Paradise Regained: An Interview with Lauren Groff
I'd been waiting to read another novel by Lauren Groff ever since I finished her first, The Monsters of Templeton, a genealogy-detective story which also happens to include an enormous lake monster and sentences so beautiful you just want to weep. That promising debut, however, could not prepare me for the brilliance and wisdom of Arcadia, Groff's recently-released second novel. I was wholly swept up in this story about, among other things, a man who is raised on a commune; I would've read it faster were it not for the stunning prose that I wanted, like a fine meal, to savor. Groff's novel is so richly imagined that every word, every detail, feels true. She is one of the most talented writers working today. The Millions: I was immediately drawn to Bit as a narrator--he's sensitive, thoughtful, a keen observer of his surroundings, sweet, and tiny. Can't get much more loveable than that. (He also seems an antidote to another fictional boy, Kevin, from one of my favorite books, We Need to Talk About Kevin--and I think, as a mother of a son, I needed that!) I really enjoyed being in Bit's world, his perspective. Was he always the person to tell this story? How do you feel a different member of Arcadia might have altered our perception of it? Lauren Groff: Bit was always the person to tell the story, even if he didn't begin as the character he ended up being by the last draft. I started this book when I was pregnant with my first son Beckett; from the beginning, I knew there was going to be a child's point-of-view in the first part. That said, Bit was at first a girl, primarily because almost every point-of-view character I've ever written up to then was female. Then Beck was born, and suddenly the character had to be a boy, and he grew into a fuller life as my son did. This book is equally Bit's mother's story--Hannah's story--and even though she and I are similar in a lot of ways, I found Bit's perspective to be more interesting, his loss more keen. When Arcadia falls apart, Bit knows nothing of the world beyond, really, and has to go into it as an innocent, which seemed utterly terrifying to me. (As a side-note, I love Lionel Shriver [holy hell!].) TM: I was impressed with how language of this book shifted, grew more mature, as the book progressed, as Bit aged. Also, there's almost a groovy rhythm to the prose early on that reflects the lifestyle of the commune. Later on, the prose is far more subdued. Was this intentional, and how did you calibrate the perspective with each section? LG: It's hard to say how intentional the shift in language was--I write from the gut a lot. That said, I believe very deeply in the symbiosis of story and mode, that the way that a writer chooses to tell the story has to be at least an equal partner to the story itself. Global things matter--the external architecture of the story, its internal structure, point-of-view, voice, verb tense, authorial distance, things like that. And smaller things matter equally--the use of white space, the length and rhythm of the sentences, the choice of details. When a story I've written has failed, it's because I haven't found the right way to tell it in either a large way or a small way. TM: Everyone who's read this book raves about its prose. It's gorgeous! When Bit is alone as a child in the dark woods, you write, "There is a sense of gathering, a hand that clenches the center of a stretched cloth and lifts." Later, Bit describes the unfamiliarity of boxed cookies, how they taste "the way batteries do when licked." As an adult, he thinks of his students, their "faces cracked with interest." The images are specific, surprising, beautiful. Can you talk a little about your relationship to sentences and imagery, and how you go about crafting your prose? LG: Ha. Thanks. The prose that ends up in a finished piece is the product of lots and lots of drafts. I do a preliminary draft of almost everything I write, where I just sprint from the beginning of the story to the end in longhand, and when I'm done, I throw it out without rereading it. This seems wasteful, but it's actually immensely freeing. By the time I'm done with the first draft, I've figured out my structural problems, have a good idea of the characters, and, most importantly, am not so wedded to the words themselves that I can't fix what's inherently broken about the piece. When I start again, the nice phrasing or images from the first draft reappear if they're interesting or important and don't if they're not. And then, after a good longhand draft is finished (maybe after three or four re-starts), and I transfer it all to the computer, the second stage of drafting begins, where I print out the manuscript, scribble over it crabbily in red ink, insert changes, and reprint. This goes on for dozens and dozens of drafts. And then there are the trusted reader drafts, the agent drafts, the editor drafts, the copy-editor drafts. Sometimes, I wonder if writing fiction is, at its core, mostly a matter of finding a story or character that's interesting enough to hold the writer's interest through all of the painstaking work of revising. TM: The novel reads episodically, with little moments or scenes broken up by white space. There are parts that feel more episodic than others, and it almost feels like time is passing in flashes, everything blurry but a brief, beautiful moment. This made the book not only highly readable, but it also emphasized the passage of time by giving it a physical dimension on the page. This is a long-winded preamble to asking you how you conceived of time passing in Arcadia. The novel is told in the present-tense, and yet, the latter half of the book is so much about Bit looking backward. How did you wrestle with all the years covered? How does scene-writing change in a book that covers so much time? LG: Oh, I'm so glad you mentioned time. From the beginning, it was deeply important to my idea of the project of this book. I am in love with the gorgeous, elastic, leaping human brain that shuffles and connects disparate pieces of the world into a coherent story. I wanted the white space, either between the episodes or between the four parts of the book, to carry a lot of the narrative burden. Some people may live lives that are perfectly linear, but mine seems to happen in intense, emotionally-charged spurts, followed by long, fallow periods of relative calm. My impression of history--our collective storytelling--is that it happens in crests and troughs, too. With Arcadia, I wanted to examine time, through Bit, as this intensely personal experience; I also wanted to examine time in its larger historical patterns. TM: I admit, I'm a bit annoyed that so many reviews of Arcadia give away its plot and structure , which was deeply surprising (and thus pleasurable) to me. So, ***spoiler alert*** to those reading this interview who haven't read the book! I was shocked when this book moved forward into the future; this suddenly panoramic view of Bit's whole life reminded me a little of A Visit from the Goon Squad (of which I am a big fan), in its surprising