LOUIS BEGLEY: I always play catch up in my reading – unless I reread! – so that so far there isn’t a single work of fiction published in 2011 or 2012 that I plan to read in the near future. Here is my current list for 2012:
Daniel Kehlmann’s Measuring the World. I read Kehlmann’s short novel Fame a month or so ago and was enchanted by its wit and the quick brush strokes with which he paints his characters. When I came to the end, I wished there had been more. Fortunately, Measuring the World, the intertwined stories of the discoveries of Alexander von Humboldt and Carl Friedrich Gauss, is somewhat longer.
Colm Tóibín, The Master. I was stunned by intelligence and psychological insights Tóibín displayed in his Brooklyn, which my daughter gave me for my birthday, and quickly bought the most recent volume of his short stories, The Empty Family, which I find brilliant. The Master is next on the list. I can’t resist its attraction.
Witold Gombrowicz, Ferdydurke. This is the masterpiece of the Polish novelist Gombrowicz, and it is one of the great novels of the first half of the twentieth century. I reread it regularly for its savage humor and the pungency of its language. The time has come to plunge into that invigorating bath again!
Begley’s newest novel, Schmidt Steps Back, will be published by Knopf in March. He is appearing at The Center on March 22.
DAVID EBERSHOFF: I want to read The Flame Alphabet by Ben Marcus. He’s an original writer, devoted to the possibilities of language. 26 letters–that’s all we work with. The title of this book makes me curious to see what he’s achieved with our 26 little tools.
David Ebershoff is the author of four books of fiction, including The Danish Girl, The Rose City, and Pasadena. His most recent novel is the international bestseller, The 19th Wife.
JONATHAN FRANZEN: I don’t know what I’ll be reading in 2012, but having found my way, in recent years, to many happy surprises by young American writers– among them Joshua Cody’s [sic], Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding, Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station, Teddy Wayne’s Kapitoil, and Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum’s Ms. Hempel Chronicles– I’m confident of encountering more.
Jonathan Franzen’s most recent novel is Freedom. His new collection of essays, Farther Away, is due out in April.
DAVID LEAVITT: One book I’m very much looking forward to reading in 2012 is Peter Cameron‘s Coral Glynn, which FSG will be publishing.
David Leavitt is the author of four short story collections and seven novels, including his latest, The Indian Clerk, which was short-listed for the IMPAC/Dublin Award.
URSULA K. LE GUIN: So far, I only know one novel I am determined to read in 2012. It won’t be published here for a while yet–I don’t even know the title– I’ve asked to review it in England, so they’ll send me a copy. The author is Johan Theorin. Two of his books are available here–Echoes from the Dead and The Darkest Room. All are set on Öland, an island in the Baltic Sea just off the south coast of Sweden. They’re published as mysteries, so of course the blurb compares him to Stieg Larsson, bah humbug. If it has to be another Swede, Ingmar Bergman, the Bergman of Wild Strawberries, would be more like it. Theorin uses the mystery form subtly and skillfully to structure quiet, vivid, understated, complex, sometimes tense, always fascinating novels of place, mood, and character. The first book gives a particularly unforgettable picture of the island itself, its strange treeless limestone region, its weather, its gnarly people, its loneliness. I’ve found many good books in the “Death in the North” section of our local store, Murder by the Book, but Theorin is in a class by himself. His English publisher is Black Swan, which belongs to Random House, who ought to get wise and put out all his books in America.
Ursula K. Le Guin has published seven books of poetry, 22 novels, over 100 short stories, four collections of essays, twelve books for children, and four volumes of translation. She is the winner of too many awards to list here.
BONNIE NADZAM: I have a long-term project of reading three to five works of excellent fiction for each letter of the alphabet—great books that I’ve not yet read. Now, in January 2012, I’m on the letter “M.” There will be many books that I’ll pick up or feel compelled to read or that colleagues and favorite writers will publish. It took to the end of 2011 to read the Center for Fiction’s shortlist for debut novels, and I’m looking forward to reading everything on the 2012 list, whichever works those may be. Stephan Clark‘s Vladimir’s Mustache comes out in 2012, and comes close to starting with “m,” at least insofar as the importance of mustaches, and I know I’ll pause in this project to read it. I also can’t wait to see what fiction in the lit magazine, The Coffin Factory, looks like this year. Otherwise, I’m really looking forward to reading Le Morte d’Arthur (Malory, and I’ve already started), Much Ado about Nothing (which somehow in all those lit classes I missed), Madame Bovary (Flaubert), Middlemarch (Eliot), Magic Mountain (Thomas Mann), The Moviegoer (Walker Percy), and Money: A Suicide Note (Martin Amis). I don’t expect ever to finish this project. I did not begin with the letter “A.”
