Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Review: The Orphan Master's Son

By Adam Johnson
Random House. 464 pp. $26

It is likely that you’ve never read a novel set in North Korea. A novel could never emerge from within the totalitarian regime, and the country is only open to outsiders for a few weeks per year. Furthermore, with little cultural tradition of storytelling, few novels have been written by those who have been able to escape the country.

All of this makes Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son fascinating, important, and almost wholly original. Johnson was able to travel to North Korea during one of the “open” periods, but at a reading that I attended, he said that he found the majority of the material for the novel through research. During his visit, he was able to see Pyongyang and the surrounding area, but he certainly was not able to see the work camps or prison camps which appear in his novel. Indeed, the novel includes descriptions of imprisonment, torture, hunger, and the day-to-day terror of living under a totalitarian regime. And yet, the novel is not overly dark. Indeed, the darkness that exists is easy to bear amidst the brilliant, captivating story.

The novel has two parts: the story of Pak Jun Do, “the orphan master’s son” and the story of Commander Ga, national hero, husband of the beautiful movie star Sun Moon, and winner of the “Golden Belt” in taekwondo.  

Jun Do -- note that his name sounds like “John Doe” -- is raised in orphanage, where all the orphans are given a name of one of the Grand Martyrs of the Revolution. He is eventually assigned to serve in the tunnels beneath the demilitarized zone.  From there, his fighting and night vision skills allow him to become a professional kidnapper; language skills that he gains as a kidnapper allow him to become a radio operator and translator; and finally he is assigned to a diplomatic team which embarks on a trip to Texas. Upon returning in failure, he is sent to a prison mine facility.

One thing that becomes obvious in Johnson’s novel (and which shouldn’t be too surprising): in North Korea there is little personal identity. The State comes before the person. Yet, Johnson confronts this notion and challenges it. In Commander Ga’s portion of the story, he is interrogated regarding the disappearance of his wife, who the Dear Leader Kim Jong Il is in love with. The interrogator creates biographies of all of the people who he confronts, saying, “When you have a subject’s biography, there is nothing between the citizen and the state. That’s harmony, that’s the idea out nation is founded on.” But doesn’t a biography serve to humanize a person? And because the people in question have been suspected of some crime against the State, doesn’t this humanization seem to runs counter to the supremacy of the State?

It is questions like this that simmer beneath the surface of the narrative. Like any excellent novel, The Orphan Master’s Son can be read on more than one level. If you simply want to read a story set a real place that you have not read about before, read the book, get an amazing glimpse of North Korea, and stop there. But if you enjoy a narrative that truly makes you think, Johnson’s novel provides a challenge. In the second part of the book, there are three different voices, including the voice of propaganda broadcasts though a “speaker” installed in all homes; the narrative moves forwards and backwards in time; and it requires some patience. But it’s worth the effort. In the shifting narrative, Johnson forces readers to question what is real and what is not real within the context of the story.

It is an amazing coincidence that Random House had already scheduled the novel for release when Kim Jong Il died in December. If the news coverage raised your curiosity about North Korea, read this remarkable novel. Yes, it is fiction, but Johnson obviously did careful research, in addition to his first-hand experiences.  After you read this, if you crave more, find a non-fictional account. I think I will.

**Please note: I found this novel very challenging. I make no claim to have gotten everything correct, but I hope that I did not mislead. If anyone who has read the book feels like I have erred, I welcome your comments.**

Thursday, January 26, 2012

The Oscar Nominations: Lots of Adaptations

On Monday morning, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced the Oscar nominations. Interestingly, of the nine best picture nominees, six are based on books.  

The Descendants (based on the novel of the same name by Kaui Hart Hemmings) 

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (based on the novel of the same name by Jonathan Safran Foer) 

The Help (based on the novel of the same name by Kathryn Stockett) 

Moneyball (based on the non-fiction work of the same name by Michael Lewis) 

War Horse (based on the young adult novel of the same name by Michael Morpurgo) 

Hugo (based on the novel-picture book hybrid, The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick) 

Additionally, another nominated film, Midnight in Paris, has a very “literary” theme, with appearances by F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, as well as Ernest Hemingway. Also, I bet there is a good argument that the mostly silent film, The Artist, has more in common with literature than many other films. (The ninth nominee, The Tree of Life, sounds like a great story, but I am not going to stretch to make an argument that it easily fits a “literary” trend.) 

