I can't believe it's been three years, but it's true. I started The Millions three years ago today (though it didn't become a Blog About Books until a little later.) Want to see what it looked like? Ugly! In the intervening years I've tried to make the blog a little nicer to look at and a little easier to read. I'm still having fun though, and I wouldn't have kept it up for this long (I've never kept anything up this long!), if it weren't for you guys. So thank you. Thank you to my contributors who keep this place from being too monotonous. Thank you to all those folks in the publishing industry who work hard to get good books out there to the people and who are kind enough to occasionally send me books they think I might like. Thank you to writers and aspiring writers for creating things for us to read (and for visiting The Millions sometimes). Thanks to my fellow book bloggers - if it weren't for you guys, this would be a pretty dull hobby. Thanks most of all to the readers of this blog and the readers of books. I've greatly enjoyed our ongoing, virtual conversation.All those thank yous. One of the nice things about having a blog is that you can publicly pretend you've just won an Oscar any time you feel like it.Finally, I just want to harken back to my so-called manifesto from way back when, when I laid out why I think it's important for us to discuss what we read. It's still my goal for the blog today: "Given that you and I will only be able to read a finite number of books in our lifetimes, then we should try, as much as possible, to devote ourselves to reading only the ones that are worth reading, while bearing in mind that for every vapid, uninspiring book we read, we are bumping from our lifetime reading list a book that might give us a profound sort of joy."Keep reading good books!
They recently announced the finalists for the 2003 National Book Critics Circle Awards. The winners will be announced on March 4th. I tend to be more interested in "critics circle" awards when it comes to books and movies. Critics have to read or watch many more books or movies than the average person, and it is their job to pass judgment on this sort of thing. It is also important that they are not "insiders" in their respective industries, thus their choices are relatively unsullied by politics and personality conflicts. Nor is anyone really campaigning for these awards as one might campaign for an Oscar, a Pulitzer, or a Booker. Here are the nominees:FictionMonica Ali, Brick Lane (Scribner)Edward P. Jones, The Known World (Amistad/HarperCollins)Caryl Phillips, A Distant Shore (Knopf)Richard Powers, The Time of Our Singing (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)Tobias Wolff, Old School (Knopf)General NonfictionCaroline Alexander, The Bounty: The True Story of the Mutiny on the Bounty (Viking)Anne Applebaum, Gulag: A History (Doubleday)Paul Hendrickson, Sons of Mississippi: A Story of Race and Its Legacy (Knopf)Adrian Nicole LeBlanc, Random Family: Love, Drugs, Trouble, and Coming of Age in the Bronx (Scribner)William T. Vollmann, Rising Up and Rising Down (McSweeney's)Biography/AutobiographyBlake Bailey, A Tragic Honesty: The Life and Work of Richard Yates (Picador)Paul Elie, The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)George Marsden, Jonathan Edwards (Yale University Press)Carol Loeb Shloss, Lucia Joyce: To Dance in the Wake (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)William Taubman, Khrushchev: The Man and His Era (Norton)PoetryCarolyn Forche, Blue Hour (HarperCollins)Tony Hoagland, What Narcissism Means to Me (Graywolf)Venus Khoury-Ghata, She Says (Graywolf)Susan Stewart, Columbarium (University of Chicago Press)Mary Szybist, Granted (Alice James Books)CriticismDagoberto Gilb, Gritos (Grove)Nick Hornby, Songbook (McSweeney's)Ross King, Michelangelo and the Pope's Ceiling (Walker)Rebecca Solnit, River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West (Viking)Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)My thoughts: Brick Lane, The Known World, and Gulag continue to make appearances as finalists for major awards. None of the National Book Award winners are even listed as finalists for these awards. McSweeney’s is shown some love for its two most serious and most ambitious releases of the year. Now, if only they would take this as a cue to leave the forced silliness of their other releases behind.
Andrew Marantz reviews R. Kelly’s “breezy” and “revealing” memoir, Soulacoaster: The Diary of Me, for The New Yorker’s book blog, Page-Turner. This might be what they meant when they said they were “rebooting” the Book Bench. (Related: hear Gary Oldman read some passages from the book.)
