The Corrections: A Novel

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The League of Extraordinary Critics

Before the summer onslaught of comic book movies featuring X-Men, Avengers and Justice Leaguers, let us pay homage to a cadre of merely human, though still valiant, book critics who have attained something like superhero status themselves. Though they adopted radically different methods, and were bickering among themselves more often than not -- and one of them is currently incarcerated -- so strong was their shared devotion to the sacred duty of criticism that future generations will surely say of them: Such once were Criticks, such the Happy Few Athens and Rome in better Ages knew. Rex Hume: The Highbrow Hound Rex Hume, the famed allusion-hunting critic known as “The Highbrow Hound,” “The Tweedy Truffler,” and “Causabon 2.0” has been universally praised for his “near-sensuous pedantry.” Whereas some of our more conscientious critics take it upon themselves to read the whole of an author’s oeuvre before reviewing his or her latest, Hume, lest he miss one literary reference, thematic reworking, or subtle resonance, re-reads the whole of the Western Canon. Famously averse to new works, the reactionary Hume cultivates an irascible persona. Nearly every publicist has received one of his dreaded form replies to notices touting a debut effort: “If it were that good, wouldn’t I have seen it alluded to elsewhere?” Hume’s allusive obsession stems from an adolescent trauma. One spring, that season when a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love, he asked a young lady, handsome, clever, and rich, to the prom. She curtly referred him to “Bartleby the Scrivener.” The prancing, yellow-stockinged swain hurried home, hoping to find in the story an invitation to come live with her and be her love. When instead, he read those devastatingly demurring words, his eyes burned with anguish and anger. He awoke the next morn a sadder and a wiser man and vowed to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield in his quest to shore each and every fragment against his ruined ego. The path was not easy. Medical setbacks dogged the bookish lad from his college years, when Hume’s brain literally exploded -- or so his detractors quipped -- after Planet Joyce first swam into his ken. (Though his doctors maintained that it was nothing more than an “Oxen of the Sun”-induced aneurism.) Hume’s mania has also landed him in legal trouble. He was sued after putting George Plimpton in a chokehold, convinced that one of the dilettante’s witticisms was cribbed from a Martial epigram. Hume wouldn’t release him until two Commentary editors and William Styron assured him that the bon mot was most definitely a Plimpton original. Hume’s dogged sleuthing lent his reviews, essentially scorecards of real or imagined literary references, a bizarre quality. One cannot, though, argue with the lapidary precision of his assessment of Bonfire of the Vanities: “Dickens (42), Trollope (28), Fitzgerald (11), Dostoyevsky (8.33), Baudelaire (p), Dumas (1)…” After readers began to demand more expansive considerations, Hume’s editor steered him away from covering allusion-rich literary novels and towards romance fiction. However, these peppery tales only stimulated the Hound’s nose, detecting as he did the soupçon of a Rabelais, a pinch of Rochester, a tang of Sade, a dash of Nin, or the perverse wafting of Jonathan Edwards in each concoction. And so Hume was finally assigned to his current post, covering children’s picture books. He has yet to produce a review, as he immediately enrolled in the Columbia Art History graduate program. But colleagues report, whether with dismay or eagerness is unclear, that he has been holed up for weeks with Ernst Gombrich’s The Story of Art, a Biblical concordance, and Go Dog Go. Sydney Duff: A King on His Throne Blessed with incredible stamina and a prodigiously broad backside, Sydney Duff has never reviewed a book he couldn’t read in one sitting. He burst onto the scene with his review of The Corrections -- “I read it in one sitting” -- which he finished while riding the A train end-to-end throughout the night. Another one of his famous pieces came during a 100-mile charity bike ride through the Hudson Valley -- White Teeth perched on the handlebars -- in support of deep vein thrombosis research. “I read it in one sitting,” he raved, “and raised money for a great cause!” And who could forget the scathing review of Don DeLillo’s Underworld: “I read it in one sitting, though at times I was tempted to put it down and stretch my legs.” The young Duff could be brash and insensitive, universally reviled for once accusing a wheelchair-bound colleague of impinging on his brand. In another notorious incident, he was so enraged at the mere sight of his assistant’s standing desk that he threw it out the fifth-story office window. Such anecdotes reveal the latent dynamism of the sedentary creature. Then there was Duff’s daredevil affair with Rex Hume’s wife. Having cracked open a novel shortly after their adulterous afternoon assignation, he refused to leave his lover’s bedroom until he had finished it. Hume, who had been out hunting truffles, eventually returned home, but luckily headed straight to his study to reacquaint himself with Flaubert. When Duff snuck out that night, the Highbrow Hound was none the wiser. Duff mellowed with age, perhaps drained by his near-continual feats of biblio-endurance. The ravages of time lent an introspective air to his work as Duff grappled with his own mortality. Consider the terse pathos of his reassessment of Proust: “Though the bed sores almost derailed me, I read it in one go. For a long time it was painful.” Those curious about what the photo-shy Duff looks like need only visit the Tate Modern, which houses the portrait Lucian Freud painted of the corpulent critic, toilet-bound and reading a copy of The Portrait of a Lady. As Duff put it in a rare cross-disciplinary review that demonstrated the full range of his aesthetic judgement: “Both the novel and the portrait were completed in one session.” Duff retired some years ago to fully devote himself to activism. He is not fond of marches or picket lines -- or progressive causes truth be told -- but whenever a group of young idealists gathers at a statehouse or university president’s office, they can count on the old lounger, book in hand, for support at their sit-ins. Aristophocles: Two-Faces, One Name Some swear that the one-named critic Aristophocles is the merriest man alive. Indeed, many a witness could testify -- and many a review confirm -- that the one-named critic never sat in a café, enjoyed a sunny day in the park, or infuriated fellow passengers in the Amtrak quiet car, without his distinctive cackle echoing round. And yet similarly upstanding citizens aver that at the same cafés, on the same country greens and in the same quiet cars, could be heard the guttural sobs of a profoundly moved reader. So which is it? Does Aristophocles, who emotes so fulsomely in public spaces, wear a tragic or a comic mask? Identify with l’allegro or il penseroso? Simple questions for a complex man, torn between vain deluding joys and loathed melancholy. The hint of a pun produces peals of mirth, and the mere premonition of loss cues the waterworks. He is a creature supremely attuned to the jollity and sorrow of literature, and didn’t hesitate to show it. As he put it once in his full-throated defense of affective criticism, “I Laughed, I Cried, Then Criticized: “If one emotes in the forest, and no one hears it…[sobs]…Excuse me, the mere thought of a lone emoter emoting on his own brought tears to my eyes. How silly of me. [giggles]” He never chortled but guffawed, never teared up but wept, for such beings as he were made for more intense feelings, and there were so many feelings. (It must be noted that some cynics doubted his overzealousness, claiming that he never left home without an onion in one pocket and a nitrous oxide canister in the other.) Aristophocles does not do well at poetry readings; unsure whether to laugh or cry, he merely ejaculates strangled whimpers from time to time. He likes his genres well-defined. Family and friends, seeing him swing so violently between giddiness and agony, had him institutionalized when he attempted to review a tragicomedy. Fortunately, he was released shortly thereafter, greeting his fans with tears of joy. His performative antics have rubbed more than one colleague the wrong way, Sydney Duff among them. In one encounter, Aristophanes and Duff squared off in a hotel lobby at the Frankfurt Book Fair. Duff, so the story goes, had been in the lobby for hours with a copy of The Wallcreeper, but was having trouble finishing the last chapter because Aristophocles, reading the same novel, had taken the seat across from him. “I read the novel in one sitting, despite the tittering simpleton impeding my best efforts,” read Duff’s subsequent piece. As for Aristophocles’s competing review: “I laughed so much reading this rollicking debut that Sydney Duff almost got off his ass for once in his career.” Quentin Dent, Proud Blockhead: To have one’s book reviewed by Quentin Dent is, as any author will attest, a gratis psychotherapy session, an X-ray of one’s creative soul. Other critics might describe, explain, and contextualize the work, tease out patterns of imagery, grapple with its philosophical claims, or delve into the author’s biography. Worthy endeavors all, but how much cleaner (naysayers would say lazier) was Dent’s method: let the text speak for itself. Having taken his mentor Cleanth Brooks’s coinage “the heresy of paraphrase” rather literally, he steadfastly refused to paraphrase, or analyze, or do much of anything really. Dent’s reviews even dispensed with the author name and book title. He filled his column instead with three well-chosen block quotations, which were typically introduced with “To wit,” “Consider,” or, “Regard.” At the end of each passage would follow a closing statement, perhaps “Indeed,” “Hmm,” or, were he in a gushing mood, “Quod erat demonstrandum.” A sample essay, on Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park: Take: Maria’s notion on the subject were more confused and indistinct. She did not want to see or understand Quite. Ergo: “How kind! How very kind! Oh! Mr. Crawford, we are infinitely obliged to you. Dearest, dearest William!” she jumped up and moved in haste towards the door, crying out, “I will go to my uncle…” Und so weiter. To conclude: "It was a silver knife." Sharp. A cult of fervent believers, the Blockheads, extolled Dent’s mystical abilities to see into the heart of things. They would pore over Dent’s passage selections like ancient priests sifting through entrails. Why these three? Were they merely chosen to hit the requisite word count -- or could some deeper insight be divined? If one could only uncover the secret, so the ephebes thought, one could eventually learn to sustain the fevered pitch throughout the whole book. Anti-Blockheads wryly pointed out it that his selection of key passages was less insightful than haphazard -- a case bolstered by the high percentage of selections from page 22 of the books in question. For longer pieces on multiple works or multiple works by the same author, Dent would simply lay out more quotes, the theory being that to butt in with an attempt at synthesis would merely interrupt a mellifluous conversation in progress. A much-anticipated comparative study of the novel has been delayed for years because of fair-use problems. Valerie Plume: Critical Agency Quentin Dent’s longtime wife, Valerie Plume, has led the most novelistic life of any of the aforementioned superstar-critics. As a spy rising through the ranks of the CIA during the Cold War, she drew on her English major background to funnel money to literary magazines through the Congress for Cultural Freedom. She was in line to make station chief somewhere, but was burned after the Paris Review accepted a poem of hers and ran the following bio: “A cultural attaché living in Paris, Plume is the author of thousands of classified memoranda.” Plume was livid but ultimately relieved, since having her cover blown allowed her to pursue her true passion: poetry criticism. The Paris Review, sheepish after the faux-pas, was all too happy to launch her career with a column. At the outset, she relied on her close reading skills to confront the often thorny works under review. But Plume was incapable of remaining content with half knowledge, as Keats put it, and she soon decided to dust off her old spy-craft toolkit for her new mission. And why not? Espionage and criticism are both, broadly speaking, intelligence work, and in intelligence work of any kind, one cultivates assets and secures information. An offhand remark, discarded draft, pilfered dream journal, or juicy bit of gossip could unlock a hidden symbolic world. Therefore she had the Yaddo retreat bugged; placed one mole on the Iowa Writers’ Workshop faculty and another as an assistant librarian working under Philip Larkin; had an intern root through Anne Carson’s dumpster; and tailed Czesław Miłosz through the streets of Berkeley, though the wily Lithuanian, no stranger to such solicitude, quickly dropped her. Such methods were bound to catch up with Plume. She was excoriated by PEN America  after she scooped John Ashbery off the street, shot him up with truth serum, then grilled him about the meaning of his work in an abandoned squash court. Despite the outrage, she justified her tactics as necessary when interrogating refractory postmodernists. In Plume’s defense, however, it must be said that even during the excesses of the Bush administration, she was firmly opposed to waterboarding poets. Plume’s career came to an ignominious end after it was revealed that she had returned to spywork, this time for the enemy. It was alleged that she was using her husband’s book reviews to pass coded messages to the Russians. Authorities couldn’t get anything out of the steely Plume, but Quentin Dent buckled almost immediately, admitting that his wife had chosen his block quotation passages for years. Epilogue: Hume, Duff, Aristophocles, and Dent visit Plume in prison every week to discuss literature and debate whether “greater Want of Skill / Appear in Writing or in Judging ill.” The lively gatherings, whose attendees are known in publishing circles as “The League of Extraordinary Critics,” only rarely necessitate intervention from the jailhouse guards. Illustrations courtesy of Zane Shetler, who lives and works in Durham, N.C. He specializes in drawing fictional book critics in their bathrobes.

Unhappy Christmas

I felt overstuffed and dull and disappointed, the way I always do the day after Christmas, as if whatever it was the pine boughs and the candles and the silver and gilt-ribboned presents and the birch-log fires and the Christmas turkey and the carols at the piano promised never came to pass.  - Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar The Bell Jar isn’t an obvious Christmas book but I always remember this scene and how it perfectly sums up that feeling when you’re a grown up of it mostly being disappointing. I’m fortunate in that I had great Christmases growing up, so I love Christmas. There’s one thing you know about me. The other thing is I’m not that happy. I’m not that bad most days, I’m Wednesday Addams, more cynical that miserable, but my idea of a good day is if I get through it without crying or if I pet a dog or don’t spill anything down myself.  Long gone are real notions of happiness. I will gladly take alive, safe, warm, fed, loved, petted a dog, over happy any day. But I love Christmas and I always worry that I won’t have a happy Christmas. Most of the year I’m ok with not being that happy but at Christmas I want it. Obviously a lot of this pressure to be happy comes from the movies and fiction we are surrounded by. When people think of festive fiction they think of Charles Dickens and The Kranks and The Grinch, which are all about Christmas miracles and warm fuzzies. You’re supposed to wear ugly sweaters and drink egg nog whatever that is and sing nonsense songs, preferably round a piano -- shouting Mariah Carey in a karaoke bar doesn’t count. You’re supposed to be glad to see your family, eat a big dinner, fight with your siblings but then make up when you remember the time one of you got up in the night and opened your presents and then wrapped them back up again, because that happens. But people forget that those stories are all about how awful Christmas is really and it’s only at the end that things turn out ok. It's a Wonderful Life was based on the short story "The Greatest Gift" by Philip Van Doren Stern and is the perfect example of this. People love it for its hopeful message at the end but really it’s mostly about suicide. (It’s also important to point out that in this story the worst fate that could befall Mary is that she becomes a librarian.) Rick Moody’s The Ice Storm is one of my favorite miserable holiday books and films. Set during the holidays in New England in 1973, everything is falling apart for the Hood family. The adults are fighting and cheating and barely holding it together and the children are going off the rails. The daughter Wendy turning A Charlie Brown Christmas up louder on the TV to drown out her rowing parents sums it up for me. And reminds me of the patron saint of miserable Christmases himself, Charlie Brown. Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections is another holiday classic about a dysfunctional family who are summoned together for one last Christmas. Obviously it doesn’t work out because the dad is sick and they’re all nuts and this has become the classic Christmas scenario in both literature and film. The message being families and holidays just don’t mix. Christmas with the Kranks is based on a John Grisham book called Skipping Christmas and it might be the only John Grisham book I’ve read. I’m sure you’ve seen the movie, it’s about how awful the holidays can be and how sometimes you just don’t feel like it only eventually you’re pressured into it and have to just give in, let Christmas take over. My recent favorite Christmas book has to be the outstanding Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh. She truly sums up how bleak and depressing the holidays can be. “I had hard feelings around the holidays, the one time of year I couldn’t help but fall prey to the canned self-pity Christmas prescribes,” Eileen says, she also says she can’t be done with the charade of it. Which is exactly what it is. I won’t spoil it for you if you haven’t read it but you will never read about such a depraved Christmas party in your life. Christmas is also something we do for other people. It’s something that can hold us together when we’re falling apart. Nothing makes me think this more than the wonderful book All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews. This is a devastatingly beautiful book about two sisters, one of whom kills herself just before Christmas. Her death is imminent throughout the book so when it actually happens you almost feel relief then watch as the family push on. “We had to get a Christmas tree” says Yoli right after because that’s what you do. And later her daughter says “Let’s not have forced gaiety this Christmas” but she says “We’ll have a tiny bit”.  Because that’s what you do. One of my favorite writers, Augusten Burroughs, wrote a whole book dedicated to Christmas called You Better Not Cry and it’s a perfect balance of wonderful and awful. His stories make you laugh and cry and that’s what the holidays are about. I think once you dispel the myth that it’s all about being happy you are much more relaxed to just take it as it comes. If Raymond Briggs's Father Christmas taught us anything it’s that the man in the red suit is pretty grumpy himself and I love him more for it. Bah humbug forever. One year I was so worried I wasn’t going to be happy I just got very drunk because drunk people are always happy I thought only it turns out I’m not a happy drunk, I’m a shouty crying drunk. I realise I could do that skipping Christmas thing but that’s so passé now and I had a friend that did that who went to some party island and she still hasn’t come back but I can’t dance nor do I like the heat. But also, I love Christmas. I don’t want to skip it. So when I say I’m dreading the holidays I mean I’m worried I won’t feel how I want to feel. I’m putting the pressure on myself really so I need to learn to give myself a break, to say ok, so it’s not going to be like the movies and books but it won’t be as mad as Eileen’s Christmas or as bad as Tiny Tim’s. Reading about dysfunction families at this time of the year makes me feel better about my own and that’s obviously the point. Christmas is going to be what it is and it will all be over soon anyway and then you can go back to being your miserable self and no one will make you wear a hat or sing a song or eat a Brussels sprout. I just want an ok Christmas and for everyone else to be ok with that. Image: Flickr user forayinto35mm

Upscale, Artisanal Bullshit of the Highest Order

Of all of the wonderfully insightful Charlie Rose segments on books and writing, the one that sticks with me the most is the contentious 1996 debate between David Foster Wallace, Jonathan Franzen, and Mark Leyner about the current state of literature in America. Wallace was on the heels of Infinite Jest and Franzen was building up to his perfected synergy of the Midwestern America family after two well-received warmups that underperformed commercially. Leyner had a novel and a collection to his name, both of which were highly satirical while maintaining an aura of symbiotic self-consciousness. Wallace was on the cusp of canonization, a distinction Franzen would reach with his 2001 novel, The Corrections; Leyner continued to produce a steady stream of fictional and nonfictional oddities, like his collaboration with Dr. Billy Goldberg, Why Do Men Have Nipples?. And so while Franzen and Wallace need no introduction, Mark Leyner, a man who has spent a career experimenting with style, structure, and genre, seems comparatively under-loved. As Leyner himself bitterly points out in his latest novel, Gone with the Mind, he’s not included in Philip Roth’s “formidable postwar writers” in Roth’s 2014 interview The New York Times. As it happens, Gone with the Mind, is both the perfect introduction to Leyner’s work and demonstrative of the reasons it has languished in relative obscurity. Many readers feel a certain trepidation when they read fiction infused with factual anecdotes from an author’s life; these anxieties amplify when the writer literally injects his or her namesake into their fiction. This has been the central device of Mark Leyner’s writing throughout his 25-year career. His 1992 debut novel, Et Tu Babe, follows the life of the famous novelist, Mark Leyner. His sophomore romp, The Tetherballs of Bougainville depicts a lauded teenage screenwriter with the same name. For a writer who has made a career out of wry quips and flares of reality mixed with the imagined, Gone with the Mind is a culmination of these tendencies, more a gesticulation of satiric irony than cohesive narrative. Like all of Leyner’s categorical fiction, his latest book isn’t entirely upfront with its distinctions, either as a thinly veiled fiction or an elaborate farce. In his latest, Mark Leyner the character is the guest speaker at the “Nonfiction at the Food Court Reading Series.” The event is coordinated by his mother, who provides a lengthy introduction for her son at the beginning of the novel. He is there to read from his autobiography -- a project that began as a first-person video game wherein the objective is to return to his mother’s womb -- to a crowd of two: a Panda Express and Sbarro employee. The narrative is, ultimately, a novel-length speech. While at times it is focused, it frequently rambles on the composition of the fake book inside the metafiction. My experience reading the novel spawned an array of adjectives, often in the span of a few seconds. Absurd, juvenile, sophisticated, selfless, masturbatory, profound. That’s Mark Leyner, and he knows it: We (the Imaginary Intern and I) used to talk a lot about an olfactory art, some kind of postlinguistic, pheromonal medium that would be infinitely more nuanced than language (and without language’s representational deficiencies), a purely molecular syntax freed from all the associative patterns and encoded, ideological biases of language, that could produce the revelatory sensations of art by exciting chemosensory neurons instead of the 'mind,' that could jettison all the incumbent imperial narratives and finally get to something really nonfictional. Authors frequently insert themselves into their own novels, but they work in ways that keep the end product undeniably fiction. Philip Roth embodied his child self in The Plot Against America, but the premise of Charles Lindbergh defeating Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1940 presidential election is purely fantasy. Ben Marcus rewound to his childhood in Notable American Women, which centers around behavioral modification and mind control. Other examples stray closer to the real. Jonathan Safran Foer (real) traveled to the Ukraine alongside American pop culture enthusiast Alexander Perchov (make-believe) in Everything is Illuminated. The voice, age, and background of Foer in his 2002 novel are largely synchronized with the author himself. The Pale King turned David Foster Wallace writer to David Wallace, one-time IRS agent. Douglas Coupland took the rare route of becoming a villain in JPod. Perhaps the most common insertion tactic for fiction writers is to portray fiction writers. Paul Auster the detective has his identity stolen by Daniel Quinn, the fictitious mystery writer and protagonist of The New York Trilogy. Joshua Cohen is hired by tech billionaire Joshua Cohen to ghostwrite his autobiography in Book of Numbers by Joshua Cohen. Martin Amis is hired to rewrite a fledgling film in Money. After spending decades toiling with his mammoth fantasy series, The Dark Tower, one cannot fault Stephen King for actually acknowledging himself as the writer of epic series. King’s character literally embodies the struggles he had with bringing the series to an end, and Roland Deschain hypnotizes him in Song of Susannah in order to move the story forward. Leyner mirrors King in terms of breaking the proverbial fourth wall, as Leyner’s character often addresses the audience about his difficulties with finishing his autobiography: If I were asked by some young, sensitive writer just starting out, what key lesson I’ve learned in life (which I’ll never be), I’d probably say that there is no aperture of egress, however tiny and exquisitely sensitive, that can’t be turned into an aperture of ingress. If these writers-as-characters serve as a means for propelling their respective narratives forward, Mark Leyner’s layered self in Gone with the Mind is there for the sake of holding back; the work is an attempt to reinvent the conventions of novel structure. Written in a stream-of-consciousness style reminiscent of Dave Eggers’s A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, Gone with the Mind plays with the characteristics of a novel in much of the same way that Eggers does with memoir form in his 2001 breakout. Where they differ is in cadence; rhythmically, AHWOSG is very much focused on the delivery of story via written exposition, while Leyner’s clear intent is orality. Eggers dressed up his postmodern memoir with fiction; Leyner dances around truths in a novel. Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be? likewise commented on the divide between fiction and autobiography. Calling it “a work of constructed reality,” Heti’s hybrid book shares a trait with Leyner’s. She built “A Novel from Life” from the framework of conversations with close friends. Leyner substitutes close friends with mainly his mother, and a smattering of other friends and relatives as he sorts through, and attempts to make sense of, his own life experience: And it’s only much later in life that we try to retrospectively map out, to plot all the traumas and the triumphs, the lucky breaks and lost opportunities, all the decisions and their ramifying consequences. And I tend to believe that this inclination to look back on one’s life and superimpose a teleological narrative of cause and effect is probably itself a symptom of incipient dementia, caused by some prion disease or the clumping of beta-amyloid plaques. Leyner, in an effort to subvert the reader from digesting the tale like a conventional novel, introduces the Imaginary Intern, a quasi-intuitive, philosophical entity surmised from a craquelure in the food court bathroom tiles. As bizarre as it sounds, the Imaginary Intern serves as the vessel -- a foil for Mark Leyner the character. One can see the Imaginary Intern as the motivations behind writers including themselves in their fictions. In essence, it is the trial and error of entering and wading through the falsehoods of fiction as a living, breathing person in an effort to create a fresh version of oneself: And this was something the Imaginary Intern and I used to always talk about trying to do in Gone with the Mind, trying somehow to express the chord of how one feels at a single given moment, in this transient, phantom world, standing in the center of a food court at a mall with your mom, but in the arpeggiated exploded diagram of an autobiography. There comes a point in the novel when readers are likely to go, Okay, yeah, but what’s the point? For me, it was during one of the many dialogues between Mark and the Imaginary Intern. Cheekily, Leyner lets his mother anticipate and defend him from his reader’s complaints. “I’d say, that’s the great thing about literature. Everyone’s entitled to his or her own interpretation. That’s what I’d say to that.” In that great Charlie Rose segment, much of the conversation is about books competing with visual media. Leyner, Wallace, and Franzen discuss their concerns about the crowded entertainment market vying for our time. At one point Leyner says, “I have to somehow devote my work to people who may not be great readers anymore.” This statement resonates even more 20 years later, with the advent of social media, the rise of video games, Netflix, YouTube channels, Twitter. If Leyner’s goals were honest, Gone with the Mind is the product of two decades of searching for the correct formula for the not-great readers, somehow producing one of the most compulsively readable literary novels I’ve read in years. I read it cover to cover in one sitting. This is Mark Leyner commenting on fiction in a way that only he can; he admirably dissects the problems with modern readers while simultaneously building a bridge to new readership. Within the many digressions and the back-and-forth with the Imaginary Intern, Leyner sporadically muses on the human condition and effectively broadens the scope of his narrative: And I still believe that there are two basic kinds of people—people who cultivate the narcissistic delusion of being watched at all times through the viewfinder of a camera, and people who cultivate the paranoid delusion of being watched at all times through the high-powered optics of a sniper’s rifle, and I think I fall—and have always fallen—into this latter category. Mark Leyner has spent his career carving his niche and discovering his singular voice. This declarative voice bellows from the food court podium in Gone with the Mind, demanding our undivided attention. Gone with the Mind isn’t the first novel that fictionalizes its author, and it won’t be the last, but it is absolutely one of the most inventive displays of this delicate sort of fictional act. Leyner is an oddity in American literature, a writer of virtuoso talent who chooses to spin genre-defying stories instead of capitalizing on what readers of literature have come to expect from the novel form. I concede that some readers may never get past yeah, but what’s the point? But in the author’s own words, “Even those who consider all this total bullshit have to concede that it's upscale, artisanal bullshit of the highest order.”

The Anxiety of Influence: Children’s Books and Their Grown-Up Counterparts

If, like me, you're a parent to a young child, you probably find yourself reading a lot of picture and chapter books, and then, before your own bedtime, reading different books, ones that feature more adults, more drinking, more ennui. You might believe these books, theirs and yours, to be quite different -- but that's not always the case. Over the years I've made connections between my favorite authors and my son's. Once you see the similarities, you can't un-see them. So read on, brave adult, if you want the veil pulled from your eyes... Jonathan Franzen and The Berenstain Bears by Stan and Jan Berenstain Once you get beyond the shock of how the most famous Bear Family spells its name, you might notice how alike these books are to certain famous American novels written by a certain famous American man. A classic Berenstain story (by the original duo Stan and Jan, not the later, inferior titles by Jan and Mike), contains a lot of back story and exposition, and its lessons -- on manners, nightmares, and so on -- contain at least one moment of domestic strife and misunderstanding. Like The Corrections or Purity, these are narratives about beasts in human clothing (a la Chip Lambert and Andreas Wolf), and the mother controls not just the household but everyone's psyches. And like Franzen's novels, the Berenstain Bear books might meander, reveling in details alternately informative and irrelevant, but ultimately they're straightforward tales about family. (Also, as a friend pointed out to me recently, JFran sort of looks like a Berenstain Bear. This can't be coincidental.) A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara and Frog and Toad by Arnold Lobel Yanagihara clearly recognizes this connection because she put it in her book: artist JB names his series of paintings of Willem and Jude Frog and Toad, after Lobel's famous amphibious friends. And, let's face it, A Little Life is basically Lobel for Adults (now with rape and suicide!) Willem is Frog, the perennial optimist, while Jude is sad old Toad. Like Frog and Toad, Willem and Jude need and love each other despite their differences, and because of them. Toad will keep trying to push Frog away, but Frog will remain by his side. Lobel's stories, like Yanagihara's novel, maintains an elegant clarity about the unimpeachable sadness of the world.  Plus, Toad's nice, cozy Toad Hole is the animal equivalent of Willem and Jude's million-dollar country home. Emma Straub and What Pete Ate From A-Z by Maira Kalman Kalman is mainly an artist and illustrator for people of all ages, but her children's alphabet book is a favorite in our household for its cheeky commentary and beautiful, funny drawings. (I would like to live inside her picture of a pink ice-pop, please.) The characters in this book -- Roberta Rothschild, president of the Rubber Band Society; cousin Rocky with his list of people who have wronged him -- remind me of the Post family in Straub's novel The Vacationers: they're sometimes put-upon, often very funny, from Manhattan, and quite lovable. An Emma Straub novel is the literary equivalent of a Maira Kalman drawing; I have no doubt that her forthcoming novel, Modern Lovers, about two families in Brooklyn, will cement this kinship. My Struggle by Karl Ove Knausgaard and Richard Scarry You might think you're super literary, cozying up with Knausgaard's multiple-tome fictional autobiography after a long day with your toddler. You probably agree with James Wood, esteemed literary critic for The New Yorker, who wrote: "There is something ceaselessly compelling about Knausgaard’s book: even when I was bored, I was interested." But you probably also feel this way reading Richard Scarry's books, which, like Knausgaard's, describe so much of the mundane. Do we really need to know about every piece of clothing in Huckleberry's wardrobe? Also, Richard Scarry's Busy, Busy Town, with its quaint town squares, its weird cars you've never heard of, and its waiters carrying tagines, could only be, like Knausgaard himself, one thing: European. Gary Shteyngart/George Saunders and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl Have you introduced your kid to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory yet? I don't mean the movie with Gene Wilder (or the remake with Johnny Depp in that creepy bob). I mean the book by Roald Dahl. Shit is fucked up! Charlie Bucket lives in horrible poverty, Wonka is a shut-in maniac with too much money, and the Oompa Loompas are victims of the global economy, trucked in from some far-off land to perform labor cheaply. (I'm not kidding. Wonka performs experiments on these workers! They never get to leave the factory!) Wonka's crazy schemes and nonchalance about everyone's endangerment remind me of the nutty heroes of Gary Shteyngart's novels. (Absurdistan, indeed.) The book's workplace commentary, so tragic it's funny, is straight Saunders. In fact, I'd love to see him write a novel from the perspective of an Oompa Loompa. It would be like "Pastoralia" but with sugar and torture instead of a cave fax machine. So there you have it. I suppose it's time we just rolled up our sleeves and read the child some Don DeLillo, and at night tucked ourselves in with Hop on Pop. We're tired enough, aren't we?

The Millions Top Ten: August 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 August. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. 2. Between the World and Me 2 months 2. 1. Go Set a Watchman 2 months 3. 4. The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing 5 months 4. 3. The Buried Giant 6 months 5. 5. The Girl on the Train 6 months 6. 6. Book of Numbers 3 months 7. 8. A Little Life 2 months 8. - Purity 1 month 9. 7. Satin Island 4 months 10. 9. The Paying Guests 3 months A shuffling atop this month's Top Ten puts Ta-Nahesi Coates's Between the World and Me above Harper Lee's Go Set a Watchman, which may be expected when one book earns inspires praise from Toni Morrison while copies of the other one are refunded by local bookstores. Of course, it hasn't all been praise for Coates's essay-letter to his son – and, to be fair, it hasn't all been negative press for Lee's early novel. In a recent piece for our site, Sonya Chung used a regrettable column by David Brooks to explore the "convergence of The Road to Character and the conflict that arose from Brooks’s public response to Between the World and Me." Similarly, our own Michael Bourne pondered the silver lining of Go Set a Watchman's release, which occasioned the reevaluation of Atticus Finch: “Jean Louise, have you ever met your father?” her uncle asks, and she realizes she never has, not really. Neither have we, though we have been living with Atticus Finch for more than half a century. It is high time we got to know him. The question is whether we will still love him once we have. Moving from two major publishing stories to a third: this month's Top Ten welcomes Jonathan Franzen's latest novel, Purity, into its ranks. The work debuts in the eighth spot, likely but a pit stop on its way to the higher reaches of our list, as the book (whose release date was technically September 1st) was only just reaching readers' hands in the final days of August. Purity follows blockbusters The Corrections and Freedom and, as our own Lydia Kiesling notes, the book contains "a few digs at you, reader." The Martian dropped from our list this month. Other near misses included: Wind/Pinball, The First Bad ManThe Tusk That Did the Damage, and Armada. See Also: Last month's list.

Flamed but Not Forgotten: On Jonathan Franzen’s ‘Purity’

1. There are a few digs at you, reader, in Purity, Jonathan Franzen’s big new novel. Here’s one buried in the musings of Andreas Wolf, the sociopathic leader of a data-dumping transparency project -- one analogous to but at odds with WikiLeaks: “The more he existed as the Internet’s image of him, the less he felt like he existed as a flesh-and-blood person. The Internet meant death.” Have you read a take or a tweet excoriating Jonathan Franzen? You inhabit a world “governed...by fear: the fear of unpopularity and uncoolness, the fear of missing out, the fear of being flamed or forgotten.” Ironically, the Internet -- the thing with which Franzen's opprobrium is most frequently associated -- is also the vehicle by which his utterances become collectively memorable. The Internet is why I know, for example, that 20 years ago, Franzen expressed anxiety about  cultural irrelevance in the type of tone-deaf revelation primed to annoy less-famous writers and destined to become characteristic: “I had already realized that the money, the hype, the limo ride to a Vogue shoot weren’t simply fringe benefits. They were the main prize, the consolation for no longer mattering to the culture.” No one should be permanently lashed to his or her remarks of decades past, but Franzen, with his frequent public grumping, invites a certain amount of scrutiny. And despite the easy prey of Franzen’s Vogue shoots, that essay, “Perchance to Dream,” published in Harper’s in 1996, contains an artist’s statement that remains the tidiest, most cogent thesis on the project of Franzen’s writing: “It had always been a prejudice of mine that putting a novel’s characters in a dynamic social setting enriched the story that was being told; that the glory of the genre consisted in its spanning of the expanse between private experience and public context.” Of course, nailing the “public context” was a source of considerable anxiety: I’d already worked in contemporary pharmacology and TV and race and prison life and a dozen other vocabularies; how was I going to satirize Internet boosterism and the Dow Jones as well while leaving room for the complexities of character and locale? Panic grows in the gap between the increasing length of the project and the shrinking time increments of cultural change... With Purity, the project is long, the cultural change significant, time of the essence. Time presses in all of Franzen’s novels, for reasons of health -- human or environmental -- or economics, or plate tectonics. In his latest, several plot devices add urgency: there’s a home on the verge of foreclosure, a sensational news story in danger of being scooped, more data in need of the “disinfecting” sunshine of the aforementioned Wolf’s Sunlight Project. If there’s anything that denotes a Franzen text, it’s a socio-cultural rant, and the slightly Bill-and-Ted-like deployment of the adjective “excellent.” Here’s Walter Berglund of Franzen’s last novel, Freedom, telling the employees of an Appalachian body-armor plant what’s what: 'You, too, can help denude every last scrap of native habitat in Asia, Africa, and South America! You, too, can buy six-foot-wide plasma TV screens that consume unbelievable amounts of energy, even when they’re not turned on. But that’s OK, because that’s why we threw you out of your homes in the first place, so we could strip-mine your ancestral hills and feed the coal-fired generators that are the number-one of cause of global warming and other excellent things like acid rain.' Or Chip of The Corrections, foaming at the sister who is just trying to get him upstairs for a parental lunch: 'I’m saying the structure of the entire culture is flawed. I’m saying the bureaucracy has arrogated the right to define certain states of mind as "diseased." A lack of desire to spend money becomes a symptom of disease that requires expensive medication. Which medication then destroys the libido, in other words destroy the appetite for the one pleasure in life that’s free, which means the person has to spend even more money on compensatory pleasures. The very definition of mental "health" is the ability to participate in the consumer economy. When you buy into therapy, you’re buying into buying. And I’m saying that I personally am losing the battle with a commercialized, medicalized, totalitarian modernity right this instant.' Franzen, for all that he attracts online derision, knows that nobody is irredeemable who has a sense of humor (as he told the Guardian in a recent profile, he considers himself a “comic novelist”). Comic, ranting males abound in his last two novels, but Purity as a whole is comparatively humorless in ways that are both intentional and not; humor's absence, on the intentional front, is what damns the leaker Wolf and a cruelly drawn character named Anabel Laird, the mother of the novel's heroine, Purity "Pip" Tyler. Purity is baggy -- comprising several deep, character-driven sections linked together by a series of unlikely events. Wolf's segments are in a jarring, significantly darker key than that of Franzen’s previous fiction. Wolf wrestles throughout the book with a second self he calls “the Killer;” in some especially gross moments he almost channels Jonathan Littell’s seemingly placid, ultimately depraved Nazi narrator in The Kindly Ones. Here's Wolf recalling his troubled mother: "He remembered remembering, when he saw her pussy in the rose garden, that this wasn't the first time he'd seen it -- that something he's thought was a disturbing dream from his early childhood hadn't actually been a dream." Or here, exercising his sexual frustrations about Pip: "It was a relief to stop fighting the Killer and submit to the evil of his idea; it turned him on so much that he went to the spot on the floor where Pip had stood naked and used the panties she’d left to milk himself, three times, of the substance he hadn’t spent in her...” Purity's "public context," as Franzen put it in 1996, also feels more urgent than that of his previous work; there’s a polemic built into Wolf that his character is finally a bit too flimsy to support. You'd think that someone like Wolf would worship the Internet for its purifying possibilities; but its potentiality is more obliterating -- more like the state in George Orwell's Oceania -- than it is a vehicle for liberation. In Wolf’s conception, the Internet is aligned with the totalitarian system that characterized the East Germany of his youth: “If -- and only if -- you had enough money and/or tech capability, you could control your Internet persona and, thus, your destiny and your virtual afterlife. Optimize or die. Kill or be killed.” In a keystone passage, Franzen intersperses a description of East Germany under Socialism with the tech orthodoxies and infelicities of the present day: The real appeal of apparatchikism was the safety of belonging. Outside, the air smelled like brimstone, the food was bad, the economy moribund, the cynicism rampant, but inside, victory of the class enemy was assured. Outside, the middle class was disappearing faster than the icecaps, xenophobes were winning elections or stocking up on assault rifles, warring tribes were butchering each other religiously, but inside, disruptive new technologies were rendering traditional politics obsolete. Inside, decentralized ad hoc communities were rewriting the rules of creativity, the revolution rewarding the risk-taker who understood the power of networks. The New Regime even recycled the old Republic’s buzzwords, collective, collaborative. Axiomatic to both was that a new species of humanity was emerging. On this, apparatchiks of every stripe agreed. It never seemed to bother them that their ruling elites consisted of the grasping, brutal old species of humanity. It's unclear, ultimately, why Wolf, with his mistrust of the Internet's role in society, has spent so much time, so much effort, to set up his Bolivian hacker's commune. (Because he's a little insane, basically.) And his Sunlight Project, apart from the spectacular descriptions of its setting in a Bolivian valley, takes place essentially in front of a green screen, cobbled together with references to a “private fiber-optic line,” a “network of malcontents and hackers,” “facial-recognition software,” or an “impenetrable maze of electronic red herrings to protect the source.” Perhaps due to generational differences, something about Franzen’s “public context” has never quite rung true to me -- his college freshman’s September 11th in Freedom didn’t match my freshman self, staring blank-faced at the television in week two of college. But it has also never much mattered to me, because I think Franzen’s ability to convey the private experience is often transcendent and perfect. I can just look at the final paragraph of The Corrections and start crying -- Alfred and Enid and the ice chip and the changes she’s going to make in her life. Goddamn. But in Purity, like Freedom, the world is sometimes only an echo of a world that should be familiar. Gertrude Stein said of Oakland that there was “no there there,” and Franzen seems content to take her at her word. Pip, too, occasionally lacks a “there;” in the end she works as a character -- you root for her happiness -- but Franzen includes oddly few context clues for her. Who were the friends that Pip slowly broke up with via aloof text messages and hangout-cancellations? What clothes did they wear; what things did they read; what shows did they watch? Barring financial constraints, would Pip see Magic Mike XXL in the theater? $130,000 in student loans is alleged to loom over Pip, clouding her future happiness, but the day-to-day math of her straitened circumstances is missing, with none of the lovingly crafted accounting of pitiful finances that resulted in Chip Lambert's memorable salmon-down-the-pants scene in The Corrections. Nothing about the description of the Oakland squatters’ domicile that Purity inhabits -- or her co-residents -- necessarily convinces the reader that Jonathan Franzen has embedded with Occupiers and freegans. Purity sang for me in its least overtly culturally relevant moments -- like the complex romantic history of Pip's mentor (and Wolf's brother/foil) Tom Aberant, or that of his partner Leila Helou, who blooms into brilliant life for one section and then more or less fades away. There's the twisted romance of Tom and Pip’s mother, Anabel, put forth in a memoir saved on Tom’s hard drive as “A river of meat.” Like Patty Berglund in Freedom, Tom's explosive personal document drives events in the text. This is a vengeful -- on Franzen’s part, it seems -- piece of writing that describes Tom's long marriage with a comically unhinged harpy. Anabel is an artist; for much of their marriage she is at work on a decade-long performance piece visually documenting every centimeter of her own body: “You need to do whatever it takes to be finished,” Tom tells her. “You know I've never finished anything in my life,” she says. She beat her fists on her offending head. It took me two hours to talk her down and then a further hour to emerge from the sulk she’d put me in by suggesting that my aesthetic was vulgar. Then, for three hours, I helped her block out a rough schedule for completing her project, and then, for another hour, I began the transfer of important thoughts from the first of her forty-odd notebooks into a new notebook, written by me. Then it was time for her three hours of exercise. It's cruel, but it works. We never get Anabel’s point of view, although Pip more or less corroborates Tom’s account with her experience of being Anabel’s dutiful child. But unlike Tom, Pip has access to Anabel’s most endearing feature: "The pure, spontaneous love in that smile, every time she’d caught sight of Pip...Her mother had needed to give love and receive it...Was that so monstrous?" 2. In a recent article in Harper’s, William Deresiewicz lamented the neoliberalism that has taken over the university campus. “For all its rhetoric of freedom and individual initiative, the culture of the market is exceptionally good at inculcating a sense of helplessness. So much of the language around college today...presumes that young people are the passive objects of economic forces. That they have no agency, no options.” Franzen gives Pip a healthy dose of agency, considering the challenges posed by her financial situation and her difficult mother, but he also gives her a Dickensian surprise, making a millennial fairy-tale out of the story that somewhat corroborates Pip's oblivious young-person-ness: “The flight, in a too-small jet, dodging thunderstorms, cured Pip of any desire for future air travel. She expected death the whole way. What was interesting was how quickly she then forgot about it, like a dog to whom death was literally unimaginable...” As Pip hits tennis balls with a young man in a touching, chaste courtship, Franzen gives us all tacit permission to stop caring about the big stuff; it's nearly an acknowledgement that the big stuff, globally speaking, is never really what matters in his novels -- not nearly so much as love, anyway: “All over the state, reservoirs and wells were going dry, the taste and clarity of tap water worsening, farmers suffering, Northern Californians conserving while Orange County set new records for monthly consumption, but none of this mattered for the hour and a half that she was on the court with Jason.” Franzen's last book was The Kraus Project, an annotated translation of essays by the Viennese writer Karl Kraus. In one of these, Kraus lashes out against a style of brief, impressionistic journalism ascendant in his day. “Writing feuilletons means twining curls on a bald head,” Kraus grumped, and thus provided a point of entry for Franzen’s own celebrated brand of grumping. By coincidence, mere days after the release of Purity, New Directions will publish a collection of feuilletons by Joseph Roth, the great Austro-Hungarian novelist and journalist -- and a contemporary of Kraus -- beautifully translated by Michael Hofmann. Roth was a master of shedding light onto the "public context" in the uneasy interwar moment when Germany was gearing up for the great smash-up, when "in these assembly halls, where people used to go to smooch and drink, they [were] now daubing swastikas and Soviet stars on grimy walls." I read this haunting compilation -- one which utterly gives the lie to Kraus’s denigration of the feuilleton form -- concurrently with Purity. About Germany in this awful, pregnant moment, Roth wrote: Anyone who has sat at the bedside of a sick patient will know that the hours are not all pathos and anguish. The sick man will talk all kinds of nonsense, ridiculous, trivial, unworthy of himself and his condition. He is missing the regulating consciousness. That’s just want is missing in Germany: the regulating consciousness. I can't say how well Franzen writes Germany -- according to Roth in 1923, it is the "least understood nation in all of Europe" -- but I know that he is interested in the “regulating consciousness.” The noble art of journalism practiced well, the good sense of Pip, whatever it is that keeps Tom from strangling Anabel, whatever it is that's lacking from Andreas Wolf’s strange brain -- these things are that consciousness embodied. Franzen is also, I think, interested in creating the kind of luminous societal prophesy that animates Roth’s short, wondrous pieces. But Roth himself knew the pitfalls of that effort: From time to time I think of describing the ‘German,’ or defining his ‘typical’ existence. Probably that isn’t possible. Even when I sense the presence of such a thing, I am unable to define it. What can I do, apart from writing about individuals I meet by chance, setting down what greets my eyes and ears, and selecting from them as I see fit? The describing of singularities within this profusion may be the least deceptive; the chance thing, plucked from a tangle of others, may most easily make for order. I have seen this and that; I have tried to write about what stuck in my senses and my memory. I think Jonathan Franzen is a wonderful novelist. I don't know him, but I often feel like he knows me, and for that I love him. His work is most vulnerable to attack when it tries too visibly to be the chief diagnoser and prognosticator of "the culture." It is most meaningful when it deals in those "singularities within the profusion." Still, it endeavors always to do both -- and therein, I think, lies its essential goodness, its essential purity.

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.

Love and Land: Ann Packer’s ‘The Children’s Crusade’ and the Legacy of ‘East of Eden’

My first image of California was the Salinas River valley, just south of Soledad, lush and green in the full peak of summer. This little grove is a rite of passage for millions of the county's eighth graders, standing on the river bank and listening to the gentle rustle of fauna in relative seclusion, as painted with John Steinbeck's brush in the opening scene of Of Mice and Men. Steinbeck's strokes spread over all of California as an iconic vision, especially in the opening scene of the parabolic epic East of Eden: "From both sides of the valley little streams slipped out of the hill canyons and fell into the bed of the Salinas River. In the winter of wet years the streams ran full-freshet, and they swelled the river until sometimes it raged and boiled, bank full, and then it was a destroyer." But that is not California anymore, and in the 60 years since East of Eden's publication, the dense farmland has become something else. When writing about California, the land and Steinbeck hang as an overture, as family patriarch Bill Blair discovers in the opening of Ann Packer's new California epic, The Children's Crusade. He heads south, driving out of San Francisco, noting: “This king’s highway boasted car lots and supermarkets, nothing to fill Bill’s heart, but every so often a vista opened and included the sudden rise of yet more hills, some thickly forested, others the color of hay bales in autumn.” Bill, in his exhaustion as a young doctor, is searching for the last vestiges of Steinbeckian farmland, finally settling on a broad stretch in the Portola Valley with a large, lovely oak tree: He lay on the ground under the oak tree and looked up between its snaking branches at the bits of startling blue. He wanted to figure out a way to live under that sky without forgetting the other sky, halfway around the world, that for two years had seemed always gray and always to bear down on the land and sea, no matter the season and no matter the weather. From here, Packer launches her broad and pensive family epic of the Blairs: Bill and his wife, Penny, followed by their four children, Robert, Rebecca, Ryan, and James. As adults, the four Blair children are brought together again when they must decide whether or not to sell their childhood home and land, the one that their father had founded for them. By settling the Blairs in the Portola Valley, a mere 100 miles away from Soledad, the legacy of East of Eden is inescapable. East of Eden, lacking the social consciousness of Grapes of Wrath or the accessibility of Of Mice and Men, is possibly Steinbeck's most difficult work and relatively neglected -- despite the scope of its ambition and the author's own declaration of it as his magnum opus. The story follows the thinly veiled biblical tale of Adam Trask and his brother Charles, as well as Adam's sons, Caleb and Aron, as they rise and fall on their paradisiacal slice of the Salinas Valley and contend with Adam's wicked wife, Cathy. Steinbeck's work is rife with the toil of Genesis: men versus the hardscrabble, scarcely arable land, then men and women versus their temptation as women face the trials of Eve, and brothers' hands twitch over the jealousy of Cain. The inheritance of Steinbeck in Packer's multigenerational novel is strong and diffuse. The Blairs take their creation myth as seriously tied to their land, their house, and their oak tree, well before the advent of strip malls, subdivisions, and the rise of Silicon Valley mansions that narrow in their once green-and-brown landscape. In 1950, two years before East of Eden was published, farmers accounted for 12 percent of the labor force; in 2015, they only amount to one percent. With the evolution of farmland into Silicon Valley and the change from farming to an industrialized and urbanized workforce, the nature of conflict changes, too. Men no longer struggle against the land, toiling as Adam once did because of the bounty of Whole Foods down the road. For Packer's generations, the conflict has become a much more internal and introspective view of self. Packer's Blairs might find themselves much more at ease with Celeste Ng's Lees in Everything I Never Told You or Jonathan Franzen's Lamperts in The Corrections, where the percolated failings of the parents -- and the stress fractures of their marriage -- have reverberating effects throughout the lives of their children. If East of Eden represents an essential parable of American Genesis, then The Children's Crusade is the complication of that parable and its strict morality. As the land has grown, so has its people, their lives replete with a dinner table trauma of harsh words and youthful brawls and spoiled clothes that hang about their days like the scent of ozone before a storm. Bill is the kind, conflict-avoidant, and well-meaning patriarch whose axioms of "carry on" and "children deserve care" are interpreted by each of his children differently. Penny is the manic mother fraught with unassailable dreams of her own artistry. Robert is the duty-bound and approval-driven eldest son, Rebecca the thoughtful and calculating daughter, Ryan the overly loving and close-minded middle child, and James the damaged and tossed aside youngest of the family. Initially, the "crusade" of The Children's Crusade is a foolish list, made by the children, of activities that might please their mother and engender her doting love. These are certainly pithy descriptions compared to the deep, sprawling mental landscapes that each of the children explores in their joint desperation to understand the loss of their childhood home, land, and the weighty portent of their father's oak tree. The land means so much to the four of them because it’s where they have rooted their love and history, and in this singular love and necessity for the California earth, the Trasks and the Blairs are not so different. Each of the four siblings narrates a section of the novel as adults looking back, with interluding scenes from their communal upbringing. The psychological weight is heavy and palpable for each child, such as Robert, who followed in his father's footsteps as a doctor. Although Robert is well-established in his mid-40s, all of his decisions are weighed against his father's imagined approval of him and his work. Often, Robert, Rebecca, Ryan, or James try to puzzle over their distant childhood memories in an attempt to piece together how they came to where they are in their lives. For the most troubled child, James, the turmoil of growing up focuses on his dire opposition to his mother, keying on one supremely traumatic moment surrounding his favorite stuffed animal that forms his "rocklike" opposition to her and results in them not speaking for more than a decade. For the Blairs, the land has been long conquered, leaving only the rolling hills of their own hearts and minds to plow through and build upon. Throughout The Children's Crusade, Packer lets emotion do the heavy lifting, leaving the writing itself to snake a methodical trail about the characters, such as when Bill is talking to Robert. “As he spoke, his face changed around his eyes and mouth, as if love lived in particular regions of the skin, and Robert felt his own face grow warm.” Packer's terse words ride high on this ripe emotion to the point of exhaustion, feeling each moment so deeply and fully on behalf of each child to the depth of minutiae. The story itself swings like a pendulum, with wandering interstitial and omniscient scenes of a summertime party, a family dinner, or a teenage birthday, filling in the thoughts of whichever family member is closest, even latching onto significant others, with such sudden leapfrogging that at times the cacophony of thoughts becomes oppressive. Between these are the children themselves, grown and worried adults now. In these passages, Packer shows the reach of her creation in the awful nuance of the fraught and doubtful adults in the fullness of their lives: Robert with his self-imposed mantel of pater familias, Rebecca with her thoughtful and oppressive problem-solving, Ryan with his burden of endless and unconditional love, and James with his rootless wanderlust -- all of it so painfully real and confessional. In East of Eden, Cathy is an evil and selfishly depraved soul set against her righteous and caring husband, and as a parable, it’s simply a moralizing black-and-white tale baked into the beauty of the Soledad River valley. Yet in The Children's Crusade, the shift between the children's monologue and the collective memory pushes the reader into the role of investigative psychoanalyst. Packer is most certainly aware of this, having one of the children, Rebecca, become an introspective psychiatrist whose memory and its distortion is a constant tease in her life, probing what might be real and whether it matters or not. Treading through the mottled family life of the Blairs, Packer pushes you to ask these questions: What is the motivation behind each memory or action? How have these scenes built Robert or Rebecca or Ryan or James into who he or she now is? Why might they be so broken? The Children's Crusade, at times, dips into heavy-handed moments, such as having a group of children sit around and discuss their "crusade" to bring their mother back into the fold, but if anything, the emotion and intent is genuine. For all the biblical Cain and Abel navel-gazing of East of Eden, the same hunger runs through Caleb's urgent desire for his father's love and approval. For both families, the crux of it is the dire attempt to fit together, with love as both the solvent and connective glue.

Alive with Disagreement and Dissent: On A.O. Scott, Politics, and Art

1. In 1943, Dwight MacDonald, one of the co-founders of the literary journal Partisan Review, lost an internal power struggle over its editorial direction and left to found a new magazine, Politics, that better suited his vision. The reasons for MacDonald’s split with the other PR founders, Phillip Rahv and William Phillips, are complex and have been examined at length elsewhere, but in principle they involved both a difference of opinion regarding the participation of the United States in the war against Germany and Japan (which MacDonald opposed) and the question of whether Partisan Review would be principally a journal of leftist politics (as MacDonald wished) or one equally committed to independent-minded literary and cultural criticism. After MacDonald’s departure, Partisan Review did not abandon politics, but it remained known as a journal open to distinguished work even from those who differed from the editors ideologically. Before finally closing in 2003, PR would go on to publish criticism -- by fellow travelers (Irving Howe, Alfred Kazin) and ideological enemies (Saul Bellow, Robert Penn Warren) alike -- that set a standard that other journals of opinion still strive to match. Ancient squabbles at a now-defunct literary magazine, involving a good deal of now dated Marxist cant, are not inherently very interesting. But the Partisan Review, both in its high editorial standards and in its struggles to resolve inherent tensions between the domains of politics and art, continues to be a point of reference in our literary culture. The founders of n + 1 have cited PR as an example, even as they have produced a journal with a hipper, more contemporary voice; several of the core PR critics, including Lionel Trilling, remain culture heroes; and New York Times critic A.O. Scott maintains what amounts almost to an obsession with PR, citing its writers in his work, contributing an admiring introduction to a collection of essays by another PR stalwart, Mary McCarthy, and undertaking a book project surveying the American novel since World War II that seems consciously to invoke Kazin’s landmark study of the preceding period, On Native Grounds. It is Scott’s fascination with PR and its fusion of ideology and culture that I wish to discuss here, along with the broader question of how the contemporary American novel ought to engage with politics. Here is Scott in a recent Times essay: Ever since the financial crisis of 2008, I’ve been waiting for The Grapes of Wrath. Or maybe A Raisin in the Sun, or Death of a Salesman, a Zola novel or a Woody Guthrie ballad -- something that would sum up the injustices and worries of the times, and put a human face on the impersonal movements of history. The originals are still around, available for revival and rediscovery and part of a robust artistic record of hard times past. But we are in the midst of hard times now, and it feels as if art is failing us...Much as I respect the efforts of economists and social scientists to explain the world and the intermittent efforts of politicians to change it, I trust artists and writers more. Not necessarily to be righteous or infallible, or even consistent or coherent; not to instruct or advocate, but rather, through the integrity and discipline they bring to making something new, to tell the truth. This is a stirring statement of purpose for the arts, but one that should be parsed carefully. In this and a series of previous essays published over the last several years, Scott makes two related claims: (1) that our culture no longer makes a strong demand upon us morally or intellectually, but instead treats us simply as consumers whose expectations must be met; and (2) that a false dichotomy has arisen between our political and cultural lives, such that artists have abdicated their responsibility to examine the ideological structures that we are governed by and have instead been content to describe the compensatory mechanisms we have evolved to survive within them. What Scott wants is a more serious, more politically engaged culture, one more alive with disagreement and dissent. Some of what Scott says, particularly on the subject of politics and the American novel, seems to me a little "pushed," in the sense that he risks asking the wrong things of writers, or perhaps weights engagement on his terms too heavily, and imputes a didactic purpose to the novel as a genre that it cannot support.  My purpose here is not to quarrel with Scott, however, but to explore some of the tensions that inhere in the novel of politics, and relatedly, to assess the extent to which the critical attitude that Scott has embraced remains salient in an era of very different cultural values. The sense of crisis to which Scott has addressed himself is no doubt real. Suddenly, everything seems to be up for grabs again in our political life. It is natural to hope, even if that hope is somewhat against the weight of experience, that artists can light the path ahead. 2. The Partisan Review sensibility was in part a product of historical and biographical forces, to wit, the world of Ashkenazi Jews who immigrated to New York in massive numbers over several decades beginning in the 1880s. Irving Howe, Phillip Rahv, Alfred Kazin, and Leslie Fiedler all belonged to this world; Howe memorialized it in World of Our Fathers: The Journey of the East European Jews to America and the Life They Found and Made: For about thirty or forty years, a mere moment in history, the immigrant Jews were able to sustain a coherent and self-sufficient culture. It was different from the one they had left behind, despite major links of continuity, and it struggled fiercely to keep itself different from the one they found in America, despite the pressures for assimilation. Between what they had brought and half preserved from the old world and what they were taking from the new, the immigrant Jews established a tense balance, an interval of equilibrium. Scott is an inheritor off this culture through his mother, the historian Joan Wallach Scott, who grew up in a Brooklyn Jewish family, moved away from home, got a Ph.D., married a Protestant, and had little Tony. Other forces have acted upon him, too, of course: one could just as easily say that he is a product of the academy (his father, Donald Scott, teaches at CUNY); of Harvard (Class of '88); or of the newspapers where he has worked for 20 years. It might seem odd or even de trop to claim that there is a Jewish intellectual style and that Scott works within it, except that he makes little pretense otherwise; his work is studded with references to the PR critics (not all of them Jews, of course), men and women all now dead and to some extent forgotten -- so much so, in fact, that what at first looks like interest begins gradually to seem more like obsession. While the PR critics are not Scott’s only touchstones, they seem to embody for him the highest possibilities of the critical form. There are good reasons to think that the PR intellectual style is outdated. First, because of the collective experience of the Holocaust, the Cold War, and McCarthyism -- the extraordinary cataclysm of the middle of the 20th century, in which ideology threatened not just to eclipse civilization but to extinguish it -- the PR critics did not draw sharp distinctions between politics and culture. For them, all cultural products referred to and derived from a system of relations that they saw in Marxist, philosophically materialist terms. Today, by contrast, we tend to regard culture as a semi-autonomous sphere, independent and self-justifying. Second, the PR critics wished above all to be thought of as serious, and their conception of seriousness, which they linked to cultural traditions inherited from Europe, is likely to seem anachronistic to us today; American culture has lost its last vestiges of self-doubt and become, at least in commercial terms, a dominant brand. Few critics today, even very cosmopolitan ones, think of Honoré de Balzac, Stendhal, and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe as salient points of reference when they talk about the form and potential of the novel. Third, the PR critics wrote in a mandarin style of intellectual assertion that hardly seems possible in an age in which critical authority is on the run in all spheres of intellectual life. We no longer assume that a Columbia professor like Trilling has the right to tell us how to read or what belongs in the canon. On the other hand, there is a good deal that remains admirable and relevant in the PR style, despite its occasionally risible self-importance. An air of political crisis seems to have returned to American life, creating space for both reasoned dissent and all manner of charlatanism; there exists a new sense of possibility that is both exciting and terrifying. If that is so, then a somewhat artificial distinction between political and cultural life begins to look not just specious but irresponsible; we need our artists to remind us of who we are. And while the culture continues to become flatter, there is also a countercurrent of interest in what is authentic and best in the culture rather than what is given to us by media monopolists. The flattening of our culture should not be confused with its democratization, however determined Apple might be in its advertising campaigns to conflate the two. To dismantle or, at least, to interrogate structures of political and cultural power begins to look like pretty urgent work. At the end of this chain of propositions, Trilling, Fiedler, and especially Howe wait for us. Perhaps Scott chose his heroes better than one might have thought. Scott’s admiration for the PR critics also rests on values more narrowly literary. There were several gifted stylists in the PR crowd: Howe, who delivered opinions of undisguised vehemence in long sentences gentle on the inward ear; Trilling, Jamesian, diffident, balancing his long, erudite essays on a single concept or turn of phrase; MacDonald, whose essay "Masscult and Midpoint" finds a perfect equipoise between an unrepentant cultural snobbery and a sighing regret that such thoughts must be expressed. It is this fusion of political and aesthetic values that seems to interest Scott, the dream of a critical mind both free and disciplined. Scott is first and last a writer, a man who wants to get himself fully expressed on the page. His prose style is not flashy, and it takes sustained exposure to his work to realize that he is a very good writer indeed, one who has resisted the slackness that can creep in when you have multiple pieces due week after week, the diminished expectations of daily journalism. While Scott colors between the lines, rarely reaching for heightened rhetoric or memorable coinage, his steadily intelligent prose constitutes a quieter kind of intellectual heroism. He is less interested in providing that he is right about a particular work than in defending his aesthetic values or, more fundamentally, the importance of establishing aesthetic values and judging works of art, even popular art, by those standards. 3. American literature has always been more wary of ideology than its European counterpart. Here we take our politics light, and with a good deal of artificial sweetener. Leslie Fiedler (another PR contributor) said that all American novelists were stunted, unable to accept their role in the culture at large, returning always to the intense, private, unmediated experiences of youth. Fiedler intended this as an indictment, at least in part, but the innocence of the American writer may not be entirely a bad thing. Europe in the 20th century suffered so grievously from excessive ideological passion, both in its politics and in its letters (Louis-Ferdinand Celine, Paul de Man, Günter Grass), as to constitute a potent negative example. Today we are inclined to think that a novelist whose primary purpose is narrowly didactic is likely to produce work that is date-stamped; but there are counter-examples strong enough to give one pause: Charles Dickens often wrote with a political purpose; Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn attacked the Soviet state with The Gulag Archipelago; and then there is the irrefutable case of George Orwell. Of course, the American novelist may have had less need to confront the state than her counterparts in other places and times, since the twin rhetorics of liberty and equality have always been part of our official discourse; an artist-provacateur like Ai Weiwei is a necessary figure in China -- a sort of dramatist of state repression -- but perhaps less so in the West. It may be the case, however, that the relation of the artist to the state has changed in America in the last decade with the gross expansion of the national security apparatus, which along with rapid technological change has shrunk the once generous zone of personal autonomy that we came to take for granted. If that is true, it may be time for certain creative work that cuts a little closer to the bone. A criticism that attempts to take account of politics runs into an immediate paradox, which is that those novels that deal least directly with ideology tend to be the ones in which the strongest ideological assumptions are made; the preconditions of social life are so self-evident to their authors that they need not be stated. A Jane Austen novel is strongly concerned with domestic life and family relations, almost to the complete exclusion of ideological questions; and yet without the stable substructures of marriage and property on which it depends for both its plot and its social texture, it would falter on the first page. Unlike the plastic arts, the novel can never be wholly apolitical, given that even in its most experimental forms it seeks to refer to the world. Still, it would be a crude critic indeed who opted to "take on" the assumptions of these novels; he would almost be making a category error. Austen is a writer for all time; that she required a certain stability of society and manners has not proved disqualifying. Indeed, Henry James thought of this stability as virtually a precondition of the novel, or at least of his own. The novelist must sometimes have the freedom merely to take the world as he finds it. The idea of the political novel is also somewhat in tension with the generative process that leads to the impulse to write. The political imagination seeks to solve problems, even to extinguish them. The violent political imagination seeks to extinguish false consciousness, which can only end in the extinguishing of human beings. The literary imagination is content to present problems, of whatever sort, taking the world as it finds it; in that sense it is conservative, even as it attempts the radical gesture of creation ex nihilo. The novel classically begins in the writer's mind with a character or a situation, not with a political structure, a legislative event, a party congress. "An idealistic young doctor and poet seeks stability, meaning, and honor as his country descends into violence" is at least potentially Doctor Zhivago; "a series of events in imperial Russia leads to the demise of the Romanov dynasty and the creation of the Soviet Union" is something else entirely. Of course, a novel that begins with character may effloresce to become the story of a revolution, as with Zhivago. But what distinguishes the novel from the forms with which it has vied for space (biographies, narrative histories, religious texts) is its concern with private experience and, beginning with the modernists, interiority. The inner life observed is the lodestar of the modern novel: Mrs. Dalloway in her kitchen. The political novel, by contrast, seeks to link the individual's destiny to the mass society that conditions him and against which he struggles for autonomy. However much faith we are inclined to place in our artists, we should acknowledge that the crisis that Scott asks art to explain, or at least to narrate, was (among other things) an event in economic history, arising out of very deliberate and identifiable policy choices made over the course of several decades by intelligent but apparently rather blinkered individuals. Sustained engagement with that history actually is important to understanding what happened. A novelist may be able to "tell the truth" about the sense of dislocation and free-floating anxiety felt by a laid off mortgage banker; or about how a family's life might unravel after the loss of their home; but she probably cannot explain the chain of causation that started with the invention of securitization and led to the jumbo mortgages that led to the building of that house that the family paid too much for, struggled to keep up, and eventually surrendered to the bank. John Steinbeck wrote The Grapes of Wrath, not Agricultural Practices in Northeast Oklahoma, 1926-1935, and while The Grapes of Wrath is an essential document in the record of our national experience, you would not want to consult it as a guide to farm policy. The novel as a genre gains strength and resilience from its engagement with the social sciences, but we should not confuse it with social science itself; the division of labor between the two exists for a reason and is essential to the vitality of both. I do not think that Scott actually means to suggest that a novel is inherently a more trustworthy document than a Fed white paper or that the purposes of the two are coextensive. One assumes that a novelist may be as blinkered as the social scientist she meets in the faculty lounge. What we might legitimately ask a novel of the financial crisis to do is to speak to the moral imagination of the reader, to invigorate it, and to extend its reach to people and things that are not customarily the objects of her concern. That is part of its genre work. And is that not a enough? Lionel Trilling both believed in the salience of literature to political thought and cautioned against asking the novel to do too much. Here he is in his most famous work, The Liberal Imagination (1950): “To the carrying out of the job of criticizing the liberal imagination, literature has a unique relevance, not merely because so much of modern literature has explicitly directed itself upon politics, but more importantly because literature is the human activity that takes the fullest and most precise account of variousness, possibility, complexity, and difficulty.” But in 1946, in an introduction to The Partisan Reader that was published shortly after the MacDonald schism and might be read as a commentary upon it, he had struck a more cautious note: "Unless we insist that politics is imagination and mind, we will learn that imagination and mind are politics, and of a kind we will not like." Trilling, like Orwell, is a writer in whom ideologues of all stripes seem to find support for their views; most recently the neo-conservatives have sought to claim him as their own. But Trilling’s work seeks an autonomous space for literature and rejects a philistine criticism that would assess works primarily for their ideological correctness. Scott himself clearly belongs to the political left, and the novel of politics he asks for is implicitly one that would vindicate his concerns. We generally think of the political novel as having a progressive or reformist purpose. It is well to remember, though, that two of the most influential political novels in the history of the West, The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, were written from the right -- and continue to animate conservative politics today. Another species of political novel, the anti-communist novel -- Darkness at Noon, Animal Farm, The Gulag Archipelago -- is not rightist in origin per se (Orwell, for example, described himself as a democratic socialist) but is strongly anti-utopian. Indeed, the novel as an art form is inherently anti-utopian, inasmuch as it seeks to point us to conflicts within the individual, and between the individual and society, that are inherently intractable. A political novel’s happy ending usually does not mean the end of war -- which, be it literal or figurative, is with us always -- but with the protagonist’s achieving a separate peace. 4. If I am right that, among other things, the political novel faces a problem of scale -- national politics tends toward the totalizing vision, while narrative fiction wants to be intimate -- then the solution may be for the writer to deal with a small bore problem that can nonetheless be "scaled up:" a part that will stand for the whole. Ideology, in both its grainier and more sweeping senses, is at the center of Jonathan Franzen's Freedom, a somewhat archly ironic account of American political values in the aughts. Franzen engages politics directly, in that several of his characters are actively trying to shape policy, and more subtly, in dramatizing how ideological tropes seep into private life and affect the choices we make in our homes and neighborhoods. Freedom extends themes present in Franzen's earlier novel, The Corrections, but it takes on conservative political values more directly and with markedly less sympathy for their representatives. As such, Freedom was dealt with critically as a political novel (at least in part), though less in terms of whether the reviewer shared Franzen's politics than whether Franzen's attempt to bring ideology to the center of a domestic novel was prima facie legitimate. Sam Tanenhaus, the author of a biography of Whitaker Chambers and a narrative history of the conservative moment in the United States, hailed Freedom as "a masterpiece of American fiction;" B.R. Myers, the author of A Reader's Manifesto and a professor of North Korean politics (and therefore a man who knows something about the dangers of ideology) called it "a monument to insignificance." Myers seemed to feel that Franzen was writing a kind of socialist realism, with his characters acting as representatives of certain tendencies in national life rather than vital individuals; he also found their diction and their inner lives banal (perhaps he has lived outside the country for too long to recall what we are actually like). Tanenhaus and Myers are both strong critics, and their radically different responses to Freedom suggest an ongoing lack of critical consensus regarding how politics should be dealt with in narrative fiction. Some critics demand that the author's politics be entirely soluble in the narrative, while others find a plainer statement of ideological assumptions bracing. This lack of consensus is not necessarily a matter for concern -- chacun â son gout, after all -- but it does leave the writer who has a sustained interest in ideology with a hard problem. Freedom occasionally suffers from the impatience of its author with the very narrative techniques that Franzen employed to such extraordinary effect in The Corrections. While in the latter novel, Franzen’s use of free indirect style was masterful in bringing to life each of the members of the Lambert family, in his presentation of Freedom's Berglunds, Franzen hovers rather too close by, over-managing our interpretations. Freedom sometimes descends into a hectoring tone, holding forth rather than narrating. Its author seems burdened by the responsibility of telling us things we already ought to know. But a novel is not meant to be a substitute for watching PBS Newshour; it is not a discourse on citizenship. This is not to say that Freedom is not an excellent novel -- only to suggest that Franzen did not manage the problem of blending his aesthetic and didactic purposes perfectly. There is something in the reader that wants to resist Freedom even as he admires its art and recognizes the world it creates. Amy Waldman's The Submission deals not with the financial crisis that is Scott’s immediate concern but with other signal event of our recent politics, the 9/11 attacks. The Submission starts with a high concept: the jury judging the anonymous submissions for a Ground Zero memorial unwittingly chooses an American of Middle Eastern descent, a slick, arrogant, and thoroughly secularized product of the Yale School of Architecture named Mohammed Khan. The choice of Khan activates opposition, some of it ugly, from a coalition motivated variously by religious animus, opportunism, and survivor guilt. Others rally to Khan’s defense in the name of tolerance, civic order, and aesthetic values. The ensuing struggle over the meaning of 9/11 and what might constitute an appropriate response to such a spectacularly successful act of political violence is a portrait of New York in that raw and tumultuous period that registers the change in mood and understanding created by the attacks. The Submission was published to enormous acclaim, and it is in many respects a worthy novel, but three years later it already feels dated. Waldman's model was clearly Tom Wolfe's The Bonfire of the Vanities, and The Submission answers Wolfe's call for a less effete and more epistemic account of what actually goes on at the street level of our livid cities. While Waldman is a writer of patience and skill, the result still feels like a kind of super-journalism. The people in The Submission succeed as representatives of their social environment, but they never quite escape their representative status to succeed as individuals; as such, they are not literary characters at all, in the sense of seeming to possess autonomous selves. It is important to remember, as Wolfe has often failed to do, that while the techniques of fiction and newspaper reporting may seem similar, their purposes are very different and their truth-value depends on different claims. The Submission by its very conception carries a very heavy documentary burden, which necessarily inhibits the imaginative freedom of its author.  Imagination is the faculty in which Scott places his final measure of trust, but imagination is often precisely what suffers when the novelist seeks to fulfill a didactic purpose. 5. Literature is naturally against the grain of ideology. Ideology seeks to impose a pattern on historical experience, sometimes by violence; the patterns of literature perform gentler acts of persuasion, and they emerge only gradually. To get to the place where the pattern coheres and the author's meaning emerges (assuming that we are in the realm of novels that seek to perform in this way), the reader must pass through the slough of ambiguity. The pattern is the novel's purpose, but the ambiguity is its basic condition. While the novelist may be God in the universe of his narrative, he accepts that his effect on the world is diffuse and indirect. In asking that American novelists engage more fully with the political dimension of our national life, Scott is asking them to risk something of the freedom of thought and expression they enjoy, derived from their very unworldliness, that gives their work (for Scott) a unique truth-value. When the novelist becomes just another person who wants to sell us something, her moral status suffers, and so perhaps does her claim on our attention. So we should be careful about what we ask novelists (and poets, and filmmakers) to do. Taken more broadly, however, Scott's recent attempts to diagnose why our culture is so persistently, noxiously trivial, even as our claims regarding our special status in world affairs become more grandiose and deluded, seem both honorable and timely. This is not say that Scott is a cultural pessimist per se; indeed, he rightly regards a renewable capacity for enthusiasm as a necessary part of a critic's equipment. He is not despairing, but he is disappointed. Like the PR critics, who as the children of immigrants were both in love with America and perpetually disappointed by it, he is inclined to think that we ought to do better. "Doing better" might start with demanding art that demands more of us. Image Credit: Flickr/Jaime Martínez-Figueroa

