough to get people writing verse.