Category Archives: Books

We Begin Our Ascent, by Joe Mungo Reed

We Begin Our Ascent coverI enjoyed this book so much! It’s perfect for me: a smart, thoughtful, well-written novel about cycling. I’m not sure what non-cycling readers will make of it: I can’t tell because an important part of the experience for me was reading great writing about what it’s like to ride and race, but my guess is they will find much to like in it too.

The novel (to be published on June 19th) tells the story of Sol, a rider in the Tour de France. It takes place over the course of a few days, with flashbacks to how he met his wife Liz, the birth of his infant son, the story of how he got into cycling, and what his years of training were like. Liz is a scientist trying to get some good results in the lab, and one thing I particularly liked about this book is how Reed makes connections between their two careers, both of them involving long hours of tedious work for an uncertain payoff. In both cases, people outside their respective fields don’t understand what they do. Nobody understands why Sol doesn’t try to win stages of the Tour — that’s not his job, which is to help their star climber win — and nobody really gets why Liz puts in such long hours for results that probably won’t revolutionize anything. Reed gets deeply into the nature of work, its meaning, its frustrations, its rituals and intricacies.

Reed’s descriptions of racing are fabulous. Of course, I have no idea what it’s like to ride in the Tour, but I’ve raced and ridden in a pack (the peloton, or the main group of riders), and he captures what it’s like to work together with your competitors, to navigate the elaborate etiquette of cycling: when you should help others (because that means you will be helped too) and when you should break from the pack and try to make a go of it by yourself, when it’s your turn to win the race and when you need to blow yourself up early so a stronger teammate can save crucial energy until the very end. I particularly loved how Reed uses the plural “we” to describe riding in the pack , as though it were a creature of its own, taking on different shapes as the race proceeds. The racing sequences got my heart rate up with the suspense, and I could feel the riders’ exhaustion as they pedaled toward the finish line with nothing left to give.

The novel is also about family life and what it’s like to be a professional couple with a brand new baby. I had to laugh at Sol and Liz’s confidence before the baby was born that they knew how their new life was going to be. The novel takes them in places they never expected to go, both personally and professionally.

Every cyclist who likes to read should pick this book up for sure, but it has a lot to offer for anyone interested in work, family, competition, and ambition, and for anyone who wants an absorbing, thought-provoking, exciting read.


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Sharp, by Michelle Dean

Michelle Dean Sharp coverMichelle Dean’s Sharp: The Women Who Made an Art of Having an Opinion seems like the perfect book for me — I like reading about women’s history, women writers, literary history, and criticism, and I’m a fan of many of the writers she discusses. Her ten main subjects are Dorothy Parker, Rebecca West, Hannah Arendt, Mary McCarthy, Susan Sontag, Pauline Kael, Joan Didion, Nora Ephron, Renata Adler, and Janet Malcolm. Dean’s writing is lively and interesting, and she manages to be satisfyingly thorough in a relatively short book by focusing on the women’s writing careers rather than telling their whole biography, although you do get a sense of the shape of their lives. She points out connections among the women — similarities among their lives and the ways they knew each other — and although I found these less compelling than I expected, it didn’t matter because their stories as individuals were enough.

I kept thinking as I read about the fact that all Dean’s examples are white women. She does discuss Zora Neale Hurston briefly, but she’s not one of her featured subjects. She addresses the whiteness of the book briefly in her introduction, saying that because of racism women of color weren’t able to achieve the public status as critics that her chosen white women did. Her project is to look at women with successful careers as critics, and during her time period (basically the entire 20th century), whiteness was a requirement.

This argument makes a certain amount of sense, and I don’t believe it’s helpful to say that authors should have taken on different projects than they did, but, but, but … I would have liked to see more discussion of the racism that made this situation possible, and whether this changed at all as the century went on, at the very least. But even more so I wonder whether taking on a project that focuses on white people only is really a good idea. I can see shifting the terms of the project slightly to include Hurston (and maybe someone like Audre Lorde?) or perhaps extending it further into the 21st century to include Roxane Gay, for example. It’s easy for me to say, as someone who did not write this book, that her project should have been broader, but, as a reader, I can say that I felt the near-total exclusion of voices of color to be unsettling.

So I guess it’s not the perfect book for me, in the end, but I did love reading about Mary McCarthy, Joan Didion, and Janet Malcolm, and seeing them in a different context than I’d seen them in before. And I liked learning more about the other writers whom I’m not so familiar with. I learned a lot about what it was like to be a critic in the 20th century and how tough it was to be an ambitious woman with talent. Things have changed for sure in the early part of the 21st century, but they have not changed nearly enough.

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Recent Reading: 5/1/2018

I’m in the middle of three books, all very different. The first is Sharp: The Women Who Made an Art of Having an Opinion by Michelle Dean. It’s a look at 10 mid-twentieth-century women critics, including Dorothy Parker, Mary McCarthy, Hannah Arendt, Rebecca West, Susan Sontag, Pauline Kael, Joan Didion, Nora Ephron, Renata Adler, and Janet Malcolm. I’m loving it so far, about a third of the way in, especially the section on Mary McCarthy. The focus is biographical, with particular attention to how these women’s careers and reputations as critics fared throughout their lives, and also the ways they were in contact with each other and in some cases, friends.

