Monthly Archives: August 2016

(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.


Filed under Books

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.


Filed under Books