The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

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How I Learned to Start Driving (and Writing)

I took so long to learn how to drive. Eight years. “Learn” is perhaps the wrong word, because I spent many of those years strenuously avoiding addressing the issue out loud, or else expending equally vigorous effort into making my inability to drive a charming and integral feature of my personality. I have avoided many things I am frightened of in this way. I was a writer. Someone like me couldn’t drive a motorised vehicle, obviously; it would chip into the time I needed to ride a horse around my hilly and varied mental landscape. What was I, an accountant? A businesswoman in an office with some kinds of scanners? It got so at one point I freely drew equivalencies between the ability to drive and collusion with The Man. But even as I compared people with licenses to BP executives, I pined. I wanted to be able to do it so badly. I was just so scared, and so terrible. I was not good at any of it, but starting was the real problem. Starting on the flat, starting on a hill. Starting on a busy road where the idea was that the enraged hooting of the people behind would spur me into competence. Starting in an empty parking lot next to the dump, where the idea was that the rows of abandoned washing machines and rotting office chairs would make me see that I had all the time in the world. I just couldn’t do it. My heart would start beating in my ears so fast I became deaf. My legs wouldn’t work, and it was a good thing they didn’t, because if they did then what I would do is get out the car and run round and round in panicked circles until I fell to the floor exhausted. I tried, though. I tried to start for six months, while driving instructor Hester patted my shoulder as I cried and told me that she knew it was hard, but that she knew I could do it, and that I needed to do it because it had been Too Long, now, and adults need to know how to drive. What if their boyfriends are choking on a piece of fruit and they need to get to hospital pronto? What if someone cracks their head open at the beach? Or someone gets bitten by a snake and we sit there waiting for the ambulance and watching the poison make its way up from their bitten leg to their heart, and it’s all because I can’t start a car? It just made me cry even more.  I didn’t want to hear from well-meaning driving instructor Hester that it was hard but necessary. I wanted to hear that it was easy, and so fun, and like being in Wacky Races every day. No one ever said this to me, not in eight years, not even when I eventually pulled myself together and got a license and found out that driving is so easy, and so fun, and exactly like being in what I remember of the cartoon show Wacky Races, where everyone just zooms around and has a wonderful time. If only someone had told me. I have had a car now for five years and every day I drive up and down hills with the cruel proud smile of a Roman emperor on my face. I am still intimately acquainted with the feeling of dread panic that accompanies Not Knowing How to Start, though. I get it every time I have to write something that I suspect someone other than my mom might read, or something that I think is important, or honestly just any time at all. It’s never the actual writing itself, which is always okay when I get going. It’s the starting, and the prospect of starting, and the thinking about how I will have to think about starting, that makes me want to vomit and die on the floor for a long time. But a person can’t just die on the floor for their whole week, and so I have developed ways to cope. Over the years, I have compiled a list of writers who are the literary equivalent of an instructor patting me on the shoulder and promising me that the process is nothing but a complete riot from start to finish. I read them before I have to start, and it reassures me to an unbelievable degree. Sometimes specific essays or poems or profiles, sometimes a certain paragraph from a novel, other times the whole book. This is just off the top of my head, but for a while now I have relied on the following: John Jeremiah Sullivan’s profile on Bunny Wailer, Jo Ann Beard’s “The Fourth State of Matter,” the second third of A Brief History of Seven Killings, George Saunders’s “Victory Lap,” Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (all of it, but especially the bits about Beli), Masande Ntshanga’s “Space," Miriam Toews’s Irma Voth, Frank O’Hara’s “The Day Lady Died,” the first section of Derek Walcott’s “The Schooner Flight,” the ending of Lucky Jim (the whole thing, but especially “As a kind of token, he made his Sex Life in Ancient Rome Face”), the very end of Blood Meridian. Most recently: Molly Young’s profile on Amanda Chantal Bacon, Elif Batuman’s The Idiot, and Patricia Lockwood’s Priestdaddy. Always: Denis Johnson. I have never figured out how a Denis Johnson story works, what the trick is, or if the trick even exists. I don’t know why I think about “Two Men” once a day, at least, or why every single time I go into a hospital I am just about overcome with the desire to relay the plot of “Emergency” to whoever is in the lift with me. I do know, though, that whenever I read him, I feel that the problem of starting is not really a problem at all. Just start. Just be Denis Johnson and make it seem like you tipped forward a bit in your seat and the whole story just fell out of your brain and onto the page. Just get going. It’s not that I want to write like these people, or that I could even hope to try. It’s that they make me feel better, in the way that reading, say, Franz Kafka, does not. Kafka, whose every word assures me that writing is a terrible torment, and that it kills you off early. Kafka, febrile, writhing and twisting about in a chair that he purchased precisely because it was uncomfortable, his leaden fingers gripping his slightly broken fountain pen. The pen is made out of iron and holding it makes his fingers smell like the railings of a cold bus. The room is icy. I understand how Kafka’s agony would make a certain class of stoical person feel better about her own writing-related tortures. I am not one of these people. I need to be buoyed. I have no idea whether any of the writers on my list actually find the process to be enjoyable or not, but I read what they have written and I believe in my heart that they are having the time of their lives. They are driving up and down hills very fast, and their favorite song is playing on the radio. They have no trouble starting at all. Image Credit: Wikimedia

Make the Western Canon Great Again!

Let me ask you a question, my friends. When was the last time an American won the Nobel Prize? Do you know the answer? It was 1993, and it was an African-American woman! Nothing against African-American women, okay? African-American women, some of them, they’re gorgeous. Perfect 10s. But still, you gotta wonder: 23 years ago, and it was a black lady. Before that, you have to go back to 1976 – and it was a Jewish guy! Now, I love the Jewish people, and we all know the African Americans love me, but seriously, it tells you something when you have to go back to 1962 to find a real American Nobel Prize winner in Literature. Our literature is slipping, folks. We’re losing our edge. It’s sad. It’s just so damn sad. You know why we’re slipping? Because our colleges are run by politically correct guilty white liberals who hate America. Oh my God, America’s college professors are so dumb. I could have been a professor, okay? Believe me, I’m a terrific teacher. People love it when I explain stuff to them. It’s a gift I have. But why would want to be a professor? Sure, I could sleep with some cute coeds. But think about it: Do you see many college professors married to supermodels? Do you see college professors with personal brands worth $5 billion. No, you don’t. And you know why? Because they’re so dumb. You know how you can tell they’re dumb? From the books they teach. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. The Interpreter of Maladies. The House on Mango Street. Anybody here read The House on Mango Street? I haven’t, either. I’m a businessman worth $10 billion. I don’t read books unless I wrote them, and even then I’m selective. But they’re teaching The House on Mango Street like crazy in English Departments across America – or at least they were in the 1990s, which just goes to show you how current my information is. The author of that book is Sandra Cisneros, who is, I believe, a Mexican. She was born in the United States, okay, but her parents are Mexican. So she’s Mexican. It doesn’t matter where you’re born, not if you’re black or brown. President Obama was born in Hawaii and his mother was a white woman, and yet the man’s Kenyan. It’s so obvious, if you think about it. Anyway, there she is, this Sandra Cisneros, on college reading lists along with Edwidge Danticat and Jhumpa Lahiri and Junot Díaz  and all these other foreigners, and THEY’RE TAKING JOBS FROM AMERICAN AUTHORS. Good, hard-working American authors like Jonathan Franzen and John Irving and Richard Ford. Time magazine, which is, to be honest with you, this close to losing its press credentials with me, but anyway, Time called Jonathan Franzen “The Great American Novelist.” “The Great American Novelist,” my friends, and he can’t get onto a university syllabus to save his life. He’s too “commercial,” they say. He doesn’t play nice with Oprah. And, oh yeah, they never say it because they’re too politically correct, but he’s too white. That’s the real problem with Jonathan Franzen. He’s too white, too male, and too straight. Sorry, Jonathan. Three strikes and you’re out. We’re going to take back the Western canon, folks. We are going to build a big beautiful wall around books written by white people and we’re going to make the immigrants and the African-American writers pay for it. Foreign writers are eating our lunch right now. We used to dominate the world of letters. The Russians, the Chinese, even the French – they all read our books. We used to be feared and loved around the world. And now look at us. Look who’s winning Nobel prizes these days. Svetlana Alexievich? Patrick Modiano? Mo Yan? I mean, what the hell kind of name is Mo Yan? Is that a guy? A girl? Which bathroom does Mo Yan use in North Carolina? Hah! Ha! Ha! Ha! Damn, I’m funny. I’ve gotta tweet that. But this is serious stuff, folks. These foreign writers are winning the Nobel Prize year after year, and we’re letting it happen. They’re shlonging us and we’re so stupid and lazy and politically correct that we like getting shlonged! Well, no more. When I’m President, I’ll ban all books by immigrant writers until we can figure out what the hell is going on with the Western Canon. I’ll ban translations by foreign authors, too. We’ll ban so many books it’ll make your head spin, folks. We’ll empty out the university book stores! We’ll clear whole shelves from the library! We’ll fire all the politically correct professors who hate America! We’ll build piles of books as high as one of my big, beautiful, classy hotels, and we’ll burn them all to ashes! And when we’re done, my fellow Americans, we will make the Western Canon great again. (Hat tip to frequent Millions commenter Moe Murph, who supplied the headline for this piece.)

What Is Dangerous and What Is Just New: On 25 Years of Drawn & Quarterly

1. My generation of comics fans had a reading list. In grade school, we dug Chris Claremont’s S&M take on the X-Men and reprints of Jack Kirby’s Fantastic Four. When we were 12, we picked up Watchmen, The Dark Knight Returns, and Maus, which dealt with the things 12 year olds think of as adult, like fascism, the military industrial complex, and the Holocaust. In either our senior year of high school or freshman year of college, a friend turned us on to Neil Gaiman, Adrian Tomine’s short stories, and, because it’s fun to see Betty Boop actually have sex, reprints of the Tijuana Bibles. A teaching assistant in a public policy class assigned Joe Sacco’s Palestine, which came with a foreword from Edward Said. There were a few other milestones that brought our interests into the literary mainstream, like Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth, Art Spiegelman’s September 11 New Yorker cover, Fun Home, as well as two novels, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. We had always kept copies of Eightball next to our issues of Granta. Now the rest of the world does the same. The roster of Drawn and Quarterly -- Lynda Barry, Kate Beaton, Chester Brown, Daniel Clowes, Julie Doucet, Jason Lutes, Joe Matt, Joe Sacco, Seth, James Sturm, Jillian Tamaki, Adrian Tomine, and Chris Ware -- represents at least a quarter of this high-art, high-literary comics renaissance in the Anglophone world. This summer, the Montreal-based independent comics publisher released a 776-page anthology in celebration of its silver anniversary, Drawn and Quarterly: Twenty-Five Years of Contemporary Cartooning, Comics, and Graphic Novels. It’s a fun book, filled with old and new work by the house’s artists and appreciation essays from scholars, fellow travelers, and novelists. [caption id="attachment_78811" align="alignright" width="325"] Credit: Daniel Clowes/Drawn and Quarterly[/caption] A publisher’s anthology of its own work will be a hagiography. That’s okay. There are other places for brutal criticism of comics. The mainstream press is learning to develop a more discerning eye towards the form, to not declare every new graphic novel by a semi-famous artist a groundbreaking innovation. The Internet has many take-down podcasts. D&Q’s anthology reads like a high school yearbook, complete with scrapbook-level photographs. The personal essays describe career changes that are more interesting to their authors than to their readers. With that said, the book also provides an important service. The initial phase of the comics renaissance is over, and the publication of this anthology offers an opportunity for understanding what defined D&Q, what we readers were looking for in comics throughout the past 25 years, and what we are looking for now. [caption id="attachment_78813" align="aligncenter" width="570"] Credit: James Sturm/Drawn and Quarterly[/caption] 2. Chris Oliveros, the founding editor of D&Q, was smart, industrious, and he had an excellent eye for talent, but there were others before him. Fantagraphics had been around for awhile when Oliveros started his project and it published The Comics Journal, an exuberant and angry forum for comics journalism and criticism. Fantagraphics’s premiere artists, Los Bros. Hernandez, were Latino children of the punk scene. Art Spiegelman and Françoise Mouly edited RAW. Robert Crumb, Peter Bagge, and Aline Kominsky-Crumb edited Weirdo. Alison Bechdel and Howard Cruse had homes in the niche gay press. There were places for ferocious comics creators who told stories other people weren’t telling, but those spaces were limited. D&Q was a welcome addition to the comics world. D&Q began in April 1990 as a black-and-white comics anthology. It fit the standard newsstand magazine size at 8.5" x 11". It was 32 pages long. It had a glossy cover. In its first issue, Oliveros, who was then in his early-20s, called for higher standards for the comics medium and lamented the “private boys’ club” that characterized the comics industry. The manifesto set a tone for what the company eventually became. The magazine’s sales were based on the “direct market,” comic-book specialty stores which would buy the magazine on a non-returnable basis. It was the most economically viable option at the time, but it also limited the magazine’s reach. Soon after the first issue of the anthology, Oliveros started publishing single-artist comic books. In a few years, the original anthology magazine went to color and D&Q found inroads into Virgin Megastores (which have disappeared from North America), Tower Records (which are all now gone), and pre-monopoly Amazon. Oliveros started compiling serialized stories in quality paperbacks and hardcovers and published stand-alone graphic novels. Storeowners didn’t quite know what to do with these comics, how to sell them to the people who read literary novels. Peggy Burns, a publicist at DC Comics, came to D&Q in 2003 and in 2005 she negotiated a distribution deal with FSG. The people who published Jonathan Franzen also worked with Adrian Tomine, which was as it should be. The essays here claim D&Q treats its creators well. D&Q allows its artists to do what they want to do, letting some of them design their books in meticulous detail, determining paper type, size, and printer quality. They are book-makers at heart. D&Q’s artists are good to their fans. They get to know them at conventions and spend a long time inscribing their books with cartoons during signings. The audience who reads this anthology has probably also read the major popular comics histories of the last few years and it knows that a comics publisher that allows creators space for their genius, doesn’t force them to hire a lawyer, and doesn’t populate its staff with misogynists is a special publisher. 3. No one agrees why D&Q was so good. The testimonials contradict each other. Jason Lutes, the author of Berlin and Jar of Fools: “They were the kind of comics I was hungry for -- taking a cue from the precedent set by Art Spiegelman’s RAW magazine, but stepping out from under the influence of the American underground, which had overshadowed so much of ‘alternative comics’ up to that point.” TV on the Radio’s Tunde Adebimpe on his introduction to D&Q: “From then on I only wanted to read and make ‘underground’ comics, watch and make ‘underground’ films, listen to ‘underground’ music, and basically soak up anything that seemed even a little bit subversive.” Anders Nilsen describes the publisher’s “quiet, understated commitment to quality work.” It’s not always clear who is on the inside and who is on the outside, what is dangerous and what is just new. Those contradictions define D&Q. Let’s start with Kate Beaton, who uses the comic-strip format and her naïve style to take down the myths of Western high culture. In her appreciation essay, Margaret Atwood writes, “Let she who has never drawn arms and a moustache on a picture of the Venus de Milo in her Latin book cast the first rubber eraser.” In one of Beaton’s parodies of The Great Gatsby, our hero complains that the green light gives him seizures. Beaton’s work isn’t that subversive. A hip teacher would hand that strip to her students. She would smile when her students told her the strip is better than the corresponding passage in the book. Atwood goes on, “Of course, in order to burlesque a work of literature or an historic event, you have to know it and, in some sense, love it -- or at least understand its inner workings.” [caption id="attachment_78814" align="aligncenter" width="570"] Credit: Kate Beaton/Drawn and Quarterly[/caption] In the early '90s, Adrian Tomine was a prodigy scribbling away at his grim mini-comics and taking notes from Oliveros by mail. His work has grown more somber and mature through the years and now he is a master of narrative in different permutations of the comics form. Françoise Mouly describes the “handsome, stripped-down aesthetics” of his New Yorker covers, which “form a paean to the poignancy of daily life in the big city.” The moments he captures in these covers are pregnant with ambiguity, and he “finds the humanity of a small town within the big one.” His stories depict human beings who struggle with their own mediocrity. Tomine’s work is even-keeled. The lines are careful. The page layouts and panel organization don’t invite any confusion. He has a gentle, classical style and he can bring you just to the edge of tears. [caption id="attachment_78815" align="aligncenter" width="570"] Credit: Adrian Tomine/Drawn and Quarterly[/caption] Jonathan Lethem describes Chester Brown as a “citizen of the timeless nation of the dissident soul, as much as Dostoevsky’s underground man. At the same time, he’s also a citizen of a nation of one: Chesterbrownton, or Chesterbrownsylvania, a desolate but charged region he seems to have no choice but to inhabit.” Brown’s subjects veer between the respectable and the borderline subversive. His best-known book Louis Riel is now a staple of Canadian public schools. Paying for It is a memoir of his life as a john. The anthology includes “The Zombie Who Liked the Arts,” a tale from 2007 about a zombie’s infatuation with a human female. These are stories about lonely men, a would-be revolutionary who fights madness, and lovers who dislike their own bodies. Brown’s connection to the underground may be less tenuous, but unlike the folks at RAW and Weirdo, unlike Fyodor Dostoevsky for that matter, he doesn’t hide his polish. [caption id="attachment_78816" align="aligncenter" width="570"] Credit: Chester Brown/Drawn and Quarterly[/caption] Are these books threatening? In his 2005 book Alternative Comics: An Emerging Literature, Charles Hatfield noted that the appeal of the comix underground in the 1970s required the medium of the traditional comic book itself, and the ironies that involved using a medium associated with the “jejune” to discuss illicit, “adult” topics. “[T]he package was inherently at odds with the sort of material the artists wanted to handle, and this gave the comix books their unique edge.” I don’t know if the packaging still matters in the same way, if the placement of Tomine’s mature, sad stories within the firm pages of a graphic novel causes such a disjuncture. [caption id="attachment_78817" align="aligncenter" width="570"] Credit: Julie Doucet/Drawn and Quarterly[/caption] My special edition of Julie Doucet’s exploration of sexual insanity Lève Ta Jambe Mon, Poisson Est Mort! comes complete with a lithograph of a nude belly dancer on the frontispiece and a rave review from ArtForum on the jacket cover. Sean Rogers describes Doucet’s “beguiling forays into an untrammeled imagination, rich with fantastic displays of menstrual flow, severed unmentionable body parts, and inanimate objects forced into service for pleasure.” Doucet is one of D&Q’s more anarchic writers and it may be true that this finely crafted hardbound edition cannot contain her sexuality. But I don’t know if it’s any more scandalous to read Leaves of Grass or Portnoy’s Complaint in a Library of America edition. The packaging of these books matters for other reasons. Eleanor Davis, the author of How to Be Happy, explains why: Loving a book containing prose is like loving a cup filled with a wonderful drink: the cup and drink are only connected by circumstance. Loving a comic book is different. The content and the form of a comic are connected inextricably. The little autonomous drawings are held tightly in the pages of the book the comic is printed in, and they cannot get away. When you hold the comic book, you hold those worlds. They are yours. Drawn and Quarterly publishes extraordinary comics. And because they are an extraordinary company they know to make extraordinary books for these comics to live in. It’s not irony that makes the fine hardcover editions of Beaton, Tomine, Brown and Doucet so good, it’s the craftsmanship that marries the content comfortably with the medium, a craftsmanship that understands that a small, standard, novel-size hardcover is appropriate for the spare intimate melancholy of Brown’s I Never Liked You, and that a large, flat, Tintin-like edition is appropriate for the grim fantasy of Daniel Clowes’s The Death-Ray. The various forms of packaging in D&Q’s catalogue simply offers an added texture to each of their creators’ distinct voices. After 25 years, the D&Q artists’ formalist methods, their wry sense of humor, their careful delineation of human emotions, their firm grasp of the comic book/graphic novel as a medium have become not just familiar to comics readers but also the standard for quality comics. Their content, for the most part, is not shocking, and even the subversive voices are much less threatening now than they were before. Brown’s discussion of prostitution is no more provocative than Dan Savage’s. Doucet’s frank discussion of female sexuality was more shocking in the early '90s than it will ever be again. These artists were never revolutionaries. They were never reactionaries either. They are Burkean liberals of the comics form. 4. For all its self-congratulation, the anthology does have a sense of humor about itself, the comics industry, and comics celebrity. The book contains a new story from Jillian Tamaki about a D&Q intern who finds fame and fortune after Oliveros fires her for writing a blog post critical of the company. It includes a handwritten note from Spiegelman to Oliveros declining the editor’s request. “I’m a big fan of Julie’s work and I can probably be bullied into giving a quote but would appreciate being left off the hook only because I’ve had to write so many damn blurbs recently. I dunno.” The book begins with a short strip by Chester Brown, “A History of Drawn & Quarterly in Six Panels,” which depicts Oliveros’s advance from youth to middle-age. In the final panel, Oliveros stands alone on a cold, quiet Montreal street. [caption id="attachment_78818" align="aligncenter" width="570"] Credit: Chester Brown/Drawn and Quarterly[/caption] Oliveros is retiring this year. Peggy Burns, the publicist who moved to D&Q from DC Comics, will now head the company. This anthology stands as a monument to Oliveros and what he accomplished. He discovered extraordinary talent, he widened the audience for non-superhero comics, he created a minor Canadian institution, and he published forgotten comics that would otherwise have been left to the archives. (D&Q has a secondary role as an NYRB Classics of comics, publishing reprints of vintage American comics creators like John Stanley and translations of classic foreign artists and writers like the Finnish author Tove Jansson.) With those accomplishments behind him, the message of Brown’s strip is ambiguous, but I take it to be this: The comics industry doesn’t really change anything. Most of the world is indifferent to your work just as most of the world is indifferent to poetry. This art form of comics will not bring you any closer to enlightenment and it will not bring you any great happiness. It won’t bring you any misery either. Comics makers and comics readers will grow older and come a little bit closer to death, the same way they would if they followed another vocation or indulged in another pastime. Some of D&Q’s comics may have educated a few minds, but most of the publisher’s craftsmen embrace their own irrelevance. When I was young, I read Maus, Watchmen, and The Dark Knight Returns because they were about mass death, because they were strange, because they treated violence in a way that I thought was real. I still have them on my shelf and thumb through them now and again, but their appeal has changed. Watchmen, I realize now, is a comedy. The Dark Knight Returns is pretty funny too. Maus is as much about the horrors of the present as it is about the horrors of the past. I read Beaton, Brown, Tomine, and the rest because, in every well-placed line, in every well-told joke, they remind me that monotony has its own pleasures and comics don’t have to be important.