By my count, in at least 10 of the last 20 years, the winner of the Oscar for Best Picture has been based on a previously published work. In most cases these works were novels -- including Forrest Gump, The English Patient and No Country for Old Men -- but A Beautiful Mind was based on the biography of the same name and Million Dollar Baby was based, in part, on a collection of short stories.

Why do a full 50 percent of best-picture-winning films in recent years begin as books and written stories? It is certainly not because there is a lack of originality amongst screenwriters. Every year there are excellent films honored in the best original screenplay category. (There is, of course, a separate category for best adapted screenplay.) Given that film is a truly different medium than literature and writing, wouldn’t you expect stories written for the screen to be over represented among best picture winners? After all, there are stories that can be told on the screen. On the flip side, a good story is a good story, no matter how it is told. Is that the answer? 

What do you think? Why do adapted stories do so well? Try not to weigh in the bigger issue of adaptations, such as how much a movie adaptation might diverge from the original source. That’s a topic for another time. I’ll cover it.  

Monday, January 23, 2012

Recapping the National Book Critics Circle Award Finalists

Well, my predictions of the National Book Critics Circle Award fiction finalists didn’t go very well, but it was fun taking a stand!

I expected to get one, and maybe two of the finalists correct. I ended up with a big fat donut! Zip.

On the bright side, I got to attend the event where the finalists were named in person! See more about that at the end of the post.

First, if you haven’t heard, the finalists are:

     Open City by Teju Cole
     The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides
     The Stranger’s Child by Alan Hollinghurst
     Binocular Vision by Edith Pearlman

     Stone Arabia by Dana Spiotta
Some observations: 
- I had noted in my predictions post that the NBCC finalists often include a book in English by a non-American. With The Stranger’s Child as a finalist, this trend continues.

- One thing that I did not note: in previous years a single National Book Award finalist has sometimes repeated as an NBCC finalist. This year the repeater is Binocular Vision.

- In my recap of literary fiction of 2011, I noted that there were many excellent debut novels published in 2011. In fact, I thought there was room for two among the five NBCC finalists. Although, neither of my predictions -- The Tiger’s Wife and The Art of Fielding –- were selected, another debut novel was: Open City.

- I mentioned that there was sure to be a "sleeper," and in my opinion Stone Arabia certainly qualifies. Although it was amongst the New York Times' 100 notable books of the year, I had not heard any buzz about it, unlike the other four.

After my two other posts on the NBCC award, I learned more about the process through which the finalists are chosen. (I should have done my research in advance: lesson learned!) Books can become finalists in one of two ways:

1) Through a juried process (like the National Book Award) where NBCC board members read, debate, vote and agree on finalists. Yet, unlike the National Book Award, where the jury only considers books submitted by publishers, the NBCC jury can consider any book they desire.
          2) By a vote of at least 20% of the general membership of the NBCC.

Without knowing for certain (and the NBCC does not release such information), I am fairly confident that the second method is how The Marriage Plot became a finalist. Still, I am quite surprised. From my memory, there were many more mixed reviews of it than of other “popular” but still “literary” novels this year. I seem to remember more consistent reviews of The Tiger’s Wife, for example.

Of the finalists, so far, I have only read The Marriage Plot. I just began Open City and I already had planned to read The Stranger’s Child for the Tournament of Books. Also, now that it has been nominated for two major awards, I don’t think I can ignore Binocular Vision anymore. If you are curious about it, you should know that it is a short story collection, not a novel. In fact, it already won the PEN/Malamud award, given for excellence in the short story. Still, with other reading commitments, I am not sure if I will have time to read it or Stone Arabia. If you have read either, please give me some advice on whether I should make some time in the comments.

Please note, the winner, along with the winner in the other NBCC categories (poetry, autobiography, biography, general non-fiction and criticism) will be announced on March 8th. I will post more on the topic before then.

The Event

As I said at the beginning of this post, I was able to attend the event where the NBCC finalists were announced. I found a press release that said it was open to the public, and it was!  There wasn't even a check-in table with someone asking who people were, for record keeping or what not. It was quite surprising for New York City. Even more surprising: there were free libations and finger food.

