Monthly Archives: July 2020

The Booker Prize Longlist is Here!

A few years ago I spent a lot of time in August and September reading through the Booker longlist with a group of online friends as a shadow panel. We read, discussed, and picked our winner, and it was a ton of fun, especially our discussions. We all got tired of the endeavor eventually, but it was great fun for a couple years.

These days, I and other book twitter friends are more excited about the Booker International Prize, as those lists tend to be more surprising and varied and just generally more interesting. It’s still fun to follow the main prize, though. Here are the books, along with a few thoughts about them.

  • The New Wilderness by Diane Cook. I hadn’t heard of this but it’s now on my TBR.
  • This Mournable Body by Tsitsi Dangarembga. I was vaguely aware of this book — it’s published by Graywolf and I pay attention to what they publish, but this hadn’t looked at this one closely. It’s described as “A searing novel about the obstacles facing women in Zimbabwe, by one of the country’s most notable authors.”
  • Burnt Sugar by Avni Doshi. I put this on my list. The publisher says it’s for fans of Jenny Offill and Deborah Levy, and if that’s true, I will like it.
  • Who They Was by Gabriel Krauze. I hadn’t heard of this one either. It doesn’t look like it’s available in the U.S.?
  • The Mirror & The Light by Hilary Mantel. I read the first book in this trilogy and I admired it but I wasn’t inspired to read further. Hilary Mantel is great, yes, but I’m tired of seeing the same names on this list!
  • Apeirogon by Colum McCann. Not a fan. I read Transatlantic and it was fine but not terribly exciting. I’ve also heard McCann has some #metoo problems, so I’m avoiding him.
  • The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste. Wasn’t aware of this one. Here’s the description: “A gripping novel set during Mussolini’s 1935 invasion of Ethiopia, The Shadow King takes us back to the first real conflict of World War II, casting light on the women soldiers who were left out of the historical record.”
  • Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid. I listened to this on audio and it was great. Rick read and liked it as well. It’s an engaging story about parenting and nannies and race and white people who royally mess things up.
  • Real Life by Brandon Taylor. I read this one a month or so ago and loved it. More thoughts here.
  • Redhead by The Side of The Road by Anne Tyler. Why Anne Tyler?? I don’t get it. She’s a solid novelist, and I’ve read maybe two of her books and they were fine, but they aren’t terribly exciting. She’s been longlisted for the Booker twice and I just don’t think her books are interesting enough for a major prize.
  • Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart. Sounds interesting: “Shuggie Bain is the unforgettable story of young Hugh ‘Shuggie’ Bain, a sweet and lonely boy who spends his 1980s childhood in run-down public housing in Glasgow, Scotland.”
  • Love and Other Thought Experiments by Sophie Ward. I don’t know what to make of this one. I love philosophical novels, but this one involves an ant crawling into someone’s eye and getting stuck there? Intriguing and also gross?
  • How Much of These Hills is Gold by C Pam Zhang. I have this one on audio and hope to read it soon. I’ve heard amazing things.

Any plans to read any of these?

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Transformational Books, Updated

Back in 2012 I made a list of “transformational books,” which I defined as books that “have changed my idea of what it’s possible to write about and how it’s possible to write.” These are books “that excite me and make me want to share them. People who love (some of) these books are people whose taste I’m likely to trust.” That was eight years ago, so I thought it would be fun to see what books I want to add to the list after eight more years of reading.

First, some of the books on my first list strike me as strange choices now. Was I really that influenced by William James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience or Dashiell Hammett’s The Glass Key? Looking back on it now, I’d say no. There are others on there I haven’t thought about much over the last eight years (The Quest for CorvoAmerican Primitive). But it’s a long list and most of the rest really did stay with me as books that have changed how I think.

So here are some books I’d like to add. Perhaps in 2028 I’ll take another look back and assess. My previous list was looking back at my whole adult reading life, and this list is only from the last eight years, so I may end up questioning even more of my decisions since they are more recent. Having many years of perspective is useful, but I’m not going to wait around for time to pass! 

A couple quick observations about how this list is different from my previous one: for one, this list is markedly less white. I used to read mostly white authors and I no longer do, and obviously that makes a difference. I also have more books in translation here than I did last time. Reading books in translation is a newer passion.

These are roughly in the order I read them. I looked through my LibraryThing catalog year by year to remind myself of what I’ve read. 