Father’s Day Books for Dads Who Actually Read

Let’s say there’s a father in your life. Maybe you’re married to him. Maybe you’re his child. Maybe he’s just a buddy of yours. Last year, on Father’s Day, you bought him a tie in his favorite colors. The year before that, it was a calfskin wallet, which you’ve noticed he still hasn’t used. This year, with Father's Day just a week and a half away, you're leaning toward buying him a bookstore gift card because he likes to read, but you don't know what book to get him. Resist this impulse. For a lot of busy dads, a store card is less a gift than a chore, one that can be skipped. (Don’t believe me? Take a peek in his sock drawer, upper right hand corner, just behind that unused calfskin wallet: Yep, a small stack of unused gift cards.) More importantly, a gift is a way of telling someone that you value them, that you know them a little better than they realized, and few things do this better than a well-chosen book. Below are book suggestions for 11 different kinds of dads who read. These suggestions assume that the fathers you’re shopping for have read most of the more popular books about the topics that interest them and may be looking for something new. Most of the books on this list are in paperback and should cost less than $20. 1. Big Game Book Hunter Dad A certain kind of man views his bookshelves the way a leopard sees bleached bones on the veldt -- as evidence of past kills, the larger the better. Hence, the popularity of the Doorstop Novel, the 500-, 600-, 700-page social novel or family saga. Every year publishers lavish splashy advances on the latest epic that might appeal to that most elusive of literary beasts, the middle-aged male fiction reader. A few years ago, that book was Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding. Last year it was Matthew Thomas’s We Are Not Ourselves, which, not so coincidentally, has just been released in paperback in time for Father’s Day. Both are solid novels, and brag-worthy kills for the Big Game Book Hunter in your life, but for sheer ambition neither can touch Phillipp Meyer’s cowboys-and-Indians epic, The Son. Meyer’s nearly 600-page Western contains three overlapping narratives, but the most gripping is that of family patriarch Eli McCullough, who is kidnapped by a Comanche raiding party in 1849 and raised as the chief’s adopted son before returning to white society. A particularly fearless reader-hunter will want to pair Meyer’s tale of the settling of Texas with Canadian writer Joseph Boyden’s equally audacious novel The Orenda, a fictional retelling of the bloody clash between French missionaries and local Huron and Iroquois tribes in 17th-century Canada. 2. Literary Fiction Dad He’s read Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See. He’s braved the languors of the Las Vegas chapters of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch. He’s read Jonathan Franzen, Michael Chabon, Jennifer Egan, and Jeffrey Eugenides. Why not branch out, see a little more of the world? In recent years, American readers have been treated to a bumper crop of first-rate literary fiction by immigrants from around the globe. If the Literary Fiction Dad in your life is open to reading women, he may want to try Americanah by Nigerian-American writer Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie, or The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri, an American of Bengali heritage. Among male writers, Nam Le, a Vietnamese-born writer raised in Australia and educated in the U.S., wrote a gripping collection of stories, The Boat, in 2008, and Chinese-American author Ha Jin, has turned out a steady stream of novels and story collections, perhaps the best of which is War Trash, set in a POW camp during the Korean War. But the Big Kahuna of American diaspora literature is Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, which has a legitimate claim to the title of best American novel of the new millennium. By turns hilarious, tender, and harrowing, Oscar Wao follows an overweight, Dominican-born sci-fi nerd in his search for love and the secret to survival in his cursed homeland. Diaz’s plot and characters are riveting, but the real pleasure of Oscar Wao is Diaz’s narrative voice, which combines slangy, high-velocity prose with penetrating insight into the political black hole that is the Dominican Republic. 3. Big Bad Noir Daddy Here’s a pro tip: To find a smart, well-written crime novel by a guy for guys, search the roster of writers for David Simon’s cable series The Wire. George Pelecanos, who was a writer on all five seasons, has somehow also found time to crank out 20 crime novels in roughly as many years, most of them set in and around Washington D.C., and focusing, with bracing honesty, on the sorry state of race relations in our nation’s capital. The Cut, from 2011, is as good a place to start as any. Another of Simon’s writers, Dennis Lehane, based out of Boston, runs hot and cold, but his 1998 novel Gone, Baby, Gone is a nicely twisted bit of noir, and 2001’s Mystic River would qualify as a work of literary fiction if a child didn’t die in the early pages. But the top thoroughbred in Simon’s stable, and arguably the finest American crime novelist at work today, is Richard Price. His books are structured as police procedurals and feature his famously razor-sharp dialogue, but Price is at heart an old-school social novelist in the mold of Charles Dickens and Émile Zola. His novels grab you by the ears and drag you into the hidden corners of modern America populated by immigrants, the poor, and those who prey on them. His latest, The Whites, written under the pen name Harry Brandt, offers a riveting look inside the minds of New York City police detectives who live their professional lives chest-deep in depravity and injustice. Price’s 1992 drug-dealer novel Clockers, later made into a Spike Lee joint, is another must-read. 4. Politically Incorrect Dad He’s inappropriate. He can’t control his appetites. He sweats a lot. His sense of humor is, well, different. But underneath all the layers of gruff and odd, beats a well-meaning heart. Meet Milo Burke, unlikely hero of Sam Lipsyte’s 2010 novel The Ask. Milo is a husband, a father of a young child, and a seething mass of misdirected grievance. “I’m not just any old hater,” he says early on. “I’m a hater’s hater.” In the opening pages, Milo loses his job wrangling donations for a third-tier university in New York City after he insults the talent-free daughter of one of the college’s wealthy donors, but is offered a chance at redemption if he can reel in a sizable gift from a rich college friend, who has, mysteriously, asked to work with Milo. Lipsyte specializes in the humor of white-male resentment, and when he misses he misses big, but The Ask is a tour de force of verbal pyrotechnics and shibboleth-skewering social insight. 5. World War II Buff Dad Big fat books about honorable wars are to grown men with mortgages what Call of Duty video games are to 10-year-old boys: mind-travel devices granting sedentary, suburban beings vicarious access to a world of danger and heroism. As with video game franchises, the options for quality reads about the Second World War are quite nearly boundless. For a broad overview, there’s Max Hastings’s Inferno: The World at War, 1939-1945, but World War II was so huge and so complicated that it can be wise to take it in pieces, using, say, Stephen Ambrose’s Band of Brothers as a window onto the American war effort in Europe or Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken to gain a finer-grained understanding of the Pacific Theater. A middle-ground approach that can satisfy the Big Game Hunter impulse while also offering a sharply observed portrait of the conflict that helped create the modern American military is Rick Atkinson’s Liberation Trilogy, which focuses on the American war effort in Europe. The three-volume set, An Army at Dawn, The Day of Battle, and Guns at Last Light, span a collective 2,349 pages, making it a prime trophy for anyone’s shelves. But Atkinson shifts so effortlessly from the panoramic to the close-up, giving the reader a day-by-day, sometimes minute-by-minute, account of what it felt and sounded and smelled like to be an American soldier at battle with the Axis powers, that trophy-hunting readers will be compelled to eat what they kill. 6. Civil War Buff Dad Atkinson’s Liberation Trilogy is practically a novella compared to Shelby Foote’s three-volume The Civil War: A Narrative, which clocks in at a mammoth 2,968 pages. Everything in Civil War historiography is big. James McPherson’s single-volume history, Battle Cry of Freedom, consumes 952 pages. Ken Burns’s TV documentary The Civil War spans more than 10 hours of airtime. And that’s not even touching on the vast shelf of biographies of Abraham Lincoln and Robert E. Lee or the rich scholarship on individual battles or lesser-known generals and leaders. This is Big Game Hunter territory, and if the dad in your life is new to nerding out on Civil War minutiae, you may want to shell out for the first volume of Foote’s epic, Fort Sumter to Perryville, a comparatively slim 856 pages. But if you are looking for new perspectives on the era, check out T.J. Stiles's Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War. As its subtitle suggests, Stiles’s biography frames the legendary bank robber not as a Robin Hood of the Wild West, but as a disaffected Confederate Army veteran bent on reviving the Lost Cause by any means necessary. Stiles writes well and is a scrupulous scholar, but he is also a gifted storyteller who reaches beyond cardboard outlaw stereotypes to bring the James boys to life on the page. 7. Business Maven Dad If the dad in your life goes in for business books, you can’t go wrong with Michael Lewis. Like his fellow bestseller-list regular Malcolm Gladwell, Lewis is perhaps too faithful to the journalist’s dictum to never let the facts get in the way of a good story, but he is a superb shoe-leather reporter and over the years Lewis’s eye for the big-picture truth has been unerring. His best book is probably The Big Short, about the 2008 financial collapse, but his 2014 book, Flash Boys, about computer-directed high-frequency trading, is also excellent. But anyone who reads business books will already have a shelf full of Michael Lewis. If you want a different take on American business, look for Beth Macy’s Factory Man, about John Bassett III, heir to a once-powerful North Carolina furniture-making company, who took on cheap imports from China and won. One longs for Lewis’s tale-spinning prowess in some of Macy’s background chapters that drag under the weight of her too-earnest reporting, but Bassett, the would-be furniture baron, is a colorful figure, and Macy’s core message, that a smart, driven factory owner willing to take some risks can beat offshore manufacturers at their own game, more than makes up for the book’s flabbier passages. 8. True Crime Dad Perhaps no section of the bookstore is more heavily stocked with schlock than the one devoted to true crime. For every classic like Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood or Dave Cullen’s meticulously reported Columbine, there are dozens of sensationalist gore-fests written by the likes of Ann Rule and R.J. Parker. Good true-crime writing should do more than pile up the bodies. It should use crime to shed light on an underside of a society, teaching us the unspoken rules of the world we live in by telling the stories of those who break those rules in the most aberrant ways. Few recent books do this as well, or as hauntingly, as Robert Kolker’s Lost Girls, about the murders of five prostitutes buried in shallow graves along Long Island’s South Shore. Lost Girls is an unsettling read because the murders remain unsolved, but Kolker provides a fascinating look into the shadowy world of Internet escorts. Unlike prostitutes of an earlier era, modern sex workers can connect with their johns online, eliminating the need for pimps or brothels. This means the women can keep more of their earnings and are freed from what is often an abusive and controlling relationship, but as Lost Girls illustrates, this freedom costs them the physical protection of a pimp, making them especially vulnerable to violence. 9. Sports Nut Dad As with true crime, the sports book genre breeds schlock. How many books on how to straighten out a golf shot can one man read? A good sports book, like a good true-crime book, should go beyond the details of its subject to make a larger point about society or about athletic excellence. Buzz Bissinger’s Friday Night Lights, about the subculture of high school football in Texas, does this. So does Andre Agassi’s surprisingly engrossing autobiography Open, about the trials of a man who succeeds at a sport he has come to hate. To one degree or another, all sports books try to answer the question of what makes a great athlete tick, but in The Sports Gene, David Epstein takes this question literally, using science to explore mysteries like why Kenyans win so many marathons and what it takes to hit a major-league fastball. The book’s message that there is no one path to athletic success may trouble the sleep of those Little League dads dreaming of turning their eight-year-olds into future Hall of Famers, but Epstein’s intelligent use of sports science, and his willingness to embrace ambiguity, makes for absorbing reading. 10. Vinyl Collector Dad The return of vinyl records has emboldened a generation of Boomer and Gen X dads to haul their high school LPs out of the garage and give them pride of place in the living room. But they need something to read while they’re listening to all those dinged-up copies of Kind of Blue and Exile on Main St. Launched in 2003 and now published by Bloomsbury, 33 1/3 is a series of more than 100 short books about classic albums, ranging from Tom Waits’s Swordfishtrombones (No. 53, by David Smay) to AC/DC’s Highway to Hell (No. 73, by Joe Bonomo). Each book in the series is by a different author, mostly music critics and musicians, with the occasional novelist like Jonathan Lethem (No. 86, the Talking Heads’ Fear of Music) thrown into the mix. Some books in the series put the focus on the music while others take a more biographical or social-historical approach. One of the titles, No. 28 by John Niven, on The Band’s Music from Big Pink, is written in the form of a novella, telling the true story of how Bob Dylan’s one-time backup band created its iconic 1968 album from the perspective of a fictional observer. Overall, the series skews heavily toward Music White People Like, though acts like Public Enemy (No. 71, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, by Christopher Weingarten) and J Dilla (No. 93, Donuts, by Jordan Ferguson) do occasionally appear. 11. Aspiring Writer Dad If you want to take the how-to route with your Aspiring Writer Dad, your best bet is Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. While Lamott’s reflexive (and, to these ears, highly calculated) hippy-dippy whimsy can grate, she is a gifted teacher and her chapter on writing shitty first drafts is justifiably legendary. But giving an aspiring writer Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird is like buying a pocket dictionary for a college-bound high school graduate: It’s a cliché, and he’s probably got six copies at home, anyway. If the aspiring writer in your life is, like most aspiring writers, already up to his ears in well-intended advice, switch gears and give him Boris Kachka’s Hothouse, a gossipy insider’s history of how the sausage gets made in New York publishing. In this dishy corporate biography of the publishing firm Farrar, Straus & Giroux, which has published everyone from T.S. Eliot and Roberto Bolaño to 1950s diet guru Gayelord Hauser, Kachka serves up enough sex and intrigue to keep the lay reader turning pages, but the book is fundamentally the story of how one headstrong publisher and a handful of talented editors struggled to maintain an independent publishing vision in a rapidly consolidating industry. Image Credit: The Athenaeum.

The Millions Top Ten: March 2015

  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. 1. The Novel: A Biography 6 months 2. 2. Station Eleven 6 months 3. 3. My Brilliant Friend 4 months 4. 5. The Narrow Road to the Deep North 6 months 5. 7. The Strange Library 4 months 6. 6. The David Foster Wallace Reader 3 months 7. 9. Dept. of Speculation 4 months 8. 8. All the Light We Cannot See 5 months 9. 10. Loitering: New and Collected Essays 3 months 10. - The Buried Giant 1 month   Well, folks, it's happened. The enduring success of David Mitchell's The Bone Clocks has pushed the author to a Millions echelon so high that it's never before been reached. That's right: Mitchell is now the only author in site history to reach our hallowed Hall of Fame for three (count 'em!) different works. And with The Bone Clocks joining his past works, Cloud Atlas and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, Mitchell's latest achievement puts him ahead of David Foster Wallace (Infinite Jest,The Pale King), Junot Díaz (The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, This Is How You Lose Her), Stieg Larsson (The Girl with the Dragon TattooThe Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest), Hilary Mantel (Wolf Hall, Bring Up the Bodies), Jonathan Franzen (The Corrections, Freedom), George Saunders (Tenth of December, Fox 8), and Dave Eggers (Zeitoun, The Circle), each of whom authored two Hall of Fame titles. Maybe this repeated success will be enough to coax him into a Year in Reading 2015 appearance. (ARE YOU LISTENING, PUBLICISTS?) Joining this month's list thanks to The Bone Clocks's graduation is Kazuo Ishiguro's latest novel, The Buried Giant. It's a book "about war and memory," wrote Millions staffer Lydia Kiesling in her extremely personal review of the work for this site. "But it is also about love and memory, and you don’t need to have lived through an atrocity to get it." Lastly, I would be remiss if I didn't point out that our own Emily St. John Mandel's Station Eleven, which is poised to graduate to our Hall of Fame next month, was the recent winner of The Morning News's annual Tournament of Books. (It beat out Anthony Doerr's All the Light We Cannot See, which is also on our Top Ten.) The novel, which has earned the praise of George R. R. Martin, took the final match-up by a score of 15-2, which should be decisive enough to persuade all of you who haven't yet bought the book to do so immediately. Join us next month as we graduate three books and open the doors for three newcomers. Will they be among the "Near Misses" below, or will they be something new entirely? Near Misses: My Struggle: Book 1, To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, An Untamed State, The Paying Guests and The First Bad Man. See Also: Last month's list.

The Art of the Chapter

You want to know how weird and deep my rabbit hole goes? I’ve developed what I’ll call an eccentricity about chapters. As in: there are certain choices that writers make when dividing up their narratives that quite simply drive me fucking crazy. Without an ounce of justification, I get a pound of pissed. And what this makes me realize is not so much that I’ve developed strange little idiosyncratic tics while I’m reading (that much is obvious) but more that my reading experience is personal and solitary and deeply entrenched in whole loads of bullshit that have nothing to do with the books, i.e., that the completely happenstantial list of books I’ve read over my life has somehow hoisted onto me certain expectations of literature and literary narrative technique that are built upon wholly dubious foundations that belong only to me and cannot be argued with any intellectual integrity. And even though I know this to be true I still in some way hold my complaint against the writer and more specifically whatever book I’m reading at the time and sometimes even go so far as to downright dislike the book (though of course I keep my reasoning to myself, mostly). Because the thing about chapters is that they provide a lot of opportunities for the writer to communicate information about their book and can in fact orient the reader as to how to read the thing. A more crass version of the chapter’s utility can be plainly seen in, e.g., the novels of Dan Brown, in which the chapters are so short (and the pagination designed just so in order to create as many pages with only a few lines on them as possible) that a reader is goaded into thinking they’re moving through the book super-quick. This is not authorial assistance; it is a kind of manipulation that, given the meteoric popularity of Brown’s novels and others like them, most people are apparently pretty cool with. What I’m talking about instead are the ways in which chapters are not merely components of a narrative’s foundational architecture but also part of its aesthetic, i.e., more like those imposing Ionic columns that both hold up the facade and immensely add to the overall quality of the building. To begin with an obvious example: think of how much the Fantasy genre has benefited from borrowing the chapter structure of histories. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings––as the archetypal built-world saga––divides itself up into Books and Parts and Chapters, these last of which each come with a title. Plus there’s also the Notes, Maps and Appendices––all of which add to the verisimilitude of legit history, preparing the reader for a similar treatment of a fictional place. These verisimilitudinous appropriations are so effective for Fantasy and Sci-fi genres that they’ve become a standard part of their aesthetic. A person who picks up Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao will know right away the scope of the novel. After a short but foreboding prologue, we enter the first part of the book. Chapter One, then, is titled, “GhettoNerd at the End of the World: 1974­­–1987.” How much information about the rest of the story can be gleaned from just this chapter heading? Well, for one we can tell that Oscar’s story will take place over a number of years, which connotes a sense of the epic on par with nonfiction histories. Moreover, “GhettoNerd” effectively characterizes both the citizens that people the story and the nomenclature they use. And the appended prepositional phrase, “at the End of the World” suggests grandness of a different kind: that of comic books and adventure stories, the very same kind gobbled up by the hopelessly uncool protagonist. Also, these emphatically grand names (later chapters are titled, e.g., “Sentimental Education: 1988-1992” and “The Three Heartbreaks of Belicia Cabral: 1955-1962”) help absorb some of the momentum-shock of suddenly jumping from one time and place to another, and raise this thickly-accented contemporary tale to the status of History (a notion furthered by the book’s actual preoccupation with educating readers about the horrors of Trujillo). Tolkien borrowed from History to make his fantasy world Real; Díaz used it to make his story Significant. But there are other ways of structuring a novel to reinforce its aims and intent. Ali Smith’s There but for the sections itself into the four words of the title, and each part not only begins with the titular word but also investigates it. The unfinished sentence, “there but for the,” becomes the connective tissue of the novel, each part working like a lengthy footnote to each word. The section, e.g., “but” features a poem on the conjunction/preposition that ends: But but? And and? (So simple.) Conjunctions. And conjuctions? (So simple.) The way things connect.   Ali Smith incredibly makes her book seem like a narrative investigation of a single, incomplete sentence––the ending of which is of course known to all of us and factors into the story as well. Chapter titles can sometimes become almost like characters, as in Office Girl by Joe Meno (a writer I unabashedly enjoy and who seems forever attached to his early success with Hairstyles of the Damned despite continuing to publish interesting works like The Boy Detective Fails, Demons in the Spring, and The Great Perhaps). The third-person-narrative novel has these short little chapters with titles like “But Ten Years Before” and “And That Night Goes to an Art Opening” and “Because This Is What He’s Been Doing.” These casual (and causal) names add a nice rhythm to the story and are actually quite necessary tactics for the reader to understand the ways the two protagonists feel about certain things in their life. Books like Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time and Chuck Palahniuk’s Survivor use numerical ordering as techniques––Haddon’s protagonist, the autistic Christopher John Francis Boone, finds safety in math, especially prime numbers, so the chapters are headlined by those indivisible numbers; Palahniuk’s 1999 novel’s chapters are in reverse sequence––starting with Chapter 47 and ending with 1––as is the pagination, thereby “counting down” to the climax in the most literal way possible. These are simple and effective touches, connecting the disparate elements of the novels into single, cohesive units. Eleanor Catton’s Man Booker Prize-winning The Luminaries uses the Zodiac to reinforce the written-in-the-stars nature of her tale. Twelve main characters mirror the twelve signs, and the book’s even got twelve chapters and those are made up of smaller sections named after the precise (as I’m sure Catton researched it thoroughly) locations of the corresponding sign, as in, e.g., “Mercury in Sagittarius.” Taken altogether, Catton’s chapters work to add to the tone of the work (which is an uber-complex mystery featuring mediums and séances and ghosts (of a sort)) but are way too complex for someone like me who both doesn’t buy into astrology and knows next to nothing about it. In other words, from my point of view Catton succeeded in creating a forest even though I don’t understand the trees. And then there is, of course, the shit that bothers me: for example, Moliere’s Tartuffe, a play in which the introduction of any character to a scene calls for a new one. What is this about? It makes for frustrating reading, akin to having someone announcing the entrance of every featured player in a sitcom. There’s Jerry! And look––Kramer! Just annoying. I know my aversion isn’t intellectually justifiable (after all, the scene numbers would be invisible if I ever actually saw a production of Tartuffe) but everyone has to admit that we’ve come to expect certain things from chapters, right? But here is a great problem: my arbitrary history with reading has not only given me these unfair proclivities but it’s also somehow convinced me that everyone else agrees with me. Take, for instance, Charles Baxter’s otherwise fine novel The Feast of Love. In the opening of the book, Charlie Baxter embarks on a late-night walk after a night of restless sleep. This chapter, entitled “Preludes,” ends when Charlie’s friend Bradley comes upon him: “’Hey,’ he says, ‘Charlie. What they hell you doing out here? What’s up?’” Then, the section ends. The next chapter, “One,” begins like this: “’Hey,’ he says, ‘Charlie. What they hell you doing out here? What’s up?’” It’s the same setting, the same scene––hell, the same fucking moment––yet Baxter inserts a division here. Why? Well, I could see someone saying that Bradley’s entrance marks a shift in the story, since it is Bradley’s stories that comprise the novel. But then Baxter does this again. Chapter One ends with Bradley launching into his tales: “Okay,” he says. “Chapter One. Every relationship has at least one really good day…” and then Chapter Two begins, “Every relationship has at least one really good day.” I don’t know why Baxter’s creative choices in The Feast of Love annoy me so much (and, to be fair, he doesn’t do this the entire book), but I think it might have to do with the physical properties of chapters. When a narrative stops and then continues on another page, I immediately assume some passage of time has elapsed or that maybe a change in perspective has occurred––there is just something psychically affecting about having to turn a page or having larger text interrupt prose. But when the scene merely continues, I am yanked out of the story and into the mind of the writer (or, more accurately, what I perceive to be the mind of the writer). So does this mean that I should try to eradicate my tendencies, open myself up to the myriad ways that chapters can function? Or do I simply use my weird shit as a helpful barometer for my taste? Should I, i.e., accept that certain books cannot and will not meet my stupid expectations and move along? There are already way too many books in this world for me to read, so maybe I should simple stop wasting my time with stuff that annoys me, even if my annoyance has zero legitimacy. Okay, a little more time. It really pisses me off when books that have multiple parts still number the chapters as if the parts weren’t there. Díaz’s Oscar Wao does this, as do a number of bigger novels. This seems to ignore the entire purpose of Parts and Books, which to me create their own internal structure, much like the way each floor of a hotel begins numbering the rooms from 01. When writers ignore this, I tend to think of the Parts and Books to be arbitrary, an unnecessary intrusion to the larger rhythm. But all of these weird little tics are mine and mine alone. I would never actually assume anyone else agrees or even thinks about this. I only know that when I read, these factors come into major play––justifiable or not––and help determine my assessment of a work. Even if I never mention it to others, in conversation or in a review, this stuff ends up mattering to me. Art (and art criticism) is full of unfair and unsubstantiated subjectivity like this but we love to pretend that we can approach things with cool empirical impartiality. Some can, I suppose, but I sure as hell can’t. I get stuck on chapters, on character names, on setting, on my perception of the author’s intention––because to me there isn’t any one aspect of fiction that stands above everything else. Every part of a novel or a story is a choice, made by a human being, and each part is as important as the next. And then there’s me––all-too-human, full of my own idiosyncrasies and prejudices and preferences and unable to stop them from taking over––responding to an author’s idiosyncrasies and prejudices and preferences. It’s like any relationship, I guess: the writer has their baggage, and I have mine. All I can do is hope that more often than not I stumble upon artists whose baggage is closest to mine. Because the other option would be for me to try to change these tics––which without going into too much detail I’ll just assure you is impossible. Photo: HznLrlEIeIkYECo