Sometimes, like most storytellers with a book or two under their belt, I’m asked if I have any advice for younger or less experienced writers. I hope the following five tips can be of some assistance. 1. Exhaust other paths to earthly renown. Before you sit down to write, carefully ensure that a ticket to widespread adulation, or at the very least cultural relevance, is not more readily available from a more auspicious venue. Ignominiously fallen from its privileged position of yesteryear -- i.e., the days when electronic media did not exist -- the writing of belles lettres should no longer be considered an effective strategy for achievement of fame or fortune. Each potential alternative to this challenging and circuitous route should therefore be pursued exhaustively; a checklist can be a useful tool in the process. A few examples of superior options: Singer. Newly rich individual. Reality TV person. Naked blogger. Politician sexting victim. Politician. Tech mogul. Koch-brother style of oligarch. It is imperative, before you sit down to write, that none of these alternatives are available to you in either the short or medium term. 2. Rid writing space/home of counterproductive elements. Children and pets, ideally, should be removed, the former in particular. Pets may remain if silent/unmoving. Some plants may also remain, if watered by others/servants. Children must be extirpated. In special contexts this may be achieved on a temporary basis, but permanent elimination is always the safer course. As a writer, you will require absolute peace and tranquility to enable a singular focus on yourself, your train of thought, indeed your every notion or desire as such. Do not live on a loud street, nor should you abide among active and loud persons. Distressed or ill persons, like children, should not be allowed to persist in your vicinity. Side note: Also, avoid passing your weeks, months, or years in a state or region ravaged by crime, war, toxins of water or air, or highly infectious disease. Nations governed by autocratic rule are permissible, but seldom preferred. 3. Provisions must be abundant. Persistent hunger is anathema to the serious writer, much like civil strife. We recommend a fully stocked larder. We recommend, also, a well-furnished bar and wisely chosen selection of fine vintages. Poverty, whether inherited or self-made, is rarely a judicious choice for writers determined to express themselves and delicately hone their craft. Few among our thoughtful legion work well in a state of extreme destitution; there are only a handful of exceptions in recent memory, each one of whom is now, sadly, deceased. Cleave to the immortal rationalization of vaunted French scribbler Gustave Flaubert: “Be regular and orderly in your life like a bourgeois, so that you may be violent and original in your work.” Indeed we would go further still: better, far better to be a bourgeois than to live like one. 4. Be no man’s wife/no woman’s husband. You may gather your acolytes about you, as a writer, and indeed you should do so expeditiously, for even a fledgling writer requires admiring readers as surely as a fragile ego needs to shore up strength. If you elect to follow the popular middlebrow path of academic writing, becoming for instance a poet/professor or fiction writer/professor, students can function well in this supportive acolyte role. Spouses, however -- unless secured in a permanent position of eager servility -- are not devoutly to be wished. Exceptions may willingly be made for an “art wife,” i.e. a domestic and professional helpmeet and facilitator of male creative output, but female writers should be advised that few, if any, “art husbands” have yet to be discovered in the annals of literary history. Thus we must counsel against the conjugal state in the majority of cases, and indeed against amorous entanglements of most kinds, which can be not only distracting but drain the serious writer of vital fluids/attention. Short-term encounters are best, in the event that human contact beyond the immediate circle of acolytes is wished. 5. Banish the critic from your mind. In our line of endeavor, self-confidence is de rigueur. Because of its often-solitary nature, book-writing, unlike the writing of comments on websites, the posting of witticisms on social media, etc., must be pursued, at least in part, absent the constant and daily input of our fellow humans. This, in any case, has been the traditional model. In this regard, two items are worth noting: first, a writer must banish the inner critic, that critical force that lurks within your own intelligence. An overzealous, naysaying mental habit is death to the production of both prose and verse. Second, banish the outer critic handily. Yes, there will be those who argue against the value of your work; ‘twas ever thus. There will be those who gainsay your genius, at various points; those, in publishing and reviewing equally, who turn their faces from the gifts you give. These unenlightened souls cannot be allowed to enter your mental world. Remember always that, as writers, we give because we must. We give, at times, despite the knowledge that our gifts may not be needed, wanted, or enjoyed. For us -- we must remind ourselves -- the joy is in that selfless offering. Image Credit: Wikipedia
● ● ●