  • Phillip Lopate, To Show and to Tell: The Craft of Literary Nonfiction
  • Rachel Cusk, A Life’s Work: On Becoming a Mother
  • Vivian Gornick, Fierce Attachments
  • Jesmyn Ward, Salvage the Bones
  • Eula Biss, On Immunity
  • Jenny Offill, Dept. of Speculation
  • James Baldwin, Notes of a Native Son
  • Fran Ross, Oreo
  • Heidi Julavits, The Folded Clock
  • Sarah Manguso, Ongoingness: The End of a Diary
  • Maggie Nelson, The Argonauts
  • Claudia Rankine, Citizen: An American Lyric
  • Paul Beatty, The Sellout
  • Karl Ove Knausgaard, My Struggle: Book 1
  • Lina Meruane, Seeing Red
  • Marie NDiaye, Ladivine
  • Maggie Nelson, The Red Parts
  • Myriam Gurba, Mean
  • Tressie McMillan Cottom, Thick: And Other Essays
  • Valeria Luiselli, Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in 40 Questions
  • Maggie O’Farrell, I Am, I Am, I Am
  • Carmen Maria Machado, In the Dream House
  • Lucy Ellmann, Ducks, Newburyport
  • Anne Boyer, The Undying
  • Kate Zambreno, Drifts
  • Ariana Harwicz, Die, My Love

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5 Great New Nonfiction Books (Book Riot)

Here’s my latest post on Book Riot:

I’ve been on the hunt for great new nonfiction, particularly books that mix genres in some way. I especially love books that use memoir as a starting point to explore the larger world. The books I’ve found below combine memoir with history, travel, philosophy, literary criticism, politics, religion, and more. Through these books, you can learn about lighthouses, harvesting, race theory, rereading, and the cultural importance of Toni Morrison. Check out the list and see if one of these books catches your eye!

On Lighthouses Jazmina Barrera coverON LIGHTHOUSES BY JAZMINA BARRERA, TRANSLATED BY CHRISTINA MACSWEENEY

This is a book about lighthouses but also about travel, isolation, time, history, and collecting. Jazmina Barrera takes readers on a tour of the lighthouses she has visited, charting their history, traditions, technologies, and future. She contemplates famous literary depictions of lighthouses and what it’s like to be a lighthouse keeper. The book describes Barrera’s travels and the nature of her obsession, and also contemplates the many things lighthouses signify and represent. It’s a meditative mix of ideas, emotions, and observations. Barrera’s writing is clear and evocative, and the book’s meandering form is a perfect way to capture the dangerous spaces where sea and land meet.

Toni Morrison Book Club coverTHE TONI MORRISON BOOK CLUB BY JUDA BENNETT, WINNIFRED BROWN-GLAUDE, CASSANDRA JACKSON, AND PIPER KENDRIX WILLIAMS

Four friends who love Toni Morrison collaborated on this mix of memoir and literary criticism. The friends come from various backgrounds: three are Black, one white; one is gay; one an immigrant. The book uses secrets from the authors’ lives—some large, some small—as a springboard for each author to dive into personal stories that they relate to one of Morrison’s novels. The novels help illuminate their lives and their lives illuminate the novels. The authors effectively balance memoir and criticism to keep their work accessible to those who haven’t read all or even any of Morrison’s work. The result is a moving, memorable tribute to the power of Morrison’s writing.

Unfinished Business Vivian Gornick coverUNFINISHED BUSINESS: NOTES OF A CHRONIC RE-READER BY VIVIAN GORNICK

Love to read about books? Unfinished Business is one of the best meditations on books and reading I’ve ever come across. Vivian Gornick uses books to chart how she has changed over the years. She rereads some of her favorites, including works by D.H. Lawrence, Colette, Marguerite Duras, Doris Lessing, Natalia Ginzburg, and others, and contemplates the new meanings the books have accumulated. She writes about her life with warmth and verve, and her stories will fascinate whether you know anything about Gornick or not. Her insights into literature are rich and feel honest and hard-earned. Gornick is a captivating writer: her energetic prose style combined with sharp intelligence years of wisdom make for a wonderful read.

