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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(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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It’s (Wo)Man Booker Shadow Panel time again!

Once again, Frances, Teresa, Nicole, Meredith, and I will be attempting to read the entire Man Booker prize long list over the course of the next six weeks or so. That’s 13 books, and we will be busy. We will announce our own short list on  September 12th, one day before the official short list goes live, and — if we follow last year’s pattern, which I think we will — we will announce our winner as well. I wrote a quick write-up of the long list on Book Riot if you’re interested in hearing more about it. Here’s what’s on the list:

Paul Beatty (US) – The Sellout (Oneworld)

J.M. Coetzee (South African-Australian) – The Schooldays of Jesus (Harvill Secker)

A.L. Kennedy (UK) – Serious Sweet (Jonathan Cape)

Deborah Levy (UK) – Hot Milk (Hamish Hamilton)

Graeme Macrae Burnet (UK) – His Bloody Project (Contraband)

Ian McGuire (UK) – The North Water (Scribner UK)

David Means (US) – Hystopia (Faber & Faber)

Wyl Menmuir (UK) –The Many (Salt)

Ottessa Moshfegh (US) – Eileen (Jonathan Cape)

Virginia Reeves (US) – Work Like Any Other (Scribner UK)

Elizabeth Strout (US) – My Name Is Lucy Barton (Viking)

David Szalay (Canada-UK) – All That Man Is (Jonathan Cape)

Madeleine Thien (Canada) – Do Not Say We Have Nothing (Granta Books)

As it turns out, I read one of these books last year, The Sellout by Paul Beatty. I loved it, and I think it will be hard for anything to knock that book off my own personal Booker short list, although we’ll see if my fellow panelists agree with me. I don’t think The Sellout is a perfect book — my interest in it flagged at times — but it’s so funny, so audacious, so ridiculous, and so full of jaw-dropping sentences that I will forgive it any number of flaws.

I just finished Ottessa Moshfegh’s novel Eileen as well. I was thoroughly absorbed in this book, although at times it made me feel slightly ill. Eileen lives with her alcoholic father in a small town outside of Boston. She’s 24, works as an assistant in a prison, lives in a wreck of a house, and is almost completely isolated. She wants to leave her town, but doesn’t know how she will do it. The book is narrated by Eileen as a much older woman, so we know that she does make it out, but we don’t know how. She’s a prickly, difficult, thoroughly unpleasant, disturbing, disgusting person, and we get deep into her mind in ways that are intensely uncomfortable. And I think Moshfegh pulls it off very well. It’s a slow-moving, atmospheric book, and one that gets under one’s skin.

So I’m off to a good start with my Booker reading. Next up is Deborah Levy’s Hot Milk.


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Reading Round-Up, 7/17/2016

I finished two books this week, both of them very good. First, Teju Cole’s forthcoming essay collection Known and Strange Things. So many of the pieces here are truly excellent — on James Baldwin, photography, Instagram, W.G. Sebald, Obama, his own brush with blindness, and a lot more. Some of the essays are good but not necessarily of interest to everyone — reviews of particular writers or photographers, for example, where the interest depends on one’s knowledge of the subject. But there are many essays here, and so many of them are so rich, that the collection as a whole is a memorable one. I love Cole’s quiet, thoughtful voice and his way of communicating feeling and deep thought both. He strikes me as a good guide through some of our contemporary predicaments, especially racial and cultural tensions. I learned a lot about photography and about contemporary travel. Anyone who likes a good essay will appreciate this book, especially if you’re a James Baldwin fan or if you liked Cole’s novel Open City.

The other book is The Light of the World by Elizabeth Alexander, a memoir about the death of her husband Ficre. It’s beautiful. Alexander is a poet, and this shows in her sentences. She captures her happiness with her husband and her life in New Haven, as well as her grief at her husband’s sudden death. It follows a fairly standard grief memoir format: telling the story of the death, filling in the background of how they met and fell in love, describing her attempts to respond to loss, her first steps toward recovery. But it does all these things with such grace that the book stands out. There’s something joyous about the entire thing, which feels like a strange thing to say about a grief memoir, but it’s true. Alexander fully expresses her grief, to the extent that’s possible, but the emphasis is on celebrating Ficre’s life and their time together.

Now I’m in the middle of The Art of Waiting by Belle Boggs, which is coming out this fall, and also Jesmyn Ward’s edited collection The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks About Race. I’m liking both so far. I hope you have a good reading week ahead of you!