Garnish with a Sprig of Dorothy Parker: The Literary Meet Market

1. “Junot Díaz’s Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao...is so original it can only be described as Mario Vargas Llosa meets Star Trek meets David Foster Wallace meets Kanye West.” --Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times The “author x meets author y” formula and other such tropes (novelists crossing, mating, or being used in recipes) can be as incisive and fun as they are inane and reductive. But above all, critical assessments like the one above demonstrate how small the literary world is: artists past and present are always bumping into each other. (Indeed, if reviews and blurbs are to be believed, writers like Elmore Leonard, Philip K. Dick, and P.G. Wodehouse still have positively brutal social schedules.) Inspired by the apparent gregariousness of the novel, I set out to conceive of and review the most convivial work imaginable, The Summit (an entirely fictional work of fiction). 2. The Summit is a highly allusive text, The Norton Anthology of American Literature meets The Oxford Book of English Verse meets Justin Halpern’s Sh*t My Dad Says. Should that sound too fusty, the novel could just as easily be described as Philip Roth meets Nathan Zuckerman, with a run-in with Peter Tarnopol thrown in for good measure: a true meeting of minds. The more you interact with someone, the more you refine your opinion of that person. The same holds true for literature. Upon rereading the book, I would say that it’s more Marcel Proust meets James Joyce, except that those two writers did actually meet at a Parisian dinner party. It did not go well. Provisional final answer then: The Summit is Thomas Pynchon meets J.D. Salinger, ironic given that that both are recluses, and the latter is dead. In terms of historical significance, The Summit's publication falls somewhere between the Yalta Conference, at which Franklin D. Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, and Joseph Stalin convened to discuss post-War Europe, and this year’s Baseball Winter Meetings, at which the Yankees shored up their bullpen by signing a pitcher, Andrew Miller, whom Brian Cashman touted as Ron Guidry meets Emily Dickinson. Now that we know what kind of novel we’re dealing with, let’s get to its constituent parts. The Summit is one part Künstlerroman, one part roman à clef and one part dystopian fable. It is best enjoyed while munching on a nice summer salad with a simple homemade dressing (3 parts oil, 1 part vinegar). The tale is a soupy mix: take a nice Franzian broth, add a dash of Michael Connelly, a pinch of the spicy James (E.L. not Henry), thicken it up with some Karl Ove Knausgård and garnish with a sprig of Dorothy Parker. Simmer, then serve immediately in a discarded Chipotle cup with a Jonathan Safran Foer quote printed on it. For those who either hate soup or excelled in high school math, feel free to conceive of the novel instead as the sum of a geometric series of influences that converges to The Summit as n approaches infinity: 1/2 Jennifer Weiner, 1/4 Don DeLillo, 1/8 Gillian Flynn, 1/16 John Milton, 1/32 Maurice Sendak, with the endless remaining fractions representing authors whose work has been reissued by The New York Review of Books. The Summit’s protagonists are a bubbly matchmaker and a socially awkward computer programmer. After meeting cute while delivering elevator pitches, they go on to develop a revolutionary dating site -- think Tinder meets the old New Republic. When their algorithm identifies the odd pair as a perfect romantic match, it disrupts everything they thought they knew about love and coding. Following the delightful spasms of their mating dance, a cross between that of a bird of paradise and a flamingo, feels like listening in on a freewheeling jam session between Richard Powers, William Gibson, and Nora Roberts (featuring Nicki Minaj.) Nix that. I feel like I’m merely scratching the surface. This novel deserves a spelunking critic willing to perform a combination of tomb raiding and close reading to plumb its depths: a Lara Croft-James Wood adventure-cum-review. Here’s my last attempt, even if it remains woefully vague. If Frankenstein’s monster had been assembled using the body parts of Horace Walpole, Matthew Lewis, and Daniel Defoe, then been allowed to reproduce with the female monster the doctor had begun to assemble from the limbs of Aphra Behn, Fanny Burney, and Anne Radcliffe, and one of their descendents had evolved in such a way as to viably mate with a graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop -- without the aid of in-vitro fertilization -- then The Summit would be the second novel of that spawn. (We can all agree the debut novel of this hypothetical creature would have been a mess.) I could be wrong of course; perhaps no book, or novelist, is like any other. Best to follow Rudyard Kipling’s lead and simply state that The Summit is East, all other novels are West, and never the twain shall meet. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

“Because I speak in tongues”

Friday would have been Ray Bradbury’s 94th birthday, which is why Dan Piepenbring, at The Paris Review Daily, looked back on one of Bradbury's classic stories and picked out some choice quotes from his Art of Fiction interview. Piepenbring also pointed out that the story gets a mention in, among other places, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. You could supplement this by reading Tanjil Rashid on the author’s Middle East connection.

The Millions Top Ten: May 2014

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 May. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. 1. The Beggar Maid: Stories of Flo and Rose 6 months 2. 2. Beautiful Ruins 3 months 3. 5. Bark: Stories 2 months 4. 3. The Son 2 months 5. 4. Just Kids 5 months 6. 8. Eleanor & Park 2 months 7. 6. Well-Read Women: Portraits of Fiction's Most Beloved Heroines 2 months 8. 9. The Good Lord Bird 2 months 9. - A Highly Unlikely Scenario, or a Neetsa Pizza Employee's Guide to Saving the World 1 month 10. 10. Jesus' Son: Stories 2 months   In order to graduate to our Hall of Fame, books must remain on the Millions Top Ten for more than six months. The feat has only been accomplished by 82 books in the series's five year history. Within that subset of hallowed tomes, though, eight authors have attained an even higher marker of success: they've reached the Hall of Fame more than once. This accomplishment is remarkable for two reasons: 1) the Top Ten typically favors heavily marketed new releases, so it means that these eight authors have more than once produced blockbusters in the past few years; and 2) because Top Ten graduates must remain on our monthly lists for over half a year before ascending to the Hall of Fame, that means their books must be popular enough to have sustained success. (In other words, marketing only gets you far.) The names of these eight authors should be familiar to Millions readers, of course. They belong to some of the most successful writers of the past 25 years: David Foster Wallace* (Infinite Jest, The Pale King), Junot Díaz (The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, This Is How You Lose Her), Stieg Larsson (The Girl with the Dragon TattooThe Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest), David Mitchell (Cloud Atlas, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet), Hilary Mantel (Wolf Hall, Bring Up the Bodies), Jonathan Franzen (The Corrections, Freedom), George Saunders (Tenth of December, Fox 8), and — as of this month — Dave Eggers (Zeitoun, The Circle). (*David Foster Wallace has the unique distinction, actually, of having two of his own books in our Hall of Fame in addition to a biography written about him.) Even money would seem to indicate that Alice Munro is poised to join this esteemed group next. Her Selected Stories graduated to the Hall of Fame shortly after her Nobel Prize was awarded in 2013, and her collection, The Beggar Maid, has been holding fast ever since. Meanwhile, the surprise re-emergence of Denis Johnson's Jesus' Son, which has been hovering at the bottom of the Top Ten lists these past two months, indicates that maybe he'll reach that group soon as well. His novella, Train Dreams, graduated in August of 2012. Changing gears a bit: the lone new addition to our Top Ten this month in the form of Rachel Cantor's mouthful of a novel, A Highly Unlikely Scenario, or a Neetsa Pizza Employee's Guide to Saving the World. The book, which was published last month, was featured in our Great 2014 Book Preview, during which time Millions staffer Hannah Gersen posed the eternal question, "It’s got time travel, medieval kabbalists, and yes, pizza. What more can you ask for?" What more, indeed? Near Misses: Little Failure: A MemoirAmericanahStories of Anton Chekhov, My Struggle: Book 1, and Tampa. See Also: Last month's list.

We the Narrators

On a desert plain out West, the Lone Ranger and Tonto are surrounded by a band of Indians, all of them slowly closing in. Sunlight reflects off tomahawks. War paint covers furious scowls. “Looks like we’re done for, Tonto,” says the Lone Ranger, to which Tonto replies, “What do you mean ‘we,’ white man?” That old joke raises a question other than its own punch line. Why would anyone decide to write a novel in first-person plural, a point of view that, like second-person, is often accused of being nothing but an authorial gimmick? Once mockingly ascribed to royalty, editors, pregnant women, and individuals with tapeworms, the “we” voice can, when used in fiction, lead to overly lyrical descriptions, time frames that shift too much, and a lack of narrative arc. In many cases of first-person plural, however, those pitfalls become advantageous. The narration is granted an intimate omniscience. Various settings can be shuffled between elegantly. The voice is allowed to luxuriate on scenic details. Here are a few novels that prove first-person plural is more of a neat trick than a cheap one. The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides Prior to the publication of The Virgin Suicides, most people, when asked about first-person plural, probably thought of William Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily.” This novel changed that. A group of men look back on their childhood in 1970s suburban Michigan, particularly “the year of the suicides,” a time when the five Lisbon sisters took turns providing the novel its title. Most remarkable about Eugenides’s debut is not those tragic events, however, but the narrative voice, so melancholy, vivid, deadpan, and graceful in its depiction not only of the suicides but also of adolescent minutiae. Playing cards stuck in bicycle spokes get as much attention as razor blades dragged across wrists. Throughout the novel, Eugenides, aware of first-person plural’s roots in classical drama, gives his narrators functions greater than those of a Greek chorus. They don’t merely comment on the action, provide background information, and voice the interiority of other characters. The collective narrators of The Virgin Suicides are really the protagonists. Ultimately their lives prove more dynamic than the deaths of the sisters. “It didn’t matter in the end how old they had been, or that they were girls, but only that we had loved them, and that they hadn’t heard us calling.” Our Kind by Kate Walbert This title would work for just about any book on this list. A collection of stories interconnected enough to be labeled a novel, Our Kind is narrated by ten women, suburban divorcees reminiscent of Cheever characters. We’ve seen a lot. We’ve seen the murder-suicide of the Clifford Jacksons, Tate Kieley jailed for embezzlement, Dorothy Schoenbacher in nothing but a mink coat in August dive from the roof of the Cooke’s Inn. We’ve seen Dick Morehead arrested in the ladies’ dressing room at Lord & Taylor, attempting to squeeze into a petite teddy. We’ve seen Francis Stoney gone mad, Brenda Nelson take to cocaine. We’ve seen the blackballing of the Steward Collisters. We’ve seen more than our share of liars and cheats, thieves. Drunks? We couldn’t count. That passage exemplifies a technique, the lyrical montage, particularly suited to first-person plural. Each perspective within a collective narrator is a mirror in the kaleidoscope of story presentation. To create a montage all an author has to do is turn the cylinder. Walbert does so masterfully in Our Kind. During the Reign of the Queen of Persia by Joan Chase “There were the four of us — Celia and Jenny, who were sisters, Anne and Katie, sisters too, like our mothers, who were sisters.” In her New York Times review, Margaret Atwood considered this novel, narrated by those four cousins, to be concerned with “the female matrix,” comparing it to works by Anne Tyler and Marilynne Robinson. First-person plural often renders itself along such gender matrices. This novel is unique in that its single-gender point of view is not coalesced around a subject of the opposite gender. Its female narrators examine the involutions of womanhood by delineating other female characters. Similar in that respect to another first-person-plural novel, Tova Mirvis’s The Ladies Auxiliary, During the Reign of the Queen of Persia, taking an elliptical approach to time, braids its young narrators’ lives with those of the other women in their family to create a beautifully written, impressionistic view of childhood. The Jane Austen Book Club by Karen Joy Fowler Novels written in first-person plural typically have one of four basic narrative structures: an investigation, gossip, some large and/or strange event, and family life. The Jane Austen Book Club uses all four of those structures. The novel manages to do so because its overall design is similar to that of an anthology series. Within the loose framework of a monthly Jane Austen book club, chapters titled after the respective months are presented, each focusing on one of the six group members, whose personal stories correspond to one of Austen’s six novels. The combinations of each character with a book, Jocelyn and Emma, Allegra and Sense and Sensibility, Prudie and Mansfield Park, Grigg and Northanger Abbey, Bernadette and Pride and Prejudice, Sylvia and Persuasion, exemplify one of the novel’s most significant lines. “Each of us has a private Austen.” Moreover, such an adage’s universality proves that, even when first-person plural refers to specific characters, the reader is, however subconsciously, an implicit part of the point of view. The Notebook by Agota Kristof If one doesn’t include sui generis works such as Ayn Rand’s Anthem — a dystopian novella in which the single narrator speaks in a plural voice because first-person-singular pronouns have been outlawed — Kristof’s The Notebook, narrated by twin brothers, contains the fewest narrators possible in first-person-plural fiction. Its plot has the allegorical vagueness of a fable. Weirder than Eleanor Brown’s The Weird Sisters, another first-person-plural novel narrated by siblings, the brothers in The Notebook are taken by their mother from Big Town to Little Town, where they move in with their grandmother. In an unidentified country based on Hungary they endure cruelty and abuse during an unidentified war based on World War II. To survive they grow remorselessly cold. Kristof’s use of first-person plural allows her to build a multifaceted metaphor out of The Notebook. The twins come to represent not only how war destroys selfhood through depersonalization but also how interdependence is a means to resist the effects of war. The Autumn of the Patriarch by Gabriel Garcia Marquez In the same way narrators can be reliable and unreliable, collective narrators can be defined and undefined. The narrators in this novel include both parts of that analogy. They’re unreliably defined. Sometimes the narrators are the people who find the corpse of the titular patriarch, an unnamed dictator of an unnamed country, but sometimes the people who find the corpse are referred to in third-person. Sometimes the narrators are the many generations of army generals. Sometimes the narrators are the former dictators of other countries. Sometimes the point of view is all-inclusive, similar to the occasional, God-like “we” scattered through certain novels, including, for example, Jim Crace’s Being Dead, E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime, and Paul Auster’s City of Glass. Even the dictator, periodically and confusingly, uses the royal “we.” For the most part, however, the collective narrator encompasses every citizen ruled by the tyrannical despot, people who, after his death, are finally given a voice. The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka What about first-person plural lends itself so well to rhythm? Julie Otsuka provides an answer to that question with The Buddha in the Attic. In a series of linked narratives, she traces the lives of a group of women, including their journey from Japan to San Francisco, their struggles to assimilate to a new culture, their internment during World War II, and other particulars of the Japanese-American experience. “On the boat we were mostly virgins. We had long black hair and flat wide feet and we were not very tall,” the novel begins. “Some of us had eaten nothing but rice gruel as young girls and had slightly bowed legs, and some of us were only fourteen years old and were still young girls ourselves.” Although the narrators are, for the most part, presented as a collective voice, each of their singular voices are dashed throughout the novel, in the form of italicized sentences. It is in that way Otsuka creates a rhythm. The plural lines become the flat notes, singular lines the sharp notes, all combining to form a measured beat. Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris For his first novel’s epigraph, Ferris quotes Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Is it not the chief disgrace of this world, not to be a unit; — not to be reckoned one character; — not to yield that peculiar fruit which each man was created to bear, but to be reckoned in the gross, in the hundred, or the thousand, of the party, the section, to which we belong...” The line nicely plays into this novel about corporate plurality. At an ad agency in Chicago post-dot-com boom, the employees distract themselves from the economic downturn with office hijinks, stealing each other’s chairs, wearing three company polo shirts at once, going an entire day speaking only quotes from The Godfather. The narrative arc is more of a plummet. Nonetheless, Ferris manages to turn a story doomed from the beginning — the title, nabbed from DeLillo’s first novel, says it all — into a hilarious and heartfelt portrait of employment. Ed Park’s Personal Days, somewhat overshadowed by the critical success of this novel, uses a similar collective narrator. The Fates Will Find a Way by Hannah Pittard Define hurdle. To be an author of one gender writing from the point of view of characters of the opposite gender investigating the life of a character of said author’s own gender. The most impressive thing about The Fates Will Find Their Way is how readily Pittard accomplishes such a difficult task. Despite one instance of an “I” used in the narration, the story is told in first-person plural by a collection of boys, now grown men, pondering the fate of a neighborhood girl, Nora Lindell, who went missing years ago. Every possible solution to the mystery of what happened to the girl — Heidi Julavits’s The Uses of Enchantment works similarly, as does Tim O’Brien’s In the Lake of the Woods — becomes a projection of the characters affected by her absence. In that way this novel exemplifies a key feature of many novels, including most on this list, narrated by characters who observe more than they participate. The narrators are the protagonists. It can be argued, for example, that The Great Gatsby is really the story of its narrator, Nick Carraway, even though other characters have more active roles. Same goes for James Salter’s A Sport and a Pastime, Clarice Lispector’s The Hour of the Star, Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, and Nancy Lemann’s Lives of the Saints, to name a few. What’s more important, after all, the prism or the light?

A Year in Reading: Madeline Miller

In a normal year, I usually find only one or two books that I truly love, that I know I’ll continue to cherish, reread and constantly press on others. But this year the list of those books was happily quite long. Here’s a sample: I greatly admired Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, which follows the rise of Thomas Cromwell in Henry VIII’s court, and I’m delighted to say that her follow-up, Bring up the Bodies is even better. It’s hard to find new praise to heap on these books after the amazing reviews and the second Booker prize, so I will merely say: it’s all true. Thomas Cromwell is a hypnotic figure, and Mantel is as magnificent at conjuring the twists of his psyche as she as at bringing his world to life. You know an author is talented when they can make five-hundred-year-old currency reform feel like life or death. I’ve received many wonderful book recommendations this year, but I think my favorite might be the one from the booksellers at Mr. B’s Emporium of Reading Delights in Bath — because they were the ones who told me about Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. The novel follows Billy Lynn, an American soldier in Iraq, caught on film by an embedded reporter in some wartime heroics. He and his unit are shipped back to America for a PR-filled victory tour. Ben Fountain depicts this disorienting experience with eloquence, empathy, humor, and a piercing understanding of America’s conflicted ideals. At the time of this writing, I am technically only three quarters through Junot Díaz’s new book of short stories, This is How You Lose Her, but I already know it’s one of my favorites. Díaz’s writing is vivid, surprising, and viscerally engaging — just like his characters. Several of the stories are centered around Yunior, the narrator of Díaz’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. I am glad for the chance to return to his — both Yunior’s and Díaz’s — elegiac and compelling company. Though this book can hardly be called new, I couldn’t close without mentioning George Eliot’s Middlemarch. After years of having this book recommended to me, I finally decided to read it and found it as brilliant as everyone says. Eliot’s understanding of human quirks and follies is pitch-perfect: she lays us bare with humor and scalpel-insight, but not without empathy. Here’s hoping for a 2013 filled with great books!   More from A Year in Reading 2012 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2011, 2010, 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, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.