Most Anticipated: The Great 2015 Book Preview

Last year offered many treats for readers: hotly anticipated new books by David Mitchell and Marilynne Robinson; the emergence of our own Emily St. John Mandel as a literary superstar; the breakout success of Anthony Doerr. 2015 offers more riches. This year we’ll get to crack open new books by Jonathan Lethem, Kelly Link, Kazuo Ishiguro, Kate Atkinson, Toni Morrison, Aleksandr Hemon, and Milan Kundera. Our own Garth Risk Hallberg will have his much anticipated debut on shelves later this year. Look beyond the hazy end of summer 2015 and Jonathan Franzen will be back with a new novel. All of these and many more are the books we’re looking forward to this year. The list that follows isn’t exhaustive—no book preview could be—but, at 9,000 words strong and encompassing 91 titles, this is the only 2015 book preview you will ever need. Scroll down and get started. January: Amnesia by Peter Carey: Carey’s new novel uses a cyberattack as the lens through which to consider the often-fraught history of the relationship between the United States and Australia. A radical hacker releases a worm into a computer system that governs both Australian and American prisoners. The doors of five thousand prisons in the United States are opened, while in Australia, hundreds of asylum-seekers escape. An Australian journalist, determined to figure out the motivation behind the attack and trying to save his career, struggles to get the hacker to cooperate on a biography. (Emily) Outline by Rachel Cusk: First serialized in The Paris Review, Cusk's new work is described by its publisher (FSG) as "a novel in ten conversations", but I prefer Leslie Jamison's description: "a series of searing psychic X-rays bleached by coastal light." The woman at the center of these conversations is a writing teacher who travels to Greece to teach a workshop. Her portrait is revealed by her various interlocutors, beginning with her neighbor on a plane en route to Athens. (Hannah)   The First Bad Man by Miranda July: Miranda July, artist, filmmaker and author of the story collection No One Belongs Here More Than You, has written a debut novel about a woman named Cheryl who works at a women’s self-defense nonprofit, and, according to the jacket copy, is a “tightly-wound, vulnerable woman who lives alone with a perpetual lump in her throat.” Cheryl also believes she’s made love with her colleague “for many lifetimes, though they have yet to consummate in this one.” In her blurb, Lena Dunham writes that July’s novel “will make you laugh, cringe and recognize yourself in a woman you never planned to be.” While you prepare for the book’s release, check out The First Bad Man Store, where you can purchase real items that are mentioned in the novel. (Edan) Almost Famous Women by Megan Mayhew Bergman: This new book is Bergman's second short story collection, after her heartbreakingly humane debut, Birds of a Lesser Paradise. Her new collection takes inspiration from historical figures, women who attained a certain degree of celebrity but whose stories have never been fully imagined. We meet Lord Byron's illegitimate daughter, Edna St. Vincent Millay's sister, a conjoined twin, and a member of the first all-female integrated swing band. (Hannah)   Sweetland by Michael Crummey: The award-winning author of Galore returns to the land and the past of Newfoundland in his latest novel, which follows Moses Sweetland, the one man determined to stay on an island long after every one else has left, in defiance of both their warnings and their threats. As the Vancouver Sun puts it, Sweetland “demonstrates, as the best fiction does (and as Crummey's novels always have) that the past is always with us, and that contemporary events are history embodied and in motion.” The novel also promises to be the best kind of ghost story, one in which memory and place are as haunting as the ghosts Sweetland believes he sees. (Kaulie) Glow by Ned Beauman: Multiple prize nods for each of his first two novels have set high expectations for Ned Beauman's next effort. If the plot, which slingshots through England, Burma and Iceland, is any indication, the new book will match the ambition of his previous work. The story kicks off at a rave in London, where Raf, a sufferer of a chronic sleep disorder, is trying out a new drug, the eponymous “glow.” The drug leads him on a quest to uncover a massive conspiracy involving a multinational named Lacebark. (Thom)   Honeydew by Edith Pearlman: Long a distinguished short-story writer, Pearlman emerged into the spotlight with her 2011 collection Binocular Vision. The new-found fame landed her a new publisher -- Little, Brown -- for her latest collection and a profile in the Times. It seems, in fact, that Pearlman is now assured the larger audience that eluded her for decades. (Max)     Binary Star by Sarah Gerard: An introduction to a recently published excerpt of Binary Star suggests Sarah Gerard has a reputation for tackling her subject matter with unusual ferocity. In her debut, she turns her attention to eating disorders, focusing on a would-be teacher who struggles with anorexia. When the story begins, the teacher weighs ninety-eight pounds, and she reflects on the parallels between her own compulsions and the hopeless alcoholism of her lover. Gerard heightens the intensity, meticulously listing what her characters eat and drink. (Thom) Frog by Mo Yan: In the latest novel by the Chinese Nobel laureate to get an English translation, Mo Yan takes on the one-child policy, depicting the lives of several characters throughout the lifespan of Communist China. Gugu, a gynecologist who delivered hundreds of babies during Mao Zedong’s reign, finds herself performing illegal abortions after the policy takes effect in the late seventies. Yan also depicts the sexism of the policy -- his characters work hard to have sons and not daughters. (Thom)   Watch Me Go by Mark Wisniewski: Wisniewski’s third novel channels the best of his profluent short fiction (Best American Short Stories, Virginia Quarterly Review). Watch Me Go speeds by with clipped chapters that follow Douglas “Deesh” Sharp, who helps haul the wrong junk: an oil drum that holds a corpse. Sharp does it for the money, and that bad decision haunts him until the final page of the novel. Wisniewski’s tale unfolds in the shadow of the Finger Lakes, New York racetracks, where, one character warns “in the long run, gamblers always lose.” Watch Me Go feels particularly apt to our national present, when police procedure is under constant scrutiny. Deesh is a victim of the system, and his redemption will only happen by fire. Wisniewski’s prose burns forward, but he knows when to slow the pace and make the reader feel Deesh’s injustice. (Nick R.) Hall of Small Mammals: Stories by Thomas Pierce: Pierce’s stories are reminiscent of the work of Laura van den Berg: his fiction exists in a space that’s just slightly offset from reality, not quite surrealism but not quite realism either. A woman admits to her boyfriend that she’s married to another man, but only in her dreams; in dreams she and her husband live out an ordinary domestic life. A man who works for a sinister television show that clones extinct animals delivers a miniature woolly mammoth to his mother. Pierce’s stories are beautifully written and suffused with mystery. (Emily) A Bad Character by Deepti Kapoor: “Delhi is no place for a woman in the dark,” Kapoor writes, “unless she has a man and a car or a car and a gun.” Idha, the narrator of Kapoor’s debut novel, is young, middle-class, and bored. Her car allows a measure of freedom, but not enough, and when she meets a somewhat unsuitable older man, the temptation to capsize her life with an affair is irresistible. Both a coming-of-age story and a portrait of New Delhi. (Emily)     Bonita Avenue by Peter Buwalda: Buwalda’s first novel, translated from the Dutch, traces the dissolution of the outwardly solid Sigerius clan, updating the family saga by way of technical intricacy, narrative brio, and internet porn. In the Netherlands, the book was a bestseller, nominated for a dozen prizes. The English translation has drawn comparisons to Jonathan Franzen and the manic heyday of a young Philip Roth. (Garth) February: Lucky Alan: And Other Stories by Jonathan Lethem: Jonathan Lethem has made a career of capturing transition—whether it’s Brooklyn’s gentrification or his masterful blend of genre and literary fiction. He works with similar themes in his third short story collection, but this time, it’s people—not places—that are in limbo. From forgotten comic book characters stuck on a desert island to a father having his midlife crisis at SeaWorld, the nine stories in this collection explore everything from the quotidian to the absurd, all with Lethem’s signature humor, nuance, and pathos. (Tess) Find Me by Laura van den Berg: In most post-apocalyptic fiction, the end of the world is devastating, but what if it were a chance for renewal and redemption? Laura van den Berg is the perfect writer to answer this question as she has proven herself a master of scrutinizing fresh starts in her short story collections, What The World Will Look Like When All The Water Leaves Us and The Isle of Youth. In her first novel, a lost young woman named Joy is immune to an Alzheimer’s-like plague sweeping the country. With society’s rules broken down, Joy travels across America in search of the mother who abandoned her, making new friends and a new world along the way. (Tess) Satin Island by Tom McCarthy: McCarthy’s fourth novel introduces us to a “corporate anthropologist” struggling to wrest an overarching account of contemporary existence from a miasma of distraction and dream. Perhaps he’s a stand-in for your average internet user. Or novelist. At any rate, expect ideas and delight in equal measure (assuming there’s a distinction); McCarthy’s reputation as a “standard bearer of the avant-garde” underrates how thoroughly he’s mastered the novelistic conventions he’s concerned to interrogate - and how fun he is to read. (Garth) Get in Trouble by Kelly Link: Link’s last story collection for adults, Magic for Beginners, was something like the Jesus’ Son of Magical Realism. Its publication nearly a decade ago won the author a passionate cult; since then, mostly through word-of-mouth, its excellence has become a matter of broader consensus. Get in Trouble, her fourth collection, offers a vivid reminder of why. Beneath the attention-getting levity of Link’s conceits - ghosts, superheroes, “evil twins” - lies a patient, Munrovian attunement to the complexities of human nature. (Garth) The Strange Case of Rachel K by Rachel Kushner: Before she published her two richly accomplished novels, Telex From Cuba and The Flamethrowers, Rachel Kushner wrote three short works of fiction that are collected in The Strange Case of Rachel K. In “The Great Exception,” a queen pines for an explorer as he makes his way to “Kuba.” In “Debouchement,” a faith healer’s illegal radio broadcasts give hope to an oppressed island populace. And in the title story, a French-style zazou dancer in pre-revolutionary Cuba negotiates the murky Havana night. The stories read like warm-up sketches for Telex From Cuba, and they’ll be of interest to Kushner’s ardent fans and future scholars. Others will be left hungering for something new from this outlandishly gifted writer. (Bill) Discontent and its Civilizations: Dispatches from Lahore, New York, and London by Mohsin Hamid: Hamid's latest is a collection of pieces that he wrote for various publications between 2000—the year his first novel, Moth Smoke, was published—and 2014. Hamid has lived in Pakistan, New York City, and London, and in works ranging from extended essays to brief op-eds, he brings personal insight and thoughtful analysis to issues ranging from the war on terror to the future of Pakistan to the costs and the promise of globalization. (Emily)   Trigger Warning: Short Fictions and Disturbances by Neil Gaiman Neil Gaiman is known for finding the fantastical in the everyday and the cracks in reality. So it should be no surprise that his third short story collection defies genre categorization, delving into fairy tales, horror, fantasy, poetry, and science fiction. Yet not all of it is unfamiliar: “Adventure Story” shares themes with his last novel The Ocean at the End of the Lane, and “Black Dog” brings him back to the American Gods world. (Tess)   Suspended Sentences by Patrick Modiano: Patrick Modiano, winner of the 2014 Nobel Prize in Literature, will get a belated introduction to many American readers through Suspended Sentences.  Originally published between 1988 and 1993, these three atmospheric novellas share Modiano’s recurring theme: an attempt to understand the secret histories of the Nazi Occupation of his native Paris.  “Afterimage” is the shadow tale of a young writer cataloging the work of a haunted photographer.  The title piece is a child’s-eye view of the gang of circus performers and crooks who raise him.  In “Flowers of Ruin,” a double suicide triggers an investigation into gangsters and collaborators during the Occupation.  It’s a delectably broad sampling from a writer with a doggedly narrow scope.  American readers should rejoice. Update: The release date was moved up following the Nobel win and the book has already been published! (Bill) The Infernal by Mark Doten: After ten years of near-silence, we’re now in the full roar of fiction about the Iraq War. The most notable efforts to date have taken a realist slant, but Mark Doten’s first novel marks a sharp swerve into Coover territory: its key figure channels the voices of Condoleezza Rice, Paul Bremer, and Osama bin Laden. Early readers have reached for adjectives like “deranged,” “crazy,” and “insane,” in addition to the more usual “thrilling” and “dazzling.” (Garth)   There's Something I Want You to Do by Charles Baxter: We don’t often want authors to moralize, but Charles Baxter is a fictional minister we have been devout to throughout more than a dozen works of fiction, poetry, and nonfiction. Virtue and vice are inextricably related in his latest short stories. The collection features ten stories, five about virtue and five about vice, with the same characters participating in both and all motivated by the book’s titular request. What Baxter wants us to do is note human frailty, ambiguity, and its shameful depths. As fellow master of the form Lorrie Moore notes, “Baxter’s stories proceed with steady grace, nimble humor, quiet authority, and thrilling ingeniousness.” (Tess) The Last Good Paradise by Tatjana Soli: The author of The Lotus Eaters (winner of the James Tait Black Memorial Prize) and The Forgetting Tree returns with a novel about a ragtag group of modern people attempting to escape their troubles on a remote Pacific island. Come for the scenery, the picaresque cast, and the comic reflections on the vagaries of contemporary life; stay for, as Kirkus puts it, Soli's "idiosyncratic prose style." (Lydia)   My Documents by Alejandro Zambra: “Camilo” was both the first thing I’d read by this young Chilean writer and one of the two or three best stories to run in The New Yorker last year. It appears alongside 10 other pieces in this collection, Zambra’s first book with McSweeney’s. (Garth)     I Am Radar by Reif Larsen: Reif Larsen’s follow-up to the bestselling The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet takes off from a premise halfway between Steve Martin and Judy Budnitz: “In 1975, a black child named Radar Radmanovic is mysteriously born to white parents.” But the ensuing 650 pages venture into realms of Pynchonian complexity and Irving-esque sweep. Erudite and voracious, skylarking and harrowing, they follow Radar around the world and into entanglements with some of the worst atrocities of the 20th Century. (Garth)   The Half Brother by Holly LeCraw: When Harvard graduate Charlie Garrett starts teaching at Abbott, an Episcopal boarding school in Massachusetts, the chair of the English department tells the young teacher that his students “all still believe in truth.” LeCraw’s gorgeous sentences dramatize a campus where literature stirs young hearts and minds. Charlie falls for a student, May Bankhead, daughter of the campus chaplain, and makes his feelings known when she returns home from college. Love turns to lust, and later to jealousy, when Charlie’s half brother, attractive Nick Garrett, arrives at Abbott to teach. Nick catches May, who has returned to teach at the school. “I need to be here,” she tells Charlie. LeCraw never eases the emotional tension. The novel begins with an epigraph from gifted teacher-writer Andre Dubus, who says he “learned to walk into a classroom wondering what I would say” rather than planning. The Half Brother captures his spirit, and the result is one of the finest school-set novels in recent memory. (Nick R.) The Country of Ice Cream Star by Sandra Newman: Newman’s third novel is set in a world of children. Eighty years ago, a deadly pandemic swept across North America, and now every child is born with the disease; they begin showing symptoms around the age of eighteen or nineteen, and die soon after. When fifteen-year-old Ice Cream Star’s beloved older brother falls ill, she sets out after rumors of a cure. It’s a compelling story, but the most fascinating thing about Newman’s book is the language: the novel is written in the kind of beautifully warped English that one might expect to develop over eighty years without adults, and the prose often approaches a kind of wild poetry: “We flee like a dragonfly over water, we fight like ten guns, and we be bell to see.” (Emily) All the Wrong Places: A Life Lost and Found by Philip Connors: After the suicide of his brother Connors finds himself in, as the title of his second memoir promises, many incongruous and wrong places, ranging from a hot-air balloon floating over New Mexico to a desk at the Wall Street Journal. A kind of prelude to his debut memoir, Fire Season, All The Wrong Places helps to explain why spending a decade in mountain solitude was so attractive to Connors. It’s also a look at the wandering years that often follow early loss, and has already drawn comparisons toCheryl Strayed’s seemingly infinitely-popular Wild. (Kaulie) Bon Appétempt: A Coming of Age Story (With Recipes!) by Amelia Morris : As anyone who has ever creamed butter and sugar together in a mixing bowl knows, the precision of baking can also bring order to your life. With a few failed careers and a dysfunctional family, Amelia Morris needed to learn this lesson, too. From her blog of the same name to this memoir, she chronicles her transformation into an adult and cook, complete with a good dose of humor and recipes. (Tess) March: The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro: It’s been ten years since Never Let Me Go, so for Ishiguro fans, his new novel has been long-anticipated. His British publisher, Faber & Faber, offered up a somewhat oblique teaser early last year: it’s a book about “lost memories, love, revenge and war”; the website, which is currently just a (kind of intense) book trailer, doesn’t help much either—but then, if Never Let Me Go is any indicator, perhaps we’d all be better off without a lot of spoilery summaries in advance. (Tess) Ember Days by Nick Ripatrazone: Nick's lovely meditations on teaching, writing, reading, and faith have come fast and furious on The Millions since he joined the site as a staff writer at the tail end of 2013. Nick is prolific--he's the author of two novellas, two poetry collections, a book of criticism, and a short story collection, which he somehow managed to write while teaching public school in New Jersey and parenting twins. His newest collection of short stories will be published by Braddock Avenue Books; you can read the eponymous story, a haunting number about atomic power and retribution, the title of which is taken from the Christian liturgical calendar, at Story South. (Lydia) The Tusk That Did the Damage by Tania James: Tania James’s debut novel Atlas of Unknowns and follow-up story collection Aerogrammes were both published to critical acclaim. This second novel may be her true coming out. Says Karen Russell: “The Tusk that Did the Damage is spectacular, a pinwheeling multi-perspectival novel with a cast that includes my favorite character of recent memory, ‘the Gravedigger,’ an orphaned homicidal elephant.” The elephant is not only a primary character, but one of three narrators, who also include a poacher and a young American filmmaker. Ivory trading, poaching, an escaped elephant, a risky love affair, all set in rural South India and “blend[ing] the mythical and the political"—this novel seems to have it all. (Sonya) Ashes in My Mouth, Sand in My Shoes and I Refuse by Per Petterson: Since Out Stealing Horses brought him international acclaim in 2007, many more of Norwegian novelist Per Petterson’s books have been translated into English, although not quite in the order he wrote them. Ashes in My Mouth, Sand in My Shoes, a collection of linked stories, was his first, published in Norway in 1987, and introduces young Arvid Jansen — a character he revisits in In the Wake and I Curse the River of Time — growing up in the outskirts of Oslo in the early 60s. I Refuse, meanwhile, is Petterson's latest novel, published in Norway in 2012. It tells the story of Jim and Tommy, whose friendship was forged in their youth when Tommy stood up to his abusive father and needed Jim’s support. When they meet by chance 35 years later, they recall those painful events, as well as a night on a frozen lake that separated them until now. (Janet) B & Me: A True Story of Literary Arousal by J.C. Hallman: Nicholson Baker's characteristically idiosyncratic biography of John Updike, U and I, has become a literary classic. Now J.C. Hallman, himself a gifted practitioner of eclectic non-fiction with books on topics ranging from chess to Utopia, turns the lens on Baker. Publisher Simon & Schuster calls it "literary self-archaeology" and offers up comparisons to Geoff Dyer’s Out of Sheer Rage and Elif Batuman’s The Possessed, two books that have helped carve out a new genre of memoir that arrives refracted through the lens of the writers' literary obsessions. (Max) The Dream of My Return by Horacio Castellanos Moya: Castellanos Moya’s short novels are hallucinatory, mordant, and addictive - like Bernhard transplanted to warmer climes. And his translator, Katherine Silver, is admirably attuned to the twists and turns of his sentences. We’ve offered enthusiastic readings of Senselessness and The She-Devil in the Mirror. Here Castellanos Moya flirts again with autobiographical material, tracing the crack-up of “an exiled journalist in Mexico City [who] dreams of returning home to El Salvador.” (Garth) So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson: There’s a robust online conversation right now about public shaming: when someone says or does something offensive on the internet, does the collective outcry — a digital torch-wielding mob — go too far? Ronson’s previous books include The Psychopath Test and The Men Who Stare at Goats, and he’s a frequent contributor to This American Life and BBC Radio 4. In his newest book, billed as “a modern-day Scarlet Letter,” he examines the culture that’s grown up around public shaming, talking with people like Jonah Lehrer, who shook the publishing world with several rounds of plagiarism revelations, and Justine Sacco, who tweeted an offensive “joke” before boarding a transatlantic flight — and had what felt like the entire internet demanding that she be fired before her plane touched down. (Elizabeth) Young Skins by Colin Barrett: Ireland right now is ridiculously fertile ground for writers, though I guess that’s been said so often in the last century as to border on cliché. Still: Anne Enright, Paul Murray, Eimear McBride, Kevin Barry, Keith Ridgway…and 32-year-old Colin Barrett is, as they say, the coming man. This collection, winner of the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award and the Guardian First Book Award, wastes no motion in its unsparing look at youth and masculinity in the small towns of the west. (Garth)   Decoy by Allan Gurganus: In 2013, 12 years after the appearance of his last full-length book, Allan Gurganus published Local Souls, a collection of three novellas. One of these, Decoy, which Dwight Garner called "the keeper" of the bunch, is indeed being kept, appearing as a separate publication this spring. Set in the fictional North Carolina town that has housed much of Gurganus's previous work--including his beloved debut Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All--Decoy deals in small-town social relations and obscure homoerotic longings. Gurganus, known as a writer's writer (he taught Donald Antrim's first writing class), is reportedly at work on another massive full-length novel, “The Erotic History of a Southern Baptist Church.” (Lydia) Crow Fair by Thomas McGuane: A new release by gifted prose stylist McGuane should be cause for celebration by sentence lovers. McGuane long ago moved from the sardonic prose of his earlier novels (The Sporting Club) to lyric representations of the American West (The Cadence of Grass). In his own words: “As you get older, you should get impatient with showing off in literature. It is easier to settle for blazing light than to find a language for the real. Whether you are a writer or a bird-dog trainer, life should winnow the superfluous language. The real thing should become plain. You should go straight to what you know best.” The seventeen stories of Crow Fair model that sentiment. Start with the patient words of “A Prairie Girl,” but stay for the rest. (Nick R.) The Last Word by Hanif Kureishi: British man of letters Hanif Kureishi, OBE, has been, variously, a novelist, playwright, filmmaker, writer of pornography, victim of financial fraud, and sometimes reluctant professor of creative writing. His newest novel takes on another man of letters, Mamoon Azam, a fictional lout rumored to be based on the non-fictional lout V.S. Naipaul. Echoing Patrick French's biography of Naipaul, Kureishi (who has assiduously avoided drawing comparisons between his novel and Naipaul) describes an imperious and irascible master of post-colonial fiction and his hapless biographer. (Lydia) The Unloved and Beautiful Mutants and Swallowing Geography: Two Early Novels by Deborah Levy: For those who loved the oneiric Swimming Home, 2015 will be a great year as three Deborah Levy books—one new novel and two earlier works—are due to come out. Her latest, The Unloved, starts out as a sexually charged, locked door mystery set in a French chateau, then expands into a far-ranging tale about sadism and historical atrocities. Beautiful Mutants, her strange first novel about a Russian exile who is either a gifted seer or a talented fake, and Swallowing Geography, a European road novel with nods to Kerouac, are being reissued in June. (Matt) Aquarium by David Vann: Vann, whose work we have examined previously at The Millions, returns with a new novel in March. Library Journal offers high praise: "Since electrifying the literary world five years ago with his debut novel, Legend of a Suicide, Vann has racked up an astonishing number of international awards. This lovely, wrenching novel should add to that list." (Thom)     The Harder They Come by T.C. Boyle: When precisely, one wonders, does T.C. Boyle sleep? In the 35 years since his first book came out, Boyle has published 14 novels and more than 100 stories. The Harder They Come is the usual T.C. Boyle clown car of violent misfits, anti-authoritarian loons, and passionate losers set loose in a circus of serious-minded zaniness. After being declared a hero for stopping a hijacking, an ex-Marine returns home to Northern California to find that his mentally disturbed son has taken up with a hardcore member of a right-wing sect that refuses to recognize the authority of the state. (Michael) Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids, edited by Meghan Daum: Well, the title speaks for itself.  “Controversial and provocative,” no doubt.  This is the book I wanted to edit myself, so now I’m looking forward to reading it.  Sixteen authors offer their reflections on this topic, including Lionel Shriver, Sigrid Nunez, Kate Christensen, Elliott Holt, Geoff Dyer, and Tim Kreider.  Daum published her own story of not being a parent—but rather a mentor of teenagers—at The New Yorker back in September.  The anthology’s title is likely both tongue-in-cheek and uncomfortably accurate; its cleverness, to my mind, is in the fact that the subtitle might easily omit the “not.” (Sonya) The Animals by Christian Kiefer: Christian Kiefer leaves behind the suburban cul-de-sacs of his first novel, The Infinite Tides, and takes us to rural Idaho for his follow-up, The Animals.  Bill Reed is trying to move beyond his criminal past by managing a wildlife sanctuary for injured animals – raptors, a wolf, a bear.  He plans to marry the local veterinarian and live a quiet life – until a childhood friend is released from prison and comes calling.  Aimed at fans of Denis Johnson and Peter Matthiessen, this literary thriller is a story of friendship, grief, and the desire to live a blameless life. (Bill) Delicious Foods by James Hannaham: I learned of James Hannaham’s sophomore novel back in 2013, at which point I mentioned to him how excited I was—about the title in particular: “You wrote a book called DELICIOUS FOODS?!”   “The title is slightly misleading,” he replied.  His publisher gives us this: “[A]n incisive look at race relations in America and an unflinching portrait of the pathos and absurdity of addiction.”  Delicious or not, the story of Eddie and his mother Darlene promises to be both “blistering” and “inventive”—not to mention timely. (Sonya) The World Before Us by Aislinn Hunter: In Hunter’s eerily compelling new novel, an archivist at a small London museum embarks on a final project before the museum’s impending closure: she is searching for information related to a woman who disappeared over a century ago from a Victorian asylum. The project holds some personal interest: when the archivist was fifteen years old, a little girl whom she was babysitting vanished in the woods near the asylum, and the archivist has begun to suspect that the two events were connected. (Emily)   The Sellout by Paul Beatty: Back in the ‘90s, The White-Boy Shuffle, Beatty’s first novel (after several poetry collections) was one of the bibles of my adolescence - furiously funny and ineffably sad. Two subsequent novels confirmed him as a scorching satirist in the vein of his contemporaries Sam Lipsyte and Gary Shteyngart. His latest outing features, in a supporting role, “the last surviving Little Rascal, Hominy Jenkins” - but its deeper concerns couldn’t be more timely: the precipitating incident is the death of the hero’s father in a police shootout, and the ultimate destination is the Supreme Court. (Garth) The Last Flight of Poxl West by Daniel Torday: Torday's novella, The Sensualist, won the 2012 Jewish Book Award for debut fiction. In his first novel, The Last Flight of Poxl West, the titular character is a war hero and something of an idol to his teenage nephew, Eli Goldstein. Kirkus gave the novel a starred review, remarking, "While Torday is more likely to be compared to Philip Roth or Michael Chabon than Gillian Flynn, his debut novel has two big things in common with Gone Girl--it's a story told in two voices, and it's almost impossible to discuss without revealing spoilers. A richly layered, beautifully told and somehow lovable story about war, revenge and loss." Rivka Galchen calls it both "brilliant" and "hilarious" and George Saunders says, "Torday is a prodigiously talented writer, with a huge heart." I myself had the great pleasure of reading an advanced copy and I loved it. The final scene...what an ending! I still think about it. (Edan) Her 37th Year: An Index by Suzanne Scanlon: Delivered in a series of pithy and emphatic observations, thoughts, and quotations, Suzanne Scanlon’s Her 37th Year: An Index examines love and desire and disappointment and writers and influence and ideas and passion and affairs and depression and writing and friendship and mothering and being a woman and aging. The potential excess of all this is balanced by its lean form, with each entry a vignette, quote, or observation. As a “fictional memoir”, Her 37th Year re-imagines form and redefines boundaries in a way similar to how Jenny Offil’s Dept. of Speculation revitalized the novel: the sum of its parts is flooring. (Anne) April: God Help the Child by Toni Morrison: Morrison was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature more than two decades ago; her newest novel will be her sixth in that span of time, following 2012’s Home. A new Morrison novel, according to Slate, is “news that amounts to at least an 8 on the literary Richter scale.” It is, according to Knopf, “about the way childhood trauma shapes and misshapes the life of the adult,” and though it’s just 192 pages long, it promises to be more powerful than many books twice its length. (Elizabeth)   My Struggle: Book 4 by Karl Ove Knausgaard: There's still time to jump on the Knausgaard bandwagon! English-speaking fans of Books 1-3 have been waiting almost a year for this translation, the fourth in a six-volume autobiographical novel by Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard -- or just plain "Karl Ove" to those of us who have been following his confessional outpourings. Dwight Garner likened reading Knausgaard to "falling into a malarial fever", and James Wood remarked that "even when I was bored, I was interested." Book 4 covers Knausgaard's late adolesence as he struggles to support his writing by teaching, falls in love with a 13-year-old student, and boozily greets the long arctic nights. (Hannah) Early Warning by Jane Smiley: This is the second installment in Smiley’s Last Hundred Years Trilogy, which follows a single Iowa farming family and its descendants through the American Century, from 1920 to 2020. The first book, Some Luck, which Smiley discussed in a wide-ranging Millions interview last fall, covers the Depression years and World War II. The new book starts in the depths of the Cold War and takes readers through Vietnam and into the Reagan era. The final volume, as yet untitled, is due out this fall. (Michael) A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson: Kate Atkinson’s 2013 novel Life After Life followed Ursula Todd as she lived and re-lived her life in mid-century Britain. In this companion to the novel, we get the story of Ursula’s beloved younger brother Teddy, an aspiring poet and celebrated RAF pilot, who leaves a war he didn’t expect to survive to become a husband, father, and grandfather in an ever-changing world. (Janet) Voices in the Night by Steven Millhauser: A friend of mine keeps Steven Millhauser’s collection We Others by her bedside; she speaks of it, and Millhauser, like it’s 1963 and he’s a dark-eyed mop-top. Indeed, Millhauser inspires cult following: his stories do the impossible, getting way under your skin via immaculately simple prose and deceptively placid storylines. Voices in the Night collects 16 stories — "culled from religion and fables. . . Heightened by magic, the divine, and the uncanny, shot through with sly humor" - that promise to once again unsettle us with their strangeness and stun us with their beauty. (Sonya) Gutshot by Amelia Gray: Gray’s stories come at you like fists wrapped in sirloin to pack a punch—they’re wonderfully idiosyncratic, visceral, and grotesque, with humor added for heft. Stories in her collection Museum of the Weird feature high-end cannibalism (eating monk’s tongues), a serial killer nicknamed “God” who cuts chests open and removes a rib, and a plate of hair served with soup. With the arrival of her next collection, Gutshot, Gray’s stories threaten to knock you out. (Anne)   Academy Street by Mary Costello: Bravo to Mary Costello, a "Bloomer" whose first story collection The China Factory I wrote about here back in 2012.  Her debut novel Academy Street—the story of Tess Lohan, who emigrates from 1940s western Ireland to New York City—is drawing comparisons to Colm Tóibín’s Brooklyn and John Williams’s Stoner.  Academy Street has already been published in Europe and received the Eason Novel of the Year Irish Book Award. (Sonya)   The Dead Lands by Benjamin Percy: Percy rides the increasingly porous border between literary and genre fiction in this post-apocalyptic thriller that re-imagines the Lewis and Clark expedition in an America brought low by a super flu and nuclear fallout. When word comes to Sanctuary – the remains of St. Louis – that life is better out West, Lewis Meriwether and Mina Clark set out in secrecy, hoping to expand their infant nation and reunite the States. Should be a snap, right? (Michael)   The Children’s Crusade by Ann Packer: The author of The Dive from Clausen’s Pier again displays her gift for delving into complicated families and the women who aren’t sure they want to be part of them. Narrated in turns by each of the four Blair children, The Children’s Crusade follows the twists and turns of the family’s fortunes from the day in 1954 when their father, Bill, impulsively buys a plot of wooded land south of San Francisco, through to the modern day. “Imagine, if you will, that Jonathan Franzen's excellent novel, The Corrections, had likeable characters,” says one early reader on GoodReads. (Michael) May: The Making of Zombie Wars by Aleksandr Hemon: His first full-length novel in seven years (since 2008’s The Lazarus Project), The Making of Zombie Wars is the story of Josh Levin, an ESL teacher in Chicago with a laptop full of hundreds of screenplay ideas, Zombie Wars chief among them. As Josh’s life goes from bad to worse to absurd — moving in with his girlfriend only to become entangled in the domestic disputes of her neighbors — he continues to work on the zombie movie that might get him away from it all. (Janet)   Mislaid by Nell Zink: Zink’s first novel The Wallcreeper, published by the Dorothy Project, a feminist small press, made a big splash last year. Its backstory provided the hook: a fifty-year-old expat writes a novel on a dare from her pen pal Jonathan Franzen. But Zink’s sui generis sensibility was the main event: taut, acerbic, and free. She moves to a major press for her second book, a decade-hopping Southern family novel that tackles race, sexuality, and the wilderness of youth. (Garth) The Familiar, Volume 1: One Rainy Day in May by Mark Z. Danielewski: On the jacket of David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks is a blurb from Publishers Weekly: Is this “the most ambitious novel ever written or just the most Mitchell-esque?” One might ask the same question, mutatis mutandis, about Mark Danielewski’s The Familiar. Danielewski combines Mitchell’s fondness for formal innovation and genre tropes with an appealing indifference to questions of taste. At its best, this gives you House of Leaves, at its worst, Only Revolutions. One Rainy Day in May introduces us to “nine lives,” principally that of a 12-year-old girl who rescues “a creature as fragile as it is dangerous” - some kind of totemic/architectonic cat? Anyway, Volume 1 is 880 pages long. Word is, 26 more volumes are on the way, so this one had better be good. (Garth) The Green Road by Anne Enright: Spanning three decades and three continents, this new book by Anne Enright centers on Rosaleen, the head of the Madigan family. Beginning in County Clare, the book follows the four Madigan children -- Dan, Hanna, Emmet and Constance -- as they set off on their own lives, travelling as far away as Mali to explore their adult selves. On Christmas Day, they all come home, and the issues of their family come back to them. In many ways, it’s a premise similar to that of Enright’s Booker-winning The Gathering. (Thom) A Hand Reached Down to Guide Me by David Gates: In a year rich with surrealist romps and boundary-blurring semi-memoirs, David Gates returns with a welcome injection of “the present palpable intimate” in the form of eleven stories and a novella. Gates is a natural and capacious realist, at once ironic and warm, in a way that makes the ordinary ambit of experience, from marriage to parenthood to getting old, seem as trippy as it really is. (Garth)   Loving Day by Mat Johnson: Johnson’s Pym, an entertaining riff on race and Edgar Allan Poe’s only novel, took us all the way to Antarctica. Loving Day (the title refers to a holiday celebrating interracial love) is set in a less remote locale, a black neighborhood in Philadelphia, but promises to be no less hallucinatory than its predecessor. A mixed race man returns from Wales, where both his marriage and his comic shop have failed, to inhabit a ghost-haunted mansion left to him by his father. He soon discovers the existence of a daughter, and the pair is drawn into a “utopian mixed-raced cult.” (Matt) The Book of Aron by Jim Shepard: While Jim Shepard was a student at Brown, John Hawkes told him “You know, you’re not really a novelist, you’re really a short story writer.” Thankfully, good writers can be terribly wrong. Shepard’s long fiction is as fantastic as his classic stories. Shepard has always been a writer who exists outside of himself on the page, and this Holocaust-set novel is no different. The story focuses on Aron, a boy from the Warsaw Ghetto, who joins other children in smuggling goods to those “quarantined.” The novel also illuminates the life of Janusz Korczak, the real-life protector of Jewish children in ghetto orphanages (he once said "You do not leave a sick child in the night, and you do not leave children at a time like this."). Serious material requires sensitive hands, and Shepard’s care creates beauty. (Nick R.) Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf: Kent Haruf, who died last year at 71, will be best remembered for his 1999 novel Plainsong, a finalist for the National Book Award. It was set in the fictional eastern Colorado town of Holt, which Haruf (rhymes with sheriff) returns to yet again for his last novel, Our Souls at Night, finished shortly before his death. It’s the story of a widower named Louis Waters and a widow named Addie Moore who come together in Holt and begin sharing the aspirations, disappointments and compromises of their long lives. One critic likened Haruf’s prose to Pottery Barn furniture – with its “rustic lines,” “enduring style” and “aged patina.” His legion of fans wouldn’t have it any other way, and Our Souls at Night will not disappoint them. (Bill) City by City: Dispatches from the American Metropolis edited by Keith Gessen and Stephen Squibb: Drawn from an n+1 series of the same name, City by City offers an insider’s glance into the state of America’s urban spaces. The mix of personal and historical essays explore issues such as crime, gentrification, and culture in cities as varied and far-reaching as Miami, Florida and Gold Rush, Alaska. Described as “a cross between Hunter S. Thompson, Studs Terkel, and the Great Depression–era WPA guides to each state in the Union,” City by City provides a collective portrait of the American city during the Great Recession. (Anne) The Ghost Network by Catie Disabato: Disabato, who has written for The Millions, debuts with a high-concept mystery that looks to be a lot of fun. Pop stars aren’t known for avoiding the limelight, which is why the disappearance of a Lady Gaga-like singer inspires two women to track her down. Racing around Chicago in search of clues, they find themselves decoding arcane documents and ancient maps rather than liner notes as the disappearance turns out to involve a secret society. (Matt)   Odd Woman in the City by Vivian Gornick: For a sneak preview of Gornick's witty and unsparing observations of city life, please read Gornick's "Letter from Greenwich Village" in The Paris Review  (it's also collected in The Best American Essays 2014). A master memoirist, Gornick's latest is an ode to New York City's street life, old friends, and the fascinating joy of "living out conflicts, rather than fantasies." (Hannah)   The Edge Becomes The Center by DW Gibson: Following up his critically-acclaimed oral history of the recession, Not Working (the title is a play on Studs Terkel's classic oral history, Working), Gibson's latest oral history portrays gentrifying New York City from all sides. Gibson interviews brokers, buyers, sellers, renters, landlords, artists, contractors, politicians and everyone in between to show how urban change feels to those living through it. (Hannah) June: Black Glass: Short Fictions by Karen Joy Fowler: Fowler’s 2014 novel, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, won the PEN/Faulkner award and landed her on the Booker shortlist, one of two American finalists for the now American-friendly prize. This year will see her 1998 short story collection, Black Glass, re-released in hardcover. The stories — with influences and references from Carry Nation to Gulliver’s Travels to Albert Einstein to Tonto and the Lone Ranger — have been described as “occasionally puzzling but never dull,” and “ferociously imaginative and provocative.” (Elizabeth) Saint Mazie by Jami Attenberg: Saint Mazie is Attenberg’s much anticipated follow-up to her bestselling novel The Middlesteins, which was also a finalist for the LA Times book prize. Inspired by the life of a woman profiled in Joseph Mitchell's Up in the Old Hotel, Saint Mazie follows Mazie Phillips, “the truth-telling proprietress of The Venice, the famed New York City movie theater,” through the Jazz Age and the Depression; her diaries, decades later, inspire a contemporary documentarian to find out who this intriguing woman really was. Therese Ann Fowler, author of Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald, calls the book “both a love song and a gut punch at once,” and Maggie Shipstead says it’s a “raw, boisterous, generous novel.” (Edan) The Book of Numbers by Joshua Cohen: Cohen, 34, is as prolific as he is ambitious. Five years after his mega-novel, Witz (and three years after a lauded story collection), he returns with a long book about a novelist ghost-writing the autobiography of one of Silicon Valley’s new Masters of the Universe. The set-up should give Cohen’s caustic sensibility a target-rich environment, while the scope leaves his fierce intelligence ample room to play. (Garth) The Festival of Insignificance by Milan Kundera: Fifteen years after the publication of his last novel, Kundera returns with a (very brief) story of four friends in Paris who talk self-importantly about “sex, history, art, politics, and the meaning of life” while simultaneously celebrating their own insignificance (Library Journal). While these themes may be familiar to fans of Kundera’s past work (of which there are many - The Unbearable Lightness of Being has been enduringly popular since its publication in the mid-1980s) it will be exciting to see fresh writing from a modern master. (Kaulie) Muse by Jonathan Galassi: Over his long literary career, Galassi has done everything except write a novel. Now the FSG publisher, Italian translator, critic and poet has checked that off his list with a story that satirizes the industry he knows so well and sounds like an updating of Henry James’ The Aspern Papers. In the novel, a publisher tries to wrestle a famous female poet away from a rival, eventually securing a meeting in her Venetian palazzo and learning a revelatory secret. (Matt)   The Diver's Clothes Lie Empty by Vendela Vida: Believer founding editor Vendela Vida’s trilogy of novels about “women in crisis” becomes a tetralogy with the debut of her latest, The Diver's Clothes Lie Empty. As in her previous novels, the story involves a woman traveling abroad (in this case, Casablanca, Morocco). When the woman is robbed of her wallet and passport, she experiences distress and also unexpected freedom. The novel dips into All About Eve territory in this part-thriller, part-novel-of-ideas when the woman finds work as a celebrity stand-in and then begins to assume this alternate identity as her own. (Anne) In the Country: Stories by Mia Alvar: Alvar is a frequent contributor to literary magazines—she’s been nominated twice for a Pushcart Prize—but this is her first short story collection. In the Country focuses on the Filipino diaspora, from Bahrain to Manila to New York. Alvar considers themes of alienation, displacement, the sometimes-troubling bonds of family, and the struggle to find a sense of home. (Emily) July: The Dying Grass by William T. Vollmann: The one living novelist who makes Joyce Carol Oates look like a slacker returns with the fifth volume of his “Seven Dreams” series, about the confrontations between native people and settlers in North America. This installment swings west to investigate the Nez Perce War of the late 19th Century, and is rumored to lean on dialogue to an unusual degree. The first of the Seven Dreams was published in 1990; at this rate, the series should conclude some time in 2027. (Garth)   A Cure for Suicide by Jesse Ball: Jesse Ball’s novels are playful and clever and often quite grim, although this is not a contradiction. As he said in an interview: “a life of grief can be joyful too.” In his fifth novel, A Cure for Suicide, this again seems to be evident. A man and woman move in together: she is his guide and doctor who teaches him about life, defining for him the nature of objects and interaction and ways of being. That is, until another woman arrives and upends all he’s learned, making him question. (Anne)   Confession of the Lioness by Mia Couto : Couto, a Mozambican who writes in Portuguese, has for years been considered one of Africa’s leading writers, fusing indigenous settings and traditions with influences from abroad. His first novel, Sleepwalking Land, was named one of the best African books of the 20th Century; his most recent, Tuner of Silences, was published by the terrific independent press Biblioasis, and was longlisted for the IMPAC Dublin award. In Confessions of the Lioness, a series of lion attacks in a remote village forces an eruption between men and women, modernity and tradition. It’s Couto’s first book to be published by FSG. (Garth) Music for Wartime by Rebecca Makkai: Fans of 2014’s The Hundred Year House don’t have to wait too long for more of Makkai’s clever and wonderfully imaginative work. Her third book and her first story collection, Music for Wartime offers a diverse array of stories, four of which are inspired by Makkai’s family history and her paternal grandparents’ involvement in 1930s Hungarian politics. (For more on this, check out this Harper’s Magazine interview with Makkai). Overall, the collection showcases the author’s talent for the short form--which has gotten her anthologized four (!) times in the Best American Short Stories series. (Edan) August: Flood of Fire by Amitav Ghosh: Following Sea of Poppies (shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize) and River of Smoke, Calcutta-born Amitav Ghosh brings his Ibis Trilogy to a rousing conclusion with Flood of Fire. It’s 1839, and after China embargoes the lucrative trade of opium grown on British plantations in India, the colonial government sends an expeditionary force from Bengal to Hong Kong to reinstate it. As the force arrives, war breaks out, and with it a blaze of naval engagements, embezzlement, profiteering and espionage. In bringing the first Opium War to crackling life, Ghosh has illuminated the folly of our own failed war on drugs. Historical fiction doesn’t get any timelier than this. (Bill) The State We're In: Maine Stories by Ann Beattie: A new collection of linked stories set in Maine from one of the short story masters. Call her the American Alice Munro, call her a New Yorker darling, call this the perfect summer read. (Hannah) The Marriage of Opposites by Alice Hoffman: In her 30 works of fiction, Alice Hoffman always finds the magical in the ordinary. Her narratives have roamed from ancient Israel (The Dovekeepers) to 20th-century New York City (The Museum of Extraordinary Things). Hoffman’s new novel, The Marriage of Opposites, transports us to the tropical island of St. Thomas in the early 1800s, where a girl named Rachel is growing up in the community of Jews who escaped the Inquisition. When her arranged marriage ends with her husband’s death, she begins an affair with her late husband’s dashing nephew. There is nothing ordinary about their son: his name is Camille Pissarro, and he will grow up to become an immortal father of Impressionism. (Bill) September: Purity by Jonathan Franzen: There are few American authors who can hit all the popular news outlets simply by releasing the title of their next novel (Purity), or launch a thousand hot takes with the publication of one grumpy book excerpt in The Guardian (an excerpt which, curiously, is no longer available at its previous URL as of this writing). Franzen haters were derisive at the news of his impending novel (Gawker's headline was "Jonathan Franzen to Excrete Book Called Purity"), described by its publisher as "a multigenerational American epic that spans decades and continents," with bonus "fabulist quality." But some people believe, privately, that Franzen is such a good novelist that his detractors must just be jealous. And for those people, the new book can't come quickly enough. (O Franzen! My Franzen!) (Lydia) October: City on Fire by Garth Risk Hallberg: We at The Millions look forward to reading fellow staff writer Garth Risk Hallberg’s debut novel. At over 900 pages, the novel takes place in 1977 New York and culminates in the city’s famed black-out. The Guardian reports, “The polished third-person narration conjures up a cast of characters living in a New York City divided by race and money – the reluctant heirs to a great fortune, two Long Island kids exploring downtown's nascent punk scene, a gay schoolteacher from rural Georgia, an obsessive magazine reporter, a revolutionary cell planning to set the Bronx ablaze, a trader with a hole on his balance sheet and a detective who is trying to piece together the mystery which connects them all to a shooting in Central Park.” In anticipation of the book's release, I suggest you dip into Garth's essays here at The Millions, perhaps starting with his 2010 piece on long novels, “Is Big Back?” (Edan) More from The Millions: 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.

The Truce Between Fabulism and Realism: On Gabriel Garcia Marquez and the Modern Novel

1. When Gabriel Garcia Marquez died in April, the general flow of eulogy settled on two interpretations of his legacy: in the first, as a titanic but essentially regional author (The Times obituary called One Hundred Years of Solitude “the defining saga of Latin America’s social and political history”); in the second, as a model for the diminishing novelties of subsequent magical realists, like Salman Rushdie and Isabel Allende. Fair enough. Garcia Marquez himself saw his style as fundamentally linked to the politics of his continent in his lifetime. (Correctly -- for example, nothing has ever better captured how important the theft of time must feel in a totalitarian state than the dictator who lives on and on for centuries in The Autumn of the Patriarch.) It’s also true that he gave license to a new kind of fabulism, unique in that it didn’t descend from Swift or Cervantes, and therefore didn’t depend on either satire or comedy to atone for the recklessness of its inventions. Those are narrow channels of influence, however, and there’s a third, untracked, more expansive reading of his work to make. It might go like this: he solved an essential problem of the novel; he arrived at a moment of crisis for the form and offered the warring parties a graceful way out of it; and if there’s a single novel that can claim paternity for the last 20 years of American fiction, it’s probably One Hundred Years of Solitude. 2. That book was published in America in 1972, and it was a sensation, critically and commercially, William Kennedy famously calling it, with un-Albanyish zeal, “the first piece of literature since the Book of Genesis that should be required reading for the entire human race.” (If you somehow haven’t heard of it, One Hundred Years of Solitude is the multi-generational chronicle of a Colombian family called the Buendias.) At the time, there was a battle afoot between two kinds of fiction. Writers like Jean Stafford and Michael Shaara, traditional realists, were winning the Pulitzer Prize, while the National Book Award, inclined toward a more radical approach, went to John Barth and William Gaddis, campus experimentalists grinding out the logical final steps of the project inaugurated by Borges, by Ulysses, Hopscotch, Albert Angelo. Each side loathed the other. Updike’s declaration about Thomas Pynchon -- “I don’t like the funny names” -- might as well stand in for the whole cultural apparatus that was committed to realism; on the other hand Barth’s foundational postmodernist essay “The Literature of Exhaustion” called realism “used up,” and Gaddis said that such writing “never takes your breath away...it’s for people who read with the surface of their minds, people with reading habits that make the smallest demands on them.” The great formal achievement of One Hundred Years of Solitude was that it treated the two positions not as antipodal but as dialectical. It satisfied the modernist commitment to narrative innovation in two ways, first in its compression and dilation of time -- what would become the hallmark of magical realism -- and second in its use of the fantastic, the twins who die at the same instant, the visitation of the ghosts, the glass city, Remedios being sublimated into heaven as she does the laundry. But Garcia Marquez made the ingenious decision to embed those moments of originality within the stubbornly enduring structure of the traditional realist novel, turning his book into a family saga by way of a dream -- Trollope by way of Barthelme. By doing so, he managed to defuse a central tension, one that had divided novelists since Hemingway and Joyce pitched their opposing camps. Of course, there were writers before Garcia Marquez who had blended the magical and the prosaic (Kafka, most famously) but none of them were perhaps as fully committed to narrative as Garcia Marquez seemed -- to story. Meanwhile, other writers across the world had the same impulse, many of them, interestingly, in totalitarian states, including Milan Kundera and Danilo Kis, but their books were being passed around in samizdat, not, as Garcia Marquez’s was, in suburban book clubs and city libraries. What makes One Hundred Years of Solitude a watershed moment of cultural history is that mix of plot, experimentation, acclaim, and popularity. That’s also why its influence has been so subtly pervasive. Many of our heaviest hitters -- Franzen, Wallace, Eisenberg, Tartt, Saunders, Chabon -- were born around 1960, and therefore came of age during the book’s ascendancy. Considered in that light, their debt to it seems plain, whether or not they would acknowledge it, whether or not they found the book stimulating, indeed whether or not they’ve even read it. The reason is that all of them play the same trick, filigreeing traditional realism with enough carefully selective post-modernism to claim its gloss of coolness -- but without the unfortunate consequence of making their work difficult to read. In The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay there’s the Golem of Prague; in The Art of Fielding there’s the self-consciously literary exhumation of the corpse; in The Corrections, there’s the magical device of Correctall, the pill that allows Chip Lambert to forget his anxiety and enter a state of dreamlike euphoria. (It’s a sign of our age how often American magical realism is pharmaceutical, after Franzen’s example -- the decision-making drug in Indecision by Benjamin Kunkel; the test subjects in George Saunders’s magnificent “Escape from Spiderhead.”) Fiction is an essentially conventional art form, most at home in the bourgeoisie, but its practitioners have -- quite rightly! -- never been at ease with that fact. The compromise at which we’ve arrived is that every book now has the credibility of the avant-garde within a Victorian structure. It’s more fun to claim the influence of John Hawkes than John Galsworthy; it’s more fun to read a book whose plot is patterned after Jane Austen than B.S. Johnson. 3. Unsurprisingly, the first American novelist to take the full implications of Garcia Marquez on board may have been our smartest one, Philip Roth. (It’s not a coincidence that he spent the 1970s publishing Eastern European novelists, and, as Roth Unbound described, sneaking money to them via illicit networks -- a fact that ought to shame the Nobel committee members who have claimed that American writers are unworthy of the prize because they’re too inward-looking, too insular.) His books The Counterlife and Operation Shylock were precursors of the great florescence of faux-mo novels in the 2000’s, using false flags and mirrored characters without their pace or urgency. The logical culmination of the trend is probably The Marriage Plot, which states the tension outright, dropping a college student who just wants to read 19th-century novels into the semiotics craze of the 1980s. At their weakest, these post-Garcia Marquez books have been kinetic without moving, emotional without evoking any real sensation, readable without deserving to be read. The novel of this type that comes to mind for me is Absurdistan by the sometimes terrific Gary Shteyngart, a disagreeable blend of absurdism and soft sentimentality. Michael Chabon, Jonathan Lethem, Junot Diaz, Jonathan Safran Foer, and Colson Whitehead can feel similarly limited by their very limitlessness -- their work at times too ironized for readers to treat its narrative seriously, but too committed to narrative to offer the sense of alienation, dread, and obliqueness we feel in, for example, Don DeLillo and William Gibson. The writer for whom cultural critics were so eager to give Garcia Marquez credit, Salman Rushdie, might be the least exciting of the bunch. The Pale King offers a glimpse of what David Foster Wallace’s pushback against his own trend might have looked like -- his reconnection with difficulty as a means of higher artistic consciousness. Recent Pulitzer Prize committees have waded into this fray again; books of high seriousness, eschewing the jokey gloss of the comic book generation, have won the prize, including three lovely but deeply conservative novels, Tinkers by Paul Harding, March by Geraldine Brooks, and Olive Kitteredge by Elizabeth Strout. How much does that matter? The painter Gerhard Richter has spent the last 50 years dissolving what previously seemed like a crucial distinction between figurative and abstract painting; is it possible that novelists, too, no longer need to declare a single allegiance? If so, the books that Garcia Marquez gave a generation permission to write, produced during the truce between fabulism and realism, may begin to look odd: artifacts of the historical moment they thought they were creating. One of the pieces of shallow wisdom people like to repeat is that every great book either creates or dissolves a genre, and sometimes it’s true. One Hundred Years of Solitude, though it hasn’t quite received credit for this, established the school of fiction we currently consider great. It’s up to some other genius to dissolve it.