Still, overall, it was a very simple event. No glitz. Just a microphone and a quick announcement of the finalists. It was held it in an big open gallery space that was in between exhibits. For people who know New York City, it was one block north of Canal St., if that gives you a sense of the vibe. I only took one picture, and it is really quite meaningless, but I include here anyway. I should have taken a picture of last years' winner, Jennifer Egan, announcing the fiction finalists. Alas, I didn't.

I'll end with a fun anecdote. After milling about by myself for a while, seeing the typical clusters of 3-5 people where it's hard to break in and introduce yourself, I struck up a conversation with someone else standing alone. He turned out to be an author. And he wasn't just some struggling writer; he won a known literary award within the last few years. I really don't want to give him a public shout out. I will say he isn't a household name -- the award he won wasn't one of the "big ones" -- but I had heard of him and his book. It was just one of those fun serendipitous things that can happen sometimes.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Predicting the National Book Critics Circle Award Finalists

Here is the post which I promised a week and a half ago: my predictions of the National Book Critic Circle Award finalists, which will be announced Saturday evening, January 21st.

If you are unfamiliar with the National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) award, and you haven’t read my “background” information post, please do so. 

One major factor about NBCC award for fiction that I mentioned: Unlike other major American literary awards, novels (and short story collections) in translation and those in English by non-American authors are both eligible. 

Of the novels which I especially enjoyed in 2011, the vast majority received critical acclaim and appeared on bestseller lists. (See my post on my favorite books of 2011.) Yet, amongst the NBCC finalists from previous years, there are numerous examples of books which went somewhat unnoticed before being honored by the judging panel. For this reason, I don’t expect to pick more than three out of five finalists correctly. Still, I was committed to making predictions.

The following factors impacted my predictions: 

     1) The judging panel seems to choose at least one book in translation each year. 

     2) The judging panel seems to choose at least one book in English by a non-American author each year. 

     3) In 23 of the last 33 years, one of finalists (by an American author) has gone on to win the Pulitzer.

Without further ado, here are my picks: 
     Julian Barnes, The Sense of an Ending 

     Patrick de Witt, The Sisters Brothers 

     Chad Harbach, The Art of Fielding 

     Haruki Murakami, 1Q84  

     Téa Obreht, The Tiger’s Wife 

Part of the reason why I am not confident in my picks is because all of these books are “too obvious."

Consider the following:

     -Two have already won literary awards, The Sense of an Ending won the Booker Prize and The Tiger’s Wife won the Orange Prize. (It was also a finalist for the National Book Award.) 

     -The Art of Fielding received more press coverage (beyond reviews) than many other recent novels, in large part due to the huge advance that Harbach received.  Also, along with The Tiger’s Wife, it was one of the New York Times’ top ten books of the year. 

     -1Q84 was so highly anticipated that some stores held midnight release parties.  

     -The Sisters Brothers was short-listed for the Booker Prize. 

Still, these are all books which I truly enjoyed and I think are worthy of being honored. (I should note: I have not read The Sisters Brothers. I have included it here on a gut feeling alone.) 

I wish that I could have found a “sleeper” book to include in my predictions – I have little doubt that there will be one – but I couldn’t find one. I’m excited to see what sleeper the committee picks, in part because at least twice in the past ten years such a book has gone on to win the Pulitzer - The Known World by Edward P. Jones (the eventual winner for 2003) and Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout (a finalist for 2009). 

The main reason why I included The Art of Fielding is because I think it could win the Pulitzer, but I am less convinced than I was before. (I marked it as my “current frontrunner” in my favorite books of the year post on December  31st, linked above.)  I plan to write more about the Pulitzer in future posts -- it is not announced until April -- but I wanted to note that the description of the prize states that the winning piece of fiction should “preferably deal with American life.” There have been few (if any) winning books that took place wholly outside the United States with non-American characters. (There have been some winning books dealing with Americans living abroad.) If not for this fact, I might say that The Tiger's Wife could win, but with no American characters and no action in the United States, I feel it is unlikely. It is a shame that the prize is not simply given to "the best work of fiction by an American author."

