To live in the capital of the Canadian province of Alberta is to live in the shadow of West Edmonton Mall—sometimes literally. Until 2004 the biggest mall in the world, WEM is still a top-10 heavyweight, and its 5.3 million square feet contains not just 800 stores but also an indoor waterpark, amusement park (complete with rollercoasters), hotel, ice rink, mini-golf course, underwater caverns, and full-size replica of Christopher Columbus’s Santa Maria, all of which combines to draw more than 30 million visitors per year. A lot has changed in Edmonton since it first opened in the 1980s, but WEM, which The New York Times once called a “behemoth on the prairie,” remains the defining symbol of the city. Love it or hate it, all Edmontonians must reckon with The Mall. Writers are no exception. Over the decades WEM has served as unlikely muse for poets, children’s authors, essayists, international comic-book conglomerates, and the occasional stunt journalist who tries to see how long they can stay inside without leaving. Even visiting Nobel Laureates are inexorably drawn to it, knowing that the mall needs to be seen to be believed. Sing, O muse, of Apollo Originals, and OPA! of Greece. Sing of the Mindbender and sad flamingoes and that fire-breathing dragon that used to sit at the entrance to the movie theatre. Sing of Two Guys With Pipes and Chan International Model & Talent. Sing. 1. Alpha Flight #26, 27, 28; #67–70 (Marvel) Once named the most frequently destroyed Canadian city in Marvel Comics history, Edmonton has never taken it on the chin harder than whenever Canadian supergroup Alpha Flight drops by the local super-mall. The first time was in 1985, during Alberta native John Byrne’s run as writer-artist, when the team took on its rivals Omega Flight in the world’s largest parking lot (not to brag). But that was nothing compared to their return visit a few years later, when writer James D. Hudnall had the villainous Dream Queen set up shop in the city and then brainwash Edmontonians into brutally murdering one another. Alpha Flight arrives on the scene, only to be tricked themselves into crashing their jet directly into WEM’s World Waterpark, giving new meaning to the term “wave pool.” 2. Eric Wilson, Code Red at the Supermall (HarperCollins) In this 1988 entry from a beloved series of ultra-Canadian middle-grade mystery novels, a series of bombs are left anonymously all around the mall. Enter: Tom and Liz Austen, a pair of teenage sibling detectives who are determined, along with their actual-detective father, to get to the bottom of things. The ensuing caper includes a ton of local color, including a map of the entire mall for easy reference, and features surprisingly progressive lessons about multiculturalism, consent, and the dangers of dating ice-skaters named Chad. 3. Archie Giant Series Magazine #620 (Archie) When noted millionaire Hiram Lodge decides he wants to renovate the local mall, there’s only one place to send Betty and Veronica on a fact-finding mission. But what begins as a dream for Veronica (“It’s Xanadu, Camelot, and Rodeo Drive all rolled into one!” she says at one point) quickly turns into a case of mistaken identity, as some would-be jewel thieves chase the pair through West Edmonton Mall’s amusement park and eventually down a waterslide. This three-part bit of corporate synergy from 1991 was encouraged by another of Edmonton’s odd distinctions: for a long time more Archie comics were sold here, per capita, than anywhere else in the world. 4. Anne Swannell, Mall (Rowan) In 1993, Canadian poet Anne Swannell turned her eye to WEM for this book-length poetry cycle about our civic monument to late capitalism. Swannell, who lived in Edmonton briefly in the 1960s, takes in the highlights and spends much of her time alternately marvelling at and pitying her surreal surroundings: “It seems to her some days / the place is definitely sliding downhill.” Today, Mall has added value as a snapshot of WEM as it stood several renovations ago, with careful descriptions of decorations and food-court shops long since dismantled. Ultimately, however, even the building itself rejects any whiff of artistry on the premises. Here’s what happens when the poet character drops a coin into a fortune-telling machine: “Get a Real Job!” she tells her and clicks off. [millions_ad] 5. José Saramago, The Cave (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) This 2002 novel from the late Portuguese Nobel Laureate would seem to be an ocean away from the frozen Canadian prairie. But in an interview with Le Devoir, Saramago specifically cited West Edmonton Mall—whose artificial beaches he saw in person when he came to town to receive an honorary degree from the University of Alberta—as an inspiration for the gargantuan shopping complex known simply as “The Center.” In the book, which takes place in a nameless city, Saramago presents his Center as a capitalist juggernaut with a mysterious secret cave underneath it, which nicely dovetails with longstanding urban legends about the subterranean nuclear reactor that supposedly powers WEM. 6. Vivek Shraya (editor), The Magnificent Malls of Edmonton (Self-Published) West Edmonton Mall might get the lion’s share of the attention, but there’s obviously more than one mall in this city of nearly a million people. And they all get their due in this gorgeously produced limited-edition anthology edited by author and musician Vivek Shraya. Still, WEM is the undisputed champ, and accordingly gets the most attention, from memories of first dates gone wrong to little kids who grew up in the Maritimes but dreamt about this magical place on the other side of the country. The smartest, most powerful piece of mall lore yet committed to paper—and, alas, the hardest one to find. 7. Dina Del Bucchia, “Don’t Tell Me What To Do” (Arsenal Pulp Press) When you get right down to it, West Edmonton Mall is more than just a place to buy socks and watch a sea-lion routine while eating a cinnamon bun as big as a manhole cover. It’s also a place of pilgrimage. Like the protagonist in the title story of Dina Del Bucchia’s 2017 collection, I first encountered WEM as a kid who came specifically there on vacation, when my brother and I tried to see how long we could go without breathing outside air (three days, easy). But for Alex, a spontaneous return trip is in order, complete with a suitcase stuffed full of coins, after her relationship with an older man in British Columbia goes south. Del Bucchia’s story is about what happens when your expectations don’t meet reality, and how no mall can solve your problems for you. Not even one as gloriously weird as this one. Image Credit: Flickr/IQRemix.
