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  • BN Editors 2:35 pm on 2018/05/23 Permalink
    Tags: Authors You Need to Read   

    A Conversation with Philip Roth (1933–2018) 

    Today we remember great American author Philip Roth, who entered public consciousness with the elegiac coming of age Goodbye, Columbus, inflamed the world with the crude, hilarious Portnoy’s Complaint, and introduced Nathan Zuckerman in 1974’s My Life as a Man, a character bearing more than a passing resemblance to Roth himself. The author would follow Zuckerman through nine novels, ending with 2007’s Exit Ghost. The following conversation between the author and the B&N Review’s James Mustich took place in 2007, just after the release of that novel, and was originally published on the B&N Review on October 1, 2007.

    Philip Roth’s just-published Exit Ghost has been announced as the final volume in his series of novels about Nathan Zuckerman. Beginning with The Ghost Writer, which appeared in 1979, the Zuckerman saga now spans nine books (ten if you take The Facts into account, for that autobiography opens with a letter from Roth to Zuckerman and closes with one from Zuckerman to Roth). The other books are Zuckerman Unbound (1981), The Anatomy Lesson (1983), The Prague Orgy (1985), The Counterlife (1986; winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award), American Pastoral (1997; winner of the Pulitzer Prize), I Married a Communist (1998), and The Human Stain (2000; winner of the PEN/Faulkner Award). All told, Roth has devoted three decades, and more than 2,600 pages of prose, to Nathan Zuckerman. I spoke with him by phone on the morning of September 13 about Exit Ghost and its fictional forebears. What follows is drawn from an edited transcript of that conversation. –James Mustich

    James Mustich: Let’s start with the way that Exit Ghost invokes, in the figure of Amy Bellette, the muse of The Ghost Writer and takes up directly the theme announced in that first Zuckerman novel, the vocation of an American writer. Do you think Nathan Zuckerman has learned anything about that vocation in the 50 years that have passed between the events described in the two books?

    Philip Roth: [LAUGHS] I hope so. Oh my goodness, sure. The first book begins with him in his early 20s (I think he’s not even 25), and the last book concludes with him at age 70-something. So 50 years have gone by, he’s lived through many experiences, experiences both as a writer and as a man, met many people, been privy to many stories. He’s a keen observer and recorder of the life around him. So he’s learned a great deal.

    JM: At the outset of The Ghost Writer, Nathan says he is contemplating “my own massive Bildungsroman.” It seems a natural step to see Exit Ghost as the conclusion of that putative work, at least for you as the author if not for Zuckerman as a character. What sense of the larger architecture of the saga did you hold in view as you worked on the various parts of what we might call the Zuckerman corpus?

    ROTH: Well, the thing grew by itself. I had no overarching plan for it. When I wrote the first book, I didn’t know anything was going to come of it. Then the second book came, Zuckerman Unbound, and a third book came, The Anatomy Lesson, and a fourth, The Prague Orgy. Then I stopped for a while. Again, I didn’t stop because I was planning something in the future. I had other books to write. I think I’ve written 28 books, and 9 of them have been Zuckerman books. That means one out of every three books. So for a lot of the time, two-thirds of the time, I was doing other things. So the thing accumulated by itself, without my doing any overseeing.

    JM: Exit Ghost turns from the larger political and cultural canvases of the novels in the second trilogy — American Pastoral, I Married a Communist, and The Human Stain—to a more intimate perspective on Zuckerman’s experience. Was that prompted by a desire to go back to the beginning and tie things together?

    ROTH: It seemed to me that that was the natural place to end—to return to Zuckerman as the central actor of the drama. As you note, prior to this, there were the three books in which Zuckerman is not the central actor; he’s rather the recording intelligence. But I thought the obligation for me was to end with him, and particularly to take seriously the prostate cancer which he speaks about for the first time in American Pastoral.

    JM: The first trilogy, along with The Prague Orgy, has now been issued in a Library of America volume. Soon enough the other books — The Counterlife and the second trilogy—will be. Do you wonder how a reader will approach this body of Zuckerman work in the future? Each book certainly stands on its own; but to read each in the shadow—perhaps in the illumination is a better way to put it — of the other works is to recognize patient unwindings of meaning within the often headlong energy of the individual plots. I’m wondering if you’ve thought about that at all.

    ROTH: I haven’t. Nor have I re-read all the books. Now that you bring this up, I think probably I should have read all of them to see what’s going on. But it didn’t occur to me. I know them in a vague and general sense. I don’t remember them specifically. I suppose if someone read the nine books in succession, they’d have a particular experience, of a kind that I can’t name — but it might be rather intense.

    JM: Intense indeed, and quite often exhilarating.

    ROTH: You did this?

    JM: I did.

    ROTH: You read them in order, Exit Ghost last?

    JM: I read Exit Ghost as soon as I got the reading copy this spring, and then I went back and read them all through again, and read Exit Ghost a second time.

    ROTH: So what’s it like?

    JM: It is remarkably coherent, down to the level of imagery that recurs, as if you had been working all along with a map through the territory. Some of that no doubt speaks to the recurring thematic concerns of all your works, not just the Zuckerman novels. But from The Ghost Writer through Exit Ghost the sequence is bound by an intricate logic that holds together wonderfully well, with The Counterlife as a kind of glowing gyroscope at the center.

    ROTH: I’m glad to hear it. I, for instance, did not re-read The Ghost Writer while I was working on Exit Ghost, because I didn’t want it interfering with whatever I wanted to make up at the time. Only when I finished the books did I re-read The Ghost Writer, and then very cursorily, to be sure I got the facts correct, which I did. But I wanted to steer clear of the books so as not to fall under the sway of them.

    JM: Reading The Ghost Writer again was delightful. I can remember quite distinctly the experience of first reading it — I think it ran in its entirety in The New Yorker across a couple of issues — when I was about the same age Nathan is in the book. Returning to it now was a real pleasure.

    ROTH: Good.

    JM: But it rhymed with Exit Ghost in so many ways, and the structure is so similar, that it is a revelation to find out you didn’t read it again while composing Exit Ghost.

    ROTH: No, I didn’t.