Do you have any picks? Remember the factors that I noted above. Did you read a book in translation (published in 2011) that you loved? How about a book in English by a non-American author? Is there a book that you think might win the Pulitzer?

Please, share your thoughts in the comments.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Google e-Books, Agency Pricing, and Independent Book Stores

This post was inspired by this article from Salon.com. (“Resolved: Kick the Amazon Habit in 2012”) Much of the information from the article is also in the post, but you should read both.

This week I obtained a Nook. I also bought a brand new hardcover.

I will always buy and read physical books, but I could not overlook the convenience of e-books anymore. (Here is a plea: try to use the term “physical books” or “paper books” over “print books.” E-books still have “print.”)  And yet, I will not be taking advantage of one of the major conveniences of my Nook: wireless buying via Wi-Fi.

Rather than purchase e-books from Barnes & Noble, I will be purchasing Google e-books from my local independent bookseller, Politics and Prose. This requires using a computer to buy the e-book and then connecting the Nook to the computer (via USB) to download it. It’s a bit of a hassle, but it’s something I am willing to do for one simple reason.


“What?” you say in confusion.

Yup! Many, many e-books (those published by any of the six largest publishers in the U.S.) are the same price whether bought from Amazon, Barnes & Noble or via Google e-books through an independent bookstore.

It is called “agency pricing.” The publisher sets the price that the retailer must charge. Thus, the retailer acts as the “agent” of the publisher and is paid a flat commission on the sale. E-books from publishers other than the so-called "big six" are still sold on the “wholesale” model, where retailers can set their price. Still, I bet that many of the books you read are published by one of the "big six."

Amazon’s regular Kindles cannot display Google e-books, but the Kindle Fire can. Other reading options include: smartphones, iPads, the Sony e-Reader, and as previously mentioned, the Nook. If you are going to read an e-book on a Google Books supported device, why support a large corporation when you can buy through a local independent bookstore and keep some dollars in your local community?

In the case of Google e-books, the bookstore is getting a very TINY cut. They cannot survive unless people still buy physical books. Still, every bit counts.

I am a big support of independent bookstores. Over the last week I have had two 20-minute-plus conversations with the lead buyer at Politics and Prose. We’ve discussed what books to look out for in 2012 and our favorite books from 2011, among other things. That could never happen at Barnes and Noble. (Not to mention Amazon!) So, I encourage you to visit a local bookstore. Talk to the staff. They love to talk about books. And buy a physical book once in a while. But if you are mostly an e-book reader and you don't own a regular Kindle, please buy through a local bookstore that offers Google e-Books.

Incidentally, you can buy through the Google e-books website itself, but don’t do that. Give an independent books store the chance at receiving a cut, even if it’s tiny. If you don’t know of a store in your area that offers Google e-books (there probably is one), pick a store in another area of the country. The purchase is still instantaneous.

Two final thoughts:

1 – I said I “obtained” my Nook. I don’t consider it a purchase. Barnes & Noble is currently offering a free e-ink Nook with a one year digital subscription to the New York Times. (Or you can get the color version for $99.) I was totally on the fence about an e-reader. This was just the nudge I needed. If you don't have an e-reader yet, do what I did. Take the deal, and then resolve not to buy e-books from B&N. Even if you already own a Kindle that cannot display Google e-books (anything but the Kindle Fire), if you like the idea of having a digital subscription to the New York Times, I encourage you to make the switch!

2 – There are some pending legal cases regarding the whole notion of “agency pricing,” calling it a form of price fixing. The legal actions are only in the beginning stages and I am trying to research the issue before writing more. For now, if you’re interested, read this article from PaidContent.org. It does a good job of explaining the logic behind agency pricing and outlining the beginnings of lawsuit. (It’s from October and more has happened since then). It also outlines a legal precedent under which publishers might be able to prevail.

Stay tuned for more on this issue in the upcoming months.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Previewing the 2012 Tournament of Books

Mascot of TOB
I will still provide my predictions for the NBCC nominations before they are announced on the 21st, but first I would like to write about another (lesser known) “awards season” event: the annual Morning News Tournament of Books, now in it's eighth year.