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Reading Round-Up, 7/10/2016

Since I wrote here last, I’ve finished Nicola Barker’s new novel The Cauliflower. I’m wondering whether this was the best place to start with Barker, because I didn’t like this novel very much, but I suspect, from things I’ve heard, that I might like her earlier books. I have Darkmans in mind in particular, a book I remember hearing raves about. Either I’m wrong about this, or The Cauliflower isn’t representative of her other books, and I’m hoping it’s the latter. The novel started out fine: it has an energetic, entertaining, self-aware voice of the sort I tend to like. It’s clearly about fiction as much as it is about anything else, as well as about representation and entertainment generally. But after a while, the voice — or voices, I should say, as there are multiple narrators — started to lose their appeal and interest. The story didn’t go anywhere particularly interesting. It’s set in 19th-century India and tells the story of the guru Sri Ramakrishna and his nephew Hriday who cares for him. The novel is largely about their relationship and the sacrifices that caring for a spiritual master — a highly eccentric, troubled one in particular — requires. I generally am for playfulness, metafictional elements, and formal variety, all of which this novel has, but this one didn’t come together into a coherent — or interesting — whole for me. It was disappointing, but I’m not giving up on Barker yet.

The other novel I finished was Amara Lakhous’s Dispute Over a Very Italian Piglet, which I liked a lot. I read it for my mystery book group, which met last evening, and it provoked a good discussion, a large part of which was about whether this was really a mystery or not. Looking at the Goodreads description of the book, I see they call it a mystery, but I think of it in my mind as an anti-mystery, because instead of conducting an investigation into the series of murders that have hit Turin, Italy, where the novel is set, the journalist protagonist just makes up stories to publish in his newspaper. There’s also the question of the titular piglet, who stirs up controversy when it gets filmed wandering through a mosque. The protagonist takes this story a little more seriously, but still, he does little productive or helpful, and instead lets others do his work. The only work he does is trying to make his made-up stories believable. All this is fun, but the novel is also about matters of nationality, immigration, identity, and cultural and religious conflicts. It’s a lighthearted approach to very serious — and timely — issues. It’s a very quick read, but it has a surprising amount of depth packed in.

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Reading Round-Up, 6/30/2016

Happy (early) Fourth of July to my fellow Americans! I’ll be heading off to Vermont for a long weekend, and I hope everyone, from the U.S. or not, has a good weekend lined up. My weekend will be…fun, for sure, but also probably relative sleepless, as traveling with a 3-year-old has its challenges. But that’s okay.

As for recent reading, one of the highlights is Brian Blanchfield’s essay collection Proxies: Essays Near Knowing. It’s a short collection but one to read slowly: it’s rich and meaty and repays close attention. It’s hard to describe. Each essay has a theme, but they range widely, taking the reader to unexpected places before bringing the reader back to the theme again. They fit the classic definition of what an essay can be: experimental, probing, associative, voice-driven. They play with language a lot. They aren’t for every reader — they require a willingness to dwell in complex thought and language — but are beautiful and rewarding.

I also read and loved Hope Jahren’s Lab Girl, a memoir about life in science. Jahren studies plants, and she writes about plants from their point of view, or at least she tries to, attempting to look at the world as a plant might, with its own concerns and interests. It’s impossible to know, of course, but it feels like she really knows how a plant thinks (or “thinks”). She describes her struggles as a beginning scientist and what it’s like to establish one’s own lab, fight for funding, and establish a reputation. She writes about her struggles with mental illness as well. It’s really great, definitely one to read for anyone who is interested in science, but good for any reader of memoir as well.

Right now I’m reading an essay collection by Teju Cole, Known and Strange Things, a novel by Nicola Barker, The Cauliflower, and a memoir by Elizabeth Alexander, The Light of the World. More on those books later!


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Shadow Notes, by Laurel Peterson

Shadow Notes cover I enjoyed reading Shadow Notes by Laurel Peterson for a whole bunch of reasons, one of which is that it’s a great mystery novel. But more on that in a minute. I also loved it because it’s written by a friend, and I love having accomplished novelist friends. And in this case, she’s also an accomplished poet, and just got appointed Poet Laureate of Norwalk, Connecticut. I also loved reading this book because it’s set in a small town in southern Fairfield County in a part of Connecticut I live near and am familiar with, and it’s so fun to read about places I know.

