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8 Books You Need to Read This May

Each month, Boris Kachka offers nonfiction and fiction book recommendations. You should read as many of them as possible.

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  • Posted 5/3/16 at 1:46 PM
  • Books

The Sympathizer Won a Pulitzer and an Edgar, and May Herald the Great Literary Convergence

Last week, the Mystery Writers of America handed out the 2016 Edgar Awards, the most prestigious of the crime-writing awards. Among the winners was The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen, named Best First Novel — a win that, while well-deserved, was the opposite of notable, given that his novel has already garnered a host of accolades, including the Pulitzer Prize the week before. And yet, for this exact same reason, his Edgar win is remarkable, even momentous — and likely unprecedented. The Sympathizer — a literary thriller about a Vietnamese double agent who moves to Los Angeles after the Vietnam war — is the first novel (or at least the first I can unearth) that’s won both a major literary award and a major genre award in the same year.

The Great Literary Convergence: that moment when all novels, of all stripes, and all genres, are finally considered, if not identical undertakings, than subsets of the same, larger, expansive literary project. »

  • Posted 5/2/16 at 9:00 AM
  • Books

The Genius of Don DeLillo’s Post-Underworld Work

Have we held Don DeLillo’s Underworld against him? Masterpieces of an epic scale are a tricky business, not least for the distorting effect they can have on the rest of a writer’s works. Tolstoy wrote two, but most mortals — Melville, George Eliot, Joyce — only get one. And while War and Peace and Anna Karenina cycle through screen adaptations, how many readers reach for a major minor work — a work of beauty but of limited scope — like The Kreutzer Sonata? The same question already applies to Zero K, DeLillo’s new novel. “In recent years,” James Wolcott wrote in his memoir Lucking Out, “DeLillo must ask himself the cosmic question, ‘Why go on?,’ his later novels greeted with a fish-face without a trace of affection for everything he's done before, beating him up with his own achievements (Libra, Underworld) instead.”

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  • Posted 4/25/16 at 1:12 PM
  • Titles

Anna Kendrick’s Book of Comedic Essays Has a Two-Thirds Fitting Title

It's not just bloggers who one day dream of writing a book of comedic essays described by critics as "a gimlet-eyed look at life in the big city" — critically acclaimed thespians do, too. Last year, Anna Kendrick signed a deal with Touchstone to produce one such book, and today, the Pitch Perfect star took to Twitter to announce its title: Scrappy Little Nobody. Those are two words that apply to Kendrick and one word that doesn't, so I think everyone will agree this title deserves a D-plus. Congratulations, Anna!

  • Posted 4/14/16 at 1:31 PM
  • Memoirs

Jeffrey Tambor Is Writing a Memoir — Good Thing Aziz Ansari Already Thought of the Perfect Title

In a move George Bluth should've thought of ages ago, Jeffrey Tambor is writing a memoir. It's on Crown Publishing's spring 2017 slate and will consist of humorous essays about Tambor's decades-long career in comedy and how he's brought everything he's learned in life to some of his most beloved characters, including Arrested Development's Bluth, The Larry Sanders Show's Hank Kingsley, and Transparent's Maura Pfefferman. He'll also talk about what it was like working with a few of his famous co-stars — Garry Shandling hopefully being one of them. “Some stories will be awkward, others inspiring, some dark, most funny, and all will, I think, be hopeful and instructive,” Tambor said in a press release. Well, we're sold. It technically already has a title — Are You Anybody — but with all due respect, none can ever top Aziz Ansari's idea. Remember when he pretty much predicted Tambor's memoir at the Golden Globes in January? Sorry, but Losing to Jeffrey Tambor With Dignity is a serious winner.

British Muggle Spies Defended Harry Potter From the Dark Arts and Piracy

British spy agency GCHQ helped keep one of the entries of J.K. Rowling's beloved book series out of the hands of those-who-shall-not-be-named, meaning pirates. “I remember the British spy eavesdropping station GCHQ rang me up and said ‘we’ve detected an early copy of this book on the Internet’,” Rowling's publisher Nigel Newton told Australia’s ABC Radio when discussing the publishing history of the series. “I got him to read a page to our editor and she said ‘no, that’s a fake,’” said Newton, founder and chief executive of Potter publishing house Bloomsbury, describing the spies as “good guys.”

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See Rare Photos of Mick Jagger Preparing for the Rolling Stones’ First British TV Appearance

There was a time, more than 50 years ago, when Mick Jagger was too naïve to worry about looking cool in front of a camera. “This was right before their first British TV performance,” says photographer Terry O’Neill, whose images of the young Rolling Stones, along with those by Gered Mankowitz, are collected in a new photo book. “Back in those days, the leader of the band was Brian Jones. Mick was just happy to have some attention. He’s a lot more serious these days.”

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David Duchovny’s New Book Has the F-Word in Its Title; That Means He and Stephen Colbert Have a Blast Making CBS Bleep Their Interview

David Duchovny visited Colbert's Late Show on Wednesday to plug his new book, Bucky F*cking Dent. During their interview, the two talk briefly about the history of fiction, the underappreciation of losers, and the importance of the First Amendment. But since Duchovny's book has an obscenity in its name, that means the pair also has to have fun discussing alternate titles and making CBS go bleep-blur-crazy. The chat ends up sounding like an extended version of Jimmy Kimmel's "Unnecessary Censorship" — only, yeah, more necessary.

