President Trump at the White House, April 2, 2020 (AP Photo/Alex Brandon); Henry Holt; two-time Booker-winner Hilary Mantel (Photo by Els Zweerink)
“The Mirror & the Light,” the third volume of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall trilogy, is reportedly another triumph (review). From the machinations of Henry VIII’s powerful adviser Thomas Cromwell, Mantel has spun one of the most monumental works of historical fiction ever written. That’s giving me a little hope as we endure the deadly chaos of the Trump administration. For two months, President Trump dismissed the coronavirus, mocked anyone who took it seriously and blamed the media for inflaming a situation he had entirely under control. This week he suggested with royal confidence that if only 100,000 Americans die, “we all together have done a very good job.” That’s not so much moving the goal post as melting the goal post down and making commemorative coins out of it. Brilliant novelists like Salman Rushdie, Howard Jacobson and Dave Eggers have tried, but none has fully captured the absurd mendacity of Donald Trump and the sycophants who cheer him on. Perhaps our contemporary fiction writers are just too close. Maybe disorder of this magnitude requires time, even centuries to decompose, to fade away, to grow wholly unfamiliar. But be encouraged, book lovers! Hundreds of years from now, some brilliant Martian artist scanning ancient Earth tweets will uncover the unbelievable history of what happened to America and tell the most astonishing tale.
James Patterson (Courtesy of Hachette Book Group); American Booksellers Association
James Patterson has donated $500,000 to help keep indie bookstores solvent through this challenging time. The best-selling author is working with the Book Industry Charitable Foundation (Binc) to promote an April campaign called #SaveIndieBookstores, in conjunction with the American Booksellers Association. (Reese Witherspoon and her book club are on board, too.) In a statement released Thursday, Patterson said, “The White House is concerned about saving the airline industry and big businesses – I get that. But I’m concerned about the survival of independent bookstores, which are at the heart of main streets across the country. I believe that books are essential. They make us kinder, more empathetic human beings. And they have the power to take us away — even momentarily — from feeling overwhelmed, anxious, and scared.” Patterson has a long record of charitable giving: A spokesperson for Hachette says that he has donated more than $75 million (!) and more than 1 million books to support literacy causes. Publishers Weekly reports that Patterson is personally asking fellow super-rich people like Michael Bloomberg and MacKenzie Bezos to support the cause. You can make your own tax-deductible donation to #SaveIndieBookstores here.
Harper; Mashpee Wampanoag Tribal lands in Massachusetts (AP Photo/Steven Senne); Louise Erdrich (Hilary Abe/Courtesy of Harper)
Louise Erdrich has just published a historical novel that suddenly feels ripped from today’s headlines. “The Night Watchman” is a story inspired by her grandfather who fought the federal government’s efforts to disband Indian tribes in the 1950s (review). This week, in the middle of the coronavirus crisis, the Trump administration made time to revive those efforts. The Secretary of the Interior has ordered that the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe reservation be disestablished and its land in Massachusetts be taken out of trust. The tribe leaders have denounced the decision and vowed to fight back (statement). For Erdrich, this fresh U.S. attack on people who have been here since before the Pilgrims is contemptible. “This is personal for me,” she told me. “Just out of college, I worked at the Boston Indian Council with many admirable Mashpee Wampanoag tribal members who were dedicated to revitalizing their language, culture, traditional spirituality. They have rebuilt their community time after time, devastation after devastation. Now they are facing the deadly coronavirus and instead of extending assistance the Trump administration has issued a termination decree. It is a shameful, spiteful, and transparently greedy act.”
(Chicago Review; Atria; Penguin; Knopf; Amulet; Pantheon)
Many bookstores are adapting to the coronavirus quarantine by shifting their business online. But many publishers are taking a different approach: Hundreds of spring books are being delayed so that they can be released this summer or fall when, presumably, stores have reopened. Titles by George Harrison, Maggie Smith, Ottessa Moshfegh, Jeff Kinney, Peter Geye, Graham Swift, Robert D. Putnam, Laila Lalami and many more have all been rescheduled for later this year. These delays suggest just how crucial brick-and-mortar bookstores remain despite the prominence of Amazon. Clearly, lots of titles still depend on the persuasive power of books stacked in Barnes & Noble and hand-sold in indie bookstores. Take all that away — as the coronavirus has done temporarily — and you’d have a publishing market that could support far fewer authors than we enjoy today. (NPD Bookscan reports that last week's sales of print books fell more than 9 percent, with adult fiction dropping more than 20 percent.)
Releasing a book during this retail apocalypse is risky, but doubling up releases in the second half of 2020 will be risky, too. This fall is shaping up to be the most crowded season I can remember. Will Fresh Air, the Today Show, Oprah and your favorite newspaper book section respond to this avalanche by covering twice as many books? (Unlikely.) Will readers buy twice as many new titles in September? (Probably not.) Will all these big releases simply smother each other? (That’s what I’m worried about.)