2011 Winner
For any of you who are college basketball fans, this is (almost literally) March Madness for books. In this case, sixteen books square off in a single elimination (with one twist) competition. A different author or reviewer serves as the judge for each daily match-up. The judge must both choose a winner and provide a detailed reason for his or her choice. (Go here for an especially interesting match-up from last year.)

2010 Winner
I mentioned a twist. When there are two books remaining, visitors to the tournament webpage can vote two eliminated books back into the competition. Then, the tournament continues with two more judged match-ups, in what the organizers call the “zombie” round. (For the two books which have risen from the dead.)

After the zombie round, two books remain once again. Then, the entire judging panel votes in the championship round.

Did I mention March? I did! This competition does not begin until March 7, but after the competitors were announced today, I could not wait to say more. Plus, I wanted to encourage you to read a few of the books!

Here are the competitors:
    Many of these books were on my Favorite Books of 2011: Fiction and Non-Fiction list. They include four out of five of my “top tier” books and three out of five of my “second tier” books. In all, I have completed eight of the sixteen, and I am about to finish one more. Also, I just bought a copy of Open City for my brand new Nook (except I didn’t buy it from Barnes and Noble!...more on that another time…). I plan to read it, and I would love to get through one or two more, but 2012 books are already calling my name!

    In my opinion, the organizers put together a very good list. There are only three books which I have not heard of at all. Additionally, as stated in the preview article, there is good gender diversity (nine men and seven women), along with at least five non-Americans. 

    I will be posting much more about this competition in the lead up and then as it happens. For now, familiarize yourself with this years books and take a look at some past years (2011, 2010, 2009).

    I only discovered the competition last year, but I had a lot of fun following it every day through March. I hope you will join me.

    Saturday, January 7, 2012

    Background Information on the National Book Critics Circle Award

    Two weeks from this evening (January 21st at 6:30pm) finalists for the National Book Critics Circle Awards (NBCC) will be announced.

    I will be weighing in with predictions on the finalists closer to the announcement. For now, here is some background for those who may not know details about the award.

    The National Book Critics Circle gives out awards in fiction, non-fiction, memoir, biography, poetry, and criticism. The fiction award is one of the four most prestigious literature awards given in the United States each year. The others are the the National Book Award (for fiction), the PEN/Faulkner Award, and probably the most "prestigious," the Pulitzer Prize (for fiction). (There are many smaller awards which are meaningful, but these are the “big ones.”)

    Yet, the NBCC is unique from the other three awards for two reasons: 1) finalists do not need to be residents of the United States, and 2) books in translation are eligible. In recent years, there has normally been one book from each category (and in some years both categories) nominated. Still, from my count, there has never been three, indicating that the nominating body wants to reserve a majority of the nominations (at least three of five) for books written in English, by American authors. 

    The most interesting attribute of the NBCC in fiction is that simply being nominated is the single best predictor of the winner of the Pulitzer Prize. In 23 of the last 33 years, the eventual Pulitzer winner was first nominated for the NBCC. The committees which choose the two awards are completely separate, so it's unclear why this relationship is so strong, but it is.

    The Pulitzer is not announced until April, and I plan a few other posts prior to the announcement. (Unlike the other major awards, which first name nominees, and then a few weeks later name the winner, the Pulitzer only names a winner.) I will share other interesting factors which can be used to predict the Pulitzer, but none are as good as being a NBCC finalist. So, when we learn the NBCC finalists, keep in mind that we might have a very good idea of what book will win Pulitzer in April.

    Stay tuned for my predictions of the finalists.

    Wednesday, January 4, 2012

    Previewing 2012 in Fiction (and some) Non-Fiction

    **UPDATED Jan 6: Added a video of Ramona Ausubel talking about writing her novel and added one book to the list at the bottom to make it five, like I had stated. It was only four before. Also, added links to IndieBound for books with listings.**

    As I mentioned in my very first post, 2011 was a big year for fiction. There were new books from two former Pulitzer Prize winners (Jeffrey Eugenides and William Kennedy) and three National Book Award winners (Charles Frazier, Don DeLillio and Ha Jin). There were also many (many!) great debut novels, as well as great novels by “established” authors. If you haven’t read the post yet, please do:  Literary Fiction of 2011: A Recap.

