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The Books We Want in 2016

By (January 1, 2016) No Comment

The insatiable literary appetite of a journal devoted to reviewing is more than equaled by the stampede of new books. But even before Open Letters Monthly sorts out the herd into sheep and goats, we scan the mountain for a glimpse of mutton on the hoof. Here, from our editors, is a scouting report about forthcoming books that fill us with hope for 2016.

Rohan Maitzen, Senior Editor

themadwomanupstairsApril 21, 2016 will be the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charlotte Brontë, so we can look forward to a bumper crop of books about her — and about her sisters Emily and Anne too, as ever since they published Poems by Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell in 1846, they have been seen as three parts of the same brilliant whole. (Indeed, in 1848, after the publication of their novels Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, and Agnes Grey, Charlotte and Anne traveled to London to prove to their publisher, George Smith, that there were three separate “Bells.”) Those of us who aren’t committed Janeites can only hope that the commemorative furor comes close to the fuss over the 200th anniversary of Pride and Prejudice in 2013 — though it seems unlikely, as the Brontës’ novels are too turbulent and melodramatic to appeal to the tea-and-tote-bags crowd, and it’s hard to imagine what kind of nellydeancostume ball or musical recital would aptly reflect the unruly passions of the Brontës’ heroines. Two tempting Brontë-inspired novels have already appeared on publishers’ lists for 2016. Catherine Lowell’s The Madwoman Upstairs, coming out from Touchstone Press in March, looks very entertaining; described as a literary mystery, it follows a modern descendant of the Brontës as she tries to locate a family treasure-trove of Brontë memorabilia. But I’m more interested in Alison Case’s Nelly Dean: A Return to Wuthering Heights, forthcoming from Pegasus in February. Case is a well-known scholar of Victorian literature; Nelly Dean, her first venture into fiction, reimagines Emily Brontë’s shocking tale of love and hate from the point of view of its controversial narrator, the Earnshaws’ loyal servant (or is she?). Early reviewers have called Nelly Dean “audacious,” “ambitious,” and “engrossing” — I can hardly wait.

Steve Donoghue, Managing EditorLayout 1

Singling out a book or two from the many hundreds of fascinating-looking items coming down the pike in 2016 seems at best facile and at worst invidious, of course, but even so, every book-year has its oddity-highlights, and one of those in 2016 must surely be this little thing coming in the Spring from Farrar, Straus and Giroux. It’s a translation by the late Seamus Heaney of Book VI of Virgil’s Aeneid – the famous trip Aeneas takes to the underworld. It’s just Book VI – a well-padded 100 pages – and Heaney was no Latin scholar. But there’s an undeniable triple-twist macabre allure to reading a dead poet’s translation of the passage from another dead poet’s epic in which the hero visits the dead, and as he proved with his best-selling 2000 translation of Beowulf (also from FSG), Heaney could be unquestionably brilliant at translating and adapting and transforming the work of other poets. It may be the strangest – and perhaps the saddest – 30 minutes of reading I do in the entire year, and I’m looking forward to it.

Greg Waldmann, Editor in Chief

whyamericamisunderstandstheworldThe origins of America’s foreign policy are not only relevant but endlessly, grimly fascinating. Proponents and critics alike often attribute the scope of America’s interventionism to something in the national character, a missionary sense of righteousness. I tend to believe they are paying just a bit too much attention to the churnings of national rhetoric, and not enough to larger forces, including one of the basest (and saddest) patterns of history: that as a country or empire’s power grows, so does the scope of its ambition and the list a crimes for which it will excuse itself. But I try to keep an open mind, and I’m ready to be proven wrong. One book I look forward to is Paul Pillar’s Why America Misunderstands the World, which is due in mid-March. Pillar, a former CIA officer, has been a stalwart critic of America’s adventurism for over a decade now, and I usually agree with him about the symptoms, if not the cause. But I always find him worth reading, and his forthcoming book, which focuses on public rather than elite perception, promises to be a fresh and challenging version of an argument I have grappled with for a long time.

