Monthly Archives: July 2016

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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