(Wo)Man Booker Shadow Panel Updates

I’ve now read 8.5 of the 13 books on the Man Booker long list, which I think is pretty impressive even if many of the books I’ve read so far are short, and I have a pile of 400+ pagers left. The trouble is that while I’d like to post more about the books, that requires taking time out of my reading, which I don’t want to do, and can’t do if I’m going to finish the list on time. If the choice comes down to reading or writing about my reading — and it often does — I’ve chosen reading.

But today I’ve already read 60 pages of my current book, Do Not Say We Have Nothing, by Madeleine Thien, so I feel like I can spare a few moments to write up some quick thoughts. I wrote about the list generally and my first two books — The Sellout and Eileenhere if you want to catch up. And here are the rest so far:

  • Hot Milk by Deborah Levy. Nicole has a great post about this book, even though we disagree in our assessment of it. I enjoyed the experience of reading this — I liked the strangeness of it, the uncertainty about both the narrator and her mother, the suggestiveness of the metaphors. It’s a novel about mothers and daughters, about separating oneself from one’s parents, and about illness. I’ve seen people describe this as a sunny coming-of-age story, which … it’s not.
  • The North Water by Ian McGuire. This is a 19th-century polar exploration tale. It starts out very grim and gets grimmer. I enjoyed it a lot, but this book makes me think about what I want in a Booker prize winner. Yes, the story was good, yes the writing was good. But I want books that are innovative in some way, and I don’t think it was that.
  • My Name is Lucy Barton, by Elizabeth Strout. I loved this one. It’s another mother/daughter story: Lucy is in the hospital for an extended stay, and her mother unexpectedly comes to visit. The novel describes their interactions in the hospital and also flashes back to earlier scenes from Lucy’s childhood. I found Lucy’s feelings about her family and her attempts to make sense of her experiences moving, and Strout tells the story in a spare, restrained style that worked beautifully.
  • His Bloody Project, by Graeme Macrae Burnet. This was an enjoyable read as well, but I put it in the same category as The North Water: it’s fun, but is it Booker-worthy? It’s set in the 19th century and is made up of various documents relating to a murder. I like the method of telling a story in different writing modes and from different perspectives. But this novel kind of petered out at the end — I wasn’t sure what it all added up to.
  • Work Like Any Other by Virginia Reeves. This is my least favorite so far. I found the characters and relationships implausible and irritating. It’s working with some interesting themes, but didn’t bring them to life. It’s set in Alabama in the early 20th century, and I liked getting a glimpse into that time and place, but otherwise, it didn’t work for me.
  • The Many by Wyl Menmuir. This book is strange — it’s moody and dark, and it gets weirder as the book goes on. I’m not entirely sure I understood everything that happened, but I liked it anyway. It captures a place and an atmosphere in a manner that felt innovative. The only thing I didn’t like was the frequency of dream descriptions, but even though I found those boring, I can see how dreams are important to a novel that’s as surreal as this one is. And I’m inclined to value the strangeness of this book — and that of Hot Milk — over the more familiar stories of The North Water and His Bloody Project.

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Land of Enchantment and The Fire This Time

I’ve been steadily reading the Booker long list and I will write about those books soon, but first I want to tell you about two books I finished and loved before the Booker madness began. First is Leigh Stein’s Land of Enchantment, a memoir about Stein’s relationship with a young man named Jason, who, she learns at the beginning of the book, died at 23 from a motorcycle accident. She tells about their relationship and the experience of learning of his death. The two meet when Stein is 22 and he is 19; they quickly fall in love, and then move to New Mexico so she can write a book. But things don’t go well: Jason is troubled and abusive, and Stein struggles with the isolation, uncertainty, and the lack of confidence that can come from being in an abusive relationship and not feeling sure enough of herself to get out.

Stein tells the story well: it’s engaging and emotionally powerful. She captures feeling of being trapped, knowing she’s in a bad place but not knowing what to do about it. Stein has gotten criticism for writing a memoir so young (she’s now 32 or thereabouts), but I think this book shows why that criticism is silly: yes, it’s a memoir by a young person, but it has the depth and insight one hopes for from any memoirist. Perhaps the book would be different if Stein wrote it twenty years from now, but that’s fine — it would just be a different book, not necessarily a better one.

The other book to tell you about is the anthology The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks About Race, edited by Jesmyn Ward. The book brings together an impressive group of writers, including Claudia Rankine, Edwidge Danticat, Natasha Trethewey, and Kiese Laymon. It’s mostly made up of essays, although there are some poems as well. The pieces are varied: some are personal and others are more historically or sociologically focused. The book is a sort of follow-up and response to James Baldwin’s book The Fire Next Time and is meant to offer thoughts on what has changed since Baldwin’s time — and even before that — and what hasn’t. There are essays on the experience of walking in Jamaica and New York City, on Ward’s experience of having a DNA test done to tell her exactly where her ancestors came from, on the 18th-century poet Phillis Wheatley, and on Rachel Dolezal. There is so much good stuff in this book!

I’ll be back soon to write about my Booker reading.

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It’s (Wo)Man Booker Shadow Panel time again!

Once again, Frances, Teresa, Nicole, Meredith, and I will be attempting to read the entire Man Booker prize long list over the course of the next six weeks or so. That’s 13 books, and we will be busy. We will announce our own short list on  September 12th, one day before the official short list goes live, and — if we follow last year’s pattern, which I think we will — we will announce our winner as well. I wrote a quick write-up of the long list on Book Riot if you’re interested in hearing more about it. Here’s what’s on the list:

Paul Beatty (US) – The Sellout (Oneworld)

J.M. Coetzee (South African-Australian) – The Schooldays of Jesus (Harvill Secker)

A.L. Kennedy (UK) – Serious Sweet (Jonathan Cape)

Deborah Levy (UK) – Hot Milk (Hamish Hamilton)

Graeme Macrae Burnet (UK) – His Bloody Project (Contraband)

Ian McGuire (UK) – The North Water (Scribner UK)

David Means (US) – Hystopia (Faber & Faber)

Wyl Menmuir (UK) –The Many (Salt)

Ottessa Moshfegh (US) – Eileen (Jonathan Cape)

Virginia Reeves (US) – Work Like Any Other (Scribner UK)

Elizabeth Strout (US) – My Name Is Lucy Barton (Viking)

David Szalay (Canada-UK) – All That Man Is (Jonathan Cape)

Madeleine Thien (Canada) – Do Not Say We Have Nothing (Granta Books)

As it turns out, I read one of these books last year, The Sellout by Paul Beatty. I loved it, and I think it will be hard for anything to knock that book off my own personal Booker short list, although we’ll see if my fellow panelists agree with me. I don’t think The Sellout is a perfect book — my interest in it flagged at times — but it’s so funny, so audacious, so ridiculous, and so full of jaw-dropping sentences that I will forgive it any number of flaws.

I just finished Ottessa Moshfegh’s novel Eileen as well. I was thoroughly absorbed in this book, although at times it made me feel slightly ill. Eileen lives with her alcoholic father in a small town outside of Boston. She’s 24, works as an assistant in a prison, lives in a wreck of a house, and is almost completely isolated. She wants to leave her town, but doesn’t know how she will do it. The book is narrated by Eileen as a much older woman, so we know that she does make it out, but we don’t know how. She’s a prickly, difficult, thoroughly unpleasant, disturbing, disgusting person, and we get deep into her mind in ways that are intensely uncomfortable. And I think Moshfegh pulls it off very well. It’s a slow-moving, atmospheric book, and one that gets under one’s skin.

So I’m off to a good start with my Booker reading. Next up is Deborah Levy’s Hot Milk.

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Reading Round-Up, 7/17/2016

I finished two books this week, both of them very good. First, Teju Cole’s forthcoming essay collection Known and Strange Things. So many of the pieces here are truly excellent — on James Baldwin, photography, Instagram, W.G. Sebald, Obama, his own brush with blindness, and a lot more. Some of the essays are good but not necessarily of interest to everyone — reviews of particular writers or photographers, for example, where the interest depends on one’s knowledge of the subject. But there are many essays here, and so many of them are so rich, that the collection as a whole is a memorable one. I love Cole’s quiet, thoughtful voice and his way of communicating feeling and deep thought both. He strikes me as a good guide through some of our contemporary predicaments, especially racial and cultural tensions. I learned a lot about photography and about contemporary travel. Anyone who likes a good essay will appreciate this book, especially if you’re a James Baldwin fan or if you liked Cole’s novel Open City.

The other book is The Light of the World by Elizabeth Alexander, a memoir about the death of her husband Ficre. It’s beautiful. Alexander is a poet, and this shows in her sentences. She captures her happiness with her husband and her life in New Haven, as well as her grief at her husband’s sudden death. It follows a fairly standard grief memoir format: telling the story of the death, filling in the background of how they met and fell in love, describing her attempts to respond to loss, her first steps toward recovery. But it does all these things with such grace that the book stands out. There’s something joyous about the entire thing, which feels like a strange thing to say about a grief memoir, but it’s true. Alexander fully expresses her grief, to the extent that’s possible, but the emphasis is on celebrating Ficre’s life and their time together.

Now I’m in the middle of The Art of Waiting by Belle Boggs, which is coming out this fall, and also Jesmyn Ward’s edited collection The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks About Race. I’m liking both so far. I hope you have a good reading week ahead of you!