Next is The Leper of St. Giles by Ellis Peters for my mystery book group. This group has been going for ten years now! That’s pretty excellent for a book group, I think. I’ve never read Ellis Peters (I didn’t even realize she was a woman), and about halfway through I’m enjoying it very much. It’s fun to read about medieval England, even though I understand it may not be very historically accurate, and I like Brother Cadfael as a character. The story is fairly slow-moving in a way I like — it takes awhile for a murder to happen, but you have just the right amount of time to get absorbed into the world and the characters.

Finally, I’m listening on audio to Janet Mock’s Redefining Realness: My Path to Womanhood, Identity, Love & So Much More, about her experiences growing up trans, figuring out her gender identity slowly over time, figuring out how to tell her family about that identity, and figuring out how to make her way in the world. It’s also about growing up poor, in a family that couldn’t always take care of her well, in Hawaii, mostly, and also California and Texas. It’s an interesting story, and the audio is particularly good, read by Mock herself. I’m trying to listen to more audiobooks; I spend a lot of my listening time with podcasts, but want to add more books to the mix.

Book Stack 5.1.2018

And then there’s this stack of books on the table next to my writing space. I’m not sure what I’ll read next, but possibly one of these. The stack includes gifts, books I’ve bought at my local indie, books I got from publishers, books I bought online (because my local store isn’t likely to carry them). Or quite possibly I will read none of these at all! I’m running out of book space and need to do some weeding, ASAP. Story of my life (and probably yours).

What are you reading these days?


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Chemistry, by Weike Wang

Chemistry Weike Wang coverI recently finished the novel Chemistry by Weike Wang, and I liked it so much! It tells the story of a 20-something woman in a chemistry graduate program who is deeply unhappy and figuring out what to do about it. She’s frustrated by her research and her unsupportive advisors. She also doesn’t know what to do about her boyfriend’s marriage proposal. She has been happy with him, more or less, but the idea of marriage really freaks her out, not least because her parents’ marriage was so deeply unhappy. She is also worried about how she will feel if she follows her more-successful boyfriend/husband so he can pursue his career, while her own languishes. Will she end up made miserable by that decision?

The novel is in first person, and I liked the narrator’s voice — it’s thoughtful and quirky, smart and panicked. She brings in scientific concepts to help explain her feelings in a way that’s apt and funny. She’s struggling and only sometimes fully self-aware, and I rooted for her as she took risks and tried out new things, and I admired her stubborn refusal to make decisions when she’s not ready to.

The book gradually reveals what it is in the narrator’s past that makes her so afraid of marriage, and that part is moving, as are her descriptions of what it’s like to be the child of immigrants, trying to make her own way forward while dealing with the weight of her parents’ hopes and expectations.

This is the kind of book where not a whole lot happens, but the interest and enjoyment come from characterization and voice — one of my favorite kinds of fiction.


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Eventide, by Therese Bohman

Eventide cover I really loved Eventide by Therese Bohman, translated from the Swedish by Marlaine Delargy. It’s a novel about the academic world, which always appeals to me, and it’s a smart look at life for a newly-single woman in her forties who is struggling to figure out what she wants out of life and what meaning the world has for her. It’s a dark novel — another thing I like — and a philosophical one and one that takes a close look at the experience of being a middle-aged woman.

Karolina is the protagonist; she’s in her early forties, newly single, and struggling to find equilibrium in her new life. She’s an art professor in Stockholm with a successful career, although currently her research isn’t going anywhere. Meeting a new graduate student promises to change that, though, as he has found new material about a turn-of-the-20th-century female artist that could shake up her research field. What happens with this research project and with Karolina’s relationships among the academics, critics, and artists who make up the Stockholm intellectual world form the basis of the rest of the plot.

Karolina spends a lot of time in this novel thinking — about work, relationships, sex, art, aging, feminism — and while her mind is a complicated, fraught place, I enjoyed following her thoughts. She is struggling and depressed, but still clear-sighted and sharp. I also like reading about women my age, even though she and I have very different lives — women who are figuring out what they think about their careers, their lives, their bodies, their relationships, at the time when fertility wanes, which can bring up complicated feelings, and one’s career is (often) established, which can also bring up complicated feelings. Karolina is a difficult, prickly character, and I liked her for exactly that reason.

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Recent Reading, 4/14/2018

Recently I finished two books that I loved: Zadie Smith’s Feel Free and Brittney Cooper’s Eloquent Rage. About the Smith essay collection, I read every word, and liked every piece, but I don’t think it’s necessary to read the whole thing if you’re not inspired to. It’s a pretty hefty book and some of the subjects she writes about might not interest every reader. But there are so many pieces that any reader will like. She’s such a fun writer: her sentences are so smart and so elegant that it’s a joy to watch her mind work. She moves among very different subjects within the same essay with ease and it’s a pleasure to let yourself be surprised by where she takes you.

