Can't We Talk about Something More Pleasant?: A Memoir

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2014 National Book Critics Circle Award Winners Announced

The winners of the National Book Critics Circle Award have been announced in New York City. The award is voted on by critics and considers all books in English (including in translation), no matter the country of origin. The winners in the various categories and some supplementary links: Fiction: Marilynne Robinson, Lila ("Marilynne Robinson’s Singular Vision") Nonfiction: David Brion Davis, The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Emancipation (excerpt) Autobiography: Roz Chast, Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant (excerpt) Criticism: Ellen Willis, The Essential Ellen Willis Biography: John Lahr, Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh (The Duality of the Human Psyche: On John Lahr’s Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh) Poetry: Claudia Rankine, Citizen: An American Lyric (A Year in Reading: Tiphanie Yanique)   Previously: The finalists

2014 National Book Award Shortlists Released

Book award season is peaking along with the autumn leaves as the National Book Award shortlists have been released in four categories. These have been whittled down from last month's longlists, and the winners will be announced in New York City on November 19. As we mentioned when she landed on the longlist, one of the fiction finalists will be especially familiar to Millions readers. Emily St. John Mandel, whose Station Eleven has been winning high praise, has been a staff writer for us since 2009. We'll again point you to her first piece for us: "Working the Double Shift" examined how many writers must write as a "second career" while a day job pays the bills. You read about nearly all of the books on the Fiction longlist here first, as they appeared in our indispensable first-half and second-half previews. Here’s a list of the finalists in all four categories with bonus links and excerpts where available: Fiction: An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine (excerpt) All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr (Doerr's Year in Reading, 2010) Redeployment by Phil Klay (excerpt) Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel (Mandel's Millions archive) Lila by Marilynne Robinson (excerpt) Nonfiction: Can't We Talk about Something More Pleasant? by Roz Chast (excerpt) No Good Men Among the Living: America, the Taliban, and the War through Afghan Eyes by Anand Gopal (excerpt) Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh by John Lahr (excerpt) Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China by Evan Osnos (excerpt) The Meaning of Human Existence by Edward O. Wilson Poetry: Faithful and Virtuous Night by Louise Glück (review) Second Childhood by Fanny Howe (review) This Blue by Maureen N. McLane (review) The Feel Trio by Fred Moten (excerpt) Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine (excerpt) Young People's Literature: Threatened by Eliot Schrefer The Port Chicago 50: Disaster, Mutiny, and the Fight for Civil Rights by Steve Sheinkin (excerpt) Noggin by John Corey Whaley (excerpt) Revolution: The Sixties Trilogy, Book Two by Deborah Wiles Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson (excerpt)

Is There No Gender Equity in Nonfiction?

When the National Book Awards Longlist for Nonfiction was released this week with only one woman author out of 10 nominees (and only one person of color), I thought, wow, the jury (two of whom are women) must have completely missed the increasingly vociferous discussions over the past few years about the lack of gender equity in the literary world. Then I read the Slate essay in which Katy Waldman calls nonfiction the “patriarch of the book world.” As the author of a forthcoming nonfiction book, a biography, I have become aware of how male-dominated the field of biography is. But why all of nonfiction? Last year’s longlist wasn’t much better: only three women out of 10. Prior to last year, the National Book Award announced only shortlists, which look pretty good since 2010 (two or three women out of five) but for much of the 2000s were dismal (mostly one or even no women out of five). A recent study in Mayborn also showed that among all of the major prizes in nonfiction over the past 20 years, only 20 percent were won by women and five percent by people of color. The study also found that these results don’t simply prove jury bias; the percentage of books by women submitted to the major competitions was only 30 percent last year. (The study also found the awards skew towards East Coast writers nurtured by institutions that are predominately white and male.) Are fewer women writing nonfiction, you might ask. I suppose it depends on what you call “nonfiction.” According to the last few years’ NBA juries, it is mostly history (preferably about war or early America); biography (preferably about men, especially presidents); or reportage (preferably about war, the economy, or non-Western countries). Even within these parameters, there were some notable, well-reviewed books by women that didn’t make this year’s list: Louisa Lim’s The People's Republic of Amnesia: Tiananmen Revisited Amanda Vaill’s Hotel Florida: Truth, Love, and Death in the Spanish Civil War Lynn Sherr’s Sally Ride: America’s First Woman in Space Joan De Jean’s How Paris Became Paris: The Invention of the Modern City Karen Abbott's Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy: Four Women Undercover in the Civil War Two books in science, a topic which attracts surprisingly little attention from NBA juries, should have been strong contenders this year (along with E.O. Wilson’s The Meaning of Human Existence, which did make the list): Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction An Unnatural History Dianne Ackerma’s The Human Age: The World Shaped by Us There are other nonfiction genres, however, in which women are prolific—namely memoir and the essay—which get short shrift from the major awards. The only book by a woman on this year’s NBA longlist is a graphic memoir by Roz Chast called Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?. It is also the only memoir on the list. Of the past 50 nominated books, Waldman points out, only four have been memoirs (three of them by women—one of them won, Patti Smith’s Just Kids in 2010). Women’s attraction to memoirs and essays, many of which focus on the issues unique to women’s lives, may in fact have much to do with their low profile. Memoirs and essay collections by women that deserved the judges’ attention this year include: Leslie Jemison’s The Empathy Exams: Essays Eula Biss’s On Immunity: An Inoculation Barbara Ehrenreich’s Living With a Wild God: A Nonbeliever's Search for the Truth About Everything Roxanne Gay’s Bad Feminist: Essays Jessica Hendry Nelson’s If Only You People Could Follow Directions: A Memoir Then there are those nonfiction books that defy genre. In 1976, when Maxine Hong Kingston won the National Book Critics Circle Award for nonfiction with The Woman Warrior (her China Men won the NBA in 1981), it seemed as if nonfiction had experienced a seismic shift. Unfortunately, in recent years, the major awards have not reflected much of an interest in works that defy category—whether it be in their play between fiction and nonfiction or simply in their interest in combining elements of subgenres within nonfiction (such as history, biography, literary criticism, and memoir). There are a number of compelling works published this year by women that inject memoir into these more conventionally objective subgenres. I would conjecture, in fact, that women writers are more likely to investigate how their own lives intersect with larger issues—such as great books, our nation’s founding documents, or returning soldier’s PTSD—as they did in these works: Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch Danielle Allen, Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality Jennifer Percy’s Demon Camp: A Soldier’s Exorcism Azar Nafisi’s The Republic of Imagination: America in Three Books This year’s NBA nonfiction longlist is disappointing not simply because of its dearth of women writers but also because of its unwillingness to think beyond the male-dominated forms of nonfiction that have garnered the most gravitas in the past. We can keep hoping, however, that the subtle biases that govern out understanding of literary value—why is a great work, as Ron Charles points out, called “seminal” rather than “ovular”?—will gradually become as quaint as those 1950s videos instructing women in how to become the perfect housewife.