    JM: At the conclusion of Exit Ghost, in the dialogue between Nathan and Jamie Logan, the young woman with whom, if I might use a prim word, he is smitten, Jamie seems to push Nathan toward a recognition that his vocation ultimately demands escape from the instability of life and its unreasonable wishes, however seductive they may be, and a retreat to the sense of proportion that turning sentences around allows. Is it fair to say that Zuckerman fits a description we’ve read earlier in the book, that he is someone for whom “the unlived, the surmise, fully drawn in print on paper, is the life whose meaning comes to matter most”?

    ROTH: I think it’s safe to say that that’s true for most writers, not just for Zuckerman.

    JM: When I was re-reading the ending of the book last night, Jamie’s longish speech on the next-to-last page put something in my head that I hadn’t gotten originally. She explains Zuckerman’s attraction to her as a consequence of his being, at the moment, “a writer without a book,” suggesting that as soon as he finds a literary inspiration, his fascination with her will evaporate. So it made me consider if his flight from her might be driven by inspiration as well as fear.

    ROTH: [LAUGHS] I hadn’t thought of that. I have the book in front of me. Let me see. No, I don’t think so. First of all, that’s an imagined scene Zuckerman has written, in which he imagines that he’d flee from her. He flees the first time in reality because she’s not going to come to visit him. Now, when he re-imagines it, he has her agreeing to come to visit him, and he flees from that as well. I think he’s fleeing from the fact that he’s incapable of doing anything to entice Jamie into his life. I didn’t think of it as returning to inspiration, but just really fleeing the impulses that got him in this fix in the first place.

    JM: When Nathan visits Amy Bellette in her apartment, she shares with him a letter she has written to The New York Times. It begins: “There was a time when intelligent people used literature to think.”


    JM: It seems to me that, for you, fiction represents its own realm of apprehension, one that is imaginative rather than objective or subjective, and in some ways truer to our real experience because of that. What Amy puts in her letter — “serious fiction eludes paraphrase and description — hence requiring thought” — might well be something you’d say yourself. How can literature be used to think?

    ROTH: For instance, let’s go back to, say, the Monica Lewinsky-Bill Clinton moment in our history. I would have expected at some point that people might talk about the novels of John Updike, who has written persuasively and at length about adultery; that they’d say, “As in Updike’s novel, such-and-such,” in looking for the motivation — on both sides, hers and his. But instead you get references to movies or to television. So that’s a very mundane example of people turning for cultural reference to something other than books. I think that when adults’ lives were enlarged by the reading of fiction, they could refer what they read back to life, and now that’s just not done. One, the audience itself has dramatically been reduced in size, and two, it’s as though people don’t even know that they can use fiction to think about their lives.

    JM: Do you think that the kind of thinking that fiction provokes is different in kind from that stimulated by movies or TV?

    ROTH: I would say that good fiction does provoke something different from movies and TV. When people refer to movies and TV, they talk about “the Meryl Streep character.” Right? “Then the Meryl Streep character does this.” When you talk about Updike’s Rabbit Angstrom, you’re talking about somebody who has an identity for you as a complete fictional character. I think just in that choice of words, you get the difference between the impact of the one and the other.

    JM: That’s a wonderful example. Let me take a leap from screen to stage, as it were: In The Prague Orgy there is a stage direction that you once said in an interview could stand as a title for the original trilogy: “Enter Zuckerman, a serious person.”

    ROTH: [LAUGHS] I don’t remember that.

    JM: Do you think he’s still a serious person at the close?

    ROTH: Oh, he’s pretty serious in this book. This book is not strong on lightheartedness. I think there are moments when there’s something said that may be humorous. I think that probably Kliman says things that are intentionally or unintentionally humorous. But Zuckerman is quite dogged by seriousness here. So we can say, “Exit Zuckerman, seriously.”

    JM: Let’s talk about that “exit” for a minute. It’s obviously another stage direction, one invoking Hamlet. Reading the entire sequence fresh, Nathan Zuckerman, in literary terms, struck me at times as an oddly Hamlet-like character, at war within himself about taking up not only his vocation (as in The Anatomy Lesson) but even his identity (as in The Counterlife), the way Hamlet spends four acts debating whether or not to take up the only role available to him, that of the avenging son. In Exit Ghost, Zuckerman’s hesitations are the fulcrum of the book. Did you have Hamlet in mind?

    ROTH: Not only was I not conscious in that way, I wasn’t even conscious it was Hamlet. I got this title because last summer I was going to see a production of Macbeth, and I decided to re-read the play so as to familiarize myself with it. I probably hadn’t read it since graduate school. I came upon the scene where Banquo’s ghost appears, and it said, “Enter Ghost.” In fact, it appears twice. It has “enter ghost” and “exit ghost” twice. As soon as I saw the words “exit ghost,” I realized I had the title for my book. So I forgot completely about Hamlet and drew upon the stage direction in Macbeth. It also appears in a third play. It appears in Julius Caesar, too, when the ghost of Julius Caesar appears to Brutus.

    JM: Well, so much for my Hamlet line of questioning! But do you think Zuckerman, like Hamlet, suffers from a sense of “characterological enslavement” (to use a term you once employed in talking about David Tarnopol, the protagonist of My Life as a Man)? Is he stuck in his character no matter the lessons he’s learned.

    ROTH: When you speak of the lessons, I find my mind simply goes blank. [LAUGHS] Perhaps because the books are all in the past for me. How shall I say I experience it? I experience it as his experience, not as the lessons he draws from his experience.

    JM: Let’s go back to ghost-hunting, then. In The Counterlife, Maria says: “I know now what a ghost is. It is the person you talk to. That’s a ghost. Someone who’s still so alive that you talk to them and talk to them and never stop.” Has Zuckerman been that kind of a ghost for you? There seems to be a kind of ease in the way you inhabit his voice and character — ease is probably the wrong word, because I know how much work goes into these books. But there seems to be a way in which Zuckerman allows you to speak that you find congenial.