Eloquent Rage has a lot of memoiristic material, but it’s really more of a personal exploration of feminism, and Black feminism in particular. She writes about her experiences as a Black girl and woman and at the same time looks at the experiences of Black girls and women more broadly: experiences in schools, in the church, in love, in friendship, in the working world, in pop culture. Her tone is informal and funny:

Eloquent Rage opening

She brings the meaning of “intersectionality” to life: she writes about the struggles of women generally, and about those of Black men, and about those of Black women (as well as those of other groups) and shows how they are all different, all inflected by sexism and racism in different ways. She has some challenging words for men generally, and for Black men, and for white women, and also for Black women. It strikes me that any reader might find this book uncomfortable at some point, as I did, because she really spares no one. But this book, at heart, is a love letter to Black women. Her definition of Black feminism is about keeping a love for Black women front and center. She wants justice for everyone, and works with people of all types to make that happen, but her guiding principle is making the lives of Black women freer, safer, and better.

The book is an easy read in a lot of ways: it’s accessible and engaging, consistently surprising and fresh, informed by philosophy and theory, but always in an approachable, clear way. It’s a difficult book in other ways, though: Cooper has some harsh truths to share about the sexism and racism particular to the U.S. and how those two “isms” combine to make the lives of Black women much more difficult than they should be. I think this is a book every American would benefit from reading.


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Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud

I didn’t mention this in my last post, but I’ve also been listening to, and recently finished, Anne Helen Peterson’s book Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud: The Rise and Reign of the Unruly Woman. I decided to listen to this because it’s the first pick for Book Riot’s “Persist,” a feminist book club. The book club is run on Instagram Live (a new thing for me, and one I will never use for myself), and the way it works is a Book Riot staff member talks about the book live and people can send in comments, so there’s some back and forth with the audience. It’s an interesting experiment, and one that’s been fun to follow along.

Too Fat Too Slutty cover As for the book itself, it’s the kind of nonfiction that I approach with trepidation, not because of the topic, but because its ten chapters cover one “unruly” woman each, and I often find that format boring. It’s hard to make the give-the-theory-in-the-intro-and-apply-it-over-and-over-again-in-the-chapters format consistently fresh and interesting. Peterson does a pretty good job with this, though, mostly, I think, because each chapter has not only a different unruly woman to discuss (not interesting enough in and of itself), but it looks at a different type of unruliness in each chapter: too pregnant, too shrill, too queer, too fat, too slutty, too loud, etc., so there’s a wide variety of material.

Her definition of “unruly” is kind of a mess: the degree of unruliness in each chapter varies a lot, as does the degree of intentionality: some examples purposefully set out to break rules and cause trouble (Jennifer Weiner, Madonna) and others break rules just by existing (Caitlyn Jenner). All of her examples are celebrities, which is done purposefully in order to look at unruliness as it happens in the public eye, but are celebrities really the most interesting examples of unruliness available? It is interesting to look at how the celebrity status of these women limits their ability to be unruly — they need to follow SOME rules in order to remain popular — but I’m not sure they are the best sources to look at to study female unruliness in and of itself.

But there are a lot of interesting ideas packed into the chapters, and Peterson does a wonderful job of telling the women’s stories and also placing them into historical and intellectual contexts in a relatively short book with lively, entertaining writing. I particularly liked the chapters on Hillary Clinton (too shrill), Jennifer Weiner (too loud), and Lena Dunham (too naked). If you’re into audiobooks, Peterson reads the book herself and does a good job. The book was good company during my commute and laundry-folding sessions when I had some listening time to give it.

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Recent Reading, 4/1/2018

Oh, it’s been over a year since I wrote here? Haha, I guess it has! Ah, well.

So, what am I reading? I just finished a novel in translation called In the Distance with You by Carla Guelfenbein, to be published by Other Press this June (translated by John Cullen). Guelfenbein is a Chilean author and the book takes place in Chile and various places in Europe. It’s inspired by Clarice Lispector and is about a Lispector-like author who spends the novel in a hospital room, while three other characters who knew her in various ways tell their stories. It’s about writing and writerly relationships, about literary lineages, about the way the past bears down on the present, about the pressures the world places on the body. It’s labeled a literary thriller, although the pace is slower than that leads one to expect. But there are plot revelations along the way that kept me reading happily, and the ideas about the writing life and the creative process were engaging.