depiction of a future that supplies us with a new understanding of the book's characters. Did you know you were going to structure Arcadia like this? I kept wondering if an earlier draft was more conventional, plot-wise, more like Room by Emma Donoghue--where the little boy who was born and raised in a shed escapes and in the second half of the book has to interact with this big, scary new world. Why skip ahead to Bit as an adult, now accustomed to the outside world? Were you meaning to shift our expectations of plot and novel structure? LG: As soon as I figured out what I wanted to write about, I understood that my arc was going to move toward dystopia at the end of the book. The impulse stemmed from my research--a lot of the back-to-the-landers I read about and talked to for Arcadia went from being largely idealistic in the 1960s to being somewhat apocalyptic nowadays; for instance, a number of them ascribe to peak oil theories and practice radical homemaking. (For the record, I don't think they're wrong.) I was gobsmacked by the idea that people who were extremely future-thinking in their twenties would become extremely anxious about the future in their sixties. It keyed into a lot of the bleakness I was feeling at the time I envisioned this book, because, in truth, I was (am) afraid for my baby's future. Also, the real pattern for this book was not just ending at Paradise Lost, but also extending into Paradise Regained; if Bit were going to be given the chance to return home, the stakes in the outside world had to be heightened. And though I deeply love Room, which I let myself read after my final edits, Bit's trajectory was different because I wanted to explore how Bit carries his parents' idealism throughout his life and how it changes him. TM: How much research went into Arcadia? What in the commune is just pure imagination and fantasy, and what did you feel needed to be backed up with historical fact? Where does research fit into your writing process? LG: I research first and a great deal, and then do a small amount throughout the rest of the writing process, all of which took about four years for this book. I wasn't sure what I wanted to do at the beginning, so I started with just basic texts about utopias and dystopias. I moved on to utopian novels (Butler, Morris, More, Le Guin, Campanella, and on and on), read about actual historical intentional communities. The two that took my breath away were Oneida, in mid-nineteenth-century upstate New York (Mansion House is the inspiration for Arcadia House), and The Farm in 1960s through '80s Tennessee. I spent a few days at both places. Oneida is now a guest-house, and you can stay with people who still live at The Farm, both of which experiences I recommend heartily. And then I talked to everyone who would talk to me about their experiences in intentional communities. Serendipity was on my side with this project. Even during moments that I wasn't looking for a story, I stumbled into one. We had a garage sale and someone came up to us who said our house had housed a cult in the 1970s that she'd been a part of. Apparently, they wore pink robes and made the kids sleep in the garage. TM: And because The Millions is a site about books, I must ask, What's the last great book you read? LG: I just read Leela Corman's Unterzakhn, and can't say enough lovely things about it. It's a graphic novel that just came out, set on the Lower East Side in the beginning of the twentieth century. It's lush and smart and and funny and just beautifully drawn. And I just reread Jami Attenberg's great new novel called The Middlesteins, which will be published in October. It's so great-hearted and warm and brilliant. You'll love it.
The Millions Top Ten: March 2011
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 March. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. - The Pale King 1 month 2. 8. The Late American Novel: Writers on the Future of Books 2 months 3. 1. The Imperfectionists 3 months 4. 2. Atlas of Remote Islands 4 months 5. 3. Skippy Dies 3 months 6. 5. Cardinal Numbers 4 months 7. 6. The Finkler Question 5 months 8. 7. Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption 4 months 9. 10. The Hunger Games 2 months 10. - Unfamiliar Fishes 1 month I knew it would end up atop our list, just not this month. David Foster Wallace's The Pale King debuts in the top spot, based only on those early pre-orders shipping from Amazon. Our other debut is Sarah Vowell's Unfamiliar Fishes, reviewed here on The Millions last week. Thanks to the generous interest of many Millions readers, the book I co-edited The Late American Novel: Writers on the Future of Books vaults to the second spot on our March list (I hope everyone's enjoying it!). Graduating to our Hall of Fame is one of last summer's big books, Emma Donoghue's Room, and getting bumped from the list after a brief stay is the Mark Twain Autobiography. Other Near Misses: Lord of Misrule, How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One, Just Kids, and Woman in White. See Also: Last month's list
The Millions Top Ten: February 2011
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. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. 3. The Imperfectionists 2 months 2. 4. Atlas of Remote Islands 3 months 3. 8. Skippy Dies 2 months 4. 5. Room 6 months 5. 7. Cardinal Numbers 3 months 6. 10. The Finkler Question 4 months 7. 9. Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption 3 months 8. - The Late American Novel: Writers on the Future of Books 1 month 9. - Autobiography of Mark Twain, Vol. 1 1 month 10. - The Hunger Games 1 month Tom Rachman's The Imperfectionists surges to the top of our list, followed by Judith Schalansky's Atlas of Remote Islands, and Paul Murray's Skippy Dies. Meanwhile, the bottom of our list includes three very diverse debuts. The Late American Novel, co-edited by yours truly, is only just now "officially" out but it has been shipping from Amazon for a few weeks now. (To everyone out there who's picked up the book, thanks for all your support.) Also, new on the list is the Mark Twain Autobiography that has gotten so much attention over the last few months. A few commentators, notably Adam Gopnik in the New Yorker, deflated the hype somewhat, but there is undoubtedly an enormous amount of interest in this literary legend. Finally, all the excitement around YA sensation The Hunger Games has landed the first book in the popular series on our list. Those three debuts took the spots left open by a trio of new Hall of Fame inductees, three books you could argue were the biggest literary reads of last summer, Gary Shteyngart's Super Sad True Love Story, Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad, and, of course, Jonathan Franzen's Freedom. Near Misses: How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One, Postcards from Penguin: One Hundred Book Covers in One Box, To the End of the Land, Just Kids , and Woman in White. See Also: Last month's list
No More Model Airplanes: Essential Writing about Writing
