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The Thing Itself
The Thing Itself
Adam Roberts
Gollancz, 2016
368 pp., 23.99

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John Wilson

Favorite Books Of 2016

Plus the Book of the Year.

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RUSSIAN SPECIAL!!!! Four books to celebrate. (1) Novels, Tales, Journeys: The Complete Prose of Alexander Pushkin. Translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (Knopf), with a delicious dust jacket by Oliver Munday. (2) Odessa Stories. Isaac Babel. Translated and introduced (brilliantly) by Boris Dralyuk (Pushkin Press), in the same appealing format as Babel's Red Cavalry, also translated by Dralyuk and reviewed in Books & Culture by Emily Raboteau. (3) Strolls with Pushkin. Andrei Sinyaksky. Translated by Catherine Theimer Nepomnyashchy & Slava Yastremski, with an afterword by Michael M. Naydan (Columbia Univ. Press), with gorgeous cover design by Roberto de Vicq and interior design by Lisa Hamm, one of the first set of three books in Columbia's Russian Library. Note that this is not merely a reissue of the volume published by Yale University Press in 1994; this new edition also includes Sinyavsky's long Pushkinian essay "A Journey to the River Black." (4) Viktor Shklovsky: A Reader. Edited & translated by Alexandra Berlina (Bloomsbury Academic). The appearance of these four books within a few weeks of one another is comparable to one of those rare conjunctions of the planets that excite skywatchers to a frenzy.

The Sampo. Peter O'Leary (The Cultural Society). In an afterword, Peter O'Leary describes this book-length poem based on five sections of the Finnish national epic, The Kalevala, as his attempt to write a "magic song," an "imagist epic" (he cites Christopher Logue and Thomas Meyer as guiding influences in this respect), and a "fantasy." O'Leary (who has Finnish ancestry himself) has succeeded on all three fronts. His book is a delight, casting a welcome spell.

Shine on Me. A. G. Mojtabai (TriQuarterly Books/Northwestern Univ. Press). Mojtabai's slim but potent new novel is based on a contest held by an auto dealer in Longworth, Texas, a competition in which the last contestant to keep hands on a brand-new pickup truck would win it. The contest inspired a 1998 documentary, Hands on a Hard Body, a musical, and now a novel—but, as Mojtabai emphasizes, she is writing fiction. To get a sense of why you might want to give this book a try, here is a piece I wrote when her previous novel appeared. She is a writer I greatly admire.


The Thing Itself. Adam Roberts (Gollancz). Adam Roberts has dual citizenship. On the one hand, he is a scholar, a professor at Royal Holloway, University of London. On the other hand, he is a novelist. In both capacities he is quite productive. Then again, each of these identities is doubled in turn. Roberts is both a scholar of Nineteenth Century Literature (Browning, Tennyson, and so on) and a scholar of science fiction. Roberts the novelist writes science fiction as ambitious as anyone now at work; at the same time, he dashes off spoofs, parodies. He relishes puns. It wouldn't at all surprise me to learn that he was writing MORE books of yet a different kind under a pseudonym or two. For some reason, though he is certainly not unknown in the US, his books mostly don't get discussed as they should—as among the most interesting works of fiction now being written in any genre.

On the acknowledgements page at the end of his novel The Thing Itself—published in Britain in 2015, and in the US, more or less invisibly, this fall—he says, "As an atheist writing a novel about why you should believe in God, I have taken more than I can say from the eloquent and persuasive devotional writing of my friends Alan Jacobs and Francis Spufford, Christians both."

I'm hoping that will rouse your curiosity sufficiently for you to investigate further. You might also take a look at this piece by Kevin Power at Strange Horizons.

Happy reading.

John Wilson is the editor of Books & Culture.

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