I’m also reading Feel Free, an essay collection by Zadie Smith, and it’s so good! Smith is such a master of the essay. I like her novels, but her essays are better: she’s so entertaining, and so smart. She brings together things you would not expect to be brought together, in classic essay style. I’m about halfway through. The essays have been about politics, libraries, art, film, aesthetics, and more. Many of them I had read before in various publications — The New Yorker, Harper’s, The New York Review of Books — but I’m happy to read them again. One of my favorites, “Some Notes on Attunement” starts with Joni Mitchell and moves to Wordsworth, Seneca, Kierkegaard, and a drive through Wales, all while never losing site of where it started. But the essay is really about artistic taste and how we change our minds about what we like. It’s really so good. Here’s a passage from another essay I loved, “Dance Lessons for Writers”:

Zadie Smith Feel Free passage

What’s next? I’m thinking of picking Brittney C. Cooper’s Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers Her Superpower, but we’ll see what I’m in the mood for later.


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2016 in Reading: Part 1

I am currently in the middle of a fairly lengthy holiday journey across the country to visit with family, so my usual round-up of my year in reading is late and will be quick. But I want to crunch all the numbers as usual, so here we go!

  • Books read: 85.
  • Audiobooks: 6. I focused more on podcasts than audiobooks this year, which has been great, as I love podcasts … but I love audiobooks too. I wrote about this dilemma here.
  • eBooks: 23. This is almost twice last year’s number. I read many more e-galleys from Edelweiss this year, which explains the change.
  • From library: 9.
  • Fiction: 40. This is way down from last year! Last year my reading was 68% fiction, and this year it’s 47%. This change reflects my love of essays and memoirs and my desire to read and write about more of them. I’ll never stop reading novels, though.
  • Nonfiction: 42. Last year my nonfiction reading was 30%; this year it’s 47%.
  • Poetry: 3. One of these had some essays in it too, so I’m counting it in nonfiction as well.
  • Plays: 1.
  • Essay collections: 11. Five more than last year.
  • Biography/autobiography: 25. 12 more than last year.
  • Mysteries: 7
  • Graphic Novels: 1
  • Books in translation: 7. This is down by two from last year, which I’m not happy about.
  • Books by writers of color: 30. This is the same number as last year, but a slightly higher percentage.

Gender breakdown:

  • Women: 62
  • Men: 21
  • Collections with men and women: 2


  • Americans: 57
  • British: 12
  • French: 2
  • Canadian: 2
  • Indian: 2
  • Nigerian: 2
  • One each by authors from Algeria, Australia, Chile, Ireland, Mexico, Malaysia, Sudan, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Year of publication:

  • 19th century: 2
  • First half of 20th century: 3
  • Second half of 20th century: 4
  • 2000-2009: 4
  • 2010-2016: 72

I’ll be back before too long with a list of my favorite books of the year. I hope your 2017 has started of well!


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Recent Reading: December 17th, 2016

I have one novel and two nonfiction books to report on this time. First the novel: Seeing Red by Lina Meruane. I’ve seen this described as auto-fiction, a term that … I guess makes sense? Autobiographical novel is better, but frankly I’m not that interested in its autobiographical origins. What’s interesting is that it’s a first-person account of struggling with blindness. The novel opens with the main character — Lina, of course — at a party, discovering that her eyes are filling with blood. She has known that this might happen and has had to be careful to try to keep it from happening, but it was inevitable that it would happen eventually. The rest of the novel is about trying to get by afterward — about learning to cope without sight and living with the hope that her eyes might get better but with the possibility of disappointment as well. It’s a fierce novel, about pain and anger and fear. It’s short, and I think that’s a good thing, because even though I liked the book quite a lot, it would be hard to read a work with such intensity for very long. I like fiction that gets deeply into a character’s mind, even when that mind is an uncomfortable place, and this book satisfies that desire perfectly.

Then there’s The Clothing of Books by Jhumpa Lahiri, a very, very short book — an extended essay, really — on book covers. It’s a great follow-up to her book from earlier this year In Other Words, which was about learning to speak and write in Italian. That book was also about identity and how language and writing have shaped her, and The Clothing of Books picks up the same theme, just this time in relation to her feelings about book covers generally and the covers of her own books in particular. I like Lahiri’s nonfiction style — translated from the Italian in both cases — which is very simple and straightforward while managing to make intriguing arguments and to suggest depth of thought. Both books are great for people how like to think about language and writing and books as physical objects.

Finally, there’s 100 Essays I Don’t Have Time to Write by the playwright Sarah Ruhl. The essays here are 1-2 pages usually, and most of them are about the theater — Ruhl’s thoughts about her own plays and her experiences working in the theater and also more theoretical ideas about how drama works and what plays can and should do. Ruhl starts with a description of trying to write with small children to explain the genesis of the book: each essay is an idea told briefly and simply, an idea that perhaps she could have expanded if she had had more time. But they feel complete already, or at least most of them do, and I enjoyed them for their suggestiveness and their air of exploration: they are essays in the sense of “attempts” or “assays” into a thought instead of fully-developed and defended arguments, and they are enjoyable in their brevity and incompleteness. This book is a must-read for anybody who has thought about the theater a lot, and interesting for those who haven’t but wouldn’t mind giving it a try.