In his essay, "How to Write in 700 Easy Lessons: The Case Against Writing Manuals," Richard Bausch protests the proliferation of instructional books about writing, and laments all those wanna-be authors who, rather than read novels or short stories, seek out books on how to write their own. He asserts, and rightly, "The trouble of course is that a good book is not something you can put together like a model airplane. It does not lend itself to that kind of instruction." I never read how-to books on writing until I was faced with the prospect of teaching writing; before then, I simply read, period. The writers I loved (and even the writers I hated) taught me, indirectly, about writing. In a class of beginning writers, the ones with the strongest sense of storytelling and character, and with a grasp for prose that is vibrant and surprising, are often the ones who read voraciously, widely, and deeply. A good reader isn't necessarily a good writer, but a good writer must be a good reader. In the past few years, though, I have sought out some books and essays on craft and technique. I've found that some of these texts are useful for articulating the intuitive; it's when I'm having trouble with my work--or, more likely, wrestling with my manuscript in revision--that explicit instruction has led me out of whatever hole I've dug myself into. I haven't read the kinds of how-to manuals Bausch rejects; I prefer the books that deal with "the aesthetics of task," as he puts it. I've read and enjoyed--and, sometimes, enjoyed disagreeing with--such books. I've also enjoyed, in preparing a lesson for an introductory course, going back to the basics. It reminds me of taking a ballet class for non-dancers; as someone who studied ballet for years (never seriously, mind you), the painstaking review of the plié can be illuminating. After all, it's the step that allows the dancer to do everything else. One just has to remember that learning to plié spectacularly won't make one a spectacular dancer--or even a dancer. There's technique, but there's also passion, soul, grace, daring. There are a few books on writing that I've not only been useful for teaching, but also inspiring and instructional to me personally. They have me thinking deeply not only as a writer, but as a reader, too; perhaps that's the difference between such texts and the ones Bausch rejects. Aside from the usual suspects--The Art of Fiction by John Gardner, for instance, or Mysteries and Manners by Flannery O'Connor--here are some of my favorite books on craft: How Fiction Works by James Wood provides an excellent explication and appreciation of the free indirect style, or, as I prefer to call it, the close third person. The third person is the trickiest of points of view, in my opinion, for it can vacillate wildly in terms of distance from the character(s); Wood's way of describing a close relationship between narrator and character makes this one approach to point of view easy to understand without stripping it of its complexity. I also love the short chapter breaks--often only a couple of sentences long. They're pleasurable to read. Now Write!, edited by Sherry Ellis, isn't a book on craft at all, but, rather, an anthology of writing exercises from writers like Dan Chaon, Alexander Chee, and Jayne Anne Phillips, among many others. I use this book all the time when assigning shorter pieces to my students. I've also recommended it to students who want to keep up a regular practice of writing without the pressure of working on a longer, self-designed project. A couple exercises a week--from "Why I Stole It" by Robert Anthony Siegel, to "The Photograph" by Jill McCorkle--will hone anyone's powers of imagination and description. I've done these exercises along with my students, and they remind me that writing without a final product in mind can open new avenues, and introduce me to characters and story lines I heretofore might not have entertained. This kind of writing feels as fun as reading. Lately, I've been obsessed with The Art of series, edited by Charles Baxter and published by Graywolf Press. In each slim volume, a notable writer examines one element of writing from a craft perspective. Baxter's own volume, The Art of Subtext, explores plot and scene without reducing them to formula, without turning fictional characters into pawns on a chessboard. He manages to discuss character desire and motivation in a way that doesn't make me think of overly-simplistic screenwriting rules. My class had a great time discussing Baxter's analysis of the great J.F. Powers story "The Valiant Woman," which introduced many in the room to an oft-overlooked writer. I've recently been re-reading Joan Silber's The Art of Time, discussed on this site by J.C. Sirott. One of the things I love about writing fiction is how I can play with time, compress it and expand it, and I love analyzing these approaches with my students. Is there nothing sexier than starting a paragraph with, "Five years passed"? Is there nothing juicier than crouching into a dramatic moment between two characters? Silber's discussion of "selected concreteness" in The Great Gatsby is sharp, as is her examination of Anton Chekhov's "The Darling." Again, the reader in me delights, asks me to look again, and look more closely. Lately, I've been reading the series' books on poetry. A couple of weeks ago I assigned Mark Doty's The Art of Description; what Doty says about poems and their capacities can be applied to fiction: What descriptions--good ones, anyway--actually describe then is the consciousness, the mind, playing over the world of matter, finding there a glass various and lustrous enough to reflect back the complexities of the self that's doing the looking If that's not a new and beautiful way to articulate perspective and point of view, I don't know what is. I've also found a few essays on writing online, which I've taught with great results: Zadie Smith's "Fail Better," an essay on voice and what it means to write well, informed my reading of Emma Donoghue's Room (and my subsequent review). I find myself coming back to it, both in my own work, and in my teaching. The essay asks: What is voice and truth? What does it take to write well? How can one refine one's consciousness? William Boyd's "Brief Encounters" is a succinct overview of the short story from the perspective of one of its best contemporary practitioners. I like his distinction between a event-plot story and the Chekhovian one. Elizabeth Bowen's "Notes on Writing a Novel" is full of strong opinions, none of them supported with examples (She writes: "What about the idea that the function of action is to express the characters? This is wrong. The characters are there to provide the action."). The piece is a series of declarations about the novel, and some of them wow me, some confuse me, and some leave me cold. Whatever the declaration, though, I admire Bowen's confidence, and there are some nuggets of real genius here: "Nothing can happen nowhere" (when she's discussing scene), and (regarding dialogue): "Speech is what characters do to each other." Now, I'd like to know--teachers, students, writers and readers--what are your favorite books on writing?