Bonnie Nadzam’s most recent book, Lamb, won the Center’s 2011 Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize. You can read an interview with her here.
JOYCE CAROL OATES: Since I am immersing myself in the literature of 1905-6, & decades preceding, I will want to reread Edith Wharton, particularly The House Of Mirth; & Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie; work by Willa Cather, Henry James, Jack London, & Upton Sinclair (The Jungle); plus romances & verse of the era, as well as looking at Walt Whitman & Emily Dickinson with a “new”–(that is, a 1905-vision)–perspective. (I am working on a gothic-historical novel set in Princeton, NJ.) Of upcoming novels, I am looking forward to Richard Ford’s Canada and Edmund White’s Jack Holmes And His Friend.
Joyce Carol Oates has published over 50 novels, as well as many volumes of short stories, poetry, and nonfiction. She will lead a master Class on Crime Fiction at here at The Center on May 16.
ED PARK: I’m bracing myself for Ben Marcus’s The Flame Alphabet, which I plan to allow to rearrange my head, the way each of his previous books has. I read part of an ARC of Antoine Wilson’s Panorama City and dug the Beckettian comma splices, then lost the book for a few months. (I’ve been turning my office upside down looking for it but I’ll just wait for the real thing.) Nobody writes novels like Heidi Julavits, and The Vanishers might be her supreme achievement. There’s a description early on of a wall “varicosed” with ivy, which I think of whenever I see ivy now (or my legs, for that matter). And Sergio de la Pava’s self-published A Naked Singularity in 2007; Scott Bryan Wilson at the online literary magazine The Quarterly Conversation caught wind of it three years later, delivering an unqualified rave; his review begins with an editor’s note that states, “There is a growing body of evidence that it is a remarkable work of fiction that has been unjustly ignored.” Now the University of Chicago Press is bringing it out, in no small part due to the labors of my friend Levi Stahl, a littérateur whose recommendations have never steered me wrong.
Ed Park is the author of the novel Personal Days and a founding editor of The Believer. He is Fiction Editor at Amazon Publishing.
TOM PIAZZA: Lydia Davis’s translation of Madame Bovary. The Steegmuller translation has always been my favorite, and I have a feeling Davis may be a little bit like listening to Pierre Boulez conduct Beethoven. But her brain is so interesting that the translation is guaranteed to be worth reading.
Dostoevsky’s The Possessed, in the good ol’ Constance Garnett translation. I have so far disliked the newly hegemonic Pevear/Volkhonsky translations of just about every Russian text I have read. Some people say they are more faithful to the original, whatever that means, but to me their translations are flavorless. You can really see it if you read the first hundred pages or so of their Brothers Karamazov and compare it with Garnett’s. Old Karamazov never quite makes it to the page in Pevear/Volkhonsky. Right now I’m also reading the new “condensation” of Joseph Frank’s biography of Dostoevsky.
I hope that by the end of the year there will be bound galleys of Norman Rush’s upcoming novel Subtle Bodies. Everything he writes is great.
Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom. I thought The Corrections was a masterpiece. For such an ambitious writer, he has a blind spot for a few large tracts of American reality, but I’m trying to think of an American writer of whom that might not be said. People I respect have told me that Freedom is better than The Corrections, and I plan to see for myself this year.
Musil’s The Man Without Qualities. A couple of years ago Christopher Ricks gave me a copy of Volume One and said he’d give me the second volume when I finished the first. I’m getting that copy of Volume Two this year, I swear it.
Tom Piazza is a writer for HBO’s Treme, author of the novel City of Refuge and, most recently, the essay collection Devil Sent The Rain. See Tom on video here.
