Category Archives: Books

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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(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.


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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.


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