The Millions Top Ten: January 2011
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. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. 2. A Visit from the Goon Squad 6 months 2. 1. Freedom 6 months 3. - The Imperfectionists 1 month 4. 4. Atlas of Remote Islands 2 months 5. 3. Room 5 months 6. 6. Super Sad True Love Story 6 months 7. 8. Cardinal Numbers 2 months 8. - Skippy Dies 1 month 9. 10. Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption 2 months 10. 9. The Finkler Question 3 months Goon Squad! In the last month on our list before they graduate to the Hall of Fame, Jennifer Egan's underdog A Visit from the Goon Squad toppled Jonathan Franzen's Freedom for our top spot. Egan's book started with a lot of buzz last summer, and that buzz grew deafening over the course of 2010 (and into 2011) as it became the book to read among discerning fans of contemporary literature. Meanwhile, after months knocking on the door, Tom Rachman's The Imperfectionists (not coincidentally just out in paperback) rockets onto our list with a debut appearance in third spot. Our other debut is another book that's been much discussed around here, Paul Murray's Skippy Dies. Rachman participated in our Year in Reading this year, as did Murray. Those two debuts took the spots vacated by our latest Hall of Fame inductees, a pair of summer reads that stayed hot as the weather got cold, Justin Cronin's vampire tale The Passage and Tana French's thriller Faithful Place. Near Misses: The Autobiography of Mark Twain, The Hunger Games, Postcards from Penguin: One Hundred Book Covers in One Box, Just Kids , and Woman in White. See Also: Last month's list
The Amazon Alphabet: From Audio Books to Zane
You've probably noticed that Amazon, like many sites, employs an "auto-complete" feature on its search box. When you start typing in letters, it suggests things that begin with those letters. It's probably safe to assume that it suggests the most frequently searched words, so, if we look at Amazon's book section we can type in letters and discover, for each letter of the alphabet, the most popular searches on Amazon. Last time we did this, about a year and half ago, vampires were the dominant theme. This time around, the vampires have mostly disappeared and things are perhaps a touch more literary. As we termed it last time, you might consider this exercise, the ABCs of Amazon (a peek into the reading habits of America and, like it or not, a primer for what's popular in the world of books): Audio Books Bible Charlaine Harris (ok, some vampire books are still popular) Diary of a Wimpy Kid (the very popular children's series by Jeff Kinney) Ebooks (a sign of the times) Free Kindle Books (Ibid) Girl with the Dragon Tattoo Harry Potter (as if there was any doubt) ISBN number search (funny because ISBNs work in the search box) James Patterson Kindle (no surprise here) Lee Child Mark Twain Autobiography 2010 Nora Roberts Outliers (by Malcolm Gladwell) Pretty Little Liars (there's a TV show based on these) Quilting Room (by Emma Donoghue) Stephen King The Help (by Kathryn Stockett) Unbroken (by Laura Hillenbrand) Vince Flynn Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen X-Men Yoga Zane (Amazon has been known to personalize and regularly adjust its results, so your Amazon alphabet may vary.)