Hemingway for Hotels: The Ritz-Carlton’s Flash Fiction Ads

It could almost be a writing workshop prompt: tell a story, do it in six words, go for the wow effect — and that’s exactly what the Ritz-Carlton wants. Recently, the hotel company launched a campaign inviting social media friends and followers to provide six-word stories about their Ritz-Carlton experiences with the hashtag #RCMemories. The company calls these stories “Six Word Wows,” and the campaign, if one were to believe the corporate website’s press release tagline, is “Paying Homage To Classic Ernest Hemingway Line.” “Which classic Hemingway line?” we might ask. “If people bring so much courage to this world the world has to kill them to break them, so of course it kills them”? No, Ritz-Carlton is referring to the probably apocryphal anecdote that when bet he couldn’t write a story in six words, Hemingway replied, “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”  Although the stripped-down prose of #RCMemories might be seen as loosely inspired by the Hemingway legend, the nonfiction specifications have more in common, perhaps, with SMITH Magazine’s Six-Word Memoirs®, which became so popular that they were released as a series of books in conjunction with Harper Perennial. Six-Word Memoirs® have included micro-narratives such as “Waves lapping. Pages turning. Perfect day,” “Be silly often, and invite friends,” and “I am my neighbor’s weird neighbor.” Someone cynical might note that Six-Word Memoirs®is a registered trademark. “Six word wows,” on the other hand, is all the Ritz-Carlton’s own.  To model the ideal #RCMemories, the company has released eight “Six Word Wows.” They’ve included: “Dinner ‘til dawn. Laughter. Years regained,” “First tooth. Fairy knocks. Girl delighted,” and “Sold out. Last seat. Dreams transpire.” These bytes suggest that accommodations are not just a bed and shelter but Tweetable—an enviable narrative arc in a storied life.  Not only that but Ritz-Carlton suggests that by providing a personal narrative gratis for the benefit of a company that netted $626 million in 2013 — after paying to stay at one of their properties, of course — is honoring literary genius.  The conflation of the artist-rebel and consumer is not an entirely new problem. In the mid-nineties, Thomas Frank described a new type of capitalist: One raised knowing that conformity, at least conformity embodied by 1950s suburban life, wasn’t cool. Rock ‘n roll was cool. Beat poetry — cool. Dionysian gratification, diversity, not affecting seriousness, and getting away from what seems like boring homogeneity — cool. The result? The Culture Trust: a corporate America that deploys the sensibilities of counterculture for profit. Its branding offers the reassuring image of nonconformity and heterodoxy that helps the Establishment materialism go down easy and is typified by the logic whereby a company makes Henry Rollins a spokesperson for his purported punk individualism. “The countercultural idea has become capitalist orthodoxy,” Frank wrote. “Advertising teaches us not in the ways of puritanical self-denial (a bizarre notion on the face of it), but in orgiastic, never-ending self-fulfillment. It counsels not rigid adherence to the tastes of the herd but vigilant and constantly updated individualism… We consume not to fit in, but to prove, on the surface at least, that we are rock ‘n roll rebels.” The ads tell us that buying stuff is spinning away from the buttoned up commuter home lifestyle and indulging our individual anarcho-hedonistist. Today, the very jargon of advertising gestures toward this ethos. Ad firms offer “creative solutions.” Their online efforts are focused on “social storytelling.” “Brand ambassadors” lead promotions. This vocabulary reframes advertising as artistic and creative, which on some level, it is. The problem is one of dishonesty by omission: Advertising has become more creative and progressive, but its primary object is still capital gain. The Six Word Wow campaign takes the Culture Trust and raises it a couple of copywriters’ salaries. Where once the Ritz-Carlton LLC was satisfied with its customers merely feeling their consumption to be rebellious, now it asks for user-generated content to supplement their $10-15 million-a-year worth of advertisements. In other words, it asks its customers to first pay for hotel rooms and then advertise them without any compensation. And it’s all done with a playful call to arms, not unlike the announcement for a flash fiction contest — except the prize is always won by the corporation, not the writer, or in more modern terms, the content provider. Of course, Ritz-Carlton is not alone in adopting a user-generated content strategy. Last year, when Belkin and Lego collaborated on an iPhone case, customers were invited to share phone selfies with the hashtag #legoxbelkin. Burberry’s Art of the Trench campaign asked for trench coat photos to be uploaded to a Tumblr. In Culture Trust 2.0, we’re all Don Draper, and we’re all susceptible to his slick salesmanship. Our complicity via ad content generation allows us to believe that our consumerism is a new, better consumerism; we aren’t bragging about the stuff we bought as much as sharing our stories with the online global community.  Some might protest that user-generated content campaigns are simply a new iteration of word-of-mouth recommendations. We’ve always asked our friends advice. We’ve preferred a reliable consumer report to a fast-talking sales guy. Indeed, according to a study conducted by Ipsos Media CT and the Social Media Advertising Consortium, Millennials trust user-generated content 50 percent more than advertisements, primarily because they find it more “authentic.” The question is: What happens when user-generated content and advertisements amount to essentially the same thing? Furthermore, what happens when the purportedly authentic UGC ad is sought by asking for stories inspired by an unverified story about a fiction writer’s classified ad-styled narrative? Perhaps, like Saatchi & Saatchi’s Team One, the brains behind the Six Word Wow campaign, the best place to turn for answers is fiction. Toward the beginning of Jonathan Franzen’s 2001 tome The Corrections, there’s a scene in which Chip Lambert, a young professor at an elite Connecticut college, shows his critical theory class a series of videos from an ad campaign. In the videos, an enviably brassy, chatty group of women working in an office discover that one of the gang, Chelsea, has a lump in her breast about which she’s too frightened to see a doctor. Her boss, a woman of compassionate technological savvy, has news for Chelsea: She can use the W—Corporation’s Global Desktop Version 5.0 to research cancer, join support groups, and find medical care. It’s all very emotional, not least of all because after Chelsea dies, women around the world look at images of dead Chelsea on their personal Global Desktops before the video cuts to a message urging viewers to “Help us Fight for the Cure” and explaining that W has given more than $10 million to the American Cancer Society. After the viewing, one student praises the bravery of the ad for allowing its protagonist to die, but Chip expects “someone to observe that it was precisely this self-consciously ‘revolutionary’ plot twist that had generated publicity for the ad.” The class does not take Chip’s bald baiting. Instead his favorite student says of the ad, “It’s celebrating women in the workplace… It’s raising money for cancer research. It’s encouraging us to do our self-examinations and get the help we need. It’s helping women feel like we own this technology.” And of course, in a sense, she’s right. The ad doesn’t serve only one purpose, and that one of those is to promote a brand does not negate the company’s charitable donation. Like many texts, the W—Corporation’s commercial is complicated, and the author’s aims may be manifold.  It is exactly this advertising “author” that Colson Whitehead zeroes in on in Apex Hides the Hurt, a novel in which the sixth most popular bandage manufacturer in America hires slick consultants to increase sales. On the advice of one consultant, the brand’s new strategy becomes selling bandages in a range of hues, unlike their competitors that offer only a single “flesh” tone. After all, as he says, “You manufacture this thing and call it flesh. It belongs to another race. I have different ideas about what flesh color is… We come in many colors. And we want to see ourselves when we look down at ourselves, our arms and legs.” The brand is renamed Apex and soon ads showing white, black, and Asian mothers sticking Apex bandages matched to white, black, and Asian children appear on television. Apex begins selling well. As the nomenclature consultant who conceives of the name Apex recalls later, “The packages spoke for themselves. The people chose themselves and in that way perhaps he had named a mirror… In the advertising, multicultural children skinned knees, revealing blood beneath, the commonality of wound, they were all brothers now, and multicultural bandages were affixed to red boo-boos. United in polychromatic harmony, in injury, with our individual differences respected, eventually all healed beneath Apex.”  Whitehead’s bouncy prose is flush with satire: The bandages do not create a society in which it’s understood that the similarities of the soul belie differences in skin color. Throughout the novel, Apex bandages will fail to heal a minor toe injury incurred by the brand-namer—who, notably, is nameless himself—yet he does, ostensibly, believe his own observation that the image of multiculturalism at work in the ads is beautiful. Apex may fail the very man who has marketed the product, but the product also does, to a degree, rectify a sin of homogeneity. What Whitehead captures is the way that advertisements act as limited utopian fictions, reflecting the fantasies of the target demographic. Seeing—and therefore being reminded of—the values signified in a commercial may not be such a bad thing when so often the real world fails to live up to these ideals. Even the authors of these ads are enchanted by their own fairy tales. Yet at a time when 89 percent of adults ages 18-29 use social networking sites, perhaps the most relevant example of advertising in fiction arrives via Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story. Set in the near future, the novel depicts a world in which its characters are never without their electronic devices, personal and financial information is (often humiliatingly) public, and men and women are Mediastuds and Mediawhores. Books are rare, but ads coyly branded as social media “hints” are not. When users log in to send messages, the Super Sad Facebook equivalent GlobalTeens posts these “hints,” such as “Switch to Images today! Less words = more fun!!!” and “Harvard Fashion School studies show excessive typing makes wrists large and unattractive. Be a GlobalTeen forever — switch to images today!” Language itself has been perverted so that its chief use is to keep the Mediastuds and Mediawhores of the world vapid consumers — proud of their electronic savvy and low on emotional savvy. Most insidiously, the desire to connect digitally is exactly what exposes GlobalTeens users to ads meant to silence them. Ultimately, however, it doesn’t. The characters of Super Sad True Love Story still air their frustrations through GlobalTeens messages and stream their love letters. The need to be heard cannot be quashed by the machinations of social media advertising. A writing workshop might carefully call them unsuccessful texts. Perhaps what draws Franzen, Whitehead, and Shteyngart to address advertising in their fiction is its kinship as a type of text. The difference, of course, is that ads can be consumed in seconds, and the author company is the text’s distributor. The text doesn’t need to be chosen by the reader. Yet in each novel, the limitations of authorial intent loom over advertising; advertisements are never purely exploitative vehicles toward consumerism. Copywriters may intend a particular effect, but it is the reader who interprets it. Filtered through the complexity of the human mind, the ads may generate a multiplicity of meaning, and we readers must ask for what advertorial texts we’ll suspend our disbelief.  One reason the Six Word Wows have been effective is that in some sense, the Ritz-Carlton has called for patrons to take some authorial role. Ed French, chief sales and marketing officer of the Ritz-Carlton, provided a statement for the #RCMemories campaign press release: “The Six Word Wows are yet another way for us to celebrate the special memories that guests take away from a visit to our hotels all over the world.” The company has said, don’t kill your darlings; make them for us to share. Like the characters of Super Sad True Love Story, those who choose to provide #RCMemories do want to celebrate their travels by re-narrating them on social media. They want to be asked how their trip was; they want the singularity of their experiences to be acknowledged. And like many writers, they want to believe that with just a few words, they can convey the romance of a moment. “Look!” they say. “Lots of people go on vacation, lots of people sleep at hotels, but I am narrator of my extraordinary life.” And we do all live extraordinary lives. So perhaps the problem isn’t that brand campaigns are exploiting users for content. Perhaps the problem is that we can’t buy an audience, and in the absence of empathetic ears, our default narrative mode is the fiction of advertising.  #RCMemories does not really pay homage to Hemingway, and it’s certainly not art for art’s sake, but like any writing exercise, the Six Word Wows provide a formal frame to display the unwieldy sprawl of human experience. What’s important is that we remember Hemingway’s advice to, “Write the truest sentence you know.” In that spirit, here’s a Six Word Wow: Our stories. Their profit. Share wisely. Image via vitroids/Flickr

The Art of the Opening Sentence

"To start with, look at all the books." This is how Jeffrey Eugenides opens his novel The Marriage Plot, and it may as well be the opening of my life. I am surrounded by piles and piles (and, seriously, piles) of books. In my office, my bedroom, the bathroom. My girlfriend's always annoyed with the stacks that appear as if by magic on our living room coffee table. She counts them, and then says, "Fourteen books? Really?" Well, I want to say, yeah. Really. Fourteen books. What do you want from me? So in the interest of proving the worth of all of these piles, recently I've been writing essays about them. Some of them I've published. My essay "The Art of the Epigraph," published a few weeks ago right here on The Millions, came out of my desperate ploy. Now, I'm turning my attention to opening sentences. Why? Well, first, because I have a prodigious and unembarrassed passion for opening sentences. But also: Look at all the goddamn books. I tend to prefer opening sentences that get right to the point, so I'm just going to state right off the bat that this essay intends to analyze a handful of opening sentences from classic to recent novels and examine their effects. Opening sentences have long fascinated me, so much so that I've even made a point to memorize the beginnings of most of the books I read. This is what I do with my time. If possible, I love opening sentences even more than epigraphs. If I were ever a contestant on Jeopardy!, and "Opening Sentences" popped up in one of the blue boxes, I would destroy that category. Like any reader, when I pick up a book, I open it and check out the first words. I'm not looking for anything specific. Actually, what I love about opening sentences is the complete lack of rules, how each writer gets to decide how best to guide a reader into their narrative. A writer, after all, is the instructor for the experience of their own work, and the opening sentence––after the book design, title, and epigraph––is among the reader's first impressions. Opening sentences are not to be written lightly. But how do they work? What's makes a good one effective? Is there a better way to do it? Or is it a creative free-for-all? As a teen, I became enamored of the 19th-century standard: that of the Grand Declaration, a way of establishing the high themes of the work. We know these openings by heart: "All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way," from Tolstoy's Anna Karenina; "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife," from Austen's Pride and Prejudice; and, of course, Dickens's "It was the best of times; it was the worst of times…" from A Tale of Two Cities. When I first came upon these novels, these declarations thrilled me, as they implied high-mindedness, a lofty ambition of subject, even if that subject was treated satirically, as in Austen's case. The absolutist vibe they gave off made the work itself feel chiseled into rock, as if each word were crafted to unimpeachable perfection. As a fledgling novelist, I now see the malleability of fiction, its fluidity, how it is never as hard as stone, how, at most, it only appears that way. The Grand Declaration has, thankfully, mostly fallen out of fashion, though our reverence for these famous sentences persists. They're great lines, to be sure, but readers know by now that a novel is a perfect place for moral, emotional, political, and spiritual investigation. We don't need to be cued into the game so directly. Later, writers offered increasingly subtle and idiosyncratic opening lines. Woolf's "Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself," expressed a woman's small claim of autonomy. Ken Kesey established the mood of paranoia of authority in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest with, "They're out there." J.D. Salinger distinguished his novel's famous protagonist from a particular famous protagonist of the past with the honesty of his voice and the statement contained in the opening: If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth. Contained in each of the above sentences is something crucial to the novel it opens, all without stating it outright. Much can be accomplished in seemingly straightforward prose. It would be easy to think of opening sentences as somehow representative of the rest of the book, as exemplifying some quintessence of the novel's aims, but this isn't––and shouldn't––always be so. Take D.H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover, which opens with, "Ours is essentially a tragic age, so we refuse to take it tragically," and goes on to describe the state of life after WWI. The pronouns here­­––the first-person-plurals "our" and "we"––are not used in the rest of the book, which stays firmly in third person. The line immediately following this section is: "This was more or less Constance Chatterley's position." The switch from first- to third-person places us squarely into the mind and story of Lady Chatterley, and makes us, because of their aberrance, remember those lines as we read on. Does the "tragic age" remain tragic? Or, as Doris Lessing puts it, will "England…be saved through warm-hearted fucking"? Jumping ahead a number of decades, let's examine another work in which the opening line is far from representative of the style to follow. Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections starts with curiously ill-fitting grandness: "The madness of an autumn prairie cold front coming through. You could feel it: something terrible was going to happen." Isolated, this is a wonderfully evocative opening, but once I read the rest of the book (which is utterly fantastic), I wondered about those first lines. They now seemed such a transparent attempt to elevate the book to classic status. On my second read, I came across this lit bit of dialogue from Chip, about his unsold and pretentious screenplay: "My idea," Chip said, "was to have this 'hump' that the moviegoer has to get over. Putting something offputting at the beginning, it's a classic modernist strategy. There's a lot of rich suspense toward the end." Is Franzen being meta here? Is he acknowledging the ill-fitting language of his opening when set against the "rich suspense" of the rest? It's hard not to see Chip as the closest character resembling Franzen himself, who, before publishing The Corrections famously worried about the direction of the novel in his Harper's essay "Why Bother?" He writes: I resist, finally, the notion of literature as a noble higher calling, because elitism doesn't sit well with my American nature, and because even if my belief in mystery didn't incline me to distrust feelings of superiority, my belief in manners would make it difficult for me to explain to my brother, who is a fan of Michael Crichton, that the work I'm doing is simply better than Crichton's. Is The Corrections, which marked a significant shift in Franzen's style, his way of leaving his past behind? Of declaring a new ambition for fiction? Maybe the following bit of dialogue captures how Franzen felt about his former fiction, and maybe about difficult social fiction in general: As Chip's girlfriend (who couldn't make it all the way through his script) leaves him, he tries to convince her of the opening's value: "You see, though," he says, "the entire story is prefigured in that monologue. Every single theme is there in capsule form––gender, power, identity, authenticity––and the thing is…Wait. Wait. Julia?" Though Chip's argument is probably reasonably founded, no one really cares about prefiguring themes in capsule form. Readers aren't necessarily looking for structural innovations or cerebral thematic overtures. More likely, they're looking, as Franzen himself wrote, "for a way out of loneliness." I do not mean to suggest that great, classic novels can't begin simply and straightforwardly, in a style that is illustrative of the novel it opens. In fact, it's the more common practice. But that fact does not diminish the power or the greatness of any work. Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment, for instance, gets right into the story, like the thriller it is: "Early one evening, during an exceptional heat wave in the beginning of July, a young man walked out into the street from the closetlike room he rented on Stoliarny Place." From there, we are thrust into the mind of Raskolnikov and his murderous, immoral descent. Any other kind of opening would have been unnecessary. A novelist teaches the reader how to read the novel, and along the way they express innumerable opinions about their view of literature in relation to this one work. Dostoyevsky didn't believe that Crime and Punishment needed a conspicuous opening. (It needed a quotidian introduction with hints of aberrance. The "exceptional heat wave" (implying tension, heat, murkiness, anger) pops out of the routine, and so although Raskolnikov attempts to act naturally and arouse no suspicion, the reader knows––subtly, maybe inexpressibly––that something is amiss. (Regular life, this isn't.) But Dostoyevsky did think his incredible short novel Notes from Underground ought to start ostentatiously: "I am a sick man…I am a spiteful man." You do not get any grander than that. In other words, a portion of our measurement of an opening line's efficacy must be contextual. How does it set up what follows? From what perspective is it written? Where does it take us? And yet, it must also be judged completely on its own, for if a novel starts slowly, unpromisingly, no one will want to continue. Inserting something "offputting" at the beginning, despite what Chip thinks, is generally a really stupid idea. Two of the best novels of last year open with sentences that are simple, straightforward and representative of the whole, and they both get right to the point. Meg Wolitzer's beautiful and funny novel The Interestings begins like this: "On a warm night in early July of that long-evaporated year, the Interestings gathered for the very first time." Simple, direct, yet enticing––suggestive of a history about to unfold. See, this is an opening aimed at both establishing the focus and the narrative. The Interestings are nothing more than a group of artists who meet at a summer camp in 1974 when they're fifteen and sixteen years old. They named themselves The Interestings. Still, with this sentence Wolitzer imbues a sense of grandeur––a kind of historical importance––to the story of these friends as they age, as they wax and wane in their careers, and as they struggle to stay together. They all grow up, eventually, but when they first met, when they were teens, they believed they were important, destined for fame, fortune, critical respect––and the opening sentence reflects that. Eleanor Catton's whopper of a masterpiece, the Booker Prize-winning The Luminaries, is set in nineteenth-century New Zealand, and its language harkens back to those big Victorian novels. It is undoubtedly a tale––no other word for it––with rousing adventure and ridiculously complex intrigue and mystery. It also features an enormous cast and a narrative that moves through all of their points of view. How does one begin such a novel? How does a writer set the style, hint at its high population, and yet still retain the enigmatic air of a tale? Here's how Catton answers those questions: "The twelve men congregated in the smoking room of the Crown Hotel gave the impression of a party accidentally met." Pretty perfect, right? In this short, direct sentence, you've got the large cast (twelve men), the period and atmosphere (smoking room), and the air of mystery: why have these men met? Do they know each other? Who are they? But Catton does one better with the next sentence: From the variety of their comportment and dress­­––frock coats, tailcoats, Norfolk jackets with buttons of horn, yellow moleskin, cambric, and twill––they might have been twelve strangers on a railway car, each bound for a separate quarter of a city that possessed fog and tides enough to divide them; indeed, the studied isolation of each man as he pored over his paper, or leaned forward to tap his ashes into the grate, or placed the splay of his hand upon the baize to take his shot at billiards, conspired to form the very type of bodily silence that occurs, late in the evening, on a public railway––deadened here not by the slur and clunk of the coaches, but by the fat clatter of the rain. Come on! How masterful is that stretch of writing? How evocative, how eloquent, how, how…inviting. As soon as I read those words, I knew I would read all 834 pages of The Luminaries, and quickly. And I did: I blazed through it at (at least) a hundred-and-fifty-page-a-day pace. Everything in the novel is, like Chip's screenplay, "prefigured" in that opening. Except here, Catton's work is so sly, so skillfully wrought you'd have to read the whole thing to even begin to understand how expertly Catton guided you as a reader. Catton, by the way, is twenty-eight years old. Both Wolitzer's and Catton's openings skirt grandness and express no overarching theme directly. They are elegant and direct, but that doesn't mean they are only accomplishing one thing. Often the most artful way to communicate something is when it is couched within ostensible artlessness. Then, of course, there are the allusive openings, the ones that, to use a crass verb, borrow from the work of their forebears. Kurt Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle references what is perhaps the most famous opening line ever, "Call me Ishmael," from Melville's Moby Dick. Melville's line, more than simply being famous, is also one of the most complex (and economic, at three words). First, this narrator is talking to us, and in a friendly, almost conspiratorial way. Second, someone asking you to call them something usually means it's not their real name, so "Ishmael" appears a tad suspicious. Third, the reference to the Biblical Ishmael (son of Abraham, half-brother of Isaac, ancestor of the Arab peoples) hints at our narrator's exiled status. Vonnegut plays a great joke on Melville's line in Cat's Cradle: "Call me Jonah. My parents did. Or nearly did. They called me John." Again, the same direct, conversational tone toward the reader; again, the discrepancy between given name and chosen name (except here, we're given his real name); and again, the Biblical reference. And that's the great joke: the Book of Jonah tells the story of a man who is––you guessed it––swallowed by a whale. Vonnegut's Jonah, through his adventures on the mysterious island of San Lorenzo, gets swallowed by much bigger whales––religion and politics. Zadie Smith's allusive opening of On Beauty isn't nearly as cheeky as Vonnegut's (after all, how many people in the world are as cheeky as Vonnegut?). Her novel begins: "One may as well begin with Jerome's e-mails to his father," and proceeds to do just that. This is an update of the opening of E.M. Forster's Howards End, which goes: "One may as well begin with Helen's letters to her sisters." Smith's is a respectful nod, a deferential ode to a writer "to whom," she writes, "all my fiction is indebted." But Smith goes one further: her protagonist is named after Forster's titular house, and, considering what happens to Howard in On Beauty, Smith's novel may have borrowed Forster's title as well, with one addition: an apostrophe between the d and s in Howards. (Instead, Smith borrow her title from Elaine Scarry's essay "On Beauty and Being Just.") Allusions are risky, as they can fall flat very easily. I've seen numerous stories that, for example, open with something similar to Kafka's famous, "As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect," from The Metamorphosis. Most of these referential lines are just plain bad. Recently, Haruki Murakami showed that a writer could tackle Kafka's famous sentence with wit and originally. His story "Samsa in Love" from The New Yorker takes this approach: "He woke to discover that he had undergone a metamorphosis and become Gregor Samsa." Now that's interesting. In Kafka's time, the idea of changing into a bug was novel, terrifying, and confounding. We're used to such a premise by this point. Now, our great terror would be becoming a Kafka character. But, you know, that's Murakami. Most writers aren't as imaginative. And last but not least are those openings that provoke, that immediately stun a reader with brutal frankness. Philip Roth's Sabbath Theater is a dark, twisted novel, full of sexual explicitness and moral ambiguity, and Roth wastes no time letting a reader know this: "Either forswear fucking others or the affair is over." This ultimatum comes from Mickey Sabbath's mistress, and it aptly captures the strange, strict limitations sex and love can force upon us, even when they are "maddeningly improbable." Roth really does his reader a favor––if you're not comfortable with this level of candidness, this isn't the novel for you. Because, oh yeah, it only goes down (or up, depending on your view) from there. Toni Morrison's Paradise famously provides immediate and heartbreaking shock: "They shot the white girl first. With the rest they can take their time." The massacre at the Convent sets up the complex and tragic tale of Ruby, Oklahoma, an all-black community. We never learn who the "white girl" is; she joins the list of millions––billions, even––of the anonymous dead. Morrison, no stranger to frankness, is particularly good at opening her books. A Mercy: "Don't be afraid." Song of Solomon: "The North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance agent promised to fly from Mercy to the other side of Lake Superior at three o'clock." And, of course, Beloved: "124 was spiteful." Morrison's prose style is one-of-a-kind, and her ambition––to, in part, "work credibly and, perhaps, elegantly with a discredited vocabulary"––has more than been met, surpassed, even stunned into submission. These opening lines are her first punches. I probably fetishize opening lines because, well, I'm a reader and a writer. As a reader, a really wonderful opening line makes me giddy with excitement. I nestle myself as deeply into my couch as I can go, and I accept the deal the novel has offered me. Yes, I will read the rest of you. You've earned it. As a writer, the opening line is the purest, most unadulterated part of a work. Before it, the blank page. After it, the whole of a story, a novel, a book. It is the division between nothing and something, the bridge between emptiness and fullness, between something in your head and something on the page. The opening sentence is the first utterance of life, the initial gasp of air that birth forces out. Perhaps this would be better expressed through what is perhaps my favorite opening line from a recent novel. Colum McCann's Let the Great World Spin revolves around Philippe Petit's incredible guerilla tight-rope walk between the World Trade Center towers in 1974, and this is how it starts: "Those who saw him hushed." The image of Philippe Petit does not need to be described here, though a beautiful image it undoubtedly is. McCann wisely focuses our attention to the people on the pavement. Their hush is full of more beauty than any description ever could be. This accurately captures how I feel about a great opening––hell, about great literature in general: it's amazing and unbelievable, and although there is so much you can say about it, sometimes all I can do is shut up and witness. Image via Thunderchild7/Flickr

The Prizewinners 2013/2014

With last month's awarding of the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, the 2013/2014 literary award season is now over, which gives us the opportunity to update our list of prizewinners. Literary prizes are, of course, deeply arbitrary in many ways; such is the nature of keeping score in a creative field. Nonetheless, our prizewinners post is compiled in the same spirit that one might tally up Cy Young Awards and MVPs to determine if a baseball player should be considered for the Hall of Fame. These awards nudge an author towards the "canon" and help secure them places on literature class reading lists for decades to come. 2013/14 was a suprisingly diverse year when it comes to literary awards, with no single novel winning multiple awards and very little crossover on the shortlists. Only one book is climbing the ranks this year. Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch, which won the Pulitzer and was on the National Book Critics Circle shortlist. Next year, we will need to make some changes to our methodology. When compiling this list, I wanted to include both American books and British books, as well as the English-language books from other countries that are eligible to win some of these awards. I started with the National Book Award and the Pulitzer from the American side and the Booker and Costa (formerly the Whitbread) from the British side. Because I wanted the British books to "compete" with the American books, I also looked at a couple of awards that recognize books from both sides of the ocean, the National Book Critics Circle Awards and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. The IMPAC is probably the weakest of all these, but since it is both more international and more populist than the other awards, I thought it added something. However, now that the Booker Prize will be open to English-language books from all over the world, including the U.S., the panel of awards is now lopsided in favor of the U.S. Is there another British-only award that we can use to replace the Booker next year? I looked at these six awards from 1995 to the present, awarding three points for winning an award and two points for an appearance on a shortlist or as a finalist. Here's the key that goes with the list: B=Booker Prize, C=National Book Critics Circle Award, I=International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, N=National Book Award, P=Pulitzer Prize, W=Costa Book Award (formerly the Whitbread) bold=winner, red=New to the list or moved up* the list since last year's "Prizewinners" post *Note that the IMPAC considers books a year after the other awards do, and so this year's IMPAC shortlist nods were added to point totals from last year. 11, 2003, The Known World by Edward P. Jones - C, I, N, P 9, 2001, The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen - C, I, N, P 8, 2010, A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan - C, I, P 8, 2009, Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel - B, C, W 8, 2007, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz - C, I, P 8, 1997, Underworld by Don DeLillo - C, I, N, P 7, 2005, The March by E.L. Doctorow - C, N, P 7, 2004, Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst - B, C, W 7, 2002, Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides - I, N, P 7, 2001, Atonement by Ian McEwan - B, C, W 7, 1998, The Hours by Michael Cunningham - C, I, P 7, 1997, Last Orders by Graham Swift - B, I, W 7, 1997, Quarantine by Jim Crace - B, I, W >6, 2012, Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel - B, W 6, 2009, Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann - N, I 6, 2009, Home by Marilynn Robinson - C, N, I 6, 2005, The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai - B, C 6, 2004, Gilead by Marilynn Robinson - C, P 5, 2013, The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt - P, C 5, 2012, Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain - C, N 5, 2012, The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson - C, P 5, 2011, Binocular Vision by Edith Pearlman - C, N 5, 2011, The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes - B, W< 5, 2009, Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín - W, I 5, 2008, The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry - B, W 5, 2008, Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout - C, P 5, 2007, Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson - N, P 5, 2006, The Road by Cormac McCarthy - C, P 5, 2006, The Echo Maker by Richard Powers - N, P 5, 2005, Europe Central by William T. Vollmann - C, N 5, 2005, The Accidental by Ali Smith - B, W 5, 2004, The Master by Colm Tóibín - B, I 5, 2003, The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard - I, N 5, 2001, True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey - B, I 5, 2000, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon - C, P 5, 2000, The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood - B, I 5, 1999, Waiting by Ha Jin - N, P 5, 1999, Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee - B, C 5, 1999, Being Dead by Jim Crace - C, W 5, 1998, Charming Billy by Alice McDermott - I, N 5, 1997, American Pastoral by Philip Roth - C, P 5, 1996, Every Man for Himself by Beryl Bainbridge - B, W 5, 1996, Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer by Steven Millhauser - N, P 5, 1995, The Moor's Last Sigh by Salman Rushdie - B, W 5, 1995, The Ghost Road by Pat Barker - B, W 5, 1995, Independence Day by Richard Ford - C, P 5, 1995, Sabbath's Theater by Philip Roth - N, P

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.

A History of Love (of Bookstores)

I have a long string of past loves, but they’re all bookstores. Depending on what you count, I’ve worked at 8-10 bookstores in the last 13 years. I mark time by which bookstore I was working in the way some people do by where they lived or who they were with, such that my bookstore resume starts to take the shape of a relationship history. Each one attracted me for different reasons, affected my life in different ways, and taught me different things. My first love: I was a car-hop at a drive-in restaurant all through high school (and the answer is no, I did not wear roller skates), but I was looking to smell like ketchup less of the time. When my dad took me to college to begin my freshman year, we drove through the town and I spied a bookstore from the van. “I want to work there,” I said, unknowingly voicing a wish that would change my life. I did, miraculously, get a job there (I’ve never since seen anyone with so little experience or skills get a bookstore job with the “I love to read” gambit, and I have seen scores try), and started work before I started classes. As with any first relationship, I was pretty clueless about it and they were accommodating. I hated talking to customers, I read books for class at the register, and I didn’t know who wrote The Corrections. The rebound: In true rebound fashion, my second bookstore could not have been more different than my first. The store was big, academic, so busy that I had knee problems, and staffed — as my coworker put it — almost entirely by “lazy smart kids.” We had all just graduated from Boston’s various prestigious colleges and didn’t feel like getting real jobs, so we hand-sold Cloud Atlas and talked about this new show Arrested Development and were generally the coolest. My favorite day at that store was when the power went out for a few hours but we didn’t close. We experienced booksellers manned the computer-less information desk, answering questions using only our amassed knowledge of books in print. It was like bookseller thunderdome, and I have to say that I killed it. As much as I loved my new bookstore, I was still hung up on my first love. When the fifth Harry Potter came out that summer, I told my boss I wasn’t available, and went to work the midnight release party at the place that still felt like home. My first serious relationship: I was only there for 3 months before another store wooed me away with the promise of something more serious — and we got serious really fast. I was hired as the assistant events director, but before long I was writing the newsletter, creating the window displays, and redesigning web pages. My life became inseparable from the bookstore. When my shift was over I would stay for upwards of an hour just talking to my coworkers, I was always there on my day off, and outside of my roommate my entire social life was the bookstore. Those were the golden years of my bookseller life. I eventually left to start grad school in Ireland, but a part of me always wonders if I should have stayed, if I didn’t realize how good I had it. Isn’t your first serious relationship always also the one that got away? The fancy man: When I moved to Dublin I got a job at my first chain bookstore. I knew I would never really love it, but after Boston it was nice to have something impersonal, uncomplicated. I got a uniform, long breaks, and low expectations. It had no character, I had no emotional involvement, the branch I worked in closed after I’d been there 4 months. My one-night stand: Listen. We all have things we’re not proud of. When I first moved to Dublin, I got called in for an interview at a charming one-room store that employed one person at a time. I had coffee with the manager and convinced him that working at his store would be a dream come true for both of us. When he called me a day later to offer me a job, I told him that I’d already committed to the fancy store. Four months later, when the fancy store closed, I rang his bell again. He mercifully offered me the job a second time, and I started work. On my lunch break that first day I visited another bookstore a few blocks away and hit it off with the assistant manager. I think you already know that my first day was also my last. I never asked him for that job a third time. We’re not in touch. The abusive relationship: Things didn’t turn out as well as I’d hoped with the bookstore down the street. The store was managed bizarrely and in ways seemingly designed to be dehumanizing, but for all that the job paid implausibly well, and 2008 was a great time to be making euros. Plus, the draconian leadership fostered camaraderie among the staff, and I stayed for that (and the money). We stashed boxes of cookies in random corners of the store, hid in the children’s section to talk about 24, and went out together all the time. We were required to wear all black, and my fondest, most vivid memory of that staff was when we all went out after closing on one of the first warm days of spring. We stopped at an ATM on a busy pedestrian street and, surrounded by Dubliners busting out their shorts and sundresses and florals, the 10 of us stood in head-to-toe black waiting in line to get beer money. My Grecian fling: I’ve had some good times. After extricating myself from the bookstores in Dublin I spent 2 months in Greece, living in the back room of a bookstore in exchange for a few hours of work a day. I was there during the off season, and on any given week there were 2-5 of us splitting the already light responsibilities, which meant that some days all I did was go to the beach and read Proust. At night we would go to the market, cook dinner, and spend the evening drinking the island wine and playing Shakespearean mad libs. To paraphrase Rachel Green, “I think there was a bookstore. I know there was wine.” Working in bookstores always felt more like a lifestyle choice than a career path — it’s both why I loved it and why I moved on. But here I sit, sifting through a decades worth of complimentary bookmarks and memories like Grizabella the glamour cat, grateful for how lucky I was. Image via the author

Franzen on Film

The Corrections might never make it to screen, but Jonathan Franzen's New Yorker essay on songbird poaching, "Emptying the Skies" (behind the paywall), is already a documentary. The film follows a group of bird lovers trying to save the endangered animals and even includes an interview with Franzen. Although the documentary just found a distributor, there is no word on an official release date. Until then, here's the trailer.

Franzen and the Twitter Bog

Last week was all about Jonathan Franzen's latest jeremiad against modern life. Scathing remarks have been produced in a fury of clicking, all of them unlikely to be read by the Franzen. I read so many angry lunchtime tweets before I had an opportunity to read the offending essay that I was concerned Franzen had really said something irredeemable in print. What to make of this inscrutable psuedo-burn, tweeted by critic D.G. Myers? Jonathan Franzen is the Sinclair Lewis of our age. No real shame in that — Lewis won the Nobel, after all — even if no one reads him anymore. — D G Myers (@dg_myers) September 17, 2013 (For the record, I’m a one, and I read Sinclair Lewis.) I read the essay, and it's grumpy and pessimistic and offends Salman Rushdie. (Somewhat confirming Franzen's general point about the bogus tendencies of online things, the Guardian helpfully posted an SEO-laden synopsis of the article, on the very day the article was published on its own site.) And people were pissed, because it reminded them of last year, when Jonathan Franzen called Twitter irritating and dumb, and once again they were inspired to create humorous vengeful posts. Jami Attenberg, who originally brought the worlds' attention to Franzen's hatred of Twitter and related cultural phenomena, made the best argument for its fundamental injustice by pointing out that Twitter hate is a luxury that striving writers can ill-afford. ...he doesn’t understand that a lot of writers have to use the medium as a promotional device as well as a way to build networks. He doesn’t have to do anything! He has a publicist who probably has dreams about him every night, whether he has a book coming or not. The phrase "check your privilege" is a staple of comments in some of the online spaces I frequent, and it's been one of the most valuable things I've learned from the Internet. I read all the young adult classics about being a good person and not judging others and walking a mile, but it took the utter disdain of world-weary comment warriors for my or anyone else's good intentions to make me realize that I just do not get it. And that’s important. Jonathan Franzen can’t have absorbed this message in quite the hard-knocks way of the Internet if, as he purports, he avoids spaces where people refresh comments until their eyes bleed and yak and brag and constantly remind one another that they don’t know shit about shit. But I don't think a person with Franzen's prodigious gift for transmitting nuanced and painful family feeling can be a totally oblivious person. I don’t think that he misses the toadiness of the young man he describes, the hater with a rage boner and a handful of loose change flung into the German gloom. I don't think he mentions being a millionaire strictly to be an asshole (but maybe). After all, as it is written in a seminal Franzen text, from the mind of Chip--a man who feels "culturally anxious," when he encounters a drug he's never heard of, who hates cell phones "mainly because he [doesn't] have one": Criticizing a sick culture, even if the criticism accomplished nothing, had always felt like useful work. But if the supposed sickness wasn't a sickness at all--if the great Materialist Order of technology and consumer appetite and medical science really was improving the lives of the formerly oppressed; if it was only straight white males like Chip who had a problem with this order--then there was no longer even the most abstract utility to his criticism. It was all, in Melissa's word, bullshit. When grumpy Gary, brother of Chip, insists on forced family mixed grilled evenings around the dinner table--when he's not wrong about the value of this practice, but so unlovable and dictatorial in its pursuit as to render it bullshit--I think Franzen demonstrates a subtlety that is perhaps lacking in his public pronouncements. Especially unsubtle is Franzen's approach to Twitter. However, if he is not subtle about Twitter, like Gary and family dinner, he is not really wrong about it either. He just doesn't know all the ways that he's right. In her immediate response to Franzen's sneer at her tactics of self-advancement, the novelist Jennifer Weiner remarked that Twitter is less about promotion than fun: "It’s like having 24/7 access to the world’s best cocktail party." Jennifer Weiner might need to check her privilege: the metaphor is more apt if you are Jennifer Weiner, and thus likely to be invited to really great cocktail parties and have people want to talk to you at them. Kate Zambreno, writer and Twitter presence (@daughteroffury), had a Franzen rage flameout last week, in the course of which she asserted, "twitter is a fundamentally literary form. it's about constraint, the fragment, dialogue, having a public discourse." (September 14, 2013). I agree that Twitter is literary, although in content rather than form. In fact, there is a lot going on on Twitter that a novelist of Jonathan Franzen's gifts could really make something of. It is a primordial cave of human frailty and need. (Speaking of human frailty, I could not at all relate to Zambreno's hatred of Jonathan Franzen -- I like his novels too much -- and this was oddly shaming, since I respect her position on things. Like many women, probably, I sometimes feel myself a profound hater in the body of a very friendly, obliging creature, alarming myself with the speed that my reactions to people catapult from really low-down, mean-ass hate to an almost sickening level of obligingness, as though I were one step away from offering up my womb as a receptacle for everyone’s cares. Jonathan Franzen is a hater, but evidently feels no corresponding need to oblige. If I identify with Franzen's novels, his impotent hatred, if I don't spit at him in his smug Empyrean remove; am I a pathetically obliging supplicant to the great man?) I occupy the strange and, I’m sure, relatively common position of finding Twitter terrifying and thanking the Lord for it on a regular basis. Twitter has been instrumental in bolstering the popularity of The Millions. When any of us have a hit, insofar as a book blog can bring the hits, it is largely thanks to Twitter; last year our editor Max showed characteristic genius in enlisting Nick Moran to helm our social media, and it has been an unqualified boon for the site. Nick is one of Twitter's greats, demonstrating an athleticism born of  savoir faire and genuine friendliness. He is the guy at the cocktail party who really wants the party to be fun — he brought wings that he made, and they’re delicious, and there are enough for everyone: I'm officially declaring today the first day of sweater season. Bust those pullovers out the closet, y'all. Make sure they're de-pilled. — Nick Moran (@nemoran3) September 18, 2013 Even with Nick's soothing presence, there is so much to hate on Twitter, which somehow encompasses both sides of the Emily Dickinson dichotomy: “I’m nobody!  Who are you? ...How dreary to be somebody!/ How public like a frog/ To tell one's name the livelong day/ To an admiring bog!” On Twitter, the Nobodies have seized hold of the mic and managed to occupy the bog. I've been on it for three years and as a participant I basically suck (I tweet; the people unfollow), and so I have done a lot of observing, both in order to build confidence and improve my game, but also because participation in Twitter feels mandatory for people who care about books and writing and want people to read the things they write about books. Sometimes, Twitter yields some unexpected friendliness and exhilarating exchange. Sometimes, though, these little highs feel so wedded to weird high school feelings of wanting to be accepted; sometimes, I feel sure that a more loathsome and unhealthy pastime has never before been conceived. Jacob Silverman wrote on the hugfest that is literary Twitter, and perhaps this state of extreme geniality is the only possible reason that people tweet so many things that have the potential to be mortifying. There is a whole tweet catalogue!  There is the tweet, which everyone can recognize, of nearly insane banality: "First coffee of the day" or "It's rainy out." Sometimes these are couched in slightly spunkier vocabulary, but they are nonetheless remarks to which there is literally no response. Several degrees up from this, but in the same family, is the office chitchat Tweet, things like "My leg is still bothering me," that are more in the vein of sharing personal information of marginal interest, if not relevance, to the tweeting public. There's the Andy Rooney: "What's the deal with turtlenecks?" Or the Performance Art tweet, which sometimes I get a kick out of: My favourite part of acid is just clicking on another page when they ask for the password. Not that important - who wants to dance? — Fetaman (@fuqtarded) September 19, 2013 There's the self-deprecating Tweet, huge among the people I follow, and taken equally by men and women right out of Bridget Jones's Diary. This is the tweet you employ if you are wearing sweatpants ALL DAY or you just ate a whole loaf of bread or you have bacon on your neck or are in the act of demonstrating some other goofy, relatable human weakness. There is the arch or self-aware tweet of insane banality, which in fact is a regular tweet of insane banality but with more anxiety issues woven up in it. There is the satirical tweet referencing the thing that everyone is tweeting about ("Tweet in which I tweet about Miley Cyrus").  There is the conversation held between friends who are also public figures because they all worked together at a Gawker property or similar, and everyone can see it but not really be in it, and wish that they could. There is the prestige tweet, dispatched from BEA or AWP, which can range from totally innocuous or useful reportage to the insufferable deployment of Twitter when an email would suffice, as in: "Great seeing you just now, @literatimember."  And then, finally, there is the sad king of tweets, the Tweet pathetique. Stay on Twitter long enough and you will see one of these really devastating revelations of personal weakness, something like "Ten thousand followers and no reply?" Some people are so used to Twitter, or so dextrous at it, or so unafraid of looking silly that they don't see it this way. They may say to me that I need to check my emotional problems, grow up, and not hate on Twitter just because other people are bold enough to really live on it, to make real friends and send thousands and thousands of crafted snippets from their brains into the universe in a completely unweird, unselfconscious way. And that all sounds really nice. My own tweeting follows some kind of manic, possibly biological cycle. A feeling of need to be fun and interesting on Twitter, coinciding with a brief flare of feeling jaunty and cavalier and like I have grasped the form and could communicate something of no possible import to any human being without it being weird. A misguided Bridget Jones from one of these episodes: Was going to take whimsical photo of historic f-line & and be all "tgif!" and then it raced by and left me alone in the vestibule pee cloud. — Lydia Kiesling (@lydiakiesling) April 27, 2013 If I were Jonathan Franzen I would hate me too. Me, I really like the Favorite, which just a way to say "I am here and I admire you," when you don't necessarily have anything else to say -- it is the wallflower's tweet. In spite of all this, I wouldn't leave Twitter. There's a medieval Turkish poem I've quoted before at The Millions: "What can the ignorant know of us? Greetings to the ones who know." The only tweets I don't almost immediately regret are the ones where I link to a piece of writing that I liked, written by a person on the Internet. And what can Jonathan Franzen know of that? What can he know of the other best part of Twitter: the frisson of having your own essay tweeted by a person you think is smart, or even when someone says something mean about you because a thing you wrote made them mad? What can he know of a nobody's momentary triumphs? What can he know of two nobodies, sending cautious friendly tweets at one another across the bog? The fact remains that most of us on Twitter, even the best and most robust tweeters, will never produce anything so huge and engrossing as Jonathan Franzen's novels. I like his novels so much that I picked up The Corrections just to refresh on prose and found myself blasting through forty pages of agonizing Gary/Caroline menage before remembering that I had shit to do. So I don't so much begrudge him his millions and his National Book Award and his dudgeon. We have our mediocrity, our neuroses, his books, and for a few moments a day, each other.

The Love Carousel: Literary Speed Dating at Housing Works in SoHo

“HELLO MY NAME IS MARX,” read the candy cane colored name tag handed to me. One woman actually said that I looked like a Marx, the scruffy beard and omni-directional head of hair. Another teased that she and I ought to make Marx the latest mintage in Manhattan baby name trending by starting a blog to promote it. A University of Chicago grad said, “Go” -- she was ready to talk me under the table with Marxist theory, and when I protested how little I actually remembered off the cuff, she said she would settle for Durkheim, Weber, or Mills. Wasn’t there someone? Goffman? I responded, Nietzsche: Down with the old gods, up with the mania for replacing them! Then our time was up. I joked about how I intended to use the event and number of dates I would meet as a chance to rally support for socialist thought and motion toward a groundswell to upend the capitalist system, which, didn’t they agree, had gone on long enough? Nobody said they didn’t. With doomed grandeur, F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote that “there are no second acts in American lives” -- not accounting, perhaps, for the fortune and fame that could follow publication of a memoir premised on there being no second act. Fitzgerald lived true to his word: his twilight in Hollywood, the mythic cradle of American radical self-reinvention, figured as a long wait for the notes of the nightingale’s song to sound. Marx, on the other hand, declared that everything that has ever happened happens twice: “the first time as tragedy, the second as farce.” The third time, fourth, fifth, and so on, we are on our own. Not everyone knows, per Jonathan Sperber’s recent bio, that Karl Marx’s earliest manuscript was called The Book of Love. Student Marx composed the collection of romantic poems for childhood sweetheart and lifelong partner Jenny von Westphalen. Over the course of their lives together, his romance with Jenny transformed into a romance of a different kind, a belief in the inevitability of international revolution whose contours were somewhat hazy, if keenly felt. This is what happened on the day before Valentine’s Day, 2013, a Wednesday, at the Housing Works Bookstore on Crosby Street just south of the Calvin Klein billboard in SoHo. A first ever. A good cause: “I Like Your Glasses: Literary Speed Dating.” Each participant found at the entrance a neon green envelope, including a library card in manila sleeve for taking notes on each “date,” and a name tag featuring the handle of a character from a favorite book (favorites requested earlier by e-mail). These would be our pseudonyms for the night. Each date would last an almost militantly enforced four minutes. A single case of lingering -- whether affectionate, desirous, or uncertain -- could cause the entire caterpillar crawl to go legs up. There was to be no lingering. Lingering is for books. We each were to have brought one, a title to display for the sake of conversation. From my messenger bag I drew John Barth's Lost in the Funhouse. Each “date” station had a name -- my point of origin dubbed Heorot for Beowulf’s banquet hall where Grendel was a regular gate-crasher. Café tables set in rows through the heart of Housing Works Bookstore’s assembly space formed the stations, solicitous waiters snaking around them to offer speed-date refreshment, tonic of composure or forgetting. Two emcees spoke over a scratchy sound system by the bathrooms, raging like Dylan Thomas against the frenetic buzz of our voices. They joked we would hate them and use our hatred of them as grist for conversation with the strangers across from us. I succeeded at not mentioning them until my final match of the night, a brunette with an anchor tattooed on her bare shoulder. Her pseudonym was Estha, one plucked by the organizers’ naming committee from Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things. I looked at her and she looked at me, fleetingly at one in our total disdain for the emcees as they pleaded everyone be quiet. In that moment, I am sure of it, we both wished for their overthrow. This was as close to authentic connection as I found. Estha was probably about five years my senior (although, impossible to say: she could have been 29, too, a lover of the wind and the rain and the sun on her cheeks). She said that she was bouncing back from a divorce to the guy with whom she had cofounded a restaurant in Brooklyn -- the same restaurant, it turns out, I went to on my first date with the last woman to cohabitate with me. I was touched by the coincidence and the total lack of rationale for verbalizing the coincidence to Estha, as we had about a minute left in our exchange, and a top 10 rule of first dates, the real kind, is not to mention exes unless desiring to come off as a pet pitifully leashed to a station wagon pulling obliviously away and gaining speed. My eyes might have gone a little fuzzy, all the same, and Estha took my expression of fuzziness for susceptibility, emphasizing how she always made sure to mention the name of the restaurant she and her ex founded when possible. I realized Estha, like me, was attempting to find a purpose for the evening, what it had really all been about, if it had not been what it was supposed to be about (the exceedingly worthy charitable cause, notwithstanding). What it had all really been about, I decided, was capitalism, making a product of ourselves and pitching it to strangers at four-minute intervals: life as an ad incarnate. Estha, at least, had the class not to be promoting specifically herself but a physical location in the world that she had played a part in dreaming a reinvention for, one that we, any of us guys carouselling by, could go visit. There was also Karenina from Idaho -- a girl from Idaho! -- and June, who was quiet, and Ruth, whose pseudonym’s source text was, for me, a winner, and Grace, who knew her political and sociological thinkers, and Kit, who laughed at me or an awareness of the cool, amusing film through which we saw each other, the cattle stall of the standard speed dating experience retrofitted with funhouse literary mirrors. I tried not to steal peeks at the next woman over both because it was rude to the woman I was speaking with and because I wanted every meeting to be a surprise with a genuine response, not performed or calculated. Though, Reader, I tell you, my naïve ambition became difficult to maintain as I stood up to move on to Calliope of the Marx babies, then Babette, who had the air of a cigarette-smoking beauty queen, and Anne, and Hazel, and Lizzy, and my consciousness of the fact that the more I repeated myself in response to the same questions, the less sincere I became, our comedian hosts droning on, their voices insistent, their words incomprehensible, the face presently across from me feeling more and more like a test-marketing subject for a new product which was My Projected Self. Shame at projections gone awry sloughed away as new conversation played immediately over old, like a new album in place of last year’s, with Daisy, who wondered whether or not she ought to read The Corrections, and Margaret Peel, who was significantly older and to whom I said I was probably not the guy she imagined meeting that evening, but what about her make-believe name, its literary origin? (Lucky Jim, she explained, our organizers having conflated her favorite author, Martin Amis, with his father, Kingsley, then named her after a character in Kingsley Amis’s most famous novel, a novel she had never read...although I had, I was reminded then), and Isabel, whose expression was like a runner’s in the early miles of a race, and finally, Estha, of the anchor tattoo and lovable Brooklyn restaurant. One thing about capitalism, I have noticed, is that its appeal is never stronger than in the aftermath of a breakup, love spilling forth from the vessel that shaped it, all that energy and longing to be known and to know in turn seeking new forms to cleave to, things that did not previously define you.  Conceivably a human being could live this way forever, making bonds, breaking bonds, and reaching out through expenditures of concentration and will to take on more trappings, assume other forms, a kind of perennial runaway from the prurience of small-town gossip and stifling judgment, glorying in the purity of the new. There is what we forget and what we remember, and I cannot say for certain how accurately I have recalled an event now seven months distant, or where fiction, despite conscious intention, has blurred the edges of fact and so made them softer, the facts, but thematically more concentrated, molding from a chaos of temporarily overlapping paths something that reads as almost retraceable. A moment of possible return. To find yourself speed dating is to acknowledge, at least to yourself, not without humor, a waywardness of romantic course, to become increasingly conscious of yourself as an advertisement for yourself, a mercurial herald, as you move from one table to the next, one consciousness and then another and another flitting by image-saturated eyes. In your remove, the recognitions you have but don’t speak, a story begins to build, refined by each new face, each curious glance, the unspoken attempt to find a hold in the world everyone shares. It is almost possible to believe that the world consists entirely of surfaces and that the ones presently before us are the only we will ever know. If it is true that capitalism is the final organizing principle humanity will ever know, the snaking tables around which we are to carousel forever, but not just capitalism in the abstract, but this capitalism, where big companies merge with big companies, big publishers with big publishers -- the fewer meaningful players on the field, the less actual competition, the closer our capitalism resembles Soviet Russia, a state ruled by one all-encompassing company whose elite direct the bureaucratic circus -- then I might have been seeing symptoms in the material conditions of the speed dating scene, or the shape the material conditions gave my sense of self, those of us on the carousel that night in February. As we passed each other by, our personalities become weightless, the stories inside the books we carried felt more and more real. Image Credit: Flickr/Alan O'Rourke

The Prizewinners 2012/2013

With last month's awarding of the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, the 2012/2013 literary award season is now over, which gives us the opportunity to update our list of prizewinners. (In fact, 2013/2014 has already begun with the unveiling of the diverse Booker longlist.) Literary prizes are, of course, deeply arbitrary in many ways; such is the nature of keeping score in a creative field. Nonetheless, our prizewinners post is compiled in the same spirit that one might tally up Cy Young Awards and MVPs to determine if a baseball player should be considered for the Hall of Fame. These awards nudge an author towards the "canon" and help secure them places on literature class reading lists for decades to come. There are three books climbing the ranks this year. Hilary Mantel's Cromwell sequel Bring Up the Bodies landed fairly high on the list after sweeping both of Britain's major literary awards (though the book hasn't quite matched the hardware racked up by Mantel's Wolf Hall). Meanwhile, Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain and The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson both won notice from more than one literary prize last year. Here is our methodology: I wanted to include both American books and British books, as well as the English-language books from other countries that are eligible to win some of these awards. I started with the National Book Award and the Pulitzer from the American side and the Booker and Costa (formerly the Whitbread) from the British side. Because I wanted the British books to "compete" with the American books, I also looked at a couple of awards that recognize books from both sides of the ocean, the National Book Critics Circle Awards and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. The IMPAC is probably the weakest of all these, but since it is both more international and more populist than the other awards, I thought it added something. A glaring omission is the PEN/Faulkner, but it would have skewed everything too much in favor of the American books, so I left it out. I looked at these six awards from 1995 to the present, awarding three points for winning an award and two points for an appearance on a shortlist or as a finalist. Here's the key that goes with the list: B=Booker Prize, C=National Book Critics Circle Award, I=International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, N=National Book Award, P=Pulitzer Prize, W=Costa Book Award (formerly the Whitbread) bold=winner, red=New to the list or moved up* the list since last year's "Prizewinners" post *Note that the IMPAC considers books a year after the other awards do, and so this year's IMPAC shortlist nods were added to point totals from last year. 11, 2003, The Known World by Edward P. Jones - C, I, N, P 9, 2001, The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen - C, I, N, P 8, 2010, A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan - C, I, P 8, 2009, Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel - B, C, W 8, 2007, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz - C, I, P 8, 1997, Underworld by Don DeLillo - C, I, N, P 7, 2005, The March by E.L. Doctorow - C, N, P 7, 2004, Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst - B, C, W 7, 2002, Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides - I, N, P 7, 2001, Atonement by Ian McEwan - B, C, W 7, 1998, The Hours by Michael Cunningham - C, I, P 7, 1997, Last Orders by Graham Swift - B, I, W 7, 1997, Quarantine by Jim Crace - B, I, W 6, 2012, Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel - B, W 6, 2009, Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann - N, I 6, 2009, Home by Marilynn Robinson - C, N, I 6, 2005, The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai - B, C 6, 2004, Gilead by Marilynn Robinson - C, P 5, 2012, Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain - C, N 5, 2012, The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson - C, P 5, 2011, Binocular Vision by Edith Pearlman - C, N 5, 2011, The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes - B, W< 5, 2009, Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín - W, I 5, 2008, The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry - B, W 5, 2008, Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout - C, P 5, 2007, Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson - N, P 5, 2006, The Road by Cormac McCarthy - C, P 5, 2006, The Echo Maker by Richard Powers - N, P 5, 2005, Europe Central by William T. Vollmann - C, N 5, 2005, The Accidental by Ali Smith - B, W 5, 2004, The Master by Colm Tóibín - B, I 5, 2003, The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard - I, N 5, 2001, True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey - B, I 5, 2000, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon - C, P 5, 2000, The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood - B, I 5, 1999, Waiting by Ha Jin - N, P 5, 1999, Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee - B, C 5, 1999, Being Dead by Jim Crace - C, W 5, 1998, Charming Billy by Alice McDermott - I, N 5, 1997, American Pastoral by Philip Roth - C, P 5, 1996, Every Man for Himself by Beryl Bainbridge - B, W 5, 1996, Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer by Steven Millhauser - N, P 5, 1995, The Moor's Last Sigh by Salman Rushdie - B, W 5, 1995, The Ghost Road by Pat Barker - B, W 5, 1995, Independence Day by Richard Ford - C, P 5, 1995, Sabbath's Theater by Philip Roth - N, P

A Sentimental Education: Sex and the Literary Writer

In writing my first novel, Cutting Teeth, when I got to the first scene that demanded dramatized sex -- action, sound, smell, taste, the works -- I paused. The word that made me lift my fingers from the keyboard was "clitoris." Was it okay to use this word? What would my fellow literary writers, my former teachers and classmates at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop think of me? I laughed at my insecurity, although part of me loathed my hesitation. Of course it was okay. It’s just a body part, I told myself. I had the same reaction in the other sex scenes I wrote -- most involved a man and a woman, one two women. Nipples. Cock. Dick. Balls. Even typing these words now gives me a shiver of fear, as if the literary gods will strike me dead, or brandish me with a scarlet S for writing not only bad sex, but any sex at all. Today, sex is everywhere -- on TV, our computers, even our phones. But in the last two years, since Fifty Shades of Grey became the fastest-selling paperback of all time, the jaws of literary writers have dropped, their shock over the book’s success, despite its unliterary style, echoing over the Twitter-waves. Part of me wants to say I was one of them -- if only to be included in their elite ranks -- but I wasn’t that surprised. I haven’t forgotten the lusty attraction of my grandmother’s paperback romances, which, as a pre-teen, I had secreted away to read at night by flashlight. Long before I thought of myself as a writer, I was a reader. I grew up in a house of few books -- my father’s set of encyclopedias in his native Italian and a handful of history books left over from my mother’s college education. My mother has a Masters in Education, but she hasn’t read a book in decades. My father was hungry for knowledge, but struggled to read our middle school science and social studies textbooks, the basic English too much of a challenge. As a child, books were a magical distraction from my anxiety -- what, 20 years later would be diagnosed as obsessive-compulsive disorder. At school, every real-life, real-time decision -- who to befriend, who to avoid -- carried an infinite possibility of catastrophe, but I was safe when living inside a book. The day came when it seemed as if I’d read every book in our small school library, and the librarian was at a loss for suggestions that were age-appropriate. This was the mid-1980s, years before the YA market exploded. I needed the imagined life books gave me -- without them it seemed as if real life lost its luster. I stole one of my grandmother’s Danielle Steel novels. I don’t remember the title, only the pearlescent cover’s gold-embossed cursive that promised diamonds, high heels, and Farah Fawcett-hair -- a glimpse into a dramatic adult world. What I do remember are the sex scenes. I replaced the book the next week and stole off with another, and so on, until I had read all in my grandmother’s collection. Those books taught me so much -- that you could have sex standing up or even underwater in a pool! Along with the sex came emotion. These men and women were brazenly sentimental, confessing passion, hatred, and envy, and that melodrama kept me glued to the page. Once I entered college, I left my towers of commercial fiction paperbacks behind in my parents’ basement. I declared a major in English and became a convert of the literary readership. I read what my professors assigned, mostly novels by white men written over a century ago, where sex and emotion were abstractly implied in only the most metaphysical sense. When it was my turn to choose my literary electives, I picked Hawthorne, Melville, and Dostoyevsky over the “scribbling women writers” of the 19th century, who, one of my professors explained with more than a hint of disdain, were the equivalent of our modern-day Danielle Steele and Jackie Collins. I remember blushing. Could he tell that I had once feasted on those emotionally hyperbolic and overtly sexual scenes? By the time I was accepted at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, the furthest I’d ventured into American literature was the modernism of Sherwood Anderson, Hemingway, and Fitzgerald. For the first time, I read short fiction writers known for their “spare” prose style, like Raymond Carver, whose work my classmates praised as “quiet” and “restrained.” Now, emotion (and the rare sex scene) was conveyed delicately through mood and atmosphere. I felt a kind of reader’s depression. Where was the meaning? How far did I have to dig under the surface of the prose? It felt as if there was a hole in my reader’s heart. Not that I would have ever mentioned the “heart” in workshop, the most sentimental of symbols. After a semester of workshops where we praised writers who wrote in “trim” prose, I was converted to an more refined literary camp, where subtlety trumped all, even emotion. The more subdued my own writing style became the more my classmates appreciated it in workshop. This was especially true of the male writers, who began to imply, through playful teasing, that I wrote “stories about women for women,” and that I was lucky, because, “maybe someday Oprah will pick you for her book club.” This was the same year Jonathan Franzen was touring the country and publicly mocking the Oprah Book Club sticker on book jacket of The Corrections. I feared my male classmates were right. Was I destined to become a commercial writer who was, gasp, popular? With a misdirected motivation that thrives with youth, fueled by my fear of rejection, I committed myself to toning down the emotion in my writing. My model was Jayne Anne Phillips’s story collection, Black Tickets, published in 1979 soon after Phillips’s own turn as a young woman writer at Iowa. I was determined to make my stories just as tight, lean, and fucked-up. I wrote a few sex scenes -- spare in style and violent in content -- and the “risks” I took in writing about sex were applauded in class. Looking back now, re-reading those scenes, I see they are just shadows of real characters feeling vague emotion. Instead a gulf separates the reader from the character’s experience. I confess that I felt very little when I wrote those scenes; I was merely copying the writers I thought I was supposed to admire. I was removed from the characters even when writing semi-autobiographically. They were damaged young girls I used to impress my teachers and classmates. I remember typing the final line of a story -- one that would earn me a coveted fellowship -- And she will point to her hand, freed from the bandage, and say, Oh this? It’s nothing. I asked myself, shouldn’t she, the girl in my story, be feeling more? Shouldn’t I be feeling more? I did, once during my time at Iowa, write a story that risked unrestrained sex and emotion -- about a schoolgirl in love with a young priest. The priest reciprocated with flirtation. I was 22 years old. I knew little of the complexities of sex and relationships. I was merely practicing them on the page. The story was told very close to the young girl’s consciousness so that her thoughts and feelings acted as a kind of voice, and when she reacted in scene, the emotion was anything but subtle. As my aging Irish-Catholic workshop instructor spent the majority of that class deploring the way I had “corrupted the language,” I couldn’t tell if he was more offended by my technique or the blasphemy of a girl in an erotic relationship with a man of the cloth. When my instructor asked the class if my story would have a snowball in hell’s chance of being published in The New Yorker (his gold standard), I knew it was the melodrama that offended him most. I abandoned that story, and it was years before I wrote another scene that was concretely sexual or emotional. Was I alone in this fear of writing about sex and the emotion of intimacy? I asked my friends and students. Unsurprisingly, those who write fiction marketed as genre, whether historical, women’s fiction, romance, or thrillers, feel more comfortable writing sex. Those published in erotica anthologies revel in their confidently drawn sex scenes. Most of these writers are women and write for a mostly female audience. When I asked literary writers about their experience writing sex, their responses ranged from, “I am terrified of sex scenes!” to “I fear the reader will think I'm a pervert, or terrifically immature, or both.” Why do so many literary writers fear writing about sex? Why do we add to the collective anxiety by celebrating The Literary Review’s “Bad Sex Award” -- the annual public humiliation and literary stoning of one published writer? In my experience as both a writer and a teacher, this fear of writing about sex is tied to the fear of sentimentality that takes root in a writer’s formative years. Writing instructors chastise writers in class -- a setting that can feel quite public -- when the writer risks sentiment, which a naïve writer might mistake for emotion. Writers accrue a kind of scar tissue, blocking their ability and their confidence to imply emotion, inevitably leading to a clouding of meaning in their work. Most of the writers who felt comfortable writing about sex did not attend MFA programs, where "show don’t tell" is a mantra, another way of saying "do not venture into sentimentality." This is an essential lesson for beginning writers, but I wonder if writing instructors, myself included, preach against sentimentality so often that it creates anxiety in our students. The writer must be the first reader to feel the emotional intention of the story. The heart of the story (there’s that heart again) won’t exist if the writer never takes that leap of faith. Ask a roomful of literary critics about sex in fiction and they will champion James Salter -- a captain of the “spare” style team. The New York Times called Salter’s novel, A Sport and a Pastime, “a tour de force in erotic realism.” The novel is set in 1950s France and the unnamed narrator is an exceptionally passive observer of an affair between Phillip, a bourgeois American, and Anne-Marie, a young French woman: Her flesh appears, still smelling a little of soap. His hands float onto her. The sum of small acts begin to unite them, the pure calculus of love. He feels himself enter. Her last breath -- it is almost a sigh -- leaves her. Her white throat appears. I imagine Salter intentionally stripping every hint of emotion from the prose, perhaps to avoid the pitfalls of sentimentality. London’s The Times praised the novel, “Just to read it makes you feel alive.” I felt the very opposite. I felt hollow. There was little that felt alive or realistically erotic about watching Philip and Anne-Marie as if from across a vast ocean. Is writing about sex with such distance less of a risk, when compared to a writer who places him or herself inside the character’s every kiss, stroke, and thrust, acting as the pioneer in whose footsteps the reader will follow? Intention is one excuse literary readers, including myself, use to defend flaws in our own work and in that of our predecessors, but there is a big difference between what a writer intends the reader to think and feel, and the reader’s actual experience. Salter’s novel was revolutionary for its eroticism when published in 1967, but why are today’s literary writers looking to a novel so dated in its portrayal of sex? Is it because the ambiguous intimacy allows them to further avoid addressing the challenges of writing sex? Sarah Waters, award-winning and best-selling novelist, is well known in her native England, but I have often wondered why she isn’t more popular among American literary readers. There are several possible factors: she is a woman who often writes historical fiction, she is a lesbian, and most of her characters are women. But there is nothing unliterary about Waters’s technique. Adrian Van Young, author of the story collection The Man Who Noticed Everything, and one of the few male literary writers or readers I know who has read Waters, has this to say: “Waters seldom writes sex that isn't intrinsically connected to emotion, and together they form an almost elemental force in her fiction.” It is this intrinsic connection between emotion and sex, whether tender, violent, or awkward, that gives Waters’s sex scenes a sense of being earned, necessary to the story. Waters’s most recent novel, The Little Stranger, short-listed for the Man Booker Prize, is set in the 1940s in a dilapidated English mansion. The novel is told from the perspective of country doctor Faraday, who forms an unusual friendship with Caroline Ayres, the spinster daughter of the estate. Like Salter’s A Sport and a Pastime, the storytelling relies on an unreliable narrator, yet in Waters’s The Little Stranger, the reader is a participant in the erotic mystery, not just a voyeur. ...my thumb slid just beyond the inner edge of (her coat), and met the start of the swell of her breast. I thought she flinched, or shivered, as the thumb moved lightly over her gown. Again I heard the movement of her tongue inside her mouth, the parting of her lips, an indrawn breath. The writing is subtle in emotion and tone, but Waters builds an empathic bridge between her reader and both the characters through Dr. Faraday’s imagination, particularly in the way that he wonders what Caroline is feeling. In A Sport and a Pastime, Salter intentionally levels that bridge. Is it a coincidence that so many sex scenes written by women for women seem to focus on the characters’ feelings? I think not. Ten years have passed since I left Iowa, and in that time I wrote a novel that didn’t sell, took a break from writing, and founded The Sackett Street Writers’ Workshop. It was the 2,000 Sackett writers who gave me the confidence to return to writing, ultimately resulting in a novel that I am proud of, that has its sexy moments, and is to be published by St. Martin’s Press in the spring of 2014. I tell MFA-bound students that a graduate program is a great place to learn craft and to live and party among writers, but not always the easiest place to write. It took me years of post-MFA retrospection to sort through the assumptions I’d adopted on what makes writing good or bad. My voice has risen from the ashes and it is no restrained peep, but somewhere between a croon and a ballad. There are the withholders like Salter and Carver, and there are the revealers, my own literary camp. I’ve accepted this after years of resistance. Salter is like that aloof James Dean-esque boy, the one the girls go crazy for because he lives in his own world. He is enigmatic. I desired those boys in my youth, but I’m all grown up now and don’t have the patience for those unreadable types. With great relief, I’ve discovered that I am pretty good at writing sex. My readers are all (but for my husband) literary women writers and they concur. Even my mother-in-law, reacting to a particularly steamy sex scene in my novel, said, “Well, how about that? That sex scene was something!” As in most things literary, the solution to writing “good” sex, and protecting yourself (fingers crossed) from The Literary Review’s "award," is to think of the reader. Just as there is an infinite variety of “good sex” -- the factors dependent on those partaking -- there are also an infinite variety of writers, each with his or her ideal reader. Me, I want my literary sex real -- fluids and all. Image Credit: Flickr/yaaaay