A Brief Wondrous Interview with Junot Díaz

I saw Salman Rushdie speak at Columbia University about nine years ago. He was a good performer. Put it this way, he had enough charisma to defend the Iraq War, which had started a little over a week before, to a Columbia audience without getting booed. Everyone had an important question for Rushdie. He only had time to take a few and the last was met by a collective groan: “Do you have any advice for young writers?” As people filed out of the theater a few minutes later, you could hear a chorus of undergraduates calling the poor questioner a tool. Rushdie’s answer had been equally dismissive: “If you need my advice, don’t do it.” I thought about that night, as a study in contrasts, after I saw Junot Díaz speak at Seattle Town Hall last month. Díaz was an expert performer. He paced the stage with perfect posture, gave shout outs to his fellow Dominicans and then his fellow New Jerseyites. He treated the audience’s questions as precious gifts of silver. Almost every comment was “beautiful.” A middle-aged teacher relayed her students’ questions about Drown, which they had recently studied. A young comic book geek of color talked about how good it felt to be represented in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Díaz was there to celebrate the act of reading. When someone asked him what advice he had for young writers, he recommended that they spend less time writing for the approval of other writers and more time writing for readers. He much preferred hanging out with readers than writers himself. It’s hard to draw a line between this gentle social democrat who seemed so comfortable with his body on stage, as prepared to run for Congress as to appear on Oprah, with Yunior, the acerbic narrator who has lain at the center of Díaz’s fiction for 15 years. Díaz chronicled Yunior’s childhood in his first short story collection Drown and reintroduced him as an angry, smart, and oversexed young man in Oscar Wao. Díaz’s third book, This is How You Lose Her, is made up of nine stories, telling the story of Yunior’s failures in love. Díaz and I spoke by phone three weeks after his appearance in Seattle, and a few days after he was awarded a MacArthur.  A few days after we spoke, This is How You Lose Her  was nominated for a National Book Award.  He was in New York.  What follows is a pared down version of our conversation. The Millions: I saw you on stage at Seattle Town Hall a few weeks ago. And you were peppering your talk with very academic words – “subjectivity,” "heteronormativity,” “hegemony” – none of which appears in your fiction. When you write your fiction, do you find yourself writing with two voices in your head? One is [that of] the former Rutgers student activist. The other is Yunior’s, which does not have this vocabulary. Junot Díaz: To move the metaphor towards optics, I’m not certain if it’s that bifocal. I think it’s a lot more complex than that, especially with a character like Yunior who has proven himself in a number of texts to be far smarter than he wishes or allows others to be aware of. [O]f course - if we’re going to use the tech terms my students [at MIT] use - there’s language that may not appear on the interface but is a deep part of the operating system...A character like Yunior is really aware of these words. He changes his words to best effect. He has no interest in anyone really knowing who he is and in anyone understanding the depths of his complexity. And this of course goes hand in hand with all his failures across the board with women. TM: You’ve spent about 15 years of your published life and longer, just considering when you started writing him, living with Yunior. What has it been like living with someone like this for so long? JD: I find someone like him very difficult because as a construct inside me he rarely talks about the things that emotionally matter to him most. He’s so damn elliptical... You think he’s a piece on a chessboard and he’ll do anything I tell him to. But that’s not really the way it works. Each character is a game. And once the rules are in place you got to follow the rules of the game. Even in breaking the rules there are rules... One [of the] differences [between us] is that I would have made the obvious hardships and dramas vis-à-vis his family [more front and center]. But as a character he doesn’t like to make that stuff front and center. He will state [a problem] or he will dramatize it in the most subdued way. And people are paying attention to other things and rarely notice. I feel like if it were up to me and I just wrote a realistic essay about this character’s life it would be far more frightening [to lay] out the details of it than the fictional representation in the way that Yunior tells stories. He’ll mention stuff that’s happened to him but it’s always on the back burner. Part of me longs for a character who is, how do we say it, a stereotypical memoir-esque character who wishes everyone to know the hardships that they suffered and wants to parade all the traumas around. But he’s not that guy... He’s been a fascinating person to create and to do work with. In many ways, I owe him both my career and much of my art. But my god, what a difficult cat. He never likes to say things straight. TM: Out of the nine stories in This is How You Lose Her, you make one attempt in “Otravida, Otravez” to write from the point of view of a woman. Why is that in here? JD: [T]his of course makes no sense to anyone, but for me it’s one of the larger projects in the book. And this is my thesis in This is How You Lose Her: Yunior’s inability to imagine or sympathize or think about women in interesting ways. It’s revealed at the end of This is How You Lose Her that the book that you have read is the book that Yunior has written. And so we know that he has written “Otravida, Otravez.” And it’s an attempt for Yunior to say, “This is the best I can do with female subjectivity. Does it show that I’ve changed in anyway after everything I have done or doesn’t it?” So in my mind it’s all connected. The average reader is going to be like, “What the fuck are you talking about?” The average reader is going to be, “Okay, I need a little bit more help than this.” The average reader is like, “Well that’s a real nice ghost framework, but it’s not present enough at the textual level.” I understand that. I feel that, like a fool, I always try to hide more than I should. TM: Do you think Yunior could sustain that voice for the length of a novel, not just a short story? JD: I would raise serious questions about that. [laughs] I don’t know. I think of my own abilities. I think that I, perhaps, might be able to do it. It’s very different when I write the sections of Oscar Wao from Lola’s perspective and “Otravida, Otravez,” from Yunior’s perspective. It is very different when you try to write a piece where there’s no hidden, filtering subjectivity. It’s just my [own] male subjectivity and not this other male subjectivity, [Yunior’s], that I’m trying to critique and also hide behind. I think I would be bad. Let’s say that in both cases maybe I’d be able to do it but it would probably be very bad. TM: “The Cheater’s Guide to Love” read like a dark comedy about depression as much as a tragic coda to the collection.  There was a long distance between your first and second books, which you linked in one of your interviews to your battle with depression. Was this story your way of writing about depression? JD: It’s weird, because of course we use whatever experience we have to model whatever we end up writing [about]. So there’s no question that my own depressive state helped me design Yunior’s. But I think part of what mattered to me in this was that larger project. We see a character like Oscar Wao in the novel able to be public in his family that he’s depressive, that life isn’t always easy. [And he does that] even in a culture that like many cultures looks down on many kinds of mental health issues or tries to silence them... And then I was really interested in Yunior’s character because Yunior is this guy who tries through his body to avoid psychic issues, to use his body to sidestep the psychic weight of trauma. And you know when you’re reading the book what you begin to notice - and again this is my own obsessive egghead shit – is how Yunior begins to somatize slowly his psychic states. He’s not able to address them emotionally. But his body is reacting to the shit that he has to put up with. Whether it’s him biting his tongue and bleeding out or other things that happen to him. And it’s a slow progress. By the end of the book you get that his body can no longer be a block or a shield. His body absolutely collapses as it somatizes fully his own depression, his own misery, his own grief. Grief not only about breaking the heart of the woman he loved but grief about everything that comes before. There was a silence about depression in the larger culture that I inhabit but even in my own work.  I thought [it] would be great to break [that silence] a bit. But again you end up organizing this stuff as an artist. So you do this weird shit where you plot the mental breakdown through the whole book.  And you hope that the nerds will figure it out and if not - fuck it - you hope that someday someone else will just enjoy it on another level. But depression fucking sucks, dude. Depression sucks. And part of you thinks, “Well if I have to deal with being fucking depressed, I’ll figure out some way to make some art out of it.” TM: You just got your MacArthur grant and I’m assuming you’re going to use that to write your big science-fiction novel. JD: I’ve had plans before and they haven’t come to shit. So fingers’ crossed, man. That would be the dream. TM: A number of high-brow literary writers have dipped into science fiction: Colson Whitehead, Kazuo Ishiguro, and even, arguably, Philip Roth in his alternate history The Plot Against America. Do you see any mistakes these writers have made that you fear repeating? JD: I guess my interest in the genre is actually in the genre. I don’t want to write literary fiction’s take on genre. I actually like the genre. I think that nobody who reads science fiction, no one who reads apocalyptic literature or reads alternate earth literature is confusing Philip Roth’s book for one of the classic texts in the genre. So I do think that there’s stories that are so squarely within the genre that there’s no possibility that they can be slipstreamed, that there’s no possibility for anyone to say, “Oh well this might be fantasy but it’s fantasy for the high brow set,” like someone might say about Lev Grossman’s wonderful novel, The Magicians. “It’s fantasy, but it’s not that kind of fantasy.” And I guess I’m just interested in that kind of fantasy. I don’t think I’m worried about mistakes as much as I’m interested in writing squarely in the genre and not what is often called slipstreaming. And it doesn’t mean that I’m not colossally privileged vis-à-vis other people who write squarely within the genre. You get the notice that they never get...We are not talking about the hundreds of books written by people within the genre that cover the same ground as some of these literary people but we are talking about these literary people. And the reason we’re talking about them is they’re fucking privileged.

Literary Fiction is a Genre: A List

A few weeks ago, whenever I told anyone I was reading Molly Ringwald's novel-in-stories When it Happens to You, they either said, "Wow, cool!" or, "Ugh. Why?" To the latter, I replied, "Why not?" Ringwald has always presented herself as well-spoken and well-read, and being an actress isn't necessarily a detriment to writing: after all, actors, like fiction writers, must inhabit characters and seek out a scene's power. (And, dude, if you were in Pretty in Pink, you're basically qualified to win a Nobel.) I devoured When it Happens to You in a day or two. It was an engaging and pleasing read, with lines like, "Greta had always been most beautiful to him when emerging from water. Swimming pools, oceans, bath tubs." Ringwald treats her characters with compassion, and I enjoyed seeing how each story would connect to the next. Overall, though, I was underwhelmed, perhaps because the territory mined is so familiar: there's an affair, there are blah sentences like, "The color had drained from her face." There's even a description of a woman who, after almost being run over, raises "a furious fist" at the driver, like some irate extra in an action flick's chase sequence. I longed for a more daring and complicated book; Ringwald has one in her future, I know it, but this isn't it. Even so, as I said, I devoured the novel, and, in general, enjoyed it. Its predictable content and structure were comforting, like a catchy pop song or a romantic comedy. You know, as Adorno might say, its familiarity helped me ward off death. Or something. In a recent profile of Justin Cronin in the New York Times Magazine, Colson Whitehead is quoted as saying he'd "rather shoot [him]self in the face" than have another discussion about literature genres. I don't blame him. When people ask me what kind of fiction I write, I usually say, "It's about people," and leave it at that. But as I read Ringwald's book, I found myself pondering literary fiction: as a genre, as a taxonomical category. When It Happens to You, you see, is a sterling example of literary fiction, if we were to consider literary fiction as a straightforward genre like romance or science fiction, with certain expected tropes and motifs. What, you ask, are some attributes of this genre? Read on, my friend, read on. 1. The Long Title When it Happens to You is not only a long title, it's also in the second person, as are many titles in the literary fiction category. I think we should blame Dave Eggers for starting this trend with his novel You Shall Know Our Velocity. Or maybe Miranda July's story collection, No One Belongs Here More Than You, really got things going. I, too, am guilty of joining the bandwagon with my hard-to-say novella title, If You're Not Yet Like Me. Uwem Akpan demanded us to Say You're One Of Them, and Elliott Holt will comply with her forthcoming  You Are One Of Them.  Ramona Ausubel's debut,  No One Is Here Except All of Us, switched things up with the first-person plural; perhaps she was inspired by fellow UC Irvine alumnus Joshua Ferris's Then We Came to the End. If Ringwald hadn't chosen the long second-person title, she might have picked one with a full name, a la, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz, or Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain, or The Flight of Gemma Hardy by Margot Livesey, or Laura Lamont's Life In Pictures by Emma Straub. Sheesh. I should call my next book And So Olivo D'Havellind and You Will Move Away From this Place I Call Home. It's sure to win the Pulitzer. 2. Adultery A decade later, Sean Carman's "Lessons Learned from My Study of Literature" still makes me laugh. But the third lesson, "The thing about adultery is it’s the highest expression of pure human freedom," has its inverse as well: that adultery in literary fiction (and in real life, too, I presume) also leads to stress, despair, and a complicated regret. Let's just go ahead and credit Tolstoy's Anna Karenina for making extra-marital affairs in fiction so popular. Anton Chekhov also gets points for his enormously influential story, "The Lady with The Lap Dog." And all contemporary tales of domestic unrest must also pay dues to Richard Yates's Revolutionary Road, with its depiction of The Wheelers, an unhappy, unfaithful couple living in the suburbs. If you aren't sure what kind of literary novel to write, I suggest starting with an English professor who has an affair with his (her?!) student while the wife (husband?! life partner?!) sculpts and flails at home. Abortion plot-line optional. 3. Scene, Exposition, Scene, Flashback, Scene, Cue Epiphany The reader of literary genre fiction should feel the structure in her body, particularly with short stories. It's a recognizable rhythm, it's a shimmering in one's veins as one moves from opening scene to well-placed background information to the next, more tense scene to that special, oh-so-revealing flashback about the time our protagonist ran over his rubber horse, or the time he knew he was in love with a real horse, or the time he -- oh you see what I mean. In the genre of literary fiction, this structure must lead to a moment of revelation, suggested but never explained. The image of our protagonist in a Safeway parking lot, pushing his cart as if he were a cowboy riding a horse, the wind roughing up his hair, the distant neighs of horns in the far off distance. (Can you feel it? I can.) Let's go ahead and give James Joyce his rightful due for such faintly falling, falling faintly moments of reverie and character change in literary fiction. (Damn that horse! Now I'm sobbing!) 4. A Dog barks, someone eats a watermelon, a car drives away. In his terrific and funny Slate essay, Rosecrans Baldwin unveils how many authors write barking dogs into the backgrounds of their novels. Though he points out barking dogs in genre novels as well, I'd argue that you find them in literary fiction precisely because they show time passing. As Baldwin says, "Most authors...employ the trope as a narrative rest stop, an innocuous way to fill space and time." In literary fiction, there is so little event, authors need that dang dog; without it, there's only the mind, there's only emotion, and the reader is floating in a vacuum. As James Wood has said of the aforementioned  "The Lady With the Lap Dog," Chekhov needs Gurov to eat a watermelon for half an hour in front of his new mistress in order to show time passing. Otherwise, nada is happening! For good measure, I suggest adding to your scene a car driving away. Or even better, the distant rumble of a motorcycle. Ooh. Yes. 5. The plate drops! Years ago, Maud Newton lodged the phrase "tea towel fiction" in my brain, and it's stuck with me. Newton quotes a judge for the Orange Prize, Katharine Viner, who said of the many submissions she read: They are books with 500 pages discussing a subtle but allegedly profound shift within a relationship. They are books where intricate descriptions of a man taking a glass out of the dishwasher, taking a tea-towel off a rail, opening out the tea-towel, then delicately drying the glass with the tea-towel, before pouring a drink into the glass, signify that he has just been through a divorce. This is a "nothing happens" book, the former it girl of literary genre fiction. In my classes, I like to describe these stories as: "A man and a woman buy dishes at the store. When they get home, she goes to lie down, barely talking, something unsettling her. A dog barks in the distance. The man starts to put the plates away, and one breaks. The end." What I love about this kind of narrative is that it's often deliciously readable. How is that possible? Of course, this kind of narrative is a bit out of vogue -- there's a new it girl on the scene. It's the same man and woman, but now time travel or zombies or tiny people who live in walnuts are involved. Raymond Carver is to blame for the popularity of the first kind of narrative, with his profound stories of small actions, uninterested as they are in directly exploring the inner lives of characters. That genius George Saunders is to blame for the latter: damn him and his faxing cave man! I have certainly missed other tropes of this rich and admired genre. Feel free to add more in the comments -- I need some tips for my next story. (I'm thinking of making it about a woman named Edan Lepucki. Woh...woh...mind melt!)

2012′s Literary Geniuses

This year's "Genius grant" winners have been announced. The MacArthur grant awards $500,000, “no strings attached” to “talented individuals who have shown extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits and a marked capacity for self-direction.” Alongside, scientists, artists and scholars are some newly minted geniuses with a literary focus. This year’s literary geniuses are: Junot Díaz is no stranger to readers of The Millions. His novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao was tops in our reader poll for the best books of the first decade of the millennium (and #11 among our panelists. Martha Southgate told us why.) It's also a Millions Hall of Famer. Díaz first came to our attention with his incredible debut collection, Drown, and he recently returned with another hotly anticipated collection, This Is How You Lose Her, which was recently a jumping off point for an essay exploring Díaz's "niftiest literary trick." Finally, Díaz once graced these pages, sharing unique reading recommendations as a participant in our annual Year in Reading series. Dinaw Mengestu has two books under his belt: The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears and How to Read the Air. Mengestu became known to a wider audience after being named to the New Yorker's widely discussed "20 under 40" list in 2010. Mengestu, who was born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia but moved to the United States when he was two years old, was also one of the National Book Foundation's "5 Under 35" authors in 2007. Journalist David Finkel is best known for his work as a staff writer at the Washington Post, where he won a Pulitzer Prize in 2006. He is also the author of the book The Good Soldiers, which is an account of his time embedded with a division of Army Rangers in 2007 as part of the "Surge" meant to turn the tide in the Iraq War. That book won the J. Anthony Lukas Book Prize, which is given to a book that exemplifies, "literary grace, a commitment to serious research and social concern."

The ‘You’ In Yunior: Junot Diaz’s This Is How You Lose Her

“I’m not a bad guy,” begins the first story of Junot Diaz’s new collection, This Is How You Lose Her. A few lines later, the narrator, Yunior, fills in the details: See, many months ago, when Magda was still my girl, when I didn’t have to be careful about almost anything, I cheated on her with this chick who had tons of eighties free-style hair. Didn’t tell Magda about it, either. You know how it is. A smelly bone like that, better off buried in the backyard of your life. Magda only found out about it because homegirl wrote her a fucking letter. And the letter had details. Shit you wouldn’t even tell your boys drunk. For longtime readers of Junot Diaz, this opening riff will sound promisingly familiar. First there is Yunior himself, who figured in many of the stories in Diaz’s debut collection, Drown, and narrated some of the more hilarious sections of Diaz’s novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, which won a Pulitzer and transformed Diaz from a MFA-world fave into a bestselling author. Then there is the story’s subject, the “typical Dominican man: a sucio, an asshole” in love and in trouble, cheating on the girl of his dreams and spending the rest of the story trying without success to win her back. Most of all, though, there is that distinctive Diaz voice, somehow both conversational and profoundly literary. No review of Diaz’s books fails to mention his narrative voice, the way it combines Spanglish street slang with sci-fi nerd talk and, in his later work, a frosting of academic jargon. That’s all there, in spades, in This Is How You Lose Her. In one of the later stories, “Miss Lora,” in which teenage Yunior falls into a Mrs. Robinson-type affair with an older woman in his housing project, Diaz moves in the space of a few short pages from untranslated Spanish dialogue, to a comprehensive list of 1980s nuclear holocaust films, to an offhand reference to the “atavistic impulse to die alone, out of sight.” And this is the same story in which Yunior describes Miss Lora, a skinny, muscular ex-gymnast, with the line: “Bitch made Iggy Pop look chub.” But amid the verbal pyrotechnics, Diaz’s niftiest literary trick is hiding in plain sight: his deft and surprisingly widespread use of the second person. With another kind of writer the fact that three of the nine stories in the collection are narrated in the second person, and a fourth is directed to an unnamed “you,” would be viewed as a stylistic coup, a la Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City. Here, it passes almost without notice. But just because Diaz does such a good job of masking this narrative tactic behind a barrage of jokes and Spanglish bombast doesn’t mean he doesn’t use it to devastating effect, or that it doesn’t shine a light on how Diaz manages to dance so precariously along the color line that, four years after the election of a black president, still pervades American life. Take that opening paragraph from the collection’s first story, “The Sun, the Moon, the Stars”: “You know how it is,” Yunior says of his decision not to tell his girlfriend about his cheating. “A smelly bone like that, better off buried in the backyard of your life.” Already, just a few lines into the story, you – whoever you are, white, black, brown, American, Dominican, German, Aussie – are complicit in Yunior’s crime. You know how it is. Even better is the line about the incriminating details in the girlfriend’s letter: “Shit you wouldn’t even tell your boys drunk.” It happens so quickly and so effortlessly that you don’t realize that in eight words Diaz has supplied you not only with a scarlet letter’s worth of sexual indiscretions, but a girlfriend, a girl on the side, and a group of “boys” to listen while you brag about it. You, my friend, are a player, a Latin chick-magnet, a sucio, and all you did was open a book and start reading. This is one of Diaz’s greatest gifts, the intimacy of his voice, the way he invites you over to his place to smoke a few bowls and talk about girls, the way, in story after story, he lets you in on the fun. From the story, “Nilda”: “She was Dominican, from here, and had super-long hair, like those Pentecostal girls, and a chest you wouldn’t believe – I’m talking world-class.” Or from “Alma,” who, it transpires, “has a long tender horse neck and a big Dominican ass that seems to exist in a fourth dimension beyond jeans. An ass that could drag the moon out of orbit.” The scene is so vivid, so real: four or five guys sitting around an apartment, beer bottles and pizza slices everywhere, the blare of the TV drowning out the traffic outside, you pull up a seat, somebody passes you the pipe – and, boom, Yunior starts in on one of his stories. But there is a subtle divide in these stories, and in the way Diaz employs that narrative “you,” that only becomes clear when you step back from the book for a day or two. Five of the nine stories in This Is How You Lose Her date from the late 1990s and more or less comprise outtakes from Drown. The other four stories are more recent, three of the four having appeared in the New Yorker in the last two years. While many stylistic tics and thematic concerns link the two batches of stories, something strange and sad has become of the “you” in Yunior during the intervening years. In the early stories, Yunior talks about “you” all the time, occasionally referring to himself, but more often as an appeal to his listener, the “you” reading the story who is invited to share his pain and his joy. In the later stories, though, “you” isn’t an occasional visitor; more often than not, the entire story is written in the second person, as if “you” isn’t Yunior at all, but someone else – a younger, uglier, more dangerous Yunior he is trying to rid himself of by calling out in public. This is especially true of the last two stories, “Miss Lora” and “The Cheater’s Guide to Love,” which are both narrated in the second person. In “Miss Lora,” which like many of the stories here, has the dream-like formlessness of recovered memory, Yunior seems to be speaking to quite literally to a younger version of himself, warning that younger “you” away from his secret love affair with a lonely older neighbor the way the audience shouts at the hero of a horror movie, “No! No! Don’t open that door!” In “Cheater’s Guide,” Yunior, like his creator and alter ego, has moved to Boston to take a teaching job a prestigious university – Diaz is a professor at M.I.T ; Yunior appears to be teaching at Harvard. But success hasn’t made him any less of a horndog, and at first “Cheater’s Guide” seems like a return to form, yet another raunchy, self-deprecating Yunior story that begins, as all Yunior stories must, with the line: “Your girl catches you cheating.” But as the story proceeds, it becomes clear that nerdy young chatterbox Yunior has grown older and sadder, saddled with the mental and physical afflictions of middle age. He is still obsessed with his body, but when he takes up jogging, he tears a ligament in his foot, and then, when he joins a yoga studio (“Mad fucking ho’s in there,” his best friend Elvis tells him. “I’m talking ho’s by the ton.”), he ends up rupturing a disc. Yunior is alone and he is hurting, and for the first time he is losing his cool. I found “Cheater’s Guide” one of the most emotionally bleak stories Diaz has written, and also one of his most honest. Diaz has certainly never shrunk from dealing openly with race, but in all three books, no matter what racial madness was happening on the page, I as a white reader always felt included among his boys, the “you” in his stories always seemed to include me. In “Cheater’s Guide,” it didn’t. Yunior is openly angry, and while most of his ire is directed at the women in his life and his failing body, white people are starting to piss him off, too. He’s a tenured professor and yet he can’t cross Harvard Yard without some security guard asking for his ID. White kids throw soda cans at his head, and it seems like every time he stops at an intersection some crazy white person starts screaming at him and giving him the finger. “You take it all very personally,” Yunior writes, most definitely not including whiteboy me. “I hope someone drops a fucking bomb on this city, you rant.” No, Yunior is not a bad guy, but he is growing up, and as Diaz is honest enough to admit in this collection, getting older isn’t necessarily all mellowing out and seeing the error in your youthful ways. Sometimes, it seems, you can spend your whole life clowning, turning all that rage into jokes designed to make the very people who anger you most laugh the hardest, and then one day that stops working. You’ve done it – you’re a success, a big-deal professor read by millions, and still you’re pissed off. And then what? I don’t know. But I plan to tune in for Yunior’s next appearance to find out.

