Sean Wilsey delivers a copy of his terrific anthology, State-By-State: A Panoramic Portrait of American, into the hands of the President-elect.
(Photo credit: Beatrice Moritz)
With rave reviews from James Wood, Michiko Kakutani and Dwight Garner, it might not seem like we need to tell you to drop everything and go read Netherland, but we are telling you, and here's why: The way book coverage works these days, everyone talks about the same book for about two or three weeks, and then they move on and the book is more or less forgotten. Whereas a berth here in the Recommended sidebar keeps noteworthy titles in view for a good, long time, which is the sort of sustained attention this marvelous novel deserves. A Gatsby-like meditation on exclusion and otherness, it's an unforgettable New York story in which the post 9/11 lives of Hans, a Dutch banker estranged from his English wife, and Chuck Ramkissoon, a mysterious cricket entrepreneur, intertwine. The New York City of the immigrant margins is unforgettably invoked in gorgeous, precise prose, and the novel's luminous conclusion is a radiant beacon illuminating one of our essential questions, the question of belonging. Our strongest possible recommendation.
"History," wrote Henry James in a 1910 letter to his amanuensis Theodora Bosanquet, "is strangely written." This casual aside could easily serve as the epigraph of Cynthia Ozick's superb new collection Dictation, which concerns itself with lost worlds evoked by languages -- languages which separate and obscure as readily as they bind. It can be risky to look for connective tissue between stories written years apart and published in magazines ranging from The Conradian to The New Yorker. But themes of deception, posterity, and above all, the glory of language -- at once malleable and intractable -- knit together this quartet, recasting the whole as the harmonious product of Ozick's formidable talent. Read the entire review here
Now, on the one hand, you scarcely need us to alert you to the existence of a new J.M. Coetzee novel, or even to have us tell you it's worth reading. But we can tell you - we insist on telling you that Diary of a Bad Year is a triumph, easily Coetzee's most affecting and fully wrought work since Disgrace. Formally inventive, the book intertwines two narratives with the author's own Strong Opinions, a series of seemingly discrete philosophical and political essays. The cumulative effect of this strange trio is deeply moving and thought provoking. It's increasingly rare in this thoroughly post-post-modern age to raise the kind of questions in fiction Coetzee handles so masterfully - right down to what is it, exactly, that we expect (or need) from our novels. It's telling that, for all of his serious pronouncements on subjects ranging from censorship to pedophilia to the use of torture, it's finally a few pages from The Brothers Karamazov that brings him to tears. Moving, wise and - how's this for a surprise - funny and lightly self-mocking, Diary of a Bad Year might well be the book of the year and Coetzee is surely our essential novelist. We haven't stopped thinking about it since we set it down.
David Leavitt's magnificent new novel tells the story of the unlikely friendship between the British mathematician G.H. Hardy and Srinivasa Ramanujan, mathematical autodidact and prodigy who had been working as a clerk in Madras, and who would turn out to be one of the great mathematical minds of the century. Ramanujan reluctantly joined Hardy in England - a move that would ultimately prove to his detriment - and the men set to work on proving the Riemann Hypothesis, one of mathematics' great unsolved problems. The Indian Clerk, an epic and elegant work which spans continents and decades, encompasses a World War, and boasts a cast of characters that includes Bertrand Russell, Ludwig Wittgenstein and Lytton Strachey. Leavitt renders the complex mathematics in a manner that resonates emotionally as well as intellectually, and writes with crystalline elegance. The metaphor of the prime number – divisible only by one and itself – is beautifully apt for this tale of these two isolated geniuses. Leavitt's control of this dense, sprawling material is impressive – astonishing, at times – and yet despite its scope, he keeps us focused on his great themes of unknowability and identity. The Indian Clerk might be set in the past but it doesn't resemble most so-called "historical fiction." Rather, it's an ageless meditation on the quests for knowledge and for the self – and how frequently the two are intertwined – that is, finally, as timeless as the music of the primes. (View our full week of coverage here.)
Joshua Ferris' warm and funny debut novel is an antidote to the sneering likes of The Office and Max Barry's Company. Treating his characters with both affection and respect, Ferris takes us into a Chicago ad agency at the onset of the dot-bomb. Careers are in jeopardy, nerves are frayed and petty turf wars are fought. But there are bigger stakes in the balance, and Ferris' weirdly indeterminate point of view that's mostly first person plural, underscores the shared humanity of everyone who has ever had to sit behind a desk. It's a luminous, affecting debut and you can read the first chapter right here.
Coming to these shores at last, John Banville's thriller, written under the nom de plume Benjamin Black, has drawn rave reviews across the pond since it first appeared last October. Those who feared Banville might turn in an overly literary effort needn't worry. Influenced by Simenon's romans durs (hard stories), Banville unspools a dark mystery set in 1950s Dublin concerning itself with, among other things, the church's trade in orphans. At the heart of the book is the coroner Quirke, a Banvillean creation on par with Alex Cleave and Freddie Montgomery. Dublin is rendered with a damp, creaky specificity – you can almost taste the whisky.
Scanning our Recommended selections, one might conclude we're addicted to interviews, and one would be correct. If author interviews are like crack to us, then the Paris Review author interviews must surely be the gold standard of crack (a comparison Plimpton might not have embraced). The newly issued The Paris Review Interviews, Volume I (Picador) rolls out the heavy hitters. Who can possibly turn away from the likes of Saul Bellow, T.S. Eliot, Ernest Hemingway, Jorge Luis Borges, Dorothy Parker, Robert Gottlieb and others? The interviews are formal and thoughtful but never dry and can replace any dozen "how-to" books on writing. What can be more comforting than hearing Bellow, answering a question on preparations and conception, admit "Well, I don't know exactly how it's done.” The best part of this collection? The "Volume I" in the title, with its promise of more volumes to come.