The Millions Top Ten: December 2010
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 December. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. 1. Freedom 5 months 2. 3. A Visit from the Goon Squad 5 months 3. 6. (tie) Room 4 months 4. - Atlas of Remote Islands 1 month 5. 6. (tie) Faithful Place 6 months 6. 4. Super Sad True Love Story 5 months 7. 8. The Passage 6 months 8. - Cardinal Numbers 1 month 9. 9. The Finkler Question 2 months 10. - Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption 1 month During the month of December, The Millions was flooded with book recommendations thanks to our Year in Reading series. Many of these recommendations piqued the interest of our readers, and a pair of hidden gems were intriguing enough to make it into our Top Ten. One was Anthony Doerr's effusive praise for Judith Schalansky’s Atlas of Remote Islands, and the other was Sam Lipsyte's unearthing of the late and little known Hob Broun and his Gordon Lish-edited book Cardinal Numbers. A third debut in December was Laura Hillenbrand's Unbroken, her hotly anticipated follow up to Seabiscuit that was noted with an "AAAH!" in December by Sam Anderson. December also graduated a pair of books to our Hall of Fame, the second such honor for each of the authors. Joining Cloud Atlas as an all-time Millions favorite is David Mitchell's newest, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. Meanwhile, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest is a second inductee from the late Stieg Larsson's global sensation, the Millennium Trilogy Finally, it's worth noting that after many months of skewing male, our list has acheived gender parity, with four of the top five books penned by female writers. Don't be surprised if Jennifer Egan's breakout hit A Visit from the Goon Squad eclipses Jonathan Franzen's Freedom next month for our top spot. Near Misses: Skippy Dies, The Imperfectionists, The Hunger Games, The Autobiography of Mark Twain , and Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling with D. H. Lawrence. See Also: Last month's list
A Year in Reading: Michael Cunningham
My big project over the last year has been (finally) reading Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, about which nothing really need be said. I have, however, taken periodic Proust breaks and read novels that don’t require 10,000 hours of uninterrupted attention. I could list a dozen or more good novels I’ve read, but a particular favorite was Emma Donoghue’s Room, which concerns a young woman and her five-year-old son who are kept captive by a psychopath in a single room. It’s amazing what Donoghue is able to do within that tiny physical space. If we were worried (and I don’t think we should be) about a lack of originality and ambition in contemporary novels, here’s one that conjures an enormous story out of simple, even miniature, circumstances. I also tremendously enjoyed a young adult novel called The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins, which imagines a future world in which children are selected to fight to the death, for a vast TV audience. It’s well-written, completely engrossing, and involves a kick-ass girl who never needs to be rescued by the boys. What’s not to like about that? More from a Year in Reading 2010 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 The good stuff: The Millions' Notable articles The motherlode: The Millions' Books and Reviews Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions
The Millions Top Ten: November 2010
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 November. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. 1. Freedom 4 months 2. 2. The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet 6 months 3. 5. A Visit from the Goon Squad 4 months 4. 9. Super Sad True Love Story 4 months 5. 4. The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest 6 months 6. (tie) 6. Room 3 months 6. (tie) 8. Faithful Place 5 months 8. 7. The Passage 5 months 9. - The Finkler Question 1 month 10. 10. Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling With D.H. Lawrence 6 months November saw Booker-winner The Finkler Question, which we reviewed here, debut on our list. Last year's Booker winner Wolf Hall also landed on our list after being awarded the prize and ended up in our Hall of Fame. Speaking of which, another prizewinner, Pulitzer-winning underdog Tinkers is the newest inductee into our hallowed hall. Meanwhile, Freedom by Jonathan Franzen retains our top spot, while Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad and Super Sad True Love Story continue to surge higher on a wave of interest from Millions readers. Near Misses: The Hunger Games, The Imperfectionists, Things We Didn't See Coming, The Autobiography of Mark Twain, and The Gone-Away World. See Also: Last month's list
A Year in Reading 2010
There are many ways to measure a year, but the reader is likely to measure it in books. There was the novel that felt as fresh and full of promise as the new year in January, the memoir read on the bus to and from work through the grey days of March, the creased paperback fished from a pocket in the park in May, the stacks of books thumbed through and sandy-paged, passed around at the beach in August, the old favorite read by light coming in the window in October, and the many books in between. And when we each look back at our own years in reading, we are almost sure to find that ours was exactly like no other reader's. The end of another year brings the usual frothy and arbitrary accounting of the "best" this and the "most" that. But might it also be an opportunity to look back, reflect, and share? We hope so, and so, for a seventh year, The Millions has reached out to some of our favorite writers, thinkers, and readers to name, from all the books they read this year, the one(s) that meant the most to them, regardless of publication date. Grouped together, these ruminations, cheers, squibs, and essays will be a chronicle of reading and good books from every era. We hope you find in them seeds that will help make your year in reading in 2011 a fruitful one. As we have in prior years, the names of our 2010 "Year in Reading" contributors will be unveiled one at a time throughout the month as we post their contributions. You can bookmark this post and follow the series from here, or load up the main page for more new Year in Reading posts appearing at the top every