Who Wrote the Great New Jersey Novel?

While writing about the abiding appeal of one-word book titles here recently, I revisited an avatar of the breed, David Gates' Jernigan. This debut novel, which I'd discovered shortly after it was published in 1991, was even better the second time around – darker, sharper, funnier. The story is narrated by Peter Jernigan, a feckless, alcoholic New Yorker who takes his wife and their doomed marriage across the George Washington Bridge to the beckoning suburbs of northern New Jersey. There, surrounded by barbered lawns and the good life, they sink into a purgatory of booze and acrimony as their marriage and their lives unravel. While re-reading the book I stumbled on a 1995 New York Times article that argued, persuasively, that Jernigan spawned a new strain of American literature that once would have been a bad joke. This type of novel had been appearing sporadically for many years. but suddenly, after the appearance of Jernigan, it began to gather the force of a sizable wave. Since then the wave has become a tsunami. We'll call it The New Jersey Novel. Though it is one of the most densely populated and lavishly polluted states in the nation, New Jersey is not home to a single place that deserves to be called a city. Camden, anyone? Or how about Trenton, Newark, Elizabeth, Hoboken, Paterson or Piscataway? Or that chancre sore by the sea, Atlantic City? New Jersey also lacks the regional peculiarities that have nourished novelists in other parts of America – the urban thrum of the Eastern seaboard and the industrial Midwest, the magnolia murk and tortured history of the South, the soul-exposing vastness of the big-sky West, the sun-dazed sprawl of southern California. Instead, New Jersey has suburbs like the one Peter Jernigan retreated to, it has shopping malls, office parks, a seashore, some serious slums, and a thruway that slices through the world's juiciest petrochemical badlands.  And, yes, the Garden State also has a few lovely bucolic pockets. But as David Gates and other novelists began realizing about two decades ago, these shortcomings are, paradoxically, the source of rich fictional possibilities. New Jersey's lack of defining character traits – its facelessness, its rootlessness, its lukewarmness – make it an ideal portal to get inside the soul of a nation that becomes more faceless, rootless and generic – more soulless – by the day, a nation where regional signifiers have been sanded smooth by interstate highways, franchise restaurants, big box stores, shopping malls, subdivisions, all the strangling, interchangeable links of the corporate chains. In contemporary America, anomie is a moveable feast, and its template was exported from New Jersey. So what, beyond a New Jersey setting, makes a novel a New Jersey Novel? "The Jersey novel is all about a fruitless attempt at finding community," Michael Aaron Rockland told the Times. Rockland was identified as chairman of the American Studies department at Rutgers University and teacher of a class in something called "Jerseyana." "My whole notion of New Jersey is that we live in a never-never land, where we pretend we're living on a farm. The real centers of New Jersey are these office parks in the middle of nowhere. Life is not bad in New Jersey, not bad at all, but what every writer writes about is our trying to find a center in our lives." For the novelist Mark Leyner, who grew up in Maplewood, "New Jerseyness is a kind of vagueness. It's peculiarly indeterminate." For David Gates, New Jersey and New York City will be forever joined at the hip. From his home in upstate New York, Gates said by telephone, "The reason I set the novel in New Jersey is because I wanted Peter Jernigan to be in the place that's his worst snob's nightmare. Many New Yorkers sneer at the bridge-and-tunnel crowd. As part of his scheme for undoing himself, New Jersey would be the place with the least cachet." Aside from its lack of cachet, was there something else about New Jersey that spoke to Gates? "It's a state where I easily get lost," he said. "It's directionless. There's a kind of vagueness about it. And I was trying to stay away from Cheever's turf (in New York's Westchester County)." Which brings us to the question: Who wrote The Great New Jersey Novel? Here is my list of nominees – personal, random, and no doubt far from exhaustive: David Gates Peter Jernigan lives with his wife and their teenage son in a tract house with an aboveground pool on a quarter-acre of lawn in an unnamed New Jersey suburb. The place's lack of a name is, in itself, significant. They couldn't afford anything in Cheever country or farther upstate in New York, and the place they had to settle for is no palace. As Jernigan puts it: "This shitbox house of ours didn't have any back door – just a blank wall with a couple of small, high windows – so you had to walk all the way around the fucking garage to get into the kitchen through the breezeway. I couldn't imagine how the people who lived here before could have gone to the expense of putting in a pool – I hope you don't think we'd put it in – and then not bothered to put a lousy screen door on the back side of the breezeway so you could get out to it. Then again, we'd been here, what, ten years and hadn't bothered either." Like so many of his fellow Garden Staters, Jernigan must make the deadening train commute to a deadening job in New York every morning, then repeat the drill every evening. Here's Jernigan surveying his fellow home-bound commuters: "All the men looked like me. Human basset hounds in wrinkled suits. Except they were drunk, lucky bastards, from their after-work stop-off at Charley O's or something. Ties loosened, breathing through their mouths." In Jernigan's New Jersey the indignities can be as big as a split-level shitbox or as small as a trip to buy a gallon of gas for the lawnmower. Here's Jernigan watching the attendant do his job at a full-service gas station: "Here in the Garden State they actually don't allow you to be a man and pump your own; some union bullshit..." This atmosphere of vague disaffection sharpens when Jernigan's wife dies in a drunken car accident and his son starts dating a disturbed girl. A lot of the kids in Jernigan are disturbed; some are so disturbed they shoot themselves with needles or guns. When Jernigan starts sleeping with the disturbed girl's mother, a survivalist who breeds rabbits in her basement (for food), his descent hits full throttle. It bottoms out, at least for me, when he goes down to the bunny death chamber, presses the barrel of a pistol to the webbing between his left thumb and index finger, and squeezes the trigger. Why does Jernigan shoot himself? "To see what it would be like." What makes the novel great is that it's rooted in the vivid particulars of its place – the split-level, the pool, the commuter train, the rabbits, the gas station – and then it bursts out of its skin to say something universal about the harsh dignity of surviving, even if the survivor winds up, like Jernigan, in rehab, minus a thumb. Our peculiarly American hero, battered but unbowed, utters the novel's closing lines during a 12-step group therapy session: "But when it comes around to you, you have to give them something, if only name and spiritual disease. That's the rule here. So what I've figured out is this. I stand up and say: Jernigan." Jane Shapiro Jane Shapiro's debut novel, After Moondog, appeared a year after Jernigan. But beyond their age and settings, the two novels have little in common. Shapiro's narrator, Joanne, meets her future husband William on a New York street corner commandeered by a motor-mouthed homeless person in a silver Viking helmet named Moondog. Joanne and William marry, move to the New Jersey suburbs, and raise two children. The reason they did all this, according to Joanne, was to "deepen our sense of stability and own a small green lawn." Instead they get those durable staples of suburban life: extra-marital affairs and a divorce.  We're a long way from Jernigan's split-level shitbox and his girlfriend with rabbits and a gun in the basement, but we're still very much in New Jersey. Junot Díaz Paterson, the inspiration for William Carlos Williams' masterpiece and the birthplace of Allen Ginsberg, will never be confused with the lush New Jersey suburbs. For this reason, among many others, it makes a fertile backdrop for Junot Díaz's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about the Dominican diaspora, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, which spins around the trials and strivings of a young Dominican nerd who reads Tom Swift and is drunk on comic books and science fiction. Díaz tells the story of his title character (a bastardization of Oscar Wilde) in a breezy, muscular vernacular. It's a story about the absorption of immigrants into the American middle class, and it's enriched by a vivid portrait of the monstrous dictator Rafael Trujillo these immigrants left behind in their homeland. It was wise of Díaz not to set his novel in New York City's better-known Dominican enclaves of Washington Heights or the Lower East Side. What could possibly be a grittier or more generic gateway to the American middle class than Paterson, New Jersey? Richard Ford Richard Ford's New Jersey Novel is actually a trilogy – The Sportswriter, Independence Day (the first novel to win both the PEN/Faulkner Award and the Pulitzer Prize), and The Lay of the Land. All three revolve around what goes on inside the head of a New Jersey citizen named Frank Bascombe, a failed novelist who turns to sportswriting and eventually becomes a real-estate agent while weathering the storms of a young son's death, divorce, cancer, and the quiet dwindling of expectations. Frank Bascombe, like his home state, is a poster boy for the uncelebrated. "Better to come to earth in New Jersey than not to come at all," Franks says, in what has to be the most left-handed compliment any state ever received. Here's another of New Jersey's virtues: "Illusion will never be your adversary here." Ford, to paraphrase Emerson, seems to believe that literature consists of what a man is thinking about all day. The life that gets lived inside Frank Bascombe's head is, in the words of one reviewer, "unassuming, ordinary, sometimes dull." Perfect for New Jersey. Philip Roth There has been no shortage of artists mining New Jersey's marvels, heartaches, and horrors, from William Carlos Williams to Bruce Springsteen, the Feelies, the filmmakers Louis Malle (Atlantic City) and Todd Solondz (Welcome to the Dollhouse and Happiness), and the writer John McPhee, who in 1968 published a non-fiction classic about the state's sandy midriff called The Pine Barrens. And let's not forget Tony Soprano or that adorable posse from Jersey Shore. But if the state has a home-grown laureate, it is surely Philip Roth. No writer has returned more frequently or fruitfully to his New Jersey roots, particularly to working-class Jewish Newark in the years before, during and after the Second World War. While it would be possible to argue that a handful of Roth's works qualify as The Great New Jersey Novel, I'm going to single out American Pastoral, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1998. Roth's canvas is vast, ranging from Newark as a thriving industrial city to Newark as a wreck gutted by racism, greed, and fear. We see the bloody fruit of the disillusionment spawned by the Vietnam War, and we come to know the fictional hamlet of Old Rimrock, nestled in one of New Jersey's lovely bucolic pockets that looks much as it looked before the Revolutionary War, the implausibly pretty place where the novel's hero, Swede Levov, is robbed of his perfect life. Rick Moody Rick Moody's first novel, Garden State, won a Pushcart Prize for its depiction of teenagers coming of age in the 1980s in a northern New Jersey hole called Haledon. They try to form a band, they do drugs, they light themselves on fire, they fall off roofs. It's all so New Jersey. The Feelies had a lot to do with the making of this dark novel. As Moody said in an interview (collected in The Pleasure of Influence): "I've always revered the Feelies and when I started writing Garden State I listened almost incessantly to this one record called The Good Earth. What I liked about it was it seemed like its ambition was to tell the truth about what it was like for someone in their twenties, sort of rattling around in the suburbs without particular ambitions to get any further than that. So it seemed to be true to me, sort of a true document. And that was what I aspired to do, in a way – add a sort of fictional analog to the record with Garden State." So the novel was written under the influence of the Feelies. That explains a lot. Richard Price Clockers, set in and around a thinly disguised Jersey City housing project, may be the most anthropological novel ever to come out of New Jersey. Its adversaries are Strike, the black leader of a crew of low-level cocaine dealers, and Rocco Klein, a burnt-out homicide cop looking for a little late-career redemption. Through them – through Price's dogged reporting – we learn an encyclopedia's worth of information about the warring tribes of street dealers and cops, their dress, language, working methods, scams, fears, hatreds, and occasional capacity for grace. Strike is a remarkable creation, a teenager who swills Yoo-Hoo to soothe an ulcer as he endures humiliations from every quarter – from his boss, his girlfriend, the cops, and the thing they're paid to serve and protect: white society. As one reviewer put it, "So much information is disseminated that by the end of the novel the reader feels more or less ready to investigate a homicide or start up a drug operation, or both." One thing the reader will not be ready to do is move into a Jersey City housing project. P.F. Kluge A New Jersey native, the prolific and under-appreciated novelist P.F. Kluge spent the summer of 1962 working as a newspaper reporter in Vineland. The time and place became the backdrop for his atmospheric novel about a band of early Jersey rockers, Eddie and the Cruisers, a paean to the glory days before the British Invasion, before Springsteen and Southside Johnny. The novel was made into a movie starring Tom Berenger and Ellen Barkin. Tom Perrotta In his first novel, The Wishbones, Tom Perrotta worked a minor miracle. His 31-year-old protagonist Dave Raymond is fitfully employed as a courier, still living at home with his parents in the New Jersey suburbs, still dating his high-school sweetheart, and moonlighting nights and weekends in a wedding band that gives the book its title. They cover hits from the '70s and '80s, including, yes, "Stairway to Heaven." Dave and his bandmates call each other "Buzzmaster" and "Daverino," and their lives are suffused with "the unmistakable odor of mediocrity." And yet – here's the miracle – Perrotta never condescends to these characters, or their New Jersey milieu, or their stubborn refusal to join the adult world. It's a remarkable achievement, drawing tenderness out of mediocrity. Few writers have the courage, the compassion or the skill to pull it off. Perrotta optioned his second novel to the movies before he could sell it to a publisher. Election, which became an Oscar-nominated movie starring Matthew Broderick and Reese Witherspoon, is set in suburban Winwood, New Jersey in 1992 and revolves around the election of a high school president. The election brings out the best in the people of Winwood: raw ambition, back-stabbing, lesbian sex, sex between students and teachers, and, of course, vote stealing. If more people had read the book or seen the movie, that stolen U.S. presidential election in 2000 might not have been quite so shocking. F. Scott Fitzgerald Princeton University doesn't belong in New Jersey any more than Richard Nixon did, but there it sits, midway between Philadelphia and New York, an eternal beacon to the sons of daughters of privilege. Nearly a century ago, a Princeton undergraduate set out to make his literary name and woo back a southern belle who had jilted him because he didn't have enough money. The result was This Side of Paradise (1920), the debut novel that made F. Scott Fitzgerald into an overnight literary star and helped win back Zelda Sayre. Not everyone appreciated Fitzgerald's knowing portrayal of Princeton's booze-marinated clubbiness. University president John Grier Hibben sniffed, "I cannot bear to think that our young men are merely living four years in a country club and spending their lives wholly in a spirit of calculation and snobbishness." Geoffrey Wolff Another novel to come out of Princeton was Geoffrey Wolff's The Final Club, which has been called "Fitzgerald on fast-forward" because it updates the clubbiness of Paradise to the 1950s. The clubs in question are the university's so-called eating clubs, otherwise known as fraternities. Wolff's novel dissects the degrading rituals surrounding admission, while adding a bitter dash of anti-Semitism. The envelope, please And the winner is...David Gates. Those bunnies in the basement and the thumb lost to a self-inflicted gunshot wound – they tipped the scales for me. Of course you're free to disagree and choose someone else from the list. Or someone who's not on the list. Or someone most of us don't know about, but should. Image courtesy of Triborough/Flickr

If It’s Free, Take It: 2012 World Book Night

Last weekend I attended the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books as both a reader and an author. This means I bought too many books and longed for about a zillion others; made eyes at Susan Straight and Cheryl Strayed; ate free food in the green room; and moderated a panel about fiction writing. After two days of rubbing elbows with my fellow bookworms (and eating so many tiny sandwiches I began to smell like one), I was ready, come Monday, for my role as solitary book giver on World Book Night. It was going to be just me, a box of books, and Pico Boulevard. I was kind of scared. As its website explains, "World Book Night is a celebration of reading and books which will see tens of thousands of people share books with others in their communities across America to spread the joy and love of reading on April 23." The program began last year in the U.K. to great success, and the literary holiday will hopefully reach even more countries by 2013. To become a giver, I had to apply. I recall promising to offer books to my local mechanics and barbers, and to anyone who might be wandering diverse PicFair Village, the mid-city neighborhood I call home. I requested to pass out The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz, which was just one of 30 titles to choose from. Last Thursday, I took my 10-month-old son, Dixon Bean, to Eso Won Books in Leimert Park to pick up my copies. Before handing them over, proprietor James Fugate had me sign a form promising to do right by the World Book Night folks. I solemnly swore to pass the novel out on the 23rd, and I was not to sell or dispose of any leftover copies. Outside the store, a playwright named Reginald helped me load the books and the stroller into my car, and when I told him what I was up to, he said, "I should read more." Why is it that everyone always talks of reading like it's vitamin-taking? To be honest, after the nerd-love-in that is the Festival of Books, I was prepared for Monday to be a real letdown. I kept imagining people shaking their heads at my offer, or worse, yelling, "Get out of my face, bee-otch!" (Why do so many of my imagined scenarios star this line of dialogue?). As a way to protect myself, and to disarm strangers, I decided to bring Bean along for the giving. (We changed the name to World Book Day. I think this is allowed.) First, he and I practiced giving out books in the living room. I thought it would be cute if he walked the books in his push-cart, but he's not the most productive traveler, so after a few rehearsals, we settled on the stroller. And off we went! To my delight, the books went fast. As promised, I passed out copies to the mechanics at the auto body shop on the corner, but since it was before 10 a.m. (World Book Morning?), all the barber shops were still closed. I got rid of three copies at the bus stop, one of which went to a woman with a butterfly tattoo -- on her face. (So weird and feminine/masculine, you guys!). I handed a few to some dog walkers, and one to my neighbor. I was amazed by how many people said "yes" immediately, without even hearing what the book was. It reminded me of my father's favorite saying, "If it's free, take it." Others eyed me and the baby skeptically, as if trying to discern if we were members of a religious cult. One guy thought I was offering him a book I had written -- and it was clear he did not want that. I found myself exclaiming, "This won the Pulitzer Prize a few years ago!" -- and I was heartened to see that the phrase made a difference. The best thing to say about the book, though, was, "It's about a fat nerd and there's lots of Spanish slang." People loved that. The goal of World Book Night is to give books to non-readers. The rules specifically state that the books "are not for those who already read books regularly." This is why, I assume, the selection of 30 books are real crowd-pleasers, from Bel Canto to The Hunger Games. These are beloved books that have already been passed fervently from one reader to the next; they aren't hard to enjoy. The hope is that someone might fall in love with a book they received from a stranger -- and voila, a life-long reader is born. This makes a lot of sense to me, and yet, it's tricky for a giver. I found it awkward, even condescending, to ask, "Are you a big reader?" before I told a person what I had to offer. And I was uncomfortable with the realization that I was asking this question in the high-end coffee shop -- and not to the people at the bus stop. One time, I offered the book to a guy without asking about his literary proclivities, and when he saw what it was, he got so excited. "Oh! I love his stories in The New Yorker!" I couldn't very well refuse to give him the book after that, could I? By the end of our giving, I was exhausted, but also uplifted. It's hard to approach strangers, but it feels good to give something you love to the world, especially when the world is so thrilled to receive it. I keep imagining one of the people I met opening up her copy of Oscar Wao -- perhaps as she sips a Cappuccino, or settles in for a long bus ride -- and reading the first sentence: They say it first came from Africa, carried in the screams of the enslaved; that it was the death bane of the Tainos, uttered just as one world perished and another began; that it was a demon drawn into Creation through the nightmare door that was cracked open in the Antilles. And like that, she's sucked into Junot Diaz's strange, funny, naughty, beautiful world. All it takes is one book. And one reader. Image courtesy of the author.