American Harvest Marie Mutsuki Mockett coverAMERICAN HARVEST: GOD, COUNTRY, AND FARMING IN THE HEARTLAND BY MARIE MUTSUKI MOCKETT

Marie Mutsuki Mockett grew up in California, but her family has owned a farm in Nebraska for generations. Her family’s harvester invited her to join his team as they travel from Texas north, following the ripening wheat. She wants to understand cultural differences between her secular, multi-cultural, organic-food-loving coastal friends and the white, evangelical, GMO-advocates among Midwestern farmers and harvesters. American Harvest is the story of her travels and an account of the conversations, church services, and harvesting sessions she experienced along the way. It’s a moving account of what it’s like to be a person of color traveling through the Midwest and a thoughtful, compassionate attempt to understand and bridge deep-rooted cultural divides.

Afropessimism coverAFROPESSIMISM BY FRANK B. WILDERSON III

This book combines memoir and philosophy to make an argument about what it means to be Black. Wilderson writes about growing up in Minneapolis, studying with Edward Said, living in Berkeley and South Africa, and a lot more. The book begins with a harrowing description of Wilderson’s mental health breakdown. As he tells his story, Wilderson argues that subjugating Black people is fundamental to the way non-Black people form their identity and their understanding of themselves as human. He argues that anti-Blackness is baked into our civilization and the only honest response to the situation is to acknowledge it. It’s a challenging argument that, combined with Wilderson’s absorbing memoir, makes for a powerful read.

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Preparing for Women in Translation Month

That Time of Year Marie NDiayeWomen in Translation month is August. Do you know what you’re reading for it yet? Women in Translation month was founded by Meytal Radzinski (who blogs and tweets) as a way to address the gender imbalance in the books that get translated. It’s been going on since 2014 and, from what I can see, gets more and more attention each year, and deservedly so. It’s fun to see what people are reading, learn about new authors, and read some great books.

So now I’m going to think about what I might read this August. Here are some possibilities:

  1. That Time of Year by Marie NDiaye, translated by Jordan Stump. This one comes out in September, but I’m lucky enough to have an advanced copy on my shelves right now.
  2. The Cheffe by Marie NDiaye, translated by Jordan Stump. Yes, I like NDiaye a lot. I’ve read three of her books so far and found each one strange, eerie, and fascinating.
  3. Love by Hanne Orstavik, translated by Martin Aitken. I know nothing about this author or book, but I’ve heard some stellar recommendations. I picked it up on a recent book-buying spree (back when browsing in bookstores was a thing!).
  4. River by Esther Kinsky, translated by Iain Galbraith. I’m currently reading Grove by Esther Kinsky and finding it absorbing and meditative.
  5. Exposition by Nathalie Leger, translated by Natasha Lehrer. This is another book that isn’t out yet and that I have an advanced copy of (sorry!), but I might also pick up her book Suite for Barbara Loden, which is available. These are published by Dorothy Project, a very small publisher — two books a year — that I love.
  6. Celestial Bodies by Jokha Alharthi, translated by Marilyn Booth. This one won the 2019 Man Booker International Prize and is the first novel by an Omani women to be translated into English.
  7. The Book of Anna by Carmen Boullosa, translated by Samantha Schnee. I read Boullosa’s novel Before a few years back and found it strange and wonderful. The Book of Anna sort of plays around with the story of Anna Karenina.
  8. Family Lexicon by Natalia Ginzburg, translated by Jenny McPhee. Natalia Ginzburg is a writer I’ve long thought I’d love, but, except for one essay, I haven’t read her. You know those writers you’re always planning to read? It’s nice to finally get around to them.

I won’t be reading all these books in August, but I think these make a pretty good pile to choose from. If you have plans for Women in Translation month, I’d love to hear them!

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Real Life, by Brandon Taylor

Real Life Brandon Taylor coverReal Life by Brandon Taylor really got to me. It’s an academic novel, first of all, which I love. In this case, the main character, Wallace, is in graduate school for Biochemistry. He spends as much time as he can in the lab working on experiments with nematodes, experiments that don’t always go well. Colleagues in the lab don’t always treat him well and his relationship with her supervisor is uneasy. That right there is enough to make me want to keep reading — trouble in graduate school makes me tense.

It’s also a novel that takes its time explaining the characters’ feelings. The story takes place over one weekend, Friday evening through Sunday evening, and the characters have some EMOTIONS. I love a book that takes its time capturing every nuance of encounters and conversations.