day, or you can subscribe to our RSS feed and follow along in your favorite feed reader. Stephen Dodson, coauthor of Uglier Than a Monkey's Armpit, proprietor of Languagehat. Fiona Maazel, author of Last Last Chance. John Banville, author of The Sea, The Infinities, and many other books. Al Jaffee, legendary Mad Magazine writer and cartoonist. Lionel Shriver, author of So Much for That and several other books. Emma Rathbone, author of The Patterns of Paper Monsters. Joshua Cohen, author of Witz. Jonathan Dee, author of The Privileges and several other books. Jennifer Gilmore, author of Something Red. Stephen Elliott, editor of The Rumpus and author of The Adderall Diaries. Dan Kois, author of Facing Future. Bill Morris, Millions staff writer and author of Motor City. Mark Sarvas, author of Harry, Revised, proprietor of The Elegant Variation. Emma Donoghue, author of Room and several other books. Margaret Atwood, author of Year of the Flood and many other books. Lynne Tillman, author of American Genius and several other books. Hamilton Leithauser, of The Walkmen. Padgett Powell, author of The Interrogative Mood and other books. Anthony Doerr, author of Memory Wall and other books. Paul Murray, author of Skippy Dies. Tom Rachman, author of The Imperfectionists. Aimee Bender, author of The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake and several other books. Philip Lopate, author of Notes on Sontag and several other books. Sam Lipsyte, author of The Ask and other books. Julie Orringer, author of The Invisible Bridge. Joseph McElroy, author of Women and Men and several other books. Alexander Theroux, author of Laura Warholic and several other books. Laura van den Berg, author of What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us. Emily St. John Mandel, Millions staff writer and author of Last Night In Montreal and The Singer's Gun. John Williams, founding editor of The Second Pass. Edan Lepucki, Millions staff writer, author of If You're Not Yet Like Me. Ed Champion, proprietor of edrants.com and The Bat Segundo Show. Maud Newton, proprietor of maudnewton.com. Lorin Stein, editor of The Paris Review. Tom McCarthy, author of C and Remainder. Keith Gessen, author of All the Sad Young Literary Men and founding editor of n+1. Rosecrans Baldwin, author of You Lost Me There and co-founder of The Morning News. Paul Harding, author of Tinkers. Sigrid Nunez, author of Salvation City and several other books. Matt Weiland, editor of The Thinking Fan's Guide to the World Cup and State by State. Allegra Goodman, author of The Cookbook Collector and several other books. Adam Levin, author of The Instructions and several other books. Michael Cunningham, author of By Nightfall, The Hours and several other books. Sam Anderson, book critic, New York magazine. Richard Nash, of Cursor and Red Lemonade. Seth Mnookin, author of Hard News and The Panic Virus. Joanna Smith Rakoff, author of A Fortunate Age. Marisa Silver, author of The God of War and other books. David Gutowski, of Largehearted Boy. Emily Colette Wilkinson, Millions staff writer. Jenny Davidson, author of Invisible Things and other books. Scott Esposito, proprietor of Conversational Reading and editor of The Quarterly Conversation. Carolyn Kellogg, LA Times staff writer. Anne K. Yoder of The Millions. Marjorie Kehe, book editor at the Christian Science Monitor. Neal Pollack, author of Stretch: The Unlikely Making Of A Yoga Dude and other books. Danielle Evans, author of Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self. Allen Barra writes for the Wall Street Journal and the Daily Beast. Dorothea Lasky, author of Black Life and AWE. Avi Steinberg, author of Running the Books, The Adventures of an Accidental Prison Librarian. Stephanie Deutsch, critic and historian. Lydia Kiesling, Millions staff writer. Lorraine Adams, author of The Room and the Chair. Rachel Syme, NPR.com books editor. Garth Risk Hallberg, Millions staff writer and author of A Field Guide to the North American Family. ...Wrapping Up a Year in Reading Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 The good stuff: The Millions' Notable articles The motherlode: The Millions' Books and Reviews Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions Year in Reading logo and graphics by Michael Barbetta
The Notables: 2010
This year’s New York Times Notable Books of the Year list is out. At 100 titles, the list is more of a catalog of the noteworthy than a distinction. Sticking with the fiction exclusively, it appears that we touched upon a few of these books as well: The Ask by Sam Lipsyte (our profile of Lipsyte, a most anticipated book) Bound by Antonya Nelson (a most anticipated book) Foreign Bodies by Cynthia Ozick (a most anticipated book) Freedom by Jonathan Franzen (our review, an all-female book club reads Freedom, taking down B.R. Myers' take on Freedom, "Is Big Back?," the Franzen cover of Time, a Millions Top Ten book, a most anticipated book) Fun With Problems by Robert Stone (our review, a most anticipated book) The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest by Stieg Larsson (The Stieg Larsson takedown, a most anticipated book, a Millions Top Ten book) Great House by Nicole Krauss (National Book Award finalist, a most anticipated book) I Curse the River of Time by Per Petterson (a most anticipated book) The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman (our review) The Invisible Bridge by Julie Orringer ("20 More Under 40," a most anticipated book) The Long Song by Andrea Levy (Booker shortlister) The Lotus Eaters by Tatjana Soli (Tatjana Soli's writing at The Millions) Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes ("Is Big Back?") Memory Wall by Anthony Doerr (our review, a most anticipated book) The Privileges by Jonathan Dee (The Millions interview) Room by Emma Donoghue (our review, Booker shortlister, a Millions Top Ten book) Selected Stories by William Trevor (a most anticipated book) Solar by Ian McEwan (a most anticipated book) Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart (our review, a most anticipated book, a Millions Top Ten book) The Surrendered by Chang-Rae Lee (a most anticipated book) The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell (a morning with David Mitchell, our review, a Millions Top Ten book, a most anticipated book) To the End of the Land by David Grossman (our review) A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan (our profile of Jennifer Egan, our review, a Millions Top Ten book, a most anticipated book) What Becomes by A.L. Kennedy (a most anticipated book)