The best short story collection we've read since ... well, certainly since we've started this blog. And we might even say "ever" if Dubliners didn't cast such a long shadow. The short story is not our preferred form but D'Ambrosio's eight brilliant stories are almost enough to convert us. Defy the conventional wisdom that short story collections don't sell and treat yourself to this marvel. (We're especially partial, naturally, to "Screenwriter".)
What would you do if the woman who’d left you high and dry ten years ago called out of the blue to invite you to a party without any further explanation? If you’re French, you’d probably spend a lot of time pondering the Deeper Significance Of It All, which is exactly what Grégoire Bouillier does for the 120 hilarious pages of The Mystery Guest. This slim, witty memoir follows Bouillier through the party from hell, and is a case study in Gallic self-abasement. Before it’s all done, you’ll set fire to any turtleneck hanging in your closet and think twice before buying an expensive Bordeaux as a gift. But fear not – just when it seems that all is, indeed, random and pointless and there is no Deeper Significance, salvation arrives in the unlikely form of Virginia Woolf, and the tale ends on a note of unforced optimism. Parfait.
When George Ticknor's Life of William Hickling Prescott was published in 1864, it received rapturous notices, and reviewers were quick to point out that the long-standing friendship between Prescott and Ticknor made the latter an ideal Boswell. Sheila Heti has pulled this obscure leaf from the literary archives and fashioned a mordantly funny anti-history; a pungent and hilarious study of bitterness and promise unfulfilled. As a fretful Ticknor navigates his way through the rain-soaked streets of Boston to Prescott's house ("But I am not a late man. I hate to be late."), he recalls his decidedly one-sided lifelong friendship with his great subject. Unlike the real-life Ticknor, this one is an embittered also-ran, full of plans and intentions never realized, always alive to the fashionable whispers behind his back. Heti seamlessly inhabits Ticknor's fussy 19th-century diction with a feat of virtuoso ventriloquism that puts one in mind of The Remains of the Day. Heti's Ticknor would be insufferable if he weren't so funny, and in the end, the black humor brings a leavening poignancy to this brief tale. But don't let the size fool you — this 109-page first novel is small but scarcely slight; it is as dense and textured as a truffle.
No, your eyes aren't deceiving you and yes, we are recommending a Believer product. Twenty-three interviews (a third presented for the first time) pairing the likes of Zadie Smith with Ian McEwan, Jonathan Lethem with Paul Auster, Edward P. Jones and ZZ Packer, and Adam Thirwell with Tom Stoppard make this collection a must-read. Lifted out of the context of some of the magazine's worst twee excesses, the interviews stand admirably on their own as largely thoughtful dialogues on craft. A handful of interviewers seem more interested in themselves than in their subjects but in the main this collection will prove irresistible to writers of any stripe - struggling or established - and to readers seeking a window into the creative process.
We've been fans of Booker Prize winner John Berger for ages, and we're delighted to have received an early copy of his latest work, Here is Where We Meet. In this lovely, elliptical, melancholy "fictional memoir," Berger traverses European cities from Libson to Geneva to Islington, conversing with shades from his past – He encounters his dead mother on a Lisbon tram, a beloved mentor in a Krakow market. Along the way, we're treated to marvelous and occasionally heart-rending glimpses of an extraordinary life, a lyrical elegy to the 20th century from a man who - in his eighth decade - remains committed to his political beliefs and almost childlike in his openness to people, places and experiences. There's no conventional narrative here, and those seeking plot are advised to look elsewhere. But Here is Where We Meet offers a wise, moving and poetic look at the life of an artist traversing the European century from a novelist whose talent remains undimmed in his twilight years.
In his recent TEV guest review of Home Land, Jim Ruland called Sam Lipsyte the "funniest writer of his generation," and we're quite inclined to agree. We tore through Home Land in two joyful sittings and can't remember the last time we've laughed so hard. Lipsyte's constellation of oddly sympathetic losers is rendered with a sparkling, inspired prose style that's sent us off in search of all his prior work. In Lewis Miner's (a.k.a Teabag) woeful epistolary dispatches to his high school alumni newsletter ("I did not pan out."), we find an anti-hero for the age. Highly, highly recommended.
Penelope Fitzgerald's second novel is the tale of Florence Green, a widow who seeks, in the late 1950s, to bring a bookstore to an isolated British town, encountering all manner of obstacles, including incompetent builders, vindictive gentry, small minded bankers, an irritable poltergeist, but, above all, a town that might not, in fact, want a bookshop. Fitzgerald's prose is spare but evocative – there's no wasted effort and her work reminds one of Hemingway's dictum that every word should fight for its right to be on the page. Florence is an engaging creation, stubbornly committed to her plan even as uncertainty regarding the wisdom of the enterprise gnaws at her. But The Bookshop concerns itself, finally, with the astonishing vindictiveness of which provincials are capable, and, as so much English fiction must, it grapples with the inevitabilities of class. It's a dense marvel at 123 pages, a book you won't want to – or be able to – rush through.
Tim Krabbé's superb 1978 memoir-cum-novel is the single best book we've read about cycling, a book that will come closer to bringing you inside a grueling road race than anything else out there. A kilometer-by-kilometer look at just what is required to endure some of the most grueling terrain in the world, Krabbé explains the tactics, the choices and – above all – the grinding, endless, excruciating pain that every cyclist faces and makes it heart-pounding rather than expository or tedious. No writer has better captured both the agony and the determination to ride through the agony. He's an elegant stylist (ably served by Sam Garrett's fine translation) and The Rider manages to be that rarest hybrid – an authentic, accurate book about cycling that's a pleasure to read. "Non-racers," he writes. "The emptiness of those lives shocks me."