Peeling Back the Oprah Seal: Ayana Mathis’s Twelve Tribes of Hattie

1. The office of literary agent Ellen Levine is a sun-struck jewel box of a place overlooking Madison Square Park and lined with shelves of signed first editions by Levine’s many famous clients, including Marilyn Robinson, Russell Banks, and Michael Ondaatje. Despite these trappings of power -- that view, that big desk, the young editorial assistant who ushers you in with a hushed reverence that suggests you are being granted an audience with the pope -- Levine is herself unpretentious and approachable. She is a small person, bird-like and soft-spoken, and when she settles in at a conference table, her manner suggests not a big-wheel New York literary agent but a college professor taking time out of her day to sit with you in her office and talk about books. I had invited myself to Levine’s office one sunny April morning last year to interview her for the first in a series of features I was writing for Poets Writers Magazine called “The Aha! Moment.” The idea was that I would talk to writers, editors, and literary agents about the moment the light went on for them about a particular manuscript, the moment when they thought, I have to do this project. I had asked Levine to pick a novel by a new client and show me at what point -- where exactly, on what page -- she decided she had to take this writer on. Then we would print that manuscript page in the magazine, with Levine’s quotes explaining how the writing had grabbed her and why. As we sat down to discuss the page in question, midway into the first chapter of a first novel by an unknown African-American writer living in Brooklyn, Levine described the writer’s command of language and storytelling craft, but when she reached a key passage in the scene, in which a young mother is about to lose her twin babies to pneumonia, Levine’s voice caught. When I looked up, her eyes had misted over. If you interview a lot of people, you develop a radar for when people are selling and when they are not, and in this case Ellen Levine was not selling. She was genuinely moved by this scene in an unpublished book by a writer nobody had ever heard of. I left her office that day thinking: Something really, really good is going to happen to that book. Sure enough, eight months later, I read that the book Levine and I had been discussing that day, The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis, had been published in December, six weeks ahead of schedule, and had been picked by Oprah Winfrey for her newly rebooted Book Club. This weekend -- on Super Bowl Sunday, of all days -- Mathis will sit for an interview with Winfrey to discuss the book.   2. Long before Jonathan Franzen famously dissed her for picking his novel The Corrections for her Book Club and James Frey’s pseudo-memoir A Million Little Pieces blew up into, well, a million little pieces, Oprah and her Book Club were the subject of an unseemly mix of love and hate from the publishing industry as well as from many readers of literary fiction. On the one hand, Oprah clearly moved product. An astonishing amount of product. According to one study by Fordham University marketing professor Al Greco, during the 15 years Winfrey ran the Book Club before she shut it down along with her syndicated show in 2011, the 69 “Oprah Editions” embossed with the signature Book Club seal sold roughly 55 million copies. So much for the love part. Franzen, thoughtless as his comments may have been, was only saying out loud what many others had been saying when he suggested Winfrey had larded her list with “schmaltzy, one-dimensional” novels, directed primarily at women readers. At the time, the blowback at Franzen was all about him being an elitist, but I always thought there was a gendered element to the knock on Oprah books. Franzen, and many others, said the books were middlebrow and directed at women, but to my ears, anyway, there was a strongly implied causal relationship between the two: the books were middlebrow because they were directed at women, as if serious fiction -- the kind written by Hemingway and Faulkner -- was for guys while anything written with a female audience in mind was, almost by definition, middlebrow. After the Franzen dustup, Winfrey started devoting fewer shows to books, and after the James Frey debacle, she pulled back even further, picking only a few books a year and relying more heavily on established classics like Elie Weisel’s Night or novels by guy-friendly authors like Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Cormac McCarthy that countered the stereotype of an “Oprah book.” By the time she invited Franzen back on her show in 2010 to discuss his novel Freedom, she just seemed weary of the whole thing. 3. In many ways, The Twelve Tribes of Hattie, the second book picked for the rebooted Book Club 2.0 featured on Winfrey’s eponymous Oprah Winfrey Network, neatly fits the stereotype of an “Oprah book.” For one thing, Hattie focuses on a damaged family, as so many previous Oprah picks have, and like a number of earlier picks, it is set in black America. A cynic -- and don’t pretend there aren’t a few of them among you -- might even go so far as to say that Hattie is a perfect Oprah book because it is the sort of book about black people that white people like to read, meaning one that allows white readers to bear witness to, and passionately decry, America’s long history of racial oppression without feeling personally indicted for playing any role in that oppression. It is true that much of Hattie is set safely in early and mid-century America, before many contemporary readers were even alive, and the passages that deal with the most straightforward white racism take place in the South, which allows liberal northerners to blame such ugly behavior on those white people, who are of course nothing like themselves. But such calculations, and indeed all the baggage that comes with being an “Oprah book,” are unfair to the novel Mathis has written, which is a dazzling debut, rich in language and psychological insight, steeped in the history of 20th-century black America and black American writing, and yet fully in tune with a 21st-century America capable of twice electing a black man president. Hattie is being marketed as a novel, but it would be more accurate to say that it is a collection of linked stories revolving around the dysfunctional Shepherd family, starting in 1925 and ending in 1980. There isn’t a truly weak story in the lot, but the book is best when its central figure, the hard-hearted “plow horse” of a matriarch, Hattie Shepherd, is present, and loses some of its vitality when she is not. We first meet Hattie in that heartbreaking opening chapter when she is a joy-filled 16-year-old escapee from the Jim Crow South imagining how when her newborn twins, Philadelphia and Jubilee, begin to walk they will “totter around the porch like sweet bumbling old men.” This moment of dreamy bliss lasts barely a page before the twins come down with pneumonia, and Hattie, crippled by her  inexperience and pride, fails to save them. Hattie goes on to have nine more children -- far more than she and her sweet, but feckless husband August can support in Depression-era black Philadelphia -- but the twins’ deaths mark her, turning her into a cold, rage-filled woman capable of beating a child until he wets himself in terror for having left a window open in the rain. But Hattie isn’t a villain, nor is she a helpless victim of her circumstances. She comes alive on the page in all her complexity as a woman fiercely determined to never let another child slip away, but neither strong nor resourceful enough to keep them alive without terrorizing them within an inch of their lives. “Hattie knew her children did not think her a kind woman,” Mathis writes late in the book. She had failed them in vital ways, but what good would it have done to spend the days hugging and kissing them if there hadn’t been anything to put in their bellies? They didn’t understand that all the love she had was used up in feeding them and clothing them and preparing them to meet the world. The Twelve Tribes of Hattie has its share of stock figures -- child preachers whose touch can heal the sick, good-time men who live for the gambling table, and loose-living women who shack up with criminals -- but it is Mathis’s gift to breathe life into these characters, render them in three dimensions as ordinary people striving to be decent but lacking the strength of character or willpower to get there. They are often very destructive and Mathis is too clear-eyed a writer to turn away from the wreckage they leave behind or to pass off their recklessness as a mere product of racism and poverty. But she doesn’t pass judgment on them, either. Mathis’s characters are those rarest of fictional creations: real living, breathing people. 4. A central element of the Oprah Book Club narrative has always been the sudden reversal of fortune experienced by those lucky few Oprah authors. The poor wretched scribe, the tale goes, was toiling away in obscurity in the backwaters of American literary culture until one day the phone rings, and -- Oh, my God! -- “Hi, this is Oprah.” Whether this narrative was ever really true of the earlier Oprah picks is debatable, but it is certainly not true in the case of Mathis who is a graduate of the Iowa Writers Workshop and a client of Ellen Levine, one of the top literary agents in New York. I have exactly zero knowledge of what levers Levine pulled, but it is hard to imagine that an agent as well-connected as Levine, sitting on a book as good as Mathis’s, could have resisted at least suggesting to one of Winfrey’s show bookers that they might want to give this book a read. But if this plucked-from-obscurity narrative is partly a media fiction, it does point up a fact Oprah’s detractors would do well to keep in mind: while Winfrey has occasionally leaned on books by Nobel laureates like Faulkner and Toni Morrison, the bread and butter of the Book Club was always new books by little-known authors. Try this at home sometime. Tell yourself you need to pick a book that will appeal to millions of readers, by an unknown author who will be interesting to talk to for an hour on national television, but who has also written a serious work of literary fiction. And then tell yourself you need to do this once a month while running the highest-rated talk show in the history of television. Let me know how that works out for you. It is high time defenders of American literary fiction cut Oprah Winfrey a break. These days, even Oprah is no longer Oprah, and while Mathis’s novel has shot up into the bestseller lists, it is unlikely stay there for months the way books did in the Book Club’s 1990s heyday. Still, imagine what would have happened if Winfrey hadn’t picked it. It still would have garnered raves from reviewers in print and online, and over time booksellers would have begun quietly putting it in the hands of favored customers. In other words, it would have remained a well-kept secret among a bookish few. Instead, thanks to Oprah Winfrey, The Twelve Tribes of Hattie will be read by hundreds of thousands of people and Mathis will sit down for a well-publicized interview on the high holiest day in the American television calendar, Super Bowl Sunday. With any luck, this gritty, tough-minded work of literary fiction that also happens to be a mesmerizing read will enter into the cultural mainstream. Who else but Oprah could pull that off?

A Year in Reading: Michael Robbins

I know people who read all the hot young novels. And I’ll occasionally buy one or two (although after getting burned by The Corrections, I wait for the paperback). But mostly the past is too full of fiction I haven’t read: fresh green breasts of James, Beckett, Mishima, Woolf remain uncharted, and I’m going to spend my time with The Marriage Plot? 2012 was the year I got around to what proved to be my favorite novel, period. I’d been meaning to read V.S. Naipaul’s A House for Mr. Biswas for years -- Naipaul was already the author of my favorite opening line: “The world is what it is; men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it.” (I often say this to myself like a mantra; make of that what you will.) And Naipaul is possessed of a most delightful literary personality. But Mr. Biswas -- nothing could have prepared me for the breadth of this book. Everyone in these pages is weak, silly, utterly human. I’m not sure any postwar author has known his own character -- inspired by Naipaul’s father -- so thoroughly. (Bellow comes close, in Herzog, published a few years after Biswas.) It’s hilarious and sad and all the usual things we say a work of literature is when we mean it seems to contain all of life. Going to buy that gold brooch for you, girl. Other books that made my year -- besides some poetry titles I wrote about for the Chicago Tribune -- include John Jeremiah Sullivan’s Pulphead; Richard Hughes’s In Hazard; Haddawy’s translation of The Arabian Nights (except the verses -- it’s called meter, dude); David Graeber’s Debt (read if you have student loans and want to feel even angrier about them); Fantagraphics’s reprints of Carl Barks’s duck comics; Brian Michael Bendis and Klaus Janson’s Daredevil: End of Days (for those who preferred Frank Miller before he became a right-wing dipshit); George Herbert’s The Temple; and the Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer. 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 Year in Reading: Lydia Kiesling

Oh, what did I read this year. I read all the Dear Prudence columns and some of The New York Times Vows and 6,000 things on Wedding Bee and even more things on Facebook and a lot of Tweets I do not remember now. I read two-thirds of the things about the election and one-third of the Mormon mommy blogs. I read most of the Andrew Sullivan and some of the Ta-Nehisi Coates and half of The New Yorker, but not the thing about Hilary Mantel, because I didn't read Wolf Hall, until this week when I read half of it on the train. In the airplane I read Esquire. In the bathroom I read The Economist that I got free with the miles I accrued reading Esquire in the airplane. In the living room I read the alumni magazine I got free with the expense I incurred on my education. I read the whole Jonah Lehrer scandal. My favorite thing I read on Jezebel was a video of a dog fetching a cat. I read In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, and my word, was that good. I read The Appearance of a Hero, and wrote a whole review of it in my head called "Where the Bros Are" -- or was it "For the Bros"? -- but forgot to write it down (don't get me started on the things I didn't write this year). I read NW and couldn't stop thinking about the scene with the tampon string like a mouse tail and got the taste of metal in my mouth, thank you very much Zadie Smith. I read We Need to Talk About Kevin and got the feel of bleach in my eye and hamster in my sink, thank you very much Lionel Shriver. I read The Snow Child which was like Crystal Light with extra Splenda (that is not a compliment, in case it's not clear). I read The Silent House which gave me the willies (that is a compliment). I read the The Deptford Trilogy because every year I have to read something by Robertson Davies and like it and then forget what it was about. I read the Donald Antrim triple-decker (one, two, three), and those were the greatest old new things I read this year. I re-read Good-bye to All That and Tender is the Night and Midnight's Children. I did not re-read The Tin Drum or Middlemarch or The Chronicles of Narnia or any Sherlock Holmes stories, and I really feel it in my bones that I did not re-read these things. I did not re-read The Corrections or Cleveland's History of the Modern Middle East, which I was going to re-read to remember what is the deal with Syria. I only re-read half of one movement of A Dance to the Music of Time (one-eighth, then). I still did not read Witz or Swamplandia! or The Instructions or A Visit from the Goon Squad or Skippy Dies or The Art of Fielding, or How Should a Person Be? even though I spent $30 on it at a book thing to seem like a team player. More distressing, I still did not really read Don Quixote or Das Kapital or War and Peace, or a thing by Stendahl or Ulysses. I did not read one really hard book this year, except one by Buket Uzuner, and that was just hard for me, and I didn't really read that either, just 20 pages. As usual, to compose my Year in Reading is to confront my failures. Resolved for 2013: more paper, less screen. More reading, more revelation. 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.

Timing Is Everything: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

There are few iron facts in the crapshoot of the literary life, but here's one: In book publishing -- no less than in music, war, and sex -- timing is everything. I have found five books that illustrate different facets of this fact. In the first, what initially appeared to be bad timing proved to be the opposite. In the second, the timing of publication was simply horrible. And the three others were graced with something no amount of publicity or hype can buy: great dumb luck. 1. Joe Posnanski, a decorated sportswriter, snagged a $750,000 advance in March of last year to write a biography of a living American sports legend with a reputation so flawless and immense that the man had already been cast as a seven-foot-tall, 900-pound bronze figure with his right index finger pointing toward heaven. A first printing of 75,000 copies of the biography was scheduled. Publication was set for Father's Day, 2013. As Posnanski got busy, success -- in the form of a monster bestseller -- seemed assured. His working title, suitably breathless for a subject already immortalized in bronze, was The Grand Experiment: The Life and Meaning of Joe Paterno. But Posnanski's dream began to unravel almost immediately. The same month he signed his contract, the Harrisburg Patriot-News reported that a grand jury had been hearing testimony about allegations, originally made in 2009, that Jerry Sandusky had molested a teenage boy while working as an assistant football coach for Paterno at Penn State University. Eight months later, Sandusky was arrested and charged with sexually assaulting eight boys over a 15-year period. Then it came out that a graduate assistant had told Paterno, way back in 2001, that he had witnessed Sandusky raping a 10-year-old boy in a Penn State locker room -- and Paterno had notified the university athletic director but not the police or any child protective agency. The university's board of trustees promptly fired Paterno, who had been football coach for 45 years, winning a record 409 games. Two months later Paterno died of lung cancer at the age of 85. At this delicate moment, already swamped by bad news, Posnanski probably did himself no favors by writing a column in Sports Illustrated that called for a balancing of his subject's "full life" against "a single, hazy event involving an alleged child molester." On June 22, a jury convicted Sandusky of 45 counts of sexually abusing young boys. In a blistering report issued a month later, former-F.B.I. director Louis J. Freeh stated that Paterno not only failed to report the sex-abuse allegations to police, but that he and other university officials concealed Sandusky's activities for more than a decade. Also, it was revealed that in 2011 Paterno had renegotiated his own contract, winning more money and perks -- even as the scandal was becoming front-page news. Ten days later after the Freeh report was issued, in a Sadam Hussein moment, that 900-pound statue of Paterno was removed from its pedestal in front of Beaver Stadium. This wasn't a perfect storm of bad timing; it was a typhoon, a tsunami. Posnanski's publisher, Simon & Schuster, reacted accordingly, pushing the publication date up to this summer, limiting author interviews, and scaling back the book tour. Reading the book is an unsettling experience. Posnanski is a solid reporter and a nimble if not elegant writer. He enjoyed complete access to Paterno, his family, university staff and many others, and he paints a largely sympathetic portrait of a man who touched thousands of young lives in positive ways, but then drifted out of touch and over-stayed his welcome. Posnanski points out that Paterno was never fond of Sandusky, who retired in 1999 after it became clear he was not going to succeed Paterno as head coach. Sandusky, a teetotaling Christian, then devoted his time and energy to his Second Mile charity for young people, while enjoying the run of the Penn State football facilities. It was a dream setup for a pedophile. In this 402-page book, the chapter entitled "Sandusky" runs just 14 pages, which opens Posnanski to at least the appearance that he's soft-pedaling his story's dark heart. Near the end of the book, Posnanski reveals an incident designed to portray his subject as almost touchingly out of tune with the times. When his family insists that he read the appalling indictment against Sandusky, Paterno reluctantly complies. Halfway through it, he turns to his son Scott and says, "What is sodomy, anyway?" But the episode backfires once you're aware that Paterno may have been 85 years old at the time and hopelessly out of touch -- but he was in touch enough to be aggressively negotiating for more money and perks. During his final conversation with his biographer, the dying, defrocked legend confesses, "I wish I had done more." As contrition goes, this strikes me as falling far short of Robert S. McNamara's mea culpa -- "We were wrong, terribly wrong" -- in his 1995 memoir about his disastrous mishandling of the Vietnam War, In Retrospect. Then again, McNamara sent tens of thousands of young Americans to pointless deaths while Paterno merely looked the other way while an underling ruined the lives of a few dozen boys. Maybe size matters when it comes to assessing monstrous acts. On the eve of Paterno's publication, The New York Times reported that the book's subject had gone, almost overnight, from "revered to radioactive." But then a funny thing happened. On Sept. 9, shortly after its publication, Paterno debuted on The Times hardcover bestseller list at #1. The next week it slipped to #5. A week later, it was at #12. Not the monster bestseller Posnanski and his publisher had envisioned, perhaps, but far from shabby. It turns out that even the very worst publicity can be good publicity, and there will always be a market for radioactivity. On Oct. 9, Sansdusky was sentenced to 30 to 60 years, virtually ensuring that he will die in prison. And Joe Posnanski has a #1 New York Times bestseller on his resume. All writers should suffer from such terrible timing. 2. Alex Shakar's timing, on the other hand, was truly, deeply, immaculately dreadful. In the summer of 2000, when he was 32 years old, Shakar had the surreal experience of watching a small army of publishers trample each other for the privilege of paying him a small fortune for his first novel. The bidding frenzy finally peaked at "about a third of a million bucks," Shakar reported in a rueful recounting of the episode in The Millions last year. The following summer, as an elaborate marketing campaign was taking shape, Shakar found himself signing galleys of his forthcoming novel at Book Expo in Chicago, alongside such literary stars as Joyce Carol Oates, Clive Barker, and Ann Patchett.  Details magazine did a photo shoot of Shakar tricked out in 1980s clothing. People magazine wanted to do a profile. The early reviews in the trade papers were "glowing." Shakar's novel, called The Savage Girl, deals with the fallout of rampant consumerism, predicting that the current bubble can't last and an era of "post-irony" is on the way. The protagonist has taken a job with a trend-spotting savant who sees the perfect consumer product: diet water. The story includes a bomb threat by a terrorist, and computer screen savers that show a city being destroyed by a nuclear attack. When the electricity in a high-rise building fails, a character asks, "What is it this time? Terrorists or the usual incompetence?" He then answers his own question: "Can't rule out Armageddon." Late that summer Shakar's editor, the renowned Robert Jones, lost a long battle with cancer. A memorial service was held on Sept. 10, eight days before the book's publication. The day after the memorial service, Shakar heard a radio bulletin at his parents' house in Brooklyn, and he and his father climbed the fire escape to the roof to watch the north tower of the World Trade Center burn. White pages -- legal documents -- had fluttered all the way across the East River to Brooklyn. Fearing chemical weapons, father and son went downstairs to watch the two towers collapse on television. "There goes your novel," Shakar's father said. The scheduled book tour went forward, though turnouts were modest or nonexistent. The publisher pulled the planned second round of national advertising. There were no national television appearances. Shakar noted that even the rave reviews read like obituaries. A reviewer for The New York Times called the novel "a sharply observant relic of the recent past." With pundits everywhere proclaiming "the death of irony," People magazine decided not to run its profile of Alex Shakar. 3. Among the authors who wrote enthusiastic blurbs for The Savage Girl was Jonathan Franzen, who had published his novel The Corrections just 17 days earlier, on Sept. 1, 2001. Franzen called Shakar's book "an exceptionally smart and likable first novel that tries valiantly to ransom Beauty from its commercial captors." While Shakar's misfortune was that events made his novel seem instantaneously dated in many eyes, Franzen's good luck was that those same events made his novel look prescient to just about everyone. Life is not fair. The Corrections opens with these lines: "The madness of an autumn prairie cold front coming through. You could feel it: something terrible was going to happen." The novel is marinated in this sense of dread, which was about to become the dominant American mood. And while it makes no mention of bomb threats, terrorists, Armageddon or post-irony, the book traffics in topics that would become part of the national conversation in the coming decade, from global warming to viral marketing, psychopharmaceuticals, even the coming organic and artisanal food movement, with its Brooklyn epicenter. Irony didn't die on 9/11, but The Corrections marked a major shift not only for its author but for many writers working in America -- a shift away from the irony-laced pyrotechnics of postmodernism, and toward the rich hardware of realism. This was no small thing, it didn't happen overnight, and it wasn't easy to do. As Franzen told BOMB magazine, "Simply to write a book that wasn't dressed up in a swashbuckling, Pynchon-sized megaplot was enormously difficult." The Corrections ended up becoming a literary sensation, fuelled by a bit of counter-intuitive marketing that cemented Franzen's status as a canary in America's cultural coal mine. When Oprah Winfrey invited Franzen to appear on her book club show, he declined, citing her tendency to pick "schmaltzy, one-dimensional" books. People howled that Franzen was the worst thing you can be in America: an elitist. (During his 2008 campaign for the presidency, Barack Obama would feel compelled to reassure voters that he and his wife are not "elitist, pointy-headed intellectual types.") The marketing director for Franzen's publisher had the good sense to be delighted by the uproar over his Oprah snub, saying, "This level of news activity works to keep him front and center in bookstores." Franzen has followed The Corrections with a book of essays, a memoir, a work of translation, and another big novel, Freedom. He wound up on the cover of Time magazine in 2010. It took Alex Shakar 10 years to produce a second novel. 4. Perhaps no writer enjoyed better timing than Tom Wolfe with his novel Bonfire of the Vanities. The book, a giddy lampoon of the go-go Reagan years, including preening Wall Street bond salesmen who fancied themselves "Masters of the Universe," appeared just weeks after the Bloody Monday stock market crash in the fall of 1987. The collapse of global markets and the ensuing recession -- the payback for a decade's worth of hubris and unbridled greed -- certified Bonfire as an almost magical bottling of the '80s zeitgeist. Timing doesn't get any better than that. The book became a smash best-seller. It hit such a nerve that Michael Lewis, a former bond salesman, paid it the highest of compliments by noting that one of its central coinages had entered mainstream American lingo. "By the end of the 1980s," Lewis wrote, "it was not unusual to see a bond salesman celebrate the sale of a block of $100 million mortgage bonds by standing on top of his desk, beating his chest and hollering, 'I am a Master of the Universe!'" 5. Come to think of it, there was a book that enjoyed even better timing than Bonfire. It was a sensationally salacious tell-all called Elvis: What Happened? The book consisted of the tape-recorded words of three of Elvis's former bodyguards as told to Steve Dunleavy, Rupert Murdoch's favorite mad-dog tabloid reporter. The three members of the Memphis Mafia, bitter over being fired by Elvis's father after years of loyal service, started telling their stories to Dunleavy in 1976. And what stories! They talked about a daily diet of uppers and downers that would have taken down a bull elk and eventually turned Elvis into "a walking pharmaceutical shop." They talked about the King's one experiment with LSD. They talked about Elvis's love for guns, which led him to blast a television set when smarmy Robert Goulet's face swam onto the screen. They talked about Elvis's fascination with death, which led him to break into a mortuary and give lectures on embalming in the presence of corpses. The book was published on Aug. 1, 1977. Fifteen days later, Elvis pitched off the toilet in the master bathroom at Graceland, constipated, overweight, drug-addled, and very dead at the age of 42. Rupert Murdoch had planned to run excerpts of the book in his New York Post tabloid later in the summer. But Murdoch, never a man to pass up a chance to turn a buck, pounced. The Post ran the first excerpt on the day Elvis died, under the headline NEW BOOK TELLS OF HIS DECLINE IN DRUG NIGHTMARE. Elvis's drug use became the focus of much of the publicity surrounding the book. Late on the day Elvis died, Dunleavy appeared on an NBC News special anchored by David Brinkley. Sporting a beard and waving a cigar, Dunleavy talked about Elvis's prodigious drug intake, his seclusion and his weight problem, then added that Elvis was "a poor kid from the South...a bad word, a nasty word, but one that is often used, 'white trash.'" People were furious, but they kept buying the book. Even after ham-fisted Dunleavy appeared on "Good Morning, America" the next day and got into a pissing match with Geraldo Rivera, Elvis: What Happened? kept flying off the shelves. But the troika of Memphis Mafioso were chagrined by their book's "good" timing. They held a press conference expressing their undying love for Elvis, and denying that they were "bloodsuckers" trying to capitalize on his death. The book sold 5 million copies in the year after Elvis's death. Which proves, beyond all doubt, that timing is everything. Image Credit: Flickr/..stiina..

Why Does Everyone Love It But Me? An Interview with Daniel Mendelsohn

Daniel Mendelsohn’s Manhattan apartment is quiet, classy, tasteful. It is a symphony of stillness and neutrals in stark contrast to the constant motion, precise convictions, and easy chatter of the man who inhabits it. He apologizes for having nothing to offer but ice water, but is generous and forthright in his conversation. Mendelsohn is the author of two memoirs, The Elusive Embrace and The Lost, as well as a translation of the poems of C.P. Cavafy, a scholarly book about Greek tragedy, and two collections of critical essays, How Beautiful It Is And How Easily It Can Be Broken and the just published Waiting for the Barbarians. Previously the book critic for New York magazine, he is now a regular contributor to the New Yorker and the New York Review of Books. He has a Ph.D. in Classics and is a professor at Bard College, and there is the air of the scholar about him. Yet his lean freelancing-and-grad school, ramen-eating days remain a favorite topic, as do current movies and TV shows. I‘ve come to talk to Mendelsohn about that vexed and suddenly trendy topic, the current state of criticism. A piece he published on the New Yorker blog Page-Turner, “A Critic’s Manifesto”, in late August described his love for the New Yorker critics of the 70s and his views on criticism, so it seemed like a good starting point for our discussion, which covered that piece, both of his essay collections, Mad Men, Grandma’s noodle kugel, John Cheever, cultural mushiness, and Battlestar Galactica. The Millions: I read “A Critic’s Manifesto” and thought, “Oh no! You wrote about all of the things I was going to ask you. There goes my thunder.” But I thought we could spend some time talking about the piece and what prompted you to write it. Daniel Mendelsohn: Well, there was this flamboyant review of Dale Peck’s novel which I think people had mixed feelings for because Dale Peck has specialized in that theatrical kind of criticism. I don’t think many people were shedding a tear for him. Then there was the Alex Ohlin piece [both negative reviews in the New York Times Book Review]. Then there was this great outpouring in the literary community. The New Yorker emailed me and said do you want to weigh in on this? And I did. I thought the way the discussion was trending, should negative reviews be published, seemed so egregious. It’s like saying should I use half of my brain? But I wasn’t planning on writing 4,000 words. I just wrote it in one white hot sitting. This is very important to me. I do a lot of different kinds of writing, and I’ll be doing an interview about one of my books and they will be talking about my criticism as a day job. And I laugh, because this is not a day job. This is what a lot of my mind inhabits. I thought there was something that wasn’t being said about what critics are or can be or what criticism is or isn’t and how it functions. TM: There is a formula for criticism in the piece which says that knowledge + taste = meaningful judgment, with an emphasis on meaningful.  What makes a critique meaningful? As you point out, a lot of people have opinions who are not really critics and there are lots of people who are experts on subjects who don’t write good criticism. If everyone is not really a critic, where is the magic? DM: It’s a very interesting question. It is magic, it’s a kind of alchemy. We all have opinions, and many people have intelligent opinions. But that’s not the same. Nor is it the case that great experts are good critics. I come out of an academic background so I’m very familiar with that end of the spectrum of knowledge. I spent a lot of my journalistic career as a professional explainer of the Classics—when I first started writing whenever there was some Greek toga-and-sandals movie they would always call me in—so I developed the sense of what it means to mediate between expertise and accessibility. You use the word magic, which I very well might make part of my stock Homeric epithet about criticism. It’s intangible, what goes on. I know a good critic when I read one. It’s a hard thing to nail down, but that’s why I described it as a kind of recipe. Look, it’s exactly like a recipe. Three people can make grandma’s noodle kugel but only Grandma’s noodle kugel tastes like Grandma’s noodle kugel. TM: Yes. DM: There’s all kinds of intangibles and personality is one of them. Critics have weak spots and strong spots according to their personalities. I think good critics avoid their weak spots, the things you dislike for reasons that might not be totally kosher. It’s not supposed to be some august, abstract, neutral judgment. It’s precisely the opposite. It’s an engagement of a specific persona with a specific work. What is vitiated in this project of criticism right now is the consumerization of everything. Everything is should I get it? Should I click? Should I not click? That’s not the point of criticism. That’s the point of the shopping channel. I’m not trying to persuade someone to go see a movie or to read a book. I’m talking to someone who is interested in that book about what I thought about it. So it’s very subjective and yet it has to ultimately have a wider appeal than just the subject. It’s very much like being a good judge in the legal sense. You bring a lifetime of experience and in the end it’s very specific to the case. TM: That’s an interesting metaphor because what do judges write? Opinions. And what do critics give? They give their opinion. And it should be a meaningful opinion, and have something to back it up. DM: Traction is the word I always come back to. It has to have a purchase on something. I like that idea of the opinion. No judge says this is the law of the cosmos. He says this is my opinion based on everything I know which should be a lot. TM: Which is why good critics can take on a subject which they didn’t know about before and offer an opinion that ends up being meaningful. You talk about people having strengths and weaknesses but I’ve taken assignments on the basis of thinking, oh, that would be interesting to learn about. DM: Yes. Because what’s interesting is your mind as applied to different things. As a reader of Lisa Levy I’m interested in the interaction between your specific mind and that specific thing. This is where the other secret ingredient of journalistic criticism—it can be a blog, it can be the New York Review of Books, that doesn’t matter—is you have editors. And I at the New York Review of Books have one of the greatest editors in the history of editors [Bob Silvers]. Very often some of the best pieces I’ve done, or the strongest pieces, to use Bob’s favorite adjective, are things I would have never have thought of for myself. But that’s what great editors do. They match up a writer with a subject. For example, I think one of the best pieces I ever wrote was about The Producers, the musical [“Double Take” in Broken]. I in a million years would never have chosen to write about The Producers. Bob was very insistent. And in the end it was fruitful. The Mad Men piece [“The Mad Men Account” in Barbarians] was something Bob was insistent for years that I write. For the record no serious critic goes into a job planning to do a takedown. All I heard about Mad Men was that it was great. I watch TV—I watch more TV than most people, trust me. So I was excited. I sat in my bedroom watching with a good friend of mine and we looked at each other after three episodes and I said, “The love is not happening.” Then it becomes interesting. Why does everyone else love it but not me? That becomes the germ of the piece. To pick up on what you were saying before there can be a danger to staying in your comfort zone. It becomes boring. I honestly don’t want to write about many more toga-and-sandal epics. You’ve said what you have to say about a certain range of cultural products. You have your schtick, right? And sometimes you can just not have something to say. Bob wanted me for years to do a big piece about John Cheever. TM: That’s interesting. DM: When the Library of America volumes were coming out. And I spent six months working on this piece. I read every word of, about, for, and by John Cheever. For me it’s always a matter of working up a theory. In the end I didn’t have one. There was nothing I, Daniel Mendelsohn, was going to write about John Cheever that a thousand other people weren’t going to write. So I said this is a waste of your money. It just didn’t speak to me. TM: You mentioned loving the New Yorker critics of the 70s and then elsewhere you named Henry James, Susan Sontag, Gore Vidal, and Aristotle as critics who influenced you. Is there anyone else you feel like has molded you as a critic? DM: You’re molded by the first people you encounter. I would certainly say Gore Vidal had a huge influence on me. The best thing about Gore Vidal was even when he was writing about something he knew intimately he never came off as academic. I still remember a piece he wrote about Montaigne. It was always conversational, engaging. It was like talking to a very smart person but someone who wasn’t an egghead. I don’t know how else to say it. In terms of influences those early people—Andrew Porter, in the New Yorker, I learned more about music from him than I did for the rest of my life. Particularly opera, which is a great love of mine. And [Helen] Vendler. Look, not everyone is a Vendlerite. She has her own distinctive way of reading things and likes and dislikes but that’s not the point. She has a kind of voice. It’s always so interesting when these people who are so august reveal personal flashes. I still remember this thing she said when Jimmy Merrill died which made an incredible impression on me. That’s the kind of thing I’ve emulated. Your first obligation is to do your homework, obviously, read everything, but there is that subjective magic. It’s very important to reveal your feelings if you have strong feelings during a performance or about a person. You’re allowed to say I burst into tears or something. If it doesn’t do that to you, ultimately, why are you in this business? Those were the people: Kael, Vendler, Porter, [dance critic] Arlene Croce, Whitney Balliett writing about cabaret. They just seemed to have authority. It made that an attractive idea: that if you worked hard enough you could have a kind of authority and speak in a way that other people who were not authorities would find interesting and not threatening. That’s something a lot of academics haven’t figured out. They’re interesting but they’re intimidating or they’re opaque or they’re talking to themselves. TM: Or they are specialists writing for specialists. DM: Which becomes a kind of crazy... TM: Dog eating its tail. DM: Exactly. It’s like the Cylons talking to each other. TM: Are there works that you’ve reviewed that you feel differently about now? DM: Now that’s a good question. That’s a question that should be emailed weeks in advance. It’s likely to be the case that things I was enthusiastic about…on longer reflection the flaws reveal themselves. But that’s not a terrible thing. For example, I had to revisit Jonathan Franzen when I was writing the piece that’s in this book [“Zoned Out” in  Barbarians] about his essays, which I found very revelatory. He is someone who strikes me as a novelist, and these essays are a smaller part of his output. I don’t think it’s where he really lives, and I think that’s a problem. He should be making novels out of them, not essays. I was working on that piece in 2006, but I had reviewed The Corrections when I was book critic at New York magazine which I had very much liked. When I went back to it I started to see things in The Corrections which I hadn’t picked up on the first time around that suggested a worrisome pattern. TM: What’s the most controversial thing you’ve written? DM: Certainly the Mad Men thing was just out of control. It took me a little by surprise. But that demonstrated the intensity of the phenomenon I was describing in the piece: that people are attached to this show in a way that transcends formal aesthetic dramatic considerations. It’s deeply emotional. I couldn’t believe how much stuff was coming back to me about it. I found myself having arguments with nineteen-year-old skateboarders in Seattle. But that’s great. If people want to argue, as long as it’s civil and intelligent I’ll talk to anybody about anything. That’s also part of your job as a critic. Here again I would say my Classics background influences me because when you are a Classicist you are learning how to read a culture through more specific readings of buildings, tragedies, comedies, whatever. In that sense I think it can be your job not just to look at the text itself but to look at the cultural surround, which is why in a piece like that one is allowed to mention the action figures, the Sesame Street episode. This is part of it. In a similar way I wrote about The Lovely Bones [“Novel of the Year” in Broken]. There’s the thing itself, then there is this incredible cultural event around it. I think it’s legitimate to include that. One of the good things about writing for the New York Review of Books is Bob doesn’t care that much about timeliness. So you can take something like The Lovely Bones—that piece was four months after publication if not more—and that allows you to do a different kind of review than if you were doing it for New York magazine and had to get the word out. I think those reviews might actually have more legs—Greater legs? Longer legs?—because they’re anchored in the longer cultural picture rather than in the moment. I won’t know until I’m dead, but it will be interesting to see if those pieces have a little more edge. TM: Well, I think you’ll probably know in two years, five years, ten years, to some extent. DM: Again, as a Classicist, you are used to taking the long view. I was once doing an event and somebody asked, “When you write reviews do you think of the feelings of the writer?” I said that I was trained to think of the writer as having been dead for two thousand years. It’s actually very good because then you focus on the work. You don’t want to be cruel or snarky but to take the work seriously. So that long view is an echo or inheritance from the way I was trained to read things. TM: I was trained in an English department where I studied eighteenth- and nineteenth- century American literature so I have the same attitude. A certain detachment is welcome when it comes to criticism. And I write a blog called Dead Critics. One of the themes I saw in reading both collections was a kind of reaction against sentimentality. You brought up the Lovely Bones piece where I think it’s very much present and in the Mad Men piece also, a certain maudlin— DM: A kind of mushiness... TM: Right, mushiness, that if it’s not predominant in the culture then that the culture seems to celebrate. DM: Yes. I think that’s an excellent summary and I think that we are in a culture of a kind of reflexive celebration of everything and therefore you have to dig in your heels a little and resist. Especially if it’s an overwhelming tsunami of public feeling. Then it’s doubly your duty to use your mind, use your tools, and to dissect the object at hand and to look at it not coldly but coolly. You can find that you like it, I’m not saying that this is necessarily a negative or a destructive enterprise. I do think we’re in a sentimental culture and I think it’s making us a worse culture. I really do. Look, I’m a guy who wrote a book about Greek tragedy which is a very appealing form for me because there is no wiggle room in tragedy. You do things, you suffer the consequences. There’s something about the rigor of that that appeals to me. TM: I’m curious as to what you think some of the other themes are in this collection. DM: I think that what I call the reality problem is a big one. This idea of reality as subjective—obviously in the memoirs thing [“But Enough About Me” in Barbarians] it comes up and that was of great interest to me as I’ve written two memoirs. Certainly I would say that writing about the self is a big theme in this collection. If I were reviewing my collection a consistent theme—talk about The Producers, this is certainly the theme of that piece but it’s also the theme of the Julie Taymor piece [“Why She Fell” in Barbarians]—is how because of the seductions of pop culture interesting artists end up betraying themselves. Sometimes a disappointment is in an artist that I liked and somehow the work ends up betraying itself. Sometimes the sentimentality, the mushiness can end up making a work mean the opposite of what it’s supposed to mean. TM: It’s in the Alan Hollinghurst piece too [“In Gay and Crumbling England” in Barbarians]. DM: Yes. I think that’s happening to Alan Hollinghurst. It’s not a sinister thing, it just happens. TM: I’m thinking about some of your positive reviews, like the one of The Master [“The Passion of Henry James” in Broken]. On the whole it is very positive but at the end you have that feeling about Colm Tóibín, that he’s on the verge of doing that. One of the themes that I found running through both collections is about a kind of moral failure, or people who face moral dilemmas and either make the wrong choice or have a failure of nerve. They can’t quite follow through on the promise of the work. DM: Very few people can carry through an entire career the wonderful, momentous, originary strangeness of the vision that got them noticed in the first place. Hollinghurst is a great example. The Swimming Pool Library and The Folding Star are probably two of the most interesting novels of the past twenty years. But you’ve remained you, and the world keeps going. Very few people—and usually they are just very great artists, and I don’t use the word great lightly—are the ones who can just keep going. Picasso, Shakespeare, Balanchine, people who are just beyond time. What happens to most people is they start out, they’re subversive, they’re quirky, they’re interesting, they have a new way of dealing with a subject. It puts them on the map. But then, you know, you win a lot of awards, you have a house in the country...And whatever your edge was, it goes away. Sometimes it doesn’t matter, you keep working. I did not enjoy The Stranger’s Child. Clearly, something had shifted. Art goes on forever but artists are mortal and careers have arcs and you get into a groove. It’s like what we were talking about before. Very few people transcend their position within which the moment that they live. We exist in time, as writers and critics and artists. It’s going to happen unless you are very exceptional. I think that’s an interesting observation about that as a theme. Probably because I’m afraid it’s going to happen to me. I’m sure someone is writing a piece about my book right now saying Mendelsohn has betrayed himself. TM: One last question. Is there anything or anyone you are dying to write about but haven’t yet? DM: The great regret that I have is that I would have loved to have written a really major piece about Battlestar Galactica, which I think is one of the greatest things to have ever been on TV. It’s extraordinary. I would love to take that thing apart. I thought it was so exciting and I was just evangelical about it. I think the most interesting thing that is going on in culture right now is television. There’s a whole Classical angle, an Aeneid thing going on, but also the Iraq war. People have discussed different aspects of it but I would come at it whole. TM: I’ve never seen anything written about it that I thought was great. DM: I also thought it was deeply philosophical in the real sense of the word. It made you think. It was an existential problem that was established by this genius idea of having these robots be indistinguishable from humans even by themselves. And they milked it. They dramatized it. That was my complaint about Mad Men. I don’t think the issues were dramatized. They were announced or advertised. But this existential, philosophical issue in Battlestar was dramatized. When the first officer [Colonel Tigh] realized that he was a Cylon and there was the scene between him and the captain. That was wrenching! That was drama. Then there is the religious thing, about monotheism and polytheism. TM: There’s so many things. There is a psychoanalytic thing that is very strong, about are we our fantasies? Are we who we think we are? There’s a nationalist thing— DM: The whole political angle, the civilian government versus the military government. It’s really gripping. And the acting was so incredibly great. From the minute I started watching it I thought I was going to die, I was so happy. So that’s my big regret. I really think this needs to be done. And I would like to do it.

The Prizewinners 2011/12

With the awarding of the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, the 2011/2012 literary award season is now over, which gives us the opportunity to update our list of prizewinners. Literary prizes are, of course, deeply arbitrary in many ways; such is the nature of keeping score in a creative field. Nonetheless, our prizewinners post is compiled in the same spirit that one might tally up Cy Young Awards and MVPs to determine if a baseball player should be considered for the Hall of Fame. These awards nudge an author towards the "canon" and help secure them places on literature class reading lists for decades to come. There are three books climbing the ranks this year. Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad moved up thanks to landing on the IMPAC shortlist and is now in some rarefied company among the most honored books of the last 20 years, while The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes and Binocular Vision by Edith Pearlman both won notice from more than one literary prize last year. Here is our methodology: I wanted to include both American books and British books, as well as the English-language books from other countries that are eligible to win some of these awards. I started with the National Book Award and the Pulitzer from the American side and the Booker and Costa from the British side. Because I wanted the British books to "compete" with the American books, I also looked at a couple of awards that recognize books from both sides of the ocean, the National Book Critics Circle Awards and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. The IMPAC is probably the weakest of all these, but since it is both more international and more populist than the other awards, I thought it added something. The glaring omission is the PEN/Faulkner, but it would have skewed everything too much in favor of the American books, so I left it out. I looked at these six awards from 1995 to the present, awarding three points for winning an award and two points for an appearance on a shortlist or as a finalist. Here's the key that goes with the list: B=Booker Prize, C=National Book Critics Circle Award, I=International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, N=National Book Award, P=Pulitzer Prize, W=Costa Book Award [formerly the Whitbread] bold=winner, red=New to the list or moved up* the list since last year's "Prizewinners" post *Note that the IMPAC considers books a year after the other awards do, and so this year's IMPAC shortlist nods were added to point totals from last year. 11, 2003, The Known World by Edward P. Jones - C, I, N, P 9, 2001, The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen - C, I, N, P 8, 2010, A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan - C, I, P 8, 2009, Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel - B, C, W 8, 2007, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz - C, I, P 8, 1997, Underworld by Don DeLillo - C, I, N, P 7, 2005, The March by E.L. Doctorow - C, N, P 7, 2004, Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst - B, C, W 7, 2002, Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides - I, N, P 7, 2001, Atonement by Ian McEwan - B, C, W 7, 1998, The Hours by Michael Cunningham - C, I, P 7, 1997, Last Orders by Graham Swift - B, I, W 7, 1997, Quarantine by Jim Crace - B, I, W 6, 2009, Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann - N, I 6, 2009, Home by Marilynn Robinson - C, N, I 6, 2005, The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai - B, C 6, 2004, Gilead by Marilynn Robinson - C, P 5, 2011, Binocular Vision by Edith Pearlman - C, N 5, 2011, The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes - B, W 5, 2009, Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín - W, I 5, 2008, The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry - B, W 5, 2008, Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout - C, P 5, 2007, Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson - N, P 5, 2006, The Road by Cormac McCarthy - C, P 5, 2006, The Echo Maker by Richard Powers - N, P 5, 2005, Europe Central by William T. Vollmann - C, N 5, 2005, The Accidental by Ali Smith - B, W 5, 2004, The Master by Colm Tóibín - B, I 5, 2003, The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard - I, N 5, 2001, True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey - B, I 5, 2000, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon - C, P 5, 2000, The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood - B, I 5, 1999, Waiting by Ha Jin - N, P 5, 1999, Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee - B, C 5, 1999, Being Dead by Jim Crace - C, W 5, 1998, Charming Billy by Alice McDermott - I, N 5, 1997, American Pastoral by Philip Roth - C, P 5, 1996, Every Man for Himself by Beryl Bainbridge - B, W 5, 1996, Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer by Steven Millhauser - N, P 5, 1995, The Moor's Last Sigh by Salman Rushdie - B, W 5, 1995, The Ghost Road by Pat Barker - B, W 5, 1995, Independence Day by Richard Ford - C, P 5, 1995, Sabbath's Theater by Philip Roth - N, P

Confessions of a Literary Jingoist

Recently, I watched an Iranian, an Italo-Palestinian, and an American Jew take the stage at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, backed by a string quartet. There’s a punch line in there somewhere. (A reporter for the Village Voice quipped, “Even Rush Limbaugh couldn't make up a funnier parody of what Upper East Side Manhattanites do on a Tuesday night.”) “Exit Strategies” was one of the first events of this year’s PEN World Voices Festival, and its participants, Marjane Satrapi, Rula Jabreal, and Tony Kushner, would repeatedly and somewhat apologetically call it an “experiment.” The Kronos Quartet — never a group to back down from an experiment — was meant to play pretty much nonstop, as the writers spoke with (or over) them. Kushner had the most success, reading a poem about grief and working with the cadences of the music. Satrapi talked about the moment the world’s view of Iran shifted from princes and flying carpets to riots and religious extremists; she was improvising warmly but apprehensively, which left her occasionally shouting past the quartet. But Jabreal barely acknowledged the musicians at all, determined to deliver a cavalcade of political talking points: the wars, corruption in Washington, the health-care crisis, and the Republican primary field, all dredged up for a clearly liberal audience that probably never wanted to hear about Michele Bachmann again. It was a strange night. The Village Voice reporter likened the Kronos Quartet to the band on the sinking Titanic, but it wasn’t as bad as all that — and he admitted as much, too. It was definitely an experiment, interesting at times, nerve-wracking at others, but the thing that struck me was the conversational clash that followed, like when Jabreal asked Satrapi what she thought the 2012 election looked like outside the United States, as the quartet plowed on in the background, and a clearly frustrated Satrapi said that she was elated by the music — and really wasn’t interested in talking about Mitt Romney. The declaration earned her the biggest applause of the night. They both had fair points: the event was ostensibly about music; the program didn’t promise a dissection of American politics. But it was an opportunity for two Middle Eastern women to talk about their vantages from abroad, specifically from such cosseted places as Iran and Palestine — views that are a fair bit harder to find than most in the American literary landscape. This was the seventh annual PEN World Voices Festival, which brings together writers from around the world to, according to this year’s introduction, “celebrate the power of the written word in action.” It purports the values of PEN itself, whose charter states that: “Literature knows no frontiers and must remain common currency among people in spite of political or international upheavals.” PEN World Voices is one of the foremost international literary events in New York City, a place that, as the center of American publishing and home to a basically alarming number of writers, looks inward — celebrates the local, perhaps — more often than not. I’m as guilty as any of literary jingoism: I attend maybe one reading per week in Brooklyn or Manhattan, and it may be partly my own fault, but the writers I encounter nearly always hail from the Anglophone world, whether they’re native-born or have emigrated here or to the UK. Most of the authors I read fall into the same category. The topics I’m interested in, the regions in which I’d like to see a story set — all of these fall within the confines of English-speaking lands. And I think this is probably a personal failing. Maybe I don’t need to know how Mitt Romney comes off in Iran. But so little writing from the vast majority of the world penetrates the American literary scene, and my own personal literary scene. It’s an age-old complaint, but things don’t really seem to be changing. You can seek out literature from just about anywhere — and now it’s easier than any previous point in history — but it’s a hell of a lot harder to bring it into the conversation. There’s that famous and damning statistic: translated works make up just three percent of the American book market (and, in contrast, sixty percent of all the translated literature in the world comes from English). The University of Rochester, who named their translated literature site, Three Percent, after the fact, suggests that when narrowed down to literary fiction and poetry, the number drops to a paltry 0.7 percent. There contemporary notable exceptions, from genre (Stieg Larsson and the European crime-novelist wave that has sprung up in his stead) to mega-bestsellers (Paulo Coelho, Umberto Eco) to the literary masters (Gabriel García Márquez, Orhan Pamuk, José Saramago, and a handful of others) that have become permanent fixtures in our canon. And of course there are the hippest of the modern-day literary heavyweights, Haruki Murakami and Roberto Bolaño. But the majority of translated literature remains largely obscure, lauded in niches within the publishing and reading worlds but failing to impact the broader public. The translation question is an old and thorny one. Foreign books, anecdotal wisdom suggests, are a big gamble: “There’s a general perception in the trade that these books can be difficult to sell,” one publisher told the Guardian. “As long as that persists it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.” Reading in translation is often a tricky prospect: the conflict between readability and remaining faithful to the original language lies at the heart of the ethics of translation. Look at the line-by-line differences between Murakami’s translators, Jay Rubin, Alfred Birnbaum, and Phillip Gabriel. Some passages are wildly different, clunky with too-literal translations, or, on the other end of the spectrum, full of Western idioms and surprisingly liberal interpretations of Murakami’s words. It leaves the reader in translation feeling a little distrustful, and inadequate. I can’t imagine learning Japanese — I only got past high-school level French! And perhaps part of the trouble is that translation means more than replacing a word with its foreign equivalent: there’s a broader cultural undercurrent at work when we talk about Americans and international literature, a question of how a book will read on this side of the Atlantic. Take, for example, Tim Parks’ diatribe against Jonathan Franzen and Freedom, from the New York Review of Books about a year ago. He begins with an absurd press release from the American publisher of Thomas Pletzinger, a German novelist: “Pletzinger is German, but you wouldn’t know it from his debut, which is both wise and worldly.” Parks is incredulous: What a wonderful insight this careless moment of blurb-talk gives us into the contemporary American mindset! We want something worldly, but if it seems too German, or perhaps just too foreign, we become wary. As my mailbag indicates, the literary community is very much an international phenomenon, but not, it would seem, a level playing field. To make it in America Pletzinger must shed his German-ness as if he were an immigrant with an embarrassing accent. Parks quickly moves on to Franzen, whom he accuses of aggressive, list-heavy American-ness: he takes fault with the European fascination with Freedom, saying that there are no Italian words for half of Franzen’s lists, from foosball table to “mechanized recliner.” The Italian translator chimed in, indignant, in the comments, giving exact translations for foosball and La-Z-Boy and insisting that, despite Parks’ claim, the Italian for “mechanized recliner” is just as ugly as the English. But I think that the broader point still stands. Reading The Corrections last year — that’s a solid decade after everyone else read it, which I quickly learned when I tried to discuss it with people — I couldn’t help but feel like all those cultural references were incredibly dated, a lot of otherwise engaging prose weighed down by Y2K-era jargon. Cultural references are tricky, whether they’re traveling across geographical or temporal borders. But is something substantial lost with their removal? Three Percent is trying to revive May as “World in Translation Month,” and it’s an obviously laudable goal. But it remains to be seen how they — or anyone — can effectively market an entire world of literature that’s still failed to catch on amongst the majority of the American reading public. I’ve seen the attempts: articles, blogs, word-of-mouth from friends or booksellers, offering up blind recommendations, the author’s name, title, and original language, and I don’t know how to parse it. I’m guilty myself: just the other day, halfway through Cheikh Hamidou Kane’s Ambiguous Adventure, the first book in translation I’ve read in a long while, I found myself trying to talk about it with a few friends. “He’s Senegalese,” I said. They looked at me expectantly, waiting for something more helpful than nationality. “It’s about colonialism.” They nodded. “It was translated by the woman who did The Little Prince,” I tossed in. “Ah!” one said. A relief: a cultural frame of reference. I give most books a hard sell, but I had so few tools at my disposal, reading a Senegalese book translated from French half a century ago, and fault here lies with me, not with Kane, whose book is extraordinary and subtle and philosophical and unlike anything else I’ve read about the colonial experience, which, coming from a person who essentially majored in postcolonialism, is saying something. Ambiguous Adventure is part of a Melville House series called the Neversink Library, which “champions books from around the world that have been overlooked, underappreciated, looked askance at, or foolishly ignored.” I’m taking that last designation to heart. There’s a danger in become too prescriptive with foreign literature: we should be reading it, that it’s good for us, that it’s our duty as citizens of the world to read books from every corner of it. The Neversink project seems to offer an antidote to that: titles carefully chosen and offered up with the simple explanation that these books are so good they never should have slipped past or from the public consciousness. All good books transcend the place and time in which they were written: the whole point is to write something specific that becomes universal, after all. So perhaps the best way to transcend the barriers of international literature is to no longer market it as such. A good book is a good book. We need to read more in translation — and we simply need to read more. Maybe dropping all of these labels is a good place to start.

The Bathrobe Era: What the Death of Print Newspapers Means for Writers

Today, April 30, marks the twentieth anniversary of my last day in the newsroom of a daily newspaper. In truth, my newspaper career was neither long nor particularly illustrious. For about four years in my early twenties I worked at two small newspapers: the Mill Valley Record, the decades-old weekly newspaper in my hometown that died a few years after I left; and the Aspen Daily News, which, miraculously, remains in business today. Still, I loved the newspaper business. I have never worked with better people than I did in that crazy little newsroom in Aspen, and I probably never will. I quit because it dawned on me that, while I was a good reporter, I had neither the skills nor the intestinal fortitude to follow in the footsteps of my heroes, investigative reporters like Bob Woodward and David Halberstam. What I couldn’t know the day I left the Daily News and began the long trek that led first to graduate school and then to college teaching was the sheer destructive power of the bullet I was dodging. The Pew Research Center’s “State of the News Media 2012” report offers a sobering portrait of what has happened to print journalism in the twenty years since I left. After a small bump during the Clinton Boom of the 1990s, advertising revenue for America’s newspapers has fallen off a cliff in the past decade, dropping by more than half from a peak of $48.7 billion in 2000 to $23.9 billion in 2011. Thus far at least, online advertising isn’t saving the business as some hoped it might. Online advertising for newspapers was up $207 million between 2010 and 2011, but in that same period, print advertising was down $2.1 billion, meaning print losses outnumbered online gains by a factor of 10-1. But as troubling as the death of print journalism may be for our collective civic and political lives, it may have an even more lasting impact on our literary culture. For more than a century, newspaper jobs provided vital early paychecks, and even more vital training grounds, for generations of American writers as different as Walt Whitman, Ernest Hemingway, Joyce Maynard, Hunter S. Thompson, and Tony Earley. Just as importantly, reporting jobs taught nonfiction writers from Rachel Carson to Michael Pollan how to ferret out hidden information and present it to readers in a compelling narrative. Now, though, the infrastructure that helped finance all those literary apprenticeships is fast slipping away. The vacuum left behind by dying print publications has been largely filled by blogs, a few of them, like the Huffington Post and the Daily Beast, connected to huge corporations, many others written by bathrobe-clad auteurs like yours truly. This is great for readers who need only fire up their laptop – or increasingly, their tablet or smartphone – and have instant access to nearly all the information produced in the known world, for free. But the system’s very efficiency is also its Achilles' heel. When I worked in newspapers, a good part of my paycheck came from sales of classified ads. That’s all gone now, thanks to Craigslist and eBay. We also were a delivery system for circulars from grocery stores and real estate firms advertising their best deals. Buh-bye. Display ads still exist online, but advertisers are increasingly directing their ad dollars to Google and Facebook, which do a much better job of matching ads to their users’ needs. Add to this the longer-term trend of locally owned grocery stores, restaurants, and clothing shops being replaced by national chains, which draw more business from nationwide TV ad campaigns, and the economic model that supported independent reporting for more than a hundred years has vanished. Without a way to make a living from their work, most bloggers are hobbyists, and most hobbyists come at their hobby with an angle. So, you have realtor blogs that tout local real estate and inveigh against property taxes. Or you have historical preservation blogs that rail against any new construction. Or you have plain old cranks of the kind who used to hog the open discussion time at the beginning of local city council meetings, but now direct their rants, along with pictures, smart-phone videos, and links to other cranks in other cities, onto the Internet. What you don’t have is a lot of guys like I used to be, who couldn't care less about the outcome of the events they’re covering, but are being paid a living wage to present them accurately to readers. The debate over the downsides of the Internet tends to focus on the consumer end, arguing, as Nicholas Carr does in his bestseller, The Shallows, that the Internet is making us dumber. That may or may not be true – I have my doubts – but as we near the close of the second decade of the Internet Era, we may be facing a far greater problem on the producer end: the atrophying of a central skill set necessary to great literature, that of taking off the bathrobe and going out to meet the people you are writing about. I mean to cast no generational aspersions toward the web-savvy writers coming up behind me, but having done both, I can tell you that blogging is nothing like reporting. Just about any fact you can find, or argument you can make, is available online, and with a few clicks of the mouse, anyone can sound like an expert on virtually any subject. And, because so far the blogosphere is, for the great majority of bloggers, quite nearly a pay-free zone, most bloggers are so busy earning a living at their real job, they have no time for old-fashioned shoe leather reporting even if they had the skill set. But in the main, today’s younger bloggers don’t have those skills, because shoe-leather reporting isn’t all that useful in the Internet age. Reporting is slow. It’s analog. You call people up and talk to them for half an hour. Or you arrange a time to meet and talk for an hour and a half. It can take all day to report a simple human-interest story. To win eyeballs online, you have to be quick and you have to be linked. Read Gawker some time. Or Jezebel. Or even a site like Talking Points Memo. There’s some original reporting there, but more common are riffs on news stories or memes created by somebody else, often as not from television or the so-called “dead-tree media.” When there is an original piece online, often it comes from an author flacking for another, paying gig – a book, a business venture, a weight-loss program, a political career. Clay Shirky, the NYU media studies professor and author of Here Comes Everybody, has suggested the crumbling of economic support for traditional print media and the original reporting it engendered is a temporary stage in the healthy process of creative destruction that goes along with the advent of any new game-changing technology. “The old stuff gets broken faster than the new stuff is put in its place,” Shirky is quoted as saying in The Pew Center’s “State of the News Media 2010” report. Maybe Shirky is right and online news sites will discover an economic model to replace the classified pages and grocery-store ads, but as virtual reality pioneer Jaron Lanier points out in You Are Not A Gadget, we’ve been waiting a long time for the destruction to start getting creative. Lanier, who is more interested in music than writing, argues that for all the digi-vangelism about the waves of creativity that would follow the advent of musical file-sharing, what has happened so far is that music has gotten stuck in a self-reinforcing loop of sampling and imitation that has led to cultural stasis. “Where is the new music?” he asks. “Everything is retro, retro, retro.” Lanier writes: I have frequently gone through a conversational sequence along the following lines:  Someone in his early twenties will tell me I don’t know what I’m talking about, and then I’ll challenge that person to play me some music that is characteristic of the late 2000s as opposed to the late 1990s. I’ll ask him to play the track for his friends. So far, my theory has held: even true fans don’t seem to be able to tell if an indie rock track or a dance mix is from 1998 or 2008, for instance. I am certainly not the go-to guy on contemporary music, but, like Lanier, I fear we are creating a generation of riff artists, who see their job not as creating wholly new original projects but as commenting upon cultural artifacts that already exist. Whether you’re talking about rappers endlessly “sampling” the musical hooks of their forebears, or bloggers snarking about the YouTube video of Miami Heat star Shaquille O’Neal holding his nose on the bench after one of his teammates farted during the first quarter of a game against the Chicago Bulls, you are seeing a culture, as Lanier puts it, “effectively eating its own seed stock.” Thus far this cultural Möbius strip hasn’t affected books to the same degree that it has the news media and music because, well, authors of printed books still get paid for having original ideas. (If you wonder why cyber evangelists like Clay Shirky keep writing books and magazine articles printed on dead trees, there’s your answer. Writing a book is a paid gig. Blogging is effectively a charitable donation to the cultural conversation, made in the hope that one’s donation will pay off in some other sphere, like, say, getting a book contract.) The recent U.S. government suit against Apple and book publishers over alleged price-fixing in the e-book market, which would allow Amazon to keep deeply discounting books to drive Kindle sales, suggests that authors can’t necessarily count on making a living from writing books forever. But even if by some miracle, books continue to hold their economic value as they move into the digital realm, the people who write them will still need a way to make a living – and just as importantly, learn how to observe and describe the world beyond their laptop screen – in the decade or so it takes a writer to arrive at a mature and original vision. Try to imagine what would have become of Hemingway, that shell-shocked World War I vet, if he hadn’t found work on the Kansas City Star, and later, the job as a foreign correspondent for the Toronto Star that allowed him to move to Paris and raise a family. The same goes for a writer as radically different as Hunter S. Thompson, who was saved from a life of dissipation by an early job as a sportswriter for a local paper, which led to newspaper gigs in New York and Puerto Rico. All of his best books began as paid reporting assignments, and his genius, short-lived as it was, was to be able to report objectively on the madness going on inside his drug-addled head. In 2012, we live in a bit of a false economy in that novelists and nonfiction writers in their thirties and forties are still just old enough to have begun their careers before content began to migrate online. Thus, we can thank magazines for training and paying John Jeremiah Sullivan, whose book of essays, Pulphead, consists largely of pieces written on assignment for GQ and Harper’s. We should also be thankful for Gourmet magazine, which, until it went under in 2009, sent novelist Ann Patchett on lavish, all-expenses-paid trips around the world, including one to Italy, where she did the research on opera singers that fueled her bestselling novel, Bel Canto. In a quirkier, but no less important way, we can thank glossy magazines for The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen, who supported himself by writing for Harper’s, The New Yorker, and Details during his long, dark night of the literary soul in the late 1990s before his breakout novel was published. Those venues – most of them, anyway – still exist, but they are the top of the publishing heap, and the smaller, entry-level publications of the kind I worked for twenty years ago, are either dying or going online. Increasingly, my decision to leave journalism to enter an MFA program twenty years ago seems less a personal life choice than an act guided by very subtle, yet very powerful economic incentives. As paying gigs for apprentice writers continue to dwindle, apprentice writers are making the obvious economic choice and entering grad school, which, whatever its merits as a writing training program, at least has the benefit of possibly leading to a real, paying job – as a teacher of creative writing, which, as you may have noticed, is what most working literary writers do for a living these days. Perhaps that is what people are really saying when they talk about the “MFA aesthetic,” that insular, navel-gazing style that has more to do with a response to previous works of fiction than to the world most non-writers live in. Perhaps the problem isn’t with MFA programs at all, but with the fact that, for most graduates of MFA programs, it’s the only training in writing they have. They haven’t done what any rookie reporter at any local newspaper has done, which is observed a scene – a city council meeting, a high school football game, a small-plane crash – and then written about it on the front page of a paper that everybody involved in that scene will read the next day. They haven’t had to sift through a complex, shifting set of facts – was that plane crash a result of equipment malfunction or pilot error? – and not only get the story right, but make it compelling to readers, all under deadline as the editor and a row of surly press guys are standing around waiting to fill that last hole on page one. They haven’t, in short, had to write, quickly, under pressure, for an audience, with their livelihood on the line. It is, of course, pointless to rage against the Internet Era. For one thing, it is already here, and for another, the Web is, on balance, a pretty darn good thing. I love email and online news. I use Wikipedia every day. But we need to listen to what the Jaron Laniers of the world are saying, which is that we can choose what the Web of the future will look like. The Internet is not like the weather. It isn’t something that just happens to us. The Internet is merely a very powerful tool, one we can shape to our collective will, and the first step along that path is deciding what we value and being willing to pay for it. Image via Wikimedia Commons

The Books We Come Back To

The Guardian recently posted a collection of short pieces by different authors on the books they reread, and what they gain from the practice. There even seems to be a sort of tradition among writers and serious readers, related to these perennial rereadings. Faulkner read Don Quixote once a year, “the way some people read the Bible,” and isn’t there a place in the Bascombe books where Frank invokes the old idea that all Americans everywhere ought to make an annual reading of The Great Gatsby? Perhaps Gatsby isn’t your choice for yearly touchstone fiction (although it is mine, and Mark Sarvas’ (see below), and was, in fact, the most commonly mentioned “rereadable” in that Guardian piece). Regardless, and no matter which one you favor, it shows adulthood and devotedness, I think, to try and get back to a book you love, every four seasons or so. That’s why I asked a few people about the books they reread, and why. Adam Ross, author of Mr. Peanut and Ladies and Gentlemen, spent a decade reading The Odyssey once a year. Matt Bell, editor of The Collagist and author of How They Were Found and the forthcoming Cataclysm Baby, makes a yearly reading of Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son, which he first read at age 21. He says that, while almost every other book he revered back then has receded into the background of his personal canon, Jesus’ Son has gone the opposite way, and gained in its power to move him. The aforementioned Mark Sarvas (whose blog, The Elegant Variation, you should definitely check out,) reads The Great Gatsby once a year -- in fact, for 18 years, it’s been the first book he reads every January, and he always tries to do it in a single sitting. Changes in his own life have tracked these readings: he’s read it as a single man in his 30s, “very Nick Carraway-like;” he’s read it as a husband and a divorcee; he’s read it from the perspective of a writer and, more recently, as a teacher of writers. And, lately, reading it as a father, he’s found himself appalled at the way Daisy Buchanan treats her small daughter (although, frankly, there are very few characters in Gatsby whom Daisy’s treatment of couldn’t be described as appalling). After well over 30 readings, Mark’s never bored, never tempted to skim or skip, and the scene where Gatsby tosses his shirts on the bed always chokes him up. He also points out that a book not worth rereading is probably not worth reading in the first place. Hard to argue with that. Speaking of “inveterate rereading,” The Millions’s own Lydia Kiesling has a slightly different approach to her touchstones. She has an ever-changing list of books she makes it a point to reread every one to three years. Currently, the list includes The Sea, The Sea, The Chronicles of Narnia, Till We Have Faces, Cloud Atlas, Of Human Bondage, The Berlin Stories, The Blind Assassin, Burmese Days, Possession, Lucky Jim, The Corrections, The Stand, and A Suitable Boy. She rereads these books in part because they’re “witty even when they are sad,” and because they manage to deposit her in another world with minimal effort on her part, which is as perfect a definition of great fiction writing as any I’ve ever heard. Speaking of Stephen King’s The Stand, my wife, Jennifer Boyle, makes it a point to reread that one once a decade. Considering the book’s monstrosity -- both in size and subject matter -- every 10 years sounds just about right. Eric Shonkwiler, former regional editor for The Los Angeles Review of Books, reads Ernest Hemingway’s Islands in the Stream once a year. He likes the way it transports him to the Gulf, and for all the “standard Hem charms” we know and love. (Can we all agree to start using “Hem” as the favored adjective for anything Papa-related?) Finally, Emily M. Keeler, The New Inquiry book editor and LitBeat editor for The Millions, reads Zadie Smith’s White Teeth once a year, usually in September. She discovered the book in the autumn of 2003, when she was a 16-year old high school student. Her favorites back then were all dead white guys (Orwell, Steinbeck, Hem, Maugham, Waugh) and she was in a used bookstore, jonesing for more Hem, when White Teeth’s colorful spine sparked her interest. It was the most exhilarating book she’d ever read at that point, and she goes back to it every fall, “in an effort to remember that feeling of discovery,” the moment when she became aware that “literature lives both back in time and forward through it.” So which books do you all reread yearly, or biannually, or quadrennially, or decennially, and why? We’d love to hear about them in the comments section. Please share. Image Credit: Flickr/Sapphireblue.