The 2017 National Book Critics Circle Award winners were announced tonight in New York City. Along with the Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award, John Leonard Prize, and Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing, which were announced in January, the winners in Fiction, Nonfiction, Poetry, Criticism, Autobiography, and Biography were all presented. This year's recipients of the National Book Critics Circle Awards are: Fiction Improvement by Joan Silber (Silber's a Year in Reading alum) Nonfiction The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America by Frances FitzGerald Poetry Whereas by Layli Long Soldier (Recommended by our own Nick Ripatrazone) Criticism You Play the Girl: On Playboy Bunnies, Stepford Wives, Train Wrecks, & Other Mixed Messages by Carina Chocano Autobiography Nine Continents: A Memoir In and Out of China by Xiaolu Guo Biography Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder by Caroline Fraser [millions_ad]
After considering 108 titles, the Man Booker International Prize announced their 13-title longlist. The prize, which awards translated works of literature, considers both novels and short story collections translated into English and published in the UK. Here the 2018 longlist (with bonus links where available): The 7th Function of Language by Laurent Binet (Where Randomness and Madness Reign) The Imposter by Javier Cercas Vernon Subutex 1 by Virginie Despentes Go, Went, Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck (The Millions' review) The White Book by Han Kang Die, My Love by Ariana Harwicz The World Goes On by László Krasznahorkai (our review of Krasznahorkai's collection) Like a Fading Shadow by Antonio Muñoz Molina The Flying Mountain by Christoph Ransmayr Frankenstein in Baghdad by Ahmed Saadawi (Saadawi's 2017 Year in Reading entry) Flights by Olga Tokarczuk The Stolen Bicycle by Wu Ming-Yi The Dinner Guest by Gabriela Ybarra
We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for February. 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. 5 Year Diary 3 months 2. 2. Manhattan Beach 5 months 3. 3. Her Body and Other Parties 3 months 4. 4. Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process 4 months 5. 5. Fire Sermon 2 months 6. 8. Little Fires Everywhere 5 months 7. 7. Sing, Unburied, Sing 3 months 8. 10. The Largesse of the Sea Maiden 2 months 9. 9. My Favorite Thing is Monsters 2 months 10. - The Immortalists 1 month This month, the top half of our list is the same as it was last month. In fact, most of the list is the same as it was last month. What is it about February? Three years ago, we had the same thing happen, and I wound up calculating Shaquille O'Neal's height in stacked books. It was as if I had been possessed by Harper's "Findings" section. But one person's boredom is really another person's consistency, and there is comfort in steadiness. On our list this month, the top half remains unchanged, but slight jostling occurred in the bottom. Two books graduated to our Hall of Fame: Victor LaValle's The Changeling and Laurent Binet's The Seventh Function of Language. Emil Ferris's My Favorite Thing is Monsters fills one of the open spaces this month. Ferris's fictional graphic diary had previously debuted on our December 2017 list, but dropped out last month, and is back again today. At that pace, look for it to reach our Hall of Fame around Thanksgiving. In her Year in Reading entry two months ago, Emily St. John Mandel said Ferris's book "pierced [her] haze of unhappiness" and imparted "the sense of having encountered something truly extraordinary." She raved, "Sometimes you read a book and you think, Oh. This is what a book can be." The other opening on this month's list was claimed by Chloe Benjamin's The Immortalists. In our Great 2018 Book Preview, Janet Potter previewed Benjamin's second novel by saying it sounded so good that she'd have to "break [her] no-novels-about-New-Yorkers rule for this one." This month’s other near misses included: The Odyssey, Don't Save Anything, Belladonna, My Absolute Darling, and Frankenstein in Baghdad. See Also: Last month's list. [millions_ad]
The Aspen Words Literary Prize announced their 2018 shortlist yesterday. The annual award is given to "an influential work of fiction that illuminates a vital contemporary issue and demonstrates the transformative power of literature on thought and culture." This year's finalists are: What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky by Lesley Nneka Arimah What We Lose by Zinzi Clemmons Exit West by Mohsin Hamid (Our review of Exit West) Mad Country by Samrat Upadhyay Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward (The Millions' interview with Ward) The winner will be announced live at a ceremony on April 10th. [millions_ad]
Here are eight notable books of poetry publishing in March. Registers of Illuminated Villages by Tarfia Faizullah A few years ago, I read “Poetry Recitation at St. Catherine’s School for Girls” in an issue of The Missouri Review, and reading it again feels like discovering a lost prayer. The narrator thinks of her teenage years at a school where girls, “headbands bright green or bangles / yellow, glints that fill the silence like / falling snow,” pray before a hanging cross. The girls “recite poems they // have carried in their mouths for days, / and my desire to go back, to be one / among those slender, long-haired girls // is a thistle, sharp and twisting at my / side.” Their words—“psalm, blessing, lord”—bring her back to that chapel where the priest spoke of an eternal world not possible for her: “the girl I was, heavy and slow in her / thick glasses, knew she would never / enter heaven.” The narrator calms her memory with a final note: “Help me, Lord. / There are so many bodies inside this one.” Tucked nearly halfway through Registers of Illuminated Villages, the poem reverberates elsewhere in the book, as in “Acolyte,” where she again feels “an infidel / in this classroom / church.” There, beneath the white cross and the “window-light” that moves across their bodies, “My mouth is avid; it // sings fidelis, fidelis.” But her mind travels to home, where “maa is in her / kitchen crooning / black-and-white film,” and “baba leans forward / in his chair, the Qur’an / open to the last page.” At school, she bows her head and whispers her own prayer—an affirmation. Faizullah’s entire collection—powerful, wide-ranging—is an affirmation, an accomplished second book. “This elegy is trying / hard to understand how we all become // corpses,” she writes, “but I’m trying to understand permanence.” This book gets us there. Darling Nova by Melissa Cundieff Otherworldly, lilting—there’s a surreal touch to Cundieff’s verse that can be downright hypnotic. In “Everything Cruel Is Also Real,” we get a memory in second-person: “you in a yellow dress against the condition / of your kite string. Taut, it lifts you with a thinnest white, / unwinding, tethered to you, kept like a conversation within your fists.” The narrator wonders: “Surely I must be dead, / watching with hollowed-out joy, your physics reaping the late lawn / of its light.” (I’m grateful for poets who deliver consonance). The spirit of Cundieff’s style might be her willingness to offer us poems mid-glance, as in the aptly-titled “In Medias Res”: “I once imagined my life differently, / but no one hears, so I say it again, and again.” The world moves and moves in this book, and strangeness is a welcome song. In “Nostalgia for the Absolute,” there’s a tree with a plaque to memorialize a football player killed by a lightning strike. “There’s nothing special about his name, // William. It makes me think of any football field, / the girls whose toes get muddy from the steps taken up, // down the bleachers. Their blonde hair straight // like church windows that flood then burn with light.” The mystical breaks through even during a long car ride, a narrator chasing the eclipse, their fighting children in the backseat: “I daydream / that bridge bats rupture from beneath an overpass, shrill shapes / without course.” Footnotes in the Order of Disappearance by Fady Joudah In “The Living Are the Minority,” “the dead don’t cry / and mindful of dehydration / they speak what they drink / and wave to their ventriloquists.” Minimal lines carry so much meaning here. Joudah also peppers his book with supple prose poems, their syntax delivering