But about my first reason for liking this book so much: it’s an exciting story with some of my favorite elements. It has a complicated mother/daughter relationship, it’s about a woman returning to her home after a long time away and trying to fit back in, it’s about the trials of the rich and privileged, and it has a satisfyingly troubled and complex main character. The novel tells the story of Clara Montague, a woman in her 30s who has been living in Europe to escape her mother, who is cold and distant. Clara has always had intuitive dreams, and she has just had one telling her her mother may be in trouble. So she returns home.

But soon after she gets back, her mother’s therapist gets murdered, and Clara gets caught up in the effort to figure out what happened to him. She also learns more about her mother’s life as a young woman and then desperately wants to discover the rest of the story and how it shaped her own upbringing. Along the way, she meets an entertaining cast of characters — scheming socialites, corrupt politicians, suspiciously charming, attractive young men. And she has to figure out what she wants to do with her life. She has inherited a landscaping business from her father, and she feels like she should take it over, but she’s afraid of being tied to her hometown and just wants to escape to Paris. I don’t have the inheritance or the money Clara has, but I can identify with this feeling anyway.

It’s such a fun read, a very satisfying mystery, and it offers the promise of another book in the series. I can’t wait to read the next installment!

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Reading Round-Up, 6/5/2016

Ah, summer. Time for some rest and relaxation! And also teaching three online summer session classes, taking care of a three-year-old, finishing up writing projects and starting new ones, attending family weddings, going on play dates, attending children’s birthday parties, and on and on. So, yeah, not must rest actually.

Since I last posted here, I have published a bunch of new Book Riot posts, all of which you can see here. Some of my favorites are my list of 100 must-read essay collections, a post about my reading anxieties, a reading list for mother’s day, and a round-up of books about writing.

As for recent reading, I just finished Pamela Erens’s novel Eleven Hours, which was really good, although really, really not the book one wants to read while pregnant. It takes places in a hospital where the main character is giving birth. Except for flashbacks, all the action is in the hospital, and it’s riveting. I love it that there’s a novel out there entirely about childbirth, and that it’s so good.

On the theme of motherhood, I also read Rivka Galchen’s Little Labors (and picked it as the best book I read in May for the Book Riot Round-up). It’s a short book, made up of short essays/vignettes/anecdotes/whatevers about the experience of being a new mother and about motherhood and children in literature. It’s funny in places, thoughtful, moving, interesting. One of the best parts is a list of famous authors, men and women, and whether they had children and at what point in their lives they did, and at what point in their lives their literary career began. It’s pretty enlightening.

So much reading in the last two months! Other recent highlights include Sallie Tisdale’s essay collection Violation (so, so good — Tisdale deserves a much broader audience), Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White (for my mystery book group — excellent and a great reread), Jhumpa Lahiri’s In Other Words (about her experiences learning Italian — written in Italian! The book includes both the original Italian and an English translation), Kaitlyn Greenidge’s We Love You, Charlie Freeman (a good read, but also a disturbing novel about the history of race and racism in America– but also a coming-of-age story and a bunch of other things), and Vera Caspary’s Laura (for my mystery book group — fun mid-century noir, satisfying).

I hope you have had a good reading weekend and an excellent week ahead!


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Reading Round-Up, 3/4/2016

First of all, in writing news, I now have three posts up on Book Riot, and I will be writing for them regularly. I’m excited about this! I’ll be reviewing books for other sites as well, so I’ll be busy writing, writing, writing. It should be fun. I wrote one post on teaching and not “getting” books (my students and me), one post on Jane Austen’s contemporaries, and one on how to approach the work of Maggie Nelson. I have some thoughts about what I want to do next, but we’ll see!

As for reading, I’ve read the forthcoming reissue of Maggie Nelson’s The Red Parts, originally published in 2009, and I reread her 2007 book Jane: A Murder because those two books cover some of the same material. I love both of these and you should be hearing more about The Red Parts from me soon.

I also read a memoir by Alain Mabanckou called The Lights of Pointe-Noire. I had mixed feels about this one and rushed through the last 40 pages or so because I wasn’t loving it. Mabanckou was born in the Congo, and this book tells the story of his return after many years away. It describes his meetings with people from the town and the town itself, and it offers an interesting glimpse of the life and culture of Pointe-Noire. Mabanckou tells stories from his childhood as well. There were some very engaging moments as Mabanckou describes his interactions with family members and townspeople, but I thought it was a little too meandering and could have used more forward momentum. The book includes photographs of some of the people he writes about, and those I liked very much.

I also read Leila Aboulela’s The Kindness of Enemies, which I thought was very good, and which you will be hearing more about from me soon.