HBO (Isn’t) Filming The Corrections at My Parents’ House: TV and Fiction

1. A location scout came through my parents’ neighborhood last month and slid a letter printed on blue paper into each house’s screen door. The letter had HBO’s (fuzzily reproduced and definitely not hi-res) logo at the top and announced in all capital letters that a production team had descended on Mount Vernon, N.Y., in hopes of finding a “HOUSE WITH AN ATTACHED GARAGE.” It happens that Chez Aronstein has one of those, and my mother found a copy of the letter when she got home from work. She called me in Chicago. “Look, I won’t keep you,” she said, in a greeting that has become standard for our conversations, “Someone from HBO came to our house. Have you read that book called -- what is it -- ?” I could hear her rustling some papers on the other end, “The Corrections?” “They want to film the TV series at our house,” she said. 2. In a short essay written for The New York Times Sunday Book Review last month, Craig Fehrman points out that HBO has recently decided to pay attention to serious fiction -- or what used to be known in the TV industry as “Stuff We Don’t Buy.” Last year, the premium channel acquired rights to The Corrections for a full four-year series and convinced Jonathan Franzen to write the scripts. Noah Baumbach will direct at least a few episodes. HBO execs also swiped up Jennifer Egan’s 2010 A Visit from the Goon Squad as well as two of 2011’s best-received novels, Karen Russell’s Swamplandia and Chad Harbach’s Art of Fielding. In the case of the latter two, it seems as though the TV rights were negotiated along with publishing rights, so quickly did HBO decide to option them. Writers have long been squeamish about selling their work to Hollywood directors, let alone to television (not all writers, of course). In his own famously crotchety essay "Why Bother?", Franzen offers the familiar lament that television dumbs down cultural consumption. He argues, “Broadcast TV breaks pleasure into comforting little units—half-innings, twelve-minute acts -- the way my father, when I was very young, would cut my French toast into tiny bites.” To the Franzen of 1996, when compared with television (the Internet wasn’t yet on literature’s radar as an existential threat), the so-called “social” novel simply can’t match up on the issue of popularity. Neither can it win a resource war. “Few serious novelists,” he adds, “can pay for a quick trip to Singapore, or for the mass expert consulting that gives serial TV dramas like E.R. and NYPD Blue their veneer of authenticity.” Viewed as an enemy combatant, television competes directly with novels for eyes, attention, and dollars. Franzen’s essay ends on a hopeful note for books, but the assumption remains that TV and other forms of media will win away the majority of readers. Literature gets the consolation prize of mattering to an important few. The Franzen of 2011 had a very different perspective when speaking with David Remnick at The New Yorker Festival. Describing his involvement with the HBO series based on his book, he excitedly insisted, “We had an opportunity here -- because it’s not a miniseries, it’s an actual series -- I think to do something that has not been done.” I don’t assume that an individual’s intellectual positions have to remain consistent over a lifetime, but this marks a pretty significant shift -- and one that characterizes what seems to be a growing number of writers. TV no longer stands as the primary enemy of fiction, as long one can write for the right kind of TV. Or: getting a contract with folks like HBO has become the new ideal. What’s changed? For one thing, the rise of premium cable has produced practical advantages for authors. Higher production values and an emphasis on multi-year serial dramas allow for financial security, giving them an incentive to stay involved with television projects. Moreover, HBO has demonstrated a willingness to allow novelists to maintain control of their work, offering folks like Franzen (and Egan, who turned down the opportunity) the opportunity to write the scripts. And perhaps most importantly, the popularity of shows like Mad Men, The Wire, and Homeland -- all of which find a place in what Fehrman rightly dubs “post-Sopranos” cable -- enables producers to make compelling cases for slower, unfolding, deliberate narratives. Slower, unfolding, and deliberate narratives comprise the bread and butter of literary fiction. Perhaps television audience tastes have simply come in line with the tastes of readers, while new content-delivery preferences make it possible to exploit the similarity. Tivo and OnDemand everything allow viewers to string together episodes of series on their own schedules -- to cater their media consumption to individual attention spans. But especially interesting about Franzen’s position with regard to the series is his insistence that TV has allowed him more creative room to explore the themes of The Corrections than did the novel itself. In the same conversation with Remnick, he explains: Because we had so much more time to work with than there was material in the novel, it was an opportunity to tell a story at many different points in time -- that is spread over thirty years -- and have those all have equal weights […] To figure out how to make that work, it seemed like it could be really cool. By his account, it turns out that television will present freedom to explore plotlines that the novel limited or foreclosed. For the reigning king of American realist fiction to confess this point -- and to do it readily -- marks a sharp change of direction, suggesting that perhaps we need to start thinking differently about the relationship between television and fiction. I don’t mean to make hasty qualitative or hierarchical distinctions between TV and novels. It’s easy to say indignantly “Novels are better than TV, you sell-out jerks!” like a petulant writer with exactly zero novels to his credit. (I’m working on it, OKAY?) But I don’t think anyone should begrudge writers like Egan or Franzen for working with HBO. At the very least, Franzen sounds a lot happier than he did 15 years ago, and the fact that The Corrections will reach millions more potential readers on HBO (and on DVD) sounds like an unmitigated win for literary fiction. Nevertheless, we do need to think about the implications of suggesting that television’s aesthetic capacities can complement, or even supplant, those of novels. For once, we might not have to ask, “Will the novel survive?” Instead, we need to ask what it means that the novel’s future depends on a relationship with TV -- and whether this relationship will be a productive one in the long run. I started thinking about all of this when it suddenly became possible that The Corrections would be filmed at the house where I grew up. 3. For young(ish) writers, reading Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections has for a long time seemed like a kind of prerequisite to engaging in literary practice: writing, reading, thinking about novels and their future or lack of future, or whatever else. When I was in college, the book seemed a kind of talismanic object, a guidebook, a blueprint to follow if I ever wanted to write serious fiction. At the same time, 18-year-old A-J secretly worried that Franzen’s depiction of American middle-class despair and loneliness, and the concurrent self-torture about the shallowness of this despair and loneliness, obviated the need for anything I would ever come up with to describe same. (It’s possible 18-year-old A-J should have been worried about other things, sure, but this is how the story goes). Regardless, my copy of The Corrections bears the scars of obsessive, borderline psychotic reading: highlights and underlined passages; exclamation points and YESes; check marks and squiggles (most of which have no significance to me now). As an overzealous (and, it can’t be overemphasized, really obnoxious) undergraduate I wrote a chapter of my rambling 120-page thesis (a ponderous object titled “Realistically Speaking: The Politics of the Contemporary Realist Novel”) on Franzen’s work. I also bought a copy of The Corrections for my father one Christmas and distinctly remember telling the family it was my favorite book. I later found it on a bookcase in our living room, wedged between How to Clean Practically Anything and The Bible for Dummies, its spine un-cracked. I started giving my mother a précis of this personal literary history, but she cut me off and asked whether she should call HBO. She added that they offered anywhere between $1,000 and $3,000 for every day they were filming. My response was something along the lines of: “YOU HAVE TO TELL THEM THAT YOU WILL DO WHATEVER IT TAKES TO FILM THIS SHOW IN OUR HOUSE.” The fact that our house could play a central role in The Corrections validated a long-held suspicion that our Mount Vernon abode -- scene of my childhood -- had something quintessentially American about it. Its “ATTACHED GARAGE,” its magnolia tree and vegetable garden, its slate walk and bay windows could stand in for Franzen’s work. He may have written a book about such a house. But I lived in that house. [For anyone else keeping score, it’s Aronstein, unpaid freelance essayist and freshman writing teacher, 1 – Franzen, National Book Award-winning author and American literary icon, 0]. I excitedly wondered how HBO would transform my parents’ home into that of the Lamberts, the family at the heart of The Corrections. Some rooms wouldn’t need any modification at all. For example, our garage seemed ready-made for Lambert patriarch Alfred’s metallurgical lab. The production designer wouldn’t have to move anything. The boxes marked “For Yard Sale” and the 1960s-era rocking horse, the Tupperware containers packed with quilts, and the workbench populated with dusty shot glasses all fit almost too perfectly with Franzen’s vision. Then again, how would this transformation (or lack of transformation) warp my own reading of the book? And more unnervingly, how would the depiction of my childhood home on screen, written into the scripted version of a novel I’ve read at least four times, change the way I remembered and wanted to write about my own experiences? The translation of this particular novel to the screen seemed to have more personal ramifications than those of a general conversation about the relationship between cable and novels. It had to do with my own source material for fiction -- and the potential consequences of seeing what Franzen would do with the scene of my childhood. And that idea weirded me out. 4. The formal challenge of novels has always been to represent human experience in a way that attempts to transcend limitations of language: to create something like a shared consciousness among readers of a common text. That this shared consciousness takes place entirely in the realm of thought grants fiction its unique identity, distinguishing it from visual forms of media. What a novel leaves unsaid is often as important as what it does say, and for this reason a piece of fiction’s textual construction of narrative requires a lot of mental work on the part of authors and readers. It has less to do with the scope of a novel’s plot, and more to do with the depth of its inquiry into consciousness. When we read, we take a mental inventory of the objects and people that inhabit our world and map them onto whatever the author offers us. No matter how meticulously an author creates an environment from words, we still find ourselves spending part of our time with a book trying to match up our own life, possessions, sensations, ideologies, misunderstandings, and relationships with imagined plots, settings, and people. We have to imagine how the sunlight glints through the magnolia tree, how a mother’s voice shouting “MEATLOAF” resonates off of light fixtures, how the wallpaper peels off the walls, how the dog howls at shadows on the ceiling during dinner. Regardless of the size of the screen or the total length of the movie/series/miniseries, visual forms of representation take away this pressure (and pleasure). That is, in my reading of The Corrections, the Lamberts’ house has always felt and looked like my parents’ house. What can I say? The brain is sometimes lazy. It conjures approximations of Mr. Darcy, or Daisy Buchanan, or Chip Lambert based on people we know. We try to understand a novel in the vernacular of our own experience. Our relationships condition our mental, emotional, and psychological connection with characters. And when we say that literary fiction is “character-driven,” we mean this: our private interactions with texts depend as much on the associations and imagination of the author as on the associations and imaginations of the reader. Our desire to know them -- and to know them on our own terms -- drives us to read. Then again, once we see Viggo Mortensen playing Aragorn at Helm’s Deep, it’s difficult to imagine him any other way. Once Rooney Mara walks into the frame as Lisbeth Salander, all we can do is hem and haw about how her interpretation of the character either matches up with or fails to meet expectations that have been molded by books. And I worry that once Ewan McGregor puts on a midwestern accent and a pair of leather pants, I won’t be able to imagine myself as Chip Lambert ever again. Movies and television shows have the uncanny ability to restructure the way that we read novels because they gives us definitive answers about how to see them. When we say that movies fail to live up to expectations created by novels, it’s not just because they don’t comport with our individual imaginings of how the world of a novel is supposed to look. It’s because they rob us of the sense that we have a claim to a private interpretation. Or more simply: even if I had always imagined our house standing in for the Lamberts’ house, I didn’t want the television to tell me that our house had to be the Lamberts’ house. What makes novels unique when compared with television has little to do with having enough room to explore certain plotlines in a more detail. What distinguishes them from (even the best, most tasteful, best-acted and directed) television arises from the form of textual engagement itself. Serial dramas on premium cable might in some ways be able to increase the size of the canvas available to fiction writers, and certainly expand the reach of their work. They might demand more mental work than forms like the sitcom. But a novel like The Corrections can seem limitless to readers precisely because it leaves meanings open, leaves parts of characters’ lives only implicitly explored, allows readers to fill in the blanks. It’s these blanks that I’m worried The Corrections on HBO will fill in. 5. A representative from HBO came to my parents’ place. After walking around for about 30 minutes, he told them that the house was the right period, but likely too small. To film the scenes properly, they would need a lot more room for the cameras and crew. It was likely the kind of house that they wanted, but they couldn’t film it effectively. And, I think, it’s just as well. I’d like to write about that house one day. Photo courtesy the author.

William Kennedy’s Long Dry Spell Ends with Chango’s Beads and Two-Toned Shoes

It's been a long time between drinks for William Kennedy fans – nine years and nine months, to be exact, since he published Roscoe, the seventh installment in his bewitching cycle of Albany novels. The long dry season has now come to a splashy end with Chango's Beads and Two-Tone Shoes, which travels far beyond the city limits of Kennedy's beloved, corrupt, and corrupting Albany, all the way to Cuba in the early days of a revolution that will topple the reptilian Fulgencio Batista and bring to power a charismatic young Communist named Fidel Castro. The story then returns to Albany a decade later for a flaming finale that showcases Kennedy's abundant gifts and a few of his weaknesses. Chango opens with a brief overture. In the middle of a summer night in 1936, a boy named Daniel Quinn is awakened by the sound of a man singing in the parlor downstairs. When the boy goes to investigate, he discovers that his father, George Quinn, and some “Negro” musicians have dragged a piano into the parlor to accommodate a guest, a horn player down from nearby Saratoga. It's Bing Crosby. Accompanied by a piano player named Cody, Bing warbles and scats his way through the old coon song, "Shine," while the boy looks on, delighted and amazed by his initiation to the tortured place where racism, showbiz, and celebrity collide. It's a place he will revisit. Cut to Havana in the spring of 1957. Daniel Quinn, recently retired as a reporter with the Miami Herald and now an aspiring novelist, is drinking alone at El Floridita, regular hangout of a fellow lover of declarative sentences, Ernest Hemingway. Quinn has come to Cuba to complete, in fictional form, the work begun by his grandfather, who'd come here to write about the Cuban uprising against the Spanish in the 1870s. Quinn soon strikes up a conversation with Hemingway. They hit it off. The master then offers the tyro some advice: "Remove the colon and semi-colon keys from your typewriter." And: "Shun adverbs, strenuously." After they're introduced to a beautiful brunette named Renata Suarez Otero, Hemingway, fueled by double daiquiris, decks an obnoxious salesman from Baltimore with a wicked two-punch combination. From this promising beginning the story takes off, as Quinn woos Renata and gets sucked into the intrigue and bloodshed of the blooming revolution. Along the way there will be a duel, a failed assassination attempt on Batista, gun-running, Santeria rituals (Chango is a powerful deity), kidnapping, torture, scorching sex, and, finally, Quinn's coveted interview with Fidel at the rebels' mountain hideout. The storytelling has the irresistible pull of a riptide. But problems, little doubts, begin to pop up. For all of Kennedy's renown as a maker of sentences, there are some stone clunkers in this book. Here's an example: "Felipe's sister Natalia, who had grown plump since Renata last saw her, she is eating for her pleasure instead of having sex, met them in the foyer, the only family member in the house, her parents en route to Mexico." This sentence points straight toward a vexing question, one familiar to many writers of historical fiction: how much research is enough, and how much is too much? As his Acknowledgments page reveals, Kennedy did prodigious research for this novel, talking to such luminaries as Gabriel Garcia Márquez and Fidel himself, reading "too many books to list," including Hugh Thomas' magisterial history of Cuba along with memoirs, fiction, and biographies by the likes of Che Guevara, Norberto Fuentes, Tad Szulc, and Darryl Pinckney. Too often, unfortunately, this diligence leads to meandering asides about Renata's family history and the history of Cuba that interrupt the story's brisk flow.  A shame, because the Cuba section of the novel is otherwise like getting a pleasurable case of whiplash. Cut back to Albany in the summer of 1968, when the racially divided city is digesting the news that Bobby Kennedy has been shot in Los Angeles moments after winning the California presidential primary. Back on his home turf, Kennedy breezily unspools a trademark cast of characters – Daniel Quinn, now a hardened newspaper reporter, young Black Power agitators, neighborhood activists, vicious cops, winos, a defrocked priest, corrupt politicians (including Mayor Alex Fitzgibbon from Roscoe), madams and their working girls, Molotov cocktail-wielding white racists, and, problematically, Daniel's father George, now deep in the arms of senile dementia. As the story builds toward its racially charged climax, two unfortunate things happen. Renata, who had been such an electric presence in the Cuba section when Quinn courted and married her, virtually vanishes for 150 pages; and, far more distressing, much of the action is framed by the senile ramblings of George Quinn, who quickly grows tiresome as a tour guide through a nighttime city on the brink of self-immolation. The problem is that George's dementia is revealed entirely through his words and actions. Compare this with Alfred Lambert's mad tussle with Parkinson's disease in Jonathan Franzen's novel The Corrections, an illness we experience, in all its harrowing hilarity, from inside Alfred's addled mind. In that case, a much bigger gamble by the writer delivers a much richer payoff for the reader. There is one moment in Chango that lays bare both Kennedy's enduring appeal and his abiding Achilles heel. After witnessing a racial skirmish that nearly turns into a full-blown riot, Daniel Quinn hurries back to the newsroom to file his story, his brain boiling with the role his wino friend, Tremont, played in defusing the violence. As Quinn begins hammering his typewriter, the city editor, Markson, walks up to his desk and says: "Tell me again about the riot.  You don't have a riot story?" "It's part of Tremont's story," Quinn said.  "I can do a separate riot story if you want one, but Tremont's the main story... I'll get the action of the riot up high, don't worry. But the riot isn't the story, it's Tremont. He's central to what's happening in this town tonight, and Matt Daugherty (the defrocked priest) is his white counterpart, the pair of them on an odyssey of Franciscan politics and leftover jazz. If you can stand it I'll work in Trixie's (the madam's) stilettos and her fire extinguisher. I also want to underpin the political culture of the twenties with Big Jimmy the floating ward leader and his progressive coon anthem from 1911, and tie in the McCall-Fitzgibbon machine's bulldozer politics as manifested tonight by the faux assassination plot, with Tremont as its victim, a wild man with an AR-15 given to him by a provocateur who wanted him busted with it to prove the Brothers were urban terrorists, and that's the FBI's work and I know you won't print that, but that's what it has to be. But we don't need it. The victim foiled that plot, coming out of the alley where he'd hidden the gun and calming the riot with his shooting." Markson nodded, obviously rattled by the complexity of the story; but he'd get it when he read it. "I need the riot," he said, and he went back to the city desk. This exchange brought to mind a story about the time C.S. Lewis delivered a lecture on Shakespeare at Oxford. Afterward, a student groused that "no one talks like Romeo and Juliet." To which Lewis replied, "They would if they could." Well, I've worked for a lot of newspapers and I've never met a reporter who would deliver a soliloquy like Daniel Quinn's, even if he could. Which is not to say that such windy verbal flights make this a bad book. I don't think Kennedy is capable of producing such a thing. Rather, it's to say that Chango's Beads and Two-Tone Shoes doesn't quite measure up to some of the earlier Albany novels. My personal favorite is Legs, not the more highly acclaimed Ironweed, which won the Pulitzer Prize and got made into an overly gloomy movie starring Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep. For me, three things set Legs apart: the pitch-perfect tone that's at once exuberant and world-weary, the magnetic psychopath at the center of the book, the gangster Jack "Legs" Diamond, and, best of all, the brilliant framing device. The book opens with four broken-down old friends drinking at a faded Albany bar, reminiscing about their adventures with Jack Diamond forty years earlier. One of the four is Marcus Gorman, who was Jack's lawyer and is now writing Jack's story, which is the story he proceeds to tell his three drinking companions, which is the novel. Joseph Conrad would have been jealous. It's a tough act to follow, and even if Chango falls short, I join Kennedy's fans in hoping that the master, now 83 years old, doesn't wait another decade to give us the next installment of his sprawling, bewitching Albany cycle. May it continue to spin for all time.

The Prizewinners 2010/2011

With the awarding of the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, the 2010/2011 literary award season is now over, which gives us the opportunity to update our list of prizewinners. Literary prizes are, of course, deeply arbitrary in many ways; such is the nature of keeping score in a creative field. Nonetheless, our prizewinners post is compiled in the same spirit that one might tally up Cy Young Awards and MVPs to determine if a baseball player should be considered for the Hall of Fame. These awards nudge an author towards the "canon" and help secure them places on literature class reading lists for decades to come. There are three books climbing the ranks this year. Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad unsurprisingly had a good showing with judges. Meanwhile, the IMPAC win puts Colum McCann's Let the Great World Spin on our list, and the shortlist nod does the same for Colm Tóibín's Brooklyn. Here is our methodology: I wanted to include both American books and British books, as well as the English-language books from other countries that are eligible to win some of these awards. I started with the National Book Award and the Pulitzer from the American side and the Booker and Costa from the British side. Because I wanted the British books to "compete" with the American books, I also looked at a couple of awards that recognize books from both sides of the ocean, the National Book Critics Circle Awards and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. The IMPAC is probably the weakest of all these, but since it is both more international and more populist than the other awards, I thought it added something. The glaring omission is the PEN/Faulkner, but it would have skewed everything too much in favor of the American books, so I left it out. I looked at these six awards from 1995 to the present, awarding three points for winning an award and two points for an appearance on a shortlist or as a finalist. Here's the key that goes with the list: B=Booker Prize, C=National Book Critics Circle Award, I=International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, N=National Book Award, P=Pulitzer Prize, W=Costa Book Award [formerly the Whitbread] bold=winner, red=New to the list or moved up* the list since last year's "Prizewinners" post *Note that the IMPAC considers books a year after the other awards do, and so this year's IMPAC shortlist nods were added to point totals from last year. 11, 2003, The Known World by Edward P. Jones - C, I, N, P 9, 2001, The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen - C, I, N, P 8, 2009, Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel - B, C, W 8, 2007, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz - C, P, I 8, 1997, Underworld by Don DeLillo - C, I, N, P 7, 2005, The March by E.L. Doctorow - C, N, P 7, 2004, Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst - B, C, W 7, 2002, Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides - I, N, P 7, 2001, Atonement by Ian McEwan - B, C, W 7, 1998, The Hours by Michael Cunningham - C, I, P 7, 1997, Last Orders by Graham Swift - B, I, W 7, 1997, Quarantine by Jim Crace - B, I, W 6, 2010, A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan - C, P 6, 2009, Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann - N, I 6, 2009, Home by Marilynn Robinson - C, N, I 6, 2005, The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai - B, C 6, 2004, Gilead by Marilynn Robinson - C, P 5, 2009, Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín - W, I 5, 2008, The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry - B, W 5, 2008, Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout - C, P 5, 2007, Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson - N, P 5, 2006, The Road by Cormac McCarthy - C, P 5, 2006, The Echo Maker by Richard Powers - N, P 5, 2005, Europe Central by William T. Vollmann - C, N 5, 2005, The Accidental by Ali Smith - B, W 5, 2004, The Master by Colm Toibin - B, I 5, 2003, The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard - I, N 5, 2001, True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey - B, I 5, 2000, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon - C, P 5, 2000, The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood - B, I 5, 1999, Waiting by Ha Jin - N, P 5, 1999, Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee - B, C 5, 1999, Being Dead by Jim Crace - C, W 5, 1998, Charming Billy by Alice McDermott - I, N 5, 1997, American Pastoral by Philip Roth - C, P 5, 1996, Every Man for Himself by Beryl Bainbridge - B, W 5, 1996, Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer by Steven Millhauser - N, P 5, 1995, The Moor's Last Sigh by Salman Rushdie - B, W 5, 1995, The Ghost Road by Pat Barker - B, W 5, 1995, Independence Day by Richard Ford - C, P 5, 1995, Sabbath's Theater by Philip Roth - N, P

Pitons in the Monolith: Jonathan Franzen’s Despair and the Millennials’ Dream

“My despair about the American novel began in the winter of 1991, when I fled to Yaddo, the artists colony in upstate New York, to write the last two chapters of my second book.” So begins Jonathan Franzen’s famous essay, “Perchance to Dream,” which appeared in Harper’s fifteen years ago this month. The essay, subtitled “In the Age of Images, A Reason to Write Novels,” recounts Franzen’s struggle to write serious fiction in a culture that had lost its appetite for anything more nuanced than a Seinfeld joke: Just as the camera drove a stake through the heart of serious portraiture and landscape painting, television has killed the novel of social reportage. Truly committed social novelists may still find cracks in the monolith to sink their pitons into. But they do so with the understanding that they can no longer depend on their material, as William Dean Howells and Upton Sinclair and Harriet Beecher Stowe did, but only on their own sensibilities, and with the expectation that no one will be reading them for news. Within weeks of its publication, copies of Franzen’s essay were being passed hand to hand in my MFA program in San Francisco like samizdat in the old Eastern Bloc. This is less strange than it might sound. In San Francisco in the 1990s, where every third garage  housed some greasy-haired tech geek pounding out code, anyone wanting to be a poet or a novelist did feel a bit like a cultural dissident. No one had yet seen an e-reader, but there was among my writer friends a pervasive sense that the book, and the centuries-old culture that had grown up around it, were under assault. Franzen, then the author of two well-received but relatively little-known novels, captured this anxiety in his essay, asking aloud the question we were all quietly putting to ourselves: “Why am I bothering to write?” I’m older now, my life choices pretty well settled, so it’s difficult for me to rekindle the revolutionary glow I felt reading “Perchance to Dream” in grad school. For one thing, as I recall, the guy who handed it to me surrendered to the Zeitgeist soon after turning in his thesis project and took a job as a “content strategist” at an Internet startup. For another, the third novel that Franzen was so painfully bringing into being during the writing of his essay turned out to be The Corrections, which won the National Book Award and made Franzen the most famous non-guest in the history of Oprah. Still, the existential crisis Franzen describes in his essay would seem to be doubly urgent for today’s twentysomethings, the generation of so-called Millennials born after 1982. When “Perchance to Dream” was published, the Internet browser was just two years old. Few people used email, wireless was still an old-fashioned British word for radio, and you couldn’t download a movie to your computer, much less to a smart phone or iPad. Even TV was simpler. If you wanted to watch a show, you had to sit down in front of your set at the prescribed time and watch it. (Television, like much of mass culture in the pre-Internet era, was an authoritarian regime: you did what you were told, and maybe you’d get in a chuckle or two between the endless parade of ads.) In other words, novelists of Franzen’s generation stood at least a fighting chance of sinking their pitons into the monolith. Today’s pop culture is a far trickier edifice. Not only are the distractions of movies, songs, YouTube videos and web memes ubiquitous and easily accessible; they now proliferate from the bottom up. In April 2007, to take one well-known example, a 16-year-old from Batesville, Mississippi named DeAndre Way posted a low-budget YouTube video of himself and some of his friends in an empty swimming pool demonstrating dance moves to his song “Crank That.” Within weeks, Way, under his stage name Soulja Boy, had signed a record contract, and by September the song had broken into the top 10 of the Billboard Hot 100. How is an aspiring novelist intent on telling a quiet tale of romantic love supposed to compete with a home-grown rap tune whose signature line runs: “Superman that ho”? How does a young poet stand a chance against the AutoTuned novelty of a Rebecca Black?   But look closely and you’ll see that young writers are entering the arena in droves. The web is teeming these days with literary blogs and ’zines written by and for people under 30: The Rejectionist, HTMLGiant, and Full-Stop to name just a few. Two of the best novels of this year, Téa Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife and Karen Russell’s Swamplandia, are by women in their twenties. According to blogger Seth Abramson, who tracks creative writing program rankings at The Suburban Ecstasies, the twenty most selective MFA programs are now harder to get into than Harvard Medical School. And you have to go down to No. 49 on the selectivity list – Georgia College & State University – before you find an MFA program that accepts a higher percentage of its applicants than Harvard Law. Maybe in 2011, the pertinent question is not “Why bother?” but “What gives?” 2. If you are a Millennial feeling the urge to see what pre-Oprah-dustup Jonathan Franzen reads like, I can save you the trouble. The famed Harper’s essay hasn’t aged particularly well. It is 15,000 words long, and readers hoping to savor the morsels of wit and wisdom sprinkled liberally through the text must hack through a thick, fibrous membrane of authorial ego. In recent years, Franzen, now a successful author in his fifties, has made very public peace with Oprah and is capable of presenting himself on the page as a thoughtful, empathetic guy. (A considerably rewritten version of “Perchance to Dream,” now called “Why Bother,” appeared in his 2002 essay collection, How to Be Alone.) But this is not that Jonathan Franzen. This Jonathan Franzen is beset by stupidity on all sides. Politicians are stupid. Booksellers at Barnes & Noble are stupid. People who like to watch television are also stupid, but at least they aren’t as stupid as the people who make the shows they watch. The only people who aren’t stupid are serious novelists, and they are culturally irrelevant. One has the sense, in reading the piece, that the entire fin de siècle American world exists solely to give Jonathan Franzen agita. In the end, he is rescued from this ocean of idiocy by Shirley Brice Heath, a professor of English and linguistics at Stanford who interviews him as part of her research into why people write and read what she calls “substantive works of fiction.” Serious readers, Heath tells him, come in two flavors: either their parents modeled serious reading for them as children, or, far less commonly, they were “social isolates” who found in books a profound connection with an imaginary world that supplanted a daily environment in which they felt they had no place. The latter description, apparently, fits Franzen to a T, and he is relieved to hear Heath tell him that readers who came to books to cure their social isolation are more likely than other kinds of readers to become writers. Soon afterward, his writer’s block is cured and his stalled third novel begins to click along. Thus, we have Shirley Brice Heath and her eccentric research project to thank for the wonder that is The Corrections, along with the (to my mind) somewhat less wondrous Freedom. But this doesn’t help us much with our Millennials. One can imagine  a young social isolate like Franzen, who was born in 1959 and wrote two novels before you could browse the Internet, having no more promising portal for his imaginative  hunger than the stacks at the local public library. But surely this can’t be the case for Obreht, who was just nine when Netscape Navigator went online in 1994. And what of Tao Lin, who at age 27 has written two novels, a novella, a collection of stories, and two volumes of poetry? Or Joshua Cohen, who had published the 800-page Witz (his fifth book) by 30? What possible relevance can Heath’s model have for the legions of 22-year-olds who could have gone to film school next fall or sat in their parents’ garages smoking pot and making humorous little web videos about their talking cats, but instead chose to shell out thousands of dollars for a graduate degree in fiction or poetry? 3. Apparently, this form of storytelling has a future. This isn’t because written language  is somehow better than visual imagery, or because it cures isolation, or even because reading books makes you smarter than watching TV, but because words on a page, as a delivery system for images and ideas, can do things the competition can’t. I would go so far as to say that serious fiction and poetry will survive because of their relative simplicity, not in spite of it. We live amid a constant high-tech, high-revenue din: ringtones, Lolcat calendars, Gawker postings, reality TV shows, all of it shiny and noisy and designed, with scientific precision, to sell us shit we don’t need. Next to that stands a poem. Or a book of stories. Ever seen paid product placement in a poem? Ever had to fast-forward through the ads to read a book? The Kindle may be young, but substantive works of fiction, whether on paper or a screen, stand as islands of commercial and mental quiet in a sea of cultural noise. Young writers aren’t applying to MFA programs and sending their work to tiny journals read by a few hundred people because they think they’re going to be rich and famous. They aren’t stupid. They’re writing and publishing because they know that only through words on a page can they reach an audience without having to be rich or famous – or else cozy up to those who are – in the first place. The cost of entry into the world of writing is extremely low, and getting lower by the day. Novelists don’t even need traditional publishing houses any more. To write a novel, a talented writer needs a laptop and a lot of free time. Of course, you could say much the same about DeAndre Way. He didn’t need a record deal to make a hit record. But look what happened to him. After the first Soulja Boy video went viral, Way signed with Interscope Records and his first album went platinum, meaning it moved more than a million units. His second album, though it had some hit singles, didn’t do nearly as well. Granted, the kid was no Cab Calloway to begin with, but he’d caught something in that first video, and that something turned out to be commercially valuable. No more filming in empty swimming pools for Soulja Boy. But somewhere on the journey from DIY to Blingsville, he lost that magic connection with his teenage audience, and his third album, The DeAndre Way, sold only 56,000 copies. Unlike pop music, the writing of “substantive works of fiction” starts out DIY and stays pretty much DIY until the end. Yes, if you sign with a traditional publisher, there will be agents and editors and publicity flacks to deal with and self-promoting blog posts to write, but even if you are Jonathan Franzen, when you sit down to write your fourth or fifth novel, it’s still going to be just you and that laptop. Serious literature is among the least commercially lucrative of all contemporary art forms. A novel never sells anything but itself, which means that the whole huge noisemaking machine we call popular culture leaves novelists more or less alone. Jonathan Franzen may see that as cultural irrelevance. I prefer to call it freedom. But what of Franzen’s deeper complaint in his Harper’s essay, which is that even when a serious novelist does try to engage with the broader culture, no one is paying attention? The novelist has more and more to say to readers who have less and less time to read: where to find the energy to engage with a culture in crisis when the crisis consists in the impossibility of engaging with the culture? It is tempting to use Franzen’s own career in response to this question. The Corrections, born out of his years of frustration, went on to sell nearly a million copies in hardback, and his more recent novel, Freedom, put him on the cover of Time magazine, which called him a “Great American Novelist.” Jonathan Franzen, please meet Cultural Relevance. But, okay, DeAndre Way, a teenager from Batesville, Mississippi, moved more units than Jonathan Franzen, a 51-year-old writer judged by many to be the foremost novelist of his era. Clearly, these are peculiar times. But when was serious fiction and poetry ever a mass taste? In his essay, Franzen mentions Harriet Beecher Stowe, who did indeed move a fair few units in her day, but Uncle Tom’s Cabin, for all its virtues, is an anti-slavery polemic written in the form of a three-hankie melodrama. Of Stowe’s contemporaries, the founding generation of American letters, Emerson, Melville, Thoreau, Hawthorne, Whitman, and Dickinson, only Emerson and Hawthorne found anything like a contemporary audience. Whitman self-published his first two editions of Leaves of Grass. Melville stopped writing fiction for almost thirty years in the wake of the failure of his magnum opus Moby Dick. Dickinson only made a few half-hearted efforts at finding a public forum for her poetry. And Thoreau, my personal hero, wrote in one of his letters after he bought the remaindered copies of his first book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers: “I have now a library of nearly nine hundred volumes, over seven hundred of which I wrote myself.” That is what true cultural irrelevance looks like. But it’s not difficult to suppose that Thoreau was thinking of this early failure when, in Walden, he tells the story of an Indian basket maker befuddled by the fact that his baskets aren’t making him rich. “I, too, had woven a kind of basket of a delicate texture,” Thoreau writes, but I had not made it worth any one’s while to buy them. Yet not the less, in my case, did I think it worth my while to weave them, and instead of studying how to make it worth men’s while to buy my baskets, I studied rather how to avoid the necessity of selling them. The life which men praise and regard as successful is but one kind. Why should we exaggerate any one kind at the expense of the others? Piton, anyone? I hear Henry’s got a whole basket full of them in his cabin on Walden Pond. (Image: Someone else's holiday from technowannabe's photostream)

The Big Show: Franzen, Goodman, and ‘The Great American Novel’

Two very good and very similar novels came out within months of each other in the summer of 2010:  Freedom by Jonathan Franzen, and The Cookbook Collector by Allegra Goodman. Both are comic-realist novels about recent history, family stories and love stories with subplots about technology and the environment.  Both are ambitious books that attempt to examine the struggles of contemporary America, and both writers model their novels on great 19th Century realist fiction.  While Franzen invokes Tolstoy, Goodman (without ever announcing it) structures her book loosely around Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility. Both books are concerned with authenticity, and both books’ protagonists are obsessed with environmental preservation.  In Freedom, Walter Berglund wants to protect songbirds.  In The Cookbook Collector, Jessamine Bach wants to save redwood trees.  In both, the main character’s environmentalism is posed against a second major character’s struggle with aesthetics and materialism.  Both Freedom’s Richard Katz (a musician) and The Cookbook Collector’s George Friedman (an antiquarian) make long speeches about the commodification of beauty.  And in both books, there’s a subplot concerning a dickish and acquisitive young man, aggressive and faux-heroic, who gets into some morally disreputable W. Bush-related business by going after money:  in Freedom it’s war profiteering and contracting, in The Cookbook Collector it’s Internet invasion of privacy and eventually government surveillance.  As Freedom gets much of its ripped-from-the-headlines feel from subplots about the Iraq war, so The Cookbook Collector with the boom and bust of the Internet era. Both are loose, baggy novels that move from character to character and year to year, with great big imaginative sweeps. Both books center around a family (the Berglunds, the Bachs), both books climax with a love triangle and a trip to a place of environmental crisis, and conclude with a violent death and the consolation of marriage.  Both novels have big canvases that the writers attack with comic gusto.  (The Cookbook Collector moves from boardrooms in Boston to communal houses in Berkeley; it makes you cry about 9/11 and makes you think about David Hume and culinary history.)  Both novels are really books about value, both material and moral.  These are serious books that question value in American life in light of the attacks of September 11, 2001 and the Iraq war. Both are addictive reading. I couldn’t put either one down. And both books were well received.   Reviewers really liked The Cookbook Collector.  They marveled at its intelligence and grace.  It was called “a feast of love;” critics said that Goodman “makes us care,” and that her books was “enchanting and sensuous,” and “flush with warmth and color.”  Critics were somewhat more divided over Freedom, but those who liked it liked it a lot:  “A masterpiece of American fiction,” said Sam Tanenhaus in the New York Times Sunday Book Review, “an indelible portrait of our times,” said Michiko Kakutani in the daily.  And this difference in response mimicked the gap between the two books’ pre-publication hype.  Franzen’s was sold as “The Great American Novel” (that’s what Esquire called it), while The Cookbook Collector was (I guess) just another good book by Allegra Goodman. Why such a big gap? I’m sure that a lot of the hype probably has to do with vagaries of the publishing marketplace, mysterious stuff that I can’t speak to. (Like, how’d they get Obama to buy it?)  A lot of the gap in expectations also has to do with the relative success of the authors’ previous books—on the one hand, there was that long wait after Franzen’s mega big hit The Corrections, on the other, a shorter wait after Goodman’s well-regarded Intuition.  (I, for one, sort of expect that every few years Allegra Goodman will give me another terrific novel to read.)  I’m sure part of the wide gap in response has to do with the genders of the authors.   It’s as impossible to imagine Goodman on the cover of Time magazine as it is impossible to imagine Jonathan Franzen getting called “warm and sensuous.”  (There’s a subtext to the praise of The Cookbook Collector that I quoted above, and it’s: Allegra writes like a girl.)  But the difference also is in the books themselves, in the way they approach their readers and their subjects.  As a hundred critics before me have argued, Franzen’s book swaggered out and demanded the response it achieved.  Its title, its 561 pages, and its sweep boldly proclaimed it a Major Novel and critics had to deal with this claim to Majorness.  If you didn’t compare it to The Great Gatsby or Moby-Dick, that was almost a diss. Freedom got more negative press than did The Cookbook Collector, but that hardly means it’s a weaker book:  it just got more press period, and probably much of the nastier criticism was just counterreaction to all the noise around the novel’s release.  But the book was part of that noise.  Freedom is a terrific performance, but it also sometimes feels like a guy at a dinner party who’s talking very, very loudly.  It mentions War and Peace so many times you’d have to be a dolt not to get the Tolstoyan ambitions.  And some of the book’s weaknesses are part of its terrible roar.  As Charles Baxter wrote in The New York Review of Books, “Freedom’s ambition is to be the sort of novel that sums up an age and that gets everything into it, a heroic and desperate project. The author all but comes out and says so.”  And Franzen’s characters’ actions are sometimes presented with such broad irony that they better serve his point than his plot.  As a result the characters can seem dimwitted; as Baxter put it, “almost every reader of Freedom will be more worldly than its protagonist and will have anticipated several of its key moments many pages before they arrive.” Meanwhile, for all its sweep and ambition, The Cookbook Collector comes on quite modestly.  As Ron Charles said in The Washington Post: “Goodman is a fantastically fluid writer, and yet for all her skill, she's a humble, transparent one who stays out of the way, never drawing attention to her style or cleverness.”  Goodman’s gaze is always on her subjects, and she handles her big themes lightly, submerging them in the lives of the books’ characters.  The Cookbook Collector’s literary elegance is part of what made the book invisible to a broad public, while Franzen’s roaring crassness is part of what made his book such a smash.  He’s just a lot louder than she is. Which is not to say there aren’t lots of ways in which I prefer Franzen to Goodman.  He’s much more interested in the dark side of life than she is.  He writes with sympathy and intelligence about addictions and failed marriages, career failures, and failures in raising children—almost everyone in Freedom is some kind of anxious wreck.  Meanwhile The Cookbook Collector has a pretty uniformly well-adjusted, privileged cast (that’s what you get for following Jane Austen, the lives of the smartest rich girls in the county), most of whom are either making a mint in computers or are enjoying tenure at MIT.  The exception is Goodman’s heroine, Jessamine, the family flake, a confused grad student at Berkeley (egads!), but by the time the novel is done she’s found love, money, and has embarked on a promising academic career. When people have sex in Freedom, heads bang on walls.  In The Cookbook Collector it’s a finger on the chest and then fade out.  (Goodman does write a very sexy scene of a girl eating a peach.) There are gorgeous flights of imagination in The Cookbook Collector—like the scene where George stumbles upon the collection of its title, 17th Century manuscripts stored in the cabinets and ovens of a musty Bay Area kitchen: For a moment, he thought she was searching for the iodine, and then he saw them.  Leather-bound, cloth-bound, quartos and folios, books of every size.  The cabinets were stocked with books.  Not a dish or cup in sight.  Only books.  Sandra bent and opened the lower cabinets.  Not a single pot or pan.  Just books.  She stood on a chair to reach the cabinet above the refrigerator.  Books there as well. George stepped away from the sink without noticing that he had left the water running.  Injury forgotten, he gazed in awe.  He leaned against the counter and stared at bindings of hooped leather, red morocco, black and gold.  Sandra opened a drawer and there lay Le Livre de Cuisine. She opened the drawer below and took out The Accomplisht Cook: or, The Art and Mystery of Cookery.  He opened the book at random:  Section XIII: The First Section for dressing of fish, Shewing divers ways, and the most excellent, for dressing Carps, either Boiled, Stewed, Broiled, Roasted, or Baked, &c.  He had never tried to roast a carp. But there’s nothing in The Cookbook Collector like the scene in Freedom where a young adulterous husband digs through his own shit for the wedding ring he has swallowed: He knelt on the cool floor and peered into the bowl at the four large turds afloat in it, hoping to see the glint of gold immediately.  The oldest turd was dark and firm and noduled, the ones from deeper inside him were paler and already dissolving a little.  Although he, like all people, secretly enjoyed the smell of his own farts, the smell of his shit was something else.  It was so bad as to seem evil in a moral way.  He poked one of the softer turds with a fork, trying to rotate it and examine its underside, but it bent and began to crumble, clouding the water brown, and he saw that this business of the fork had been a wishful fantasy.  The water would soon be too turbid to see a ring through, and if the ring broke free of its enveloping matter it would sink to the bottom and possibly go down the drain.  He had no choice but to lift out each turd and run it through fingers, and he had to do this quickly, before things got too waterlogged.  Holding his breath, his eyes watering furiously, he grasped the most promising turd and let go of his most recent fantasy, which was that one hand would suffice.  He had to use both hands, one to hold the shit, and the other to pick through it.  He retched once, drily, and got to work, pushing his fingers into the soft and body-warm and surprisingly lightweight log of excrement. Goodman glides through her fiction, while with Franzen, it’s always a triple lutz with a camel.  When Jessamine Bach joins an environmental group it’s the prosaically named Save the Trees, and like a real environmentalist, she sits in a treetop canopy to preserve the redwood from loggers.  (That scene in the redwood is beautifully turned.)  When Walter Berglund starts an environmental group, it’s called the Cerulean Warbler Mountain Trust, and Walter’s got a scheme wherein he’ll give over some pristine wilderness to a coal company and then after they’ve removed the mountaintops and fouled the groundwater, he’ll replant the place as a songbird preserve. Franzen has written a lot about his break from difficult, satiric post-modernism.  In his essay “Mr. Difficult,” he pronounced his split from his one-time hero William Gaddis.  He doesn’t want to write really, really hard intellectual books anymore.  Thing is, Franzen’s over-the-top satire and his pressing of his characters’ faces into humiliation and into the meaningless void—these things really do derive in Franzen from Gaddis, from a dire, post-Beckett aesthetic.  Part of what makes Franzen so exciting to his admirers and so frustrating to his critics is his attempt to wed whacked-out and dark postmodern irony to sympathetic humanist realism.  And in this unlikely marriage problems do arise.  In a crazy-ass postmodern spoof, you can have a character dig through his shit or have an environmentalist join up with a coal company, and this can be part of the cold icy whacky comic mayhem (like in Gaddis’s A Frolic of His Own, a novel about a set of interrelated lawsuits, where the cars are called Isuyu and Sosume).  But in a realist novel, this kind of irony can shade into something ugly, can make characters seem plastic and thin and (as Charles Baxter argued) a little stupid.  Franzen’s willingness to abase his characters often reads as if he holds them in contempt. Part of the difference in reception of the novels might actually have something to do with the two books’ Jewishness—and here we come to another one of the weird parallels between the books.  Both of these are very Jewish novels, and their subplots about Jewishness mirror each other.  In both books, mothers hide their Jewishness from their children, children discover their secret family histories, and these discoveries of secret histories coincide with violent global convulsions. In Freedom, Patty Berglund, Walter’s wife, keeps her Jewish identity a secret from her kids, and her son Joey (the one who digs through his own shit, the one who gets mixed up in phony arms deals in the Iraq war) discovers his Jewishness late in the novel.  After he makes this discovery of his identity, Joey gets involved with in a scary Jewish family—one that might be modeled on the Kristols or the Wolfowitzes, rich Jews whose interest in Joey’s Jewishness is almost as creepy as their interest in right wing politics, Jews who distribute false information that leads to war. In The Cookbook Collector, Jessamine and Emily Bach’s mother is dead, but her Jewishness is similarly locked away from them, kept hidden from the girls by their father.  They both learn about their Jewishness at a post-9/11 memorial service—the Bach sisters are related not to assimilated or political Jews, but to Hassidic Jews, in fact to the Bialostoker Rebbe himself.  Goodman’s treatment of Jewishness has a completely different purpose than does Franzen’s.  For Franzen, Jewishness marks another opportunity to explore self-loathing and to memorialize the times—here, to skewer neo-conservatives.  In The Cookbook Collector, the presence of Jews—of rabbis—allows the novel to contemplate value in a whole new light.  Religious value is a central value for Goodman, and one that underpins the whole of her work.  In this book, it is contemplated alongside other human values—material, aesthetic, filial, and romantic.  And all of these things, in Goodman’s eyes, have worth. Twenty years ago, David Foster Wallace wrote an essay called “E Unibus Plurum: Television and U.S. Fiction,” in which he worried that the irony of his favorite post-moderns (Pynchon, Delillo, Gaddis, Barth) had been co-opted in his generation of post-modernists’ lives by television, in particular leering, cynical “I know this is just an ad” kind of TV ads.  Wallace worried that his generation of post-modernists had fallen into a trap, a reflexive, cold irony he called “televisual,” and he described this irony’s gaze as “the girl who’s dancing with you but who would rather be dancing with someone else.”  Allegra Goodman, of course, is in no danger of falling into this trap.  At the end of The Cookbook Collector, Jessamine Bach’s newly discovered uncle, Rabbi Helfgott, presides over her and George Friedman’s marriage, and it’s clear that the book believes in God and in love, and that Goodman’s fiction exists in a stable, meaningful, social world.  Her subtle literary ironies are of a piece with this large-hearted view. Meanwhile Franzen’s novel—his whole career, really—is a struggle with this postmodern ironical trap, a struggle to inhabit it and get out of it, to be humane and to be ironic.  At the end of Freedom, when the Berglunds, Walter and Patty, huddle together after 500-plus pages of humiliations, affairs, failures, and addictions, and in the ruins of their marriage find some comfort from the horrid world all around—well, it’s proof (if proof was ever needed) of Franzen’s extraordinary gifts.  This final section succeeds movingly. But he never can quite turn it off, and you feel it, the televisual irony, all throughout the course of Freedom.  Franzen is dancing with you, sure, and with Walter and Patty as well, and his moves are wild and Tony Manero dazzling—but he’s not wholeheartedly on the floor with his partners.  Allegra Goodman loves her characters—they absorb her attention as if she could wish for nothing more, and she offers them intimately to her readers, so much so that the author herself all but vanishes.  Franzen’s characters meanwhile exist somewhere beneath the glory of his prose.  His book is not so much addressed to the intimate reader, it’s addressed to the judges and the crowds.  His characters are anxious, but he is supremely confident.  He has managed to shuck the difficulties of postmodern fiction while retaining much of its cool and distant pose. David Foster Wallace had lots of moral and aesthetic problems with televisual irony—he ends that essay about it with an interesting call for earnestness—but he also noted how well it sells.  Half a year after its release, The Cookbook Collector, full of earnestness and love, is between hardcover and paperback editions, and it’s hard to find at your local bookstore. Meanwhile, cool and calculating Freedom sits high on the bestseller list, alone among its literary contemporaries.  That’s some kind of triumph.

A Year in Reading: Lydia Kiesling

I read The Children's Book, and I sort of didn't like it that much.  But I'm putting at the top of my Year in Reading because it disturbed me profoundly, and that has to count for something.  I finished it late at night while my beloved was sleeping, and when I turned off the light I clutched him, feeling terrified. I liked its Arts and Crafts conceit, but sometimes it seemed a conceit alone, an excuse for a nifty Morris-esque cover design.  Occasionally I found myself wanting to glaze a bowl, but I also found myself thinking: "This is no Possession." Then everyone started dying, and I thought, "Wow, A.S. Byatt is mean."  And A.S. Byatt is probably not mean, but I was overwhelmed by the union of war's indiscriminate horror with the steely moral judgment of her universe.  It's a serious business, the kind that keeps you up at night. Freedom, to echo Garth and Stephen and Dan. Freedom was a book that I read pretty much straight through, and when it was over I started again, only to find, for the nth time, that it doesn't work that way.  You can't have it again, there being no time like the first time and all that.  I also felt that way about The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet and The Museum of Innocence, as I've said before. I unwittingly read wonderful books that turned out to be part of trilogies: The Lyre of Orpheus (Cornish) and Independence Day (Bascombe) and The Persian Boy (Alexander).  So that turned into six more books to read, and to date I've only finished Mary Renault's Alexandriad.  But I'm all about Richard Ford for 2011.  And Robertson Davies--he's kind of like a male Iris Murdoch. I didn't do my regular rotation of re-reads this year for some reason, except for Lucky Jim and The Corrections (which seems to have entered the biennial rotation). I read non-fiction now, which has been an adjustment.  Non-fiction does not often leave me clutching my beloved in the night, although it probably should.  I liked Rebel Land, about eastern Turkey, Armenians, and Kurds, because it made more meaningful gestures toward readability than many works aiming to inform; in fact, in the end I think it turned out to be more enjoyable than informative. It helps that Christopher de Bellaigue, in addition to having a life that generates maximum personal envy (speaking fluent Turkish and Persian; writing things in the NYRB), knows a thing or two about a well-placed vignette.  He might not be a bona fide historian, but there's a story about a cardoon seed and a cuckoo that almost had me turning to the adjacent bus-rider to say "Lemme read you this part." A good year, all told. More from a Year in Reading 2010 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 The good stuff: The Millions' Notable articles The motherlode: The Millions' Books and Reviews Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions

A Year in Reading: Joanna Smith Rakoff

Nearly ten years ago, I interviewed Jonathan Franzen, then primarily known less for his fiction—he’d published two great but largely unread novels—and more for a brilliant, cranky essay on writing (and reading), generally referred to as “the Harper’s Essay.” Over the course of a day, Franzen talked, with unflinching honesty, about the difficulties—and exhilarations—of writing The Corrections, which was due to be published three months hence. He had, he explained, become so consumed with writing a “big” novel, an important novel, that he spent years writing and discarding chapters, plot threads, characters, perpetually unsatisfied. His frustrations and ambitions rang eerily true for me, for numerous reasons, not the least of which being that I was working on a novel that, I knew, would be large in scope, so large that I began to hyperventilate when I allowed my mind to linger too long on it. Franzen, of course, found his way out, in part, he explained, by turning away from the sorts of big novels he tended to favor, as both reader and writer, and toward the more slender volumes on his shelves, the Gatsbys and suchlike. Ultimately, he conceived of The Corrections, less as one massive tome, and more as a series of smaller novels. Franzen’s cure, in a way, became my own. I didn’t put down those big social novels, but I did look at them in a different light, as a series of component parts, and a few months later my own novel began to slide into place. This fall, like everyone else on the planet, I burned dinner, let my two-year-old cry, stopped answering the phone, and missed any number of subway and bus stops, as I completely gave myself over to Freedom. But I was also, in a neat coincidence, starting work on my own second novel, an even larger and more nerve-wracking endeavor than the first, and so I found myself thinking about that long-ago interview—the advice he’d unknowingly doled out—and picking up some of the shorter novels on my bookshelves, including many old favorites, such as Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 and Laurie Colwin’s Family Happiness, both of which I re-read every year or so, marveling at their perfection, and Jean Rhys's 1928 novel Quartet, which I’d not so much as glanced at since I was about 23. Brief, brutal, and mildly baffling, Quartet follows a young—or, well, young-ish—former chorus girl, Marya Zelli, over the year following her Polish husband’s imprisonment for theft. Left in Paris with no money and no real way of making a living—she hails from shabby genteel English stock—Marya sells everything she owns, falls ill, and is taken in by the Heidlers, a wealthy British couple whose interest in her stems, she soon discovers, from the husband’s desire to make her his mistress. It’s not giving much away to reveal that she succumbs—you know she will from the moment they meet—because the real pleasure of the novel lies less in the plot (there isn’t much of one) and more in Rhys’ dark humor, unsparing accounts of Marya’s existential despair as she wanders “like a grey ghost…in a vague, shadowy world,” and genius for portraying a character with the smallest and most specific strokes (Lois Heidler, clutching her giant handbag, bears “the expression of the woman who is wondering how she is going to manage about the extra person to dinner… Obviously of the species wife.”). For the 21st Century reader there’s also, of course, the odd and undeniable pleasure of reading about Paris—the expatriates of the Montparnasse--in the 1920s from a perspective rather more raw than that of, say, Hemingway. Rhys’ characters—be they would-be painters or Midwestern divorcees—appear to be on the verge of collapse—emotional, physical, financial, artistic--as if they were, to a one, harbingers of the financial failures that would devastate the global economy a year after the novel’s publication. At 23, Quartet struck me as a frank exploration of the vulnerability of a lone woman in a society geared toward monogamy and family. Fifteen years later, it reads as something much larger: an exposure of said society’s cracks and fissures, of the ways in which it has failed that lone woman, and, in doing so, has descended into a sort of moral decay. The residents of Paris wander its streets, devoid of money or purpose, resentful of the prosperous few, filled with the “devastating realization of the essential craziness of existence.” Not so different, I suppose, from New York—or Des Moines, or Fort Worth, or Sacramento—right now. Some other books I’ve loved this year: Ada Leverson’s satirical novel, Love’s Shadow, originally published in 1908, and recently reissued by Bloomsbury, which covers similar territory to Quartet, but in a deeply comic manner. Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, which also made me burn dinner, allow my children to play with knives, etc. (Why, I’ve wondered, was Egan not on the cover of Time magazine? Her novel speaks equally to present-day truths about America.) Two new memoirs with very long titles, though I am not normally a memoir person: Meghan Daum’s Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived in That House (which I loved so much, I have forced it on everyone I know) and Bryan Charles’s There’s a Road to Everywhere Except Where You Came From, which is ostensibly about September 11, but really a kind of contemporary kunstleroman, about becoming a writer in the rather toxic contemporary literary climate. And three not-new collections of poetry: Sarah Vap’s American Spikenard, Sandra Beasley’s Theories of Falling, and David Young’s translation of the Chinese poet Du Fu, which is worth reading for the introduction alone. More from a Year in Reading 2010 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 The good stuff: The Millions' Notable articles The motherlode: The Millions' Books and Reviews Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions

Franzen and Oprah: Together at Last?

If Moby Lives is right, the literary beef that erupted when Oprah selected Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections for her book club and he rejected the (in his mind, dubious) honor is about to get a curious denouement. Speculation is that Freedom is poised to become another Oprah selection. And your author suspects that Franzen will be more welcoming this time around. (Oprah sticker haters should probably buy their copies of Freedom now, just to be safe.) Update: The AP confirms and so it begins again.