surprises. In “Horses,” it is a “December evening, smoke in the rain, awn of the rain, from virga to drizzle, a glimpse of horses through large wooden doors.” This is beautiful writing: “Foam in stalactites from equine jaws more exhausted than a crossroad. Steam rising to the roof. The sinews of their hearts. The women were one, the horses one.” What begins as a meditation on setting evolves to include the narrator, as when one of the women asks him how long he has been riding himself. He doesn’t know, but thinks of all “the horses I never rode, their magnetic fields filled with souls of past rides and horses’ past souls, even the plastic ones I used to line up on the sill.” Those fleshed narratives live among pithy exhales, like “1st Love”: “When God began you she / said to me one spring afternoon in bed / God began // with your hands / a woman’s hands // And when God reached your wrists / God made the rest of you man.” We often say that poetry transforms, but Joudah’s verse also transports. Post Traumatic Hood Disorder by David Tomas Martinez In his first book, Hustle, and this new collection, Martinez draws on his early years in San Diego: fathering a son while in high school, joining a gang, and entering the Navy before being kicked out. A former junior-college basketball player, he mixes ambition and anxiety in poems like “And One”: “Look at the homie, / even when in a gang / he came home to crack Nietzsche.” Hope and nihilism live side by side on those streets, and in his scenes: “He’s going places. / Look at homie, trying to fix himself. Thinks / out of repetition comes variation.” Martinez’s book examines masculinity: particularly expectations of Chicano men, California men. There’s a real sadness here: the talent and dreams that never escape the city, an unfortunate truth that kids know early, and captured in poems like “Winter Night.” The narrator’s father beats him with a belt, but between the punishments, there is something like an opening: “After dinner my father sat on the floor / with his corduroy shorts riding up / his thighs while I put on boxing gloves / around his shadow. I floated, stung / I rode his shoulders over crowds, // raised my arms. The oversized gloves / on my hands were smaller, lighter / than my want to punch him.” [millions_ad] Land of Fire by Mario Chard Early in Chard’s debut collection, among mystical visions and dialogues, is “The Oath,” a touching poem about an immigrant family’s arrival in a new land. A mother has her fingerprints taken, and is weighed before standing in line “with others taking turns / reciting words to make them / citizens.” When it is his mother’s turn, she “cleared her throat before / a word then said the word, / made the same sound / I knew to listen for / when I had lost her in a crowd.” That sound, her soul. “They took / her country when she spoke, / but the cords that first / learned Spanish in her throat / spoke first: last strain of loss / and its resistance.” Chard unearths those cautious moments, whether he is writing of this world, or of other worlds—Miltonic shadows, mythic planes. In “Dystocia,” “Sometimes a myth / delivers its prophet // breech.” In “Jorge, First Love of My Argentine Mother,” the weight of personal myths: “When you spoke you sounded like a man ignored, / one orphan speaking to another / who was not.” My favorite here: “Signs and Crossings,” arriving in a Trinitarian structure: the narrator watches a boy who sneaks through joined chain-link fences. “I have watched him make some crude sign of the cross / before his trespass here.” A storm blows out windows. Maples, “stripped for power lines,” are exposed before him—“a symbol of the brain: branched and leafy one side, / barren on the other.” A world, ravaged by storm, is what gives the narrator new sight. “We would make that sign again.” The Barbarous Century by Leah Umansky Umansky quotes Gustave Flaubert early in her collection—“The principal thing in this world is to keep one’s soul aloft”—and that line becomes theme and center for the book. Here “Small girls dream while. / The most are slipped graces, / and many graces are slipped.” In this world, “It is hard to quiet the blackberrying pain. / The little chronicles, the streaks, and the intimate workings. // I will face this by red-winging my truths. / I will push my blues into orchids.” Umansky’s poems are expansive, quick, and rooted in a conversational interaction with the page. “I am the one holding the wheel,” she writes, “& the one tying us to the mast.” Yet there’s a refrain of slipping, of losing hold that is reflected in the way her lines careen across the page, a self searching for a steadiness: “You aren’t being robbed of time, / you’re just trying to get out of your landmarks. / You’re being robbed of the present by thinking of the future.” The Explosive Expert’s Wife by Shara Lessley “The Ugly American” captures the spirit of Lessley’s book, one set in Amman, Jordan. Boys beat a jennet, a female donkey, “with sticks and switches and clods / of dirt.” The image of violence that opens the poem appears to validate the epigraph: Mark Twain’s stereotypical, dismissive opinion of the Middle East. But this book is aware of its framing. A pregnant woman, a foreigner, enters the narrative; she’s watching the attack, and picks up a stone. The woman “heard herself / curse, think every stupid soulless thing // she’d heard about the filth borne of this region.” A man breaks up the boys’ beating, and the woman, far away but watching, is forced to reckon with the moment: “Please / understand this isn’t metaphor: when // I dropped the rock, I had blood on my hand.” Based in part on Lessley’s years as an American expatriate, The Explosive Expert’s Wife is a narrative of listening and understanding. In “First Days: August”: “Nights stalled at the screen. I strain / to hear the call to prayer— / what is it Amman’s abandoned / streets are trying to say?” Often Lessley’s poems become laments: “A thousand candles light the Siq. / I grieve / the West, its disinterested ear.” Here Amman is not simply defined by its struggles; it is a world of small miracles, as in “Transfusion,” when the narrator’s peritoneum bleeds—but she is calmed and carried for, her child safe. “The gift comes slow,” she writes. “I listen to us breathe.” Cape Verdean Blues by Shauna Barbosa Barbosa’s poems snap. “Every Year Trying to Get My Body Right”: on Frenchmen Street in New Orleans. Pickup truck with a broken rearview, her “scraped toes hanging out the passenger side. I keep the window open in the event I need to summer language my mouth into prayer.” One of the keys to prose poems that pulse is the internal rhythms of sentences (whispers of lines, memories of lines), as in a later poem on the sign of Cancer: “The moon is a hammock. A hammock is a moon. Loosen up Cancer. Lie down without moving, ask how she’s doing, and let the dead come.” The cadences of care move throughout this book, including “Making Sense of What We’re Made For”: “I like how the bottoms of my feet feel / like silence.” Those feet have “taken a beating . . . I sweat violence like ceremony.” There’s so much to appreciate in Barbosa’s debut—her humor, the spiritual touches that shine light on family and desire—but I especially like how she plays with the layering of language. Kriolu, the Cape Verdean tongue, cloaks this book. In “Broke,” the narrator’s aunt sweeps the Au Bon Pain in Harvard Square “like it’s a Saturday morning in her Cape Verdean home.” When her grandmother calls and yells at her in Kriolu, “I love how it sounds to be loved so fiercely in another language.” Language unites us, but the narrator knows otherwise in an earlier poem: “I know you don’t want to be / cause it’s difficult to be / black, Sis // knows / speaking Portuguese at the traffic stop / won’t save you.” And the sense of being displaced, in “GPS”: “there’s a Duane Reade a mile from Chinatown. It’s 96 degrees on a Saturday. My legs are wet. Sweat stings my contact lenses.” The narrator’s taxi driver is West African: “You are my sister, he says . . . I wanted to ask what his American woman looks like. A lot of time passes and I think about my old west African lover and feel bad for being so American.” You will nod your head, again and again, at lines from this book (“It’s profoundly normal to become fragile while ordering coffee.”) and titles (“You Will, Indeed, Always Be the Same Person After Vacation”).