    ROTH: What you’re looking for with a character is someone who will allow maximum freedom of invention and provide maximum scope to your writing. It turns out that I returned to this character over and over again, because he must have given me that freedom and that scope. Even to speak about his illness. In American Pastoral, he reports that he has had prostate cancer and that he’s had surgery to remove the cancer and remove the prostate, and the consequences of the surgery are impotence and incontinence. I did that because at the time I was writing that book, or just beginning it, it seemed like every third or fourth friend I had was battling prostate cancer. I guess I was in my early 60s, and these friends are about the same age. I saw and heard what they were suffering through. So I thought, Well, I’ll make Zuckerman a member of this generation who has had this plight befall him too. What I gained, however, I didn’t know at the moment: the ability to withdraw Zuckerman from a large realm of life. This made him into an observer rather than an actor, and so suddenly I could have him observing Swede Levov in American Pastoral, observing the Ringold brothers in I Married a Communist, observing Coleman Silk in The Human Stain, and observing them as a spectator.

    JM: To return to the state of literature, is it your estimation that, like Zuckerman in the last line of Exit Ghost, its cultural centrality is gone for good?

    ROTH: Yes, I’m sure. It’s gone for good. It still has some impact, to be sure. But I think as the years go by, in the next 10-20-30 years, it will become more cultic, and be read by people in a cultish way, and that the novel won’t have much impact at all.

    JM: That is a daunting prospect.

    ROTH: Do you agree?

    JM: I think, intellectually, I agree, but I’d rather continue under the delusion that it won’t be the case. [LAUGHS] Having just read these nine books, for instance, which are so vivid with observation and experience, so full of life, it seems like too great a loss to accept just yet.

    ROTH: You have the antennae to pick up the stuff that’s in the books. I don’t know what your background is, or how you were trained, or where you come from, but you obviously still have these antennae. But in most people, especially young people, these antennae have been clipped. They can’t pick up the reverberations from the books at all. Then, of course, the time that’s given to them to read is so small, because they are pulled in other directions by all the technology.

    JM: In The Ghost Writer, the older writer Lonoff describes his vocation to Nathan quite memorably: “I turn sentences around,” he says. It’s a lovely description. I’ve noticed in your recent work that your own sentence-turning continues to grow in deftness and power — the aural resonance of some of the sentences is extraordinary. As when you write, speaking of Amy, “As if all this loss could ever lose its hold.” That’s not really a question, just unabashed flattery I wanted to share with you.

    ROTH: Thank you. I’m grateful for your seeing it.

    JM: One last question, if I may.

    ROTH: Sure.

    JM: In Exit Ghost, Zuckerman reflects upon his current reading, and you describe how he is revisiting the classics he’d read in his youth, and doing so, it seems, in a quite fruitful way. Does that reflect your own reading habits these days?

    ROTH: Yes, it does. He’s re-reading Conrad, I think. Isn’t that right?

    JM: Yes.

    ROTH: Well, he’s re-reading Conrad because I was re-reading Conrad! In the last three years or so I’ve found myself re-reading books that I thought were wonderful when I first read them in my 20s. And what I discover is that if I first read it in my 20s, I’ve lost it. I don’t have it. I may have the faintest glimmerings of it, but it’s as though I hadn’t read the book. So I began re-reading Conrad, the summer before last, and it was simply wonderful. Then I also at the time re-read Hemingway, not all of it, but the good stuff (because there’s a lot of bad Hemingway, too). But the good stuff is wonderful. It’s bracing when you read it — A Farewell to Arms, for instance, is just simply a wonderful powerhouse of a book. Then I’ve been reading Turgenev the last three or four months. Now I’ve stopped to read Denis Johnson’s huge, pessimistic book.

    JM: The new one? Tree of Smoke?

    ROTH: Yes. It’s just a big, strange book. He’s a big, strange writer.

    JM: More power to him.

    ROTH: Oh, he’s one of the best. And when I’m done with Tree of Smoke, I’ll turn back to the classics, and continue re-reading them.


    Author Illustration: Joseph Ciardiello

    Read an excerpt of Roth’s American Pastoral here.

    The post A Conversation with Philip Roth (1933–2018) appeared first on Barnes & Noble Reads.

  • Jeff Somers 4:00 pm on 2018/05/02 Permalink
    Tags: Authors You Need to Read, kingmaker   

    10 Authors Who Could Inherit Stephen King’s Crown 

    Stephen King is one of the most famous writers in the world, an artist who has been so successful—commercially, artistically, pop culturally—for so many years, he has become a genre unto himself. Very few writers live to see other writers analyzed against their output, but it’s so common to call a writer “like Stephen King” or “a new Stephen King” it almost feels rote (and makes us think of this quote from The Wire: “You come at the king, you best not miss”).

    But with the upcoming release of King’s newest book, the highly anticipated The Outsider, it’s a perfect time to consider the question: which writers working today really are the inheritors of King’s legacy? Here are ten candidates we’d shelve beside the King.

    Lauren Beukes
    Like King, Beukes understands that one of the most terrifying things is the unpredictability of violence. Anyone who has been in a tense situation and just kept their heads down, hoping not to be noticed, understands that power. No matter what horror or other speculative aspects they bring to a story, King and Beukes comprehend that the most terrifying thing in the universe is being selected for torture and terror for reasons you can’t possibly understand—or no reason at all.

    Check out: The Shining Girls, a time-hopping thriller about a serial killer moving through time and seeking out women he perceives to have a special property—it’s chilling, it’s horrifying, and it’s genius.

    Victor LaValle
    LaValle understands something that King does, too: for horror to work, for any story to work, there have to be stakes. You can’t pull punches. You can’t just soak your story in blood and screams from page one—not until you’ve set up the stakes. For LaValle, like King, that means letting people die. Even innocents. Even children. Couple that with LaValle’s willingness to interrogate his own influences and favorites—much like King interrogated old vampire legends and other pulpy horror standards—and you have a clear successor.

    Check out: The Ballad of Black Tom. LaValle explores the dark pleasures of Lovecraftian terror with his eyes wide open to Lovecraft’s flaws, mixing up something incredible and new.