ROXANA ROBINSON: I’m looking forward to reading The Death of Ivan Ilich by Leo Tolstoy. Tolstoy is by far my favorite writer (as long as I’m writing about him, though if I were writing about Virginia Woolf I might say the same about her) but I haven’t gotten much further than reading and re-reading War and Peace and Anna Karenina. I’ve also read Resurrection, which is not nearly as great as the two giants–solemn and polemical, more politics than human nature. It’s a disappointment to read a bad book by someone you love, so I might just go on re-reading the big novels, but I’ve become tempted by Ivan Ilich.
It’s amazing to realize that after writing War and Peace, which for most writers would be quite enough, Tolstoy went on to write Anna Karenina, a work so rich and so beautiful and so moving that it’s hard to characterize. It, too, contained a political message (it began as a criticism of the restrictive divorce laws), but any agenda is deeply submerged in its mysterious depths. As in War and Peace, in Anna Karenina the mesmerizing narrative includes the whole reach of human experience. Love and marriage, adultery and betrayal, the driving force of passion and the agonizing impositions of reality, are played out through the consciousness of the characters.
After those two giants, how could Tolstoy go on? What more was there to say? But nearly twenty years after War and Peace he wrote The Death of Ivan Ilich. It’s described as one of his late masterpieces. I’m looking forward to reading it.
Roxana Robinson is the author of the four novels, including most recently Cost, as well as three short story collections. She has organized a marathon reading of House of Mirth at the Center for January 26 and will appear here on April 12 with Jane Smiley to discuss Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
JONATHAN SANTLOFER: As Program Director for the new Crime Fiction Academy at The Center for Fiction I can’t help but look forward to books coming out in the genre, though I tend to see crime fiction in a wider spectrum. Of course there are more books than I can possibly list, but here are a few…
With his beautiful prose and unhurried sense of urgency I always think of Thomas H. Cook as a poet of the genre and I’m guessing The Crime of Julian Wells (Grove/Atlantic) will not disappoint.
With several neo-noir books under her belt and last year’s stunning The End of Everything, Megan Abbott is no longer a writer to watch, but one to wait for, and though July seems far away I’m waiting for Dare Me (Little/Brown).
Susan Isaacs had me with Compromising Positions and has kept me laughing at murder for years, as I’m certain she will with Goldberg Variations (Scribner).
I’ve been hooked on Karin Slaughter since her first novel, Blindsighted, and will surely be reading her latest, Criminal (Delacorte).
Joyce Carol Oates never disappoints. A fearless writer, who has tackled just about every subject and genre and kept readers turning pages for decades, she will no doubt do so again with Mudwoman (Ecco), and Evil Eye: Four Novellas of Love Gone Wrong (Grove/Atlantic).
I’m going over my five-book limit because I’ve just read the ARC for Sheila Kohler’s The Bay of Foxes and it’s a knockout, a literary novel with all the suspense of the best crime fiction.
And, as a bonus, I’m keeping my fingers crossed that Linda Fairstein will finish her 14th Alex Cooper novel in time for a 2012 publication. I know she’s trying, and I’m rooting for her (and for Alex).
Jonathan Santlofer is the author of five novels, including Anatomy of Fear, which won the Nero Wolfe Award for best crime novel of 2009. He is Director of The Crime Fiction Academy at The Center for Fiction.
JANE SMILEY: There are books I wish might be published: William Kristol I was Wrong About Everything, Grover Norquist, Why I am Leaving Public Life and Joining a Monastery, or from the editors of the New York Times: Just Discovered–The Last Twelve Years Never Actually Happened!
Jane Smiley is the author of numerous novels, including A Thousand Acres, which was awarded the Pulitzer Prize. Her most recent novel is Private Life. She will be at the Center on April 12 with Roxana Robinson.
LILY TUCK: Presently, I am reading Proust’s In Search of Lost Time in both English and French and, I imagine, this will keep me occupied for some time. In addition, for inspiration, I want to reread three of my favorite writers:
Christa Wolf, the East German writer who died recently, and who I have always admired, Nathalie Sarraute, who I don’t always understand but who interests me, and Penelope Fitzgerald whose writing I have always loved.
I am also looking forward to reading new books by friends: Benjamin Taylor‘s Naples Declared, Margot Livesey‘s The Flight of Gemma Hardy, and Tom Mallon‘s Watergate.