Ian McKellen Won’t Buy Into the Memoir-Industrial Complex, Returns His $1.4M Advance

Celebrity memoirs are wonderful things: great gifts for people whose reading tastes you don't know very well, good audiobooks to listen to at the gym, excellent for feeding our need for the revelation of decades-old gossip, and overall a decent way to attempt to fill the Bossypants-shaped hole in your heart. But one lone celebrity will not be spilling his secrets to the reading public: Ian McKellen. McKellen has pulled out of his memoir deal and returned his $1.4 million advance. He explained his decision at the Oxford Literary Festival, saying, "It was a bit painful. I didn't want to go back into my life and imagine things that I hadn't understood so far. The privacy of my life I don't quite understand myself, and it has nothing to do with what I do for a living. So there you go, I'm sorry." You have to respect his decision. Writing a memoir can be emotionally exhausting. If you don't want to open up the can of worms that is reflecting on every decision you have ever made in your life, then don't. Take care of yourself. Writing can be a good way to process your past, but to each his own. We still love you, Ian. It's not like we'll run out of celebrity memoirs to read.

8 Books You Need to Read This April

Each month, Boris Kachka offers nonfiction and fiction book recommendations. You should read as many of them as possible.

Read More  »

  • Posted 3/31/16 at 2:55 PM

In Defense of Pretentiousness

The question when it comes to pretentiousness is how much of it you’re willing to suffer. I have a high tolerance; it takes a lot to make my eyes roll. Unless it’s completely irony-free, there’s a fair amount of twaddle I’ll put up with from my friends, at least. Care to natter on about arcane Balkan filmmakers whose works I’ll never see? I’d be happy to indulge you — pour me another drink.

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  • Posted 3/28/16 at 2:18 AM
  • R.i.p.

Jim Harrison, Prolific Writer and Author of Legends of the Fall, Dead at 78

Jim Harrison, the versatile fiction writer, poet, and essayist whose vast oeuvre notably includes the novella-turned-film Legends of the Fall, died Saturday at his Arizona home. The 78-year-old's publisher, Grove Atlantic, confirmed Harrison's death with the New York Times, but didn't share a cause. An avid outdoorsman, Harrison's uniquely uninhibited writings often painted scenes in wild and rural settings. "His voice came from the American heartland," his publisher said in a statement, "and his deep and abiding love of the American landscape runs through his extraordinary body of work."

Over the course of a roughly five-decade career, the Michigan native produced nearly 40 titles, including several fiction and poetry releases, two essay collections, a memoir, and even a children's book. His latest poems were published in January's Dead Man's Float, and a new set of novellas came out earlier this month with The Ancient Minstrel. Harrison also enjoyed a stint as a screenwriter in the ’90s, earning credits on such film adaptations as Legends, with Brat Pitt and Anthony Hopkins; the Kevin Costner–starrer Revenge; and Wolf, with Jack Nicholson, Michelle Pfeiffer, and James Spader. In 1969, he received a Guggenheim Fellowship for his poetry, and in 2007 he landed a spot in the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He's survived by his sister, brother, two daughters, and three grandchildren.

  • Posted 3/25/16 at 1:06 PM
  • Books

J.K. Rowling Shares Rejection Letters From Publishers Who Weren’t Psychic Enough to Realize She Was J.K. Rowling

In 2013, J.K. Rowling, fed up with the public pressure of being Britain's most recognizable author, penned a charming murder mystery called The Cuckoo's Calling under the pseudonym "Robert Galbraith." A handful of eagle-eyed readers keyed onto Galbraith's true identity before Rowling was unmasked — for an ex-military man, he seemed to have a suspiciously detailed knowledge of women's clothing — but among those who did not were the multiple publishers who rejected the book, unaware that they were turning down a golden goose. (Cuckoo's Calling became a best seller after its true authorship became known.) On Friday morning, Rowling Tweeted out some of Galbraith's rejection letters as inspiration for her fans, proof that even the very wealthy and successful J.K. Rowling gets knocked down sometimes. "I wasn’t going to give up until every single publisher turned me down, but I often feared that would happen," she wrote. This is a warning to publishers: Accept literally every book pitch you receive, or be filled with a lifetime of regret.