    Edgar Cantero
    Few writers can play pop culture the way King does, weaving it into his narratives in ways both natural and consequential; King doesn’t name drop songs or products as shortcuts to verisimilitude, he does so carefully, shaping his fictional world much the way the real one is shaped, via the products we use and the culture we consume. Cantero gets this, and he celebrates the darker side of pop culture in smart and surprising ways that are scary, funny, and above all interesting, similar to the ways King’s best work interrogates the very culture he’s using as a prop.

    Check out: Meddling Kids, which wears its pop culture sources with ferocious pride while exploring a trope King mastered—the childhood that comes back to haunt.

    Laird Barron
    Like King, Barron is branching out into genres beyond horror, but horror remains what he’s most associated with—and he’s one of the most effective writers working in the genre today. He manages to weave his terror into the flesh and blood of real life. His stories have weight and mass, they make it feel like someone is sitting across from you in a darkened room, firelight distorting their faces as they whisper their tale to you. That sense of the possible is tough to master. King did it fifty years ago and hasn’t looked back. Barron is doing it right now.

    Check out: The Croning, one of Barron’s best.

    Richard Cox
    Cox’s work has the flavor of classic late 1970s and ’80s King. His stories don’t necessarily scare you with gore and violence, jump scares or scenes that would cost billions to film if they were a movie; like many of King’s best, their terror comes from the sense of reality being perverted, distorted, changed in ways you neither understand nor approve of. His novel The Boys of Summer is practically a love letter to King’s It, the story of a group of kids who go through a terrifying experience that lingers with them as they grow up, eventually circling back to close the loop. While his other work drifts more explicitly into sci-fi than King ever did, the vibe is remarkably consistent.

    Check out: The Boys of Summer, of course.

    Helen Oyeyemi
    When you hear the term “magical realism,” you might not think of horror, or Stephen King. Oyeyemi trades in it, crafting horror stories that are just as much dark fables as straight-up scary. Like King, she finds terror in the unreliability of the world, the way reality will skew and deform right in front of your eyes. Her literary approach to horror and other speculative genres mirrors later King, when the master widened his view and took some unusual approaches to storytelling.

    Check out: White is for Witching. Like King, Oyeyemi takes the barebones structure of a traditional scary story—in this case the haunted house—and finds all the oddball corners where things don’t join the way they should, and transforms it into a postmodern nightmare.

    C. J. Tudor
    Much of King’s success rests in his ability to dive into the inner lives of his characters in both macro and micro ways. Like King, Tudor communicates the fundamentals of the characters in just a few lines, then spends the rest of the book sinking deeper and deeper into them, finding all the ways our flaws turn fatal and horrifying. Tudor’s debut novel, The Chalk Man, is set in England, but the tiny village and kid-centric first half—involving secret codes, a dismembered body, and the sort of insulated children’s universe King excels in—all echo the King playbook, though Tudor then energetically twists things in a unique way, winding up not with a duplication of King’s style or plotting but rather a reinvention of the tropes.

    Check out: The Chalk Man.

    Paul Tremblay
    King once tweeted that Tremblay’s novel A Head Full of Ghosts scared him, which is pretty high praise. Tremblay specializes in something King used to great effect in his work: the sudden intrusion of threat into an otherwise peaceful existence. Tremblay wants to scare you, and he understands that in order to do so he must first convince you he’s not there to scare you. He offers a soothing world of order and fair play—and then sets it on fire with you trapped inside.

    Check out: The Cabin at The End of the World, which opens with an idyllic vacation, head-fakes you with an ominous arrival that then seems to be just fine, and only then goes for your jugular.

    Dathan Auerbach
    Auerbach famously erupted onto the scene via Reddit, posting creepypasta stories, a series of which evolved into his debut novel Penpal. King came up through the ranks, too; there was no Internet in the early 1970s, but King toiled away publishing stories in sketchy men’s magazines, building his reputation through the impact of his work as well. If you’ve ever checked out the r/nosleep subreddit (if you check it out do yourself a favor and read the sidebar before you do anything) you know that many of the stories posted there are legitimately terrifying, and Auerbach’s stood out amidst stiff competition—the man writes scary. More importantly, he writes stories that explore the peculiar helplessness we often feel in childhood, and the sheer terror that follows when we realize that becoming an adult doesn’t magically cure that helplessness—we just get better at ignoring it.

    Check out: Bad Man, Auerbach’s second novel, which promises to be a doozy.

    Andrew Pyper
    One of the aspects of King’s writing that makes it so effective is how well he understands—and conveys—the concept that what you see is not always what you get. King’s worlds are full of secrets, and tension is often sourced from the unspoken grievances we carry inside us against our neighbors, our friends, even our families. Pyper gets this. He gets this so hard it’s white-knuckle time. In his novel Damned, for example, he tells the story of a brother and sister who die as kids; the brother comes back, the sister—who seemed perfect and loving and sweet—does not. As the brother becomes famous for his tales of the heaven he glimpsed while dead, he reveals that his sister has never left him—and is certainly not in heaven.

    Check out: The Damned

    The post 10 Authors Who Could Inherit Stephen King’s Crown appeared first on Barnes & Noble Reads.

  • Nicole Hill 9:00 pm on 2018/03/05 Permalink
    Tags: , Authors You Need to Read, , , pulling rank   

    A Definitive Ranking of the Fiction Books of Neil Gaiman 

    There comes a time in every beloved author’s career when a book blogger must attempt to rank that author’s works. Surely, Neil Gaiman will be thrilled to know his day has now arrived. But where do you start with Gaiman, whose works diverge so greatly in style and approach, yet remain so very true to their author’s essence?

    You start by whittling the list down. Below, you’ll find my rankings of Gaiman’s major works of fiction. Missing from this list are his notable cadre of exclusively children’s books (my sincerest regards to Chu!), though I’ve kept books that have more crossover appeal, like Coraline. Similarly, I’ve left out Gaiman’s nonfiction writings, even though you really should take in The View from the Cheap Seats.

    Keep in mind: in my estimation, Gaiman has only ever written good books, which makes ranking his works all the harder. But here we go, nonetheless.