Wallace has a group of friends,  but he still feels like an outsider. He comes from a poor family in Alabama and had a difficult childhood, so he is wary of his more privileged classmates. Wallace is also the only Black student in his cohort, and one of the very few people of color where he’s studying, so he has had to deal with racism of varying levels of overtness.

He overcomes his impulse to isolate himself and hangs out with his friends on a late-summer Friday night, and the plot proceeds from there. I won’t get into the details of what happens, but Wallace, who is gay, finds himself in an unexpected relationship that challenges his isolated, closed-off tendencies. He’s trying to figure out whether he can be vulnerable. He’s also trying to figure out whether he wants to stay in grad school any longer.

The novel was painful to read, but in a good way. Wallace is such a sympathetic figure (if sometimes infuriating — but realistically, understandably!) that it is hard to see him suffer. The racism he experienced was painful, his insecurities are painful, his struggles in grad school are painful, but Taylor captures all this with such care that it’s a pleasure to read. It’s also a very literary novel, with nods to Virginia Woolf and shades of Jane Austen. There’s just so much to love.

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June Reading

I read nine books in June, a good number for me. The books include six in print, one ebook, and two audio books. Seven of the books were nonfiction, and of the fiction, one was a collection of short stories, so only one novel! That’s unusual. I read a lot of nonfiction, but generally it’s maybe half nonfiction/half fiction. I wrote a round-up of nonfiction for Book Riot, which will be published sometime soonish, so that partly explains it, and I also came across a couple essays collections that sounded appealing, and I finished the month with those.

My favorite was Book of Mutter by Kate Zambreno, which I wrote about in my previous post. So good! Here is a list of all the books:

  1. American Harvest by Marie Mutsuki Mockett. This is a memoir/travel book about a summer Mutsuki Mockett spent traveling with wheat harvesters. She writes about the coastal/midwest cultural divide, religion, race, and farms. I wrote about it some here.
  2. The Toni Morrison Book Club by Juda Bennett, Winnifred Brown-Glaude, Cassandra Jackson, and Piper Kendrix Williams. Some thoughts are here. My first audiobook.
  3. Ramifications by Daniel Saldaña Paris, translated by Christina Macsweeney. This one is available in October. It’s my one novel of the month. I read an ebook version to write a review for Foreword Reviews, so more thoughts later, but I liked it. It’s about a young man unable/unwilling to leave his bed as he thinks about the year his mother abandoned his family.
  4. Afropessimism by Frank Wilderson. This book is part memoir, part argument about anti-Black racism. I’m not entirely sure what to make of the overarching argument (and would love to read reviews from Black and non-Black POC reviewers — I’ll have to look around and see what I find), but the ideas are fascinating and provoking, and the memoir part makes for absorbing reading.
  5. Book of Mutter by Kate Zambreno: thoughts here.
  6. Something That May Shock and Discredit You by Daniel Mallory Ortberg, who now goes by Daniel M. Lavery. This was my second audiobook. I had mixed feelings about this one. It’s partly a memoir about Lavery’s gender transition, and that part I liked a lot. His thoughts as he slowly made the decision to transition were fascinating, especially his accounts of people’s reactions. Then there was other material that’s sort of imaginative takes on various literary and cultural figures and those I didn’t always like. Sometimes they made me laugh out loud; other times they just puzzled me.
  7. Bluebeard’s First Wife by Ha Seong-nan, translated by Janet Hong. This is a short story collection set in South Korea. These stories are dark! I loved them. They vary, but many of them are about women struggling with husbands/fiancés and children.
  8. This is One Way to Dance by Sejal Shah. An essay collection about growing up the daughter of Gujarati immigrants, about living in Rochester, N.Y. (my hometown!), about writing, race, attending weddings, moving around the country chasing jobs. It’s warm and thoughtful.
  9. A Fish Growing Lungs by Alysia Li Ying Sawchyn. Another essay collection, this time about being diagnosed as Bipolar and then learning later that this diagnosis was a mistake. She describes her struggles with mental illness and drug use and writes about finding her way toward a more stable place. It’s an interesting look at the world of mental health treatment and at the slow process of growing up and figuring out the person she wants to be.

Finally, my review of the really great short novel The Bitch by Pilar Quintana, translated by Lisa Dillman, is up at Foreword Reviews.

Here’s to a great July! Oh, wait, it’s 2020. Here’s to surviving July!

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