John Cotter, Executive Editor

mirrorthiefDon Delillo’s play Valparaiso let me down when I caught a show in Cambridge fifteen years ago, because I’d been so pleased with the premise: a man on his way to Valparaiso, Indiana accidentally boards a plane to Valparaíso, Chile and in so doing becomes world famous. Alas, the two cities were contrasted no further: the whole second act took place in a parody of an Oprah set, a soft target. With Martin Seay’s first novel, The Mirror Thief, set in sixteenth century Venice, Venice Beach of the 1950s, and Las Vegas’ Venice Casino, I expect to finally have a chance to see something interesting done with this even more challenging synchronicity of nomenclature. For literally years I’ve been hearing rumors about how good the book is, how smart and suspenseful and complex. Comparisons have been made ventured between The Mirror Thief and Alan Garner’s note-perfect Red Shift, or Lance Olsen’s spectacular Calendar of Regrets. I’ll take a mirror selfie with my copy before I’ve cracked it.

Sam Sacks, Founding Editor

better living through criticismI’m looking forward to reading and arguing with A.O. Scott’s upcoming monograph Better Living Through Criticism. In part my anticipation comes from a narcissistic interest in seeing my own profession spotlighted and debated. But I also think the subject is undergoing a genuinely interesting transformation in this age of Amazon and Goodreads ratings, comments sections, Youtube review channels, and online journals and personal blogs, when it can truly be said that everyone’s a critic. Scott’s recent meta-essays have bugged me for their ninnyish tendency to apologize for the judgments and convictions he sets down in his excellent movie and book reviews, the sort of histrionic hand-wringing that has become oddly trendy and which does criticism no favors. (On the other hand, critics who are too certain of their infallibility bug me too. There’s no pleasing some people.) But I sense something deeper from this book, and even if I wind up disagreeing with it, Scott’s eager, conversational writing is always a pleasure.

Justin Hickey, Editor

foxesunearthedWay out in balmy July, publisher Elliot and Thompson will release Foxes Unearthed: A Story of Love and Loathing in Modern Britain, by Lucy Jones. The hardcover promises to explore this “most ubiquitous of British animals” and its controversial relationship with a society that pets with one hand and strangles with the other (like we do to wolves in the United States). Jones also researches the iconic animal throughout history, illuminating the fables and myths surrounding it, as well as the scientific dynamic between two species caught in tragic overlap. This is exactly the kind of sweeping natural history portrait I’m drawn to, and I hope that it has more in common with Sy Montgomery’s poignant The Soul of an Octopus than with Robert Sullivan’s freakish opus Rats. Yet Jones will likely end up revealing (as so many of these books do) that there are two of segments of humanity at war—those who have examined our capacity for cruelty, and those who don’t really care. Still, I pick up these sure-to-depress titles knowing that surprises are possible. In mysteries, the killer isn’t always caught, and I expect to be entertained reading about a creature whose cunning is legendary.

Robert Minto, Editor

ahistoryinsixtypesIn 2016, May (and Princeton University Press) will bring to blossom, along with its flowers, a somewhat more dour bud, The Philosopher: A History in Six Types by J.E.H. Smith. Smith, well-known to the cognoscenti for his wide-ranging and frequent publications in literary magazines both print and digital, and also familiar to scholars for two splendid works in the history of early modern philosophy, will broaden his scope with this book in a way I have been hoping to see for years. Smith is the proponent of a kind of history of philosophy focused less upon the faux-necessities of intellectual progress than upon the human possibilities of cultural anthropology. The publisher’s description of this book makes it sound like an application of that approach: “what would the global history of philosophy look like if it were told not as a story of ideas but as a series of job descriptions? […] By uncovering forgotten or neglected philosophical job descriptions, the book reveals that philosophy is a universal activity, much broader — and more gender inclusive — than we normally think today.” Add to this that Smith is that rare beast, an academic with a delightful prose style, and we have a book not just to wait for, but to long for.