And, finally, piled high on my night table for bed time reading and dreaming — in my next life, I want to be a physicist — The First Three Minutes by Steven Weinberg, Just Six Numbers by Martin Rees, In Search of Time by Dan Falk and Knocking on Heaven’s Door by Lisa Randall.
Lily Tuck is the author of the just published I Married You for Happiness, as well as five previous novels including the NBA winner The News from Paraguay. She was a judge for the Center’s 2011 Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize.
Riceyman Steps (Penguin Books, 1991) by Arnold Bennett. I never read Arnold Bennett, although I came across his titles numerous times when I was in graduate school. Especially his Old Wives’ Tales and Anna of the Five Towns. I always imagined him as a dusty old thing, buried under the soil of Modernism. Very recently, the Auden scholar and Professor of literature at Columbia University, Edward Mendelson gave me a copy of Bennett’s Riceyman Steps. I expected I would have to blow off a lot of dust to get beyond the first page. Mendelson’s introduction intrigued me because he claims that Bennett’s novel is really a crypto-Modernist work and vastly misunderstood by the likes of Virginia Woolf, who saw him as I had, a dusty old thing, out of touch with the new and the fresh. Indeed, the dust is everywhere in the novel because it takes place in a bookshop that hasn’t been cleaned for ages. But I’ve been caught within the first five pages in the unfolding of lives tightly bound. This is my first book of the New Year.
Children of Clay (Sun and Moon Press, 1998) by Raymond Queneau. I’ve read almost all of the novels by Raymond Queneau. If you’re not acquainted with him, I implore you to read The Bark Tree or Last Days. There are others I love as well. Apart from Proust, he is the French writer of the 20th Century that I love the most because he has wit and humor and depth. All effortlessly and seemingly casually addressed. I’ve tried to read his Children of Clay more than three times. It is a stubborn book made up of tales that from what I understand he gleaned from records of patients in an insane asylum. I intend to be stubborn myself and go back to reading it with the pleasure I know that is waiting for me.
Sister Stop Breathing (Calamari Press, 2012) by Chiara Barzini. Some years ago, I was the guest editor for The New Review of Literature and had chosen three very short stories by Chiara Barzini. Now those pieces, along with others that I have not read, are included in her new book Sister Stop Breathing. I’m enchanted by her fictions: they are brief enough to be taken whole at a few moment’s sitting and yet and have a wonderful staying power and resonance. They are filled with a kind of mischief and bite, a subversion of the decencies we hold dear or say that we do.
Frederic Tuten has published five novels. His most recent book is the story collection, Self-Portraits: Fictions. His highly regarded art and film criticism has appeared in magazines around the world.
EDMUND WHITE: I’m excited about Martin Amis’s Lionel Asbo, partly because he is one of our greatest writers (yes, “our” since he lives in America now) and partly because it’s about model and politician Kate Price.
I’m also eager to see Joyce Carol Oates’s Mudwoman, which I read in mss. It’s a very dark, transgressive novel about a university president.
Sheila Kohler is lavishing lots of time and effort on her novel about Freud (her husband is a psychiatrist) and it’s bound to be fascinating.
Edmund White has published several books, including novels, memoirs, and biographies. His newest novel, just out, is Jack Holmes and His Friend. (Everyone at The Center loves Ed madly and we can’t wait to see him here again soon.)
JOHN WRAY: I’m not someone who plans his reading list far in advance—most of the books that have really upended me were things I came across by chance—but three books do stand out for me in the coming year. First, in order of pub date, is Nathan Englander’s story collection What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank. I can still remember scenes (and even sentences) from Englander’s first collection of ten years past, and the title story of the new book, which I read in the New Yorker a few months ago, was excruciatingly funny. Then there’s The Vanishers, the fourth novel by my longstanding (literary!) crush, Heidi Julavits. The protagonist of the novel is a psychic, which seems appropriate, since I’ve long suspected Ms. Julavits of being a psychic herself. And, lastly but not leastly, there’s Your Name Here, the new ‘novel’ (or novel-equivalent) by Helen DeWitt. I don’t know anything else about it, but that doesn’t matter. Anyone who’s read The Last Samurai, DeWitt’s 2001 novel, will understand.
John Wray is the author of three critically acclaimed novels, including his most recent, Low Boy. He has served as a judge for The Center’s Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize.