My 2015 in writing

It’s year-end wrap-up time, and I’ll be back, probably in early January, to write about my 2015 reading. But I thought I’d post on my writing as well, of which I have done a fair amount this year. I published 17 reviews in various places that aren’t this blog. That includes some pieces that I wrote in 2014, but I can’t remember what I wrote when, so I’ll just go with publication date. I’m happy with that number, but particularly with the fact that several of those pieces appeared in new-to-me publications, including Bookslut, Open Letters Monthly, and The Seattle Review of Books. I’m also happy that of those 17 pieces, 15 were reviews of books written by women and 7 were of books written by people of color, 6 of those by women of color. Vida won’t be counting anything I wrote, but my own personal Vida count looks pretty good. You can see my entire list of reviews here, but here are some of my favorites from the year:

As for writing on this blog? I managed to write something here almost every month! Ah, well. That’s good enough.


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Emma Read-along

Yesterday I pulled down my new copy of Jane Austen’s Emma in preparation for Bellezza’s read-along this December and read the introductory material. It’s the new Penguin edition edited by Juliette Wells. The introduction itself is fine — basic information about Austen and the publication and reception of the novel aimed at a general reader — but that is followed by a section called “Tips for reading Emma” that I found most unsatisfactory. It seems to assume that readers would struggle with the novel, instead of assuming they would enjoy it. The section includes tips such as “Pace yourself,” “Read passages out loud,” and “Try an audiobook,” all of which is okay, I suppose, but condescending in the way it assumes the reader is inexperienced at … reading.

More troubling is the suggestion that “If you’re feeling frustrated or bored because nothing much seems to be happening, remember that Austen’s own contemporaries commented on how little plot Emma contains and how ordinary its characters and events are.” Why presuppose the reader is going to be bored? That feels insulting and it also very much undersells the novel. Perhaps Austen’s contemporaries noted the ordinary characters for reasons different than we might note them today — that novels in Austen’s time often contained characters anything but ordinary — but aren’t we used to characters who are like people we know in the world around us?

Worst, though, is this sentence: “Long novels such as Austen’s are a workout for our attention spans and memories.” Please. People read long, long novels all the time these days, not to mention entire series of long, long novels, and they seem to enjoy themselves greatly.

To be fair, I think a large of part of the audience the editor is writing for here is high school or college students who will be assigned this novel for a class and who may not be experienced readers. She says this is advice she gives to her students (as well as her friends), and it makes sense that Penguin would want to market this edition to schools and colleges.

But still, this strikes me as a great way to inspire dread and not eagerness in potential new readers of the novel. It implies the entire endeavor will be a chore, work instead of pleasure. I’m not entirely sure how I would write my own “tips” if I had to, but I think I would try my best to avoid the condescending tone I found here.


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Updates 10/21/2015

I’m very late following up with my response to the Man Booker news, but Marlon James won it for A Brief History of Seven Killings, and I’m thrilled for him! The judges made the right choice. I think it was the best book by far from the long list. It’s not the book everyone wanted to win, but many were rooting for him and it was fun to see the celebration happening on Twitter after the announcement was made.

Looking over my list of reviews published elsewhere, it appears that I have published seven (seven!) of them since I last blogged about my review writing, which was in June. I won’t mention them all here, because if you are curious you can hop over to the “Other Writing” section of this blog to see the full list. But I will highlight a few. I’m proud to have had my first review in the Seattle Review of Books where I wrote about Mary Karr’s The Art of Memoir. I didn’t like the book much, but it was an enjoyable review to write and I include some thoughts about books that try to offer writing advice.

I’ve been on a memoir kick lately and also reviewed Margo Jefferson’s fantastic book Negroland over at Bookslut and Vivian Gornick’s The Odd Woman and the City at Open Letters Monthly. I also had fun participating in a Bestseller List feature at Open Letters Monthly, where OLM writers reviewed the fiction bestseller list from the New York Times. I tackled Jennifer Weiner’s Who Do You Love. You can find the first part of the feature here and my piece is #8 on this page. I tried hard to review the book honestly (I didn’t love it) without getting snotty or snobby about it, and I’m happy with how it turned out.