    Based on former award winners (and nominees) alone, 2012 looks like it will be a very exciting year as well. New novels are forthcoming by former Pulitzer Prize winners Michael Chabon, Richard Ford, Toni Morrison and Anne Tyler. Additionally, National Book Award winner John Irving, and National Book Award finalists, Peter Carey, Dan Chaon, and Lionel Shriver, all release new novels.

    In non-fiction, Pulitzer Prize winner Marilynne Robinson, National Book Award winner Jonathan Franzen and National Book Award finalist Aleksandar Hemon will all release collections of essays. Also, one of the most anticipated non-fiction books in years, Robert Caro’s fourth volume in his massive biography of LBJ, is due to be release by Knopf in May.

    Below I have highlighted fifteen books which I am especially interested in reading, ten with comments and five without. I owe many thanks to the “most anticipated” lists by Flavorwire and The Millions, as well as an unnamed industry source, for much of the information here.

    Given that there is only limited information out on Fall releases, with some exceptions, this is only a first half of the year list. I hope to do a second half preview later in the year.

    The Biggest Fiction Release of the Year

    Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon (Release still unscheduled by Harper)

    Like Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot this year, Chabon's new novel will be published with a lot of buzz and anticipation. Still, we will have to wait until “sometime this fall” to see if the buzz is warranted. Very little is known about the content of the novel, except that it takes place in Berkley and Oakland California (I believe in the present day), but my gut tells me that this might be the novel that regains the attention of those loved The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. Many people, from many ages and backgrounds, have told me that the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel is among their all-time favorites. Still, Chabon followed it up with two novels that were likely too different in comparison, a short Conan Doyle-style detective story and a longer detective novel set in an “alternate history,” where Israel was never created and a Jewish country was created in Alaska. This novel, hopefully, will see Chabon return to more accessible and familiar themes that he explored in Kavalier & Clay.

    The Biggest Non-Fiction Release of the Year

    The Passage of Power by Robert A. Caro (Estimated on-sale date: May 1 by Knopf)

    Robert Caro has been writing his massive multi-volume biography of Lyndon Johnson for more than thirty years. The most recent volume, published ten years ago – The Master of the Senate – won the Pulitzer Prize. Many people hoped that this new volume would tackle the Presidential years. Alas, it appears that Caro has chosen to devote 700 pages to the Vice Presidential years. Here’s to wishing the 76-year-old writer good health so that he can complete his amazing work.

    A Pulitzer Prize Contender?

    Home by Toni Morrison (Estimated on-sale date: May 8 by Knopf)

    There have only been three multiple winners of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction – Booth Tarkington, William Faulkner and John Updike. Yet, if any previous winner has an above average chance to win again, Morrison is a front runner. Called “Morrison's strongest book in a decade” by someone who was able to read an advanced copy, this short novel – advertised at only 160 pages – tells the story of a Koran War veteran returning to the U.S. to a confront racism and family emergencies. It's great to see Toni Morrison proving the idea that writers never retire. She turns 81 in February.

    The Novel That May Create a New Household Name

    The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson (Estimated on-sale date: January 10 by Random House)

    Called “one of the best books I've ever read, period” by the same person who praised Home above, this novel seems especially timely. It tells the story of an “ordinary” North Korean who is recruited by and then works for the regime, but who eventual attempts to rival Kim Jung Il. This is Johnson’s third published book. He previously published a novel and a collection of short stories. I expect it to do very well, especially for those with interest in North Korea, but may prefer to read a novel. Johnson was able to visit the country to do on-the-ground research, so his descriptions should be true-to-life.

    The Next Book in a Series

    The Twelve by Justin Cronin (Estimate on-sale date: August 28 by Ballantine)

    Cronin's The Passage told the story of survivors of a massive plague which turned most of the population of the United States into blood-thirsty-vampire-like beings. This was not the kind of story that I ever expected to read, let alone enjoy. Still, after winning a copy on Goodreads, and being told by a friend that I "must" read it, I did. Cronin is able to achieve something that is rare: he combines a gripping, page-turning, fast-paced story with beautiful prose. This shouldn't be surprising. His writing shouldn't be discounted just because of the "commercial" nature of the novel. After all, his first novel Mary and O'Neil won the Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award – an award given the best first book, typically in the “literary fiction” category. The Twelve is part two of a planned trilogy.