The Millions Top Ten: October 2010
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 October. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. 1. Freedom 3 months 2. 2. The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet 5 months 3. 4. Tinkers 6 months 4. 3. The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest 5 months 5. 6. (tie) A Visit from the Goon Squad 3 months 6. 10. Room 2 months 7. 5. The Passage 4 months 8. 6. (tie) Faithful Place 4 months 9. 9. Super Sad True Love Story 3 months 10. 8. Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling With D.H. Lawrence 5 months October was relatively quiet for our list, with no new arrivals or departures, but Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad and Emma Donoghue's Booker shortlisted Room were our top movers, with both books continuing to enjoy significant interest. Meanwhile, the same four books remained ensconced in our top four spots, with Freedom by Jonathan Franzen still in the top spot, while Pulitzer-winning underdog Tinkers continues to find new fans. Near Misses: The Imperfectionists, The Gone-Away World, The Girl Who Played with Fire, Things We Didn't See Coming, and Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself. See Also: Last month's list
Booker Shocker: Finkler Takes the Prize
Howard Jacobson's The Finkler Question has won the Booker Prize, beating out far better known shortlisters like C by Tom McCarthy and Parrot and Olivier in America by Peter Carey, and Emma Donoghue's Room, which has been getting quite a lot of buzz of late. Bloomsbury USA, the book's stateside publisher, meanwhile, got lucky with the book hitting shelves today. The publisher's description calls the book "a scorching story of exclusion and belonging, justice and love, aging, wisdom and humanity. Funny, furious, unflinching, this extraordinary novel shows one of our finest writers at his brilliant best." An excerpt of the book (scroll down) begins: He should have seen it coming. His life had been one mishap after another. So he should have been prepared for this one. He was a man who saw things coming. Not shadowy premonitions before and after sleep, but real and present dangers in the daylit world. Lamp posts and trees reared up at him, splintering his shins. Speeding cars lost control and rode on to the footpath leaving him lying in a pile of torn tissue and mangled bones. Sharp objects dropped from scaffolding and pierced his skull. Jacobson has written a number of novels. Probably the best known are The Making of Henry, Coming From Behind, and Kalooki Nights, which was on the 2006 Booker longlist and which Sara Ivry in these pages called "Hilarious, shocking, provocative."
The Millions Top Ten: September 2010
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 September. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. 1. Freedom 2 months 2. 2. The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet 4 months 3. 3. The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest 4 months 4. 5. Tinkers 5 months 5. 4. The Passage 3 months 6. (tie) 10. A Visit from the Goon Squad 2 months 6. (tie) 6. Faithful Place 3 months 8. 8. (tie) Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling With D.H. Lawrence 4 months 9. 8. (tie) Super Sad True Love Story 2 months 10. - Room 1 month Summer favorites stayed firmly ensconsed on our list in September, but Emma Donoghue's Booker shortlisted Room managed to debut on the list in the tenth spot. Edan recently offered up a compelling review of the book in our pages. Meanwhile, the top three spots on our list remain unchanged from the prior month, with Freedom by Jonathan Franzen still in the top spot. Garth's review of the book was published here in August. Graduating to our Hall of Fame this month was Michael Lewis' The Big Short. Garth offered up a a look at the book and n+1's entry into the financial meltdown post-mortem genre earlier this week. Near Misses: The Girl Who Played with Fire, The Gone-Away World, War and Peace, Things We Didn't See Coming, The Imperfectionists. See Also: Last month's list
Stay-at-Home Mom: Emma Donoghue’s Room
In her essay "Fail Better," Zadie Smith suggests that writing style is not so much a matter of syntax and word choice, but the expression of a writer's personality, their soul even, a reflection of how he or she interacts with the world. Smith writes of how, when we've spent the morning reading Chekhov, we find that by the afternoon, our world "has turned Chekhovian; the waitress in the cafe offers a non-sequitur, a dog dances in the street." I love this essay, but I always wonder what Smith might say about first-person narrators who are different from the writers who create them. I wonder what happens to style in those cases, and how it might be defined. Is every fictional consciousness a mere variation, an extension, of the writer's consciousness? Can a writer's consciousness, his true style, emerge when the words on the page are the words of some imagined person? If the self is a pesky, slippery thing that can only be revealed in glimpses, what happens when a writer chooses to subsume that self in another, fictional, self? I thought often of Zadie Smith's essay and these questions as I read Emma Donoghue's Room, for Donoghue has nimbly captured another person's consciousness in this tale, and it feels utterly true. Her narrator is Jack, a five-year-old boy who was born in an eleven-by-eleven foot room and has remained there with his mother (Ma), both of them held captive, for his entire life. The first few lines of Room plop you right into Jack's mind, and you never get outside of it: Today I'm five. I was four last night going to sleep in Wardrobe, but when I wake up in Bed in the dark I'm changed to five, abracadabra. Before that I was three, then two, then one, then zero. Of course, for a child whose world is far from being pluralized, every object would be singular and personified. There is only one Bed, just as there is only one Ma, and one Jack, and one Old Nick, the man who brings them food and extra things for "Sundaytreat" (and who, the reader quickly comes to understand, is their captor--and Jack's father). The great wonder of this novel is that Jack's perspective feels accurate but also fresh; in a sense, Room is speculative