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 — for more March titles, check out our First-Half Preview. Let us know what you’re looking forward to in the comments! (Also, as Millions founder and publisher C. Max Magee wrote recently, you can help ensure that these previews, and all our great books coverage, continue for years to come by lending your support to the site as a member. The Millions has been running for nearly 15 years on a wing and a prayer, and we’re incredibly grateful for the love of our recurring readers and current members who help us sustain the work that we do.) Men and Apparitions by Lynne Tillman: News of a new Tillman novel is worthy of raising a glass. Men and Apparitions is the follow-up novel to Tillman’s brilliant, ambitious American Genius: A Comedy. Men and Apparitions looks closely at our obsession with the image through the perspective of cultural anthropologist Ezekiel “Zeke” Hooper Stark. Norman Rush says, “this book is compelling and bracing and you read many sentences twice to get all the juice there is in them.” Sarah Manguso has said she is “grateful” for Tillman’s “authentically weird and often indescribable books.” I second that. (Anne) Whiskey & Ribbons by Leesa Cross-Smith: Police officer Eamon Michael Royce is killed in the line of duty. His pregnant wife, Evi, narrates Eamon’s passing with elegiac words: “I think of him making the drive, the gentle peachy July morning light illuminating his last moments, his last heartbeat, his last breath.” Months later and wracked with grief, Evi falls for her brother-in-law Dalton: “Backyard-wandering, full-moon pregnant in my turquoise maternity dress and tobacco-colored cowboy boots. I’d lose my way. Dalton would find me. He was always finding me.” The sentences in Cross-Smith’s moving debut are lifted by a sense of awe and mystery—a style attuned to the graces of this world. Whiskey & Ribbons turns backward and forward in time: we hear Eamon’s anxieties about fatherhood, and Dalton’s continuous search for meaning in his life. “I am always hot, like I’m on fire,” Evi dreams later in the novel, still reliving her husband’s death, “burning and gasping for air.” In Cross-Smith’s novel, the past is never forgotten. (Nick R.) Awayland by Ramona Ausubel: Following up on her second novel Sons of Daughters of Ease and Plenty (read about the experience of writing her first novel here at the site), Ausubel now publishes a collection of stories taking place across the globe. Some new, some published previously at The New Yorker and The Paris Review, Library Journal calls them "illuminating and memorable, with plots unfolding like exotic flowers, calm yet bizarre." (Lydia). The Sparsholt Affair by Alan Hollinghurst: Hollinghurst’s sixth novel has already received glowing reviews in the U.K. As the title suggests, the plot hinges on a love affair, and follows two generations of the Sparsholt family, opening in 1940 at Oxford, just before WWII. The Guardian called it “an unashamedly readable novel…indeed it feels occasionally like Hollinghurst is trying to house all the successful elements of his previous books under the roof of one novel.” To those of us who adore his books, this sounds heavenly. (Hannah) The Chandelier by Clarice Lispector (translated by Magdalena Edwards and Benjamin Moser): Since Katrina Dodson published a translation of Lispector’s complete stories in 2015, the Brazilian master’s popularity has enjoyed a resurgence. Magdalena Edwards and Benjamin Moser’s new translation of Lispector’s second novel promises to extend interest in the deceased writer’s work. It tells the story of Virginia, a sculptor who crafts intricate pieces in marked isolation. This translation marks the first time The Chandelier has ever appeared in English (Ismail). The Parking Lot Attendant by Nafkote Tamirat: It’s very easy to love this novel but difficult to describe it. A disarming narrator begins her account from a community with strange rules and obscure ideology located on an unnamed island. While she and her father uneasily bide their time in this not-quite-utopia, she reflects on her upbringing in Boston, and a friendship–with the self-styled leader of the city’s community of Ethiopian immigrants–that begins to feel sinister. As the story unfolds, what initially looked like a growing-up story in a semi-comic key becomes a troubling allegory of self-determination and sacrifice. (Lydia) The Merry Spinster by Mallory Ortberg: Fairy tales get a feminist spin in this short story collection inspired by Ortberg’s most popular Toast column, “Children’s Stories Made Horrific.” This is not your childhood Cinderella, but one with psychological horror and Ortberg’s signature snark. Carmen Maria Machado calls it a cross between, “Terry Pratchett’s satirical jocularity and Angela Carter’s sinister, shrewd storytelling, and the result is gorgeous, unsettling, splenic, cruel, and wickedly smart.” Can’t wait to ruin our favorite fables! (Tess) The House of Broken Angels by Luis Alberto Urrea: Urrea is one of the best public speakers I’ve ever seen with my 35-year-old eyes, so it’s incredible that it’s not even the thing he’s best at. He’s the recipient of an American Book Award and a Pulitzer nominee for The Devil’s Highway. His new novel is about the daily life of a multi-generational Mexican-American family in California. Or as he puts it, “an American family—one that happens to speak Spanish and admire the Virgin of Guadalupe.” (Janet) Catastrophe by Dino Buzzati (translated by Judith Landry): A collection of stories by the Italian master of experimental fiction who died in 1972. Jhumpa Lahiri says of the book, "Buzzati is the gatekeeper to our collective nightmares, poised on the threshold between the drawing room and existential hell. Judith Landry’s vibrant translations render him at once witty and sinister." (Lydia) American Histories: Stories by John Edgar Wideman: Wideman’s new book is a nearly fantastical stretching and blurring of conventional literary forms—including history, fiction, philosophy, biography, and deeply felt personal vignettes. We get reimagined conversations between the abolitionist Frederick Douglass and the doomed white crusader for racial equality John Brown. We get to crawl inside the mind of a man sitting on the Williamsburg Bridge, ready to jump. We get Wideman pondering deaths in his own family. We meet Jean Michel Basquiat and Nat Turner. What we get, in the end, is a book unlike any other, the work of an American master working at peak form late in a long and magnificent career. (Bill) Happiness by Aminatta Forna: A novel about what happens when an expert on the habits of foxes and an expert on the trauma of refugees meet in London, one that Paul Yoon raved about it in his Year in Reading: “It is a novel that carries a tremendous sense of the world, where I looked up upon finishing and sensed a shift in what I thought I knew, what I wanted to know. What a gift.” In a starred review, Publisher’s Weekly says “Forna’s latest explores instinct, resilience, and the complexity of human coexistence, reaffirming her reputation for exceptional ability and perspective.” (Lydia) The Neighborhood by Mario Vargas Llosa (translated by Edith Grossman): The Nobel Prize winner’s latest arrives in translation from the extraordinary Edith Grossman. The Neighborhood is symphonic, a “thriller,” if you can call it that, about a detective whose wife gets roped into a debilitating situation. It is set in Llosa’s 1990s Peru, and you see this place with its paradox of grayness and color, juxtaposed with spots of blood. Two women married to very affluent men are having a lesbian affair, and one of their husbands, Enrique, is being blackmailed. When he fails to meet a photo magazine editor’s demands, he is slandered with photos of an erotic encounter on the front pages of the magazine. These two threads will converge at a point of explosion as is wont with Llosa’s novels. While this may not be his best work, it will keep readers reading all the way. (Chigozie) Bury What We Cannot Take by Kirstin Chen: This is an atmospheric novel of betrayal and ardent allegiance to ideology and political choices. When young Ah Liam decides it’s virtuous to report the resistance of his grandmother to Maoist rule to the authorities, he unravels his family with his own hands. His decision leads to the family having to flee the country and for them to have to make a decision: leave a fraction of the family behind or face greater harm. With its striking title about the sacrifice (the “burying”) of those who are left behind, the novel succeeds in drawing a very striking portrait of this turbulent period of Chinese history. (Chigozie) Laura & Emma by Kate Greathead: One weekend in 1981, a lifelong New Yorker named Laura, born into old money and drifting aimlessly into her 30s, meets a man, sleeps with him and then loses him, leaving her alone with a child: Emma. From this slightly ignominious beginning, Greathead, a nine-time Moth StorySLAM champion, spins a complex tale of social class and family warfare that follows the quiet struggles of a single mother raising her daughter among the upper crust of New York society. (Michael) Camp Austen: My Life as an Accidental Jane Austen Superfan by Ted Scheinman: A look at the world of Jane Austen aficionados (Janeites, they are called) from the son of an Austen scholar who in adulthood found himself at the helm of a major Jane Austen conference. Mallory Ortberg wrote, "it's so lovely to read a book about the delights, the perils, the peculiarities of fandom, and of the small, joyful enthusiasms therein, that treats its subject both critically and generously." (Lydia)
The American Library Association (ALA) announced the winners of the 2018 Youth Media Awards including the John Newbery Medal for most outstanding contribution to children's literature; the Randolph Caldecott Medal for most distinguished American picture book for children; and the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award for an US-published author or illustrator who over the years has made a "substantial and lasting contribution to children's literature," among others. Hello, Universe by Erin Entrada Kelly won the 2018 Newbery Medal. Wolf in the Snow by Matthew Cordell won the 2018 Caldecott Medal. Jacqueline Woodson, whose works include Brown Girl Dreaming, Locomotion, and After Tupac & D Foster, won the 2018 Laura Ingalls Wilder Award. A sampling of other awards include: Piecing Me Together by Renée Watson won the Coretta Scott King Book Award, which recognizes African American authors and illustrators of children's and YA novels. We Are Okay by Nina LaCour won the Michael L. Printz Award for excellence in literature written for young adults. Silent Days, Silent Dreams by Allen Say won the Schneider Family Book Award, which recognizes books that embody an artistic expression of the disability experience. For the full list of winners and honor recipients, visit the American Library Associations website.