    The Possible “Comeback” Award of the Year

    In One Person by John Irving (Estimated on-sale date: May 8 by Simon & Schuster)

    John Irving has had a few flops over the last ten years, including one book that a very literary friend called “possibly the worst book I’ve ever read.” One reason that I have high hopes for this book is a reason that would not occur to people who do not follow the industry: this will be Irving’s first book published with Simon & Schuster. Last year, in the words of Publishers Weekly, Simon & Schuster Publisher Jonathan “Karp Poache(d) John Irving From Random House.” It is unusual for established authors to switch publishers, especially if s/he has a good working relationship with an editor. I think one reason why Karp went after Irving is because Simon & Schuster does not have a lot of household-name fiction authors on their list. Still, I can’t imagine he would have done so without loving the current manuscript. According to The Million’s, the novel is the first person account of bisexual “man approaching 70,” reflecting on his life.

    My Personal "Most Anticipated" Debut

    Seating Arrangements by Maggie Shipstead (Estimated on-sale date: June 12 by Knopf)

    I fell in love with Maggie Shipstead’s prose via her short stories in The Best American Short Stories 2009, Glimmer Train (one of the most beautiful literary journals around) and Five Chapters (one of the best online-only publishers of short fiction; they publish one story per week in five installments). If you would like to read a story, here is one: Theories on the Origins of Time. While there is (rightly) a lot of controversy over MFA programs, for what it’s worth, Shipstead attended what is normal accepted as one of the best programs: The Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Afterwards, she received one of the most prestigious postgraduate fellowships: the Wallace Stenger Fellowship at Stanford. Not much is available about the content of the novel from Knopf, but from what I can find (from a UK publisher), it tells the story of a wealthy New England patriarch whose world is turned up-side-down on the eve of his pregnant daughter’s wedding. 

    (EDIT: There is a more complete description at the link above.)

    A Debut Getting Buzz

    No One Is Here Except All of Us by Ramona Ausubel (Estimated on-sale date: February 2 by Riverhead)

    I love reading debut novels. I find they can often be more “fearless” than later works. This novel, spotlighted in The Millions article linked above, seems to have the kind of “fearlessness” that will either make it an instant success or complete flop. (I am betting on a success!) Set in a small Romanian village in 1939, where the residents are starting to feel the scary threat of war, an 11-year-old girl encourages them to tell a different story “to will reality out of existence, and imagine a new and safer world.” It sounds like it may have the slight magic realism bent of Téa Obreht's 2011 debut The Tiger’s Wife. It will take a lot to repeat the success of The Tiger’s Wife, but if readers and reviews start to draw comparisons, Ausubel’s novel might have a chance.

    Click the photograph to the right for a short video of Ausubel. I was interested in the novel from just the written description, but this made me even more excited to read it. I can't wait!

    A Historical Comedy?

    Watergate by Thomas Mallon (Estimated on-sale date: February 21 by Pantheon)

    I have not read any of Mallon’s eight other books – I’ve actually never heard of him – but I am including this pick because of the praise of a good industry source and because the subject continues to fascinate people forty years later. It is being marketed as a “comic novel,” which makes sense. Despite the tragic side of Watergate, there was a lot of humor, especially in the arrogance of the perpetrators. If Mallon exposes that side, it could be a very fun read.

    A Book of Non-Fiction by an Established Novelist 

    When I Was a Child I Read Books: Essays by Marilynne Robinson (Estimated on-sale date: March 13 by FSG) 

    Books by Marilynne Robinson come out so seldom – she’s written three novels over 31 years – that fans of her novels will likely be excited to read her writing in any form. Shamefully, I have not yet read any of her work, but I plan to read the Pulitzer Prize winning Gilead shortly.

    A Few More Novels Which Sound Interesting

    Hope: A Tragedy by Shalom Auslander (Estimated on-sale date: January 12 by Riverhead) 

    The Chemistry of Tears by Peter Carey (Estimated on-sale date: May 15 by Knopf)

    Arcadia by Lauren Groff (Estimated on-sale date: March 13 by Voice) 

    Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures by Emma Straub (Unscheduled – likely before June – by Riverhead)

    Flatscreen by Adam Wilson (Estimated on-sale date: Feb 21 by Harper Perennial)