Now I’m beginning Wrapped in Rainbows, a biography of Zora Neale Hurston, which I’m reading as a member of the Women’s Lives Club, started by the writer Rachel Syme. I found out about it from Rachel’s tweets and joined immediately, although I wasn’t and still am not sure I can read every book they choose. Last month they read Janet Malcolm’s book The Silent Woman, which I’ve read before and loved. I would have loved to read it again, but had no time for it. But I’m giving this month’s book a go. It’s a fabulous club and anybody who wants to is welcome to join.

And next week the Tournament of Books begins! So much to do, so much to read.



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Chris Offutt’s My Father, the Pornographer: A Memoir

Chris Offutt’s memoir certainly has a catchy title: My Father, the Pornographer. It’s a very good book too. It’s a fairly typical memoir in a lot of ways, about an unhappy childhood and the writer’s vexed relationship with his father, and to a lesser extent with his mother. It’s about coming to terms with that childhood and, as he grew older, learning to see his father from an adult perspective and coming to understand how his father helped shape the person he is today. The book stands out because of its powerful writing; it’s simply and clearly written, catching in its straightforwardness and bluntness the force of his father’s personality and his own terror and anger in response.

His father was an obsessive writer; he produced hundreds of books, mostly pornographic novels, but also science fiction. Offutt’s parents became regulars at science fiction conventions, and his father collaborated with other well-known authors of his time. But he was a volatile man and ended up alienating most people he knew. He was verbally abusive to his family, and made his house a difficult place to be in once he quit his day job and began writing full time.

Much of the book is about Offutt’s efforts to clean out his father’s study, which contained a vast collection of pornographic writing, and to read and make sense of the work he produced. The story is as much about Offutt’s struggles through his task and his recovery afterwards as it is about his childhood — a childhood he spent roaming the woods of Kentucky to keep a safe distance away from his father.

I don’t think this book takes the memoir genre in a new direction, really, but to have produced a very good example of a story we are familiar with, at least in its rough outlines, is certainly an accomplishment. And Offutt’s father is a character who has lingered in my mind, a testament to Offutt’s skill with language.


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Reading Round-Up, 2/13/2016

The book I just finished last night and that is most on my mind is Ban En Banlieue, by Bhanu Kapil. I’m reading it now because it’s part of the Tournament of Books this year, but I had it on my mind to read even before that happened, I think because some writers I admire wrote about it glowingly. I … well, the book leaves me a little befuddled. It’s the kind of book that is impossible to categorize, hard to summarize, and tricky to describe. But I found myself absorbed in it. It’s sort of a novel, sort of not. More like notes towards a novel. It’s about the 1979 riots in London, and Ban is a fictional girl walking home when the riots begin. She lies down, knowing she is going to die. The book moves back and forth among various elements: Ban herself, as a girl and a metaphor for women’s experiences more broadly; the author trying to understand Ban by haunting the place she died, by taking Ban’s same position lying down on the road, and through performance art and writing; the author thinking about writing itself, what it can do and its relationship to the body; and stories of others who died or suffered violence because of political protests or simply because they were women. There are photographs throughout the book, and an extremely lengthy acknowledgments section that makes an implicit point about the value of communities of writers.

I was often uncertain of what I was reading, although there were moments that brought everything together. Mostly I admired it and liked the experience of working at figuring it out. It’s a hard book, but I think it rewards hard work. That said, I have a feeling there’s going to be a lot of resistance to this book in the Tournament. It’s up against The Turner House, and my guess is that The Turner House will win. I’ve read both and liked both, and I don’t know which I’d vote for. They are just such very, very different books.

Other recent reading? I finished Amy Krouse Rosenthal’s Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life and I liked the experience of reading it. It was entertaining, interesting, an unusual way to tell a life story, and it did capture the author’s life well. I wanted something weightier, though, deeper, more moving. It was fine, just okay, a solid three-star book.

I also finished Kent Haruf’s Our Souls at Night on audio, and liked it very much — the story was moving, powerful, much more interesting than it has a right to be as a story about two older people finding companionship and dealing with small-town gossip. Haruf brought me into the life of his two characters so fully I came to care about their fates very much. It’s a story that can, if it reaches you in the right way, break your heart and make you love it. It’s also in the Tournament, up against The Whites, and although I haven’t read The Whites, I’m guessing the Haruf will win.

At the moment I’m in the middle of a memoir, Chris Offutt’s My Father: The Pornographer. It’s quite the title. More on that next time!


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