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Recent Reading, Escapist and non

I’ve been getting back into regular reading in the last couple weeks, but I’ve still been in the mood for books that feel escapist. Rich and Pretty, by Rumaan Alam was perfect — so enjoyable and absorbing and fun — and after I finished it, I wanted something similar. I asked around a bit, looking for a book that would let me get lost in the world it creates, and settled on Seating Arrangements by Maggie Shipstead. It, also, was perfect. It’s another “rich people problems” book, which for some reason I find comforting, probably because while there are problems, they aren’t all that serious and they don’t make me feel bad and worried. Seating Arrangements takes place on an island in New England and tells the story of a wedding weekend. There’s the bride and her family — the novel’s main characters — as well as the groom and his family and everyone’s friends. The novel is full of unlikeable characters, which I just love; the worst one is Winn, the bride’s father, who is so horribly self-involved and lacking in self-awareness, and Shipstead captures him so well, it’s just delicious. His biggest worry in life is not getting invited into the country club he so desperately wants to be a member of. Shipstead makes us feel the absurdity of his character, but she also makes us sympathize with him, just a little bit, and I loved that.

As for my non-escapist reading, I finished Sady Doyle’s book Trainwreck: The Women We Love to Hate, Mock, and Fear … and Why. This book looks at the phenomenon of the famous woman who completely and utterly loses it, who turns herself into a very public disaster. Think Britney Spears. But also think Mary Wollstonecraft, Billie Holiday, and Sylvia Plath. Doyle looks at the modern meaning of the “trainwreck,” but also at historical examples to show that this is not just a modern phenomenon. Doyle is great at explaining the cultural meaning of this figure — how it developed, the meaning we find in it, and why we just can’t look away. Doyle’s writing is smart and also lively and fun. It’s a disturbing topic, and Doyle offers some useful ways to think about it.


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We Gon’ Be Alright and other reading

We Gon’ Be Alright: Notes on Race and Resegregation by Jeff Chang is a book I began before the disaster of an election almost two weeks ago. I was really appreciating it before the election, but afterward it began to feel even more important. It’s an essay collection with pieces on the idea of diversity, student protest, Black Lives Matter, race and the Oscars, what it means to be Asian-American, and everything that has happened in Ferguson. This last is the subject of Chang’s longest essay where he goes in depth on the history of the city, everything that led up to the shooting of Michael Brown, and the aftermath of his death and the protests. Chang’s writing is clear and incisive, and the book as a whole feels necessary. We need smart people writing good books about race in America right now. I don’t feel like I have a lot to say about the book, as I don’t want to get into the details of his arguments, but the book is useful as a way of thinking about the state we’re in.

As for other reading, I haven’t been doing much in the last couple weeks. It’s been a busy and stressful time, and generally not a happy time. I am in the middle of Rich and Pretty by Rumaan Alam, and although I’m reading it very slowly, I’m liking it. It’s a story about the friendship between two women in their early 30s in New York City as they figure out their relationships and work while keeping their friendship going. Not much happens in it — or at least not much so far — and I’m liking that. A mildly-escapist look at female friendship is just the thing for right now.


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A Body, Undone, by Christina Crosby

This memoir about the aftermath of a horrible bicycle accident was hard for me to read — although good enough not to give up on — because the day after I started it my husband got in a bicycle accident. His accident was not horrible, and he’s fine now, but I felt shaken up about it for a while. Crosby is also a professor who lives in Connecticut … and it’s all just too close to my life! A Body, Undone is a really fascinating read, though, and worth sticking with in spite of my mild queasiness. Crosby’s accident, which took place in 2003, was horrific: she landed on her chin and broke her neck. She has lived with paralysis ever since. The book tells the story of the accident, the immediate aftermath, and how she has changed and adjusted in the years afterward. It also reaches back into her childhood and life before the accident and describes how the accident affected her family, particularly her relationship with her brother, who suffered from MS and passed away not too long after Crosby’s crash.

Crosby’s story is compelling, but I especially liked the more philosophical aspects of the book where Crosby considers how the accident changed her sense of self. She considers the relationship of body and mind and what it means when one’s body no longer functions as it used to. She also makes a point of resisting traditional narratives of disaster and recovery, refusing the usual move toward optimism as her book moves along. I loved the closing chapter where she considers literary conventions and argues that hers is more like a horror story than a traditional memoir:

Even the most accomplished cripple you can imagine is undone, and living some part of her life in another dimension, under a different dispensation than that of realist representation. In my case, spinal cord injury casts a very long shadow, the penumbra of which will only grow darker as the years pass and the deficits of age begin to diminish me still further. I’m living a life beyond reason, even if I have invoked some of the stabilizing conventions of realism in this narrative. Those conventions are the ones I know best, but profound neurological damage actually feels to me more like a horror story, a literary genre governed not by rational exposition but rather by affective intensification and bewilderment.

Crosby has created a post-accident life that’s meaningful, but I admired the honesty with which she writes about her suffering and fears of the future.

The quotation above gives you a sense of what the writing is like: Crosby is an academic, and it sometimes shows in her prose. The voice felt a little uneven to me at times. But this problem affects only parts of the book, and the interest I felt in the ideas made up for it.