As for recent (non-Booker) reading, here are some highlights:

  • I finally got around to reading Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home. What took me so long? It was amazing.
  • Some other amazing — amazing!!!! — books I read over the summer before the Man Booker madness: Heidi Julavits’s The Folded Clock and Sarah Manguso’s Ongoingness: The End of a Diary. Both books are innovative takes on diaries and I fell in love with the voices in both. I resonated with their material on motherhood the most, but they cover much else as well. Another great book as far as experiences of motherhood go is Elisa Albert’s After Birth. I loved the book’s fury. So good.
  • I read the first volume of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle and was mesmerized. I’m eager to get to volume two (but you know how it is — it may be a while anyway). This is a book that should totally be boring, but it’s not.
  • Paul Beatty’s The Sellout — so good! Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk — so good!

I read some books that weren’t so good, but I’m going to dwell on the positive in this short post. I hope to be back before too long!


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The (Wo)Man Booker Shadow Panel Shortlist

The results are in! We have argued and deliberated and made what compromises we had to, and it’s all over. Here is our (Wo)Man Booker Shadow Panel shortlist:

  1. Bill Clegg, Did You Ever Have a Family
  2. Marlon James, A Brief History of Seven Killings
  3. Sunjeev Sahota, The Year of the Runaways
  4. Anuradha Roy, Sleeping on Jupiter
  5. Tom McCarthy, Satin Island
  6. Marilynne Robinson, Lila

If you compare this list to my personal shortlist, you’ll see that they are almost the same. The one change is that Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life isn’t there and Anuradha Roy’s Sleeping on Jupiter is. I would have liked to see A Little Life on our group shortlist, but Sleeping on Jupiter was my seventh choice and just barely didn’t make the cut, so at least there’s nothing on the group shortlist that I disliked. This isn’t true for everyone on the panel!

As for the absence of A Little Life, well, it’s a controversial book. My guess is that it will make it on the official shortlist and may have a chance at winning (although I don’t think it should win). But this whole exercise has shown just how personal reading is. Some readers bought into the world of the book and others didn’t, and that was true for just about every book on the list. I’m not implying that there aren’t solid, logical arguments to make about why one book is better than another, but inevitably there are arguments to be made on both sides — or several sides — and people from all the different sides will think their solid, logical arguments are the most convincing. Before you even get to those solid, logical arguments, though, there is the reader’s immediate response, and there’s no arguing about that. A lot of our conversations were about trying to account for those immediate responses and to try to understand why they varied so much.

And the conversations were so fun! It was a great pleasure to participate on this panel, and I want to thank Frances profusely for organizing it. Thank you, Frances!

And now to see what the official judges have to say. I’ll try to come back and write up my thoughts on their list. I can’t wait to see.


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My Personal Shortlist for the (Wo)Man Booker Shadow Panel

The (Wo)Man Booker Shadow Panel has finished its deliberations and reached a verdict — which we will share tomorrow! Today, I will give my own personal shortlist. I didn’t quite finish all the reading, although I was very close. I finished 11 of the 13 longlisted books, and I made it over 50 pages into the last two before it was time to decide on my list. I am very happy with this, considering that I was trying to do all this reading while also writing three reviews of non-Booker books, reading for my book group, getting ready for school, caring for a toddler, and generally living life. I finished all the long books, too, including two books around 700 pages and one that was nearly 500. And, as it turns out, my two unfinished books are not ones I would want on my shortlist. Even if they both end much better than they begin, that won’t be enough, as I’m not getting on with them very well.

As I wrote in my previous post, I was much quicker to want to shortlist books that experimented in some way and that did something other than realistic family drama. But the longlist was heavy on realistic family dramas. If I had been responsible for creating a longlist, I’m sure mine would have looked very different from the one we ended up with. Many of the books were very good, but too many of them were just okay, not really different or new. I was glad to be able to listen to two of the just-okay ones on audio (Anne Tyler and Anne Enright), which probably made me enjoy them more.