Meg Wolitzer (Photo: © Nina Subin/Courtesy of Riverhead)
Meg Wolitzer isn't just a brilliantly witty novelist. She's a wickedly smart puzzle maven. Riverhead, her publisher, has just released a cryptic crossword designed by Wolitzer using titles from its upcoming summer catalogue. The clues are a mixture of wordplay and esoteric associations like this: “Rotten guavas incur victory after Trump, perhaps, in Masha Gessen’s latest.” The answer is obvious to me, of course, but I don’t want to spoil it for the rest of you. . . . Download the Wolitzer's cryptic crossword.
Chronicle Books; OpenClipart-Vectors on Pixabay.
Not the Onion: The Worst-Case Scenario museum in Philadelphia had to close because we’re now facing the worst-case scenario. The irony isn’t lost on Josh Piven, co-author of the best-selling “Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook.” He points out that the latest edition presciently includes a chapter on “How to Survive a Viral Outbreak or Super-flu.” But he and co-author David Borgenicht didn’t anticipate what else we really need to know, which is “How to Make Your Own Hand Sanitizer” and “How to Survive When Quarantined with Teenagers.” Those crucial instructions are now available on the newly designed website, which launched this week. There you’ll also find a place to describe your own worst-case scenario. Piven and Borgenicht will respond to the best-worst ones every Wednesday.
F. Scott Fitzgerald in the 1920s (AP Photo/File); Zelda Sayre, 1917; Scribner, 1920; St. Martin's, 2013
Today is the 100th wedding anniversary of Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald, the most famous couple in American literary history. Almost from the start, their glamorous, stormy and finally tragic relationship was woven into the mythos of the Roaring Twenties. In 1918, Zelda was a 17-year-old belle of Montgomery, the daughter of a wealthy Alabama Supreme Court judge who thought Fitzgerald wasn’t good enough to join the family. Newly discharged from the Army, Fitzgerald eventually moved back in with his parents (See? Nothing wrong with that) and decided to write a bestseller to prove his worthiness. It was an outlandish scheme, of course, but it worked, which is all that mattered. “This Side of Paradise” was published to rapturous attention; Zelda and Scott married a few days later. The conflation of their lives with Fitzgerald’s fiction would buoy and dog them forever. Therese Anne Fowler published a biographical novel about Zelda called “Z” in 2013. “This is such a terrific true love story, if one believes in true love, and I think that they actually did,” Fowler tells me. “That might be one of the reasons that they stayed together.” Neither of them was faithful to the other, and Zelda was eventually institutionalized, but they never divorced. “It certainly wasn’t just duty,” Fowler says, “because they knew people who were divorcing and going on to other relationships — Ernest Hemingway first among them. So I have to think that as bad as they sometimes were for each other, that there was something essential to each of them about the relationship. We’d probably call them codependent now because we’re cynical about such things, but they both really believed in what they had together.” To Scott and Zelda — here’s to another century.
Fowler, by the way, just published a new novel called “A Good Neighborhood,” which Barnes & Noble has chosen for its book club (review). Fowler’s tour has been canceled because of the coronavirus, but you can participate in the virtual book club discussion on Tuesday, April 7, at 7 p.m. ET on Facebook @barnesandnoble. (Join here.)
(Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers; Scholastic; Dolly Parton (Courtesy of Imagination Library); Kobe Bryant (File photo by Andrew D. Bernstein)
This week was the best of times and the worst of times for children’s literature.
- Author and illustrator Tomie dePaola, who died this week at the age of 85, was beloved around the world and particularly in the little town of New London, N.H. where he lived. The Morgan Hill Bookstore in New London, which I visit every summer, enjoyed a close relationship with dePaola for years. The coronavirus has closed the store, but the owners have been overwhelmed by phone and email orders for books that dePaola autographed. Unfortunately, unlike Strega Nona's pasta, the supply is limited. To satisfy as many customers as possible, sales are restricted to just one copy per title.
- Dav Pilkey, the creator of Dog Man and Captain Underpants, has started posting readings and lessons online for homebound kids. You’ll find his new video content every Friday morning on the Scholastic and Library of Congress websites. Also this week, Scholastic announced that Pilkey will launch a new graphic novel series called “Cat Kid Comic Club” on Dec. 1, 2020. (Don’t tell your kids about this unless you want them to ask you every day: “Is it December 1 yet?”)
- Dolly Parton has written a brief introduction for the 90th anniversary edition of “The Little Engine that Could,” newly illustrated by Dan Santat (Penguin Young Readers, April 7). “On many occasions, when my dreams seemed far away, my Mama would tell me the story of the Little Engine to comfort and encourage me,” she writes. How important is this book to Parton? She’s given away more than 5 million copies. (Since 1995, Parton’s Imagination Library has donated more than 135 million children’s books.) And last night, sitting up in bed in her pajamas surrounded by white pillows, Parton started a 10-week reading series called “Goodnight with Dolly.” (More than 26,000 people — including me — watched the series launch on YouTube.) Parton will post new readings every Thursday at 7 p.m. ET. (watch).