fiction (though cases like this do exist in the real world): what would a little boy be like if he'd never gone outside? How would his language reflect the confines of his existence? From one of my old graduate school notebooks, I've saved this note: "Character is enclosed in the language of the text." Who said that, and when, I have no idea, but it seems to explain perfectly the thrill and the genius of Room, where "enclosure" provides not only a narrative pressure and drive, but a textual one as well. The novel also speculates on what a mother would explain to her son in this kind of situation, and how she would order the universe. These choices are at the heart of the novel. Beyond the drama of seeing around Jack, of both absorbing his consciousness and translating it to understand what is actually going on, Room asks us to consider Ma's survival tactics and the way she's coped with being not only a prisoner, but the mother of a prisoner. She must keep Jack safe, but also entertained. And it's not easy keeping a five-year-old entertained! Donoghue has taken the stay-at-home mom role to its most sickening and terrifying conclusion. Ma is just as compelling as Jack is, and I marveled at the deft ways she was revealed through her son's perspective. I don't want to spoil anything for you, but let's just say, with the change of setting, so came a change in my perception of Ma. She felt almost archetypal in the beginning, but out in the world, she's placed in context, she's given a personality, she's allowed to react and rebel. She isn't just Ma. Her choices are scrutinized. Where does being protective end, and being selfish begin? Perhaps my questions of consciousness at the opening are also questions of parenting. How intertwined is the self of the writer (parent), and the self of the character (child)? Where Room is most engaging on these questions, it also falls a touch short. I agree with Aimee Bender's review of the novel for the New York Times Book Review, particularly regarding Donoghue's treatment of Ma breastfeeding Jack. Bender writes that this intimacy causes "a flicker of unease" for the reader, but that the novel doesn't fully wrestle with the implications of this mother-son bond: how it's maintained, strained, and complicated when their two-person world ends. The last third of the novel is more interested in depicting how Jack copes with the expansion of his experiences, rather than examining fully the beauty and muck of Jack and Ma's relationship--how he needs her, and she needs him. The way Jack interacts with the larger world is wonderful, but I wish the novel would have explored further its messier aspects as well. For instance, Jack doesn't name breast-feeding, though he's keen on classifying everything else he and Ma do. I wanted this namelessness to return and double back and discomfort not only me, but Jack and Ma. It did, but only briefly, and lightly. I felt let down. Apart from that one small disappointment, this was one hell of a read. Just as my world is turned Chekhovian after a day of reading his stories, it didn't take long for my world to turn Jack-ian. I began to see everything as he might; I reconsidered the smallest spaces. At one point, I caught myself speaking to my husband in a strange, child-like, world-cataloging way; at another, I apologized for reading at the dinner table. There were some scenes that had me crying out with alarm, my heart in my throat, and others where my concern and tenderness for the characters made me wonder how in the world I would ever become a parent. How would I be able to shoulder that responsibility and love? I inhaled this book whole, let it affect my whole life. Emma Donoghue had me spellbound. I don't know if her self is on the page, but someone's is, and this novel's got soul for days.
2010 Giller longlist announced
The longlist for Canada's 2010 Scotiabank Giller Prize has been announced. Notable omissions: "Ilustrado by Montreal’s Miguel Syjuco, which won the Man Asian Literary Award before it was even published; Beatrice and Virgil, Yann Martel’s first novel since his breakthrough Life of Pi; and, most notably, Room by Emma Donoghue, which was recently shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize."
Tuesday New Release Day
New this week stateside is buzzed-about Booker shortlister Room by Emma Donoghue. Also out: Gold Boy, Emerald Girl, a new collection by "20 Under 40" lister Yiyun Li; Sigrid Nunez's post-apocalyptic Salvation City; and a McSweeney's-published memoir Half a Life by Chang and Eng author Darin Strauss.
Booker Shortlist Has Big Names But No Mitchell
Well-known established writers like Peter Carey and Andrea Levy and up and coming author Tom McCarthy made the 2010 Booker shortlist, while David Mitchell, probably the best-known name on the longlist, failed to make the cut. The longlist was offered here with some excerpts a month ago, but since you might not have gotten around to them then, we'll offer the same with the shortlist below. Parrot and Olivier in America by Peter Carey (excerpt) Room by Emma Donoghue (excerpt) In a Strange Room by Damon Galgut (excerpt) The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson The Long Song by Andrea Levy (excerpt) C by Tom McCarthy
The Booker’s Dozen: The 2010 Booker Longlist
With the unveiling of the Booker Prize longlist, the 2010 literary Prize season is officially underway. As is typically the case, the list offers a mix of exciting new names, relative unknowns and beloved standbys. The instant favorites to win for most readers will be David Mitchell, Peter Carey, and, though he is something of a newly minted literary superstar, Tom McCarthy. Several of the books named appeared on our "most anticipated" lists for the first and second halves of 2010. All the Booker Prize longlisters are below (with excerpts where available): Parrot and Olivier in America by Peter Carey (excerpt) Room by Emma Donoghue (excerpt) The Betrayal by Helen Dunmore (excerpt) In a Strange Room by Damon Galgut (excerpt) The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson The Long Song by Andrea Levy (excerpt) C by Tom McCarthy The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell (excerpt) February by Lisa Moore (excerpt) Skippy Dies by Paul Murray (excerpt) Trespass by Rose Tremain (excerpt [scroll down]) The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas (excerpt) The Stars in the Bright Sky by Alan Warner