    This trilogy, a collaboration with Michael Reaves, skews toward the younger end of YA, but it proves entertaining for readers of any age. It’s a portal story that involves more science fiction elements than typically mark a Gaiman story, no doubt thanks to Reaves and, in the second and third novels, his daughter, Mallory Reaves. High-schooler Joey Harker gets lost one day—so lost, in fact, that he winds up in another dimension in which he must work with other versions of himself to save the multiverse. A fun series, but one that doesn’t give you the best sense of Gaiman’s style as an author.

    Smoke and Mirrors
    Oft-overlooked, Gaiman’s short fiction is where his inventiveness truly shines. Smoke and Mirrors was his first mainstream collection, though it cannibalizes several stories from the earlier, small-press Angels and Visitations. There are some standouts among the stories and poems, including “Troll Bridge, an entertaining retelling of “Three Billy Goats Gruff.” (Unusually lighthearted “Chivalry” is one of my underrated favorites.) But Smoke and Mirrors, as a whole, has more ups and downs than later collections.

    Norse Mythology
    Gaiman has engaged with Norse gods on a number of occasions, notably in both the Sandman series and American Gods. In both of those works, however, he’s using these mighty characters for his own purposes, and intermingling them with other elements of fantasy. His most recent book, Norse Mythology, finds him squarely rooted in the Nordic tradition, retelling the myths of Odin, Thor, and Loki in ways that are true to the original stories but also thoroughly modern. The tales are well-crafted and retold with a unique Gaiman spin, but you get to see less of the author’s mind than in his own original works.

    Anansi Boys
    If it were the work of any other author, Anansi Boys would have been a five-star career standout of a novel. The family tale of Fat Charlie Nancy and his trickster god father is hugely entertaining and carries all the hallmarks of a standard Gaiman story. The only way it falls short is in comparison to other Gaiman stories including American Gods, from which its story spun off. Ultimately, a great read, if slightly less memorable than its sibling novels.

    Trigger Warning
    Gaiman’s latest collection of “short fictions and disturbances” is darkly chaotic—and I mean that as a compliment. “The Truth Is a Cave in the Black Mountains” has lived many lives as a story, popping up in several formats, but this disturbing fable about greed and retribution finds a haunting home in Trigger Warning. There is levity in stories like “ORANGE,” which narrates a rogue tanning cream incident through responses to an investigator’s questionnaire. But by and large, the stories are meant to make you uncomfortable, and they typically succeed.

    The Ocean at the End of the Lane
    A sweet-and-sour meditation on the wonders of childhood, this novella draws upon a motif found in much of Gaiman’s shorter fiction: the melancholy and magic of looking back. Maybe it’s because the protagonist is a middle-aged Brit returning to his childhood home, or maybe it’s because Lettie Hempstock is a charismatic, remarkable, magical girl in an oeuvre filled with charismatic, remarkable, magical girls—either way, The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a deeply intimate, personal story that sticks with you, despite its diminutive size.

    A true fairy tale from a master of folklore, Stardust is undeniably wonderful, equal parts sweet and swashbuckling. Wall, England, serves as the perfect foil to the Faerie realm, and both make for the perfect setting for a romantic adventure. Young Tristan Thorn’s quest to find a fallen star in Faerie uncovers far more than he bargained for, including an endlessly comedic family squabble over the Stormhold throne. A delight, if more straightforward than some of Gaiman’s other novels.

    Oddly, Neverwhere can be a divisive book among Gaiman’s legions of fans. Some find it weaker than similar efforts like American Gods. For me, it’s a personal favorite, mostly because of my intense affection for poor beleaguered Richard Mayhew, cast down into London Below, the magical and murky city within a city he never knew existed. Given the split, it seems fair to stick this novelization of the British TV series in the middle of the pack.

    The Graveyard Book
    The juxtaposition of children in cemeteries is something Gaiman has played with on more than one occasion. Here, it becomes the basis for a worrisome yet warming story of Nobody Owens, a little boy raised by ghosts in a graveyard after the murder of his parents. It doesn’t sound sweet—and to be fair, it has got its fair share of fright—but Bod and his adopted ghoulish family actually do provide plenty of sweet narrative moments—and that line between “awwww” and “AHHHH” is Gaiman’s sweet spot.

    Good Omens
    Reading this collaboration between Gaiman and the late Terry Pratchett feels very much like what it is: watching two masters of their respective crafts at work. Pratchett’s madcap matches Gaiman’s macabre note for note in a novel that kicks off with the birth of the Antichrist and follows the joint efforts of an angel, a demon, and the plucky witch-descendant Anathema Device as they attempt to head off the End Times. It’s a raucous delight that melds the personalities of its creators near perfectly.

    American Gods
    You’re spluttering right now at the thought of Gaiman’s most broadly known work clocking in at a mere number four, I know. But this is the danger in ranking the books of someone who has a habit of writing very good books: they can’t all be number one. American Gods sends stoic former jailbird Shadow on a classic odyssey, and the novel engages with mythology in a fresh, fascinating way that would be entirely unexpected had Gaiman not already proved he’s so darn good at it.

    Fragile Things
    There is much to savor in Smoke and Mirrors and Trigger Warning, but in my estimation, Fragile Things feels the most even and deliberate of Gaiman’s short story collections. “October in the Chair,” in which the months of the year gather to tell stories, captures the spooky essence of a chilly autumn night with precision. “The Facts in the Case of the Departures of Miss Finch” presents a full-bodied and elusive mystery, replete with circus weirdness. There’s really not a dud in the rest of the lot, either.

    In every way, Coraline feels like a classic book for that in-between age of early adolescence, along the same lines as Howl’s Moving Castle or A Wrinkle in Time. The novel has the same theme as other entries in the Gaiman canon—a hidden world within or just on the other side of your own—but puts a unique spin on portal fantasy with its feisty, take-no-lip heroine. Not to mention, the Other Mother is one of the most disturbing villains imaginable, no matter your age.

    Look, Gaiman has written some outstanding novels, and there are any number of arguments you can make for your favorites to be listed as The Best. But if we were to try to pinpoint the one work he’ll be remembered for in future generations, it has to be this sprawling, genre-defying graphic novel series (and its related companion stories). This epic saga of immortals and gods and monsters and legends encapsulates Gaiman’s myth-soaked storytelling like no other work could, and I truly believe there’s a fair number of this planet’s inhabitants for which Morpheus, the King of Dreams, will remain their moody, goth, elusive first love. (Note: I’m raising my hand.)