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Reading Round-Up, 7/10/2016

Since I wrote here last, I’ve finished Nicola Barker’s new novel The Cauliflower. I’m wondering whether this was the best place to start with Barker, because I didn’t like this novel very much, but I suspect, from things I’ve heard, that I might like her earlier books. I have Darkmans in mind in particular, a book I remember hearing raves about. Either I’m wrong about this, or The Cauliflower isn’t representative of her other books, and I’m hoping it’s the latter. The novel started out fine: it has an energetic, entertaining, self-aware voice of the sort I tend to like. It’s clearly about fiction as much as it is about anything else, as well as about representation and entertainment generally. But after a while, the voice — or voices, I should say, as there are multiple narrators — started to lose their appeal and interest. The story didn’t go anywhere particularly interesting. It’s set in 19th-century India and tells the story of the guru Sri Ramakrishna and his nephew Hriday who cares for him. The novel is largely about their relationship and the sacrifices that caring for a spiritual master — a highly eccentric, troubled one in particular — requires. I generally am for playfulness, metafictional elements, and formal variety, all of which this novel has, but this one didn’t come together into a coherent — or interesting — whole for me. It was disappointing, but I’m not giving up on Barker yet.

The other novel I finished was Amara Lakhous’s Dispute Over a Very Italian Piglet, which I liked a lot. I read it for my mystery book group, which met last evening, and it provoked a good discussion, a large part of which was about whether this was really a mystery or not. Looking at the Goodreads description of the book, I see they call it a mystery, but I think of it in my mind as an anti-mystery, because instead of conducting an investigation into the series of murders that have hit Turin, Italy, where the novel is set, the journalist protagonist just makes up stories to publish in his newspaper. There’s also the question of the titular piglet, who stirs up controversy when it gets filmed wandering through a mosque. The protagonist takes this story a little more seriously, but still, he does little productive or helpful, and instead lets others do his work. The only work he does is trying to make his made-up stories believable. All this is fun, but the novel is also about matters of nationality, immigration, identity, and cultural and religious conflicts. It’s a lighthearted approach to very serious — and timely — issues. It’s a very quick read, but it has a surprising amount of depth packed in.

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Reading Round-Up, 6/30/2016

Happy (early) Fourth of July to my fellow Americans! I’ll be heading off to Vermont for a long weekend, and I hope everyone, from the U.S. or not, has a good weekend lined up. My weekend will be…fun, for sure, but also probably relative sleepless, as traveling with a 3-year-old has its challenges. But that’s okay.

As for recent reading, one of the highlights is Brian Blanchfield’s essay collection Proxies: Essays Near Knowing. It’s a short collection but one to read slowly: it’s rich and meaty and repays close attention. It’s hard to describe. Each essay has a theme, but they range widely, taking the reader to unexpected places before bringing the reader back to the theme again. They fit the classic definition of what an essay can be: experimental, probing, associative, voice-driven. They play with language a lot. They aren’t for every reader — they require a willingness to dwell in complex thought and language — but are beautiful and rewarding.

I also read and loved Hope Jahren’s Lab Girl, a memoir about life in science. Jahren studies plants, and she writes about plants from their point of view, or at least she tries to, attempting to look at the world as a plant might, with its own concerns and interests. It’s impossible to know, of course, but it feels like she really knows how a plant thinks (or “thinks”). She describes her struggles as a beginning scientist and what it’s like to establish one’s own lab, fight for funding, and establish a reputation. She writes about her struggles with mental illness as well. It’s really great, definitely one to read for anyone who is interested in science, but good for any reader of memoir as well.

Right now I’m reading an essay collection by Teju Cole, Known and Strange Things, a novel by Nicola Barker, The Cauliflower, and a memoir by Elizabeth Alexander, The Light of the World. More on those books later!

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Shadow Notes, by Laurel Peterson

Shadow Notes cover I enjoyed reading Shadow Notes by Laurel Peterson for a whole bunch of reasons, one of which is that it’s a great mystery novel. But more on that in a minute. I also loved it because it’s written by a friend, and I love having accomplished novelist friends. And in this case, she’s also an accomplished poet, and just got appointed Poet Laureate of Norwalk, Connecticut. I also loved reading this book because it’s set in a small town in southern Fairfield County in a part of Connecticut I live near and am familiar with, and it’s so fun to read about places I know.

But about my first reason for liking this book so much: it’s an exciting story with some of my favorite elements. It has a complicated mother/daughter relationship, it’s about a woman returning to her home after a long time away and trying to fit back in, it’s about the trials of the rich and privileged, and it has a satisfyingly troubled and complex main character. The novel tells the story of Clara Montague, a woman in her 30s who has been living in Europe to escape her mother, who is cold and distant. Clara has always had intuitive dreams, and she has just had one telling her her mother may be in trouble. So she returns home.

But soon after she gets back, her mother’s therapist gets murdered, and Clara gets caught up in the effort to figure out what happened to him. She also learns more about her mother’s life as a young woman and then desperately wants to discover the rest of the story and how it shaped her own upbringing. Along the way, she meets an entertaining cast of characters — scheming socialites, corrupt politicians, suspiciously charming, attractive young men. And she has to figure out what she wants to do with her life. She has inherited a landscaping business from her father, and she feels like she should take it over, but she’s afraid of being tied to her hometown and just wants to escape to Paris. I don’t have the inheritance or the money Clara has, but I can identify with this feeling anyway.

It’s such a fun read, a very satisfying mystery, and it offers the promise of another book in the series. I can’t wait to read the next installment!

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