We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for January. 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. 5 Year Diary 2 months 2. 2. Manhattan Beach 4 months 3. 3. Her Body and Other Parties 2 months 4. 8. Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process 3 months 5. - Fire Sermon 1 month 6. 6. The Seventh Function of Language: A Novel 6 months 7. 4. Sing, Unburied, Sing 2 months 8. 5. Little Fires Everywhere 4 months 9. 9. The Changeling 6 months 10. - The Largesse of the Sea Maiden 1 month Exit West exits our list this month, following a parabolic stint on our Top Ten: it debuted in 7th position on in July, and later rose to the 4th, 3rd, and 2nd spots in subsequent months before winding up once more in 7th position to close. As Mohsin Hamid's novel buoyed up our list and down again, it earned praise from no fewer than five of our Year in Reading participants: Jamel Brinkley, Michael David Lukas, Heather Scott Partington, Shanthi Sekaran, and Jeff VanderMeer. (That last author also gave a shout out to Belladonna, which is among this month's "near misses.") It also received critical examination from Eli Jelly-Schapiro, who remarked for our site about its author's attempts at "tracing the fissures in human community and global space, and reflecting on the possibility of their transcendence." Jelly-Schapiro continued: Orbiting earth, Hamid’s novel maps the divides that structure the current global order. But it also charts one necessary future, the advent of what Aimé Césaire called a “humanism made to the measure of the world.” Now, Hamid's novel is off to our Hall of Fame. Elsewhere on our list, it seems little has changed. Our 1st, 2nd, and 3rd spots belong to the books which held those spots in December. So, too, do our 6th and 9th spots. Still, some surprises can be found if one looks carefully. Jesmyn Ward's Sing, Unburied, Sing somehow dropped three spots a scant two months after it won the National Book Award, which seems odd. Denis Johnson's new collection, The Largesse of the Sea Maiden, finished not long before the author passed away, appeared at the bottom of our list. Meanwhile, Jamie Quatro's Fire Sermon pops up in 5th position, following callouts in not only our Great 2018 Book Preview, but also in four Year in Reading pieces. Our own Hannah Gersen invoked a heavyweight in her praise: I feel bad for the new fiction I read this year, because I was always comparing it to Proust, and nothing could really stand up to that epic reading experience. However, there was one novel that swept me up with its passion, intelligence, and spiritual reach: Jamie Quatro’s Fire Sermon, which will be published in January 2018. I look forward to reading it again next year. This month’s other near misses included: The Odyssey, Don't Save Anything, My Absolute Darling, and Belladonna. See Also: Last month's list. [millions_ad]
Before John Milton could be a visionary writer, first he had to be a visionary reader. All poetry is supported by the accumulated scaffolding of tradition and defines itself in part by subverting that tradition. Milton was simultaneously partisan for and a rebel against tradition. And if it’s true that every writer is first and foremost a reader, then Milton arguably had a greater command of that corpus than anyone in the 17th century. Fluent in 12 languages ranging from Latin and Hebrew to Syriac, Milton was among the last of the true polymaths. His mind was a veritable wonder cabinet, and Paradise Lost was an expression of that—capable as it was of making “a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.” From Tasso and Aristo he took a certain baroque stateliness, from Spenser a sense of mythic proportion, and from Shakespeare an appreciation of history and of lines well wrought. And, of course, he took his story from The Bible. Paradise Lost, across 10,000 lines of poetic blank verse ultimately assembled into 12 books, was famously a project “unattempted yet in prose or rhyme,” and the result was a consummate reimagining of scripture—an act not just of revolutionary writing but of radical reading. Milton took the few chapters in Genesis devoted to Eden and the fall and spun a maximalist, erudite, learned, fully realized drama. Narratively exciting, religiously wise, metaphysically deep, and just ambiguous enough to keep the critics writing about him for more than four centuries. In Milton’s hands, Lucifer was configured as a new type of anti-hero, and scholars have long argued as to whether Milton’s sympathies lie with that attractive and beguiling character or with God. But as Milton was influenced by past greats, so he in turn became spectacularly influential. Paradise Lost is often more respected than read, obscuring the fact that for generations Milton was regarded as the ultimate of English poets. Writers have continued to explore those ever-regenerative concerns about the most profound things: creation, fallenness, redemption, sin, and salvation. If Milton was a reader first, then through his example we are all readers in his stead. I present my own idiosyncratic and subjective reading list of some of those readers. The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678) by John Bunyan Bunyan’s tongue may have been rougher than Milton’s, yet his Victorian biographer, James Anthony Froude, observed, “Bunyan was a true artist, though he knew nothing of the rules, and was not aware that he was an artist at all.” Nobody would accuse Milton of that. Both men suffered for their religion and politics; prison stints are in their biographies, and both ultimately went blind. The Pilgrim’s Progress may be a very different text than Milton’s poem, but the task of explaining the divine lay at the center of both their missions. An unapologetically didactic and evangelical work, Bunyan’s book reduces all of the nuance of character that we celebrate in Paradise Lost in favor of the broadest possible allegory. Milton’s poem is rightly celebrated for his use of blank verse, unrhymed iambic pentameter, but Bunyan also departs from conventional expectations in presenting his religious dream vision in a similar aesthetically radical way by using a new narrative form whose very name signaled its novelty–the novel. The Pilgrim’s Progress, once profoundly popular in the English-speaking Protestant world and holding pride of place next to The Bible itself, has never reached the critical acclaim that Paradise Lost has. And yet even if Bunyan’s name is less famous today, arguably more people have read his proto-novel than ever read Milton’s work (even if most of Bunyan’s readers are in the past). He certainly would have known of Milton, and his reputation as the Reformation’s answer to Dante would have provided a crucial model to the creation of Protestant art. Milton: A Poem in Two Books (1805-08) by William Blake As Vergil was to Dante, so Milton is to Blake, with both poets considering questions about inspiration and creation. Blake erroneously saw Milton as a steadfast Calvinist, but in that biographical error (made by many) Blake was able to generate a consummate drama by having his imagined version of Milton repudiate Calvinism in favor of what Blake viewed as the hidden, subversive sympathies implicit within Paradise Lost. As a result, that visionary heretic’s confident declaration that Milton “was of the devil’s party without knowing it” has in many ways remained the most popular understanding. For Blake, Paradise Lost was a revolutionary work by a revolutionary poet who advocated regicide and rebellion against injustice. Milton is a strange mystical vision every bit worthy of its biographical subject written in Blake’s unique prophetic voice and illustrated with the water colors that made him one of the great artists of the 19th century in addition to being one of its most sublime poets. In Blake’s retelling of biblical history from creation to apocalypse, he argues against Calvinism’s division of humanity into the elect and condemned, rather positing that the truly chosen are the latter. As his strange theology is explicated, he gives an “unfallen” Milton in heaven the opportunity to redeem himself of the life-denying Puritanism that Blake associates with Milton, thus finally making the author of Paradise Lost worthy of that revolutionary spirit that Blake associates with him, so that both can fully take up the injunction to “Rouze up, O Young Men of the New Age!” Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus (1818) by Mary Shelley Victor Frankenstein is placed in that lineage of fire-stealers who dangerously animate the world with forbidden knowledge. Dangerous creation has a long history; before Frankenstein could stitch together decomposing flesh into his industrial age monster, before Rabbi Judah ben Lowe could bake clay from the banks of the Danube into his golem, before Prometheus could mold man from soil, there was God himself breathing dust into life. Adam is the original created monster, a point made clear by Shelley herself in what is arguably the first and still the greatest science fiction novel ever written.. Shelley’s original creature’s sutured tongue could have been from Milton’s corpse itself, for the creature acquired language from a copy of Paradise Lost. As he recounts to Dr. Frankenstein, he “read it, as I had the other volumes which had fallen into my hands, as a true history. It moved every feeling of wonder and awe … Like Adam, I was apparently united by no link to any other being in existences… but I was wretched, helpless, and alone.” Shelley’s erudite monster intuits that Adam is “a perfect creature, happy and prosperous, guarded by the especial care of his Creator,” but the subversive brilliance of Frankenstein is the suggestion that perhaps we’re not so different from the monster. Consider the novel’s epigraph, a selection from Paradise Lost in which Adam asks God, “Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay/To mould Me man? Did I solicit thee/From darkness to promote me?” The implications are unavoidable: for Adam’s lament to the Lord, a cry as to why creation should be chosen for us the unwilling, is also the monster’s plea. The Voyage of the Beagle (1839) by Charles Darwin In a century with George Eliot, Charles Dickens, and Jane Austen, perhaps the greatest novel was that non-fiction account of the naturalist Charles Darwin’s journey to the Galapagos Islands. I am not claiming that the biologist’s account is fiction; rather that in the evocative, nascent stirrings of his theory of evolution through natural selection Darwin was also telling a literary story of the greatest drama. While noting his observations, Darwin often had a particular literary story chief in mind. He writes, “Milton’s Paradise Lost had been my chief favourite…and in my excursions during the voyage of the Beagle, when I could take only a single small volume, I always chose Milton.” Darwin approached natural grandeur through a type of biological poetry, explaining that his biological observations instilled in him “feelings of wonder, astonishment, and devotion, which fill and elevate the mind.” As a young man aboard the Beagle, he was simply another pilgrim observing, categorizing, classifying, and naming the creatures in his tropical paradise as surely as Adam did in Eden. Although Darwin was a dutiful and careful interpreter of fact, he couldn’t help but think in the idiom of myth. Shirley (1849) by Charlotte Brontë Charlotte, Emily, and Anne’s father, Rev. Patrick Brontë, made Paradise Lost a mainstay of family reading. Milton’s influence runs through the women’s work, but never more obviously than in Shirley, Charlotte’s novel after Jane Eyre. Written a year after the tumultuous revolutions of 1848, Shirley took place in that similarly revolutionary year of 1812 when Luddites smashed the machinery of Blake’s “dark Satanic mills,” which had begun to crowd and pollute the Yorkshire countryside where the novel takes place. With the backdrop of both Romantic revolution and the postlapsarian machinations of industry, Shirley calls to mind Hell’s capital of Pandemonium, where the demon Mulciber tends the “fiery Deluge, fed/With ever-burning Sulphur unconsum’d.” The master of Brontë’s Pandemonium is Robert Moore, a northern English textile factory owner, whose livelihood has been threatened by the ban on exportation of cloth to America due to the War of 1812. Moore courts the wealthy and headstrong Shirley as a potential solution to his economic woe, and in their conversations Brontë provides a defense of Eve, while recognizing the emancipatory kernel at the core of Paradise Lost. Brontë was a keen reader of Dr. Johnson’s literary criticism, in particular his contention that Milton “thought woman made only for obedience, and man only for rebellion.” With Milton’s chauvinism in mind, Shirley inquires, “Milton was great; but was he good?” Shirley revises Milton’s myopic portrayal of Eve, preferring to see her as a “woman-Titan,” claiming, “Milton tried to see the first woman; but… he saw her not.” But despite that myopia, Brontë discerns a subversive thread underneath the surface of Paradise Lost. When Eve is deciding to partake of the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, she reflects that it shall “render me more equal, and perhaps, /A thing not undesirable, sometime/Superior; for inferior who is free?” For the royalist Dr. Johnson, the republican Milton’s chauvinism may seem irreconcilable to any true conception of liberty, but as Brontë discerned within the poem itself, Eve has a keen awareness that freedom without equality is a fallacy. And thus in one of the great poems of liberty, by one of its most ferocious advocates, the accuracy of Eve’s reasoning becomes clearer. Moby-Dick; or, The Whale (1851) by Herman Melville If Paradise Lost was a poetic consideration of the darker things in the psyche, of a megalomaniacal single-mindedness that pushed its antagonist into the very bowels of Hell, then Herman Melville’s obsessed Captain Ahab is our American Lucifer. As Lucifer stalks Paradise Lost, so Melville’s novel is haunted by Ahab, that “grand, ungodly, god-like man.” Melville claimed, “We want no American Miltons,” but it was an unconvincing declaration, considering that he basically became one himself. Just as Lucifer would struggle with God and be cast into Hell, and Ahab would wrestle with Moby-Dick and be thrown into the Pacific, so would Melville grapple with Milton, though the results were perhaps not quite damnation. Yet he did write a letter to his friend Nathaniel Hawthorne, “I have written a wicked book, and feel as spotless as the lamb,” and that his novel had been “broiled” in “hell-fire.” Melville, it would seem, was of the Devil’s party, and he very much knew it. Moby-Dick, of course, drew from seemingly as many sources as Paradise Lost, from literature, myth, and scripture, not to speak of the tawdry sea accounts that provided the raw materials of his narrative. Moby-Dick’s narrator, Ishmael, claims that he has “swam through libraries,” and so too did Melville, but it was Paradise Lost that floated upon those waves as his white whale. Scholar William Giraldi describes his discovery of Melville’s 1836 edition of the Poetical Works of John Milton in the Princeton University library, with the volume lined by “checkmarks, underscores, annotations, and Xs.” Giraldi concludes that it was in rereading Milton late in 1849 that made his Great American Novel possible. The whale, of course, has always been configured as more than just a mere symbol, variously and ambiguously having his strange, great, empty white hide as a cipher potentially standing in for God, or the Devil, or America, or the very ground of Being. But where Lucifer is so comprehensible in his desires as to almost strike the reader as human, Melville’s whale is inscrutable, enigmatic, sublime—far more terrifying than the shockingly pedestrian God as depicted by Milton. These two texts in conversation with one another across the centuries provide an almost symphonic point and counter point; for what Melville gives us is an atheistic Paradise Lost and is all the more terrifying for it. Middlemarch (1871-72) by George Eliot George Eliot’s Victorian masterpiece has