28 Titles for Kevin Hart’s Memoir That Are Slightly Less Obvious Than From the Hart

Kevin Hart is writing a memoir called From the Hart, the New York Times reports. The book will reportedly explore the comedian's "childhood in Philadelphia with a drug-addicted father, and the struggles he faced when he first tried to break into stand-up," which sounds like a gripping read, but also let's back up to the part where Kevin Hart named his book From the Hart. Let that sink in. KEVIN HART NAMED HIS BOOK FROM THE HART. Clearly, Kevin Hart put about as much thought into naming his book as most people do into choosing a pair of socks. If he's truly committed to doing the pun-on-his-name thing — which, knowing celebrity memoirs, we have to believe he is — here are a few dozen more titles he should have considered instead:

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Jack Antonoff to Pen Last-Minute Gift Idea for Newish Significant Other Who You Are Pretty Sure Is Into Music

Picture this: You went on a pretty great first date with someone in November, had a few more dates, a few more laughs, a few sleepovers where nothing too terrible happened. Now it's Christmas — what the heck kind of gift are you supposed to give them? Simon & Schuster has your answer: The publishing house today announced it will publish a new book from musician Jack Antonoff called Record Store; it will include a series of essays from the Bleachers frontman and others "that will pay tribute to the cherished, and endangered, cultural institution." Casual, creativeish, and slightly hip — the perfect gift for your what-even-are-we. Hopefully they'll place it near the front of the store.

  • Posted 3/23/16 at 8:05 AM
  • Books

The Ongoing Allure of Pride and Prejudice

One would be forgiven for supposing that a good number of Pride and Prejudice adaptations exist for the express purpose of getting Darcy naked. Take this, from the romance imprint Clandestine Classics’ 2013 reboot of the cherished 1813 novel:

“ ‘Tell me you want me,’ he demanded. His voice was a deep rumble, husky and full of the promise of what was to come. ‘Tell me what you want from me.’

What charge could we still get from envisioning these characters, or even their modern versions, doing it? »

  • Posted 3/22/16 at 12:52 PM

The Batman v Superman Superfan Starter Kit

This weekend’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice will introduce audiences around the world to a theme that has captivated readers of comic books for more than seven decades: the often-tense friendship between America’s two most famous superheroes. There’s actually a rich literary history of Batman-and-Superman-related artifacts, and we weeded through them all to pick out the three best comic-book collections — plus a few honorable mentions — that'll shed light on their fraught bro-ship for new readers, and which any serious fan must have in their library.

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  • Posted 3/18/16 at 5:15 PM
  • Awards

Nick Offerman Honored Wendell Berry at the National Book Critics Circle Awards

Ron Swanson, the stoic, mustachioed libertarian parks director in Parks and Recreation, is a man of few words. Nick Offerman, the currently bushy-bearded actor who played him, shares a few of his character’s famous qualities — his slow-train cadence, his love of woodworking. But as we learned last night at the National Book Critics Circle Awards, he is not pithy.

The NBCC gave this year’s lifetime achievement award to Wendell Berry, the prominent agrarian novelist and essayist, and Berry happens to be profiled in Offerman’s own book, Gumption, a collection of profiles of his personal heroes. Offerman, who also co-produced a new documentary on Berry, was brought in to introduce his idol and maybe glam up the New School auditorium just a tick. In the event, he gave a speech to which attention must be paid. Below, in full, are those remarks, wherein Ron Swanson meets, well, a smart actor who spent a lot of time on a speech. There’s something for everyone: farm humor, crying jags, marriage metaphors, Kentucky vistas, Socrates, human kindness, Keats, a takedown of Edward O. Wilson, and, of course, the Declaration of Independence (which is shorter than this speech).

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  • Posted 3/18/16 at 4:46 PM
  • Awards

The 2016 National Book Critics Circle Awards Reflected the Evolving Conversation About Diversity

Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me changed the cultural conversation last year, focusing our fickle attention on black lives as never before. So why did the book’s failure to win a National Book Critics Circle Award last night feel like a triumph for diversity? For one thing, he lost (in the criticism category) to Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, a groundbreaking, theory-inflected memoir about starting a family with a partner in gender transition. But there was something else, too. A month after the so-white Oscars and only a week after Publishers Weekly ran a long story headlined “Why Publishing Is So White,” the NBCC Awards were not so very white at all. A deep bench of writers across genres, races, genders, and vastly different points of view yielded African American winners in half of the six categories, all telling the truth, but telling it slant.

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Helen Oyeyemi’s What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours Is Interesting in Its Imperfection

A restless imagination harnessed to a smooth and propulsive prose style — Helen Oyeyemi’s fiction is a juggernaut, and she brakes for no one. Her sentences have an elegance often set off by jolts of contemporary vernacular. “He was handsome but the scent of his cologne was one she very strongly associated with loan sharks,” she writes in “Drownings,” a story in her new collection, What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours. “Even so, can’t loan sharks also be caring boyfriends, or at the very least great in bed?” At the age of 31, Oyeyemi has published five much-laureled novels — beginning with The Icarus Girl, which she famously wrote in high school — and two plays. Magic comes cheap in fiction, but with Oyeyemi, you get the sense that it’s in her writing because reality isn’t enough for her. What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours is her first batch of stories, and like the rest of her work it partakes promiscuously of mythology, fairy tale, and folklore without turning a blind eye to the modern perversities of smartphones, YouTube celebrities, and electronic cigarettes. Oyeyemi was born in Nigeria and raised in London from age 4, graduated from Cambridge University, bolted the Columbia M.F.A. program after a semester, spent her 20s roaming Europe, was named one of Granta’s “Best Young British Novelists” in 2013, and is presently teaching in Kentucky. If her résumé gives the sense of an uncontainable talent, her full-throttle paragraphs confirm it.

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