    The post A Definitive Ranking of the Fiction Books of Neil Gaiman appeared first on Barnes & Noble Reads.

  • Jeff Somers 7:30 pm on 2018/02/27 Permalink
    Tags: Authors You Need to Read, ,   

    A Definitive Ranking of Every Book By Haruki Murakami Ever 

    Haruki Murakami is one of those writers who’s tipped each year as a Nobel contender; widely acclaimed as a genius, his distinctive magical-realist style is both deceptively simple and dense, delving into the interior lives of his characters in a very literal fashion. He’s a writer whose work seems to speak personally to everyone who reads it, because the lush imagery and universal themes of loss and nostalgic regret are easily and powerfully imagined as coded references to our own secret existence. In that sense, Murakami’s a literary magician.

    While every Murakami novel is great, and some might shy away from ranking the work of such a complex artist, we fear nothing and have many opinions. Here’s our ranking of the not-so-best Murakami novel to the best Murakami novel.

    Strange Library
    Murakami goes full fable in this novella, telling the story of a young boy imprisoned in the bowels of a library and forced, among other things, to memorize the books he’d requested. Things get darker and stranger as the boy learns his head will be cut off and his knowledge-soaked brain consumed once he’s done memorizing the books, but unlike other Murakami works there’s no anchor of an adult, real world to offset the oddness. It’s all oddness, and hints of a deeper story behind the boy’s fate aren’t explicit enough to elevate the story to Murakami’s usual level. While we stick by our belief that every Murakami book is worth reading, if you absolutely had to skip one, this might be it.

    Sputnik Sweetheart
    This story of personal journeys and evolution made explicit is told by an unnamed schoolteacher who becomes interested in one of his students, aspiring novelist Sumire. It’s 1957, and the Russian satellite Sputnik blinks overhead. Soon after Sumire becomes obsessed with an older married woman and jets off with her to a Greek island, the narrator receives a call telling him Sumire has disappeared. His arrival on the island and subsequent investigation leads to many incredible sequences but few answers, ultimately suggesting that Sumire’s personal journey has resulted in her literally crossing over into a new plane. But there are fewer answers here than in most Murakami books.

    After Dark
    While Murakami books as a rule tend to be better than the last novel you read, whatever it was, this one delves into purposeful frustration, focusing on the simple fact that while we all share space on this world, interacting and affecting each other’s lives, we’re fundamentally isolated. Murakami starts off with a young musician inviting himself to join agirl at her booth in an all-night diner, then follows them as they become involved in a web of other people’s lives. It’s well done and filled with wonderful moments, yet the weight of its core theme—loneliness as a fundamental human state—hangy heavy.

    South of the Border, West of the Sun
    This muted, elegiac novel tells the story of lonely only child Hajime, who has an intense but sexless friendship with Shimamoto, a girl crippled by polio. When their families move away, they lose touch, and Hajime goes on to build a thoroughly conventional and successful life—money, wife, children. Then Shimamoto suddenly reappears, and their connection springs back to life so powerfully Hajime gladly leaves his settled life behind in order to join her on a mysterious journey. They have a brief, incendiary affair—and then Shimamoto vanishes again, and Hajime is left to return to a life he thought he’d escaped. The themes are powerful, and the book lands some gut-wrenching concepts, despite its loose conversational style.

    Absolutely on Music
    Eavesdropping on a conversation between Murakami and Seiji Ozawa, former conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, is exactly as enjoyable and interesting as you might imagine (spoiler alert: very). These two smart, articulate, and passionate artists ramble over musical topics in surprising and unexpected thrusts, and if you found yourself sitting behind them at a coffee shop you’d likely sit for an extra hour or two, mesmerized. As a book, it’s interesting if slight, and best suited to those with some level of musical knowledge. But as a window into a level of intellectual discourse most of us can only aspire to, it’s a read for everyone.

    Hear the Wind Sing and Pinball, 1973
    Murakami’s first and second novels are so closely connected they might be considered one long novel (and have been published together in a single edition). These early efforts display a confident, mature writing style that is immediately recognizable as Murakami. Beautifully written, terribly sad, and delving into issues of loss and loneliness combined with that powerless sense of suddenly realizing your life has gone wrong when it’s too late to fix it, these are two very good novels that showcase the master’s themes from page one.

    This work of nonfiction detailing the sarin gas attacks in the Tokyo subway is compelling, powerful, and masterfully crafted—and it’s also the least “Murakami” book he’s ever written. The author trimmed back his surrealist style in order to take on this horrific real-world event, making for a fantastic work of history and journalism.

    Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage
    Murakami once again dialed back the magical realism for this novel, telling the story of a man whose four best friends from childhood suddenly and inexplicably cut him off when he was in his second year of university. For the next sixteen years, Tsukuru Tazaki is haunted by this cruel mystery, feeling destined to be alone, until his girlfriend pushes him to finally confront the past and find some answers. His quest for those answers takes place both within and without, as he travels around playing detective in his own life, the occasional flourish of magical realism confined to his dreams and imaginings. It’s a fine story, and emotionally affecting, if slim.

    What I Talk About When I Talk About Running
    Your mileage will vary with this one (that just happened). On the one hand, it’s a complete departure in every way from Murakami’s style and usual topics, being an edited assemblage of his essays on running, his diary entries, and some fresh anecdotes from his running life. On the other, you can see many of the seeds that wind up in Murakami’s fiction here, making it an occasionally revelatory read for fans—and some of the biographical detail concerning his transition into writing is fascinating. For serious runners, there’s plenty in here that will be compelling, but if you’ve never strapped on a marathon bib you might find the narrow focus a bit slow going.

    Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman
    While many of the images and ideas in these stories are amazing, they often withhold an easy and definitive explanation of events, which works for some readers more than others. Story after story presents the bizarre and fanciful—a mirror that shows a reflection that is somehow “off,” only to reveal the mirror doesn’t exist at all, or a man making love who imagines strings leading to alternate realities. The effect is haunting and transient, and the book displays an undercurrent of limitation that shows this sense of frustration is purposefully wrought.

    Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World
    A double-barreled novel that exists half in this world, half in another, exploring themes of consciousness and its relation to our subconscious minds, this is the book that makes many readers fall completely in love with Murakami…or not. It’s told in two converging narratives, one in which a Calcutec in a near-future Japan uses his subconscious mind as an encryption key, and one where an unnamed narrator is entering a place known only as The Town, a settlement surrounded by an impenetrable wall in which no one is allowed to have a shadow—or a mind. Slowly, the two narratives converge, and whether you find it obsession-worthy (and many do) will depend on how much you love Murakami’s beautiful style, ambitious ideas, and the sheer strangeness factor.

    The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle
    Lucid dreams, mind control, and an impossible labyrinth of a hotel—this isn’t a book for the faint of heart. Although it starts off with a deceptively simple (and very Murakami-like) story of a missing cat and a timid husband named Toru, Murakami goes all in on the magical side of magical realism here, telling the story of Toru’s wife, kidnapped by his brother-in-law and imprisoned in a hotel made of infinite hallways, kept there by the brother’s ability to dominate minds. Toru summons the courage to rescue his wife and battles the evil brother in a series of dreamscapes, anchored by Toru’s narration, so skillfully done it’s easy to overlook.

    Norwegian Wood
    People usually recommend Norwegian Wood to Murakami newbies because it’s his least fantastical story, almost entirely rooted in a solid, recognizable reality. The story of a middle-aged man who hears a snippet of the titular Beatles song in an airport and begins thinking back on his youth and the intense romantic and sexual relationships he had combines many classic Murakami themes into a beautiful and affecting story—but if it’s your first Murakami novel, you may have done yourself a disservice. You should arrive at Norwegian Wood somewhere in the middle of your Murakami reading, as a breather, a change of pace, and a palate cleanser. The lack of signature magical thinking simply means it’s not as Murakami as the others. It’s not surprising that Murakami made a conscious effort to shed the magical realism that marked his earlier books—and it isn’t surprising that he immediately course corrected afterward.

    Men Without Women
    Murakami’s most recent collection is a triumph of craft in which he takes the deprecated wilds of male middle age and blazes fresh, wholly unexpected trails through them. Seven men in different circumstances struggle with relationships new and old. What’s remarkable about these stories, aside from the skill involved in their creation, is how Murakami makes these men routinely pathetic; they waste away, they fail the women they love, they realize their own inadequacies and judge themselves harshly. Taken together, they’re like a dreamy, beautiful midlife crisis, the work of a master well aware of his own mortality and limitations and seeking illumination—illumination you can share.

    The Elephant Vanishes
    This collection of stories bursts with the sort of off-center energy that makes people either love or hate Murakami’s longer works. The seventeen stories zig and zag around reality. The title story involves an elephant that shrinks until it vanishes while its handler grows monstrous, another story involves a man’s home invaded by tiny “TV people” who take over his entire existence, while another story depicts a desperate couple resorting to violence in order to solve their late-night fast food cravings. Reading this collection is like getting on a roller coaster without a safety cage and trying to hang on—the ideas come fast and furious, incredible things are tossed at you without apology or explanation, and when you stagger off the ride at the end you realize you just had an experience that will stay with you forever.

    This book was a sensation when it published, establishing Murakami as an icon. Set in an alternate 1984, the story, at its core, explores the idea that a single decision or action can change an individual’s future. It involves a fringe religious cult, a personal trainer named Aomame who hunts and assassinates men who abuse women, a mathematical genius named Tengo who writes ad copy, and the parallel worlds in which they find themselves. The novel deals in doubles, exploring the conflict between the rigid rules of religion and the often fluid impulses of our inner selves. Although it’s dense and complex, at its core it’s a surprisingly light love story, as Aomame and Tengo realize they shared a single moment long ago that has marked them ever since, and is so powerful it’s drawing their two worlds together.

    A Wild Sheep Chase
    Is there a literal sheep in this book? There sure is. A story about a man who takes on a soulless corporate empire with infinite money and power shouldn’t be this fun, but the sheer joy Murakami seems to take in telling it shines through. Ostensibly a mystery in which an advertising executive is ordered to locate a very special sheep based on a photograph—or else—it riffs on the hardboiled detective genre. And while it starts out as a high-stakes romp, by the end it deepens into a beautiful, deeply sad story of trauma and lost things. It’s a breathtaking achievement, demonstrating the precise control Murakami has over tone and ideas, even in translation.

    After the Quake
    Murakami moved back to Japan after the devastating Kobe Earthquake, and the six stories that resulted from this experience rank among his best fiction of any length. He took hold of the sense of emptiness and nihilism trailing an epic disaster and incorporated it into stories that explore it while somehow curving toward optimism and hope instead of despair. The stories are less complex than his novels, but the sense of a malleable reality remains, as characters use storytelling and hallucinogenic experiences to stumble upon truths simultaneously universal and intimate. While these stories may not be the most “Murakami” ever composed, they are easily some of the most powerful works he’s ever produced.

    Kafka on the Shore
    Murakami’s second most famous novel tells two stories that intersect in non-obvious ways. In one, a teen boy who calls himself Kafka runs away from home and hides in a private library, reading books and being hunted for a murder he may or may not have committed. In another, an old man becomes a professional cat locater, and embarks on his first long-distance journey from home in search of a specific cat. Murakami digs deep into spirituality and religion here, and what’s truly wonderful is the moment you realize that the old man’s story is actually filling in blanks in Kafka’s story—that these aren’t separate stories at all. Brilliant? Brilliant.

    Dance Dance Dance
    One thing we can all agree on: if Dance, Dance, Dance isn’t in your Murakami top three, your Murakami List is canceled. A sequel to A Wild Sheep Chase that centers on the search for a character who disappears toward the end of that earlier novel, it weaves together two mysteries—one spiritual, one depressingly and grossly physical—and themes of late-stage capitalism. It includes mysterious women, a hotel of strange origins, a long-lost friend, good food, jazz, and some of the most chilling and surprising scenes in the author’s canon. Read Sheep Chase first, then dive into this unforgettable, metaphysical wonderland of a tale.