The Book as Cross-Town Bus: The Pleasures of Hometown Reading

A few days ago, during my weekly visit to the comic book store, I stopped at the dense graphic-novel shelves, tyrannized by choice.  Before me sat row upon row of the laughably misleading (The Essential Dazzler), the highly unnecessary (ElfQuest: Volume 14), and the already-read (Essex County).  After a minute of unfocused browsing, I arrived at a chunk of Punishers.  Thanks to a 2009 alt-weekly story, I’d recalled that The Punisher’s Six Hours To Kill was set in Philadelphia, where I live.  I picked it up and flipped on through, remembering why I hadn’t read The Punisher since I was 13: it was really kind of dumb. Still, I’d come closer to buying the book than I reasonably should have—and the only reason for that was its setting.  Eighteen years had passed since I’d given Frank Castle any thought—eighteen years in which he’d killed his way through Queens, Detroit, and Nome.  Yet all it had taken to rekindle my interest was for him to hop in his van and roar down the Turnpike.  Had I read Six Hours To Kill, I might’ve recognized a street, a park, or a building—and that would’ve drawn me in.  Whether in comics, films, or novels, this verisimilitude is a gift—recognition that you actually exist. In 1995, Steve Lopez debuted with Third and Indiana, named after an intersection in Philly’s crumbling Badlands.  The book was mediocre—its villain was a cartoon, its heroes whimpering saints—but its street details were compelling.  “An old man with a white mustache and a newsboy hat cooked ribs and chicken on the sidewalk in a barbecue fashioned from a black metal drum.”  “Kensington Avenue… sat in eternal darkness and gloom under the El, and the tracks were supported by an archway of rusted iron crablegs, a symbol of the city’s industrial death.” In Pete Dexter’s Brotherly Love, gangsters and union guys battle it out on similarly gritty streets: “Michael sees them too late, one on the sidewalk, one on the street.  He takes the pistol out of his coat pocket, beginning to run, and shoots four times, blowing out the front window of a poultry store kitty-corner in the Italian Market.”  I live two blocks from the Market, and when I walk through with my wife, I’ll point towards Ninth and Catherine.  “In Brotherly Love, there was a shootout right over there,” I’ll say.  My hope, perhaps, is that she’ll find me somehow tougher—after all, I witnessed a goddamn shooting.  Instead, she’ll ask, “Wait—this was in a book?  So it didn’t actually… happen?”  “No, not really,” I’ll mumble.  But… I could’ve sworn… Such split thinking speaks, of course, to the vitality of narrative, to how it tricks us towards belief.  But unlike camping with the Joads or mourning poor Piggy, reading about one’s hometown doesn’t transport so much as extend, enlarging our maps with each page.  I’ve spent time in nearby Germantown thanks to David Goodis’ Black Friday: “He was very careful about it as he walked along Morton Street, watching the doors, the porch posts, the brick walls underneath the porch.”  When Point Breeze makes the paper, I’ve been there through The Corrections: “Friable houses with bedsheet curtains.  Expanses of fresh asphalt that seemed to seal the neighborhood’s fate more than promise renewal.” Until I wrote this piece, I hadn’t seen the thread that runs through my Philly reading: I focus on areas that I’d otherwise never enter; on things I’d rather not see.  Like a Baltimorean watching The Wire, I experience the nearby underbelly without having to actually experience it.  This might make me an earnest investigator or an entitled cultural sightseer; probably a mixture of both.  But whatever my motive, I’m not nearly as interested in the places I already know.  Were there a Philadelphia novel about a Bella Vista freelancer, I’d probably have to skip it.  I spend enough time with myself. In a recent issue of Superman, The Man of Steel began a cross-country walk in West Philadelphia.  As with The Punisher, his visit made the news—but this time, much of it harped on errors.  For one, Superman trekked through “The South Side”—a term used in Chicago, but never Philadelphia.  And at a diner, he ordered a “Philly cheese steak sandwich,” as natural-sounding as a Bulgarian weekender.  Such details, while seemingly petty, are crucial to hometown readers.  We might be too busy, or nervous, or lazy to go out and explore what surrounds us—but if you’re the author, by God, you’d better get it right.  Because we’ll take your stories as journalism; they’ll shape our thoughts for years.  We may or may not be tourists, but you are surely our guide. (Image: west philly, from lisacee's photostream)

Tough Love: A Review of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom

Jonathan Franzen seems to have always known what kind of writer he wanted to be when he grew up. His underrated first book, The Twenty-Seventh City, published before he was thirty, managed to synthesize the warring impulses of postwar fiction - toward black comedy and intimate lyricism, toward domestic realism and busy narrative, toward the personal and the political - in a language of aphoristic wit, journalistic specificity, and lapidary precision. The Twenty-Seventh City was a little bit of everything, without seeming like the average of anything. Notwithstanding his subsequent (and public) hemming and hawing about the social vs. the domestic, the difficult vs. the hospitable, art vs. entertainment, Franzen's ambitions have proven remarkably stable since then. Every seven or eight years, he brings out another dense and dazzling slab of pages - another panorama of American life viewed through the prism of the individual conscience. With 2001's The Corrections, he would seem to have perfected his method. It won the National Book Award, pissed off Oprah, and sold a million billion copies. Our recent poll of authors and editors singled it out as the best novel of the last decade. What could it possibly mean, then, to say that Freedom, his long-awaited follow-up, finds Franzen maturing? Surely not that he is more confident at 50 than at 40. (It's hard to think of a novel more confident than The Corrections.) Nor that Freedom is more or less expansive, or that it represents, in the canned phraseology of newspaper reviews, any kind of "stunning departure" in substance or in sensibility. Rather, the novelty of this novel - the richest reward it offers us for our patience - is the deepening of the author's moral imagination. One thinks of flavors ripening over a slow boil, of instruments changing as they age. To put it another way, in Freedom, Franzen's blues are bluer. The ironies are stronger, the pain more mysterious, and the characters more given to change. Like its predecessors, Freedom can be read as a species of family novel. Unlike them, it is, at heart, a love story...though Franzen cannily muddles the terms of the genre. The lovers in question are Patty and Walter Berglund, parents of two and members in good standing of the urban gentry of St. Paul, Minnesota. But it is not at all clear initially that Patty loves Walter - or, at any rate, how Patty loves Walter, or how well Walter knows Patty. It is, moreover, not at all clear that we should care. A bravura overture, "Good Neighbors," introduces us to the Berglunds through the eyes of their fellow gentrifiers, offering a mordant catalogue of the foibles of "the Whole Foods generation." The satire is delicious, but also offputting. We come to agree with community sentiment, expressed in the free indirect third-person Franzen favors: "There had always been something not quite right about the Berglunds." Immediately afterward, however, Freedom takes a sharp turn: it plunges us into Patty's point-of-view. Seeing through her eyes Walter - and their son, Joey, and Walter's best friend, the charismatic rock musician Richard Katz - we are shaken from our comfortable judgments. And then, in long, subsequent sections that follow, we move into Richard's head, and Walter's, and Joey's, and back to Patty's, each time having to adjust our understanding of this core quartet, the married couple and the manchildren who come between them. Franzen has played this inside-outside game before; The Corrections shuffled us serially among the Lamberts. Here, though, the sharper disjunctions between the various perspectives make the stereoscopic effect at once deeper and more unsettling. Between the outward and inward lives of these characters is a chasm we begin to wonder if we will ever bridge. Which is, of course, exactly the chasm Walter and Patty will have to bridge. First, though, we hopscotch through time. We explore the Berglunds' formative years (their meeting at college, Patty's rape, Walter's alcoholic father); the flickering, destabilizing presence of Richard in their lives; their move to post-September 11 Washington, D.C.; Joey's and Walter's entanglements with the conservative powers of that city; and the slow dissolution of the Berglund marriage under the familiar Franzen formula of depression, anger, and explosive sex. If this sounds heavy, it should be pointed out that Franzen is one of our funniest writers. His sense of humor, too, constitutes an inside-outside game. When Patty, years later, "envies and pities the younger Patty standing there in the Fen City Co-op and innocently believing that she'd reached the bottom," we are both the wiser, older self (how bad can things really be, in the Fen City Co-Op?) and the "innocent" younger one. Franzen has a wonderful way of boiling down this kind of perspectival comedy even further, into a little bouillon cube of diction: "Joey was staggered by the quantity of hardcover books and by the obviously top quality of the multicultural swag that Jonathan's father had collected during distinguished foreign residencies." "Multicultural swag" is funny - we catch the superficiality of Joey's hosts, and a flicker of glib self-awareness in Joey. A lesser novelist might have stopped there. But the agrammatical "obviously top quality," tucked away nearby, is funnier. For all his efforts at savoir-faire, Joey is also ingenuous, in ways he can't quite see. For Franzen, as for the Buddhists, understanding, whatever pieties it may traduce, is the supreme act of compassion. And to understand people in all of their contradictions is, perforce, to be ironic. To speak of the "likeability" of Freedom's characters is thus to miss the moral project completely. Joey is a product of his generation; as another character observes, there is "something Reaganite" about him. But because the novel cares enough about him to inhabit his consciousness fully, we care about him, too. We are laughing at once with him and at him. And with and at ourselves. Such anthropological laughter is a constant in Freedom. The novel picks up and probes everything it comes into contact with, managing in the process to take apart a goodly portion of what currently constitutes American life. It's not that Franzen "knows a thousand different things," as James Wood has suggested the contemporary American novelist seeks to - he's no Tom Wolfe, thank heavens. But he is curious about everything: Volvo maintenance, phone sex, alt-country, iPods, college life, Leo Strauss, NCAA women's basketball... Franzen's curiosity - his wish to welcome the world into his book - at times becomes overly antic, in a way that sits less easily against Freedom's midlife sobriety than it did in The Corrections' atmosphere of oxygenated adolescence. Joey's excursion in South America as a would-be war profiteer is like a less compelling version of Chip Lambert's sojourn in Estonia. And the coal-company conspiracy that envelops environmentally-minded Walter in the middle of the book is far less effective, as political commentary, than the tensions within Walter's own family. One thing Franzen does not seem to know particularly well is Washington, D.C., and there is an opacity to Walter here that we don't feel with Walter elsewhere, or with Joey, Richard, or Patty. (It is surely worth mentioning that Franzen writes more persuasively and attentively about the inner life of women than any male American novelist since Henry James.) But Franzen has the wisdom not to strand Walter inside the Beltway. Against the urban densities where the Berglunds have chosen to make their lives, Freedom keeps returning to a family cabin in the Minnesota woods where they seek respite. And it is a mark of Franzen's growth as a novelist that he keeps letting them find it - letting them breathe. Here, for example, is Walter, late in the novel, but early in his life: Seventeen years in cramped quarters with his family had given him a thirst for solitude whose unquenchability he was discovering only now. To hear nothing but wind, birdsong, insects, fish jumping, branches squeaking, birch leaves scraping as they tumbled against each other: he kept stopping to savor this unsilent silence as he scraped paint from the house's outer walls. And here is Patty, twenty years later and 300 pages earlier, just before her life falls apart in earnest: She took War and Peace out to the grassy knoll, with the vague ancient motive of impressing Richard with her literacy, but she was mired in a military section and kept reading the same page over and over. A melodious bird that Walter had despaired of teaching her the proper name of, a veery or a vireo, grew accustomed to her presence and began to sing in a tree directly above her. Its song was like an idee fixe that it couldn't get out of its little head. In the delicate mirroring of these passages, Franzen insists on nothing. Instead, he lets meaning, the elusive thing, emerge through momentum, like widening circles from a pond-tossed rock. The songbird's repetition echoes Patty's, and its idee fixe is really hers: the "vague ancient" impulse to sleep with Richard. Moreover, the grassy openness of the place Patty calls "Nameless Lake" speaks of a freedom neither Patty nor Walter can find in the "cramped" confines of the nuclear family, or of the society of which it is a microcosm. Freedom, in its intertwining personal and political aspects, is Freedom's explicit concern. It should be noted, though, that the bird the novel keeps coming back to (and that graces its cover), is a blue one, allied not so much with freedom as with happiness. Franzen's real quarry here is the vexed relationship between the two. In the space of the Minnesota woods, the Berglunds are - like Richard on the road or Joey off at college - free, but alone. Ultimately, in these and other moments that call to each other across time and across the space of the novel, Franzen also allows the patient reader to see what Walter and Patty cannot: that they are made for each other. I cede the floor to James Baldwin: Love takes off the masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within. I use the word "love" here not merely in the personal sense but as a state of being, or a state of grace – not in the infantile American sense of being made happy but in the tough and universal sense of quest and daring and growth. It is the surprising grace - in every sense - with which Franzen evokes Patty and Walter's love that marks Freedom as the work of a master. Readers looking for the pleasures of The Corrections will find all of them here, in force. But they are also likely to come away from this novel moved in harder-to-fathom ways - and grateful for it. Which is to express the hope that, amid the general childishness of the cultural scene he skewers so lovingly, Jonathan Franzen and his audience may be growing up together.

The Prizewinners 2009/2010

With the awarding of the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, the 2009/2010 literary award season is now over, which gives us the opportunity to update our list of prizewinners. Though literary prizes are arbitrary in many ways, our prizewinners post is compiled in the same spirit that one might tally up batting titles and MVPs to determine if a baseball player should be considered for the Hall of Fame. These awards nudge an author towards the "canon" and secure them places on literature class reading lists for decades to come. There are two books climbing the ranks this year. With an impressive showing with the judges, Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall has become something of an instant classic, landing near the top of the list and in very good company. Meanwhile, the IMPAC shortlist nod puts Marilynn Robinson's Home side-by-side with her much praised Gilead from 2004. Here is our methodology: I wanted to include both American books and British books, as well as the English-language books from other countries that are eligible to win some of these awards. I started with the National Book Award and the Pulitzer from the American side and the Booker and Costa from the British side. Because I wanted the British books to "compete" with the American books, I also looked at a couple of awards that recognize books from both sides of the ocean, the National Book Critics Circle Awards and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. The IMPAC is probably the weakest of all these, but since it is both more international and more populist than the other awards, I thought it added something. The glaring omission is the PEN/Faulkner, but it would have skewed everything too much in favor of the American books, so I left it out. I looked at these six awards from 1995 to the present, awarding three points for winning an award and two points for an appearance on a shortlist or as a finalist. Here's the key that goes with the list: B=Booker Prize, C=National Book Critics Circle Award, I=International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, N=National Book Award, P=Pulitzer Prize, W=Costa Book Award [formerly the Whitbread] bold=winner, red=New to the list or moved up* the list since last year's "Prizewinners" post *Note that the IMPAC considers books a year after the other awards do, and so this year's IMPAC shortlist nods were added to point totals from last year. 11, 2003, The Known World by Edward P. Jones - C, I, N, P 9, 2001, The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen - C, I, N, P 8, 2009, Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel - B, C, W 8, 2007, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz - C, P, I 8, 1997, Underworld by Don DeLillo - C, I, N, P 7, 2005, The March by E.L. Doctorow - C, N, P 7, 2004, Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst - B, C, W 7, 2002, Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides - I, N, P 7, 2001, Atonement by Ian McEwan - B, C, W 7, 1998, The Hours by Michael Cunningham - C, I, P 7, 1997, Last Orders by Graham Swift - B, I, W 7, 1997, Quarantine by Jim Crace - B, I, W 6, 2009, Home by Marilynn Robinson - C, N, I 6, 2005, The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai - B, C 6, 2004, Gilead by Marilynn Robinson - C, P 5, 2008, The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry - B, W 5, 2008, Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout - C, P 5, 2007, Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson - N, P 5, 2006, The Road by Cormac McCarthy - C, P 5, 2006, The Echo Maker by Richard Powers - N, P 5, 2005, Europe Central by William T. Vollmann - C, N 5, 2005, The Accidental by Ali Smith - B, W 5, 2004, The Master by Colm Toibin - B, I 5, 2003, The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard - I, N 5, 2001, True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey - B, I 5, 2000, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon - C, P 5, 2000, The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood - B, I 5, 1999, Waiting by Ha Jin - N, P 5, 1999, Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee - B, C 5, 1999, Being Dead by Jim Crace - C, W 5, 1998, Charming Billy by Alice McDermott - I, N 5, 1997, American Pastoral by Philip Roth - C, P 5, 1996, Every Man for Himself by Beryl Bainbridge - B, W 5, 1996, Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer by Steven Millhauser - N, P 5, 1995, The Moor's Last Sigh by Salman Rushdie - B, W 5, 1995, The Ghost Road by Pat Barker - B, W 5, 1995, Independence Day by Richard Ford - C, P 5, 1995, Sabbath's Theater by Philip Roth - N, P

It’s Not You, It’s Me: Breaking Up With Books

1. Once upon a time, I would not even consider quitting a book mid-read.  Reading a book was not unlike a monogamous human relationship in that sense; it involved conscious commitment, and fidelity: Book, I’m going to read you. Over the years, this has changed.  Recently it struck me that the list of books I’ve started and not finished has grown quite formidable.  I ask myself what this “means,” if it reflects some kind of moral devolution.  It’s interesting how there does seem to be a kind of morality of reading, and people express their reading values quite passionately. One of my favorite Millions Quizzes was "The Glaring Gap," a post in which regular contributors confessed which Great Books / Great Authors they’ve never read.  One contributor shared that she consciously chose not to read a certain category of male writers, and the comments came a-flying: oh, but you “should” read those!  Should should should.  Even the word “confess” implies sheepishness, shame and guilt.  I know, I know, I should read (and love) Proust!  And Dickens!  And Virginia Woolf!  And (these days) Bolaño! My commitment to finishing books in the past was probably related to the above – fear of ensuing guilt and shame. Failure, too, I suppose.  And perhaps at this point in my reading life, I’ve finished (and more than that, really ingested into my mind and emotions) enough books so that I feel a little freer in exercising the right to choose how to invest my reading time and energy; to veer from the Canonical Path – if such a thing actually exists anymore – and forge my own highly specific map of literary experience and influence.  I’m not getting any younger, after all.  Fifteen hours – the average it takes to read a book (and I tend to be on the slow side of this average) – is an increasingly precious chunk of time.  Professional book reviewers, you have my sympathies. 2. My list of Unfinished Books breaks down into a few categories. Perusing my list – from the last 3 or 4 years – reminds me that the convergence between book and reader is so specific; of-the-moment; contextual.  For me, abandoning a book often has little to do with the book’s “objective quality,” and much more to do with the nature of my reading appetite at that moment.  As a writer, there are books that you need during certain seasons of your own work, and others that must be held at bay, for the time being, or perhaps, but hopefully not, forever (oh, how the Bitch Goddess Time precludes so many returns to books we’d like to try again): Books I Did Not Finish But Very Much Want to Try Again The Children’s Book by A.S. Byatt 2666 by Roberto Bolano Remembrance of Things Past by Marcel Proust The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann (out of reverence for Susan Sontag) The Moviegoer by Walker Percy The Essential Kierkegaard The Night Watch by Sarah Waters Eugene Onegin by Pushkin 3. Then there are the books that you feel you “should” like -- you’ve adored this writer’s other books, your most trusted reader-friend recommended it, etc. – and you can’t figure out what the disconnect is.  You’ve tried and tried again, 50 pages, 75 pages, 120 pages, but for whatever reason… it’s like the blind date that looks perfect “on paper,” but the chemistry never happens: Books That I’ve Already Tried More Than Once But Couldn’t Engage With, I Don’t Know Why Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai The Book of Daniel and City of God by E.L. Doctorow (I am a Doctorow acolyte, these were particularly painful to abandon) Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton Sons and Lovers by D.H. Lawrence (I loved Women in Love so much) 4. It’s not that often that I really toss a book away and wipe my hands of it.  And I know the following books are critically acclaimed and/or beloved by many.  What can I say… Books That I Found Mostly Painful and Likely Will Not Revisit American Pastoral by Philip Roth The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce Twilight by Stephenie Meyer 5. The following category speaks for itself: Books Written By Friends/Acquaintances That I May Have Been Destined Not to Like in the First Place, But Gave Them a Try For Friendship’s Sake I won’t be listing these, for obvious reasons.  There aren't many, but it’s an awkward thing for all of us; and I never imagine that a person who knows and supports me will necessarily like my fiction. 6. Now, onto books that I’ve nearly abandoned or considered abandoning, but actually finished. “Should” is generally a battle between instinct and logic, id and superego.  An allegory of sorts: when I was in high school, I was moderately athletic, but in a limited way; I ended up as a quintessential starting JV player on all my teams, never quite attaining to Varsity level.  But one year, my senior year, I thought that I really “should” push myself, to get to that next level, to pursue some kind of fullness of achievement; even though I was enjoying perfectly all the playing time I was getting and never considered athleticism a central part of my identity.  So I went out for Varsity, just barely made the team, and spent the rest of the season miserably subjecting myself to the coach’s masochistic training drills and sitting on the bench during games.  I had thought that if I pushed myself, it would be “worth it” in some spiritual-existential way.  It absolutely was not.  I think about that experience often, and the metaphor pertains to the following list: Shlogged Through and Almost Abandoned, But Kept On; No Pay-off, I Felt, In the End The Accidental by Ali Smith Telex From Cuba by Rachel Kushner Sweetwater by Roxana Robinson Enduring Love by Ian McEwan The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen The Unconsoled by Kazuo Ishiguro Run by Ann Patchett 7. This final list is perhaps most significant, in terms of our moral quandary.  This list keeps me from indulging appetite exclusively, from missing out on the pleasures of a difficult, not-immediately-or-obviously-gratifying read.  I can’t imagine not having read these books; abandoning any one of them permanently really would have been a crying shame. In particular, Tim O’Brien’s In the Lake of the Woods was an odd, and revelatory experience.  I found the first 40 pages brilliant and alive and ground-shifting in that all-cylinders-firing way; then I found the next almost-150 pages tedious, repetitive, gimmicky; almost unbearable.  Book, I’m going to quit you, I remember consciously thinking.  But something made me pick it up again – all the acclaim, the voices of smart reader-friends in my head, my long-standing admiration of The Things They Carried; and also, I like to think, something more mysterious, my personal book fairy, who nudges me from category 3 above to this one, guiding and protecting me from tragically missed literary connections. So then, my God, those last 75 pages or so of In the Lake of the Woods - how it all comes together and wrecks you, shows you all the work that the previous 150 pages was doing.  This is the novel that always pokes into my consciousness when I am considering quitting a book; but maybe this one will be another O’Brien miracle. Struggled Through, Maybe Put Down For a While, But Finished and Am Very Glad I Did In the Lake of the Woods by Tim O’Brien Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf The Names by Don Delillo A Defense of Ardor: Essays by Adam Zagajewksi The Blue Flower by Penelope Fitzgerald I can imagine a day when the proportions of these lists begin to shift.  If you’re like me – neither young nor old – you feel a pressure, like every reading minute counts, in a way that you don’t feel as much when you’re younger, and perhaps I won’t feel in quite the same way when I am older.  I have no way of knowing, really, if category 3 (or even category 4), past, present or future, actually contains The One That Got Away, the book that may have changed my life.  To the books and writers that I’ve broken up with, I truly am sorry it didn’t work out; it is always at least a little bit true that it’s not you, it’s me.

The Millions Top Ten: May 2010

We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for May. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. 3. Reality Hunger 4 months 2. 2. The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories 6 months 3. 4. Let the Great World Spin 6 months 4. 5. The Mystery Guest 6 months 5. 6. Stoner 5 months 6. 8. The Big Short 3 months 7. 9. The Interrogative Mood 6 months 8. - Tinkers 1 month 9. 10. War and Peace 2 months 10. 7. Wolf Hall 5 months This month, David Shields' controversial Reality Hunger slips into the top spot. Shields recently offered an energetic defense of the book and an accompanying reading list. Graduating to our Hall of Fame this month is Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections, which appeared at the top of our panel's list and number eight on our readers' list in our "Best of the Millennium (So Far)" series last year. We've been learning more about Franzen's next novel, Freedom, out later this year. Our only debut this month is the surprise Pulitzer winner and small press hero, Tinkers by Paul Harding. Near Misses: The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest, Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace, The Known World, Twilight of the Superheroes, Then We Came to the End See Also: Last month's list

The Millions Top Ten: April 2010

We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for April. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. 1. The Corrections 6 months 3. 3. The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories 5 months 3. 2. Reality Hunger 3 months 4. 4. Let the Great World Spin 5 months 5. 10. The Mystery Guest 5 months 6. 9. Stoner 4 months 7. 6. Wolf Hall 4 months 8. 5. The Big Short 2 months 9. 7. The Interrogative Mood 5 months 10. - War and Peace 1 month Graduating to our Hall of Fame this month is W.G. Sebald's Austerlitz, which appeared on both our panel's list and our readers list in our "Best of the Millennium (So Far)" series last year. Our panel's winner in the same series, Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections, stays in the top spot. We've been looking forward to Franzen's next novel, Freedom, out later this year. Our only debut this month is a classic. Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace landed on lots of reading lists after we published Kevin's thoughtful meditation on the book and what it means to be affected by great art. Near Misses: Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace, Asterios Polyp, The Known World, Tinkers, Solar, Twilight of the Superheroes See Also: Last month's list

The Millions Top Ten: March 2010

We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for March. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. 2. The Corrections 5 months 2. 5. Reality Hunger 2 months 3. 10. The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories 4 months 4. 6. Let the Great World Spin 4 months 5. - The Big Short 1 month 6. 9. Wolf Hall 3 months 7. 3. The Interrogative Mood 4 months 8. 4. Austerlitz 6 months 9. 7. Stoner 3 months 10. 8. The Mystery Guest 4 months Graduating to our Hall of Fame this month is David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas, which was the readers' favorite in our "Best of the Millennium (So Far)" series last year. That allows our panel's winner in the same series, Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections, to take over the top spot. Of late, readers have begun looking forward to Franzen's next novel, Freedom, out later this year. Our only debut this month is Michael Lewis' look at the financial crisis of the last two years, The Big Short. Of the hundreds of books on the topic, Lewis' was one of the most widely anticipated, both because of his long history writing about Wall Street’s excesses and because of the powerful essay he penned on the topic for Portfolio magazine at the height of the crisis. Near Misses: Asterios Polyp, The Known World, War and Peace, Then We Came to the End, Union Atlantic See Also: Last month's list

An Exclusive Look at the Cover of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom

We learned recently that Jonthan Franzen's long-awaited follow-up to The Corrections, a new novel called Freedom, will arrive at the end of August. Now we have a cover too. Franzen's name looms appropriately large on the cover (in a font that recalls Ed Ruscha [edit: or Wayne White]), as does what appears to be a variety of blue jay a Cerulean Warbler. All of this is set atop a lake scene at sunset, the evergreen trees in the background suggesting northern latitudes. As we noted in our 2010 book preview: "The excerpt from the novel that appeared last year [in The New Yorker] was notable for its return to the more generous ironies that endeared The Corrections to our 'Best Fiction of the Millennium (So Far) panel.'"

Freedom Looms

Franzen fans: Freedom, the long-awaited follow-up to The Corrections is now available for pre-order. The specs: 576 pages, August 31st 2010. "Freedom comically and tragically captures the temptations and burdens of liberty: the thrills of teenage lust, the shaken compromises of middle age, the wages of suburban sprawl, the heavy weight of empire. In charting the mistakes and joys of Freedom’s intensely realized characters as they struggle to learn how to live in an ever more confusing world, Franzen has produced an indelible and deeply moving portrait of our time."

The Millions Top Ten: February 2010

We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for February. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. 1. Cloud Atlas 6 months 2. 2. The Corrections 4 months 3. 4. The Interrogative Mood 3 month 4. 3. Austerlitz 5 months 5. - Reality Hunger 1 month 6. 6. Let the Great World Spin 3 months 7. 8. Stoner 2 months 8. 5. The Mystery Guest 3 months 9. 10. Wolf Hall 2 month 10. 7. The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories 2 months   New to the Top Ten list this month is Reality Hunger, a book by David Shields.. We had an early look at the book, a two-part interview with Shields, and Shields' shared his Year in Reading in December. Dropping from the list is Asterios Polyp by David Mazzucchelli. Meanwhile, David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas and Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections stayed atop the list, but that top spot will open up next month as Cloud Atlas is poised to join the Hall of Fame. See Also: Last month's list

The Millions Top Ten: January 2010

We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for January. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. 1. Cloud Atlas 5 months 2. 4. The Corrections 3 months 3. 3. Austerlitz 4 months 4. 2. The Interrogative Mood 2 months 5. 9. (tie) The Mystery Guest 2 months 6. 5. Let the Great World Spin 2 months 7. 8. The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories 2 months 8. - Stoner 1 month 9. 9. (tie) Asterios Polyp 5 months 10. - Wolf Hall 1 month January saw two more books graduate to The Millions Hall of Fame, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson and Zeitoun by Dave Eggers. Larsson's books have been the beneficiary of a surge of interest in the late Swedish writer's series of thrillers. Eggers' Zeitoun has won much praise for its nuanced look at one immigrant New Orleanian's Katrina story. New to the Top Ten list this month is Stoner, a book by John Williams from NYRB Classics. The novel was singled out for praise as part of our Year in Reading series by Millions contributors Patrick and Edan as well as by Conversational Reading's Scott Esposito. Also debuting is Booker Prize winner Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. The book was also named a finalist recently for a National Book Crtics Circle Award. See Also: Last month's list

Most Anticipated: The Great 2010 Book Preview

Update: Don't miss our newest "Most Anticipated" list, highlighting books for the rest of 2010 and beyond. There's something for every lover of fiction coming in 2010, but, oddly enough, the dominant theme may be posthumous publication. Roberto Bolaño's relentless march into the canon has inured us to the idea of the bestseller from beyond the grave (and of course, for as long as there have been literary executors, this has been nothing new), but beyond the four(!) new books by Bolaño we also have have potentially important works by the likes of Ralph Ellison and Henry Roth, intriguing new books from Robert Walser and Ernst Weiss, a guaranteed bestseller from Stieg Larsson, and, looming in 2011, the final, unfinished novel of David Foster Wallace. Perhaps, amid all this, it is a relief to hear that we have many exciting books on their way from those still with us, including Elizabeth Kostova, Joshua Ferris, David Mitchell, Jennifer Egan, Don DeLillo, Ian McEwan, Yann Martel, and many others.Special thanks to The Millions Facebook group for helping us compile this list.January (or already available) Three Days Before the Shooting by Ralph Ellison: Fitting that this book preview starts off with a posthumous novel. Ellison's unfinished opus will not be the the only posthumous work to grab readers attention in 2010, but it will be perhaps the one with the most history attached to it and maybe, in the accounting of those who manage the canon, the most important. Ellison famously struggled to complete a second novel after the landmark publication of The Invisible Man. After Ellison's death, Juneteenth was cobbled together by his literary executor John Callahan and met with decidedly mixed reviews. But, as a 2007 article in the Washington Post argues, Three Days Before the Shooting, the result of years of work by Callahan and co-editor Adam Bradley, was always meant to be the true Ellison second novel. Readers will soon find out if it's the masterpiece they've been waiting for for decades.The Unnamed by Joshua Ferris: If your debut effort (in this case, Then We Came to the End) gets nominated for a National Book Award, you are on the express train to literary stardom. Quickly, however, focus shifts to the sophomore effort. For Ferris, early signs look good. Word is that The Unnamed is dark in tone, darker than and by all early accounts dissimilar to TWCTTE. The protagonist Tim's affliction is that he's unable to stop walking. In an early review, Bookforum likes it and says "Ferris possesses an overriding writer's gift: a basic and consistent ability to entertain while spurring engagement." See also: Joshua Ferris writing at The MillionsMonsieur Pain by Roberto Bolaño: The frenzy of posthumous Bolaño publication will continue in 2010 with as many as four (that I was able to find) books by the Chilean author published. Bolaño has been unmistakably one of the biggest publishing stories of the last few years, and publisher New Directions has been capably and speedily adding title after title to the Bolaño shelf at your local bookstore. Monsieur Pain (January) is about a Peruvian poet with a chronic case of hiccups. Antwerp (April) has been described as both a prose poem and a crime novel. The Return (July) is a new volume of short stories, as is The Insufferable Gaucho (August?), which was apparently the last book Bolaño delivered to a publisher. And look for more Bolaño in 2011. Garth may need to start updating his Bolaño Syllabus on a quarterly basis.Fun with Problems by Robert Stone: Fun with Problems will be Stone's first collection of short fiction in twelve years. And his first book since his 2007 memoir Prime Green: Remembering the Sixties (see Garth's review).Ordinary Thunderstorms by William Boyd: Boyd's novel is already out in the UK where it has been receiving characteristically good notices. "There are tantalising hints of a broader ambition in William Boyd's wide-ranging new thriller," said The Guardian. The book is ostensibly about a man on the run, but Boyd, in an interview with Edinburgh Festivals alluded to the depth that The Guardian picked up on, "It's a chase. And the drive is that the man is being hunted. But like the last four of my novels, it's also about identity, about what happens when you lose everything that makes up your social identity, and how you then function in the modern city."The Swan Thieves by Elizabeth Kostova - The follow-up to Kostova's big selling The Historian (the first ever first novel to debut at #1 on the New York Times bestseller list) promises to be just as densely detailed as its predecessor, weighing in at a hefty 576 pages. Recently departed Kirkus has some quibbles with the plot machinations, but says "lush prose and abundant drama will render logic beside the point for most readers." PW adds "The Swan Thieves succeeds both in its echoes of The Historian and as it maps new territory for this canny and successful writer." See Also: Elizabeth Kostova's Year in ReadingIn January, Archipelago Books will publish a translation of Ernst Weiss' Georg Letham: Physician and Murderer some 70 years after the novel's appearance in German. Enthusiasts of German-language literature have compared Weiss favorably with his contemporary Thomas Mann and his friend Franz Kafka, but he has remained something of an unknown on this side of the Atlantic. Already, Joel Rotenberg's translation has begun to remedy this neglect. An excerpt appeared in A Public Space a while back. (Garth)February Point Omega by Don DeLillo: Anticipation for DeLillo's forthcoming book has been decidedly truncated. Publisher Scribner first tweeted about DeLillo delivering the manuscript in June, and the book will hit shelves a scant eight months later. One reason for the quick turnaround might be the book's surprising slimness, coming in somewhere between 117 pages (says PW) and 128 pages (says Scribner). Imagine: reading an entire DeLillo novel in an afternoon, or perhaps just over lunch. So will the book's slight profile belie some interior weightiness? A recently posted excerpt may offer some clues, and PW says "Reading it is akin to a brisk hike up a desert mountain—a trifle arid, perhaps, but with occasional views of breathtaking grandeur."Reality Hunger: A Manifesto by David Shields: We've already discussed Shields' forthcoming "manifesto" quite a lot at The Millions. It was first noted, in glowing terms, by Charles D’Ambrosio. This prompted me to dig deeper in a longer look at the book. From my sleuthing, and noting blurbs by J.M. Coetzee, Jonathan Lethem, and others, I posited "the intriguing possibility that a book of ideas will capture the popular interest [in 2010]." The book now sits on my desk, and while haven't yet jumped in with both feet, I can report that it is both structurally (a lettered and numbered organization scheme whose logic is not immediately discernible) and stylistically (deep thoughts, reminiscences, aphorisms, and pop culture nuggets abound) unique. It will be interesting to see if readers decide the book coalesces into a successful whole. This just in - British publisher Hamish Hamilton reports that Zadie Smith will be writing up the book in The Guardian soon. See Also: David Shield's Year in ReadingThe Infinities by John Banville: Banville follows up his Booker-winning effort The Sea with a novel with a rather unique conceit: it is narrated by the god Hermes. The reviews hint at further oddities. In The Guardian, for example, "Old Adam, a physicist-mathematician, has solved the infinity problem in a way that's not only led to some useful inventions – cars that run on brine, for example – but also proved the existence of parallel universes, a category that includes the one he inhabits. In this novel, Sweden is a warlike country, and evolution and relativity have been discredited."Union Atlantic by Adam Haslett: Haslett made a big splash in 2002 when his debut effort - a collection of short stories called You Are Not a Stranger Here - was a finalist for the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize. Union Atlantic, his first novel, takes the depths of the recent financial collapse as a backdrop (which explains why a work of literary fiction is getting notice from publications like American Banker). PW gave it a starred review and insinuates it might be a seminal novel of that particular historical moment. Esquire recently published the novel's prologue. It begins, "Their second night in port at Bahrain someone on the admiral's staff decided the crew of the Vincennes deserved at least a free pack of cigarettes each."March Solar by Ian McEwan: McEwan's new novel was discussed extensively in Daniel Zalewski's New Yorker profile of McEwan in February 2009. More recently, the magazine published an excerpt from the novel. The book's protagonist is a Nobel Prize-winning physicist, and it appears that the book's chief drama will arise in his becoming embroiled in the climate change "debate." The book is also being called a satire, but, to the extent that several of McEwan's books have elements of satire, it's unclear whether Solar will be much of a departure for McEwan. The excerpt in the New Yorker would seem to indicate it'll be a typical, and probably quite good, effort.The Ask by Sam Lipsyte: Lipsyte had a breakout hit with Home Land in 2005. His follow-up novel was reviewed recently in The Quarterly Conversation, which says "let’s be frank: this is a hard novel to review. The Ask makes for your heart with its claws so efficiently that it leaves you torn and depleted. How are you to review a book that simply frightens you?" Ultimately, TQC decides The Ask "isn’t quite as good as Home Land. The latter was nearly perfect in idea and execution—an ’80s high-school movie gone sick with nostalgia for its own John Hughesian past. The Ask is more generationally diffuse. While just as snot-blowingly funny as its predecessor, The Ask is more devastating in its pitilessness."The Surrendered by Chang-Rae Lee: Bookdwarf read this one recently and says Lee "offers no easy endings or heartwarming coming-together, instead bringing to life a powerful, unpredictable, and occasionally painful story."Burning Bright by Ron Rash: Rash's follow-up to Serena is a collection of stories. The book's title story appeared in Ecotone in 2008.One More Story: Thirteen Stories in the Time-Honored Mode by Ingo Schulze: Garth has been talking about Schulze here for at least two years. Most recently he wrote "The East German setting of New Lives, and its uroboric epistolary structure – starting late in the story, slowly filling in the background – made for slow going at first, but the ethical intensity of its restaging of Faust has haunted me since I read it." The English (and somewhat illogical) title of Schulze's new book would seem to obscure the unifying theme of the new collection, whose title, translated directly from the German original, is Cell Phone: Thirteen Stories in the Old Style. According to an abstract for a paper in the journal German Monitor, "the cell phone functions in many stories as a threatening symbol of exposure to pressures and problems that make East(ern) Germans feel ill at ease."So Much for That by Lionel Shriver: More hot button issues. Just as Ian McEwan's forthcoming novel is informed by climate change, Shriver's latest takes on the healthcare debate. The Bradshaw Variations by Rachel Cusk: Cusk's novel is already out in the U.K. where Hilary Mantel wrote, "It is the author's mix of scorn and compassion that is so bracing. Sometimes she complicates simple things, snarling them in a cat's cradle of abstraction, but just as often, a sentence rewards with its absolute and unexpected precision."Silk Parachute by John McPhee: This new collection by McPhee is built around what FSG's promotional material calls "McPhee’s most anthologized piece of writing." "Silk Parachute" is, especially for the typically measured McPhee, a brief, tight, funny and emotional essay (It's available here as a .doc file). The rest of the new collection is composed of McPhee's recent New Yorker essays on lacrosse, "long-exposure view-camera photography, the weird foods he has sometimes been served in the course of his reportorial travels, a U.S. Open golf championship, and a season in Europe 'on the chalk' from the downs and sea cliffs of England to the Maas valley in the Netherlands and the champagne country of northern France." Since McPhee's most recent collections have had fairly strong thematic threads running through them, this more loosely tied book sounds like a bit of a departure.Long for This World by Sonya Chung: And, of course, Millions contributor Sonya Chung will see her debut novel Long for This World arrive in March. Sonya wrote about the peculiar challenges of settling on a book design in a recent essay.April The Notebook by Jose Saramago: Nobel Laureates can do "blooks" too. The Notebook is the collected entries from 87-year-old Saramago's blog, O Caderno de Saramago. The book, "which has already appeared in Portuguese and Spanish, lashes out against George W. Bush, Tony Blair, the Pope, Israel and Wall Street," according to the Independent, in its report on the book's Italian publisher dropping it for criticizing Prime Minister Silvio Burlusconi. Despite his age, Saramago is a busy man. In addition to The Notebook, there's an August release date in the U.K. for a new novel, The Elephant's Journey, which "traces the travels of Solomon, an Indian elephant given by King John III to Archduke Maximilian II of Austria," and Cain, "an ironic retelling of the Bible story," was recently published in Portuguese and Spanish.Parrot and Olivier in America by Peter Carey: Carey's new book is based on the life of Alexis de Tocqueville and wields two narrators. Olivier, the de Tocqueville "character" is, like de Tocqueville, the heir apparent of a wealthy family. Parrot is his clever servant who also happens to be a spy and all around rake. Early reviews from Australia, where the book is already out, have been strong. The Sydney Morning Herald called it "a tour de force, a wonderfully dizzying succession of adventures and vivid, at times caricatured, characters executed with great panache."The Dead Republic by Roddy Doyle: This book wraps up Doyle's The Last Roundup trilogy (previously: A Star Called Henry and Oh, Play That Thing!). This time Henry Smart has gone to Hollywood and then back to Dublin. A bomb blast there turns him into an accidental hero.What Becomes by A.L. Kennedy: This short story collection is already out in the U.K. The Spectator likes it: "The hardest thing about the advent of a new collection of stories by A.L. Kennedy... is the search for synonyms for 'brilliant.'"Beatrice and Virgil by Yann Martel: Though Martel's previous effort, Life of Pi, was far from universally loved, the book became something of a literary phenomenon, putting up sales impressive even for a Booker winner. As a result, nearly a decade later, Martel's follow up is one of the most heavily anticipated books of the year. As before, it seems Martel will be trading in talking animals, a taxidermied donkey and monkey. More details: The book is about the Holocaust, reportedly. It's Canadian publisher has called it "shocking." And Martel is comparing it to Animal Farm.The Big Short by Michael Lewis: Original set for November 2009, the publication of Michael Lewis’ much anticipated chronicle of the financial crisis, The Big Short has been pushed back to April. In October 2008, when economic uncertainty was at its height and fears were voiced in some rarefied quarters about the possibility of some sort of structural collapse, we wrote, “The world needs an exhaustive look at what happened in 2008 and why.” There have already been many books about the collapse and what caused it, from The Two Trillion Dollar Meltdown to The Return of Depression Economics and the Crisis of 2008, but many readers have been waiting for a book by Lewis, both because of his long history writing about Wall Street’s excesses and because of the powerful essay he penned on the topic for Portfolio magazine at the height of the crisis. Some readers may be weary of the topic by the time the book comes out, but it’s sure to garner some interest. Noir by Robert Coover: An excerpt of this new novel by "pioneering postmodernist" Coover was published a while back in Vice. It is introduced thusly: "Noir is a short novel starring you as Philip M. Noir, Private Investigator. It began as a story about a dockside detective in pursuit of something—like truth or beauty, the ineffable—and became over the course of its writing a kind of companion piece to Ghost Town, which played with the western genre and mythology the way this one plays with the hard-boiled/noir genre and urban myth. It was the French who discovered and defined noir; consequently, this book will have its first publication in Paris, in French, in the spring of 2008."May The Pregnant Widow by Martin Amis: This book, long in the works, has been evolving as Amis has struggled to write it. In 2006, he told The Independent it was, "blindingly autobiographical, but with an Islamic theme." As it turns out, the autobiographical bits were causing Amis trouble. He told the National Post in August 2009, "it turned out it was actually two novels, and they couldn’t go together. So I wrote The Pregnant Widow, [that’s] one half of it, and the other half I started, and it will be very autobiographical, the next one." Subsequent comments from Amis appear to indicate the two book solution is still the plan. Imperial Bedrooms by Bret Easton Ellis: Imperial Bedrooms is reportedly a sequel to Ellis' first novel Less Than Zero. First sentence of the novel? "They had made a movie about us."The Invisible Bridge by Julie Orringer: Orringer received more than the typical notice for a debut short story collection when her 2003 How to Breathe Underwater was named a New York Times Notable Book, landed on various other lists, and picked up a small prize or two. It's looking like that promising first effort may translate into a "big" novel for Orringer in 2010. Library Journal reported a 60,000-copy first printing for The Invisible Bridge - the book follows a trio of Hungarian brothers in Budapest and Paris before and during World War II - and it carries with it a blurb from Michael Chabon ("To bring an entire lost world... to vivid life between the covers of a novel is an accomplishment; to invest that world, and everyone who inhabits it, with a soul... takes something more like genius.")The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest by Stieg Larsson: Larsson's nordic crime fiction (which has won Larsson posthumous stardom in the States) isn't exactly in The Millions wheelhouse, but, with nary a mention on the site, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo vaulted into our Millions Top Ten and has stayed there. When Millions' readers get behind a book, it's often worth taking notice. The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest is the final book in Larsson's "Millennium Trilogy" (Dragon was the first and The Girl Who Played with Fire, the second). Though just becoming well known in the U.S., Larsson was the second top-selling author in the world in 2008. Part of Larsson's sudden success is his odd path to (posthumous) publishing fame. Larsson was a journalist and activist who died of a heart attack. The manuscripts of his novels were found after his death. He had apparently written them just for fun. Five years later, the books are a publishing sensation.Private Life by Jane Smiley: There's not much info on this one yet other than that it follows a Missouri woman's life, from the 1880s to World War II.The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ by Philip Pullman: Pullman (famous for his His Dark Materials children's series) will once again be courting controversy with this new book. According to The Guardian, "The book will provide a new account of the life of Jesus, challenging the gospels and arguing that the version in the New Testament was shaped by the apostle Paul." In addition, the book will be released on Easter in the U.K. and is part of Canongate's "Myths" series of books. Pullman also wrote an introduction to that series.The Microscripts by Robert Walser: The pothumous publication of Nabokov's The Original of Laura, reproducing, front and back, the notecards on which Nabokov hat charted this unfinished work, was met with no small amount of scorn. This year, another posthumously published book, based off of notecard scrawlings, may be met more favorably. The story behind Walser's Microscripts is fascinating. From the New Directions blog: "Walser wrote many of his manuscripts in a highly enigmatic, shrunken-down form. These narrow strips of paper... covered with tiny ant-like markings only a millimeter or two high, came to light only after the author’s death in 1956. At first considered a secret code, the microscripts were eventually discovered to be a radically miniaturized form of a German script: a whole story could fit on the back of a business card... Each microscript is reproduced in full color in its original form: the detached cover of a trashy crime novel, a disappointing letter, a receipt of payment."June The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell: After Black Swan Green, a departure from the frenetic, layered Cloud Atlas which was broadly considered one of the best novels of the last decade, Mitchell fans may be pleased to hear that The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is being described as a return to form. It's long (512 pages) and set in Japan in 1799. The Guardian says, "Mitchell returns to the big canvas with this historical novel set in a Japanese outpost of the Dutch empire."An American Type by Henry Roth: Here's another interesting posthumous publication. Roth is revered for his 1934 novel Call It Sleep and his 1990s "comeback" effort, the Mercy of a Rude Stream cycle, and so news of this book, "discovered," according to the publicity materials, "in a stack of nearly 2,000 unpublished pages by a young New Yorker editor," will surely interest readers. A little more detail from the publicity materials: "Set in 1938, An American Type reintroduces us to Roth’s alter ego, Ira, who abandons his controlling lover, Edith, in favor of a blond, aristocratic pianist at Yaddo. The ensuing conflict between his Jewish ghetto roots and his high-flown, writerly aspirations forces Ira, temporarily, to abandon his family for the sun-soaked promise of the American West."A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan: This new novel by National Book Award nominee Egan sounds like it's as ambitious and layered as Look At Me--and I'm sure it'll be as addictively readable as The Keep. According to Amazon, it centers on the life of Bennie Salazar, "an aging former punk rocker and record executive, and Sasha, the passionate, troubled young woman he employs," and the narrative traverses various eras and locales, "from the pre-Internet nineties to a postwar future." Color me intrigued. (Edan)July Update: Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart: A reader points out in the comments that Shteyngart has a new book coming out and since we absolutely would have included it had we known about it, here it is. A recent item at The Rumpus has the scoop: "His new novel is set slightly in the future. When he started writing it a few years ago, he envisioned a world where the world’s economy had collapsed and the central banks had to bail out the Big Three automakers. As that came to pass, he had to keep changing his novel, which got bleaker and bleaker. And now it’s set in 'a completely illiterate New York,' he said. 'In other words, next Tuesday.'" August Sympathy for the Devil: This is a long way off so it's hard to say how good it will be, but it sounds pretty cool: an anthology of stories about the devil from the likes of Neil Gaiman, Stephen King, Kelly Link, China Mieville, Michael Chabon, and others.I Curse the River of Time by Per Petterson: Petterson has been on the road to international literary stardom for a few years now and that means his new novels get translated into English with relative alacrity. This means that English-speaking readers will get to see I Curse the River of Time, first published in Norwegian in 2008, later this year. The book won the Norwegian Brage prize and, according to a "sample translation" on Petterson's agent's website, it begins: "I did not realize that my mother had left. There was too much going on in my own life. We had not spoken for a month, or even longer, which I guess was not that unusual, in 1989, when you consider the things that went on around us back then, but it felt unusual." September C by Tom McCarthy: At Ready Steady Book in September 2007, Mark Thwaite asked McCarthy: "What are you writing now?" And McCarthy responded: "Pathetically, my answer to this question is the same as it was when you last asked it over a year ago. I’m just under half way through a novel called C, which is about mourning, technology and matter. I’m writing it very slowly. It’s called C because it has crypts, cauls, call-signs, cocaine, cyanide and cysteine in it. And carbon: lots of carbon."Unknown Nemesis by Philip Roth: News of this novel was announced nearly a year ago, but there is no release date thus far and not much is known about it beyond that it's "a work of fiction set in the summer of 1944 that tells of a polio epidemic and its effects on a closely knit Newark community and its children."Freedom by Jonathan Franzen: Jonathan Franzen's follow-up to The Corrections, Freedom, is likely to cause a stir when it appears, most likely in the fall. Among the prominent media narratives - the backlash, the backlash-to-the-backlash - will be the length of the novel's gestation. Really, though, in novelist time (as distinct from internet time), nine years is a mere blip - particularly when you publish two books of nonfiction in the interim. Far more remarkable is how tight-lipped Franzen has managed to be about the novel's content. From various obscure interviews, we've managed to cobble together the following: 1) The novel has something to do with U.S. politics, of the Washington, D.C. variety. 2) Franzen's original conception of how those politics would intersect with the narrative changed radically in the writing, likely shifting from an "inside baseball" look at bureaucracy toward the personal. 3) Germany, where Franzen has spent some time recently, "will play an important role in the novel." 4) After two New Yorker short stories notable for their smallness and misanthropy, the excerpt from the novel that appeared last year was notable for its return to the more generous ironies that endeared The Corrections to our "Best Fiction of the Millennium (So Far) panel." (Garth)The Pale King by David Foster Wallace: Wallace's unfinished opus is sure to be a blockbuster when it appears - April 2011 is the latest word on a release date. The Howling Fantods, home to all things DFW, has been staying on top of the story. A recent report contained a number of tidbits, including this: "The subject of the novel is boredom. The opening of the book instructs the reader to go back and read the small type they skipped on the copyright page, which details the battle with publishers over their determination to call it fiction, when it's all 100% true. The narrator, David Foster Wallace, is at some point confused with another David F. Wallace by IRS computers, pointing to the degree to which our lives are filled with irrelevant complexity."There are many other exciting books coming out in 2010 not mentioned here - let us know what books you are most looking forward to in 2010 in the comments section below.

The Millions Top Ten: December 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 December. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. 3. Cloud Atlas 4 months 2. - The Interrogative Mood 1 month 3. 7. Austerlitz 3 months 4. 5. (tie) The Corrections 2 months 5. - Let the Great World Spin 1 month 6. 4. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo 6 months 7. 1. Zeitoun 6 months 8. - The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories 1 month 9. (tie) 7. (tie) Asterios Polyp 4 months 9. (tie) - The Mystery Guest 1 month December saw a flurry of activity as four books made their first appearances on the list. Padgett Powell's The Interrogative Mood, endorsed by both Jonathan Lethem and Rick Moody, caught readers' interest. Colum McCann's Let the Great World Spin has been building momentum since its National Book Award win. I also reviewed it here and last month, Reif Larsen wrote glowingly of the book. Our recent interview with superstar translators Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky clearly got readers interested in their latest effort, a Tolstoy collection. And David Shields' Year in Reading contribution, while eclectic, nonetheless drew readers' focus to Gregoire Bouillier's The Mystery Guest. Powered by continued interest in The Millions' Best of the Millennium series, where the book had a strong showing on both out panel list and our readers' list, David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas took over the top spot in the Top Ten. And finally, dropping from the list were Thomas Pynchon's Inherent Vice, The Skating Rink by Roberto Bolaño, The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood, and The Wild Things by Dave Eggers. See Also: Last month's list

The Millions Top Ten: November 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 November. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. 2. Zeitoun 5 months 2. 1. Inherent Vice 4 months 3. 3. Cloud Atlas 3 months 4. 4. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo 5 months 5. (tie) - The Corrections 1 month 5. (tie) 7. The Skating Rink 4 months 7. (tie) 5. Asterios Polyp 3 months 7. (tie) 10. Austerlitz 2 months 9. - The Year of the Flood 2 months 10. 6. The Wild Things 2 months Dave Eggers bookends our list as Zeitoun moves into the top spot and The Wild Things lands at number 10. Jonathan Franzen's 2001 novel The Corrections hits our list two months after a panel of writers, editors and critics assembled by The Millions named it the Best of the Millennium (So Far). The book joins Cloud Atlas and Austerlitz, which both figured prominently in the series as well. Margaret Atwood's The Year of the Flood has re-entered the list after falling off last month. And dropping from the list are Felonious Jazz by Bryan Gilmer and Imperial by William T. Vollmann. See Also: Last month’s list.

Goodbye to Oprah’s Golden Ticket

That sound you hear is a thousand book publicists wailing. Oprah Winfrey will announce today that her eponymous talk show will end in September 2011. That means that in less than two years, the ultimate book publicity coup will be off the table. Oprah's Book Club isn't quite the powerhouse it once was. The club was started in 1996, a savvy move when neighborhood book clubs were in vogue with the Oprah demographic. The Book Club also was a way of distancing the show from its increasingly shock-oriented daytime peers (a format, we may forget, that Oprah once partook of.) In those early years of the Book Club, Oprah would often, though not always, chose a little-known, "mid-list" book that would become an overnight bestseller. In a literary world where writers are playing the lottery against the longest of odds, Oprah was the winning ticket. The Club earned a reputation, perhaps unfair to the Club and perhaps unfair to the books that were a part of it, as a redoubt of "women's fiction," but the selections were more varied than that, ranging from melodrama like Anita Shreve's The Pilot's Wife and Wally Lamb's She's Come Undone to more nuanced fare like Ernest J. Gaines' A Lesson Before Dying and Breath, Eyes, Memory by Edwidge Danticat. The Club went on like this for about five years, selecting 10 or 12 books a year, and, with a flick of this magic wand, turning each one into a bestseller. And then Jonathan Franzen came along. You can argue whether Franzen should have accepted Oprah's selection as just another of many honors bestowed upon The Corrections or whether he had every right to exert some well-earned control over how his book was marketed, but one thing seems clear. Oprah had never contemplated the idea of someone turning her down. After Franzen, the Book Club, as if trying to find its purpose again, meandered, initially with some fanfare, but increasing as an afterthought, through classics by Garcia Marquez, Tolstoy and others. The books still sold but she was only making a couple of selections a year, and some of the dazzle had leaked out of the enterprise. Then, to juice things up, Oprah announced that she would return to selecting living authors. In all the furor that followed the uncovering of James Frey's confabulations in his memoir A Million Little Pieces, it's easy to forget that prior to selecting Frey's book, Oprah had actually announced that she was going to go back to picking books by living authors, and there was a good deal of discussion around this, as though "living author" was a genre you might find in the bookstore. But implicit in this announcement was a recognition that Oprah's Book Club just wasn't as exciting without the sub-plot of making an author an overnight millionaire and household name. Or, to put it another way, What Oprah told the New York Times was, "I wanted to open the door and broaden the field... That allows me the opportunity to do what I like to do most, which is sit and talk to authors about their work. It's kind of hard to do that when they're dead." But that was before Frey turned the whole thing into a circus, culminating with Oprah's finger-wagging excoriation of Frey on her show. Since the Franzen-Frey double-whammy, the Book Club hasn't been quite the touchstone it once was. There some moments of cultural relevance, like the cognitive dissonance of Oprah selecting Cormac McCarthy's The Road days before it won the Pulitzer, seeing an Oprah logo next to McCarthy's name on the book cover, and later, her visit to his ranch for her show. But the Book Club remains an afterthought, with new selections happening only rarely (Uwem Akpan's Say You're One of Them in September was the first of 2009) and, while the books she picks still sell and publicists still get excited, the Club isn't as much on the media radar, and no one wrings their hands about Oprah's impact on literary culture any more. This isn't to say, however, that the Book Club was the only reason that Oprah was important to the publishing industry. Oprah had guests flogging books in categories outside of fiction and confessional memoir (and, yes, fictionalized confessional memoir) on the show all the time, and the big sales that followed for these celebrity memoirs, diet books, and self-help guides showed that, in publishing (and in every other business), landing Oprah was still the ultimate publicity coup. While gallons of ink were spilled on the Book Club's literary taste, Oprah's role was probably far more insidious with these other titles, most notably with her incessant flogging of the "power of positive thinking" pabulum found in The Secret. (Salon.com's 2007 takedown of The Secret, and Oprah for hyping it, is essential reading.) So, with the Book Club wasting away and the end of Oprah now in sight, what's a publicist or mid-lister hoping for a miracle to do? The reality is that it's hard to imagine our culture supporting an enterprise like Oprah's Book Club again. In 1996, audiences were far less fragmented, and even a daytime show could command enough of the public's attention to achieve the desired critical mass. Oprah is set to extend her media empire in new ways, as she's launching her Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN) early 2011, and while word is she'll do a daily show there, don't be surprised if she takes the shift as an opportunity to retire the Book Club concept. And even if she doesn't, OWN will be just another, and maybe smaller, piece of this already fragmented media landscape, and a new Book Club likely wouldn't be the winning lottery ticket it once was. Who knows, maybe she'll get into publishing, instead. (I can almost hear the manuscripts flying her way.) Bonus Link: The complete list of Oprah's Book Club titles

Dissecting the List: An Excursus

Of Lists, Generally Most Emailed Articles. Most Beautiful People. 100 Best Singles. 50 Greatest Novelists Between the Ages of 31 and 33. Verily, as William H. Gass observes in his wonderful essay collection Tests of Time - which made the New York Times Notable Books List even as it missed Bestsellers by a mile - we are nowadays "obsessed by hierarchies in the form of lists." The etiology of this obsession is elaborate enough that a list of the Top 10 causes would not begin to exhaust it. Still, near the head of such a list, as Gass suggests, would have to be "our egalitarian and plural society," which renders questions of value both vital and vexed. And somewhere nearby (just above, or below, or beside?) would be our access to a venue where the itch to list can be almost continuously scratched: the Internet. Online tools for the gathering and measuring and dissemination of data have made list-making so ridiculously easy as to be ubiquitous. Kissing listservs and bookmarks and blogrolls goodbye would be something like turning your back on the Internet altogether. Still, for a certain kind of mind, the lists Gass is referring to - lists that not only collect objects but rank them - would seem to give rise to at least three problems (which appear here in no particular order): They are always incomplete - either arbitrarily circumscribed or made on the basis of incomplete information. Who has time to listen to every Single of the Decade? To gawk at every Beautiful Person? They present a false picture of the world, wherein "best" appears to be a fixed and ascertainable property, like the color of money, rather than, like its value, a contingency. What does "Third Best Living Drummer" mean, exactly? They involve judgment, and therefore judges. Who has the authority to say what makes the cut and what doesn't? Who has the audacity? Who has the right? Thus, every list carries with it, as a built-in feature, the seeds of its own refutation. Indeed, it's probably its hospitality to debate that makes the "Best Of" list so popular in the first place. In a familiar online dynamic, passions get stirred - one can agree (yes! great list!) or dissent (Where is x? Why no y?) or inveigh against list-making itself - but nothing is finally settled. In any case, the list, like the broader medium, holds up a mirror to one's own preoccupations. As with any mirror, it is fearsomely hard to look away. Of One List, More Particularly We at The Millions have experienced first-hand what one might call "the fascination of the list." (Fascination, n. From the Latin for bewitchment; same root as fascism.) For the better part of a decade, we've watched other venues trot out their literary lists, and, in addition to grumbling about the arbitrariness and banality of the results, have wondered why they didn't resemble more closely the lists we ourselves would have made. A more principled (not to say puritanical) editorial posture might have led us to eschew the whole list-making enterprise. Yet when we noticed that the first decade of the Aughts was drawing to a close, we decided, rather than leaving the "Best of the Decade" cataloguing to institutions we didn't quite trust, to do it ourselves. Almost immediately we discovered, or remembered, what may be the number one reason for the proliferation of lists. Making lists, - as Gass knows - is fun. We realized from the get-go, of course, that listing the best books published in the first 10 years of the 21st Century would be an act of hubris. Why not soft-pedal it? We decided, however (and tried to state explicitly in our introduction to the series), that the spirit of the exercise was not to put to rest a conversation about taste and literary merit, but to provoke one. "Some More or Less Recent Books Some People Like," an accurate if unwieldy title, was less likely to generate debate than "Best of the Millennium," so we braced ourselves and went for it. Our next challenge was figuring out how to assemble the list. Being the little-d democrats we are, we decided that any list of "The Best Fiction of the Millennium (So Far)" should be arrived at by voting. This meant - logically, unfairly - that books a lot of people had read were more likely to appear on our list than the unjustly neglected classics-in-the-making some other list might discover. But it didn't mean, as the omissions of Zadie Smith, Claire Messud, Jonathan Safran Foer, Jhumpa Lahiri, Peter Carey, Margaret Atwood, and Michael Chabon attested, that popularity alone was sufficient to get them there. Notwithstanding this constraint, we hoped to honor works in translation. However, because our readership is overwhelmingly English-speaking, we chose to restrict our list to books available in English. This raised a whole set of issues about the speed and frequency of translation - natürlich. On the other hand, readers who elected to call us on it would also be calling attention to the parlous state of translation in the U.S. And perhaps someone better equipped than ourselves would undertake a list of the untranslated books that should have appeared. Now for a starting point. Jan. 1, 2000 seemed a nice, round number, but proved to have odd properties. It eliminated from contention The Savage Detectives and The Elementary Particles, which found their way into English after that date, but not Suite Française, which seemed somehow less millennial. To assemble a panel of voters, we contacted novelists, critics, novelist-critics, and editors who knew The Millions well enough to return our emails. (We forbid them from voting for themselves.) The resulting panel was destined to be demographically skewed in all sorts of important ways. It skewed coastal, it skewed white, it skewed thirtysomething and fortysomething, and it skewed toward writers and reviewers working in the genre of literary fiction. It skewed, that is, much as our site and our readership skews. This seemed to us both a minus and a plus. We also decided, doubtless due to some unexamined numerological prejudice, to limit the number of votes each panelist got to five. Can Anything Be Learned from a List? For all that, the results of our survey pleased us in three ways. First, the ballots were more heterogenous than anything we'd have come up with on our own. Roughly 160 titles got mentioned in the balloting, a number of which none of us had heard of. The most frequently mentioned book by a substantial margin, The Corrections, only received a plurality of votes. Appearing alongside it among the Top 20 vote-getters were three works in translation (from three different languages), four paperback originals, five short-story collections,  and five books originated by independent presses. From the point-of-view of the possible, rather than the ideal, our Top 20 and Readers Survey and Honorable Mention and Best of the Rest lists seemed evidence of more diversity and life in the novel than has been widely rumored to exist. Where it was homogeneous (70% of the writers have been published in The New Yorker), the Top 20 list seemed to document a number of tendencies that have been noted elsewhere, and to mark them as worth discussion. Perhaps most interesting was the preponderance of titles that cross-bred the realist patrimony of literary fiction with elements of other genres - science fiction, detective novels, and fantasy. Less widely noticed was how many of our top 20 titles made free - for better or for worse - with techniques that would as recently as the Clinton Administration have been considered avant-garde. Moreover, the Best of the Millennium lists sparked conversations, both in our comment-threads and elsewhere. Conversations about translation. Conversations about corporate publishing. Conversations about who the hell did we think we were. Where these conversations were in progress already, the proximity of a list - a piece of potential evidence to mull over - seemed to increase the volume and the heat. Among these conversations were, as we had hoped, many about books that didn't make the Top 20. Some readers took up the gauntlet we'd thrown down and compiled their own lists. Others supplied overlooked titles: Gould's Book of Fish; Tree of Smoke; The Last Samurai. (I would have liked to vote for these last two myself. And The Line of Beauty. And Against the Day. And The Wire. And True History of the Kelly Gang.) I can't speak for our readers, but I don't think there's a single Millions contributor whose personal "To Be Read" list wasn't shaken up as a result of this series. Even some readers who rejected outright the listing impulse couldn't resist commenting at length, as a lengthy debate between Andrew Seal and Edmond Caldwell (later continued at Dan Green's The Reading Experience) illustrated. This back-and-forth, which had proceeded from the suggestion that our Top 20 reflected a certain parochialism, grew more and more parochial itself. It seemed by turns to confirm the theory that lists offer a mirror of the beholder's preoccupations, to demarcate the narrowness and/or breadth of online literary discourse, and to do all of the above at the same time. Yet it was impassioned, and alive. Of Lists, Personally As the "Best of the Millennium" discussion went on, however, I began to think that the most interesting datum to arise from the whole project spoke volumes about our current understanding of aesthetic experience. It was this: while I could grant dissenters their passions, some of them were unable to grant mine. "The panelists can't possibly have felt the way they claimed to have felt The Corrections" was the tenor of these comments. It was not the first time I'd heard this line of reasoning, if that's the right word. As Carl Wilson notes in Let's Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste, there's a tendency among the commentariat to view aesthetic experience through the prism of Pierre Bourdieu's Distinction - to assume (brace yourself: I'm about to vulgarize this) that people mostly love the things they love for what loving those things says about them. This may be true, in a sense broad enough to be almost tautological. People who responded to The Corrections - people who were, yes, moved by it - may have been united, among other things, by their desire to be united by a novel that moved them, and moved by a novel that united them. But to push this anodyne observation into an accusation of illegitimacy or blindness is to fashion it into a boomerang: it redounds upon the one hurling it, and promptly plants itself in her forehead. That is, it makes her appear far more attuned to where a work sits on the popularity-backlash curve - and far more anxious about what her own position thereupon may say about her - than the reader who simply allows herself to be, or not to be, seduced. To put it another way, the Bourdieuvian posture - I've come to think of it as the Who-Are-You-Going-to-Believe,-Me-Or-Your-Lying-Eyes? school of criticism - may be as much an infection as a diagnosis. It seems to have invaded, unexamined, online discourse about books, movies, music, and art. And it seems to prompt the very flocking pattern - hype, backlash, counterbacklash - it purports to expose. At any rate, insofar as it annihilates its own object, it is transparently poor ground for any debate about value. I prefer Kant's definition of aesthetic experience, which, being unequal to The Critique of Pure Reason, I've nicked from another Gass essay: the experience of purposiveness without purpose - either in the look of a utility that has been retired or in an accidental object that seems rationally shaped to perform an undefined task. That last bit - an object "rationally shaped to perform an undefined task" seems to me a fair descriptor of the five books I've loved the most this decade: The Corrections, Twilight of the Superheroes, The Known World, Mortals, 2666. And, to the extent that our "Best of the Millennium" experiment has proceeded by accident and happenstance, it seems a decent sketch of the series itself. Perhaps we gravitate toward lists because they are themselves a kind of aesthetic experience, whether pleasurable or infuriating. At any rate, we hope you've found ours useful, though for what we wouldn't presume to say.