affinities to Milton’s epic in presenting a tableau of characters in her fictional provincial English town on the verge of the Reform Act, as Eden was once on the verge of the fall. Reverend Edward Casaubon, an eccentric and absurd pseudo-intellectual who is continually searching for his Key to all Mythologies, is believably Eliot’s satirical corollary to Milton. Casaubon is a parody of the Renaissance men who existed from London to Paris to Edinburgh to Geneva and of which Milton was certainly a prime example. But more than any narrative affinity with the poem, what Eliot provides is conjecture on the circumstances of Paradise Lost’s composition. Milton was middle-aged by the time he began composition of Paradise Lost, as was Casaubon who was a prematurely grayed 45 in Middlemarch. And as Casaubon relied on the support of the much younger wife, Dorothea, so too did Milton rely on the assistance of his daughters: Mary and Deborah. As Dorothea says to Casaubon in a pose of feminine supplication, "Could I not be preparing myself now to be more useful? ... Could I not learn to read Latin and Greek aloud to you, as Milton's daughters did to their father?" In his late 50s, Milton was completely blind (most likely from glaucoma), and he was only able to complete Paradise Lost by enlisting (or forcing) his daughters to act as his amanuensis. The labor of writing the epic was very much only made possible through the humdrum domestic labor of his daughters, forced to work as his scribes in between cleaning, cooking, and all the rest of Eve’s duties. Perelandra; or, Voyage to Venus (1943) by C.S. Lewis Both were adept apologists for Christianity and masters of the mythic idiom that moderns elect to call “fantasy.” But there are profound differences as well. Politics for one: Milton was a fire-breathing republican; Lewis was a staid, traditional conservative. Religion for another: Milton, as revealed in the anonymously penned iconoclastic and heretical treatise De Doctrina Christiana, denied the Trinity, embraced materialist metaphysics, and considered the ethics of polygamy; Lewis’s faith ran to High Church affectations that embraced kneelers, stain-glass, and hymns, his theology one of sober minded Anglican via media. But Lewis couldn’t help but be moved by the poetry of Paradise Lost, even if in its particulars it strayed from orthodoxy. One of the greatest Milton scholars of the 20th century, though he remains far more famous for his justly celebrated children’s novels like The Chronicles of Narnia (1950-6), Lewis’s A Preface to Paradise Lost (1941) counts as arguably the most important work of criticism about the poem until Stanley Fish’s Surprised by Sin (1967). Facing the specter of Adolf Hitler just across the channel, Lewis was perhaps not in the mood to consider Lucifer’s impassioned monologues in Paradise Lost as being that of a romantic rebel, rather arguing that his single-minded, narcissistic, sociopathic ranting is precisely that of an evil madman. A Preface to Paradise Lost stands as the great rejoinder to Blake’s arguments; Lewis claims that Milton is no crypto-partisan of Lucifer, but rather one who warns us precisely about how dangerous the attractions of such a rebel can be. Thoughts of paradise and the fall were clearly in his mind when two years later he published the second book of his science fiction “space trilogy,” Perelandra. Lewis’s hero is Elwin Ransom, who like his creator is a Cambridge don (Milton’s alma matter incidentally), a philologist who undertakes an aeronautic mission to tropical Venus, a prelapsarian land of innocent nudity and sinlessness—a planet without the fall. While there, Ransom fights and defeats a demonically possessed scientist who threatens to once again infect paradise with sin. As Milton’s Lucifer had to travel through “ever-threatening storms/Of Chaos blustering around” so as to get from Hell to Eden, Lewis’s Professor Weston must travel by space ship to Venus to tempt their queen in much the same manner that Eve had once been seduced. It’s a Paradise Lost for the age of telescopes, V1 rockets, and soon nuclear weapons. Howl and Other Poems (1956) by Allen Ginsberg What could the beat “angelheaded hipster” possibly have in common with one of God’s Englishmen? Milton with his Puritan Hebraism and that Jewish boy from Newark spoke in the same scriptural idiom. In both poets that prophetic voice thunders, whether in blank verse or free, condemning the demons who represent what enslaves the minds of humans. From Canaan to Carthage the descendants of the Phoenicians constructed massive, hollow, bronze statues of a bull-headed human; outrigged them with mechanical, spring loaded arms; tended a fire within their bellies; and then projected their children into the creatures’ gapping mouths so that they could be immolated within, as a sacrifice to the god which this sculpture represented: Moloch. In Milton’s day, theologians concurred with both the authors of The Talmud and the Church Fathers that these ancient pagan gods were not fictions, but rather represented actual demonic beings who had once tricked people into worshiping them. The first book of Paradise Lost presents a huge pantheon of the fallen, diabolical creatures, including such once-luminaries as Beelzebub and Belial. Moloch, whose smoky furnaces puffed out the cries of infants and the smell of burning flesh all across the southern Mediterranean, has an important role in Lucifer’s Pandemonium. He is the “horrid King besmear’d with blood/Of human sacrifice, and parent’s tears.” For Ginsberg, the anti-deity is associated with “Solitude! Filth! Ugliness! Ashcans and unobtainable dollars! Children screaming under the stairways!” For in the entire second section of the Beat masterpiece Howl, Ginsberg condemns “Moloch the incomprehensible prison! Moloch the crossbone soulless jailhouse and Congress of sorrows! Moloch whose buildings are judgment! Moloch the vast stone of war! Moloch the stunned governments!” From Canaan to England to America, Moloch was a signifier for the consumptive, cannibalistic, vampiric, rapacious appetites of those systems that devour and dispose of human beings. Milton associated it with the absolutist dictates of illegitimate kings; Ginsberg saw Moloch as an embodiment of the military-industrial complex, but what both poet-prophets decried was exploitation and injustice. The New York Trilogy (1985-6) by Paul Auster Self-referential, digressive, and metafictional—in many ways, “post-modernism” is a term that is less about periodization and more about aesthetics. Thus Paradise Lost, with its breaking of the fourth wall and its massive body of references, is arguably a post-modern poem, which is perhaps what drew the experimental novelist Paul Auster to it. As a student he was “completely immersed in the reflections on language that come out of Milton,” which directly led to the writing of his most famous novel. City of Glass, the first volume in Auster’s The New York Trilogy, examines the intersecting reality and fictionality of identity, with the author himself a character (as indeed Milton as narrator is a character within his own poem). A rewriting of the generic conventions of noir, City of Glass follows Auster-the-detective reporting to Auster-the-writer about his investigations of a writer named Quinn, who is trailing a man named Stillman trying to murder his father. Stillman was abused by his father, a linguist who hoped that by raising his son without language he might in turn naturally become fluent in the tongue once spoken in Eden. Milton was interested in the relationship between language and reality. When it came to the inhabitants of Eden, Adam named them “as they passed, and understood/Their nature, with such knowledge God endued.” Renaissance scholars were obsessed with what the primordial tongue may have been, arguing that it was everything from the predictable Hebrew to the long-shot Swedish, and they sometimes purposefully deprived a child of language in the hopes that they would reveal what was spoken before the fall. What is revealed instead is the ever shifting nature of all