Migrations: A Reading List

1. The non-fictional part My father returned to British Columbia last week. He’d been in New York City for three years, the only three years of my adult life when I’d had a blood relative within three thousand miles; there’s absolutely no reason, in other words, why I shouldn’t be accustomed to living on the other side of a continent and across an international border from my family by now, but it’s hard to describe the wistfulness that overcame me when he left. Words scrawled in a notebook on the subway last week: All my family's by the opposite ocean tonight. I love New York so deeply, but I am so far away. Immigration has been on my mind lately. A grandmother’s family is of aristocratic lineage, which means absolutely nothing except that it makes genealogical research really easy; our ancestors can be traced back to the year 800, a Viking king, but that was four countries ago now. From Denmark to France, a sea crossing to England at the time of the conquest, several centuries of lives and deaths and high-stakes political maneuverings before a magnificently-named great-grandfather set out for the New World: Newell St. Andrew St. John, eighteen years old, the recipient of a beautiful classical education, known all his life for his warmth and kindness, boards a ship out of England and boldly notes his occupation as Farmer on the manifest. It’s less than certain that he’d ever wielded a shovel before he wrote that word. The prairie farm that followed was of course a disaster. But what spirit, what evidence of the will for self-creation, of the possibilities the new continent offered! It was possible, at least on paper, to come here and be an entirely new person. I wish I could have known him. I imagine him on the Canadian prairies, gazing out at the bafflingly endless land, thinking Now what? There were a number of slow journeys over oceans in my great-grandparents’ generation, but their children had the sense to stay put. My grandparents’ lives were played out in Canada (my mother’s side) and the United States (my father’s); Victoria and the Canadian prairies, small California towns. But my father moved from California to Canada as a young man and has switched countries three or four times since. I moved from Toronto to New York City, back up to Montreal, back to New York. I acquired a second passport. It occurred to me, arriving in New York City by train for the second time in a year, that it would be perfectly possible to go on like this forever. City to city, country to country, endless mundane interchangeable jobs, a permanently unsettled life. I got a novel out of this realization, but the thought gave me a chill. 2. The reading list. (I’ve left out the obvious ones, because you’ve probably all heard of Brooklyn and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by now.) Migration in its various forms is at the heart of a great many of my favorite plots in fiction. But beyond that it seems to me that migration, as an idea of motion, is inextricable from good fiction. Your characters must change—they must move, psychically at least, from point A to point B—and the plot must move forward. Drowning in Darkness, by Peter Oliva: I found this slim paperback in my grandparents’ living room when I was fourteen or so, and have carried it with me ever since. An exquisitely-written novel that takes place mostly in a grim little mining town in Canada’s Crowsnest Pass. A coalminer named Pep Rogolino imported a bride, Sera, from southern Italy; she came dreaming of a spectacular new life, sank under the weight of the life she found in Canada, and eventually disappeared. Did she flee the town? Did she walk into the coalmine, where deadly gasses move silently through the dark? The narrative cuts back and forth between Pep and Sera’s lives, together and apart, and a single night in the coal mine: a young miner, trapped by an explosion, tells stories to someone who may or may not be there with him in the absolute darkness while he waits to Pep to arrive with the morning shift. The Mistress of Nothing, by Kate Pullinger: Sally Naldrett is a maid at the service of Lady Duff Gordon, an effervescent (and consumptive) member of Victorian-era British high society. When Lady Duff Gordon’s worsening health forces her to flee damp England for hotter, drier climes, Sally travels with her, into a new life in Egypt that she never could have imagined. I rarely read historical fiction, but found this book absolutely captivating. Haunted Traveller by Barry Yourgrau: Haunted Traveller is billed as a fictional memoir. It’s made up of episodic little sections, connected loosely or not at all, concerning travels in countries that might almost be real. The elements are fantastical, but the underlying theme—the disconnection and alienation of solo travel—rings absolutely true. The Brief History of the Dead by Kevin Brockmeier: Death is another country, or in Brockmeier’s novel, another city. The City is populated by the recently deceased; its origins and exact nature are unclear, but it’s clear to the inhabitants that it’s something akin to a way station. The last migration you take is to The City, where you remain for weeks or years or decades, until the death of the last person on earth who remembers you. But the living world has become increasingly chaotic, with warfare and plagues spreading over the continents; new arrivals in the city bring ever more desperate accounts of a new and unstoppable virus. As the human race nears extinction, The City begins to empty out. Back on earth, a lone researcher named Laura Byrd is trapped by bad weather in an Antarctic research station. As her supplies dwindle and she struggles for survival, the citizens of the shrinking City realize that Laura Byrd, the one person they all seem to have in common, is very likely the last person alive on earth.

Goon Squad Takes the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction

This year's Pulitzer Prize for fiction has gone to Jennifer Egan's much praised A Visit from the Goon Squad. The win caps a year that saw this "novel in stories" go from a book anticipated by the literary set to becoming a prize winner and bestseller. Jonathan Dee and Chang-rae Lee are the runners up. Lee is a past winner of the PEN/Hemingway Award, while Dee continues to receive critical notice as a novelist. Incidentally, this marks the third year in five that The Tournament of Books has predicted the Pulitzer result. The Road won both in 2007, as did The Brief Wonderous Life of Oscar Wao in 2008. Here are this year's Pulitzer winners and finalists with excerpts where available:Fiction:Winner: A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan - (excerpt, Egan's Year in Reading, The Millions profile of Egan)The Privileges by Jonathan Dee (excerpt, The Millions interview)The Surrendered by Chang-rae Lee (excerpt)General Nonfiction:Winner: The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer by Siddhartha Mukherjee (excerpt)The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brain by Nicholas Carr (excerpt, The Millions review)Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History by S.C. Gwynne (excerpt)History:Winner: The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery by Eric Foner (excerpt)Confederate Reckoning: Power and Politics in the Civil War South by Stephanie McCurryEden on the Charles: The Making of Boston by Michael Rawson (excerpt)Biography:Winner: Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow (excerpt, The Presidential Biography Project)The Publisher: Henry Luce and His American Century by Alan Brinkley (excerpt)Mrs. Adams in Winter: A Journey in the Last Days of Napoleon by Michael O'BrienWinners and finalists in other categories are available at the Pulitzer Web site.

What We Teach When We Teach Writers: On the Quantifiable and the Uncertain

I. Thirty-six. This is the number of books I will have read, or re-read, in 2010, by the end of October. I keep a “Reading List” page on my website, and the other day, I found myself counting up my 2010 reading. I also found myself dividing 36 by 43, which is the number of weeks between January 1 and Oct 31. It comes out to .84. This is my rate of reading. In 2010, I have read .84 books per week. Once upon a time I was good at math. If memory serves me right, I think I may have even gotten the highest score possible on a Calculus Advanced Placement exam. I wonder how different my life would be if I had become, say, an engineer; or an economist; or a CFO. II. But I am none of those things. I am a writer. I also teach fiction writing. A few weeks ago, partially in response to Elif Batuman’s essay in the London Review of Books, “Get A Real Degree,” Bill Morris wrote a piece here called, “Does School Kill Writing?” Morris wrote: “School wasn't my death as a writer, it was my birth… I’m dubious when people fret that school is killing writing – that college boys ruined newspapers and the growing horde of creative writing MFAs is ruining American fiction today.” One of the comments on Morris’s post came from Millions staff writer Emily St. John Mandel: I would be curious to read a piece on this subject someday from the POV of someone who actually teaches in one of these programs, someone who can talk about whether these programs are capable of transformation, or merely refinement […] whether they’re taking already-accomplished writers and just polishing them a little, or whether these programs can take merely capable writers and make them great. I think it would be an interesting perspective. III. “I think the single most defining characteristic of a writer,”  I found myself saying to a friend the other day, when she asked my thoughts on the teaching of writing, “I mean the difference between a writer and someone who ‘wants to be a writer,’ is a high tolerance for uncertainty.” IV. Last week, I attended a “lecture on craft” given by Jennifer Egan for Columbia MFA students. After her talk, in which she mentioned that she is an “unconscious writer”—meaning that her first drafts, written by hand on legal pads in nearly-illegible handwriting, are wholly unthinking in regards to craft (it’s in revision that she shapes and carves away and applies conscious craft-thinking)—a student raised her hand and asked what sorts of goals she sets, given said unconsciousness. “Five pages,” she said. “Every day I aim for five pages. It doesn’t matter how much time I spend. I’m after the pages.” I saw a number of students scribbling in their notebooks. I thought I heard a collective exhale of relief. Five pages. Something concrete, something quantifiable. Especially after Egan had also mentioned that she never thinks about point-of-view (the voice of a character or narrator always “just comes to me, fully formed”) and that she has no idea where her prescience re: technological anthropology  (evident in both A Visit From the Good Squad and Look at Me) came from, since she herself is “lame” and “behind the curve” as a technology user. V. When you teach writing, you have to have a sort of world-view about it, or else you’ll go a little nutty. Here’s mine: at a certain level, there is pretty-good writing (“capable,” in Emily’s words), there is really-good writing, and there is great writing. Most of us will move among these categories throughout our lives; we'll aim for greatness and more often than not land somewhere along the way. If you are earnest in this endeavor, if you understand that your pretty-good writing can and must always be getting better, then I can’t see why I, as a teacher, shouldn’t encourage and help you along as best I can. The truth is that your pretty-good writing may very well get published and make you famous; it’s happened before. Your great writing may never see the light of day. Your really-good writing may get published and be read by very few. You may write something great this time around and something pretty-good next time around and something not-very-good-at-all a few years down the road and never get published at all. It’s happened before. (Read this, and this, if you don’t believe me.) I don’t decide these things. I’m only here to help you write better, because I think it’s important and worthwhile. As readers, each of us will necessarily put different books into each of these categories, and we may even change our minds about certain books over time.  So I never give my students the once-over and think that only those who comprise the top two categories can or should be encouraged. There are many paths to a writing life; those paths twist and turn and are haunted by the cruelties of subjectivity, along with the inevitably erratic application of our gifts. I can forgive anyone’s so-called mediocrity, mine included, as long as the writer herself is not satisfied with it. VI. A writer friend of mine used to always report to me his short story in-progress word counts. I found this funny and endearing. When I was about halfway through a novel draft, I started tracking my word counts and reporting them on my blog. It wasn’t funny to me, though, and probably not endearing to anyone else; I needed markers, a sense of how far I’d come and how far I thought I had to go. I was in the wilderness on this draft. Around the same time, another novelist friend started reporting his word counts on Facebook. I commented on one of his word-count posts: “Let’s make it en vogue to track and report word counts!” He replied, “Yes!” VII. Some anecdotes from the lives/careers of some authors I’ve read just this past month, which remind me of the uncertainty of the writing life: From the Pevear/Volokhonsky translation of Tolstoy’s stories: “Of the eleven stories in this collection, only four were published in Tolstoy’s lifetime.” Hadji Murad, Father Sergius, The Devil, and Alyosha the Pot are among the stories published only posthumously. (Hadji Murad!) Carson McCullers’s The Heart is a Lonely Hunter was published to wide acclaim when she was 23. She received two Guggenheim awards. Throughout her 20’s she suffered many illnesses and was paralyzed on her entire left side at the age of 31, shortly before she attempted suicide. The Ballad of the Sad Cafe was adapted into a play by Edward Albee (while she was alive), and later into a Merchant Ivory film (long after her death). While writing his luminous novel Light Years, James Salter wrote to Robert Phelps: I love this book. I'm writing it for myself and an audience composed of me's [...] It's going to have many beautiful jumps, sauts, perhaps it will be a ballet [...] Some things I love in it I love as one loves a woman. The book received mixed reviews - two bad ones in the NY Times - and sold modestly. Junot Diaz wrote, regarding the process of writing his Pulitzer Prize-winning The Brief Life of Oscar Wao, five years into it: I started becoming convinced that I had written all I had to write [...] that maybe it was time, for the sake of my mental health, for me to move on to another profession, and if the inspiration struck again some time in the future... well, great. But I knew I couldn't go on much more the way I was going. I just couldn't [...] My fiancée was so desperate to see me happy (and perhaps more than a little convinced by my fear that maybe the thread had run out on my talent) that she told me to make a list of what else I could do besides writing [...] It took a month to pencil down three things. (I really don't have many other skills.) I stared at that list for about another month. Waiting, hoping, praying for the book, for my writing, for my talent to catch fire. A last-second reprieve. But nada. So I put the manuscript away. All the hundreds of failed pages, boxed and hidden in a closet. I think I cried as I did it. VIII. The thing I feel that I cannot exactly teach, but can only hope to model and emphasize to student writers, is this tolerance for uncertainty; for a life that is indeed characterized by uncertainty. As when you learn to drive a stick shift, there is a kind of “friction zone,” where your inner imperative to write and your tolerance for uncertainty cross each other, and the energy balance of that intersection either sets you off into motion, or you stall. I have seen many talented would-be writers stall (especially on steep inclines). Some find their way to restarting (as, of course, Diaz did); others give up for good, they trade in for an automatic. As a teacher, I try to exemplify and nurture a deep love of reading and of sentence-and-story-making—one’s only stay against doubt and the feeling of non-existence that will inevitably creep in. I try to give student writers enough “gas” to help them manage and master the friction zone, so that they come to know that feeling of ignition, of takeoff, both bumpy and smooth, and develop a liking for it, an abiding passion, even an addiction. When I sit down with a student and suggest that reading this book or that author may help him understand how to better execute a half-baked story idea, and that student eagerly seeks out those works, and keeps asking for more, I feel hopeful about that student’s future as a writer. On the other hand, when a student looks at me blankly and doesn’t even write down the suggestions—doesn’t seem to want to be nourished by literature and get better, but rather simply wants me to praise her originality as is—then I feel I can see the writing (trailing off) on the wall. IX. It’s hard to write well. But it may be even harder to simply keep writing; which, by the way, is the only way to write better. In the meantime, aim for five pages. Report your word counts. Track your rate of reading. Teach math on the side if you have to. Whatever you need to do. Hang in there. Image: Riforma della scuola via Funky64's photostream

On My Shelves

1. Behind my desk, in my bedroom, there is a large bookcase divided into 25 cubes. On the wall facing my desk there are three bookshelves. Instead of a table, there is also a shelf at my bedside. Beside my desk is an additional bookcase, the Billy model from Ikea, with six shelves. All this shelf space amounts to about 56 feet. I have turned my attention to my bookshelves and not what stand on them because I am reorganizing my personal library. I need to know how much space I have for my books, in order to accommodate the existing space for a logical, efficacious, and personalized classification system for the books I own, which currently amount to just short of 500 volumes. My endeavor, of course, is not a very great one. I do have a considerable number of books, but by no means is my collection large or unwieldy. I’m only 20, and as such my library is not a lifetime’s library — it is only the nucleus of a true library, with burgeoning interests, mistakes, discoveries, a few treasures, and several shortcomings. As for the organization of the books, well, I must say that in its current state the classification is far from optimal. Most of last semester's books are still on the shelf above my desk and deserve integration with the rest of my collection, instead of groupings by course reading material. My French books are all together in the Billy bookcase, which results in separating the Penguin edition of Chekhov’s Ward No. 6 and Other Stories, 1892-1895 from the French translation of Chekhov’s (or, as it were, Tchekhov’s) plays, published by Folio in two paperback volumes. Similarly, the current state of my books creates rifts between ideas and eras, or tensions where there shouldn’t be any. For instance my enormous paperback of Allen Ginsberg’s Collected Poems lies on a shelf above my desk because I was too lazy to make room for it in the cubes. Thus Ginsberg is a room apart from his friend Kerouac (if their belonging to the Beats shouldn’t be enough to bring them together, Ginsberg even took the pictures on the cover of On the Road, which I think calls for neighboring spots on my shelves). In the cubes there are other inconsistencies: Junot Díaz is between the single volume Chronicles of Narnia and Anne Michaels; Hemingway shares his shelf with Amitav Ghosh, Toni Morrison, and Nabokov — I can’t think of any reason why those authors should rub covers. Likewise, when I see Eco’s The Name of the Rose on one shelf and his collection of essays On Literature on the opposite wall, I know it is time to take all the books out, dust off the shelves, and start again from scratch. 2. The first step in reorganizing my personal library is finding a system. Of this, there are many, some more improvised than others. In his bible of bibliomania, The Library at Night, Alberto Manguel explores the different facets of the library, and also the different ways to organize books. For his own collection of 30,000 books, which he keeps in his château in France, Manguel has chosen to divide his books by language, and then place them alphabetically. Rather drab for me, I think, considering the small size of my own book collection. Some book collectors have been more original. Take Samuel Pepys for instance, the great 17th century diarist, who maintained a personal library (which still exists) of 3,000 books exactly, not a volume more. What is, perhaps, the most astounding feature of Pepys’ library is the way in which the books were organized: by size. All his volumes were numbered from 1 to 3,000, from smallest to biggest, and placed in that order in his bookcases, each volume bound in matching leather, and each book resting on a little wooden stilt matching the cover, to create unity in height — gentlemanly elegance. What may be acknowledged about any organizational system is that they all have certain limitations. Even the Dewey Decimal System, used by the majority of public libraries in the world — which divides human knowledge into ten decimals, in turn subdivided into ten categories, and so on — is limited when it comes to books with split subjects (take the excellent Time Among the Maya, by Ronald Wright, which is part travel journal in Mesoamerica, part history book on the Mayas). But I am looking for a more intuitive organizational system, something flexible and creative. An article in The Guardian’s online book section discussed “bookshelf etiquette,” organizational systems like grouping books by theme or color. One of the propositions was to place books together by potential for their authors to be friends. I choose a different path: all of an author’s books are together (no matter the language), authors that go well together go together, other books are placed by association of genre or style. I will start with that in mind, and see where it brings me. 3. I remove books from my shelves. I grab multiple spines between my thumb and fingers, slide out the volumes and pile them on my desk, on the floor — soon my room is like a messy cave of paper and multicolored covers and spines. The wall behind my desk is bland, covered in empty cubes, spacious and clean. I am reminded of a time, not so long ago, when my entire book collection did not even fit on the six shelves of a Billy bookcase. As I take the books out of their bookcases, crack open a few to see if the words inside still have the same ring, and admire the beauty of some covers, I start to understand that there are some books I do no want anymore. There is a vital difference between books you do not need and books you no longer want to have. I would willingly keep a book I hated if it had a nice cover (and I do, like Kazuo Ishiguro’s Nocturnes, a silly collection of short stories with a stunning, elegant cover). The books I am ready to give away are books I don’t care about: they are ugly, I have had them for too long, I have never read them and never will — they simply become a waste of space. Take How to Read Novels Like a Professor, a paperback I bought a couple of years ago, in an attempt to uncover some of literature’s secrets before entering University. I drop the book with the other giveaways. A few days later I pick it up again and this passage catches my attention: “Books lead to books, ideas to ideas. You can wear out a hundred hammocks and never reach the end. And that’s the good news.” I certainly agree with that. No English major would be supposed to be caught dead with such a preposterously titled book in their library, and maybe that’s the reason why I wanted to give it away in the first place. I decide to keep it in my collection after all — for now. In the end I’ve put aside two dozen books in the giveaway pile. By no means am I kidding myself that I’m actually getting rid of a large chunk of my library.  I admire people who are able to rid themselves of books they love, give books away selflessly so that others can enjoy them. I know I could never do such a thing. 4. I admit, with a hint of guilt, that I have not read all the books I own. Not even close. The majority of them, yes (I hope), but far from all of them. Despite the incredible amount of reading left for me to do before I really know my library, almost every week I buy more books. Part of the problem lies in my appreciation for books as objects, as elegant collectibles. I like not only to read them, but to look at them, touch them. Larry McMurtry has phrased it rather elegantly in his memoir, titled simply, Books: But there can be secondary and tertiary reasons for wanting a particular book. One is the pleasure of holding the physical book itself: savoring the type, the binding, the book’s feel and heft. All these things can be enjoyed apart from literature, which some, but not all, books contain. While I have shelves full of books I have not read at home, I keep on thinking about which books I’m going to buy next. Although minor, this problem does create a fair amount of anxiety, essentially caused by the fact that I simply don’t read enough. Furthermore, as I reorganize my books I realize there are many I would like to reread soon. (At the top of my list: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Too Much Happiness by Alice Munro, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows…) Sometimes I wish I were that man in the Twilight Zone episode who finds himself in the ruins of a public library, with lots of food and all the time in the world to read all the books he wants. 5. My library is also the most personal of filing systems, with countless mementos flattened between the covers of the books. There is a card from a blood-drive marking a page in Greenblatt’s biography of Shakespeare, reminding me of when I can give blood again. I slam away the congratulations card from the English department of my college which awarded me a prize in Shakespeare studies (oddly, the quote on the card is by Anaïs Nin) in the bard’s complete works (leatherbound, gold page edges). A business card from the Winding Staircase, a charming Dublin bookstore, falls out of De Niro’s Game, which I read in Ireland. Between my Oscar Wildes I find a touching card from my parents, given to me when I turned 18. I choose a better place for it: between the pages of a book on self-fashioning in the Renaissance they bought for me at Shakespeare and Company, in Paris, a place I have only been to in my dreams. 6. I have finally emptied all my shelves. It was long — and tedious. Not in the physical sense, but in one that is, of sorts, moral. Removing all those books was the undoing of something that was set, a collection which, it seems, had built itself up, slowly, purposefully, into a cohesive whole. The work of an oyster. After the toil of the unmaking, now I have to rebuild my library up — restock the shelves that now stand cleared, poised, filled only with light and shadows. After some consideration, the first book I place back on the top left cube, is Beowulf, masterfully translated by Seamus Heaney, the beginning of literature in English. I have to rifle down the spines of a few piles before I finally locate it. Next up goes Tolkien. I cannot resist — without him I’m not sure Beowulf would even be taught in schools at all. His translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, first, to soften the transition, and then The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, Tree and Leaf, and The Children of Hurin. Then I place Herodotus, whom my girlfriend assures me thinks exactly like Tolkien. I am startled by my audacity. There is a jump from 10th century Anglo-Saxon manuscript to 20th Century fantasy writer to the father of history, a fifth-century Greek — my system is either creative or blasphemous. 7. My girlfriend came to help me. Her presence was motivating — I have done more work in half an hour than in the last week. The Canterbury Tales are inserted between Beowulf and Tolkien by her recommendation, I add Peter Ackroyd’s The Clerkenwell Tales beside it. A cube inspired by military history starts with Thucydides and ends with a biography on George Washington — yet George Orwell, Alan Moore, and Annie Proulx all end up on it by association. From the look in my girlfriend’s eyes I know she thinks this is starting to look like a madman’s library. Nothing new there, bibliomania is a psychological disorder, I am told. Putting Sylvia Plath with her husband Ted Hughes feels wrong, so we try to find a new lover for her. I think of Byron as a joke, my girlfriend proposes Mary Shelley as a fellow tortured female writer. The offer is accepted and Plath serves as transition into gothic fiction. Ironically, Byron ends up just after Shelley anyway (they shared more than shelf-space in their lives, after all), and before Polidori and Stoker. Books start to place themselves on their own. There is a cube for my books about books: Anne Fadiman and Manguel, Borges (which I can no longer dissociate from the latter), 501 Must-Read Books, A Gentle Madness, The Companionship of Books, and others go here. There is a cube, or half of it, at least, for Faber friends: Eliot, Hughes, Graham Swift, Kazuo Ishiguro. Edgy writers (Bukowski, Tony O’Neill, Mark SaFranco, Writing at the Edge) share their cube with erotic fiction (The Gates of Paradise, Delta of Venus, the Marquis de Sade, Wetlands by Charlotte Roche, La vie sexuelle de Catherine M.) — Neil Strauss buffers between them. I go on like this, a few minutes every day. Slowly, surely, books leave my floor, my desk, my bed, my bathroom, and regain their place on the shelves in some kind of order. Some associations are obvious — others, not so much. 8. Finally the cubes are filled again. I can breathe a bit more in my bedroom. I enjoy looking at the neat rows of spines, follow the literary path of my own twisted organization system. Still, there are many flaws on my shelves, mainly caused by lack of room (or perhaps because the number of books is too great). Some books just don’t “fit” anywhere, others would go well in too many places. Ian McEwan, for instance, ends up sharing his shelf with female writers like Doris Lessing, Emily Brontë, and Virginia Woolf. I have to think of the shelves as a work in progress in order to live with their limitations. Then, of course, there are also some things I love about the new shelf-arrangement: the various degrees of moral and social incorrectness in the cube that starts with Oscar Wilde, then moves to Thomas Hardy and D. H. Lawrence; how A Moveable Feast rubs covers with John Glassco’s Memoirs of Montparnasse; and that His Dark Materials finally stands beside my three editions of Paradise Lost. 9. Over my desk I place essays on philosophy and literature. My heavy anthologies — costly books with a fair amount of repetition (parts of The Canterbury Tales appear in at least three of them) and some textbooks I keep as reference — go in the sturdy Billy. I also shelve my art books there, like my Janson’s History of Art, as well as some exhibition catalogues, which map out my travels: the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, the Chester Beatty Library in Dublin, the Ivan Mestrovic Gallery in Split. Lastly, I put back my books in French. I keep them together, two compact shelves of ivory spines. I have always wondered at the uniformity of French covers, often white, usually bland. I start with Don Quixote, move down to Alexandre Dumas, the Arsène Lupins which belonged to my father, then Québecois literature. The next shelf is mostly from France: Sartre, Camus, Flaubert, and Littell (which I put beside the latter because of the masterful description in Les Bienveillantes of the narrator reading L’Éducation sentimentale as he walks through fields devastated by war), and contemporary authors like Makine, Folco, and Pennac. 10. Now my shelves are full again, or almost. I have given away enough books to leave two empty shelves — one in the Billy and the topmost shelf above my desk — waiting to be filled by new acquisitions (which certainly won’t be long in coming). This adventure in bookshelf etiquette helped me take control of my library, rediscover what I have, solidify my appreciation for my books — the majority of which are probably going to follow me for the rest of my life. I have realized how many books I own but have not read (The Portrait of a Lady, Nicholas Nickleby, War and Peace, Beyond Black…), but I know that I am not quite ready for some of them, and they can wait a while longer. I dream of owning and reading all of Atwood, Munro, Updike. There are many books I should own but do not: I have nothing by J.M. Coetzee, or Ovid, or Paul Auster. I have Bolaño’s 2666, but not the Savage Detectives; Waugh’s Vile Bodies but not Brideshead Revisited; Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, but not Love in the Time of Cholera. My book collection is full of hopes and holes. Thus I have a second library, in my mind, of which my real, physical book collection is only the tip (to use that famous iceberg metaphor). Underneath my shelves lie all the books I want, all the books I should have (dictated by the canon, or recommendations from friends and famous people), all the books I need, like Borges’ fabulous Library of Babel, extending out into book-lined room after book-lined room, infinitely. Now, you will have to excuse me, but I have to stop this business — I have some reading to do. [Image source: Stewart Butterfield]