Best Fiction of the Millennium (So Far): Honorable Mention

As we had hoped, our "Best of the Millennium (So Far)" poll stoked a fair amount of conversation around the web last week. List-making, as we've argued in the past, is an imperfect enterprise, and reactions ranged from "Great picks" to "Why didn't you mention x?" One of the difficulties of reaching consensus on books is that there are so many of them; The Corrections' appearance at #1 in our poll may reflect the likelihood of our panelists having read the book as much as it reflects inherent excellence. In our survey of 56 panelists - who had, collectively, 280 votes to allocate - something like 160 titles were mentioned. And so, as we sifted through the ballots, what struck us was not a "unified sensibility," but an exhilarating diversity, which we plan to share with you in the coming days. As we continue to discuss our "Best Fiction of the Millennium" results - and the heuristic value of list-making in general - we'll announce the rest of the titles that received votes, and maybe some of those that came up in the comments. We hope that you discover some pleasant surprises on these lists, as we did, and we hope you'll continue the conversation about what books from the last decade were worth your reading time. First, though, we thought we'd post an "Honorable Mention" list of 15 books that received multiple votes in our poll but didn't crack our Top 20. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, by Michael Chabon. This massive - and massively popular - novel follows two comic book creators in the World War II era. Any Human Heart, by William Boyd. A series of journal entries documents the life of an Englishman and his century. (See our review.) By Night in Chile, by Roberto Bolaño. A Catholic priest embroiled in the hothouse of Chilean politics delivers a riveting dramatic monologue. The Children's Hospital, by Chris Adrian. A flood of possibly divine provenance turns the titular hospital into an ark in this, the second novel from a hugely ambitious young writer. A Disorder Peculiar to the Country, by Ken Kalfus. Paired disasters - a divorce and a terrorist attack - mirror each other in this novel set in New York in 2001. The Feast of Love, by Charles Baxter. Stories of love knit together a community in Ann Arbor in this novel by a critical favorite. The Golden Compass/The Amber Spyglass, by Philip Pullman. The first and third installments of the His Dark Materials trilogy open up a parallel universe of daemons and Dust. The Great Fire , by Shirley Hazzard Traveling East Asia after World War II, an English war hero finds love among the ruins. (See our review.) HomeLand , by Sam Lipsyte. Class notes from a ne'er-do-well form the spine of this comic novel. Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, by Samantha Clarke. Two magicians spar in this novel, which is long and erudite in the Victorian manner. (See our review.) The Master, by Colm Tóibín. Tóibín, an Irishman, recreates a pivotal period in the life of Henry James. The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint, by Brady Udall. A half-Apache youth matriculates at the school of hard knocks and various other failing 1960's institutions. Oblivion, by David Foster Wallace. Wallace's final collection of short fiction is dark and dense, bleak and exhilarating. Remainder, by Tom McCarthy. McCarthy bends the legacy of the Gallic avant-garde in the direction of pop perfection in this novel of memory and forgetting. Still Holding, by Bruce Wagner. The final entry in Wagner's cell-phone themed trilogy explores the glitter and emptiness of Hollywood.

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.

#1: The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen

Growing up in Scotland, I knew several farmers who pronounced with Delphic confidence on the weather. On a clear December day they would forecast a blizzard; in the middle of rain they would claim a drought was coming. In the spring and summer of 2001, people who were listening could hear The Corrections coming. This oddly titled novel, by this interesting writer, was finally about to emerge. It was published on September 1st. and, despite everything else that happened that autumn, there was an unusual degree of excitement around the book, not just among critics but among readers. People read it, people talked about it, people registered that something important had occurred. The novel itself opens with a storm. “You could feel that something terrible was going to happen. The sun low in the sky, a minor light, a cooling star. Gust after gust of disorder.” In the gorgeous, cascading pages that follow, those gusts blow through the Lambert family. Illuminated by Jonathan Franzen’s brilliant prose, bill paying, grocery shopping, depression, Christmas holidays, a walk to the corner shop become subjects of breathless interest and, often, wild humor. Over and over he gives us the deep pleasure of seeing the world around us - and the world inside us - in new ways. For once, the prophets were right. Snow on the mountain. The winged horseman is coming. Read The Corrections. Read an excerpt from The Corrections. More Best Fiction of the Millennium (So Far) Best of the Millennium, Pros Versus Readers

Ask a Book Question: #74 (Just One Book)

Elizabeth wrote in with this question: This upcoming semester I will be teaching a literature class at an East Coast college.  The reading list includes several poems, stories, and essays as well as two plays, and just one novel. The English chair explained that because the school is heavy on business majors, for many students the novel they read in this course may the only novel they read for the rest of their college experience, and in some cases, for the rest of their lives.  To be charged with selecting the "one novel of a person's life" seems like both an impossible burden and a precious gift.  I don't know if I should choose something relatively accessible that might induce a love of reading (Lolita, The Remains of the Day, White Teeth) or a classic that might give them a greater perspective on the history and traditions of storytelling (Don Quixote, Madame Bovary, To the Lighthouse.)  My question, then, is really this: if you could read just one novel, what would it be? Several of us pitched in on this one.  Some of us took Elizabeth's question literally, wondering what "one novel" we would choose in the (terrifying) event that we would be allowed just one for the rest of our lives.  While others put themselves in Elizabeth's shoes, trying to figure out how to wield the awesome responsibility of determining the entirety of another person's reading experience.  Here are our answers: Garth: The hypothetical here - if you could read just one novel - strikes fear into my heart. Certainly, the book should be long, if there's only going to be one. I'm tempted to say A Remembrance of Things Past on those grounds alone. On the other hand, the Marcel-Albertine romance never stoked my fires as much as the other relationships in the book, and I've got the feeling that this one, singular book should be a love story. In the same way that, if you only had one great narrative of your own life, you'd want it to be a love story. So: how about Anna Karenina? Writing about happiness is the hardest thing to do, and, in a book which most people remember for the sad parts, Tolstoy does it better than anyone. Edan: My suggestion - Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut -  may be an obvious one, but it makes sense as a syllabus pick for a number of reasons.  Firstly, it's highly readable.  It's important that the assigned book be entertaining, since someone who doesn't read much won't tolerate a slow or dense novel (just as someone who isn't a movie buff (read: me) won't sit through a John Cassavetes film).  Secondly, there's a lot in the book to discuss as a class. I read it two years ago, and found it to be structurally fascinating, as well as funny, playful, and damn moving. For instance, I was interested in how the phrase "So it goes" repeated throughout the novel, changing with each use: first the casualness jarred me, and then I was surprised to see it, and then I expected to see it, and then I was exhausted by it, and the cycle went round and round again, a little different each time.  I'd love to talk about this process as a group, and I think others - book worms or not - would, too.  And, lastly, Kurt Vonnegut is a great writer to like, as he has so many other books, and his influence in American literature is just enormous.  If you love his books, there are others to discover.  Get someone hooked on Vonnegut, and he or she will be a reader for life. Andrew: If I could only pick one novel, I'd pick one that will magically smash through curriculum limits and lead the reader head-first to others - a gateway novel, if you will. I have a hierarchy of favorites - modern and classic - but strategically I'll pick the one that, looking back, opened up the world to me.  I first read Slaughterhouse-Five when I was about nineteen years old. I was discovering Kurt Vonnegut and was drawn to his darkly comic way of writing - playful, with big chunks of sci-fi thrown in to satisfy the geek in me. Slaughterhouse-Five has all of the Vonnegut tropes, but digs deep. Billy Pilgrim, our mid-century, middle-aged, middle-class hero, has become "unstuck in time" and we follow him forward to the planet Tralfamadore, and backwards to 1945 where Billy and his fellow soldiers - kids, really -  are POWs in Dresden. Though Vonnegut's playful, ironic fatalism gives the story its rhythm, and the time-shifting gives it its structure, the horrific firebombing of Dresden gives the novel its depth. This is a war story like no other. Emily: In the words of Gabriel Betteredge, taken from Wilkie Collins' The Moonstone: "You are not to take it, if you please, as the saying of an ignorant man, when I express my opinion that such a book as Robinson Crusoe never was written, and never will be written again.  I have tried that book for years--generally in combination with a pipe of tobacco--and I have found it my friend in need on all the necessities of this mortal life. When my spirits are bad--Robinson Crusoe.  When I want advice--Robinson Crusoe.  In times past when my wife plagued me; in present times when I have had a drop too many--Robinson Crusoe.  I have worn out six stout Robinson Crusoes with hard work in my service.  On my lady's last birthday she gave me a seventh.  I took a drop too much on the strength of it; and Robinson Crusoe put me right again.  Price four shillings and sixpence, bound in blue, with a picture into the bargain." And if you object to Crusoe, then The Moonstone, the finest (and first, some would say) detective novel ever written. Noah: Are we in a primordial state, untouched by letters save for one sacred tome (The Complete Works of Shakespeare, perhaps)? Or simply naming our favorite book (A Fan’s Notes). This exercise is like picking a "desert island book," the book you’d want to have to read by the yellow flickering of a driftwood fire while the palm fronds sway in the moonlight and the ocean crashes below. In this situation I might opt for something long and beloved, an Infinite Jest or Underworld, say. Maybe a classic that I haven’t read would be better (even on a deserted island it’s important to be well-read). The Count of Monte Cristo could work well. I’ve heard good things. But no, we are talking about choosing a book to teach. A book to teach to business majors who may not read another word the rest of their lives. I think The Great Gatsby fits the bill. Lydia: This question has made my week a little less enjoyable, because every time I sat down to lounge, I remembered that I had to pick the only book that a group of people will read, maybe ever.  Their lives were in my hands.  I thought about it a lot, and I have decided that I would assign David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas.  It is intensely readable, so they will actually read it.  Some things I had to read in college English classes, like the wretched Pamela, were so unfun to read that I did not, in fact, read them.  Never underestimate a college student's unwillingness to do his or her homework, especially if it is boring.  Also, Cloud Atlas centers around a neat narrative trick, so you can talk about novels and the different ways people make them.  Since it adopts a series of voices, you can tell the students that if they liked the Frobisher part, they can try Isherwood, and Martin Amis if they liked the Cavendish part, and so on.  Ideally this will trick them into reading more novels.  Finally, Cloud Atlas even has A Message, slightly simplistic though it may be, and will provide gentle moral instruction to your flock (I think it's "Make love not war, save the planet"). Max: It was fascinating to me that both Edan and Andrew picked Slaughterhouse-Five (and for the same reasons!)   It's true that this novel (or, in a somewhat similar vein Catch-22) will serve to entertainingly blow up any preconceived notion that an intelligent non-reader may have had about the boring old novel.  I also found interesting Noah's and Garth's idea (reading the question as looking for a "desert island book") that length is critical.  With that as my consideration, I would choose Alvaro Mutis' The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll, an adventure novel that could be plumbed again and again, or East of Eden, the best of the multi-generational epics of the last 100 years.  Or better yet, if you read just one novel, why not read the "first" and, in the sense that all novels since are just repeating its tricks again and again, the only novel, Don Quixote.  But thinking again about this as a novel to be read in this unique and specific circumstance, and thinking again that something contemporary might best fit the bill, why not - bear with me here - The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen?  Even though the characters might seem like typical boring novel characters, Franzen does things with them that you wouldn't expect, the book is incredibly readable, and you can get into the whole meta-argument surrounding the book and Oprah and whether good literature must be in opposition to popular culture or should be a part of it. Thanks for your great question, Elizabeth.  Millions readers, help us inaugurate the first Book Question on the new site by sharing your answers to Elizabeth's question on your own site or in the comments below.

Most Anticipated: Rounding Out 2009, An Epic Year for Books

At the beginning of the year, we noted that "2009 may be a great year for books." With the publishing schedule for the remainder of the year filled out, calling 2009 a great year for readers is now a certainty. If anything, 2009 is backloaded, with new titles coming in the second half of the year from legends like Thomas Pynchon and Philip Roth and fan favorites like Lorrie Moore and Jonathan Lethem. A peek into 2010, meanwhile, reveals more literary excitement on tap, with new titles on the way from Jonathan Franzen, Joshua Ferris, and others. Below you'll find, in chronological order, the titles we're most looking forward to right now. (Special thanks to the illustrious members of The Millions Facebook group who let us know what they are looking forward to. Not everyone's suggestions made our list, but we appreciated hearing about all of them.)In July, Dave Eggers continues the trend he started with What is the What, working closely with his subject to produce a work with elements of memoir and non-fiction. In Zeitoun, the subject is Abdulrahman Zeitoun, "a prosperous Syrian-American and father of four," who lived in New Orleans and disappeared in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. A few weeks ago, The Rumpus ran a long interview with Eggers that touches on Zeitoun, among several other topics. Eggers first encountered Zeitoun when McSweeney's put out Voices from the Storm, an oral history of Katrina, and he told The Rumpus, "Their story intrigued me from the start, given that it's at the intersection of so many issues in recent American life: the debacle of the government response to Katrina, the struggles facing even the most successful immigrants, a judicial system in need of repair, the problem of wrongful conviction, the paranoia wrought by the War on Terror, widespread Islamophobia." (Scroll down to October for more "Anticipated" action from Eggers.)William T. Vollmann is known for his superhuman writing output, but his forthcoming book Imperial is a monster, even for him. Weighing in at 1,296 pages and carrying a list price of $55, this work of non-fiction is "an epic study," in the words of the publisher, of Imperial County, California along the U.S.-Mexico border. Ed offers quite a bit more discussion of the book. Don't miss the comments, where it's said that Vollmann has called the book "his Moby-Dick."August kicks off with what will no doubt be a peculiar literary event, the publication of Thomas Pynchon's Inherent Vice. It is a rare thing these days when a flurry of media attention centers on someone who has no interest in basking in it. And so, perhaps as Pynchon intends, the focus will be on the book. Inherent Vice promises to be odd. It's 416 pages, shorter than the typical Pynchon doorstop, and the publisher Penguin, in its catalog, notes that Pynchon is "working in an unaccustomed genre" this time around. "Genre" seems to be the buzzword here. The book sports neon cover art and follows a private eye (Doc Sportello). The book begins: "She came along the alley and up the back steps the way she always used to." Review copies are already out, and the early word is that the novel overlaps somewhat with and bears some similarities to Vineland.Inherent Vice shares a release date with a new book by Richard Russo, That Old Cape Magic, which Entertainment Weekly has already called "very beach-y." (Sadly, it appears to have come in last in their poll to determine the "Must book of the summer.") It sounds like fairly standard "suburban malaise" fare in which a mid-life crisis is endured over the course of the summer, the upside for the reader being that Russo is bringing his considerable skills to the table. PW is fairly tepid on the book, "Though Russo can write gorgeous sentences and some situations are amazingly rendered... the navel-gazing interior monologues that constitute much of the novel lack the punch of Russo's earlier work."Of Roberto Bolaño's forthcoming, newly translated novels, Millions contributor Lydia writes: "I almost never know about the hot, up-and-coming items, but I do happen to know about this one, and I feel that, like many readers, my relationship to Bolaño has been one of breathless anticipation since the moment I first heard his name. Which was like this: at my old job, I was going through the mail. There was a New Directions catalog of aforementioned hot, up-and-coming items. I haven't historically had a lot of interest in contemporary trade publications, but New Directions has a very warm spot in my heart because I associate it with The Berlin Stories. Anyway, in said mag I read a blurb about Nazi Literature in the Americas, and thought it sounded really neat, and then learned I would have to wait a year to read it, and since then it feels like there's been a lot of waiting - sometimes with glorious gratification at the end (2666), sometimes not (Nazi Literature in the Americas, ironically). It's thrilling that they keep coming! The Skating Rink in August, Monsieur Pain in 2010. It's like new the James Bond franchise (btw, I'm a Craig, not a Brosnan). I just love having something to look forward to. I hope I don't wet my pants on the way to the bookstore." (Bolaño fans will also be looking out for Melville House's Bolaño: The Last Interview And Other Conversations)Dan Chaon's Await Your Reply returns to the territory of separated siblings (You Remind Me of Me looked at a pair of long-lost brothers.) This time, the focus is on twins, one of whom has been missing for ten years. The book garnered a blurb from Jonathan Franzen, who will appear later in this list and who says of Chaon's book, "I've been waiting for somebody to write the essential identity-theft novel, and I'm very glad Dan Chaon's the one to have done it"Let's just get this out of the way: In September, you are going to hear a lot about Dan Brown's The Lost Symbol.More importantly, we'll get Richard Powers' follow up to his award-winning novel The Echo Maker. In Generosity: An Enhancement, Powers explores the idea of patenting the human gene for happiness. Last year, Powers wrote about the human genome for GQ. There's not a lot of info available about this one but Ed Champion writes he "foresee(s) some animosity from the vanilla critics hostile to idea-driven novels," and Sarah Weinman "tweeted," "Richard Powers' new novel Generosity is about as audacious as a novel gets, and has fucked with my head as a reader every which way."Lorrie Moore is set to deliver her first novel in over a decade, A Gate at the Stairs. All those Moore fans out there are faced with a huge dilemma this week. Do they read the "Childcare," the excerpt of the novel that is the fiction offering in this week's New Yorker, or do they avoid the magazine and hold out for two more months until the novel comes out? We've never been big fans of the New Yorker's packaging of novel excerpts as short stories, so to all the Moore fans out there, we say - avert your eyes when you reach page 70 of this week's issue!Kazuo Ishiguro's Nocturnes: Five Stories of Music and Nightfall is already out in much of the rest of the English-speaking world. In The Guardian, Christopher Taylor described the book as "a carefully arranged sequence of interlocking stories" and said, "while many of the stories hinge on artistic talent - the risks and unkindnesses associated with it; who's got it and who hasn't - the strong focus on more widespread problems in life makes Nocturnes more than a writer's thoughts on his job." The Complete Review rounds up the rest of the early reactions.Pete Dexter returns in September with Spooner. This one sounds like another dark, Southern tale not unlike Paris Trout, the book that first put Dexter on the fiction map. The first line of Spooner is "Spooner was born a few minutes previous to daybreak in the historic, honeysuckled little town of Milledgeville, Georgia, in a make-shift delivery room put together in the waiting area of the medical offices of Dr. Emil Wood."We'll also get a new novel from E.L. Doctorow about a pair of brothers. Homer & Langley is about Homer and Langley Collyer, two famous Manhattan hoarders and recluses, who, after gaining notoriety for their obsessive habits and reportedly booby-trapped home, were found dead in 1947 surrounded by, according to Wikipedia, "over 100 tons of rubbish that they had amassed over several decades." Newsweek has an excerpt of the book. The novel's first line is "I'm Homer, the blind brother. I didn't lose my sight all at once, it was like the movies, a slow fade-out."Dan Brown is no doubt getting serious bank for his return to airport bookshelves and grocery store check-out lines, but he's not the only one having a great recession. Audrey Niffenegger reportedly took home a $5 million advance for Her Fearful Symmetry, her follow-up to her very popular The Time Traveler's Wife. Niffenegger describes the book on her website: "The novel concerns a pair of mirror-image twins, Julia and Valentina Poole... Julia and Valentina are inseparable, and function almost as one being, although in temperament they are opposites."Acclaimed novelist Margaret Atwood will have a new novel out in September called The Year of the Flood, which has been described as "a journey to the end of the world." The Random House catalog, meanwhile, called it a "dystopic masterpiece and a testament to her visionary power." If that all isn't intriguing enough, it appears that the book is maybe (or maybe not) the second book in a trilogy that was kicked off with Oryx & Crake. Atwood and her publishers have offered mixed signals on the trilogy question. Quill & Quire looked into the question, and included a quote from Atwood saying, "It's not a sequel and it's not a prequel... It's a simultaneouel." Ah, one of those.In The Anthologist, Nicholson Baker covers well-trod literary ground by focusing on a writer protagonist. However, PW gave the book a starred review, calling it "lovely" and saying "Baker pulls off an original and touching story, demonstrating his remarkable writing ability while putting it under a microscope." Baker's protagonist is Paul Chowder, who is tasked with writing an introduction for a poet friend's anthology and delivers the book's stream of consciousness narration. By all early accounts the book is quite funny and also deeply immersed in poetry, with digressions on a number of history's great poets. The Simon & Schuster catalog calls the book a "beguiling love story about poetry."It's my feeling that John Irving's fiction has fallen off quite a bit in recent years (the last really good read for me was A Son of the Circus), but I still keep an eye on Irving's new novels for any sign that he has regained his early career mojo. His last several books haven't tempted me, and it's probably too early to tell whether the Last Night in Twisted River will. Reading the first sentence of the publisher's description, we already find a couple of Irving's authorial tics, New Hampshire and bears: "In 1954, in the cookhouse of a logging and sawmill settlement in northern New Hampshire, an anxious twelve-year-old boy mistakes the local constable's girlfriend for a bear." Don't be surprised if a wrestler figures into the action somewhere in there. Still, Irving has compared the new book to The Cider House Rules. That's a good sign.The venerable William Trevor will have a new novel out, Love and Summer.Millions reader Matthew looks forward to Laird Hunt's Ray of the Star, due in September, "because Laird's novels are fantastic." Of Kamby Bolongo Mean River by Robert Lopez, he writes "This is his sophomore novel; his first, Part of the World was bizarre and funny." He plans to read The Museum of Eterna's Novel by Macedonio Fernandez (arriving in 2010) "because Borges sez so."October is sure to bring Wild Things mania and Dave Eggers is going to be right in the middle of it. He worked with Spike Jonze on the film version of Where the Wild Things Are. And, in what is sure to be the most literary novelization of a film (adapted from a children's book) ever, an Eggers-penned version of Wild Things is set to hit shelves when the movie comes out. There's also the fur-covered edition.New Yorker readers have already gotten a taste of Jonathan Lethem's forthcoming book Chronic City. Of the excerpt, packaged as the story "Lostronaut," I wrote, "This story was pretty awesome. It was the only speculative fiction to land in The New Yorker this year, not quite making up for the absence of Murakami and Saunders from the magazine's pages. This story is told in the form of letters from Janice, a 'Lostronaut' aboard some sort of space station, to her 'Dearest Chase.' She and her fellow astronauts are trapped in orbit by Chinese space mines and that's not even the worst of it for poor Janice. While the premise and epistolary style are intriguing, Janice's unique, irrepressible voice really carries the story."Readers are soon set to see the fruits of an ambitious project by R. Crumb, his illustrated Book of Genesis, a surprisingly faithful rendering of the first book of The Bible done in Crumb's unique style. Crumb talked about the project four years ago with Robert Hughes: "I was fooling around with Adam and Eve one day. Doodling about Adam and Eve. At first I did this satirical take off on Adam and Eve - lots of jokey asides and Jewish slang because they're Jewish right? God is Jewish... Finally I got over fooling around and I realized I just had to tell it straight."Booker winner A.S. Byatt's The Children's Book, according to publisher Knopf's description, "spans the Victorian era through the World War I years, and centers around a famous children's book author and the passions, betrayals, and secrets that tear apart the people she loves." The book is out already in the UK, where a review in the Telegraph included this intriguing aside: "Byatt's publisher is keen to present The Children's Book, her first novel for seven years, as an equal to Possession, the work that secured her reputation and her mass-market appeal nearly 20 years ago. It certainly compares to its popular predecessor in its daring and scope and, unlike the more cerebral parts of Byatt's output, is its equivalent in terms of storytelling and readability."J.M. Coetzee's Summertime is a follow up to Boyhood and Youth in Coetzee's series of memoirs. The NYRB recently published an excerpt.Quite a lot of sub-par material has been published in order to satiate the ravenous demand for Hunter S. Thompson's writing. Thompson's essays for ESPN in his later years were uneven at best, but fans may find something to like in The Mutineer, which Simon & Schuster says is "The highly anticipated final volume of the previously unpublished letters of Hunter S. Thompson, king of Gonzo journalism and one of the greatest literary figures of our time." Insofar as HST,in his latter years, may have been more entertaining and lucid in his letters, this may put The Mutineer slightly above the low bar set by other recent HST collections. On the other hand, the book is edited by Johnny Depp, implying that the book is more about venerating the cult of HST than unearthing new work on par with his best efforts.November will bring the publication of Michael Lewis' much anticipated chronicle of the financial crisis, The Big Short. In October last year, when economic uncertainty was at its height and fears were voiced in some rarefied quarters about the possibility of some sort of structural collapse, we wrote, "The world needs an exhaustive look at what happened in 2008 and why." There have already been several books about the collapse and what caused it, from The Two Trillion Dollar Meltdown to The Return of Depression Economics and the Crisis of 2008, but many readers have been waiting for a book by Lewis, both because of his long history writing about Wall Street's excesses and because of the powerful essay he penned on the topic for Portfolio magazine in November. Some readers may be weary of the topic by the time the book comes out, but it's sure to garner some interest.The great Philip Roth keeps churning out new novels. This year's offering is The Humbling, Roth's 30th novel. The publisher copy says "Everything is over for Simon Axler, the protagonist of Philip Roth's startling new book. One of the leading American stage actors of his generation, now in his sixties, he has lost his magic, his talent, and his assurance." The NY Times reported that yet another Roth novel, Nemesis, is due in 2010.Jonathan Safran Foer will have a non-fiction book out in November called Eating Animals, which most are guessing focuses on vegetarianism. An interview with Foer at Penguin's UK website would seem to confirm this. It doesn't mention the book, but the introduction says "Jonathan Safran Foer on why he doesn't eat anything with parents."Millions reader Laurie points us to My Bird by Fariba Vafi, translated from Farsi and originally published in Iran in 2002. The publisher Syracuse University Press says: "The narrator, a housewife and young mother living in a low-income neighborhood in [modern] Tehran...[is] forced to raise [her] children alone and care for her ailing mother... One of the most acclaimed and best-selling contemporary Iranian writers." Laurie adds, "The novel won several literary awards in Iran and, according to a 2005 article in the New York Times, Vafi never attended college and writes when her children are in school."2010: Probably the most anticipated book of next year will be the The Pale King, a coda to David Foster Wallace's sadly shortened life as a writer. We already know a fair amount about the book - it will center on an IRS agent - and three excerpts have been published already, "Good People" and "Wiggle Room" in The New Yorker and "The Compliance Branch" (pdf) in Harper's. A piece by D.T. Max went into some detail about The Pale King following DFW's death. Given the amount work that lies ahead for DFW's editors, this may be a second half of 2010 release.Also possibly arriving in the second half of 2010 is Jonathan Franzen's Freedom, which we are just beginning to hear about. The book is the long-awaited follow-up to Franzen's loved, hated, celebrated, Oprah-snubbing novel of nearly a decade ago, The Corrections. Franzen has been coy about the title - the book is reportedly called Freedom - but readers got a taste of what Franzen has in store in "Good Neighbors," an excerpt that was published in the New Yorker a few weeks ago.Joshua Ferris will follow up his blockbuster debut Then We Came to the End with The Unnamed. The Book Case writes, "The novel focuses on Tim and Jane Farnsworth, a long-married couple who seem to have it all. But Tim has twice battled a bizarre, inexplicable illness." Beattie's Book Blog mentions that the illness is that he "can't stop walking."John McPhee has a new book due out called Silk Parachute. McPhee wrote a 1997 Shouts & Murmurs piece called "Silk Parachute" about his elderly mother. It begins "When your mother is ninety-nine years old, you have so many memories of her that they tend to overlap, intermingle, and blur."Time Out NY says Sam Lipsyte's The Ask is about "Milo, a New York father who is on the brink of economic ruin, and covers themes including but not limited to 'work, war, sex, class, race, child-rearing, romantic comedies, Benjamin Franklin, cooking shows on death row, the old-model brain, the commercialization of sadness and the eroticization of chicken wire.'"British publisher Faber says Rachel Cusk's The Bradshaw Variations "is a powerful novel about how our choices and our loves and the family life we build will always be an echo - a variation - of a theme played out in our own childhood."In the comments or on your own blogs, let us know what books you're looking forward to.

The Prizewinners 2008/2009

With the awarding of the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award last week, the 2008/2009 literary award season is now over, which gives us the opportunity to update our list of prizewinners. Though literary prizes are arbitrary in many ways, our prizewinners post is compiled in the same spirit that one might tally up batting titles and MVPs to determine if a baseball player should be considered for the Hall of Fame. These awards nudge an author towards the "canon" and secure them places on literature class reading lists for decades to come. Most notably, after being named to the IMPAC shortlist, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz has joined the ranks of the most celebrated novels of the last 15 years, making it, along with the other books near the top of the list, something of a modern classic. Here is our methodology: I wanted to include both American books and British books, as well as the English-language books from other countries that are eligible to win some of these awards. I started with the National Book Award and the Pulitzer from the American side and the Booker and Costa from the British side. Because I wanted the British books to "compete" with the American books, I also looked at a couple of awards that recognize books from both sides of the ocean, the National Book Critics Circle Awards and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. The IMPAC is probably the weakest of all these, but since it is both more international and more populist than the other awards, I thought it added something. The glaring omission is the PEN/Faulkner, but it would have skewed everything too much in favor of the American books, so I left it out. I looked at these six awards from 1995 to the present, awarding three points for winning an award and two points for an appearance on a shortlist or as a finalist. Here's the key that goes with the list: B=Booker Prize, C=National Book Critics Circle Award, I=International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, N=National Book Award, P=Pulitzer Prize, W=Costa Book Award [formerly the Whitbread] bold=winner, red=New to the list or moved up* the list since last year's "Prizewinners" post *Note that the IMPAC considers books a year after the other awards do, and so this year's IMPAC shortlist nods added to point totals from last year in the case of three books. 11, 2003, The Known World by Edward P. Jones - C, I, N, P 9, 2001, The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen - C, I, N, P 8, 1997, Underworld by Don DeLillo - C, I, N, P 8, 2007, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz - C, P, I 7, 2005, The March by E.L. Doctorow - C, N, P 7, 2004, Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst - B, C, W 7, 2002, Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides - I, N, P 7, 2001, Atonement by Ian McEwan - B, C, W 7, 1998, The Hours by Michael Cunningham - C, I, P 7, 1997, Last Orders by Graham Swift - B, I, W 7, 1997, Quarantine by Jim Crace - B, I, W 6, 2005, The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai - B, C 6, 2004, Gilead by Marilynn Robinson - C, P 5, 2008, The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry - B, W 5, 2008, Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout - C, P 5, 2007, Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson - N, P 5, 2006, The Road by Cormac McCarthy - C, P 5, 2006, The Echo Maker by Richard Powers - N, P 5, 2005, Europe Central by William T. Vollmann - C, N 5, 2005, The Accidental by Ali Smith - B, W 5, 2004, The Master by Colm Toibin - B, I 5, 2003, The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard - I, N 5, 2001, True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey - B, I 5, 2000, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon - C, P 5, 2000, The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood - B, I 5, 1999, Waiting by Ha Jin - N, P 5, 1999, Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee - B, C 5, 1999, Being Dead by Jim Crace - C, W 5, 1998, Charming Billy by Alice McDermott - I, N 5, 1997, American Pastoral by Philip Roth - C, P 5, 1996, Every Man for Himself by Beryl Bainbridge - B, W 5, 1996, Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer by Steven Millhauser - N, P 5, 1995, The Moor's Last Sigh by Salman Rushdie - B, W 5, 1995, The Ghost Road by Pat Barker - B, W 5, 1995, Independence Day by Richard Ford - C, P 5, 1995, Sabbath's Theater by Philip Roth - N, P 4, 2008, Home by Marilynn Robinson - C, N 4, 2008, The Lazarus Project by Aleksandar Hemon - C, N 4, 2007, The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid - B, I 4, 2007, Animal's People by Indra Sinha - B, I 4, 2005, Veronica by Mary Gaitskill - C, N 4, 2005, Arthur and George by Julian Barnes - B, I 4, 2005, A Long, Long Way by Sebastian Barry - B, I 4, 2005, Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro - B, C 4, 2005, Shalimar the Clown by Salman Rushdie - I, W 4, 2004, Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell - B, C 4, 2003, Brick Lane by Monica Ali - B, C 4, 2003, Bitter Fruit by Achmat Dangor - B, I 4, 2003, The Good Doctor by Damon Galgut - B, I 4, 2003, Evidence of Things Unseen by Marianne Wiggins - N, P 4, 2002, Family Matters by Rohinton Mistry - B, I 4, 2002, The Story of Lucy Gault by William Trevor - B, W 4, 2001, A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry - B, I 4, 2001, Bel Canto by Ann Patchett - I, N 4, 2001, John Henry Days by Colson Whitehead - N, P 4, 2001, Oxygen by Andrew Miller - B, W 4, 2000, The Keepers of Truth by Michael Collins - B, I 4, 2000, When We Were Orphans by Kazuo Ishiguro - B, W 4, 2000, Blonde by Joyce Carol Oates - N, P 4, 1999, Our Fathers by Andrew O'Hagan - B, I 4, 1999, Headlong by Michael Frayn - B, W 4, 1999, The Blackwater Lightship by Colm Toibin - B, I 4, 1997, Autobiography of My Mother by Jamaica Kincaid - C, I 4, 1997, Grace Notes by Bernard MacLaverty - B, W 4, 1997, Enduring Love by Ian McEwan - I, W 4, 1997, The Puttermesser Papers by Cynthia Ozick - I, N 4, 1996, Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood - B, I 4, 1995, In Every Face I Meet by Justin Cartwright - B, W

Modern Library Revue: #12 The Way of All Flesh

An irreverent, ongoing treatment of the Modern Library's 100 best novels of the twentieth century. Samuel Butler's The Way of All Flesh satisfies the letter of the Modern Library's list - "best novels of the twentieth century" - but seems to violate its spirit. The novel was published in 1903, but written entirely in the 1870s and 1880s, and the language shows its age. It's got that sound of, I don't know, post-chaises and swishing crinolines. That's not a value judgment, it's just true. Still, though the facts tether it to the Victorian Age, the novel's narrator, Edward Overton, and its hero, Ernest Pontifex, get to the heart of our pet rebellions. The Way of All Flesh is The Catcher in the Rye, as written by Charles Dickens; it manages to anticipate the Twentieth Century, while not quite being of it. The story begins with Ernest's great-grandfather, who is a nice poor man. He begets a son who becomes a nasty rich man, who begets a son who becomes a nasty comfortably well-off man, who begets Ernest, who ends up being better and richer than all of them combined. Before he can get to this state of grace, he must overcome his religion, shake off his parents, and leave his awful, boring, somewhat violent childhood behind. The real pleasure of reading this novel, though, lies in the narration. Overton, Ernest's sardonic godfather (chronicling the story after the fact) is a disapproving contemporary of Ernest's father. He watches more or less dispassionately as Ernest's parents raise him without fun or affection, and then as Ernest flounders into and then out of Religion, Immorality, Prison, and Matrimony. All the while he husbands Ernest's secret bequest from a benevolent aunt, and hands over the life-changing fortune when Ernest turns twenty-eight. Like Holden Caulfield, Overton makes known his opinions on Phonies. In chapter four he writes of Ernest's nasty grandfather: Mr. George Pontifex went abroad more than once. I remember seeing . . . the diary which he kept on the first of these occasions. It is a characteristic document. I felt as I read it that the author before starting had made up his mind to admire only what he thought it would be creditable in him to admire, to look at nature and art only through the spectacles that had been handed down to him by generation after generation of prigs and impostors. The first glimpse of Mont Blanc threw Mr. Pontifex into a conventional ecstasy. It would be so easy to turn this post into a child's garden of Overton's elegant take-downs, but I will just give another favorite: I was vexed at Ernest's having been ordained. I was not ordained myself and I did not like my friends to be ordained, nor did I like having to be on my best behaviour and to look as if butter would not melt in my mouth, and all for a boy whom I remembered when he knew yesterday and to-morrow and Tuesday, but not a day of the week more - not even Sunday itself - and when he said he did not like the kitten because it had pins in his toes. Overton concedes that Ernest's father Theobald's nastiness stems from grandfather George, who insisted that his Theobald become ordained against his will. Circumstances were against Theobald to begin with, and then, as an unwilling a clergyman, says Overton, he "is expected to be a kind of human Sunday." The end result of his upbringing and his professional requirements is nevertheless "horrid," and poor Ernest feels the effects of Theobald's unhappiness on his person and on his psyche. One of Butler's assertions is that mental and spiritual suffering are awful and against nature, just as physical suffering is. Ernest, like Holden Caulfield a hundred years later, gets plenty to eat. His parents send him to an ostensibly good school. He goes to prison for a pathetic bit of immorality, but his experience there is really quite pleasant. In the grand scheme of things, Ernest is doing okay. But his parents are assholes and his spirit is hurt and sex is confusing, and if this experience were uncommon we wouldn't have the cult of Salinger, or most of post-War American literature. After his prison holiday, Ernest takes a stand and cuts his parents out of his life, but once he has the money to do as he pleases he makes marginal concessions to decency without sacrificing the integrity of his dislike. He doesn't let his mother die without seeing him. He visits his father when the old tyrant is in his dotage, as people do - even ones who don't like their parents. Having money of his own keeps him pure, so his father doesn't die feeling his son's curse. Butler, whose money eventually came from his own despised father, may not have been able to claim the same purity of motive in his continued relation with his own family, but that's conjecture. Anyone who is alive or who has read The Corrections knows that the complex and sometimes awful nature of filial piety is still part of human experience. In that sense, and in others, The Way of All Flesh is sensible in its attacks. Although Overton makes some shocking, impious remarks about religion, they can't have been very different from what many people were thinking. Ernest settles down to a pretty quiet middle age, and no one pays much attention to him. He doesn't grow an unorthodox mustache, or become a performance artist. He doesn't spit in his father's face. If Salinger had covered a few more decades of his story we might have seen Holden drop into Pencey for an awkward but cordial sit-down with his headmaster, just like Ernest does in his middle age. Maybe he bought American, and became a Rotarian. I guess the difference is that Salinger didn't have to write about what happened after Holden's little voyage of discovery. When The Way of All Flesh was published after Butler's death, it was the posthumous making of a career that in life was marked by an eccentric mediocrity. I have not read a biography of Samuel Butler, but my limited research indicates that, while the publication of a satire called Erewhon brought him some notoriety, he remained a fairly minor figure in late Victorian letters. After his death, he became a sensation. In the century which brought us psychoanalysis, support groups, and SSIRs, people marveled at Butler's modernity. V. S. Pritchett called The Way of All Flesh "one of the time-bombs of literature." His point was that it sat in a drawer making quick work of a century of ideas about Children and the Church, without anyone knowing about it. Had it been published during Butler's life it would have, one imagines, brought the house down. But it strikes me that the very fact of its Twentieth Century publication confirms, in a sense, its status as a nineteenth century novel. It is said that the novel was autobiographical. It is also suggested by some that Butler did not publish the work upon its completion because he worried it was too scathing. Of course, refraining from doing things so as not to offend one's family and peers is not strictly a Victorian phenomenon. But it's kind of a neat coincidence that Butler died one year after Victoria herself, and that The Way of All Flesh came out just as a new, ostensibly freer age was getting started.

Welcome to the Working Week 2: Emre

[Editor's note: This week we've invited Megan Hustad, author of How to Be Useful: A Beginner's Guide to Not Hating Work, to dissect our contributors' first-job follies.]Emre writes:The joyous Sunday nights at college became my biggest tormentors upon joining the ranks of working people in New York. I'd get the blues every Sunday around 9 p.m., and in an effort to stave off Monday would stay up really late - usually drinking and watching TV.One such Sunday, I was so preoccupied with reading Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections that I did not even leave my bed the whole day - except, of course, to hit the toilet, get more coffee, make Bloody Marys and nibble on some cheese. The whole day passed and before I realized it, the book was finished, it was 4:30 a.m. on Monday, and I was thoroughly exhausted and depressed by the outcome. I called my boss, left a semi-drunk, highly strung-out message saying something along the lines of, "Dear Boss, it's 4:30 in the morning, I cannot sleep and am terribly depressed. If I come to work tomorrow, I might go crazy. I am taking a mental-health day," and hung up.When I went to work on Tuesday everyone seemed very concerned about my well being. My boss said it was totally OK to take mental-health days as I saw fit. And I thought, "it worked!" Or did it?Megan Hustad responds:I'm going to say yes, it did. Probably. But only because on an average day you were pretty reliable and conscientious. (If you remembered to call in with your regrets at 4:30 a.m., drunk, yes, I'm guessing "conscientious" applies.)You ever notice how some people like to arrive at the office a little late, say, fifteen to thirty minutes late, but every single day? And then there are those who are already stationed, pouring their second cup of coffee, always at 8:55? The first group, often, tends to think they're getting away with something. (Or that being blasé about hauling ass to work in the morning is akin to joining the Wobblies. Subversive!) But truth is, making a habit of fudging procedure generally backfires. (There are brilliant exceptions, but...takes too long to explain here.) When the boom comes down, it comes down hard, and the chronically late types find themselves nitpicked and chastised for minor infractions. Seemingly more buttoned-down types, however, get to deviate wildly from norm on occasion, take huge allowances, or commit major indiscretions, and -- more often than not -- get away with it.Oh, and it's not only that mental-health days are sometimes necessary. Here's a line from John Wareham's 1980 Secrets of a Corporate Headhunter: "Sometimes fail to arrive at all: your absence can be the talisman of your presence." A perfect attendance record won't get you the corner office, he argued, and if you're also seen at every last party, you should probably make a point of not showing up once in a while. (In other words, don't be all Eva Longoria and get dressed for every "hey, there's a new Treo model, we're rolling out the red carpet!!!" event to which you're invited.) I like this advice. Uselessness rating: 2For more information, please see these related posts:Welcome to the Working Week: Megan Hustad Analyzes Our On-the-Job FoiblesWelcome to the Working Week 1: MaxWelcome to the Working Week 3: GarthWelcome to the Working Week 4: Andrew

The Prizewinners Revisited

A while back, I put together a post called "The Prizewinners," which asked what books had been decreed by the major book awards to be the "best" books over that period. These awards are arbitrary but just as a certain number of batting titles and MVPs might qualify a baseball player for consideration by the Hall of Fame, so too do awards nudge an author towards the "canon" and secure places on literature class reading lists in perpetuity.With two and a half years passed since I last performed this exercise, I thought it time to revisit it to see who is now climbing the list of prizewinners.Here is the methodology I laid out back in 2005:I wanted to include both American books and British books, as well as the English-language books from other countries that are eligible to win some of these awards. I started with the National Book Award and the Pulitzer from the American side and the Booker and Whitbread from the British side. Because I wanted the British books to "compete" with the American books, I also looked at a couple of awards that recognize books from both sides of the ocean, the National Book Critics Circle Awards and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. The IMPAC is probably the weakest of all these, but since it is both more international and more populist than the other awards, I thought it added something. The glaring omission is the PEN/Faulkner, but it would have skewed everything too much in favor of the American books, so I left it out.I looked at these six awards from 1995 to the present awarding three points for winning an award and two points for an appearance on a shortlist or as a finalist. Here's the key that goes with the list: B=Booker Prize, C=National Book Critics Circle Award, I=International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, N=National Book Award, P=Pulitzer Prize, W=Costa Book Award [formerly the Whitbread]bold=winner, **=New to the list since the original "Prizewinners" post11, 2003, The Known World by Edward P. Jones - C, I, N, P9, 2001, The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen - C, I, N, P8, 1997, Underworld by Don DeLillio - C, I, N, P7, 2005, The March by E.L. Doctorow - C, N, P **7, 2004, Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst - B, C, W7, 2002, Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides - I, N, P7, 2001, Atonement by Ian McEwan - B, N, W7, 1998, The Hours by Michael Cunningham - C, I, P7, 1997, Last Orders by Graham Swift - B, I, W7, 1997, Quarantine by Jim Crace - B, I, W6, 2007, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz - C, P **6, 2005, The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai - B, C **6, 2004, Gilead by Marilynn Robinson - B, P5, 2007, Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson - N, P **5, 2006, The Road by Cormac McCarthy - C, P **5, 2006, The Echo Maker by Richard Powers - N, P **5, 2005, Europe Central by William T. Vollmann - C, N **5, 2005, The Accidental by Ali Smith - B, W **5, 2004, The Master by Colm Toibin - B, I **5, 2003, The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard - I, N5, 2001, True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey - B, I5, 2000, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon - C, P5, 2000, The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood - B, I5, 1999, Waiting by Ha Jin - N, P5, 1999, Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee - B, C5, 1999, Being Dead by Jim Crace - C, W5, 1998, Charming Billy by Alice McDermott - I, N5, 1997, American Pastoral by Philip Roth - C, P5, 1996, Every Man for Himself by Beryl Bainbridge - B, W5, 1996, Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer by Steven Millhauser - N, P5, 1995, The Moor's Last Sigh by Salman Rushdie - B, W5, 1995, The Ghost Road by Pat Barker - B, W5, 1995, Independence Day by Richard Ford - C, P5, 1995, Sabbath's Theater by Philip Roth - N, P4, 2005, Veronica by Mary Gaitskill - C, N **4, 2005, Arthur and George by Julian Barnes - B, I **4, 2005, A Long, Long Way by Sebastian Barry - B, I **4, 2005, Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro - B, C **4, 2005, Shalimar the Clown by Salman Rushdie - I, W **4, 2004, Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell - B, C4, 2003, Brick Lane by Monica Ali - B, C4, 2003, Bitter Fruit by Achmat Dangor - B, I4, 2003, The Good Doctor by Damon Galgut - B, I4, 2003, Evidence of Things Unseen by Marianne Wiggins - N, P4, 2002, Family Matters by Rohinton Mistry - B, I4, 2002, The Story of Lucy Gault by William Trevor - B, W4, 2001, A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry - B, I4, 2001, Bel Canto by Ann Patchett - I, N4, 2001, John Henry Days by Colson Whitehead - N, P4, 2001, Oxygen by Andrew Miller - B, W4, 2000, The Keepers of Truth by Michael Collins - B, I4, 2000, When We Were Orphans by Kazuo Ishiguro - B, W4, 2000, Blonde by Joyce Carol Oates - N, P4, 1999, Our Fathers by Andrew O'Hagan - B, I4, 1999, Headlong by Michael Frayn - B, W4, 1999, The Blackwater Lightship by Colm Toibin - B, I4, 1997, Autobiography of My Mother by Jamaica Kincaid - C, I4, 1997, Grace Notes by Bernard MacLaverty - B, W4, 1997, Enduring Love by Ian McEwan - I, W4, 1997, The Puttermesser Papers by Cynthia Ozick - I, N4, 1996, Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood - B, I4, 1995, In Every Face I Meet by Justin Cartwright - B, W

Bitter Pill: The Modern Medicine Lament

"My Best Friend, my doctor, won't even say what it is I've got."-Bob DylanI recently became aware of a trend, the Modern Medicine Lament, in which American writers struggle to make an uneasy peace with a system from which they feel alienated. And it begs the question: has it always been this way?Doctors have enjoyed a colorful depiction in books and letters over the years. Kafka's brilliant short story "A Country Doctor" is still read and taught frequently. Boris Pasternak's Dr. Zhivago was a man of principle in any language, in any time. Chekhov was a trained physician. I should also mention my favorite doctor in literature, Dr. Livesey, from Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island. Stevenson, you'll recall, sketched another doctor, Dr. Jekyll, whose enthusiasm for chemicals took him off the rails (if Jekyll lived in America today he would surely declaim in a basement recovery meeting about the social transgressions committed by his intoxicated self). Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, written almost 200 years ago, offers a remarkable foreshadowing of the moral and ethical challenges inherent to the practice of medicine, which has always had one ultimate goal: triumph over death. It is telling that we will in passing mistake the name of the title character for that of the monster.In 1885 Louis Pasteur, a Frenchman, first administered vaccine to a human, a child bitten by a rabid dog. The treatment was successful. It was not an insignificant moment in human history. Giant scientific leaps forward like Pasteur's continue to inject health and medicine into the lives of everyday people. Vaccines and antibiotics changed the world, though today their administration is practically mundane. In America, where good health has always been considered something of a birthright, we resent doctors. They are a necessary evil, a reminder of the basic infirmity of our bodies and the inevitability of their decline. Sure, Americans love watching fictional doctors treat fictional patients on television, but in reality aren't doctors society's consummate whipping boys? After all, that goal - sticking it to death - has never yet been achieved. Good news from a doctor cannot amount to more than "you will live for maybe a few more years, all things being equal." And anyway, Americans don't want to live forever, they simply want their life on earth to be pain-free, and believe it should be.Pills that govern the chemical workings of the brain are now at the forefront of our ever-advancing medical knowledge. They treat disorders like depression, schizophrenia, autism, addiction, panic, mania, and garden-variety anxiety. Neurochemistry remains the least understood field in medicine, but the sales figures of these drugs have exploded in the past twenty years. Pharmaceutical manufacturers employ direct advertising - and also work more quietly through doctors - to encourage the public to treat a psychological condition far enough from bliss as a disorder. Comparatively little attention is paid to the fresh array of stresses and overload of stimuli that burden the modern brain, and how these factors can capitalize on the ease of modern life, where we are at greater leisure to explore exactly how we feel, as opposed to wasting all of our energy on mere survival. Effexor, Wellbutrin, Paxil, Zoloft, Prozac: ugly mash-ups, yes, but also household words. The drugs have brought relief to millions of people suffering from mental duress.But the rise of Psychotropic Nation has created a cultural preoccupation with pills here in the U.S., one that has in turn given rise to questions about the efficacy of our medical system (actually just one of many aspects of our system that provoke such questions). If you are writing a novel, say, and wish to introduce recreational drug use into the plot (you may want the characters to seem more subversive, irrational, hedonistic, or edgy), you might shy away from the ho-hum world of schedule 1 drugs: your pot, your cocaine and heroin - in favor of those that can be obtained with a doctor's note: pain pills, sedatives, amphetamines. The irony payoff is just too great, and writers love irony. The companies that make these drugs want you to want them, but as soon as you do, you probably should not have them. And maybe you, the writer (or the characters for that matter), don't have health insurance, or went through a period when you weren't covered - that just adds to the irony. Without insurance you're not seeing a doctor, making it a whole lot easier for you to go schedule 1 than to buy a bottle of valium. And, given the cost of such pills, cheaper too.Jonathan Franzen wrote extensively on this aspect of American life (see also Ben Kunkel's Indecision, in which psychopharmacology plays no small roll). In The Corrections the drug is called Aslan, and its effects are somewhere between Prozac and ecstasy. At least two Lamberts use the drug, Chip during an unfortunate weekend sex binge, and Enid, Chip's mother, whose little helper gets her rather strung out over a longer period. Franzen's treatment is made more complete as Gary, eldest of the Lambert kids (and hilariously aware of the ebb and flow of his own serotonin and dopamine levels) invests money in the drug company that makes Aslan. Meanwhile, the pill is pushed by a leonine doctor with a creepy, guru-like aspect. And, of course, the one individual who could really use a pick-me-up, the crushingly depressed father Alfred, gets none. Collective dysphoria has never been so amusing.Life imitates art, but it's no barrel of laughs. That said, the cover story of this month's Harper's, "Manufacturing Depression: A Journey into the Economy of Melancholy", by Gary Greenberg, does deliver the odd ironic chortle. Mr. Greenberg, a psychotherapist, is writing a book about the "misuses of medical diagnoses," and if his magazine piece is any indication, it may be worth reading. The piece opens with Mr. Greenberg cataloging the failures and dissatisfactions of his life to a kindly psychiatrist, Dr. George Papakostas, in order to see if he qualifies for an experimental drug study at the Depression Clinical and Research Program of Massachusetts General Hospital. And, after checking some boxes, the doctor delivers his diagnosis: Mr. Greenberg has Major Depression. Would he like to try Celexa, Lexapro, Mirapex, or omega-3 fish oil?"It was hard to believe that Papakostas really thought I had major depression," writes Mr. Greenberg. Mr. Greenberg does feel bad sometimes, inadequate, feckless, and yes, his hair is thinning. His life is not blissful. But what is made abundantly clear to him is that the clinical criteria for a diagnosis of Depression, codified in the psychiatrist-developed Structured Clinical Interview, are bunk. Your score on this questionnaire, determined by the doctor, is totally subjective, the questions laughably interpretive. Dr. Papakostas, looking for subjects for a drug study driven by new medicines from Forest Laboratories, Inc. and paid for by the federal government, is predisposed towards a diagnosis of Clinical Depression. That's really what someone looking to join such a study wants to hear, right? "'Are you content with the amount of happiness that you get doing things that you like..?'" It is a standardized question asked by the doctor at one of Mr. Greenberg's weekly follow-ups. "'I'm not big on contentment,' I said. Is anyone? I wondered. Is anyone ever convinced that his or her pursuit of happiness has reached its goal? And what would happen to the consumer economy if we began to believe that any amount of happiness is enough?"The uncomfortable intersection of the consumer economy and medicine is at the heart of an article by Bruce Stutz that appeared in the May 6 issue of the NY Times Magazine. Unlike Mr. Greenberg, who never believes that he is clinically depressed even as he dutifully takes his Mass General fish oil, Mr. Stutz begins from a different point of view: he, like millions of Americans, went through a period of debilitating depression for which he sought medical treatment. Talk therapy and a prescribed selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor, Effexor, worked for him. Three years and a more positive outlook on life later, Mr. Stutz found himself shaking hands with his psychiatrist at the conclusion of his final session. But there was no mention of going off the drug."Somehow I couldn't believe I had to take this pill for the rest of my life," he writes. How many people taking such medication have had that thought? It's not just the side effects, the occasional bouts of impotence, the weight gain, the dulled sensory perceptions and emotions, and it's not just the monetary cost of the pills. It is also living with a stigmatizing reminder that one is sick and will never be well. But Mr. Stutz was well: he felt better; he was able to go one with his life. The stresses that had predicated his mental slide, the death of a parent, the breakup of a marriage, the loss of a job, were in the rearview. So he tapered his meds and hunkered down. Fierce withdrawal symptoms followed: mental torpor, physical discomfort, and the frightening "brain zaps," blinding, incapacitating insta-headaches. With the help of some experts in clinical biology, Mr. Stutz does an admirable job of elucidating the chemical processes that were at work in his brain, which was, without the help of the meds, running a serotonin deficit. What Mr. Stutz did not experience during that period was a return of his depression symptoms. And so he wonders, "does our long-term reliance on these drugs become more of a convenience than a cure?"Drug companies and doctors have about as much interest in helping people go off their psych meds as tobacco execs have in helping people quit cigarettes. Still, the medical industry is simply giving us what we want, a quick fix. What happens when the quick fix goes bad? The title of Ann Bauer's May 18 article on Salon.com, "Psych Meds Drove My Son Crazy", is inelegant but to the point. Her story is gripping, horrifying, and ultimately infuriating. Mrs. Bauer's eldest son was born with autism. At the age of 17 this highly functional kid living in Minnesota became depressed, and his mother took him to a psychiatrist who prescribed an anti-depressant, which, she was assured, would not only snap him out of his funk, but also help control some of his autism-related obsessive tendencies. Instead, his condition grew worse. Doctors at a "respected neuropsychology clinic" reevaluated Mrs. Bauer's son, now 30 pounds heavier and sleeping 16 hours a day, and changed the original diagnosis: in addition to his autism, her son was experiencing "'psychomotor slowing' - a form of schizophrenia." And so a different drug was prescribed, Abilify, which was new (and, Mrs. Bauer notes, had been marketed direct-to-consumer in Time and Newsweek). Still her son's condition worsened, "humming, shifting foot to foot, screaming if anyone touched him or tried to move him." He would dialogue with voices that Mrs. Bauer could not hear. She tapered him off the Abilify.Two days later he "got out of bed and stood in one place for a solid hour." When Mrs. Bauer placed a hand on him, he beat her up.Amazingly, the doctors managed to convince Mrs. Bauer to try yet another drug, a powerful anti-psychotic, Geodon. Her son took to living on the street after that. Only by conducting her own research, and getting a lucky referral to the Mayo Clinic from a retired doctor in Stony Brook, N.Y., an expert in a little known condition called autistic catatonia, did Mrs. Bauer find her son proper medical care. It took two years. Five days after checking him into Mayo, Mrs. Bauer read a front-page story in the NY Times "about psychiatrists in Minnesota who were collecting money from drug manufacturers for prescribing atypical antipsychotics, including Abilify and Geodon." The article cited some hefty payout numbers, and also some serious risk factors for the drugs. It did not mention a fact that the doctors at Mayo confirmed: administered to an individual suffering from autistic catatonia, which they determined was the root cause of her son's initial decline, neuroleptics like Abilify and Geodon only amplify the effects of the disorder, and they can cause permanent neurological damage.She doesn't say so, but I really hope Mrs. Bauer sued the pants off some folks. I would be interested to know.There will be more Modern Medicine Laments to come. We will read them, and we will also watch with interest TV shows like "The Sopranos", in which the writers have taken an increasingly critical line on the treatment of depression in America, and films like Michael Moore's upcoming documentary about the ills of the American health care system. We will see more legal settlements against drug manufacturers like Purdue Pharma (OxyContin) and Pfizer (Celebrex) for misrepresenting the effects of their products to the consumer public. And, of course, we will continue to pop pills. We are a nation of armchair doctors. Sometimes it seems like a prescription pad is the only thing separating us from the real thing.Update: The Libra in me desires balance. I do not want this post to seem an ad hoc dismissal of the medical profession as a whole. So I would steer folks to a book, Mountains Beyond Mountains, by Tracy Kidder, that had a profound impact on me when I read it. The book is about Dr. Paul Farmer, whose work battling T.B. while bringing basic medical care to corners of the world like Haiti and Peru where none existed before makes him something of a medical superhero. Kidder's profile of Dr. Farmer proves that modern medicine is still changing the world for the better.

Oprah and the Recluse

You've got to hand it to Oprah. After a public snub from Jonathan Franzen, an abrupt switch to focusing on classic books, and a return to the contemporary with a confessional memoir that turns out to plagiarized - resulting in the very public humiliation of its author on her show - one would think that Oprah would have run out of opportunities to grab big headlines with her book club. And yet, by selecting Cormac McCarthy's The Road and convincing the famously reclusive author to appear on her show, she has done it yet again.I had a couple of thoughts about this pick. In the early days of the club, Oprah selected quite a few emotionally challenging books, often with female protagonists in some sort of peril. With her selection of Franzen's The Corrections, however, the club broke out of its shell and then traversed the various ups and downs noted above. Still, it is fascinating to me that this unabashedly mass market phenomenon, the TV show book club, would pick a book that is by all accounts harrowing and devastatingly serious and not an easy read in any sense. It's not the first time Oprah has selected a formally "difficult" book. Recall the "Summer of Faulkner." Still, to take a book that is all of the above and also contemporary seems rather incredible. It will also be interesting, if The Road goes on to win a Pulitizer or National Book Award, to have had Oprah "anoint" a book before our more formal institutions have.Secondly, I couldn't help but think about poor Franzen as I read the news that McCarthy would appear on Oprah's show. Franzen, of course, famously feuded with Oprah after she selected his book and he was publicly ambivalent about being an "Oprah author." This led to plenty of comments like this one from an independent bookstore owner at the time of the controversy, saying that she felt "that good literature cannot be an Oprah selection." With McCarthy appearing on the show for his "first television interview ever," it's hard to make that argument any more. We're talking about a legitimate Nobel Prize candidate here (and somehow this is different from Nobel laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez's classic One Hundred Years of Solitude being selected a while back). And poor Franzen, taking a public stand for his art and facing plenty of ridicule at the time, has had his legs cut out from under him by a literary giant - a famously reclusive one at that - eschewing the hand-wringing and taking the Oprah honor in stride.Update: It's been pointed out to me that The Road missed its chance to win the National Book Award - it went to The Echo Maker, as you'll recall. The Road is still in the running for the Pulitzer, but as it is far from the typical Pulitzer candidate, I'd guess its chances there are slim. So McCarthy will have to be satisfied with the unlikely duo of an Oprah Pick and a TMN Tournament of Books win (which the book appears likely to snag).

The Most Anticipated Literary Adaptations of 2007

Since several others have covered the most anticipated books of 2007, I thought I'd fill everybody in on which of their favorite books are going to be ruined by Hollywood in the coming year. Since almost every movie made is based on some previously existing material (can we count Spider Man 3 as an adaptation?), I thought I'd separate the kids movies and the horror/comic adaptations from the "literary" adaptations. Feel free to point out the movies I missed.Kids flicks. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (IMDb) will dominate the box office in July. The latest installment of the juggernaut will feature a script by Michael Goldenberg (who is also penning the adaptation of Where the Wild Things Are (IMDb)) and direction by David Yates, who is best known for his HBO movie The Girl in the Cafe. I've never read a Harry Potter book, and I've never seen any of the movies either. It's safe to say the phenomenon has completely passed me by, so I leave it to you to decide whether this movie will be better than the ones that Chris Columbus directed.His Dark Materials: The Golden Compass (IMDb), which has been discussed before on this blog, will no doubt own the holiday season. After some turbulence during development and production, the first part of Phillip Pullman's trilogy will hit theaters on December 7.Finally, Bridge to Terabithia (IMDb) will get a new coat of paint, courtesy of Rugrats veteran Gabor Csupo. It's a live action version of the book, starring Zooey Deschanel, Robert Patrick, and a bunch of child actors with whom I am not familiar. No telling whether this will replace the vaunted 1985 TV adaptation as the definitive Terabithia for the screen.Gore filled fun-fests. Dominic West, better known as hard-drinking detective Jimmy McNulty on the greatest show ever to air on television, has a hand in two bloody adaptations this year. In Hannibal Rising (IMDb), he'll be playing Inspector. I can only assume that this Inspector is a hard-drinking Eastern European detective, but not having read the book, I can't say. The folks over at Slow Match are debating the merits of Thomas Harris' latest this month. Maybe they have the answer.In 300 (IMDb), adapted from a Frank Miller graphic novel, West will play Theron, the hard-drinking Spartan warrior. I wasn't that excited about either of these films before I found out West was in them. Now I'm planning on camping out, Star Wars-style for tickets.Mainstream Literary Adaptations. Jhumpa Lahiri's The Namesake (IMDb), directed by Mira Nair (Monsoon Wedding, Vanity Fair) will debut in March. Kal Penn, of Harold and Kumar go to White Castle fame, has the lead role. Here's hoping he has more lines than he did in Superman Returns.April will bring us showers, a new baseball season, and The Nanny Diaries (IMDb), starring Scarlett Johanson, Laura Linney, and Paul Giamatti. I'm sure the studio is hoping to hit the same market that made The Devil Wears Prada a huge success, but I'm skeptical. DWP had a tour de force performance from Meryl Streep (Don't you just get the feeling she's going to get snubbed for the Oscar, by the way?) and a generally likable cast. The Nanny Diaries has ScarJo, who I detest. Tough call.Also in April comes Atonement (IMDb). Directed by Joe Wright, whose version of Pride & Prejudice was almost universally lauded, Atonement features a bit of controversial casting. Yes, traditional English heavyweights Brenda Blethyn and Vanessa Redgrave have parts, but the lead role of Cecilia will be played by the skeletal remains of Keira Knightly. Fans of the book are less than pleased.In September, I will certainly be seeing Feast of Love (IMDb), adapted from the Charles Baxter novel. The cast features Selma Blair, Morgan Freeman, and Greg Kinnear (Tangent: Isn't Greg Kinnear having one of the most sneaky-successful careers of the last ten years? Who would've predicted it during his "Talk Soup" days?). It's an odd choice for an adaption. I've read the book, and while I thoroughly enjoyed it, it didn't strike me as terribly cinematic.November will see John Burnham Schwartz's novel Reservation Road (IMDb) adapted starring Joaquin Phoenix, Mark Ruffalo, and Jennifer Connelly. This is the prototypical small-ish novel adaptation, along the lines of The Ice Storm. It could go either way, turning into another In the Bedroom or another We Don't Live Here Anymore.Also in November comes the granddaddy of all literary adaptations, Beowolf (IMDb). Robert Zemeckis directs a script from Neil Gaiman and Roger Avery. Beowolf features my favorite bit of casting for the year - Crispin Glover as Grendel. How perfect is that?And finally, in late December, comes Charlie Wilson's War (IMDb), starring Tom Hanks as the eponymous Texas congressman. Julia Roberts, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, and Amy Adams are also aboard for this spy drama of which much is expected. Mike Nichols directs a rare film script from Aaron Sorkin, which means there will be lots of walking-and-talking scenes and probably too much pontificating, but hopefully no sketch comedy.Several literary adaptations of note, including the highly anticipated The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (IMDb), The Corrections (IMDb), and Motherless Brooklyn (IMDb) are all slated for release in 2007. My advice is don't hold your breath for any of them. Until I see an actual release date, I'm not buying it. 2008 sounds about right for all of those. Until then, you'll have to settle for Rush Hour 3, Fantastic Four: The Rise of the Silver Surfer, and Ocean's 13: The Baker's Dozen.