Kirkus Prize Finalists Announced

Starting this year, Kirkus Reviews will award the impressive sum of $50,000 each to three winners of their new Kirkus Prize, which recognizes works of fiction, nonfiction and children’s literature. This morning, they announced their first-ever batch of finalists, a long list including a few names who should be familiar to Millions readers: Elizabeth Kolbert (for The Sixth Extinction, which we published an essay about); Year in Reading alum Sarah Waters (for The Paying Guests); Thomas Piketty (for Capital in the 21st Century); New Yorker cartoonist Roz Chast (for her memoir); and Siri Hustvedt (for The Blazing World, which we reviewed). Their judges will announce the winners on October 23rd.

2014 National Book Award Longlists Released

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Book award season enters high gear as the National Book Award finalists have been released in a series of four longlists consisting of ten books apiece. Five finalists in each category will be announced on October 15, and winners will be announced in New York City on November 19. One of the fiction finalists will be especially familiar to Millions readers. Emily St. John Mandel, whose Station Eleven has been winning high praise, has been a staff writer for us since 2009. Now might be a good moment to revisit her first piece for us: "Working the Double Shift" examined how many writers must write as a "second career" while a day job pays the bills. You read about nearly all of the books on the Fiction longlist here first, as they appeared in our indispensable first-half and second-half previews. In the other categories, many have pointed out that the Non-Fiction longlist includes just a single book by a female author. Here’s a list of the finalists in all four categories with bonus links and excerpts where available: Fiction: An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine (excerpt) The UnAmericans by Molly Antopol (The Millions interview) Wolf in White Van by John Darnielle (excerpt) All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr (Doerr's Year in Reading, 2010) Redeployment by Phil Klay (excerpt) Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel (Mandel's Millions archive) Thunderstruck & Other Stories by Elizabeth McCracken (McCracken's Year in Reading, 2008) Orfeo by Richard Powers (The Millions review) Lila by Marilynne Robinson (excerpt) Some Luck by Jane Smiley Nonfiction: Can't We Talk about Something More Pleasant? by Roz Chast (excerpt) The Heathen School: A Story of Hope and Betrayal in the Age of the Early Republic by John Demos (excerpt) No Good Men Among the Living: America, the Taliban, and the War through Afghan Eyes by Anand Gopal (excerpt) The Mantle of Command: FDR at War, 1941 - 1942 by Nigel Hamilton (excerpt) The Innovators: How a Group of Inventors, Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution by Walter Isaacson (excerpt) Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh by John Lahr (excerpt) Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China by Evan Osnos (excerpt) When Paris Went Dark: The City of Light Under German Occupation, 1940-1944 by Ronald C. Rosbottom (excerpt) Nature's God: The Heretical Origins of the American Republic by Matthew Stewart (excerpt) The Meaning of Human Existence by Edward O. Wilson Poetry: Roget's Illusion by Linda Bierds (excerpts and discussion) A Several World by Brian Blanchfield (interview) Faithful and Virtuous Night by Louise Glück (review) Gabriel: A Poem by Edward Hirsch (excerpt) Second Childhood by Fanny Howe (review) This Blue by Maureen N. McLane (review) The Feel Trio by Fred Moten (excerpt) Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine (excerpt) The Road to Emmaus by Spencer Reese (profile) Collected Poems by Mark Strand (biography) Young People's Literature: The Impossible Knife of Memory by Laurie Halse Anderson (excerpt) Girls Like Us by Gail Giles (excerpt) Skink--No Surrender by Carl Hiaasen Greenglass House by Kate Milford (excerpt) Threatened by Eliot Schrefer The Port Chicago 50: Disaster, Mutiny, and the Fight for Civil Rights by Steve Sheinkin (excerpt) 100 Sideways Miles by Andrew Smith (excerpt) Noggin by John Corey Whaley (excerpt) Revolution: The Sixties Trilogy, Book Two by Deborah Wiles Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson (excerpt)
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