    The post A Definitive Ranking of Every Book By Haruki Murakami Ever appeared first on Barnes & Noble Reads.

  • Miwa Messer 4:15 pm on 2018/02/22 Permalink
    Tags: Authors You Need to Read, , , ,   

    Educated: A Memoir Author Tara Westover Shares The Books That Taught Her the Most About Writing 

    It’s no exaggeration to say that Mary Karr’s The Liars’ Club set the world on fire when it was first published in 1995; a national bestseller for over a year, the darkly comic story of Mary’s East Texas childhood made memoir as we know it today, well, a thing. Then came Jeanette Walls with The Glass Castle in 2005, a powerful account of the author’s unconventional, impoverished childhood that went on to spend a total of 261 weeks atop the New York Times bestseller list. Joining those books in 2012 was Cheryl Strayed’s massive, massive hit, Wild, winner of our Discover Award.

    To this trio of indelible voices add Tara Westover and her profound, deeply inspirational debut, Educated: A Memoir, a Spring 2018 Discover Great New Writers selection. This is storytelling at its finest: emotionally honest and frank, beautifully written, driven by a narrative velocity that had the Discover selection committee readers holding their breath. Tara is unsparing—of herself, her family, and her community—as she recounts her extraordinary journey from an Idaho junkyard to a master’s program at England’s Cambridge University and doctoral program at Harvard. Tara might still be living and working with her family on an Idaho mountain had things continued as her parents—and she herself—once imagined; she only began to think of leaving after her older brother turned violent. This shockingly original story is not only a testament to the power reading has to change a person’s trajectory, but also an intensely honest and often heartbreaking story of one young woman’s decision to save her own life.

    We can’t wait for readers everywhere to meet Westover. Here, she shares her own picks for the life-changing books that taught her about writing.

    So here’s the thing: some people grow up reading all kinds of literature, so by the time they think about writing a book, they have, it seems, read a whole library. I was not one of those people. I grew up in a family where reading was very much encouraged; however, the texts to hand were most often scriptures or sermons (those weren’t the only books in the house, but they made up the bulk of what I read). After that, I read academic papers and textbooks until I was twenty-eight, which is the age when I decided to write my own book and realized that, sadly, I really hadn’t read enough of them.

    Luckily, there isn’t any magic combination of books that a person needs to read to learn how to write. There is no definitive list. Writing is like painting: every book you read gives your prose a different hue, a new color with which you can paint your words. These are the books I found most helpful in painting mine.

    Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen
    Austen’s writing is elegant—every sentence seems designed with the care of an architect—but what I found most instructive about it was the pace of it, and the careful construction of the plot. All the characters are just where they need to be, doing just what they need to do, for the story to unfold. Jane must become ill so Lizzy can visit her, so she can become trapped at Netherfield long enough for Mr. Darcy to fall in love with her. Mr. Collins must visit, and during that visit he must be utterly ridiculous, augmenting the ridiculousness of Mrs. Bennet, so Mr. Darcy can display his outrageous pride and insult Lizzy when he proposes. And ultimately, Mr. Wickham must run away with Lydia so Mr. Darcy has the opportunity to put away his pride and do the thing which is most distasteful to him, in order to help Lizzie, in order to prove himself to the reader. There is a rhythm to the unfolding of these events that is so perfect as to be reminiscent of the ball at Netherfield.

    The Bluest Eye, by Toni Morrison
    From Toni Morrison, I first began to comprehend point of view and the importance of finding the right narrator for a story. The Bluest Eye is about a young girl, Pecola, who is used sexually by her father and becomes pregnant, but while much of the novel is told in the first person, the first person is not Pecola but another girl her age, named Claudia. This allows the reader to see Pecola as peripheral, to see her brushed aside by other characters with swifter bodies and louder voices. Since that brushing aside is part of the tragedy of Pecola and what happened to her, this point of view is powerful, more powerful than if the story were told by Pecola. We get a sense of sadness, even of regret, from the narrator of Claudia, who is telling this story as an adult, that the child Claudia does not seem to feel. To her child self Pecola is a nuisance; to her adult self, Pecola is a regret. This layering of perspectives creates tension and adds a richness to the atmosphere of the story. 

    Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls, by David Sedaris
    I read “Loggerheads” when I was first trying to wrap my head around the concept of the “short story,” and what I took from it was the classic principle that sometimes the best narratives are not about what they seem to be about; they are about something else. “Loggerheads” seems to be the story of some baby turtles the author and his friend Shaun found on a beach, then slowly starved to death. In the story’s structure, the turtles are in the foreground. They set the pace of the story. But the emotional punch comes not with the death of the turtles, and not with the death of Shaun’s father, but with the revelation, some eighteen years later, that Shaun’s father had drunk himself to death, and Shaun had never told the author. You could read these parallel stories any number of ways: you could make the turtles into metaphors, or take them more literally as straightforward evidence of the boys’ cruelty. However you choose to conceptualize it, the story of Shaun and the author is enhanced by situating the two together. For me, the two narratives come together powerfully on the final page, when the author goes to a library to research turtles and discovers the following: “A female might reach four hundred pounds, and, of all the eggs she lays in a lifetime, only one in a thousand will make it to adulthood. Pretty slim odds when, by ‘making it,’ you mean simply surviving.”

    The White Album, by Joan Didion
    Joan Didion taught me that I cannot write like Joan Didion. The first time I read “On Self-Respect,” Didion’s voice seemed so strong it was overpowering—it echoed in my head as if God were speaking the words. I tried for a time to write like Didion, but the results were dreadful. It wasn’t that the mimicry was wrong, although it certainly was. Actually, some of the worst sentences I wrote were those that, on a technical or grammatical level, were closest to hers. But they sounded false, like the words themselves were in disguise, somehow impersonating other words. In time I accepted the reality that, although I admired her writing very much, so much it thrilled me to read it, hers was not a voice I could imitate in my search for my own. I was looking for something else. Funnily enough, once I’d found it, I realized that more and more of Didion began creeping into my writing in ways I loved.

    The post Educated: A Memoir Author Tara Westover Shares The Books That Taught Her the Most About Writing appeared first on Barnes & Noble Reads.

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