language, for even if Eden’s tongue remains unspoken, the significance of speech and writing is reaffirmed. In “the good mystery there is nothing wasted, no sentence, no word that is not significant. And even if it is not significant, it has the potential to be so - which amounts to the same thing.” Mystery was of course a theological term before it was the provenance of detectives, and as partisans of the inexplicable Milton and Auster both bend language to imperfectly describe ineffable things. Milton in America (1986) by Peter Ackroyd Some have argued that Paradise Lost is a potent anti-imperial epic about European colonialism, for what is the literal story save for that of natives under attack by a powerful adversary who threatens their world? Perhaps following this observation, Peter Ackroyd audaciously imagines an alternate literary history, in which a Milton escaping Restoration chooses not to write his famous epic, but rather establishes a colony based on godly principles somewhere in Virginia. Ackroyd’s novel explores this American aspect of Milton’s thinking, remembering that Milton’s nephew John Philips was the translator of the Spanish Dominican Bartolomé de las Casas’s classic account of Spanish atrocities in Mexico, The Tears of the Indians. For Milton, before the Luciferian arrival of Europeans to America’s shores, these continents were of “that first naked glory! Such of late/Columbus found the American, so girt/With feathered cincture; naked else, and while/Among the trees on isles and woody shores.” While Milton was writing, his fellow countrymen and coreligionists were beginning their own belated colonial expeditions on New England’s rocky shoals; Paradise Lost published almost a half-century after the Mayflower set sail. The Pilgrims and Puritans who defined that “city on a hill” held Milton in high esteem, and throughout her history, Americans have hewed to a strongly Miltonic ethos. As Ackroyd’s imagined version of the bard tells his apprentice aboard their evocatively and appropriately named ship the Gabriel, “We are going far to the west…We are travelling to a land of refuge and a mansion house of liberty.” Not one to simply genuflect before literary idols, Ackroyd presents a zealous, authoritarian, tyrannical Milton, who wandering blind among the woods of America and hearing visions from his God decides to wage war on both a group of peaceful Catholic colonists who’ve settled nearby, as well as the Native Americans. Ackroyd presents an audacious reimagining of the very themes of Paradise Lost, the original tragedy of America’s genocidal beginnings told with Milton himself as a surrogate of Lucifer. [millions_ad] The Satanic Verses (1988) by Salman Rushdie Somewhere above the English Channel an Indian jetliner explodes from a terrorist’s bomb, and from the flaming wreckage, Gibreel Farishta and Saladin Chamcha “plummeted like bundles.” The Bollywood actors are both miraculously condemned to an “endless but also ending angelicdevilish fall,” which signaled the “process of their transmutation.” What follows in Salman Rushdie’s fabulist novel of magical realism are a series of dream visions, where along the way Farishta, true to his given name, begins to resemble the archangel Gabriel and Chamcha finds himself transformed into a devil. The fall of these angels conjures the losing war against God before creation, when “headlong themselves they threw/Down from the verge of Heav’n,” and as Chamcha becomes a devil, the formerly beautiful Lucifer transformed into Satan. Milton’s theology could be strident, as indeed so is that of the post-colonial, secular Islamic atheist Rushdie. The latter famously found himself on the receiving end of a fatwa issued by the Ayatollah Ruholla Khomeini concerning perceived blasphemy regarding depictions of the prophet Muhammad, precipitating a decade of self-imposed hiding. An anxiety that Milton knew well, as he could have easily ended up on the executioner’s scaffold. Any author with their own visionary theology risks being a heretic to somebody, illustrating the charged danger of religion. Scripture, after all, is simply the literature that people are willing to kill each other over. Many partisans for the parliamentary cause certainly found themselves victims of political retribution upon the restoration of the monarchy in 1660. The anti-republicans had long memories; in his 1646 tract Eikonoklastes Milton described royalists as an “inconstant, irrational, and Image-doting rabble," a veritable “credulous and hapless herd.” Restoration would not bode well for the poet who had once mocked the circumstances of the death of the new king’s father. Charles II returned to his throne from exile in France, and Milton’s name was included on a list of those to be arrested. Ultimately he was spared the hangman’s noose because of the intercession of the fellow poet and political chameleon Andrew Marvell, who unlike his friend was an adept at altering his positions with the changing eddies of power. Milton’s threat of persecution was largely political, while Rushdie’s was explicitly religious, but that’s just to quibble. Religion and politics are two categories which are inseparable, both in Milton’s era and our own. Both men illustrate how writers can be the weather vanes of society, sensitive towards the changing fortunes of potential tyranny, and often victim to it as well. Rushdie once said in an interview, “Two things form the bedrock of any open society—freedom of expression and rule of law,” a hard-won bit of wisdom and a sentiment that is a worthy descendent of Milton’s argument for free-speech in his 1644 pamphlet Areopagitica, where he wrote that “he who destroys a good book, kills reason itself.” His Dark Materials (1995-2000) by Philip Pullman His Dark Materials is sometimes characterized as atheistic fantasy. Pullman has claimed that the books were written in direct response to the Christian fantasy of Lewis, who he disdains as bigoted and misogynist. Pullman aptly explains that he just doesn’t “like the conclusions Lewis comes to,” and he is similarly dismissive of that other titan of fantasy writing, J.R.R. Tolkien. But rather than reject fantasy completely he asks why the genre shouldn’t be as “truthful and profound about becoming an adult human being?” He continues by claiming, “There are a few fantasies that are. One of them is Paradise Lost.” And so Pullman ironically repurposes Milton to write a specifically anti-Christian apologetics. His Dark Materials takes place in a counter-factual history where the contemporary day seems vaguely Victorian steam-punkish, the Magisterium of the Catholic Church exerts absolute control over knowledge (even if in this world John Calvin became a pope and moved the papacy to Geneva), and a type of magic exists. Pullman depicts movements between parallel realities of the “multiverse,” the existence of “daemons” (a type of animal familiar used by the characters), and the actual death of God—not to speak of the talking polar bears. Who the villains are in the trilogy is not ambiguous. One character explains, “What is happening, and who it is that we must fight. It is the Magisterium, the Church. For all of its history… it’s tried to suppress and control every natural impulse.” But perhaps “Gnostic” might be a more accurate description of the theology of His Dark Materials than simply either anti-Christian or atheist. Pullman’s religious imagination is profound, if heterodox, but it certainly has the concern with ultimate things that are the hallmark of all great, visionary religious writing. Rather, Pullman has followed that injunction of Blake’s that claims that one “must create a system, or be enslaved by another man’s.” Arguably that was exactly what Milton had done as well, taking the narrative of scripture and fashioning his own new story. And so, in that fashion, all great authors must work from the raw, dark materials of the traditions that have come before us, using that substance as the ever malleable base for our own systems. The story is not just long—it never ends. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.