Books on the Silver Screen

As Oscar season nears (and, no, it hasn't started yet... If you think Hollywoodland (IMDb), The Last Kiss (IMDb), or The Black Dahlia (IMDb) are winning anything more than a best art direction award, you're wrong), it's time to start thinking about serious literary adaptations. This year is full of them, including Stephen Zaillian's updated adaptation of Robert Penn Warren's All the King's Men (IMDb). This should be a fine film, as Zaillian is a first rate screenwriter. Also of note, James Carville is listed as a producer on the film. In this interview from KCRW's "The Business" Carville talks about how he got involved in the project. Naturally, it all started on the set of Old School (IMDb).Another adaptation of note in the coming months is Zoe Heller's Notes on a Scandal (IMDb), starring Cate Blanchett and Dame Judi Dench. It should be no surprise that Scott Rudin is executive producing the film, as he owns nearly every literary novel of the note from the last ten years. Check out his rather staggering IMDb page. Not only does he have the "eagerly anticipated" Kavalier and Clay (IMDb) and The Corrections (IMDb), he's also grabbed the slightly more obscure "The Smoker" (IMDb) based on a short story from David Schickler's Kissing in Manhattan. While most of these projects are listed as in development (meaning two people once discussed the idea over lunch), obviously Rudin has the clout to bring them to fruition. The list of films does lend credence to the idea that Rudin isn't merely a "foul mouthed, phone hurling" scourge of assistants, he's also a reader.

Midweek Links

I thoroughly enjoyed the second installment of Emdashes' Ask the New Yorker Librarians series.Michiko Kakutani hates Jonathan Franzen's new memoir, The Discomfort Zone. Kakutani's wrath filled pen aside, Ed explains why she's right, and I have to agree. I looked back through the archives here and realized I hadn't elaborated on it much beyond writing back in 2003 that "Franzen's non-fiction bugs the heck out of me," but it put me off enough that I avoided reading The Corrections for a long time because of it.Speaking of reviews, it's a good thing Bob Dylan didn't get the Franzen treatment. He tells contactmusic.com that while he doesn't care about music reviews, the reviews for Chronicles Vol. 1 meant a lot to him: "Most people who write about music, they have no idea what if feels like to play it, but, with the book I wrote, I thought, 'The people who are writing reviews of this book, man, they know what the hell they're talking about. They know how to write a book, they know more about it than me.' The reviews of this book, some of 'em almost made me cry - in a good way. I'd never felt that from a music critic, ever."Even though it seems like there's another "book banning" story in the news every week, the AP reports that the 405 challenges reported to the American Library Association last year is the smallest number since they started keeping track in the early 1980s. The challenges have dropped by more than half since the ALA started Banned Books Week to promote free expression. Kudos to the librarians.The second most brilliant magazine in the world (refer to the top item in this list for the first), The Economist has a characteristically well-considered a piece on the newspaper industry's timid efforts to embrace the Internet. Thanks to Millions contributor Andrew for sending this along.

Books Since 1990 at the Quarterly Conversation

A new issue of Scott's excellent "Quarterly Conversation" is out. It contains a list of the "Books Since 1990," and I can vouch for Scott when he writes that he conceived the idea for the list well before the New York Times put out its similar list. In the introduction, Scott writes that he is making no claims that these books are the "best," which is so often the silly, attention-grabbing hook of such lists. Scott polled several literary types, and when he asked me to participate, he asked for the "best" books, but I think the point Scott is making is that throwing together a bunch of individuals' "best books" lists isn't how one determines which books are "The Best." Instead we learn which books are part of the shared consciousness of a group of readers, which I think is interesting as well. It's a tough line to toe, but I appreciate Scott's effort not to announce that the books in his list are "The Best."Which isn't to say that I agree entirely with the books named on his list, which I think in some cases skews obscure or difficult for the sake of obscurity and difficulty. At the same time, I do appreciate knowing which books people think it is important to highlight, and am glad of the opportunity to be newly introduced to such books.As one of the contributors, I thought I might present my selections for the list in case anyone is curious. A few initial caveats in addition to the points below. I fully admit that my picks are mainstream, but I tend to believe - with very rare and notable exceptions - that quality work tends to be recognized and rewarded in the marketplace and thus becomes by some measure "popular," and second I have not read all the books I nominated (though I'd like to), but drew from conversations with fellow readers and from my perception of which books are most important to the serious readers I know. Third, it's very, very likely that as I read more from the contemporary era, this list will change (and it is important when looking at such lists to remember that they are fluid). And finally, I readily recognize that my selections exhibit a woeful lack of diversity; however, this is not to say that I only read books by white men, it's just to say that white men happened to write eight of the ten books that I selected for this exercise. On to my selections along with the number of votes each book got:2003, The Known World by Edward P. Jones (I'm shocked that I'm the only person who nominated this book. Of all the books that I've read from this era, I think this one is hands down the best and will go on to be a classic.) (1)2001, The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen (I believe the hype. I think this book is an important chronicle of contemporary American life.) (2)1997, Underworld by Don DeLillo (5)2002, Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides (2)2002, Atonement by Ian McEwan (One of my favorite books ever.) (4)1998, The Hours by Michael Cunningham (1)2004, Gilead by Marilynn Robinson (2)2000, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon (Proof that an entertaining read can and should be quality fiction.) (1)1997, American Pastoral by Philip Roth (3)1995, The Tortilla Curtain by T.C. Boyle (Of the three books by Boyle that stand out from the rest, Tortilla Curtain is the only one written after 1990. The other two books are World's End and Water Music.) (1)

Diversions and Distractions Part 5: A Reading Journal

After Sakincali Piyade I embarked on my Chicago trip and returned to The Fortress of Solitude, which I finished during the journey. Next was In Cold Blood by Truman Capote, which I had been meaning to read for a long time. The release of Capote with Phillip Seymour Hoffman rekindled my desire to read In Cold Blood, as I did not want to see the movie prior to reading the book. So, I dove into the gruesome story of the Clutter family murder in Holcomb, Kansas, in 1959. Capote divided In Cold Blood to three sections and created two parallel storylines, both of which make his narrative very fluid, factual and captivating. Given that in our time we have been witnesses to more outbursts of seemingly aimless violence than previous generations (Red Lake High School, Columbine), In Cold Blood does not come across as shocking as it might have when the Clutter murders took place and when the book was published in 1965. The unfolding events also show that the Clutters were not murdered by a random psychopath, rather by two ex-cons, Perry Smith and Dick Hickock, who were motivated to rob the estate. The murders described in In Cold Blood may not surprise the modern reader but Capote's masterful chronicling of the events and extensive research that leads to the psyche of the Clutters, Perry Smith, Dick Hickock, investigator Alvin Dewey and the characters surrounding the murder arouses a sense of real familiarity with the events and leaves the reader wondering why the world works the way it does. I found myself wondering why the outstanding citizens, as exemplified in Herb Clutter's honesty and dedication to society and Nancy Clutter's impeccable record as a student and as a role model to all the young girls of Holcomb, always seem to be victim to society's ills. I also thought about delusional and broken men such as Hickock and Smith: two men who had troubled childhoods, had been in and out of jail, tried to - and succeeded at times - to make an honest living, but always relapsed and turned to wicked means, the most disturbing of which resulted in the Clutter murder. I enjoyed In Cold Blood immensely, not because the story is particularly interesting or fresh, but because of the insightful details that Capote presents and the issues it brings up with regards to society and life.After In Cold Blood I read nothing but The Economist and other news outlets for two months. I really enjoy reading The Economist and it is my favorite news publication, but two months of not reading any literature made me sad. When I last visited my friend John he asked me what I was reading and I told him nothing at the moment, implying that I was looking for a book that would drag me back to the wonderful world of literature. His suggestion was Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathan Lethem. Since I was so impressed by The Fortress of Solitude, another recommendation from John, I started the novel right away and, as had happened with Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections, could not put the book down, even at the expense of sleep. Lionel Essrog is the main character of Motherless Brooklyn and suffers from Tourette's syndrome (that's when you cannot control what your saying and your mouth/brain spurts out profanities or meaningless words at random, mostly when you are under stress/strain). The title works magnificently to describe Lionel and his three friends from St. Vincent's Orphanage in Brooklyn: Tony, Danny and Gilbert. The motley four work for Frank Minna, a shady small time mobster whose murder at the outset of the novel sets off the chain of events. The demise of Minna is dramatic for each individual as he was more than an employer to them: a father figure to Lionel and Gilbert, a role-model/rival for Tony and a comforting personage for Danny. Immediately after Minna's murder Lionel and Tony get on the case to find the killers, but it soon appears that whereas Lionel is sincere in his desire to find the suspects, Tony has other motives. Lethem takes you through a fast two days through Lionel's eyes, prompting Tourette's in you, embedding tics in your mind and causing you to read compulsively to reach a resolution. The mystery is intricate yet Lethem drops hints all along for the careful reader to decipher the plot. But if you get carried away with Lionel's Tourette's (as I did) chances are that you will be as oblivious, yet simultaneously, surprisingly and equally alert, to everything that unfolds. The ending will, nevertheless, put a smile on your face.If Motherless Brooklyn put a smile on my face in the end, Anneannem (My Grandmother) by Fethiye Cetin did the exact opposite. A good balance I might add. Lethem had me in 5th gear by the time I finished Motherless Brooklyn and I picked up Anneannem, which my friend Ela had brought me from Turkey and urged me to read, for a light read. The memoirs that Cetin relates are a mere 116 pages and I figured it would be a good transitional book between Lethem to Dostoyevsky. I started reading Anneannem on Sunday morning and Cetin's style, as well as the romantic light under which she presented her story, captivated me. I took a break a quarter of the way through and went outside to enjoy the day. I called one of my grandmas on my way to the movie theater, just to hear her voice and rejoice in her presence. When I went to bed at night I picked up Anneannem and it kept me up until 3, crying, thinking and feeling emotions that were left alone for a long time. Cetin's grandmother was an Armenian separated from her family during the Turkish deportation of Armenians in World War I. She was brought up by a Turkish family in Maden, Elazig in Eastern Turkey. She and the seven other girls that were separated from their families at the same time managed to preserve their heritage despite being converted to Islam and marrying Turks. Cetin grew up in her grandmother's house, when, after her father's unexpected and early death, her family moved in with the grandparents. It was, however, not until very late that Cetin learned about her grandmother's past and, in the process, became one of her sole confidantes regarding the hardships she lived through. As Cetin relates her grandmother's story, she also tells the reader of her own frustrations, embarrassment and disillusionment with the official Turkish line regarding the Armenian deportation. Horanus Gadarian's story is heart wrenching, it makes one wonder how people can cause such pain on their neighbors, their fellow countrymen or, simply, to each other. Horanus's wisdom and love for not only her family but towards all who sought her company is awe-inspiring. Cetin manages to trace Horanus's family in the United States and tells the story of a very touching reunion after her grandmother's death. Anneannem is a captivating little book that in the space of a 116 pages tickled my own pleasant memories and admiration of my grandparents, had me thinking about the cruelties that humans suffer in each others' hands and the beautiful Armenian culture that Turkish officials did their best to destroy. Finally, Anneannem impressed me for its candid and lovely storyline. Unfortunately, Anneannem too is only available in Turkish.I have just begun my first Russian novel, Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Wish me luck, I probably won't be writing again for a while, especially because I intend to read David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest after this one. Of course, all of this planning is subject to change on impulse. Good luck and good reads everyone, cheers!(So, that's all from Emre for a little while. Thanks, Emre! -- Max)Part 1, 2, 3, 4, 5Emre's previous reading journal

Novels, Stories, Mini-series and Movies

From the New York Times:A grandfatherly figure, his bearded face wrinkled into a smile, peers down from billboards around town. It is surprise enough that the man is Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn, the once-exiled writer, Nobel Prize winner and, of late, octogenarian scold. It is even more so that the billboards advertise his adaptation - broadcast on state television, no less - of one of his fiercely anti-Soviet novels, The First Circle.While the article goes on to say that Solzhenitsyn is not being embraced by all, I think this is an interesting example of a melding of literature and media to attempt to deal with history - rather like "Roots" the miniseries here in the US.Another thought: In the comments of this post, Pete and I had a little back and forth about how, in light of "Brokeback Mountain," it would seem that the short story is more sensibly adapted to film than the novel in that novels so often have to be pared down considerably to fit into two hours of screen time. It follows, then, that the mini-series is much more suitable for the novel. Considering how many literary novels get slashed in film adaptations, I'd love to see a resurgence of the mini-series as the preferred format for novels. (Bearing in mind of course that the PBS' recent adaptation of Charles Dickens' Bleak House proves that the form isn't dead here.) And with novels like The Corrections (IMDb) and The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (IMDb) in the Hollywood pipeline, I'd love to see them in their full splendor in a longer format.

A Year in Reading: New Yorker Fiction 2005

My year in reading involved a couple dozen or so books, most of which I wrote about here, but it also involved, to a large extent, my favorite magazine, the New Yorker. I spent three or four out of every seven days this year reading that magazine. So, for my "Year in Reading" post, I thought I'd revisit all the time I spent reading the New Yorker this year, and in particular, the fiction. It turns out that nearly every one of the 52 stories that the New Yorker published this year is available online. I thought it might be fun to briefly revisit each story. It ended up taking quite a while, but it was rewarding to go back through all the stories. What you'll find below is more an exercise in listing and linking than any real attempt at summary, but hopefully some folks will enjoy having links to all of this year's stories on one page. I also wanted to highlight a couple of blogs that did a great job of reacting to New Yorker fiction this year - you'll find many links to them below - Both "Grendel" at Earthgoat and "SD Byrd" at Short Story Craft put together quality critiques of these stories. Now, without further ado, on to the fiction:January 3, "I am a Novelist" (not available online) by Ryu Murakami: This story by the other Murakami is about a famous novelist who is being impersonated by a man who frequents a "club" of the type often described in Japanese stories. The impostor runs up a huge bar tab and gets one of the hostesses pregnant. Murakami is best-known for his novel, Coin Locker Babies. Links: I Read a Short Story TodayJanuary 10, "Reading Lessons" by Edwidge Danticat: A Haitian immigrant elementary school teacher, a resident of Miami's Little Haiti, is asked by her boss - and lover, "Principal Boyfriend" - to tutor the illiterate mothers of two of her students. In 2004, Danticat received much praise for her novel, The Dew Breaker and this year she put out a young adult novel called Anacaona, Golden Flower.January 17, "The Juniper Tree" by Lorrie Moore: I really had to jog my memory to remember this one. It starts out with a woman who puts off visiting her dying friend Robin in the hospital. She plans to go in the morning but Robin has already died. Who Will Run the Frog Hospital is Moore's most recent collection. Links: Tingle Alley, Elegant VariationJanuary 24 & 31,"Ice" by Thomas McGuane: This story was more memorable. A young protagonist with a paper route is intimidated by a drum major. To overcome his fears he skates toward Canada on frozen Lake Erie as far as he dares. Presumably, this story will appear in McGuane's upcoming collection, Gallatin Canyon. Links: I Read A Short Story TodayFebruary 7, "The Roads of Home" by John Updike: The middle-aged absentee owner of his family's Pennsylvania farm, David Kern returns to his childhood home after a long absence, feeling guilty and a little disoriented. A standard Updike story. Updike has a new book coming out this year called Terrorist. Links: This story has inspired a field trip sponsored by The Alton Chronicles - AKA The John Updike Reality Project.February 14 & 21, "Up North" by Charles D'Ambrosio: City guy visits the inlaws for Thanksgiving at their hunting lodge. He goes hunting with the family men and finds out about some skeletons in the closet. I remember liking this story. I'm guessing this story will appear in D'Ambrosio's new collection, The Dead Fish Museum.February 28,"The Conductor" by Aleksandar Hemon: The narrator and Dedo, two Bosnian poets, are reunited in America after the war. This memorable story contrasts the hardness of their Bosnian experience with their new lives on the American academic circuit. Touching and funny. Hemon's written a novel, Nowhere Man, and a collection of stories, The Question of Bruno. Links: 3quarksdailyMarch 7, "The Gorge" by Umberto Eco: Italian boy and anarchist help Cassocks escape from Germans in war-torn Italy. Pretty straight-forward for a story by Eco, it turns out this piece was culled from his then-forthcoming novel, The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana. Links: Conversational Reading, A Roguish Chrestomathy, Unhappy with the New Yorker's editing: The LaboratoriumMarch 14, "Della" by Anne Enright: I'd completely forgotten this story. It made no impression at all, but upon rereading I see that it's a sad story about two old folks living next door to each other, one worrying the other is dead, and beneath its somber surface, there's a little humor to it. Enright's most recent book is The Pleasure of Eliza Lynch.March 21, "Men of Ireland" by William Trevor: I've never been a big fan of Trevor, his stories are a little too gray for my taste, but it can't be denied that he's a great storyteller. In this one a destitute man accuses his childhood priest of long ago improprieties. Though we can't know the truth for sure, somehow, in this telling, both seem guilty. Trevor's most recent collection is A Bit on the Side. Links: James Tata.March 28, "A Secret Station" by David Gates: A classic New Yorker story: An old man ruminates on his wasted life - multiple marriages and infidelities, dabbling in prescription drugs to dull the pain. But Gates paints the characters well and this is a good read. Gates is best known for his novel Preston Falls. Links: shes-krafty.com.April 4, "Solace" by Donald Antrim: I've always enjoyed Antrim's stories. This one is sort of a romantic comedy about two disfunctional people who, due to difficult housing arrangements, must conduct their relationship only in borrowed apartments. Antrim's memoir, The Afterlife, pieces of which have appeared in the New Yorker, will be published in May.April 11, "Mallam Sile" by Mohammed Naseehu Ali: Another good story, especially if you like exotic locales. This one is about the original 40-year-old virgin, a tea seller in Ghana. It is included in Ali's recent collection, The Prophet of Zongo Street. Links: James Tata.April 18, "The Orlov-Sokolovs" by Ludmila Ulitskaya: I've had the impression for a while now that the New Yorker publishes a lot of stories by Russians, but perhaps it just seems this way because they loom so large on the page. This story is about a young couple that falls prey to Soviet bureaucracy. The story appears in Ulitskaya's collection Sonechka.April 25, the only issue of the year with no fiction. Instead, a remembrance of Saul Bellow by Philip Roth.May 2, "Where I'm Likely to Find It" by Haruki Murakami: The first of three Murakami stories that appeared in the New Yorker (Yes, he does get in there a lot.) In this one, we have a typically-Murakami detached narrator who investigates missing people, but, this being Murakami, it's not a typical mystery story. Murakami has a book coming out this year called Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman. Links: Earthgoat.May 9, "Along the Highways" by Nick Arvin: A sad fellow named Graham follows his brother's widow and some guy named Doug as they drive out of Detroit for a weekend getaway. Graham does this out of jealousy and a misplaced protective instinct. It does not end well for him. Arvin's debut novel, Articles of War, came out in 2005. Links: Earthgoat.May 16, "The Room" by William Trevor: The second of three Trevor stories in the New Yorker this year (Yes, he gets in there a lot, too.) Another gray story, but, of course, well-crafted. It's about a woman who covered for her murderer husband and is now admitting everything to her the man she's cheating on the murderer with. It sounds more thriller-like than it is. Links: Earthgoat.May 23, "Two's Company" by Jonathan Franzen: Franzen goes Hollywood in this tight little story about a screenwriting couple that battles over a script that celebrates monogamy. There's no Franzen fiction in the pipeline that I'm aware of, so if you haven't read it already, ignore the hype and read The Corrections. It's that good. Links: James Tata.May 30, "The Russian Riviera" by David Bezmozgis: This is a great story. One that I still remember well more than six months after I read it. There's something about boxers. It seems they're always getting suckered when all they want is a shot at the big time, like in a favorite movie of mine, On the Waterfront. Bezmozgis received much praise for his debut collection, Natasha. Links: Earthgoat.June 6 "A Mouthful of Cut Glass" by Tessa Hadley: Normally, I dislike Hadley's stories, but this one stands out as better than the others I've read. It's about being young and in love and the tendency that those so afflicted have to romanticize their partners. No false notes in this story. Hadley's most recent book is Everything Will Be All Right. Links: Simply Wait, Earthgoat.June 13 & 20. Then came the Debut Fiction issue in which three stories appeared, "An Ex-Mas Feast" by Uwem Akpan, "The Laser Age" by Justin Tussing and "Haunting Olivia" by Karen Russell. I discussed the issue here. My favorite was the Akpan for its exotic setting. I was also impressed to learn that Russell was just 23. Of the three, only Tussing has a book on the way, The Best People in the World.June 27, "The Blow" by J.M. Coetzee (not available online): This novel excerpt (from Slow Man) is about an elderly amputee who, after at first resenting his caretaker, allows himself to be fatherly to her son. Good, but too long. I wish the New Yorker would do away with these novel excerpts. They're not really short stories. Links: Conversational Reading, Earthgoat.July 4, "Ashes" by Cristina Henriquez: This story is set in Panama City and it's about a young woman whose mother dies. Her family is already in tatters so it's up to her to try to keep everything together. Henriquez's debut collection, Come Together, Fall Apart comes out this year. Links: Simply Wait.July 11 & 18, "Long-Distance Client" by Allegra Goodman: This, I think, was my favorite story in the New Yorker this year. In it, Mel, the oldest employee at a tech start-up, bewildered by his coworkers, finds himself misaligned and in severe pain. He goes to an odd sort of chiropractor, Bobby, who, when not giving Mel the runaround, is able to straighten him out. But Bobby claims to have a client that he treats over the phone, and the truth behind Bobby's claim becomes the quirky question at the heart of this story. Goodman has a new novel coming out soon, Intuition. Links: Earthgoat.July 25, "Awaiting Orders" by Tobias Wolff: The masterful Wolff puts together a brief story that deftly circles the topic of gays in the military. It's funny that now that we're at war, the once popular gays in the military controversy is old, old news, and, somehow, without being obvious, Wolff manages to highlight that irony. Wolff's most recent book is Old School. Links: Earthgoat.August 1, "Commcomm" by George Saunders: There's no one writing like George Saunders. "Commcomm" is too weird to briefly summarize, but in typical Saunders fashion, he places us in an alternate and oddly terrifying universe where people talk like zombies yet somehow remind us of people we interact with every day. "Commcomm" includes an element I'd never seen before in a Saunders story: ghosts. Saunders' new collection, In Persuasion Nation will come out this summer. Links: standBy Bert (featuring an appearance by Saunders in the comments), Earthgoat.August 8 & 15, "Gomez Palacio" by Roberto Bolano (Not available online): A somewhat oblique story, this one is about a young man teaching in Gomez Palacio. Both he and the director of the school are poets and they're a little odd. They go for a long drive together. That's about all that happens. A new book by Bolano is coming out this year: The Last Evenings on Earth. Links: Earthgoat.August 22, "Thicker Than Water" by Gina Ochsner: This story is about a Latvian girl who lives across the street from a family of Jews. Latvia being what it is I suppose, her parents are suspicious of these people, but she is fascinated by them. In the end, there is an ill-fated chess tournament. Ochsner's most recent book is People I Wanted to Be. Links: Earthgoat. August 29, "The View from Castle Rock" by Alice Munro: An unusual setting for a Munroe story - a ship heading for Canada in 1818. I like Munroe's stories generally and this one is no exception, though the drama at the center of this long story - a young man who meets a well off father and daughter who tantalizingly offer to lift him from his poorer circumstances so that he must choose between his family and the promise of a better life - it's a bit trite. Munro's most recent collection is Runaway. Links: literarylover, mike.whybark.com, Earthgoat.September 5, "Club Des Amis" by Tony D'Souza: Mr. Wu, who lies at the center of this story, is a Chinese man in Africa. The narrator is a Western aid worker, and he relates how Wu's son "went native" and died in the bush and now Wu is trying to be a distant benefactor to the son his son had with a native woman. I'm a fan of exotic locales, so I liked this one. This story appears to be an excerpt from D'Souza's forthcoming novel, Whiteman.September 12, "Coping Stones" by Ann Beattie: A very good story that asks how well do we really know the people we think we know. A widower, Dr. Cahill, rents a house on his property to a young man, Matt, who he treats as a son, but one day the authorities come looking for Matt. Beattie's most recent collection of stories is Follies.September 19, "Cowboy" by Thomas McGuane: This story is about An old cowboy who hires a young cowboy to work with him. Both exist under the watchful eye of the old cowboy's sister, who eventually dies. I think this story is about friendship, really, one that grows slowly over many years. This story will appear in McGuane's collection, Gallatin Canyon. Links: Literarylover.September 26, "The Kidney-Shaped Stone That Moves Every Day" by Haruki Murakami: What if you knew in advance that you would only love three women (or men) in your life? Would you worry, with each new person you met, whether he or she was one of three. This is Junpei's problem and it makes relationships pretty tough for him. Links: shake it off.October 3, "Companion" by Sana Krasikov: I enjoyed this story. Ilona, thrice divorced we quickly learn, is living with Earl, a man much her senior, not because she is "with" him but because she is in financial straits and he has offered her a room. This makes pursuing her love life difficult and all of her friends somewhat snidely assume Ilona and Earl are together. Earl's family meanwhile is quite suspicious of her. I like the desperation in this story. A sample description: "The air was stale with the yeasty scent of bread."October 10, "Early Music" by Jeffrey Eugenides: Another story of desperation. Rodney just wants to play "early music" on his clavichord, but he and his wife Rebecca are in serious debt. She is trying to make ends meet with her ridiculous invention, Mice 'n' Warm. His precious clavichord on the verge of being repossessed, Rodney watches his life's dream slipping away. Eugenides' most recent book is Middlesex.October 17, "Path Lights" by Tom Drury: A bottle falls out of the sky - no, it's not The Gods Must Be Crazy - and almost hits Bobby. He becomes obsessed with this bottle, Blind Street Ale, and eventually tracks down the bottle-thrower, but it's awkward. This story may be an excerpt from Drury's forthcoming novel, Driftless Area. Links: Short Story Craft.October 24, "Summer Crossing" by Truman Capote (not available online): This is an excerpt from a long-lost, recently found Capote novel. The story is well-crafted, if a bit formulaic. Rich girl gets mixed up with tough guy who she thinks she can "save." You can tell that Capote wrote this when he was young - he was only 19 - but still, his talent is evident. Links: Earthgoat.October 31, "The Children" by William Trevor: Another Trevor story, the final one of the year, and he uses the same palate we're used to, the scrubby Irish countryside. Young Connie and her father Robert suffer the death of a mother and wife and when he decides to marry the mother of Connie's friend, we think all might be well, but as Robert new wife Theresa discovers, "nothing was as tidy as she'd imagined."November 7, "God of War" by Marisa Silver: A daring choice of main character, the troubled child Ares, is at the heart of this story. Set near the desolate Salton Sea, this story covers Ares' relationship with his brother Malcolm, whose inability to speak Ares may have caused, thus dooming them both. Silver's most recent book is No Direction Home. Links: Wuff.November 14, "The Best Year of My Life" by Paul Theroux: A young man and woman are in love but nonetheless, she is pregnant with his baby. To escape scrutiny (the story is set in an earlier time), they hide out in Puerto Rico, where they are miserable, but somehow find the experience heartening. If there's anything I enjoy as much as stories with exotic locales, it's stories in which the protagonists travel. Theroux's most recent book is Blinding Light. Links: Short Story CraftNovember 21, "The Year of Spaghetti" by Haruki Murakami: One of the weakest stories to appear in the New Yorker this year. Murakami brings us a guy who eats a lot of spaghetti, then a girl calls looking for an old friend of his, the narrator demurs and returns to cooking spaghetti. That's about the extent of it. Murakami has a book coming out this year called Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman. Links: Earthgoat, Short Story Craft.November 28, "Love and Obstacles" by Aleksandar Hemon: I loved this story; exotic locale,traveling, etc. An adolescent Croatian (I think) narrator is sent by his family to buy a freezer in Slovenia. Desperate for adventure, he treats this errand as though he were a wandering poet, but he turns out to be more bumbling than anything else. Funny and poignant. Hemon's written a novel, Nowhere Man, and a collection of stories, The Question of Bruno. Links: Short Story Craft, The Glory of Carniola.December 5, "Wenlock Edge" by Alice Munro: This was one of my favorite stories of the year. It starts out very predictably before taking a deliciously strange turn. I won't ruin it for you, but basically our narrator gets thrown in with an oddball roommate in college, and this roommate lures her into some odd situations. Munro's most recent collection is Runaway. Links: Short Story Craft.December 12, "La Conchita" by T.C. Boyle: Boyle, a California resident, loves to make use of his home state's frequent natural disasters in his fiction. In this story, we're dealing with mudslides, which impede the route of the narrator who is delivering a kidney for transplantation. He is on a journey to save a life but he stops on the way to try to save another. Boyle has a book coming out this year called Talk Talk.December 19, "Twenty Grand" by Rebecca Curtis: A pretty good story. A harried young mother is forced to give away an old coin - a family heirloom - at a toll booth, only later discovering the coin's real value. The story is told from the perspective of the young daughter. Links: Short Story CraftDecember 26 & January 2, The year ended with the International Fiction Issue. It contains five stories. In lieu of descriptions, I'll rank them in order of my favorite to least favorite and provide links when available. "Last Evenings on Earth" by Roberto Bolano, "The Albanian Writers' Union as Mirrored by a Woman" by Ismail Kadare, "Beauty is a Fate Better Than Death" by Tahar Ben Jelloun, "Pregnancy Diary" by Yoko Ogawa, "The Word" by Vladimir Nabokov. Links: Literary Saloon.If you want to keep up with the fiction next year, you can always subscribe.

A Year in Reading by Andrew Saikali

This was the year I played catch-up. My failing as a reader has always been my near-total ignorance of contemporary authors (say, those that emerged in my own lifetime). That all changed this year thanks to some wonderful recommendations from my Millions cohorts. In no time at all I was transfixed by Alvaro Mutis (The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll) and captivated by Jeffrey Eugenides (Middlesex). I delved further into Ryszard Kapuscinski (Imperium), feasted on a trio of novels from the wonderful William Boyd (Brazzaville Beach, Blue Afternoon, Armadillo), and finally read Jonathan Franzen (The Corrections), Edward P. Jones (The Known World), and T.C. Boyle (The Tortilla Curtain). Most if not all of these have been written about by either Max or Emre so I'll just echo them and say READ THESE.To this list I'd like to add one of my own. I was blown away, earlier this year, by the young Thai-American writer Rattawut Lapcharoensap and his short story collection Sightseeing. Set in Thailand, the seven stories present a vivid and engaging depiction of families and friends and day-to-day life. The locale is exotic, the sounds and smells permeate the pages, but the relationships are familiar, universal. It was a treat to read. [See also: Andrew's review of Sightseeing]

The Prizewinners

The list at the end of this post is arbitrary. Necessarily so, because awards, by their nature, are arbitrary. Nonetheless, after a couple of weeks full of awards news, including the inaugural appearance of the Quills, I was curious to see if all these awards are really pointing us towards good books.If we are dissatisfied with the Booker Prize or the National Book Award or the Pulitzer, the Quills, which casts the net very wide and relies on voting from the reading public, have been presented as a populist alternative. The results are less than satisfying. It is not news to anyone that the reading public likes Harry Potter and books by Sue Monk Kidd and Janet Evanovich. I hold nothing against those bestsellers, but naming them the best books of the year does little to satisfy one's yearning to be introduced to the best, to have an encounter with a classic in our own time. We like those bestsellers because they entertain us, but while monetary success is the reward for those entertaining authors, awards have typically honored books with qualities that are more difficult to quantify. These award-winners are supposed to edify and challenge while still managing to entertain. But, as we saw with last year's National Book Awards, readers are unsatisfied when recognition is reserved only for the obscure. We want to know our best authors even while they remain mysterious to us. So, pondering this, I wondered which books have been most recognized by book awards in recent years, and could those books also be fairly called the best books.It turned out to be a challenge. I wanted to include both American books and British books, as well as the English-language books from other countries that are eligible to win some of these awards. I started with the National Book Award and the Pulitzer from the American side and the Booker and Whitbread from the British side. Because I wanted the British books to "compete" with the American books, I also looked at a couple of awards that recognize books from both sides of the ocean, the National Book Critics Circle Awards and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. The IMPAC is probably the weakest of all these, but since it is both more international and more populist than the other awards, I thought it added something. The glaring omission is the PEN/Faulkner, but it would have skewed everything too much in favor of the American books, so I left it out.I looked at these six awards from 1995 to the present awarding three points for winning an award and two points for an appearance on a shortlist or as a finalist. Here's the key that goes with the list: B=Booker Prize, C=National Book Critics Circle Award, I=International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, N=National Book Award, P=Pulitzer Prize, W=Whitbread Book Award, bold=winner11, 2003, The Known World by Edward P. Jones - C, I, N, P9, 2001, The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen - C, I, N, P8, 1997, Underworld by Don DeLillio - C, I, N, P7, 2004, Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst - B, C, W7, 2002, Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides - I, N, P7, 2001, Atonement by Ian McEwan - B, N, W7, 1998, The Hours by Michael Cunningham - C, I, P7, 1997, Last Orders by Graham Swift - B, I, W7, 1997, Quarantine by Jim Crace - B, I, W6, 2004, Gilead by Marilynn Robinson - N, P5, 2003, The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard - I, N5, 2001, True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey - B, I5, 2000, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon - C, P5, 2000, The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood - B, I5, 1999, Waiting by Ha Jin - N, P5, 1999, Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee - B, C5, 1999, Being Dead by Jim Crace - C, W5, 1998, Charming Billy by Alice McDermott - I, N5, 1997, American Pastoral by Philip Roth - C, P5, 1996, Every Man for Himself by Beryl Bainbridge - B, W5, 1996, Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer by Steven Millhauser - N, P5, 1995, The Moor's Last Sigh by Salman Rushdie - B, W5, 1995, The Ghost Road by Pat Barker - B, W5, 1995, Independence Day by Richard Ford - C, P5, 1995, Sabbath's Theater by Philip Roth - N, P4, 2004, Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell - B, C4, 2003, Brick Lane by Monica Ali - B, C4, 2003, Bitter Fruit by Achmat Dangor - B, I4, 2003, The Good Doctor by Damon Galgut - B, I4, 2003, Evidence of Things Unseen by Marianne Wiggins - N, P4, 2002, Family Matters by Rohinton Mistry - B, I4, 2002, The Story of Lucy Gault by William Trevor - B, W4, 2001, A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry - B, I4, 2001, Bel Canto by Ann Patchett - I, N4, 2001, John Henry Days by Colson Whitehead - N, P4, 2001, Oxygen by Andrew Miller - B, W4, 2000, The Keepers of Truth by Michael Collins - B, I4, 2000, When We Were Orphans by Kazuo Ishiguro - B, W4, 2000, Blonde by Joyce Carol Oates - N, P4, 1999, Our Fathers by Andrew O'Hagan - B, I4, 1999, Headlong by Michael Frayn - B, W4, 1999, The Blackwater Lightship by Colm Toibin - B, I4, 1997, Autobiography of My Mother by Jamaica Kincaid - C, I4, 1997, Grace Notes by Bernard MacLaverty - B, W4, 1997, Enduring Love by Ian McEwan - I, W4, 1997, The Puttermesser Papers by Cynthia Ozick - I, N4, 1996, Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood - B, I4, 1995, In Every Face I Meet by Justin Cartwright - B, WI find the list to be fairly satisfying, especially at the top, though it does skew in favor of men. There are also a preponderance of "big name" literary authors on this list, but it begs the question: Does the fame come first or do the awards? I'd love to hear other opinions on this list, so please, share your comments.See Also: Award Annals compiles similar lists (though much more comprehensive than this one.)

A reading journal continued (Part 3)

Looking for a Ship by John McPhee pulled me straight out of the vertigo that was The Corrections. After I read the review on The Millions, read how journalists interviewed in The New New Journalism discussed McPhee, and found a cheap used copy on Amazon, Looking for a Ship made it to the top of my reading list. I started the book on my way down to a wedding in Virginia and finished it on the way back. Looking for a Ship struck me as a very nostalgic piece, with romantic characters, and a simple, fluid style. For all Maqroll fans out there, Looking for a Ship is a good insight to the way of the sea, as well as the tradition that is the U.S. Merchant Marines. John McPhee discusses the decline of the U.S. Merchant Marine, the shifty economics of commercial shipping, and the hazards and wonders of Latin American ports with a journalist's matter-of-fact clarity and through the delicate eyes of an aging crew. The personal stories are heartwarming and interesting: sometimes they reflect on a sailor's love for the sea, at other times on his contempt and wish to be land-bound; they scrape off all romantic ideas of working on a ship and demonstrate the hard tasks - 145 degree engine rooms, being the lookout from 4AM to 8AM, working 16 to 20 hour days, union laws restricting time of employment and the difficulty of finding a ship once allowed to work again, and pirates to state a few; and still it provides hope for the aspiring sailors with stories of finding the route using the constellations when the ship's power fails - hence annulling the compass and the radar - or of one of the captains not trusting the tug boats, hence docking the ship himself at the risk of great cost and insurance liability if something were to go wrong. Looking for a Ship is one of the books I wished did not end.In the meantime, I also picked up the Collected Short Stories of Roald Dahl which includes stories from Kiss, Kiss, Over to You, Switch Bitch, Someone Like You, and Eight Further Tales of the Unexpected. It was quite entertaining reading the discussions about Harry Potter and the possibility of J.K. Rowling writing adult stories on The Millions the other day. Though I am a Harry Potter fan and will make no excuses about it I have no ideas of how Rowling would do with adult novels, but Roald Dahl surely succeeded in both genres. I remember reading Charlie and the Chocolate Factory when I was quite young, but of course, the name of the author never struck with me. So, after reading a couple of stories at random from the Collected Stories, I read Dahl's biography to my amazement and shock. I have yet to finish the collection, yet I already have my favorites: "The Visitor" and "Bitch" (the Uncle Oswald Stories, oh how I wish all 24 Volumes of Oswald were published), "Madame Rosette," "Death of an Old Man," "Vengeance is Mine Inc.," and "Ah, Sweet Mystery of Life." I feel that my selections are bound to change as I read on, but for the time being I would strongly suggest keeping a copy by your bed and reading a story each night, starting with the above.See also: Part 1, 2, 3, 4

A reading journal continued (Part 2)

In the meantime I received William Boynton's The New New Journalism from my old roommate Ayse and started reading it. Boynton's carefully structured questions provide for a similar flow for each author he interviews, thus highlighting the differences in style, discipline, and inspiration in each author. The New New Journalism is a great look into the minds of some amazing authors of our time, providing interesting information as to how they pick their topics, as well as quirky information about how they go about getting their work done. Another great side of Boynton's book is that it ties the New Journalists of Tom Wolfe to today, and provides a great reading list. I already added Acts of Faith by Philip Caputo, In Cold Blood by Truman Capote, Coyotes by Ted Conover, There are No Children Here by Alex Kotlowitz and American Ground by William Langewiesche to my already long reading list. Another advantage is that you can pick up the book and read about any author included for a brief period and then rest the book a little.I wanted to take a break from The New New Journalism and turned to The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen, which had been sitting on my shelf since my birthday. Nancy, who presented me with the novel, was upset that the hard cover edition she bought had an unremoveable Oprah's Book Club sticker on it, which I promised to cover with an It was in Nancy's Book Club First sticker, but I did not get around to that yet. Regardless, The Corrections blew my mind. The main reasons I wanted to read the novel were the discussions on The Millions and the fact that almost everyone I know in my age group had laid hands on it fairly recently. So, I turned to it on a hot sticky New York evening, cranked my AC and sat in my room all night reading. The next day was a Friday, and I was so stuck to the story that all I could do at work was sit at my desk and keep reading, pretty much non-stop, until I finished the novel on Sunday night. At about 4 AM on Monday morning, I emailed my boss and let her know that I would not be able to attend work because of the severe depression that The Corrections caused in me. Here is why: I loved the novel and Franzen's style, and although Enid comes across as a very stereotypical bickering mother, and Alfred's dementia - with it's stark contrast to his past - is a common disease in our times, and Chip is readily accessible, lovable, and charismatic, and Denise is righteously immoral in her actions, and Gary is a self-pitying bastard, and that every piece of the story seems banal when looked at from this perspective, the mere reality of The Corrections moved me deeply. I thoroughly enjoyed the way Franzen organized the book and related the individual stories of each character, and how, that, in the very end, reaches a lukewarm resolve. Finishing The Corrections I felt as if I should be happy about the outcome, but the price that was paid, the thought that this story could take place in my life, and that some of the characters - though maybe through different relations - might exist around me caused an inexplicable sadness. All the sobbing aside, I discovered soon upon finishing The Corrections that discussing the cast of a probable Hollywood movie based on the novel makes for a great conversation. I remember reading with great interest when the discussion took place on The Millions and at this point the only person I can contribute to the fray is Sam Rockwell as Chip. That said, The Corrections is probably better off left alone by Hollywood, and a wonderful read for all those who want to glimpse into a bit of Americana, as well as a bit of themselves.See also: Part 1, 2, 3, 4

Book to movie news

Scott Rudin the Hollywood producer known for bringing adaptations of contemporary literature to the silver screen - he was responsible for Wonder Boys and The Hours, for example - may be on his way out at Paramount. This means that several forthcoming literary adaptations could be in jeopardy, including big screen versions of three new books: Ian McEwan's Saturday, Jonathan Safran Foer's Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and Cormac McCarthy's No Country for Old Men. Farther along in their development are The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon and, of course, Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections. Though adaptations can be a risky proposition, I do hope that some of these end up getting made if only to satisfy my curiosity. Here's the story from the Hollywood Reporter.

F.X. Toole and Jonathan Franzen: more book to film news

I saw Million Dollar Baby last night and enjoyed it. As with most boxing movies, there are some cartoonish moments, but the acting is great. The film relies upon a good deal of narration supplied by Morgan Freeman, and much of that narration comes directly out of the book from which the script was adapted. Rope Burns - which has been rereleased as Million Dollar Baby to tie in with the film - is a collection of boxing stories written by F.X. Toole, the nom de guerre of Jerry Boyd, who, before the book came out in 2000, "had been a bullfighter, a bartender, a cement truck driver and, for the past 20 years of his life, a boxing trainer and cut man," according to this profile/movie review in the Sydney Morning Herald. Jerry Boyd died in 2002, but before he did he sat down for this very entertaining interview with Terri Gross.I've decided I'm going to follow the story of the impending big screen version of Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections because 1) I think The Corrections is one of the more important books of the last ten years, and 2) like Scott at Conversational Reading said a few days ago, I'm skeptical that "Mr. I-don't-want-The-Corrections-lowered-by-Oprah is going to be cool with a full Hollywood version of his opus" So, here's the latest casting speculation from the movie rumor site Dark Horizons: "The latest word is that it will be starring Judi Dench (playing Enid, the family matriarch), Brad Pitt (playing the central character Chip), and Tim Robbins and Naomi Watts playing the other two grown children of the family." Brad Pitt as Chip? (shudder)

Coming to a Theatre Near You

EW has a story today that Robert Zemeckis will direct the film version of The Corrections. Tom Hanks is always in Zemeckis movies. Does this mean that Hanks will be in the movie? Would he play Gary? (shudder) Jonathan Franzen, who is highly unlikely to be in charge of casting, nonetheless has some ideas: "If they told me Gene Hackman was going to do Alfred, I would be delighted. If they told me they had cast Cate Blanchett as Denise, I would be jumping up and down, even though officially I really don't care what they do with the movie."While I am rather skeptical of The Corrections: the Movie, it does give me the opportunity to play The Corrections parlor game, wherein you pick which of the five members of the book's Lambert family you identify with the most. The game stems from the idea that these five characters - Alfred, Enid, Gary, Denise, and Chip - represent five distinct and mutually exclusive personality types. I identify with Gary. Mrs. Millions identifies with Alfred. What about you?

Oprah and the Classics

Last summer Oprah's book club returned from its hiatus touting Nobel Laureate John Steinbeck's East of Eden as "the book that brought Oprah's Book Club back." By doing this she turned her powerful book club on its head. Up until this point, book industry types had been treating the Oprah book club as a lottery of sorts by which a previously unknown (but hardworking and extremely talented writer) could be lifted from obscurity and delivered into the homes of readers everywhere. Apparently, after much behind-the-scenes horsetrading and Jonathan Franzen's high profile disdain for receiving the award for The Corrections, Oprah became disgusted with the politics and controversy surrounding her club and suspended it. Then, months later she brought it back, and now she is sticking, more or less, to the classics. Recently, in fact, she announced her next selection, which happens to be one of my favorite books of all time, One Hundred Years of Solitude by another Nobel Laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez. (Between the two Nobel Laureates, by the way, was Cry, the Beloved Country a largely forgotten book from the 1940s by Alan Paton.) Many serious readers, and perhaps I might suggest that they are being a bit snooty, are inconsolably annoyed that the covers of books that they have adored for decades are suddenly besmirched by book club logos. If anything is to be blamed, though, it is not Oprah for placing her mark on these "sacred" books; it is, perhaps, our greater culture of reading. In a better world, Steinbeck and Marquez, to give two examples, would be so widely read, that naming them for this book club would seem utterly ridiculous. Instead, and we should be happy about this, East of Eden, thanks to Oprah, was one of the most widely read books of 2003, and the same will likely be true of One Hundred Years of Solitude in 2004. So, perhaps the earlier incarnation of the Oprah Club was getting ahead of itself as it steered readers to somewhat more obscure books though they had never read, or perhaps even heard of, many of the classics. In the end, one can hardly fault Oprah for making readers out of millions of Americans, though the marketing effort behind the whole thing can make one a bit queasy. In an excellent guest post to The Millions a few months back, the author Kaye Gibbons (Ellen Foster, A Virtuous Woman) wrote about her experience of being plucked from relative obscurity and brought to national prominence after being selected for the Oprah Book Club. If you haven't yet read it, here it is.

2003: My Year in Reading (Pt. 3)

Whew... Ok, I feel much better now. Well rested and ready to continue:Feeding a Yen by Calvin Trillin: It's not that I love all food writers or that I necessarily am enamored by all writing about food. I've just noticed these past few years that there are particular characteristics shared by a lot of food writers that attract me to them as writers. They are very knowledgeable but also self-effacing. They tend to be intrepid travelers with acquaintances on most continents who will gladly direct them to the finest cuisine in the area, and often times these writers, in order to fuel their pens, will receive the finest that these far-flung kitchens have to offer. Ideally, the reader will get an insider's view of a place, one that he will not be able to necessarily be able to replicate, but that he might strive for. An example, when I was in Barcelona this summer, stoked by the writing of Trillin and Jeffrey Steingarten and Jonathan Gold, I was probably most intrigued by the food of the place, a regional cuisine that isn't duplicated elsewhere. Though I might not end up at a four star spot nor be able to decipher the recipe for the grilled sardines or paella that I just ate, I can nonetheless follow in these writers' footsteps as I strive to learn about a place by looking for and at its food. And most of all I can follow in Trillin's footsteps as I seek out deliciousness in all its forms. There's something wonderful about devoting yourself to seeking out the joy comes from a good meal.The Man Who Ate Everything by Jeffrey Steingarten: Steingarten shares with Trillin a love for food, but beyond that they couldn't be more different. Trillin is folksy and innocent, while Steingarten is a brash, but hilarious, know-it-all who spends as much time writing about himself as he does about food. He puffs himself up and then lets out the air. Most often this occurs over the course of one of his kitchen experiments where he attempts to make the perfect french fry or the perfect fried chicken during which he makes an unholy mess, comes to no conclusion (which is all the more funny considering the certitude with which he undertook the venture), and fun is had by all. The Man Who Ate Everything, his first collection, is good, though a bit wearying by the end. I've read bits of It Must've Been Something I Ate, and it seems to be even better, since by this time he has really mastered his style.Yours, and Mine: Novella and Stories by Judith Rascoe and.....Last Courtesies and Other Stories by Ella Leffland: I was inspired by a couple of things to read these two books. First, I had the opportunity last summer to meet Edwin Frank, the editor of the NYRB press. We talked a lot about The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll, of course, but we also talked about how he finds titles to bring back into print. Many are books that he has long been aware of, that he has watched go out of print, and then he has stepped in and reissued them, but there are other titles that he has found by trolling the sidewalk book tables in Manhattan looking for hidden gems, a name that sounds familiar or a title that sounds intriguing. At the time, I had recently finished the collection Prize Stories of the Seventies: From the O. Henry Awards, and I though that it might be interesting to track down the long out of print books by a couple of the writers whose stories I had enjoyed, but whose names were unfamiliar. Though the books themselves were quite good, I really enjoyed reading these as an exploration of the trajectory of the American short story. There is a sorrowful decadence to these stories, a feeling that the world might be unraveling before our eyes. Leffland and Rascoe certainly deserve their places in the O. Henry collection, and it's a shame that they cannot be more widely read today.The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen: In August, over the course of this post and this one there was a discussion here at The Millions about who currently holds the title of best young writer, and who, among those under 50, will still be read voraciously a generation or two from now. Many names were batted around, but the one book that everyone agreed upon was The Corrections. Due to my perhaps unfounded dislike of Franzen, I hadn't yet read the book, but inspired by the discussion, I immediately went out and read the book, was pretty dazzled by it, and wrote this post about it. I hope that The Millions can be host to more great discussions like this one in 2004.Well, it looks like there will be a part four. I promise I'll finish soon. Maybe even this afternoon!

Bookspotting

When: Afternoon 11/16/03Where: The Pig, a Bar B Q joint on La Brea Ave. In Los AngelesWho: The woman behind the counterWhat: The Corrections by Jonathan FranzenDescription: "A comic, tragic masterpiece of an American family breaking down in an age of easy fixes, Franzen's third novel brings an old-time America into wild collision with the era of home surveillance and New Economy speculation. Winner of the National Book Award."A Lingering QuestionAs much as I loved Crime and Punishment, it is refreshing to step away from Raskolnikov's paranoid world; however, I still have one unresolved question about the book... Towards the beginning, Raskolnikov has an encounter with a very drunk girl wandering in the street. At first he is protecting her from a predatory man lurking in the shadows, then a police officer shows up and Raskolnikov begins to antagonize him. It's a very odd scene that I assumed would have some significance later in the book, but as far as I could tell, the three characters never appear again and the incident is forgotten. Has anyone read the book recently? Does anyone remember this scene? Can anyone shed some light on why it is in the book and what it means... if I manage to figure it out on my own. I'll let you know.

Book Clubbin’

Last night myself and my friend Edan were the facilitators for the first installment of a new book club at the book store where I work. It was the first time either of us had ever been in a book club, and I think we both had a good time. Last night we discussed The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem. After a few minutes of polite discussion, it came out that half the people in attendance strongly disliked the book, which made for some excellent debate. As best as I could tell, the dislike for the book is a part of the backlash against the "virtuoso perfomances" of young writers of late, who, according to certain readers, are over-writing in order to produce a novel that is "big" and masterful. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon and The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen are two examples of this trend that came up during our discussion. I, on the other hand, am relatively lenient in my feelings about this book at least in part because I have always rather enjoyed the over-written modern novel, John Irving (see The World According to Garp, The Hotel New Hampshire, The Cider House Rules, and A Prayer for Owen Meany) and T. C. Boyle (see The Tortilla Curtain, World's End, and Water Music) being among my favorite practitioners. The question now is: what do we read for next month?

What People Are Reading (Parts 2 & 3)

Next, non-fiction. People seem to be very excited about a new book by the French philosopher (and best-selling author in Europe) Bernard Henri Levy. Who Killed Daniel Pearl? is both a journalistic account of the kidnapping and brutal murder of the Wall Street Journal reporter and a deeper look at the rift between extremist Islam and the rest of the world. Imagine the musings of a philosopher detective retracing the final steps of a man he has never met. In other news, I proudly voted in an election that is sure to be a footnote in the history books. I did not vote for Arnold for personal reasons: I happen to be a rabid celebrity-ist, as in I discriminate against celebrities and, by law, I don't think they should be allowed to hold public office. Just because someone appears regularly on television and movie screens, in magazines and on billboards does not mean they are qualified to do anything other than look pretty and pretend to be another person. But, of course, this is California and it is important to have leaders who are sufficiently glamorous representing the extremely glamorous populace. Needless to say, California is a peculiar and maddening place, progenitor and betrayer of national hopes and dreams, which, in so many words, is what Joan Didion is saying in her book, Where I Was from. My hope is that the reason this book continues to sell so well is that it is people's way of taking this election with a grain of salt. Now I'm going to do something a bit hypocritical, watch as I go from celebrity-bashing to the Rolling Stones. But what can I say? The Rolling Stones, as The Beatles did a few years ago, have put together a beautiful and comprehensive coffee table book called According to the Rolling Stones, and people are buying it like crazy.Finally, a couple of paperbacks to mention: Dan Brown, like John Grisham before him, is using his huge breakthrough hit, The Da Vinci Code to sell his previous books which had, up until now, been ignored. Since everyone in the world seems to have read the Da Vinci Code by now, folks looking to keep the good times rolling have been buying an earlier book of his, Angels & Demons in droves. Also big in paperback is the recently released collection of essays by Jonathan Franzen called How to Be Alone. I seem to be one of the few who hold this opinion, but Franzen's non-fiction bugs the heck out of me. The Corrections, however, is a must read.

My Thoughts on The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen

The modern novel seems to have always been about the self - so often characters are drawn from life, episodes derive from anecdotes, the narrator from the author himself. Modern writers are not slapping together memoirs and changing the names and places. They are much more graceful about it. It is more accurate to say that a certain type of novel is really a set piece constructed to illuminate the world inhabited by its author, as a lantern might shed light upon the interior of a cave, throwing some surfaces into sharp relief while leaving other nooks and crevices shrouded in shadow.In the interest of full-disclosure, I should mention that I have always been irked by Franzen's often autobiographical non-fiction (most of it is collected in How to Be Alone). There are several bothersome things about Franzen that are revealed by his non-fiction: his inability to conceal his belief in his own inarguable specialness, a tendency to dwell on his social troubles as an adolescent, a need to divide the world into two camps (typically for him and against him) whenever he discusses anything. All in all, he has the demeanor of someone who had it rough in junior high and has now exacted his revenge by becoming successful. It just doesn't feel graceful to me. Before I read The Corrections, I knew I would be bothered by whichever of the qualities he employs in his non-fiction were also present in his fiction.Yet, there is no way around it. Franzen wrote a very successful, very perceptive novel about what it means to be an adult in this day and age. His characters: Chip, bitterly unwilling to see his difficulties as the result of his own mistakes; Denise, sexually confused and professionally driven; Gary, who believes in family but must bully and acquiesce to mean-spirited impulses in order to serve this belief; Enid, a meddler who desperately wants her freedom; and Alfred, a proud man, decimated by disease, are typical people, borderline cliches even, that he has infused with complexity and emotion so that they are real enough to walk and talk among us. They are spectacular in their ordinariness, in the similarity of their problems to our own troubles or the troubles of people close to us.A glance at the fiction in the New Yorker in any given week will, more often than not, contain these types of characters, though not as fully realized as in The Corrections. There is, now, a tradition of this sort of story, stories about what it means to have been alive in the past fifty years. These stories are full of neuroses and addictions, the small-scale crises of individuals blown up bigger than life size. Any collection of short stories from the 1970s will include a number of stories like this. This tradition perhaps begins in earnest with the stories of Joyce Carol Oates and Raymond Carver (see What We Talk About When We Talk About Love). There are many others too, from this time; Ann Beattie is another good one. And the traditions continues up through the present with Dave Eggers, a fervent practitioner of late, and the majority of Pulitzer Prize winners from the last 25 years.This type of story or novel is adept at focusing intently upon modern life, dissecting its minutiae. These writers provide no escape for the reader, only mastery in wielding the microscope. There should, of course, be no limits on fiction, and this novel of the self should not be abandoned. In fact, it is valuable in its insights, in its pertinence to the readers' own circumstances. However, why not embrace the limitlessness of the form, why not devote more time and energy to seeking out the stories that are waiting in the ether to be told, that are not so grounded by their concrete relevance to the experiences of the reader? This perhaps sounds like a defense of genre writing, but that too seems limiting to me. The Corrections may be the best "novel of modern life" or "novel of the self" ever written, but we shouldn't expect excellence from that type of book alone. There are too many senseless barriers to the one thing that lies at the heart of all this fiction: imagination.

More on the Best Current Writer Question

After some email discussion, it appears that the consensus is that Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections is the lone book by a young writer from the past few years that will have the staying power to last generations. [Embarrassing author's note: due to an unhealthy aversion to hype and a disproportionate dislike of Franzen because of his self-involved non-fiction, I have until now held out against reading this book. Now chastened, I will begin reading it by Monday] Meanwhile a couple of folks followed my lead to add some names to the slightly older than 50 category. Garth suggests Salman Rushdie (age 56), who is undoubtedly a highly skilled writer, but one who I think may be better remembered for his role as a pawn in the Ayatollah's dalliance with contemporary literature, and less for any of the particular novels he has written. He does have an incredibly attractive wife though. Brian meanwhile suggested that the late W. G. Sebald (dead at age 57) is sure to be considered an indispensible, classic author one day. As is often the case, his already stellar reputation as a writer jumped up a notch as eulogizers strained to deliver Sebald the praise that he surely would have recieved, parcelled out over the remainder of his years, had he not died. As so often happens, Sebald's untimely death may boost him towards immortality in the eyes of readers. His reputation aside, he is undoubtedly worth reading: both Austerlitz and The Emigrants are highly recommended.

Ask a Book Question: The Second in a Series (More thoughts on yesterday’s question and new speculation today)

Garth and Elise had some aditional thoughts on yesterday's question: Elise, daughter of a children's librarian and a great afficianado of too-smart-for-kids-too-fun-for-adults fantasy, likes the Garth Nix books (Lirael, Sabriel, and something else I can't remember). I used to love Lloyd Alexander's Taran Wanderer. Also, the Neil Gaiman/Terry Pratchett collabo Good Omens is pretty awesome. And did anyone actually read Summerland [by Michael Chabon]? Maybe it's good, too.Great ideas. I can't speak to many of these picks, although they sound intriguing. I didn't read Summerland and I didn't have any customers rush back into the store a week after buying it saying that it changed their kid's life, as I occasionally do with, say, the Philip Pullman books. On the other hand, Chabon is a talented writer, so it makes sense that the book is at the very least quite readable. Moving on. Garth also posed an interesting question in which we enjoy the pleasures of trying to predict the future: Here's my book question. Who are the under-50 writers you and your readers think are capable of producing something that will be read widely and passionately 100 years from now? Here's my extemporaneous list: Jonathan Franzen, Michael Chabon, Jonathan Lethem, Jeffrey Eugenides, Rick Moody, Colson Whitehead, David Foster Wallace, Zadie Smith, Peter Carey, Roddy Doyle, Nick Baker, Paul Beatty, Jhumpa Lahiri, Conor McPherson, Suzan-Lori Parks, Patrick Chamoiseau and myself. Any thoughts?This is an interesting question having to do with capabilities. I think it's fair to say that with the possible exception of Franzen's The Corrections, none of these writers has as of yet written something that will be read in a 100 years. I am familiar with most but not all of the writers mentioned above, having said that, here are the writers that I think have the best chance to become immortal from the above list: Franzen, Wallace, Whitehead, and Lahiri. On the other hand I'm not sure that Zadie Smith or Suzan-Lori Parks should be included at all, though that may have to do more with my personal taste than the quality of their writing. This is of course an impossible question to answer, but you have to wonder what the prevailing opinion might have been to the same question posed 50 to 100 years ago. Do Hemingway and Faulkner get mentioned? Or is everyone convinced that Sinclair Lewis wll have enduring undying popularity. At any rate, it's clear that the most fervent current acclaim is no guarantee of canonization. (For what it's worth, the most voraciously read books that are at least 50 years old are as follows: The Catcher in the Rye, Fahrenheit 451, Great Gatsby, Lord of the Flies, 1984 and Animal Farm. These will be joined by To Kill a Mockingbird in a few years when it turns 50.) I would add a few names to Garth's list George Saunders, Gary Schteyngart, Maile Meloy, and my favorite to take the title, Jonathan Safran Foer. Finally, I would like to point out three authors who may have already written something that will be read by future generations. All three have only recently turned fifty, so I don't mind bending the rules to include them in this discussion. They are: Denis Johnson (age 54), Ian McEwan (age 55), Haruki Murakami (age 54), and maybe I'll throw in Paul Auster (age 55) for good measure........ Anyone else got some ideas???Loving the Little GuysI went to a "publishing party" at Book Soup in West Hollywood the other day to celebrate the emergence of two local publishers. First Cut Books is the coolest online book store ever. Each month or so they feature a new set of great books that their dedicated staff of reviewers selects and recommends. First Cut is also a publisher and their first publication is Filthy, a quarterly about baseball pitching, to which I am a contributor. Also there was Tam Tam Books, devoted publisher of all things Serge Gainsbourg, Boris Vian, and Guy Debord. Small publishers and the devoted people who run them may be the most exciting thing about the publishing industry.A Brief ExcerptFrom the book I'm reading right now: "I watch him go not without a tinge of envy. In nearly two decades of meditation the Buddha has not told me a single joke. Surely one would laugh for eternity?"

Stuck in the ’70s

One of the nice things about working at a bookstore is that after constant exposure to thousands of books I tend to have a sizable stash of titles and authors that I know are worth reading stored in the back of my head. Lately, during my day-off wanderings around LA, I make sure to duck into any good will/Salvation Army type places I come across, in order to make good use of this extra information that I lug around involuntarily. Luckily, in my neighborhood there seems to be an inexhaustable supply of such stores. Almost all of these places have a ramshackle shelf of books against the back wall. The standard pricing is fifty cents for a paperback and an even dollar for a hardcover, so it's worth it to wade through the broken appliances and dusty clothing racks in order to do a little treasure hunting. I invariably am able to walk away with a gem or two. A couple of weeks ago I came across hardcovers of The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen and White Teeth by Zadie Smith. I swiftly decided to rescue them from an extremely seedy second hand store a few blocks from MacArthur Park, but before I left a third book caught my eye. A hardcover copy of Prize Stories of the Seventies from the O. Henry Awards was tucked away among some lesser books, so I grabbed that too. I was especially pleased to find this book for two reasons. First, in my opinion the O. Henry short story collections are the best out there, far superior to the Best American Short Story series, which, while always filled with excellent stories, never does anything to surprise you. Second, my contemporary liturature classes and creative writing workshops in college taught me that the '70s were an especially fertile time for the short story. The editor of this collection, Willie Abrahams, rightly states that the collection of stories he has assembled "repudiate altogether the notion -- widely held in the previous decade -- of the story as an endagered or outmoded species." This collection, in fact, represents the last time that the form was commercially viable, a time when there were many more publications devoted to the form, the heyday of Raymond Carver, Donald Barthelme, John Cheever, John Updike, and Tim O'Brien, all of whom are represented here. While it is always a joy to read stories by these luminaries, the beauty of the short story collection is that it will almost always yield a writer or two whom I have never encountered. This collection included several. Judith Rascoe's story "Small Sounds and Tilting Shadows" is remarkable; it is the tale of an addled woman who insinuates herself into taking care of a mysterious man's vacant apartment. As time passes the apartment becomes both her prison and her haven, and the presence of apartment's missing owner looms ever larger. After just a handful of stories it's hard not to see that many are inhabited by addled women "The Dead" by Joyce Carol Oates (a breathtakingly masterful story), "Last Courtesies" by Ella Leffland, and "My Father's Jokes" by Patricia Zelver. These struggling women are neatly countervailed by stories about creaking, crumbling families: Updike's "Separating" and "Alternatives" by Alice Adams, to name just two. The remaining stories, with a couple of notable exceptions, fall neatly into a third catagory, the experimental, post-modern story, betraying the mirthless, helpless rage of the author toward the frustrations that the decade presented. These were both dated and barely readable, but their themes were consistent with rest of the stories in the collection.In the movie "Dazed and Confused" set in 1976, the middle of this forsaken decade, Cynthia, the red headed dreamer who's too smart for her backward Texas town says "The fifties were boring, the sixties rocked. The seventies, oh my God they obviously suck. Maybe the eighties will be radical." As I recall, the eighties comment got a big laugh in the theatre, but, in terms of the general well-being of the populace, she wasn't very far off. The seventies really did suck. Americans were disillusioned, over-medicated, and terrified of cities that had turned into war zones. This level of disgust is so palpable that it is both the surface and the subtext of nearly every story in the collection. The characters are irreconcilably distraught by the failures of the previous decade. A startling proportion of the characters are addicted to pills, and not a few commit suicide if they aren't killed first, whether by neighbors or the Vietcong. It is a painful collection to read, and it is remarkable to see how bleak a picture of the decade is painted. At the same time, the pain produces beautiful emotional prose. Most of the stories, though imbued with sorrow, were a joy to read. And my favorite "A Silver Dish" by Saul Bellow was perhaps the most sorrowful of all.Why Dontcha Take a Picture, It'll Last LongerTwo very cool photography books came in today. One was called The Innocents, a collection by the photographer Taryn Simon. The book is a chronicle of former death row inmates who have been exonerated. The book combines faces with stories to powerful effect. The second photo book of note today is no less political, though it is far more colorful. Photographer Jamel Shabazz was responsible for one of the coolest books of the last few years, Back In The Days, a collection of street photgraphy from the early hip hop era, before the look was commodified, back when it was real. His new book The Last Sunday in June chronicles New York city's yearly gay pride parade. Days brims with solemn authenticity while Last Sunday explodes with audacious color. Both are worth more than a look.
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