The Millions Top Ten: September 2009

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. Inherent Vice 2 months 2. 2. Zeitoun 3 months 3. 8. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo 3 months 4. 6. (tie) The Skating Rink 2 months 5. (tie) - Asterios Polyp 1 month 5. (tie) 10. Felonious Jazz 5 months 7. - Cloud Atlas 1 month 8. - The Year of the Flood 1 month 9. - The White Tiger 1 month 10. (tie) - Future Missionaries of America 1 month 10. (tie) - Imperial 1 month 10. (tie) 9. Netherland 4 months Four inductees to The Millions Hall of Fame plus gridlock in the tenth spot on our list meant room for plenty of new titles on the list in September. Graduating to our Hall of Fame were four illustrious titles, Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz, Matthew Diffee's The Rejection Collection: Cartoons You Never Saw, and Never Will See, in The New Yorker, and Carl Wilson's Celine Dion's Let's Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste. The former two titles are good examples of our readers' taste in fiction (Wao in fact won our recent readers' poll of the best fiction of the decade). The latter two are niche titles that sparked an enduring interest in readers despite relatively minor mentions at The Millions. Newly appearing on the list are some recently published titles. Asterios Polyp, which we reviewed not long ago, Margaret Atwood's The Year of the Flood and William T. Vollmann's Imperial, which were both on our most recent Most Anticipated list, and Future Missionaries of America by Matthew Vollmer, who was an interviewer and an interviewee for us in June. Also debuting are Cloud Atlas, which emerged as a big favorite in our Best of the Millennium project, and The White Tiger. That one's a bit of a mystery because we haven't talked about it much, but it did, of course, win the Booker Prize a year ago. Finally, Inherent Vice and Zeitoun hold on to their positions, but there are still several new releases on tap for the fall, so they may be challenged soon for the top spots. See Also: Last month’s list.

Best of the Millennium, Pros Versus Readers

One thing I know after working on The Millions for all these years is that the site has some incredibly knowledgeable and avid readers, the sort of book people I loved working with back in my bookstore days and who are the lifeblood of literary culture. And so, even as we were polling our distinguished panel of writers, editors, and critics, we wondered, what do Millions readers think? We polled The Millions Facebook group to find out. The list our readers came up with was very interesting, and deviated in noticeable ways from that of the Pros. Before I get into the details. Have a look at the two lists below (Links in our panel list go to the writeups we published throughout the week.  Links in our reader list go to Amazon): Panel Readers 1 The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen 1 The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz 2 The Known World by Edward P. Jones 2 2666 by Roberto Bolaño 3 Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell 3 Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides 4 2666 by Roberto Bolaño 4 Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell 5 Pastoralia by George Saunders 5 The Road by Cormac McCarthy 6 The Road by Cormac McCarthy 6 Atonement by Ian McEwan 7 Austerlitz by W.G. Sebald 7 The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon 8 Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson 8 The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen 9 Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage by Alice Munro 9 Gilead by Marilynne Robinson 10 Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro 10 White Teeth by Zadie Smith 11 The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz 11 Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami 12 Twilight of the Superheroes by Deborah Eisenberg 12 The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini 13 Mortals by Norman Rush 13 Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro 14 Atonement by Ian McEwan 14 Austerlitz by W.G. Sebald 15 Varieties of Disturbance by Lydia Davis 15 Empire Falls by Richard Russo 16 Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides 16 Runaway by Alice Munro 17 The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem 17 The Master by Colm Tóibín 18 Stranger Things Happen by Kelly Link 18 Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie 19 American Genius, A Comedy by Lynne Tillman 19 Unaccustomed Earth ** by Jhumpa Lahiri 20 Gilead by Marilynne Robinson 20 Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke      While everyone seems to agree that The Corrections is a great book (it was the panel winner by a landslide), Millions readers put seven books ahead of it, and anointed Oscar Wao the top book of the decade.  Our readers have always loved Oscar, so that wasn't a huge surprise, but it was also interesting to see that the readers had a high opinion of  Michael Chabon's The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, rectifying probably the biggest snub on our panel list, (along with White Teeth).  But then, the readers snubbed The Known World, so who knows. With a massive field of potential books, snubs were inevitable. Left off both lists were both of Jonathan Safran Foer's novels, David Foster Wallace's Oblivion (his only fiction of the decade), and Denis Johnson's much praised Tree of Smoke. Voters were also dying to include Bolaño's The Savage Detectives. It was ineligible because it was published in Spanish in 1998, but it makes one wonder, what books will seem like shoo-ins for this type of exercise 10 or 11 years from now but are completely under the radar (or still untranslated) today? Moving back to the books that did make the list, I also loved that the readers included Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, a book that I've been hearing about from our readers for years, and Half of a Yellow Sun, a book that's always had a lot of support in the online literary community.  Also intriguing is the appearance of mega-best seller The Kite Runner. Finally, if we try to look for a consensus among the two lists, several titles appear on both, but the two with the most support across the entire spectrum of respondents are 2666 and Cloud Atlas, which, if you had to pick just two books to define the literary decade now coming to an end, would make for very interesting selections indeed. We'll be publishing follow-up pieces in our Millennium series over the coming weeks, so look for those. I also wanted to thank our panel and Millions readers for taking the time to participate in the series. If you enjoyed the series and value the coverage that The Millions provides, please consider supporting the site.

#11: The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz

A few months ago, I got a poke to do one of those silly “do this now” things on Facebook. We were asked to pick up the book lying nearest to us and quote a sentence from it on a particular page--I think it was page 58. The book near me at that moment, though I’d read it sometime prior, was Junot Díaz’s The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. I grabbed it, flipped open to the directed page--and found there one perfect sentence. I remember thinking, “Damn, you can flip this book open anywhere and find perfection. Wow.” This book has gotten tons of attention--major prizes, big reviews, bestselling status--but it’s nice to see that a novel so well-crafted, so funny, so idiosyncratic, so…wondrous, can still capture the imagination of large audiences. If you haven’t read it yet, you should. Junot Díaz's Year in Reading. More Best Fiction of the Millennium (So Far) Best of the Millennium, Pros Versus Readers

The Millions Top Ten: August 2009

We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we've been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you've been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you'll find our Millions Top Ten list for August. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. - Inherent Vice 1 month 2. 5. Zeitoun 2 months 3. 4. The Rejection Collection: Cartoons You Never Saw, and Never Will See, in The New Yorker 6 months 4. 2. Infinite Jest 6 months 5. 6. Celine Dion's Let's Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste 6 months 6. (tie) 7. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao 6 months 6. (tie) - The Skating Rink 1 month 8. 8. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo 2 months 9. 10. Netherland 2 months 10. 9. Felonious Jazz 3 months Thomas Pynchon staged an impressive debut in August, hitting number one in The Millions Top Ten as Inherent Vice hit shelves. Garth, our resident Pynchon expert, shared his thoughts on the post-modern detective story just this week. Also debuting on our list in August is yet another title from Roberto Bolaño. Out of the gate, The Skating Rink is looking less like a footnote in Bolaño's prolific career and more like another Bolaño masterpiece, receiving impressive notices from the likes of Wyatt Mason in The New York Times (a "short, exquisite novel") and Scott Esposito in The Quarterly Conversation ("well worth your time"). The book was also on our most recent "Most Anticipated Books" list. Graduating to our Hall of Fame (after being on our list for 6+ months) are two books that have been surprise Millions favorites. Kitty Burns Florey's Sister Bernadette's Barking Dog: The Quirky History and Lost Art of Diagramming Sentences was the jumping off point for a grammar rodeo that Garth put on analyzing a snippet of a speech by President Obama. The upshot? A Venn diagram of Millions readers and grammar lovers would show quite a lot of overlap, I now suspect. Also newly honored in our Hall of Fame is prizewinner Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout, which inspired Edan to pen her much discussed "Mom Book" essay. Other notable action: Dave Eggers' Zeitoun, recently reviewed around here and generally getting outstanding notices, shot to the number two spot in its second month on the list. Next month should be quite interesting as we're poised to have four titles join the Hall of Fame, freeing up room for lots of newcomers. See Also: Last month’s list.

The Post-Kindle World

Today represented some kind of personal tipping point. As if by prearrangement - or super-stealthy guerilla marketing plan? - the Kindle was everywhere I went. First: a faculty meeting. More than one colleague praising the seductions of the e-Reader, as opposed to the good old book. Except who am I kidding? They didn't use the term e-Reader. They used the term Kindle. Then: the subway. I fell into the pleasurable habit of scanning the titles being read by my fellow travelers. The Economist. The New Yorker. Last Evenings on Earth. Kindle. Something in Chinese. The Raw Shark Texts. Another Kindle. Lush Life. Something by Donna Leon. Something by Daniel Silva. Something by Stephen L. Carter. Yup: Kindle #3. (The woman reading Bolaño switched halfway through my ride to a Kindle, on which she may or may not have continued reading Bolaño . I'm not making this up.) Finally: Bryant Park. Right behind the New York Public Library. Summer Associates getting their drink on. Kindle. Abandoned newspaper. Coddled Kindle. Homeless man with obscenity scrawled on jacket. Kindle in handy Kindle carrier. Outdoor library. Outdoor Kindle. I began to imagine a day where outdoor libraries won't exist. Nor will my beloved newsstands (already struggling with cigarettes at $10 a pack). Indoor libraries will struggle even harder than they already do to justify their existence; everyone will be carrying her own. Well, everyone but the guy with the obscenity scrawled on his jacket. And Nosy Parkers such as myself will be unable to tell what anyone's reading on mass transit. Except that they're all reading on e-Readers. This day is doubtless drawing ever closer, but as a lover of newsstands, libraries, and ubiquitous dustjackets (remember, MTA riders, the month when everyone was reading Absurdistan? Remember the autumn of Oscar Wao?), I realized today that I'm not looking forward to it. Nor do I believe my life will be improved when putting down The Magic Mountain to check TMZ.com is as simple as clicking a button. Which is to say: I won't make it past page 2 of The Magic Mountain. And also: I believe reading The Magic Mountain will improve my life. But the Kindle is just a tool! my colleagues insist. I want to remind them: when you're carrying a hammer, everything starts to look like a Kindle. Er...nail.

The Millions Top Ten: July 2009 – And Introducing the Hall of Fame

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We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we've been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you've been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you'll find our Millions Top Ten list for July. This month we're also introducing our Hall of Fame. Any book that's been on our list for six months graduates to the Hall of Fame both to designate those books as all-time favorites of Millions readers and to make room for new books on our list. Our Hall of Fame begins with two inaugural inductees. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. 1. Sister Bernadette's Barking Dog: The Quirky History and Lost Art of Diagramming Sentences 6 months 2. 5. Infinite Jest 5 months 3. 3. Olive Kitteridge 6 months 4. 6. The Rejection Collection: Cartoons You Never Saw, and Never Will See, in The New Yorker 5 months 5. - Zeitoun 1 month 6. 4. Celine Dion's Let's Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste 5 months 7. 7. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao 5 months 8. - The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo 1 month 9. 10. (tie) Felonious Jazz 3 months 10. - Netherland 2 months Graduating from our list to our Hall of Fame are Roberto Bolaño's 2666 and Elaine Dundy's Dud Avocado, two very worthy books to inaugurate this new feature. Also disappearing from the list are Bolaño's The Savage Detectives and Donald Ray Pollock's Knockemstiff. Joining our list for the first time is Dave Eggers' new book Zeitoun, an immigrant's story in New Orleans in the aftermath of Katrina. The book was recently featured on our "Most Anticipated" list. Stieg Larsson's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is our other debut. The Swedish writer's series of posthumously published mysteries have gained quite a following in the States. The book's only appearance on The Millions was to kick off a Book Question piece about "closed-room mysteries." Millions readers, if you've read Larsson, let us know what you think. Meanwhile, Joseph O'Neill returns to our list after appearing on our initial top-ten list at the beginning of the year and then getting bumped off. Maybe President Obama's mention of the book a few months back is continuing to generate sales. See Also: Last month's list.

Full Disclosure

Well, folks, it's happened. The mainstream media has finally discovered the Internet's sordid underbelly. According to an article in last Monday's New York Times, a growing number of online outlets have begun reviewing products for reasons other than the simple joy of content production. Advertisers in search of buzz are plying them with freebies, and sometimes even (gasp!) paying for advertising. Naturally, such cosy relationships raise eyebrows. Writes the Times:Some in the online world deride the actions as kickbacks. Others also question the legitimacy of bloggers' opinions, even when the commercial relationships are clearly outlined to readers.Regular readers of this site are probably aware that a portion of our small operating budget comes from an association with Amazon.com. Click through The Millions and buy any product, regardless of whether or how we have covered it, and we get a small cut of the purchase price. You're also no doubt aware that we run advertisements. Still, the Times has inspired me, as it so often does, to look inward. And so, in the interest of fuller disclosure, here is a comprehensive list of the other potential conflicts of interest we've encountered here at The Millions:John McPhee shares an opthalmologist with Millions founder C. Max Magee.Gerald Durrell once recorded an outgoing voicemail message for Lydia Kiesling, who writes our Modern Library Revue column.David Simon, creator of The Wire, smuggled our contributor Noah Deutsch into the exclusive 2007 HBO Christmas party in a scheme involving an oversized trenchcoat.The trenchcoat had arrived in a holiday "swag bag" from NYRB Classics, embossed with the likeness of Edwin Frank.FSG, not to be outdone, included a diamond-encrusted coke spoon in its press kit for Clancy Martin's How to Sell.Our contributor Anne K. Yoder was married, briefly, to Philip Roth.Prior to our defense of the "Mom Book," Olive Kitteridge author Elizabeth Strout personally courted Millions contributor Edan Lepucki with a relentless muffin-basket campaign. Guess we know how she got that Pulitzer.Nam Le, author of The Boat, won his "Year in Reading" spot in a poker game with Richard Ford.All posts attributed to Andrew Saikali are actually written by Ben Dooley.All posts attributed to Ben Dooley are actually written by Haruki Murakami.A complimentary Junot Díaz beer coosy is currently keeping my Brief, Wondrous Lager of Oscar Wao a smooth, drinkable 52 degrees.As you can see, the world of lit-blogging is a seductive and glamorous one; temptation lurks at every turn. Nonetheless, I am pleased to report that none of of these potential conflicts has affected our coverage. I am also pleased to report that Oscar Wao is the greatest novel of all time.[Image Credit: stopnlook]

The Millions Top Ten: June 2009

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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 June, the list is also in our sidebar.ThisMonthLastMonth TitleOn List1.1.Sister Bernadette's Barking Dog: The Quirky History and Lost Art of Diagramming Sentences5 months2.2.26666 months3.4.Olive Kitteridge5 months4.6.Celine Dion's Let's Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste4 months5.7.Infinite Jest4 months6.3.The Rejection Collection: Cartoons You Never Saw, and Never Will See, in The New Yorker4 months7.10.The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao4 months8.5.The Dud Avocado6 months9.8.Knockemstiff4 months10. (tie)9.Felonious Jazz2 months10. (tie)-The Savage Detectives2 monthsAs summer set in, the titles on our list stayed mostly static. Roberto Bolaño's The Savage Detectives returns to the list. Meanwhile, David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest is seeing some interest, probably from folks wanting to participate in Infinite Summer, a TMN sponsored group read of the book. Junot Díaz's Oscar Wao may be getting a boost from its inclusion in the higher reaches of our Prizewinners list last month. Finally, Olive Kitteridge continues to be a favorite among Millions readers, and Sister Bernadette's Barking Dog is still at the top thanks to the enduring interest in Garth's essay on the grammatical proclivities of our current president. Look for some changes to the list in the coming months as an impressive slate of new titles hits bookstores.Have you been reading any of the books on our Top Ten list? Let us know what you think of them.See also: Last month's list.

The Millions Top Ten: May 2009

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 May, and we update the list in our sidebar each month.ThisMonthLastMonth TitleOn List1.1.Sister Bernadette's Barking Dog: The Quirky History and Lost Art of Diagramming Sentences4 months2.2.26665 months3.3.The Rejection Collection: Cartoons You Never Saw, and Never Will See, in The New Yorker3 months4.5.Olive Kitteridge4 months5.6.The Dud Avocado5 months6.4.Celine Dion's Let's Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste3 months7.-Infinite Jest3 months8.7.Knockemstiff3 months9.-Felonious Jazz1 month10.-The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao3 monthsWe had one new arrival on our list for May and two titles that returned. Readers were curious enough to try out Bryan Gilmer's Felonious Jazz after he wrote about his experiments with pricing the ebook version of the novel. Returning to our list after a one month hiatus are two classics of contemporary literature, Infinite Jest and The Brief Wondrous Live of Oscar Wao. Departing from our list are Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, The Lazarus Project, A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again, and The Savage Detectives.Also notable is the continued strength of Olive Kitteridge, which appears to have many fans among Millions readers. If you've been reading any of the books mentioned above, we'd love to hear about it in the comments.See also: Last month's list.