It sells Middlemarch short to call it a novel of manners, although if viewed from just one angle it is. The novel describes the precisely ordered life of the eponymous village in feudal England, where every resident can be placed on a grid according to his annual income and the quality of his lineage. There are characters with small parts in Middlemarch, but no minor ones, so fully drawn are all of George Eliot's creations. Principally the story concerns the life of Dorothea Brooke, a young and beautiful women of the upper class whose spiritual discontent leads her astray in marriage. There is also Tertius Lydgate, a cocky and ambitious doctor come lately to town, and Mr. Bulstrode, a new money banker with a mysterious past. Each chases love, money, and respectability in proportion to his needs and finds that the strictures of society, even more than the dictates of his conscience, shape the person he will become.In the middle of all this stands Eliot, whose presence is unmistakable as the energy that makes this fictional world go round. Writing of one character who has just lost his temper, the narrator says, "Will was not without his intentions to be always generous, but our tongues are little triggers which have usually been pulled before general intentions can be brought to bear." This is typical of the way Eliot annotates, observing wisely on the fraught behavior of men, like the angel in It's a Wonderful Life who tells George Bailey all about his life. James Wood, in How Fiction Works, called this perspective "authorial omniscience," and it has the tendency to feel antiquated to us, a relic of a simpler time when the whole world might be understood according to such strict and unvarying codes.There are, in any story, always two competing forces, an individual's will and social prerogative. When the two are held to be fixed and immovable, you get the best melodramas, like Romeo and Juliet. It's a simpler class of story, one we respond to but no longer really believe to accurately describe things as they are. On the other end of the spectrum you have today's conditions of storytelling, where neither individual identity nor the social order have any fixed anchors, resulting in all manner of existential confusion when the two mix together. Middlemarch, however, exists somewhere in between and the result is as pure and exacting as ballet.About halfway through the book, as a husband and wife contemplate the suitability of a young man for their daughter, Eliot writes, "A human being in this aged nation of ours is a very wonderful whole, the slow creation of long interchanging influences." It is just that interchange of influences that Eliot sketches in Middlemarch and she does so with a fluency for human behavior that is quite often breathtaking. Take for example this small scene, describing the Vicar Farebrother after a brief interview with the eligible Mary Garth:As the Vicar walked to Lowick, any one watching him closely might have seen him twice shrug his shoulders... The Vicar was holding an inward dialogue in which he told himself that there was probably something more between Fred and Mary Garth than the regard of old playfellows, and replied with a question whether that bit of womanhood were not a great deal too choice for that crude young gentleman. The rejoinder to this was the first shrug. Then he laughed at himself for being likely to have felt jealous, as if he had been a man able to marry which, added he, it is as clear as any balance-sheet that I am not. Whereupon followed the second shrug.Here, Eliot is able to slow the world down enough to capture not only that the Vicar would shrug twice, but exactly why he would do it. The resolution with which she is able to observe her characters reminds me of great baseball hitters who see in slow motion what appears to the rest of us to be impossibly fast. Such is Eliot's ability to dip into the torrent of human experience and master it.As commanding as Eliot's view is, it is not static. Her central characters - Dorothea, Lydgate and Bulstrode - live contingently, always on the edge of transformation. Throughout the story they come to have a keener understanding of their own desires, a process of self-understanding that occurs through dialogue with other characters and the unerring rebound of the social order. Society itself is fixed (although Eliot does critique feudal landholdings and insincere religiosity) and in this, Middlemarch describes a world that is no longer ours. But the dialectic of her characters is timeless. Dorothea tests her spiritual longing against an unexpected passion. Lydgate wrestles with his professional ambitions matched against a wife who would seem to spoil him at every turn. Bulstrode struggles to reconcile his religiosity with more base urges, a desire for money and a fear of shame. As the characters try and evolve they arrive at inexact and unintended places. But that they do is not an indictment of the rigid social order. It is instead an exposition of human frailty, of our inability to know our own desires let alone to conquer them. Far from just a novel of manners, Middlemarch is a monument to the fraught lives of women and men. It is, quite undeniably, great.
● ● ●
"As I read her words, I experienced a feeling previously unknown to me: recognition. I had always turned to books for pleasure, as portals to other places. Reading The Woman Warrior, for the first time I saw myself on every page and in every word." For Catapult, Alexis Cheung writes about representation, being an Asian-American writer, and reading and interviewing Maxine Hong Kingston. From our archives: Kingston's work was featured in Alexander Chee's 2015 Year in Reading.
In addition to the fact Amazon reviewers and experts agree "in aggregate about the quality of a book," non-professional reviews on Amazon tend to be "more eclectic," "more supportive of debut authors," and less biased in favor of authors with whom they associate than media experts.