SO, here is my personal shortlist, roughly in order of preference:

  1. Marlon James’s A Brief History of Seven Killings. This is my choice for the overall winner. It was … well, bring out all your reviewer cliches: stunning, a tour-de-force, etc., etc. The language was amazing, the ambition impressive. The characters, the voices, the historical insights, everything about it worked.
  2. Marilynne Robinson’s LilaThis book couldn’t be much more different from the James, but I still loved it. It’s much shorter and smaller in scope. But Lila is a lively character, and I loved looking at the world through her eyes. And the book is large in scope when you consider all the spiritual and existential questions it considers. And the writing is beautiful.
  3. Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little LifeSome members of our group very much did not like this one, but it worked for me. I was caught up in the story; I loved diving deep into the characters and their lives. The story, extreme as it was, felt real to me. Yes, there were infelicities of language, but I didn’t even notice until others pointed them out to me. Yes, it was long, but I didn’t want it to end. The book, for me, was powerful.
  4. Tom McCarthy’s Satin IslandI love a philosophical novel where nothing happens, and this one is exactly that. It’s a meditation on work, on technology, on the shadowy forces that shape our lives, and on how art and creativity can fit in this world. The atmosphere of the book is cold, but this fits its ideas perfectly. It’s not a fun book, exactly, but it’s exactly right for our times.
  5. Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways. I was caught up in this novel’s story about immigrants from India into England, each with uncertain or questionable immigration status. Their never-ending quest for work was tense, and reading about them as their hopes for a better life took beating after beating was sometimes heartbreaking. I felt like I got a glimpse of a world I don’t know much about, and I’m glad I did.
  6. Bill Clegg’s Did You Ever Have a Family. This is the only straight-forward family drama I included on my list. I could have exchanged it for one or two others, but this is the one that moved me the most. It also covered the most territory with the most emotional heft of all the family dramas while being the shortest of the group. I liked its suggestiveness.

So that’s it. A close runner-up was Anuradha Roy’s Sleeping on Jupiter, which got better and better the more I thought about it, but didn’t make my list because I didn’t enjoy the reading experience as much as I did with Bill Clegg’s book. Anne Tyler’s A Spool of Blue Thread was better by the end of the novel but didn’t make the list because it wasn’t doing much that was new or interesting. Chigozie Obioma’s The Fishermen didn’t stand out to me — I don’t remember much from it, in fact. Anne Enright’s The Green Road was a structural mess, and I found Laila Lalami’s The Moor’s Account not particularly new and not particularly exciting to read. I’m still in the middle of the last two: Andrew O’Hagan’s The Illuminations and Anna Smaill’s The Chimes. Both of these books, although very different each other, are uninspiring, and, frankly, a little boring. But I want to finish the entire list, so I’m going to keep plugging along.

So, stay tuned for the announcement tomorrow, Monday, September 14th, of the Shadow Panel shortlist, and then Tuesday the 15th, for the official shortlist (but should those people really have the final say? I’m not sure. I think our Shadow Panel should get the deciding vote, to be honest).

Lists from the other Shadow Panel participants: Teresa at Shelf Love, Frances at Nonsuch Book, and Bellezza from Dolce Bellezza.


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(Wo)Man Booker Shadow Panel updates

I’m having a great time doing the (Wo)Man Booker Shadow Panel with my fellow readers. The only frustration is that I don’t have enough time to post about my reading here and comment/respond to comments on other people’s posts. I’m too busy reading (and dealing with the rest of life) to blog about my reading properly. But since the last time I posted here, I’ve finished three more books, for a total of seven completed, six to go. I finished The Green Road on audio, and it definitely won’t be making my short list. I lump it in my mind with the Anne Tyler novel, except it’s not as good as that one. They are similar in their focus on family drama and in their straightforward realism. But I found the Tyler to be richer and more complex. I’m not sure that Tyler will make my short list — in fact she probably won’t. One of the things I’m discovering from this reading is that I value books that are something other than straightforwardly realistic family dramas. These books are valuable in their own way, but something in me doesn’t want to give them prizes. This is something I’ll be thinking about further.

I also finished Bill Clegg’s Did You Ever Have a Family, and I also lump it in my mind with the Tyler and Enright as being another realistic family drama. But this one is the best of the lot. In fact if “realistic family drama” is a category I decide should be represented on my short list (not sure about this), then Clegg would get the spot. His novel is the sparest and most evocative of them all. He tells his story through many different perspectives, and the voices work alongside and against each other to add up to a complex whole. He touches on race, class, and sexuality in a manner that is both light and deep at the same time.