A side-note: for those who have read Maggie Nelson’s Bluets, Crosby is the friend who just suffered an accident in that book, and Nelson makes appearances in Crosby’s book as well. As a fan of both writers, I liked discovering their friendship and how they have influenced each other.


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The (Wo)Man Booker Shadow Panel Reaches a Decision! (and other updates)

After not a whole lot of much deliberation, the (Wo)Man Booker Shadow Panel has reached a decision on the 2016 Man Booker Prize winner! The winner is…….The Sellout, by Paul Beatty!!

Okay, the truth is that The Sellout got three out of five votes, so it was not a unanimous decision by any means. But three of us — including me — felt that it was the most deserving novel on the list. If we wanted to settle on a book that all of us actually genuinely liked, Eileen would probably have been our choice, or maybe His Bloody Project, but it would have been one of those unanimous decisions that’s really more about settling than choosing what the majority of us think is the best book.

The official announcement comes down tomorrow (Tuesday, 10/25). My guess is that either The Sellout or Do Not Say We Have Nothing will win. The Shadow Panel was not particularly taken with the latter novel, but it’s gotten a lot of good reviews and strong buzz. So we’ll see.

As for other reading, I recently finished Jade Chang’s The Wangs vs. the World, a book I liked quite a lot. It’s a riches-to-rags story, and also a road trip novel, and also a coming-of-age novel, and also a story about the immigrant experience. It tells the story of the Wangs, a family that has just lost its considerable fortune in the most recent financial crash. The two younger children get pulled out of college and private school — because how can they pay for it now? — and they all drive across country from California to upstate New York where the eldest daughter lives. The story of their journey is fun — add to the list above that this is a picaresque novel — and the story touches on important ideas along the way, always with a light touch. I can’t say it was a super-deep read, but it was enjoyable.

And now I’m in the middle of Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho, a fantasy novel about magic in Victorian England. I haven’t read Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke, but it’s definitely a novel in that vein. In fact, the cover claims it’s a cross between Susanna Clarke and Georgette Heyer. I’m reading it largely because it’s the first pick for Book Riot’s Riot Read, a super-informal month-long read-along. The idea is that people will read and discuss it across social media, blogs, in comments at Book Riot, or wherever they want to. So far I’m liking the book a lot — it’s a quick read (except I don’t have much time to read right now, so I’m getting through it slowly, but it would be a quick read in other circumstances), enjoyable, light, kind of obvious in its themes but still very well done.


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Pond, by Claire-Louise Bennett

I really loved — for the most part — reading Claire-Louise Bennett’s Pond; it’s the kind of book I like: focused on one character, about consciousness, beautifully written, experimental, or on the borderline of being experimental. It’s about one woman living an isolated life in an Irish town. The book’s chapters can be considered separate short stories, but it’s clearly the same main character in all of them, so I’d call them vignettes from the main character’s life rather than separate stories. It’s the kind of fiction where not much happens, except that everything happens, everything meaning thoughts, feelings, memories, dreams — the stuff that we live with all the time. The book should be boring, but I found myself enthralled with chapters about walks, bowls, her yard, her neighbors, her landlady. Bennett takes you deep into her character’s mind, and it turns out to be a place where the ordinary becomes riveting.

When I said I loved it for the most part, I mostly meant that toward the end the voice begins to fall apart and I became less sure what was going on and what to make of it. It’s like the character begins to sink into dreams and nightmares and leaves everyday reality a little bit behind. I would like to read this book again to see what I make of it a second time — to see better whether the ending fits with the rest and how it does or doesn’t. I may simply have not understood everything the book was doing towards the end.

But overall, I’m fascinated by what Bennett has done. I got this book from the library, but I want a copy on my shelves to pick up again when I’m ready. I think that’s a testament to how much this book got to me.


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Reading Round-Up, 9/27/2016

I wrote last time about being in the middle of Chloe Caldwell’s Women and Ruth Ozeki’s The Face: A Time Code. Both, as turned out, were excellent. Women tells the story of an intense relationship and a young woman’s exploration of her sexual identity in New York City. I suppose it’s a conventional story in a lot of ways — a love affair in New York City! — but it’s also intense and bookish, and it reads like a memoir or a long essay, which I mean as praise. The Face I just loved. Ozeki’s thoughts about her life, her body, and her mind as she sits and stares at her face for three hours are so interesting, so thoughtful, so evocative. I enjoyed being in her company while reading the book, and, really, that’s exactly what I wanted.

Then I read Jerald Walker’s The World in Flames: A Black Boyhood in a White Supremacist Doomsday Cult, which is exactly what the title promises. Walker grew up in the 1970s and 80s in Chicago in a large family devoted to a cultish religion that believed the world was going to end very soon. If not on the date the leader promises, then … sometime after that. So Walker spent his childhood believing he would never become an adult, that he never needed to think about his future because he wouldn’t have one, at least on this earth. He also spent his childhood in an area experiencing white flight and in a church that believed in racial segregation. There are a lot of strands in this book (oh, both his parents are blind as well), and Walker tells the story in a straightforwardly engaging manner. It’s a glimpse into a fascinating childhood and adolescence.