Bold Prediction: A Mercy Wins the Pulitzer

By now you've read the result, Toni Morrison's A Mercy edged out Tom Piazza's City of Refuge to win The Tournament of Books. Now, if I were a betting man, and it were possible to bet on the Pulitzer winner, I'd bet on A Mercy. Why? The Tournament of Books has called the Pulitzer winner the last two years running. In 2008, Junot Díaz's The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao took home the Pulitzer on the heels of the Rooster. And in 2007, Cormac McCarthy's The Road saw its Pulitzer win presaged by not just a Rooster, but also its unlikely companion, an Oprah's book club pick. On April 20th, we'll see if the Rooster still has the jump on America's oldest literary prize.

Millions Meta-Data 2008

Before we get too far into 2009, let's take a look at what was keeping readers interested on The Millions in 2008. This year, I'll divide the most popular posts on The Millions into two categories, and we'll start with the "evergreens," posts that went up before 2008 but continued to interest readers over the last year:Hard to Pronounce Literary Names Redux: the Definitive Edition: Our "definitive" literary pronunciation guide continues to bring people to The Millions. I guess people really do want to know how to pronounce Goethe.Hard to Pronounce Literary Names: Underscoring the interest in pronunciation, even our first, aborted attempt at the pronunciation post remains popular.Food Fight: Anthony Bourdain Slams Rachael Ray: For whatever reason, there remains an abiding interest in the bad blood between these two food (and publishing) celebrities.A Year in Reading 2007: 2007's series stayed popular in 2008.The World's Longest Novel: Ben's profile of this work of record-breaking performance art continues to fascinate.Why Bolaño Matters: 2008 was the Year of Bolaño, but Garth's 2007 piece helped set the stage.The Reading Queue Revisited: My goofy way of picking books to read.Reading List: World War 2 Fiction: There are a few books still on my wish list as a result of this post.A Year in Reading: New Yorker Fiction 2005: My ridiculous attempt to catalog all the New Yorker fiction in 2005. Will I ever do it again? Maybe.A Rare Treat for Murakami Fans: Pinball, 1973: Ben dug up a link to a "lost" Murakami novel, and the post has remained a constant draw for his fans.And now for the top posts written in 2008:A Year in Reading 2008: It was a big hit this year.The Best Sports Journalism Ever (According to Bill Simmons): This fruitful list of sports writing links hooked a lot of fans.Big in Japan: A Cellphone Novel For You, the Reader: Lots of big-name outlets covered the cell phone novel story in 2008, but only The Millions had a translated excerpt.Haruki Murakami in Berkeley: A rare American appearance by Murakami generated many memorable quotes.David Foster Wallace 1962-2008: Few did a better job of trying to make sense of the literary world's great tragedy in 2008 than Garth did with his compassionate piece.The Most Anticipated Books of 2008: Books we all looked forward to.On Our Shelves: 45 Favorite Short Story Collections: Short story fans can get lost in this one.The Most Anticipated Books of the Rest of 2008: More books we all looked forward to.Obama and the Faulkner Quote: In the most memorable election year in a generation, politics crept in everywhere. Even at The Millions.Google Settlement Could Change the Literary Landscape: Google continued to roil the publishing world in 2008.Where did all these readers come from? Google sent quite a few of course, but many Millions readers come from other sites too. These were the top 10 sites to send us traffic in 2008:Conversational Readingkottke.orgThe Elegant Variationmimi smartypantsThe Morning NewsThe Complete ReviewMarginal RevolutionMaud NewtonThe New York Times Lede BlogNathan BransfordFinally, we can look at our Amazon stats to see what books Millions readers were buying in 2008. Here are the top-10 books bought by Millions readers over the last year.2666 by Roberto BolañoThe Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot DíazInfinite Jest by David Foster WallaceThe Savage Detectives by Roberto BolañoThe White Boy Shuffle by Paul BeattyA Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again by David Foster WallaceHear the Wind Sing by Haruki MurakamiLush Life by Richard PriceThe Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll by Alvaro MutisThe Dud Avocado by Elaine Dundy

The Immigrant Factor: Junot Díaz and Rawi Hage in conversation

Their personalities couldn't be more different. Junot Díaz: casually amiable, chatty; Rawi Hage: quietly reflective, a bit reserved. Actually, not a bad double-act, as they seem to complement each other. And in addition to each desperately trying to catch his breath after a whirlwind year - Díaz fresh from countless accolades for his novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao; Hage fresh from winning the IMPAC Dublin award for DeNiro's Game, and out with a new novel Cockroach - both of these 40-ish writers are also of, and writing about, immigrant cultures.Díaz immigrated to the U.S. from the Dominican Republic as a child, and is still deeply rooted to the Caribbean culture. His protagonist, Oscar, is similarly the product of a Dominican-American family, and the novel takes us through several generations of Oscar's family in the Dominican Republic and in America. Add to that the intensive footnotes which, read in full, are like a Master Class in twentieth century Dominican politics. For his part, Hage emigrated from Lebanon to Canada (via New York) as a young adult and now calls Montreal home. DeNiro's Game races and ducks through the streets of wartime Beirut, but his latest novel is set in the Arab immigrant community in Montreal. As both authors and their protagonists are immigrants (with that extra layer of experience that comes with transplanting oneself or being uprooted from one culture to a radically different one), this immigrant factor adds that layer into novels that are already rich and textured.When I was in school, and from an immigrant family myself, I was taught that one distinction between Canada and the U.S. was in policies of assimilation. Not of the Star Trek "Borg" variety. Nothing quite so ominous. It was America the Melting Pot, Canada the Cultural Mosaic (where, the theory goes, immigrant families retain much of their culture through a series of multicultural policies.) But, policy differences aside, I'm not fully convinced the day-to-day distinctions were ever as great as we were led to believe. Walk through the streets of Toronto and the mosaic is readily apparent, but so too is it in New York. Go to some more rural parts of Canada, and it feels every bit the melting pot as similar parts of the U.S. How much of one's culture one retains is often a consequence of how much one is able to retain, or indeed wants to retain, given the nature and, often, the logistics of the local community in which one settles. But I digress.Last month, Junot Díaz and Rawi Hage shared a stage at the Toronto International Authors Festival in conversation with moderator Rachel Giese. Some highlights from Junot Díaz' responses:On Oscar: Díaz was asked what intrigued him about the Oscar character. "I wanted to write about the kind of person who buries himself in the kind of activity that most people think of as frivolous." Obsessed with comic books and sci-fi, Oscar is "a crazy nerd," Díaz added. "Impenetrable. You couldn't pay him to take advice."On immigration: Díaz said that, depending where they've come from, immigrants often harbor a resentment towards foreign policy of adopted countries. Since Trujillo, the brutal dictator who bent the Dominican people to his will for several decades, was a "military-trained stooge of the U.S," the Dominican Republic is effectively "a member of that growing group of nations that has been occupied by the U.S."On the "Dictatorship of Narrative": This is the idea that because the novel is the product of a single voice, the novelist dictates, and the reader empowers him. The end result is obviously different than citizens empowering a political dictator but, Díaz notes, "similar muscles are being worked."On the mix of styles on his novel: "We live in different genres," one day it's sci-fi, the next it's a western. So it made sense to use different genres to explore the varied characters. Díaz' own mother is very rational, empirical - if she hasn't seen it "or if a physicist hasn't written about it", then it doesn't resonate for her, but on the other hand, his grandmother believed in saints. You make room for all at the kitchen table. So, too, in the created world, you use all genres.On Spanglish: (as it's used liberally in the novel, often without explanation). We read individually, but we learn to read collectively, in school and at home, constantly asking questions, Díaz said. So, when we read a novel "individually" we should be able to ask what the word means. Not everything needs to be fed to us on the page. So, although we read novels individually, we understand them "collectively". Books are a "community maker." A novel also "gives you a set of strategies" to respond to the world, Díaz added, noting the different styles and tones in a novel depending on if a character is speaking with friends, or with his boss, or with family. In this way, literature is instructive not only in telling a story, but in setting examples for human interaction. Life lessons.On Fanboy culture: "Fanboys don't know what to do with a fanboy of color," Díaz said, noting that the comic book and sci-fi fan base is still a conservative group. And, to add insult to injury, he's never been invited to a convention. Not once.On the "silences": There are huge chunks of Dominican history, Díaz states, in which the events haven't been represented by any language.Some highlights from Rawi Hage's responses:On "fabulism": Hage was asked about use of fabulism in his second novel Cockroach, (but at this point in the conversation, he was still in shock from Díaz' revelation that authors are dictators.) Hage collected himself and said that he is interested in madness, the madness of writing. Characters in crisis seek escape. This was drawn from seeing a friend in a shelter during protracted bombing in 1980s Beirut. In that moment of crisis, his friend lost it and retreated into madness.On his fragile style: Hage is trilingual, and English (which he writes in) is actually his third language. He spoke Arabic at home, French in school, and English in college. Together, they produce his style. It's a fragile style, Hage concedes, and could easily have been rejected, could easily not have worked as well as it did.On the "silences": The Lebanese civil war was not recorded by historians, so artists rose to the challenge. And through fiction, history is revealed, breaking the silence.Further reading:Edan's thoughts on The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.Guest writer Laurie's thoughts on Junot Díaz' performance at a reading.And my review of DeNiro's Game.

Ask a Book Question: #68 (Building a 21st Century Contemporary Fiction Syllabus)

Gene writes in with this question:I currently teach a high school English course called 21st Century Literature, and I've hit a bit of a block these last few weeks in trying to put together this year's syllabus. We currently read Eggers' A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, Lethem's The Fortress of Solitude, Zadie Smith's On Beauty, and Diaz's The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao along with essays from the likes of David Foster Wallace ("E Unibus Pluram") to Chuck Klosterman ("The Real World"). We also look at some popular TV shows, music, and films in an attempt to get the students to examine the world in which they live with something of a more "critical" eye.So. I'm trying to replace Fortress for this year's class, partly because I update the syllabus every year and partly because it was the one last year's students voted out. My problem, though, is that I haven't read anything this year that has really blown me away. And so I turn to you, Millions, for some guidance. I'm currently considering Bock's Beautiful Children, Ferris' Then We Came To The End, Clarke's An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England, or possibly the new collection of essays State by State. My students are really intelligent, and so just about anything is fair game. What, then, would you add to the class to be read right after Eggers' Heartbreaking Work?Five of our contributors weighed in.Edan: What a terrific course! Can I take it? Your syllabus thus far sounds pretty damn spectacular as is, so I've tried my best to come up with texts that fulfill a role that the other books haven't. Of the four you're considering teaching, I think State by State is the best, since it showcases so many great writers. While I enjoyed Joshua Ferris's Then We Came to the End, I think a workplace narrative would be lost on most teenagers. Here are my suggestions:Willful Creatures: Stories by Aimee Bender or Magic for Beginners by Kelly Link: It might be fun to add some short fiction to the syllabus, and to improve the male-to-female author ratio. Of the many writers I introduced to my Oberlin students, Bender and Link were the biggest hits, perhaps for the magic and fantasy they inject into their odd and beautiful stories. Both writers provide excellent discussion fodder about the construction of reality, and about notions of genre in contemporary fiction.The Known World by Edward P. Jones: Still one of my favorite novels of all time, this is a historical novel about black slave owners in antebellum Virginia. It's told in a sprawling omniscient voice, not a common point of view in these fragmented, solipsistic times. It might be interesting to compare this perspective to the more intimate first person narratives on the syllabus. Also, since your other texts take place in the time they're written, it might be interesting to see how a contemporary writer depicts and manipulates the past.Look at Me by Jennifer Egan Published a few days before September 11th, this novel feels strangely prophetic. It also articulates, well before its time, the strange and complicated nature of online social networks like Facebook, certainly a topic of interest among high school students. The book tells two parallel narratives: one about a model whose face is unrecognizable after a car accident, and another about a teenage girl living in a long-dead industrial town in the Midwest. It's equal parts beautiful, entertaining, satirical, and sad. This novel could inspire many fruitful discussions about identity, media, beauty, and representations of self.Andrew: Rawi Hage's DeNiro's Game is a tightly-written haunting jagged rush through the streets of war-torn Beirut in the 1980s. Now calling Montreal his home, Rawi Hage lived through the endless Lebanese civil war and writes this tale as a survival story, not a political polemic. The protagonists are ordinary young Lebanese guys - where ordinary means bombed-out homes, militias, snipers and rubble. No longer children, but not quite adults, Bassam and George flex their muscles amid the smoke and dust of a city that has been prodded and beaten by any group with a big enough stick.Winner of the 2008 IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, and short-listed for countless major awards up here in Canada, Hage's debut novel throws the reader into a part of the world in the not-so-distant past that he likely has only seen from news images, and he gives these images human dimensions. This is a harrowing story of brutal youth.Emily: Although I wouldn't say it blew me away, I submit Keith Gessen's All The Sad Young Literary Men as a possible addition to your 21st century lit syllabus - not least because I think I would have found such a book personally useful had something like it been recommended it to me in high school. Its depiction of the social and intellectual chaos and disappointments of college and the post-college decade for three bright, ambitious, politically serious young men manages - oh, as I feared it might (for so many sad young literary men do) - not to take itself or its characters too seriously. Not that Gessen trivializes or denies the pains of his three protagonists, but he is exquisitely aware of the absurdities idealism and ambition sometimes fall into - particularly among the young. The character Sam is my favorite example of this: he aspires to write to great Zionist epic and has managed to get an advance from a publisher toward this end, but he does not speak Hebrew, has never been to Israel, and is a little bit fuzzy on Israeli history and politics. His best claim to the project is his extensive collection of fiery Jewish girlfriends. Like his fellow protagonists, Keith and Mark, Sam seems more delighted by the idea of literary accomplishment for himself than able to sit down and produce the stunning epic of the Jewish people that he imagines and more hungry for fame than to write his book ("Fame - fame was the anti-death. But it seemed to slither from his grasp, seemed to giggle and retreat, seemed to hide behind a huge oak tree and make fake farting sounds with its hands.").Gessen has a particularly deft touch with juxtaposition - almost zeugma perhaps? - in his plotting and narration. The personal and the political - the sublime and the ridiculous - are cheek by jowl and often confused: Keith's desire to sleep with the vice president's daughter (who is in his class at Harvard and dating his roommate) is bound up with his desire for the vice president himself (Gore) to win the presidential election; For Sam, his intellectual work and his personal life are strangely aligned such that "refreshed by his summation of the Holocaust, Sam decided to put the rest of his life in order" and instead of wrestling with his genuine artistic problem (his inability to write his epic), he becomes crazily obsessed, instead, with his shrinking Google. I suspect that we will see better work from Gessen in the years to come, but for its humor, its pathos, and its willness to depict (and deftness in depicting) the humiliations and vagueries of early adulthood, I think it's an excellent choice (particularly since among your students there are, I imagine, some present and future sad young literary men).Garth: This is sounds like a great class. I wish I'd had you as a teacher! One of the implicit challenges of answering the question is the tension between the need to appeal to high schoolers and the search for formal innovation. These two are not mutually exclusive; I vividly remember falling in love with Infinite Jest as a high-schooler. Still, some of the aesthetic strategies that separate contemporary writers from the hoary old 1900s (which are so last century) come at the cost of emotional immediacy. some of my favorite works of 21st Century fiction - Helen DeWitt's The Last Samurai; Kathryn Davis' The Thin Place; Lydia Davis' Varieties of Disturbance; Aleksandar Hemon's The Question of Bruno - may be a little too cerebral for high schoolers.I thought of several adventurous novels which are less formally pluperfect (in my opinion), but which might make a stronger appeal to this age group. Chief among them are Chris Adrian's The Children's Hospital, Uzodinma Iweala's Beasts of No Nation, David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas, Yann Martel's Life of Pi, Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, and Jonathan Safran Foer's Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.Though I didn't care for Beautiful Children, and suspect teenagers would see through its outdated assessment of youth culture, Then We Came to the End has an appealing warmth and good humor, as well as a fascinating first-person-plural voice. Ultimately, though, the two "21st Century" books I can most imagine teaching to high-schoolers are George Saunders' Pastoralia (2000) and Paul Beatty's The White-Boy Shuffle (1996).Max: Sounds like putting together the syllabus is a fun job. It's interesting that the students didn't like Fortress as much. I think I would agree with them on that. Though it was certainly an ambitious and at times entertaining book, I think it falls apart in the second half. I haven't read Motherless Brooklyn, but I know it seems to have many more fans than Fortress.Thinking about short story collections, you could hardly go wrong with Edward P. Jones's two collections - Lost in the City and All Aunt Hagar's Children - Jones's stories are terrific and offer a perspective that is quite different from Chabon, Lethem, and the rest of the Brooklyn crowd. Also, Jones's The Known World is to my mind maybe the best novel of the last 20 years. Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides and Atonement by Ian McEwan also strike me as solid candidates, with the latter offering a unique and satisfying "reveal" at the end that changes how the reader thinks about the books structure (assuming your students haven't already seen the film which, anyway, does the book a disservice in trying to render a purely literary twist via the language of Hollywood.)Gene, thanks for the question and please let us know what you select. Millions readers, please offer your suggestions in the comments below.

Umberto Eco vs. Junot Díaz

This Guest post comes from Laurie Anderson. Laurie is a publicity assistant for a large Southern university.A Performance Comparison, Not a Literary CritiqueUmberto Eco gave three free lectures at Emory University in Atlanta October 5 through 7, and also did a reading and signing. All three lectures will be released in print form sometime next year; I'm not sure through what publisher. Although I have yet to read any of his work (except for a very short children's picture book he wrote many years ago, The Bomb and the General), I attended his final lecture Tuesday afternoon, then the reading/signing that night. The lecture, titled "On the Advantages of Fiction for Life & Death", was full of wit, but also full of phrases like "otorhinological legitimacy" and "epistemological proof" and was difficult for me to follow. (I'd say "was difficult for everyone to follow," but the audience of approximately 400 people applauded loudly at the end, so maybe everyone else in the auditorium understood what he was talking about). The gist of it seemed to be that since a fictional story is complete and fixed, unlike history (from which facts and the complete picture are always missing), fiction serves the useful purpose of (a) helping humans put order in their world, and (b) confronting death with a framework of meaning (that is borrowed from stories, including the Bible, that people are most familiar with). I could be wrong; it's just a guess that that's what he was saying. For what it's worth, some of the simpler quotes from his lecture:One of the main functions of literature is to clarify our notions of the truth... It is unquestionably true that Superman is Clark Kent. That Hitler died in a particular bunker can be cast in doubt... If fictional characters are not real, why do we cry over them?... I know Leopold Bloom better than my father. History creates ghosts; fiction creates characters of flesh and blood... [A survey conducted in England awhile ago indicated that] 25 percent of Britons believe that Sherlock Holmes and Eleanor Rigby are real people... When we cry over fictional characters we cry for peculiar but real persons... These fictional characters exist as a form of cultural habit, as real as the Holy Ghost was for Christians... Fiction suggests that perhaps our view of our world is as unrealistic as that of the fictional characters. The fictional characters cannot know their fate... Stories that we cannot change -- because Superman will be Clark Kent forever -- also tell us how to die.The reading (from Foucault's Pendulum) was more enjoyable. Eco was understandable despite a thick Italian accent, and read with verve. He chose a lengthy section about a young boy who volunteers to play for a partisan funeral in a small Italian town. ("It really happened to me," he told the audience. Like the boy in the story, Eco said that as a youth he and his family escaped the bombing of their city during WWII by running to a small Italian town in the mountains, where he joined a music band organized by the local priest. Unfortunately, Eco was obliged to play "the boomba-doo" (the tuba?) when he really wanted to impress the girls by playing the trumpet. The boy in Foucault's Pendulum cares nothing for patriotism, only the romance he hopes his playing will inspire.) Eco has a slightly gravelly voice, enunciates consonants crisply ("clutched" becomes "kalucht") and knows the wise use of pauses and tonal variance. If you were a kid, you would want this guy to read you a bedtime story.Eco's lecture and reading came to mind when NPR recently broadcast (mp3) an interview with Junot Díaz. Díaz spoke about his life and writing, and read a section of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao involving the characters Oscar, Oscar's sister Lola and their mother Beli. It's a terrific book; a virtuoso mix of bilingual/bicultural puns and acid observations that use obscure Dominican Spanglish slang and geek culture references (comic books, science fiction) with whirlwind dialogue and narrative that can leave the reader breathless. You can't help but want to hear the characters speak aloud, or hear the author speak for them. Díaz's thoughts on literature were clear and interesting (not opaque and academic like Eco's), but when it came time to read an excerpt from his novel describing an emotional reunion, full of screaming and crying, Díaz conveyed it in a deadpan monotone. The novel's language and emotion are complex and visceral; hearing it read so simplistically was like hearing Beethoven's Fifth symphony performed with a kazoo. (Penguin Audio hired actors Jonathan Davis and Staci Snell to read for the unabridged cd version, thank goodness.)Perhaps it is unfair to compare the two writers this way. Eco was expected to deliver a scholarly lecture. If he had been interviewed about his life and work like Díaz, he may have seemed more accessible. Maybe Díaz would have seemed opaque, too, had he given lectures; maybe no one can make academic literary analysis easy to comprehend (Eco tried; his talk was full of references to pop literature). Reading out loud however, Eco beats Diaz all to hell.What does all this mean? Author presentations are a crapshoot. Go for interviews and Q&A sessions; be wary of lectures and readings unless you're prepared for the worst, or the writer is a humorist.
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