But then there is Marlon James’s Brief History of Seven Killings, which is another creature entirely. This one is definitely getting on my short list. It’s a large novel in multiple senses — long and ambitious. It’s about Jamaica in the 1970s and beyond, about politics, drugs, violence, gangs, music, and yes, family drama. The language is what stands out to me the most; we get many different voices and each one is unique. I felt like I was living in the minds of these characters, and I loved it, even when the characters were terrible, terrible people. It was a hard novel to take a lot of the time — it’s full of horrible violence and cruelty and definitely not for the faint of heart. It’s confusing at times. But James has control of the plotting as well as the language, and it all comes together beautifully.

It’s so hard to compare these very different books! James’s originality and scope stand out to me, and how could Tyler’s novel stand up to it? But Tyler has great facility with language and insight into human nature in her own way, even if it doesn’t stand out in the way James’s work does. But this process is making clear to me how much more I value attempts at ambitious newness than more familiar novelistic styles, even if they are done particularly well.


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A Spool of Blue Thread and The Moor’s Account

I have now finished books #3 and #4 in the (Wo)Man Booker Shadow Panel, Lalai Lalami’s The Moor’s Account and Anne Tyler’s A Spool of Blue Thread, which I listened to on audio. As a side note, the only way I’m making it through the 13-book list if I make it at all is by listening to some of them on audio, although I would prefer to read them in print. On the one hand, it’s hard to compare the experience of an audio book with sitting down with the printed text, but on the other hand I can squeeze audio book listening into parts of my day where the reading of a book or ebook is impossible. So I’ll be listening to Anne Enright’s and (most likely) Marilynne Robinson’s novels on audio as well.

I think audio book listening may have improved the experience of reading Anne Tyler’s A Spool of Blue Thread, which I liked more than I expected. This is generally the case with audio books, that I’m less likely to be critical of them than print books, as the experience is more immersive and emotional with an actual person telling me the story. I’ve read a couple other Tyler novels and thought they were fine but nothing special, and I feel that way about this novel as well. Her prose is especially well-suited for listening, as it’s crystal clear, easy to follow, and never draws attention to itself. It’s always in the service of the story. I generally look for the opposite in novels — I like it when the language is interesting and new and even when it calls attention to itself, at least in certain ways. I’m not likely to be impressed by a novel that is a straight-forward story without anything interesting going on stylistically. I’m guessing that Tyler-like prose is much more difficult to write than it seems, but even so, I don’t think I’d choose it to win an award.

But Tyler can certainly tell a family story well. This is a multi-generational story, focusing particularly on Abby and Red Whitshank and their four children. It’s very much a story about their house, longed for and finally bought by Red’s father and now lovingly cared for by Red. There are the kind of rivalries, secrets, betrayals, and family lore that one expects from a family saga and it’s all insightful and true to human nature. The plot lagged a little in the middle, but the last quarter or so, which took the novel in surprising directions that I won’t spoil here, were satisfying.

It’s all fine, but nothing I get excited about. I felt the same way about The Moor’s Account, although I liked it less than the Tyler. Lalai Lalami’s novel is historical fiction, telling the story of Mustafa al-Zamori, called Estebanico by others, who is sold into slavery and sails from Spain to the Gulf of Mexico. The expedition is in search of conquest and gold, and Estebanico is in a complex position as a member of the (supposedly) conquering party but only a member as a slave. The expedition fails spectacularly and the process of things falling apart is compelling, at least for a while. The history was interesting and I enjoyed getting a glimpse of what life in that time and place might have been like. The novel’s writing was fine, although, like Tyler’s, not particularly noteworthy. I enjoyed the first half or so, and then my energy and attention flagged. When it comes down to it, historical fiction is not really my thing. I like imagining the past, but if there comes a point — as there did in this book — where the described world is pretty well established and all that remains is the unwinding of the plot, I begin to lose interest. By the end, I just didn’t care what happened to the characters. I agree with Teresa’s assessment that this is not the kind of book I’d expect to see on the long list of a major prize.

Now I turn to Bill Clegg’s Did You Ever Have a Family and Anne Enright’s The Green Road on audio. As things stand now, I would put A Little Life on my short list and maybe The Fishermen, but definitely not The Moor’s Account and A Spool of Blue Thread only if the others were no good at all. Which I know is not the case!


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