Now I’m reading Claire-Louise Bennett’s short novel Pond, and I love it. But more on that later.


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Fiction Fatigue

In case you haven’t heard, the short list for the Man Booker prize was announced last week, and it turns out I didn’t do too badly at guessing: I picked four out of the six books from the official short list. The (Wo)Man Booker Shadow Panel picked three out of the six. I’m very happy that my two favorites — The Sellout and Eileen — made it, and I’m also pleased that All That Man Is made it as well. I was correct about Hot Milk also, although I’m less enthusiastic about that one. I wish My Name is Lucy Barton was on the list, and I think The Many deserves to be there. Of the two I didn’t pick that made the list, one doesn’t surprise me: Do Not Say We Have Nothing seemed likely to make it, with its large scope and ambition. I’m more surprised they went with His Bloody Project, which I thought was entertaining, but had a weak ending and wasn’t particularly ground-breaking.

So now we wait for the winner. I’m hoping it’s The Sellout, and I’m guessing it will be that one or Do Not Say We Have Nothing.

And now, I’m ready for other kinds of books, particularly some nonfiction. I will always read novels, I love novels, but too many of them in a row can be a challenge for me, particularly when the novels are complex with lots of characters and plot. When I finished the Booker list, I felt a craving for books that were simpler in scope. I’m beginning to think that there’s a certain type of large, ambitious novel that I need to read very sparingly — the kind that makes you wish you had kept a list of characters, that makes you go back and double-check plot points, the kind that skips around in time and covers decades or centuries. What I want more of is the kind of novel that focuses on one main character, or two at most, and that doesn’t have a lot going on in the way of plot, but instead focuses on character development and ideas. And I want nonfiction of the same sort: essays and memoirs or other kinds of personal nonfiction that offer the pleasure of a single consciousness and a unique voice.

So what have I been reading in the last week? Well, first I read John D. MacDonald’s The Deep Blue Good-By, which does not fit the criteria of what I’m looking for, but which I needed to read for my mystery book group. It was an interesting novel to think about, but the group in general decided it’s severely flawed by the main character’s misogyny. So, onward. I also finished a forthcoming essay collection by Phoebe Robinson called You Can’t Touch My Hair: And Other Things I Still Have to Explain. This is much closer to what I want. The essays are a great combination of funny and serious. Robinson is a comedian, and it shows, but the pieces also touch on important ideas about race and gender, and they can be moving in places.

And now I’m moving on to two books, the first of which is Ruth Ozeki’s The Face: A Time Code, which is about … Ruth Ozeki’s face. I’ve only just begun, but she decides to spend three hours looking at her face in the mirror and writing about the results. This is part of a series of short books on writers and their faces, with two others in the series so far by Chris Abani and Tash Aw. I love the concept. The other book is Women by Chloe Caldwell, another short book, in this case a novella. It’s fiction, but it’s the kind of fiction that reads like it could be essay or memoir: it’s first person and about real-life experiences  and focused on relationships and identity. It’s good so far. I loved reading the Booker long list fiction, but now I’m loving not reading the Booker long list fiction.


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(Wo)Man Booker Shadow Panel: Our Short List!

The results are in! Yes, the “real” Man Booker short list gets revealed on Tuesday, but that’s only what those “official” judges think. I think our list is going to be at least as good. I was surprised to find that we didn’t struggle much to come up with this list — no feuds began or friendships ended (at least I don’t think so…). Yes, we did disagree about many of the books, but the results seemed almost inevitable after six weeks of reading and discussing the possibilities. We got to know each other’s opinions well.

Or maybe I feel like everything went smoothly largely because the group short list is remarkably similar to my own personal short list. In fact, five of the books are the same, and the sixth I could easily have switched out to make them completely the same. I don’t think this has to do with any superior powers of insight or persuasion on my part, though; I just happened to hold opinions two or three other people held often enough to get my way most of the time.

So! Here’s the list, in alphabetical order by author:

  1. The Sellout, by Paul Beatty
  2. The North Water, by Ian McGuire
  3. The Many, by Wyl Menmuir
  4. Eileen, by Ottessa Moshfegh
  5. My Name is Lucy Barton, by Elizabeth Strout
  6. All That Man Is, by David Szalay

The only change from my list is to include The North Water instead of Hot Milk. But I like this list just fine. What do you think?