- This week brings the bittersweet publication of a second book in the middle-grade Wizenard Series by Wesley King and the late Kobe Bryant, who died along with his 13-year-old daughter Gianna and seven others in a helicopter crash earlier this year. The new book, “Season One,” is a sequel to the authors’ 2019 bestselling “Wizenard Series: Training Camp.” King tells me, “Working with Kobe Bryant was like working with a mad combination of friends: the encouraging one who believes in you unconditionally, the dreamer who wants to change the world, and the wildly successful one who somehow retains an almost inexplicably good heart. And all this while we run around the backyard in the downpour of his creative output, trying to capture just the right amount in a bottle.”
- A good problem to have: With schools closed and kids cut off from libraries, First Book, the children’s literacy organization, made a special appeal to publishers like Penguin Random House, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Disney, Lee & Low and Candlewick Press. They responded by donating 7 million books. But now First Book desperately needs money to ship these books to kids around the country. (Make a tax-deductible donation.)
HarperOne; Bruce Daisley (Photo by Sam Hodges)
Remember last month when you thought working from home would be heaven? What a difference a world-wide pandemic makes. In late February, Bruce Daisley published a book about improving office life called “Eat Sleep Work Repeat.” But now that we’re all stuck at home, it feels more like eatsleepworkrepeat. The common irritations of the office have been replaced by the demands of child care, the challenges of isolation and the constant fear of losing loved ones. Daisley, the vice president of Twitter Europe, has some good advice for remote workers. “The people who are going to survive best,” he tells me from his apartment in London, “are going to have to take on doing an action that initially feels a bit uncomfortable: picking up the phone and calling a few colleagues once or twice a week. We’ve got to make sure that we retain human connections.” I didn’t know, for instance, that remote workers typically have higher stress levels than office workers. Daisley reminds us all to be gentle with ourselves. “When people feel a low level of anxiety through the day,” he says, “it does manifest in us feeling exhausted by the emotional drain of it. So let’s not drive ourselves into the ground right now. Let’s at least use this opportunity to reflect on what’s important, rather than trying to retain unsustainable levels of performance in such a singular and wretched time.” (Full interview)
(Hogarth; Graywolf; Doubleday; W. W. Norton)
For more than 80 years, the Anisfield-Wolf awards have honored books that confront racism and explore diversity. Henry Louis Gates Jr. serves as chair of the jury, which includes Rita Dove, Joyce Carol Oates, Steven Pinker and Simon Schama. This year’s winners are:
- Fiction: “The Old Drift,” by Namwali Serpell (review).
- Poetry: “Deaf Republic,” by Ilya Kaminsky (review).
- Nonfiction: “Gods of the Upper Air,” by Charles King (review).
- Lifetime Achievement: Historian Eric Foner for his writings on the Civil War and reconstruction (review).
Christian Wiman (Courtesy of Yale University); FSG
Christian Wiman, who teaches religion and literature at Yale, is the author of seven poetry collections. In 2013, several years after being told he had a rare, incurable cancer, he published a memoir called “My Bright Abyss.” Toward the end of that powerful book, he revealed, “There is every reason to think that I am at the beginning of a long remission, maybe five years, maybe ten, maybe even more.” His new collection of poetry is called “Survival Is a Style.”
All My Friends Are Finding New Beliefs
All my friends are finding new beliefs.
This one converts to Catholicism and this one to trees.
In a highly literary and hitherto religiously indifferent Jew
God whomps on like a genetic generator.
Paleo, Keto, Zone, South Beach, Bourbon.
Exercise regimens so extreme she merges with machine.
One man marries a woman twenty years younger
and twice in one brunch uses the word verdant;
another’s brick-fisted belligerence gentles
into dementia, and one, after a decade of finical feints and teases
like a sandpiper at the edge of the sea,
decides to die.
Priesthoods and beasthoods, sombers and glees,
high-styled renunciations and avocations of dirt,
sobrieties, satieties, pilgrimages to the very bowels of being . . .
All my friends are finding new beliefs
and I am finding it harder and harder to keep track
of the new gods and the new loves,
and the old gods and the old loves,
and the days have daggers, and the mirrors motives,
and the planet’s turning faster and faster in the blackness,
and my nights, and my doubts, and my friends,
my beautiful, credible friends.
Excerpted from “Survival Is a Style,” by Christian Wiman. Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, February 4, 2020. Copyright © 2020 by Christian Wiman. All rights reserved.
The Charleses have reached Day 18 in quarantine without irritating each other to death. Stay tuned. Wherever you are, I hope you're healthy and finding good books to read. If you have any questions or comments about our book coverage, contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. And if you know someone who would enjoy this newsletter, please forward it to them. To subscribe, click here.