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(Wo)Man Booker Shadow Panel: my personal short list

The official Man Booker short list will be announced soon (Tuesday, September 13th), and the Shadow Panel reading is wrapping up. We’ll publish our short list on Monday. But today I’ll give my personal list, with the one caveat that I wasn’t able to read J.M. Coetzee’s The Schooldays of Jesus because my copy didn’t arrive on time (it still isn’t here). This is very frustrating, as Coetzee is an important writer who seems likely (to me) to make the short list, and I wanted to have the chance to consider it for inclusion myself. The problem is that the rules allow the judges to consider any book published in the U.K. by September 30th, 2016, which means it’s possible for them to choose a book no one (except those with ARCs) is able to read right away. Coetzee’s publishers decided to move up the U.K. publication date once the long list was announced, but this still didn’t allow quite enough time for me to get the book. I might have had it on time, but either the Book Depository messed up, or the postal service messed up, and, yes, I’m still annoyed about it. Grrrr.

Not getting to read the Coetzee is also frustrating because the long list wasn’t terribly strong, and I would have loved to have another book to consider for my short list. There were definitely some books I loved and some I liked, but by the time I got to the end of my list of six books, I was losing enthusiasm for my available choices. Basically, the sensibility of the judges doesn’t overlap with my own all that much, and I think it’s safe to say that this is true for the other members of the shadow panel as well. Surely there are better books published in the last year?? I haven’t read widely in fiction of the last year, but … surely?? I wish we could see the entire list of contenders, the 155 books submitted by publishers for consideration, to help figure out why they chose these 13 books.

At any rate! Below is my list, roughly in order of preference:

  1. The Sellout, by Paul Beatty
  2. Eileen, by Ottessa Moshfegh
  3. My Name is Lucy Barton, by Elizabeth Strout
  4. All That Man Is, by David Szalay
  5. The Many, by Wyl Menmuir
  6. Hot Milk, by Deborah Levy

I almost put The North Water, by Ian McGuire in the last spot, but Hot Milk wins out, mainly because it feels new and strange (a good kind of strange) in a way that The North Water doesn’t. Of the books on this list, I loved the first three, very much admired the 4th and 5th, and liked the 6th. Of the books not on this list, I liked The North Water and His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet but felt they didn’t do enough that was new or interesting — they were fine, not exciting. I found Virginia Reeves’s Work Like Any Other implausible and dull. Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing, A.L. Kennedy’s Serious Sweet, and David Means’s Hystopia were all too long and messy, although with interesting premises. They were all admirable attempts at something worth doing, but they didn’t follow through.

I’m dying to know what the official short list will be. I have a feeling their list will diverge greatly from mine, but we shall see.


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(Wo)Man Booker Shadow Panel: (More) Updates

I have now finished 11 of the 13 Booker long-listed novels, with only Hystopia by David Means and The Schooldays of Jesus by J.M. Coetzee remaining. And that’s a good thing too, because the short list announcement will be coming soon, on September 13th. I have about another week. I should finish on time, if I keep reading steadily.

Since I wrote here last, I’ve finished three books, all of them pretty long. Only one of them I really liked, which is indicative of the Shadow Panel’s response to these books overall. There are some good ones on the list, but not as many as we’d like, and not as many as it seems like there should be. There have been too many books that are clearly ambitious and smart but are too messy or aren’t fun to read. And there are too many books that are fine but not inspiring, not what I think of as Booker-quality. Obviously the “official” judges panel and my shadow panel don’t agree on what makes a great book.

But it’s also the case that the judges don’t pick books from the entire pool of eligible ones; instead, publishers have a certain number of titles they are allowed to submit, and they choose which particular ones they think have the best chance to win. The Booker judges this year had a pool of 155 publisher-submitted books to choose from. That’s a lot, yes, but there are surely great books not in that pool. I wonder how the prize would be different if the process of selecting books were different.

Anyway,  here’s what I’ve read lately:

  • Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madelein Thien. The story at the heart of the book is interesting, the history is interesting, but the book as a whole is not. It had its moments, but it felt too long. The novel is about several generations of families in China as they make their way through the Cultural Revolution and the protests in Tiananmen Square. They are musicians, and I liked the novel’s ideas about art and culture. But the reading experience dragged; I wanted more forward propulsion and liveliness.
  • All That Man Is by David Szalay. This one I enjoyed, although, like Eileen, it often made me a little queasy. Its characters are unpleasant, difficult, troubled men. In a series of what are really short stories, although this book is described as a novel, Szalay takes us through a life, giving us stories about men — different in each chapter — from late adolescence through old age. It speaks well to Szalay’s abilities as a writer that I liked this book, because I wasn’t a fan of the project as a whole when I started. I mean, queasiness-inducing stories about troubled men aren’t exactly a draw for me. But I read this one with interest and engagement. Szalay is great at creating believable, complex characters and putting them into situations that reveal who they are.
  • Serious Sweet by A.L. Kennedy. This was another slog, I’m afraid. It tells the story of two troubled people as they go through one day, and the story of their relationship was enjoyable. But there were too many tangents, too many long passages of stream-of-consciousness narration, too many vignettes between chapters that are loosely-related to the main story at best. I laughed now and then at one of the main characters, Meg, and her dark take on the world. But there wasn’t enough of interest here to make it a good read.

We’ll see how the last two books go!

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